Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Trailing Edge Technologies

One of the worst of the booby traps built into the contemporary mythology of progress, it seems to me, is the notion that the way out of any difficulty is to keep moving the way we are already going, and do it faster. It may seem obvious that if you’ve gone down a blind alley, the only way out begins by shifting into reverse, but it takes very little attention to the current political scene to notice that this bit of common sense is far from common just now.

For a case in point, listen to the pundits – a sizeable chorus of them just now – who insist that the only way to bring soaring prices of oil, food, and other commodities back to earth is to push forward with the project of economic globalization. The problem here is that globalization was never more than an artifact of the final blowoff of the age of cheap oil, and as that age ends, so do the economic factors that made globalization work.

During the quarter century from 1980 to 2005, the cost of transport was so close to negligible that it seemed to make sense – and certainly made profits – to arbitrage labor costs by building sweatshop factories in Third World countries and shipping their products around the globe to markets in the industrial world. Far from being the wave of the future, as so many of its promoters claimed, or a malign conspiracy, as so many of its enemies insisted, it was simply the most profitable solution of an equation in which fuel costs, prevailing wages, and the relative strengths of various currencies were the most significant factors.

That equation is changing now. A recent news article noted that the cost of shipping a container of freight from China to Europe is now three times what it was before the current oil price spike began, and US companies that had offshored their production lines to distant continents were beginning to reopen long-shuttered domestic factories to cut transport costs. As the age of cheap oil dwindles in the rearview mirror, companies that choose the same strategy will prosper at the expense of those who cling to the mirage of the global economy.

The same sort of reversal, I’m coming to think, may affect many more aspects of life in the near future, as a great many apparent waves of the future turn out to be temporary adjustments to the short-term aberration that sent energy prices plunging down to levels that, in constant dollars, they never reached before – and almost certainly will never reach again. Any number of examples come to mind, but the one I’d like to discuss here is technology.

Few aspects of contemporary life are as heavily freighted with mythic significance as the way that technologies change over time. It’s from this, more than anything else, that the modern myth of progress draws its force – and yet there are at least two very different processes lumped under the label of “technological progress.”

The first, progress within a particular technology, follows a predictable course driven by the evolution of the technology itself. The first clumsy, tentative, and unreliable prototypes are replaced by ever more efficient and reliable models, until something like a standard model emerges; thereafter, changes in fashion and a slow improvement in efficiency supply what variations there are. Compare a sewing machine, a clothes dryer, or a turboprop engine from the 1960s with one fresh off the assembly line today, and in the underlying technology, the differences are fairly slight.

The difference lies in the control systems. The sewing machines, clothes dryers, and turboprops of the 1960s used relatively simple mechanical means of control, guided by the skill of human operators. Their equivalents today use complex digital electronics, courtesy of the computer revolution, and require much less human skill to run effectively. On a 1960s sewing machine, for example, buttonholes are sewn using a simple mechanical part and a great deal of knowledge and coordination on the part of the seamstress; on a modern machine, as often as not, the same process is done by tapping a few virtual buttons on a screen and letting the machine do it.

Changes of this sort are generally considered signs of progress. This easy assumption, though, may require a second look. It’s true that the primitive computers available in the 1960s would have had a very hard time sewing a buttonhole, and the idea of fitting one of the warehouse-sized mainframes of the time into a home sewing machine would have seemed preposterous; computer technology has certainly progressed over that time. Yet the change from mechanical controls and operator skills with digital electronics is not a matter of progress in a single technology. It marks the replacement of one technology by another.

It’s at this point that we enter into the second dimension of technological change. Mechanical controls and home economics classes did not gradually evolve into digital sewing machine controls; instead, one technology ousted another. Furthermore, both technologies do an equally good job of making a buttonhole. The factors driving the replacement of one by the other are external to the technologies themselves.

In the case of the sewing machines, as in so many similar technological transformations of the last sixty years or so, the replacement of one technology by another furthered a single process – the replacement of human skill by mechanical complexity. What drove this, in turn, was an economic equation closely parallelling the one that guided the rise of the global economy: the fact that for a certain historical period, all through the industrial world, energy was cheaper than human labor. Anything that could be done with a machine was therefore more profitable to do with a machine, and the only limitation to the replacement of human labor by fossil fuel-derived energy was the sophistication of the control systems needed to replace the knowledge base and nervous system of a skilled laborer.

For most people today, that equation still defines progress. A more advanced technology, by this definition, is one that requires less human skill and effort to operate. The curve of progress thus seems to point to the sort of fully automated fantasy future that used to fill so many comic books and Saturday morning cartoons.

One of the major mental challenges of the near future, in turn, will consist of letting go of this image of the future and retooling our expectations to fit a very different reality. Behind the clever robots who populated the collective imagination, and the less clever but more tangible bits of household automation marketed so obsessively to the middle classes in recent decades, lies the replacement of human energy by mechanical energy derived mostly from fossil fuels. During the age of cheap abundant energy, this made economic sense, because the energy – and the machines needed to use it – were so much cheaper than the skilled labor they replaced. In the decades to come, as energy stops being cheap and abundant, that rule will no longer hold. What looked like the wave of the future, here as elsewhere, might well turn out to be a temporary adjustment to a short-term phenomenon.

It’s hard to think of an aspect of modern life that will not face drastic reshaping as a result. The collapse of American education, for example, was a consequence of the same economic forces that put computers into sewing machines; for the last few decades, it was more cost-effective to hand over bookkeeping chores to computers and equip word processors with spell checkers than it was to teach American children how to do arithmetic and spell correctly. In the future, this will very likely no longer be true, but the sprawling bureaucracies that run today’s education industry are poorly equipped, and even more poorly motivated, to deal with the need to teach the skills that will be needed for humans to replace the machines.

Now of course not all the machines will need to be replaced at once. Many modern technologies, however, demand very large energy inputs that will not be reliably available in the future. Many more cannot be repaired when they break down – during the age of cheap energy, it was more cost-effective to throw a machine away when it broke, and buy a new model, than it was to pay a repairman’s wages. Furthermore, the extraordinary levels of interconnection that pervade today’s technology mean that the failure of a single component that cannot be replaced or repaired can render an entire system useless.

It’s probably too late to avoid the future of systems failure the choices of the recent past have prepared for us, but quite a bit can be done to mitigate it. The first priority, it seems to me, is precisely to break free of the dubious assumption that the kind of technology that was more cost-effective in an age of cheap abundant energy will be well suited to the age of scarce and limited energy now dawning around us. The second is to redirect our attention and efforts to those technologies better suited to the new realities of our future.

Among the most useful resources in this context, in turn, are precisely the technologies that fell out of fashion in the last extravagant decades of the age of abundance, and the skills necessary to use them. As a culture, we’ve pursued cutting edge technologies for so long that shifting attention to trailing edge technologies may seem almost willfully perverse. Nonetheless, those older technologies that work effectively with relatively modest energy inputs, and rely on human hands and minds in place of energy- and resource-intensive electronics, may turn out to be much more viable in the long run.

That 1960s sewing machine – designed to allow for maintenance and repair, built of easily replaceable parts, and relatively easy to convert to foot pedal power if electricity becomes scarce – is likely to have a much longer working life in an age of decline than the computerized models filling showrooms today. In the same way, a great many trailing edge technologies – and the skills needed to use them, many of which can still be learned from living practitioners today – are worth preserving. The question, of course, is how many people will do that while the opportunity still exists.

43 comments:

Court said...

Been enjoying this blog for a while, thought I would comment today.

Let me first say I am anything but a techno-optimist. Having said that, in your eagerness to paint technological progress as a 'myth', I think you overlook the geometric progression of certain technologies. A clotheswasher has a sort of limited end - e.g., to get your clothes clean, and, by the nature of the task it is trying to accomplish, a certain max effectivness / effeciency has been more or less discovered. Thus that technology has not changed much over time.

Other types of technology, or technological advance, are different, I think. They work on a geometric progression, meaning that a vast amount of progress is possible very quickly after a fairly long (relatively speaking) period of slow growth. The internet would be one example. Another would be the Humane Genome Project. When it was only 1% finished, there were scoffers who said at that rate, it's going to take you 200 years to map the Human Genome. They finished it (I think - this can all be looked up, of course) 5 years early. As I understand it, this was due to the geometric progression of their expanding knowledge and also methodologies. So, some technologies, like digital technologies (see Moore's Law, which I believe is still controversial in some quarters) can advance at a rate that is not to be expected of, say, a sewing machine.

I don't think that means we'll be flying around in our Jetson space cars any time soon, but I do think these sorts of things indicate that it's unwise to pronounce too firmly on the future. Always has seemed like a mug's game to me, predicting the future.

Ruben said...

This brings to mind several thoughts/stories/quotes...

First, I have been saying for years, "Now that we can do anything, we must do less". Also, that we have given all the interesting and challenging work to machines, and the only thing left for humans is to push buttons.

This post reminds me of a story of a new automated furniture plant in Germany. It is staffed only with one man and a dog. The man is there to feed the dog, and the dog is there to keep the man away from the machinery.

Lastly, if you have not already read "The Real World of Technology", by Ursula Franklin, I think you would enjoy it.

RDatta said...

Thanks for your consistent insightfulness. While we don't know what ecotechnic societies will be like, it is good to have these hints.

In a post sometime back you mentioned a large volume of bovine fecal material counted as pollution. Well, there was a time when that was counted as fertilizer, as is still done in many countries and may again be done in 'mericuh.

The trailing edge technologies, like the trailing edge material from the bovids, may / will someday be useful / important again.

Just as amateur radio from your previous post!

Stephen Heyer said...

Interesting post, I think John Greer is very right about the problem of many current devices being difficult to repair, partially because of the many, non-standard, impossible to replace electronic parts.

Of course it doesn’t have to be like that: Electronic parts could be standardized, but that is not likely to happen while consumers buy on the number of buttons and throw out perfectly good equipment every few years (or less) so as to make room for the results of more recreational shopping and so don’t give a damn about reparability. Manufacturers are hardly going to go to the trouble and expense to design and manufacture standardized, easily repaired equipment if consumers will not buy it.

Incidentally, an old acquaintance of mine obtains fridges, dryers, washing machines and similar from the local tip for repair and resale. Some years ago I was astonished at how much old, but perfectly serviceably equipment was discarded. Now I’m totally gob smacked at how much brand new looking, sometimes still in factory packing, equipment winds up on the tip.

I have no idea what is going on! I can only guess it has something to do with a final “crack-up boom” at the end of the oil age.

Australians used to consider American wastefulness and consumerism gross. I guess a steady diet 6 or 8 hours of USA TV a night has finally eroded the Australian character.

Coming from a World Made by Carpenters, Boilermakers and Machinists (apologies to Jim Kunstler) in other words the Australia of the 50s and 60s where large scale mass production was uncommon, I’m less pessimistic than John Greer about technology. I think there can be a considerable wind back and simplification of technology and much more local manufacture, combined with worldwide trade of low weight and volume, high value items that are hard to manufacture on a small scale such as integrated circuits, and the result can still be a good level of technology.

Of course, as a number of people including myself keep pointing out, the experience and seriousness of any coming troubles, including Peak Oil and catabolic collapse, is likely to be very different in different places. Some may have a mild enough experience to consider the end result to be a worthwhile return to a more human scale world, others will probably not be so lucky.

I’m hoping where I live is in the first group.

Yvonne said...

I have the skills to use old fashioned sewing machines, having learnt on them as a child. I never really moved into the modern age of comuterised machines so I won't miss them. I would very much like to replace my plastic 70's electric machine which has fallen apart. What I would like is not an old model with a treadle which could only sew in straight lines but one with the ability to do zigzags, that is robust in the old fashion and also has a treadle. I think you have the advantage in the US of the Amish communities providing a market for this sort of thing. Unfortunately in the UK this is not the case. I seem to have a choice of very elderly machines or a replacement computerised model. It is not just that skills may be lost by lack of interest but that the actual machines will not begin being produced until too late.

FARfetched said...

Interesting thoughts, even if one wants to quibble about the examples. My mom's 70s-vintage sewing machine, as I recall, had a handful of advanced features (for the time), including a buttonhole mode. I remember watching her use it once or twice. It could also do different stitching patterns, based on a plastic cog. Personally, I hand-stitch replacement buttons. It's not that hard, you just have to be careful not to poke yourself with the needle.

OK, I got that out of my system. :-)

I've said similar things about pundits: we're in a deep hole, and they want us to keep digging. The catch is, sometimes there will be other ways to do things that we haven't thought of just yet. For example, I remember seeing a "not sold in stores" gadget on TV some years back, that used a plastic rivet to replace buttons. It was likely a piece of junk, as most of those things are, but who knows? With a little work, it could have done the job faster than the most automated sewing machine.

I was the last person in my high school to use a slide rule, and I still have the thing. I've often joked about mounting it in a glass case with a sign "In case of computer failure, break glass." But a lot of the groundwork for so much of what we take for granted was laid in the 50s, using slide rules and books of math tables. Slide rules are still around, they're easy to make & use, and (for certain functions) still faster than electronic calculators. Same goes for the abacus.

I wonder how much effort, though, will go into "progress by other means" — for example, replacing NC computers with something like the plastic cogs of my mom's 70s sewing machine. The precision tools of our time might still have some life left in them.

rsheridan6 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John Michael Greer said...

Court, by saying that technological progress is a myth I'm not saying that it doesn't happen; I'm saying that it fulfills the same role in modern society and psychology that more overtly religious myths have in other cultures. I do think that technological progress tends to follow a curve of diminishing returns over time, but that's fodder for another post. As for predicting the future, though, we all do that -- the question is whether we do it consciously, with attention to the whole range of possibilities, or whether we let the narratives of our culture do it for us.

Ruben, thanks for the tip! I'll check it out.

Rdatta, I've bought a 1950s-vintage HF transmitter and receiver, both in need of a bit of repair, for less than US$60; unlike the current line of HF transceivers, they can be repaired by me, at home, using hand tools and relatively cheap spare parts. Classic trailing edge tech, and they'll certainly do the job!

Stephen, I agree completely that the world could maintain some level of advanced technology by scaling back its expectations, shifting to local manufacture, and drastically curtailing the more useless of today's energy-wasting habits. There are serious social barriers in the way of that possibility, mind you, but we'll see.

Yvonne, I wish I knew what to suggest; even in the US a sturdy treadle machine that will do zigzags is a rare commodity. You may need to learn what people in your grandmother's generation did in the absence of machines that would do zigzag stitch, and do that instead.

Farfetched, while studying for the Extra class radio license I found that my slide rule would do the math much faster, and with fewer opportunities for error, than a calculator. Most of the numbers that put human footprints on the Moon were crunched by slide rules, so I agree that a lot of older technology has a great deal more to offer than modern prejudices suggest.

Sheridan, you might want to go back and read my post again, as you seem to have missed its point pretty much completely. The comparison between a human being and a machine is beside the point, not least because a sewing machine needs a human being to operate it! The issue I raised is whether simpler and less energy-intensive technologies are better suited to an age of scarce and expensive energy than today's more complex and more energy-intensive versions.

Even as it stands, though, there's a crucial problem with your reasoning. The energy needed to power a sewing machine is only a small fraction of the energy consumed in its manufacture, maintenance, and disposal. A sewing machine doesn't simply pop into being out of the void, after all, and the energy needed at every stage of its life cycle, from mining the raw materials straight through to providing the landfill space, has to be included in an energy analysis. By excluding some energy costs as externalities, as you've done here, it's possible to make even the most wasteful technologies look economical.

JimK said...

Here are a couple more-or-less random articles on the complexity of making electronic microchips:

http://www-micro.deis.unibo.it/~masetti/Dida05/tecCMOS.pdf

http://news.cnet.com/Semi-survival/2009-1001_3-981418.html?hhTest=1

There are just a small number of chip fabs that can make high performance CPUs. They are huge complex factories that can produce very high volumes. But to keep them running is very difficult and requires lots of supporting technology. I think it happens a fair amount that one diagnostic lab will support multiple fabs around the world. It's just too expensive to buy scanning electron microscopes etc.

How sustainable are such fabs? How much have we come to rely on their products?

Noah Scales said...

What you're suggesting will help conserve resources. Replacing machine labor with human and animal labor and replicating certain skillsets throughout the workforce will help people live more sustainably and more self-sustainably.

Using simpler machines (particularly for transport) and tools to repair or fix them will almost automatically take account of ecological concerns involved in the extraction, production, use, and disposal of machine components, by reducing or avoiding those concerns before they are a problem.

The approach you suggest makes technological progress unnecessary to resolve ecological concerns that threaten the world population of humans, regardless of how much oil we have left. We certainly have the technology to live lighter on the earth, provided we sacrifice the leisure time that machines provide us.

Danby said...

rsheidan6,
The human will have to be fed anyway, so any energy used to feed the machine will be additional to the energy needed to feed the human.

Yvonne,
Any sewing machine with an exposed drive wheel (virtually all sewing machines until about 1969) can be adapted to treadle power. I've done the conversion 4 times for my wife and various neighbors. And don't discount the old straight-line Singers. We have one (treadle powered) from 1921 (my wife's grandmother's) and no other sewing machine on earth will sew as straight and even a seam. It's also the fastest sewing machine I've ever seen.

Court,
Moore's law has broken, as will any paradigm predicting endless growth. It failed about 6 years ago, stymied by the limits of physics. Speed improvements in computers are now made by throwing more CPUs at a problem.
Strictly speaking, the Genome Project is not technology but basic knowledge.

Digital technologies have advanced as quickly as they have for two reasons. The first is that, being new technology, there was a lot of improvements to be made. The second is the literally hundreds of trillions of dollars and trillions of gigawatts spent on developing digital technology. For the last 10 years, most of the improvement in digital technology has been made in software. There hasn't been a fundamental improvement in cpu architecture since Intel came up with speculative execution pipelines, which are based on work Richard Feynman did for the Manhattan project in 1943. And even that is done in microcode (embedded CPU software).

As the supply of available energy becomes more and more expensive, the huge energy sink that is the computing industry will become more and more untenable.

John Michael Greer said...

Jim, many thanks for the links. I'm not an expert on digital technology, but what I've read indicates that today's chips can't be made without huge inputs of energy, relatively scarce raw materials, and an extraordinarily complex manufacturing technology. Thus my interest in ways to do the same things using things that can be made from readily available materials by hand.

Noah, that's the idea. The one quibble I'd make is that machines don't actually give us leisure time. Modern Americans work more hours per year than medieval serfs, and a great deal of the extra time can be put down to the fact that our labor has to maintain a vastly more complex infrastructure. How much of your own time has to go into earning money to buy machines, pay for the energy they use, maintain them, and so on?

Dan, thanks for the info on computer technology -- this is pretty much what I'd gathered, but it's good to hear it from somebody who's been in the computer industry for decades. All new technologies go through an equivalent of Moore's Law in their early days, but the law of diminishing returns takes over after a certain point. The logic used by Ray Kurzweil and other would-be prophets of the Singularity is as flawed as every other attempt to project exponential curves indefinitely; the one thing that can be said reliably about exponential curves is that they always stop well short of the point of absurdity.

mattbg said...

I'm not sure that the end of oil means the end of economic globalization. I'd like to think so, but in reality I think the equations will just change based on the new price of energy.

It may become more efficient, for example, to produce energy-intensive products closer to the large energy sources that still exist on the planet and ship the finished products to wherever they're needed.

As long as the energy costs significantly outweigh the costs to produce domestically, I think we'll continue to shift things abroad, even with energy costs the way they will be.

Energy will be the part of the cost equation that it always has been, and new decisions will be made based on the new costs. Some fields like IT that depend mostly on data transmission than on movement of physical goods may not be affected for reasons related to energy (though they may be affected for other reasons -- such as a recognition of the offshore outsourcing experiment as a failure for other reasons).

I wonder if Cuba offers some insight into what a low-energy future may look like. Food producers are well off there because of their relative contribution to society, and much of their farming is organic because they couldn't access the supplies required to do it any other way. There was a very harsh transition period, and it's still not terribly prosperous, but... isn't that what we expect for post-peak oil?

FARfetched said...

«We certainly have the technology to live lighter on the earth, provided we sacrifice the leisure time that machines provide us.»

Noah, JMG already addressed this, and more politely, but I still must say it: WHAT leisure time? All these "labor-saving" devices have given us is more stuff to do. Maybe doing less will let us live more lightly, and the technology can take care of itself. Or not. Frankly, there are days when I think, "if civilization going bust means I'll get some rest… bring it on!"

Danby, the exposed drive wheel was there more for the convenience of the operator then for alternative powering, I think. I remember Mom turning the wheel on her sewing machine to line stuff up before hitting the switch. But it *does* provide a handy place to attach a drive belt.

Interesting points about the development of digital technology. I suspect that, at least for some, the money & energy spent to develop it has paid off.

Kevin Anderson K9IUA said...

JMG, it would be good to reiterate Wendell Berry's rules for selecting technology:
1. The new tool should be cheaper than the one it replaces.
2. It should be at least as small in scale as the one it replaces.
3. It should do work that is clearly and demonstrably better than the one it replaces.
4. It should use less energy than the one it replaces.
5. If possible, it should use some form of solar energy, such as that of the body.
6. It should be repairable by a person of ordinary intelligence, provided that he or she has the necessary tools.
7. It should be purchasable and repairable as near to home as possible.
8. It should come from a small, private owned shop or store that will take it back for maintenance and repair.
9. It should not replace or disrupt anything good that already exists, and this includes family and community relationships.

Cheers.

Mauricio Babilonia said...

John,

I'd like to put in a plug for the bicycle as an ideal trailing-edge technology. Besides being a dominant component of the transportation fabric in many countries, its design has remained largely unchanged since the advent of the safety bicycle in the 1880's. Yes, there are many frail high-tech examples being produced today, even some that attempt to use computer control systems (the Trek Lime, for example), but the vast majority are still relatively simple wire donkeys. I admire the tenacity of the Dutch Omafiets, the Flying Pigeon, the Schwinn Cruiser and the ubiquitous steel mountain bike.

Something like half of automobile trips in the United States cover distances of less than five miles and carry only one passenger. Many, many of these trips could be replaced with far less energy-intensive bicycle trips, perhaps even to the point where obesity is no longer a public health problem. This has already begun in Australia, where bicycle sales have outstripped automobile sales for the last eight years running. Of course, a number of persistent barriers prevail in the US, including the prevailing attitude that bikes are mere toys or the overwhelming political interest in maintaining the single-occupant motor vehicle status quo. Notice that nary a single mainstream national news source has suggested cycling as a way to save on fuel costs, perhaps because all of them derive revenue from automobile advertising.

From the hobbyist perspective, there has been a sizeable upswing in interest in bikes capable of carrying stuff. Everything from fancy bags to Xtracycles to Bakfietsen have become more mainstream interests among American bicycle enthusiasts. I see this as a good sign, and hope that at least some of our diminishing industrial capacity would be allocated to making durable bikes. I'm curious what you think.

Court,

The human genome project was indeed a remarkable achievement, but was accomplished by a workforce supported with a vast infrastructure—powered by cheap energy.

Rdatta,

Bovine manure is a pollutant when present in sufficient amounts. Visit any concentrated animal feeding operation and you'll know immediately what I'm talking about.

RAS said...

JMG, you wrote: "During the quarter century from 1980 to 2005" and that really stuck in my mind because, well, that's my entire life. Well, give a few years -I was born in 1983 and am obviously still here. But, all my I and my generation have known is the globalized economy with shiny gadgets like Nike shoes, CD players followed by IPODS, cell phones, the promise of college for (just about) everyone, Ninetndo and Wii, etc. Unlike those who are slightly older we have no memory of what things were like before -and thus nothing to base an idea of the future on, save what we've known.

Which is one of the things that worries me. We grew up being prepped for the Jetsons and we're going to get the 50s, followed by the 1800s. How are we going to adapt? Will we adapt? I'm afraid most of my generation my simply be unable to adapt to a life without unlimited transportation and push-button conveinences.

This is a generation in which few people can cook, even fewer have mastered the art of critical thinking, most have never read a book that was required of them, grew up thinking McDonald's was food and cable television an entitlement, etc. I don't know anyone else my age who can cook from scratch or doesn't have a cell phone. Many of my peers (and I kid you not) think potatoes grow on trees!

Sorry to go on so long, but this is something that bothers me.

Giordano said...

Having mentioned foot pedal power let me elaborate on one 'retro' technology, the bicycle, but in a different incarnation. Look up www.americanspeedster.com and www.atomiczombie.com. I own two 3 wheelers similar to those pictured on the last site, one of them motorized. Try to imagine an entire society of ecovillages based on such transportation!

Noah Scales said...

Machines do afford us more leisure time. Consumerism is not dedicated to increasing use of machines to increase leisure time, but it could be. Right now consumerism feeds wealth to corporations that exercise political control to help them exploit labor. Individuals who survive in the system concentrate their wealth and free-ride on public goods while investing in private spaces that have strong economic barriers to access. The overall effect is widening income disparities, less social services for people who work less, and a punishment of people who value leisure time by those who sacrificed it to isolate themselves and their wealth.

People are alienated from each other, and leisure time allows us to notice it more. We're all making each other less and less happy with our fear of investing in the lives of strangers, that is, our neighbors and community.

Working longer hours pays the bills. If frugality were a virtue in America, leisure time might be protected and seen as more of a wealth than credit card debt is now, but that would require a change in outlook, a sense of moderation, and a desire for more leisure time, rather than more stuff.

Differences in how the government distributes wealth through taxes and spending could be added to non-profit work that gives people something to do and helps them engage each other inside communities. Income disparities in economies could be reduced while guaranteeing people free time in communities where public and non-profit investment returns excess capital to the public in the form of social services and public spaces for people with free time to use. Naturally, everyone in those communities would survive on a slighter lower standard of living in economic terms. However, their community would provide much more social value to them, because they participate in it in their free time and find happiness in their activities for it. The private sector could exist in this economic form, but it would concentrate less wealth and have no political power.

On the other hand, there's no way to reduce the time spent growing food, making clothes, providing transport, and other basics for your family and community if you are the only available supplier. Also, whether you enjoy your community and look to it to occupy your time is irrelevant when you must participate in it, for long hours, to satisfy your basic needs.

I think an ecological footprint rationale for relying on human labor is more appropriate than an economic rationale. Certainly other sources of energy than oil will appear as technology improves. Changes in government economic policies and protections of citizens worldwide could sustain a minimal living standard for everyone, but not if the physical resources are not available to do it.

Actually, human labor combined with approaches like permaculture and generosity of spirit could bring back leisure time if we let it. However, we will still suffer a commitment to each other's well-being that we rely on to survive.

Susan said...

For Yvonne, a tangent on sewing machines...a bit of googling turned up this interesting page, http://www.treadleon.net
/sewingmachineshop/index.html. There are directions for making the electric/treadle conversion, as well as a reference to a modern zig-zag treadle machine. If you want to try to convert an old Singer, look for 400 or 500 series models (1950's?). I believe those were the first to include zigzag ability, and they're built like tanks. There are zigzag and buttonhole attachments available for the earlier straight stitch Singers, too. They work by moving the fabric back and forth, rather than the needle. There are lots of them on Ebay, for about $25 US. Just be sure you're getting the right attachment for your machine. Not all attachments will fit all machines-Singer did make some changes around model 301 (late 40's?) and the later attachments don't fit the earlier machines. There's tons of info about vintage sewing machines out there on the web, and about a dozen different Yahoo groups, too, depending on which brand or model you like. Anyone interested in buying or restoring an old machine should be able to hook up with some like-minded folks.

Court said...

John,

Not to quibble with your definition of a myth, but it seems to me that the fundamental difference between the old religious myths and today's myth of technology is that technology has done more or less done what it said it would do, verifiably. As opposed to, say, Thor or Yahweh. So I'm not sure calling it a 'myth', until it is clear that its promises, also, have failed to be kept. If, for instance, if the endtimes really are nigh and catabolic collapse or something like that ensues. It's not clear to me that the computer I'm typing on (in a Third World country, no less) partakes of a 'myth', in the same way that, say, Stonehenge may have been used by Stone Age people to celebrate equinoxes or whatever. I'm also not certain what 'narrative' this piece of hardware and software sitting in front of me partakes of. If I had the knowledge (and I don't), I could list out all the ways in which it works and why we know it does. Just not sure how that qualifies as myth.

The philosopher Ortega y Gasset said that our increasing ignorance of the devices around us lead us eventually to ascribe them to magic, because we don't understand how they really work. In practice, then, technology operates in the same manner for most people as the mysteries of the moon and a cow's internal digestion did for the ancients. He said this in the 30s. Now THIS sort of 'myth' ascribed to technology I could believe. But I'm not sure this is how you meant it.

Danby,
As I said, Moore's Law, as I understand it, is controversial in some quarters. I don't know the math or the technology so I can't go into the specifics with you. From what I understand, though, the fundamental technology through which we use digital technology could undergo a paradigm shift such that the old methodologies would become outdated, and processing speed increase. How does this happen? I dunno. See the Ortega y Gasset above. But it is thought to at least be possible, meaning the death of technology may not quite be at hand yet.

And yes, the Human Genome Project is about knowledge, but gaining that knowledge is so intrisincally tied to technology that they are virtually indistinguishable, I think.

I agree that the spanner in the works could be the sudden loss of available cheap energy. It takes a load of oil to make a microchip. But is it impossible that technology could find a way around that? I wouldn't be the farm on it, but it is certainly possible. I just wouldn't be too smug about pronouncing the end of progress, is all.

Gary Near Death Valley said...

Speaking of older technology, my wife who is a quilter and sewing queen, has at least 4 sewing machines. She picks them up for just dollars at sales, (usually 1960s models made with metal etc), and has them reburmished and then she uses them. They work great and with metal parts do not wear out. Try using todays sewing machine that can cost thousands of dollars, made with plastic parts, and is obsolete in a year because of wear. The older machines are worth it.

Major Heartbeat said...

"human hands and minds ....., may turn out to be much more viable"

Not "may", 'will', surely?

yooper said...

Hello John! Yes, some interesting thoughts. Just goes to show ya, just how complex our industrail society has become. Like that newer sewing machine, it could become pretty useless in rather a quick hurry. A "throw-away"? When you think about, just about everything in global interactions today, revolve around "standardization" in many different forms, from money, products, and energy itself....Everything must "run" on this standard, or...... Your big screen TV doesn't operate on just electricty for example but at a certain voltage, nor can it operate by "foot pedal". ha! ha!

Thanks, yooper

rsheridan6 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rick said...

The metaphor of the blind alley reminds of a memorable Doonesbury punchline from the Vietnam era: Mike Doonesbury was asking Jack Anderson if he believed what he wrote about the U.S. winning the war and Anderson said it was undeniable that we could see the light at the tunnel. Doonesbury asked, "When you've dug yourself into a hole, why do you insist on calling it a tunnel?"

Seems appropriate for our approach to peak oil.

Rick

Stephen Heyer said...

jimk: “There are just a small number of chip fabs that can make high performance CPUs. They are huge complex factories that can produce very high volumes. But to keep them running is very difficult and requires lots of supporting technology. I think it happens a fair amount that one diagnostic lab will support multiple fabs around the world. It's just too expensive to buy scanning electron microscopes etc.”

Yes, but 2 points.

1. I gather it is a lot easier to build small plants to produce smaller, simpler chips, and what is smaller and simpler is expanding all the time. It has long since passed the original 386 type CPUs I started with and now includes quite powerful chips.

I’m pretty sure we even had a plant in Australia.

By the way, those 386 CPUs actually did a rather good job, it is the incredible software bloat of particularly Microsoft software that has driven us into ridiculously powerful computers. This seems to be ending and a fashion is emerging for small, simple, sub-notebook computers costing a few hundred dollars, yet with capabilities vastly surpassing my old 386s.

This seems to have started off with the idea of giving people, especially students, in the third world access to computers and the Internet. Now, though, people I know are finding that these little machines loaded with Linux and Open Office do most of the things they want from a computer, especially while they are traveling.

In other words, if it became necessary reasonable computers could probably be produced on a more local, that is, national scale with a much lower expenditure of resources.

2. Computer chips are almost the ultimate low volume, low weight, high value commodity. They are ideal for trade, so will almost certainly continue to be traded internationally and enjoy international economies of scale in all but a science fiction apocalypse.

Even then, I can easily imagine camel caravans departing from the remaining chip fabs in, say, China (China always seems to come through) to take their precious cargo along the old Silk Road to eager buyers in the Middle East, North Africa and Europe. Hey! The Chinese traded silk to the Romans, they’ll just as happily trade CPUs to European states struggling to survive in a deep Post Peak Oil world.

Conclusion: I reckon computers are here to stay.

RDatta said...

Farfetched:
The Buttoneer and other similar devices can be had at Target / Wal-Mart / Fabric & Sewing stores &c. They are quite effective but of limited utility with heavy fabrics such as jackets, coats, suede.

Babilonia:
I have ridden a bike to work since 2004 but quit for this summer, making myself a promise to restart soon. I rode a bicycle to college and once crashed into a waterbuffalo cart, fortunately without injuries (to me or the buffalo).

When present in sufficient amounts, bovine manure is indeed a pollutant as could be seen at places like the Harris Ranch in California. However that is part of the price paid for their delicious steaks.

If one has been to the NorthWest Frontier Province (Pakistan - where I attended grade school) or to Banglacesh (then East Pakistan - where I did med school) one would realize that it is a resource that can be well used, and if present in amounts sufficient to be considered a pollutant, it is being wasted.

RAS:
My father was born in 1913 in what was then Bengal, in British India. He recollected a time when it took several weeks to make the journey to London (which his elder brother did, for higher studies ). The journey by rail to Bombay was followed by ship to Britain. The advent of seaplanes made it quicker (there being no airports, it was convenient to land [if that be the appropriate term] near seaports) but it still took several legs and the better part of a week.

When I first came to the US, there were still sterilizers for syringes and needles and most of the nurses had used them a short while previously, though by then these sterilizers had sat unused for a year or two at the place where I worked. The nurses remembered sharpening needles and replacing trocars before putting them in steilizers. All of this might seem ridiculous today, but it might well be a part of the future again.

But there are patients who live today because of technology whose equivalents died at that time. However this technology is quite expensive and even if it survives peak oil, it will be distributed more unevenly (and sparsely) than it is today.

When the Internet first became available, all we had was a shell account at one's ISP. One had to dial in via a modem, and one could manually type in the modem commands or use a script. Once connected, the Internet being UNIX, one had to be acquainted with the applicable UNIX commands to do anything. And after using gopher, archie, &c. to find something, one had to FTP it to one's shell account and then xmodem / ymodem or zmodem it to one's own computer. But the beautiful thing then was that everything on the Internet was free. No paywalls, subscriptions, advertising and for that matter, no spam. I still don't have a cell phone.

The potato does grow on a tree, but an underground one. The potato is a stem tuber, a modified stem. Just as the carrot and the sweet potato are root tubers, modified roots.

One does not have to worry about not getting to the Jetsons phase. Indeed if one is acquainted with science fiction, there are the darker aspects delineated there as well, and technology, like any tool can be used both for good and bad.

helwen said...

ras, it's true a lot of folks your age and younger don't have a memory of life before the globalized economy, but not of all of you. My stepson Z (19) grew up learning to do things around the house the old way, riding a bike or walking, helping with gardening, and didn't get his first cell phone until he was ~17. The cell's especially been useful because he was in CAP and also a volunteer at the local fire department, but of course before cell phones there were other ways to get in touch with firemen. I don't think he knows how to sew, but he can cook and wash dishes by hand. All my adult and teenage nephews and nieces can cook at least some, and a number of them have taken up home gardening. One of them is an engineer doing research on more environmentally sound technologies, but he knows the value of homegrown veggies and of capturing rainwater (lives in GA).

So, I hope you find some folks your age who either know some of the older useful skills or are trying to learn them. Our area has many such folks, although I wouldn't say they were the majority -- no idea really. But we have 20- & 30-somethings are right in there with the older folks, trying to make more environmentally sound ideas work, and growing our local businesses, so I think there's some hope yet, if only on a very local scale.

Heather G

Ron Paul Guy said...

The basic assumption behind this article is that we will run out of cheap energy. It may be true that oil is running out. But that does not really mean we cannot use partial substitution and increased efficiency to avert this crisis, until a new technology is invented, that can help humans leap-frog into the future.

We can't die out like this. There has to be a way. There are plenty of promising technologies today, that are being incubated and developed by large corporations and imminent scientists. We will get them before critical energy deficiency cause global collapse.

John Michael Greer said...

Yes, I thought this one was going to get a flurry of responses. Matt, as the price of transport goes up the equation changes; we're already beginning to see that happen, as China's slumping export earnings demonstrate. As for Cuba, you're not the only one looking there as a possible model.

Farfetched, certainly digital tech has paid off for some! The question I want to raise is simply whether it will be sustainable into the future; I don't think so.

Kevin, well put. Berry's an excellent resource for the transitions ahead of us.

Mauricio, bicycles are indeed a prime example -- a cheap, efficient, mature technology that can be kept running on local resources and hand tools.

Ras, it's an important issue. A very large number of people in the industrial world are not only hopelessly unprepared for the future approaching us, but unwilling to imagine a future different from the one our cultural narratives claim to be offering us. My guess is that this lies behind the chorus of denial and scapegoating that's already springing up around the world's faltering oil production. Counterproductive? Sure, but when a civilization's most basic assumptions about the world are falsified by events, that's what you get.

Giordano, thanks for the links.

Noah, the rhetoric that claims that machines save human labor and allow for leisure time is very deeply ingrained in our culture. All I can suggest is that you look into the numbers: on average, the more technology a society has, the longer hours its labor force works. I don't think that's a function of the specific social forms that govern technology, but of technology itself. Thus there may well turn out to be an optimum level of technology, at which the burden of additional labor does not outweigh the advantages of having the machines.

Susan, thank you for the info.

Court, it's only in modern use that "myth" means "a story that's not true." Myths are the narratives that shape and direct human life within a given culture. Faith in progress is the unacknowledged religion of today's industrial culture -- read Carl Sagan sometime if you want an overtly theological presentation of that myth -- and guides our collective actions in exactly the same way as the myths of other cultures have done.

Stonehenge worked just as well as your computer does, by the way -- it allowed the people of a neolithic society to track the seasons and time planting and harvest in an age when agriculture was a hot new technology not yet well understood. The narrative of cyclic time served the purposes of that society exactly as the narrative of perpetual progress serves ours.

Gary, a friend of ours here in southern Oregon does exactly the same thing. One advantage of trailing edge tech is that much of it was made to last.

Major, I tend to avoid speaking in absolutes when I can.

Yooper, good point. One of the major differences between modern technology and older versions is that current machines often have extremely precise requirements in terms of inputs of energy and raw materials -- and that level of precision may well not be attainable in a declining society.

Sheridan, you're still missing the point. Your $3 microcontroller is only $3 because the inputs of energy and raw materials needed to make it are so cheap just now, relative to human labor. That equation will change as fossil fuel depletion makes the absurdly cheap energy of the recent past a dim memory. As the energy costs of running factories and their supply chains soar, that microcontroller will increase in price much faster than those things that can be made without fossil fuel inputs, such as food (and thus human labor). At a certain point in the process, it will no longer be cost effective to use the microcontroller because hiring a laborer will be cheaper.

That's the point my post made. I have no objection if you choose to disagree with it, but it might be helpful if you would deal with the argument I'm making rather than ignoring it and then beating the stuffing out of a straw man of your own manufacture.

Rick, nicely put.

Stephen, we'll see. I'm a good deal less certain than you are that when all energy costs are included, chip plants will be viable over the long term, and even less confident that a world facing severe economic contraction and sociopolitical conflict will be able to scrape together the resources to maintain that particular technology.

Datta, I'm not especially worried about the prospects of a Jetsons future!

Heather, it's interesting to note the wide disparities, even within a single generation, between those who have survival skills relevant to a future of decline and those who don't. That may well turn out to be the difference between those who are still alive in twenty years and those who aren't, but we'll see.

marku said...

Re: digital technology--most of the performance increase has been enabled by moore's law--that the number of transistors (switches) in a given area would double every 1.5yrs. Amazingly, this did hold true for 30 years or more, and as long as the size of the devices kept shrinking faster than the costs of the increasingly costly processes that enabled the shrinking, then the unit cost of a microprocessor kept falling. That paradigm has recently come under great stress, and there is resistance from some manufacturers to advance to the next smaller process.
To give some context to this, the insulating material layer in a modern process may be only 8-10 ATOMS thick.
These manufacturing processes require huge quantities of ultra-pure gasses and silicon, and large flows of clean water. They also are very sensitive to process variation, and one power outage can ruin an entire batch.
However, the older processes are well understood and more error-resistant and fault tolerant. It may be that using 30 year old tech, we can still have computers in the future.
RE: trailing tech. I've recently bought from ebay some old optical surveying equipment (and a book from 1870 describing how to operate and calibrate it). If the GPS system fails, it will be very useful to level a road or foundation, or dig a long ditch or aquaduct that will drain :)

marku

CapnBodes said...

This is a great insight, but laboured by the end (no pun intended).
By the end of the article the sewing machine has copped such a large amount of attention that the bigger picture begins to fade into obscurity.
But thats just my two cents.

Danby said...

ras,
People are tough, intelligent, and creative. Given the circumstances in which they find themselves, each generation develops the skills and knowledge which will help it succeed. That the rules and circumstances are changing will make it difficult for many, but people adapt. I would even say that rapid and thorough adaptations is humanity's ecological niche.

Mauricio,
Once upon a time I was an avid bicyclist. i didn't ride everywhere, but I rode a lot. I gave it up in 1988 after being hit by a car for the 4th time. I really think one of the reasons bicycles are not more popular in the US is the very real danger attendant on sharing the road with automobiles. There's also the fact that (at least in the western part of the country) the distances tend to be very large and the hills very steep. That said, my little town is on the path of the annual Seattle-to-Portland bicycle classic, with over 9,000 people riding the 200 mile route. Somebody is riding.

court,
Moore's law is very specific. it says that the number of transistors that can be squeezed affordably into an integrated circuit doubles every eighteen months.We are now at the point that the width of the signal paths can be counted in atoms. At this scale quantum effects come into the equation, preventing signal isolation. CPU manufacturers have compensated by making larger chips (although there are serious limitations here too), multiple cores (where overhead becomes less manageable for each core added) and clustering (multiple computers connected over very fast network links) None of these scale without taking a serious performance hit. I work on the cutting edge of this stuff.

rsheridan6,
Of course putting the microcontroller on the machine makes economic sense right now. If it didn't, people wouldn't do it. What your accounting assumes is a working international finance and trade system. It also assumes ready availability of usable energy. These are two things I would not assume in a post-peak oil world. In addition, the microcontroller has served to help make the sewing machine essentially a disposable appliance. I can still use my wife's grandmother's sewing machine from 1921. How many sewing machines even from 1980 are still in service? What are you charging for depreciation?

farfetched,
Actually, the reason the drive wheel is exposed on older machines was specifically so that they could be worked with treadles. All the way into the '70s, one of the major markets for sewing machines was undeveloped areas of Africa and south Asia. People in those places often had no source of electricity. By exposing the pulley on the drive wheel, and placing it beyond the back edge of the machine base (both very simple design choices), the machine was saleable in those areas. Of course that all became moot with the introduction of electronic disposable sewing machines in the late '70s. You can't readily power an electronic machine from a treadle. I believe White still makes an "economy" model that can be converted to treadle, although the drive wheel is not exposed.

Noah Scales said...

Mr. Greer, it would be interesting to see what you find is the best balance of human labor and capital flows to ensure maximum productivity plus maximum leisure time.


For a reading about technological unemployment, Kit Sims Taylor's view of the impact of emerging information technology on knowledge workers (http://tinyurl.com/6aomnt) is useful.

Changes in cultural values (away from consumerism and toward leisure) and changes in how we live with each other (toward using public spaces and helping with our neighbors) could improve leisure time quality and end the busywork of collecting stuff for ourselves or being used like a robot for someone else's profit.

Zach said...

At a certain point in the process, it will no longer be cost effective to use the microcontroller because hiring a laborer will be cheaper.

There's an anecdote in an older (pre-Y2K) Ed Yourdon book that speaks to this.

Yourdon was travelling in India, and one of his hosts mentioned something about getting a dishwasher for some low rate (something like six rupees a month if I recall).

Yourdon was astonished, and had all sorts of questions about what sort of device could be available so affordably. Was it of local manufacture? What sort of microcontroller did it use? Etc.

His host stopped him, and informed him that by "dishwasher" he meant "a person who comes to your home and washes your dishes".


peace,
Zach

Dwig said...

Re the exchange between Sheridan and John about the energy economics of sewing machines: John's replies are spot on, and the exchange is an example of an ongoing dialogue/debate about how to measure energy inputs and outputs. This dates back at least to Howard Odum's work on "embodied energy", and more recently lives in the furore about how to define EROEI (energy return on energy invested). As one source, you can find a lot of discussion about this on The Oil Drum.

In the main post, John said "...progress within a particular technology, follows a predictable course driven by the evolution of the technology itself. The first clumsy, tentative, and unreliable prototypes are replaced by ever more efficient and reliable models, until something like a standard model emerges..." I think we're seeing that in the growing interest in energy economics, and I expect the emergence of some standard concepts and measures to deal with what is fast becoming the most crucial technology of the age: dealing with energy as something precious, rather than not worth including in calculations of economic value.

jimk: "How sustainable are such fabs? How much have we come to rely on their products?" It seems that the answers are "not very", and "way too much for comfort". Here's another question: what alternatives are there that make sense in an increasingly energy-limited environment? Most of the ones I can think of involve scaling back expectations and doing without, but there may be some surprises out there that will allow actually doing more with less. Certainly there's room to retool software development to make more careful use of the basic resources: cycles and bits.

Court, you might find it worth exploring Joseph Campbell's work on myth and mythology, which he considered a basic part of the way we work, individually and in societies. Very much consonant with John's reply.

RAS said...

helwen: I know there are some of my generation who have survival skills. I'm one of them and so is your stepson. But I was speaking of the generation as a whole.

JMG: you wrote "That may well turn out to be the difference between those who are still alive in twenty years and those who aren't, but we'll see."
My generation may just have the biggest loss of all in the decline, save perhaps for the very elderly. It'll be interesting to see how this plays out. One things for sure; those of my generation who make it to old age (Mother Goddess, I hope I'll be one) will be an invaluable resource for stories about 'the old days' since we'll have been the last generation to fully come of age before the decline begins.

rdatta -who would want to live in the Jetson's world? Not me, that's for sure!

Heteromeles said...

Hi John Michael and all,

Today, I scared up the barn swallow at the nursery I work at. It flew into a dead end, as many birds are wont to do, and rather than backing up (not that it could), it did what all swallows do, it turned in a magnificent spinning swoop and dove out past me.

That's progress for you. I will be *amazed* if politicians and marketeers don't spin just like that swallow and lead us into a "green future powered by sustainable power," rather than going back to the past. It's simply a matter of which semantics are more palatable to which audience. One thing we've got to watch out for in the druid movement is that we Romanticise the past (yes, the capitalization is deliberate), so going backwards isn't scary for us. But in our society, I think a lot of people are like that swallow, and backwards is a scary direction to go for them. They progress forward only. Of course, they spin so much that progress can go backwards, but there you have it.

One thing I would point out is that, under globalization, we've offshored a lot of our more polluting industries. When they come home, we can predict that many of our environmental laws will be gutted in the name of "progress towards an economically sustainable future." Time to start thinking about what we're going to do about this.

Another thing I'd point out is that globalization isn't a new phenomenon, but the scope is. International trade goes all the way back to the spice trade from medieval times, and the slave trade that supplied labor to American plantations. Replacing mechanical labor with human labor will make economic sense, but that's not always a good thing.

Another good article and great discussion.

rsheridan6 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Peter said...

Thanks JMG, and fellow-commentators, this forum has quickly become a source of learning and motivation,for making that fundamental shift out of the world I've known, and into this new one we're creating. On a philosophical note, Neal Postman's seminal book "Technopoly" (and all the excellent work he left us) is highly recommended, and applies to any technology-axe or microchip.

John Michael Greer said...

Ron, you might want to glance back over the archives sometime as I've already dealt at length with the points you've raised. The choice we face isn't between progress and dieoff -- it's between more and less effective and graceful ways of managing the process of decline that our civilization, like every other civilization in human history, is entering just now.

Marku, optical surveying equipment is likely to be a good investment. Nice call.

Capnbodes, so noted, but I find more people get it if I focus on concrete examples.

Dan, well put.

Noah, the best balance between human labor and extrasomatic energy is always a function of specific circumstances; there's no way to specify it in the abstract.

Zach, exactly. Labor is already cheaper than technology in most of the world; the industrial nations are just a little behind the times, is all.

Dwig, you're right -- I should probably point people to Campbell for a primer on the nature of myth.

Ras, my guess is that population decline will be pretty evenly spread through the generations. I know a lot of people in any generation you care to name who are pretty much clueless in the face of the approaching future.

Heteromeles, I'm quite sure the next few decades will see every imaginable kind of spin, but I wonder how much good that will do. Believing in spin is to some extent a luxury of the well-fed.

Sheridan, stooping to name-calling ("Luddite!") doesn't improve your argument any. You're still missing, or avoiding, the central points of the post, and I'm not at all sure there's any purpose in continuing this conversation.

Peter, Postman's certainly worth reading in this context, and others.

Lupa said...

One thing my husband and I have been looking into has been simpler technology to get basic jobs done. A good example is the James clothes washer--a big metal basin with an agitator attached to a handle, and a plexiglass lid, all on a steel stand. A model with a wringer runs somewhere in the $600 range, plus shipping. The beauty of it is that I could feasibly repair or replace any part of it--holes in the metal basin can be patched, a new handle or lid or stand could be created with relative ease. Best of all, with 10-15 minutes of agitation per load, that cuts out any need to go to the gym that day!

I think one thing to consider is that we have gotten very attached to our leisure time. As technology has cut down on the amount of time it takes us to do everyday activities, especially the ones we aren't so crazy about, we're learned to fill the time in with things that are fun. On the other hand, sometimes we trade off the time we might spend cooking from scratch or washing our clothes by hand then hanging it on a line, with some pretty senseless things that have nothing to do with leisure--like commuting.

One thing that we must learn is--slow down. We rush around like the proverbial headless chickens, and attempt to accomplish as much between waking and sleeping as possible. (The intermittent popularity of "learn while you sleep" osmosis-education systems even shows a desire to not respect the rest of sleep.) As I have taken the time to cook from scratch, to haul wet laundry up to the clothesline and carefully hang it instead of slinging it into the dryer, and have taken to walking more on nearby errands, it's been a good reminder to me to slow things down--which has done absolute wonders for my stress level. Granted, if I end up in a situation where the basics of life, such as food, water, shelter and safety, are more compromised than they are now, my stress level may very well pop back up. But at least I won't have as much of a shock adjusting to more manual ways of taking care of daily chores and other efforts. (And if people can find time and emotion to be joyful even in the most "primitive" of economic settings, maybe post-peak-oil I can learn to do the same.)