Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Unnoticed Technologies

When people talk about the role of technology in the future, most of the time the technologies they have in mind are the flashy ones – that is, those that haven’t been around long enough to slip into the background texture of everyday existence. Especially in periods of decline, though, it’s far more likely to be the technologies so common they’re hardly noticed that determine, by their survival or disappearance, the fate of societies.

For the Polynesian inhabitants of Easter Island, for example, deepwater canoes had been part of daily life for thousands of years. This, I suspect, is among the core reasons that nobody on Easter Island seems to have anticipated the consequences of cutting down too many trees. The resulting deforestation eliminated an essential resource – large tree trunks – without which deepwater canoes could not be made, cutting off the majority of the island’s food supply and, at the same time, the only way out of the trap the Easter Islanders set for themselves. The canoe had been so omnipresent a part of life for so long that the possibility of its absence very likely never entered into the islanders’ darkest dreams.

A similar sort of inattention, according to the medieval Arab historian ibn Khaldûn, played a catastrophic role in the collapse and abandonment of cities across the Middle East and North Africa in the centuries prior to his own time. The Muqaddimah, ibn Khaldûn’s treatise on the forces that shape history, paid close attention to the relationship between settled agricultural civilizations and nomadic herding societies. It’s a relationship worth watching; as far back as ancient Sumer, which in historical terms is pretty much as far back as you can go, the ebb and flow of power between desert herdspeople and settled agriculturalists sets the heartbeat of history. In Mesopotamia and many other places, civilizations rise on the backs of new technologies, prosper and expand at the expense of their nomadic neighbors, transmit their technical skills to those same neighbors, and then falter and collapse beneath nomad incursions.

What sets ibn Khaldûn’s analysis apart from those of the many other historians who once tracked this cycle is his attention to the role of background technologies in bringing the cycle to an end. From Sumerian times onward, irrigation canals formed the backbone of settled life across the Middle East. While irrigation in a desert setting can cause salinization (the slow buildup of salts in the soil), this does not happen as automatically or as disastrously as some current theorists insist; it’s rarely mentioned, for example, that Syria – where grain agriculture was probably invented, and has certainly been practiced as long as anywhere else in the world – is still a significant exporter of wheat today. Two other factors less often discussed in modern studies of ecological history played at least as large a role.

The first of these, and over the long term the most important, is climate change. Over the ten thousand years or so since the end of the last ice age, climates have shifted dramatically many times over large areas of the world, and rarely so drastically as in the Middle East. The ice age climate spread deserts over much of the world, including areas that now receive plenty of rainfall, while a few regions that are now barren – for example, the Great Basin deserts in North America – got heavy rains and supported rich ecosystems and human societies. The chaotic climates that followed the breakup of the glaciers, and likely made the lives of our ancestors all too interesting, eventually gave way to what paleoclimatologists call the Holocene Climatic Optimum, a period of several thousand years in which global temperatures were much warmer and wetter than they are today.

During those years, the winter rains that now fall north of the Mediterranean swept across it to douse North Africa, and tropical monsoons rolled north into today’s deserts from Ethiopia to Pakistan. As recently as 6000 years ago, as a result, hippopotami flourished in a great chain of lakes across what is now the southern Sahara Desert, and further north the lakes and marshes gave way to a vast savanna full of giraffes, gazelles, lions, and elephants. Similar conditions prevailed over large parts of the Arabian peninsula and across the band of deserts that now stretch from Mesopotamia east to India.

What dried up the lakes and replaced savannas with sand dunes was the gradual cooling of the Earth’s climate, which shifted the rain bands toward their present locations, leaving deserts in their wake. Whole river systems vanished, along with the people who once lived beside them, as the rain that once fed both went away. The process took time – as late as the heyday of the Roman Empire, for example, North Africa still received winter rains and remained the Mediterranean’s major grain-producing area – but by ibn Khaldûn’s time it was essentially complete. This was where the third factor, central to his own analysis, came into play.

The cyclic interaction between settled urban societies and desert nomads depended on the maintenance of irrigation technologies first put into place by the ancient Sumerians. The slow march of climate change made irrigation more difficult and more necessary at the same time, and most desert civilizations had to direct a fair proportion of their economic output into maintaining the canals and waterworks on which survival depended. This, as ibn Khaldûn pointed out, became their Achilles’ heel, because the desert nomads who conquered the urban centers never quite grasped the necessity of the irrigation systems, and starved them of resources until they slid down the slow curve of failure. Like the deforestation that doomed the people of Easter Island, the abandonment of the irrigation canals was a one-way ticket to collapse; once farmland turned into desert, the agricultural wealth that made canal building and repair possible was no longer there to be spent, and regions that had been settled for millennia turned into deserts spotted with crumbling ruins.

All this has more than a little relevance to the twilight of the industrial age beginning around us today. Like the inhabitants of Easter Island, we depend on the reckless exploitation of limited resources to sustain our way of life; like the civilizations of the Middle East whose fate was chronicled by ibn Khaldûn, our survival depends on fragile infrastructure systems that few of us understand and most of our leaders seem entirely willing to starve of necessary resources for the sake of short-term political advantage. The industrial system that supports us has been in place long enough that most of us seem to be unable to conceive of circumstances in which it might no longer be there.

One of the wrinkles of catabolic collapse – the process by which societies in decline cannibalize their own infrastructure to meet immediate needs, and so accelerate their own breakdown – is that it can trigger abrupt crises by wrecking some essential technology that is not recognized as such. We are already witnessing the early stages of exactly such a crisis. What large trees were to the Easter Islanders and irrigation canals were to the early medieval Middle East, the current form of money economy is to modern industrial society, and the speculative delusions that passed for financial innovation over the last few decades have played exactly the same role as the invading nomads of ibn Khaldûn’s history, by stripping a fragile system of resources in the pursuit of immediate gain. The result, just as in the 1930s, is that a nation still relatively rich in potential resources, and provided with a large and skilled labor force, is sliding into crushing poverty because the intricate social system we use to allocate labor and resources has broken down.

Other unwelcome surprises along the same lines are likely events in the future. Before we get there, however, those of us who are concerned about the possible downside of history might be well advised to pay more attention to the unnoticed technologies in our lives, and to start thinking about how to make do without them, or get some substitute in place in a hurry, if the unthinkable happens and one or more of them suddenly goes away.


RDatta said...

The loss of those technologies will be to many a major disaster.

While none of them may initiate an apocalyptic collapse, each riser (or in this case a decliner) on a stair in the collapse may seem apocalyptic to the affected individuals.

Eric Jacobson said...


I've been reading your blog with the greatest interest for the last two years. As ever, your comments are insightful and quite accurate!

Matthijs said...

One of the major hidden technologies today is water supply. We have stopped to realize what amounts of energy are needed to get water out of the ground, clean it and deliver it to our homes and supermarkets.

We don't think about it. It's just there, no questions asked.

John, do you have a "favorite" hidden technology?

marielar said...

JMG wrote:
The result, just as in the 1930s, is that a nation still relatively rich in potential resources, and provided with a large and skilled labor force, is sliding into crushing poverty because the intricate social system we use to allocate labor and resources has broken down.
Excellent observation!

I would tend to say that the situation is worst than in the 30s because the natural resources (soil, water, fishery etc...) have been largely depleted and the proportion of skilled labor in primary production sectors is much lower. For example, in the 30s, at least 20% of the population was farming, now it is about 2%.
The financial resources are not trickling down to the labor. For example, it is forecast that even if we are at an historical low for word grain reserve (less than 60 days), farmers will probably plant less in 2009 because there is no money available to buy fuel, seed and fertilizers. And there is no policies to change the fundamental of the present agrosystem. Methink that the transition from industrial farming to organic, sustainable farming wont be smooth at all and that there will be some serious hardships ahead (food shortage).

spottedwolf said...

Far deeper than a doomsday diatribe does the forcefullness of this post touch. Many of the current contingency of so-called survivalists see such as the "writing on the wall" as do others under the fanatical religious blanket. The ostensible approach of your own well hones the point by its pragmatic reason.

I have made decisions for the past 38 years based on such analogies. Included, but certainly not limited to, was the decision to relocate to my birthright, Canada, in hopes of lessening the danger of shortages in large populated areas. This was accomplished 28 years ago and I have never regretted the decision.

A frequent topic of conversation with young and elder alike centers on where survival priorities lay in context to such seemingly simple losses as electric power. The reality of such has hit home to many across the continent in events such as Katrina.

I recently read two articles which remind of the generations X & Y who are coming to productive age with the burden of expectation by association.....from industrialism carried on their shoulders. I do not envy the reality shocks I am seeing in many.

In the same frame it is refreshing to see a large contingency from both generations actively involved in the ideaologies those of my generation professed as "future". You are somewhere in your early forties I believe,John Michael, which puts you at the tail of my generation and you do the change justice with your accuracies.

yooper said...

You bet John, it might not be the handy little gadgets that will be so sorely missed. It's the infrastructure realized through technology that we've grown to take for granted, that will likely get many of us in the end...

In the county I live for example, as farmland was lost to woodlands, the ditching system here has "filled in" over the years. Thus many lands have reverted back to the swamp lands, they once were. Almost a reversal of your desert canal watering, the land here must drain, or else.

As I was reading through your article, I was thinking at last, that you might be leading to commenting about our electrical infrastucture. Lose that, and not only have you lost the electronic money marking system, but the very system that maintains the population of today.

Thanks, yooper

Seaweed Shark said...

Another fine and thought-provoking essay, as usual. The cleverly understated implication, it seems to me, is that the truly invisible technologies (so to speak) don't involve direct human control over nature but are instead the techniques of managing and maintaining systematic human cooperation. You seem to be tempting us to try to guess the most "basic" technology: concrete? water? agriculture? -- and winking at us because the real secret is and always was the means to govern ourselves. Hence, religion plays fair to become the ultimate technology...

Mark said...

I like to believe that humans are on their way to realizing that an annual monoculture food system is not an evolutionary trait we should carry on.

Anthony Pittarelli said...

Excellent article!

wylde otse said...

What a clear look at Easter Island!

My mind is stretched to hold a larger definition of 'technology'... to include the monetary system - which I rather took for granted.

As perhaps the 9/11 hit may have triggered cascading unforseen consequences, so too a complete monetary collapse may may stem from another 'hit' (such as outright financial fraud in high places).

Finger-pointing may be a pointless excercise at this point; things are the way they are.

The treasures of tomorrow may well be buried glass jars with waxed metal lids, full of wheat - for trade or sustenance - until urban and other forms of locallized food production kick in.

Oh yeah, and some ammo. :o)

All we can do is to take a deep breath, do the best we understand how, and keep smiling. I love you all.

Evan Schull said...

Luckily, means of exchange can be quickly replaced once people get over the shock of hallucinatory wealth disappearing -- local scrips, bartering, etc can all gain momentum rather quickly.

So too can other ideas -- for example the idea that someone is homeless because they don't own a house when they are surrounded by empty houses -- can be rather quickly modified

(or can it?, the idea of private property/ownership is the core of capitalism, so has become ingrained into the modern self, even as we simultaneously have maintained the awareness that someone owning, say, "the moon" would be ridiculous -- who could sell it to them in the first place?)

I am perhaps most worried about the first time the internet goes on the blink for a few days (which could be tomorrow, could be 10 years) - I don't think people realize how much stuff is coordinated by computers communicating over long distances these days.

Stephen Heyer said...

Great post! Cannot think of anything worthwhile to add!

The part where ibn Khaldûn points out that “the desert nomads who conquered the urban centers never quite grasped the necessity of the irrigation systems, and starved them of resources until they slid down the slow curve of failure” is haunting.

You see, the “nomads” don’t have to come from outside, a civilization can generate them internally.

For example, I remember reading where studies of long established European regions indicated that the ordinary citizens tended to care for their land and culture. I guess that comes from still walking up the road every month to put flowers of great grandmum’s grave and expecting that your great grandchildren will be living not far from where you are living now, and will similarly tend your grave.

Kind of gives you the long perspective.

The wealthy, however, were the greatest threat to the region’s welfare as they tended to want to “strip mine” it in one fashion and another, then move on. That “strip mining then moving on” has been a problem anywhere where there are large, open civilizations with places to “move on” to and where some individuals have been allowed to accumulate great wealth.

From the point of view of the economists “rational agent” it is the most sensible thing to do, at least in the extraordinarily narrow and strange meaning that economists place on such things. Notice, however, that those same economists are very, very careful not to tell us what they really mean when they force their ratbag theories of self regularizing markets, low tax for the wealthy, and other rubbish down our collective throats.

It’s bad enough having barbarians WITHIN the gates without having an entire class that claims the right to run our economy who are their toadies.

I long ago reached the conclusion that any truly sustainable civilization would have to severely limit the accumulation of great wealth as an end in itself, as many have in the past.

michael said...

excellent and perceptive, calm and deliberative. you certainly have many ducks in a row, john michael.


that will be the first 'taken for granted' technology, (along with clean water, candles, chainsaw fuel, wagons and animals who pull them.. the list is so long.

i won't miss plastic bags or filling up at the petrol pump...

Peter said...

I'm agreeing with all the above comments, and, as I contemplate it, I can't find one essential, invisible structure. What first occurs is that current events and outcomes are much changed by complexity. No new insight, here, I realize, but considered in light of this week's theme, all the more sobering. If an ancient civilization was so easily undone by the loss of a vital, transparent technology, how much more so will this be in our world, with several inter-twined "invisible technologies". Thus Yooper's point on electricity, and we seem to have come full circle to posts I recall from 7-8 months ago. I can just imagine future generations posing that age-old quiry-"How could they not have seen such an imminent collapse"?

RJ said...

Mumford considered the clock to be the most important technology for industrial society, and today's financial meltdown lends credence to that assertion. "Time is money" is the hyper capitalists' mantra, and the current crew have taken it to extremes.

I'm curious as to the minimum oil consumption needed to keep our society functioning, without all the superfluous activity associated with the American way of life. Perhaps we'll find out.

John Michael Greer said...

Thank you all for your comments, and for your patience! RDatta, exactly -- that's the harsh side of catabolic collapse. The entire world may not go blooey at once, but for those people caught in localized crises, it might as well have.

Eric, thank you.

Matthijs, good -- water's a crucial one, and in many areas it could stop in a hurry. As for my favorite unnoticed technology, I'll address that in a later post.

Marielar, granted -- we've got far less in the way of resources and far more in the way of debt than in the 1930s.

Spotted Wolf, I'm 46 -- just old enough to have made big plans for a career in appropriate tech before the curtain rang down.

Yooper, thanks for the excellent example of the drainage canals! The same thing happened to a lot of coastal Italian farmland in the twilight of the Roman Empire.

Shark, very good. Still, remember the principle of dissensus -- there is no one "most important technology;" the one that's most important is the one that fails and leaves you twisting in the wind.

Mark, it's a very recent thing in most areas -- traditional agriculture tends toward a polyculture that mixes annuals, perennials, animals, etc.

Anthony, thank you.

Otse, excellent. It's an ill wind that blows no minds.

Evan, the unraveling of the internet is much on my mind these days, too -- among other things.

Stephen, you might enjoy Toynbee's discussion of the schism in a declining society between an increasingly parasitic dominant minority and an increasingly alienated internal proletariat. One reason the nomads win is that by the time they arrive, the exactions of the ruling elite are so onerous that nobody outside the elite will fight for its survival.

Michael, thank you. Socks are worth having -- a good reason, among many others, to learn knitting.

Peter, that's just it -- there is no one unnoticed technology; there are dozens, any one of which could fail disastrously because of budget cuts, deferred maintenance, etc.

RJ, I'm pretty sure we'll find out.

kabir said...

As our current centralized vulnerable infrastructure erodes I am always asking myself what can we build with its debris.

I think it is somewhat overlooked that the industrialism of the last century has scattered steel, iron and other critical resources quite well across the globe.

From this debris small scale computer enhanced machine shops and foundries should be able to recast the next post fossil fuel technology. Perhaps solar/biofuel digital steam engines are the sort of industrial hybridization that will provide a stopgap from going all the way back.

Really though it doesn't seem in my mind to be that much of a jump for us to again start producing all our basic technologies, from cars,tractors, electrical generators, to mini industrial kitchen technology all on a small local scale. Perhaps our best hope of something like that happening rests on the internet staying around for a long while to act as a free information exchange point.

ddjango said...

you always amaze me, john michael - thank you for this piece

marielar said...

Spottedwolf wrote:"I recently read two articles which remind of the generations X & Y who are coming to productive age with the burden of expectation by association.....from industrialism carried on their shoulders. I do not envy the reality shocks I am seeing in many."

I think the burden of expectations is evenly distributed across generations. A lot of boomers look for an early retirements with a large egg nest. Many were hoping to unload their 600K$ McMansions on younger folks. I am an X-gen, and I remember very well the fella in an economy class who warned us not to expect a fraction of what our parents had in term of material comfort. I guess many X-gen bought into the unlimited growth culture, but many kept their eyes opened and cultivated an healty suspicion of the dominant culture. The boomers who did not buy into the frenzy of consumerism of the Reagan years were the very few who really digged into the 60-70s counterculture. It was a tiny fraction with no enough demographic power and political clout to change the course of history. In retrospect, the Boomers will be seen as the generation which lost the oppportunity to steer the Titanic away from the iceberg.

IMO, the new generation of doomers have very little new to say that was not implied in the works of Odum, Hardin, Ehrlich the Club of Rome etc...What I really appreciate with JMG is the credit he give to old timers, history and his level-headed attitude.

For short-term forecasting, I like George Soros and Micheal Hudson. "The Capitalist Threat" by Soros was a brilliant essay.

As well as "the Perilous price of Oil":
"In conclusion, it should be emphasized that curbing speculation in oil futures would be at best a temporary remedy. It could serve a useful purpose at a time when the parabolic rise in oil prices reinforces the prospects of a recession but it would not address the fundamental problems of peak oil, global warming, and dependence on politically unstable or hostile countries for our energy supplies. Those problems can be solved only by developing carbon-free sources of energy. The imminent onset of a recession, by reducing the demand for oil in the developed countries, is likely to bring some relief from higher oil prices, but that relief will be temporary. It should not divert our attention from the pressing need for developing alternative energy sources, and that will entail higher prices, at least in the early stages."

The reality shock come not from the fact that people could not see what is coming, they did not want to see it. The last 30 years have been spend in a state of active denial.

DownSouth said...

It's a narrow path one walks, sandwiched between an orgy of defeatism and nihilism on one side and a binge of denial on the other.

I'm reminded of this statement concerning Great Britain in its twilight years as a global hegemenic power:

After 1903 Englishmen tended to divide into those who clung to laissez faire and refused to acknowledge any difficulties and those who blamed all their country's woes on foreigners. A smaller and more discreet group recognized the onset of relative decline but believed that nothing could be done to arrest its progress. The possibility that limited government action could have improved the nation's overall economic performance by promoting research and development, encouraging domestic intestment, and seeking better access to overseas markets was not given serious consideration.

--Aaron L. Friedberg, The Weary Titan: Britain and the Experience of Relative Decline

ceridwen said...

A very good point made here. Re money - there are minds thinking beyond money. Have you come across:

(ie the blog of the Freeconomy guy)?

Evan Schull said...

Stephen said:

"You see, the “nomads” don’t have to come from outside, a civilization can generate them internally."


Whoa, that one just cracked a little hole in my perception of reality.

strange attractors indeed.

Matt said...

Your article made me think of this rock carving.

John Michael Greer said...

Kabir, I've discussed the salvage economies that will be made possible by all the metal we've scattered over the planet in numerous posts; see this one in particular.

Ddjango, you're welcome.

Marielar, nicely put. The writing's been on the wall since the 1950s, but people have done their level best not to read it.

DownSouth, I don't think that Friedberg's prescription would have helped; the aftermath of empire isn't something that can be fixed with a bit of economic stimulus, you know.

Ceridwen, no, I hadn't -- thanks for the link.

Evan, well, there you go.

Matt, this is the first time my writing's ever been compared to a pictograph. Thank you!

John Michael Greer said...

Gaianne (offlist), yes, it works. All messages go through moderation to filter out spam, trolls, and the like, and I don't put test messages through, either; if you'd like to make a substantive comment I'd be happy to approve it.

Iuval Clejan said...

I would be really excited to have a forum where people try to engineer a new ecotechnical system. I know that, as JMG mentions, we can't engineer and plan everything, we've got to allow for spontaneous evolution and emergence. But does it have to be so black and white? Can't we have some humility and work in some room for spontaneity, while also engineering some things? The first step would be to come to consensus on what are our basic needs and then figure out what technologies could produce those, as optimally (taking account of all the known tradeoffs--least labor vs most comfort, less upfront labor vs less ongoing labor, automation vs durability, good for humans in the short run vs good for the ecosystem in the long run, individual freedom vs social stability, ecological diversity vs ease of harvest, least labor vs yield, etc) and ecologically as possible. Nature will do the optimization using its memetic and genetic algorithms, but it will take much time and much suffering. Maybe we could help that process with our ability to plan and figure things out more quickly. There are so many systemic problems to figure out--how to have technologies which are able to form a stable web--one's input being provided by another's output, as well as micro details (how to make fiber, rubber, matches, or substitutes), how to actually implement such a plan (calling all blacksmiths, coopers, glass-makers, inventors, potters, etc), how to design in some spontaneity.

I know this is supposedly part of permaculture, but most permaculturists are too content to keep their dependence on the current system, through solar panels, through rubber hoses, through propane, matches, the need for money to keep buying things from the system, etc. I mean they don't go far enough.

Does anyone know how to convene such a forum of designers, engineers and craftspeople?

Tom said...

A couple of months ago you made some comments regarding Transition Town Initiative US. A flurry of debate followed. The gist of your comments, as I remember, was that implicit in TI's program is a vision of the world that may or may not come to pass.

The present discussion of hidden technologies bears directly on points you made then. It's just speculation at this juncture as to which thecnologies will fail and in which order. We must retain or gain the flexibility to roll whichever way the catabolic collapse pushes us.

The knowledge base and skills acquired by many boomers who did not buy into the consumer model is considerable. Tapping into that knowledge base offers flexibility we need. Those resources are broad and deep, ranging from Joe Perez in your area (Home Power - off-grid electric) to Richard Haard, a decade older, of Whatcom County WA (agronomy, soils science & biochar field trials). These two and many other people have come up with solutions to technology failures that can be adopted quickly if we know about them. There may be solutions that aren't needed but I'd bet that all the soultions needed already exist.

The trick is to bring all this knowledge and practical skill into view so it can be used.

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

A core technology is the library.

A core within that core is a
collection of formalisms for knowledge
classification-and-retrieval. Two key
figures for this core-in-the-core are

* "classed catalogue"
Charles Ammi Cutter (1837-1903)

* "faceted classification"
S.R. Ranganathan (1892-1972)

A key auxiliary library technology
is microform ("microfilm",
"microfiche"). Microform, though
rather neglected since the 1980s, is
surely destined to regain prominence
in coming decades. As our social
decline proceeds, metropolitan Head
Librarians will surely see the utility
of creating microform duplicates,
both of their catalogues and of
their more salient shelf holdings,
and of storing ensembles of shipping
containers with big airtight chests
of their microform in or near small,
safe, minor-college towns such as
Canada's Wolfville (in Nova Scotia,
a safe distance removed from Halifax;
home of Acadia University) and USA's
LaTrobe (in Pennsylvania, a safe
distance removed from Pittsburgh; near
Saint Vincent College).

In decades of acute social decline, in
which computers become unrepairable,
and in which power-grid collapse,
pandemic, and the like make urban
living problematic, such microform
repositories will continue to be
readable, at least provided people
remember how to assemble a pair of
lenses into a rudimentary compound

Recent history already furnishes
examples of librarians working
steadily to keep things going. When
the USA-UK coalition invaded Iraq,
the Basra Central Library building
was burned. And yet one of the
librarians had saved about 30,000
books, comprising possibly 70% of
the book collection, in the days or
weeks leading up to the fire, in a
conservation action documented at




This Web page indicates that a similar
conservation initiative has been
undertaken in Baghdad.

The role of the library in epochs
of social decline was highlighted
by astrophysicist Fred Hoyle in his
essay "The Anatomy of Doom", in his
1965 collection _Encounter with the
Future_. Hoyle postulates a rhythm
of history in which "expansions"
are followed by socially catastrophic
Malthusian contractions. He envisages
the trauma of successive contractions
slowly serving to select, in the
plant-breeder's sense, the genes of
those humans who are particularly
intelligent, civic-minded, and
pacifist, since these are the
very individuals most capable of
survival as institutions decline.
In Hoyle's framework, genetic selection
pressures eventually, after some
millennia, render the human species
temperamentally capable of a degree of
self-government, to the extent that
humanity succeeds in damping down
its hitherto catastrophic Malthusian

This schematization of history seems to
me approximately as sane as the more
pessimistic schematization of Saint
Augustine of Hippo, but I will not urge
it (or indeed any schematization, or
for that matter any principle-driven
rejection of schematizations) on
readers now. Rather, what I will urge
on readers now is Hoyle's analysis
of librarianship (admittedly within
his rather ambitious overarching


((SNIP)) consider in ((SNIP)) detail
what would be required to establish
a re-expansion phase. It would be
impossible to re-expand, at any rather
after the first one or two cycles,
if the whole of technology had to be
rediscovered independently in every
cycle. The first expansion, the one
we are now living in, has important
assets - coal, oil, high-grade
metallic ores - that will not be
available in later cycles. On the other
hand, the later cycles will have the
advantage of information from earlier
times. Experience shows that knowledge
dies very hard once it has been
obtained - the acquisition of knowledge
is essentially irreversible, a truth
already recognized in the Garden of
Eden. Not all of the multitude of
libraries would perish in the moments
of catastrophe. Remnants would remain
to be consulted by the survivors, or
rather by survivors with the wits to
consult them. Here is the selective
factor. A serious re-expansion would
not be possible except to the highly
intelligent. Reading in a library is
today merely the innocent pursuit of
the scholar. In the future the ability
to puzzle out the knowledge of the
past will be decisive. Knowledge,
organization, the library, these are
the environmental factors that will
determine the future.


In analyzing the function of libraries,
we may recall JMG's perceptive, scarily
persuasive, comment, somewhere in the
archives of this blog, that it is the
particularly protracted social declines
that are particularly insidious, since
they make it particularly tempting
to neglect conservation. - JMG: If
you comment on this blog posting,
perhaps you could give us an archive
URL for the page on which you made
that comment?

Toomas (Tom) Karmo
verbum at interlog dot com

Ricardo Rolo said...

This is another fine post by Mr Greer...

There are a lot of hidden technologies that are fundamental to the current way of living, but there are 2 that are definitely my favourite: Plastics and Radio. Plastics are used in so many ways that it is utterly impossible to be in a ordinary living room of a European or American and to look in a direction where there isn't a plastic. I even suggested long ago in some talks that, if we have to use oil for something, let it be for plastics ( even if only as thermal insulants ). Radio is a backbone of communications that is very reliable and energetically cost effective and it is possibly the last reason that people will have to generate electricity after all the lamps, computers, washing machines, freezers, etc... go to the way of the junkyard. People in this age simply do not understand how a cheap and reliable communication medium is valuable, atleast until a earthquake or other natural disaster cuts it....

I have to somewhat disagree with you in a point though: most likely the end of the North African bread basket has much more to do with the destruction by lack of maintenance of the terrace-based agriculture ( a very useful technique still used today in the Mediterranean Europe ( like in Portugal where I live... just search "Alto douro" in the web ), that prevents erosion at the same time that helps retaining water, a ever-present worry in dry subtropical agriculture ). This seems to had been a centuries wide process that started still in the late Roman years and that ended near the Arab conquest. It had most likely nothing to do with climate changes there ( but it is a good example of lack of maintenance of small things can lead to major disasters ).

To end, there is a indispensible technology that is all but gone: wood craftmanship, especially of big trees wood. Working wood in various shapes is very dificult and it will be a sorely needed knowledge when melting metal becomes too much expensive to make all metal machines. My biggest worry about that is the transoceanic sail ships, that need trees that don't exist ( in the same way that it is impossible to make repairs to the Qheops cedar barge found near the Pyramid named after him: there are no Cedars big enough to make the pieces of the size the original had )and craftsmen that will probably have to relearn all of the art by themselfes. That alone may be enough to cut the new world from the old for some centuries, until the trees grow. In fact I read recently a study that strongly suggests that the European age of Sail was only possible to the XIV century depopulation of Europe, that allowed the growth of very large oaks and that the naval supremacy of the various european countries had much to do with the level of care they had with their large oaks ( that were fundamental to make the keels of large wooden ships in Europe ). The ones that overused their oaks, like Portugal, started to make less strong ships that more times sanked that finished trips ( if you understand Portuguese, you can read História Trágico-Maritima to see that the ships were clearly badly built, overused and with bad capitains ), while England had the good sense of using their oaks in a much more phased plan and took care of not making bad ships. I fear that the lack of good wood craftmen and of good woods in acessible spots will make things much harder that they could be, because when metal parts become expensive, all the plows, ships and machinery in general are made of wood with metal in small quantities where it is really needed.

Of course this are the words of the current holder of a atleast century wide wood craftsmen family in a country where the mechanical beasts were rare until maybe 40 years ago......

yooper said...

Hey John, thought you might be interested in this. Bad URL so..

Thomas Sugrue, native Detroiter, historian and author of "The
Origins of the Urban Crisis," has spent 20 years in major
cities in the United Sates and in London. He came to the Free
Press in the summer of 1998 to talk about the conditions that
created present-day Detroit, and the implications for
journalists. These are excerpts from his talk.

Anyone who has spent time in cities like Detroit in America's
former industrial heartland can't help but be struck by the
eerily apocalyptic landscapes that are so common as one passes
through these places.

I asked a simple, but very difficult question: "Why?"

After digging around in the papers of unions and business,
civil rights organizations, census data, city records and
countless newspaper articles, I arrived at the conclusion that
follows: Detroit's woes began, not in the 1960s with the riot,
not with the election of Coleman Young as mayor, not with the
rise of international competition and the auto industry's
globalization, they began amid the steaming prosperity and
consensus of the 1950s, and in an era about which we have very
little to go on apart from hoary shibboleths and cliches.


Three sweeping changes transformed the city. These three
things, occurring simultaneously and interacting, dramatically
reshaped the metropolis of Detroit and other metropolises like
it. First was deindustrialization, the flight of jobs away
from the city, something that began unnoticed and unheralded
in the 1950s.

Next was persistent racial discrimination in labor markets.
Racial discrimination remained a very persistent problem
despite decades of civil rights activism and some improvement
in attitudes and beliefs.

Finally was intense residential segregation, a division of the
metropolitan area into two metropolitan areas: one black and
one white.

Any one of these forces would have been devastating, but the
fact that all three of them occurred simultaneously and
interacted with each other proved to have devastating


World War II was a great moment of opportunity for
working-class Detroiters, black and white alike. The city was
a magnet for workers coming from other parts of the country.
African-Americans had been pretty much closed out of the
industries that provided skilled jobs, but that pretty much
ended during World War II.

Only 3 percent of auto workers in Detroit were black in 1940.
By 1945, 15 percent of the city's auto workers were African
American. Detroit, then, became a magnet for black migrants
who heard about these great opportunities. But the reality for
black workers, even in this window of opportunities, was a
great deal more complicated and harsher and more frustrating
than those statistics would lead us to believe.


One of the supreme ironies of post-war Detroit is that, just
as discrimination was under siege, just as blacks found a
small window of opportunity in the city's labor market, that
job base began to fall away.

First, beginning in the late '40, and especially in the 1950s,
began a process that has continued right up to the present.
Jobs began to move out of places like Detroit to low-wage
regions in other parts of the United States and the world.
Companies in Detroit began picking up and moving their
production to rural Indiana and Ohio, increasingly to the
South and, by the 1970s and beyond, increasingly to the Third
World -- places where wages and other standards were lower
than they were in Detroit.

At the same time, industry in Detroit was changing from
within. There was introduction of automation, of new,
labor-saving technology within the factories. The consequence
was a dramatic decline in the number of manufacturing jobs,
solid, blue-collar jobs, the jobs that made Detroit the city
that it was.

Between 1947 and 1963, a period of unprecedented national
economic prosperity, Detroit lost 134,000 manufacturing jobs.
This is not the '70s. This is not when there is any
competition from Germany and Japan and Korea for automobiles.
These are jobs that were picking up and moving to other parts
of the country, or these were jobs that were being replaced by

Workers who had come to Detroit during World War II, seeking
opportunities, found their choices seriously constrained. The
workers who suffered the worst were African Americans, and
they suffered because of seniority. African Americans, because
they didn't get their foot into the door until the 1940s, were
the first to be fired. So, when companies began moving out of
Detroit, the burden was borne disproportionately by black

So, in the midst of the 1950s, 15.9 percent of blacks were
unemployed, but only 6 percent of whites were unemployed, so
we're talking about black unemployment two and a half times
the rate of white unemployment.


The third and, indeed, probably the most pernicious force was
residential discrimination by race. The city was divided into
districts by race, divided by invisible lines.

These invisible lines were drawn in a whole bunch of different
ways by different groups. The federal government subsidized
housing development for whites through the Federal Housing
Administration and Home Owners Loan Corporation. But federal
policies prohibited making loans to risky properties, and
risky properties, according to federal standards, meant homes
in old or homes in racially or ethnically heterogeneous
neighborhoods. It meant that, if you were a black trying to
build your own home or trying to get a loan to purchase a
home, you had many obstacles to face, whereas if you were a
white it was really quite easy.

Real estate investors reinforced these invisible racial lines
by steering black home buyers to certain neighborhoods and
white home buyers to certain other neighborhoods, and stirring
up racial anxiety when neighborhoods were along that invisible

In one west-side neighborhood, in the late 1950s, there were
more than 50 real estate agents working a several-block area
trying to persuade panicked whites to sell now and sell fast
because "they're moving in." Real estate agents even went so
far as to pay African-American women to walk their children
through all-white streets to encourage panic among white home

Also reinforcing these invisible boundaries were the actions
of ordinary people. There were more than 200 violent racial
incidents that accompanied the first blacks who moved into
formerly white neighborhoods in Detroit.

If you were the first black to move into a formerly all-white
block, you could expect, certainly, for your house to be
pelted with rocks and stones. In one case, a tree stump went
through a window.

Regularly, vandals would break 20, 30 -- every window in a
house. Arson was another popular tactic.

As newspaper reporters, if such an incident were happening
today, you can be sure that you would be covering it, but
until 1956, there was not a mention of any of these incidents
in Detroit's daily newspapers. They were off the radar of the
major dailies.

This process of housing discrimination set into motion a chain

Blacks were poorer than whites and they had to pay more for
housing. They had a harder time getting loans. Hence, they
spent more of their income on the purchase of real estate.
They were, by and large, confined to the oldest houses in the
city, houses that needed lots of repair work. Many of their
houses deteriorated as a consequence of them being older, not
being able to get loans and folks not having all that much
money in their pockets. City officials looked out onto the
poor housing stock in poor neighborhoods and said, "we should
tear this down."

Moreover, the fact that housing stock was old and in many
cases deteriorating in black neighborhoods provided seemingly
irrefutable evidence to whites that blacks were irresponsible.
"We kept up our property, why aren't they keeping up their

Finally, this neighborhood deterioration seemed to lenders
definitive proof that blacks were a poor credit risk and
justified disinvestment.


To talk about Detroit's problems beginning in 1967, or
beginning with the election of Coleman Young, or beginning
with the globalization of the 1970s is to miss the boat.

The pattern of workplace discrimination, of the massive loss
of jobs, of the residential balkanization of the city into
black and white -- this was already well established by 1967.
It wasn't Coleman Young that led to the harsh racial divisions
between blacks and whites in metropolitan Detroit. It was
there, and had been festering for a long time.

It wasn't the riot that led to disinvestment from the city of
Detroit. Disinvestment had been going on very significantly
for years.

And it wasn't globalization that led to the loss of jobs. That
loss of jobs was going on when the auto industry was at its
very peak.


We focus on changing the attitudes and motivations of
individual workers, rather than challenging larger
discriminatory practices.

We have a policy mismatch, a gap between the reality that I
have described and the policy recommendations to try to
address those problems.

The premise of welfare reform is to put welfare recipients to
work. The problem is that the areas with the greatest job
growth in the metropolitan area tend to be the farthest away
from where the poorest folk live, in the outer suburbs largely
inaccessible by public transportation. So there's a gap
between the reality of jobs and job loss and a policy

Another major one,is downtown revitalization and tourism:
"Build casinos and they will come. You need to deal with the
deeply rooted problems I've described: job flight, racial
segregation, discrimination.

We need to think about providing poor people with access to
secure, well-paying jobs, wherever those jobs might be.

Fed up completely said...

Ah, the technosphere ... an inevitable step towards noosphere. We might miss it when it's gone (I for one love the gadgets.)

John Michael Greer said...

Iuval, I'm not sure how to do it, either, but it sounds like a worthwhile project.

Tom, exactly! Many of the tools we need for the first phases of the transition, at least, are already in existence or under development. One important task ahead of us is getting these things better known.

Toomas, libraries are crucial, but I have my doubts about microfilm -- anything that requires plenty of energy and technology to create and read is potentially a blind alley. I'll be talking more about this in a future post.

Ricardo, if you'll reread my post you'll find that neglect of agricultural infrastructure was discussed there. Climate change, though, is also an issue; as with most things, it's a multifactorial situation. As for woodworking, though, that's a crucial technology -- far more useful than plastics, since the raw material grows itself.

Yooper, most interesting.

Fed Up, the technosphere is an outgrowth of the noosphere, not a step toward it. I've never understood why human beings so often insist that they have the only nervous systems on the planet -- or that they so often neglect the role of information flow in other natural systems. Ervin Laszlo's "Introduction to Systems Philosophy" might be a good starting place to begin looking for alternative views.

wiselittleraccoon said...

Woodworking now is done mostly by power tools, which require not only lots of metal and petroleum, but also complex, non-local processes for their manufacture (i.e. parts and materials from all over the world). We need to relearn and reinvent hand tools, made mostly from wood, that can be used to make wood products and other products. The information on building and maintaining such tools is dying. I own a two-person timber saw, but can't find information on how to maintain it. I saw a USFS pamphlet on it written in the 70s (as I recall) at the remote place I stayed at in the Hurricane Wilderness in AR, but haven't been able to find it again. An unmaintained timber saw is worse than useless--it consumes a net amount of energy (of the people using it).

Renewable resources are one important feature of any future technology, but I would add to that:
Local Autopoiesis-the ability to create the parts for the system and assemble them locally in a cycle--the tools used for making anything can themselves be built out of the parts that they help produce (nature has already figured this out) and there is little waste. A partial example is bricks: they can be fired in a brick kiln. This is an example which has only one circular connection, but more complex webs of materials and products can exist in a locally autopoietic way. It is the locality and cyclical nature of the system that matter. The present system is neither local nor cyclical:Most stuff we use is made and requires raw materials and parts from many far-off places, and when the product breaks or ages, it is usually not fixed or recycled, it is waste.

BurntToast said...

Thanks for another edifying entry John, your writings go a long way to clarifying the uncertainties we face (I say that with the knowledge of the apparent paradox). I especially appreciate the deep historical and cultural perspective you bring to your essays, often lacking in our 'immediate rear-view mirror' society.

Offhand question, I was wondering whether you're familiar with John Gribbin's 'Deep Simplicity' which has many concepts applicable to the current situation - usually not comforting ones.

Per your first comment, the impending changes will reflect a sort of Liebig's law of the minimum, where the ability of reality to meet expectations will be hampered by the resource that falls short first.

This can be dangerous in more than one sense - not only directly from the gap between necessity (perceived or actual) and physical possibility (or impossibility) but also because the emergence of a given 'minimum' may serve to mask or distract from other minimums that are coming up around the bend, only to appear just as the first one is remediated. At such a point, Liebig's law may then be converted to Liebig's 'whack-a-mole' corollary in which knocking down one problem only leads to (and may cause or exacerbate) another.

Finally, one of the critical aspects of unnoticed technology is the need to preserve a nucleus of that knowledge in wide and accessible distribution. You've commented before on getting into ham radio as one means of maintaining communication networks over distances and I'd be interested to hear what other 'descent appropriate' skills you would add to the list (apart from the obvious gardening, animal husbandry, etc). By the same token, can we make any predictions about some more modern technologies that are likely to remain sustainable and usable in an energy descent society?

jmullee said...

There's a great set of howto stuff,
much of it gleaned from early-20th century popular publications..

* Topic Index
* Water
o Water
o Wells and Pumps
+ Wells and Pumps
+ Digging and Drilling
+ Electric Pumps
+ Windmill Pumps
+ Hand Pumps
o Rainwater Catchment
o Filtering and Purification
o Irrigation
o Sewer and Septic Systems
* Food
o Food
o Hunting and Trapping
+ Hunting and Trapping
+ Hunting in General
+ Traps and Snares
+ Hunting Equipment
o Wild Foods
o Food Gardens
+ Food Gardens
+ Permaculture
+ Organic Gardening
# Organic Gardening
# Composting
# Organic Pest Control
+ Container Gardening
+ General Topics
+ Hydroponic Gardening
o Livestock
+ Livestock
+ Cows
+ Poultry
+ Pigs
+ Goats
+ Rabbits
+ Horses
+ Other Animals
+ Aquaculture
+ Veterinary Medicine
o Storing and Preserving
o Preparation
+ Preparation
+ Stoves and Ovens
# Stoves and Ovens
# Wood Burning
# Brick and Earth Ovens
# Rocket Stoves
# Retained Heat Cooking
# Solar Cooking
+ Grinding and Milling
+ Cheese and Yogurt
o Fruit and Nut Trees
* Shelter
o Shelter
o Options
+ Options
+ Conventional
+ Yurts
+ Domes
+ Tents
+ Other
o General Topics
+ General Topics
+ Carpentry
+ Electrical
+ Plumbing
+ Heating and Air Conditioning
+ Cleaning and Repair
+ Floor Coverings
o Furniture and Appliances
o Kitchen
+ Kitchen
+ Stoves and Ovens
# Stoves and Ovens
# Wood Burning
# Brick and Earth Ovens
# Rocket Stoves
# Retained Heat Cooking
# Solar Cooking
+ Plumbing
o Bathroom and Outhouse
+ Bathroom and Outhouse
+ Sewer and Septic Systems
+ Plumbing
o Bedroom
o Living Spaces
o Yard and Patio
* Cloth and Clothing
o Cloth and Clothing
o Spinning and Weaving
o Braiding and Plaiting
o Knitting and Crochet
o Sewing and Tailoring
o Footwear
o Laundry and Care
* Energy
o Energy
o Solar Energy
o Wind Energy
o Internal Combustion
o Steam Power
o Bio-Fuels
* Transportation
o Transportation
o Human Powered
o Trailers and Campers
* Farming
o Farming
o Farm Buildings
o Livestock
+ Livestock
+ Cows
+ Poultry
+ Pigs
+ Goats
+ Rabbits
+ Horses
+ Other Animals
+ Aquaculture
+ Veterinary Medicine
o Food Gardens
+ Food Gardens
+ Permaculture
+ Organic Gardening
# Organic Gardening
# Composting
# Organic Pest Control
+ Container Gardening
+ General Topics
+ Hydroponic Gardening
o Cash Crops
o Farm Machinery
* Tools and Equipment
o Tools and Equipment
o Care and Maintenance
o Homemade Tools
* Hardware
* Health Care
o Health Care
o First Aid
o Herbal Medicinals
* Crafts and Skills
o Crafts and Skills
o Rope Making
o Fire Starting
o Candle Making
o Rugs and Carpets
o Writing and Art Supplies
* Misc
o Misc
o Pest Control
o Barter and Local Economies
* Recreation
o Recreation
o Music
o Toys and Games
o Sports Equipment

BurntToast said...

jmullee, thanks, that's a great resource.

MartynStrong said...

Capital markets are unstable. In the past there was no way to make them stable. But today we have computer power that can be used to make them stable. By using the greater computer power of today we can have a much higher turn over of capital in the capital market. This higher turnover will make the market harder to game or control and the market will no longer have the unstable run ups or declines. Who can change or control the market when say 20% of the capital is trading each day? So now that we have the compute power to provide for all these transactions that will smooth out the market how do we force people to turn over at a rate of 20% a day? Easy, put a cap gains tax of 0% (zero) on all gains of 7 days or less and put a cap gains tax of 90% of all gains of more than 7 days. The likes of Yahoo, Micosoft and/or Sun Micro Systems will give us the systems that will provide automated software agents to support turning over one's investments every 7 days (based on the specs you give the agent). A system like this will make the financial markets work as smoothly as the local fruit market.