Monday, July 16, 2012

The Hundredth Post

I started writing this blog a couple of years ago, on a rainy fall afternoon. At the time, the Gulf Oil Spill was still in and out of the headlines, with the well recently having been stopped up at least. There was still quite a lot of news coverage about the effects of the spill, who was responsible, what the lasting environmental damage was, and so on. As of today, the full impact of the spill is not known, but things like increases in the death rates of large marine mammals, mutations are widespread in smaller marine animals, and much of the information related to the environmental impact is still suppressed due to an "ongoing criminal investigation," so the full extent of damage may not be public for a long time, if ever.

Back in October of 2010, the event was still so fresh that these issues were not yet identified on any scale, but it was clear that we were dealing with something unprecedented related to the consequences of our reliance on cheap energy. If an oil well could blow and poison a massive body of water, what other consequences could the addiction to energy produce? Fukushima was still months off, but it seemed clear that the consequences had been identified, at least on some level. Remember, also, that this was two years into the global economic downturn, brought on by an addiction to spending and overconsumption, the need for MORE. In June of 2012, the gulf is still reeling from what was released into it, then dumped into it, Fukushima is still smoldering, real unemployment in America and elsewhere is around 20%, gas has not fallen back down to affordable levels, the stock market is increasingly looking like a minefield, pick something.

In the almost four years since October 2008, the world has not shown signs of recovery. The green shoots dry up and blow away as soon as they emerge, in spite of what optimists says, and another "downturn" is around the corner. These things are not "stumbles" on the road to a brave new epoch, but signs that we have exceeded our grasp as a civilization, both in terms of using them, and understanding them. Humanity has become the equivalent of a child who finds the door of the candy store unlocked and decides to go in and have "just one piece." With half the store eaten up, and a bellyache like no other, it's come time to decide how to proceed.

Is there a plan for dealing with the world, and a way forward to a more sane and sustainable civilization? Clearly, political "leadership" has become playing to the polls and trying to catch up with what people want to hear -- the expression "The American Way of Life is Not Negotiable" tells you all you need to hear about the attitude toward "American Exceptionalism." It's a grand, fine-sounding "line in the sand" type of expression, but falls short of physical reality.

The human imagination is both our greatest friend and worst foe. We can imagine wonderful things like travel to other stars, thinking computers, and worlds of fantasy. In the past, we've been able to implement some of these dreams, too, such as the airplane, the telephone, and so on. However, it's also our worst enemy in many ways. We become so focused on the "possible," that we ignore the "practical" and the "realistic."

Right now, we still have the ability, as a civilization, to begin examining our models and deciding what the best course to take is. There is still enough in the way of resources, wealth, and energy to begin promoting alternative ways of doing things. Rail, an end to widespread automobile use, turning grass into gardens, an end to consumerism and overspending. It's not a question of whether or not we need to make adjustments, but whether or not we will choose them or be forced into them. In this, civilization is not unlike a boat at sea with a storm coming -- we can choose our own harbor while there's still time, or get smashed against the rocks from forces we cannot control.

Unfortunately, like political leaders who adopt a "No Compromise" position on the consumer-driven lifestyle on campaign stumps, our society, from businesses, civic organizations, institutions of higher learning, religious organizations, down to individuals has also preferred to ignore reality and continue doing things as they have. After all, there is no such thing as Peak Oil, our oil-industry connected scientists tell us. Our bankers say there is no problem with the economy and not to worry. Our priests and preachers tell us "God will provide." All is well, don't worry.

For people who have taken the time to study the issue, and listen to the voices crying in the desert in the past such as Thomas Malthus and M. King Hubbert, who have examined the science and numbers, and even lies and distortions, for themselves, the picture is sobering, if not bleak. We have overshot our planet's carrying capacity for people by a factor of thirty or more, based on the use of fossil fuels to create massive short-term surpluses of artificial labor and resource utilization.

Think about that for a moment, and take a look around you. Count out thirty people. Pick one of them. The earth only has enough capacity for that one person, without the application of cheap energy to act as a surrogate "slave." This is less than the population of America, much less the world. It is a sobering exercise, but one we have ignored to the peril of our species and human civilization.

We are still collectively toward the cliff, but individually, we have begun to wake up, here and there. The critical model of mass consumption is not going to be untied and discarded on a mass scale, but we can begin to understand where we are headed and what our seat on that "bus" is going to be. Do we join in with the mass of people who are like bipedal locusts, congratulating themselves on their latest purchase? Or do we take a measured approach to life, live with low-impact, and prepare for when the "black swans" take to wing en masse?

The Leibowitz Society has gone through a couple of iterations since I originally defined it. In the beginning, I had looked at it as being a stuctured sort of thing, combining both a running analysis of our descent into a new Dark Age, with efforts to collect and store as much relevant knowledge as possible. Allied with these goals was the idea of trying to raise some level of awareness as to where we are, and what can be done about it, if anything, including defining how society may reorganize itself and what we can do as responsible people to make things better locally, even as they get worse globally.

Discussing the events leading to the Dark Age quickly moved the other considerations to the back burner, and I suppose it's a natural reaction. When Rome fell, there was a Dark Age on three continents (the Byzantine Empire survived, of course, but often felt "under siege" through most of its existence), as the mechanisms which had built daily life up to a high level fell apart. Now, America is stumbling and the coming Dark Age, brought on by resource scarcity, environmental failure, and economic mismanagement, is going to cover the entire globe. It will unfortunately be a collapse of unprecedented proportions, where the conditions on the other side of the globe will be no difference from what they are down the weed-dotted and decaying street. Like a train wreck, we can't look away from this.

However, the study of our near future is at some point going to become the study of our past, and it's the far future which will take precedence. As responsible people, we understand where the world is headed. We also know that this understanding doesn't lead to a comfortable complacency. We will all likely only live to see the early manifestations of the new Dark Age -- wars, riots, starvation, looting -- but our children and grandchildren will be there to see the dust settle and try to make sense of it all. They will have questions and will need answers. How did they get to where they're at? How to go forward? And what to go forward with?

One of the most sobering ancedotes I have ever read concerned a village in the south of France, not long after Rome collapsed. It had been an agricultural area, and it doesn't take much to imagine how many people it supported. Within a generation or two, human remains showed signs of starvation or even death by starvation, as the knowledge of high-intensity farming was quickly forgotten. And, this was just one village in one area. How many places like this existed, but were not known about in remains of Rome? This was not in a time and place where the science of agriculture depended on high technology to make it work, but on remembering procedures that had been discovered and modified over several generations. Even if we take slave labor out of the picture, figure that people would shift priority to food production away from whatever other pursuits they had.

If you take modern America, where even fewer people are connected to food production -- maybe three percent at most -- and most of them are involved in the "high energy input" tye of farming, are we going to fare much better when the cash runs out and the cupboard is bare? And what about other things, like medicine, governing ourselves, maintaining our structures, and so on?

We can save books on things that interest us, and it's a start, but we also need to think in broader terms. If we accept that information is DNA, then knowledge is an organism built from it. Do we really know what the books mean? And how to use them? Are we missing areas of knowledge that would be vital? Would we have any way to pass this on to another person or people? Or form a community of learning?

This was the original intention of the Leibowitz Society and where I want it to go toward again. This doesn't mean we can't talk about the path we're headed down, only that we need to think clearly about what we do once we get there. And it's likely that none of us will survive to see the "hard landing" when it finally happens. Rome's collapse took several generations. We started ours in 2008 and have not managed to reverse course, although we limp along, meaning our children or grandchildren will be the ones to see "lights out," more likely.

I don't see all this as being pessimistic, no more than someone who looks up at a darkening sky and says it's going to rain is being a pessimist. We're gifted with reason and foresight and would be fools not to use them. We can make a difference in our futures, and the futures of people yet to come, by taking steps now to preserve thousands of years of wisdom and knowledge, and having a plan to pass it on. The problems we face now are not going to go away, but only get worse, and it's up to us to light the future.


  1. Congrats at 100 - the Zone will hit 2000 posts sometime in early August. Existence, my RPG to define local food production and community skills is posted and 'frozen in time'. It has a nice story behind it, that i will tell once it doesn't hurt so much. One quantum jumps away from the zone - click there.

    The future will be exactly what we make it. Our mind-set determines what we do - attitude governs altitude. Do we really wish to protect this system that failed or can we move on to something new? The model says no - if you don't die with the most toys, you lose. But what if we cannot die?

    I am going to take the zone adrift - away from the world of 'bamamit' delusion and into the mines. As doc - a character from hi-ho, o-hi-o - we have a working model of a mining job that disappeared. Snow W. is the property caretaker, but she's busy watching the Kardashians and complaining about this JHK dude using bad naughty words. Little do they know how fractured the fairy tale can get.

    I am working on a new game - different from the old game. Problem is, ground is not the floor. How do we unlearn concepts that have been reenforce by everything we have 'watched' since Jack Benny defined - Well (sigh). I miss Groucho's duck - but that was b4 my time.

    So checking howdt is important and this dude lemme has more poems about how bad it really got - spinning down a fibonacci spiral and coming out at negative two. Happens when you lose your tether.

    Doc's mother-lode will be a new education system, based on entertainment and apprenticeship. We can 'team' up in the cooperative competition to survive - but remember - it is all self fulfilling prophesy and we reap what we sow.

    Glad that you are here on Mondays - JHK world is an early fractal and i stopped working on Occupy 8.0 to go deeper. Consider Project Restoration, come choose a clan. I believe in things that others cannot see, or hear, but can sense and feel, when the doors are unlocked.

    Have a key .. the Leibo-quest has begun. Gratis - because the economic model still needs work and i know you can help me, a mutual exchange. After all, we now live in a Higgs boson world - thyme for quantum thinking because lemme's avatar got howdt.

    and always - bee well, it helps to make your own honey. as HST once said - when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.

    1. Funny how we ascribe importance to numbers that are completely arbitrary. We probably lose 100 or 2000 skill cells typing up a good reply. 100 or 2000 galaxies would be a real mess of matter.

      There is an argument to be said for not trying to recycle old ideas at some point, and letting new ones develop. However, we verge into a discussion about the validity Platonic realism at some point.

      Do we discover the same ideas over and over as they are a reflection of some "higher" ideal? Or is the existence of an idea a mutation in thought which is not necessarily guaranteed to exist again? Someone would point out that the notion of something so stupid as "humors" in the body would necessarily fall by the wayside at some point, but this would be contingent on the application of scientific research. Is the scientific method itself guaranteed to "re-develop?" It is already perilously endangered in modern American culture (the high number of people who still fall victim to the "gambler's fallacy" for example).

      Or, optionally, think of the emergence of Newton and Leibniz. Would we see two men such as these emerge from the dust of our modern civilization, or were they the expression of quantum tunneling as applied to the human intellect?

      I see, at this point, the understanding of people that we do not have a clear path out, wherever we go. The modern world is an unbalanced equation by most standards, regardless of what your take on it is. It is a question then, of whether or we are wearing a life vest, or building an ark, before the deluge hits. Most people will be trying to sit on top of their car as the waters rise.

      Cooperation in this sense seems to be a buffet. There is a wide variety to appeal to different people. I think my particular taste runs toward not paying any more attention to the spectacle than I have to, and thinking about what can be done to fix the future.

    2. Regarding the life cycle of ideas, I think it is important to have a record of past ideas, to know what worked, what didn't, and what is truly new. I think no matter what is lost, the scientific method is so valuable that the kind of brain that figured out how to make fire would rediscover it again. (I'm not so confident that would apply were we to become extinct.) Scientism, the faith we have in the results of science, may conversely be entirely unique to our age.

      I think a good example of this is the steam engine. Hero of Alexandria invented this over 2000 years ago, but at the time, it was basically considered a toy. When Watt rediscovered how to convert heat into motion, society was ready to wholeheartedly embrace the machine.

      I agree with your particular taste, we need to focus on what we want for the future, only giving as much attention to the current problems as needed to avoid the hazards.

    3. Scientism is just religion for atheists, as far as I can tell. We're driven to always look for a great existence than ourselves, so we find it either in God or in a collectivization of our own accomplishments. That said, I have always been keenly interested in little-s science and find it sad that we ignore it in favor of celebrities and athletes who contribute absolutely nothing to our civilization. 50 million dollars to throw a ball around is just absurd and a clear sign we've lost our way.

      It's an easy trap to fall into, discussing the present. However, the very fact that we do so in the way we do -- with little optimism about it -- means that we're already setting one foot down the road on trying to adjust to the future.

  2. Thanks for the blog. I agree with the goal of trying to salvage something during the collapse, but like yourself and Dmitri Orlov I've become more pessimistic as I see more of the strategy of the elites for the transition.

    I'm reading, and I recommend, the Romance of the Three Kingdoms in translation, and I think our situation is more similar to the numerous collapses of Chinese dynasties than of the Roman Empire. For one thing, the Roman elites actually "managed" their collapse better than the the norm, I think the perspective of English speakers is distorted by the fact that the collapse was worst in Britain. Second, ancient China really was a world unto itself, more so than Europe and the Mediterranean, so when the Han and later Jin went down the whole world went down. With the other end of Eurasia, Europe and the Middle East were related but followed differently timed rhythms of rise and fall.

    1. There's a strategy for transition?? The thing that is missed by some people is that they expect Peak Oil and a new Dark Age to be a "leveling" type of event. We hit a reset, everything goes back to The Arcadian or Pastoral state. The notion that anyone would want to hang on to their empires doesn't seem to cross minds.

      The difference between the past and the future seems to lie in the architecture of each. Whatever happened in the rise and fall of past states, *generally* (I want to emphasize that several times) there were enough resources and carrying capacity to prevent things from getting completely out of hand. I'm not really sure what can be maintained at any point down the road, and what is seen as not being absolutely vital to survival runs the risk of being cannibalized (books come to mind, to not even address the end of digital storage media). Good point, though, about Britain.

      I will have to read the Romance of the Three Kingdoms at some point. The contrast between East and West in terms of accepting a loss of competent leadership is a striking contrast. We do not have it in our collective psyche to assume that at some point, our civilization will lose its way and collapse.

    2. The strategy for transition, as far as I can tell, is to for the elites to plunder both the advanced and developing economies as much as possible, and then to relocate to another planet that still has an abundant supply of fossil fuels.

      I'm just kidding about the "relocate to another planet" part. But we do seem to be seeing a replay of the behavior of the Soviet elites in the 1990s, now on a global scale. To the extent this is thought out, the idea seems to be to protect the living standards of those who had it best in the late twentieth century, regardless of the effect of the majority of the world's population or future generations. And I don't see how this will wind up doing otherwise then speed up all sorts of bad trends and make them last longer.

    3. I'm reminded of an episode of the New Twilight Zone set in a post-apocalyptic future where everyone lives in a new Eden of sorts. However, there's one problem -- a spacecraft full of world "leaders" in suspended animation was launched into orbit just before the apocalypse and is now coming back.

      I think part of the issue we have now is that we, as a species, are not accustomed to understanding or appreciating any kind of limit on our consumption or desire to "increase." People at a buffet, eating 4000 calories at a sitting, are substantively no different from George Soros or someone else making a few more billion just because they can. Capitalists often make the mistake of always conflating wealth with innovation, expansion, or growth, and don't realize it is also sometimes just consumption, but on a scale we can't really imagine.

      The irony with "living standards" is that people really don't find much satisfaction with their lives in the end. I guess part of it is due to the continual bombardment of the corporate "meme machine," that has spent uncountable sums trying to convince people to buy their crap. But, the funny thing is, the people who live the simplest by choice often seem to be the happiest.

  3. I've been trying to do something similar with my Gaianomicon page. Of course, once the Internet or electrical grid goes down, it won't be much help. Do you have a static page that's similar, or just the blog posts?

    Quite frankly, I'd say we're already several generations into the decline of modern civilization.

    1. I have a static site - Existence that was a role playing game that morphed into a book. There are many buried treasures and the material is linked to both my blog and my journals.

      I lost interest in Existence because of a number of issues that had nothing to do with the game at all. I thought we had a group to play by life and everybody else seemed to have their own agenda and were humoring me. I found a game that played the same way run by somebody else = Project Restoration. I have a quest.

      Bee Well, my friend(s)

    2. John,

      I actually don't maintain a static page for the Leibowitz Society. I've thought of putting up a forum once the discussions and exchange of information hit a critical mass. AFAIK, nothing really took the place of LATOC, and it would be nice to see a replacement for it (even though some people became "fanboy doomers" there).

      The issue of converting digital to physical media was one I raised early on, and it really applies even to physical media. We have a two-part problem when it comes to information storage -- we have to make sure the physical media can hold up, but that it can also be interpreted and doesn't become as cryptic as the heiroglyphics (although, I suppose the necessity for a Rosetta State in the age of code-breaking supercomputers is up for debate). This is largely why I settled on the idea of the "Codex Universalis" a while back. In other words, everything people down the road would need to know. In a lot of ways, it's the 80 for the 20 -- we think of what we have as core ideas of daily life and the big ideas behind them as being too numerous to count, but they're relatively simple, but often non-obvious. Germ theory is a classic example -- the simple act of handwashing by doctors was enough to drastically cut infection when it was introduced, and the knowledge that micro-organisms can cause disease was a huge leap over bloodletting and all that medieval medical nonsense.

      Of course, half the battle is defining what we really need to carry forward and what can be discarded. Clearly, celebrity news can be ignored. :)

    3. Unfortunately I missed out on LATOC; was it anything like

      The Long Now Foundation has one solution called the Rosetta Disc; it uses CD making techniques to create a visible image with the same passages in multiple languages.

      I think to a large extent we will carry forward what we think most critical. The rest will fall by the wayside. Heck, I think there is even a small space for celebrities as tragic heroes. Maybe in a thousand years Michael Jackson will stand where Oedipus Rex is today.

    4. The two forums look similar. One thing I didn't care for among these is that they tend to favor Peak Oil orthodoxy over other considerations. In other words, if a person doubts Peak Oil, then they're suspect in anything else they say. To me, Peak Oil is an important factor, but not necessarily the only thing that can sink our industrial civilization.

      The Long Now's approach is interesting. My thinking has always been how to use a purely physical approach, as opposed to a digital approach. My phone, for example, has enough storage space to accomodate basically every important work the human race has produced, as well as quite a few technical volumes. What good will it be without a charge? Or in a few years when the battery goes kaput? Etc. I think it is imperative that we keep our information available and reproducible without any electronic, or even mechanical, need.

      At this point, I think that deciding what to carry forward is most important, and trying to sort that out is part of the problem.

      BTW, it looks like LATOC was sold and will be going up soon under new management. Matt Savinar abandoned it to take up horoscopes.

  4. The only thing that could possibly preserve something resembling an advanced human civilization would be a tremendous decline in birth rates. The birth rate would need to reach a point where natural childbirth would virtually be a lottery system. I'm betting that won't happen due to our extreme pro natalist culture. Promoting unborn babies above all else dooms us as surly as the Norsemen of Greenland were doomed by their ideology. They had a taboo against eating fish in spite of being surrounded by some of the richest fisheries in the world. We have a taboo against abortions and birth control in spite of abortions and pills being safer than commercial fishing!

    So, we have collectively decided to fail. I say enjoy modern life while you can. Be comforted in the fact that our many modern bodies will make interesting fossils. Some of our parts may someday be examined by more primitive ape like creatures who may collect shiny ipod glass like we once tried finding Native American arrow heads.

    1. Exploding birth rates is going to run up against economic reality at some point. It's getting very expensive to have children (of course, no one notices that this is largely due to increasingly scarce resources). The species is collectively programmed to protect infants, to ensure the survival of the species, and I suppose extending that protection to the unborn is an extention of that as well. I don't have an issue with birth control, though abortion has always made me squeamish (at best) due to the surrounding ethical issues, so I tend to see it as fitting in the same camp as forced euthanasia, etc. However, overrunning birth rates will probably cease to be an issue at some point anyway, as we lose access to modern medicine, etc, and infant mortality begins to rise sharply.

      I don't take a pessimistic/nihilistic approach to the future overall, though. People are still going to exist, and we aren't necessarily dooming our species in the next generation or two. The question is how far we fall when we do, and what can we do to build an ark of knowledge for people who have just landed at the bottom. Obviously, altruism clashes with self-interest, so I guess it's not a position that is attractive to everyone, but I tend to think of true survival as being a holistic thing, not a singular one.