Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Looking for Roong Thisdara

There have been many times, during the two and a half years I’ve been writing posts for The Archdruid Report, when I’ve found myself staring at a blank computer screen of a Wednesday morning, wondering what on Earth I can say that my readers might find even remotely interesting. Happily, such times have been scarce this November. A passing reference, in my post two weeks ago, to my dissatisfaction with a presentation on the Transition Town movement brought a flurry of comments asking me to say more about that; I did so last week, and fielded another flurry of comments as well as some lively critiques on other blogs.

The core argument of last week’s post centered on the possibility of building a better future by deliberate planning, and many of the comments and critiques took issue with my suggestion that this is not only impossible but counterproductive. While most of these latter noted that they were participants in the Transition Town movement, the ideas they expressed in that context are anything but unique to that movement; rather, it expresses a consensus that extends through most of the peak oil scene, and indeed, most of contemporary society. Despite its popularity, though, this confidence in our ability to plan the future seems woefully misplaced to me, and the reasons that have forced me to dissent from the consensus may be worth discussing here.

Trying to plan a way out of the crisis of industrial society is an old habit. Back in the 1970s, when the challenge posed by the limits to growth was first showing up on the radar screens of our collective discourse, a great deal of discussion centered on how global planning could back humanity away from the brink; since then, similar plans on various scales – local, regional, national, global – have appeared at regular intervals. The durable Lester Brown, to name only one of these would-be planners, released the original version of his Plan B in 2003; he’s now on version 3.0, and further versions will no doubt be forthcoming in due time.

A double helping of irony surrounds all this flurry of planning. If the crisis we face could be met by making plans, we’d have little to worry about; the difficulty is that making plans is the easy part. Go digging in the archives of most American municipalities and you’ll find an energy plan drafted and adopted, after extensive citizen input, in the 1970s, calling for exactly the changes that would have made matters today much less dire: conservation standards, public transit projects, zoning changes to reduce the need for cars, and so on. You’ll have to brush a quarter inch of dust off the plan to read it, though, since nobody has looked at it since the Reagan years, and not one of its recommendations was still functioning when the housing boom began in the early 1990s. A certain skepticism toward another round of plans may thus be in order.

Yet there’s a second dimension to the irony, because the recurrent gap between plan and implementation is not the only difficulty that has to be faced. The assumption common to all these plans is that it’s possible to anticipate the process of transition to a deindustrial society in enough detail to make planning meaningful. I suggest that this assumption is badly in need of a hard second look.

There are two widely held beliefs these days about how we can deal with the end of the age of petroleum. The first claims that we simply need to find another energy source as cheap, abundant, and concentrated as petroleum, and run our society on that instead. The second claims that we simply need to replace those parts of our society that depend on cheap, abundant, concentrated energy with others that lack that dependence, and run our society with them instead. Most people in the peak oil scene, I think, have caught onto the problem with the first belief: there is no other energy source available to us that is as cheap, abundant, and concentrated as petroleum; the fact that we want one does not oblige the universe to provide us with one, and so we might as well plan to power our society by harnessing unicorns to treadmills.

The problem with the second belief is of the same order, but it’s much less widely recognized. Toss aside the parts of our society that depend on cheap, abundant, concentrated energy, and there’s nothing left. Nor are the components needed for a new low-energy society sitting on a shelf somewhere, waiting to be used; we’ve got some things that worked tolerably well in simpler agrarian societies, and some promising new developments that have been tested on a very small scale and seem to work so far, but we have nothing like a complete kit. Thus we can’t simply swap out a few parts and keep going; everything has to change, and we have no way of knowing in advance what changes will be required.

This last point is often missed. One of the people who commented on last week’s post, a software designer by trade, pointed out that he starts work on a project by envisioning what the new software is going to do, and then figures out a way to do it; he argued that it makes just as much sense to do the same thing with human society. A software designer, though, knows the capabilities of the computers, operating systems, and computer languages his programs will use; he also knows how similar tasks have been done by other designers in the past. We don’t have any of those advantages in trying to envision a sustainable future society.

Rather, we’re in the position of a hapless engineer tasked in 1947 with drafting a plan to develop word processing software. At that time, nobody knew whether digital or analog computers were the wave of the future; the handful of experimental computer prototypes that existed then used relays, mechanical linkages, vacuum tubes, and other soon-to-be-outmoded technologies, while the devices that would actually make it possible to build computers that could handle word processing had not yet been invented, or even imagined. Under those conditions, the only plan that would have yielded any results would consist of a single sentence: “Invest heavily in basic research, and see what you can do with the results.” Any other plan would have been wasted breath, and the more detailed the plan, the more useless it would have been.

The difficulty faced by our imaginary engineer is that meaningful planning can only take place when the basic outlines of the solution are already known. A different metaphor may help clarify how this works. Imagine that you suddenly wake up in a hotel room in Edinburgh. A mysterious woman tells you that you have been drugged and brought there secretly, it’s now December 30, and you have to get a message to someone you will meet beneath the statue of Nelson in Trafalgar Square in London at midnight on New Year’s Eve. If you succeed, Earth will be saved and you will get 100 million Euros. Since you know where you are, where you have to be, and how much time you have – the clock by the bed says 10 am – you can easily make plans and carry them out.

Now imagine the same scenario, except that the hotel room could be anywhere and you have no idea what day or time it is. Until you know where you are and how much time you have, planning is impossible. When the mysterious woman leaves, rather than heading for the door, the first thing you might logically do is to throw open the curtains. The results determine your next step. If you see the familiar skyline of Edinburgh, you can proceed at once to make and implement plans; if the vista before you is the clutter and bustle of an industrial town in Asia, you may need to learn more before planning becomes possible; if you see two moons setting in a pink sky above a cityscape of glittering domes, and the beings walking alongside the canal nearby have pointed ears and green skin, the one thing you know for certain is that the trip to Trafalgar Square is going to be interesting!

Now imagine the same scenario, except that the landscape outside has the pink sky, two moons, and alien promenaders, and the mysterious woman tells you that you have to get to the local equivalent of Trafalgar Square by the local equivalent of New Year’s Eve. All hope of planning has just gone out the window. Your only option is to improvise as you go, try as many options as possible, collect tidbits of information, and attempt to piece together what you learn into a workable mental model. Nor will you have any way of knowing whether your model is right or wrong until you fling yourself out of an ornate airboat, sprint up to the giant bas-relief of Gresh the Omnivorous at Roong Thisdara right at the purple of the high red of twelfth Isbil past Eshrey of the rising calendar, and find the person you need to meet waiting there for you.

Conventional ideas of planning tend to assume situations like the first scenario I’ve just outlined, where the problem and the potential solutions are both clearly visible and the only issue is how to connect them. More innovative ideas of planning – and it’s to the credit of the peak oil scene that these latter have been very well represented there – tend to assume situations like the second scenario, where investigation must precede planning, and then follow along the planning process to keep it on track, rather like a herdsman’s dog trotting alongside a flock of sheep. As I see it, though, the situation we face at the end of the petroleum age most resembles the third scenario, where all we have to go on is a relatively vague idea of what a solution might be like, success or failure can be known only in retrospect, and improvisation is the order of the day.

The core fact of the matter, after all, is that what we are trying to invent here – a society that can support some approximation of modern technology on a sustainable basis – has never existed on Earth. We have no working models to go by; all we have, again, is a mix of agrarian practices that seem to have been sustainable, on the one hand, and some experiments that seem to be working so far on a very small scale, on the other. Our job is to piece something together using these, and other things that don’t exist yet, to cope with future challenges we can only foresee in the most general terms. That leaves us, in terms of the metaphor, looking for Roong Thisdara when the only thing we know about it is that it’s roughly equivalent to Trafalgar Square.

Now of course it’s quite possible to imagine post-industrial communities and societies in a fair amount of detail, and several imagined futures of this sort have found enthusiastic followings. The fact that something can be imagined, though, does nothing to prove that it will work. It’s not too hard to envisage a perpetual motion machine, say, or an investment that keeps on gaining value forever, and as we’ve seen, it’s quite possible to build a substantial social movement around belief in the latter, only to find out the hard way that attractive visions and passionate beliefs can rest on foundations of empty air. I recognize that many people find belief in such visions a powerful source of hope in a difficult time, and I sympathize with their feelings, but if we allow the desire for emotional comfort to trump the need to face unwelcome realities, we are in very deep trouble indeed.

There is actually a third irony to all this. As mentioned above, the last round of energy crises in the 1970s saw a great deal of energy go into making plans. A great deal of energy also went into improvisation, in a wide range of fields – notably alternative agriculture, renewable energy, and home design and construction. The plans have been forgotten; I don’t know of a single one that was still in force a decade down the road. The improvisations, on the other hand, have not; they include today’s organic intensive gardening, permaculture, most of today’s arsenal of solar energy methods, a range of alternative homebuilding methods, and much more.

Nobody drew up plans to develop these things, after all; the developers simply developed them, working things out as circumstances demanded, and shared what they learned with others as they went. Thus nearly all the ingredients being inserted into the current crop of plans for the deindustrial future were themselves the product of improvisation. It might be worth suggesting on this basis that our best option would be to skip the plans altogether and get to work on more improvisations.

All the points made here can be phrased in another way: a society is more like an organism than an artifact, and while artifacts can be planned and manufactured, organisms must evolve. This last point, though, presupposes an understanding of the difference between evolution and the ideologies that have sometimes been dressed up in evolution’s cast-off clothing – an issue that will be central to next week’s post.


RDatta said...

Excellent points.

Improvisation techniques vs. plans drafted by cobbling together assorted techniques: discrimination between these two might still be hard to come by.

And that is especially so when people jump to the conclusion that a technique or the combination of a set of techniques will be the overarching solution.

Janne said...

This reminds me of Taleb's Black Swans. And it also reminds me of his "best practice" to get results: Tinkering! Tinker it until it works. To quote Times Online:
Above all, accept randomness. Accept that the world is opaque, majestically unknown and unknowable. From its depths emerge the black swans that can destroy us or make us free. Right now they’re killing us, so remember to shave. But we can tinker our way out of it. It’s what we do best. Listen to Taleb, an ancient figure, one of the great Mediterranean minds, when he says: “You find peace by coming to terms with what you don’t know.”

Russ said...


I'm sure you're right about planning solutions for society as a whole. (I wanted to put ironic quotation marks around so many words in that last sentence, it would've looked ridiculous.)

That's part of what I was getting at in my comment last week - there is no longer any such thing as society, and an attempt to pretend there is and plan based on that, how to "save" it (yup, I coildn't resist), is just naive sentimentalism and nostalgia, bound to be futile.

That's why right from the start I've been opposed to every increment of the ransom policy, this attempt to prop up the exponential debt economy.

(Everyone keeps blathering about appeasing Wall St, soothing its hurt feelings; maybe if, on the contrary, those criminals had been dealt a severe NO with no recourse right from the start, while the pain might have been worse at the outset, the inevitable decline would be proceeding more stably.)

So the way I see it is, our plans should focus on ourselves, our friends and families, trying to build our own Noah's Ark communities, being prepared to defend them (There's a point where many in the movement are dangerously naive, simply on account of their anti-gun bigotry.), and trying to preserve whatever of knowledge and culture is worth preserving. (I've read what you've written on that point.)

This all makes me think of Orlov's Five Stages of Collapse: financial, commercial, political, social, cultural.

He thinks the first three cannot be salvaged, and indeed implies that those deserve to go down.

But he thinks that social collapse (i.e. losing faith even in family and friendship, taking a truly Hobbesian state of nature attitude) can be prevented if we're willing to draw a line there and fight to defend that line.

That's also how I see things.

Lloyd Morcom said...

I've just held the second meeting for those interested in the Peak Oil problem in my small town in Australia, and there was no shortage of talk, but in terms of action we found it impossible to move on.

Part of the issue is the format. You have a problem, so you form group. The group decides on strategies, lobbies the correct institutions, achieves measurable outcomes. But it's still the same game, the game of politics within the enclosing game of Industrial Civilisation.

Having been a keen student of utopian schemes for most of a lifetime I've learned to see the pattern. An incisive, brilliant analysis of the ills of the dominant paradigm. A rousing call to action. And then a pale, flaccid proposal with all the earnestness of a church mission to save the heathens of China.

Industrial civilisation has been a wonderful game with more winners than we've ever had before. It's been possible to fight and win without having the slightest understanding of the intricate workings great swelling tide of energy that has carried even the most indolent of us along in some degree of comfort.

What is difficult to get our heads around is that nature in its implacable and merciless impartiality is about to toss the whole game in the bin, and we're going to have to invent a new game, or new games, from scratch, just at the moment when we've reached the absolute pinnacle of control freakery.

In Australia we've replaced an ageing and mean spirited control freak of a Prime Minister with a younger, sharper control freak with a strong Christian authoritarian bent. He's a man focussed on process with a capital P. A last apostle of the evangelical faith in rationality, education, planning and comformity with the rule of Saints—ahem! technical experts.

Watching this last attempt to cling to the dream will be like watching some beautiful sandcastle dissolve from the bottom as the tide comes in. Most of my countrymen and women are looking at the battlements with their fluttering pendants, not at the basement in the process of dissolution.

And so I have very limited hopes for my little group. I think the best we can do is inform as many as we can what the realities facing us are, and each seek our own salvation. May a hundred flowers bloom! May a hundred schools of thoughts contend! And hopefully some will set viable seed. But I'm very much afraid it will be nature which picks the winners.

Danby said...

I especially agree with your last paragraph.

Planned societies, and I mean every single effort at building a planned society, ends in failure. The least damaging sort of failure is the failure to meet the plan. The most damaging failure of planned societies is to achieve their plan. Think Soviet Russia, Communist Albania, Khmer Rouge.

And, for the Software Engineer, I have some experience here too. HAve you ever worked a project where the specification for the software changes on a weekly basis? I have, and the software was never finished. That's what trying to plan for Peak Oil will be like. How do you plan for the rise of a Christian Neo-Fundamentalism, or chronic low-intensity warfare, demographic replacement,? How do you plan for the equivalent of Potato Blight, Mao's Cultural Revolution, the Civil War? Any one of these things will have a far greater and much more urgent impact on any town than peak oil, over the short term.

Also, let me ask, how do you debug a society? A computer program is an extremely simple thing compared to a human society. The language is well defined, each term has a precise meaning, and the number of things that can be done is quite limited. Yet, in developing and testing an application, you will encounter race conditions, infinite loops, system hangs and crashes. Something as simple as omitting a semicolon, or even indenting incorrectly can cause any of these. When they happen, you can, in extremis reboot the system.

The same concepts apply to societies as well. We are right now experiencing the collapse of a race condition in the credit markets. a credit leak rather than a memory leak. It may soon result in a systemic crash. How does one reboot a human ecology? An economy? A society?

And every software engineer should know about modularity. Instead of writing a single block of 5 million lines of code and hoping it all works (Windows), one properly writes 1,000 small, well-defined modules, and hooks them together to make what you need (Unix).

Within 40 years, every single TT plan will be functionally useless, and the most of the political structures put in place for Peak Oil now will be utterly forgotten. Indeed, most of them that do survive will have been turned into projects to deal with the oncoming Greater Depression.

What we need to be doing is building families, farms, and small business that can weather whatever comes, including Peak Oil, not planning for a future that cannot even be properly described.

Travis said...

If you have not done so already, you may wish to pick up a copy of _The Black Swan_ by Nassim Taleb. While it is a book about randomness there are several good take away messages from the book (in addition to the main theme) that apply here.

1. Human beings don't really understand the world we live in.

2. We know less than we think we know. Experts are even worse about this than the average person. We assume that we know more than we do, apply that knowledge in some system or invention. Something that falls outside of that knowledge creates a problem at some point in the future that is unpredictable and potentially catastrophic.

3. The most amazing and greatest innovations in human history have come by people finding something they weren't looking for. (Chemotherapy came from observations about the side effects of mustard gas)

So I think Mr. Taleb would say about this issue is for us to move in the general direction of "sustainability" and be open to serendipity. Create redundancy in how we get our needs, be less concerned with the optimum and more concerned with the robust, look at what worked in the past and use that, tinker with new ideas but don't rely on them (use the tried and proven) which will give you a system that functions while allowing unlooked for and unexpected outcomes from tinkering.

hardhead said...

"... a society is more like an organism than an artifact, and while artifacts can be planned and manufactured, organisms must evolve."

Back when I was a young pup and thought that a college degree would free me from life's pains and sorrows, one of the options I was considering was engineering (electrical, specifically, but any will do for the point I want to make). I scoured the college catalogs, looking for a good program, and I noticed something along the way that has stuck with me ever since: No credit hours earned in any biology course would be counted toward the total needed to graduate as any kind of engineer by engineering licensing agencies. Being a lifelong amateur of biology, I decided pretty soon against engineering.

What we have done is to train generations of engineers to be totally ignorant of life, how it works, and what we can learn from it. (Is this a cause, or a result, of the engineering ethic of "Git 'er done!"?) Life forms on this planet have been at work for about 4 billion years, and have evolved amazingly intricate, elegant, and effective solutions to the problems they encountered - solutions our esteemed "scientists" are only just beginning to notice, much less understand.

We - all life - have only one source of profit on this planet, and that is incoming solar energy. We - all life - must depend only upon that energy if we are to survive for more than an evolutionary eyeblink. While the total of that energy is huge, in 4 billion years life has managed to capture only a tiny portion of it, with an "efficiency" that is appalling to an engineer. Thanks to exploiting reservoirs of that energy accumulated over hundreds of millions of years, we - humanity - have been getting upwards of 30 units of energy back for each unit "invested" - thirty bucks on the dollar, so to speak. Now, though, we gotta get used to getting more like a nickel (or less) on a dollar.

I wish I could recommend letting the biologists take charge, but look at what they're doing with GMOs, stem cells, nanotech, and so on ... We have so little knowledge, much less understanding, of what's going on in these areas. (Until very recently, the conventional wisdom had it that only 5% or less of a genome is genetically active, the remainder being genetic "junk". Don't you believe it. Nature does not invest all that energy and material over eons of time on "junk." What they should have said was, "We don't have a clue as to why this stuff is there, so we're going to ignore it and go full steam ahead anyway.") It reminds me very much of the Manhattan Project. Yeah, we can do it, but do we really want to?

So we really are up the creek in Roong Thisdara.

mamadar said...

...if you see two moons setting in a pink sky above a cityscape of glittering domes....

I know exactly which Original Trek episode that image came from. :-D

Cyfnos Gwynt said...

I think that's the best post yet. Outstanding!

Although I take exception to Unicorns harnessed to treadmills...Hamsters yes, Unicorns no. ;)

In any case, I think people have been conditioned into the idea of the planned future so well that escaping that mindset will prove much more difficult than many might believe. It is, however, necessary.

In my opinion of course.

Robert Magill said...

As James H. Kunstler has ruefully remarked; after the greenest of the Green Summits, attended by the elite of concerned and knowledgeable citizenry , the message was the same as everywhere else in the land: Save our Cars! Please!

No matter how informed or determined to find the best solution the folks are, the mind set is the same: Life without cars is unthinkable.

Get over it people. Car Culture must Die! For us to live. And that does NOT mean living all our lives stuck in a village as folks were wont to be,even here, in the not so distant past. No, it means heavy electric rail for long treks, light electric rail all around and out to the edge places and something like golf carts (or bikes, or feet) to get home. That is, if we are lucky and don't totally wipe out trying to save the status quo.

What are the odds we wipe out trying to keep the cars. I'd give it 60-40 we do considering where we are now and how we view things. If we spend trillions of bucks we don't have saving the banks and car companies (unless they become railway car makers, they have a short life span ahead) the grand kids will be so broke they won't have a shot at avoiding a meltdown. But nothing is on the horizon to indicate at this date any other course will be taken. Not in I.O.U.S.A. Maybe elsewhere people will be smarter and not so broke.

Lynnet said...

Spanish poet Antonio Machado wrote these words in 1912:

Caminante, no hay camino,
se hace camino al andar.

"Traveler, there is no road. You make the road by walking."

There is no road to where we are going, and no road map. But we know something about the terrain. Some active bloggers, most notably Sharon Astyk, are exploring ways to live with less energy by actually doing it. She and hundreds of others participated in the "Riot for Austerity" last year, to cut their energy/water/stuff/etc. usage to 10% of the U.S. average.

When you're walking the road, not just talking it, you get a much better idea of what can be done to provide for your family and your community in hard times.

Nnonnth said...

"The assumption common to all these plans is that it’s possible to anticipate the process of transition to a deindustrial society in enough detail to make planning meaningful."

Well that's not the assumption behind the Transition Town movement, which doesn't resemble those 70s plans at all.

The thing is, it *is* possible to anticipate (with that necessary level of detail) the process of transition to a society that can *contemplate* a deindustrial future. That's what Transition Towns are about. Regular mainstream society can't do that yet, but a Transition Town can.

I would say this first step - equivalent to waking up and opening the curtains perhaps, in your story - is necessary but not sufficient for building this 'society that can support some approximation of modern technology on a sustainable basis' that we all are hoping to see in a few centuries' time. ('Necessary but nowhere near beginning to be even vaguely sufficient', of course, says it better ^_^.)

That makes Transition Towns and other such institutions insufficient, but then, I don't know anyone who considers them sufficient - certainly the TT organizer who commented last week doesn't, not if he's saying that TT is a way to get from A-C but Z is a distant nebulous thing still.

Sufficient, then, no - but necessary, yes. They provide a context for the improvisations that you're wanting, which can't take place otherwise. And they were in turn themselves improvised, it's just people started seeing a pattern worth repeating. That'll happen again.

I don't think there's that hard a line between planning and improvising - even improvisers have to start with a plan. Just kind of a short one.

I think these 70s plans were like great symphonies written for orchestras that were already vanishing - whereas what we need now is a little tune that anyone can hum. Then from that we can start embellishing it a little - maybe in a couple of centuries, it'll sound pretty grandiose, but we're not looking for that at this stage.

What I do sense in this week's post which I agree with so strongly, is a certain air of anticipation and interest, perhaps even excitement, about what might come up once the big thought-cages lift and we just start muddling. I also am rather interested in what happens when we do that, and find myself excited about things that our culture would normally find very unexciting. I just think that the TT approach to future visualization *is* in fact a part or a sort of muddling. It's going to mutate.

(There's a very good Frank Herbert story called 'Seed Stock' which makes this point well.)

I anticipate next week's post with great eagerness, it's a subject close to my heart.

RAS said...

JMG, I have been an organizer and a planning coordinator for many different organizations in my (admittedly still young) life and I have found that three rules must be kept in mind when planning anything:
"Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong."
"The best laid plans of mice and men all go awry."
"If you want to hear God laugh, tell her your plans."
Truisms I know, but known as such for a reason. I figure if such apply to planning a party or a fundraiser, then planning the future of society is an order of magnitude beyond, and those who think they can plan such are hopelessly optimistic.
I think the best that can be accomplished is a wide vision of where you want to go accompanied by a flexible attitude and a willingness to improvise and do whatever works!

ces said...

Much the same point was made (as I remember) in "Muddling Toward Frugality: A Blueprint for Survival in the 1980s" by Warren Johnson. I though he was on the mark then, as you are now. Your analogy with a software developer is an apt one. As one with over 40 years in programming and systems, I well know the difficulties of systems design even when you think you have it all thought out and covered.

And that applies to the 5 percent of the population that has experience gathering facts and making designs, testing the design and then knowing how to implement it.

Everyone else is in a daze. That is how we got here in the first place.

Very painful lessons ahead.

Perk said...

Thanks for pursuing this important topic. The experience of the software industry might be very instructive here. Turns out, software is more organic than it is artifact. Much has been written contrasting the top down "waterfall" approach with the bottom up agile models. One classic critique of the top down approach to software development is The Cathedral and The Bazaar.

Arthur Vibert said...

People are terrified of the unknown, and we are being served a big steaming plate of the unknown right now. For many people, the Transition Town movement (and other similar efforts) represents a way of doing something in the face of the unknown. The difficulty is, as you have so eloquently pointed out, that because of the fact that what is coming is largely a mystery, we have no way of knowing if the Transition Town approach will be an effective bulwark against it.

There is much to like about the Transition Town movement. And I am particularly appreciative of people who are actively doing SOMETHING rather than burying their heads under the covers and hoping it will all go away. I feel, though, that it is a mistake to assume that because one has checked off all the boxes on the Transition Town To-Do list that one is therefore proof against whatever comes next.

So in addition to the Transition Town approach, I think we need to be alert to what is happening in the wide world but also in our immediate world, we must be flexible, recognizing that what actually happens may not be what we think is going to happen, and we must take every day as a gift, because this is our time and to squander it in fear would be a terrible waste.


AK said...

The Plans of Mice and Men and all that. This act of planning long term as embodied by Transition Town concept is rather Western, I find. It is somewhat ideological and doesn't allow for that which we cannot know. Take the stock market, for instance, and how it reflects all the repressed emotions of reacting to crisis minute by minute despite well made plans and strategies of the most financially astute. (Said plans all being based on fallacy anyway.) This improvisational mode you are describing is much more non-European. More Buddhist, more Native American. Maybe we need a Peak Oil twelve step program. Hi my name is _____. I admit that I cannot control my need to plan...

John von said...

Great words as usual, but at the end I was left with one question:

Will we be able to improvise solutions fast enough to keep up with the pace of change and avoid disaster if we don't plan ahead for it?

I think you are too quick to discount the value of planning. I was recently traveling in France and Germany and was reminded of just how much better-prepared France is than the US for a post-oil future, with their extensive electric train system and nuclear power plants, localized food production, etc. France has benefited from long-term planning as a society while the US has relied on the improvisation of the market. Consequently, we have had too little long-term investment in public goods that benefit all.

BTW I'm a jazz musician myself and tend to approach life in improvisational fashion, so I have great sympathy for your message here. I think the truth is more complicated though...

Blackbird said...


Perhaps I am misinterpreting, but won't the societies of the future slowly reveal themselves as cards might be flipped over one at a time on a table?

In that respect, isn’t it is possible to plan for the a future based on what you think might be flipped over in front of you, adjusting for what you are seeing or have already seen? Yes, all planning will constantly require adaptability, flexibility, and the possibility of having to start all over with a new plan or system. But it seems to me that change never occurs all at once in the same way at every location. Rather, things occur to different degrees to different people at different times. In that respect, might it not be possible to try and adapt as best as possible adjusting as change occurs while learning from what is happening around you and doing your best to anticipate what may happen?


mary said...

Unfortunately, I think that you are correct. There is no one plan that will fit all. We must each cobble together what seems right for us now and, what--the next 10 years ? and be ready to change at any moment.
Buy recycling depots especially metal and funeral homes and burial grounds ---for the long haul.

marku said...

I find myself a little torn by this post. Certainly long range detailed plans are unlikely to be implemented on any large scale simply because of the very human preference to resist change until one has no alternative. By that point it is usually too late to invest/develop the needed infrastructure and skills needed for the alternative.

On the other hand more short term planning makes a lot of sense. Sort of like the planning public health officials have made regarding a flu pandemic--who to get the drugs first, what to quarantine, even the likelihood that internet usage will skyrocket with so many people trapped at home.

You can see that similar planning would be useful in the early stages of powerdown--how to ensure that adequate gas and diesel gets to emergency responders and food deliveries, how to setup gas or electrical rationing systems, etc.

That kind of planning looks the most useful to me.

Jim Thill said...

I am a small business owner, and I have a written business plan for my business. The plan helps me focus on clear goals, rather than getting side-tracked by tangential issues that come up in the course of running a business. I don't consult my written plan every day, or even every month, but every time I do, I'm amazed at how it helps me clarify my muddled thoughts and redirect my focus.

Most of my business plan is intentionally short on specifics, and I have made improvisational decisions about matters I never considered three years ago when I wrote the first draft. I'm sure that three years from now, today's version of the plan will seem naive and short-sighted. But, if I'm diligent and open-minded, the plan will have evolved in that time to account for changing circumstances.

I would suggest that improvisation and revision is actually part of competent planning, not distinct from it. Hopefully, every revision of the plan incrementally improves the plan, based on the best available information. The plan is a living document, not scripture carved in stone.

John Michael Greer said...

Rdatta, exactly. It's the habit of seeing something as the solution that's a central problem just now.

Janne and Travis, funny you should mention that -- I've been reading Taleb's book this week. I'll have some comments on a future post.

Russ, my argument all along is that preparation has to start with individuals, and build up from there. Your outline's a workable one, though there are others.

Lloyd, I've been to identical meetings. Gah.

Danby, no argument!

Hardhead, well put. Engineers who understand ecology would be a huge asset right now -- and for the next few centuries, too.

Mam Adar, if so, it was an unconscious borrowing -- I was thinking of early 20th century SF about Mars, with the canals and two moons, but with the Martian sky its actual color.

Cyfnos Gwynt, to misquote an old TV show, I pity the fool who tries to harness a unicorn.

Robert, I had an interesting conversation with somebody who had a car, and then got rid of it. He described the process of getting used to that as a form of drug withdrawal, like quitting smoking -- you have to learn to do without the rush.

Lynnet, thank you for the literary reference! While Sharon Astyk and I have had some lively quarrels, she's probably the peak oil writer I recommend most often, precisely because she's exploring the everyday improvisations that will likely end up making the difference.

Nnonth, the fact that the endpoint of the Transition Town process consists of drafting a plan makes me a bit dubious. Still, we'll see how it all turns out.

RAS, no argument there.

ces, Johnson's book is a favorite of mine and his way of thinking has had a lot of influence on my ideas.

Perk, thanks for the reference! I'll look it up.

Arthur, I certainly agree that the Transition Town project is an experiment worth watching, and learning from.

AK, we could use a lot of 12-step programs in the peak oil scene!

John, there's a difference between preparing for maximum resiliency and trying to plan the future. In a fast-changing environment, a plan is very often more hindrance than help.

Blackbird, all those are reasons why I think an improvisational approach will be more likely to work.

Mary, I'd say the next three centuries or so.

Marku, a useful point. Once again, preparing for maximum resiliency is always an option.

Jim, your business plan is a response to a situation of the second type I described in my post -- one where there are uncertainties but you have a good general idea of what has to get done to keep the business afloat (or find Trafalgar Square). My argument is that the situation ahead of us is far too fluid and unpredictable to be met with that level of planning.

in_the_light said...


I think there is something you are missing in your analysis. The word "sustainability" is often thrown around as if a human civilization will exist forever. Let's not lie to ourselves here. We are not looking to exist forever. We are looking for a way to survive on the Earth so that we can continue our spiritual evolution and gain the experience needed from living on this planet. Sustainability is about getting back into "earth" time and cycles, which is extremely slow. Not living forever. The Earth must die, and so will we. Sustainability is about living at the pace that the Earth lives at so as not to exploit it in our search for our own growth. This way, our growth assists the Earth's growth, and there is an exchange.

Second, I think that planning does make sense, however not in the way that many currently do it. One of the problems of our current model of existing is that we pit ourselves against the world and against each other. The neoliberal worldview (which by the way is the worldview that many of us embrace even when we think we don't) sees the human being as being at war with the natural world. This is a totally skewed vision of humanity. Humanity is indeed at war, but this war is an internal war. The human is at war with him/her self.

What we will see with the collapse of industrial society will be like many openings or cracks in the hegemonic worlview. When these openings show themselves, that is when we act. Planning is important. But acting before the time is right will create a disaster. As cracks in the current worldview open up, what those of us who want to direct change should be doing is taking those opportunities to bring focus and attention to a worldview that recognizes the internal struggle of humankind. Internalizing the war (which is where it naturally takes place, anyway) is the most sustainable way of living possible. We are not to be dumping our problems on the land. We are to be working through these issues (the battles within the war) and growing spiritually. This growth is what the Earth requires for us to remain here.

Love and Light

M. Craft said...

Societies are chaotic systems, like the weather, in my experience. We can determine the rules by which collectives of people behave, which logic tells us we should then be able to use to predict and plan for the behaviors of a given mass of people.

In practice, such models are impossible. Predictions of a chaotic system are inherently prone to failure; the most minuscule and inconsequential of alterations from the base assumptions can propagate wildly out of proportion to the scale of the change. Any attempts to model the situation are further complicated by the fact that we ourselves are a part of what we are attempting to model, imposing a subjective component on any attempt at a purely objective examination; attempting to examine it without this inclusion is innately flawed.

You are correct; innovative thinking, not open planning, will form the bulk of the response. At best, we can only state some basic goals and strive for them, and hope that our own efforts propagate through the chaotic systems of human civilization.

guamanian said...

I'd like to add my voice to the middle case here, and note that there are different planning approaches that might fit on different parts of the continuum of uncertainty.

Scenario-based planning is one.

For example, we removed our gas furnace, and put in both an air-source heat pump and a wood stove. Each of these technologies is appropriate for different scenarios. To simplify a lot:

1. Keeping or updating the gas furnace would have been an investment in a 'business as usual' scenario. We judged that scenario unlikely, so we got rid of the gas-sucker.

2. The wood stove is an investment in a 'hard times' scenario, where gas and electricity, or the money to pay for them, are scarce.

3. The heat pump is an investment in a 'green tech' scenario, where the wires keep humming and high-tech efficiency is rewarded.

All three of these are 'bets' on the odds of different -- and mutually exclusive -- futures playing out.

For example in the 'green tech' scenario, we probably would not be allowed to use the wood stove in our urban area -- too many particulates. And in the 'hard times' scenario, we could never count on or afford to run the heat pump, so one of these is a folly...

In 10 years or so, I'll let you know which one.

There are other planning approaches too. 'RAD', which is much like structured tinkering, for software development. Or adaptive management, which picks up on the scientific method and applies it to resource management. Each might have its sweet spot on the uncertainty continuum.

Your own history-informed view of the future implies that you see some elements of continuity and some of change, so it seems odd to hear you dismiss planning with such broad strokes. Plan a little, play a little, I figure!

wylde otse said...

I don't know very much (some of you may think I should have stopped here); but I have learned not to make brazen predictions. Not one of my well-loved and revered sci-fi writers of the last mid-century predicted the internet,for instance; and this blog; and ensuing changes, from this alone, portent to human world dynamics.

The surviving strategy of all of past history is here with us now: *daddy warbucks* , who allowed us to live in luxury, relative to the peons around the world who supplied the 'first world' with foodstuffs,etc., essential to their own existence (through coersion and deceit: just they way things work).
The deceit is not limited to peons abroad. " naked short selling " for instance, is when your broker makes money on the down-turn from selling imaginary stocks he no longer even pretends to borrow from his clients (against who's interests he is working directly).
Insanity is the inability to laugh at the absurd.
The politicians are bought, paid for, and installed by the pathologiclly monied.("dogs guarding the meat truck")
Where we read 'exporting *democracy*'; substitute 'hypocracy'.
So that leaves just us with our family and friends to establish workable tribes with re-newed workable values.
I still believe in the common people, and in the power of human decency; even if dragons gobble up jobs; top-up with pension plans for dessert.

mary said...

I was talking about 10 years or "in a lifetime" . I will work for my family in the time frame that I have, not for the next 3 centuries.

I will impart to my granddaughter the importance of being alert , looking ahead, rolling with the punches, caring for neighbours, caring for the plants that nourish her, not being afraid of being different, understanding the role of advertising and the Main Stream Media in the creation of the artiicial society around us.

She wants to go into theatre and I see a real place for theatre to "move" audiences into community and awareness. Actors will have stories to tell in her generation and the minstrels will keep history alive as a touchstone for the future.

Nnonnth said...

"Nnonnth, the fact that the endpoint of the Transition Town process consists of drafting a plan makes me a bit dubious."

Me too - if it were the endpoint. It's the end of point C. At least, some people in the movement now think it is... but if it turns out they can't get to point D from there, they'll have to change their minds. :)

Still better to be there than at point A though.

The nitty is still as gritty as ever, or grittier. You don't make a Transition Town without getting to know that. The fact is people are already sorting the practical questions of what works by getting feedback from the environment - that *is* improvising.

(On the other hand, the media presentations are and have been for some time, abominable. You can slap them around their heads on that score, I approve.)

The TTers have their heads screwed on, and they are listening to you, believe me. The idea that it's all set in stone isn't true. It's being improvised. The TT process so far is: how do you start to make a decent instrument to improvise upon?

Archmage said...

I also earn my money by developing systems, and I have to agree with Danby. In my case, the requirements change almost every single day, because the people who need the new functionality don't know how the process of developing software works.

What comes for us will be like developing software for a company that doesn't understands how it's done and changes the specifications every day.

bryant said...

It seems to me that deliberate planning for the future of society fails because the nature of society is not well understood. Once it is understood you wouldn't even bother to plan.

People, societies, markets etc appear to be complex adaptive systems; emergent, highly contingent, path dependent and likely to be governed by threshold effects. Inputs and outputs are very often strongly disproportional.

It is this emergent character that gives rise to "black swans". Planning is for Mediocristan but we live in Extremistan. All of the carefully parsed plans undone by a single unexpected event.

Dean said...


I disagree with what you say about the Planning process. Without a Plan, individuals will have to address their future by themselves.

There are solutions, that will eliminate the need for any fossil fuels, for structural heating or for transport, even those energies used in manufacturing methods.

The problem you ALL have is that you lack the Vision necessary, ... John touched on it, when he spoke about ' things ' not being ' invented ' yet. This also applies to the Visualization Processes. Humans have been using what I call ' Linear Thinking ' or 2 dimensional thinking for thousands of years, well before we ' invented ' our religious concepts to control the people.

Dean Robertson, Cedar Rapids, Iowa

John Michael Greer said...

Mat, the average species lasts for around ten million years, if I recall correctly. I see no reason to think that humanity is an exception to that rule. Still, that leaves us maybe nine million years -- close enough to forever, in human terms, that planning for the very long haul is a good thing.

Craft, exactly,

Guamanian, I'll be addressing the issues around history-based prediction in a later post. The short form is that certain broad outlines can be anticipated, but the details can't -- and it's the details that upset any attempt to deliberately plan a future. Please reread those last four words, by the way -- that's what I'm talking about when I critique planning.

Wylde, you can find the internet in SF all the way back to E.M. Forster's "The Machine Stops," which dates from 1909; there are other SF versions of it all through the intervening years, culminating in John Brunner's The Shockwave Rider (1975), which predicted internet viruses (Brunner calls them "tapeworms"), hackers, and a great deal of contemporary web culture.

Mary, live theater is a very likely growth industry, so your daughter is making a good choice! I do think that it's worth thinking centuries ahead, though -- what we save today will make up a sizable fraction of what our descendants will have to work with then.

Nnonth, as mentioned earlier, I think the Transition Town movement is a worthwhile experiment, and I don't recall ever saying that things were set in stone! My concern is that the effort put into making a plan would be better directed elsewhere; those plans gathering dust in city archives are on my mind. Also, the alphabet metaphor misleads, because it assumes a linear progression: A, B, C, and so on. What if the third step should be Gamma rather than C? Or a Chinese character?

Archmage, exactly -- and there's some doubt that it's physically possible for the project to meet those ever-changing specifications at all.

Bryant, good. I'll be discussing this more in a future post on the way Taleb's ideas interface with peak oil.

Dean, when you insist that nobody else has the vision (or, as you put it, "Vision") to see the options you do, you sound like you're making a sales pitch for an ideology -- and it's a sales pitch many of us have seen before. A different approach might be more productive.

dragonfly said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
RJ said...

Contemporary Americans have become notorious for taking the easy way out, so any plan involving austerity will probably be involuntary in nature. Wasn't it the "plan" for Iraqi oil revenue to finance the war? As long as money controls the planning process, the plan will be to enrich a few at the top and impoverish the rest.

It would seem that a plan with any validity, would be one cognizant of rapidly increasing entropy. Family planning is the only one that comes to mind.

painfulsyntax said...

As mentioned above by Jim Thrill, a business plan is a good parallel. Flexible, cursory structured plans are good for maintaining changes. Too much planning, bad. Too little planning, bad. Cobble together a mediocre plan and put it into practice. Refine it as you go. A little theoretical brain wankering is good exercise but doesn't produce anything by itself. It seems like these Peak Oil planning meetings would be better if people were working on their garden tool operating technique and learning how to repair bicycles with household items.

The root of our problem is the inability to let go. It is difficult for most to give up luxuries and worldviews that are petroleum fueled.

Danby said...

Churchill said that "Americans will always do the right thing. Once they have exhausted every other possibility."

Yiedyie said...

The issue that almost all people that write about the collapse are ignoring is the failure of intelligence that awaits us, as they ignore the entire issue of intelligence vs. stupidity.
Practically all the systems that are now on the verge of collapse where created by intelligent people who were coerced or seduced using high levels of energy(or power that can easily provide incentives like: wealth, status, fame, etc... ).
What happens when the energy and the social system fails to coerce or seduce the intelligent people and a that same time all the systems that were created by them fails at the same time, probably the intelligent people will start working for themselves or for restrained groups, this at the best because the people searching . Not to speak that there is already a low interest in discerning the information so without some compilation the information that we let to future generations is useless. Not to talk about the fact that systems get more complex and loaded because of the increasing needs from this systems or because the creators of the systems died or quited working on them. (See the outsourcing of problem solving in poor countries like Easte Europe, India, (yes Mumbai...),etc )

All around the peak oil and civilization collapse writers I've encountered the fallacy of assuming that the people are at the same intelligence level and when they'll find out they can an they will build an alternative future. I think almost all the peak oil writing community and their readers have the same blind spot like the rest of the people they assume that what they have there is for granted i.e. intelligence.

Frank said...

I would like to point out that aboriginals lived on this continent in an apparently sustainable way for 100 to 150 centuries, on Australia for about 400. David Holmgren in "Permaculture, Principles and Pathways..." makes the point that humans in fact do know how to live sustainably: in indigenous cultures. What better way to plan for the future than to become a Tracker student. We also work towards this transition in a more moderate way at EntropyPawsed.

Bill Real said...

Hi John, thanks for this interesting post. Just wanted to say I also really enjoyed reading the transcript of your recent lecture, 'A Window of Opportunity', ( and listening to the interview you did for the C-Realm Podcast, ( - both of which I chanced upon while surfing around the web. Perhaps they would warrant a permanent link on your blog's homepage?

Thanks again for keeping up the blog, best regards,


John Michael Greer said...

RJ, agreed. Another way to say it is that we may be able to prepare for the future, but we can't plan the future.

Syntax, once people are using garden tools and fixing bikes, they've passed from planning into action. My suggestion -- on which I'll expand at length in a later post -- is simply that we skip the planning stage, be satisfied with a loose and constantly changing estimate of the shape of things to come, and move directly to action.

Dan, an excellent quote!

Yiedyie, it's always popular to insist that things are the way they are because those people who don't do what you think they ought to do are just plain stupid -- largely because it enables the people who say such things to claim to be the intelligent ones. "Intelligence" and "stupidity" are abstractions, and not particularly useful ones, either.

Frank, the human population that could be supported by an aboriginal lifestyle just now works out to much, much less than one percent of contemporary humanity. The rest of us will have to choose some other way.

Tully Reill said...

JMG wrote;
My suggestion -- on which I'll expand at length in a later post -- is simply that we skip the planning stage, be satisfied with a loose and constantly changing estimate of the shape of things to come, and move directly to action.

This is precisely what we had to do when we moved from Phoenix to a wholly undeveloped 40 acre parcel in Northern AZ. We had been given two older mobil homes for the mere effort of removing them from their lots, but how to go about adapting them for remote living (AND on a severely limited budget) just had to be dealt with as it happened. More times than I could count we had to adapt to the situation at hand. Yet, we managed quite well for over two years until other variables caused us to have to move in to town.

Yiedyie said...

JMG you misunderstood my point, my point is that people do intelligent things now, the problem is will they do it in the future the point is that beyond the climax of energy there is also a climax of intelligence embedded in very complex systems, education, culture ... The thing I'm wondering is does complex systems and this "captured intelligence" can have a decline at all or they will be crashing and we shall start building new systems cultures from scratch.
This systems are crucial to civilization and they are underestimated, in fact they are burning the fuel, look how much havoc caused a financial crisis, what if other systems start to fail for good without a curved decline...

I hope I made my point ...

Yiedyie said...

Peak oil may seem an abstraction too but is a useful theory if studied...

When I'm speak of intelligence I speak about how is perceived by this culture whit all its biases(with which i may not agree), everybody can see that this civilization is squeezing intelligence("the stuff in people that can think mathematically and can create or upgrade complex systems (either engineering systems or social&education systems)") under enormous stress using extreme coercion or seduction.

How intelligence is an abstraction?

I hope I made myself clear English is not my native language !

Archmage said...

"Yiedyie, it's always popular to insist that things are the way they are because those people who don't do what you think they ought to do are just plain stupid -- largely because it enables the people who say such things to claim to be the intelligent ones. "Intelligence" and "stupidity" are abstractions, and not particularly useful ones, either."

I'll have to qoute Forest Gump: "Stupid is who stupid does." And it has nothing to do with IQ or MBAs.

dokijo said...

Reminds me of that old military quote
'plans are worthless, planning is priceless'

Meaning that once there were boots on the ground, ALL the plans were worthless as they were based on imaginary scenarios. However if you did not go through the planning process, you did not have the flexibility required.

It isn't the transition towns plans that have value, it is the changes in consciousness that happen for us as a result of a planning process.

The level we are going through is the 30's and the 60's combined (think 1929 + 1968) makes sense that we needed a few dry runs in the 70's

John Michael Greer said...

Tully, I think everybody who's ever had to make do with very little knows that detailed plans are among the first luxuries out the window.

Yiedyie, thanks for clarifying -- yes, I did misunderstand you, but then there may be language barriers in the way. "Intelligence" is an abstraction because it covers a very wide range of mental skills that are not evenly distributed -- we've all met very smart people whose intelligence can only handle certain kinds of questions. As for the embodied intelligence in society, well, that's subject to Tainter's rule of increasing complexity: taken too far, high intelligence becomes high stupidity.

Archmage, good quote.

Dojiko, I'm seeing a lot of 1930s these days and very little 1968 -- still, things may look different from where you are.

Dwig said...

Lloyd: Part of the issue is the format. You have a problem, so you form group. The group decides on strategies, lobbies the correct institutions, achieves measurable outcomes. But it's still the same game, the game of politics within the enclosing game of Industrial Civilisation.
Before you try again, I suggest reading Peter Block's recent book "Community: The Structure of Belonging". He spends a lot of time working through the deficiencies of the typical problem solving approach to improving the situation, and proposes a way out of the trap. (Full disclosure: for some reason, I have a difficult time reading Block, but there's enough there to provoke my imagination and challenge my understanding, so I persist in it. Your mileage may vary...)

On planning in software engineering: there's a recent set of disciplines that take constantly changing requirements as a given, and create processes that allow for continual revision and replanning (as mentioned by Perk above). Check out at least the front page of the Manifesto for Agile Software Development. There might be some value in translating the Principles section into principles for creating and sustaining community in a rapidly changing environment (not with the goal of creating a manifesto, rather to spur and challenge one's own thinking).

To add my bit to the "anti-anti-planning" comments: I worry that the main post may have thrown out a valuable baby with the bath water. I find it quite useful, in software development, home maintenance, etc., to do a bit of "micro-planning" from time to time. On many occasions, I've saved myself hours of time by minutes of simple planning; on other occasions, at the end of several hours, I've regretted not spending the few minutes.)

Finally, I was going to offer a couple of military quotes about planning, but dokijo covered the ground much better.

Danogenes said...

Lets say we are agreed that even the best of plans are transient and usually wrong, there seems to be one other level of this concern that needs to be addressed. That would be intent.

I still hold to the idea that we can make plans and change directions if we pursue higher social goods. Of course improvisation will always be needed. But to just sit back and trust in the ability to "muddle through" misses the chance to make real changes.
The intent of all those 70's alternative energy experiments was to make the world better for everyone. I was associated with a lot of people who were creating solar designs and sustainable plans.
The larger town and city plans were always doomed to superfluity because of the various political interests which had to be included. I have been on my towns climate action planning committee for a year, and have been aghast that no one can agree that the town needs to tell the selfish McMansion builders to stop because such intrusion will create ill feelings.
At the same time, the people creating CSAs, working on new energy organizations and the like share the intent to make life happier for all. Is the intent of the plans a genuine hope that the proposed direction will increase the happiness of most people?
The biggest change that is happening in America is many people's discovery that many of the plans that they were conned into supporting had the underlying intent to insure an individual or a groups prosperity, at the expense of others.
I suspect after a certain number of bankers have been strung from the lamp posts, the public at large will be more receptive to new directions than you suspect at this moment.

Stephen Heyer said...

Yes, planning for a future at best glimpsed dimly is painfully difficult and you have to stay flexible, but I think the main problem is rooted in deep human nature, not the technical difficulties of planning.

In short: “Human beings are endlessly opportunistic, self-serving and self-deceiving. That is the secret of their success.”

The reason for this is simple: Historically, people who were more successful (rich, powerful, famous to any degree) were much more reproductively successful (counting ALL their children and grandchildren) and to an extreme degree (Genghis Khan with 30 million descendants). Any biologist will tell you that quite small differences in reproductive success will quite quickly drive a species in a particular direction.

Thus humans are hard-wired to seize any opportunity for personal gain and to do so if necessary on a semi-unconscious level so that they do not have to admit to themselves what they are doing. Ever wonder why almost any new-age religious movement soon becomes organized around the primary principle of the founder having unlimited sexual access to the young women in his flock?

In other words, any planning or development process will be seized and corrupted by those seeking personal gain of some sort. A good example of course being the redesigning of the USA financial system over the last 3 or 4 decades: It was entirely redesigned to allow insiders to obscenely enrich themselves, despite the fact that it must have been obvious to any half-intelligent observer that those very changes would eventually destroy it and perhaps cripple the USA.

Which leaves this huge tragedy: Sensible planning can vastly reduce human suffering, but any attempt at planning will be seized and corrupted by those pushing their own agenda with the result that the final plan will probably finish up making things worse.

Oh for a well designed AI or a benign alien without the destructive human instincts.

Bruce said...

Hi John,

I like your columns, but I think you over angst.

We don't need another energy source as cheap, abundant, and concentrated as petroleum. We just need to live within the "current solar budget". We have plenty of deserts and plains for solar and wind farms. We just need to improve the cost/kw of solar and wind technology by another factor of 2-4, double the efficiency of the the electric grid and decrease our total energy consumption by a factor of 5 or so and something like our current civilization can continue.

If everyone north of Alabama had to limit their use of air conditioning to 2 months per year it wouldn't be the end of the world.

We may not have dishwashers, we may bike more than we drive, we may ditch aluminum cans and go back to glass bottles, we may not eat apples from New Zealand but we'll still have books and music and we'll still have computers. But all the machines we do have will have to be a lot more energy efficient.

To get some ideas how it might be done, I recommend "Cradle to Cradle" by William McDonough and Michael Braungart.

As for planning the future, real futurists and strategic planners will tell you that you don't plan the future. You forecast likely futures and plan your present actions to optimize the possible outcomes. For example, since all the likely futures appear to have a lot less energy per capita, any current actions to increase future energy efficiency should pay off. And so forth.


LeoBro said...

I'm the software guy whose comment you responded to. I get your point. You are quite right that plans conceived in an intellectual vacuum are useless. Attempting to plan to solve problems when the problems are largely still unknown is foolish. Who knows what the world is going to look like even a year from now? Even when plans created in a vacuum actually succeed in the narrow sense, the law of unintended consequences often brings about results that are worse than the original situation.

But two concerns remain: 1) Your understanding of what the Transition groups mean by planning, and their overall motivation, is incorrect. Attempting to preconstruct a detailed, locked-in plan of the future is NOT what Transition is about. 2) Planning, designing and visioning, as they are meant by Transition, can be useful. While your example brilliantly demonstrates the circumstances in which planning is useless, it progresses through a false dichotomy (everything is knowable and planning is meaningful vs. not everything is knowable and planning is useless) to a straw man argument (in certain cases planning is impossible, therefore all planning is useless or counterproductive).

It is true that this thing called "Transition" began as an exercise in a permaculture class to create an "energy descent action plan," and because of that, it's easy to assume that planning is at the heart of the transition movement. However, if you pick up Rob's book, or even visit the various websites, you'll see it is much more about engaging your local community to find its own ways to become more resilient. Tinkering and improvisation are embedded in the culture of Transition, since no one has yet succeeded in making this transition. The development of an action plan is only one component of a broad spectrum of activities; and even with that, the emphasis is on the process more than the outcome.

I just attended a two-day Transition Training in Victoria, B.C. and I learned something I didn't know, and the presenter that you saw probably didn't know. The Transition Network team in England no longer use the phrase "Energy Descent Action Plan;" they changed the last word to "Pathways" – precisely for the reason you identified.

You held up permaculture as a worthwhile approach (permaculture good, planning bad). One of the first guidelines of permaculture is to spend at least a year observing a system before making any changes. Only then, armed with the wisdom of the interactions in place, does the designer start the design. The design is worked out carefully to maximize relationships, minimize waste, and meet as many other principles as possible. The design is then implemented, tested, and adjusted as needed. This is what Transition people mean by designing or planning. Although it might be necessary to improvise a solution in cases where the designer really doesn't know what might work and what won't, it's incorrect to say that improvisation is central to permaculture.

Rob Hopkins, who founded the Transition movement, is a permaculture designer and teacher himself, who began Transition as project in a permaculture class. Transition is therefore informed by holistic, systems thinking, design, implementation and constant revision.

Planning is not counter-productive when it's informed by careful observation of the circumstances, and when it is not treated as written in stone. The plan is the design, and without a design – without knowing where you want to end up -- you can hardly expect get there.

In my city (Seattle), there's already an abundance of environmental groups and promoters of "sustainability", and all of them are busy with lots of activities like promoting bicycling and encouraging better home insulation. That's all great, but to me, that does not seem like enough to address the severity of our present crises. What appealed to me about Transition, in reading about it, was that they wanted to actually think about energy descent in the long term. If the water coming into our houses requires electric pumps, what happens if there's no electricity?

It was that emphasis on gathering with others in the community to address contingency planning that excited me. In case of fire, I'd rather have an escape route planned (along with ability to improvise) than no plan at all.

The first project that Rob kicked off was the creation of a twenty-year plan. He did not mean to suggest that anyone could plan the next twenty years without having a crystal ball. He was suggesting that it's useful to take a stab at making projections based on what we know. For example, if we assume that in five years, petroleum costs five times what it does now, where will we get our food?

Your Roong Thisdara story brilliantly demonstrates that planning is impossible without enough data. But with regard to my water supply, for example, there are several things I do know. 1) I need water. 2) The grid might break down some day. That's sufficient information to start creating contingency plans to mitigate the concern. Even if the plan never proves necessary, or even if it doesn't work the way we imagined, the process of creating the plan may well prove useful in some unknown way.

When I brought up the example of designing software, I did not mean to imply that a programmer could completely plan a project and then expect to simply follow that plan and have everything work out. It doesn't work that way; requirements constantly change. Actually, I believe that developing software is about planning for unexpected change. Modular design is an approach to designing software so that changes don't have unexpected consequences. Planning for change. But it still seems self-evident that you can't get anywhere without some kind of vision for where you want to go.

Now, we may be talking apples and oranges. You revealed here that, in your view: "what we are trying to invent here [is] a society that can support some approximation of modern technology on a sustainable basis." So my apologies for misunderstanding, because that's not the problem I'm working on personally. My concern, and I believe, that of the Transition movement, is to somehow back out of this dead end street known as empire culture and into a way of life that works within natural limits and with compassion. Not only because we are being forced into it by the reality of energy descent, but also because we yearn for that. We're searching for a way of life that is more in keeping with our nature, and who we want to be.

That said, in all honesty: I have been guilty myself of rating the value of planning too highly. Your previous post, along with a few other influences, helped nudge me into a view that puts process and planning in better balance. So, thank you for your insights.

Samoth said...

Thanks LeoBro for your eloquent summary of the Transition movements perspective on this discussion.

Being an IT guy myself I shall offer to add that it's the 'Vision Thing' that brings development forward and causes the successful breaks past existing paradigms towards something new and better. The IT world is full of the successes made by visionaries. Vision followed by determination and good planning is the basis of success. Of cause the pathway is also littered with failures.
Not embarking on the path towards a vision for a better future and the steps towards it's implementation out of fear to be overtaken by some new emerging reality is foolish. Succeed we must on a path to sustainable future as obviously failure is not an survivable option for the generations just around the corner. And if new technology should emerge to make this path easier it will be embraced.

In regards to our current predicament: we have lots of data and lots of knowledge and we are in no way in a farcical situation like the Arch Druid's dilemma of a traveler stranded on a strange planet. We know our planet and the perils we have put upon it very well. Now let's get on with cleaning up the mess. And the good thing is: The transition movement is focused on personal and local community based steps which make sense, are possible and positive.

John Michael Greer said...

Leo and Samoth, you might look up the definition of "flogging a dead horse" sometime.

Yiedyie said...

To the IT guys.

I'm also an IT guy(more exactly I used to be), to compare i think vision can help you create a wonderful poem in a language that you know. But here (the future predicament) we have another language that we don't know with changing grammar rules, with a lot of slang and regional and local words, and in the background people struggling for food and scrapping for useful tech remaining. How many chances do you think you will have that you create a masterpiece under this conditions and manage to share it also with others.
You IT people your thinking is too globalist, and the future is a future of extreme localization and diversification, with forests of standards and forest of exceptions to the rules, and no clear rules, any IT guy's nightmare.
I wish you good transition, or I may say so good translation to the new emerging languages.

Anna G said...

This type of thinking is long overdue – “society is more like an organism than an artifact, and while artifacts can be planned and manufactured, organisms must evolve.” So now that we have evolved into a global village the problems seem massive, mind bogging an unsolvable. They seem this way only because we are trying to apply old “un-evolved” solutions to this new global situation. This evolutionary process will force us to develop new solutions just like it has done countless times in the past.

Here is a 5-minute video I’ve put together with others that promotes this active movement of individuals trying to bring about positive world change.
I hope this video inspires you toward bringing about positive change. The state of the world is intensifying