Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Why Factories Aren't Efficient

Last week’s Archdruid Report post fielded a thoughtful response from peak oil blogger Sharon Astyk, who pointed out that what I was describing as America’s descent to Third World status could as well be called a future of “ordinary human poverty.” She’s quite right, of course. There’s nothing all that remarkable about the future ahead of us; it’s simply that the unparalleled abundance that our civilization bought by burning through half a billion years of stored sunlight in three short centuries has left most people in the industrial world clueless about the basic realities of human life in more ordinary times.

It’s this cluelessness that underlies so many enthusiastic discussions of a green future full of high technology and relative material abundance. Those discussions also rely on one of the dogmas of the modern religion of progress, the article of faith that the accumulation of technical knowledge was what gave the industrial world its three centuries of unparalleled wealth; since technical knowledge is still accumulating, the belief goes, we may expect more of the same in the future. Now in fact the primary factor that drove the rise of industrial civilization, and made possible the lavish lifestyles of the recent past, was the recklessness with which the earth’s fossil fuel reserves have been extracted and burnt over the last few centuries. The explosion of technical knowledge was a consequence of that, not a cause.

In what we might as well get used to calling the real world – that is, the world as it is when human societies don’t have such immense quantities of highly concentrated energy ready to hand that figuring out how to use it all becomes a major driver of economic change – the primary constraints on the production of wealth are hard natural limits on the annual production of energy resources and raw materials. Even after two billion years of evolutionary improvements, photosynthesis only converts about one percent of the solar energy falling on leaves into chemical energy that can be used for other purposes, and that only when other requirements – water, soil nutrients, and so on – are also on hand. Other than a little extra from wind and running water, that trickle of energy from photosynthesis is what a nonindustrial society has to work with; that’s what fuels the sum total of human and animal muscle that works the fields, digs the mines, wields the tools of every craft, and does everything else that produces wealth. This, in turn, is why most people in nonindustrial societies have so little; the available energy supply, and the other resources that can be extracted and used with that energy, are too limited to provide any more.

The same sort of limits apply to the contemporary Third World, though for different reasons. Here the problem is the assortment of colonial and neocolonial arrangements that drain most of the world’s wealth into the coffers of a handful of industrial nations, and leave the rest to tussle over the little that’s left. I’ve commented here before that the five percent of the world’s population that happens to live in the United States, for example, doesn’t get to use roughly a third of the world’s resources and industrial production because the rest of the world has no desire to use a fairer share themselves. Rather, our prosperity is maintained at their expense, and until recently – when the current imperial system began coming apart at the seams – any Third World country that objected too strenuously to that state of affairs could pretty much count on having its attitude adjusted by way of a coup d’etat or "color revolution" stage-managed by one or more of the powers of the industrial world, if not an old-fashioned invasion of the sort derided in Tom Lehrer’s ballad "Send the Marines."

One consequence of all this is that over the last century or so, a handful of insightful thinkers have tried to explore ways in which the cycle of exploitation and dependency can be broken. One of those was the maverick economist E.F. Schumacher, whose ideas have been central to quite a few of the posts here over the last year or so.

Though he had degrees from Oxford and taught for a while at Columbia University, Schumacher was not primarily an academic; he was the polar opposite of those ivory-tower economists who have done so much damage to the world in recent decades by insisting that their theories are the key to prosperity even when the facts argue forcefully for the opposite case. He spent most of his career working in the places where government and business overlap, helping to rebuild the German economy after the Second World War and then, for two decades, serving as chief economist for the British National Coal Board, at that time one of the world’s largest energy corporations. This was the background he brought to bear on the problems facing the Third World. Still, he drew some of his central ideas from a very different source: the largely neglected economic ideas of Gandhi.

(May I interrupt this post to address a pet peeve? The family name of the founder of modern India is spelled "Gandhi," not "Ghandi." It’s not that difficult to spell it right, any more than it’s hard to avoid writing "Abraham Lcinoln," say, or "Nelson Mdanela;" despite which, I recently got sent a review copy of a book referencing Gandhi – I won’t mention the publishers, to spare them the embarrassment – which misspelled the name on the top of every single page. If you need a mnemonic, just remember that the beginning of his name is spelled like "Gandalf," not like "ghastly." Thank you, and we now return you to your regularly scheduled Archdruid Report.)

A lot of Americans – even, ahem, those who can spell his name correctly – think of Mohandas K. Gandhi as a spiritual leader, which of course he was, and as a political figure, which of course he also was. It’s not as often remembered that he also spent quite a bit of time developing an economic theory appropriate to the challenges facing a newly independent India. His suggestion, to condense some very subtle thinking into too few words, was that a nation that had a vast labor force but very little money was wasting its time to invest that money in state-of-the-art industrial plants; instead, he suggested, the most effective approach was to equip that vast labor force with tools that would improve their productivity within the existing structures of resource supply, production and distribution. Instead of replacing India’s huge home-based spinning and weaving industries with factories, for example, and throwing millions of spinners and weavers out of work, he argued that the most effective use of India’s limited resources was to help those spinners and weavers upgrade their skills, spinning wheels, and looms, so they could produce more cloth at a lower price, continue to support themselves by their labor, and in the process make India self-sufficient in clothing production.

This sort of thinking flies in the face of nearly every mainstream economic theory since Adam Smith, granted. Since nearly every mainstream economic theory since Adam Smith has played a sizable role in landing the industrial world in its current mess, though, I’m not so sure this is a bad thing. Current economics dismisses Gandhi’s ideas on the grounds of their "inefficiency," but this has to be taken in context, "efficiency," in today’s economic jargon, means nothing more or less than efficiency in producing somebody a profit. As a way of keeping millions of people gainfully employed, stabilizing the economy of a desperately poor nation, and preventing its wealth from being siphoned overseas by predatory industrial nations, Gandhi’s proposal is arguably very efficient indeed – and this, in turn, was what brought it to the attention of E.F. Schumacher.

One of Schumacher’s particular talents was a gift for intellectual synthesis; his work is full of cogent insights that sum up a great deal of more specialized work and make it applicable to a wider range of circumstances. This is more or less what he did with Gandhi’s ideas. Schumacher argued that talk about "developing" the Third World typically neglected to deal with one of the most pragmatic issues of all – the cost of setting up workers with the tools they needed to work.

Take a moment to follow the logic. You are the president of the newly independent Republic of Imaginaria. You’ve got a population that’s not particularly well fed, clothed, and housed, and a fairly high unemployment rate; you’ve got a very modest budget for economic development; you’ve also got raw materials of various kinds, which could be used to feed, clothe, and house the Imaginarian people. Your foreign economic advisers, who not coincidentally come from the industrial nation that used to be your country’s imperial overlord, insist that your best option is to use your budget to build a big modern factory that will turn those raw materials into goods for export to their country by their merchants, giving your country cash income to buy goods from them, and in the process employ a few thousand Imaginarians as factory workers.

Not so fast, says Schumacher. If your goal is to feed, clothe, house, and employ the Imaginarian people, building a factory is a very inefficient way to go about it, because that approach requires a very large investment per worker employed. You can provide many more Imaginarians with productive jobs for the same amount of money, by turning to a technology that’s less expensive to build, maintain, and supply with energy and raw materials – say, by providing them with hand tools and workbenches instead of state-of-the-art fabrication equipment, and setting up supply chains that supply them with local raw materials instead of imports from abroad. The goods those workers produce may not be as valuable in the export market as what might come out of a factory, but that’s not necessarily a problem – remember, your main goal is to feed, clothe, and house Imaginarians, so maximizing production for domestic use is a better idea in the first place, since less of the value produced by those workers will be skimmed off by the middlemen who manage international trade. Furthermore, since you won’t have to to trade with overseas producers for as many of the necessities of life, your need for cash from overseas goes down, and you get an economy less vulnerable to foreign-exchange shocks into the bargain.

This was the basis for what Schumacher called "intermediate technology," and the younger generation of activist-inventors who followed in his footsteps called "appropriate technology." The idea was that relatively simple technologies, powered by locally available energy sources and drawing on locally available raw materials, could provide paying jobs and an improved standard of living for working people throughout the Third World. A lot of very productive thinking went into these projects, and there were some impressive success stories before the counterrevolution of the 1980s cut what little funding the movement had been able to find. Mind you, Schumacher’s thinking was never popular among economists or the business world, and it happened more than once that countries that tried to adopt such economic policies were treated to the sort of attitude adjustments mentioned above. Still, pay attention to those Third World nations that have succeeded in becoming relatively prosperous, and you’ll find that some version of Schumacher’s scheme played a significant role in helping them do that.

It’s when the same logic is applied to the industrial world, though, that Schumacher’s ideas become relevant to the project of this blog. If, as I’ve suggested, the United States (and, in due time, the rest of the world’s industrial nations) have begun a descent to Third World status, thinking designed for the Third World may be a good deal more applicable here and now than the conventional wisdom might suggest. It seems utterly improbable to me that the governments of today’s industrial powers will have the foresight, or for that matter the common sense, to realize that economic policies that deliberately increase the number of people earning a living might be a very good idea in an age of pervasive structural unemployment – or, for that matter, to glimpse the unraveling of the industrial age, and realize that within a finite amount of time, the choice will no longer be between high-tech and low-tech ways of manufacturing goods, but between low-tech ways and no way at all. Still, national governments are not the only players in the game.

What Schumacher proposed, in fact, is one of the missing pieces to the puzzle of economic relocalization. The economies of scale that made centralized mass production possible in recent decades were simply one more side effect of the vast amount of energy the industrial nations used up during that time. As fossil fuel depletion brings those excesses to an end, the energy and other resources needed to maintain centralized mass production will no longer be available, and what I’ve described above as the economics of the real world come into play. At that point, the question of how much it costs to equip a worker to do any given job becomes a central economic issue, because any resources that have to go to equipping that worker must be taken away from another productive use.

Now of course it’s true that the cost of equipping somebody to perform some economic function locally has already entered the relocalization movement in an informal way. What Rob Hopkins calls "the great reskilling" – the process by which individuals who have no productive skills outside a centralized industrial economy learn how to make and do things on their own – has had to take place within the tolerably strict constraints of what individuals can afford to buy in the way of tools and workspaces, since there isn’t exactly a torrent of grant money available for people who want to become blacksmiths, brewers, boatbuilders, or practitioners of other useful crafts.

It may be worth suggesting, though, that Schumacher’s logic might be worth applying directly to the relocalization project by those individuals and communities who are willing to put that project into practice. The less it costs in terms of energy and other resources to prepare a community to deal with one or more of its economic needs, after all, the more will be available for other projects. Equally, the more good ideas that can be garnered from the dusty pages of publications issued by Schumacher’s Intermediate Technology Development Group and its many equivalents, and put to work during the industrial world’s decline to Third World status, the more creativity can be spared for other challenges.

Yet there’s also a broader context here, which Schumacher addressed only indirectly, and which has only been hinted at in this post – the need to redefine our notions of economics to make sense in the real world, and above all, to respond to the most economically important of the laws of physics. Yes, those would be the laws of thermodynamics. We’ll talk more about this in next week’s post.

101 comments:

Ruben said...

As I have often said, now that we can do anything, we must do less.

The growing popularity of the concept of resilience is one of the most cheerful developments I have seen towards reframing the cult of efficiency.

dltrammel said...

Thought provoking as always JMG.

I was struck by a momentary brain flash, imagining most home in my suburban community with a chicken coop in its back yard. Each coop producing a few eggs in excess of what the family needed. That excess collected and transported to the local market, where they would be sold to other urban dwellers who didn't have chickens.

Not economical in the grand scheme of theory, yet it makes perfect sense.

So I expect big agro business would jump on the idea like a 200 lb linebacker and insure thru their lobbyist that it won't happen until after the Collapse.

BTW, love the story you are weaving over on your new blog "Star's Reach". My only complaint, you're not finished yet, so I have to wait to read the next chapter...:)

Jb said...

Dear JMG, Thank you for the wonderful post and for introducing me to E.F.Schumacher. His and Gandhi's line of economic reasoning is timely and long overdue in western civilization. (One wonders though why China hasn't figured this out yet.) Let us hope that many communities will realize sooner, rather than later, that basic needs can be met through humble, hard work.

Cathy McGuire said...

Excellent topic, and cogent post! (As soon as you mentioned Gandhi, I thought of his reviving the low-tech Indian salt “industry”.) This topic is something I’ve been thinking about more and more, as I see the word “efficient” stretched to cover the most amazing wastes of energy and people! All in pursuit of giving the middlemen an increasing cut. As someone who has settled somewhere within local reach of meat, vegetables and some grains, I feel some of my anxiety lessen, but it has been an interesting mental exercise to list those things I’d be without fairly quickly, in case of descent into regionalism (at best).

My thinking has led me to wonder about the non-local variables. Concretely: the chances of my growing coffee beans in rainy western Oregon are about nil. Ditto the chances of orange trees, although rice paddies might be managed. ;-) When I watch the angry Tea Partiers, one of my first thoughts is, “And how will the Republic of Idaho get a good deal on steel, for example?” So – one of the cold, hard facts is that the adjustment (at least in the US) will be rough. I mean, how many sitcoms can California reasonably trade for cocoa?

And what about medicines? So many of them are made in China, these days (so I hear) out of chemicals (with proprietary formulas) that I wonder if those with a variety of chronic illnesses will be “first to go”… and that could be a tragic loss for everyone. I haven’t been following Transition towns, though I’ve heard of them, and I wonder what plans they made about that – or is it assumed that only the healthiest will live? Having small drug factories in each region doesn’t seem to be efficient.

My point is, it seems to me that the United States was formed by people who recognized that the biggest hand got the biggest handout, so to speak. At least, they quickly realized that negotiating as a nation got them a better deal than individually as states. And the interstate highway system is much more efficient than a series of negotiated roads that meet at state borders. What seems to have happened is that the trade-off (no pun intended) between local and long distance got seriously out of balance, AND the middlemen got seriously greedy. Rather than crash-and-burn (and then start the cycle of banding together all over again), I hope we can find a way to look at what efficiency really is (and I love your example/description of providing for the population rather than the middlemen!) And yet, since the exploiters aren’t going to give in easily, it might come to crash-and-burn…in any case, I’m getting a lot out of the posts, and the comments!

John Michael Greer said...

Ruben, true enough, though we won't be able to do anything for much longer!

Dltrammel, actually, it's perfectly legal to keep hens in most smaller US cities and nearly all small towns and rural areas, so it's a good idea. As for Star's Reach, the next installment should be up shortly!

Jb, that's an excellent formulation: "humble, hard work." There are times when I'd like to brand it on the backside of some of the ecoyuppies I know...

Cathy, the Republic of Idaho will get its best deal on steel by tearing down another Boise skyscraper. Long-distance trade has its advantages, but I don't see much hope of maintaining it on any scale as energy becomes scarce and costly; you might want to get used to drinking something other than coffee that can be grown in your own area!

DIYer said...

Profligacies of scale.

A phrase I'd like to socialize. Put it on a bumper sticker. It replaces the phrase "Economies of scale".

Pass it on.

froog said...

dltrammel, funny you mention chicken coops. A while ago I moved to a small town of a few thousand people in the middle of farm country, IL. As it's my first house (I'm approaching middle-age, and finally can have a garden and some hens), I looked forward to converting a shed in the backyard into a small chicken coop -- just 3 or 4 hens was all I'd need. But I was stunned to find that owning hens is illegal in this town! I wonder how many towns have stupid laws like this. I'm debating whether to ignore it and get a couple anyway.....there's a huge hog operation 5 miles away that pollutes land and air - as we all know when the wind blows to our disadvantage -- but I can't have 4 chickens?

David said...

Hi JMG.

If you or some of your readers are not yet hip to the work that Kevin Carson has been doing over at the Center for a Stateless Society, it's definitely worth checking out all seven of Kevin's studies. It's fascinating stuff.

As always, thanks for some hi-test brain food.

Librarian of Hillman said...

sir, you are on a roll lately!

i did not know about Gandhi's economic work--are there any writings of his on this topic, you would recommend? the approach makes perfect sense to me. what good are cheap factory "goods" if no one can afford to buy them?

but i had to laugh sadly at this phrase you used: "your main goal is to feed, clothe, and house Imaginarians."

*I* agree, but since when has that normally been the primary goal of those at the top in most large, complex, established societies?

it seems that even those with political ambition who start out with that sense of community good in their hearts, often enough have it beaten or bribed or depressed out of them eventually.

there was an amusing, and in fact eye-opening if you thought about it, computer strategy game circa the early 1990's called "Lords of the Realm" which opened with a voice-over to set up the scenario, that included the advice that you "Feed your peasants to keep them happy and make them multiply."

as the Lord, you needed them to be happy and healthy enough to be willing to fight in your army as you attacked neighboring kingdoms to expand your realm, but you had to be careful that they didn't get SO happy that they decided they no longer needed you to be their Lord, nor so poor and hungry that they turned to crime or revolution.

i'd be willing to exchange many current public school history, social studies, economics or politics classroom texts, for just letting the students play that computer game! kids are smart, they'd figure out the lesson.

it is NOT of course any model for how things could or *should* be, but it is often enough at base how they still are.

so...i hope i see that where you are going with this ("your main goal is to feed, clothe, and house Imaginarians") is that WE have to take on that goal individually and collectively, and not wait around on, or trust we can inspire, the bulk of our current Lords to take up that charge and make it happen from above. there have never been enough Gandhi's, and always too many of the opposite sort.

now, if i could only get everyone around me on board with that...

on a side note fpr Cathy, you can substitute this native "weed" for coffee:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chicory (some premium coffees are cut with it as an enhancement to flavor commercially, something that originally came of people "making do" and trying to stretch the expensive stuff. lots of other native "weeds" make wonderful teas, too. they also provide a wide range of gentle & effective medicines--we'd best be re-learning about that one pretty soon! making medicine, and making good soil for planting...two excellent career paths sorely in need of people!)

anyway, thanks for another good one!

Me said...

JMG,
Wonderful post. In Systems theory parlance, you would probably call this a proposal to change the weights on our collective national objective function, which is currently set to a 100% weighting on short term ( < 1 year ) paper profit maximization.

I would also really appreciate your wisdom on my present situation. I'm a 25 year old kid who fell hook line and sinker for the status quo until 3 years ago. Went to Wharton, did the biz thing, ended up at a hedge fund. After waking up, I relocated myself to a farm just north of Frederick MD where I'm renting. I'm working part time on an organic farm while continuing to work at the fund. I love it and am looking to transition permanently to a farm of my own, but the enormity of the transition has been a bit mind boggling. I'm pen pals with Jim Kunstler, who was one of the first to switch off my 'autopilot mode'.

I would be eternally indebted to you if I could make the trek over to your neck of the woods as you're not far away at all, whenever it's convenient. It feels like there are many ways to goof this up, and I'd like to minimize that possibility to the extent possible!

best,
Dan M
danielmc999 [ at ] gmail

A Faire Alchemist said...

Is there a 'technology of materials' and a 'technology of ideas'? And should one have to exist to support the other?

For example, are the positive aspects of our digital connectedness ultimately undermined by their necessary adherence to a material infrastructure? Or does communication trump the means?

Shelly

Dode said...

I spent most of my life trying to make production more efficient in factories but appreciate the point above well.
Efficiency is actually meaningless unless you fully define it's terms, usually we talk about time but not always as labour is not always the biggest driver. Sometimes we talk about materials, not just for cost saving but to build a green story around a product. In the terms you define you are correct factories are not efficient, they aren't always the best solution but in some limited situation factories are the only solution. No one can tinker a netbook in their garage, no one would want to dope silicon in their back room, no one can forge an ipad. Maybe not bad things in some peoples views but something we need to think about and address,.
One interesting point in modern factories especially in low to medium volume is they increasingly, employ cell production where one person produces the product (in the scope of the factory) from start until end. Usually we realize better "efficiency" in terms of labour hours per product, lower defect rates and better space usage.
Cell work is the closest we get in modern industrial production to the individual in their work room and when done well it is quite empowering. The down side is it can be isolating and is difficult for a lot of workers to adapt to and this is a problem we try to mitigate in good design but isn't always successful.
The challenges then are where do the difficult components come from and how do you trade for them or do without them. How do you build a community of suppliers who will not immediately start undercutting each other to make more profit and start the whole mess off again. I guess guilds was the previous model but would be illegal now. So how to you bring back something that seems to be anticompetitive.
Apologies for the rather rambling comment and thanks for the post.

Avi said...

Gandhi's 'Constructive Program' sums up his economic thought:
http://ascjnu.tripod.com/const.txt

A 1977 Video Interview with E. F. Schumacher is available here:
http://www.archive.org/details/E.f.Schumacher-TheEdgeOfTheForest-1978

The Onion said...

What a long difficult path towards changing economic notions. Yet again, that myth of progress.

Energy Bulletin had a link to an interesting discussion on CNBC in which economic contrarian Marc Faber asserted that all governments will eventually default on their debt. The talking heads were incredulous of course, and things were cut short, as they often are when someone credible says something outside of the frame.

Faber's arguments are pretty simple and logical, I won't go into them, but the video is easily found.

A big realization for me has come while reading JMG and others and seeing that, once you see the requirements for the growth of industrial society demonstrated on an exponential chart, and realize what that means in the face of ecological limits, it really seems so simple.

A lot of time, money and effort is spent obfuscating what is really a simple mathmatical problem. It kind of makes you angry with yourself for not seeing it before.

I'm a child of the 80s and 90s, I grew up watching Sci-Fi, went through most major video game systems, and will freely admit to being a geek of the first order. Naturally, I grew up with a great faith in technology and with hopes of some egalitarian, Star Trekian future.

I distinctly remember as a young boy in the 80s, borrowing the books by Usborne that illustrated what life in the future would be like, and that pretty much set the stage for my imagination. If only it were true, Oh the myth of progress.

Now I ask; It's 2010, where's my hover car?

frijolitofarmer said...

I've not read Schumacher before, but his (or Gandhi's) economic ideas are familiar ones to me. As I was reading this post, I kept thinking how scalable the theory is. What is true of Imaginaria is just as true of a single household. If a family produces all their own food, clothing, water, fuel, shelter, medicine, and entertainment, they have much less need for money. Just as a self-sufficient nation is less apt to be rocked by instability in foreign markets, a self-sufficient home is less apt to be threatened by a rise in unemployment.

My wife and I were discussing what seems at first blush to be evidence to refute this idea--artisans producing high-priced items to sell for cash in order to buy low-priced equivalents. For example, I raise chickens and grow vegetables, sell them for premium prices, and then buy cheaper food at the grocery store, food that can be offered more cheaply because of economies of scale, industrial production, and centralized distribution. If we just ate the food I produce and didn't "export" any of it out of our household, we would be poorer.

Thinking upon it, though, we realized that the food I'm selling is much higher quality than the food we're buying. We're cashing in on the difference to make up for resources we have to "import" like utilities and fuel. If a nation's principle product is jacuzzis, I don't think either Gandhi or Schumacher would suggest that the best survival strategy for that nation's people would be to use the jacuzzis instead of selling them to buy food!

The key to self-sufficiency, then, is to make sure one has as many as possible of the resources one needs (whether one is a nation, a company, or a single person). There's the rub. Most people--and some nations--don't have all the resources they need to be completely independent, so they have to trade surpluses of what they do have. India's surplus was labor. :)

As for reskilling and retooling, I've found, as I look for cheap, low-tech implements for micro-farming, that a lot of really cool things have been developed that just aren't available in the US or Canada. A lot of mills, pumps, irrigation tape, rechargeable lights, hand tools, etc., that I've found online are only available on other continents, despite having been invented by Americans. I wonder if that will change as the developers become aware of a growing interest in their products here.

I've also been looking forward to the next installment of Star's Reach.

xhmko said...

Gandhi, I think, would not like to be remembered as the founder of modern India at the present. He didn't even like the title of Mahatma that was bestowed upon him. The self sufficiency and compassionate approach to life that he practiced and preached is a far cry from the weaving factories and brand name desires of many modern Indians and police who still use their bamboo sticks to teach lessons to the poor in view of everyone. People look to him and say, we need someone like you to help us, all over the world they say this (and he was in favour of gurus) but not of your guru thinking and acting for you. His was a message of change yourself, and then participate cooperatively in restructuring your communities and shunning those institutions who would seek to exploit. I wonder if Coca-Cola would have managed to last this long if he were still kicking. Luckily though India does have a long history of revolutionary spirituality and subsistence to fall back on and with modern thinkers like Vandana Shiva they will likely weather the coming storm with far less turbulence than the people of luxurious western nations.

Cherokee Organics said...

JMG. Thanks for the great post.

It seems like the core idea behind Schumacher's economic theory is that we all have a useful skill and/or trade. It is a bit of a reflection of nature in that not working = not eating. In terms of resilience learning a useful and tradeable skill may well be seen as a survival skill in a more regionalised future. In Australia, not 150 years ago armed bush rangers roamed the country side in either gangs or as individuals at will taking basically what they wanted. It's not that long ago and as a general rule they were blood thirsty psychopaths. As an individual or community though if you have tradeable skills then your usefulness may outweigh your value as cannon fodder. It's a case of mutually assured destruction.

Good skills to learn include: forestry operations, fruit growing, vegetable growing, carpentry, smithing... The list is endless. It may also be important to obtain good quality basic tools (and tools to maintain those) in the near future whilst they are readily available. Even more important is to learn how to use them properly. In convict times, because of the long supply lines between the UK and Australia tools had a value higher than that of human life and convicts received very serious punishments for breaking them.

Good luck!

Sam Norton said...

"The explosion of technical knowledge was a consequence of [fossil fuels etc], not a cause."

I'm not sure that's quite right. That is, I don't doubt that easy energy gave a massive boost to the development of technical knowledge, but it seems to me that the intellectual structures enabling technical knowledge to develop and accumulate were laid down prior to (say) 1750 and the access to fossil fuels. If we look at the extent of technical innovation from c1200 to c1650 for example, I think a strong case can be made for the start of an exponential growth before the fossil-fuel explosion.

Just my opinion of course - and I agree with everything else you say here!

Yossarian said...

I first encountered the work of Fritz Schumaker nearly 40 years ago and he has remained a hero of mine ever since. His seminal work "Small is Beautiful' is a wonderful book and well worth reading - not sure if it is still in print but it should be. Although not mentioned here he proposed a 'Buddhist point of view that takes the function of work to be at least threefold: to give man a chance to utilise and develop his faculties; to enable him to overcome his egocentredness by joining with other people in a common task; and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence.'
I am pleased that his ideas still find expression today. Thank you JMG for bringing them to the attention of more people.

jean-vivien said...

hey, I would like to ask the same question as Cathy... How do you view the future of healthcare, if there is any at all, in light of your readings in economics, and especially this last post ?

Thanks for the insights, as always.

Tiago said...

The American myth of "hard work" (mind you, not only American - but it is the only important country that I know of which cultivates it)...

I would argue that "hard work" is in great part responsible for the predicament we are in: if, back in the 50s or 60s people would just have traded consumption (i.e., material wealth) for free time (i.e. lazyness), we would probably had been able to spend our oil allowance in much more rational, and long lasting, ways. But no, having an unoccupied mind and body is sinful.

Anyway, as with all myths, they are either good or bad if they serve a cool purpose. And one would agree that in the future, as the energy allowance dwindles, we will have to work harder.

By the way, as anyone noticed that, in our current world (western), which is still of overcapacity and structural unemployment, that same unemployment could be tackled by working less and sharing work?

Jason said...

Great post, also touches a little on the territory of Alf Hornborg.

http://www.havenscenter.org/audio/alf_hornborg_ecology_and_unequal_exchange_environmental_history_and_development_theory

... about whom JMG also did a post once.

And what of the 'great powers' now arising in the world? Will 'sending the marines' become an option for them if we don't play economic ball?

EDINA said...

JMG, excellent as usual, and glad to see we have come full circle back to Ghandi -- just kidding -- Gandhi and Schumacher. It was your earlier posts that got me to FINALLY read Small Is Beautiful last year. Looking forward to further exploration of his thoughts, words an deeds.

And as for an alternative to coffee that can be grown most everywhere, dandelion springs to mind ...

Paul & Phyllis said...

Thank you for the thoughtful Post. As a farmer the common sense of EF Shumacher has always hit home.

It strikes me as kind of funny, that Gandi's economic idea's seems very similar to an earlier American agrarian approach to economics, before global trade destroyed it. Gandi was a farmer and had intimate knowledge of what worked"on the ground".

Lets hope our future leaders can have some of the same wisdom, we are going to need it.

Bette Noire said...

Have I been mispronouncing ¨ghastly¨ my whole life?

Thank you JMG. This is one of my favorite reads every week.

nutty professor said...

It seems by the comments that it is too difficult for some readers to think of the U.S. as a "third world nation" - it offends our sensibilities on so many levels to even consider that comparison; so I think that your main point last week and this week, perhaps, will be diluted or obscured by those who are distracted by rhetoric and didacticism. How fast we hold onto our illusions, and live and die by them, like followers of a fundamentalist religion!

Thai Up said...

Your report this week is incredibly prescient. When I left the US for my adopted homeland more than a decade ago, I knew there was something wrong but I couldn't understand what it was. I figured it out when a friend of mine who is doing a small palm oil plantation in Cambodia (only a few hundred hectares) went looking for equipment to press and refine the oil from the palm fruit.

He found a reasonable solution in an Indian company called Tiny Tech, which actually lists some of the teachings of Gandhi as their business philosophy. This concept of spreading the wealth and distribution to the people is completely absent in the manufacturing sector in the West.

While I regularly read the Oil Drum, I find it fascinating that trying to mention ideas such as this find absolutely no fertile ground in the comments. After all, a distributed production mechanism that spreads the wealth does not support engineers being paid a 6 figure USD salary.

That is not to say there are no US companies pursuing such trends. The GEK gasifier group comes to mind as an example bucking the trend. But by and large I fear the West is going to fall significantly before people begin to recognize the value in a distributed production scheme.

Since I know this blog will be indexed and archived, I sincerely hope that anyone coming across this in the future will pay very close attention to what you have written here. If any of us have any hope to survive the coming collapse, this is the type of thinking we will need.

Lance Michael Foster said...

There are resources to be had for the long view in appropriate technologies developed through NGOs like USAID etc., and online (google "appropriate technology") one can find all kinds of products one could begin to manufacture now in a home-based shop for the future (for example check out http://www.thefarm.org/charities/i4at/library.html)
GREAT site there, and wonderful ideas for making a living in the future

I know JMG you and others have mentioned being able to cobble together small refrigerating units using scavenged auto alternators and batteries. The future is ripe for home-tinkerers than can make such things, if one starts to prepare now.

Another area to look at is what has been variously called "Indigenous Knowledge Systems," or "traditional knowledge" or "local knowledge." I worked on a project in Nigeria in 1996 which focused on primary health care (preventative) vs secondary health care (treatment/curative) as more effective at a large-scale level, as there were not enough doctors or money for hospitals. Our project focused on environmental sanitation among the Yoruba, at various scales (the individual, the household, the village, the society).

Such primary health care approaches based on indigenous knowledge included "chew sticks" (roots of medicinal woody plants used as toothbrushes, which because they were antibacterial were even better than toothbrushes), "akitan" (rubbish heaps composted through chickens, etc.), hand-dug drainage systems to avoid creating stagnant areas used by mosquitos to breed in (thus helping to prevent malaria, yellow fever, etc.)

Primary health care, herbalism, home treatment within the family, midwives, etc. are already necessary as an alternative for those who have no health insurance and little money.

Arabella said...

JMG - another excellent post. And it got my husband's copy of Small is beautiful off the shelf and in my hands. Thank you.

To Cathy regarding her concern for local pharmaceutical production - I recommend Stephen Harrod Buhner's books, The lost language of plants and The secret teachings of plants, the first of which I discovered from the recommended reading list on <a href="http://www.aoda.org>AODA's website</a>. Also become close friends with a local herbalist. (Or become one yourself.)

John Michael Greer said...

DIYer, by all means.

Froog, see if you can find other people in town who want to own some hens, and see if you can get that changed. If not, try rabbits -- cheap, fast-breeding, and very tasty.

David, thanks for the link.

Librarian, there's some good Gandhi material linked in other comments here. As for the priorities of Imaginarian politics, well, we are talking about an imaginary country, after all!

Dan, I've responded offlist. Thanks for including your email -- you'd be amazed how often I get notes like this with no way to contact the sender.

Shelly, good. Each supports and presupposes the other; you can't have a computer technology without silicon chips, but you can't have it without binary numbers and post-Aristotelian logic, either. Thus when the material basis changes, you'd better have a new basis of ideas handy.

Dode, good. My guess is that when factories become unaffordable, we won't have iPods any more, for exactly the reasons you've given.

Avi, thanks for the links.

Onion, Faber's quite correct; there are precisely two choices available to governments at this point: either default on your debt or spin the presses and hyperinflate it out of existence. As for the future, yeah, it's not what it used to be!

Cathy McGuire said...

Good comments, everyone!

Arabella - I've been an herbalist for years. So I know it doesn't suffice for many of our current chronic illnesses (getting thyroid med from a cow would be much more difficult than from a pharmacy!). Herbs and vitamins are my first line of defense, but I'm not so confident they will suffice at the same level if modern medicine collapses.

Librarian - I've tried dandelion and barley, and some chickory, and of course herb teas... but nothing beats coffee! I'm not panicking yet ;-) But I am stocking up on bags in my freezer -- seems to me, (given the current usage level) coffee will be more valuable than bits of gold, when trading comes back in as "currency".

Ariel55 said...

Yes! My experience is showing me just what "Renaissance Man", Mr. Greer is describing. And on to the next phase of our societal transition. I feel like we are actually moving forward, morphing out of hand-wringing helplessness.
Thank you, Mr. Greer! You're a gem!

unadilla said...

JMG- I greatly look forward to your blog entries every Thursday. You are a particular standout in the 'new' strain of thought (someone needs to coin a name/phrase for it, something beyond just 'peak oil thinkers,' as it goes way, way past that) that includes the likes of Kunstler, Astyk, Hopkins, Holmgren, etc.

A timely post for me- since the NYC library apparently has lost the last remaining copy of "Small is Beautiful" in their collection (which strikes me as bizarre), I broke down and ordered it. But in the meantime I'm reading Hazlitt's "Economics in One Lesson," largely because something about the economics of Hayek, Hazlitt, von Mises, et al in particular, but mainstream economic thought in general intuitively seems fatally flawed to me, and your writing in particular greatly aids me in picking through their seemingly strong logic.

Recently the C-Realm podcast (on which I believe you've been a guest in the past) had economist Frank Rotering as a guest; he is the author of a recent book, available online as a .pdf called "Needs and Limits- A New Economics for Sustainable Well-being." I have not dug into it deeply, but your take on his economic ideas would be interesting.

You began your post talking about available sustainable energy essentially being limited by photosynthesis (and the efficiency or such, or lack-thereof if judged from the modern, techno-human perspective). I've long admired the work of Howard Odum, and believe the only sustainable economy and/or monetary system must be one that is directly pegged to the energy we receive from the sun- all things must be valued according to a strict energy accounting based on that sustainable energy rate. But how do you respond to those proposing that nuclear power (which our great leader seems to be increasingly supportive of) changes everything? Beyond arguing that nuclear power is very much like fossil fuel in that it relies on feedstock that is limited, and that by most measures, at least now, there is little net energy gain (when all is taken into account) many remain unconvinced. Perhaps you've written on this in past posts and I've missed them.

Finally- I just finished 'The Econtechnic Future'- great stuff. Thank you!

John Michael Greer said...

Farmer, of course there'll be a need to trade surpluses -- the point of Schumacher's strategy is to minimize dependence on that process when it's become a mug's game run for the benefit of a handful of industrial nations.

Xhmko, granted, but the historical fact remains. I'm not at all sure George Washington would want to be remembered as a founding father of what the US has become, either.

Cherokee, good. In the pirate havens of the Caribbean -- arguably some of history's most lawless societies -- physicians, shipwrights, and other skilled tradespeople led charmed lives, because everybody knew their own lives might depend on having those people alive and functioning.

Sam, it's an interesting question, but I'd point out that similar periods of scientific advance had occurred elsewhere -- in Classical times, for example, and in imperial China -- and did not lead to the same result. I'd argue that fossil fuels, and only fossil fuels, made the extravagances of the last three hundred years possible.

Yossarian, you're welcome! Small is Beautiful is one of the few books I'd recommend that everybody in the peak oil scene read, and then think about, and then read again.

Jean-Vivien, in rather less than a century, "health care" will consist of what you can do for yourself and your family, supplemented by folk treatments from the odd old woman who lives down the lane and whose grandmother used to be a registered nurse. Yes, that means a lot of people will die sooner than they otherwise would.

Tiago, excellent! Of course we could employ everybody by working less and spreading jobs more widely, or by going back to the one-income family as the norm, but try suggesting either one of those as an option. These days, unions in the US are willing to see entire factories shut down and every single worker lose his job rather than take a 5% pay cut.

Jason, not as long as all those nukes are in the way. That's one of the reasons why I expect things to head more in the direction of a color revolution, allegedly domestic, but actually funded and organized from abroad (as color revolutions generally are).

Edina, good. Dandelion's also good for your liver -- not a bad thing to have handy in the aftermath of a very toxic age.

Paul and Phyllis, I'd be happier if that wisdom were to be common among ordinary people. Governments never exceed the wisdom of the population they rule; in that sense, and several others, we always get the government we deserve.

Bette, heck if I know. How do you pronounce it? "Gahstly?"

Professor, faith in progress is a fundamentalist religion. It's got the same blithe disregard for facts that contradict its ideology, and the same rabid fury toward those who don't believe.

Thai, that's exactly the sort of thing we need. There used to be a lot of it in the US during the appropriate tech movement of the Seventies; we need to tap back into that sort of garage-workshop spirit, and soon.

Lance, exactly.

Arabella, Buehner also has a very solid book on herbal antibiotics -- the title, not surprisingly, is Herbal Antibiotics -- which belongs near the top of any alternative health care bookshelf. Now that chemical antibiotics are losing the race against resistant bacteria, it's going to be increasingly important to be aware of other alternatives.

John Michael Greer said...

Cathy, they won't respond at the same level. That's why, as I mentioned to Jean-Vivien, we can be sure that in the deindustrial future, a lot of people will die sooner than they otherwise would. One of the popular genres of early printed books in late medieval Europe were collectively known as ars moriendi -- "the art of dying." They were handbooks to help people work through the process of dealing with their own imminent death, and in a lot of cases, that sort of thing will be the only treatment a deindustrial medicine can offer.

As for coffee, well, just remember that anything of value you stockpile makes you a more tempting target for thieves and looters. It's what you know how to do for other people that makes you worth keeping alive and happy.

Ariel, thank you.

Unadilla, if nuclear power produced as much net energy as its proponents claim, it would be commercially viable -- and it isn't. The only nations that have been able to keep a nuclear power industry going have had to prop it up with huge government subsidies. Since what Odum called "emergy" -- embodied energy -- is a very large part of the cost of anything, price makes a functional proxy for net energy; if an energy source can't make money even when energy sells at a high price, there's something wrong with figures that claim it's a big net energy winner.

Mind you, none of that will slow down the rush to nuclear power. It's getting to the point that any scheme that promises to allow business as usual to continue, no matter how harebrained, can count on being flooded with money from our government's hyperactive printing presses. I suspect that a thousand years from now, the empty shells of half-completed nuclear power plants will dot the landscape of medieval America, and scholars will wonder what gods the ancients hoped to placate by trying to build so many temples in the days before the just wrath of Gaia destroyed them, or whatever the prevailing mythology happens to be.

Lance Michael Foster said...

Folks, it is important to remember that we ourselves have to re-evaluate OURselves, not just other people.

We may find it a no-brainer we have to give up TV but find it a horror to lose the company of coffee. But that's how it is. I am no longer as young and fit as I once was, part of it my own fault, and part of it time's, but herbalism can only go so far, as noted.

Just as importantly, we will have to learn to re-acquaint ourselves with simple injuries that turn life-threatening, things that would have been simple to medicate and treat, end up in the death of a loved one or ourselves. As that Trickster/fraud Castaneda had Don Juan Matus say, death is always sitting on your shoulder, and death is the best counselor.

JMG said, there is an art to dying well and there are modern versions of the Ars moriendi. One summed some of the useful points as:

1 Forgive others and seek their forgiveness; heal broken relationships, however late in the day
2 Search out old friends with whom you have lost touch
3 Value life without clinging to it, and live each day as if it were your last
4 Die where you would most like to - whether at home or in a hospice; alone or surrounded by family
5 Trust your instincts; patients know when their end is near

For relatives and friends

1 Talk to the dying about death if they wish; don't go to great lengths to avoid the issue
2 Make an effort to let go, giving the dying permission to leave in peace
3 Holding hands and talking can give more comfort than you think
4 Don't be so careful not to say the wrong thing that you leave the right thing unsaid
5 Don't shield children: prepare them for a death, and allow them to say a final goodbye

hapibeli said...

I've sent this post to my Community and Economic Development Advisory committee members. If I can get even half of them to listen, we will be miles ahead in the quest for our island's sustainable economic future. If not, my wife and I will continue to plant our garden, raise our chickens, and learn to adjust to the future as close to the earth as possible.

hapibeli said...

Cathy M. in Oregon, check out onegreenworld.com in Mollala,. You'll find fruits on vines, trees, and bushes that could keep a family fed even from a backyard. My wife and I are trying to set up a cross border Canadian order from them for our Galiano Island garden shop. Our goal [ as should most folks be] is edible landscapes, and One Green World has a real start for that process. I knew of them before I left Oregon for Canada. Forgive me JMG for this testimonial?

dancing_bear said...

Or, as our colonial past shows, tea and coffee become luxury items, literally worth their weight in gold(or equivalence in furs, lumber, distilled spirits,etc.) Recent evidence shows that even Bronze Age peoples had a thriving World-wide trade, with Celts and Vikings in Central Asia, Chinese and Japanese in North and South America, and the evidence of Celtic trading excursions to Africa and North America (open-pit copper mining in the Plains states)...all done with small ships, sails, and human muscle. Coffee and tea might not disappear, but I'd guess that they will become as valuable (and used as a medium of exchange, since that paper currency we now use will become worthless, except for it's re-purposed value as paper to record important knowledge more-or-less permanently).

How many people have given thought to the future scarcity of not only medicines and manufactured tools, but everyday items like salt, glass containers, nails, screws, and paper? All appear at the end of a long and convoluted chain of production and distribution.

With a little forethought we could regress largely to the level of the mid 19th. Century and still have some of the comforts and advantages of a lower-tech civilization; a national network of trains, running water and managed sewage in populated areas, and even a telephone/telegraph system with the possibility of some international radio communications in real-time. (Vacuum tubes are probably the highest level of technology that doesn't require a massive input of energy and materials, and highly specialized manufacturing equipment and processes).

Going blindly into the future with only a religious faith in as yet undiscovered technologies and materials will condemn us to a regression to 11th.Century Feudal Agrarianism and the Dark Ages,where there will be no "Rights" for the majority of the survivors who will be consigned as chattel labor for the most ruthlessly aggressive of their peers,and where life will be 'brutal and short', indeed.

team10tim said...

JMG, on technology and fossil fuels I think you are missing an intermediate step. Population growth, which exploded when we unlocked the first fossil fuels, has grown at the same rate as technology and energy consumption. Looking at patents or innovation or scientific break throughs per capita gives a fairly stable rate of technological progress per person.

Given that, the only way technology can continue to grow at an exponential rate is for the population to keep doubling every few decades.

Looked at on a logarithmic scale the techs are preceding in an orderly fashion. The printing press at half a billion, the steam engine at 1 billion, flight at 2 billion, Apollo Program at 4 billion, internet at 6, Mission to Mars at 8. Hover cars and Star Trek are a foregone conclusion... Unless there are physical limits to growth that prevent world population from hitting 32 billion in the next hundred years.

Odin's Raven said...

Whatever their formal religious beliefs, 'American type' people tend to show a strong allegiance to the gods or archetypes Hermes and Hephaestus; confident that some cunning scheme or nifty gadget will enrich them and save their solvency if not their souls.
As circumstances change I wonder how long it will take to lose this faith, and to which other archetypes it may be transferred.

Odin's Raven said...

The notion that the chief concern of any leading politician, let alone a Third World President-for-Life, might be the welfare of his people, is very entertaining. The notion that however poor the country, it's always possible to extract another $1m from it (or from it's aid donors)is surely far more central to their ambitions.

joanhello said...

I want to disagree with frijolitofarmer about the reason he and his wife can buy supermarket food cheaper than they sell their homegrown food. It isn't "economies of scale, industrial production, and centralized distribution." It isn't fossil fuels, either. It's agricultural subsidies. Michael Pollan has been kind enough to summarize the research. It's at http://www.uwmc.uwc.edu/geography/350/food%20subsidy%20diet.htm.

joanhello said...

To Cathy McGuire; actually, before modern pharmaceuticals, thyroid meds did come from a cow; actual bovine thyroid gland used to be prescribed, sometimes sliced and served in sandwiches. Don't know that you'd want to use the thyroid from a modern factory-farmed animal, but those are going to be going away along with the junk food and sedentary lifestyles that are responsible for so many of our modern health problems.

As for coffee, I'm confident that the flavor will be reasonably approximated with temperate climate ingredients soon after the economic incentive arises. What this society will really miss will be the caffeine, which is produced, so far as I know, only by tropical and semi-tropical crops. In fact, the only stimulant source plants I know of that can survive freezing night temperatures are members of the ephedra genus such as Mormon Tea, and those are dry-climate species, not something you're likely to be growing in your garden in Oregon or Massachusetts. Since the usable parts are dry, light, and not perishable, maybe this will be one of the few traded items.

joanhello said...

Speaking of skyscrapers, it seems to me that if you're young and strong and want to live in a place that gets cold in the winter and don't want to grow food for a living, a valuable combination of skills would be glass installation, mountaineering, and working with draft animals. After Transition, you'll be able to harvest the windows from abandoned skyscrapers and haul them to rural areas to be incorporated into greenhouses and other passive solar structures.

Jason said...

JMG: I expect things to head more in the direction of a color revolution, allegedly domestic, but actually funded and organized from abroad (as color revolutions generally are).

I knew you t'ai chi instructors were plotting something gastlhy!

tom said...

I'm a bit surprised that no one has mentioned that the Intermediate Technology Development Group is still in business, and still providing technical assistance for resilient, community-scale development; except that now they're called Practical Action. A lot of their technical briefs are likely to be useful for 'undevelopment' as well ;o)

dltrammel said...

With the discussion about nuclear power over the past few blog posts, I wonder whether the new breed of small reactors mentioned in this article, might change the economics of using nuclear power to help meet non-oil energy needs for the next couple of decades.

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703444804575071402124482176.html

LS said...

Interesting post JMG. I wasn't aware of Gandhi's economic theories.

They are clearly still present in the Indian economy. India is one of the few sources for small scale machinery (especially for processing agricultural products). I bought a small oil seed processing mill for my business some years ago from India.

The equivalents from the rest of the world were all an order of magnitude larger, demonstrating nicely the preference for large centralised operations rather than small community operations.

John Michael Greer said...

Hapibeli, no problem -- and thanks for the link!

Bear, this is exactly why I've been advocating for cultural conservation.

Tim, I hope you mean that as a joke.

Raven, it's always seemed to me that the most effective politicians recognize that their hold on power depends on being able to bribe the people with such trinkets as jobs, an improved standard of living, and so on. Doubtless things work the same way in Imaginaria.

Joan, good. I have a chapter or so on the future salvage trades in The Ecotechnic Future. Yes, that sort of thing will be a major form of economic activity.

Jason, nah, it's all the fault of Gandhalf.

Tom, I didn't know! Many thanks for the info.

dltrammel, there's always a new generation of nuclear technology on the horizon that's going to make nuclear power economically viable. It never does. As Taliesin says in one of his poems, "I will believe it when it appears."

LS, that's excellent to know. I wouldn't lay odds against India becoming a major economic and political power in the deindustrializing world.

Don said...

Edina: I didn't know that one had to GROW dandelion. It just sort of pops up by itself. :-) (I put dandelion greens in my salads last year. The family never found out.)

Librarian--This may be a bit picky, but chicory is actually native to Europe, not North America. But it's widely naturalized here, meaning it grows wild in many places. Sort of like Queen Anne's lace or, yes, dandelion. According to Toby Hemenway's "Gaia's Garden," chicory is not only a good coffee substitute. Its long, thick taproots can open up heavy soils and pull mineral nutrients from deep in the soil to accumulate near the surface. Plus the leaves can be used as salad greens.

Chicory grows wild in my yard; I might start cultivating it.

John, I just ordered a copy of "Small is Beautiful" out from my public library.

Rogue Ghost said...

I haven't read the documents, so excuse my ignorance as I am currently in Iraq. Not much of an excuse granted, however the availability of internet time is a bit premium. There is, with out studying the model further, one problem. All Third World and and aboriginal societies that make and grow everything themselves tend to have a lower standard of living. Got it. I also get that that is a very real possibility for our future. Here is the problem, we will be stale. Time is an issue, the point of better tools and even machines in factories to allow time for workers to specialize. Specialization increases the amount of goods they can produce without worrying about the other necessities of life. By doing everything oneself or even in a family unit this factor is greatly limited. So the poor Imaginarians stay poor. There is no growth, barring the natural human tendency to undercut others that is. Granted that it would be a Barter and Trade with fiat being wholly obsolete. So shouldn't the basis be on group economics and the idea of specialization? Regardless who's economic theory is right there very basic laws that hold absolutely true no matter what. Trade, Specialization, human nature all amount to the same thing no matter who's model you look at. There will still be haves and have nots. There will still be gluttony and greed. So please explain to me how to change human nature? You can do it for a few but the majority will not alter, even in a collapse. I dare say that will make it and depravity even worse. It is noble and the idea rings true, but it is short term at best.

Danby said...

One of the things that has aggravated me since I was young and stupid is that so few realize that the word 'efficiency' is the nominal equivalent of a transitive verb. Just as a transitive verb must always have an object (i.e. give) efficiency should be specified as to what sort of efficiency it is. Efficiency is always a trade-off. One can often be efficient of labor, for instance, by using more fuel. One can be efficient of development time by sacrificing operating efficiency (and delivering lower quality).

In modern industry, the first priority is not mechanical, labor, fuel or other efficiency. It's efficiency of capital. What will return the most money for the money invested? All other efficiencies must come after. Whether the trade-off is in the long or short term interests of the employees, management, community, nation or even the investors is a rarely-considered afterthought.

re: chickens, anyone who wants to keep a few chickens at home needs to be aware of the NAIS National Animal Identification System, which the department of Agriculture has been trying to implement for the last several years. It will create huge burdens for the keeping of small numbers of livestock. NAIS was developed by the slaughterhouse industry and the agri-industrial conglomerates like Magill, ADM and Con-Agra to drive the small producer out of business, with onerous requirements for tagging, registration and record-keeping for all livestock., except for producers with over several hundred head.

Mark said...

Yet another inspiring essay JMG. I've got to pick up a Schumacher book (or a few), any recommendations?

One thing that has been a big success in third world countries, that likely has a tie to Schumacher's influence, is that of the growing and saving of open-pollinated seed. From what I've read, the lack of good open-pollinated seed is one of the most crippling things to third world farmer's and people in general... Of course the biotech corporations haven't had much help in those regards.

Here in America, it's already a huge growth (no pun intended) cottage industry even now, I can imagine it becoming a strong backbone to our well-being in the long descent -- just based on having that genetic bank alone. The days of the seeds-man are surely coming back upon us ;)... Save your seeds folks!

frijolitofarmer said...

Joanhello,

You are correct about the cost savings in grocery stores being due to agricultural subsidies so long as you're comparing apples to corn chips. The USDA subsidizes the production of corn and other commodities (like soybeans and wheat). They do not, however, subsidize what they call "specialty crops," that is, fruits and vegetables. (Pollan covered this in The Omnivore's Dilemma.)

A more telling comparison would be of my chicken versus chicken by Tyson, Perdue, or one of those other big boys. Like them, I benefit from agricultural subsidies in that I can buy corn cheaper than I could grow it myself. But since I don't have space to store entire truckloads of it, nor the capital to buy that much at once, nor the bargaining power to get bulk discounts, I pay by the 50-pound bag, increasing my cost of production.

My equipment costs are actually much lower, but I give my birds enough space that they don't require antibiotics. A conventional broiler house can hold thousands of chickens; mine hold no more than 100 apiece. A conventional chicken farmer might raise hundreds of thousands of birds a year just to make about $16,000. I make about half that raising less than a thousand chickens. Big producers can accept a lower price per chicken because they have so many more of them.

Lest I seem like I'm giving the industrial food system a pat on the back, let's acknowledge the monumental damage they've done to the environment, their exploitation of immigrant labor, and so on. The sticker in the grocery store doesn't reflect all the costs the producers externalize. But when it comes to simple price wars, the factory farms have me beat.

Meg said...

Cathy and others who are speculating about medicine:

My recent project has been looking into exactly the possibility you raised - chemical production on a cottage industry scale, with a particular focus on medicines. It's true that a lot of it just couldn't be done, and a lot could be done more simply with herbs. However, there are a variety of substances (e.g. ether) that really aren't all that complicated to produce, once you know the trick, and would be well worth it even if they were relatively rare and expensive.

They needn't all be rare or expensive, though - if I could only have one 'manufactured' health-preserving technology, soap gives best value for money. Iodine (which can be extracted from seaweed or salt flats) would run a close second. Hygiene and sanitation alone would do more to prevent misery than any dozen medicinal substances.

xhmko said...

Ditto for George Washington it is true. Maybe we can add Jesus to the list for good meausre.

As for the Carribean Pirates, they also tended to highly value their musicians who could stir up the fighting spirit or take their minds off the drudgery of life at sea.


Get your tin whistling skills ready now!

kittyhawk said...

I find the rather glib dismissal (in places) of the horrors in store if/when the healthcare system collapses quite disconcerting. I remember reading quite recently, about an African woman suffering from advanced breast cancer and for whom nothing but paracetamol could be prescribed. Her cries of, 'It burns like the fire' would surely be heard closer to home and it is simply wrong not to mourn the passing of real progress, namely that in alleviating physical suffering. I'm not sure that a clutch of 'Good Death' manuals could replace good palliative care.
Perhaps most posters here enjoy rude health and it is certainly true that very few of them would ever have witnessed, let alone suffered, dreadful pain that could not be relieved. It may be that we will have to rely on herbs, folk remedies and basic first aid in years to come but we should not lose sight of how very difficult that will be in practical, real terms.

Stephen Heyer said...

Hi John,
Your last series of postings have just been so intimidatingly good that they left me with nothing meaningful to say. I especially liked Hagbard’s Law, no, I didn’t like it, I loved it.

Now, thank heavens, I finally have something to quibble over. I refer to:

“…Now in fact the primary factor that drove the rise of industrial civilization, and made possible the lavish lifestyles of the recent past, was the recklessness with which the earth’s fossil fuel reserves have been extracted and burnt over the last few centuries. The explosion of technical knowledge was a consequence of that, not a cause.”

You are right about the role of fossil fuel in allowing the recent lavish lifestyles, but wrong about the explosion of technical knowledge also being entirely a consequence of the exploitation of fossil fuels. Well… your are partially wrong, the story is much, much more complex.

After all, various previous civilizations were well aware of most of the fossil fuels we use and in fact used them extensively to, for instance, water proof and preserve ships, but they did not use them to any great extent as fuels. This was because their technology did not allow them to:
1. Easily obtain the fossil fuels in large quantities.
2. Refine them into safe, useful products such as coke and kerosene.
3. Cheaply transport them in huge quantities the large distances from where they were available to where they were needed.

Now, at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, both technical and scientific knowledge was already growing at an increasing rate and had been for a long time without any help from fossil fuels. What then happened was that a critical mass was reached were fossil fuels were able to be mined cheaply in huge quantities, refined into an increasing array of increasingly useful products and transported longer and longer distances more and more cheaply.

This immediately lead to feedback loops between technology/science and fossil fuels as the very availability of cheap fossil fuels made whole new technologies possible such as the steam engine, or made things like iron cheaper allowing railroads which then caused a feedback that made fossil fuels even cheaper and caused even more effort to be devoted to technology and science devoted to making them yet cheaper again, as well as finding many more uses for fossil fuels.

This spawned a bewilderingly complex, interwoven, three dimensional structure of feedback loops between technology/science, fossil fuels and increasingly economics, finance and politics.

Now, this structure is enormously tough, resilient and adaptable, which is probably what leads some people to mistakenly assume Peak Everything is a non-event as the structure will just adapt. Well, yes, it probably will, but this adaptation may well take the form of reducing the Earth’s present population of 6.5 billion + to, say, half a billion.

This is of course where you and I disagree as I think science and technology will come through whatever is coming just fine, it’s the humans (and nature) who may find the process of adaptation to the new circumstances a bit harsh. Nevertheless, I expect that the people who live, say, 300 years in the future will wonder what all the fuss was about and enjoy quite pleasant lives – all 250 – 500 million of them.

That is, of course, unless the Over Unity, Vacuum Energy guys actually produce something. In that case it’s a wild ride to the stars.

Stephen Heyer

yooper said...

Excellent John, as always. I've had a year to roll this concept in the back of mind...

Still, I have some serious reservations regarding the ability of our trying to transition to that type of economy while trying to take as much of that precious load of humanity with it. That is, today's population is a consequence of "modern industrialization", that includes those of third world countries. That transition gradually took place when the mechanical was coupled to the power of ancient sunlight. When that decouplization does take place there are to be some serious consequences to that, even assuming if that is to be gradual.

I was talking to one of my Native American friends the other day... I was just floored to be informed that native women highly prized cloth, so much so it was thought to be even sacred... Sacred? Up (? ha! you got me there!), until the introduction of cloth, providing clothing from hides (which did not last long) consumed much of their time....

I'll be back, when I read through the responses...

thanks, yooper

blue sun said...

If we trust JMG’s instincts (expounded February 3), we need to act, and to light some fires under our butts! I’m enjoying this ivory-tower conversation as much as anyone, but too few of these comments have mentioned practical resources. To be sure, there have been several practical comments, for instance Tom mentioned Practical Action, but I would like to reiterate that.

The Intermediate Technology Development Group is now called Practical Action. I recommend you skip their website and go straight to their “Practical Answers” tool. http://practicalaction.org/practicalanswers/ At this webpage you can sink your teeth into something real! You can download PDFs that describe how to build a compost toilet, extractoil by hand, you name it.

There are a lot of psychological barriers to accepting this stuff, though. That’s why I recommend skipping Practical Action’s homepage. Beneath a lot of glitzy marketing, it makes them appear like just another charity. They describe their mission as eliminating poverty. There are photos of destitute people. To most of us rich First Worlders (even eco-yuppies), that’s anathema. Taking advice from them would feel like signing up for welfare, wouldn’t it?

Even in the transition towns and eco-villages I’ve seen, these “Practical Answers” are only for people in some slum on the other side of the world. It makes me wonder, would Rob Hopkins be humble enough to take advice from Practical Action? Are we humble enough to really and truly apply technologies that were heretofore only for the extremely destitute? Or will we be revolted and say “Ick!” ? We Americans have got a lot of pride to swallow in the coming years.

Once again, Practical Answers: http://practicalaction.org/practicalanswers/

Nature Creek Farm said...

Why do most people think they aren't in Imaginaria already?
Hmmm...just wondering.

mageprof said...

@kittyhawk

Not all of us are glib about the horrors that would follow the collapse of modern medicine.

Back in 1935 -- only 75 years ago! -- my mother's mother, Zena, died of breast cancer. Our family was very poor in those days, so Zena died at home, without any pain killers. My mother said that for the last month of her life Zena screamed with pain around the clock, except when sheer exhaustion brought her a short period of unconsciousness.

My mother and her younger sister, in their early 20s then, were her caretakers. The scars of that month lasted all their lives, and led my mother to teach her children emphatically that everyone has a positive duty to his or her kin to take his or her own life under such extreme circumstances, while one is still strong enough to do so. She would have done so herself, if ever she had found herself in Zena's position.

If modern medicine collapses, I expect that a number of people may come to the same conclusion that my mother did. That is one of the things that the future may bring home to all of us.

mageprof said...

@JMG (replying to Cathy):

"As for coffee, well, just remember that anything of value you stockpile makes you a more tempting target for thieves and looters. It's what you know how to do for other people that makes you worth keeping alive and happy."

Since I am in the mood to remember old family stories today, let me pass on another one here. My grandparents -- my father's mother and step-father -- at one point in their lives worked for a crook. That was back in the 1910s and '20s. Some years before that, grandpa had been a carney, and he knew a great deal about how to con the marks and other such things. I learned a lot from them both about surviving under very adverse social conditions

Part of the trick to keeping your house safe from burglars and your stockpile of goods safe from thieves is to position yourself strategically along the gradients of wealth and security in your immediate neighborhood. You must seem less wealthy than at least half of your neighbors. At the same time you must seem harder to rob than at least half of your neighbors. That way the greedy will rob others before you, and the lazy will also rob others before you. The family in the middle of both these gradients is usually one of the last to be robbed. Eventually the robbers may get closer to you, when easier or richer pickings become slim. That is when you move to a new neighborhood and reposition yourself appropriately in its gradients.

Of course this won't keep you safe forever in a time of general collapse. But it's a start and may help until you can get a handle on the new order of things.

Also, the advice in JMG's last sentence quoted above is solid gold. It was what kept these grandparents of mine afloat in very rough times. Grandma survived by her alliance with the crook I mentioned, and she worked as his book-keeper.

yooper said...

I suppose John, in a way we're already seeing a transition of sorts today, as labor is changing.. Many of the skilled workforce that serviced the "modern industrial complex" are not needed anymore. It does seem that evermore hands are needed doing the menial work (that's all that's left or needed), just like the Mexicans had in my post last week... Of course, when "the machine" is not as large or cumbersome, there's no need having the larger workforce to maintain it....

However it does seem that in part, Marshall McLuhan's world of the "global village". is just around the corner... Hopefully this isn't just a prelude of some grand illusion utilizing molecular nanotechnology and the nanofactory, as appalling it might be?... I do have my doubts...

Ric said...

All the talk of chickens and herbal remedies knocked something loose in the ol' brain pan. I dug around a bit (you can fit an amazing number of files in a a couple terabytes....) and finally found what I was looking for:

Mackenzie's Ten Thousand Receipts in all the useful and domestic arts; constituting a complete and practical library, relating to Agriculture, Angling, Bees... Weights and Measures, Wines, Etc., Etc.

You have to love a book with a title longer than the average magazine article. I have this as a PDF nearly 63MB in size. In real life, this must have been a formidable volume.

Google Books has it:

http://books.google.com/books?id=GZxBAAAAIAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=makenzies+ten+thousand+receipts&source=bl&ots=kIjyQo4Bbn&sig=cTMk6EpBpU6D5D2oIQcRBXduALw&hl=en&ei=M01_S53yAczJlAfDrIH_AQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CAgQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=&f=false

although theirs is not nearly as classy looking as my PDF that someone made from a physical copy of the book.

Just thought some of you might find this useful.

Kevin said...

Blue sun, that link is dynamite! Thanks for posting it. I've been downloading their PDFs for hours.

When I think of bringing manufacturing and trades to the local level, and at a tech level that individuals or small groups can handle, I feel empowered as opposed to disempowered by corporate behemoth economics. Not that I won't miss a lot of that mass-produced crap when it's no longer available.

DickLawrence said...

JMG,
Your topic this week comes very close to related thoughts and conclusions I've been noodling around for a long time - about "efficiency", productivity, the utility of what's made and consumed, and employment / unemployment.

For most of the last century, industrialized nations have proudly measured and announced regular and (usually) predictable increases in productivity. As these are typically stated as % increases in productivity, you have a compound-interest sort of function that - if you plotted "widgets produced per unit labor-hour invested" on a linear graph, you'd see an exponentially rising curve. The consequence of this is, over many decades, order-of-magnitude increases in competitive industries' ability to crank out products of all sorts, per unit of labor put in.

Even in agriculture, the same productivity improvements have been a regular occurrence, to the point where the occupation "farmer" now applies to something less than 2% of the U.S. population, where not so long ago it was over 50%. This means that 2% of our population is now employed producing that basic necessity - food - for themselves and the other 98%. (Of course fossil fuel as the exosomatic source of energy is primarily what made this possible, and the numbers would look far different if we measured productivity, or "efficiency", as product_out vs. energy_in, or as product_out vs. capital_investment or material_feedstock in; but, back to the point:)

Now what happens as a one-time industrial powerhouse like the U.S. slides relentlessly into Third-World status that you suggest is our destination? Clearly, one attribute of that status is that households acquire a whole lot less *stuff* than they and their parents did in the past. The luxury items go first, then the 'nice to have', and then the things that we presently consider necessities, like gasoline-powered vehicles for commuting to work. One can imagine that conventionally-measured GDP could decline by 50% to 80% or more and we'd still have a functioning civilization and economy of some sort as we stagger down to Third-World levels.

(sending this in 2 parts; part 2 below) - Dick Lawrence

DickLawrence said...

(part 2)

But what about those relentless increases in productivity and orders-of-magnitude increases in "efficiency" over the last century? In order to sustain the magical level of "full employment" - unemployment being perhaps on the order of 5% or less, as measured today - that means households would have to keep buying all that *stuff*. When they cease such consumerist behavior, and cut back radically on purchases of everything beyond what's required for basic survival (food, clothing, shelter, a bicycle), there will be no demand for all that *stuff*, companies that made it will collapse and go Chapter 11, and their employees will be on the street and applying for nonexistent unemployment compensation.

Agile companies might rapidly restructure, change their product lineup to make "essential" stuff, but how many people might that realistically employ? How many companies are really required? If the example of farming is any indication, we could probably supply a country like the U.S. with the basic essentials for 3rd-world standards of living employing perhaps 10% of the working population. That would mean the other 90% is unemployed - basically redundant (perhaps viewed as parasitic) consumers of whatever is required to survive. Without a vast new form of social safety net it's hard to see any good coming from such an arrangement.

As you, Schumacher, and M.Gandhi point out, the better solution is to run that "productivity paradigm" in reverse, and doing it in a planned way would be far better than letting collapse take its course. Naturally, availability of energy supply is partly what mandates a form of the solution: "productivity" as conventionally measured must go down, as energy costs go up. Human hours to produce essential widgets will rise, and therefore the number of people potentially employed will rise. Still, going backwards in this regard can't be smooth or pleasant, and there will be a lot of casualties along the way. There will still be competitive pressures to make more with less, and likely a huge cadre of the unemployed, perhaps 50% or higher, with no prospect of work.

I just don't see a good way out, if it goes down that way.

Dick Lawrence
ASPO-USA

John Michael Greer said...

Don, excellent.

Ghost, nobody's talking about changing human nature. The question is how individuals and communities can manage their own affairs to minimize the impact of human greed and stupidity.

Danby, well put. Efficiency always begs the question "efficient at what?"

Mark, the one you want is Small is Beautiful.

Farmer, and a single family can keep themselves in eggs and the more than occasional fryer with a single coop in the backyard and very minimal financial investment. Exactly.

Meg, that's an excellent project. Soap, by the way, is easily made in the kitchen with household lye and nearly any available fat. (My spouse makes all of ours, for less than a dollar a bar.)

Xhmko, a good point.

Kittyhawk, I'm not being glib at all. Back before my writing career took off, I worked in long term care, and cared for quite a few people who were at various stages of the dying process, up to and including washing up corpses before the undertaker came. I'm quite aware that there's going to be a lot of death and suffering that can be prevented now, and won't be able to be prevented in the not too distant future. My point is that we've already foreclosed the chance of avoiding that future, and had better get ready for it.

Danby said...

Mr. Lawrence,
The companies that make that stuff are in China (and to a lesser extent India and Brazil). their going bankrupts will be a matter of relative indifference to non-locals, except to the extent that it impacts the price and availability of goods for sale.

In other words, that transition already happened in the 1990s. It was called "outsourcing" and devastated more communities in this country than all the natural disasters of the last century put together. But because it was seen as inevitable it was not worthy of comment at the time.

John Michael Greer said...

Stephen, granted, the process that sparked the industrial revolution was a good deal more complex; you could also factor in political and religious forces, as Margaret Jacobs among others has pointed out. More broadly, though, it's been the abundant energy of the last three centuries that has driven the emergence of our current knowledge base -- in a world where 90% of the population has to farm, and most of the rest are needed for other subsistence crafts, setting aside the resources for scientific research on any kind of scale would hardly have been possible.

Yooper, of course there are going to be serious consequences. One way or another, it's not going to be an easy ride.

Blue Sun, thanks very much for the link!

Nature Creek, we all live in imaginary countries. America in particular is as imaginary as Neverland.

Mageprof, my spouse and I have always avoided crime by being both too poor and too well armed to bother with, so I think your advice is pretty good!

Yooper, well, I was never a McLuhan fan; my guess is that we've gotten as close to the global village as we ever will, and as energy supplies diminish, the world is going to get a lot bigger.

Ric, thanks for the reference. That looks like solid stuff.

Kevin, good. Now get to work and learn a couple of good productive skills.

Dick, that sounds about right. The one positive prospect for the huge numbers of the unemployed is the rise of a parallel economy -- small scale, local, largely underground, and largely decoupled from the money economy -- of goods and services produced by the poor for the poor. There's a fair amount of that in Third World countries as it is, and it's from that -- over the longer run -- that we'll get the Dark Age economies that will emerge after the industrial age is long dead.

marielar said...

Blue Sun, you wrote:
"I’m enjoying this ivory-tower conversation as much as anyone, but too few of these comments have mentioned practical resources."

After following this blog for over a year, I am under the impression that many regular posters have climbed down from their ivory tower quite a while ago and are engaged in the process of re-inventing themselves and their community bit by bit. Its hard to discuss "practical resources" in a general way because it depends very much where you live, and what your skills and interests are: Sonoran desert or Smocky Mountains, construction or gardening, forestry or fishery...Not much point of debating the merit of micro-hydro with somebody living in Arizona.
The main idea is that the latest technological fix does not necessarily offer the best, the most efficient, most rational solution . And it is rarely the most dependable tool.

There is a demand for good handtools and simple, efficient technology. Saddly, its easier to get your hands on crack cocaine than a good pruning saw. As Frijolitofarmer wrote: "a lot of really cool things have been developed that just aren't available in the US or Canada. "
And a lot of resistance can be expected by the various interest groups for which widespread adoption of low techs mean slow death by decentralisation. The big utility companies cant be thrilled by small wind turbines popping all over the landscape. Its not tomorrow we will watch an ad for hand pump on mainstream tv.

Also Blue Sun wrote:
"Are we humble enough to really and truly apply technologies that were heretofore only for the extremely destitute? Or will we be revolted and say “Ick!” ? We Americans have got a lot of pride to swallow in the coming years. "

It depends how we define destitute. After some time spent among a central american indian tribe which had not been sold out to our modern gadgetery, I felt that the poor folks living in megalopolis who have no idea what a clear night sky looks like or what an egg from a free ranging chicken taste were the real destitutes. There is a far cry between misery and simplicity, as most folks who have reached a certain level of self-relience and self-sufficiency can tell. Feed people the good stuff and let them hear the rooster at sunrise instead of the police sirens and it might convince quite a few there is lots of merit in a frugal life.

A good reference on herbalism for the farm is "The Complete Herbal Handbook for Farm and Stable" by Juliette de Bairacli Levi.

Ruben said...

@ Danby,

...you can have it fast, cheap or good. Pick any two.

yooper said...

You bet John, that is the most likely course of action, a turn inward towards some of protectionism in an attempt to maintain the status quo...While staving off rebellions from the underemployed/unemployed. I can't agree more with Danby's thoughts of off shoring. This trend is likely to reverse transitioning more to this model of appropriate technology.

Some are cautiously optimistic envisioning this kind of future, like you I have my doubts and would rather think it will be a bumpy ride with impactions of unconceivable magnitude. Such as, how will China react? How can they turn back without having some sort of result as seen with the (not so) Great Chinese Famine?

LynnHarding said...

Note to small farmers: The NAIS (animal id system) is dead for the time being. Great news! That does not mean that industrial agriculture is not working hard to ruin small organic farmer's attempts to cut out the middleman while producing better, safer food. There now appears to be an increased assault on direct sales of raw milk. For example, the Department of Public Health in Massachusetts recently issued 'cease and desist' orders to buying clubs who were driving many miles to pick up milk at farms in Western Massachusetts. It is legal to buy raw milk from licensed facilities in Massachusetts but you have to go pick it up. Apparently, each milk drinker must get in his personal vehicle and drive 70 miles from the city to the farm! It appears that the buying clubs were finding members on the internet. This means that there are government officials searching the web for successful models of small scale agriculture and targeting them. My guess it that the Massachusetts Department of Public Health employees actually believe they are protecting the public! It is important to have national organizations, linked on the web while we have it, to fight big agriculture's attacks on small farms. I have joined the "Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund" and find their web site very enlightening. All of you small scale chicken farms might want to take a look.

ChristineStone said...

JMG, Much as I value the big perspective and long view that you have, and no matter how much I agree with your ideas, still, the local and immediate perspective is pretty depressing at times.

I know a local carpenter, who works from a van and his garage workshop, highly skilled, and making a reasonable living. Just the sort of localised, fairly low-tech living which would seem ideal as the next 'step-down' for our Western economies. He mainly works in private houses, doing wardrobes, fitted shelving, etc. etc. But he is currently owed over two months worth of his average gross earnings by two local government departments that he did some work for in government buildings. They will take over three months to pay. The irony is that this is the same local government that has a whole department of staff employed to offer "help and advice" to small businesses.

I heard just this week of another carpenter, had been working for a large company and was owed a huge sum of money, due to take four months to be paid after he sent in his invoice. Then there was a company take-over/merger, and the new bosses unilaterally declared that all suppliers would have to wait another four months. As a result he was losing his house, going bankrupt, and committed suicide.

The impossibility of keeping a foot in each world seems to be growing: working at a small scale but also paying your mortgage (when your house is also your tool-store and workshop!).

Life is hard, and our current society doesn't make it any easier.

Christine

Call me ... g. said...

Hey, JMG.

I have a question. I just tried to email you, forgetting that your contact info might change with your recent move.

You've mentioned from time to time that nuclear energy is not or is barely a net producer of energy. But I can't recall where you've expounded on this. Can you point me to such? I frequently write to my local papers (LTTE) and find myself ever more frequently in need of this info.

Thanks.

hawlkeye said...

Wow, I love this blog! Even after seventy-odd comments, there are more golden nuggets than dead horses...

Big ditto to anything written by Juliete...Levy; surround yourself with the plants she mentions, and you and your animals will have a sound foundation of health.

Bravo as well to the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund, on the front lines of the escalating battle between small food producers and their dinosaur corporate predecessors still in power. Everyone must track Joel Salatin's Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal if you have any interest at all in feeding yourself and especially your neighbors. As a political force, this fellow has tapped into the wide range of eaters, from the most liberal, hippie granola heads, to the most conservative right-wingers who are "starting to have their doubts about Monsanto" to quote a recent speech. This vast constituency simply wants to opt out of the industrial food supply system, and is having a heckuva time finding a bite or a candidate to suit their tastes.

But it's not impossible. An old indian guy once gave me the metaphor I ride in these times: he said we're floating down the river with two canoes lashed together. In one canoe are all the modern things we live with, the phone, the job, the store, but in the other canoe, we must be filling with the tools, seeds and skills we will need for a new way of life.

And so we straddle this double vessel as the roar of the coming rapids gets louder and louder. And at some point, we'll have to cut the lashings and jump in the canoe that will get us through. Not everyone will pick the right vessel, nor stock it well, or cut the ties in time.

Even though I applaud the failure of the livestock micro-chipping diabolical folly, the commenter is quite right that the Food Control Bureaucracies will be increasing their grip on the small producers. Anyone desiring the simple wholesome right to eat what they please and grow what pleases them and their neighbors, will find that they must also be willing to be a bit of an outlaw.

So, for all the law-abiding citizens, what'll it be? The Laws of Physics or the laws of corrupt polluters? The rewards of your allegiance will be granted to your descendants...

Twilight said...

The books of Eric Sloane are a wonderful reference for how things were made before factories. In particular I recommend A Museum of Early American Tools, An Age of Barns, and American Yesterday (I have my Grandfather's copies of the first two). The illustrations are fabulous, and he really understood how the tools were used. If I could develop even a fraction of the skills shown in these books I would consider myself successful indeed.

DIYer said...

@Call me ... g.,
I see your comment and thought perhaps to weigh in on this, with the viewpoint of an educated amateur.

Nuclear energy ... there are two flavors, fission and fusion. We can dismiss fusion, as the 'boffins' have been working on it for 50 years and are still need to 'turn the corner' on extracting any useful energy from it. If it happens, it won't be soon enough to stave off collapse. The hypothetical 'zero point' energy would fall in the same category.

Fission energy is well known technology, and occasionally makes the news when there's a big event like Three Mile Island or Chernobyl. Note that both these sites are still closed, have not been cleaned up, and are still dangerous to any nearby life forms.

Fission energy is probably the best poster child for the story of profligacies of scale. You'll probably never drive a fission powered car, or have a small fission unit in your garage. It only makes sense to employ fission in a gigantic multimegawatt generating station.

When you look at the physics of it, fission looks like a wonderful energy source - proponents are fond of quoting a statistic about the thousands of times more energy you get from a nuclear reaction than from a chemical one. And this is true; the sticky issue is in the side effects, and byproducts, and in the sheer scale of the thing.

Here's how I'd approach describing this scale: how much do you know about what happened five thousand years ago? Where are the records? What language were they written in? What materials were stored in containers from that era, and in what condition are the containers?

Continuing with a thought experiment, suppose we pursue this technofix and build a fleet of reactors burning thorium (many nuke engineers believe this is feasible and thorium is a bit more abundant than silver in the earth's crust). And we build all these reactors and attempt to continue our expanding energy usage. Hypothetically we could do this for another century or so.

As the reactors are shut down and decommissioned, the remains of their thorium fuel will be in the form of a random assortment of middle-weight elements, in a random assortment of isotopes. Many of them have half-lives in the thousands of years.

And now that the party's over, there isn't any dumpster big enough to contain the trash. There isn't any such thing as 'away'. That's the downside of nuclear energy.

Doctor Doomlove said...

I wanted to call people’s attention to a great e-book that reads very much like JMG’s blog: http://www.darkage.fsnet.co.uk/Manuscript/The%20Coming%20Dark%20Age.pdf
John Michael, are you familiar with this book? Mr. Widdowson outlines something very similar to your catabolic collapse theory, and models the rise and fall of civilizations over a 6000 year period according to what he calls the "Phoenix Principal". It’s especially interesting toward the end when he describes how the new dark age will actually play out. He discusses loss of knowledge, societal simplification, abandonment of cities, mass migrations, new religions, ethnic conflict, etc. Anyway I thought it was brilliant stuff, especially since it was written pre-9/11 when globalist dot-com optimism was still rampant. Enjoy.

marielar said...

Hawleye wrote:
"Even though I applaud the failure of the livestock micro-chipping diabolical folly, the commenter is quite right that the Food Control Bureaucracies will be increasing their grip on the small producers."

Unfortunately, they have the system now in place in Canada. It was bad enough with the regular mandatory tag. But now, the chips applied to all cattle. I can get a cow of the property without the thing. I cant send a single animal, even one for my own consumption, to the slaughterhouse without "the tag". I am seriously pissed, but what is a gal to do? And I cant bring an egg to the farmer market without refrigeration. Which does not make any sense since an egg can stay at room temperature for weeks and be perfectly safe.

Twilight,
thanks a bunch for the Eric Sloane reference. I am always on the look for those as a of lot material from that type of sources can be turned into do it yourself projects.

Cathy McGuire said...

Another author who wrote about hand-powered farms and homes is John Seymour. "Forgotten Household Crafts" is more description and illustration (but really detailed ones!)but his "The Self-Sufficient Life and how to live it" (DK Books) goes into an overall plan and the details...I recommend them both

Meg said...

LynnHarding - I agree that the burdens of regulation tend to fall disproportionately on small producers, and that there are advantages to raw milk, and that people have the right to take risks with their own health up to a point. However, I also sympathize with public health officials wanting to minimize sales of raw milk as much as possible without banning it.

I grew up seeing schoolmates pulled out of school indefinitely after being tested for tuberculosis; I have a good friend who nearly died, and lost most of his eyesight, to scarlet fever. I have no desire whatsoever to see outbreaks of either of these things happen because a critical mass of people opted out of pasteurization.

So yes, I think it's reasonable for the regulatory powers-that-be to want to limit raw milk sales to a tiny minority of people buying tiny quantities in individual transactions. This arrangement makes contamination a lot easier to trace and contain than would sales of larger amounts through middlemen.

And having thrown my hat into the ring like that, I apologize to all and sundry for getting off topic. However, public health issues of this sort are something I hope to see covered in future posts. Meanwhile, I'm going to look into whether pasteurization could be implemented at home, in case I ever need to put my money where my big mouth is.

D and S said...

yooper,
When the average Chinese peasant has to go hungry, the government will collapse, as it always has, likely into a replay of the "warring states" period of Chinese history. Both the CCP and the people of China know this. That is why the CCP is doing everything it can to keep people employed. That is also why China will be forced to throw the US government overboard, when push comes to shove, by selling off their share of our debt, crashing our currency.

There is also a very good possibility that government collapse could lead to a spiritual awakening in China, with the leading contenders to replace Marxism-Leninism/Maoism being Falung Gong and Christianity. Christianity has the advantage of a much longer history in China, and also has more adherents, but Falung Gong is natively Chinese, and that will make a difference. Not that anyone believes in Marxism-Leninism or Maoism anymore, but they are still the official state religion.

Brian said...

The primary thrust of modern science is rectifying the sins of previous science. Take a gander at the major issues facing mankind, and you will find that every one can be traced/linked directly to technological "advancements." This procession takes form as an inverted triangle; fanning out into ever more fields, with ever more bastardizations of the natural principals of symbiotic balance; all for the myopic benefit of one species, if not one country, religion, race, etc.

Advancements in transportation, information transfer and efficiency/productivity are the cornerstones of current monolithic and monopolistic systems; and allow for the development and distribution of new technologies before we have time to assess their eventual impact.

Of course, greed and government corruption are necessary and willing evils to facilitate such proliferation.

Ariel55 said...

Dear JMG,
Thank you for mentally holding me to account for my efforts in life! I just changed my motto from maximal to optimal, and it seems to be paying off. Thanks again!

dltrammel said...

@ kittyhawk

To agree with Mageprof, I think you confuse 'glib dismissal' with a cold hard realization that things will be very very hard in the future re: medical situations, AND there isn't a frakin' thing any of us can do about it.

We can prepare with training and the growing of medicinal herbs. We can lead the healthiest life we can and recommend our friends and family do the same.

In the end, most of the serious illnesses modern health care can cure, will be killers in the coming de-industrial age. We are all passengers on the Titanic, after it has hit the iceberg and are now watching the last life boat row away.

Please forgive the gallows humor some of us profess as the water laps at our shoes.

My father died last year to the horrors of being warehoused due to Alzheimer's. I watched a strong carrying man become a scare paranoid shell over the course of several years, before being medicated into zombiehood to better handle his condition. Or make that, handle it with the least labor for the nursing home he was in.

The family had tried to keep him at home and allow him some measure of dignity in his death. It was just too much to keep up the care on a day to day basis. I can not imagine what a similar situation will be like 20 years from now.

I can only hope that when my feet are in that shoes, my family has the courage to put a pillow over my face and hold it tight.

Sorry, was that too real for the discussion here?

hawlkeye said...

Sorry Meg, I don't buy it.

Regulations do not fall out of the sky disproportionately upon the heads of small producers. They are created by the agribusiness interests, drafted by their lobbyists, and passed as law by "our" representatives, specifically to increaase their market share by discouraging all others.

Public Health officials are not independent government protectors of our health, but collude with the most toxic and unhealthy food producers in history to protect their profits. I would argue that the FDA itself is a threat to public health, populated with revolving-door bureaucrats taking their last few spins on the private/public sector merry-go-round.

Perhaps you imagine milk producers continuing to pool their products for sale to the millions of masses now served by the billion-carton. But the small producers simply want to stay in business, which they can more likely do now by selling locally, in which case contamination is much easier to track than the vast networks of FoodInc.

So of course it's reasonable to expect them to want to limit the sales of raw milk: just not for the cause of your health or mine.

Pretty soon it will no longer be a tiny minority served by the small producer, but everyone who wants to eat. The tide is rising for the Middle Man, along with the whole poisonous circus of suits who enrich themselves by impoverishing the soil.

The regulation I want to see honored is the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, the Right To Contract. I want to grow whatever I want, and give, trade or sell it to whoever trusts me enough to engage a deal. What a concept.

charles said...

I love this blog as much for the thoughtful discussion as the deeply thoughtful work itself. Thanks so much JMG for your hard work and consistency as both author and moderator (and community builder). It means so much and it is so delightfully civilized.
So many good resources being shared...especial ty @ dr doomlove, great e-book (great writing, great history, great analysis). I have begun looking forward to this every week and hope I can contribute at some point in kind. Thanks every one...new member ;-))

ojmo said...

I understand that Gandhi's economic thinking was strongly influenced by the anarchist Peter Kropotkin's "Fields, Factories and Workshops Tomorrow".

Brad K. said...

After describing "efficiency" as defined by putting more (or less) money in someone's pocket, I smiled when I read the setup for Imaginaria. "You are the president of the newly independent Republic of Imaginaria. You’ve got a population that’s not particularly well fed, clothed, and housed, and a fairly high unemployment rate.

Unemployment, huh? I like Sharon Astyk's terms of formal and informal economy. The formal economy is the economist playground, the Gross National Product kind of thing - someone making a monetary profit.

I think the term "unemployment" has been perverted to mean "not contributing to the formal economy; not putting profit in someone's pocket." I would think that description especially pertinent when talking about re-localizing crafts and production.

There is a difference between those unemployed as in not being employed, not producing anything or serving anyone, and those not employed at putting profit in someone's pocket. Many of the unemployed are still serving, at household tasks and parenting tasks, some at day work and unreported income efforts.

What you apparently propose is to permanently remove the bulk of people currently working to put profit into someone's pocket from the industrial workforce, to serve their community and family in efforts with meaning, directly, only at the local level. Huh. I bet that does irritate some Organized union leaders, political fund raisers, and transcontinental trucking operations.

I kind of like the way Leo Frankowski reinvented technology in his sf "Cross Time Engineer" novels - including horse and mule-drawn rail, reliance on steam power and wind, and even working within a feudal political system.

My own notion of perpetual motion is a hydroelectric generator that requires 2 feet of water head. Installed every hundred yards in minor rivers, requiring no major damming or ponding, in sizes down to seasonal farm creeks.

Reading about your concerns over ethanol - has anyone worked toward solar-heated steam or water sources of mechanical or electric - or even compressed air or gas - energy options? Or hydro-mechanical (like the quaint songs about "the old mill stream"). It worked once, after all. The wood to build the wheel and races, that can be hacked out. With tools and skill.

I can see where the current "fad" in heritage seeds and seed saving contribute to Schumacher style utilization of resources. Also the victory garden approach to diversifying reliance on transcontinental food production and distribution.

I also have some security concerns, at the national level, as fortunes dwindle and today's energy-profligate militaries become prohibitively expensive.
http://bradsworldview.blogspot.com/2010/02/ar-economic-decline-security-rise-of.html

Brad K. said...

After describing "efficiency" as defined by putting more (or less) money in someone's pocket, I smiled when I read the setup for Imaginaria. "You are the president of the newly independent Republic of Imaginaria. You’ve got a population that’s not particularly well fed, clothed, and housed, and a fairly high unemployment rate.

Unemployment, huh? I like Sharon Astyk's terms of formal and informal economy. The formal economy is the economist playground, the Gross National Product kind of thing - someone making a monetary profit.

I think the term "unemployment" has been perverted to mean "not contributing to the formal economy; not putting profit in someone's pocket." I would think that description especially pertinent when talking about re-localizing crafts and production.

There is a difference between those unemployed as in not being employed, not producing anything or serving anyone, and those not employed at putting profit in someone's pocket. Many of the unemployed are still serving, at household tasks and parenting tasks, some at day work and unreported income efforts.

What you apparently propose is to permanently remove the bulk of people currently working to put profit into someone's pocket from the industrial workforce, to serve their community and family in efforts with meaning, directly, only at the local level. Huh. I bet that does irritate some Organized union leaders, political fund raisers, and transcontinental trucking operations.

I kind of like the way Leo Frankowski reinvented technology in his sf "Cross Time Engineer" novels - including horse and mule-drawn rail, reliance on steam power and wind, and even working within a feudal political system.

My own notion of perpetual motion is a hydroelectric generator that requires 2 feet of water head. Installed every hundred yards in minor rivers, requiring no major damming or ponding, in sizes down to seasonal farm creeks.

Reading about your concerns over ethanol - has anyone worked toward solar-heated steam or water sources of mechanical or electric - or even compressed air or gas - energy options? Or hydro-mechanical (like the quaint songs about "the old mill stream"). It worked once, after all. The wood to build the wheel and races, that can be hacked out. With tools and skill.

I can see where the current "fad" in heritage seeds and seed saving contribute to Schumacher style utilization of resources. Also the victory garden approach to diversifying reliance on transcontinental food production and distribution.

I also have some security concerns, at the national level, as fortunes dwindle and today's energy-profligate militaries become prohibitively expensive.
http://bradsworldview.blogspot.com/2010/02/ar-economic-decline-security-rise-of.html

Brad K. said...

After describing "efficiency" as defined by putting more (or less) money in someone's pocket, I smiled when I read the setup for Imaginaria. "You are the president of the newly independent Republic of Imaginaria. You’ve got a population that’s not particularly well fed, clothed, and housed, and a fairly high unemployment rate.

Unemployment, huh? I like Sharon Astyk's terms of formal and informal economy. The formal economy is the economist playground, the Gross National Product kind of thing - someone making a monetary profit.

I think the term "unemployment" has been perverted to mean "not contributing to the formal economy; not putting profit in someone's pocket." I would think that description especially pertinent when talking about re-localizing crafts and production.

There is a difference between those unemployed as in not being employed, not producing anything or serving anyone, and those not employed at putting profit in someone's pocket. Many of the unemployed are still serving, at household tasks and parenting tasks, some at day work and unreported income efforts.

What you apparently propose is to permanently remove the bulk of people currently working to put profit into someone's pocket from the industrial workforce, to serve their community and family in efforts with meaning, directly, only at the local level. Huh. I bet that does irritate some Organized union leaders, political fund raisers, and transcontinental trucking operations.

I kind of like the way Leo Frankowski reinvented technology in his sf "Cross Time Engineer" novels - including horse and mule-drawn rail, reliance on steam power and wind, and even working within a feudal political system.

My own notion of perpetual motion is a hydroelectric generator that requires 2 feet of water head. Installed every hundred yards in minor rivers, requiring no major damming or ponding, in sizes down to seasonal farm creeks.

Reading about your concerns over ethanol - has anyone worked toward solar-heated steam or water sources of mechanical or electric - or even compressed air or gas - energy options? Or hydro-mechanical (like the quaint songs about "the old mill stream"). It worked once, after all. The wood to build the wheel and races, that can be hacked out. With tools and skill.

I can see where the current "fad" in heritage seeds and seed saving contribute to Schumacher style utilization of resources. Also the victory garden approach to diversifying reliance on transcontinental food production and distribution.

I also have some security concerns, at the national level, as fortunes dwindle and today's energy-profligate militaries become prohibitively expensive.
http://bradsworldview.blogspot.com/2010/02/ar-economic-decline-security-rise-of.html

Brad K. said...

After describing "efficiency" as defined by putting more (or less) money in someone's pocket, I smiled when I read the setup for Imaginaria. "You are the president of the newly independent Republic of Imaginaria. You’ve got a population that’s not particularly well fed, clothed, and housed, and a fairly high unemployment rate.

Unemployment, huh? I like Sharon Astyk's terms of formal and informal economy. The formal economy is the economist playground, the Gross National Product kind of thing - someone making a monetary profit.

I think the term "unemployment" has been perverted to mean "not contributing to the formal economy; not putting profit in someone's pocket." I would think that description especially pertinent when talking about re-localizing crafts and production.

There is a difference between those unemployed as in not being employed, not producing anything or serving anyone, and those not employed at putting profit in someone's pocket. Many of the unemployed are still serving, at household tasks and parenting tasks, some at day work and unreported income efforts.

What you apparently propose is to permanently remove the bulk of people currently working to put profit into someone's pocket from the industrial workforce, to serve their community and family in efforts with meaning, directly, only at the local level. Huh. I bet that does irritate some Organized union leaders, political fund raisers, and transcontinental trucking operations.

I kind of like the way Leo Frankowski reinvented technology in his sf "Cross Time Engineer" novels - including horse and mule-drawn rail, reliance on steam power and wind, and even working within a feudal political system.

My own notion of perpetual motion is a hydroelectric generator that requires 2 feet of water head. Installed every hundred yards in minor rivers, requiring no major damming or ponding, in sizes down to seasonal farm creeks.

Reading about your concerns over ethanol - has anyone worked toward solar-heated steam or water sources of mechanical or electric - or even compressed air or gas - energy options? Or hydro-mechanical (like the quaint songs about "the old mill stream"). It worked once, after all. The wood to build the wheel and races, that can be hacked out. With tools and skill.

I can see where the current "fad" in heritage seeds and seed saving contribute to Schumacher style utilization of resources. Also the victory garden approach to diversifying reliance on transcontinental food production and distribution.

I also have some security concerns, at the national level, as fortunes dwindle and today's energy-profligate militaries become prohibitively expensive.
http://bradsworldview.blogspot.com/2010/02/ar-economic-decline-security-rise-of.html

H said...

Mackenzie's ten thousand receipts, in all the useful and domestic arts PDF that Ric mentioned can be found at http://www.archive.org/details/mackenziestentho00mackrich

Eric said...

Thanks. I've been reading all your posts and just wanted to make a comment about what is necessary for human life. A few years ago I hiked the entire Appalachian Trail. This was a great learning experience about what is needed to survive. First and most important: Potable Water. That means drinkable. (Of course I'm very concerned about the really terrible state of our water today...) Second: Food. Obviously this will take some effort to feed everyone without fossil fuels. Third: Shelter. It gets cold out there and the last thing you want to do is be wet and cold. You can live without heating your home (except for the pipes), but you will want to have some good down comforters. Fourth: Health. I mean this in a broad context that includes hygiene. We have allowed our health system to be based plastic surgery and having old folks on 8 or 10 different pills at the same time. We need to get back to the basics: Preventative medicine and hygiene. Everything else is just "fluff". That BMW is not a necessity. This computer I type at is not a necessity. I will argue that some form of entertainment, arts, sports, etc. would fall in fifth place, but I find that if you put 5 people around a dinner table with no distractions they will start talking to each other and entertain themselves just fine.

Thanks for the great blog.

Brad K. said...

Eric,

I think you are optimistic.

What open communications - whether the now partially defunct newspaper industry, broadcast TV, the telephone and now the Internet - accomplishes - in nothing less than widespread civilization.

Just as JMG talks about energy efficiency - having bunches doesn't mean as much as having intense sources - communications help contain and avoid the worst abuses of mankind.

Think: Somalian pirate. The Barbary "Halls of Tripoli" pirates of the past. The slave trade of long ago and the continuing trade today. Think communist revolutions, think World Wars. Cheap communications, including universal mail service, phone connections - these aren't luxuries, they are ways to prevent tyrants and the ambitious from dividing and conquering in communications isolation.

Any loss in communication will inspire increases in aggression.

Your sojourn on the Appalachian trail was not done in isolation. You traveled alone, out of communications contact - with a nation keeping a moderate watch on the security of those on the trail. Those places where travelers touch down with community - would notice a sudden dearth of travelers. You might not have carried a cell phone or radio for requesting assistance, but I would presume some of your fellow travelers did. The Appalachian trail is a part of a national park, administrated in peace time, by a nation with armies and navies both actively and passively assuring the security of those with the inclination, to hike in solitude and reasonable security. Everyone from the President to the Supreme Court, to the degree communications exist, were involved in your safety.

Let communications deteriorate, and I expect the rise, again, of full battle engagements of armies again, of conscription and massacre by thugs and armies, of armed aggression as crops suffer setbacks, or a neighboring state gets jealous of the assets of another.

Maybe there is an equation, about concentration of aggressive force being less likely in an environment of greater communication. President Kennedy thought so, with the Red Phone.

Fmagyar said...

"It’s interesting to think about why this should be so, especially when some examples of the machine at work – Amish barn raisings come to mind – have gained iconic status in the alternative scene. It is not going too far, I think, to point out that the word “community,” which receives so much lip service these days, is in many ways another word for Mumford’s primal machine."

Perhaps this is somewhat related to why "communism" is considered a dirty word by so called free market capitalists who hold the reins of power and control the economy in our Industrial society.

It is anathema to their world view and raison d'ĂȘtre.

It also gets close to the heart of why an economy that is divorced from fundamental physical reality governed by the laws of thermodynamics can never be sustainable and must by definition collapse.

The myth of the infinitely growing economy is finally going to come face to face with reality and tumble back to earth. The folks who drank and profited from selling the Kool aid are going to have a harder time from here on out. Especially when they find they are going to have to again mingle with and depend on the "community" to survive. They are probably going to find that they may not be very welcome at the table.

marry said...

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Western Civilization Dissertation