Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Retrofit Economy

I’ve suggested several times in these essays that the broad shape of the most likely future facing industrial society, at the end of the age of cheap abundant energy, can be sorted out very roughly into three phases: the age of scarcity industrialism, the age of salvage societies, and – if we are lucky – the ecotechnic age, when new societies based on sustainable high technology will rise on the ruins of our own unsustainable time. For a variety of reasons, any typology of this sort is easy to misunderstand, and it seems worthwhile just now to clarify what I intend to say, and what I don’t, in proposing this model of the future.

The most important point that needs making, it seems to me, is that these three phases are to some extent ideal types, and the forms they take on the ground of actual history will be far more complex, messy, and idiosyncratic than the simple outline suggests. This isn’t simply a result of the fact that none of these phases have arrived yet. The same thing can be said, after all, of the use of economic phases to talk about history that’s already happened.

When a historian suggests that England embraced a mercantilist economic system in the sixteenth century, for instance, she does not mean that the English economy shifted gears all at once on January 1, 1501. Nor does she mean that the English economy in that century lacked important features of the older feudal-agrarian economy or foreshadowings of the capitalist economy that replaced mercantilism later on, nor that the English mercantilist economy was identical to all others. Rather, she means that the traits implied by the term “mercantilism” – an export-based economy geared toward generating a favorable balance of trade with competing nations, foreign policy initiatives pursuing overseas colonies and the expansion of naval power and a merchant marine, and the like – provide a workable sketch of the shape toward which the English economy moved over the course of the century in question.

The same rule applies to the phases I’ve outlined here. The transition from today’s industrialism of abundance to the scarcity industrialism of the near future, for example, will likely be just as slow and ragged a process as the rise of mercantilism. Some nations – Russia, for example – have already implemented the political control of resource markets that I’ve suggested as a core feature of the phase; other nations have barely begun to move in that direction, and other features of the phase are just as unevenly distributed. For that matter, the 1950s-era American autos cruising down the streets of Havana today, repeatedly rebuilt with scavenged and jerry-built parts, show certain core features of the salvage economy already in existence in some parts of the world right now.

Thus the world of a hundred years from now, say, will include nations at many different points along the scale. It will very likely be dominated by nations that have embraced scarcity industrialism, while the powers of today’s age of abundance will be the fallen empires and failed states of that day. Meanwhile, those nations that draw the short straws in the geopolitical lottery may already be well into the salvage society phase, mining the refuse of the industrial age to meet local needs and to pay for whatever foreign trade can still be had. Nations that lack both fossil fuels and valuable salvage, in turn, will either have fallen back to agrarian or nomadic economies or, given plenty of luck and the necessary knowledge base, may be pioneering the first rough sketch of an ecotechnic society. All of this will take place amid the turmoil of ordinary history: that unending and uneven rhythm of crises, struggles, and the rise and fall of governments and peoples whose embarrassingly premature obituary Francis Fukuyama wrote a few years back, and which tends to hide the slower and broader shifts in economy and subsistence from contemporary eyes.

Fast forward another century, when Hubbert’s curve will have finished its trajectory and fossil fuels will be rare geological specimens, and the powers of the age of scarcity industrialism will most likely have collapsed in their turn. Those areas with a wealth of salvageable scrap and the political and military savvy to hold onto them will be the regional powers of a world in which global reach no longer exists, while other areas – the modern conception of the nation-state will probably have fallen into history’s recycling bin by then, to be replaced by some other form of geopolitical arrangement – will have only sustainable resources to rely on; some of those will likely have settled into some nonindustrial mode for the long term, while others may be building on the first tentative foundations of an ecotechnic system. All these changes, once again, will take their shape amid the rough and tumble of historical events, and may be difficult to track against that wildly variable background.

One implication of this vision is that appropriate steps for the present and the near future are not limited to those that have some obvious relationship to the scarcity industrialism of the near future. If, unlikely as it seems, any of my readers belong to the political, economic, or military leadership of one of the world’s leading or rising powers, their attention will be, and indeed should be, riveted to the coming of scarcity industrialism; the nations they lead, not to mention their own positions of influence and privilege, depend utterly on how well they are able to manage that difficult transition. For the rest of us, though, a broader focus and a less limited toolkit has many advantages. The end of the age of abundance industrialism means the end of the trickle-down economy that provided so many economic benefits to the middle classes and raised the industrial world’s working classes out of abject poverty. To some extent, while the political classes will be entering a new industrial order, those outside that circle may just find themselves passing directly into the world of Dark Age salvage societies. What this implies, in turn, is that the skills and habits of the age of salvage may be well worth cultivating right now.

One obvious example unfolds from the implications of the sprawling speculative subdivisions that surround so many American cities just now, in the aftermath of the late housing bubble. For decades now, people interested in sustainable housing have focused their attention on innovative methods of new house construction: cobb and adobe, straw bale, and many more. These are useful and in some cases brilliantly successful technologies, but their application to our present predicament is limited by one overarching factor: here in America, at least, we already have many more houses than we need or can afford, and the economic system we use to pay for new houses is so badly broken just now that it may take a generation or more to get a new one up and running.

That being the case, the dream of sustainable Levittowns of cob-built, earth-sheltered, solar-heated houses will remain out of reach for a good long time. The possibilities before us are more limited. We can either struggle on with the hopelessly inefficient housing stock we have now in its current state, or we can learn how to rework our existing homes to improve their energy efficiency: that is, we can learn to retrofit.

The word “retrofit” was coined in the 1950s, but its common use is one of the legacies of the energy crises of the 1970s. During those years, a great many homeowners discovered that houses built to take advantage of cheap energy lost most of their advantages when energy stopped being cheap. At the same time, the soaring interest rates and stagflation of that decade made buying a new home a good deal less economically viable than it had been during the preceding years. Many people responded by figuring out cheap, effective ways to improve the energy efficiency of their existing homes. Insulating blankets found their way around hot water heaters, caulk guns traced lines around leaky foundation plates, insulated Roman blinds replaced fashionable curtains, and a surprising number of people discovered that it really is just as comfortable to put on a cardigan as it is to turn up the thermostat on a cold evening.

One of the less noticed phenomena of these same years, in turn, was the emergence of home energy retrofitting as a viable economic sector. In every American city and a great many smaller towns, contractors no longer able to find work building houses found a new niche installing insulation, storm windows, and solar water heaters, while hardware stores found room for a new section of home energy efficiency supplies. It was never a large sector, and its growth came to a sudden stop in the early 1980s in the flurry of political machinations that crashed the price of oil and threw away our best chance for a transition to sustainability, but it was one of the few success stories at a time when most American industries were contracting and most families’ standard of living was slipping year after year.

Many of those same conditions are repeating themselves on a much larger scale as the world stumbles across the uneven plateau on top of Hubbert’s peak. Despite the recent volatility in the futures markets, oil remains far more expensive than it was a year ago; one step down for every two steps upward still amounts to steady upward movement. The approaching Great Recession promises to make the stagflation of the Seventies look mild, but to American families it still poses the same challenge of having to get by with less. Thus it’s tolerably likely that the same sort of retrofit economy will emerge in the next few years, as those homeowners who stayed clear of the blandishments of fast-talking mortgage salesmen, and keep their homes, find that they have no choice but to make the best of the homes they have.

The same considerations apply to other sectors of the economy. The auto industry is facing a similar transition, for example, as mechanics and hobbyists across the country turn used cooking oil into biodiesel, convert hybrid cars into plug-in vehicles, and equip bicycles and scooters with electric motors and batteries. Detroit’s much-ballyhooed electric cars, when they finally get around to appearing on the market, are likely to find themselves eating the dust of thousands of ingenious retrofitters who, unburdened with the institutional inertia of Fortune 500 corporations, are getting products to local markets right now. These retrofits won’t allow what James Howard Kunstler has usefully labeled “the paradise of happy motoring” to continue; on the other hand, they may well enable a great many Americans to deal with the downside of a social geography designed for cars rather than people, during the inevitable lag time while that social geography becomes a bad memory.

A great many more dimensions of American life are likely to need retrofitting in the years to come; nearly every aspect of our economy, culture, and politics depends on cheap abundant energy and will have to be rebuilt to deal with the new reality of energy scarcity. That will apply to little things – for example, plenty of home appliances now controlled by computer chips can be made to work with thermostats, spring-driven timers, and the like, given a little ingenuity and a willingness to tinker – and to much bigger ones as well. In a very real sense, given the sharp limits we face in the near future, our entire lives will need to be retrofitted to deal with the realities so manh of us have been trying to avoid for so long. The first job of this foreshadowing of the salvage economy, in other words, will be to haul a viable future out of the scrap heap of the present, and get it back into some semblance of working order while there’s still time to do so.

37 comments:

Todd said...

Hey JMG,

I've done my homework on cob (not "cobb", BTW.) I have to tell you, as someone who does not currently own a house, but would like to have the security of owning shelter that I can afford to heat and maintain, I find the economics of building a small cob cottage compelling.

It's as if what I really need is a bicycle and you're telling me: "Look, there's plenty of Chevrolet Suburbans out there that need retrofitting...." I'm not buying the argument completely.

If you own your house currently, I'm sure the world looks a whole lot different and retrofitting is an attractive scenario.

I would really highly recommend that if you have the time, make a short trip up to Coquille at some point and visit the Cob Cottage Company site at Mountain Homestead. I really think such a visit would perhaps deepen your perspective a bit, and I know that is saying something (I mean that in a good way, _almost_ entirely!)

Have a chat with Ianto Evans and tell him I say hello. I consider you and Ianto to both be relatively visionary thinkers, and maybe there would be some mind-melding voodoo magic produced if you two were to meet. I showed some of your work to him earlier this year and he liked it, BTW.

Heteromeles said...

Dear JMG,

Nice post as usual, and I'm enjoying this series. I'd like to add a comment and question.

The comment is that the salvage economy is already well developed in many parts of the world, particularly in Africa and Mexico (to use two quick examples). People have been re-engineering our trash for years, and it's worth realizing that there's already a wealth of cultural knowledge to draw on (for instance, south of the border in Mexico). You may find it useful check it out. As an aside, I'll mention the khukuri knife that I bought from Himalayan Imports. It was made in Nepal, from a recycled car spring and other recycled metal, wood, and leather, and it's built (and guaranteed) to last for 50 years. The smith gets a living wage too. This small company is an example of what the future might look like.

The question is about your claim of how your scarcity industrialism (with its political control of resources) differs from our current US model, where there's a close link between resource industries and government, and while we pay a low purchase price for things like oil, we also pay a substantial amount in taxes to support the infrastructure that provides those "cheap, abundant" resources. Aren't we already living in an era of scarcity and resource control? I don't completely understand how things might change, and I'd like to get a better idea of how you think your scarcity industrialism will differ from the current political system.

Thanks,

lupe said...

http://alexiuss.deviantart.com/journal/17919112/

shadowfoot said...

JMG,

Good post, thanks. Made me think about what sorts of gov't involvement there is in limited resources in the U.S. There's some (recycling laws?), although I don't know as any gov't, local, state, or national, has anything to do with say collecting metal for resale or redistribution. Is that the kind of thing you mean by governmental control? Certainly the U.S. gov'ts aren't doing much with it now from what I know anyway.

I think most of the salvaging of of resources around here in our area is entrepreneurial or amateur. Metal's finally gone up enough in price that my FIL is gathering up some scrap to sell to the local metal salvager. It costs money in the hilltowns to get rid of trash, so folks tend to hold onto anything that might be of value or use somewhere down the line, literally for decades or even a century or so.

I know you're mostly talking about things on a higher level (governmental, etc.), but it's been interesting to me to see re-use of things go mainstream over the years. Although "green" and home-selling shows have been taking over recently on HGTV (a home-oriented tv channel), for many years they've been showing people how to re-purpose items for use and decoration, from crafters to home decorators. Before, only country bumpkins, poor people, or mad scientists re-purposed things or retrofitted anything. Then MacGyver (tv show, 1985-92 plus some movies) came along and it was kinda cool to do these things. Now it's become socially acceptable, at least in some circles. But still all at the individual and/or entrepreneurial level... mind you some of the entrepreneurial is working pretty well -- I worked at a company that recycled all of their brass scrap -- cleaned up the factory space and gave them a break on the cost of new material for manufacturing their goods.

I rather expect that even if the gov't gets involved in scarce resource collection and re-use/resale, that the lower level activities will continue, since things I have a use for the gov't may not. Although perhaps that's more a salvage thing than a scarce resource, depending on the item. Messy and complex indeed.

Todd,

Cob is definitely affordable if you're willing and able to do a lot of the work yourself. And I know it's even been build with multiple floors. But it also is more useful in some parts of the country/world than others. It doesn't perform as well in places like the U.S.'s Northeast for instance -- too cold and wet. It _can_ work here, but needs a layer of something like strawbale around the outside walls (plastered, of course). This is true of most construction and energy systems of course, as for instance passive solar works better down in the tropical areas of the equator than it does in the Northeast. It's usable here, but active solar works better.

The problem with implementing cob or any other alternative house construction on a scale that would have an effect on a societal level, is that there is not a lot of cleared land all over the country. Certainly anyone who can get land and can build in these ways should, and more power to them!

But realistically, a lot of homes would have to come down first (millions of them), and also most people don't want to build their own homes from the floor up. But they might be able to conceive of working on an existing home, one room at a time. Or saving up to hire someone to super-insulate their home. Personally, I think one excellent way of doing that would be to build/move all the closets/storage areas to the outside walls and then use the stored contents as the insulation. My husband and I may end up building a house someday, or we may retrofit a place -- we're keeping our options open, because in these changing times we don't really know which opportunity will come first.

Heather G
(helwen.livejournal.com)

John Michael Greer said...

Todd, thanks for the spelling correction. Certainly cob and other alternative housing technologies will have some role; my point is that we're not in a position to replace the nation's entire housing stock with eco-houses -- and that means retrofitting is the order of the day.

Heteromeles, thanks for two good points. The rise of salvage economies in the Third World is a solid example of what I'm talking about in the first half of this post. As for the US' involvement in scarcity economics, it's dragging its heels, but since the 1970s energy crises the writing has been on the wall; the conflict Spengler predicted between economic and political power is being decided, as he also predicted, in favor of political power.

Lupe, thank you for the link -- harrowing pictures of the harsher dimensions of a salvage economy.

Heather, the use of resource control as a political weapon against foreign and domestic opponents is one of the main characteristics I foresee in the age of scarcity industrialism. Russia's already adept at it -- note the way a few quiet rumors that they'd shut off their pipelines panicked Europe and silenced any talk of sanctions against Russia for the Georgian war -- and this gives them a sizable advantage against those nations that still rely on market exchanges for resources. We'll see the same sort of thing here in time.

John Michael Greer said...

Baxter, I can't allow profanity on the comments, since this blog gets accessed in schools (which often have filters against that kind of thing). If you'll replace the one four-letter word in your comment with something that won't set off the censors, and repost, I'd be glad to put it through.

Danby said...

Two good examples of the salavage economy already around us;

In Detroit, where severe poverty is endemic and the population has dropped by 50% or more in the last 25 years, you will sometimes see house for sale in the $100-$500 range. Why so cheap? If any house sits unoccupied for more than a few weeks, the scavengers come. First the remove the doors, windows and appliances, then light and plumbing fixtures, then they remove the copper pipes and wiring. Last go any iron pipes, wood trim, aluminum or other low-value materials. After a few months, nothing remains but the shell. By that time the foreclosure is complete and the house, or what's left of it, can be sold. A sane system would seize the homes and give them away, but I guess the slumlords and the banks wouldn't like that.

The other example is in the film "God of War". At one point, Nick Cage's arms dealer character is flying a Russian 1950's era bomber full of rifles and shoulder-launched missiles over Africa (CAR, I believe). He is ordered down by military chase planes, and has the pilot set down in rough country where the jets can't land. Over the next 3 hours or so (about 5 minutes movie time)the locals remove not only the contents of the aircraft, but disassemble it into it constituent parts. By the time law enforcement arrives, not only is there no evidence of gun running, there's barely any evidence of the airplane left, and that has people actively disassembling it.

Straha said...

Hey JMG I've got a question: What countries do you see as being some of the more likely candidates for great power status if we see scarcity industrialism unfold like like how you claim it will?

Jacques de Beaufort said...

Some cities and communities lend themselves to retrofitting more than others. I live in Los Angeles and fear that the descent in to scarcity will be acutely felt in this horizontal sprawl. There is currently no functional mass transit system, and when cars become economically impossible, and roads difficult to maintain, the possibility for dramatic social chaos is very high. It's probably far too late for the local government, which is functionally bankrupt, to begin thinking about building public-transit infrastructures. The sprawling metropolis will come to resemble a bloated corpse rotting on the tarmic as people flee in droves while social systems break down all around them. In LA, if you don't have a car, you are basically fucked.

What cities do you imagine will weather this initial storm well ? Which areas do you feel are particularly vulnerable in the Great Recession ? How much can we factor in the effect of wandering refugees and the displaced diaspora of former suburban sprawl cities such as Phoenix, Las Vegas, LA ? What will happen when all those people try to crowd into SF or Portland ?

Mauricio Babilonia said...

Todd makes a valid analogy in comparing today's suburban housing stock with a ... well, a Suburban. One has to wonder whether some of the current multi-thousand-square-foot dream homes of today might not become the multifamily co-housing buildings of tomorrow. A block's worth of families living in a 1990's development might not be able to maintain every roof and furnace, but they could likely keep up a few. Plus, salvage from the unused stock would likely have some market value.

Totally heretical notion by today's economic and hyper-individualistic social standards I know, but desperation always seems to have a funny way of putting things into perspective.

Also, I highly recommend Bill McKibbon's new book Deep Economy, which discusses many of the same issues that have been talked about here over the last few weeks.

John Michael Greer said...

Danby, excellent examples. I expect to see a lot more of them.

Straha, in the age of scarcity industrialism, nations that have large domestic reserves of fossil fuels and a political leadership that gives orders to economic leaders, rather than taking orders from them, will have a huge advantage. I'd expect to see Russia among the winners, and most Western European nations among the losers. Brazil is another likely candidate for global power status, though its turn will probably come a bit later, along with China -- I see these two as the likely superpowers of the second half of the 21st century.

Jacques, the coastal cities that have prospered mightily during the last few decades are going to be hard hit when the global economy runs off the rails, and LA will be worse off than most; my guess is that by 2100 it's going to be a small and very impoverished community in the midst of vast ruins, and getting there will be an ugly process. The areas I expect to do best are the cities of the Rust Belt and the greater Mississippi basin (excluding the Gulf coast). They're modestly sized, close to lots of farmland, and very well placed to function in an economy of local manufacture using rail and canal transport -- that's what made them in the first place, after all.

Mauricio, turning a McMansion into cohousing is classic retrofit thinking, and likely to be a common sight in the decades to come. I also expect to see many of the shoddier McMansions torn down and their raw materials recycled, not least because many subdivisions are on land well suited for truck farms and market gardens once it's no longer cost-effective to ship vegetables from California to Pittsburgh.

Joel said...

>plenty of home appliances now controlled by computer chips can be made to work with thermostats, spring-driven timers, and the like, given a little ingenuity and a willingness to tinker

Twenty-year-old microchips work just fine. Electromechanical and spring-driven control systems tend to break down more frequently. Also, believe it or not, microprocessors are easier for the average hobbyist to re-purpose than the sorts of control systems you've described.

Also note that a control system tends to use a fraction of the energy that the larger appliance does, and that a crude control system will use more energy in itself, and cause the larger system to use more. As long as the infrastructure exists to produce and distribute microprocessors, the energy saved by using them will be enough to justify their manufacture.

I'll admit that they are likely to go the way of Roman pottery, if things go very badly. I find Ursula K. LeGuin's vision of an ecotechnic society in, e.g., Always Coming Home to be plausible, and she has a place in that ecosystem for microchips.

dragonfly said...

Some McMansions are already being used for public housing in places where building expanded beyond all reason. I don't have a link but I read it somewhere and it's in California, maybe Ventura. Hard to imagine all of LA a smoldering ruin. My version/vision is the marginalized unworthy unwanted persons giving up and sneaking off someplace. Gangs proliferating, of course.
One thing that puts a bee in my bonnet over predictions of the future is the lack of inclusion of changing geographies due to rising waters, unstable weather patterns,
even seismic or volcanic disturbances. Sure these things can happen any time, but it seems like with Peak Everything, Yellowstone will surely erupt or California fall off the continent or Ireland disappear into the mists.
And I for one will just be going - of course! I know, not really on topic.

hapa said...

thank you, i like how this feels, as a picture.

Danby said...

An great example of retrofitting and co-housing actually comes from my own family. My grandparents snuck north over the border into Detroit in the 1920's. My grandfather died a few years later, leaving few assets, but a small insurance settlement. My grandmother used that money to buy an absurdly large house (12 bedrooms + servants quarters on 5 acres) on the river in Mt. Clemens Michigan in 1934. This was during the Depression, and big fancy houses were going pretty cheap.

She could not, of course, afford to maintain and heat the monstrosity, or even make payments. But just living in it wasn't her intent. She opened a vacation boarding house catering to the families of Jewish businessmen from the city. Cities can get unbearably hot and muggy in the summer. Some of her customers would come up to Mt. Clemens by train in June and stay in the house until school started in Sept. They would leave their families in Michigan and work during the week in Detroit, Cleveland, or even Chicago, commuting back for weekends (always in time for Shabbat) Others would come and stay for two weeks or a month.

What the families loved was 1) It was extremely inexpensive. Grandma would leave them to do their own laundry and cook their own dinners. Since she didn't have to hire help, she could keep the prices as low as possible. 2)They got to do all their cooking and laundry in common areas. The wives in particular loved that. She kept kosher (two sets of dishes and all that) at least in summer. She also kept a huge garden. The ladies were free to use anything out of the garden that they liked, at once lowering their expenses and getting better quality produce than was otherwise available. She also had a small orchard and kept chickens, but those weren't free.

She and her family lived in the servant's quarters, which were actually a very nice 4 bedroom apartment above the carriage house. Every fall, they would board up the house, shut off the water and dust cover all the furniture. Then they would support themselves through the winter with odd jobs (my father had a radio repair business at the age of 11), hunting and trapping.

FARfetched said...

I've written about repurposing entire suburban areas, here, on other blogs, and my serial FAR Future (available on my blog). The burbs were more or less patterned after English villages, minus the shopkeepers and various other services (gardeners, for example). But there's nothing stopping people from literally setting up shop in a house (abandoned or not) and a shabbier-looking but functionally authentic village. Houses not in use are likely to be torn down for raw materials (as Danby pointed out, this is already going on in some places), and the lawns turned into community or private gardens.

Something I observed a while go while heading home from work: around here, there are vestiges of towns, or commerce centers, roughly every five miles along the highways. Someone located exactly between two of these could walk to either one in an hour, or bicycle it in 10 minutes. Easy car travel has gutted many of these places, and often all that's left is a church that bears the name of the former town or a long-closed general store. So as appliances and houses get retrofitted, so may entire towns that disappeared long ago and are only waiting to be needed once again.

Jacques, I think LA will survive and even (after extensive retrofitting) thrive. Major seaports were built to serve a purpose after all, and as cargo ships revert to sail there will be a need for it.

fiveyears said...

I think the first thing that would require 'retrofitting' in a scarcity economy would be today's expectations of, and methods of providing for, personal and property security. Increasing scarcity and a increasing requirement for security go hand in hand (for those for whom scarcity does not become synonymous with zero).

When the scarcity of cheap 'alternative' energy (oil) begins to be felt, people, having many uses for their personal energy, will be loathe to spend a large portion of it on inefficient security methods like diplomacy, cooperation and the Golden Rule. Instead, an new age of shoot first (if they get past the pits and the pit bulls) and ask questions later will be ushered in.

Nobody should imagine that a world of relatively immediate scarcity will be anything but dog eat dog. If that world arrives, and you haven't already collected and stored your recycleables, and made adequate provision for their and your own security (you can expect not to get out much), you'd better spend your last roll of copper wire on a mohawk and leathers, and on making yourself ugly enough to gain admittance into the 'have nots' tricycle gang.

yooper said...

Hello John! I can't wait to get my hands on your new book! Sure like the reviews, I've read.

I'm trying to retrofit my life the best I can.. The compost pile thing, (eliminating Waste Management), has worked out very well and even produced some fine potatoes!

This past summer, I salvaged an old 79 Yamahopper scotter at one of the garage sales. Some people may giggle watching me ride it now, however when gas could be at $5 a gallon next spring, they won't be laughing long..

Excellent post! Perhaps this retrofitting won't be so bad, I'm having fun doing it! Time for me to slow down a bit and smell the roses along the way, anyhow....

Thanks, yooper







1

Noah Scales said...

Maybe there's a market for retrofitting, but the market for upgrading is probably larger, with a better future, and, unlike "retrofitting", is legal. Making homes energy-efficient, removing pavement for food gardens, and fixing old bicycles sitting around the garage can be done whenever the demand exists and the legal owners want the job done.

Why not capture the capital flowing through our current economy rather than let it flow past you while you group-think about impending disaster? If you want to invest in your local economies, you may live in less wealth, with personal consequences that might bother you if globalization continues and nations remain strong. But at least you invested and participated! Without the future falling apart as you plan, you're helpless, without work, marketable skills, and money to support even a modest lifestyle that includes time for anything other than work.


In fact this discussion diverts my energy from present problems, and to do what? Imagine a future in which my current problems have been replaced by much worse ones, with my chances for a decent life that much less, but sugarcoat it so it seems like I'm being resourceful, preparing for "the salvage economy".

Puh. Mr. Greer, keep your predictions. For whomever these predictions are comfort for, they're reason for complacence. For everyone else, either salvage means recycling or theft is no longer a crime.

John Michael Greer said...

Joel, I'm familiar with ways of reusing the simpler microcontrollers; I've also found that very often a simple bimetallic thermostat or spring-driven timer is just as easy to install. I'm more fond of the latter, since they're easier to make from scrap!

Dragonfly, good point. I'm less concerned with Yellowstone-style catastrophes, and more concerned with, say, rising sea level turning Arkansas into a seacoast state over the course of the next century; still, either way the impact on human geography will be pretty severe.

Hapa, you're welcome.

Danby, an excellent example -- not least because it shows the way hard times can bring out creative responses.

Farfetched, we've got fossil towns like that out here, too. My guess is that those that still make sense in the deindustrial economy may find themselves going concerns again.

Fiveyears, there will be some of that, I'm sure, but the tendency to paint the future in Mad Max colors is more a function of Hollywood than history. The Great Depression -- which, not incidentally, is a better model for the near future than the sort of bike-gang fantasy you're suggesting -- wasn't notably more violent than the boomtime that preceded it.

Yooper, good for you. I'm fortunate enough to live someplace where shoe leather is all the transport technology I really need, but if that wasn't the case a scooter might well be on the shopping list.

Noah, nobody's forcing you to read these essays. If you really find serious discussion of the downside of the future that offensive, I'm sure you can find a more cheerful view elsewhere on the internet. Bon voyage!

fiveyears said...

JMG,

I wasn't really proposing a bike-gang fantasy; just coloring up the short comment. I don't agree that history, i.e., what transpired during the Great Depression, may fairly be used as a guide as to what lengths scarcity of the kind we'll face in the future will cause people to go to in order to survive.

It's my view that the GD was the result of a scarcity of faith, not resources. This time, it's going to be a more tangible lack, as the irreplaceable natural resources we've become attached to actually peter out.

In addition, today's world is not the world of the 1930s. People today are less inclined to sit and wait for better days in a breadline. In these "What do we want? We want it! When do we want it? NOW!" times, people are not inclined to wait at all, for anything. They actually CAN'T wait for anything.

There are more people, 300 mil vs 123 mil, and they are less prepared, physically, mentally and emotionally, to suffer hardship for long. In fact, today's population is programmed to expect ease and door delivery of all their desires. There just won't be enough bread to feed the whole line. Since encouraging the line to make the necessary move out of the cities and back to the land will be a nigh impossible task, the line will have to come up with a new strategy for obtaining any existing bread.

People are fatter and less fit than they were in the 1930s. Apart from pointing to their greed, that fact also indicates that they would have a hard time adapting to engaging in heavy manual labor. Even if they could manufacture the wherewithal in order to become more active, how will they do it without their medications?

Since the few who will adapt easily to such a life (or continue in one) will be very much less inclined to continue selling their sweat to potential buyers (sweat will be the new oil), the latter will have to come up with a new strategy for making that happen.

People are dumber than they used to be, i.e., they don't know how to think for themselves. How are they going to recycle anything without the aid of committee meetings, guidelines, and a cubicle from which to plan and budget for the recycling? Just crowbarring their gaze from the spot 2 feet in front where their computer monitors used to be will be a challenge.

I wasn't there, but I get the impression that society still existed in the 1930s, i.e., that neighbors hailed one another and cooperated for the common good. Considering three doors either side of you, how many of your neighbors do you truly believe you can count on in a scarcity economy, if not to share and cooperate with you, to at least not hold you up at gunpoint and relieve you of your stash?

As for the police, if they are to survive themselves, they will circle their wagons even tighter around the 'have a lot' compounds that will spring up or consolidate. The majority outside will have to fend for themselves. This will, in fact, somewhat resemble the scenario painted in Mad Max II.

Finally, the GD was a depression. It was supposed to end one day. People hunkered down and waited for the end. What is in store for us doesn't have an end. It'll just get worse, for a long time, until, after 95% of the world's population has been wiped out, it gets different.

Baxter said...

Thanks, JMG, for giving me the opportunity to post again. Next time I will remember that 1) a mildly profane substitute for the word "stuff" is enough to get your blog banned from schools (although Mr. De Beaufort uses the f-bomb on this forum and that seems not to be a problem), and 2) to save my posts. Darn it! So here is a second attempt:

I have two somewhat unrelated thoughts.

First is that Asian countries may have already leapfrogged into a mode of salvage economy. After all, we currently send mountains of scrap paper, metals, electronics and other material we think of as "recyclable" to Asia, where they are typically downcycled into other products. However, the workers involved in these processes live under brutal, toxic conditions, a far cry from the image we might like to harbor of ingenious Yanks gathering under a shade tree to repurpose a rusting Dodge Aspen. Salvage often isn't pretty, and we should learn from contemporary examples. Just an observation.

To change gears a bit, I am concerned that Americans have lost the requisite skills to be very good at salvaging or retrofitting anything.

In the last several decades, the financial elites ruling this country, under the guise of the religion of globalization, have presided over a massive disinvestment in what was called, when I was in middle school, the industrial arts. This has mirrored the willful destruction of America's manufacturing base. So aspiring to a career as, say, a machinist, is no longer realistic for a young American. If one cannot be a good marketing consultant or conjure up some exotic new credit derivative, the only choice is to learn to operate the Slurpee machine at the local convenience store.

I live in the vicinity of JMG, and our region exemplifies this phenomenon. My partner teaches at a local high school, which, in a region traditionally devoted to wood products, has just completely eliminated its woodworking curriculum. Too expensive, apparently. I guess they expect their graduates to move into careers as sales associates, because of course the religion of globalization says that furniture is made elsewhere. 15 years ago, my stepson, who attended a different high school in the same region, was able to become a skilled welder in that school. That opportunity no longer exists, either.

I work in a mechanics trade school, and in the last five years my colleagues and I have noticed a precipitous decline in incoming students' basic manual skills. The vast majority of our students are bright and alert people, but it's clear that many have never even held a wrench or a screwdriver before. I therefore wonder how prepared our society may be for a salvage economy if the majority has lost the basic manual skills that people of my parents' and grandparents' generations took for granted.

My intention is not to devalue intellectual work, but it's clear to me that America has lost much of its ability to make stuff (this is the site of my former expletive), and with it much of the ingenuity necessary for a salvage economy.

What we will need is the re-acquisition and dissemination of essential manual skills, starting now. No, I am not pimping for my school. But I recommend sharpening your tools, and picking up some manual skills. Learn to sew. Learn drafting. Learn metallurgy or woodcarving or masonry. Some day soon it may prove more valuable than investment banking or real estate.

Danby said...

fiveyears,
Wow! I'm gonna try hard not to be insulting, but, wow.

"...the GD was the result of a scarcity of faith, not resources."

The Great Depression was the result of a market collapse, brought on by the over-extension of credit in the 1920's, resulting in several consecutive credit bubbles, including a housing bubble. While it is true that in the abstract, there were still lots of raw materials, the collapse of the market meant that there was little way to bring those materials to market as finished goods at a price that the majority could afford. Just like, oh, say, a shortage of oil pushing the price through the roof.

Faith had nothing to do with it. Whether or not people had a positive outlook (which is what I think you mean), they simply couldn't afford to purchase the goods, especially if purchase required credit. Credit had a lot to do with it, as the credit markets essentially disappeared over the course of 2 years (we are about 3 months into this process, by the way). And, when your country is on a downswing economically, and you're not too sure of your job six months out, it's not the best time to finance a durable goods purchase. If that is what you mean by "Faith" then no there wasn't much, because it wasn't justified. In other words, the lack of a positive outlook was more a result of the Depression than the cause of it.

People today are less inclined to sit and wait for better days in a breadline. In these "What do we want? We want it! When do we want it? NOW!" times, people are not inclined to wait at all, for anything. They actually CAN'T wait for anything.

Do you think that's what people did during the Great Depression? Wait in a breadline for better days? That's a cartoon view of history. People did what they do in any poverty-stricken third world country today, the salvaged, scavenged, worked, took odd jobs, rode the rails, grew gardens, made things to sell, and basically hustled their asses off to make sure there was food on the table and at least the rent was paid. The number of people who actually waited is bread lines was pretty small, and it was more of a last-gasp than the way people spent their time.

"There just won't be enough bread to feed the whole line."

Oh, farmers will stop raising wheat? In spite of the fact that wheat requires less tillage, less herbicide, and less fertilizer and produces well in harsher climates than any other major grain crop? Bread may be more expensive, relative to people's incomes than it is now, but as long as people have any money at all, they will spend it on bread. So long as there's a market for bread, it will be produced. If it got down to extreme cases and people were starving, Americans (I know them pretty well) would do what it took to make sure they had bread. Which is what they did in the '30s, thus the bread lines.

"People are fatter and less fit than they were in the 1930s. Apart from pointing to their greed, that fact also indicates that they would have a hard time adapting to engaging in heavy manual labor. Even if they could manufacture the wherewithal in order to become more active, how will they do it without their medications?"

So, the starving people above will be too fat to do any useful work. Please think your thoughts through. Hunger is not only a great way to lose weight, it's a great motivator for physical activity.

"People are dumber than they used to be, i.e., they don't know how to think for themselves. How are they going to recycle anything without the aid of committee meetings, guidelines, and a cubicle from which to plan and budget for the recycling? Just crowbarring their gaze from the spot 2 feet in front where their computer monitors used to be will be a challenge."

Are you serious? You must be, but the towering stupidity of this statement makes me think it might be true, in the case of you and your friends.

"Finally, the GD was a depression. It was supposed to end one day. People hunkered down and waited for the end. What is in store for us doesn't have an end."

Umm, no they didn't, not after 1933 or so. Nobody thought in terms of it ending, they thought in terms of adapting to the situation as is existed. Just like people everywhere always have.

"It'll just get worse, for a long time, until, after 95% of the world's population has been wiped out, it gets different."

Try to understand JMG's theory of catabolic collapse. A steady 100 year downslope into hell is exactly what won't happen. Instead it will be 1 step forward, 2 steps back, with temporary recoveries and recessions.

JMG, I'm afraid this is a bit harsh, but I don't suffer this sort of thing gladly. Feel free to nuke it if it's over the line.

John Michael Greer said...

Fiveyears, when anybody starts off by saying that they don't think it's useful to learn from history, I've learned to expect that what follows will be full of mistakes that could have been avoided by paying attention to history. I have to say that your comment is no exception. People have been claiming that Americans are weak, inept, unhealthy, etc., etc. as compared with earlier generations since before America was an independent country. You're simply repeating an old rhetorical trope, though I doubt you realize that.

Since I've dealt with all your points at great length in previous posts -- as I'm sure you're aware, the opinions you hold are extremely popular these days -- I'll limit myself to one comment on specifics here. You seem to think that because you believe we're facing a sudden, permanent collapse, that everyone else will automatically agree with you. Even if you were right, which I don't believe, this hardly follows. Quite the contrary: for the next several centuries, the single most effective way to pitch a political, economic, cultural, or religious program will be to claim that the program in question will bring back the good old days of happy motoring and cheap energy. The vast majority of people will treat every temporary improvement in conditions as a sign that the crisis is finally over and good times are here again, or almost; they always do.

Baxter, I gather I missed de Beaufort's use of profanity -- I have only my own eyes to scan these things as they come in. Still, many thanks for reposting; two solid points.

Dan, I'd say your comment is close to the edge but not quite over it. Over the time the Report has been coming out, I've put through a fair number of comments lambasting me in heated terms, after all!

fiveyears said...

danby, thanks for the response. I don't think you crossed the line, because I don't believe in lines (for myself, when being addressed), although I do try to anticipate others' lines, and stay this side of them (with mixed success so far).

I'm new here, and I have only read the last two blog posts, so a) I wasn't aware that JMG had addressed most or all of my points on previous posts, and b) I'm not sure what he wants his comments sections to look like (if he has a preference as to tone, argumentativeness, etc., I believe it should be respected - either by toeing the line or becoming scarce). Unfortunately, blog owners' comments rules usually appear to be made up and ammended as people, usually me, go along. I hope that's not going to be the case here, as this looks like a particularly eloquent and thoughtful group - discussing an extremely important topic.

Whatever, I'll give myself free rein, and if it's not what's wanted here, perhaps JMG can drop me a private note to that effect (and I'll become scarce).

So, to danby. Point by point. You wrote:

"The Great Depression was the result of a market collapse...

...Faith had nothing to do with it...

...Credit had a lot to do with it, as the credit markets essentially disappeared over the course of 2 years..."

I must say, that "Faith had nothing to do with it" looks a little incongruous in that edited illogic sandwich. Don't you agree?Isn't 'credit' synonymous with 'faith' in this context?

I repeat, the resources were available; it was faith (confidence in the future, call it what you like) that was lacking.

danby: "If that is what you mean by "Faith" then no there wasn't much, because it wasn't justified. In other words, the lack of a positive outlook was more a result of the Depression than the cause of it."

Has it been your experience that markets first collapse, THEN faith (confidence) in them dwindles, or vice versa?

danby: "Do you think that's what people did during the Great Depression? Wait in a breadline for better days? That's a cartoon view of history."

Yes, I think that. I don't agree that it's a cartoon view of history. People did wait in breadlines then. People still do today - in their own personal, economic stratum, racial, or regional recessions or depressions. Others may have avoided 30s breadlines by adopting other breadline-level survival strategies, such as you outlined ("the[y] salvaged, scavenged, worked, took odd jobs, rode the rails, grew gardens, made things to sell, and basically hustled their asses off to make sure there was food on the table and at least the rent was paid), in the end it boils down to the same thing: Surviving on a bare minimum, in a pale simulacrum of your former existence, making zero forward or upward progress = waiting for better days.

I wrote: "There just won't be enough bread to feed the whole line."

danby explained that farmers will still grow wheat and Americans will still buy bread with what little money they can rustle up. I should have been clearer. There won't be enough bread because there will be no way to continue the present agriculture-to-baker-to city dweller's table chain that operates now in the presence of abundant cheap oil (when it ain't dere no mo). They won't be able to grow enough wheat. They won't be able to transport enough wheat. And they won't be able to either bake or transport or store enough bread.

danby: "Which is what they did in the '30s, thus the bread lines."

Again, this won't be an American 30s-style depression. This will be the mother of all German 30s-style depressions (only the depression will be a black hole). One automatic retrofit will take place on your wheelbarrow, as it finds new use as a wallet.

danby: "So, the starving people above will be too fat to do any useful work. Please think your thoughts through. Hunger is not only a great way to lose weight, it's a great motivator for physical activity."

First, I should have said "obese people," as there are probably more obese Americans now than fat Americans. The reasons why they are overweight go beyond just consuming too many calories compared with their energy expenditure. When the calories are no longer as freely available, and when physical exertion is more necessary than it is now, the mindsets that produced those reasons will persist.

danby: "Are you serious? You must be, but the towering stupidity of this statement makes me think it might be true, in the case of you and your friends."

Is that your entire argument against the motion that people are generally dumber, i.e., less resourceful, less able to think (reason) for themselves, and less able use their imaginations (create new things) now than they were in the 1930s? Since you offer no more actual words, I'll take it that it is. It is, of course, true in the case of my friends and I, we being part of the group commonly known as "people."

School (government), and later HR departments, teach us that all of the above are a waste of time, antisocial, anti-team and even unpatriotic. None of them are taught. None of them were taught to our parents. Where then, do you suppose we (people in general) would acquire such skills? Prussia?

"Umm, no they didn't, not after 1933 or so. Nobody thought in terms of [the GD] ending..."

So, why did they refer to it as a depression? Are depressions normally considered part of an economic cycle and expected to end at some foreseeable point? I'm saying, this time, it won't be a depression (although many will still unfoundedly call it that for a long time after it gets going - just as many will unfoundedly wait for better days that won't be along in their lifetimes, depending on what constitutes better days for a given individual).

"Try to understand JMG's theory of catabolic collapse. A steady 100 year downslope into hell is exactly what won't happen. Instead it will be 1 step forward, 2 steps back, with temporary recoveries and recessions."

Is that what we're here for, to try to understand (accept) JMG's theories? If so, what should we do with our own theories? If you don't know, or can't conceive of having a theory of your own, see my point above about people being dumber than they used to be.

"JMG, I'm afraid this is a bit harsh, but I don't suffer this sort of thing gladly."

Harsh? Oh please, Cardinal Fang, not the comfy chair!

fiveyears said...

JMG wrote: "Fiveyears, when anybody starts off by saying that they don't think it's useful to learn from history, I've learned to expect that what follows will be full of mistakes that could have been avoided by paying attention to history."

So, who started off saying that, and how does their saying it make me eligible for receiving your response?

I wrote: "I don't agree that history, i.e., what transpired during the Great Depression, may fairly be used as a guide as to what lengths scarcity of the kind we'll face in the future will cause people to go to in order to survive."

Can you see the difference? Not not learn from history in general, but not learn any relevant lesson from the bit of history called the GD, which may be usefully applied to the upcoming economic and social upheaval, perhaps to be known as Hubbert's Water Park Speed Slide and Colonic.

JMG: "People have been claiming that Americans are weak, inept, unhealthy, etc., etc. as compared with earlier generations since before America was an independent country. You're simply repeating an old rhetorical trope, though I doubt you realize that."

Are you saying that because people have been saying that for centuries (and because it hasn't, according to you, been proven to be true at any point) that it can't have become, and can't ever become the case? If so, do you believe that that represents a logical or even reasonable standpoint?

JMG: "You seem to think that because you believe we're facing a sudden, permanent collapse, that everyone else will automatically agree with you."

a) I didn't state that I believe the collapse would be sudden (i.e., overnight, or affecting all people equally at the same time) or permanent (i.e., that humankind will continually declining and eventually die out as a result). I don't agree that it will take centuries for massive change to occur, but I don't believe either that all the major changes will take place as in the twinkling of an eye (not yet, at least, then again, who knows for sure about that). I don't see how anyone could reasonably forecast a 'comeback' from what we're about to undergo. Given the potential myriad permutations of events involved on the 'downslope', it must be held to be almost impossible to predict what form any 'upslope' would take, let alone what any resulting plateau would look like. It's highly unlikely that such a curve would eventually bring us back to where we left off. Things are always going to be different from now on. As they always have been. Only now, they won't be different in a good or even acceptable way for most people (until generations have passed and people don't know any better).

I find it strange that you would even use a term like 'permanent.' How could a collapse be permanent or impermanent? The WTC, for example, can't be reconstructed - it's gone. Only new towers could be constructed. However, the WTC towers collapse is also over - it lasted about 9 seconds for each tower. The collapse itself is not permanent, not is the result of the collapse.

b) I nowhere either stated or hinted that I expected anyone to agree with me on anything. I offer my thoughts freely and as is, as I enjoy expressing myself publicly in writing. Paraphrasing Kipling and, perhaps, Tim Gallwey, I treat the agreement and disagreement of others as identical twin imposters.

"...for the next several centuries, the single most effective way to pitch a political, economic, cultural, or religious program will be to claim that the program in question will bring back the good old days of happy motoring and cheap energy."

Always accepting that politics, economics, culture or religion, as we recognize them today, survive for centuries. I don't believe there is any way any of these things can survive in any contemporarily recognizable form for long. Promises of a return to motoring or any kind of "energy" will not represent exchangeable political or religious currency where we're headed.

JMG: "The vast majority of people will treat every temporary improvement in conditions as a sign that the crisis is finally over and good times are here again, or almost; they always do."

It really seems that you have entirely failed to grasp the gravity of what is about to befall us. 'Again' and 'always' might not survive as words in our grandchildren's lexicon.

John Michael Greer said...

Fiveyears, when you claim that I've "entirely failed to grasp the gravity of what is about to befall us," I have to smile. Like the scores of other people who've made these same claims on this blog before you, you're taking a set of apocalyptic assumptions drawn from rehashed rhetorical tropes that were old hat centuries before you were born, using them to build yet another implausible worst-case scenario, and criticizing me because I don't buy it. For every person who denounces me because I think history is a better guide to the future than apocalyptic fantasies, in turn, I get somebody else denouncing me because I don't believe the other side of the same binary, the claim that progress will inevitably trump the limits to growth.

One of these days I will probably just stop putting through comments that simply rehash the conventional wisdom that makes these two beliefs the only acceptable opinions about the future; it's really rather wearing to have to point out the same flaws in the same tired claims over and over again. If you look back through the archives, you'll find that I've addressed every one of the points you've raised, in detail; we'll leave it at that.

Danby said...

fiveyears,
However remote the Great Depression may be for you, it is not so remote from me. My father was 15 years old in 1934. He was working full time driving a truck. At the age of 18 he played professional hockey, and in between was a semi-pro boxer and professional fiddler. He also ran a fur trapping line in the winter, and repaired radios, and whatever else would bring in income. Was he exceptional? In his talent perhaps, but not in his activity.

This is what people do. You seem to think people are stupider, lazier, and just generally more useless than his generation, or any other generation. They are not. They have simply adapted their behavior to give themselves the best shot at doing well. I have experience with 5 generations, and the current and next generation are just as strong, just as smart and just as adaptable as mine or the previous ones. It's that simple. If you think people are lazy and dumb, it's likely because you've never backed one into a corner (a very dangerous thing to do, by the way).

Right now, the best way to provide security for one's family is to get a degree, get an office job, and keep your options open. If in the future it becomes strangling kittens, you will see a vast army of kitten stranglers emerge. If, as seems likely, the best way to provide for your family becomes hard manual labor, then you will see the most unlikely suspects become manual laborers.

The two key evolutionary advantages enjoyed by humans are intelligence and adaptability. Drop a tiger onto the steppe, and he will likely starve. His hunting strategy will not work very well, and the game is too sparse to support him. Drop a group of humans onto the steppe, and they have a better than even chance of not only surviving, but thriving. The same with a temperate forest, an open prairie, a river delta or a jungle.

The same rule can be applied to economic systems. Take the stock broker out of the brokerage, and drop him in a feudal economy, he will most likely find a way to survive, and even to thrive.

The Depression was called a depression because they didn't want to call it a panic, which was the 19th century name for the same event. They thought it would divert attention from the fact that all the mechanisms put in place in the previous 20 years to prevent a panic had only put the next economic panic off and made it more severe.

If you want to call the reasonable assessment that lending money at a particular time is foolish because the economy is in freefall a lack of faith, then I suppose a lack of faith was present. The same goes for the assessment that it would be foolish to borrow money when you don't have a secure income.

Your equation of faith and credit simply mystifies, though. Faith and trust are not the same thing, let alone faith and credit.

If you mean that a credit economy is dependent on faith in a constantly expanding economy, then you may well be on to something. Of course, such a faith is foolish, doomed to destroy that which it feeds, but history shows that destruction happening on a fairly regular basis.

If, on the other hand, you mean the sort of Keynesian nonsense apparently believe by our government economists, such as "if only people will just keep over-extending themselves, the good times will never end", or "if only lenders had been willing to keep extending credit in 1929, the depression would not have happened" then my opinion of your intelligence would not be fit for this blog.

"Has it been your experience that markets first collapse, THEN faith (confidence) in them dwindles, or vice versa?"

In my experience, markets collapse after a period of counter-rational confidence, just as our housing market is collapsing after 5 years of irrational confidence in the ever-increasing price of real estate led to irrational lending decisions. This has resulted in an inability of the credit markets to absorb the bad debt. Confidence (faith in your term) was the cause of this collapse, and lack of "faith" is the cure. More people believing that the house market will always increase at a rate greater than inflation (irrational confidence) would not save this market. Bills always come due, bad loans always default.

Are depressions expected to end at some point? Of course yes. As scripture says, "This too shall pass." Will the coming economic depression pass? Yes, and this is where you seem to be having the most difficulty. It will pass, and the recovery will come, then there will be another recession/depression. In between there will likely be war or two. Then another recovery. The key to understanding collapse is that the recovery never takes you back up as far as the recession knocks you down. That's the way nations collapse.

You bring up the example of the German period of hyper-inflation. It's a great example. Let me ask you, how many people starved in Germany in 1922? NONE. How many people even lost their homes? Very few, and all of those were in the business of lending. Were times miserable? Very yes. Did people have to scramble to survive? Yes. Were there armed gangs roaming the streets, Mad Max style? Not at all. Not until the ascendancy of the National Socialist Workers Party in the mid-'30s. Even then, the gangs were more of an irregular army seeking political power than a frantic mob bent on theft.

One of the real weakness of moderns, Americans in particular, in understanding history is the inability to look at people of a different place or time on their own terms. It's difficult to see things form someone else's perspective.

Another is the telescoping time effect, JMG referenced a few weeks ago. What might take a few pages (or less than a page) in many history books, with a nice summary at the end, was actually the lives of the people who lived through it. Nobody during the Depression was thinking "If I just wait a few years, I can ride this out". They were thinking "It's middle of September, and there's that old apple tree down by the railroad tracks. I can pick the apples, sell the best ones, and dry the rest. That should provide some fruit for the winter. Oh, and I could trade some to Mrs. Kaspersky for a couple of cabbages." The Great Depression lasted twelve years before it disappeared into the command economy of WWII.

To the people who are living it, all economies are household economies. The effect of a layoff or a rent increase have much more profound effects on the individual than the ups or downs of the economy at large. As a result, most people don't worry about the larger economy. They worry about their own household economy. So, no, nobody sat around waiting for the Depression to end. Whether it came or went was much less important on an individual basis than what they were going to do for money today, and tomorrow. Some people did quite well during the depression, most did quite poorly. People were much more focused on being the one who did well than on what the economy as a whole was doing.

Stephen Heyer said...

RETROFITTING

Out here at the edge of the world, Australia, where people are such unfashionable relics that they remember with pride Australia’s strong socialist past, where as yet much wealth is still distributed throughout society instead of having migrated to its proper home – the wealthiest one tenth of one percent, and where voters are so reactionary that politicians can still lose office for too obviously looking after the interests of their “rich mates” at the cost of ordinary Australians, retrofitting has been flavor of the month for, well, years.

My lady is pretty much into such things and suggests that David Holmgren’s work is a good example of research in this area, for example his “Retrofitting the Suburbs for Sustainabality” http://www.holmgren.com.au/DLFiles/PDFs/Holmgren-Suburbs-Retrofit-Update49.pdf . Note that it was published by the CSIRO, Australia’s premier research organization, and that they actually have a sustainability network.

Here, governments at all levels try to encourage this kind of thing with subsidies for solar hot water, recycling grey water (using water from washing and baths for gardens, water being in shorter supply here than energy) and actually encouraging public transport. What’s more, they actually research such matters, for example the Queensland state government (where I live) has recently completed the report “Queensland’s Vulnerability to Rising Oil Prices” http://www.epa.qld.gov.au/publications/p02190aa.pdf/Queenslands_vulnerability_to_rising_oil_prices__taskforce_report.pdf. For a summary go to the Conclusions and Recommendations section.

My lady Susan’s own little web site, still very much a work in progress, is www.creekholme.com which, among other things, records the progress on her own little property. She also intends in the near future to have a collection of links to such useful items.

Put all this together with the astonishingly rapid responses by farmers, business and private people to the very beginning of the coming problems as I noted in my previous post, and we seem to be seeing something well beyond retrofitting, in fact, more like a good beginning to adaptation. Note that this is despite the fact that the area where I live (Central Queensland) is one of the world’s major mineral, beef and grain areas, and thus hardly in line to be badly effected by the early stages of “The Long Emergency”.

ADAPTATION

In short, what if, rather than a centuries long unwilling, forced, stepwise adaptation to “peak everything”, some countries make the immediately necessary adaptations to near future conditions in decades rather than centuries, while carefully planning and making provision for the more distant future? It seems to me that this would alter everything: Not only would the process be much less painful, but resources could be allocated while they were still available to build the systems necessary to run a comfortable, hi-tech culture during the next stage.

If this sounds like central planning, well, a lot of nations including Australia have considerable past experience with various levels of central planning and mixed economies. Further, a lot of us are starting to suspect that the whole “markets are always right and the obscenely wealthy always virtuous” dogma was a disastrous wrong turn. In fact, it amounted to a privatizing the profits and socializing the losses for the rich, while impoverishing everyone else, especially future generations.

Ok, I know the best that is happening anywhere is a bare framework of what will be required, but when push comes to shove there is a vast difference between being lost with nowhere to go and having well developed and tested plans, so that all you have to do is resign yourself to following them.

And it seems to me that quite a few countries are at about that stage. Given a war time level of effort they should be able to make the necessary adaptations almost easily.

Of course, there is going to be the difficult problem of governments explaining to their populations that they have been herded into exactly the wrong economic systems by those self same governments for the past thirty years. Worse, that now their houses are worth a third of what they thought (but the loans still have to be repaid) and their pension plans have suffered similar shrinkage.

However, there are ways out of even that. I suspect the one the Chinese government seems to be preparing, which blames it all on the thieves, looters and social wreckers in Wall Street and the USA government that facilitated them, is going to be fairly popular.

Hey! Blaming someone else is ancient tradition when a government finds it has messed up monumentally. What’s more, it generally works fine to maintain social harmony.

Oh! And as a final thought, my lady reckons it isn’t Peal Oil that is causing the immediate problems so much as Peak Credit. Might be something in that, not that we don’t have Peak Oil, just that the immediate problems are more financial.

Well… looks like I get to play optimist again. But then, during my longish life I saw the destruction of one economic system (soft socialism/mixed economy) and it’s replacement with the terminally irrational neocon fantasy, lived much of my life under threat of immediate annihilation (the Cold War), saw the collapse of the Soviet Union and even the metamorphosis of the Chinese Communist Party into a rather competent, semi democratic, soft fascist – sorry, Confucian party. After all that refitting our societies for the future looks pretty doable.

fiveyears said...

Well, I don't think it's going to be any fun commenting here on your individual posts, if one of the rules for doing so is that the commenter must read all your previous posts and assimilate all the information in them, with a view to never causing you to ever to have to dismiss their comments as merely a rehash of "tired claims."

You realize that your guess about the future is exactly as good as mine (and mine yours) don't you?

Anyway, I didn't claim (as you claimed I did) that my beliefs about the future were the only acceptable ones. The comment of mine that prompted you to make such a claim dealt with the present, and not the future. Grasping "the gravity of what is about to befall us" is something people should be doing now, using facts actually at hand now.

JMG: "it's really rather wearing to have to point out the same flaws in the same tired claims over and over again"

Go on, indulge me, as a special favor. Isn't it important? Wasn't it important enough, such that you started a blog about it. Perhaps you missed something before, that I can help you now comprehend. That is, unless you consider yourself an infallible clairvoyant, or your previous posts to be prophesy? If either of those is true, I've definitely come to the wrong ward.

In any event, as regards the post-peak oil future, what else is worth discussing but the potential future scenarios and how a person might prepare better for each of them?

Jacques de Beaufort said...

do you have any thoughts on the current financial situation or the nature of the casino economy in general ?

Kunstler posted some good thoughts this morning, but you essays are generally longer and have more meat than florid bravado.

John Michael Greer said...

Stephen, I think it's inevitable that different parts of the world will experience the transition to a deindustrial economy at different rates, and in different ways, and the US is likely to have a very hard time of it. Still, since Australia is one of the only nations on Earth that use more energy per capita than the US does, and has so far been able to push off many of the indirect costs of its energy (such as armies in the Middle East) onto the US -- such are the privileges of being one of the inner circle of US allies -- I suspect you're being a bit too sanguine.

Fiveyears, no, I'm not going to do your homework for you, and I see no point in responding to your gibes. You've had your say; I've responded to your comment; it's pretty clear that further discussion isn't going to lead anywhere useful, and I do have other calls on my time, you know. If you want to know my views on the apocalyptic conventional wisdom you've been rehashing, you know where to find them; if you just want to show off your favorite debating tricks, you can do that somewhere else.

Jacques, I talked about the hallucinatory nature of the current economy a while back in this post. I'm watching the current situation closely, of course, and we'll see whether this latest crash will be able to leap the barrier between the economy of paper wealth and that other economy where goods and services are produced.

Todd said...

fiveyears,

It's reasonable that you should poke around a little on this site as homework. You are taking a position that JMG had roundly citiqued, this being one of his most fundamental contributions to the broader conversation.

It's not even as hard as reading the entire archive. If you want to come up to speed quickly read "The long road down" or "How civilisations collapse."

Another approach would be to use the search box at the top of the blog for "myth of the apocalypse" and pick through the results.

Stephen Heyer said...

Hi John,
I’m not suggesting that Australia is especially privileged or morally superior, other countries that I can think of in Europe and South America and no doubt elsewhere are as far or further along in making preparations for the future. France, of course, is so far ahead we can barely see their dust, and using basically 50s / 60s / 70s technology such as breeder reactors (sort of make their own fuel), small, simple, fuel efficient cars, often diesels and not even hybrids, superb trains, that kind of thing.

In fact, Australia has the huge handicap of a worse housing bubble that the USA, and this in a county where after WWII it was considered a government duty to ensure that housing was cheap and available for working people. But then, greed and importing neocon ideology (part of that close association with the USA) put paid to that.

As for “the privileges of being one of the inner circle of US allies”, well, in WWII it saved our bacon as Australia fought well below its weight. The actual troops fought well above their weight, but the country itself and many of the officers didn’t do so well.

This is a nasty little piece of secret history, but family history as my dad was involved in the politics and also in setting up secret supply dumps for the expected last ditch gorilla fight against the invading Japanese. Then of course, in WWII Aussie speak, the Yanks arrived and the Japs were stopped.

After that the alliance with the USA turned increasingly toxic.

It led Australia into Vietnam, then Iraq and Afghanistan. Worse, it prevented Australia from coming to terms with and making friends with our neighbors.

Then there was the developmental consequences as Australian economy and industry took an increasingly American path, a path inappropriate to Australia’s needs.

As for the energy per capita use, well, that’s partially because the Australian population is strung out in a thin line along thousands of kilometers of coast, but mostly because Australia has so much energy we aren’t very careful with it. In fact, if we stopped the bizarre practice of exporting our huge reserves of natural gas, then using the proceeds to buy oil, and instead used the natural gas (carefully) ourselves instead of oil for transport, we’d have a century or more of transport fuel.

As for coal, even the Chinese are having trouble putting a dint in our reserves. I reckon it will be greenhouse effects that stop us there, not supply.

So you see, I’m not being “a bit too sanguine”. As someone for whom the rebuilding of Europe out of the rubble of WWII is living history, I’m just suggesting that given a few decades humans can do wonderful things – certainly rebuild a society and economy to be more frugal in its use of energy and other resources.

If we don’t, it will be because of lack of will or imagination, bad or self-serving ideology, or bad or self-serving leadership. Unfortunately, I expect plenty of all of those.

Mary said...

http://www.nationmaster.com/graph/ene_com_ene_use-energy-commercial-use

According to this site, Australia does not use as much energy as Canada and the United States.

Your tone in responses to comments is getting pretty abrasive. Is all well with you?

Danby said...

Stephen said:
Then there was the developmental consequences as Australian economy and industry took an increasingly American path, a path inappropriate to Australia’s needs.


Given that we've seen 40 years of declining living standards and polarization, and now our economy is headed into the dustbin, the American path isn't proving to be terribly appropriate for America's needs, either. Unless you count only the economic top 5% as America. It's suited their needs extremely well.

John Michael Greer said...

Todd, many thanks.

Stephen, I wasn't making claims about anybody's moral superiority. I simply think you're drastically underestimating the difficulty of making a transition to a post-fossil-fuel world. The recovery from the Second World War was made much easier by the fact that petroleum production was rapidly increasing, so there was plenty of cheap energy to go around. We don't have that advantage this time.

Mind you, your comments on the US-Australia alliance are very cogent. The grand geopolitical strategy of the US is based on setting up client states around the perimeter of the Eurasian land mass -- Britain, Israel, Australia, Japan, and (by way of the Arctic ocean) Canada -- and then playing the old game of divide and conquer on potential Eurasian rivals, using the client states as levers. The dissensions between Australia and its neighbors are simply part of that strategy -- consider Britain's role in fostering division within the EU. This is one of the reasons I've suggested several times that Australia may find itself on the receiving end of invasion: a sparsely populated nation with big coal and natural gas reserves, and an inadequate military, and a long history of serving as a sock puppet for US interests, will become a tempting target for China (to name only one example) once the US is no longer there to come to its aid, and there's also the very real risk of mass migration further down the road once the system of nation-states comes unglued.

Mary, most interesting. Sources I've read have generally rated Australia's energy per capita right up near Canada's, and significantly above the US; I'll have to revisit that.

Thanks for your concern, by the way. This is hardly my first outbreak of crabbiness here, you know! I suppose it's inevitable, because I'm bucking a commonplace of internet culture in trying to do something specific with this blog. This isn't simply a forum for generic discussions about peak oil and the future of industrial society; it's an attempt to explore a particular and, for most people in the developed world, noticeably counterintuitive way of thinking about the future.

Most of the people who comment here seem to get that, and I've received a great deal of help -- not least some very well-reasoned and constructive criticism that has helped me refine my ideas. Still, these posts have also fielded a steady stream of people whose response to the ideas I'm trying to explore is to insist that I have to defend them yet again against the same tired claims of conventional wisdom.

This may help explain why I get a bit crabby when somebody presents one more rehashed worst case scenario and claims that it's inevitable, on the one hand, or insists that if we just have enough faith in human gumption and ingenuity, we can ignore the reality of hard ecological limits, on the other. I've already addressed the substantive points of such claims a dozen times over, and I'm trying to move on to the wider implications of a view of the future that places ecological perspectives at the center of the historical process. I'm going to continue that project, since it seems worth doing, and again, most of the people who comment here seem to find it useful, or at least entertaining. Still, you can probably expect occasional outbursts of grouchiness along the way!