Thursday, November 29, 2007

Lifeboat Time

One of the more notable news stories of the last week concerned the fate of M/S Explorer, a cruise ship built for polar seas that turned out to be not quite up to the rigors of the job. Before dawn on November 23, while cruising just north of the Antarctic peninsula, she rammed into submerged sea ice, leaving a fist-sized hole in the hull and water coming in faster than her pumps could handle. Fifteen hours later the Explorer was on the bottom of the sea.

Fortunately the captain had the great good sense to order an evacuation well in advance. Even more fortunately, everyone knew what to do, and did it without quibbling. Crew and passengers abandoned all their possessions except the clothes they wore, donned survival suits, climbed into lifeboats, and spent five cold hours watching the Explorer fill up with water and heel over until another ship came to pick them up. Later the same day they were safe at a Chilean coast guard base on the South Shetland Islands, waiting for a plane ride home.

I thought of that story this morning while surveying the latest round of debates about peak oil, global warming, the imploding debt bubble, and half a dozen other symptoms of the unfolding crisis of industrial society now under way. By this point there are few metaphors for crisis more hackneyed than the fatal conjunction of ship and iceberg, but the comparison retains its usefulness because it throws the issues surrounding crisis management into high relief. When the hull’s pierced and water’s rising belowdecks, the window of opportunity for effective action is brief, and if the water can’t be stopped very soon, it’s lifeboat time.

By almost any imaginable standard, that time has arrived for the industrial world. Debates about whether world petroleum production will peak before 2030 or not miss a point obvious to anybody who’s looked at the figures: world petroleum production peaked in November 2005 at some 86 million barrels of oil a day, and has been declining slowly ever since. So far the gap has been filled with tar sands, natural gas liquids, and other unconventional liquids, all of which cost more than ordinary petroleum in terms of money and energy input alike, and none of which can be produced at anything like the rate needed to supply the world’s rising energy demand. As depletion of existing oil fields accelerates, the struggle to prop up the current production plateau promises to become a losing battle against geological reality.

Meanwhile the carbon dioxide generated by the 84 million barrels a day we’re currently pumping and burning, along with equally unimaginable volumes of coal and natural gas, drives changes in climate that only a handful of oil company flacks and free-market fundamentalists still insist aren’t happening. Worried scientists report from Greenland and West Antarctica that for the first time since measurements began, liquid water is pooling under both these huge continental glaciers – the likely precursor to an ice sheet collapse that could put sea levels up 50 to 60 feet worldwide within our lifetimes.

In related news, Atlanta may just be on the verge of edging out New Orleans as the poster child for climate catastrophe. Unless the crippling years-long drought over the southeast United States gives way to heavy rains very soon, Atlanta will run completely out of drinking water sometime in the new year. The city government has had to explain to worried citizens that they are out of options, and there aren’t enough tanker trucks in all of Dixie to meet the daily water needs of a big city. Nobody is willing to talk about what will happen once the last muddy dregs in the Georgia reservoirs are pumped dry, and the drinking fountains, toilet tanks, and fire hydrants of greater metropolitan Atlanta have nothing to fill them but dust.

As Macchiavelli commented in a different context, though, people care more about their finances than their lives, and even the Atlanta papers have seen the drought shoved off the front page now and then by the latest round of implosions in the world of high finance. For those of my readers who haven’t been keeping score, banks and financial firms around the world spent most of the last decade handing out mortgages to anybody with a pulse, packaging up the right to profit from those mortgages into what may just be the most misnamed “securities” in the history of financial markets, and selling them to investors around the world.

On this noticeably unsteady foundation rose the biggest speculative bubble in recorded history, as would-be real estate moguls borrowed dizzying sums to buy up property they were convinced could only go up in value, while investors whose passion for profit blinded them to the risk of loss snapped up a torrent of exotic financial products whose connection to any significant source of value can be safely described as imaginary. All this hallucinated wealth, though, depended on the theory that people with no income, job, or assets could and would pay their mortgage bills on time, and when this didn’t happen, the whole tower of cards began coming apart. Some of the world’s largest banks have already taken billions of dollars in losses, and nobody is even pretending that the economic carnage is over yet.

Connect the dots and the picture that emerges will be familiar to those of my readers who have taken the time to struggle through the academic prose of How Civilizations Fall: A Theory of Catabolic Collapse. One of the central points of that paper is that the decline and fall of a civilization unfolds in a series of crises separated by incomplete recoveries. The point is not an original one; Arnold Toynbee discussed the same rhythm of breakdown and respite most of a century earlier in his magisterial A Study of History. If that same pattern will shape the fate of our own civilization – and it’s hard to think of a reason why it should not – the second wave of crisis in the decline and fall of the industrial world may be breaking over our heads right now.

No, that wasn’t a misprint. Historians of the future will likely put the peak of modern industrial civilization between 1850 and 1900, when the huge colonial empires of the Euro-American world hit the zenith of their global reach. The first wave in the decline of our civilization lasted from 1929 to 1945, and was followed by a classic partial recovery in which public extravagance masked the disintegration of the imperial periphery. Compare the unsteady, hole-and-corner American economic empire of today with the British Empire’s outright dominion over half the world in 1900, say, and it’s hard to miss the signs of decline.

Today we may well be facing the beginning of the next wave. One advantage this concept offers is the realization that the experience of our grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ generations may offer a useful perspective on what’s coming. In the summer of 1929, nobody I know of predicted the imminent arrival of unparalleled economic disaster, followed by the rise of fascism and the outbreak of the bloodiest war in human history. Such things seemed to be stowed safely away in the distant past. From today’s perspective, though, it may not be unreasonable to suggest that something not unlike the bitter experiences of 1929-1945 – different in detail, surely, but equivalent in scale – may be in the offing.

If that’s likely – and I believe it is – we’re in much the same situation as the passengers of M/V Explorer were last Friday, but with an unwelcome difference. No alarm has been sounded, no order to evacuate announced over the p/a system. The captain and half the crew insist that nothing is wrong, while the other half of the crew insist that everything will be all right if they can only replace the current captain with another of their own choosing. The only warning being given comes from a handful of passengers who took the time to glance down into the hold and saw the water rising there, and while some people are listening to the bad news, next to nobody’s making any preparations for what could be a very, very rough time immediately ahead.

Those of my readers who have been paying attention know already that the preparations I have in mind don’t include holing up in a mountain cabin with crates of ammunition, stacks of gold bars, and way too many cans of baked beans in the pantry. Nor do they involve signing onto the latest crusade to throw one batch of scoundrels out of office so another batch of scoundrels can take its place. Rather, I’m thinking of a couple of friends of mine who are moving from the east coast megalopolis where they’ve spent most of their adult lives to a midwestern city small enough that they can get by without a car. I’m thinking of the son-in-law of another friend who is setting up a forge and learning blacksmithying in his spare time, so he’ll have a way of earning a living when his service economy job evaporates out from under him. I’m thinking of another couple of friends who just moved back to his aging parents’s farm to help keep it running.

For a great many people just now, actions like those are unthinkable, and even the simplest steps to prepare for financial crisis – paying down debts, reining in expenditures, making sure savings are in federally insured banks rather than the imaginary economy of paper assets, and putting by extra food in the cupboard and useful supplies in the shed to deal with the spot shortages and business bankruptcies that usually accompany economic crisis – are off the radar screen. That’s unfortunate, because some tolerably simple changes made now, while there’s still time to make them, could spare a lot of people a lot of grief not that far down the road.

It’s no fun to be jolted out of bed before dawn by a warning siren, and told that you have to head for the nearest lifeboat station, leaving everything behind but the clothes on your back. It’s even less fun to climb down into an open lifeboat in 20°F weather, knowing you’ll be tossed around on the gray Antarctic seas until somebody responds to the SOS – if anybody does. Still, add up all the unpleasantness of both and they’re still preferable to a last-minute scramble for survival on a sinking ship, when half the lifeboats and survival suits are already under water and the deck is heeling over so fast the other half may be out of reach.

Millions of people went through some approximation of that last experience between 1929 and 1945. Millions more may undergo the same sort of thing once the current crisis gets under way. There’s been plenty of talk about peak oil and the twilight of the industrial world, and that’s been useful in its way, but talk doesn’t substitute for constructive action when lifeboat time arrives.

54 comments:

FARfetched said...

The financial end of the question is, is the bubble popping a top-down crisis in the making, or has the grief trickled up from below? Like it or not, the US consumer has been the fuel pump that delivers money to the economic global engine. By shipping jobs overseas, forcing a decline in both employment and real wages, the fuel pump has been weakened. The economic elites seem to believe that they can replace the pump with a cluster of much cheaper pumps, but so far it isn't working.

Looking out my window onto Planet Georgia, I see nothing but blue sky (although rain is predicted for Sunday). Atlanta is going to have some problems, for sure, but Georgia is too heavily Republican for the Bush-league to ignore they way they did New Orleans. In the long run, I remember hearing that the southeast is going to be wetter overall, but that certainly doesn't help when 4+ million people need water NOW.

Still, suburbanites are trying to adapt: a modern version of the traditional rain barrel has made a comeback and people are using that water to keep their landscaping alive. I suppose that some folks might be acquiring backpacking filters in case they need that water for themselves.

Lifeboats… in the end, I expect to be working my in-laws' farm. The factory-style chicken houses require too much energy & water to be viable much longer, but the cattle mostly eat grass and there's plenty of water for them and any gardens we grow. Given how important the spice trade was in the pre-industrial age, I think a large herb garden will provide a reliable source of income for things we can't produce locally. But until things go to hell in a handbasket, though, I work the job so I can pay the mortgage — can't quit the game early.

Laodan said...

The analogy of 1929-1945 is useful. It gives us a glimpse into the complexity of societal labor.

1929 starts with a financial collapse within an "economy-world" that is being tested by the shift of its power center due to the erosion of London's might over its far-away income generation colonies.

2008 starts with a financial collapse of the Western societal model of development that shifts the center of economic power away from its shores to the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China). War consecrated the shift of the thirties imposing consumerism as the universal way of life. That particular model is now imploding while the Western global vision of financial control has robed its citizens of the means to produce what is necessary to satisfy their daily needs. Western economies have become paper economies indeed.

The thirties gave birth to Nazism, Fascism, Stalinism and other radical political experiments. The present shift is bound to be accompanied by even more radical political experiments in managing modern societies!

But things are radically different this time around, for, the side-effects of modernity are about to end, depending on how you read it, the 400-800 years old experience of modernity itself:
• climate change
• depletion of resources (energy, materials)
• extinction of species
• poisoning of our life sustaining roots: water, air,...
Modernity relegated all natural regulation mechanisms of the human specie to the dustbin of history or so it thought. But its side-effects remember us that the human specie is only one little component in the whole that is our reality. And so we are going to assist at a re-balancing along this 21st century that could reduce the world-population to a fraction of what it is now. In such a context political experiments appear vain indeed.

Now the rats leave the ship. "... some tolerably simple changes made now, while there’s still time to make them, could spare a lot of people a lot of grief not that far down the road. "
But beware the seas are very heavy and no one has a clue where to swim! Or do I miss something?

Panidaho said...

JMG said:

There’s been plenty of talk about peak oil and the twilight of the industrial world, and that’s been useful in its way, but talk doesn’t substitute for constructive action when lifeboat time arrives.

Very true! The problem here might be that humans, when faced with two equally unpalatable choices, often tend to stall for time hoping that a third and less painful choice will arrive on the scene and save them from the other two. Sometimes that happens, but I've learned over the years that it's rather foolish to bet everything on it.

Another paralyzer is depression. People who are faced with making unpalatable choices in their lives or who feel overwhelmed by things out of their control often tend to just sit and stew in self-induced helplessness. The best remedy I've found for feeling helpless is to get up off your butt and do something. Anything productive, even something seemingly small will help restore a sense of control over your life and lead to better choices and more productive action. Action is also a good remedy for the depression itself.

So I definitely agree with you - if anyone is going to act, now would probably be a good time to plan what needs to be done and get started.

guamanian said...

Disconcertingly timely. When it comes to civilizational collapse, something a philosopher friend used to say applies:

"Being right is the booby prize."

I liked it a lot better back when I was wrong. A little ego-bruising and good-natured ridicule from friends was actually rather pleasant, in comparison to the necessity of Dealing With It For Real, which does not seem like it will be very fun at all.

My own modest contribution to what I hope will be a practical set of comments, stuffed with useful links and lists, is... SpudBeds.

I've been mucking around with vegetable gardening for a decade, without showing any real talent for it, but this year I've decided to focus hard on the humble potato, and see just how many pounds of them can be grown more or less organically in 4 x 8 raised beds. I've spent the last few weeks running around the neighbourhood with a wheelbarrow collecting the leaves people here bag up for disposal every fall, and piling them into several growing frames, with the hope that seed potatos will be available in the spring to plant out several beds and try different techniques for growing spuds in small spaces. If some of these experiments work, by next year I might have a reasonable system down that I can teach to others, and maybe help lots of neighbours grow some calories in small urban spaces built of scrap wood.

10,000 SpudBeds won't save civilization -- or even London, Ontario -- but they sure could help a bunch of people get through a food shortage, or stretch their income to cover other necessities.

miles said...

John, I always enjoy your commentaries and you write well.

I wonder about this claim however,

"For a great many people just now, actions like those are unthinkable, and even the simplest steps to prepare for financial crisis – paying down debts, reining in expenditures, making sure savings are in federally insured banks rather than the imaginary economy of paper assets, and putting by extra food in the cupboard and useful supplies in the shed to deal with the spot shortages and business bankruptcies that usually accompany economic crisis – are off the radar screen. That’s unfortunate, because some tolerably simple changes made now, while there’s still time to make them, could spare a lot of people a lot of grief not that far down the road."

I don't just wonder about it. I think about it often, long and hard. Are there really rational steps such as you outline to prepare for a crisis with an unknown but nonzero probability in an unknown time frame, potentially one to 10 years?

The argument for "owning" my house with $200K of leveraged assets, for example, still seems pretty compelling... good neighborhood, good schools, reasonable quality of life now, and in many but not all forseeable futures. The downside of getting out from that debt now? Well it is considerable and it is immediate. Sell the house, drastically reduce standard of living NOW, increase commute times, increase carbon emissions (I bike to work now... in suburbia I'd have to drive) and for certain, disrupt our family's life now.

I'm no peak oil skeptic. I think something really big and profound is happening right now. I'm just not convinced that any one individual can dodge the bullet, or even predict when the bullets are coming. And if no one individual is likely to be able to do that, even less so can 10% or 20% of the population do that.

It is of course sensible for most people to carry less debt than they do... but it does not follow that climbing entirely out of debt is the smartest thing for most people right now... partly because "what comes next" can't be determined with any high degree of certainty or timing.

Finally, in a general economic collapse I and millions will lose our jobs, declare bankruptcy and walk away from that debt. So, while no one should be proud of it, the reality is that there will be a lot of ruin, but when the system itself collapses, everything collapses including debt obligations.

So that's mortgage debt. Now on the 401K paper asset front, also, should I bet against industrial capitalism and the persistence of our fascist system? I don't know what I would do with my pretax 401K payments if I received them in my pocket that would be a smarter "get ready for peak oil" policy. Buy a little gold, a shotgun and some land? I'm not ready to move out of Portland Ooregon to the hinterlands, and see no survival advantage for me, a 48 year old man, in doing that now. Why not, since I work on the periphery of the corporate system, put my retirement funds in it? If it all works out for the next 40 years, so much the better. If it is going to collapse, I'll lose my "retirement funds" but since retirement is no longer built on social security's "current payments for current beneficiaries basis" but instead on a principle of "investment income growth"... well just how do you take money resources out of that system and put them into some alternative that will be useful in 20 years? I freely grant that the system is designed to snare you in support for itself... but it in fact does that very well.

Perhaps you could invest those money's in "education" to gain a skill set that would sustain you in your old age... but that's a stretch don't you think?

With you, I believe that the only strength in times of economic chaos is community and mutual assistance. I agree that it is important to build that, but I see that as something that is good even if there is no peak oil collapse.

I tend to think that the only rational thing to do is respond to the actual price signals and hedonic signals (economic pleasure principle) that I experience right now. We all want to have some insight into the future. Sometimes I imagine that I do, when I read The Oil Drum or your writings. But then I ask myself, Miles, what do you really know about the future? What are you willing to bet your life on? And I keep coming back to the answer of "absolutely nothing." And my 401K investments are based on exactly that principle... the principle that, absent some better idea that I don't have, the safest bet is just to follow the crowd.

How do people come to believe their vision of the future is real, real to the point of being used to guide actual decisions about their lives or actual investment choices? I guess it is a bit of mystery to me.

Cynic said...

Once again, an excellent post, Archdruid. One thing: the British Empire de-colonisation left most of the former colonies in a fairly well off financial state, though not a very good society-wise. The American Empire was founded upon slurping up all of those foreign reserves of the former British Colonies. The collapse of the American Empire - because this empire is based not upon territorial acquisition, but upon economic domination - will leave almost everyone impoverished, except the one command economy left: China.

Danby said...

The most important preparation you can make is to become a useful sort of person. Learn to do something practical, that people are going to want even when they're low on cash, and you'll get along.

Some examples? People are always willing to pay for real art (as opposed to art-gallery art). Blacksmithing, tin and silver smithing, music and wood carving are all good choices. The brewing of beer and vintage of wine is a permanent best-seller.

Personally, I'm moving from blacksmithing (at which I was never very good) to hat making. It's a little more obscure, but a lot of fun, and I seem to have much more ability. I've already made a couple of hats that have turned out better than anything I could have bought in a store. I might even be able to make some money at it as a hobby, which I never had time and patience enough to do with smithing.

Stephen Heyer said...

John Greer: “Historians of the future will likely put the peak of modern industrial civilization between 1850 and 1900, when the huge colonial empires of the Euro-American world hit the zenith of their global reach.”

Just sometimes you read something that changes the way you see things and wonder “why didn’t I see that myself?”. That was one of those things.

Oh! And as for “decline and fall of a civilization unfolds in a series of crises separated by incomplete recoveries”. Well, I think this time the decline (or possibly, change from one system to another as future historians may see it) will be far more complex and unpredictable due to the continual input of new technologies and old technologies applied in new ways.

In fact, future historians, safely on the other side of the change, may not see it as a decline, let alone a disaster at all, just the beginning of their world, the same as we speak and write about “The Birth of the Modern” (Paul Johnson).

More on that theme later.

yooper said...

Great article John! I suspect, that even if you put a bullhorn to most people's ear, they still would'nt be able to hear you. It's not so much can't hear the warning or not knowing how to respond to it... They simply, don't want to believe it.... Maybe, they can't believe it?

Again, I'd like to relate Jay Hanson's thought about this phenomenon.. Most people can only think,(through mankinds evolutionary process), progressively.... They cannot make that step down the ladder. John, notice, I've exchanged the word "process" from "progress". However, in the minds of most people today progress, is all they know...... Like it or not, our financial system is built entirely on this concept. Like you, I think perhaps we're at the cross roads now....

However, as I write this, my wife is singing to herself decorating the tree and the house. She'll spend perhaps six hours a day doing this, until that day finally comes.......

This week, there was a fine artcile in TIME called, Peak Possibitities", by Justin Fox. Even though this was buried on page 52 and not a siren but a peep squeek, it's still main stream media.

By the way John, again, I'd like to strongly suggest to you're readers that might want to further educate themselves about global warming to read your book, "Atlantis". I especially, like the "feedback loops" concept, that you've expressed there. For every action, there is a reaction, eh, John?

As for preparing, I've been preparing my whole life. Did'nt you once describe me as the most prepared person you've ever encountered, on another post? Sure, I may have it made in the shade, owning my property outright, no debts, however, I'm far from wealthy. I have no savings, no retirement....

Perhaps, the greatest wealth I have cannot be found in gold, but knowing how to dig a well, how to fish and hunt, how to provide shelther, and perhaps the greatest of all adapting to whatever lies ahead. I am a survivor.

Thanks, yooper

John Michael Greer said...

Farfetched, I think the causes of the current financial crisis pervade the economy at all levels; it's not either/or, but rather both/and. As for your mortgage, it's your call; if your job's stable and you can make energy efficiency improvements and maybe plant a garden in back, might be a good choice.

Laodan, the seas aren't heavy yet -- that's exactly the issue. It's in the lull before the storm that constructive action can best be pursued. As for where to go, well, I've been making suggestions on this blog for the last year and a half, and there's more to come.

Teresa, good points.

Guamanian, you've just added another good example to my list of people doing what needs to be done. Anything that contributes to people's ability to produce their own food and other necessities is very high on the priority list just now.

Miles, I'm not suggesting you give up your house; with the real estate market in freefall, for that matter, you may not be able to offload it at this point. My point is that modest changes made now might do you a lot of good later. Consider paying down debt rather than running up more, take up some useful craft if your job isn't the sort of thing that will survive a depression, and do some basic energy efficiency retrofits on your home -- that sort of thing. It's a place to start, and will save you grief when things get difficult.

Cynic, what you're saying is that a political empire left its former colonies messed up politically, while an economic empire looks like it'll leave its former colonies messed up economically. That makes a good deal of sense. But China's not the only command economy, or the only nation that will prosper when we implode -- check out the changes in Russia's economic status over the last decade sometime, for example.

Dan, please have your comment put onto the business end of a branding iron so I can apply it to the backsides of all those people who insist the only possible constructive response to the crisis of industrial society is top-down change. Hats are crucial -- you must have noticed that it wasn't until central heating powered by fossil fuels became widespread that hats stopped being universal items of wear in the western world. When you can't simply burn coal or oil to keep your home at a tropical temperature, hats are crucial for maintaining comfort and even health. Let me know when you set up your haberdashery!

Stephen, well, the last crisis also saw dramatic change as a result of the application of new and old technologies, as the people of Hiroshima among many others found out the hard way. So I think the comparison stands. As for whether the historians of the future will see a decline or not, that's an interesting question; the fall of the Roman Empire was seen in many different ways while it was ongoing.

Yooper, I think a lot of it is the same sort of thinking Miles demonstrates in his comment. It's the usual problem that comes when it's necessary to give up immediate gratification to avoid long term disaster. We're not good at that as a species; we get caught up in the old question of whether the long term disaster will actually happen. The result is paralysis of the will, and the same habit of going with the herd that leads people to go for speculative bubbles and lemmings to run into the sea.

jackscheff said...

Adding to what "farfetched" wrote, I really want to make it clear that the southeast drought isn't "multi-year" or unprecedented. Most stories are pegging the current drought at 16 to 18 months old--certainly a rare weather event, but hardly a permanent climate shift.

Scientists haven't been saying anything to suggest a climate-change cause for this drought--on the contrary they seem to see it as a freak weather event that will eventually (maybe next summer) have to end.

So this looks much more like a huge, unfortunately timed natural disaster than blowback from our foolish CO2-spewing ways.

A recent USA Today article at http://www.usatoday.com/weather/news/2007-10-19-drought_N.htm mentions a tree ring study that apparently shows 1839 and 1708 were even worse in Tennessee. Unfortunately I can't find the actual study.

-Jack

Danby said...

Yooper,
"preparing my whole life." You just summed up a lot of how I feel about these issues. I've been preparing my whole life, not because I could see the future or because I'm a paranoid kook, but because it always seemed the only way I could.... breathe freely.

Maybe that's the wrong way to put it. It's as if that level of abstraction that's required for modern suburban living sets off all my danger alarms. Learning how to do practical things was always my greatest pleasure, that and the connectedness that results from making my own and doing it myself.

So, I've learned how to do all those practical things, from welding and blacksmithing, to weaving, and spinning, right on down to home birth and homeschooling. I've dug wells and septic systems, delivered babies, treated diseases, taught French, made tools, knives, hats and blankets, brewed beer and cider, distilled rum, rebuilt a gun, built sheds and parts of houses, poured concrete, raised and preserved my own fruit and vegetables, raised and butchered my own livestock.

None of this was because I could see the end of the Industrial economy, but because it was the right thing to do at the time. I certainly haven't gotten rich doing any of this, but all of it has made me richer.

So, Miles
start there, right where you are. Pick something, anything, you are paying someone else to do. The more practical, primitive and embarrassingly physical it is, the better. Learn to do it yourself. It could be raising potatoes, a la Guamanian. It could be putting up a fence. It could be knitting a pair of socks. What's important is to learn how to do it.

Keep in mind Chesterton's maxim that "a thing worth doing is worth doing badly." Some of your attempts will be failures. You will learn with each attempt, even if the lesson is "I don't have the manual dexterity to knit."

Often you will wind up spending more than you would have just buying whatever it is. This is especially true of such activities as making clothing and preserving food. The industrial producers have access to much cheaper raw materials, and frequently slave or near-slave labor, to keep the price (but not the cost) down.

One fellow I know makes walking sticks. He's retired with a good pension. He doesn't need to make walking sticks. He just enjoys it. If push came to shove, and the pension didn't come through, he'd be able to live off of that income. I know I've bought one just for the sheer joy and exuberance of his work. He might lose the house, but he could eat and he'd have a roof over his head because he knows how to do something that people want done.

Oh, and don't let age stop you. The best blacksmith I know started up after he had retired from the air force. I'm the same age you are, and I'm always trying new things.

BTW, I would recommend to everyone to learn to knit socks. Commercially purchased socks can't even compare. I've had a single pair of socks, knitted by my lovely and charming wife from the wool from Icelandic sheep, last 3 years, worn 1-2 times per week. That's over a thousand washings.

Siobhan Blundell said...

Dear JMG, thanks for another good post. Danby, what do you mean by real art, as opposed to art-gallery art? I would also like some examples of what you consider to be real art
Thanks
Siobhan Blundell

wookieenookie said...

"Those of my readers who have been paying attention know already that the preparations I have in mind don’t include holing up in a mountain cabin with crates of ammunition, stacks of gold bars, and way too many cans of baked beans in the pantry."
:D

How about moving to Norway? No, seriously.

Not that I can afford to do so. Then again, perhaps it would be worth going deeply into debt.

FARfetched said...

if your job's stable and you can make energy efficiency improvements and maybe plant a garden in back, might be a good choice.

I'm making a virtue of necessity here. With the housing market in the tank, I doubt that I could get out from under the mortgage at this point. My job is as stable as any job these days, which means I could be unemployed tomorrow but it's not likely.

Worst case, "they" foreclose and we move back into the old place (tearing out the carpets because the renters smoke in the house after we told them not to). Best case, I hang onto my job until the whole shebang goes down the tubes and nobody cares who holds the paper to what anymore.

In any case, energy improvements are in the works. We have heated the downstairs with the fireplace in the past, but we're being given a fireplace insert (which should improve things even more) and I'll be experimenting with home-made wind turbines.

Panidaho said...

The most important preparation you can make is to become a useful sort of person. Learn to do something practical, that people are going to want even when they're low on cash, and you'll get along.

Good point, and I like how you put that!

Well, looking around here at what I have going for projects right now, my guess is that I'm learning how to be a "fermentation specialist." I've got sourdough, wine, beer, mead, vinegar, curing meats, tempeh, soymilk and tofu, kefir, sauerkraut, yogurt, cheeses, miso, tamari and bread in various stages of completion all over the kitchen. I figure it's a fun way to become a "more useful sort of person," improve our diets and lower our fossil fuel footprint at the same time.

Doing all this now gives me the advantage of being able to easily acquire the tools needed and the breathing space needed to make the mistakes I will be making while learning without having the consequences of failure be too serious. Right now, if a batch of bread, cheese or yogurt doesn't "turn out" I still have the local stores to turn to for backup. Later on, who knows?

Panidaho said...

How do people come to believe their vision of the future is real, real to the point of being used to guide actual decisions about their lives or actual investment choices? I guess it is a bit of mystery to me.

Miles, I think for me, and for many other's I've talked to, it all boils down to figuring out what you believe about life in general, and making your decisions from that solid foundation.

Another way I've heard it put is the "Theory of Anyway" (Thanks, Sharon and Pat!) What the Theory of Anyway basically states is there is a way we each should live our lives, regardless of what the rest of the world is up to. And even if things were perfect, it is still worth putting forth the effort to learn to live this way ANYWAY because living more simply and in accordance with our basic foundational beliefs is a good life! Living that way means that no matter what the future brings, you are already living the kind of life that will make you a more competent, stable, happier and healthier person who is able to deal with whatever comes.

As for making changes to one's life, I believe 80% of what one can do to "prepare" for whatever the future may bring involves getting your head on straight. The rest (food, tools, etc) is important, too, but it can be done better and faster if you take care of this part first. Attitude is something that one can learn to change at will, and I'd call the ability to do that important enough to be called a major survival skill.

For example, right now we're learning to cut our consumption of foods that are likely to become scarce or too expensive in the future. One of those foods is milk. I love milk. I'd drink tons of it if it weren't so expensive and if it wasn't a bad idea nutritionally. But it is, so I'm cutting way back on my consumption. One of the ways I'm doing that is learning to make soymilk, because it's better for me, cheaper and less likely to be unavailable if things get really rough.

At first, I had a problem with soymilk. All I could think of was how inferior the taste was when compared to "real milk" and how I'd much rather be drinking the real milk instead. But then I realized that if I didn't expect the soymilk to taste like cow's milk, then it really wasn't bad at all! I enjoy juices and teas and even plain water as they are for their own unique flavors, so why not soymilk? So once I realized this, I started enjoying soymilk for its own sake, and the problem was solved. But the only thing that actually changed was my attitude.

Anyway, that's just one practical example. But I think it illustrates my point.

mc said...

About 12 years ago, we made the decision to get out of debt including mortgage - it took us 7 years to do that- I was forced into early retirement after that so it was lucky that we had no debt- we have small pensions but with a home and no debts, we are fine.

When I read about the coming resource problems, I felt overwhelmed at first, then decided: food, water, heat - So I have stored about 4-5 years supply of dehydrated food, a supply stock of commonly used items, keep barrels of water, heritage seeds, switched to a pellet stove which means we do not use our electric furnace at all- These steps have all helped for now.

If we had not cleared out all debt, retirement would have been tough. Now we pay cash or we do without - I have lost my taste for shopping - it all looks like just so much "stuff". I have a sewing machine and am using it - Several years ago, we stopped using fertilizer- any pesticides.

I am putting together a library of how-to books, some from material found on the internet - No Dig Garden,Food Preserving, Seed Sowing and Saving, Garden Primer- This spring I start the gardening - because I need to learn. When the cell phone contract comes up, we will cancel.

Do we have a sustainable life style? No, but it is much better than it was 12 years ago. We will continue to cut back on unnecessary consuming. I am glad we made the changes but without others sounding the alarm, we never would have.So, even though we all find ourselves in a hard time and place, there is still time to make changes and it may mean less difficulty in the future. My advice to myself: Formulate a plan with goals and start carrying it out.

Danby said...

Panidaho,
Perfect! As you say, when your next night's shelter or meal isn't depending on the project turning out right, it's a lot easier to learn and experiment.

Maybe someday, after things fall apart, if you see an elderly itinerant hat maker stroll through your town with a gnomeish-looking diamond willow walking stick, you could offer him a cup of mead, in memory of old times.

Siobhan,
By real art I mean art that is intended to be used. Art that hangs on a wall or sits in a display case is not, to me, real art. Art that keeps you warm, or helps you cook, or kills weeds, or harvests grain, or shapes wood is real art.

Real art makes ordinary people's lives better. This is not to disparage art of the useless variety, but art to hang on a wall is the product of surpluses, and those might be very rare for the next few decades.

You asked for examples
musical instruments
other musical instruments
woodworking tools
adzes
another adze
an axe

tables
other furniture

teapots
umbrellas
"lifestyle accessories"
quilts
batik
soap

These are the kinds of things for which there will always be a market.

miles said...

Danby, I like the spirit of your reply. I take from it the idea that I already share that, in a sense, living well in the moment is the best preparation for the future. Doing things that are satisfying (repairing something, fixing something, gaining a practical skill) all involve being centered in the present... not worrying about how we will respond to some imagined horror in the future.

In contrast, while I appreciate John's comment too, I do not think that mine is a case of failing to value the future over the present. You could hardly imagine a more prudent and sensible person than me.

I WOULD value the future if I had any sense that it was ONE or a FEW things that I could value. The problem is not that I lack the will to value the future, but that I lack the knowledge that enables me to choose a future to value and respond to.

For that reason, I'm attracted to Danby's idea that living well in the present (in a very specific, hands on practical sense) is the best way to cope with the utter uncertainty of the future.

I'm not sure what he or I would say to someone who said "the future is uncertain so I might as well head for Vegas... that's what I call living well in the present!"

But I do believe that there is a kind of present living that puts us in touch with community and practical skills that has value right now, in any case, and regardless of how the future unfolds... and that is not about hairshirts and sacrifice of pleasure, but about finding a kind of pleasure in practical this worldly things.

Philosophically, I'm trying to figure out how I would reply to someone who says "well my pleasure is chasing women and driving fast cars... or getting stoned and drinking....what's the difference?" Both that person and I are seeking pleasure in the moment... but I think my moment includes an awareness of a longer time frame, and on some level I believe that mine or Danby's is therefore a more "serious" or "profound" perspective. But perhaps I delude myself.

John Michael Greer said...

The only response I could make to most of the above posts is simple applause, so I'll leave it at that. Miles, there's really nothing you can say to the people who want nothing beyond immediate sensory stimulation. They've made the choice that makes sense to them, and will live and die by it. From a Druid perspective, they may be right to do so -- there's a niche, if you will, for that attitude toward life. It's just not mine, is all.

Nnonnth said...

Danby: "Maybe someday, after things fall apart, if you see an elderly itinerant hat maker stroll through your town with a gnomeish-looking diamond willow walking stick, you could offer him a cup of mead, in memory of old times."

LOL

Me I have decided to learn herbal medicine. I am gathering a collective of medical people and trying to get them to 'think peak' because when the grid is down oboy is this something we are going to need, and with planning we can be *alot* better off than pre-oil generations because of modern scientific understanding, that can be decoupled from its hitch to industry quite easily, and also re-embrace older diagnostic tools. JMG is going to talk about this I know, so I will wait.

Getting into herbs has fringe benefits. It takes a long time to be a real herbal doctor - vita brevis ars longa - but not much time to be able to make soap, tea, 'cosmetics' if you like - these all stand to store-bought products as hand-knitted socks do to store-bought ones in my experience.

I go around looking at stuff and I wonder: how do I not get it from a shop? Very very glad there are people looking at alcohol, can't tell you how important that is. It's not just for drinking, it's of huge medical benefit to be able to make alcohol. Alot of good alcohol is made in monasteries.

I wander around the house... how often do people use: disinfectant, headache pill, bandage, sweetener (beekeeping anyone?), etc. etc. Getting good home-grown versions of these is my prime concern and I'm like others here - subconsciously it always has been. The society I was born into, whilst fun, always seemed like a dream that was kind of a nightmare in disguise. I always needed air.

Are there yet wikis for peakers wanting to swap peak techniques? The transition town wikis are very good for some things.

Anyone else beginning to actually.... enjoy this? :)

yooper said...

Hello John! A very interesting conversation going on here! Possibly, one of the best responses to the coming crisis is that of cooperation with each other. As you've suggested many, many times, one just can't jump into a lifeboat alone and start rowing away.

Skills and knowledge needed to transcend into this new transition, may require a lifetime to master. I would suggest to those such as Miles to build on what you can already offer. I'd like to suggest, that just about everyone has something to bring to the table. It'll take a cooperative effort to even make this transition possible. Certainly, it'll take a combination of tools, physical and mental, to achieve this goal.

I might suggest to Miles and Matt, to check out David Pollard's site, "How to Change the World." This man may be best able to answer questions that you might have, in terms that you might better understand.......

As I've stated before, I'm 48 and a professional artist. My "work" graces the hallways of the Whitehouse and the castles of England. However, without sales from the common folk, this endeavor would not last long. Danby is absolutely right, you cannot wear, or eat what I design and it's just not "practicle" in filling people's basic needs.

This is perhaps my greatest gift. The knowledge and acquired skill to determind what is real, relevant and working with that.

Thanks, yooper

Panidaho said...

Maybe someday, after things fall apart, if you see an elderly itinerant hat maker stroll through your town with a gnomeish-looking diamond willow walking stick, you could offer him a cup of mead, in memory of old times.

Absolutely! And, hopefully by then, I'll have some mead worthy of the occasion. :-)

Panidaho said...

Miles said:
But I do believe that there is a kind of present living that puts us in touch with community and practical skills that has value right now, in any case, and regardless of how the future unfolds... and that is not about hairshirts and sacrifice of pleasure, but about finding a kind of pleasure in practical this worldly things.

I think you've definitely got it. So I guess my last post wasn't really all that helpful, but you might want to read the "Theory of Anyway" link - well, anyway. ;-)

John Michael Greer said...

Nnonth, the Druid order I head has set up a forum for discussing exactly these issues at http://forum.cyberdragons.org/aoda/index.php. No, you don't have to be a Druid to take part!

Nnonnth said...

Thanks JMG. I'm also finding quite a few other local wikis that pop up, and all sorts of other stuff too, not even peak related sometimes, but written by people with no desire to stay citindustried.

Lots of things happening and since my last post I have been clued into EDAPs (energy descent action plans) and alot more on the transition towns. Gilly Smith is my guide in the UK, and is giving me info by people like Richard Heinberg.

You have now definitely been mentioned in dispatches several times on transition town blogs in the UK, you have officially arrived here mate! Now when is the book coming?

Oh, I can't remember if this has been talked about on here:

http://www.powerofcommunity.org/cm/index.php

- a documentary called 'The Power of Community - How Cuba Survived Peak Oil'. When the Soviet Union went bust they had a dry run of what the rest of us are facing, their oil supply halved more or less overnight. I haven't seen the film yet, has anyone?

ByrnesBlogger1 said...

Why don't you write an article about all the people who already don't use a car, don't have relatives who own land they can move to, and keep their meagre savings in a jar at home? (What makes you think that the federal-insurance system is going to be much help if the economic system collapses and there is a major bank run?)

Bottom line is that even people in a well-prepared society are going to die. There isn't enough lifeboat space for people who are above a certain age, lacking a certain amount of personal resources, and lacking skills that could easily translate into usefulness in a low-tech, low energy, survival economy.

Some of us aren't equipped to live a hardscrabble life in a preindustrial village society.

Panidaho said...

I wander around the house... how often do people use: disinfectant, headache pill, bandage, sweetener (beekeeping anyone?), etc. etc. Getting good home-grown versions of these is my prime concern and I'm like others here - subconsciously it always has been. The society I was born into, whilst fun, always seemed like a dream that was kind of a nightmare in disguise. I always needed air.

You and Danby have hit the "can't breathe" part on the head. I've felt that way for a long time, too - I first discovered that feeling when I was about 17, and ever since then I've been trying very hard to get a little more breathing room by becoming a bit more self-reliant each year.

Btw, on the sweetener issue - I've recently begun to look into malt syrup as a potential home-made sweetener. If I'm correct, anyone who stores whole grains could easily sprout them, lightly roast them, coarsely grind them and boil them down with water to extract the malt sugars. I haven't actually tried it here at home yet, so there may be some hidden problem of which I'm not aware, but I'm going to try it some time this winter and find out.

I think malt syrup has a great taste and love to use it in hot cereals, granolas, muffins and breads. I also like to put a tablespoon of it into my home-made soy milk to help cut any bean taste. So while it wouldn't be good for making jams or other preserves, it would still be a useful thing to have on hand.

Also, I've been looking into ways to concentrate the alcohol from home-made wines for medicinal use without the need for a still. It wouldn't be terribly strong or pure enough for first aid purposes, but it *might* be good enough for tinctures and such. The method I'm researching involves repeated partial freezing of the finished wine and the removal of the nearly-all-water ice crust from the top each morning, until what is left has been concentrated enough to be effective.

Danby said...

byrnesblogger1,
First, we're not talking about a preindustrial village. We're talking about a postindustrial village life. They are NOT the same thing.

Secondly, people co-operate and help each other. I recall reading several years ago abut an archaeological excavation in, I believe, Turkey. The site was pre-agricultural, perhaps 100,000 years ago. One of the skeltons found was of a female dwarf, with seriously malformed legs. That person had, 100,000 years ago, reached the age of 40 years.

Whatever else you might say about those times, they were definitely living right on the edge. Food supplies were far less reliable and and far more difficult to secure than anything we would be talking about post-peak. A physician who examined the skeleton said that she would be unlikely to have been able to even walk, let alone provide a net benefit to the tribe.

And yet she lived over 40 years.

I heard recently from Jan Olstedt, an old friend of mine. Jan is 43, and lost his eyesight some 20 years ago to macular degeneration. The last I had heard of him, Jan was mostly blind, alcoholic, addicted to barbiturates, and in jail for aggravated assault. Let's just say he wasn't handling it well.

About 10 years ago, Jan was passed out behind the bus terminal in some midwestern city. He's not sure, he thinks it might have been Cleveland. He was bundled into a van, after giving whatever sort of consent he could give, and taken out to Kidron, a little town in Ohio. His benefactors, a Mennonite outreach mission, sobered him up, cleaned him up, and gave him a safe place to sleep. After a week they asked him what he would like to do to help earn his keep. His angry retort was that he was not good for anything, being blind, and there just wasn't anything he could do.

Instead of returning anger for anger, or throwing him out because he wouldn't work, the found a nearby woodshop, run by a blind Amishman. This fellow taught Jan, and more than just woodworking. He helped him recover a sense of self-worth.

You can buy some of his work if you want.

I can't speak for other religions, but Christians are mandated, by God himself, to give without thought of return, to whoever is in need. It's been said that while there was food, no-one was ever turned away hungry from a Benedictine monastery. That's probably not absolutely true, but enough close enough.

We're not talking about space in a lifeboat anyway. We're talking about food and shelter, and a gradual descent into an economy with less surplus.

Lance Michael Foster said...

"Philosophically, I'm trying to figure out how I would reply to someone who says "well my pleasure is chasing women and driving fast cars... or getting stoned and drinking....what's the difference?" Both that person and I are seeking pleasure in the moment... "

well, to that person I say, those pursuits are well and good, so learn to supply your own...

chasing women: love medicine, courting flutes, playing instruments and singing well, herbal remedies and enhancements, etc etc

driving fast cars: start by learning mechanics, and then go on to other exciting transportation sports like horse racing (and horse doctoring and training), or building racing canoes...

getting stoned: agriculture of all kinds, alternative states of consciousness though fasting and drumming

drinking: distilling and brewing of course

Not to mention gambling and gaming, sleight of hand, cards and dice, etc etc

People won't stop loving to do that stuff just because of deindustrialization...in fact, with the decline of the internet and video games and the boob tube and movies and gigantic sports events...those older forms of entertainment like music and dancing, and storytelling, and cidermaking and making babies will be very much popular as in days of old.... and people still used to fast-living are gonna seek mightily various distractions from despair and boredom. Think of such things as ways to keep relative sanity in insane situations :-)

John Michael Greer said...

Nnonth, The Long Descent will be released by New Society in the fall of 2008. We're already negotiating a second book on the nuts and bolts of moving toward an ecotechnic society -- more on this when the contract's signed.

I'm glad to hear my name's being bandied about in Britain! More generally, I've been quite startled to find my posts getting exposure in a variety of other languages -- everything from French and German to Hungarian, Czech, and Breton. Apparently what I'm saying is being useful, or at least entertaining.

Byrne, I don't own a car, I don't have much in the way of savings, and it's only been in the last few years that my income has been above the federal poverty line. Three and a half years ago my spouse and I moved from a big city to the small Oregon town where we now live, taking a noticeable income hit in the process. Preparing for the future ahead of us is not just for the comfortably well-off. If anything, those of us with less to live on have all the more reason to get ready.

Danby, I think most faiths share that view in one way or another. In the Druid tradition generosity is an essential human virtue, and reflects the astonishing generosity the Earth displays to us and all other living things. Nor is this a luxury for the rich; some of the poorest human societies are also those in which generosity (or charity, or however you want to discuss it) is most highly valued and consistently practiced.

dxrey said...

Another excellent piece, and my thanks for all of the thought and care you put into your writing.

I am curious about your notion of an 1850-1900 peak in industrial civilization. A peak in European political dominance, perhaps, but that is a different animal. I would tend to view industrialism independently from any political considerations and see a linear or even exponential increase throughout that period to our own, roughly tracking population growth.

Would you consider that the "first wave of decline" in 1929-1945 was matter of adjustment to the shifting of primary energy sources - from coal to oil? The terminal decline of the British Empire can be so correlated (ruinous wars not considered), dating to their "Peak Coal" point of 1920. So an accurate view may be that the first wave of decline was rather a temporary slowing of increase.

Nnonnth said...

Panidaho - malt syrup is a genius idea. I notice you're often about on the board JMG linked to, so I will be looking at your results.

On alcohol, yes, the freezing method I think will definitely get you in the range where you can make tinctures. I've been working on something similar. I'm going to have to get distilling eventually though, which is daft as I never drink alcohol, but there we are! Life has its ironies.

JMG - If you've made it to Breton, I think you've made it. ^_^ - I suppose there is some druidic influence in Brittany? Frankly, you're ahead of most 'experts' and your writing definitely is making people think. Everyone will be watching for the book.

tRB said...

Reading Nnonnth's comment about "herbal medicine", maybe this is a good time to ask something I've been wondering about for some time. Please tell me if I should take my inquiry elsewhere.

I'd like to know, exactly, why some people who are interested in Peak Oil issues believe that "herbal medicine" is the way to go.

1.) Is it because more-expensive energy will reduce the size of industry overall, including the mass production of pharmaceuticals?

2.) Is it because most or all pharmaceuticals are made of petrochemicals (which will be in increasingly short supply over the decades)? (I don't know if this is the case, but I'm asking if that's what people believe.)

3.) Is it because of factors relating to the distribution (transport) of these products (necessitating more-local production)?

4.) Is it because some (many?) pharmaceuticals must be stored in specific temperature ranges, and with less energy available for refrigeration we won't be able to control temperatures as easily as we can today?

or

5.) Is this an understandable but mistaken expectation that history will reel backwards after the peak?

Is there some other intersection of modern medicine and peak oil that I'm missing?

Understanding what is on the minds of the herbal medicine proponents will help me figure out why they keep talking about it in these discussions. Would anyone here be willing to share why they're coming to this conclusion? Thanks if you do.

dxrey said...

Agreement, first, that "Lifeboat Time" has arrived.

I have some points of disagreement on the text of the article, however. It was first a mystery to me how historians of the future might date the first stage of the decline of industrial civilization to 1850-1900. Based upon volumes of energy usage, usage per capita, the dependency of an average individual upon industrial products, etc, industrial trends have accelerated steadily throughout that time to ours.

I can only think that you are applying Toynbee's tendency to characterize civilizations according to the "elan of the creative elite". In that case, one could attach the old notion of Western paternalism - the white man's burden - to the spread of industrial practices, and say that the long failure of colonialism reflects a stage in the crisis of industrialism.

A brief look at the current physical realities of industrialism should indicate that this connection is unnecessary and not particularly useful.

So I would have to disagree, and say this is a case of mixing apples and oranges. Toynbee himself can be criticized as a historian for his predisposition for broadly simplified narrative arrangements which miss the underlying causes and effects, and so lose all predictive power. Essentially he discounts, as did most historians of the past, the dependency of societies upon physical resources. One could say the at any age a thousand varieties of "the spirit of the age" might coexist. To history they are invisible - the minds of individuals, families and communities. If, however, one group forges a new or more efficient means of exploiting resources, then this group increases and becomes a historically notable or dominant power. If we look at the rapid rise of many such groups and their underlying "spirits", there is not necessarily any logical connection between the internal and the external realities. (Reference the rapid rise to wealth and Pan-European influence of the technology-driven Cistercians in the twelfth century for instance, in spite of monastic vows to poverty and seclusion).

To put it briefly, I am more inclined to see the "elan of the creative elite" as a necessary but randomly chosen side effect of a civilization's effective use of resources. And then, where Toynbee looks for flaws in the philosophical bases and responses of this elan for clues to a civilizations decline, I would rather look to the simple physical circumstances of an overexploited resource base.

The decline of the British Empire, which might be paired with "the first wave of decline" you note, actually correlates quite well with their arrival at "Peak Coal" production in 1920. A physically based rendering of the age of industrial increase would put this as a transition point, a hesitation of growth, while the primary energy source fueling growth transitioned from coal to oil.

dxrey said...

Another comment for better clarity - and this is a symptom of what happens when I read one of your posts. They are well written and well thought, and I spend days thinking through my differing perspective.

Regarding Toynbee, he makes the same mistakes as most historians in his fixation upon national entities. We could date the decline of industrialism to 1900 if it correlated with the decline of western colonial expansion, but it does not. Rather, industrialism correlates with the powers of corporations, independent of national entities. Around 1900 these became the prime movers, the possessors of Toynbee's "elan of the creative elite", supplanting the national entities with regard to the effective exploitation of resources that drives industrialism.

So if we must proceed from here to discuss the declines of civilizations, the fates of the large corporations may be of as much importance than the politics of nations. But here I have not thought any farther...

Danby said...

John,
I didn't want to comment outside my area of competence. In my experience, it's only pure materialists, and the pseudo-religious that lack a spirit of generosity. Charity is, as you know, a specifically Christian concept. Even the most pseudo-religious understand a spirit of generosity and sharing within the tribe.

Pure materialists can be generous too, of course, but that's more of a personality trait than anything to do with materialism itself.

My other point, and I will just assert it, not justify it, is that the only way that one can really survive the collapse will be to share with those who are in need. If you have ears, hear.

Danby said...

panidaho,
Ahh, applejack! It certainly works. I made a few batches of applejack when I lived in Eastern Washington. Just wait for one of those bitter cold February Idaho nights, toss the jug out in the yard and retrieve it at about 3am. I've gotten proof (flammable) liquor via the process. Of course, it was -24F that night. I used cider, but any alcoholic beverage will work, though if you don't have enough alcohol in it, it won't separate, jsut freeze solid.

Panidaho said...

Would anyone here be willing to share why they're coming to this conclusion?

Well, for my part:
1. Yes.
2. Yes.
3. Yes.
4. Yes.
5. Not necessarily, although I expect that many may have their access to "traditional medicine" curtailed by lack of transportation and lack of funds. Here in Idaho we already have a scarcity of doctors willing and able to practice in our rural areas (pretty much most of Idaho) so it's not unreasonable at all to expect that higher fuel costs and lower availability will hit this area, and many like it, pretty hard right from the start.

Panidaho said...

Danby said:
panidaho,
Ahh, applejack! It certainly works. I made a few batches of applejack when I lived in Eastern Washington. Just wait for one of those bitter cold February Idaho nights, toss the jug out in the yard and retrieve it at about 3am. I've gotten proof (flammable) liquor via the process. Of course, it was -24F that night. I used cider, but any alcoholic beverage will work, though if you don't have enough alcohol in it, it won't separate, jsut freeze solid.


Yes, that's the technique I'm looking at! Cool, it seems it actually works - that's encouraging! Thanks for the info. :-)

I'm planning to use our ever-present potato as the alcohol base - and if you do it right, I understand, the taste is pretty bland and the raw wine has the potential to start off around 20% alcohol, which means it should hopefully take a little less effort to get something usable.

As for temps, we get into the minus teens at night here during the winter sometimes, but not often -24! However, I'm sure it'll get cold enough for me to try this after the new year.

Nnonth: thank you! Although I'm pretty sure it's not an original idea - knowing me I probably picked it up from somewhere and incubated it for a while before finally making a connection. lol

Yes, I do help out on the forum some - and I'll be sure to post my results over there when I have tried the malting. I need to go over there and catch up on my project posts soon, anyway.

John Michael Greer said...

Dxrey, there's certainly a case to be made for a later peak than 1850-1900. The problem, of course, is that there's no direct way to quantify the peak of a civilization, and the avaiable proxy measurements peak at different times. One reason I tend not to use strictly technological measurements such as energy per capita, though, is that past civilizations have peaked in technology long after they were clearly on the way down in other ways. Roman technology, for example, continued to improve long after the Empire was visibly crumbling and its economic basis was approaching rigor mortis.

There's also the risk of confusing a mode of production with a specific civilization. When you talk of "industrialism," you're discussing a particular mode of economic production. When I talk of Western industrial civilization, I'm talking about a particular institutional and cultural assemblage that emerged in one corner of Europe in the 1700s. The latter evolved the former as its distinctive economic framework, but the two aren't the same and their respective declines, though related, are not identical.

The measurements I use for the decline of a civilization are the extent of its political control and the vitality of its cultural forms. They're not the only possible ways of measuring decline, but they do seem to work well. In the case of Rome, to return to a familiar example, the point in time when the empire's borders began to contract, and its population abandoned traditional cultural forms in art, religion, etc. for forms imported from other cultures, happens about the same time that the factors that eventually dragged Roman civilization down became solidly established. Mind you, I don't see political contraction and abandonment of cultural forms as the causes of collapse -- they're proxy measurements that help track less measurable changes, nothing more.

In the same way, western industrial civilization reached its peak political expansion between 1850 and 1900, when European nations and their colonies controlled most of the planet; European cultural forms also peaked around the same time. The twentieth century saw the collapse of European empire and the widespread abandonment of European cultural forms in favor of other cultures' forms imported from abroad. I suspect historians of the future, looking back on that same century, will be able to trace the causes of our final collapse very clearly.

Toynbee's analysis, by the way, is a good deal more subtle than the notion that the creative minority's elan gives way! My post A Failure of Mimesis tries to take a stab at it, and even so it's an oversimplification. From a Toynbeean perspective, which is by no means entirely mine, btw, the creative minority of Western civilization became a dominant, and merely coercive, minority well before 1900, leading to the schism in society between rulers and internal proletariat that he saw as a central force pressing toward ruin. The fact that some members of that dominant minority drew their power from the economic rather than the political dimensions of modern society, in his view, is immaterial.

TRB, it's a perfectly reasonable question. Few people today realize that health care is one of the most energy- and resource-intensive aspects of industrial society. Pharmaceuticals in particular require huge investments in capital plant and energy to make, transport, store, and use. In a deindustrial future, many current pharmaceuticals will be so costly they might as well not exist at all, and many others will have become useless due to the spread of resistance among microbes -- already a massive problem, as you may well know.

The advantage of herbal medicine is that it's reliably low-tech. You don't need a billion-dollar factory with clean rooms and expensive gear; you need a patch of dirt, some seeds, and the very simple gear needed to process the results into medicines. Now of course not all health conditions can be treated effectively with herbs, but in a deindustrial world, a lot of health conditions won't be treatable, period -- and the great majority of the common health issues that take up the bulk of all doctor's visits today do respond well to herbs and other low-tech health care modalities.

In the deindustrial world, people who get very sick will die more often than they do today. Nothing we do will be likely to change that. The question is whether basic sanitation and some of the other low-cost elements of modern medicine can be combined with low-tech healing methods such as medicinal herbalism to produce something that will prevent and cure a significant amount of illness, and I think the answer can be yes.

Dan, I don't argue with your assertion at all. The community, not the individual, is the basic unit of human survival, and a community is built by acts of generosity. I'm not a great fan of Kropotkin generally but he makes some extremely good points about mutual aid as the foundation of any human culture worth having.

The Naked Mechanic said...

Bill Herbst has an interesting article that seems relevant here.
Empire or Community: globalisation and relocalisation in the 21st century. http://www.billherbst.com/empireorcommunity.pdf
Rob

miles said...

"In the deindustrial world, people who get very sick will die more often than they do today. Nothing we do will be likely to change that. The question is whether basic sanitation and some of the other low-cost elements of modern medicine can be combined with low-tech healing methods such as medicinal herbalism to produce something that will prevent and cure a significant amount of illness, and I think the answer can be yes."

The issue of the energy component of modern pharacueticals is interesting. Generally in the health industry we say that the upfront costs (and presumably the actual energy use and energy expenditures) are very high (computers, lab equipment, office buildings, SUVs for researchers driving too and from work and on and on), but the marginal cost of producing and distributing pills is extremely low. Once a company achieves certification (and many many drugs do not) it spends very little to actually produce an additional pill.

That said, the ENTIRE question of what we mean by health is a profound one. The Pharmacuetical and Doctor industry is of course devoted to commoditizing the means by which health is produced... selling services and pills... and we Americans have fallen for that vision to an extreme degree. It does contain some truth. Modern medicine is useful... but not to the extent that we spend on it in the U.S.

But on an even deeper level, health is product of life style, agriculture, population density and social equality (particularly social equality... inequality isn't just correlated with bad health... it actively produces it... I invite anyone to research that issue.)

Most of health is about the society we have and its relationship to the ecosystem. Using pills and high technology services administered by highly trained physicians doesn't change the average level of health upward by all that much... while the industrial society needed to pay for all of that drags down the average level of health by some amount. Do we end up ahead? Perhaps only slightly... and perhaps not at all.

Finally, why is death painful? Why is sickness painful? To be sure there are elements of somatic pain and thank god for medicines that alleviate that pain, but a huge amount of the pain is mediated and even alleviated by the society in which it occurs. Social connection and ecological balance create meaning that is more important and stronger than even death. Whether we live 70 years or 90 years hardly matters if our lives have meaning because they take place in a society that is at peace with itself, the world, and the ecosystem.

So hopefully we will retain some of the knowledge from the industrial medical age, but we are likely to lose our struggle against microbes, and that will have profound implications for the physical structure of society and its relationship to the ecosystem. We will not be able to sustain high density living arrangements without antibiotics, and we are unlikely to be able to keep up in the antibiotic arms race for very long.

However I don't see that as the end of the world. A new balance will be found, and in that world there will necessarily be fewer people, spread across the landscape in a very different way from today, experiencing pain and death in epidemiological patterns that we cannot yet fully imagine... but if they are wise also finding meaning and living fully, no matter precisely when and how death's shadow ultimately falls across their life.

Nnonnth said...

dxrey: >>I'd like to know, exactly, why some people who are interested in Peak Oil issues believe that "herbal medicine" is the way to go."<<

I don't say it's 'the way to go', it's only one thing I'm pursuing, but what can be achieved with it nowadays is phenomenal actually. The same goes for much alt medicine. Unfortunately in the states you can have all your papers seized by the FDA if you claim a non-pharmaceutical methodology has an effect on cancer (for example), so alot of alt medicine is keeping very low profile. I'm saving most of my comments on this until a definite 'medicine post'.

Miles is very right to bring the subject of 'health'. I'm quite convinced that modern cities and lifestyles are not good for health whether mental emotional or physical.

Having had friends who have successfully treated cancer or multiple sclerosis, say, without any industrial medications, I am not convinced that in terms of cause and cure of disease modern medicine is really understanding as much as it thinks it is. Again I'll keep other comments for later. Suffice it to say that, if (as JMG says) more ill people will die in the post-industrial age, it won't be in my opinion because of lack of ability to cure them in principle - it will be in-practice issues such as lack of knowledge. This is a preparedness thing that has become a major concern of mine.

I agree with Panidaho's response to Dxrey's 'five points' - but would simply point out, there is no 'going backwards' involved. Alot of what I study has the latest scientific research totally under its belt, many alt med methods are using modern technological ideas too - only they don't require plugging in.

I also think this goes to the conversation about generosity/charity that's weaving around this one. Spiritual health is not separate from bodily health; a person is a whole system. Mind you:

Danby: >>Charity is, as you know, a specifically Christian concept.<<

... might want to read some Socrates there pal! :)

yooper said...

Hello John! Perhaps to access the problems of peak oil, climate change and peak debt, one must step back and focus what this means in one's own life. Is this threat real and how will it effect my life? Is it relevant in my own life? If it is, can I respond in a relevant way that would matter? Sounds simple, eh?

Lets look at the financial crisis. Sure it looks dire, unlike so many other crisis in the past fifty years. Until that market tanks, I'm just not going to worry much about it, until it happens. Not much I can do about it anyway....

Peak Oil is pretty much the same thing. I'm quite sure, I'll adjust, especially if this is to be a slow process.

Climate change, is entirely a different story, this could happen very quickly, putting some people with water over their heads in a hurry. Or as in Far's case, left with no water at all.

I suppose, that peak oil and the financial crisis,(so far) may be claiming one victim at a time. However, if sea levels rise 50 to 60 feet, that is going to effect alot of people at the same time. They'll likely be on the move all at once.

I can't imagine anyone of New Orleans during the disaster was thinking about how the market was doing, or about health care,... They were concerned about staying alive for the moment. That is what was relevant to them at the time. That was their priority. That was their focus....

Might I suggest some advice to some of you're readers here, John? Access where exactly you are and what threats are real to you and you're family. Prepare for what is relevant in your case. It's really that simple. Just stop long enough from climbing that ladder to do this!

Thanks, yooper

John Michael Greer said...

Miles and Nnonth, I'm planning on addressing the whole issue of health care in quite a bit more detail later on, so I'll save comments for that.

Yooper, good points.

Mary, in response to your offlist question, I do answer emails, but you need to send me an address that works -- the one you sent me gave me an instant bounceback. I can be emailed at jmg (at) aoda (dot) org.

tRB said...

Everyone, thanks for your responses.

Since the topic will come up later, I'll save most of my comments for then. But before John composes his next medical post, there are two things I would ask him (and the readers) to consider.

First, regarding medicine. I'm glad to see that we at least agree about the energy and technical challenges that lie ahead. And I also agree with John's and others' comments about preventing the wide variety of problems that can be caused by bad choices in organizing our settlements and societies.

I think it's safe to say that the methods of manufacturing medicine will change, and I would add that the business models will also change. (For example, consider the amount of money that pharmaceutical manufacturers spend on advertising.)

John, before you write your upcoming post about this topic, I wonder if you plan to address how research and manufacture could _adapt_ to a lower-energy future without being given up completely. Do you even think that is possible in the timeframe of, say, 200 years from now?

I should add that I ask this as someone who does not want scientific standards not be compromised, and who does not accept the claims of alternative medicine. I know that's a huge can of worms, but I do want people to understand where I'm coming from.

On the idea of a different business model, scroll down to "Shaunak's team is proposing a new model for the pharmaceutical business." at http://peakenergy.blogspot.com/2007/01/power-of-pizza-and-beer.html .
And regarding refrigeration, there are innovations such as Portable Standalone Vaccine Refrigeration:
http://www.me.umn.edu/~jptrelles/research_vaccine_refrigeration.html , which is one way to reduce the need for a widely-distributed electrical refrigeration infrastructure.

---------------

Second, and related, and in reply to Danby: although I am a materialist I do think generosity is important _because people matter_. And I think this is more than a personality trait. My socialist inclinations have roots in both social justice _and_ philosophical materialism, so I ask that you not throw us all in the "uncaring" category.

Which brings up another point that I would ask people to think about. In the stressful times ahead, cultural and philosophical differences can be used to divide people who otherwise co-exist just fine. I'd hate to see each community segregate itself from others over matters of doctrine. And I'd hate to see unnecessary conflict in large, mixed communities -- such as the future's version of "large" cities -- when it can be avoided.

As the atheist black sheep on this Druid-hosted blog, I have to ask how we'll keep community or at least neighborliness despite fundamental philosophical and practical differences. John has previously written about fraternal societies who protect their members. Could there be another kind of organization that smoothes the contacts between different cultural groups? An order which keeps intercultural dialogues ongoing and respectful?

That is another topic for another day, but one worth thinking about, in my opinion.

John Michael Greer said...

TRB, these are good points. I do plan on talking about those elements of modern medicine that can and should be saved, and offer some suggestions of how that might be done. Still, I've noticed that a surprising number of people in the atheist-materialist camp dismiss alternative medicine without taking the time to check out the evidence. Not all alternative health care modalities are snake oil; some have extensive bodies of controlled double-blind experiments backing their claims, and have been used clinically with good results for a very long time outside the US. Nor do all conventional pharmaceuticals necessarily measure up well to an objective standard.

As for your second point, I share your hope that some semblance of the tolerance for different faiths that has been achieved in the modern industrial world can be preserved in the course of the Long Descent. One hopeful note from the history of religions is that most of the world's faiths do get along tolerably well with one another; we can at least hope that some of the ones that haven't usually done so can learn. But we'll see.

yooper said...

"It’s no fun to be jolted out of bed before dawn by a warning siren, and told that you have to head for the nearest lifeboat station, leaving everything behind but the clothes on your back. It’s even less fun to climb down into an open lifeboat in 20°F weather, knowing you’ll be tossed around on the gray Antarctic seas until somebody responds to the SOS – if anybody does. Still, add up all the unpleasantness of both and they’re still preferable to a last-minute scramble for survival on a sinking ship, when half the lifeboats and survival suits are already under water and the deck is heeling over so fast the other half may be out of reach."

I wonder John, how many people realize what you're talking about here? Btw, I hope you and you're wife are high and dry...

John, what happens to those people who forgot their medications before climbing into that lifeboat? Today, I heard on the news, that the medium age over in Iran was 20 years...

Readers, what does this fact tell us about this country? If you're so worried about health care and medicine or dare I say the lack of, better figure this out.

Do you actually think, that if half the country,(population) is running inland or migrating to another place,(anywhere besides where they were at), you'll just be able to get your meds at the Walgreen's along the way? What happens if there becomes a day you simply cannot afford it, then what?

John, this is not side stepping the elephant in the room, but addressing it...............

Thanks, yooper

Dwig said...

nnonth asked: a documentary called 'The Power of Community - How Cuba Survived Peak Oil'. When the Soviet Union went bust they had a dry run of what the rest of us are facing, their oil supply halved more or less overnight. I haven't seen the film yet, has anyone?

I just bought a copy, and watched it last night. Here's a top-of-the head summary, with a few comments:

The film is just under an hour, and is based on the visit of a team from Community Solution to Cuba. It's worth getting, although I was left unsatisfied about the coverage of some of the topics, and the message was kind of confused in places. The basic idea is that Cuba started from a position of being relatively (for Latin America) industrialized, dependent on imports of petroleum, chemicals, etc., and using the Green Revolution techologies in the bulk of their agriculture. They survived the "special period" (after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the imposition of heavy sanctions by the US), however, and have recovered to the point that life expectancy and infant mortality are close to the U.S. numbers, even though the average energy used per capita per year is about 12% of the U.S. (Also, they've improved their overall health from even before the crisis, largely due to healthier foods, more exercise, and fewer environmental contaminants.)

The agricultural transition was helped considerably by Australian permaculture consultants who visited Cuba and helped set up "train the trainer" courses to spread the knowledge.

While the agricultural transition covered the main part of the film, it also touched on education and health (one of Cuba's "exports" is doctors, and they've managed to expand their educational system, even at the university level), transportation (back to buses, bicycles, and animals), housing (an emphasis on energy efficiency and housing for everyone), and of course alternative energy (there is still an electric grid, but in rural areas, wind, hydro, and solar panels are used).

The overall impression is of an entire society that reacted fairly quickly to the shock, and committed themselves to individual and collective action, first to survive, and then to create a thriving modus vivendi. Answers.com presents a more detailed review.

Caveat: I haven't looked into the sources behind the film, or what false impressions it might give. If there were "roving bands of starving scavengers", for instance, or even serious social disintegration, you wouldn't know it from this film. I suppose it's possible that the visitors were subjected to a kind of Potemkin Village tour. I haven't been able to find on the net what I'd like to see: a reasonable review of the film by someone knowledgeable about contemporary Cuba, and with a more dispassionate viewpoint (i.e., neither for nor rabidly against socialism or Castro).

On the other hand, maybe it's really true: the Power of Community to enable people to survive even a drastic crash and come out the other end in better shape than before. It's also likely that a top-down dictatorship helped in the early stages to mobilize people, and that the dictatorship's willingness to allow bottom-up innovation and organization helped once the recovery began (see North Korea for a dictatorship that lacked such willingness).

Danby said...

trb,
I did not say, and never intended to imply that materialists aren't generous. What I did say is that there is nothing in materialism itself to encourage or enforce generosity.

Just as materialism makes one neither an optimist nor a pessimist (those mythical creatures), it does not make one generous or stingy.

As a Catholic, on the other hand, I must heed Bishop Chaput of Denver, who recently, after pointing out the great benefits of charity, warned his flock that to fail to care for the poor is to consign oneself to hell. Regardless whether one agrees with his reasoning, you must admit that such an attitude will do quite a lot to encourage a spirit of generosity within those he was addressing.

BoysMom said...

Drb,
One point on medicine to remember is that most insurance companies will not pay for more than one month at a time. If their respective heart medications are delayed in shipment by just a couple days, my father and father-in-law are respectively screwed. They either can't afford or refuse to pay out of pocket for medicine. (One of each.)Temperature is also a big issue, for my diabetic father. Some medicines are more temperature sensative than others.
I was a Laura Ingalls Wilder sort of girl. I'm a musician, but even in good times the income's highly irregular, shall we say? In tough times I don't think people will be willing to spend on something clearly considered a luxury. So I think it's a good thing that I picked up some of the rather unusual skills that I did.
By the way, for the rest of you like me who aren't coordinated enough for two needles, you can also crochet socks. Spinning's pretty easy, too, if you have a fiber source.

Rowan and Willy said...

'The Power of Community' is a very interesting example of what can be done with sufficient planning and organisation at a societal level... except that Cuba still imports 80% of it's food.