Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Back Up The Rabbit Hole

One of this blog’s central purposes, the attempt to glimpse the future’s patterns in the Rohrshach inkblots of the present, poses a notoriously difficult challenge. Perhaps the worst of the difficulties involved in that attempt, as I’ve suggested here more than once, is the pervasive influence of mythic narratives so deeply ingrained in our culture that few people even notice them. In a retrospective essay on his own work, historian Arnold Toynbee offered a useful warning in this regard: “If one cannot think without mental patterns – and, in my belief, one cannot – it is better to know what they are; for a pattern of which one is unconscious is a pattern that holds one at its mercy.”

Toynbee was critiquing historians of his own period who treated the idea of progress as a simple fact, rather than the richly imaginative secular mythology it actually is. Still, his caution can be applied far outside the limits of the academic study of history. Nearly every dimension of contemporary culture, today just as in Toynbee’s time, embraces the unthinking assumption that the wave of history inevitably leads onward and upward through the present to a future that will look pretty much like the present, but more so.

This very widespread article of faith begs any number of questions. It seems to me, however, that one of them deserves special attention. The notion of history implicit in the modern mythology of progress is a straight line without branches or swerves, much less dead ends from which we might have to be retrace our steps. That idea of history, if it’s embraced unthinkingly, leaves us with desperately few options if adaptations to some temporary set of conditions turn out to be counterproductive when those conditions go away.

This is anything but an abstract concern just now. As the world closes in on the end of the 21st century’s first decade, its industrial societies are leaving behind a period in which just such a temporary set of conditions held sway. Until we recognize the blind alley down which those conditions led the developed world, we will be hard put to respond to a future that has begun to move in a very different direction.

A glance back three decades or so offers a necessary perspective. In the last years of the 1970s, conventional wisdom had it that the energy crises of that decade were the first waves of an “Age of Scarcity” that would demand either a massive conversion to nuclear power or an equally daunting and costly transition to a conserver economy in which relatively modest renewable energy inputs would be used with maximum efficiency. Both possibilities involved serious challenges and huge price tags, but in the face of the inevitable depletion of finite fossil fuel resources, those were the only rational options.

Unfortunately human affairs are not always governed by rational options. At the beginning of the 1980s, the political leadership of most Western countries – with the United States well in the lead under Ronald Reagan’s myopic guidance – rejected both these possibilities in favor of short-term gimmicks that papered over the symptoms of the energy crisis while doing nothing to address its causes. The improved energy efficiencies bought so dearly during the Seventies made it possible for reckless overproduction in the North Slope and North Sea oil fields to send the price of oil plunging lower, in constant dollars, than ever before in human history. All through the Eighties and Nineties, political manipulation of the oil markets kept petroleum not too far from $10 a barrel: around 24 cents a gallon, in other words, for the industrial world’s most precious natural resource.

The results of this disastrous collective choice have not, I think, been adequately measured even by most thinkers in the peak oil community. For a quarter of a century, from 1980 to 2005, petroleum could be had throughout the industrial world at prices so low it might as well have been free. Other energy costs dropped accordingly, as cheap oil competed with other resources for market share while simultaneously cutting the production and distribution costs of its competitors. The economic, infrastructural, and cultural initiatives that emerged during those years all embodied the assumption that “can we afford the energy cost?” was not a question anybody in the industrial world ever needed to ask.

One result was the movement toward economic globalization that spawned so much media chatter and devastated so many communities during those years. Propagandists for the private-sector socialism that passes for capitalism these days have insisted that this reflects the natural emergence of a global free market from which everybody would allegedly prosper someday, while their opponents have argued that it reflects a deliberate plot to force down wages and working conditions worldwide for the benefit of the rich. What has rarely been recognized is that perhaps the most important of all the forces driving globalization in those years was artificially low energy prices.

During the quarter century of ultracheap energy, transportation costs were so low that they became a negligible fraction of the cost of goods. This allowed manufacturers to arbitrage the difference in labor costs between industrial and nonindustrial countries without having to take shipping costs into account. The sort of predatory trade relationships pursued by European colonial empires in the 19th century could be replicated without the ferocious trade barriers and imperial misadventures of that earlier time; local industries could be flattened by overseas production without any need for naval bombardments or colonial administrations, because distance had no economic meaning.

Another result, at least as dramatic as globalization though less ballyhooed then or now, was the rise of a throwaway economy all through the industrial world. Not all that long ago, one business you could readily find in most American towns and urban neighborhoods was the small appliance repair shop, where toasters, clocks, radios, hair dryers, and a hundred other consumer goods could be taken for repair when they stopped working. An entire industry of small-scale entrepreneurs, and the support businesses that kept them stocked with spare parts, tools, and materials, survived on the economic realities that made it worthwhile to pay a repairman to fix small appliances instead of throwing them out and buying new ones.

That industry was already faltering by 1980 as the economic consequences of American empire distorted currency exchange rates and allowed other countries to export goods to the United States at a fraction of the cost of domestic production. The plunge in energy costs after 1980, though, finished the job. Once the cost of energy no longer mattered, consumer goods could be manufactured and shipped for a fraction of what they had previously cost, and repairing them made no economic sense when the repair might cost twice as much as a new model.

The explosive spread of the internet, finally, was also a product of the era of ultracheap energy. The hardware of the internet, with its worldwide connections, its vast server farms, and its billions of interlinked home and business computers, probably counts as the largest infrastructure project ever created and deployed in a two-decade period in human history. The sheer amount of energy that has had to be invested to create and sustain today’s internet, along with its economic and cultural support systems, beggars the imagination.

Could it have been done at all if energy stayed as expensive as it was in the 1970s? It’s hard to see how such a question could be answered, but the growth of the internet certainly would have been a much slower process; it might have moved in directions involving much less energy use; and some of the more energy-intensive aspects of the internet might never have emerged at all. It remains to be seen whether a system adapted to a hothouse climate of nearly free energy can cope with the harsher weather of rising energy costs in a postpeak world.

These examples could be multiplied almost endlessly, from our extravagant and dysfunctional health care system right up to the delusional economics that helped millions of Americans convince themselves that it made sense to buy poorly insulated, shoddily built new houses a three-hour drive from jobs and shopping. For a quarter century, people throughout the industrial world have become accustomed to economic, social, and personal arrangements that only work if energy is basically free. Just as with every previous economic shift in modern history, too, proponents of these arrangements wrapped them in the rhetoric of progress. Globalization was progress, we were told, and therefore as inevitable as it was irreversible; so was the internet; so, when it was noticed at all, was the throwaway economy.

Yet describing these changes as progress, in the sense given that word by our contemporary mythic narratives, dramatically misstates the situation. For a 25-year interval, by reckless overproduction of rapidly depleting resources and purblind manipulations pursued for short term political gain, the cost of energy was driven down to artificially low levels that had never been seen before – and, barring a whole concatenation of miracles, will never be seen again. The resulting glut of energy fostered ways of doing things that make no sense at all under any other conditions.

In hindsight, I suspect, the entire period from 1980 to 2005 will be seen as one of history’s supreme blind alleys. A great many of the economic arrangements, infrastructure, and personal and collective habits that grew up in response to that age of distorted priorities will have to be reworked in a hurry, no matter what the cost, as energy prices rise to more realistic levels. At the same time, the grip of the myth of progress on the industrial world’s imagination remains unshaken.

The possibility that the only way forward out of the present blind alley may require going back to less convenient and more costly ways of doing things is nowhere on our collective radar screens just now. It’s easy to understand why. After all, most people living in the industrial world today have spent a majority of their lives in settings in which cheap abundant energy was the unquestioned birthright of anyone outside the poverty class, and those less than thirty years old never had the chance to experience anything else.

Those who borrow Lewis Carroll’s metaphor and talk about the need to go down the rabbit hole have thus, I think, missed an important point. For the last quarter century, that’s exactly where we’ve been. The challenge before us now – a challenge many upcoming Archdruid Report posts will grapple with in different ways – is to climb back out of the rabbit hole and deal with the world we will have to face when the extravagant Wonderland of the brief era of ultracheap energy dissolves into windblown leaves and the shreds of a departed dream.

55 comments:

yooper said...

Excellent article John! I can't agree more, with all your thoughts here. Perhaps, progress is multi- dimensional? I think, the former Soviet Union might be an example of history, back pedaling so to speak, in order to go another direction or branch out.

I really like your idea of ultra cheap energy! There is a difference between cheap energy and energy. I've agrued this on another site, but you've captured the essence of it here. This is a very hard concept for people to understand. Perhaps, this is the true definition of "peak oil"? I'll just bet in retrospect, this distinction between cheap energy and energy will be the defining moment. Perhaps, we've passed that point long ago and by going global with cheap labor making up the difference now? Of course, this cannot be viewed as progress for many of the beholders, here and elsewhere.

I very much enjoyed the talk about "irreversiblity" while you were on vaction. Just how irreversible are those throw away products? ha! Here's the thing, if we continue to have (cheap) energy coupled with (cheap) mass production of uniform parts, we can expect more of the same. Furthermore, the minute this starts to go another direction, well, we'll see another set of consenquences. Can I ask you if you think this process is reversible?

Glad to see ya back!

Thanks, yooper

FARfetched said...

JMG, it's good to see you back on The Tubes again.

I'll pick on one part of this, what might happen to the Internet in a more energy-constrained world, because it's something I've given some thought to already: UUCP, an older store-and-forward protocol for carrying email and news (the old Usenet), requires only occasional connectivity and could be revived for use on the edges of the net.

I think it will be important, going forward, to have a way for people to disseminate information. This might be one possible path, or perhaps another blind alley.

Mary said...

Welcome back, we all hope the rest was good for you and your family. I do enjoy how you think and use language. Thank you for this perspective today. I am finding that more and more people are beginning to imagine different ways of doing things. Hopefully we are not too late.
I have this above my computer: "Use it up, Wear it out, Make it do,
.. Or do without."
Mary

Loveandlight said...

This is probably your best post so far. I'm going to link to it on my blog (such as my blog is).

Stephen Heyer said...

Hi John,
Love your following quotes. I sort of realized this myself (at the time even!) but could not wrap it up in a few words that were understandable by ordinary people, yet still conveyed the true reckless, selfish, destructive lunacy of the decision, or lack of decision, and the catastrophic seriousness of the probable final result.

“By the first wave of energy crises in the 1970s, however, the geological basis for American ascendancy no longer existed, because most of it had been pumped out of the ground and burnt. I’ve argued elsewhere that the American political class in the Seventies faced a difficult choice between a transition to sustainability and a high-tech, high risk nuclear society, and ended up choosing neither because the costs on both sides were too high. Since then, political and economic gimmicks and a willingness to burn through our remaining resources with reckless abandon have papered over the hard reality of American decline.” (The Future that Wasn't, Part Two:, January 02, 2008)

“A glance back three decades or so offers a necessary perspective. In the last years of the 1970s, conventional wisdom had it that the energy crises of that decade were the first waves of an “Age of Scarcity” that would demand either a massive conversion to nuclear power or an equally daunting and costly transition to a conserver economy in which relatively modest renewable energy inputs would be used with maximum efficiency. Both possibilities involved serious challenges and huge price tags, but in the face of the inevitable depletion of finite fossil fuel resources, those were the only rational options.

“… At the beginning of the 1980s, the political leadership of most Western countries – with the United States well in the lead under Ronald Reagan’s myopic guidance – rejected both these possibilities in favor of short-term gimmicks that papered over the symptoms of the energy crisis while doing nothing to address its causes.

“…The results of this disastrous collective choice have not, I think, been adequately measured even by most thinkers in the peak oil community.’ (Back Up The Rabbit Hole, February 06, 2008)

Brilliant! Keep on hammering this point as most people will be carefully not seeing it. Only constant repetition forces people to see things they really don’t want to see

As for your following observations on the Internet, I think that brings up an interesting point: Some things will be able to adapt fairly easily to an expensive energy environment, though sometimes the adaptation may not be what we want.

“The explosive spread of the internet, finally, was also a product of the era of ultracheap energy. The hardware of the internet, with its worldwide connections, its vast server farms, and its billions of interlinked home and business computers, probably counts as the largest infrastructure project ever created and deployed in a two-decade period in human history. The sheer amount of energy that has had to be invested to create and sustain today’s internet, along with its economic and cultural support systems, beggars the imagination.”

Well, I have to agree. When I started my Internet adventure it was on a 386DX 40 with 4 MB of RAM and 40MB of hard drive (that’s right – MB) and a 2400 baud modem: A fairly hot machine for the time.

The servers the fledging Internet here in Australia ran on were similarly modest hardware.

These days better power could be delivered from pure solid state devices (no mechanical HD) costing a few hundred dollars and requiring almost no power.

Yet, that system did exactly what I wanted it to do, opened up the world’s knowledge to me, put me in instant touch with people all over the world and let me read and contribute to the pages of Interesting people such as yourself (we didn’t call them blogs in those days).

So you see, if we don’t insist on an Internet designed around multi player, ultra-realistic, online, first person shooter games or watching Days of our Lives online it can adapt to a much lower energy environment and still retain most of the things I consider important. Ok, I’ll miss Google Earth, but I suppose I will survive.

Shipping is likely to adapt almost as easily. After all, it is already I think the most energy efficient means of transporting things and as oil becomes too expensive, could easily just go back to coal – speaking of things we don’t want.

Come to think of it, really expensive energy could open the way for some interesting new/old technologies: For example, how about airships?

Solar powered airships are probably quite viable and while we seem to be approaching peak helium, it turns out that hydrogen filled airships can be quite safe provided the design is right and the airship built of suitably non-inflammable materials (such as the old airships were not).

Betsy aka 'the goat yoda' said...

There's much to be said on returning to the sort of agrarian roots of the US, of about 150+ years ago- the return of the village system of rural life, growing of food and such- less stress, less crime, less drugs, less people going hungry- better health, better living conditions- the British model of the small holder has pretty much not changed on the last few hundred years, something very valued by a growing number of people fleeing the urban cnters for more purposeful lives.

Sabretache said...

JM - Thanks for yet another set of lucid insights. I have about 80 sites in my News Reader and if I had to reduce them to just 2 or 3, yours would be among them.

Deeply appreciated

Peter said...

John, the depth and clarity in this post is much appreciated; and finding your blog is serendipitous-I first heard of you only 4 days ago while browsing in Border's (your book on Atlantis), and the resonance was quite powerful. Now, I "stumble upon" this post at the "Energy Bulletin" site. Hmmm, time to connect with my Welsh heritage, and delve into your druid wisdom.

A new friend in New England,
Peter Darwin

Laurent Brondel said...

"Belief in progress is the prozac of the thinking classes"
John Gray "Heresies: against progress and other illusions"
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_N._Gray

dharmagaian said...

Hi JMG, Thanks for such a concise yet deep overview of the connections between artificially cheap energy, the delusional global economy, the throw-away consumer culture, the reckless depletion of nonrenewable resources (and of the Earth's capacity to regenerate, I might add), and the approaching realities/crises that we must adapt to. I loved the quote from Toynbee and the metaphor of 'back up the rabbit hole,' which is very apt. You vacation seems to have done you good. Welcome back!

Thanks so much for a brilliant essay,
Dharmagaian

Robert Magill said...

If we wish to keep a modicum of comfort in our near future we should prioritize conventional electrical generation above all.

If we care at all about the grand kids and their progeny we must spend the bulk of our efforts removing all trace of nuclear appliances.

Because if technology fails the folks might survive but will have no possible way to cope with nuclear applications of any size

Matt Cardin said...

I hope you had a good rest while you were away, John. It's nice to see you back in action, especially with a post as well stated and dead-on accurate as this one.

The problem of the overarching cultural myths that we're locked into, and more importantly, unconsciously locked into, with nary a whiff of large-scale collective awareness that our myths are myths, presents itself to me every day at my job. I teach at a public high school in rural southwest Missouri (although, gods willing, not for much longer). The teens I spend my days with are average, everyday Midwestern American stock. And if they're anything like a representative sampling of their (very large) demographic category, then America's future is currently set to be inherited by youngsters who think themselves hip and savvy but who are in fact utterly, profoundly, and unconsciously locked into the patterns of cultural-mythic thought and belief you've written about here.

I get along with these kids great; we have an excellent rapport and enjoy some fun and even, occasionally, pedagogically productive times together. This means that I have a pretty good idea of where their headspace and heartspace really is. And I can tell you that they know literally nothing about peak oil and energy, America's apocalyptic economic situation, the unfolding ecological meltdown, and so on. That's not to say they don't have the sense that something's wrong. It might surprise a lot of people to hear how subtly doomsdayish a present-day American teen can get. "The world's going to end" is a common refrain I hear from them. But it's just a vague and general attitude, not a real awareness of what's going on. They pick up mental background static from half-heard television news reports about economic woes and global warming while the forefront of their attention remains firmly and wholly directed toward and saturated with the newest video games, pop music, Will Ferrell movies, etc.

I probably don't have to mention what this implies about the attitudes and outlooks of most of their parents and families.

Six years of having been confronted by this phenomenon of mass cultural sleepwaking in action has led me to doubt, or rather firmly disbelieve, that any sort of preemptive cultural education or awareness-raising efforts can puncture America's collective dream/delusion body armor. Nothing short of a full-scale systemic crisis will do that, and once such a thing kicks off, the vast majority of people will naturally react in a kneejerk fashion that is informed by the very cultural myths that led to the crisis.

Obviously, I'm not an optimist. But the fact that you're writing what you're writing, and that I and other people hear and understand and say the same things ourselves, obviously indicates that the cultural dream-armor has a few chinks. No large-scale, mass-oriented campaign to pierce it will ever succeed, though, because such campaigns would necessarily be mounted on the delusions themselves.

RAS said...

Hey JMG,
Good to have you back, first off. I missed these weekly posts. What you have to say in this post is very true. I know that intellectually and have for some time (otherwise I wouldn't be reading this blog) but it's still hard to swallow emotionally. After all, that's pretty much my entire life you're talking about. I'm 24 and too young to remember the 70s. As far as most of my generation is concerned, this is the way things have always been and always will be.

Mike said...

JMG,

Glad to hear from you again, I look forward to your posts and appreciate them greatly. They give a much needed long term view that is as realistic as any mortal can hope for. By the way, a wonderful title for this particular post.

John Michael Greer said...

Thanks to all for the good wishes and enthusiasm. I had a very pleasant vacation -- got caught up on my reading and my Cornish homework, rehabilitated an old Remington 12-gauge that had been maltreated by a former owner, and just spent some time with my feet up watching the snow fall. 2007 was a very busy and, in some ways, very challenging year for me, and it was good to take some time to recover before plunging into the next flurry of projects.

Yooper, my guess is that as energy stops being cheap, a lot of things currently labeled "irreversible" will reverse in a hurry, including certain dimensions of mass production. I don't think mass production itself is going anywhere -- it was viable in Adam Smith's time, when the workers in his famous needle factory used hand tools -- but once the energy inputs become more expensive it'll be taking place on a much smaller scale.

Farfetched, UUCP is definitely an option, though I'd look to packet radio as a much more resilient basis for such a future internet. Much more on this later.

Mary and Loveandlight, thank you!

Stephen, several good points. It's possible to retool quite a bit of modern technology to use much less energy in manufacture, maintenance, and use, and in many cases starting from an older generation of tech is the key. The question then becomes maintaining the social framework that makes a technological society possible -- and that may be a bigger challenge.
Betsy, the smallholder life has its disadvantages, too; still, it's likely to prove much more viable in a world of expensive energy than the arrangements we have now.

Sabretache, Peter, and Dharmagaian, many thanks!

Laurent, thank you for the quote! That's excellent.

Robert, granted -- but how do you propose to get governments and societies to act on these sensible proposals? Time is short enough at this point that there needs to be a tolerably tight focus on things that can be done, here and now, by individuals and community groups.

Matt, thanks for a very clear statement of the crux of the challenge we're facing. I've lost the source, but there's a famous comment that people run mad in masses, and come to their senses only one at a time. All we can do is help those who are coming to their senses to find the tools and ideas they need.

Ras, understood. It's a real challenge.

Mike, many thanks!

yooper said...

Hello John, Perhaps a personal note here. I've been on vaction too! During this time, I've revealed,"The Royal Flush in Spades", in explaining this, I've used some concepts of my own along with those of my instructors, that I was taught so many years ago.

It's my sincere hope that you might check this out, if you already have'nt. A few of our pals are checking this out now. Of course, I'll be looking foward to any criticism you might have. I'll try and answer any questions you might have.

In it, I've just started my narrative, "The Vision", describing a scenario under the assumption that the power has been lost in North America. I hope you like it.

I'll leave it to your discretion to whom you might want to bring to this site.

Thanks, yooper

Ben said...

Whether it's that we've been down a rabbit hole or an ostrich hole I think you've nailed the "hole" thing.

yooper said...

Hello John! Perhaps, I'm over stepping a bit here, but I was under the impression that mass production of uniform parts was only realized since the early 1900's. This mass standardization of parts, enabled parts to become interchangeable. There is a difference between mass production of "hand made" parts which cannot match the tolerances of uniform parts produced by machines. To be even more specific, it wasn't until electrical generation (cheap energy) was coupled to machines that produced uniform or standardized parts, that the "modern industrial age" was born. It's a fact the former Soviet Union did not have this technology on a mass scale until well after WWII.

This concept is so important for people to understand when comprehending how we got where we are today. The "Green Revolution" was only realized (among others) after this technology. In fact, without this technology, we would not be in the predicament we're in today! Nor having this discussion....

Is this global society (our present environment) a throw-away? Is it reversible?

Btw John, I think you're right on spot that when energy stops being cheap, that a lot of things currently labeled "irreversible" will reverse in a hurry. This has got to happen, to experience the slow decline you're suggesting. It's a damn good thing we've got guy's like farfetched, who has been highly educated and skilled to make this reverse even possible! That is, if it was this technology that got us here, hopefully it'll be that some kind of technology that will let us down slowly. Of course that takes "energy" whether it's cheap,irreversible, whatever.....

Thanks, yooper

Loveandlight said...

Here's something that speaks to what you are discussing in this post. I recently found out that a lot of computer "techie" types discard their old printers as soon as the ink-cartridges that came with the unit run out because the cost of no-frills printers has come down to the point where the cost of replacing the cartridges exceeds the cost of just getting a new printer.

That's not much of a justification, because there are vendors such as MyInks.com where you can get discount-priced replacement-cartridges for a third of the brand-name price for any major printer, and those cheaper ones work just fine. I know this from my own experience.

The sheer wastefulness of the planet's resources that this "throw-away techie" mindset represents rubs me the wrong way in every possible way (I've always had the same printer, which I bought seven years ago), and it is certainly only made possible by the very exegesis of the globalized cheap-energy economy you describe here.

Laodan said...

John, about your description of progress as a myth, in reality this idea of progress as being the direction forward, positive, on the line of history is typically a story derived out of the religions of the word. This is nowhere to be seen in China and the greater Confucian area nor in any area where animism is still in practice.

The Western idea of progress starts with the religions of the word being imposed on all citizens as the societal glue of early kingdoms and empires. That moment is also considered to be the beginning of Western civilization moment that Toynbee spent his life studying.

A civilization is like a house, only, the FOUNDATIONS OF CIVILIZATIONS are not made of bricks but of AXIOMS of a model of perception of reality that is shared by all the citizens. Culture, understood as epochal behavior within society, is then added to the axioms to grow the house of civilization. Each particular snapshot of epochal behavior acts thus like a CULTURAL ADD-ON. A civilization is then the sum of its axioms + its cultural add-ons.

So how do the axioms of our Western and Christian civilization compare with the axioms of the Chinese civilization? It's the story of dualism in the West versus "the polarities of unity" in China.
- dualism: God versus devil, beginning versus end, good versus evil, love versus hate, "you are with us or you are against us", progress versus regress, and so on. Under dualism it is implied that you are on the side of God and good and that the road of history is made of progress. The logical behavior in such an axiomatic setting is thus to believe that everything is fine because we are on the road of progress towards reaching God (ultimate good). As a consequence Westerners experience an utter inability to recognize reality as it is and tend to reject the idea that what they do could be wrong, or even less, counterproductive to their own interests.
- polarities of unity: the contact between polarities generates a burst of energy fueling changes and transformations that are as the seconds on the ticking clock of evolution. In that axiomatic setting there is no beginning and end, no all and nothing, no progress and regress. Reality is perceived indeed as a continuum of change. And the logical behavior is then to surf on the realities of the moment in order to position oneself to be able to size the best opportunities at hand in the present.

In light of this I'm afraid that your assertion that "The challenge before us now is to climb back out of the rabbit hole and deal with the world we will have to face when the extravagant Wonderland of the brief era of ultra-cheap energy dissolves into windblown leaves and the shreds of a departed dream" is wishful thinking, for, as Toynbee observed (in a Western civilizational environment) it's NECESSITY that powers change and not the willpower of men.

RJ said...

This essay should serve as a touchstone for those of us on the outside looking in, so to speak.

The thought pattern of never ending progress has in fact met it's match, manifested on the horns of the fast approaching twin crisis. Those of us fortunate enough to understand what's coming would do well to see beyond our own anthropocentric concept of time. I have a bit of faith in mother earth, she will heal.

John in LA said...

Wow. Great article. This site is a find. I linked it to my last post at liberalrapture.com

eboy said...

Electrification and renewal of rail and use of water for their efficiencies as Jim Kunstler points out should be top of mind.
Reversion or pursuit of small mixed farms is a necessity to capitalize on the massive increases in real efficiency that has been masked by cheap energy and shenanigans.
The globalization model that has subsidized corporations chasing cheap labour and environments to rape will reap the rewards of failure to plan ... plan to fail.

'All the kings horses...' comes to mind.

John Michael Greer said...

Yooper, I'll check it out as time permits. As for interchangeable parts, to some extent it's a matter of definition; the concept was pioneered in the late 18th century, though it's true that it took more than a century to get to anything like "plug and play" parts.

Ben, something has unquestionably been down, or up, some hole or other. Since this is a G-rated blog I'll refrain from any further speculation.

Loveandlight, that's exactly the sort of distorted economics I had in mind. Thanks for the example!

Laodan, of course necessity will play a large role in extracting our heads from whichever hole they've been in for the last quarter century. It's not impossible, though, that a few people might do so before being forced. As for dualism, I've always found it fascinating when people critique the Western world for its dualistic thinking, using a dualistic model opposing Western thought to whatever alternative they prefer.

RJ, so do I.

John, many thanks.

Eboy, well, yes, but what do you personally propose to do, to get rail and water transport back up and running again? We're long past the point where we can wait for somebody else to do what has to be done. That's why this blog is going to talk quite a bit about steps that individuals and local communities can do to deal with our predicament.

Laodan said...

John you are misrepresenting two points of my argument:

1. "...of course necessity will play a large role in extracting our heads from whichever hole they've been in for the last quarter century".
The concept of NECESSITY in Toynbee's work refers to what powers the transformations along the formation of our Western civilization. He uses that concept to illustrate the transformative power of heavy trends.
Your answer is a recuperation of Toynbee's concept to justify your belief in the capacity of a few enlightened individuals to stick their heads above the fray.
But you should know better. Humanity is no match indeed for the heavy trends that are emerging (side-effects of modernity, peak resources, and societal atomization). Whatever some small pockets of individuals do, the fact is that, under the necessity of those heavy trends late modernity shall swing over into a new historical area and only those who adapt to the transformations will survive to draw the contours of a new societal form.

2. "As for dualism, I've always found it fascinating when people critique the Western world for its dualistic thinking...".
This is kind of sticking your head in the sand of Western civilizational axioms. No doubt that anything happening out of that Western quicksand does not appear on your radar screen.
There is one fact nevertheless that should awake you. The West represents less than 10% of the world population so what about the ways of thinking and doing of the other 90%? Are those 90% of the world population also not visible from your radar screen?
What I'm referring to is not "...using a dualistic model opposing Western thought to whatever alternative".
Discovering other ways of perceiving reality is not the same as opposing those with our own. The discovery helps us to understand how the axioms of our own civilization are impacting our minds and thus leading us to act as we do.
To be more accurate I should add that humanity's different civilizations are not opposites among which our own should be the best. That's an a-historical vision that is being imposed on us by our blindness to the axioms founding the logic of our Western dualism.

Our surviving different civilizations are more akin to different societal polarities of humanity at this particular moment in history.

Polarities interact and those interactions generate bursts of energy that in return are powering transformations inside each of the polarities.

With globalization the remaining civilizations of humanity are now interacting more forcefully than at any other time in history. The ensuing transformations are slowly powering the emergence of a global worldview that, under the weight of the present heavy trends and our will to survive their effects, is bound to unite humanity in the historical area that is shaping as the follow-up to modernity.

yooper said...

Hello John, this is "old school" thought here, during the early 1970's. I go a little deeper into this concept in my January archieves, under "Industrail environment." Once you understand this concept, this will open a whole new world of thought, perhaps providing answers to questions, such as, why some European populations are beginning to decline. Also why developing nations are exploding.

I'd like to suggest perhaps starting at the beginning, to actually see where I'm coming from. One has got to learn to add and subtract before they can multiply and divide, so to speak. I'm a poor communicator and even poorer writer, but think one can get the idea, I'm trying to coney in this matter.

After rereading this article again, it's one of my favorites too! Your thoughts John, about last 30 years is impressive, again I can't agree more. There were alternative options being explored in the early 1970's. Perhap's my education is a testimony of that? Abandonment? Can you even begin to imagine how I felt to have the very same people turn their back on me, after "grooming" me for so many years? Perhaps, now you can better understand my bitterness.

John, I've stood guard at the entry of the rabbit hole for 35 years. Perhaps, now is the time others will begin to see the sunlight. Thanks, for all that you're doing in that regard.

Thanks, yooper

Rainman said...

Thanks for your postings John and welcome back. I only found your blog about six months ago, what a life ring.
Speaking of waste, I was informed by a hardware person where I live, that we can no longer buy replacement blades for our 14" pruning saws. And the ones the store had were two dollars cheaper than a new saw. Like he told me, "Here is your new $20 throwaway saw"!? Makes no sence at all! I'm saving all my old dull blades to make something else with them. Thanks for what you are doing John!

Jim said...

The myth of a single inevitable track into the future is also common at a personal level. What sort of situation might I find myself in, what kind of person might I be, in say 20 years? Of course the uncertain changes of the environment - physical, biological, social - make such predictions difficult. But the key point that seems so often missed is that there are many possibilities for my personal future, and the dominant determining factor is my own behavior. I shape my future. My future depends on what I do.

The denial that my actions really matter, really make a difference, both to my own future and to others nearby and even others distant - this strikes me as the essense of irresponsibility.

eboy said...

J.M.G. said: " Eboy, well, yes, but what do you personally propose to do, to get rail and water transport back up and running again? We're long past the point where we can wait for somebody else to do what has to be done. That's why this blog is going to talk quite a bit about steps that individuals and local communities can do to deal with our predicament."

Hi John, have I raised your ire? I guess the only thing that is in most people's power is advocacy and to modify their behaviour to support such endeavours. I am not a cornucopian and believe that the number of problems headed our way as a consequence of our questing shiny stuff as being the death nail, to the world, energy restrictions or not.

On t.o.d. I read a comment that stated that "We leverage our improved efficiency to produce more stuff". This seems axiomatic. Consider industrial agriculture, forestry and fisheries. And since we (n.america) don't live in democracys but some sort of corporate oligarchies (I'm open to a better description) What power to change policy do any of us really have? From my perspective we are back to the monkey trap, refusing to let go of the apple.
As I understand your conception of collapse there will be communities that are forward thinkers who will step down (roll with the punches) better than others. Will it be because of existing infrastructure or rowdy advocates screaming: Rail now?

There is a man in my neck of the woods named Thane Heins. Who has discovered something extremely interesting w/r/t electric motors. I have met him and seen demo's of an electric motor performing tricks that are defined in current electrical understanding as impossible. Thane has just been granted permanent research space at Univ of Ottawa and here are 2 writeups on him from the Toronto Star and a demo.
http://www.thestar.com/article/300042
http://www.thestar.com/article/300041
http://www.g9toengineering.com/backemf/demonstration.htm

This might offer a huge energy solution, but won't save us from our selves. The only power that communities and individuals have is what they choose to do with their money. (I believe that voting just leaves you feeling like you need a shower). I support (advocate and seek to) the buy local movement, and the 100 mile diet. On another site we discussed the idea of creating a wiki or other structure that would rate all products/services on the basis of how far away the product was coming from, what is the energy density of the product. How many economic or real slaves were used to produce the product etc that could better enable 'consumer's to make better choices. Older farm communities shared their resources. One person would buy the threshing machine and others would own their respective machines. Then the community would work together to harvest the grain, then to separate the wheat from the chaff. But then these communities shared different values than then the current value system. In the future do you think the notion of being a billionaire will be deemed as a 'winner' or a 'pariah'?

John Michael Greer said...

Laodan, I'm not misrepresenting your argument, I'm disagreeing with it; there is a difference, you know. As for my alleged inability to see past Western cultural axioms, I was raised in a multicultural (Japanese and American) household, have practiced taijiquan and qigong for most of my adult life, and have an active role in a Native American language recovery program, so that dog won't hunt. When you propose a binary relationship between Western culture and Chinese culture, and imply that Western ways of thought are bad while Chinese are good, you're engaging in dualism, not polarity.

Yooper, "old school" isn't necessarily a disadvantage -- and you're by no means as bad a writer as I think you think.

Rainman, thank you for another excellent example.

Jim, an excellent point.

Eboy, no, no ire involved -- I've just reached a point where it seems crucial to me to challenge people when their response to our current predicament seems to be nothing more than presenting some abstract ideas of what ought to be done. Your response is reassuring: you've clearly thought about what you yourself can do, which is the point I'm trying to make.

Danby said...

Ah, the internet. This is where I work. It's not quite where I live and move and have my being, but it is where I spend 10-12 hours a day working to support my family. What it will be in 10 and 20 years is a topic of vital interest to me.

When we're talking about the Internet and energy we have to be careful to distinguish between sunk costs and on-going costs. The Internet represents a HUGE sunk cost, literally quadrillions of kilowatt-hours (or giga-joules for you metric types) went into building the networks, relays and nodes that constitute the internet. The operational cost in energy terms is obviously a lot less, but still impressive. At my employer's data center, there are over 4,000 servers. Granted, most of them have little or nothing to do with the internet, but we are a telecom, and the mix and size are typical of a mid-large telecom IT shop. About half are small PC equivalents that use maybe a hundred watts. A large number are 2-4 CPU mid-range servers running Unix or Linux. They use 250-1000 watts. About 350 are what we call Big Iron. They are the high-speed database and transactional servers and the mainframes. They have 4-64 CPUs and use 1000-5000 watts. Finally we have disks. Like most large shops, we have a storage area network, allowing us to manage the storage more efficiently. Our SAN provides us with 900 Tb of storage, at an energy cost of 2MW.

If you add it all up and add in the power needed for cooling and backups, our largest data center alone uses about 10MW of electric power. We are not a particularly large shop either, just a mid-sized telecom company. Compared to Amazon, Google, AOL, Microsoft, My Space, Yahoo, etc we're positively tiny.

When the price of power drifts into the stratosphere, that sort of centralized client-server structure will simply become too expensive to maintain. What you will see replace it are peer-to-peer networks that rely on distributed information and highly redundant protocols. A great example is bit torrent. Huge volumes of music and video are sent over bit torrent in a highly redundant and secure manner, without any central servers involved.* Any particular node can drop into or out of the conversation at any time without affecting the overall service much if at all.

For another look at the future check out the One Laptop Per Child project. The XO laptop, which is being delivered to children in South America and Asia right now, is custom-designed for low-power off-the-mains use. It comes with a manually operated charger, solid-state storage (for ruggedness and power efficiency), and mesh networking. The mesh networking is key. Rather than having each system log into a central wireless router, each XO laptop can store and forward packets from all the other XO laptops in range to reach the internet access point. This means that the poorest child at the edge of town can, if she is in range of another XO laptop that is part of the mesh, still reach the teacher's computer to turn in her homework.

I believe that in a few years, mesh networking will have taken over from WiFi. Only businesses, altruists, and rural people (like me) will have to have an ISP account. Normal people in cities, towns, and suburbs, will simply start up their computers, join the mesh and neither know nor care what route their own packets are taking, nor whose packets are traversing their machines. Somehow, the data just makes it to where it needs to go.

And of course, this can readily be connected to packet radio, WiMax, or any other networking gateway protocol.

*I also believe that Bit Torrent will force many countries to re-define their copyright laws. In a republic, a government that tries to classify most of it's citizens as criminals will eventually be changed for one that doesn't.

Betsy aka 'the goat yoda' said...

Up in the Smoky Mtns. where I live (near Gatlinburg/Dollywood, Asheville, NC), there is a lot of changing going on- the people are taking more control over the development of the area for one. The most telling thing to me is this is where the 'cool' folks are coming to. I mean the 'new hippy' types, the current wave of 'back to the landers'- young ones who are reclaiming the lost heritage of the mountains and the Scots/Irish who came here to settle the area. The really good thing is that the telephone companies are bringing in broadband and other techy things to enable the folk to do their low-tech lifestyle and still compete in Babylon, for the time being, until it all shuts back down. Definitely a case where most of these folk are children of both worlds, so to speak. Those of us who know how to move between the worlds are very aware of what is going on from a local to global perspective.

Also, FYI> up here in the TN/NC mountains we have the rail system pretty much still intact for some human transport, but mostly for transport of commodities, etc. These things are on the table for development and there is a rare opportunity to stop the destroying of the mountains and bring a sustainable properity back to them.

I asked a question at a meeting for local tourism wherein the folks from the state came in and asked the local tourist business folk what we wanted to see. The question was 'If the area were to take a sudden and permanent downturn, could the area sustain itself and feed its' own people?' I got some pretty scary 'deer in the headlights' looks from the state folks and no vocal response, but the question seems to have sunk in- most of the businesses and many of the residents understand the sentiment.

So, what it all boils down to for me is that I am watching and participating in creating a new paradigm wherein that which is old is new again. The old 'hillbilly' way is still pretty much intact in many of the hollars here and likely to be so for more generations, BUT the drawback is that most of the old heritage is still pretty much isolated. These folk are desarately poor and are afraid computer technology. If they do get out, and come back, some understand how it works, but many view it as it would have been viewed as 'witchcraft' in the middle ages.

To me, the key is not just talking about it, but actually participatng in the process. And I am very heartened to see at least two Colleges in the area (Warren-Wilson and Berea College) focalizing on the these small sustainable agriculture paradigms. Being a hard core homesteader and highlander myself, I've got great hope for the future of the area. And since the fuel to travel to any vacation spot that anyone wanted is no longer a viable option, we'll see the tourist industry go the way of many monoliths in civilization have gone before- perhaps sooner than later.

JRip said...

A few comments

The improved energy efficiencies bought so dearly during the Seventies made it possible for reckless overproduction in the North Slope and North Sea oil fields to send the price of oil plunging lower, in constant dollars, than ever before in human history. All through the Eighties and Nineties, political manipulation of the oil markets kept petroleum not too far from $10 a barrel: around 24 cents a gallon, in other words, for the industrial world’s most precious natural resource.

I would like to learn more about political manipulation of the oil markets.

As I recall the Mideast members of OPEC were caught short of their desired revenues about 1980 and were also bound by their OPEC quotas. Their quotas were set by the size of their Proven Reserves. They could and did cheat on their quotas but starting in 1981-82 Iraq jumped up their stated Proven Reserves. Then Kuwait did the same. Iran and UAE in about 1985 and the Saudis killed it in 1987 when they jumped theirs even more. [side note: and these Proven Reserves have never declined]

Stephen Heyer said...

Hi John,
“Perhaps the worst of the difficulties involved in that attempt, as I’ve suggested here more than once, is the pervasive influence of mythic narratives so deeply ingrained in our culture that few people even notice them.”

It occurs to me that we are all guilty of that, in fact I keep finding yet another instance where I was doing it, and cannot understand how I had unthinkingly bought that myth for decades.

And yes, Arnold Toynbee was right it say: “If one cannot think without mental patterns – and, in my belief, one cannot – it is better to know what they are; for a pattern of which one is unconscious is a pattern that holds one at its mercy.”

Anyway, I think there might be just one area where you are perhaps limiting your thinking because of internal “mythic narratives”. I refer to your inference (at least from what of your writings I read) that in the late 70s there was an either / or choice between nuclear power and a conserver economy.

Frankly, if I had been a national leader in the late seventies, limited to what I knew then, I would have:

1. Built nuclear power stations where practical, aiming for a full breeder reactor economy as only that is efficient enough to ensure long term supplies of uranium. You see, we knew by then that nuclear works and is doable, sure it has downsides, plenty of them, but it works!
2. Minimized energy use, especially oil use, by means such as high petrol prices thus ensuring an efficient car fleet with a lower rate of use.
3. Installed excellent (electric) public transport, especially rail, in the cities and excellent high speed electric rail links between the cities.
4. Tried to popularize apartment living rather than vast suburbs surrounding the major cities.
5. Subsidized any remaining peasant farmers using the excuse that they would only have to be paid unemployment benefits anyway, and that they were guardians of the countryside. Convince them of this so that they would start behaving as guardians of the countryside. The real reason for retaining peasant farmers of course would be to retain a pool of people with real skills and knowledge of low energy farming in case the worst came to the worst.
6. Aggressively research likely alternative energy, especially fusion, solar, wind and geothermal in the expectation that there would be solid results in about 20 years (about the late 90s). Ok, that’s where I would have been wrong, it looks like it’s going to be more like 40 years!
7. Aimed for a low to negative growth yet comfortably affluent society.

With what I know now I’d still do much the same.

Hey! Come to think of it, one country did all that except for the last one – France!

Where they probably lost it is in allowing a large influx of legal and illegal immigrants with a high reproductive rate and a culture distinctly different enough so that they will probably take some generations to fit in, generations the French may not have to spare.

Sometimes a society pays a high price for policies that "seemed like a good idea at the time".

Even so, France still seems to be better positioned than about anybody else to come through the “Long Emergency” with a minimum of pain.

In other words, I’m saying, we cannot afford cognitive limits with what’s coming, we have to use every thing we can.

John Michael Greer said...

Dan, things like mesh networking are very much a step in the right direction: redundant, flexible, and independent. If the ability to make and repair the hardware stays in place through the difficult phases of the decline, it could help a lot. I'd look into packet radio as a possible technology for bringing in the rural areas.

Betsy, this is exactly the sort of thing we need to see and hear more of. Good for you.

Jrip, the decisions to pump the North Slope and North Sea at a breakneck pace were largely political in nature, and backed by huge government investments. Look also at the expansion of US treaties with the Persian Gulf oil states in the early 1980s.

Stephen, of course the energy issues of the 1970s could have been conceptualized as both/and rather than either/or -- but in America, at least, the fact remains that it wasn't; nuclear energy and sustainability were seen as two diametrically opposed options. At this point, my best guess is that here, at least, we don't have the time, and soon won't have the money, to pursue the nuclear option at all -- the price tag on a nuclear program large enough to matter would be colossal, and beyond the reach of an essentially bankrupt nation -- and I persist in thinking that that's a good thing, if only because that's a very risky technology to have in a society in crisis.

Stephen Heyer said...

Hi John,

“At this point, my best guess is that here, at least, we don't have the time, and soon won't have the money, to pursue the nuclear option at all -- the price tag on a nuclear program large enough to matter would be colossal, and beyond the reach of an essentially bankrupt nation.”

Point taken.

What I meant was that if I was able to go back to the late 70s knowing what I know now I still think that those policies would be about the best and most effective that were politically and economically possible. Of course, they would be nowhere near enough to cope with what is coming, but would still form a good base to work from.

I was aware of the One Laptop Per Child project and have great hopes for it: To begin with it is developing exactly the kind of cheap, simple easily manufactured technology that will thrive in a low energy world.

As for mesh networking, well I just cannot praise it too much: Definitely one of my great hopes for the future.

Danby said...

Stephen,
I was there in the late 70s. The US government did quite a lot to reduce oil consumption, including:
-the CAFE fuel efficiency standards for cars,
-zero-interest loans for residential insulation, reglazing, and appliance upgrades,
-the 55MPH speed limit,
-heating and air conditioning limits for commercial buildings,
-de-regulation of the trucking industry, which reduced the number of "dead-head" (empty tailer) trips by 90%,
-fuel-efficiency standards for commercial aircraft,
-a substantial reduction in energy use by federal facilities, particularly the Army and Navy.

In fact, it was partly the government-driven effort to reduce petroleum use that resulted in the historically low oil prices of the '80s

In talking about woulda/shoulda/coulda in that time frame, you also have to consider that the nation was also dealing with the environmental dangers of pollution. The breeder reactor program of the AEC was stopped for two reasons, first, because the nuclear waste generated had (and for that matter still has) no safe method of disposal, and second, the output of a breeder reactor is eminently suitable for use in nuclear weapons. The concern was that it would make nuclear weapons even cheaper and easier to produce, by increasing the world's stockpile of plutonium. As well, plutonium is unbelievably toxic, even minuscule amounts are proven to cause lung cancer. Hindsight gives that particular path an allure it never had at the time, and I am not at all persuaded that the risks of pursuing it could have been managed. Nuclear weapons are still a lot more likely to destroy civilization than lack of fuel. It's the difference between having your car break down and getting mugged.

As far as rail is concerned, yes, we should have done more, but conditions here (at least here in the West) are much different than in Europe. Seattle and Portland are over 100 miles apart with only one major city (Tacoma) between. From Sacramento, CA to Portland, OR is over 500 miles, with no major cities (sorry, John, not even your adopted home town) between. The SF Bay area has, actually, a fairly good rail system. South of there? well, there's Fresno, 200 miles by road. Los Angeles, 200 miles further. So you're well over 1000 miles of rail (and 2 mountain ranges) to link the 4 major metropolitan areas of the west coast. With very little in between. In France, well, you'd be in Kiev, with just about all of Europe in between. The cost of laying track and purchasing right-of-way, not to mention track maintenance in one of the world's more earthquake prone areas make it a much less attractive proposition. And the coast is the populated part of the West. Think about N Dakota, and Montana.

Regarding research programs, that was actually attempted, Unfortunately, like most government programs, it was co-opted and sold to the highest bidder. In this case Archer-Daniels-Midland, the agricultural conglomerate. That's the Ethanol Program that rules Iowa electioneering, and hence has huge effects on our national politics. What was once an attempt to research alternative energy sources is now a multi-billion dollar giveaway to an entrenched special interest.

Jean-Michel said...

Hi JMG,

sorry not to join the chorus of extatic readers, but this last post helped me to realize that my JMG period is definitely behind me.

I don't know why, but at somepoint I really thought JMG was a rebel.

I thought his line of thinking could clear out a path through the forest.

But I have come to realize that he prefers to stay and to lose himself in the forest instead.

There are great things for all of us to come. If only, we try to elevate our level of consciousness, that is, pull the rabbit out of our hat, instead of caring about the rabbit's hole.

We are living in a period of special grace, of total abundance, in a spiritual sense.

This is the great truth of our time. And this is what we should focus on. Not the tribulations to come, though we should be realist.

It seems to me, but it is only a personnal opinion, nothing more, that those who really understand something about this period, those who are really directed towards personnal and collective enlightenment (our only possible exit door), should shout this truth above the roofs.

RAS said...

JMG, re: nuclear power plants. Even if we had the money, it still probably wouldn't be possible to build many more nuke plants, especially in areas prone to drought. Here in the Southeast, we're looking at the potential shutdown of up to 24 nuclear plants this summer if the water tables drop further.

JRip said...

A further comment on the pumping of oil in Alaska and then a suggestion.

I just finished listening to Matthew Simmons' presentation to the two energy committees of the Minnesota legislature. [You can download the PDF of the slides at his company website and the audio from the Minnesota state website].

He shows a graph of Prudhoe Bay production [slide 40] and he discusses production as having been restrained/prudent [my sense of what he said]. Apparently the field could have produced 3 million bpd in 1980 but they limited themselves to half that to maximize total yield. That is why the curve has the long plateau from 1980 thru 1988-89.

Suggestion: Your piece is one of the best I have read lately.
Another subject I have been reading
lately has been "What will be the Next Bubble?" and implicitly "How will IT pop?".

It dawns on me from what you wrote that we are living within the Next Bubble. It has been with us for decades. And how it will pop is what we are discussing in the Peak Oil Community as well as what can we do to prepare for it, to avoid disaster, and to mitigate the consequences for us when it does pop.

John Michael Greer said...

Stephen, yes, hindsight is always 20/20! There are a lot of things that could have been done back in the 70s, or at any time since then; I'm just grateful that we got viable organic agriculture, farmer's markets, and a robust recycling industry out of it; we'd be in much worse shape without those. Now to figure out what we can do with the opportunities of the present...

Danby, I still think rebuilding rail networks is the way to go -- if there's enough time and resources left to do it. But you're right that the economics of rail are completely different out here in the west.

Jean-Michel, yes, I figured you'd realize eventually that my point of view and yours have very little in common. Mind you, yours will likely be a major growth industry over the next few years; history is littered with the wreckage of societies that thought spiritual factors would bail them out of the consequences of their material mistakes, but it's always a popular claim.

Ras, an excellent point. As The Limits to Growth pointed out a long time ago, it's the unexpected interactions between different facets of the problem that tend to sneak up on you.

Jrip, in a broad sense all these small bubbles are part of the mother of all bubbles, the bubble of fossil fuel industrialism. Like the tech stock bubble, the real estate bubble, and so on, it's based on the fallacy that it's possible to leverage finite factors into infinite growth -- and it'll pop much the same way these others have: "...and great will be the fall of it."

JRip said...

Hi - I sent your article to a senior economist relative who does use email but is not yet a blog reader. His response is below:

J,
wonderful article - excellent analysis - he has described our world except he has left out the environmental consequences, and he has left out the armed conflicts around the globe precipitated by the fight over resource ownership - which even if not over oil & gas are all fueled by the price rises for raw materials needed to sustain the throw-away economy.

And he does not name the gimmicks used by Reagan which "papered over the symptoms of the energy crisis while doing nothing to address its causes." Because they were in general not gimmicks of commission, but were things not done because he and we, the American people, were in thrall to birthright and progress ideologies. Thus, we did not have a tax imposed on energy (birthright of Americans not to pay taxes), and we had meager investment in energy saving and in alternative sources (a. birthright - because America was blessed by God with abundant resources, further it is a populist right for every American to use them, and lastly, abundance, as every American is taught, creates low price, and b. progress - because American ingenuity will find a way to deal with any future scarcity, plus the laws of economics teach us that substitute goods will take over with appropriate price adjustments when one good becomes scarce).

The fact that he does not name these things is no mark against this column because it does its work.

The cheating on proven reserves was driven by the low price Reagan policies allowed.

Current price rises are part cartel (OPEC-induced scarcity), part fear of turmoil, part increased demand from formerly small economies, part peak oil.

Good thing price rises have occurred. But not high enough to cause the kind of radical change which is needed.

What will Obama do? Most Presidents are beholden to a populist dream which involves all the mistakes Reagan made.
B

John Michael Greer said...

Jrip, please thank your economist relative for me! I appreciate the feedback. He's quite right, of course, that our next president, whoever that happens to be, will be expected to provide the same Utopia of happy motoring and perpetual progress that Reagan promised -- and the backlash when that proves to be unreachable may be terrifying.

Danby said...

our next president, whoever that happens to be, will be expected to provide the same Utopia of happy motoring and perpetual progress that Reagan promised

Exactly why I no longer believe that mass democracy is a solution to anything. It is the political equivalent of the MBA hired to run a company who focuses entirely on stock prices and quarterly profit statements.

Here's a narrative to use as you see fit;

Last week I was in Fortuna California. Fortuna is home to Pacific Lumber. Pacific is the largest single private holder of the California redwoods. Each year from the mid-1920s to the mid-1980s they cut no more than .5% of their available standing timber, under the theory that the trees had to be replanted and have time to grow.

Then in 1985, some Wall street wizard noted that Pacific was sitting on several billion dollars worth of timber (Redwoood was then at an all-time high). They got together a bunch of investors, and executed a hostile takeover of the company. As soon as they had control, they started cutting the redwoods as fast as they could saw the logs. The employees thought it was great, more jobs, more overtime, more money! The local politicians thought it was great, larger payroll, more taxes, people moving in, economic expansion!

About the only naysayers were a bunch of long-haired smellies who wondered aloud about the long-term effect of so much timber harvesting, and a few malcontents living in trees to prevent their being cut down.

Soon, the realization came to the board of Pacific Lumber that there was another way to exploit their land holdings. They began shipping whole logs out of Humboldt bay to mills in Japan, Russia, China and Oregon. Of course the more wood they sawed and the more they shipped, the lower the price for redwood lumber and logs.

The result? The mill in Fortuna, once one of the largest mills in the world, with over 600 employees, is closed. In 2007, Pacific filed for bankruptcy. Some of the redwoods have been purchased by the state and federal governments, but other areas have been completely devastated.

FARfetched said...

Interesting thoughts on the Internet of the future, Danby. Wireless mesh has some great potential, especially where population density is sufficient. I understand Google has a multi-pronged approach to reducing power consumption of their servers, including research into more efficient power supplies and replacing Winchester-type hard drives with solid-state (flash) drives, too.

JMG's thoughts about packet radio are good, but one has to consider that individual nodes can drop out of the network due to low batteries or other events beyond anyone's control — that's why I think store-and-forward protocols (perhaps as a layer on top of packet radio and/or wireless mesh) will be important. Each node in the chain has to be able to drop in and out of the network as needed, without losing messages, and hang onto incoming traffic until both it and the next node are up and communicating.

Meanwhile, Planet Georgia is going to war (sort of) with Tennessee over a 200 year old border dispute that just happened to put a bend of the Tennessee River just beyond the border. (Hm, maybe I should start referring to Planet Georgia as "Dune"?) Resource wars aren't going to be limited to the Mideast, although some will be more violent than others. I don't have a front-row seat for this bit of political theater — maybe the 10th row — but I'm stocking up on popcorn. :-)

Panidaho said...

He's quite right, of course, that our next president, whoever that happens to be, will be expected to provide the same Utopia of happy motoring and perpetual progress that Reagan promised -- and the backlash when that proves to be unreachable may be terrifying.

Oooooh, yes. It's almost enough to make me feel sorry for whomever next takes office.

Almost.

Stephen Heyer said...

Hi danby,
Yes, I know most of the things I listed as “should have been done” were in fact attempted by a number of countries in the West. I too was there.

I didn’t make that list up all by myself, it was pretty much late 70s conventional wisdom, along with the absolute necessity of population control.

I even know that this situation was looked at as early as the 50s by some governments.

Pity it was lost in the decades long hysteria of greed, but then again, perhaps those in the USA who decided instead to rig the system to transfer all the wealth to themselves knew something. I suspect that, basically, they reached the conclusion that nothing was going to work for the USA.

I mean, take a middle sized country with a stable, law abiding, fairly homogenous (sadly, that makes things much easier) population and a long established political system (lots of European countries) and yes, you can run a breeder reactor base load electrical system and make the other changes that will get the country through the next few centuries in some comfort. Hopefully before nuclear waste becomes too much of a problem it will have been replaced by vacuum energy, orbital solar power (30 times the output of ground based) or something we haven’t even thought of yet.

Oh! And a lot can be done to minimize nuclear waste. As for nuclear weapons, well, that is where you need that stable, law abiding population and a long established stable political system.

The problem is, how can I put this, this isn’t going to work for a country of 300+ million people with huge social divisions between groups living at a third world levels and others enjoying truly obscene wealth, a population wide belief that they are entitled to ever increasing consumption and growth, borders hemorrhaging millions of illegal immigrants, critical resource depletion, a looted financial sector and too many other problems to name.

What I’m trying to say is that I saw some of what should have been done in the 70s to get France, Australia, Austria, Holland, Argentina, Chile or Cuba (Cuba has since done it) through what’s coming and lots of other people saw the same thing. I can even see some of the things that could save the situation at this late stage. However, sadly, I have absolutely no idea what can be done for the USA, neither I think does anyone else.

So you see, as someone from outside the USA (Australia), most of my comments are directed towards countries other than the USA.

And don’t think that this makes me feel smug or gives me any joy: The last thing I as an Australian want is to share this fragile planet with a dying, nuclear armed giant that has abandoned all hope.


I sure hope John or someone works out what to do to rescue the USA.

Ahavah B. said...

I'm late to the party, as usual, but welcome back! I thoroughly enjoy your posts.

I was thinking - part of the problem for those of us who can and do walk in multiple "worlds" is figuring which parts of each are the "good" parts - the aspects worth trying to preserve, the methodologies, technologies, frames of mind and worldviews from the past worth adopting. Each "side" seems to have good points and bad points - but some of the "good" points seem mutually exclusive. What can be reversed and what can't is part of that bigger question.

I'm thinking that women's roles are going to have to be a big part of that "conversation." Modern feminism has elevated ambition and money-making and "self" fulfillment above everything - women my age and younger sacrifice their kids, their marriages, their parents and extended family, their religious and social and charitable duties on the altar of their career, and don't even blink an eye. I don't see how a sustainable society can function with those attitudes. Are those also a product of a dysfunctional age, or am I just hopelessly old-fashioned (age 40, btw)?

Modern society has managed to divide and conquer the family unit all day long - can this be reversed? Should it be? It didn't used to be this way - family businesses/farms - extended family, even kids - everyone worked together. I believe these things will need to be back in place before society collapses completely in order to be in place at all, but how can it be done with the young people so thoroughly indoctrinated in "individualism at all costs?"

Or is that a good thing, and I'm missing something?

John Michael Greer said...

Dan, that's the history of the US economy in a nutshell: the triumph of short-term profit over long-term survival. Now the bills are coming due, and the result is likely to be a pretty fair mess.

Farfetched, granted, packet radio could use some further development. It's the concept of a long-range wireless computer network using existing technology that interests me -- that sort of thing offers lots of options in a time of contraction.

Teresa, "almost" is the word I'd use, too. After all, they're volunteering for the role.

Stephen, I think a lot of us are more or less expecting Europe to play Byzantium to America's Rome. Mind you, most European countries haven't been able to feed their own populations for well over a century, and the stability of European political systems in the face of systemic dysfunction can easily be overstated -- a glance back at the 1930s might be useful here -- but no question, they're in better shape than the US...or, for that matter, Australia, which uses more energy per capita than the US does and IIRC provides even less of it from within its own borders.

But I wouldn't overestimate the stability and power of the US, either. A lot of people thought the collapse of the Soviet Union would involve nuclear explosions and armies streaming across borders, too.

Ahavah, it's unfortunately true that feminism allowed itself to be hijacked by economic interests that saw the potential for huge profits if the old household economy could be eliminated. Thus a movement that started out trying to win women the right to choose their own place in society ended up insisting that women had to take on male social roles, and only male social roles. How we're going to rebuild the household economy at this stage in the game is anybody's guess; it doesn't have to involve the sort of gender roles that structured it in the past...but some form of household economy is a necessary ingredient of a viable future.

Panidaho said...

The result? The mill in Fortuna, once one of the largest mills in the world, with over 600 employees, is closed. In 2007, Pacific filed for bankruptcy.

Yet, the sad truth is, there are probably a handful of execs that made out literally like the bandits they are, and who - when the host died - retired to exclusive gated communities or moved on to pillage other companies.

That's what is hard for average folks to keep in mind when they get dollar signs in their eyes - there is always a cost when you misuse or over-exploit your resource, and the people who come up with these brilliant little schemes are rarely the ones who pay it.

Case in point: we have some mega dairies not too far from here. They moved here when California started actually enforcing ag pollution and clean water laws a couple of decades ago. Some towns, desperate for more income, received them with open arms. (And closed eyes.) Once the mega-dairies moved in, of course they started doing all the things that got them in trouble back in California, and eventually there was a significant "stink" raised about their practices.

Some of them have cleaned up their act - enough to get the most vocal of their neighbors off their back, anyway. But now we have concentrated animal crap in too-small places too near our river and lying right over or next to springs. Crap that is the equivalent of the sewage produced by a city of FOUR MILLION PEOPLE (more than twice the number of actual people living in this entire state!) but there is no real system in place for dealing with it.

Yes, there are families making a better living in this area because of the mega-dairies, but what they probably don't realize is the real bill for what they've allowed in their backyards hasn't come due yet. Ask the people in California what it took to clean up after the dairies left. If they even managed to clean up. The mess these places leave in their wakes has been compared by some folks to Superfund sites.

And all of this - mess - so that a multinational corporation can make a bit more money for their global shareholders by misusing someone else's ecosystem and so that people in L.A. and New York and Houston can have a cheaper slice of cheese on their McBurgers.

Sorry for the digression, but this is an example of why I don't for one minute believe that there will be a mass movement to deal with Peak Oil, Overpopulation, Global Warming, Peak Water, Hallucinated Money or any other issue that threatens our long-term survival. People just don't think that way. In the grand scheme of things, short term gain eventually wins out every time over long term planning and conservation.

Panidaho said...

Teresa, "almost" is the word I'd use, too. After all, they're volunteering for the role.

Well, not only that - but they are just as invested in keeping the system as it is, as are the "leaders" who have gone before them. None of the frontrunners strike me as people who would have done anything significant differently had they been in office this past decade or more. Just more of the same. But that's what the people want, so that's what the people get.

Danby said...

Panidaho,
Something I keep coming back to is something that is so very hard for doom-and-gloomers to get. The approaching crisis is economic in nature. It won't be the lack of fuel that's the problem, at least for the first decade or two. It will be the price. The rich, which is to say those who make the policies and set the agendas, will be able to drive around just fine. Their homes in their exclusive gated communities will have plenty of heat.

It will be the rest of us that take it in the gut. What will happen to those domestics in San Francisco who have to commute an hour to get to their barely-above-minimum-wage jobs in the upscale suburbs? The clerk at the corner gas station? The restaurant owner who depends on the carriage trade? Motel maids? Those people will be squeezed, tighter and tighter, until there's just no point anymore. So the working urban poor become the urban non-working poor, and a little more of the economy swirls down the bowl.

Panidaho said...

Danby,

Something I keep coming back to is something that is so very hard for doom-and-gloomers to get. The approaching crisis is economic in nature. It won't be the lack of fuel that's the problem, at least for the first decade or two. It will be the price.

Yes, I agree. It's true that there will be lots of oil for many years to come - provided one has the available funds to continue to pay for it at ever-increasing prices in the marketplace. The rest of us, however, will be dropping out of competition for that oil in droves and learning how to survive as the bankrupt people we really are.

xilong said...

Hi John

In the comments above you mentioned a quote about 'people coming to their senses one by one'. Being a fan of pithy quotes which condense a lot of meaning into a short statement I hunted it down. Apparently it dates back to 1841 in a book by Charles MacKay - for details see the info I found in a blog below.

I enjoy your writing and grappling with the ideas and practicalities of adjusting to peak oil mentally and physically. This blog is one of my core sources. Keep up the good work. Kia kaha.


http://www.danielbbotkin.com/archives/category/interesting-readings-by-others

'Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds'

"This is the title of a book published first in 1841 by Charles Mackay.
This is a fascinating book, a classic, still in print, but little known. It has influenced many famous people. Of this book, Bernard Baruch wrote that his study of it saved him millions.
Andrew Tobias wrote, in his preface to a recent edition, that “As with any true classic, once it is read it is had to imagine not having read it.”
Mackay writes in his own preface that his object is “to collect the most remarkable instances of those moral epidemics which have been excited, sometimes by one cause and sometimes by another, and to show how easily the masses have been led astray, and how imitative and gregarious men are, even in their infatuations and crimes. . . . Popular delusions began so early, spread so widely, and have lasted so long, that instead of two or three volumes, fifty would scarcely sufficient to detail their history. We find that whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one object, and go mad in its pursuit; that millions of people become simultaneously impressed with one delusion, and run after it, till their attention is caught by some new folly more captivating than the first. . . Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.”
One of the chapters is about Alchemists, in which Mackay writes “Three causes especially have excited the discontent of mankind; and, by impelling up to seek for remedies for the irremediable, have bewildered us in a maze of madness and error. These are death, toil, and ignorance of the future,” and of the last, he writes about our “craving curiosity to pierce the secrets of the days to come.”
This is a beautiful written classic, well worth exploring, if not reading in its entirety."

commonman said...

I happened to stumble upon your very insightful blog when 'googling' for something on the non-sustainability of oil-based economy. Thanks.

One request - if you can kindly send me a simplified version of your comments, I think I will be able to forward to all my friends; they will not be able to follow the high standard of this blog.