Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Adaptive Responses to Peak Oil

One of the occupational hazards of writing a blog on the future of industrial civilization, I’ve discovered, is the occasional incoming missive from somebody with a plan to save the world. My inbox fielded another of those the other day. As worldsaving plans go, this one is relatively modest, and by no means entirely misguided.

My correspondent hopes to convince the American people, or at least some portion thereof, to resettle in largely self-sufficient villages of 5000 to 10,000 people, compact enough that nobody will need to own or use a car. Each village owns enough land around it to feed its population, using edible forest crops and the like as the basis for subsistence. There’s a good deal more; you can find the rest of the details on the website my correspondent recommended.

Taken in the abstract, this is a great plan, and I suspect that a fair number of my readers would be as pleased as I would to move into such a village. As usual, though, the devil is in the details, and it’s as ugly a devil as ever graced a medieval morality play. Like those theatrical devils, though, this one has his uses. A close look at why my correspondent’s plan won’t save civilization from peak oil makes a good introduction to a theme that will be central to most of the next year or so of Archdruid Report posts – the question of how to craft an adaptive response to the coming of the deindustrial age.

It’s a rich word, “adaptive.” In the jargon of evolutionary biology, it refers to anything that allows an organism to respond effectively to the demands of its environment. When the environment is stable, what makes an organism adaptive stays pretty much the same from generation to generation. When the environment changes, though, what’s adaptive can change as well, sometimes radically; genetic variations that would have been problematic under the old conditions become advantages under the new; if the shift is large enough, a new species emerges. This points up the other, dictionary definition of the word – according to my Webster’s Ninth, “showing or having a capacity for or tendency toward adaptation.”

Both these meanings have crucial relevance to the work ahead of us as industrial society skids down the far side of Hubbert’s peak. On the one hand, it’s crucial to find ways of living that are adaptive in the ecological sense – that is, well suited to the new reality of a world of scarce energy and hard environmental limits. At the same time, we won’t simply be landing plump in that new reality overnight, nor do we know in advance exactly what that new reality will look like, so it’s just as crucial to find ways of living that are adaptive in the dictionary sense – that is, capable of adapting to the unpredictable changes of a world in transition.

The problem with my correspondent’s plan is that it may be adaptive in one sense, but it’s not adaptive at all in the other. It seems quite likely that a network of largely independent towns with populations in the 5000 to 10,000 range might be well adapted to the human and natural environments of a deindustrialized world, though that’s a guess at this stage of the process. It’s the process of getting there that’s the difficulty.

Let’s look at the numbers for a moment. Assume a population of 8000 and an average of 4 persons per family, and you need 2000 new homes for the community. We’ll assume that these homes are cheaper than the median US home – say, $250,000 apiece on average. That gives you a startup cost of $500 million. Add to that the cost of community infrastructure – everything from water and electricity to a school, a library, and the like – not to mention the farmland surrounding the village, and you’ve roughly doubled your price tag to $1 billion.

Even if half your residents own their own homes now and can pay for their new housing out of their equity – not a likely situation in the midst of today’s housing crash and credit crunch – and all the residents put in a great deal of sweat equity in the form of unpaid labor building the village, it’s still going to cost a great deal. If you had 2000 families committed enough to the project to risk their financial future on it, it might nonetheless be possible to make it happen. Still, that’s a huge risk, and it’s made even larger by the fact that the new village is going to have to provide jobs for all its adult residents – part of the point of the exercise is that nobody owns a car, remember, so commuting to the nearest city is out.

Nor can the village’s inhabitants count on being magically transported to a deindustrial world, where they can simply harvest their edible forest crops and barter skills among themselves. For many years to come, they will have bills to pay – not least the costs incurred in setting up the village – and national, state, and local taxes as well. Will the new village be able to provide its residents jobs that will insure their financial survival? Many small towns in the same population range are failing to do that right now. Behind the attractive image of a self-sufficient village in the countryside, in other words, lies the hard reality of a $1 billion gamble for survival against serious economic odds.

That $1 billion gamble, furthermore, would at best only take 8000 people out of the automobile economy – few enough that statistical noise will cover any impact they might have on the larger picture. Imagine a program to take 10% of the US population out of the automobile economy instead; that’s the sort of scale such a program would need in order to have any measurable effect on the fate of industrial society. The price tag there would be around $3.8 trillion in direct costs, plus the huge indirect costs involved in abandoning or relocating 10% of the country’s existing housing stock, residential and community infrastructure, and so on. It would take years, and possibly generations, for the savings in petroleum costs to make up for the huge initial outlay, and if the program turned out not to work – if, for whatever reason, the world on the far side of Hubbert’s peak turned out not to be suited to villages of the sort my correspondent envisions – all that outlay would have been wasted.

Now my correspondent’s plan is far from the most extreme example of this kind of unadaptive thinking. The poster children here are the dwindling tribe of technology fans who believe that fusion power will save us if we only commit enough money to research. It’s been well over half a century since the first attempts to make a viable fusion reactor got under way, and the only working example in the solar system is still 93,000,000 miles away from Earth, rising in the eastern skies every morning as it turns hydrogen into helium at its own unhurried pace. We have absolutely no certainty that another trillion dollars of investment will get us any closer to commercially viable fusion power, and if the gamble fails, industrial society is left twisting in the wind with a great deal of empty space beneath its feet.

The problem shared by these, and so many other proposed responses to the predicament of industrial society, is that they aren’t adaptive in the second, dictionary sense. They bet the farm on a single strategy, and if that fails, there is no plan B. Such plans look good on paper, but that’s usually as far as they go, because the factors in the human and natural environment that would make them possible simply aren’t there. For some forty years now, for instance, people have been talking about village communities like the ones my correspondent described. Very few have even been started, fewer have been built, and the ones that have become viable communities can be counted on the fingers of one foot.

What sort of response to the emerging crisis of the industrial world would count as adaptive? We’ll be talking about that for quite a number of posts to come, but a few suggestions might be worth making at this point.

First, an adaptive response is scalable – that is, it can be started and tested on a very small scale, with a minimal investment of resources, and then expanded from there if it proves to work. A fusion reactor is not scalable; you either have one, after trillions of dollars of further investment, or you don’t. My correspondent’s village proposal is a good deal more scalable than this, but even so it’s impossible to give it a try without at least a few hundred families and quite a bit of money. What we need, by contrast, are responses that can start out with individuals committing only the money, resources and time they can easily spare.

Second, an adaptive response is modular – that is, it can be broken down into distinct elements, each of which functions on its own without needing the involvement of all the other parts. That allows something that doesn’t work well to be swapped out without disrupting the rest of the system; it also allows elements suited to one stage of the deindustrializing process to be replaced with something else when that stage gives way to another. Think of the difference between a machine and a toolkit. A machine either does the job or it doesn’t, and if the job changes, you usually have to replace the entire tool. If you have a toolkit, by contrast, the jobs that can’t be done with one tool can usually be done with another.

Third, an adaptive response is open – that is, it can be combined freely with other approaches to the challenges of the future and the enduring predicaments of human existence. None of us can know in advance what belief systems, socioeconomic arrangements, and lifestyle choices will turn out to be most adaptive at each stage of the decline of industrial society. Locking a response into one particular set of approaches limits its usefulness, and could lead people in the future to jettison valuable options because they have become too thoroughly entangled with a dysfunctional economic system or a discredited ideology.

These characteristics look back toward some of the issues already discussed in this blog, but they also open unfamiliar doors. As we peer through those doors in the weeks and months to come, it might be possible to glimpse something of what adaptive responses to the predicament of the industrial world might look like.


doctorbob said...


Thanks for this. A good introduction to what should be a very interesting series of posts. So, do you feel that the UK (and spreading elsewhere) Transition Town movement is an example of the doomed-to-fail ecovillages you talked about, or a modular, scaleable approach. To me it is more like the latter in that the participants are not starting any capital works of construction, not abandoning their current jobs or homes, but simply innovating as the need arises plus some sensible anticipation.

The Less Deceived said...

As usual a post with some interesting ideas, lucidly argued. However, I would counter that you are not being adaptive enough in your assessment of how attitudes to housing might change.

A modern house costs $250k because people pay a builder to construct something prefabricated with vinyl siding, air conditioning, a fitted kitchen and an integral two-car garage. People are prepared to pay because the existing economic and environmental context makes it feel normal and even sensible to do so. On the other hand, if a family fleeing some urban dystopia is desperate for a home in a certain locale then they will (and must) live in anything they can get. They will not complain about the lack of a fitted kitchen. For the desperate even yurts and tipis are options but for a longer term solution it is possible that straw-bale housing will become popular.

A friend of mine built a straw-bale house partly on her own. She found plenty of volunteers to lend a hand. She needed that help and a mentor, largely because it has two stories and a fairly complex structure. However, a single-storey straw-bale house would need little more than a rammed earth and tyre foundation, bales for the walls, lime wash to weather proof the bales, and shingles for the roof. She has running water and electricity, with heating from a wood stove. She lives in a very rural area in the west of the UK where the weather is changeable but often wet (somewhat like Oregon, in fact) and the house is weatherproof and very snug. If it were not for the ‘honesty window’ you would not know it was a straw-bale house.

This then is genuinely affordable housing: the 400 or so bales themselves would probably cost no more than $500-600. A total $5k to $10k might be a reasonable figure for a basic house built completely with one’s own labour. No, it wouldn’t be luxurious but it would be a home that would protect its occupants in even the coldest winters - it would allow survival, in other words. The work would be hard but if multiple families in a particular location wanted houses then people would naturally gravitate towards cooperating with each other, lending their labour and being repaid in kind.

It can be done, as far as I can see, for a cost more than an order of magnitude lower than that you suggest. That, to my mind, is not the core issue. The issue is how long it would take for middle-class Americans to decide that they can accept living in such a dwelling. As of now, I would guess at 1% or less of the population. But in a society where personal transport is no longer affordable for the masses, food is scarce and urban law and order fading? A society where a rural village offers hard work but a stable food supply and personal security, with plentiful examples of straw-bale housing already in place to show what is possible? Well, that might be a different story. If we end up in such a society people will adapt or die.

John Michael Greer said...

Dr. Bob, the transition town movement is adaptive because it uses existing towns, with their building stock and economic framework intact, as a springboard for innovation toward something better fitted to the future. My guess is that they may do well.

Deceived, no argument there. There's nothing inherently wrong with the village as a settlement structure; the problem comes when you try to manufacture them according to a preconceived plan, rather than letting them evolve naturally out of changes in human settlement patterns. When refugees from the deserts of Georgia and the drowned cities of Florida build themselves simple homes of available materials on the prairies of postglacial Greenland, they won't be spending $250,000 a house to do so, and their villages may have a very good shot at survival.

A happy turkey (or tofu) day to all, by the way.

M. Simon said...

Get ready for the superindustrialized age:

Bussard Fusion Reactor
Easy Low Cost No Radiation Fusion

It has been funded:

Bussard Reactor Funded

The above reactor can burn Deuterium which is very abundant and produces lots of neutrons or it can burn a mixture of Hydrogen and Boron 11 which does not.

The implication of it is that we will know in 6 to 9 months if the small reactors of that design are feasible.

If they are we could have fusion plants generating electricity in 10 years or less depending on how much we want to spend to compress the time frame. A much better investment that CO2 sequestration.

BTW Bussard is not the only thing going on in IEC. There are a few government programs at Los Alamos National Laboratory, MIT, the University of Wisconsin and at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana among others.

The Japanese and Australians also have programs.

If the experiments work out a crash program could get us operating power plants in 3 to 5 years.

Initially they would have capital costs of 30% of conventional plants and and operating cost (including fuel) of about 10% of the interest on the capital. i.e. like wind the cost of electricity depends on the cost of the plant.

In any case you are forgetting the human element. Look at how much trouble inadequate electrical supplies caused California politicians.

You will see 50 new nukes a year built before you see large numbers of people voluntarily living in subsistence villages.

BTW do you know why people have to have cars to get to work? Zoning. You have industrial zoning and housing zoning. The two are kept as far apart as possible.

Land use regulations. Zoning commissions. Did they improve living conditions? Yep. At a price.

There ain't no such thing as a free lunch. TANSTAAFL.

Gregory said...

You are also forgetting that Americans wouldn't even consider doing this until half the country was starving to death. At that point, there are fewer people to move. Yay.

Unfortunately, by the time you could sell this idea there would not be enough cheap energy left to implement it.

There is the interesting issue of whether global demand for oil and natural gas decreases more or less quickly than global population. If entire nations implode socially/politically/financially before their populations are wiped out, the extreme demand destruction might enable the less-quickly-failing countries to afford the hydrocarbons needed for some wrenching, but successful transition.

Regardless, the only solution to the current situation that makes sense (if you aren't daily praying to your iPod and Blackberry) is a mass human die-off. There are just too many damned people. Easier to change their minds when they can see their past decisions killing their families.

LizM said...

JMG, I so agree with this post. It is a sad habit of Americans, and industrial peoples in general, to walk away from existing infrastructure as though it were a damaged toy. My city, like every other city in the US, has lost an enormous legacy of extraordinary and solidly constructed buildings to this "solution" mentality. If you look at the photographic record, you see a series of perfectly usable buildings demolished to make way for something mundane, no more useful than its predecessor, and usually far less beautiful.

It's just wasteful. It wastes embodied energy, labor, valuable materials, and a piece of history. And it throws more carbon into the atmosphere. I think the best solutions involve changing our minds, our perspectives, and our behaviors, which is probably why I like this blog. New construction is a developer's answer to post-industrial living. It's post-industrial thinking from a thoroughly industrial vantage.

Let me suggest that most of us are, in fact, already living in villages. My city neighborhood functions as a village, and my building as a smaller village within it. Human relations haven't changed so much that you can't reach out to your neighbors and start to live cooperatively, exchange favors, and look after each other in ways that the village scheme envisions. And suburbites can, I am sure, reorganize their social relations in similar fashion.

But of course, this doesn't involve any new toys, and you do have to accept the neighbors you've got. Let me just say that in my experience, the necessary mental shift pays far greater dividends than new construction.

John Michael Greer said...

Simon, yes, I figured we'd hear from the fusion tribe. You're repeating the same PR that's been in circulation since the 1950s, and I think most people are tired of buying that bridge. Let us know when you've got something that actually works.

Gregory, this is the kind of thinking that gives peak oil a bad name. You're cheering for mass dieoff? Would you be so enthusiastic if you and the people you care about were first in line? You might be, you know; the Four Horsemen don't play favorites.

Lizm, exactly. Working with existing infrastructure is adaptive -- in many cases, especially on your side of the country, it embodies valuable experience from the pre-fossil fuel age.

Danby said...

There is one other factor that you fail to take in to consideration. It is the factor that actually leads to the failure of most intentional communities. Let me tell you a story.

St. Johns was to be a Traditional Catholic Village in Pennsylvania. Centered around village church, the 200 or so homes were to be available for sale only to members of the sponsoring organization, the Third Order of St. John. Covenants restricted further sales only to other members. The church would offer only the Traditional Latin Mass, and the village would have no school of it's own. Instead, all the children would be bussed about 5 miles to a school run by the Society of St. John.

Money was raised, land was purchased, some 50 homes were ready to be built. A college was planned. It all looked to be going well. Then questions came up about the behavior of the head of the Society of St. John around high-school aged boys. No molestation was ever proved, but the admissions of activities just short of that (supplying alcohol to minors, nude massages, etc) led to the resignation of the head of the order, and revocation of his permission to function as a priest by the local bishop. He was later deported back to Argentina. A thorough audit of the books found a half-million dollars had been diverted to personal use by the priests.

Finally, the local bishop suppressed the order, seized their funds, and made sure they were returned to the original donors. The Third Order sponsoring the village was disbanded and the property sold. The Society have since re-organized in Paraguay, God help them.

Every (and I do mean every) intentional community movement I have examined closely has either collapsed or turned into a personal cult due to the failings of the leaders.

guamanian said...

Since I believe I am likely to live the rest of my life in a framework of 'semi-managed decline', I am often on the lookout for ideas that reflect your principles of "scalable, modular, and open", and also often look back in time for patterns that can be modified and re-used, given a few tweaks.

The ones I stumble upon this way are almost always 'bottom-up' instead of 'top-down' in design terms, and usually make some quirky use of an existing structure or system that will no longer work as originally intended in the decline phase.

Here are two ideas that I could see being adaptive to the early stages of descent. I don't offer them as solutions, but as small-scale thought experiments that might meet your criteria for adaptiveness:

1. Bio-truck Farms. Here in southern Ontario there are lots of industrial mixed-crop farms that include corn and other potential bio-fuel crops in the mix, all located within a short drive radius of our urban centres. We also have several small-scale bio-fuel experts working in the area. Combine these assets, and I could visualize a system where on-farm biodiesiel production drives the tractors and a couple of trucks to close the liquid fuels loop on the farm. The bio-trucks are then used to bring market produce to different neighbourhoods of the city for regularly scheduled markets, and also are used as 'flatbed busses' to bring labour back to the farm for a few days work on the return trip from the market, before returning us to the city for another market cycle. The overall pattern would create a biofuel-driven radiative flow of food and workers between cities and the neighbouring farms.

This might be a very useful way to use farm-brewed biofuels in energy descent. If a few farms tried it when the time is right, and it worked for them, adoption or adaptation by others would be natural, gradual, and not very capital intensive or disruptive. It would not even change farm ownership patterns much.

Historical templates exist for all aspects of the system: Vegetable farm trucks stopping regularly in neighbourhoods for tailgate sales were common in Canada 50 years ago. Migrant labour is already part of farming. Trucks used as rural busses for workers are common in Central America as in many other places. Farms growing feed for their own horses is a analogue for farms growing fuel for their bio-trucks. Even the recent invention of CSAs creates a template for 'our' neighbourhood supplying the labour for 'our' associated farms.

2. Burb-steading. For brevity, I'll just sketch this one: Given a little bit of creative dis-assembly and reconfiguration, four adjoining abandoned suburban houses become a one acre intensive vegetable farm with a super-insulated home, a barn/coop, and two concrete-lined fish ponds. (The foundations of the two disassembled houses.) The location on the city edge offers a ready market. Even the surplus windows become cloches for growing season extension.

I cheerfully acknowledge that both of these ideas are probably flawed and doomed to fail... but the approach of working creatively with what we already have, trying it, failing, learning, adapting, and trying something else will work just often enough to be our best way forward.

Simon said...

To the belgian question (I am one, btw): There's a dutch-speaking majority in the country, and a french-speaking majority in the capital. The deal was that neither group would use its majority to force a decision or use its guaranteed rights to stall the government.. as a matter of courtesy, but it happened anyway. Nothing to worry about, since it only concerns the federal government, which is legally on the same level as the regional governments. And they'll have to solve the problem (a minor issue concerning an electoral district) after a period of posturing and raising the stakes, since the next elections would be illegal otherwise.
And concerning the local culture: there will be no uprisings, since people wouldn't be home for dinner in that case ;) .

John Michael Greer said...

Dan, of course that's an issue -- not one I addressed, since it's anyone's guess if my correspondent was talking about an intentional community in the strict sense of the word or not. The problem here goes deep. As I see it, any attempt to produce a Utopian society in the real world (and almost every intentional community counts) falls apart in every place the ideal departs from reality; the ideal of wise, unselfish, incorruptible leadership is one of those places. Real leaders are fallible, and need to have a rein kept on them at all times.

Guamanian, both these are good ideas. I suspect, though, that before long horses will prove to be so much more economical than biofuel-powered tractors and trucks -- among other things, tractors don't breed -- that the truck farms will use real horse-power to get their produce to local railroad stations for transport to market.

Simon, thanks for the clarification.

Panidaho said...

Well, I had a look at that village site, and to be honest I saw a lot of issues with their implementation that make me wonder why anyone would consider it an option for long-term sustainable living. I can only assume that the person who brought it to your attention was only very loosely using this model as a starting point for something much more diverse, much less expensive and much more self-sufficient.

For example, take the "local sustainable economy" concept the village folks are using. It's not really very local at all. When you go down the list, some of the requirements are that the village has "fast broadband and good transport links" and "access to airports and overnight shipping." The site also states a village will need to attract 2000 jobs for an economy of 100 million - that's an average of $50,000 per year per job, and all those jobs are supposed to be done from within the community. To accomplish this, a village using this blueprint will have to be a very-hand picked operation - attracting mostly well-heeled retired people, urban professionals who can telecommute to their big city corporate jobs, or folks who can relocate their well-paying entrepreneurial lifestyle to a village. That's a pretty darned small sub-section of the overall population.

Nor are the village folks even trying to be self-sufficient in food - they refer to the village as being a "major market for for the local farms." So, while hoping that some local farmers might decide to put the village on their delivery route is good, that means lots of inputs and outside infrastructure are still required to keep the village propped up and functioning - pretty much the same as any other city. Oh, and I also see no mention of where they plan to get their power - my guess is off the same grid as everyone else?

So what we really have here is a no-cars-allowed-inside, gated, high-input suburb of mostly hand-picked professional middle-income or higher individuals with some pretty serious community covenants to control who moves in. To my mind, definitely not sustainable in any sense of the word. Might be a nice place to live, depending on how well the other folks in the community behave, but it's still prone to the same oil and climate related problems as any other city.

(Btw, I had to laugh a little at the "using edible forest crops and the like as the basis for subsistence" part. I would love to see what the average person off the street would say when confronted with a plateful of "edible forest crops!")

Panidaho said...

JMG said:

As I see it, any attempt to produce a Utopian society in the real world (and almost every intentional community counts) falls apart in every place the ideal departs from reality; the ideal of wise, unselfish, incorruptible leadership is one of those places. Real leaders are fallible, and need to have a rein kept on them at all times.

Yup. Good government is a rare and fragile thing. At least as rare as the self-discipline and general good character among the governed that makes it possible.

Jonathan said...

"Adaptive response to Peak Oil"
This time, I'll make a really less optimistic post than before.
I can, and want to believe, that we have or may develop the technology that is required to live in a sustainable way.
But what I see know, is that for one sustainable project (electric car, energetically passive building, agriculture monitored to be negative in term of C02 (or others GH gas) ) there are ten or more projects to find new ways of burning stuff more efficiently :
- liquid gas/coal/methane
- cellulose (wood, termites are studied : they do it very efficiently, and are probably the first producer of GH gas effect un earth, after all human domesticated species of course -- but once domesticated, they'll give us hell)

To those who wonder, more efficiently means less polluting in term of CO (monoxyd) and other TOXIC gases, but proportionnally more H2O and CO2, that are the main GH effect gas, and are not toxic at all. The other major GH effect gas is CH4, but it happens to be methane, the most efficient fuel available...

So, to me, as long as the global economy is driven liberalism, we are running into a grim present toward a dark future, that of extermination of most species on earth, including our own.
And even if we don't disappear, what will be left will never raise above the state of farmer.
It doesn't mean that we won't be able do destroy the environnment again, as transforming all possible soils into agricultural fields is a very efficient way toward pollution, extermination of species and eventual self-destruction.

Also, I don't believe humanity as a whole is capable of grasping the problem of environnment, climate change, peak oil and assimilating the cultural traits of moderation (notably in term of child number), respect of environnement and scientific way of proceeding that are required to survive in the long term.

I know that some people like you, JMG, and others, are trying to make an impulse toward this kind of society, by living in villages or some sort of tribal system, and adopt the cultural traits by settling them as a religion (that's how I understand modern druidism). But the shortcomings to this strategy are countless :
- the 6 billion people (soon 9) that want to reach the incongruous level of comfort american and european have enjoyed for 50~100 years and will also make the biggest part of future migrations (some of which practice public lynching every day or so, to denote the cultural gap)
- the geopolitical struggle for the last bits of fuel that has already begun in Iraq (I would call it the last world war, if I wasn't convinced it will only be the third)
- climate change will be accelerated because of the fore-mentionned attempt at other types of fuel.
- the climate change will make 99% of those villages dead, as they'll face floods, draught and food shortage. (meaning it requires lots of such villages for enough to survive)
- if the climate change is too strong (which I suspect will, for several scientific reason) people will die whether they are "environment-behaved" or not. So statically, it's lost again.
- the societies that have low birth-rate (it's a sustainable behavior) are also the ones that emit the most GH by head : Europe and North America.
- a lower birth-rate is a short-term insurance of losing in the struggle for survival, against competing high-birth rate populations.
- a society can't retain its cultural traits in the very long term.
The case of the birth-rate is very important, because a single population that has no control over it's growth (the growth being always near 0 % +/- ) eventually overwhelms all others. The expansion of European populations all over the world between the 14th and the 19th century is a good example, as we destroyed many local populations, like native americans.

It also means that mankind will follow a saw-teeth curve of population until it goes too high and then drop to zero (we may be on the last tooth). This a very frequent behavior in life simulations, however complex they are. It is a distinct feature of locusts populations.

That's it for this week, and I'm in a good mood !

Francisco said...

A better thought out plan for carless town and cities can be found at

FARfetched said...

JMG, "working with existing infrastructure" and Guamanian's "burb-steading" are pretty similar to what I've called "re-purposing." And I agree about the "adaptive" part. When energy becomes constrained, the economy will only be more constrained — and working with what's available will be the only way to go forward. Turn suburban houses into duplexes — people with less stuff won't need so much room anyway, and you cut your heating costs in half for the same number of people — and raze other houses for raw material or turn them into storage or businesses. Even the hard work part wouldn't be too onerous as long as there isn't some self-appointed "chief" who takes the profits and chats up the daughters while the parents are working.

But even old-style villages weren't completely self-contained. There were roads from one to the next, which carried commerce and information, and I would expect that an adaptive, sustainable village would develop some kind of sustainable industry to provide the people with necessities, luxuries, or trade goods.

A said...

Scalable, modular systems in which the products of industrial civilisation are utilised in new and unintended configurations: here is an appropriate challenge for creative scientists/tinkerers everywhere!

There really is no limit to human ingenuity once the challenge is apparent, yet most of these creative spirits are wedded to by the idea that technology (in the the ever more sophisticated industrial sense) will prevail.

But the talent is out there for truly adaptive 'cannibalistic' creative thinking. Here is an example that your readers might appreciate (no personal connection to the author):

A greenhouse solar heating and cooling system that uses the soil mass to store heat and cunningly uses ordinary flexible drainage pipe to circulate hot, humid greenhouse air through the subsoil. The big advantage over other similar systems is that, sized correctly, a vapor phase change can be induced, massively increasing the efficiency of heat transfer. As dewpoint is reached, the air gives up its heat and moisture returning to the greenhouse cooler and drier. At night and at the end of the growing season the system can be made to work in reverse. In small greenhouses it could be run with a computer fan and a small solar panel, and has the potential to expand the growing season in marginal climates.

Presumably this is the kind of thing you mean, John?

shadowfoot said...

It's too bad none of the modern intentional communities have made it. Maybe they were too large? Or the power structure was unbalanced (accountability is important)... I'm hoping the Transition Towns do well -- they're looking good so far. And I like how the process is inclusive of people -- anyone who's interested. Perhaps they or similar ideas will gain popularity, and have more environmental impact over time.

Sometimes a few people can have a big effect (not often from what I've seen so far but...). I'm thinking of an Australian farmer who changed his farming/ranching methods --some of it's old ideas actually -- rotating sheep grazing areas and direct sewing of grain. Has more water, more produce, better soil, uses lots less fertilizers and pesticides -- in short, making money. Now 1,000 other Aussie farmers are set to do the same thing. Given the size of stations there, I'm guessing it will make a small but measurable difference in the environment there in a few years.

Sometimes big things can come out of small (adaptive) beginnings?
Heather G

John Michael Greer said...

Teresa, two excellent points. Having already critiqued the village project on other grounds, I didn't want to get into the fact that it's basically nouveau suburbia, but yes, it is. As for leaders and followers, one of our problems these days is that nobody wants to cooperate on any basis other than getting their own way all the time -- and that's not a recipe for a viable community.

Jonathan, I can't speak for all Druids, but no, I'm not trying to encourage people to become farmers and move to villages. I'm saying that as industrial civilization comes apart at the seams, farmers in villages will be most of what we'll have left, and we might as well act now to make the transition to a neo-agrarian society with as many of the benefits of the last three hundred years as possible. As for the sawtooth pattern you suggest, well, locusts are still around; the current situation is in many ways unique -- not least because it's only because of fossil fuels that the overpopulation of the last century has been possible at all -- and it's much more likely that human societies will return to the same much less drastic set of population cycles they had before the fossil fuel age once it's over.

Francisco, thanks for the link.

Farfetched, very much so. It's one of the common delusions of the modern world that the only alternative to industrialism is huddling in a cave somewhere. Look at the world as it was in, say, 1700 -- a tapestry of societies, many of them highly literate and cultured, with thriving cities and a great deal of long-distance trade. A deindustrial world could easily look like that.

Dwig said...

Danby: Every (and I do mean every) intentional community movement I have examined closely has either collapsed or turned into a personal cult due to the failings of the leaders. This is a good illustration of John's points by counterexample: almost by definition, communities founded by ideologically driven "visionaries" with a fixed idea of how people ought to live must fail the tests of scalability, modularity, and openness.

What I'd find more interesting is the fate of intentional communities that start out with a more humble and, well, adaptive take on the challenge at hand. Does anyone know of any such efforts that have a significant history? Also, by the way, how have the Amish survived so long?

Nnonnth said...

I think the transition towns are doing very well and the fact that a number of them have now been set up means a pattern is emerging on how to do it.

There is now one in inner city London as well - Brixton. Head to their pages for a nice description of the formula. I've also been looking at Cuba as an example of how people cope with some things. The essence is to acquire resourceful and affable community resilience.

To be adaptable means you can start work right now. You just look at what you have and go, how can I adapt it, how can I stop relying on the unreliable. Amongst the skills everyone needs for this period of human history are the ability to change when everyone else isn't, and the ability to get on with other people and be happy when everyone else doesn't and won't.

Acquire these skills now, get out and start meeting people, put things together, know your friends and neighbours, act! You may even find you start to enjoy yourself. Heavens, to be free of all this daft cultural stupidity is to be making sanity at least in your home and body and mind.

All towns are ALREADY transition towns, people just need to wake up and realize it. There has never been a human community that wasn't a transition community. On the scales upon which big nations act, unwieldy response is inevitable. But your own natural local response right now is very wieldy indeed. No-one's stopping anyone!

I guess I'm anticipating a whole year of blog posts by JMG here, but to me, everything else is just hand-wringing and pipedreaming. I'm sure a good many readers of this blog have already acted in many ways, we can use the time we have now to act further and compare results and brainstorm. We won't all make it, what do you want, to live forever? At least we can start living now!

This is why I look forward to the 2008 posts on this blog with such great interest. The reason transition towns are attracting attention is not from good theory and thinking only, it's from good practice. I know there are masses of people who are taking action and in the end this action is what will work if anything does.

My point is: what is actually happening always trumps what is not actually happening! This is what oil-based civilization (which is moving more and more towards not-actually-happening status) is finding. Transition towns are actually happening.

M. Simon said...

John Michael Greer,

Uh no. This is not the same old fusion refrain. It is a different approach. Much smaller and on a different operating principle than the tokamak. The tokamak depends on heating to get the atoms smashing together. IEC Fusion depends on precisely accelerated particle beams. Much more efficient and smaller.

In any case we will know in 6 to 9 months if the approach is workable (for ITER that decision is 30 years away).

Plasma Physicist Dr. Nicholas Krall said, "We spent $15 billion dollars studying tokamaks and what we learned about them is that they are no damn good."

BTW Dr. Krall worked with Dr. Bussard when he was alive. He like the prospects of the Bussard Reactor.

M. Simon said...

The best way to get population growth down is to raise standards of living.

Bucky Fuller found this relationship 70 years ago.

John Michael Greer said...

Dwig, I can think of one form of intentional community that has an extremely good track record: monasticism. Unfortunately most people aren't willing to embrace a lifestyle that restrictive.

Nnonth, an excellent slogan -- "every town is a transition town" -- and more importantly, a crucial point to keep in mind. We are already, like it or not, in the transition.

Simon, everybody insists that their preferred energy technology (fusion or other wise) is different. My comment stands: show me a working prototype, and then we'll talk. Until then, it's pie in the sky.

As for Bucky Fuller's claim, well, yes, and if pigs had wings we'd all catch bacon with butterfly nets. With the end of the fossil fuel age, standards of living will go down, and down, and down -- and so will population, just as in the diminuendo days of civilizations of the past. Wishing for rising standards of living in the face of looming energy and resource shortages may be pleasant but it's not useful.

yooper said...

Hello John! Perhaps a bit off topic here,(not really), I'd again like to strongly suggest reading "Atlantis" to you're readers. I've just finshed your very fine book, and now have even a better understanding of what you're trying to communicate here.

Look readers, if you admire someone, may I suggest to getting to know that person better? If you're sincerely interested in what is being talked about on this post, why not investigate it? If you're intrigued as much as I am about his logic, why not find out where this is coming from?

I might add John, that I completely agree with your assessment of Atlantis, for that matter, Blavatsky's concept of Lemuria....

I might add a little incentive to you're readers here, John. If, this man,(JMG), has the very best assessment of this past society,(in my opinion), is'nt it logical that he might have a very good idea what might happen in the future?

I simply cannot stress this idea enough... It may seem to you're reader's John, that we're at odds much of it the time, however, may I suggest, it only seems that way. For alot of what I'm putting forth, is'nt to be taken literally, however expressing an idea,(got that Far?). For one, I've learned at great deal from John in this matter.

As we share ideas, is this not a step towards,"Adaptive Responses to Peal Oil"?

I've spent a great deal of my life, over 35 years, learning, contemplating, even experimentation, to only come up short, again, again and yet again.....

Thanks, John, for being there for me.......


mc said...

Since we don't know what the changes will look like, large scale planning may prove to be of little use. I wonder how rapidly the energy situation will deteriorate. As you point out, we won't land in the new reality overnight and we do not know exactly what the new reality will look like. I am struck by how people in the past adapted to shortages brought on by war, such as German citizens during WWII and Americans in the South during the Civil War - to name just two. It seems, they start with minor adjustments and then rather quickly many are in danger of starvation and personal attacks and/or imprisonment.

I look forward to the posts. Seems that timing is everything. I have some degree of optimism if changes are gradual and persistent over several decades. On some blogs, we are seen as going off a cliff - right now. If that were to happen, the civil breakdown would prevent many, if not most, communities from managing since they would be preoccupied with defense.

At any rate, even though a large population, with adaptation and planning, it could be a gradual reduction rather than catastrophic die off. Look forward to reading these posts.

guamanian said...

For those interested in learning from the successes and failures of one of the 1960s intentional communities, check out The Farm:

It is probably the most successful of the communities from that era of experimentation that is still operating... as I recall, a combination of charismatic leadership (with all the usual benefits and problems that come with it), and an ability to adapt to changing conditions while still maintaining integrity of purpose, have been key to The Farm's modest success.

Ares Olympus said...

This subject reminds me of some friends after college wanted to start a "Walden II" type community of 100-1000 people, buying cheap farm land an hour from "the cities" where they could exploit high incomes and eventually transition towards a community business to make it self-sustaining. My idealistic ~6-8 friends succeeded in buying a big house in the city and did full income sharing for about a year.

What they actually accomplished for that year, cohousing, seemed more promising than building up a exurb community, paying down student loans and credit cards faster than they could have as individuals, and they set up a workable set of household managers over: kitchen, housekeeping, maintenance, finances, etc.

I thought hard how their vision could make more sense to me and the vision I saw was more cohousing within urban neighborhoods. For me it all came down to debt - to do big things fast you have to take on a lot of debt, so I'd rather scavenge within the existing resources for easy pickings - perhaps renovating a poor neighborhood, or if you leave the city, find a small town in need of new blood and make some friends and see where you can make a difference.

I'll always look for incremental changes that move in a direction that I think I want to go, and reserve the right to change paths as circumstances and opportunities advance.

OF COURSE, that's how humanity got into this mess we have now - taking the easy road of cheap energy and now we have to face the costs of our choices which were not sustainable.

I'm sure there's times for revolution - where all smooth paths are unacceptable, but when you follow that path, you have to give up all hope that there's any road back to the life you left. Like Alexander's Army, burning their boats on a new shore of conquest. I suppose the burning times may yet come again!

Myself, I feel like I'm honoring the hard work of my parents and grandparents if I continue some of their work, build off their wealth. I MEAN I know I have a lot more spare time than they did, so that's a great gift. I'm not sure I'm willing to work as hard as the pioneers, and I'm not yet sure what direction I need to travel.

My own revolutions are closer to home - sometimes trying to convince friends and family that a bicycle is the most power means of transportation, and change is slow, but not all seeds grow fast, and I'm not ready to evangalize my mission quite yet.

Carpool Crew said...

It's about using the flow of existing energy. Such a rigid move will not occur without social breakdown, so what is needed is a crash landing tool.

I tell you, for the life of me, I can’t imagine a single more important application than mobile Peak Oil software.

We are entering turbulent times when the economy can’t hide its sickness anymore. All the software applications that send you Bart Simpson quotes and other stupid Facebook widgets need to die.

Die! Die! Die!

We have the technology to create the all-in-one save our asses application. It needs to be out there, PRONTO. I mean, society is about to go through a massively rough period, and when people get scared, they do stupid things.

We don’t need new technology. We need new uses for existing technology. Technology people already have, because the ability for consumers to acquire new things is greatly diminished. The dollar keeps losing value, prices keep rising, and we are probably going to start seeing spot shortages of stuff.

So I guess what I mean to say with this headline is that Google should give me the ten million bucks. I have that killer Android application they want so badly. Come and get it fellas.

Mat(ière) Noir said...

People who are worried about post peak living should visit Nandigram in India. Or at least see what Vandana Shiva has to say about their success.

Here is a sustainable community that has the political will to defeat the corporate bandits in cahoots with the Indian government.

yooper said...

Hello John! Like you're thoughts about opening some doors here and peering into what the future might hold. Might I also suggest to you, that as you're peering in, I could be peering out. Now you can take that for what's it's worth.....

I simply cannot imagine a village or society of 5000 or 10,000 people being largely self sufficient, let alone capable of withstanding what we're about to experience. This is like what you call "pigs with wings".

Perhaps, in the far future, as you suggested in Adam's Story could this happen. Certainly, after the impact of die-off, (whether that is in two years or fifty....)

Surely, there are "lifeboats" out there, I'm familiar with a few in my area. This ranges with groups as large as 30 people moving into a compound deep in the forest, to very weathly families who own entire islands.

One thing, all these people have in common is they believe in a sudden collaspe. Actually, they're betting on it, stock piling staples, guns, what have you... This is fine, as insurance, however, if this is going to be the long emergancy as you're forever suggesting, really what good will it be in the long run?

Certainly, these people cannot subsist after their supplies run out. For one thing, they cannot fathom what it would take to live off the land, if that is indeed possible. Again, they simply cannot adapt...

I'm with Danby, and might suggest that any of these socieites have failed in the past due in a very large part because they were "isolated". Furthermore, I cannot imagine a man-made society, that can guarantee it's members survival, of the natural process,(therefore chaotic), this world has to offer....

Thanks, yooper.

Dwig said...

John: I can think of one form of intentional community that has an extremely good track record: monasticism. Unfortunately most people aren't willing to embrace a lifestyle that restrictive. Agree heartily, but I'd add one word: "yet".

Given a handful of unattractive choices, monasticism may come to look like the best of the bunch. Or at least something roughly like monasticism, which brings us back to the Amish ... (For some reason, I'm hearing "'tis a gift to be simple, 'tis a gift to be free..." in the back of my mind.)

Actually, I can think of another, rather unusual candidate: the Federation of Damanhur, which was founded in the early 1970s (also see a review at It's still pretty much under the direction of its founder, though; the critical test will be how it handles his passing.

Bytesmiths said...

danby wrote: "Every (and I do mean every) intentional community movement I have examined closely has either collapsed or turned into a personal cult due to the failings of the leaders."

This paragraph is interesting at many levels. It implies that you have not examined any of the many successful intentional communities. It implies that you have a "leader" mind-set, which is possibly why you've not examined the successful communities. (Successful intentional communities tend to be anarchic and consensus-based, rather than hierarchical and leader-based.) As a self-described devout Catholic, could it be that your faith's chosen model of social order is influencing what you see as possible?

shadowfoot wrote: "It's too bad none of the modern intentional communities have made it."

This is sorta like saying, "It's too bad no one ever visited the moon," because it is stated with such conviction. It must be a strong belief, yet it is a belief with no basis in reality.

dwig wrote: "[what] is the fate of intentional communities that start out with a more humble and, well, adaptive take on the challenge at hand. Does anyone know of any such efforts that have a significant history?"

There are bunches of them. They even have an organization: the Fellowship for Intentional Community, that has semi-annual conferences in various places in North America. They even have their own magazine! (I was Photo/Illustration Editor of Communities Magazine for a spell.)

"how have the Amish survived so long?"

I would attribute it to loose, non-hierarchical organization, based on consensus, combined with an attitude of common work for common good. You'll never hear of an "Amish politician," just as you'll never hear of ten American suburban families getting together to build a house for a new family.

m. simon wrote: "The best way to get population growth down is to raise standards of living."

I'm afraid this time may be past. For the past hundred years or so, "standard of living" has been equated with "energy use."

There certainly should be other ways of defining a high standard of living, but they have to be invented before they can be raised. I'd suggest we not use the old terms to mean new ideas, because it is impossible to "raise the standard of living" of anyone in a finite world without reducing that of someone else, given the phrase's colloquial association with money (an illusion) and energy (in decline).

JMG: I think you've been a bit harsh on Village Forum. From my involvement in the intentional communities movement, I think they're a bit naive and unrealistic, it's the right direction. You point out the immense costs of doing this sort of thing as though it would happen in a Soviet-style, centralized mandate.

However, I think this sort of thing is inevitable! If you accept the premise that the future is going to be more like the past as cheap energy goes away (and I think much of your writing reflects that belief), it's easy to see that pre-fossil fuel, much of humanity was organized around units larger than the family.

Call it a village, tribe, whatever, up until the beginning of the industrial revolution, as ushered in by widespread use of coal, people lived in groups of a few tens to a few thousands of people.

When energy became cheap enough so that energy slaves could take the place of common resources, the communal unit of choice devolved into the family, and it settled there for some time.

Now at the peak of energy use, the communal unit has become the Individual, with each of us expected to function with little or no input from persistent communal associations.

As energy declines, we'll see the necessity of larger communal units re-emerge. Children will cease to be the hobbies and luxuries of the energy rich, and will once again become an important labour source.

I think it makes a lot of sense to leap-frog the family, and strive to restore the communal group as the essential societal structure. For those who are dubious, we're all around you -- join in the fun, and work together with others for the future.

So please don't tell me how many zeros would have to be after the dollar sign -- to this degree, you and I agree that Village Forum is unrealistic to think people will voluntarily leave a comfortable place to start over.

What's more likely to happen is the classic diaspora, a mass relocation based on common forces. Some of us are old enough to have witnessed the last North American diaspora, when the cities and suburbs inhaled the people from the countryside as "fossil energy slaves" made toil on the land unnecessary for all but a few. This will simply be the reversal, a sighing exhalation from cities no longer capable of caring for burgeoning populations.

Before fossil energy, there were fifteen families working the land for every one living in a city. We should start planning for that again! Only this time, let's do it together, so we won't need to breed large families for farm labour.


yooper said...

bytesmiths, you're suggestion of the Amish is a very good example of an soceity that has co-exsisted with others, successfully for a very long time. I'm familiar with one such area, and I suppose this bunch is far more adaptive to what many of us expect times will be like in the near future. There's no a doubt in my mind about this. They are living, in an enviroment, "outside the box". Through generations, these people have passed on the skills required to become a somewhat substainable society. If, change comes slow enough and of those settlements that are isolated, can largly go undisturbed, they stand an excellent chance of survival.

However, we're talking about a religious sect here and might I add a very close knit bunch. In the settlement I'm talking about, those families,(less than 100), have earned the privilege to be there. They do not like "outsiders" infringing on their land and for anyone to think at a drop of the hat to join such a soceity, is laughable.

By the way, these people people believe their soceity is inspired by GOD, not man-made at all.... I might concure.

Thanks, yooper

tRB said...

The way to stabilize and reduce population without killing or neglecting people is to reduce the number of births. And that is done not so much by increasing consumption as by expanding and protecting women's rights.

Women have fewer children when they can control their own reproductive lives and are allowed to become involved with activities beyond bearing and raising children.

One of my concerns is that this idea of "reeling time backward" will create a new myth, a myth which says that we have to go back to older, unjust social structures. Some may say that it is inevitable. But is there any material reason why equality and our attitudes toward women and reproduction have to go back to pre-industrial European standards as our fossil fuel consumption goes back to pre-industrial European levels? I don't see any reason.

Naresh said...

It’s obvious that the 'solution' originally presented is doomed to failure. Just take a look at a few of the basic permaculture principles, and John lays out a few of them, such as scalability, and adaptability, and there are many more- produce no waste, produce a surplus, create edge, value the marginal, slow and steady, and it’s clear that this solution, although not a bad idea violates many of permaculture’s most basic and important principles. And why bang on about permaculture? Its been created on a tried and tested basis through several decades of use around the world, and its wisdom has become distilled and itself is open to adaptable and reproducible new solutions. It’s the system most aligned with how nature works. You want to know what works for life on earth? Look to nature- it’s been at the game for billions of years! We have only forgotten this because of the fossil fuel bonanza that has –briefly- detached us from the resilience and self sufficiency that most successful societies have exhibited for millennia.
The Transition Town model is only permaculture in action applied to a community based situation. It’s simple and it works. I like the comment, that we are all transition towns now (whether we like it or not!) most just don’t know it. Those of us who are working at creating the transition movement just are aware of it.
Naresh Giangrande
Co founder Transition Town Totnes, UK

Jan Steinman said...

tRB wrote: "The way to stabilize and reduce population without killing or neglecting people is to reduce the number of births. And that is done not so much by increasing consumption as by expanding and protecting women's rights."

I'm not certain about the "women's rights" part. I think it has more to do with affluence, with women's rights just a side effect. As with many complex things, it's difficult to tell cause from effect.

I think it's merely a matter of affluence, which I define as access to energy. If "energy slaves" were not delivering water and heat at the turn of a knob, women and children would be fetching water and kindling. And as energy slaves go away, large families may return as a home-grown labour force, further burdening women.

In North America (at least) women still earn considerably less for the same jobs, and their reproductive rights are under increasing attack from the religious right and the courts. It would appear that "peak woman's rights" may have occurred contemporaneously with peak energy availability in the late '70's and early '80's.

And yet there have been pre-industrial matriarchical societies. So I hope peak energy is not synonymous with peak women's rights.

Danby said...

I checked out the FIC website you linked, and what I see are 1) cults 2)non-residential para-communities and 3)co-housing. Since we are talking about self-sustaining communities rather than households, I did a simple search for intentional communities with more than 100 children. It returned 11 hits, only 2 of which, both kibbutzim in Israel, could be described as a potentially self-sufficient intentional communities.

I will confess to not having studied kibbutzim much, as they seem to be very specific to Israel and not very exportable to other situations.

As for the rest, essentially they're cults. And yes, Guamanian, I'm quite aware of the The Farm, having been involved in the homebirth/midwifery movement back in the 80's and 90's. It's a cult too.

By far most of the smaller intentional communities listed at FIC are simple co-housing arrangements. Co-housing just doesn't cut it in terms of setting up an alternative structure to replace industrial capitalism. It's got no capacity for sustaining itself. It is merely another form of condominium, with less privacy and even more subordination to authority. I wouldn't even count them as communities.

Para-communities are such organizations as Catholic Worker's houses and Helping Hand Charitable Trust. They are communal, and of great value, but they are set up and function as charitable organizations, not as communities per se.

My point is this: a dozen commodities traders and programmers living in an oversized Victorian house in SF, or a thousand vegans worshiping King Yo as the incarnation of the Universal Spirit are not really going to alleviate the collapse of the industrial economy. Nor are they going to likely contribute much to the next phase of history. They are essentially extraneous to the discussion.

The other point (the one everyone seems to be missing) is that all such successful communities are based around religion, whether of a Buddhist, Mennonite, Doukhobor or Anabaptist bent. The communities themselves are rarely of the intentional "let's build a community" stripe, but rather of the "I'm ready to buy a house and some land, but I don't want to be too far from my co-religionists" style. Even more so with the monasteries, which are explicitly about NOT a self-sustaining community (celibacy and all), but rather about achieving salvation.

An interesting thing is happeining in a little town in Oklahoma, named Clear Creek. The traditionalist Benedictine Monastery at La Solemnes in France (you may have heard their CD Chant) has founded a monastery there. The monks have no intention of building a Catholic community in Oklahoma. Yet, that is what they are doing. Land prices have risen dramatically within a few miles of the new monastery as Catholics from other parts of the country move to Oklahoma in order to be nearby.

Well, I'm off to go cut more firewood.

yooper said...

Hello John, again, I'd like to present,, for a prospective, in what we're facing here in the near future. I suspect, that at least half of the reader's on this post are unfamiliar with this concept.

trb, I hope you're right, that advances made concerning womens rights and their bodies are not lost.

I don't think times will "reel back" either. However, I completely agree that "forever progressing" is a myth.

I sincerely hope that you and other readers here check out the Paul Chefurka site. This model has a declining birth rate. It's also suggesting by the year 2017 and extending through the year 2042, excess deaths approach 150 million per year.

That my dear friends, is the population of this country dieing every other year, for 25 years. In my opinion, based on his optimistic assumptions, this may be the "best case" scenario.

Thanks, yooper

John Michael Greer said...

Today was day 1 of jury duty for me, so I have some catching up to do. Thanks, all, for a lively discussion!

Yooper, thanks for the vote of confidence.

MC, good -- you're thinking of close historical parallels, which is vital to planning. My next post will have some comments on these lines.

Guamanian, the Farm's an interesting example, with much to learn from on both sides of the balance. You're certainly right that it's one of the more successful of the species.

Ares, I'm a fan of the incremental approach, of course -- you don't burn your boats unless you have to. I'm hoping that we won't have to.

Carpool, I'm sufficiently out of the high-tech loop that I'm still trying to figure out if your comment is a satire or not.

Noir, thanks for the link.

Yooper, towns of 5000-10,000 will be entirely viable as local centers of services and exchange in the agricultural economy -- used to be a lot of them. They won't be self-sufficient, but then nobody is actually self-sufficient; local dependency, rather than complete autarky, is the theme that needs to be kept in mind.

Dwig, oh, granted -- my guess is that monasteries will make a very strong comeback. I've often thought that the Shakers make a good model for what an American monasticism could look like; more generally, people studying the possibility of intentional communities might take them as an example. There's still one Shaker community left up at Sabbathday Lake, Maine; the only thing that kept them from being a continuing presence in a larger way is a society in which celibacy and self-discipline are pretty much unthinkable.

Bytesmiths, I'm not at all opposed to the emergence of villages -- in fact I'm quite convinced that it's inevitable. Still, this will happen when human ecology supports it, and not before; nor will the resulting villages be pocket suburbs for the upper middle class. Once we no longer have the energy equivalent of 260 slaves working night and day to satisfy our cravings, we'll find out just how much work it really takes to support a given standard of living, and standards of living will drop accordingly.

TRB, one of the reasons I'm talking about the prospect of future ecotechnic societies is precisely because what you've called "the myth of reeling time backward" is so pervasive in our society. It's an article of faith in modern society that the only alternative to the acceleration of the status quo (aka "progress") is some past social system. That has to be countered with visions of a low-tech but innovative future.

Naresh, exactly -- these are among the reasons I think the transition town movement may do well. One of the things I like most about it is that it focuses on the concept of transition rather than trying to impose some rigid ideal on the flowing shape of human social interaction we call a community.

Jan, women had more rights in medieval and Elizabethan England than they did in Victorian England, when fossil fuels were coming in and the energy per capita was much higher. Fortunately, the sort of determinism that derives social forms from energy levels doesn't work in practice.

Dan, the word "cult" is a snarl word that simply means "a religion the speaker doesn't like." You're quite correct that most successful intentional communities have a religious focus -- whether that focus is one of the established religions or a new and thus unpopular religious movement is immaterial, except from a theological viewpoint (and of course the people you're dismissing as "cults" have as much right to their theologies as you have to yours).

As for their relevance to the future, well, the last time a major civilization in the Western world started down the track of catabolic collapse, one of the minor players in the religious landscape was this very unpopular minority religion that claimed an executed criminal was God incarnate. People dismissed it as a cult, too, and I'm quite sure that believers in Jupiter Optimus Maximus would have laughed at the thought that it might play any significant role in the future. As Rome declined, though, that "cult" ended up filling the void, and its intentional communities became crucial in preserving most of what we have left of classical culture. So it's unwise to dismiss King Yo and his followers out of hand!

Yooper, another way to look at Chefurka's figures is to imagine a town or neighborhood with 1000 people in it. If his calculations work out, that would be the equivalent of an extra 25 deaths in that town each year. For what it's worth, I think that's on the high side -- I expect it to take closer to a century for the bulk of population decline to work out -- but it's still a gradual process.

John R. Christiansen said...

John -

Not on point to peak oil, but of serious concern w/respect to adaptive responses: How quickly can we adapt to runaway warming? See

I do appreciate your well-grounded, well-reasoned discussion. I hope you are right. I'm not working in this area at this point - once upon a time I did, and that time is coming around again, in spades - and woolly thinking is the last thing we need.

And I'm fascinated by the fact that a Druid's thoughts are the clearest I've seen on these issues in many a moon . . .

yooper said...

John, granted... Perhaps, yet another way to look at it, is that roughly, every third person you walk past in Wal-Mart, must die...........

Thanks, yooper

John Michael Greer said...

John, it's a relevant point. The article you posted is a nice example of nonlinear systems, though global climate has another factor -- potent negative feedback loops that cut in at unpredictable points in the process -- that the model in the article doesn't have.

The last time we had runaway global warming was at the beginning of the Boreal climate phase around 9600 BCE, during the end of the last ice age. Greenland cores suggest that temperatures worldwide shot up an average of 13 to 15 degrees F. in under a decade; in some areas close to the disintegrating ice sheets, the change was closer to 30 degrees F. Rain belts shifted, deserts spread, and a lot of species adapted to ice age conditions died out. Human beings adapted -- one of their adaptations was agriculture, which emerged in the millennium or so after the Boreal temperature spike.

You're not the only person startled to find a Druid producing something other than Celtic ravings, by the way! Still, modern Druidry as I understand it can be described as the religious dimension of ecology, and ecological thinking -- or so it seems to me -- is the most useful crowbar we've got just now for prying open the door to a viable future.

Yooper, well, in a certain sense yes, though the bottom of the population curve (which we'll likely hit sometime between 2100 and 2200) will likely be below 1 billion worldwide. To get a clearer idea of the way things will likely work out over time, imagine that once a month, when you go into a grocery store, one of the other people in the store will be dead by the time of your next visit.

M. Simon said...

Next to the Shia festival of Ashura, I have never seen so many self flagellants in one place.

Malthus was wrong the first time around. His predictive ability hasn't improved with age.

Remember the problems of 1900? If civilization kept growing at the expected pace cities would be filled with horse manure. Twenty years later that problem was off the table.

I have heard the "running out of energy" refrain for 50 years. It is one of the things that turned me to engineering. From what I have see human ingenuity always comes to the rescue of humans from unexpected directions. This time will be no different.

John Michael Greer said...

Simon, I've noticed that most of the true believers of the Church of Progress respond to less than rosy images of the future with the same sort of ritualistic condemnation you've posted here -- a few rote phrases such as "self-flagellation" and "Malthus was wrong," followed by an affirmation of blind faith in the great god Technology. If you want anybody to listen to you, you're going to have to do better than that. Something relevant to the points under discussion would be good; something relevant that's also original would be better.

Danby said...

I'm sorry. I don't mean to snarl.

My point about cults and cultic intentional communities is this: If I'm looking for a way to ride out the next 50 years of dislocations and collapse, I'm not going to start worshiping King Yo in order to do so. No serious, intellectually honest person would or could.

If you believe in King Yo, by all means worship him, but to try to use his cult as a pattern for how to organize a community that doesn't believe in King Yo is irrational. The central fact of the cult of Yo is that it is the cult of Yo. This fact will be expressed in everything from it's architecture and art to sexual ethics to the structure of economic arrangements and the division of labor. The reasons those patterns work is most likely because the members have internalized the, if you will, Yo-ness of the arrangements.

Attempting to copy them will likely result in a serious inability make them work. It's also likely to result in either serious personal conflict or serious exploitation, given the surrender of individual will that is typical in cultic communities.

As an example, let us excuse the Yo-ites for a minute and invent a cult, called the Zeds. In the Zed community, women are required to serve in the temple brothel one day each month. I can think of a lot of reasons that this arrangement would be very efficient and resolve many issues in any community. It depends, however, on a generalized view of women as chattel. This view must also be internalized by the women themselves. The effects of this arrangement would spill over into all other areas of the community, in ways that would not be immediately apparent. To attempt to pattern your new community after the Zedite community, even without the temple prostitution, would likely result in failure.

The thrust of the argument, which I failed to actually make previously, is not that cults are stupid and therefore doomed, but that cultic communities depend primarily on the cultus to give them structure and more importantly, meaning. As similar as a Buddhist and a Catholic monastery may be in externals, the interior life of the members is exceedingly different. Both depend on the religion to give them purpose, meaning and structure. That the structure is similar is striking, but the dissimilarity in purpose and meaning even more so. You could not build a Christian monastery based on a Buddhist one, nor a Buddhist monastery based on a Christian one. Attempting to copy the structure of a cultic community without the cultus is asking to fail.

jackscheff said...

I would like to make a long-shot attempt to break up the fight here between J. M. Greer and M. Simon.

To each of you, I say: You have a great point, but you're missing or ignoring something very important about the other's argument. The result is practically no communication at all.

Specifically, to Greer: Simon was trying to tell you that unlike, say, the "hydrogen economy" or photovoltaics or the Tokamak, this *isn't* a vague specter of a "fix" that will be dangled in front of our society for decades, always just beyond reach. Simon says in "6 to 9 months" either we know or we don't. Either Simon's hope is vindicated on this one or not. To presume he'll lose this bet of reputations in advance is horrifically cynical. History does change unexpectedly sometimes, famously so when sub-atomic physics gets involved...

And, to Simon: The mere possibility of an end to our recent string of ever-bigger energy grabs obviously merits intellectual attention. Greer, and the broader school of thought he's part of, don't say their scenario is certain nor inevitable. They are simply not sure whether our ingenuity will actually be sufficient to keep up the pace. And of course they're not sure--since after all, we're talking about things that have not yet been invented! So given this ridiculous uncertainty, it's wise to consider many possible futures.

To sum up, in a world of very high future uncertainty and risk (e.g. our modern world), it is essential that we condone all reasonable ways to tackle the future. We *need* everything from careful contingency planning of the sort that Greer & Co are doing, to creative invention of the sort that Simon & Co are advocating and the IEC community is doing right now. I applaud both of you.

Mike said...

I don't understand many of the responses. While I agree that the challenges of adapting to post-peak oil are significant, I feel like many of the comments imply that oil will suddenly run out.

My understanding is that the demand destruction will occur each year production declines. Resulting in increasing pain, punctuated by periodic recessions that reduce economic activity, thus reducing energy use.

Sure, the world 50 years from now will look substantially different (I'm guessing no more SUV's), but unless there is a sudden supply disruption, why wouldn't we see what normally happens when housing costs are higher? A movement towards cheaper housing?

For example, converting McMansions into apartments, or re-population of inner cities. Certainly an individual in downtown boston that doesn't own a car, walks to work, and whose kids go to local schools is using less energy then I am (where I've got to drive to blow my nose).

My living costs increase. My kids leave, they move into inner cities (because they can afford it), Eventually I follow (because I want to be around grand kids).

I think the same will happen with autos. People stop buying SUV's, they buy smaller cars, perhaps hybrids. Demand destruction only occurs fast enough for supply to match demand at a stable price.

Finally, for those who are concerned about the hordes of food less, homeless, masses sweeping across the country in search of post-apocalyptic food supplies, I would suggest that America will ignore global warming and burn whatever amounts of coal it needs to to prevent that from happening.

Think twice before preaching the coming nightmare. You may create a self-fulfilling prophecy. As a normal, middle class, american voter, if I'm scared of peak oil/energy, why would I vote down that new coal-fired power plant being built down the road. At least I'll have electricity to keep my house warm, and keep my work running.