Man’s Conquest of Nature is Only Temporary

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Crux of Terms of Surrender by John Michael Greer:

  • The belief in Progress has a central theme of Man conquering Nature and submitting her to his will: Disease is conquered by medicine, distance by motorized transportation, the soil by fertilizers, and so on.

  • “according to this way of looking at things, Nature is not supposed to put up more than a pro forma struggle or a passive resistance. Above all, once any part of Nature is conquered, it’s supposed to stay conquered—and of course that’s where the trouble creeps in, because a great many of the things we habitually lump together as Nature are refusing to go along with the script.”

  • For example, “A large and growing number of pathogenic microbes these days are already resistant to the antibiotics that used to treat them; new antibiotics brought onto the market start running into problems with resistant bacteria in a fraction of the time that was once necessary for resistance to emerge; and the transfer of antibiotic resistance from one species to another is becoming an increasingly troubling problem.”

  • But most people “respond with an overfamiliar sentence: “Oh, I’m sure they’ll think of something.” The increasingly frantic efforts of researchers to find new antibiotics and stay ahead of the remorselessly rising tide of microbial resistance get no more attention than the equally frantic efforts, say, of drilling companies to find petroleum deposits to make up for the increasingly rapid depletion of existing oil fields.”

  • Another example is The Green Revolution in agriculture: “The barrage of fertilizers and poisons the proponents of that movement turned on agriculture won a temporary advantage over the hard subsistence limits of earlier eras, but it was only temporary. The reckless use of artificial fertilizers turned out to have drastic downsides, while the poisons drove insects and weeds into exactly the same frenzy of intensive natural selection that antibiotics brought to the microbial world.”

  • “Farmers faced by resistant weeds and pests, like physicians faced by resistant microbes, are turning to increasingly desperate measures to get the same results that their equivalents got with much less trouble. That’s exactly the situation that’s driving the current fracking boom and bubble, too. Back in the glory days of petroleum exploration and discovery, drillers could punch a well a few hundred feet into the ground and hit oil; now it takes hugely expensive deepwater drilling, tar sands extraction, or hydrofracturing of shale and other “tight oil” deposits to keep the liquid fuel flowing, and the costs keep rising year after year.”

  • Since in the long term all those efforts will cease to be effective, “the age of petroleum, and everything that unfolded from it, was exactly the same sort of temporary condition as the age of antibiotics and the Green Revolution.”

Online Universities Will Kill Mediocre Colleges

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Crux of Napster, Udacity, and the Academy by Clay Shirky:

  • College education is expensive, leaving students in debt.
  • Though online courses may not be able to compete with elite universities, they will improve with time and become better than mediocre colleges.

Empires Follow a Process of Catabolic Collapse

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Crux of The Trajectory of Empires by John Michael Greer:

  • “The fall of civilizations takes place through a process [of] catabolic collapse”: when the economic activity required to maintain the empire overshoots its dwindling resource base.
  • The economic cost of maintaining an empire tends to increase over time.
  • The resources are always limited, and usually suffer under-investment because of the extraction of wealth up the imperial pyramid.
  • As this process proceeds, the empire must repeatedly shrink to fit its shrinking resource base.

Empires Are Built As Pyramids

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Crux of The Structure of Empires by John Michael Greer:

  • “Free trade is simply one of the mechanisms of empire in the age of industrialism, one part of the wealth pump that concentrated the wealth of the globe in Britain during the years of its imperial dominion and does the same thing for the benefit of the United States today.”
  • “Flows of wealth can be used to trace out the structure of empire”: It is a pyramid of nations, each extracting wealth from those under it.
  • Inside each nation, there’s a pyramid of people, each extracting wealth from those under themselves: “The vast majority of people in the imperial nation and its allies, and a certain fraction of those even in the most heavily exploited subject nations, receive at least a modest share of wealth and privilege in exchange for their cooperation in maintaining the imperial system”.

Empires Are Wealth Pumps

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Crux of The Nature of Empire by John Michael Greer:

  • People use the word Empire as a symbol or evil (e.g. David Korten) or order and peace (e.g. Niall Ferguson). But the actual meaning is this:
  • “An empire is an arrangement among nations, backed and usually imposed by military force, that extracts wealth from a periphery of subject nations and concentrates it in the imperial core. Put more simply, an empire is a wealth pump, a device to enrich one nation at the expense of others.”
  • There are different methods for extracting wealth. Ancient empires used direct tributes, modern ones, like the US, use unbalanced exchange.

New year predictions: the great pumpkin will fail to show, yet again

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Crux of Waiting for the Great Pumpkin by John Michael Greer:

  • Both predictions of an economic collapse and predictions of an economic breakthrough are wrong.
  • Changes will be slow, continuing the long and gradual economic decline.

The future of online newspapers may be NPR

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Crux of Newspapers, Paywalls, and Core Users by Clay Shirky:

  • Online editions of
    newspapers unsuccessfully tried different pricing models, the latest is to charge only readers that access more than 20 articles a month. In this they choose to “forgo mass in favor of passion”.
  • “Form follows funding”: the people who are willing to pay for content will determine the future form of newspapers.
  • People who pay for papers seem to be of the “God forbid” kind: they pay because “God forbid the paper will not exist”. In this they at similar to people who contribute to NPR – politically conscious citizens.

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