Tag: John Michael Greer

Star’s Reach (book review)

John Michael Greer’s weekly blog, The Archdruid Report always strikes deeply into the heart of industrial society.   I’ve read a number of Greer’s non-fictional musings on the de-industrial future, including Not the Future We Ordered, The Ecotechnic Future, The Long Descent, and The Wealth of Nature (an obvious corrective to Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations,  and desperately needed gravity boots for “free-market” moonwalkers).  If the spiraling crises of our time were a hurricane, then Greer’s projections might well form the central tendency of the cone of probability for landfall.  His latest work titled Star’s Reach is a fictional account that imagines humanity’s next phase of de-industrial living.

Star’s Reach takes place several hundred years in the aftermath of global industrial collapse.  The former continental United States has since broken apart  into smaller regional states and allegiances by several bloody civil wars.  In the current regional quasi-stability, the reader encounters both the post-industrial wreckage and recovery of civilization through the eyes of a senior apprentice of the ruinmen’s guild that scrapes out a hazardous living salvaging pre-extracted and refined materials conveniently left in ruins on the Earth’s surface by the industrial past.  Because these resources were previously extracted to the energetic limits of industrial society, the ruins essentially represent the last resources of their kind to be extracted.  In this low energy future, industrial complexity and the excesses of fossil-fueled growth have been severely pruned back, and life has re-proliferated more modestly along more pre-industrial, somewhat Medieval/Mercantilish arrangements.

Chastened by a mass die-off, a renewed, conservative reverence for Mother Nature has supplanted the heedless zealotry of the Myth of Infinite Progress, which left a wake of environmental destruction in the forms of catastrophic climate change, plague, uncontrolled nuclear meltdowns, and a toxic legacy of developmental and DNA derangements, resulting in high mortality rates and widespread hermaphroditism.  A reversion to matrilineal primacy is further evident in the politically powerful and tightly controlled sorority exclusive to women able to give viable, normal birth; as well as in the guild of Priestesses that lay down the law on activity Ma’m Gaia permits and what she forbids, such as the unapproved burning of fossil fuels (punishable by death); not to mention the female President of Meriga who has kept further civil wars at bay for the past 40 years.    

De-industrial life, trimmed back and ordered at lower complexity, having more conservative cultural sensibilities, and simpler  pleasures, remains harder and less plentiful than before TEOTWAWKI.  And it may not be improving.  As with all finite resource problems, even the ruinmen, and thus society at large, face diminishing returns after having picked the low hanging fruit of industrial salvage.  Further, vast amounts of valuable knowledge had been lost during the centuries of cascading, catabolic collapse, so one of the (typically illiterate) ruinman’s skills includes rescuing disintegrating written materials, the value of which is initially ascertained by freelance “failed scholars” hired by ruinman guilds before being sent to remnant universities for transcription, cataloging, preservation, interpretation, and any selective diffusion.    

The story itself begins when our half-literate ruinman apprentice nearly becomes “reborn” into Ma’m Gaia’s embrace upon unearthing his masterwork, a tangible written clue to the existence of a legendary industrial project known as Star’s Reach, a clue he can use to either lay claim to the site as his own dig, if it actually exists and he can find it, or which he can surely sell for substantial lifestyle changes.  In taking the gamble, our newly-minted Mister takes on his own apprentice (full of surprises, that kid!), and embarks on a Hobbity adventure that attracts a socially cross-sectional cast of characters whose unfolding motivations collectively reveal an underlying societal tension between post-collapse cultural humility and the human urges for progress and power.  In addition to touring post-collapse American landscapes and customs (we still drink, cuss and privately stuff fuzzy little rabbits in one another’s ears in the future) THERE ARE IMPORTANT MESSAGES OUT THERE WAITING FOR YOU.  There may also be a guild or two you haven’t heard of.  Now that’s a darn good tale!

P.S. If you’re looking for some despairing, forlorn, gritty and hopeless post-apocalyptic, graphic nightmare of a yarn, Star’s Reach is definitely not that book.  It is a far cry from The Road.    

Not the sucrose we ordered III

So, to my mind, here’s where we get down to the nitty gritty of animal intelligence.  Reflexes.  Built-in, hard-core reflexes.  You might think of them as the prototypical, monosynaptic “knee-jerk”, in which the doctor lightly hammers the tendon below your kneecap, which stretches specific muscular stretch receptors, which send a signal to the spine and back to “stiffen up,” mainly for automatic postural purposes outside of your cognitive grasp.  Hence the leg kick, outside of your normal cognitive grasp. The knee-jerk reflex is simply a way for you to keep upright without your having to think about it, an unexpected load occurs on one side, boom, you’re good.

Now, there are reflexes, and there are reflexes, depending on your definition, the knee-jerk being a fairly low-level event.  Then there are locomotor reflexes, involving multiple oscillators, for example, that aid walking, as opposed to just standing upright, even though both levels are integrated.  Within this level are neuronal circuits controlling ambles, trots, gallops, etc., whether in horse or turtle or man.  So-called “fictive locomotion” studies, wherein neuronal recordings from dismembered turtles on ice are made, demonstrate this.  

Then the coordination of reflexes occurs at the level of “fixed action pattern,” or what others preferred to call “modal action patterns,” because while reliable, the exact order of behavior is not engraved in stone.  Classic examples from Tinbergen and Lorenz include seagull egg-rolling-toward-the-nest and following behavior when, e.g., neonatal ducklings imprint upon any available moving object, even if that object is no more endearing than a dangling and moving tennis shoe, as if it were a parental device.

Next up in the hierarchy of reflexes from Tinbergen et al is Timberlake’s Behavior System, which is really a mash-up of Tinbergen and Pavlov, even tho’ Joe Steinmetz, one of the great bunny eye-blink researchers of all time, and a great chairperson, said with some admiration in his eyes that Timberlake was a “maverick.”  Ho, ho, ho, Joe.  I love you, but he’s only a maverick to you strict Pavlovians.  Not to me.  

In Timberlake’s system of reflexes, animals gravitate toward their central topics of needs:  Feeding, Flying, Fucking, Orientation/Migration, etc., and evocation of a system, Feeding, Parenting, Defense, e.g.,  results in some semi-orderly evocation of motivational states that orchestrate subsequent behavior sub-routines of reflexes, such as, food handling and ingestion, focal search for food, and more global searches.  

I studied the next level of reflex, what I now provisionally call the global action pattern, one reflex that functions over not instances, or minutes, or hours, but days.  And nothing will do but an example to describe it.

But this following description, I believe, goes a long way toward describing Monsieur Greer’s point.  

Not the sucrose we ordered II

(this my long-winded continuation of a “review” of JM Greer’s Not the Future We Ordered, from a personal perspective).

To Recap, around the year 2000 was a great time for me.  I was scoring grants, doing manic work, the female grad students were kicking me around like a soccer ball (scoring junk goals on me all day long), had fantastically intelligent buddies, and was finishing my dissertation, and headed toward my third long-term major mentor of my choosing (the flagship teaching hospital in my beloved region of SF was merely icing on the cake).  Life could not have seemed better, because I was a true believer in what JM Greer calls our “civic religion of progress.”  

Not only was it personal progress through long, hard work, but I felt basic research was the right thing to do.  For me.  For society.  I wasn’t out to make money.  To paraphrase Pavlov, the revolution was not “out there” in politics or guns in the streets, the revolution was “in here,” in the lab.  The real revolution was intellectual.  The real revolution was an introvert. Pavlov is no one to sneeze at unconditionally.  He’s in the Pantheon of Greatest Scientists Ever, because he saw and demonstrated experimentally anticipatory salivation as perhaps the most powerful mental event ever known, which is learning from experience, and how it occurs through sheer association by contiguity: neurons that fire together wire together, to quote Hebb.  And if any Skinnerian “learning by consequence” believers walk into this bar, I will kick their asses from here to next Tuesday, and from week to week, and year to year.  We never learn as a specific consequence of our victories and failures. Rather, what is noticed becomes a signal for what is being done, to quote Big Edwin Ray G.

(as a side note, I’ll add that a fellow named Twitmeyer preceded Pavlov at the 1901 APA meeting by three years, showing that people would exhibit an anticipatory knee-jerk to the sight of a hammer blow to the knee tendon; I’ve heard that William James was in attendance, and failed to see the significance, which is nearly impossible to believe, but if true, and had he noticed, we would have been stuck with “Twitmeyerian conditioning” as opposed to “Pavlovian,” which is the more mellifluous.

Anyway, despite my anti-Skinnerian religion, I remained a true believer in Progress.  Technology, civics, human rights, law, basic accounting; yep, all a long historical arc bending toward truth and justice.  It went against most of what I knew about learning, or about evolution for that matter, but this is just the kind of irrational thinking JM Greer is up against.  People like me.

Next time, we’ll talk about my sucrose experiments.

Not the sucrose we ordered (a review, sort of, JM Greer’s, Not the Future We Ordered)

(I apologize up front for putting this review in a serial format, but I am cacked-out, to the max.  It’s a wonder I’m here.)

First, lemme say that John Michael Greer is one gol’ darned level-headed son of a gun.  I’ve been reading his blog for years now and no one can cast a cold eye on everything you hold dear and move on with equanimity as he does.  Rock solid, he is.  Everyone has a “trick pony,” so to speak, and I do wonder how he trained his.

Anyway, he’s written another book, “not the future we ordered” on the topic of peak oil, and how we screwed things up, and moreover how unprepared we are for the consequences.  If you are accustomed to his blog, there are no huge surprises, because his writing style remains quite steady, and I would add “soothing,” to someone like me, who gets a bit emotional about these topics.

My personal peak oil revelation (and here’s where it’s “all about me”) began with Bush v. Gore.  I was writing my dissertation in experimental psychology when it all broke loose, when, by Jon Schwarz’s insight,  you can cut open the insider of DC insiders and out steps James Baker III to attend the lectern of troublemaking.  And so it was.