Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Age of Salvage Societies

It’s a common bad habit of thinking these days to assume that social and economic changes are entirely a product of human decision and effort. That’s the thinking behind all the conspiracy theories that provide so popular a way to ignore ecological realities, of course, but it also pops up in plenty of other contexts, not least the enthusiastic claims from various points on the political spectrum that we can all have the better future we want if we just buckle down and get to work on it.

There are any number of problems with this easy assumption, but the one I’d like to point out just now is that, like so much of contemporary thinking, it leaves nature out of the equation. We may attempt to build any future we happen to like, but unless the earth’s remaining stock of natural resources provides the raw material that the future in question requires, we’ll find sooner or later that we’re out of luck. Furthermore, even if the future we have in mind can be made to work within the hard limits of ecological reality, the future we want will once again turn out to be a pipe dream if another form of society or economy does the same thing more effectively.

The industrial economy currently lurching toward history’s compost bin, after all, did not rise to global dominance because the people of the world agreed to make that happen. Nor did the world’s elites, if the political classes of the world’s various societies deserve that name, make that decision; of course there were cabals of industrialists who did their level best to further its spread, but there were plenty of leadership groups in other, competing societies who staked everything they had on resisting it, and failed. Industrial civilization had its day in the sun because, in a world where plenty of cheap abundant fossil fuel could be had for the digging or drilling, the industrial mode of production was more efficient than its rivals, and enabled the communities that embraced it to prosper at the expense of those that did not.

In turn, as the industrial system undercuts the environmental conditions that allow it to thrive, new forms better adapted to the new reality will elbow today’s industrialism aside and take its place. Last week’s post outlined what I believe will be the first of those new forms, a mode of industrial economy – scarcity industrialism – that pursues resource nationalism rather than the mirage of a global economy, and shifts the allocation of energy and other scarce resources from the market to the political sphere. That form is already taking shape around us in the political and energy conflicts of the present; the nations that pursue an embryonic form of scarcity industrialism are prospering accordingly, while those that remain mired in the assumptions of the age of abundance are paying the price for their unwillingness to deal with ecological reality.

As I suggested last week, though, the age of scarcity industrialism will be self-limiting, because the exploitation of nonrenewable resources that gives it its power also puts a time limit on its survival. Once those resources are gone, or depleted far enough that it stops being economical to run a society by exploiting them, another round of new social and economic forms will replace the structures of scarcity industrialism.

At this point we may just find ourselves in something like familiar territory. Archeologists around the world have learned to recognize the distinctive traces of a collapsed society, and one of these is the recycling of old structures for new uses. In the ruins of the old Mayan city of Tikal, for example, excavations have unearthed traces of the people who lived there after the classic Maya collapse. In this last, quiet afterword to the city’s history, the palaces of the lords of Tikal became the homes of a little community of farmers and hunters who scratched out a living in the remains of the city, and made their cooking fires and their simple pottery in the midst of crumbling splendor. The same thing can be found in ruined cities around the world, and science fiction authors in our own civilization have not been slow to pick up on the theme. The logic behind it, though, has not often been recognized: when a civilization breaks down, the most efficient economies are most often those that use its remains as raw material.

To understand how this works, it’s necessary to detour a bit to H.T. Odum’s useful concept of emergy, or embodied energy. Very roughly, emergy is the total amount of energy needed to produce a good or provide a service, including all the energy and material feeds that went into making the good or service available. A coffee cup sitting next to your computer, for example, embodies the energy needed to mine and process the clay, provide raw materials for the glaze and compound them, fire the kiln, and ship both the raw materials to the factory and the finished cup to you. That amount of energy is the emergy cost of the cup: without that much energy being used, you can’t have that cup – or at least you can’t get it in that way.

When energy is cheap and abundant, emergy basically doesn’t matter. The lords of Tikal didn’t have to worry much about the energy their work crews expended hauling, carving, and setting up stone stelae, any more than their equivalents today have to worry about the energy that ships coffee cups, and the coffee that fills them, halfway around the planet. On the downslope of collapse, on the other hand, emergy matters a great deal, and the single most abundant source of free emergy consists of the remains of the collapsed civilization. To the surviving people of Tikal in the aftermath of collapse, it was much more efficient to use the crumbling palaces of a bygone age for shelter, and concentrate their very limited resources on the hard work of making a living in a damaged environment, than it would have been to build their own homes somewhere on the outskirts of the ruined city.

The fantastic amounts of energy flung around so casually by the industrial societies of the world today will make this an even more viable strategy, once the resources that make industrial civilization possible go the way of Tikal’s time of glory. Steel, the most widely used metal nowadays, offers a good example. A fifty-foot steel girder in a skyscraper contains a huge amount of emergy, because the ore—these days, most likely low-grade taconite containing significantly less than 5% iron by weight—has to be mined, smelted, purified, cast, formed, and shipped thousands of miles before it gets put into place in a new building.

To use that same girder in a deindustrial age, by contrast, takes only a hacksaw to chop it into workable parts, a wagon to haul it away, and a blacksmith’s hammer, anvil, and charcoal-burning forge to transform it into nails, knives, plows, saws, firearms, and a thousand other useful things. Furthermore, the economics of metalworking in a nonindustrial society make this a very attractive proposition, since one fifty-foot girder of ordinary structural steel will keep a village blacksmith supplied with raw materials for a substantial period of time.

Now it’s true that the same village blacksmith could smelt his own raw material from bog iron – that’s the technical name for the iron sulfide deposits laid down in most temperate zone wetlands by chemosynthetic bacteria. There’s a lot of bog iron to be had, since it hasn’t been used commercially in centuries and most North American deposits away from the Atlantic coast have never been worked at all. It’s easy to smelt bog iron into workable form – people in Dark Age Europe and early colonial America did it with simple charcoal fires – and it’s also quite easy to do the same thing with rust, which is iron oxide, the standard commercially worked iron ore in the days before huge fossil fuel subsidies made it possible to use low-grade ores like taconite.

Still, the steel stocked up for the future by today’s civilization make a far more economical source. A small proportion of that consists of high-temperature alloys that require modern technology to work with, but the huge majority – girders, pipes, auto frames, sheet steel, and much more – can be forged at temperatures much lower than the ones you need for smelting ore, and yield better metal into the bargain. They will be the obvious metal source in the age of salvage that will follow the time of scarcity industrialism. Furthermore, there are billions of tons of the stuff all over what is now the industrial world, enough to keep the deindustrial cultures of the future supplied for a very long time.

Mind you, steel is only one of hundreds of raw materials that will be accessible in the ruins of today’s cities and towns. Enough people have already become aware of the amount of copper and aluminum in houses nowadays that some of the unsold subdivisions thrown up in the late housing bubble have already been stripped of their copper wiring and aluminum window frames by thieves, who sell the resulting metal at a tidy price. For that matter, I’ve suggested in one of my fictional vignettes of the deindustrial future that the tableware and other household gear left behind by industrial civilization will be abundant enough that local communities may set aside an old warehouse or two to store it, so that community members can take their pick at need. Doubtless there will be many similar habits in the age that follows ours.

Nor will all the material legacies of the industrial age take the form of raw materials. Many technologies that could not be made under deindustrial conditions will still be usable, just as many medieval cities relied for water on Roman aqueducts they themselves could not have built. A good deal depends on just how far and fast technological knowledge is lost; localities that are able to keep some kind of electrical generation capacity in working order, for example, will be in a position to use salvaged equipment that needs electricity to function. Internal combustion engines may still be viable here and there, running on biodiesel or ethanol; in a deindustrializing world, the ability to harness such technologies will likely be a potent source of economic and political power – and that all by itself will guarantee that they will be used.

Like the age of scarcity industrialism before it, though, the age of salvage will be self-limiting, because the economics that make it work also guarantee the exhaustion of the resources that make it possible. Eventually, no matter how many times they’re patched and rebuilt, the last of the Old Time machines will stop running; there will be no more overgrown storage centers and long-abandoned suburbs to strip of their appliances, and in time – though this last may take millenia – even the ruined cities of the ancients will yield up the last of their metal. Over the course of that long process of exhaustion, the ecotechnic societies of the far future will begin to take shape. Next week’s post will explore some of the issues involved in this last transition.


Robin said...

That was beautiful, simply beautiful, if there is beauty in scavenging. But perhaps salvaging is something more organized and efficient than scavanging.

Thanks for the train of thought. It would seem that many a train of social organization and function would grind to a halt as another (sere) picks up and continues on.

TheDreamer said...
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Rhisiart Gwilym said...

John Michael, you are one of the most perceptive, informative and illuminating commentators whom I know of anywhere; a true Druid far-seer. Respect and gratitude. Cofion gorau (Best remembrances), Rhisiart Gwilym

Christine Lydon said...

It is interesting to note the difference between technical knowledge and scientific knowledge. It is hard to believe that scientific knowledge might be lost, e.g. the existance of atoms, elements, bacteria, DNA, etc. We may forget how to build a circuit board or create plastic or GMOs though. Was much basic science from the Romans/Greeks lost? I think Western Europe forgot the Astronomy, but it was retained by the Arabs.

Sabretache said...


Your 'resource nationalism' is indeed a powerful emerging principle. There are interesting discussions on 'The Oil Drum' and elsewhere that seek to project its effects on the already urgent (though largely under-the-radar) phenomenon of peak oil. With an accelerating proportion of what remains of the planet's oil endowment owned/controlled by national governments, the extent to which those governments will continue to manage and exploit reserves in accordance with the principles of a globalised market is moot (assuming they can defend themselves against militarily imposed extortion of course). With clear evidence of peaking global production, the rate of global production decline is likely to translate into a much larger export decline from the producing coutries as they seek both to conserve and divert production for their own needs. The consequences for the major importers (most of the industrialized Western World) are likely to be dire - which of course is what, in a nutshell, the entire Middle Eastern imbroglio is all about.

Thanks for another cracking post

yooper said...

Another great article, in this series, John! I'm beginning to get a mental picture of your vision. Historically speaking, this might be the very best and well thought out vision of the future, I've ever encountered. In my mind's eye, it's the most logical explaination, of likely future evolutions. I do agree completely with your assessment.

However, once again, you've side step the elephant in the room and went on to the next room entirely.
Perhaps, this is you're intention and I'm beginning to see the wisdom in this...

Certainly, at this stage of the ball game, we're beyond this point.

Thanks, yooper

John Michael Greer said...

Robin, if you've ever tended a compost heap you know there's beauty in scavenging! It's anyone's guess how organized and efficient the salvage societies of the future will be; my guess is that they'll start out sloppy from the sheer volume of material, and get efficient as need drives them. But we'll see.

Dreamer, fair enough -- you're probably aware that there are quite a few other places that are similarly well placed to deal with the next few rounds of changes. Glad to hear you're learning blacksmithing; that's likely to be a major growth industry over the next few centuries.

Rhisiart, diolch yn fawr!

Christine, a huge amount of Greek and Roman scientific knowledge got lost in the fall of the Roman Empire -- the Arabs rescued what they could, but they had to put a lot of time and ingenuity into reassembling scraps. Fundamental concepts got through much more often than detailed theories, and even the concepts got scrambled -- my reading, for example, is that the "four elements" of classical science were precisely the same as what we'd call the three states of matter (solid, liquid, gaseous) plus energy. But more on this later.

Sabretache, bingo -- the age of scarcity industrialism arrived with oil's production peak in 2005; some countries, the US in particular, just haven't noticed it yet. If this country had the brains the gods gave geese, we'd be in the middle of a crash program to decrease our energy use to European levels. If the average American used only as much energy as the average German, the US would still be a net exporter of petroleum -- even thirty-odd years past peak, the US is still the world's third largest petroleum producer -- and that combined with our agricultural exports would put us in an immensely powerful position. As it is, we're basically circling the drain.

Yooper, the elephant will get his day. Actually, a book of mine on global warming should be hitting the bookstore shelves right about now. The title is Atlantis, and yes, it discusses Plato's legend and the pyramid of speculations built on top of that, but it's really about global warming. Might be worth a glance.

Ahavah B. said...

Just curious - I was wondering if you were thinking of Trantor when you wrote this article. (For non-Asimov Fans, that's the Coruscant forebear of the Foundation Series.)

Shalom and Keep up the good work.

shadowfoot said...

Another excellent post, JMG. Thank you!

We've been slowly working on stepping down in technology here, learning various useful skills over the years. Trying to move faster now, of course! I'm afraid the technologies we've mostly been working on are pre-industrial, human-powered ones, with an eye toward animal-powered ones (or at least renting the animals when needed). Although I suppose the insulated shades and homemade wall insulation are more of a modern idea/technology... some of our future projects will be including wind, solar (at least passive), possibly water, and geothermal (also passive). I'm hoping we can do at least some of these as group projects with other folks, so we can spread the know-how, at least in our area.

Some of our projects have already used pre-existing materials, and with the stuff here on the farm and some of the stuff we brought with us from our old house, we'll be using more. A greenhouse, for one.

I've learned a bit about herbal medicinals, energy work, and preventive care over the years as well, and am continuing to learn more. Fortunately I have friends who are more learned in some aspects of this than I, so I have learning resources here other than books! But I share what I know with others too -- we all have to start somewhere. Self-accupressure's another great system, which I highly recommend -- Michael Reed Gach's book, Accupressure's Potent Points is one of the best (hope I'm not repeating myself from earlier this year...). I know you'll be writing more about alternative medicine and medical care, and am looking forward to reading it.

One of the 'visions' L and I've had for years is to someday open a school of sorts. Only the classes we'll be teaching or hosting classes for are things like tai chi, gardening, herbal medicines, spinning, weaving, etc. Maybe archery, sling, trapping, and other more hunting/martial arts as well, depending on need and interest. We've done some of this over the years of course, but we plan to have dedicated spaces for this. With persistence, hard work, and help from some friends, I think we'll have something a few years down the road. Not a monastery by any means, but a place where at least some knowledge will be preserved and passed on, along with respect for nature and the balance.

No guarantee it will last through all the transitions of civilization of course, but perhaps elements of it will, and will help some folks to get further than they would otherwise.

Thanks again for sharing. Looking forward to your future posts.

Heather G

Anthony said...

Alright I'm convinced, I'm going to start reading all of your books. I obviously tend to see the bleaker side of things to come but your visions so clear and so logical that I cannot refute it (not that I was looking to).

By the way - I'm a Carleton Alum - a school with Druidic significance.


yooper said...

Thanks John, I'll certainly be looking for you're new book! Can't wait to get it!

Thanks, yooper

Danby said...

I love watching it, and to tell you the truth, I think it's easier. No imput costs, nada. You just hitch up a few horses and then ride around. Then you wait, and then you get lots of food.

Are you serious? I've been farming 10 acres with more or less success for 17 years, and let me tell you it's not like that.

No input costs? Not much in cash, no. How about in the costs associated with owning and managing horses? How about the costs of feeding horses? Granted you can grow you own, but that comes directly out of your gross production. What about associated services (veterinary, farrier, breeding)? What about implement purchase and maintenance? Harness?

And you don't just "ride around" the field. For every five fools who tried that approach, there's a successful farmer, somewhere else.

Farming takes a lot of know how, a little art, and an amazing amount of hard, physical labor. If you want to learn what it's like, get out a hoe. Now go through a 1 acre cow pasture and kill every plant in it using only the hoe. You can stop when the entire acre is clear of weeds.

Because it will NEVER be clear of weeds. Before you could get half way across the field, the spot where you started would be thicker in weeds than the part you haven't done yet. It takes 50 years of plowing and harrowing a typical Northwest field to sprout and kill all the lambs quarters seeds.

Farming, as understood in a modern sense, is the process of killing the plants you don't want so that the plants you do want wil have the resources they need to grow. Plants are so enthusiastic and vigorous that you can't let up for a minute.

I took a week off last summer to help my daughter and her family move. In that time, the potato patch, the peas and the beans were totally engulfed in weeds. To the point that you could not find the bush bean plants for all the lambs quarters, nightshade, yarrow, wild nasturtium, wild geranium, daisies, and grass that had grown amongst them.

I never did catch all the way back up with them.The peas and potatoes were pretty much done by then, but I only got about 20 more pounds of beans.

If you do blacksmithing, perhaps this analogy will make sense. Trying to farm organically with horses is no easier and no less laborious than forging with a 5-lb hammer. I might look easy to the guy watching from the road, but until you're in there swinging until it seems your arm is going to fall off and you wonder if you can even lift the hammer for another stroke, you won't even begin to understand it.

John Michael Greer said...

Ahavah, now there's a blast from the past -- I haven't cracked the cover of Asimov's Foundation trilogy in twenty years, despite being on the receiving end now and then of wisecracks about being Druidry's answer to Hari Seldon. No, I was thinking of the way that medieval people built their homes, churches, and castles with stones scavenged -- literally "dilapidated" -- from Roman ruins.

Shadowfoot, well, you know that all this stuff is on my agenda for the present and future as well, though I have my own preferences in some of those areas, of course. Networks of people who know and teach the sort of skills you've outlined will be badly needed in the years to come. More on this later.

Anthony, glad to hear it. Carleton, hmm? I'm Second Order in RDNA, among my other Druid involvements, and plan on making a pilgrimage to the Carleton oak grove one of these days.

Dan, thanks for the note of sanity. I wasn't going to attempt it -- my disputes with the neoprimitivists taught me that if somebody's going to wrap a lifestyle they've never tried in the warm fuzzy garments of romantic fantasy, there's no way you can talk them into looking at it any other way.

Ian said...

I think the speed, efficiency and organic nature of salvage would astonish you. If you'd like an example go to the lower 9th ward of the City of New Orleans. Toss a piece of an iron window box or copper tubing out onto the side walk. Start counting the minutes that go by on your fingers... you probably won't need both hands for this as a skeezy hippy with a pickup will be by to make off with the scrap. I spent about a month living there after the storm (20 months after or so) doing disaster relief work. I think for anyone interested this would be an excellent place to study the topic. After all... The world ended there.

The best way to see the future is to see where it already happenned.


TheDreamer said...
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yooper said...

Hello John, what do you think of "The Export Land Model"?

Thanks, yooper

J Rob said...

Hmmm ... just thinking of how much technology is required to make a microprocessor. Refining the silicon to nine-nines, growing large single crystals, masking / etching / implantation / etc, lots of complex chemistry, high vacuum.

And at this point, we're just sending them to the landfill when we're done with them. You'd think such a complex item would be precious. But I ramble,

John Michael Greer said...

Ian, no, I wouldn't be surprised -- there's a garage on the alley behind the house where I live that's rented by some salvagers, and they're very efficient and enterprising people. They're one of the reasons I'm optimistic about the future of our species: some of the behavioral mutations we'll need to survive are already taking place.

Dreamer, the world is full of legends, and they're all worth listening to. It's just that they aren't there to be taken literally, as statements about past or future history.

Yooper, it's precisely the Export Land model that underlies my conviction that the dominance of free markets for energy is nearly at an end. As financial incentives for petroleum exports stop working, as per the model, expect political and military incentives to replace them.

J Rob, enjoy microprocessors while you can get them. I suspect that most of us will be getting by on trailing edge technology within a decade or two, and our descendants will be back to using their own brains in place of the silicon prosthetics we use today.

yooper said...

Hello John, I was affraid you were going to say that about the Export Model.....I'll have to find out more about this....

Perhaps, I should really ramp up on last minute preparations, as the short term outlook,(the next 5 years) does not appear to be too rosey...

Certainly, our economic system would collaspe from the percentages of oil reduction, suggested from this model? Any thoughts that you might have John, would be very helpful.

Thanks, yooper

yooper said...

Hello John! Gee, I wonder what happened to all the posters, here? It seemed like they all left the room, as you started this new series...

What's even more amazing is all these people on the net,(people devoting their blogs to peak oil), who thought they had all the answers, are either cracking up or off onto other interests. Guess, it not so amazing after all.... Some people who have studied this topic (resource depletion), do tend to become disilllusional after some time.

I suppose, I went through some such metamorhhosis of some kind, to become the "sere" I am today. Naturally, this did'nt come "easy". I certainly have the "scares" to prove it.....

What endears me so much to your writting John, is that I see these same scares on you. Yet, you stand tall enough that people "rest" on you (and you're logic), as you assure them in your own way,"We'll manage, one way or another.." John, you stand alone. As I've stated before, a real gentleman.

It's just simply amazing, (to me anyway), how someone who advocates some kind of tribal thing, someone who is selling "survival food" or someone who professes to be some kind of lesbian psychiatrist, would presumely have all the answers!! Not only that, they're bold enough to write down they're name to it! Hey, wake up! Look where you people are! You're in this society! Wishing collaspe, looking for a better tomorro?... How can you be so sure just because you've "prepared" or "know something" you're going to make it? How ridiculous! How can you be so sure there is a better tomorro? I cannot see tomorro to even know if it will be better.....Certainly not in my lifetime!

Tell you what, the utopia I've found is in the here and now... I'm not waiting, to be hit like a deer frozen in the headlights. I've been "waiting" for over 35 years to be hit! Sure, I might get hit someday, however, I lived my life and loved alot, in between..

Rest assured, yooper.

John Michael Greer said...

Yooper, I figure that over the next ten years we're in for something like the Great Depression: a serious economic contraction with a lot of social disorder and political dysfunction. It's not the end of the world, though, and most of those who are willing to buckle down and make the changes necessary to survive will come through it. Then there'll be another period of relative calm and recovery before the next crisis. In your place I'd be sure I had few debts, many friends, and plenty of useful skills and tools.

As for the people who have talked themselves into believing that the far side of peak oil is going to be a good thing, well, no, it's not going to be a pretty sight. Nearly all the people I know who talk about how wonderful the world will be once the big bad bogeyman called "civilization" goes away are urban intellectuals without a trace of the skills they'll need to survive in a deindustrializing world. It's all fantasy island, with a lot of anxiety reduction probably behind it.

yooper said...

Yes, John. Perhaps, the next years will usher in the age of the Greater Depression and WWIII. In the latter half of that era, I expect this country to experience an hardship, not so different from what the first early explorers experienced. Naturally, as the resource base is contracting, so must the population, at some point. Perhaps, this winter I'll describe this scenario, much like "The Royal Flush in Spades" over at BNB. I'll likely put this up, both scenarios, on my new blog.

As I've stated before, I've been preparing pretty much my entire life and have a long list of skills in which to keep myself and family alive. You have convienced me to obtain a back-up electrical power plant and enough fuel to carry us through extended outages... To be more percise, you've convieneced me that our system may be more resilient, than what I previously thought. I am debt free and have considerable resources(non-monetary), at my disposal, natural and manmade. I'll need my neighbors more and more as you suggest, as time wanes.. I'm one lucky SOB....

As for those urban intellectual tenderfoots, all I can say is, "Good Luck!" Deal in the real world, becasue the real world is going to deal with you....

Thanks, yooper

PahaLukki said...

In the comments of a previous post you mentioned that precious metals are not so important in the post-crash world because of the lack of society to regulate the use of them.

But, if you claim we will be salvaging copper, steel and such, then can you with a straight face say that the monetary metals, gold&silver, are not so important?

Frankly, I think gold and silver are once in a lifetime opportunities or buys of the century. Actually anything of value is (tobacco, coffee, sugar, alcohol etc. would probably sell well in the coming years), since we are effectively entering an extraordinary 100 year long commodities bull market - the age of scarcity.

The more stuff you have to barter with, the less you personally have to salvage. And what better time to buy all those commodities than at the peak of human wealth and at the verge of collapse with worthless pieces of paper with numbers on them. The most bullish aspect is that the vast majority of people couldn't absolutely care less about this subject.

In any case, the bull market is already on. Food, copper, gold, silver - everything is going up and up, probably never coming back. Last call for the precious metals train.

John Michael Greer said...

Pahalukki, copper, aluminum, and steel are useful. You can make things out of them, and do things with them. There's also enough of them to matter -- millions of tons in any modern city. Gold and silver? No doubt there will always be a market for them -- people do like their pretty toys -- but people will also kill for them, as they've always done. I see no reason to put myself in a position where people will want to kill me for a bunch of soft, useless metal.

The real bull market of the next few centuries will be in skills. If your only value to the world is in things you have stockpiled, there will be a long line of people waiting to knock you off the stockpile and take it for themselves, and eventually your ammo will run out. If your value to the world consists of things you can do for other people, it's to everyone's advantage to make sure you're alive, functioning, and happy.