Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Civilization and Succession

In an Archdruid Report post a couple of weeks ago, I used the well-worn metaphor of bacteria in a petri dish to talk about the way that ecological limits constrain the range of possibilities open to any life form, Homo sapiens included. Several people objected to the comparison, insisting basically that human beings are enough smarter than microbes that the same rules don’t apply. Flattering to human vanity as this insistence may be, I have to admit to a certain skepticism about the claim in the light of current events.

According to the best current figures, world production of petroleum peaked almost two years ago and has been declining ever since; world production of all liquid fuels peaked more than a year ago, and is likewise declining; much of the Third World is already in desperate straits as its access to fossil fuels dries up — and government and business leaders across the industrial world, which has far more to lose from the twilight of cheap abundant energy than the Third World does, are still treating peak oil as a public relations problem. If we’re enough smarter than microbes in a petri dish to escape the same fate, we have yet to demonstrate it.

On a deeper level, of course, such comments miss the point just as thoroughly as the claim they’re meant to satirize. The value of the petri dish metaphor is that it shows how ecological processes works in a context simple enough to make them clear. The same pattern can be traced in more complex biological systems, human societies among them. The logic of the petri dish, after all, is the same logic that drove dieoff on Easter Island and among the lowland Maya: if you use the resources necessary to your survival at an unsustainable rate, you get the classic overshoot curve — population boom, followed by population bust.

Thus humanity is no more exempt from ecological processes than from the law of gravity. The invention of airplanes doesn’t mean that gravity no longer affects us; it means that if we use a lot of energy, we can overcome the force of gravity and lift ourselves off the ground for a while. The same principle holds with the laws of ecology. Using an immense amount of energy, we lifted a minority of the world’s population high above the subsistence level for a while, but that doesn’t mean that ecological laws no longer affect us. It means that for three hundred years, we’ve been able to push past the limits normally imposed by those laws, by burning up huge amounts of fossil fuels. When the fossil fuels are gone, the laws will still be there.

One of the central principles of ecology, in fact, is that similar patterns can be traced among organisms at many different levels of complexity. The difference in intelligence between yeast and deer is many times greater than the difference between deer and human beings, and yet deer and yeast alike go through exactly parallel cycles of boom and bust when resource availability rather than predators functions as the primary means of population control. Thus it’s reasonable to look to ecological patterns among other living things for clues to the driving forces behind equivalent processes in human societies.

One ecological pattern that deserves especially close attention as we begin the long slide down the back end of Hubbert’s peak is the process called succession. Any of my readers who were unwise enough to buy a home in one of the huge and mostly unsold housing developments cranked out at the top of the late real estate bubble will be learning quite a bit about succession over the next few years, so it may be useful for more than one reason to summarize it here.

Imagine an area of bare bulldozed soil someplace where the annual rainfall is high enough to support woodland. Long before the forlorn sign saying “Coming Soon Luxury Homes Only $450K” falls to the ground, seeds blown in by the wind send up a first crop of invasive weeds. Those pave the way for other weeds and grasses, which eventually choke out the firstcomers. After a few years, shrubs and pioneer trees begin rising, and become anchor species for a young woodland, which shades out the last of the weeds and the grass. In the shade of the pioneer trees, saplings of other species sprout. If nothing interferes with the process, the abandoned lot can pass through anything up to a dozen different stages before it finally settles down as an old growth forest community a couple of centuries later.

This is what ecologists call succession. Each step along the way from bare dirt to mature forest is a sere or a seral stage. The same process shapes the animal population of the vacant lot, as one species after another moves into the area for a time, until it’s supplanted by another better adapted to the changing environment and food supply. It also proceeds underground, as the dizzyingly complex fabric of life that makes up healthy soil reestablishes itself and then cycles through its own changes. Watch a vacant lot in a different ecosystem, and you’ll see it go through its own sequence of seres, ending in its own climax community — that’s the term for the final, relatively stable sere in a mature ecosystem, like the old growth forest in our example. The details change, but the basic pattern remains the same.

Essential to the pattern is a difference in the way that earlier and later seres deal with energy and other resources. Species common in early seres – R-selected species, in ecologists’ jargon – usually maximize their control over resources and their production of biomass, even at the cost of inefficient use of resources and energy. Weeds are a classic example of R-selected species: they grow fast, spread rapidly, and get choked out when slower-growing plants get established, or the abundant resources that make their fast growth possible run short. Species common in later seres – K-selected species – maximize efficiency in using resources and energy, even when this means accepting limits on biomass production and expansion into available niches. Temperate zone hardwood trees are a classic example of K-selected species: they grow slowly, take years to reach maturity, and endure for centuries when left undisturbed.

Apply the model of succession to human ecology and a remarkably useful way of looking at the predicament of industrial society emerges. In successional terms, we are in the early stages of the transition between an R-selected sere and the K-selected sere that will replace it. The industrial economies of the present, like any other R-selected sere, maximizes production at the expense of sustainability; the successful economies of the future, emerging in a world without today’s cheap abundant energy, will need to maximize sustainability at the expense of production, like any other K-selected sere.

To put this into the broader picture it’s necessary to factor in the processes of evolutionary change, because climax communities are stable only from the perspective of a human lifetime. Environmental shifts change them; so, often on a much faster timescale, does the arrival of new species on the scene. Sometimes this latter process makes succession move in reverse for a while. For example, when an invasive sere of R-selected species outcompetes the dominant species of a K-selected climax community; eventually the succession process starts moving forward again, but the new climax community may not look much like the old one.

Apply this to the human ecology of North America, say, and it’s easy to trace the pattern. A climax community of K-selected Native American horticulturalists and hunter-gatherers was disrupted and largely replaced by an invasive sere of European farmers with a much more R-selected ecology. Not long after the new community established itself, and before succession could push it in the direction of a more K-selected ecology, a second invasive sere – the industrial economy – emerged, using resources the first two seres could not access. This second invasive sere, the first of its kind on the planet, was on the far end of the R-selected spectrum; its ability to access and use extravagant amounts of energy enabled it to dominate the farming sere that preceded it, and push the remnants of the old climax community to the brink of extinction.

Like all R-selected seres, though, the industrial economy was vulnerable on two fronts. Like all early seres in succession, it faced the risk that a more efficent K-selected sere would eventually outcompete it, and its ability to use resources at unsustainable rates made it vulnerable to disruptive cycles of boom and bust that would sooner or later guarantee that a more efficient sere would replace it. Both those processes are well under way. The industrial economy is well into overshoot at this point, and at this point a crash of some kind is pretty much inevitable. At the same time, the more efficient K-selected human ecologies of the future have been sending up visible shoots since the 1970s, in the form of a rapidly spreading network of small organic farms, local farmer’s markets, appropriate technology, and alternative ways of thinking about the world, among many other things.

Three points deserve to be made in this context. First, one of the differences between human beings and other organisms is that human ecologies are culturally rather than biologically determined; the same individuals are at least potentially able to shift from an R-selected to a K-selected human ecology by changing their means of subsistence. Since it’s unlikely that a K-selected human ecology can or will be expanded fast enough to take up the slack of the disintegrating R-selected industrial system, there’s still likely to be a great deal of human suffering and disruption over the next century or so. Still, those individuals willing to make the transition to a K-selected lifestyle sooner rather than later may find that the disintegration of the industrial system opens up opportunities to survive and even flourish.

The second point circles back to the subject of last week’s Archdruid Report post, Fermi’s paradox. The assumption at the core of the paradox, as mentioned in that post, is that today’s extravagantly energy-wasting system is the wave of the future, and more advanced civilizations than ours will have even more energy and use it even more lavishly. The concept of succession suggests a radically different view of what an advanced civilization might look like. Modern industrial society here on Earth is the exact equivalent of the first sere of pioneer weeds on the vacant lot described above – fast-growing, resource-hungry, inefficient, and destined to be supplanted by more efficient K-selected seres as the process of succession unfolds.

A truly advanced civilization, here or elsewhere, might well have more in common with a climax community: it might use very modest amounts of energy and resources with high efficiency, maximize sustainability, and build for the long term. Such a civilization would be very hard to detect across interstellar distances, and the limits to the energy resources available to it make it vanishingly unlikely that it would attempt to cross those distances; this would hardly make it a failure as a civilization, except in the eyes of those for whom the industrial-age fantasies of science fiction trump all other concerns.

The third point leads into issues that will be central to a great many future posts on this blog. The climax community that emerges after a period of prolonged ecological disruption and the arrival of new biotic assemblages rarely has much in common with the climax community that prevailed before the disruptions began. In the same way, and for most of the same reasons, claims that the deindustrial world will necessarily end up as an exact equivalent of some past society – be that medieval feudalism, tribal hunter-gatherer cultures, or anything else – need to be taken with more than the usual grain of salt. Much of the heritage of today’s industrial societies will likely prove unsustainable in the future ahead of us, but not all; some technologies of the present and recent past could easily continue to play important roles in the human ecologies of the deindustrial future, and many more can help cushion the descent. Tracing out some of the options can help guide today’s choices at a time when constructive action is desperately needed.


Creekholme said...

As an ecologist, I think you're spot on.

I have only been visiting this site for a couple of months now but do appreciate your understanding of ecology. I find a lot of sites addressing peak oil and climate change to be too depressing by far with little optimism but you and Sharon Astyk (Casuabon's Book) are fearless leaders inspring hope.

Can't say much else really but keep up the good work.

Joel said...

I'm glad I checked this blog early. I'm always eager to read your next post, and this one didn't disappoint.

I'm not sure I agree that a climax society will have fewer resources available to it, though.

The people of North America had quite a bit of wood available to them, for instance, and a deciduous hardwood has access to huge amounts of water and sunlight.

michael gorsuch said...

John - thanks for the excellent post. Do you have any layman book recommendations that explain some of the ecological terminology you used in more detail?

FARfetched said...

Whether or not this is an accurate portrayal of cultural succession, it provides something the Mad Max doomers don't: a reason to hope for a better future (even if we don't live long enough to see it).

A metaphor I once used for a different purpose, but might apply here, is a wood stove. When it's first started, the wood burns impressively — but the flames have to die down to glowing coals before the stove really starts producing heat.

Dwig said...

Very neat, John, viewing the emerging transition we're now facing through the lens of ecological succession!

One question is, how might our uniquely human characteristics affect the progress of the succession? In some ways, deer and yeast are much closer to each other than to homo sapiens -- language, self-awareness, ability to form a variety of social orders, ... Unfortunately, it seems that our yeast-like nature has dominated our sapient potential up 'til now. The good news is, we've never had such a broad and deep understanding of the way the world works as that which has emerged fairly recently, and we have to hope that that knowledge, together with a K-phase-oriented way of seeing, will serve us well.

(Aside: as is all too common, I sometimes tend to use the first person plural pronoun loosely, and I have to periodically ask myself : "who's we?". In the case of the last sentence in the above paragraph, I think I mean something like "enough of us to make a positive difference in the outcome".)

In a nice bit of synchronicity, I reread yesterday a 1993 article by Peter Hartley, "SUSTAINABLE ENGINEERING: Resource Load Carrying Capacity and K­phase Technology". I'd been thinking of it for a while after reading it many years ago on Jay Hanson's Dieoff site, and decided to refresh my memory. I think it's an excellent companion piece to this post of yours.

With regard to The climax community that emerges after a period of prolonged ecological disruption and the arrival of new biotic assemblages rarely has much in common with the climax community that prevailed before the disruptions began.:

Of course, you're taking a bit of understandable liberty with the successional model, applying it to a situation that's hybrid of biological and cultural ecological considerations in the evolutionary and ecological dimensions (playing a bit loose with terminology myself here...). Looking at it like this, it's not clear to me that homo sapiens has ever produced a climax community. (I definitely don't subscribe to the "everything was fine until we invented X" theories.) That may be one reason that there are so many possible outcomes, ranging from the typical post-overshoot degraded conditions depicted in Hartley's Figure 11, to something like an ecotopia; while the r-K model is definitely useful for clarifying our current situation, it's less so for predicting how the succession will play out.

Finally, I'm guessing that in a future post, you'll examine the relationships between the r-K model and your catabolic collapse model; looking forward to reading it!

Danby said...

Imagine an area of bare bulldozed soil someplace where the annual rainfall is high enough to support woodland. Long before the forlorn sign saying “Coming Soon Luxury Homes Only $450K” falls to the ground, seeds blown in by the wind send up a first crop of invasive weeds.

This made me laugh. I don't have to imagine it. Here in my little Northwest milltown/railyard we have exactly such a development. Three years ago "Grand Prairie" was the name of a small (1 sq mile or so) upland that was naturally lacking in the pervasive Douglas Fir of the Northwest. Due to an unusually deep water table and the long summer droughts of the area, it is not conducive to softwood growth. Instead it is a very sparse (a few trees per acre) oak woodland. Ideal goat country, or good for field and row cropping if enough water can be obtained.

Now "Grand Prairie" is a housing development featuring "Homes in the to $300,000's". The developer bought 60 acres, close enough to town to make a sewer line feasible, and bribed, excused me, "lobbied" the county government for a zoning change from Agricultural to Residential. 3,000 square foot homes on 5,000 square foot lots, with all the amenities. With prices so low compared to similar houses in Seattle and Portland, how could they lose?

A Small Problem has cropped up, however. My little town is 70 miles from Portland, 120 Miles from Seattle. No-one working locally can afford a $340,000 home. Especially when a nice home on a large lot in a real town such as Centralia costs on the order of $140,000.

When the project was planned, gasoline was $1.89/gallon. The idea was that people living in the development would be working in a larger city 40, 70, or 100 miles away, in order to be able to afford a much nicer home than they could in those places.

Now with gasoline at almost $3 and creeping up a few cents every week, there are no takers. The three model homes sit forlornly in their postage stamp lots beside the streets to nowhere in particular.

They have actually seeded the ground to a lawn type grass, and they keep it mowed so far. Eventually the money will run out. When that happens, the very nice but poorly built homes will be sold at 30-50 cents on the dollar and somebody may even move in to them. The other lots will sell indvidually, without the covenants that seem to appeal to the anal-retentive types that want these houses seem to like. They will be in short order occupied by mobile homes (half the price for essentially the same house).

I give it 3 more years, less if the economy goes the way I think it might before the end of Bush's term.

You described the situation exactly. Well done sir!

Luke Bunyip said...

I like the use of the ecological term "succession" when discussing the potential changes to the social and political fabric. I am uncomfortable with the use of the phrase "ecological climax", even in its original context, but I suspect that I will get over it.

Seriously, guessing at the possible impacts of both Peak Oil and Climate Change, I am leery at the "static state post affluence society" scenario, but then I have not renewed my crystal ball subscription.

The flip side is that Dr Helen Caldicott advocates this as the only society which can adequately safeguard nuclear waste dumps.



hulot said...

The K- option is to realize we are soon to become villagers. When the fuel is gone beyond our reach, we are pretty much going to have to live out our lives where we sit, with pretty much what we have. Geography is vital, and it will be a matter of life and death even more than it is now. And under such circumstances, as essayists like Dmitri Orlov and Joseph Tainter (and yourself, JMG) effectively demonstrate, collapse will engender situations where we are almost certainly to be compelled to get to know our neighbors intimately-- like it or not. It may be better to begin to lay the groundwork for these relationships early. This might begin at a homeowners' association or neighborhood group, or a coop or buying club. (Or even a blog.)Garden and farming clubs are the wave of our future sere, in my view. As in permaculture or in climax habitat types, successful human succession will require a mutual support system, one this country (the U.S.) must relearn.

Loveandlight said...

As I've said before, I'm not so much married to the idea of returning to old-school primitivism specifically as I am committed to the idea that however we negotiate the downside of the Peak, we have to get back to where we work and live in harmony with nature and let go of the idea of trying to rule over nature and dominate it. Such domination amounts to making war on nature, and any species who makes war on nature will eventually lose.

Philip said...

I'm not at all convinced that your central analogy is accurate. Human beings are one species, while your example of succession in a woodland follows changes in species. It's a nice thought but I'm not convinced that it is accurate or applicable to human societies.

Stephen Heyer said...

Great post John,
I particularly liked your use of ecologists R-selected and the K-selected species to model human societies: Very appropriate.

As to your suggestion that when it comes to questions like limits of growth, humans are no smarter that microbes, well I think you are greatly underestimating humans, I long ago reached the conclusion that they are about as smart as lab rats.

By the way, I agree with you totally about the probable fate our current Western, primarily English speaking neocon capitalist, greed is good, societies/economies (sorry, I cannot think of a shorter description that is accurate). I may even be more pessimistic than you, however, not all current societies, even advanced one, fall into that category.

Where our views differ greatly, is that unlike you, I believe we arrived where we are mostly by historical accident. We could have just as easily arrived somewhere less toxic, in fact some parts of the world did.

Likewise, civilizations on other planets would have a wide range of possible societies and outcomes available to them. Some would do very much better than we are at the moment.

And of course, we also disagree strongly on the practicality and cost of setting up off-world populations and production facilities.

I think there is good evidence that once a civilization is able to produce machines able to move and carry out basic tasks on their own (which we are very close to, thanks to military financed research) the costs become minor, even to a climax K-selected civilization as only seed stock of a few hundred tonnes (much less for really advanced technology) of machines have to be sent. They then replicate and send stuff back to the mother world.

I mention this again because it has a huge bearing on just what a final (if anything ever is final) K-selected civilization would be like: The stage technology reached in the preceding R-selected culture (assuming the same path as we are taking) to a large extent determines what the climax culture will be like.

This is because, after a certain point, technology becomes easier, perhaps progressively easier. We seem to have just passed that tipping point now, where better, more versatile machines make factories cheaper, more versatile and energy efficient and even horrendously difficult processes such a chip making are starting to simplify.

If a civilization/culture manages to get well passed that point before expending its original fossil fuel resources and the subsequent “Long Emergency” is not too disruptive, the final culture will be quite hi-tech in a simplified sort of way and science and technology will continues to advance to an unknown destination. Better yet, if the technology is sufficient to send out the machine core of self-replicating, off-world manufacturing systems, then the long term outlook is quite bright, even if everyone decides to stay on the home world.

If, however, it never passes that tipping point, or the collapse is so disruptive that the advanced technology is lost, the outlook is a lot bleaker.

Another thing we have not much discussed is population. If a civilization’s population is already bumping along its Malthusian limit before its Peak Everything moment, things are not going to be nice. If, however, the population is well under carrying capacity, an orderly and dignified change to a sustainable state should not be too hard to organize.

Another thing I agree with is the final point that “claims that the deindustrial world will necessarily end up as an exact equivalent of some past society – be that medieval feudalism, tribal hunter-gatherer cultures, or anything else – need to be taken with more than the usual grain of salt”.

I think that is dead on: Whatever we finish up with, it is likely to be rather different from the major cultures in our recent past. Good point John, and not one I’ve seen made before.

Stephen Heyer said...

creekholme: "you and Sharon Astyk (Casuabon's Book) are fearless leaders inspring hope."

I would recommend Casuabon's Book ( too. I don't always agree with Sharon Astyk but she writes a lot of good stuff. Better yet, she gives the gift of a view into another culture, another world.

Stephen Heyer said...

“A truly advanced civilization, here or elsewhere, might well have more in common with a climax community: it might use very modest amounts of energy and resources with high efficiency, maximize sustainability, and build for the long term. Such a civilization would be very hard to detect across interstellar distances…”

Another thing I think John Greer has completely right.

To make it even less likely that we could detect anything, people with expertise in the field have pointed out that any long range transmissions would be heavily compressed to save energy and bandwidth. Unfortunately, it seems good compression looks very much like white noise: We would not even recognize it as an artificial signal if our radio telescopes picked it up.

And of course there is the other matter of civilizations more sensible than us being careful NOT to announce their presence for a hundred light years by their RF transmissions. They may well have decided that as they don’t know the neighbors, it would be better not to encourage them to hop the fence and come visiting (one of the mainstream answers to Fermi's Paradox).

However, for reasons I’ve set out in previous posts I don’t think the statement that“.. the limits to the energy resources available to it make it vanishingly unlikely that it would attempt to cross those distances…” is necessarily true.

Anthony said...

I see that a number of people are still defending the idea that human's intelligence will give them an advantage in the coming decline. I think Mr. Greer touches on a salient fact that may work against us.

First, one of the differences between human beings and other organisms is that human ecologies are culturally rather than biologically determined; the same individuals are at least potentially able to shift from an R-selected to a K-selected human ecology by changing their means of subsistence. Since it’s unlikely that a K-selected human ecology can or will be expanded fast enough to take up the slack of the disintegrating R-selected industrial system, there’s still likely to be a great deal of human suffering and disruption over the next century or so. Still, those individuals willing to make the transition to a K-selected lifestyle sooner rather than later may find that the disintegration of the industrial system opens up opportunities to survive and even flourish.

This ability to consciously change may work against us. Imagine a field filled with weeds that has ovrshot the ability of the field to supply the nutrients needed to support the weed population. But these are special weeds - they can, through conscious will, choose to transform into a hard wood tree. If a few of them do this then the new seer will be propogated and the weeds will die off in the shade of the trees.

But these weeds aren't dumb. All of them will eventually realize their predicament and all of them will see that a possible solution is to transform into a hard wood tree. Sure the process will work when some small percentage of the weeds change into hardwood trees. But what happens when a large percentage of weeds try changing? Suddenly there is no room and not enough resources to support hard wood trees either!

There will be a massive die off. And from our point of view it will look very unfair. Weeds will die in mass and so will nascient hard wood trees.

Weaseldog said...

I agree with pretty much all of your post JMG. But then again, Many of my college credits came from biology and ecosystem studies.

You and I only disagree here in the degree of dislocation. I believe that we are so far into overshoot that we are going to experience some very hard corrections. I don't believe that the Earth can support a billion people without huge supplies of energy. We don't live on the same kind of planet our ancestors lived on. We don't have the abundance of topsoil, game, fish, and water that we once enjoyed. Without cheap energy, I fear that dropping water tables will turn much of the midwest in the US into desert. Continued climate change will dry up rivers dependant on snow melt.

Without cheap water, agriculture is very difficult.

Philip, humans are one species, but we differentiate in how we earn a living. This is essentially what separates species in nature, into different niches. Different birds for instance live on different diets. Some species live nectar, others seeds and grains, grass, insects, fish, other birds, mammals and reptiles, carrion...

Humans in a society tend to have jobs and skills that fill a niche. an individual may have one or more skills that supports that person in the society. So each person fills a niche.

Joel, as to fewer resources, it is a quantitative thing. When adding up the BTUs, our oil based society has thousands of times the resources available per person than a native American had a few hundred years ago. But there were fewer of them, and they had enough to prosper.

John Michael Greer said...

Another lively one, I see. Thanks, all, for your comments!

Creekholme, I'm a fan of Sharon's also -- she's one of the few people offering sound practical advice about the deindustrial transition.

Joel, compare the amount of available energy in food form in 1491 with the amount available when the first Native Americans arrived here -- when the megafauna were still around and the Clovis people could eat for a couple of weeks off one mammoth -- and you have the difference between a pioneer sere and a climax sere. A deciduous tree has plenty of water and sunlight, but nutrient levels in the soil of an old growth forest are usually pretty low -- it's all been taken up into the biomass, and cycles fairly slowly.

Michael, there badly needs to be a good book on ecological science for the layperson, and I don't yet know of one. The closest equivalent -- and an excellent book on the end of industrial society -- is William Catton's Overshoot, which has a good introduction to succession and some other ecological ideas. Other than that, see if you can find a used copy of Eugene Odum's absolutely classic textbook Fundamentals of Ecology -- it's a bit heavy going if you haven't had any biology classes in a while, but it deserves its name.

Farfetched, great metaphor!

Dwig, a climax community isn't a Utopia -- it's simply a stable ecological arrangement that can endure for a very long time without more than incidental changes. The New Guinea highland cultures are a great example of a human climax community: they've been using the same mix of hunting, gathering and mixed-crop agriculture there for something better than 10,000 years by current estimates.

As for the interaction between R- and K-selected cultures and catabolic collapse, I actually discussed a bit of that in the original catabolic collapse paper, where I proposed that collapse is a succession process. I may say more about it one of these days.

Danby, we've got 'em here in Ashland as well -- two big new neighborhoods with not a soul living in them. They broke ground just after the local housing market topped out, and things are in freefall right now -- prices of new homes here are down 35% over this time last year, and expected to drop further. So it wasn't a huge leap of the imagination!

Luke, I certainly didn't mean to suggest that things will enter a static state after the breakdown of the current industrial order! Quite the contrary, we're in for a torrent of change extending over a time scale of centuries. If there's a stable climax community in the future, it's a very, very long ways off.

Hulot, I'd say "neighbors" rather than "villagers," because not all of us will be living in villages. No doubt the neoprimitive zealots will go on another denunciatory tear if I repeat this, but cities -- especially small and mid-sized cities in agricultural regions -- are going to be perfectly viable in the deindustrial world, just as they were in the preindustrial world. Still, with that correction your point stands; the community, not the individual, is the basic unit of human survival, and if we don't have communities to hand right now we are going to have to build them.

Loveandlight, no argument there -- you're not going to see many Druids cheering on a war against nature! What we can hope and build for, as I see it, is a world of the future in which appropriate technology and ecologically sensible subsistence strategies allow people to live in harmony with the rest of the biosphere, without having to scrap all the achievements of the last 300 years.

Philip, of course there's a difference between succession in a woodland and succession in human cultures. My point is that we can see, in the history of our species, parallel processes at work and use those to make sense of our current situation.

Stephen, I'd suggest instead that technological progress, like everything else, suffers from the law of diminishing returns. Still, not much point in rehashing a disagreement we've already covered in detail. In the present case, certainly, the Star Trek future imagined by so many people isn't going to happen, and the question then becomes what forms of technology it's useful and appropriate for us to preserve.

Anthony, good -- one of the reasons why the weeds who try to turn into hardwoods won't make it is that you can't skip seral stages. The hardwood trees depend on nutrients and soil conditions produced by the previous, pioneer tree sere, which depends on the results of the sere before it, and so on. In the same way, attempts to leap from a dying industrial system straight to a steady-state K-selected society will likely fail. What we need to be considering instead is the next sere -- what I call the salvage society, which uses the detritus of industrial society as the basis for its technology and bases its subsistence strategy on ecological restoration. More on this later.

Weaseldog, I did a lot of ecology and botany in my first stint in college, too -- I seriously considered an academic career focusing on the ecology of mosses and ferns. As for our points of disagreement, no, I think we're in agreement as to the amount of dislocation -- where we differ, I think, is the time scale. I expect a gradual unraveling over one to three centuries leading into a deindustrial dark age and, eventually, out the other side into the sustainable civilizations of the future; in that scenario, most of the population contraction (which will be extreme -- I expect around 90%) will happen via normal demographic changes rather than the kind of mass dieoff predicted by so many scenarios these days. But the problems you've suggested are very much part of my scenario.

Luke Bunyip said...

Ok, thanks for the clarification. Having read the rest of your response to the other comments, I am thinking I was missing the central point of you initial post.

Most of the debate or political foci down here is around "how will people get to work, oh, hybrid and Hydrogen FC cars". The thing which I like about your general approach to PO, which I guess you share with Sharon, is the Maslovian approach, ie "What about food and security?"

And the obvious answer, which you both articulate is "community". And as you ruminated upon in your post, which communities do we bequeath to our children? How resilient will they be?


Asturchale y Chulo said...

Could your piece be a bit too optimistic? If I get it right, your bet is that the coming civilization(s) will be able to find the best possible arrangement with the environment...eventually, this last word being the key one.

However, we have seen historically that most human cultures have never behaved as K-selected species. Instead, intelligence has always allowed us to find the most agressive strategy to grab resouces, and deplete them all. Industrial civilization is the ultimate example, but the extinction of ancient American megafauna comes to mind, and so does the burning away of prehistoric Australia until aboriginals turned the continent into the desert it mostly is today.
Easter islanders chopped away those trees and they never came back. Carthage used to be the wheat warehouse of Europe, now it is not much but desert. Looks like people rarely found a balance, and kept ravaging the environment to the verge of self-extinction.

I totally agree your claim that the future never totally reproduces the past, which makes the next century the most intriguing in all human history; however, it is hard not to anticipate that humans will grab to the current model for as long as they can, tooth and nail, perhaps until they chop, eat, burn and deplete any available resource. There is not much fertile soil left, for example, and once it is gone, it is gone for good (see Gobi and, again, Australia).
And then, when most books have turned into dust and all hard-disks remain silent, What will be left? Even if someone in some area manages to produce a, lets call it, a k-selected culture, sooner or later it will be smashed by the first of our descendants smart enough as to pick a stone and throw it. That has been the pattern for millenia: Persians ravaging Mesopotamia, Aztecs over their civilized southern neighbours, Christian warriors against sophisticated Al-Andalus muslims, Europeans over native Americans, and so on and on. War-lords again? A new feudalism? Sounds horribly likely.

Jean-Michel said...


You read Sharon Astyk's blog, she probably reads yours and I read her but she has never replied to my e-mail complimenting her effort.

Maybe she believes I am a bachelor!

This being said, she has maybe seen my comments on global warming because she is right now offering her version of the story.

I find so funny that somebody says she is offering hope! And a few hours later, she posts one of the most devastating post she has ever written!

Well! What can I say? "That so far there is no credible evidence that the situation is so dire?"

I think she is on my side. She's done her homework too this summer. She knows we've passed a critical point.

The problem with run-away global warming is that it invalidates historicity. We have never been there before.

That is why you cannot see it with your methodology. Somehow you are incomplete. It does mean you are wrong. Because you use your methodology very well.

My hope is that in the near future you will address this issue and use your expertise to re-evaluate your conclusions.

A real thinker must be able to deal with that sort of problem.

Anthony said...

What we need to be considering instead is the next sere -- what I call the salvage society, which uses the detritus of industrial society as the basis for its technology and bases its subsistence strategy on ecological restoration. More on this later.

I will be checking back regularly - this sounds fascinating.

Dragonflyphile said...

I completely agree with the applicability of the behavior of growing populations to humans. I highly recommend that anyone interested in delving into this theme more deeply revisit "The Tragedy of the Commons," Garrett Hardin, Science, 162(1968):1243-1248.

Regardless of whether a species is playing out an r-selected strategy, a K-selected strategy, or somewhere in between, at the point of consumption, the individual consumer has a finite set of resources from which to consume. Humans seem to have set up a scenario in which they have trusted that technological innovations will maintain or increase a resource base for a burgeoning population that has grown from a billion a scant 200 years to ago to 6.5 billion today.

We claim success in our efforts to expand or increase resources by selective breeding and genetic modification of crops essential to the food system and by conversion of land to agricultural use by extracting water from distant sources. My confidence in the promise of the human capacity to continually modify our surroundings to support an increasing population erodes when we consider that we need to use non-renewable and dwindling resources to 'run' the technology.

We've latched on to the promise of biofuels. I see little value and considerable threat in taking limited land out of production for the food system and putting it into transportation. Further, most of the biofuels considered are far, far from carbon neutral.

A petri dish containing organisms is at some point in time and space a closed system with growth constrained by resource limitation. E. O. Wilson elegantly describes the biosphere as a 'layer of life on earth so thin that it can not be seen from space' - a humbling image when we try to argue for our ability to create resources out of thin air!

Bill Pulliam said...

Like most ecologists who came of age (academically) after about 1980, I cringe a bit when someone brings up good old Clementsian and Odumesque concepts of ecosystem structure and function. And of course I cringe again when they are used as analogies for human societies. But bear with me, we'll get back on the same page before the end of this comment.

Simple notions of succession and population dynamics like "climax communities" and "R/K specialization" are firmly entrenched in the popular ecological mindset. They are rooted ancient notions of the balance of nature, equilibrium, and harmony of the natural world that date back (in formalized Western scholarship) deep into the middle ages. In fact, the Pristine Climax Community probably has a direct lineage back to the Garden of Eden in the Western mind. However, ecology as a science (rather than a worldview or the basis of a political movement) moved away from notions of climax, equilibrium, and steady-state decades ago. As the late Dick Wiegert put it, for a living system equilibrium means death. Ecology now deals with a world where change is universal and incessant, variation is infinite, and every square meter is, like a snowflake, unique in a vastly hyperdimensional ecospace that incorporates the present, the past, and a huge array of exogenous and endogenous forces and processes that are constantly changing the ecological state of every point on earth. Instead of Climax-Disturbance-Succession-Climax, proceeding in orderly fashion like the growth and metamorphosis of a Superorganism, we have wiggly lines superimposed on each other, with slow changes, fast changes, interacting shifts, irreversible plunges over catastrophic boundaries, nothing ever the same twice. The reason our collective scientific thinking evolved in this direction is that this is what our data always show. Plot ANY ecological variable over time or space, and you see both pattern AND infinite variation which never repeats exactly.

Which brings me back to your analogy. Indeed, a parallel intellectual evolution has been happening during the same decades in fields like sociology and anthropology. Victorian notions of cultures, societies, languages, and historical periods as discrete, cleanly-defined entities have been defenestrated, one and all. Human societies consist of a vast collection of entities and elements, which evolve and flow endlessly across the exceedingly permeable boundaries between "cultures." This is true both over time and over space. There will never be another "Dark Age" for two reasons: The world is a vastly different place now in every way, and the original "Dark Age" was a concept imposed on an arbitrary period in history based on a very particular and narrow view of what is important within society and humanity.

So, indeed, the ecological analogy is in fact an apt one. What comes "next" will be something unique that springs out of all that has come before and everything that happens in the coming decades and centuries. It will have many bits that are recognizable as similar to things that have come before; but it will be a world unlike any that as been seen before just as the present is unique and, in toto, unlike any moment in the past.

DeadBeat Dad said...

“…its’ ability to access and use extravagant amounts of energy enabled it to dominate the farming sere that preceded it…”

May I be permitted to point out that this post and most on the Archdruid Report focus on the use of energy which allowed the run up to 7 billion people, nearly in the blink of an eye.

But there were many factors-–almost too many to name -–which allowed this. I guess there was a synergy, where all these factors bolstered one another.

The most important I think were breakthroughs in medicine and public health. Where would the world be without vaccines for smallpox, etc? JMG alluded to this earlier with his character Adam, whose arm was broken in multiple places and never healed properly with no competent doctor….but without a medical infrastructure, what other diseases will take hold?

When several of these threads like energy & medicine begin to unravel….uh oh!
A house of cards.

I think the current and next generation would be very smart and prudent to make provision to salvage medical knowledge. Any future principality or polity that wants to see itself prosper and excel is going to need the best medical knowledge---without that, most other technologies are just wishful thinking for the handful of survivors of plagues and epidemics and wars.

JMG said “…claims that the deindustrial world will necessarily end up as an exact equivalent of some past society – be that medieval feudalism, tribal hunter-gatherer cultures,… – need to be taken with more than the usual grain of salt.”

Well if you don’t salvage and preserve medicine, then you better practice swinging a broadsword, and learn how to boil eye of newt.

Deane said...

Hi, I ran across your blog today...
I wanted to thank you for your work and share with you my similar efforts.

DeadBeat Dad said...

JMG says “The industrial economy is well into overshoot at this point, and at this point a crash of some kind is pretty much inevitable….. Much of the heritage of today’s industrial societies will likely prove unsustainable in the future ahead of us…”

I just want to put in my own 2 cents about ‘the heritage of today’s industrial societies’ being unsustainable.

I wonder if a non-industrial society will be able to sustain the current paradigm of ‘incarceration-nation’? Or the current paradigm of children don’t need a dad, they can be raised by a friendly federal bureaucracy.

Will our ‘succession’ culture have ravenous hordes of divorce lawyers, ‘social workers’, legal ‘guardian ad litems’, child protective investigators, family judges, therapists, and child support enforcement collectors and specialists? Etc, etc.

Will the next culture be able to sustain a million person bureaucrazy which presides over the disintegration of the family? You notice how I spelled that ‘bureaucrazy’. That was no typo. Our civilization has gone awry in more than just our energy use patterns. ‘Free energy’ has enabled us to create more than just new technologies, but new social constructs that never existed before.

How many of those social constructs have been healthy? Or valuable? Or necessary?

And now, back to your regularly scheduled programming.

John Michael Greer said...

Luke, that depends on how much work we put into rebuilding them. As it stands, we barely have communities worth speaking of.

Asturchale, "K-selected" isn't a synonym for "Utopian." The Takelma, the Native American people who lived in the part of southern Oregon where I live today had evolved a human ecology that was stable over the very long term -- local legends describe the eruption that created Crater Lake, which happened around 8,000 years ago, and get a lot of the geological details right. The Takelma were also fierce warriors active in the slave trade that ran up the coast from California to southern Alaska. If somebody threw a rock at them, they threw it back with twice the force -- it took the white invaders, with their huge numerical and technological superiority, a long and extremely bitter war to finally conquer them. So I don't think it's safe to assume that a more K-selected human society is more vulnerable to violence than a more R-selected one.

Jean-Michel, I'm quite familiar with the global warming data, and in fact we have been here before. Around 9600 BCE, at the end of the last ice age, global temperature as measured by Greenland ice core samples, went up between 13 and 15 degrees Fahrenheit in less than a decade -- runaway warming by any measure. The result was catastrophic glacial melting, the collapse of the Laurentide and Scandinavian ice sheets, and the flooding of something like 10% of the world's habitable land surface. Our species came through the experience in fine shape, and so did the rest of the planet.

One of the points that's been made by peak oil analysts is that the IPCC projections for global warming over the next century assume that the rate of fossil fuel use will keep rising indefinitely; apparently nobody thought to ask whether there's enough oil, coal, and natural gas to keep up with demand.

Mind you, that doesn't mean global warming isn't an issue. I expect to see the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets break apart in my lifetime, which means sea levels will rise around 50 feet and a lot of today's coastal real estate will be full fathom five. It does mean that, as usual, apocalyptic visions of total catastrophe need to be tempered with a recognition of the fact that worst case scenarios not supported by historic (or prehistoric) data aren't a good basis for planning.

Anthony, you'll be seeing a lot about it over the next few months. Stay tuned.

Dragonfly, a good summary of the point of the last few weeks of posts. Many thanks.

Bill, as a student of the history of ideas I've long watched the pendulum that moves back and forth in every science. You get periods where conceptual clarity is valued over resolution of fine detail, and periods where the reverse is true. The transition around 1980 saw a lot of clear but oversimplified concepts drop out of fashion in favor of views so nuanced that it's sometimes hard to tell if anything's being said at all. My guess is that in another couple of decades, refined versions of succession theory and the like will be back in style, because despite their flaws they do represent processes that can be observed in action as an ecosystem deals with disturbance.

Of course you're right that seres and climax communities are abstract labels used to make sense of a much more complex, textured, nuanced reality on the ground. Still, I'd suggest that the labels clarify a good deal more than they falsify, so long as it's remembered that seres and climax communities are snapshot views of a flowing process of change -- and they also have the advantage of making some of the more common processes of ecological change understandable by people who don't have a degree in any of the environmental sciences. That seems extremely valuable to me just now.

Your example of the label "Dark Ages" is a useful one. Of course the label "Dark Ages" was applied to the period between the fall of Rome and the defeat of the last Norse invasions by a later period for reasons not uninfested with prejudice. It's still a convenient label for a general kind of historical reality, and can be used to compare the aftermaths of imperial ages with one another.

Yes, there are major differences between the period of chaos that followed the fall of Rome with the ones that followed the fall of the Han dynasty in China, the Hittite empire in Anatolia, the Teotihuacan empire in Mexico, etc., etc., -- but there are also similarities that deserve attention, not least because they allow us to anticipate at least some features that might be expected to crop up after the fall of the American empire, say.

The term "Dark Ages" has another point in its favor, which is that it does actually reflect an important dimension of the lived experience of the time. I've read a good deal of Dark Age European literature, some of it in the original languages, and one thing that comes through a great deal of it is a profound sense of loss and of the harshness of life in a bitter, violent time. An age of drastic population decline, social and political chaos, barbarian invasions, and the loss of priceless cultural treasures -- and all these things were constant realities during the Dark Ages -- is unlike an age of relative stability and peace in important ways, and it's crucial, it seems to me, not to allow a fixation on differences of detail to lose sight of that overarching fact. The fact that a generalization is broad, and does not necessarily reflect every detail, does not make it useless.

Deadbeat, if you don't salvage or practice some form of medicine, you're going to lose the struggle for survival in favor of those who do. As it happens, I know how to swing a (Chinese) broadsword -- it's one of the weapons used in the martial art I practice -- but I'm also not half bad with a 12-gauge shotgun, not least because the latter is a more efficient way of putting venison on the table.

As for medicine, nowadays modern industrial medicine has become the leading cause of death in the United States -- add up the annual death toll from nosocomial (hospital-borne) infections, iatrogenic (doctor-caused) illnesses, surgical errors, and prescription medicine side effects, errors, and inappropriate combinations of drugs, and the number you get is higher than the annual tool from heart disease, cancer, accidents, or anything else. The rise of antibiotic resistant microbes, stripping modern medicine of one of its few unquestioned triumphs, is the icing on the cake.

Mind you, basic sanitation, wound care, and infection control are easy enough to do even in a low tech environment, and will make a big difference if they can be preserved. But given a choice between eye of newt and toxic pharmaceuticals administered in an American hospital where the walls are permeated with methicillin resistant S. aureus and the nurses can't be bothered to wash their hands between patients, I'd take the eye of newt any time.

Bill Pulliam said...

One thing that happened around 1980 was very simple: Computing power reached a point of accessibility that large complex datasets could be handled by the average research project.

The problem wth generalizations and patterns (which I love making, by the way; delineating areas of similarity on maps or in the historical record is fascinating) is that the particular patterns that get emphasized ALWAYS reflect as much about the biases and preconceptions of the classifier and describer as anything about the "real world." If you dream of a return to the Garden, you see eternal stable climax communities as the underpinning of ecosystems. If you have a GIS in front of you, you see infinite spatial complexity rendered in vivid color. Whatever new period of generalization and abstraction may come next will be informed by the greater understanding of complxity and process that has been gained in these decades of deconstruction, one would hope.

Contemporary ecologists still casually use terms like "climax" and "seral stage" and "R strategists," by the way. But it is done with an implicit understanding of them as generalizations and broad vague-ish approximations within which resides all the intricacy that makes up the real world. The cringe happens when you hear these terms in "lay" use; people have a strong tendency to mistake useful generalizations for "natural laws." Likewise, sociologically, people have a dangerous tendency to make "laws" out of much less rigid and deterministic patterns -- all women are bad at math, all americans are violent gun-toters, the fall of Rome lead to a complete collapse of everything of value in the Western world, etc.

yooper said...

Thanks, John. Very much enjoyed,"Civilization and Succession". Gee, it was'nt me who decribed you as being ever optimistic, was it? Again, I hope you're right. Yes, Sharon does have a vast knowledge of "old timey" subsistence living.

I really like your analogy of forest succession. Did you know,that Michigan's forest is larger than it has likely ever been? This is scientific fact. It contains more boardfoot of fiber now, than at anytime ever recorded. Put another way, this forest is much larger and older, than when visited by the first Europeans. You might find this very hard to believe, as does most everyone else.

You see John, we've become very proficient at putting out fire. Before european settlement, natural succession went pretty much undisturbed. Unlike your bulldozed lot, this natural succession usually was started by a lightening stike. Hugh wildfires would sweep through entire regions, and the cycle would begin again. As you suggested, sometimes a whole new enviroment,(such as a cedar stand)would develop that would support species, best suited to that enviroment.

However, in order for that to happen, this new enviroment to be utilized, must'nt be too "isolated",(here we go again, eh John?). That is, the distance between the two alike enviroments must be obtinable, within reach, by these spieces to impregnate it.

An example of this might be the sharptailed grouse. It was never a native bird of Michigan, until the vast logging of the lands of Wisconsin and Minnesota, formed a bridge to the stable enviroment out west, where this bird is native.

Furthermore, once the distance of like enviroments cannot be breached, become isolated, the extinction process begins for those speices that cannot adapt.

Back to the sharp-tailed grouse, this spieces is facing extinction today here in Michgan because the distance between like enviroments are to great. There is no bridge.

Yes John,(as you know) I find what you said,"to look to ecological patterns among other living things for clues to the driving forces behind equivalent process in human societies", very agreeable.

Am I suggesting that the human industrail societies will end like the sharp-tailed grouse in Michigan? Absolutely! There can be no other way. We MUST adapt, to the new enviroment, or die.....

Bill Pulliam said...

Pity the poor blind newts, though...

DeadBeat Dad said...

JMG- I have never personally handled a broadsword, nor a 12 gauge, but I admire your facility with the manly arts. I can deliver a pretty mean karate chop, but not to a stack of bricks, I prefer a pile of pillows.

As for antibiotic resistance, that is a serious problem. But I can't say that I despise antibiotics, since they saved my brother's life when he had spinal meningitis.

Jean-Michel said...

JMG, here is what I found on a random website of climate change sceptic
1200 scientists and innumerable government-appointed editors are in the process of telling us that human-induced global warming has begun.

Let's get real for a moment. This has happened before. It has happened more than once before. Regardless of whether dinosaur flatulence contributed to any periods of global warming during their period of ascendancy, scientists are acting like humanity is on a self-destructive path that is altering the natural state of the universe.

I have to roll my eyes every time that card is played because it's just so false and deceptive.

What you are saying is amazingly close...

Let me quote you:

"It does mean that, as usual, apocalyptic visions of total catastrophe need to be tempered with a recognition of the fact that worst case scenarios not supported by historic (or prehistoric) data aren't a good basis for planning.

You cannot escape from your own methodology. It is a bit like people saying: "it's true because it's the Bible." Why? " Because the Bible says that everything tha's in there is true"

"Planning must be based on the past." Why? "Because that's what the past says". It is a little bit circular, right?

You cannot compare what's happened 9600 BCE and what's happening now. Then, temperatures went up and then the CO2 followed. Agriculture barely existed. It was made possible thanks to a relative stability of the climate. Human populations were very small and could move around.

Today, we are pushing CO2 concentrations to levels that have not been seen for millions and millions of years, at a time where man did not exist.

The carrying capacity of the planet we be suddenly reduced, with 6+ billions people.

How can you say we have been there before?

It is simply wrong. We have never been there before. It is completely uncharted territories. The past is useless, except to realize that massive die-offs happened several times...

Danby said...


Our society breeds economic parasites like those you mention because it's an effective economic survival strategy. In large part that is because our society is excessively prosperous. You don't see any other country in the world with over 1% of it's population in prison, including North Korea, Khazakstan and Myanmar, among the most despotic tyrannies on the planet. In fact N. Korea's incarceration rate is 1/10th ours.

Considering that the prison population is overwhelmingly young, male and lower-class, no poor country can afford to put 5-10% of it's most productive manual laborers in prison, to be supported economically by others. The necessary industrial and agricultural work would never get done.

The same can be said for many other economic classes, i.e. bureaucrats, lawyers, community organizers, professional feminists, PR flacks, and a thousand other parasitical professions. They will go away when the money dries up, as the industrial society collapses. Not entirely, of course, but to a great extent.

The ones you mention will find something else to do when filing for divorce will be, for most people a one-way trip to poverty and not a ticket to a responsibility-free income.

yooper said...

John, on a personal note here. I'd like you to think about what you said about, "concentrated" energy. What could be more concentrated than electricity? It is consumed the second, it's produced...Just a thought.

Thanks yooper.

yooper said...

Ok, further along in my thoughts here...That lightening strike that ignited the forest fire, could be viewed as, "natural". Some are bold enough to describe this event as an "act of God". Look at your insurance policy....But to be described as "divine in nature" would be a bit of an stretch of the imagination, as we know so much more about lightening than say 50 years ago.

To be "divine in nature" may be described as something that our science or mathematics certainies cannot explain, now. Even these "certainies" come with flaws, as most of you may know... This concept is very, very important to my arguement...

Tomorro, I will describe the population dynamics of two speices that cannot be explained, in fact, for the most part research has ceased. You can only add 2 and 2 and come up with four, just so many times...

I will attempt to relate this to our current human population explosion, or "projected" bell shape curve to those speices whom display similiar bell shape curves again and again, they're "cyclic". Also, I will attempt to describe "why" this may be so. A first, I'll put in print.

Thanks, yooper

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, another thing that happened around 1980 is that it became a risky career move for American academics to apply ecological concepts to human affairs, especially in anything that impacted politics. I suspect that a good deal of the current discomfort with applying ecological ideas to human beings comes from that.

Of course you're quite correct that generalizations always reflect the viewpoint of the generalizer, but then one implication of the systems thinking that underlies ecology is that there is no such thing as an objective viewpoint. Yes, each period of analysis lends richness to the subsequent period of synthesis, but if you glance back at Odum's work, say, you'll find that he had quite a strong sense of the rough fit of ecological concepts to realities on the ground; in the book on ecology I referenced earlier, for example, whenever he speaks of the laws of ecology he puts the word in quotation marks.

Yooper, there are more raccoons in the greater Seattle area today than there were before the first white people arrived. Ecosystems adapt, sometimes aggressively so.

Deadbeat, I don't despise antibiotics either -- they saved my life in childhood. My point is that they're failing as microbes become resistant to them, and won't be available to future generations.

Jean-Michel, for heaven's sake take a deep breath. If you can't see the difference between a moderate view of climate change and the complete rejection of the concept -- that is, between "climate change isn't the end of the world" and "climate change isn't a problem at all" -- you may be too deeply mired in apocalyptic mythology to see clearly.

It's entirely reasonable to compare what happened in 9600 BCE to the present situation; that temperature spike was caused by massive methane releases -- as you're probably aware, methane is a much more effective greenhouse gas than CO2, but the difference in quantities balances that out. Of course there are differences, but the value of the example is that the temperature spike of 9600 BCE was much more extreme than anything plausible estimates (even the extreme IPCC cases) suggest we face today, and it wasn't the end of the world. Neither will this round be.

I'm offering clear historic and prehistoric equivalents to the present situation. If you want to dismiss those on the grounds that they don't fit your apocalyptic beliefs, that's fine, but I don't find those beliefs any more convincing than any of the dozens of other apocalypses on the market today, and I will continue to suggest that using comparable events in the past to make sense of our probable future is a wiser choice.

Yooper, electricity isn't an energy resource, it's a mode of energy transmission. You can make a mode of transmission as concentrated as you want to, provided you're willing to pay the energy cost to concentrate it. The concentration of resources is another matter. As for the other stuff, well, I'll take a look at it when it appears.

Jonathan said...

Nice entry again.
My own sources state the peak oil will happen between 2010 and 2020...

The comparison between our society and ecological terminology is quite interesting.
Not all societies destroyed their environnment in a self-lethal way though (e.g. Europe has no more wild big mammals -predators and prey both, but the forest and soil are somewhat preserved -- except the problem of chemical pesticides and manure) and as such "ecology" has degrees of interpretation : I don't consider reintroduction of wolf and bear in the french Mountains (Alps and Pyreneans) as a smart "ecological act".
Ecology has to be thought to very high level of complexity and self-coherence in order to be useful and efficient.

I don't believe we will go back to middle age either. My concern is more about the fact I don't believe we will globally shift to a sustainable society. It may happen here and there, but overall, the economical instability will cause so much power struggle that the potential sustainable societies will get destroyed by the remaining industrial societies wanting to seize the last resources.
The only way I see to avoid that is a country-scale shift toward ecology and a technology sufficiently developped to maintain a dissuasive military power.

Jean-Michel said...


in the city where I live, I have launched an action to inform people about climate change. I have talked to many people. Some believe that mobile phones are responsible, others that when we breath we do not feel or smell CO2 and therefore that it is not a problem at all.

The use of the word "apocalyptic" will not convince anybody. It is a last resort argument, locked into history again.

Mankind has emerged on Earth at a time when the climate system of the Earth relied on ice poles and oceanic currents. It always fluctuated, sometimes in a dramatic fashion as you mentionned (especially at the poles, where it is amplified). But it was regulated anyway. It is all based on complex CO2 exchanges that are not fully understood in all their ramifications.

One thing that is not often remarked is the coincidence between peak oil and rapid climatic changes.

Could it be more than a coincidence?

When the oil was formed, a couple hundred millions of years ago, oceans were stagnant, there were no ice caps, CO2 concentrations at stratospheric levels.

Micro-organisms absorbed this CO2, fell on the sea floor, became sediments and these were slowly cooked under the surface of the earth. If the conditions were just right, it lead to oil.

The plausible complete melting of the ice caps is an event of ominous proportions. It means we are messing up with the most fundamental thermostatic mechanisms of the planet.

This has NEVER happened before. NEVER in our short human history.
It is not at all sure that the current positions of continents would leave us many chances.

Bill Pulliam said...

Re: the Reagan era (I noticed you avoided using the name) and academics -- indeed, but that was a passing thing. Application of ecological concepts within policy matters seems to be strongly on the rebound now. The booms in multivariate statistics and GIS (both direct products of advances in computers) in the long run affected many sciences more than did the Reaganite funding environment.

E.P. Odum was in fact a leader of the "modernization" of Ecology. I did my grad work at The House That Odum Built, i.e. the Ecology program at UGA. I'm not worried about him (well, he's not alive anymore anyway) mistaking a pattern for a law. More like the other 99.9999 (etc.)% of the human population.

On beyond just the peak oil question, what fraction of the likely extractable total fossil carbon reserves have already been burnt? That should roughly indicate where CO2 levels should eventually plateau.

As for feedbacks, remember that the strongest contributor to the greenhouse effect on Earth is H2O -- water vapor. Changes in temperature and circulation can rapidly affect the amount of this stuff in the atmosphere. It provides a multiplier for the effect of any of the other gasses -- but it also produces clouds that have a major impact upon the amount of solar energy that is reflected rather than absorbed. It is indeed a very complex system.

yooper said...

Of course John, I know that electricity is only a "vehicle" to deliever the kind of power, needed for everyday life in this society.

I thought "ecology" died back in the 70's.

I've thousands upon thousands of hours invested studying and researching, ruffed grouse, snowshoe hare and their enviroment.

It came quite the surprize to me and others that these two speicies, were projected to die-off and become extinct here in Northern Michigan. Not only was this suggested by the scientific society, but accepted, as the most likely course, within the next 100 years. Unlike deer and racoons who adapt well, these spiecies do not. None the less, this grouse and hare have been native to the area for thousands of years, perhaps more. Why now?, I asked myself.

A very exhaustive investigative project was launched that lasted for over a year in the making. In cooperation of at least three govermental agencies and under the headline of at least two different socities, I was "priviledged" to gain access to "sensitive" information from the Washington Archieves and records kept by the agencies.

Limiting the reaseach to the past 100 years,(when records pretty much began), pouring over this information and viewing airial photography,(which began in the late 1920's). The land was photographed at different intervials in time, and finally comparing this to satiellite images of today, a pattern soon emerged.

If this trend was to continue, and it's strongly suggested it will, one can only come to the very same conclusions of this scientific communtity, concerning this area.

As "horrific" as this vision might be to some, I suppose to others this might be "more natural". However, I have a very strong message to these people, this "image" does not include "them".

More later....thanks, yooper.

hulot said...

From Pillagers to Villagers:
In saying we are all about to become villagers, it was not my intent to indicate that we would literally all be living in hamlets. I meant to convey idea that the future is going to be throwing us a lot closer together, pretty soon now, and our urban-sponsored anonymity is about to go the way of the ICE. Humans do best in village-sized groups; we'll need to recover the sense of trust in community which enables villages to survive and prosper, rather than placing our trust exclusively in money. We'll learn to trade goods and labor. So long as our word is good as gold, it'll be more valuable than gold to us. It is only the estrangement of people in a large city, (and not necessarily the number of ["extra"?] people), that increases the chance of disorder. The experiences of postwar Europe, and for that matter 21st century Buenos Aires, suggest that a people can thrive even in severely reduced economic circumstances, so long as food and a willingness to work together are available. I'd grant that these last might not be there for us.

At present, many need not live near work or friends. Soon we will learn to make friends of those nearest to us, or do without. We need to find work within mass transit or walking distance, or gradually we'll find our transport costs are pricing us out of livelihoods. This is essentially living a village life, the practical result of localization. Many neighborhoods in the urban East function basically as villages without local farmland, although evidently NYC did raise half its food during WWII. I am unwilling to write off into the "unavoidable dieoff" column everyone who lives in a city over 60,000 in population. A city of 600,000 can be envisioned as a web of 2000 villages. Without this or a similar vision of community, we'll be lucky if we survive in hamlets.

yooper said...

I'm sorry to appear to be jumping around John, however, you have heard this agruement of mine before so I'm trying to perhaps put another spin on it.

Back to your bulldozed lot and stages of succession. You failed to mention on just how this succession takes place. For the large part it happens first on land nearest to it boundries or fringes. This new enviroment will begin on the outer most edges and through the years encroach towards the center of land that has been bulldozed or burned. This concept is so very important for people to understand, please bear with me and I'll explain.

It has been suggested by many well informed people that the Upper Peninsula of Michigan has been declining for just about one hundreds years. Does that seem far-fetched to someone like yourself? I suspect not, and in many ways only supports your theory or view.

What I witnessed from these photographs was simply "unbelieveable". The forest has encroached on abandoned farm land and the vast majority of "towns" alike. The school system here is perhaps serving a full third less students, than when I graduated.....Quite naturally, as the forest encroaches, with it, is taking jobs away, forcing the "working man" out....

yooper said...

Hello John, perhaps, I've already said a mouthful on this post. The ruffed grouse and snowshoe hare analogies can wait. I'm sure there'll be another time when I might bring this up.

I'd like to relate an experience that I had today, with you and you're readers. After taking the dog "hunting" for these two spieces, I found a 1930 nickle in the driveway. It must have washed up after that last hard rain we had. Could'nt believe how light it was.

My neighbor who is an elderly gentleman in his late 80's, has often commented about walking past this place on his way to the one roomed school house, that still stands a little further down from here. I suspect, he probably lost it back then on his way to or from school.

Think, I'll return it back to him. Bet he'll be happy to finally get it back. Perhaps, the old man will remeinisce holding the coin in his hand, about the
"good 'ol days".

Thanks, yooper

John Michael Greer said...

Jonathan, unless petroleum production goes back up above the record level set in the autumn of 2005 -- and it's been falling unsteadily ever since then -- peak is already here; we don't have to wait until 2010. As for the emergence of sustainable societies, I don't expect that for one to three centuries yet. We have a long way to go before succession reaches that point.

Jean-Michel, repeating over and over again that "it hasn't happened before" when the climate change in question parallels scores of well documented prehistoric events isn't going to convince anyone either. That insistence depends on apocalyptic mythology in the same way that my comments depend on history; given a choice between the two, I'll take history, thank you.

Of course the arrival of peak oil and climate change in the same time scale isn't a coincidence; they're driven by the same process -- extravagant overuse of fossil fuels -- and the authors of The Limits to Growth predicted on that basis back in 1972 that resource exhaustion (of which peak oil is an example) and environmental disruption due to pollution (of which global warming is an example) would hit around the same time.

But I don't think we're going to reach any agreement over these points, so probably best to let it drop.

Bill, the Reagan era may have been a passing thing but we haven't seen much of the visionary human ecology of the New Alchemists, Rainbook, or Ernest Callenbach's Ecotopia since then. Of course the end of the 70s energy crises, which provided much of the impetus to the appropriate technology movement of that decade, also has a lot to say to it, but I did a fair number of classes at Huxley College of Environmental Studies in Bellingham, WA in the early 80s and I remember the feeling of the walls closing in.

There's a lot of debate right now on the total amount of fossil carbon that industrial society can access and burn, so I don't have firm numbers. Even the high end of the plausible range, though, is far below the IPCC scenarios.

Mind you, we're still in hot water; Sharon Astyk's post, which as usual is well worth reading, points out that the carbon we've already dumped into the atmosphere is already driving drastic climate changes. She also points out, though, that changes at least as drastic occurred in the prehistoric past, so we've got some basis for making reasoned plans.

Hulot, many thanks for the clarification -- this seems spot on to me.

Yooper, I'm not in the least surprised that northern Michigan is reforesting. There are sections of the Great Plains that once again fit the old definition of "frontier" -- that is, fewer than two non-Native American people per square mile. From Kansas north to North Dakota, ghost towns dot the plains, and much of the old farm belt in New England is forest again. It's only the mythology of progress, in my view, that makes it so hard for people to recognize the spreading signs of America's decline and fall.

John Michael Greer said...

Oh, and I just encountered a blog that may be of interest to readers here -- Mundane SF, discussing the movement in science fiction away from space fantasy and imaginary tech, and toward stories set in futures we're actually likely to face. Might be worth a read; I've certainly bookmarked it.

Stephen Heyer said...

Thanks John, Mundane SF looks good.

yooper said...

jean-michael, you hang in there, eh? For one, I enjoy reading you're posts and you're point of view.

It's the diversity of this site, that I find so attractive. There are many so-called experts in their field contributing here. Such as Sharon, as many,(including myself), would describe her as being an expert at self-sufficiency. There's many people who would describe me as being an expert woodsman or somekind of "survivor",(however, I'm unable to come to terms what that might mean). Almost all regular contributors here are capable of "deep thought". bill pulliam, danby, far-fetched, leap to mind.

Like you, I came here with an apocalytic view of the future. I've even used the same arguement,"it has'nt happened before", over and over again...

At the helm of this site sits John Michael Greer. In my opinion, he's an expert of human history. I might even be so bold to venture suggesting that John, as being an expert "seer",(I hope I have'nt offened you John, using this terminology).

For one, I'm hanging around, I've learned a great deal here and look foward to learning more.

Thanks, yooper.

Bill Pulliam said...

It's true the biosphere has passed successfully through rapid climate changes many times in the past. What emerges on the other side, though, has generally lost some pieces. Rapid climate changes tend to be associated with high rates of extinction. And of course in the long, relatively stable interludes, the surviving pieces, displaced and relocated in the altered climate, reassemble in new combinations, and evolution pumps the diversity and complexity back up. Our current anthropogenic extinction event (which rapid climate change would almost surely intensify) interupts what would have otherwise been one of these long, stable periods. So, geologically speaking, in this period when biodiversity "should" be increasing, it is actually decreasing rapidly. Sure it's not the end of the biosphere, and probably not even unprecedented, but collectively it is a friggin' huge blow that will take geological time scales to recover from.

yooper said...

farfetched, reading back through the posts, I'm surprized! You implied, that John's not visualizing some sort of Mad Max scenario! Come on! He's already told us, about the coming "salvage society". Better watch Mad Max, again, my friend.......This is what happens when the wood stove has gone cold......

Thanks, yooper

Jean-Michel said...


yes we drop the topic. I did not want to be drawn into it anayway.

The starting point was methodology.

Each methodology has a domain of validity. These limitations are not necessarily understood through the use of the methodology itself. In other words the methodology can have serious blind spots.

You have written posts on it. So you should know.

After two years of deep thinking on your posts, I reached the conclusion that we are outside the domain of full validity of historicity.

In mathematical terms, it is called a "catastroph" (René Thom's terminology).

The Spirit is about to play one of his most unexpected cards.

So we should be careful and measured when using methodologies based on history.

It must be supplemented by other methodologies.

Monological knowledge is the curse of our time.

You know the famous saying:

"When your only tool is a hammer, you see every problem as a nail"

That's all I am saying. I hate arguments and opinions. I could not care less.

I am in action and meditation, not cheap talks.

Weaseldog said...

This is a great discussion!

Perhaps the grouse and hare survived in Michigan for 2,000+ years, because the native Americans kept regions of the state cleared?

Climax in an ecosystem does lead to death as I understand it. A mature ecosystem is increasingly filled with specialist species. Species that have very strict requirements of diet and habitat. Disruption of the ecosystem can lead to a chain reaction of extinctions. We see this today in the rain forests.

But a climax ecosystem has evolved to maximize it's use of energy. Every niche that can power life is filled. Almost every scrap of available energy is used.

In human societies we see similar processes. Energy flows in human societies are controlled by currency. Ultimately currency drives the consumption of energy. Goods and services are all derived from the consumption of energy.

So human society evolves so that every scrap of currency is absorbed somewhere. This leads to bloated bureaucracies, which evolve to soak up all of the funding available to their niche.

Many sources put Peak Oil at 2010-2020. Colin Campbell and Jean Laherre both stood by this time frame, but insisted that they do not use political factors in their estimations. I emailed both of them about this in 2000, and they confirmed this. But since, Colin Campbell has said in public that political processes could well bring the peak closer. After all, the peak isn't actually strongly related to total production. It is simply the year of maximum production.

In 2000, we had a mini-peak. Saudi Arabia started having serious production problems. The North Sea went into decline. Most oil producing nations in the world were post-peak by 2000. The decline in 2001 in my view, helped determine the timing of the market decline that began in March.

2002-2003 saw a valley in world oil production along with rising oil prices. Saudi Arabia made heavy investments to increase their oil production. Late 2003 saw Saudi Arabia outpacing the decline of much of the rest of the world including Argentina and Venezuela. they were able to keep increasing supply into 2005, but are now in decline again. So far, world oil production has peaked in 2005.

To get a 2010-2020 figure, we need to find a nation that can overcome the decline of the nation with the biggest oil fields on the planet.

Short of finding a super giant field and using time travel to start drilling it in the past, there seems to be no nation that can ramp up oil production so high, that it dramatically exceeds the pace of Saudia Arabia's decline.

Though many folks still insist that 2010-2020 or even 2040-2060 are the likely dates for peak oil, it looks like the race is over and 2005 is the date of the peak.

Back to civilizations and ecosystems, doesn't it appear that our civilization is facing extinction events?

We have whole careers being wiped out, and just like in an ecosystem, the parasites, opportunists, scavengers and carrion feeders are thriving. In fact it looks like there are carrion feeders everywhere, feeding on privatization, foreclosures, market collapses, war, natural disasters.

Our civilization is being ripped apart, and scavengers are gobbling everything up.

For those that have hoped that we'd get our act together when the decline begins, it looks liek history is repeating itself instead. The old infrastructure is being consumed for short term gain.

yooper said...

Hello John! I was kidding with you and far-fetched! Some "Yooper" humor there! When people mention, "Mad Max", I've got to relate with something just as,"unbelieveable".....Suppose, I should'nt make,"light" of the situation, I apologize.(especially, to one I've damned, for "wishing" for collaspe, who has mention this article on his site.......).

Bill, you were reading my thoughts, what happended to the biodiversity? As you and jean-michael have suggested, well....Monoculture has been the thing around here since the CCC days of the depression.....

jean-michael, you brought up a couple of points that I'd like to discuss with John....perhaps, a spiritual card being brought up.... John, I am the "Bear Walker", in the land of HIAWATHA... No one has gone into the darkness and came back like I have, here, and lived to talk about it.... This land, which I'm apart of, is steeped in myth and methodology... Why cannot this be so? Magic? I'll show you some magic, in this mystical land. You'll be my guest...

Thanks, yooper.

Right on, weaseldog, you're gett'en 'er!

Jonathan said...

Ok, I won't argue about the year of the peak oil, because it's not really important in front of the consequence.

The only thing I'll say is that we won't run out of ressources so fast, simply because the raise of prices will make more difficult ressources profitable. But of course that's the nature of the peak of oil (or any ressource). The current technology of oil extraction leaves 1/3 of the oil in the underground, and is not adapted to a lot of discovered spots (like Canadian oil sands).

But my concern is bit that of Hary Seldon in Asimov's Foundation : what shall we do in order to give the new society a quick start, with a strong and perennial basis ?

The new society should not be built on the ruins of the current one, but rather grow (as a tree, not a weed) from it and replace it.
Therefore, a political, technological and cultural effort must be put to work. The current industrial has its huge drawbacks, but it has a power of research and discovery, that could not be dreamed of by any survivalist society.
I do not dream of wondrous discoveries that would change the world, but history shows that a society that is culturally and scientifically static eventually goes backward and collapse.
However good natured and ecologically oriented a new society would be, if it stalls and has no further goals that self-sustainability and survival, it will eventually fall backward culturally, then technically, and lose its primary goals and knowledge.

So my current conclusion is that however good the intention is, a society only directed toward self-sustainability and survival, will eventually disappear and let place to a cycle of Growth and Fall, with or without oil.

I'll try to think about it a bit more, and try to propose a few possible solutions.

John Michael Greer said...

Yooper, thank you for the vote of confidence.

Bill, my sense (based on readings in paleontology) is that biodiversity tends to rise in the immediate aftermath of an extinction crisis rather than during the middle of it -- and the latter is where we are right now. In the same way, cultural diversity tends to contract in the last phases of a civilization's history, and expands again in its aftermath.

Jean-Michel, of course every methodology has limits; the question is simply where those limits fall. You've argued that your claims cannot be assessed by comparing them to close equivalents in the past and present; I argue that they can; given the difference in basic presuppositions, a resolution of the debate isn't possible, except by seeing what happens. For my part, though, I have extreme doubts about anybody's claim -- to borrow your metaphor -- to know what cards Spirit has in its hand, or what play it intends to make next.

Weaseldog, very good -- a solid use of ecological metaphors. As I see it, though, the cannibalization of existing infrastructure is not only inevitable but adaptive, to use a bit of evolutionary jargon; in the theory of catabolic collapse, it's precisely the attempt to maintain infrastructure (and other forms of capital) that exceeds a society's maintenance budget of resources and energy that pushes it into collapse. The question is simply what capital gets abandoned, and whether it's converted into raw materials or waste. Expect much more about this in tomorrow's post.

John Michael Greer said...

Jonathan, good! Hari Seldon has been on my mind for years, as you can probably guess. As for the interface between price and resource availability, remember that money is an abstraction; what really matters is the energy cost of extracting resources, and in an environment of decreasing energy availability that can easily trump purely economic forces. You can have as much money as you care to name on a desert island, say, and still perish miserably if there's no food or water to buy; in the same way, supply and demand can't conjure resources into being if the energy to extract them simply isn't there.

With regard to future societies, I'd point out that many technologically stagnant societies have remained stable and viable for thousands of years -- a figure which compares very favorably to industrial society's 300-year trajectory toward history's dustbin. That is to say, I don't believe in the myth of progress. My guess is that the great task of the next thousand years or so will have nothing to do with learning new technologies; instead, it will be a matter of resurrecting old ones and learning to do without those that are no longer viable in a world with much less energy.

yooper said...

You're quite right John, about "trusting" you're instructors... I'll bet my instructors had quite the laugh, at my expense, while having a smoke in the back room. Feeding me a bunch of shit,(myth), neatly tucked in "truth"....

Bill Pulliam said...

JMG -- I don't think you and I really disagree on where we currently sit in the extinction/speciation cycle. We were in a relatively stable time not long after (evolutionarily speaking) a period of extinction in the late Pleistocene. There's plenty of evidence that we were, up until the 19th Century, in a period of speciation, with many widespread species showing lots of genetic variation across their ranges, and large numbers of closely-related species that appear to have only very recently diverged. It will likely all resume with whatever is left over after anthropogenic degradation and the CO2-enhanced global climate settle down again a few centuries in the future... but there's gonna be thousands more species (just of vertebrates) that probably aren't going to make it through until then.

As I recall, the glacial maxima are fairly stable, climatologically speaking, as are the interglacials, with rapid change in between. Speciation happens during the maxima as well as the interglacials, as populations isolated by deserts and ice masses differentiate. It's the rapid freeze-ups and rapid warmings that would seem to push species out of existence.

Matti Haavikko said...

With regard to the supposed peak of the total energy resources available on earth, let me quote wikipedia on the largest thermonuclear device ever tested:

"Since 50 Mt is 2.1×1017 joules, the average power produced during the entire fission-fusion process, lasting around 39 nanoseconds [citation needed], was a power of about 5.4×1024 watts or 5.4 yottawatts. This is equivalent to approximately 1% of the power output of the Sun."

Note: I'm not making any predictions about the future of the human civilization. I just don't think your theory about Fermi's paradox is valid.

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, that's roughly my take, so we're pretty much on the same page.

Matti, so what you're saying is that the biggest single burst of energy ever produced by humanity, at the peak of an age of wildly extravagant energy use, using all the resources of our technology with no regard for economics or environmental damage, barely achieved 1% of the output of a small yellow star for less than one ten-millionth of a second. I can't think of a better argument for my case.

Matti Haavikko said...

John: The two most common elements in the universe are hydrogen and stupidity. Hydrogen (fusion energy) is an excellent energy source, if we we are able to develop the required science and technology.
It may very well be that we humans are stupid enough to never develop and deploy nuclear fusion into a (nearly) infinite energy supply - and this is not central to my argument.

My comment concerns your theory about Fermi's paradox.
If I understand you correctly, you suggested that all civilizations everywhere in the galaxy would be so limited by their energy resources that they'd never be able to make the jump to other star systems. But I see a lot of hydrogen around. To me, it seems perfectly plausible that some intelligent life form, somewhere in the galaxy, should be able to master nuclear fission, thus producing enough energy for inter-stellar travel. Of course, a more-intelligent-than-us life form might also come up with far superior energy sources.

Maybe we should just accept that we don't know everything. For me, the Fermi's paradox remains unsolved.