Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Climbing Down The Ladder

Last week’s Archdruid Report post raised the possibility that future societies might be able to maintain a relatively high level of technology without falling into the trap of relying on extravagant use of nonrenewable resources, the basis of our present industrial society. The dream of building a civilization of this sort – an ecotechnic society, to use the term I coined in that post – has been cherished by a good many people in alternative circles for years now, and not without reason.

Behind that dream lies a canny bit of philosophical strategy. Central to the rhetoric used to justify today’s social arrangements in the industrial world is a forced dichotomy between the alleged goodness of enlightened, technologically advanced industrial societies and the alleged squalor of primitive preindustrial life. Many of today’s critics of industrialism fall into the trap of accepting the dichotomy and simply reversing the value judgments, as though it’s possible to break out of a dualistic way of thinking by standing the dualism on its head.

The cleverness of the ecotechnic dream is that it breaks out of the dichotomy altogether. In the jargon of modern Druid philosophy, it turns an unresolved binary into a balanced ternary. In less technical terms, it proposes a third option that borrows many of the best qualities of the two sides of the dichotomy, and thus blows the dichotomy out of the water by widening the field of choices, not just to three but to infinity. The question stops being a matter of accepting one of two whole systems, in a choice that excludes all alternatives; it becomes a matter of picking and choosing among a dizzyingly large array of factors that go together to make up a future society.

The vision of an ecotechnic future is thus worth keeping in mind. As a plan for the near term, though, it faces extreme challenges of the sort suggested by my previous post on the succession process. In the language of ecological succession, a fully ecotechnic society is a climax community, and you can’t make the jump from pioneer weeds to climax forest in a single transition. The conditions that allow the climax forest to establish and maintain itself in the face of competition from other biotic communities haven’t been achieved yet.

This is as true in human affairs as in the development of any other biotic community. It’s as pleasant as it is popular to think that human social change is driven primarily by deliberate choice or by some other uniquely human factor, but the science of human ecology and the evidence of history – and history is simply human ecology mapped onto the dimension of time – both suggest otherwise. Industrial civilization triumphed over other forms of human society not because people agreed to make that happen, but because at the time of its emergence, in a world with untapped fossil fuel reserves, it was able to overcome the competitive pressure of other human social systems and the challenges of nature.

Industrial civilization faces collapse, in turn, because when fossil fuels are scarce and expensive, and the biosphere is undergoing drastic changes, its ability to maintain itself against the challenges of nature and competition from other, less energy- and technology-dependent human social systems is doubtful at best. The forms of human society that rise to prominence in the aftermath of industrialism, in turn, will be those that can establish and maintain themselves more effectively than their rivals in the changing world of the deindustrial age. We may have our preferences, but nature has the final say.

The conditions that would allow an ecotechnic society to establish and maintain itself are more or less those that existed before the industrial revolution broke open the treasure chest of the Earth’s stored carbon and started looting it for short-term advantage. In a world where energy resources are limited to sun, wind, water, muscle, and biomass, and all work must be accomplished by those means, those societies that evolve efficient and sustainable technologies using those resources have major survival advantages over rival societies that use them unsustainably – for a good example, compare imperial China’s 5000-year history with the death spiral that claimed the ancient Maya.

The problem ecotechnic societies of the near future face is that these conditions do not yet exist. So far, we’ve used up around half the world’s stock of petroleum, and somewhat less than half its stock of coal and natural gas. All these fuels are subject to peaks and declines in production, which means among other things that they will remain available in diminishing amounts for a long time to come. While modern industrial societies as they exist today probably can’t survive the end of constantly increasing energy supplies, the impact of peak fossil fuel production will likely drive the emergence of other forms of industrialism adapted to a world of diminishing fuel supplies – and while those supplies still exist, these neo-industrial societies will probably still be able to wield more economic and military force than ecotechnic rivals.

More broadly, many of the legacies of today’s industrial societies will continue to exist for decades or centuries into the future. These legacies represent stored energy – the energy needed to create them, and to build the material and knowledge base that made them possible – and the amount of additional energy needed to maintain and use them in many cases will be quite small compared to the stored energy contained in them; the energy needed to keep a hydroelectric plant or a computer in working order is fairly small compared to the energy they embody, or the advantages that owning and using them could confer.

It’s quite likely that for some decades or centuries, deindustrial societies that would not be able to build a hydroelectric plant or a computer could still maintain the rather less demanding knowledge and resource base needed to keep them functioning, in much the way that Dark Age communities all over Europe used and repaired Roman acqueducts they could never have built themselves. Still, much of the legacy technology inherited by the deindustrial age will not be a renewable resource; when it finally breaks down, it’s gone – for decades, or centuries, or forever.

The result is an interesting parallel to succession. In the near and middle future, as the deindustrial age unfolds, the societies that will be best able to flourish are precisely those that will be least able to survive over the long term. In the near term, societies that rely on the increasingly efficient use of the remaining fossil fuels, eked out with renewable resources and high technology, will likely do much better than either the wasteful dinosaur cultures of the present industrial period or the lower-energy cultures that will end up replacing them.

In the middle term, societies that combine sustainable subsistence strategies and economies with an effective use of the industrial age’s legacy technologies will likely do much better than the lingering fossil fuel-dependent societies they replace, or the ecotechnic societies that will replace them in turn. Only when fossil fuel production has dropped to the point that coal and oil are rare geological curiosities, and the remaining legacies of the industrial age no longer play a significant economic role, will ecotechnic societies come into their own.

It’s crucial to keep this process in mind when planning for the future. One of the great barriers in the way of the lifeboat communities imagined by so many thinkers in the peak oil community these days is that while they’re viable (at least in theory) in the future, they aren’t viable in the present. There just aren’t that many people who are in a position to chuck their industrial lifestyles, move to a rural ecovillage, and successfully support themselves there for decades while the machinery of industrial society slowly creaks and shudders to a halt around them.

In terms of the model I’ve presented here, the would-be builders of lifeboat communities are like seedlings of some climax forest species trying to grow in a piece of land still covered with pioneer weeds. The conditions that would allow them to flourish haven’t arrived yet. The last years of industrial society, and the decades of neo-industrial societies struggling to manage on declining energy reserves in an age of limits, thus form a hurdle that has to be leapt in order to build something relevant for the future.

That hurdle can be faced successfully, but it requires a different approach. Instead of trying to make the leap to an ecologically balanced, fully sustainable society all at once, it may turn out to be necessary to climb down the ladder a step at a time, adapting to changes as they happen, and trying to anticipate each step in succession in time to prepare for it, while working out the subsistence strategies and social networks of the future on a variety of smaller scales.

This approach is evolutionary rather than revolutionary – that is, it relies on incremental changes and a continuous process of experimentation rather than trying to break from the past and impose an ideal that may turn out to be no more viable that what it replaces. Among other things, this means that it can be carried out on local and even individual scales, a detail that makes it much more viable in practical terms than attempts to change society as a whole from the top down. How this process might unfold will be the subject of several future posts.

30 comments:

Aidan said...

Thanks for another thought provoking post, JMG. I take your point about the value of preempting change and 'coming down the ladder' one step at a time, but I would think that simply adapting to circumstances as they change, and keeping one's head above water would be a major achievement in itself... Can I ask you what sort of personal preparations you are making for the crises facing us?
(Aidan, Dublin, Ireland)

Robin said...

Thanks again for another phase in building / progression of thought and ideas of substance. It could well be a framework on which to build humanity's path to the future.

John Michael Greer said...

Aidan, you may indeed ask! A few years ago my spouse and I moved from a large city to a much smaller town in a relatively isolated agricultural area in Oregon state; we have a thriving organic vegetable and herb garden, and practice a wide range of low-tech crafts and practical skills.

We get by perfectly well without a car or, for that matter, most of the technological conveniences so many people see as necessities. Our Druid faith connects us to others sharing similar values, locally and on a wider scale. Once we own our own home -- we've been waiting out the housing bubble -- a great many of the appropriate tech projects I studied in detail in the 1980s are high on the agenda. There are other things in process, but I think you get the idea.

It's things like this, not massive revolutionary change but personal evolutions proceeding a step at a time, that I believe will allow many people to stay abreast of the waves of change. Above all else, it's a matter of letting go of the easy assumptions of industrial culture and adopting ways of life and thought that don't assume the easy availability of energy. Dmitri Orlov's accounts of life in Russia after the Soviet collapse are well worth reading here -- some very simple choices got a lot of people through times as harsh as the next wave of contraction in the industrial world is likely to be.

Robin, I certainly hope so. I wish more people in the peak oil community would set aside the dubious pleasures of apocalyptic prophecy and well-meant plans for social overhaul that I think everybody knows will not be adopted in time to matter, and concentrates a little more on the significant steps individuals can take in their own lives to move along the trajectory to the future. Nick Winter's book Peak Oil Prep is one good resource along these lines; my intention is to make this blog, and my forthcoming book The Long Descent, another.

Sabretache said...

Thanks for yet another inspirational post JMG ( I trust my recurring thanks are not becoming tedious {g} ).

My only real issue is with your apparent easy (trite ?) dismissal of apocalyptic thinking as a serious possibility in shaping the future. Maybe we have a difference about the definition of 'apocalyptic', but you certainly appear to be using it as a pejorative. I consider myself to be fairly up to speed with 'peak energy', population growth and environmental degradation issues. I think I am also a long-in-th-tooth realist about human nature and its capacity for the extremes of both altruism and pure evil. It seems to me that the pressures of these converging constraints, together with flawed human nature hold the very real prospect of something close to an apocalypse (in terms of what Western civilisation has come to define as its birthright anyway) before a saner form of civilisation has any real propect of replacing it. I'm thinking here about the near unimaginable destructive power of modern weaponry together with its control being near exclusively in the hands of an aggressive expansionist controlling Empire (The USA and its allies) and a few 'enemies' that also subscribe to the paradigm of perpetual 'progress/growth etc. Short of the sort of revolution that I cannot presently discern as a possiblity, that empire is likely to use all the means at its disposal to expand and maintain hegemony over the entire planet. It is that simple fact that I regard as potentially apocalyptic.

As Richard Heiberg pointed out in that excellent video production 'Oil Smoke and Mirrors', serious progressive shortages of oil are unlikely to be presented by governments as being due to geologically inevitable depletion, but rather the fault of this or that 'wicked' (by definition) regime that denies us access to what is rightfully ours. After all war is good for business.

Your vision and prescription are both admirable, but I fear that humanity will face something very close to apocalyptic change before any consensus on a saner sustainable future for the planet emerges.

I hope I am wrong.

SCM said...

Greetings from down-under JMG. I enjoy your posts enormously and this one was no exception.

After going through the obligatory 'slough of despond' associated with discovering peak oil I eventually came to conclusions not unlike yours that useful change was more likely to be evolutionary. I think the desire to head-for-the-gills or to lifeboat communities is quite natural and instinctive in nature but as you have observed, not really suited to where we are at right now.

One of our local prominent peak oil thinkers here is permaculturalist David Holmgren. He has written interesting articles on "retrofitting the suburbs for sustainability" which describes such an evolutionary approach to energy descent in a typical Australian suburban setting - eg work with what we have and slowly adapt.

Nnonnth said...

It seems to me that medicine is such an important issue as well, one I'm sure that your forthcoming book will cover.

The various examples of what are called 'alternative therapy' in the healing profession having galloped ahead in terms of effectiveness recently. I'm certain that as a druid you have a strong connection with the medicinal value of the things that you are growing in that garden of course.

When I see techniques such as this one: (NB I can't work out how to leave links in comments properly sorry!)

http://www.robertamittman.com/jmt/articles/jmtarthritis.html

... it makes me feel that there is a certain amount of 'snatching the time and energy we have left' to be done, because communications are such a vital issue here. At the moment, anybody with a good new technique can tell everyone about it, but it won't always be so.

Every person working with these methodologies in a research mode can be making the the next 1,000 years alot easier, not just the present day.

I'd encourage anyone involved in health to 'think peak', that is, do the research, but work out how each methodology can be used worldwide perpetually when someone is trained in it and has to practice it on the ground without the kind of support systems we have now. Then the health technology becomes sustainable. At the moment it not only is not sustainable, it is not awfully healthy either IMHO!

The issue is that as energy goes down research will become harder. I do hope that resources will continue to be available for study of these methods if they can be shown to promise what I might call 'medical sustainability', that is, effective treatment that works past the date when the giant chemical factories that currently provide the raw materials for healing have shut down.

We do have advantages over those civilizations that have previously experienced declines of this kind, and this is one of them if we can get our butts in gear for it. We still have the capability to organize this quite easily on a very large scale.

Anthony said...

As well as Sabretach's concerns I will also point out that if James Lovelock is right then we may fall quickly down the slope and return to some form of "hunter-gather" near the poles.

Your scenario posits that a great deal more coal, oil, shale and other carbon emitting resources will have to be used up. If the theory of global warming is correct (and recent news reports about ice levels at the North Pole and the continued destruction of the Amazon Rainforest seem to support it) then all that carbon will continue the warming process to possibly disasterous (dare I say apocalyptic?) results.

A

LizM said...

JMG,

Fine post as always. I think the forest analogy is apt, but I'm sure you could also wring some profitable metaphors from species adaptation (and perhaps you have, I forget). It is not, after all, the big, energy hungry creatures -- i.e. those able to take more of what they want and hunt and graze more effectively -- who survive change. Especially in instances of rapid change, it is often the ones who need less or least that get by, or those who have made adaptations to their locality and circumstance. And that adaptation quite often begins with an individual animal.

John Michael Greer said...

Sabretache, we do indeed have a difference of definition around the word "apocalyptic." I'm using it in its technical sense, as a term for the sort of belief system in which history comes to a full stop, as in the apocalyptic dimension of Christian faith. As I've pointed out elsewhere in this blog, apocalyptic ideas from religious sources have had their serial numbers filed off by a wide range of secular ideologies over the last few centuries; mind you, they're still essentially faith-based, and fill the same emotional needs.

A lot of people these days have come to use the word "apocalyptic" to mean simply "very, very bad." If that's the definition you're using, I won't argue your point. While my take on the future envisions a lot of localized disasters rather than one big one, that doesn't mean it's going to be an easy ride. I expect to see cities, regions, and some nations fall off the map. There will be plenty of hunger, disease, impoverishment, warfare, and violence; in the final years of a civilization, these are givens. The important point, though, is that there are also possibilities for constructive change.

Scm, to my way of thinking Holmgren has the right idea, or one of the right ideas. As Ernest Thompson Seton used to say, it's a matter of where you are, with what you have, right now.

Nnonth, expect to see much more on this in future posts. One of the advantages of alternative medicine is that nearly every form of it uses fewer resources and less energy than conventional western medicine.

Anthony, two decades ago Lovelock was insisting that life on Earth would be extinct in a few thousand years because Gaia's capacity to buffer temperature changes was almost used up. Turned out the biosphere had several additional temperature-regulating cycles he hadn't noticed. He's always had a penchant for extreme theories, and the claim you cite is one of them. Look up the geological data and you'll find that at many points in Earth's history, CO2 levels and global temperatures have been much higher than they are today, without making most of the planet uninhabitable.

Does that mean we have nothing to worry about? Of course not. A few centuries from now, if things go very badly wrong, the Earth's land surface could be half the size it is today due to a 300' rise in sea level, and most of the planet could be transitioning to tropical and subtropical jungle, the way it was in the Mesozoic. That's going to involve drastic changes, and those on top of the other dimensions of the crisis of industrial society won't leave much left of today's civilization. This is why incremental change needs to start now, while there's time (as Nnonth points out) to draw on today's knowledge base.

guamanian said...

I second scm's comment on David Holmgren as a thinker to pay attention to: His "Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainablity" has a permanent place on my bookshelf.

JMG, I've noticed that you essentially dismiss the quick climate collapse scenario that is both becoming popular and is gaining a measure of credence based on recent evidence. (Order-of-magnitude-faster processes than the IPCC has anticipated, breaking news from the arctic icepack, and accelerated rates of carbon and methane release the past couple of years.)

Your view is more in line with the consensus IPCC reports, and of course is well supported by the evidence you cite. I'm not so sanguine, and tend to agree with what I read as Anthony's point that the 'Lovelock Death Spiral' scenario is technically possible, and might play out, given just enough bad luck.

However... somewhat counterintuitively, just because the scenario is possible does not make it worth planning for. Since the very-worst-case, (already past the tipping point and headed to Venus) climate scenario is not really actionable, spending time arguing back and forth about it is sort of like dinosaurs writing position papers on the KT meteor impact. A pastime, not a response, since within the scenario no response is realistically possible.

I find it much better to focus on the moderate-to-grim scenarios that also have good supporting evidence, and that ARE actionable. And in this zone where the likely meets the doable, I always find your posts to be very valuable resources.

Jean-Michel said...

JMG, good post (in its own category).

You know already the objections, that some of your readers share, so it is useless to go over it again.

Tonight, I just want to say I feel numb. I have a rough idea of the future. It is dark, tough and uncertain. Those who will survive must have a strong purpose. Amost everybody will see uncountably many people die or refugees walking aimlessly along roads if not one of them, like the ones I saw this morning (third world refugees trying to cross the channel to England). Believe me, when you approach them, you realize they do not tell us everything about the world on TV. They do not tell us about the ultimate poverty and destitution that's in there.

Tomorrow they will be in the millions.

Sometimes, I drive (sorry!) to Wissant on the coast, from where you can have a superb view of the so-called "straight of Dover" and of England. That's where "only" 20 miles to swim or sail separates the European continent from the UK.
The floodbarriers of Wissant have been recently heavily damaged by the gigantic erosion that global warming and see level changes put into motion.

One day, refugees might be crowding up there, escaping the infernal heat of southern Europe and hoping to get to England.

Even with an organic garden and a well equipped little house, it is hard to believe that somebody can make it all-along on his own or within a small isolated community. He would be too vulnerable to large scale migrations.

Maybe possible in mountains? Or places where it is hard to get?

I still believe that, independently of the particular view that one holds about the future, to stay in a small or medium size city where there are potential sources of renewable energy and plenty of water, while trying to get local people on-board is a workable option in the near term. It is reminiscent of what Kurt Cobb has discussed in many posts. It builds up confidence. That's what we need.

The only problem is that if sea level change is more that 60 cm (maybe much less) I will become a refugee. My daughter is urging me to move before it happens...

John Michael Greer said...

Lizm, there's plenty more to come on the succession theme, so you may not be disappointed.

Guamanian, you've hit the nail squarely on the head. The problem with the extreme scenarios is precisely that they leave no room for action -- which I sometimes, in my less charitable moods, think is their point. If there's nothing we can do, then there's no pressure to do anything: eat, drink, and burn petroleum, for tomorrow we will die!

Jean-Michel, I don't disagree with any of the things in your latest comment; it's going to be a rough ride, and a lot of people won't make it. My house and garden are in a city of 20,000 people in a mountain valley 300 miles and a sizable mountain range from the nearest large population center, and 2000 feet above sea level. There are equivalent places in Europe, and if 60 cm would put you underwater, I'd encourage you to consider moving to one of them.

Nnonnth said...

>>This is why incremental change needs to start now, while there's time (as Nnonnth points out) to draw on today's knowledge base.<<

... and I would add, today's communications base too.

Talking to one another like this won't be possible forever!

Rock said...

Your recent posts have been excellent, offering a well thought out scenario for the coming changes. I would just like to point out that the term "ecotechnic society" was not first coined in last week's post- it has been in use for decades among European progressives. Indeed, there are research programmes in "ekoteknik" at several European universities, with the goal of developing/rediscovering/diffusing ways of (re)integrating human society with the natural forces and flows. Even wikipedia has a (lame) page on "ecotechnics" http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ecotechnics . Anyway, keep up the good work.

Weaseldog said...

Everyone should move to your place John! :)

When I was a kid and East Texas was sparsely settled, I remember how the smell of bacon frying would waft for miles through the woods in the early morning breeze.

I understand your viewpoint, but I live in the D/FW Metroplex. There are over five million people here. When I was a kid we had less than a million. Many of these people settled here from other places. When times get hard, I expect a lot of the will move to areas with a more idyllic setting and the promise of work and food.

Simply the rumor that a town has better accommodations might be enough to bring a flood of hungry people.

We should focus on making rational decisions while remaining aware that our government and neighbors are unlikely to do the same.

Seingalt said...

Excellent essay.

My only disagreement is with your notion that other ways of living will defeat industrial society in some sort of competition.

To me, this is similar to saying other people in a community defeated one among their number who committed suicide, or died in a self-caused accident.

jmullee said...

@aidan:
buy a little bit of land; now that the prices are falling, you can get a 2-bed ruin on an acre or two in leitrim for €80k.

Learn to grow food.

Investment time/money in skills, perhaps only these will hold thier value.

Vegetables, chickens, donkey and cart, DIY medicine, woodwork, smithing, charcoal making, whatver grabs your fancy.

See if you can own land outright within as short a time as possible - laws could well change v-a-v bankrupcy like in the US, where a form of indentured servitude awaits debtors.

Skills will be the new money.

The Unit of Human Survival is the Community.

pop in to cultivate in Temple Bar for more.
http://www.cultivate.ie/
.. and Save TARA ;)
http://www.savetara.com/

yooper said...

Hello John!

My Mother came to visit again, the first visit since last spring, when I mentioned this on another site. She traveled a long way to get here..... She's now 87 years old and wise beyond her years.

After discussing economics and other family members financial matters, it soon became apparent to her, that my view, was that times are never going to, "get better". That the situation is very likely to only worsen, over time...

Please bear with me, as this message, is for everyone reading this post...

I shown my Mother, the Paul Chefurka site. This can be found at, http:/www.paulchefurka.ca/Population.html.
Quickly scrolling down to the excess deaths chart, and explaining this to her, she turned to me, and told me that she'll have some "business" to attend to. Then, "What shall I do?".... My answer to her, was the hardest one I've ever made. My answer was, "You must die before this date"...pointing on the screen a
specific year.... I love, my Mother as much as any son could love their mother!

Really, the only thing I'm an expert on, is telling people they're going to die.... Sad as it may be...

To put this into prospective, readers, must know of my education... For years I've, pissed and moaned, about this, why me? Why did I learn so throughly theories of resource depletion? Why so young? Gee, I was in Junior High, when it started for Christ's sake! My education was chosen for me... For years, I wondered, how could this be revelant? How could I possibably make a difference? I dared not, to ever mention this to my folks or anyone! This was and is today, a boarderline of anyone's wildest imagination. So, when my own Mother recalled, "Yes, this, (my education) really upset you, at the time"..I do take that with a little more than a grain of salt. Perhaps, today, I've matured enough to finally appreciate, what I have learned....

Since, I got this little lap-top, I've been searching the world over, for someone, anyone who has a similiar education as I have. I've found this person, in John Micheal Greer. I knew it, just as soon, as he started posting on another site, perhaps. You see, it becomes quickly apparent, to see one who has been there, when you've been there youself......

Thanks, yooper.

Joel said...

Have you heard of the Ripple protocol? It's basically a blueprint for a financial system, one rung down.

The FAQ even speaks of succession, though not in so many words:

Q: Money is evil. People should learn to give as generously as they can and take only as they need without an obsessive need to keep score all the time.

A: That would be nice, and hopefully Ripple can contribute in some small way towards us realizing that money is not about power, but about community. But Ripple is a practical solution, not a utopian one. Like any system, its success will depend on the participants. Ripple provides an opportunity for those who feel ready to escape the clutches of the institutional economy to do so, but it depends heavily on participants valuing their human relationships over short-term material gain. It won't work for everyone.

yooper said...

John, as we "climb down the ladder", could it be as unbelieveable as we might imagine it would be for those who have proceeded us to see how we have progressed today? Just a thought..

Thanks, yooper

Revolution KTF said...

Hello to those of you that are reading this. There seems to be an argument popular here about an apocalyptic time. To be honest I'd have to say that it can be mathematically proven and I'm currently writing a book about it. Having said that there's no point in getting in to the details here because I've been doing all too much of that the last few years.

What I would like to get in to is that out of chaos comes order. Or is it the other way around? - Well in our case it will be the former. The world as we know it will become an amazing place for humans to live; well the ones that survive anyway. The truth is that although a lot of you seem to think the use of technology will eventually taper off, I think that it's another thing that can be proven mathematically. I'm not talking in an abstract sense here either, because the variables involved in the calculations allows for open system fundamentals (I know that's a catch-22 in and of itself but more will come later).

Basically what I'd like to drive across is that there is hope to a bright future no matter how everything seems today. For those of us that care we can do a lot with our knowledge. A revolution will inevitably be upon us regardless of what anyone does at this point due to the lack of distractions available to the current 'controllers.' That is a simple one sentence summary, but of course it is far more complex than this.
There are a lot of things in this world that are open for debate. A lot of them though, unfrortunately, have more to do with when then what. Certain things due to actions that have been set in motion and have too much momentum to stop on their own, will create a temporary world that is completely erratic. I actually use to believe that people in power knew what they were doing. Now I actually am starting to see that 'sin' is actually blinders for humanity. Whoever wrote about sins originally knew about human nature far more in depth than the majority of us know today; of this I'm sure. They may not have known the scientific explanations, but they understood the effects and knew how to account for them. That's all one needs in order to write a doomsday book. Hey - Isn't that the bible?

John Michael Greer said...

Nnonth, an excellent point.

Rock, thanks for the heads up! I hadn't encountered the term before, but it's an obvious coinage.

Weaseldog, as America slides down the slope of deindustrialization, it's more likely that population will shift the other way, toward big urban areas with jobs. Look at the sprawling cities of today's third world countries for a preview of our future.

Seingalt, I'm using "competition" in the Darwinian sense of the word here. If two species try to occupy the same ecological niche, one of them is going to lose out one way or another. In the same way, industrial society elbowed a number of other social "species" out of the way in its rise to dominance, and other "species" of society will replace it once the environmental conditions that made its dominance possible go away. That's all I'm implying by the word.

Jmullee, all good advice.

Yooper, I know a number of elderly people whose working plan is to die before things get really bad. I think more people are aware of the situation than are willing to admit to the fact.

Joel, no, I hadn't. My own guess is that the next economy will evolve rather than being designed, but we'll see.

Revolution, plenty of people claim that they can calculate the future precisely in advance. I find this improbable, since the mathematics always rest on some set of assumptions that are assumed rather than proven: garbage in, garbage out. This is why I talk in terms of the most probable future, rather than claiming certainty.

As for the Bible, well, for those of us outside the Abrahamic faiths it doesn't make a lot of sense to insist that a collection of folk tales from a minor Middle Eastern kingdom 3000 years ago, combined with some of the internal documents of a new religious movement from the early Roman Empire, are any more relevant than any other collection of folk tales or accounts of personal religious experiences. If it makes sense of the world to you, though, by all means use it.

Panidaho said...

Learn to grow food.

Investment time/money in skills, perhaps only these will hold thier value.


I agree. You can lose your job, your home, your food stash and your tools, but it's much harder to lose what you've got stored up in your head!

Jean-Michel said...

Do you mind, JMG, if I comment on what "revolution" said and your reaction?

It is a good example of the limitations of language as regards reality description.

General semantics is an interesting field of study if one wants to understand the relationship between the Moon and the finger pointing at it. Expressed like that, the difference seems obvious, but in reality, we are always victim of confusions.

Two examples:

1) Mathematically proven? Well mathematics is only a "finger".JMG you are right.

2) The Bible? Again, it is only a finger. It must be understood and criticized on this basis only. Unfortunately, neither "revolution" or you seem to realize it. Or, this is maybe what you mean, JMG, when you say: "if it makes sense to you, use it".

More generally, we all have a "chart" of the future. But the chart is not the territory. This is a lesson for everybody, because at this stage I think no one has a full picture. That's why we debate on this forum section.

As for "sin", I believe it points indeed to a fundamental problem for mankind.

"Sin" is "separation", a concept that, JMG,you should be familiar with.

As you know, the word "religion" comes from the latin words religare or religere (no one knows exactly), but both terms indicates the idea of "link" with the cosmos or between individuals.

Our current belief system leads to chaos and mayhem. It could bring us back to a "re-connection" and a "new order" for the survivors.

That's currently my main source of hope for the future. JMG, you called it "super-natural", I believe it corresponds to one of the most fundamental laws of the Universe (that "aliens" must know if they do exist). It has to do with the evacuation of entropy. I don' t believe in "magic". But I do believe in "connection", through the "Spirit", to use a word easy to understand, which helps us to act and to think in a way that is good for us and our surroundings.(It would explain why "aliens" are almost invisible, because direct interference into our society would destroy it right away).

It has to do with personnal responsability.

So, again, JMG, it seems that we previously argued about fingers, and not about the "Moon", when you opposed a sense of "responsability" and a sense of "supernatural".

It is not a kind of "Harry Potter" thing!

RAS said...

Hey JMG,

Good post. My definition of apocalypse is along the same lines as that of Sabretache, which is where that disagreement comes in.

As far as climbing down the ladder is concerned, have you ever read Anne McCaffery's Pern series? It's a science fiction series set on a fictional planet and unfolds over nearly 3 millenia.

I bring it up because she does an excellant job, especially in the novels set in the early days of the colony, of showing how the colony gradually lost its technical base and "climbed down the ladder" as it were. It seems to me that illustration has good parallels to how our real society may slide down the same slope.

John Michael Greer said...

Panidaho, you can expect to hear much more on that same theme in the months to come!

Jean-Michel, I don't "believe in" magic either -- I practice it. But then, like most Druids, I don't see it as something supernatural, and I see the laws of nature as the ways of Spirit, to borrow the terms you've suggested. Of course you're right about the finger and the moon, but not all fingers are pointing at the same moon.

RAS, now there's a blast from the past. I read the Pern novels, along with just about all the other science fiction I could find, back in my teen years. I haven't read the later books, which IIRC are the ones that deal with the early days of the colony; my taste for science fiction isn't what it once was. Unfortunately we can't count on an assortment of multicolored dragons to help us out in the present predicament -- not even a fire lizard or two?

Weaseldog said...

"Look at the sprawling cities of today's third world countries for a preview of our future." - JMG

Without oil and salt fertilizers, I don't believe these examples count as a harbinger of the future.

I like your arguments, but I still don't believe that examples from the Age of Petroleum are going to give us a good indication of what lies in store for us as we depart the Age of Petroleum.

I believe that the things that you write about are possible. But I have no reason to believe they are probable. Just as I believe it is technically possible to establish a moon base, I believe that it will not happen.

All of the examples I know of, of a geographically trapped population surviving their own resource depletion, are the stuff of nightmares.

What we have done is not fundamentally any different than what occurred on Easter Island. All that really differs is the scale at which we have repeated their mistake. We have repeated their experiment, on the scale of a planet.

Technology is simply the use of tools through the consumption of energy. There is no technology that does not advance entropy when used. Energy is our primary constraint. As our energy availability declines, groups will work and fight to accumulate it to maintain the highest lifestyle they can and to support their offspring. They will have to deny others the use of available energy.

Look at the infighting now over the wars and S-CHIP. Bush's power base will let nothing stand in their way of concentrating energy and power to direct for their own uses. And they are no using it to invest in the future. If they lose a grip on this, still another group will wage war to capture the remaining energy supplies. War will continue where the last oilfields are until no one can pump it.

The rest of us will be stripped of wealth, taxed, put to work and abandoned when we can't be used anymore. We will not be allowed to make significant plans for a peaceable downturn as the resources needed can be used by others to capture more resources.

We are in the post climax phase and the carrion feeders are becoming the ruling class. This will not change until all of the fossil fuels are depleted, or made unavailable through war.

Generations in the distant future will use technology as it won't die. But it will revert back to the simplest forms. It will consist of things that can be made by human hands and the power of water and charcoal. Some electronics will survive, but I doubt it will be made of integrated circuits and computer chips. It is more likely to be cat whiskers and hand made transistors.

This doesn't mean that we should try. A low energy lifestyle will make a person less of a target. It will improve one's odds as things make a turn for the worse.

And so what if we are seeing the cusp of man's technological achievements? This is our place on the Great Mandela. Someone had to be here.

yooper said...

Excellent post! jean-michael, you bring up some excellent points! I've some "pratice" at pointing the finger..That's why I'd like to remain anonymous.

To acutally believe in what, I'm pointing to, is up to the eye of the beholder. Like you suggested,"It's their responsibility, to find out for themselves whether or not it's "real".

I don't believe in magic, either. What I was referring to when I offered to show JMG some "magic", was a possible "connection" to a spirit world. As I point my finger in the direction, can he "see it"?


To very, very few people is this spiritual world reavled. Perhaps your right it takes a connection with the "Spirit", in order to do so...I don't know...

Rest assured though, that of the people who can transcend, or this realm is revealed to them, ALWAYS walk away seeing this world under a new light.....And perhaps, a possible connection to the new world to come...

Thanks, yooper

RAS said...

JMG, don't I wish! I've always had a love of sci-fi and fantasy (though I must admit to much preferrring fantasy). I've been rereading some of the later books in my "spare" time, so they've been on my mind.

One thing I thing might help us through this predicament, and this is where "lifeboat" communitites might come in handy, is repositories of knowledge and learning, such as the monastaries in the middle ages, to help keep knowledge from becoming lost during the transition/dark age that will probably happen.

Joel said...

The Ripple monetary system isn't an economy, just a way of transfering wealth, negotiating credit and accounting for debt.

Such systems have been designed for quite some time now, even though the economy in general has evolved.