Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Peak Oil Advice from German Poets

Fairly often, during the three years or so since these essays first started trying to map out the topography of the deindustrial future ahead of us, people have responded with a straightforward question: what do you think we should do about it? Even when it’s posed rhetorically, as it so often is, this question strikes me as a good sign.

It’s one thing, after all, to treat the twilight of the industrial age as an abstract possibility, or a dumping ground for Utopian or apocalyptic fantasies, as so often happens these days. It’s quite another to grapple with it as a reality that can be expected to shape the rest of our lives. Those who make the subtle transition from one to the other tolerably often find themselves confronted with some form of the same message the German poet Rainier Maria Rilke received from the statue of Apollo: Du musst dein Leben aendern, “you must change your life.”

Still, figuring out exactly what sort of change is needed is a more complex matter. As often as not the people who ask for my suggestions are at that second stage of the process, sure that they have to take action but far from sure what they ought to do. Last week’s Archdruid Report fielded a question from a reader who has reached that point in his confrontation with the future looming up before us. To judge by the recent contents of my inbox, it’s a fairly common place to be just now, and this week’s essay will try to respond to it, not just for the people who asked it directly, but also for others who may be facing the same issues just now.

It’s probably necessary to make a few points to begin with. These will be familiar to longtime readers of this blog, but they remain effectively absent from our collective conversation around the future, outside a narrow slice of the peak oil movement, and thus bear repeating.

First, it’s crucial to remember that our predicament is anything but unique. The fantasy that today’s industrial societies are destiny’s darlings, and therefore exempt from the common fate of civilizations, needs to be set aside; so does the equally misleading fantasy that today’s industrial societies is the worst of all possible worlds and are getting the cataclysmic fate they deserve. The societies of the industrial world are human cultures, no better or worse than most; for a variety of reasons, they happened to stumble onto the reserves of stored carbon hidden in the Earth, and used most of them in three centuries of reckless exploitation; now, having overshot their resource base like so many other societies, they're following the familiar trajectory of decline and fall. Letting go of the delusion of our own uniqueness enables us to learn from the past, and also makes it easier to set aside some of the unproductive cultural narratives that hamstring so many attempts to respond to our predicament.

Second, one of the lessons the past offers is that the fall of civilizations is a slow, uneven process. None of us are going to wake up one morning a few weeks, or months, or years from now and find ourselves living in the Dark Ages, much less the Stone Age. Thus trying to leap in a single bound to some imagined future is unlikely to work very well; rather, the most effective strategy will be a matter of muddling through, trying to deal with each stage of the descent as it comes into sight, and being prepared to make plenty of midcourse corrections. Flexibility will be more useful than ideology, and making do will be an essential survival skill.

Third, another of the lessons offered by the past is that the long road down is not going to be easy. Like every human society in every age, the future ahead of us will have opportunities for happiness and achievement, of course, and there will doubtless be significant gains to set in the balance against the inevitable losses, especially for those who long for simpler lives at a slower pace. Still, the losses will be terrible; it’s crucial not to sugar-coat them, despite the very real temptation to do so, or to ignore the immense human tragedy that is an inevitable part of the slow death of any civilization.

Fourth, the harsh dimensions of the future can be mitigated, and the positive aspects fostered, by preparations and actions that are well within the reach of individuals, families, and communities. Not all declines and falls are created equal; in many failed civilizations of the past, a relatively small number of people willing to commit themselves to constructive action have made a huge difference in the outcome, and not only in the short term. The same option is wide open today; the one question is whether there will be those willing to take up the challenge.

Fifth, we can only guess at many of the details of the future ahead of us. Drawing up detailed plans for the future may be a source of comfort in the face of a relentlessly unpredictable future, but that same unpredictability makes any plan, no matter how clever or popular, a dubious source of guidance at best. Nor is consensus a useful guide; one further lesson of history is that in every age, the consensus view of the future is consistently wrong. Instead, the deliberate cultivation of diverse and even conflicting approaches by groups and individuals maximizes the likelihood that the broadest possible toolkit will reach the waiting hands of the future.

These points, and especially the last, make it a waste of time to offer some fixed list of steps that those who want to change their lives ought to do. (In fact, making or following such a list is one thing that those who want to change their lives may well find it better not to do.) What’s needed is not a list but a template for taking those first basic steps. Any template will do, but the one suggested here is likely as good as any.

It’s simple enough, really: learn one thing, give up one thing, save one thing.

Learn one thing. One of the greatest challenges we face collectively just now is that the skills relevant to the abstract global economy of paper wealth that has dominated the last few decades, which are also the skills that most of us have accordingly learned, will rapidly become useless in the far less abstract economy of the fairly near future. Our capacity to farm out the production of necessary goods and services to sweatshop laborers on distant continents is in the beginning stages of a drastic decline, while many of the job categories that have kept people in the industrial world employed are in the process of going away.

This does not mean that each of us will have to provide all of life’s necessities for ourselves on an individual basis. It does mean that each of us who can provide one of life’s necessities for ourselves, our family, our neighbors, and our community will have a highly marketable skill in the local economies of the deindustrializing future. Getting some such skill is thus the first critical step in your personal transition to that future. It probably has to be said that this doesn’t mean reading a few books on such a skill; it means providing yourself with tools and materials and getting to work here and now, growing vegetables, making soap, raising chickens, brewing beer, or doing whatever else it is that you decide to learn how to do, until you can do it well enough, and reliably enough, that your neighbors are willing to barter whatever it is that they know how to do for a share of your produce. Whatever you learn, learn it inside and out; in ten years you may be depending on your knowledge for survival.

Give up one thing. Unless you’re a rare bird indeed, many of the things that make up your lifestyle right now are only there because a baroquely complex industrial system fueled with unimaginable amounts of nonrenewable energy makes them available to you. Unless you can come up with alternative sources that lack that dependence, all of them will go away at some point in the future. Choose one of those things, get rid of it now, and make the necessary changes in the rest of your life so that you can function gracefully without it.

It can certainly be something big – I know a growing number of people who have gotten rid of their cars, for example – but it doesn’t have to be. Whatever the scale, though, choose something that will take some effort and planning to give up, but also something with an immediate payback – if you give up your car, for example, you’ll have to make other arrangements for transportation, but you’ll also find yourself with hundreds of unspent dollars each month from the payments you don’t have to make, the gas you don’t have to buy, and so on. Choose it, give it up, and don’t look back; every dependence on the industrial system you can abandon is a vulnerability you won’t have as that system comes apart at the seams.

Save one thing. One of the common consequences of the fall of civilizations is that cultures get shredded, and many things of value that aren’t needed for immediate survival get lost. Arts, crafts, music, literature, sciences, technologies, religious and philosophical traditions – none of them are invulnerable. When they make it through the dark age that follows the breakdown of a civilization, nearly always it’s because someone cared enough to keep them going as living traditions. Between the immense cultural legacies of our present civilization, and the extreme vulnerability of most of those legacies to the effects of decline and fall, such people will be desperately needed in the years to come.

Choosing what you will save is easier than it might seem. Sort through the cultural legacies that matter to you, then, until you can find something that satisfies two criteria: first, the idea that people in the future might have to do without it forever should be intolerable to you; second, you should be willing and able to do something significant to keep that from happening. What you do will depend on what you’re trying to save; the steps you’ll need to take to help keep amateur radio going will not be the same as those you’ll need to help preserve the Appalachian dulcimer and its distinctive music for the long term, and vice versa. Make your choice, and be ready to share what you’re doing with others who share your passion.

These are first steps, of course, and for some people they will doubtless be baby steps, though it’s by no means a given that they will always be. Any one of them done thoroughly will give you a significant advantage in facing the difficult future ahead of us. Other changes will follow in their own time, chosen willingly or imposed by events; the sooner you begin to deal with the need to embrace the necessary, to change your life, the less overwhelming the changes further on are likely to be. As another German poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, said: “Whatever you can do, or believe you can, begin it. Boldness has genius and power and magic in it. Begin it now.”


Mat F said...

Translation Remark:

Dear John,

there's a minor spelling error in the Rilke citation, it should read "Du mußt dein Leben ändern" or without umlauts "Du musst dein Leben aendern"
Thanks for your very insightful and thought provoking columns - they are a highlight of my week!

Matthias, Trier, Germany

jonathanb said...

John, thank you for another excellent post and great advice.

Nnonnth said...

in many failed civilizations of the past, a relatively small number of people willing to commit themselves to constructive action have made a huge difference in the outcome, and not only in the short term.

Where could I find out more about such people?

Personally I would hope there'll be more about actions to take in future posts; I've done these three long ago but I am sure that more could be generally advised. Also one could keep repeating these steps.

Small mistake in 5th para -- "their following the familiar trajectory of decline and fall" should be 'they're'.

GliderGuider said...


One of your primary tenets, as I understand it, is summarized in this article as "the fall of civilizations is a slow, uneven process." The fact that it will be uneven implies that the fall will inevitably be slow in some areas while potentially being very fast others. In the same sentence you characterize "the fall" itself as slow. Your use of the singular in this assessment indicates to me that you may be falling victim to the same tendency to psychologically over-aggregate the situation that you see (and rightfully decry) in the apocalyptics. “The fall of civilization” simply cannot be viewed or addressed as a monolithic event, whether it is described as fast or slow. Some parts will be apocalyptic, others will be relatively benign. It will be what it will be – predicting that it will be slow is as much a statement of faith as saying it will be fast.

Later on, you say, "the skills relevant to the abstract global economy of paper wealth that has dominated the last few decades, which are also the skills that most of us have accordingly learned, will rapidly become useless in the far less abstract economy of the fairly near future." This statement seems to stand at odds with your gradualist perspective (again, as I understand it). If my skills – along with those of a significant fraction of my compatriots – suddenly become useless, the effect from my perspective is exactly the same as a sudden collapse of civilization. Everything out at least as far as my national horizon will change – the fact that my economy was abstract does not make it any less real if its demise means I can’t eat.

If a significant fraction of the modern world is thus affected, I maintain that the collapse of “civilization” can legitimately be called rapid. If the relative stability of some of the less-developed parts of the world is a factor in your calling the aggregate collapse “slow”, I have to question the underlying definition of civilization.

I don't argue with the notion that individuals can make great contributions to local mitigation, or with the idea that all essential change will spring from the grass roots. I also agree that human happiness will continue, just as it existed for hundreds of thousands of years before the automobile and the plasma television.

Because of the inherent unpredictability of the future that you highlight, I feel that the best solution space is one that will work reasonably well and/or won't hamstring you too much you no matter what happens. Of course it's sensible to reduce our energy requirements and debt exposure, but I've come to believe that the most important thing we can do is to prepare psychologically to handle social turbulence of unpredictable kinds and to integrate ourselves into an altruistic community. One of the keys is to develop our wisdom as distinguished from mere cleverness. In tandem with that, learning to take a clear, realistic, unattached (in the Buddhist sense) view of unfolding events helps to recognize and cope with changes as well as not to succumb to despair.

Thanks for another thought-provoking read.


John Michael Greer said...

Matthias, many thanks! (This is what happens when someone with a reading knowledge of German that's shaky at best tries to recall a quote from memory.) Duly fixed.

Jonathan, many thanks.

Nnonnth, I've actually talked about them at some length here already -- think Christian monks and nuns in the last round of Dark Ages in the West, for example. Thanks also for catching the typo; duly fixed.

Bodhisantra, the point you're missing is that the sudden crises and downward lurches that punctuate the curve of decline in all historical examples are partial, limited, and susceptible to crisis management. Economies routinely go to bits without people starving en masse -- do you recall the collapse of the Soviet Union, for instance? The insistence that any disruption of business as usual amounts to total collapse is one of the ways that apocalyptic fantasies sneak into our perceptions of the future.

As for psychological preparation and a congenial community, those are valid concerns, but they won't take the place of the practical skills you'll need to earn a living in a deindustrializing world. One of the drawbacks of the fast collapse fantasy is that it feeds the dream of stepping overnight into a different world -- and what we're facing is much more of a long slog.

GliderGuider said...


I'm by no means an apocalyptic. I used to be, but that was then. While I no longer believe in monolithic, amorphous, apocalyptic collapse, I don't think that a vision of decline that is "partial, limited, and susceptible to crisis management" is terribly helpful either. The situations in Norway and Namibia are likely to be sufficiently different that one may experience a catastrophic collapse while the other experiences more manageable effects. Which will be which is virtually impossible to predict from here, however.

While picking up practical skills may be useful, the vagaries of the future make it entirely possible that the skills one picks up won't be the ones that are needed. That's why I prefer cultivating wisdom and clarity as a primary endeavour. That always helps no matter what the circumstances, and makes it more likely that the things you decide to do will actually help. After all, if it will be a long slog we'll have plenty of time to pick up the needed skills, so long as we can tell what they are. Right?

Seaweed Shark said...

Yesterday I was reading somewhere, another article by one of the famous American green economy warriors (a name we all have heard), saying once again that with enough solar cells and lithium-powered cars we can have energy independence and a new booming economy. And I thought, "Oh, the Archdruid would shake his head over that." Uh-oh, am I becoming one of your groupies?

in_the_light said...

While typing in the address for your website today, I made a typo and swithed the "s" and "p" in blogspot.

Who would have thought there would be a fully functional christian fundamentalist website one keystroke away from yours.

Try it. So odd.

Thanks for another great post.


Glenn said...

A nice challenge. The hardest of course, is figuring out what to give up. My coffee ritual? It involves driving 2 miles to the local store/post office/community center. I always rationalize driving vs cycling due to "time constraints." I could make coffee at home; as I said, it's a ritual, and a chance to socialize with fellow islanders.
OTOH, finished double digging the first of the two 4' X 20' beds we add to the garden each year. Not so bad, I dig, my wife picks the rocks as we go. It's fluffing the top layer with a fork to mix in compost and manure on the new bed _and_ the other nine (09) that really tweaks my back. But she's introduced me to home grown organic vegetables, and I won't give that up.


julien said...

Dear John Michael Greer,

Thanks for your thought-provoking essay.

My personal favorite part is your idea of learning a skill. One thing I am unclear about- does this mean a skill which would be useful and root-providing in one's current environment, such as becoming an electrician or a tax accountant? Or a skill that may be more of a fancy in the present- like making barrels or being a blacksmith-- but that could prove useful in a possible future environment? And if it is the latter, what are the skills that would be useful in the future? I have no idea, since I have no idea what the future is supposed to look like. Last thing I heard we were supposed to be living on spaceships and eating invisible food. But I'm pretty sure that's not what you're talking about. So should we choose a skill that would have been useful in Colonial Williamsburg? Is that closer to what you mean?

Oh, and one more question: does the skill idea include non-essential skills, like making wigs and illuminating manuscripts? Or are you recommending more basic skills, like building teepees?

Thank you for helping the slow people!

Sincerely, Julien Aklei

Conchscooter said...

I like the idea of planning for the decline and fall, but I find the possible permutations exceed my ability to imagine them all. It seems enough, and a great deal at that, to figure how simply to live, never mind make barrels or illuminate manuscripts as all around me come to the realisiation I have been nurturing lo these many months or years, that Change is upon us. I think of all those survivialists hunkering down in ghastly isolation in Montana this past decade or more, while we all lived merrily away basking in the light of civilization. Now I have to become a bee keeper? Or a keeper of the culture? Don't underestimate the intimate misery of the average Russian during their prior years of meltdown. I worry more about that, than if The OED survives.

tristan said...

This ones a keeper.

Learn one thing, give up one thing, save on thing.

I think I'll have that emblazoned on something.


gaiasdaughter said...

Thanks, I needed that! Instead of trying to learn to make baskets, cheese, soap, quilts, wine and candles just-in-case, maybe I should slow down and learn to do one of those really well (okay, maybe two -- I'm still a bit hyper). And hang my clothes to dry, but keep my car (for now). And add to my library of really good books for kids -- books like Tom Sawyer and Little House on the Prairie.

Best advice I've come across yet. Thanks, JMG!

Red Neck Girl said...

As I understand JMG, you mean 'portable skills.' LOL! One skill that would work in any large town would be poker dealer!

When your interests lie in animal husbandry the skills I'm inclined to learn would be leather working, making and braiding rawhide. Right now an expert leather worker can make a minimum of several hundred dollars on a well made rawhide bridle and reins using no metal but the bit, or just a braided nose band, (Hackamore in Amercun), often used in training horses. Hides can be gotten at a local rendering plant and making raw hide is pretty simple (although I haven't done it yet. No place to stretch a hide in an apartment).

Spinning, weaving, knitting, crochet and felting would be other basic skills to learn. JMG, there's a woman in your neck of the woods that had (perhaps still does), a herd of Soay sheep. They have amazingly soft wool, they're easy keepers since they like brambles, while requiring no shearing, (think of the phrase 'wool gathering') and are currently considered a gourmet meat in upscale restaurants.

There is currently a quiet movement with it's own magazine called Hobby Farm, that does a lot of articles on Heritage breeds of livestock. Devon cows for example are versatile, providing milk, meat and oxen to use for draft animals, Bullwacking being an old skill once practiced in my family a hundred years back. There are still individuals that log with oxen in ecologically sensitive areas as my G'grandfather did.

One skill that would be very handy would be glass blowing. It's an excellent hobby, both a skill and an art that would be highly useful, as well as pottery. Some of the most expensive pottery around is made by a Hopi family using traditional methods, from gathering clay to firing the pots in the open.

A book on old skills that skims the basics on many would be _Forgotten Arts and Crafts_ by, I believe, John Seymour. I've lost my copy but I've seen several on e-bay! Don't buy them all up before I can afford to replace my copy please! LOL!

Dwig said...

I like your three "things". I'd like to complement them with something I came up with a while back, as a reaction to some of the doomers on The Oil Drum:
There's a lot of "survivalists" writing on the web to describe what they're doing to survive, and/or offering advice. Most of them focus on individual actions, and don't say much about what they mean by "survival". Therefore, I propose the "zeroth rule of survival": be clear about what you're trying to survive (i.e., what events and situations do you anticipate), and for how long. For example, the strategy for surviving "holed up" for a few months up to a few years to ride out an acute but passing crisis, will be very different from that for surviving a drastic and persistent change for at least one lifetime, maybe for generations.

I have nothing to say here about the former kind of survival. In what follows I'll propose rules for survival of the latter kind.

Rule 1: Don't try to go it alone, or even with a small group of family and/or friends. You need enough people to create a society.

Rule 2: Social cohesion is a crucial factor for success; put differently, you need to create a true community (or leverage an existing one). {Include description and characterization of community}

Rule 3 (law of requisite variety): You'll need a variety of roles, skills, viewpoints, and personality types. It's true of communities as well as biomes: a rich web of relationships among diverse entities is more survivable than a sparse one or a “monoculture”.

Rule 4: No matter how well you plan for your future, you're going to be surprised. Build a capacity for continuous learning into the community (in Peter Senge's terms, become a learning organization)

Rule 5: In particular, learn to see whole systems, and to understand/perceive cross-time trends, relationships, etc. As an example of the latter, understand the interplay between normal change and revolutionary change; learn to be good at both.

Rule 6: As for individuals, so for communities: don't try to go it alone -- form communities of communities within your region.

Rule 7: In particular, you need enough people within the region to provide a viable breeding population, and to avoid genetic stagnation. Exogamy is good for the genes and, by enriching the web of relationships, for the society.

Rule 8: Aim to thrive, not just eke out a survival. Pessimism and despair have negative survival value. Consider yourselves not refugees from a doomed civilization, but founders of a new one.

Rule 9: That said, allow yourselves occasional time to grieve, to mourn, to remember, and to honor those lost. This will keep them from becoming “elephants in the room”, an unspoken burden on your spirits.

Rule 10: Develop an understanding and acceptance of the role of death in life. {Need more on this}
(From “Western civilization is the negation of biological reality; and unavoidably, since life and death are inextricable, the denial of death comes finally to be a denial of life... There is terrible irony in this, for whereas awareness of death generates firm care for life, death-denial ends in a fury of destruction.”)


I use the word "rule" with considerable trepidation -- I have no authority to make rules, just to offer what seem to me to be salient points. If you prefer something like "tentative suggestion", please read the above that way. {The stuff in curly braces are notes to myself -- I chose to leave them in.}

I'm certainly not the only person to propose community as an important, even crucial factor for long-term survival --- it's a theme that has arisen in many places; however, I haven't seen this kind of focus on the nature of and requirements for a strong community.

This list is definitely not comprehensive; there are certainly other "rules" of this kind that are as important as these. On the other hand, I do think that all of these are necessary elements to have a chance for long-term survival.

One other suggestion: look for people who are already in the process of adapting, in various ways. You'll find various of them on the net; here's a few examples:
- Sharon Astyk, Aaron Newton: both have blogs, and have written books together. They're deep into food self-sufficiency.
- Lyle Estill ( taking a step-by-step approach to biofuels and community. His blog is conversational, personal, and pragmatic.
- Michael Shuman: an economist, more into civilization repair than adapting to its decline. He's a major force behind relocalization of economies (and if a society is to emerge and survive, it'll need an economy of some sort).
- Look at earlier posts on this blog, where JMG and others wrote on a variety of skills/techniques/etc. that will likely be useful in most scenarios. (I've captured some of those comments, and still intend to organize them a bit and post them somewhere Real Soon Now.)

Kiashu said...

Julien, for skills my own view is to treat them the same as other adjustments we might make, based on Pat Meadow's and Sharon Astyk's Theory of Anyway.

" Living more simply, more frugally, using less, leaving reserves for others, reconnecting with our food and our community, these are things we should be doing because they are the right thing to do on many levels."

Put another way, the things we as individuals, households and communities can do to mitigate climate change, resource depletion and so on - as opposed to things like electric cars or huge solar farms which only corporations and governments can do - most of these are good things to do anyway.

If the Earth had a creamy nougat center of oil and burning coal gave us vitamin C, it would still be good for us to use less electricity, walk rather than drive, plant trees, grow an extra row of vegetables to give to the poor or friendly neighbours - because these are all things which improve the health of our pocketbooks, bodies, minds, and communities.

So I'd look at the skills in the same way. Develop a skill which will make your life and those of others more pleasant even if we were to change to limitless growth without consequence tomorrow.

These are mostly practical skills like growing and preserving food, making and repairing clothes, and so on. Crafts. Rolled in with them are a few more "service"-oriented skills like massages, teaching and so on. These are good and useful skills whatever happens to the world's resources, environment and economy.

Things like wig-making and manuscript illumination seem to me to be more in the "save one thing" category.

But of course there's a lot of overlap, and since we can't predict exactly how any collapse will turn out, we likewise can't predict exactly which skill will be useful, and which simply nice to have.

Anyway - the Theory of Anyway. It's a powerful approach.

John Michael Greer said...

Bodhisantra, I've noticed that arguments for fast collapse almost always turn out to be arguments for continuing one's current lifestyle, as yours is -- I presume, after all, that you would be seeking wisdom even if Western civilization wasn't coming to an end. As for your final question, how long would it take you to get to professional levels of skill in a subsistence craft? (Hint: long enough that you'll still be learning quite a few years from now...)

Shark, I hope not! But I'd heard the same utterance, and yes, it's absurd.

Mat, many thanks for the tip!

Glenn, try working in the compost with a rake -- my back finds that less of a challenge.

Julien, you might want to reread the post. The first part isn't simply learning a skill; it's learning a skill that will provide you and your neighbors with the necessities of life, if it comes to that. Being a tax accountant doesn't qualify; I'm talking about growing, preparing, and preserving food, making clothing and other necessary fiber goods, and providing such other basic requirements as soap. (Yes, I mentioned beer -- for some of us, that's a basic requirement.)

As for the less immediately useful skills, those go in the third category, the things you want to save. Don't try to do too many at once -- you'll have your work cut out for you with one.

Shooter, the point of the third suggestion is that you should save for the future things that you feel are meaningful and important. If the OED isn't on that list, find something else. If nothing's on that list, well, I'm glad my life isn't that impoverished.

Tristan, thank you! By all means emblazon it -- but while you're at it, pick your three things and get going.

Gaia's Daughter, the old proverb "jack of all trades, master of none" is worth remembering. By all means get a basic grasp of as many skills as interest you, but focus on getting to a professional level of skill in at least one.

Girl, absolutely any book by John Seymour is worth having. Thanks also for your other suggestions -- all good stuff. (My spouse spins, weaves, knits and crochets, and I'm wearing a vest she crocheted right now, so to some extent you're preaching to the choir.)

Dwig and Kiashu, thanks for your suggestions -- all good stuff.

Librarian of Hillman said...

at the risk of upsetting any vegetarians (and i do apologize for that,) i'd say this is one skill that will keep you in work in many places, right now, as well as during any future hops down the industrial ladder:

Meet John Taylor, or "One Shot Johnny," as his customers call him. His business card offers just "JT's Custom Slaughtering" and his cell phone number, along with clip art of a cow, pig, sheep, and lamb. But then, he doesn't really need a card. Just about everyone in California north of San Francisco who raises animals for meat knows the tall "ranch butcher" with the bristly mustache and straight-arrow demeanor of a frontier sheriff. Now 43, he began sweeping floors in his family's butcher shop (since sold) in third grade, and started helping his uncle in the pasture not long after. "I was doomed—I knew this was what I was meant to do," he says.


So into the breach steps One Shot Johnny. Booked solid six days a week, he hasn't taken a sick day in more than seven years, since he impaled his hand skinning a lamb. Small farms in Northern California are raising ever more animals, but all the area's ranch butchers have retired; Taylor recently trained one other man, but he kills only a few days a week for a small number of clients. "Sure, my back hurts a lot," Taylor says. "But what am I going to do, cancel on people? This is their livelihood at stake."

i can personally attest that crochet is darn useful, and very easy at the beginning level to pick up. you can find directions online for how to apply it to projects as diverse as making old plastic grocery bags into shoes, old clothes into blankets, you name it.

probably any skill that involves turning "trash" into something useful again, would be a good one. lots of people essentially do that now as a craft or hobby and don't even see it that way.

i bet composting or any kind of soil rehab will someday be another "growth industry"!

lots to choose from!

Glenn said...


Thanks, final raking of the beds into the pretty "finished" shape, is my favorite part of the process. The forking, especially of the old beds, is to fluff up the soil, loosen and aerate it, as well as to mix in the new organic material, not to mention additives like sand or lime.


Dale said...

Oh, how wonderful! What I like most is your insistence that civilizations go to pieces all the time. We have models for this process.

As an erstwhile medievalist, the collapse I know best is the fall of the Roman Empire, which to my mind was a fall in many ways devoutly to be wished. It was also (we can see now) the fall of European slavery, a crucial step in seeing women as human beings -- the Germanic tribes were always much better about that than the classical civilizations -- and set the stage for democracy-without-slavery, something that classical civilization was *never* going to achieve. A lot of war and trouble, too. But there was a lot of war and trouble in the heyday of Rome, too.

MarcosLagoSalado said...

In addition to John Seymour's great books I have found VERY helpful Eliot Coleman's books on gardening in 4 seasons--adapt to your area!--also his tool recommends such as the stirrup hoe

Karel said...

Dear John Michael Greer,

many thanks for excellent post.

I`m semi-regular translator of your posts into Czech language; please, may I ask You some - surely little bit strange - question?

Do You can give some advice to me, how to deal with aggressive anxiety of peak oil-denialists reading Your posts in open, but mostly mainstream, independent internet daily? Some of those people here in the Czech Republic are trying to persuade my editor-in-chief that You are some kind of ...very strange person blending taichi, kabbalah, and New Age; their families, reading JMG posts, reportedly suffer from insomnia etc. :)


Karel, Prague, Czech Republic

nutty professor said...


I like the idea of guilds, societies and "families" as places where these skills are learned and passed down...but with greater expertise and intentionality than we see today. Something worth pursuing, and personally and culturally meaningful as well.

Like the other guy said, this week's post is a keeper!

wylde otse said...

[ is the " is " referring to "the fantasy", or "societies" ...society perhaps? I leave in my own typo's but not thinking of putting my blog in book form. One thing you should get is free proof-reading;o]

oh, don't print this.

wylde otse said...

Great suggestions here! Red Neck Girl, and Dwig top up the list. Plus the others!

Megan said...

As often happens, someone else has already said what is on my mind, and said it better.

"The best thing for being sad," replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, "is to learn something. That's the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.”
--T. H. White, The Sword in the Stone

ezab said...

I’ve been looking for a way to introduce my friends and family to JMG’s work; I think I’ll start by sending them a link to this week’s column.

By the way, this morning NPR played a “This I Believe” essay that fits so well with JMG’s thinking, it’s uncanny. For anyone who’d like to listen to it, or read a summary, click on this link:

To Karel: I’ve learned a great deal over the past few months from JMG (and also from a website that specializes in financial bubbles, called I think absorbing this difficult information can be a real challenge... it has been for me. We all do need enough sleep, we must carry out our daytime responsibilities, even while we’re adjusting to a future that isn’t what we expected. If someone says, ‘I don’t want to read this, it keeps me up at night’ ... well, I understand how they feel!

I feel an obligation to share this information with my friends and family. I try to put it gently. I might say: “these views of the future may or may not turn out to be correct... but it’s a good idea to explore this information. Absorb these new ideas in small doses, but do give them a try-out.”

Karel, if you will post your snail mail address, I’ll send you a letter in support of JMG’s work, including my professional credentials... a letter you could show your editor. It might be helpful.

Sandra said...

In all of the discussion about useful skills for a more simple future nobody mentioned shoemaking. Someone who takes the time to learn the skills for making and repairing real shoes and boots and acquires the necessary equipment to do so would be a major asset to any community.

With apologies to the Librarian of Hillman, living in the rocky Ozarks inclines me to prefer a wellmade pair of leather shoes to shoes crocheted from plastic sacks...and plastic sacks may become pretty scarce as the petroleum runs out, while animal hides will still be available.

das monde said...

What about organizing some preservation efforts collectively from now? Dwig's rules suggest that skills of collective organization (or self-governing) will be important anyway.

Starting from about now, certain collective effort of preserving information and technology would be most effective to prepare the coming Dark Ages less boring and more democratic. How many people could be found for this kind of club? For example, you can hardly preserve a minimal electricity infrastructure alone. To save some electric tools, a good idea of feasible energy output and infrastructure is needed.

One thing that is worth preserving is measurement instruments (or methods of various measurements), that would be indispensable to post-collapse "engineers". Even preservation of clocks and various meters is not a trivial problem. Then we have voltmeters and similar testers (to have a better chance to keep electric toys running), thermometers and barometers (to possibly make future climatologists ecstatic)...

Dwig said...

Another link: I don't know why The Whole Earth Catalog didn't occur to me before; it was a marvelous compendium of wisdom and folly from the 1960's "back to the land" movement. Turns out someone has started to digitize it:

Also, for those not familiar with the Transition Towns movement, it's worth learning about; see and Rob Hopkins' Transition Towns Handbook. (Also see JMG's recent post on the subject for a useful caveat and interchange with Hopkins in the comments section.)

By the way, here's an exercise for someone who's footloose and of a mind to investigate possibilities: find and visit as many of the old communes or other intentional communities as possible, recording their stories, lessons learned, things given up, things saved, ... It'd also be useful to contact "alumni" of failed communities, again to learn of the factors in their demise. (It's not just whole civilizations that collapse...)

This is a fantasy I've toyed with for some time now, but given my strong involvement as a son (and mother's caretaker), sibling, father, and grandfather,I'm pretty much "committed to place" right now. One reason for the fantasy is to ground the work I've begun at

One other comment: a while back, JMG presented a couple of excellent posts describing ecological succession and relating it to the likely course of our declining civilization. I'd like to see that line of thought used more explicitly in this discussion of what to give up, learn, save, etc. For example, we're quite likely entering the first post-growth sere, which will likely last for at least a few decades. In this sere, we'll have most of the stuff we see around us available, either in operational shape or salvageable for new uses. We should try to make the most of it, to give us time to learn the lessons we'll need for the next, lower energy (and possibly climate-challenged) sere. (For example, I suspect that much of the Internet will be available, in some form, during this time, and should be leveraged as much as possible.) I think it'd definitely be worth keeping the succession concept in mind as a framework for prioritizing and ordering one's efforts.

Karel said...

To Ezab: Many thanks. For me personally, there is nothing like unexepected future - this future is what I expected at least from 1999 - but many people around me are still in denial, looking first how to keep their mind and daily routine without significant change, how to denigrate uncomfortable speaker, how to disrate inconvenient ideas. I really think it`s not cognitive problem anymore. It`s problem of belief in industrial miracle and of deprivation of its object. Those aggressive people even don`t started to mourn for their miracle. For them, I`m criminal, a thief trying to steal their hopes by translating JMG posts.

Yes, may be there is some kind of obligation to share bitter truth, but...

I`m sorry and many thanks, but I`m not sure that it`s good idea to post my adress here so openly.

To das monde: In my opinion (as I`m resident of birthplace of R. M. Rilke), first of all, we have to rescue self-preservation from its role of blind conformity agent. This is THE skill nearly lost in my country.

anagnosto said...

In my plan I put something previous to learn a new skill, and that is form part of a community. In my case that is a reenactment medieval group (some 16 now, not in SCA, but similar). They still do not know that the trades they are learning could be useful sometime ahead. Working social interrelations can require as much time as learning the skill. And this has the advantage that a skill which is seldom needed for an individual, like herbalism, will be kept by the group as a potential asset.

The other way around could be also workable, as a profficient useful worker will be acepted in any community... unless there is an inflation of leather workers or more soap makers than oil.

Eremon UiCobhthaigh said...

Librarian of Hillman,
In regards to one-shot Johnny, we have the same problem here in southern Arizona. There are only one or two practicing butchers, outside of supermarkets, who are able to service the local ranchers. The small family local beef producers (we have a handful of organic growers here) either send their cattle out for processing (non-local) or they have it done at the one local organic producer who has their own small slaughterhouse and cold storage. The last old time ranch butchers have retired in the last 10 years and there's really no one around willing to take on the job.

Edde said...


Sandra is right - comfy shoes are essential. We can walk barefoot but some terrain is too tough on feet.

JMG, it'd be helpful to continue your technology triage. What technologies will translate in an energy constrained future.

Bike technology - will we continue to make steel, draw tubes, cast lugs? Aluminum? Gas weld? Solder?
Bike tires can be hand made if materials are available - will they be? Bamboo bikes?

I salvage cromo bike frames and resurrect them as time permits. This is as close as I get to spiritual activity;-)

Another good post!


Roboslob said...

SurvitalTemporary Eternity
False Security
Thin Out but Don't Vacate

Fully Fill
Crash Ahead
Whistle While you Wait

...a poem i wrote recently that i think relates. to me, the last line speaks of not knowing the future (and it was not meant to advise unpreparedness).

Red Neck Girl said...

Two sources of information that might come in handy in choosing and learning new skills is Edward R. Hamilton Bookseller company. They have both a catalog and a website The last catalog I got from them had books on herbalism and one on making paper out of many different materials like grass.

Another catalog to mine for information is from Lindsay Publications Inc., the website is It is full of technical books from turn of the century England to the 1940's manuels on working metals. Pay attention to the Build A Machine Shop from Scrap series. Individually none of the books are over ten dollars but you can buy the set of seven for $59.95. If you have to scavange any metals this will tell you how to melt and pour as well as books on mold making. I even saw a series of books in there once on watch making, (the wind up kind) and the making and using of the tools needed.

The Lindsay catalog leans heavily toward metal working and the home shop, isn't that what would be needed to convert scavanged metal for other uses?

There are other books as well that would translate well into the evaporation of our oil based economy such as distilling for fuel and consumption, building with stone, blacksmithing, preserving meat, fish and game without a freezer, cheese making and even a book on windmills and motors.

Good sources to mine for ideas of what to preserve and practice for the future.

Roboslob said...


Not to be vain, but my poem got messed up during posting! I'm wondering if you can do me a favor by putting a blank line just after Survital (the title). It will help to clarify. Thanks for your help, and your writing!

tony said...

I just wanted to say that the last citation isn't by Goethe but by William Hutchinson Murray from his 1951 book The Scottish Himalayan Expedition (see
Interesting post by the way.