Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Preparing For What Future?

Last week’s Archdruid Report post, as my regular readers will recall, tried to point out that the current round of price spikes in food and petroleum prices does not justify claims that industrial civilization was on the brink of a rapid and total collapse. Predictably enough, this suggestion brought down a flurry of criticism.

Some of that was simply another helping of the standard arguments for the progressive and apocalyptic fantasies that play so large a role in today’s collective consciousness. Fortunately, not all fell into that reflexive category. My essay cited a recent post by relocalization blogger Sharon Astyk suggesting that a fast crash was imminent, and she responded the next day with a thoughtful rebuttal. I won’t try to summarize her arguments here; those interested should certainly read her response in full.

One point, though, deserves a response in detail. My essay last week ended with what I thought was a fairly straightforward comment: “...unless, that is, we allow premature proclamations of triumph or catastrophe to distract us from the work that must be done.” Astyk took exception to this and suggested, if I follow her correctly, that the phrase was simply a rhetorical flourish. That it certainly was not. It could doubtless have been expressed more clearly, but it points to what, as I see it, is one of the most crucial factors in discussing the future of industrial society.

The actions we take to prepare for the future, after all, should be shaped by the future we expect. If we can reasonably expect the future promised us by the modern myth of progress – a future of constant improvement toward a destiny among the stars – then it makes sense to plan on business as usual, to treat each ephemeral new technology as the wave of the future, and to treat nature as a sort of green decor worth saving solely for esthetic and sentimental reasons. If, on the other hand, we can reasonably expect the future promised us by the modern myth of apocalypse – a future of sudden chaos and mass death that will leave, at most, a handful of survivors huddled in isolated hideouts – then it makes sense to abandon any hope of improving the status quo and eschew any plan for the future that doesn’t involve firearms, canned food, and subsistence skills basic enough to be practiced in the desolate silence of a mostly empty world.

The problem with either of these decisions is obvious enough. If our plans rely on the arrival of some particular future, and that future does not come about, whatever money, effort, resources, and time have been invested in our imagined future has gone down a rathole. If the future we get turns out different enough from the one we expect, in turn, our actions may have closed doors and wasted opportunities that could have spared us major difficulties. The textbook example in recent times is the decision taken around 1980, by nations across the industrial world, to discard the promising steps toward sustainability made in the previous decade. If those steps had been followed up, the transition to a postpetroleum world could probably have been made without massive disruption. At this point, after a quarter century of wasted opportunities, the chance of doing that is slim at best.

Seeing this catastrophic error as a matter of choosing the wrong future to prepare for, though, rather begs the question. There’s at some reason to think that the decisions that turned the industrial world away from sustainability in the early 1980s were not the result of a conscious decision that a future of infinite economic growth on a finite planet was possible and desirable. Rather, it seems all too likely that people wished to take certain actions – for example, scrapping expensive and inconvenient conservation programs – and justified those actions by imagining a future in which those actions seemed to make sense. Certainly the same thing has happened in a big way in the alternative scene.

Look for proposals for responding to the crisis of industrial society these days and you’ll find that nearly all of them fall into three groups. First are those who want to organize a political movement to throw the current rascals out of office and put a new set of rascals in. Second are those who talk about building ecovillages in the countryside, to provide a postapocalyptic version of suburban living to today’s smart investors. Third are those who plan on holing up in a cabin in the mountains with guns and canned beans, and waiting until the rubble stops bouncing. I’ve argued elsewhere that none of these is a viable response to the future we’re most likely to face, but there’s another point worth noting: each of them is also something many people in today’s American middle class want to do anyway. Quite a few people nowadays think they ought to have more political power; an equally large number like to daydream about moving to a new exurban development far out in the countryside; and of course, the appeal of firearms collections and fantasies of self-reliance remains strong in an age that has problematized traditional images of masculinity. To a great extent, peak oil has simply become another excuse for the pursuit of activities, real or imagined, that many people find desirable for other reasons.

Amplifying this is one of the most enduring habits in the American tradition of public rhetoric – the attempt to scare the bejesus out of people in the hope that this will motivate them to follow a desirable course of action. Colonial preacher Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” set a cultural fashion that remains alive to this day. Choose any cause you care to think of, and if it’s attracted anything like a mass movement, odds are that its prophets are announcing the imminent arrival of some variety of doom – closely modeled on the Book of Revelations, far more often than not – unless people change their wicked ways. If it’s not a mass movement, the odds are even better that its prophets will be proclaiming some inevitable doom which will sweep away the unbelieving multitudes and leave the earth to the righteous remnant – that is, the prophets in question and those who agree with them. In either case, the catastrophe is simply rhetorical ammunition meant to back the claim that whatever action you’re supposed to take is the only alternative to doom. Peak oil, of course, has attracted a sizeable number of would-be prophets of both kinds.

I should hasten to say at this point that I’m not assigning Sharon Astyk to either camp. Mind you, I suspect she would propose relocalization as a good idea – as, indeed, many people have been doing, for a variety of good reasons, since the early decades of the 20th century – even if nothing like peak oil were in the offing. Still, retooling lifestyles to rely more on local resources and one’s own efforts, and less on a far-flung and increasingly fragile global economic system, is likely to prove a very useful strategy during the cascading series of crises unfolding around us right now. In that, I think, we’re very much in agreement. Going beyond that, however, requires a clearer sense of what kind of future we are facing – and not just on a global basis.

Local and personal scales also count; everyone shares the same future only when “the future” has been reduced to an ideological abstraction. The same problem afflicts current talk about the possibility of a crash, fast or otherwise: exactly what is crashing, and how far, and how uniformly? I’ve done my best to be clear about such issues here and elsewhere, but it’s probably worth repeating myself. My take is that modern industrial civilization is on the downslope of its history, headed for the compost heap of fallen empires alongside all the dead civilizations of the past. Peak oil and the other elements of the crisis of the contemporary world, in this analysis, are simply the current manifestations of patterns that shaped the fall of other civilizations, and our future will most likely follow a similar course – an extended, uneven decline extending over more than a century, including repeated periods of crisis followed by partial recoveries, ending in a dark age in which much of the technology, knowledge base, and cultural heritage of today will survive in fragments or be completely lost.

Those parts of the world peripheral to today’s industrial civilization will follow trajectories of their own – it’s worth remembering that the Muslim world and T’ang dynasty China reached the zeniths of their own cultural arcs while the western world was scraping the bottom of the last round of dark ages – and new cultures will arise from the ruins of the modern industrial world in time. The global reach of industrial civilization, though, makes it unlikely that any part of the world will escape the approaching troubles entirely, and the equally global drawdown of resources erases the possibility that societies of the future will be able to duplicate the industrial model; their technics, while potentially even more sophisticated than ours, will have to work with much less concentrated and abundant energy sources.

The current round of global troubles – the peak of conventional petroleum production worldwide, soaring prices and incipient shortages in other commodities, spiraling breakdowns in the international debt market, and the fraying of America’s global empire – marks, in this analysis, the onset of one of the periods of crisis mentioned above. If this is the case, we face several decades of serious social, economic, and political turmoil, with a high likelihood that many of these troubles will spill over onto the battlefield. As I’ve suggested elsewhere, the period between 1929 and 1945, with its economic crises, political horrors, and global power struggles ending in a brutal world war, may make a tolerably good model for the period now dawning around us.

If I’m right – and every discussion of the future needs to start with those unpopular words – the future for which we have to prepare has two aspects, one overarching, one immediate. The overarching aspect is the slow curve of decline I’ve called the Long Descent, the final trajectory of industrial civilization toward its death. The immediate aspect is the need to deal with the particular round of crises breaking over us just now. Those two aspects are related but they’re not the same, and the resources and skills needed to deal with them are also not the same.

These, ultimately, are the reflections that lie behind my suggestion that fixating on the short term, and overstating the implications of short-term trends, may well get in the way of a constructive response to the broader picture. This is why it’s problematic to insist, as a number of internet bloggers did recently, that the discovery of a new oil resource in North Dakota means that peak oil is no longer a problem. On a global scale, with most of the world’s oil producing countries and most of its supergiant fields already in decline, the Bakken shale simply doesn’t make that much difference, and planning for a future that will allow us to keep up the extravagant energy-wasting lifestyles of the recent past will likely have disastrous results.

Yet it’s just as problematic to insist that the current wave of crises will inevitably spin out of control into a fast crash that will bring industrial civilization to its knees. That claim carries its own agenda of actions for the future, and if the claim turns out to be inaccurate, many elements of that agenda could all too easily prove to be dysfunctional. Moving to an isolated rural area and making a go of subsistence farming is not a viable strategy for everyone, for example, and even those who are well suited to that life might turn out to have made a dysfunctional choice if the fast crash fails to arrive on schedule.

If the end of the industrial age turns out to be a longer and more complex process than fast-crash advocates suggest, in fact, isolated rural areas may not be the best places to start small farms at all. Truck gardens and organic food production on the outskirts of small and mid-sized cities will be much better positioned to thrive in a world where markets still exist but transport costs are a major limiting factor. In some areas this is already happening; the explosive growth of farmers markets, community-supported agriculture schemes, and direct sales of local produce to local restaurants have put down the foundations on which local and regional food production networks could easily grow. Fostering the emergence of such networks could contribute much to the future. So could the evolution of many other economic specialties that are irrelevant in the context of a fast crash, but not in the more complex terrain I suspect the future holds for us.

Of course there’s a broader context to all this. My vision of the future is very much a minority view these days. So many people believe in the fast crash scenario that there’s unlikely to be anything like a shortage of people preparing for it, but the Long Descent is another matter. It doesn’t echo any of the narratives our culture and media circulate about the future, and it doesn’t feed the widely held and wildly popular sense of our own uniqueness that underlies so much of today’s supposedly innovative thought, so its mass appeal is pretty minimal.

Thus you won’t find many people preparing to make the transition from today’s high-tech economy to the less complex, more impoverished, more fragmented, but still industrial economies that I expect to emerge from the Great Recession and global troubles of 2010-2030 or thereabouts. Nor will you find many people seriously taking on the role of cultural conserver that will be desperately needed if many things of value are to get through the deindustrial dark ages of 2200-2600 or thereabouts, and reach the successor cultures that will emerge beyond it. As I see it, these are among the crucial tasks before us; they could make the long road to the deindustrial future more bearable, and pass on important gifts to the future; but as I tried to suggest last week, they will not happen if the people who could make them happen get caught up in premature proclamations of triumph or catastrophe.


void_genesis said...

The trick in life is to structure things to give you win-win outcomes, regardless of the vagaries of unfolding history. You need to be in a position to respond to changes as they happen. Having perfect knowledge of the precise future isnt really that useful if you react too quickly or inappropriately. Selling all your stocks in 1921 wouldnt be a particularly good way to protect yourself from the 1929 crash- timing and sensitivity are everything.

I think an emerging trend should be for people to start working a shorter working week and use the extra personal time to set up a personal safety net. Involve family, avoid debt, stay healthy.

My own approach has been to use my asset rich baby boomer parents to move to a small farm with me to avoid going into debt. I save them from the retirement home and they save me from a mortgage and wage slavery. By the time they are ready to shuffle off I will be ready to buy the property from my siblings. Net result- by insourcing all these financial affairs we save mountains of cash and avoid the need for working endless hours at stressful jobs. All by being able to be nice to each other and live together.

I keep working for a wage 4 days a week, and use the long weekends to set up food production. In the short term food is still too cheap to be worth growing all our own needs, so for now I am focussing on high value foods (perishable vegetables, fruits, eggs, meat from poultry) but at the same time I am experimenting extensively with staple crops since they can be scaled up rapidly if we ever need them, provided of course you have the right seeds, strains, tools and knowhow in advance. But I wont farm full time unless I have to- as long as a job is available and pays a reasonable living wage there is no incentive to get too far ahead of the curve. And beyond that I refuse to grow food to sell- it is only for giving to my immediate family. If we grow more of something we can eat then we learn the lesson and grow less next year. Surplus heading to waste is given to neighbors to keep things civil.

Peter said...

Another thought-provoking post-thank you! Intend to sleep on it before commenting further, but the last paragraph brought back a vivid memory of reading "A Canticle for Leibowitz" many years ago-may be time to re-read it, as a reminder of how little chance there may be of actually "preparing" for the future.

Brett said...

Thank you for your work on this blog and elsewhere. Going back a few posts, you talked about a Master Conserver program. It sounded very ripe for revival; can you point me to any accessible information on it?

Dwig said...

Re "what future": the most useful way I know of to think about the futures (plural intended) is to consider as many continuations of the present situation as possible, filter out those not worh further consideration (for one reason or another), and apply a risk management approach to the remainder. To make it plain, I'm contending that there's no such thing as THE future, at least for practical purposes, when you're in the business of making arrangements for what might (be)come.

The risk management approach I'm talking about defines a risk as "a possible event that, if it comes about, will entail a loss". Two fundamental properties of a risk, then, are its likelihood and its impact. (Of course, the best we can usually do is estimate these.) Looking at it this way, even an unlikely event is worth planning for if it entails a large loss. More importantly, it's worth keeping all the chosen risks in mind and making multiple plans to deal with them. Pleasantly, you'll often find that at least some activities will work reasonably well in the face of most risks. Relocalization, for example, when done carefully and systematically, will likely produce good results under any scenario better than total destruction. Ditto for local agriculture done in a spirit of cooperation with the local biome.

An example of filtering: I don't consider "the total apocalypse" as a risk worth considering. If we're all doomed, with no way to save ourselves, there's nothing to be done. The point of planning is to guide useful action (at least potentially useful).

John's essay adds a dimension to this: the need to manage both short-term and long-term risks. (And it may be worth making a bit finer division, considering the medium term as a transition and linkage between short and long.)

John: Peak oil and the other elements of the crisis of the contemporary world, in this analysis, are simply the current manifestations of patterns that shaped the fall of other civilizations. This point deserves highlighting. What's important to consider are not the immediate events in themselves, but the underlying patterns of which they're manifestations. (Of course, there'll always be pundits who will insist that the current situation is completely unique, and there's nothing to be learned from history. The economic bubbles and crashes that occur with depressing regularity are made of such stuff -- we've heard this refrain from "expert" economists twice in the last 10 years.)

... ending in a dark age in which much of the technology, knowledge base, and cultural heritage of today will survive in fragments or be completely lost. John, that's the hardest part for me to swallow, not because it's unlikely, but because it dooms the cultures that emerge from the dark age to Santayana's Syndrome. (Knowing your love of history, I'll guess it's pretty hard for you too.) One effort that I think is eminently worth making is to create some form of "cultural memory" that can survive almost anything, and will be accessible to people all along (what you've called "cultural conservation"). The flip side of risk, as described above, is opportunity -- this effort is probably a long shot, but will have significant positive impact if it pans out. There's even an off chance that it'd allow our descendants to get off the catabolic roller coaster, and create a truly sustainable anabolic culture.

... their technics, while potentially even more sophisticated than ours, will have to work with much less concentrated and abundant energy sources. There may be a hidden blessing in this, in that slower may turn out to be significantly better when it comes to human spiritual and social evolution. (Maybe worth a post on this, John?)

feonixrift said...

How would you expect a cultural conserver to go about their work? What sort of work would you expect them to go about?

SCM said...

I read both yours and Sharon Astyk's blogs with great interest and find them very complementary - Sharon's offers a great deal of wisdom on the specifics of building resilience - especially at a household level - and yours gives a more 'birds-eye' sweep-of-history perspective that for me at least sets Sharon's writings in context. I do have to take issue with some of your comments here though. You characterise 3 responses to crisis - of political activists, rural ecovillagers/homesteaders and apocalyptic survivalists. This may be an accurate reflection of the responses in the US but it is not universal. The transition town movement in the UK is much closer to what you envisage as a more useful response towards the end of your piece - eg a town-scale effort to build resilience and self reliance (the 'self' here referring to the town or local community rather than the individual). I have heard a range of views offered on what for the future might take on UK peak oil forums but there certainly isn't a universal assumption that we are headed straight back to the 19th century (or the stone age!) and I think there are quite a few that would concur with your view of a staggered decline punctuated with periods of partial recovery.

The US has a great history of pioneers/homesteaders of rugged independence and also of a rather apocalyptic take on religion - eg fundamentalists ideas about the the 'end times'. Perhaps this cultural milieu makes for a bigger emphasis on more individualistic and self-contained responses - but even so there are great example of towns and cities in the US working to build their own resilience. In the UK the sheer density of population and lack of physical space make the 'rural ecovillage' and survivalist approaches pretty impractical for the majority and fosters the idea that we either stand or fall together.

I now live in Australia and here too while many think we're in for hard times, there isn't a universal assumption of a 'fast-crash'. There is also a distinction in many cases between what people fear for the future (something they often express on forums by way of group therapy!) and what they think is likely.

On another note I was intrigued by the quick comment at the end of you post about the need for cultural conservers. I hope you will expand more on this topic in a future post. I'd be interested to learn what you would consider most valuable to preserve and your thoughts on how it might best be accomplished.

Gregory Wade said...

Amen, Brother!

Yvonne said...

My fear with labelling our downslide as a fast crash is the seeming automatic reaction that guns and gangs will be an inevitable response, welcomed by those who think apocalypse will transform their dull and desperate lives. Too many people have absorbed the lessons of Hollywood. To my mind nothing will bring our civilisation crashing faster than a move away from a civil society to an everyone-for-themselves mentality.
That being said, I've taken up gardening, bought in a supply of basic dry foods and am knitting socks.

John Michael Greer said...

Void, I wish win-win outcomes were so easy! Still, your choices seem sensible enough.

Peter, Canticle is well worth reading again; balance it with Edgar Pangborn's Davy, perhaps.

Brett, I'm working on that. For the time being, your local utility may be able to point you to conservation info.

Dwig, I'm no more happy about a dark age than you are, but it's what follows after a civilization completes its cycles of collapse. The challenge is to make sure that as much as possible makes it into the hands of those who can preserve it; after the dark age comes the Renaissance.

Feonix, expect several posts on the theme of cultural conservers. To my mind it's one of the crucial projects ahead of us.

SCM, I can only speak to what I know, which is mostly the US -- I've never lived anywhere else. As for Sharon's blog, I'm also a fan of it; arguably her work getting practical knowledge into circulation will turn out to be far more useful than my vaporings.

Gregory, thanks for the vote of confidence!

John Michael Greer said...

Yvonne, exactly. The difference between knitting socks and huddling in a basement waiting for Hollywood fantasies to come true is the difference between a response to our predicament and a popular fantasy looking for justifications. Expect a post on knitting, by the way -- its history and potentials have implications that haven't had anything like enough discussion.

Lance Michael Foster said...

I too believe the issues are preparation for an increasingly fragmented and localized industrial society. My time with my Depression-era grandparents and then in Africa in 1996 gave me a sense of how things might be in such a world. While the usual focus is on the technical side (appropriate energy and agriculture), we also need to look at localized goods production and salvage (JMG mentioned earlier for example the localized production of ceramics for crockery for pickling etc.) And perhaps even more critically, we need to look at localized patterns of hegemony, decision-making, power structures, social network-building, counseling, consensus and cooperation, etc. --the social aspects of creating stable community building on in-place structures is absolutely as vital as learning to truck farm. The stresses of change are incredible, for both individuals and society.

dwig said:
One effort that I think is eminently worth making is to create some form of "cultural memory" that can survive almost anything, and will be accessible to people all along (what you've called "cultural conservation").

feonixrift said:
How would you expect a cultural conserver to go about their work? What sort of work would you expect them to go about?

scm said:
On another note I was intrigued by the quick comment at the end of you post about the need for cultural conservers. I hope you will expand more on this topic in a future post. I'd be interested to learn what you would consider most valuable to preserve and your thoughts on how it might best be accomplished.

Look at models that have worked over centuries. Four examples to start with...and think what can we learn from them?:

1. Indigenous traditions: Native Americans and other indigenous and local peoples (such as the Amish and hinterland American cultures) have conserved much of their cultural traditions over hundreds if not thousands of years, especially persecuted and pressured over the last few hundred years.

2. Hermeticism: Again, hundreds of years of survival of cultural knowledge, under terrible persecution at times.

3. Catholicism and monasticism: The classical example of survival of cultural knowledge from the decline of Rome to the enlightenment, but even up through today

4. Colleges: Development from the Medieval period in competition with monastic knowledge. Aside from the nonsense of modern academic life (politics, tenure, etc.) look at the core structures and economic networks. Universities are nice but they have taken on the global industrial model of grant competition etc. I actually think that the model of the community college and learning center may be more appropriate for the localization and openness to new approaches to cultural conservation than are the behemoth universities.

One of the more interesting avenues for cultural conservation I have come across is a proposal by James Lovelock in _The Revenge of Gaia_ for the development of a "book of knowledge written so as to constitute literature in its own right," ranging in knowledge from how to start a fire, to how to stop a cholera epidemic and basic sanitation, to understanding our place in the solar system etc. Not something digital or in any form you need special equipment to read, but printed on some kind of rugged synthetic "paper-like" material that could last for a thousand years. Sort of a King James version of history, science etc. that could be well-written and concise enough to serve as a survival manual, an elementary school textbook, or devotional reading. It could be done, after all, look at the survivability and centrality of the Bible in western civilization. Libraries are fine and needed, but look at the example of Alexandria. A core text of well-written, clearly-written, beautifully-written knowledge that has passed the test of centuries of time (the Scientific Method, Ars Memorativa, etc.) would be worthy lifetime work.

The problem, among others, is the politicization of such knowledge, the power manipulation (just as with the Bible): who decides what knowledge will go on?

Mark said...

Hi John,

Thanks for the interesting post. Of the three categories of "futures" you describe above there's no mention of the "Transition Towns" movement which has gathered quite a bit of traction in the UK but doesn't neatly fall into any of the three responses you mention. If anything, it is a whole community response to changing times, complete with community supported agriculture schemes & building local resilience. I'd be interested to hear your take on them.

Also, in your writings you make little reference to Permaculture which, at least to me, appears to be such an obvious toolkit to invoke when talking about helpful and sustainable responses to energy descent.

I take your point about the relativity of a notional future but if several people decide on a vision and a plan of action based on that, their futures do become at least more similar to one another's in doing so.

Also, could it be that the quality of crisis that industrial society may be somewhat primed by its own vision of the future? As you've lucidly described the underlying narratives motivating action in western society - might those narratives themselves become causal while so many buy into them, thereby increasing the likelihood of their predicted outcome?

In other words, is your vision of a cyclical collapse another competing narrative which might be trumped itself by the weight of people's expectations?

Erik said...

re: cultural conservation in fiction - to the recommendations for Canticle and Davy (both excellent choices), I would recommend a healthy dose of Heinlein and a revisiting of Poul Anderson's concept of the "Long Night", as laid out in the Dominic Flandry books.

John von said...

Thanks JMG, this post helped put some thoughts in perspective for me as I think about my own future and my family's.

John Michael Greer said...

Lance, exactly -- the task we're facing now is no more unique than the situation we're in, and the historical examples you've given are excellent resources.

I've also seen Lovelock's proposal, though in an earlier form; he published an article some years back calling for "a scientific equivalent of the Bible" which would pass down current scientific doctrines about nature to the future; I've argued here and elsewhere that such a project would kneecap future science in much the same way that the uncritical trust in Aristotle hampered science right through the Middle Ages -- but there's more to be said about the matter, not least about the issues of the politics of knowledge you've raised.

Mark, I'll be addressing the Transition Town movement down the road a bit; it's an interesting project that has gotten little air time in the wider world of peak oil discussion so far. Permaculture is another complex issue for future posts; I'm not sure I share all your enthusiasm for it, but that's for another day.

As for cultural narratives as self-fulfilling prophecies, that's a valid point. Still, some futures are easier to reach than others; a future of continuous progress out to the stars is not in reach no matter how fervently we believe in it, for example, and I'm not at all sure that the total overnight collapse of today's apocalyptic fantasies is much more likely than that. During the twilight of the Roman world, a great many people expected the Second Coming and an apocalyptic transformation of the world; what they got is a slow decline into the dark ages, and I suspect we'll see a similar pattern this time.

Erik, I'm not a great Heinlein fan, but of course there's a whole genre of science fiction dealing with the twilight of empires and civilizations and much of it bears reading now.

John, I'm delighted to hear it!

The North Coast said...

You have in this post suggested what I decided was the best preparation, long ago.

We have to realize that not only are we stuck with what we have right now in the way of systems and infrastructure, but that in coming years, we won't be able to replace every outer suburb and every over-sized skyscraper with walkable communities and appropriate building.

And we surely won't be able to replace our large cities with rural eco-villages, nor would we want to.Our great megacities, for example, are major centers for the creation and archiving of knowledge and culture, and their destruction would take our civilization down with it.

In any case, we have too many people for the countryside to aborb them all, and the creation of "eco-villages" really means the creation of more high-imput suburbs, as if we didn't already have way too many of those.

So, one of our tasks is to render our smaller cities and large towns once more liveable. I imagine that as the shortages gain traction, that cities like formerly beautiful Detroit and St. Louis will once more become viable, but only if they forswear any ideas of rebuilding themselves on the model of the late 20th century. Neither of these two cities and places like them is going to get back the car and munitions industries, and they will not succeed until they forget these industries ever existed, and rebuild themselves on a new, sustainable template.

So, I've decided that my proper role is to support the introduction of systems and technologies that help make our cities more sustainable for residents, and for the types of industries we'll be needing in the decades ahead; and to be a conservator of the culture and its knowledge.

John von said...

Re: the discussion on cultural conservation...

Isn't the Internet already the best guarantee of preserving knowledge?

Even in a low-power world, I imagine some level of computer network connectivity/Internetworking will survive because it is incredibly economically rewarding to have access to this incredible store of human knowledge. It has a huge Energy Return On Energy Invested (EROEI).

Even with widespread telecom failures, we can imagine at least some sizable institutions surviving and preserving the knowledge already placed online.

The Net is also endlessly duplicatable in whole or in part, you can make your own backup of the whole thing with enough hard drive space, so even with intermittent area failures, there will remain huge incentives to keep at least some of it going and keep a connection to a larger whole. Access may get patchier and less reliable but the Net's decentralized archictecture can be easily adapted to handle this.

Of course not all knowledge CAN be moved online; OTOH, with the recent widespread advent of video, many forms of visual/oral knowledge can be moved online (at least in part) that can't be easily translated into textual form.

John Michael Greer said...

North Coast, this is exactly the strategy that I'll be detailing in posts to come. The economic hollowing out of the central US has been a consequence of the globalization of manufacture and economic activity; as that reverses with the twilight of cheap transport, the great cities of the Midwest -- with their access to energy-efficient waterborne transport -- may be poised for a renaissance. I'd certainly like to see that happen!

jewishfarmer said...

John, thanks for clarifying that last sentence - I found this post fascinating and helpful. I'm glad to understand better where you were going.

Again, I don't think we disagree nearly as much as you seem to think we do, at least in re:best strategies for the future. As I'm sure you know by now, my "fast crash" doesn't mean anything like "industrial civilization on the brink of rapid and total collapse." But I do think that the starvation of millions or billions (a la Staniford's _Fermenting the Food Supply)) is a crash in the literal sense - the rapid reduction to a lower level of function.

But on to the more interesting subject - your larger analysis. I think we do differ on how we should make our plans - you say we should make them based on the future we expect to occur. I'm not sure I think that's right - that is, I think our future vision is part of how we should determine our actions, but only part. Because being wrong is always such an overwhelming likelihood.

As you say, I think relocalization is a good idea regardless of whether society collapses or not - in fact, I think it may be a critical factor in determining how close we come to such a crisis and how serious it is if we get there. Perhaps you don't agree, but the likelihood of a "crash" in the apocalyptic sense is far greater if uncontrolled climate change caused by high level industrial society progresses unchecked.

As Thomas Princen documents quite beautifully in _The Logic of Sufficiency_, lighter refinements may well not be able to stave off a crisis point in both climate and other ecological systems. So not only do I think that relocalization is a wise mitigation strategy for any crash it is already too late to prevent, but I also think that it is a wise ethical strategy for avoiding one.

But even more to the point, I'm not sure that one makes preparations best by choosing the future you believe in most, so much as choosing responses that offer a great deal of redundancy - that is, they have utility in multiple circumstances. A kind of personal precautionary principle is what I've advocated in the past - figure out what the price of preparations are, what the cost if you don't are, and then work from there.

My name gets invoked here enough times that it is confusing even for me to sort out what you are suggesting I've said ;-). That is, "fast crash advocates" of which I'm the only one named, apparently believe everyone should move out to rural areas to subsistence farm. Of course, I don't say anything like that, but have been a vocal advocate of adapting in place, and am writing a book (and have written many essays) arguing that we can't abandon suburbia because we need to grow food there. So we're presumably talking about other fast crash advocates, none of whom are mentioned. I somehow feel like I'm being set up as a strawman again, and am inclined to be a bit frustrated by that.

I don't have a bunker or an ecovillage - I live on a small farm in a community not far from a mid-sized city. I don't advocate that everyone move to one, either. We made the choices we have based on the reasoning described above - having the farm works well for us if my husband loses his job, and we have to rely on the land as a primary source of income, and it works well if we keep our jobs, and thus have to work less because our food costs are lower... I use these same strategies when giving advice.

The correct term for this is hedging one's bets. That is, I do advocate that people put one foot in the informal economy, and another in the formal, that they grow food. I do this for multiple reasons - because even if we find unlimited energy, people are still eating better, and they still have a level of economic security, and they still have local economies, and they still are mitigating climate change... and I think it likely that as they get poorer they may need to do these things, so practicing while there's money and energy to be had only makes sense.

And I don't think that you've actually shown that there are potential negative consequences inhering to making decisions this way - sure, some people will do the wrong thing - that is inevitable in making any kind of generalization. But your suggestion that we bear heavy consequences if we draw our conclusions differently than you do doesn't seem to hold up - I would suggest that the very similarity of our strategies undermines your claim that we shouldn't leap to a conclusion. It is perhaps true we shouldn't leap to some conclusions, or to some responses, but that seems far too obvious to be worth observing ;-).

This also raises the equestion of whether it really matters at all what you believe about the future. That is, I suspect that a case could be made (I don't have time to do it right now) that what you are saying is a function of choosing future you believe in is actually a function of the way one should relate to the future(s) they believe possible. That is, a nuanced and multivalent approach to futures that emphasize middle courses probably will work for most people in most circumstances, while far end approaches will exclude more people. Of course, that's kind of a boring conclusion, and wouldn't merit multiple essays, but I do think it may be true ;-).

Certainly, in the version of the peak oil community that you describe, in which nearly everyone falls into easy-to-categorize groups, with unnuanced versions of history that mostly lead to their acting as they wish, with the exception of your wise and nuanced voice of history, that would be true. But I think you may not be reading the present with the same degree of care that you read the past. Sure, the PO movement has its share of bunker builders and perfection of society fantasists. But it also has a great deal more complexity than that, and I know far more thinkers who advocate a middle course than those that fit the cartoon versions you describe.

So I guess I'm not sure I accept either of your larger contentions - that it matters terribly much which future we think is most likely; or that we should take great care not to claim an outcome too quickly. In fact, I think what you paint as your minority perspective is actually the majority perspective of voices in the PO community (oh, how disheartening, isn't it, to be told you are ordinary ;-)) - that is, most people recognize that both rapid fire disaster and long decline are well within the realm of possibility, and that experiences of any particular crisis vary enormously - that some people will be insulated even in the worst situations, and that "crashes" or "declines" are complex when lived.

I think most people don't share your precise reasoning, but they get to the same conclusions - which does suggest to me that you may be overestimating the importance of following your stated lines of analysis.


John Michael Greer said...

John, I have real doubts about the long-term viability of the internet as it exists today. Add up the energy costs of building, maintaining and powering all those server farms, transmission lines, etc., and the EROEI doesn't look so good. I'll be talking down the road a bit about the possibility of a "green internet" based on packet radio, though, and that might well make it over the long term -- but even so, it's best not to have all our eggs in a single electronic basket.

Sharon, you seem to have missed one of the central points of this post, which is that a monoculture of opinion is just as problematic as the agricultural kind. You're right that I'd be unhappy if everybody agreed with me (though I'm baffled by your claim that most people in the peak oil community already do so -- all I can say is that my experience has been the opposite), but it's not because I have any particular attachment to the role of lone visionary. Rather, it's Darwinian logic; since none of us can know for sure what the future holds, it's a good idea to have people pursuing many different visions, since that makes it more likely that somebody will get it right.

More generally, if I follow you, you're saying that having a vision of the future is unnecessary and even counterproductive, and a strategy of hedging bets and responding to circumstances is a better option. I think this misses a crucial point, which is that the lack of a conscious vision of the future typically leaves you with whatever implicit assumptions about the future your culture and upbringing provide you. You can't even hedge a bet unless you think you know what the stakes are and where the chips might fall.

Assumptions that we don't bring up into consciousness are assumptions that hold us at their mercy. A solid case could be made, after all, that one of the driving forces behind the entire predicament of industrial society is the fact that people have followed the lure of an imaginary and only half-articulated future without ever thinking through the preposterous logic of infinite growth that makes it seem attainable.

Anthony said...


I read your blog and Carolyn Baker's and John Kunstler's, Cryptogon, Survival Acres and even occasionally Survival Blog (among others).

Of all of them I like your best as it seems the most balanced and *practically* hopeful. But I think one problem that often re-occurs is the definition of "crash".

I'm reminded of the old saying, "its a recession when your neighbor loses their job and a depression when you lose yours". The point being that all crashes are, ultimately, personal and relative events. Haiti is crashing right now. I live in Seattle we are barely noticing the economic downturn.

In the next 20 years I would not be surprised to see any or some of the following: cities falling to organized gangs, a permanent fascist takeover of America, regional mass starvation, outbreak of a virulent disease, food riots, heat riots, gas riots, riot riots, arson on a mass scale, military takeovers, etc. ad nausea. All of the above will likely be short lived or regional. But if you are in the midst of it you will feel that our civilization is crashing/has crashed.

All of the "solutions" that you critiqued will work - somewhere, for someone, at some point. The problem is that no one knows when, for whom or where. I have no problem with people proposing those solutions. Reading them allows me to see different ways of approaching the problems we face. I do worry when they put them forth as some sort of dogmatic - "this is the only way and I know the truth" position.

The reason I think that you are so often misunderstood is that you are looking at things from a very rational big picture point of view. You are talking about "survival of the species, survival of culture" level events. For many people not having enough to eat, or not being able to have the comforts that we have grown used to is disaster enough to declare "game over". People will kill themselves over these issues - to them it will have all come to an end.


Dwig said...

Another contribution to the genre of the "long view" of possible futures: Olaf Stapleton's "Last and First Men". Stapleton's scope transcends even John's, and if that's not broad enough for you, try his "Star Maker". Don't look for exciting prose or well-drawn characters, though; the book is basically a detailed extended scenario rather than a story. (Full disclosure: I last read these books in the early 1960s, but I think I'll pick them up again.)

North Coast, what systems and technologies are you focusing on?

Sharon: I'm not sure that one makes preparations best by choosing the future you believe in most, so much as choosing responses that offer a great deal of redundancy - that is, they have utility in multiple circumstances. Better said than I tried to in my comment above!

FARfetched said...

«My essay last week ended with what I thought was a fairly straightforward comment: “...unless, that is, we allow premature proclamations of triumph or catastrophe to distract us from the work that must be done.” Astyk took exception to this ...»

Exactly what was there to take exception to, unless Sharon (or anyone else) saw it as spotlighting an action of theirs?

It's only intelligent to have a disaster-response plan. It doesn't take an oil crash, or a Y2K event (remember that one?), to royally screw up your life. Tornadoes, ice storms, earthquakes, hurricanes, all happen with depressing regularity — and as we saw a couple years ago, the disaster in the White House managed to exacerbate the disaster in New Orleans. I've had power knocked out for 10 days due to ice storms, for example.

As I see it, if you can get by for a couple weeks without having to depend on utilities or supermarkets, that's very very likely to be the optimum "preps" level. If business as usual continues for your lifetime… well, there will still be tornadoes, earthquakes, hurricanes, and ice storms. But if there's a fast-crash situation that kills millions (or billions) of people in a matter of weeks… at that point, survival is going to be a matter of "luck." (I use quotes because one might well question whether the lucky ones in such a case are the survivors.) Assuming you live through the initial kablooey (nod to Sharon), after a couple weeks you might be able to vulture what the departed no longer need until a community grows up to support yourself and other survivors.

It's important to be flexible. If you know that apocalypse is imminent, as JHG says it might be sensible to have lots of guns, lots of food, and a remote place to stash it all. But weather and geology aren't immediately responsive to social changes; you could find yourself having to abandon your hideout (and your stash) for any number of reasons. If you're married to the stereotypical survivalist scenario, you might be better off as a hunter-gatherer and live in a tent — it's harder for the roving hordes (or whatever) to hit a moving target, after all. Indeed, the ability to "abandon ship" should be part of any good disaster-response plan, even if you're not expecting Apocalypse by next Tuesday. In any disaster aftermath, conditions could unexpectedly change at a moment's notice, so being able to improvise is probably the best tool in the bag.

FARfetched said...

«A kind of personal precautionary principle is what I've advocated in the past - figure out what the price of preparations are, what the cost if you don't are, and then work from there.»

Hi Sharon. The problem with that principle is that it ignores probability. Take the "Lucifer's Hammer" scenario (comet hits the earth) — not preparing for such an event might mean certain death if it happens, but it's not likely to happen. Likewise, people get killed driving to work all the time — the probability is high enough to make it something actually preparing for — but the price of preparation might be as low as remembering to fasten your seatbelt before leaving your driveway (in the Y2K wars, I used to say "fasten your seatbelt; don't buy a freeking tank.").

To the point. Fossil fuel shortages in our lifetimes (and I'm nearly 50) are a near-certainty. What's less certain is what it means — what we need to do about it, and what are the personal consequences of inaction? We can debate that until the cows come home. The actions you mention above are all sensible ones; stepping out of the rat race has many benefits even if "they" find an ocean of oil in my back yard tomorrow. :-)

Patrick said...

This is perhaps the best essay I've read on this topic, really well-rounded and smart. The only thing you aren't taking into account is the accelerating pace of technology, which without a fast crash, is likely to take us into very weird territory sooner than you might think.

Anthony said...


And especially JMG. Portland Oregon is batting around the idea of restarting the Master Conserver, Master Recycler and Master Composter programs. Currently the idea is being looked at by the Office of Sustainable Development's Climate Change Plan (committee?).

If you live in Oregon and wanted to encourage the idea you might contact the OSD and let them know you support the idea. Their number is 503-823-7222. I would post an e-mail address but I don't want to encourage spam bots to target them. I have a name too but once again I don't want to swamp one person with calls of e-mails - I have no idea how many people read this blog or the comments on the blog.

Anthony V.

micheal said...

John, I enjoy your writings.

Of all who believe in a slow crash, I would ask, you are aware that some animal populations at times exceed their equilibrium ranges, go into overshoot, and then rapidly crash, are you not? So, you do not deny the possibility of a fast crash scenario for humans, correct?

I would offer that the possible future scenarios are infinite. Attempt to prepare for that! - or pick one [or a few], prepare [which is an illusion, of course but we all have to feel like we're "doing" something] as best you can, and don't pretend that you have a lock on reality.

Too many of us want to feel like we are right when no such thing exists.


John Michael Greer said...

Anthony, all the things that you would not be surprised to see in the next twenty years are on my radar screen, too. None of them come anywhere close to constituting the end of a civilization -- but you're right that matters of definition slip in here.

Dwig, I was wondering when somebody would mention Stapleton.

Farfetched, if I read Sharon correctly she was objecting to the suggestion that a rush to proclaim imminent crash might make necessary actions more difficult. I think that's a valid suggestion; she clearly does not. Time will tell.

Oh, and the precautionary principle also assumes that you can assess the cost of an event in advance, which is an attempt to predict at least part of the future.

Patrick, the rate of technological progress has a lot to do with the rate at which money and resources are available for basic research and innovation. As decline sets in, money and resources will be in progressively shorter supply, slowing the rate of progress and eventually leading to regress. I'm not too worried.

Anthony, excellent news! Thanks for the heads up.

Michael, animal populations that experience fast-dieoff cycles are typically those that live in marginal environments and/or are dependent on a very narrow range of food sources. Human beings fall into neither category. Can you show me an example of a human society undergoing sudden crash?

You seem to be arguing that since there's no way we can know what will happen, it's a waste of time to try to prepare. If that's the choice you want to make, by all means, but it seems extremely shortsighted to me. If you're about to cross the street and a truck comes barreling along, it's true that anything might happen, but staying on the sidewalk a few moments longer is still more sensible than stepping out in front of the truck, on the off chance that it won't hit you.

yooper said...

Part I

Hello all! I have some explaining to do, and I feel this may take more than one response. So please, bear with me and hear what I have to say....

Thanks, John, this is what I've been searching from you.....(btw,I think, this is your very best article yet!) In fact, I COMPLETELY agree with your analysis of the future!(I'm cheering!!)

I owe it to you (and others on this post) what I believe might happen in the far future... I alluded to this over at BNB, ( last year, and I'm quite sure this can be found in the archives. For what it's worth, I was told to never speculate, this far into the future, so... John, you don't want to miss this, I'll likely post this tomorro. I'll give you a hint, I think "humanity" will not only last hundreds of years but thousands, if not millions of years. Want to see a "Catabolic Collapse", the way I have envisioned it? Rest assured, this is for you and only you..... When I came to this site, I immeadiately knew that you were a man of "patterns", as I am.... Sure, short term trends can reverse, but long term? Well, we'll see how "long term" I can get......

To all, I want everyone to know, that I agree with 99.99% of what John's thoughts are,(even though it might not seem like it, in times). There is no one on the face of this earth who I have greater respect for! He has clearly over, and over and yet over again, demonstrated that he's put 30+ years into studying collapse (this is something other than my knowlege that Baker, Astyk, Cobb, admin."Survival Acres", "Jason", and countless others have done...) His theory of "Catabolic Collapse" is testimony of this FACT. It takes one to know one, and I can't see this in the above mentioned..... Sure, these people have something to offer (don't get me wrong), but when it comes to a "reasonable" theory of collapse (furthermore, the implictions of it), they don't have a clue (at least, I haven't seen it)..... And then to speak of it to multitudes, just boils my blood....(really, is this right, if they are wrong and are suggesting to others to do this or that? Better think about this!) In fact, I wrote, "The Royal Flush In Spades", for Baker, as a better scenario than hers. "The Vision" is a "thought exorcise" at best, and if people cannot distinquish between this and reality, they were forewarned...... I'm not proclaiming ANYTHING to ANYBODY, these are MY thoughts, that is all.

Ok, I've had a problem with other bloggers and their thoughts of "collapse" or "decline". Rest assured, coming from one who may suggest "almost everyone will die" within a couple of years, can see decline in this country (USA) for that past 30 years, just how fast is that? People! You must put this into perspective! As I repeated over and over, my message is not for everyone! When I address, "Hello, John!" that message is directed to him, not at him! I don't mind if others "chime in", in fact, I look forward to it. However, not everyone is going to get the messages I'm sending primarily to him. Some DO NOT have the education and experience (again 30+ years) to UNDERSTAND where I may be coming from. I am not a professional writter or speaker and if I were, I would NEVER discuss such topics in a more MSM! Again and again, I'm questioning myself, for bring forth what I do in this format....

My only advice to those who may be speaking at "public engagements" is to be very sure of what you put forth, because others might be listening.... Take it from me, I've been there......

Thanks, yooper

yooper said...


Excellent questions! Are we "animals"? Yes, we do live in an marginal environment, it's called the industrial society, or environment, as I'd like to call it. Yes, we are very dependend on a very narrow range of food sources, some coming from over a 1,000 miles away. Think, can you're community get by what is being grown in it? (better yet, what will EVER be grown in it to support the present population?) The population has grown to levels that can ONLY be supported by industrial measures. That is how our population exploded in the first place! Think, are we too "isolated" from being able to reach a sustainable enviroment in time?(With the exsisting population?) I have my doubts...

This global "human" society has never experienced a "crash" in what 8,000 years or so. There have been times before that were "human" die-offs (global) have been suggested.

Thanks, yooper

John Michael Greer said...

A fast heads up -- I'll have very limited computer access for the next ten days or so. I've got next week's post set to publish itself automatically on Wednesday, but it's anybody's guess whether I'll be able to put comments through in a timely fashion. If you don't see your deathless prose on the comments page promptly, that's the reason why -- and I'll get to it as soon as circumstances permit.

FARfetched said...

«Of all who believe in a slow crash, I would ask, you are aware that some animal populations at times exceed their equilibrium ranges, go into overshoot, and then rapidly crash, are you not? So, you do not deny the possibility of a fast crash scenario for humans, correct?»

Michael, the difference between animals and humans is that… well, is that we're not animals. :-) We can choose to limit our numbers, to help our fellows, and so forth. Whether we actually *choose* to do so is another matter, but really: would it be worth living in an "everyone for themselves" world?

Yooper, the county I live in has only recently returned to the population it had in the early 1900s. Given that it was fairly isolated in those times (no railroads then or now), it's quite likely that the community largely had to feed itself back then… so yes, it's likely that we could grow enough food here to support our population and maybe even export some. The population would have to disperse somewhat, but the farms and knowhow are still around.

yooper said...

Hello all! When I was a young whipper snapper, the sun shined everyday and I looked foward to the bright future that laid in front of me. One day, after spinning "donuts" at the old school house's parking lot in my restored "62" Volvo Sport, I skipped past one of the instructors, who dryly replied, "You won't be doing that for long...." What? What in the hell was he talking about?!

Well, I found out, as this man told the class we'd be "lucky" to be driving around in the next five years, ten, at the most.... In what seemed like an instant, many of my dreams died. From then on, there have been very few bright days for me as I was taught to see beyond the end of my nose and visualize the dark clouds approaching on the horizon.

There is not a day that passes, that I don't think of what my life might have been like, "not knowing". I cannot express the irreconcilable harm this has caused me and others around me...

That is lesson number one.

Now, after more than 30 years and many fine automobiles later, I'm still driving off into sunsets. I wonder, "what could have those instructors been thinking?" "Preparing For What Future?", indeed. Perhaps, it's only now that their labor has manifested, through me? Perhaps, they knew this all the time? Like a seed that has laid dormant for so many years and only through the struggle of life has come to full bloom?

John says,"A broken clock is right, twice a day." My instructors were clearly wrong about the "time". I suppose, there was more energy resource than they dared imagined. However, their message seems to ring true, again today. I just hope, that this message isn't "broken" and the time is right.

That is lesson number two.

Thanks, yooper

yooper said...

Ok John, here we go. I was never to project much pass die-off, as the instructors saw no point in it.. However as you have suggested before, new information has been brought forth in 30 years. Also, I've learned a great deal from you,(here, elsewhere, and your highly recommended book, "Atlantis"). Some of these pieces of the puzzel are seeming to fit quite nicely with some of the pieces I already have, in providing not only a clearer vision of the past but what will likely follow in the future.

The dynamics of Catabolic Collapse, that is periods of decline to be followed by periods of "recovery" only to slide into greater decline has been suggested to me by others or something like it. I also believe that similar dynamics can be found in a society that would be on the incline. Periods of growth, followed by periods of decline to be followed by more growth. Examples of this might be the recovery after the Roman decline(in a larger curve, bubble or circle), the Great Depression, WWII and so-on(in smaller curves or circles). I wonder, do you suspect that "primitive" civilizations also had the similar patterns or dynamics?

If this is the case (and I highly suspect it is), then this only supports theories of how civilizations rise and fall (something like what Robin presented). Of those that support theories of this type, also support dynamics that you describe. This was first brought to my attention a couple of years ago.

There is solid evidence that certain bird and animal populations that normally cycle, have been suggested of doing so for thousands of years or more. Furthermore, the scientific community is no further in explaining this than when they started (John, the best way I can describe this is perhaps it's "divine in nature"). Moreover, most of these populations that have been studied, will cycle under the best of environments (not marginal).

So it appears, like trends, cycles are not easily broken. In fact, about the only way they become broken is when the population becomes isolated from preferrable habitat or other populations that they become extinct.

So, setting aside large scale nuclear warfare, an astroid impact, a shift in the earth's axis or the like that would cause sudden change, I think the future will likely "reverse" exactly as how you decribed it. Even great wars, wide spread famine, (might I even be so bold to include "climate change"), large scale plauges (like the Black Death) seems to not effect the cycle or pattern you're suggesting.
Perhaps, this pattern will still hold up to a Chefurka scenario, as this will be spread out though generations, as you suggested.

However, I'm suggesting that if great change comes too quickly and populations do not have the time to adapt, then all bets are off. This could be a combination of severe weather bringing down life supporting infrastructure (our environment) or a sudden loss of energy powering that infrastructure for any lenght of time. Depending on how wide scale this is, might bring down entire regions, countries, continents and yes, the world. As you said, this is unlikely.

If a fast crash should happen, I would still not count out the dynamics (the cycling) of Catabolic Collapse. At this point, after the dust settles, the dynamics would once again start all over again (if it even left in the first place) societies would incline once again, perhaps even resulting in another population bubble by using what energy was left by this society. Again, another die-off would ensue from overshoot and yet another society emerges from the ruins of that one? This could be 100's if not 1000's of years into the future. Perhaps, we'll see the dynamics of Catabolic Collapse on the long term, starting with our present society to further decline into thousands or millions of years in the future?

Thanks, yooper

Raymond said...


I think I'm beginning to understand what it is about your well-reasoned posts that's bothering me. One of the more pertinent lessons from history, as you make very good use of, is the natural dissolution of civilizations over time. Many of us, I think, look around and sense the dissolution of our own civilization and this sense resonates strongly with what your saying. Then again, many of us also look carefully at the peak-oil ("peak-everything") issue and get a similar sense of decay. I think that we tend to mix our feelings on the dissolution of our civilization along with our feelings on the dissolution of our energy and material base into a fairly homogenous blend of fear, hope, panic, etc. However, I would say that it is the mixing up of these highly correlated yet separate aspects of dissolution that are the beginning of the trouble when we seek to evaluate the future.

This is what I mean:

You commonly refer to now extinct Mayan and Chinese civilizations as analogies for us to consider. I think this is undoubtedly a good idea. Obviously, like us, these cultures, and, indeed, all other extinct cultures that we may be aware of, utilized very productive organizational facilities to provide for a high level of achievement. By analogy, an observant gardener likewise becomes more productive through consistent evaluation of his gardening activities. A group of individuals, each with a bucket, may very effectively coordinate their efforts to put out a fire. Multinational organizations can link manufacturing, marketing, etc. facilities all over the globe in a similar fashion to provide incredibly complex merchandise for unbelievably low per-unit costs. Clearly, organization is the key element to the increased productivity inherent in civilizations. For some reason that eludes simple description, this organizational facility erodes over time until the structure ceases to hold in any meaningful, large-scale manner. No doubt, there are material feedback mechanisms that aid in the deconstruction: loss of soil fertility or increased salinity, earthquakes, droughts, barbarian hordes, etc. Nevertheless, most of these things are part of the natural background that any civilization develops in - so these cannot be the sole causes of decay. There is more to the story that cannot be couched in practical language. As you remind us, civilizations come and go - again and again. I cannot imagine why our civilization might be considered unusual in this respect.

In this manner, shouldn't we be asking ourselves what peak-oil has to do with it and if it even matters? True, we have built very elaborate organizational structures that utilize a great deal of energy to function. Nevertheless, I would be so very surprised if you weren't expounding upon the certainty of cultural decay long before you'd ever heard of peak-oil. Whether we call this inevitability a generalized decay of culture or perhaps something owing to a loss of soil fertility, water quality, etc. doesn't really matter. Is not such an event assured with or without the loss of our wonderfully cheap energy sources (oil, natural gas, uranium, etc.)? No doubt, it would limp along, just as you portray, moving from one crises to the next towards it’s inevitable collapse. How long would such a collapse take? As you say, from what has come before us, centuries are needed.

It is my understanding that the Aztecs pulled multi-ton, monolithic slabs of stone over miles of countryside using teams of humans. After the Aztec civilization was a bedtime story, we can presume that the former Aztecs carried rocks out of their corn fields in the shadow of ruins. Likewise must it have been with the Mayans, Chinese, Romans and all others that we know of. Humans did the work before and humans did it afterward. Of course it's the high degree of organization that went away.

Hopefully my point is apparent. The decline of organization and the decline of our energy and material basis are two very distinct things. This is why, I think, your posts are considered overly optimistic by some and severely pessimistic by others. On the one hand, the loss of organization (the wholly depressing decline of civilization) is inevitable - but, from analysis of the past, it takes centuries to complete. So, evidently, we've got time. Yet, we know that the demise of abundant, cheap oil & gas is a couple of decades away - so, with respect to that decline, we have very little time. Again, you will rightfully cite the correlation between them - but they are not at all the same thing and I perceive that you are drawing the two together in a less than coherent fashion when you plot your vision of the future. For this reason, I don't feel that you're painting the accurate picture that you would like.

JD said...

As a person who has lived his entire life...albeit only 27 years in the Metro Detroit area, I am heartened by the thought of the old industrial Great Lakes states making a comeback. If you look at either a fat or slow crash scenario, being in a place with good land, lots of water, and an old railway/canal network is probably a good idea. I for one have my mind set on 30+ acres north of Albion/Marshall, MI on the Kalamazoo River. 2 small town with different demographics, but with old downtowns, rail networks and a college in Albion. Come back to the Midwest everyone, we could use you.

yooper said...

Hello Raymond, Yes, your point is apparent to me. What you're conveying here is so much alike what Robin's message was last week... Refreshing, to hear this again, perhaps in a new light.

I'd like to suggest to readers that this concept is not new. In 1945, George Orwell brought about, "Animal Farm" which is the most satirical allegory of Soviet totalitarianism, among other things........

(Time for another little story from the old school house.. I had a class simply called,"Utopia". This was not taught by one of your "normal" teachers, but by one of the most creditable deep water divers of our time. This man had found more than his fair share of shipwrecks in the Great Lakes! I've yet to meet a man who has witnessed the "depth of darkness", as this man! He started out by having us pull out our dictionaries to look up the word, "Utopian". Mine states, "visonary; impossible of realization". At that, this man stated, "IF this is an impossibility, then we shall start by looking for it from disutopias!" That's all I'm going to say about this, but to put this into your pipe and smoke it!)

I can't agree with you more about the decline of organization and the decline of energy and material basis are two very distinctive things. However, I'm not convienced that John is drawing the two in a less than coherent fashion (again, maybe I've missed something, here?). Perhaps, this concept is rather new to him? Perhaps, he doesn't think it is relevant? Btw, you are not suggesting that this is the first time in history this convergence has happened, are you? I was under the impression that the two were interrelated (but separate) and had happened again and again regardless of what source that energy came from? Perhaps, you meant more on global terms?

This is the problem that I had with,"The Fourth Turning". It did not make (to my understanding or what I thought it should have) that connection with energy (maybe it doesn't have to? That is what you're suggesting?) and was coming from an American perspective. However, as I said last week, I'll go back and look at this again.... "Wholly" is a big word, perhaps beyond my understanding, again....

jd, I'm glad you're looking at areas in Albion and Marshall! Excellent choices! May I suggest Concord? My brother-in-law lives in a former governor's mansion there. Grand old town, in the middle of cornfields.

I'm almost twice your age and take it from me, the city of Detroit was declining before you were born. I helped build such beautiful places as Cadiallac Square, Chene Park and Hart Plaza. You have a birds eye view on what to expect... My best wishes to you!

Thanks, yooper

yooper said...

Hello my friend Far! Agreed, you're probably right about you're area and thoughts about even exporting surplus elsewhere. However would it be enough to include your neighbors in Alanta? That population is not the same as it was in the early 1900's.

Some say, "the goverment is only as good as it's people." When actually the true of the matter is, the people are only as good as it's goverment(history bears this out time and again). That could be the point in what these other guy's are trying to make. I agree, any solution must include everybody. That is, there is no difference from a wild man holed up in the woods or some "lifeboat" communities.

Our society (especially here in the U.S.A.)is exactly like the "Rats in a Box", described over at my site. What these other men are talking about is "order" if I precieve this correctly. Without order, our society will very likely slip into decline, this has also happened time and again in history.

You referred to that we can choose to limit our numbers, exactly how would you go about this? Especially if we are already into overshoot? In John's scenario (Adam's Story), if I read it correctly, he alluded to the population being reduced to half, 50 years into the future. That is only two generations away...

I'd like to agree with you, that we are not animals. However, I'd rather stick to my animal friends, they have never tried to harm me in any way...........

Thanks, yooper

Raymond said...

Yooper -

The unfortunate part about blogging it seems is that we all just keep saying the same things over and over again. So many words to read. Surely we can accept the inevitability of repetition - and lots of it. Eh?

I read Robin's post - and I don't think we're saying the same things. I'm not promulgating a crash/decay scenario and not really critiquing the scenario(s) offered by JMG (although, admittedly, the end of my post does give that impression). I'm merely trying to scratch at the itch that develops sometimes when I read a new Archdruid Report posting. I originally thought that JMG had a tendency to flip his time-frames around without informing his readers. That is, moving from the centuries of historical, cultural decay to the decades of energy base depletion in a seamless fashion. I think he does this, but I don't think the reason he does this is that simple. I think the problem goes beyond temporal confusion into, as I tried to examine, a confusion of factors. As I said, this examination follows from the hypothetical question I asked myself: "what would JMG say about the future of our civilization in the absence of peak-oil?". I came to the conclusion that he would probably say nothing substantially different. So, like Robin, I'm thinking that, perhaps, he should.

Certainly, this is not the last word on the issue (not even mine) - but I think it's the beginning of a significant criticism that needs to be fleshed out. Perhaps careful and considerate readers of this blog could help.

Raymond said...


My apologies. I've reread your latest post and I need to retract my previous two statements. Actually, you're making a rather sharp distinction between cultural decay and the decay of our energy basis. While the itch remains, I must scratch elsewhere it would seem.

Christine said...

JMG, thank you for reminding me that my life has meaning outside of the self-centred abstractions I've created amid sleepless dark hours. Now may I find the focused strength necessary to continue my part of the transition and cultural conservation, so well understood in my head but hidden from my asphyxiating heart. Any suggestions on heart-opening exercises?

Chris said...


I just finished reading "The Long Descent" and I want to thank you for such an insightful, balanced and thought-provoking analysis. You articulated and provided a historical context for many of the things that have been going on in my head since I learned about the "triple-threat) of resource depletion, climate change and economic instability. I very much agree with your assessment of the myths of progress and apocalypse, and believe - as you do - that the decline is likely to come in the form of cyclical periods of collapse and recovery.

I am very well educated now about the challenges we face and their likely consequences. Now, I am turning my attention to action. I'm studying acupuncture and herbalism and I'm learning to cultivate and grow my own medicinal herbs. My wife is studying permaculture, learning to make beers and ales, and is a skilled alternative health practitioner (Feldenkrais).

The question that remains for us, however, is where to live. We're currently in Berkeley, CA because that's where my acupuncture program is. But we're very much aware that this area is too densely populated to be a good choice for the long-term. We're looking for a town with <50,000 people, a dense downtown center we can walk/bike to, access to good water, potential for renewable energy infrastructure (solar, wind, microhydro) and a community that is active and aware of peak oil and the other challenges we face.

As you surely know, there aren't many towns like this left in North America. But one that keeps popping up is your hometown of Ashland. I've been there a few times and I liked what I saw. I'm just curious to know what you think of Ashland's prospects as a "transition town"? My guess is you feel positively about it, or you wouldn't be there. But I thought I'd check anyways.

Thanks again for your help in understanding and responding to these very big and very challenging issues we face.