Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Archdruid Report: A Terrible Ambivalence

John Michael Greer reminds me of why I often suspect mysticism may be the only sane response to the current global situation:
We are not going to have a future better than the present: not in our lifetimes, and not in those of our grandchildren's grandchildren. We collectively closed the door on that possibility decades ago, and none of the rapidly narrowing range of choices still open to us now offers any way of changing that. If this sounds like fatalism, it may be worth remembering that once a car goes skidding off a mountain road into empty air, it requires neither a crystal ball nor a faith in predestination to recognize that nothing anybody can do is going to prevent a terrific crash.


  1. I would be much more impressed by the Archdruid if he held a title like "Managing Engineer" or "Director of Energy Logistics." He considers himself to be the rightful inheritor of a long-lost tradition; I consider him to be self-deceived.

    Greer's arguments usually commit the error of composition. Take a planet with two countries, A and B. Each has a billion people. However, the people of country A have an average IQ of 75 and the people of country B have an average IQ of 120.

    Some time ago, the B-folk went to A and tried to force the A-folk to farm. For a while the A-folk increased in numbers, due to increased food supply. Then the A-folk drove the B-folk out. Shockingly, the A-folk are just too stupid to keep farms running, and so they are starving. In ten years, the A-folk will be reduced from one billion people to one thousand people.

    If we commit the fallacy of composition, we would say, "Soon the population will go from two billion to one billion, one thousand. Therefore nearly 50% of country B's citizens will die."

    The issue, of course, is that country B might be virtually unscathed when country A crashes into starvation mode.

    That's the over-simplified case. The real world has six billion people, perhaps seven billion. If food production crashes, many of these will starve. This does not mean that Vancouver, Canada will suddenly be over-run by starving Zimbabwean gangs.

    Now, what is considerably more worrisome to me is that the few human cultures that appear to have high technology seem to be rotting from the inside. The USA and Japan seem to be committing suicide.

    Greer is convinced that industrial society will collapse and that industrial technology (e.g. computers, lasers, etc.) will be lost.

    I submit that it is possible for resilient communities of technicians to survive the collapse of larger society and to preserve the fun technology for the future.

    Greer mentions "a cataclysmic process of mass dieoff ending in a new dark age ruled by petty warlords," which sounds like an excellent description of Liberia, Zimbabwe, the Congo Republic, etc.

    Sure. Maybe the blacks will starve and the whites will refuse to have babies. Maybe Japan will commit seppuku and China will riot itself into anarchy. Technology does not need the nation-state. Technology doesn't even need a functioning Internet, although an Internet would help.

    Greer writes: "A deindustrial world, as Monbiot correctly points out, will be able to support maybe two billion people at most – my working guess, for what it's worth, is that this is too optimistic by a factor of four..."

    Maybe Greer is right. However, a billion folks spread out over Earth are not going to be able to stamp out every little resilient community. So long as a network of resilient communities can survive, Greer loses. If technicians can survive at a high tech level, they can rebuild industry.

    "Nor do we gain anything by playing the fox to industrial civilization's grapes, and insisting that the extraordinary gifts the recent past has given us are sour because they are about to pass out of our reach. During the age that is coming to an end, the billion or so of us who have lived in the industrial world have enjoyed comforts and opportunities that our species had never known before and almost certainly will never know again."

    Greer is so lucky that he doesn't live near a solar panel factory. Proximity to new, sustainable technologies would prevent him from whining so much.

  2. Greer's blog calls for "concise" comments, so I just left him this:
    I think you're missing an obvious possibility. Here's a scenario, let me know if you think it's possible:

    Five billion people starve, but within the one billion who survive is a network of resilient communities that retains enough technological savvy to reboot technological progress.

    For more on resilient communities, see:
    But since you, Duncan, seem to approve of most of my comments, I'll offer you a detailed scenario that Greer would doubtless find distasteful:

    2020: The USA economy collapses; the financial fallout weakens all nation-states. International aid stops flowing to various developing countries and many people in the developing world starve. Furthermore, there are riots and gang wars in all developed nations, leading to widespread totalitarianism and the destruction of civil rights. Nations avoid war with each other and focus on keeping their populations enslaved. Many large nations divide into smaller, more easily governed territories. UN membership declines to a dozen or so wealthy nations; the other pocket empires don't have the resources to send ambassadors. A few tin-pot dictators fire small nukes and no one really cares. Internet access gets expensive again; a few isolated "dark nets" exist. China, India, Europe, the USA, and Africa see massive dieoffs. Australia starts shooting "boat people" on sight.

    However, technology is not entirely forgotten. There are still guns, radios, electronic computer networks, and various sources of electricity (including solar, wind, and nuclear power). Biodiesel is sufficient to allow for mechanized police forces. International trade is only sufficient to extract the most expensive raw materials from the Third World.

    Health care and life expectancy go downhill. Universities are reduced to vocational schools (which focus on issues like potable water). Primary education consists of minimal literacy (the most ambitious students learn enough math and Linux to keep the lights on). Newly printed materials consist only of state-approved comic books; the black markets are full of old porn, not thought-provoking books. Goon squads are more useful than sneaky blackmailers and spies, so the totalitarianism resembles the Tonton Macoutes more than the East German Stasi.

    Religious fanaticism provides some order initially, but it soon becomes clear that there are no miracle-working messiahs who can make the world better with an incantation. Many people give up on raising families; infanticide becomes a socially acceptable form of birth control. Summary execution is the standard punishment because no one wants to feed prisoners. The worldwide War On Drugs collapses because nearly all drugs are locally produced, but no great insights come from the enclaves of diseased hippies who dull their pain with daily anesthesia.

    Many small, resilient communities do their best to isolate themselves and to practice the technological tinkering that John Robb had talked about. Their struggles to avoid getting snuffed out by goons are the stuff of legend. Some are bought out by smart totalitarians.

    2050: The Internet gets cheap again. Technological progress resumes. There are only five hundred million people left alive.

  3. I guess I am more in line with Greer. and I am a senior R&D engineer working on high speed data networks for space exploration. The technology required for even basic electronics is very sophisticated and requires a high level of materials science.. all of which becomes extremely difficult when energy runs short. Technology which will survive is the kind that we used to call "sustainable technology" back in the 70's and reflects what you can do without a complex technology infrastructure and lots of cheap energy. For example solar thermal is much more sustainable than photovoltaic... As for me, Im working on building with straw bales and looking at ancient Iranian cooling techniques.. and raising chickens;)