Saturday, January 21, 2017

Progress vs Decline: What to expect going forward

What on earth just happened?  Donald Trump is now our president.

For quite a few months now (since early in the primaries), I've been saying that, while I don't support Trump, I saw a viable path for him to be elected President.  I caught a huge amount of flak for that.  Even the week before the election, pointing to the closing 538 probabilities and extrapolating out, I got accused of being ignorant of math, clueless about polling, and generally a complete moron for saying, "Folks?  Don't be so sure of a Hillary victory just yet."

Why?  And what does this mean?  I'll try to explain.

Something happened that wasn't supposed to happen.  Donald Trump is the new President of the United States of America.  This wasn't how the story goes.  Following eight years of Obama's Presidency, Hillary Clinton, who is, by the way, a woman, was supposed to Fight the Good Fight against the Evilly Evil Forces of Mordor (represented by none so vile as Donald Trump), triumph in a landslide, and rule over America, representing the fluttering flag of Progress.

That didn't happen - and the howling was incredible.  Trump wasn't supposed to win.  Trump was most assuredly not supposed to win with 304 electoral college votes (which would have been more, except for the faithless electors - of which there were only 2 from Trump, but 5 from Clinton).

Why wasn't Trump supposed to win?  What happened?  And what can we expect going forward based on this?

The Religion of Progress

The "Religion of Progress" is a term that's been coined by John Michael Greer to cover the set of myths and narratives commonly used to understand what's going on in the world today by a good chunk of western industrial civilization (so the United States, a good chunk of Europe, and quite a bit of the rest of the world as well).

It consists mostly of the very handwaved and cherry picked version of history that says, "Humans rose out of the caves, suffered under evil rulers, threw off those shackles, rose from the dark ages, got all sorts of neat sciencey stuff, and are progressing to a glorious future in the stars!" - as a rather brief summary.  This civil religion traces history as a single line from the caves of the past to the future that looks an awful lot like whatever the progressive/liberal side of politics sees as utopia right now, and is, by the thinking of the religion of progress, inevitable.  It's not that this is one possible path - it's that this is the only possible path, and further, that it must happen.  The cartoon villains in this narrative are the evil conservatives, who for unexplainable reasons don't want this clearly evident progress, and must be crushed.

To get here requires glossing over most of history like a car, at high speed, bounces over the top of the washboards on a gravel road.  The road is bumpy, but the wheels travel a reasonably straight path if you go fast enough and squint hard enough.

This particular view of history ignores entirely the rise and fall of nations, empires, and civilizations, and forces everything onto a straight line leading from the caves of prehistoric times to the grand future that will come sometime in the future - and, if you're willing to ignore an awful lot of history, you can do this reasonably successfully.

The problem comes when one begins treating this particular straight line path as a guide to what must come instead of a particularly poor representation of history - and, in America today, an awful lot of people subscribe to this view of the future.

The Arc of Empires

A very brief review of recorded history makes it quite clear that nations and empires rise and fall, both in absolute terms (countries and empires that no longer exist), and in terms of influence (in 1920, Great Britain controlled nearly 1/4th of the dry land on Earth).  If you're unfamiliar with this minor fact of history, Wikipedia has a great "List of Empires" page I recommend skimming.

The majority of those nations and empires no longer exist today.  It is, therefore, reasonable to assume that 500 years in the future, the majority of nations and empires today will not exist, or will not exist in nearly the same form.

Empires rise and fall.  Nations rise and fall.  The United States is a nation that behaves an awful lot like an empire - so it's a decent bet that, looking back from some future vantage point, people will talk about the rise and fall of the United States.  We're not immune to history.

Researching the rise and fall of empires can literally be a lifetime pursuit.  Fortunately, there are some people who have done just that!

Sir John Glubb wrote a nice summary towards the end of his life of researching and writing on empires: THE FATE OF EMPIRES and SEARCH FOR SURVIVAL.  This is a 26 page PDF, well worth the time to read.  It offers some of the common characteristics of empires, their common lifespan (250 years), and things that happen during the decline.  To borrow a vaguely-sourced quote commonly attributed to Mark Twain, "History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes."  If something reliably happens on the backside of an empire's arc through history, it's worth looking at to help understand the future.

Mental Models of Reality

If reality keeps surprising you, it might be worth sanity checking your mental model of reality.  We all have a model of "the way the world works" we keep upstairs in our brain, and it serves as a filter for our senses, and in a very real way, shapes the things we think and even the things we consider possible.

A lot of people, today, are running around with a model of reality that strongly resembles the "Religion of Progress" mentioned above.  It doesn't matter what your actual religion is at all, though if I'm honest, I see a lot more "religion of progress" thinking in atheists or functional atheists.  If you assume that the future has to be better, simply because it's the future, it's likely that you subscribe, at least somewhat, to the religion of progress as your model of reality.

How often do you look at world events and say, "Wait.  That wasn't supposed to happen!" or, stronger, "That's impossible!  That can't happen!  It's 2016!"  If that happens to you a lot, I might suggest that it's worth spending some time thinking about your assumptions about reality, and perhaps updating them, if you find them to be more consistently wrong than right.

My current mental model of reality is, admittedly, pessimistic.  It blends the United States as a post-peak empire starting down the backside of its arc through history (peak was probably in the 70s or 80s, so it's still early on the decline), the increasing headwinds that industrial civilization is likely to face as a result of resource depletion, "global weirding," and the law of diminishing returns, and the history of humans showing that humans are intensely tribal (preferably in small tribes), into some sort of generally unified collection of thoughts and filters.

And, so far, that's been serving me well.  Trump as President didn't surprise me at all.  I recognized what he was going for very early on, though I expected he'd get the nomination and not win the general, because It's Her Turn.  The 5 year or so "renewable energy source of the future" bubbles that come and go reliably have been, well, coming and going reliably.  When was the last time you heard about how ethanol would be the biofuel of the future?  When was the last time you heard someone seriously assert that fracking was going to give us 100 years of energy independence?  And, unfortunately, solar is looking a lot like a bubble right now (though, at least, with that bubble we get something useful after it pops in the form of installed solar panels and inverters).

Think about it.  Consider that reality is under no obligation to your assertions about what the future must hold, and if the future isn't what you're expecting it to be, find a model that works better.

What this Means for the Future

Not much good, I'm afraid.  President Trump won the election on some claims about the future that he's unlikely to make good on, simply due to where we are in our arc through history.  He might be able to pull off 4 years of prosperity, at the cost of making things even worse after he's gone, or he might not.  I really don't know, and history rarely offers much in the way of short term predictions.

But I can guess that for those of us alive today, when we're old, we'll be looking back fondly at the times of our youth, when gas was cheap, roads were in good shape, and the Trump/Clinton election made things politics look functional.

I'll even go out on a limb and offer some concrete predictions.

Liberal Purity Purges/Circular Shooting Ranges

Throughout history, liberal groups have had a particular brittleness.  They do well when they're getting their way, but if that stops happening, they reasonably frequently turn on themselves - and that gets ugly.  I don't know if the Democrats are left leaning enough to fully implode from this, but I'd guess in the next 4 years, you'll see a lot of Democrat-on-Democrat attacks, with some truly vicious wording or behavior that seems entirely out of character for the person making the attack.

This also stands a decent chance of fragmenting the Democrats.  You saw a glimpse of this during this election season, with the Sanders supporters looking warily at the rest of the Democrats (and rightly claiming that they were trying to corrupt the primary process), and then going their own way after Sanders didn't get the nomination.

Expect another party to show up to the left of the Democrats in the next 5-10 years, and to draw off a significant chunk of the left-leaning edge of the Democrat voter base.  I sincerely doubt this party will be one that exists today - sorry, Greens.

Alt-Right Continues Rising

Expect the loose affiliation of people that get lumped into the "alt-right" category to band together, refine their message, polish some of the rough edges, and entirely refuse to go away.  Like them or not, they are quite likely to gain a voice in the national conversation, and I expect a lot of people will think they have something of value to say.  If you think this is impossible, consider who our current President is (and, no, you saying "Not My President" does not change reality one bit).

Consider them the backlash to a few decades of trying to purge the concept of masculinity from our culture.  No action occurs in a void, and it seems nobody in politics ever expects that their actions might change what other people do (except in exactly the desired ways - it's never worked before, but it'll definitely work this time!) - so those "unexpected" responses keep happening.

I'd also expect the "alt-right" to pick a better name for themselves at some point soon.  It's a currently useful identifier, but doesn't really have a good ring to it.

Constant Low Level Emergencies or Crises

Some town or other is always going to be in a state of emergency or some level of crisis, and this is likely to become the new normal.  If the United States is, in fact, an empire in decline, things won't ever quite get back to "normal" - and it's likely to be in the realm of resources and maintenance.  The snow plows won't be reliable (relevant to my current environment).  The power grid, somewhere or other, will be down for a few days at a time.  Somewhere won't have running water, or the water will be toxic because of mismanagement of century old infrastructure.  Another bridge collapsed overnight.  Things like this - just minor events that don't seem quite right, but that seem to keep happening.  There simply won't be the budget to keep the infrastructure maintained, and things will gradually break down.  They'll get patched, for a while, and people will adapt, but it won't ever be quite right.

Sadly, some of this is likely to be the result of violence from protests, marches, or whatever particular event convinces people that smashing windows and burning cars is a useful way to convey whatever message they think they're conveying.

Reasonable Reactions

Given all this, what would be reasonable things to do?  Obviously, the easiest option is to ignore it, stick one's head in the sand, and carry on doing whatever it is you've been doing, right up until that doesn't work anymore, then get upset and make online petitions.  But that's not very useful.

Design Towards Independence

In no way am I suggesting you go "Doomsday Prepper" here (and, really, I cannot come up with someone much stupider than someone who goes on about their prepping on a TV show), but think about how the systems you rely on interact with the rest of the world, and consider what happens if you don't have those systems.  If you've still got grandparents around, ask them how they did things, or look into some older books.

As an example here, the quite common way of doing solar with micro-inverters is entirely useless if the power grid is down.  You can't get most of the common micro-inverters to power on without the grid for anti-islanding reasons.  Maybe it's worth spending a bit more for some string inverters that support a battery backup and a critical loads panel.  Maybe it's worth having a totally standalone power system somewhere on your property you can make use of if needed.  Maybe it's worth installing a woodstove for backup heating.

The same is true of gardens and food storage - root cellars are a thing, and take a whole lot less energy than a deep freezer to keep stuff fresh.

And maybe keep an offline copy of Wikipedia or something around, in case the internet drops out for a while - and perhaps a few useful books (either digital or paper).  The "green wizard" research and writings out of the 70s are still quite relevant.

Discover the Joys of Silence

You can, in fact, survive without constant stimulation!  It's really, really rough at first, but there's a certain joy to quiet, low energy times spent reading, talking with people, or simply looking out the windows (assuming there's something interesting to look at).

Enjoy the benefits of modern technology, but consider that they might not always be there, and learn to be content on your own, without a constant roar of stimulation coming in.


This ties into the previous section.  I know that YouTube has videos for everything, but there are also books for just about everything, and a dozen hours spent going through a book on a topic will, absolutely, give you a better grasp and understanding of it than some time spent watching videos.  I promise.

It's also worth pointing out that a standard e-ink reader can store about a decade's worth of books, or more if you have an expansion card.  A megabyte of epub can easily store 3-5 hours of reading - so 3GB of space is 4 hours of reading a day, for a decade.  Toss in an SD card, and you can have a lifetime of reading (presuming your reader holds up, which is a bit of a question these days).

Read long books.  There's a serious lack of ability to focus in today's society, and reading many long books will help you get that back.

Don't Rely on Politics

There's nothing wrong with getting involved in politics and working for change.  Just don't put all your hope in the political system.  If we truly are a nation on the backside of our arc through history, all the politicians in the world won't change this - but they reliably do a fine job of making things worse as they refuse to acknowledge this and do something useful about it.

Stay Out of Large Crowds

Yup.  I know standing around with lots of other people is really, really popular right now, but it's probably not the most useful thing you could do - and given some of the violence happening and the likelihood of more over the next 4 years, they're probably not the sanest places to be.

Final Thoughts

If you're happy with how you view the world, and it serves you well in terms of understanding events, predicting how things will go, and you find it generally useful - by all means, keep it around.

But if you've spent the last year or so outraged by what's happening, because clearly it can't happen, despite it doing just that - perhaps look through history and consider changing how you view things.

And, please, stop saying "Not My President."  Denying facts is something those evil cartoon conservatives are supposed to do, isn't it?

In any case, next week this blog will be back to small electronics project posts.  I'll either be talking about a Button Box I built for my daughter, or talking about Arduino library memory use and eventually introducing some of my own libraries that don't suck.


  1. This article is a tough read, and a tough situation for all of us. I can only suggest that we all get really familiar with the current climate science so we can understand the big picture.

    Dr. Richard Gammon [1]. He presented a few months ago at the University Unitarian Church in the U-District (Seattle, WA)[2].



  2. I enjoyed this piece quite a bit, and come from a very similar perspective. My ability to prepare is hampered in short term by still being in an urban area but we're making tracks to getting on a homestead property in the medium term to increase our sufficiency and resilience.

    Your reference to snow plows makes me wonder if you're in the same high desert area a friend of mine is in. They have had an insane amount of snow this year.

    1. An awful lot of the country is dealing with snow plow issues.

      Even in an urban environment, there's a lot you can do. Five gallon buckets with Gamma screw top lids and some vacuum sealing makes for decent food storage.

  3. @David
    So, somewhere in Nevada-ish area along the edge of the Sierras? I have a friend who lives up in Reno, the last couple of weeks they got hammered.

    Russell, have you been watching the new TV show Incorporated? Think it'll get that bad?

    1. Sorry, I have no idea what TV show you're talking about. I don't really watch much - I'd rather read. We actually don't have a way to watch live TV even if we want to short of streaming over the internet. My wife & I don't feel it's of value to have.

    2. Well, I don't really watch live TV either, just watch shows streaming.

      Basically, there's an amendment to the constitution that lets corporations act as sovereigns. They basically take over the US and the world, which has suffered seriously due to climate change with vast areas becoming unlivable. If you have a Corporate job (several major corporations/conglomerates are in competition) you can live in nice clean places, good food, being taken care of, etc. If you aren't, you live in basically slums or UN climate refugee slum camps.

    3. "Basically, there's an amendment to the constitution that lets corporations act as sovereigns."

      That differs from now how, exactly? LOL

  4. Any suggestions on solar string inverters with black-start capability that are not way more expensive than the usual grid-tie solutions? I have toyed with the idea of feeding a false 240v/60hz signal to the inverter so it will start, but I have a feeling it would either fault for overvoltage as it tried to feed current back into the 'grid' or fry itself/the source trying to do so, unless there was a place for it to put all of its excess power.

    1. Anything that can run a load standalone is going to be more expensive, and probably require batteries as well.

      The way Radian Outback inverters handle it is that the inverters feed a "critical loads" subpanel if the grid is blacked out, and otherwise will backfeed into the main grid. You need separate charge controllers and a battery bank, and program the inverter to behave as desired with the battery voltages.

      Getting a micro-inverter to behave in a blackstart is unlikely - a lot of them rely on pushing or pulling the frequency to see if they're connected to the grid. The grid won't budge, but a generator or another inverter will. And, as you note, they rely on an infinite sink for their output. I expect they'd overvolt and shut down if you could get them to feed a standalone island.

      If you value standalone capability, you're just going to be paying more. There's really no way around it.

    2. So are Radian Outback inverters the sole player in town for this capability?

    3. They're not the only one, but they're certainly a leader in grid tied/backup power systems. If you find others, I'm certainly interested.

      But the end to end cost is significantly higher. Your panels go through charge controllers (probably multiple in parallel) to your DC battery bank (48V), then your inverter runs from that and mixes things around as needed - and there's a bit of an art to getting the charge controllers and inverter to doing the right thing so you make full use of your solar production.

      Microinverters are cheaper and easier for a grid tie system, but are radically worse if you want to run without the grid. There exist some ways to hack them into producing power, but you still need a big inverter and battery bank to make that work, at a minimum.

      The Radian inverters also support a generator feed that can be blended in a variety of ways. They're, at least with the research I've done so far, the most capable for a "grid tied system" capable of reasonable and indefinite off grid use, should you find the need.

  5. Thanks for your knowledge. So the Radian systems are essentially double conversion, then? PV voltage to battery bank voltage, then back up to 240VAC. No wonder the efficiency is so low.

    Also: What do you think of the notion of using retired forklift batteries as off-grid storage? There seem to be some snake-oil salemen claiming they can rejuvenate these, which I am wary of, but I am curious if there is any legitimate second-life potential for these. Even at 50% capacity remaining, the storage potential for these batteries is huge, if space and handling can be managed.

    1. Pretty much, yeah. The Outback Radian series goes from battery to two phase, and you work out the details yourself to get from panel to battery. It's not the most efficient system on the planet, but it is a great way to run most of your home on a critical loads panel.

      Retired forklift batteries are certainly a thing, but I wouldn't believe much of the snake oil. They're also insanely heavy and difficult to move.

  6. Finally got around to reading Sir Glubb's essay. Very interesting, and compelling. It does seem quite reasonable to prepare for decline.


Comments on older posts are moderated due to spam issues. If you don't see your comment immediately, and you weren't just spamming me with some irrelevant comment and a link to whatever site you're trying to SEO, your comment should show up relatively soon. If you're trying to use my blog for your SEO purposes, your comments will never show up, so don't waste your time.