Thursday, 28 May 2009

Heterodox Futurists

I had a very interesting evening last night, talking at the London Long Now meetup, on the subject of 'The Long Doom?'. The question mark matters, because I'm not interested in making predictions, nor in pessimism. What I wanted to explore was how we get better at imagining a wider range of futures - at making the distinction between "the end of the world as we know it" and "the end of the world, full stop".

I'll post a video of the talk and the discussion that followed soon. In the mean time, I wanted to share some links to other people whose long-term thinking about decline and collapse scenarios has helped me get my bearings. They fall into the category (which I just made up) of "heterodox futurists": that is, they think and write about the future, while standing outside the orthodoxies characteristic of mainstream voices and organisations.

John Michael Greer, whose erudite comparisons between the current state of the world and the rise and fall of previous civilisations appear weekly at The Archdruid Report.

Dmitry Orlov provides darkly entertaining reflections on the parallels and differences between the present-day USA and his experiences of the collapse of the USSR. (Both of those blogs have also been distilled into excellent books - Greer's 'The Long Descent' and Orlov's 'Reinventing Collapse'.)

Drop-out intellectual Ran Prieur is a constant source of thought-provoking links and his essays offer an unusual balance of social critique and techno-curiosity.

Finally, Eleutheros's occasional posts at How Many Miles From Babylon are worth the wait (though concerned less directly with the future than with the present, as seen from the outside).

There are plenty of other interesting voices out there, associated with the Peak Oil community, the Transition Towns movement, "anti-civilisation" anarchism, mutualism and other positions, many of whom provide a useful balance to mainstream narratives. What I appreciate about those I've listed here, though, is that they speak for themselves, exploring a set of ideas, and not acting as the voice of any particular group or movement.

So, who else should I be reading who falls into that category?


Dan Aktivix said...

"It's a dizzying departure from reason to insist that the advantages conferred by the internet mean that the internet must continue to exist. The fact that something is an advantage does not guarantee that it is possible."

From Archdruid. Nice. Something similar I read this morning - Larkin:

Most things are never meant.
This won't be, most likely; but greeds
And garbage are too thick-strewn
To be swept up now, or invent
Excuses that make them all needs.
I just think it will happen, soon.

'Invent excuses that make them all needs' - genius.

Dougald Hine said...

Yes, Greer has a great turn of phrase. (For what it's worth, I think he's dogmatically over-pessimistic about energy, given recent breakthroughs in solar tech, but that's another story.) Still, it's important that we should be able to imagine a future without the internet - even those of us who are addicted to Twitter.

And funny that you should pick up on that bit of Larkin - we've used some lines from 'Going, Going' in the Dark Mountain manifesto. I loved Larkin when I was in my late teens, which I guess says something about the kind of teenager I was...

Dan Aktivix said...

Reading the first two archdruid posts, inc:

Thought I'd get some defence of economics in! He attacks economics in the most recent article -

"Contemporary economics fails so consistently to predict the behavior of the economy because it has lost the capacity, or the willingness, to criticize its own underlying metaphysics."

But in the previous article, he's doing economics - "Even a more efficient internet is unlikely to be the most economical way to use the sharply constrained energy and resource flows of the deindustrializing future; if another technology or suite of technologies can provide something like the same services at a lower cost, that technology or suite of technologies will outcompete the internet." Yup - that'll be down to changes in cost, and elasticity of substitutes, which is what he's very eloquently talking about.

There's a famous Marshall quote:

"I had a growing feeling in the later years of my work at the subject that a good mathematical theorem dealing with economic hypotheses was very unlikely to be good economics: and I went more and more on the rules

1. Use mathematics as a shorthand language, rather than an engine of inquiry
2. Keep to them until you have done
3. Translate into English
4. Then illustrate by examples that are important in real life
5. Burn the mathematics
6. If you can't succeed in 4, burn 3.

This last I did often."

Good economics is only using math tools to help develop understanding of possible futures; anyone claiming predictive power is clearly wrong.

Archdruid is doing the English part; there's maths for it, but the former - as Marshall suggests - is the more useful. Those economists who've disappeared up their own mathematical bottoms will be of little use to us, but it worries me to see the whole field being so blithely dismissed.

Plus, one might argue you can't get any more mainstream than economics. Still, listen to Nicolas Stern demand that us rich countries had to give any remaining leeway for carbon burning to les well-off countries, because - well, we've binged, and we're responsible. Which is to say, there are as many economics as there are politics.

Of course, I should put this on archdruid's blog, not yours, sorry!

Dan Aktivix said...

AAAAA! Sorry! Lemme just slap myself... *thwack!* I should also add:

1. Cheers for the links, they're awesome.

2. Economists are responsible for approximately 68% of the evil in the world; marketers probably the rest.


Gubernatrix said...

Fascinating links, thanks! I'm afraid I've no-one else to recommend at this stage; only come across Ran Prieur before.

Still exploring your blog too....

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