Wednesday, January 25, 2017

How Great the Fall Can Be

While I type these words, an old Supertramp CD is playing in the next room. Those of my readers who belong to the same slice of an American generation I do will likely remember the words Roger Hodgson is singing just now, the opening line from “Fool’s Overture”:

“History recalls how great the fall can be...”

It’s an apposite quote for a troubled time.

Over the last year or so, in and among the other issues I’ve tried to discuss in this blog, the US presidential campaign has gotten a certain amount of air time. Some of the conversations that resulted generated a good deal more heat than light, but then that’s been true across the board since Donald Trump overturned the established certainties of American political life and launched himself and the nation on an improbable trajectory toward our current situation. Though the diatribes I fielded from various sides were more than occasionally tiresome, I don’t regret making the election a theme for discussion here, as it offered a close-up view of issues I’ve been covering for years now.

A while back on this blog, for example, I spent more than a year sketching out the process by which civilizations fall and dark ages begin, with an eye toward the next five centuries of North American history—a conversation that turned into my book Dark Age America. Among the historical constants I discussed in the posts and the book was the way that governing elites and their affluent supporters stop adapting their policies to changing political and economic conditions, and demand instead that political and economic conditions should conform to their preferred policies. That’s all over today’s headlines, as the governing elites of the industrial world cower before the furious backlash sparked by their rigid commitment to the failed neoliberal nostrums of global trade and open borders.

Another theme I discussed in the same posts and book was the way that science and culture in a civilization in decline become so closely identified with the interests of the governing elite that the backlash against the failed policies of the elite inevitably becomes a backlash against science and culture as well. We’ve got plenty of that in the headlines as well. According to recent news stories, for example, the Trump administration plans to scrap the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and get rid of all the federal offices that study anthropogenic climate change.

Their termination with extreme prejudice isn’t simply a matter of pruning the federal bureaucracy, though that’s a factor. All these organizations display various forms of the identification of science and culture with elite values just discussed, and their dismantling will be greeted by cheers from a great many people outside the circles of the affluent, who have had more than their fill of patronizing lectures from their self-proclaimed betters in recent years. Will many worthwhile programs be lost, along with a great deal that’s less than worthwhile?  Of course.  That’s a normal feature of the twilight years of a civilization.

A couple of years before the sequence of posts on dark age America, for that matter, I did another series on the end of US global hegemony and the rough road down from empire. That sequence also turned into a book, Decline and Fall. In the posts and the book, I pointed out that one of the constants of the history of democratic societies—actual democracies, warts and all, as distinct from the imaginary “real democracy” that exists solely in rhetoric—is a regular cycle of concentration and diffusion of power. The ancient Greek historian Polybius, who worked it out in detail, called it anacyclosis.

A lot can be said about anacyclosis, but the detail that’s relevant just now is the crisis phase, when power has become so gridlocked among competing power centers that it becomes impossible for the system to break out of even the most hopelessly counterproductive policies. That ends, according to Polybius, when a charismatic demagogue gets into power, overturns the existing political order, and sets in motion a general free-for-all in which old alliances shatter and improbable new ones take shape. Does that sound familiar? In a week when union leaders emerged beaming from a meeting with the new president, while Democrats are still stoutly defending the integrity of the CIA, it should.

For that matter, one of the central themes of the sequence of posts and the book was the necessity of stepping back from global commitments that the United States can no longer afford to maintain. That’s happening, too, though it’s being covered up just now by a great deal of Trumped-up bluster about a massive naval expansion. (If we do get a 350-ship navy in the next decade, I’d be willing to bet that a lot of those ships will turn out to be inexpensive corvettes, like the ones the Russians have been using so efficiently as cruise missile platforms on the Caspian Sea.)  European politicians are squawking at top volume about the importance of NATO, which means in practice the continuation of a scheme that allows most European countries to push most of the costs of their own defense onto the United States, but the new administration doesn’t seem to be buying it.

Mind you, I’m far from enthusiastic about the remilitarization of Europe. Outside the brief interval of enforced peace following the Second World War, Europe has been a boiling cauldron of warfare since its modern cultures began to emerge out of the chaos of the post-Roman dark ages. Most of the world’s most devastating wars have been European in origin, and of course it escapes no one’s attention in the rest of the world that it was from Europe that hordes of invaders and colonizers swept over the entire planet from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries, as often as not leaving total devastation in their wake. In histories written a thousand years from now, Europeans will have the same sort of reputation that Huns and Mongols have today—and it’s only in the fond fantasies of those who think history has a direction that those days are definitely over.

It can’t be helped, though, for the fact of the matter is that the United States can no longer afford to foot the bill for the defense of other countries. Behind a facade of hallucinatory paper wealth, our nation is effectively bankrupt. The only thing that enables us to pay our debts now is the status of the dollar as the world’s reserve currency—this allows the Treasury to issue debt at a breakneck pace and never have to worry about the cost—and that status is trickling away as one country after another signs bilateral deals to facilitate trading in other currencies. Sooner or later, probably in the next two decades, the United States will be forced to default on its national debt, the way Russia did in 1998.  Before that happens, a great many currently overvalued corporations that support themselves by way of frantic borrowing will have done the same thing by way of the bankruptcy courts, and of course the vast majority of America’s immense consumer debt will have to be discharged the same way.

That means, among other things, that the extravagant lifestyles available to affluent Americans in recent decades will be going away forever in the not too distant future. That’s another point I made in Decline and Fall and the series of posts that became raw material for it. During the era of US global hegemony, the five per cent of our species who lived in the United States disposed of a third of the world’s raw materials and manufactured products and a quarter of its total energy production. That disproportionate share came to us via unbalanced patterns of exchange hardwired into the global economy, and enforced at gunpoint by the military garrisons we keep in more than a hundred countries worldwide. The ballooning US government, corporate, and consumer debt load of recent years was an attempt to keep those imbalances in place even as their basis in geopolitics trickled away. Now the dance is ending and the piper has to be paid.

There’s a certain bleak amusement to be had from the fact that one of the central themes of this blog not that many years back—“Collapse Now and Avoid the Rush”—has already passed its pull date. The rush, in case you haven’t noticed, is already under way. The fraction of US adults of working age who are permanently outside the work force is at an all-time high; so is the fraction of young adults who are living with their parents because they can’t afford to start households of their own. There’s good reason to think that the new administration’s trade and immigration policies may succeed in driving both those figures down, at least for a while, but of course there’ll a price to be paid for that—and those industries and social classes that have profited most from the policies of the last thirty years, and threw their political and financial weight behind the Clinton campaign, will be first in line to pay it. Vae victis!*

More generally, the broader landscape of ideas this blog has tried to explore since its early days remains what it is. The Earth’s economically accessible reserves of fossil carbon dwindle day by day; with each year that passes, on average, the amount of coal, oil, and natural gas burnt exceeds the amount that’s discovered by a wider margin; the current temporary glut in the oil markets is waning so fast that analysts are predicting the next price spike as soon as 2018. Talk of transitioning away from fossil fuels to renewable energy, on the one hand, or nuclear power on the other, remains talk—I encourage anyone who doubts this to look up the amount of fossil fuels burnt each year over the last two decades and see if they can find a noticeable decrease in global fossil fuel consumption to match the much-ballyhooed buildout of solar and wind power.

The industrial world remains shackled to fossil fuels for most of its energy and all of its transportation fuel, for the simple reason that no other energy source in this end of the known universe provides the abundant, concentrated, and fungible energy supply that’s needed to keep our current lifestyles going. There was always an alternative—deliberately downshifting out of the embarrassing extravagance that counts for normal lifestyles in the industrial world these days, accepting more restricted ways of living in order to leave a better world for our descendants—but not enough people were willing to accept that alternative to make a difference while there was still a chance.

Meanwhile the other jaw of the vise that’s tightening around the future is becoming increasingly visible just now. In the Arctic, freak weather systems has sucked warm air up from lower latitudes and brought the normal process of winter ice formation to a standstill. In the Antarctic, the Larsen C ice shelf, until a few years ago considered immovable by most glaciologists, is in the process of loosing an ice sheet the size of Delaware into the Antarctic Ocean. I look out my window and see warm rain falling; here in the north central Appalachians, in January, it’s been most of a month since the thermometer last dipped below freezing. The new administration has committed itself to do nothing about anthropogenic climate change, but then, despite plenty of talk, the Obama administration didn’t do anything about it either.

There’s good reason for that, too. The only way to stop anthropogenic climate change in its tracks is to stop putting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and doing that would require the world to ground its airlines, turn its highways over to bicycles and oxcarts, and shut down every other technology that won’t be economically viable if it has to depend on the diffuse intermittent energy available from renewable sources. Does the political will to embrace such changes exist? Since I know of precisely three climate change scientists, out of thousands, who take their own data seriously enough to cut their carbon footprint by giving up air travel, it’s safe to say that the answer is “no.”

So, basically, we’re in for it.

The thing that fascinates me is that this is something I’ve been saying for the whole time this blog has been appearing. The window of opportunity for making a smooth transition to a renewable future slammed shut in the early 1980s, when majorities across the industrial world turned their backs on the previous decade’s promising initiatives toward sustainability, and bought into the triumphalist rhetoric of the Reagan-Thatcher counterrevolution instead. Since then, year after weary year, most of the green movement—with noble exceptions—has been long on talk and short on action.  Excuses for doing nothing and justifications for clinging to lifestyles the planet cannot support have proliferated like rabbits on Viagra, and most of the people who talked about sustainability at all took it for granted that the time to change course was still somewhere conveniently off in the future. That guaranteed that the chance to change course would slide steadily further back into the past.

There was another detail of the post-Seventies sustainability scene that deserves discussion, though, because it’s been displayed with an almost pornographic degree of nakedness in the weeks just past. From the early days of the peak oil movement in the late 1990s on, a remarkably large number of the people who talked eagerly about the looming crisis of our age seemed to think that its consequences would leave them and the people and things they cared about more or less intact. That wasn’t universal by any means; there were always some people who grappled with the hard realities that the end of the fossil fuel age was going to impose on their own lives; but all things considered, there weren’t that many, in comparison to all those who chattered amiably about how comfortable they’d be in their rural doomsteads, lifeboat communities, Transition Towns, et al.

Now, as discussed earlier in this post, we’ve gotten a very modest helping of decline and fall, and people who were enthusiastically discussing the end of the industrial age not that long ago are freaking out six ways from Sunday. If a relatively tame event like the election of an unpopular president can send people into this kind of tailspin, what are they going to do the day their paychecks suddenly turn out to be worth only half as much in terms of goods and services as before—a kind of event that’s already become tolerably common elsewhere, and could quite easily happen in this country as the dollar loses its reserve currency status?

What kinds of meltdowns are we going to get when internet service or modern health care get priced out of reach, or become unavailable at any price?  How are they going to cope if the accelerating crisis of legitimacy in this country causes the federal government to implode, the way the government of the Soviet Union did, and suddenly they’re living under cobbled-together regional governments that don’t have the money to pay for basic services? What sort of reaction are we going to see if the US blunders into a sustained domestic insurgency—suicide bombs going off in public places, firefights between insurgent forces and government troops, death squads from both sides rounding up potential opponents and leaving them in unmarked mass graves—or, heaven help us, all-out civil war?

This is what the decline and fall of a civilization looks like. It’s not about sitting in a cozy earth-sheltered home under a roof loaded with solar panels, living some close approximation of a modern industrial lifestyle, while the rest of the world slides meekly down the chute toward history’s compost bin, leaving you and yours untouched. It’s about political chaos—meaning that you won’t get the leaders you want, and you may not be able to count on the rule of law or even the most basic civil liberties. It’s about economic implosion—meaning that your salary will probably go away, your savings almost certainly won’t keep its value, and if you have gold bars hidden in your home, you’d better hope to Hannah that nobody ever finds out, or it’ll be a race between the local government and the local bandits to see which one gets to tie your family up and torture them to death, starting with the children, until somebody breaks and tells them where your stash is located.

It’s about environmental chaos—meaning that you and the people you care about may have many hungry days ahead as crazy weather messes with the harvests, and it’s by no means certain you won’t die early from some tropical microbe that’s been jarred loose from its native habitat to find a new and tasty home in you. It’s about rapid demographic contraction—meaning that you get to have the experience a lot of people in the Rust Belt have already, of walking past one abandoned house after another and remembering the people who used to live there, until they didn’t any more.

More than anything else, it’s about loss. Things that you value—things you think of as important, meaningful, even necessary—are going to go away forever in the years immediately ahead of us, and there will be nothing you can do about it.  It really is as simple as that. People who live in an age of decline and fall can’t afford to cultivate a sense of entitlement. Unfortunately, for reasons discussed at some length in one of last month’s posts, the notion that the universe is somehow obliged to give people what they think they deserve is very deeply engrained in American popular culture these days. That’s a very unwise notion to believe right now, and as we slide further down the slope, it could very readily become fatal—and no, by the way, I don’t mean that last adjective in a metaphorical sense.

History recalls how great the fall can be, Roger Hodgson sang. In our case, it’s shaping up to be one for the record books—and those of my readers who have worked themselves up to the screaming point about the comparatively mild events we’ve seen so far may want to save some of their breath for the times ahead when it’s going to get much, much worse.
*In colloquial English: “It sucks to lose.”


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DoubtingThomas said...

@JMG: I'll await your post then but on the topic of the predictive value of history I'm not jumping to conclusions. I mentioned previously that I have 20yrs experience from the financial realm, more specifically in Risk Management, where they use a variety of statistical methodologies ( HistSim, MonteCarlo ) to perform risk analysis & management. Such methodologies involve looking back over time at day to day changes of specific risk factors or to specific prior events in order to asses likely trends. The goals tend to be about answering questions like how risky would this new trade be; what type of countering hedging trade should I make or how would I be impacted if XYZ happens next week, next month, next year etc. Even with the ocean of financial history available now they still get it massively wrong. The level of detail available to them is arguably more accurate / complete than accounts of events long ago. The efficacy of both technical and fundamental analysis in any case is disputed by the efficient-market hypothesis. Even the weather prediction models that have ~100 years of data to work from get it wrong and struggle with forecasting too far ahead.

As I don't follow what other people are saying about it I will take your word on that for now. I'm not aware of claims of our civilisation "having to have" a unique trajectory. I'm certainly not claiming things will be different this time so it doesn't apply to me. I'm saying that whatever our civilisation's trajectory may end up being .. "no prediction based on historical analysis is going to nail that trajectory for every member of that civilisation.."

There is always the chance of something unexpected / unpredictable. That does not mean chance will present it self to all or anyone ;) Denying that simple fact would be is tantamount to selection bias.

Maybe Graham Hancock's Theory of a recurring danger from a swarm of meteors due to arrive in the next 20 years will pan out with some chance of an full/partial ELE. His piecing together of geological evidence, mythical stories, alleged historical fact is reasonably well constructed and evidence has appeared to validate some aspects of his overarching theory since it was first touted 20 years ago regardless of mainstreams ad hominem attacks and attempts to shutdown hard science research. He, like you, has built a following. Are his ideas wrong or right? No idea. Only time will tell. He's trying to convince governments to at least allocate funds to watching space better.

Also, I don't see how you can claim that those who insist it is going to be different this time "have reliably flopped" .. civilisation hasn't ended as yet (has it?) [ and there is arguably more than one civilisation on the planet right now .. those amazonian tribes spring to mind, getting on and doing their own thing. Then of course we have parts of the 3rd world which are less reliant on the things that may cause the USA to go under ]. I appreciate you have your own ideas about how things are going to pan out .. you have said endings take decades/centuries so we won't know the accuracy/veracity of those ideas for some time yet.

I'm aware you score your ideas highly with some measure of validation. I've read prior posts stating similar. I look forward to reviewing them again 50+ years from now and seeing how well they did but I will not a priori take them as definitive fact. Given my beliefs, that is asking for trouble for me personally ;)

Patricia Mathews said...

" I wish I could know how Trump's image will be folded, spindled, and repurposed by future generations! "

I'm sorry. That comment caused a sudden image to flash into my mind concerning said image being printed on paper normally found on rolls in the necessarium.When I stop laughing ...if I can stop....

BTW - A friend who had a nasty blood pressure crisis over a month ago said he saw Trump on TV turning beet red and thought "If he doesn't get that taken care of, he won't be among us long." Said friend is looking for a small city in the Willamette Valley to settle in - "low altitude, more water vapor, and [with their natural resources] you could survive the Apocalypse there." (No. He's not a doomster.)

John Michael Greer said...

Rebecca, oh, I know, I just spread joy wherever I go. ;-)

DoubtingThomas, the reason I tend to roll my eyes when people say "But there's a chance that it could be different" is that nearly always what follows is an attempt to drag the discussion back those notions of the future our culture prefers -- that is to say, perpetual progress or overnight apocalypse. The whole point of this blog is to talk about what happens if we have a normal future instead -- "normal" here in the same sense as "normal curve," that is, the statistically likely future, the future that will happen barring a really big rabbit gets pulled out of a hat somewhere.

The cyclic theory of history includes a lot more than the concept that civilizations have life cycles, which is why I can say that cyclic theories have been far more successful than the linear theories our culture prefers. The major theorists -- Spengler above all -- describe specific stages through which civilizations pass in the course of their lives. Spengler himself, writing just short of a century ago, made successful predictions covering many of the changes that have happened since his time. By contrast, historical analysts who base their predictions on linear extrapolation consistently get things completely wrong -- do you remember when we were going to have cities on the Moon, a cure for cancer, and electricity too cheap to meter by 2000? I certainly do.

As for economic predictions, when an economist makes a prediction, he's wrong, but that's less a matter of the complexity of the situation than it is of lethal flaws in the fundamental presuppositions of economics as a (pseudo)science. In the runup to the 2008 housing crash, for example, tens of thousands of people correctly identified what was going on as a classic speculative bubble, and discussed it at length; economists, on the other hand, were by and large blindsided. (I recall an essay by Nassim Taleb, one of the few exceptions, in which he described his attempt to point out the obvious to a room full of economists, and all of them looked at him as though he was crazy.) I did a post a while back specifically on that latter theme, which you can find here.

Patricia, heh. By all means get that in production -- the market for it would be, well, Yuuuuuge.

Shane (offlist), that was a bit much, don't you think?

PRiZM said...

Kfish, thanks for your comment about community. It's precisely your point about how having community gets people working together and accomplishing things despite how different they may feel or lean politically. Our current lack of ability to communicate is directly related to how little people care about community, and instead continue on in their narcissism, as JMG mentioned earlier. I think this is further evident in our lack of continuity with our historical community. People constantly thinking and saying "it's different this time" and "we (I) am so unique." They've failed to have any dialog with the past.

My wife pointed out something I found relevant to this idea. As we were listening to some classical music my wife noticed the song was from one of the older Disney films, either Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty (it doesn't matter which but we're going to find out which one later). She then made the comment how interesting it was that even in the 1960s culturally people were appreciating classical music, which had been around for 100, 200, and some even 300 years. Fast forward to today, and a song that has been around for six months is too old. The same can be said of most films, books, fashion, and a good many arts.

In our determination to be unique, modern society has attempted to cut ourselves off from all the splendor which was previously created and is solely interested in only what is new. That has ultimately got us to this point, alone, and running away from our past, in effect forgetting to feel with our legs and feet, not grounded. Everyone who has tried walking when they cannot feel their feet knows how this ends. Face first in the ground. (I really enjoyed that Jack London story "To Build A Fire"). This isn't uniquely America's problem, but it is more predominate in the USA. Maybe we will be one of the first countries to fail and then the societies which spring forth from our decomposing body can begin sprouting. Those who are rooted in community now may reap some benefits later by being leaders. But hopefully one doesn't forget that in order to lead, one must set the example.

DoubtingThomas said...

@JMG: The fact remains that there is always a chance which so far you appeared to want to deny/dismiss/denigrate rather than incorporate them but then that is the same mistake Spengler makes - an obvious one I think. I've made no statements about futures being preferred. So not sure why you roll your eyes.

You might be interested to know that Financial Risk Calculations rely heavily on normal distributions and standard deviations (rather than linear extrapolations) from them to indicate the statistical likelihood of events occurring to different risk factors that have been calculated using historical inputs. They still get it wrong. I have written and maintained risk engines for years in my career and did statistics at university so I'm reasonably familiar with the concepts. What tends to be forgotten is the existence of outliers and the tendency to massage them out of existence or simply override their implications. I'm sure I said all this in prior comments though.

I never rated economics eitehr, always considered it a bit of a pseudo-science too. Economic theory has little to do with the calculation of financial risk though - Risk calculation is more a technical analysis / management tool. Financial risk calculations - in the Monte Carlo methodology especially relative to Historic Simulation - is all about chance. You may be interested to know the monte Carlo methodology is considered to be technically better than HistSim.

I'm aware of what Spengler describes and I repeat I am aware he has critics other than myself. As I recall they went further in their criticisms than my focus on Spengler's ignoring the impact of innovation, inspiration and intuition.

Anyway Mr Greer, I've taken up enough of your time on this topic - we are clearly not going to agree and we have already looped quite possibly boring the audience. I have evidence sufficient for myself that automatically invalidates any attempt to dismiss the ability of innovation, inspiration and intuition to affect any ( and I would dare to say every ) cycle imaginable. I've written about it as directly as I can but if its not coming across then I don't really have anything else I can add to it. On that note I will withdraw :) To your credit you haven't censored the discussion - you could have.

Justin said...


I like Graham Hancock even though I am skeptical of many of his claims. The archaeological evidence, with the similar architecture and symbols everywhere is interesting.

Of course, I've often thought about just how ironic it would be, if as resource depletion and climate change are really starting to bite, that we get wiped out by something totally beyond our control, like a swarm of asteroids. Of course, that leads me back to ideas about Graham Hancock and consciousness...

Matt said...

@Shane W: "I was thinking more along the lines of people with green cards and people w/H1B visas, etc. that I've seen so many stories in the press. If they can afford to fly back and forth to their country of origin, their part of an elite that most people don't belong to. I wasn't thinking of refugees."

I can't help thinking you are using "elite" as a thought stopper here, a way of Othering the people affected by the ban so that you don't have to be troubled by their situation. Flying is an environmental disaster area but, the way things work today, it's certainly not an elite activity, unless you are drawing your boundaries awfully wide.

Bill Pulliam said...

Doubting Thomas, re: Graham Hancock... as a statistician, let me ask you a question: What are the odds that someone can predict the recurrences of an event that occurs periodically but irregularly to an accuracy of 20 years if the mean recurrence interval of that event is 20,000 years (1 part in 1000) or 26 million years (less than 1 part in a million)? Because Hancock's primary hypothesis posits about a 20,000 year periodicity, and the science he claims supports it actually is about a 26 million year periodicity. I don't think the odds of an ELE in the next 20 years are much different than they were in the last 20 years, or the last 2000 years, likely the last million years. Indeed the astronomers have concluced that we are already in a high bombardment time, and have been for a million years or so. Certainly no significant change in this risk factor in the coming decades.

Nastarana said...

This article by one John Robb, author of Brave New War,
entitled "Trump's Rollback of the Neoliberal State" is the best concise explanation of recent political and economic trends I have yet read. It reinforces and illuminates but does not replace the insights and thoughts of our host at the Archdruid Report.

If you read through earlier posts on the same blog you will come to the statement that "what is building" is something Robb calls "reactive authoritarianism." In other words, for Trump supporters, the message is We get to be in charge again.

I consider the designation or epithet 'authoritarian' rather suspect. I do not believe that every bossy person is a proto Nazi, merely an annoyance, and usually someone who gets in the way of the doing of productive work.

So, I would suggest that the challenge for Green Wizards and all who are collapsing now and living with less, and, I would add, sharing not selling where and when that is possible, is not how to resist the new order--that can be left to the multicultural left and maybe they will get some sense knocked into their airheads, while maybe resurgent conservatism will be finally forced to accept that they do not get to direct and determine how everyone else must live--but how to maintain peaceful and productive lives within it. I will add, parenthetically, that the main complaint many of us have had against conservativism, understood in a large sense, is not its policies, many of which are quite sensible, but its' relentless demanding of cultural conformity from all, in defiance of the tastes, talents, inclinations, personal and family histories, and even financial resources of others.

Sven Williams said...

Considering my medium-term plans, I can pay my debts off by late 2018 while accumulating a few thousand in savings. Everything I make after that is pure profit. I think by now (after some reflection) my dilemma is more along the lines of "how much should I save, and how much should I throw into this black hole of debt?"

I console myself by imagining how much accrued interest I'm robbing from the Department of Education by paying over three times my minimum required payment each month. So far, that's several thousand of my hard-earned that the DoE will never get their hands on.

Sven Williams said...

I was on IBR before moving out here, but being abroad makes it far more difficult to keep up with the paperwork and income verification requirements. However, I'm taking the opposite approach: I'm paying more than triple the required payment in an attempt to kill this beast as quickly as possible. Compound interest is a double-edged sword; it accumulates over time, but large early payments make for disproportionately large impacts down the road.

Sven Williams said...

Excellent point: even if Trump declares debt amnesty, it's not guaranteed that federal debts will be included in that pile. The Department of Education has some mighty strong tentacles extending into all three branches, and not even The Don can slither free from their grasp.

Sven Williams said...

That's pretty much the decision I've come to these past few days. Continue as planned, while saving up a certain fraction of my income for the future. As it stands, I live on less than half my salary; the other half goes to debt and savings. I can economize further, and console myself with visions of getting back to the track I was on before I decided to go to graduate school.

Maxine Rogers said...

Dear Bill Pulliam,
I am so glad you came back! I always read your posts.
Max Rogers

redoak said...

Concerning the topic of secession, it seems a very crude tool to employ against the complaints raised above. There is so much state sovereignty to repossess by constitutional means before resorting to secession. Given the power of foresight, I'm sure the veterans of our last experiment in this direction would have gladly reconsidered their choices. Are we to ignore their warning? For the downsides of confederacy versus a republic, you can do no better than to brush up on The Federalist. For an appeal to your heart, no better than Lincoln:

"I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Couldn't get to comment until now. Thanks for bringing up climate change again. I look forward to reading more about the cyclical view of history + future projections, as in variation not duplication because the cycle is perhaps more like a helix or gyroscopic figure than repetitive circles (which makes me think of W.B. Yeats, of course). It also makes me think of Native American views of time and occurrence and the necessity for ceremonialism to keep cycles on track and the earth (universe) functioning as it should.

Every civilization gets its own unique form of collapse. Aren't we special. :) "Me-focused" marketing writ large.

Just before a hard freeze this fall, we harvested a bunch of green cherry tomatoes and put them on the kitchen table by a window. They've been ripening at a perfect rate, and we won't finish the last of them until next week.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Bill Pulliam,

Glad to see you back, with your intelligent, thought-provoking comments.

Fred the First said...

Acknowledging collapse looks like this - My husband and I walked our small property and surveyed the house making a list of needed or wanted projects. We quickly realized given a certain future of supply disruption, a new roof is top priority. Its 30 years old and we could probably wait a few more years, but we can't count on having more money then or even the roofing materials being available. And what if the cost is double due to inflation or lack of materials or shipping costs or tariffs?

My grandparents were born in 1920 and grew up during the Depression. When we complained as kids, they would always say "Stop your belly-aching. At least you have a roof over your head and something to eat." I guess that expression will be coming back soon.

Fred the First said...

And another sign of the unevenness of collapse - Amazon is offering me grocery delivery for $14.99 a month. Any order over $40 is free (charge of $10 if under $40) and the prices are the same as what I would pay at the store. I looked and they are offering a huge variety of items. And I get why they are doing it. Going to the store, one mixes with everyone at every income level and people don't want to do that. I hear people complain about SNAP card holders, seniors who still write checks, and the shrieking children. People will totally pay to avoid their neighbors.

Fred the First said...

There is a step between the police we have now and the roving gang leaders looking for security money - privately hired security forces. They had them in south Africa when I lived there in the 90's. Private security companies hired black Africans to patrol and defend white neighborhoods. They were heavily armed and free to use their weapons. When the private security companies start beginning on the east coast, that will be a sign to me that we have taken a step down the progress ladder. I know these companies already operate in California neighborhoods, but they seem to be hired first in lefty liberal areas. Go figure.

Fred the First said...

One last comment - I've separated them in case anything doesn't meet criteria, then the whole thing wouldn't be held back.

Thank you for the term "chattering classes". It really is the best term for what is the left these days. I can't open up any social media without witnessing a total melt-down over what Trump is doing. As has been the case for the whole election and inauguration, it is some really bright people doing the tantrum. Its common to see 30-40 forwards and posts a day from people and I have had to unfollow and hide their posts. They can''t be doing anything else other than this social media stuff.

There is such a huge effort going on to call everything Trump does "wrong". And the man has hardly done anything. He barely got started. And its not like their lives have been affected at all. They feel outrage for what could be happening in future if this goes on. They really think that if that keep projecting this outrage, it will have an effect.

Life isn't a linear progression. Deal with your reality as it exists right now. Stop talking and get to work.

Susan Krumdieck said...

I have read a couple of your books, but can't get through most of your blogs - they are pretty long even if interesting.

I am sure you are correct about the willful blindness of society and the religious reliance on the belief in technology and progress to "save us".

I thought you might like to know about a small but hopefully growing change of perspective amongst us technologists. Transition Engineering is a paradigm shift and it's not "sustainability engineering". It is very hard, but we work with exactly what is really happening, exactly what can really be done, and exactly what the constraints on the whole system are. Transition Engineering is the interdisciplinary job of changing existing systems to eliminate fossil fuel use. We do this work for companies, organizations and communities.

It is fun to point out to the small number of people who listen what deep shit we are in. But if we are extremely lucky, the field of Transition Engineering will emerge and take off in much the same way Safety Engineering did 100 years ago. Everything has to change - true, but somebody needs to actually start doing it.

Kind Regards,

Dr. Susan Krumdieck
Professor in Mechanical Engineering
University of Canterbury
Christchurch, New Zealand

pygmycory said...

last time the government restricted freedoms it was because of that shooter who killed a soldier and then went after the government members on parliament hill. I'd actually say that the government is slightly less likely to restrict freedoms after a white guy killing moslems than the other way round.

Your point on questionable information holds water. It is early days to know for exact certain what was going through Bissonette's head, assuming that they are correct that he did it.

If you want to talk about large numbers of somewhat preventable deaths, the fentanyl epidemic killed more people last year in BC alone than you cite for alcohol across the entire country.

People react more strongly to people being murdered than to people killing themselves via legal or illegal substances. And honestly, people being murdered at a prayer meeting bothers me more than most killings because I can all too easily imagine it being my friends, or me, at my church.

pygmycory said...

It looks like Trump plans to do something about the drug pricing situation in the USA, although I'm not sure exactly what just yet.

@Patricia, Trump toilet paper would likely find a market in Canada, too. Trump should consider patenting and selling it ;)Not that he needs more money, and his ego might find it offensive.

Good grief there's a lot happening in the US politically right now. Government by executive order.

The other Tom said...

Regarding succession, I believe that the lack of strong regional identify, or of connection to place, is an impediment to succession movements. Most people in the U.S. now, everywhere I've been are for more connected to their jobs and economic opportunities than to a town or state. There are exceptions of course, but the bulk of the population is willing to move out of state for a job or retire in Florida. A suburb in Massachusetts is just as good as a suburb in Oregon. My friends in eastern Connecticut are a little different in that we are all from here and nobody wants to leave. I know there are areas of such people in each state but we are the minority. Perhaps, as Bill and others pointed out this will change as the economy scales down and we are forced to be more local. Right now, though, the ones with a strong local or regional identify are usually those with families going back many generations and/or a strong attachment to local geography and culture.

James M. Jensen II said...

Let me add myself to the chorus glad to see Bill Pulliam return! Bill, I've probably disagreed with you more than I've agreed but you've always been a fantastic addition to the comments here.

Justin said...

Pygmycory, yeah, my comment about alcohol etc is a bit remiss. But for instance, if you had to show government ID to buy alcohol no matter what, there could easily also be a way to blacklist yourself from buying alcohol if you have a problem - very easy to implement while we still have the Internet.

I forgot all about that shooter, and yeah, I remember that foul mixture of patriotism and creeping authoritarianism. I might not like Mr. Dressup, but I'm still glad he beat Harper. And you're right, a religious building is an especially awful place to shoot up.

On the other hand, even though Canada is in the very early stages of the process compared to Europe, Islamization appears to be a one-way street in most cases. This absurd bill m103 is an example of the kind of politics that will become more and more common as more ridings become Islamic ridings. So I can understand the rage if not the actions. Islam, at least the forms of it which spread rapidly, is really something like the Borg. I do hope that once the more successful (highest growth rate) strains achieve decadence they become a bit more respectful of the individual.

FYI if bill M103 passes, this post will have been a hate crime for which I could be sent to prison. Recently, a man - a total jackass - in Britain was sent for prison for smearing a mosque's doors with bacon. He was denied separation from Muslim inmates and was brutally murdered in prison. It will happen in Canada - which will probably lead to more terrorism by white people.

Karen said...

Yay, Bill Pulliam is back. I have to confess, when I'm in a hurry, I buzz through looking for his comments first, I find his reinforcement of or contradiction to your post always informative. Welcome back Bill.

Raymond Duckling said...

@Violet, Sorry about what you are going through. Have my best wishes and may you fight off your illness with grace and skill. You are well loved around here.

@Bill, Glad to see you back so soon, and to see your comments are as spot on as always.

@Everyone, I did what I said I would, though the hand over of responsibilities will take a few more weeks. Will let you know when I break the "ramen profitable" mark.

Shane W said...

IDK, I was actually quite amused by my comments. ;-)

temporaryreality (Wendy) said...

JMG, not sure if Graeme didn't see your question about green wizards' hats in China (or if I didn't see his answer), but a green hat of any sort, worn by a man, signifies he's been cuckolded.

Shane W said...

Well, it seems Trump is maintaining the prohibition against LGBT discrimination in the federal government by maintaining Obama's 2 year old executive order. Wonder how long before this gets twisted by the media into "Trump begins antigay pogrom"

Janet D said...

One more for your files, in case you haven't seen it yet:

Malaria Drugs Fail for First Time on Patients in UK

And thanks for the reminder that the decline of civilization means that things I don't like and don't agree with are going to happen. I needed that this week.

latheChuck said...

Way back in October 19, 2016, when this blog posted "The Future Hiding in Plain Sight", our host proposed that a "crisis of legitimacy in the United States" was one of the factors unfortunately overlooked in the military strategy document for 2035: JOE-35. How many of us imagined that just a few months later, we'd see people marching and chanting "not my President"? (Not me, for one.)

In other, marginally relevant news, I've decided to proof-test old garden seeds during the winter, rather than scatter them on the soil in the spring and hope for the best. The space on top of my water heater tank maintains a soil temperature of 72F, which is much better for germination than the space under the grow-lights (62F) that they'll be moving to when they need light. (For those new to gardening, there are charts showing the success and timing of seed germination as a function of soil temperature, readily available if you ask Google.)

sandy said...

@DoubtingThomas. Greetings from the Big Mango (BKK). A few years ago John Michael said 'All civilizations are unique on their way up, but as they start collapsing, they become more alike and thus more predictable.' Still sounds good to me, heh.

Pearce M. Schaudies.
Minister of Future

Hubertus Hauger said...

JMG says: That the blog´s overall aim is “…an attempt to drag the discussion …(to) … the future our culture prefers -- …, perpetual progress or overnight apocalypse… what happens if we have a normal future instead -- "normal" here in the same sense as "normal curve," that is, the statistically likely future, the future that will happen barring a really big rabbit gets pulled out of a hat somewhere.”

Let’s get normal, I like that!

These two contradicting extremes, progress for ever and ever versus sudden total annihilation does sound like compulsory religious imagination. While the way of the world is naturally the circle of life. Birth and death repeatedly on and on. That’s natural.
Our believe of ever lasting wealth and embetterment is not. It’s a mere mirage of paradise or heaven on earth. That damnation fantasy is not either. Thinking of it I see it to be a social illusion. Its more the omnipotence dream of an drug addict held for real but is not. Or a schizophrenic is holding his lunatic delusions for real, while they are not. It is a classic, that the hallucinations is not recognized as such.

While the normal thing is, that we have reached the limits of growth. Unavoidably collapse and simplification of life means, we are going back to normal. Dropping out of the Fata Morgana and slowly realising, that we are in a desert, not in a lush garden, aka headed to a non-fossil future, ready or not.

Death is normal. But not the end.

The struggle to accept that way of the world is normal too. The stages of grief; Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance are our convulsing reaction on the was to realise our hence social illusion and dropping out of it. Guess, we are slowly getting back to normal. Leaving this lunatic delusions will help us return to live our life at the fullest, instead of destroying our lives being drug addict.

So our perspective is going back to normal. Going back to real life! Good that is!

Maxine Rogers said...

I have to ask, why is this post so immediate and so dark? Not that I think you are wrong, but I would like to know what are you basing your forecast on in particular?
Yours under the red cedars,
Max Rogers

Maxine Rogers said...

Sven Williams,
Have you considered emigrating to avoid your student loans? I know a wonderful veterinarian from the USA why emigrated to Canada to escape her impossible student loan debt. I would consider that if I were you.
Max Rogers

Matt said...

Apologies if I have missed any pertinent replies but it's getting late in the week, and I wanted to make a quick point about insulin: has anyone described what would be required to keep current insulin production going, without resorting to pig pancreas?

My point is that our decline is unlikely to dump us into an immediate dark age. Aside from temporary supply chain disruption, there is no particular reason to suppose that it won't be possible to continue making money manufacturing such an obviously useful product for the foreseeable future, until quite far down the slope of decline.


Ed-M said...


Crikey and Gor Blimey! 425 Comments already. Shoulda posted sooner but didn't get to. Responding to emails and Facecrack are consuming my time even though I have few online friends but one very self-centered sister.

On the coming collapse (Dave Z is right: why is it different this time?), I find my self almost totally unprepared! Right now I'm depending on government support for food and rent and handouts from my three siblings indefinitely b/c my share of my mum's estate was setaside for my retirement, if Congress doesn't move the minimum retirement age for my age bracket [I'm 56] repeatedly). Need I say more on this particular point? No. But if you *want* more....

So going to dealing with the ongoing collapse, I'm going to have to go back into the ratrace, which the rats have won, in order to be able to: first, pay off un-charge-off-able debts and second, collapse now with the rush with some semblance of dignity left -- my best option would be to buy an inexpensive house in a nearby small town here at New Orleans, like Bogalusa. The thing is, I don't see reentering the ratrace as something that is going to happen, no matter how much I pursue it. Barbara Ehrenreich wrote more about this kind of futile hunt for reemployment in her book, Bait and Switch.

Now slightly OT, on the Union of Concerned Scientists having advanced the doomsday clock by 30 seconds: betcha dollars to doughnuts (mmmmmhhh... doughnuts!) that they never would have done that had Hillary won the Election. But they should have anyway, because of the No-Fly-Zone she would have declared in a foolish idealistic fit of compassion over that one particular boy in that one particular ambulance, whose photograph was sent all over the Mainstream Media, probably by CNN where I saw it. What about the other boys -- and girls -- who were collateral-damaged or even butchered by our "allies," the terrorists?

Now on your plans on leaving Cumberland, where are you planning to go? May I suggest Cuba or Belize? Cuba already went through a collapse with flying colours and you'll be able to get along if you know Spanish. Belize is not that far up on the industrian civilisation ladder, has recently been decolonised from the Brits and hasn't attracted much attention from Uncle Sam.

Ed-M said...

Now for responses to comments (one of two):

@ Troy Jones 1/25/17 4:14 PM,

On the Trumpians virally spreading videos of the DC [pat]riot police going after the "snowflakes:" I posted a comment as PfctvsPontivsPilatvs on one such video embedded in another "signs of the end" vid. The people behaving badly were not the snowflakes -- they showed up the next day in the Women's March -- but rather unreconstructed anarchists and communists. Some were wearing all-black including their hoodies!

@ Dave Z 1/25/17 4:26 PM,

Yes, and Y2K could have gone the other way: "Our bases were uncovered. We pulled the trigger and - BANG!

"That round of Russian Roulete left us alive - but just barely - just like on that episode of Family Guy!" And I would be reading this in a samizdat (self-published and distributed) periodical sent by the Archdruid himself from Ashland, Oregon.

@ Clay Dennis 1/25/17 4:46 PM,

Of course! The mid-2000s was when the War on Iraq was turning out to be obvious to all as the complete disaster that it was. Since the Neocons couldn't get at Iraqi oil anymore due to the enormous clusterfrack they created, they decided to go after Russia: for her oil of course, so I state at the risk of being labelled Captain Obvious!

@ Carlos M. 1/25/17 5:31 PM,

On the NYer article, it was in the runup to the dark ages after the Roman Empire collapsed, that monasteries were virtually and basically the unintentional doomsday prep for the Christian church. Now what does that say about us, collectively, when the only ones doing "serious" and/or "sufficient" prep for the dark future before us are the exceedingly rich rich people, who are following the advice that Doomer Pornographers handed out from about 2004 through 2011?

@ John the Peregrine 1/12/17 5:44 PM:

Which is another reason why, to the civilised peoples who were against these things and with whom the Mongolians (to put it lightly) came into contact, they were Evilly Evil Evildoers of Evil.

Tyler August said...


Have you seen the proposed Cash Flow Tax the Republicans are considering? Cash flowing through a corporation is taxed. Not profits. Two things about this plan that will warm the cockles of your archdruidical heart are:
- no depreciation of equipment
- no tax on wages
Who knew Paul Ryan was a fan?
I never thought I could like a Republican tax plan, but here it is. Apparently it violates WTO rules -- even better!

Here's a discussion.

Posting now in case I can't find the link later, and in case it's too off-topic from your next essay. Hopefully you still read such 11th-hour comments. No need to post.

Ed-M said...

And now two of two:

@ Rita 1/25/2017 6:22 PM,

Izzy @ 1/25/17 5:58 PM would be right to punch a Nazi, or a jerk, based on what he said to him, because that person would probably say something to him that posed a direct and immediate threat. You can figure out his apparent religion/ethnicity and apparent sexual orientation; Izzy is a nickname for Isaac IIRC.

@ Repent 1/25/2017 6:30 PM,

Since you live out on the prairies, you probably wouldn't have access to real cranberry juice or fresh cranberries either. Considering that you're already shooting kidney stones like a machine gun shooting bullets, you probably don't have access to either now --just Ocean Spray and the like which are mostly grape juice or sugar/high-fructose-corn-syrup water, and I found to be useless. Useless!

@ Doubting Thomas 1/25/2017 6:43 PM,

You lucky bastard! Here in the USA the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is a quasi-private government organ and it partially supports NPR and PBS both of which ever-so-slyly catapault the propaganda for corporate interests, the MIC, the neoliberals/neoconservatives, and on occasion 1960s-70s Liberalism if only to show how good (and worthy of worship) our government is. A lot of people for this reason won't miss it, but a smaller lot would!

And those storage devices? Make sure your friends in high-tech come up with a computer that will still function after five hundred to a thousand years of dark ages and and they (or you!) figure out a set of instructions that people then will be able to follow in order to figure out how to operate it. Otherwise they will know nothing of our civilisation except huge excavation and landfill constructions (cuts and embankments), surviving remnants of traffic interchanges, and stone buildings that they might confuse with the remaining Greek and Roman temples, etc.

@ Logan 1/25/2017 7:25 PM

"If anything history suggests that the sins of empires are apt to be forgotten."
That's a perfect explanation of why the mechanics of Roman-crucifixion are still not fully recovered: i.e. there was a stout support upon which the crucified person rested --i.e., sat or "rode"--, without which the person would have to be sustained with ropes.

For more, please pursue my relevant blog articles here and here.

@ Chris of Cherokee Organics 1/26/17, 1:01 PM,

Hi Chris!

haven't responded to your comments for a very long while so here goes...

Your mention of The Logical Song inspired me to get a CD copy of Supertramp's Breakfast in America album. At the town library, of course, and not at the USAian Barnes and Noble bookstore and certainly NOT at! back in the 1970s I used to listen to this song on the radio along with others by Supertramp but paid it no mind. Mind you, I almost purchased the Breakfast in America album at a Woolworth's based on the cover art! I just played the song again two nights ago for the first time in four decades and it left me in tears! Turns out, the song was a prophecy of the story of my life... until I lost my job in '09 and was booted out into the street from April '15 to January '16, but that's a whole 'nother ball of wax altogether.

@all: DONE!

Patricia Mathews said...

And speaking of monasticism - the cartoon Bizarro was quite without intention much to the point and actually somewhat historically accurate for the early Middle Ages:

Birds of Prayer.

pygmycory said...

@Justin, I just went and took a look at the proposed text of bill M103, and I think you're exaggerating. It's mostly a motion to study ways of reducing religous and racial phobia and discrimination, and while it uses islam as the main example, it's not specific to islam alone. It is also a private members bill which may well not go anywhere. It also doesn't change any laws even if it were to pass - though the government could decide to change something after the studies were done.

You can find the text here:

Caelan MacIntyre said...

Hi John,

I just quoted a little of you over at Peak Oil Barrel, along with a link to Euan's and Gail's homes respectively.

Yes, I've posted the front cover image of Supertramp's 'Crisis, What Crisis?' on The Oil Drum and/or Peak Oil Barrel before...

Never mind reality.
We'll worry about it when our short-term niceties, like drinks, chaise longues, and parasols, and assorted fossil-fueled entitlements, etc., start disappearing, and/or their disappearances throw us across some critical thresholds into increasing discomfort.

Looks like we're all destined to become super tramps.

Hi Ghung. It's cute how everyone's spread out over the peak oil forum comment sections these daze and kind of fun to catch them sometimes.

~ Caelan MacIntyre, AKA Tribe Of Pangaea- First Member

Dan Johnson said...

JMG, it occurred to me today that maybe instead of everyone striving to go neo-medieval ("collapse now") incrementally, as a best case plan, or whatnot, we should instead try to collapse cold turkey, but in designated zones. The "zones" could be space or time: special neighborhoods in a town, rooms in one's house, days of the week, or even an hour of the day in which we turn off the main breaker, light a candle, and exist without fossil fuel. Some precendents are the designated Wilderness zones in which even Park personnel can't use power tools, and traditional Sabbath day? Like an immersion language class, this would give people a 100% taste, an alternative space that is parallel to BAU. People may even like it better and want to go full time?

Wendy said...


Fascinating series, can't wait for the next post.

Because I am steeped in Zen practice, I am seeing Zen all over this, perhaps accurately, or perhaps just because I'm projecting a familiar framework onto the ideas you presented here.

But this:

"Our thoughts about the things are abstract patterns we create out of memories of representations, and thus at two removes from reality."

....gets at the essential aim of Zen practice, which consists of relentless observation of the thoughts we constantly layer onto direct bodily experience and are (according to Zen Buddhism) the source of the perceived-but-illusory dualism which is, in turn, the source of all suffering.

I'm picturing Schopenhauer in the Lotus position....ha.

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