Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Becoming a Third World Country

In the course of writing last week’s Archdruid Report post, I belatedly realized that there’s a very simple way to talk about the scope of the brutal economic contraction now sweeping through American society – a way, furthermore, that might just be able to sidestep both the obsessive belief in progress and the equally obsessive fascination with apocalyptic fantasy that, between them, make up much of what passes for thinking about the future these days. It’s to point out that, over the next decade or so, the United States is going to finish the process of becoming a Third World country.

I say “finish the process,” because we are already most of the way there. What distinguishes the Third World from the privileged industrial minority of the world’s nations? Third World nations import most of their manufactured goods from abroad, while exporting mostly raw materials; that’s been true of the United States for decades now. Third World economies have inadequate domestic capital, and are dependent on loans from abroad; that’s been true of the United States for just about as long. Third World societies are economically burdened by severe problems with public health; the United States ranks dead last for life expectancy among industrial nations, and its rates of infant mortality are on a par with those in Indonesia, so that’s covered. Third World nation are very often governed by kleptocracies – well, let’s not even go there, shall we?

There are, in fact, precisely two things left that differentiate the United States from any other large, overpopulated, impoverished Third World nation. The first is that the average standard of living here, measured either in money or in terms of energy and resource consumption, stands well above Third World levels – in fact, it’s well above the levels of most industrial nations. The second is that the United States has the world’s most expensive and technologically complex military. Those two factors are closely related, and understanding their relationship is crucial in making sense of the end of the “American century” and the decline of the United States to Third World status.

The US has the world’s most expensive military because, just now, it has the world’s largest empire. Now of course it’s not polite to talk about that in precisely those terms, but let’s be frank – the US does not keep its troops garrisoned in more than a hundred countries around the world for the sake of their health, you know. That empire functions, as empires always do, as a way of tilting the economic relationships between nations in a way that pumps wealth out of the rest of the world and into the coffers of the imperial nation. It may never have occurred to you to wonder why it is that the 5% of the world’s population who live in the US get to use around a third of the world’s production of natural resources and industrial products – certainly it never seems to occur to most Americans to wonder about that – but the economics of empire are the reason.

A century ago, in 1910, it was Britain that had the global empire, the worldwide garrisons, and the torrents of wealth flowing from around the world to boost the British standard of living at the expense of everyone else’s. A century from now, in 2110, if the technology to maintain any kind of worldwide empire still exists – and it can be done with wooden sailing ships and crude cannon, remember; Spain managed that feat very effectively in its day – somebody else will be in that position. It won’t be America, because empire is the methamphetamine of nations; in the short term, the effects feel great, but in the long term they’re very often lethal. Britain managed to walk away from its empire without total catastrophe because the United States was ready, willing, and able to take over, and give Britain a place in the inner circle of US allies into the bargain; most other nations have paid for their imperial overshoot with a century or two of economic collapse, political chaos, and social disintegration.

That’s the corner into which the United States is backing itself right now. The flood of lightly disguised tribute from overseas, while it made Americans fantastically wealthy by the standards of the rest of the world, also gutted America’s domestic economy – the same economic imbalances that funnel wealth here also make it nearly impossible to produce goods or provide services at home at a cost that can compete with overseas producers – and created a culture of entitlement that includes all classes from the bottom of the social pyramid right up to the top. As always happens, in turn, the benefits of empire are failing to keep pace with its rapidly rising costs, and in addition, rising demands for imperial largesse from all parts of society are drawing down an increasingly straitened supply of wealth. Meanwhile other nations with imperial ambitions are circling like sharks; the wisest among them know that time is on their side, and that any additional burden that can be loaded onto a drowning empire will hasten the day when it goes under for the third time and they can close for the kill.

This view of the world situation is not one that you’ll find in the cultural mainstream, or for that matter any of its self-proclaimed alternatives. The contrast with a century ago is instructive. A great many people in late imperial Britain knew perfectly well that the empire on which the sun famously never set – critics suggested that this was because God Himself wouldn’t trust an Englishman in the dark – had had its day and was itself setting; the lines of Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Recessional” –

Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire.
Lo! All our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre.

– simply put in powerful imagery what many were thinking at that time. You won’t find the same sort of historical sense nowadays, though, and I suspect the role of the myth of progress as the secular religion of the modern world has a lot to do with it. In 1910, the concept of historical decline was on a great many minds; these days you’ll hardly hear it mentioned, because the belief in history as perpetual progress has become all the more deeply entrenched as the foundations that made the progress of recent centuries possible have rotted away.

The resulting insistence on seeing all social changes through onward-and-upward colored spectacles has imposed huge distortions on our perceptions of recent events. One good example is the rise and fall of the so-called “global economy” in recent decades. Its proponents portrayed it as the triumphant wave of a Utopian future that would enable everybody to live like middle-class Americans; its critics portrayed it as the equally triumphant metastasis of a monolithic corporate power out to enslave the world. Very few people saw it as the desperate gambit of a faltering imperial society that could no longer even afford to run its own economy, and was forced to outsource even its most basic economic functions to other countries. Nonetheless, this is what it has turned out to be, and it had the predictable result that several other nations used the influx of capital and technology to build their own industrial sectors, bide their time, and then enter the market themselves and outcompete the very companies and countries that gave them a foot in the door.

More broadly, it seems to have escaped the attention of a great many observers that the day of the multinational corporations is drawing to an end. The struggle over Russia’s energy resources was the decisive battle there, and when Putin crushed the Western-funded oligarchs and retook control of his country’s energy supply, that battle was settled with a typically Russian sense of drama. The elegance with which China has turned international trade law against its putative beneficiaries is in its own way just as typical; a flurry of corporations owned by the Chinese government have spread operations throughout the world, using the mechanisms of global trade to lay the foundations of a future Chinese global empire, while the Chinese government efficiently stonewalled any further trade negotiations that would have put Chinese economic interests at home in jeopardy. More recently, China has begun buying sizable stakes in the multinational corporations that so many well-meaning people in the West once thought would reduce the world to vassalage; the day when ExxonMobil is a wholly-owned subsidiary of CNOOC may be closer than it looks.

The same biases that make such global changes invisible have impacts at least as sweeping here at home. Faith in progress, coupled with the tribute economy’s culture of entitlement I mentioned earlier, have made it nearly impossible for anybody in American public life to talk about the hard fact that America can no longer afford most of the social habits it adopted during its age of empire. It’s almost impossible to think of an aspect of daily life in America today that will not change drastically as a result. We will have to give up the notion, for example, that most Americans ought to go to college and get a “meaningful and fulfilling” job of the sort that can be done sitting at a desk. We will have to abandon the idea that it makes any sense to spend a quarter of a million dollars giving an elderly person with an incurable illness six more months of life. We will have to relearn the old distinction between the deserving poor – those who are willing to work and simply need the opportunity, or who have fallen into destitution through circumstances outside their control – and those who are simply trying to game the system. The great majority of us will get to find out what it’s like to make things instead of buying them, even when that means a sharp reduction in quality; to skip meals, or make do with very little, because the money to pay for anything more simply isn’t there; to treat serious illnesses at home because care from a doctor costs too much; I could go on for paragraphs, but I trust you get the idea.

All these changes, it needs to be said, would be inevitable at this point even if the industrial world depended on renewable resources and had a stable, sustainable relationship with the planetary biosphere that supports all our lives. The United States has played its recent hands in the game of empire very badly indeed, and responded to each loss by doubling down and raising the stakes even higher. If, as a growing number of perceptive commentators have suggested, the US government has been reduced to borrowing money from itself in order to pay its bills – the theme of last week’s Archdruid Report post – the end of that road is in sight. It’s hard to see this as anything but a desperation move on the part of a political and economic establishment that sees no other options for short-term survival and thinks it has nothing left to lose. It’s the exact equivalent of paying household bills by running up debt on credit cards; it can buy a little time, but at the cost of making bankruptcy a certainty once that time runs out.

The global context of the crisis, though, also needs to be kept in mind. The industrial world does not depend on renewable resources, and its relationship with the biosphere is leading it straight down the well-worn path of overshoot and collapse; the endgame of American empire, while it would be taking place anyway, has the additional factor of the limits to growth in play. In an alternate world where energy and resource flows could be counted on to remain stable for the foreseeable future, it’s quite possible that one of the rising powers might offer America the same devil’s bargain we offered Britain in 1942, and prop up the husk of our empire just long enough to take it over for themselves.

As it is, it cannot have escaped the attention of any other nation on the planet that something like a quarter of the world’s dwindling resource production could be made available for other countries, if only the United States were to lose the ability to purchase energy and other resources from outside its own borders. It’s not hard to think of nations that would be in a position to profit mightily from such a readjustment, and nothing so unseemly as a global war would necessarily be required to make it happen; to name only one possibility, it’s by no means unthinkable that the United States, having manufactured “color revolutions” to order in countries around the world, might turn out to be vulnerable to the same sort of well-organized mob action here at home.

Exactly how things will play out in the months and years to come is anybody’s guess. One of the consequences of America’s descent into Third World status, though, is that a great many of us may have scant leisure to contemplate global and national issues amid the struggle to keep food on the table and a roof over our heads. In the long run, this shift in focus may have certain advantages; I have argued in previous posts that those nations that undergo the deindustrial transition soonest, and are thus forced to learn how to get by on the very modest energy and resource flows available in the absence of fossil fuels, may find that this gives them a head start in making changes that everyone else will have to make in due time. Still, making the most of those advantages will require a very different approach to economics, among other things, than most of us have pursued (or imagined pursuing) so far.

Interestingly, this brings us back to the point where this blog’s exploration of deindustrial economics started some months ago: the thought of the maverick economist E.F. Schumacher. Among his other achievements, Schumacher developed a theory of economic development for the Third World that cut straight across the assumptions of his own time and ours alike, and proposed a route toward relative prosperity that took the limits to growth and the failures of empire into account. That route was not taken in his time; it may be the only way left open in ours. We’ll discuss it in detail in next week’s post.


Richard said...

I do wonder about your thoughts on one variable that makes our different than earlier collapsing empires, nuclear weapons. While nuclear war has receded from people's minds since the cold war, as the current collapse progresses and the world situation deteriorates, I am worried that nukes could end up being used if other countries grab much of America's slice of the pie. Of course this might be much of the reason they haven't gone after us more than they have already.

And if the US breaks down internally if you've suggested it might, then there'd be even more parties with access to existing nuclear weapons. Even if the breakdown of society is enough to preclude new ones from being built, the existing ones are still problem enough. I'd appreciate your thoughts about the nuclear weapons issue in general, as it's unique to this era and wasn't around during any of the previous empire collapses you mention.

Chris Lawrence said...

I'm glad you pointed out that despite America's decline, Americans still have a very high living standard. Even in decline, most Americans will have a drastically higher standard of living that most of the world, and they will still be consuming much more.

However, let's assume that eventually US empire goes away, and Americans no longer have the ability to take resources from around the world to support their excesses. I find it hard to see anything bad in this picture. It would be a much better situation for the majority of people in the world, and for the environment as well.

I also don't see any colour revolutions happening in the US. Instead, I think it's more likely that third world nations will band together to impose embargoes against the US. This is probably the only thing that can force Americans to reduce energy use and carbon emissions.

As Naomi Klein and other have said, the US now owes a giant climate debt to the rest of the world. It can never be repaid in full, but people will be coming to collect.

Bill Pulliam said...

A point that has occurred to me a lot lately... I'm not sure the British Empire ended so much as it evolved into the American Empire. We did not inherit it intact, of course, but one can kind of see a steady shift in power from London to Washington while the two nations remained close allies with a "Special Relationship" and no intermural warfare for nearly 200 years. Viewed this way, our present empire has been around for a couple of Centuries longer, which makes it even more due for its natural demise.

At a personal level, I willingly made the shift from white-collar work that required 22 years of formal education, to a basic trade that required a high school diploma and a few weeks of tech school, to a purely self-(un)employed life of making and growing and doing. I have found my work actually has gotten MORE meaningful and fulfilling with each step. This may have a lot to do with the fact that these choices were made willingly, not forced upon me; still, it's an example that meaning and fulfillment are generally inner processes, not something you achieve with social status and institutional credentials.

John Michael Greer said...

Richard, the US nuke stockpile is among the major reasons why I don't expect the usual way of settling the succession of a global empire -- a really major war -- to be used this time. Mind you, I'd be amazed if we get through the next couple of decades without a few mushroom clouds here and there, but the consequences of mass use of nuclear weapons are drastic enough that I expect a certain degree of caution.

Chris, Canada has its equally high standard of living, and its even higher energy per capita use, only because it shelters within the American imperial orbit and benefits from our tribute economy, while not being expected to pay for more than a token military. When we go, you'll follow, so cheering may be a bit premature. As for the environmental impact of the end of American empire, the empire that replaces us will assume our role as polluter-in-chief -- China's already most of the way there, for that matter.

Bill, a case can certainly be made that the US empire is simply a continuation of the British empire under new management. Still, the point remains the same. As far as downward mobility and its benefits, I know other people who've had the same experience. That may be an attitude worth cultivating.

mary said...

Thank you for this essay. Standing, as you did, outside of North America gives such a good perspective on what is ahead and makes it more concrete and, in a sense, achievable and not so frightening. Hardship, hunger and an early death are personal and close.

What I find upsetting though is the idea that some people have of fear of each other -- for instance thinking that the government, police and military, could attack or imprison its citizens. This paranoia seems to immobilize some people so that they cannot make intelligent responses to the coming changes.

The Onion said...

I've been delighted to have found your blog, I've eagerly devoured your archives in order to catch up with your entire line of thought.

One of the refreshing characteristics of this blog has been your dedication to exploring the nuances of what may or may be or what may come. Too many essayists argue in extremes.

I have seen the pattern of apocalyptic fantasy that you speak of in the opinions of left and right. One theme is that of facism. Some claim America is already a fascist country, and still many others claim it is on that path. I certainly agree that it is not now, and I don't think there is a good chance that it will go that way in the near future. I will probably repeat things you have already argued, but your thought has helped crystalize these things in mine.

My opinion is that the myth of progress is so powerful and has persisted in the national narrative for so long, that it will continue to hold things together for a long time. My thinking is that as resource scarcity makes the global supply chains too costly to run, many of these tasks will be done in North America once again.

The savvy political entities of that time will herald it as a great opportunity, the 're-sourcing' or 'home-sourcing' of manufacturing. Yet, it won't be the same as the golden era of high-paying, skilled jobs of the 50s and 60s, it will be more along the third world model. This will of course mean poor conditions, low pay, near serfdom in company towns or work camps, much in line with your reasoning that third world status is not that far away.

Yet, I don't think this will happen under a despotic government or will lead to one. This shift will take the already demoralized victims of the myth of progress and utilize the vast pool of the professional classes to manage it. One might wonder how Americans would possibly accept such conditions but when offered up as a stepping stone to better times under that very same myth of progress, despotic rule would be quite unnecessary. At that point people will be willing to enter into such conditions.

I see despotic rule as quite an inefficient form of governing. As long as the rich and powerful are able to protect their interests, even in decline, and they can maintain levels of power sufficient to thier sense of entitlement, then there is no need to turn to a strongman. This state can remain intact for quite a long time, or for as long as the myth of progress can be morphed to fit conditions.

I suppose it is the fabric of the American myth of progress that allows people to remain blind to the indignities of industrial society, and will allow them to cling to the hope of its return in the future.

RDatta said...

From the ArchDruid's analysis, we may be ultimately headed for "The Dustbin of History" in the words of "The Gypper". It will be all the more difficult because we now have 3+ generations divorced from the realities of Nature that confront the denizens of "The Third World".

But as you have pointed out in your writings, the first step is an awareness of the situation; both in writing and in life the early steps towards that adaptation have been demonstrated.

To aver that "our way of life is non-negotiable" is to wager the way together with the life: if one proves unsustainable, the other will too. But he who laughs last laughs best.

Katie said...

I don't dispute the end of globalism or the decline of American empire but, I have some questions. With globalism coming to an end, how is China or any other country going to maintain a global empire? I also don't understand how the rest of the world is going to maintain position economically, while we sink. And won't we need to redefine the meaning of Third World Country?

LS said...

I have to say that I share Richard's concerns. The leaders of America, Britain and Australia (my country) both in government and business, have shown scant regard for the lives of anyone, their own citizens included. I see two options for "us": a long painful slide into obscurity, or one last mightly battle for (perceived) survival.

I have little doubt that given this choice, the leaders of our countries will find a way in their minds to justify using whatever force is necessary to protect their positions and power.

They have already done so, going to war in Iraq, and there are plenty of other examples from last century.

JMG said in his comment that he would amazed if we get through the next couple of decades without nuclear weapons being used. I am inclined to agree, and I am betting that it will be our countries who do it (first).

If it is clear that Western civilization is falling, then what do our leaders have to lose? The potential gain is obvious: continued access to resources like oil and minerals, and the retention of power and luxury (at least temporarily). Why would our "leaders" care if the cost is millions of human lives (in a world that's over-populated anyway)?

This is, I admit, a very gloomy outlook, but I just can't believe that these people with all of their sense of entitlement and very real military power will simply shut up shop and hand over the keys to other nations like China and India.

xhmko said...

Another major obstacle to progress, not "progress" but a beneficial forward moving social trend towards some form of meaningful subsistence is what I think of as "cigarette syndrome" where you get the "Gonna die anyway so Why quit now" theory being the reason why they don't change habits. Not that I'm against tobacco, just the sale of toxic products to people. Grow your own I say and circumvent the corporate poison. But I digress. There are a lot of people with "cigarette Syndrome" in the developed minority in this world who see no reason to change their planet draining ways; not their children, not that euphemism used for our life sustaining biosphere, "the environment", not anything. The only thing left to do is to somehow convince everybody that the future will have no beer, porn or green grassy lawns unless we act TODAY.

And in addition to the talk about the handing over of empire,
certainly in Australia during and since WWII we've seen the reigns openely handed to US as far as miltiary protection and policy guidance go.

Erik said...

I heard a passing comment last night on NPR, to the effect that an analyst with Credit Suisse stated American debt is now riskier than that of Kazakhstan. I don't know whether that was a personal opinion or a formal analysis, but I intend to follow up on it today and find out! In either case, it seems to fit in with the theme of today's post...

Pops said...

<<...those nations that undergo the deindustrial transition soonest, and are thus forced to learn how to get by on the very modest energy and resource flows available in the absence of fossil fuels, may find that this gives them a head start in making changes that everyone else will have to make in due time.>>

This will be true for the individual as well, I hope. At any rate making such a preemptive transition in the US will be only happen at the individual level.

Making such a change won't guarantee long term success for the individual (or grandkids) any more than it will for a nation, but going cold turkey will be much worse.

Ever see a fistfight in a gas line?

PanIdaho said...

JMG, a question. Well, first some background on why I'm asking the question...

Over the past couple of decades, gangs and their turf wars have spread far from the inner cities and large population areas of the northeast and west where they first gained a foothold, into the south and areas much more sparsely populated and rural. Case in point, a small city near here with no more than 15K in population, tucked deeply inside the local "potato belt," now has a gang problem ! A gang problem complete with graffiti border markings, drug trafficking and murder of rival gang members. It seems that gangs are now well established in most areas of the country. And the sheer number and variety of gang affiliations out there is mind-boggling, to say the least.

So, it occurred to me a few weeks ago that in many ways, this gang phenomenon echoes the turf wars and civil wars that often break out in third world countries and work to keep the populace hounded and terrorized, drain the economy of some of its last shreds of normal productivity and continually disrupt normal trade operations. If the US governing infrastructure weakens significantly - as it well may because of funding issues, many cities and counties are already cutting back their police forces - I worry that the vacuum will be rapidly filled by this ever-present "criminal element" and that these rival factions will plunge many areas of this country into a situation very like the one Mexico is currently dealing with where the civilians in some areas are literally trapped between armies in an ongoing and vicious war over turf and political control.

The question is - do you think the potential for widespread Mexican-style drug/gang turf wars in the US is high, or low? Or, do you think it likely that the gang problem, driven as it is by drug profits, might actually fade as Americans become less able to afford the gang's wares? Or, will it just turn to other ways to make a living, ie, general "black market" operations? I kind of go back and forth on this issue, which probably means I need to look at a ternary option. ;-) Not sure what that would be, though.

If you don't mind, could you give us your thoughts on this, or is this situation something that the next few articles will cover? Thanks.

Chris Lawrence said...

John, of course, Canada is not much better than the US, especially not with the horrible tar sands. If we refuse to shut these down or reduce carbon emissions, then other countries would be perfectly justified imposing sanctions against us. Of course, we're a resource rich country, so a different approach would be needed than with the US. We also need to stop supporting US aggression.

Erik said...

There is a little more info about the Kazakhstan thing here and here... apparently it is a formal analysis, but not without question marks attached to it.

Noni Mausa said...

To step back down into a reasonable life and preserve and build US domestic strength will take alterations of worldview, and the easiest way to do that is to adapt familiar elements to move the American mind in needful directions. Luckily, there are lots of them.

I would like to see two emphases -- an economy of intricacy, and an economy of mastery.

"Intricacy" involves a lot of things, most of them conceptual. My mental image of intricacy is built on a book I saw years ago, simply titled "Bamboo." Big coffee-table book, showing all the things that skill and ingenuity could make from bamboo, from homes to paintbrushes and tiny perfect baskets.

Storytelling would fit in here, musicmaking, sewing, gardening, dance, cooking, community drama, arts and crafts, mutual aid (fix my fence, I'll knit your gloves), and on and on. Instead of spending $5 on a piece of plaster crap from the dollar store, how about buying a ticket to the Cakewalk on Saturday night?

Intricacy was big in the 50s and could easily be revived.

Mastery simply involves the non-institutional teaching and practice of skills and fields of knowledge. Model: Scout Merit badges. People of all ages should be picking up knowledge, and a model of merit badge-like recognitions (for learners and also teachers) would enrich the country, make people prouder of themselves, and have something to show for it.

A lot of mastery learning and teaching structure already exists, but isn't given the recognition it deserves.


Armando said...

On the nuke subject:
Actually i believe the nukes are a liability to the USA more than a deterrant for the competing empires. If we see a few mushrooms in the future, i think it will be from former US weapons turned versus former US cities. The desintegration of the English-speaking empire will come from within.

Ariel55 said...

Dear Report Blog,

Always, I thank JMG for the forum and the post. It seems so timely and relevant. I love the Kipling reference. Anxious to contribute to the thread, I want to add my personal objectionable experiences of yesterday waiting in line for 3 hours to renew a driver's license.
(There's my scant leisure...) And, in order to post here, my birthdate was required by Google.
Now I want my birthday card. :)

Doug W. said...

Re: China. I take a little bit different view. It seems to me they are acting out of desperation to keep their teeming rural millions from exploding into unrest. My own sense is that China will succumb to environmental degradation and collapse before they become a dominant power. The full implications of overshoot would seem to start in China and India.

Christopher John Ryan said...

I agree with the full spectrum of comments in your post. My biggest concern is that while other nation-states might be able to shake the excesses of culture and retrench together, our nation possesses so many atomized sub-communities competing with each other, similar to how Catton (in Bottleneck) speaks of competition between classes and vocations in our economy, that we appear to have virtually no chance of pulling together as a community to address these threats. Social atomization is also ideal for keeping important information from being disseminated effectively and maintaining a propaganda of the growth ethic and American Dream myth. We're ill-equipped to handle what's coming.

C. Ryan
The Localizer Blog

Tiago said...

This circular view of history seems to entail that we (as a species in general, not some particular cases of individuals) do not learn much previous iterations. We are collectively repeating the same mistakes again and again.

This is a rather depressing thought, but one that seems, nonetheless, rather correct.

marielar said...

The transition of the US from Empire to third world country without major upheavals is unlikely. There is little chance the one percent of the population involved in farming can keep up with the demand if the fuel, fertilizer and pesticide cost increase or they are just unavailable in the quantity required by conventional agriculture. Cheap food policies have steadily gut the agricultural system. The global rise in farmer suicide indicates under how much pressure the farming community is already. There is no way we can switch to an alternative in time to avoid major disruptions which will results in food riots. The backyard gardens cant produce any significant quantity grains and pulse, the backbone of civilization since the neolithic. Any forecast on the short term future for food availability rely on what is happening with the BIG three: corn, rice and wheat. The Cuban Special Period will look like a garden party compared to what will likely happen in North America. If folks in Los Angeles raise hell over the outcome of a trial they dont like, its not very hard to imagine what will happen if the grocery shelves remain bare for few days. If somebody has the space, plant root crops (potatoes, carrots, turnip, sweet potatoes) and cooking beans (those that you can dry and therefore, be stored). For the beans, if you can, grow climbing varieties as they produced more per area. Check which varieties do well locally. For North Eastern region, Scarlet Runner is an excellent choice.

Ed said...

Great essay, JMG.

I think I agree with Katie that any new global empire after the US one is unlikely. I recently finished Joseph Tainter's _Collapse of Complex Societies_, and was struck by his observation near the end that collapse requires a geographic "vacuum" in which to happen--otherwise an uncollapsed neighboring power is likely to step in & take over, maintaining complexity in its new vassal state. But now, with all industrial capitalist economies so intertwined, the fall of one big one will bring down all. There's no vacuum around any nation, there's only the vacuum of space around the entire planet. Hard to see Empire happening again, unless it's literally done with the wooden ships and crude cannons you mention. And that would be very slow to develop.

You also speak of a future 3rd-world US society reviving the old distinction between the "deserving poor", who can't find work, and the undeserving, who simply try to game the system. (The political right's ever-popular "welfare chisellers.") But this leaves out the working poor, and the injustice inherent in the wage-labor system. As an old working-class lefty, I'm trying to apply Marx's basic insights to a collapsed industrial capitalism, and while I haven't got it all worked out, I do think that class conflict is going to continue, in some form. (It's certainly been prominent in the politics of 3rd-world countries up till now.) Peasants vs feudal agribusiness, on a local scale? I dunno... What's clear to me is that, in a class-stratified society, some will continue to own workplaces & resources, and others won't. The former will control the livelihoods of the latter, who will not be happy with the arrangements. --I don't remember you ever taking on board any sort of class analysis. Any thoughts?

Mark said...

Thank you for the thorough and thoughtful explanation.

As I mentioned in my comment on last weeks post -- permaculture has a bright future (here in America) -- seems to me after reading this analysis, to be ringing more true. For example, the countries of the world who are most excited and willing to use permaculture design priciples in their communities and lives, are those who are in the most dire of straits. In Africa, Jordan (which has an evaporation/precipitation rate of 1000%!), India, Afghanistan, Palestine, South America, the list goes on, but especially Brazil, which has more permaculture projects on-the-ground than all nations combined. If you take a look at the situations in these places, it makes absolute sense... and a better life for many.

I think you've clearly outlined the reasons that this is true here at home as well. The more desperate our situation becomes, or to word it more eloquently, the closer we entangle with ecological realities, the more likely we are to adapt low-tech solutions that will offer much relief in a situation that could, to most minds, look or seem absolutely terrifying to endure. But that's not to say we're on easy street by any means... There's plenty of work to do, even in the face of decreasing employment.

pgrass101 said...

That is post explians the situation that we find ourselves in today and the future that we now face.

The likelyhood of a color revolt is increased with the recent SCOTUS ruling alllowing US licensed but foreign owned corporations unlimited spending on political ads. The Tea party could be the first wave of these revolts.

Living in the deep south I can affirm the fact the populist anger among the illiterate masses is easy to stir.

Isis said...

Dear Archdruid,

Like other commentators here, I've found your last couple of posts to be particularly informative, and thank you for that. A number of things have been going through my head, and let me just mention a couple.

First, some time back, in response to another post of yours, I said that it seemed to me that the US would likely choose to hyperinflate its currency (as an obvious alternative to a default on its sovereign debt), and you disagreed. It looks as though you've changed your mind on the subject? In fact, I myself don't have a very strong opinion on the issue; I'm quite convinced that it'll be one or the other (hyperinflation or default), but I don't know which. There are, of course, practical consequences to be considered. Given that I have some (very modest) US dollar savings and no debt of any kind, it's pretty clear which one would be better for me. Of course, things might look very different from the perspective of people who're upside down on their mortgages, and are also drowning in student/medical/credit card debt...

Second, I wonder what you think will happen to the wide variety of foreigners who currently live in the US (from green card holders to illegal immigrants, and everyone in between) in the years to come. I've been in the US for a while now (on a student visa), so this is something that has special relevance for me. Of course, I've long, long given up on anything resembling your standard American Dream, but nevertheless, I'm thinking that I might be better off staying here anyway (if I can pull it off, that is, and that's a big if). There are a number of reasons for why I think this might be the case, not least because I suspect that my part of the world has a disturbingly high probability of exploding (as in: bloodshed, ethnic cleansing, and all that fun stuff) in the not too distant future, and all other things being equal, I'd rather not be there when it happens.

And one more thing that's only tangentially related to this post, but is related to the subject of the blog... I know someone who's trying to get a mortgage. She told me the other day that, over the long term, the value of real estate always goes up. (Of course, she's perfectly aware of the recent drop in prices, but her point was that this was just a short turn slump, and that prices will start going up before too long.) Now, I think of this precisely what you'd expect a long term reader of this blog to think. Nevertheless, I'm not much of a history buff, and so I couldn't come up with a historical example where real estate prices went down over the long term. Do you know any good examples?

nutty professor said...

How troubling and interesting are your posts and ways of thinking. Is it at all possible that you are presenting the seeds of a New Myth? After all, as you suggest, the history of rise and decline of empire repeats and returns in eternal cycles...

bryant said...

The Onion said:

My opinion is that the myth of progress is so powerful and has persisted in the national narrative for so long, that it will continue to hold things together for a long time.

I think this might be true; but as the myth seems to falter, myth believers will not doubt the myth, but look for people who are sabotaging the myth. Scapegoating and pogroms might follow.

"We could have progress, we could all have iPods and space shuttles, but the unbelievers must be punished first!"

I think I will be to the church of progress as the Druze were to Islam - al-taqiyya should be my watch word.

Greg T. Jeffers said...

Dear Mr. Greer:

Much of your post has been swirling around in my head... and since you have written it so succinctly, I think I will use a few quotes and link to this post at my blog.

Thanks for all your help!

Greg Jeffers

John Michael Greer said...

Mary, granted. The problem there is that in some cases, the fear is entirely justified.

Onion, I grant that people will continue believing in progress. That will make them all the more willing to embrace tyranny, on the one hand, or anarchy on the other, because of the cognitive dissonance between the faith in progress and the reality of decline.

Rdatta, well put.

Katie, global empires existed centuries before corporate globalization did; you might sit down with a good book about the British Empire sometime.

LS, before 1989, how many people would have believed that the leaders of the Communist Bloc would have tamely handed over the keys to their countries?

Xhmko, Australia was simply handed over from one empire (the British) to another (the American). I don't think Australians themselves had much to say at any point.

Erik, I saw that! It seems quite accurate to me; Kazakhstan is a net energy exporter these days, after all.

Pops, of course you're right -- the only place real change ever starts is with the individual. And yes, I'm old enough to remember fistfights in gas lines.

Panidaho, what you're seeing is the very first step in the formation of feudalism: the emergence of a warrior subculture in a collapsing civilization. Over the generations ahead, the descendants of successful gangs will likely become the equivalent of the warrior bands of the Dark Ages, and as other power centers implode, their leaders will become the emergent aristocracy of Dark Age America. Will there be turf wars? Well, medieval Europe was basically one big turf war, so I suspect so.

Chris, other countries aren't going to impose sanctions on Canada -- they're going to be too desperate for your oil, no matter how dirty its source. I'm sorry to say that in the real world of international politics, moral stances are rarely more than a fig leaf over struggles for power -- political or otherwise.

Noni, this is very good. I'd encourage you to develop it in more detail, possibly on a blog of your own.

Armando, that's also a possibility. Nukes are more useful as a threat than as an actual war-fighting weapon, after all, but bluffs do get called occasionally.

Ariel, welcome to the blog! I'm sorry to say that waiting times are only going to get worse, though, with the collapse of state budgets.

Doug, I'm familiar with that view; I may be wrong, of course, but imperial expansion is one classic way to deal with overpopulation at home.

Sean Taylor said...

Great post! I’ve long been of the opinion that if you strip away the matrix of illusions, the USA is basically Somalia with nukes. OK, that is a bit of an exaggeration, but I think it will become clear very soon just how Third World this nation has become. Where I live life is already starting to resemble Mad Max, with meth-dealing rednecks and Indian casino gangsters riding around in Escalades having a good old time -- I can only imagine what things are like in larger urban areas. I’m calling this new demographic the "Neo-Barbarians", and I expect this group will become an unruly horde in short order, with implications as dire for this Empire as it was for ancient Rome’s. For more thoughts on neo-barbarians, see

John Michael Greer said...

Chris, this is one of the reasons why I expect the US to fragment in the decades ahead of us, quite probably to the accompaniment of domestic insurgencies or outright civil war. The last time partisan hatreds got this intense in the US was in the years right before 1860, after all.

Tiago, that's my take. Individuals learn; humanity evolves -- and evolution is a very, very, very slow process.

Marielar, we've got Scarlet Runner ready to go in the backyard garden as soon as spring settles in. As for grains, though, there will be some disruptions, but a lot of land that had been diverted to less useful crops (grass seed, for example) is now being put back into grains; as global grain prices rise and stocks run short, a lot of farmers who are struggling now may find their condition much improved. (I know of some who are already doing much better as a result of price spikes in grain driven by ethanol production.) Still, you're right that getting plants in the ground in your own backyard and community is crucial.

Ed, the working poor in the US are going to get a lot poorer. I wish there were some way around that, but I don't see it; in a shrinking pie, every slice gets smaller, and those who have bigger slices already can generally push some of their share of the shrinkage off on others. As for class conflict, it's pervasive in all human societies, though I don't think it's anything like as all-encompassing a historical force as Marx believed -- and of course Marx believed devoutly in the religion of progress, and his theories have no room for the prospect of decline to a deindustrial world.

Mark, permaculture's certainly one important option in the toolkit. It's going to require quite a bit of retooling, though, to adapt to the realities of economic decline -- to name only one issue, a trademarked system that can only be learned by attending expensive certification programs is going to be of limited use in a time when most people won't have the money to spare.

Pgrass, agreed. I live in the very shallow South -- all of five miles south of the Mason-Dixon line -- but I see the same thing here.

Isis, you were right and I was wrong. I didn't think the US would be crazy enough to spin the presses, but that's what they're doing. As for real estate prices, have your friend check out US real estate prices over the course of the 19th century; she may get a rude awakening.

Professor, excellent! You get today's gold star. Except that it's not a new narrative -- it's a very old one, and one that has been traced out repeatedly in modern times as well.

Bryant, the mob will keep shouting
"Great is the Progress of the Americans!" for some time yet, but there are new faiths forming.

John Michael Greer said...

Greg, you're welcome.

Sean, the US may not be Somalia with nukes at the moment; give it ten years, and we'll see.

John Michael Greer said...

For those who haven't seen it already, Sharon Astyk has just posted a very thoughtful response to these last two Archdruid Report posts. Well worth a look!

PanIdaho said...

JMG said:

"Panidaho, what you're seeing is the very first step in the formation of feudalism: the emergence of a warrior subculture in a collapsing civilization."

Well, I was afraid you might say something like that. I guess I'd better brush up on my Dark Ages and Medieval history, because we're headed back to the future, apparently. Might be good to have at least a tentative field guide to the sorts of things we're likely to encounter along the way...

Aaron said...

"As for grains, though, there will be some disruptions, but a lot of land that had been diverted to less useful crops (grass seed, for example) is now being put back into grains; as global grain prices rise and stocks run short, a lot of farmers who are struggling now may find their condition much improved."

I think Marielrar's point is that we are fast approaching a discontinuity in cereal production - transition is not an option. Approximately half the nitrogen atoms in the body of a person living in a developed country has passed through an ammonia factory. Approximately half of the world's ammonia factories were built by KBR.

The collapse of civilization will directly correlate to the ability to maintain the industrial food production system that is based on Haber-Bosch technology. Whether the trigger is due to climate change, financial market disruption, warfare or something else, the rate of collapse will occur proportional to the rate of application of nitrogen upon the bereft soils of modern agriculture.

Alex Smith said...

Definitely, the Third World is coming to a bunch of comfortable countries near you (and me).

Your readers might enjoy the two radio interviews I did on Radio Ecoshock recently. Univ of Utah Prof Tim Garrett on his peer-reviewed paper suggesting economic collapse is the only way to save the atmosphere from climate disaster.

Followed by the UK's Keith Farnish, who thinks civilization is the disease the Earth needs to cure.

Find the 1 hour show at:

I'll be trying to contact you, Mr. Archdruid, for a Radio Ecoshock interview. We've had people like James Howard Kunstler, Dmitri Orlov, and Richard Heinberg as guests, in addition to a raft of scientists and other authors.

Alex Smith
Radio Ecoshock

Ariel55 said...

Whoa! Don't look now, but I believe Iran has just kicked a bunch of dominoes today (Thursday).
Give JMG some credit for an unfrantic,steadying,"nobody panic"
tone. Best wishes to all as it all accelerates.

LS said...

JMG, you said:

"LS, before 1989, how many people would have believed that the leaders of the Communist Bloc would have tamely handed over the keys to their countries?"

I agree, that would have seemed unlikely.

The difference though as I see it is: in the USSR it was only the ruling classes who had anything to loose (everyone else had much to gain). In our countries a large majority of us have a lot to loose. It's easy (easier) to rouse people to war when they feel that their entitlements are being threatened.

We can live in hope though. I really, really, don't want nuclear war.

yooper said...

Hello John!

ahh, so we're going back to our pal "Fritz"...

My friend, "Jeromie" and I wondered about this last winter... It's still very hard for me to fathom that labour can replace machines, that we are even capable of transitioning to this kind of economy....? Without risking "collapse" in the procedure.

From my own experience, I have witnessed this concept somewhat when I moved to the South (Houston, TX.) in 1980... Being a experienced fine grade operator/supervisor in the road building business, I was just shocked when it seemed to me that many of the Southern company procedures were perhaps ten years behind the newer technology that the North employed... In the North with the higher labour costs it only made sense to do all that could be done by machine and only then what couldn't, would be done by hand... In the South, I just about flipped the first time when a pile of sand was in the way of the cement truck and the order was given having 20 Mexicans remove that pile by hand instead of the dozer (that was idealing in the shade nearby) pushing it out of the way!!! I was told at the time that it was "cheaper" doing it this way, and that the Mexicans "had" the time anyway before we progressed to that point... That would have been a "firing offense" with any of the companies I had worked for in the North!

Anyway, I held my tongue and mentioned the procedure to other supervisors that were from the south and most nodded with approval. Well, it didn't take long to "streamline" the construction methods employed by the company and lessor Mexicans were needed as "cheap" as they were... As it was, it was procedure of techniques that were wrong.?? At the time it was "net creative". Anyway, I made a pile of money demonstrating the newer techniques while using the same equipment that the north was utilizing in the industry.

Now 30 years later, perhaps the "tide" has turned and soon there will be a day when indeed it's cheaper to do by hand than by machine? At least, that's what this concept is all about in a nutshell... My friend Jeromie, predicted that there would come a time when as much as 30% of the population would "return to the land".... but only after our country (region) would become "protectionists".... Are we about to embark on that policy now? Be forced into it as global trade (finance) comes to somewhat of a halt, here?

Excellent, btw!

Thanks, yooper

Roboslob said...

we think too much about this stuff. if we pull together we can help each other survive. if we fight we make everybody's life more difficult. the future has not been written! let's have fun with it

Logan said...

This view of the world situation is not one that you’ll find in the cultural mainstream, or for that matter any of its self-proclaimed alternatives. ... the belief in history as perpetual progress has become all the more deeply entrenched...

Are you kidding? Perhaps in 1966 with Star Trek that was true, but from where I'm standing mine is a whole generation raised on Blade Runner, The Road Warrior, The Matrix and the like polluted and unpleasant futures. Also, likening America to declining Rome etc. is very very common. We know in our guts that we're screwed, which is why we're just trying to eat, drink and be merry as well as we can.

I do love your blog, but this particular comment struck me as pretty lame.

Conchscooter said...

I have always appreciated the historical perspective offered in your posts, and lately this has been combined with down-to-Earth consideration of possible future daily living scenarios that frankly, make my skin crawl. I was looking at the Gini coefficient map put out by the CIA (!) and the numbers for the US put us only slightly ahead of South Africa and Brazil. When I point out the gross inequality of life and likely consequences I am always brushed off. I fear for all of us when these realities come face to face with the incomprehension and anger that realization will bring among the masses who have failed to see this coming. God knows I'm anxious enough and I have been trying to deal with my anxiety rationally. What the impact of a sudden(relatively)slide into poverty will do to the mass of my neighbors I am not at all sure. Perhaps the wealthy will puyt a gate across the Keys and i will take up my role as servant to the stars? Oh dear, I fear subservience will be a hard lesson for me to learn.
I also wonder why Russia is not a candidate for Empire Status in our proposed Brave New World. A huge country with a tough disciplined population and enormous resources with historical domination of it's neighbors and control of Western europe's energy supplies. It seems ideally positioned to take over as Number One while China fiddles around trying to feed and clothe it's people.

John Michael Greer said...

Panidaho, try to find a copy of John Morris' The Age of Arthur -- it's a history of Britain from the end of the Roman occupation to the completion of the Saxon conquest of England, and it gives a very good picture of what life was like in the wake of a collapsing civilization.

Aaron, I disagree. Transition in this case is very much an option, because we're not talking about an overnight collapse but a long period of decline punctuated by crisis periods like the one taking shape in the US right now. Chemical nitrogen fertilizers will price themselves out of the market long before they become unavailable for other reasons, and as that happens, other sources -- legume crop rotation, nitrogen-rich compost, and dozens of others -- will move back into the space briefly usurped by chemical fertilizers.

Alex, drop me a line by way of info (at) aoda (dot) org any time.

Ariel, yes, that's looking lively again. Quite a few nations are likely looking for a foreign crisis to distract their populace from the intractable problems at home.

LS, most of the people in the former eastern bloc suffered a drastic loss in personal wealth and economic security when the Soviet empire imploded. You'll notice that this didn't spark massive wars in retaliation. I expect the same sort of thing in the present case.

Yooper, exactly -- we're approaching the point at which it will once again be cheaper to hire people to do most things than to build and fuel a machine to do them. At that point, a great many economic factors change almost beyond recognition. More on this next week.

Roboslob, er, I admire your optimism.

Logan, you're spending too much time watching movies, I think. Sit down with people and find out how many of them are actually planning their own future on the basis of an age of decline. It's amused me to notice, for example, how many people who insist the world is going to end in 2012 are still fretting about their pensions! Make-believe is one thing, but the assumptions on which people base their plans for their own future still by and large assume progress as usual into the indefinite future.

Conch, Russia's another likely candidate, though China has the demographic edge -- it doesn't get much press here, but Chinese illegal immigrants are pouring into Siberia at a rate that makes the Mexican influx into the US look small. Especially in an era of global warming, a Greater China that extends west to the Urals and north to the Arctic Ocean has got to look interesting to Beijing...

MBL32 said...

Very thoughtful and well-reasoned post as usual, JMG. I want to ask about something that I frankly imagine you no longer spend too much time thinking about, preferring to spend time teaching to the converted and semi-converted, but nonetheless this is something many of us have to deal with: how do you reach people, who have through the years seen various decline scenarios come and go without their specific predictions coming true, to pay attention this time?

Ever since the sixties at least (call it the end of the Jetsons school of blind belief in infinite progress), certain people in our society have sketched scenarios (very) broadly like yours; I won't run down the list of examples, but suffice it to say that even my grandparents had a copy of The Crash of '79. Naysayers can point out that none of these situations have really come true. (Others will counter that the predictions were too specific.) How to get through to people we love that this time is different?

I realize you may have no concrete answer, and I also realize you're not spending a lot of time trying to reach the great masses of clueless people out there, as fruitless as that would be. But maybe you or someone else has some thoughts on this subject. I find it frustrating to be continually ignored and dismissed by good-hearted people whom I love and care about. Thanks.

Isis said...


I thought I'd give a shot at answering your question. And my answer is that you can't convince them by any kind of argument. Belief in progress is basically a religious belief, not too different from any other. This is why highly intelligent and perceptive people can have such a hard time grasping such (to us) obvious things as limits to growth. While people change their religious opinions/feelings all the time, this almost never happens as a result of a rational argument, but (usually) as a result of a deeply felt crisis.

I do think it is a good idea to put ideas that contradict the myth of progress out there, and you can do this most effectively by living them yourself at least to some extent (by e.g. reducing your energy consumption, or growing your own food, or not investing your retirement in the stock market). This way, people become aware of and at least somewhat familiar with such ideas. They might laugh for the time being, but once they encounter a big enough crisis, they may just 'convert', and at least in some cases, this conversion could save them from destructive (including self-destructive) behavior that they might engage in otherwise as a result of a crisis that they don't know how to respond to.

Santeri Satama said...


IMHO you left without mention the most crucial difference between a 3rd world country (and especially 4th world nation) and US.

Wholly industrialized (and intensively destructive)agriculture of US with only very tiny portion of population in direct contact with primary production and land. Most US jobs and skills are today in the services sector and most of the manual labor available in fields is done by Mexican and other "illegals", on the other hand in 3rd world majority is still working with land or at least was doing so a generation ago before globalization dislocated and urbanized them. This is huge if not decisive difference in skills and attitudes between US and 3rd world.

This is the difference between US and Russian collapses that Dmitry Orlov keeps reminding about. In Russia all people have or at least know someone with a patch of cultivated land and even now about half of all the food Russia produces come from small private gardens. In US the popular mythology is captivated with images of hordes of zombie cannibals - the true self-identity of the US middle-class?

RagaBhava said...

JMG said : "LS, most of the people in the former eastern bloc suffered a drastic loss in personal wealth and economic security when the Soviet empire imploded. You'll notice that this didn't spark massive wars in retaliation. I expect the same sort of thing in the present case."

Yes, but I have witnessed that period on the terrain for some parts and there are three major differences in this context I see with the US which might change the populations response to decline in a radical way:

- the ruling class was thouroughly hated in the eastern bloc in '89. Compare that to the almost religious adulation the office/title (not the person) of "Mr. President" still holds in the US.

- in the east almost everybody was deeply cynical about the system (the best jokes about communism come from behind the iron curtain). Experience has taught me to refrain from making even mild jokes about the US and its policies/system around most of mainstream americans.

- as the masses slid into poverty in '89 most were dreaming of all the shiny toys the new capitalist friends would soon bring them for christmas, and every new McDonalds and Levi's store opening in town was seen as proof that soon everybody would by living on a yacht or driving a corvette like the dudes in Miami Vice. It didn't turn out that way of course, but it gave people some hope for better times.

das monde said...

The prospect of the US as a third world country may not be repulsive at all to lineage or accidental elites. If United Fruit could run its banana republics for decades, why would the US stay unreachable for that model?

There is a lot of anticipation of mass violence from the bottom, but so far we should wonder how tame are the people who are on the slow descent of living standards for almost a generation already. Their salaries get lower, or they loose jobs outright, and every public service as well, but they quietly accept their looser status. This process is now fast under way in Eastern Europe, and is already deep entrenched in Africa, Haiti and such places. Even turf wars are not sensible there. It seems that many elites learned a lot how to keep but take more from leaner geese.

Quite in relation to this, I wish to test how obsessive is the American belief in material progress. As increasingly more people experience slowly impoverishing living, wouldn’t they be more ready to accept that there won’t be much progress joy for them? Wouldn’t they wonder if there are other choices than desperate robbery or hard working for supporting the welfare of certain “winners”?

There could be some political potential already for calls to question illusions of ever increasing wealth. More practically, the poor folks emigrating from big cities deserve some suggestions what kind of living to try without today’s hottest provisions, how to building adequate communities or gather survival know-how. You know, the rich can get a lot of personal training how set their minds on exploiting whatever opportunities, while the poor can’t expect any extra education. Just for the sake of encouraging inventive survival means and human ecosystems, there must be ways to talk with people loosing objective opportunities, find suitable or ready minds and compel them to find modest but compelling perspectives of long descent futures. With so many sharks of ongoing or potential rents zipping around, some gang appearances of viable communities are perhaps unavoidable - but that does not mean that options for more productive crisis interaction won’t occur.

xhmko said...

It's a bit more complicated then that. During WWII, the Auistralian government had conflicting interests with the British masters when it came to how to deal with the threat of the Japanese in the Pacific. Australia decided to pull out of several campaigns and bring their troops closer to home. As the war in the Pacific grew more intense, more help was recieved from the US than from the mother country which led to Australia being more grateful to the Americans than the British, not to mention the floating goldmines that are American navy ships. These are some of the factoprs that led Australia to actively seek closer ties with the US. Of course the US took strategic advantage of this and quickly built up its series of spy bases and whatnot. And even ineterference in the highest level of politics with many citing the CIA's influence in the sacking of Gough Whitlam. And famously Prime Minister Harold Holt, before he disappeared into the ocean of Victoria one day, had nothing but praise for the Americans and dutifully handed over Australian troops to "the cause" during the Vietnam years.
"All the way with LBJ"

Basically I reject the idea that it was just some passive handover. For better or worse the Australian Government slowly made the British involvement purely ceremonial while boosting ties with the juggernaut US.

spottedwolf said...

I think the 'farts' we've seen in our ol' analy retentive system since 72's Opec formation were too silent to be considered deadly....until this point in time....because the one in the fall of 08' erupted at about a 7.5 on the ol' sphincter scale....and that got everyone's attention. I think all the attempts by the west to staunch the stench are pointless and we are going to see some 'solids' shortly. I don't think Canada, en masse, gets the big picture yet....because we've always had the luxury of our southern neighbor's growth to provide our standard of living. Most canadian loyalists simply hate to admit this fact...but FACT IT IS. Canada's whole history of international trade....even its primary industry of fur trade....was built on the back of western economic style. England was our master and as power shifted from her homeland to her American colonies, so did the economy of fledgeling Canada become dependent on the burgeoning population of the US. I'd sum up this entire post under the the classic description of industrialism. We go from resource base to manufacturing base to service population growth demands....and thus the cycles are historically the same with technology 'booting' the speed of the cycle...all ways.

Jason said...

JMG: try to find a copy of John Morris' The Age of Arthur

Isn't there some, ahm, controversy surrounding that book though?

Lunchista said...

You mention high population density as a characteristic of third-world countries: do you think the USA's low population density will help at all?

The reason I ask is that here in the UK we don't have that benefit...

Although I wasn't there at the time, I can think of some other things in addition to any help from the USA that enabled the British empire to end relatively peacefully. For a start, the state of "war-weariness" is a real one, which pervaded the whole of Europe (East and West) at the time, and which today explains why we tolerate the European Union even though it doesn't always make sense on pure economic grounds. Second, we didn't expect a high standard of living: we expected some improvement after the war, and for that we put up with rationing for a further 6 years. Third, I think we just realised that having an empire doesn't necessarily do you any good: long supply lines and fundamental cultural differences always seem to get in the way, as for example they did in the notorious Groundnut Scheme.

Tom said...

JMG I enjoyed this post and the comments. It seems to me that all China has to do is sink the dollar on the world market and the US is burnt toast. Although it will take a decade for the US military to fade from the world scene, my impression of the Chinese is that they are patient. China does not need to be in a hurry to use economic force but at some point the United States' over use of resources will get in the way of their growth and their internal market will overshadow the value of the US market to them. At that point their loss from sinking the dollar might well be nothing compared to the gain in available resources that the demise of the US consumption will free up.

Aaron said...

Since rhizobia and their leguminous symbionts only provide half of the world's need for nitrogen, are you suggesting that we'll somehow simply double leguminous nitrogen production once synthetic nitrogen is no longer available? I don't think that is likely or even possible.

Some estimate that 40% of the world's population is sustained by the Haber-Bosch process. I can't imagine you're suggesting their termination is part of the "transition" of replacing synthetic fertilizer with "legume crop rotation, nitrogen-rich compost, and dozens of others".

(By the way, nitrogen-rich compost isn't a source - the fixated nitrogen was derived either from bacteria or lightning.)

And what "dozen of others" are you referring to? Besides Chilean guano mines, I can't think of any available sources of fixated nitrogen. You seem to lack an understanding of the biochemical role that nitrogen fixation plays in the current ecological regime of the planet.

With all due respect you either lack a sense of the scale of the problem or you don't understand how limited the rate of fixing nitrogen from the atmosphere is without Haber-Bosch. Artificial fertilizer production is now the largest source of fixed nitrogen in the Earth's ecosystem. We depend on it to maintain our population levels and there is nothing to replace it.

The only thing standing between us and an abrupt discontinuity in population levels is the continued production and application of synthetic fertilisers.

GreenStrong said...

JMG, I hope you do give an interview on Ecoshock Radio, and I hope you mention it to your readers as well. I don't recall seeing any notice in these pages of your excellent interview on the C-Realm Podcast.

Frank said...

I live in a little town in Vermont. We have a small elementary school with two teachers and about 17 students in grades 1 through 5. The recent NECAP scores showed that the school did better than the average school in Vermont but keeping a school open is expensive and the Republican gov. claims that we can cut cost by consolidating schools and school boards. In a way he's advocating doing something we spent so many years criticizing the Soviets for – centralization. Centralization will require more transportation just at a time when diesel and gasoline may be poised to become more scarce, or costly or both. But tax revenues are falling, budget gaps widening and people are becoming very concerned about ever-rising property taxes and will grasp at any straw that may save them a few hundred dollars.
Town meeting day comes soon and school budgets are always the main source of contention.

What does this have to do with Mr Greer's very well thought out and plausible post? It seems that in this instance we are going against the grain of the article if we move to close a small rural school typical of many rural communities in the 1940's and earlier and consolidate the students at some distant location that sort of has the flavor of modern business management. I don't think this undermines the ideas presented by Mr Greer. I rather think it shows how hard it is for people to change their way of thinking. Clearly, consolidating students will do little or no good and may have to be reversed if the economy continues to decline, but our unwillingness to even consider that as a possibility locks us into thinking of school as we do now. Sooner or later we're going to have to think of ways to do this differently but not yet.

Glenn said...

Another metric of 3rd world countries, little to no middle class. Maybe 1% rich, perhaps serviced by 2% - 4% middle class and the rest dirt poor, working or not. We in the U.S. have been going in this direction since about 1970; in the last few years at a rapidly increasing pace.


Trebor Resro said...

"There is hope, but not for us." -- Franz Kafka

marielar said...

JMG wrote:
"Aaron, I disagree. Transition in this case is very much an option, because we're not talking about an overnight collapse but a long period of decline punctuated by crisis periods like the one taking shape in the US right now. Chemical nitrogen fertilizers will price themselves out of the market long before they become unavailable for other reasons, and as that happens, other sources -- legume crop rotation, nitrogen-rich compost, and dozens of others -- will move back into the space briefly usurped by chemical fertilizers."

The transition will happen organically when there will be no other option. The problem is that it wont be possible to ramp up the alternative production fast enough to make up for the losses in conventional agriculture. The drops can be sudden and dramatic i.e. if your costs of production go over the roof, if there is a crop failure etc...Two years ago we lost 90% of the hog production in six months when the feed cost went up and the price plunge. You loose in six months the production capacity it took years to build. There is maybe one percent of the food produced organically. At best, you might be able to double this in one year. You're at 2% the next year. If simulnateously, the food produced by industrial farms drop by only 5%, you are 3% short. That's a huge gap. That's enough to generate a 20-40% increase in price.

If your only source of N is biological fixation, you then cut the overall cereal production in half, because at any time, 50% of your crop are in the legume phase of your rotation.

The beef I have with permaculturists is that they have appropriated and repackaged many old, traditional practices and principles developped by organic farmers and foresters by coining a new term. Its basically system ecology applied to agronomy. IMO, somebody can learn the same stuff by reading a good ecology textbook, Odum's work, and pouring over old agricultural, horticultural and agroforestry literature. To farm and live sustainably in a specific area, there are only custom made solutions developped over a long period of trials and errors. There is no generic package of crops, livestocks and practices that fits all ecosystems.

Many techniques promoted by permaculturists were abandonned in recent time by farmers because they were incompatible with the specialization and the mechanization of the work and the economic pressure to reduce human labor on the farm. Farmers did not jump all over permaculture because its labor intensive techniques are not scalable and still economically viable. The only guys who make a living farming sustainably, like Joel Salatin, sell their products way over average commodity price.

IMO, time, money and energy are best spend learning hand-on skills (pruning, seed saving, canning, knitting, fencing etc.) than on a three day permaculture workshop. Lots of craft clubs and community gardens provide very cheap if not free mentorship to beginners. Many volonteer groups offer training in exchange for your involvement.

Bill Pulliam said...

marielar --

The beef I have with permaculturists is that they have appropriated and repackaged many old, traditional practices and principles developped by organic farmers and foresters by coining a new term.

Hear hear! And then they copyrighted their new term so you have to pay for one of their workshops before you can claim to be doing it. The town I moved to a decade ago has somehow become a "Transition Town" and has become a hotbed of "Financial Permaculture." As far as I can tell, "Financial Permaculture" is just figuring out how to make local economies viable and sustainable; however I had to wade through huge heaps of jargon (much of it sounding frighteningly like corporate-speak) before I figured this out. All too often an excess of jargon is used to fluff up what turns out to be a shortage of truly original ideas.

IMO, somebody can learn the same stuff by reading a good ecology textbook, Odum's work, and pouring over old agricultural, horticultural and agroforestry literature.

You also need to remember a rapidly vanishing resource -- the remaining oldtimers who still remember how they farmed as children back before the agrochemical era. These people are dying out fast; grab them and pic their brains while you still can.

John Michael Greer said...

MBL32, it's important to remember that most people decide what they believe for emotional reasons, and then look for facts to support that belief. Thus it's usually not possible to convince anyone of anything they don't want to believe -- and especially in this case, since recognizing the decline and fall of industrial civilization means that just about everything most people have done to prepare for their future was wasted effort.

Isis, nicely summarized.

Santeri, agricultural systems dominated by corporate farming are tolerably common in the Third World these days. We're only just beginning to see the other side of the equation, the rise of very small farms on less commercially desirable acreage providing the bulk of the food for local consumption, but that's coming.

RagaBhava, so noted. It'll be interesting to see how those differences play out.

Das Monde, I think you're quite right that there's a wide range of possible adaptations, some more constructive, some less so, that can happen. More on this next week.

Xhmko, most interesting. It's not always easy to get this sort of perspective from this side of the ocean.

Wolf, er, that's quite a fragrant metaphor.

Jason, of course -- like any attempt at a general synthesis of a period of history that isn't very well documented, Morris' book had to make its share of assumptions and guesstimates, some of which have been challenged at length in the specialist literature. As a general survey for the nonspecialist reader, though, it still has a great deal of value.

Lunchista, the problem with taking the US population density at face value is that about half the nation is pretty close to uninhabitable on any scale without massive energy inputs. As energy supplies wind down, nearly the entire West, except for a thin strip along the coast, will have to return to very sparse population density -- and while there's still a lot of space in the rest of the country, there are over 300 million people here already, and that figure's climbing rapidly.

Tom, my guess is that the economic relationship between China and the US is a good deal more complex than it appears. You're right, though, that they're patient, and they can afford to be; they don't even need to tank the dollar; they can just sit back, load additional economic burdens on the US, and wait until the dollar tanks itself.

John Michael Greer said...

Aaron, the fact that legumes provide half the nitrogen currently in use, when legume crop rotation is a hugely underutilized process -- how many midwestern farmers put in a rotation of field peas between crops of wheat or corn? -- shows how much room there is for improvement. Of course the other "sources" aren't strictly sources at all -- they're ways to tap into the waste stream where huge amounts of nitrogen currently end up, and return that nitrogen (along with other nutrients) to agricultural use. Since we're not facing a sudden end to fossil fuels, but rather a slow decline partly offset by increasing efficiencies, we don't have to worry about synthetic nitrogen going away all at once -- just gradually pricing itself out of the market, a process that leaves plenty of opportunities for other methods to take up the slack.

It's always seductive to assume that because something is currently done with high technology, it has to be done that way or it can't be done at all. The problem, here as elsewhere, is that high technology is usually "more efficient" only in the sense of that phrase used by economists -- that is, more efficient at making a profit for somebody. In this case, methods of doing without chemical nitrogen are in use, and rapidly expanding in popularity -- check out the rate at which acreage in the USA is being converted to organic farming sometime, and thus taken entirely off chemical fertilizers -- and the gradual shape of the energy transition ahead of us gives us time and space to make the necessary changes.

GreenStrong, I've just emailed Alex. I'll keep everyone posted.

Frank, there's always a certain amount of social momentum that has to be overcome when conditions change. That's one of the reasons I expect things to get very challenging here in the US for a while -- the steps that would ameliorate the situation are unthinkable right now, because everyone's making choices on the basis of an imagined future that isn't the one to which we're heading.

Glenn, good. Yes, that's another point of comparison that could be cited.

Trebor, nicely quoted!

Marielar, while you cut your cereal production in half by introducing a legume rotation, you also gain the products of the legume rotation, which are typically high in protein and other essential nutrients. Mind you, you're quite right that prices for all farm commodities are going to go up steeply; they've been at historically rock-bottom levels for many decades now, and a reversion to the historical mean is overdue. (That reversion will also make farming a paying proposition again for a great many farmers.) In a third world country, the cost of food often makes up half or more of the average family's budget; we'll certainly see that here in the not too distant future.

yooper said...

Hello John, I'm very much looking forward to next week's installment. Last winter when Jeromie was tutoring me on philosophy and geopolitics, I came upon this..

Could it be viewed as Adam Smith makes his way downstairs, that he's actually making room for such a man and his ideal?

Lisa said...

I'm not sure I agree with the definition of third world, as far as I can tell what it is.

Personally I think there are a lot of significant other factors: corruption at everday levels of society, political repression, woman's rights, high birth rates, serious pollution, drinkable water, life expectancy, to name a few.

I'm not saying the US isn't on it's way down the road past empires have gone, nor that these things aren't in store, just that we have some ways to go before we're the term "third world" could be applied, and probably we'd really need some new term for the post-empire condition.

Jeff BKLYN said...

For two years I lived in Mexico City. While I was there, I used to think, this is what America could become. At the time, I attributed it to the distribution of wealth. Very few had the cake while the vast majority made due with the crumbs.

Well that observation turned out to be uncomfortably accurate.

I'll know it too be even more so if I start seeing cops with double barrel shot guns at every bank...

marielar said...

Hello JMG,

"Marielar, while you cut your cereal production in half by introducing a legume rotation, you also gain the products of the legume rotation, which are typically high in protein and other essential nutrients. "

Vegetable legumes are poor N fixers. The legumes you would grow for protein for human consumption typically wont return enough nitrogen the following year to produce cereals. For example, the maximum you will get from the previous soybean in a corn/soybean rotation is 30 lb/ac, from others beans like lima, peas, snapbean, it will be around 20 lbs/ac etc... To get good corn yield, you need about 150 lb/ac, grain required about 100 lb/ac. The legumes used for green manure are the species used forage (clover, alfalfa, sweetclover etc...). The main benefit of a corn or cereal/bean rotation is to interupt the cycle of pests and diseases.

I tend to have a different opinion than Aaron on the absolute necessity of synthetic N fertilizer to produce enough food. There is lot of inefficiencies in industrial agriculture and specifically regarding nutrient management. Its typical to loose 50% of the applied N. Alternatives work for the small, diversified, labor intensive farms. The British used folding flocks to build up nitrogen in the field where cereals were to be grown. The sheep would pasture all day on land ill-suited for cultivation and brought back at night and this would allow enough manure to be accumulated to provide for the cereal. Also, there are many trees (such as honeylocust) and shrubs (alders, caragana) which fix nitrogen and could be use in hedgerows and windbreaks.

Mowgli said...

Great post with much to ponder JMG, and many great comments as well.

However I think a major point of comparison has been missed-- third world countries have weak educational systems, and the US has gutted ours via under-funding, over-emphasis on administrators vs. educators and most recently (via No Child Left Behind) a fixation on standardized testing vs. creative thinking.

The outcome is the same: generations of children with little to no practical understanding of the world and how it works, informed by historical context.

America beats the incessant drum of being 'The Best' while ignoring the reality of our peril. This thundering nationalism, too, is commonly heard from the mouths of third-world despots as they try to distract the struggling populace from reality.

Llewellyn said...

Another excellent post JMG
I was wondering have you read Joseph Teinter's book The Collapse of Complex Societies?

Wrad said...

PanIdaho, self defense will be a necessary survival skill in the coming years, both at the individual level and the community level. Those who have done their preparation will become the primary targets of the lawless and the desperate.

At the community level, there will be a number of defense options, depending on the skills and solildarity among the populace. At the individual level, there will be fewer options: You either (a) learn to live with nothing (so as not to be a target), (b) develop well-rounded skills in self defense, or (c) buy -- or barter for -- the protection of members of the warrior class, consisting of veteran military, security, and police officers who will no longer be working for the defunct state.

Because of the expected glut of unemployed warriors in category C, as well as the large number of lawful Americans who are already armed and more-or-less trained, "gang rule" is not something I fear much. The situation is likely to be more complex. For a detailed scenario of how things might turn out -- based on what life was like in the collapsing Soviet Unition -- read everything you can by Dmitry Orlov.

John Michael Greer said...

Yooper, thanks for the reference! No, I wasn't familiar with List.

Lisa, I disagree. Many of the things on your list are already happening in substantial parts of the US, and I expect the rest to follow promptly.

Jeff, that makes sense to me.

Marielar, well, of course you also want to use leguminous green manures. Still, three-field rotations with grains and legumes have worked very well over quite long periods, so I'm by no means convinced that edible legumes are inadequate.

Mowgli, true enough.

Llewellyn, well over a decade ago. It was one of the main influences on my theory of catabolic collapse.

Wrad, this is one of the reasons why I've repeatedly suggested rural towns and small cities as good bets for long-term survival. They're large enough to be able to maintain local militias and law enforcement. That's a standard phenomenon in dark ages generally -- urban centers that can manage to hang on generally do a lot better than the lawless, bandit-ridden countryside -- which is why city-states have turned out to be such a durable social form in so many societies.

PanIdaho said...

Wrad said:

"At the community level, there will be a number of defense options, depending on the skills and solildarity among the populace. At the individual level, there will be fewer options: You either (a) learn to live with nothing (so as not to be a target), (b) develop well-rounded skills in self defense, or (c) buy -- or barter for -- the protection of members of the warrior class, consisting of veteran military, security, and police officers who will no longer be working for the defunct state."

I agree, with the following caveats.

Living with nothing does not guarantee you will not become a target. There are those who would consider that simply hurting or killing you would have immense entertainment value, whether there were any spoils to be had afterward or not. And having nothing probably also means not having the means to defend yourself as well. So someone who had nothing would still need to be able to depend upon others in order to have a chance at remaining safe and unmolested in the long term.

Second minor point, well-rounded skills in self defense only work if you are surrounded by a number of others who are similarly well-rounded. Otherwise, you lose any advantage your skills gave you as soon as you fall asleep.

So, bottom line is, community of some type is really the safest way to go. There really is little, to my mind, to recommend the individual approach, given the concerns I listed above. The trick is finding a community that is large enough and stable enough to defend itself and weather hard times, and that has a culture that you can live with without going insane! ;-)

Cherokee Organics said...

Thanks again for your well thought out blog and to all of those that comment. I'd have to state that the direction of the blog is probably only in the minds of the few. Yesterday, I had a lovely picnic with a couple just married in their very late 30's to early 40's and it occurred to me how that for most of the population at least in Australia, resource and environmental decline are not even at the forefront of their minds. They spoke glowingly of having a baby at any cost, buying an oversized house in the burbs (which would mean an two car commuter family) and of their preference for cheap cuts of meat (I'm a vegetarian). They haven't heard of peak phosphates, peak oil, factory farms, soil exhaustion (which is a real drama in Australia as our soils are so old and low in Phosphates and all bar a small part of the continent is covered in fire inducing weeds). It then ocurred to me that these people are in the majority and in a democracy they vote in the politicians that support their world view. Little wonder that no government wants to tackle the problems at hand as they'd be quickly out of a job! Good luck to those that are preparing or are prepared for what is to come.

Santeri Satama said...

"Vegetable legumes are poor N fixers. The legumes you would grow for protein for human consumption typically wont return enough nitrogen the following year to produce cereals. For example, the maximum you will get from the previous soybean in a corn/soybean rotation is 30 lb/ac, from others beans like lima, peas, snapbean, it will be around 20 lbs/ac etc... To get good corn yield, you need about 150 lb/ac, grain required about 100 lb/ac. The legumes used for green manure are the species used forage (clover, alfalfa, sweetclover etc...). The main benefit of a corn or cereal/bean rotation is to interupt the cycle of pests and diseases."

Fresh organic mulch is excellent source of N with additional benefits (maintains humidity, less weeding, more micro-organism activity). With corn instead of rotation, why not the Three Sisters method (
Of course the organic matter that is not eaten is best to leave there for N etc for future crops.

With wheat etc. coplanting with e.g. white clover is good solution to fix N - the results start to manifest in couple years.

Noah Adler said...

Thanks, as always, for the insightful posts. I think many here are in the camp which reckons a relocalization of production is necessary in one form or another. Something I've been pondering lately, as a tool to ease the transition in the US, is institution of state currencies in parallel with the US dollar. We're all taught how this country is set up on multiple holonic levels of government, such that politics tend to follow, more closely than in some other areas, the fractal nature of our geography in general. We're constantly reminded to vote with our dollars, yet how can we support (and feasibly rally our friends to support) local production methods in the face of massive capital investitures away from it (e.g., the federal usury to Corn the Tyrant), which we have no control of? Could state currencies ease this process? Maybe if not now, sometime in the near future (time lines seem exceptionally hard to determine in all these discussions). I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on the viability of this as a transitional measure.

marielar said...

JMG wrote:
"Still, three-field rotations with grains and legumes have worked very well over quite long periods, so I'm by no means convinced that edible legumes are inadequate."

I am not certain to what you are refering to with the three-field rotation. From the top of my head, I can only think of the type of
rotation practiced in medieval time. The sequence was a winter cereal, than a spring cereal followed by fallow. Later on, a legume was substituted for the spring cereal, but fallow was still part of the rotation. BTW, the Russian peasants kept using it for quite a while into the 20th century. Typically, the yields were nothing like today. Take wheat, we went from producing 1 T/ha in 1900 to 2.5 T/ha in the 90s. For one, traditional cultivars dont perform like the HYVs (high yielding varieties) developped during the Green Revolution. The three-field was considerably improved upon by the British with the four-field rotation popularized by Turnip Townshend. In that system, N fertility is restored by the use of green manure.


The problem with the three-sisters is the labor. Everything has to be planted and harvested manually. At the end of the day, you need to produce more calories than the one consummed doing the work. Although there are variants of it all over North America, the only place where the system was used on a fairly large scale was in Mesoamerica, by the Mayas, under optimal growing conditions of rain and heat. I dont think it is scalable to the typical 1000 acres Midwest farm. And the stem of modern varieties and hybrid corn is not sturdy enough to support the climbing legume. On the short and mid-term, just that would seriously impede the adoption of that system in many geographical areas.
Also, white clover does not interseed well with cereal because it does not get enough light once the cereal have gain some height. Its really a pasture species, where the livestock mow the vegetation at six inches. Usually, red clover is the choice for interseeding with a cereal. The benefits show up the second year after a plough down.
Even then, in any field where cereals are grown continuously, there is a sharp drop in yield and quality after the first year due to rust, smut, blight etc...
As for the mulch, it depends very much on what mulch we are talking about. Many mulches (straw, bark, sawdust etc..), anything with a Carbon:Nitrogen higher than 25, will immobilize the N at least the first year.

sagesmoke said...

No relevant questions, or relevant comments from me, just a deep and heartfelt thanks...for this column,
specifically, and in general...though I have no one to share and talk about it with, it keeps me going; I yhink it's the very best and most intelligent of the (what to call them?) "Take a look ahead folks" blogs!

Leon said...

JMG,this comment is not exactly on point with your latest post but is in keeping with your ongoing suggestions on ways to prepare for the coming storm. I would appreciate your thoughts on reviving the art of memory. As you know the art of memory was a highly refined art and skill in classical and medieval times, but fell into neglect with the advent of the printing press. Nowadays, those who have tried to resurrect that lost art are somehow relegated to the status of a carnival sideshow where the performer wows the audience by remembering each of their names. People refer to the art as memory "tricks." That is regrettable. I have been interested in the topic now since college, some 40 years distant now. Lately it seems to me that one skill or art that will have immense value in an uncertain future would be that of memory. No tools or technology needed.

Endif said...

"Third World nations import most of their manufactured goods from abroad, while exporting mostly raw materials; that’s been true of the United States for decades now."

Actually, huge portions of US exports are intellectual/service/managerial/technical/cultural in nature, and thus ignored by these criteria.

Avi said...

E. F. Schumacher was truly ahead of his times as this 1976 interview makes evident:

hapibeli said...

If only this erudite expression of an American's coming of knowledge could be extended to the post industrial sphere. The "Tea Party Movement" and its adherents may be the vanguard of "new" governance, particularly in the western USA.

Were I an unkind person I'd say the boobacracy has awakened, but then I'd have to say "been there done that". I remember in my callow youth, at eighteen, in 1964 standing on one of the main streets in Peoria holding my Goldwater sign aloft as Lyndon Johnson's motorcade drove by. I was against "segregation" but nervous in an inchoate way that LBJ was proposing giving rights to blacks at the expense of the "rights of white men" and would usher in a socialist revolution. I was afraid, even then, that some bogyman was going to take my guns, though I didn't have one and wasn't interested in buying one. It was just the prospect of not being able to wave one any time I wanted at some perceived threat that the Goldwater people had convinced me was an assault on my liberty and the beginning of tyranny. (It seems ironic now that LBJ gave me my first gun and provided me the training in its use.)
William from Peoria's comment

PSW said...

great read...watching American hubris and the decline of the empire will be interesting to say the least.

sagesmoke said...

No comment, nothing to add, just want to thank you, for a great column, and for your blog in general--it is so good to read your well articulated and thoughtful essays on the unique(??) for lack of a better word, situation we find ourselves in! The comments are very interesting as well! For a number of reasons, (age, location, etc.) I have no one in my life at this point who share this POV,and no one to talk to or discuss your essays it's wonderful to know there are others out there who are aware, to varying degrees, of what's going on in the "larger picture". Sometimes I listen to people, or inadvertedly see some "news" and wonder if I am deluded!
I think the (illusory) High living standard here, and the excessive focus on consumerism, entertainment, sports and the accompanying scandels work very well to enable many many people to continue to live in denial. Thanks again!

Steve said...

The discussion of the Nitrogen cycle and crop rotations calls to mind a useful book for those pondering food systems.

A History of World Agriculture

It's dense but also a nearly comprehensive exploration of food systems from human societies around the world over the course of a few thousand years. Worth a read if you want to learn more about crop rotations and social complexity.

Geno said...

Speaking of having American troops all around the world, do you think we could postpone our collapse a year or two if some president were brave enough to bring them all home? It would make an improvement in the balance of payments and the budget. Nah... won't happen. Will the collapse be so sudden we won't have the money to pay their way home? Were Roman centurions stranded in the imperial outposts when their empire collapsed?

strang LA said...

Endif said, "Actually, huge portions of US exports are
intellectual/service/managerial/technical/cultural in nature, and thus ignored by these criteria."

If I understand you correctly, you're saying that such "products" actually matter to most of the
world's population. Most people in the world can't afford such pseudo-products. And what do you
count as exports? Hip-hop music and Hollywood movies (most of which would be pirated by international crime syndicates anyway), collateralized debt instruments and similar make-believe money, Blackwater mercenaries (or whatever they're called now), McDonald's (which few can afford in a third world economy), ? Only an insane economic system like the present one would consider these "products" to be real exports.
I recommend "In Praise of Hard Industries: Why Manufacturing, Not the Information Economy, Is the Key to Future Prosperity" by Eamonn Fingleton. Of course as the author admits, it's too late to change back to hard industry since Germany and Japan are now way ahead of us, and I have some sense from reading the book that the author must agree with that (which makes me wonder why he bothered to write the book at all -- but it's worth reading anyway just for the perspective).

Apple Jack Creek said...

This is a bit of an aside, apologies for the slight drift.

@ Marielar and Santeri Satama - I live far enough north that the 3 sisters method doesn't work here, the corn stalks don't grow fast enough. I have used sunflowers planted with the peas, as they grow nice and tall (and fast) and support the peas on the way up - and in the end I have seeds from the sunflowers as well as my peas. I also suspect they are lighter feeders than corn, which would leave more nutrients behind in the soiil.

I am only doing this on a garden scale, of course, but I understand that both peas and sunflowers are mechanically harvested - I'm wondering if there might be some human-labour-saving method to harvest both at once, perhaps through a combine (which is how the sunflowers are gathered, if I remember rightly, although I've no idea how one mechanically harvests peas). We did use combine type harvesters back when we had only horses for power, so it's not necessarily a fossil fuel dependent strategy.

Just an idea - you guys seem to know quite a lot about these things, so I figured I'd toss the thought your way and see what happened. :)

Thanks for giving us the space to talk about these things, Archdruid, and for keeping us thinking about options and possibilities.

Christophe said...

jmg: thanks for the tremendous blog and the ecotechnic future, which i just finished enthusiastically reading and will most certainly have to reread shortly. it put a great many things into better perspective for me.

you are right that permaculture will need to make some changes as the future unfolds, but who won't? i am currently working on an advanced semantic permaculture knowledge base which will be completely free and open source from bottom to top, and there is a growing movement of younger permaculturists who share similar goals of openeing things up.

as a lifelong autodidact i'd have to disagree that the only way to learn it is through an expensive course. anybody can pick up a book, and there are many internet resources and free to attend local meetup groups. more can of course be done to improve the situation but funding as always is a real problem.

as for the expense of a course, compared to training in any applied field, it's cheap. two weeks of intensive training with (generally delicious & organic) food and (generally rudimentary) lodging for $1500!? for a similar amount in the IT world for example, you get a day, or two at most, and you pay for your own food and lodging. i have seen similarly high rates for training in organic and industrial agriculture.

marielar: i'm afraid you do not know enough about permaculture to make informed commentary. it is not systems ecology applied to agronomy, although one of it's main areas of interest is agronomy, and one of it's roots is certainly systems ecology. permaculture is a design science and way of thinking about problem solving with a solid ethical, systems theoretical, and ecological foundation, nothing more. specific techniques, wherever they may be found, whether from recent advances in organic agriculture, or ancient practices like the three sisters guild somebody mentioned above, are embraced where appropriate. do you really think such an open & flexible system is a bad idea?

any knowledgeable permaculturist would agree with you that reading odum and old agro texts is an excellent idea, and that it goes without saying that there are no generic crop solutions. that there may be more than a few permaculturists running around who think that making an herb spiral *is permaculture* and that those are the people you have had the misfortune of meeting however is a distinct possibility.

you also mentioned that permaculture is labor intensive. one of the main tenets of permaculture is to reduce labor through smart design, this is one of the reasons that perennial crops are favored over annual ones for instance. that it is perceived as labor intensive and not economically viable in a petroleum driven R-selected human ecology is of course no surprise. just give it some time, and maybe another and deeper look, it's open, and rich with ideas.

Rick said...

As for the manufacturing angle, a graph:

We don't make stuff anymore

- Rick

Aaron said...

Apple Jack Creek

"I'm wondering if there might be some human-labour-saving method to harvest both at once"

Let a pig eat your crops then eat the pig

Santeri Satama said...

Marielar, in my country there was a field experiment of growing wheat together with nitrogen fixers. White clover gave the best results, so there is empirical evidence available for those who seek it. That shouldn't be surprising, as Masanobu Fukuoka swore in the name of white clover. I heartily recommend exploring Fukuoka's philosophy. :)

Cristophe, thanks for the positive and wise comments on permaculture. Fukuoka is one of the great teachers of permaculture philosophy, which could be coined as 'organic way of life'.

One basic permaculture attitude is not to fight problems, but just like in aikido, turn propblems into source of strength.