Can We Learn from History?

John Michael Greer applies his knowledge of history and ecology to the current financial crisis. Civilizations that have collapsed often took for granted essential resources until it was too late to recover. Excerpts below.

Link: The Archdruid Report: The Unnoticed Technologies.

Like the inhabitants of Easter Island, we depend on the reckless exploitation of limited resources to sustain our way of life; like the civilizations of the Middle East whose fate was chronicled by ibn Khaldûn, our survival depends on fragile infrastructure systems that few of us understand and most of our leaders seem entirely willing to starve of necessary resources for the sake of short-term political advantage. The industrial system that supports us has been in place long enough that most of us seem to be unable to conceive of circumstances in which it might no longer be there.

One of the wrinkles of catabolic collapse – the process by which societies in decline cannibalize their own infrastructure to meet immediate needs, and so accelerate their own breakdown – is that it can trigger abrupt crises by wrecking some essential technology that is not recognized as such. We are already witnessing the early stages of exactly such a crisis. What large trees were to the Easter Islanders and irrigation canals were to the early medieval Middle East, the current form of money economy is to modern industrial society, and the speculative delusions that passed for financial innovation over the last few decades have played exactly the same role as the invading nomads of ibn Khaldûn’s history, by stripping a fragile system of resources in the pursuit of immediate gain. The result, just as in the 1930s, is that a nation still relatively rich in potential resources, and provided with a large and skilled labor force, is sliding into crushing poverty because the intricate social system we use to allocate labor and resources has broken down.

Other unwelcome surprises along the same lines are likely events in the future. Before we get there, however, those of us who are concerned about the possible downside of history might be well advised to pay more attention to the unnoticed technologies in our lives, and to start thinking about how to make do without them, or get some substitute in place in a hurry, if the unthinkable happens and one or more of them suddenly goes away.

John Michael Greer Interviewed

Janaia at Peak Moment Conversations interviews one of my favorite bloggers and thinkers, John Michael Greer. He's articulate and informed – be ready to learn and smile. You can read his essays at The Archdruid Report.

Link: Peak Moment Conversations » Blog Archive » 138 The Twilight of an Age.

In his book, The Long Descent, John Michael Greer observes that our culture has two primary stories: “Infinite Progress” or “Catastrophe”. On the contrary, he sees history as cyclic: civilizations rise and fall. Like others, ours is exhausting its resource base. Cheap energy is over. Decline is here, but the descent will be a long one. It’s too late to maintain the status quo by swapping energy sources. How to deal with this predicament? He lays out practical ideas, possibilities, and potentials, including reconnecting with natural and human capacities pushed aside by industrial life.

Food for Thought

I know of none of the world’s great spiritual traditions that would approve the claim that people living extravagant lifestyles of wealth and privilege – this is, after all, a fair description of life in modern industrial societies from the standpoint of the rest of human experience – can expect a sudden leap to an even more comfortable and convenient life, just because they happen to want it, and would find it a useful way to avoid dealing with the consequences of their own shortsighted choices.

John Michael Greer, The Archdruid Report: Taking Evolution Seriously

When Composting Becomes Essential

John Michael Greer describes how composting will gain status in the ecotechnic future — when fossil fuels are no longer feasible for fertilizing crops. Excerpts below.

Link: The Archdruid Report: A Theology of Compost.

What makes composting such a useful template for an ecotechnic society is precisely that it highlights the ways such a society would have to differ from the way things are done in today’s industrial civilization. Some of the crucial points of difference that come to mind are these:

First, where industrial civilization converts resources into waste, composting converts waste into resources.

Second, where industrial civilization works against natural processes, composting works with them.

Third, where industrial civilization requires complex, delicate, and expensive technologies to function at all, composting – because it relies on natural processes that have evolved over countless millions of years – thrives on a much simpler and sturdier technological basis.

Fourth, where industrial civilization is inherently centralized, and thus can only function on a geographic and political scale large enough to make its infrastructure economically viable, composting is inherently decentralized and can function on any scale from a backyard to a continent.

Fifth, where industrial civilization degrades exactly those factors in its environment that support its existence, composting increases the factors in its environment that support its existence.

Finally, all these factors mean that where industrial civilization is brittle, composting – and future ecotechnic societies modeled on the composting process – are resilient.

From the contrast between the monumental absurdity of industrial society’s linear transformation of resource to waste, on the one hand, and the elegant cycle of resource to resource manifested in the humble compost bin on the other, it’s hard to avoid moving on to challenging questions about the nature of human existence, the shape of history, the meaning of the cycles of life and death, and the relationship of humanity to the source of its existence, however that may be defined. The practicalities of composting can’t be neglected in any sense – nor, of course, should the romantic dimension, when that shows up! – but the insights made available by a philosophy and a theology of compost may yet turn out to be at least as valuable as either.