This past year was one of trials for me. I spent the majority of it unemployed. That could be the subject of it’s own post. Let’s just say that if I could not have to sell my life away one hour at a time, I would be a much, much, happier person. Sadly, that’s not possible, as I came up with 3 lemons in the family slot machine.
During my involuntary time outside of the labor market, I figured I could–nay should–spend time on doing what I really want to do–write for a living. I began to read extensively and work on a book.
What I wanted to do was write a history book – a book of “Big History” which told not just a fragment of the human story, but all of it. I guess I’m not lacking in ambition! But it went nowhere. All too often I got bogged down in way too many details and essentially being a stenographer of other people’s work. After all, I’m relying on other people’s work for most of the information, as I am not a professional anthropologist or historian. What I was really after was the immediacy and colloquialism(?) of a blog post or Reddit comment.
I wanted it to be something “separate” from the blog. Yet, while I could crank out blog posts easily, the book just was not coming together. I abandoned it multiple times, and probably wasted a lot of time I should have spent doing something else (although I’m not exactly sure what).
But what really changed my perspective is an anecdote I head from Tim Ferriss. Ferris, for those of you who don’t know, is the wildly popular huckster whose “Four Hour” brand began with the book “The Four Hour Work Week.” He’s since become a wealthy mulitmedia celebrity with his own blog, a podcast, series of best-selling books, and numerous other projects. He’s managed to become sort of the Tony Robbins of the Silicon Valley crowd.
When he was writing The Four-Hour Workweek, he too just couldn’t bring it together. It sounded like the exact same problem I was having. Then, someone told him to write the book as if he were writing an email to someone. His technique then became to open an email program (Outlook? Gmail? Not sure which one), and compose his thoughts as if he were writing an email to someone.
That did the trick. The lesson here was obvious—I need to write this book as blog posts. It’s the only way I can get it done. And that has been the genesis of many of the posts this past couple of months.
The other inspiration was sitting right under my nose the whole time. I’ve extensively referred to Marvin Harris’s books as an inspiration. his books are written in an accessible, essay style, without a linear narrative. For example, Cannibals and Kings contains chapters such as “The Origins of Agriculture,” “The Origin of the War,” “The Origin of Pristine States,” and “The Cannibal Kingdom,” to name a few. I feel it’s time to update some of those ideas.
So, you, dear reader, are the beneficiary of this, as these posts will be put up here over the course of, well, however long it takes me to write this stuff despite having a job now :/ . I’m not sure what the ultimate resolution will be – I know the Archdruid manages to wrap up his blog posts in a book and sell it, but I have not decided if I will leave all the posts up when (if) the book is published. Heck I have no idea how to publish a book, or if I will self-publish, or what.
Which is to say I know nothing. Feel free to give any advice and or encouragement (discouragement?) you feel would be helpful in the comments below. So you can look forward to more overly-long posts in the vein of this Quixotic book project, along with my usual ramblings on economics, politics, automation, our failing society, architecture, and whatever else I feel like. Whether that’s good or bad I leave to you.
The tentative outline is as follows:
1. The Earth in Space/The Earth in Time: Borrowed from H.G Wells’ An Outline of History, this will deal with the big picture of our place in the universe and concepts of “deep time.” The usual description of time as a film reel or football stadium. A lot of Big History books start with the beginning of the universe (e.g. David Christian’s Maps of Time), but that leads to a ton of chapters on astrophysics, astronomy, geology, etc. before you even get to the arrival of humans, and history is about humans, after all. Of course everything is relevant (where did that oil come from anyway?), but you’ve got to draw the line somewhere. More setting the stage than anything else.
2. The Origin of People: Human evolution for the hurried. Emphasis on recent discoveries. The “bushy” as opposed to “linear” origins of of humanity. The running-man hypothesis. The Catching Fire hypothesis. Neoteny. Tools. Fire. Baby Slings. The Stone Age. 99% chimp. Domestication of man’s best friend. What happened to the Neanderthals?
3. After the Ice: A brief look at humanity after we became the “Last Ape Standing” until end of the Pleistocene. Migration, bottlenecks and founder populations. The Pleistocene overkill presents humanity’s first experience of scarcity.
4. The Origin of Inequality: largely the Feasting Theory posts.
5. How Feasting Led to Famine: Intensification was a big leap backward for humanity!
6. The Origin of Cities: The most recent series of posts.
7. The Origin of States: Mostly an expanded part 4 of the feasting series of posts.
8. The Origin of Money: The real story from an archaeological perspective rather than the libertarian fantasy. Debt comes first. Money is not metal, etc. Working on this one now-difficult! Material from this post and this post.
9. Why History Happens: Mostly the Fates of Nations series of posts from last year.
10. The Bronze Age Collapse: The rise and fall of the first global economy. Environmental devastation, erosion, non-renewable resources, etc.
11. The Cycles of History: also taken from some of the the Fates of nations series of posts, a description of Peter Turchin’s structural-demographic cycle theories, diminishing returns, Malthusianism, Craig Dilworth’s Vicious Circle Principle.
12. The Origin of the Market: largely a retread of Karl Polanyi’s work. There is nothing “natural” about markets, globalism was always an elite project.
13. The Origin of the Corporation: Tells us a lot about today’s world.
14. The Origin of capitalism: It’s the fossil fuels (and control of them) stupid! May combine this with above.
15. The Future: the moral of the story, and what the future looks like if we don’t change course.
It will, of course, be a summation of many of the themes of this blog – that intensification always leads to diminishing standards of living for the majority in the long run, that technology leads to more work not less, that letting aggrandizers run the show is a recipe for disaster, that grain-based annual agriculture is bad for people and the environment, that economics is a secular religion that is preventing us from solving our mounting social problems, that we are experiencing diminishing returns to technology and population growth, that more people prevent us from solving our problems, that Markets are not natural or perfect, but quite fallible and just one way among many to organize societies, that our current living standards come from the liberation of a billion years’ stored sunlight in the form of fossil fuels, that thinking otherwise is a cargo-cult, and that industrial civilization is utterly dependent on non-renewable finite resources and cannot continue indefinitely, and that we probably aren’t going to Mars.
I’ll also present an ideal situation centered around Permaculture, renewable energy, and socially embedded, non-market based, yet decentralized, economies. Think Bill Mollison’s Permaculture, Leopold Kohr’s The Breakdown of Nations, E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful, Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language, with a little Barry Commoner and Buckminster Fuller thrown in. Do I expect anyone to follow this blueprint? No. but that’s not the point. I want to at least demonstrate that a better world is entirely comprehensible and possible, even if we won’t choose it. Don’t worry, it won’t be the usual hopium.
So that’s it. Will it happen? Who knows. But it’ll be fun to try. Thanks for coming along for the ride! Should be a fun year.