Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Economics of Decline

I opened last week’s post by pointing out that many people nowadays fail to grasp some of the most basic realities facing us as the industrial age comes to an end. That turned out to be a rich irony, for a great many of the comments I received in response to the post displayed a blind spot even bigger than the one I attempted to address. It’s a convenient irony, though, as it offers a useful way to start talking about an underexplored dimension of the predicament of our time.

The post in question pointed out that today’s much-hyped "information superhighway," far from being the wave of the future so many of its promoters claim it to be, was a temporary product of the last hurrah of the age of cheap energy and can't be expected to survive for long as that age winds down. Instead, as the economic burden of the internet's immense energy usage begins to bear down, other technologies less dependent on huge energy inputs will become more economical, driving a spiral in which rising costs and restricted access will cut into internet service while simpler technologies absorb a growing range of its current economic roles. Finally, when economic contraction and social disintegration have proceeded far enough, the internet will simply drop out of use altogether because the economic basis for its operation will have gone away.

Most of those who objected to this sketch of the future, in turn, relied on a very curious logic. The internet will remain viable and widely accessible, they claimed, because the economic advantages of keeping it are so great. Those few who addressed the issue of costs at all simply insisted that technological progress would allow the internet to use less power than it does at present, and left it at that. The same arguments, interestingly enough, were deployed in earlier discussions about railroad technology: most critics simply insisted that railroads were efficient and economically advantageous, while a few suggested that they could be run more efficiently than they are now.

All this is true, but it misses the central issue I've tried to raise in the last few posts – the impact of energy and resource scarcity on the relative costs and benefits of different technologies – and it also dismisses the even broader issue of whether such energy-intensive technologies are sustainable at all in the future ahead of us. It's a dizzying departure from reason to insist that the advantages conferred by the internet mean that the internet must continue to exist. The fact that something is an advantage does not guarantee that it is possible.

An example from one of the most famous cases of social collapse is relevant here. On Easter Island, as I think most people know by now, the native culture built a thriving society that got most of its food from deepwater fishing, using dugout canoes made from the once-plentiful trees of the island. As the population expanded, however, the demand for food expanded as well, requiring more canoes, along with many other things made of wood. Eventually the result was deforestation so extreme that all the tree species once found on the island went extinct. Without wood for canoes, deepwater food sources were out of reach, and Easter Island's society imploded in a terrible spiral of war, starvation, and cannibalism.

It's easy to see that nothing would have offered as great an economic advantage to the people of Easter Island as a permanent source of trees for deepwater fishing canoes. It's just as easy to see that once deforestation had gone far enough, nothing on Earth could have provided them with that advantage. Well before the final crisis arrived, the people of Easter Island – even if they had grasped the nature of the trap that had closed around them – would have faced a terrible choice: leave the last few big trees standing and starve today, or cut them down to make canoes and starve later on. All the less horrific options had already been foreclosed.

Further back in Easter Island's history, when it might still have been possible to work out a scheme to manage timber production sustainably and produce a steady supply of trees for canoes, this would have required harsh tradeoffs: one additional canoe per year, for example, might have required building or repairing one less house each year. Both the canoe and the house would have yielded significant economic advantage, but it wouldn't have been possible to get both. In a world of limited resources, in other words, it's not enough to insist that a given allocation of resources has economic advantages; you must also show that the same resources would not be better used in some other way or for some other need.

The survival of the internet in an age of dwindling energy supplies is subject to the same hard logic. The internet demands huge inputs of energy and resources. Those were easy to provide during the quarter century from 1980 to 2005, when the price of energy was artificially forced down to the lowest levels in human history, and the same glut of cheap energy made it possible to build and power the internet without impacting other sectors of the economy. As energy becomes scarce and costly in the not too distant future, on the other hand, the demands of the internet will begin to conflict with the demands of other economic sectors. The task of managing those conflicts will likely be the supreme economic challenge of the century ahead of us, not least because we are so utterly unused to thinking in terms of hard tradeoffs; we assume, blindly, that we can have it all.

Now it's true, of course, that the internet could be operated more efficiently than it is today. Efforts to increase efficiency, however, are subject to a law of diminishing returns; a range of limits ultimately rooted in thermodynamic laws put a ceiling on just how efficient any process can get. Such gains also have costs of their own; research and development does not come cheaply these days, nor does the construction and installation of more efficient equipment, and the budget cuts currently sweeping through companies and universities worldwide – themselves the harbingers of much greater cuts to come – do not exactly support the act of faith that claims infinite technological improvement as the answer to this and all other problems.

Nor is it valid to put the possibility of increased efficiency for the internet on one side of the balance and ignore the equivalent possibilities on the other side. After all, other technologies – some of which are already simpler and more efficient than the internet – are just as liable to see gains in efficiency as the internet. Even a more efficient internet is unlikely to be the most economical way to use the sharply constrained energy and resource flows of the deindustrializing future; if another technology or suite of technologies can provide something like the same services at a lower cost, that technology or suite of technologies will outcompete the internet. Thus if it costs less, all things considered, to send messages over shortwave radio, order products by mail from a catalog, and get pornography from a local adult bookstore, than to do the same things over the internet, then the internet will fall by the wayside, or at best will be propped up for noneconomic reasons as long as economic realities make it possible to do so.

It's crucial to remember that the entire supply chain that keeps the internet and its potential competitors running has to be factored into these calculations. It's easy to see the internet as uniquely efficient if all you take into account is the energy going into your home computer, or even if you consider the gigawatts used by server farms. Putting those gigawatts to work, however, requires an electrical grid spanning most of a continent, backed up by the immense inputs of coal and natural gas burnt to put electricity into the wires, and a network of supply chains that stretches from coal mines to power plants to the oil wells that provide diesel fuel for trains and excavation machines; the server farms draw on a vast array of supporting services and manufactures, from the overseas mines that produce rare earths for semiconductor doping through the factories that turn out components to the colleges that turn out trained technicians, and the list goes on.

All told, a fair fraction of the world's industrial economy helps support the internet in one way or another, and many of those support functions can't be done at all in a less centralized way or at a lower level of technology. Most of the potential replacements for the internet don't suffer from that limitation. It's entirely possible to build a shortwave radio by hand, for example, using components that can be built by hand from readily available materials; there are radio amateurs alive today who did precisely that before the postwar electronics boom made manufactured components cheap and easily accessible. In a world where the cost of energy is a major economic burden, these differences will matter, and give a massive economic advantage to less energy-intensive ways of accomplishing things.

One useful way to assess the vulnerability of any current technology in a world on the far side of Hubbert's peak, in fact, is to note the difference between the direct and indirect energy inputs needed to keep it working and the inputs needed for other, potentially competing technologies that can provide some form of the same goods or services. All other factors being equal, a technology that depends on large inputs of energy will be more vulnerable and less economically viable in an age of energy scarcity than a technology that depends on less, and the bigger the disparity in energy use, the greater the economic difference. In turn, communities, businesses, and nations that choose less vulnerable and more economical options will prosper at the expense of those that do not, leading to a generalization of the more economical technology. It really is as simple as that.

You might think that this sort of economic analysis would be an obvious and uncontroversial part of peak oil planning. Of course it's nothing of the kind. Most discussion and planning around the subject of peak oil these days pays no more than lip service to economics, if it deals with that dimension at all, and a great many of the plans being circulated these days look very appealing until you do the math and discover that the most basic questions about resource inputs and economic outputs haven't been addressed.

Now part of this blindness to the economic dimension is hardwired into contemporary culture. It hardly needed the mass exodus into delusion that drove the recent real estate bubble to prove that most people in the industrial world nowadays think that getting something for nothing is a perfectly reasonable expectation. We have lived with such abundance for so long that a great many of us seem to have lost any sense that there are limits we can't borrow or bluster our way around. To a very great extent, indeed, the last three hundred years of economic expansion have been driven by a borrowing binge even more colossal, and ultimately more catastrophic, than the one imploding around us right now. Instead of borrowing from banks, we borrowed from the Earth's stockpile of fossil carbon, and squandered most of our borrowings on vaster equivalents of the salad shooters and granite countertops that absorbed so much fictitious value during the late boom. By the time Nature's collection agencies get through with us, in turn, they may just have repossessed everything we bought with our borrowings – which is to say nearly everything we've built over the last three centuries.

Yet there's another source feeding into this blindness, because the theories of economics that have been used to try to make sense of the flows of natural and manufactured wealth in our societies are hopelessly inadequate to the task. It's difficult to construct a meaningful economic analysis of the future within a paradigm that insists that resources magically appear whenever there's money to pay for them, for example, or claims that damage inflicted by human economic activities on the natural systems that allow our economy to function in the first place are "externalities" that need not be considered in cost-benefit analyses. Current economic theory commits both these howlers, and others as well.

With next week's post, we'll begin a more detailed exploration of what an economic vision relevant to a deindustrializing future might look like. That exploration will start from the work of E.F. Schumacher, who was one of the most thoughtful (and heretical) economists of the last century, as well as an early (and rarely remembered) peak oil theorist. Using his ideas as a springboard, I hope to take today's discourse about the future of industrial society into unexplored territory, and – not incidentally – provide some unexpected but practical tools for coping with the arrival of the deindustrial age.


MawKernewek said...

How much of the energy cost of the internet is fixed, and how much depends on the amount of bandwidth used?

Could we see the end of the era of the multimedia internet, but keep functions like email and instant messaging?

My opinion is that the latter is going to be around for at least as long as the telephone network survives. The former will be killed off as ISPs start charging by bandwidth and rack up charges as energy becomes more expensive.

When this occurs, the number of users crashes, advertising revenue crashes, which it probably has done anyway because of a shrinking economy, and things we have got used to like youtube etc. become unviable.

Or are the fixed costs of maintaining the infrastructure that makes the internet possible at all going to prove uneconomical?

Computers could use a lot less energy if performance was sacrified. Having said that, the R&D that would go into these low energy computers costs money and energy.

I think what will eventually kill off the internet is the demise of the microprocessor. The microprocesser after all requires a great centralised factory and cannot be made by someone in their garage in a more decentralised economy.

Sololeum said...

JMG you've hit the nail on the head once again - however unwelcome the news is to most.

I've found it well nigh impossible to explain to people that we will be getting poorer - not just materially poorer but good old fashioned dirt poorer.

The money economy has blinded almost all to the fact that its energy that allows us to do things and with less energy available people won't be able to do hings or have things and therefore are poor.

May the green man shine...

Erock said...

Whats not taken into consideration is Moore's law. We are the epochal moment where the energy of computer chips can be very minuscule because of how microscopically small they are. Not to mention the Organic computers that are forming that need nothing more than simple organic compounds to make their calculations. Nanotechnology over the next decade will be one of the drivers that push us away from Oil usage all together. If you can print microscopic solar panels with as much efficiency as a regular solar panel you can change the game all together.
Less material,less power, more usage of the sun. Can't go wrong with nanotechnology.

It's not like I have math to put in front of you to compare with your math. It's the fact that I have profound faith in humanities ability to come together under stress and trials to create a way out.

I believe in Peak oil, and know it will cause difficulties but we will come out Ok in the end. We just have to have more faith in humanity, and love one another more.

nutchanoot said...

Thank you John for another insightful post. I read your column every week, but I get the feeling lately that most people simply can't relate to the history lessons you give. Your comparison between today's problems and those faced by the Easter Islander's is prescient, but I still fear it is too removed from life today for most people to grasp. After all, we have technology and they were just primitives. What could we possibly learn from those subcretans? I would like to offer something a little closer to home that might get people to understand the economics of decline.

I am from Thailand, and last year during the runup in commodities an incident occurred that made me understand exactly how vulnerable this infrastructure is, and why it is guaranteed to crumble. An article appeared in the paper where several large electrical transmission towers had collapsed, and investigations revealed that 6 of the 8 large bolts holding up the tower had been stolen for scrap. The transmission line was repaired at a cost of about $300K USD, and redundancy rendered the event unnoticeable to most, but it is a harbinger of things to come.

The bad news is, as the economy fades, the poor and hungry will resort to theft in order to feed themselves, and a good portion of that theft will be from our existing infrastructure. The first reaction will be what we have already seen. The government will pass laws to make scrap recycling more difficult, hopefully pushing these people towards softer targets. But as the crisis gets worse, destruction of infrastructure through theft will return. Markets will arise to work around the laws. More electrical transmission towers will collapse. In the beginning, they will be quickly repaired. As the years go by however, it will take longer and longer to fix. Sometime in the future, the unthinkable will happen. A village will go offline, and stay that way. There won't be sufficient justification to fix the problem. This will become more and more commonplace as theft of vital infrastructure spirals out of control. No country in the world will be immune to this.

There will be attempts to guard vital utilities either with the military or private security firms, but this will cause the price to rise to the point where people can not pay for it anymore. Eventually, this solution will be abandoned for economic reasons, and the electrical grid and utilities will contract to service only the most populated cities where economics makes this infrastructure viable.

The same problem applies to long distance railroads. It is hard to steal a waterway and sell it for scrap, but stealing a few spikes and bolts from the rail lines is relatively easy. Enough people doing this render the railroad useless, and even armed guards can only do so much.

And this is where people seem to miss the point. All of today's communication fiber runs along rights of way for either public utilities or railroads. Once these critical infrastructure components begin to shut down due to rampant theft and vandalism, so do the fiber links that make the internet. Satellite links will keep things functioning for a while, but at extreme cost.

The problem is not that the efficiency of these technologies can not be increased. Of course they can. The problem is that security for these infrastructure components is currently subsidized by the relative prosperity of our society and the narrative of progress that we collectively believe. Security will break down long before any other aspects play a part in our collapse. We allow this infrastructure to continue unmolested because we think it will help us get our share of the economic pie down the road. Once this belief is shattered due to rising prices and events outside of our control, this subsidy will be removed, and the price of basic utilities will rise beyond our ability to pay.

Bill Pulliam said...

Another way that I think about this, which is really just different terminology for the same concepts you have presented, is the economics of affluence. So much of the nature of the Internet right now had been shaped by the forces of affluence. The predominant activities on it are shopping and entertainment, and especially shopping as entertainment. Not long ago, not even two short decades, the internet was not seen as an economic activity at all. When I first got online from a .edu domain, we were all .edu, .mil, or .gov. Dot-com was considered sleazy, low-class, the home of trolls and annoying newbies. In the waves of affluenza that followed it was then transformed into hyper-TV, the greatest commercial mass medium of all time. I think this pretty well tells you what it's fate will be. It is a child of affluence. Affluence will not long survive the post-peak world that an increasing number of mainstream analysts are beginning to accept we have already entered. Ergo the internet as we now know it, child of affluence, affluenza incarnate, will not survive either. You can apply the same test to any other socioeconomic phenomenon or entity. Did it appear as a side effect of affluence, or does it require lots of surplus wealth to maintain it? Then prepare to watch it fade away. Some examples:

Neoconservative Ideology? A gonner. State-supported universal health care (doesn't exist here, of course, but in many other "developed nations")? Forget about it. Home gardening and brewing? Here for the long haul. Small inexpensive fuel-efficient means of transportation? They'll persist for a good while yet. Cell phones? Not a chance. $30,000 hybrid automobiles? Headed for the museum. Museums? Ever changing, but they'll always be with us. Art, literature, theater, music? You betcha. Global mass media? Adios. And so on. It's an easy game, but an illustrative one.

isochroma said...

The cost to run my computer 12 hours per day is only $8.55, including tax. I pay $0.07 CAD per kilowatt-hour, before taxes of 13%.

A lot of other, much more expensive, far more wasteful things (like driving cars, which I never did) are gonna be gone long before I have to give up my computer. And that's assuming I buy electricity. I could power it totally from solar if I wanted to.

Dan said...

Another great post.
I was reminded of an event that a librarian showed a peak oil film in the library of a community college late 2005 it was packed with college students. They were there because three professors gave extra credit for students to attend. One of the professors made a passing comment the world will be more like it was before the industrual revolution. All most every students took issue with that. One in particuler would not accept going back to the 16th centurary. Which wasn't much better then the other small group taking the Matt Savinar approach of doom and gloom run for the hills with your guns. Being new to the ideas of energy decline at the time ( I certainly didn't learn about it in school but reading about it on the Internet). I wasn't sure what to think but I sure was surprised how people believed what they wanted with little more then hand waving

John Michael Greer said...

Maw Kernewek, pur dha! This is exactly the sort of death of a thousand cuts that I expect to see take down the internet.

Sololeum, crisply put. Yes, we're all going to be a lot poorer.

Erock, Moore's law doesn't trump the laws of thermodynamics, and what you call faith in humanity, I call blind acceptance of the religion of progress. A very large number of people are not going to be all right in the years to come.

Nutchanoot, that's an excellent example. For many people, the most economic use for metal objects is as scrap to steal and sell.

Bill, all this can certainly be put in terms of the ideology of affluence. I chose to use other terms because I'm leading in to an extensive discussion of economics.

Isochrona, a simplistic argument like that simply makes you look silly. That $8.55 a day won't do you a bit of good without the gigawatts of power and the huge streams of resources going to the server farms and the rest of the internet.

Dan, "I want it, therefore the universe is obligated to give it to me" seems to be one of the most common forms of illogic in today's world. Unless we stop thinking like spoiled children, this is all going to end much more badly than it has to.

spottedwolf said...

As far as new tech superceding the old dependency...rather reminds me of the 26yr old kid dragging me to see the newest version of Roman civilization....the New Star Wars.
After about 10 minutes of watching for some sort of innovative plot or ideology...I resigned myself to what I expected.. a simple rehashing of the usual humanities...war among the critters with the usual attributes.

medved said...

Unrelated but interesting, this article was just published in NYT:
Well, paradoxical as it looks, this meticulous explanation of our very probable future is actually adding to our happiness and quiet sleep. Great thanks, JM Greer.
I hope that more readers would already understand the necessity of getting The Long Descent book and re-visit the difference between screen gazing and page turning experience.
Having lived part of my live in communist time (Czechoslovakia), I would dare to predict that the future economics (20 years plus) would operate on 2 very distinctive modes:
- Bare necessities (water, food, some energy, one set of clothing for many years, basic DIY tools)
These will be very likely regulated and have limited availability as long as some social order is kept.
- Luxuries. Craved, envied, unregulated, sometimes suppressed and basis for black market.
The point about luxuries is that they are vulnerable, difficult to keep but very rewarding in the long run. Any Cuban owner of vintage car (to cite just one example) knows this.
So I guess the ownership, service and production skills for these luxuries might be important part of future economics and one’s best hopes for relative prosperity (and not least, prestige symbols for next generation). These will have to be the best build available today, serviceable to the level of individual components and bear a relationship to the golden age (when ever this will be thought).
My tips: think of the fifties (USA) or sixties (elsewhere) but take out car related stuff…

Llewellyn said...

Isn't the price of research going to increase dramatically as energy scarcity becomes more apparent?
Easter Island is perfect analogy of where our society is going, except it's fossil fuels is the predominate resource.

MawKernewek said...

I've seen an article online on Kevin Kelly's blog that says the electricity footprint of the Internet is 868 billion kWh per year.

This is broken down as:

Category..US Consumption..World Consumption

(1) Data Centers (includes cooling). 45..112.5

(2) PCs&Monitors..235....588

(3) Modems/routers/etc..67..167

(4) Phone network..0.4..1.0

TOTAL ELECTRICITY DEMAND (1) Data Centers (includes cooling)...45...112.5

(2) PCs&Monitors...235..588

(3) Modems/routers/etc..67..167

(4) Phone network..0.4..1.0


This represents 9.4% of US energy usage and 5.3% of global electricity usage respectively.

I notice that in this analysis the bulk of energy usage comes from PCs and monitors rather than the data centres. This makes sense because although data centres use a lot of electricity they have millions of users each.

A lot can be saved from the figure for PCs, for instance using laptop like chips rather than the more powerful but more power-hungry desktop chips, and switching the computer to standby or off when not in use.

However there are blind spots in this analysis. There is nothing said about the energy cost embodied in the manufacture of a computer.

A simple Google search reveals a figure of 6400MJ and 260kg of fossil fuel for the manufacture of a PC and monitor.

Assuming the computer uses an average of 100W in use, the energy cost of manufacture is equivalent to about 18000 hours of use. If you use your PC 6 hours a day, that's 3000 days use or about 8 years.

So to an order of magnitude the PC uses at least as much energy being made as it does in its lifetime.

I would say we have to double the cost of the internet to account for the energy used to manufacture and maintain the infrasrtucture.

So about 20% of US energy use and 10% worldwide.

Also we have to consider the economics. Microprocessor manufacturing for the masses is dependent on people discarding their computers before they actually reach the end of their lives.

If due to harsher economic circumstances people decide they don't really need a new PC to play the latest games etc., people will use their PCs until they break, fewer people will buy new computers, which will make it harder for microprocessor manufacturers.

They will also be hit by rising costs of inputs which will make microprocessors more expensive.

I assume it would be technically possible for someone to build a PC which although not very fast would still suffice for text based internet, but would use very little energy and last for many years, but there's no economic incentive to do so. Perhaps the government could have a few million of these made for public library terminals.

Kevin said...

What's your prognosis for the future of electronically-based entertainment? The days of web videos and online role-playing games are presumably numbered, and those of game player systems too. It seems as though television may figure a lot less in our lives (and I don't expect to miss it much), but radio might make a big comeback.

But what about movies? I'd hate to have to do without great films. I'm not aware just how much energy their production and display consumes. And what about electronic music? Are you suggesting we're doomed to live in a world without rock and roll? Now that would really scare me.

I'm an artist, and am currently working on a visual storytelling project which could become a video meant for distribution on disk and web, or it could become a storybook or graphic novel. If I want my work to last, do I guess correctly that you'd suggest the print medium?

Maybe I'd better stick with building the pagan temple I've envisaged. It'll be a geodesic, decorated with pantheistic paintings and illuminated by natural light. They're very efficient structures in terms of energy and materials, and I hope there'll be a big demand for them, as I've spent a good deal of time learning how to build them. 'Course they're too weird for most people, but I love them for it.

Matthijs said...

John, this might very well be your best post so far. The reason I say this is because your address concepts called EROEI and Net Energy (which you are probably familiar with).

Energy Returned on Energy Invested is the most important measure of what we can expect will happen in the near future. While we head down Hubbert's curve we have to spend increasing amounts of resources to extract energy from the ground to power our infrastructure and energy industry. As we obtain less and less energy for every unit of energy invested our Net Energy availible to society will reach zero.

What most experts in the peak oil scene assume is that going downhill will be the same as as going uphill. They expect a perfect "bell-shaped curve". However, all the predictions about the future are based on the economic and energy truths from the past. High EROEI and Net Energy.

What I expect is a scenario where we will reach negative EROEI and zero Net Energy somewhere halfway down Hubbert's curve. This will happen because we have high fixed costs in maintaining our current infrastructure. When we spend the resources on the infrastructure that is needed to supply us with these scarce resources we can't spend them on let's say, energy transition.

My point is, the current consensus that sliding down Hubbert's curve will be the same as the climb to the peak misses one major aspect. Economic and energy realities change when the peak is reached. This will probably translate to a situation worse than what we have been expecting to happen.

I'm not sure if you think it is relevant or not, but I would be very interested to hear your view on this concept and it's role in the deindustrialization of society.

Nnonnth said...

It amazes me that some people will post a simplistic rebuttal without even thinking about the main body of the article, and the main point of the whole blog, the result of many years' pondering.

JMG: "I want it, therefore the universe is obligated to give it to me" seems to be one of the most common forms of illogic in today's world.It is. Modern cognitive/rational therapies remove 'neurosis' by subjecting such internal falsehoods to logical refutation, over and over again. One of the three 'basic irrational beliefs' of the neurotic, according to Albert Ellis, is:

"The conditions under which I live absolutely MUST, at practically all times, be favorable, safe, hassle-free, and quickly and easily enjoyable, and if they are not that way it's awful and horrible and I can't bear it. I can't ever enjoy myself at all. My life is impossible and hardly worth living."... and it's worth bearing in mind that therapies which simply refute such beliefs by means of reason are scientifically proven to remove neurosis! These kinds of beliefs actually make people ill, and it's that illness upon which our 'economy' is predicated. I would really look on the 'faith in progress' as a kind of disease therefore.

(And note the simplistic either/or thinking which prevents any medium between paradise and armageddon, very relevant to what Danby was saying.)

It all goes back to Socrates and the Stoics, back when neurosis was called 'pathos', as I'm sure JMG knows, and treated straightforwardly as an illness.

A detour: whilst we do have an internet, UK readers might be interested in a nice radio 4 segment on peak oil from 'You and Yours' -- influential show.

Guests include Heinberg, and also John Hemming, libdem MP. I didn't know it but there is actually an All Party Parliamentary Group on Peak Oil and Gas (with no power or funding of course), and he's on it.

That group's website:

... includes a very good Peak Newsfeed for the UK.

Robert Magill said...

The summation offered by Nuchanoot was a wake up for me because his suggestion of how easily our world can be shut down by desperate folks with monkey wrenches and bolt cutters who are just trying to stay alive was so graphic.

The theory on Easter Island I grew up with was the deforestation was caused by using the big logs as rollers to move the huge stone faces into their final resting places.

Neven said...

Thanks for this post, Mr. Greer. I've been thinking a lot about the Internet lately in a post-collapse situation. I think its existence or lack of existence will make all the difference between a potentially sustainable and healthy society or going back to the middle ages. Internet is a great tool for education, communication and information. If the Internet goes down, then it's bye-bye to all concerted action and power to the people.

Speaking for myself: Internet has done two things for me. It has provided me with information that has blown my mind. I've always been an avid reader and spent much of my time in university reading classic literature - which is always a good start IMO for self-development - but it wasn't until I got my first computer (I never wanted one, preferring Tolstoy, Forster and Huxley ;), but had to because of a new job) that the ball really started rolling. Especially when I started downloading all kinds of documentaries and reading blogs like this one. Without the Internet it would have taken many decades to get to this level of relative insight.

The other thing Internet has given me is an information addiction, which I'm not too happy with. That's the downside.

One of the biggest problems, besides energy of course, with computers is the manufacture of hardware. All of that has moved to Asia. A high level of centralisation is needed of course, but the current situation is extreme.

Combine this with the fact that computer manufacturers try to make you buy new a computer asap, and here's what you get: I currently live in Germany. When I buy a computer it is shipped from China to Germany (sometimes via the USA). When after 3-4 years I need a new computer to be able to play ultrahighqualitydefinition content (they could've stopped after the introduction of DVD as far as I'm concerned) my computer goes through a shredder at the dump. Yes, lots of times computers get shredded completely without taking parts out that still function. They put them in containers and ship them back all the way to Asia, where children can pry out all the precious metals with their little fingers.

I have tried for a while to develop sustainable computers by making them 50%-75% more power efficient compared to standard Dell or HP PCs. I've even designed low power systems in wooden casings to at least eliminate 10 pounds of metal and plastics that has to be shipped from Asia to Europe. This however doubled prices, so almost no one will buy them. A 50 year old carpenter in Europe simply costs 20 times more than a Chinese wage slave.

So coupled to the problem of the energy squandering nature of the Internet, you have this really nasty world of IT manufacturing that is almost impossible to change.

I think the world wide web will disappear eventually, but forms of regional networks will probably keep existing. In this case it could take the place of 'fair or festival' that Jeff Vail mentioned in his Problem of Growth-series. Anyway, in my vision of a sustainable society there has to be some form of independent source of information, communication and education. Without this a society will always fall back to violence, herd mentality, power struggles and unsustainable practices that lead to collapse and natural catastrophes.

I very much look forward to your 'more detailed exploration of what an economic vision relevant to a deindustrializing future might look like.' Without the Internet I wouldn't have been able to read what you write. Thanks again.

Jean-Vivien said...

Hello, another good post JMG. Not new groundbreaking ideas, but instead a refinement and clarifications of your previous ideas... It is important to insist, because the dynamics you are trying to expose go against everything I have known in my young life so far.

Now I have a question : what do you think will happen to amplified music ? I am curious as to what the discoveries made during the 70's with progressive rock, and later metal, might lead to in terms of acoustic music, when most musicians will have reverted to acoustic instruments.

Another question : if you had to recommand a field of studies for a young woman or man about to enter the university, would you rather recommand getting an applied degree in solar energy or radio telecommunications ? Right now are there professional prospects for radio telecom experts ? Is radio something that a lot of people will want to study, just as was the case with IT ?

The question might be irrelevant since many universities will shrink after a while, if not during the current Depression, then during the next... and so will the numbers of people who get a degree.

nutty professor said...


You make economics in the age of decline understandable for some of us, and I thank you for that.

How I enjoy the give and take, the healthy debate that follows in these comments. Imagine what our society would be like if we could have such intelligent, informed conversations all the time, at all levels and in all areas!

For one, I embrace a simpler, though in some ways poorer, yet richer in meaning - and more challenging - future for myself and my children.

Blue Peter said...

I'm sure that you've read it, but this article seemed to me like a stand-out explanation of why things will crash:

The fragility of microprocessors
by Alice Friedemann

"Creating a chip begins by cutting a thin 12 inch slice, called a wafer, from a 99.9999999% pure silicon crystal, one of the purest materials on earth. Wafers require such a high degree of perfection that even a missing atom can cause unwanted current leakage and other problems in manufacturing later on. "

"Microchip fabrication is primarily a chemical process, requiring ultra-clean 99.9999% chemicals and 99.9999999% gases. About one in five steps use water or chemicals to clean the wafers or prepare their surface for the next layer. "

"As global shipping, factories, and countries have a hard time keeping the lights on; computers will stop being made as supply chains break down. If even one of the dozens of types of single-sourced equipment or pure chemical suppliers goes out of business, the assembly line stops."

The only economy that we know that can support such things is ours; it seems to me a very fair bet that when the economy goes, so does the computer,


DIYer said...

This is an topic I've been interested in for some time. The cellphone industry has put a great deal of effort into processor efficiency to extend battery life (not for the good of the earth, for marketing advantage). I am amazed at the power that these small packages contain.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have the server farms:
Although there have been a few "green" players in the server business, the mythology and culture of "bigger" has prevailed until now. The Register sort-of explores some of that culture in this interview:

In principle, I don't see why at least a patchwork of area or regional networks couldn't be kept going with minimal energy (but super high technology) using the power saving technology of the cell phone. The network doesn't absolutely require all the server farms, though they're nice to have for now.

(perhaps we'll have a cottage industry scavenging old cell phones for processors and memory chips for a decade or two)

Nature Creek Farm said...

The very very bottom line is this: Are the actions we take (as a species inseparable from the natural world) going to turn out (measured after our actions take place) to be Net Useful to the world or Net Consumptive?
This is the essence of whether a species survives in any particular place. Humans have pushed the envelope of their environmental niche to the limits of the world without returning anything useful to the world itself(all of our dreams and visions mean nothing to the universe until they have been proven useful or consumptive). Our morality is based on sales pitches to get people to buy 'solutions' from 'on high' rather than to work to improve the low, where all life comes from. Our civilization systems are insane in this respect, and any one technology is irrelevant unless it is considered as part of our future usefulness. It may be too late, as we tend to ignore the actual trends in the data showing up on climate (think Venus, not tropical paradise).
Sentience isn't sacred, hope is not a plan, and panic is not a solution.

Publius said...

I've never commented on your blog before, because I've been intimidated by your brilliance (well, trying to be funny but this is a bit true).

Two things: the level of denial continuing in this nation leads me to believe that some regions (not all, thankfully), will experience some major social disorder and civil unrest. This type of anarchy has occurred in almost all revolutions.

2. I'm trying to put the ideas of one of your previous posts into action: learning something new (and preserving something). I am starting to learn more about electronics, especially vacuum tube equipment, because old-fashioned vacuum tubes, unlike silicon chips, can be created using centuries old glass-blowing techniques and simple wires/electrodes.

Vacuum tubes are still being made in Russian and China, and they will make a comeback here. I intend to be able to make and fix this stuff. And heck, it's fun!

Question: what do you think the chances are of a neo-fascist party taking over the USA at some point before a national government becomes impossible? Might a really brutal fascist state maintain control of the North American continent even deep into peak oil and resource decline? If so, that might make creating thriving local communities very difficult, to say the least.

nutty professor said...

Enjoying this conversation so much that I felt guilty for a moment, in that we are all consuming it via the unsustainable media of the Internet!

Here's a plug for the future use of alternative communications structures for information and entertainment, then: I recently discovered a podcast with the Archdruid as a guest on a call-in radio show; a facilitated conversation that I found as effective and informative as reading this blog.

John Michael Greer said...

Spotted Wolf, Spengler pointed out a long time ago that civilizations turn to rehashing the old when they can no longer come up with anything really new. I think ours is the first, though, to convince itself that its rehashes are cutting edge stuff.

Medved, that's a plausible analysis. I'd especially focus on the skills needed to build and/or repair the luxury goods.

Llewellyn, bingo -- research and development, like everything else, are subject to the laws of diminishing returns; the more you've done, the more it costs you to go the next step.

Maw Kernewek, meur ras for the figures, which are pretty close to the estimates I've seen. I don't think you'll see governments putting money into hypercheap computers, though -- they're going to have many more urgent draws on their funds.

Kevin, put your work online if you like, but make sure it's available in printed form as well. As for other electronic media, well, if it can be done with vacuum tubes it's got a chance at survival. Otherwise, no.

Matthijs, a meaningful response to your question would take a post all by itself. The short form is that on the way down, the collapse of EROEI -- which is a major factor -- is partly offset by the very large amounts of embodied energy available from salvage. More -- quite a bit more -- on this later.

Nnonnth, Albert Ellis! There's a name I haven't heard in too long. His rational-emotive therapy could use a revival.

Robert, there were any number of things contributing to Easter Island's deforestation, big stone heads among them. Jared Diamond has made an excellent case, though, that it was the loss of access to deepwater food sources that caused things to get so bad there.

Neven, for heaven's sake, the internet isn't the only option. Have you forgotten about print media? Not that long ago, my essays would have appeared in a magazine or a weekly, and we'd be having these conversations on the letters to the editor page. The internet displaced a very large and thriving world of magazines, newspapers, newsletters and the like, which can be kept going with very simple technology.

Jean-Vivien, it's anybody's guess whether amplified music will survive; the technology's simple enough -- many amps today use tubes -- but the investment may not be considered worthwhile. As for what I'd recommend for a young person, if they can go to college without going into debt, a degree in agronomy with a focus on organic methods, or an engineering degree in any of a dozen fields, would be good choices; if going into debt is the only option, I'd encourage them to stay away from college and learn one or more useful crafts on their own, or through apprenticeship with an experienced craftsperson.

Professor, you're welcome.

Peter, exactly. Most people don't even begin to grasp the immensity of the energy and resource inputs needed to make a microprocessor.

DIYer, yes, salvage and jerry-rigging are likely to be the wave of the future.

Farm, fair enough; now what do you propose to do about it?

Publius, excellent! If you can find a couple of old (1950s-era) electronics textbooks, those will be a major help; they give a lot more information than their newer and glossier equivalents. As for neofascism, it doesn't seem likely to me; authoritarian government, almost certainly, but fascism was a very specific phenomenon -- a point that's been badly obscured by the use of the term as an all-purpose invective -- and the conditions for its reemergence as a major force seem unlikely to emerge within the relevant window of time.

James Andrix said...

It seems to me that you'll get a lot more out of your radio if it's acting as a data link that can be shared by a community.

Some rampant speculation:
By the time we hit a ceiling to moore's law (a ceiling which may itself be caused by diminishing energy supplies) The most common computer design, will already be hand held, low power devices with peer-to-peer data radios.
They'll be entirely solid state and have the potential to last decades. As they become more expensive, and as they are not showing performance greatly ahead of the previous generation, they will start to be expected to last decades, and be designed to be rugged and versatile.
Children will be given their parents tools and their parent's phones.

And _most_ of what we now call the internet can be run _entirely_ on phones.

If there is one chip fab anywhere in the world, it will probably be enough.

MawKernewek said...

It seems to me that the biggest problem is actually a psychological one.

Our psychological and economic systems feed back into each other. Right now we have a psychology which is based on several centuries of a growing industrial economy.

Once decline sets in, we are into uncharted territory. I think it is almost impossible to predict what will happen to people psychologically.

However, it is not completely unknown for a society in modern times to experience a sustained economic contraction.

One of the worst economic contractions in modern times took place in the former Soviet Union. In Russia from 1989-98, the economy shrank by about 45%.

A few people got very rich as a result of the changes, so we can assume that the average person's income declined by more still.

What psychological changes have occured in the Russian psyche as a result of this experience?

Perhaps not a lot, since the Russian people have experienced disaster many times in the past century with repeated crises including the First World War, revolution, civil war, the purges, the Second World War.

The psychological impact on Western (particularly American) people today would be more of a shock still.

There are both similarities and differences between the situation in the former Soviet Union and Peak Oil.

Both involve a fairly sustained economic contraction where living standards decline for the average person for a number of years.

Both also involve a major restructuring of the economy, in the Soviet case from a centrally planned economy to a "free-market" one, in the Peak Oil case, from a growing fossil fuel dependent economy to a steady state sustainable one based on renewable energy.

However would it be psychologically important that with the case of Peak Oil the decline is permament?

I would imagine that government propaganda will present the crisis as a temporary recession, which will in the fullness of time revert to growth. It may take some time for people to actually realise that growth will never return, since there may well be periods where growth returns temporarily.

So the question is: Will we be able to manage the transition to a sustainable economy smoothly, or will we fail to adapt, and overshoot on the downside as our economy and society collapses?

I think a certain amount of overshoot on the downside is inevitable at this stage. I say this because I think human psychology will be too slow to change (we really should have done so about 30 years ago)

JPH said...

Use the internet wisely while it is here!

It's hard not to be excited about the decline of the biosphere-killing industrial economy and the internet that it spawned. The internet has fragmented my soul. Eek...

Re-localization is the real deal!

Keep it bioregional,

Danogenes said...

Maybe all the analysis isn't as conclusive as you think. Take the logs on Easter Island. It turned out that a lot were needed to get large stone statues honoring the big chiefs from one part of the island to another. They might have saved a whole lot of their woody patrimony by simply getting rid of the oligarchs (oops, I mean big chiefs) and saving the rolling logs for future generations.

As to the power usage of the internet, it is not that dissimilar to much of our grid model of electric generation. If we have learned anything from the computer revolution it should be about the economic power of distributed intelligence.
Were we to generate power from roofs and hilltops rather than coal plants, distribute the servers to a wider base, like a few each community, then we could save a whole lot on transmission of power and on the responsibility for the management of demand.
It might slow things down, but I can imagine a structure where it would also be sustainable.

Kevembuangga said...

a great many of the plans being circulated these days look very appealing until you do the math and discover that the most basic questions about resource inputs and economic outputs haven't been addressed.Yes, yes and yes, but NOBODY is really doing the maths on EITHER side of the discussion.
The "good old solutions" efficiency (the EROEI) is piss poor that means a practical impossibility to switch back because the huge drop in outputs will mean cascading failures leading to accelerated collapse of all infrastructures.
Though that would be a technical collapse not a societal one (at first), if you had read Tainter more closely you would know that a collapse in Tainter's terms only happens when people have (seemingly...) the opportunity to "drop out" of the system, in a totally closed world there is no collapse only accelerated attrition, Easter Island WASN'T a case of collapse.
OTOH since it is not possible either to keep the growth nor business as usual things will certainly be ugly but not necessarily "terminal" for everybody.

keleto said...

Hi all,

First want to say thanks to you JMG for the archdruid report. I have been a regular reader for a couple of years now and I always look forward to your thoughtful and thought provoking weekly writings as one of the rare treats amidst all the cultural static with which we are surrounded.

As one or two others have commented, I too think the 'net will be around for a while yet. There is a lot of room for power consumption to fall and for decentralization to replace failed central control. When Wimax chips are ten a penny (soon now) the hardware will be available for a non-hierarchically managed 'net to evolve which could be run by amateurs and enthusiasts, as the net originally was in the beginning.

Even when production of new computers fails, much of the old stock of pentium 1,2 and 3 machines are still kicking around in peoples attics in service worthy condition. Cyber-cafes, rather forgotton in the west but still big in China, Bangladesh, India etc allow a single computer and a single net connection to serve 100 people a day who just want to check their email. Why assume that every user MUST have their own power hungry machine ?

At some point the 'net will fall but I reckon a lot of other stuff will go first.

Text based services like email, blogs etc are still the killer apps which make the net the marvel it is and even if global data capacity falls to 5% of its current capacity that would be enough to keep the emails, blogs and other regular text based services alive. Downloadable movies are a frill, the reson-detre of net is still text based.

Anyway, time will speak !

John Michael Greer said...

Professor, thanks for the plug. For those who want the ultimate in low tech, of course, there's always my book...

James, this is quite funny. I write a post explicitly talking about how people are avoiding the economic dimension, and your response to it ignores the economic dimension and rehashes the same sort of argument I've just critiqued. I don't think I could make this stuff up if I tried.

Maw Kernewek, the psychology's actually the core issue; we have the economy we do because we've made the assumptions about the world we have. More on this later.

JPH, well, we'll see how excited you are when it becomes an open question whether you can get enough food to stay alive through the coming winter. Yes, this is the kind of poverty we're facing.

Danogenes, you've made exactly the argument I've already critiqued -- "the internet is so useful, and we can run it with less power." So? A society scrambling to meet basic needs may have priorities other than maintaining free access to chatrooms and online pornography. I don't mind at all if you disagree with me, but it would be nice if you took the time to notice what I'm saying, and not simply rehash the same argument.

Kevembuangga, if you'd read my paper on catabolic collapse more closely you'd realize that I've studied Tainter closely, and disagree with a fair number of his conclusions. If you want to define the term "collapse" so that Easter Island's experience doesn't count, fine, but Easter Island's experience is still highly relevant to our present situation.

Richard said...

The thing is that internet loads can be reduced considerably by just getting rid of spammers and those intent on disrupting things.

Right now, according to several sources 97% of email traffic is spam.And in April of 2008, it was estimated that two percent of packets on the internet are DDOS (distributed denial of service) Packets.

And as MawKernewek suggests, cutting back on the amount of multi-media allowed would decrease the load even more.

One website I manage did a redesign and went from a static site to one heavy with slick flash animations and javascript goodies and their monthly bandwidth usage nearly doubled with very similar traffic levels.

As energy prices escalate, there will be a point where we have to do without the "12 dancing bunnies selling toilet paper" (thanks Rod Serling), and the internet will. out of necessity, have to march backward toward its utilitarian roots.

Neven said...

JMG wrote: "Neven, for heaven's sake, the internet isn't the only option. Have you forgotten about print media? Not that long ago, my essays would have appeared in a magazine or a weekly, and we'd be having these conversations on the letters to the editor page."

I know that Internet isn't the only option, but that wasn't what my comment was about. Obviously I haven't made myself clear enough.

Sure, 'your essays would have appeared in a magazine or a weekly', but how would I know about it living in Europe? I wouldn't be able to Google for them. Buying all the magazines and weeklies and then cut out all the pieces of interest wouldn't be an option either. Me and whole lot of other people would miss out on your stimulating and inspiring writings, or find out about them many years later.

Okay, so perhaps 'we'd be having these conversations on the letters to the editor page'. Do all letters to the editor page get printed? What if there are urgent matters to discuss such as Peak X?

Like I said in my first comment: Internet speeded up my development considerably. There are things I would never have grasped if Internet wouldn't have made it so easy for me to look for knowledge myself, read up on other people's opinions etc. The mainstream media didn't do that for me, and libraries or magazines didn't do it as fast. I don't mean to imply that fast is fantastic, but with things heading the way they are globally there's not much time for reinventing the wheel myself either.

I believe this to be the major positive influence of Internet, and print media can't replace that: It enables people to find the information or knowledge they want to know about, without being dependent on just one provider, and share it with others.

I know chances of it coming about are slim at best, but in my opinion a sustainable society would be built on three pillars: Decentralisation, transparency and self-sufficiency. If these criteria are not met, then a society isn't sustainable. I believe a medium like Internet is indispensable to meet these criteria. It enhances decentralisation, as any network does. It enhances transparency, on the condition that it's a free Internet (that's another subject entirely). And it enhances self-sufficiency, in that it provides people with an easy way to find information and communicate with each other. Without Internet decentralisation and transparency would be very hard if not impossible to achieve (especially if it has to be achieved relatively fast), and the same goes to a lesser extent for self-sufficiency.

In my view a sustainable society would be exactly like it is described on blogs like these, ie a society that has almost entirely powered down where people need to be much more self-reliant and self-providing than they are now. A society much more agricultural than urban in nature, BUT with some form of Internet for the reasons I mention above. A combination of low- and high-tech.

If there is absolutely no chance of a sustainable society coming about, then what is the point of discussing the things that are being discussed here? Without something like the Internet (and I don't think print media can cut it as a replacement) I believe that humankind as a species will disappear altogether. Not because people will have it more difficult, what with subsistence farming and medical care as good as gone, but because of the coup de grace in the form of climate change.

If everything falls apart, entire nations get ravaged by resource wars and social upheaval, a die-off takes place, and after all of that there is no fast and easy way left to transfer information and for people to come to some form of concerted action, then the warming of 4-6 degrees Celsius by 2100 will be the deathblow.

Without climate change I would've said: Fine, let's revert to print media or some other simple technology, we'll have plenty of time for that. But I don't think that's the case. I think the loss of Internet implies a whole lot more than that.

Joel said...

Mr. Greer:

>research and development does not come cheaply these days, nor does the construction and installation of more efficient equipment, and the budget cuts currently sweeping through companies and universities worldwide – themselves the harbingers of much greater cuts to come –

I have to disagree with the first two clauses quoted here, partly on the grounds of the second two clauses.

The R&D that is best suited to a de-industrial economy is, to my knowledge, being carried out by the un- and under-employed, using some combination of salvaged, legacy, surplus, and out-of-patent technology. Resources of highly-skilled labor, capital equipment, and even energy that had been misspent under corporate control are sloshing around in the market, and hobbies like HAM internet are benefiting. One of the major areas of focus among hobbyists is to reduce dependence on centralized infrastructure, and many radical measures are being investigated.


>Computers could use a lot less energy if performance was sacrified. Having said that, the R&D that would go into these low energy computers costs money and energy.

Many low-power computers use old designs, made with more-recent fabrication equipment. For example, I have an old Palm Pilot that uses an Intel 286 processor shrunk down to Pentium 3 dimensions (numbers may be slightly wrong). The difficult problems of development seem to have been running the palm OS and achieving a tiny form factor; impressive (compared to desktops) energy efficiency was relatively straightforward.

Other very efficient processors are designed to be "embedded" into products not sold as computers. A huge and diverse program of development has taken place without much public attention, a short guide can be found here. These are frequently adapted into devices that are explicitly computers.

PanIdaho said...

JMG said:

"JPH, well, we'll see how excited you are when it becomes an open question whether you can get enough food to stay alive through the coming winter. Yes, this is the kind of poverty we're facing."JMG, I think that probably ranks up there as far as being one of the most "doomerish" comments I've seen from you lately. But, you are right. It will likely come down to that, eventually.

Because of Peak Energy and overshoot, we're on the cusp of a major cultural change - world wide - and most people don't seem to see it coming. All of our major systems are beginning to collapse under our own overshot weight. Our food systems, our economic systems, our energy and transport systems, our medical systems... too many people, too much complexity, too much fraud and waste, too much cost, too much interdependence (which is great when things run perfectly, but perfectly awful when they don't...) Even things that we see as absolutely essential (like foodstuffs) under our normal supply system WILL GO AWAY if they are no longer considered profitable.

That's the way the so-called modern "Free Market" works. The very systems that support the research, resource transformation, manufacturing process, marketing and transportation that is needed to get products to market are coming unglued. That's why I don't believe we're going to see much in the way of innovated techno-fixes for our ills. A large chunk of the capital needed to put these new ideas into play has literally been sucked out of the system and by the time it comes back - IF it ever does - the cheap and abundant energy necessary to pull these new techno-fixes off will simply no longer be available.

In my opinion, JMG is right - it's triage time.

spreadingthelove said...

Does anyone have any data on how much energy the internet infrastructure actually consumes?

John Michael Greer said...

Richard, granted, there's a lot on the internet that will go away before the internet itself does.

Neven, do you really mean to suggest that humanity can't survive without the internet? I don't mean to be rude, but from my perspective, that's simply silly. People managed to circulate information very effectively in the days before the internet, you know; it took more work, but then so do most things in a world with less energy.

Joel, no argument -- but that sort of basement, low-tech R&D will not produce the cheaper, faster internet most people seem to insist on.

Panidaho, I've been saying all along that a lot of people are going to die, and that the crises immediately ahead of us are comparable to the Great Depression and the Second World War -- times in which a lot of people had to worry about whether they could find enough to eat, and no small number starved to death. Yes, it's triage time.

Love, see Maw Kernewek's figures posted earlier in this thread.

MawKernewek said...

We cannot predict the exact path of decline.

All we can say is we will eventually reach a sustainable level of energy use, and a less centralised economy.

The current depression may actually be a useful process. It is at least beginning to destroy old economic structures, which will allow new ones to take their place. I call it a depression because it involves a restructuring of the economy, not just a pause in the economic cycle.

The contracting availability of credit at least reduces demands on resources caused by people buying things they don't need with money they don't really have.

The depression presents an opportunity, which may be our last as a civilisation to invest the resources freed up by the economic crisis in our future before total collapse becomes inevitable.

Only human psychology determines whether we will use this opportunity wisely.

John Michael Greer said...

Maw Kernewek, while it's certainly true that the exact shape of the future can't be predicted, we can get a fairly good overview by examining past examples of decline and fall and using those as models. It's a bit like predicting a hurricane's path; you'll never get it exactly, but a good meteorologist can examine the tracks of other hurricanes of the same approximate place, time, and strength, and come up with a very good approximation. That's more or less what this blog is trying to do.

John Michael Greer said...

By the way, apologies if I seem unusually testy or temperamental. For the last three posts, I've been trying to make what I thought was a very straightforward point -- that the survival of technologies in the deindustrializing future will depend on their success in competing against other ways of doing the same things, and other priorities, for a slice of a dwindling pie of energy and other resources -- and have had a steady stream of commenters blow right past that point.

This latest post talks specifically about that habit of blowing right past the economic issues...and yet again there's been a series of posters who did exactly that, as though they hadn't read a word of the post. There's something weirdly Pavlovian about it; ring the bell, and the dog salivates; suggest that the internet won't be economically viable in an energy-constrained future, and get a flurry of comments dwelling on irrelevancies even when the post has pointed out those exact irrelevancies.

I have no problem with people who disagree with me, but if you're going to comment on one of my posts, could you please address what the post says? If you consider the economic issue irrelevant, say so, and if possible present some reasoning or evidence to back up your argument -- but address it. Don't go on as though the issue hasn't been raised, and the only questions are whether the internet is valuable and whether it can be run on a little less energy.

MawKernewek said...

I think the key issue is are we now entering a monotonic decline where energy supply falls each year, or are we entering (have just entered?) the "bumpy plateau", which may continue for a couple of decades?

Lack of spare capacity in the energy and commodities markets drove prices to high levels last year, but once the economy crashed, the prices fell. However the decline in the economy will overshoot on the downside, leaving room for at least a partial recovery.

I predict we will see an oscillatory economy in the next couple of decades, with destruction of old economic structures during depressions, and periods of recovery during which new, more sustainable economic structures could in theory grow.

I see something like the predator-prey oscillations in animal populations, with energy prices as predator and the economy as prey.

Whether the periods of recovery are used wisely to invest in the long term future, or are seen as a hope for the return of business as usual depends on political and psychological factors.

DIYer said...

The economic aspect of this crisis has been one of its biggest surprises for me. I work in the industry, and of course like the others my first response was "Oh no, not my precious internet!" But I have watched my 401K become a 201K and started reading TAE now.

I think most folks don't realize how much infrastructure is required to keep up the appearance of easy ubiquitous connectivity. A couple people mentioned cell phones or WiMax chips: these things require support, servers, towers, electricity. A user's complacency arises from the diligence of the carrier in keeping the devices supplied with a signal.

There are already sporadic news reports of power or network outages caused by copper scavengers and as the economy continues to degrade (and it will), there will be more of that.

So I posted that a simple network can be jerry-rigged, and it can; of course the other thing you can do is trudge over to your neighbor's house and talk to him :)

MawKernewek said...

The Internet is valuable for the energy descent process, since it allows information to flow independently of media monopolies and governments. Especially valuable if more parts of the world fall under dictatorship due to the economic crises.

It could allow people in local communities to share skills, trade goods, organise themselves etc. It allows these communities to learn from others facing similar problems.

The question is, is this going to be more energy efficient than doing so through the classified ads of a local paper?

It depends on the price and availability of paper I suppose.

Geoff said...

"apologies if I seem unusually testy or temperamental"

A glimpse of a fiery, no-nonsense Archdruid, more power to you I say :-)

As has been said, between the lines if not explicitly, in these pages before, it's a traumatic and difficult process to change your worldview, and lose your religion.

The internet is one of the gods of Progress, and you are telling the believers that it may die a natural death. How can we be made to believe that our gods can die?

Kevin said...

Woof! Slobber.

Perhaps the frustration you're experiencing is an occupational hazard of telling people things which are true but which they don't want to hear. Most folks with access to it love their internet. And hearing that lots of people are going to starve to death in the fairly near future (including possibly some of us here present, or people we know?) isn't exactly like getting a piece of chocolate cake with ice cream on top.

Nonetheless your ideas are getting through. Before recently encountering your blog, I thought peak oil theorists were a bunch of moralistic doom-and-gloomers whose dismal catastrophist dictums should be taken with a large and weighty chunk of salt. The lucid and cogent argument I encounter here has gone a long way to changing my mind about that. I now find myself considering some disquieting eventualities I never took seriously before.

Shiner said...

JMG, asking for people not to throw straw on the web will break their hearts. Why argue against what you wrote? It is logical and makes sense. Arguing against that kind of thing is hard. It is sooooooo much easier to ignore your words throw straw.

Red Herring, straw, and fallacious arguments are what the web is about for many people. Then they can pat themselves on the back and say " I sure told that Archdruid".

You are really going to hurt their self esteem if you keep pointing this behavior out. hahahahah

zapoteca said...

I am new here, and I feel like I'm drinking from a firehose. Great discussion and thinking.

I just ordered JMG's book.

I feel sort of bad. My entire life, all I have done is work, go to school and raise kids, usually at least two at a time. I don't know how to do a darn thing that is useful other than cook and show appreciation to people, learned from my kids.

I have literally not had a moment to think. So I now have some time. It is as if I started running like mad thirty years ago, and now that I look up, I am on a different planet.

Thank you for your good thinking. Thank heavens, my deepest desire is to have my own little place in the Appalachian foothills. Except for the heavy duty farming thing - I'm afraid that I am plumb exhausted. I think some veggies, berries and fruit trees, and chickens are about it. Although I am very, very fond of mules.

Hope I can pull it off.

Thank you again for your good thinking. I am somewhat heartened that my intimation of impending disaster over the years no longer puts me in a minority of one.

John Michael Greer said...

Maw Kernewek, based on the evidence of history we can expect a much rougher ride than the sort of monotonic decline some overly simple estimates suggest. Civilizations decline in a stairstep fashion, as crises give rise to homeostatic responses, which are in turn overwhelmed by further crisis; repeat as needed until your civilization is a collection of mossy ruins.

The current volatility in the energy market is one way that pattern's expressing itself in the present example; I expect another drastic spike in oil prices this year, followed by another crash, and so on. The big question is whether the overall trendline stays level or goes upwards. My guess is the latter, but if the linkage between oil prices and the health of the economy is tighter than I think, it could stay flat and drive massive deflation.

DIYer, of course a simple network can be patched together, especially using packet radio (which I've been advocating here for more than a year) -- and that's probably a good transitional step. It's in the longer term that something simpler will almost certainly win out.

Maw Kernewek, paper can be made from scrap fiber in your kitchen using 15th century technology; it requires no fossil fuels at all. A printing press is a bit more complex, but again, 15th century technology will do it and fossil fuels need not apply. In a world struggling with energy scarcity, it's no contest.

Geoff, thank you. I dislike losing my temper, even -- or especially -- when goaded. But you're quite right that it's not exactly an easy way to start a conversation to walk up to a medieval peasant and try to tell him that God and the saints aren't there any more.

Kevin, thank you also. Mind you, I hope you're continuing to add salt to helpings of peak oil news and opinions, mine as much as anyone's; nobody's infallible in this business.

Shiner, you're probably right that that's a good part of it. Still, mulling all this over, I've realized that there's another factor in play: we as a culture have pretty much completely forgotten the meaning of the words "we can't afford that." A society awash in cheap credit and the "buy now, pay later" mentality doesn't exactly encourage people to learn how to make tough choices between priorities. The problem, of course, is that the credit economy is ultimately a social fiction; the real world, the world of nature, demands cash up front.

Zapoteca, I'm always saddened when people who have mastered the difficult and vastly important arts of raising children and caring for a home get convinced by our society that those skills aren't worth mentioning. Knowing how to cook a meal, run a household, and take care of people who need it are a good deal more useful than most of the things people have been spending their time doing for the last century or so.

Definitely look for that place in the Appalachians, but I wouldn't worry about heavy farming; there'll be an exchange economy going for quite a while yet, and it's not that hard to pick up a craft or two that will keep you stocked with anything your garden and henhouse won't provide.

MawKernewek said...

I'm not sure what the overall trend in energy prices will be. That depends also on the money supply as well as the actual availability of energy.

What is more relevant is the total energy supply. The long term trends are from a period where it was growing to one where it is in decline. However energy extraction doesn't depend purely on supply issues, but demand too.

So what I think we will see is instead of a narrow peak, we will see a plateau, caused by the fact that the theoretical limit of energy production was never actually reached.

So I would guess that the economy would also plateau.

streamfortyseven said...

You write "It's entirely possible to build a shortwave radio by hand, for example, using components that can be built by hand from readily available materials; there are radio amateurs alive today who did precisely that before the postwar electronics boom made manufactured components cheap and easily accessible. In a world where the cost of energy is a major economic burden, these differences will matter, and give a massive economic advantage to less energy-intensive ways of accomplishing things."

Yeah, sure, I can make a shortwave receiver from locally available materials, and I've got really neat books on that kind of thing from 1920 which show in detail how to do precisely that. Receivers are easy, it's the transmitters which use that kind of technology which use lots and lots of power, like between 50,000 watts ERP and 500,000 watts ERP. Plus you get to listen to shortwave fading in and out and bursts of static... sometimes all you'd hear would be CW. Most mesh networks use not more than 1 watt ERP per transmitter, you can get that kind of power from a small solar cell and a six-volt battery. They do this kind of thing in developing nations (see this website:
The power requirements with the new tech, even counting construction and fabrication costs are so much less. 15 wpm by Morse turns out to be 15words x 5 letters/word = 75 letters at most 5 bits long, so say 375 bits/minute, or about 0.75 baud. Sending 900 words would take 1 hour, with a TX using 1kw ERP it's 1kw*hr ... as compared with a broadband mesh at 1 watt ERP...

Or you can have fun sending CQD, CQD, CQD, or that newfangled code, SOS, from your backyard spark-gap transmitter...

disillusioned said...

...late to the party alas.

However there are things that CAN be done. Most CPU's and memory and "glue" chips in the computer are quite reliable; faults come from power supplies, HD and bad connections (as a generalisation).

CPU's etc can and do last for decades if treated gently.

That means that a durable infrastructure is possible... given power.

It should be possible to locally power a telephone system and feed that back to the exchange; this could then power computing systems.

Note that the phone system was always designed to remotely power handsets via a 70v circuit from the exchange (48v in some countries). A solar cell on the roof of each house can power that same circuit "in reverse" i.e. feed watts up the phone line into the exchange. Which gathers the considerable power available and runs the local systems e.g. switches, servers etc.

This is no panacea but the Victorian design of the phone system does mean that extra resilience can be gained; it's a matter of seeing what is possible and making it happen.

Neven said...

JMG wrote: "Neven, do you really mean to suggest that humanity can't survive without the internet? I don't mean to be rude, but from my perspective, that's simply silly."

You're not rude, and yes, I'm silly.

All I'm trying to say is that if there is a possibility for a long descent towards a sustainable society minus the Armageddon-type die-off cannibalistic Mad Max events, some form of internet (text-based or whatever) would be included in it. Without some form of internet - and analog technology is not the same thing - it will not be a sustainable society.

Why won't it be sustainable, you say? Reverting to a pre-industrial state with a much smaller population due to wars, famine and disease must be the key to ending the squandering of resources and straining ecological limits, right? That's correct if you leave out global problems like climate change or ocean acidification.

The main difference between the pre-industrial age and the post-industrial age is that people in the pre-industrial, rough as it already was, didn't have to cope with increasing temperatures and the freak weather that follows from the warming.

To be able to cope with that highly uncertain situation you must have some form of communication that allows you to interact and that provides a wide range of information. Analog technology cannot do that in a sufficient way.

So yes, JMG, I am saying that without some form of network technology that can be sustained indefinitely, humankind is doomed to be extinct. It might very well be inevitable and much more probable than a long descent where humankind returns to a pre-industrial level and lives happily ever after.

I haven't read all your work, but what place do things like climate change and ocean acidification take in your predictions? These are global problems and they will remain so for a long time after the collapse. A warming of 5-6 degrees Celsius, which is quite possible under a bit more of BAU and then the destructive mayhem of resource wars and whatnot, would wipe out most lifeforms on the planet.

das monde said...

As fellow MawKernewek said, once decline sets in, we are into economic uncharted territory. And boy, will it be a shocking territory. Anyone dependent on stock markets, government stimulations, trade across the world or latest electronic toys will be awfully disappointed. But what territory we are now in?

Last week I cited a video lecture, where it was explained (at 20-25 min mark) that the industrial revolution lead first to a control crisis (of growing production and distribution networks) that lead to firm dominance of corporations, and then to the crisis of superfluous production (that lead to the aggressive rise of advertisement). I can add one more video; at around 12 min mark you can read there the following citation of apost-WWII policy maker:

Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption... We need things consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate. Think about it. All this modern consumption craziness is based not on some irresistible forces of human nature. It is brought by a determined effort and “hard work” of a small industrialist-corporate-financial circle. How concentrated, coordinated and influential are the industrial interests, really? Their unilateral success of imposing the life style of destructive consumption as “the best and only choice” is truly impressive. I can’t speculate much about emergent or mindful insights of the select Davos or perhaps Illumnati clubs, but I can imagine that some big shots see the world population as one big tribe that they can control with a handful of economic and “spiritual” shamans.

It doesn’t take much brain to realize (or at least to conjecture) that the civilization is a few steps away from the abyss of resource limitations, and that we were approaching the abyss exceptionally fast lately. But this realization does not mean that you have to stage your own Cassandra mission. From a comparative perspective, it seems smart to keep your insight private, even confuse public perceptions, and prepare for the change of times at the expense of regular fools. The modern economic model (so dependent on ever new expansions) won’t make much sense in a contracting, fragmenting world. The only recognizable aspects in the new economy will be monopoly powers and rental claims - so the economy will go back to the times before Adam Smith. The feudals won’t see much purpose for innovation, while the folks won’t have any means or action freedom.

das monde said...


There will be, of course, many dilemmas how to use dwindling energy and resources, but decisions won’t be based on objective criteria and needs. The choices will be made by factual elites, and they won’t be nice for most of the people. At best, governments will only pretend taking care of the best course for the public. The elites may even manage to keep a rather powerful IT infrastructure for surveillance and other “indispensable” purposes, a fleet of private planes and a few other wonders. The Earth can support today’s “business class” life style for a few emperors.

Regular folks will be hit by some tribute overhead (based on past debts, or monopoly mercy and ongoing rents). But small communities may organize themselves very nicely, with adequate effort of collective survival (but without much worry of ideological purity). A large scale effort to preserve and adapt available technology broadly might be feasible for a dedicated “order” of techno(&socio)philes. Preservation of computers would require a totally new design of “makable” and durable processors (perhaps with technical characteristics of 20 years ago) and creative interface. Some mobility of goods and information can be supported by a modest fleet of auto-mobiles zooming between communities. Internet could be preserved as, literally, an electronic post service: “postman” automobiles would visit daily, and download/upload all requested emails, blog and newspaper articles, and what not ;-)

Joe Carlton said...

I see a couple of problems with this and the previous post.

1) The argument is based on the assumption that there will be severe shortages in the energy needed to power IT. However IT runs on electricity, and (at least in the US) virtually none of the main sources (coal 49%, NG 22%, nuclear 19%, hydro 6%, renewables 2.5% in 2007) is facing a near-term, or even mid-term, supply crunch. Projections of mid-term peak coal are based on strong growth in consumption, and at present there is no growth in coal consumption. Therefore, the US very likely does have 100+ years of coal at current rates (due to the poor likelihood of use increasing beyond current rates). NG has made a remarkable comeback and is showing a strong surge of growth due to shale gas, and the shale gas potential is extremely large. There are no show-stoppers in the way of maintaining and expanding nuclear. Hydro can certainly hang in there, or expand slightly. And renewables are growing rapidly, and are far from their eventual limits. That's 98.5% of the US electric system, so there doesn't seem to be any strong reason for electricity to run short in the next quarter century, when (if I understand you correctly) you predict the internet will dwindle to a shadow of its former self.

It's also unclear why, given the above, that the price of electricity will rise to inordinate levels. Even when oil rose 1600% in the greatest spike in real oil prices in history, from $10 in 1998 to $170 in Summer 2008 (and there were similar spikes in coal and NG prices), retail electric rates in the US rose a mild 57% from $0.07 to $0.11 per kwh, still incredibly cheap compared to countries with high rates like Italy ($0.26 per kwh in 2007).

2) I believe you are drastically underestimating the value of telecommuting/teleconferencing in the post-peak future. Even extremely high oil prices have only a marginal effect on electric rates, as noted above, so telecommuting (or visiting with relatives over skype etc.) will be precisely the sort of constrained consumer choice you describe in this post. Shall I drive/fly, or go virtually? When oil prices get high enough, people will choose the latter because it's convenient and vastly cheaper. Therefore, the internet will thrive. It's a way for people to virtually meet without physically moving, so it's an excellent remedy for a transport fuels crisis (which peak oil will be). The internet does consume a fair amount of energy, but I don't think you can reasonably argue that it costs more (in money/energy) to transport people's images than their actual bodies.

Kiashu said...

I think you've mischaracterised the arguments of those who suggested you might not be entirely correct, mischaracterising them by exagerrating what they said to the point of absurdity.

It's an old trick in debate. But it's also not a very honest one.

Not all said simply that the internet would certainly continue to exist because there were advantages to it. Many said that because the internet was useful, people would try to keep it going in some form or other. That's a long way from saying nothing will change at all.

I think you're forgetting your own argument: that collapse will not be overnight or complete, that at each stage traces of the old world will remain; that if a new civilisation rises from the old and dead one, it may have some aspects of the dead one; and that it's foolish to try to predict exactly what will survive at each stage of collapse, and what will make it through to the next civilisation.

The internet in some form or another, or other communications network, may survive for quite some time after peak fossil fuels. Or it may not. It's hard to predict such details; Constantine for example may have forseen the fall of the Empire, but I don't imagine that when he founded his eastern capital he imagined that it would last another 1,100 years while Rome itself would last only another 100.

In your eagerness to pour scorn on even the slightest hint that "we can all be rich forever and ever, yay!" you're caricaturing people's responses to you, and forgetting your own arguments about things not happening quickly and completely, and not being able to predict precise details.

John Michael Greer said...

After writing a post saying that it's not enough to argue that the internet is very useful and could be run more cheaply, and reiterating that point at some length again last night, my inbox this morning contained another flurry of comments saying, very nearly in so many words, that the internet will be around for the long term because it's very useful and could be run more cheaply.

Let me restate yet again what the post we're supposedly discussing has actually said:

In a world of energy scarcity, the internet will have to compete against many other demands for the same energy supplies, and many other, cheaper ways of providing the same services it does. The most likely result is rising prices and diminished access, and the rise of alternatives, until the internet stops being economically viable altogether.This has gone from frustrating to fascinating. We've got a significant minority of posters whose response to the argument I;ve just described isn't to debate it, but to act as though it hasn't been made -- in effect, as though the post they're supposedly commenting on doesn't exist. Is it simply the online equivalent of scrunching up one's eyes, covering one's ears, and chanting "I can't hear you, nya nya nya" over and over again? Or is there more going on here?

One way or another, all further comments that simply reiterate the same two points will be deleted. If you can't be bothered to respond to what my post says, I see no reason to include you in the conversation.

John Michael Greer said...

Now, a few specific comments:

Maw Kernewek, based on historical models as well as recent events, I suspect it'll be less a plateau -- even a bumpy one -- than chaotic behavior, with economic indices bouncing all over the map in unpredictable fashion, while the underlying decline in the energy supply puts a lid on the upper end.

Stream47, you're flailing at a straw man. Ham radios use a maximum of 1500 watts ERP, and a growing number of hams are getting into QRP -- low power operation -- using 5 watts or less to make transcontinental contacts. Nor is CW the only option; you might want to look up the words "packet radio" sometime. Your third world countries don't manufacture their own mesh network technology, nor -- to repeat the argument you're ignoring -- will such technologies be economical as the energy needed to make them becomes the single largest manufacturing cost, and other technologies that can do the same things more cheaply take their place.

Disillusioned, you're quite correct that many landline phone systems will be viable for quite some time. While they can be used by computers, they also form one of the competing systems of communication that, to bring up yet again the central issue of my post, will be more economical to use than the internet in an energy-constrained future.

Neven, the earth has been through sudden temperature increases of 5-6 degrees C. hundreds of times in its long history, and at least once during the history of our species -- the end of the last ice age saw jumps on that scale. It'll make life difficult for a lot of people, and drive some pretty sharp population contractions, but it's not the end of the world. Nor has the advent of the internet shown any sign of making it easier for humanity to deal with its problems -- quite the opposite, in fact.

Das Monde, it would take an entire post to respond to your comments, and that will have to wait. In the meantime, thanks for the links!

Joe, you've missed the fact that I'm talking about a gradual process unfolding over some decades. All fossil fuels are subject to severe depletion, so electricity prices -- since nearly all the world's electricity is generated by fossil fuels -- will inevitably go up in the years and decades to come. As for the internet as a replacement for live meetings, telephones do the same thing with a much simpler infrastructure; so do many other technologies -- and moving people around for meetings takes up a vanishingly small fraction of total energy use in the first place, so that's a red herring at best.

Kiashu, this is funny. In accusing me of mischaracterizing other people's comments, you've completely mischaracterized mine -- and, once again, ignored the economic argument central to the post about which this discussion is supposedly happening. I've been saying all along that he internet will limp on for decades, until rising costs, diminishing access, and competition from more economically viable modes of communication finally push it over the edge. Now here you come, saying basically the same thing, and insisting that I'm claiming something else!

DaShui said...

Ahoy-Ahoy Archduid Greer!

Beautifully written, as (most) posts are.

I work in a small bank, 2 billion in assets. Our servers use about $12,000 a month in electricity, including the AC keeping them cool. Most of our electricity comes from the TVA, and we have backup natural gas generators.
I have been puting the scenerio of the effect of perpetually rising energy prices would have on my bank. I think that as energy use becomes constrained, of course the cost of running my servers would be much higher, but there would be a corresponding collapse in economic activity, meaning the servers would not have as much work to process. So the overall cost of using the server would be the same, but it would be the declining profits of the bank that would eventually scale back large scale computing.
What do you think?

James Andrix said...

John, I meant to make three points:

- That the same methods that can make a radio can be used to make it send more data. There's no reason new future radios must take input from microphones or morse code keys, as old radios did.
- Some of the devices we have now will be useful for communication for quite some time, with minimal energy input.
- Barring a sudden collapse, the last computers made with cheap energy will be replacing devices that were decades old and will themselves be expected to last even longer.

Overall, I think that the future of information access can't look like the past because now we have ideas of how to do things that will guide us independently of the specific technologies involved. The idea of sitting before a device and getting access to a document is more important putting a million transistors on a slab.

disillusioned said...


OK this might be off topic so I'll keep it short - but it does relate to information distribution.

Does anyone know of a basic booklist capable to taking a bright and able person through, from scratch, to say a 1950's tech level? Up to that era all tech in use was buildable by hand.

Such a set of books (which would cover key topics, from medicine to water management to build your own radio and more) may be a vital resource in years to come.

If this does exist - does anyone have a link to it?

Q: Can a blog offer an editable page capable of presenting such a developing list? Suspect not...

Good discussion!

Coyote said...

Personally I welcome the transition and perhaps the extinction of the internet. In much the same way the Ivan Illich (Energy and Equity) illustrated that transportation beyond a certain speed degrades mobility and even humanity. Beyond a certain band width communication is degraded by the current internet. Millions of blogs contain the thoughts, insights, hopes and dreams of the author, but no one reads them. These thoughts should be shared with those close to them not just spewed into cyberspace. Authors of popular sites are often so inundated by people wanting to be heard that they soon experience overload and turn cold to their own readers.

Does anyone read all of there email? If I did, I would conclude that a sizable portion of the population is concerned about the size and function of my penis, but when I talk to people the subject never comes up. What is up with that?

I am not trying to be Luddite, (or perhaps I am in the original meaning of the term). The access to information is wonderful, and I am grateful informal educators like JMG inspire my thoughts often. Thinking and writing your own thoughts is a wonderful exercise for the mind, just be aware of what you are trading away by not communicating in less energy intensive ways.

keleto said...

The point that no technology can survive if the society hosting it cannot provide the necessary energy, materials and skills to run it is not controversial and is so obvious that it barely needs to be mentioned (save perhaps to a tiny handful of deeply deluded cornucopian economists).

It is also obvious that if supply of a highly-valued commodity decreases then the number of people unable to access that commodity will increase, and that they will seek cheaper substitutes.

Being so obvious those two points, once mentioned clearly, do not need to be hammered home again and again to the readership of this forum, any more than it needs to be hammered home that clouds are up and ground is down.

So with that established, and with the high desirability of some form of internet agreed upon by at least a sizable minority, the discussion naturally moves onto HOW some form of internet can be maintained for as long as possible into an era when there are only a fraction of the current resource levels available.

Of course, at some point we would expect to meet a critical shortage of some kind which would finally kill the 'net (maybe electricity, maybe chips, maybe skills, maybe societal cohesion) but the consensus seems to be that it could well hang in for a good while.

If (in some rare moment of foresight) there were a deliberate, well funded attempt to build large numbers of highly durable solar/mechanical/steam/whatever powered basic wimax computers to hand down through the generations then, like Tolkien's palantiri, a well crafted technology could be running for centuries after it's makers perish. Designing things specifically to last the centuries is not common nowadays, but it is quite possible and lots of good minds would be itching to try their hand at it given the chance.

Juan Wilson said...

You did not stress in your article that the residents of Easter Island used a great number of trees to aid in the construction of giant monolithic statues which had no apparent economic use and only symbolic value. Regardless of the environmental consequence, those statues were of great importance.

My point is that modern society may put a very high priority on internet communication beyond the normal dynamics of economic reality.

I agree that youtubing, online shopping and porn viwing may be what most people do on the web, but the reason military and academics of the last century bothered to come up with arpanet was to coordinate and make sense of world.

The overall case you make is sound, but I think you have under estimated the significance of the worldwide telecommunication and internet transfer of information regarding the health of the planet.

It is not just an "advantage" to have a planet-wide neural network at this time, it is a "necessity".

The only "safe way down" from the pinnacle of human population we now face is with planetary scale monitoring and distribution of information concerning things like green house gasses and deforestation.

I would add that blogs like yours, Richard Heinberg, James Kunstler (and even our's modest efforts) are bringing critical information to light that otherwise would only be shared between friends in a coffee house.

Keep on blogging. Long live the internet.

rudolfc said...


So much food for thought here it's hard to know where to start. I guess I'll just dive right in...

I'm with Sharon Astyk in this: it won't be that the gas stations will be out of fuel or that there'll be no power; the more likely scenario is that you won't be able to afford either. The same will probably go for Internet access. i hope we can keep it on a community (library) level; it certainly facilitates research!

One of the things that bothers me as a technologist is that we already have the solutions to many of our problems, at least in the near (decades) term. We know how to make good family cars that get 45 mpg; I drove one in the 80's. We know how to cut energy use by half to two thirds without breaking a sweat; we know how to increase renewable energy by an order of magnitude. What we seemingly don't know how to do is break the equation in people's heads that waste = status. Unless elegant frugality replaces conspicuous consumption as a sign of status, our civilization is doomed. (One could argue it's doomed regardless; a civilization that values elegant frugality won't BE our civilization!)

John Michael Greer said...

DaShui, a nice economic analysis; thank you. My guess is that as economic contraction proceeds, the current servers will turn out to be far too much computing capacity for a diminished amount of work; the cost of energy will make them white elephants, and the cost of replacement servers -- which embody a great deal of energy -- will also climb. At a certain point it will once again make more economic sense to hire bookkeepers with pens and ledgers, because their wages will be significantly lower than the cost of buying, servicing, and powering a computer.

James, all these are points I've already covered. Of course technologies such as packet radio (which I've mentioned repeatedly) can be used to speed data transfer over the air. Of course legacy technology is going to have a major impact on the downslope of the curve, not least because it's more economical to use the embodied energy in old machines than to let them sit and gather cobwebs. The point I've been trying to make here is that economic forces, not merely abstract technical possibility, constrain whether or not it will be possible in the future to sit at a device and read a document there. If the economics won't support the device, you might just have to get a copy of the document on paper instead.

Disillusioned, I don't know of such a booklist, but it would be very much worth assembling one. If you want to take it on as a project, you might consider a blog or a Wiki. (The fact that I don't expect the internet to last indefinitely doesn't blind me to its present usefulness.)

Coyote, that's also a point. Every technology has its downside, the internet as much as any, and the decision to keep or abandon a technology is as much social as economic.

Keleto, if those points are so obvious, why have so many of the commenters here ignored them and insisted that the only factors that need to be considered are the value of the internet and the technical feasibility of running it on a bit less power? Still, you've made a solid point; if a deliberate and well-funded effort were to be made to produce really durable computers that could run off a broad range of possible power sources, those could become core legacy technologies for potentially a very long time. On the other hand, do you know of any such effort being made or planned? I don't, and we probably don't have that much time before constraints on money, energy, and resources start limiting our options in a big way.

Juan, what I've read leads me to think that the big stone heads used only a very small fraction of the total wood harvest on Easter Island. Still, every little bit hurts. As for the survival value of the internet, well, has all that information flow actually done anything, say, to slow down global warming or coordinate a response to peak oil? I don't see any evidence that it has.

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

I would like to make
three postings today under
John Michael Greer's (JMG's)
"Economics of Decline" (2009 May 20)
blog heading. I make three separate
blog postings, rather than one longer
consolidated posting, to maximize

In this one, the first of the three,
I address an issue - librarianship -
outside JMG's big upcoming theme of
Schumacher-inspired economics, and yet
central in the past fortnight's traffic
on his blog.

In the second of my three postings,
I address a second blog-relevant
issue from outside Schumacher's
economic theory, namely electronic

Economics and Schumacher I defer to my
third posting.

This set of posting starts, then,
with librarianship. Thanks, Nnonnth,
for your posting under JMG's heading
"The End of the Information Age"
(2009 May 13):

Someone wrote in earlier with the
idea of a micro micro microfilm
that could store a huge amount
of info on something pretty
small, made of exotic materials,
essentially indestructible. You'd
keep it at monasteries or
wherever. Readable with just a
microscope if I remember. That
looked good to me at the time. The
technology is already there, the
window of opportunity is now.

Nnonnth is here referring to my posting
under JMG's heading "Genji and the
Printing Press" (2009 March 18),
on a Web page that Google retrieves
with the search string as ((QUOTE))
monastery microform microscope norsam
((/QUOTE)), or with similar strings.

Yes, indeed, we need to use the current
"window of opportunity", as Nnonnth
writes, to create specially durable,
metal-substrate, microform records,
depositing these into our most durable
library-harbouring institutions, namely
our monasteries.

A little less durable than the
monasteries, and yet still of literally
life-and-death importance, are the
public and academic libraries, as
many participants on this blog have
been remarking.

Of these two types of library, it is
the academic libraries that offer the
greater depth and breadth.

What, then, can we in practical terms
do to support our academic libraries?

Academic libraries in the big cities,
such as Toronto, may come to an
unpleasant end in in the upcoming
two or three or four centuries
of social turmoil, as may their
big-city public-library counterparts.
More durable, and therefore a better
target for our limited conservationist
energies, are libraries in small-town
colleges and universities. Here
priority must go to those most
practical institutions, the libraries
of agricultural colleges. Such
libraries, heavy in the overridingly
pragmatic topic of food-growing,
are obliged also, by their charter
terms of reference, to maintain some
post-secondary-education coverage in
mathematics, physics, and engineering.

I have been practicing what I herewith
preach by making donations for the
permaculture collection (in other
words, for the radically-organic
agronomy portion) of the Nova
Scotia Agriculture College MacRae
Library. The MacRae sits a campus
a safe hundred kilometres removed
from the violence-vulnerable Halifax
conurbation, and on a riverside
elevation likely to stay safe
even as the Bay of Fundy rises.
This past Christmas, I hit upon the
idea of replacing presents to around
five of our usual recipients with
donations to the MacRae. The MacRae
got a few hundred dollars in cash,
and a set of friends got a set
of charitable-donation receipts
as offsets against their income
taxes. And now the MacRae holds some
books, I suspect including Jacke and
Toensmeier's _Edible Forest Gardens_,
which it might not otherwise hold.


Toomas (Tom) Karmo
verbum at interlog dot com

keleto said...


I guess the closest thing at the moment is the OLPC project. That has a few of the hallmarks of what would be needed were such an idea to be actionized.

The only project I have heard of recently which seems to have the right degree of vision and foresight was a govt funded seed bank in Norway (maybe?) but of course that is in a different field of endeavor.

Give me a billion dollar bailout and I will make it happen inside a year :-)

I didn't see anyone actually disagreeing with your central points BTW. I was thinking that most people, far from *ignoring* them had instead *accepted* them as the starting point of the conversation and therefore didn't need them reiterated. Perhaps you underestimate the clarity and effectiveness of your writing in synthesizing ideas and bringing them into the realm of the obvious.

As an aside, I wonder if you might be making a rod for yr own back in this forum ? It must be very time consuming replying to everything the way you are doing. I admire it but I would question it's actual usefulness.

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

In this (the second of today's three
postings), I discuss electronic

In tough times, long-distance
communications can be kept up with
the 1920-to-1960 technology of
continuous-wave ("CW", as opposed
to mere 1910-vintage "spark")
vacuum-tube-driven low-power short-wave

I would like to support Publius (above)
or others in this movement.
In support of this aim, I would like
to call attention to four resources.

(a) One needs an exposition of the
physics, but at just the right level.
This is a level falling short of the
rigorous calculus-by-Spivak whose
monastic conservation I advocated,
outside the domain of ham radio,
under "Genji and the Printing Press"
on 2009 March 18. It is, on the
other hand, a level reached nicely in
the late 1950s by Francis W. Sears,
and since at least the 1980s reached
nicely by the successive editions of
the first-year Halliday-and-Resnick
physics intro.

(b) One needs enough radio science to
understand and design 1930s-level
CW-capable circuits, right up
to the exacting standard of the
superheterodyne. (Admittedly, I have
not myself got this far, and indeed
have not mastered even the design
ideas of the simpler "regenerative"
receivers.) As far as I can make out,
after some quite careful digging,
two recent Bibles exist, and are no
doubt being put to heavy use in the
best electrical-engineering schools,
at such places as MIT or Caltech or
Cambridge University. I have read
a little in both of them. On the
physics end, as a follow-on from
Halliday-and-Resnick, there is the
second edition of Paul J. Nahin's
_The Science of Radio: with MATLAB and
Electronics Workbench Demonstrations_.
At the engineering end, with
detailed directions for building a CW
receiver as a lab project, and with a
physical-mathematical treatment of each
step on the intricate path, is David B.
Rutledge's _Electronics of Radio_

(c) For learning Morse code, one needs
something better than a Web site. I
have been making lots of use of the
MFJ-418 (or similar MFJ) pocket-sized
Morse-code training box. Details on
this can be had by Googling under
((QUOTE)) MFJ code tutor ((/QUOTE)).

(d) It is true, as JMG says, that
we have to work also on a technology
from the late 1970s, as opposed to the
1930s, namely on the transmission of
TCP-IP (standard Internet-protocol)
bit packets in "packet radio". Here
I cannot report any real personal
work. (I never have been able to coax
our local University of Toronto radio
club terminal node controller into
working, in my sporadic Sunday visits
to our radio shack.) All the same,
I would like to remark that Charles
Petzold's _Code: The Hidden Language
of Computer Hardware and Software_ is
a book on the bitwise nuts and bolts
of computing, liable to be useful as a
preliminary for eventual packet-radio
work. Petzold explains not assembler -
for which other books can be had - but,
better, an actual, realistic, machine
language for which an assembler would
serve as a human-friendly interface.
Given Petzold's dissection of basics,
including RAM addressing and the
architecture of registers and buses,
a patient horde of castaways armed
with zillions of vacuum tubes or
electromechanical relays, and with
zillions of other low-technology
components, could actually design and
build a computer. I imagine that a
team possessing a few hundred thousand
dollars, and possessing a dozen people
designing and wiring full time for
a couple of years (taking Petzold's
schematics as a point of departure for
their design seminars), could get a
hot, room-sized device operating at
the respectable pioneering level of
the Cambridge University 1949 Edsac 1.


Toomas (Tom) Karmo
verbum at interlog dot com

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

In this (the third of today's three
postings), I try to support JMG's
impending discussion of Schumacher

I would like to stress that
Schumacher's praxis is visible
in the cooperative structure of
an enterprise which Schumacher
personally helped to guide,
the Scott Bader Commonwealth.

I would additionally like to supply
some context by remarking that
Schumacher wrote as a Catholic
layman, surely influenced directly
or indirectly by Pope Leo XIII's
pro-worker encyclical _Rerum
Novarum_. Schumacher's thought
resonates with the "distributism"
discussed by JMG, by blog contributor
Danby, and by others, under JMG's
"Some Advice for Distributists" (2009
March 18).

Thirdly, I would like to stress
that distributism has a resonance in
the practical theology of "Catholic
Worker" houses in many of the big
North American cities (including here
in the Toronto area, at Zacchaeus
House, at 5 Close Avenue, near King
and Dufferin; people eat communally
at 7:00 pm Thursdays; it is normal
to turn up without phoning ahead; one
might consider bringing a watermelon
or jar of jam, or something similar,
for the pantry, as indeed I tend to
when I find myself able to make that
King-and-Dufferin journey from here in
Richmond Hill, in the Toronto suburbs).

Fourthly, I would like to suggest
that the idea of Schumacher-inspired
economics might be coupled with an
investigation of mediaeval guilds. The
guild ensured that workers laboured
for themselves, or at worst for their
seniors-in-the-craft, rather than
for capitalists. Additionally, the
guild ensured that workers did not
compete with one another. - Many of
us will feel the ethos of competition
to be one of the driving forces in our
current ruin: I prosper in trade by (as
it were) setting a lower price than my
colleague, or by (as it were) scheming
to make my own payroll cost less than
my colleague's payroll costs; at every
wretched turn, I thus exalt myself,
as individual, above my city, above
the streets of the big welcoming human
herd-or-hive, above that cooperative
setting in which a human life may well
be genetically programmed to thrive.

How, one might now ask, did this
so-salutary idea of a guild get
established in the Byzantine Empire,
given that Constantinople had in
many other things sought to conserve
legacies of Imperial Rome? Was it
through Byzantium, or through other
means (I don't know the answer)
that the guild formalism established
itself in the new cities of the
West - as one can so vividly imagine
when leafing a coffee-table book of
the surviving Lower-Town streets
from Hanseatic Tallinn? And what
mechanisms led to the abandonment of a
so-self-evidently-salutary social idea
after 1600 or so?

And (with a view now to the future,
not to history), where are the most
promising current incarnations of
the guild idea? Do we find echoes of
the guild in the current Debian Linux
distribution - in the software stem
from which some more conventionally
capitalist-corporate distros,
including Ubuntu, and including the
ASUS "Eee PC"-driving Xandros, have
been forked? The distro, that is,
with a charter formally forswearing
capitalistic-competitive ambition?
Suppose, for the sake of argument,
that the horrors of a loss of
integrated-chip technology can in some
happy parts of the world be fended off.
In that hypothetical case, is there any
hope that some engineers duly inspired
by Debian, in happy jurisdictions
possessing appropriately downscaled,
cooperatively owned, integrated-circuit
fabs, will be able to do for a nascent
"open-source hardware" movement
what Debian has since 1996 done for


Toomas (Tom) Karmo
verbum at interlog dot com

Kevin said...

One thing I won't miss about all things digital is the extent to which current electronic technology is predicated on planned obsolescence. Every computer is consciously designed as tomorrow's junk. The same goes for most entertainment systems. Every software package you plunk down 800 bucks on today will be pathetically out of date in a year or two (especially if you want to use it professionally). No doubt this is a manifestation of the economic ideology of infinite growth. It's also lousy for the environment.

I knew a collector of old mixers (precursors of the modern blender, a la Cuisinart) who showed me some of his models from the 1920s and 30s. The solid steel blades, housings and glass bowls looked and felt as sturdy as the day they came out of the factory. Chances are the well-kept ones will run fine at 100 years old (if the requisite power is available). They need never wind up as toxic landfill.
Now that is my idea of good technology.

Another item that seems to become rapidly obsolete in the digital world is knowledge. So you learned C or Fortran 18 years ago? So what - how's your HTML, your Javascript, your Cascading Style Sheets? If you've spent years mastering suites of animation and graphics programs, that knowledge will be antiquated within a couple of seasonal sales cycles - and what will it be worth should the internet become a rotting hulk of infrastructure and the relevant data storage and playback systems cease to be used? Based on those kind of predications, education itself seems to have a built-in obsolescence.

Remember when Morse code was officially decommissioned a few years ago? If radio plays a big part in our future, it would hardly be astonishing to see it make a comeback.

It occurs to me to make a modest proposal. Here and elsewhere I have encountered recommendations that we make a point of learning essential crafts and livingry skills: candle making, soap making, carpentry, permaculture and organic gardening, community gardening, "ham" radio, book arts, papermaking, how to use a slide rule, how to insulate your house, go off-grid, dig wells, build windmills, make water catchment systems, etc, etc. But I know of no one place to acquire all these skills. Once the internet's kaput, or widely unavailable, there will be no universally accessible source for such information and we'll each be on our own, which to my way of thinking is not a promising or well-boding state of affairs. So - what about creating a school or learning center for such skills? Or a network of them? Perhaps people with knowledge in various areas could trade skills with and teach one another, so that it's not strictly a matter of paying cash upfront for knowledge, (which would necessarily cut out some of the people who most need that knowledge). I'm not a person with organizational ability or the ready ability to put such a proposal into action, but it seems like it would be a good idea for someone start it. If someone did, I'd be happy to jump on board. Just a thought.

John Michael Greer said...

Rudolf, you're quite right -- this is why I've been trying to focus a bit more attention on the nontechnical aspects of our predicament: in earlier posts, the cultural narratives and worldviews that keep us locked into dysfunctional habits; in this and future posts, the economic forces and misunderstandings that make sustainability so difficult.

Tom, anything that can keep libraries viable is a good thing. I suspect that libraries at private colleges and universities may have the best shot at long-term survival, but we'll see.

Keleto, give me a billion dollar bailout and I'd be happy to see some of it go to such a project -- though there are other things that deserve the lion's share. You may be right that responding to comments here is unnecessary, but the conversations are useful to me much more often than not, as a way to refine my thinking, and also to point up places where collective thinking is stuck in ruts.

Tom (again), all good points -- and many thanks for the references to physics and radio texts. I'll be dealing with the background to Schumacher's ideas in rather more detail in a later post.

Kevin, as modest proposals go, yours is more practical than Jonathan Swift's but would require about as substantial a departure from contemporary practice. I've begun to think about what might usefully be done in terms of an organized response to the predicament of industrial society; a school would be costly, but not out of the question if the funding could be arranged. (Maybe Keleto can spare some of his bailout money!) In the meantime, I'd encourage you and others to think hard about what you personally can do to keep important information resources alive through, for starters, the great economic unraveling already under way in much of the world.

MawKernewek said...

I wonder if the chaotic behaviour of the economy is due to the number of economies.

Physics tells us that systems with a very few particles are predictable, and systems with very many particles are predictable statistically.

You can predict what will happen to a binary star system, you can predict on a statistical level what will happen to a cluster of a million stars, but if you have a few hundred stars things are less predictable. The final state of the system becomes highly dependent on stochastic processes.

If there were of order 10000 states in the world rather than of order 100, perhaps this would take the world economy out of the chaotic zone and into the thermodynamic zone.

If this is correct, we should expect the world to transition into this state as economic instability destabilises national governments. One way or another the system will find its stable state.

Neven said...

Mr. Greer, first of all I'd like to apologize for getting on your nerves. I totally understand your frustration, but you must know that I fully agree with almost everything you write and when writing comments I try to leave my wishful thinking out of the equation as best I can.

Although on the face of it I might come across as someone who scrunches up his eyes, covers his ears, and chants "I can't hear you, nya nya nya" over and over again, I might actually turn out to be the über-doomer here. Pardon me for going off topic (though indirectly it is very much on topic).

I'm quite certain that your statements about climate change are incorrect.

Neven, the earth has been through sudden temperature increases of 5-6 degrees C. hundreds of times in its long history, and at least once during the history of our species -- the end of the last ice age saw jumps on that scale. It'll make life difficult for a lot of people, and drive some pretty sharp population contractions, but it's not the end of the world.Not according to the science:

The other important difference between the glacial-interglacial cycles and today is the rapidity of the current change. The rate of warming is on the order of 10 times faster today than in the ice cores.

Such rapid warming on a global scale is quite rare in the geological record, and while it may not be entirely unprecedented, there is strong evidence that whenever such a change has happened, whatever the cause, it was a catastrophic event for the biosphere.

JMG, when it comes to the theory of Anthropogenic Global Warming there are a lot of uncertainties, nobody knows what's going to happen exactly, but I think it should have a prominent place in any theory that deals with societal collapse. If things play out like you more or less predict, I'd like to be so bold as to say that chances are very high that humanity is doomed to go extinct.

To end with an on topic remark, I think this was a very important argument made by Juan Wilson. In fact, IMO it was the best remark in all comments, so I'd like to repeat it here:

My point is that modern society may put a very high priority on internet communication beyond the normal dynamics of economic reality.

The overall case you make is sound, but I think you have underestimated the significance of the worldwide telecommunication and internet transfer of information regarding the health of the planet.

It is not just an "advantage" to have a planet-wide neural network at this time, it is a "necessity".

The only "safe way down" from the pinnacle of human population we now face is with planetary scale monitoring and distribution of information concerning things like green house gasses and deforestation.

I would add that blogs like yours, Richard Heinberg, James Kunstler (and even our's modest efforts) are bringing critical information to light that otherwise would only be shared between friends in a coffee house.
JMG, you replied:

As for the survival value of the internet, well, has all that information flow actually done anything, say, to slow down global warming or coordinate a response to peak oil? I don't see any evidence that it has.Perhaps not yet, but it very well might in a society that's slowly collapsing, when people wake up and go looking for information that helps them shape up practically and mentally.

The irony is that the existence of your blog is the strongest counterargument to what you have written in this last blog post. I hope you'll follow up on it someday!

Juan Wilson said...

I would argue that we would not even know about global warming without the technology of satellite data, telecommunications, database systems, GIS, the internet and all the necessary supporting technologies.

It is this system that has in fact become Gaia's neural system... or consciousness. Why else would let 7 billion people overpopulate the planet temporarily?

I know, I know... Gaia can get along quite happily without us or the internet. Let's just say I want a reason to keep as much of the vast knowledge we have so recently acquired at such great cost to the planet.

Blog on!

Roboslob said...


I've been contemplating something akin to what you're proposing as a (gulp) website. Sort of a craigslist (mostly localized) for surviving the impending poopstorm (is there a better outlook?). I think we can get this thing off the ground before the power runs out ;). Send me an email robots_have_no_fun at

Joe Carlton said...

If you're talking about a gradual process unfolding over decades (or even a century in the case of coal), then you open up the possibility of a gradual compensating process - also unfolding over decades - of efficiency, and alternative infrastructure building (nuclear, solar, wind, geothermal, passive solar etc.)

It's a fallacy to say that the decline of fossil fuels must inevitably lead to increased electricity prices. This is because there are a number of countries which economically produce most of their power without any FF at all: France (80% Nuclear, 10% Hydro; $0.15 per kwh), Sweden (51% Nuclear, 40% Hydro, $0.15), Belgium (60% Nuclear, $0.15). The question is how quickly and smoothy countries can switch from FF to non-FF sources, and the example of France (or even the US in the 70s) would suggest that, under the right conditions, a tremendous amount of switching can occur in decades (or a century, in the case of coal). The speed at which grid-parity solar can diffuse is an interesting and open question. As is the future of battery technology. It's illegitimate to simply assume, as you do, that the decline of FFs translates inevitably into a decline in electricity availability.

As for the internet as a replacement for live meetings, telephones do the same thing with a much simpler infrastructure; so do many other technologies -- and moving people around for meetings takes up a vanishingly small fraction of total energy use in the first place, so that's a red herring at best.This is a very inadequate and facile answer.

First of all, you've produced no evidence whatsoever that people traveling to meet people "takes up a vanishingly small fraction of total energy use". I would contend that a huge fraction of travel is for that very purpose. Consider the holiday travel season, or the Lunar New Year in China, when one of the world's largest human migrations occurs so that people can "see their families".

Secondly, the principle applies to much more than meetings which can be handled over the phone. The roles where telepresence can replace vehicle/plane travel are very numerous: attending school/college, going to church, going shopping, visiting govt. offices to fill out forms, going to the bank, foreign language study, academic conferences, conventions, trade shows, psychological counseling, some types of medical consultation; commuting by government bureaucratic employees, commuting by clerical/info workers (the largest job category by far), commuting by the clerical, engineering, design, marketing, accounting and management staff which account for the bulk of most corporations (even in areas like manufacturing and transport); commuting by accountants, lawyers, insurance company staff, graphic designers, programmers etc. etc.

The phone and radio are not viable substitutes. They cannot handle these tasks because they do not allow work with imagery, documents or databases etc. People can work on or fill out documents remotely with the internet; that isn't possible with phone or radio.

Clearly the internet provides strong, economic incentives (in terms of money, time and energy) for virtual movement as opposed to physical driving/flying. Those incentives will only grow stronger as oil prices rise. I'm giving you a specific example where the internet economically outcompetes existing technologies because it is cheaper, and uses far less energy -- precisely your criteria for a technology to survive. And you haven't effectively disputed that point.

keleto said...

Thanks JMG. Just clarifying that when I questioned the usefulness of your involvement in the forum I meant from *your* point of view, not from the pov of the forum's general public :-) As an old reader (but new poster)I was concerned to see you getting (aparranty) a bit stressed which is something i had never seen before in 2 years just reading the blog.

John Michael Greer said...

Maw Kernewek, the problem there is that "an economy" is an abstraction composed of a great many variables, none of which are isolated from other variables outside that economy. Nor is a stable state guaranteed; Prigogine showed that in an open system, movement away from equilibrium is the most likely result.

Neven, I'd encourage you to read the last few years of research from the Greenland ice cores -- Brian Fagan's The Two-Mile Time Machine is a good introduction, though it's a bit dated by now. They've documented, for example, that the drastic climate shifts at the beginning and end of the Younger Dryas period -- which were as drastic as anything we're facing -- happened in less than a decade. It is unfortunately true that a great many statements being made about prehistoric climate change in the global warming literature are quite simply incorrect.

More generally, yes, I'd gathered that you were from the apocalyptic end of the spectrum. I get roughly equal amounts of flak from the cornucopians, who believe the Great God Progress will save us, and from the apocalyptics, who believe the Great God Nature will slay us by the billions in punishment for our sins. As these admittedly satiric summaries may suggest, I feel that both viewpoints are misplaced chunks of religious mythology, applied to the world of secular history where they don't actually offer much in the way of useful guidance to our future. History provides better guidance -- and that's what I've been trying to use to guide this blog.

Juan, I agree there's good reason to try to preserve as much useful knowledge as possible -- that's one of the reasons why I'd like to see it in some less evanescent form than the internet. As for Gaia's motives, well, last I checked she ain't saying; maybe she's just tired of ice ages and evolved us to get some of her stashed carbon back into circulation!

Roboslob, go for it.

Joe, if we can harness all the energy expended in rhetorical handwaving by the proponents of infinite progress, that in itself might solve our energy crisis. Of course if you ignore the laws of thermodynamics and assume that renewables using current solar income can provide the same energy supply as burning through a half billion years of stored sunlight in three centuries, the future looks very bright indeed. I've addressed this point at length elsewhere on this blog as well as in my book The Long Descent.

Your comments on travel are also handwaving; you've conflated the very small amount of travel that can be replaced by the internet with the entire travel industry -- I'd encourage you to try to sell those Chinese families on the idea that a conversation over Skype is just as good as visiting Mom in Taipei -- and dismissed the fact that conference calls and the like already account for a good deal of the gains credited to the internet via an irrelevancy -- conference calls take place all the time, you know, and nobody seems terribly inconvenienced by the fact that they can't fax a document at the same moment. Of course the internet is a bit more convenient; that's not at issue. Will that convenience justify the hundreds of gigawatts of energy it consumes in a future of energy scarcity, when the same services can be provided at a much lower energy cost by simpler technologies? Of course not.

Keleto, thanks for your concern. I do find these discussions stressful from time to time, but that comes with the territory; anyone who tries to communicate ideas that cut across the grain of the conventional wisdom can expect that.

Kevin said...

Roboslob, thanks. I'll email you.

If creating schools of "livingry" (to use Bucky Fuller's term) proves prohibitively costly, perhaps some low-cost alternatives might prove viable. An institution with a dedicated building complex and salaried staff is obviously expensive. But it might be feasible to utilize the existing network of local rec centers and adult learning centers which are scattered throughout various municipalities all over the United States (and elsewhere?). I imagine this could be done in an organized, nationally coordinated way rather than haphazardly, perhaps beginning with the internet as an organizing tool, as suggested (use it while we've got it). A ramping up of public awareness of and participation in community gardens, which already exist in various locales, might also be constructive.

Alternatively, people skilled in various crafts could teach one another out of their homes or studios. This could be done on a modest class-fee basis, or people might trade skills by exchanging lessons with one another. Again, the web could be a viable way to put interested parties in touch with each other locally.

JMG, about my media questions: as usual you've unerringly put your finger on the critical issue. I'll probably go with print and treat video as an ancillary follow-up.

I've discovered online a writer whom you may find of interest. His name is Charles Eisenstein. He's written a book which anticipates the unraveling of industrial civilization, is critical of its failure to deliver on many of its promises ("the future is running a little behind schedule") and then proposes his vision for creating a more desirable society within the context of its decline. The quality of his writing is excellent. The title is The Ascent of Humanity. The full text is available online. In truth I'm curious as to what your response to it might be.

Sorry if I've gone a bit off-topic. The discussion in this blog sets my mind to working on multiple fronts.

710 said...

This was very good and unfortunate. I agree with just about all of it.

I don't agree with a long, gradual decline, however, because our dysfunction and complex interdependency resemble a living thing riddled with cancer. Living things don't de-evolve or age in reverse, they suffer the sudden, complex, systemic collapse of death. So take great precautions with the technology and data you wish to preserve. It will have to last a long time.

Kevin said...

To be a little more on topic, I think I can to some extent anticipate the shape that the withdrawal of the internet from the public sphere will take, at least in its early stages.

The beginning of the end will be the end of net neutrality. This is the official policy making access to the web more or less universally equal. When net neutrality comes to an end, it is likely that access to the web will be available only under a pricing hierarchy similar to that of cable television. Those who pay for minimum web service will likely have access only to major corporate websites such as AOL, Google, Yahoo!, CNN, and so forth. Smaller websites produced by individuals and small organizations will be accessible only to those who purchase higher-priced subscriptions, reducing both public access to and the potential audience for such websites, making it less worthwhile to maintain them. At the same time, I suspect, it may become prohibitively expensive for individuals to produce and maintain a website. I anticipate that the privilege of pasting embedded videos and other hi-bandwidth formats into one's website will become an additional price point increasingly unaffordable to most people. The same may eventually become true even of simple jpeg images. Hence the process will work by gradually pricing the public out of the web until it becomes once again the exclusive domain of government, corporations, and large institutions.

Major telecom companies have already been pushing for the elimination of net neutrality, and their efforts have only been thwarted by outspoken public activism. The increasing energy cost of operating the web will likely strengthen their hand and eventually the relevant agencies will give in. I expect that the media propaganda apparatus will hail these changes as "improvements" of service, at any rate until they and their services disappear altogether or wind up on the military payroll.

If Obama is a two-termer, and sticks with present policies against lobbying, I would guess that the first step in this process will take place in about ten to twelve years' time. If he's a one-termer, probably sooner.

Just a guess, and my crystal ball might be cracked. But if it turns out like I said, you heard it here first.

John Michael Greer said...

Kevin, thanks for the tip! I'll check Eisenstein out. Thanks also for the comments on things that could be done; as I mentioned a bit earlier, I'm beginning to explore ways in which organized activity might help us face the crisis of the industrial age, and all this grist for the mill.

710, I'd strongly encourage you to volunteer at a nursing home. You'll find that living things very often go through long gradual declines -- sometimes to a terrifying degree -- before the final systems collapse comes. History also argues against you; the fall of civilizations is pretty much always a gradual, drawn-out process. Our culture's mythology of progress makes it very difficult to realize that there are alternatives to the false dichotomy of perpetual progress and sudden total collapse, but it's high time we look outside that particular box and relearn just how life ripens toward death.

Kevin, that sounds quite probable to me. I'd also look at taxation as a factor; with trillion-dollar deficits to pay off, I don't see any way governments will be willing to leave the net as tax-free as it is today. Internet access taxes could easily be imposed along the lines of today's phone taxes, for example, and pay-to-play services are another lucrative taxable revenue stream (yes, we will all have to deal with another round of jokes about "a stiff tax on porn" and the like). Online anonymity will also likely be an early casualty.

As I mentioned, I expect to see some form of internet still around in 25 years; it just won't be anything like as accessible, as cheap, as unrestricted, or as reliable as it is today. How long until it goes away completely? That depends on details of the decline that are pretty much impossible to predict in advance, but those of you who are in your 20s probably won't have it around when you're old.

keleto said...


Just running an idea up the flagpole as speculation, wondering what anyone thinks of it. If it is rubbish or obvious, then no need to flame me too hard please :-)

It just occurred to me that when a technology dies in many cases it could be VERY difficult and expensive to revive because often the equipment etc. gets scrapped and the skills base collapses.

Retooling for a second age of steam railways or a second age of sail, for example, may be very difficult or perhaps impossible, even if they became economically desirable again.

Similarly, going back to vinyl records, telegraph, non-digital photography or movable type printing (for examples) would be difficult now as the equipment and skills of the previous methods are mostly gone.

So when at some future point societies find there are not enough resources, energy and skills to keep current systems (eg, the internet) going then it seems unlikely that there will be sufficient skills, energy and resources to retool back to an earlier (but still rather advanced) technology either.

That suggests that if the 'latest and greatest' technology collapses then rather than being replaced by the previous, slightly less complex technology, instead technique might have to revert right back to the most basic and primitive for a while.

Lets suppose some critical shortage knocks out, for instance, modern newspaper production. All the previous generations of movable type infrastructure are no longer available as they were melted down, so what then ? All the way back to scribes posting reused paper proclamations on lampposts until people relearn Gutenberg level print technology and paper making.

For fun, lets suppose the expansionist, 'progress' driven economy recovers for 25 years and further suppose that over that time old-fashioned telephone networks are fully scrapped, poles, wires exchanges and all are ripped out and replaced entirely with voip over digital cellular networks. When the crunch comes, there is no previous generation infrastructure to go back to. Oops. What then ?

Is this idea going anywhere ? It would seem to point to fairly rapid collapse being possible in certain systems at least, rather than a gradual simplification of technique.

As I said, I do not insist on these ideas, but they struck me as perhaps interesting enough to share.

710 said...

I have spent time in a nursing home, so I have seen the horrible things that the living can go through prior to the sudden onset of death.

The problem is that our society has been on life-support for centuries and millennia already, that life-support supplied by our continual appropriation and usurpation of the biosphere and its resources. It manifests through the high level of dysfunction in the human world, because the support system is artificial and synthetic and not what we as humans actually need. Like someone on a respirator. We're breathing, sure, but it's not what were designed for. But it feels normal to us, only because every single one of us was born on the respirator.

We are forced to breathe to the artificial rhythm of schooling, media, religion, and law, which take the place of learning, communication, spirituality, and moral and emotional awareness. We are forced to breathe to the rhythm of money and jobs, which are substitutes for the earned trust and mutual respect that would otherwise come from the exchange of resources and services for mutual support.

So actually I was off before. We are not so much breathing as much as we are being breathed.

But that's just how I see it. That said, however, your insights and blog are exemplary and stellar and very much needed.

Some things I'd like to mention about the people who suggest that the Internet will not be allowed to fail because of its advantages. I don't think there's any curious logic here, it sounds like supposition and hope. Because there are great advantages to never having the Net go down, yet it still does, just like with power outages, and product shortages. There would be great personal advantages to never being injured or dying, and yet that still happens continuously. I think this hope partially comes out of living in a world steeped in the illusion of us being in constant control. The mere suggestion that we're not in constant control evokes fear because most people have never experienced or even thought about it, about not being supported or protected. Most people have no idea how to self-organize, and have no idea how to go about supporting or protecting themselves. At the black abyss of the unknown, denial kicks in, because with no other ideas or options, denial is the only apparent option available.

So I'll offer an option that has always been useful to me in times like this. I tell myself, "I don't know what to do if this would happen, but since it hasn't happened yet, there's time to figure it out."

The important part, I think, is to start with "I don't know."

Neven said...

Dear Mr. Greer, I still think you aren't on the ball when it comes to climate change, but I won't bother you with a discussion on it as you're busy enough replying everybody's comments as it is (for which I thank and recommend you). Perhaps some other time.

I want to thank all commenters for offering a variety of stimulating comments and insights here. It is always interesting to read JMG's articles and the responses they elicit but this past week especially so.

John Michael Greer said...

Keleto, it's a valid point, and in fact I've discussed it in several previous posts (though admittedly it's been a while) -- here's a post from 2006 about that, for example. One of the reasons it's so important to revive simpler technologies as promptly as possible is precisely so that we'll have some Plan B technologies in place when the current extravagant technologies stop being economically viable at all.

710, I'm certainly not going to claim that today's industrial civilization is viable over more than a fairly short term -- quite the contrary, I suspect the current economic troubles are the first rumbles of a massive crisis that will leave substantial portions of it shredded. My take is simply that the overall collapse will be a much more complex process, with the kind of uneven trajectory found in other historical examples of societies that overshot their resource base. As for the role of wishful thinking in popular visions of the future, no argument there either -- and it's interesting to note that believers in apocalypse seem to be just as prone to this as believers in perpetual progress. I've long since lost count of the number of people I've heard insisting that the approaching collapse will inevitably usher in Utopia, which is simply another expression of the same habit.

Neven, well, barring a sudden amelioration of the shortage of crystal balls, we'll just have to wait and see what the atmosphere decides to do. In the meantime, each of us has to make the best assessment we can, and try to build for the future on that basis.

The Naked Mechanic said...

North Korea conducted a nuclear test today, May 25.
Need I remind folks that most of our computer chips and doodads are made in Sth Korea?

Prepare for the worst, hope for the best and remember that everything is ephemeral

Nnonnth said...

JMG: I've long since lost count of the number of people I've heard insisting that the approaching collapse will inevitably usher in Utopia, which is simply another expression of the same habit. Hmm... can't see you liking Charles Eisenstein much!

FB said...

Greetings from Taiwan.

It was very sunny here today -- I had to use an umbrella to walk outside around 11:00 a.m. just to provide shade. I was still soaked in sweat after a 45 minute walk.

When you make your calculations, please don't forget that in some countries, governments and people are going solar.

This will not work for everyone. The folks in Siberia obviously will have to find another way. But it's a factor.

By the way, many countries are already much more food-localized than the USA. Taiwan is not entirely localized, but I can't throw a rock without hitting a farmer's market.

Ruben said...

You have been linked on TreeHugger, JMG. Beware the deluge.

spottedwolf said...

I haven't read all the comments of this post or the last so I wish to mention one thing, which may be overlooked, regarding this aspect of the post's issue is the struggle to prioritize the internet as almost, viable-extant, when one considers the real possibility of said being shut down by the military as precautionary to its disruptive ability. It seems Americans by and large, think their so called rights actually exist rather than granted by governments of a period. History proves quite different from the point of the beginning to all are aware. If the government sees the internet as too disruptive a medium it will merely use its FEMA and HS as the tools to remove its access by the public.

Glenn said...


No shortage of skills here in the Port Townsend, WA area. We never left the age of wooden sailing vessels. Plenty of yards, builders, blacksmiths, riggers and sailmakers. Our problem in a post collapse society will be a lack of wire and fiber rope and sailcloth. These are all produced industrially, and no one's practicing an artisanal version yet.

I believe there's an outfit in Toledo or Waldport, OR selling small steam engines. The catch is, you've got to build your own boiler.


Danby said...

The American way is not to shut down something disruptive like the internet, but to co-opt and control it.

I would expect the Feds to begin censoring content, automatically at the backbone, "To protect the children." This is usually done with a blacklist. Email is already being monitored and mined for clues about subversives and 'terrorists.' Soon, we can expect the same for major chat providers like Yahoo, googletalk, and MSN, if such measures are not already in place. Social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace are already being datamined.

We will keep the illusion of a free and unfettered internet, just not the reality. Instead, the Internet will become a huge reservoir of information for the government and corporations about ordinary Americans. Social views, political opinions, blackmail material, actual intelligence about real terrorists, it's all out there. What little disruption could actually come from the entertainment-obsessed American public will be diverted, infiltrated, co-opted and squelched. And the few who might be effective at disruption will be found out and made an example of.

I work in telecom, this is already happening.

Kevin said...

Danby, your analysis strikes me as spot on. It figures absolutely that you can see this from inside the telecom industry. The only surprise is that it hasn't happened sooner.

spottedwolf said...

Danby.....thanks for the extrapolation.....I spent 25 years in Texas terminating my US life at the age of 30 in 1980. I burned my draft card as a matter of course in 1971 while my brother, hapibeli, was in Viet Nam. I am certainly aware of the decietfulness of the American government and the levels of ignorance which exist throughout the western hemisphere. The intelligence and effort of those who seek honesty and balance, such as you who verbalize in John's spectrum, is also a reminder of the good things which exist everywhere.

Ana's Daughter said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ana's Daughter said...

@Spotted Wolf: Thank you, you made my day. The number of people who think that rights are something solid and tangible that they can grasp with both hands and never lose is rather frightening.

@JMG: Wow, you hit a nerve by telling people that their easy access to online life may go away. Indeed, financial resources will only go so far and cannot be forced to spread to cover more ground unless one plays the sort of credit games that have just brought down a bunch of major banks, airlines, and automakers. Money doesn't grow on trees, and pretending that it does won't actually make it so; in the end, reality always brings down the fiction.

The quote from Busman's Honeymoon, however, is as true now as it was in the 1930s: "It is impossible for human nature to believe that money is not there. It seems so much more likely that the money is there and only needs bawling for."

Megan said...

Better late than never, I guess ...

MawKernewek: The question is, is this going to be more energy efficient than doing so through the classified ads of a local paper?I recall references in e.g. the Sherlock Holmes stories to people treating the classified ads as a general message board: 'John, please come home, all is forgiven. - Mary'; 'M., meet me at the corner of X and Y at 7 tonight, - V.'. But what interests me even more are the role-playing 'message boards' some magazines developed:

Disillusioned, some suggested material for your Wiki:
Whole Earth Catalogue, digitized:
Video instructions for how to make a fuel-conserving stove:
'Where There Is No Doctor':
National Centre for Food Preservation:

tata_23 said...

John, as I have time I'm going backward in your blog. The internet example in this post is totally right on. As with the internet going under and reverting back to simpler methods, so would the current system of food production and distribution. I don't think many people realize how precariously balanced our current system really is.

As I mentioned in my e-mail, the food systems in this country are heavily dependent on fuel and its availability. As with the internet, if there is no energy, there is no food being stored or moved. It takes vast amounts of energy to refrigerate, freeze, process and move food around large areas of land. And, as with the internet and all of its sub-systems of computers, manufacturing of processors and so on, the food system and all its parts are the same way.

What happened in Cuba when the Soviet pull out occurred was there was an immediate shortage of fuel. And, consequently, an immediate inability to store and transport food. Even though Cuba is not large by US standards, it is a very warm place. The food rotted. The people went hungry. Suddenly.

Unless food can be grown locally or regionally and moved quickly to a person's stomach, the day is coming where people are going to radically have to, and here is the key idea, 'change their habits and not their technology'. Fresh meat will become more of a luxury than a staple. Fresh oranges may again be something special that shows up in the midwest around December in straw packed boxes. People away from the hot areas of the country most likely won't have too many fresh salad greens in the winter. Especially in Wisconsin where I live. But, most people's diets are going to change. Weather they want them to or not. People will become aware of seasonal change again. They will get used to local and regional diets again. Basically, because they will have little choice.

I don't think we would revert back all the way to the sixteen hundreds, but definitely before the industrial age, possibly back to the early eighteen hundreds or late seventeen hundreds. The problem is, that in order to sustain a large human population with these past technologies, we would have to have far fewer people. If the technologies that are currently employed in our industrial society go away, so do the human numbers. In some way, this isn't a problem, as that is what would need to happen to benefit the planet and to help any people to keep living. But, in other ways, I don't relish being in the group that doesn't make it. So, I'm trying not to be ignorant of the current situations. My family and I are trying to set up systems in our lives that will continue to function even though energy becomes scarce or nonexistent. Basically, a home that can function without electricity. Solar panels won't save the day. They take more energy to produce than they give back in their life time use. They need a large infrastructure of factories and technology to maintain. And, if there's no wire able to be smelted and drawn, there won't be a way to get electricity to anything.

I think people take for granted many things around them until those things are gone. I think people need to really look at their surroundings and the effect their own personal actions, and the actions of their society, are having on the planet. Industrialized people need to start seeing how every action interrelates with the world.

I think people tend to blindly fight for what they are used to. I think people can relax about change and let it happen without that fight. Because the change is going to happen no matter what. The energy spent fighting to keep "our way of life" is better spent trying to figure out a way to live better in the coming years.

I think changing habits is a hard thing for most people. I think it's time long past to do just that.

I am looking forward to reading more here. Thank you for being the voice that says it, John.


ariel55 said...

Dear JMG,

I sincerely want to thank you for your excellent blog. Thank you for the acumen you bring to our "interesting" times. As I read,I mentally unite many of my own backgrounds--and now, even land use. Imagine that! Thanks again, and please carry on...!

jevandorp said...

Dear mr. Greer,

In your earlier post, I took issue with your belief that the internet would likely dissappear as a result of energy scarcity. In this post, you again approach this issue and repeat your prediction. I am disappointed that you did not specify the fundamental assumptions behind your position. The analogy with the Easter Islanders is too flawed to be of any help in my opinion.

MawKernewek has already supported with evidence the fact that the energy cost of the internet is but a fraction of the energy cost of home computers. Essentially, this means that as long as people can afford to power their home computer, then they can afford to pay their ISP to maintain the internet. Now, 8 hours of using the internet each day on a modest laptop computer costs about 0.4 kWh of electricity, or about 30 US$ct (European prices!), for the energy. To cover the additional energy cost to run the internet (broadband!) is less than 30 US$ct, even when doubling the energy cost per the comments of MawKernewek above.

So, 60 US$ct all-in total energy costs per person, using European energy prices, for 8 hours of internet use per day.

This is a miniscule amount of money, and I honestly cannot understand why you are persisting in predicting the inevitable failure of the internet?

To summarise: You’re position is that the internet will not survive the end of the cheap energy era because it will become too costly to maintain. In support of that position, will you please specify what the cost of internet per subscriber will be in 20 years time according to you, casu quo, so that we can actually see and understand why you are saying what you are saying?

I will quantify my position on this issue for you to take aim at. My position is that the all-in energy/resource cost of using the internet 8 hours a day with a minimum bandwidth equal to 50kbit/s in the year 2030 anywhere in the inhabited world will not exceed 1 dollar per day. What do you say to that, and please please please support your argument with numbers?

It frustrates me no end that I understand most of what you have been talking about for years, except this nagging point about the internet not being economically viable!

Respectfully yours,