'I have seen the hills of Wessex.'
Interesting and prophetic book. Who would you consider prophetic authors of our day?
I thought everyone knew that energy generation and consumption was about the best proxy for civilization out there?
A very interesting findings that somehow align with my intuitions! I'm currently a part of the Machine (IT engineer) but if one follows the meta-conversations, you can already see the cracks. The more the (IT) Machine engulfs the life, the more it reduces its capability to sustain itself. So the managers try to offshore the IT services, put them into the Cloud, etc, yet there are still people behind those solutions and in a way all those solutions are only partial unfinished, corner cutting solutions where experienced engineers either run away or get burned-out, etc ... Legacy cannot be completely cut out, so new solutions are mostly piled upon the existing solutions, so the more mature the organization is, the more it's getting bogged down by their own devices. And on the other hand, the consumerist IT is just dumbing down the interfaces, not to help at solving the most complex and urgent problems the humanity is facing (as Douglas Engelbart had a vision about computing), but to accelerate consumption. So the IT is actually driving idiocracy among the population and thus actually narrowing the potential pool of capable people to solve the problems its creating by itself. There are many cracks when you look up close, and that might accelerate the societal downfall at some point even faster.
Yes, indeed, the machine (ie: oil-driven economies/cultures/dreams of accelerating over-consumption) IS stopping. It/we have hit and exceeded the very narrow, "goldilocks" sweet spots--the material limits--of "life on earth." Many current species on our planet are able to live within quite narrow parameters of climate, population size, resource consumption rates, CO2 in the air, etc. Including our own species, of course. Evolution simply doesn't move fast enough for many current life forms to adapt to or re-configure themselves in response to our man-altered global environment. And so, in fact, the hills of Wessex have not escaped, and cannot escape, the Machine at all. Only the future will tell whether the turf that covers the Wessex hills will cover it still in the Anthropocene ... whether the Wessex hills' "muscles" will be capable of "rippling" with biological life in the Anthropocene's futures ... whether the biodiversity of those hills is asleep/gone "forever" or might be "reawakened" by "happy men and women". In other words, there is no such thing as escaping the material, planet-scale realities of the Anthropocene. But, there IS, if we are fortunate enough to learn it, such a thing as living within the material limits of our embodiment on this small blue planet. The dream of transcending life's limits (by technological or theological means) was a bad dream, and it's over. There is no way "out" of life's (generative, fecund) limits. But, there are ways right now, to go deeper within--to live more deeply attuned to and in-formed by--the mesh-net of things and beings that we are, and that we are of. Living with and in limits might not constitute "freedom" or "escape" (as defined—dangerously—by dualistic thought systems). But living with and in the very real material limits of our habitat on planet earth (including the very real limits of our human bodies/minds/brains)--can be endlessly creative, engaging, meaningful, and worth the doing.
We may soon be treated to the delicious spectacle of so-called progressive governments opting to directly invest in or even own and operate fossil fuel production as a security measure, due to the Machine's inability to create the circumstances for sufficient continued private investment and production of the harder to reach oil, all of course while the atmospheric CO2 concentration continues to irreversibly increase:
Right on cue, and unbeknown to me as I was writing, Mark Zuckerberg today rebranded Facebook 'Meta', and publicly announced his long-term goal: the creation of an all-encompassing 'metaverse', to augment/replace reality. To quote the man himself:
"The defining quality of the metaverse will be a feeling of presence — like you are right there with another person or in another place. Feeling truly present with another person is the ultimate dream of social technology. That is why we are focused on building this.
In the metaverse, you’ll be able to do almost anything you can imagine — get together with friends and family, work, learn, play, shop, create — as well as completely new experiences that don’t really fit how we think about computers or phones today. We made a film that explores how you might use the metaverse one day.
In this future, you will be able to teleport instantly as a hologram to be at the office without a commute, at a concert with friends, or in your parents’ living room to catch up. This will open up more opportunity no matter where you live. You’ll be able to spend more time on what matters to you, cut down time in traffic, and reduce your carbon footprint."
Hold on to your seats ...
At times it's hard not to feel somewhat depressed about the entire thing. Not that unlimited growth was ever going to be a realistic aspiration, and honestly it pains me even as an American to write anything when you see the rest of the world suffering to get by with such meager means. Nevertheless, I get very worried. There is so much gloom and doom these days that I feel people almost want the system to collapse around them, for no other reason than boredom and complete collapse would allow for some excitement.
One thing that stuck out to me however is that, why would the machine break up now. If this pattern of civilization has lasted since the time of Gilgamesh, what about our current time is so unique to throw us into something that is either the non-existence of civilization or something beyond it. It's hard for me to imagine something other than the continued chugging on of civilization. The medieval period now is so incredibly alien and before that, even more so.
So even with the supply chains falling apart, even without the plastic crap on the shelves, is the machine truly breaking down or are we just in another cycle?
I coincidentally talked about this with my wife just two hours ago. I said I suspected this was another limit to growth, with consumer demand becoming so large that supply couldn't keep up. Mostly because of worker shortage, but energy definitely plays a role.
So, what's up with those workers, eh? Is it the vaccine mandates? Are the lockdowns leading to awakenings? Have too many people been educated/conditioned to crave office work? When will the State start producing the Deltas and Epsilons needed to keep the s#%tshow going? Where are the robots?
But not to worry, the metaverse is coming. Just give us UBI and an Oculus Rift, and life will be great.
I'm not sure whether EM Forster was trying to be prophetic with The Machine Stops, but it sure turned out that way. Either way, I think Forster is the best British author I have read. Not that I have read them all, but all of Forster's books simply captivated me.
I agree, Paul, that the "machine" is attempting to intensify its control even as its ability to grow slips. Dennis Meadows, one of the authors of the original Limits to Growth study, offered a very good explanation in April 2020 of the breakdown of supply chains that we are seeing now. https://www.resilience.org/stories/2020-04-13/limits-to-growth-and-the-covid-19-epidemic/ He explained the inverse relationship between efficiency and resilience. "[G]rowth in consumption has forced us to use resources more efficiently . . . Raising the efficiency of a system permits one to use fewer inputs per unit of output. In itself, higher efficiency is typically good. However, raising efficiency inescapably lowers resilience. Resilience is the capacity to experience an interruption in the supply of a required input without suffering a serious, permanent decline in the desired output. Humanity lives on a finite planet that started with a fixed amount of each resource input. To support population and economic growth, consumption of the planet’s finite resources has increased. As a result, the resources have been continuously depleted and deteriorated . . . Producing ever greater output from ever diminishing inputs has forced production to become more and more efficient. However, even enormous technological advance has not altered the fact that consumption deteriorates resources . . . The tradeoff between efficiency and resilience is confronted by every sector of society. Car companies have shifted to just-in-time manufacturing. That reduces the cost per car of maintaining inventories but forces entire car factories to shut down when the single, highly-efficient factory producing a part they continuously need is interrupted . . . The incentive to raise efficiency has been spurred by the fact that those who can produce and sell the same output with less input generally make greater profits. As a result, over the past century, there has been wholesale abandonment of resilient systems in favor of efficient systems – larger scale, less diversity, lower redundancy."
Cargo containers aren't piling up in California because of a lack of longshoremen. Or teamsters, for that matter. They're piling up from a lack of trucks. Or, more precisely, a lack of trucks that comply with the draconian California emissions standards that went into effect late last year, which had the effect of banning 50% of the trucks currently on the road overnight.
The Biden Regime knows this, but it can't be seen publicly admitting to it, because it is broadly in support of California-style emissions standard, and either way, would stand behind the Democrat political machine that runs the state no matter what the issue. Hence the idiotic posturing with mayors and union leaders that everyone involved knew ahead of time would amount to nothing.
Great post, Paul, The Machine Stops is a must prophetic read. Your post brought to mind Emerson’s saying “consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” I will display my little mind here. I did a bit of admittedly amateur statistics showing how meat, milk, fish, and egg production could be halved and still leave plenty of per capita animal protein. In a response you criticized that type of mathematical reasoning and now here is a post with that type of math reasoning as a central point!
Fascinating and disturbing. It makes me wonder how, if at all, one can prepare. In your last piece you wondered how we might “outflank, outwit or oppose Leviathan, and begin to sow the seeds of some kind of human-scale world again.” This piece makes the issue more urgent.
I feel torn between an “adapt-by-the moment” approach, in which I wait and see what the Machine does, and then try a minor outflanking maneuver, hoping I won’t be noticed, versus a “let’s get a bunch of people to create a parallel society” approach…which strikes me as stronger but perhaps too complicated, and likely to be crushed if it threatens the Machine in any serious way.
I often think about the Amish and Mennonites, who are already embedded in the parallel-society approach, and for the moment are doing fine. Here is an uplifting story, for instance, about how the Pennsylvania Amish managed the pandemic and the pressure of the Machine:
I’m not sure we can easily replicate anything like this, for many reasons. Still, there seems to be hope in simplicity, in nature, in ordinary relationships, in the work of our hands, without necessarily all of us becoming farmers. There is also, for some, a central role for faith. You have talked about all this in various ways, and I’m intrigued to hear your suggestions in the weeks and months to come.
Dave Eggers, The Circle, from many readers I heard that they found it very confronting and difficult to read on.
I remember a very different Halloween on a grey day in Zagreb 2002. I did not know what to make of it. The city buses were turned over to the Church to rotate all-day continuously from the Cathedral to the Cemetery. Orderly lines of shabbily dressed families in their Sunday clothes seemed not to get shorter across the day. There were 10s of thousand candles at night. Croatia was not long out of a war and had a depressed economy. The right-wing semi-authoritarian Tudjman (corrupt democracy) had passed and momentum moved toward the EU. I talked with youngsters about football and wondered about the Catholic Church.
Just this week a concept showed up that I had not known was thoroughly discussed by Hannah Arendt; what she called ‘Natality’. This was in an essay by Samantha Rose Hill on Arendt called ‘When Hope is a Hindrance’ re-published by Aeon. (One has to be selective about Aeon and too much reading for that matter.) There is a connection with ‘action’. Given the hallucinatory co-incidences of the internet, Aristotle turned up on twitter as a quote today from a Professor of Primary Care at at Oxford: “wisdom has to do with action, and the sphere of action is constituted by particulars”.
This seems to be a relevant analysis of the current "supply-chain" crisis and the dangers of Globalism: