Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Tempo of Change

One of the lessons of history is that change, no matter how drastic it appears on the pages of history books, is rarely anything like so sudden for those who live through it. Read an account of the French Revolution, for example, and events seem to follow one another like explosions from a string of firecrackers, from the final crisis of the Ancien Régime straight through to the fall of Napoleon. For the man or woman in the French street, though, these happenings were scattered threads in a fabric of months and years woven from the plainer cordage of ordinary life.

Partly this is a function of the way historical narrative compresses time. It bears remembering that a teenage Parisienne who sat daydreaming of her upcoming wedding on the day that Louis XVI summoned the États-General in 1788 would most likely have been a grandmother on the day the Allied armies marched into Paris after the battle of Waterloo in 1815. Equally, though, it’s rare for historical events to have the same apparent importance at the time that they are assigned in the historian’s hindsight, not least because the everyday process of making a living and moving through the stages of human existence plays a larger role in most lives than the occasional tumults that make the history books.

This lesson needs to be kept in mind as we try to make sense of the implications of the crisis of industrial society, not least because it offers some protection against the common bad habit of projecting daydreams onto the inkblot patterns of the future. That habit of thinking is more than usually at issue in exploring the theme of this week’s post, the nature of daily life in the decades ahead of us.

The role of wishful thinking in driving the apocalyptic expectations so common in contemporary culture rarely shows itself so clearly as here. In the weeks leading up to the Y2K noncrisis, I knew quite a respectable number of people whose conviction that industrial civilization was about to undergo total collapse was all too clearly motivated by the belief that this meant that come January 1, 2000, they would no longer have to continue living the lives they had made for themselves. You’d think that the prospect of mass death would be a good deal more daunting than even the most humdrum modern existence, but it’s always part of the narrative of imminent apocalypse that dieoff only happens to other people; no matter how poorly suited the people in question were to the strenuous task of surviving the overnight collapse of a civilization, each one of them believed that they’d be among the lucky few.

The same sort of logic pervades certain corners of the peak oil scene. I’ve met far too many people who don’t know enough about plant care to keep a potted petunia healthy, and have very likely never put in an eight-hour day of hard physical labor in their lives – most middle class Americans haven’t, after all – and yet who nonetheless talk enthusiastically about the life they expect to lead in a self-sufficient rural lifeboat ecovillage as industrial civilization crashes into ruin a comfortable distance away. It’s all very reminiscent of the aftermath of the Sixties, when a great many people headed back to the land with equally high hopes; the vast majority of them straggled back to the cities a few months or years later with their hopes in shreds, having discovered that fantasies of the good life in nature’s lap make poor preparation for the hard work, unremitting discipline, and relative poverty of life as a subsistence farmer.

The would-be communards of the Sixties had an advantage not shared by their counterparts in the peak oil movement. Rural land was relatively cheap, and money was fairly easy to come by, not least because the counterculture scene always had a sprinkling of members with large trust funds who functioned as the sugar daddies of the movement. As the Summer of Love gave way to the summer of Altamont and the urban neighborhoods that nurtured hippie culture went to seed, communes in the countryside were a significant option, and a great many of them – I don’t know that a census was ever done, but there were certainly thousands – sprouted as a result.

That has not happened in the wake of peak oil. Partly, of course, it’s one thing to leave the city behind for a rural commune when you’re nineteen years old and can put all your worldly goods into a knapsack, with plenty of room left over for dreams; it’s quite another thing to do that when you’re forty and comfortably middle-class, with a family to support, a career to think of, and the prospect of retirement sufficiently visible on the horizon of your future that the impact of your choices on your pension is always somewhere in your thoughts. Today’s peak oil activists very often resemble the second of these categories a good deal more than the first, which goes a long way to explain the gaping difference between the number of lifeboat ecovillages that have gotten onto the drawing boards and the number of them that have actually been built.

Still, this is only one reflection of a much broader problem, which is that lifeboat ecovillages do not make economic sense in today’s world. However self-sufficient they may turn out to be in the deindustrial future their planners envision, they are anything but self-sufficient here and now, when they have to be built and paid for. Nor is it at all clear how soon they will become self-sufficient if the future turns out to be a gradual descent into the deindustrial age, rather than the sudden plunge so often imagined these days.

This is where the perspective I brought up at the beginning of this essay – the difference between history as read in retrospect, and history as lived at the time – becomes crucial. Seen in retrospect, the changes that will follow the decline of world petroleum production are likely to be sweeping and global. From the perspective of those who live through them, however, those changes are much more likely to take gradual and local forms. This will make them harder to notice, but paradoxically easier to meet.

Imagine, for example, a scenario in which worldwide production of conventional crude oil drops by an average of 5% a year, and other fossil fuels follow gradual depletion curves of their own. Especially at first, the gap can be offset with biofuels, tar sands, and other unconventional sources; yearly production totals for liquid fueld may even increase, though this won’t include an accounting of the fuel burnt to extract oil from tar sands or the petroleum products used to grow biofuel crops, and thus will hide the fact that there’s less energy available for other uses. The need to funnel an ever-increasing fraction of fuel into producing more fuel, coupled with expanding global population and the ongoing transfer of economic and political power from an aging American empire to its successors, will tend to drive fuel prices up; economic contraction driven by the twilight of cheap energy will tend to decrease demand, and drive them back down; factor in speculation, and you get wild gyrations in energy costs, coupled to cycles of economic boom and bust of an intensity not seen in the Western world since the nineteenth century.

All of this spells trouble, without a doubt. To rising energy prices and contracting economies, add the public health consequences of increasing poverty and the likelihood that the end of the American empire will result in wars as bloody and protracted as those that followed the decline of every other major commercial empire in recent history, and you get a recipe for massive change. I’ve argued in previous posts that these changes mark the first stage of the decline and fall of Western industrial civilization – the change from affluence industrialism to scarcity industrialism – and that it will be followed by further stages of contraction and social transformation, leading into a dark age several centuries long from which our successor societies will eventually emerge.

From the perspective of some future Edward Gibbon of the year 3650 or so, outlining The Decline and Fall of the American Empire as he strolls past sheep grazing on the mossy ruins of ancient Washington DC, all this will doubtless seem traumatic enough. For those who experience that transformation first hand, though, it will likely have a much different appearance. The young Parisienne whose image I invoked at the beginning of this essay, after all, did not go to sleep one night in the agrarian, half-feudal France of the Ancien Régime and wake up the next morning as a grandmother in the nascent industrial nation that France became in Napoleon’s wake. Even those changes in the interval that brought her grief – any sons she had, for example, would have faced high odds of dying a soldier’s death – would have been spread out over the years, part of a fabric of many other experiences.

Similarly, the unraveling of today’s industrial society can be expected to follow a similar tempo of change. If the scenario I’ve outlined above is anything close to the shape the future holds for us, we can expect to witness economic, social, and political turmoil beyond anything the industrial world has experienced in living memory. We will all be attending more funerals than we do nowadays, and our appearance as the guest of honor at one of them will likely come noticeably sooner than it otherwise would. Most of us will learn what it means to go hungry, to work at many different jobs, to have paper wealth become meaningless, and to watch established institutions go to pieces around us. A quarter century or so from now, the world may be a very different place, but on the way there each of us will have had to deal with the same unoriginal challenges of everyday life we face today.

The continuity of history as a lived experience imposes requirements on planning for the post-peak future that haven’t always been noticed. Like the imaginary lifeboat ecovillages that would make perfect economic sense in an imagined world, but can’t even scrape together the funding to get built in this one, a good many of the plans and projects that have been discussed as a response to peak oil make no provision for the fact that people will still have to live their lives and make a living while they wait for those projects to justify themselves. Those projects that make good practical sense here and now, or at least place no great burden on the people who choose to pursue them, will be a good deal more viable than those that can only support themselves in a radically different world than the one we inhabit. In the weeks to come I plan on sketching out some outlines of how such an approach to the future might be crafted.


green with a gun said...

Another good one. It's the sort of thing I try to keep in mind while contemplating various scenarios. For me, it's the practice of good gardening, or energy efficiency, "permaculture" if you like, or even simple evolution - find your niche and adapt to it.

As humans in a very industrialised society, we're accustomed to adapting the environment to suit ourselves, whereas animals have to find an environment which suits them, or adapt to a different one.

Relatively cheap energy and resources have allowed us to alter the environment, to live in places like the Sahara and Alaska as though we were living in Miami or Sevastapol.

Absent those cheap resources and energy, we'll have to move from those places, or else adapt to them. So this is why when people ask "where should I live to have a permaculture/post-peak lifestyle?", even though I know they're hinting at the lifeboat eco-village, I say, "begin where you are now."

If you cannot summon the interest and commitment to keep a tomato plant growing on your urban balcony, you will never eke a living from rural soil. If you cannot be bothered walking a mile to the shops, you are not getting up at 5 o'clock on a cold autumn morning to milk the cow. If you cannot cook a dinner from nothing but fresh vegetables bought from a market, you won't be able to cook one with fresh vegetables grown in your garden. If you cannot live a low-impact life in a city with all the resources of the community to help you - the public transport and libraries, the roads and clinics and markets - then you won't manage it out in the bush somewhere, where you have far less help to fall back on.

Begin where you are and make the best of it. The place and time to begin good change is right here and now.

Siobhan Blundell said...

Dear JMG, thanks for the post. I feel it is worth remembering, at this point and at all points in time, that the world is not just about the West - the Eastern Roman Empire carried for another millennium, didn't it?
I also find it interesting how the very words "dark age" invoke a feeling of gloom and dread - so for myself, I shall not be calling it that, I shall call it the age of re-thinking, and, lets be daring, the age of renewal. As you said once, the Renaissance followed the dark ages. Plus there can be pleasant surprises along the way - I am South African, if someone had said to me 30 years ago, that in 2008 we would have a democratic black government that had been fourteen years in place, I would not have believed that person at all. And yet here we are, with our second black president and our democracy is still going strong, despite the wobblies. And another plus - the Berlin Wall came down, that institution we surely can't regret.
I like your analogy of life being like a cloth we weave.
Thanks again

Peter said...

another in a series of wise, sobering posts-thank you! Contextual awareness would be one of the primary underlying themes in an appropriate educational system. And I love the rhythm-blackberry jam one week, Gibbon and Toynbee the next! As is often said (well, not often enough) 'we are the ones we've been waiting for'. My community's county fair (Brooklyn, CT) hosts what is claimed to be the "Oldest Agricultural Fair in the US"; it starts tomorrow, and I'm going with an entirely different perspective this year-meeting the people with life skills I'd do well to begin learning-maybe Ox-herding, and husbandry, will be a good start. Thanks again,

Gregory Wade said...

The challenges of maintaining multiple realities was a source of constant frustration, anger, depression, and anxiety for me. I simply had to abandon my "life," and personally, I've never been more alive. I now have purpose, take satisfaction from the product of my labor, and appreciate the dynamics and complexities of social interaction. Money has cheapened our existence, in my opinion, and the moment I abandoned its pursuit, and a number of its uses, was the moment I began to find my way.

Thanks for the weekly words of inspiration. I often see them reflected in the challenges of daily life. I look forward to reading "The Long Descent."

Bill Pulliam said...

You hit the nail on the head of a theme that comes up often in discussions lately. If people want to know what the "long decline," the "long emergency," or the "post-peak" world will be like, look around. This is it, we are in it already. Global petroleum supply may not have begun to decline, but it has been stalled for years; given increasing demand this is effectively the same as a decline. Lives of the rich and poor are being altered out of necessity to adapt to a changing food and energy picture. The global economy is slowing because of "high energy prices." This of course really means because of a shortfall in available energy, though you will not hear those words uttered by mainstream analysts; but, why else would energy prices be high enough to put the brakes on the global economy?The future is now. Sure there is worse to come, but this is what historical change looks like: a thousand small headlines, not one big one.

About the 70s back-to-the-landers... scattered throughout the world are survivors of these communities. Just here in middle Tennessee are two prominent ones I am familiar with: The Farm and Short Mountain Sanctuary. The history of both over the decades is a study in adaptability and pragmatism. The Farm is now a community, not a commune; Short Mountain has a communal core but many more associated people who live around it in an extended community (some have described it as the Short Mountain Faerie Metroplex). Neither even attempts to be food or energy self-sufficient anymore, though Short Mountain is off the grid. But they are still there, and include people with all manner of skills; communities like these are probably much better positioned to continue adapting and surviving in the coming decades than new "start up" communities founded on theory and ideology rather than hard-won experience.

Maeve said...

It seems to me that a great many of the Peak Oil Plans I read about, have at the root a sense of fear. I was in my early 20s for Y2K, and read a lot of things which really focused on preparing for the sudden collapse of society, for the ravening hordes of miscreants. I lacked the perspective a few more years of life has brought, and really did feel a deep fear, almost panic, that I wasn't going to be ready. I knew I lacked the resources to stock a bunker full of food and guns and seeds and blankets and medicine and on & on the list goes. It was quite crippling, on an emotional and spiritual level.

I am a bit concerned about the people who are stocking up many years' worth of goods in the face of Peak Oil, because they are investing in an unknown future, based on fear. It's one thing to learn how to grow and preserve food, as that is a useful skill to have regardless; but there comes a point where it takes on a resonance of panic and desperation.

I appreciate your gentle nudging of people towards things which keep us living in the now, and which help to negate the sense of fear which seems so pervasive throughout the world.

bryant said...

the difference between history as read in retrospect, and history as lived at the time

As you say JMG, this difference is crucial. But I find myself considering another problem with history - the problem of narrative fallacy.

In Nicholas Nasim Taleb's book, The Black Swan, he discusses this, using examples drawn from the marketplace. Such as Bloomberg giving "reasons" why the stock market went down or up today...sometimes the same reason is used for both movements during the course of the day.

Narrative fallacy results in us thinking up a reason why something occurred and is caused, I assume, by the "story-driven" way humans think - part-and-parcel to our need for myths.

My concern is that written history is also vulnerable to narrative fallacy. If we use history, and the analyses of historians as a guide, are we not risking narrative-future fallacies? The study of "History" at anything beyond the rote certainties of high school, is littered with controversies over the cause of even basic historical events.

How are we to pick the correct historical event on which to model our response to the impinging future...oh, and our lives depend on getting it right.

Is this where the "know many stories" comes in?

bryant said...


Interesting that you should mention failed communes from the sixties and seventies. Alpha Farm, just down the road from you, is one of the few survivors.

While that "living arrangement" may not be for everyone, the successes and travails at Alpha probably include some important "data points" about coping with the future.

Oh, and I am all for your comment policy. Is that new or have I been unobservant?

Noah Scales said...

Nice post, Mr. Greer.

You got me thinking about whether it's better to connect with like-minded people (in a commune), or model some more standard lifestyle (workaday guy in a high-rise apartment) while conserving energy and recycling waste. The latter provides an easier model to replicate than the former for most people, and is certainly more in line with other people's expectations of me.

Will be reading your suggestions for what to do with some interest!


John Michael Greer said...

Green, no argument there. As Ernest Thompson Seton used to say, "Where you are, with what you have, right now."

Siobhan, your democracy is going stronger than ours, so optimism may not be out of place. Of course you're right that decline and fall isn't a global process; my writing focuses on America, since that's where I live, and here the end of the industrial age seems likely to involve changes that the phrase "dark age" describes very well; other parts of the world will have other experiences, and in particular I suspect that once the rubble stops bouncing, the global South may find itself in much better shape than it's been in since the dawn of the age of European colonial empires. But we'll see.

Peter, enjoy the fair! Oxherding would be a first-rate skill to learn; oxen are a lot easier to manufacture and fuel than tractors, after all.

Gregory, money as a means to other ends can be useful; as an end in itself, it's a vampire that drains too many lives dry. Kudos to you for breaking out of that rut.

Bill, I certainly don't mean to dismiss the achievements of the handful of Sixties communities that made it -- far from it. I'm simply trying to challenge the current habit among many peak oilers of treating imaginary ecovillages as the only response worth discussing.

Maeve, good. The bunker mentality is probably the least useful response to the predicament we're facing -- in many ways, it's the classic consumer fantasy: buy enough of the right products and you'll survive. Doesn't work that way, but the fantasy's a powerful one.

Bryant, bingo -- history tells many stories, and one has to learn to see many possible historical equivalents for a given situation. As for the comment policy, since The Long Descent is hitting bookstore shelves and this blog may get a bit more readership, I figured it was time to get explicit about the rules I've been using to moderate posts. The rules haven't changed -- I've just written 'em down.

Frank said...

I credit The Archdruid Report with opening new avenues of perspective for me. Thank you.

Will Rodgers said, "Prophecy is risky business, especially when it is about the future." See Tor Norretrander, "The User Illusion" for more about the impossibility of accurately predicting the future. Genetics informs us of a near extinction of humans in the recent geologic past (maybe a reason we dwell on apocalypse?). I grant that history may inform us as to the most likely unfolding of the future, and your advice to prepare incrementally for the long haul is sound. However, it seems foolhardy to totally discount the possibility of significant discontinuities, eg. nuclear war, catastrophic geologic or astronomic events, war, famine, pestilence, etc... An emergency stash of necessities seems to be a part of sound planning.

JosephG said...

Once again your analysis has a good deal of validity if one focuses only on "peak oil", but when you add all the additional converging crises, a huge amount of uncertainty and perhaps unknowability enters the picture.

In keeping with this, I repeat, there are no historical parallels with the present situation - none - because nothing like this has ever happened before in our known history: a planet of what will be 7 billion or more people facing: peak oil, peak water, dying oceans, rapid depletion of topsoil/arable land and catastrophic climate change.

As for the immediate future, it seems reasonable to assume that unemployment is going to keep going up, so a lot of people are not going to have jobs anyway, so it is hard to understand what this:

"a good many of the plans and projects that have been discussed as a response to peak oil make no provision for the fact that people will still have to live their lives and make a living while they wait for those projects to justify"

means. As the economy continues to contract without end, a lot of people are not going to be able to "make a living", which is why a lot of people feel the need to at least try to create a lifeboat community or something.

In other words, the unrealistic dreamers do not invalidate everyone trying to create communities. What a lot of people sense is that we are going to need to reduce the population of the big cities, returning to small town life. What's wrong with people moving to a small town, buying a few acres and trying to create community?

Regards, Joseph

FARfetched said...

Good timing. I've lately been thinking along the lines of "screw it all, it's going to #3!! in a handbasket anyway, why worry about it?" But the handbasket has no wheels, so it scooches slowly along the ground. An impatient desire for the trip to be over already is perhaps another echo of the impatient world we live in.

OTOH, I expect a lot of "hurry up and wait" — there will be times when things seem to be hitting us from all sides all at once, then long stretches of what might be thought of as "new normal" until the next tsunami of crises rolls in.

John Michael Greer said...

Noah, either one's an option -- it's simply that making appropriate changes where you are right now is usually much more practical.

Frank, I don't discount the possibility of discontinuities, and a full pantry is always a good thing. My criticism was aimed at the "bunker mentality" that fixates on this ahead of anything else.

Joseph, repeating that the present situation is unique doesn't make it so. The combination of population pressure, ecological degradation, and resource shortfalls is actually a fairly common one in the twilight of civilizations. The present case differs in scale, but not in kind.

Of course unemployment in the market economy is going to increase. That doesn't mean that people will be released from the necessity of making a living one way or another, whether that involves earning money, growing food, or something else; it means that making a living is going to get harder. As for heading out into the country, you're missing my point -- if you have the money and, more importantly, the skills needed for that very demanding task, go ahead; if not, daydreams of rural life will not keep you fed.

Farfetched, good point! The sheer annoyance value of a slow decline may be a major reason why so many people cling to fantasies of a fast crash.

Isis said...

JMG, you said:

"You’d think that the prospect of mass death would be a good deal more daunting than even the most humdrum modern existence, but it’s always part of the narrative of imminent apocalypse that dieoff only happens to other people; no matter how poorly suited the people in question were to the strenuous task of surviving the overnight collapse of a civilization, each one of them believed that they’d be among the lucky few."

It's a funny thing, ain't it? There are so many people on the PO scene predicting that a sequence of untold horrors will unfold in their and/or their children's lifetimes. These people always seem to implicitly assume that the said lifetimes would last some 70 years or more. But if massive carnage and/or starvation and/or epidemic erupts in, say, five years, then there's an excellent chance that they'll see no such sequence of horrors for the very simple reason that the first horror in the sequence would quite possibly kill them.

John Michael Greer said...

Isis, that's one of the reasons why I tend to describe that sort of Grand Guignol fantasy of imminent megadeath as a Hollywood fantasy. I always get the sense, when listening to one of the people who offers that vision of the future, that once the dying is over they expect to walk out of the theater and go on with their lives.

Gary Near Death Valley said...

At the present time........I am 62 years of age, having passed another birthday May 27th. If I close my eyes, lean back, and bring up memories...............I can still recall my first day of elementry school in it were yesterday. The same for other times of my life, just as I am sure everyone can do, but do not think too much along those lines.

Your comments about history "The Tempo of Change", hits very close to me, as many a days I have sat under the clouds overhead, and reflected on this life, what purpose it held, and what purpose it still holds.

And as I lay on my deathbed in the year 2034 (that is a long story itself), I am sure I will still reflect on what life had to give, both the upside and the downside of life,,,,,,,,and I will have been so grateful to partake of it all........until the next time!

dragonfly said...

I think we are already in a dark age. By that I mean regardless of how much information we have available at our fingertips, many choose empty or toxic diversions rather than read history, philosophy, or even view samples of great art.
It's not helpful to blame teachers or schools when a bloated government coupled with ludicrous piles of paperwork and labyrinths of bureaucracy hobble even the most sincere educators.
Of course we can't see history unfolding.

Bill Pulliam said...

Having spent the last week slogging in mud trying to get our drinking water spring back up a flow that will power our ram pump effectively (dang crawdads...), and canning tomatoes like a madman trying to get a year's supply plus extras put away before something (anything, there are so many possibilities) cuts the season short, I can second all your sentiments about living intimately on the land NOT being the picnic in the park envisioned by so many suburban dreamers. Like many intimate relationships, there can be quite a bit of shouting at times...

And all this WITH the advantage of PVC pipe, cheap (for now) on-grid TVA electricity, and the cornucopia of retail goods available just a short gasoline-powered drive down the government-maintained road. We have no comprehension of what this might really be like in a few generations... none at all. The end of the petroleum era sounds so lovely in the abstract if you are a greenie.. but the reality of having all these things that even the greenest of us in the developed world rely on always and everywhere, disappearing one by one (the nine billion names of petroleum), THAT is a whole nuther kettle of fish.

John Michael Greer said...

Gary, one of these days when I get tired of having readers -- I don't imagine anybody will slog through it -- I'll post some comments on the nature and importance of memory. Put it down to too much study of Giordano Bruno's mnemonic treatises, maybe.

Dragonfly, I'd be tempted to agree with you, except that people in every single century from which we have written records made exactly the same complaints about the people of their time. I forget which classical writer went on at length about how kids nowadays drink too much, play loud music, drive their chariots too fast, and aren't interested in learning a thing. As for this being a dark age, well, depends on your definition; what I see coming is a good deal worse than what we've got these days.

Bill, I see I have to be careful about reading your comments when drinking tea. The Nine Billion Names of Petroleum, indeed! But of course you're right; next to nobody alive today in the industrial world actually knows how to get by in an energy-poor world, and the process of figuring that out may be a very rough one indeed.

Danby said...

Someone took a survey a few years ago as to the greatest inventions in tech history, I think the computer came in first. My answer was the centrifugal water pump. Nothing has done so much to improve the nutrition, hygiene and health of people around the world. Without the water pump civilization as we know it would come to a screeching halt, millions would starve, and sewage-borne disease would ravage the populace.

What will we do when PVC for pipes might as well be Feinman's mythical "unobtainium"? That's the kind of question that needs a practical answer, and it's just the sort of question you have to spend a week or two dealing with a broken water system to even realize the existence of.

Good luck with your ram. Here in the NW, we've had more rain in a week than we usually do from July-September.

Christine Lydon said...

In response to Noah Scales and Jospehg

- Noah, the third option, apart from trying to "connect with like-minded people (in a commune), or model some more standard lifestyle (workaday guy in a high-rise apartment) while conserving energy and recycling waste", is to live a non-standard lifestyle in your high rise and connect with all the non-like-minded people around you. This is of course far more challenging. Your community is what already exists around you, weak and fragile as it's relationships may be. Your best option is to nurture it.

- Joseph there is a lot wrong with "people moving to a small town, buying a few acres and trying to create community". There will already be a community in that small town, you won't need to create one, and you might cause resentment if you try to do so, as a newcomer. Plus there aren't enough small towns for everyone in the cities to move to them!

Sharon Astyk has written about this (her blog on 5 Aug 08, 10 Jun 08). I know other bloggers have written on the theme too, but I can't remember where I read it.

Building community where you are with people you wouldn't choose if you could choose, takes patience and time. but as the theme this week points out, there is more time than we often imagine.

The North Coast said...

The entire concept of ecovillages has always amused me, and I'm distrustful of the idea that the best adaption possible to the viccitudes of the oil drawdown is to abandon our largest cities in favor of small towns and the agrarian life.

I confess that I'm probably less likely than others to make a happy adaption to a really radical reordering of our lives as the resources crunch tightens in earnest, yet there is no question that one of our most important tasks will be to keep our largest cities liveable and orderly, while rendering them progressively less dependent upon massive energy imputs. The difficulties of this are very obvious, yet the alternative is unthinkable.

We have to accept that we are not going to be able to revert to a pretechnological lifeway even should we think we really want to, and we're certainly not going to be able to accomodate our swollen population at rural densities without creating much more waste and more rapid resource depletion.

We must work with what we have, and use our most advanced and efficient technologies to steeply reduce fuel use and waste. I'm a little appalled at the readiness some people have to write off the internet, for so much is possible on the net that could steeply reduce our fuel use in the near term, and otherwise replace wasteful practices and technologies. On the micro level, I have managed to reduce my personal electric consumption to 100KwH a month and also reduced the space my life takes,by using a laptop with its miniscule consumption and tiny physical footprint to replace my land line phone, my stereo set and old music collection, my mail (no postage and paper wasted on bill pay and written docs), my document storage, and business conferences. You hear that Google's servers need so many Gigawatts of power, yet if our business concerns replace business travel and in-person conferences (air travel, conference rooms,hotel rooms, rented cars, wear and tear on the exec) with vid conferencing on a massive scale, does not the huge amount of fuel and other physical resources saved constitute a massive offset that way more than makes up for the server consumption that is meanwhile serving so many other useful purposes so economically?

The thoughtful use of "trailing edge" technologies that are more economical and "scaleable", that you discussed in previous posts, will also be very necessary.

But in no case will a mass reversion to the wasteful practices and techniques of the distant past rescue us from the consequences of overpopulation, and a dominant lifestyle that demands high energy inputs. Wood stoves come immediately to mind as a traditional technology that is not only not a solution, but a massive potential problem- how many heating seasons would it take for every last tree and shrub (and piece of wood furniture)on the North American continent to be consumed in tens of millions of heating stoves?

We are going to have to carefully think through every thing we do here on out, but it is obvious already that any "adjustment" that requires making radical and immediate top-down changes in the lives of hundreds of millions of people, and includes the movement of large fractions of them for one place to the other, is going to be not only an expensive failure, but will produce worse resource problems than we already have, as well as social disorder on a scale even Revolutionary France couldn't imagine.

JosephG said...

To John, farfetched,

I think what a lot of people want to do is at least try to create a life where they can reduce their ecological footprint as much as possible.
Remember John, you live in Ashland, a very nice place. I have spent time there and may be returning. At any rate, I really like Oregon and will be moving back.
So John, imagine if you and your wife were struggling to survive in some big city or some ghastly place like...say... Daly City - an urban wasteland if ever there was one! Your pov might be quite different. In other words, you too might be railing against such a sterile, deadening existence.

So, the fact that a lot of sensitive people want "an end" to such a ghastly life and would like to at least try to create a life that has more dignity, and more connection with the natural world, doesnt necessarily mean that they desire apocalypse.

Life in a big, toxic, entropy-saturated, over-crowded city tends to suck bigtime. And so it is understandable that people are seeking alternatives. Regards, Joseph

yooper said...

Outstanding article John! I especially liked your thoughts of people thinking that they'd be excluded from die-off. One thing about change John, is that people cannot change overnight either. Perhaps, those who may be best prepared to adjust in a life of decline are those who have lived, experienced and prepared along this line their entire lives...Just what percentage would you estimate the population on the North American continent that have done so? Wouldn't this kind of be like your sixty's movemnet of people who just couldn't succeed?

Danby, perhaps the greatest invention of tech history was when electricity was produced from real energy, converting that power into a more useable medium. Electricity powers our society... Without it most water pumps are useless, as are pc's. This point actually defines the "modern industrail civilization". It's actually this "energy transformation" that enabled our society to grow such as it has... Without it, it's very likely the global population would have stayed on the same projection (and we would not be having this discussion today).

Back to John, as for comparisions. In my lifetime, we've experienced more technological advances, than what this civilization (I'm wording this carefully, and not using "humanity") has experienced in what the last 10,000 or so years, combined.....That is, there was not much difference in the wheel in 5,000 years ago and what it was only going back 200..

Changes were small and took a good deal of time, back then.(Gee, the world was such a big place back then). The "tempo of change" is much more profound and accelerated today, compared to your young Parisienne, back in her day.

To contemplate what the consquences in the future might be, in a permenate energy decline, I would think it would accelerate down as fast, as it was brought on...Looking in the rearview mirror, so to speak. Assuming that, that would be the best case scenario, agreed? This is what I got from the last part of the essay.... But when I read some of the comments here I'm getting,

"Naw, it aint gonna happen to me"...

Thanks, yooper

JosephG said...


I wonder if we are just getting trapped in semantics here. What I am saying is that since the scale is unprecedented, then the situation is, by definition, unprecedented and...unique.

All of the examples you or anyone can site are examples of local collapse, and what we are facing is global collapse.

Neither the Mayans or the Romans or anyone else was involved in altering the biosphere on the scale happening now. Were the Mayans killing the oceans via carbon acidification?

So again, almost everyone here is focusing almost exclusively on Peak Oil, where incremental, linear descent applies.
but when we start talking about climate change tipping points, then we enter the realm of rapid, non-linear change. For example,


or just google James Lovelock and read his "The Revenge of Gaia."

And, if someone is going to say that the above - and people like James Hansen - are just "all wrong" I would reject this as irrational bias.

What I am arguing against John is this straw-man narrative that says that anyone who sees the possibility of drastic, non-linear change is doing so for unconscious or irrational reasons.

And the only reason i bring this up is because this narrative of incremental, linear change is lulling people to sleep, seducing them into thinking that what's ahead isnt really going to be that bad.
When the idea of tipping points is taken into account, such as the runaway melting of the Greeland icesheet and thr runaway deforestation of the Amazon, it is not hard to imagine scenarios such as Lovelock's developing.


Yes, I read Sharon's post on the subject. That doesnt change the fact that we have to reduce the population density of cities and have more people involved in labor-intensive agriculture, as per Richard Heinberg.

With intermittant electricity becoming more and more the norm in the future, I do not see how high-rises are going to be a viable living option.

So some people might start communities AND others might join existing ones in small towns and rural areas AND some of the population will stay in the big cities.

Look, it is obvious that there is no easy solution to the number one problem - overpopulation. Yes, there will be a die-off. Yes, people and nations will compete and kill for resources.

But I do not personally know anyone who contemplates all of this who denies the possibility that they might be one of the ones to die. I do not personally know anyone who has some romatic idea about what life is going to be like in the future.

Regards to all, Joseph

John Michael Greer said...

Dan, thanks for a solid practical point. Clearly I need to learn more than I currently do about water systems.

Christine, well put. I do think there is room for some outmigration from the largest metropolitan areas, but rural regions aren't the best goal for that -- smaller cities in agricultural regions, many of which have a lot fewer people than they did in the recent past, make good locations. I suspect some of today's Rust Belt cities may become much more prosperous once the global economy comes unraveled and their old role as manufacturing and market centers for the heartland becomes relevant once again.

North Coast, I'd point out that "advanced" and "efficient" are not synonyms. Quite a bit of recent tech is "efficient" only because it uses cheap energy to replace expensive skilled labor; when energy is no longer cheap, its efficiency goes away. As for your comments on the internet, well, my guess is that neither it (in its current form) nor easy long-distance travel will be sustainable for long; thus my interest in radio, which can do many of the same things with much less energy and infrastructure.

Joseph, if people want to find alternatives to inner city life -- and I lived in inner city neighborhoods in an urban region of 2 million or so for more than two decades -- that's fine, but it's also off topic here. The question we're discussing is whether rural ecovillages are a viable solution to the problems raised by the emerging crisis of industrial society, and that's another issue entirely.

Yooper, I'm less than convinced that the fact that we have many more technological toys today than people in previous generations had means that the pace of change is actually that much faster than it was in, say, 1800. In terms of changes to everyday life, a strong case can be made that the 19th century was the peak of change in the western world, and the 20th has mostly been coasting on earlier achievements.

Joseph, no, it's not just semantics. You're insisting that a difference in scale is by definition a difference in kind; I'm disagreeing with that. The environmental damage caused by Mayan misuse of their ecology was just as devastating to their society, given the geographical scale and technological resources they had to work with, as our current set of problems will be to ours, given the scale on which our civilization operates.

I'm quite familiar with the worst case scenarios of global warming you've cited. You, in turn, are doubtless aware that the majority of climatologists -- including researchers who are convinced of the reality of anthropogenic global warming and argue that we're in for a very rough time -- disagree with the extreme views you've cited. Given that fact, don't you think it's a bit arrogant to insist that anybody who disagrees with the apocalyptic scenarios you've cited is simply guilty of "irrational bias"?

If you'll take the time to read back through the archives on this blog, you'll find that I have been talking all along about the wider crisis of industrial society, of which peak oil is only one aspect, and you'll also find that nonlinear tipping points have been discussed here at some length. Of course there will be sudden and damaging changes -- but the plausible emergence of nonlinear changes does not justify claims of overnight total collapse.

Finally, you've objected to my pointing out that the narrative you're presenting -- imminent catastrophe from which the only escape is rural refuges for the few -- has been rehashed endlessly since the late 19th century, with every imaginable catastrophe filling the starring role.

My logic is the same as that of the people who pointed out, when the housing market went zooming upwards, that the same rhetoric ("it's going to keep going up forever!") had been applied to hundreds of other asset classes in the past, starting with tulips in 17th century Holland, and in every case the result had been a bubble followed by a crash. In the same way, when the same narrative gets applied to everything from Halley's comet and nuclear warfare to the Y2K problem and peak oil, sooner or later it's time to look past the ostensible issues and ask why this same set of claims keeps getting rehashed. I quite understand that believers in the current set of apocalyptic claims find this unwelcome, but that hardly makes it inappropriate; people who buy into speculative bubbles find it just as unwelcome when somebody points out that their bubble will end the same way the last dozen did.

Noah Scales said...

Christine, John, thank you both for suggesting that I start where I am. Green, your point about interest and commitment is well taken.

Changes that depend on cooperation, agreement, approval, or assistance from people in my life include reducing my use of: disposable plastics, electricity-powered appliances, fashionable clothes, air travel, home heating, computer standby (versus off) time, bottled water, incandescent bulbs, driving (as passenger - I bike/bus), commercial,nonlocal grain, nuts, and produce. Until others in my life get on board, my reductions in those areas remain intermittent or incomplete. By changing communities, or distancing myself from my current one, I can make those changes. The cost to me is personal. The alternative is to engage with others for further reductions (with multiplicative benefits if I am successful) or accept what reductions are enabled for me now.

Joseph, die-offs are not inevitable. For example, unexpectedly swift rise in sea levels mid-century could drown Bangladesh, creating a global environmental refugee crisis. Over here in California, I'll be insulated from the crisis regardless of how America responds to it. Meanwhile, there's immigrant Mexicans taking jobs in my town. Should I be glad that their families will be as safe as I am, or be angry that they reduce my safety by contributing to the population of my town? If I'm angry, I contribute to the Mexican immigrant's troubles. likewise if I fear the Bangladeshis and urge my government to turn away Bangladeshi refugees. My anger or my fear could contribute to a potential immigrant's "die off".

If I live in the country, accepting that city dwellers *must* die off is not a requirement. For example, maybe high rises can be designed, even retrofit, to use natural light for internal lighting, and sunlight for internal heating, but not if those in the know don't raise a fuss about it.

jewishfarmer said...

Another lovely post, John. The realities of historical compression were in large part what I was getting at during the fast crash post I wrote some time ago (and that we discussed at some length) - that history doesn't feel lived, as it reads. I'm rather fascinated (and some of my doctoral dissertation about) the question of how history feels experienced, and to what degree even direct personal memory allows us to recount the experience of living history, since our memories are so inevitably shaped by the project of narrative.

I think your most compelling insight is the simple recognition that if a resource can't support people in the current stage of the crisis, it won't support them as things get deeper and darker either. It isn't just that the transition takes time, and that the deeper into it you get, the fewer resource we have to make massive changes, it is that we need to be able to stand in two worlds. I generally talk about this standing in two places in terms of the formal and informal economies - the need to place a food firmly in the informal (and larger) economy as well as maintaining our ties to the formal one as long as possible. But it is also possible (and fascinating to me - thank you for the insight) to imagine it as standing simultaneously in two historical perceptions, both fully accurate. In one, things are changing rather rapidly - this is the history of heightened awareness experienced by most peak-aware people. The other is the perception of dailyness. One perception may dominate - the peak oil aware person may come to see all events as vast portents, the unaware may see the gradual shifts of daily history as almost imperceptible, when they are actually quite vast. Both are versions of truth (and there are others, obviously), and how to balance them - how to live in history - becomes of course, the central question.



jmy said...

I feel the short term effects of Climate Change (drought) and Peak Oil will show up in food production, mainly grain production, along with the cost of transporting food.

So I am looking for communities that can feed itself (water/soil) with not much fossil fuel use.

Have not found much .....too many people for the food consumed

JosephG said...


You write,

"...don't you think it's a bit arrogant to insist that anybody who disagrees with the apocalyptic scenarios you've cited is simply guilty of "irrational bias"?"

Unfortunately, that is not what I said. I said those who might claim that some of the most pre-eminent climate scientists in the world are "all wrong" would be guilty of "irrational bias."

Risk assessment, John, is factored by multiplying probability times consequences. Thus, since the consequences of wrecklessly, drastically altering the biosphere are huge, the worst-case scenarios must be included prominently in the probabilisitc mix.

I would also question your use of the loaded framing phrase "apocalyptic scenario" and ask why you dont use the more precise "worst-case scenario." You dont see me using the term "pollyannish" for best-case scenario.
You write,

"but the plausible emergence of nonlinear changes does not justify claims of overnight total collapse."

I did not ever use the phrase "overnight total collapse", and once again, this represents you reframing my words into a strawman argument that you can easily flame, and if you notice, my overarching question to you is, "what's up with that; why do you have this need to do this?

The point, John, is that no one knows when such a tipping point could be reached. It might not happen for 30 years, or, it could happen in 5. Again, prudent risk assessment dictates that the worst-case scenario be prominently factored into the equation.

You write,

"Finally, you've objected to my pointing out that the narrative you're presenting -- imminent catastrophe from which the only escape is rural refuges for the few..."

I never said "imminent catastrophe" in the sense that is is definitely, absolutely going to happen tomorrow. I simply assumed that since you are aware of the research, as you have stated, then you know that no one knows when such a drastic, non-linear tipping point might be reached.

In other words, though the probability of it happening in say 2 years might be low, no one knows because there is no precendent for human alteration of the biosphere on this scale in our known history.
Again, risk assessment demands that the worst-case scenario be given prominence in such a case where one is gambling with unknowns on such a scale.

Nor did I say or imply "imminent catastrophe from which the only escape is rural refuges for the few..."
I simply restated the ideas of people like Richard Heinberg and James Howard Kunstler, that we need to revitalize small town life, relocalize and have a larger percentage of the population involved in labor intensive agriculture, in contradistinction to fossil fuel intensive agriculture.
Since I am dealing with a blog written by and vistied by very informed people, I simply thought such ideas were "old hat." I apologize for not being more explicit.

Regards to all, Joseph

John Michael Greer said...

Noah, of course relocation can be an option -- I'd be silly to deny that, as my spouse and I did just that four years ago. It's purely the fantasy of the rural eco-Levittown that I'm trying to get away from in this discussion.

Sharon, that's an excellent point. The experience of living in two worlds at once is something that the old initiatory traditions cultivated, for a variety of reasons. It's certainly something that can be usefully practiced in this context as well.

Jmy, a lot depends on where you are and what you have in mind. I can think of some small cities in Iowa that would meet your criteria by any stretch of the imagination.

Joseph, we could easily get into a "you said/you said" debate, here but that seems counterproductive to me. The irony here, and it's a rich one, is that for every person like you who unloads on me because I don't accept scenarios of sudden collapse, there's someone who unloads on me because I don't accept their scenarios of salvation through technology. It seems to me that as long as I'm taking equal amounts of flak from both sides, I must be doing something right.

The word "apocalyptic," by the way, isn't simply a buzzword. It's a specific reference to the way that modern, and allegedly secular, theories of collapse rehash the symbols and narratives of traditional religious apocalyptic. I quite understand that you find this sort of reference unwelcome. Still, if it looks like a duck...

Elizabeth said...

Hello, JMG.

Thanks for pointing out that doesn’t proceed at the same pace for those who live it and for those who study it after the fact, even when the outcome is really bad. England was arguably the worst place to be in after the fall of the Western Roman Empire as britto-roman civilisation was virtually eradicated, yet it took time and that Gildas’ jeremiads notwithstanding, no britto-roman aristocrat ever realised his world was collapsing. A britto-roman born in the West Country when the Romans left in 410 would have been already old by the standard of the time when the Saxons (well, the Jutes in fact) began to be more than mercenaries … at the other end of the country. Her daughter would have been a grand-mother when a local warlord called Cerdic (well, probably Caradoc) took over the area and the game would not be over before 577, almost two century after the “end” of Roman Britain.

And of course anybody trying to set up a refuge community in 410 would just have made a fool of himself, as would have somebody trying to expel the still mostly loyal Germanic settler. In fact such an attitude would probably have hastened the disaster – discriminating against immigrants is the best way to make sure they don’t integrate into the social mainstream.

Yet, I remember a time when the Soviet Union dominated half of Europe and China was just an oversized third world country. While I agree that the rise of China was a progressive phenomenon the importance of which we realised only in retrospect, the fall of the Soviet Union did happen almost overnight, as did the disintegration of Yugoslavia. True, it was the result of a long maturation but at the moment everybody was surprised.

So while I agree that decline is a slow, progressive, process and that apocalyptic fantasies are just fantasies, its manifestation can be quite brutal.

Librarian of Hillman said...

"I forget which classical writer went on at length about how kids nowadays drink too much, play loud music, drive their chariots too fast, and aren't interested in learning a thing."

JMG--you might be thinking of this, generally attributed to Hesiod, when not confused with something from Plato/Socrates:

I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words... When I was young, we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly disrespectful and impatient of restraint.


but what i really wanted to add to this discussion, was that there is at least one way in which it is maybe a good and useful thing to stock up on supplies, if you can, whatever community you may be a part of--call it the "Anti-Bunker" mentality, maybe:

if you are putting something by with the intent to share it with anyone you find in need around you in whatever temporary or chronic shortage situation may occur, you are laying a ground-work for how you and those others will deal with that hardship.

if anything scary should happen, even just a flood or storm when no help will come from outside, having something extra on hand to share, will not only help you and your Sudden Tribe survive, it may also help in some small way to foster the kind of co-operation and generosity and trust that can spiral outward, and maybe even counter the kind of fear or aggression or panic that the PO "horders" are expecting (and which can't be kept forever at bay with guns or whatever they are thinking anyway.)

whenever i add some more rice or beans or whatever to my small-but-growing "just in case" pantry, i do so with no expectation that i will be the only person to benefit from it, should some temporary, regional upset hit my smallish city.

it isn't for me, it is for whatever "us" i may find around me.

hopefully at least some of my neighbors will have thought similarly, and together we can get everyone around us through any shorter-term crises that may come, as the slow decline progresses.

this may not matter so much in a rural, isolated environment, but in any town or city of any size, there are going to be people who are blind-sided by events from time to time and apt to panic, and maybe then to behave badly towards others. i hope to meet anyone around me in such a circumstance with help and comfort, however small, and not with hostility or fear.

as usual, great essay. thanks.

Degringolade said...

Nicely crafted, nicely done.


Hypatia said...

Thanks for another great post John, they always get me thinking! I really enjoy the commentors as well, they often have good ideas or approaches to the problems (conundrums?) you posit. I don't comment too much myself, but I'm a dedicated reader!

Iconoclast421 said...

The reason there haven't been many "lifeboat ecovillages" built is because they are redundant. If things descend so rapidly that we actually need them, then those that do exist will most certainly be destroyed in the chaos. Only a fool would waste their time with it.

No matter what happens, short of an extinction, there is going to be many tens of millions of barrels a day of oil production. That is more than enough fuel to run industrial agriculture. I still do not understand why industrial ag gets so much scorn. Aside from the chemical runoff, GMO, and transport network inefficiencies, industrial ag is a gift to humanity. I go into this in detail in my latest blog post.

At any rate, it is the yuppies with their SUVs and constant incessant consumerism and all their other fuel wasting spiritually bankrupt activities that are the primary drag on oil supplies. And they are wiping themselves out at an impressive rate.

Of course they will incite world war 3 before they're ready to admit they waste too much. And the fallout of that will wipe out enough consumers of oil that whoever survives will enjoy a new era of plenty... one where the new world order government regulates their every action to ensure that WWIII is the final war. Humanity will continue to be slave to oil for a good long time...

I just don't see the point in thinking about returning to some form of lesser civlization. There is no going back. It will not ever happen. Either we move forward, or we die off. If we all cannot move forward, we die off until enough of us are dead that the remainder can move forward. Into the future. Towards a new world order, a matrix prison, or a global consciousness awakening. Who knows. I don't. But I know we aren't going back.

Seven Star Hand said...

Hi John,

There's much more to this unfolding story. Be a little patient to understand the truth and then hold their feet to the fire!

This is the long awaited opportunity to finally "kill the beast" and kick all the bums out, forever. Read what I have been saying for insights into another way to manage this civilization, without money and without evil cabals running this world. The keys to a "New Earth" are wisdom and cooperation, not the fears and follies of the past.

Here is Wisdom...