Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Survival Isn't Cost-Effective

I trust my readers won’t be unduly distressed by an extended safari through the tangled jungles of the “dismal science” of economics. As suggested in several recent Archdruid Report posts, economic factors have played a massive role in putting the industrial world in its current predicament, and an even more substantial role in blocking any constructive attempt to get out of the corner into which we’ve painted ourselves. There’s an all too real sense in which, if modern industrial civilization perishes, it will be because the steps necessary for its survival weren’t cost-effective enough.

Mind you, this can be interpreted in at least two different ways, and both of them are relevant to the crisis of the industrial world. Like any other science, economics is a set of hypothetical models that reflect, with more or less exactness, the observed behavior of the world. Too often the models get confused with the reality, and understanding suffers.

In a different context, that of the physics of vacuum tubes, Philip Partner commented in his classic textbook Electronics (1950): “The theory speaks of ions, atoms, and electrons, and of collisions between them; but these are figments of the mind, props for its understanding. [...] The electron, like the atom, is a concept; it is part of a mental shorthand which we have invented to summarize our knowledge of Nature. So when we say, for example, that an electron collides with an atom, we should bear in mind that we have never seen it happen. The use of the present indicative does not turn hypothesis into fact” (p. 569). Unfortunately this level of clarity is hard to achieve and harder to maintain.

This has to be kept in mind when trying to make sense of the economic dimension of industrial civilization’s decline and fall, because both sides of the equation – the models and the reality – throw up challenges in the way of constructive action, and so do economic policies that are based on the models, and thus function at a second remove from the reality. It’s true, and will be a central theme of future posts, that current economic theory has lost touch with reality in critical ways, and a revision of some of the basic ideas of modern economics is essential if we’re to make sense of our predicament and do anything constructive in response to it. It’s equally true that government policies based on today’s misguided economic notions have become massive liabilities to societies struggling to deal with today’s crisis, and even this late in the game, changes in these policies might still do a great deal of good. Still, it’s also true that economic factors in the real world, independent of theory, impose hard limits on what can be done.

The classic example has to be the plethora of projects for “lifeboat communities” floated in recent years. The basic idea seems plausible enough at first glance: to preserve lives and knowledge through the decline and fall of the industrial age, establish a network of self-sufficient communities in isolated rural areas, equipped with the tools and technology they will need to maintain a tolerable standard of living in difficult times. The trouble comes, as it usually does, when it’s time to tot up the bill. The average lifeboat community project I’ve seen would cost well over $10 million to establish – many would cost a great deal more – and I have yet to see such a project that provides any means for its inhabitants to cover those costs and pay their bills in the years before industrial civilization goes away.

The unstated assumption seems to be that as soon as the intrepid residents of such a community move into their solar-heated cohousing units, start up the wind turbines and the methane generators, and get to work harvesting tree crops from the permacultured landscaping all around, industrial civilization will disappear in a puff of smoke and take its taxes, debts, and miscellaneous expenses with it. Pleasant though the prospect might seem, I am sorry to say that this isn’t going to happen. The residents of any lifeboat community founded today will not only have to come up somehow with the very substantial sums needed to buy the land, build the cohousing units, wind turbines and so on, and plant all that permaculture landscaping; they will also have to earn a living during the long transitional process that leads from the world we inhabit today to the conditions that will pertain at the bottom of the curve of decline. Some awareness of these difficulties may go a long way to explain why, of the great number of lifeboat communities that have been proposed over the last decade or two, the number that have actually been built can be counted on the fingers of one foot.

Economic forces constrain the future in more global ways as well. Not many people seem to have noticed, for instance, that the grim scenario traced out in the seminal 1973 study The Limits to Growth – still the most plausible map of the future ahead of us, and thus inevitably the most bitterly vilified – is driven by simple economics. As resources deplete, that study pointed out, the cost of keeping resources flowing into to the economy will increase in real terms, as more labor and capital have to be invested to extract a given amount of each resource; as pollution levels rise, in turn, the costs of mitigating their impacts on public health, agricultural productivity, and other core economic factors go up in the same way, and for the same reasons. Those costs have to be paid out of current economic output, leaving less and less for other uses, until economic output itself begins to fall and the industrial world begins its terminal decline.

Now it’s easy to insist, if you ignore the economic dimension, that a society facing this sort of crisis can save itself by launching a massive program to build nuclear reactors, solar thermal power plants, algal biodiesel, or what have you, and of course this sort of claim has seen endless rehashing over the last couple of decades. The problem is that massive programs of this sort pile additional demands on an already faltering economy. Any such program has to be paid for, after all, and by this I don’t mean that money has to be found for it; in today’s mostly hallucinatory economic climate, conjuring money out of thin air is easy enough. No, it has to be paid out of current economic output, which is much less flexible, and already has to cover the rising costs of resource depletion and pollution. This is the trap hidden in the limits to growth; once those limits begin to bite, the spare economic capacity that would be needed to build one’s way out of trouble no longer exists.

Thus there are limits hardwired into our situation by the inflexible realities that surround us, and we have already strayed far enough over those limits that the payback will inevitably be harsh. At the same time, other forces pushing us in the same direction are a product of economic misunderstandings, and in the way these misunderstandings are reflected in public policy. Those could conceivably be changed in time to matter.

Resource depletion and pollution, the driving forces behind the Limits to Growth scenario, are particularly vexed issues in today’s economic thought. As we’ve seen, both of these factors impose costs, potentially drastic ones, on the economy. Under current economic arrangements, however, those costs are not charged to the people who benefit from the activities in question. The owner of an oil well gets the economic benefits of pumping oil out of the ground, but does not have to pay for the impact today’s extraction will have on tomorrow’s economy. (For many years, in fact, government policies in most of the world’s industrial nations have actually rewarded oil well owners for accelerating the depletion of this nonrenewable resource and imposing massive costs on the future.) In the same way, the owner of a smokestack that dumps pollution into the atmosphere gets the economic benefits of whatever activity produces the pollution, but does not have to pay for the costs incurred as a result of the pollution. This asymmetry has at least two results. First and most obviously, neither the oil well owner nor the smokestack owner has any incentive to decrease the negative impacts of his or her activities. Still, the second and in some ways more important result is that the long-term economic burdens of depletion and pollution are not included in measures of the relative economic costs and benefits of the well or the smokestack.

The result is a massive distortion in our understanding of the realities that shape our lives. It’s generally not considered a viable business plan – outside of the financial industry, that is – to make large profits in the short term by running up debts so large the business will have to declare bankruptcy in the not too distant future. Yet this is exactly what an economic system that ignores the cumulative costs of resource depletion and pollution mitigation is doing, and on an even larger scale. The future costs of extracting resources from depleted reserves and mitigating the impacts of a polluted environment have the same effect as the future costs of debt service on excessive borrowing; they buy temporary prosperity in the near future at the cost of impoverishment or collapse further down the road.

Garret Hardin’s famous essay “The Tragedy of the Commons” addressed this issue some years back. Hardin showed that in a situation where the benefits from exploiting a resource went to individuals, but the costs were spread throughout the community, individuals intent on maximizing their own individual benefit would overexploit the resource and suffer drastic losses in the longer run. His logic was impeccable, and there are plenty of real-world examples of resource exhaustion driven by this very process, but it has been pointed out by his critics with equal relevance that resources held in common have in fact been managed sustainably in countless cases around the world and throughout history. The question that has to be asked is where the difference comes in.

This is where the divide pointed up earlier in this essay – the gap between economic realities and the models our society uses to understand them and predict their effects – comes into play. Hardin was quite correct that when individuals got the benefits of resource exploitation without paying their fair share of the costs to the community, exhaustion of the resource follows. Those societies that have managed resources in common successfully, in turn, found ways to make those who gained the benefits of resource exploitation pay a commensurate share of the costs. The collective understanding of economics in these societies, in other words, and the social policies that shaped economic behavior, took the tragedy of the commons into account and adjusted the customs and laws governing economic exchanges accordingly.

As we make the transition from what I’ve called the abundance economies of the first half of the industrial age to the scarcity industrialism of the near and middle future, it’s entirely possible that such adjustments could be put into place in our own societies. The accumulated burdens of past mistakes weigh heavily enough on the future that changes of this sort won’t stave off a great deal of trouble and suffering, but it’s entirely possible that a shift to saner policies backed by more realistic economic ideas could cushion the descent into the deindustrial age, and make it easier to allocate resources to projects that will actually do some good, instead of pursuing policies which – like nearly all the economic policies currently in place in the industrial world – will simply make matters worse.


Nnonnth said...

Great, great post. Surprised to see you thinking in these terms in a way, since macro governments are usually written off as a fruitless to contemplate hereabouts. Personally, I see signs in local government here in the UK, and a couple of signs at higher levels too, that things might change... just in time to be completely too late instead of only partially lol.

Ed Miliband ("Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change" over here) made a visit to Transition Town speakings recently. His major comment was, I can't sell 'no growth' to the electorate. He hasn't quite seen how forcefully economics is going to sell it to everyone.

What I really want is for someone like him to start reading your post on, for example, how sensible it is to fund nuclear fusion vs. hydro from washing machine motors, which is a classic example of what you mean here I guess. Enough badgering could start to influence policy, really could -- here anyhow. In the US I don't know what people's sense is.

Typo: beginning of last sentence of 1st para, you wanted, "There's an all too real sense..."

Robert Magill said...

I suspect the successful among us will live in the future as the horse and buggy Amish do today.
Minus the use of propane, of course.

gaias daughter said...

"it’s entirely possible that a shift to saner policies backed by more realistic economic ideas could cushion the descent into the deindustrial age"

Yes, it's entirely possible . . . but is it probable? We, in the US, have made some progress toward protecting the commons -- we now have pollution and conservation laws that have done a great deal toward restoring air, water and land quality, but to do more in hard economic times is, sadly, more than I believe the American public is willing to do. Unfortunately, the costs associated with depletion and pollution would be paid, ultimately, by the consumer, and higher prices are the last thing anyone is going to want as buying power diminishes. Of course, one could argue, rightly, that the consumer is already paying the costs -- but hidden costs are more appealing than visibile ones.

So while I agree with everything you wrote, JMG, when I step back and ask myself "could this happen?" the answer is "don't count on it!" But then, I am a pessimist . . . and I could be wrong!

RDatta said...

Once again, (unfortunately - for those who wish to continue business as usual) you are promoting ideas that are anathema.

But you are right; survival is not cost - effective. If biological beings had limited themselves to cost- effective methods, all that would exist would be slime molds. Or perhaps we would still be sitting in our family trees and counting on the fingers of our feet.

Llewellyn said...

Another exceptional post, thanks JMG!


hapibeli said...

I have nothing to add to the last paragraph, save, " oh mercy, mercy, there be trouble brewin!"

Peter said...

Good post as always, but a tad optimistic in that concluding paragraph. It's not new economic understanding that's required, as much as a much greater voice for scientific research and modeling in the political process. "Business as Usual" must be brought to sudden stop, and this would require a degree of political will informed by the true conditions we face, not by the minor adjustments (ie cap and trade) industry begrudgingly agrees to.

See Jay Hanson's site for a much more detailed elaboration of the real challenge. (

Perhaps a true black swan event will awaken our sense of urgency; how else do you see it happening JMG?

blue sun said...

JMG – Excellent post! You have pointed out a blind spot in economics. But don’t apologize for discussing the “dismal science.” For there is also a blind spot in our culture for economics itself, and we all need a good dose. After all, economics is arguably the reason behind every decision people make!
I think the media certainly has a large share of the blame, focusing as it does on gossip instead of relevant information (how many news outlets paid attention in 1999 when sections of the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 were repealed, contributing to the current financial crisis by permitting, among other things, Citibank’s current formation).
The school system is also partially to blame, but that’s probably just a reflection on our culture. Instead of studying economic history, we study social history, and therefore even in school we are trained to focus on scapegoats and champions, instead of the actual reasons behind it all. There are numerous examples in our textbooks where heroes or villains get all the credit while underlying economic reasons are ignored. If asked, most Americans would probably blame the French Revolution on Marie Antionette being such a jerk, rather than poor agricultural policies which limited French food production (in sharp contrast to England’s food production). We all collectively suffer a little from this blind spot.

John Michael Greer said...

Nnonth, thanks for the correction. My guess is it'll be a while before ideas like these get any traction with national governments, but regional and local governments are another matter. The first step is to get them in circulation.

Robert, quite possibly -- minus the propane, but very likely plus radio.

Daughter, the thing about economics is that a good theory gives a competitive advantage to those people, communities and nations that adopt it. We're already seeing countries (China and Russia, in particular) adapting to the new reality of scarcity industrialism, and profiting mightily at the expense of those countries that aren't willing to do so. I'll have some specific proposals to offer later on; if I'm right -- always a caveat worth making -- the payoffs to be had by adopting them may be tempting enough to encourage people and communities to look into them.

RDatta, anathema is my stock in trade!

Llewellyn, many thanks.

Hapibeli, I think the only thing I can add is "heh heh heh."

Peter, I disagree. It's exactly the unwillingness of the scientific community to tackle the grubby realities of economics (while lining up to feed at assorted government and corporate troughs) that has negated any influence the scientific community might have had on public affairs. I don't think waiting around for a black swan is particularly useful; what's needed, rather, is a set of good reasons why it's in people's own economic interest to do the right thing -- and I propose to provide that.

Blue Sun, exactly! The blind spot toward economics is particularly severe in the peak oil community, it seems to me, and that above all has to change. In a society where economic concerns override most other factors, we need to learn how to talk in the language of costs and benefits, prosperity and impoverishment, or nobody's going to listen -- and the economic impact of the end of the industrial age is significant enough (!) that this won't be hard.

Nnonnth said...

JMG: My guess is it'll be a while before ideas like these get any traction with national governments, but regional and local governments are another matter. The first step is to get them in circulation.

On that, on the UK front for anyone interested, this is worth a look:

The audio talks at the top of the page right now are useful, and the third one (Alexis Rowell) will show anyone just what an informed local politician can do.

Another example, Somerset County Council has become the first in the UK to declare itself a 'Transition Council':

There are enough signs to feel mildly positive about this in principle, here in the UK. Essentially such initiatives as Transition Towns represent most of the reason for this, due to what they are getting so good at -- being visible.

bryant said...

Great post! I am glad you are back; that was a long two weeks

Coyote said...

The shift to saner economic policies cannot happen as long as corporations have more rights and fewer responsibilities than citizens. Governments have lost the will, and perhaps the ability to control corporations, and these corporate entities have no ethical obligation to save the planet or even civilization. This lack of a moral compass among the ruling elite will be the ultimate downfall of the industrial age.

In his Buddhist Economics essay E. F. Schumacher called it a “metaphysical blindness” on the part of economists that see economics as a science instead of a social science as it should be regarded. The application of a social science should improve our culture and not treat it as it were an experiment in a Petri dish where the preferred outcome favors more business activity over quality of life.

This blindness is a direct result of the lack of an ethical component within corporations. Economists (especially of the free market wingnut variety) talk about efficiency and externalities while failing to differentiate between capital and income. You can’t recapitalize the earth!

John Michael Greer said...

Nnonnth, it's good to see the Transition Town movement getting publicity; what remains to be seen is whether it can go past drawing up plans for the future, and actually start implementing the changes that have to happen.

Bryant, thank you. There'll be another gap later this summer, for related reasons; more on this in a bit.

Coyote, I think you have it backwards. It's the metaphysical blindness that's allowed corporations to run amok like Mickey Mouse's animated brooms, rather than vice versa. That being said, of course you're quite right that the legal status of corporations needs to be reformed; I'll have some suggestions along those lines in a future post.

Jon said...

In the past building new communities could only be done with sponsorship. The Jamestown settlement, for instance, was privately funded, until it went broke. After that, one of the main shareholders, King James, made it a state sponsored project, and that was more as an English counter to Spanish activity in Florida. It was too strategic to fail. Settlers needed charters and sponsorship for the outlay of ships, licensing of protection, farm equipment and provisions sufficient to carry them until they could be self sufficient. Of course, the sponsors wanted something in return.

Do you think there would ever be a large scale (read: deep pockets) sponsor, either private or governmental, of a permaculture community?


John Michael Greer said...

Jon, you've actually answered your own question. What possible payback could a private or governmental sponsor expect from such a project? This is why I've focused here and elsewhere on steps that individuals and groups can take on their own, without a budget in the millions.

Ahavah Gayle said...

I have to wonder - it's true that pre-industrial societies learned very well to manage the "tragedy of the commons" problem, for the most part. But they had very deep ethnic or political or religious ties to each other and understood the deep need of the community to act together. Modern America has none of these - how will you ever convince people raised on the myth (yes, myth) of rugged individualism and the deeply ingrained philosophy of radical subjectivity to ever admit the good of the community must come first, so that all may survive? I just don't see it happening. We have nothing at all to make communities anymore, except for very small groups which will simply be plunder for the "survival of the fittest" mobs.

Spirit Flower said...

I read your weekly blog and enjoy it. Thanks!

I am newly unemployed. Today, I happily sat at home at the computer and applied for unemployment.

I think there is a silent revolution of sorts: white collar workers who previously went and got new jobs, are tired of working too many hours for disloyal companies, and just sitting back collecting for once(might not be any jobs anyway). We are not paying taxes, collecting instead and finding ways to fit our expenses into the new budget. None of us really have retirement funds any more.

Quietly, we are bringing the government down.

Slowly, we will do new things and change the country.

John Michael Greer said...

Ahavah, Americans wallow in the myth of individualism because we're rich enough to afford to do so. The 1920s were every bit as individualistic and subjective as today, but that went away in a hurry when the 1929 crash removed the economic basis for it. I expect to see the same thing in the decade to come. Once it sinks in that a viable community is the difference between surviving and starving to death, I think you'll be quite pleasantly surprised to see how fast people see the value of working together.

Er, Flower, the moment applying for unemployment has any chance of even inconveniencing the government in the least, you may safely expect to have your application turned down. I hope you're using your leisure to do something constructive, such as learning some hands-on trade that can support you in the years to come.

wylde otse said...

I like the way Coyote made his point, at the same time, I remember insisting (long ago)that things could also make sense 'backwards', so I perceive no inconsistency - I don't claim to be smart. Stll I have this urge to kick the corporate complex in its fat ***.
And how about another great disconnect, between the increasingly very few that seem to 'see' things to some higher degree, and those who seem beyond caring. (say, a terrific brain in a nerveless, paralyzed, growing body, awaiting nourishment)

Jan Suzukawa said...

My first exposure to you and your blog was when I heard you as a guest on the Coast to Coast AM radio show. You have a very interesting perspective on these times we're living in. As to this post specifically, I had not heard the term "lifeboat community," but the idea of communal living is one that I find intriguing. I am probably romanticizing the idea (and I am sure I am not the only one to do so). Your blog is refreshing as it reminds me and the rest of your readers that there are economic realities that underlie all models for living, and that those realities can't be ignored.

John Michael Greer said...

Otse, granted, in a complex system no arrow of causation only goes one way. I tend to focus on the way that ideas, metaphors, and stories shape our experienced reality because that offers handles by which reality can be changed, starting from the standpoint of the individual.

Jan, I think communal living is entirely possible, and so are viable communities in the deindustrial era. My quarrel is with those people -- and there are a lot of them -- who are basically projecting yuppie fantasies of an updated Levittown onto the future, and insisting they can maintain a modern middle-class lifestyle in the approaching age of scarcity.

ChrisH said...

Good point about the fatal flaw of most current lifeboat schemes...basically that they require people to jump ship far too early. Any viable lifeboat must find a way to become financial viable both before and after a crash. Something more akin to a timeshare or insurance contract which allows individuals to continue their normal daily lives while providing acess to a lifeboat like place for those willing to pay. A logical place to start could be the many small scale organic or low impact farms that already exist. The money paid could help make them more economically vaible while building resilience in the food system and provideing guaranteed food and shelter as the decent progresses for those who had paid in before hand (in exhange for labor of course).

Andrew said...

"Still, the second and in some ways more important result is that the long-term economic burdens of depletion and pollution are not included in measures of the relative economic costs and benefits of the well or the smokestack."

Reminds me of a 4th year resource economics course I took, about 20 years ago, when we were discussing a cost/benefit curve. The prof pointed out that because we couldn't calculate well the cost of pollution, it was simply not included in the cost side of the curve...

Draco TB said...

"It's not new economic understanding that's required, as much as a much greater voice for scientific research and modeling in the political process."

It's not a new understanding of economics that's required as you say - but an acceptance that the would itself is limited and that we need to live within those limits. It's quite amusing , in a sad way, that the first thing I was taught at uni about economics is that it is the science of the distribution of limited resources and then they went on as if the resources weren't limited. The people that you should expect to most believe in Anthropogenic driven Climate Change is the economists and they, from news reports, are the least likely to do so. Most economists really do seem to believe that we live on an infinite world. The biggest problem I can see is that our politicians,at the behest of business, is still trying to persuade us that we can everything we want rather than pointing out that we have to limit ourselves. That includes the number of people on the world - present est. pop. 3.8 billion, it's gone up by ~ 100 million in 12 months.

John Michael Greer said...

Chris, very good. That would be quite a workable scheme. The one detail I'd want to see added is a rule that the people who pay for spots on the "lifeboat" need to spend x number of weekends a year on the farm, helping to plant and harvest the crops with hand tools, so they won't be totally useless when they finally move there; organic farming is a skilled craft, and the more of the learning curve that can be gotten out of the way in advance, the better.

Andrew, thanks for the excellent example. I've been reading recent economics textbooks, and finding the same blank unwillingness to deal with the economic value of nature. It's actually not that hard to measure -- you just have to start from the presupposition that it matters, and go from there.

Draco, the concept that the world is limited and we need to live within those limits is the central concept of exactly the new vision of economics we need. More on this next week.

Dwig said...

A good place to learn more about stakeholder-managed commons is Elinor Ostrom's book "Governing the Commons". It's academic in tone, but there's a lot of accessible information, including case studies of successful and unsuccessful commons. In particular, it addresses Ahavah's claim -- there have been and are successfully managed commons in "Modern America", and the "deep need" of the community to act is the stakeholders' understanding of the nature of the commons and what's needed to maintain and sustain it.

JMG: "I've been reading recent economics textbooks, and finding the same blank unwillingness to deal with the economic value of nature." Google for "ecological economics"; you'll get a lot of links. Maybe start with Of course, this is still outside the mainstream, particularly in the US, but the ground is already being plowed, and some promising "green shoots" are growing.

Apple Jack Creek said...

As I read this post, I found myself scaling the ideas down in size - the same economic constraints that make it difficult for societies or communities to transition to a different way of life hit individuals and families trying to make the shift as well.

It's the problem of "living with one foot in each world": someone has to go to work in the existing world five days a week to pull in a paycheque so we can buy the fence posts and wire and pay the property taxes and the mortgage on the six acres we are trying to build up into a functional small farm. You can't make a living off the farm in the current economy, but you can't wait until everything falls apart to start preparing the infrastructure and learning the skills, either. So, you end up with two full time jobs: working for a cheque during the week and spending your spare time trying to build up the farm, learn the skills needed to live in a world without ready access to diesel, the hardware store, and internet shopping, and to practice living differently.

But when every morning you head off into the 'old world', there's a price to be paid. The psychic strain of trying to live in both worlds is ... well ... it can be daunting. Reading the writings of others who see the changes that are coming helps keep me motivated: the world my kids grow up in is going to look a lot different, and the effort we expend now may mean they have useful skills and resources in a changed world.

It's hard, though, when the as-yet-unconvinced look at you like you are a nutcase because you spend your weekends putting up fences or building a barn.

hapibeli said...

Listening to the Jay Hanson interview from the site was very interesting. Particularly the concept of all human interaction as tribally influenced. Politics and those who enter it is just another tribe and those entering it begin to do favors for each other so that they will receive favors in return...Very simple. Compromise, bringing corruption, is the result of tribal thinking.
It seems that we must get beyond our "animal brain" to be able to survive, even though it is that same brain that has helped us reach our current societal state. What a conundrum.

hapibeli said...

The economists are also living in a tribe, and as tribal members, they must agree to do favors [ read; accepting the illusion of infinite resources ] to remain in the tribe they have chosen!

wylde otse said...

Thanks for the reply comment; for reminding me of the power of our own perception - which for me, explains why your reality seems so compelling.

(I've run up a few 'world-altering' blog-items recently that don't have anyone saluting the flagpole, yet...but, I'm more comfortable with my perception, and that (my?)truth too, in the right time and circumstance will prevail. tkx)

Thomas said...


You are one of the most lucid and perceptive of the commentators on our current predicament. I've read your recent book and am looking forward to the new one.

Have you looked at some of the stuff by the post-autistic economics folks? They are challenging the current models.

When am I going to find you on the air? I've usually got a good 20M path to the NW in the early evening and am often looking around on the digital modes, especially PSK31. Give me a shout if you ever want to try a sked. My e-mail is good on QRZ.


Danby said...

And yet it is possible for a farsighted group to actually make preparations and make them pay for themselves.

I just read a story on Deutsche Welle about an effort to bring Saharan solar power to Europe. The company involved expects to lay out 400Bn Euros for the completed project, including transmission capability. It remains to be seen if they can raise the financing, or if the solar steam project will actually be a success. Lord knows the attempts made in the American Desert in the '70s weren't. But then again that was 30 or more years ago. The real weak point to me is the transmission of power through one of the least politically stable regions in the world.

Still, it shows a remarkable willingness to invest in a a sustainable energy source. The lead company believes it can supply as much as 15% of Europe's future electricity needs with power delivery starting in 2019. With sufficient build out and redundant transmission capacity, that number could go much higher. There's no technological reason that Africa and Europe couldn't provide their entire electricity demand from Saharan sunlight.

John Michael Greer said...

Dwig, granted, there are some very thoughtful explorations of alternative economics under way, far from the mainstream. Consider this an attempt to add to them.

Apple Jack, the fear of being thought a nutcase is one of the most potent forces driving people toward self-destruction. I've long thought that learning to ignore the opinion of bystanders is one of the most essential skills in life.

Hapibeli, I'm not a great fan of Hanson, and this is part of the reason why. Labels such as "tribe" and "animal brain" seem much more like putdowns than useful concepts to me, at least the way Hanson is using them. Still, I may be misjudging the man.

Otse, you're welcome.

AB0DI, I'm still scraping together funds and hardware to get a station going -- modern equipment is the opposite of cheap, and the beat-up old boatanchors I can afford need tlc guided by a level of practical knowledge I'm still working toward. (Note to future hams: you can slam-dunk the Extra Class exam and still have only the most abstract idea of how to make a radio work.) I'll get on the air one of these days, no question, but it's likely to be CW on some improbable combination of old Heathkit and postindustrial homebrew!

Dan, well, I wish them luck. Theoretically, it ought to work, and I'm glad somebody's trying it, but let's just say I have my doubts about doing solar thermal generation on that scale.

Danby said...

I have my doubts about doing solar thermal generation on that scale.

So do I, as I hope was clear in the tone of my post. If they take a modular approach, with many small standardized installations that can be dispersed over a wide area, and if they make it in the economic interest of the locals to have the system operating, it's possible to make such a system work.

On the other hand, if they take the typical American approach of building a single monolithic installation, occupying 5 square kilometers of desert, and treating the locals as an annoying environmental hazard, they are doomed.

Lance Michael Foster said...

John, you've spent a long time making arguments and exploring the various avenues of underlying causes, the macrovision of past, present and future, etc. Some folks are with you, some you have helped see the light, and there are others that no matter what you say will always remain scoftics (see for that neologism!)

So how about you at least alternate "grand vision"/intellectual posts on historic and economic trends with posts on the brass tacks (or bronze nails) of concrete actions?

Sharon Astyk has great examples for gardening, raising animals and food storage. Orlov is great about grand visions too, but adds his personal experiences from the Russian case (PS. At the risk of being called a Chicken Little or a Cassandra, each of us owes it to ourselves and others to read the latest from Orlov:

I KNOW you have some wonderful things to say about concrete steps each of us can take involving community, education, spiritual practices, the natural world. Sort of like how you already mentioned in passing that people should look again at slide rules, ham radio, preserving books and community libraries, preventative health care, and picking up a deindustrial trade or two (hat-making, herbalism, cobbler, blacksmith, etc.).

Whaddaya say? Can you at least reign in the academia once in a while and get to more concrete actions? thanks!

John Michael Greer said...

Danby, of course you're right -- but I suspect if the units are small and standardized enough to make it, their main effect will be to ensure that a bunch of Algerian villages have a decent supply of electricity, at least until the spare parts run out.

Lance, thanks for the vote of confidence, but I don't actually have that much to say about concrete steps -- much less than you can get from your average 1970s-era handbook of appropriate technology, say. The practical work I've had the chance to test out is specific to my own situation and needs, which won't be the same as that of most other people. Since my basic take on things is that muddling through on a case-by-case basis makes much more sense than following a recipe, I'm not well suited to going into the recipe business!

What I do have to offer that's of more general use is the perspective my historical and ecological studies have given me toward the contemporary crisis of the industrial world. All the concrete steps in the world won't do the job if they're still guided by the old industrial worldview, while a clear sense of what we're facing and why will make it easier for people to choose and apply the practical skills that are relevant to their own situations.

As Lincoln said, you can't please all of the people all of the time, and this blog is no exception to that rule. We've got a bunch of economics ahead of us; with any luck, it won't be too dry, but it will inevitably deal in ideas and generalities en route to the more specific proposals I have in mind. If that's not to your taste, you may want to skim the next few months.

zapoteca said...

Thank you so much for addressing the practical aspects of re-acquiring what used to be tribal knowledge etc.

From a parochial standpoint - my own: I have a job that I was glad to get, for a worthwhile problem, in the private sector. I am by no means exploited. I am paid fairly. We all need one another and painfully aware of it. There is no dead weight, and the problem drives us all. I am exhausted at the end of the week.

What I SHOULD be doing on the weekend is driving around, comparing land, hydrology and soil types. What I ACTUALLY do is recover. Read quietly, walk my dog. Research some more. Recharge enough to return on Monday.

I SHOULD have everything bought and paid for by the time I am ready to chuck it. Not a prayer of doing that.

What will likely happen? I'll leave at the appointed time. THEN I'll do the driving around. Without an income, I'll make many compromises buying for cash. Then the financial drain of fitting up. What a nightmare. There is no prospect of a "do-over" if I make a grave mistake. People and places are always hospitable and welcoming on the front end. You don't find the skeletons in the closet till you've lived there some.

Woulda, coulda, shoulda. We are not going to get government programs to subsidize experiments that contravene archetypal beliefs. That is, our society is a going concern on an upward trajectory, once this temporary hiccup is resolved.

Poetic justice, perhaps. We boomers have been vilified for hogging the resources of the succeeding generations. My prospective giveback: I will beggar myself to establish a sustainable family compound, assuming they are not slackers who piss it away before it is really needed.

JMG, I'm with you that this will unwind in a slow decline. There is virtually nothing in your book with which I disagree.

Danby said...

Well, it's a good thing for Berbers. Moroccans and Algerians to have plentiful electricity too!

That's one of the requirements, of course, that the locals get power as well as the Europeans, and at a pretty steep discount too. If it's in the best interest of Ahmed and Ghazala to keep the power flowing, they will make sure it does. The Germans are actually pretty good at this, and at doing infrastructure in the less-industrial parts of the world. Most of the power systems and telecom systems in the mideast and Southeast Asia were designed and built by the Germans.

John Michael Greer said...

Zapoteca, a lot of people will be in the same boat you are, trying to muddle through in difficult times with limited preparation. Even in those areas where things get really harsh, some will make it.

Danby, I'm certainly in favor of the Berbers et al. having electricity, especially if the technology is simple enough for them to maintain with local resources -- and it could be. My suspicion, though, is that the vision of powering Europe at something like present levels with Saharan solar facilities will turn out to be a pipe dream.

John Michael Greer said...

By the way, I fielded, and deleted, yet another bunch of comments by a cornucopian flamebaiter who came barreling onto the comments page to insist that resources are infinite, ecological limits don't matter, the laws of thermodynamics don't apply to us, blah blah blah. Those claims have been addressed on this blog a couple of dozen times, and it's just not a productive use of my time to keep on repeating the same should-be-obvious points. Further rants along the same lines from any source will be deleted out of hand.

das monde said...

In a response to Blue Sun, JMG writes about “a society where economic concerns override most other factors”. Unfortunately, the American society is not one of the kind. All politics and economics is very social there, shockingly! Resources, common prosperity, economic stability or sustainability - these are things that “no one” has to worry about. The strongest concern is... relative well-being of so-called winners. Whatever they have, however they got it, and whatever communities need - the “competitive advantage” of those winners must be protected (even if that means an end of the actual “competition”, or even an end of the world). Try to argue against that!

Most attention in the 20th century economics went to satisfying needs of over-producing industries. Not human needs here and there, but corporate needs of profit (and that does not guarantee a lifespan of good living on the planet, however we try to believe in "invisible hands"). Now the focus goes in satisfying "needs" of the finacial industry, or investors. Who else gets the alchemy of money, or possible relations between money and producing economy?

One inspiring "lifeboat community" example: when the US won the independence, the Bank of England offered money to borrow. The founding fathers said "Thanks, we can print money ourselves" ;-)

Jon said...

John, I briefly belonged to Mr. Hanson’s blog. Some of his ideas are very interesting, indeed. However, he travels with severe blinders on. I tried to start a discussion on the influence of females on the psychological evolution of human society. My idea is that the human race has been self domesticating over the past few hundred thousand years and that the influence of women over the life of the small but growing prehistoric communities was mostly responsible for this tempering of what was otherwise a brutal, male mindset. Jay not only utterly rejected even the idea of such a possibility, but he would not allow the discussion to get as far as his blog. To him (by his own admission) male violence is the only significant factor in human evolution and females appear to be no more than decorative penis sheaths.

I think there is more to it than this.


Dwig said...

Zapoteca, here's a thought that might help: don't try to do it all yourself. Try to hook up with some folks young and energetic enough to be happy exploring and creating on a shoestring, and some recently retired folks with time and still enough energy to take on a new venture, and some folks in roughly your own situation with whom you can pool resources and divide up tasks. No guarantee, of course, but if you can find a group of like-minded folks, the burden won't seem so heavy.

Not that this is easy or quick. Just getting a group together and learning to cooperate, collaborate, and co-create will be a serious endeavor. If you're interested in going that direction, though, I recommend Shaffer and Amundsen's book "Creating Community Anywhere" as a resource.

Whatever your path, I wish you well.

Robert said...

You're addressing issues that desparately need to be addressed just now. I would like to ask that you try to keep things more concrete so that those of us who are economically uneducated can follow along.

As far as I have been able to figure out, economists are people you take your vice to so they can wave their hands and say "Hocus pocus, economies of scale" and turn it into a virtue. I don't doubt that there probably is more to it but it is mainly a mystery to me.

I am continuously frustrated by economists who talk about "the economy" when they seem to mean "the economic status quo". When they talk about "economic collapse" they seem to mean a decline in the amount of current economic activity. Since most current economic activity involves producing things we don't need or would be better off without (think weapons or automobiles), I don't find that all that alarming. If instead they said that what was going to happen was that the loss of the efficiencies associated with the economies of scale brought about by the current level of economic activity would result in more resources having to be devoted to the production of those things that are actually needed, I might understand. This, however, might suggest another way of dealing with the situation than when they threaten "economic collapse" as this just seems to call for panic.

In this weeks post you speak of alternate sources of energy as having to be paid for "out of current economic output." I hope I'm not the only one who has difficulty understanding this. We spend almost a trillion dollars per year on military activities that have nothing to do with defending the country and who knows how much money using an industrial infrastructure that would be well suited to producing trains and busses to produce automobiles. Is this not current economic output that could be diverted to producing alternatives?

I am not trying to be difficult nor am I feigning ignorance. I have spent more time than I care to admit trying to understand these things.

DIYer said...

The quote from the electronics book has reminded me of how utterly wrong the Bohr atom (tiny solar system, colliding billiard balls) has proven to be.

Although our feeble human eyesight has never seen it, we now know of electrons expressing their "electron-ness" by sloshing around in unique solutions to the Schrödinger equation. Behaving in strange, but experimentally demonstrable ways: if one ever came to a complete standstill it would occupy an infinite volume of space, but with zero probability of being found at any given spot therein.

There has to be a lesson in there somewhere, but I'm not sure just what... perhaps in keeping with your essay, that our economy of "growth" and the wonderful benefits of "scale" are wrong as well.

John Michael Greer said...

Das Monde, you're quite correct, of course. What dominates American society is a very narrow and ideological concept of economics -- one that leaves out most of the things people actually value. More on this in later posts.

Jon, I have to admit I have my doubts about the claim that there's a "male mindset" that is innately brutal -- how is it that the simpleminded Victorian notion that men are naturally brutal and savage, and women are naturally peaceful, kind and good, suddenly became cutting edge ideology on the left? Still, I'd noticed the aspect of Hanson's discourse that you've referenced, and yes, it's problematic.

Dwig, good. The community, rather than the individual, is the basic unit of human survival.

Robert, you're asking a perfectly reasonable question. The answer is that those billions of dollars spent on weapons and troops are the sole remaining basis for America's prosperity. The 5% of the world's population that lives in the US uses around a third of the world's energy, resources, and industrial production. This doesn't happen because the rest of the world loves us; it happens because we have a global empire, with troops on the ground in 140 countries, maintaining profoundly unbalanced patterns of exchange that bring most of the world's wealth to the US and its satellite countries, such as Britain and Australia.

In theory, we could replace all those tanks and bombers with solar panels and wind turbines. In practice, if we did so, the US' share of the world's resource base and industrial product would soon drop to a tiny fraction of its current level, which means a third world economy in which solar panels and wind turbines would become unaffordable luxuries, and you and I would be spending our time trying to scrape together enough food to eat rather than debating these issues on the internet. Nor would this bring an end to inequitable distribution of the world's resources; there are already a good many candidates vying for the position of the next global empire.

That's a measure of the corner we've backed ourselves into. It doesn't make it any better that our empire is going to go down the drain soon anyway, I know.

DIYer, exactly! The gross national product is as mythical as the neat orbit of a Bohr electron -- that is, it's a model that represents experience, and not necessarily all that well. More on this later.

Kurt said...

I'm quite late to the game but I welcome you back JMG!

I love reading your posts and your responses are trenchant to the subject matter. Usually to buttress your arguments and often expand on them. It is very rewarding to me to read the dialogue with your readers.

I must admit that I had an "aha" moment in reading that economics is a social science (coyote's comment) such as psychology. I had never thought of it that way and it makes much more sense to me now (now, it seems obvious). A psych prof of mine once said that psychology was pre-paradigmatic and the same could be said for economics. It's just like psychology, incomplete.

Recent articles that I've read also harmonize with the ecological aspects/limitations of economics such as the response to the cornicopian economists:

Other readers might find this comforting to know that not all economists discount the ecological real world in their thinking.

Apologies for linking away from your blog, just open another tab and post the link. :)

Jon said...

I think the ‘male as aggressor’ sentiment comes, partly, from outliers that grab our attention. Of a hundred males, ninety five may be perfectly content to live and let live and do the right thing for their families, friends and neighbors. Five sadistic jerks make the rest of us look bad. I know that in war, a high percent of soldiers (80? 85?) will intentionally aim high when shooting at the enemy. All generals know this and try to increase the numbers by depersonalizing the enemy. A blip on a screen doesn’t suffer.


cheeba said...

Slightly cheeky off-topic request of the erudite TADR readership:

Can anyone help me find this book I was reading on google books at work and had to suddenly desist from? I think I got a link to it from somewhere in the last few weeks so someone else might have also seen it. Other wise this is going to sound really random. All I can remember is:

- It concerned a general theory of cultural decline, but was fairly positive and non-doomy.
- It was by an American with an English sounding name, possibly using a middle initial. Possibly even co-authored with his wife?
- It had an amazing theory of cultural rhythms with very strange diagrams of same in the second half.
- Published in last two decades, probably '90s or early '00s.
- I think the cover was green.

If nothing else, this is how my brain works at the moment!

If anyone can successfully tell me, I will buy it and review it (briefly!) in the comments here in gratitude.
If not (or - JMG - if this is out of order) apologies for the interruption, (and delete me peremptorily without fear of ire!).

divelly said...

On male/female:
Several years ago three women social scientists collated all research on gender behavioral differences in societies ranging from primitive to modern without any criticism as to methodology, bias,etc..
They discovered only 2 universal traits:
1.Men were more physically violent
2.Women were the primary child care providers

Nathan said...

Have you heard of Dancing Rabbit or the Sanctuary? The former supposedly cost less than 2 million to establish and the latter less than 200K. The former may take more money to reach a critical mass where a local economy is possible. The latter uses no electricity or internal combustion engines.

tom said...

cheeba, the book you describe sounds a lot like 'A Prosperous Way Down' by Howard T. Odum and Elisabeth C. Odum. There's a summary at

Pretty much anything by anyone called Odum seems to be worth a look...

cheeba said...

Yes! That's exactly what it was.
Muchas gracias tom.

Frankly, I'm a little amazed that you got it from my threadbare fragments of memory.

Score another one for the ABR readership...

>Pretty much anything by anyone >called Odum seems to be worth a >look...

And something by two people called Odum is doubly so, presumably.

Kartturi said...

Just one short question:
Is winning a war cost-effective?

chad said...

millions of dollars for a utopian survival camp that still relies on cob housing and permaculture technqiues? JMG I trust you're aware there are evangelists of the surival camp utopian future who claim they can build a survival camp fit to support 200 people with a mere 50,000 dollars total, claiming that building houses with mud and growing all your own food from the land itself eliminate the very need for money or government. Could you please elaborate on how and why the above mentioned scenario is foolishness and naivete at best and downright conmanship and scamming at worst?