Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Politics of Transition

One of the things most lacking in the political and social thought of the industrial world in the last century, it seems to me, is a sense of process. Pick an ideology, any ideology, as close to the mainstream or far out on the fringe as you like, and you’re much more likely than not to find its proponents fixated on the form of society they want to see, rather than paying attention to how society will get there, or for that matter what it will do next.

The sense of society unfolding through time in an organic process, central to the thought of such social philosophers as Edmund Burke and enshrined in the elegant balances of the American constitution, finds few supporters these days. Even the time-release Utopia of Karl Marx, which envisioned communism rising out of socialism by the continued workings of the dialectical process, has gone out of fashion. Nowadays we’re not willing to wait for organic process or the withering away of the state, nor do we want to think about what comes after we get what we want. We want our perfect society handed over pronto in nice disposable bags by the clerk at the drive-up window, hold the pickles and away we go.

This rejection of process has probably done more than anything else to keep the social change movements of the last few decades from achieving most of their goals. In the same way and for the same reasons, trying to force an ecotechnic society into existence in the next twenty years, say, is a recipe for failure. As I’ve suggested in previous posts, the form of economy and society that succeeds best under any given set of environmental conditions depends much more on those conditions, and the way they interact with the resources and technology available at the time, than on deliberate choices by human beings. Ecotechnic societies will emerge and prosper only when the interactions between humanity and environment favor them above other options.

What this means in practice is that as long as fossil fuels are still available in significant amounts, scarcity industrialism or something like it will be more successful. As long as raw materials and surviving technologies from the industrial age are available in significant amounts, salvage societies will be more successful. Only when the resources available to human societies are once again limited to what the earth provides renewably will ecotechnic societies – human cultures supporting a high technology on a sustainable basis – be the most successful option.

Two other factors combine with the pressure of environmental factors to make the transition to ecotechnic societies a slow one. First of all, nobody alive today knows what a truly sustainable technological society would look like, much less how to build one. The only form of technic society we’ve yet seen is the industrialism of the last 300 years, and nearly everything that makes that latter system work will be going away as the age of cheap abundant energy draws to an end. The Long Descent ahead of us is, among other things, an opportunity for social evolution, in which various populations will try out many different forms of technical, economic, and social organization, some of which will turn out to be more successful than others. Out of that process will evolve the successful ecotechnic forms of the far future.

The other side of the problem is political, of course. A great many people in the peak oil scene are fond of the common superstition that all political power rests in the hands of a sinister elite – you’ll note that elites in contemporary folklore are always sinister, like witches and stepmothers in early modern folk tales – who are personally responsible for everything wrong with the world. This is a great way for middle class intellectuals to avoid noticing the extent to which they participate in, and profit from, a system they claim to oppose, but as a tool for understanding power relationships within society it has precisely nothing to recommend it. Rather, modern industrial society can best be seen as a diverse collection of power centers, each with its own base of support, striving to build its strength, make alliances, and exert influence over the creaking machineries of government, society and economy.

Most of the time the result of this diffusion of power is inertia, but there are two factors that can overcome that. The first of these is that a charismatic leader (Franklin Delano Roosevelt, for instance, or Ronald Reagan) or a persuasive group with a plan (liberals in the early 1960s, or neoconservatives in the late 1990s) can attract enough support from the various power centers to force through change. The second is that a leader who isn’t charismatic enough (Huey Long, say, or Jimmy Carter) or a group that isn’t persuasive enough (conservatives in the Goldwater era, say, or radicals in the 1980s and 1990s) but who threaten the status quo, can cause the power centers to unite against them in an effort to preserve their own autonomy.

Now it’s possible that the peak oil movement might find a charismatic leader or present a plan so persuasive that it can overcome the automatic veto of industrial society’s built-in inertia. So far, though, it shows no signs of doing either one. Instead, radicals on all sides of the political continuum have started to redefine their own pet projects as responses to peak oil. I’ve noted before on this blog the way that the straightforwardly neofascist British National Party and its would-be f├╝hrer, Nick Griffin, have embraced peak oil as the factor they hope will catapult them into power. Equally, though, you can hear any number of people on the far left insisting with equal vigor that the only thing that can save the world from a dire fate is the immediate adoption of whatever their preferred system of society happens to be.

This is where the blindness to process becomes an insuperable barrier. Nearly all of the plans floated by the radicals of left and right alike have certain key features in common. They require that every group that currently holds power in society should become subordinate to the plan, which in practice, of course, means their subordination to the people who will be implementing and managing the plan. The plans also require a complete break with the past, and the imposition of a new system in which all the ground rules have been changed to benefit the new holders of power. The power centers that make up industrial society can be counted on to resist demands like these with all their considerable strength.

Nor are they necessarily wrong to do so. The success rate for novel social, economic, and political programs crafted by politically radical intellectuals is, to put things mildly, not good. As the sorry history of Marxism demonstrated with great force, the fact that a writer can level a powerful critique at an existing system does not mean that the same writer has a working replacement for it – as a popular saying in Russia these days has it, “everything Marx said about communism was false, but everything he said about capitalism was true” – and the fact that a proposed replacement looks good on paper does not prove that it will work well in practice. At a time when society will be experiencing drastic strains and many people will be struggling to make ends meet, betting survival on an untested system may not be the best option.

Does this mean that reform is out of the question? Of course not. Significant reforms are going to be needed as the age of cheap abundant fossil fuels comes to an end. Here in America, in particular, a window of opportunity is likely to open in the next five years or so, for reasons that follow from the points already made here.

In the late 1990s, as I’ve suggested above, the neoconservative movement in America became the most recent example of a persuasive group with a plan that managed to unite a great many power centers behind it. It’s been argued, and I think correctly, that the plan in question was a response to the imminent arrival of peak oil, drawn up hurriedly after the final failure of the Reagan-era decision to let the free market come up with a replacement for America’s oil reserves. The neoconservative plan envisioned an American military occupation of the oil-rich nations of the Middle East, starting with Iraq, under the threadbare rhetorical cloak of “spreading democracy.” History will not be kind to them; their plan was badly conceived and ineptly carried out, its long-term goals are now definitively out of reach, and at this point the entire scheme – along with the US military and economic presence in the Middle East – stands on the brink of catastrophic failure.

Whether or not that happens, the neoconservative consensus that currently unites both major American parties (and their equivalents in Britain, Australia, and other close US allies) is already beginning to splinter. The attraction of that consensus was simply that no one else had a proposal in hand that would allow the United States to cling to its precarious position as the world’s dominant power. The neoconservative debacle, with its likely consequences in the military, political and economic realms, will force a shift in priorities to the raw necessities of national survival, and in this setting a coherent plan focusing on conservation, renewable energy, economic and agricultural disintermediation, and the rebuilding of America’s rail network and canal systems could easily win a great deal of support.

Will such a program bring on the ecotechnic age? Of course not, nor will it prevent the end of industrial society. What it would do is cushion the coming of the deindustrial age, allow a good many more people to have something approaching quality of life in the decades to come, and build foundations on which future generations can build further. That is to say, it focuses on the process of managing the Long Descent, rather than trying to impose an arbitrary shape on the societies that will come after it.

There are other steps of the same kind, less dependent on the cooperation of government, that will also be worth putting into effect as the transition out of the Age of Abundance begins. We’ll be talking about them in the next few posts.

44 comments:

Smith Mill Creek Notes said...

Related to process, I'd like to put in a plug for a book called Doing Democracy: the Movement Action Plan Guide to Organizing Social Movements, by the late Bill Moyer, a management systems engineer turned clergyman turned activist (not the PBS guy).

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Moyer

The book is published by the The book is published by the New Society Press, the publisher of your upcoming book, and those of Sharon Astyk and Richard Heinberg. In fact, NSP was formed to publish his first book, with three others who co-founded the Movement for A New Society.

The book analyzes the stages of social movements (Abolitionism, woman's suffrage, the Civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movements, and others).

It charts the stages movements go through, and some common roles that folks play (rebel, reformer, etc). One of his biggest insights is that things look darkest and most hopeless shortly before success (Vietnam War in 1971; anti-nuclear weapons movement in 1987).


Along with Ella Baker and Bob Swann, he gets much less credit than he deserves (he played a key role in diffusing nonviolence training in the 70's among other things).

Folks can buy the book used online for $6, and preview parts of it at

books.google.com
Doing Democracy

Joel said...

It would be interesting to see a candidate with that kind of platform in this election.

There's still time, despite the early start that so many have had.

david lemire said...

John,
Unfortunately, the refoms you list in your post are exactly the type of changes that those occupying the power centers of American life are bound to resist. To relocalize agriculture, to rebuild canals and rails etc. would redistribute power. The future of America will more likely be a combination of authoritarianism, fake reforms to evoke the image (though not the substance) of the New Deal, and outright failure and abandonment (as in New Orleans right after Katrina). It's too bad.

John Michael Greer said...

Smith Mill, that's certainly one set of process skills that can be useful in the times approaching us, though I suspect others will be much more useful. Thanks for the reference, though!

Joel, I don't see any chance of a platform like this getting the least attention before the 2012 election. Both parties and most of the US political class are committed to trying to make the neocon strategy work; they know that if it doesn't, the [ahem] is going to hit the fan in a very big way here in the US, and they're not willing to see the US shed its empire. It's too bad, because the fall of that empire is a foregone conclusion and they could gain much by following the British model and accepting the inevitable.

Still, as I see it, it's when Iraq has been divided into Iranian and Turkish spheres of influence, the dollar is worth about 20 yen, and the US has had to default on its foreign debt and live on its own fossil fuel resources exclusively that the sort of platform I've outlined may have its chance.

David, I'd encourage you to read a bit more economic history. The railroads and canal system in their time were major factors in economic centralization; if anything, they favor that much more than a diffuse transportation network dominated by trucking, of the sort we have today.

More generally, though, you're taking too stereotyped a view of power centers. There are regional as well as national power blocs, and entire industries that would gain massively from a shift toward disintermediation in farming and manufacture. It's exactly the diversity of opinion and interest among power centers that gets lost in contemporary fantasies about elite rule -- and in the process, people interested in constructive social change throw away what could be some of their best assets.

Aidan said...

John, thanks for another thought-provoking post. One question that does spring to mind, however: does the depletion of fossil fuels not raise the possibility of a low tech sustainable future, rather than a high-tech one?

Nnonnth said...

What is beautiful about this post JMG is its petard-hoisting element. Blindness to process is not only what makes inept solutions, it is also what makes the problem. The attempt to ignore natural process and subvert it, reschematize it, design it out, replace its wisdom with our own - all of this is the system which is on the way out now.

Those who have been brought up in the system don't often realize this. Their very thinking is of the system - how can we redesign the system, subvert, change, alter, force, impose on the system the necessary correction? But subverting and altering and changing and imposing are the problems, roughly and arbitrarily banging in a new format for everything.

It is as if one were to try and fill in a deep pit one were stuck in, using earth dug from the bottom of it.

What your perspective adds is that, even in the change, there is no rush. We are in a society where that kind of unaware engineering mentality is normal and even valuable, and only gradually will its value fall off, even the replacement of it with something more aware is a natural and gradual process to be respected.

tRB said...

John,

Your comment that "nobody alive today knows what a truly sustainable technological society would look like, much less how to build one" got me thinking.

In your view, are the "viridian design" people starting the process of R&D in this field? Sometimes I think they may be _too_ high-tech for the farther future you are describing. But maybe they're testing and popularizing design concepts that can be used for projects more modest than "green" skyscrapers.

Maybe the process of developing ecotechnics _can't_ be a top-down, end-driven one. Maybe it comes from experimentation and communication among many handy people.

Here's an interesting low-tech adaptation of an industrial invention:
http://www.saffron-ventures.com/personal/woodbikes/

FARfetched said...

Quoting: As long as raw materials and surviving technologies from the industrial age are available in significant amounts, salvage societies will be more successful. Only when the resources available to human societies are once again limited to what the earth provides renewably will ecotechnic societies … be the most successful option.

If that's true, salvage societies could conceivably last far longer than civilization up to now. As you pointed out last week, there's far less effort involved in cutting up a girder from a skyscraper and smelting (or forging) it into something useful compared to mining new steel. However, once that girder has become plowshares or machetes or utensils or cookware, what's to stop anyone from salvaging the repurposed steel all over again for something else decades or centuries later?

Sure, entropy (wear and rust) eventually will win, but a salvage society will have to support a fairly high population to make the leavings of today's society scarce. A society that has learned the lessons of conservation and takes care of its tools could last a long time — 10,000 years wouldn't surprise me.

Danby said...

I firmly believe that the US economic system is ready to collapse and probably will do so within the next 5-10 years.

Either the neoconservatives get their way and attack Iran, or the insane bubble of the financial derivatives market will do it in.

Attacking Iran would likely result in cutting off a major part of the world's oils supply, even for a short period. That would send our economy into a 1970's-type tailspin from which it will take more than a few years to recover. Think $20/gallon diesel fuel and what that will do to the cheap transport on which our production and distribution systems are based. Unlikely? Not at all, that's the kind of price increase we saw during the Arab oil embargo in the '70s.

As well, the dollar is teetering on the brink of oblivion. It's already worth less than the Canadian dollar, and is rapidly approaching 1/2 Euro. The cause? The Chinese government is slowing down on it's acquisition of dollars. Not selling off it's trillions of dollars held in reserve, just slowing down on it's acquisition of dollars. Sooner or later, the Fed habit of spinning the presses in response to every piece of bad news for the investment markets will catch up with us.

So, your process-oriented thinking had best take that possibility into account. How will we change the world, when there's no money and everybody is scrambling to survive?

Charlie said...

Thank you john

I find your writting to be balanced and thought provoking. When I first came across the whole issue of Peak Oil I felt rather like a sobber man on a REALLY REALLY good night out with a rugby club.
I am now a long time reader having found you through a link somewhere (Energy Bulletin I suspect). There seems a huge amount of anxiety your side of the pond with regard to the end of cheap enegy. Over here every other story in the media has some green spin on it, to the point where we are all getting a bit fed up with it. Although I suppose its a softer way of getting us all used to the idear of a 'tighter' energy budjet day to day.
road charging will be comeing in over the next few years I suspect. Better to pay for rising oil costs that way than having some prat stick a hole in your fuel tank and nick it because its hit £2 a litre.
I rather hope 'The long Desent' is more of a long road with less stress on the 'down' bit. Big changes are afoot it would seem, but then change is the only constant. Peak Oil is with us now for those with an eye on the ball.
Your overviews are very enlightening and the powers that be could do a lot worse than read some of your thoughts on where we might go next. unfortunatly through history the voices of the moderates tend to get overshadowed in times of crisis.
I'm sure we could find healthier and more productive ways to employ our young people than sending them off to fight resouce wars.
isn't it time as a society we faced up to life and how it is unfolding?
The hangover in the morning would be far lest painfull if we just stop drinkinking now..

Many Thanks

Charlie UK

John Michael Greer said...

Aidan, of course that's the option a lot of people are discussing. Still, it's arguably not the preferable option -- hot running water, competent sanitation, literacy, and communications networks that go faster than a runner on a forest trail are all worth preserving, among other things -- nor is it all that likely. Many technologies yield decisive survival advantages, and those societies that maintain them will do better than those that discard them.

Now of course a lot depends on your definition of high tech and low tech. There are plenty of members of the geekoisie who consider the future I've outlined appallingly low tech because it doesn't have room for computers. (I don't think it'll be possible to manufacture and maintain them with the technology and resource base of the deindustrial era.) My working guess is that we'll bottom out a couple of centuries from now somewhere around 18th century technology, and then move from there in new directions.

Suzanne, I'll be in touch.

Nnonth, the metaphor about digging holes may be the best description yet of the current mentality toward the future!

TRB, my guess is that ecotechnics has to evolve from the grassroots up, as you've suggested. The Viridian people are less impressive to me than outfits from the 70s such as the New Alchemy Institute and the Farallones Institute, who used simpler technologies and got very elegant results. But at least there's some thinking going in the right direction.

Farfetched, very good -- but you've slipped past the distinction between the salvage society and the ecotechnic sere that follows it. As long as you can get basically free metal and other resources by raiding old ruins, we're in salvage society territory. When the stock of metal in circulation in a society becomes a closed loop, replenished by a modest flow of bog iron as needed, that's getting into ecotechnic territory -- and since bog iron is a renewable resource, being produced by chemosynthetic bacteria, that could in theory last until the sun dies.

Dan, that's been part of my scenario all along, but economic collapse is a lot less of a problem than most Americans think; look at 1920s Germany or post-Soviet Russia for recent examples. The collapse of the money system was a major inconvenience, but life went on, and in both cases a new economic system was jerry-rigged into place after a few years.

My guess is that over the next few years, the dollar will be inflated out of existence to deal with the US debt load, and a new currency will then be issued -- possibly based, like the Rentenmark of Weimar Germany, on mortgaging the entire country to a consortium of foreign banks. A lot of people will be much poorer by the end of the process, but it's not the end of the world.

Charlie, you're welcome! Britain can afford to be more sanguine about the end of the age of cheap energy -- you've got a viable rail system and much less extravagant habits when it comes to energy use. (The average American uses twice as much energy in a year than the average Brit.) Of course you've also had the great common sense to divest yourself of your empire rather than being dragged down with it, as we seem to be about to do.

Robert Magill said...

Think of mankind as an extremely dysfunctional very large family...scattered all about, with many members no longer speaking to each other. Consider this has been the case for a very long time but now shows signs of becoming irreconcilable, perhaps fatal, and then begin to study solutions from this vantage!!
Perhaps the only way out of a future worldwide catastrophe is for the human family to do collectively what successful families have done historically.
Where do we turn for information? Who are the experts on dysfunctional families?
Do they possess the expertise or do we go to the source, the families?

Perhaps the only way out of a future worldwide catastrophe is for the human family to do collectively what successful families have done historically.
What is that? Anybody know?

Solicit input from families with known successes. If they will talk. Build a data base from around the world, from all cultures that can be reached and from people willing and able to tell the story of the success of their own families over generations. Try to get endorsement for each claim from peers. Analyze, analyze, analyze! Look for a pattern and if it exists, begin to implement if possible or at the least, disseminate the information widely.



(Forget the survivalist mentality...they, the needy, will find you and take what you have. A species that could cross the Bering 20,000 years ago and settle two continents on foot would root out any vestige of better-off survivors in no time. You have a rifle: they might have bazookas.)

Dwig said...

As a long-term member of the geekoisie (never thought of myself quite like that, but I'll take it), I've dealt with the "sense of process" for quite a while. A large part of the maturation of the software engineering community has involved coming to terms with the complexities of process. At first, it seemed simple to define a process and carry it out. Over time, a whole raft of process models were developed, and wound up mostly useful as lessons for further development.

What's evolved out of this long communal learning experience is an idea of process as something you have to deal with, but you shouldn't try to predetermine or overcontrol; developing complex software requires an adaptive, iterative, risk-aware mentality. In effect, the process and the artifact being developed influence each other. In place of a specified, defined process, you have a general outline and a set of principles that apply under various conditions as you go along. (The emerging awareness of this is what caused the software community to become so fascinated with Christopher Alexander's design patterns work.)

Applying this kind of thinking to our current situations, the crucial point to remember is that there's no such thing as "the future". There's a range of possible futures, with different characteristics, likelihoods and consequences. With every step you take, you close off some possibilities and open up others.

As to the presence of computers in the future you've outlined (really a class of futures), there's more than one way to build a computer, and more than one type of "substrate" from which to build them. I'd like to see a serious effort started to work out ways to use sustainable materials and energy to create computing devices that could serve us indefinitely. While today's computers and Internet will definitely become casualties of deindustrialization, I can imagine a device that would be pretty impressive by the standards of the 1940s, and a communication infrastructure possibly resembling the network of ham radio operators that sprang up alongside commercial radio.

Tom Wayburn said...

Well, John, I suppose I cannot blame you for ignoring the process of dematerialism that is supposed to end in a "natural economy", where I have stated what I mean by a natural economy at http://dematerialism.net/wiki.htm; that is, dematerialism is the process, natural economy is the result. In the book *On the Preservation of Species* at http://dematerialism.net/POS.html, I have gone to a lot of trouble to explain the process that I envision, although, as we both know, the process of arriving at the decision to begin the process is something concerning which I haven't the remotest idea, except that I, for one, do support the Bolivarian Revolution. One thing is certain: Someone has to bell the cat.

John Michael Greer said...

Robert, I don't know that we're any more dysfunctional than any other species out there. Doubtless the squirrels and silverfish are worried about their future, too.

Dwig, ham radio is something I'll be talking about at length here when we get down to brass tacks -- it's the likely basis of a decentralized communications net that could well last straight through the deindustrial age. As for computers, if there's a relatively low-tech, sustainable way to make some sort of workable computing machine that uses less energy and produces better results than a trained human being with a slide rule, that may also be a possibility...but my money's on the slide rule.

Tom, a lot of people have a lot of theories, and I long ago gave up trying to keep track of them all. Thanks for posting the link.

JASON said...

ConcernedinNC

John, I've also come to read your blog every week. After reading all of the other Peak Oil related sites your blogs are a breath of fresh air. You have a way of explaining current thoughts and predicaments in a manner that makes sense to me. Also , are there any plans for Adam and Haruko in the future?

Tom Wayburn said...

Thanks for your reply, John. I agree that, to start the process, it might be helpful to have a charismatic leader such as Roosevelt or, better yet, Huey Long, who galvanized the masses. Hitler galvanized the masses sufficiently that they were willing to relieve the wealthy of some races of their wealth and power. That's not good enough. Perhaps there is no rich elite who run the world; but, clearly, the rich enjoy power and privilege to a disproportionate degree. And, for that matter, there actually may be a handful of wealthy families that do virtually own the world, as Chomsky, for example, has claimed. A mass movement that neutralizes the very rich could do what the Founding Fathers did in the Eighteenth Century except with much more egalitarian principles, such as those espoused in http://www.dematerialism.net/natpolecon.htm. Finally, in http://dematerialism.net/Chapter%2012.html, I took the trouble to suggest a number of possibilities for the way in which useful political change might occur. And, you must admit that, if an imminent Die Off is not averted, a political change has not been sufficiently useful. In the meantime, I might ask myself in what way do "memes" get started.

Stephen Heyer said...

Hi John,
Your postings are getting more and more interesting. Ok, maybe that just means you’re saying stuff I’ve thought of myself, but practically no one else sees. Of course, maybe that just means we’re both wrong.

“… As I’ve suggested in previous posts, the form of economy and society that succeeds best under any given set of environmental conditions depends much more on those conditions, and the way they interact with the resources and technology available at the time, than on deliberate choices by human beings...”

“What this means in practice is that as long as fossil fuels are still available in significant amounts, scarcity industrialism or something like it will be more successful. As long as raw materials and surviving technologies from the industrial age are available in significant amounts, salvage societies will be more successful. Only when the resources available to human societies are once again limited to what the earth provides renewably will ecotechnic societies – human cultures supporting a high technology on a sustainable basis – be the most successful option.”

Yes, long ago a study of history made me realize that just being the nicest, most ecologically aware society does little to ensure your long term survival. To survive, your society has to be able to resist the bastards next door who are trying to mount a military invasion against you, the religious loonies a few valleys over who are sending missionaries in to convert your people, another mob who have found a small oilfield and are running the industrial society thing all over again (for awhile) and seducing your people into wanting to burn off your last reserves on McMansions and SUVs, and who knows what other threats.

That kind of limits any society that is going to survive to whatever economy is going to produce, not the best results, but enough wealth and resources to hold its own - In other words, your succession theory.

“… Nearly all of the plans floated by the radicals of left and right alike have certain key features in common. They require that every group that currently holds power in society should become subordinate to the plan, which in practice, of course, means their subordination to the people who will be implementing and managing the plan. The plans also require a complete break with the past, and the imposition of a new system in which all the ground rules have been changed to benefit the new holders of power. The power centers that make up industrial society can be counted on to resist demands like these with all their considerable strength.”

Another thing I (sadly) realized long ago – radicals of the left and the right are much the same and do much the same things. Although I doubt they are aware of it, for them it’s all about power and humans are hard-wired to seek power and wealth for the very simple reason that, historically, those who achieved it had much greater reproductive success (good old evolution on action).

“Nor are they necessarily wrong to do so. The success rate for novel social, economic, and political programs crafted by politically radical intellectuals is, to put things mildly, not good. As the sorry history of Marxism demonstrated with great force, the fact that a writer can level a powerful critique at an existing system does not mean that the same writer has a working replacement for it – as a popular saying in Russia these days has it, “everything Marx said about communism was false, but everything he said about capitalism was true” – and the fact that a proposed replacement looks good on paper does not prove that it will work well in practice...”

Sigh! Yes! Again all too true says I, who have something of an attraction to amateur social engineering myself.

“Rather, modern industrial society can best be seen as a diverse collection of power centers, each with its own base of support, striving to build its strength, make alliances, and exert influence over the creaking machineries of government, society and economy.”

Yes, but probably a bit too complex and unsettling for most people to grasp.

However, we must never forget that elites tend to become more sinister the longer they are left in power.

“As to the presence of computers in the future you've outlined (really a class of futures), there's more than one way to build a computer, and more than one type of "substrate" from which to build them. I'd like to see a serious effort started to work out ways to use sustainable materials and energy to create computing devices that could serve us indefinitely. While today's computers and Internet will definitely become casualties of deindustrialization, I can imagine a device that would be pretty impressive by the standards of the 1940s, and a communication infrastructure possibly resembling the network of ham radio operators that sprang up alongside commercial radio.”

Actually, there now isn’t much actual material in a computer, especially a portable, nor does it use much power. Most of its value is intellectual property. The heart, the processor, is just a funny sort of a photograph on silicon, a material we are not going to run out of.

And, incidentally, the favored replacement for silicon is carbon, usually in the form of a diamond film. How sustainable can you get?

But yes, the circuit board, power supply and other bits could all be simplified and more sustainable materials used, as is already happening in the low cost computers being designed for the third world. There are even new technologies that will be able to manufacture displays using, basically, bubble jet printers.

In short, I think you are being excessively pessimistic about computers: They are a very attractive technology, sometimes even quite useful, are becoming easier to produce if you don’t insist on absolute state of the art and they are just the kind of high value, small, light weight, item that is ideal for trade, even using sailing ships.

As for the Internet, we just have to keep that up, no matter what. It gives even the most isolated people access to much of human knowledge, makes them part of the world community and is starting to weave billions of human minds and souls together into a kind of planetary brain.

The worse thing get, the more we’ll need it. It has to be kept up in some form or other.

FARfetched said...

OK, I understand — you're making a distinction between salvaging and recycling that I wasn't making. I see them as identical twins, if not the same....

My guess is … the dollar will be inflated out of existence to deal with the US debt load, and a new currency will then be issued -- possibly based, like the Rentenmark of Weimar Germany, on mortgaging the entire country to a consortium of foreign banks.

Ugh. You certainly remember what that led to. Add our nuclear arsenal to the mix, and you have Instant Disaster.

John Michael Greer said...

Jason, thanks for the encouragement. As for "Adam's Story," that's run its course. I'm considering something a little more ambitious at this point, but we'll see.

Tom, memes are condensations of social narratives. Tell a story that makes sense of the world to people, and do it in an appealing and convincing way, and you've done your part. It's up to the collective imagination of society to decide which of the resulting memes takes off, though.

Stephen, I remain skeptical that computer technology will remain viable -- technically and economically -- through the deindustrial transition, and the internet is way too complex and energy intensive to survive; it's not enough to insist that it must survive and therefore it will, there has to be some reason to think that the huge energy, resource, and labor inputs needed to maintain it will be able to be diverted from slightly more pressing things such as bare survival. Mind you, something with a much simpler technological footprint might work, if the capacity to make computer hardware can be maintained at all. But we'll see.

Farfetched, the German experience was unique -- you'll notice that most other countries that have gone through currency collapse, and there have been quite a few over the last century, haven't ended up in the hands of homicidal maniacs. My guess, given the extent to which the US has embraced the habit of demonizing the other side in political disputes, is that civil war is a good deal more likely than an American Reich. Again, though, we'll see.

FARfetched said...

My guess, given the extent to which the US has embraced the habit of demonizing the other side in political disputes, is that civil war is a good deal more likely than an American Reich.

I hope you're right. In fact, the series I've been writing on my blog, FAR Future, is tending toward civil war at the moment. But if a "uniter" points people at some external Other here in real life, look out.

Anthony said...

JMG,

American Civil war II seems likely to me as well, although I wonder what the boundries will be. It could be Washington, Oregon, N. California that tries to secede.

Of course this would follow on the heels of Great Depression II, WWIII (or is it WWIV?) the reign of GW Bush the II and, of course Spider-Man IV.

If you get over to Carleton be sure to visit Farm House (Natural History interest house) in the arboretum.

A

guamanian said...

A brief aside on computers in a de-industrializing society:

I think the 'always on' Internet is a brittle technology, and one that I don't see much chance of maintaining very far out into the future. The uptime requirements for servers and connections are just too high. A store-and-forward approach to communications (The pre-web 'fidonet' and current email being examples) will last a lot longer, I expect.

For a look at a robust high-tech computer designed for low-tech environments, check out the OLPC project: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/XO-1_(laptop). I could see an evolution of this concept to a descent-friendly form, but believe that it could only be a transitional tool -- build 'em to last 3 generations, and distribute them widely, then use them well as they slowly flicker out.

However, a bigger question is whether it is a good thing to concentrate too much on unsustainable transitional prosthetics like computers. At some point slide-rules and abacuses become a better use of our time... and someone has to have retained the skills to pass along when that time comes.

(Hm... maybe the Society for Creative Anachronism should switch their focus from swordplay to telegraph keys, slide rules, and sextants. Those are the anachronisms we will likely need first!)

Actually, our whole discussion of an eco-technic society probably should be broader than the 'stuff' we think of as technology. Seed saving, permaculture, social rites and customs, and craft methodologies are are 'technics', in addition to shiny industrial stuff.

yooper said...

Hello John, I suppose the process of climbing down the ladder would best be done by a controled, one step at a time, descent. However, almost everyone in our society are desperately trying to find that next step up, this group includes the so-called elites. This process of climbing up is the only one they've known. Getting them to stop climbing would be the logical first step in this process. Surely, as they pause and finally take a look at how high they've progressed, they freeze. Fear, gripes them and they panic, clinging onto their position for dear life. They simply cannot step down, they only know of the process of going up, not down. Just not there....

Soon, these people run out of ladder, until there's nothing left to grasp to and they fall.

Thanks, yooper

yooper said...

Civil war or revolution? People only fight if they're trying to protect something they all ready have or if they think there is something to gain.

In a declining world, what would we have to gain bringing arms up aganist our neighbor? What could we be possibly be protecting from one another?

No, I can more invision a revolution brought upon our goverment by it's disgruntled citizens......

Thanks, yooper.

Stephen Heyer said...

Hi John,

Yes, I see your point when you write:

“Stephen, I remain skeptical that computer technology will remain viable -- technically and economically -- through the deindustrial transition, and the internet is way too complex and energy intensive to survive; it's not enough to insist that it must survive and therefore it will, there has to be some reason to think that the huge energy, resource, and labor inputs needed to maintain it will be able to be diverted from slightly more pressing things such as bare survival.”

I guess the difference is that I’ve spent most of the last 60 years as a keen observer of different societies, their economies and technologies.

The thing that has always impressed me is how in many countries, even quite small countries, even in the most dreadful circumstances, even while the population was being halved, sometimes in the middle of a terrible war, still manufacturing continued, in fact often increased as did science. Further, those services thought most essential, usually power, telecommunications, water and sewage and even schools were kept working, at least to some extent.

In fact, have a look around and you will find plenty of countries doing just that today. In fact the oddest little corners of the world have often recovered from terrible recent wars to achieve surprising prosperity. There are of course exceptions: Iraq’s tragedy of course is the American occupation force which is preventing recovery and as for sub-Saharan Africe – well, I don’t think anyone understands that.

Even more impressive is the existence of small scale salvage type manufacturing in, say, the barrios of South America among people coming from a background that just should not equip them with such skills.

In short, I’m much more optimistic about the retention of reasonable levels of technology than you, partly because it is increasingly becoming knowledge more than hardware and fairly simple computers can provide access to that knowledge so easily.

For example, my little second hand, 3 year old, notebook computer has on its hard drive an encyclopedia, world atlas, Spanish course, my databases, every database I have ever developed (I’m a database developer) everything I’ve ever written, web base development tools, lots of food production stuff, most of the photos I’ve ever taken, a vast amount of interesting stuff I’ve come across and lots more.

Computers cannot directly reproduce themselves yet, but they can certainly store all the information necessary for humans to reproduce them. Remember, most of what they are is the vast amount of data making up chip design, production techniques and programs which are now a sunk cost – we don’t ever have to do it again.

It also, of course, gives me access to the vast resources and community of the Internet.

The tougher things get the more we’ll need those resources, in my case especially access to the Australian communities devoted to small scale and backyard food production.

Another thing that does not seem to be clearly defined is what population level people on this blog are expecting. I just don’t get the impression that any of you are expecting a US population of 300 million + or a world population of 6.5 billion +.

It seems to me that most of the scenarios discussed here imply a very much lower population. How is this expected to come about?

Ok, if bird flu becomes the common yearly flu of this century and we’re still too incompetent to have developed a good vaccine, I can see us eventually struggling to maintain a world population of a few hundred million. Ditto if the USA nukes Iran (for whatever manic reason it’s trying to get into a war with Iran) and someone in the middle east uses an all-kill pathogen against the US.

Disturbing thought 1 of the week: The genetic changes necessary to turn a normal pathogen of some types into one that kills essentially 100% of infected animals are now well known (actually, Australian research). Combine that with changes that make the pathogen very infectious but with a long incubation time and infectious period and you have a true dooms day weapon.

Disturbing thought 2 of the week: The equipment and techniques to do this are becoming increasingly available and affordable.

However, failing (please God) either of the above two scenarios, world population is still going to be very high, at least 3 billion I would guess even after a real melt down and famine, and so technology, manufacturing and science will continue – just not making SUVs, huge passenger jets or probably cheap disposable junk.

Hey, what’s that going to leave to trade? Well, small computers, mobile phones, telecommunications equipment, thin film solar cells, advanced batteries, electric mopeds, very small electric cars, intellectual property, high fashion clothing, luxury foods, metals that kind of stuff.

Humans manufactured, developed new technologies and traded across the world in the “dark ages” after the fall of Rome. They’ll do the same after the fall of the USA and even after the end of the age of cheap fossil fuel.

jim burke said...

We would like to think that there will be stages of descent to a state that is sustainable, and I am devoting my time, energy and resources to making that a reality.

We (my wife and I) built a paper adobe house and are growing a permaculture orchard/garden in southern Arizona, on the outskirts of a small town where most of our family and friends live.

Nobody seems to pay any attention to the looming crises we face as a global society (or are willing to change the way they live), but we figure that when the energy descent starts to bite, we'll be able to be a resource to our friends, family and neighbors in the arts and science of sustainable living.

But last night I saw a lecture by an archaeology professor from the Center for Desert Archaeology, on "Hohokam population collapse of the 14th century" along the lower San Pedro River (downstream from where we live.)

It has become clear recently that the Chacoan culture of NW New Mexico ruled a huge area up to the 1300s, which collapsed in rampant cannibalism and murder, which resulted in a refugee movement to the cliff dwellings we are so fascinated by. These cliff dwellings were occupied all at once, and then abandoned at once. But where did they go?

It turns out they joined the Hohokam in southern Arizona; some helping to irrigate the Salt River covering a significant fraction of what is now Phoenix; and lots of settlements along the Gila, Salt, and lower San Pedro River.

We saw a slide show that showed population centers for all of southern Arizona; 1200, 1250, 1300, to 1450. The populations shifted and shrank, and then went into freefall and completely disappeared by 1450 -- long before European diseases could have affected them.

The descendents of the Hohokam are almost certainly the O'Odham (called "sand Papago") who lived as hunter gatherers in roughly the same areas, and who now have a huge reservation in the hottest, driest areas along the Mexican border.

This is very depressing. If Indians who lived incredibly simply were unable to live sustainably on any of the free flowing rivers in southern Arizona, when why should we?

We have to have faith that descent (and not outright collapse) is possible, because otherwise it might be hard to create the conditions under which descent can be livable, even enjoyable.

Ares Olympus said...

Discussion of politics always makes me feel tired, impatient by the scale of the demands and the low apparent chance for success.

The curious thing for me is how we are corrupted by power, the magnitude of our efforts to build new success upon old, moving so far into diminishing returns because it seems to difficult to go in any other direction which would require giving up so much affluence we know now.

I agree a belief in sinister elite is unhelpful. I'm sure some exists but even the worst can justify their choices as serving the needs of society. And I certainly feel pity for politicians trying to stretch too many ambitions among too little resources.

Incidentally I also recently re-read an older article by you, very good too, starting with a section ruefully called "The Failure of Politics"
http://www.hubbertpeak.com/whatToDo/DeindustrialAge.htm

I tend towards looking at individual action over politics, at least for being pure and "hurting" no one but myself, like a choice not to own a car, and trying to invest what money I have in paying down my mortgage, reducing the demands I make on the future world (like needing a high income, or fast transportation).

Today on my bike, I decided the clearest sign of our doom was in a middle-aged man with a gas-powered vacuum, patiently sucking up a pile of leaves he had apparently just blown into a nice pile. Our means so far exceed the value of our ends, it is hurtful to my soul to see.

I got an email from a friend, a divorced mother, who offered to clean anyone's fridge/freezer for $50. It hurt me again to see someone who was already working full time was willing to take more time from her child, presumably so she'd have some money she could justify spending for Christmas presents.

Well, mostly it make me think of the thousands I "spend" a year on interest on my mortgage, and how ordinary people live so close to their margins.

A rude question I'd have for my friend, might be to ask how much credit card debt she's holding each month. Before a few years ago I'd never dream any smart person I knew would accumulate thousands in credit card debt. Its such an insideous weapon, a "slow poison" that starts as a convenience with an unexpected car repair bill, and becomes a lifelong habit, that can slide down for YEARS with no visible effect as long as the minimum payments can be made.

If I had ONE political change to advocate for, I'd say screw my top choice "HIGH ENERGY TAXES", and just shoot-low and "outlaw credit cards" or "low monthly repayments" that allow debt to stretch so far before breaking people. It's really strange since I benefit, but I just don't understand why so many people allow themselves to slide into high interest debt.

Maybe LAWS aren't the answer, laws that protect people from their own corruptability by marketers and self-deception.

Anyway, however we transition, it will have to be a transition away from debt I'm sure, OR we'll soon have a new slave class who instead of a 30-year mortgage have a 30-year debt over their freedom! Okay, I can believe that too, and some people WILL sign that paper too, if they have kids and hope their kids can rise above it.

Mostly my life philosophy is to reduce my need for money. Money makes the modern world go around, and the spending habits of a billion people is more important than our votes or our elected leaders.

Could a localized currency be an answer? My divorced mother friend could be paid in a 2-hour IOU for cleaning a fridge, but what christmas gifts can she buy with this "money"?

Maybe its not a real answer for the moment. It just hurts to see people struggling for a few bucks while so much is filtered UP into capitalism's claws.

A year ago I imagined a fun ritual for local currency. Take say $10,000 in U.S. bill, or whatever could be collected at a public event, and BURN them as a symbol of freedom. THEN issue back out an equivalent amount of local currency to the participants.

I like to think practically, but some things like CHANGE perhaps FAIL to allow practical solutions to appear quickly, and so many small symbolic ones are needed along the way.

So many changes are needed and possible at a personal level, and community and collective level, that perhaps we don't need to base hope on political action.

Lots of good ideas out there, but we need to get working!
http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/94/open_change-or-die.html Change or Die

Matt Holbert said...

Salvage will likely play a major role in the next phase of empire. Glass should be particularly important. In the meantime, why wait for society to get up to speed? Why not create an exploration-based Society -- envision a combination of National Geographic and the Jesuits -- that provides a physical model for living well in a contracting "economy."

Gar Allen said...

JMG, I'd like to hear your thoughts about Canada.

My view is that while Canada looks like a dependent neocon ally of the US, it may be capable of helping convince the remaining crew to steer the ship away from the rocks sufficiently to allow a smoother transition than otherwise possible ...referencing your metaphor at the bottom of your excellent post here:

I believe Canada is currently the number one supplier of fossil fuel to the US and has vast reserves in its Alberta tar sands that are expensive (economically and environmentally) to extract. Canada has many other resources including fresh water, hydroelectric and uranium. Canada has a claim to the northwest passage which is of strategic importance. Its economic house is in order; its population is low and ethnically diverse, its citizens are more liberal/socialist than the US; they are also well educated, connected and in the past year have become much more concerned about environmental issues.

While Canada currently has a conservative government, it stands as a minority. I think it is possible (not saying probable) that Canada could elect a leader who could leverage the above assets and attributes to cause the ship to be turned to some degree.

Do you agree? What do you think likely lies ahead for Canada's population (particularly western Canada where I live) in the next 50 years?

Dwig said...

Stephen, yes, computers are getting simpler in some ways, although more complex in others. What concerns me is the large infrastructure (materials, people, organizations, etc.) needed to sustain the manufacture of computers, in many cases involving such energy-intensive things as clean rooms (which are indispensable for components like the tiny disk drives in our current laptops). This of course also depends on at least some degree of social stability. (That said, it's nice to read your description of the resilience of such infrastructures.) And then, there's the availability of the needed materials, including scarce minerals.

On the other hand, I've seen descriptions of computing devices based on fluidics, on optics, on biochemical substrates, etc. I think it's not an unreasonable hope that some kind of long-term sustainable computer manufacturing industry could be grown. It's possible that such computers will be far more modest than what we currently have, and a village, or even a small city may have only one or two. Still, they'll be worth having. In particular, my mention of ham radios, which John picked up on, was partly motivated by the idea of hooking up such a radio to a such a computer, thus making possible "in some form or other" at least a rudimentary Internet. However, I don't think this will happen automatically. There will need to be a research effort started fairly soon with the end state in mind (and all the seres in between) to have a chance of success.

Why make a point of this? I'm much in sympathy with Stephen's plaint "As for the Internet, we just have to keep that up, no matter what. It gives even the most isolated people access to much of human knowledge, makes them part of the world community and is starting to weave billions of human minds and souls together into a kind of planetary brain." I agree that, if we can maintain global communications and a kind of global "knowledge base", that these could be instrumental in creating a much better future than otherwise. In the back of my mind is the kind of "Canticle for Liebowitz"/Olduvai scenario in which humanity loses the knowledge of history, and becomes doomed to repeat it in mutliple cycles.

By the way, John, the slide rule isn't really relevant here. It's a marvelous invention, but its uses are limited (you'll never write a book, or even an email, on a slide rule). On the other hand, I agree heartily that it may see a triumphant revival in the applications it's well suited for. (I still take out my old Pickett from time to time.)

Celtic Dragon said...

The problem with de-indutrial societies is that severe planet-threatening crises, like Yellowstone going up, or the next dino-killer asteriod hitting the Earth are not preventable, amelioratable or even predictable. 18th century tech won't be able to help anyone in that situation, and with the worst-case scenarios it means the end of mankind.

I for one don't think the Peak Oil crises is as much of a threat as most of the doomsayers believe, and think that there are a host of near-term, and some long-term, technologies that will allow high-tech society to continue.

This may be unpalatable for some, but for those of us who appreciate the life that the creators and developers of modern technology have given us, it is a blessing. I for one would be profoundly miserable in that kind of a society, and I'm sure there are others like me out there.

Plus only with a high-tech society will the ability to leave the planet and colonize other planets and star systems take place, which is a far better long-term survival strategy than hunker down and wait to die.

Just my opinion, I could be wrong...

Danby said...

Stephen Heyer,
The point about computers is not whether in 40 years anyone will know how to build a computer and what to do with it. It's whether the infrastructure to build (specifically) VLSI chips will be will be viable in the 150-year and longer future.

A chip fab is one of the most complex and expensive structures on the planet. A chip manufacturing plant, such as Intel's plant in Hillsboro, Oregon represents an investment of 4-10 billion dollars. That's as much as we spent to land Neil Armstrong on the moon. It also represents an embodied energy cost of literally billions of megawatts. Each chip produced also represents a huge investment in energy, from producing the ultra-pure silicon crystals and rare-earth semi-conductors that provide the physical properties of the chip, to the huge investment in infrastructure such as clean rooms and ultra-microscopic lithography that are needed to put the chip together.

Without the huge concentration of capital that out modern industrial economic system is capable of, it would have been impossible for the so-called personal computer revolution to take place. When that
economy is in permanent decline, as John Michael posits has already begun, it will be impossible to maintain production. When a single crystal of pure silicon, of the type computer chips are made of, costs the equivalent of tens of millions 2007 dollars instead of thousands, how can you maintain mass production? With an economy in collapse, who could afford such an extravagance?

Given John Michael's previous arguments of catabolic collapse, computers are just not a sustainable technology in the long-term. In 50 years, computers will be expensive. In 100 years they will be rare and old. In 200 years, they will be a dim memory.

Matt Holbert,
Remember the Jesuits, and more particularly the Benedictines and the Carthusians, did not become monks to serve the purpose of preserving Western culture. They became monks to attain the salvation of their own souls. Bhuddist monks do not become monks to learn Kung-Fu and read ancient scrolls. They are striving to achieve Nirvana. Any attempt to build a monastery-like institution to preserve or save our culture had better have a purpose of similar personal importance or it's a complete waste of time. And you'd better be honest about what you're doing or it will degenerate rapidly into that horrible corruption that humans are capable of.

That's enough dangling participles. What would Mrs. McCaunnaghey say?

Tom Wayburn said...

Celtic Dragon wrote: "Plus only with a high-tech society will the ability to leave the planet and colonize other planets and star systems take place, which is a far better long-term survival strategy than hunker down and wait to die."

I wrote a comment on that idea in http://dematerialism.net/CwC.html:

Some people might object that, while sustainable growth is impossible on Earth, we should in no wise limit our thinking to this tiny orb. This is a fair objection that deserves a serious answer. Within our lifetimes, travel to distant worlds has become almost routine – in fiction if not in reality. I wish to point out the principal objections to this idea at this time and refer disbelievers elsewhere:

1. Ultimately, colonization involves conquest and depredation, which was never right but perhaps excusable at the time of Magellan as no serious philosopher had addressed the issue previous to Magellan’s time as far as I know and, even more likely, as far as Magellan knew. Nowadays, it would be very difficult to find someone who would not acknowledge that most serious philosophers reject conquest and depredation as acceptable behavior. Even the predatory Neo-Cons cloak their rhetoric in Liberal, i.e., politically-correct, clothing.

2. The limitation of travel speed by the speed of light makes travel to extra-solar planets capable of supporting life inconsistent with the longest lifespan of a human being that can reasonable be expected to be achieved within the Twenty-First Century – dreams of suspended animation notwithstanding. Suppose, on the other hand, that, despite the improbability of doing so, a spaceship could be built sufficiently complete that the children, the children’s children, and so on for many generations might enjoy a reasonably bearable life living on that spaceship perhaps under conditions no worse than conditions on Spaceship Earth; and, suppose, in addition, that such a nation of space travelers could retain as part of their cultural heritage the understanding of their mission as space travelers to continue human existence upon a habitable planet at a distance of many light years from Earth. Supposing all that, the generation that was faced with imminent arrival at the destination would necessarily regard the arrival as essentially the end of the only world they had ever known. Although, in this thought experiment, we know that life might go on, they might anticipate it with the same dread as we should experience facing the end of life on Earth.

3. To make life on the spaceship so comfortable that the impending arrival at the distant habitable planet will seem like the end of the world would require a truly large spaceship - perhaps the size of a small moon. To build it would require harvesting the very last of the useful resources of Earth. The expected energy returned on energy invested is poor.

Additional objections, in particular moral objections, can be found at http://dematerialism.net/space.htm.

John Michael Greer said...

Farfetched, of course that's a possibility; my guess, though, is that we're past the point at which anybody could effectively unite the US. But we'll see.

Anthony, red states versus blue states seems like the most likely split to me, but civil war's hard to predict.

Guamanian, good -- one of the core issues we face is precisely that of transitioning from a focus on technological prosthetics to less machinebound ways of doing things. More on this in later posts.

Yooper, listen to the way that Democrats talk about Republicans, and Republicans talk about Democrats. People don't always fight for good reasons. Sometimes they do it because it's easier to fight than to face reality.

Stephen, it's a common modern superstition that information is omnipotent. On Easter Island, the information needed to build oceangoing canoes existed long after the last trees large enough to provide raw materials for such a canoe had been cut down. Without the resources and technological basis to put the information to use, it's valueless. Your computer can't replicate itself; it takes a hugely complex industrial system to produce computers, and that system won't be sustainable as we slide down the far side of Hubbert's peak.

As for the last set of Dark Ages, huge amounts of classical scientific and technological knowledge were lost, trade contracted to a tiny fraction of its late Roman levels, and most people in the western world suffered serious declines in their standard of living. Progress is not inevitable.

Jim, the Southwest is a very challenging environment for human beings. My guess is that a thousand years from now caravans will seek out the ruins of Phoenix and Las Vegas to scavenge metals and old machineries, and never see a living soul in either city.

Ares, exactly. It's personal action rather than politics that offers a way to climb down the ladder. I talk about politics now and again only because it will inevitably have some impact on the context of our futures.

Matt, the problem is that any such society has to be able to support itself in the world as it is, while building the framework of the world that's taking shape around us. That's a tall challenge, and has had a lot to do with the absence of successful "lifeboat communities" so far, despite so much talk about them.

Gar, with global warming cutting in, Canada will likely become a major world power over the next few centuries. The transformation of tundra to temperate farmland and the permanent opening of the Arctic Ocean to year-round ship traffic give it enormous advantages in a deindustrial world, and its population levels are low enough to skip massive dieoff. I'm not sure it will remain a single nation when the age of cheap energy ends, but one way or another it's potentially a rising power of no small scale.

Dwig, unless these alternative substrates for data processing get solidly established very soon, the window of opportunity will likely close on them forever. We're already close to the point that we can choose to meet the needs of the present or the needs of the future...but not both. Once we're past that point, new technologies will be a moot point, because the resources won't exist to develop and deploy them.

As for slide rules, well, of course you can't write a book on one -- that's what paper and a pen are for. (And I've written books longhand, so don't tell me it's impossible.) Word processors are conveniences; number crunching is harder to do without some kind of computing technology, such as a slide rule or an abacus.

Celtic, you're missing the entire point of this blog. If the peak oil theory is correct, we don't have the choice to maintain an advanced industrial civilization; the natural resources needed to keep one running are going away, and that means a deindustrial society is what we're stuck with. It's all very well to insist that we need one, but if the resources aren't there, we don't have that option.

Dan, two excellent points. On the other hand, Mrs. McCaunnaghey would start by demanding to know why your topic sentence isn't at the beginning of the essay...

FARfetched said...

Dwig, hooking ham radios up to computers has been going on for years (look up "packet radio"), using IP and X.25 protocols. The first chat room I ever participated in used packet radio.

More important than computers — we can use slide rules and abacuses for calculations and typewriters or pens for writing — is high-speed global communication. Sure, there's a lot of dreck getting sent around, but a great deal of original thought and even original art gets sent around as well. Here on Planet Georgia, my daughter routinely talks to people in faraway places including Australia and Norway. Isolation may incubate new solutions, but how can the rest of the world benefit if there isn't a good way to distribute them?

yooper said...

Hello John, I think you're right on spot with you're responses to Jim from southern Arizona and Gar from Canada.

Perhaps Jim won't have to wait a thousand years to see this area depopulated..It could happen in the next fifty, maybe even in the next 25? The Hohokam population collaspe that resulted in rampant cannibalism and murder back in the 14th century, could happen again. Naturally, this is evidence of a very rapid collaspe of an society... I might suggest, that this society had a very low population of people. Certainly, there are areas where the land cannot support any population. I'll be looking for your new book on climate change and I'll just bet that this area may be projected to become even more hotter/dryer in the years to come...

I'd much rather be in Gar's boots, living in Canada. John, really like you're thoughts about areas with low population levels might skip massive die-off. I believe, that areas with high density will see the greatest die-off. This includes large cities, islands with high density, even whole countries...

Let's hope Gar, is one out of three Canadians that live 100 kilometres from the U.S. boarder or two out of ten that does'nt live in a city.

Here in northern Michigan the annual snowfall has halved in my lifetime. For the first time our growing season has been extended long enough to harvest crops like corn.

Perhaps in the near future, we won't be so dependent on our southern neighbors for survival. One thing is sure, this transition into the future, will be unlike any other...

Pedaling backwards and going foward, yooper

Stephen Heyer said...

John: “If the peak oil theory is correct, we don't have the choice to maintain an advanced industrial civilization; the natural resources needed to keep one running are going away, and that means a deindustrial society is what we're stuck with.”

This is one area where I disagree with John. From what I’ve seen cheap, plentiful oil is not essential to a high technology, nor even an industrial civilization, just to the one we have now, which is hardy surprising as it was build in the presence of virtually free oil.

Neither are plentiful supplies of a lot of other resources people worry about: We are starting to move beyond that now.

As just one small example I will note the increasing replacement of advanced metal alloys in aircraft building with carbon composites. We are hardly likely to run out of carbon.

Celtic Dragon: “The problem with de-indutrial societies is that severe planet-threatening crises, like Yellowstone going up, or the next dino-killer asteriod hitting the Earth are not preventable, amelioratable or even predictable. 18th century tech won't be able to help anyone in that situation, and with the worst-case scenarios it means the end of mankind.”

Yes, and this is much more of a problem than most people imagine: It turns that that there have been several near-misses in the past 3 million years , namely nearby supernovas, world wide nuclear winter type volcanic eruptions, that sort of thing. If I remember rightly, the last, a super volcano eruption, occurred after the arrival of modern humans and is generally credited with killing most humans then alive.

Celtic Dragon: “Plus only with a high-tech society will the ability to leave the planet and colonize other planets and star systems take place, which is a far better long-term survival strategy than hunker down and wait to die.”

Sounds like science fiction, but yes, if humans intend that their descendants, be they human, post-human, cyborg, AI or whatever, are going to be around long-term, that seems to mean getting off-planet.

As for the many arguments that there is no way “the infrastructure to build (specifically) VLSI chips will be will be viable in the 150-year and longer future” (danby), well, I guess I just imagine a very different kind of descent to the one John and many other posters on this blog expect.

Now if I was living in the USA I would be just as pessimistic, because that is exactly what I expect to happen there, however I’m not, I’m living in rural Northern Australia.

You see, I’m just not expecting the descent to be as rapid, universal, painful or deep everywhere. Remember, when Rome fell, Constantinople went on for another thousand years and China barely noticed.

Ok. I know, we have the peak everything problem, but that is going to far worse in some areas than others with this difference depending as much on how the local people are used to living as on local resources of energy and raw materials.

For example, much of the developing world is still only a generation away from a very low oil use lifestyle. I suspect they will adapt fairly easily and even retain many of their gains in standard of living and technology. However, much of the English speaking West is the best part of a century past such a lifestyle, have deliberately rigged their societies, both by design and size, to make it impossible now, and the leaders and populations are in flat denial.

And of course, certain areas are particularly blessed, for example, I recently read that Iceland owes its great prosperity to having switched almost entirely to geothermal power. Neither is Australia likely to run out of coal, metal ores, or for that matter natural gas any time soon. South America, especially temperate South America also has more metals than it knows what to do with and some energy reserves and plenty of experience with traditional agriculture.

Also, as John has pointed out with Canada, “transformation of tundra to temperate farmland and the permanent opening of the Arctic Ocean to year-round ship traffic” across truly vast areas of Canada and Eurasia if global warming continues will mean the development of entirely new centers of power and wealth of a scale and with consequences we can barely imagine.

In other words, I expect some areas at all scales to come through the initial stages of descent and peak oil much better than others. For some, I expect for a generation or so it will be mostly something they read about in the papers or on the Internet and then, with a new generation running government who grew up with the problem and a population comfortable with it, they will be able to make the necessary adaptations for each stage in an orderly and creative manner.

In fact, thanks to decades of American embargos, Cuba is already pretty much there.

Oh! And a small scale VLSI chip fabrication plant (Yes1 they can be small, or perhaps smaller scale if you are not pushing absolute state of the art or huge production runs.) might seem like an excellent investment for some of the larger (population 3 million +) of such areas with an energy surplus (hydroelectric, geothermal, solar or whatever). After all, the chips directly use very small inputs of fairly common materials and have such high value by weight and volume that they are worth trading across the world by camel caravan, let alone sailing ship.

And science and technology will continue to advance, but in directions appropriate to the times. By the time the last of the non renewable resources are used up, say in a few hundred to a thousand years, the technologies build comfortable, prosperous and high-tech ecotechnic societies should be well in place.

There might even be the surpluses and the much, much better technology available to think again about going off-planet, especially as by then, by necessity, we will know how to build a fully self-stained habitat most anywhere and a quite modest return of, say, metals from the asteroid belt will be really worthwhile.

That is, or course, for the most fortunate places. As for the least fortunate, well, that hardly bears thinking about.

The main threat to this relatively benign outcome that I can see is war. Given what is happening now, this really worries me.

John Michael Greer said...

Farfetched, packet radio -- and ham radio generally -- are well up there on the list of technologies that need to be made sustainable as fast as possible. Some attention to pre-solid state radio technology might be well worth paying, and soon.

Yooper, your end of Michigan is likely to benefit quite a bit from climate change, though you may need to look into helping the ecosystems adapt a bit. Much of the rest of inland North America, on the other hand, will be in for a very rough ride for several centuries, until the oceans warm up enough to shift the hydrologic cycle toward a high-precipitation mode.

Stephen, well, sure, if you're going to assume that dwindling energy supplies don't matter, and dwindling resource stocks don't matter, and the energy and other resources needed to make those nifty carbon composites (and the factories to manufacture them, etc.) don't matter, and so on, then you can imagine as benign a future as you wish. Nor is there any way to disprove your claims except to wait and see what happens. I'd suggest, though, that there's very good reason to think that you're wrong, and if you are, embracing the vision of the future you've suggested will turn out to be a disastrous mistake.

Mind you, with catastrophic droughts already hitting much of Australia and the likelihood of ten or twenty million new neighbors immigrating from Indonesia to your part of the continent once the age of volkerwanderung arrives, your location may not be quite as favored as you suggest. Still, we'll see.

Stephen Heyer said...

Hi Jonn,

No I didn’t say “dwindling energy supplies don't matter, and dwindling resource stocks don't matter”, what I said was that under a benign but not in my opinion not too unlikely scenario some, I repeat, some, areas will have time to adapt, will be able to arrange alternate sources of power and adapt their (smaller scale) industries to resources substitution and keep on doing so until they are full ecotechnic societies.

Also, that by trading with each other they will still be able to enjoy the benefits of, in effect, a quite large economy and industrial system.

Also, that with "truly vast areas of Canada and Eurasia” turning from frozen tundra to fertile, temperate farmland, the world may gain as much or more good farmland as it loses through climate change and sea level rises and also gain major new “nations”.

So, what do I think will really happen? I’d say something between your model and mine, with of course me hoping that it will be more like mine as mine yields so much less human suffering, not that there will not be plenty of suffering to go round even in my model.

And yes, “catastrophic droughts” are already making things tough in Australia though we are being and will be cushioned to some extent by our vast resources of energy and metals.

As for “the likelihood of ten or twenty million new neighbors immigrating from Indonesia to your part of the continent” it’s not gunna happen.

It’s not going to happen for the same reason it didn’t happen for the past 12 thousand or so years people from Indonesia have been coming to Australia fishing, trading with Australian native peoples, looking at the country and returning gratefully to their fertile, high rainfall rice paddies.

In short, apart from a thin fringe down the East coast and a few other coastal patches, and the little, temperate island of Tasmania, Australia is basically uninhabitable without vast inputs of cheap energy and not really even then. Everyone from the Chinese down knew about it for thousands of years, they just didn’t consider the driest inhabited continent with the thinnest, least fertile soils on earth a good place to emigrate too.

Have a look at a good map. Anywhere those illegal immigrants from Indonesia are going to land in their little boats either has a city already built there, or is so awful they will get back in their boats and return home – or die.

We don’t even have to defend the place.

Matt Holbert said...

danby said: "And you'd better be honest about what you're doing or it will degenerate rapidly into that horrible corruption..."

We have to also be honest about the destruction that dogma and doctrine has wrought through the ages -- including that which "guided" the Jesuits and other Catholic orders. A substantial case can be made that most of our problems -- especially overpopulation -- stem from doctrine and dogma. In all honesty, I am not interested in preserving culture and have my doubts -- no doubts, no awakening -- about transcendence. My mention of the Jesuits stems from an admiration of the physical higher education system that they have developed and from the power that they have to influence young -- and old -- people.

yooper said...

Hello John, I'd like to offer a concept to some of your readers here. Perhaps, it's appropriate here in your fine article, "The Politics of Transition."

"Pedaling Backwards, Going Foward"

Not far from where I live is a vaction destination called Mackinac Island, Mi. This small little community, a former retreat for the elite, from the 1800's, is fashioned today where time has'nt changed fro back then. The island allow's no private motorized vehicles. The experience of riding a horse drawn carriage to the Grand Hotel, is a splendor of a victorian past...

Watching the local children ride their bicylces, is well worth the trip, just for this experience. For these kids, riding bicycles is like second nature, day to day life, this has been their only means of transportation.

Naturally, these kids like to show off to visitors their expertise on bicycles. One of their favorite "tricks", is pedaling backward going foward. That is, their butts are on the handlebars, they are actually pedaling backwards and going foward. What a strange sight this is to see!

What I'm suggesting here is that our lives are very likely to proceed much the same way in the future. Please bear with me, as I'll explain.

These kids have traveled these same roads for quite some time, again, again and yet again. They know what lies just before them as this history, navigates them down the road, they only turn to look foward to see if there's any obstructions in their way.

I'm suggesting our lives ahead will be navigated much the same way in the future. As resources deplete, we will be like going back in time, however going foward to, perhaps a similiar life, what the same amount of resorces afforded then.

History, may never repeat itself, however, living in a world of ever lessening resources is a fact. Perhaps, the first step down in the process of transition, is to stop what you're doing and access you're situation. The second might be what's the history of the land, that you're expecting to sustain you? I'm suggesting you won't have to go back far, perhaps only a 100 years or so... Find out what life was like for those back then....How they survived...

Nautrally, our enviroment is constantly changing, of course, being abreast of what this might mean could influence any decision one might make.

Better add it up, before you're apart of what will certainly be added up in the near future.

Thanks John! yooper.

stream said...

Has anyone here ever heard of Crimethinc?
(see http://www.crimethinc.com/texts/recentfeatures/reallyreally.php)
They're anarchists, but they're dumpster-diving crusty-punk anarchists. I think that a lot of people post-crash will end up like this.

As for amateur packet radio, I think QRP is more likely using CW, perhaps voice, for contacts between amateurs. Solid state is something we really won't be able to depend on for long especially in a Nuke War situation (think EMP). Here's a link to a good QRP site:
http://www.dxzone.com/catalog/Technical_Reference/QRP_Projects/

btw, JMG, I like your writings - I've actually compiled a selection of what's here into a PDF file - give me an email address and I'll send it to you.

cryosteel said...

"With the Internet and advances in shipping technology we can enter a postcivil era with social organization much closer to that of the Greek demes (kin-based agrarian populations of about 5,000) that gave rise to their Golden Age."

http://majorityrights.com/index.php/weblog/comments/postcivil_society_empty_the_cities/

Low voltage solar power could keep a minimal Internet going. Guided balloon transport, described in the article, can replace fossil fuel transport.