Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Business As Usual

Those of us who are watching the crisis of industrial society arrive on schedule take our omens where we find them, and one appeared yesterday morning in the unlikely form of an internet ad riding shotgun on a peak oil blog. The header was striking enough – “Oil Will Hit $100!” – or it would have been, except that one of the main benchmark grades of crude oil closed not far below $120 a barrel that evening. When the ads on your computer screen have already been left in the dust by the headlines, it’s fair to say, yesterday’s assumptions are in serious need of revision.

Meanwhile, rolling blackouts and food shortages are making life more difficult for people in many of the world’s poorer nations. Even in the United States, where instant availability of consumer products is generally considered an inalienable right, the first spot shortages of grain products have made ripples in the media. I won’t even get into the plunging real estate prices and financial implosions along the route of the slow-motion train wreck the global economy resembles so much these days. One way or another, it’s turning into a bad week for believers in an imminent return to what most people nowadays consider business as usual.

Yet there’s an irony, a rich one, in the chorus of reassurances still rising from the mainstream media across the industrial world. Like the frogs in Aesop’s fable, they praised the replacement of the boring King Log of New Deal economic regulations and Seventies energy-efficiency standards by the far more exciting King Stork of the unfettered market, only to find that too much excitement in the economic sphere has its downside; their attempt to return to a free market succeeded mostly in kickstarting a recurrence of the cycle of disastrous depressions that reached its crescendo in 1929 and bringing about a recurrence of the energy crises of the 1970s, but on a larger scale. Before you decide to return to business as usual, in other words, it’s useful to have some sense of what business as usual actually is.

We are arguably facing a much more threatening example of the same phenomenon right now, as the fuel gauge on the world’s oil, coal, and natural gas supplies moves visibly in the direction of that unwelcome letter E. For the last three centuries or so, a steadily increasing flow of cheap abundant fossil fuel energy has driven the growth of industrial societies across much of the world. For the last century, since petroleum replaced coal as industrial civilization’s prime mover, and widespread electrification made it possible to apply fossil fuels at second hand to most business and domestic energy needs, most of the work done in the industrial world has been done by machines powered directly or indirectly by fossil fuels.

This seems perfectly normal to most of us who have grown up in the industrial world. Up until very recently, essentially all the talk about the disparity between the world’s industrial societies and the rest of the planet focused on how to bring the Third World “into the twenty-first century.” The phrase itself betrays the huge burden of ideology that shaped that discussion – the belief, as potent and devoutly held as any other religion, that history progresses straight to us, that any different social arrangement is simply some version of our own outmoded past, and that our peculiar and extravagant way of managing human communities is thus as inevitable as it is inevitably beneficent.

Yet the whole debate was also an exercise in futility. We are seeing right now what happens when an appreciable number of people in the world’s nonindustrial societies do exactly what so many decades of rhetoric insisted they ought to, and claim a share of the world’s fossil fuels and industrial output. The limits to growth were always there; it was merely the political arrangements that restricted the benefits of industrialism to a small portion of the human species that made it look as though unlimited growth was even an option.

What we most need to realize at this juncture is that the way things have been in the world’s industrial societies over the last century or so is in no way normal. It’s precisely equivalent to the new lifestyle adopted by winners of a lottery whose very modest income has suddenly leapt upward by $1 million a year or so. After a few years, the lottery winners might well become accustomed to the privileges and possessions that influx of wealth made possible, and children growing up in such a family might never realize that life could be any other way. The hard fact remains, though, that when the lottery money runs out, it runs out, and if no provision has been made for the future, the transition from a million dollars a year to the much more modest income available from an ordinary job can be very, very rough.

The huge distortions imposed on the modern industrial nations by the flood of cheap abundant energy that washed over them in the 20th century can be measured readily enough by a simple statistic. In America today, our current energy use works out to around 1000 megajoules per capita, or the rough equivalent of 100 human laborers working 24-hour days for each man, woman, and child in the country. The total direct cost for all this energy came to around $500 billion a year in 2005, the last year for which I was able to find statistics, or about $1667 per person per year.

Now consider how much it would cost to hire human laborers to perform the same amount of work. At the current federal minimum wage of $5.75 an hour, hiring 100 workers in three shifts to provide the equivalent amount of energy would cost each American $512,811 a year, or about 308 times as much as the energy costs – and this doesn’t count payroll taxes, health insurance, paid vacations and the like. Mind you, it would also require the US to find food, housing, and basic services for an additional workforce of 30 billion people, but we can let the metaphor go before tackling issues on that scale.

What makes this huge disparity relevant is that as recently as a hundred years ago, the majority of work done even in the most advanced industrial societies was done by human beings using hand tools. Kitchens had servants instead of appliances; factories and shops had workbenches instead of industrial robots; the functions now carried out by computers were performed instead by legions of clerks wielding pen and ink. Go back a little further in history, to the time when fossil fuels hadn’t yet become a significant energy source, and human muscles and minds did the vast majority of work of all kinds, with modest supplements from animal muscle, biomass, wind, and water power.

The familiarity of our current arrangements, and the rhetoric of progress we use to justify those arrangements, make it easy to dismiss such a human-powered economy as some sort of primitive oddity that existed only because people didn’t yet know any better. Look at the disparity in economic terms and a different picture emerges. In a society without access to cheap abundant energy resources, it makes much more economic sense to train and employ a human worker than to develop a machine to fill the same niche; except in special circumstances, the additional cost of building, powering, maintaining, and operating the machine more than outweighs the additional benefits of mechanical speed and regularity.

This was why ancient Rome and imperial China, both of which had a solid understanding of mechanical principles and sophisticated technical traditions, never had industrial revolutions of their own. Lacking massive energy supplies of the sort that made modern industrial society possible, it simply made more economic sense to invest the available resources into the labor force. The Romans did this the cheap, crude, and ultimately ineffective way, by expanding a slave economy to the breaking point; the Chinese did it far more sustainably and effectively by evolving an extraordinarily robust system of small-scale capitalism, on the one hand, and equally durable traditions of specialized craftsmanship on the other.

All this has a pressing relevance to the present situation, because we’re running out of the energy resources that make it possible for every man, woman and child in America to dispose of the equivalent of $512,811 in labor every year. It’s as though the 30 billion invisible guest workers whose sweat powers the American economy are quitting their jobs one by one, and moving back home to the Paleozoic. When the process completes itself, and the long curve of depletion finally sinks low enough that it’s no longer economically worthwhile to extract the remaining dregs of fossil fuel from the ground, the amount of labor each of us will have at our disposal will be much, much less than it is today.

With any luck, it’ll be more than 1/308th as much – we know more about collecting and using energy than the Romans or the Chinese did, and may well be able to get enough renewable energy sources up and running in time to matter. Still, it’s mere wishful thinking to assume that the universe is obliged to give us another vast windfall of cheap abundant energy to replace the one we’ve wasted so enthusiastically over the last few centuries, and none of the proposed replacements for fossil fuels seem likely to live up to their billing. On a finite planet subject to the laws of thermodynamics, claims that the trajectory of industrialism must inevitably continue into the future are statements of faith, not of fact.

Far more likely is the reemergence of an economy in which the work of human hands and minds is once again the main source of economic value – and with luck and hard work, it may be a good deal closer to the Chinese than the Roman model. In a low-energy economy, after all, human beings have huge economic advantages over machines. Machines do not develop their own energy sources and find their own raw materials, much less manufacture their own replacements, and the products of a given machine do not improve over time all by themselves, as the products of a farmer or a craftsperson so often do.

The farmers of the future may well use intensive organic methods rather than the field agriculture of an earlier day, just as the craftspeople of the future may well spend some of their time crafting solar hot water heaters and shortwave radios. Still, this sort of handicraft economy is a mature and effective social technology, and far and away the most common way societies provide for the needs of their members. It is, one might say, business as usual.

30 comments:

juki_driver said...

JMG, a lovely and prescient post as usual. Nice work :)

Nudge from CFN

The Urban Survivalist said...

I can see it coming almost exactly how you've laid it out. Hopefully the bombs don't drop before we get to the point where we can start recovering from a severe decrease in oil production. With our politicians pointing fingers around the world and accusing oil producing countries of not producing as much as they could be, though, I don't see us getting through the crisis peacefully.

Danby said...

I remember back in 1995, I was working for Atlas Telecom. We operated a worldwide fax network (in competition with Telex). One of the services we offered was fax broadcast, where the customer would fax us a document and we would pass it on to a designated distribution list. Very easy to do with computers and computerized telephony. The price was $0.03 per page. One of our customers in China didn't use our service. Instead he hired two dozen clerks to manually dial the numbers and insert the pages into the fax machines. When the salesman asked him why, his response was "It costs me 3 cents per page to use your service. With these girls, I can send for 2 cents per page."

Michael Adams said...

Just out of curiosity, John, do you read Jay Hanson's killer ape-peak oil group? The reason I ask is because I've noticed some vague similarities in your recent post with an incomplete Preliminary Party Outline that I've recently posted on Jay's group. I'm honoured if my recent post had an influence on your most recent post, as I've been a fan of yours for a year or so now. If, on the other hand, you have no idea what I'm talking about, I'm sorry for wasting your time.

FARfetched said...

This may be an issue you don't want to get into, but is it going to be so bad, losing some of our 100 virtual servants? The Greco-Roman slave society at least gave the masters time for philosophy, sports, or other pursuits.

What have our virtual slaves done for us — or rather, to us? You would think that with the equivalent of 100 people waiting on our every want, we'd all be working exactly on what we wanted, exactly when we wanted; the mundane tasks of life like meal planning, food preparation, cleanup, and other chores would be done at our command. Instead, we have less free time than 40 years ago.

In the 50s, a radical named Paul Goodman reputedly (can't find a cite online) wrote, "The problem isn't public transportation vs. private transportation. The problem is too **** much transportation." Perhaps that's our problem — it's not a matter of liquid energy vs. electric energy, or fossil fuel energy vs. renewable energy, the problem is that we simply have too much energy.

I just hope that when we can't get from Point A to Point B anymore, we'll all shrug and do what we please instead of what we must.

John Michael Greer said...

Nudge, many thanks.

Urban, the first of what future historians will probably call the Oil Wars is already under way in Iraq and Afghanistan. My guess is we'll see a good deal more of the same, no matter which party ends up in power here in the US.

Dan, exactly -- it's only in the industrial world that energy and labor costs have spun so far out of balance. We now face a major rebalancing.

Michael, I'm not a great fan of Hanson -- too apocalyptic for my taste -- and don't read the list you mention; I also always try to mention my sources; so no, I didn't see your post. Still, the way things are these days, it never hurts to ask.

Farfetched, you're touching on one of the great taboos of the religion of progress. Machines aren't all that good at meeting human needs. Instead of having machines do what we want, we've had to settle for learning to want what they're able to do, and devoting huge amounts of time to operating, fueling, cleaning, fixing, and paying for them that might be better used in other ways if the first commandment of the religion of progress wasn't "Thou shalt mechanize."

c said...

excellent post, jmg. the bit about the 100 oil ad was quite funny. it occurred to me that if we ever do hit 100 oil again, it will be met with relief, not panic. how quickly attitudes can change with a shift in perspective.

i also like your lottery analogy (which you've used before). i've borrowed this analogy in conversations with my (mostly mainstream and unconcerned) friends to try to get them to think about where industrial society has been and where it’s headed. i’m afraid anything that isn’t “business as usual” just sounds like the apocalypse to them, and i’m just crazy mr. tin foil hat.

but, in what i take to be the central thesis of your writing, there is a huge gap between perpetual growth and the end of the world, and that space is where we’re all going to spend the rest of our lives.

keep up the good work, sir.

cannon

FARfetched said...

Heh, so is that what losing my religion feels like?

But seriously, it seems that an energy-constrained society could potentially give us a better overall quality of life than what we have now. But I'm afraid it's going to take concerted efforts by all of us to make that happen. If we leave it to someone else, that someone else will be the lord of a new feudalism.

marielar said...

Hello all,
JMG wrote:The farmers of the future may well use intensive organic methods rather than the field agriculture of an earlier day, just as the craftspeople of the future may well spend some of their time crafting solar hot water heaters and shortwave radios.

I am not so sure field agriculture will become obsolete. It seems that small scale production of biodiesel at the farm level made lots of progress. This means that many farms will be able to produce their own fuel and keep tractors going for quite a while instead of turning to cheap labor. They will have less food to sell, but will sell it for higher returns. Good machinists can make parts for repair out of pretty basic materials. Here, many guys into restoring old tractors do it all the time. In Northern countries, like Canada, where population density is low, I dont see things evolving toward farms akin to labor camps any time soon. Maybe I tend to generalize what is going on in my little corner of the world. Recently, after a long debate, we decided to buy a tractor because it was too physically draining for two persons to run the farm and contracting for haying is just too stressful as you never know if people will have the time to do your farm. We have a team of draft horses and a buddy who is teaching me how to work with them, but we plan to use them in combination with a tractor. There is many back breaking work for which the horses are not a replacement to the tractor. It is also very hard to afford and even to get any labor. That is pretty much the case for all our neighbours, even those with well established farms. I had a good chat with a buddy about vegetable production. While those are crops which pay quite well, very few folks around here get in it because the labor cant be found, and certainly cant be kept year round as it is seasonal. Another couple nearby is selling their sheep farm, even if it is profitable because the wife is sick and they cant keep up with the workload. There is still a massive emigration movement going on here, with the young people moving out of the regions toward urban centres. But this does not necessarily means that small communities will welcome the starving masses with open arms.

The facts are that with biodiesel, farms can be self-suffient in energy and runned without so much human labor. And in general, it is easier to rely on machines than dealing with the social unrest associated with class disparity. Agriculture does not need as many people to support itself, and with the price of food increasing, wont need the same population base. In most regions, selling to midsized and small towns will be enough to make a living. Sometimes ago I stumbled upon an old article written in 1874 in the New York Times about a scheme to relocalize 70 000 unemployed New Yorker in the West. Here is the link: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=9C03E6DE123EE43BBC4C51DFB767838F669FDE
I tend to believe country people attitude did not change that much since 1874.

Alan said...

FARfetched:
Back during the first oil crisis of the 1970s, I used to tell folks that we indeed had an energy crisis. The crisis was simply that we were using too much energy! If we were using a reasonable amount of petroleum, the oil sheiks would have had no ability to disrupt our economy.

David Delaney said...

"In America today, our current energy use works out to around 1000 megajoules per capita"

That's 1e9 joule/capita = 1 gigajoule/capita, about the energy in 1000 cubic feet of natural gas. For what period? To one significant figure, the US uses 100e18 joule/year. If population to 1 significant figure is 300e6, then per capita use is 300e9 J / year, or almost 1e9 J per day.

hapibeli said...

Seriously. When 9/11 happened, I was very satisfied with the lack of planes in the sky. It partially fulfilled my fantasies of a less mechanized world. The quiet in the sky was wonderful. As a Vietnam infantry vet, my comment to my wife on the morning of 9/11 was, "well, it's about time". I'd thought for years of an enemy's ability to turn planes [i.e. our technology] against us. I look forward to a time of less motorized vehicles on the roads, less blab on television, though I no longer own one. Less of this and that tech. Much of it, if not most, including western medicine, can be replaced by simpler, more eco-sustainable modalities and tools.

Danby said...

marielar,
Yes, rural labor availability is a problem. A deliberately created problem. The dept of Agriculture in the 40's set about destroying small farmers and encouraging mechanization, in order to make more bodies available to kill Germans and Japanese. The official policy toward farmers was "get big or get out." The effort went from finance and credit policies all the way to classroom curricula. Since it suits the purposes of the corporations, the policy has not changed.

Right now, diesel fuel costs about 1/2 to 1/3 the hourly wage. When (not if) diesel is 2x-3x the hourly wage, it becomes cheaper to hire hands than to mechanize. If the economy is in a depression, and unemployment is at 25% or more, workers will be there to take the jobs.

And, there's nothing done on a farm with tractors that hasn't been done with horses. Some was done differently, such as putting up hay loose rather than baled, but it can all be done, provided implements are available.

The old rule of thumb for horse power was that 1/4 of the tillable land is used to feed the horses, and 1 horse per 25 acres. So on a 50 acre place, you'd need 2 work horses, 5 acres for the woodlot, 10 for pasture/hay, 1-5 for house, barns, corn cribs, etc and 25-35 for crops.

I wonder if anyone's done a study of what part of an industrial crop goes for fuel/machinery/capitol costs. I'd be surprised if it weren't on the order of 50%

If you can get the same work done with bio-diesel raised on a similar amount of land, then biodiesel becomes useful. And don't forget what it takes to get the methanol!

I'm sure tractors will continue in use for some time, just as some farmers are profitably using horses now. The question is rather, where is the tipping point between horse power and diesel? Once that point is reached, as it was in the other direction in the '30s, you will see farmers putting aside their tractors as hobbies and raising horses to do the real work. It won't happen quickly, and likely not for a decade or two, but it will happen.

Ken said...

I keep reading and hearing about bio-fuels saving the day. Ok, but what about axel greese and lube oils to keep all those parts moving, where is that going to come from?
Just curious because I've not read or seen anything on this anyplace.
Thanks for another good posting JMG.

marielar said...

Hello again,

One thing that striked me with the last JMG blog is the title. How relevant to the state of denial of many people. It seems that the gradual nature of the descent is such that unless their way of life become significantly impacted, indeed, people look at you as some kind of loonie if peak oil and food shortage are mentioned. In reality, middle class economic power is slowly eroding since the 70s. Consumption has been maintained by credit and loan. Add to this that public money was spent on window dressing and war while the house plumming just got worst as the years went by. Collective wealth represented by public infrastructures such as electrical grid, waterways, water plan etc...due to aging, lack of investment and maintainance have seriously deteriorated. I guess that unless a water pipe break and flood a whole street, public infrastructures do not inspire a great sense of urgency.

yooper said...

Hello John! Excellent article! Sure sums it up....Too bad, some can't add.

What really disappoints me, when other so called "peak oil" writers can't seem to add it up, venturing into areas they know nothing about. Another thing that really grinds my ax, is their lack of orginality. Always commenting on someone else's thoughts or work. Then to top it off, they have speaking engagements to even further promote their watered downed bullshit. I guess, somebody's got to do it... I suppose your message might be greeted by some of that stuff that goes into the compost pile.....

Ha! I almost rolled over and laughed when Michael Adams wondered if you were on Hanson's lists! It's not that they are too apocalyptic for me, just too speculative. Far too much assumption and when the conversation turned to nuclear holocaust, they lost me. Ha! ha! You never see these guy's on the speaking engagement circuit! Got give 'em that!

Came across a link to Baker's site with a link here. Hope she takes the time to read your entire site, she might learn something....As I have..

Anyway, thanks for being there. There's a great deal I've learned from you, perhaps the greatest lesson of all, being positive. Maybe not so much optimistic, but positive.

Sincerely, yooper

Panidaho said...

I keep trying to imagine what "business as usual" will look like on the other side of this.

I see one of the hallmarks of our time as a real lessening of diversity. I can't help wondering if we won't see a literal explosion of diversity as this plays out in communities across the globe. Kind of like what happens when a fire burns over a forest and the whole cycle of succession begins anew.

yooper said...

Hello John! It has been pretty much "business as usual" for me, for the past few weeks. As I've alluded to before, I was searching for examples of your catabolic collapse theory. I want to report that I've found many, many examples of this pattern and some in the most unsual places.. Of course along this path I've gleamed other bits of information in the process.

Perhaps, the best example of this pattern may be found by viewing any graph depicting oil discovery. About the time when the Club of Rome came out with, "The Limits to Growth" back in 1973, oil discoveries were falling off a cliff. (Incidentally, that was when my education began.)However, oil discoveries rebounded in the late seventies.

As you know, I'm a big fan of Richard Duncan's Olduvia Theory and use it often when projecting future dynamics of economies, populations, etc.. This theory is not without it's flaws but it is still one of the best models out there.

Energy, can be defined many ways, one being, Energy = Pressure and Time. Might I suggest, that "Raw Energy" and "Raw Numbers" really don't mean that much if that energy cannot be used, in time, if ever? An example of this might be of oil fields that loose pressure and that energy is lost, at least now for the time being.

Your thought, "our current energy use works out to around 1000 meagajoules per capita, or the rough equivalent of 100 human laborers working 24-hour days for each person in the country", is just fascinating. Of course, I can't agree more and something like this I was taught so many years ago.

Naturally, the common people of the Roman or Mayan societies, never enjoyed the energy per capita, that make us the "kings and queens" of today. May I susgest, that when these societies declined, they did not have that far to fall, in terms of energy per capita? This could be why their declines lasted so long. What makes you so sure we'll decline in much the same matter? Of course, this can only be accomplished IF our energy decline paralells those of those societies.

For one, I believe we'll likely see "spectacular crashs" in some parts of the world, in your catabolic collaspe.

Thanks, yooper

Bill Pulliam said...

marielar wrote:

"The facts are that with biodiesel, farms can be self-suffient in energy and runned without so much human labor. "

The fact that you can grow enough biodiesel to run your own machinery does not make you energy self-sufficient. You only have reached energy self-sufficiency when you are also able to grow enough biodiesel to power all the mining, smelting, manufacturing, and transportation infrastructure necessary to produce and repair your farm equipment, AND to build and maintain all this additional infrastructure in the first place. All you are doing by growing your own biodiesel to power your tractor is using an enormous amount of petroleum-based infrastructure to support a miniscule implementation of "alternative energy." It works only for a couple of generations until the old infrastructure has decayed beyond the point of repair or salvage, hence it just delays the problem rather than solving it. Not that this isn't a necessary and inevitable part of the process, but don't fool yourself into thinking this is any kind of self-sufficiency or sustainability in the long-term sense.

JMG --

For many years I've from time to time pondered the prospect of living even a pretty simple early 21st-Century style life if I had to make all the steel, dig all the clay, blow all the glass, saw all the timbers, produce all the fuel, all by myself. Of course, the thought is ludicrous; it is absolutely inconceivable that anyone could do this. It's good to see your effort to put ballpark numbers on the magnitude of this discrepancy!

sgl said...

Just discovered your blog from a comment on Sharon Astyk's site, and have spent the last 3 evenings reading all your posts since 2006. Brilliant!

Thanks for your informative and well-reasoned slow-decline theories. They make sense, and I certainly sleep better at night. (Yes, I'm still prepping, but have a clearer idea how to respond.)

Also, I really like your views on history and mythology/"religion", and I'm really curious what sources you derived them from. Eg, if you could recommend the best 3-5 books or other sources on these topics, I'd greatly appreciate it. (I presume that Toynebee and Spengler might be among them as you mentioned them several times, and you mentioned Joseph Cambell once relating to mythology, but haven't referred to him extensively.)

Thanks. Please keep up the brilliant work!

--sgl

John Michael Greer said...

C, the space between Star Trek and Mad Max is exactly where I expect we'll all be pitching our tents soon.

Farfetched, unless human beings give up being herd animals I don't expect our descendants will avoid feudalism, any more than we've avoided the same sort of plutocracy that late classical civilization saw.

Marielar, I'm by no means giving up on field agriculture -- I simply suspect that intensive methods may prove to be an important part of the mix. Still, remember that the energy cost of the tractor, over the long run, has to be integrated into questions of viability.

Alan, no kidding. If people in the US used only as much petroleum as people in Europe, we'd still be a net exporter of oil.

David, thanks for catching that! It's 1000 MJ per capita per day.

Hapi, well, you're likely to get your wish. Large-scale air travel is likely to become a thing of the past well before oil reaches $200 a barrel.

Dan, the tipping point's the thing -- and I don't think anybody's in a position to calculate it. I'm also betting on horses for the long term, but we'll see.

Ken, excellent -- lubricants, like solvents, are among the petroleum products nobody thinks about that our current system can't do without. Yes, equivalents can be grown, but we've already seen what happens when people divert farmland from food to agricultural products!

Marielar, you get tonight's gold star. You're quite right that for most people in the US, standards of living have been contracting steadily since the early 1970s -- compare the kind of lifestyle you could lead then on one working class income with the kind you can get now on one working class lifestyle! But the power of the myth of progress is such that people won't let themselves notice.

Yooper, I get a few speaking engagements now and then, though it's usually in the Druid community! We'll see what happens when The Long Descent comes out.

Teresa, exactly. Remember all the yapping about the shrinking of the planet via jet travel, etc.? The planet is about to get much larger again.

Yooper, remember that our energy supplies aren't running out overnight. Yes, we have further to fall, but that also suggests a sizable delay! Mind you, you're quite correct that there will be localized and even regional catastrophes -- that's something that's been part of the catabolic collapse theory all along -- and there will also be periods of severe crisis on the stairstep course of decline. More on this soon.

Bill, this is one of the reasons I argue for the town or small city as the most suitable survival community. If enough people can each do a few things well, there's a lot that can be saved.

Sgl, well, the religious and mythic dimension of things is actually at the core of my work -- peak oil is a bit of a sideline -- and my views have evolved over some years, way too much reading, and quite a bit of active involvement in traditions respectable intellectuals won't touch with a ten-foot pole these days. The only books that are really relevant yield what they teach to practice, not to reading; you might try my The Druidry Handbook (Weiser, 2006) if that's something you want to glance at.

I do plan on putting the mythic and religious dimensions of what I'm trying to say into a book, but its chances of finding a publisher, much less an audience, seem rather slim to me -- in a society as hagridden by its own unacknowledged myths as this one, I don't imagine there will be a lot of people interested in sitting down to a nice calm dispassionate discussion about how nearly everything they think of as an unquestionably solid reality is a mythic narrative with the solidity of twinkle dust.

RAS said...

JMG, I for one would love to read your discourse on the religous and mythic dimensions of this stuff. Could you put it into and essay and put it online if you can't find a publisher?

Danby said...

in a society as hagridden by its own unacknowledged myths as this one, I don't imagine there will be a lot of people interested in sitting down to a nice calm dispassionate discussion about how nearly everything they think of as an unquestionably solid reality is a mythic narrative with the solidity of twinkle dust.

You made me laugh. And the sad part is that even people who should know better, people who are standing on the outside, who know or believe something completely contrary to part of that body of mythos, can't see the rest of it.

As Cardinal Carrol said, "In America, we are all Puritans, even the Catholics." And may I add, the Jews, the neo-Pagans, and Atheists. I hope not Druids, since the one I know is not, but just about everybody else.

marielar said...

Hello Danby,

Thanks for your reply. Working with horses fascinates me for a while now but there is a steep learning curve ahead. Last Spring we got a pair of Canadians, which are light draft horses used traditionally in Eastern Canada. This summmer we plan to breed our stallion with the Belgian mare of a friend free in exchange for him getting me start in the art of working with horses. I still think that biodiesel may have its place in the future but sparingly, in limited contexts where it will be really worthwile to use motorized vehicules and tractors. I was reading recently that in France, drafthorses have replace school buses in some localities already.

Hello Bill,

It think some infrastructures are worth maintaining, and could be if some sort of priorities where made. For example, as much as I think it is rididulous for soccer mom to cart the kids in a SUV, pickup trucks are very useful for a whack of folks, including farmers. Speedboats for recreational use should be outlawed, but remains great tools for the Coastguard. The problems created by most technologies are not coming from production so much as from MASS production. Many could be scaled down and simplified. The first prototypes of planes, cars, or anything else. for that matter, where made by craftmen. Its much more labor intensive but still doable. Some years ago with an engineer, we made a manure spreader prototype with a basic tank, wood and some very crude piece of metals we banged and weld in shape. Mining and smelting has been done since the Chalcholithic and I doubt we will stop using metals anytime soon. My point being that there not necessarily need for a huge infrastructure to come up with some sophisticated, elegant technology. One of the issues was that historically, technological innovations were first available to the very rich, rather than to those who could make the best use of them. They became status symbol, and therefore, everybody wanted them, no matter if they really needed them. The car is the best example. Why anybody living in a city would want a car if one can walk or there is a good public transportation system?
The coupling of local use and production of biofuels with a production of power tools such as chainsaws and utilitarian vehicules make sense to me. There is so much pounding a human body can take from hard physical labor and some power tools can really prolong your productive life.

Stephen Heyer said...

John Greer: “I'm also betting on horses for the long term”.

Hi John,
I’m betting on EVERYTHING in the long term: Whatever works in a particular place/time/situation.

By the way, if we ever have to return using animals for transport and draft I’m betting on camels here in Australia.
1. We have a lot of experience with them (they opened up central Australia).
2. We have large herds of some of the finest in the world.
3. They are becoming fashionable again.
4. From what I read they totally outclass horses as beasts of burden to the extent that they destroyed the need for wheeled vehicles in the Middle East and thus the need for good roads.
5. They thrive on much rougher grazing that horses (Australia has lots of very rough grazing).
6. Their soft feet don’t cut up the fragile Australian soils the way hard hooved animals do.
7. They are also excellent meat and milk animals.
8. The leather and old car tire overshoes you put on camels in hard country look a lot cheaper and easier than keeping horses shod.
9. And most of all – I rather like camels.

John Greer: “C, the space between Star Trek and Mad Max is exactly where I expect we'll all be pitching our tents soon.”

Yes, my bet too.

See, I don’t spend all my time pushing nuclear and computers!

yooper said...

Thanks John, I'm looking foward to it. The only reason I even brought up the speaking engagement thing was that there will be a "sustainablility" conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan, around Memorial Day( you know this). Lately, I've been highly critical on some of those that will be speaking there,(maybe you noticed this?).

Some that will be speaking at this event are very good at being "specialized" in their fields. Some are good at number crunching, others at old timey subsistance and so-on. This is all fine and I'm sure they'll have a lot to contribute, but where are the "well rounded" intellectuals, (such as yourself) who have been "groomed" to tie this altogether? Some of these people lack some serious "understanding", especially the way they deliever messages, they can learn a lot from you...

John, for one I don't really miss the intellectual conversation over at Hanson's, it's been a long time since I posted. I've learned a great deal over there from people like Arnett, Chefurka and others who may have popped in. However, many of these people are "specialized", and it shows...

This is what I like about this site, it's not just about "peak oil" or whatever, it's a vision of the future and all that it encompasses. I would not trade the intellectuals on this site (Danby, Bill Pulliam and many others), for the lot of them! These people are real and speak of their own experiences, THAT, is the difference between the men and boys, in my book.

Many intellectuals that I've tried to draw to this site are bothered by "druidism". I keep telling them to look past this and look at the content! I could care less where or how you got your information. Many people are very disturbed when they learn how and where I got mine..... However, I'm smart enough to know the difference, what is bullshit and what is not, because of it.

Perhaps John, "realism" (btw, this is pretty well rounded isn't it?) may be just too much for plastic people? Thanks again John, for being "real". It's Michigan's loss that you'll not be at this conference!

Sincerely, yooper

Danby said...

Many intellectuals that I've tried to draw to this site are bothered by "druidism". I keep telling them to look past this and look at the content! I could care less where or how you got your information.

I've known JMG for over 30 years, since long, long before he took up Druidry, and I can vouch for the fact that his understanding of how the industrial collapse will play out has been evolving for that whole time. It no more derives from his Druidry than his exuberant beard does. (Yes, beard envy raises it's ugly head.)

Rather, it's result of trying, with considerable success, to see things as they are, and to understand processes, rather than trends.

John Michael Greer said...

Ras, I have this absurd fondness for objects that might possibly still exist when the internet evaporates into twinkle dust. I'll find a publisher, though it may be a small one; the working title is Squaring the Circle, for whatever that's worth. But there's some material on the mythic dimension in The Long Descent, of course.

Dan, I'm sorry to say there are some puritan Druids, but glad to say there aren't too many. Our tradition considers a sense of humor to be a crucial spiritual gift, which probably helps.

Marielar, the distinction you're drawing between production and mass production is crucial, and I'll be talking much more about it in future posts.

Stephen, camels are fine beasts, though better suited to your deserts than ours (they were tried here, without great success). Here in North America the llama, a camel relative, is catching on in a big way as a wool producer and pack animal; they're smart, sturdy, and very bright, and especially in the mountain west, they're well suited to the geography.

Yooper, I didn't get an invite to the conference, and couldn't have gone anyway -- the next two months are going to be very busy. Most of the peak oil conferences are very tightly focused on a particular sort of political agenda that I have a hard time supporting, anyway. Still, thanks for the vote of support!

Dan, actually, it's the beard -- shaggy beards drive away the subtle vibrations of trendy intellectual fads. ;-)

Bill Pulliam said...

"Dan, actually, it's the beard -- shaggy beards drive away the subtle vibrations of trendy intellectual fads. ;-)"

As well as providing protection from mosquitos!

Lance Michael Foster said...

This has all surpassed the U.S. anyway. Alas, we have been too effective as models for what the world wants, and what it will do to get what it wants:

http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20080504/ap_on_re_as/china_farming_the_world