Friday, July 9, 2010

Towards an Ecotechnic Future II: The Debate

Here are the responses I received from John Michael Greer ("JMG") and some of the long-time commentators on his blog to the proposal I described in my previous post. I've re-arranged the order to respond to each commentator in turn:

Kevin, sure, and if pigs had wings we'd all catch our breakfast bacon with butterfly nets. Neither you nor anyone else has the money, the resources, the time, or the political will to turn those pretty pictures into reality in a world already smack up against the limits to growth. This habit of trotting out visions of a lovely future, when we've long since flushed the opportunity to get there, is one of the least helpful forms of incantation in the peak oil scene just now.

I would have liked a more substantive reply. However, in fairness to JMG, he makes the effort to respond to each commentator on his blog (and he has a lot of commentators). I think that's very cool. So I can understand that he does not have the time and space to respond in depth, and he has also presented his case in greater detail in his blog posts. So, pigs and butterfly nets aside, let's break it down:

Money: There are plenty of people with control of plenty of money. IIRC, we are still spending something on the order of $200 million a day to fight resource wars we've already lost. Currently there are over 10,000 road work projects underway, with a budget of $26.6 billion. Source. is that possible? No one has any money or resources! Somebody get me a butterfly net, I want some bacon. And why hasn't anyone told these guys that building trains is impossible?

Resources: All the stuff in the "pretty pictures" was built by hand, without fossil fuels. Why was it possible to build Venice in the Middle Ages, but impossible because of resource limits to build places like that now? Furthermore, living in a city, especially a carfree Traditional City, cuts per capita energy use to about a third (or less) of the "Average American" rate without even trying. What if we did try? Or do solar water heaters and south-facing windows and high R-value insulation only work on subsistence farms? What is the EROEI for a city like Venice or Damascus that provides shelter, a place for trade and industry etc. and good living for thousands of years? Diverting resources currently tasked with propping up the old system and building new suburbs to building train-linked walkable Traditional Villages would actually save resources, thereby making more available. Those economic and physical resources are already accounted for, so it's not like getting started would require a sudden infusion of new resources and capital that wouldn't be spent otherwise.

Time: We have nothing but time. The ~80% of the people, for whom a Little House on the Prairie Doomstead Farm is not an option might as well do something other than lie around and wait for starvation to take them so those of you in the ~20% can get on with your Dark Age. Even in your own model, collapse to the Dark Ages will take centuries. That's a lot of time. How is "Build places that will still be awesome a thousand years from now" worse than "Let's conquer Saudi Arabia and Venezuela so we can keep Suburban Hell running for another 50 years"?

Political/Economic Will: I'll grant that this is the most difficult problem. The current political/monetary establishment can't see past BAU, and it will likely use its power to prevent the formation of alternatives to itself. This is the real problem, the one that sank the ecotechnic efforts of the 1970's. The Republicans had better marketing. IMO one of the things that gave Reaganism the edge was the note of optimism old Ronnie sounded.

If you want to guarantee a repeat of that defeat, only worse, just get all the people who "get" that BAU is not sustainable to repeat your chosen incantation. It's awful hard for "There Is No Brighter Future Ahead (So Let's Resign Ourselves to the Dark Ages Where Only Us Few Will Even Survive)" to compete for political will with "It's Morning in America." Do you really want the "political (and economic) will" to be following the prescriptions of Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck as long as physically possible? I could see that if you have a new Dark Age as a goal rather than just thinking it's the most likely outcome.

This habit of trotting out visions of a lovely future, when we've long since flushed the opportunity to get there, is one of the least helpful forms of incantation in the peak oil scene just now.

Why? Even if we can't get there now, isn't going halfway in the right direction better than going the whole way in the wrong direction i.e. squandering what's left trying to prop up BAU until things go completely fecoventilatory? Even a relative handful of rail-linked Traditional Cities with renewable energy and ecotechnics could go a long way toward keeping the flame of civilization alive through a collapse of the current order.

The thing about political and economic will is that it's a matter of human decision-making, not physics. People will resist a collapse to the Dark Ages and a world population of maybe a half billion feudal serfs and lords. We do not have a world population of Stoics and Buddhist monks who will meditate quietly as the lights go out.

The question is how people will resist. Why not encourage people to resist in ways that will leave something worth having when the last oil well stops? I don't see how it can be a good thing to spread the incantation "There is no brighter future" and let the neo-Confederate Drill or Die cornpone Fascists have the monopoly on "Oh, yeah?"

I'm not trying to suggest that a transition would be easy, only that it's a better strategy than nothing* and lots better than resource wars and "Drill or Die!" Isn't it?

*That is, "nothing" for the people who don't have subsistence farms and for whom getting one isn't an option.

Kevin, I'm not talking about your chances of making something like that happen in the next four years. I'm talking about anyone's chances of making it happen in the next four hundred. I didn't criticize Red Neck Girl for her plans because they're realistic, while yours are not -- again, neither you nor anyone else will have the money, the resources, the time, or the political will to make that happen at any point along the curve of the Long Descent.

This is a rather startling claim. I know you are not suggesting that the present built environment will function or can be made to function for four hundred years (and thus there will be no motive to replace it), since your core argument is that the present order is going to collapse. You are claiming that no matter how much they need to, people will not be able to build Traditional Cities--which are "traditional" because they're what people built and lived in for more than ten thousand years, without needing a single drop of oil. Somehow, people will become literally too stupid to come in out of the rain--for four hundred years. What is going to cause this strange phenomenon?

Whenever a doom scenario requires that people inexplicably become much dumber than they actually are (as in the Y2K scenario, where people were supposed to stare slack-jawed at their crashed computers until--you guessed it--the Middle Ages came back) it's time to start doubting that scenario.

I know it's very easy to look at the current political/economic situation and decide that Other People Are Idiots, that you and a relative handful of like-minded friends are the only exceptions, and that therefore the only possible practical approach is for you and the anointed handful to build subsistence farms, raise goats, and watch the idiots stand around helplessly until they starve or the wolves get them.

I know you've never said as much, but that's what your Inevitable Doom scenario requires. That people literally forget how to build homes and cities and trains and wind turbines for four hundred years, and become utterly incapable of any effective response to their predicament not because of inevitable physics, but because they've been turned into dodo birds. Once the farmland is taken up by the Little Teeny Farmers, everyone else has no choice but to passively lay down and die. To actually suggest they take any sort of action is somehow, and in some unspecified way, daaangerous.

So why, exactly, is it harmful to project the vision I've laid out as preferable to Drill Baby Drill, followed by Mad Max, followed by The Road, followed by the Dark Ages, forever (a.k.a. the unspoken Republican Party Platform)?

As long as the proposed action isn't "Attack the Little Teeny Farms and take their goats!" what do you care? I would think that any proposed action that gives those people hope for survival and a future worth living in that doesn't involve sacking country doomsteads would be a good thing from your perspective. If the idiots-who-can't-come-in-out-of-the-rain are kept busy building Traditional Cities and trains and wind turbines, at least they're not forming bands of neo-Visigoths you and your kids will have to be fighting off all the time.

You and your commentators are in your Little Teeny Farm lifeboats rowing away from the Titanic, worrying about what the people still aboard might do, and apparently hoping they do nothing but drown. The only "danger" I can see to you and yours is that they might be able to plug the holes or get those big safety doors shut in time to limp the ship into harbor. If the ~80%+ of the people who can't become Amish-hippie subsistence farmers even if they wanted to do manage to create a sustainable version of modern society, with lively cities and trains and doctors and dentists and a standard of living that isn't medieval or worse, I suppose that would leave a lot of Little Teeny Subsistance Farmers feeling a bit foolish as they toil at their washboards waiting for the Dark Ages to arrive. Rather like the folks with garages full of beans and rice and ammo for the Computer Apocalypse must have felt on the morning of January 1, 2000, and the Mayan Calendar folks will feel by Christmas, 2012.

My suggestion: Don't take up neo-medieval Little Teeny Subsistence Farming unless...

A) You are so convinced that the Fall of Civilization is inevitable that you don't care what the doomed non-farmers do, so long as their actions don't directly threaten your farm or those of your family and friends;

B) You value the neo-medieval lifestyle for its own sake and would happily live that way even if cheap, safe nuclear fusion and Drexlerian molecular nanotechnology were invented tomorrow;**

C) You're growing a victory garden to help you and your family (and perhaps also your neighbors) get through the crisis, but you won't feel miserable if technological civilization survives in a new form.

Otherwise, you won't be happy on your farm, and you'll be bitter and resentful if the idiotic rabble who were supposed to stand around drooling until they tipped over and died actually start taking actions that can keep them alive and happy as members of an advanced civilization.

**Just to be clear, I'm not suggesting that such handwavium could be invented tomorrow, or that they are necessary to save civilization or that they are even possible.

KevinC - what you are suggesting would require that we tear down to the ground the accumulated infrastructure of nearly our entire human civilization and rebuild it from the basement up!

I'll tell you what - you get out a calculator and some reference materials and try your best to tally up what it would take in time, materials, energy and funding to do what you suggest to just your nearest city of any size. Then, you figure out what it would take to process all the debris and pollution generated by this rebuilding. Then you figure out who is going to pay for it. I think you will see my point long before you hit the final total button.

It simply isn't doable. As JMG says, you'd make better odds betting on pigs to fly.

Our current built environment is r-selected, built to get quick returns, not to last. It has to be continuously and expensively patched and propped up, and that requires lots of energy and resources that can be better spent. Look again at the link I cited above about the 12,000 road work projects underway. So, legacy built environment in the way: can it still be usable after oil?

Yes: Retrofit it as much as possible and muddle through.

No: Then it will have to be scavenged and replaced or abandoned anyway. The people leaving it are going to want someplace else to live. Look at any really ancient, long-inhabited city, like Jericho or Jerusalem. If you dig down, you can excavate layer after layer of versions of the city built one on top of another over thousands of years. Refurbishing, refitting, then ultimately scavenging, tearing down and rebuilding cities is the normal way it's done.

I live within a short drive from Taos Pueblo. This is a place that was built by hand, without a drop of fossil fuel, and has been maintained with hand tools for over a thousand years. That's sustainability. The people who live there are "poor" in balance-sheet terms, but they don't seem eager to leave.
It's urban-dense (walkable, no CARS), and it's cool enough that people drive long distances from other states so they can come see it. There's no reason something like it couldn't be scaled up to be a full-sized Traditional City with bath houses and restaurants and artisans and markets and a great night life.

[T]he very best that can be expected, given where we find ourselves now and what we will have to work with in the future (dwindling resources, dwindling finances, dwindling energy, dwindling political will as people will be concentrating more on survival and conjuring back BAU than on moving forward) is that a few groups in a few select places may be able to gather the resources required to build some of what you envision as the solution.

Just don't wait for the government to do it for you or to pay for much of it, because at this stage, keeping bloated governments running, keeping politicians and their corporate cronies well fed with food, power and money, and expanding empire's greedy reach is fast consuming the vast majority of the resources we have left to work with. (The scary part is, we're actually flat broke by any reasonable reckoning, but we're creating huge amounts of debt, waging wars of many kinds upon other nations and taking unreasonable risks with the environment so we can keep pretending we aren't.)

Given this, individuals and small groups of like-minded folks "muddling through" together (as discussed in previous posts) will almost assuredly accomplish the vast majority of what transition work actually gets done as we slide down the other side of the Peak, and most likely without much help - if any - from their respective governments.

I agree with you that a bottom-up approach starting on the smallest scale possible is the best way to go. I don't expect the Federal government to lead the way, and most state governments are insolvent. I think even one or a few Traditional Village projects built on the scale of the Alsatian village of Equisheim would go a long way toward creating demand for more such places.


Since Equisheim was built centuries ago without the assistance of fossil-fueled machinery, my WAG is that such a place could be built for about what it takes to make a suburb of McMansions, or less. The expense of longer-lasting materials would be offset by lower per-capita costs for water and sewage systems (due to higher density) and lower maintenance costs over the long term. Building a Pueblo-style Traditional Village would be even cheaper. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, "Privately-owned housing starts in May were at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 593,000. This is 10.0 percent (±10.3%) below the 10.3%) revised April estimate of 659,000, but is 7.8 percent (±9.7%) above the May 2009 rate of 550,000," even in this crappy economy. That's a shitload of worse-than-useless suburbs--or to put it in a more hopeful light, about one full-scale Traditional City a year.

So, good luck and get to work! ;-)

Thank you!

Looks good: You get it built and I'll be there in a shot. Oh wait …. Sorry …. Were you suggesting that other people will build it for you if you ask nicely?

Well, cities and infrastructure are things that human beings have to build together as members of a civilization. I guess that's one of the appeals of the Little Teeny Farm: it's something you can do All By Yourself in true American rugged individualistic fashion. There's none of that messy sausage-making all cooperative endeavors require, no having to work together with all those useless Other People. At least not on a larger scale than a co-op between a handful of Little Teeny Subsistence Farmers.

I don't object to people deciding to get themselves a subsistence farm and start trying to learn how to breed, train, and use draft horses, etc.. Go for it! The problem is, the vast majority of people can't do that, period. Not. Physically. Possible. Seven billion people cannot become yeoman farmers plowing the fields behind their oxen any more than they can paint their skin fluorescent blue, move to the jungle and hunt for food with bows and arrows from the backs of Technicolor flying dinosaurs.

Neo-medieval subsistence farming is, at best, a strategy for the few. For the rest, some other approach is inescapably necessary. Even if it's really, really difficult and really, really expensive in an era of increasing energy scarcity. As long as it's not physically impossible (as in, "See this equation? You're doomed. Might as well take a cyanide pill."), an approach that would work if tried ought to be tried. So far, none of you have convinced me that Traditional Cities, linked with electric trains, powered by renewable energy, and enhanced by New Alchemist-style appropriate technology (living machines, rooftop greenhouses, solar water heaters, passive-solar heating, etc.) are physically impossible for people to construct in the years ahead. Even JMG never went beyond merely re-asserting the claim a couple times.

Hell, give it a crack, who knows, you might just be lucky enough to live in a time when people don't put their hands over their ears and chant LA LA LA at these suggestions. So I suggest you go for it. Make it happen. Who knows, you might just be the guy that gets lucky. And if it doesn't happen you can always say that you gave it a red hot go. There's no shame in failing that way.
I've gotta say though.... I don't think much of you're chances.

Maybe you're right. But for the people I'm talking about, the chance of survival as Little House on the Prarie re-enactors is exactly zero. Nonetheless, thank you for your support.

I have checked your profile links and I see you have written fairly copiously, so unlike myself any misunderstanding of your words is unlikely to be caused by careless or clumsy handed prose on your part.

Hmm, it seems that I might not have been clear enough in my post to the thread. I am not Nathan Lewis, the author of the website. I don't necessarily agree with all of the essays there, but I do agree with the gist of his views on city design.

I have analysed the content and the language of your comments to my own satisfaction and considered various alternative responses. Now your first question does seem to be requesting a point by point refutation of every one of of your steps as an proof that the type of systemic transformation you envision is beyond achievement. Thats a big ask, and I'm guessing that the reason you have never seen beyond this vision is that no one has been able to provide adequate refutation in everyday conversation. I wont even try because: a- none of your ideas are inherently without merit in and of themselves, and b- fish like me dont suck that type of bait.

So rather than specifically addressing point by point the pros and cons of the list of proposals associated with your first question, let me respond only to the rhetorical structure displayed in your comments as a whole and answer your second question.

Q) “Why is this sort of thing impossible?”
A) Because of society

Enjoy your bacon.

And this is, I think, the capstone in the arch of this whole discussion. Up 'till now, JMG has been presenting his collapse scenario as an inevitable result of physics. No high-density, low EROEI fossil fuels = return to the Middle Ages. Presented with the case for train-linked, renewable-powered, ecotechnically designed Traditional Cities as an alternative, he started talking about flying pigs and asserting that nobody has the resources, money, or time to do what they're already doing as we speak, but with better design.

"Society" as you're using the term is not a principle of physics. It is basically the activity of human consciousness (thoughts, beliefs, decisions, etc.) in the aggregate. Changing human consciousness is exactly what "Magic" as JMG defines it is most useful for. JMG's proposed incantation, "There Is No Brighter Future Ahead" would, if it catches on, guarantee misery and death for at least six and a half billion people and/or their descendants. Right up there with Global Thermonuclear Warfare in terms of tombstone count. That's a Grade-A Killing Curse right there!

But as all of you have basically admitted, the collapse to a new age of serfdom and squalor in the wake of an unprecedented degree of human misery and death is an option that "society" can choose--or not.

So here's my counterspell:


"Would you live in an apartment here if it meant you could use all the money you spend on your car for other things and never miss the road rage? Would you raise kids here if your other choice was to give them short lives of starvation and squalor? Would you give up your McMansion to live here, if it meant that your children and theirs and theirs and theirs would thank you for giving them this instead of a New Dark Age?"

More on the specifics of how to get there from here in future posts.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Towards an Ecotechnic Future I: The Basics

As oil continues to erupt into the Gulf of Mexico and we wait for hurricane season with crossed fingers, European governments and American states struggle to stay solvent, and the global economy continues to teeter on the brink of collapse with Peak Oil and climate change looming ever larger, it's becoming more apparent that Business as Usual (BAU) cannot continue for much longer.

What happens when BAU fails? What comes next?

John Michael Greer on his blog, The Archdruid Report makes the point that people imagine one of two possible futures: BAU continues onward into The Future, where we finally get our flying cars, jetpacks, and the Singularity...or, a sudden, catastrophic collective entry into a Mad Max theme park. He rejects these two poles, predicting a future far more dismal than The Future, but lacking the cinematic thrills of a doomer porn Zombie Apocalypse.

To over-simplify his vision for purposes of summary, he basically expects the Great Depression (only worse), followed by grinding Third World poverty, followed by horses-and-swords...forever, with perhaps a few pitiful techno-remnants like slide rules and crystal radio surviving into the new age. Rather than an abrupt, sweeping End of the World, his Long Descent will take place over a period of several centuries, with lots of wars, starvation, desperation, refugee movements and the like taking place before a much smaller world population returns to the eternal verities of life before the Industrial Revolution.

He has developed his arguments in considerable detail over a long series of posts, which are well-written and worth reading whether one agrees with him or not. The human failure mode he predicts is certainly possible, and any attempt to prevent it ought to take into account the reasons he offers for why he considers it inevitable. As I understand his position, the keystone of his collapse scenario, explained in detail here and here, is that quality of energy matters much more than quantity of energy. It doesn't matter that Earth's daily intake of solar energy greatly exceeds the requirements of modern civilization because solar energy is diffuse, whereas technological society requires concentrated energy.

In order for energy to do useful work, there has to be an entropy gradient between the energy source and the environment. The principles of thermodynamics explain how energy's natural tendency is to flow from higher concentration to lower concentration. The concentrated heat in a cup of coffee will flow out to disperse into a cool room. The coffee cannot accumulate greater energy concentration by sucking energy out of the room. To heat the coffee, you need to spend more energy, such as the electricity that feeds your coffeepot. It doesn't matter if the total heat energy in the room is a hundred times the heat energy in the coffee, it can't add to the heat energy of the coffee unless it can be concentrated somehow, and that takes energy, such as electricity to power a heat-pump. That energy itself must be sufficiently concentrated. You can't win, you can't break even.

Consider the challenge of trying to run a tractor with solar energy. The solar energy is too diffuse for a solar cell or parabolic mirror mounted on the tractor to collect enough to power the tractor. The tractor requires highly concentrated energy to give it lots of power in a small space. So maybe you could put batteries in the tractor and build a solar array to generate electricity for it. But the batteries and the solar array require lots of concentrated energy to build, so you're back to square one. Finding the concentrated energy to run a tractor isn't difficult if fossil fuels like gas and diesel are available and cheap. Those fuels represent many millions of years of biological and geological accumulation and concentration of solar energy through the photosynthesis of ancient plants.

What happens when, in the wake of Peak Oil, those fuels become increasingly scarce? Our present society, with its mega-freeways and suburbs built around cars and mechanized agriculture--all dependent on the cheap, concentrated energy fossil fuels provide--starts to look like a certain ill-fated passenger ship on its way to an appointment with an iceberg.

Another key concept is Energy Return on Energy Input (EROEI). Any proposed energy source must put out more energy than it requires to run. For example, corn ethanol cannot replace fossil fuels because the inputs of fossil fuel energy (diesel for the tractors, harvesters, chemical fertilizers etc. to grow the corn, the processing equipment that makes ethanol from corn, the trucks that ship the ethanol to gas stations, etc.) is greater than the energy output of the ethanol. In energy terms, corn ethanol is like trading a $10.00 bill for a five and three ones.

Since renewables like solar and wind are more diffuse energy sources than fossil fuels, and they have significantly lower EROEI than fossil fuels (until fossil fuels cease to be plentiful), they cannot be simply substituted for oil to keep BAU running. BAU simply requires too much concentrated energy to be sustainable without plentiful, cheap oil. And, since post-fossil fuel societies will have to operate on the same energy budget as societies before fossil fuel use (i.e., pre-industrial societies), they will only be able to support populations, lifestyles, and technology levels pre-industrial societies would have been capable of. The Pharaohs, Caesars, and Tokogawa Shoguns might have been able to produce slide rules and crystal radios if they'd had the know-how, but without fossil fuels they could not have produced the Internet or supersonic fighter jets no matter what technical information they possessed.

And so, according to Mr. Greer, humanity is inevitably foreordained to return to muscle-power--human labor and draft animals, occasionally supplemented with hand-built water-wheels and windmills. Judging by previous history, these will mostly be god-king empires and feudalisms, with a small handful of kings, lords, and priests living in relative comfort on the backs of slaves and serfs. Lather, rinse, repeat, until the next killer asteroid comes along or the Sun leaves the Main Sequence, whichever comes first. Or, as he summarizes it into a pocket maxim: There is no brighter future ahead.[1]

To counter this gloomy scenario, there is the fact that increased scientific and technological knowledge can and does make it possible to do more with a given energy budget. Imperial China had the same available solar energy budget as Peking Man (Homo Erectus). Imperial China was able to do a great deal more with it because they possessed a far greater store of technical knowledge. Of course the principles of physics and ecology set limits on what ingenuity can accomplish. If there's not enough usable energy to power billions of automobiles through a built environment designed to make them necessary, then we won't be able to just stuff batteries into our Hummers in place of gas tanks and call it a day no matter how much R&D we put to the task.

For the purposes of this discussion, I'm avoiding any appeal to handwavium technologies of The Future like nuclear fusion. If some sort of safe, cheap, non-polluting nuclear fusion is developed, then great. But it's not something we should be betting our civilization on. Instead, we should plan to live within the energy budget that can be harvested from renewable sources with technology that already exists and is based on known principles.

Can we maintain a relatively modern standard of living and a progressive culture (i.e. no return of slavery, serfdom, women as chattel, etc.) within the lower energy budget of a post-fossil fuel age?

I think we can. Nathan Lewis at has made a persuasive and wittily-argued case for a non-medieval alternative to BAU. I've added a few elements to his proposal to sketch out what I think an ecotechnic civilization could look like:

1) Walkable, carfree Traditional Cities: These are cities built the way all cities were built before the Industrial Revolution--Really Narrow Streets meant for people rather than cars, and buildings a few stories high.

2) Build To Last: In the post-Peak Oil world, we have access to more convenient, high energy density liquid fuels now that we will in the future. This means that if we build something now, it's easier and cheaper than building something similar in the future. If we Build To Last, so that our grandchildren can build on our infrastructure instead of having to constantly refurbish stuff built to endure for a few decades at most, we do them an enormous favor. The EROEI for a city that provides a comfortable place to live, trade, create art, goods, and services for 2,000 years is tremendous.

3) Proven ecotechnic design: Passive solar, rooftop solar water heaters and/or gardens, Living Machine water treatment systems, etc..

4) Renewable energy: Though they are still at the prototype stage, I do not know of any physics that would prevent Kitegen kite-powered high-altitude wind generators or Magenn dirigible wind turbines from working. Operating at higher altitude, and without the massive towers and blades needed to make large-scale conventional wind turbines, these should have significantly higher EROEI.

5) Permaculture/Fukoka-style "no-till" farming: Areas around the cities and villages can be dedicated to high-yield Permaculture farming and/or real wilderness producing wild game hunted sustainably.

6) Trains: A decent electric train system to tie it all together.

7) A new concept of "quality of life:" Measure "quality of life" by different (and less energy-intensive/more sustainable) standards than the size of our SUV's and televisions and freeway overpasses. Example 1. Example 2.

In order to get some citokate,[2] I posted this brief summary plan into a comment thread on one of Mr. Greer's posts for which it was on topic, to let him and his crew of intelligent and well-informed collapsitarians have at it.

Next: The Debate!


1. Greer is not quite so pessimistic in his book The Ecotechnic Future: Envisioning a Post-Peak World. In it, he proposes that, after the Dark Age has run its course, centuries in the future, there could be "...a new form of human civilization--an ecotechnic society--that will support a relatively complex technology while sustaining rich and sustainable relations with the rest of the biosphere." I think the odds of creating such a society are much greater if we start now when we have a vast pool of scientific knowledge and highly-intelligent, technically-trained people to do it with, rather than hoping that illiterate peasants living in terror of feudal overlords and roving barbarians will be able to pull it off.

2. Criticism Is The Only Known Antidote To Error.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Harvest of Souls, Chapter Seven (It's About Time!!)

I finally got the next installment of Harvest of Souls up at Right Behind. Sorry for the wait! I'm going to do my best to be more active there and here from now on.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Pervasive Assaults on the Truth of Genesis!

If Christian faith depends on a literal reading of Genesis, then evolution is not the only problem we face. Consider the science of meteorology.

In the six hundredth year of Noah's life, in the second month, the seventeenth day of the month, the same day were all the fountains of the great deep broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened. And the rain was upon the earth forty days and forty nights.

--Genesis 7:11-12

The fountains also of the deep and the windows of heaven were stopped, and the rain from heaven was restrained;

--Genesis 8:2

From this we know with 100% certainty that rain comes through windows in a solid sky. When the windows are opened, rain falls; when they're closed, rain stops falling. The Humanistic "cloud theory" of rain can only be seen as an attempt to place man on God's throne. How can an impudent TV weatherman possibly know when God is planning to open or close the windows of heaven?

We must also dispose of this nonsense about "telescopes." How could a "Hubble Space Telescope" take pictures of galaxies tens of billions of light years away but be unable to get pictures of the windows of heaven, which must be much closer to the Earth if rain is to reach the ground within a reasonable time period after the windows are opened. Furthermore, even if the solid sky, the windows, and the waters above the heavens are all perfectly transparent, no object more than 6000 or so light-years from Earth can possibly exist, since there would not have been time since Creation for the light to reach us. It might also be wise to stay away from binoculars, as they might be used to look at the so-called "Andromeda galaxy," which is supposedly a collection of as many as a trillion stars that is 2,500,000 light-years away from Earth.

Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?

--Genesis 3:1

Many Christians interpret this passage as referring to Satan. But that's one of those dodgy non-literal esoteric interpretations of Genesis. The text doesn't say the serpent is a rebellious angel or any sort of spirit being. It compares his intelligence to the "beasts of the field," rather than to angels. The verse wouldn't even make sense using that esoteric interpretation, since any angel (or even the humans, and they're not particularly bright in this story) would obviously be more clever "than any beast of the field." It would go without saying. The passage only makes sense if it's talking about a literal serpent. So now we know that snakes are intelligent, and they can talk with perfect diction.

And the LORD God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, thou [art] cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life: And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.

--Genesis 3:14-15

Once again, the serpent is classed with other animals rather than angels, making it perfectly clear that this is an ordinary snake. We learn here that snakes originally flew, or perhaps hopped about on their tails instead of crawling on their bellies, and that they eat dirt rather than small animals as secular herpetologists and pet-store employees claim. Who are you going to believe, the Bible, or mere men? Verse 15 is often esoterically interpreted as a prophecy of Christ. Since Genesis is literal narrative, this cannot possibly be the case. The serpent's "seed" is paired with the "seed" of the woman. Since Jesus was a descendant of Eve rather than Eve herself, the "seed" of the serpent would have to be a descendant, rather than the serpent himself in order for the parallelism of the passage to make sense. Since Jesus tells us that angels "neither marry nor are given in marriage," a serpent-shaped fallen angel could not have a descendant whose head would be bruised by Jesus. A proper literal reading disposes of this suspicious esoterica. The passage is simply a description of the mutually-antagonistic relationship between humans and snakes. When a snake strikes a human, it can't exactly go for the throat--it strikes the heel. And when a man wants to kill a snake, he attacks the head.

Furthermore, the Bible never says elsewhere that Satan crawls on his belly or eats dirt. He is portrayed as being able to enter Heaven (the Book of Job), and teleport himself and at least one other person from place to place (the temptation of Christ narratives in the Gospels, where Satan transports Jesus to the pinnacle of the Temple and challenges him to jump off). To suggest as the esoteric interpretation does, that Satan escaped punishment for causing the debacle in Eden by using an unfortunate snake as a puppet borders on blasphemy. Could God be so easily fooled that he would curse snakes instead of the Satanic puppet-master? Of course not! The esoteric reading has to be false. The clear literal interpretation of the historical record of Genesis tells us that snakes can talk, since God did not deprive the serpent of its power of speech as part of his curse.

And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top [may reach] unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded. And the LORD said, Behold, the people [is] one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.

--Genesis 11:4-6, emphasis added

This inerrant historical narrative states quite clearly--from the mouth of God himself!--that the people were capable of building a tower that would reach heaven. The word used for "heaven" here is "shamayim," the same word used in the passages about the windows of heaven. The narrative also tells us the methods the builders used, which should provide us with vital clues as to how high above the Earth the solid sky must be:

And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them throughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for morter. [sic]

--Genesis 11:3

According to Wikipedia, the tallest known pre-industrial building (the Lincoln Cathedral) reached a height of 525 feet with the construction of a central spire that has since been destroyed. Like its closest pre-industrial rival, the Great Pyramid of Giza, this is a stone building, as opposed to the weaker brick construction of the Tower of Babel. While the engineers of ancient Babel may have been exceptionally skillful, or simply had access to such a prodigious labor force that they could significantly exceed the height of these structures by widening the base of the structure, the limited structural strength of their materials places an upper limit on the height of the tower. Even if we grant that a completed Tower of Babel would have been twice as tall as the Lincoln Cathedral (1,050 feet), this casts doubt on modern claims to the construction of steel-reinforced "skyscrapers" such as the alleged Burj Dubai tower in Dubai at 2,684 feet tall. Do you want to believe the Bible, or a bunch of Muslims?

Even if we do accept the existence of these so-called "skyscrapers" (perhaps they do, in fact, scrape the sky...), the historical narrative of the Tower of Babel certainly rules out such atheistic fictions as "airliners" that fly at 30,000 feet, "satellites," "space probes," "manned spacecraft" and "moon landings."

I could go on, but I think I have demonstrated the pervasiveness of Humanist falsehoods which would lead us to question the literal historical truth of the Book of Genesis, and irreparably damage Christian faith.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Chayatocha: Meet the Paradines II: Mary Sue?

Chayatocha, pp. 22-32

After a little more family small talk, the wagon train stops for the night, and Paradine notices the leader of the wagon train, a cavalry officer named Jeremiah Wills talking in hushed tones with several other men and decides to go find out what's going on.

"Could be real trouble...if his report's half reliable, we--

"As Paradine approached the group, the men went silent."Captain," the schoolteacher said in greeting, the tension around him palpable."Mr. Paradine."Is there a problem?"

"Nothing we can't handle," said a wiry, hatchet-faced man at Wills' side, a measure of derision in his voice. 

He scratched at his long, scraggly beard.  "You just go back to your books, and leave things to us."

There it was again.

"Hello, Mr. Garrett," Paradine said flatly, noting the man's filthy clothes and level of personal hygene--low even for such a journey.  "I want to thank you for doing your best to assure the rest of us an ample supply of water."

The remark, on razor's wings, sailed directly over the man's head.

"There'll be enough," the puzzled man gruffly replied.  "Gonna have to go easy though.  It's a long way to Fort Boise."

Paradine felt the eyes upon him, taking note of his brocade vest and glittering watch fob, the silver rims of his eyeglasses, and his manicured fingernails.  All those things, he knew, were seen by some as alien, even threatening or undeserving of respect.  Perhaps that disrespect also grew out of the way he moved and the vocabulary he used, reflecting his refined upbringing and learned mind.

...It was nothing new--all his life he had felt like something of an outsider, and in his younger days he had suffered as the continual target of bullies...

Paradine, with his gentleman's clothes and manicured fingernails, is contrasted with Asa Garrett, who almost sounds like the man in the Beatles song "Come Together."  Garrett becomes the stand-in for the jocks and bullies who pick on the geeky, preppy Paradine.  In addition to his poor hygene, Garrett isn't too bright (he fails to catch Paradine's subtle dig), and it is implied that he's not very good at his job--finding water for the party.  

This is one of the classic signs of a "Mary Sue" (authorial self-insert) character: the character(s) who don't like the Mary Sue are all unsympathetic, and the Mary Sue shines in comparison to them.  The characters who dislike the Mary Sue are representative of the people who don't like the author, so their portrayal becomes a "Take That!" against the author's real-life enemies.  Unlike Jenkins and LaHaye however, Johnson is not writing a revenge fantasy.  He makes an effort to humanize Garrett instead of just consigning him to the fires of Divine wrath without a backward glance:
"Asa don't mean no harm," the captain said.  "Barely thirteen when his father died...worked on the family farm most of his life, trying to support his mother and sisters.  He never got any formal schooling.  I reckon he's a bit envious of you, in his way."

"I don't mind him." [Paradine said]

"Good man, really...ornery as the day is long, but a good man."
We find more "Mary Sue" clues on the 'about the author' page:
SHANE JOHNSON, a writer, graphic artist and spaceflight historian...also served as producer/director for the video documentary Apollo 13: Flight for Survival, and was a design consultant for the award-winning HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon.  Shane lives in Texas with his wife and son. (bold emphasis added)
Sound familiar?  Judging by his writing credits, Johnson is "a man of education and reason" like his character Daniel Paradine.  I think it would be fair to say that the Paradines do trigger the Mary Sue O' Meter a bit, but Johnson is a good enough writer not to make them the center of the Cosmos.
"We have butter, by the way," Lisabeth said.  "I put some milk in the churn, and the rough ride took care of it as we went along."

"Good thinking," her husband smiled.

"I got the idea from Martha Potter, so I can't take full credit."
Martha Potter is not a major character.  This is the first we ever hear of her.  Her appearance here shows that Johnson does not share Jenkins' urge to make his characters Teh Bestest And Smartest And Most Better Than Everyone Else Characters Evah, Evah, Evah.  Daniel Paradine is not the leader of the wagon train, nor is there any indication in the story that he "should" be.  He respects Captain Wills' judgment and accepts his leadership.  Compare that to these gems from Left Behind:
They cheered when they saw Buck. These people, the ones he had worked with, fought with, irritated and scooped, now seemed genuinely glad to see him. They could have no idea how he felt. ...
 We must be reminded, once again, that Camshaft has "scooped" and fought with irritated his co-workers, i.e., that he's just plain better than them, and he passes up no opportunity to plant his boot prints on their backs.  But they're glad to see him, oh yes!  Like frequently-kicked dogs, they still welcome their master home with wagging tails.  Then there's this scene, where Ray-gun is talking to a nameless Pan-Continental employee on the phone about his flight schedule, and when he will be returning to Chicago:
"Saturday night."


"Why? Got a date?"

"Not funny."

"Oh, gosh, I'm sorry, Captain. I forgot who I was talking to."

"You know about my family?"

"Everybody here knows, sir."
This vignette takes place in the context of the Rapture, the sudden disappearance of every young child in the world, as well as every Real, True Christian.  Everyone would be missing loved ones.  If not their own children, then nieces or nephews or grandkids.  And not having read the back of the book, they'd have no way to know that it couldn't happen again at any time.  But Rayford's loss of his wife and son is the only loss that matters.  "Everybody here" is talking about the disappearance of Rayford's family, as if they've forgotten all about their own vanished loved ones.  That's just how important and superior Ray-gun is.

What is the ultimate defining line of the towering, self-important assgasket?  "Do you know who you're talking to?!"  Any character who delivers that line in a movie is sure to be a villain, or at best the recipient of a well-deserved lesson in humility as the plot proceeds.  Ray-gun is That Guy.  But in Ellenjay's world, That Guy isn't the villain or the authorial punching bag, he's the Mary Sue.  The Mary Sue O' Meter pegs so hard here that Ray-gun doesn't even have to deliver the line!  The faceless minion does it for him, with a subservience befitting some dopey 1950's private fawning before a general in a military-themed slapstick comedy, or a happy slave from Song of the South.  "Oh gosh!  I'm sorry, Captain, I forgot who I was talking to."  Gosh?!

So, if the Paradines are authorial avatars for Johnson (and his wife and son), they say good things about Shane Johnson as a man, especially when contrasted against the grand-scale sociopathy of Ellenjay's characters in the Left Behind Series.  The Paradines are probably intended to represent Johnson's ideal of what a family ought to be like. 
"How nice it will be to be back in a house again.  I'll never complain about mopping floors or washing windows as long as I live." [Lisabeth said]

"I'm going to hold you to that." [Daniel said]

"Just because I'm not complaining doesn't mean you won't be right there helping me."

"I wouldn't have it any other way."
If anything, Daniel Paradine is too enlightened and progressive for his times.  But then, as a schoolteacher, he won't be working himself to physical exhaustion at manual farm labor, so it's at least plausible that he would help Lisabeth out with the household chores.  Lisabeth shows a degree of self-assertiveness here, and Daniel welcomes it.  He shows no desire to dominate his wife, and he doesn't have the sort of ego that quails at the prospect of doing "women's work."  In a book written by an Evangelical Christian for Evangelical Christians, this portrayal of a progressive and equal partnership in marriage as an ideal is remarkable and praiseworthy.  It shines especially bright against the dark misogynistic shadows of the mega-selling standard-bearer of Evangelical fiction.

Arrival at SkeptiCon

Wow, it took me way too long to start relating my adventures at Skepticon II, but better late than never...

It was a long drive, but well worth it!  Upon reaching the campus of Missouri State University, I tried to park in the Visitors' Parking Lot, only to find that the spaces are metered. Yes, metered.  At 20 minutes for a quarter, the last thing I wanted to do was park there and have to leave an excellent presentation or discussion with fellow skeptics so I could run put quarters in the meter.

And so I went on a quest for a modestly-priced hotel where I could stay and, this being the day of the conference, perhaps most importantly, park my car so I could get out of it.  Driving around, I happened upon this very cool retro-themed Best Western, the Route 66 Rail Haven.

Walking into the office to ask about their rates, who should I see, but Jesus Seminar scholar Robert M. Price and paranormal investigator Joe Nickell having a conversation!  And so, the choice of hotel wasn't hard.  And so, having arranged for a place for me and my car to sleep, I headed off to SkeptiCon II.

At the registration table, I met P.Z. Myers, wearing the suit he wore to the CreoZerg:  Note the Crocoduck tie!  The thing around my neck is a very cool Steampunk Cuttlefish pendant from Noadi Art.

The convention started out with a student debate on the existence of God.  I really wanted to go to that, but I ended up missing it...

...since I couldn't pass up the opportunity to have lunch, and fascinating conversation with Robert M. Price and a couple other attendees.  Price is equally at home discussing the complexities of New Testament scholarship and such things as comic books.  He made an interesting comparison between the four Gospels and a Superman story line in which Superman dies and is replaced by four "Supermen" who each represent his character differently, and inconsistently with the others.  He's very witty, funny, and friendly--and of course, highly knowledgeable in the field of New Testament scholarship.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Off To SkeptiCon 2!

I'm off to SkeptiCon II! There'll be an awesome line-up of speakers, so I'm totally looking forward to it. Unfortunately I don't have the technology to live-blog it, but I'll take pictures and notes and pass on my thoughts on the presentations when I return.