Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Arguments from Ignorance

For some time now I’ve been wondering how to bring up a certain habit of thought that, as I see it, forms one of the taproots feeding the contemporary crisis of industrial civilization. That it had to be discussed here on The Archdruid Report I never doubted, but in the midst of a cascade of dramatic current events, that discussion can seem very nearly beside the point. When the system of hallucinatory finance that propped up the illusion of American prosperity for a quarter century may be going to pieces around us, panic selling in commodity markets by speculators hit with margin calls is sending fossil fuel prices to lows just as unsustainable as their recent highs, and the wheels are coming off America’s global empire, I find myself wondering, is it really a good time to go wandering off in pursuit of intangibles?

Then perspective returns, and I remember that it’s precisely the intangibles, the states of mind and attitudes toward the world that form a culture’s collective discourse, that define what it can and cannot accomplish as the age of oil comes to an end. As I’ve commented before, it’s not technical issues that make our present predicament so difficult; it’s the failure of collective will that keeps even the most grudging acknowledgment of our predicament, and even the most modest response to it, completely off the radar screens of mainstream politics in every nation in the industrial world. Until the “mind-forg’d manacles” of dysfunctional thinking are unlocked and tossed aside, constructive plans for the world after peak oil on anything past an individual level are wasted effort, since they will not be implemented by societies that cannot grasp the need for them.

I had a cogent reminder of this over the past week, when three efforts of mine to spark collective discussion about these issues – my book The Long Descent, a reading and booksigning at a local bookstore here in southern Oregon, and the most recent post here – fielded three responses that used very different arguments to make a common claim. A reader of my book emailed me to tell me he thought I was refusing to give proper weight to the possibility that new technology would save our civilization from the impact of peak oil; a serious young man who attended the reading came up afterwards to ask me what I thought about the possibility that the current crisis would drive humanity to achieve a new stage of spiritual evolution, after which we will easily replace fossil fuels with currently unimaginable resources; a new reader of this blog sent in a comment insisting that peak oil was an illusion manufactured by sinister elites who were suppressing inventions that would allow everyone to have all the energy they wanted.

Mind you, I’d encountered every one of these assertions before. Ever since this blog first started suggesting that the end of the age of cheap abundant energy was the natural and inevitable result of a human ecology hopelessly out of step with the realities of life on a finite planet, I’ve fielded a great many emails and comments insisting, basically, that it just ain’t so – that one way or another, for one reason or another, humanity could have its abundant energy resources and burn them too, and can reasonably expect more of the same forever. The three responses I’ve just cited by no means exhaust the full spectrum of arguments advanced to back this curious claim, but they’re good representative samples of the type.

Now it’s possible to dispute each of these claims on their own terms, and I’ve done that more than once on this blog and elsewhere, but there’s a very real extent to which this is a waste of breath. Each of them is what the old logicians used to call argumentia ad ignorantem, arguments from ignorance. They insist on the presence of a factor that isn't actually present for examination and can’t be proved or disproved – a technological advance that hasn’t happened yet, an imminent spiritual transformation that has to be taken on blind faith, or a conspiracy so secret and pervasive that it can manipulate everything we think we know about the world – to insist that we don’t actually have to do anything about peak oil.

Such arguments prove nothing, of course; they're the precise equivalent of using the phrase "then a miracle happens" to get from one step of a cookbook recipe or a mathematical equation to the next. Their only virtue is that they’re impossible to disprove. I’ve come to think that this last detail is why they’re so popular. It’s a very charming social habit, dating back to the 18th century Enlightenment, to profess the belief that people come to decisions about the world by sitting down with the relevant facts, assessing them calmly, and then making a decision on that basis. I think most of us are aware, though, that few decisions are actually made this way; much more often, people start from the conclusion that appeals to their emotions and intuition, and then go looking for logical reasons to support the belief they’ve already chosen.

Most of the time, this is actually a good thing. Left to itself, the reasoning mind tends to run to extremes; it’s because most human decisions obey the nonrational promptings of emotional patterns laid down in childhood that our lives have any continuity at all. This same process, averaged out over the millions who inhabit a nation, provides a sense of stability and identity essential to our collective life. Still, the emotions’ habit of projecting the past onto the blank screen of the future can become a ghastly liability when the future no longer resembles the past in some crucial sense.

That’s the situation we’re facing now. Between 1980 and 2005, political gimmickry and the reckless overproduction of the North Slope and North Sea oil fields crashed the price of oil to right around US$10 a barrel – corrected for inflation, the cheapest price in history. During that quarter century of unsustainable excess, energy was so cheap that the cost no longer mattered; it seemed to make perfect sense to live in rural Oregon and commute daily by jet to San Francisco or Seattle, or to arbitrage wage costs by manufacturing consumer goods for the American market in Third World sweatshops and shipping them halfway around the world to their customers, or to build internet server farms, thousands of them, each one drawing as much electricity from the grid as a medium-sized town.

That world of unlimited free energy is the world in which nearly all of us in the industrial world lived until very recently, and it’s the only world people who are under the age of 35 or so can remember at all. Thus it’s not surprising that when people are faced with the claim that the future will be very, very different, they tend to reject the notion out of hand, and if the only reasons they can find to justify that rejection are arguments from ignorance like the ones I cited above, then arguments from ignorance are what they’ll cite.

The problem is that at this point we don’t have time to wait for hypothetical solutions to show up and save us. The Hirsch Report pointed out in 2005 that, to avoid severe economic disruption, any effective response to peak oil had to get started at least twenty years before the beginning of petroleum production declines. Any less than that, and the result is damage to the economy; the shorter the lead time, the worse the damage, and waiting until production declines actually begin is a recipe for crippling economic impacts that could make it impossible to respond to the crisis effectively at all.

This is dire news, because we no longer have the twenty years Hirsch specified; we most likely have only two years left. By most calculations, in fact, conventional petroleum production actually peaked the same year the Hirsch Report was published; apparent increases since then have happened because biofuels, tar sand extractives, and other alternative fuels that require high energy inputs have been lumped together with conventional oil; and the best estimates suggest that even with the alternatives factored in, production will face serious declines beginning around 2010. That gives us desperately little time to respond, and no time to spare for arguments that insist some unknown phenomenon will pop out of the woodwork just in time.

There are times late at night when I find myself wondering if similar reasonings could have been heard in the Yucatan lowlands as the Terminal Classic period of Mayan history arrived. and the paired jaws of declining soil fertility and catastrophic drought clamped around the throat of Lowland Maya civilization. There were plenty of potential responses as the corn harvests began to fail, centering on a transition from corn culture to less valued foods such as ramon nuts, but ideological factors made such a transition difficult for the ahauob, “divine lords” of the Maya city-states, to contemplate; abundant corn harvests filled the same role in their culture as abundant fossil fuel supplies have in ours.

Thus, instead of facing the crisis, the ahauob responded by hoping that something would provide them with a way out of it. Some of them, anticipating America’s recent neoconservative movement, went to war with other city-states to seize their corn supplies, while others offered up human sacrifices and built ever more grandiose temples in the hopes that the gods would take the crisis away. None of this helped, and much of it probably made the situation worse; one way or another, the result was a “rolling collapse” that, over a century and a half, turned the thriving Maya cities of the lowlands to crumbling, overgrown ruins inhabited by a scattering of survivors.

The idea that the cities of contemporary North America could meet the same fate is quite literally unthinkable to most people today, but then the Maya, the Romans, and the people of other collapsed civilizations all probably found their historical destiny just as unthinkable before it happened. There may be little reason to hope that anything like a majority can be helped to think the unthinkable in time to make a difference, but the effort seems worth making, and challenging the sort of arguments from ignorance I’ve described above might be a good first step.

49 comments:

Frank said...

Thanks Archdruid for another incisive post. It seems apparent the human organism did not evolve the perceptive faculties necessary to perceive problems like peak oil and global warming that now threaten civilization. ISHK works to help people understand our human heritage, in hopes of effecting a conscious evolution and the acquisition of more perception. My mate Bonnie and I have a project we call EntropyPawsed where we hope to help people learn some of the basic tools of developing discerning lifestyles for the low energy future faced by all the children of future generations.

igart said...

hey there,I've been reading your writings for some time now,and i got to say something.this last post is brilliant.well said and to the point.idont like the situation were in any more than any one else,but gotta kind a deal with it.adapting and changing with these times seems the thing to do,and i thank you for giving the heads up on whats really going on.its a big help.
cheers.

Conchscooter said...

One thing that bothers me about this projected collapse is how short the time lines are. A century and a half is the extent of the entire age of petroleum and it's extinction could be completed in a decade! The Roman Empire took centuries to dissolve and we face radical and total change over just a few years. No wonder it's hard to grasp.

hardhead said...

John -

I think you've hit upon one of the reasons many of us are not so sanguine about the descent we've now debarked upon.

Every one of the points you make in your post is undoubtedly true; as you noted, that is just what makes the situation so desperate. Whether we have a couple of years left, as you seem to think, or whether we're already out of time, as I believe, we should by now, as a society, be firmly committed to and tangibly engaged in the policies and infrastructure construction we'll need to make the transition. But, as you also noted, we're not even talking about those things yet, except on a few blogs on the Web.

I really don't want to be negative. In fact, I do believe we can still salvage a liveable future for our children and their children. I just don't think we can do it without suffering more losses than would otherwise have been necessary. Jimmy Carter gave us ample warning nearly 30 years ago - need I mention what happened to him and what has happened since?

Look on the bright side: For those who make it to the next plateau, a cracking good disaster will have a most salutary effect on our ability to throw off our "mind-forg'd manacles," much more than any argument you or I or the lot of us could construct to change minds. A hard, really painful whack on the butt by Momma Nature will wake up all but the most hopeless of the great majority who are now deeply entrenched in lala-land. And that's what it looks like it's gonna take.

Bill said...

Dear JMG,

You write this week, "it’s not technical issues that make our present predicament so difficult; it’s the failure of collective will that keeps even the most grudging acknowledgment of our predicament, and even the most modest response to it, completely off the radar screens of mainstream politics in every nation in the industrial world." Last summer Al Gore made a speech about making the shift to renewable sources of energy in the U.S. with a ten-year plan. Barack Obama has also referred to a ten-year plan, making it sound like he and Gore are in cahoots. If Obama wins the election, do you think there is any chance that as president, and with a congress united behind him (i.e. 60 Democrats in the Senate...might as well go for broke here :o) he and his minions will be able to raise the collective awareness of the American people sufficiently to impress upon the collective will the need to simplify lifestyle choices in a voluntary way before it becomes involuntary? Thanks.

hapibeli said...

Are you feeling a bit stressed JMG? This post was one of your more frustrated sounding ones. As I look around at my society here on Vancouver Island, and it is easy to see why the majority of the population has no desire to see anything but their current circumstances. Everything in our lives has little bearing on the future lack of cheap energy. It is drive, shop, party, take the kids to the park, go to work, watch and/or play sports, all with no inkling of REAL change just over the horizon. Hopefully, those of us who believe in the relocalization of our economy can act as guides when the poop hits the fan.

Keith said...

An excellent piece of ournalistic writing, replete with style and substance.

Keith

ChrisH said...

Good Post! I have been struggling with this same issue lately. I have recently read some William James and think he pretty well nailed the phenomina we are experiencing right now 100 years ago. Below is a somewhat long excerpt from his essay "what pragmatism means".

"The observable process which Schiller and Dewey particularly singled out for generalisation is the familiar one by which any individual settles into new opinions. The process here is always the same. The individual has a stock of old opinions already, but he meets a new experience that puts them to a strain. Somebody contradicts them; or in a reflective moment he discovers that they contradict each other; or he hears of facts with which they are incompatible; or desires arise in him which they cease to satisfy. The result is an inward trouble to which his mind till then had been a stranger, and from which he seeks to escape by modifying his previous mass of opinions. He saves as much of it as he can, for in this matter of belief we are all extreme conservatives. So he tries to change first this opinion, and then that (for they resist change very variously), until at last some new idea comes up which he can graft upon the ancient stock with a minimum of disturbance of the latter, some idea that mediates between the stock and the new experience and runs them into one another most felicitously and expediently.

This new idea is then adopted as the true one. It preserves the older stock of truths with a minimum of modification, stretching them just enough to make them admit the novelty, but conceiving that in ways as familiar as the case leaves possible. An outr√©e [outrageous] explanation, violating all our preconceptions, would never pass for a true account of a novelty. We should scratch round industriously till we found something less eccentric. The most violent revolutions in an individual’s beliefs leave most of his old order standing. Time and space, cause and effect, nature and history, and one’s own biography remain untouched. New truth is always a go-between, a smoother-over of transitions. It marries old opinion to new fact so as ever to show a minimum of jolt, a maximum of continuity. We hold a theory true just in proportion to its success in solving this ‘problem of maxima and minima.’ But success in solving this problem is eminently a matter of approximation. We say this theory solves it on the whole more satisfactorily than that theory; but that means more satisfactorily to ourselves, and individuals will emphasise their points of satisfaction differently. To a certain degree, therefore, everything here is plastic.

The point I now urge you to observe particularly is the part played by the older truths. Failure to take account of it is the source of much of the unjust criticism levelled against pragmatism. Their influence is absolutely controlling. Loyalty to them is the first principle – in most cases it is the only principle; for by far the most usual way of handling phenomena so novel that they would make for a serious rearrangement of our preconceptions is to ignore them altogether, or to abuse those who bear witness for them."


Link to full essay:
http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/us/james.htm

John Michael Greer said...

Frank, thanks -- but you know, this is the second post you've made which simply promoted your own project without adding to the discussion. You get two of those, but any more will be deleted as spam. Substantive comments, please.

Igart, thank you!

Conch, I don't agree that the age of petroleum will be over in a decade -- we're facing a period of crisis and disintegration, but I suspect it will take a century or two for the whole decline to work itself out.

Hardhead, of course you're right that the situation will be worse than it might have been. If enough individuals start making changes in their own lives now -- and this is already under way -- we can make the decline much less disastrous than it might otherwise be, though.

Bill, the ten-year plans are simply campaign rhetoric, on the same plane as Bush's promise to get the US off foreign oil. I see no evidence that any US political party, major or minor, has grappled with the scale of what would have to be done to manage a controlled descent at this point.

Hapi, not so much stressed, as simply venting some long pent up frustration in this post.

Keith, thank you -- I think. "Journalistic writing" (which is what I assume you meant to say) isn't always a compliment!

I'll be at the Plan C Conference in Michigan for the next few days, and may have little or no email access, so don't worry if your comments don't show up promptly -- I'll put them through as soon as I can.

OregonJayhawk said...

Well, said as always. I really look forward to your weekly missives.

It is clear to some of us that the oxygen masks are deploying from the overhead compartments. As per the wisdom of the flight attendants' instruction-- it is best to attach the mask, pull the straps tight, and then help those around you.

The mask may not inflate, but oxygen will be flowing. Breathe as calmly as you can and then assume the crash position.

The crash position to me has meant taking Master Gardener classes, learning to live without a car, trying to use less of pretty much everything, and joining a non-profit here in Portland called "Growing Gardens" that helps low income folks grow their own food.

Thanks for your reminder. -tj

John Michael Greer said...

Chris, I'm obviously going to have to read James -- your comment is the third place I've encountered his name in the last week and, like both the others, makes uncommon sense. Many thanks.

Jayhawk, your "crash position" is exactly the sort of thing I'd hope to see people doing. The message peak oil has for us, to shift metaphors a bit, is the same one the statue of Apollo had for Rilke: Du musst dein leben andern, "you must change your life." Thanks for helping to point this out!

Jim Thill said...

Long-time reader, first-time commenter.

I've been writing one blog or another about the causes and consequences and everyday observations of peak oil since 2004, and have encountered these types of arguments from the first day. It's possible that I made a similar argument when I first learned about peak oil. My experience is that over time, people who learn about this do eventually shed their defensive skepticism. As frustrating as it seems to repeatedly defeat the same tired arguments from ignorance, I think it's worthwhile. On the other hand, I don't engage in endless arguments anymore. The future of the world does not depend on what I believe or on what my opponent believes or on what I can convince my opponent to believe. Much of our fate is sealed by our past, and the best we can do is to make folks aware of the fallacies of and alternatives to the status quo thinking.

Bill Real said...

Just wanted to say thanks for keeping up these weekly posts - just finished "The Long Descent" and Orlov's "Reinventing Collapse", and feeling a bit like I'm living in a dreamworld right now as everyone bumbles around in their cars making plans for future profits...

Pretty hilarious, I popped into the London Picadilly branch of Waterstone's to see if they had a copy of Bates' "Post Petroleum Survival Guide" yesterday. Blank look -

"Hang on, I'll check." ... taps on fossil fuel-powered computer.

"Nope, sorry."

Well, it made me laugh anyway...

It's great to have a regular dose of sanity amidst the madness, please do keep it up.

Also, a quick question- would you recommend any other practically-minded books worth reading?

All the best.

FARfetched said...

I'm running up against the same thing these days. Even God Himself must struggle against false witness and willful ignorance, because many people will simply refuse to believe things that conflict with their preconceived notions — and happily embrace even the most transparent lies that reinforce them.

Given the crashing economy, and the near-crash in energy consumption, we may have a little more time than we thought to make those "other arrangements" we'll need. The events of the last few weeks are likely the beginning of your catabolic collapse: the tight energy markets put an upper limit on expansion; now a system based on limitless growth is having to cope with limits.

The Pickens Plan for dealing with the situation is rather silly, only shifting dependence on one fossil fuel onto another. The Obama plan is short on specifics, at least for now… but I wouldn't put it past him to roll out a large plan in small steps, rather than dumping a grand sweeping realignment that conservatives would reflexively oppose. But restructuring of our energy environment to a more sustainable base might be the best way to get people back to work and focusing on something other than the latest email smear.

CrismonCoconut said...

John,
It is indeed an urgent situation but I don't think the world is as clueless as all that. People know that something is going on and are concerned, including the International Energy Agency. Even the politicians are starting to wake up a little. I know you're cynical about politics, and I understand why, but at least the message is breaking through- We need to reduce our oil consumption. Even so, I'm not sure how many of them know how deep the crisis goes and how much it will affect us all, but its a start at least. Because of that I try to be cautiously optimistic.

I think that when it comes down to it, we Americans thrive on ambitious goals and challenges. It seems like historically, that's what activates us, and we don't really react to a problem until its in our face. I think that is what needs to happen right now- If you're going to sell the idea of massive conservation and lifestlye change, you need to phrase it in just the right way. Environmental concerns and high prices will only go so far to that end; To change a society as intrenched in its ways as ours, you need more than horror stories about the future, you need inspirational leadership in the present, which is why I think its critical to continue to try and work the political world (At all levels) as well as the local one.

I love your insights and writing, but I confess that I disagree with you on a few points. You wrote a while back that, to paraphrase, 'nobody wants to risk being Jimmy Carter'. I don't think that's the case- Carter attempted to do a great service for our country that wasn't recognized as such at the time, and that I think looks much better in retrospect, but with concerns over the environment and fears of pouring even more money into foreign hands than we already are, most folks would respond much better to a new era of conservation. I also disagree with the Culture of Conentment argument. People aren't content, they're angry and scared, and are looking for something different. Theoretically we could channel that frustration to constructive ends.

I'm not arguing that things will be easy or smooth for us by any means, and maybe I'm just a hopeless optimist, but I know you love history, and from that you know that in crunch time we react. The way we react, whether it be intelligently or foolishly remains to be seen of course. We need to do all we can to aim for the former.

Coyote said...

Excellent essay. This is the most productive type of discussion we can have. Hypothesizing about all the possible scenarios and time lines is pointless. I can almost guarantee that all of them are flawed to point of being worse than useless. The systems involved are simply to complex and/or random to be predicted. The best we can do is to realize that something is happening at an accelerating rate, it appears to be going this general direction, and many entrenched ideas are going to take a nasty bonk on the head.

Jayhawks crash position is wonderful, and so much better than many of the positions we are asked to assume - ahem. For me, I like to think of it as a time for a heighten state of awareness to predominate. Flexible thinking and honorable actions will succeed. In a very real way, this is the very best time to be alive ever!

Seaweed Shark said...

Another well-argued essay, much appreciated at the end of my work week. However to quibble, I'd like to opine two opinions:

First, one reason many are skeptical of downfall scenarios is simply that prophets of doom have often been proven wrong in the past. In the 1930s practically every member of the American educated class believed that the days of the Western democracies were over and the future belonged to some form of fascist or communist society. Winston Churchill, ever the hold-out, closed his Nobel-Prize winning history of WWII with such an assertion and it was widely accepted even then. Yes, pessimists will eventually always be proven right, but reports of the death of civilization have in fact been somewhat exaggerated.

Second, Peak-Oilers really do tend to avoid making predictions about what the price of energy will actually stabilize at. Will it be twice what we pay now? Five times? Ten times? It's got to be something, and for much of the last few thousand years human civilization of one sort or another has usually managed to toddle on quite well in a condition of more expensive energy. Yet as I believe you have pointed out, the Peak-Oil advocates tend to mistakenly give into the temptation to assume the curve will fall away to nothing, the price of energy becoming infinite and "everyone dies." I wouldn't want to live in either ancient Egypt or 19th century America, but people managed to do so and both groups were relatively "civilized" even though energy was far more expensive for them than it is for us.

Sorry for going on so long. I'm a regular reader and admire the elegance and persistence you display on this forum.

sv koho said...

Thank you John for yet another call to arms but alas nothing I see in our mainstream media mirrors your concerns or mine, and as you probably have seen by now, the Financial Times spilled some specifics of that World Energy Outlook report due out next month from the IEA which projects oil output falling over 9%/year unless $360 Billion/yr is spent for the next 22 years. If it's spent, then oil production only drops at 6.4%/year. This peak oil cliff is coming at the industrial economies at warp speed. So little time and as you illustrated, so many Panglossians.

Dwig said...

I have one quibble with your otherwise spot-on analysis: ..constructive plans for the world after peak oil on anything past an individual level are wasted effort...

Actually, many people and groups are focusing on levels above the individual, especially the community level -- you'll be surrounded by such folks when you're in Michigan (and you've given some attention to that level in The Long Descent).

In fact, given the present situation, I'd say the truly wasted efforts are those to try to change the thinking of people at the federal and global business level. "If the people lead, the leaders will follow or be irrelevant."

It's worth emphasizing again, though, that the "constructive plans", at all levels, must be focused on adapting to the inevitable, rather than trying to wish it away.

patrick said...

Thank you for another thought provoking piece. While I am personally a fan of J.H. Kunstler, his tone is offensive to some and sometimes gets in the way of his message. I appreciate your calm, thoughtful approach.

One small quibble with this piece. You say, "Left to itself, the reasoning mind tends to run to extremes; it's because most human decisions obey the nonrational promptings of emotional patterns laid down in childhood that our lives have any continuity at all." I would add that these emotional patterns are largely hard-wired and have their origins in our long evolutionary history. As Robert Wright says in The Moral Animal: "Animals, including people, often execute evolutionary logic not via conscious calculation, but by following their feelings, which were designed as logic executors."

Dad said...

JMG - extraordinarily well said - as usual! I have several friends of long standing who frustrate me for the reasons you write. On the other hand I wonder if some pretty smart people do see what is coming and realizing they can't do much about it have decided to just enjoy the ride till it's over. Whether I should join them while preparing as well as I can on a personal level or fight it and keep the old blood pressure up there is not always clear to me. Either way I will keep reading your blog. Thanks.

Kurt said...

I've always read the term "oil production" but it's never made any sense, it's _extraction_ isn't it? The term even implies that we can simply conjure more oil from the ether and all it takes is willpower and our magical technology.

Anyway, great post and I like your far-sighted jaundiced eye perspective.

yooper said...

Hello John! A very interesting perspective, as always. Sure like the comments on this tread too!

I suppose I'm with Far, in assuming that we might be in the first stages of catabolic collapse, just now. Only time will tell and I'm suggesting, that world-wide this may be the case. Perhaps, here in this country, you might argue it has been happening for 30 years or so? What are your thoughts on this?

I've been doing a lot of thinking about "limits to growth" lately, and how this might fit into the catabolic collapse model... When contemplating the collapse of Mayan and Roman societies, I'm questioning, where did the natural resource actually collapse around these civilizations? It didn't, it was there all the time...........The only difference between what is happening now and then, is that we have the technology to exploit (actually deplete) ALL resources that are available...(back again to the Olduvia theory).

It's something to think about....

Thanks, yooper

Kiashu said...

As for ten year plans and their fulfilment or not, in a democracy the people we elect follow public opinion or lose office, so they are in a sense just expressions of us. They cannot really be blamed for failures nor praised for success - that comes down to us.

I do see the occasional sign of hope for positive change - positive in that it'd avert the worst of possible crises in the future - but then sometimes it's the old one step forwards, two steps back.

For example, today I read of a large railway construction being cancelled (the state is short of money, so has to cut something), and at the same time of London opening Europe's biggest shopping mall. Both these events ignore the likelihood of a reduced-energy future.

Then tomorrow the news will deliver me some hope. There are many ups and downs like this, and they all add up to reinforce what JMG says about any collapse being a matter of generations not mere years, and of collapses having periods of partial recovery, like poor old Winnie-the-Pooh begin dragged downstairs by Christopher Robin. Bump. Bump. Bump.

RJ said...

Speculative reason, Hegelianism, cognitive dissonance, or whatever one chooses to describe current "mainstream" thought, will continue to plague the United States until capitalism is replaced out of necessity. For the holders of plant and equipment, it's just too damn profitable keeping the status quo. For those of us who realize just how ancient and resilient Earth is, watching the system crash might become a welcome perversion.

I just finished "Grisdale-Last of the Logging Camps". It chronicles the 100 year history of the Simpson Lumber Company near Shelton, WA. Had you asked any of the barkers, skidders, or whistle punks employed in the woods eighty years ago how long the operation could go on, to a man they would have answered "indefinitely". Grisdale shut down in 1985.

Mark said...

JMG -- Interesting you would bring this up. I remember watching a documentary titled Earth Changes, made in 1992(?). In it they revealed our ecological disposition, but spoke of and demonstrated some technologies which may be used to overcome it. Anyways, they visited a man who had invented several interesting and ingenious tools. One was the magnetic motor, a motor which generates continuous electricity solely with the force of magnets. He also designed a miniature "Furnace"; powered by a simple motor, or even bicycle, it could heat to 120 degrees in seconds. He also showed a battery he designed, which could be charged in 10 minutes, and was able to power an electric automobile for short distance travel. If I recall correctly, it was a non liquid battery.

So it seems, perhaps there may be technologies hidden throughout the world, that could, on a small scale, impact our energy descent future...?

Also, just this evening, my uncle was reminiscing of how when he and my father were children, their home in Massachusetts was heated by one wood burning stove, and they would wake up in the winter to a freezing cold home. But he recalled of our Italian ancestor, who used scarce resources and ingenuity to improve their lives: A small south facing room with a wall of continuous windows, which trapped heat in the space between the windows and french glass doors... free heating. He also told us of how they would catch pigeons in their attic, and heat a two level home with a hole in the upper floor, and the hot smoke pipe of a wood burning oven.

This brings me to my point... will it be new "inventions" that will help us cope with energy descent, or making do with what is available all ready? Retrofitting the suburbs as David Holmgrenn refers to it...

TerriG said...

I was at your book reading at the local book store in Southern Oregon. I mentioned to you that I had read a book that was a guide to how communities should be preparing but was unable to give you a title. I have recently purchased the book called The Transition Handbook by Rob Hopkins. This is a movement that started in Britain and is now making some headway here in the States, including Portland. If you have an interest, you can find quite a bit of information about it on the internet. I think it shows that some people are starting to take peak oil seriously.

hardhead said...

JMG said: "... If enough individuals start making changes in their own lives now -- and this is already under way -- we can make the decline much less disastrous than it might otherwise be ..."

No doubt about it. For me, it's in that direction that real hope lies. Changes on the ground are what's needed right now, not new policies or hare-brained schemes to prolong the status quo. Radical changes to the way we live our lives, on the individual level, is the portal to a liveable future through which we must pass. Once that's done, there are lots of other issues that have to be dealt with. But until it's done, you can't get there from here.

Thanks, chrish, for the quote from James, arguably the most astute American observer of the human mind ever. I think, in connection with trying to communicate with others about the coming inevitable changes, that we should not forget the influence of mass media on the modern psyche, something James didn't have to consider. It's a vast subject, for sure, but in terms of the topic at hand, the mass media represent a huge mine-field of distractions from the kind of mental process of assimilating new data described by James, not to mention being a constant reinforcer of the world-view (shared almost willy-nilly by those who indulge the media's questionable pleasures) that they intentionally or accidentally promote. The effect is to greatly strengthen the cognitive conservatism so astutely reported by James.

Pam said...

I agree this is exactly to the time to talk about arguements from ignorance... ignorance itself. I think that for many of us that sort of thinking is a great False Comfort, very tough to wean away from,not least because when we challenge ourselves, flurries of False Terrors rise up, like hopelessness & despair & self doubt: educating myself is far too difficult, how can we know what's "real", we can't do anything about it anyway, etc...
I think the idea is important now too because it's something truly meaningful we can actually individually practice, challenging as that is.

Your Excellency, some time ago Caroline Casey posted, with your permission, part of a letter you'd written to a circle of friends. Some of the ideas there- prevailing mythology, traps in either/or thinking, the 3rd leg of the either/or... that became very important to me in my own thinking & challenging my assumptions (when I can catch them!) The letter extract isn't in her new site, & I can't find my copies. IS there any hope of retrieving it through your blog?
There's quite a bit there that's also relevant too.

Also, re why the price of oil fluctuates in terms of US dollars- that was like a light going on for me; that's knowledge that suddenly makes sense out a very confusing, frustrating situation- I've been trying to fend off collapsing into my own arguments of ignorance while
trying to figure out what's UP with that. Thankyou.

John Michael Greer said...

Thanks to the library at Oakland University, where this weekend's peak oil conference is being held, I've ended up with internet access. Thank you all for your comments! A few fast responses:

Crismon, I have a great deal of respect for Carter, but the fact remains that since his presidency crashed and burned, nobody in American public life has been willing to take the risk of following his lead and admitting that this country is in trouble. As for Galbraith's Culture of Contentment, I think you're missing its point -- you might want to read his book and then see what you think.

Shark, no question the failure of previous predictions has a good deal to do with the widespread belief that everything will work out; the parable of the boy who cried "Wolf!" remains a major issue. I'm sorry to say that I think Churchill was right, but premature.

As for the price of energy, it's a mistake to think that it will stabilize at any level at all -- it's never been stable in the past, after all. What we're facing is (a) an absolute decrease in the amount of energy available, (b) a massive increase in price volatility, and (c) a general upward trend in energy costs as the decrease in quantity prices people out of the market.

Dwig, until people make changes in their own lives, I remain highly skeptical of plans for change on any other level. You're right, of course, that those changes have to focus on adapting to the predicament we're in.

Patrick, the reason I don't believe that our emotions are genetically hardwired is that emotional patterns vary so drastically from culture to culture. Having been raised in a multicultural household -- my stepmother is Japanese-American -- may give me a bit of an unusual perspective here; still, you might check out Gregory Bateson's essay on Balinese social psychology (it's in his Steps to an Ecology of Mind) for a glimpse of the range of variation.

Kurt, bingo. Nobody but nature produces oil.

Yooper, the Yucatan suffered massive resource depletion during the late classical Maya period; the resource in question was soil fertility. Rome is a more complex case, but then not all catabolic collapses are driven by the same set of causes.

Mark, many of the inventions we need aren't new -- a huge amount of work has been put into passive solar heating, for example, and simply needs to be dusted off and used again. The "magnetic motor," by the way, is a classic perpetual motion device, and like any attempt to try to get energy from nothing, it doesn't work.

John Michael Greer said...

Pam, the article Carolyn posted, "Getting Beyond the Narratives," is available online here.

Mark said...

Very well, it seems you are on top of everything. I've thought of the magnetic motors, it seems that in theory they would be effective... I've never experimented with the idea. I imagine it would take very large magnets to have electrical gain.

I'm excited to see your keynote this evening.

Aichmetes said...

Mr. Greer,

Your grasp of historical patterns is most refreshing, as is your ability to put such things in layman's terms.

...the Maya, the Romans, and the people of other collapsed civilizations all probably found their historical destiny just as unthinkable before it happened.

This is true, precisely for the reasons you cite in many of your other posts: the decline is not catastrophic, but gradual. More likely than not, the "frog in the pot" effect meant that the people of these civilizations never really faced what was happening to them--but a few generations down the line, all that were left were stories of "how things used to be" until even those had faded.

However, there is one thing that has been niggling at the back of my mind: the fall or decline of a civilization is inevitable. To wish to continue a culture in perpetuity would seem to be a delusion of linear thinking. Therefore, what should our goal be, if collapse of some sort is certain?

Personally, I think making as graceful and exit as possible is preferable—e.g. preserving what we can of the massive amounts of information that we’ve acquired, and giving our families the skills they need to survive in what may be a much harsher world. Still, I wonder if this will in fact be possible, or will things be corroded so slowly that we won’t even realize what’s been lost.

Best,
C.M. Hughes

John Michael Greer said...

Mark, remember that I make my living as a writer in the field of rejected knowledge, and perpetual motion schemes (which is what the magnetic motor is) belong to that realm. That in itself doesn't disprove them -- continental drift used to be considered crackpot pseudoscience until the late 1960s -- but these things have been tested many times, and the laws of thermodynamics still keep on winning.

CrismonCoconut said...

Well that's true, they haven't yet, and that's unfortunate. But I think it's a mistake to say that they WON'T, and I think that the mood is right for it now with the recent concern over environmental impacts, etc. I really do think that, when the politicians come back to that philosophy, the way they phrase it will greatly effect the way it is recieved by the people. I agree with your post a little while back that a depression might well end up doing us a lot of good. Since we seem to be headed that way, more or less, the next generation of politicians will be able to talk to us more easily about the issue.

I'm sort of of the Richard Heinburg persuasion that starting local is the best plan, but we absolutely have to work our way up into the federal government or our efforts will be in vain. I see a few positive signs here and there. I'm one who worries about others more than himself, and I can't stand the thought of just saying "oh well" about the rest of the world and thinking about myself and my own prospects. I'm still struggling to wrap my mind and lifestyle around the prospect of a future of expensive and/or scarce energy, mind you, but I'm trying my best for someone who was until very recently a firm believer in the myth of progess.

ceridwen said...

I guess the reason why people insist "there will be a way....(ie to get through this without any change much)" is because the alternative IS literally unthinkable in many ways. Just what DO we do if its all downhill from here on in? I dont have a lot of faith in the human race making mega changes to the way it lives any time soon unfortunately. THE single biggest problem is that there are just way too many of us - but trying to get the vast majority of people to accept that we have to cut back on the number of children we have...and, nope, no-one has the right to have more than 2 children is still a good way to make oneself pretty unpopular pretty quickly..

It is the case though that history teaches us that every empire fails in the end - so what makes us think we are infallible? Answer - the fact that we want to be infallible...but that aint going to make it so...

David said...

Thanks for an interesting post - in interesting times. I do disagree with one of your fundamental points - and would be interested in your perspective. You say that the argument about technology is flawed - because "They insist on the presence of a factor that isn't actually present for examination and can’t be proved or disproved" Now - I recognize that I do not know the future - and we may all be dead by tmrw. On the other hand - we may live through peak oil, and come out the other side - better off. There are technologies that are already developed - (solar, wind, geothermal, wave, tidal, otec, bio-fuels, algae, fuel cells). Do you discount the potential of technologies that are already here? I believe in a brighter future, and that technology will play a major role as we move to that sustainable and brighter future (as well as bicycles, local economies, and gardening).

Thoughts?

Thanks.

David.

RAS said...

JMG, thanks for another wonderful post. Each week I look forward to reading your new post, though I rarely comment. Thank you for pointing out that most decisions are made based on our emotions -the entire foundation of modern economics is based on the fallacy that people always make rational decisions, when in fact, people are rarely rational. The tendency to project the emotional patterns of the past onto the future is also why it is so difficult to change bad emotional habits ingrained in childhood or recover from severe childhood abuse.

I notice that you seem to spend a lot of time responding to those three arguments and others like them. Might I suggest an FAQ page where you could answer said questions once and direct people there? I also just finished your wonderful book (I finally got my hands on a copy) and I have a couple of questions I would like to ask you, primarily about narratives, but since they do not pertain to the current blog post may I have permission to email you?
Happy Samhain, btw!

Bill Real, some useful books I would recommend are: Emery's Encyclopedia of Country Living; Storey's books; Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable Miracle; Sharon Astyk's books; the Ball Blue Book and any other books you can find on cooking and preserving food (Preserving the Harvest is a good one.) There are others, but that should keep you busy. Most of them come down to what's for dinner and how do I get it, which is the most basic thing of all. ;-)

RAS said...

Hey JMG,
I just thought I'd drop back by to tell you that I had a conversation about energy with three people this afternoon, and each one ended up representing one of the examples you gave -even the 'Peak Oil is a sinister elite conspiracy'. I thought that it's pretty intereting that I should read this post this morning and encounter walking examples a few hours later. ;-)

anagnosto said...

A book I would greatly recommend is Diderot and d'Alembert L'Encyclopédie. At least the plates. There are recent reprints. It is full of inimaginable details on "how to" and tools, the summmit of an non-industrial world.

Isis said...

JMG,

You said:

"That world of unlimited free energy is the world in which nearly all of us in the industrial world lived until very recently, and it’s the only world people who are under the age of 35 or so can remember at all. Thus it’s not surprising that when people are faced with the claim that the future will be very, very different, they tend to reject the notion out of hand, and if the only reasons they can find to justify that rejection are arguments from ignorance like the ones I cited above, then arguments from ignorance are what they’ll cite."

In my experience, this is very true. See, I'm a math graduate student. Hence, most of the people I interact with on a day-to-day basis are people who are fully numerically/quantitatively literate. And yet these very same people just cannot grasp the concept that on a finite planet, you simply cannot keep burning energy without running out. They just can't process this. It's got precisely nothing to do with an inability to process simple technical arguments ('on a finite planet, etc.') and everything to do with an inability to imagine that the future could possibly be radically different from the future that they've been taught to expect. They'll come up with explanations (some of which you've mentioned in this post) for why this is simply not so. Occasionally, some come up with nifty quantitative arguments to back it all up; finding a hole in such arguments can be fairly labor intensive, and yet you know full well that (because we live on a finite planet) a hole has got to be in there.

It's much like dealing with supposed algorithms for trisecting an angle with a straightedge and compass. (Mathematics departments get these with some regularity.) These supposed algorithms can get quite intricate, and finding a hole in them can be fairly labor-intensive, and yet you know for a fact there's a hole in them, because it was proven over a hundred years ago that no such algorithm can exist. Mathematicians chuckle at people who waste their time constructing these 'algorithms'; but then they themselves will come up with arguments for why, as you put it, "humanity could have its abundant energy resources and burn them too." And they never notice the irony.

John Michael Greer said...

Aichmetes, good. The fall of a civilization is like death; you know it's going to happen sooner or later; you do your best to make sure that "sooner or later" isn't right now, but you also make plans in case that doesn't work out, and as age or illness makes death more likely, you amp up your preparations to leave something for the future. We should be doing the same thing as our civilization begins to die around us.

Crismon, I'm not saying you should just save yourself and say "oh well" about the rest of humanity; my point is that change has to start from the individual, and work up from there through the family, the neighborhood, and the community before it can have any real impact on the political system. Change at the national level is the last stage, and can't be accomplished without the earlier stages; it's a waste of time trying to get the feds to make changes that individuals aren't willing to make in their own lives.

Ceridwen, exactly, but the end of a civilization isn't the end of the world -- it's happened before and it will happen again. That perspective makes it possible to find hope and choose constructive action in this difficult time.

David, I'm quite familiar with the technologies that are already here. They're essential -- once fossil fuels are gone, they're what we'll have left -- but there are hard limits on how much usable energy you can get from renewables and it's a lot less than we're getting from the 500 million years of stored solar energy we've been burning through so recklessly. No existing renewable resource, or combination of renewables, will allow us to continue living the way we have been living -- and the gap is not a small one.

RAS, a belated happy Samhuinn to you too! I'm not surprised you got the same responses. though it's a bit surprising you got all three in sequence; I get them all the time, as David's comment above demonstrates...

Anagnosto, that's an excellent point. Thank you for the suggestion!

Isis, the sad thing is that your would-be angle trisectors (as well as circle squarers, etc.) have missed the whole point of this very traditional and useful exercise. You can't trisect an angle exactly, or square a circle; what you can do, as the old Pythagorean geometers knew, was to approximate these things in a way that teaches you something about the universe. (For example, squaring the circle is a classic meditative exercise about the relationship between spirit and matter.) The whole point of the exercise is that it can never be exact...but the old understanding of incommensurability, the keystone of classical sacred geometry, is lost on people who insist they can impose rational pattern exactly on the phenomenal universe. And yes, you're quite right that the same flawed thinking underlies the fantasy of infinite material growth on a finite planet!

CrismonCoconut said...

Well said John, thank you. Don't get me wrong, I agree with you there. I'm currently trying to cut my energy use in half by the end of the year, and further still over the next, and am encouraging friends and family to do the same. What worries me though, is that as you realize, so many people don't want to listen when you talk about Peak Oil. I feel like a government mandate is the only thing that will make them listen. Of course that could backfire too- People don't want government bossing them around any more than it already is. But the best incentive for lifestyle change, at least in our culture, is economic! And if all else fails that could be the thing that gets the sustainability ball rolling.

Jacques de Beaufort said...

hi JMG

This is a little random and I see it comes on the tail end of a comment train, but you may have some thoughts...

Yourself and others, Kunstler and Heinberg included, always advocate a return to small towns in the face of industrial decline as the best personal strategy for facing the onrushing wave of change.

Lately I've been reading a series of articles about small towns in the now de-industrial North Korea. It seems as if these areas are much worse off and poverty stricken than the urban areas, where an elite has concentrated to live in relative comfort.

In the command economy that is sure to replace the casino style hallucination of our modern-banking fiasco, I think it's probably likely that this type of scenario could emerge...elites camped out in a cloistered urban control center while vast agricultural gulags work with little comfort or freedom. In this case, a re-localization effort is sort of besides the point. One is more likely to end up endlessly toiling in a field than in some sort of Kunstlerian Utopia of streetcars and public squares full of permacultured organic garden terraces and New-Urban Victorian style storefronts.

Of course it may be difficult for the USA to remain sovereign, in which case regional republics could emerge with their own styles of governance. Regardless, elites will always gravitate to urban areas, and a move to a small town doesn't necessarily guarantee a better life.

blue sun said...

JMG, first, thank you for your efforts. Much of what I’ve read here is sheer genius. Also thank you for posting my hastily-compiled and humble contribution.

If you’ll pardon the crude analogy, I think people like “david” are your “best customers.” You and I and all of us trying to communicate the “message” of the long descent need to pay greatest attention to these people. You see, most people will not do the calculations to compare oil to “alternative” energy (solar, wind, what have you). They don’t comprehend the energy input relative to the output. Heck, people don’t even realize how cheap oil is right now! I even see posts here complaining how “expensive” it is, with no historical perspective. But I digress.

Comprehending that resources are finite is actually not that difficult for most people. What people don’t get is the “return on investment” of existing alternative technologies as compared to oil. Among the few isolated sections of the media that even acknowledge peak oil, they all assume that if we merely took the time to build an “alternative” infrastructure, we would have all our current energy needs met. Let me be clear, I’m not talking about people who promote such technologies, nor the ones who rachet such technology ever so slightly into the realm of fantasy (Just yesterday I just read a supposedly serious news article about implementing podcars in Ithaca, NY).

I’m talking about the mainstream media and the “innocent” mainstream people who rely on the media for their decision-making information. I think there are many such people. And this is key: they will believe the media tells them. Pardon my crudeness, but people like david are the only non-“fringe” people in this forum. (Please let no one think I’m trying to divide us by saying this.)

“bill” asked about Gore or Obama... Let me say this: You will have to be much clearer about why “green” politicians and alternative energies aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. You can’t just dismiss them lightly. You will have to emphasize your message more vehemently here than in any other facet. I’m not saying it’s fair. I’m just saying you will have to justify yourself to these customers because they will be your only “advocates” in the mainstream media.

Bottom line: I am telling you, as far as getting your point across, queries like david’s and bill’s will be your greatest stumbling block in the coming years. Your response needs to be the most crystal clear and forceful argument yet.

(As a corollary, let me make a prediction. Because the “best customers” are well-intentioned, they are also the most dangerous. Once the media picks up on your message (and they will in the coming years), they are going to take it and run with it. Naturally some will steal your message from you and distort it. Alternative technology promoters will pop out of the woodwork and barrage us with chatter about miracle solutions, and it will drown out the real message. I’ll predict right here and now that people will quote you and cite your works and distort your message. There will come people who promote solar and wind technologies, and like I said, rachet such technology ever so slightly into the realm of fantasy. This will only serve to further cloud the reality. Obviously you cannot stop all distortions, but I would like to support and encourage you to keep hammering away! )

Danby said...

Jacques,
Fortunately for Americans, the rural people of this country have retained their firearms. The rural population of this country will not be reduced to serfdom.

wylde said...

Hi, first time here. Your thesis appears plausible to me... work seriously researched. Your readers too are comfortable in the upper stratosphere of thought.
Predicting the exact timing of of a collapse through trend study ...well, may be as much gut-feeling as science...the mormons have been stocking food for a long time...one day (and it appears to be soon) they will be right unless of course there is a miracle :o)

Some thought to the switch-over to a more self-reliant life-mode.

Extra-dried rice in one gallon jars glass -metal lids dipped in wax. (and plenty of ammo, and honing up on community re-building skills... advance net-working)

LoneRubberDragon said...

Some commentable theoretical-statements, if you please, inspired from your recent "Coast to Coast" appearance.

Science knows stars use fusion, and fusion is now reproduced on earth. How do we know fusion couldn't efficiently be perfected on earth, as one divergent self sustaining fork of history, as much as Einstein postulated the potentials within the "soon to be" discoverd fission's power?

Another concept would be to take spent fission materials that have a nuclear reaction chain for recharging by particles, and setup a recharging station (like a small solar high power particle accelarator) in close orbit to the sun with a radioactive slug exchange orbit system between the earth and sun-station. Spent material from earth can be sent to be physically recharged around the sun and shipped back. An orbiting reactor could take the charged slugs and microwave-to-laser power back to earth based receivers. This could convert a finite fusion source into a sun-lifetime based renewable energy.

I grant these ideas, if proven reasonable, don't make humans as a group "eternal" as the sun will one day die, and ALL biological-material based consciousness and life will disappear from earth, but it could give modern humans, say, 100,000,000 generations power potential before bio-life ceases earth completely, instead of 5-10 generations before society crumbles.

I feel to add, to potentially differentiate our world, from ancient models, in the material plane; I believe I can say that current matter-knowledge is far surpassed the ancient world, in the apsects of known technology, and theoretical possibilities available, which is one major factor far different from, e.g., Myans or Romans in potential which, by comparison, can be seen as social animals, with no dispariaging by using animals, but simply stating that they were living on an exponential scale closer to the nature, than modern man; building dams and canals like beavers, harvesting food like leaf-cutter-ants, hunting like carnivores, traveling the ocean like sea-lions, and languidly communicating changing culture like humpback-whales with culture messages slowly changing over centuries.

Along with population control for a steady state sustainable modern-society-culture for 3 billion more years, these seem plausible potentials, unless I miss how the physics of fusion or sustainable fission goes against the will of nature, or is known to simply not work in any and all manner as it is completely known by man already to fail success.

LoneRubberDragon,
Duragon Seto Rumi,
Draashek'gaons
LoneRubberDragon.blogspot.com

AZM said...

JMG, I won't comment your post since I totally agree with your essay, word by word; please note that there is a typo in the latin phrase you cited, which should read "argumenta ad ignorantiam" and not "argumentIa ad ignorantEM".

Thanks again for you wonderful blog,

Andrea Zapparoli Manzoni
Milan, Italy