John Michael Greer

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John Michael Greer

Post by jakell » Tue Aug 08, 2017 6:47 pm

As the Archdruid Report is no longer online, along with the more esoteric 'Well Of Galabes', it seems appropriate to reproduce some of those writings here. I've mentioned this first article elsewhere, so I'll start with that.
Clarkes Fallacy (22nd September 2011)

When I commented last week that I was going to have to discuss the intersection of peak oil and magic, I had a pretty fair idea what the immediate response would be, and that duly followed. Before the metaphorical ink on the post was dry, people were already popping up on the peak oil blogosphere to denounce in advance what they were sure I was going to say. For those of us who belong to the small community of people who study and practice magic, this is familiar ground; there’s a wry amusement in watching such antics, but no least trace of surprise.

Being an operative mage in the contemporary industrial world, really, resembles nothing so much as being an evolutionary biologist at a convention of Southern Baptists—or, for that matter, an educated theist at a meeting of the more intolerant sort of atheists. The great majority of the people around you know essentially nothing about the subject that concerns you, though they have an ample fund of misinformation culled from books and websites written and read exclusively by people who share their prejudices. They consider themselves qualified to judge the subject because they’ve lifted some canned polemics from these same books and websites, and if you show them that the canned polemics are riddled with ignorance, irrelevancies, and straw man arguments, they’ll just give you an irritated look and go right back to the canned polemics.

Those of my readers with a background in sociology will have no trouble recognizing this as a textbook case in the sociology of deviance—specifically, the way that human groups use seeming statements of fact the way baboons use bared teeth and threat postures, to stake out territory and drive off outsiders. As far as we know, baboons don’t try to use their territorial displays to make sense of their world, and this is to their credit. Human beings, alas, are not always so clever, and the resulting confusions play a massive though rarely recognized role in mangling communication in any complex society.

Try to talk about magic and this sort of mangled communication shows up early and often, as a recent and topical example shows clearly enough. About the time I started work on last week’s Archdruid Report post, The Oil Drum posted without comment this year’s most serenely idiotic statement about peak oil. The source was investment analyst Porter Stansberry; he was being interviewed about why peak oil isn’t a problem, and his reasoning ran as follows: "[G]eology doesn’t create oil; capital creates oil. The more capital you put toward oil, the more of it there will be." (You can read the whole interview here.)

Consider that statement for a good long moment. It’s not unique to Stansberry; the late Julian Simon used to make essentially the same claim, and you’ll hear it from quite a few economists these days. What Stansberry is saying is that if you have enough money to invest, geological limits to petroleum extraction don’t exist. Money, though, is a symbolic system consisting of abstract representations of wealth, and Stansberry is thus claiming that the manipulation of symbols wields occult powers that can override the laws of nature and conjure up petroleum from the depths of the Earth.

Most people would call this an example of magical thinking, and it corresponds very closely to the sort of thing people do in Harry Potter movies and other media portrayals of magic. It may be worth noting, though, that this is not what operative mages claim to be able to do. In point of fact, I’ve carried out a very modest survey over the last few years by presenting claims like Stansberry’s to the operative mages I know, and noting their responses. The typical reaction, edited for printability, is on the order of "You’ve got to be kidding. People actually believe that?"

What our society calls magical thinking, in other words, is not the kind of thinking that mages actually do, and the frequent denunciations of magical thinking flung at operative mages would be much more sensibly directed at economists. (I suppose there isn’t much hope of getting it renamed "economic thinking," though that’s a more accurate term.) This state of affairs unfolds from the very tangled history surrounding magic in the Western world, and is best understood via a thought experiment.

Imagine, then, that the cultural struggles of the late Renaissance that launched the scientific revolution and consigned magic to the crawlspaces of our society went the other way, and magic, rather than science, became the core cultural project of the modern world. You live in that alternate world, and one fine afternoon you step out of a bookstore on a street near the local university and head for the next stop on your list of errands, as carriages rattle over the cobblestones alongside you. It’s graduation day, and students in star-bedecked robes and tall pointed caps pass you on the sidewalk in droves. They’ve just completed degrees in astrology, alchemy, and other serious subjects; some will go on to graduate school, others to jobs—you overhear an excited young astrologer telling his friends that he’s just gotten a position at a brokerage, where he’ll be casting horoscopes to predict stock values.

You’re none too interested in the chatter, though, because you’ve just bought a bestselling novel that you’re dying to read—Harry Potter and the Scientist’s Stone. You already know half the plot, of course, since everybody’s been talking about it since it hit the bookstands. It’s about this orphan kid who’s stuck in this horrible home situation, but it turns out that his parents were actually scientists, and pretty soon a lab assistant comes and takes him away to the mysterious Warthogs Institute where everybody goes around wearing lab coats and muttering algebraic equations. There he gets to study science, which amounts to chanting chemical formulas and building big clanking machines to cause the changes in consciousness that ordinary people get done by magic.

In this alternate world, mind you, there are people who actually try to practice science—this despite the efforts of the Committee for Paranormal Investigation of Claims of the Scientific, whose members go around heaping disdain on anybody who claims to have experienced a repeatable cause and effect relationship. A lot of would-be scientists simply dress up in lab coats, fill their apartments with test tubes and similarly spooky decor, and leave popular books with titles like Secrets of the Physicists Revealed! on the coffee table to impress dates. Those who get beyond this sort of thing, as often as not, still have a great deal of Harry Potter mixed up with their science, and keep on trying to figure out how to make science do what magic does, with no significant success.

It’s only among the more experienced and serious practitioners in this alternate world that you find people who have realized that the difference between science and magic isn’t a difference of means but of ends—that science isn’t about causing changes in consciousness, as magic is, but about learning and then applying the properties of matter and energy on their own terms. In a society that embraces magic as its central cultural project, mind you, most people don’t see much value in this latter endeavor. The irony is that some of the most serious problems facing the alternate world can’t be solved by changes in consciousness. They could conceivably be solved by using the properties of matter and energy, but if you try telling people that, you’ll get an irritated look, and then a bunch of canned polemics.

Step back through the looking glass at this point, and you’ll find that the same situation applies once you reverse all the signs. Science, not magic, became the core cultural project of our civilization, and the things that science and technology can do—learning and applying the properties of matter and energy—are the things we consider important. Popular images of magic thus have it imitating science and technology in one way or another. The sort of fake magic you get ad nauseam in the Harry Potter franchise is as good an example as any; Harry and his classmates fly around on brooms, zap people with wands, and manipulate matter and energy directly, which is exactly what magic does not do.

The apotheosis of this sort of thinking is Arthur C. Clarke’s famous Third Law: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." I mean no disrespect whatsoever to Clarke, who was among the best of SF authors; it’s hardly blameworthy that he shared misunderstandings of magic that were all but universal in his culture. The point remains that since magic does not do what technology does, and vice versa, the Third Law should properly be renamed Clarke’s Fallacy; no matter how advanced a technology may be, it does the kind of thing technologies do—that is to say, it manipulates matter and energy directly, which again is what magic does not do. I’d like to propose, in fact, an alternative rule, which I’ve modestly titled Greer’s Law: "Anyone who is unable to distinguish between magic and any technology, however advanced, doesn’t know much about magic."

To understand what it is that magic does do, it’s crucial to look at the specific purposes for which magic is used in practice. Since every human culture known to history has practiced magic, this isn’t exactly hard, and the purposes of magic have varied remarkably little over the centuries. Why do people turn to magic? To tilt the odds their way in hunting, gambling, war, and any other activity that combines high uncertainty with high stakes; to establish, improve, and shape the whole range of human relationships; to heal illnesses of body and mind; to integrate the personality and bring it into harmony with the structures of the cosmos, however those are understood; and, not least, to deal with the fact that other people are using magic for these same purposes, and not always with your best interests in mind.

What do these things all have in common? They all deal with mental phenomena, individual or collective. Grasp that, and you start to grasp what magic is all about.

Philosophers and psychologists down the centuries have tried to bring our attention to two important but generally neglected facts: we know more than we realize, and we affect more than we realize. Look at the human organism from an evolutionary standpoint and this isn’t hard to understand. Our rational, conscious, symbol-using minds are recent and rather rickety structures built over the top of a superbly adapted mammalian nervous system. The tangled relationship between the two shows up, for example, in the way that athletes have to learn to get their thinking minds out of the way in order to reach peak performance. It’s a dirty trick well known among tennis players to ask your opponent just how he holds his thumb when hitting backhand, knowing that the unwanted awareness will mess up his coordination and quite possibly cost him the game.

The same factors apply in most other aspects of human life. When two people fall in love, for example, their rational minds have little to do with the matter; the same nonrational, nonverbal patterns of mutual communication that handled pair bonding for our prehuman ancestors do the same thing for us, and as often as not our rational minds simply get hauled along for the ride, squawking and complaining all the way. Social status is determined the same way; read up on social hierarchies among baboons and then visit, say, an activist group trying to find consensus, and if you pay attention to body language and other nonverbal cues, you’ll quickly spot identical patterns at work. In my experience, at least, the more egalitarian a group claims to be, the more completely it depends on baboon politics to maintain group cohesion and direction—though if you mention that in such circles, you’ll get an irritated look followed by canned polemics.

I could list any number of other examples, but I trust my readers will have gotten the point: a great deal of what goes on in our lives depends not on our rational, linguistic, symbol-using minds, but on an intricate and richly communicative nonrational substructure inherited from our animal ancestors, most of which we never notice at all and much of which is highly resistant to any kind of conscious control. The main current of our industrial culture, which has made the rational mind central to its core cultural project and fixates on a particular mode of conscious control—more on that in a later post—has few resources to offer for dealing with that substructure, other than ignoring it, white-knuckling it, or drugging it into temporary submission. There are better tools to hand, though: the tools of magic.

Consider a healing spell, the sort of thing that shamans, sorcerers, and mages have practiced down through the centuries. Do these work? Quite often, yes, and the mechanism in many cases seems to be what today’s science calls the placebo effect. Today’s science treats the placebo effect as an obstacle to be gotten out of the way, and it’s right to do so. If you’re trying to find out the properties of matter and energy on their own terms, the placebo effect and its kin are major sources of confusion. You need to keep mental phenomena from bollixing up your perception of physical phenomena, or the results aren’t good. What’s an obstacle to the scientist, though, is the mage’s bread and butter.

The operative mage doesn’t want to get rid of the placebo effect. Quite the contrary, he or she wants to amplify it and use it, to direct the body’s healing resources toward a cure. That’s what the psychologically charged symbols, the ritual psychodrama, the emotionally evocative herbs and incenses, and all the other tools of operative magic are there to accomplish. Apply the same logic to the other purposes of magic mentioned above, and the same interpretation applies. We know more than we realize, and affect more than we realize; tapping into that unnoticed knowledge can lead to better choices, just as tapping into that unnoticed ability to affect situations can lead to better outcomes. These two taken together are what’s generally known as "luck."

But what about the spirits, planes, powers, and all the other metaphysical hardware that fills books on magical theory? Are those real? That’s a very good question with a very complex and uncertain answer. Anyone who takes up serious magical training will start to experience such things within a year or two of beginning daily practices; the effect is reliable enough that those of us who teach magic all know to expect the panicky phone call or email that comes right after each student has his or her first experience of the kind. The experiences we’re discussing are mental in nature, not physical; they have the appearance of real beings, places, and so on, but then the same thing is true of the people and places encountered in dreams.

There’s a lively and continuing debate among operative mages about the ontological status of these things—are they hallucinations? Dissociated complexes? Archetypes of the collective unconscious? Actual entities existing on a continuum perceived solely by the mind?—but so far, at least, it’s proven wretchedly hard to come up with a verifiable answer. The traditional lore offers useful guidance in how to deal with these experiences while maintaining a state of relative mental balance, and for the time being that’s about all that can be said for certain.

The debates over the nature of magical experience stray into some weird territory on occasion. Still, I’ve been studying and practicing this stuff for more than three decades, and in my experience, the only way an operative mage is going to get a broom to fly is to buy round trip airfare and take the broom as checked baggage. It really is that simple.

The same logic applies at least as forcefully to the intersection between magic and peak oil. Porter Stansberry can brandish the arcane symbols of the stock market and intone the ritual gibberish of economic textbooks all he wants; his incantations aren’t going to cause petroleum to materialize in the depleted reservoirs of America and the world. Chanting "Drill, baby, drill" may well put the chanters into a trance state—certainly the people who’ve made this their mantra seem to have achieved a blissful unconcern with the realities of petroleum geology—but that’s all it’s going to do. "The planes," to cite a magical maxim, "are discrete and not continuous," which means in ordinary language that petroleum reserves are one thing and daydreams quite another, and trying to insist that the former has to follow the same rules as the latter is a sucker’s game.

That being said, there’s another side to the story, because peak oil is not only, or even primarily, a problem of what magical philosophy generally calls the physical plane. The finite nature of petroleum and other fossil fuel reserves, and the very limited prospects for replacing fossil fuels with anything else, are a function of hard physical limits, of course, but the three decades of bad decisions that have backed America and the industrial world into a corner of their own making, and foreclosed any number of technically feasible responses to the impending end of the age of cheap energy, are not physical in nature. They belong to the plane of consciousness—to the realm of choices and worldviews, of the unrecognized motives and unacknowledged desires that run rampant through our civilization’s profoundly murky inner relationship with its technology and the energy sources that power the latter.

Over the last decade or so, quite a few people have tried to solve the technical issues of peak oil without grappling with, or even recognizing, the existence of this other dimension of our predicament, and the result has been a great many technically appealing solutions that sit gathering dust on the shelves. (Mention this to those who are busy coming up with new additions to the same dusty shelf and—well, you know what kind of look and response you’ll get.) The green wizardry of the Seventies, to its credit, went deeper, and attempted—with some success—to address these other issues: issues that could be called cultural, or psychological, or (let’s whisper the word) spiritual. To make sense of their explorations and build on them, though, we’re going to have to go a good deal further into the topic of magic, talk about the black hole in the history of Western philosophy, and—why not?—break out a bottle of Love Potion No. 9. We’ll do that next week.

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Re: John Michael Greer

Post by jakell » Wed Oct 11, 2017 8:16 pm

Linked to from here
The God With Three Heads (27th March 2013)

It's been said that a man’s religion is the thing he can’t bear to have questioned. If there’s any truth in that old saying, the idea that faith in progress is a religion has a great deal going for it. Over the seven years this blog has been appearing, I’ve discussed any number of controversial issues and made plenty of proposals that contradict the conventional wisdom of our times; none of them has fielded me as many spluttering denunciations as the suggestion that belief in progress is the most important civil religion of the modern industrial world.

A commenter on one of the many other sites where my posts appear thus started off his critique of last week’s post with a shout of “Why bear with this?” Since I doubt anybody’s holding a gun to his head and making him read The Archdruid Report, he’ll have to answer his question himself. Still, his furious outburst is a useful reminder of one of the distinctive features of the belief systems we’re discussing; however subtle and closely reasoned their intellectual sides happen to be, they reach right down into the deepest places of the human heart, and draw on powerful and unreasoning passions.

Civil religions and theist religions alike have motivated believers to die for their faith and to kill for it, to make tremendous sacrifices and commit appalling crimes. Not many human motivations can equal religion as a driving force, and I don’t know of any that reliably surpass it. When people push past the limits of ordinary humanity in any direction, good or evil, if it’s not a matter of the love or hate of one human being for another, odds are that what drives them onward is either a theist faith or a civil one.

This is among the core reasons why I’ve launched into an exploration of the religious dimensions of peak oil, and why I’ve begun that with a study of the most distinctive feature of the religious landscape of our time: the way that belief in the invincibility and beneficence of progress has come to serve an essentially religious role in the modern world, permeating the collective conversations of our time. It’s also a core reason why that exploration will continue over the weeks to come, because there’s much more that needs saying about the contemporary faith in progress, the historical mythology that underlies it, and the distortions it imposes on nearly all of our society’s assumptions about the future.

It’s important, to begin with, to pay attention to the ambiguities wrapped up in the modern conception of progress. When people think or talk about progress, by that name or any of its common euphemisms, there are at least three different things they can mean by it. All three share the common presupposition that history has an inherent tendency to move in a particular direction, that movement in that direction is a good thing, and that human beings can and should contribute to that forward movement toward the good; it’s the dimension of human life in which the movement is believed to be taking place that marks the distinction between these different meanings of progress.

The first version of progress is moral progress: it centers on the claim that history’s inherent tendency is toward increasingly ethical human relationships and social forms. These days, especially on the leftward end of society, this version of progress is usually framed in political terms, but its moral thrust is impossible to miss, as its proponents inevitably frame their arguments in terms of moral absolutes, virtues and vices. At its best, the ethical stance of the contemporary mainstream Left in America and Europe is one of the few really original moral philosophies to develop in modern times, with a distinctive focus on the virtues of equality, social justice, and kindness, all understood and pursued primarily on a collective rather than an individual level; at its worst—like all philosophies, it has its less impressive side—it becomes a self-righteous cant, by turns saccharine and shrill, in the service of the craving for unearned power that’s the besetting sin of all modern moralists.

You can see the faith in moral progress in action any time people insist that some proposed social change is an advance, a move forward, away from the ignorance and injustice of the benighted past. Even when this sort of talk is cheap manipulative rhetoric, as of course it so often is, it’s the faith in moral progress that gives the manipulation power and allows it to work. Think about the implications of “forward” and “backward” as applied to social changes, and you can begin to see how deeply the mythology of progress pervades contemporary thought: only if history has a natural direction of flow does it make any kind of sense to refer to one set of social policies as “progressive” and another as “backward,” say, or to describe the culture or laws of one of the flyover states despised by the coastal literati as “stuck in the 1950s.” It’s the faith that history moves in the direction set out by a specific definition of moral progress that gives these very common metaphors their meaning.

That’s only one of the three things that faith in progress can choose as its focus, though. The second is scientific and technical progress, which centers on the claim that history’s inherent tendency is toward increasingly complete human knowledge and domination of the cosmos. In theory, it might be possible to conceive of scientific progress without a corresponding increase in technical power, or vice versa; in practice, at least in the minds of those who interpret progress along these lines, the two are rarely separated. As Francis Bacon argued in the first gray dawn of the scientific revolution, the value of knowledge concerning nature is the power that results from that knowledge; investment in the production of scientific knowledge is almost universally justified by talking about what the resulting knowledge will let humanity do to the world.

To see the core features of a religion in starkest terms, it’s often useful to look at its most extreme forms, and the faith in scientific and technical progress is no exception. The example I have in mind here is the Singularitarian movement, which claims that sometime soon—Singularitarian prophet Ray Kurzweil has set the date as 2045—the unstoppable onward march of progress, bootstrapped by the creation of artificial intelligences far more powerful than any human mind, will accelerate to infinity. All the dreams of science fiction, from starflight through immortality to virtual sex with Marilyn Monroe, will become realities, and humanity will achieve something like godhood—unless the hyperintelligent computers decide to exterminate us all instead, that is.

There are plenty of things worth discussing about the Singularitarian religion, but the one that’s relevant to the present theme is the wild misunderstanding it imposes on the nature of scientific knowledge. A large portion of the discoveries of science, including many of its greatest achievements, can be summed up neatly by the words “you can’t do that.” If an all-wise supercomputer could be created at all—and it’s far from certain that one could be—it’s entirely possible that it would sort through the sum total of human science and technology and say to us, “For beings of such modest mental capacities, you’ve done a good job of figuring out what can be done with the resources available to you. Here are some technical tricks you haven’t worked out yet, but starflight, immortality, sex with this Marilyn Monroe person? Sorry, those aren’t possible; you’ll have to go on living without them.” What’s more, it’s entirely possible that it would be right.

Even outside the Singularitarian faith, though, you can count on either blank incomprehension or furious disagreement if you suggest that there might be things that scientific and technological progress can’t achieve. Those of my readers who have been in the peak oil scene for any length of time will have learned that the most common dismissal they’ll get, when they try to suggest to the rest of the world that betting the future on infinite resource extraction from a finite planet is not a bright idea, is some variation on “Oh, I’m sure they’ll come up with something.” The “they” in this overfamiliar sentence are of course scientists and engineers; the mere fact that “they” have been trying to come up with something in this particular case for well over a century, and success is still nowhere in sight, does nothing to dent the really rather touching faith that today’s popular culture places in their powers.

Scientific and technical progress, then, plays a massive role in the modern mythology of progress. It's equalled if not exceeded by the third kind of progress, economic progress, which centers on the claim that history’s inherent tendency is to ever greater levels of economic abundance, however that abundance may happen to be distributed. The belief that ongoing exponential economic growth is normal and beneficent, and that anything else is abnormal and destructive, is perhaps the most widely accepted form of the mythology of progress in contemporary life, not least because most people like to imagine that they themselves will benefit from it.

Open the business section of any newspaper, turn the pages of any economics textbook, scan the minutes of any meeting of any business corporation in contemporary America or most of the modern world, and you’ll get to see a faith in economic progress as absolute and unthinking as any medieval peasant’s trust in the wonderworking bones of the local saint. In the mythic world portrayed by the prophets and visionaries of that faith, economic growth is always good, and comes as a reward to those who obey the commandments of the economists. The fact—and of course it is a fact—that obeying the commandments of the economists has
by and large brought more disaster than prosperity to the industrial world’s economies for decades somehow rarely enters into these reverential thoughts.

In recent years, to be sure, faith in economic progress—that is, growth—has come under fire from two sides. On the one hand, there’s the small but gradually expanding body of ecologists, economists, and other scholars who point out the absurdity of perpetual economic expansion on a finite planet, and document some of the ways that an obsession with growth for its own sake produces a bumper crop of problems. On the other, there’s the less coherent but far more widespread sense that economic progress doesn’t seem to be happening the way it’s supposed to, that standards of living for most people are declining rather than improving, and that economic policies that have been sold to the public as ways to fix a troubled economy are having exactly the opposite effect. Even so, most of the critiques coming out of this latter awareness, and no small number of those belonging to the former class, assume that growth is normal, and fixate on how that supposedly normal state got derailed.

Moral progress, scientific and technological progress, and economic progress: those are the three forms that progress takes in the minds of those who put their faith in it: if you will, the three heads of the deity of the Church of Progress. It’s crucial to keep in mind, though, that these three visions of progress often intertwine in complex ways in the minds of believers. To many mainstream American liberals in the late 20th century, for example, the limitless progress of science and technology would guarantee equally limitless economic growth, which would make it possible to abolish poverty, provide equal opportunity for all, and fulfill the hopes of moral progress without requiring any of those who already had access to privilege and economic abundance to give up any of these things.

So complete a fusion of the three modes of progress was once standard. Read any of the vast supply of self-congratulatory literature on progress churned out by popular presses in 19th century Britain or America, for example, and you can count on finding all three twisted tightly round one another, with the supposed moral superiority of Anglo-Saxon civilization serving as the linchpin of arguments that claimed to explain the limitless progress of technology and also to justify the extremely uneven distribution of the benefits of economic growth. The 20th century’s ghastly history made such moral claims a good deal harder to make with a straight face, and so versions of the faith in progress popular in recent decades often avoid the moral dimension and focus on the other two forms of progress.

Far more often than not these days, as a result, the mainstream American version of faith in progress fixates purely on the supposedly unstoppable feedback loop between scientific and technological progress, on the one hand, and economic growth on the other, while moral progress has been consigned to bit parts here and there. It’s mostly on the left that faith in moral progress retains its former place in the blend—one of the many ways in which the leftward end of the American political landscape is significantly more conservative, in the strict sense of the word, than those who call themselves conservative these days—and even there, it’s increasingly a fading hope, popular among the older generation of activists and among those who have moved toward the fringes of society and mix their faith in progress with a good solid helping of its erstwhle antireligion, the faith in apocalypse: it’s from this unstable mix that we get claims that the morally better world will arrive once evil, and most of the planet’s population, are blown to smithereens.

It’s by way of this latter process, I think, that faith in moral progress tends to pop up in the literature of peak oil, and even more often in conversations in the peak oil scene. I’ve long since lost track of the number of times that someone has suggested to me that if industrial civilization continues down the well-worn track of overshoot and decline, the silver lining to that very dark cloud is that the rigors of the decline will force all of us, or at least the survivors, to become better people—“better” being defined variously as more ecologically sensitive, more compassionate, or what have you, depending on the personal preferences of the speaker.

Now of course when civilizations overshoot their resource base and start skidding down the arc of decline toward history’s compost bin, a sudden turn toward moral virtue of any kind is not a common event. The collapse of social order, the rise of barbarian warbands, and a good many of the other concomitants of decline and fall tend to push things hard in the other direction. Still, the importance of faith in progress in the collective imagination of our time is such that some way has to be found to make the future look better than the present. If a future of technological advancement and economic growth is no longer an option, then the hope for moral betterment becomes the last frail reed to which believers in progress cling with all their might.

To many of my readers, this may seem like a good idea; many others may consider it inevitable. I’m far from convinced that it’s either one. For more than thirty years now, the conviction that progress will somehow bail the industrial world out from the consequences of its own bad decisions has been the single largest obstacle in the way of preventing more of those same bad decisions from being made. How many times have we all heard that economic growth was going to take care of resource depletion and environmental degradation, or that scientific and technical advances were going to take care of them, or that a great moral awakening—call it the rise of planetary consciousness, or any of the other popular buzzwords, if you wish—was going to take care of them. As it turned out, of course, none of those things took care of them at all, and since so many people placed their faith on one or the other kind of progress, nothing else took care of them, either.

Nor, for that matter, is faith in progress hardwired into the human psyche. It’s a specific belief system with distinct and well-documented historical roots in the Western world, and most other people in most other places and times have had beliefs about the future that contradicted it in every particular. There have been many cultures in which history was held to have an inherent tendency to move from better to worse, from a Golden Age in the past to an age of darkness and horror somewhere in the future, and individual and collective hope focused on the possibility of holding onto the beneficent legacies of the past as long as possible in the teeth of decline. Nor are these the only options; there have, for example, been many cultures that saw time as a circle, and many more for whom time had no direction at all.

It’s quite common for people raised in a given culture to see its view of things as normal and natural, and to scratch their heads in bewilderment when they find that people in other places and times saw things in very different ways. Modern industrial civilization, for all its self-described sophistication, is no more exempt from this custom than any other human society. To make sense of the future closing in on us, it’s going to be necessary to get past that easy but misleading habit of thought, to recognize that the contemporary faith in progress is a culturally specific product that emerged in a highly unusual and self-terminating set of historical circumstances, and to realize that while it was highly adaptive in those circumstances, it’s become lethally maladaptive now.

To understand these things, in turn, it’s going to be necessary to dig down to the foundations of modern industrial culture, and grapple with one of the core cognitive frameworks our society—like every other—uses to make sense of the inkblot patterns of the cosmos. For want of a better label, we’ll call this framework the shape of time. We’ll talk about that next week.

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Re: John Michael Greer

Post by Pauli137 » Thu Oct 19, 2017 6:43 pm

Thanks for finding the archive. A couple of months ago I was looking for this post and was disappointed to find that it had disappeared from the internet. I thought it was so beautiful, such a shame.

The Next Ten Billion Years

Earlier this week, I was trying to think of ways to talk about the gap between notions about the future we’ve all absorbed from the last three hundred years of fossil-fueled progress, on the one hand, and the ways of thinking about what’s ahead that might actually help us make sense of our predicament and the postpetroleum, post-progress world ahead, on the other. While I was in the middle of these reflections, a correspondent reminded me of a post from last year by peak oil blogger Ugo Bardi, which set out to place the crises of our time in the context of the next ten billion years.

It’s an ambitious project, and by no means badly carried out. The only criticism that comes to mind is that it only makes sense if you happen to be a true believer in the civil religion of progress, the faith whose rise and impending fall has been a central theme here in recent months. As a sermon delivered to the faithful of that religion, it’s hard to beat; it’s even got the classic structure of evangelical rhetoric—the awful fate that will soon fall upon those who won’t change their wicked ways, the glorious salvation awaiting those who get right with Progress, and all the rest of it.

Of course the implied comparison with Christianity can only be taken so far. Christians are generally expected to humble themselves before their God, while believers in progress like to imagine that humanity will become God or, as in this case, be able to pat God fondly on the head and say, “That’s my kid.” More broadly, those of my readers who were paying attention last week will notice that the horrible fate that awaits the sinful is simply that nature will be allowed to go her own way, while the salvation awaiting the righteous is more or less the ability to browbeat nature into doing what they think she ought to do—or rather, what Bardi’s hypothesized New Intelligence, whose interests are assumed to be compatible with those of humanity, thinks she ought to do.

There’s plenty that could be said about the biophobia—the stark shivering dread of life’s normal and healthy ripening toward death—that pervades this kind of thinking, but that’s a subject for another post. Here I’d like to take another path. Once the notions of perpetual progress and imminent apocalypse are seen as industrial society’s traditional folk mythologies, rather than meaningful resources for making predictions about the future, and known details about ecology, evolution, and astrophysics are used in their place to fill out the story, the next ten billion years looks very different from either of Bardi’s scenarios. Here’s my version or, if you will, my vision.

Ten years from now:

Business as usual continues; the human population peaks at 8.5 billion, liquid fuels production remains more or less level by the simple expedient of consuming an ever larger fraction of the world’s total energy output, and the annual cost of weather-related disasters continues to rise. Politicians and the media insist loudly that better times are just around the corner, as times get steadily worse. Among those who recognize that something’s wrong, one widely accepted viewpoint holds that fusion power, artificial intelligence, and interstellar migration will shortly solve all our problems, and therefore we don’t have to change the way we live. Another, equally popular, insists that total human extinction is scarcely a decade away, and therefore we don’t have to change the way we live. Most people who worry about the future accept one or the other claim, while the last chance for meaningful systemic change slips silently away.

A hundred years from now:

It has been a difficult century. After more than a dozen major wars, three bad pandemics, widespread famines, and steep worldwide declines in public health and civil order, human population is down to 3 billion and falling. Sea level is up ten meters and rising fast as the Greenland and West Antarctic ice caps disintegrate; fossil fuel production ground to a halt decades earlier as the last economically producible reserves were exhausted, and most proposed alternatives turned out to be unaffordable in the absence of the sort of cheap, abundant, highly concentrated energy only fossil fuels can provide. Cornucopians still insist that fusion power, artificial intelligence, and interstellar migration will save us any day now, and their opponents still insist that human extinction is imminent, but most people are too busy trying to survive to listen to either group.

A thousand years from now:

The Earth is without ice caps and glaciers for the first time in twenty million years or so, and sea level has gone up more than a hundred meters worldwide; much of the world has a tropical climate, as it did 50 million years earlier. Human population is 100 million, up from half that figure at the bottom of the bitter dark age now passing into memory. Only a few scholars have any idea what the words “fusion power,” “artificial intelligence,” and “interstellar migration” once meant, and though there are still people insisting that the end of the world will arrive any day now, their arguments now generally rely more overtly on theology than before. New civilizations are rising in various corners of the world, combining legacy technologies with their own unique cultural forms. The one thing they all have in common is that the technological society of a millennium before is their idea of evil incarnate.

Ten thousand years from now:

The rise in global temperature has shut down the thermohaline circulation and launched an oceanic anoxic event, the planet’s normal negative feedback process when carbon dioxide levels get out of hand. Today’s industrial civilization is a dim memory from the mostly forgotten past, as far removed from this time as the Neolithic Revolution is from ours; believers in most traditional religions declare piously that the climate changes of the last ten millennia are the results of human misbehavior, while rationalists insist that this is all superstition and the climate changes have perfectly natural causes. As the anoxic oceans draw carbon out of the biosphere and entomb it in sediments on the sea floor, the climate begins a gradual cooling—a process which helps push humanity’s sixth global civilization into its terminal decline.

A hundred thousand years from now:

Carbon dioxide levels drop below preindustrial levels as the oceanic anoxic event finishes its work, and the complex feedback loops that govern Earth’s climate shift again: the thermohaline circulation restarts, triggering another round of climatic changes. Humanity’s seventy-ninth global civilization flourishes and begins its slow decline as the disruptions set in motion by a long-forgotten industrial age are drowned out by an older climatic cycle. The scholars of that civilization are thrilled by the notions of fusion power, artificial intelligence, and interstellar migration; they have no idea that we dreamed the same dreams before them, being further in our future than the Neanderthals are in our past, but they will have no more luck achieving those dreams than we did.

A million years from now:

The Earth is in an ice age; great ice sheets cover much of the northern hemisphere and spread from mountain ranges all over the world, and sea level is 150 meters lower than today. To the people living at this time, who have never known anything else, this seems perfectly normal. Metals have become rare geological specimens—for millennia now, most human societies have used renewable ceramic-bioplastic composites instead—and the very existence of fossil fuels has long since been forgotten. The 664th global human civilization is at its peak, lofting aerostat towns into the skies and building great floating cities on the seas; its long afternoon will eventually draw to an end after scores of generations, and when it falls, other civilizations will rise in its place.

Ten million years from now:

The long glacial epoch that began in the Pleistocene has finally ended, and the Earth is returning to its more usual status as a steamy jungle planet. This latest set of changes proves to be just that little bit too much for humanity. No fewer than 8,639 global civilizations have risen and fallen over the last ten million years, each with its own unique sciences, technologies, arts, literatures, philosophies, and ways of thinking about the cosmos; the shortest-lived lasted for less than a century before blowing itself to smithereens, while the longest-lasting endured for eight millennia before finally winding down.

All that is over now. There are still relict populations of human beings in Antarctica and a few island chains, and another million years will pass before cascading climatic and ecological changes finally push the last of them over the brink into extinction. Meanwhile, in the tropical forests of what is now southern Siberia, the descendants of raccoons who crossed the Bering land bridge during the last great ice age are proliferating rapidly, expanding into empty ecological niches once filled by the larger primates. In another thirty million years or so, their descendants will come down from the trees.

One hundred million years from now:

Retro-rockets fire and fall silent as the ungainly craft settles down on the surface of the Moon. After feverish final checks, the hatch is opened, and two figures descend onto the lunar surface. They are bipeds, but not even remotely human; instead, they belong to Earth’s third intelligent species. They are distantly descended from the crows of our time, though they look no more like crows than you look like the tree shrews of the middle Cretaceous. Since you have a larynx rather than a syrinx, you can’t even begin to pronounce what they call themselves, so we’ll call them corvins.

Earth’s second intelligent species, whom we’ll call cyons after their raccoon ancestors, are long gone. They lasted a little more than eight million years before the changes of an unstable planet sent them down the long road to extinction; they never got that deeply into technology, though their political institutions made the most sophisticated human equivalents look embarrassingly crude. The corvins are another matter. Some twist of inherited psychology left them with a passion for heights and upward movement; they worked out the basic principles of the hot air balloon before they got around to inventing the wheel, and balloons, gliders, and corvin-carrying kites play much the same roles in their earliest epic literature that horses and chariots play in ours.

As corvin societies evolved more complex technologies, eyes gazed upwards from soaring tower-cities at the moon, the perch of perches set high above the world. All that was needed to make those dreams a reality was petroleum, and a hundred million years is more than enough time for the Earth to restock her petroleum reserves—especially if that period starts off with an oceanic anoxic event that stashes gigatons of carbon in marine sediments. Thus it was inevitable that, sooner or later, the strongest of the great corvin kith-assemblies would devote its talents and wealth to the task of reaching the moon.

The universe has a surprise in store for the corvins, though. Their first moon landing included among its goals the investigation of some odd surface features, too small to be seen clearly by Earth-based equipment. That first lander thus set down on a flat lunar plain that, a very long time ago, was called the Sea of Tranquillity, and so it was that the stunned corvin astronauts found themselves facing the unmistakable remains of a spacecraft that arrived on the moon in the unimaginably distant past.

A few equivocal traces buried in terrestrial sediments had suggested already to corvin loremasters that another intelligent species might have lived on the Earth before them, though the theory was dismissed by most as wild speculation. The scattered remnants on the Moon confirmed them, and made it hard for even the most optimistic corvins to embrace the notion that some providence guaranteed the survival of intelligent species. The curious markings on some of the remains, which some loremasters suggested might be a mode of visual communication, resisted all attempts at decipherment, and very little was ever learnt for certain about the enigmatic ancient species that left its mark on the Moon.

Even so, it will be suggested long afterwards that the stark warning embodied in those long-abandoned spacecraft played an important role in convincing corvin societies to rein in the extravagant use of petroleum and other nonrenewable resources, though it also inspired hugely expensive and ultimately futile attempts to achieve interstellar migration—for some reason the corbins never got into the quest for fusion power or artificial intelligence. One way or another, though, the corvins turned out to be the most enduring of Earth’s intelligent species, and more than 28 million years passed before their day finally ended.

One billion years from now:

The Earth is old and mostly desert, and a significant fraction of its total crust is made up of the remains of bygone civilizations. The increasing heat of the Sun as it proceeds through its own life cycle, and the ongoing loss of volatile molecules from the upper atmosphere into space, have reduced the seas to scattered, salty basins amid great sandy wastes. Only near the north and south poles does vegetation flourish, and with it the corbicules, Earth’s eleventh and last intelligent species. Their ancestors in our time are an invasive species of freshwater clam. (Don’t laugh; a billion years ago your ancestors were still trying to work out the details of multicellularity.)

The corbicules have the same highly practical limb structure as the rest of their subphylum: six stumpy podicles for walking, two muscular dorsal tentacles for gross manipulations and two slender buccal tentacles by the mouth for fine manipulations. They spend most of their time in sprawling underground city-complexes, venturing to the surface to harvest vegetation to feed the subterranean metafungal gardens that provide them with nourishment. By some combination of luck and a broad general tendency toward cephalization common to many evolutionary lineages, Earth’s last intelligent species is also its most intellectually gifted; hatchlings barely out of creche are given fun little logic problems such as Fermat’s last theorem for their amusement, and a large majority of adult corbicules are involved in one or another field of intellectual endeavor. Being patient, long-lived, and not greatly addicted to collective stupidities, they have gone very far indeed.

Some eight thousand years back, a circle of radical young corbicule thinkers proposed the project of working out all the physical laws of the cosmos, starting from first principles. So unprecedented a suggestion sparked countless debates, publications, ceremonial dances, and professional duels in which elderly scholars killed themselves in order to cast unbearable opprobrium on their rivals. Still, it was far too delectable an intellectual challenge to be left unanswered, and the work has proceeded ever since. In the course of their researches, without placing any great importance on the fact, the best minds among the corbicules have proved conclusively that nuclear fusion, artificial intelligence, and interstellar migration were never practical options in the first place.

Being patient, long-lived, and not greatly addicted to collective stupidities, the corbicules have long since understood and accepted their eventual fate. In another six million years, as the Sun expands and the Earth’s surface temperature rises, the last surface vegetation will perish and the corbicules will go extinct; in another ninety million years, the last multicellular life forms will die out; in another two hundred million years, the last seas will boil, and Earth’s biosphere, nearing the end of its long, long life, will nestle down into the deepest crevices of its ancient, rocky world and drift into a final sleep.

Ten billion years from now:

Earth is gone. It had a splendid funeral; its body plunged into stellar fire as the Sun reached its red giant stage and expanded out to the orbit of Mars, and its ashes were flung outwards into interstellar space with the first great helium flash that marked the beginning of the Sun’s descent toward its destiny. Two billion years later, the gas- and dust-rich shockwave from that flash plowed into a mass of interstellar dust dozens of light-years away from the Sun’s pale corpse, and kickstarted one of the great transformative processes of the cosmos.

Billions more years have passed since that collision. A yellow-orange K-2 star burns cheerily in the midst of six planets and two asteroid belts. The second planet has a surface temperature between the freezing and boiling points of water, and a sufficiently rich assortment of elements to set another of the great transformative processes of the cosmos into motion. Now, in one spot on the surface of this world, rising up past bulbous purplish things that don’t look anything like trees but fill the same broad ecological function, there is a crag of black rock. On top of that crag, a creature sits looking at the stars, fanning its lunules with its sagittal crest and waving its pedipalps meditatively back and forth. It is one of the first members of its world’s first intelligent species, and it is—for the first time ever on that world—considering the stars and wondering if other beings might live out there among them.

The creature’s biochemistry, structure, and life cycle have nothing in common with yours, dear reader. Its world, its sensory organs, its mind and its feelings would be utterly alien to you, even if ten billion years didn’t separate you. Nonetheless, it so happens that a few atoms that are currently part of your brain, as you read these words, will also be part of the brain-analogue of the creature on the crag on that distant, not-yet-existing world. Does that fact horrify you, intrigue you, console you, leave you cold? We’ll discuss the implications of that choice next week.

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Re: John Michael Greer

Post by jakell » Fri Oct 20, 2017 1:13 am

This was a particular good piece as it works well as a standalone 'story' which I've posted in a few different environments with mostly good and a few negative responses. Like most of his other stuff though it's best considered in the context of his other stuff and this came on the tail-end of his series concerning Man's stubborn religiosity in the face of our apparent mastery over the material world.
This piece, in its acceptance of our possible fate, is a good juxtaposition to the shorter term concerns of such as Derrick Jenson** (brought up in another thread) although what he would have made of the ascension of Raccoons, Crows and Clams is not so certain, possibly he would approve.

Several people seemed to see The Archdruid Report as simply an overextended Peak Oil blog with a few extras, and that didn't know when to quit. As an avid reader though I discerned an overall spiritual venture that additionally had its feet in the rational and material world, a balance that is not so easy to achieve except via something such as Druidism. He did mention somewhere that, in his opinion, part of a Druid's role is to assist regular folks cope with the challenges of the material world, and I started to see this truly enormous undertaking as working towards that.

**I did compare Derrick with JMG in that thread

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Re: John Michael Greer

Post by Pauli137 » Fri Oct 20, 2017 5:45 am

All of the above.

Including "overextended Peak Oil blog with a few extras, and that didn't know when to quit," but also your more nuanced view. I appreciate JMG's grounding in the material world, although I don't always agree with it -- or, rather, I don't take the material as the basis of all reality, so I don't always agree with his conclusions. But the alternative is having no basis at all in the material world, which is much much worse.

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Re: John Michael Greer

Post by jakell » Fri Oct 20, 2017 11:34 am

BTW, the entire archive is downloadable as a zip file from here, and that includes all the comments, links and images too. I was just saving the articles as text files without the comments and sometimes the comments were pretty valuable, so this is a good resource. It's 620 Mb which is not bad, it will even fit on a CD.

I'm tempted to respond to your remarks here but am going to try to retain this as mostly a 'Data Dump', the other sections being for discussion. I'm also going to avoid the 'JMG as an Altered Minds subject' sort of title which always appeared to me as more about the latter than the former.

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