Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Cassandra's View

As I mentioned in last week’s post, I took the opportunity this year to travel to Sacramento to attend the annual conference hosted by ASPO-USA – the acronym-impaired may want to know that this is the US branch of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas, the largest and most respected organization in the peak oil field. It was, as the Grateful Dead might have put it, a long strange trip, and ever since my return I have been wondering just how to talk about the experience on The Archdruid Report.

That the conference needed to be discussed here I had no doubt. Some of the presentations at the conference were profoundly insightful. Others were profoundly obtuse – and this very fact is worth noting, as a marker of the extent to which intelligent people with the best intentions in the world can still miss the most crucial implications of the systemic crisis facing the industrial world just now. Still, inspiration chooses its own path; it wasn’t until I unpacked a book I’d found in a very different place the day before the conference, and flipped idly through its pages, that I knew how to say what needed to be said.

Perhaps the most surprising personal discovery I made at the conference was that while many people there had encountered these essays, most of them apparently thought that the word “archdruid” in the title was a cute internet handle rather than a job description. I am in fact the elected head of a Druid order, and in that capacity I travel now and then to events hosted by other Druid organizations around the country. It so happened that the ASPO conference took place just after one such event, a harvest festival for Sacramento’s Pagan community, celebrating the autumn equinox.

That’s where I was on the two days prior to the conference, celebrating the coming of autumn with Sacramento’s Druids and Pagans in a sunny, pleasant park east of town. That’s where I wandered into a bookstall in the row of vendors, and bought a copy of an old favorite, Bulfinch’s Mythology; and it was as I paged through the volume, thinking mostly of the challenges involved in finding a place for it on my already overcrowded bookshelves, that I found a reference to the old story of Cassandra.

Most people nowadays have heard the name, but those of my readers who had what passes for an education in the American public schools may not be familiar with the story. Cassandra was a daughter of Priam, the last king of Troy; Apollo gave her the gift of prophecy in an attempt to seduce her but, when she refused him, put a curse on her so that nobody would believe her predictions. She thus had to watch helplessly as all her warnings were ignored and her father’s city plunged headlong into the catastrophe of the Trojan War.

When Troy fell to the Greeks, the Greek commander Agamemnon took her home with him as a captive. In a scene portrayed with stunning force in Aeschylus’ play Agamemnon, she foresaw his murder – and her own – at the hands of Agamemnon’s estranged wife; no one believed her then, either, and captor and captive died together. The crowning irony is that Apollo’s curse has lost none of its power today; more often than not, when someone is described as “a Cassandra” these days, the phrase implies that the dire events that person predicts will not happen.

In terms of the original tale, though, the whole cast of Cassandra’s story was present and accounted for at the ASPO conference last week. The event took place in an expensive hotel across the street from the California state capitol, with skyscrapers filling in for the fabled towers of Troy, and King Priam played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who did not attend the conference but prefers a penthouse suite in the same hotel to the less private comforts of the governor’s mansion up the street. Lunches, finger food for breaks, and hors d’oeuvres for the evening receptions all tended toward the overly precious, and the uniformed hotel staff bustled about like servants at a Bronze Age royal court.

In this setting, the presentations and talk at the conference took on a surreal quality, as though the global civilization we were discussing – the one running out of cheap and easily available fossil fuels – was on some other planet. I’m not at all sure how many of the attendees took the time to connect the energy that provided climate-controlled air, fluorescent lighting, PowerPoint slideshows and overabundant snacks for the conference with the sinking lines on graphs that tracked our world’s rapidly depleting oil, coal, and natural gas reserves. I’m even less sure how many of them traced out those graphs to their logical conclusions and thought through the likely impacts on their own lives; even in peak oil circles, this is surprisingly uncommon

Some of the presentations, certainly, showed no trace of such reflections. To my mind, at least, the most pathetic of them – and I use this word with its full meaning of “evoking pathos,” not in its current sense as a general-purpose insult – was offered by Christer Lindstrom, a pleasant Swedish businessman who wants to solve peak oil by building countless millions of little four-seat computer-guided monorail cars to replace today’s urban automobiles. No hint of the fantastic capital expenditures needed to build a new transportation grid in cities sprawled across three continents, no reference to the immense burden on the electric grid such a project would impose, darkened his presentation.

Instead, we watched pretty computer graphics and video footage of prototypes circling a little test track in Uppsala. In a world blessed with cheap abundant energy, some such thing might be worth considering. Still, one of the core implications of peak oil is precisely that the huge projects of the recent past – the interstate highways and the Apollo programs – are slipping out of reach as the surplus energy that made them possible depletes out from under us. Ignore this essential point, and it’s easy to come up with technological fixes that will solve the peak oil problem; applying them to the real world is another matter.

None of the other presentations were quite so detached from the realities of our predicament, but some came close, clinging to a model of business as usual that has already been outstripped by events. Other presenters showed a clearer grasp of the situation Among them were geologist Ken Verosub, who provided a crisp summary of the fundamentals of petroleum science and the steep and ongoing decline in American oil reserves; David Hughes, another geologist, who put coal into the energy picture and showed the dubious figures behind claims that coal – currently being used at the same rate per capita as in 1910, and itself subject to drastic depletion – can replace our declining oil supplies; and engineer Robert Rapier, familiar to readers of The Oil Drum, who sorted out sales hype from reality in the biofuels industry.

What set these presentations and others apart from the more facile ones, at least from my viewpoint, is that the former recognized that we are long past the point of ready answers. The cry for solutions is a common one, and understandably popular. Still, thinking of peak oil as a problem we can solve by some grand project, or combination of projects, misses some of the most crucial features that define the crisis of the contemporary industrial world.

The essence of that crisis is that we no longer have the resources or the time to bring about changes in our infrastructure or technology large enough to make a significant difference on a national or international scale. We threw away that opportunity when the industrial world abandoned the steps toward sustainability taken in the 1970s. The quarter century from 1980 to 2005, when energy was cheaper and more abundant than ever before in human history, could have been used to launch the transition to sustainability, but that opportunity was wasted – along with all those billions of barrels of oil – and all the wishful thinking in the world will not bring either one of them back.

The Limits to Growth, the most insightful (and thus the most vilified) of the warnings issued during the Seventies, outlines the resulting predicament in detail. One of the central themes of that study was that constructive change had to happen while there was still a surplus of energy and other resources to fuel it. By the time significant shortfalls begin, all available resources are already committed to current needs, and any attempt to free up resources for some new project comes into conflict with the demands of existing economic sectors. The US government may be in a position to loan Wall Street $700 billion it doesn’t have – in today’s economic world, money is so close to a mass hallucination that it’s not surprising to see it wished into being so casually – but actual resources such as fossil fuels, trained labor forces, and time are not so flexible.

The recent troubles set in motion by attempts to promote ethanol production show how the resulting limits work. Diverting corn to ethanol production boosted US gasoline supplies over the short term, but sent food prices soaring, sparking inflation across a wide range of products and causing a cascade of problems elsewhere in the economy. This was a relatively modest example, because ethanol production for motor fuel used existing pipelines, gas stations, and other infrastructure; something on the scale of an attempt to replace gasoline with hydrogen – which would require a completely new infrastructure from top to bottom – could draw down remaining resource stocks so drastically that, pursued with enough misplaced enthusiasm, it could drive an economic collapse all by itself.

Thus a focus on grand solutions is self-defeating, even when those solutions are not as obviously beside the point as Lindstrom’s dream of a mini-monorail in every garage. We need to start with a close look at the resources that are actually available for change in the real world, with all its political, economic, and cultural complexities. We need to recognize that the apportioning of resources to any economic sector, however absurd it seems, has a constituency that backs it and can be counted on to fight against attempts to divert it. We need to accept that no one is likely to agree cheerfully to cuts in their standard of living unless they themselves see a very good reason for the change – and after so many decades of predictions of imminent doom by purveyors of apocalyptic fantasies, another round of warnings just isn’t cutting it.

These hard limits sketch out the range of action available to today’s industrial societies in the first years of the age of peak oil. They do not make a cheerful picture; Cassandra’s view never does, and this is why clear assessments of unpleasant realities so often get pushed aside in favor of grand, elegant, and optimistic visions flawed only by the minor fact that they are unworkable in the real world. I don’t claim to know whether this habit will one day bring down Sacramento’s towers in flames, as it did the towers of Troy; still, as those towers shrank in the rear window a week ago, the possibility was hard to dismiss out of hand.


Sabretache said...

Thanks once again John Michael.

Another solid, if rueful, analysis of our predicament; with no sign whatever that it's gravity has even begun to permeate the conciousness of the public at large. Strange thing is there can be little doubt that the arbiters of real political power in the US and elsewhere are acutely aware of its gravity - and yet rare official reference to the issue (for public consumption anyway) all have an air of whistling-in-the-wind unreality about them. Now I wonder why that should be?

Wyoming said...


Minor quible. You state that shipment of ethanol uses existing pipelines. I believe that this is not true. Ehtanol cannot be shipped via pipeline due to corrosion issues (if I remember correctly) therefore it is shipped by truck. A significant added expense.

anagnosto said...

I had a similar impression at this year International Exposition at Zaragoza, Spain. The theme was water, so it was an hallucinatory mix of justified alarmism, turistic schedules, expensive projects, excuses for many other aims, and hopefully a few workable solutions. All packed inside a Disney park -style with fancy architecture of dubious utility.

Frank said...

Thanks for your remarkable insights, ArchDruid! The need for conscious evolution knows no political nor ideological boundaries, it seems. Our project here in West Virginia, EntropyPawsed
seeks to help people with the transition to a low energy, nature linked lifestyle. From personal observation I realize no problem is so complicated that it cannot be further complicated by a modern American citizen. Where is Occam's Razor when we need it? Thanks again for your sharing your insights!

FARfetched said...

Thanks for the run-down. I can imagine the dismay Cassandra would have felt, seeing her prophecies happening before her eyes, claiming the very people she tried to warn. I know it's getting a little off-track, but perhaps the nature of prophecy requires the hearers to not believe — for if they believe and act on the information, the prophecy would be wrong. The Book of Jonah is the only story i can think of where the people listened… and indeed, because they listened and repented, the sentence of doom was rescinded.

Of course, predictions of resource depletion are modeling, not prophecy… prophecy is when we start talking about impacts on the world's societies and commerce. Societies in particular are difficult to model below the "20,000-foot level."

[One more aside… the ban on profanity in comments is commendable, but you might want to check your blogroll. You link to Kunstler's blog, using its full name, and if naughty words in comments trip nanny-filters, that name certainly will.]

DickLawrence said...

John, thanks for your review and insightful comments. I have become a regular reader of your columns and always learn something. I'm sure I saw you there, but didn't see your name tag so we didn't have a chance to talk. Hope to meet you in Michigan.

As you noted, there are heaps of irony and internal contradictions involved in putting on an "energy-focused" conference in an energy-guzzling forum, flying people from around the country to partake of information and collective wisdom that can only conclude that we're using too much of fast-depleting resources and this can't continue, including conferences like this.

I've proposed to the Board that we make 2009 the rollout of some "virtual conference" technologies that will make it possible for participants to partake of much of the experience without flying or driving human bodies hundreds / thousands of miles to one physical location. We may have "satellite cities" with local Peak Oil groups around the country set up as local viewing sites, with bidirectional video and audio. Perhaps 2010 would see the rollout of this idea on a larger scale, nationally and internationally.

That said, there's still no good substitute for the physical and intellectual stimulation of bringing 500 similarly-concerned or curious citizens in one place and interacting face-to-face - like your Druid gatherings and Equinox ceremonies. I think I speak for the others when I say: I hope and have some faith that the good we do is greater than the damage inflicted. But that's a tough call.

If I had time to ride my bicycle that far, I would, but it's only practical given time constraints to limit that to local trips of 50 miles or less.

At the state level, many of us are pushing our governments to begin serious long-term energy planning (given the total vacuum of leadership at the national level). We had a panel discussing this on Sunday afternoon. I invite any of your Massachusetts readers to join me in that effort, where we're making good progress; contact info below. Yes, I cycle to the State House, where there are no @#$% bike racks!

Best wishes,
Dick Lawrence

dlawrence (at) aspo-usa (dot) com

Matt Cardin said...

Thanks for the report and, especially, the very personal and insightful reflections, John. I have never attended any of the various peak oil conferences held periodically around the U.S., but the impression I gained from your report confirms the one I have long gained in vicarious fashion from reading about them. They've always sounded like a tragicomic admixture of really solid, helpful, collegial, forward-thinking conferencing and gallingly unself-aware nonsense.

Regarding the generalized societal and cultural ignorance of the real and pressing nature of our energy predicament, I can confirm, as somebody who lived his entire life in southwest Missouri until relocating a couple of months ago to Central Texas, that both regions are afflicted by it. Whenever I engage almost anybody in conversation about the oil and energy issue, or about the current financial and economic crisis, I'm surprised at just how thin and uninformed their understanding really is. They know, of course, that something's afoot, but they don't even pretend to know or understand anything beyond the soundbite version of it.

This even holds true at my new place of employment, which is a community college. My fellow faculty seem friendly and articulate without exception, but when I've found myself in conversation with several of them about these issues, I've discovered that they're just as fuzzy in their understanding as anybody else. The same held true among my fellow faculty at the high school teaching position that I just vacated back in Missouri. I'm certainly no geologist, engineer, or economist myself -- my academic training is in religious studies, philosophy, communication, and literature -- but I've managed to gain an accurate layperson-level knowledge and understanding of what's happening. And I find it disturbing that so many professional educators, regardless of their fields, are so unclear about these important things. If this is the case among professional educator and academics, then what kind of chance can we expect everyone else to have? The collective cultural cocoon, aided by the sedative of the mass media, seems as enveloping as ever.

Maybe the press coverage surrounding conventions like the one you just attended knock at least a few people awake.

John Michael Greer said...

Sabretache, a nice touch of irony! Still, today's US political class is hoist by its own petard. They've used optimistic claims as a weapon so often that they have no way left to talk about the realities of a very dangerous and worsening situation.

Wyoming, thanks for the correction. The same point holds, though, since the existing trucking fleet can be used for it.

Anagnosto, I suspect that's common to most such events these days.

Frank, thanks for the link -- good to see another project moving in the right direction.

Farfetched, the self-canceling prophecy is an interesting phenomenon. Still, many prophets offer a choice between alternatives: do X and Y will happen, do not-X and Z follows. As for Kunstler, good point -- I haven't glanced at the blogroll for a long time, and thus didn't catch that.

Dick, thanks for your comments! I didn't mean to imply that the conference shouldn't have happened because of the energy cost -- there are probably steps that could be taken to decrease the latter, but that's another matter. An eye to the irony, on the other hand, could be a useful educational tool.

Good luck with the state government, by the way; my guess is that state or provincial and local governments are a far better starting point for constructive change right now than a federal government on the verge of total gridlock.

Matt, my guess is that your background in religious studies and philosophy is your major advantage here. The problem with technical education is that it provides few tools to relate itself to a wider context, and peak oil is above all a crisis of context -- it comes from the failure of certain modern ways of thinking to deal with the core realities of our environment. Still, keep on trying!

CrismonCoconut said...

Good, if deeply depressing (for me at least) post. Heaven help me but I STILL can't bring myself to think it's too late, and I've been reading your blog for a while now. Maybe we can't keep going the way we are now, but to sit by and just let our civilization crumble seems like the worst possible cynicism. Peak Oil advocates can get so self-righteous and I think that's one reason why they're so unappealing in the main stream. You're far better than most- At least you give us a reason to try and keep going.

Not a day goes by when I don't think about "What might have been" if we had used just a little common sense and foresight. How is it that NOBODY saw this coming, that they didn't even consider for a MOMENT, even after the crises of the 70s, that maybe, just maybe, we should be more careful about our consumption? Are we really that blind and stupid? And are we so stupid even now that we'll let what options we still have slip away? There's soooo much we can still do as a society. Maybe we can't stop the decline and fall of industrial civilization, but I feel like we have to try, or everything we've accomplished in the last 200 years is meaningless. Shouldn't we invest in renewable energy and feul, and new technologies as much as we still can? Shouldn't we try? We know so much now, and industrial civilization, for all its flaws, has truly made us a more wise and aware species. We've gained so much knowledge and have so much freedom to think, create, share. God help me, I wish it could go on forever. I really, really do. Is that wrong of me? I don't know. All I know is that I wouldn't be happy anywhere else. I don't fit in anywhere else except industrial society. Everything I know, everything I love, and is connected to it somehow, and so I can't just let it go like that. I know it's not going away all at once, but that doesn't make it much easier for me.

And I agree, that a lot of projects don't make sense and are impractical. There are other, better, less energy intensive options. I know renewable energy won't solve all our problems, but don't you think we SHOULD be looking into it, and whatever else we can? If we can come up with something sustainable that can replace even a small amount of oil in the system, such as biofuels to run farm equipment and make life easier for our desendants, don't you think we should invest in it? Don't you think that even now, we have to give this our all? There's still a lot of oil left in the world even now. I just hope we use it well.

John Michael Greer said...

Crismon, when the iceberg's already past and the ship is sinking, the time to build a new hull is long past; the task at hand is to break out the lifeboats. I'm not advocating that people sit on their hands; rather, I'm suggesting that it's time to focus our efforts on managing the descent and getting the positive legacies of the last three centuries through the dark age ahead of us to the successor societies that will rise from our ruins. If our experience is to have any value to the future, this last is the task that has to be confronted and accomplished.

Baxter said...

This post really nails our inability to wrestle reality from the huge tangle of car/oil culture mythology that we've been living for generations. Kunstler harps on this same issue repeatedly; to wit, our desperate attempts to keep the cars running as all costs.

An illustration. My partner and I recently were looking at some property, with the idea that we might build a solar house on it. I called on a friend in the solar industry to evaluate the property's solar access. When I expressed my concern that the property was at the top of a steep hill and I wondered how I would get to it by bicycle when I am, say, 80 years old, he told me that this shouldn't be among my concerns because "in the future" we will all be driving light weight solar-powered electric cars.

So I asked him the question I always ask proponents of (take your pick: biofuel-powered, grid-powered electric, solar-powered) cars, which I refer to as the 10% question. That is, what are the effects of converting 10 per cent of the U.S.'s existing fleet of 240+ million petro-fueled cars to this technology? Well, he hadn't thought about that, and typically most people don't. To the extent they do consider it, the rote answer is "that shouldn't be a problem. We have plenty of [fill in the blank]." The reason I use 10 per cent is that it is a fairly testable number, and of course, if we don't like the results at 10%, we're definitely not going to like what happens when the graph approaches 100%.

The answer to the 10% question is already becoming clear when we examine ethanol, and it's not pleasant, especially to the world's poorer corn-dependent populations. I predict it will come clear very soon in regards to biodiesel -- for the indigenous inhabitants of Indonesia's vanishing rain forests, being razed for palm oil biodiesel production, it is already clear.

Most people lost in the car culture haven't a clue what the implications are for a massive conversion to electric cars, either. Electric cars will require significant amounts of copper, cadmium, lithium and nickel, to name a few of the planet's stretched resources. And of course the electricity has to be generated somewhere. Currently, that would have to be from fossil fuel plants, nuke plants or fish-killing dams, distributed over a grid already groaning at maximum capacity. We may be able to charge these cars with solar power, but won't we prefer other uses for that electricity once oil becomes too expensive? And, as JMG points out in his post, have we already reached the point of no return in terms of available capital to invest in such a large scale project?

It seems to me that some of these calculations could be pretty easily done on the back of a napkin at the local bar. For example, how much copper will a Chevy Volt use? How much copper would be required to get, say, 20 million of these cars on the road? How much copper do we have left? Copper is recyclable, but what about the energy needed to recycle it? What additional capacity will the power grid need to keep these things running? Where will that power come from?

I will be the first to admit that I don't have the answers to many of these questions. My point, however, is that the proponents of these "alternative" energy technologies don't seem comfortable even asking them. I have a suspicion that nobody wants to be mugged by the limits of scalability, especially when it conflicts with the cozy notion that we can keep on motoring forever without consequence. Nobody wants to admit that the car itself is the most inefficient way to transport people, regardless of the fuel that powers it, even when every new scheme for powering cars leads to a brick wall.

So it doesn't surprise me to hear that the ASPO conference included the Swedish gentleman and his Jetsons monorail scheme -- which is just a variation on the car -- and that many people even at ASPO seem stuck in business-as-usual thinking. We got into this predicament by ignoring the concepts of limits and scalability, and unfortunately many in our movement (if that's even the right name for it) continue to think that way.

cjryan2000 said...

JMG, nice piece...At this point, my perspective is that Cassandra status is almost a badge of honor and expecting average folks to be swayed by facts and trend lines is a waste of valuable time. A better use of time and resources is to form better connections and networks with like-minded people to establish an alternative community pursuing the goals of relocalization.

The Localizer Blog

John Michael Greer said...

Baxter, excellent! To my mind, at least, the questions you're asking are the right ones. If we don't have the resources to keep running our current technology, we aren't likely to be able to find the resources for the far more costly process of building a wholly new infrastructure.

CJ, I can certainly understand the frustration of trying to communicate to the general public, and there's certainly much to be gained by the sort of local networking you've mentioned. Still, don't assume that current attitudes are frozen in place forever. The Seventies showed how fast ideas can adapt to realities; it may take a crisis or two to repeat that process, but I suspect we're not that far away from that stage. On a larger scale, those movements -- political, economic, cultural, and spiritual -- that first come up with meaningful responses to the crisis of industrial society will frame the entire shape of the social dialogue in the future ahead of us.

yooper said...

Hello John!
Perhaps, Cassandra should have kept her view to herself? Wouldn't this have saved her and everyone involved a lot of heartache?

This is what I've asked myself, what seems my entire life... I mean why bother, if most people cannot comprehend the warning or prediction? Let's face it, most people will take the easiest route. This is as old as history itself... Why torture them any further?

Some people wonder why I've spent a great deal of time away from civilization. My answer usually is, "Until you can actually remove youself from the situation, it's near impossible to examine it..."

There are no substitutes....

Thanks, yooper

painfulsyntax said...

I’m even less sure how many of them traced out those graphs to their logical conclusions and thought through the likely impacts on their own lives; even in peak oil circles, this is surprisingly uncommon

Such is the issue with science. We separate ourselves from the subject matter forgetting to reconnect ourselves back in. Time is of the essence to hold onto remnants of civil life, your life included.

It is easy to point fingers and speculate on a past that took a different direction than what we (collectively as humans) chose. It is the most easy means to set one into a bitter, unproductive mindset.

Now is time to accept that our industrial society is on its death bed. No pill, elixir, or breathing apparatus will keep it alive. We need to let go of of industrial society's daily trappings, lest they drag us into death.

Unbelievable how backwards 'solutions' to peak oil are. Start with the basic needs and go from there. Once water, food, and shelter are accounted for then with whatever energy remains dream about personal maglev pods and that stupid reverse tessla coil deal in Atlas Shrugged. It's as if people think "We're running out of oil (thinking oil means gasoline and nothing else)? Well find a replacement so I can still fuel my car and get to work and the grocery store." People completely overlook the vast systems they rely on for work and food, thinking only in terms of what is immediately in front of their eyes.

I do not understand why so many intelligent people don't even have the slightest grasp of what is happening. In 1994 my 3rd grade teacher managed to explain Hubbert's curve and the oil shocks of the 1970's to the class. I'll always remember her introduction "Now I don't mean to scare you, but here is what is happening. You kids are probably going to be the first generation coping with this change". Prophetic in retrospect.

/hackney rant

Danby said...

How is it that NOBODY saw this coming, that they didn't even consider for a MOMENT, even after the crises of the 70s, that maybe, just maybe, we should be more careful about our consumption?

Some did see it. In fact a great many measures were taken to reduce petroleum consumption. In 1976 I was a high school debater. The national topic for that year was whether there should be an international organization to allocate scare resources. I was against it, because bureaucracy would inevitably mean favoritism and political manipulation.

Still, the whole idea that we might soon run out of oil (some thought it would be before the turn of the millenium, but that was obvious hogwash) was quite current and very earnestly debated. What happened? I think two things,
1) oil prices crashed, thanks in part to some serious conservation measures. By law, it was forbidden to set the thermostat of any business or public accomodation above 68F. Prior to 1975, thermostats were commonly held at 72F. I kid you not. The speed limits on interstate highways was reduced to 55. Housing codes required 6" rather than 4" of insulation on new construction, and double-paned windows. Vast numbers of streetlights, particularly on highways, went dark. Drivers began buying smaller, often Asian-built cars. These and dozens of other measures made a real impact in the demand for petroleum. The high prices of the mid 1970s, as well as some very favorable tax provisions, encouraged the discovery and opening of new oil fields. Combined with the worldwide recession of 1978-1982 (in part caused by lower oil production due to the Iranian Revolution and the Iran-Iraq war), supply overran demand starting in about 1982.

At which point everyone said "Okay, crisis averted." With oil prices at historic lows, anyone arguing that the supply was actually running out looked like a loony. It's obvious that there must be some limit to any mineral resource, but with the economy literally awash in the stuff, it seemed obvious that the limit was nowhere in sight.

2)Any limit to our petroleum supply would mean a limit to our American way of life. That was, and is, a political non-winner. Democratic forms of government are good at many things, but making people face up to unpleasant reality is not one of them. The idea that people will have to limit their driving, or even (God forbid!) the size of their car, is not going to attract voters. Particularly when most of the people are already in denial about limitations to the oil supply.

It's only when the demand overtook supply, starting with the Iraq War in 2001, that most people were even capable of hearing the argument that the oil was running out. It's entirely possible that with a sufficiently large and widespread recession/depression, which seems inevitable at this point, that the supply will once again exceed demand. At that time, expect much of the interest in peak oil to dissipate.

I expect the price of oil, as seen in this graph to continue to whipsaw, with the floor between peaks continuing to rise with every wave. If you want to propose a solution, you need to make sure it's appealing at both the peak and the trough.

Craig said...

I enjoy your connection of Priam and modern day politicians. Those who follow the lines of power always like to drag their surf's down with them. Or more likely walk over their corps to the future land of third world priced labor and pre-Magna Carta civil rights. What do these powers brokers have to lose? Nothing, things can only get brighter for them.

John Michael Greer said...

Yooper, I gather that I haven't offended Apollo, since some people do listen to my comments, and some of them have gone on to make useful changes in their lives. That makes it worth the effort.

Syntax, I got the same lecture in 1976. I can think of a handful of people in my generation who took it seriously. Still, at least there were a few of us!

Dan, this is why I don't expect a "solution" to oil shortages to come via any route but muddling through; what makes sense at the peak rarely makes sense at the trough, and vice versa.

Craig, it's a common fallacy that the political class of a declining society can expect to come through the collapse with their privilege intact. Not so. Their position is purely a function of their ability to manipulate an intricate system; when that system breaks down, so does their power, and once that goes, their remaining wealth makes them tempting targets for violence. If they hire guards, as they often do, it's usually the guards who end up cutting their throats and seizing their assets; if not, somebody else does the honors. The harsh conditions of a dark age, in other words, are not easy on the pampered rich.

Danby said...

If they hire guards, as they often do, it's usually the guards who end up cutting their throats and seizing their assets

Hence every rank of nobility in Europe, with the sole exception of king/queen (but not excluding Emperor/Kaiser/Tsar) derives from Roman military rank.

WebWeasel said...

@wyoming You are correct. Ethanol can not be shipped via pipelines because it contains water and causes rust. Ethanol also requires fairly major plumbing work at fuel terminals plus software changes in the fuel terminal software (that's where I come in) to make sure it's never left in a load arm or they will rust too.

painfulsyntax said...

...via any route but muddling through; what makes sense at the peak rarely makes sense at the trough, and vice versa.

Doesn't that depend on the disparities between peak and trough, along with frequency? A long valley of $60 barrel oil might persuade us to rest on our laurels. An erratic fluctuation between $50 in July, $200 in September, back down to $60 in December would keep the populous alert. Both could be possible in the near future.

Either reaction is a toss-up from an end benefit perspective. Slogging along tinkering with solutions or an 'energy new deal'? Probably a combination will trudge along down the dark sloping hallway.

ChrisH said...

John, it was great to meet you at ASPO (sustainability grad student at Arizona State). Keep up the good work.

I'll keep you in the loop if I ever get around to doing any work with your collapse model. I just talked to one of my fellow students the other day and she is leaning towards writing her dissertation on the role of energy in the rise and fall of civilizations, so we may try to write a paper or two together.

Megan said...

So, to sum up: recognizing that we have a problem is not the same as having a solution, and having a solution that works out on paper is not the same as being able to put it into practice. Most solutions fail because they consist of trading one problem for another - wasting this scarce resource instead of that scarce resource, borrowing from Peter to pay Paul.

My thoughts: too many solutions suffer from a missing middle step. Often it's 'revolutionary syndrome' - building a glorious new world on the ashes of the old, the problem being, what are you going to eat (much less build with) during that interim period when the whole world's in ashes?

The other problem is 'open box with crowbar found enclosed' - solutions relying, in circular fashion, on the very conditions they're trying to bring about - normally the condition of having a lot of money, resources, technology, political support, or public acceptance. The results /would/ be useful if we were in any position to pursue them.

Further thought: the perfect is the enemy of the good. The question is not, 'All things being equal, what would be the ideal social, political, economic, and technological solution to our problem?' The question is, 'Given what we have to work with right now, where are we capable of doing in the immediate future?' Getting from A to Z requires getting to B first.

Iconoclast421 said...

You said it yourself: "In a world blessed with cheap abundant energy, some such thing might be worth considering"

We should not forget that we do live in such a world. This is no telling how much demand destruction will result from the currently unfolding collapse. It would take an increase in auto sales of 50% in order to get us up to last years levels. That is a massive amount of demand destruction. And there is every sign that it is just beginning. The energy demand destruction is likely to overshoot, leading to huge energy surplusses. That is where we get the energy to implement the visions of people like Christer Lindstrom.

I think Lindstrom is pretty close to being on the right track. My own vision is similar to Lindstrom's. I call it the New Interstate. I am envisioning a hybrid rail/autonomous system with roads much like we have now, but with the addition of New Interstate terminals located in each city. You drive your car into the terminal and onto a big long rail car, and it whooshes you off to the New Interstate terminal in your destination city. Then you drive away autonomously for the last mile of your commute. The New Interstate system would be computer controlled, managing traffic 10 times as efficiently. A trillion dollar investment could expand current highway capacity tenfold and eliminate the need for more than a 20 mile battery in your PHEV. The amount of oil this transportation model could save is nigh immeasurable. The US alone could save 10 million barrels a day. The current economic collapse (brought in part by the failure of the Old Interstate highway system) is what will provide the fuel to build the New Interstate. All that is needed is imagination, and resolve.

I dont like either candidate, but somehow we've got to get them to see how big of a long term economic boost the New Interstate could be. It's worth trillions of dollars in both energy savings and economic growth. And we have everything we need to build it, right now.

John Michael Greer said...

Dan, exactly. In a world where force trumps traditional power structures, the security guard protecting the rich man has every incentive to off his employer and take the wealth himself.

Weasel, interesting. Is this also the case with gasoline-ethanol blends?

Syntax, yes, a lot depends on the speed of the gyrations.

Chris, I enjoyed our conversation! Definitely keep me in the loop; now that my catabolic collapse paper is in print (as an appendix to The Long Descent) it ought to be usable footnote fodder, too.

Megan, that's an extremely useful summary. I'd also include "it worked last time" among the list of fallacies -- that's the logic by which people call for a new Apollo program or Manhattan Project, when the US no longer has the abundant resource base that made those possible.

Iconoclast -- why is it that people who choose that particular online handle always belie the meaning of the name by simply rehashing the conventional wisdom? -- it's easy to engage in handwaving about "imagination and resolve," but this evades the real issues. We no longer live in a world of cheap abundant energy; demand destruction is occurring, but so is depletion; meanwhile, economic troubles make it increasingly hard to bring online new energy sources of any kind -- from new oil fields to wind farms to whatever -- and this exacerbates the depletion problem.

Nor is it an simple matter to find a trillion dollars to spare in the midst of an unfolding depression, when the US government is for all intents and purposes already bankrupt -- I trust you're aware that the US will have to default on its sovereign debt within a decade at the outside. Pipe dreams are always pleasant, but it's time to wake up and face the cold light of an unwelcome day.

Danby said...

I trust you're aware that the US will have to default on its sovereign debt within a decade at the outside.

I give it two, but then I've always been a pessimist on these things.

WebWeasel said...

Once the ethanol is blended in the petroleum prevents rust. I've heard ethanol described as a sort of sponge. It absorbs any surrounding moisture.

Conchscooter said...

Cassandra has been in my mind a great deal recently as I discuss these issues with those around me. They,more determined than I, can not possibly see catastrophic, unbridled change in their future and are surprised I dread subsistence living so much, and treat catastrophe as a possibility.
I told my childhood friend this past summer that I might not be able to fly to Italy again next year and he laughed, puzzled by my gloom.
My decision to grow vegetables as my own pathetic symbol of willingness to change (I hate gardening- I embrace my hatred!)has produced snide comments that I am preparing for an apocalypse that cannot possibly come. I hope I get to eat my fears as a side dish to my own carrots down the road.
I am aware of all the possibilities for economic implosion, climate change and energy crisis, yet I crave my middle class life as never before.I don't blame them for not wanting to see.

dragonfly said...

OK after that last thing about the new highway - I can't not post. From Money & Markets...(edited)

"China: "To Get Rich is Glorious"
When Chinese Premiere Deng Xiaoping spoke these words back in 1993, Larry Edelson was among the first to let us know.
And indeed, that's when China unleashed an economic force unprecedented in modern history. That single, but pivotal, change in philosophy marked the beginning of China's relentless march to prosperity.
And along the way, we are seeing a series of largely untold economic miracles:
Chinese consumer spending has jumped from virtually zero to nearly $1 trillion.

There are now over 100 cities in China with a population over 1 million. The U.S. has only nine.

China currently boasts 1.3 billion consumers. Plus, to stimulate foreign investments, Beijing is pulling out all the stops.
China plans to boost natural gas consumption by as much as 500 percent ... invest nearly $4 billion in information technology and infrastructure ... expand fiber optic networks ... beef up mobile communications capacity ... establish digital capable HDTV transmission ... and use GPS technology for traffic control.
China is building massive skyscrapers, highways, city expressways, subway lines, and an intra-city light rail.
It's expanding the Beijing airport, improving water, electric, gas, and heating facilities. All across China, the equivalent of a city the size of San Francisco is being built every two weeks. This year alone, Shanghai (with 17 million people) will complete towers with more square footage than all the available space in Manhattan combined.
Even more significant is that China just launched a rural initiative for over 800 million citizens.

And it's investing tens of billions to build 112,000 miles of rural roads — enough to circle the globe four times over.
Imagine, just imagine, the raw materials and natural resources like cement, asphalt, tar and steel required to feed that kind of growth. That's why consumption of just about every imaginable resource is flying off the charts!"

Yikes! Good luck negotiating with the Chinese over raw materials. Never mind what the impact of that many people "Living the Dream" will do to the planet's already compromised meteorological
patterns. That means weather folks!

I'd have laughed at iconoclast if we weren't in such a dire situation.

Seek higher ground.

CrismonCoconut said...

Well, you're probably right John. I was never saying you weren't. I hope you're not, but you almost certainly are. But think of it this way- If most people are like me, and I think they are, they don't want to accept any 'Too late' opinions. As the energy problems make themselves known (And Barack Obama and Joe Biden have mentioned that we use 25% of the worlds oil, and have only 3% reserves,and oil tycoons like T. Boone Pickens are making commercials with a similar message so at least it's starting to penetrate), people are going to be scared and angry, but sooner or later, governments and people are going to ask "what now?". If we can't keep going the way we are, what next? I encourage people to get by on less and find ways to cut energy use, but I don't talk about deindustrial society because it just seems demoralizing to think about for a lot of people. I'm sure you understand, it's traumatic information. Personally, I think it's better to focus on the short term and what we can do at every level of society we can. I know we can't 'solve' these things, I just believe we should make the downward slope of Hubbard's peak as long and drawn-out as we are able to, using whatever we can, because the longer our civilization lasts, the more likely our descendants are of inheriting the best aspects of it and softening a dark age. Surely you can't fault me for that.

John Michael Greer said...

Dan, two decades? I'll be a bit surprised if it takes two years before the US defaults on its sovereign debt.

Weasel, that's what I'd understood. Thanks for confirming.

Conch, the only reason I'm not as upset as you are is that I've had time to get used to the future ahead of us -- it's been much on my mind since the energy crises of the 1970s, which hit during my teen years. Despair is a normal response but it's not a permanent state, and on the far side of it are plenty of potentials for constructive action.

Dragonfly, good! It's only in the fantasies of the conventional wisdom that the US will always be first in line for capital, credit, energy and raw materials; that's one of the hard realities that make grandiose plans of all kinds a waste of breath just now.

Crismon, I don't fault you at all; you're trying to wrestle with the harrowing realities we face, and that can be overwhelming at the best of times. I simply hope that enough people can get past the shock, the fear and the feelings of helplessness to make it possible to take constructive action to pass our legacy onto the future, while the time and resources to do it effectively still exist.

CrismonCoconut said...

John, Thanks, glad you understand. I know I won't see the deindustrial future, but it doesn't make it less scary. The idea of a world with NO electricity and NO machines at all terrifies me. But then, I doubt I'll live to see that if it is indeed as far off as you say.

On one hand I'm scared, yes, but I also feel a little more optimistic. I believe that people still have good sense. The most common doomsday scenario in the peak oil scene, I've noticed, is a resource-war armageddon, but that would be incredibly stupid and a waste of what remains of our oil, so I'm not really counting on it. If there are further resource wars I think they will mostly be waged via covert subterfuge and geurilla warfare, rather than massive armies clashing and atom bombs being dropped. So yes, it might happen, but I don't think we're that stupid. Plus I don't see why we wouldn't at least try for some level of cooperation on energy issues. Not only that but attempting to institure fascism on Americans would be near suicide. Maybe I'm being naieve, but I don't think so- We seem to come together in hard times.

I have some confidence in my species yet, in our adaptability and ingenuity, and that's one reason why I don't worry about a return to the 'stone age'. We know too much now. Even the most ignorant redneck you can find has some basic understanding of mechanics and physics. We may end up preserving a lot of information just because it's been so ingrained in us.

If you want to get anything done in society you have to give people good motivation. I've found out the hard way that fear doesn't work well. Fear is good for keeping you out of immediate danger, not as a long-term motivator. This is why I've never had a lot of respect for Kunstler's written work. The man seems to have two personalities; The sobering but passionate speaker who you can tell really wants us to do better, and the screaming, smug, hateful ha-ha-I-told-you-so tone of his blog. Plus all the comments of the countless hardcore doomer idiots that frequent it aren't very pleasant either.

So, when I talk to people about these things, I try to give them something to look forward to. Energy doesn't equal happiness after all, and plenty of people get by just fine without anywhere near as much as we think we need. It's strange how often we forget that!

Btw, as a college student I really enjoyed your post about Post-peak jobs a little while back. I'm trying to look through career options through that lens. Any chance we might see more of those in the future?

CrismonCoconut said...

And now, Dragonfly's comment has me back down into 'why bother, we're all doomed and stupid' mode. Funny how that can switch on you. *Sigh*

Danby said...

John Michael,
You know my dour, fatalistic, laughing-in-the-morgue Irish personality well enough to know I meant two years, not two decades.

John Michael Greer said...

Crismon, I find claims of imminent apocalypse just as unconvincing as claims that some convenient gimmick can get us out of the present crisis. We're entering a time of great change, but I think you may have gotten stuck in the false dichotomy that claims the only two possible futures are "business as usual" or "back to the caves." I don't expect a future with no electricity and no machines -- I expect a future where energy will be a lot scarcer and more expensive, and machines will no longer be the default option.

Eventually -- this is centuries out, but still worth aiming for -- I see the emergence of ecotechnic societies that can maintain a relatively sophisticated technology on a sustainable basis. If you have time to go through the last year or so of archives, you'll find a lot of discussion along these lines.

Dan, that was why I was puzzled by your comment -- I ended up deciding that you meant we'd slog through two wretched decades of paying out most of our national wealth to overseas creditors before finally chucking in the towel. Two years seems like a reasonable estimate, though; I could see it any time between a few months and several years off, though, depending on details.

Isis said...


Do you actually think that the US will default on its debt? Isn't pretty much all of US foreign debt dollar-denominated? I would imagine the US will simply print however much money it needs to print in order to pay what it owes. Printing money is, of course, a tried and true way to create a hyperinflation; but like Dmitry Orlov, I suspect that the government would sooner destroy the value if its currency than be in default.

CrismonCoconut said...

Heh, you caught me! Can't believe I fell back into that way of thinking. I try not to! And I have been reading your blog for about a year now, so I really should know better. Still, you can see how convincing those two arguments can be!

Rondino said...

With peace, where is all the people energy behind solar and wind power?
I have envisaged reforesting local mountains using solar to power water pumps and irrigation lines. Are we too bundled up in boundaries of comfort to work together?

John Michael Greer said...

Isis, hyperinflation erases the value of all dollar-denominated investments -- including those that give the rich in America their wealth and power. That will therefore be a last resort. Countries hyperinflate when, for one reason or another, they don't dare default on their debts -- Germany after the First World War, for example, faced invasion by France and Britain if it defaulted on its reparations, and so the stealth default of hyperinflation was the only option they had left. The US isn't in that kind of bind, so default on the national debt is the logical way to get out from under unpayable IOUs.

Crismon, exactly -- there's an enormous amount of cultural momentum behind the "progress or apocalypse" binary. It takes a good deal of sustained effort to overcome its pressure.

Rondino, you're still thinking in terms of the age of abundant energy, and that's passing away before our eyes. Plant trees appropriate to the ecosystem -- local drought-tolerant varieties with deep roots -- and you don't need the pumps. The ecotechnic way is to let Nature do things, rather than trying to force things along by throwing energy and technology at them!

Isis said...


You may be right about defaulting vs. hyperinflation; I hadn't thought about how hyperinflation would hurt the rich and powerful. Orlov's argument for hyperinflation was that, should the US default, all further credit opportunities would be shut off. But if the US inflated its currency, at least some borrowing opportunities would remain. We'll see what happens.

But thinking about it, I was assuming that the US would print money not so much because that would be the most logical thing for the country (or more to the point: for its rich and powerful) to do, but because hyperinflation was one of my formative experiences, so it's natural that I would expect to see it again, wherever there's economic/political trouble. As a child, I lived through the Yugoslav 1993 hyperinflation. It had nothing to do with paying off foreign debt (as it wasn't dinar-denominated; dinar being the local currency) and everything to do with making money for those close to the regime. Basically, you had an official exchange rate at the banks, but the common folk could only buy foreign currency from street dealers, at a far less favorable rate. (Anyone with a strong desire to get ripped off could, of course, sell foreign currency to the banks at the official rate.) Those close to the regime, however, could buy foreign currency from the banks at the official rate. (And of course, they could sell it in the street at the market rate.) The country, the banks, and the citizenry were impoverished in the process, but the select few made a killing.

But then, it's not clear that the same scenario could be repeated in the US. We'll see, though.

Danby said...

hyperinflation has one unvarying side effect. Any government that induces hyperinflation is dead. It is dead just as soon as change becomes possible. If change is not possible quickly enough via election, change is forced via mobs on the street.

Every time hyperinflation is tried as an economic strategy, from 13th century Yuan China to Modern-day Brasil, It has resulted in either Revolution, destruction via war, or a complete (as in "throw the bastards out") turnover of government. The only exception I can think of is 1940's Hungary, which was under military occupation, and the hyperinflation was an intentional tactic of the Communist Party to destroy the middle and upper classes.

Basically, once you spin the presses, you have given the shaft to every sector of society. The rich lose their income, the middle classes lose their savings and investments, the poor lose their bread.

Darrell Clarke said...

Great meeting you at ASPO, John, after appreciating your writing for some time!

I too feel like a Cassandra, having written a college paper on oil demand/gasoline rationing and taken a great course in solar energy engineering in the mid-1970s, only to witness three decades of SUVs and McMansions.

Yes, especially as a long-time transit advocate, I found the last presentation on PRT (personal rapid transit; see Ken Avidor's counterpoint) the weakest of otherwise one of the best conferences I've attended.

My very short version of what we could do rapidly for transportation in the face of declining oil supply is:

1. Reduce VMT by localization, biking, walking, ride-sharing, transit, intercity rail, and electronic communications replacing trips.

2. Increase efficiency and convert transportation (personal vehicles, transit, and railroads) as fast as possible to run on sustainably-generated electricity.

3. Prioritize fossil fuels for critical needs like growing and transporting food.

The challenge is to have good policies in the air when events urgently call for action.

marielar said...

Darrell Clarke wrote:

"The challenge is to have good policies in the air when events urgently call for action."

Having been a civil servant for quite a long while, I doubt anything will happen through the official channels. People with the power to draft and enforce policies had the facts in hands about climate change,natural resource depletion etc...for quite a while and did not choose other courses of action than business as usual. IMO, at this point of time, it is a loss of time to try to change thing from the top. The best is to find in each one of our life where the rubber hit the road and do what we can in your daily life: learn to knit, to can, buy straight from the local farmers to build rapport with them and keep them in business, get involved in 4-H etc...Do whatever to increase your community resiliency.

Some people with eyes to see and ears to hear have already figured out that there would be a time of reckoning and headed toward the lifeboats while the party was still going on in the Titanic ballroom. In my neck of the wood, the underground economy is quite lively, with people trading wood for breeding livestock, and freezers filled with deer meat.

Somebody wrote:
"Even the most ignorant redneck you can find has some basic understanding of mechanics and physics."

I would like to say that ignorant and redneck, to me, do not at all fit toguether. What many rednecks have that most university graduates dont are tradable skills which will come handy if the going get rough. Having switch from agronomist to farmer, I can say from experience that there is no easing in from book learning to the "real thing". The "intelligentsia" have look down the blue collar, bible reading, gun carrying folks for so long that they completely missed the important stuff about that way of life. Once the surplus necessary to maintain the paper pushers will be gone, what will they do? On the other side, when the going is rough, food in the cellar, skills to gut a chicken or split wood and a spiritual life to infuse hardships with meaning are precious commodities.

The calvary is not coming mounted on the pretty white horses of new policies, new technologies or a political Messiah who will save us. The ball is in the camp of every day Joes and Jeans to find their metaphorical shovels and start cleaning up in their immediate vicinity.

Isis said...

Danby said:

"hyperinflation has one unvarying side effect. Any government that induces hyperinflation is dead. It is dead just as soon as change becomes possible. If change is not possible quickly enough via election, change is forced via mobs on the street."

I don't know about that. In Yugoslavia, Milosevic and his buddies unleashed a massive hyperinflation in 1993 (well, it started before that, but it's in 1993 that it began to matter whether you were paid in the morning or in the afternoon), and wasn't forced out of power until 2000, after it had had a chance to make a lot more other mess, and after the 1993 hyperinflation had long started to dim in people's memory (we had more pressing issues to think and worry about by 2000).

sv koho said...

Thanks John for another clearly reasoned commentary on PO, energy and resource issues. If you have the time I hope you have the chance to add economic and financial comments to the discussion. We blew the chance to engineer a transition to a world post PO. I have read earlier posts speculating on the slow collapse vs fast collapse scenario and I know you have leaned toward the slow collapse. Have the events of the past several weeks inclined you to change your opinion?

John Michael Greer said...

Isis, if you feel up to it, you might consider writing up an account of your experiences with hyperinflation and consider posting it to Energy Bulletin -- that's something a good many people are talking about these days, and not always on the basis of firsthand information.

Dan, I wish that were true! Historically, though, it's not -- the Weimar Republic didn't fall as a result of hyperinflation, nor for that matter did the mass printing of greenbacks during the Civil War cause the Union government to go under.

Darrell, I enjoyed our conversation at Sacramento. There are other steps that have to be taken, but yes, the points you've made are valid parts of the mix.

Marielar, I don't think Darrell is talking exclusively about top-down change; a lot of the things he's proposing make more sense as projects for local governments, for example. Still, you're right that there's no quick fix for any of this. All we can do is try to cushion the descent.

Koho, my model of slow collapse involves periods of crisis interspersed with periods of stabilization and partial recovery. We're in the opening stages of one of the periods of crisis right now, and by all appearances it's going to be a doozy -- probably somewhat worse than the last one (1914-1945 in Europe, 1929-1945 on this side of the pond). As for financial and economic factors, well, I'll do what I can, but I'm not an economist, or an investor -- my background's in history and philosophy, and I don't recommend using either one for market timing!

Megan said...

Sir, what is your impression of this?:

simon said...

What if there was a sudden huge reduction in world population? would it be possible then to design and implement new technologies for those remaining, with the resources still available? are the resources simply too scarce, or are they just too scarce for 6 billion people?

Thanks John, please keep up the good work.

Tully Reill said...

"Once the ethanol is blended in the petroleum prevents rust. I've heard ethanol described as a sort of sponge. It absorbs any surrounding moisture."

JMG and Weasel;
Yes, ethanol is hygroscopic and this has caused some challenges at the "end point distribution" (gas stations). It's quite easy for water to get into older underground fuel storage tanks (rain, snowmelt, washing the parking lot, etc.) and this water can become suspended in the ethanol blend at the bottom of the tank. The majority of the fuel will still "float" on the water saturated portion, but it renders those remaining gallons of fuel in the bottom of the tank useless. The blended fuel is also harsher on some of the equipment from what I've seen, causing increased nozzel failure. This, in turn, causes more spills when the nozzels fail to shut off when a customer's tank is full and releases a good amount of raw hydrocarbons out into the environment...yet another problem.

FARfetched said...

There's too much debt clogging up the system, and the only two ways (that I can think of) to purge it is either cancel it outright or burn it off via hyperinflation. I suspect that we'll go with the former method this time, simply because it's easier to manage. As you pointed out, hyperinflation impacts the upper classes at least as much as the rest of us, while it's possible to cancel *some* debts (theirs) while leaving others (ours) intact.

I wouldn't worry about future lending. Sure, the rest of the world would shy away from T-bills for a while, but then they would either forget or decide the interest rate is high enough to take the risk. Countries have defaulted on their debt to the US in the past; what goes around comes around.

CrismonCoconut said...

Marielar, I was just using a stereotypical example. I was trying to imply that our whole way of thinking has been changed since the dawn of industrial society. Most people don't just accept things as they are, the want to know WHY they are that way. This gives me some about the possibility of scienctific theory being passed down to our descendants. However, if I do harbor some animosity towards the red states, it would have to do with the rise of Christian fundamentalism there (Just as bad as any other kind)and the seeming insistence to inject it into national politics, which is against our constitution, and also the blind, even radical faith in Free-Market Capitalism, which is quite detrimental and dangerous for our future.

I'd also like to agree that local activities are a great place to start, but I think it would be very foolish to give up on influencing those up at the top. There's a lot cities and states can do, but if we don't get the powers that be behind us on this I don't see us getting through the crisis at all. I feel like we'll only make it if we do so as a nation. I'm not arguing your main point, just that we need to be active at all levels of society.

Jacques de Beaufort said...

hey there JMG
If you could spare a second to recommend a list of the 3-6 most important books to read on the subject of The Collapse of Civilizations other than those written by JH Kunstler, Oswald Spengler, Peter Schiff, Richard Heinberg and Jared Diamond that would be a huge help.
Thanks in Advance !

John Michael Greer said...

Megan, I think Dmitry's work is great when he focuses on his own experience with collapse; when he starts extrapolating towards more extreme examples, like so many people, he has a hard time avoiding the power of the apocalyptic myth.

Simon, a sudden reduction in world population would simply leave the survivors convinced they no longer needed to worry about conservation or sustainability -- after all, everything would be so abundant!

Tully, most interesting. Thanks for the info.

Farfetched, exactly. The US defaulted on its debt in the 19th century, for that matter.

Crismon, I'd encourage you to get past the media stereotypes about the so-called 'red states'. The Druid order I head has more members in Tennessee than in California.

Jacques, you want to read Arnold Toynbee's A Study of History (the two-volume condensed version is fine); William Catton Jr.'s Overshoot; and Joseph Tainter's The Collapse of Complex Societies. I'd also encourage you to read a couple of good books on the decline and fall of specific civilizations -- Michael Grant's written some very good studies of the fall of Rome, and there are half a dozen good books on the Maya collapse, just or starters -- so you have the chance to get past abstractions into the nitty gritty of history on the ground. Have at it!

Danby said...

You'd be surprised by the number of rednecks that just want to be left alone by the gov't. It seems to them that all those urbanites are never happy unless they're telling somebody else what to do and how to do it. And the less the urbanites know about the specific conditions, traditions and culture of a rural area, the more they want to tell the rednecks who live there how to live, how to work, what they can say and what they can do. They certainly have to aim of running everybody's lives for them. They see that as being what liberals do.

If fact, if the Democrats could get over their one unnegotiable policy (abortion-on-demand), and stop trashing talking God, religious people,and the South, they'd be surprised how many rednecks would join them. There is very little love for the GOP out in the rural places of this country.

CrismonCoconut said...

Fair enough, that was uncharitable of me. I apologize if I offended anyone, but forgive me for being annoyed at those who want to banish evolution from schools and change our consitution to reflect the bible more closely. Personaly I'm an Agnostic- I do believe in a higher power, but I don't pretend that as mortal beings we can have all the answers. I harbor resentment towards those types of individuals who would put personal religion before the good of the country, no more, no less.

marielar said...

On the predictability of collapse, two books I've found very enlightening are Environment, Power and Society by Howard Odum and Out of the Earth by Daniel Hillel.

Also the paper "Tragedy of the commons" by Hardin is a great read.