Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The God With Three Heads

It's been said that a man’s religion is the thing he can’t bear to have questioned. If there’s any truth in that old saying, the idea that faith in progress is a religion has a great deal going for it. Over the seven years this blog has been appearing, I’ve discussed any number of controversial issues and made plenty of proposals that contradict the conventional wisdom of our times; none of them has fielded me as many spluttering denunciations as the suggestion that belief in progress is the most important civil religion of the modern industrial world.

A commenter on one of the many other sites where my posts appear thus started off his critique of last week’s post with a shout of “Why bear with this?” Since I doubt anybody’s holding a gun to his head and making him read The Archdruid Report, he’ll have to answer his question himself. Still, his furious outburst is a useful reminder of one of the distinctive features of the belief systems we’re discussing; however subtle and closely reasoned their intellectual sides happen to be, they reach right down into the deepest places of the human heart, and draw on powerful and unreasoning passions.

Civil religions and theist religions alike have motivated believers to die for their faith and to kill for it, to make tremendous sacrifices and commit appalling crimes.  Not many human motivations can equal religion as a driving force, and I don’t know of any that reliably surpass it. When people push past the limits of ordinary humanity in any direction, good or evil, if it’s not a matter of the love or hate of one human being for another, odds are that what drives them onward is either a theist faith or a civil one.

This is among the core reasons why I’ve launched into an exploration of the religious dimensions of peak oil, and why I’ve begun that with a study of the most distinctive feature of the religious landscape of our time: the way that belief in the invincibility and beneficence of progress has come to serve an essentially religious role in the modern world, permeating the collective conversations of our time.  It’s also a core reason why that exploration will continue over the weeks to come, because there’s much more that needs saying about the contemporary faith in progress, the historical mythology that underlies it, and the distortions it imposes on nearly all of our society’s assumptions about the future.

It’s important, to begin with, to pay attention to the ambiguities wrapped up in the modern conception of progress. When people think or talk about progress, by that name or any of its common euphemisms, there are at least three different things they can mean by it. All three share the common presupposition that history has an inherent tendency to move in a particular direction, that movement in that direction is a good thing, and that human beings can and should contribute to that forward movement toward the good; it’s the dimension of human life in which the movement is believed to be taking place that marks the distinction between these different meanings of progress.

The first version of progress is moral progress:  it centers on the claim that history’s inherent tendency is toward increasingly ethical human relationships and social forms. These days, especially on the leftward end of society, this version of progress is usually framed in political terms, but its moral thrust is impossible to miss, as its proponents inevitably frame their arguments in terms of moral absolutes, virtues and vices.   At its best, the ethical stance of the contemporary mainstream Left in America and Europe is one of the few really original moral philosophies to develop in modern times, with a distinctive focus on the virtues of equality, social justice, and kindness, all understood and pursued primarily on a collective rather than an individual level; at its worst—like all philosophies, it has its less impressive side—it becomes a self-righteous cant, by turns saccharine and shrill, in the service of the craving for unearned power that’s the besetting sin of all modern moralists.

You can see the faith in moral progress in action any time people insist that some proposed social change is an advance, a move forward, away from the ignorance and injustice of the benighted past. Even when this sort of talk is cheap manipulative rhetoric, as of course it so often is, it’s the faith in moral progress that gives the manipulation power and allows it to work.  Think about the implications of “forward” and “backward” as applied to social changes, and you can begin to see how deeply the mythology of progress pervades contemporary thought:  only if history has a natural direction of flow does it make any kind of sense to refer to one set of social policies as “progressive” and another as “backward,” say, or to describe the culture or laws of one of the flyover states despised by the coastal literati as “stuck in the 1950s.”  It’s the faith that history moves in the direction set out by a specific definition of moral progress that gives these very common metaphors their meaning.

That’s only one of the three things that faith in progress can choose as its focus, though.  The second is scientific and technical progress, which centers on the claim that history’s inherent tendency is toward increasingly complete human knowledge and domination of the cosmos.  In theory, it might be possible to conceive of scientific progress without a corresponding increase in technical power, or vice versa; in practice, at least in the minds of those who interpret progress along these lines, the two are rarely separated. As Francis Bacon argued in the first gray dawn of the scientific revolution, the value of knowledge concerning nature is the power that results from that knowledge; investment in the production of scientific knowledge is almost universally justified by talking about what the resulting knowledge will let humanity do to the world.

To see the core features of a religion in starkest terms, it’s often useful to look at its most extreme forms, and the faith in scientific and technical progress is no exception.  The example I have in mind here is the Singularitarian movement, which claims that sometime soon—Singularitarian prophet Ray Kurzweil has set the date as 2045—the unstoppable onward march of progress, bootstrapped by the creation of artificial intelligences far more powerful than any human mind, will accelerate to infinity. All the dreams of science fiction, from starflight through immortality to virtual sex with Marilyn Monroe, will become realities, and humanity will achieve something like godhood—unless the hyperintelligent computers decide to exterminate us all instead, that is.

There are plenty of things worth discussing about the Singularitarian religion, but the one that’s relevant to the present theme is the wild misunderstanding it imposes on the nature of scientific knowledge.  A large portion of the discoveries of science, including many of its greatest achievements, can be summed up neatly by the words “you can’t do that.”  If an all-wise supercomputer could be created at all—and it’s far from certain that one could be—it’s entirely possible that it would sort through the sum total of human science and technology and say to us, “For beings of such modest mental capacities, you’ve done a good job of figuring out what can be done with the resources available to you. Here are some technical tricks you haven’t worked out yet, but starflight, immortality, sex with this Marilyn Monroe person?  Sorry, those aren’t possible; you’ll have to go on living without them.” What’s more, it’s entirely possible that it would be right.

Even outside the Singularitarian faith, though, you can count on either blank incomprehension or furious disagreement if you suggest that there might be things that scientific and technological progress can’t achieve. Those of my readers who have been in the peak oil scene for any length of time will have learned that the most common dismissal they’ll get, when they try to suggest to the rest of the world that betting the future on infinite resource extraction from a finite planet is not a bright idea, is some variation on “Oh, I’m sure they’ll come up with something.” The “they” in this overfamiliar sentence are of course scientists and engineers; the mere fact that “they” have been trying to come up with something in this particular case for well over a century, and success is still nowhere in sight, does nothing to dent the really rather touching faith that today’s popular culture places in their powers.

Scientific and technical progress, then, plays a massive role in the modern mythology of progress. It's equalled if not exceeded by the third kind of progress, economic progresswhich centers on the claim that history’s inherent tendency is to ever greater levels of economic abundance, however that abundance may happen to be distributed.  The belief that ongoing exponential economic growth is normal and beneficent, and that anything else is abnormal and destructive, is perhaps the most widely accepted form of the mythology of progress in contemporary life, not least because most people like to imagine that they themselves will benefit from it.

Open the business section of any newspaper, turn the pages of any economics textbook, scan the minutes of any meeting of any business corporation in contemporary America or most of the modern world, and you’ll get to see a faith in economic progress as absolute and unthinking as any medieval peasant’s trust in the wonderworking bones of the local saint.  In the mythic world portrayed by the prophets and visionaries of that faith, economic growth is always good, and comes as a reward to those who obey the commandments of the economists. The fact—and of course it is a fact—that obeying the commandments of the economists has by and large brought more disaster than prosperity to the industrial world’s economies for decades somehow rarely enters into these reverential thoughts.

In recent years, to be sure, faith in economic progress—that is, growth—has come under fire from two sides. On the one hand, there’s the small but gradually expanding body of ecologists, economists, and other scholars who point out the absurdity of perpetual economic expansion on a finite planet, and document some of the ways that an obsession with growth for its own sake produces a bumper crop of problems. On the other, there’s the less coherent but far more widespread sense that economic progress doesn’t seem to be happening the way it’s supposed to, that standards of living for most people are declining rather than improving, and that economic policies that have been sold to the public as ways to fix a troubled economy are having exactly the opposite effect.  Even so, most of the critiques coming out of this latter awareness, and no small number of those belonging to the former class, assume that growth is normal, and fixate on how that supposedly normal state got derailed.

Moral progress, scientific and technological progress, and economic progress:  those are the three forms that progress takes in the minds of those who put their faith in it:  if you will, the three heads of the deity of the Church of Progress. It’s crucial to keep in mind, though, that these three visions of progress often intertwine in complex ways in the minds of believers.  To many mainstream American liberals in the late 20th century, for example, the limitless progress of science and technology would guarantee equally limitless economic growth, which would make it possible to abolish poverty, provide equal opportunity for all, and fulfill the hopes of moral progress without requiring any of those who already had access to privilege and economic abundance to give up any of these things. 

So complete a fusion of the three modes of progress was once standard.  Read any of the vast supply of self-congratulatory literature on progress churned out by popular presses in 19th century Britain or America, for example, and you can count on finding all three twisted tightly round one another, with the supposed moral superiority of Anglo-Saxon civilization serving as the linchpin of arguments that claimed to explain the limitless progress of technology and also to justify the extremely uneven distribution of the benefits of economic growth.  The 20th century’s ghastly history made such moral claims a good deal harder to make with a straight face, and so versions of the faith in progress popular in recent decades often avoid the moral dimension and focus on the other two forms of progress. 

Far more often than not these days, as a result, the mainstream American version of faith in progress fixates purely on the supposedly unstoppable feedback loop between scientific and technological progress, on the one hand, and economic growth on the other, while moral progress has been consigned to bit parts here and there.  It’s mostly on the left that faith in moral progress retains its former place in the blend—one of the many ways in which the leftward end of the American political landscape is significantly more conservative, in the strict sense of the word, than those who call themselves conservative these days—and even there, it’s increasingly a fading hope, popular among the older generation of activists and among those who have moved toward the fringes of society and mix their faith in progress with a good solid helping of its erstwhle antireligion, the faith in apocalypse: it’s from this unstable mix that we get claims that the morally better world will arrive once evil, and most of the planet’s population, are blown to smithereens.

It’s by way of this latter process, I think, that faith in moral progress tends to pop up in the literature of peak oil, and even more often in conversations in the peak oil scene.  I’ve long since lost track of the number of times that someone has suggested to me that if industrial civilization continues down the well-worn track of overshoot and decline, the silver lining to that very dark cloud is that the rigors of the decline will force all of us, or at least the survivors, to become better people—“better” being defined variously as more ecologically sensitive, more compassionate, or what have you, depending on the personal preferences of the speaker. 

Now of course when civilizations overshoot their resource base and start skidding down the arc of decline toward history’s compost bin, a sudden turn toward moral virtue of any kind is not a common event.  The collapse of social order, the rise of barbarian warbands, and a good many of the other concomitants of decline and fall tend to push things hard in the other direction.  Still, the importance of faith in progress in the collective imagination of our time is such that some way has to be found to make the future look better than the present. If a future of technological advancement and economic growth is no longer an option, then the hope for moral betterment becomes the last frail reed to which believers in progress cling with all their might.

To many of my readers, this may seem like a good idea; many others may consider it inevitable. I’m far from convinced that it’s either one. For more than thirty years now, the conviction that progress will somehow bail the industrial world out from the consequences of its own bad decisions has been the single largest obstacle in the way of preventing more of those same bad decisions from being made. How many times have we all heard that economic growth was going to take care of resource depletion and environmental degradation, or that scientific and technical advances were going to take care of them, or that a great moral awakening—call it the rise of planetary consciousness, or any of the other popular buzzwords, if you wish—was going to take care of them.  As it turned out, of course, none of those things took care of them at all, and since so many people placed their faith on one or the other kind of progress, nothing else took care of them, either.

Nor, for that matter, is faith in progress hardwired into the human psyche. It’s a specific belief system with distinct and well-documented historical roots in the Western world, and most other people in most other places and times have had beliefs about the future that contradicted it in every particular.  There have been many cultures in which history was held to have an inherent tendency to move from better to worse, from a Golden Age in the past to an age of darkness and horror somewhere in the future, and individual and collective hope focused on the possibility of holding onto the beneficent legacies of the past as long as possible in the teeth of decline. Nor are these the only options; there have, for example, been many cultures that saw time as a circle, and many more for whom time had no direction at all.

It’s quite common for people raised in a given culture to see its view of things as normal and natural, and to scratch their heads in bewilderment when they find that people in other places and times saw things in very different ways. Modern industrial civilization, for all its self-described sophistication, is no more exempt from this custom than any other human society. To make sense of the future closing in on us, it’s going to be necessary to get past that easy but misleading habit of thought, to recognize that the contemporary faith in progress is a culturally specific product that emerged in a highly unusual and self-terminating set of historical circumstances, and to realize that while it was highly adaptive in those circumstances, it’s become lethally maladaptive now.

To understand these things, in turn, it’s going to be necessary to dig down to the foundations of modern industrial culture, and grapple with one of the core cognitive frameworks our society—like every other—uses to make sense of the inkblot patterns of the cosmos.  For want of a better label, we’ll call this framework the shape of time.  We’ll talk about that next week.

My longtime readers may be pleased to learn that New Society Publications is now offering a 20% discount on prepublication orders for Green Wizardry, the book that came out of the series of posts on Seventies-era appropriate technology I posted here in 2011 and 2012. This project took a little longer than my previous New Society books, but I think you’ll find it was worth the wait.


Bill Price said...

Cogent and insightful as always, JMG.

One poorly-developed thesis I've been kicking around in my head is that this "moral progress" we Westerners congratulate ourselves on- in the form of increased social justice for oppressed groups, various implementations of the welfare state, and so on- may be tethered too tightly to the other forms of progress to be able to survive even the sort of slow, catabolic decline proposed by your model. This is most clearly the case when it comes to issues like medical care- nothing like the current energy gobbling, just-in-time-delivery reliant medical industry could exist in an era of constricted manufacturing and radically higher energy prices- but I worry that even more plainly social issues would trend toward inequality and violence.

Muscle power is almost entirely irrelevant in the typical occupations of the industrial world, for example, but as physical strength again becomes more important, I worry that economic inequality between men and women will worsen. And as men once more become the default breadwinners and "heads of the household", I worry that other gains of feminism- the general reduction in domestic violence, for example- could erode in turn.

It's a sobering concept.

DesertedPictures said...

What you're neglecting here is the possibility that progress, at least technolical and economic is truth. I'm not just thinking about the last few centuries. If you look at the entire human history you can see progress over long periods of time. You're very focused on a coming period of decline (nothing new in history) but that's just a historic bump in the road.

Imagine a society that has a steady amount of recourses available: land for agriculture, wind for windmills, people for fysical labor. It's not a stretch to think in time such a society would get better at exploiting those resources. (the amount of people needed to manage farms just before the advent of modern industrial society (pre-oil) was lower then in any time in history before that point.

The current problem is oil: we're very good at exploiting a resource that simply won't be available in the future. And that's why will have a giant setback. That happened before (the dark-ages following the roman empire) but humanity will still have resources steady available that it did not know how to exploit before. (solar power for example)

It might take a few centuries for another high technolical society reforms, but I doubt it will be one without progress...

Grebulocities said...

Another fascinating post, JMG. You've done more than any other single person to break down the unquestioned assumptions about the inevitability of human progress I held a couple of years ago and reveal them to be simply the dominant belief system in our particular time and place, with severe and rather obvious flaws that render substantial parts of our dominant belief system maladaptive in a finite world. Of course, I wouldn't have found your site if I hadn't already been exploring some gaping cracks that I'd already noticed in this ideology, but your writing helped to bring what was left of my old religion down for me.

Now that I've lost faith in progress, I feel almost nihilistic, for lack of a better word, and this feeling has lasted for over a year now with no end in sight. If Progress is dead and we have killed It, how do you build alternate, better-founded belief systems to fulfill the emotional needs that the religion of progress was fulfilling for its believers?

I think this sort of problem is what keeps many believers in progress from questioning their beliefs, and the fear of falling into a quasi-nihilistic void may be motivating some of the more colorful attacks you have gotten in the past few weeks.

Ruben said...


I am sure JMG will dismantle your argument handily.

But I wanted to point out, that on the Long Descent, just slowing the ride a little will start to feel like progress...

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, good. To my mind, you're asking the right questions. What I'd suggest in response, though, is that the end of progress requires the loss of the easy faith that moral improvement (however defined) will happen by itself, but it doesn't mean the end of moral improvement. It simply means that if betterment is going to happen, we -- meaning you, me, and other individuals who care about it, not simply a generic "we" -- have to make it happen.

Deserted, no, I'm not neglecting the idea that progress might be the plain truth. I'm explicitly rejecting that claim as a mistaken belief, for reasons that I've given in any number of past posts. This notion of yours that the whole history of humanity is a story of progress is very popular these days, of course -- it's a central part of the conventional wisdom on the subject -- but it can only be defended by severe distortions of the realities of history. I'll be discussing that in more detail as we proceed, and also explaining why future societies will experience progress only now and then, balanced by regress.

Grebulocities, good. The faith in progress, as I'll be showing a little later on, was a makeshift belief system that most people in the western world embraced upon the collapse of unquestioned literal faith in the Christian religion. It's a common phenomenon at a specific point in a certain historical process we'll be discussing further down the line. The experience of nothingness, to use a once-popular term for what you're feeling, is important to confront on its own terms, but it's not an endpoint; as we proceed, I'll be talking about what can be found on the other side of it.

Kirk Bailey said...

I agree with the main thrust of your argument, but I feel the need to suggest you re-read the following sentence from your essay with your own rhetorical mirror at hand:

"Even when this sort of talk is cheap manipulative rhetoric, as of course it so often is, it’s the faith in moral progress that gives the manipulation power and allows it to work."

John Michael Greer said...

Kirk, if you're objecting to my suggestion that a lot of cheap manipulative rhetoric these days uses the language of moral progress, all I can say is that you ought to get out more often. That doesn't mean that all such talk is cheap manipulative rhetoric; it's simply a reflection of the fact that a faith widely believed will be widely misused.

Nicholas Carter said...

I merely wished to point out (as JMG has once before) that the scientists of the last hundred years have come up with something, in fact several somethings. Each having played its respectable role in keeping the current price of light sweet crude below 200 American dollars/barrel.
Charles Babbage was once, apocryphally, asked how long until he invented a calculator good enough to reach the right answer with the wrong inputs. I have always thought energy engineers to be in a similar position qua the demands for a 'solution' to Terrans' demand that the laws of thermodynamics be repealed.
So I just wanted to say: It's okay. I know you tried, and it really WAS BEAUTIFUL while we were up here. There's no reason to be ashamed of not getting there: us having come so far is a feat in itself.

PhysicsDoc said...

Makes me wonder if some of the hostility in recent years toward scientists (in some cases leading to death threats)is an unconscious reaction to the realization that scientists and engineers have not been able to deliver the Jetsons future of the 60's.On the contrary, as you mention, much of science describes what cannot be done, or the negative consequences of continuing to do what we are doing (e.g. burn fossil fuels).

Joe said...

I think there's an interesting overlap between progress that can't be achieved because if inherent limitations in the nature of reality (i.e. taking infinite resources from a finite planet) vs. progress that can't be achieved because of lack of will (the fact that the solutions proposed in the 70s still haven't gained much traction). It's been my observation that for most of history, we've run up against the second kind of limit, which has resulted in a cycle of progress and decline. The burning of the Library of Alexandria comes to mind as an example, or the fact that modern medicine didn't surpase Roman medicine until the 19th century.

I think the point here is that we're not running up against the second kind of limition right now, we're running up against the first kind. Historically, this isn't like other periods of regression, which were caused by social factors, it's more along the lines of a famine. No matter how good you are at exploiting a resource, once your resource runs out you're out of luck unless you've already found another source of supplies. We really haven't done so. More to the point, even if humanity as a whole does progress over the extreme long term, that doesn't really do much for those of us who plan on inhabiting the planet over the next several hundred years.

LunarApprentice said...

Hello JMG,
Good heavens, for the last 6-7 years, I almost feel that your essays have been stirring the muddy waters of my mind... now am I beginning wonder if I see vague forms emerging...

In your recent postings on civil religion, morphological thinking and especially Progress as the unseen beating heart of modern religiosity, and am struck at how you point out features of our inner and social experience that have always been present, but never named. I find it startling to re-encounter these familiar, unacknowledged realities as named phenomena.

I digress now with a story: Once I went on a dinner date, and ordered a glass of wine, the house red. My date ordered an expensive wine, suggested we trade sips, then asked which I liked better. I had to admit I liked my cheap wine better. Why? she asked. I struggled for words, managing only to say that mine seemed somehow brighter and fresher. "Hmmm.." she replied "I perceive that same quality in my glass, but your's is lacking something." I asked what. "Your wine was aged in a steel cask, mine was aged in oak, which contributes its own flavor. You did not discern the oak taste from the other fruity flavors. Take another sip." I did, and she was right! Once I noticed that woody, oak flavor, I could then notice the other flavors in her wine, and they were just as fresh and bright. That experience startled me, because I was able to perceive something entirely new out of the repeated, identical tasting. That experience occurred 25 years ago, and the recollection of it comes fairly often. It tantalizes me with a hidden lesson that feels extremely important, but that I can't quite grasp it. Your essays remind of this experience.

In December 2012, you make passing reference to the useful notion of discerning fact versus opinion. To embrace this discernment as a working filter in one's day-to-day life is not only clarifying, but also calming; for some reason, I no longer feel threatened by an idea; instead I apply the taxonomy of fact versus opinion, then decide how to process the assertion.

Your recent essays for some reason also remind me of some lines from one of your earliest postings- "Knowing Only One Story" 5-24-2006. You wrote:

Knowing many stories is wisdom.
Knowing no stories is ignorance.
Knowing only one story is death.

Does this connect?

repo said...

From someone who thought this series on religion has been a bit slow to get going so far, I think this is one of the better posts on your blog overall. But then again, I'm a sucker for both concise and structured definitions and three-headed deities. :)

What I'm really curious about now though, is your favoured method of making the future seem better than the present, without resorting to faith in progress. Not sure if its necessity is anything you were planning to dwell on further, or just an offhand comment, but it brought to mind your comments about the dullness of modern life on Chris Martenson's podcast, and that bit in The Druid Magic Handbook about re-enchanting the world.

That's the key, then? The future is better than the present, because it's a place of mystery and adventure, where unexpected things can and will happen, where there are no certain destinies and you have to start taking responsibility for your own life and wellbeing, because no one else will? A place where you will actually want to live, rather than escape into some alluring but ultimately unsatisfactory virtual world at the earliest opportunity?

Doesn't sound too bad, if you ask me.

- peter

Andrew said...

There is one thing that has absolutely baffled me in the reactions that I have seen to your posts: nobody seems to have got to the idea that it would be no problem at all to have more than one religion.
With your writing on the civil religions it seemed inevitable to me that somebody would object with something like "I'm a Christian, I cannot have another religion, not even a civil one!" But I haven't seen anybody do that. It would be okay to have several different civil religions as well, of course.
For the theistic religions it is probably even more controversial, but I can assure all that:

- It is perfectly normal for a Japanese person to have brith-rites in the Shinto-temple, get married at the Christian Church, and get burried by Buddhists.
- There are many Hindu's who are great Jesus fanboys
- There have been several books published by Pagans who do Buddhist practice as well.

I blame the idea that one can have only one religion firmly on monotheism, but if we accept the idea that we can and probably do have several religions at the same time (that may be contraditionary at the same time as well, as that is how humans are) it makes it much more easy to chose the narritives we use to make sense of the world, and deal with the changes that will come.

Phil Harris said...


Much that is marvellous and wondrous has been lost. Transient personages, noble natures and occasions (and nature itself) are ever causes for both sorrow and for rejoicing. Being human always was hard work though some times and places seem to have done better than others - and time is funny stuff indeed. Grieve (MacDiarmid) on island crofts in Scotland said "Sometimes on this winding track, The leaders are doubled back, Quite near to us."

Below is one of a triplet I wrote when tragedy visited our neighbourhood one gorgeous midsummer:

Sorrow is the song
The flowers sing
As they begin the day.
All new beginnings are old with joy
And sorrows numberless.

PS I like your themes. Much still to play for: much to be saved, ruins and all. I look forward (!) to your next posts.

Odin's Raven said...

'Hopium' is a dangerous drug! The delusions it unleashes are destructive.

yvesT said...

Definitely too verbose for me to read, especially when people like Baudelaire or Rimbaud have expressed it much more clearly and succintely.

Together with the religion of progess is the one that "what is well understood can be clearly communicated".

Richard Larson said...

Extraordinary explanation of the current dilemma. The problem is all in their heads!

I put in the order for the Green Wizard book and will continue to work myself lose from the failing system of false belief(s).


irishwildeye said...

As a child growing up in rural Ireland in the 1970s I very influenced by my Mother who as an Irish country woman born in the 1930s had grownup in a pre-oil society. She was 25 years old before this part of the world was electrified, even then the roads were still dirt and cars were rare. Although she had little formal education she understood instinctively that the two oil crisis of the 1970s sounded the death knell of modernity.

As a young man in the 1980s I joined the Irish Green Party and read the entire contents of their library, which included great thinkers like Illich and Schumacher. I also became convinced that industrial civilisation was doomed.

I started talking to people about the oil problem around 1986. I would ask what happens when the oil runs out?. Just about every one I asked would say "they'll think of something". I would then ask, what if they don't, just about everyone would reply "I'll be dead before that happens".

It always struck me as very strange that so many unconnected people answered these two questions using exactly the same words. A bit like a religious mantra I guess.

johnomd said...

Ever since I was in Med school in the early 90's, I have always felt that Doctors serve as some kind of priests in the variant religion of "progress". Everything from the stethoscope just so over the neck and white coat as badges of office; to secret knowledge only the elect were allowed to know--inscribed in the charts; to the large medical centers that I felt were the cathedrals of the modern world. Often the sick would come as petitioners to the God of Modern in much the same way as they would have gone to an ancient temples. Sometimes we successfully intervene on their behalf, sometimes not, but either way the faith was intact, and we of course got our cut regardless. Things really do change very little under the sun...

Shakya Indrajala said...

It is interesting to see how the belief in progress is manifest in the "developing world". Just today I was talking to a fellow here in New Delhi about India's "development goals" and a "development index".

Industrialization is basically quantified as an index and considered good. These terms are on the lips of every educated person it seems. Economic growth is unquestionably desirable despite it leading to massive environmental problems (especially with more than a billion people on the subcontinent).

But more people have smart phones, electricity and western educations than ever before (traditional knowledge is considered backwards and undesirable), so the process is said to be working.

PM Singh has to promise economic growth otherwise his capability is called into question. The elites maintain power by the promise of growth.

All these "poor" from the countryside moving to urban environments actually decrease their standard of living in many ways. In the city they get toxic air, junk food, waste problems, poisonous water and crime.

Basically, as child religion to progress, here in India there is the "religion of development" (the implication is that the country was lacking in things and now has to catch up). It's an inferiority complex.

Ontoquas said...

My sort of humble observation: The gift of evolution has been that homo sapiens have the ability to create and use tools both tangible and symbolic, both of which allow us to manipulate both our internal and external landscapes. The more practical of the two has enable the species to dominate our little planet with ever increasing numbers. To our symbolically addled minds this looks like "progress". When this growing population and all the scree and debris of our civilization left in it's wake bumps up against the real laws of thermodynamics and conservation of matter and energy, the slope of that perceived progress will have a negative sign in front of it. All the tools and symbols will be useless at that point and we'll wish evolution dealt us a hand perhaps like that of the whales or the cockroaches.

Leo said...

The idea of moral progress runs deep in the overshoot equals apocalypse side. I remember seeing one proclaim that while there would be great suffering in our inevitable return to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle (within 50 years), the survivors would be far freer than any human living now. I have to wonder what he meant by freedom, and the ignoring of other important values.

Its hard to detach, I can still feel the idea of techno-progress in the back of my mind.

Bill Pulliam said...

Cover of the April 20th issue of "Science News" reads "MISSED TARGET Prospects for laser fusion look increasingly dim." But I'm sure they will come up with something...

About feminism... one might be able to make a case that the feminist movements of the 20th Century succeeded, in the 1960s and 1970s, at finally returning the status of women in the the European/Western world to about where it was in the first millennium BCE. Of course since then it has increased further, but the "progress" from 1866 to 1966 was more like a scrabble back from great loss of status and rights that happened with the spread of feudalism. The historical trend in women's status has not been monotonically upward, and technological development has not been necessarily correlated with improved conditions for women.

Juhana said...

This was the best writing from you I have read so far. We are separated by huge distances, cultural differences and probably very different personal experiences that form the world for us, but this writing just nailed my own feelings. It just gave those feelings clearer expressed form than I have been able to do, even with my native language.

Faith in moral progress... I once held that belief, being too emotional man for my own good. But after witnessing how dysfunctional modern Western society has become, I cannot hold that faith no longer. State shall never replace society as healthy basis for civilization; they tried it in Soviet Union, especially during regime of Stalin, and result was this vast shadow society, situation where NOTHING was done by the book. It was so bizarre world for Western person that if you never experienced it firsthand, you will never understand how it worked through middle-men and bargaining between various autistic organisations... It was smoke and mirrors from factory floor level to the chambers of politburo. Bigger state is no answer. If society is rotten and delusional, and persons come unglued from their natural social networks, fall is coming.

I believe there is simple test of two questions person can ask form him/herself to find out if he/she has truly reliable SOCIETY around, or if he/she relies on STATE instead. Here it comes: Have you a relationship where you can trust that your partner shall stick with you, no matter what? Have you friend(s) who will accommodate you and your family for six months if you lose your apartment tomorrow? If answer to both questions is "no", you have failed to form meaningful bond to any person during your life, apart your mother who probably loves you anyway (motherhood, it is something to revere when it works as it is meant). You are just one more aimless and rootless loser among other losers of same kind in contracting, atomized society. Good news is that is no reason to get depressed, but start to do different things and chance values.

Limitless scientific and economic progress...they are quite easy to dismiss, because I have never believed in them. There are limits to everything, and life cycles we cannot escape. There cannot be life without death, or growth without withering. Nobody or nothing is exempt.

It is astonishing to see how people who believe in decline of industrial civilization are believing that they can define for themselves what to keep and what to lose. It is not like that in real world. Decay of sosioeconomic structures means for most people shrinking of horizon and opportunities; you have to spend more time to gather even meager living just where you happen to be when poverty strikes, and you in general become more dependent about your community. If you do not have community to speak of, you are just a prey for wolves, and they will be out there. Flesh of women and different stolen products (mostly widely known are weapons, booze and cigarettes, but actually EVERYTHING which could be priced) cannibalizing actual infrastructure to the point of near collapse were probably most sought after commodities during Russian Dark Ages, Yeltsin years. Now they have actual leader in form of Putin, and order has replaced chaos once again in the Imperium. Ohrmazd has again won Ahriman in their eternal battle. Respect for Russia, they are strong again.

For West the collapse is just coming. I see no reason to believe Dark Ages in, let's say, anglo-saxon domains or in suicidal regime of current Sweden are going to be any more ethical than in only known sosioeconomic collapse of modern industrial system, that of Soviet bloc.

There is no feeling of joy in what I believe is coming. But reality is reality and wishful thinking does not shape it.

don bates said...

Lots of interesting ideas to chew on in today's post.
Physicists say that there is no inherent direction to time except that we can tell which direction is "forward" because entropy always increases in that direction. For laymen, it seems that we can substitute "entropy" with "progress"

Stu from New Jersey said...

Very good synopsis.
As old as I am, I do not believe that I've read a sentence similar to your observation that much of science consists of "you can't do that"! And I'm not sure I've read a sentence more valuable than that.

divelly said...

What do you think of Stephen Pinker?

ando said...

Most insightful, JMG. As to faith in progress....

“I have no faith in anything which has ever been told, not even what has been told by the Vedas(religion). Only my own experience.”

Nisargadatta Maharaj


Greg Belvedere said...

I look forward to hearing you discuss the shape of time. When I read your blog I often hear something from Ecclcsiastes in my head:

"What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; and there is nothing new under the sun."

Many of your insights seem to come from the way history repeats itself. From this I would guess that you see time as circular. While I find the linear notion of time that faith in progress implies problematic, I think a circular view has problems of its own. Primarily, it does not let in new information and represents a kind of closed system. I'm inclined to see time as some kind of spiral. Patterns repeat, but they also change as new things emerge.

I don't think we should be foolish and repeat mistakes others have already made. At the same time I don't think we can ignore the ways in which our media has altered our consciousness. The printing press changed the way people thought in many obvious ways, but also in many way that people did not fully understand for centuries (McLuhan's spectrum of effects). I don't think we should bank on these technologies bringing a transformative change in consciousness. I also don't think we should neglect the fact that these new forms of communication will bring about changes we can't anticipate that will play out over time in the same way that the phonetic alphabet and the printing press did before.

I look forward to reading this blog every Thursday morning, but I also look to The Star of the 17th arcana to balance.

"What has been is that which prepares what will be, and what has been done is that which prepares what will be done; there is only that which is new under the sun. Each day is a unique event and revelation which will never be repeated."

Mike Ewing said...

I would like to nominate evolution as a fourth head for the god Progress.

Biologists now regard humans more as a branch on a tree than as the apex of a pyramid, but there is still a widely shared belief that Homo sapiens is nature's highest form of life, that our intelligence and abstract reasoning abilities put us at the forefront of evolution and that our general direction (and evolution's in general) is toward more complexity and intelligence.

Plenty of evidence exists to contradict each of these ideas, but they are still unquestioned articles of faith in the minds of many who consider themselves to be exemplars of the intelligent, rational ape.

Andy Brown said...

I guess in my view time is made of cycles, but in a corkscrew way it is always going somewhere - better? worse? different in any case. Is that too a faith in progress or its twin brother regress? I tried to imagine an attitude toward time that couldn't be shoehorned into your critique of progress - and I recalled to mind an analysis I read somewhere about oppressed peasants - and how part of the peasant mentality was to energetically find ways to "work to their least disadvantage" within a system designed and enforced by others for their exploitation. It's not a system they can change or even work to their advantage. In a way your catabolic collapse also represents a kind of universe arrayed against us (though I'm thinking of thermodynamics more that political economy) in which our planning will have to be finding ways to "work to our least disadvantage."

Master Oogway said...

Always a pleasure to read the Wizard's wisdom. I would however like to suggest an additional layer of complexity to the notion of progress, at least from the scientific and technology standpoint.
It is my notion that research/discovery and innovation have been conflated and are now regarded as equivalent. Obviously my point is that they aren't the same at all yet the obsession with innovation has provided an illusion of progress.
My contention is that we have been stalled for the better part of 40 years (a more or less arbitrary timeframe on my part, for convenience).
We just have to look at some common devices to see what I mean.
The automobile has not changed much at all; still using an internal combustion engine and all things factored in no more efficient that the vehicles from 100 years ago. What we have instead is baroque elaboration masked as innovation. Even electric cars came before mass produced gas vehicles.
Our wonder device, the computer, is based on innovations in miniaturization of techniques that are centuries old; I'm talking about lithography, which is the basis of the "printed' circuit.
We have fundamentally become fearful of the future and risk taking. No doubt the slavish pursuit of profit has distorted what risk taking means, but for the most part a good portion of the 1st world population no longer believes in the future.

thulensis said...

Another lurker now posting for the first time. It has taken a degree of effort for me over the preceding one and a half year to begin assimilating the content of this blog and some other peak/descent literature and percolate the implications through the various aspects of life, although I don't think I hit insurmountable roadblocks yet.

Describing this god Progress as having three heads makes it look even more similar to the Christians' tripartite YHWH. Perhaps someone knowledgeable in the correct corners of monotheist mythology could present and justify a one-on-one correspondence?

I remain agnostic to whether there nevertheless exists some kind of Progress as an absolute truth. Perhaps it can be found in the long view: Once there was no life on Earth, now there is. Then there was walking, climbing, and flying life. Then there was literate life. Progress viewed this way didn't hand out lollipops to the dinosaurs and probably won't rescue people from their shortcomings either. It's a cruel, fickle, and demanding god, velut luna statu variabilis. More, even, like Tezcatlipōca the Ipalnemoani than like the Christian YHWH. One would not be wise to expect succor and mercy from the Necoc Yaotl.

From the notional perspective of unicellular organisms, it looks to me as if the Singularity (or Multicellularity) already happened. Life continued going on from mitosis to mitosis, including in many new ecological niches. It's not obvious to me that nothing passing for any kind of technological singularity would be possible within the confines of the laws of physics, although I don't see any reason to believe that anything of the type is coming tomorrow or this century. If and when that were to come, it presumably would neither be coddling “outmoded” life forms nor having the wherewithal to extirpate them.

On mainstream expectations to Progress, particularly the transcendentalist ones, certain notions of the Sufis with regards to spiritual progress come to mind: As I understand it, in order to grow closer to Allah one needs to be ready to sacrifice at least some of what one considered most important previously and to recognize that what one is aiming for one doesn't understand and appreciate yet. Did this apparently reasonable viewpoint on a type of progress somehow get conflated with the Christian theological virtue of caritas and turned around so that now caritas is supposed to be innate to the secular cosmos, with an emphasis on rewarding blind faith by, especially, social elites?

Coincidental instances of mercy by nature do appear to occur, but I don't think these necessarily get appreciated. Germany had a famine situation in the “Steckrübenwinter” 1916–1917 and for some time afterwards but the worst was avoided because of the availability of the eponymous yellow beets. Afterwards, rather than temples being built in this vegetable's honor or a national holiday dedicated to it, it is my understanding that this plant was substantially taken off the menu and its cultivation curtailed.

Would the modern day Progress worshippers actually be able to appreciate their Progress if it hypothetically were to occur to them? Would it be, ahem, progress for them to figure out a way to do that and for example to venerate oil and ores and their exploitation rather than cash and corporations and their credit ratings? Doesn't it say somewhere in Christian doctrine to “praise the lord”, did that get lost when Christianity was converted to Progress belief?

odamaki said...

Thank you for this week's column--the Archdruid Report is always one of best parts of my week. It helps me face my daily life in the absence of faith in progress.

Mary said...

Bill, women have the option to become "wise women." That is, wise in the ways of plants and animals. We can co-opt their strength and power to our ends. I think women tend to be better at this than many men, who tend to quickly fall back on their own physical strength. I always think of the 'goat woman' from the movie Cold Mountain as my goal, lol.

JMG, Personally, I wonder whether Religion is the driver or really just the cover for what is, in essence, ongoing resource grabs. In my own life I've experienced over and over that as soon as I have something, anything, there is an envious (and usually too lazy to earn it) somebody who comes up with an excuse to grab it if they can, or spoil it if they can't. This has been true whether it was a sister breaking my toys or, as it is right now, neighbors trashing my property to try to force me to sell it at half its value to their friends.

So, for just a few examples, the US Religion of Progress justifies our attacks on Iraq in a blatant attempt to grab their oil. And the European Religion of Progress allows them to blatantly grab land in Africa to grow food for Europe, even as the African natives starve. Right now, the Swiss Corporate Religion of Progress at Nestle has driven them to sue village after village in Maine (and now I've read they've moved on to other states) because according to their religion, we don't "own" the water in our aquifers, so they have a right to drill for it whenever, wherever in volumes they decide. And on and on it goes...


PioneerPreppy said...

Moral progress might be what the left calls one of their heads of religious belief. That or social justice but claiming it is in anyway conservative is a stretch. There has certainly been no social justice in their moral progress only victim switching and mob rule looting.

This really shows the finite portion of the problem at hand. The so called moral side of the religion relies on massive energy inputs and is not sustainable.

Good riddance.

Ian said...

When I was, oh, 19 or so, I had that sort of blind faith in progress and could see life, my life included, as a steady arrow of progress. I remember being genuinely startled to discover that this wasn't a universally shared sentiment. It took quite a drubbing for me to let that one go.

Progress, though, is a perfectly fine value when it isn't held religiously. Modestly understood as progress toward this or that goal, it's one of the underpinnings of culture in general. If we talk about progress toward publishing a book (rather than the exponential growth of knowledge itself), learning how to hunt antelope or grow lettuce (rather than feeding everyone), building a house (rather than planning for a roundtrip to Mars), being a kinder person (rather than ending an endless stream of -isms and -phobias), standing up for your community (rather than trumpeting your values as universal), 'progressive' attitudes are downright sensible.

It drives me a little crazy, too, that the cult of progress has co-opted examples like this as evidence for their Progress fantasies. It makes it difficult to stake out a humane and reasonable space to talk about progress. The blare of Progress dulls or damages the ability to distinguish finer and less dramatic possibilities. That was definitely true for me--counter-intuitively, I made more progress in my life when I stopped having faith in Progress, because I started to focus on realistic possibilities for progress.

Anyway, I look forward to laying hands and eyes on the new book!

Steve Morgan said...

Two main thoughts popped up with this excellent post. First, the left vision of moral progress leads to its own version of phatic communication in which people one agrees with are "open-minded" or "tolerant," while others are "closed-minded" or "intolerant." I see it all the time where I live, and it has the same tone as the references to "good Christian people" in 18th century literature. That the president adopted "Forward" as his campaign slogan for re-election says it all, especially in light of all kinds of non-PC actions that his administration has taken.

The shape of time is a fascinating subject, and I'm looking forward to your treatment of it. What comes to mind in considering the fundamental differences between a linear and cyclical view of time is a poignant reminder of the difference between energy and matter and how they behave. Energy is nearly unique in its linear nature, as the great god Entropy collects his ritual sacrifice at every conversion and expression of energy, inevitably reducing concentration and potential. Matter, on the other hand, is constantly recycled and almost exclusively remains in physical form, which is of course why the solution to pollution is not to produce it in the first place.

A major philosophical difference between time as cycle and time as line shows up in perceptions of consequences for personal actions. If one's expected fate in this life and rebirth in the next hinge on the results of personal actions now, that's one thing. If one's expected fate in the afterlife hinges on the result of an act of forgiveness by a god instead, that's a whole different thing. To my mind, it's easy enough to see why a different view of time can serve as motivation to salvage the aqueducts of our era for the future, but I'm very curious to see where you take the discussion.

Attica Blue said...

The fact—and of course it is a fact—that obeying the commandments of the economists has by and large brought more disaster than prosperity to the industrial world’s economies for decades somehow rarely enters into these reverential thoughts.

In my opinion, this is one place where you need to give a little more nuance. If you make this argument before your typical techno-utopian--and even among many who wouldn't explicitly identify themselves as that--what you'll get is a barrage of statistics and other evidence that do indeed show there has been improvement in man's material condition in the industrial economies: there's more food and more access to it; there's better health care and access to it, including the elimination or reduction of many diseases; there's wider education and access to it including to higher education that in previous eras would have been completely out of the question for all except the aristocrats and their New World variations; conditions for labor are improved compared to what they once were; there's more "stuff" available to people to make their lives easier or more enjoyable, and so on. (These sorts of arguments will even be advanced with reference to the developing world, where it will be pointed out, for example, that there are newly rising middle classes in places like China and India.)

It's actually only very recently that some people in the industrial economies have begun to get a sense (and a taste) that something is wrong. To say that "disaster" has been the primary characteristic would be greatly overstretching it--unless you mean it in some other sense or with reference to some other context you haven't quite described in this particular essay. In which case, it would be helpful if you explicitly described it. Otherwise it's too easy for critics/naysayers to simply point and say, "Well, look, A, B and C are all better than they were X years ago."

NH Peter said...

There is a lively and mostly pointless debate between the three heads over which has most right to claim seniority and responsibility for their great success. That said, I think it is an important observation that moral progress is the “last frail reed” on which we hang our hopes, and so of course also our necks. So without engaging in this debate, I would like to say a few things about moral progress that I think might be a useful addition to this discussion.

First, to see the source of this head’s great power we have to confront the concept of political equality. Moral progress in modern political thought is explicitly the result of ever increasing political equality through the advancement of the consciousness and empowerment of individual political rights. This concept is deeply attractive, not least because it replaced a system of exclusionary and merit based moral values with an accessible and personal moral worth for every human being. The absence of moral obligation (beyond the merely transactional relations of conflicting rights) under such a system is indeed liberating. Even when the system is horribly distorted it remains a powerful political force for unifying efforts and burying dissent.

Second, I think it is important to understand that the religion of progress is the result of documentable invention. In other words, the system itself represents a political intention. Machiavelli, Bacon, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau all use the language of political and religious founding when articulating the almost incomprehensible scale of their project. Machiavelli is of course the worse, he even conflates Moses and Romulus! Point being, religion is a matter of human political intention. Easy enough, but so much more difficult is to try to understand the purpose behind this invention. Why advance a religion of political equality? Superficially the answer seems to be “for the aggrandizement of human power.” I deeply suspect there is more afoot here, if we return to Nietzsche he offers tempting lines of explanation to explore.

Third, something ought to be said about dissent. Formerly civil and theistic religion were less sophisticated. Vast areas of human experience were poorly represented in their schemes, if they were represented at all, and those gaps provided a safe and accessible avenue of escape for those who would like to challenge themselves with thoughts beyond mere orthodoxy. Perhaps the greatest strength of today’s orthodoxy is its seamless representation of human experience. A perfect veil covers the modern mind and we have become, each of us, gods within this house of mirrors. The effect is the stillbirth of dissenting ideas and a hopeless defeat for any who persist in exercising their desire for free thought. Because the very forms “free thinking, philosophy, natural science, etc.,” have been coopted to this project. It is a wonder so few teenagers dress in black and carve death head tattoos into their necks.

So that’s my thoughts on this one. Make no mistake, this three headed god is a human invention and a monster.

oo said...

Dear Mr Greer,

I am a long time lurker and frankly it has been a revelation reading your blog. Just tell me one thing though, when do you expect peak oil to happen? By peak oil, I mean oil not running out, but demand outstripping supply by so wide a margin that economies built to exploit a cheap supply of oil will crash (yes, i meant the US).
Personally I think such an event is not imminent and we will not get to witness such an epochal event in our lifetimes ( I am inching towards 30 years of age).

I am personally of the opinion that you should also start turning your attention towards the other sharp curve our collective civilizational locomotive is hurtling towards - Climate Change. Whether anthropogenic or just part of a huge global cycle, climate change is real and I'm confident we will be living in a very different world a decade from now. The changes are no longer subtle and a lay person like me cannot but notice the changes in our climate and its deleterious effects. I live in the southern part of India and the summers have become hotter and drier. Where as 5 years back, summers were warm but bearable, now it is akin to a Persian Gulf summer - it is really difficult to pull through a day without air conditioning. Agricultural fields are drying up, ironically not because of lack of water but because it is too hot for plants to grow in. Flowering trees which are supposed to bloom in April now bloom in January. If what little I can observe is alarming to me, I'm not sure I would like to know what climatologists have discovered what lies in store for us. Without doubt, before this decade is over, we will begin to see the first climate refugees from the South knocking on the doors of nations of the North. Fate has a wry sense of humour, else how is it that the poorest of the earth who have polluted the least gets to reap the fruits sown by the richest of the earth who have polluted the most.

I'm sorry if this came across a rant. My intention was not to offend anybody.


Bijesh Nair,
Kerala, India.

Unknown said...

Thanks JMG,
You have a great talent to form ideas in a clear way wished I could have done that in a recent discussion about Steven Pincer/s "A history of violence" which is another great sample of the faith in progress. have you read it? What do you think?

karyn said...

As I've been reading theists/philosophers who propose that "God is everything-everything is God"
I've been inevitably struck with similar thoughts about notions of progress in all its forms. If everything is part of the divine then so is "evil". Who are we to say that humankind, much less creation, is moving in any kind of direction at all? And what does that say about our perceptions of time? I so look forward to your ideas. Thank you, Karyn Schoem

Goat Path said...

This post is like a ray of light in a deep unknown jungle that illuminates dangers that lie hidden and lethal. As I more forward through the deterioration of my world, identification of the dangers within my being enables me to continue on the path unafraid.

Unknown said...

Thank you for all your clarifying writing. Your blog and books are fascinating. The only intellect I can think of that is comparable to your depth is Edward Goldsmith. Most progressive thinking does not grasp that industrial progress is a parasite on the finite biological earth on which we are totally dependent. In effect, industrial progress is destroying the earth and therefore ourselves. As you like to put it, there is no "away" for the permanent wastes of industrial destruction in the name of production (progress).

Anyone who wants to read the works of Edward Goldsmith can do so at:

Here is a quote from Edward Goldsmith's "The Great U-Turn":
"– the biosphere, or world of living things – or the ‘real world’ as we might refer to it – which provides the resources entering into this process. Industrialisation [sic]is something which is happening to the biosphere. It is the biosphere, in fact – the real world – that is being industrialised.
In this way, a new organisation of matter is building up: the technosphere or world of material goods and technological devices: or the surrogate world.
This brings us to the second important feature of industrialisation: the surrogate world it gives rise to is in direct competition with the real world, since it can only be built up by making use of resources extracted from the latter, and by consigning to it the waste products this process must inevitably generate." (

The discussion about the Roman Empire (published in 1975) on the Goldsmith site is especially frightening and prophetic.

One possible substitute for the worship of progress is the worship of the biological earth and all the life it gives.

Robert Martini said...

Oh My God John Michael Greer,

I woke up this morning and read your newest post first thing as I usually do. I read it completely through, satisfied with your analysis and walked into the kitchen. As soon as I did, the repercussions of the mythos of progress folded over me at once like a warm summer breeze. I immediately realized some of the not so obvious convictions I have held ever since my gradual exit from the church of progress.

1. Technology and all forms of convenience are only cosmetic or aesthetic differences between the modern world and say the medieval dark ages. Time literally doesn't tell us anything in the long-run.

2. The same core struggles exist in societies today as they did in the medieval or any other period of time. The reconciling of a belief system of society and the undercurrents of reality. Resolving the conflict and reaching equilibrium exist in every human era.

3. Science in the mythos of progress has always been promised to eventually resolve the conflict between belief and reality. This is a lie and an physical impossibility. Science can tell us what is quantitative, but will never give our lives meaning or purpose in the qualitative realm.

4. Here in America, there are a massive amount of people who have no purpose because they are literally waiting for science to give them one, to fulfill their personal religious narratives.

5. I think this all ends at nature worship as a suggestion for a purpose and belief system. In every grand narrative, such as your series of post, I think you are in a way detailing your own personal struggle with beliefs in a way that others may gain understanding from. A noble deed in my opinion. I thank you for it.

In Jared Diamonds book, Gun's Germs and Steel. Jared discussed Papua New Guinea as an example of humanities core hunter gather existence. When two unrelated men of different tribes met in the wilderness, they would sit down and have a long conversation. They would discuss everything and everyone they knew trying to find common ground. If they didn't find common ground they would attempt to kill each other in combat to the death. In some ways I think the sum of deep conversation between us humans, is a further abstraction of this same ritual. Find common ground so we don't have to kill each other.

SLClaire said...

Thanks again for this series of posts. I'm excited about learning more about the deep roots of faith in progress as we each work in our own way to extricate ourselves from its grip.

One of the things I was mulling over recently is the fascination with zombies. When I thought about it a little, it seemed to me that it might reflect a kind of projection: people feel so dead inside, so drained of life by their schooling, jobs, and "pastimes" like tv - that they project that sense of existing-but-not-living into zombieism. Perhaps this feeling of deadness inside is one of the effects of adherence to the religion of progress. It's so focused on the future that the present gets neglected. I'm not arguing that some attention to the future isn't appropriate, but without also attending fully to the present, we miss so much of the experience of being living human beings within a matrix of other lives.

Iuval Clejan said...

JMG, you did finally get into the treacherous swamp of which religion is better than others by calling Progress "maladaptive" at this point in history. Thanks, I was hoping you would! "Better" has moral implications absent in "adaptive". It suggests that there are more adaptive religions, or ideologies. At least for the technological head of the God, might I suggest a candidate for replacement with a local (aka luddite) technology network? My current faith is that it will also have implications/feedbacks for replacing the other two heads (economic and moral/spiritual) with more adaptive ones.

The theoretical separation of scientific and technological progress has been explored in Anathem, by Neal Stephenson, highly recommended. So if we split the science/technology head into two, replace the industrial one by a craft/agrarian based one, and keep the scientific one, do you think that might be more adaptive? Easier said than done, but I am trying to convert one engineer at a time.

onething said...

At the same time, the reality that progress can be used for very great evil has been with us for decades, starting at least with nuclear bombs, and the novel 1984. People are becoming uncomfortably aware of the new surveillance capabilities, although they consider it a mixed blessing (got to keep us safe!)

One can at least hope for moral progress. I think the reason America denies being an empire is that it contradicts our sense of ourselves morally. It is not nice to be an empire. I consider our denial a kind of moral progress...

Starting in childhood, I have pondered what amount of abundance might be possible in this world. Isn't is possible, without modern technology, and WITH a reasonable population, to have sturdy and aesthetically pleasing dwellings for all without prolonged debt? Healthy food of good variety? Public works such as libraries, gardens, parks?

Isn't there a happy medium between flying strawberries in by plane in January, and living on porridge?

I'm thinking a lot about having 20% of my income. But it is difficult to draw a mental map of it because our entire lifestyle is set up for current levels, and so if I had 20%, I might be homeless, for example. I'd be eating well under my bridge though! If we all underwent that drop, everything would have to be set up differently. And I think we could sustain a very large drop in income and still have a great lifestyle and even a happier one, albeit we would be dragged kicking and screaming.

One thing that occurs to me is that nearly everything in our society is set up so that some few at the top make a big profit. These things would be better run as nonprofits or coops. Medicine, of course, but also food, and banking.

It seems to me, as I said previously, that the crisis of civilization is one of leadership. When our communities get too big for us to know our leaders well, we become manipulated into losing our values. Let someone be rich if they can swing it, but the good of all should be the primary value of civilization and the "way things work" should arise from that value. And the next important value should be understanding that human beings are capable of living out of balance with the environment, and making a conscious effort to live in balance.
Those, to me, are the two key concepts needed to carry us forward to a decent future.

The problem with human beings is that we have the power to get out of balance and this is what separates us from nature. It isn't that animals are more moral than we are, it is that they lack the power to get out of balance with nature. This is what being on the path of knowledge of good and evil means. This is why being "as gods, knowing good and evil" was a curse or rather, a mixed blessing.
But of course, it came with the territory.

I see the story of The Fall in Genesis as a rather matter of fact challenge to the human race. It is about our consciousness and how we choose to use it. If we can create a real civilization rather than the high tech barbarism which has thus far prevailed, we will have overcome the dark valley between the hunter gatherer who lives in balance and this thing we call civilization.

One can argue (and I do) that an innocent being is not the same as a wise one who has through experience made a conscious decision to align with goodness, wholeness and life.

Michael Petro said...

"Grebulocities... The experience of nothingness, to use a once-popular term for what you're feeling, is important to confront on its own terms, but it's not an endpoint; as we proceed, I'll be talking about what can be found on the other side of it."


Jeffrey said...

Having a culture oriented toward progress is not in itself something misguided but rather what defines progress. Even if this orientation toward progress is somewhat unique to western civilization, I would venture to say that it is here to stay as long as we hold together any semblance of modern civilization.
How do we redefine progress to include values, morals and ethics that keep our species within carrying capacity and what are the catalysts that will direct us there I think is an absolute valuable contemplation and is not and in itself delusional.
I am one of those who considers it a possibility, however remote, that collapse can lead to a redefinition of progress that would consider the self preservation of our species as a component.
History can be a guide not only in what it teaches of past experiences but also in what was missing in the environment during historical times. I am specifically thinking that our religious, economic systems and governments to date never had to deal with confronting overshoot on the global scale we find ourselves today . The forces at play do not have a historical precedent. All the examples in Jared Diamonds books offer examples of cultures in overshoot that were mainly dependent on one crop within one bioregion without the communication and global integration we see today.
The founding religions were born at a time when famine and disease kept us well within carrying capacity so obviously they provide no relevant moral or ethical guidelines toward staying within carrying capacity. The consequences of overshoot this century will put religions under evolutionary pressure to create some new commandments that focus on the preservation of our environment.
I see the horrific consequences of overshoot in this next century or two as acting as a major catalyst toward a cultural evolution that does include the possibility of the silver lining that we will progress culturally toward sustainability that encompasses our religions, economic systems and governance. I see the chances as remote but I do not disregard the possibility.
These are just a few of my views on this. I am very interested to follow your future posts and see where your chisel will succeed in denting or chipping away at these expressed views.

DeAnander said...

I suspect that another thread in current discourse and current moral and philosophical unease is the sense that the strands of Progress are not yoked as we were told they should be. Many people who would like to believe in the Progress Trinity (ahem) as outlined by JMG find that inconvenient facts stick in the craw: technological advances are used to build atomic bombs and generally to refine and "improve" the weapons of war, for example. Leisure time freed by the automation of manufacturing is not used for education and the arts, but to watch advertising-laden TV or play violence-themed video games or absorb shallow, misogynist titillation. The cornucopia of affordable goods made available to the masses is increasingly shoddy, short in service lifespan, ugly.

And reflecting a little more deeply, of course, we see that as much misery and want seems to be generated by fast-forward technocapitalism as luxury and idleness. Millions are displaced from their homes for the construction of monumental hydro-power projects, millions more are poisoned or displaced by mining operations, endless brushfire wars rage over control of mineral-rich areas, indigenous people go on being marginalised and exterminated to make way for resource extraction, peasant farmers are immiserated by industrial-scale plantation systems, and so on and so on. Industrialism and Progress have, arguably, increased the sheer numbers of human beings alive at one time, but are those human beings, in sum, happier than generations who came before? If they (we) are not happier, then is it really Progress?

This decoupling of "human progress" (more net happiness, fulfilment, peace, health, sound sleep, good food, good relations with neighbours, good prospects for our kids) from techno progress or wealth hoarding progress undermines the Trinity. It's as if G-d and the holy ghost had suddenly been exposed as in a conspiracy against Jesus; quite shocking to the believing soul. I've been struggling with this shock for 30 years or more, with the appalling realisation that the refinement and extension of technology known as Progress appears in many ways to be adversarial to the extension of human happiness or security.

When we get to big issues like climate change and peak oil it becomes glaringly apparent that "progress" in the sense of ever-accelerating resource liquidation and energy consumption is *directly* adversarial to human happiness or security. The contradiction is right out in the open, and maybe that moment of cognitive dissonance or crisis of faith is what gives our times such a feverish fin-de-siecle flavour.

I do wonder, with Pulliam, about the relationship of prosperity to social justice. Would the slaves have been freed if fossil slaves had not come along to provide cheaper labour-equivalents? Would there be a single whale left alive if fossil oil had not been a cheaper substitute for whale oil? Would there be any "care for the environment" at all if industrial civilisation had not had an only-half-looted planet to liquidate, thus choosing to "preserve" some areas? In other words, how much of the apparent moral progress of the last 200 years is a lazy moral progress, a substitution of a fossil-based, cheaper option for a more obviously abusive and cruel source of fuel, labour, energy rather than a morally-founded decision to forgo the luxuries enabled by the fuel, labour, energy?

past human history is not an encouraging indicator of future performance, if I may misquote the bankster jargon. I too feel the chill of the Nothingness. what prospect now for the values I was raised to honour and maintain?

dowsergirl said...

You are describing the Holy Trinity of Progress.

I have had a fascination with the early Industrial "Revolution" of the textile industry. An extended family, living in their lovely little cottage spins wool and knits sweaters. A Cottage Industry. Everyone in the family helps, and everyone benefits. Guys with big ideas and modern equipment come along and build huge factories that manufacture lots of product. The family must change or die. So the adults go to work in the factory, neglecting their children and their farms. So the children come along and work in horrid conditions alongside the adults, until some well-meaning adult discovers this and makes it stop. Child labor laws are enacted, and now someone has to stay home to take care of the kids. So now we have the bread-winning man leaving the house in the morning,not returning until the evening, and the folks have to buy everything they comsume. Now that there are factories spewing out more and more neat stuff to buy, instead of one sweater, we now own more then we could wear out in a lifetime. Fast forward to a time where a whole bunch of people don't know how things are made and would rather someone in another country did it anyways.

A simplification to be sure, but fairly accurate as things go. And will go again?

Kieran O'Neill said...

Your response to Bill on the topic of moral progress is certainly worth ruminating on. I'm quite certain that many firm adherents of progress, particularly those from more privileged backgrounds, are fairly ignorant of the many thousands (millions?) of activists who have risked, and regularly lost, life, limb and livelihood in order to attain our current level of ethics in society.

Or indeed how technological and economic progress have largely worked against that -- much of the fight for an ethical society has arisen as a necessary response to injustices arising from the industrial revolution.

Joseph Nemeth said...

Of your three casually-mentioned models of time -- progress, regress, and circular -- the circular seems most problematic, and we'd have to dig very deep indeed to revive it.

We have a rather firm idea (outside of certain religious dogmas) that the earth has been around for a few billion years, that the sun is slowly using up its fuel and will eventually run out, that galaxies are receding from us, and that entropy increases. There is no absolute guarantee that any of this is true -- after all, a mischievous God could have put the dinosaur bones there to "test our faith." But most educated people who want to posit universal cycles have to push them out to multi-billion-year timeframes (or longer), and while there are numerous speculations along these lines, including bubble-universes and brane-theories, certainly nothing human will ever live to see this cycle end or the next begin.

On more human time-scales, we have the general increase in human population over the past six thousand years, and particularly the last five hundred.

All of this imposes an "arrow of time" on our mental constructs.

When you look at cycles of imperial (or cultural) rise and fall, for instance, it's a useful idea/method, but the cycles cannot be mere repetitions. There were no such cycles when all humans lived in tribes or small villages. We may have reached a point in population and interconnectedness where this next fall will differ in character from everything that has come before. Or perhaps not this time, but should the human population increase enough, it would inevitably change the nature of civilization cycles. Rome could fall and leave China untouched. The fall of the US will not leave China untouched.

It seems to me that circular time is not viable without a degree of ignorance, and I don't mean to use that term as pejorative, merely as descriptive: you simply have to not-know a lot of things we -- in our culture -- take for granted.

If your cultural memory is strictly oral, adapts to reality on-the-groud from telling to telling, and the pace of cultural/environmental change is outside the span of personal memory, you can reasonably say, "As it was in the beginning, is now, and shall be forever." If you have knowledge outside that boundary -- written histories, forensic science, well-developed astronomy -- the circular model starts to break down. You cannot, for instance, observe the precession of the equinoxes and then believe that a full cycle of existence could be any less than 26,000 years, any more than you can observe the cycle of the seasons (outside the tropics) and think that the full cycle of existence is less than a year.

Bill Pulliam said...

By the way, JMG, I'm guessing the apparent inside joke of a triple-headed deity was not an accident...

Greg said...

JMG, this week's post did much to explain what you mean by the religion of progress, and I find myself in considerable agreement. However, I find the description contains one problem and poses another.

The problem contained: How do you consider two people adherents of the religion of progress when they see "forward" in radically different directions? For example, in the moral dimension, there are those who see progress as the recognition of gay marriage and universal access to abortion, and there are those who see progress as the complete banning of both. In the economic dimension, some see progress purely in terms of escalating use of energy, while others see progress in using catastrophe theory analysis to make existing systems more resilient - i.e. Localization is "progress" to some and retrenchment to others. I could give more examples, but you get what I'm asking.

The problem posed: Perhaps this is just a meta-language problem, but once one is aware of progress-as-religion, how does one talk about "change for the better" (whether that's localization, family planning, the study of ZPG (or less) economics, energy efficiency or whatever) without seeming the same as every other adherent of the religion? Maybe there's no problem there because why shouldn't everyone want change for the better, or to prevent change for the worse ... to the extent they can agree on what's better? Or is the difference that I'm talking about wanting/striving, and you're talking about a belief in inevitability - and only the latter qualifies as religion?

I'd really like your take on that last question - it might explain some of the push-back you're getting. Thanks!

Juhana said...

Author named Orlov must be familar with you, I believe? I consider his observations about similarities between USA and CCCP quite revealing, even if his rhetoric is culturally odd for me. He sometimes devolves into somekind bastard form between American and Russian thinking; Russia I fear and respect, although I am ready to stand for my own kindred. They are unpleasantly powerful and capricious neighbor for me. American thinking is totally alien for me, even if I get distorted glimpse into it by following ideas of wishful believers on EU integration and European federalism. Following link to Orlov interview is very good, I assume you share many of his opinions?

Glenn said...


I can answer your question about whales. We reached "Peak Whale" and gave up whaling for oil a hundred years ago. The Energy Returned on Energy Invested (reflected as cost) became too great. The industry played out whaling for baleen to amortize the residual value of the fleet until the ships wore out or were lost.

The remaining modern whale hunts are primarily for meat, either commercial (the Japanese) or subsistence (The Innuit and Siberians).

Fidelius said...

This was a very interesting read for me. I'd like to add two things.

First, judging from my personal observation, the belief in technological progress is less prevalent in Europe than in the US. In fact it is often regarded as a relict of the Wirtschaftswunder era of the 1960s. Beginning in the 70s, questioning technological progress has become more or less mainstream, and questioning economic progress seems to be in the process of becoming mainstream right now. However, the eventual inevitability of moral progress (towards peace/non-violence) is still very much believed in around here.

Which leads me to the second point: Progress as a Christian concept. Progress needs two things: A direction and an end (or goal). In the case of moral progress, the goal would be absolute non-violence – you cannot go any further than that; for economic progress, it would be the fabled "post-scarcity society", the point where economic history ends.

According to Ivan Illich, whose eloborations on this topic I find very convincing, these concepts, or rather the concept of progress, has its roots in Christianity – which is why he calls the modern Western world-view a corruption of Christianity. With Christianity, the concept that history was teleological, that it had a direction and a goal/end, came into the world. The teleology laid out in the New Testament is of course spiritual or, if you will, supernatural; but without it, its corruption into a teleology of science/economy/technology would have been impossible, according to Illich. This strengthens the claim that belief in technological progress is a kind of (warped) religion.

(By the way, the German language has a widely-used word, "fortschrittsgläubig", for which there's no direct English translation. Literally it means "progress-religious". It is commonly used to characterize people who believe in (technological) progress. There's also an accompanying noun "Fortschrittsglaube", which accordingly means "progress-religion". I find it striking that there are no real English equivalents for these words.)

Patrick Cappa said...

Thank you, JMG, for another brilliant dissection of the unthinking assumptions of modern thought. I have been waiting for this series of posts for a while now, and if I remember correctly, had asked you to delve into the topic of religious thought at some point in the past. I can't hope to add to the comment thread except to say that you are, of course, right on track as far as I'm concerned. I would like to prod you, however, in this particular case, to state clearly your bias and beliefs as a religious leader. As a believer in some sort of loose hybrid nature-centered religion myself, I find your posts always accessible, and likewise find "Star's Reach" to be a fantastic, if implausible, story (I mean the nature-centered religious thought of commoners is implausible, not the aliens, but.. that too, I guess), but the majority of people may not have a clear understanding of how your religious beliefs paint your own understanding, your motivation and responsibility to write this blog, and thus, why it might actually be important to listen to the bearded hippy druid guy in this case... You've made some allusions to it in the past, and said in this post that you might not be using "religion" as an insult, and the whole of your work certainly explains it, but here on the blog it might be to your advantage to be upfront. This is the internets, after all. I would also just like to hear your wisdom regarding druidry (to the extent it can be explained) in blog format.
Just a thought, sorry for calling you a hippy, and keep up the great work!

Iuval Clejan said...

@Shakya Indrajala, have you ever read J.C. Kumarappa? He (along with Gandhi) was talking about sustainable development and deindustrialization in the 1930s. I wonder what happened to the AIVIA that he started.

Bill Pulliam said...

Joseph N. -- I think circularity in time depends on your scale and perspective. I know that for me April 2013 is much more like April 2012 and April 2011 than it will be like May 2013 or June 2013. I think you'll find that circular time perspectives (the Mesoamericans are a good example) consist of cycles within cycles, and the very long time scales are just seen as segments of circles so big that they give an illusion of linearity. Cosmologically, the big bang - big crunch cycle is currently out of favor, but that could change; on the Gyr time scale solar systems are seen as cyclical, ours being formed from the ashes of previous cycles. I'm sure JMG will do far better justice to these concepts when he gets to them.

Odin's Raven said...

If the Archdruid can complete his Herculean labour of subduing Cerberus the triple headed guardian of the Progressive Underworld and dragging it into the light, he may release souls trapped there and justify his own promotion to Olympus.

The Three Headed might also be restored to his antique dignity as an omniscient solar deity.
The All Knowing God
On page 197 therein it is noted that 'three heads are a naive way of indicating the universal vision, and so the omniscience, of a god...Such universal vision is the especial property of sun-gods.'

GuRan said...


Thanks for showing us fish what the water's like :-)


Ares Olympus said...

Of the three heads "moral progress" looks the most interesting and promising for better understanding.

I've always had a soft spot for poets, although most poetry I find very hard to read, but it can often touch more subtle aspects of the human condition that the rational mind can't see at all. Anyway, so I think to poet Robert Bly and he once observed there have been many brilliant young poets, with vial insights, and then comparing to later writings, the brilliance was lost, and his interpretation (from the Jungian shadow trandition) is that poets can touch the painful aspects of reality, even if with undue idealism, but if they are unable to digest what they've uncovered, it destroys them into cyncism and despair. I liked the idea because I can see my own insights coming into form, and idealism that seems large enough to contain it, and yet I can pat myself on the head, and go back to the power principle in my life, taking what I can get, rather than the harder choices.

So anyway, I see how "moral progress" perhaps is a false idea because it seems like its "out there", and not reborn into each human being, so more of a cycle of consciousness than progress, and like King Arthur's "Might for right" there's idealism that can hold us in fantasy, but the challenge is how to bring it into your own life, like the poets who project their suffering onto the world's, and forget to take it back home to their own will to change.

So I'd say all "moral progress" is "idealism" and the only reality to it is our own choices.

For fun, here's a poem I wrote 17 years ago, and not a great poem, but offers a glimpse to me of our predicament. It is basically my answer to arrogance, that just because I've found a moment of apparent success, I might still be a deadweight if I stop to admire the view. I'm as easily a coward, and willing to look for incremental progress, but I know there's a trap there if I don't remember where I am!

High upon a tree stands a nest,
where a baby bird once stood.

Now that baby plunges down,
pushed from the nest by its mother.

There's no going back to that nest,
only flying or dying.

The longer it falls, the faster,
And its wings flap wildly,
yet finding new grace with each stroke.

The baby does not see the ground,
each feather only knows the wind.

Flying and falling feel the same to the young.
How will it learn the difference?

Dancer - The Book said...

Your ability to think and see, differently and accurately, continues to make for great reading and thought.

On the subject of moral progress, how do you interpet the overall reduction in violence that has been happening for, depending on your data, hundreds if not thousands of years? If we are to assign the moral values of killing each other more = bad / killing each other less = good (personally, I do), and assuming the data is correct (I feel there is good evidence it is), is that moral progress? Continuing with those assumptions, do you expect that trend to continue? And would a reversal of the decline in violence and crime overall a good metric by which to measure when we've reached a tipping point in decline?

Liquid Paradigm said...

Related to the larger topic at hand, I thought I would share this. Someone pointed it out to me earlier this evening. It's a newspaper article from 1911 speculating on the world that would be 100 years from that time. I found it quite interesting, especially in light of the current subject hereabouts.

John Michael Greer said...

Nicholas, and saving some of the useful things that scientists have come up with over the last three centuries is, as you know, one of my high priorities.

PhysicsDoc, that's entirely plausible.

Joe, there's a third kind of limitation that fits between the first two -- limits that depend on the consequences of previous choices and the need to maintain existing systems at least long enough to replace them or shut them down safely. There are a lot of things we can't do at this point, because the resources that would be needed to do them are committed to systems that can't be stripped of resources without causing major problems.

Apprentice, excellent! Yes, it does connect; progress is our one story.

Repo, also excellent. We'll be talking about that at quite some length down the road.

Andrew, you're quite correct, of course. Most American Christians of center-to-left persuasion are also committed believers in the civil religion of Americanism, for example.

Phil, many thanks. Grieve got it, and so do you.

Raven, true enough. There's quite a need for Delusions of Progress Anonymous.

YvesT, if you couldn't be bothered to read the post, how do you know that everything in it was already said by Baudelaire or Rimbaud?

Richard, I wish it was all in their heads. Those ideas frame actions, and the consequences of the actions are a lot of what we're contending with at this point.

Heraclitus the Obscure said...

Part One

I find myself feeling a little irritated by some of the assumptions that have come into play by using the terms "mythology" and "religion." Since the Religion of Progress—as a bastard child of Christianity—has come in for such a drubbing, most of us commenters seem to have slipped into the habit of using the pejorative sense assigned to these terms in much of the modern West, where they are identified with the non-rational, the unsubstantiated, and the unscientific.

I'm willing to concede that all of those characteristics may define the vivifying and unifying structures of narrative beauty we call religion, but I think it's sloppy and absurd to malign religion on that account.

I don't believe in a human being who can give an entirely rational, scientific, literal justification for herself and all of her actions. There is a religion at the bottom of all of us (in fact usually several, diversely nested and variously prioritised). You'll notice that in documentaries about the most "rational" of "rationals" (astronomers, engineers, doctors), when they are asked about why they became an astronomer or an engineer or a doctor, they don't recite a formula, they tell a story.

That we are religious creatures does not disqualify us from simultaneously being rational and scientific creatures; it simply qualifies our rational and scientific features as instrumental. They are tools applied in the service of our ends, ends which are always narratively (religiously) generated.

Bozack said...

JMG, excellent post, we are really getting into the meat of things I think and I am looking forward to each new post with much interest.
Not really a disagreement but I do think that it is not only the Left that still clings to moral notions of progress –for example Libertarians believe in a low tax low regulation property rights based future where individuals will largely be free to do as they please (sexual choices, drug choices)as long as this does not impinge on the rights of others; individuals must also be economically reliant on themselves/their own families – this ideal world definitely has a moral component (its own weird version of what ethical human relationships and social forms look like) and Libertarians would see steps towards a freer free market economy as progress towards their ideal: e.g. lowered taxes, fewer regulations, lower minimum wage etc.
There are also some distortions of perspective that might make right-wing people seem less “morally progressive” but which disappear when a slightly wider historical perspective is taken: I would say that the vast majority of American people would be pro- female voting rights including male Republicans. 100 years ago this would have been controversial.
Voting for women was a huge step “forward” in terms of human history and I reckon most Americans would share the common presumption that history had a tendency to move in that particular direction, that this was a good thing and that they should contribute to that good (not so sure about how this last bit would manifest).
Ditto the abolition of slavery.
None of this proves that we can actually only go forward – democracy could collapse and tyrannical dictators arise in the U.S or anywhere else, but I would say that the vast majority of Americans are “morally progressive” in terms of issues such as voting rights, abolition of slavery etc.

Heraclitus the Obscure said...

Part Two

That being said, I don't think it is wise to do any of the following in regard to religious discourse:

A: Reject It: (for reasons already outlined above)

B: Functionalise It: This manoeuvre is implicit or explicit in the many commenters who have insisted we must "pick" or "invent" some religion that will best serve pre-identified "rational" ends, but it's really quite absurd.

Religion generates ends; it unifies human action by synthesising desire, and anyone who claims to use "rationality" to do the same is full of shit. Instrumental reason in its highly developed form came later than the religious mode of thought, but it is not inherently "superior" to it, nor did it usurp religion's unique prerogatives (valorising life and unifying human action through narrative means).

There is a reason that contemporary Analytic philosophers ridicule ethics, aesthetics, and metaphysics: it's because instrumental reason has been so privileged that there is no space left for the "non-rational" (but still entirely necessary) space of religious discourse. Which is very frustrating, since all it leads to is heightened dogmatism in relation to the narrative structures underlying so much of that cultural strata's values. Because, again: rationality is incapable of generating ends. That's why the radical privileging of instrumental rationality terminates in the most absurd dogmatisms (ie: the New Atheism of Dawkins et al.) or a life-flattening Nihilism (which many commenters have wisely sensed as a threat).

C: Relativize It: I'm not willing to let go of the idea that Jainism, Sikkhism, Sufism, and some of my favourite variants of Christianity are no better or worse than pre-Columbian Aztec religion or hardline elective predestination Calvinism. I am not down with the flayed man ceremony.

Something quite close to this manoeuvre constitutes my own understanding of the Overman thesis, in that we would select or synthesise organising narratives on the basis of a vaguely defined notion of "will" (which I don't want to get bogged down in). The thesis has no room for the notion that some narrative structures can genuinely be better than others. There is theoretically nothing between us and the flayed man ceremony or the early modern witchcraft craze if we adhere to this line. I'm not comfortable with that.

We need some way of pursuing discourse in the religious realm which admits of a space of "better" and "worse" without sacrificing pluralism or insisting on adhering to the strict canons of instrumental rationality. It has been done before. We need to learn how to do it again. Given that instrumental reason has a very limited efficacy in this realm, my suspicion is that (horrors) we will have to spend time relearning the art of intuition and listening to the heart—without collapsing into the "those facts aren't for me" idiocy of modern religious fundamentalism. Tall order, but seriously, we've got to do it. There are resources in all of the "world" and "indigenous" religions for doing this—roughly corresponding to what Frithjof Schuon and other Perennialists have deemed the "esoteric" dimension of religious experience.

Heraclitus the Obscure said...

Part Three

The final peeve I want to air is the role of literalism in barbarising religious discourse. The two great viruses of Modernity in the religious realm are Secular Progress and Religious Fundamentalism. They are both modern inventions, and what they share is literalism: an insistence on reducing the narrative structures of their faith to a set of claims about instrumental efficacy in the physical realm and a set of predictions about the factual course of future events. Religions are bad at doing this: it is not what they are good for.

My least favourite knock-on effect of literalism is the insistence that—in order for our efforts/existence to have meaning—they must be prolonged indefinitely, or at least as long as possible; as if the heat death of the universe inherently makes life meaningless. I am always reminded of it when I watch the horrified gasp of industrial American audiences as Buddhist monks pour a laboriously created sand mandala into a pond.

My suspicion is that putting literalism on the back-foot is the most important first step in laying the ground for the meaningful but pluralistic religious discourse we are so very much in need of. Which I suppose further emphasises the importance of engaging with the esoteric strains already present in our world—which happens to be teeming with wonderful religions, all of which I hope learn to adapt, syncretise, and stick around.

If a sustainable future involves learning how to relearn, recalibrate, and reorient all the things our species used to know, this should apply to religion most of all, not least of all. So long as we are discussing Robert Bellah, it's worth invoking his principle of biological and cultural evolution in his recent book on the Axial Age: "Nothing Is Ever Lost."

John Michael Greer said...

Irishwildeye, I heard the same responses more times than I can count. It's eerie, and not at all promising for the future, that so many people respond that way.

Johnomd, no argument there. I know a lot of people who will talk about how sick their prescriptions are making them, how little help or compassion they get from their doctors, how long it took them to get over the infection they got the last time they were in the hospital, etc., etc., and yet they keep on accepting it passively -- it reminds me of nothing so much as those battered wives who keep on moving back in with abusive husbands.

Shakya, it's distressing to see countries like yours, with their own rich and ancient cultures, being sucked into becoming secondhand imitations of the failed model of the industrial west. I hope it's only a passing fad.

Ontoquas, I don't think the tools and symbols will be useless during the decline -- far from it. It's precisely then that those who know how to use the tools and think with the symbols (rather than letting the symbols do their thinking for them) can accomplish a great deal of good.

Leo, it takes a lot of work to shake off those "mind-forg'd manacles." Keep at it.

Bill, true enough. It's precisely the myth of progress that keeps people from noticing how one-dimensional our sense of history is.

Juhana, that's a useful test. I'm glad to say that I can answer yes to both questions.

Don, good. Now compare the concept of entropy with the concept of progress, and note the differences...

Stu, thank you.

Divelly, I haven't read his book yet, and will reserve judgment until I do so.

Ando, that's certainly one sensible approach.

Greg, okay, you've got two opposed visions and have balanced them; that's the first step. Now find a third way of thinking about time that's different from both, and watch how that opens the options out to infinity.

John Michael Greer said...

Mike, when most people in today's America say "evolution" they mean "progress," even though the ideas have essentially nothing in common. Still, I'd point out that this misuse of evolution goes in all three of the ways I've listed, so evolution (as misunderstood by contemporary pop culture) isn't really a fourth head -- it's a mask any of the three heads can wear.

Andy, the peasant approach makes for a good metaphor. As for the corkscrew, though, is it headed in any particular direction?

Tom Bannister said...

Thanks for another good article! I'm Tom btw, just joined this blog. Keep up the good work we need people talking about the difficult issues.

Eric said...

Great stuff, as usual! I think I can sum up all your posts on "growth" with a bumper sticker my wife picked up at church that says, "Change is inevitable. Growth is optional." (Well, we are Unitarians so that might explain it a little.) And I think that applies very well to all three heads!

I just finished reading (for the second time!) "Red Plenty" by Francis Spufford. A great book about the soviet union and their civil religion of growth. I really think that you should read this book if you haven't yet. It tells the story of what the Soviets were thinking as they attempted to really make a world of plenty for their citizens. It is part fairy tale, part historical fiction and part non-fiction. Truly a great work and right in line with your line of thought right now.

Here is a particularly pertinent quote. He is talking about why the Soviet system is better, since it is designed for growth, whereas the Western, market system is not. (Even though, as you have been saying, most people believe that our "capitalist" system is designed for growth.)

"Market economies, so far as they were 'designed' at all, by their laws, were designed to match buyers and sellers. They grew, but only because the sellers might decid, from the eagerness of the buyers, to make a little more of what they were selling, or because the buyers might decide to use what they'd bought to sell some thing else. Growth wasn't intrinsic. It wasn't in the essence of a market economy that it should always do a little more this year than it had last year. The planned economy, on the other hand, was created to accomplish exactly that.It was explicitly and deliberately a ratchet, designed to effect a one-way passage from scarcity to plenty by stepping up output each year, every year, year after year. Nothing else mattered; not profit, not the rate of industrial accidents, not the effect of the factories on the land or the air." Page 87

There's a lot more and it truly is one of the best books/novels I've read in a long time. I'm also wondering if Orlov as read it yet. I would love to hear his comments on the book.

Hope all is well with you and your wife and I will let you know that next time I'm heading up to Cumberland!



John Michael Greer said...

Master O., excellent! Yes, and I'll be discussing that and related issues down the road a bit.

Thulensis, once there was no life on Earth, now there is, and in due time there will be no life on Earth again. Progress? Hmm...

Odamaki, thank you.

Mary, every religion has to contend with efforts to debase it for a variety of nonreligious ends; I don't think that justifies saying that religion can be equated with those ends. The words "nothing but" are rarely helpful.

Preppy, they're "conservative" in the precise, literal sense of the word: conserving something from an older time. That's not a value judgment -- there are plenty of old things that may not be worth conserving.

Ian, exactly! It's one thing to say "it's possible to move toward this goal, given plenty of hard work and a recognition that failure is possible," and quite another to say "the future will by definition be better than the past."

Steve, good. Now think of a third way to understand time that's neither circle nor line, nor some sort of blend of the two.

Attica, did you notice those words "for decades"? They were there precisely to forestall the sort of objection you're making. The decades in question, during which following the commandments of economists have brought more disaster than benefit, began around 1980, when pseudoconservatism of the Reagan/Thatcher variety became all the rage in the industrial world.

NH Peter, good. I'm arguing, in point of fact, that the civil religion of progress is a substitute for Christianity and, yes, an invention, though its adoption was as much a matter of circumstance as of anyone's intention.

OO, peak oil is already here. The ragged downward spiral of the industrial economies, the slow but accelerating disintegration of infrastructure, the paralysis of political systems, and the rest of the contemporary scene is exactly what peak oil writers have been predicting all along for the opening phases of what I've called the Long Descent. Imagine things getting noticeably worse year by year, every year, for the rest of your life: that's what peak oil looks like. As for climate change, er, you might want to go look at the archives before insisting that I ought to address it; I've talked about it at quite some length over the last seven years.

Unknown, I haven't read it yet.

Karyn, good. From my perspective, at least, you're asking the right questions.

Leo said...

So just to be clear. Your talking about progress being false as simple function of time and that when it does happen its a function of effort, enviroment, resources etc. And is a limited event.

John Michael Greer said...

Goat Path, thank you.

Unknown, thanks for the links.

Robert, excellent! It's stunningly rare to hear from anyone who grasps the extent to which all our current technological toys are, as you say, cosmetic, and science -- despite its admitted power as a set of tools for learning about the world -- functions for most people outside the laboratory as a belief system indistinguishable from any other religion. You get tonight's gold star for getting that.

SLClaire, that's entirely possible. I've been wondering for some time why so many people have this fascination with dead things -- zombies, vampires, etc. I sometimes wonder if it's an attempt to come to terms with their own mortality -- more specifically, with the sort of logic Irishwildeye discussed earlier, in which people admit that their plan for dealing with an unwelcome future is, basically, to die.

Iuval, good. One of my major projects -- something that the Druid order I head is engaged in, by the way -- is to find ways to pry the scientific method loose from its current institutional setting and get it into the hands of ordinary people, who can use it for purposes unrelated to the development of more technologies we can't afford. Returning science to something of the status it had in the late 19th century, where much of it was done by amateurs, is part of that project.

Onething, of course there's a middle ground, but it's not one that can be reached by a planet with seven billion people on it and a vast amount of damage already done to the biosphere. We're going to be eating a lot of porridge before that middle ground comes within reach. That doesn't make the middle ground irrelevant -- in fact, the quest to get to the middle ground is not a bad incentive to get used to porridge in the interval.

Michael, thank you.

Jeffrey, I'm going to argue that the concept of progress itself is problematic to the core, and that there are other ways to think about time and history that offer better options. That said, I'm only one voice, and your mileage may vary.

DeAnander, the values you were raised to honour and maintain don't lose any of their force if you recognize that history no longer guarantees them a final victory. Believing that you can't lose is not the only reason for being willing to enter the fight, you know.

Dowsergirl, a simplification, yes, but close enough. We'd better hope that enough people remember how to weave in their own homes.

Kieran, excellent. Quite correct on both counts, of course.

onething said...


Your contribution was profound. If love of money (greed) is the root of all evil - which is something of an exaggeration - then the tendency of technology to be adversarial to human happiness is due to the fact that the motive in almost all cases was greed.

Even the nice veneer progress has in our first world societies is the result of the wealth pump. It shows a much uglier face elsewhere, such as, for example, the more than 40 countries the US has bombed since WWII.

barath said...

Just wanted to share this article from The Onion, which is always more perceptive about the broader culture than any conventional news outlet:

Nation Starting To Realize New Era Of American Innovation Never Gonna Happen

Maybe this is an indication that a belief in progress is going to come to an end fairly soon (i.e. within a decade)? (I've come to think of The Onion as being a leading indicator of sorts, considering their track record.)

John Michael Greer said...

Joseph, you're reading the circular theory in a way that's both too rigid and too simplistic. The notion of progressive time doesn't require that all things progress in lockstep; rather, the usual form of it is that there's an innate trend to history, reflected imperfectly in various starts, stops, and stumbles. In the same way, a cyclical theory of history doesn't have everything circling in lockstep; rather, it proposes that there's a tendency for historical events to fall into repeating patterns.

Furthermore, it's only in the crudest cyclical theories that there's only one cycle. The richly developed theories argue that there are multiple cycles, each with its own far-from-exact periodicity, each governing some subset of the whole sequence of history. The largest cycles are normally vast even by the standards of deep time -- the alautun, the longest cyclic interval in the Mayan calendar, is around 63 million years long -- and the smallest ones are usually measured in days. Figuring out how they mesh was traditionally the task of learned experts. More on this as we proceed!

Bill, good! Of course it wasn't an accident.

Greg, every religion has people with different agendas trying to hijack its ideas and institutions for their own ends. The religion of progress is no different -- pressure groups in contemporary society vie to label their particular agenda as more progressive, more advanced, more cutting edge than the competition. A thousand years ago in Europe, the equivalent groups were vying to label their agendas as more Christian than the competition. The song may change but the dance goes on.

Juhana, Dmitry Orlov and I have spent our share of late nights in hotel bars at peak oil conventions talking about collapse. We have our disagreements, but by and large he's among the most realistic voices out there when it comes to how societies come unglued.

Fidelius, excellent. I share Illich's analysis, as you've probably noticed -- as I see it, faith in progress is a jerry-rigged civil religion put in place to replace Christianity when most people stopped believing in the latter, but weren't ready to believe in nothing at all. As for Fortschrittsglaube, I wasn't aware of that -- many thanks! One of the things I love about the German language is the ease with which it puts together useful words as needed.

Patrick, we'll get to that, but it won't be any time soon. My religious faith tends to baffle people who are used to the habits of thought our culture gets from the Christian tradition, and I see no point in slogging through the resulting confusions until I have to -- which in this case will be after I've built my case for the end of the religion of progress and the likely impact of that on the religious landscape of the western world.

Raven, I was actually thinking more of the three-headed guy in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

GuRan, you're welcome. Now wait until I introduce you to the concept of "dry"...

Ares, thanks for the poem! More generally, good -- the difference between the religion of progress and the willingness to make good things happen in the world is precisely the role of individual will and effort. More on this as we proceed.

Joseph Nemeth said...

@Bill P.

We're both running ahead of JMG, here: his brief comment about forms of time-modelling was obviously foreshadowing a future post, so I'm going to just shut up and wait to see next week's (or the following week's) post.

Self-censoring as off-topic. ;-)

DeAnander said...

I recommend the book "The Rivers North of the Future" -- the last testament of Ivan Illich -- for a full explication of his views on social-democratic "welfare" societies as a corruption or heresy derived from Christian principle and belief. I found his argument compelling, but as a non-believing Christian, if I may so describe myself -- a person semi-literate in Christian theology and raised with a subliminal cultural wiring for the symbolism and narrative of the faith, but without actual belief -- I am not sure what can be reasonably substituted for the dysfunctional heresy.

And JMG yes it is a challenge to uphold one's beliefs and principles without the smug comfort of historical determinism, or Deus Lo Veult, or some other assurance that "our side" will always win in the end. The plot of *every* heroic fantasy narrative hinges on victory snatched from the jaws of defeat, a trope which Terry Pratchett used to mock mercilessly in his Discworld epic. When we watch a fantasy movie or read an adventure story, we do so with a confidence that the author will stick to the conventions, the protagonist and a core of the "good guys" will survive and carry the day, evil will be defeated and punished (though it may limp off cursing into the shadows with glowing eyeballs, threatening revenge and a string of sequels). We can feel safe in the narrative convention. I used to feel safe in the narrative conventions of Progress: "I believe in the future we will suffer no more; maybe not in my lifetime, but in yours I feel sure."

History, on the other hand, doesn't give a rat's about narrative convention or happy endings. It's harder to keep the faith in things like basic human decency, fairness, kindness, and so on, in the certain knowledge that such virtues have at times been almost eliminated from people's experience, as Auden pithily described in the Shield of Achilles:

"That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third,
were axioms to him, who'd never heard
of any world where promises were kept
or one could weep because another wept."

It is that world -- where promises are kept and empathy is practised and customary -- that I long to inhabit. Progress promised us that world, and I fear it not only has not delivered, it's bidding fair to deliver the opposite, a distorted, brutal and cruel reflection in the shield of Achilles...

OK, getting gloomy here, time to think about something constructive and positive, like the gardening chores I plan to accomplish tomorrow and the fact that over 80 pct of my seeds have germinated and I think that "danger of frost is past" so I can start planting out. I find that dirt is a fine antidote to despair!

Richard Clyde said...

There are a few different levels on which progress can function religiously for someone: there's the airy belief/trust that things get better naturally with time; then there's progress as normative, as a rubric for judging phenomena in moral or similar terms; then there's the progress faith-commitment, in which the believer acts (prudentially in accordance with the first-level belief, ethically in accordance with the second-level rubric, where this amounts to a devotion to enacting or speeding the world's progress however conceived). Then there is the mental concept that better is good; and then the related but more profound mental concepts of time as linear history and time as three-act structure.

The first two seem tractable-- I imagine a lot of readers here have mostly got their heads around them and at least started to set them aside. Partially the third level is accessible, too: it has a lower half, so to speak, that is merely the acting-out of the first- and second-level precepts, and this can be renovated with effort and application once those levels have been grappled with. So, e.g., it's relatively straightforward (if difficult and taxing) to plan for decline and stop vesting identity in serving one's chosen head of progress.

Where it gets a bit stupefying for me is the upper half that is entangled with the mental-level structure of better is good. This is the functionally religious belief that underlies statements like "I want to make the world better" or "I want to improve my life" or "let's figure out how to improve this" or even "progress-faith is bad, what should replace it?" It's hard to see, let alone adjust, and it's the governing model for almost any considered action. How to change that, and what to, and how much? (To beg the admittedly academic question of why...) My intuition suggests one approach might be to think more relationally and less instrumentally, and in my own case maybe that just is the meaning of embarking on the druid path.

As a matter of curiosity, how many levels deep is the current series going? ;)

Joseph Nemeth said...


Well, we crossed in the mail. I still figure this will be more on-topic after a subsequent post, so I'll wait to respond.

mary said...

I got this birthday card awhile ago and I think that it is appropriate here:
"A birthday is the start of another 365-day journey around the sun. Enjoy the ride."
Thanks for your work JMG.

macknacat said...

I'm a long time reader. Gave up progress worship as I watched each month herald some new battery technology that promised to free me from lead/acid expense and ecological trauma on my [now] 30 years of off grid living.

Read Pinker enough to despair of our species' genetic "determinism" : impress the ladies, amass power and glittery stuff, procreate.

In the process of escaping addiction, found spirituality as a useful tool to redefine and act upon long long held destructive habits.

Scared of the old timey fundamentalist duality of some human nature/original darkness vs ecological enlightenment.

But boy do I wonder ....

So. Now we know how to make soap. weld. carpenter. heat n power with the sun. hunt and fish. play music.
read books. meditate. Ruminate on Archdruids. [thank you much sir] and quote some Campbell: "That's what hell is: the place of people who could not yield their ego system to allow the grace of a transpersonal power to move them."

Bill Pulliam said...

Couple of things:

First, the distinction between progress as something accomplished through directed, deliberate work (I made some progress getting the garden together today) versus Progress as the inevitable result of our innate worthiness (we will live among the stars in egalitarian spaceships, it's our destiny). This made me think of the very widespread belief now among evangelical christians that all you have to do is accept jesus as your savior, and you are saved, your place in heaven is guaranteed no matter what you actually do. And in actual practice, I have noticed that Being Saved often does not do much good for someone's personal and business ethics...

As for the shape of time.. neither a line nor a closed curve, not cyclical yet self-similar at all scales.... think I may have a teensy clue as to where you might be going with this...

Ruben said...

Heraclitus +1

I am becoming even more fond of the realization that both religion and science are tools.

Screwdrivers are no good at pounding nails, and hammers are no good at turning screws. So what are the ways of knowing that science and religious experience are best suited for?

Nicholas Carter said...

Yes, and I filter many of my emotional reactions to your criticisms of my religion through the fact that you are effectively trying to save it, it even if only for the practical side benefits of our institutions.
As an aside: Studies of the fandom appear to indicate that zombies and vampires have been used for about 50 now as not-so-subtle parodies of competing cultural groups. In the US, vampires are Democrats practicing some combination of terrible glam or punk rock, premarital alternative sex, and not being Christian despite knowing the religion is objectively true (sic). Zombies in the US are Republicans, shredding the social safety net while advancing the (zombie) community to the detriment of the individual, while converting people to (literally) mindless consumerism.
The glut of zombies in alternate media is a sign of a perception of conservative oppression among the audience, while Edward Cullen is a democra- I mean vampire you can take home to your Mormon parents.

John Michael Greer said...

Dancer, I'd have to see considerably more data about this apparent decrease in violence over time to have an informed opinion on the subject.

Liquid, those are worth reading, as an antidote to belief that experts know the first thing about the future. I particularly recommend those from the 1950s and 1960s, which liked to talk about all the marvels we'd have by the year 2000.

Heraclitus, good. In discussing the social functions of religious belief, by the way, I'm not arguing that religion is nothing but its social functions -- that sort of reductionism is utterly unhelpful in any context -- just trying to point out why these issues matter even to those who don't have, or don't think they have, a religion of their own.

Bozack, interesting. The libertarians I know don't get much into the moral end of progress, but that may be purely a matter of an insufficient sample. As for the wider prevalence of progressive ideas in America, I'll be discussing that later on; there are interesting reasons for it.

Tom, welcome to the conversation.

Eric, thanks for the recommendation! I'll consider it.

Leo, that's a good summary, yes. The fact that specific things can get better, if people make the effort to make them better, should not be confused with the claim that things must get better as a mere function of the passage of time.

Barath, I saw that! As usual, the Onion is way out in front -- and the fact the the joke is even getting made suggests that the corpse of the great god Progress is starting to smell a little.

DeAnander, thanks for the recommendation! I'd say, though, that keeping faith with the core virtues of humanity becomes all the more crucial when it's remembered that nothing but human courage and commitment gives them a place in the world. To get well ahead of my argument, we're talking about the practice of the heroic virtues. Stay tuned...

Richard, the great barrier to an easy answer to your question is that the levels aren't wholly discrete; there are strange loops and interconnections that make the whole thing veer and bend like an image in a funhouse mirror. We're certainly headed all the way into the deep structure of time as understood by different traditions and cultures -- very often, it's easier to start from that end and work from there -- but beyond that, well, climb in and hang on...

John Michael Greer said...

Joseph, if things go according to plan I'll be discussing cyclical time, as well as several other shapes of time, in next week's post; I'll look forward to your response.

Mary, thank you!

Macknacat, it amazes me to watch people keep on betting their future on one imaginary miracle technology after another, none of which ever quite shows up. If batteries taught you the lesson they aren't learning, that's very good to hear.

Bill, the paralyzing sense of entitlement that fills the kind of evangelical religion you've described is, I think, the same as the one that keeps true believers in progress convinced that we've got to get a shiny new energy source because, well, we want one. As for the shape of time, it may not be safe to assume that I'm going to offer a specific shape as the true or best one. "You know my methods, Watson; apply them." ;-)

Nicholas, a fascinating analysis. What does it imply, then, that I find zombies and vampires both insufferably boring?

Leo said...

On the reduction of violence.

Its not a case of time, through when you use Europe as an example it is. Its more to do with social complexity and the rule of law.

Jared Diamond's new book goes over it. The stats from it that I can remember is that the Ikung before law enforcement arrived a homicide rate triple that of the USA's.
The average death toll in tribal societies (as in all, not any specific society) from war is 1% while the highest state, I think it was Russia, average death toll over a century was .36% (including WW1 and WW2).

Basically states have a lower homicide rate (per capita) and for them total war is the exception, while for most tribal societies it was the norm.

So it only changes over time when over factors have been.

zedinhisbigflyinghead said...

|The Shape Of Time is Orange.|

Thats gotta be some real gold star material right there...

morenewyorknews said...

Very good comment but don't be loud. The ethical progressives hate when their intended oppressors complain.
India was sold religion of progress from 1991 and things have reached a peak here. I think ,our progress, which is built on imported crude oil and exports to US,EU,ME might hit huge roadblock when oil prices go up.
One funny thing I want to mention is our former Marxist + Leninist + Maoist communist intellectuals have quickly changed camps and became proponents of religion of progress.
The Communist Party of India is on last decade of its existence since most of its leadership is old and party just can't adjust with modern times. I have never seen a party with so many geriatric senile leaders. The support they used to get from USSR is gone forever. The CPI apparatchiks are now avid capitalists and firm adherents of religion of progress.

yvesT said...

John, because I read it almost entirely, but my comment was a bit stupid and no harm meant. About Baudelaire and rimbaud there are really striking piece along those lines, and maybe my reaction is also around the "dialectic/moralizing" aspect which in fact can be seen as what is for me what is left of the christian religion in many of its current forms when a more mystical, contemplative or quietist also has always existed, together with a "fight" between the two.

Cherokee Organics said...


I really enjoyed your imagery of looking back upon a Golden Age that has now passed. I already feel that this is an accurate frame of reference for a world view.

When I was a young child in the 1970's a single parent in Australia could raise multiple children, support a partner (or not as the case may be) etc. on a single income. Now, this is clearly no longer the case as more often than not both partners seek full time employment, and yet people think that they are wealthier?

It reminds me of Tolkien's extensive background writings to the stories of the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings such as the "Silmarillion". The elves after a long period of expansion in a new world were in a period of slow and gradual decline.

The elves in the stories dealt with the day to day tragedies whilst the world kept turning and at each stroke of misfortune they were that much the poorer.

The historical context in which those stories were written is both fascinating and somewhat enlightening. The parallels can't be ignored.

PS: I got the second and smaller water tank in today and will plumb them up tomorrow so that they equalise. Rain is expected from Sunday night for a few days so this should work out nicely, all being well. The amenity of weather forecasting is not lost on me! It is an amazing service.



Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Johan,

I live with climate chaos on a seasonal basis so understand your dilemma well.

My advice would be to look for the organic agricultural techniques that are being done right now in areas to the South of you.

Experiment with what does and doesn't work and be honest about the results.

Improve your top soil through the accumulation of decomposing organic matter.

Plant a diversity of produce and observe what works too. The results may surprise you especially as we have access to a world of plants that your forebears would have killed for.

Also most importantly look at all of the forests both South and North of your location to observe what is working and how they are adapting.

You may have a short growing season, but you are also blessed with gentle temperatures and a whole lot of sunlight during that growing season.

Make the most of the rainfall and store it in the soil as that is the best place for it.



Steve Salmony said...

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Jeffrey,

Have you ever been truly hungry and still not known where your next meal will come from? I suspect not.

During recent droughts, when exporting countries (eg. wheat, rice etc.) are uncertain about feeding their own populations, they simply shut down exports. Global communications and transport systems does not feed people. Farming feeds people.

As to previous civilisations that you mentioned being reliant on only a single crop - and I'm assuming you live in the US - are you not aware of how much corn is in your diet? Also the conditions that this corn is grown in pose an increasing risk with each season that goes past. Corn is a very heavy feeder. So much so, that I have trouble growing it here.



irishwildeye said...

The Zombie thing is funny, my take on it is that people know deep down that we are in serious trouble, but are unable to come to terms with that. Their sub conscious fears manifest themselves as zombies. I think its a bit like the 1950s alien invasion movies, the aliens were really the soviets, the zombies are really ourselves. Bill Hicks is Dead (who sadly no longer updates his blog) once pointed out that the zombie is a perfect metaphor for an out of control consumer.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi DeAnander,

Slaves again. That game of thrones story has a lot to answer for!

Slaves are part of a business and in any business if you do not have a surplus, you no longer control your assets. It is a simple equation really and it is one that the Industrial world is slowly losing because they are failing to produce a surplus.

Is there not something richly ironic in people in Industrial countries worried or even commenting about slavery when they themselves may work 60 hour weeks for faceless corporations doing jobs they hate. They then go home and watch television for entertainment and are bombarded with messages telling them to repeat the cycle and that it is all OK because it is all part of the expected norm? Meanwhile, people in third world developing countries work 15 hour days to make shoddy products that have a short life using increasingly lower quality raw materials and in the same process are destroying their own environments. The food that the majority eat in Industrial countries is manufactured en masse without care using the cheapest available ingredients and massive quantities of preservatives without concern for the health of those that consume it and meanwhile people console themselves because they are too busy to cook from scratch? What is wrong this picture?

Truly, it massively ironic.



Joeln said...

Very much appreciate your work John.
This one was hard to read. Having the implications of "progressive vs "backward" laid bare is quite unsettling to me. I find myself wanting to find more optimistic sources to read, but most seem built on such flimsy premises they don't help.
I just saw the Atlantic yesterday and the headline proclaims we'll never run out of energy. Methane hydrates for crying out loud. Talk about a diffuse, difficult to harvest energy source.

Bill Pulliam said...

JMG -- Re: Shape of time, oh, of course. This idea is inherently metaphorical, and there's rarely (never?) just one metaphor that serves to illustrate every facet of a concept.

I might note that even the Einsteinian space-time continuum is 100% metaphor, and was intended as a means to help visualize the equations, not as any "real" physical description of the universe.

Jasmine said...

Dear Mr Greer
Great post. There has been a project in western civilization over the last couple of hundred to create more humane societies. It has achieved some spectacular results such as the end of slavery, segregation, free speech, rights for women, ability to vote out governments we do not like etc. There is nothing wrong with such a project, as long as it remains realistic and has some regard to the limits imposed by human nature and of the resource base of a finite planet. It has brought us many benefits. However anyone critiquing our civilizations faith in progress is can to be subject to a lot of misunderstanding. People are likely to think that they are somehow opposed to this project of creating a more humane society, and would not be bothered if things like segregation were brought back. It is easy to see how this confusion can arise and how people might think that if you are against progress, then you most also be against this project to bring about a more humane society. Having read your blog I am sure that you have nothing against the creation of a more humane society. But it is probably a good idea to spell out your position in black and white so that there is no misunderstanding about it.

It is a pity that such misunderstandings arise, because it is our very faith in progress that is putting this project of a more humane society at risk. If you think that history is moving in a trajectory towards greater progress, then this distorts your perception of reality. It becomes difficult to accept that our societies have come up against the limits to growth and are going to be under tremendous pressure. Many of the gains we have made towards a more humane society are likely to go into reverse and its going to be a real struggle to hold onto what we have.

If we think that our modern society is more advanced than all previous societies, then it makes us blind to the glaring moral faults of our civilization. It’s true that our societies have some things that are better than previous societies and are worth preserving, such as democracy, human rights, free speech etc. But when you look at the way we destroy our environment and use up scarce natural resources that future generations need, it is difficult to see our civilization as somehow more advanced or moral than previous civilizations

Andy Brown said...

"As for the corkscrew, though, is it headed in any particular direction?"

Well, it goes where it goes. As long as cause and effect give time a direction, those of us with feet on the ground will have to follow along. Maybe the saints and mystics have another option.

I've done my best to avoid teleologies in my forward-thinking, and taken biological evolution as the best mnemonic: because despite people's best efforts to misunderstand it, there's no future built into evolution - no centripetal force up there to lend shape to our expectations.

Phil Harris said...

You and readers have got your / our teeth into some real substance – i.e. the USA; that large country of consequence held just now in something more than the usual grip of history.

Perhaps a vast majority of US population recognises at the gut level just how utterly helpless they are as individuals especially and increasingly because of the way they have become organised? But how can they engage with the implications of that reality? Reference to old-time skills and somewhat apocryphal habits of ‘self-sufficiency’ has to be something of a comfort blanket? Most, I guess, additionally know that unless a twister comes down their street, sudden apocalypse is unlikely, even if contemplating such events is a welcome diversion from daily reality. Meanwhile, the reality of peak oil etc. and wildly unrealistic consumption patterns play themselves out as time sucks the energy out of Reagan/Thatcher economics. Even then, every rally gives the home team cause for cheer?

In times of dread people turn up at church; in the case of US at the Church of Progress or any old-time religion that has been a constant in US history as a rallying point for expansion?

I think I might begin to understand why, while the growing shadow of Climate Change builds in the USA as elsewhere, it gains less traction in the way of willing understanding or acceptance than in other advanced economies. (Not that the UK can be congratulated for realism!) “Too much, man”, as the saying used to go, if I remember correctly?

Hat tip to Ugo Bardi
“Climate Change Risk Communication:
The Problem of Psychological Denial”

Phil H
PS I like old-time skills and there is much to save and remember! A few years ago I was inspired by the transformation in a dry climate in the USA of a suburban street plot into a water retaining landscape. It is beautiful.

ganv said...

Thanks for the compact framework for conceiving of why people do and think as they do.

Religions partly function to take the complex history that people have experienced and provide a simple explanation that grounds an attitude toward the future. It is one of the great needs of an intelligent know what to do with the opportunity of making decisions today when we are so limited in our ability to predict which actions will lead to which future. The last two centuries really have been an amazing and baffling time of growth of knowledge, wealth, and power to control and destroy our environment. No existing religious traditions predicted this development, so events have upset many of the traditional religious structures, and it is almost unavoidable that a modern religion that better justifies the recent past would develop. The modern religion was required to have exponential economic growth as a foundational principle, since that is a prominent piece of recent history to be explained. (And people's memory of history is short.) The fact that this religion's eschatology predicts violations of known laws of thermodynamics is no more a problem to the believer than the theist's eschatology predicting a non-material heaven that no one has ever seen. The religion's role is precisely to remove the debilitating sense of uncertainty that comes from not knowing what the future holds. But this religion is particularly brittle because its predictions are about physical economic growth and are being falsified as we speak.

The question many are asking is what comes next...economically is the obvious question, but your essay leads to the question of what civil religions will dominate the future. A good guess is that the successful options will provide compelling and partly self-consistent belief systems that explain recent history and provide a framework for humans to live together. Modern science is a good candidate for a piece of the new diety. (not the mid 20th century ancestor that presumed never ending discovery, but the modern version that includes chaos theory and unpredictability along with a sense of limits since everyday life obeys the known laws of physics. ) But modern sciences doesn't provide much guidance about how humans should live.

Rik said...

What if... peak oil turns out as 'not much of a big deal' for Western Europe? Europe is small (driving 3 hours from home to work? in the same hours I can cross the country (from north to south).. I'd have to drive 150km p/h, but still..) & has railroad and waterways all over the place. If need be, there also horses galore..

As for the civil religion of progress, I wonder how many people really believe in that. At NSFW Corp the blogger 'War Nerd" put forward something of a litmus test: true believers put people at the stake for their faith. Since no-one is burned alive anymore for stuff they believe, most religion seems little more than superficial. Not that it won't hurt whenever it's stripped away, but.. how much? Suppose - sorry!- you're questioning something which is already dead?

More worrisome, perhaps, is: how many people will feel just fine as long as they have their, hm, sex & drugs & rock 'n roll?

rylan said...

Take away moral progress, then where does our motivation to work toward positive change come from? Why spend so much time writing this blog if the goal is not to promote a belief system that creates a more sustainable, peaceful, loving society.

The baby and bath water, yes good points on why the bath water needs to be thrown out, but it seems the baby is being thrown out too. ?

John D. Wheeler said...

One view of history that you seem to have left out (and I hope you include it next week) is, as I call it, the wave view, that there are natural ebbs and flows, growth and decay, progress and collapse. It has both linear and cyclical elements. Important contributors to this worldview of mine are Alvin Toffler, Ralph Nelson Elliot, and Nikolai Kondratiev.

Also, I'm curious if you're at all familiar with the Firefly TV series / Serenity movie. I know you don't watch, but it has an interesting anachronistic view of the future which includes both travel by spaceship between planets and travel by horseback on them.

Richard Clyde said...

Helmet and goggles, check. :)

A third "deep" level of relevant religious belief is what one might call the liberal subject, the self that chooses and governs. I don't think this can be set aside, not without violence and damage at any rate, but can perhaps be reshaped and redirected.

Two starting points for open-ended contemplation on that subject: why, in Chris/Cherokee's example, *do* people think they're wealthier when their household needs two incomes instead of one? And how could educators handle children with extreme special needs in a way that is neither "neglect them" nor "commit huge resources to treating them as much as possible like any other student"?

Beyond the immediate scope perhaps, but worth considering.

Rita said...

I have an idea about the strong reactions seen in these comments to calling civil allegiances "religion”. I have been reading The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict by William T. Cavanaugh. Cavanaugh examines the efforts of religious scholars to define religion in such a way that the definition includes the systems they wish to include while excluding those they don't. He concludes that such attempts end in hopeless contradiction. He then challenges the portrayal of the European wars of the 16th and early 17th century as essentially religious conflicts. He points out that Catholic powers were frequently at war with other Catholic powers, and sometimes allies to Protestant powers, and that the mercenary soldiers who did much of the fighting were for hire to the highest bidder, regardless of religion.
Cavanaugh asserts that the nation/state and the extension of those nation/states into empires depended on relegating religion to the private sphere, as a matter of personal choice. Religion is defined as irrational and potentially dangerous. The nation/state is given a monopoly on force. So killing for god is fanatic and irrational, but killing for country is laudable and reasonable.
Look at the narrative growing around the Boston bombers. Defining them as Islamic jihadists immediately relieved us of any discussion about U.S. relations with Russian and Chechnya. To relate this back to the anger about civil religion; it seems that if the point of separating religion from other symbol sets in society is to give those other symbol sets a different and more binding sort of authority, trying to erase that distinction threatens the whole edifice. If we recognize war memorials, the national anthem, the Pledge of Allegiance, inaugural balls and so forth as the rites of a civil religion we might have to face the idea that killing to defend the flag is every bit as irrational, zealous and fanatical as killing to defend a Koran or a crucifix.

Brian Kern said...

John, regarding Attica's response, I think it's important to note that capitalists like to ride the coattails of cheap fossil fuels and claim that all the "progress" that has occurred over the last 200 years was chiefly because of the economic system, rather than the availability of mind-bogglingly cheap energy. It's why the Soviet Union made such leaps as well, despite not having the advantage of the pre-eminent economic system known as laissez-faire capitalism.

Quin said...

Honestly, I'm not a big Jared Diamond hater or anything, but there seems to be so much uncritical laudatory citing of his arguments going on in this comment section that it seems fair to point out that (1) regarding his analysis, he is often criticized for not showing his work; (2) regarding his accounting of trends and traditions of violence in Papua New Guinea, there is a fair amount of controversy as to its veracity; (3) he has a history of expressing pro-business solutions to environmental problems.

Everyone is free to agree or disagree with Diamond as they will, of course, but it might be useful to bear in mind that he is no more an impartial commentator in debates regarding progress than the rest of us.

Stonymeadow said...

re: a more general theme of your blog: Salvage

some useful links to a guy in texas who salavages building material and builds small houses, and now is having workshops to help others salvage.

and just beginning a new series on "salvage mining tutorials"

Quin said...

To any readers who start to feel depressed after absorbing some of JMG's pronouncements, I'd just like to chime in that it was only when I came across his writings that I started to become un-depressed about things. I found great comfort when I was introduced to the lens of comparative historical analysis. Yes, human beings show themselves to be selfish jerkfaces again and again, but by recognizing this as an ongoing situation apparently intrinsic to the human condition (at least when it comes to group trends), it made it much easier to let go of the impotent anger I was feeling at things like state violence and corporate greed. It became much easier to put one foot in front of the other when I simply accepted the shape of the landscape of the world I'm in. It makes no more sense to get angry at humans, en masse, for following in the footsteps of deeply engrained historical trends, than it does to curse the water for flowing along the banks of a river.

JMG, my hope is that for every reader who says that the implications of your writing makes them feel bad, there are is another like me who felt you were helping to lift them out of a dark hole.

Regarding disillusionment in progress, I'd like to just add one thought to this response to DeAnander:

DeAnander, the values you were raised to honour and maintain don't lose any of their force if you recognize that history no longer guarantees them a final victory. Believing that you can't lose is not the only reason for being willing to enter the fight, you know.

Furthermore, this suggests one of the deepest flaws in a worldview resting on the Faith of Progress. If one believes that we are all inevitably headed to a shiny Star Trek future of moral, technological, and economic enlightenment, there's no need to get out of bed in the morning to fight for it. It's going to magically appear someday anyway, isn't it? It has to. Maybe not in this lifetime, but that's okay, as long as we get there some time. Time for some cartoons and cereal.

Of course, the enervating lifestyle of assured success is not very fulfilling at the end of the day. A fight for progress with an uncertain outcome and no permanent success, while less appealing on the surface, brings so much more meaning to life. Because one's ongoing participation really can make the difference between success or failure of the things you hold dearest. That's a real reason to get out of bed.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Greetings to JMG and all,

This is a most interesting series of posts--and comments. I guess my view of progress is that since human nature remains the same and complexity is the natural condition of all life on earth, "progress" must be an illusion. (I'm making the same distinction Bill Pulliam makes between achieving goals, say in the garden, and the Religion of Progress.)

Nevertheless, regarding ethics, cleaving to what we know to be ethical behavior (even while knowing we'll somehow mess up) seems ever more important to me.

I have heard that the human idea of time having a beginning, middle and end--chronological time--is really a human artifact, and that time could be considered to be more like a block within which time-related events don't really go away. This is another version of an Einsteinian metaphor, I think.

So, looking forward to reading more, even if too busy with various projects to comment very much.

K & C said...


On a completely unrelated note, I hope that you're beginning to think about your memoirs. You're not an old man yet but not so young a man that literary reflection is inappropriate. If not quite now, soon!

As a reader I'd want the entire story, both sides of your public persona: the magician and the scholar. A life of the spirit as well as a life of the mind.

No need to put this comment through obviously.


mkroberts said...


Dave Cohen is also considering the religion of progress. He calls you the cleverest doomer he's ever come across but has some criticisms. Do you have any comments on his second point about you?

See the comments section of this post.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG and everyone,

The other irony which is not often mentioned and has interesting historical parallels:

Having to work 20 to 30 years to pay off a mortgage. Is that any different from the experience of the average pension expectations of a Roman soldier. Fight for the empire (and hopefully survive) for 20 years and you'll be rewarded with arable land and a cottage.

Maybe I'm drawing a long bow, but isn't this "dream" the thing that people are fighting for when they support the religion of progress? Fight for the empire and one day you'll have a house to call your own...

It all gets down to the potential gain (and self interest) of the individual. Is this not some warped version of Christianity? Be good in this life and you'll be rewarded.

Dunno, but it is worth considering.


onething said...

It seems that several people are feeling some despair over loss of the moral aspect of progress. Now, it is probably true that some of our progress toward human rights has come about because we no longer needed to exploit human beings quite so much due to fossil fuels, but I see no reason at all that moral progress needs to go down the drain along with automobiles and the like.

Ideals of moral progress, and virtue and heroism, are as old as human culture. As to the coming hard times, societies have been through hard times before; they bring out the best and the worst in people.

I'm sure JMG has no intention of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Let us not beat him to it.

The times which are coming will have many opportunities for the development and retention of compassion, respect for nature, and human rights. They will also have opportunities to think of systems like economics in new and more just ways.

Paul said...

"Not many human motivations can equal religion as a driving force, and I don’t know of any that reliably surpass it."

A sense of injustice will do. Want someone to fly an airliner into a building for you? You don't need God. You need a grievance.

JM said...

Saw a show on PBS the other night where they explored the discovery that ingesting more than the necessary amount of protein keeps the body in continuous growth mode such that it doesn't devote enough time and energy to cell repair, thus increased risk of cancer and other diseases. Seems the same can be applied to the economy,housing, etc. with these ridiculously low interest rates. Recessions/depressions can be beneficial..

derekthered said...

barbarian warlords? might be an improvement, at least it would be more honest.
the old x/y axis, onward christian soldiers and all that.
yes, i agree, history is not a straight line.
our culture is so deep into irreality we don't know which way is up.
half a billion years of evolution is just not enough for some, the hubris is breathtaking.
too much blind faith will blind us, though sometimes that's a blessing.

Lucretia Heart said...

For over 10 years I used to teach in a neopagan circle. One of my favorite lessons was presenting ways different cultures view time: linear, cyclical, the spiral or coil (as combo of linear and circular) and then finally, my favorite-- knotwork patterns! Most of us are familiar with the intricate weaving art style of Celtic knotwork, often with animals as a part of the design.

The point of knotwork patterns, I found through research in college at one point, was that time was perceived close up as sort of meandering yet circling. Up close it could look like the same thing again and again OR like chaos. But step back and you can see the pattern. Once you can see it from the past, you can project the pattern into the future and... well!

I look forward to what you present about time as well!

John Michael Greer said...

Leo, thanks for the details! That seems reasonable enough; states replace oppression.

Zed, colorless green ideas sleep furiously, too.

News, a good many of the recent crop of American neoconservatives were devout Marxists when they were in their twenties, so your local Marxists are following an established trajectory.

Yves, oh, granted, Baudelaire and Rimbaud say some very cogent things along the line of what I'm discussing.

Cherokee, one of the things Tolkien shares with the entire literary movement of fantasy is a clear sense of the nature of decline. It's one of the things that makes his work so relevant to our time.

Steve, thanks for the link.

Irishwildeye, that makes sense. I wonder if the fixation on zombies' appetite for brains is a reflection of a dim awareness, on the part of many people, that they've stopped using theirs.

Joeln, this stuff isn't easy to think about, no, but it's crucial. The stuff that's easy to think about is easy because it moves in harmony with the patterns of thought that are pushing us toward disaster.

Bill, exactly. I have a book on the physics of vacuum tubes, from the 1950s, that starts out by saying that electrons don't exist -- they're simply a mental model that allows us to predict the behavior of electricity. You don't find that sort of clarity very often these days!

Jasmine, exactly! You get tonight's gold star for clarity -- and I'll consider ways to make my own views clearer.

John Michael Greer said...

Andy, good. Many people who embrace the spiral metaphor use it to smuggle progress into the background of a cyclical process.

Phil H., I think most people in the US know at this point that their future is toast -- thus, as you've suggested, the wall of denial. It's those who are willing to face the challenge that might be able to get past that.

Ganv, nicely summarized. I don't think science is a likely candidate, if only because so many people associate it with the current established religion of progress. Still, we'll be discussing that later on.

Rik, how much of the food eaten in western Europe is grown in western Europe? I suspect decline and fall is going to be a much bigger deal there than you suggest.

Rylan, giving up faith in progress doesn't mean giving up on the idea of a better world. It means giving up on the idea that you're guaranteed one, and thus realizing that if you want one, you're going to have to get up off your backside and do something to make it happen.

John, what's your x axis? If it's time and nothing else, your sine wave theory is simply a cyclical theory graphed in a different way. If it's something else, toward what is it moving? As for the TV show et al., no, I don't know a thing about it.

Richard, those are good questions, but you're right that they're not within the focus of this discussion.

Rita, that's a very plausible analysis, and one that makes sense of the ways that civil religions have sidelined or coopted theist religions in modern times.

Brian, that's a good point.

Quin, you may have noticed that I basically don't cite him. My disagreements with Diamond are different from yours, but he's not a writer I find useful.

John Michael Greer said...

Stonymeadow, thanks for the links! This is very promising stuff.

Quin, exactly. Exactly. I sometimes think that it's faith in progress that has been responsible for the extraordinary passivity of the left in recent years. If you're certain of ultimate victory, why worry about the fact that both parties are busy trashing everything you claim to stand for?

Adrian, no argument there. The relevance of ethics is unrelated to the validity of the myth of progress.

K&C, the problem there is that I've deliberately led a boring life. I like quiet, solitude, and routine, and a memoir about that kind of life really isn't that exciting to read.

Mkroberts, his criticism is factually incorrect, embarrassingly so. Those of you who've been reading my posts for a while know that I cite other people quite often: most recently, for example, Nietzsche and Robert Bellah; more generally, a broader range of philosophers and historians than most other peak oil bloggers touch. I suspect the thing that irritates him -- well, other than the religious bigotry that motivates his first point -- is that I don't cite Dave Cohen.

Cherokee, that's a good crisp metaphor!

Onething, exactly. Thank you for getting it.

Paul, religious grievances -- civil or theist -- historically do a much better job of motivating that kind of extreme behavior than other kinds of grievances.

JM, most interesting.

Derek, we call them "drug gang leaders" this time around, but it's the same phenomenon. Get ready for voelkerwanderung...

Fidelius said...

Rik/JMG: The EU is actually a net exporter of food. In fact one of the reasons that agriculture is subsidized in the EU is to avoid becoming dependent on (cheaper) imports. However, in most EU countries agriculture is quite industrialized and thus still dependent on fossil fuels, like in all industrial countries.

Juhana said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bugmethx said...

I can very much find myself in this discourse. People seem to believe that for every problem of theirs, someone somewhere will invent something so they do not have to do anything. This belief can only lead to disappointment.

Escher made a few "circle limit" paintings. In one painting, ever smaller fish crowd a circle, without ever completely filling it. If human knowledge is like this, it would be both infinite in number, and limited in scope. The two do not exclude each other.

Where I agree less with Greer is in some of his more apocalyptic visions of the future. I'd like to point out that we know perfectly well how to manufacture reliable, lasting and repairable products. It's just that money pushes us in the opposite direction.

Fifty years ago, a child could replace a headlight bulb. Many of todays's cars have headlights which are so difficult to replace you need to go to a workshop to have it done for you. There is no incentive for a car manufacturer to manufacture cars where small repairs and maintenance can be done for free by the owner. You'll find similar patterns in electronics gadgets, mobile phones and such.

Johan said...

Hmm... "We are the god who says Ni-hilism"?

I thought you were channeling Spengler, not Palin. The whole religion of Progress fits well his depiction of the Christian God shape-shifting into the Faustian Infinity, with progress itself being an expression of this never-ending striving towards Earthly perfection. And the shifting fortunes of the three heads not only match in content, but in timing as well: as Faustian culture petrified into civilisation, the idea of moral progress became difficult and slightly embarrassing to maintain, and as civilisation hardened further, technology and money assumed ever greater importance - the dominance of technological and economic progress, respectively.

I remember Spengler also had some things to say about various shapes of time, which will probably be relevant further on!

Phil Harris said...

I too like Jasmine's comment and your reply
Jasmine, exactly! You get tonight's gold star for clarity -- and I'll consider ways to make my own views clearer.

Throwing out the baby of humane reform (human rights; accountability of governments; even minimal welfare and law & order with justice), which has seen 'progress', with the 'bathwater' of unrealistic belief in exponential material consumption, is a very bad idea. The distinctions involved need re-iterating often.

However, there is a dilemma. Weighing up what is likely to happen irrespective of our desire to carry over our reforms, can make for confused position taking. I see this all the time in discussions in USA, that 'we' are bound to become exceedingly nasty if the nanny who looks after our comfort zones gets a terminal disease.

I would add that examination of the effects of the outreach of our trading empires (Brit & US, but never under estimate the Belgians)puts our societal progress, our better achievements, into a very lightweight basket weighed in the scales of human behaviour. It is likely the horrific consequences of our expansions and those of Japan will reverberate and blow-back for generations.

Still, I am all for keeping reforms, humane treatment of infants and all vulnerable persons, better types of schooling etc.

You JMG it seems to me have made it clear you still subscribe to your 'ideals' and do not judge them 'unrealistic' with regard to 'human nature?

Phil H

Les said...


Thanks for another provocative essay (& glad to hear the cold frame is coming along - coming up for harvest time here, busy, busy...)

I'm fascinated by those commenters that put forward the abolition of slavery as an example of moral progress (or Moral Progress, depending on the commenter).

Where on earth are people getting the idea that slavery has in any way been abolished?

Moved, perhaps. Renamed, certainly. But abolished? Where do people think their $5.00 t-shirts or $10.00 shoes come from?

Near as I can figure, someone who has a choice between making stuff for starvation wages or actual starvation has no choice at all. Slavery in all but name.

Is the blindness here another aspect of the three headed religion?



Johan said...


Many thanks for your response! Wise words, from one who walks his talk, and very much what I'd like to do. (I do some of it, like gathering leaves and grass clippings and so on from all over, to put into my soil.) I agree it's crucial to look both north and south, since I'm not at all sure we'll see much overall warming around here. I'll add a look to the east, though - Russia has rich gardening traditions and very varying climate, and the same challenges with dramatic shifts in daylight as we do. (I'm just shy of 58 degrees N, which on your hemisphere would be south of all larger landmass.) If they just hadn't spoken Russian... I'm studying it, but it's slow going.

Of course you're right we have several advantages, too. My point was more that it might be risky to look too much backwards, to tradition - we may be facing very untraditional conditions very soon.

Your last point, saving rainwater in the soil - exactly! I wish more people understood this. My garden is quite wet, being on top of a rock slope with flowing underground water, and (some of) my newer neighbours in the gardening association see this as a problem. Rather than watching and trying to exploit this, they want to dig drainage ditches. I've pointed out there might be problems with this, but they shake their heads and say they can't garden in a swamp.

As you often say, oh well!

Thanks, Johan

Master Oogway said...

This article seems relevant. A great set of references as well.
Yet, for all the attempts at formulating yet more technical languages what they all seem to be attempting to do is systematized wisdom.
As I've mentioned elsewhere;
it doesn't matter how hard you study you can't learn wisdom, but you can acquire it.

Bill Pulliam said...

JMG, you know, I frequently wonder if anything "exists" except for the math; or at least the underlying thing that we use mathematics to represent. I contemplate whether 1+1=10 might be the the totality of natural law and a complete description of all existence, and everything else follows as a consequence of it. It's possible you need a second law, i*i=-1.

Wandering afield here, but people who actually come to comprehend some of the more complex mathematical structures sometimes have experiences of beauty, symmetry, and completeness that are very similar to religious encounters.

Bill Pulliam said...

Juhana --

Your comments make me think of a couple of things...

The left/right political division, which is a recurring theme in your comments. For the most part, this is just two of the heads of the God of Progress arguing with each other, the left arguing for the moral progress head and the right arguing for the economic progress head. And both take the technological progress head as a given.

Secondly, there is a difference between traditional ways of life and conservative lifestyle values as you describe them. The former are rooted in the patterns and physical realities of a place, and in your part of the world predate the arrival of christianity by many centuries. The latter are primarily products of conservative second-millennium Christian churches and are not necessarily autochthonous features of the land and the native society. The two may have been conflated, but they are by no means inherently connected.

It might be worth trying to shake that Etch-A-Sketch and re-imagine these things from a clean slate, not strictly from the framework created by the Gods of Progress and traditional Christian doctrine.

Hal said...

I think a lot of people are confusing time's direction with history, and to be honest, it's not something I find easy to get my head around, either.

Time seems to have a direction. No one can turn it backwards. The milk, once spilled, is pretty much spilled for good. Though advanced physics might provide loopholes, I'm satisfied that, for me and everyone else in the world, this is true, with all that implies about the finiteness of our existence.

Since history is basically just an account of events over time, it ought to follow the same rules. Indeed, history made cannot be unmade. But is there any reason to think it follows any kind of trend or pattern? The next step I take is the next chapter in my history, and it can be in any direction, or backwards, or I might fall down.

Oh, dear, I'm afraid we're going to have to deal with free will and determinism.

Mark Rice said...

An essay on "progress":
Why the Internet is a false Idol.

DeAnander said...

@Les yes, I was thinking along those same lines as I mulled over my own fears about a post-cheap-energy world. One thing that fossil sunlight has done for us is to enable the lengthening of supply chains to the point where slavery takes place so far away that it doesn't seem "real". We don't see it right next door. This makes it so much easier to ignore.

The recent sweatshop disaster in Bangladesh illustrates the point: that factory was making cheap clothing for mass-market chain stores in Canada and the US. There is a reason why those clothes are so cheap...

It has been said, and I tend to believe it, that nothing recognised by our historians as a "great civilisation" has been built without slavery. It takes the systematic deprivation of a large group of people to concentrate the resources needed to maintain another, smaller group of people in the luxury and idleness required to cultivate all the not-terribly-useful refinements of "great civilisation" -- like objets d'art, monumental architecture, cumbersome legal codices, etc. All the "great achievements" of our own industrial civilisation were built on the brutal exploitation of humans (not to mention other animals, but let's not even go there). How many low-wage Chinese labourers died building the railroads that we greenies laud as the clean, sensible, virtuous alternative to car culture? I have no idea and I don't know who does.

Not that the railroads aren't of intrinsic value; I'm not saying we should tear them all up (that would insult the memory of the builders even more, imho). By all means they should be maintained, revived, and treasured. But still, they were built by the moral equivalent of slave labour. I think I would rather live in a culture of decline, slowly mining the wreckage of slave-built luxuries for our present necessities, than continue as a citizen of empire victorious. Maybe that's a good thing, 'cos it doesn't look as if we have much choice about our historical moment.

Meanwhile, I sit on the Board of the local food co-op and push as hard as I can for more local fresh produce, better deals for local gardeners and farmers, year-round production of greens, etc. Food security starts at home :-)

Juhana said...

@Cherokee Organics: Updated version of my earlier, sloppy post. Our previous conversation showed that you consider intensive gardening superior over farming with plough, when it comes to ecological sustainability. I have to disagree. Farming produces much bigger yelds, and it can be done without soil degration.
Before industrialisation really kicked off here, peasants were using three year cycle to rotate their fields. First year they raised rye on the field. After harvest season field was enriched with animal dung, rich mud from bogs and twigs from pines and firs. They were ploughed into the field. During second year they sowed only spring grain and peas, later frees nutrients into ground. During third year field was left to fallow.

This system feeds back to ground nutrients, oxygen and speeds up mycelium growth. Rich top soil does not get impoverished over time.

"Organic" farmers (=meaning old-school farmers) using this system are getting quite reasonable results even today. If connected to usufructuary right to hunt and fish certain amounts during respective seasons of prey, this kind of farming allows substantial amount of crops being raised without rising long term problems, and balanced nutrition with enough protein sources.

There is video series presenting children how people did agricultural work old-school and how people lived during old times... Series is very popular in book format over here. If I remember right, there was one television episode giving rough picture how they farmed old-school... It could have been funny to watch, picture tells more than thousand words. I cannot find it, but this stuff is quite warm-spirited and nice, so enjoy this period presenting domestic work :).

Unknown said...

@Phil Harris--some pre-industrial societies have had provision for basic welfare for needy people who can't get help from their relatives.

The example I'm most familiar with is ancient Israel. Leviticus 19 and 23, Deuteronomy 24 and Ruth 2 cite a law that farmers were forbidden to harvest the corners of their fields or to go over the same field twice when harvesting. The poor, widows and resident foreigners had a legal right to enter anyone's field after it was harvested and glean the leftovers.

Ancient Israel apparently had a labor law requiring that day laborers be paid daily before they left the work site, and a law preventing hereditary debt slavery by forgiving all debts every fifty years.

Israel had a state religion, so these laws had both religious and civil backing.

There was a good deal of economic inequality in the kingdom of Israel. The Hebrew prophets were social critics and one of them complained that wealthy people had bought up all the small holdings so that ordinary people had nowhere to farm or build a house.

Heraclitus the Obscure said...

Sometimes I wonder if Western Civ hasn't been building towards a Parmenidean crisis since the 6th century BC. The conventional opinion on the two best known Presocratics, Parmenides and Heraclitus, is that Heraclitus was a disciple of radical flux ("you cannot step into the same river twice") while Parmenides was the apostle of complete stability ("you cannot speak of nonbeing"), which reveals just how much our culture has subjected Heraclitus to the logic of Parmenides.

Heraclitus has a great deal in common with the mythopoeic thought-styles that preceded him, in that he appreciated the humming tension strung within a paradox. Marcel Detienne framed myth as a style of thinking where the truth is found in a field of ambiguity between two complementary contraries. Heraclitus broke with many elements of the Homeric and Hesiodic tradition he inherited, but he knew that a space of ambiguity was where the truth usually lies. His river statement does not say that you cannot step into the same river twice, it says that you both can and cannot step into the same river twice. It's revealing that English translators always chose to collapse the ambiguity and thereby render Heraclitus the philosopher of flux—thereby subjecting him to Parmenidean logic, the logic of non-contradiction.

Parmenides refused to inhabit the uncertain space between being and non-being. He insisted on collapsing the paradox and flattening out the tension, and thereby bequeathed the principle of non-contradiction as the most hallowed law in the Western tradition of thought. It's achieved fantastic successes, because it is beautiful suited to the systematising and scientific imperatives of instrumental rationality. But it's proved itself to be extremely limited in the social sciences, the humanities, art, ethics, and religion.

One of the things that we seem to be touching on here is that meaningful life happens in a space of tension and ambiguity. Nobody wants to live in a perfect world, but nobody wants to live in a directionless chaos either. The Western propensity for drawing a single principle out to its logical conclusion, and insisting that we abhor paradox and reverence the logic of noncontradiction, seems to compel us to choose between Nihilism or Utopianism. It's refreshing to see so many people dissatisfied with that choice, feeling either to suck the pulp out of life.

Of course, this Parmenidean fairy tale is just one of many other stories you could tell; but it strikes me as a useful one. I think our culture could benefit from thinking a little more like Heraclitus, and a little less like Parmenides.

Joseph Nemeth said...

Zombies -- on the nose.

Werewolves. Let's see... sprouts hair all over the body, becomes hideously strong, develops a raging sexual appetite, voice becomes an inarticulate howl -- any men in this group not remember being a werewolf? Then ask your mother about it -- she'll remember.

Vampires. Hmm. Immortal. Aristocratic, accustomed to the fine things in life, but cannot enjoy them. Shrivel up in direct light, thrive in darkness and secrecy. Incapable of reflection. View the entire human race as food. Yet some claim they are people, my friend, and that they can be taught to love....

I've heard that mermaids are making a comeback. I haven't grasped what that one is all about, yet....

KL Cooke said...


"...I would say that the vast majority of Americans are “morally progressive” in terms of issues such as voting rights, abolition of slavery etc."

On could argue that we haven't abolished slavery so much as outsourced it. The recent factory collapse in Bangladesh highlights the conditions under which many are forced to live in the globalized search for ever cheaper labor. In many respects their lot is worse than traditional slavery, since a slave is a capital investment and thus warrants a certain amount of care, the way one cares for one's automobile. "Independent contractors," on the other hand,are replaceable at no cost. To many Americans, if not the majority, slavery is acceptable, just "not in my back yard."

Juhana said...

@Bill Pulliam: Sorry, I deleted my earlier comment because description of three year cycle of farming was inadequate in it. In the new post I left out all political talk, so... But if you are ever starting small-scale farming, this "cycle of three" (=bad translation)is very good ground thesis to start with, supplemented with newer information about feeding nutrients back to Mother Earth without Green Revolution products... Just remember that when you have cast iron plough, welding fractures is hard work, and you have to have hammer with you, because welding material does not "stick" easily into cast iron and tends to drip... So just hammer it into fracture gently after warming and let it cool.

Phil Harris said...

Thanks for the quotes from a particular pre-industrial society. My view is that being human has always been hard work, but 'human nature' can take all sorts of turns. Mass societies for sure (or even not so 'mass' by our standards) have found their path-dependent way to 'social pathologies'. I have seen a reasonable-sounding argument based on studies of extant pre-agrarian people that ancient Israel documents one such 'Fall' from pre-lapsarian society and records the culture-shattering event of becoming irreversibly condemned to agriculture, and to the moral dangers therein. Israel seems to have acquired about that time their version of formal 'rule-based' morality as distinct from the previous mostly self-correcting familial kind. Living with large adjacent agrarian civilisations was never going to be easy. (Anthropologist Hugh Brody attempted an explanation of this thesis based on his experience with Inuit in the highly readable The Other Side of Eden

I believe condemnation of usury and 'debt jubilees' has a complex history and there is a noteworthy example in the reforms of Solon about 594 BC. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire Christianity (ex-imperial religion) made the case against usury for many centuries and Islam still does. There is an interesting discussion of the dangers of usury and plutocracy in a recent paper from IMF Research (not to be confused with IMF political leadership).
You need to scroll down a bit to get to the historical intro:- Kumhof et al, The Chicago Plan

Phil H

Renaissance Man said...

Good day.
What you're discussing has seemed self-evident to me for decades but I have never been able to articulate it, so thank you for doing it for me so clearly.
There is one point, it touches on last week's exchange about the story of natives not being able to see Columbus's ships.
It also touches on another comment to a previous post a few years back, on the topic of progress where you wrote about continually being asked if you think "children are more evolved" by which the questioner assumes that each generation becomes more morally and spiritually aware.
The original story that I heard many years ago was when the first Spanish explorers arrived in the Terra Del Fuego, they cam ashore and the locals were quite shocked to see them. Not because they didn't know about sailing, but because the seas are so rough in that part of the world, they had never developed ships capable of sea voyages out of sight of land and it had simple never occurred to them that other places might be able to do just that.
Their worldview and technology had been shaped by what was possible with what they had.
That one I believe. The locals had boats, but they had never built ships. They were isolated & were simply confronted with a technology that they had not imagined before, much the same way as the Central American tribes were confounded by steel breastplates on the conquistadors which could not be pierced by their weapons.
Somehow that seafaring story has been twisted into the pop new-age spirituality story about 'seeing the world' or 'creating the world' along with other misinterpretations such as 'nothing is real and we are imagining all this' (I've always had to suppress a desire to toss a brick at anyone saying that just to see if they could de-imagine it before it smacked them in the face).
Now I'm not sure if I'm reading into that variant story elements of racism, or perhaps some modern echo of the Noble Savage, but there is definitely in that story the idea 'if you can imagine it, you can make it happen', which seems to me exactly the sort of story that people who have lost a firm grasp of the concept of limits would tell themselves. The sort of story that goes along with space exploration and, of course, the myth of progress that has been built on the reality of increased technological complexity and precision.

Bill Pulliam said...

Juhana -- the three year rotation was common here in the American South too, though the fallow year was skipped. It was traditionally corn, beans, and something else. The "something else" was often tobacco.

Before European settlement, native Americans in this region often used a triple interplanting of corn, beans, and squash. As they had no horses, they used the dense interplanting to control weeds rather than the plough.

richard said...

@ Heraclitus the Obscure

Heraclitus spoke.
So did Parmenides.
Stop right there,
not all of language is a gift.
But we can't stop talking

Bozack said...

K L Cooke,

I can't really disagree with you, but the majority of Westerners (personally I am from New Zealand) are able to psychologically insulate themselves from this truth. We can pat ourselves on the back for banning child labour centuries ago in our own countries while the cotton t-shirt we pat was made by a child in a sweat-shop...

One can consider oneself a moral progressive and also be a hypocrite - possible mental tricks might include claiming that just as we left slavery and child labour behind Bangladesh will eventually do so too and our $$ will help them: they are on the same progressive path but simply a few stages behind, education, a middle class will rise blah blah blah....

I don't really believe this myself but my original point was just around people's beliefs about moral progress not about the coherence of those beliefs when put under scrutiny....

Mark Angelini said...

Sounds a lot like "The Secret".

valekeeperx said...

As a recovering Progressian (1 yr+ now), many thanks for helping to clear the fog. Many thanks also to fellow commenters here for providing similar insights and clarification. Most of the things discussed here make perfect sense to me, things for which I previously had a rather fuzzy comprehension, just could not or had not been able to crystallize mentally.

One thing that I’ve been cogitatin’ upon in recent weeks is the subject of communication itself. For various personal reasons, this has become a new area of particular focus for me. I wonder if more disputes are generated merely from the use of different communication styles and perceptions about communication than from actual or substantive differences of opinion or perspective. For instance, I come from a scientific background and tend to have a more precise understanding and use of vocabulary than my wife who comes from a literary and artistic background and tends to have a more impressionistic understanding and use of vocabulary. I think that one source of many of our disputes over the years has been my focus and insistence on precise meanings and understandings of words and that she is misusing and misunderstanding words. Doggone it, she is not behaving in accordance with the holy writ of reductionist explication. Fortunately, in recent years, I have mellowed, unclenched my sphincter, and broadened my perspective.

It seems that a similar phenomenon, that is, use of different communication styles and perspectives, played out here in the comments following your last few posts. Many were insisting that religion had a very specific and precise definition and that the word was being misused. In fact, many cited specific sources (holy writ) for this specific and precise definition of religion, while continuing to insist that certain isms were not isms.

English is a very flexible and dynamic language, more so than many other languages, yes? It allows the easy and nuanced formulation of new words and combinations of words. Complexity and novelty being key components of Progress, I also wonder if one of the functions of academia, besides thaumaturgy, profit, etc., is the production of new and improved, and more complex words. The output of which is evidence of progress. At any rate, how does the character of the English language affect or inspire the progress-oriented perspective? I.e., by its nature, does it tend to encourage “progress” and the idea of progress? Or, has the Religion of Progress just taken advantage of its character? Because of our language’s evolution over time, maybe it only makes us feel that we are progressing.

John Michael Greer said...

Fidelius, thanks for that detail. That's good to hear -- subsidized or not, having one's own agricultural needs met internally is likely to prove vitally important in the years ahead.

Bugmethx, equally, the post-Roman world knew perfectly well how to maintain the rule of law and good roads. It was just that the necessary resource base and the basis of social order didn't exist any more.

Johan, funny! I've been influenced by both -- in fact, it would be worth imagining a theatrical version of "Untergang des Abenlandes" put on by the Python crowd...

Phil H., I don't consider them unrealistic at all. I do recognize that liberty is a commons, and has to be maintained -- as all commons must be -- by measures that impose hard limits on those who try to abuse them; I also recognize that imposing those limits may be easier said than done in the real world, under certain quite common sets of historical conditions. They're still worth striving for.

Les, exactly. We have to be better than our ancestors, because the gospel of Progress tells us so...

Master O., which article was that?

Bill, Pythagoras comes to mind!

Hal, the only way to see if history has any kind of direction is to look at the 5000 years or so of history we have, not just in overview but in detail, and see what we can learn. That's the relevant evidence, and trying to come to a conclusion in advance of the evidence is not a good idea.

Mark, thanks for the link.

Heraclitus, it hasn't been building toward that crisis since the 6th century BCE, because it's slammed headfirst into that crisis at least twice since then -- in the latter days of classical philosophy, and in the late Middle Ages. You're right, though, that we may be facing round #3 now.

Joseph, myself, I'm partial to mantichores.

Renaissance, thanks for the info on the "invisible ships" meme. If you happen to find a good citation or two, do let me know!

Mark, where did you think "The Secret" came from? Standard rehash of progress-worship...

Valekeeperx, that's an interesting speculation, the answer to which is by no means certain to me -- not least because strange loops between languages and the worldviews that shape and are shapes by them are par for the course.

flute said...

One thing that I've observed is that people in general tend to interpret long cyclical trends as linear (or perhaps exponential) trends. Especially when an upwards trend (in progress/growth) has been in place for a time longer than "human memory".
The USA have generally been in a progress/growth phase since WW2, and since most of the people currently alive were born during this phase and never experienced anything else, they have come to view this as the natural state of things, even though all cyclical world views (and studies of history) indicate that there will at some stage come a long regress/degrowth phase when the upwards phase is over.
But the world doesn't work like that - it moves in waves or cycles of varying length, some of them very long (e.g. climate). People living in a long up wave tend to dismiss the downward part of the wave pattern (which they have read about in history books or perhaps heard about from their parents) as an exception.
I see another aspect of the same thing here in Sweden. We have not been at war since 1814, which has lulled the people of Sweden into believing that we have made some remarkable progress to a permanent new state of blissful peace and that we will be able to keep out of wars for the foreseeable future.
On a shorter time scale the various credit bubbles have shown another side of the same belief in progress which results from long uptrend waves. Credit-fuelled growth had (until 2006-2008) been going on for so long that people saw it as the normal state. The credit crashes we've seen in various markets over recent years of course shows that we've now entered the downside of the credit cycle. As usual the change from growth to degrowth in credit has not come all at once - some markets or countries have crashed, while others still have the credit crash ahead of them (e.g. China).

Cherokee Organics said...


It is weird isn't it that fantasy authors can happily portray images of decline whilst it is generally treated as a taboo subject in society?

I spent a fair bit of today bringing the winter firewood stores under cover from the various sites about the place that they're seasoning (there are a couple of years of firewood at any one time seasoning). It got me thinking about the issue of planning as in my lifetime, I've observed that people have more difficulty with this than a decade ago.

Anyway, I wonder whether a solid belief in the religion of progress removes – in people’s minds - the tedious necessity of planning?

I realise this sounds like a generalisation, but if you (not you JMG, but a progress believer) sincerely believe that in the future, things will be easier and there will be more stuff and energy, then why waste the time planning?

A person simply puts their faith in progress and somehow the system delivers. Perhaps it explains why so many people that I come across are asleep at the wheel? Dunno, I'd love to be wrong, but somehow I find this thought / concept to be rather frightening.



Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Richard,

That is a really difficult and contentious subject. It also depends on how you define the term work. We think of work as 9 to 5, but this is simply an accepted norm and not what it need look like at all.

Society has different resources available at different times with which it can allocate to special needs children. The concept is not a static concept at all.

Perhaps redefining expectations of work and/or care is where the resources will come from? Who knows?



rylan said...


You said,"At any rate, how does the character of the English language affect or inspire the progress-oriented perspective? I.e., by its nature, does it tend to encourage “progress” and the idea of progress? Or, has the Religion of Progress just taken advantage of its character? Because of our language’s evolution over time, maybe it only makes us feel that we are progressing."

I would like to make an attempt to answer this question because at least from my aspie perspective i feel it is a critically important concept that needs to be better understood.

Yes, I think language has a major impact because of the way most people seem to use language as their primary thinking modality. My experience leads me to believe that this causes dysfunctional thinking which builds into dysfunctional belief systems.

As a right brain aspie type I have sort of the opposite challenge. I mentally process primarily in patterns, then pictures and much less so in language. So I tend to miss concepts that are totally obvious to most.

From my perspective the concept that there would ever be a predetermined, somehow built in path of positive progress was inconceivable. That is there is no known pattern that would in any way support this.

So i think you are correct in that i strongly suspect that thinking in language predisposes people to dysfunctional believes such as this.

best to all...

John D. Wheeler said...

Thank you, John, your question tells me you will not be covering it. I cannot do wave theory justice in a simple comment, but it is as much dependent on place as it is time, so it doesn't reduce to a simple cycle. In addition, time is a completely hidden variable, we humans only perceive events: sunrises, solistices, the ticking of a clock, which come with regularity, but also births, deaths, new jobs, disasters, etc., that come at various times, both of which affect our perception of time.

What the independent variable is in these multidimensional waves can be just about anything you want, energy use, population, knowledge, etc. Of course, these waves are not independent, they do interact strongly.

My point in mentioning Firefly is the idea that we could go "forward" and "backward" (from the perspective of the Religion of Progress) simultaneously. I think that is why it developed a very loyal fan base for a show that had very few episodes.

Heraclitus the Obscure said...

@ JMG,

That's a very interesting typology. If I take your meaning correctly, you mean that those are the two previous points at which Western Civ has allowed itself to be captivated by a dominant meta-narrative supporting a unified (or quasi-unified) extractive imperium, which it then pursues to the point of ecological exhaustion and political dysfunction, leading to ideological collapse?

I have a sense of the Late Antique example, in the sense of a grand imperial narrative that comes to maturity with Vergil and then is Christianized by Eusebius (and really never dies in the Byzantine world), but is rejected by Augustine and his successors during the collapse of the West.

I have a little less of a sense of what you refer to in the late middle ages. Do you mean the drawn out crisis of the 14th century (deforestation, climate change, plague, the Hundred Years War) and the climate of religious upheaval that it fuels, which starts before it with Hildebrand and flowers after it with Luther? Or do you mean the revolutions in mindset that start at the end of the 15th century and flower in the European Enlightenment of the 18th century, more commonly linked with the intellectual impact of printing, travel, and experimental science?

Please don't waste time on an extended reply if we are already heading towards a thorough explanation anyways, but I'm very interested in your perspective on the relationship between the ideological tectonics and the harsh ecological realities of carrying capacity, if that makes any sense. I get very frustrated sometimes, because most historians do a very poor job of putting those features into dialogue, instead of privileging one at the expense of the other. One of the features of this blog I really appreciate is your ability to avoid that.

@ richard

I'd like to respond, but could you be a bit more specific?

Are you referring to the difficulty of reconstructing the thought of Parmenides and Heraclitus on the basis of their very fragmentary writings? (In which case, you have a more than fair point.)

Or do you mean that they are entirely peripheral to this discussion?

I don't have much of a sense of what you meant to convey besides a vague finger-steepling putdown

(My apologies if I have read you wrong on this).

John Michael Greer said...

Flute, no argument there. It'll be interesting to see how the Swedish people respond as things start heating up toward the next European war.

Cherokee, I've noticed that, and you're right -- it's frightening.

John, my, we're into jumping to conclusions today, aren't we?

Heraclitus, exactly. When cultural narratives freeze up into what I'd call a pseudo-Parmenidean stasis, a major crisis is usually close at hand. One of the places in which my analysis differs from Spengler's, say, is that I see medieval Europe as a distinct civilization of its own, with its core in central Europe and Italy, that went to pieces in the 14th-16th centuries and was replaced by the nascent modern European civilization centered on the Atlantic rim.

Kathleen K said...

After almost three years, I think I'm finally starting to understand the counterspell you gave us against the incantations of Progress.


Also, I found this on the facebook page of an (American) gun rights activist group:

"Statism" seems to be a far more value-laden term for your civil religions, or at least a subset of them.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

@flute--Currently HBO is in the third season of A Game of Thrones. The success of the series n=might be attributable to its being based on a best selling series of fantasy novels and having the trademark HBO sex, nudity, violence, high production values, good acting and good writing. That's no guarantee of success; the series Rome had everything except the best-seller base and didn't last three seasons.

There are many fantasy novels set on earthlike planets with medieval technology and social arrangements and supernatural elements. What gives this particular imaginative universe a larger audience? Perhaps the premise of George Martin's world construction, that the planet has seasons which last for decades and are unpredictable in duration. Ordinary people take the climatic conditions of their youth for granted and do not prepare for change.

The family motto of one of the important noble houses in Westeros is "Winter Is Coming."

That reminds me of the lyrics of one of the songs from the A side of Bob Dylan's "Highway Sixty-One Revisited":

The wintertime is coming;
The window's all filled with frost.
I went to tell everybody,
But I could not get it across.

Rather a lot of Bob Dylan's songs from the Sixties use weather as a metaphor for other kinds of change.

Incidentally, I'm the Unknown who wrote about poor laws in ancient Israel.

DeAnander said...

@Cherokee re planning: absolutely. One of the hardest thing about reskilling is reviving the habit of planning. You have to plan what to plant; you have to plan when to plant it; you have to plan your life around the harvest; you have to plan ahead to have your canning supplies ready to go; you have to plan space to store the harvest. All this is not even in the lexicon of the average urban/suburban dweller any more; you just go to the store and grab whatever you feel like eating today.

Firewood: you cut, haul, split, stack it in the winter when it's cold out (which makes the heavy work more bearable, btw). Then it takes a whole summer to dry it out enough to make good stove fuel. You don't suddenly think in late October, "Oh my, I need some firewood." You stack it carefully in the shed so that the oldest stuff is readily available, alternating sides. You lay in at least 2 winters' worth, just in case there's an injury or illness and you have to miss a season of cutting. Everyone used to know this. How many people know it now?

There's a way in which urban/suburbanites live in an endless Now, a perpetual present moment with no past or future, no consequences for past choices (you can consume as much as you like and never run out) and no need to plan ahead (because you can always just throw some money at the problem and solve it right now).

Was just talking to my podner earlier today about the frustration of "Just In Time" inventory, or the new reality that the average store doesn't *have* a lot of the stuff they advertise. It's all about "we can get it for you overnight." But that presupposes whimsical, cheap travel options; the customer can always come back tomorrow, at very little cost, to get the stuff that arrived overnight.

Fast forward (or backward) to where we live, where transportation is *expensive* because "town" and shopping are 2 ferry rides away. This "overnight" stuff is useless. We have to *plan* our trips to town, and they are costly. We cannot be whimsical. Transportation is a major issue in both time and expense. This is how life used to be (at least, out in the boonies, which was once the reality of most of the population). This is how life will one day be again: involving a lot of planning, optimising, conserving of time and fuel. I feel fortunate to be settled in an environment that reminds (and forces) me to think strategically, to re-awaken that dormant planning facility, an environment that imposes limits, gets me just a little bit further from that timeless cornucopian Now.

richard said...

@ Heraclitus the Obscure

No putdown at all, enjoyed your comment.

valekeeperx said...


Language does indeed have a major impact, though, I’m not sure that I would go so far as to say that using language as a primary thinking modality necessarily causes dysfunction. Language, like any tool, can be used and misused, for a variety of purposes and outcomes. For sure, when wielded crudely or unconsciously, language may lead to unhealthy conditions.

My main point, in the section of my comment that you highlighted, was to suggest that perhaps the character of the English language may support or encourage the Religion of Progress.

Best regards

Chris G said...

I've taken a couple days to think over the article and comments. I think it's a good sketch, and I anticipate the fun of going further, but I wanted to offer some reflections.

After the last article, "An Aside to My Readers", I commented that perhaps there could be moral or spiritual progress after the Descent. Indeed, it would be a true progression to maintain (much less extend) the ethical society we have in America. On reflection, i don't think this is likely. It's even now largely illusory.

The United States hardly ended slavery; we merely exported it. We have women's suffrage, we've maintained habeas corpus, privacy, due process, trial by jury, etc, I would argue, largely because of the technological and economic progress of the particular time in which we all find ourselves. America has been an amazing one-time opportunity for free society. There are no more undiscovered countries to steal from natives and start another experiment in liberty and equal representation.

It's natural to perceive the world relative to ourselves, and at this particular moment in this country, it seems like progress is really true to most people. Much of our self-centered notion of progress in America, however, is based on violence - theft of the world's resources. That doesn't look like progress to me, really. But it does look natural. It's always been there in history. Human societies have always been very hierarchical, and America, by dint of really amazing circumstances, is at the top of the hierarchy now.

It's interesting to imagine that technology might allow us to transcend hierarchies. The most pleasant kinds of sci-fi have done this. But, it's much more likely that technology will just solidify those hierarchies.

So, to be clear, I take the moral and ethical standard to be something like what Kant called the kingdom-of-ends - all humans are ends. It's not that way now, nor has it ever been, except in small communities. It seems preposterous to really expect that it ever will be on a global scale. Violence has always ruled, technology doesn't mitigate it, it increases the violence. Dreams and ideals, religious, spiritual or otherwise, simply act as healthy rationalizations of the terrifying and inevitable violence - some reason, perhaps in the future, for the all-too-human irrationality of violence. I've been working on practicing meditation lately: this is basically to get out of time, shut down the linear, abstract, rational thinking mind. I do feel in my body those relieving effects.

So it became interesting to imagine what of the technology might remain after the decline, and it seems the most likely candidate is the one that is cheapest on the resource meter: the communication network. It seems fairly open now, although mostly hierarchical and top-down. What shape will it take in the future?

Joseph Nemeth said...

Perhaps I've simply missed something here.

It's been said that a man’s religion is the thing he can’t bear to have questioned.... [N]one of [my proposals] has fielded me as many spluttering denunciations as the suggestion that belief in progress is the most important civil religion of the modern industrial world.

Why would calling a belief in progress a "religion" be considered calling the belief into question? Certainly, calling Christianity a "religion" in the Middle Ages did not in any way call Christianity into question.

The reason is that in common modern usage, "religion" means "an irrational belief in something that is not true."

To say that someone "got religion" is to say that he's been hoodwinked. To say that a matter is a "religious issue" is to say that it's not discussable, as it is bound up in unreason and blind faith. To say that John Michael Greer (or Joseph Nemeth) has "bought into the religion of peak oil" is to dismiss the concept of peak oil without argument, and to insult the believer(s) as foolish.

This isn't what the word "religion" means, but it IS how it is used. It's a pejorative.

Of course, no one enjoys being called a fool.

I think this is perhaps closer to the core of these "spluttering denunciations" than any more substantive disagreement. The splutterers simply feel insulted.

Of course, your point is that the belief in progress is an irrational belief in something that is at root impossible (and therefore not true), so calling it "religion" does not reclaim the term, but reinforces its pejorative connotation.

I think this is going to come up again as you move into discussing the religions of the future.

Incidentally, I don't take the term this way, any more than I take the word "mythology" to mean "a fictional bedtime story for children." Perhaps most of your readers don't, either. But I'll bet the splutterers do....

Chris G said...

I want to add one other comment for consideration. JMG, you've already observed, I think correctly, that most people don't think of scientific progress and technological progress separately. A good demonstration of this is the global warming paralysis: since slowing the use of fossil fuels slows our energy consumption, thus the human capacity to bring scientific knowledge into use and gain power over the material world, the overwhelming scientific consensus around the subject steadfastly resists acceptance. I think this is largely related to the aforementioned hierarchical and violent structures of human society. Still, it does demonstrate your point that they are linked in the public's perceptions and ideals.

Having said that, the linkage between scientific and technological progress is still fallacious. We can have increasing knowledge of the world (scientific and philosophical) that does not alter our relationship to the environment, and it is still good. In fact, as others have commented, recognizing things like thermodynamics helps us understand our place and relationship. This is scientific progress without technological progress. Likewise, studying social and political relationships and human behavior (essentially what we are doing) is scientific knowledge that doesn't necessarily result in adopting the technological creed of mastery over the material world; rather, healthy and sustainable balance with it.

I would count this latter understanding as science, kind of in the more classical "natural philosophy" sense. It may be wise therefore, to decouple the notions of scientific and technological progress. I think it goes back to all of us (particularly Americans) being at this unique moment in history where we don't really have to do much work for a living, the fossil fuels do it for us. It's new, it's the fascinating illusion of achievement after thousands of years of strife and struggle. But still an illusion.

Heraclitus the Obscure said...

@ Richard

My sincere apologies. Looking at your original wording, I did not take the time to process it to its conclusion.

Very rude of me, and thank you.

Chris Travers said...

One aspect of a post industrial society though is that rather than a "return to virtue" it may be a "transformation of virtue."

One of the most interesting (and challenging) books on history of economic freedom I have ever read was "The Servile State" by Hillaire Belloc. Belloc's understanding of ancient slavery and his ability to communicate it in simple yet accurate terms is one thing that makes the book worth reading from an historical perspective. But the book is largely about how the end of the Roman Empire effectively meant a transition for the lowest classes from slavery slowly to peasantry. If one looks beyond the progressive mythology that the author has, it is worth noting that he credits the disruption of central authority with this transformation.

Now if he is right then certain evils of today will no longer be sustainable, and moreover I would argue we will have to move back to a household centric economy. These are moves that I personally see as virtuous. A lot of other quasi-property rights would, like debt slavery, have to become unenforcible (patents and copyrights come to mind). Large corporations could not sustain themselves. On the other hand social welfare, anti-discrimination and a whole slew of other laws could not be enforced either.

So if there is to be a return to virtue it will not be a matter of "progress" but an exchange, giving what could be accomplished through central administration for what could be accomplished by democratized access to productive property. That this might well be a net positive says more about the last century than it does about general historical trends though.

Chris Travers said...


I think it is true that for some definitions of progress we see some long-term trends, but these very long term and you can't extrapolate from short trends. For example the shift from bronze to iron in the short run resulted in a significant degradation of the quality of tools that were made, and it took literally centuries for tool quality to surpass where it was at the end of the bronze age. The tool quality did eventually surpass, but it wasn't because "oh look, we found something better!" but rather "hmmm we have to use this crap?? Well might as well make the best of it....." In fact you can see centuries of smiths struggling with the new material, for example through the entire La Tene era.

Interestingly the so-called dark ages represent important steps forward in metallurgy which could not occur in the very innovation-centric Roman Empire.

But the problem over such things has to do with what we know how to exploit effectively. As things like oil and coal become more expensive so too become things like plastic, steel, and concrete. Leaving aside the energy questions for a moment (which touch all kinds of things), just from a materials perspective we would have to find replacements for all these things. So effectively we are going backwards to before fossil fuels became widely exploitable and we don't have anything to fall back on.

Chris Travers said...

Finally, on re-reading this one area I would offer a different perspective on, which is the nature of scientific knowledge.

The best and most thorough trouncing of the idea of scientific progress as popularly conceived was written by none other than Werner Heisenberg, who was one of the greatest scientific minds of the 20th century. I am referring to his book, "Physics and Philosophy" which really is a must read.

What is most interesting about Heisenberg's critique of the modernist, progressive view of science is that he bases his view on a very nitty gritty analysis of scientific knowledge and the process by which scientists create theories. The book is at once good science, good philosophy, and good history. He repeats several times the idea that "data does not imply theory."

What Heisenberg proposes is that scientific theories (and hence scientific knowledge as we know it) largely constitute a priori unprovable assumptions shaped to fit the data. Where Heraclitus says that fire is the Prima Materia, Einstein offers a quantified version in E=mc^2 (one of Heisenberg's examples)... Additionally while theories must be falsifiable, the assumptions behind them never are.

What Heisenberg proposes then is that we recognize that for all its appearances, scientific knowledge is never really objective in nature. It is rather a product of our own subjective processes.