Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Galloping With Blinkers On

Making sense of history as it happens is a bit like trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle without any idea of the picture the puzzle will show. A blue piece with an edge, a speckled one with an odd bulge on one side, and hundreds of others sit on the table and taunt the imagination. Most solutions come together a piece at a time; still, it sometimes happens that two or more pieces from different parts of the puzzle can reveal a pattern that allows some large portion of the puzzle to be assembled in a few minutes.

A moment a little like that happened earlier this week, when two seemingly unrelated news squibs showed up in my inbox. The first was an article about a small company in New Zealand, EcoInnovation Ltd., that builds micro-hydro systems – for those of my readers who don’t speak appropriate tech fluently, this means a hydroelectric system meant to generate power from very modest amounts of running water. Less popular than wind and solar, mostly because sun and wind are more widely distributed than streams, micro-hydro has nonetheless had a presence in the alternative energy scene since the Seventies. What sets the EcoInnovation systems apart from others, though, is that the generators used in them are salvaged washing machine motors.

I’m not sure how many people realize that an electric motor and an electric generator are the same thing, a device for turning electricity and rotary motion into one another: take an electric motor and make something else spin the shaft, and it becomes a generator. This is what the people at EcoInnovation did. It’s not exactly a new idea; a book in my collection of Seventies appropriate-tech manuals, Cloudburst, provides plans for a micro-hydro plant built of salvaged parts along similar lines. Still, this sort of salvage-based manufacture of micro-hydro systems is an excellent way to minimize resource inputs for the production of clean, locally produced electricity – something that has been on many people’s minds of late, and for good reason – and so far, aside from this one small company, it’s been almost completely neglected.

The second news story was a puff piece about the latest efforts to make a reactor that will sustain nuclear fusion for more than a few milliseconds. Unlike micro-hydro, nuclear fusion will be familiar to all my readers, whether the words make them think of thermonuclear warheads, the long litany of past attempts to build a working fusion reactor, or the sole functioning fusion reactor in this solar system – the one that rises in the east every morning. The news story trotted out the usual rhetoric about limitless clean energy, and repeated the ritual assurance that given adequate funding, fusion reactors will solve the energy crisis in another few decades.

The fact that they were saying the same thing in the 1950s somehow failed to make it into the story. Nor did the reporter mention just how many billions of dollars have been spent over the last sixty-odd years chasing the fusion dream. Nearly all of it has pursued a single broad approach to fusion reactor design. The science books of my childhood had brightly colored pictures showing exactly that design: heavy hydrogen, heated to superhot temperatures, would be squeezed by powerful magnetic fields until the nuclei fused, releasing heat that would produce steam to drive turbines.

With a variety of modifications and refinements, that’s still the basic model behind most of today’s fusion-reactor projects. Yet fusion power remains a daydream; despite vast sums in research grants and government subsidies every year, the fusion power research community has never managed anything more than brief and self-terminating bursts of fusion, releasing rather less energy than they took to produce. Leading physicists in the field have admitted that it’s quite possible that commercial fusion power is unattainable using the current model, and the net energy from so energy- and resource-intensive an energy source shows every sign of being far into negative numbers; still, the money flows in.

Note the contrast in these two news items. One details a simple, efficient, and readily available energy source, using proven technology, with wide applicability – every spot that used to run a water wheel in the 19th century, if it hasn’t been flooded by a dam since then, is a micro-hydro site, and there are plenty of surplus electric motors around – to provide renewable energy for the difficult years ahead. The other story details the fantastically costly pursuit of what is arguably a failed model of fusion power generation, one that has yet to put a single watt into the power grid, and may well never do so. Care to guess which one of these approaches will receive billions of dollars of additional funding and the attention of major research teams next year, and which one will remain in the hands of a small entrepreneurial firm and its customer base?

This contrast offers a glimpse at one of the key factors in the collapse of complex human systems. It’s a commonplace of history that institutions of all kinds – governments, businesses, religious organizations, whole civilizations, and more – get locked into strategies that, at least in hindsight, can be seen as hopelessly self-defeating, and stay the course all the way down to collapse. No doubt archeologists of the future, hacking their way with machetes through a post-global-warming jungle to reach the lost city of Flint, Michigan, will wonder why CEOs shackled their companies’ survival to rapidly depleting fossil fuels, instead of pursuing electric cars and alternatives to the automobile, and then compounded their folly by setting up lending agencies that became hopelessly entangled in the delusional economics of what may still, even in that distant time, be remembered as the largest financial bubble in human history. Standing amid the overgrown ruins of some ancient assembly line, they will surely ask themselves: why did nobody see the obvious consequences?

Arnold Toynbee, whose monumental work on the rise and fall of civilizations has been discussed in these essays several times, offered a useful way of thinking about this dysfunction. He argued that civilizations rise under the leadership of a creative minority, who are able to offer a vision of human destiny and possibility strong enough to overcome the inertia of tradition and launch a new phase of social integration. As long as the creative minority continues to come up with successful responses to the challenges and curve balls the world throws at every human society, the society they lead continues to expand. Sooner or later, though, the creative minority becomes so deeply committed to some particular set of solutions that it keeps on trying to apply those solutions, whether or not they actually fit the challenges. At that point the creative minority degenerates into a dominant minority, ruling its society by increasingly blatant coercion rather than inspiring it with the force of its ideas. Unsolved problems pile up as failed responses are repeated on an ever more lavish scale, and the death spiral of decline and fall begins.

It’s a pity that Toynbee didn’t live long enough to see the current economic debacle, as there has rarely been a better example of the phenomenon he outlined. Consider the way that nobody in American political life has anything to offer in the face of economic crisis but more attempts to reinflate a bubble like the ones that popped in 1987, 2002, and 2008. All sides are declaiming about economic growth, at a time when further economic growth in the current sense of that phrase is the last thing America needs. A sane strategy would seek economic contraction instead – a massive downsizing of the banking and finance sector until our annual production of debt has some relationship to our annual production of goods and nonfinancial services; a steady decrease in energy use across the board until US energy use per capita equals that of Europe, about a third of the present US level; the systematic rebuilding of American manufacturing and agriculture protected by trade barriers, which would require Americans to pay prices reflecting American wages for their consumer goods; and so forth.

Conventional wisdom insists that any such program would be rejected by the American people. I’m not at all sure that that’s true; many people in the working class, I suspect, would be quite willing to accept higher prices for consumer goods in exchange for a return of manufacturing jobs and a sustained drop in housing costs. Still, nothing of the kind will be proposed at any level where the necessary decisions could be made, because such a program flies in the face of the set of economic solutions that Americans from the middle class on up want to apply – even though those “solutions,” which amount to flooding imaginary wealth into a broken system, have themselves become a major cause of the crises shaking our economy to its core.

One of the telltale signs that a creative minority has become a dominant minority is that failure no longer carries any penalty. Consider what happened to executives and middle management in the last quarter century or so when their actions, as so often happened, drove their companies into the ground. The number of them who had trouble finding new jobs was vanishingly small; members of a well-networked class that generally takes care of its own, they were shielded from the consequences of their own incompetence. Even those who openly looted failing companies rarely suffered any penalty, since this has long been standard practice in American corporate life; the cult of the bonus and the plundering of business assets to line the pockets of executives reaches far beyond the handful of financial firms where it has recently become infamous.

In much the same way, three generations of physicists have been able to count on lavish grant money for research pursuing a failed model of fusion power, and the fact that none of this immense investment has brought the world noticeably closer to working fusion power plants has done nothing to slow the torrent of government largesse. Meanwhile surplus washing machine motors, and a thousand other useful resources and practicable responses, pile up unregarded.

And that, dear reader, is why I tend to roll my eyes when people insist, as they often do, that the world’s industrial societies will surely get themselves out of the peak oil trap once they devote resources and intellectual effort to constructive responses to the problem. In theory, they might still be able to do so; in practice, this won’t happen, because devoting resources and intellectual effort to constructive responses is precisely the missing piece that can’t be supplied. When failure is no longer penalized, and losing strategies are the only options admitted to discussion, changing course becomes the least likely possibility; the tighter the blinkers, the more likely that the horse will keep on galloping straight ahead, even if the road leads straight off a cliff.

This is one reason why it seems crucial to me to suggest that any real response to the crisis of industrial society has to begin with individuals, families, and local communities, where constructive change might actually be possible; and to argue against imposing any grand strategy or one-size-fits-all plan on the ventures that result. It’s worth noting that some places have good sites for micro-hydro installations and plenty of spare washing machine motors, but others do not; equally, any other solution you care to name is likely to be well suited to some contexts and very poorly suited to others. It’s in dealing with these differences – in grappling with the messy, local, everyday details of life in a contracting economy and a deindustrializing society, with blinders off and a pace slowed to the point that the surroundings become more than a blur – that effective responses are most likely to emerge.


Hammy Goonan said...

Yes! Love what you write!

Loveandlight said...

Here's another post of yours that fleshes out a reality of society's response to the oncoming collapse that most regulars have observed but perhaps don't really understand. I have never had much faith in the idea that Peak Oil and Gas will be a challenge effectively meant by the political and economic powers that be, because these powers will inevitably direct effort and resources in wasteful directions. What you've described here effectively outlines why this must be so and why it almost certainly won't change.

bbcomm said...

Aha! Now I get my instinctual salvaging of appliance motors! Would you link to the lists that sent you info on the small company, on the one hand, and on the fusion effort, on the other? Tks!

M. Simon said...

Yes. Contrast microhydro with a world wide potential of a few GW with the potential of a fusion reactor at 1 GW a pop.

We are not going to raise the world out of poverty with a few GW of electricity.

OTOH the current direction of most fusion research will lead to huge reactors that likely will be uneconomical to build.

This has better prospects:

Bussard's IEC Fusion Technology (Polywell Fusion) Explained

Why hasn't Polywell Fusion been fully funded by the Obama administration?

Matthijs said...

Just yesterday I read about a team of scientist who want to dump massive amounts of agricultural wastes in the oceans to "fix" the climate problem. They believe that over 14% of all the Co2 we produce can be taken out of the atmosphere that way. It seams to me this "solution" has the phrase "The law of unintended consequences" written all over it.

The dumping of agricultural wastes, unconditional support for a technology that will "solve our energy problem" are both acts of desperation from the creative minority. They are losing control.

I agree with you John, nothing is going to change. Despite all the money being invested in the Green New Deal, it still tries to preserve the status quo. Besides, there is no way we can replace all the energy we consume from fossil fuels with sustainable alternatives. Our society has become to complex and vast for that.

Robert said...

Loveandlight's comment brings to my mind interesting images regarding why it appears true that the current governing powers will continue in similar lines which they are now. The underlying myths in the minds of those in power which cause the decisions which have promoted the vast waste of energy resources in our culture is what has brought us to this place, it appears to me that there is a wall of many shapes and makings which prevents that course from continuing much further but it is not visible when looking through the myths which have brought them here in the first place and 'Where there is no vision, the people perish'. I know that it is a quote from the christian bible and although I spent most of my life deeply dedicated to that particular religion I do not now associate myself as though it were my definition and rather believe that any real truth will be evident in all perceptions and is not the exclusive right or property of any particular label, people, or book; it just happens that I have a much more thorough store of organized words to express things from that book than from others. When the blind lead the blind they can fall right into the ditch together. I have been reading through all of your posts here and all of the comments for each with great interest and I feel I have been richly rewarded for the time and attention so invested. Thank you JMG. I realize today as I have thought of this current writing of yours that in times past, when I associated myself exclusively with what is called Christianity, and specifically the particular congregation, that I did not know people like yourself existed and thought of druids and anyone who associated with that name as surely lost and damned. Thinking on that further I realized that, if I were still bound in my mind to the myths that governed my life and thoughts in those years gone by that I could read your posts from start to end and all of the attending comments and still not know that you existed anymore than the current governing humanity seems to see the wall they are pressing against or the ever steepening hill they are climbing. Again, thank you.

gaiasdaughter said...

The Rhizome Collective in Austin, TX ( published the book Toolbox for Sustainable City Living ( suggestions for creative homesteading in an urban setting. The book features a windmill made of bicycle parts -- another pragmatic solution for the times ahead. As more signs of the times, the collective is now facing possible eviction from their home of nine years for code violations. Two steps forward, one step back . . . (or is it the other way around?)

Brian Kaller said...

Thank you very much for such thoughtful posts each week.

I would only add that beneficial reforms – individual freedom, women sufferage, labour laws – have always begun with families and local communities, gathering in cellars or parlours, and have percolated into the halls of power under sustained pressure. I hope there will be an opportunity for change to get that far in our case.

Do you see any promising social movements for organizing the changes you recommend, or do you see such changes happening largely in isolation, one community at a time? You have expressed scepticism of Transition Towns -- would you recommend any historical movements as a model, movements that made local communities more resilient in response to a widespread decline?

John Michael Greer said...

Hammy and Loveandlight, thank you both.

Bbcomm, I've deleted them both -- I'll see if I can find 'em.

Simon, yes -- contrast a few GW we can actually get with a GW-a-pop technology that's as imaginary as unicorns. In case you haven't noticed, we are not going to raise the world out of poverty at all, much less with daydreams about power sources that don't work. Yes, I'm familiar with the Bussard theory, too.

Matthijs, I hadn't heard of that plan. Just when you think that hubris can't go any further...

Robert, you're most welcome.

Gaiasdaughter, thanks for the link! I'll check it out.

kabir said...

I find myself agreeing with the whole message of this post. I also find myself surrounded by people still waiting for the ruling class to provide answers. They put so much hope on delusions of material riches and systematically block out considerations to other possibilities. Which is so unfortunate because even meager resources properly directed now can act as a tremendous hedge against currently unthinkable situations.

I am a jobless man of young age who thought I could at least convince my family with land and resources to let me execute a homestead plan. I saved $10,000 at my last job and when it was time to leave this position I came to my family to pitch them this idea complete with greenhouse, orchard plans and long term machine shop. I am now an outcast, a loser, a quiter, a failure who can't make it on his own. In short I have been laughed out of my family for even thinking such nonsense. I just hope everyone else fairs better in there local planning sessions.

Also I have in my joblessness I have been collaborating with this open source site: on a variety of low tech DIY technologies that we will shortly need.

Peter Dodson said...

This is one reason why it seems crucial to me to suggest that any real response to the crisis of industrial society has to begin with individuals, families, and local communities, where constructive change might actually be possible;

Why we would rely on the same people who got us into this problem is beyond me - but the vast majority of people will wait and the government will continue to shoot for what Heinberg called the "Magic Elixir."

Our government here in Saskatchewan just came out with their latest budget and instead of putting any money into alternative and renewable energy they put it all into clean coal and natural gas plants. My family and I, along with our friends, will look after ourselves thanks.

A sane strategy would seek economic contraction instead...

While I agree, I just wonder how people of the modern mindset would react. As you argue in your book, the myth of progress is strong. Too strong. Quinn has argued that the belief in the one right way is our strongest belief. Telling Americans and Canadians that they now have to contract and not grow and progress would be like getting a fundamentalist to suddenly believe there is no God. I don't know if the vast majority of humans are psychologically capable.

blue sun said...

Sorry if I’m off-topic this week, but I would like to recommend a book that I found very enlightening, if you have not already discovered it yourself.

It is Out of the Earth—Civilization and the Life of Soil, by Daniel J. Hillel. It covers material that I am sure you are familiar with, but perhaps not from quite the same perspective. I’m sure you will glean something from this book. The author, Daniel Hillel, is a true scholar.

I would also recommend this book, of course, to all your readers. Hillel provides an overview of the various types of farming that have sustained history’s civilizations, and explains the fragility of soil fertility when farming is not practiced sustainably. Agriculture was the original “alternative” energy source, and provided enough energy to sustain significant civilizations, although I doubt that those ancient accomplishments were possible without indentured/ slave labor. On that note, I’d be curious to know whether you think formalized slavery will make a “comeback” in future civilizations.

p.s. I did a quick scan to compare Hillel’s bibliography to The Long Descent’s, and I only found one crossover—F.H.King’s Farmers for Forty Centuries. So this could be a potential source of new ideas. He is more of a scientist than a writer, so he does not as eloquently describe organic farming as you do, but his book certainly confirms its value to humanity.

Danby said...

When failure is no longer penalized, and losing strategies are the only options admitted to discussion, changing course becomes the least likely possibility; the tighter the blinkers, the more likely that the horse will keep on galloping straight ahead,

It has been said that when the only tool---you are willing to use is the keynesian hammer, every economic downturn is a deflationary nail.

It's amazing how many contexts I can put your metaphor to in our current political life, from military doctrine, where we're still fighting the Korean war, to Foreign Policy, where we're preparing for the conquest of Iran and Pakistan, after the oh-so-successful operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, to economics, to industrial policy, to mass communications (newspapers and TV) and race relations.

I think you would be surprised how many people on the so-called paleo-conservative right are saying almost exactly the same thing, though of course with different emphases. We see the Middlebury Institute and the League of the South shaking hands, agreeing on the only thing two such extremely disparate groups can agree on, that the current system of greater and greater political and economic centralization, in place since the 16th Century, has become unavoidably corrupt and the best thing is to return control to local populations, many of whom will be better able to run their own affairs. In fact, it's hard to imagine them as less able than the central governments they currently live under.

BTW, the blinkers on a cart horse don't prevent her seeing the road. They prevent her from seeing the cart. Horses will sometimes spook when they see something moving in their peripheral vision. If she can't get away from it, as in a cart that she is hitched to, the result is usually a wreck, sometimes involving fatalities, either equine or human. A properly hitched horse can easily move her head around to see the road and the scenery. Of course, in the fancy classes of competition driving, often the horse is not hitched properly at all and can't even put her head down to a natural posture, let alone look at where she's going. Most of the time though, it's just the load she is pulling that she can't see.

Make of that whatever metaphor you wish.

spottedwolf said...

John...............a fellow I knew living on Chilliwack mountain in the Fraser Valley used a small spring that existed behind his cabin and about 200 feet higher as a source for power. Using the technique you speak of he dug a small basin about 5' deep and equally in diameter where the spring emerged. By lining this cavity with heavy material he created a small reservoir. Using copper pipe and appropriate fittings connected to said, he built a gravity fed lead downhill to his house. All the piping was buried 3 ft below the surface ( frost line commensurate with location) and emerged in his basement. It was connected to a water trap where it spun an aluminum fabricated wheel with two pencil beams of water connected to a large alternator. The outflow was directed to his basement drain. With adjustments to lights it powered everything in their home including large appliances. Such as this example could be used in many different locations....multiple electrics could power well pumps for continuity.

Lloyd Morcom said...

I'm pitching an idea to our local Shire Council to build a series of small business incubators in a number of towns in our district. Re-localisation of the economy will come out of small local businesses, but the failure rate is very high so my idea is to provide lots of monitoring and help, while at the same time letting the proprietors of these start-ups carry most of the risk.

I think the chances of getting this thing going are quite good as I have good contacts among both the elected officials and the executive at our Shire. The past method where I live (south-eastern coastal country Australia) has been to try and woo big business — the "Cargo Cult" approach.

I'm going to keep a record of what transpires on my Blog for those who might be interested. It's something which will take some time to get up and running but I think it's an idea whose time has come.

Let a hundred (local) flowers bloom!

Jamie said...

John, while I don't disagree with your main points, I think you are a little hard on fusion research. The US has spent negligible funding on Fusion (in 2003 the total budget was $250Million, mostly for closing programs). All the serious work has gone forward in Europe and Japan and the ITER reactor project should be breakeven at least. Interestingly enough, a much more promising effort at University of Wisconsin using inertial confinement using He3 has made amazing progress on a shoestring budget and cant even get a couple of million from the government when we spend $24B a month in Iraq.(
All that said and done I am personally putting my bets on inexpensive solar thermal collectors like those design by Charles Curnutt in the 70's and lightweight turbin generators like the Tesla turbine but then again we have lots of sun and little water here in the desert!

LJR said...

Washing machines use induction motors that do not generate electricity when spun. This has been true for almost a hundred years now.

New Zealand operates a 220VAC 50hz power system and it is HIGHLY unlikely they are using washing machines with PM DC motors.

Just thought you might like to know that your example is unlikely to be true. Not that I have anything against reuse, mind you. Great idea. However you will appear foolish to anyone with a little knowledge of the power grid and motors in general. Most motors are not generators when spun and are essentially worthless as a power source.

Jan Steinman said...

It would be nice to find some more details about these washing machine turbines. All I have seen is the "puff pieces" that say how wonderful it is.

As an electrical engineer and inveterate tinker, I believe that converting any synchronous alternating current motor — the sort used in washing machines — into an off-grid micro-hydro generator is fraught with problems. You cannot simply spin them and get electricity out; you need to establish a magnetic field in there somehow first.

It would be much simpler to use such motors for on-grid systems, using "grid excitation" to produce the magnetic field in the motor that is necessary for generating electricity. Some people are playing with "self excitation" for such motors, but it's a devil to stablise.

So more info, please! Google only yields the "rah rah" puff pieces, without practical details on how someone with a bit of knowledge could do such a thing.

Joel said...

@M. Simon:

>We are not going to raise the world out of poverty with a few GW of electricity.

With a few LEDs per household, a few GW buys a lot of literacy.

Especially if we talk blue-green, rather than white...

>Why hasn't Polywell Fusion been fully funded by the Obama administration?

Basic 3D calculus shows that electrostatic confinement is not possible. The erosion of the edges of the coils is not a minor engineering problem, it traces back to the fundamental mathematics of how a field with negative and positive (electricity or magnetism, rather than gravity) might ever operate. Sorry to be such a killjoy.


You might also look into electronic control of the field coil circuits in automotive alternators, if you're so inclined.


The plan I had heard of involved dumping iron ore, not ag waste. Did the article you read say anything about "magnetite" or "hematite"? If so, that small misunderstanding may be why Mr. Greer didn't recognize it. The one I had heard of is problematic, but I'm curious. Hopefully, the un-approved trials will produce good information about it, and that information will be used wisely.

Danby said...

Interesting post on Front Porch Republic today, on the exact point you make above.

Stephen Heyer said...

Thanks John,
You’ve done it again: Made a scene clear that I was only catching glimpses of through the mist, dimly.

Yes, I knew all that, had even put it together to some extent, but it hadn’t come into clear focus for me.

Explains why our (Australia’s) Prime Minister, who is a very bright and fairly widely experienced guy (lived in China, speaks Mandarin, that sort of thing) keeps drifting back into the arms of the USA and into enthusiastically supporting the USA’s economic and military lunacy of the month.

At least here in Australia the creative minority has not entirely degenerated into a dominant minority. Their model for dealing with the economic crises here is a little different: Some of the vast amounts of money being thrown at it here are being thrown directly to the people, not just shoveled into the bonuses of the senior financial executives.

I doubt it will work any better, but at least the terrible resentment I suspect will grow among the ordinary people in the USA should not be as much of a problem here.

Australia might still get to play Constantinople.

Joel said...

Update on Matthijs's comment:

I just happened to see a report on the results of that iron-fertilization test. It did not sequester enough carbon to be worthwhile. It barely works at all, as a matter of fact.

Which means any scheme involving ag waste would probably not be worthwhile, either. Hopefully, this result will underscore the need for decreased coal use.

John Michael Greer said...

Brian, so far the only organizations that have responded to the decline of civilizations with notable success have been new religious movements -- with Christianity in the twilight years of Rome as the classic example. Secular approaches to the current decline and fall are venturing into unexplored territory.

Kabir, the vast majority of people are still up to their eyeballs in denial over all this. Your family is unfortunately much closer to the rule than the exception. Thanks for the link!

Peter, well, it's anyone's guess, because nobody but a few wild-eyed archdruids out here on the fringe will ever propose economic contraction as a cure for the disastrous consequences of economic overexpansion.

Blue Sun, thanks for the reference! It may be off topic for this post, but soil science is always worth hearing about. (The old joke comes to mind: why is it so great to have Druid friends? They worship the ground you walk on!)

Danby, thanks for the metaphor repair. I find myself sharing views uncomfortably often with the paleo-conservatives -- admittedly I doubt they find it any less awkward to have an archdruid agreeing with them.

Spotted Wolf, the folks who published Cloudburst were located in British Columbia, too. Glad to hear that it's still being practiced.

Lloyd, that's an excellent plan. I hope it prospers!

Jamie, I'd be more pleased if the current administration weren't once again talking about throwing more money down the fusion rathole. I'm with you, though, in thinking that solar heat engines have a lot to offer -- it baffles me that nobody's yet dusted off the plans for Augustin Mouchot's solar steam engines from the 1870s, which were quite successful and can be built by a pipefitter.

LJR, you might want to talk to the company in question, as they seem to be quite successfully doing what you claim is impossible. (Mind you, if I were using salvage to build an electrical generation system, I'd be more likely to use a surplus alternator anyway.)

Jan, I'd be interested to know, too, but since the company that's doing it is selling the results, it's not exactly in their interest to publish all the details.

Joel, your point about electrostatic confinement is most interesting, and not something I'd heard before.

Danby, thanks for the link!

Stephen, glad to hear that your government isn't quite as suicidal as ours. My guess is that Europe is more likely to play Byzantium to our Rome, but we'll see.

Joel, yes, I saw that report as well. The whole "geo-engineering" approach, to me, exemplifies the way that our civilization has taken hubris to a suicidal pitch; having imposed one set of massive changes on the biosphere, and set loose a cascade of unexpected and unpredictable consequences, we're now trying to fix it by imposing another whose consequences we are no better able to predict. Homo sapiens? In terms of their ecological rationality, members of today's culture might better be called Homo stultus.

Danby said...

Jan Steinman and LJR

If you had taken 2 minutes to look up, you would have found that Fisher and Paykel, a NZ company, produces washing machines with brushless, permanent magnet, 3-phase 240 VAC motors, and that Eco Innovation recycles these into small 1.5kw hydro-electric generating systems, with hundreds installed in NZ. Some of these systems operate at a 60% efficiency!

You would also have found that the founder of the company is a mechanical engineer and has been designing and installing over 1000 alternative electrical systems in the last decade and a half.

You would even have found that these motors are becoming common in Europe and that some of the newer Maytag washers sold in the US use them, due to their extremely high efficiency and extreme durability.

You would have even found that you could buy a complete turbine/generator for $1500NZ. Which I may do if I can find a good source for a cheap battery bank.

Instead of going off-half cocked, assuming everybody always does everything the same way they did in the '60s, (see JMG's article above) take the time to make sure you know what you're talking about. With the Intarwebs, it's not that hard.

M. Simon said...

You get the economics sufficiently contracted and you return to the warlord level of civilization. I'd rather not flirt with that.

RPC said...

Thanks for another thoughtful post! To those engineers who are questioning the viability of washing machien motors as alternators, the key is that EcoInnovation is using _Fisher & Paykel_ motors. F&P markets a line of vertical axis washers that manages to equal or exceed the energy efficiency of horizontal axis washers. They do this (partially) by employing permanent magnet brushless DC motors, which would make excellent alternators!

Peter said...

a sympathetic and insightful treatment of preparation within the context of human nature and history is being explored by Charles Hugh Smith at his site His new book is "Survival+", and he's posting it for free on his site. The folks here should find it interesting, and, he's an accomplished writer, so it's a well-reasoned book (as is yours).

FARfetched said...

Reading this post reminded me of the endless cycle of centralization, de-centralization, round & round. Each has its time of zenith and nadir.

Before the Age of Oil, energy production was mostly de-centralized: production and consumption were both primarily local. Of course there were exceptions, there always are, but the fashion (as it were) was de-centralized. When fossil fuels became widespread, then centralized energy production became possible and in fashion. But as depletion takes hold and starts shaking the status quo in its jaws, then de-centralization will make a comeback.

There's been a somewhat opposing trend in telephone service: first the breakup of AT&T, then more recently with cable companies and cell networks providing phone lines (the term "lines" is more technical than physical these days, given the new players). I think part of what we're seeing in alt-energy companies now — they're getting hit as hard as everyone else — is that it's possible to be too early. I worked for a company that hatched a cable telephone system back in 1994, but the market didn't develop quickly enough and they ended up discontinuing the product. OTOH, the place I work for now was in the right place at the right time, and has done well enough.

Alt-energy companies, such as EcoInnovation, have to be able to survive until the trend in energy production swings back to de-centralization — and then they'll be in clover.

wylde otse said...

Old alternators from cars work quite well as electrical generating units - with pulleys and fan belts (even as did the older car 12Volt generators). They can even be rigged to bicycle pedal power, or a small engine running on biofuel. How much electricity do we really need in a back-to-the-land economy. LED's have a very low power requirement. And a radio does not need 100 watt speakers.
One solar panel operates my mini computer note-pad. And, the cast iron small pot-bellied stove in my Airstream trailer burns pieces of bark which wash up on the beach.
A one-gallon glass jar of hot water tossed in my bed at night keeps me warm, and more importantly, the bedding moisture free. (and I don't need to put out tons of CO2 to keep some large place warm, if I'm sleeping :o)
With what nature provides gratuitously (say, oysters, nettles and such...)and rice, which is still inexpensive in bulk enables me to live better than a king (most days), for $100 per month (if I had to). The cosmos, despite my lessening of in the understanding thereof - as I learn more,...inexplicably, appears to provide all that I really need. All I provide in return is a grateful and loving heart.

kabir - I've experienced something like that too. Some losses are real and don't need to be trivialized, but there is eventually some comfort in following our honest best judgement and our heart :o)

M A - (re: comment to a previous post) I recemtly re-read Sheldon Kopp's "Here I Am, Wasn't I". And damned if I didn't stop worrying. Sometimes unexpected good things befall us, as much as can a catastrophy :o)
For heavy-duty inspiration, I read John Calahans, " Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far On Foot ".

spottedwolf said...

Something one of your readers said about sustainable agriculture made me think of the 'good ol' magic weed'. With a positive impact on soil rejuvenation and no direct impact on food pricing, plus a direct connection to the impact fertilizers have because of their use in the cotton amazes me that someone hasn't started a push concerning the wild hemp which would/does grow in some of the plains states. The stuff out produces just about anything else when it comes to fibrous strength so why not make it an alternate fuel source. It makes far better sense than corn and as those of us familiar can eat it too.

John said...

RE: Paleo-conservatives

Hey Archdruid & all have you heard of this website:

Its a blog that I follow on the days that aren't named after Woden.

Also, your economic policy in this post echoes what I've been thinking since I've learned about the issues. And, surprisingly, the paleo-cons (and the crunchy cons that Rod Dreher talks about) are the ones that have supported it since way back then -- in fact some have been arguing for these changes since before the fall of the Soviet Union. I guess it comes from being from a Midwestern small town being swallowed by the ugly suburban-box-store wasteland.

John Michael Greer said...

Danby, thanks for the details.

Simon, you're still missing the point. If the ability to sustain current levels of energy production, much less increase them, isn't there -- and I am arguing that it's not -- it's not helpful to make sweeping generalizations about the kind of society that will exist if we don't have access to the levels of energy we're used to having. The conversation we need to have is about how to cushion the descent to a low-energy society and preserve as many as possible of the achievements of the last three hundred years in the process.

RPC, thanks also for the details.

Peter, thanks for the pointer -- I'll check it out.

Farfetched, a lot of energy firms in the 1970s made the same mistake -- they had good products but were way too early, and got flattened by the return to cheap energy economics in the 1980s. One of the hard realities of the way down is volatility -- prices swinging up and down so drastically that many businesses will have a very hard time staying afloat. This may be one of the reasons why motivations outside the economic sphere tend to be more successful in ages of decline.

Otse, good. What I'd like to see is more people adapting that sort of living to more standard urban and rural settings.

Spotted Wolf, if it's legal, by all means. Otherwise the hassle generally outweighs the benefits.

John, I'm coming to think that the labels "liberal" and "conservative" no longer apply to any political reality at all. They emerged, as I recall, during the first wave of industrialization in England, and reflected the politics of the industrial age to some extent. Now that the deindustrial age is beginning, it stands to reason that a new set of political categories needs to come into being as well.

Red Neck Girl said...

Since the oceans sequester a lot of carbon they thought minute particles of iron spread in the ocean might help remove carbon from the atmosphere. It could also cause poisonous algae blooms. We already have a lot of problems in the oceans we don't need more! I'm glad it didn't work!

As far as agricultural wastes go, that would be a disaster since we have a very large dead zone off the coast here in Oregon caused by runoff from agriculture. We don't need any more!

Kabir and anyone else who's interested should look into buying delinquent tax liens on real estate. It's a way to invest money, you can gain a little if they pay up or a lot if they don't! That would be one way he could get his acreage. At least he wouldn't be tempted to spend it foolishly! A friend told me of someone he knew over in central Oregon that got a nice sized farm that way for little more than $10,000 and she makes more than that renting it out every year!

M. Simon said...

When civilization gets shaky the existing rules about what can and can't be done will be swept aside.

That means all the off limits areas for mining, drilling, and otherwise extracting energy will be on the table. And that includes nuclear.

And you know what? It doesn't have to be sustainable. It just has to get us through the transition. And you know what? There is more than enough energy available to do that.

In 100 years or less we will have the technology to be free of carbon fuels. By 200 years we will have figured out fusion. In fact I'm betting we get fusion figured out in 5 years.

Bussard's IEC Fusion Technology (Polywell Fusion) Explained

swdrumm said...

Another well written article, but I think it begs the question why we shouldn't make appropriate investments in BOTH technologies.

I'm a long-time Peak Oil advocate and support all forms of renewable technologies - wind, solar PV, hydro, solar thermal, etc - as well as efficiency improvements and lifestyle changes (Earthships) as NEAR-term solutions to our energy challenges.

But, I also refuse to believe that our civilization should ultimately commit ourselves to the embrace of a cold and silent death, marooned on a tired planet exhausted of all resources.

Peak Oil and powerdown are part of the story, but I think they're the middle part - the piece where the protagonists undergo great challenge and hardship - rather than the end.

Basic research in new energy technologies - fusion, antimatter, or even gravitic - may hold the key to a resumption of our expansion, both on this planet and elsewhere.

Whether you would like this expansion to resume is a matter of personal preference and perhaps ethical debate; however, I for one plan to tend my proverbial garden during these Dark Times, while keeping watch on the horizon for a New Dawn.

DickLawrence said...

On the fusion fantasy, you've probably heard of Michael Dittmar, the physicist from CERN who spoke at ASPO conference in Cork, Ireland in Sept. 2007. Michael seems to have it together and cites at least 5 major issues with the ITER approach that are (so far) being swept under the rug and not addressed by its advocates, in spite of the $ billions sloshing their way.

I looked up the presentation URL and your readers can find it at:
(PDF, about 1 MB file). Note it's a 2-part presentation that covers problems with fission, uranium supply, and fast-breeder reactors as well as in-depth analysis of obstacles to fusion power.

Best wishes,
Dick Lawrence

John Michael Greer said...

Girl, thanks for the tip!

Simon, there are precious few "off limit areas" and those usually got set aside after it became clear there was nothing worth mining on them. The delusion that there's some vast amount of spare resources sitting around, just waiting for us to "drill-drill-drill" or the equivalent, isn't even effective campaign rhetoric, much less the basis of a sane energy strategy.

We had the energy resources; we burned them; they're running out, and nobody (including Bussard) has yet provided any good reason to think there's a replacement for them anywhere on the horizon. Any vision of the human future that doesn't start from those hard recognitions is way past pie in the sky.

Swdrumm, yes, I figured that we'd get a defense of the mythology of progress. I'd point out, first, that it's hardly reasonable to adopt a profoundly mythic view of the human future, as you've done, and then insist that the universe has to conform to the myth by providing us with an endless succession of new energy sources for us to extract and waste; and second, that endless growth is the ideology of the cancer cell. Our species arguably has better things to do than metastasize across the galaxy.

Dick, many thanks! I'd heard of Dr. Dittmar's presentation but hadn't chased down a copy.

Megan said...

M. Simon said...

You get the economics sufficiently contracted and you return to the warlord level of civilization. I'd rather not flirt with that.

To play devil's advocate: as opposed to what we have now? My definition of a warlord is a person who heads a group of people powerful enough to a) successfully resist being subjected to the laws of the land and b) enforce their will on the population despite having no legal authority to do so. How are our CEOs not warlords? They even pillage!

I recently stunned my graduate seminar class into several seconds of complete silence (she points out modestly) with the following observation.

"Consider this fact:

The service sector employs three-fourths of our country's workforce.

Now rephrase it this way:

Servants make up three-fourths of our country's workforce."

Sounds like a different world, doesn't it? Or rather, sounds like the same old world, the one our Victorian ancestors lived in.

I wonder if that's not partly responsible for the growth of the 'steampunk' genre, which when it isn't envisioning low-tech high technology, dwells on Marxist visions of working class hells and the decadence of the educated quasi-aristocracy. We invent new fiction genres to talk about things we have no words for. Perhaps what we have no words for right now - if I may try to put words around it - is the way that the presence of high technology hasn't immunized us against regressive social arrangements.

News-sheets are full of tales of the pirates that stalk the shipping lanes; barbarians with crude weapons raze the towers of moribund empires; there are rumblings of war between the Holy Land and Christendom. What century are we living in again? Add in the fact that they're rebuilding the Library of Alexandria and the Silk Road, and it starts to sound like all of them at once.

Imagine yourself living in a steampunk world, and you cease to be perplexed and outraged that modernity has abandoned you, and begin to draw up engine plans.

sv koho said...

Ah JMG you sent me down memory lane..... back to those days of yesteryear when Pons and Fleischmann who dwell in the peculiar land to my south announced to the world that our energy problems were over. Click and Clack on NPR still joke about them. There is wealth of ideas and comments in this post which is in sharp contrast to the economic imbeciles in Obamaland who are devising incredibly complex and obscure methods to bail out a financial system circling the toilet bowl.

John Michael Greer said...

Megan, nicely put! It's been a while since I paid much attention to the steampunk subgenre, but you may well be right -- it may just have some useful visions for the future to offer.

Koho, I almost brought up cold fusion in this post, and decided against it. It's a complex situation, not least because it pits two scientific hierarchies against each other -- I can't be the only one who's noticed that pretty much all the people who claim to have replicated Pons and Fleischmann's initial results are chemists, and pretty much all those who claim nonreplication are physicists -- and especially physicists involved in conventional nuclear fusion research. Wouldn't be the first time that a major scientific advance got stonewalled because it offended influential researchers -- the history of continental drift comes to mind. That being said, the fitful and poorly understood reaction Pons and Fleischmann seem to have stumbled over hardly justifies the claims of imminent salvation made in its name.

CBL said...

Reading your posts gives me enormous pleasure for their insight, erudition and the gentle humanity infused throughout. Thank you for being both educational and stimulating.

Small hydro, or actually hydrokinetic power is an appropriately scaled and achievable power source, especially for distributed and point-of-use generation. One of the commenters pointed out, correctly, that simply reversing the typical motor setup will not produce a generator, as the geometries of magnets and windings are different. In addition, the current produced will not have the same clean regular sinusoid either; there needs to be some power electronics to clean it up or the life of the powered devices will be dramatically shortened.

Lastly, there are several companies pursuing hydrokinetic generator technologies, including my own, Hydrovolts, but also Hydro Green Energy, enCurrent, Free Flow Power, and others. The approaches, anticipated applications and business models vary quite a bit, but the core concepts are the same.

Funding is always a challenge to entrepreneurs with a new idea. Most investors are surprisingly conservative, and would rather fund another entrant in a "hot" sector despite the abundance of competition. Those who will take a risk on something with less press and cachet are many fewer. Perhaps this is another manifestation of what you write about the dominant minority's increasing blinkering as the fecklessness of their approach and their toolkit becomes more apparent.

Thanks again for your writing. I always look forward to the next post.

Gaelan said...

You just taught me a new word, JMG. I'd never heard blinders called anything but blinders, so when I read the title of this post, I envisioned a horse galloping along with a flashing electric turn signal attached to it!

Stephen Heyer said...


John Greer: Swdrumm, yes, I figured that we'd get a defense of the mythology of progress. I'd point out, first, that it's hardly reasonable to adopt a profoundly mythic view of the human future, as you've done, and then insist that the universe has to conform to the myth by providing us with an endless succession of new energy sources for us to extract and waste; and second, that endless growth is the ideology of the cancer cell. Our species arguably has better things to do than metastasize across the galaxy.

There’s progress and there’s progress.

The current “hysteria of greed”, “aimless growth at all cost”, high population growth, strip mine everything, neo-con model that suits the wealthiest 1% by funneling obscene wealth to them is not the only, or even the usual kind. I should know, having been born into an acutely politically, scientifically and ecologically aware family just after WWII in a country that had a different, more European model.

I can assure you, the adults of that world (at least the ones I knew and read) would have been appalled at the world of their great grandchildren. Those still alive of course have been subject to 60 years of the frog boiling process, but the ones I talk to are aware, when they think back, of just how alien this world is to them.

The strange thing is, it is their children, the ones who were wearing the “Property Is Theft” t-shirts in the 70s, who once they got their law degrees or major corporation jobs, spent their entire careers using the emerging field of behavioral modification and the immense resources of their employers to herd the populations of Western, especially English speaking, nations into being blind, passive consumers. Further, they even managed to install in the target populations an instinctive distaste for unions and labor leaning politicians– the only forces likely to defend the common workers.

If this had not have happened, or if the 70s correction had not been snuffed out in the “greed is good” 80s and 90’s, I have no doubt industrial societies could have met and if not defeated, at least adapted to Peak Everything. After all, the crises we are now facing is mostly an effect of the ghastly mess we have gotten our societies and economies, especially the financial parts, into. Peak oil as yet is at most a trigger.

In other words, other, more stainable and certainly more desirable forms of progress are possible, in fact likely if you start from, say, the Nordic rather than the American neo-con model. The one I would vote for is of course the limited population, high civil rights (and duties), egalitarian, modest lifestyle model where scientific and human abilities increase in depth and quality, rather than simply blindly getting bigger.

Swdrumm: “But, I also refuse to believe that our civilization should ultimately commit ourselves to the embrace of a cold and silent death, marooned on a tired planet exhausted of all resources.”

Exactly! The more desirable forms of progress, which remember I’m arguing were the more natural outgrowth of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution and were what should have happened if the USA model had not subverted them, would fairly naturally be able to manage Earth long term, including Earth’s near space environment (turns out that asteroid/comet hits are a lot more frequent than we thought, so it needs managing).

They would also, eventually, have gone star faring which is the only path we know of to long-term survival.

As to the “metastasize across the galaxy” thing… Yes, if the current civilization were to do it, but not necessarily for other, more responsible civilizations.

Not that the current civilization would be allowed to go metastasize the galaxy. The only reasonable solution I can see to Fermi’s Paradox is that someone/something actively runs the galaxy. Further, that it seems to do so in a way we would interpret as benevolent. It certainly would not allow the present civilization out of it’s cage.

Don’t, however, expect Manhattan sized spaceships over the White House! If it decided to act, any intelligence that advanced and powerful would probably move in ways too subtle for us to ever be aware of.

Incidentally, sadly, I think humanity’s best long-term hope is that the current system fails so disastrously it enters the popular imagination in the same category as, say, the Holocaust. In other words, something we expend whatever effort we have to to totally wipe out and never let happen again.

Not that changing things will be easy. Even apart from the imminence of Peak Everything, we now have 2 or 3 generations who have been trained from birth to be fit for nothing but the role of consumer in a rapidly growing, abundant energy society.

If, instead, the USA government manages to reinflate one more economic bubble, putting the crash off for another decade, I suspect the situation will be very serious indeed. Perhaps, in fact, the death of billions, Mad Max world will really come to be.

Oh! And as for the universe having to conform to the myth by providing us with an endless succession of new energy sources, well it doesn’t, of course. However, funny thing is that the experience of the past 6 thousand years or so is that it has, and at pretty much exponentially decreasing intervals and exponentially increasing energy densities.

Further, given all the weird stuff we now know about physics but cannot yet use, and all the stuff we suspect we don’t know, I think it is a pretty good bet that nature has a few more energy sources to gift us with yet. Problem is, I suspect we will need to be a much more mature species to be trusted with them.

P.S. If I seem down on the USA, well, my country Australia was a world leader in establishing unions and a successful workers’ party and was towards the front with pensions and decent social welfare and lots of other good stuff. We were seriously considering the Nordic model when things went sour.

What wrecked things was largely ratbag, toxic ideas imported from the USA. First we had the whole flower power thing, which seduced our left and intellectuals into adopting some profoundly unpopular, sometimes unworkable ideas, or into taking good ideas too far too fast. Then the conservatives used the backlash to adopt the whole vicious neo-con thing. That, of course, has turned out to be total rubbish economically, socially and in every other way imaginable.


How come everyone here is carrying on about fusion – one of those energy sources of the future that probably always will be, but ignoring a more or less ready to go, basically 50s technology source that is an ideal clip-on for our current power grids.

I refer of course to thorium reactors. See:

Thorium reactors have many advantages, not the least being that thorium is much more common that uranium (it is about as common as lead). They produce vastly less radioactive waste than uranium reactors and, if correctly designed, cannot be used to make nuclear weapons and cannot suffer runaway reaction and melt down.

As an added bonus the liquid salt version removes the need for the whole, complex, difficult to maintain, highly radio active reactor core of fuel and control rods. Thus it should be very cheap to build and maintain and have an extremely long expected life.

It seems to me that this is the kind of technology we should be following up first, at least for powering grids.

eatbees said...

Don't you hear the complacent smugness in your own statement?

"I tend to roll my eyes when people insist, as they often do, that the world’s industrial societies will...devote resources and intellectual effort to constructive responses to the problem. In theory, they might still be able to do so; in practice, this won’t happen...."

This is what I find frustrating about your whole argument. You start from the assumption that society as a whole will have no constructive response to our predicament, that the monkey won't let go of the banana; and moreover, that no combination of new, appropriate technologies will allow us to maintain the best of what we've achieved in a more appropriate balance with nature. So it strikes me that you are the one with blinders, because you simply can't imagine humanity doing anything but charge off that cliff, when in fact our entire history until now has been one of innovation and adaptation. As with other achievements such as the mastery of flight, I expect that sustainable energy will be worked out through trial and error, a combination of large research projects and home tinkering. Do you really think that out of the many hundreds or thousands of distinct societies that exist around the globe today, none will look in the right place? Maybe some governments or large research institutions are blinded by the illusion of nuclear fusion, but the very fact that some small company is recycling washing machine engines as water wheels, or another is building homes that are heated entirely by the sun and body heat, or another still is looking at how to generate electricity from biomass using bacteria, proves that human innovation is not dead. If I were a betting man, and being on this planet requires it to some degree, I would wager that while petroleum technology will surely prove obsolete in a few decades (and good riddance), complex human societies will remain. You are often praised for your humanistic vision, yet you seem to have placed your bet on a collective suicide of the human imagination. I'm not willing to go there yet.

John Michael Greer said...

CBL, thanks for the useful feedback.

Gaelan, you're welcome. I've never heard 'em called blinders, for that matter.

Stephen, as I pointed out in a post here quite a while ago, Fermi's paradox isn't a paradox at all; it's a logical refutation of the contemporary faith in perpetual technological progress. One of these days we will have to come to terms with the fact that access to concentrated energy resources was what made the Age of Progress, and the depletion of those resources is bringing the Age of Progress to an end.

As for thorium reactors, well, every believer in progress these days seems to have his or her favorite technofix, and the further they are from any practical hope of implementation, the better they usually look. If thorium reactors are so promising, how come none of the dozens of countries trying to build nuclear reactors for their electricity grids are going for them?

Eatbees, when a doctor warns a patient that he's got a terminal illness and had probably better start getting his affairs in order, is the doctor engaging in smug complacency? What you dismiss as a "collective suicide of the human imagination" is an honest recognition that our civilization has spent decades (by some measures, centuries) backing itself into a very tight corner, and a constellation of hard planetary limits and social forces are pressing very hard against any attempt, by the few people who have even noticed the corner, to extract our civilization from it.

I quite understand that this is a very unwelcome viewpoint; many people, just as you have, get angry and insulting when confronted by it. That in itself is one of the forces keeping us from a collective recognition of the severity of our predicament, and thus keeping us wedged into that corner whose existence you seem unwilling to notice.

Glenn said...

Curiously, I took a buggy ride Friday behind two Norwegian Fjord horses. The blinders (as I grew up calling them in California) are indeed, to keep them from being spooked by the wagon. Without, it would be a bit like a dog with a can tied to it's tail.
Still, it's a fair metaphor for our current industrial society. The one I used to use was "If the politicians aren't going to steer away from the precipice or put on the brakes they could at least take their foot off the accelerator."
And yes, I know the problem is societal. But those of us who don't drive SUV's, do eat from our own gardens and work with our hands for a living would really not like to be dragged down by the wretched mass of over-consuming Americans.
Slightly OT. Just finished JMG's Atlantis, twice. Liked it so much I read it out loud to my family. I got some old information presented in a new way, some new information, and a thought provoking approach. Nice work!
At 120 feet of elevation on a small island we'll be okay until the East Antarctic ice sheet goes. But I expect in a decade or two we'll be using our boats to reach the mainland; I figure Greenland and/or the Western Antarctic will put our causeway under, even at low tide, well before the end of my lifetime.


Glenn said...

I was at the presentation by the promoter of the "seed the oceans" concept at the Western Pacific Fisheries Management Council back in 98 or 99. The idea was to use _chelated_ iron, elemental iron sinks too fast. It would have boot started the food chain. Not too much risk (he claimed), the open ocean hasn't got much of an ecosystem in the upper layers (note, I said "not much", not "none"), that's why reef and shoal areas produce such a high proportion of young. Anyway, in early tests the effect dissipated in about a month, so there was supposedly little chance of a runaway bloom effect or the like. The idea was to temporarily stimulate production, leading to large catches of pelagic fish such as tuna in areas that are currently pretty barren.
I don't know what ever became of the concept, and how it played out in terms of larger test areas or funding. I imagine he had a difficult time finding investors, a pretty conservative lot at the time.


wylde otse said...

JMG thank you.

Stephen Heyer said...

Hi John,
John Greer: “Stephen, as I pointed out in a post here quite a while ago, Fermi's paradox isn't a paradox at all; it's a logical refutation of the contemporary faith in perpetual technological progress. One of these days we will have to come to terms with the fact that access to concentrated energy resources was what made the Age of Progress, and the depletion of those resources is bringing the Age of Progress to an end.”

Sorry John, I just don’t agree. Probably, if anyone is interested in that debate it would be best for them to go to the post you refer to “Solving Fermi's paradox” and read your post and our subsequent debate, along with of course the comments of others.

What I think you did establish was a likely solution for some types of civilization in some circumstances, providing there are no practical sources of energy APART FROM THOSE WE ARE ALREADY USING. If there is, the whole argument, in fact the whole Olduvai Theory of which this is a sub-theory, falls apart.

Note that I said ALREADY USING. We know of plenty of promising sources, from fusion, through uranium breeder reactors, thorium reactors, down to getting solar to really work. If just a few of these turn out to work nearly as well as their enthusiasts promise, it is a whole new ball game.

Ditto, of course, if something totally new like vacuum energy turns up. Not, as I’ve suggested, all that unlikely.

As you often say “We shall see”.

Which, of course, leaves Fermi's paradox as, well, a paradox. Frankly, the only solution I can see that would apply to all civilizations always is active management. Oh! Apart from “they just haven’t arrived yet but will soon”.

Both of the above solutions are of course profoundly disturbing and thus rightly unpopular.

John Greer: “ If thorium reactors are so promising, how come none of the dozens of countries trying to build nuclear reactors for their electricity grids are going for them?”

1. The current nuclear power industry is entirely a product of the WWII and 50’s nuclear bomb projects. It is impossible to overstate the importance of this as a determinate of the technologies selected and developed.
2. The current nuclear industry has 70 plus years of sunk investment in uranium reactors. Switching to thorium would throw all that away.
3. It is harder to use thorium reactors to make plutonium and really obvious if you are.
4. It may (I repeat, may) be possible to mass produce cheap, safe, easy to operate, small thorium reactors. This is the exact opposite of the nuclear industry’s business model so they would have no idea how to make a profit from such reactors and they know it.
5. Oh! And some are “going for them”. Well, India for one is.

Oh! And they are not my “favorite technofix”. Just yet one more obviously easier way of doing things that is being ignored while the hard, bad “solution” is being stubbornly pursued. Many of my “favorite technofixs” are the same as yours!

John Michael Greer said...

Glenn, many thanks.

Otse, you're welcome!

Stephen, of course you disagree -- it's not as though I expected to convince you! Religious differences (and belief or disbelief in the inevitability and goodness of progress is ultimately a religious matter) are not generally settled by reasoning.

The only reason Fermi's paradox looks like a paradox is that nobody wants to deal with the most likely implication -- that the universe we live in does not happen to provide intelligent beings with that extravagant amounts of highly concentrated energy that would be needed to make interstellar travel possible. That's the solution that requires the fewest number of unproven hypotheses, and thus by Occam's Razor ought to be the default option for discussion. It's not, of course, because the recognition of limits is far less popular than either of your two assumption-laden scenarios; people will believe almost anything rather than accepting that they can't have what they want just because they happen to want it.

As for thorium, yes, we've had that discussion already. If India's project gets past the press release stage, then it'll be time to take that seriously.

Lonnie said...

Just a couple of comments.

There is another side to the continued funding of research into fusion. Such research often focuses on efficient ways to trigger such a reaction to get it started. The key word here being trigger, such triggers are necessary components of fusion bombs.

Secondly, system dynamics models have demonstrated over and over that the behaviors of complex dynamic systems like human societies are determined more by the overall structure of the system than by the particular tools and technologies involved. Even if all the promised technologies could deliver as promised at a fraction of the cost, the exponential growth demanded by the current economic paradigm would render the planet uninhabitable within a few generations.

The predicament is not technological in nature.

eatbees said...

I'm being neither insulting nor angry in my attempt to engage you. Nor am I "unwilling to notice" the constrants we are under or the predicament we are in. If that were so, why would I be reading your book and encouraging everyone I know to read it? I just think that you want to believe, a little too much, that people like yourself and your readers are Cassandras who won't be heard before it's too late, while I see signs all around me that people are listening and trying to respond to the sort of ideas you present. What I'm asking I suppose is, what would you consider a constructive response? You didn't engage my analogy with human flight, which for millennia seemed technically impossible, but which we now take for granted. That's because we mastered the principles, not just with huge planes but also with hang gliders. The industrial revolution was powered by cheap fuel, but more importantly by the discovery that the universe works according to consistent rules, so that technologies can be mastered with repeatable results. We may lose the first part, but the second part will never be forgotten now that we've learned it. You seem to think that anyone looking for technology to help solve the problem (which would of course also require a vastly different relationshp with the earth) is in denial, and that's what I find frustrating. It means that people of good will are talking past each other, because you think I'm not hearing you, and that means you're not hearing me. So tell me whether I have something to contribute here.

Stephen Heyer said...

John Greer: “Stephen, of course you disagree -- it's not as though I expected to convince you! Religious differences (and belief or disbelief in the inevitability and goodness of progress is ultimately a religious matter) are not generally settled by reasoning.”

You know John, going off on a tangent, the strange thing is I’m just starting to suspect that it’s the other way round: All the more advanced religions developed over the past 3 thousand years or so are efforts to formalize progress and try to ensure that the “right” type happens.

Reading original texts carefully, it seems to me that it’s the wish for humane, productive progress that came first. The religion was just a method. It was well understood how difficult it was to achieve progress and how easily progress was subverted into evil (something we seem to have forgotten).

I think what confuses people of today is that most of the time the progress being sort was more spiritual than material. This is hardly surprising as the experience of most people across most of history was that the material progress of whole communities was not possible: The material progress of one individual only came at the cost of someone else (a zero sum game).

Not that all the major (and minor) religions didn’t put effort into trying to build a better world, it’s just that they were justly pessimistic about their chances, so put most of their effort into individual spiritual progress.

Of course, at the present, we have gone to the other extreme.

Actually, community wide material progress did happen, but too slowly for most people to be aware of it. As you are always pointing out, we live in a very special, very privileged little bubble in history.

Another thing that I suspect confuses people is the very limited degree of spiritual progress that is offered in popular (I repeat, popular, street level, peasant) Christianity and Islam. Basically, follow a few rules, do a few rituals and you go to heaven.

Most people hardly see it as spiritual progress / improving the soul, despite the efforts of their religious leaders to teach them that it is. One problem with setting goals that are too modest I guess.

Besides, what is being offered is nice enough for a century or so, but not for eternity. What do I do after I get bored with heaven?

Some of the Eastern religions and for that matter some of the sets of beliefs that evolved out of Western spiritualism, mediums, Near Death Experiences, Out Of Body Experiences and even military efforts to use Remote Viewing that see spiritual development/progress as a very long and complex process with many levels above the human and an unknown endpoint seems at least more interesting.

John Michael Greer said...

Lonnie, if I could get more people to grasp that the predicament we face isn't a matter of technology, I'd be a happier Archdruid.

Eatbees, see Lonnie's comment -- and, for that matter, the current post. The challenges we face are not technical in nature, and treating them as though technology can solve them is a textbook case of denial. As for the people you know who are, as you say, listening and trying to respond, how many of them would be willing to accept the equivalent of an 80% pay cut? That's the scale of change we're discussing, after all.

Stephen, thank you for proving my point. It's very common for prophetic religions to insist that earlier religions were actually trying to do the same thing they are, only not very effectively. And of course there's the notion of "more advanced religions" -- as though faiths could be ranked along a line of progress! Nice,

dancing_bear said...

The washing machine motors mentioned are apparently unique to Oz and New Zealand. To quote an article from "Here in Australia we are fortunate that Fisher & Paykel sell a washing machine that uses a large permanent magnet stepper like motor. These motors ( referred to as a F&P ) are easy to come by and make excellent wind generators. You will notice most of the windmills and projects on this site revolve around the F&P." for details on this conversion.

In the US we haven't seen very many motors above the fractional horsepower "universal" type used in small appliances and hand tools that could be so converted, and they,like an unmodified car alternator need a initial charge from a battery to 'excite' the field windings. In the most common repurposed automotive alternator, the 120 amp Delco, there is an upgrade which replaces the field windings with an assembly of rare earth magnets.

Gaell said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


Rich said...

I'm still new to this blog; currently, I'm working my way through it from day 1. Very good stuff, very broad, insightful, relatively unique perspective.

So, I don't know yet if you've addressed this question directly in previous posts. I'm wondering if you've ever explored the possibility that humanity stumbling into some lucky new 'magic bullet' energy source (such as, for instance, cold fusion, might be bad for our species and/or planet, long-term?

mjd said...

In 2007, Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote a book called "The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable" about randomness and uncertainty. I saw that recently, he also wrote "Ten principles for a Black Swan-proof world". list of things-not-to-do is sobering and sensible.

GO said...

Hi all,

This is my first comment too: in fact, my first comment on any of these what-will-we-do-after-it-all-goes-wrong blogs that I've been reading for a while.

I think the author is right in many ways. Just reading a newspaper over the last five/ten years is enough: the idea that we shouldn't 'grow' as a society just doesn't get a mention. In my country, the UK, if the high-street retailers haven't sold more cheap stuff (that we didn't make) in the run up to Christmas each year, it's a national disaster.

I think the super luxurious, super consuming, everything made out of plastic and you can throw it all away and never do a days hard work in your life model, will come to a hard end sometime soon.

However, I'm also interested in what people like 'eatbees' are saying. To be fair, if you look at 'our history', you don't see a long, gentle rise to our clever society today: you see other clever societies (Greece/Rome being a case in point) that collapse, leaving people living much less complex lives for hundreds of years. Whether these lives are worse, or just different, is the question that we need to be asking.

BUT I do agree that this assessment is often too bleak, and often seems to forget that we're not all just sitting around blindly eating/consuming ourselves to death. A lot of people reading this blog will be spending a lot of time and energy on creating a different world, growing their own food, down-sizing their careers and their lifestyle, on a community by community, individual by individual level.

I'd like to ask the author, genuinely, how does all this effort relate to your prognosis for society? Is it just prudence for the society to come? Or might it have some impact?

Sorry. Lots of ideas here. I think the conversation is the good thing, then acting on what YOU believe.