This week’s post is the third of a monthly series of open-discussion posts focusing on books I’ve written. Our theme for the present is my book Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth, and this week we’re discussing “The Second Law: The Law of Flow” (pp. 26-35). I’d like to ask readers to keep their questions and comments focused on that chapter and the ideas it contains; we’ll have another Ask Me Anything post later this month, and of course a substantive monthly post or two in due time.
In place of an outline, here’s the Second Law, as it appears in the book:
Everything that exists is created and sustained by flows of matter, energy, and information that come from the whole system to which it belongs, and return to that whole system. Participating in these flows, without interfering with them, brings health and wholeness; blocking them, in an attempt to turn flows into accumulations, causes suffering and disruption to the whole system and all its parts.
The rest of this section of the book expands on the concept this definition sketches out. Questions? Comments? Discussions? Have at it—subject, of course, to the usual rules.
I purchased your book some years ago upon publication and really loved it. What appealed to me, from the outset, is how much common sense you write about.
Here, matter, energy and information are flows that exist, but in western societies, we appear to believe (or have been taught) we are independent and autonous. I often ask students (both in university as well as second-level students) if they have a biological relationship with plant life (meaning, trees and green plants). The overwhelming of over-18s say ‘no;’ though a percentage of under-18s think about it and wonder.
What has happened to our sense of wonder?
However, is matter, energy and information somehow connected in a way I am missing out on?
Many thanks for these discussions,
Hello John Michael Greer and others! I haven’t come across the book so I apologize if these questions have been addressed already, but I’d be interested to hear your answers all the same –
First, how does the law of flow relate to our current understanding of thermodynamics? We might restate the second law of thermodynamics by saying ‘flows tend on balance to diffuse more than they agglomerate’. Does this reveal any truths about the nature of diffuse flows compared to concentrated ones?
And second, how does this law relate to the second principle of permaculture (harvest & store energy)? Building soil requires quite a lot of energy and isn’t usually seen as harmful to the system – does the law of flow not apply because the energy, though trapped in one place, isn’t trapped in one form?
I was going to wait until the next AMA post to mention this, but it actually fits in with the theme of this week’s chapter discussion, so I’ll run with it here.
Yesterday at work, a colleague of mine (who is also bean-farmer on the side) stopped by my office. The two of us often discuss economics, politics, and whatnot, from differing angles. Anyway, he was commenting on recent investments by the likes of Calpine and other major investors in this new concept called “cultured meat products” — essentially lab-grown meat. One of the selling points being that the energy input required per pound is far less than the energy input required for a CAFO (and moreso a sustainable operation) and that enormous quantities of meat are going to be needed to feed the burgeoning human population. (The fact that the energy input being quoted is almost certainly a marginal cost, rather than an all-in cost incorporating the fixed costs of the lab, complex equipment, etc, not to mention the lost opportunities from not being integrated with a surrounding ecological system, appears to not be noticed.)
This idea, of course, checks pretty much every box we have here in this group’s general understanding of ecology, energy flow, and integrated systems. As he was describing the “product”, I had these visions of stark, straight hallways confining disconnected, linear lives. It was almost straight out of your WoH novels, to be honest (which is scary). But, in any event, the approach is almost a classic industrial response — cutting off on part of an integrated system and treating it as though it is an isolated process in order to “improve” it.
Sounds like chi, eh? I imagine you know a little bit about that!
That was my first thought, when I read this the first time, last
Sure do like these posts!!
putting a microhydro generator in the stream allows you to use some of the energy of the moving water while allowing the water to continue to flow to the ocean. erecting a dam to use a bigger generator affects the flow downstream immediately but also affects the flow upstream in the future. the first works within the whole system, the second works against the whole of the system.
While I -probably superficially – understand this law, I wonder how to translate this to my “daily nourishment”. With the social changes coming on, I expect to work for a longer time than e.g. my parents and a side-set of my skills might get me a living that I can work at in old age. But get´s me off the track is, how do I care for when I get senile, without a kind of hoard.
The obvious answer is probably: get good friends, that are younger, still to my mind this feels much more insecure. Probably because I´m not used to that mindset.
Hmmm…a certain amount of accumulation is inevitable. For instance, I’ve appropriated about 72kg of matter from the ecosystem and will carry it around until I die. Is that why, to quote the Buddha, “life is suffering?”
I’m curious to know what people think about flow of wealth, particularly in terms of inheritance. I was recently part of a conversation where my husband’s 101 year old grandmother expressed dismay that her life savings would be spent on skilled nursing care, rather than being able to leave it to her children (in their 80’s) or grandchildren (in their 50’s). While the medical establishment is not my favorite destination for money, I wonder about the accumulation. What is your take?
When you first announced this series of posts, I purchased the Mystery Teachings Book, and read all of it. And, by the way, I like it very much, particularly because it is straightforward and simple: it is long enough for simple yet elegant explanations of the laws, yet not so long that the reader is “bogged down” in the information. I love the meadow motif. When I came to the second law, I began to realize that this system applied directly to what has been my life’s passion and profession: classical ballet. If it’s acceptable in this context, I’d like to share my understanding of how these laws apply and manifest in the art and practice of classical ballet. (When I have time, I must go back and reread the first law, as I am sure I will see that clearly in ballet as well–just hadn’t begun to think along those lines until I got to Chapter 2.
So: the law of flow in ballet: first, there are many kinds of flow that are happening simultaneously within the dancer’s body. There is the flow of oxygen and nutrients via the respiratory system and the blood. There are the infinitely rapid flow of signals from the brain and nervous system. The flow of the dancer’s mind from thought to sensation, sensation to thought. There is the flow of energy from muscle to muscle, tendon and ligaments, each activated and responding to the others constantly. The flow of the breath influences everything else as well; breathing quickly or slowly, gently or forcibly, holding the breath, all influence the ultimate appearance and expression of the movement.
Outside of the body, there is the flow of music, which enters the dancer’s awareness and influences/directs/saturates all of the other flows. There is the flow of the dancer’s body throughout the space, and, unless the dance is a solo, the flow of other bodies within the space. The timing, breadth and energy of one dancer’s movement flow influences all the rest. Live musicians can have a major impact on flow of the dance. The same ballet, with exactly the same steps and movements, music and space, can be expressed quite differently if a different orchestra impacts the flow.
Certainly, the ability for both dancers and audiences to participate in these flows “in the moment” brings health and wholeness to the artistic quality of the performance. Turning flows into “accumulations”, such as a dancer attempting to squeeze more turns into a phrase, jump higher than all the others, a musician who lingers too long on a note, or an observer who stops to analyze a moment, causes disruption and suffering to participants and observers alike. (I am sure one could include many other examples of flow in classical ballet, but I will stop here).
I haven’t had the chance to read this book yet – when I bought it, I let my wife have it first, and she said it was all common sense and things she already knew (not sure how far she had read). I think that says good things about her 🙂 I’ll try to get hold of it and read soon.
I commented a couple of times on ADR as gjh42, my usual online handle, but like the real name tradition (as enforced on the Permies forums) for substantive discussions.
Hm. One possible comment – apologies if it comes across as too critical, that’s not my intention – is that this is a very, well, static way of thinking about these flows of matter and information.
These flows and balances are not some sort of eternal law, but merely the current state of things; and while it can certainly be made the case that messing with them without enough foresight or regard for consequences – just as, it can absolutely be made the case, our technological civilization has been doing for quite a while by now – is a Very Bad Idea, the point remains that change is inevitable (and, inevitably, will eventually result in the whole system converging towards some other stable… for a while… state).
For instance, what was the development of agricultural civilization if not a massive upset in these very flows and balances, and precisely the type of “attempt to turn flows into accumulations” that the law would decry? Or, for that matter, what about the development of writing?
And although, I will also readily concede this, it is true that the transition from hunter-gatherer civilizations to agricultural ones involved a great deal of suffering and disruption, it can also be made the case that it led to novel possibilities for our species and that (despite what some rosy-glassed Anarcho-primitivists would say) it was, all things considered, a good thing,which made our world a great deal more complicated and interesting.
The same, albeit on immensely larger scales, can be said about the development of social insects, of multicellular organisms or even of photosynthesis.
Equilibria are not sacred laws, and disrupting them is not necessarily always a bad thing. Nor, admittedly, it is always a good thing either; but in any case, I would argue that on a sufficiently long timescale such disruptions are simply inevitable, and that we are in the middle of one (perhaps a relatively minor one, as these things go; I’m just not sure) right now.
My wife is in the sewage treatment profession. She has become somewhat famous for giving speeches at conventions of engineers and professionals in the industry which are considered shocking and radical but entertaining so they keep asking her back. The gist of her talks comes down to one simple point which is the same as your 2nd Law. It can be summerized as,” There is no away.” As in it is delusional thinking to assume that something undesirable can be thrown away, or something toxic can be taken away, or something unwanted can be removed. Everything remains here on earth and just gets moved around.
@katsmama: I’ve had the opportunity to think about this issue a lot in my own life since my grandmother has dementia and has required round-the-clock care for several years. Her care is paid for with her life savings while her children are all working full time to save money for their own retirements so they can pay for a nursing home if they need it….and so the cycle continues. As the complexity of medical care has increased, people are living longer in poorer states of health and therefore spending even more money on medical care. It seems like end-of-life medical care in this context becomes a kind of vacuum sucking up inputs into an overly large accumulation of energy and resources. It’s no wonder that healthcare spending has become such a large percentage of GDP.
More generally: the current approach to retirement for members of the salaried class who aren’t super wealthy is to accumulate a nest egg by saving a percentage of income every year and investing it in financial products of various kinds in order for it to grow/keep up with inflation. Then, that nest egg is spent on living expenses/medical care/assisted living care (which is typically outsourced outside of the family) until the person has nothing left or dies, whichever comes first. This seems like a really odd way of temporarily accumulating resources and directing flows of energy to me.
Changing gears: I am facing a big decision in my life and the law of flow is helping me see my choices and their possible consequences more clearly. Decisions I make on where to devote my time and energy have an effect on the flows around me. I can devote time and energy to Path A or I can devote time and energy to Path B. How I direct the flows of energy and matter coming through my life will affect other lives and the whole system in myriad ways. Lots to think about….
Emily07: is the “marry good man, make good children” option not an option?
katsmama: well … if one wanted to distribute that money, aren’t there descendants up to 3 further generations down the line already? Besides, there’s charity (though in that case, I’d recommend taking care to pick something where it’d matter as opposed to something where it’d get squandered).
Brian, when those students insist that they don’t have a biological relationship with plant life, do you remind them about little things like food and oxygen? It impresses me how clueless so many people are about our total dependence on the biosphere. As for connections among energy, matter, and information, of course — all of them are connected to all the others in hypercomplex loops and cycles the human mind is incapable of understanding. That’s why expecting nature to respond in a linear fashion to the changes we make is such a recipe for disaster.
Christopher, good. First, the law of flow (and the other six laws) are very basic; the laws of thermodynamics tell us facts about flow, while the law of flow reminds us that flow exists. Second, the permaculture notion of “storing” energy is deeply flawed. You can’t actually store energy; all you can do is get it to flow in loops that keep it accessible to you for a longer time than it would otherwise be.
David, yes, I’ve heard of that. The thing to keep in mind is that one of the unspoken driving forces behind contemporary culture is a frantic terror and hatred of nature. That’s what pushes the various attempts to come up with something to eat that doesn’t involve eating living things, just as it pushes the Singularitarian fantasy of uploading our minds into cold, gleaming robot bodies and zooming off into the hard vacuum of space. It’s the final expression of the Gnostic impulse, the insistence that the Earth isn’t good enough for us and we deserve some perfect, pure world utterly obedient to our notions of the way things should be. Psychotic? You bet, but it’s a very popular psychosis…
Mac, chi is among the many things that flow!
Clarence, an excellent example.
Ooh interesting 🙂 I can see how that works for a lot of nature, but what about all those old plants accumulated into fossil fuels, we should probably keep that accumulated energy in the ground rather than let it flow….
I appreciate the subject and comments very much. It’s been a couple of years since I read and meditated on the book. I came away with the conclusion that flow, when artfully directed, could provide sustainance and improve the system simultaneously. Soil culture being a very fine example where feeding the tiniest microbes ultimately feeds ones family.
The nursing home industry today, where I now work is likewise an example of mismanaged flow, where administrators and investors stripmine resources while caregivers raise their children on macaroni and cheese. Care suffers while those accumulating said resources are planting a bitter harvest indeed.
It’s my belief that it is our “duty”, and privilege to bring as much art and skill to our efforts as we can muster. Which thankfully is also in our best interest.
Emily, our entire society is set up around accumulation rather than flow. Nonetheless, if all you have is money sitting in an account somewhere, you’re probably going to run short before you die — look at the rate at which health care costs are soaring year after year, just for starters. If you have an income rather than a nest egg — a flow, rather than an accumulation — you’ll likely be in better shape.
RPC, not at all. Remember that every cell in your body is replaced within seven years, and the substances that make up those cells are replaced at an even faster pace. You are a ripple in a river of meat; nutrients flow into you and out of you every day, and any interruption to either of those flows will make you sick in short order.
Katsmama, I’ve noticed over the years that growing up with inherited wealth is really bad for people. The “trust fund baby” stereotype exists for good reason! While I’m not happy seeing all that money going to the corrupt and dysfunctional mess we have for a medical industry, it’s probably less harmful there than as an inheritance. (Lottery winnings are equally damaging, for what it’s worth.)
Lydia, thank you for this! I know essentially nothing about classical ballet — I’m the equivalent of tone-deaf when it comes to dance — so it’s very interesting to see these principles reflected back from another context.
Glenn, if your wife really did already know everything in the book, you’re a lucky man.
Skolymus, er, did you take the time to read the book, or are you responding instead to what you think I must be saying? We haven’t gotten to the laws that govern equilibria; that’s in a later part of the book. When we get there, you’ll find that I’m not suggesting that there’s anything permanent about the state of flow at any given point. Quite the contrary, the patterns of flow also flow, rising and falling in cyclical patterns that themselves change over time. (I use ecological succession and biological evolution as examples of how this works.) Every equilibrium, to jump ahead a bit, is a temporary condition, but during the time it is in effect it has a powerful influence over those things subject to it; the fact that your descendants may someday invent agriculture, to borrow one of your examples, doesn’t spare you the negative consequences of overhunting.
As for the development of agricultural civilization, it didn’t turn flows into accumulations, it replaced dependence on one set of flows with dependence on another, rather broader set of flows. The rise of industrial civilization did the same thing, but it’s our misfortune that the flows in this latter case were what ecologists call detritus flows — dead matter from previous seasons. (In our case, those seasons were mostly in the Mesozoic, but the principle is the same). It’s the fact that oil can be made to flow out of reservoirs, and the energy in it can flow through our machines and become waste heat and pollution, that enables our civilization to prosper temporarily from that particular detritus flow.
When you say “equilibria are not sacred laws,” in other words, you’re arguing with someone other than me; I never said they were. Perhaps you might try reading what I actually wrote, and argue with that instead if you wish.
Clay, I’m glad to hear she’s being invited to speak! That’s a lesson that deserves repetition.
Lauren, I’m glad to hear that this is useful to you!
Alex, we’re turning a very slow flow — carbon underground cycles through various forms, and eventually returns to the biosphere — into a very fast flow, and doing it in a very stupid way. No question, leaving that particular flow alone would be a very good idea…
Speaking of finance, many of our investments are not actual “accumulations”, but redirected flows. A dollar “saved” in the credit union will be lent out to buy a home or car for someone, leaving only the record of its passage, an obligation upon the credit union to redirect some of their flow back to you when you demand it. (The exception, I suppose, is if you just stack your currency “under the mattress”.) If you convert currency into gold bars and tuck them away for “safe keeping”, the gold seller now has your currency, and the flow goes on. Accumulating gold may make one feel more secure, but being known to others as an accumulator of gold should make one feel much less secure.
Caution: I write with more confidence than I feel. The more I think about money, the less I understand it.
I assume a lot of people would think that censorship is an attempt to block a flow of information and is thus harmful. But I think the countries that censor their Internet information flows today are actually the most successful countries, while the free flow of false information in the United States is making everyone neurotic. Or maybe I am getting the definition of “flow” wrong?
I’m considering this law in terms of the flow of emotional states within myself. Is getting caught up in trying to recapture “positive” emotions from the past a form of accumulation? I’ve found that it can certainly harm my whole system.
It’s easy for me to think through this law as it pertains to physical objects, but moving out of the material plane it becomes more difficult to wrap my mind around.
Aside from money, do you have an example where non-material flows are blocked?
Peter Ralston, a martial artist, wrote a book back in the 70’s. His power derived from his “sinking” into the earth, a flow of energy up thru his feet and legs to his center, below the navel, which guided and directed his movements. Relaxed and open to earth’s energy, he could anticipate an opponents strike before it even happened. Couldn’t grasp what he was sayin in the wayback, but it makes complete sense now. Had to get old to understand it.
Many years ago, I saw an acupuncturist for an extended period of time, for help recovering from pneumonia. Once in a while she’d share an observation, and one of them was that a common theme among her cancer patients was an inability to let go of whatever. She opened and closed her hand several times by way of illustration, saying that is the best way to live: receive and give, over and over. Remembering that, sure seems like she was talking about flow.
I share a small mixed farm with my husband and quite a few animals. It has been an education to learn about nutrient cycles.
I keep rabbits and use their manure on the garden beds to grow more vegetables, fruit, herbs and flowers. A friend asked me why that was better than just fertilizing the beds with rabbit food. I explained that if you put the alfalfa pellets through an animal first, you end up with more nitrogen and other nutrients than if you used the alfalfa alone as fertilizer. Rabbits and the rest of us, fix nitrogen when we breathe air and excrete it in our urine.
So, the more times we can cycle nutrients through the animals, the more nitrogen we capture. Our soils are becoming wonderfully fertile and the rabbits enjoy heaps of kale and apples from the gardens which they turn into meat for us and manure for the gardens.
Our human waste is composted for the flower garden. Our bath water is piped to the flower garden for irrigation so we get to use the water twice. The spent plants from the flower garden end up in the compost and each time this cycle goes around, the more nutrients are captured in the system. I save the dirty-dish water to irrigate the compost heaps. It takes a lot of water to support the composting organisms.
Traditional agricultural systems are usually very complex and concentrate on keeping the nutrients cycling. We have the first Green Cemetery in Canada on Denman Island so the people can be recycled as fertilize for the forest. I think this is the way forward.
Information like your posts of last couple of weeks can create ideas in mind which set up states of consciousness (past lives, prayer states) and spread this state to others. Poetry, literature, art of any sort tends, if successful to recreate creator’s energy state in others. We are biochemical nerve transmission energy systems with a very complicated brain but in the end it is a flow, a river. Getting past blockages into a single current is spiritual goal. Neurosis is normal modern state. Religion pays lip service. Art is humanist spirituality in this direction(ballet, poetry, music).
JMG: I have read the first few chapters of the book (and some months ago by now, to be honest – might take it up again sooner or later). I thought I remembered the second chapter well enough to talk a little about my thoughts about it, but perhaps I was wrong. Good to know that later you discuss how flows and equilibria themselves are not static.
Still – and note, I am not arguing *against* you or trying to win some sort of argument, just trying to understand better your position – it seems to me that, even though agriculture in the long term “replaced dependence on one set of flows with dependence on another”, from the perspective of the ecological system that existed before it was precisely an attempt at accumulation (of energy in stored grains and so on, of instance) of the type that according to the law as written should cause suffering and disruption. But, while I’m certainly willing to believe that transition involved some growing pains – for instance, I think there is speculation that unsustainable early farming practices contributed to the downfall of ancient settlements such as Çatalhöyük – I think that we are in agreement that that transition was ultimately to the benefit of humankind. Personally, I still hope that the same – mutatis mutandis – may eventually be said about industrial civilization, despite its obvious current issues.
It seems to me that not interfering with the flows is good advice when the flows are in an equilibrium, and in an equilibrium that is reasonably favorable to us; but if this is not the case – for instance, if we were neolithic farmers discussing the diminishing agricultural returns – then the central issue should instead be to try to understand how to _repair_ the unbalances of the system in a way that is tolerable to us before they repair themselves.
Still, I guess that I should “lurk more”, as kids say nowadays. Apologies if I went off-topic or came across as more confrontational than I intended.
Back when I took Econ 101 (or whatever it was called) they tried to get across a concept called the Velocity of Money. It represents how frequently a given piece of money is used in a transaction.
Like most of economics these days, it’s more than somewhat of a simplification, however it does say something about how well money is flowing in the economy.
The best example I can come up with of a completely stagnant flow is: Uncle Scrooge’s money bin. Keeping your cash under the mattress is the same thing – I heard from the family grapevine of someone who had it stolen, presumably by a relative.
Is participation considered a form of interference? Or, thinking further, can’t a failure to participate also be interference?
I was chewing on the statement “You can’t actually store energy; all you can do is get it to flow in loops that keep it accessible to you for a longer time than it would otherwise be.” Energy generally moves from potential energy to kinetic energy and back. A battery has potential energy (voltage) but current doesn’t flow until you have a load or sink so no work is done (Work = Power * time or Voltage*Current*time).. In financial terms, when you have money in the bank, it represents potential energy.. ie its not accomplishing anything until you spend it and it does something for you (purchase solar arrays or trees or a new car). So I would argue you can store energy by converting it to potential energy, (but there are always losses). In biological systems energy is stored in fat cells etc and then converted back to kinetic energy .. I may be missing something in your argument (energy always does flow in loops from potential to kinetic and back.. ) Anyway.. I think the laws in your ecological view of the world around us are spot on
Actually this law fits perfectly with the Buddha’s teaching – yes the first noble truth was ‘ there is suffering’, but the second noble truth is ‘there is a cause of suffering’ and that cause is craving or grasping, in other words a mistaken attempt to accumulate and hence disrupt the flow.
JMG, have been thinking about the example you used for the Law of Flow, around money and wealth. You said that we should participate in the flow of wealth, slow it down and speed it up, but avoid mindless accumulation. You suggest we should expect to receive the wealth that equals the value we create. All good.
Like Katsmama above, I am curious about unearned wealth. You mentioned inheritance and I have heard many stories of lottery winners seeing their lives turn bad with the sudden injection of cash.
I am about to sell my home which has doubled in value in 8 years, but with no improvements to the property. Have simply ridden the property price wave in my city. I don’t intend to purchase another property, for now.
I think this windfall would meet the definition of unearned wealth. Any tips for how to handle this situation and what to look out for?
Hello JMG. I have been thinking about this section, the second law, in light of what you have written in the last two posts about reincarnation, and gods dying and moving on, and so on. Especially the one last week about gods dying, that was something I had not considered and yet once I read it, it made so much sense. That whole framework to me makes sense, resonates and I feel that it is true. Yet like others who have commented earlier, I had barely even considered it before reading your posts of the last two weeks.
I hope I am getting it correctly. So, the souls (spirit) that are flowing through matter, which is also flowing at its own rate, are using energy as they go. How about the information? I am thinking it would be the DNA, as well as the learned behaviours of different life forms? Communication in general of course…. I do love the way that trees or other plant life can influence their surroundings. Are there other ways that information flows?
As for accumulating information, I can only think of the way certain people in work situations attempt to shut others out and claim credit for themselves. Maybe also in the genetic sense we could include those who want to ensure their own genetic survival? Thinking about that, it is often posited as one of the leading tenets of evolutionary theory e.g the selfish gene, courtesy of Richard Dawkins et al. I am trying to think beyond that but drawing a blank at this hour (11pm here – after my bedtime – sorry).
And also, thinking on these themes gives me an added appreciation of the way that you share the mystery teachings in general. As in, you know that people will only find if they seek. Otherwise it’s all mumbo-jumbo. I do love your posts! They give me something to think about all week. Thank you.
First some general praise. I use Mystery Teachings in an introductory ecology and philosophy class and it works very well with inner city kids who have little experience with the natural world. The only text I would compare it to is Odum’s Ecological Vignettes in terms of accessibility to the general reader. The returning example of the meadow and the meditation exercises are particularly useful. Well done!
Concerning the second law. You write of the first law that all ethical teachings boil down to the recognition that we must live intentionally within whole systems. Seems to me the practical working out of this realization is the proper management of accumulation the result of which is flow. In other words, flow is the effect of a natural system’s moderate (ethical?) pursuit of accumulation. A beaver pond is a moderate accumulation of water, beneficial to that whole system. A hydroelectric dam not so much.
You frequently use Aristotle’s ethics to illustrate these ideas. Can we speak of the virtues as the proper accumulation of spiritual energy?
The Second Law includes flows of information, but the rest of the chapter doesn’t say much about them, perhaps because this is an introductory treatment. Dipping a toe in (and hoping not to drown), would it be accurate to say that industrial-scale monoculture blocks a vital flow of information (specifically, from the environment into the gene pool), risking eventual results as catastrophic as blocking vital flows of matter or energy?
It appears to me that information, because as far as I can tell it does not follow the conservation laws that matter and energy do, has different rules for the relation between flows and accumulations. One can block a flow of information without accumulating any (which is no big deal; the same is sometimes true of matter and energy flows, such as closing a valve in a water pipe or opening a switch in an electrical circuit). But it appears one can also accumulate information without blocking or diverting its flow, which is never true of matter or energy.
In any case, it’s clear our civilization has serious problems relating to information flows. As Avery suggests, more of the harm seems to come from cases of overflow than from blocked flow. I would guess that an overflow of one thing can have the same ultimate effect as a blockage, on the flow of another. For instance, whether a flow of mineral soil nutrients is locked upstream by a drought, or washed too far downstream by a flood, either way they’re not where we need them to be. Thus an overall information overflow in the American social sphere, if most of the information is useless at best, can help explain why so many people seem to be uninformed, uneducated, and unskilled.
Not to overplay the public works aspect of the 2nd law but one of the first places this comes in contact with most peoples attitudes toward nature and the myth of progress is in drinking water. My wife is on the National Water Reuse Board. This groups purpose is to define standards and practices for cleaning the output of waste water treatment plants to be turned directly in to potable drinking water, and to figure out how to get people to accept it. Turns out the technical part is easier than the public relations part. Of course all water is reused, but in most cases the waste water plants dump their outflow in to the river, and then often downstream from that the drinking water treatment plants draw it back out and treat it for drinking water. But psychologically most people are not able to accept the waste water being turned in to drinking water directly, even in areas with extreme water shortages. Like the fear of death, the modern consumer citizen also fears their own bodily excretions.
In re: inheritance, I remember when I was editing property law books and being vaguely disgusted by people trying to get around an estate tax that only kicks in somewhere over $1 million. Mentioned this to my social group, and a…mutual acquaintance…replied with something to the effect of what if she had two or three kids.
I didn’t say it, but my thought was that, if your kids can’t be more than happy inheriting only a couple hundred thousand each, you have failed as a parent. (And sort of raised the villains in a Miss Marple book, which tends to go along with that.)
For savings: yeah, I pretty much have a 401(k) to save my parents from worry these days; it’d be nice if some of it paid for my old age, but I’ve no confidence either that it will or that I’ll survive to use it. When they die, I’ll probably reassess things. Meanwhile, I find that it’s good to have a certain size of emergency fund in case of root canals or unemployment, and another amount for a specific future goal (perhaps the financial equivalents of a squirrel storing acorns) but otherwise saving for the sake of saving seems unbalanced to me–you can’t take it with you, and all that.
Flow in general: one of the things that I hear a lot about in various social circles is the folly of setting up a notion of false scarcity within relationships–“if you like her so much, you must like me less”–and certainly just about anyone knows how negatively being clingy or needy can affect interactions with people from family to lovers, which seems like a pretty good example of this principle where emotions are concerned.
(It’s also either noteworthy or coincidental that I got all my jobs and my publishing contracts after I’d ridden out the first wave of hope and anxiety, and sort of gotten into a “well, if it happens, it happens” place.)
JMG and all
If you have not seen this Russian paper before I thought it might come in useful. (h/t to Bill Everett). I think you have given a very good account of wisdom in modern terms: Eco (as also in ecology) and Sophia. This paper (see link) makes a useful approach from natural science. It seems to fit neatly with my understanding that ‘Life’ is essentially signalling.
I am glad you say in comment that the more you study ‘money’ the less sure you are you understand it. A few years ago reading a book by Zarlenga which took in ancient history, thus going back to the beginnings of agrarian civilisations and Empires, I thought I was getting the hang of it. But economics making a mess of understanding the role of fossil fuels fairly throws a spanner (wrench) in the works: ‘perpetual growth’ like ‘perpetual motion’, anybody?
(btw, wonderful comment by the husband of the specialist in sewage treatment – that’s the kind of after-dinner speech the troops need!)
On the flow of water: I am an amateur gardener. I recently read a botany textbook and learned about osmotic pressure and evapotranspiration, the ways that water flows through plants and on the way through transfers ions, holds the plant up and catalyses reactions. Until then, I’d thought that water was just something that the plant stored and fed off until it was dry again. Understanding how flow works has given me a better understanding of why my plants need to be watered the way they do, and made me a better gardener. The plants are also grateful!
I liked your metaphor using the meadow. I also noticed you dropped it before the end of the book. Interesting also that you omit the forest and its minions.
JMG and all >> …. one of the unspoken driving forces behind contemporary culture is a frantic terror and hatred of nature.<<
Why is this so? Certainly material nature = the death of all living things, and in a secular age in which few are alive to the transcendent, non-material worlds, the prospect of death would be terrifying. Nature is also limiting in many other ways and contemporary culture does seem to despise the very idea of limits – Manifest Destiny In Space, the notion of achieving physical immortality through science, the "you can do it all" recurring advertising memes, etc.
Might there be a more profound reason for our culture's hatred of nature? I'm thinking that the primal, often chaotic forces of nature – as recently seen on display in Texas and Florida – might be symbolic of that which our culture has repressed, anger, hatred, e.g., all the "lower emotions" to which we have trouble admitting in a New Agey environment.
Or maybe it's just laziness – flowing with nature requires serious dirty-hands work.
After reading ADR for a few years along with some other books I was inspired to learn more about farming. Now I’m actually making some money off of it and although it hasn’t been easy there’s now a possibility of replacing a significant part of my income if I play my cards right.
One thing that’s always bothered me is how I’m trying to do it organic style and struggling while the conventional fields next to mine are absolutely cranking. We have a lot of options as far as organic inputs go, but up until recently I was doing my best to try and get by on the bare minimum so I would know what’s possible if we all of a sudden lose access to all the goodies.
Well that actually turned into a harsh economic lesson as my yields struggled and bugs/disease took over. I literally can’t afford to experiment like that any more. Even if I got some grant funding and volunteer labor it’s apparent that a lot of fruits and vegetables we’ve come to take for granted would be off the menu for good. As one of my mentors puts it “You gotta spray to play”.
After reintroducing the hiss of the fertigator and the squeak of the backpack sprayer things have really picked up and people are complimenting me on the results, but now my delusions about happily living off the land while society crumbles in the background have been replaced by the realization that the collapse diet means working very hard for every calorie and saying goodbye to a whole lot of familiar flavors.
Scott, I worked as a nurse’s aide in nursing homes for four and a half years back in the 1980s, and yeah, unless things have improved dramatically, it’s a great example of how not to manage economic flow. Soil is much smarter.
LatheChuck, true enough. It’s because money continues to flow that banks can afford to pay people to manage it.
Avery, remember that the opposite of one bad idea is usually another bad idea; the recent mess in Texas may serve as a reminder that too much flow can be just as bad as too little! I’d argue, though, that what’s making people neurotic in the US isn’t too much information, it’s the widening mismatch between what the world is telling us and what most of us want to believe.
Jeremy, human emotional life is a great example — if you try to refuse to feel grief, let’s say, when something happens to which that is an appropriate reaction, the stress is going to mess you over. In the same way, all those prim Victorians who insisted that they never, never, never felt sexual desires gave themselves a basket of nasty neuroses. I’m convinced that much of the dysfunctionality of today’s American society has to do with all the positive-thinking ideology of recent years — people have convinced themselves that they ought never to have a negative thought or feeling, and the effort of repression and the resulting emotional constipation is driving them crazy.
Dennis, it’s good advice. I got similar instructions from my t’ai chi teachers, and it works.
Ottergirl, she was indeed. The Taoist current in Chinese philosophy, which has powerfully influenced traditional Chinese health care, is all about flow.
Max, an excellent point. The more loops you can direct flow through, the more likely you can direct it where you want it — it’s the same logic that leads smart planners to leave plenty of wetlands to soak up rainfall and keep it from turning into flash floods and the like.
Gandalfwhite, depends on what you mean by a single flow…
Skolymus, you’re still missing the point. Agriculture doesn’t accumulate; it simply redirects a flow (solar energy being absorbed by photosynthesis) so that human beings can use more of it as food. Grain storage is no more accumulation than, say, water behind a beaver dam — you get grain in a big pulse each harvest season, and then flow it out over the course of the ensuing year. Again, you’re dancing with the flow to take advantage of it, not stopping it. It’s always risky to modify a flow in that way, since it may blow up in your face — as a great many ancient agricultural civilizations found out the hard way, and as ours is in the process of finding out right now — but everything we do modifies some flow or other; you can’t breathe, or drink, or eat, or move without changing flows. That’s included in the term “participation.”
John, yep. The higher the velocity of money, the more people benefit from the same dollar in circulation — another example of the benefit of participation in flow.
Starsbydesign, if you were a student of mine, I’d tell you to meditate on both those questions until you could give me good clear answers that made sense.
Jamie, good — I was hoping that somebody would bring up potential and kinetic energy. Potential energy is an abstraction that helps us understand the world — it doesn’t actually exist in a pure form. When you charge a battery, what happens is that you turn electricity into a specific kind of chemical energy, which flows much more slowly than electricity when left to itself. It still flows — that’s why batteries go dead if they’re left unused for a long time — but it takes them a while. So potential energy represents how much energy you’ve got flowing slowly enough that you can draw on some of it when you need it, for some purpose requiring a faster flow.
Andy, a good point. I understand that there’s a significant current in modern Buddhist thought that’s tried to understand ecology and the Buddhist dharma via each other.
Darren, unearned wealth is always a challenge. Some people meet it effectively; others let it ruin their lives. If you want to be in the first category, I’d encourage you to keep the law of flow in mind. Do you have debts you haven’t paid off? Pay them in full, so more of your monthly flow is free for other purposes. Are there skills you could learn by putting some of the money into education? Make that investment. Are there charities or community activities you’d like to support? Those are also investments in community. Look at the windfall as a temporary tool that you can use to change your life for the better, and always keep in mind what you’re going to do once it’s gone, and you should be fine.
Helen, thank you. Yes, you’re getting it. The flow of information includes DNA but it’s not limited to that; at every moment, information on various subjects is flowing past you — the sound of conversations, scents on the air, the various media to which you’re exposed, thoughts turning over in your own mind, and more — and you can choose to participate in that by attending to the information that matters to you.
Redoak, I try to avoid the term “accumulation” for what I suppose could be called “ponding,” the process of slowing down a flow so that there’s more of it available for your use. As noted in response to another comment, that has to be done carefully so it doesn’t cause blowback. I would say, in Aristotelian terms, that virtue is the proper direction (not accumulation) of spiritual energy.
Walt, that’s more than a toe in the water, and you seem to be swimming just fine. Yes, and if I were writing this book over again, I’d put in a discussion of too much flow to balance the discussion of too little.
Clay, a good example of the way that linear expectations collide with circular realities! I forget how may molecules of water that were part of Julius Caesar’s urine are in every glass you drink, but it’s not an infinitesimal number…
Isabel, relationship flows are another great example! Exactly; the flow of give and take within a relationship is just as subject to this law as anything else.
Phil, thanks for the link!
Kfish, delighted to hear it — though I bet the plants are happier still. 😉
Jenniferxyz, I used it to explain the seven laws; once the discussion passed beyond that, it was no longer useful. Er, “the forest and its minions”? I’m not at all sure what you’re saying.
Will, I’m still trying to make sense of our culture’s hatred and terror of nature. The roots of our collective biophobia need careful examination.
Aloysius, hmm. The successful organic farmers I know all recognized early on that organic farming isn’t just conventional farming without sprays; you have to approach the whole process in a different way. They seem to be able to make a good living at it; have you considered talking to some successful organic farmers and figuring out what they’re doing that you’re not?
As a retiree, this chapter gave me a lot to muddle through today; meditation was barely a beginning.Starting with unearned money: I figure my pension represents deferred salary, and the health insurance, salary in a different form. Royalties from writing are still trickling in to the tune of ~$100 a year. Income from stocks accumulated by my husband during my marriage and split with me during the divorce has gone into my mental books as “combat pay.” The rest is inheritance. Which the kids expect to inherit in their turn, probably to pay off the student loans of the grandchildren.
All my big medical expenses so far have been to keep me functional and able to fend for myself, not alive.
BTW, “Fourth Turning” had a very sensible but of advice for people my age. Predicting we’d slide by under the wire before the screws were tightened on younger workers, they noted that we *would* feel guilty, which butters nobody’s bread, but should instead get out of the way of the young, and be kind. And strengthen our family ties where we could as well as community ties.
Blocking the flow – the money will go out to cover unexpected emergencies and medical bills not covered by retiree benefits. And yes, the kids will put me in a nursing home when the time comes – I’d certainly be a burden moving in with them in such circumstances!
And since there has been a lot of criticism about putting money to these uses, it would be helpful to hear some alternatives suggested. This is a serious request, BTW, not a greedy geezer on the defensive – I hope!
Aloysius, I feel your frustration, being as I am in my 10th year of growing without chemicals. You should investigate biodynamics, but the real lesson to learn is “feed the soil (microbes)” first. Also, “weeds can be your friend”.
“In a deep and important sense, the cricket is simply a shape that is temporarily taken by the flows of matter, information, and energy through one part of the whole system of the meadow.”- JMG
This example from the chapter particularly struck me on this pass through. Like Helen Wagner above, I’m considering the implications of this second law in light of the last couple weeks of discussion here; thinking of myself, like the cricket, as a small temporary eddy in those flows is reassuring in some way. I’m also reflecting on what kinds of information or energy might flow more slowly through “me”, persisting from one incarnation to another, and how this relates to my flow through Abred. On a more immediate note, keeping this metaphor in mind is also helping me be more aware of the types of energy and information I am passing on to others in my daily interactions, and I’m trying to consciously let unhelpful feelings and reactions crest and dissipate, rather than accumulate and then overflow the dam at inopportune times.
A rich set of ideas, for sure. Thanks, JMG. I really enjoy this book club format, and hope it continues with other works when we’ve finished “Mystery Teachings”.
I haven’t read the book but was thinking about something that may be related – why in a lot of spiritual traditions ‘ascending with your body’ is a big deal. Beyond the LOOK AT ME I’M SO HOLY ASCENDING IN BROAD DAYLIGHT aspect, another element could be a sort of spiritual thermodynamics. If compared to the material world the spirit world is high entropy, low energy, or just has different kinds of energy, then a living human body would be an immense concentration of matter, energy and structure. It would be like bringing a city with you. The body would be of almost incomprehensible utility and value both to its original owner and the other denizens of the spirit world. Maybe ten billion beings could live happily in just one of your toe bones, and improve your toe bone while they’re there. Even if the body doesn’t survive for long it could still support a process similar to a coral reef forming on a shipwreck. Of course this relies on the hope that the spirits act as responsible citizens and don’t start a feeding frenzy or strip mining operation. 🙂
Flow speed, volumes, content, resistance. We’re getting into physics with either water, heat, electricity as objects. Economics uses money, goods. Mathematical formulas are sitting ready. How can this help us? Ecological economics by hall is good, post modern, ignored by mainstream. Energy flow in emotional, spiritual matters would help in psychology, spirituality if we could somehow measure electrical pulse, resistance, flow over synapses and relate that to activity in specific brain areals, perhaps chakras.
RE Organic Farming
I should have mentioned the caveat that I’m in the tropics at a location infested with diseases and bugs from all over the world. Different pests prefer different times of year, but there is no winter to kill them off. In some ways it’s a perfect lab to study climate change agriculture for when rat lungworm, fire ants, and tylcv start showing up in zones that were once temperate.
Also thanks for the opportunity to bring up the fact that just because something says Organic doesn’t mean it’s less resource intensive. Many Organic farms do use all sorts of non-renewable inputs shipped in from thousands of miles away, but since the inputs are OMRI approved they can get certified and sell at a premium. A perfect example is a recent no-till seminar that I attended. Instead of getting rid of the tractor they wanted to sell a whole new set of attachments. There are benefits like less erosion, reduced water consumption and better microbial activity, but at the end of the day it’s all going away once diesel gets too expensive.
In a desperate attempt to stay on topic, I’ll describe my activity as trying to work multiple flows so that I can shift to new ones when the taps on the old ones get turned off. It’s a difficult balancing act between surviving now so that I’ll have a chance at surviving later. The ideal of a petrol-free operation that I can build a business plan around has eluded me so far, but that’s not a reason to stop searching.
At lest there’s always cassava. Lots and lots of cassava.
Hi John Michael,
The Second law relating to flow reminds me of agriculture.
If for example I was to fence the wallabies, wombats and kangaroos out of the orchard here, then the process by which vegetation gets converted into manure, and from manure into the soil, well, it would just slow down. And then if that process slows down too much, then the growth in the fruit trees suffers and the trees themselves may be subject to increased risk of disease.
So I have to manage the place by ensuring that those cheeky marsupials don’t eat so much of the orchard that they cause long term damage, but in such a way that they benefit the local environment. Of course some of the fertility flows out of the farm and into the surrounding forest and I’m cool with that too.
In some ways it is a process of letting go and becoming accepting of a huge (and getting huger) diversity of life. It is not easy, and sometimes some species can take things too far – and humans fall into that description, but the same can be said about deer too, of which I only have limited experience (and dogs to deal with them).
Do you reckon that there is a certain amount of chaos involved in that law? Certainly from my perspective it is impossible to understand all of the different interactions but I don’t feel that knowledge of all of those interactions is actually necessary (The Total Perspective Vortex, anyone?).
I’m now going to read the comments. Your last topic really brought them out of the woodwork!
Far out! The spring rains here are torrential and coming in waves today. Speaking of flow I’m going to have to put more effort into dealing with such huge volumes of water. I think that is a challenge that the rest of society would do well to consider too. ;-)!
Hi John Michael,
Hmm, I’d never heard of the permaculture desire to “store” energy before, but to be honest I’m not well read on such things and pick and choose what just works. The problem I see it with “storing” is that as we have discussed before many times, entropy eats everything. As far as I can understand things, the most resilient systems here on the farm are of a biological nature as they are able to readily reproduce themselves. Everything else has to be deposited or constructed.
As to electricity, well you know, we are eventually going back to renewable sources of energy, but as far as I can understand that future, it sure won’t look like energy does today! I hear a certain desperation in peoples opinions that: “the renewable sources of energy that we have to hand (sun, water, and wind) must surely provide as much energy as fossil fuels. And what do you mean when you say it doesn’t? You are wrong!” Such faith based statements are very disturbing for me to be confronted with when they fly in the face of my lived experience.
On an interesting and very unrelated note, I found a stone circle in the forest the other day. It was very strange because it was uncannily close to a stone circle that I made last weekend. I made the stone circle because I had a huge jumble of very large rocks and I wanted to clean them up and plant a walnut tree into that stone circle. I don’t even know where the idea for that came from. Finding the other circle just out in the forest by itself was a very unsettling experience and I had not known that it was there. I had a very good look around the area and cannot see why anyone would have constructed it. A mystery. And it was better constructed than the one I put together.
I’ve noticed that inheritance has cropped up a few times in the comments regarding accumulation. Here in the UK we have some very large landowning families, and while the idea of a single family owning thousands of acres of land on the basis of a distant ancestor bringing an army to the right place and time doesn’t strike me as particularly fair, you do notice that those families that prospered, treated their land and inheritance as a resource to be stewarded for future generations. As unfair as it is, it may be that having that land in the hands of a single family with the right attitude is better than having that land in the hands of thousands of families with a short term attitude?
I would say that the first problem with being an accumulator is that your accumulation makes you a target for other accumulators, whether small time thieves or large government ones.
For those wanting to look at flows of money right now. The Velocity of Money is very low at the moment, central banks are printing like crazy, but most of it is accumulating at the primary dealers (the big investment banks). VoM is one of the drivers of inflation, as it rises, inflation rises, the more people save, the lower inflation goes as less is in circulation. This is driving the central bankers crazy as they want inflation, but in controllable amounts. The problem is that once the dam breaks and we see the money begin to flow again we will see inflation, lots of it, potentially uncontrollable amounts. i.e. the swing from too little to too much is far too easy if there’s been too much accumulation. If the banks and central banks didn’t mess with the flow, then we’d have a lot fewer problems with our economy.
King Midas didn’t like the idea of flow: he thought it would be wonderful if everything were to be solidified into that lovely, imperishable, immutable stuff – gold! And all his, to enjoy forever!
And he got his wish.
How well did that work out?
The first bio-phobic?
Psycho spiritual baggage accumulated from unfortunate upbringing , involuntary participation in internecine intergenerarional misanthropic family engrams or complexes could represent a particularly arcane or complex blockage . Freeing up these energy sapping constellations could arguably help one far more than any amount of vegetable growing neo-gnostic spliff . Or i could be on the wrong tram to nowhere riffing gobbledegook .
Greetings JMG. Being a physician for nearly 30 years and an organic gardener for 45 years (my mother subscribed to Organic Gardening Magazine in the early 70s) I have frequently pondered the biophobia inherent to modern suburban life. I believe it is due to lack of coherent belief about death ( thanks so much for the essay about reincarnation BTW). Death is the dominant Shadow of our culture, a punishment, erasure, neurosis. The backroom horror of nursing homes, the torture of cancer chemotherapy, are obvious death-denial theaters. But since insects and germs and wild landscapes and compost heaps and even facial wrinkles are obvious participants in life/death cycles they are horrifying, and need to be blitzed with chemicals or neatly buried. That’s the current script for a good law-abiding American consumer.
@ Max Rogers
You wrote: “Rabbits and the rest of us, fix nitrogen when we breathe air and excrete it in our urine.”
This not correct.
You are right that nitrogen in air (a pretty inert gas) is the ultimate natural source of ‘soil nitrogen’ which is what the plants transform into protein. (The industrial process for agricultural fertilizer uses mostly methane/natural gas as the source) I think your confusion perhaps arises from the way plant fertilizers are commonly described as having a percentage ‘nitrogen content’. The ‘nitrogen’ is actually in a compound of the nitrogen element. and other elemental atoms.
For example, the bag’s percentage is standardized to “N”. Thus the chemical fertilizer sulfate of ammonia is “21% N”. The plant actually absorbs ammonium or nitrate when the compound is in the soil. The same applies to ‘N’ in organic manures when the products are broken down by microbial action in the soil.
If you housed your rabbits on a lawn of grass/clover or alfalfa sward, a proportion of the protein in the vegetation would come from nitrogen gas ‘fixed’ into ‘N compounds’ by bacteria in nodules on the legume roots. Your personal protein would then derive both from the plant material you eat directly (your veg patch) and from the rabbits you eat. If you return your urine to your veg patch your crop will, very roughly have enough fertilizer to sustain growth in subsequent years. Rabbit urine will, like yours, contain urea (the ‘N’ content’) which goes back into the plants it is feeding on – OK, there are some losses along the way, but you are adding extra alfalfa protein as pellets! Smile..
The amount of nitrogen gas fixed by a grass/clover sward under optimal conditions, btw, is not trivial. At 200 kg per hectare it can be as much as the chemical fertilizer applied to a hectare of a high yielding modern grain crop.
It’s all flows! Happy smile.
@ Max Rogers
Quick correction – nitrogen gas fixed by a grass/clover sward under optimal conditions should read: “200 kg ‘N’ per hectare.
Like Jeremy who mentioned this in his comment, I too first thought of emotions when reading this post. I think our emotions are meant to flow, but I often catch myself trying ‘not to feel’ something. Almost like I am putting my hands in the river and trying to stop the current, in response to a particular strong emotion that I’m not quite ready to acknowledge. Then, if I’m lucky, I can stop and ask myself, ‘hey, do you realize you’re trying not to feel that?’ I can usually take my hands out of the river, allow the feeling to come up, and let it all keep flowing.
This is usually somewhat achievable with my day-to-day feelings that come up these days, but what about the feelings that I haven’t allowed to flow at various points in the past, and the resulting stoppages in flow that have become part of my worldview and beliefs in ways that I can’t so easily see or recognize? This feels like something I have done in the past in response to painful emotions that I couldn’t accept at the time. Putting up a dam in the river, and then sort of forgetting about it. I have been trying, little by little, to go into the river and take out a little piece of the dam at a time, but I have a feeling there is still quite a bit there that is blocking the flow. So I meditated on the subject this morning. I was wondering what I could “do” to remove the dam and allow those blocked emotions to flow again. The answers I received reminded me that I didn’t have to really “do” anything, except allow the larger flow of water to continue to flow. The larger flow comes directly from the Earth, and it and I are basically the same. So allowing this flow will eventually dislodge the dam. Whether this happens by way of gradual erosion over a long period of time, or a massive rush of water that knocks out the dam in one powerful instant, remains to be seen.
I ask your authorization for upload translations to spanish of some of your posts in the “Foro crash oil”
JMG, the term “accumulation” is tricky. In another reply you referred to potential energy as a useful abstraction, would you say the same of accumulation? And so the trouble then becomes how to best articulate the virtue associated with the proper “ponding” of a given flow. This seems to parallel the difficulty explicating the notion of “negative entropy.” But beauty and virtue seem inherent to just these difficult terms. That make me think you are really quite on to something here!
I quite like comments from Walt about information flows. The same could be said about knowledge, which is not the same thing as information. One can accumulate knowledge but if it is not shared or taught or used then it is lost as we tend to forget that knowledge! Hence knowledge must flow if it is to survive. Well, that’s just a thought!
Does this mean the Taoists are making a mistake in holding on to their precious bodily fluids?
Sorry to be flippant, but I laughed out loud at your response to RPC: “You are a ripple in a river of meat…”
Way to boost a person’s sense of self- importance!
Loved that book. On another related note, the long awaited copy of “The Retro Future” finally arrived in the mail this week and I just started it. The opening sections on how technological progress has actually introduced a whole new round of inconveniences and downsides with each round of “upgrade” got me thinking of the latest bad news out of the Technology world- the Equifax hack that exposed the social security number, date of birth, previous addresses, and drivers license numbers of 2 of every 5 Americans. Whereas previous hacks tended to expose trivial things like a password which can just be changed, this information is meant to be permanent, unique, and irreplaceable. One report said a duo claim to be offering all this data on sale on the Dark Web now for about 3 million dollars worth of bitcoin. At any rate, Some day 5, 10, or 20 years from now all that data is still going to be out there and it will inevitably fall into the wrong hands many times. That’s just another reason I don’t feel that bad about relocating to India to rejoin family later this year- for me, staying in the USA would just be sour grapes, now that the risk of someone taking out a loan in any of our names will linger for decades (or however much longer the US financial and government systems stay intact.) I’m sure that whatever little convenience was added by making credit checking a digital system rather than a matter of sending paper documents in the mail was absolutely not worth the added risk that just exposed basically every adult in the USA to a lifetime of identity theft risk. But this is also what happens when you live in a whole system- the bigger you make the system, the more difficult it becomes to fix a problem when something goes wrong. A file cabinet full of paper documents can admittedly be broken into, but it probably only stores a handful of local accounts. Making one digital system hold all the sensitive data of the entire US adult population makes one- and that’s the key, just one- breach something that will take a lifetime worth of resources and time to try to monitor and fight back against.
Really appreciate the many comments esp@ gandalfwhite “posts create in mind States of conscienceness..”, this is very helpful in understanding some very very positive changes since I began reading Well of Galebes. Thank you all.
This weeks focus made me think more deeply about the imbalances of flows in agricultural systems. In particular the net flow of key nutrients out of the subsoil, into produce, into the cities and then finally into the sewers and flushed out to sea. Previous cultures were more careful to recycle the sewage back to the farms, but there has to be loss. So why would farmers work so hard to deplete their farms? Threats of violence, the power of money flows, and unsustainable flows in products like metals for tools that farmers cannot produce themselves.
Natural systems aren’t fundamentally different from this but usually operate on much longer time scales (or maybe that is because long time scales are the only ones we can infer looking back that far). Newly erupted volcanic soil is very rich in essential minerals. Plants mine the soil to concentrate these minerals but when the plant dies the minerals are mobilised and imperfectly recycled back into the soil. Eventually the soil becomes depleted and loses fertility in natural and agricultural systems. The whole process was initiated by volcanic activity, made possible by nuclear reactions in the earths core, a process that slows down over time as the original magic star dust is used up. In the early planet carbon dioxide was returned to the atmosphere by volcanoes more rapidly. Over time this volcanic activity has decreased, leading to more carbon ending up underground, pushing the planet toward ice ages and the vegetation toward grasses and other C4 plants that suck carbon dioxide from the atmosphere more aggressively. In some ways all this frantic industrial activity has reversed this accumulation of carbon underground a little bit for a little while in the broader geological context.
I guess what I am pushing toward is that no system of dynamic flows can be eternally sustainable. All this flow has a prime motive that can be traced back to the sun, galaxy or the whole universe, that through its flow is running downhill.
Hmmm.. lots of ideas about this. It seems like there’s no actual accumulations possible only slowing down the flow for a while while trying to accumulate something, or speeding it up often as an attempt to accumulate something else. And that speeding it up has the potential to be just as harmful as slowing it down (eg burning fossil fuels).
Also I think that all living things and quite a lot of non-living things (eg volcanoes, rivers) alter the flow around them in some way. So then if altering flows is what the whole of nature does all the time, and humans are part of nature, what defines harmful altering of flows as opposed to non-harmful? Can other plants and animals (eg cane toads, Japanese knotweed) alter flows in harmful ways or is it a specific quality of humans.
Harmful for who or for what seems to be a bit part of the question. On the one hand nature has adapted around at least 5 extinction events and nothing seems to really harm her. From that perspective humans are just another animal and nothing we do can harm nature because everything we do is part of it. On the other hand I’d quite like to keep ecosystems that humans can thrive in! Then a lot of our actions are threatening that right now. But other than because we’re the ones defining it why use ecosystems that benefit humans as the benchmark – you could just as easily prioritise ecosystems that benefit lizards for example and reach quite different conclusions about which flows are harmful to alter.
I think what you are talking about here, at least in part, is hoarding. Hoarding implies giving an unbalanced priority to one’s conventional self. Given we all “inter-are” with our environment, this is an ineffective strategy for health, wholeness, and happiness for everyone including “ourselves”.
At first, I could not see how the principle applies for information. Then it occurred to me that any society that has an elite that hoards useful information from the public (though not perhaps from its enemies assuming these are different) is in for trouble. It means the elite already see the rest of society as the “other” to be denied as opposed to nurtured. Anyone doing this, not just elites, is usually destroying rather than building up those they ultimately rely on i.e. everyone else.
Similarly for energy and matter (i.e. wealth) in a society. The hoarding of these leads to an high gradient of wealth inequity. There is a well established inverse relationship between overall social welfare including the upper classes (e.g. low rates of heart disease, life expectancy) and a high gradient of wealth inequity. Again, high wealth inequity can only exist if the elite already see the rest of society as the “other” i.e. “not self”. The principle of course doesn’t just apply to elites These are just examples, It applies to anyone denying useful information, energy, or matter to another that would not harm oneself.
I think your main point is that this principle goes further than just human society. If we humans just see all non-human forms of life or even “non-living” things as “non-self”, we will not balance our needs with theirs. We can only hoard from them, that is to say not give back, if we don’t see them as self, or at least as “selves” worthy of respect.
Hoarding then is based on a flawed view of reality. It assumes an “other” who we have no great responsibility to as opposed to selves that are part of us, and we part of them.
Ultimately this all revolves around notions of self and non-self. Buried at the end of the comments two posts back is a question I have along these lines but will not repeat until a more appropriate time.
Thanks for the post.
Max Rogers here. I read in a book by Prof. James Lovelock that we animals all fix nitrogen from the air we breathe. That made sense to me because then animals were beneficial to plants and it turned things into a virtuous circle. Perhaps Prof. Lovelock was wrong?
@LarasDad @JMG thanks for your replies.
One more thing RE Organic Farming
I neglected to mention Agroforestry. Basically from my limited understanding it’s about guiding forest dynamics using selected species in ways similar to what people have done for thousands of years. One of the books I recently read made an interesting point about the legendary great flocks of passenger pigeons and huge herds of buffalo. They were anomalies created when the caretakers of North America’s forest gardens were wiped out by disease. The animals that were previously shooed away started eating all the abandoned human food and multiplied exponentially. A human bubble followed by an animal bubble that was created by accumulated nutrition.
On the other hand I’ve been reading most of the time people move against their regional systems and start mono-cropping it ends in disaster pretty quick. Nothing represents an accumulation quite like the vast swaths of industrial ag that shocked me when I peered out the window on my first transcontinental flight. It’s like lining up bowling pins for Ma’ Nature to have a go at.
Hi John Michael,
After reading many of the comments above one other point pops into my head. At what point do you reckon that flows increase in speed so rapidly that us humans become unable to utilise them to the same extent that we had been previously doing so? I reckon that is a form of feedback. Is that even a relevant consideration though? The matter popped into my head because I’d been considering the very heavy rainfall of late here and I’m trying to adapt to that circumstance as rapidly as the rain falls, and it did occur to me that not considering the speed of flows (which are not a constant, but are in flux) is as important as the flow itself. Our harvest of those flows can decrease whilst the flows themselves increase. Dunno, just sort of trying to adapt in place and figure things out.
Your quote: “Previous cultures were more careful to recycle the sewage back to the farms, but there has to be loss. “
That is not true. If you consider the matter for a bit you’ll note that plants are able to take advantage of an energy source which is not of this planet. Plants use the energy from the sun and they capture that. Nature in fact uses that suns energy to produce a surplus. The surplus just isn’t as great as you are used to enjoying…
I was musing on the relationship between procrastination and flow: how we block energy from flowing into the task at hand, how we redirect energy to useless tasks while avoiding the main one, how we flow more energy into avoidance of the task than the task itself requires, and so on, and it occurred to me that our upbringing and past has a lot to do with coming to the point where we play the game of procrastination, and how we play it.
In light of the past few posts, I then realized that we are not only the keepers of the floodgates of the dam that controls/shapes/redirects all the various flows in our lives, but that we are also the river that flows through, as well as the dam itself, sometimes on larger scales, sometimes on smaller.
Fate, early conditioning and training, our situation, our participation in life in a greater physical system as well as a greater spiritual system, all of what we are now at this moment, contribute to one and/or the other of the three aspects as we flow through life.
Pondering on your blog posts of the past few weeks, I’m beginning to feel as if (to quote Owen Merrill) “everything I’ve ever been taught about the world is a lie.”
The feeling is a lot more comforting than I would have expected.
According to the Fount of All Knowledge, there are (at least) two different ways of calculating the Velocity of Money. The first only counts transactions involving goods and services, the second also counts financial transactions. I am not at all surprised that the VoM counted the first way is slow, but it’s not all that slow counted the second way.
This is quite important because the financial industry is a major economic sector, and relatively simple models that broke it out into a separate sector did, indeed, predict the 2008 financial meltdown – the one “nobody saw coming.” Nobody, of course, meaning “nobody I wanted to listen to.”
Money stored in a bank, including the big investment banks, is not money stored in Uncle Scrooge’s Money Bin. It’s circulating. It’s just not circulating buying goods and (non-financial) services.
The comments here on appropriate flow of emotions resonate with me. In my 40s I got totally stressed-out and depressed, under the weight of 40 years of accumulated experiences, thoughts and feelings that I had never learned to process. In an earlier post you said that your approach to managing emotions is to notice them as they arise and decide on whether it is useful or not to express it or use them in some way. I’ve mostly gotten to that place now, but it took a few years of struggle and suffering. I had quite a messy mental attic to sought through. Much of the sorting out was a by-product of getting back to a more physical way of life, moving your body is a great way of letting go of emotions without even knowing you are doing it. Physical activity itself is an important part of flow, and sitting around and thinking too much can be a dangerous way to accumulate mental and emotional pressure. But then overdoing it can bring problems as well (hence the need for balance!)
A general question – to really engage with a whole ecosystem it seems important to know it properly, to understand it in some detail, not just conceptually, to work within some limits. So that raises the question of what’s a realistic size of space to really know – your own backyard, a town, a watershed? I live on three acres that I’m slowly getting to know. It seems like a lifetime’s work to know how it works as a whole system, let alone understand my town or watershed. And yet just focusing on my own backyard seems wrong, too separate. It’s just an arbitrary set of property lines after all….
Thank you for the word “loops” in one of your responses. When I think of flow in relation to the economy and the way that it has devastated some of us, I think of the way it does not appear to flow in a loop. Poor people are net givers to the economy, in that everything they have (and sometimes what they don’t have) is spent into it, while the rich are net takers, taking money surplus to their spending needs out of the system into various stashes. People in between poor and rich appear to both give and take without either becoming the dominant theme.
When I thought about blood flow in the body, as a crude analogy to economic flow, it seemed that cells in a healthy body, are like people who are neither rich nor poor. They take from the system flowing past and around them as they need, and they give to it as well. However, they do not stop the system as a whole from flowing ever on in a complete circle. (which has entry points for fresh energy and matter supplies and exit points for degraded energy and matter). If cells were to try to accumulate blood, they would soon create a clot, whereas if they depleted themselves to give all to the blood they’d create anaemia. Both of these prevent the body from “going with the flow”.
I remember reading a fellow called Frederick Soddy once – a physicist who decided to see what the economy was getting up to – and he soon discovered to his horror, that this thing we call money is set up according to rules which could not possibly work in the real world. For example if you take any worldly good and leave it alone, when you return to it it will inevitably have degraded (due to “random, ravage, rust or rot”), whereas if you leave you money in a bank and leave it alone, when you return to check, it will have grown!
Also, if you run a business, you fully expect to turn an investment of €10,000 into €11,000 (using a margin of 10%), but this does not mean you can buy 10 hams and magically turn them into 11 hams.
He also made the point that all wealth is a flow – something you can only dip into and use when you need it. (No good trying to eat a year’s supply of food in a day – it will do you no good!). And that the kind of money circulating in our economy (or more accurately, failing to circulate – ie flow in a circle) is a poor match for this.
He also objected to the economics of the time (IIRC the 1920’s and 1930’s) for failing to take account of the natural world and its resources as the source of any wealth we acquire through our labour.
It would certainly be good to apply the concept of flow to our economy. More and more are finding themselves at the anaemic end!
Very interesting post, but I see some possible conflicts with your idea of “individuality” that seem to be a not-changing reality. May be I do not understand enough well your concept of “individuality”
For example, in the buddhist tradition the concept of Anatman (could be translated of not-self considering the “self” as a inmanent not-changing entity) is based on the idea of ever-changing reality as also Heraclitus pointed out (for me the major part of the greek philosophy is a re-evaluation of the old indian thinkers), the self is a “flow” as everything is
For Buddha-Gautama in his “four noble truths” (Ariya Sacca) the suffering (dukkha) is universal and the reason of the suffering is the desire (panha), and the way to liberate from pain is to liberate oneself from attachement, through the “Eightfold Path”
At the end you can read the liberation path in the buddhist tradition is to avoid “attachement” which sound similar to the “end of flow” or accumulation of external “things” around the self, that you said
Some modern thinkers considers the “self” as the instantaneous “local” consequence of a sum of the interactions with others; a “flow”, a sum of “voices” starting from the firsts interactions with our parents, and also as a “node” in a web of interactions, and that is the origin of our thoughts (to think is to talk with ourself using the voices of “others”, in fact are “others” who talk with our mind and our thoughts are in a good part, to prepare us to be in front of others, the world as a “theater”)
The origin of the damage, at the end, is the separation from others, from nature, from our bodies and at the end from ourself, the immersion in abstractions, in a artificial world of numbers, that separate us of what we are. The problem arise when we do not recognize the “flow”, the web with others and nature, only our self clearly separate and independent from nature and others
The world of abstraction and numbers is the way we intend to build the inmanence, to achieve some kind of “security” and a “solid center of gravity”, that is, in fact, the Maya Veil.
Money is one part of this process that, Habermas pointed out, is the battle between the “Systemic”, the abstractions, against the “Lebenswelt” (Lifeworld). The other is Science (Money and Science are two faces of the same coin)
The world as “lived” and the world as “defined” by the abstraction we build as science (institutional) or economic relationships (The Machine). And the “Systemic” is always winning to the “Lebenswelt” in our society, for now….
Another amazing opportunity to learn, thanks.
Something I have observed in financial markets, is the inability of most humans to understand and accept any cycle that might take longer than a few months or years. Can an investment play a positive role in society if you are in the minority who thinks and invests with longer cycles in mind?
Also, if one is able to create something better than industrial farming, but still far from the ideal, like city-based aquaponics for example, do the spirits in nature have some sympathy for our efforts and small contributions to health and harmony? Or we have collectively been so evil towards natural flows, that humble efforts are just going to be laughed at by the spirits?
I guess it is obvious what I am hoping you will answer, so consider this as someone trying not to feel so powerless and insignificant.
Re: ““You are a ripple in a river of meat…” JMG does have a way with words! But the comment forms a nice fit with RPC’s professed Buddhist tendencies — and my own.
Dear Maxine Rogers
Thanks for giving the source for nitrogen ‘fixing’ as being from Prof Lovelock.
Put like that, he was wrong. Err … something is not quite right here! (Uncertain smile)
The nitrogen cycle’ is basic stuff. I googled – nitrogen cycle summary usda – and got a number of good sources. The natural ‘nitrogen fixers’ are bacteria; to a lesser extent some free-living in the soil (Azotobacter and Clostridium, and the cyanobacteria) , but in the main living in association with the roots of certain leguminous plants. Lightning flashes also contribute a non-trivial global amount of fixed-nitrogen long term. In the cycle there are de-nitrifying processes which return the compounds to atmospheric nitrogen gas. https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detail/?cid=nrcs143_014202
This one has a pretty good chart: https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/nrcs142p2_051575.pdf
Sources included a nice one on the role of protozoa in the soil and their eating bacteria; quote “’Protozoa play an important role in mineralizing nutrients, making them available for use by plants and other soil organisms”. Well sure: animals more generally and their bacteria also do a good job in mineralising compounds so that the key ions can be absorbed by growing plants. What goes around comes around. There is a good deal of sense in the old saying: “all flesh is grass”. Most of the protein we ingest is absorbed (circa 80% iirc) and processed, with the end products excreted through the kidneys as urea, which mineralises rapidly enough into ammonium and nitrate ions. (Don’t let the dog pee on the lawn if you do not want to locally kill the grass with over-supply of urea and salts. Our domestic fowls excrete uric acid which is also strong manure!)
I also googled James Lovelock and nitrogen cycle. He makes interesting comments but I cannot find anything anomalous in his way of explaining nitrogen fixation and subsequent mineralisation and eventually de-nitrification.
I am grateful for the discussion of emotional flows here. As an abstractionist by inclination, training, and profession (mathematician/statistician/engineer), I have only in the last several years come to fully appreciate the grip that such a framework (Gnostic would not be an inappropriate descriptor) has had on my view of the world. Allowing oneself to feel and let flow emotions one would rather not face can be challenging. I have, in years past, referred to “the box in the attic that is never opened” — which was both a literal description as well as a metaphorical one. My growth in the interim has come in large part from a willingness to take a deep breath and slice through the packing tape.
Stefania and Mark D had said about feelings something I have recently really been working on. Attitudes, neuroses all are built up blockages which spirituality strives to eliminate so we become whole with god or one. Then of course DFC took it a step further than I could think. Individuality as the neurotic illusion starting at birth and ending by ending reincarnation cycle. Emotional blockage elimination is just start of realizing whole picture of our flows as an interconnected system to all others and total environment to reach ultimate goal.
As an example of the truly pitiful mentality of a financier, I offer this quote from a successful hedge fund owner (Quite genuine, told me by one of his partners):
‘I have lots of friends, Little green ones, millions of them!’
And from another (a bit drunk after dinner):
‘I’m rich, but I just can’t stop, I want more and more and more!’
( He is worth about £100 million and counting. Actually, a nice man, he began penniless, and abandoned by his worthless father. )
Any idea of natural flows is sure to pass by people of this stamp, while they are wedded to illlusion and compulsion: I think Ancient philosophers would have called them ‘slaves’?
They rule the world of industry and finance, and pay the politicians.
Chris- Re: there has to be some loss… Yes, plants absorb energy from the sun, water from the soil, and carbon from the air, but they also need phosphorus, potassium, and various “trace elements” from soil to use that energy. Animals release some of the energy by metabolizing the carbon from food with oxygen from the air, but we, too, need trace elements to function. Some of these elements get locked into our bones (until we’re done with them), but most go into sewage sooner or later, so if we flush our sewage “away”, we deprive the land of these elements. See the Wikipedia: Phosphorus Cycle.
The article on Nitrogen Cycle is also worth a look.
If I were to contemplate using my own sewage to fertilize my gardens, I would assume that the amount of sewage the garden could absorb would be no more than the amount of food that I get from that garden. Which is to say, that if I get 1% of my total annual food consumption from the garden, I might return three days of waste per year to remain in balance. Much more than that, and my “garden” would just be a cesspool!
Maxine- Re: nitrogen fixing … What you describe sounds like the carbon cycle, rather than the nitrogen cycle. Plants absorb carbon-dioxide (gas) and combine it with water to make carbohydrates; animals eat carbohydrates and combine them with oxygen from the air to re-create carbon-dioxide and water. Solar energy drives the plant side of the cycle (photosynthesis); the animal side of the cycle (respiration) releases the energy for the activities of life. (One reason that plants accumulate carbohydrates is to support their own respiration when sunshine isn’t enough. Seeds need to grow while underground, and so seeds contain carbohydrates. Biennial plants, such as carrots, beets, and turnips, store energy in a root for one season, then draw on it in the next year to power the flowering and seed-production processes… unless some hungry animal comes along in the mean time.)
JMG, many moons ago I worked as a regulatory scientist for a big water mgmt district in Florida, and one of our guiding public relations directives in assessing and punishing ecological damage was not to appear “arbitrary and capricious.”
When you said, “Second, the permaculture notion of “storing” energy is deeply flawed. You can’t actually store energy; all you can do is get it to flow in loops that keep it accessible to you for a longer time than it would otherwise be,” I believe that your knee-jerk dislike of permaculture ventured into the realm of “arbitrary and capricious.”
I don’t think Holmgren’s second principle conflicts with your second law in any way, shape, or form. When David talks about capturing and storing energy he is approaching it from the angle of a rapprochement and partnership with the natural world, in response to the conventional and wasteful import/export models we’ve gotten so used to in industrial culture. He means storing rainwater in a tank at the highest point available for use later downstream. He means storing modest amounts of solar electricity in batteries for domestic/farm use instead of using energy from the much longer cycle storage of energy in the form of fossil fuels. He means reusing household graywater in the immediate landscape instead of pumping fossil water from deep underground with coal-fired mains electricity to accomplish the same goal. He means building humus in topsoil as a store of fertility, CEC, and water-holding capacity to improve crop and forage health, mineral density, and disease and drought resistance. The lack of which all contribute mightily to the wasteful import-export model I mentioned above.
Did you know that every 1% increase of organic matter in topsoil will improve water storage capacity in that topsoil by 100,000 gallons/acre? (Wouldn’t surprise me if you did!) And how do you create those increases in OM? By storing the energy of compost, manure, ag byproducts, and so forth in the soil. And how do you “store” those things, in practice? By increasing soil biodiversity and biomass, food web complexity – in other words, you “store” them in the magnitude, strength and fitness of your loops. That’s something every land manager should be striving for, not deterred from.
All of these tactics fall under the category of “capture and store energy,” and all of them are totally reliant on loop cycling. Much faster loop cycling than the conventional alternatives for sure! Slowing down the flow of energy and nutrients across our landscapes, getting a “next best use” out of everything before letting it follow its gravitational or entropic bliss, cutting out middlemen and wasteful import-export methods, these don’t conflict with your Law of Flow in any way, as far as I can tell.
How is storing rainwater or PV electricity for later use different from storing money for retirement? Or a field mouse storing grass in its nest for winter munchies?
Everything deteriorates in storage, I agree, but money most of all. Especially considering current inflation. That’s where I feel the “arbitrary and capricious” part of your response comes in. And you know I mean this all in the most loving and respectful way. To you and to David.
“Will, I’m still trying to make sense of our culture’s hatred and terror of nature. The roots of our collective biophobia need careful examination.”
And birgitmiller wrote:
“ … I have frequently pondered the biophobia inherent to modern suburban life. I believe it is due to lack of coherent belief about death …”
I can’t speak for Americans, but the large majority of us in late-industrial culture would not survive long outside, even with some preparation. And collectively we are wholly dependent on our culture for necessities. In my view it is not just an emotional dependence. Human cultures and I guess hominid cultures before that have been dependent on knowledge. This is not to be created de novo. It comes from mum & dad and the people they grew up with and live with and ultimately is guided by reality. I guess deep down we know we do not know enough to begin to cope with ‘outside’ nature, and for sure our own biology is scary enough.
I gather that Americans have an exaggerated belief in the individual and are charged to ‘look after themselves’. This would be an awesome responsibility if it were not nonsense. My guess is Americans, though by no means alone in this, seem set up to individually fail. That appears to be a very lonely approach to death – spooky in a spooked culture perhaps? The sadder part is that our global version of the same culture is positioned literally to inflict serious defeats on nature and thereby die a collective death in our ignorance.
So, another question. How does flow in this context relate to attitudes like acceptance and forbearance? Implied in flow is that life is going to bring you what it brings – rain or shine, feast or famine, life or death, etc. I’ve learned that accepting what is coming at me is a much better place to build a response from than denial or resistance. So what’s an appropriate attitude towards flow, especially when life brings you lemons or a truck load of acetic acid?
@ Maxine Rogers was it referring to carbon? Animals breathe out more carbon dioxide than we inhale, while plants take it in during the day for photosynthesis and give out more oxygen, which animals use. This seems more like the circle you refer to
lathechuck: when you said “Which is to say, that if I get 1% of my total annual food consumption from the garden, I might return three days of waste per year to remain in balance. Much more than that, and my “garden” would just be a cesspool!” I thought of the compost bin I just fed with fallen rotten-before-they’re-ripe pears, last year’s leaves, and the gray water I had on hand. It doesn’t seem like a cesspool to me! Of course, we’re talking food waste here, and not sewage; I live in a city and that sort of thing is frowned on in cities.
Patricia, I’d leave making complicated lifestyle changes for after you’ve meditated on all seven of the laws for a while!
Heather, thank you! We’ll see how it works out; I’m certainly committed to doing the book club all the way through the end of Mystery Teachings.
Darkest Yorkshire, hmm. That’s certainly not the impression I get from the traditional lore!
Gandalfwhite, I’ve lost the reference, but there’s been quite a bit of laboratory research in Japan testing chakras and the like using EEGs and similar technologies; you might see what you can find.
Aloysius, here again, have you talked to successful organic farmers in your area? If you’re simply trying to do it by following advice from other parts of the world, it’s probably not an accident that you’ve had so much trouble.
Chris, one of the things that I like about the way you farm is precisely that you’re integrating your farm into the local ecosystem with the help of Stumpy the Wombat et al. That was the way that the First Nations in North America did things, and it worked extremely well — pity the immigrants from Europe were too dense to learn how it was done. As for the water, no argument there — we’re expecting Hurricane Jose to dump five or six inches of rain on Rhode Island in a couple of days…
Yes, flow always involves chaos. Also, half a dozen readers forwarded me this very thoughtful article on why we can’t maintain the current wildly extravagant habits of energy consumption on renewable sources. Since we won’t be able to maintain them on nonrenewable sources, either…well, the conclusion is as inescapable as it is, to most people these days, unthinkable. As for the stone circle, I wonder if it attracted some local druids, who decided that if one stone circle is a good idea, two is an even better one! 😉
Gavin, the interesting thing about older ideas of land tenure is that they pretty consistently treat land as something that flows from one generation to another, rather than something that a single person accumulates and uses for immediate gain.
Xabier, excellent. Yes, that’s a good parable to start from!
Margrave, why must it be either/or? Why not both/and?
Birgitmiller, that may be a very important part of the puzzle. I’m still sitting with it, and trying to figure out the whole shape of it.
Stefania, and the best way to handle stifled emotional flows will also differ from person to person, depending on a galaxy of individual factors. Here as elsewhere, there ain’t no such thing as one right way!
Anselmo, thank you for asking. You certainly may, so long as you include a link to the original post along with your translation.
Redoak, excellent! You get tonight’s gold star. Yes — all these laws, and all the terms that are used to express them, are useful abstractions. They are ways to simplify the ways things happen in the world, so that our minds can actually make sense of them.
Karim, I wouldn’t argue with that at all.
Synthase, the Taoists aren’t holding onto them. They’re circulating them through certain specific meridians and body centers in order to transform them into other things, which flow through the body in other ways.
Blue Sun, people in modern industrial society by and large have a fantastically overinflated sense of importance. I think it’s high time that we all get over ourselves, admit that we’re just ripples in a river of meat, and go on from there!
Patricia- Of course, applying human sewage to city gardens is “frowned upon”, for two reasons. The first (most obvious) is that a small amount of infectious sewage goes a long way toward creating an epidemic of disease. But the second is probably related to my prior point: if the land area isn’t large enough to provide for all your needs, it is also not large enough to absorb all your bodily waste. (Here in Maryland, our chicken farmers need to manage the coop waste; it’s a valuable fertilizer, but the land can only absorb what the land can absorb.) Sooner or later, though, we’ll need to figure out how to keep these waste/nutrients from washing into the ocean, and close the cycle.
Sometimes, the nutrients do come back up out of the ocean, though. A salmon swims upstream to spawn, gets eaten by a bear, and the bear carries the nutrients away from the river where they can be used by the forest.
Even my 1/4 acre city lot can absorb some waste, because I don’t clean up after the birds, deer, squirrels, rabbits, or groundhogs, each of which has left its scat.
Rahul, exactly. The words “what could go wrong?” need to become part of the vocabulary of those who have the task of choosing whether or not to use the latest technological gimmick — and of course, in the broadest sense, that means all of us.
Shane, of course. One of the things you have to deal with when you grasp the reality of flow is that entropy is also a flow.
Alex, good. These are some of the reflections that this section of the book is supposed to inspire. Notice, though, that once you start thinking in these terms, you’ve already scrapped the notion that you don’t have to care about what flows where…
Dave, excellent! A solid meditation on the themes I’ve proposed here.
Aloysius, yes and yes.
Chris, yep. There are flows that are too fast for us to use, and flows that are too slow for us to use.
Myriam, excellent! Yes, that’s another very solid meditation on this theme.
Maria, I get that. Dear gods, I get that. The world we’ve been told we inhabit is a pretty wretched place. Fortunately, the world we actually inhabit is not as we’ve been told…
Mark, it’s a good question. The thing to do is to avoid rigid boundaries, What you learn about those three acres can be applied, with increasing uncertainty, to ever larger circles of territory. You can learn about your body — which is also part of nature, of course — in great detail, and again, extrapolate from that while accepting the uncertainty. You can never know everything about anything; but you can know a lot about things that are close, and a little about things that are very far away.
Scotlyn, that is to say, you’re anticipating the next law in the sequence, the Law of Balance. That’s not a criticism — it shows that you’re paying attention to the implications of the laws we’ve already covered.
DFC, no question, the teachings I’ve presented in this book differ, in emphasis and terminology, from the teachings of Buddhism. So? I hope you recall that I’m a Druid, not a Buddhist…
Student, an effort that’s actually humble — as opposed to, say, someone saying “This is all I’m going to do, because anything more would bruise my ego/interfere with my fashionable lifestyle/make my friends laugh at me/etc.” — will normally get a good response. The important thing is to be honest with yourself, and also honest with the biosphere; that is, don’t pretend that something like buying a Prius (which is a status symbol that runs on secondhand fossil fuels, not an actual piece of green technology) actually matters. As for investment, do you understand the difference between investment and speculation? That’s where the rubber really meets the road.
Phutatorius, thank you.
David, delighted to hear it. Yes, it’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it.
Xabier, yep. That’s what the ancient Greeks called a kakistocracy: rule by the worst.
Tripp, I think you’ve misunderstood what I was saying. I don’t object to any of the practices that permaculturists do, thinking that they’re storing energy; I object to the conceptualization of “storage,” as it leads to unhelpful and ultimately unhealthy attitudes toward flows of matter, energy, and information. The organic matter you put into the soil, to cite one of your examples, isn’t “stored” at all — it’s in constant flow between living things and humus, and it’s the pattern of flows thus established that makes soil fertile.In America today, people are obsessive about hanging onto things, and anything that encourages them to do more of it is not necessarily a good idea…
Phil, I think that’s also an important part of the pattern.
Mark, you’ve answered your own question. Accept that flow happens, that the world is going to bring you various positive and negative experiences, and all of them are going to pass away in turn, and you achieve the serenity that allows you to act with clarity and effectiveness when and where you can.
My second meditation on flow turned out to involve beavers and squirrels, bees and ants, and appropriate slowing down of the flow for later usage, which brought me back to some measure of sanity.
“When life hands you lemons or a truckload of acetic acid”…. add olive oil and put it on your greens?
My pear tree provided me with a downpouring of pears, many visibly bitten into by one critter or another. The fourth person to answer my “Come & get them” call on NextDoor was overjoyed to see they were (by that token) genuine organic, and ended up walking away with other items I’d had neither the time, strength, nor energy to harvest & process. It all comes around in the end! The rest are in the black plastic bin, covered with last year’s leaves and moistened with gray water.
@JMG – New Scientist gave us some sarcastic euphemisms for southern governors, PR flaks, and other low political life forms to use for hurricanes. So – may you not be troubled by “a surplus of air” or “a water hazard.” Or “Gaia’s urban renewal.” My Gainesville, Florida daughter weathered Hurrican Irma very nicely, I was relieved to hear.
What about flows of immigration… Is it even possible to stop people from going from one place to another, where they find or hope to find more accumulated wealth than in their old homes?
John, I am enjoying the style of this blog much more than the Archdruid Report. I am not sure why, but it might be the company you keep. I plan on returning. I missed the news that you moved out of our great state of PA to New England, and I wonder if this change figures into your teaching and writing, including this blog. Just curious, it seems to make sense as I have followed you for some time. Sorry if this is personal NuttyProfessor
JMG & all – for a nice model of circulating, dynamic flow, I might suggest listening to, meditating on, a Beethoven symphony. Or while meditating on the flow systems of, say, a patch of land, listen to Beethoven. (His 6th Symphony, the “Pastoral Symphony” a fave of mine).
JMG, I hope someday you will essay forth on music and the arts, past, present, and perhaps future.
I wonder if you’ve come across energyliteracy.com. It is a sankey diagrams of all the flows of energy in the United States – sources and sinks. One of the exercises in the book, if I recall, is to mediate on where all the energy in your life comes from and where it all goes. My question, and maybe it is more appropriate for the balance chapter, is how do we avoid problems of the rebound effect when we are looking for these new sources of energy? For instance, having fusion may lead to global warming just from all the extra ambient heat – not that I think it will happen, but it shows even a giant energy source is not without limitations. Or solving the energy “problem” only to get a ecological disaster from the ease in pumping aquifers and creating chemical fertilizers.
You made a fairly good point that technical regression is the path of least resistance and that conservation has to play a sizable role in addressing climate change. Ivan Illich made the point that by calling the “energy crisis” a crisis, we made it something that had to be solved. The easiest way I can think of to shrink the transportation energy is to lower the speed limit – a 1/2 reduction in speed saves 3/4 of the energy. Does that make the “solution” a question of culture and make inventions a tangential to the real issues of values or mores? Is this ultimately self-limiting like yeast in the petri dish?
I’m glad to hear you plan to follow this book to the end; it will give me a structure for the next while as I continue chipping away at the discursive meditation.
One thing this chapter’s meditation is making me face is a lack of detailed knowledge of all the industrial processes behind the products I’ve chosen to think about. But it has felt beneficial to push through that, and to focus precisely on areas of discomfort as you instruct.
I have also found that in order to avoid skirting around on the surface too much I often need to focus on only one material part of any industrial product in my life, and work through it’s material and energetic flows, and the information/knowledge that brought it about. Maybe it’s just my brain working a bit slowly too,,,
One thing that occurred to me very quickly, whilst pondering the horrid landfill-destiny of so much of what we produce is the role that the “salvage industrialism” you have talked about will play in restoring greater flow to all that accumulated waste.
I have also noticed that I’ve yet to tackle meditation on the bitterly depressing and ubiquitious flows of plastic all around. Appartently the microparticles are being eaten by sealife in the lowest floors of the North Sea (and everywhere else i’m sure); they become coated in edible particles as they drift down and are mistaken as entirely edible. And of course plastic microfibres flowing out of millions of people’s tap water…
OK, so I was reading through this and came across this line in the section: “Trying to get the universe to give you unearned wealth rarely works, and when it does work, it comes with a price tag that measures the cost you have imposed on other people, and on whole systems, by seeking accumulation rather than flow.”
And I thought to my self, Yes…. and No…. I was reminded of the writer of Ecclesiastes who seems to caution us not to project too much coherency and meaning onto the universe.
“I saw the tears of the oppressed–
and they have no comforter;
power was on the side of the oppressors —
and they have no comforter.”
And I declared that the dead,
are happier than the living,
who are still alive.
But better than both
is he who has not yet been,
who has not yet seen the evil
that is done under the sun.” (Ecc. 4)
Because if you look at how things work in the real world and over history, it seems the universe is quite ambivalent about how it treats unearned wealth. (Why else is the comeuppance so often abstracted to the Otherworld and that we need gods to intervene in human affairs?) It often seems those who fare the best have just enough good sense and awareness of these matters, but not too much. And maybe the universe doesn’t care who gets what, but just that somebody gets it?
Hi John Michael,
The second stone circle was a very strange discovery and I reckon if the bare rooted walnut does not break dormancy in the circle I constructed, I’m going to plant an English Oak into both stone circles (the other circle is empty). Out of curiosity do you have any recommendations for specific trees? Oaks of many varieties grow well here and I have started many from acorns. I simply throw acorns around the place during autumn and let the plants decide where they want to grow as they know their own business well enough.
The birds, animals, reptiles, frogs and insects etc… love what is going on here at the farm. The rodents can sometimes gain the upper hand, but they suffer set backs of their own – as do we all really. Overall I aim to slowly increase the diversity of life here.
Wow! Thanks. That link was an extremely thoughtful article and it mirrored a comment I made a few days before that such a claim (about 100% renewable energy) was at best untested and at worst a dangerous belief system. I kept mentioning technical difficulties of such a claim (not to mention economics, resource limits, and political will) and they were brushed away and/or ignored. Unfortunately I have been mucking around with this renewable stuff (and living with it) for a bit over a decade now, and it is good, but it is not a panacea for today’s fossil fuel powered generators. A bit of a shame that. I worry about the heaping up of beliefs on an impossible outcome as eventually emotions will get strained…
You may be interested to note that I have decided to update my blog code of conduct to incorporate and end point for such discussions. I don’t really know the right way to proceed with that, but I’ll just adapt as new situations emerge. I assume you have been faced before with such strong beliefs in the face of reality? Actually that was not a question, as I have been reading and enjoying your works for a long while now. It was more an acknowledgement of the stoicism and good grace that you have shown to people over the years. I respect that.
Your reply is very interesting about the speed of a flow affecting the ability to grasp flows.I assume then that the other physical properties of a flow (intermittency, size and dispersion come to mind – not sure why? ;-)!) affect the ability to utilise flows too?
Stay safe with Hurricane Jose threatening Rhode Island. Those are strong winds. I always recall your excellent advice to keep one hand for the ship and it seems appropriate in your weather conditions.
If I really wanted to try to swim in the Law of Flow, I’d attempt to write something coherent about deeper abstractions already associated with flow in physics, and how they might be applied to the understanding of various kinds of flow that have been discussed here. For instance, if economics were something a little more like a science, might economists have discovered some value in the concept of the viscosity of money?
Even though it’s late, I think some mention should be made, in a thread all about flow, of turbulence. Turbulence is a characteristic and a side effect of flow. It happens when the energy dissipation of a flow exceeds a certain threshold related to the thing that’s flowing.
If the only point or purpose of flow were to get from state A to state B (for instance, matter moved from one place to another) with as little effort as possible, then turbulence would be an undesirable characteristic. This is sometimes indeed the case (e.g. for blood flow through the heart’s auricles, turbulence in which can be lethal). But if nature generally felt that way, she could just reflect and re-radiate all those solar rays hitting the earth back into space, without the complexity of having life involved in the process. We’re not just dependent on that energy flow itself, we’re dependent on—because we are part of—the turbulence of that energy flow.
As another abstract example, there’s a lot of turbulence apparent in the emotional flows people have written about above. A blocked emotional flow might need work or intervention. But turbulence in the flow, however unpleasant or frustrating, might be necessary. If it were beneficial to streamline entirely past the emotional turbulence involved in getting from, say, grief to acceptance, without actually experiencing the process, presumably our minds would have evolved to do it that way.
Appropriately enough, turbulence itself is deeply mysterious. In fluid flows we can observe it happening, in real and simulated systems. No hidden causes seem to be required, because at least in the simulations, all causality is known and every minute change in trajectory of every individual particle is accounted for, and turbulence still happens. But that hasn’t led to any real understanding of why the collective behavior takes the forms or has the effects it does. Turbulence is the original “emergent” phenomenon, recognized as such long before the general concept existed. (Da Vinci drew some beautiful and incredibly insightful sketches of turbulent water, which many years ago I had the privilege of viewing in the originals in a museum. They’re easy to find now online.)
If there’s a subsidiary Law of Turbulence, it might read something like: “Turbulence tends to impede the flows in which it occurs, but it also gives flows additional effects or purpose. Introducing turbulence into a flow, or removing it from one, can have complex consequences, for good or ill, beyond its influence on the flow itself.”
;Government by the worst’, certainly, JMG.
Although I find myself thinking of them as The Lost…..
Re: “unearned” wealth
This is where an appreciation of reincarnation as a multi-lifetime learning experience comes in. Some people have “unearned” wealth because they’ve signed up for a lifetime of the challenges of being wealthy. Some people have poverty because they’ve signed up for a lifetime of those challenges. Some people have signed up for a lifetime of learning how to balance effort and reward. And some have signed up for a lifetime of living comfortably because they’re challenges are elsewhere.
You can’t know which is is unless you’ve trained intuitive perception to a fair amount of accuracy. Trying to apply the strictures of conventional morality will most likely hinder that project.
I am a creature that needs concentrated flows of energy and nutrients, to keep my brain working. So many of us now, that we have to rob the flows of energy and nutrients from all of nature’s ecosystems that we can access. I am reading “Dirt : The erosion of Civilizations” by David R. Montgomery. “Getting treated like dirt” more or less sums up how well we have looked after the soils we have robbed. We need all those phosphates, fixed nitrogen, essential amino acids, trace elements, various lipids, vitamins, so many chemical configurations that our biochemistry or that of our gut bacteria cannot generate for us, so it has to ingested in already created form.
Plants and food webs, including vast numbers of bacteria, fungi, and relationships I barely understand, in soil and ocean complex ecosystems, do the nutrient creation, powered by solar energy. Soil creation from slow demineralisation of bedrock sets the rate-limit of what we can take without returning. I am kind of stunned to learn how soil erosion processes exceed that by 2 orders of magnitude. We do not return our biological wastes to the agricultural fields, in terms of the total of what we take. We don’t return bodies to the soil with gratitude, when we are done with them. Fossil fuel powered machines and chemicals and the great acceleration have temporarily boasted our rate of draw down on soil mining.
So there are two things here. The first is the acquisition of all means of harvasting nature’s primary productivity, by agricultural ‘forcing’ on land, and extravagant over-harvesting, in fishing. All more cyclic ecosystem uses and relations that once were how Eden worked have been interrupted. The second is the vast amount of one-way, controlled draw-down of system nutrient reserves, as cycles are broken. We dump the de-energized and processed outputs as wastes, with no particular thought for where “away” is going to be, or what happens to it next. So much of this is one-way and irreversible. The simple result is we continue to destroy carrying capacity as we overshoot in numbers and supply requirements to feed everyone. How much overshoot before collapse? The thing is, the resilience of systems to try and keep going, using existing investment, while our bodies still last, places more stress and draw-down on natural systems. The result may be to strip the natural world bare, before we too pass away.
I’m am still pondering this notion of reincarnation as described by JMG in a previous week. Since I haven’t had any past life memories of my own, I can only engage this intellectually. I do find it more attractive than the mainstream Christian belief in one soul, one life, and I think it make sense on the micro/individual level. I’m just having trouble using it to explain the actions of nations or empires, supreme acts of evil, or why advantages seem to accrue to certain groups in a systematic way. Actions that cause deep trauma to groups of people, to the extent of impacting descendants and stacking the deck against them on the epigenetic level, I have trouble dismissing reactions to that as conventional morality.
I think I’m lingering around these questions around the “law of flow”: How are we defining unearned wealth? And if enough people can get away with it for long enough that it’s a permanent feature of our societies, do we not just consider that a flow in and of itself? How do we make sense of a world with different levels of flows, some of which seem to contradict one another?
It came to me yesterday morning: “everything is connected” is a snapshot.” “The law of flow” turns it into a movie.
If all things flow, then life force does.
Humans can and do accumulate life force through the use of technology. But, since we all ultimately die, this seems to be more of a ponding result than a permanent blockage. If there is no such thing as free energy, then we must assume that the ponding of human life force comes at the expense of some other sort of life force.
Given the extinction event underway, I assume we are accumulating life force at the expense of other species, in the aggregate. On the individual level, some people can — and do — pond up their own life force at the expense of other people. If it takes, for example, $100,000 to keep an octogenarian alive another year or so, that’s $100k that is not available for better water treatment in Detroit.
This will all go on until it can’t (diminishing returns), and will self-correct on the macro level. But for myself, the law of flow will influence how I deploy the life force that I have left. It will also inform my actions during my physical demise. I will need to consider which technologies are appropriate in sustaining my life. Because humans can’t live without technology, this won’t be an easy decision matrix. But it will be necessary to engage in it.
“What about flows of immigration… Is it even possible to stop people from going from one place to another, where they find or hope to find more accumulated wealth than in their old homes?”
There has never been a human world in which accumulated wealth has been distributed equally. So your question is exactly the same as asking ‘is it possible to stop a person from going from one place to another?’. How can anyone even ask that with a straight face?
Of course migration has always and will always happen. Even states as closed as north Korea today or Tokugawa era Japan didn’t have completely closed borders. However, the only reason people in western Europe have been told for the past 50 years or so that present levels of migration are unstoppable is because mass immigration, along with free trade, is a deliberate policy which has benefitted the salary class by harming the wage earning class. Presenting it as some kind of inevitable, unavoidable, natural event serves that policy very well.
This second law reminds me of Wu Wei. Would you say it differs in any way from that concept?
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