I developed my understanding of sustainability essentially by hyperlinking books. I would read a book, then go through the citations and find another interesting book. This led me through design and ecology and economics and psychology and business and so many other things. At some point a pattern started emerging, and new bits and pieces began to fit into the pattern—each Piece of the Puzzle is something that has really stuck in my mind.
Not in chronological, or any other, order—just as the whim strikes me.
“It may be initially hard to believe but post-Roman Britain in fact sank to a level of economic complexity well below that of the pre-Roman Iron Age.”1
Writing about this in the Archdruid Report, John Michael Greer said:
Good pottery was so cheap and widely available that even rural farm families could afford elegant tableware, sturdy cooking pots, and watertight roof tiles.
Rome’s fall changed all this. When archeologists uncovered the grave of a sixth-century Saxon king at Sutton Hoo in eastern Britain, for example, the pottery found among the grave goods told an astonishing tale of technical collapse. Had it been made in fourth century Britain, the Sutton Hoo pottery would have been unusually crude for a peasant farmhouse; two centuries later, it sat on the table of a king. What’s more, much of it had to be imported, because so simple a tool as a potter’s wheel dropped entirely out of use in post-Roman Britain, as part of a cascading collapse that took Britain down to levels of economic and social complexity not seen there since the subsistence crises of the middle Bronze Age more than a thousand years before.
These shards of British pottery are an X-ray of Infinite Progress—the government, or scientists, or corporations or whatever will not always ‘figure it out’. Once you accept this notion, you can see decline all around us, despite the latest offerings of apps, home renovation shows and refractions of celebrity.
There is a habit of not-thinking that says if something is wonderful we will surely figure out how to keep it going—to which I like to point out the potter’s wheel has one moving part. This is not complex technology and the benefits of using it are very great—and yet despite the simplicity and reward, Britain lost the wheel for 300 years2.
This not-thinking is obvious in discussions of the internet. Because at least 0.01% of internet traffic is ‘causing’ revolutions in countries without democracy, it therefore follows the internet must last forever. I like to say the Internet is Just a Fad, as I commented in another column by The Archdruid, The End of the Information Age. The internet is the sharp peak of a very large pyramid of mining, refining, manufacturing, research, marketing, and—in case we forget—stoking the hell-fires of coal-powered electrical generation.