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The Negative-Sum Economy

The Negative-Sum Economy

There are tides and seasons in the comments I field for posts here on my blog, certain questions that get asked at regular intervals, certain saliva-flecked tirades I can count on getting whenever  certain things appear in my writings or happen in the world.  One of the more frequent of the questions is how to preserve wealth in the face of a difficult future.  This question pops up reliably when an economic crisis is on its way, as it happens, and I’ve started fielding it again in recent weeks; my readers may want to brace themselves.

Like so many of the common questions here, it’s an important question, and it has no simple answer. The combination of those features isn’t accidental. It’s an important question because it can’t be answered in any meaningful way without grappling with what wealth actually is, and it’s because wealth is not what most people think it is that the question has no simple answer.

We can start our exploration  with a lump of stone and metal  whizzing through the lethal radiation-soaked vacuum of interplanetary space between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.  Its name is Psyche, and it’s about the size of Greece.  It’s been splashed over the news in recent years because it’s got more metal in it than most other asteroids, and scientists have speculated that the metallic portions of Psyche might include a great deal of gold. Of course the mass media jumped on that instantly and started insisting that if only it could be dragged into our part of the solar system it would make everyone on Earth a billionaire.

 

 

 

 

 

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A Prayer for Nonbelievers

A Prayer for Nonbelievers

I was ten years old when The Limits to Growth first saw print.  I have a dim memory of seeing a  newspaper article or two about it, but I had other things on my mind in 1972—my parents got divorced that year, and an already difficult childhood promptly got much worse—and several years passed before I found time to read it.  Its portrayal of a future of hard limits made immediate sense to me.  Somehow I never managed to absorb the widespread American conviction that there will always be more so long as you whine for it loudly enough, and so the book became one of the volumes that shaped my youthful sense of where the future was headed.

In the 1970s you could talk about such things. The public library in Burien, Washington where I got most of my reading fodder then was well stocked with books on energy and the environment. If I couldn’t find what I wanted there I could catch the Route 130 bus to the downtown branch of the Seattle Public Library, not yet replaced by the monument to architectural incompetence that now squats on its site, and bring home a double armload of volumes on similar topics. By that time, too, I had read enough to follow the logic of The Limits to Growth in detail.

It was not, as the corporate media insisted it was, a prophecy of doom.  That’s one of the details that got swept under the rug by the mainstream back in the 1970s and still gets swept under the rug by the project’s critics today.  The point of The Limits to Growth was that we as a species, and as a community of nations, had a choice…

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Potemkin Nation

Potemkin Nation

There are advantages to learning about history. One of the big ones is that patterns repeat themselves across historical time, and if you know what happened just before other societies went through the important inflection points in their life cycle, you can tolerably often figure out when one of those is about to happen in the place and time where you happen to be living. I was reminded of this last week when news dispatches from Afghanistan started showing up in the news aggregator sites I watch.

Afghanistan, in case any of my readers spent the last twenty years living under a rock, was invaded and mostly conquered by the United States in late 2001. Officially, this was in retaliation for the terrorist attacks that year; in the world of unmentionable facts, it was one of two beachheads established as part of the Bush II administration’s monumentally stupid attempt to conquer and pacify the Middle East—the other was of course Iraq.  A puppet Afghani government was duly installed and propped up by a steadily increasing expenditure of American dollars, munitions, and lives, while the US military went through the usual pantomime of nation-building and the corporate media took turns alternating between fawning over the latest imperial project and pretending to disapprove of it.

By 2016, however, the great majority of Americans were sick of this and other “forever wars” pursued by our elite classes.  Revulsion against Hillary Clinton’s enthusiastic cheerleading for a new war in Syria was thus one of the factors that gave Donald Trump his narrow win in that year’s election. I predicted in early 2021, once it became clear that Joe Biden had scraped out an equally narrow win in the 2020 election, that his administration would quietly copy as many of Trump’s policies as Biden’s handlers thought they could get away with…

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The Future is a Landscape

The Future is a Landscape

I’ve been reflecting of late about the way that our habitual expectations about change blind us to the way that change actually happens. One of the most important of these is the frankly weird but pervasive notion that the future is a single place, where only one kind of thing happens. It’s always “The Future,” very much in the singular.  To most people these days, of course, “The Future” is either progress as usual or it’s instant apocalypse, and I’ve discussed that before, but let’s look at the broader pattern for a moment.

In both of these cases and far too many others as well, the future is all the same, and it’s all the same forever. It’s never one kind of future here and a different kind there, or a glossy Tomorrowland here and something more realistic there, or apocalypse here and everywhere else people just pick themselves up and get on with their lives. Nor is the society of the future generally allowed to peak and decline, as societies do in the real world, nor will the big loud catastrophe fade into memory and leave the survivors to go on to do other things, as disasters do in the real world. Missing here is the crucial realization that history doesn’t stop with us, and change will continue to unfold into the far future the way it has all through the past.

Another conversation along these lines is more than usually timely, because that durable 1972 study The Limits to Growth is back in the news again. There’s good reason for that, of course. The Limits to Growth showed that economic growth on a planetary scale is subject to the law of diminishing returns; pursue growth far enough, and the costs of growth rise faster than the benefits and eventually force growth itself to its knees…

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A Sense of Déjà Vu

A Sense of Déjà Vu

Déjà vu—the sudden insistent feeling that you’ve encountered the present moment before—can be one of the oddest of human experiences. Sometimes, though, it happens for perfectly prosaic reasons. Right now, as I look at headlines and certain other indicators, I’m having a very strong case of déjà vu for reasons that require only the simplest explanation.  Sometimes, after all, you really have been there before.

Twenty years ago, for example, I could look back at the energy crises of the 1970s and see a certain pattern unfolding with great clarity.  I’ll summarize the pattern for those of my readers who weren’t born yet at that time. All through the 1950s and 1960s, a handful of people had been warning that petroleum is a finite resource and that the breakneck extraction of petroleum at ever-rising rates was sooner or later going to slam face first into hard limits.  They were of course dismissed as cranks by all right-thinking people.  They were also correct.

A stark reality.

In 1973, declining production from US oilfields combined with political instability in the Middle East to slap the United States with a sudden shortfall in petroleum. The government and the Fed responded clumsily, expanding the money supply, which drove up prices, not only for petroleum products but for everything that was made and shipped using petroleum—that is to say, pretty much everything bought and sold in the country. The result was stagflation.  Meanwhile renewable-energy advocates convinced themselves that their time had come, and rushed a great many poorly conceived products to market, while the apocalypse lobby—those people who are constantly on the lookout for reasons to insist that everything is about to crash to ruin and we’re all going to die in the next few years—embraced the oil crisis as their cause du jour.

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The Great Leap Backward

The Great Leap Backward

If you happen to read the edgier end of the internet these days, you’ve probably seen talk about something called the Great Reset.  I’ve been asked several times already what I think of it, and since the shape of the industrial world’s future is a longtime interest of mine, I was quite willing to discuss the matter.  If you haven’t encountered it yet, this bit of fiction by Danish politician Ida Auken is the best starting point. The original title (it’s now been changed due to the public backlash) sums up the intended theme quite well:  “Welcome to 2030. I own nothing, I have no privacy, and life has never been better.”

Ida Auken

With a title like that, it’s pretty clear that Auken thinks of her imagined future as a wonderful place. Mind you, she insists that this isn’t so, that she’s just trying to spark debate, but if I may be frank, I don’t believe her.  The stickily enthusiastic gosh-it’s-grand tone of the piece belies her claim, to say nothing of the fact that her essay is being splashed all over the internet as a template for the future by no less important an organ of the corporate status quo than the World Economic Forum, and greeted with approving noises by the establishment’s current collection of tame intellectuals. Make no mistake, this is the future that the movers and shakers of our contemporary corporate aristocracy are dreaming of just now.

In Auken’s imaginary 2030, she owns nothing, because any time she wants something, she just has to order it online and a drone delivers it to her promptly. She doesn’t even own her own underwear…

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The Arc Of Our Future

The Arc Of Our Future

In last week’s open post, I noted that I didn’t have anything in particular planned for this fifth Wednesday of the month, and asked my readers what they wanted to hear about. Quite a few subjects got brought up for discussion—among others, the novels of Hermann Hesse, Carl Jung’s concept of synchronicity, and the metaphysics of sex—but the largest number of readers asked for something less abstract.

During more than half of the fourteen years plus that I’ve been blogging weekly, the main focus of my essays was the future of industrial society, and in particular the slow-motion train wreck set in motion by our society’s frankly brainless attempt to pursue infinite economic growth on a finite planet. More recently, and especially from 2015 on, my focus has been elsewhere, but the issues I raised in those days haven’t gone away—the political convulsions of the last few years have simply distracted attention from them. Many of my readers are aware of this, and what they asked for was an update on the ongoing historical process I’ve called the Long Descent.

Since some of my current readers weren’t yet reading me when I last discussed these issues, I’ll start with some general points and go from there. One of the great mental blind spots of our society is the notion that there are only two possible futures: on the one hand, business as usual stretching endlessly into the future, with a side order of technological progress dished up at intervals; on the other, sudden apocalyptic mass death, with or without a small band of plucky survivors sitting around a campfire as the final credits roll. An astonishing number of people these days literally won’t let themselves think about any other possible future, and will either change the subject or get furiously angry at you if you should be so bold as to suggest one.

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The Long View

The Long View

For more than three years now, the themes of these online essays of mine—here, and in my previous blog The Archdruid Report—have had a relatively tight focus on the events of the present day. That hasn’t been accidental by any means. In 2016, strains that had been building for years within Western industrial civilization burst out into the open, upsetting a great many political and cultural applecarts and standing the conventional wisdom on its head. I trust I don’t have to whisper the words “Brexit” and “Trump” to make my point.

None of that was a surprise to those who understand that history is a circle and not a straight line, that civilizations have a life cycle and similar events occur at corresponding points along the great arc of rise and fall. Oswald Spengler, for one, wrote about the events splashed across recent headlines more than a century ago in the pages of The Decline of the West. He noted with dry Teutonic amusement how democracy turns into plutocracy as soon as the well-to-do learn to use money to manipulate the political system, how this leads to the rise of clueless elites too busy lining their pockets to notice what the policies that enrich them are doing to the rest of society, and how ambitious men—as often as not from within the plutocratic class—realize they can rise to power by championing the cause of the deplorables of their time.

Spengler called the charismatic populism that results from this process Caesarism, after one of the more memorable examples of the species. (It’s a running joke here on Ecosophia to refer to our current American example as the Orange Julius.)  The conflict between institutionalized plutocracy and insurgent Caesarism, Spengler showed, is an inescapable historical event once a society finishes its millennium or so of growth and settles into its mature form. 

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The Flight from Nature

The Flight from Nature

A couple of weeks ago one of my readers pointed me to an op-ed piece on climate change by Canadian journalist David Moscrop, titled “It’s time for climate change defeatists to get out of the way.” If you’ve watched the slow-motion train wreck of climate change activism for more than a year or two, you already know Moscrop’s song well enough to sing it in the shower, but I think the attitudes enshrined (or, better, embalmed) in this piece and its many equivalents are worth another look.  There’s something moving down below the surface of the rhetoric; follow where it leads, and you come close to one of the deep roots of our present predicament.

Moscrop’s essay contains all the usual ingredients, and all the usual omissions, of a good standard tub-thumping climate change diatribe. He starts out sounding like a Puritan preacher—sinners in the hands of an angry Gaia!—but shifts almost at once to talking about feelings: his feelings, of course, and those of the people who agree with him. They’re anxious, he tells us. They’re grieving. They’re depressed. They’re despondent. And of course it’s all the fault of those horrible people over there, those “cowards or selfish monsters or wretched social liabilities willfully closed off to the reality of imminent doom,” who are deliberately keeping climate change activists from saving the world.

Then, of course, comes the call to arms—to “ignore, marginalize, and defeat” those horrible people over there. “That means protests,” he tells us. “That means lawsuits. That means trying to convince deniers or holdouts with our reasons. That means shouting them down at town halls if giving reasons fails.” It means, to be precise, exactly those things that climate change activists have been doing over and over again for the last twenty years, with a noticeable lack of success.

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America and Russia: Tamanous and Sobornost

America and Russia: Tamanous and Sobornost

In the first two essays in this sequence, I sketched out the framework of Oswald Spengler’s vision of the process by which great cultures rise, work through their possibilities, and fossilize once those possibilities have been pushed as far as they can go. That vision of history pretty reliably generates a profound unease among people raised in Western industrial societies, for those societies—the heirs of what Spengler named Faustian culture, the great culture that emerged in western and central Europe starting around the year 1000, and holds temporary dominion over the globe—prefer to see history in a different and far more simplistic way.

In the Faustian worldview, it’s inconceivable that the world’s cultures each have their own possibilities, their own values and insights and ways of understanding the world, which cannot be reduced to any single trajectory. In the Faustian worldview, there is only one range of possibilities open to human beings, the one set out by Faustian culture; all other cultures can be seen only as inadequate attempts to attain the Faustian model. There can be no different but equally valid sets of values and insights and ways of understanding the world; there is simply the Faustian way, which is self-evidently true, and every other way, which is superstitious, benighted, and obviously wrong. (Watch today’s ideologically correct literary critics denouncing the writers of past generations for not sharing the values of today’s elite Western culture, and you can see this sort of giddily self-centered thinking in full and inglorious flower.)

In exactly the same way, it’s unthinkable to the Faustian mind that history might consist of a sequence of different trajectories of rise and fall.

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America and Russia, Part Two: The Far Side of Progress

America and Russia, Part Two: The Far Side of Progress

Two weeks ago, in the first part of this sequence of posts, we explored the way that Oswald Spengler’s insights into the cycles of history can be used not only to make sense of the past, but also to get some idea of the shape of the future ahead of us. That’s explosive stuff, because the future thus revealed isn’t the one demanded by the cultural obsessions of the present day.

Every great culture, to use Spengler’s phrase, has its own vision of what the future ought to be like. In Apollonian culture—the great culture of the ancient Mediterranean basin, which hit its cultural stride in classical Greece and metastasized beneath the eagles of Rome—the future everyone expected was the present endlessly prolonged. The vision of time and change that guided Apollonian culture in the centuries of its maturity had three phases: first, things were in chaos, then a mighty power arose to set things in order, and that order endured forever.  In religious terms, the mighty power was the god Jupiter taming the Titans with his thunderbolts; in political terms, the mighty power was the Roman Empire bringing the warring kingdoms of the world under its sway; the same logic applied to classical philosophy, which sought to teach the rational mind how to reduce the chaos of the self into an enduring order, and so on.

In Magian culture—the great culture that emerged in the Middle East as Apollonian culture peaked and began to fade, hit its cultural stride during the Abbasid caliphate and metastasized under the Ottoman Empire—this vision found few takers once the Apollonian pseudomorphosis faded out. The Magian vision of time and change, rather, is the one familiar to most of my readers through its reflection in Christian theology.

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America and Russia, Part One: Stirrings in the Borderlands

America and Russia, Part One: Stirrings in the Borderlands

To my mind, one of the main sources of collective stupidity in modern American society is our pervasive bad habit of short-term thinking. It’s embarrassingly rare for anyone in American public life to stop and say aloud, “Hold it. What’s going to happen if we keep on doing this for more than a few more years?”  Now of course one of the reasons so few people do this is that those who do get shouted down as impractical dreamers, and the mere fact that the so-called dreamers are so often right, and the practical men of affairs who dismiss them are so often wrong, somehow never inspires the least willingness to rethink the matter.

This has been on my mind more than usual of late, as the price of oil ratchets slowly upwards. It’s risen over the last few years from its post-2009 lows to a point at which it’s beginning to strain the economies of third world nations. It’ll strain the economies of major industrial nations, too, because it’s repeating the same cycle that drove the drastic price spikes of 1973 and 2008.

Those of my readers who have been paying attention know this song well enough to sing all the verses in the shower. Petroleum is a finite, nonrenewable, and irreplaceable resource, and we’re burning it at a rate of some 93 million barrels every single day. (The next time the media yells about how some new oil field has been discovered with umpty-ump billion barrels of oil in it, divide that by 93 million and see how far it goes.)  With each passing year, the hunt for new oil reserves to replace those that have already been exhausted turns up less and less—at this point, annual discoveries are around 11% of annual consumption.

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The Taste of Another’s Thoughts

The Taste of Another’s Thoughts

We’ve taken a somewhat rambling route in our discussion of how each of us can haul ourselves up out of the swamp of abstractions in which modern industrial society is sinking fast, and find our way to the solid ground of things that actually matter. I know some of my readers have been baffled or irritated by the vagaries of that route, but that can’t be helped. Our sense of where to look for straightforward solutions is exactly what’s led us into this swamp; raised in an era of abstraction, we instinctively try to solve problems caused by too much abstraction by piling on more abstraction, or swapping out one set of abstractions for their opposites.

As Einstein pointed out, you can’t solve a problem by using more of the thinking that created it. What’s more, the solutions to really intransigent problems usually have to be found by asking questions about the most basic assumptions that undergird the thinking that created them. One of Einstein’s odder contemporaries, the irrepressible Charles Fort, put it this way: “It is by thinking things that schoolboys know better than to think that discoveries are made.”

For most of two thousand years, to cite a useful example, astronomers across the western half of Eurasia had tried to make sense of the motions of the planets under the assumption that the sun, moon, and planets moved in circles. The result, as observations piled up, was a vast creaking mechanism of epicycles, eccentrics, and equants—geometrical gimmicks intended to force circles into copying the simple and elegant motions of the heavens. It took a mystical astrologer named Johannes Kepler, who’d brooded over Renaissance sacred geometry for decades, to see through the clutter, realize that the planets moved in ellipses rather than circles, and send the whole lumbering mass of fudge factors into history’s compost heap.

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Returning to the Commonplace

Returning to the Commonplace

There are times when the twilight of the American century takes on a quality of surreal absurdity I can only compare to French existentialist theater or the better productions of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and this is one of them. Over the weekend, in response to a chemical-weapons incident in Syria that may or may not have happened—governments on all sides are making strident claims, but nobody’s offering evidence either way—US, British, and French military units launched more than a hundred state-of-the-art cruise missiles at three Syrian targets that may or may not have had anything to do with chemical weapons, damaging a few buildings and inflicting injuries on three people.

James Howard Kunstler, in a recent and appropriately blistering essay, termed this “kabuki warfare.”  It’s an apt term, though I confess the situation makes me think rather more of John Cleese and the Ministry of Silly (Bombing) Runs, or perhaps a play by Camus in which Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin sit around talking while they wait for the endlessly delayed arrival of an American cruise missile named Godot. What, exactly, was accomplished by Donald Trump’s red-faced bluster, the heavily rehearsed outrage and cringing subservience of our European lapdogs-cum-allies, and all those colorful photo ops of missiles blasting off?

To be sure, there’s nothing even remotely new about the latest skit from this transatlantic flying circus. For most of a decade now the US military has been carrying out a similar sort of warfare against jihadi militias in Syria and Iraq, pretending to fight Islamic State in much the same way a mime pretends to be trapped in a phone booth—a habit pointed up by the way that the Russian military, which has a less ineffectual notion of warfare, pushed Islamic State into prompt collapse by having their cruise missiles and bombs actually hit something.

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The Twilight of Authority

The Twilight of Authority

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the need for a rhetorical education—that is, an education that doesn’t presume to lay down the law about what’s true and what’s false, but instead teaches each individual how to understand and assess claims about truth and falsehood. That’s a concept many people find challenging these days. We live in the last phases in an era of abstraction, and the notion of truth in most people’s minds these days follows suit:  when people talk about truth, they generally mean some set of generalizations dunned into their heads that are supposedly always true in the abstract, even though they may not work all the time (or at all) in the irreducibly grubby and complex world we actually inhabit.

Think about the things that the people around you consider to be truths. (I’d ask you to think about the things that you consider to be truths, but as that guy from Nazareth noted, it’s usually a lot easier to spot the mote in your brother’s eye than the beam in your own.)  Unless you run with an unusually philosophically literate crowd, most of these supposed truths can be expressed neatly in sentences of the form “all X are Y”: “all white people are racists,” “all people on welfare are lazy,” and so on. That’s the kind of abstract generalization I’m talking about.

People get very defensive about their favorite abstract generalizations. If you question the logic behind them, you can expect to be told that you’re ignorant, and quite probably that you’re evil as well.  For that matter, if you encounter realities that don’t fit the generalization and have the bad taste to mention that in public, you can expect to be told that the plural of anecdote isn’t data. Now this may be so in an abstract sense, but the plural of anecdote is also one of the very few ways you can find out that the abstract generalizations you’ve constructed out of your data are hopelessly out of touch with the real world.

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Olduvai IV: Courage
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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