Wednesday, September 03, 2008

The Post-Petroleum Job Ads

The mismatch between the narratives of sudden apocalypse that shape so much of today’s debate about the future, on the one hand, and the sluggish pace at which the predicament of industrial society unfolds in the real world, on the other, found a poster child of sorts last weekend. During the days of uncertainty before Hurricane Gustav’s arrival on the Louisiana coast, some enthusiastic soul posted claims to the peak oil newsblog The Oil Drum that the hurricane would bring industrial civilization itself crashing down in ruins.

I was pleased to note that this announcement seems to have fallen on unsympathetic ears. The Oil Drum’s forte is shrewd technical analysis, and its staff – if I may so describe the loose association of regular posters and commenters who give that excellent site its tone and direction – set aside such speculations and did their usual exemplary job, mapping out the oil platforms and refineries likely to be affected by Gustav and posting damage estimates that turned out to be fairly close to the picture now emerging on the ground. Gustav was a moderately strong storm; it forced the evacuation of nearly every offshore and coastal petroleum facility in the Gulf of Mexico, causing substantial short-term production losses; the long-term effects of the storm will not be clear for weeks, but all by itself, $30 billion or so in estimated damage piled atop an already faltering economy will certainly have an impact.

The difference between the fantasy of sudden collapse and the reality of one more localized jolt piling additional burdens on a stumbling society is well worth keeping in mind. Like the proverbial frog in the saucepan, those who think of apocalyptic collapse as the only way industrial civilization can break down are far less likely to notice the gradual changes in their environment that are leading in the same direction, just more slowly. It’s as though, to shift stories, the boy who cried wolf was convinced that immense armies of wolves would suddenly swoop down and eat up all the sheep in the world at once, and mistook every whistle of wind in the trees for the distant howling of the wolf pack to end all wolf packs; meanwhile, practically under his nose, real wolves – scruffy, undersized, and quite depressingly few in number compared to the massed uber-wolves of the fantasy – were picking off a sheep or two each day from the fringes of the flock.

As both these metaphors suggest, the fixation on sudden collapse has practical disadvantages. If you’re a frog in a saucepan, and the only idea of heat you’re willing to consider involves all the water in the saucepan suddenly flashing into steam, you probably won’t jump while your legs are still uncooked enough to do so; if you’re guarding sheep from wolves, and groups of wolves numbering fewer than fifty are beneath your notice, your sheep are going to be eaten. In the same way, there are plenty of practical steps that can be taken here and now by individuals, that will likely make the slow unraveling of industrial society much less horrific than it might otherwise be. Most of those steps would be, or at least appear to be, irrelevant in the face of sudden global catastrophe, and in fact it’s not uncommon to find believers in some such catastrophe dismissing these practical steps in exactly those terms.

Mind you, there are other reasons why those steps are easy to dismiss. Every one of them has a price tag of some sort, denominated in money, labor, comfort, convenience, or unimpeded access to the smorgasbord of distractions today’s industrial civilization offers its inmates. By contrast, our culture’s two dominant narratives about the future – the narrative of apocalypse and its twin and shadow, the narrative of inevitable progress – are popular at least in part because they push the necessity and the costs of change onto somebody else: the “they” who are expected to think of something just in time to keep progress on track, for example, or the supposedly faceless billions who are expected to hurry up and die en masse so that the flag of some future utopia can be pitched atop their graves.

I’ve talked about some of the steps in question already on this blog, but today I’d like to turn to something a bit different from those previous discussions: the question of how people will make a living during the long unraveling of the industrial age.

That’s a question that has received surprisingly little attention in recent years, and a good deal of that neglect, I think, can be laid at the door of the apocalyptic narrative. According to that narrative, after all, nothing much changes until everything does; you keep on punching the timeclock at your present job until the day that civilization falls apart, and then, if you happen to be among the survivors, you step into whatever new role the apocalypse has ordained for you – subsistence farmer, tribal hunter-gatherer, protein source for the local cannibal population, or what have you. At the same time, the absence of a 9-to-5 routine on the far side of apocalypse is likely to be an important source of the narrative’s popularity; I’m far from the only person who noticed, during the runup to the Y2K noncrisis, how many people predicting imminent doom seemed exhilarated by the notion that they would not have to go to work on January 2, 2000.

If I’m right and the descent into the deindustrial future unfolds over generations, though, that enticing prospect is not in the cards. Rather, the vast majority of us will need to earn our livings in a world that, while it will be changing around us, is extremely unlikely to change in ways that will make that process any easier than it is now. During the period I’ve described in other posts as the age of scarcity industrialism, something like today’s money economy will likely remain firmly in place, though the household economy and other forms of production and exchange outside the money economy will likely play a steadily growing role. During the age of salvage economies that I expect to follow the twilight of the industrial system, money of some sort will likely remain in use on a small scale, as it does in most dark ages, but most day-to-day transactions will take place via barter or other systems of exchange outside the money economy; again, that’s standard practice in dark ages. In both periods, though, people will work for their livings – and will likely work a good deal harder than many Americans do today.

Nor will their jobs be the same as the ones that employ most Americans nowadays. The flood of cheap abundant energy that surged through the industrial world during the twentieth century reshaped every dimension of the economy in its image, and nearly all the things we have grown up considering normal and natural are artifacts of that highly abnormal and unnatural state of affairs. Very few people in the industrial world today spend their workdays producing goods or providing necessary services; instead, pushing paper has become the standard employment, and preparation for a paper-pushing career the standard form of education. The once-mighty archipelago of trade schools that undergirded the rise of America as an industrial power sank with barely a trace in the second half of the twentieth century. I once lived three blocks away from the shell of one such school; it had been engulfed by a community college, and classrooms that once hummed with the busy noises of machine-shop equipment and the hiss of hot solder were being used to train a new generation of receptionists, brokers, and medical billing clerks

The postindustrial economy proclaimed by Daniel Bell many years ago, and accepted as an accurate description of economic reality since then, was never much more than a shell game. The societies of the industrial world were every bit as dependent on industry as they had ever been; they simply exported the industries to Third World countries where labor was cheap and environmental regulation nonexistent, and continued to reap the benefits back home. Those arrangements only worked, however, because cheap abundant energy made transport costs negligible, and systematic distortions in patterns of exchange pumped wealth from the Third World to a handful of industrial nations, providing the latter with the wherewithal to pay a very large fraction of their populations to do jobs that don’t actually need to be done. As energy becomes scarce and expensive again, and the imperial systems that concentrated the world’s wealth in a minority of nations are shredded by the rise of new centers of power, those arrangements will break down. As that happens, a great many goods and necessary services now done offshore will need to be done at home once again, and a great many professions that produce no goods and provide no necessary services will likely drop off the economic map.

Prophecy is a risky business at the best of times, but it’s worth hazarding some guesses about the jobs that will fill the post-petroleum job ads here in America over the next generation or so, through the years of the Great Recession and the disintegration of America’s overseas empire. Farmers are among the most likely candidates for the top of the list. By this I don’t mean subsistence farmers in rural ecovillages – their time is much further in the future, if it ever comes at all. Rather, market farmers tilling what is now suburban acreage to feed the dwindling cities, and rural farmers producing grains and other bulk crops for foreign exchange, will likely be in high demand, along with support professions such as agronomists.

Engineers form another set of trades likely to do well in the generation to come, especially those who know their way around energy production and distribution and the design, building, and maintenance of low-tech transportation networks. In the not too distant future, rail and canal transport will have to take over much of the work now done by trucks, and energy networks will have to cope with a fractious mix of alternative resources, dwindling fossil fuels, and massive conservation programs. The people who actually put the plans of engineers into effect, from skilled machinists all the way down to the gandy dancers who lay the rails, will also be able to count on steady paychecks.

Another suite of professions likely to do well barely exists today, though demolitions experts, junkyard workers, and people who run recycling and composting operations represent tentative forays into the territory. A huge fraction of America’s potential wealth in the postpeak years consists of manufactured objects that can either be refurbished and put back into circulation, or stripped of raw materials for reuse. When the electricity needed to power elevators and run heating and cooling systems is dizzyingly expensive when it can be had at all, for example, skyscrapers will be worth more as sources of refined metal than as buildings, and most of them will come down. On the other end of the spectrum, a great many consumer products that are now consigned to landfills when they break will be worth salvaging, repairing, and reselling once the cost of the necessary labor is cheaper than the cost of the energy and raw materials for a new model – a state of affairs that existed in America until the 1960s and will likely exist again within a decade or two. The salvage industries, as we may as well call them, may well turn out to be one of the major growth industries of the twenty-first century.

Other professions have their own possibilities. It’s a useful exercise to locate a city directory from the first half of the twentieth century and flip through the pages, noting the businesses that existed then but are nowhere to be found today. Those that meet actual needs, however unpopular they are as career tracks today, are likely to be more viable and more lucrative in a deindustrializing future than many professions fashionable today. The pundits and publicists of our economic system never seem to tire of explaining that tomorrow’s jobs will not be the same as today’s, and I suspect they may just be right; what they don’t expect, and I do, is that many of tomorrow’s hottest jobs will have more than a little resemblance to the careers of yesterday.

Those people who make preparations now to move into such jobs as they come open will be doing themselves and their communities alike a favor of no small worth. These preparations need to begin soon – while the time, resources, and knowledge base for many necessary skills are still readily accessible – and this requires, once again, some sense of the way civilizations actually fall, and a willingness to apply that slow, stumbling, unromantic but realistic model to the events going on around us right now.


John Michael Greer said...

I'll be out of reach of the internet for most of the coming week, so it may be a bit before your comments get posted -- please do go ahead and comment, though!

Danby said...

Don't forget the venerable profession of innkeeper. people traveling at a horse's pace will need to sleep and eat somewhere while travelling. Every small town (even Winlock) once had a hotel or inn.

Horse-drawn implement makers and repairers will be in short supply, although this industry is actually starting to take off with two major and many minor players.

Most of the US is woefully short of canals, by European and East Asian standards. Canals are extremely useful not only for extremely efficient transportation, but for irrigation. The age of canal building ended with the introduction of the steam locomotive, so areas settled after the 1850's are pretty bereft of canals. I know of only two quite short ones in my home state of Washington. Large areas of the Midwest are certainly flat enough for extensive canal networks. Any job involving canal construction and maintenance and operation should do well.

Horse trainers will be common, as will manure collectors and resellers.

Construction of small wind and solar power installations will also be a growth industry.

Jacques de Beaufort said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Loveandlight said...

Those arrangements only worked, however, because cheap abundant energy made transport costs negligible, and systematic distortions in patterns of exchange pumped wealth from the Third World to a handful of industrial nations, providing the latter with the wherewithal to pay a very large fraction of their populations to do jobs that don’t actually need to be done.

I am reminded of an episode of "That 70's Show" where Kelso (the good-looking dumb guy) has to go to his father's workplace for a day as a school assignment to get an understanding of the work being done. Kelso's father has some kind of number-crunching job, but exactly what it is and how it benefits the big corporation for which he works proves something he can't really explain to his son. And not just because of young Kelso's lack of inherent intellectual capacity!

Tully Reill said...

I remember a brief discussion along these lines over at the yahoo list about a blender and how difficult (or impossible in some cases) it was to find a small appliance repairman these days. So many of these "old trades" have disappeared, the neighborhood handyman and the local reapir shops for many things are just the surface of it.

RDatta said...

Thanks for another practical and pertinent post.

All the secondary (tertiary, quaternary &c.) feeders, oxpeckers and remoras will have to adapt to other ways of making a living. This will require a major change in attitudes, which for the most part will be forced upon us by the circumstances.

The force of circumstances, particularly in the long term, is powerful enough to make hummingbirds out of reptilian precursors and humans out of precursor primates.

Ideas such as those expressed in this blog may help guide the coming transformation. In this manner, the "Intelligence" of "Intelligent Design" might act through the human channel.

And perhaps we may someday consider investing in a Buggy Whip Manufacturing Company?

Zach said...


Thank you for introducing this topic -- it's on my mind very much these days as a practical matter.

I rather wonder how my own sub-discipline of engineering (embedded control systems) will fare on the downslope of Hubbert's Peak. With less new vehicles and gadgets made, there will be less embedded CPUs going out ... on the other hand, those windmills and other micro-power stations are embedded systems too, as well as the power control needed for them. So who knows?

And I wonder if a return of manufacturing won't provide its own boost. I don't expect, even with energy scarce, that there'll be a quick return to manual manufacturing. I can easily imagine a small-scale, high-tech builder of parts for those horse-drawn implements we'll be needing.


Jobi Wan Shinobi said...

Excellent post Mr. Greer! I've been wondering how my own profession will be affected by a future of increasingly expensive energy. 19 years as an Emergency Department RN have seen many changes, with ever increasing use of high technology (read "high energy") diagnostics taking the place of "hands on" assessment. I suspect I may see a movement in the opposite direction as complex, energy intensive technologies become unmanageable, though maybe not until the latter portion of my career. I suspect that, eventually, Emergency Departments will come to an end as they are expensive and mostly viewed as necessary evils by many hospital administrations. I wonder how the whole thing will play out.

Danby said...

any old thing that will ferment can produce alcohol. Old fruit, malted grain, molasses, with the right yeast, even potatoes or milk. Once you have alcohol, just remember that 98C is the optimum temperature for alcohol distillation. More than that and you get too much water. Less than that and you leave alcohol behind. There's a lot more to making something that tastes good, but if moonshine (raw, unaged distilled spirits) is the goal, it's a very easy one.

What about professions to avoid? I nominate lawyer!

FARfetched said...

I don't know about Oregon — but here on Planet Georgia, trade schools are thriving. My son is attending one, taking auto mechanics. I learned that I can get a $500 state grant to attend (taking a welding class is on my to-do list).

Small appliance repair isn't rocket science; the current barriers are that it doesn't pay enough to live on and it may be difficult to find parts (I'm trying to find a replacement thermostat for my food dehydrator now, for example).

tristan said...

More horses means more horses needing to be shod.

They never really completely went away but while even I can stitch cloth or put on a patch most people will never reheel their shoes.

Hats have practical purposes. They keep you cool in the heat, warm in the cold and protect you from the elements. Hat wearing will make a comeback.

And, in my opinion, yes cult leader is a profession and I expect it to will be a growth industry as more and more people start to look for answers to why things are the way they are. Some will look at traditional faiths as having failed to do something to prevent or at least warn about the situation (although some apocalyptic mainstream faiths may do well) and will seek answers from other sources.


David said...

And of course, we're going to need lots of people skilled in retrofitting existing oil-dependent houses to hold their heat without requiring huge inputs of wood or other fuels.

Where I live (coastal British Columbia), the winter night rarely get much below 0°C for any extended periods. That's pretty mild in comparison to many places in North America; but even so, the history of fossil fuel availability is writ large in the construction methods: wood frame, little insulation, single-pane windows, poor seals, etc. The (rented) house I currently live in leaks incredibly during the winter. Obviously it was built for a time when cranking the thermostat up to 25°C came with a low low price tag.

And houses since WWII have been steadily getting bigger. More to heat. More to retrofit.

It's nice to dream of slick new straw-bale/cob/whatever houses; but retrofitting-in-place is going to be a huge industry for some time to come. Retrofitting for energy-efficiency using scavenged and locally available materials: there's something that I know nothing about, nor do I see much about it out there in the places where people talk about useful skills in the post-peak economy.

Seaweed Shark said...

Excellent essay as usual; I share your apparent conviction that agriculture is effectively the central science of the coming. Concerning work, I'd like to read your views on the future of animal husbandry in the energy-scarce future. As animals can move, can often consume a wide variety of materials, and can be raised in small groups without elaborate infrastructure, could changes in this part of agriculture be early indicators of larger systemic changes? I must admit that on weary days at the office I sometimes envy the goatherd I met once in the Sierra Madre. He had no education and his life was hard, but he had his fifty goats and seemed content.

CrismonCoconut said...

I've been following your blog for about a year now and I enjoy it very much, painful as some of your insights are.

What Peak Oil means to me, at least, and probably to a lot of young people, is that our dreams are unnatainable. You're a druid, and therefore you've distanced yourself from modern industrial society and can look at it with a clinical viewpoint. Most of us are in the middle of it and can't just step back like that. To those closer to the center, who grew up in the prosperous 90s and were promised a future of spaceships, robots, and intergalactic trade with other beings, the blow is absolutely devastating. Not only will we never get into space, but we can't even have the civilization we wanted here on Earth, or even keep our own going. I'm not sure if you know how much that hurts, deep down in the core.

That being said, I've come to think that Scarcity Industrialism may well be the best thing that could happen to us in many ways. We used to take pride in manufacturing quality American goods, and I'd like to see us doing so again, if only out of necessity. In addition, many of today's establishments may well remain intact, if different from what they are right now and not as extravagant.

When most people talk about adapting to peak oil, I feel like the common mantra sums up to "Move to the country and become a completely self-reliant subsistence farmer". I'm not cut out for that physically or mentaly. It's nice to be reminded that we're not going there. Maybe I can achieve some happiness yet in these circumstances.

Yiedyie said...

I thought peak oil and this levels of population growth were unique but you are still insisting that history is a guide. You sound to sure about it.

I think we will not have a uniform descent and some areas might collapse very violently and overnight and some areas that are more sustainable will have a very slow descent without very much struggle.
I think that in a few years we will not talk about the collapse of Civilization but of places, we will not speak of the Collapse but of tens and hundreds of collapses just for a country.
You talk about reality like you have it in your pocket. There will be no one reality there will be 6 and a half billions of realities and for some the coming predicament might be more dangerous than for others.

I think the world job will dye and the word skill. I think people must remain open and learn more real skills, stay out of debt, stay low and try to stay mentally sane.

A collapse of civilization doesn't happen over night, but in a collapse of civilization places and institutions might disappear overnight.

You're moving farmers etc like toys on a board, i thing there are many things that are in place now that might not be there tomorrow things that keep this possibilities in your mind.

I thing you are underestimating 3 mighty forces, stupidity, ignorance, inertia.

Bob said...

A few of my personal skills:

nurse (my current career)
brewer (hobby)
carpenter (hobby)
gardener (hobby)

I'm also (scientifically) literate and a quick study.

I figure I'll do OK.

Straha said...

Wouldn't Roleplaying Games be a potential growth industry? They're interactive, they don't require anything that's unable to be produced in a post-collapse environment and they're entertaining.

TheDave said...

Excellent post. I imagine that anyone who can do a job that satisfies the first two levels (and to some extent the 3rd) of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs will do quite well for themselves. Further, the ones lucky enough to have the skills to perform those jobs/roles will be filling in the top two tiers for themselves. Imagine a blacksmith or a carpenter being valued and respected in the community, for his skill certainly, but more for the value of his/her work.

A 'creator' of physical, useful things will be valued in any community.

Losthorizon said...

I agree that dramatic change in entire cultures is slower than most think, with the caveat that it took place before the 'internet computer age' (1980s)

Events happen much faster now. The Soviets collapsed into Russia in a mind bogglingly short time.

Napoleon's armies moved at the same speed as Caesar's. In fact most armies in WWII didn't moved much faster, as a whole, than Napoleon's.

I think financial collapse however, aided by computer trading and the like, can collapse very, very quickly and in fact will, in the not so distant future.

The US and G7 banking systems are essentially bankrupt as we speak, they collapsed last July, very suddenly I might add. The effects have not manifested themselves quite yet. But the piggy bank in the West is not only bare, but no new credit of any significance will be issued for a long time. No mortgages, car loans, students loans, etc. Even bond issues for town's and hospitals will grind very rapidly to a halt.

Finance and banking in this post-modern age is just a bunch of ones and zeros displayed on the pixels of a monitor.

I right combo of key strokes and billions of dollars essential 'disappear', just like that, poof.

No new credit, and most jobs, at least in the US evaporate over night, just like that.

It's not a process that takes decades or even years, less than a full sun cycle will do very nicely.

Ask the Russians if their civilization disappeared over night.

Well, sort of, it has come back in recent years, but boy, it was some tough sledding to get here.

Murph & Freeacre said...

Recently, I was part of a committee charged with hiring a consulting firm to write from scratch a new comprehensive plan for the newest city incorporated in Oregon. Happily, we were able to find one open to the idea of creating a twenty year plan that is open to creating a new paradigm that includes the concepts of resource depletion and localization (if the community wants it). My husband and I have been working on growing food in Central Oregon. This is no small challenge, as the ground consists of 30 feet of volcanic ash with very little organic material in it. Plus, the temperatures regularly fluctuate 50 degrees in a day, and you can only count on 30 nights a year that don't freeze. But our gardening efforts are paying off. Lots of people around here have horses, so there is a lot of manure to enrich the soil. We keep chickens and that helps, too. With food prices rising, people are a lot more interested now. We find that having tools is important for a huge variety of needs. But, one person can't do everything, so to sustain a town in the future where goods are no longer rolling in like they used to will require specialization. We'll need a blacksmith, quilters, knitters of sweaters, small engine repairers, handymen of all sorts, a bakery, cheesemaker, fence installers, people who can plow the roads in the winter, bicycle repair shops, septic system installers,nurse practitioners, and on and on. Good, old-fashioned tradespeople and a town center that furnishes a central trading post for goods, services, and farmers market. Older people may need to think ahead and prepare rooms to rent out to younger people who will work in the garden or shovel snow in exchange for a roof over their heads. So much can be done if we have time to prepare and start taking a sustainable lifestyle seriously. Large, centralized schools that rely on long bus rides can be replaced with little cluster schools, maybe in a large home. They will need a neighborhood teacher or two. And, apprentice programs. Once you start planning ahead that way, it gets pretty exciting, I think. One of the consultants introduced a concept he called "aging in place." It was about creating a community that provides a sheltering environment for those of all ages so that you don't have to sell out and leave when you get old as well as niches that children can grow up and fill. Some of these paper shufflers actually have good ideas and can help with the transition if they are working for a community with a new intention.

Gauhar Kachchhi said...

I am an Indian, and I always envied American way of life. It is so grand, so luxurious, large homes, large cars, great roads, almost unlimited supply of money to buy whatever you desire... Its all like a dream. But now you all say its unsustainable. Damn it! :(

@Danby - You believe the human race is going back to the pre-19th century? Thats too radical. There are too many people & too few horses. How about electro-mechanical bicycles? Thats more practical IMO... :)

In India, 70% of people depend on agriculture. They have been doing it for centuries. The tools have changed, but still most of their tech is old, manual way, being done for hundreds of years. I believe the impact of such de-industrialization could be mitigated to a large extent.

But we must watch how transportation-tech evolves post oil-age. That is the blood-line of civilization.

Panidaho said...

JMG said:

"if you happen to be among the survivors, you step into whatever new role the apocalypse has ordained for you – subsistence farmer, tribal hunter-gatherer, protein source for the local cannibal population"

Okay, that one had me laughing out loud - at work even!

Great post, btw. Unfortunately, our society values division of labor to the Nth degree to the point of idolatry. The thought of having to become more, shall we say, diversified? in one's means of making a living is anathema to most. But just as monoculture can be a risky means of growing food, so is having just one specialized means of making a living. Diversify, diversify, diversify is how I plan to look at this as the old gives way to the new.

Peter said...

John Michael, excellent! Your book arrived yesterday, and it is everything I'd hoped for, and more. As a retired chiropractor, I'm aware that my healing skills will be in demand in a world where there is much more manual labor being done (I'm ready to come out of retirement). But your book also has me thinking about passing this skill on to the next generation. Right now, of course, there are legal considerations, but this will change on the way down the slope. If others here want to include me in their community plans, let me know, as I'm looking to make a "permanent" move in the next year. (I am currently in New England).

eLEVendistant said...

I am compelled to comment as this post hits very close to home. The profession I chose is bicycle mechanic. Working in telecommunications as a phone rep for high tech internet devices pays well but... once I recognized the future of energy in light of peak oil production it did not seem like a career worth keeping. I went to bicycle school in Ashland, Oregon and now have a mechanic's position at an independent retailer here in DFW. The point you emphasize about making drastic changes but seeing little collapse around you confirms my suspision that I have indeed made an appropriate choice. Our service department has been hiring and we have a huge influx of new customers with old bikes from the garage. "I just need something to get to work on," is a common phrase I hear.

John, I must congratulate you on your message. Of all the peak-oil related information yours is the most realistic and I look forward to every post.

Regards, ~LEV

Danby said...

Another on occurred to me today. Once upon a time (back in the dark ages) working-class families in the Us couldn't afford to own a dedicated freezer.So when they butchered a hog or bought a half a beef, or shot a deer, they would rent a freezer locker. A freezer locker is just what the name sounds like. A big walk-in freezer, with lockable partitions for storing meat owned by other people. I know as a kid, our family rented one every fall when my father would go halves on a beef with the next door neighbor. We would use up the beef by June or so. Every Saturday, all through the winter and spring, we would go down to the butcher shop (do those exist any more either?) and load up meat for the week. I doubt the butcher made much money on it, but he needed a freezer anyway, and we always wound up buying some bacon, or chicken or bologna on the way out. Anyway, someone with access to a dependable source of power, say 10 feet of water head for an undershot Pelton wheel, could make a steady living on renting freezer space.

yooper said...

Excellent article John! The transition you're talking about is well under way here. I've noticed there are a lot more salvage workers going up and down the road, as metal prices have risen.

Another business has also picked up in my sparsely populated area, two new funeral homes have been added.

While the population in the area has not changed(for 100 years), the medium age of that population has continiously risen. More and more seniors moving into the area to retire, as the school population has been halved since I went...

However, even though this is almost a 100 year old trend, I very much suspect that this will reverse soon. As distance will prevent some activities that are happening now.

Yup, the funeral business may see a run for now, however how long will this last, as the area is expected to depopulate?

Another area of interest, is that in the future, many people might have more than one occupation. Around here, most people have to be a "jack of all trades" in order to "earn a living" in this land. Going back to my great Grandfather's day 150 years ago, he was the community's dentist, doctor, veterinarian, farmer, barrel cooper. Oh, and I almost forgot, mortician.

Thanks, yooper

Hypatia said...

Although it wasn't specifically mentioned, jobs in the medical field will be much needed, especially people who've had experience in working in infrastructure/resource poor environments (like volunteers for Mercy Corps, Doctors w/o Borders, disaster relief agencies and the like).

My daughter was accepted into the "Health Careers" curriculum (a 2 yr program) at her high she will be well on her way to whatever medical field interests her in college.

Jean-Vivien said...


what do you hink will happen to young IT technical guys (like me) ?

I dont know how the IT business will evolve in the next decade... Nor do I have any idea about the possible reconversions.

Jean-Vivien said...

I am 24 at the time of this writing... still quite young, and a bit inexperienced :-P

Mark said...

Spot on... I've read a little of the ideas of the oil crash and the gloom and doom conspiracies and fear. It all seems like a Hollywood movie. I see things more from your perspective. I feel in the future we'll see the rise of community once again. Local food systems, currencies, and economies. It is really the only logical view to consider. Landfill mining may become quite an industry, I can only imagines the large amounts of copper, silver, steel, etc. buried in America's landfills. The Hollywood depictions for "the end of the world" seem to be the product of our fairy tale society. Take care.

Noah Scales said...

Those disliking the current government, those preferring modern technology (for example, modern health care), and those desiring a cultural shift (for example, place-based culture) can find or imagine paths to their desired futures through some combination of:

* involuntary changes (for example, loss of resources required for your job)

* voluntary changes (a career change)

* regulatory changes (government indirectly subsidizing your career)

Mr. Greer, it is true that regulation constrains voluntary changes created through commodity markets to favor taking what is currently waste and extracting raw materials from it. That desirable function of our economy and government also encourages closing manufacturing resource cycles. If effective regulation preserves our government and economy, then a job in infrastructure upgrading and closed-loop manufacturing will make a nutritious alternative to my self-sufficient 2 acre sundae with the yurt on top.

Taking a job in infrastructure upgrading has nothing to do with an impending energy-crunch, per se. For example, putting in an energy-efficient lightbulb is an upgrade because it reduces atmospheric carbon throughput. The energy plant supplying the bulb can sell carbon credits because of the upgrade. Obviously, my changing that lightbulb is not part of my civilization's decline. Furthermore, a regulatory change that required energy-efficient lightbulbs in all light fixtures would force me to change careers or stop working locally.

Regardless, my own predictions of my civilization's decline make an effective apology for the societal excess that so embarrasses me. I could farm those 2 acres to get away from my civilization instead of trying to change my civilization. However, my farm will contribute to my civilization so long as they both share a presence.

Therefore, if a job is a contribution to society, then my future contribution will be made in tears.

Stephen Heyer said...

I suspect the attraction of sudden/apocalyptic collapse is that everything outside the collapse cause can be held constant, that is, current conditions, or what is supposed to be current conditions, can be extrapolated into the (near) future.

Now I’ve been a keen, politically, socially and scientifically literate observer of all of the last half of the 20th century and enjoyed reminisces of the first half of that century from similar observers who were close family and friends. The two main lessons that come through with utter dependability are that (1) unexpected changes make any attempts to predict the future beyond about 10 years into the future utterly unreliable and (2) that when that future becomes the present it is usually very different to any we postulated.

Just look at the 20th century, the rise and fall of massive new social systems (communism, fascism and a bunch of lesser experiments) a complete rewriting of science and the wonderful/terrible, technologies that flowed from it changing human life forever, new economic and social systems that completely changed the way people arrange their lives. Of course, some of those “new” economic and social systems now seem to have been little more than old ideas in new packaging, ideas designed to transfer vast wealth from the mass of society to a small section of it.

And all of this in the space of one long human life.

Which is of course why I have problems with John Greer’s deindustrial future with it’s set stages such as scarcity industrialism, salvage economy and it’s final ecotechnic civilization form: It relies on too many conditions and limits staying pretty much as they are across centuries of future history. Isn’t gunna happen, at least not that neatly.

Yes, it’s a good model for short periods of time and for isolated, non-innovative cultures, it’s even quite likely that the final stage could be something very like an ecotechnic culture, but great flights of “black swan events” are likely to make the intermediate stages very different. Further, each region/nation is likely to have its own, different history.

Makes the head hurt doesn’t it? I kind of guess that is why so many people like the simple “apocalyptic collapse sometime real soon” model. It doesn’t take any more understanding than, say, Oprah or Dr Phil.

That said, I think John is right in thinking that the good, well paying, jobs of the near future are likely to be those where you actually produce something or do something with real stuff: It’s already happening here in Australia.

I also reckon he is dead on with the statement “Farmers are among the most likely candidates for the top of the list. By this I don’t mean subsistence farmers in rural ecovillages – their time is much further in the future, if it ever comes at all. Rather, market farmers tilling what is now suburban acreage to feed the dwindling cities, and rural farmers producing grains and other bulk crops for foreign exchange, will likely be in high demand, along with support professions such as agronomists.”

At least where I live this seems to be already happening. Australian grocery shopping is utterly controlled by just a couple of huge chains. They now seem to be handcuffed by the very high profit margins they have established, that shareholders expect and on which executive bonuses depend, while being increasingly stressed by rising costs, especially transport.

The response to the sudden opening of an ecological niche has been dramatic here: Local farmers and farmer’s markets have sprung up or expanded so fast we can watch it happening. The farmers, you see, discovered that they could produce for the local market, sell their produce at the weekend markets at below the supermarket price, yet still receive much higher prices than the supermarkets were paying them.

Frankly, we were expecting more of a boom in home and community gardens (subsistence farmers). This is happening to some extent, but the real action seems to be a reinvention of the local farmer, a return in some ways to the arrangements of my youth.

As for “demolitions experts, junkyard workers, and people who run recycling and composting operations”, well, one of my oldest, most interesting and most disreputable friends is exactly all of the above (except for composting). Recently he has been able to make so much money so easily even he is surprised.

hapibeli said...

Jacques de Beaufort said...
That is likely true,and these folks will be utilized by those "wealthy", greedy, and afraid enough to hire them. Law enforcement will prove to be similar to what it is today, some corrupt, and many trying their best to keep thuggishness at bay. The social order will continue as it is today with some changes. Most often it will depend on the character and courage of local community.

CrystalRadio said...

The 1929 economic crash was relatively swift occurring in the space of several years. Currently our economic situation looks to be in an even more precarious position. Should another crash occur, likely on a scale much grander than that one in 1929 how would that affect your idea of slow collapse. Consider that many of the worlds resources, fossil fuel etc., are at or beyond peak and the best in quality and ease of extraction having been used. Further the population of the world rich in those resources had a population of roughly 2 billion and it now stands at 6.7 billion. These factors I think would make any recovery from economic collapse next to impossible and result in change of greater and swifter proportions than you seem to be considering.

As a first time reader I do not know if you have previously addressed this question, if so would you direct me ?

susanmoody said...

DenSue sez: I build outdoor wood fired firebrick baking ovens. My wife mills her own grain into flour. The bread baker shall return.... and pizza will still be around also.
Get ready!

dragonfly said...

Everyone will be much happier when their work consists of actually doing something. Other things I'm looking forward to are quieter nights and cleaner air.

jevandorp said...

What I'm not seeing in your latest post is the future of automated (computerised) manufacturing and metalworking. A huge amount of jobs have been lost to such automation. Even if energy prices rise ten-fold in the long-run, such automation will remain cost-effective.

The point is that our ability to produce machines that cost-effectively replace human hands in almost anything except brain surgery remains intact after peak oil. In fact, the versatility and miniaturisation of such robotic factories - in effect - will get a boost as transport and labor costs continue to rise. That's a game changer.

Peak oil will reduce society's ability to consume and will render many types of jobs uneconomical, but it will not bring back jobs that have been made obsolete by industrial automation. As mechanical engineer I'm pretty confident about this.

Also, I don't believe transport costs of for example international shipping will be the main cause of relocation of manufacturing. The fuel costs of such transport systems will remain negligible as compared to the economic value of the cargo. Even after Peak Oil. The main driver of relocation of manufacturing will be the decreasing gap between labor costs as inflation grips the low-wage countries and the high-wage countries enter recession.

John Michael Greer said...

Well, I ended up out of reach of the internet for longer than I intended -- my return from a Druid event in Georgia was delayed by thunderstorms over Atlanta. Nature, as usual, has the last word! Responding to all these comments is more than time will permit right now, so I'll restrict responses to a few.

Zach, I don't see much future in your specific specialty -- automated systems generally will be a lot fewer and further between in the years to come, since the energy needed to produce them (including the whole raw materials chain that feeds into them) will be nothing like so cheap as it's been. Might be a good time to hone your engineering skills in some less specialized fields.

Farfetched, I'm glad to hear that at least some of the old trade schools are still out there, though a career as an auto mechanic may not be all that durable. As for spare parts, the ability to make or salvage jerry-rigged equivalents is likely to be a major skill from here on in.

David, you've been looking into your crystal ball, I see -- the economics of retrofitting will be the subject of my next post.

Shark, I've discussed draft animals before, but you're right that I need to talk about animals generally as an economic factor in deindustrial societies. More on this later.

Yiedyie, I've never claimed that there won't be localized collapses and sudden crises -- in fact, those are integral to the vision of the future I've been proposing on this blog for the last two and a half years. My point is that these don't add up to the sudden total collapse of contemporary apocalyptic fantasy. As for stupidity, ignorance, and inertia, those are exactly the factors on which I'm founding my model -- they were old in the days of the Neanderthals, and they play the same role today that they did in the twilight years of every other civilization.

Straha, role playing games are a fad, and it's anybody's guess how long they'll remain popular -- how many people do you know that play with hula hoops these days? Nor will people have anything like as much spare money and time for such things as they do today. I wouldn't bet your future on it, in other words.

Losthorizon, I've addressed all this before. Of course the current financial system could crash in a couple of keystrokes, and a new one could be put in place just as fast. When "money" is an electronic hallucination, what prevents the managers of money from filling any void you care to imagine with more hallucinations? As for Russia, well, I trust you've noticed that they're still around...

Jean-Vivien, get some job skills outside the IT field. My guess is that even without economic and political decline, it's going to have many fewer jobs than seekers in the fairly near future.

Stephen, good heavens. If I didn't know you'd been reading this blog for months, I'd think you just jumped into the discussion without finding out what I actually mean by the model you dismiss so blithely. In case you need a reminder, it's a very broad and general overview of the kinds of economies likely to emerge over the next two to four centuries in the aftermath of the industrial age. Of course there will be near-infinite local variations, cyclic peaks and troughs, mass migrations, the collapse of some nations and the rise of others -- in other words, history, which (pace Francis Fukuyama) is still going strong. The slow and very uneven transitions from scarcity industrialism through salvage economy to the possibility -- by no means certainty -- of a future ecotechnic age is simply one broad and, I think, plausible trajectory woven into a fabric of centuries of historical change.

Jevandorp, you're leaving out the huge energy inputs needed to build, maintain, and supply automated manufacturing, and the global supply and distribution chains that make those work. As energy costs rise, those will become less and less affordable as compared to local manufacture using skilled labor. It's already cheaper for the Chinese to hire workers than it is for them to install automation; as the relative value of extrasomatic energy goes up in comparison to human labor -- a change that is already under way, and will accelerate dramatically (if unevenly) as fossil fuel reserves deplete) -- automated factories will no longer have the economic advantages they had during the age of cheap energy, and will thus end up on the scrap heap.

FARfetched said...

JMG, if I'd known you were on my planet, I'd have waved!

Jean-Vivian, I know it's been a few days since you asked about this, but I think IT is going to become a much more high-skill and broad-based profession than it used to be. Hardware will stay in service longer, and will be repaired rather than thrown out — better learn soldering and some bare-metal repair techniques. Fancy UIs will go away, so toss that MCSE in the composter and learn how to deal with the computer on its own terms (if you haven't already). The most critical software, once again, will be what's written in-house for the specialized needs of the users.

I also expect that, if the technical/industrial society holds together for another decade, that flash drives will replace hard drives. Expect similar power-saving measures all across the board… perhaps your company will find it doesn't need nearly as much bandwidth (and router capacity) as before, for example. There will still be IT departments, I believe, throughout your entire working life (barring some cataclysm), but your job won't be static. Keep learning.

Jean-Vivien said...


my plan was to attend one year of these schools where you learn to live in nature, learn skills like tracking etc... Very primitive things and not so useful right now, or in the near future. But things that I can really love and get immersed into (pretty much like I can get immersed into computers right now). On a very modest scale ,I have been earning botanocs at our home (we have wild woods in our backyard..). So I know its the kind of thing I can get immersed into, a bit like I can get immersed into computers right now.

Well I am not gonna make plans only for what is strictly useful (I have to do things I love, otherwise I could just kill myself on the spot). And I am not asking you for directions about my own life, dont worry about that. This being said, do you think it s a completely suicidal idea, or something that could make sense in the coming years ? I live in Europe, and the decay wont be as steep or fast as it is gonna be in the US (which are very extreme, both in wastefulness and free market ideology)

Noah Scales said...

@jevandorp: A fundamental premise of arguments against technological solutions is that:

"By the time people are ready to build the infrastructure that replaces energy supply from oil, and the technology is available to store that energy, there will not be enough energy to build the infrastructure on a large scale."

I happen to agree with you, Jevandorp, at least about the feasibility of small-scale, high-tech, energy-efficient manufacturing. Any argument to support the anti-technology premise is common-sense if you're cynical, but science is not about being cynical or relying on past performance to predict future behavior.

IMO, in a future of energy conservation, there's ample energy supply serving the current infrastructure to allow transition to alternative fuels and energy-efficient technologies before civilization declines.

However, an economist might make an economic argument about how some conditions will occur globally that reduce consumer incentive to buy mass-produced goods. In that case, communities might become self-sufficient and rely on low-power technologies as growth economies are squeezed. In those communities, capital won't flow in to create and maintain production from small factories.

For now, my lifeboats sit on dry land, but those boats will probably float on a future of satellites, supercomputers, liquid fuels, vaccines, money markets, and global networks. Whether I complain about the ocean will depend on how well my lifeboat floats on it.

Sarah Edwards said...

As a career counselor, I am so glad to see you writing about this topic. Indeed it is one that no one seems to be paying much attention to.
My co-writer/partner and I have been writing and speaking about this for three years now. Our message of what people will need to be doing is not unlike yours, and has mostly fallen on unwilling ears, even when mixed in with some slightly more pallitable transition careers that will be probably continue to be around for awhile.
People really, really don't want to hear this message. That makes it all the more important that career advisors and helping professionals be aware of the shifts in income production and exchange that is coming. Dimitry Orlov's book Reinventing Collapse also has some useful suggestions on this topic.
Sarah Edwards, PhD, LCSW
author, Middle-Class Lifeboat.

Arlene said...

John and fellow pilgrims -I just read The Long Descent.You are a prophet .As organic farmers for 36 years we are preparing for the descent. We will be learning new skills such a working with a draft horse.
I look forward to hearing from others who have read your book.Thanks for your excellent piece of wisdom. !!

Dennis said...

One CIA Study says that the world population increases by 77 MILLION people every 12 months. That means that all of the people killed in the Indonesian Tsunami were replaced in just a tad over 24 hours. (One day). How can finding more energy, potable water, growing more food, providing education and healthcare possibly succeed when this is the case ???

On another note since the early 1970's there has been a huge resurgance of people relearning such skills as blacksmithing. People are already preparing in a multitude of ways behind the scenes in little ways.

Dennis said...

I just finished reading the book "Shopclass as Soulcraft". A good insight into how our culture has moved far away from work that "meant anything" or "really produced a tangable usable thing" into some weird concept that you can have a world that simply "makes and sells knowledge" and that is supposed to sustain us. The concept of trades, guilds, villages, co-ops, apprenticeships, and people living in small enough groups to have a good bit of self sufficiency. To know the people they do business with. Meaningful work and meaningful relationships sustain people, not "stuff from the mall". My motto for the holidays is, "Buy almost nothing, and instead tell the people you are close to that you love them and they are very important to you".