Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Logic of Abundance

The last several posts here on The Archdruid Report have focused on the ramifications of a single concept – the importance of energy concentration, as distinct from the raw quantity of energy, in the economics of the future. This concept has implications that go well beyond the obvious, because three centuries of unthinking dependence on highly concentrated fossil fuels have reshaped not only the economies and the cultures of the industrial West, but some of our most fundamental assumptions about the universe, in ways all too likely to be disastrously counterproductive in the decades and centuries ahead of us.

Ironically enough, given the modern world’s obsession with economic issues, one of the best examples of this reshaping of assumptions by the implications of cheap concentrated energy has been the forceful resistance so many of us put up nowadays to thinking about technology in economic terms. It should be obvious that whether or not a given technology or suite of technologies continues to exist in a world of depleting resources depends first and foremost on three essentially economic factors. The first is whether the things done by that technology are necessities or luxuries, and if they are necessities, just how necessary they are; the second is whether the same things, or at least the portion of them that must be done, can be done by another technology at a lower cost in scarce resources; the third is how the benefits gained by keeping the technology supplied with the scarce resources it needs measures up to the benefits gained by putting those same resources to other uses.

Nowadays, though, this fairly straightforward calculus of needs and costs is anything but obvious. If I suggest in a post here, for example, that the internet will fail on all three counts in the years ahead of us – very little of what it does is necessary; most of the things it does can be done with much less energy and resource use, albeit at a slower pace, by other means; and the resources needed to keep it running would in many cases produce a better payback elsewhere – you can bet your bottom dollar that a good many of the responses will ignore this analysis entirely, and insist that since it’s technically possible to keep the internet in existence, and a fraction of today’s economic and social arrangements currently depend on (or at least use) the internet, the internet must continue to exist. Now it’s relevant to point out that the world adapted very quickly to using email and Google in place of postage stamps and public libraries, and will doubtless adapt just as quickly to using postage stamps and libraries in place of email and Google if that becomes necessary, but this sort of thinking – necessary as it will be in the years to come – finds few takers these days.

This notion that technological progress is a one-way street not subject to economic limits invites satire, to be sure, and I’ve tried to fill that need more than once in the past. Still, there are deep issues at work that also need to be addressed. One of them, which I’ve discussed at length elsewhere, is the way that progress has taken on an essentially religious value in the modern world, especially but not only among those who reject every other kind of religious thinking. Still, there’s another side to it, which is that for the last three hundred years those who believed in the possibilities of progress have generally been right. There have been some stunning failures to put alongside the successes, to be sure, but the trajectory that reached its climax with human footprints on the Moon has provided a potent argument supporting the idea that technological complexity is cumulative, irreversible, and immune to economic concerns.

The problem with that argument is that it takes the experience of an exceptional epoch in human history as a measure for human history as a whole. The three centuries of exponential growth that put those bootprints on the gray dust of the Sea of Tranquillity were made possible by the conjunction of historical accidents and geological laws that allowed a handful of nations to seize the fantastic treasure of highly concentrated energy buried in the Earth’s fossil fuels and burn through it at ever-increasing rates, flooding their economies with almost unimaginable amounts of cheap and highly concentrated energy. It’s been fashionable to assume that the arc of progress was what made all that energy available, but there’s very good reason to think that this puts the cart well in front of the horse. Rather, it was the huge surpluses of available energy that made technological progress both possible and economically viable, as inventors, industrialists, and ordinary people all discovered that it really was cheaper to have machines powered by fossil fuels take over jobs that had been done for millennia by human and animal muscles, fueled by solar energy in the form of food.

The logic of abundance that was made plausible as well as possible by those surpluses has had impacts on our society that very few people in the peak oil scene have yet begun to confront. For example, many of the most basic ways that modern industrial societies handle energy make sense only if fossil fuel energy is so cheap and abundant that waste simply isn’t something to worry about. One of this blog’s readers, Sebastien Bongard, pointed out to me in a recent email that on average, only a third of the energy that comes out of electrical power plants reaches an end user; the other two-thirds are converted to heat by the electrical resistance of the power lines and transformers that make up the electrical grid. For the sake of having electricity instantly available from sockets on nearly every wall in the industrial world, in other words, we accept unthinkingly a system that requires us to generate three times as much electricity as we actually use.

In a world where concentrated energy sources are scarce and expensive, many extravagances of this kind will stop being possible, and most of them will stop being economically feasible. In a certain sense, this is a good thing, because it points to ways in which nations facing crisis because of a shortage of concentrated energy sources can cut their losses and maintain vital systems. It’s been pointed out repeatedly, for example, that the electrical grids that supply power to homes and businesses across the industrial world will very likely stop being viable early on in the process of contraction, and some peak oil thinkers have accordingly drawn up nightmare scenarios around the sudden and irreversible collapse of national power grids. Like most doomsday scenarios, though, these rest on the unstated and unexamined assumption that everybody involved will sit on their hands and do nothing as the collapse unfolds.

In this case, that assumption rests in turn on a very widespread unwillingness to think through the consequences of an age of contracting energy supplies. The managers of a power grid facing collapse due to a shortage of generation capacity have one obvious alternative to hand: cutting nonessential sectors out of the grid for as long as necessary, so the load on the grid decreases to a level that the available generation capacity can handle. In an emergency, for example, many American suburbs and a large part of the country’s nonagricultural rural land could have electrical service shut off completely, and an even larger portion of both could be put on the kind of intermittent electrical service common in the Third World, without catastrophic results. Of course there would be an economic impact, but it would be modest in comparison to the results of simply letting the whole grid crash.

Over the longer term, just as the twentieth century was the era of rural electrification, the twenty-first promises to be the era of rural de-electrification. The amount of electricity lost to resistance is partly a function of the total amount of wiring through which the current has to pass, and those long power lines running along rural highways to scattered homes in the country thus account for a disproportionate share of the losses. A nation facing prolonged or permanent shortages of electrical generating capacity could make its available power go further by cutting its rural hinterlands off the power grid, and leaving them to generate whatever power they can by local means. Less than a century ago, nearly every prosperous farmhouse in the Great Plains had a windmill nearby, generating 12 or 24 volts for home use whenever the wind blew; the same approach will be just as viable in the future, not least because windmills on the home scale – unlike the huge turbines central to most current notions of windpower – can be built by hand from readily available materials. (Skeptics take note: I helped build one in college in the early 1980s using, among other things, an old truck alternator and a propeller handcarved from wood. Yes, it worked.)

Steps like this have seen very little discussion in the peak oil scene, and even less outside it, because the assumptions about technology discussed earlier in this post make them, in every sense of the word, unthinkable. Most people in the industrial world today seem to have lost the ability to imagine a future that doesn’t have electricity coming out of a socket in every wall, without going to the other extreme and leaning on Hollywood clichés of universal destruction. The idea that some of the most familiar technologies of today may simply become too expensive and inefficient to maintain tomorrow is alien to ways of thought dominated by the logic of abundance.

That blindness, however, comes with a huge price tag. As the age of abundance made possible by fossil fuels comes to its inevitable end, a great many things could be done to cushion the impact. Quite a few of these things could be done by individuals, families, and local communities – to continue with the example under discussion, it would not be that hard for people who live in rural areas or suburbs to provide themselves with backup systems using local renewable energy to keep their homes viable in the event of a prolonged, or even a permanent, electrical outage. None of the steps involved are hugely expensive, most of them have immediate payback in the form of lower energy bills, and local and national governments in much of the industrial world are currently offering financial incentives – some of them very robust – to those who do them. Despite this, very few people are doing them, and most of the attention and effort that goes into responses to a future of energy constraints focuses on finding new ways to pump electricity into a hugely inefficient electrical grid, without ever asking whether this will be a viable response to an age when the extravagance of the present day is no longer an option.

This is why attention to the economics of energy in the wake of peak oil is so crucial. Could an electrical grid of the sort we have today, with its centralized power plants and its vast network of wires bringing power to sockets on every wall, remain a feature of life throughout the industrial world in an energy-constrained future? If attempts to make sense of that future assume that this will happen as a matter of course, or start with the unexamined assumption that such a grid is the best (or only) possible way to handle scarce energy, and fixate on technical debates about whether and how that can be made to happen, the core issues that need to be examined slip out of sight. The question that has to be asked instead is whether a power grid of the sort we take for granted will be economically viable in such a future – that is, whether such a grid is as necessary as it seems to us today; whether the benefits of having it will cover the costs of maintaining and operating it; and whether the scarce resources it uses could produce a better return if put to work in some other way.

Local conditions might provide any number of answers to that question. In some countries and regions, where people live close together and renewable energy sources such as hydroelectric power promise a stable supply of electricity for the relatively long term, a national grid of the current type may prove viable. In others, as suggested above, it might be much more viable to have restricted power grids supplying urban areas and critical infrastructure, while rural hinterlands return to locally generated power or to non-electrified lifestyles. In still others, a power grid of any kind might prove to be economically impossible.

Under all these conditions, even the first, it makes sense for governments to encourage citizens and businesses to provide as much of their own energy needs as possible from locally available, diffuse energy sources such as sunlight and wind. (It probably needs to be said, given current notions about the innate malevolence of government, that whatever advantages might be gained from having people dependent on the electrical grid would be more than outweighed by the advantages of having a work force, and thus an economy, that can continue to function on at least a minimal level if the grid goes down.) Under all these conditions, it makes even more sense for individuals, families, and local communities to take such steps themselves, so that any interruption in electrical power from the grid – temporary or permanent – becomes an inconvenience rather than a threat to survival.

A case could easily be made that in the face of a future of very uncertain energy supplies, alternative off-grid sources of space heating, hot water, and other basic necessities are as important in a modern city as life jackets are in a boat. An even stronger case could be made that individuals and groups who hope to foster local resilience in the face of such a future probably ought to make such simple and readily available technologies as solar water heating, solar space heating, home-scale wind power, and the like central themes in their planning. Up to now, this has rarely happened, and the hold of the logic of abundance on our collective imagination is, I think, a good part of the reason why.

What makes this even more important is that the electrical power grid is only one example, if an important one, of a system that plays a crucial role in the way people live in the industrial world today, but that only makes sense in a world where energy is so abundant that even huge inefficiencies don’t matter. It’s hardly a difficult matter to think of others. To think in these terms, though, and to begin to explore more economical options for meeting individual and community needs in an age of scarce energy, is to venture into a nearly unexplored region where most of the rules that govern contemporary life are stood on their heads. We’ll map out one of the more challenging parts of that territory in next week’s post.

131 comments:

John Michael Greer said...

As I mentioned in this post, I expect to get a flurry of responses that simply ignore the argument it makes about economic viability and insist that since (insert the technology of your choice) is nifty, and technically possible, of course we can have it in the deindustrial future. Such nonresponses will not be put through moderation. You're perfectly free to disagree with my argument, but if you want to take part in the conversation, for heaven's sake, don't pretend that it hasn't been made and try to talk loudly about something else!

The Onion said...

I am thinking that radio will return as a centre of community, at what power and expanse I guess we cannot be certain, but it seems like we should be able to fashion the components of simple radio for some time. Taking into account a future of decline, perhaps it will end up as low power community radio.

Obviously TV has high cost overheads and I would expect radio drama to return as a lower cost alternative. Secretly, I really like radio dramas, of which precious few are produced. They engage the imagination like TV can't do.

Cherokee Organics said...

JMG,

Thanks again for a clear glimpse of the near future. We came to similar conclusions two years ago and are working towards an independent life within a community that has quite strong ties built upon the reality of dealing with the natural adversities of this particular area. Think fires, droughts and flooding rains.

I enjoy your blog and have also made attempts at speaking with and at people about the difficulties facing us in the near future. Mostly I have received derision so decided to concentrate instead on building a truly sustainable house and my own skill development and understanding of the immediate environment and it's resources. It's been a lot less like banging my head against a brick wall! People aren't interested until they have to be.

One of the areas in which I've received the most criticism and derision is that of utilising off grid solar for our electricity production. I see fear in people's eyes when I talk to them about it. The uncertainty that there may not be supply when they think they need it. Or alternatively that there may not be enough supply to function all of the things that people now consider necessities.

Years ago electricity generation in our part of the world was state owned. It was very reliable. In fact I remember in the recession of the very early 1990's there was much talk in the media about how people would like cheaper electricity prices if the reliability of the distribution grid was reduced. This happened.

In addition to this, the electricity generators and distribution systems were sold off to private consortiums to reduce state debt. Over the years the amount spent on maintenance of the distribution system fell by the wayside. Just under twenty years later (anecdotally of course) the average consumption per household has risen and we now have what is known as load shedding over summer. I've travelled a bit in third world countries and this is exactly the same strategies that the generator operators use there as well. Incidentally it is also exactly what you were talking about in your glimpse of the future. It is far easier for a generator operator and/or distribution network operator to shut down part of the distribution grid to maintain supply to some area or facility and/or reduce the likelihood of damage to the distribution grid. This happens now people!

Again and this is only anecdotally I've noticed that the frequency of this occurrence is increasing, but it is not talked about.

It's easy to think it may all end in a bang, but it'll probably be just a whimper!

Good luck!

John Michael Greer said...

Onion, I think radio communication is very likely to be one of the legacies of the present age that lasts for the long term. It's quite possible to make a good radio transmitter with hand tools and readily available materials, and the simpler receivers are absurdly easy to make -- given the necessary knowledge, an ancient Egyptian craftsperson could have provided Pharaoh with a very functional crystal radio. Range isn't as dependent on power as it looks from within the current commercial bands, either -- in the 20-meter shortwave band used by amateur radio, for example, 100 watts will get you contacts on the far side of the world. So it's very much an option for the long term.

Cherokee, this is fascinating. The same load shedding is happening in parts of the US, for much the same reasons, and the same weird combination of fear and derision is present and accounted for here as well. The load shedding makes sense to me; the fear and derision doesn't -- to use the metaphor from the post, you don't see people displaying those reactions to life jackets on a boat.

Danby said...

The other factor you seem to omit is that a great many of the technologies people want to have require a level of societal organization that may not be possible in an energy-constrained future.

How do you maintain a telephone network when the high price of copper wire, extreme poverty, and a breakdown of law enforcement result in all the wire being stolen?

How do you maintain transport routes when the value of the aluminum used in a bridge makes stealing bridge parts the best way to ensure you eat this week?

How do you maintain sea lanes when the poverty of a local populace drives them to piracy?

These are not random questions. These are real and serious problems for infrastructure maintenance right now in South Asia, Detroit and East Africa.

As the prosperity of the world, especially the West, ebbs away with the oil supply, these problems will multiply and spread. And without that sort of infrastructure in usable condition all of the superstructure such as instant telecom, just-in-time inventory and fraudulent mortgages cannot be sustained.

John Michael Greer said...

Danby, I'm trying to open one can of worms at a time! Still, you're quite correct, of course. In the middle to long term, breakdown of social order is the 800-pound gorilla of the catabolic collapse process; it's when a society can no longer guarantee enough social order to keep its basic systems intact that decline turns into fall.

Brad K. said...

JMG,

You stated "will doubtless adapt just as quickly to using postage stamps and libraries".

I will grant that postage stamp - what is now called "snail mail" - could return in a very short time, being primarily a process.

Libraries, though, may not resume their resource role as easily. Libraries rely on books and book publishers. Much relevant reference, non-fiction, and fiction material is going straight to digital/online distribution. Publishers are closing up, or shedding resources, or turning to custom and boutique binders.

Communities have often been cutting back on library budgets. Where most libraries, 10 years ago, kept archives of relevant technical material, fewer are able to maintain the quality of their collection with today's budgets. I don't see that getting much better any time soon. I think we stand to lose a great deal, potentially, in rolling back away from a heavily-online media form of cultural archive.

I question that your first criteria of value - whether a thing is a necessity or a luxury - is going to be a real driver. I cannot count the number of desperately poor cigarette smokers I have known, and I never met a drunk that sobered up because he was too broke to buy or obtain more alcohol. I have seen the same unthinking tenacity over cell phones and MP3 players, fancy cars, and "hot" gaming computers. To the thinking, reasonable person, this will be an important consideration. But when you talk about communities and nations, I think the outcome varies from what you are predicting.


@ The Onion,

I think the radio dramas were a cultural artifact of the period. The art and craft of oral history and story telling used to be a highly valued form of entertainment. That led to stage and radio dramas and entertainments. Where the stage end when to full-blown portrayals of characters, props, and life - and special effects from Hollywood, the radio dramas seemed larger than life - and larger than real, in-person oral traditions.

It would take time to redevelop the skills of oral traditions, now that an assumption is made of universal literacy.

Don't forget about valid and needful community events - dances, concerts, melodramas and picnics - social events to bring neighbors and marriageable people together. Communities must invest in growth - the next generation - and manage the best matches of couples and raising of children they can. They must also address assimilating newcomers quickly, and remaining of service and comfort to existing members. This means, for the family and individual, a certain minimum expectation of participation and entertainment.

It worked before. With insight and care, I imagine that we could make it work again.

tylerdurden said...

I have written it before and you have ignored it before. Electric energy will not be a problem in our lifetime. If you research the ways of its present day production you will not find one of those in danger in the near future. On top of this, there is even a gas supply available from that new field in Iran, that is considered larger than all the oil there ever was. And then you might take a look at the planning of nuclear powerplants worldwide. The electric grid will not be endangered for a long time to come, and has absolutely nothing to do with shrinking oil supplies.
Oil for petrol for cars might become a problem, but as its price rises, electrical cars that can be recharged even with solar power will become the accepted mode.
The only real problem as far as energy is concerned in the next twenty years, might be air travel as there is no alternative to oil thinkable, at present.

John Michael Greer said...

Brad, if I'm right about the end of the internet, it won't be an immediate event -- rather, costs will rise and access will diminish over time. Whether public libraries are restocked during that process, or whether private libraries become the next information nexus, is a good question.

As for the issue of necessity vs. luxury, the way we're going, you're likely to be right; I could all too easily see our society throwing all its remaining resources into nonessentials, and forgetting to provide itself with adequate food, clean water, public health, and the list goes on. Just because our survival may depend on prioritizing doesn't mean we'll do so intelligently!

Tyler, yes, you said that before, and I disagreed with you then as well. I've already explained here at great length why I think this sort of cornucopian analysis is wrong. As for the Iranian gas field, er, I take it you don't know that that was a misquote, and the actual figure is many orders of magnitude smaller?

tristan said...

What no Internets? How will I live without my Google???

Actually I have a different question. Your article points out that many readers cannot accept the idea that the Internet or the power grid or some other technology could possibly go away in the face of very practical, sound and easy to grasp logic. But you also propose that in the face of real shortages people en-mass will react logically and take the steps necessary to power down and keep things running but at a lower level.
Is it possible that the same attitude and willingness to blind ones self to reality that is currently happening will cause people in the near future to make decisions that will, rather then make things better, make things worse?
Tristan

Mash said...

I think you're missing a couple of ideas. "The internet" is not really "gmail" or "blogger" or "facebook" or "wikipedia". It's not even the sum of these things. It's a way in which you can get sophisticated networking algorithms given some very simplistic mechanisms. (eg: "if you have too many packets, just drop whatever. make the ends figure out when and what to retransmit")

And "the internet" isn't really about universal connection. Anyone who has lived in a remote country knows how "the rest of the world" can disappear, but your local sites can continue to function.

So, the devolution of the internet may happen in a very similar manner to the way it originally grew.

Back in the dim dark ages even some of the "central" servers connected to each other on an irregular schedule, and during the time they were connected, exchanged information, and then disconnected once more. (eg: UUCP).

Remember, part of the goal of "the internet" was to continue to provide useful service even in the face of damage. So maybe that damage is widespread, maybe it gets worse, but there is something useful to be gained just from having your computer connected to your neighbor's computer.

And that's another part I think you're missing. Information will always be transmitted SOMEHOW. You think we'll go back to paper. I suppose it's possible - if we lose the capability to create ANYTHING electronic (and maybe that will happen someday). But before we get that far, we've got a lot of intermediate steps. Think about the telegraph. Places connected with unreliable wires that required a lot of effort to maintain - but it worked because people wanted to be able to say hello.

Now take all the knowledge we now have about using simple networking methods ("the internet"), and reduce what we have available to use it with in steps.

First of all we might lose the "available everywhere". Undersea cables get cut, satellites fail, the infrastructure as a whole turns into continents of connectivity separated by vast oceans of distance.

Next maybe we lose the reliability. The longer distances (like between cities) have connections - sometimes. Maybe an unreliable wire. Maybe a weak radio link.

But somewhere along that line we have local areas of connectivity - maybe something like a local telephone exchange (except now that we know how, why would we make a dedicated voice service instead of a data service? Now we know how to make voice look like data, and make that voice easier to handle by doing so)

And we have unreliable connections over the long distances. But in "the internet" we have created the exact formulas that allow us to use those connections to continue the information transfer in the most useful way possible.

If we end up with a true dark ages of NO technology, maybe we'll lose the internet. But the very nature of it makes it one of the most resilient networks we've created. Because it's not really "a" network. It's a lot of little networks connected together, forming something that people find massively useful for information transfer.

Once you see those intermediate steps of devolution, your questions of "3 essential economic factors" have a lot more answers. It can still go totally black - but that's a LONG way down. Just how useful would you find a "survival wikipedia"? How much effort would you make (even in a collapsing world) to maintain and share that knowledge with as broad of an audience as

xhmko said...

The necessity discussion is something that always troubles me. You say that such and such items are not necessary and their supporting industries will have to go in the not too distant future and many offer the reply, "What's necessary?", in that everything's subjective and you can't tell me what to do tone. What's good for the goose ain't necessarily good for the gander. Then it leads into discussions about free enterprise, and supply and demand and diversity and that no one should be able to say what you can and can't buy. And the argument is half right. No person should be able to treat you as though they are your financial adviser cum owner, and of course diversity is the spice of life, but we're talking about limited resources here, not your parents taking away your toys. There is this element of arbitrary rebellion.

We're talking about trading the plastic wrapped present for a (hopefully) smoother transition into a future with far less fuel to play with. Surely doing away with (actually more likely retooling and reincarnating) a few industries that really only sell throwaway items won't hurt too much if it means that you're contributing to a safer future. But it's all too much for people. Why should they not be able to buy a television today and a bigger one tomorrow and the next day a smaller but higher resolution one if they want it and can afford it? How will they live without mobile phones that require Coltan from the Congo, Titanium from Lulow and oil from Iraq. But again the difference between what you can afford to buy and what we can actually acquire from diminishing resource bases needs is lost and needs to be pointed at with a big stick. In fact it needs to put into glossy print with huge neon signs and gigantic billboards advertising it. It seems decadent methods are required to point out decadence. In the end, your best option is to lead by example and let the choice be made by individuals. Or start a eco-guerrilla movement and takeover your local area in the name of sustainability, something actually being seriously considered in many circles (See Dr Glen Barry). People prefer to arrive at decisions themselves lest they feel like they've been dictated to by evil governments taken over by even eviller hippies who care more about a bug than about a person.

My eyes are sore from watching thumbs twiddling.

By the way, I'd subscribe to The Archdruid Report in newsletter form or tune in to your radio session once a week when the web goes down or even if did it now.

RDatta said...

Load shedding is nothing new: it was a normal part of life in the "Third World" prior to 1973 when I came here. It has not been a part of the world-view here for decades since. That may explain the plethora of zoning laws, local ordinances, etc. that stand in the way of attempts at sustainable life-styles through windmills, solar panels, etc. But these obstructions will fall apart pari passu with the grid.

Ofcourse the hopefuls suggest Liquid Fluorine Thorium Reactors and Traveling Wave Reactors (being tried elsewhere) and Matt Simmons windmills to ammonia + freshwater (being tried here), amongst others. One can hope that some of these will work out, but neglecting alternate scenarios is done at no small peril.

And in the case of the alternate scenarios, electric cars could be out of steam.

frijolitofarmer said...

JMG, I was wondering if you'd seen this site: http://www.otherpower.com/
It's a group of off-grid tinkerers in Colorado who've done experiments with home-built wind power, micro-hydro turbines, and a steam engine. They sell magnets and such for making your own generators. It may be on that site that I first heard it recommended that magnets from a hard drive could be salvaged for generating electricity.

As you point out, people will adapt pretty easily to going back to using postage stamps and libraries. I'm hopeful that the transition to distributed energy generation will come just as naturally. If a lack of imagination mentally cripples the people in charge of making big decisions about the infrastructure and unreliable electric service results, I expect we'll see people get braver about playing around with alternatives.

I've seen something similar happen in my own community with rain barrels. Once upon a time, nobody around here bothered catching the rain. Then a few sustainability geeks did it, and their neighbors thought it was a nifty idea. The neighbors asked these people to build rain barrels for them. With practice, the quality and appearance improved. Pretty soon, they came to be fashionable in certain neighborhoods, and these folks who started off just making barrels for themselves and neighbors soon had a cottage industry with more demand than they could handle. One of these guys now only deals wholesale. I'm seeing similar things happening with bike carts and worm bins, so let's hope the same will come to pass when a few home-built windmills and shortwave radio aerials start appearing in the skyline.

I have plans myself to use an old truck battery with an inverter to run my freezer at the farmers' market this summer. I'll need a way to recharge the battery, and I'm seriously considering a PV panel, though it would be fun to try a small, home-built hydro-turbine in a nearby creek or in the downspouts of my rain gutters.

@ Brad K.:
Radio dramas are still around, if not so widespread and popular as they once were. A few years ago, I heard "A Canticle for Leibowitz" performed as a serial on public radio. Also on public radio, "A Prairie Home Companion" often does comic dramas complete with sound effects in front of a live audience. It hasn't completely faded away.

With YouTube giving us a whole generation of do-it-yourself videographers and music mixers, it will be interesting to see what forms of artistic expression they find (or create) in the absence of easy internet access.

@ Tyler:
Even if your statement about the gas in Iran were correct, what good does it do us? Especially if Iran and Israel start nuking each other, or Iran decides it prefers dealing with Russia, or China and India are able to outbid us? A million years' worth of sweet, light crude wouldn't do us any good if we have no access to it.

das monde said...

Political viabilities will be no less momentous than economic viability. The 3 factors (of differentiating between luxuries and necessities, and priorities by resources or benefits) will be decided not by objective analysis, but by deciding power. I can imagine that internet, and even such extravagance as air travel, may survive long among elite groups. On the other hand, not extremely resourceful but still independent specialist groups may choose to hold on to their rather fancy technologies without much publicity and world saving or dominating dreams. There won't be much transparency with objective dimensions of still available resources.

Rural areas will certainly be the first to be deprived of all sorts of infrastructure. That social-political (rather than economic) process is already illustrated in the post-communist countries. Survival of communities will depend a lot on how they succeed to keep and adopt their infrastructure, secure lines of various sorts of supplies, and avoid taxing compulsions. It would be smart to preserve anything you can, to gain some leverage. Communication resources will get a lot of attention in this dynamics; someone will enjoy handy monopolies.

Social differentiation of access to resources and technologies may happen so fast that a crudely downscaled web of today's civilization would become a viable possibility. The predicable limits and calamities then would only determine pain of the growing army of outsiders. If you are only concerned with technology preservation, that is not a dire scenario.

fourpie said...

As oil ends is surely the massive remaining reserves of coal will be targeted? Ways must and will be found to neutralise its bad effects. Or perhaps I've been misled about the extent of coal reserves.

xhmko said...

To Tyler, are you going to convert all those massive cargo ships to steam in order to deliver the electric cars around the world? Or perhaps revert to sailboats? Are you going to use electric trucks and electric cranes to aid the construction of nuclear power plants which I guess will source their uranium from mines serviced completely by electric machinery. Lubricated by electricity too I suppose.

Electricity is not a resource. It is a product. Using a product to create a product requires enormous supporting industries that all require oil and necessitates loss. It is not sustainable in and of itself.

Electricity is also not that difficult to produce on a small scale, its just that as with everything in large scale societies, services tend towards centralisation and this is what will not withstand the pressures of diminishing resources. You might not see the major power cuts in your lifetime, but it may just be because people were unwilling to change their lifestyles and poured more and more of their dwindling resources into maintaining a flawed system. The precedents are there for this sort of behaviour and we are now witnessing ourselves cloaked in this cliche of civilisational collapse.
JMG makes these points quite articulately. He explains with many examples that localised production of the goods and services most suitable to your area is essential to dampening the effect of the inevitable reduction of readily available high grade energy. As I see it, the concept of "readily available" to our modern mind is quite bizarre. To think of a process as convoluted as energy production as being "readily available" shows how dangerously accustomed to detached convenience many of us have become.

And lets for a second imagine that this fabled gas field in Iran is as big as you suggest. Will you support a war in order to secure use of it for yourself. Because that's what you will have to do in order to get enough of the stuff to make any difference. I don't think, judging by what Khamenei has just said about Obama and the history of American (I'm assuming your American here, my apologies if you are not) and Iranian relations, that they will be willing to share their resources. At least not with their arch rivals. If you wanted to live in a superpower that might get to use some of this mythical gaseous saviour I would suggest moving to China.

flute said...

Danby,
Stealing copper wire is only profitable while demand exceeds supply. Since copper is rather durable, at some time we will reach a stage where copper supply sitting in wires all over the place exceeds demand. Then most copper wires actually used will be left alone.

Cherokee Organics said...

JMG,

You're ideas are starting to get some mainstream media coverage (are you moonlighting here in Australia under some pseudonym?)

http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/politics/an-empire-in-decline-as-the-world-turns-upside-down-20100322-qr2t.html

Hope you enjoy the link. I think people are in denial about the very near future. The status quo has such a strong pull on people that they'll fight any suggestion that anything may change even in the face of evidence to the contrary. Change is an inevitability, atrophy is part of life. Even the oldest trees around this place fall over eventually (hopefully whilst no one is around as they're quite big).

Good luck!

autonomyacres said...

JMG, great post. How humans adapt to the coming world of less convience will be interesting. I am in my early thirties, and most of my peers are incredibly lazy due to the fact of all the toys and gadgets that are around today. What are these people going to do when their computer phones no longer work. I guess they might have to become human again, and start thinking about the REAL world.

Murray Carew said...

Brad:

Yes, people can show an impressive ability to ignore reality and get their priorities hopelessly wrong, but this is partly a result of being dazzled and numbed by general abundance and waste. Sure, a lot of responses to energy descent will be the same, but the overall situation will be different. The sharp pressure exerted on people and institutions by the new scarcity will impose a degree of economic realism, even if people avoid it as long as possible and at great cost to themselves and others.


Tyler:

"The electric grid will not be endangered for a long time to come, and has absolutely nothing to do with shrinking oil supplies."

A/ What do you think fuels the equipment that mines and transports coal?

B/ JMG's post referred to energy constraints, not oil constraints. Coal is (thankfully) not as plentiful as many people assume. See Richard Heinberg's "Blackout"

C/ Natural Gas is difficult and expensive to trade across large distances, eg by ship. It is therefore subject to regional peaks and shortages well before global peak. Gas peaks tend to fall off quicker than other energy sources. See Julian Darley's "High Noon for Natural Gas".

D/ Nuclear power to the rescue... unlikely.

I know JMG referred to having responded to your points previously, but there is my response anyway.

Murray

Jason said...

Progress paradigm is also a distortion of the evolution paradigm. Once we reach ‘the stage of wall sockets’, wall sockets are ‘more advanced’. The fact that 'advanced stuff' can be and is used by people who are dumber than a bag of hammers is not fully appreciated... somewhere along, the metaphor became a self-congratulatory reality.

One can’t leave out of account the preening factor, the self-aggrandizement of a culture that can say it is worth our bullying imperial dominance for the oiks since they can watch us using their oil to land on the moon -- and at the same time we can vaunt our moral superiority and think we have solved just about everything with our incredibly fair forms of government! :)

The myth of progress was not merely all-overpowering (“If you’re not part of the steamroller, you’re part of the road”), it was also glorious. That’s why, as you point out here, it is those who don’t already have a spiritual philosophy that can tend to fall for it hardest.

The load shedding makes sense to me; the fear and derision doesn't -- to use the metaphor from the post, you don't see people displaying those reactions to life jackets on a boat.

Sure you do, if they're in the middle of a pink gin and don't believe the boat is even listing yet.

@The Onion: Secretly, I really like radio dramas, of which precious few are produced. They engage the imagination like TV can't do.

I so agree, always have. Those skills are alive and well in the uk and in some areas of podcastdom; I definitely see a future.

Andrew B. Watt said...

JMG,

The issues you raise are good ones.

It is likely that markets for oil, coal and gas will continue to operate for a while. As you've demonstrated, these concentrated energy forms are going to be quite valuable for a while yet.

With depletion, though, comes price increase. My father said, just a few weeks ago in a laughing tone of voice, "We're almost definitely out of oil where gasoline costs $2 a gallon... but we're not out of oil where gasoline costs $8 a gallon." The same logic holds true for coal and natural gas, I suspect.

As the cost of electrical generation rises and as the cost of fossil-fuel transportation rises, a lot of people who take electricity in every outlet and a car in every garage for granted may discover these are luxuries and not necessities. Gas stations in relatively poor areas go out of business when their storage tanks run dry, and they can't afford the $40,000-$60,000 it takes to refill them. As these stations go out of business, large parts of the countryside will become relatively wilder — because the infrastructure will not allow transportation into or through those areas. Certain corridors may get subsidized — but it's just as possible that no one will notice until it's "too late".

Yet this is what you mean by catabolic collapse: the gradual breakdown of the current order of things — gas stations with no gas for months and eventually years on end, cars becoming scrap metal piles for erzatz blacksmiths and your ruinmen from Star's Reach, electrical grids failing and eventually irreplacable solar power panels disappearing, and so on, and so on...

We're really at the beginning of this process, though. Some of the changes will not be visible for decades; others will arrive quite quickly. I wonder if some of the troops in Afghanistan and Iraq will wind up having to do their own version of Xenophon's Anabasis and wind up shouting "The Sea! The Sea!" only to discover there are no troop transports to take them back to America...

Trimorph said...

The other day our revered Prime Minister Gordon Brown trumpeted in a speech "High speed broadband is the electricity of the digital age!"

My reaction at the time was that this was simply idiotic, since the electricity of the digital age is, well, electricity. But having read your post, I can see he was quite right, though in the exact opposite of his intended sense.

Onion -- I share your love of radio drama, and there may well be a worldwide shortage, but here in the UK there's plenty of good stuff -- check out www.bbc.co.uk/radio4. Let's hope Peak Drama is delayed as long as possible.

Edde said...

Greetings John Michael,

The "smart grid" is already here. Our city utility just bought $40M of equipment and meters which allow grid managers to reduce power during peak times to avoid system crash and to increase revenues. To extend that a bit further, as you do, is reasonable.

"Distributed" power systems are the new wave, although with a good deal of foot dragging by burn-to-earn power companies. Few power companies have a business model to take advantage of this potentially big market. The rest of us are just doing it;-)

My wife is curator at a museum with an 1890s Florida farm in mostly working condition. NO electricity and folks survived, albeit, worked lots harder than now.

I'm concerned about social systems which ensure "rights" to individuals - which of those are driven by concentrated energy economics?

edde

John Michael Greer said...

Tristan, no, I'm not suggesting that people en masse will make intelligent decisions. I'm suggesting that the decision makers who run the electric grids in industrial countries, faced with a choice between load shedding and complete collapse, will choose the former. That's a fairly safe bet, as it's something that happens quite often already when power grids come under stress.

Mash, I'm guessing that you haven't read my previous posts discussing the future of the internet. What I've suggested is that as costs rise and pressures for control escalate, it will gradually become an expensive luxury used mostly by government, big business, and the rich, while everyone else falls back on less sophisticated methods of interaction. It could straggle on for some time before resource shortages or sociopolitical collapse or any of a dozen other things finally pulls the plug.

Xhmko, granted. Still, when people have to choose between a cell phone and their next month's food supply, those who make the less intelligent choice aren't going to do too well.

Rdatta, I've suggested already that one good way to think of what's happening is to see it as the transformation of the US into a third world country, so that makes sense.

Farmer, I wasn't familiar with that particular site, but the concepts are familiar ones -- most of them were discussed at length back in the 70s, when appropriate tech was new. (Though we didn't have hard drives yet as a source for salvaged magnets!) I think that local homescale power generation is something that deserves a great deal of attention just now, of course.

Das Monde, good. Of course politics and social class will play a large role in distributing whatever technology stays in use. One thing I'd point out, though, is that historically, attempts by upper classes to insulate themselves from the impacts of a declining society tend to fail catastrophically; tolerably often, what happens is that the security guards (or equivalent) of the rich cut their employers' throats and make off with the goods.

Fourpie, you've been misled. We hit peak coal around 2040.

John Michael Greer said...

Flute, yes, but how much electrical wiring will be left when that finally happens?

Cherokee, thanks for the link! No, it's not by me -- and it still startles me that so few people are talking about the decline of American empire yet.

Autonomy, that's one of the big questions. People who have never done hard physical labor in their lives, and haven't prepared at all for the relatively harsh new world ahead of us, are going to have a very rough time of it; how many will buckle down and deal with it, how many of them will drink or drug themselves to death, and how many will fling themselves into one or another kind of cargo cult in an attempt to get the world to conform to their desires?

Jason, I'd put your first point a bit more strongly. The myth of progress redefined evolution in its own image. Real evolution isn't about progress, it's about adaptation; it isn't going anywhere -- but the religion of progress is all about going places, onward and upward to a glorious future among the stars. I make fun of it, but I recognize the immense emotional power it still exercises on most people today.

Andrew, exactly. "This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper."

Trimorph, well, Gordon Brown is Gordon Brown; I'm not sure what else can be said about him. As for peak drama, though, I wouldn't worry about it -- the greatest drama our species has yet produced was originally performed with no technology more complicated than a few costumes and maybe some masks. Come to think of it, most ancient, medieval, and early modern drama would make great radio -- can you imagine Oedipus Rex, or for that matter Aoi no Ue, done as radio drama? I certainly can.

Edde, well, Iceland's had a representative democracy since Viking times, and democracy in the US hasn't exactly prospered in an age of concentrated energy, so I'm not sure there's an equation between concentrations of energy and liberty.

blue sun said...

I think the ‘fear and derision’ you’ve encountered comes from this: a major cultural belief in the industrial world is that “we” are superior to everyone else. Its cultural self-superiority; it’s elitism. It’s the same as the ancient concept of the civilized and the savage. I’m sure the Romans and Greeks thought along the same lines. The rules don’t apply to us because our “culture” is more evolved than those of the Third World. We’re special. Look at Practical Action’s website. You’ll see they don’t have a single field office outside the Third World. And don’t tell me there aren’t pockets of poverty in the First World where appropriate technology would be a real boon.
JMG, besides Jared Diamond you’re one of only a few writers who acknowledge that Western civilization stumbled upon its knack for world domination purely by luck. Everybody else “knows” the real reason is because we’re special. Recently that’s been revised to read that it isn’t the Caucasian race that’s special, but Western culture, and now anybody can join. But c’mon John, who do you think you are telling us to build our own makeshift windmills? How un-sexy! Don’t you realize that nature’s laws don’t apply to us? We’re all winners. That’s why we can afford to provide infinite hospital care to every living person and pet, too. If we have any setbacks, the government or a Fortune 500 company will provide the solutions in slick packaging, and the Superbowl commercials will be hilarious to boot.
Forgive my cynicism today, but I believe that beyond the assumption of abundance, there is an arrogance that goes completely unrecognized, and like you said, it is a severe handicap to constructive change.
Seriously though, what you’re suggesting scares the people. We’re so dependent on government and industry that we’re afraid to do anything ourselves. And of course we are—most of us have forgotten how. You’re like a father trying to kick his 18-year old out of the house. Of course there’s fear, but after an initial awkward period eventually we’ll realize, hey, it’s not so bad. But our culture seems to believe that standing on our own two feet is not only no longer necessary, but also undesirable. This is the source of the derision, I think. I don’t know why this is—maybe arrogance is linked to laziness—but I know the new health care bill will let 26-year-old adults (not children!) stay on their parents’ insurance.

Pops said...

To trash a phrase, "The business of America is business as usual."

I don't expect half measures because as we all know, "Our way of life is non-negotiable." IOW, pedal to the BAU metal till she blows.

Our juice comes from a rural co-op that buys power from a company producing power for rural co-ops mostly from coal but starting up some wind farms. Now whether or not that makes a difference in our version of the future I can't know.

What I do know is our farmhouse has been standing for almost a century, it didn't get wired till the '60s and didn't get indoor plumbing till the '70s and still the folks who lived here got by.

I've upgraded R-values to around 30 in most of the downstairs and am working on the upstairs. This year I'm working on a sunroom - and there is a working windmill over a shallow well.

I earn a portion of my income over the 'net, but if there is no 'net there obviously won't be any graphics business and vice versa.

We lived a couple of weeks without power after an ice storm a couple of years ago - we are literally at the end of the line so last to be repaired. I can imagine a time when that might stretch out for months instead of weeks.

I guess in that case I'd have more time to tend the garden instead of dealing with unsatisfiable clients!

pasttense said...

The internet is going to survive because it is the most energy efficient technology. Carpooling to work vs mass transit? The more efficient is neither--telecommuting from your home is better. Likewise consider an email vs mailing a letter. A few electrons vs all the energy to cut the tree, move the tree to the papermill, create the paper, move the paper to the envelope factory, manufacture the envelope, move the envelope to the wholesaler, move the envelope to the retailer, your trip to purchase the envelope, the envelope's trip to the post office, to a sorting center, to a couple more sorting/postal offices, the carrier's trip to your mail box...

As to the efficiencies vs inefficiencies of the grid; note that the generating capacity to serve a million separate households in an off-grid manner is going to be many, many times the generating capacity you need via a grid because of the economies of load-sharing (while I'm running an electric toaster, you're not using any electricity at all).

Ariel55 said...

Dear JMG,

Respecting both the viewpoint of
your post on your blog, and your no-nonsense warning from the comments section, I will try to cut to the chase and admit that where I differ is in the predicted future you envision. I have two ideas of the future, in which some status quo IS preserved: One is a "Lord of the Rings" scenario of general chaos yet "cities of light". The other is the "black plague" die-off in Europe (1300's) which left the next generation with smaller population but lots of stuff. At this point, I can't discern what ours will be, but it definitely is NOT business as usual, nor trying to "transition"
nearly 8 billion people to "post oil"--IMHO

mageprof said...

Flute wrote,

"Stealing copper wire is only profitable while demand exceeds supply."

I think your view of thieves and their motives is too narrow. There are many reasons to steal, and making a profit is often not the most important one. And success at theft -- like any activity that manifests power over others -- can become addictive with surprising speed.

My grandparents, at one point in their lives, worked for a man who, among other things, was a fence, so I speak here from such knowledge as I was able to gain from the stories they told when I was a boy.

They were successful at it, and smart enough to go straight when they could, before they were caught even once. Their employer paid lots of protection, and had the good fortune to die in his bed before he overreached himself to the point where he became a liability. He was very far from being the biggest fish in the pond in which he swam.

nutty professor said...

"...how many will fling themselves into one or another kind of cargo cult in an attempt to get the world to conform to their desires?"

I wasn't going to comment this week on such a fine discussion archdruid, but this line is for the win, as we look to the social configurations of our dystopian future, in which religion is never far from my mind.

Seaweed Shark said...

I appreciated this insightful and thought-provoking post. The argument about the power grid had the most impact: I fear the earlier paragraphs about the Internet and postal system will generate some noise, because our society comprehends so many means of (so-called) communication, whereas we tend to see electric power in uncontroversial terms. Thanks for pointing out that much of the world already gets by with inconsistent electricity: I was in New York during the blackout of 2003, and our immigrant neighbors said that sort of thing happened so often in their home city that nobody there gave it much thought.

What percent, do you suppose, of people in the (so called) Peak Oil Scene accept the impossibility of maintaining the trajectory of technical progress that we have been on for a century, relative to those who expect some kind of technical fix to keep things rolling? And is there any significant overlap between Peak Oil circles and the separatist/militia cohorts that exist to some degree nearly everywhere? Those groups seem to have at least got the idea of mutual support networks, structured communities and independence from the centralized utility systems. Yet in my experience, their participation in Peak Oil fora is conspicuous by its absence.

Seaweed Shark said...

Pardon me for adding a follow-on comment. You've previously discussed the concept of the "singularity" that is much talked about by a certain class of technically capable but somewhat philosophically and historically naive people today. Your current post prompted a thought I've not seen stated explicitly, though it is implied by some of your earlier writings. Could it be that the "singluarity" concept that is promoted today, is not just a technical re-phrasing of an older eschatology, but a mythic projection, into an imagined future, of an experience that our civilization has already had. Orville Wright died 18 years after Neil Armstrong was born: the first man to experience sustained machine-powered flight and the first man to step on the moon could, potentially, have met each other. That juncture will never occur again in human history. And one necessary aspect of "the singularity" is that it can only happen once. Sort of makes one wonder...

Joe said...

"Danby, I'm trying to open one can of worms at a time!"

Unfortunately, the various aspects of contraction will not allow us this same luxury and it is this (likely) fact that gives rise to the apocalyptic versions of the future that you criticize. If getting people off the grid were the only problem we are likely to be dealing with then we might (and only might) be able to effect a reasonable downsizing but as it is there are likely to be many other crises happening all at once and the inability (or unwillingness) on the part of the vast majority of people in the industrial west to deal with the realities of the situation (that you so well identify) and their anger and frustration with events they cannot understand will make the "landing" if not an apocalypse then decidedly less reasonable and rational than you claim in this post. Images of the Tea Partiers we see now certainly do not give me any confidence that those rural/suburban dis-enfranchisees will just suck it up when the plug is pulled on them.

crpatino said...

-- "What I've suggested is that as costs rise and pressures for control escalate, it will gradually become an expensive luxury used mostly by government, big business, and the rich"

JMG
While I agree with your general point on the Internet, Mash may be onto something.

In my opinion, embedded energy into PCs (many prematurely replaced) will leave plenty of opportunity for salvage and refurbish. On the other hand, the knowledge to make these devices communicate over unreliable links is today freely available in the form of protocols, standards and reference implementations.

Lack of competent technicians will be our most constrained resource in the years to come. To be honest, the stuff is just magic for most people (even many holding IT jobs now-a-days). That being my trade, I expect to be gainfully(?) employed for the next decade or two at least. But I would not bother my kids to learn much of this stuff... I would rather put them in med school if I can pull it off (Mexico still trains real doctors, you know).

On the other hand, I would feel very relieved if the crunch came as diminished bandwidth for the commoners. Most useful information can be shared in text only format and shared over light connections. On the old days, people would host BBS forums "servers" in their homes, and visitors would come and read one at a time using the telephone line.

I am guessing how this text sharing technology would mix with Civil Radio to keep an commons network going during the transition period. Maybe a there is a wiremen guild in the making ;)

vera said...

Thank you, JMG, for your measured voice. I find it hugely disheartening that there are so many voices out there predicting imminent crash (while seemingly wishing for it at the same time). In my household, if the grid cut my electricity to intermittent at half of current capacity, I would hardly notice. Still, though, I am looking forward to the day when rural areas are self-powered with simple systems. The esthetics of it please my imagination and resonate with my desire for a world that intuitively makes sense on the human level.

I recently wrote an essay on the crass "doomer porn" type of predictioneering, perhaps some readers here would be interested.
http://leavingbabylon.wordpress.com/2010/03/22/doomer-mania-i/

ChristineStone said...

JMG I'm looking at this from the perspective of a small island with privatised electricity suppliers (Britain). You write "it makes sense for governments to encourage citizens and businesses to provide as much of their own energy needs as possible ... whatever advantages might be gained from having people dependent on the electrical grid would be more than outweighed by the advantages of having a work force, and thus an economy, that can continue to function on at least a minimal level if the grid goes down.)"
and in reply to DasMonde, "Of course politics and social class will play a large role in distributing whatever technology stays in use."
I think that under the current political system, the government cannot do what 'makes sense' for the wider society, because they serve big business. Politics will play a role in determining the technology in use, not just its distribution. The national grid is big business, and the drive to make profit acts against the needs of people who wish to provide their own electricity. Government cannot act against big business. Of course it would be better for the nation to have a workforce capable of working and functioning without a national grid, but from the point of view of the companies running the national grid, their own continuing existance and profitability outweighs any consideration of the needs of society. You can't underestimate the dysfunctionality of our capitalist economic system. The problem is not just about individuals with irrational beliefs and fears, its about power and vested interests within society.
I suspect that government will support the national grid until the companies running it go bankrupt, and even then government will bail out the companies at the people's expense, just as they have bailed out the banks.

Karim said...

In essence: go local for as much as possible for food, water, energy, medicines, shelter amongst others!!! And do it now!!!! while we still have the opportunity to do so. Every little bit helps!!!

Perhaps another irony of our situation is whilst modernity imposed its ways on the world via greater technical efficiencies and lower financial costs, post peak many modern amenities will simply go by the way side due to costs!!! Sounds hilarious...

DIYer said...

... given current notions about the innate malevolence of government,... Perhaps a bit more than mere notions: e.g., the "War awn Terra". Any large organization, at the behest of the people within it, is going to seek self-preservation.

So the balkanization process is not likely to be elegant. I think most of us who have seen the writing on the wall would like to also see an orderly retreat take place. But with the captain of the Titanic continuing to assert that it is unsinkable, it looks less and less likely as time goes by. Note how the financial system continues to be supported by hot air and little men behind flimsy cutains, for another example. Maybe not innate malevolence as such, but the overall result is the same.

I had written another comment after reading only part of your essay, but deleted it and restarted. But I might recover one remark: by the time that last server farm is shut down, the 'net's end may well be regarded as the lifting of a yoke of oppression, rather than the sad ending of an era of illumination. The internet is under attack from a several directions.

As you mentioned in a previous essay, there's going to be that "Mad Max" interval to get through. And it might take a while to finish.

John Michael Greer said...

Blue Sun, of course you're quite correct -- part of the religion of progress is precisely the claim that the inhabitants of the industrial West are the chosen people of the great god Progress, and thus exempt from the problems that afflict the technologically inferior heathen.

Pops, learn how to do graphics of an older kind and you may just have a job as the web unravels, too.

Pasttense, to make the internet work you need to maintain and power thousands of server farms, each of which use as much electricity as a midsized city, not to mention all the other costly and energy-intensive infrastructure that keeps the net running. To make a postal system work, all you need is a source of paper. The internet looks more efficient simply because you don't have to pay for it.

Mageprof, if there's an abundance of copper to be had for the taking, it's also quite possible that new (or old) uses will be found for it, creating new markets. Your grandparents' employer certainly could have found markets for it!

Ariel, I'm not predicting either business as usual or a smooth transition to anything. I'm predicting the decline and fall of our civilization, followed by a dark age some centuries in length. Some scraps of technology will stay in use during that process, the way Roman aqueducts continued to provide water for medieval cities -- and constructive action now can help see to it that useful technologies are more likely to be saved. As for your metaphors, well, the Tolkien one is in some ways very apt -- I should do a post about that one of these days, because his vision was profoundly shaped by a very keen historical sense of the origins of the last set of Western dark ages.

Professor, thank you. Religion is always something I keep in mind in these contexts, too, as you've doubtless noticed.

Shark, the peakistas I know seem to be pretty evenly divided between those who believe it's a problem that can be solved and those who think that's a lost cause at this point. As for the militia scene, I'm not at all sure. The overlap is likely to be in the "prepper" movement; I know (having heard from some of them) that I have a fair number of prepper readers, but those who surface here or on other peak oil blogs don't wave a flag and announce themselves. Many of them are worried about the political future of the US to the extent that they aren't greatly interested in drawing attention to themselves.

As for the "singularity," you get today's gold star for that analysis. It makes a very pragmatic kind of sense; the whole "singularity" hoopla is simply the projection of the past onto an imagined future, after all.

Joe, I've never suggested that there will be anything like a "reasonable downsizing." What part of "decline and fall of our civilization followed by a dark age" don't you understand? As for my comment to Danby, of course all the threads I'm picking apart in these essays will be woven back together on the loom of history; the point is to look at them one at a time so they can be understood, and not simply lumped together all anyhow.

JohnA said...

Your recent series of posts on energy have been especially good, particularly in calming down the "doomer" prospects of collapse while still reminding us that our lifestyles must change. However, the claim by reader Sebastien Bongard that 60% of electric power is lost in transmission and distribution sounded way off to me.

I'm trained as an electrical engineer, although power systems and distribution is not my specialty. I've got some old textbooks on power distribution, and finding percentage loss numbers is a little hard for two reasons: the losses are dependent on the load in a complex way and that all calculations of efficiency are put in terms of dollars invested, so the capital plant costs are all rolled into the equations.

In a distribution system, there are fixed losses (magnetizing current and corona loss) that exist regardless of the load drawn from the network and there are losses (copper losses) that are proportional to the load. Thus you will get very different percentage losses in the middle of the night versus the middle of the working day!

One number I came across was from a 1922 book (Economics of Electrical Distribution by Reyneau & Seelye) which used a figure of 30% loss from the generator ouput to the customer. 1922 is pretty early in the electrical distribution business, and lots of improvements have been made, particularly in the efficiencies of transformers and higher voltage power lines. I suspect that today's number would be 20 to 25% loss. Checking recent data on transformer efficiency on the web shows losses of 2-4% for distribution transformers and less for the large power transformers seen in substations.

So the 60% loss you quoted doesn't seem realistic. If you count the losses between burning the coal or gas and the output of the generator, which are about 30% for modern power stations, then the 60% loss number makes sense, but this is for the total from fuel to customer. Small generators have much higher losses, so accepting some loss in the power lines could still make the overall system more energy efficient. Someone with more experience in power generation and distribution could probably run the numbers and getter a better estimate.

This still doesn't alter your point that large, centralized power systems will probably devolve into smaller, more localized systems, it's just that the tipping point will be at a little different place. I suspect that the large connected systems will fall apart more from managerial, bureaucratic, and political distress than from concerns about energy loss.

John Michael Greer said...

Crpatino, I think it's quite possible that a skeletal "hobby internet" will emerge, using amateur radio packet technology, as the current internet morphs into a government-and-business prerogative. Hopefully its participants will take the time to learn less tech-intensive ways to handle message traffic, too, while they're at it, so as computer parts start to get scarce, there will be other ways to keep a communications net running.

Vera, thank you for the link! Yes, I've noticed how many people who predict apocalypse are pretty patently longing for it, at least as a hook for their fantasy lives. I wonder how many of them would actually enjoy starving to death in a burned-out basement, say, but that's another question.

Karim, bingo -- and, yes, anyone with a taste for irony will have a lot to smile over as the age of technology winds down.

Christine, in that case you, your family, and your community will need to look into the low-energy options yourselves. Some European countries have incentive programs for installing solar water heating, and so on; I'm sorry to hear that Britain doesn't -- but it's still a step in the right direction that many people can take.

DIYer, if you want to talk about gross incompetence shaped by a nearly complete disconnection from the world outside the Beltway, I won't argue -- and of course there's no chance of an orderly retreat; that hope went down the wind decades ago. My guess is that the shutoff of power to rural America and the less favored suburbs will happen as a result of emergency or happenstance -- a big power outage that only gets fixed in core areas, for example, or just massive neglect causing areas to go dark one by one as crucial systems are allowed to fail.

As for Mad Max, dark ages are never fun, and rarely short. I give the upcoming one five hundred years, give or take, though that's little more than a guess at this point.

John Michael Greer said...

John, thanks for your post, and the data! I've received a similar comment offlist already, and have forwarded them to Dr. Bongard for his response.

Thai Up said...

For over a decade I've lived in a region of the world where I can experience first hand how people live without an electric grid.

Except for refrigeration, it is quite possible. Most have a car battery. Some wealthy families have two. When the battery is drained, they leave it out on the roadside, and every morning a motorcycle with a trailer comes by to pick up the battery, charge it, and return it before nightfall. The cost for this service is about 30 US cents. This is all rural villagers really need. The battery provides power for lights, phone charging, a fan if necessary, and generally a television set. Except for refrigeration, electric grids are a luxury.

The question always comes up as to why an enterprising individual does not set up his own grid, or why the government doesn't do it, and the answer is always the same. Theft of the power lines. Unless you can keep them continuously live, they will be stolen and sold for scrap. Only the mafia is immune from theft. During the commodities spike in 2008, Thailand suffered from a high tension power line that blew over in a storm. The reason was because bandits had stolen 6 of the 8 steel bolts that stabilized the tower. It cost over $300K USD to repair. The bolts probably fetched $50 in scrap value.

The grid will fail not because there is no power to keep it running, but because there is not enough power to keep it running continuously. And no money to provide security for it. Your local power company will never tell you "sorry, we cut your power because we needed it elsewhere." It will be a technical fault. At first for days at a time, and eventually permanently.

People will survive. I expect ice boxes to make a comeback. But if you live outside of the high density areas, you can be sure that you will soon be without grid power, unless you believe that everyone within 100 miles of you is above temptation. Plan for it now. You'll be glad you did when it goes down.

Kevin Anderson K9IUA said...

JMG,
Good post on a subject matter that is important to me.

I agree that the days (or years) of the internet are numbered. People forget that the internet consists of several things. I count four: A backbone (or series of interconnected backbones and networks as one poster correctly pointed out, users at its ends needing computers, electricity, and content.

I don't doubt that the government, military, and major critical users such as banks, will keep the backbone going and critical services for their needs. But even this backbone will need to become more terrestrial, as I believe the days are numbered for satellites, both for the complexity and cost. (This will affect telephone and broadcasters as well.)

The "internet," both in content and accessibility, is what will breakdown. Costs will go up, the ability for users such as you and I to own computers will change, and load-shedding in electricity, if not outright shutdowns, will all remove our access to it. And once "we" can't access it, the content will disappear. I expect significant changes, i.e., negative changes, already within ten years.

And while I hope a rebirth of Fidonet and other user-built networks using dial-up telephone and store-and-forward messaging will reemerge, those days will be numbered as well, as unfortunately I expect similar breakdowns within the wired telephone system. Much as I'd like to see a hardened POTS telephone system survive, I don't think it will. While there may be copper wires to my house, much of the telephone system is all digital and computerized. I suspect the major telephone systems will hold on longer than some technologies, again for their critical nature and hopefully already stored components, there days will still be numbered. The production of the electronic equipment and the tolerances needed for today's I.C. chips is well beyond local ability to make. I wish we had warehouses full of decommissioned electric-mechanical telephone switching equipment, 1/4-inch plugboards, and headsets for operators to fall back on, but, alas, they aren't there.

I love radio. It is a beautiful broadcasting medium that requires the minimum of equipment, much of it simple, to be effective. Television, on the other hand, now, I believe, has a very short future. It is costly to provide, made worse by the move to digital broadcasting. I firmly believe the Congress, at the request of the FCC and unknowing TV broadcasters and TV manufacturers, signed the death warrant for TV when it replaced analog broadcasting with digital methods. The equipment now needed to receive digital TV is too sophisticated to survive a decline in production ability. And when TV goes, so to goes satellite TV and cable providers, with the latter meaning both a loss of TV programming and a major source for internet distribution to users.

My dad, who will turn 79 this summer, born in mid-1931, saw in his lifetime the advent of both telephone that was more than party lines and the electrification of his farm house with the 1930s expansion in the U.S. by rural electric associations and cooperatives. And in the remainder of my lifetime (I'm 50) I will probably see the dismantling of much of it again.

Randy Crompton said...

John,
One point of clarification, how does the rural electrical grid distinguish between working farms and rural homes? The power coming into rural areas serves all located there. Consequently, all will likely find themselves without power. While the rural homes will find themselves installing deep well hand pumps on their wells and buying solar cells to run a freezer, dairy farm will not be able to function without power and generating it in the kind of quantities that dairies need will be so expensive that dairy farming will come to an end and with it the milk supply. That will be that. While I can hand milk a dozen goats and four Jersey cows to make a living as a cheese maker, fluid milk producers will be out of business without direct intervention by the USDA within a week or two at the most. As most of us know, the US GOV is not that fast at responding to a crisis. While the cities may have the power, they may not have the food for long and that will create more problems. (Factory farms will not run well without power either, while grazers will hardly notice if they have a non-grid water supply).

I do agree with you that the de-electrification of rural America is soon at hand and came to this conclusion myself several months ago. In response, we will be installing a new cistern and a 24 volt dc pump to fill it from our well, then solar cells for a freezer, dc circulators for the heating system (wood fired boiler) and a water heating solar panel for the summer hot water. Our cheese making business is returning to the old world ways of doing business (we are building a spring house to age cheese and will also use natural rinds to eliminate the need for vacuum packing. We have always enjoyed using hand tools and that is most of what we have in our shop. So, it is possible to make a transition and live well in the country without line power from the utility. My concern is that those in the country that need power to feed the masses will not have it and that will turn into a disaster very quickly.

Twilight said...

Re the "Smart Grid": The idea is to use a much improved control system to run the system at a much greater percentage of its capacity for as much of the time as possible, thereby deferring the greater investment in increased capacity. Use up all that "excess capacity". This puts us on the wrong side of the efficiency vs. resiliency problem.

The idea that a complex system can be run flat out all the time is simplistic and naive,and won't work, but it appeals to those who lack experience with real systems. Also those who stand to make a lot of money selling the stuff.

And hey, in our present world where people believe in something for nothing, I suppose it seems like a reasonable idea.

John Michael Greer said...

Thai Up, thanks for the insights! It takes no particular effort for me to imagine the same sort of things happening here.

Kevin, all this meshes pretty tightly with my own thinking. Radio, in one form or another, is the one long distance communication medium that seems like a good candidate for survival; whether that means a packet radio BBS network or brass pounders handling message traffic over CW is another matter.

Randy, that's why I specifically said "nonagricultural rural land" in the post. Major agricultural regions aren't likely to be cut off early on; those areas that survive on the tourist trade -- which accounts for large portions of the West these days -- are another matter. Further down the road, I'd expect to see big corporate farms keeping their power access, at least for a while, while their family farm neighbors get cut off. All the more reason for the family farms to get those windmills up and running!

Twilight, it's fairly common for civilizations in decline to cut their margins for error to zero. It never works, but the temptation is strong.

bluebird said...

JMG - Thanks for all you write. I'm in agreement that there is to come the decline and fall of civilization, and the process will take several generations, maybe 50-75 years or longer. But when I see terms such as 'cut off early on' and 'turn into a disaster very quickly', what kind of time frame is this? 'Early on' could still be 10 years from now when the entire process of decline might be 75 years. What I'm asking, how much decline could I witness during the rest of my lifetime, if I am already 60?

madtom said...

I may be crazy, but . . .

I break a looong record of silent hearty agreement with your views to suggest that there is an unrecognized force that might preserve the internet even as many other institutions crumble: The net is the best environment that memes have created for themselves, by many orders of magnitude.

Before technology enabled mass communication, there was a total community of interest between memes and their human hosts. Meme/human symbiosis prevailed, and generated amazing capabilities in our species.

This because memes could only propagate as far as a person's voice could reach, and that person's memes would only be emulated if s/he looked admirable or enviable. Memes that helped their hosts to live long and prosper did likewise.

But with radio, TV and movies, memes have been able to propagate massively, worldwide, with virtually no time delay.

After millennia of symbiosis, memes could become parasitic (and many have, imo). Suddenly a meme did not need to benefit its host in any way. To reproduce worldwide, a meme only needed to get its host to display it in the media. In an audience that large, *some* fools will emulate anything.

The net may be very costly, and may or may not be the best thing for humans to spend their last resources trying to preserve, but I suspect that we will do so anyway, with many rationalizations to mask the illogic.

Danby said...

RE: Militiae,
The militias are still out there, and they are aware of the peak oil problem. Most are not really keyed into it because they see a liberal fascist dictatorship coming before peak oil becomes a serious problem.

And they are not going to let you know who or where they are in any case. They got a taste of what happens when you're vocal in the '80s and they're not about go there again.

@pasttense
A shorter version of your argument is "the internet is very useful, therefore it will be maintained."
That simply fails the logic test. Usefulness and maintainability and viability are separate ideas, with no necessary connection.

Doubtless the Roman messenger relay system was very useful. Important military intelligence was conveyed quickly back to Rome, which was able to use that information to direct troop movements, and adjust political and diplomatic responses to events. And the infrastructure of a vast network of all-weather roads from one end of the Empire to the other was vital not only for military purposes, but the enormous trade it enabled of raw materials and finished goods, which supported the cost of the network and made the centralization of the Empire possible.

And yet, that system ceased to work. Despite it's obvious value as a communication and commercial resource, the cost of maintaining the roads, bridges and fortifications, and manning the fortresses was so great that eventually Rome gave it up. In urban areas, where it made sense, the network was maintained or even expanded. Outside of those areas, much of the system was simply lost, the roads swallowed by forests, mudslides, wandering rivers, fields and weeds, the fortifications falling to ruin and scavenged for building materials, the bridges succumbing to earthquake and flood.

True, telecommuting is more efficient of power than the current system of physical commuting. But perhaps the choice will be not between telecommuting and a 30 minute drive, but between walking a mile or two to work and not having a job. And what if there simply are no jobs? The current system of employment is only about 250 years old. Prior to that, most people were peasants, slaves, farmers, artisans and merchants. And frankly (I say this as a telecommuter) any job you can do via telecommuting may well be too abstract for the post-peak future.

Email may be more efficient overall than snail mail, but what if there's no route to host? What if one end or the other of the communication has no computer, or no internet connection, or no power? What if your primary goal for the day is to split enough fence rails to keep that @#$%@# goat in, or to scrounge enough 36ga copper wire to build a new RF modulator, rather than to cruise for pron and respond to JMG's latest attempt to appeal to the left side of your brain?

Also note that the postal system can be and has been run entirely on muscle power. The same cannot be said about email.

Petro said...

Sir,

This post put me the same contemplative mood that Dmitry Orlov's pieces move me to. Thank you for that.

Slightly OT - this post turned my mind to another abundance we take for granted: the bounty of agriculture. I'm of the mind that this will be challenged - not just because of the obvious loss of "ancient sunshine" to jazz up production - but because of what Friedman called "Global Weirding" of the weather.

I posted a short post - a thought experiment, if you will - and I would be grateful if you had a look and would care to comment or criticize.

http://tinyurl.com/yffwlng

Thanks once again.

Danby said...

@Randy
Some volatility and the eventual demise of the commercial dairy industry aer certainly to be expected, but not in the manner you describe. What will happen is that after a few short power outages, the dairyman will get himself a diesel generator, so he can keep his milking machine and his refrigerators going. This will, unfortunately, drive up the price of milk, and the added cost will drive a few operators out of business. Eventually though, it will create an opening in the market for small operators, the kind that are not ALLOWED to function now, with 8-10 cows on 20 acres and a solar-powered or wood-fired refrigerator, milking by hand.

Thardiust said...

The fact that, Freeways, Radios, and the Internet were Military inventions says something deep about the way modern society was built to function. In the future, inventions such as the three listed above could provide some interesting artifacts to look back upon so the mistakes humankind made with them never get repeated again. Of course, as modern civilization declines, humanity will more than likely manage to invent more suicidally complex tools, with the scraps of our current civilization’s infrastructure, in small spurts rather than through largely dispersed waves of innovation. Of course, whether technological innovations in the future aid us or hurt us still remains to be seen. Less complex technologies, such as highways, will more than likely be quickly adapted for other uses while the internet is pretty much a Dandelion waiting to shed its seeds. Hopefully those seeds land in the right places when it starts shedding them.

Tony said...

Dear Mr Greer,

Wikipedia lists US electric transmission and distribution losses as estimated at 7.2% in 1995:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electric_power_transmission, Ref 13

This would make Mr. Bongard’s number of 67%, which you quote, off by about an order of magnitude.

Perhaps you would care to check this yourself and modify your post accordingly.

Best regards,

………..Tony

team10tim said...

Hey hey JMG,

There is a good post on TOD about the minimum ERoEI needed to power society in case you are interested.

Meg said...

Brad K.: speaking as a librarian, we're working on it. We already know how much you /can't/ find on the internet, and how much of what you /can/ find is paid-subscribers-only (more every day). And when people find that out for themselves, they resort to coming to us. And we remember, collectively if not individually, how it used to work before Google.

General comment: to phrase the 'religion of progress' differently, it's the belief that if a technology is useful, it will inevitably be used, and if it is more sophisticated than the pre-existing equivalent, it will inevitably replace that equivalent. Of course, looking around, neither of those things are true. The patent office is a museum of ideas that are clearly superior to things they absolutely failed to replace. People will take something that is adequate over something that is superior if the adequate thing is cheaper and more consistently available. Which is why, even though people are frequently idiots, on average they will gradually switch from institutions that deliver less and less for higher and higher fees, to options that are less than ideal but deliver every time and do it for less. This is how 'transition' happens at the nitty-gritty level - people change when they decide it is less trouble than not-changing.

DocFont said...

Greetings

I am not sure I follow the logic that the internet will vanish and libraries will be filled with books again. Seems to me the internet is the better use of resources. Computers are smaller with higher performance as they have improved over time. The minimal materials and energy use in something like a new laptop is an advantage today. Yes server farms may be high energy users but energy use would be down from improved technology if it wasn't balanced with increased demand. Information is available by logging in. For libraries to come back, millions of books need to be printed so they are available. Available in 10's (100"s?) of thousands of buildings that need to be heated, cooled and maintained along with thier staffs. Most people need to drive to and from the library. The internet is also going in the direction of replacing schools. Children log in at home and complete packets of school work. Instead of a huge school building where all students go daily, students go one day a week or not at all. This means the buildings only need to be 1/4th size and busses have comparable savings. Email replacing snail mail means the post offices has less volume thus saving vehicle fuel needed to transport all that paper. If it wasn't so difficult legally to close a post office we would see hundreds of them closed already.

Looking at it from a resource perspective. I can have a computer in my home. The home I maintain anyway. Eliminate the internet and resources have to go to printing books, mail, library buildings with utilities, library staff, post offices, postal trucks carrying mail, work at home over the internet employees will need to drive to workplaces. Newspapers would make a comeback but that means paper and distribution by trucks. I use the internet for information, entertainment, paying bills, in place of many subscriptions I used to read. Business makes more use of the internet and thus saves more resources than I do as an individual.

The primary reason the internet exists is the military built it. As long as there is a nation and a need for the military, it is unlikely the internet will be allowed to fail.

There is a social component you neglect in one of your projections. If energy is available in cities but not rural areas, you end up with a division in the population. Cities for business workers along with the hedonists, lazy, indulgent, weak who need medical aides full time. Ask a homeless person why they chose to live in a city rather than the wilderness. Even the scraps from a city make living easier than trying to live directly on what mother nature offers. Electric vehicles, public trasportation make sense in an area where population is concentrated. Rural living without electricity is for the tough, practical and independent. De-technology a rural population and you create a different social system from the city population.

If country life is tough, there has to be a motivator for people to choose the rural lifestyle. Will it be low or no taxes for those who live in non-electrified circumstances? Will rural folks have more personal freedom than city dwellers? Will prisons be transformed into giant labor farms? Will cities provide rural relocation conscripts for the crime of unemployment?

Just some thoughts
DocFont

Glenn said...

DOCFONT,

Re Internet. Please read the archives. JMG has been down this road dozens of times with people before you. To paraphrase, "you may disagree with me, but please read what I wrote first." And address his argument, rather than just ignoring it and talking past it.
And we have homeschooled our child with and without computer and internet. Both work about equally well; but the internet costs more.

Glenn

John Michael Greer said...

Bluebird, assuming you'll be around for between 10 and 30 more years, expect something like a rehash of the Great Depression, with some chance of civil war or at least domestic insurgency. You'll likely miss the steepest part of the slope.

Madtom, er, memes don't create anything by themselves, any more than a gene in a petri dish can create an organism. I don't doubt that some people will try to maintain the internet, etc. -- we've already seen how quickly the kneejerk responses come in -- but I really wonder how much emphasis will go into that when it becomes a choice of paying for net access or paying for food.

Danby, thank you. It's always a relief to know that somebody gets it.

Petro, thanks for the link -- I'll have a look as time permits.

Thardiust, one of the images from postcollapse science fiction that I've always found quite moving is the small group of travelers on foot making their way along the cracked remnants of an ancient highway from the distant past of the 20th century. Highways have their advantages, and even when they stop being passable for cars -- which doesn't actually take all that much in the way of deferred maintenance -- mule trains and pilgrims on foot will find them very useful.

Tony, yes, I've already addressed this.

Tim, yes, I've been following it! It's speculative at the moment; the experiment hasn't been done yet, though we're heading that way.

Meg, thank you! Whenever a librarian posts here or on some other peak oil forum, I breathe a sigh of relief; you're the custodians of our collective memory, and the more of you are aware of the mess we're in, the better the chances that something will get through.

Er, Docfont, if you hadn't asked an interesting question in the second half of your post, I would have deleted it from the queue, because you did exactly what I warned about -- ignored the entire economic argument of my post on the basis of the internet's supposed efficiency. Let's try this again. How many server farms that use as much power as small cities, chip fabrication plants that require clean room technology, fantastically complex machinery, and raw materials at levels of purity that can't even be achieved at lower technological levels, does a library or a post office need to operate? The internet looks efficient only because it replaces human labor with vast amounts of energy that's ultimately derived from fossil fuels -- and that's efficient only when the fossil fuels are very cheap.

Your second point is more interesting. What is going to keep people in the de-electrifying countryside? Well, during the Great Depression, the long slide of population from rural areas to cities reversed, and stayed in reverse until WWII, because on the farm, you can at least count on getting a meal. The same equation will apply as what's left of our industrial economy lurches from one crisis to another. You're right that the population of rural areas and the towns and small cities that serve them directly will become a different people from those who remain in the slowly dying metropolitan cores -- and the stresses between them will add hot sauce to the political stew of the middle future.

nrl said...

About the controversy of how much electric energy reaches the end user: I think what Dr Bongard was actually referring to is the efficiency of the electric plants. This efficiency is of about ~ 30% and is determined by the second principle of thermodynamics. There is not much you can do about that, except increase the temperature of your heat source, or decrease the temperature of your cold source.

See this link for example.

The amount of energy lost in transmission is indeed much smaller. For example the French national grid operator (RTE) reports losses of about 2.5% (sorry the link is in french, but the charts are pretty clear).

They even make daily predictions .

For example, for tomorrow, they predict losses in the range 1041MW - 1275MW for an expected production of ~60000 MW. Hence, they expect losses of about 1.7% to 2%. These number seem surprisingly low though. I suspect that more energy is lost in the last kilometers (low voltage lines).

Jason said...

JMG: the religion of progress is all about going places, onward and upward to a glorious future among the stars. I make fun of it, but I recognize the immense emotional power it still exercises on most people today.

Indeed, and like any myth driving any culture it gets into the very bones, the blood, the energy of everyone. ADHD in kids is precisely symbolic of our cultural desire to go ever faster towards a future couched in terms of infantile grandiose satisfactions.

dltrammel said...

Home Internet use isn't as universal as many of us assume, by us I mean those who hope the Internet stays up in the coming collapse. I recently read that nearly a third of Americans access the Web via libraries.

http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20100325/ap_on_re_us/us_library_computer_use

So we may devolve into a system where you go to the library to access the Internet for either communication or data, and then store that data on a flash drive to be read later at home.

This way you could still access and search important information, in a less resource costly manner. And as a hub, fiber optics to the library would be less like to be scavaged by destitute residents.


Also I've also been thinking about situations where the Internet would be more cost efficient than the present methods Re: a bit of future fiction of my own.

Two that come to mind are business and government video conferencing as opposed to jet travel and the second, video examination by a doctor at a off site location. I've noticed the opening of clinics in the local drug stores, staffed by nurses.

I would think as medical school costs continues to rise, doctors get short, that the ability for a rural town to get advice from a doctor hundreds of miles away, who could see the patient via webcam, would be something placed high on the list of things to devote scarce resources on.


Finally, the painful choices of scarcity are already upon us. Here's an article about how England must cut spending soon.

http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2010/03/25/business/financialtimes/main6333685.shtml

"Yet, however much Labour may wish to hide the fact, if it wins the election it will take a torch to public spending. As Robert Chote, director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, stated yesterday: "The government expects public spending in total to be broadly flat in real terms over the four years beyond 2010-11. Making plausible assumptions . . . Whitehall spending on public services and administration would need to fall by an average of 3.1 per cent a year over those four years, a cumulative decline of 11.9 per cent or £46bn in real terms by 2014-15. This implies cuts averaging between 5.3 per cent a year and 7.1 per cent in the areas that the government is not planning to 'protect' in 2011-12 and 2012-13." This would be Labour versus the public sector - a political bloodbath."

bluebird said...

Thanks JMG - In my mind, I had envisioned that my generation would see the beginning of the decline, similar to living in the 1930s. However, my toddler grandbabies are going to be witness to not only the beginning, but also the middle, and if they live long enough (75 years), they will be living in a world totally unlike what they were born into.

But it's their parents who I worry most about, those who haven't a clue what is going on and continue to buy (go into debt) the McMansions, status cars, fast food meals, latest technology for cell phones, TVs and other gadgets. I see their world increasing in frustration and anger as what they think they have to have, they will no long be able to afford, fewer things to buy or use credit cards, and becoming poorer and hungrier. If only they would listen to my warnings, but until something happens to them personally, they aren't ready to hear the messages.
Great posting, thanks.

pentronicus said...

Count me among those who feel that we will eventually jettison the Internet. The demise of reliable power and the problems of maintaining the infrastructure are significant, but changing life styles will play an even larger role.

Most Internet use now is for various forms of entertainment and commerce. That's fine for the present, because we have plenty of time on our hands and money to burn. Being a citizen of an empire does have it's perks. This situation will change, and we will have far less time and money, and will need less 'information' of the type the Internet offers. The types of things we will need to know will be more aligned with getting food and maintaining health. Things like how to preserve fruit, or how to mend a fish net or set a broken bone. The internet can carry this type of information, but a more efficient way might be to pass it along with books or spoken words, as it was done a few decades ago.

In the not too distant future, if you have a full belly, it will probably mean that you are working twelve hours a day, seven days per week, just like most of our ancestors. You won't have much time or interest in playing Halo online, or scanning the neighborhood backyards with Google Earth. And if your entire wealth is a goat herd, will your ISP let you pay for service with goat milk? I'm joking, but I have noticed that in places where there is little wealth there is little internet.

Granted, internet technology may exist forever as a collection of data communications protocols, and as long as there are governments and universities, there will be some level of networking using these protocols. But the Internet we have come to know and love will fade away.

yooper said...

Excellent installment John as always. Heh! No need to worry about me boring you with insisting that certain technologies will survive an uncertain future... We both know, that I'm beyond that...

" some peak oil thinkers have accordingly drawn up nightmare scenarios around the sudden and irreversible collapse of national power grids. Like most doomsday scenarios, though, these rest on the unstated and unexamined assumption that everybody involved will sit on their hands and do nothing as the collapse unfolds."

I can only imagine that in part this was pointed "towards me, not at me..." We've been down this road before, eh? heh! I've been following your analysis for at least three years and still my opinion on this matter has not changed... That is, you have failed to convince me that should the electrical grid collapse be permanent, that a nightmarish scenario wouldn't ensue shortly after... In as much, I have failed to show you the path to be convinced otherwise...

In the past John, in part, you thought there would be "resiliency" that would prevent such a collapse. We both know John, that resiliency (like cooperation, disease resistance, etc.) is more profound on the build side of the curve, not on the decline...More profound when the system was new and not in decline....

"Now it’s relevant to point out that the world adapted very quickly to using email and Google in place of postage stamps and public libraries, and will doubtless adapt just as quickly to using postage stamps and libraries in place of email and Google if that becomes necessary, but this sort of thinking –...."

Ok John, in that thought, could you explain to me how could a modern society that was conceived, built and maintained on the assumption of continuous power suddenly adapt without it, without the consequence of die-off? Would not the available energy at that point only support a population like seen before electrification, or even lower? As the population growth seen would have not likely been realized without continuous power?

John what about all the people who are very dependent on the drug industry, do you think that such drugs or the medical equipment can make do with an old alternator and hand build blades on a windmill? No, I don't "believe" that the transition that I think you're suggesting is possible without a very sever die-off in that process.... The population will very likely reflect that when the world was made by hand...quite suddenly.

thanks, yooper

Bill Pulliam said...

I live in a small town/rural area that has perhaps an unusually high level of peak oil awareness. We are (rather surprisingly in this conservative, republican, evangelical, Church of Christ dominated community) an official "Transition Town." There's an interesting split I see in point of view, however. The self-identified Green Business, Alternative Energy, Financial Permaculture (whatever that is) communities seem heavily focused on how to keep the electricity running on a local scale without the grid. It's all PV, mini-wind, and micro-hydro for them.

The old-school hillbillies have a different sense of the Great Unravelling that is focused more on the immediate and obvious -- the closure of the last local factory, increasingly empty stores in downtown, foreclosures and for sale signs everywhere with few buyers, almost no new construction, official employment rates that approach 20% and a reality of only about half of men aged 18-65 having regular full-time employment. The Mal*Wart at mid-day, mid-week hosts a congregation of beards and Mossy Oak more than housewives with pre-school children. These people are thinking not so much about how to keep the lights on, but how they might live without the lights. Long before the grid collapses, they might not have money to pay the bill. As this is a rural electrification area, the lights have only been on for about 65 years and there is still living memory of the time before that. There is not, however, still the infrastructure. Other than among the Amish, you won't find a functional foot treadle sewing machine, hand clothes washer, icebox, or wood-fired cookstove. Actually, even the Amish increasingly use propane and PV. Even if there were iceboxes, there is no icehouse to supply them. And, of course, few of the houses date back to before electrification; all are designed with the assumption of electric-powered HVAC and are not necessarily serviceable without it, in terms of controlling humidity, ventilation, or temperature. It's not just a simple matter of rewinding to the way things were. It's akin to folks saying "we'll just go back to horses," when it would take many many years and a massive investment of time and resources to breed the horse population up to the level necessary to replace the tens of thousands of automobiles in just this one small rural county.

Rural populations also have a top-heavy age structure. Thanks to this and the ubiquity of smoking and obesity, there is a large group of people dependent on home health care and the electrically-powered devices this entails. Turning off the lights at some of these houses could be tantamount to euthanasia. And we know how easily the electorate gets riled up by anything that can be put in those terms!

I guess my point here is that the political cost of allowing rural areas to go dark and stay that way will be very great. Whichever administration has the bad luck to be in power when this has to be done will likely not do so until they have exhausted all their remaining options and political capital. We as a people might not agree on whether or not health care is a right, but I think they'll find we are united on the question of whether electricity is a right. Just imagine the parade of small-town grandmothers with emphysema being pushed along by their unemployed sons in the "Million Granny March," and what fantastic TV that will make!

Still and all, it does give one a sense of security to look out the window and know that if needed, with no electricity and no tools fancier than a spade and hoe, you could grow enough corn and beans to keep yourself alive indefinitely. Given the conditions that the suburbs will likely be in by the time the lights start going out in the hollers, a good number of people will doubtless stay.

Bill Pulliam said...

Yooper (et al.)...

About the "Die off." A decline in population does not require a massive "die off" akin to the Black Death or what happens to a bunch of fish in a hypereutrophic pond when the oxygen disappears. Nor does it require any deliberate choices to limit family size. We don't need a plague or a widespread famine to see the population trend turn negative. All it takes is modestly increased mortality from a wide variety of causes, and the population trend turns around. No more paramedics 12 minutes away? Then accidents and medical emergencies get more lethal. No universal access to vaccines even if you want them? Then childhood mortality from disease increases. No more resources to provide extensive health care for the elderly? Then they die younger, but from the same old diseases. More people working in manual labor and agriculture, with fewer safety rules in place or followed? More lethal accidents. A cut finger used to be potentially lethal; it likely could become so again. I don't see bodies piled in mass graves by the survivors; I just see a decrease in life expectancy and an increase in infant and childhood mortality from all the same old things that have always killed people,.

Mash said...

JMG, you say:
to make the internet work you need to maintain and power thousands of server farms, each of which use as much electricity as a midsized city, not to mention all the other costly and energy-intensive infrastructure that keeps the net running.

I'm sad - because removing that false perspective was the whole point of my original comment.

The internet is NOT about server farms any more than "food" is about "agribusiness". Right now so many people get food from agribusiness that they cannot imagine one without the other. I guess you have a similar blind-spot about the internet.

Huge farms with massive oil-driven infrastructure are how we supply food now. Huge server farms with massive (oil-driven?) infrastructure are how we supply the content for the internet now. There are alternatives for both without losing the output of "food" or "the internet".

Whether we can make the necessary transitions is a very important question. But assuming there is NO alternative to how we do it now is a false assumption.

Twilight said...

I have to agree with Bill. Whenever I think about what would be required to make my own off-grid generation, I keep comparing it to what it would take to just live without (much) electricity. Overall, the effort it would take to make my 180 year old house truly energy efficient and buy generation infrastructure is hard to swallow compared to simply living in it as most of its previous inhabitants did. Just the advantages of our modern wood stoves and a few well selected bits of technology would be huge. My bedroom is usually in the low 50's on a cold winder morning, which seems perfectly comfortable to me - if I could not run the blower to circulate the heat from the woodstove, it would probably be in the 40's, which would have no noticeable impact on my life.

For example, I have a surface well pump - I could get a boat/RV 12V pump, some deep cycle batteries and a solar charger. That would get me pressurized water and a few LED lights. Maybe a small fan for the summer, but I've renovated the sleeping porch so along with some mosquito netting that might not be needed. I've been trying to get a wood fired cook stove with hot water pre-heat, but first I must renovate a room, and they are not cheap - still, if I could pull that off my real needs for electricity would be minimal.

Except for refrigeration, which is a big concern. The comment on ice houses is interesting. Here in eastern PA I live near several small towns that once were quite self reliant, and at a quick glance they still look that way. But if one gets one of those nice books of historical photos that are often available, one can see just how much of the real needed infrastructure is gone. The large ice house operation is one example, but there are many others including a multitude of mills. And there is the wild card of guessing just what our climate will be, and if there will be enough ice to cut out of local rivers anyway.

Dan W. said...

JMG - Here's a link to what the FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) thinks about the future of our "grid". I work in the electric utility world. None of what you are saying is sinking in anywhere. It's all business as usual...the engineers are all still planning transmission system upgrades for the next 10-20 years, etc.

http://www.ferc.gov/EventCalendar/Files/20100323141517-Wellinghoff-3-23-10.pdf

It's hard to go to work everyday when you know the "what" of what you do, is almost completely pointless...and yet, I need a roof and 3 squares...so here I am.

Blagroll said...

I was amused by Bill Pullman's contribution re auld folks, and another poster who'd partially grown up without electricity or running water. We likewise didn't get electricty until 1976 and running water until 1984 (running water is infinitely more important than electricty). When I consider their contributions along with sitting in on a class in ecology and organic horticulture (to see if it was worthwhile) I'm suddently struck by the demographic of the class. There was not one person under the age of 40 in the class.

I suppose there is no career path in such a class. Also many of the class participants would have grown up, like myself, knowing a sense of rural community and greater physical toil without all the electronic perks.

Our society in Ireland is energy-money centric with a youth oriented go-go culture. No place for us relics, but maybe us relics who're approaching wrinkly stage might just be beneficial afterall!

On another note, I had opportunity to see the new green eco-community being built in Ireland. Tons of precast concrete; two story dwellings with no wind breaks; telescopic lifters, bulldozers and big diggers abounded. Plus what looked like very poor soil for individual gardens. Me thinks gist of the energy-ecology message is lost in the industrial money centric mentality. People only think in terms of taking more than they give.

John Michael Greer said...

Nrl, that does seem rather low; I wonder if it includes the relatively low-voltage section of the grid from local transformer to end user, where losses will be proportionally higher. Still, thanks for the links!

Jason, that's good. Still, I think a lot of what gets labeled ADHD consists of the natural reluctance of children to sit still and be bored to death when adults would prefer them to do so.

Dltrammel, why not just have the government and business officials have a conference call, the way they used to, and eliminate the Byzantine regulations that prevent nurses from carrying out health care procedures well within their own competence -- for example, diagnosis of ordinary health conditions -- without having an MD breathing down their necks?

Bluebird, your grandchildren may well be fine -- they'll grow up in a world in trouble, and won't have to contend against the delusion of perpetual progress that makes so many people in their parent's generation sitting ducks right now.

Pentronicus, excellent. Since only a very, very small percentage of jobs could be done by telecommuting anyway -- you can't farm, work in a factory, wait tables or dig a ditch over the internet, after all -- attempts to claim that the internet can replace commuting are frankly rather silly.

Yooper, you know, I don't think you've taken the time to read what I wrote. Since there won't be a sudden, total failure of the electrical grid, for reasons I've already explained in detail, there won't be the kind of sudden, total collapse you're predicting. If you want to argue with that, fine, but do take the time to address my arguments!

Bill, granted. That's why I'm guessing it will happen either in an emergency, when the shutoff can be blamed on whatever's causing the crisis, or a bit at a time, as deferred maintenance and malign neglect cause random chunks of the rural grid to go dark.

Twilight, refrigeration should be a big concern. One approach is to get a root cellar dug and operational sooner rather than later. (The house my wife and I bought last summer, a 1925 bungalow, had one already in place -- a major point in its favor.) There are also plenty of ways to reshape your food habits so you don't have to rely on refrigeration to anything like the same extent. Still, that does have to be addressed.

Mash, I did note your original comment; you provided no justification for your claims, and no examples of what you were talking about, and I classed it as one of the common bits of handwaving on the part of software jockeys who don't have enough experience with hardware to know just how dependent their work is on very specific technologies. Now I may be wronging you, but if you'd like to convince me of that, you do need to do something other than just insisting a second time that a scotch and soda is still a scotch and soda when you don't add scotch and you leave out the soda.

Dan, that's a common experience these days. Tolerably often, when I'm writing, I wonder how much of a point there is to churning out prose that has a very, very high chance of being erased permanently by the same forces that lost us most of Greek and Roman literature the last time a western civilization broke down. Still, there's always the chance of doing something useful.

Blagroll, if you have the chance, take the last sentence of your comment and carve it in stone. It would be nice if our distant descendants realized that somebody in this age noticed the reason why our civilization is about to crash and burn!

Bill Pulliam said...

JMG -- Re: your 1925 House... There may prove to be some real advantages to owning a house that was built pre-electricity, eh? Ours is from 1886.

Re: the loss of everything you write: You've had books published by the modern printing press, meaning there are far more physical copies of them in existence and in many more places than the writings of the Greeks and Romans. So I'd hope they have a much better chance of surviving.

Mash said...

you provided no justification for your claims, and no examples of what you were talking about

I gave an example of one of the algorithms that make "the internet". Others include backoff timings and compression.

Perhaps you're arguing that the internet is not the internet without blogger/facebook/whatever? Will food be food without tropical fruit all year round? I imagine "This isn't FOOD" would be said in the same tone of voice as "This isn't THE INTERNET". There are adjustments to be made for sure - but it's still food.

You wanted more examples, so here's a vision of the internet (post collapse).

---wavy lines---
I might live in a small community in an isolated valley. We have a water wheel powered link on the nearest hilltop that gives us a reasonably good radio relay to the next large group of people. We also have a couple of ham radio links that are much weaker and slower but reach further.

Over those connections we send data. I can sit at my computer, create a voice message for my friend, and click send. A day (or week) later I get a response. Or I send email.

Within the town, rather than a telephone party line, we have a WAN. I might run the local wiki on my home computer.
---wavy lines---

Power wise, that radio link can be very weak because it doesn't have to be good enough for humans to understand. So the power needed to make "radio" is less than the power needed to make "internet". We can lose both - but "radio" might be the first one dropped.

No one has a server farm - but a couple of people in the whole community might have computer systems that are on most of the time the way old BBSs were. Run out of your home, just because you can, and because you want to share communication with people.

The WAN in my vision might be low power/low range mesh wireless - or a few bad copper lines. No DSL or cable but anything that would give a normal telephone connection will work just fine.

Tech: no one will be able to make the kind of chips that are in your PC right now. But maybe someone knows how to do a very poor quality fab for some simple CPUs - and CPUs transport VERY well - or maybe we go back to transistors. Or maybe we go back all the way to valves. Or, if we're only talking 50 years out - I have 20 year old computers that run just fine.

It's true I'm not a hardware guy and maybe my vision of the hardware is far off from reality. But here's an analogy. Right now I'm pretty sure our knowledge of steam tech is poor. Given a collapse situation, I'm pretty sure someone, somewhere, will have the knowledge of how to build some reasonable steam engines. And given the possibilities of engines, we KNOW just how useful they can make our life (things like wood working and grain working and irrigation etc). And given that interaction of knowledge and (older) technology, even as we collapse down into small pockets of functionality - as long as we don't go back to cavemen-level - we're going to have engines to do some work for us.

"Why" - the REASON for doing this "internet". You believe in stamps and paper. You believe in radio. But what I'm trying to tell you is, for those who understand it, if a radio link or telegraph link or telephone link is there, they're can use it for computers and provide something that will, at the very least, reminded you of the internet, even if you don't understand just how much it IS the internet.

When you see collapse coming, I want the response to NOT be "we're going to give up all this needless internet-stuff because it's just pointless except as a luxury", and more along the lines of "if we try, we can keep something that will give us good things very easily".

To a tech guy it will BE "the internet", and to anyone else it can at the least remind them of the internet.

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, I wouldn't have bought a house made after the Second World War. In most parts of the country, the quality of construction took a nosedive in the postwar boom from which it has never recovered -- quite the contrary, in fact. As for my books -- well, we'll see; most of them have had fairly small print runs and are printed, like almost all books these days, on high-acid paper that will turn to sawdust in fifty years or so.

Mash, thanks for responding with a more concrete example. Is that sort of thing technically feasible? Sure. Does it offer enough in the way of benefits to be worth the considerable cost in resources, when every scrap of energy and material has six serious needs begging for it, and communication on the scale you're discussing can be done just as well by a cheaper and less resource-intensive approach that does without computers? Hardly.

Everything you've mentioned in your example could be done just as effectively without having to devote resources to building and maintaining computers. Your email to a distant friend? The message could be sent just as easily by radio using Morse Code. A local wiki, for heaven's sake, in a small rural community? Face to face communication, backed up by a notebook or two (of the paper kind), works at least as well and is vastly cheaper. This is the point that I'm trying to make here: it doesn't matter if a technology is really nifty; if there's another way to meet its actual needs that's cheaper in terms of scarce resources, that cheaper way will be more viable.

hawlkeye said...

"It's akin to folks saying "we'll just go back to horses," when it would take many many years and a massive investment of time and resources to breed the horse population up to the level necessary to replace the tens of thousands of automobiles in just this one small rural county."

Well, I'm one of those folks who say that about horses, and yes, it will take a while because animals breed in their own timing. Just like we're all going to start living on "plant-time" within the arc of a growing season, instead of the fiscal increments we endure now.

Which is why this fall I'm going to purchase a breeding pair of Suffolk Punch draft horses after taking a hands-on "horse-farm school" course in the summer. Am I an ignorant, green-horn wanna-be
horse farmer? Yes, of course, but I have to start somewhere. (FYI, my starting point was the poems of Wendell Berry over 30 years ago).

But to clarify: I have no delusions about horses replacing the cars; they're only going to have to replace the tractors. And that might not be for a while, so in the meantime I'll be diving into the tack house to make some sense of all the harness. So to speak.

In military terms, I believe this is called "forward deployment";
getting the stuff you'll need where you'll need it ahead of when you'll need it.

I call it shop til we drop, but not the big box glamour gizmos most cherished by today's consumers. I say spend our last dimes on seeds, tools, pumps and threshers and their ilk, even if we yet have no clue about their proper usage. Someone will.

And real books. Old ones.

Twilight said...

Mash - I'm an electrical engineer and hardware designer, and I think you vastly underestimate both the difficulty of keeping things running, and the industrial complexity needed to produce even the most basic of equipment (that would look anything like the processing and communications equipment used in the BBS days).

First, I'm typing this on my junkyard Dell laptop made from the parts of about 6 machines and maybe 3 models, running Linux. I've got quite a few old and obsolete machines running on my home network. Under good conditions they may soldier on for quite some time - in fact they are more reliable then newer machines, as they were made before the switch to lead free solder and before the age of outsourcing went totally viral. But they will not last indefinitely. The idea that electronic devices last forever is a fallacy. Even semiconductors change characteristics over time, and other pasts like capacitors fail more quickly. Anything that spins is suspect. CDs and DVDs degrade. At some point you hit diminishing returns and it's just not worth it anymore - then you switch to simpler methods such as what John described.

There are no simple CPUs - even the simplest is the result of a planet wide industrial chain that could not be duplicated on a small scale. That's true for so much of the things we use every day and think of as "simple".

The company I work for makes digital instrumentation, but it's quite old. I have drawings of electromechanical instruments that are over 100 years old, as well as old meters as examples. Further, when I started they still produced such products, and I saw how it was done and helped do some of it. I've often thought that maybe it would be worth trying to make some again - just as a fallback when the day comes that we can no longer get the semiconductors we need. But even those devices used specialized springs made of temperature compensated materials, jeweled bearings, special magnets, etc. The industry, the knowledge and the tooling (lots of that) to make those parts are gone and would very difficult to duplicate. And that is for a comparatively simple device - can you imagine what it would take to make computer and networking equipment?

Industry is cumulative in nature, always supported by the excess energy of fossil fuels. Once that begins to break down, a large number of things will no longer be producible for want of just a few key parts or materials.

Bill Pulliam said...

Old houses -- yep that's all we ever buy. We've owned three; each has been older than the previous (1935, 1922, 1886). We're planning on the current one being our last, but as at least one of us might be around for another 40 years or more only time will tell on that front.

There are some well-built new houses, but there is one big thing about older construction methods and materials: they were intended to be easily repairable. That is not true of new construction. Barring total catastrophe, there is nothing in these houses that cannot be repaired or replaced with basic materials and the skills of a competent amateur. Termites and dry rot honeycombed half your joists and a quarter of your sills? Fine, just sister them, jack up the sags, put in some new pillars. No problem. Their biggest risk, of course, is that these older construction methods can create fire traps (no fireblocks in wall framing, for example). So, you have to address that.

A friend of mine who is a carpenter and old house aficionado, and has built new houses as well, pointed out something interesting to me: If you look at the average house built in 1900, 1950, and 1980 now, they are all in about the same state of disrepair. But the older houses can be fixed more easily.

dltrammel said...

JMG said:
"Eliminate the Byzantine regulations that prevent nurses from carrying out health care procedures well within their own competence -- for example, diagnosis of ordinary health conditions -- without having an MD breathing down their necks?

I agree with you about relaxing the rules.

As you pointed out in a previous post about how the AMA worked to destroy the trades arrangements that fraternal organizations like the Free Masons had in the early part of the 20th century, a lot of what is current law has been dictated by moneyed interest, not common sense.

I was more focused on the growing shortages of both doctors and nurse in the next decade.

Here's a fact sheet on the nurses shortage
http://www.aacn.nche.edu/media/FactSheets/NursingShortage.htm

In addition to a doctors shortage, more and more of the new ones are choosing to join hospital groups as opposed to setting up their own practices.

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/26/health/policy/26docs.html?scp=1&sq=&st=nyt

This will no doubt lead to fewer and fewer doctors or nurses choosing to move to small rural towns. These places could well end up with no medical clinic or one that is staffed with an EMT level person.

Which could be ok for day to day minor injuries. For more serious stuff, having a doctor or nurse to advise them, via webcam would certainly help.

Added to this, if we have a large scale pandemic in the future, medical personnel will take a bigger hit in mortality than the general public. If we lose 10-15% of the medical workforce to a flu and since it takes many years to train a doctor or nurse, might we decide to put a layer of protection on a scarce resource?

DIYer said...

JMG,
I keep thinking about the future of silicon, and complex circuits. And of course, we've seen that French fellow, F2FO, who makes his own triodes:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gl-QMuUQhVM
(note that he has a well-equipped machine shop, plenty of glass tubing, nichrome and copper wire, low-carbon steel sheeting, and other interesting stuff)

But the thought has occurred, there are millions of microprocessors kicking around out there, made over the last quarter-century, and almost none of them have failed due to any internal flaw in the chip (I may have about ten or fifteen in my garage). They become obsolete and are replaced, or old desktop computers are discarded because an electrolytic capacitor has failed in the power supply.

Granted, the silicon industry is energy-intensive, and will probably stop not so much because of an absolute lack of energy, but when our complexity-based economic model collapses. Now the processor in a cell phone is difficult to recover due to extreme miniaturization. When the battery dies, that cell phone is going to the landfill.

But I don't see anything to stop some of the older socketed processors from living for a century or more, in some chassis or another. And a processor from ten years ago would have been a super-computer fifty years earlier. This has to have some effect on the next stages of catabolysis. (whether it is more or less dystopian could be a topic of discussion)

Finally, if we can no longer make silicon, will we still have well equipped machine shops with glass tubing and nichrome wire and such? The lifetime of that triode is limited, you know.

Oh, and a final tangential thought: solar PV panels are made with a lesser purity of silicon than required for electronics. I don't have the figures handy, but there has been some talk of upgrading metallurgical-grade silicon (much cheaper) for that task.

Óskar said...

I'm intrigued by your comments about low-tech "crystal radio for the Pharaoh". From my very modest knowledge of how radio works, I can understand it being possible to produce long-range radio waves by low-tech means... but how do you convert human speech into a radio transmission and then back into sounds intelligible to humans on the receiving side?

Your predictions of the future of the electric grid seem quite accurate to me. In my home country, Iceland, the situation is a bit peculiar. On the one hand we have an enormous surplus of currently harnessed geothermal and hydroelectric energy, which even then is perhaps a third of the potential resource (local power companies would claim double as much potential energy, but then they're starry-eyed industrialists). Most of the surplus is used to power enormous aliminium smelters working with ores coming from as far as Brazil and Australia -- an arrangement likely to crumble with increased transportation costs in the coming decades. So, in other words, it's hard to foresee an actual shortage of electricity here, provided the power plants keep running, even accounting for wasted energy on distribution etc.

If I wanted to I could probably stop there and feel calm that my country will stay "just fine" while neighboring countries might struggle. But there have to be some vulnerabilities... I'm guessing we will eventually struggle to actually keep the power plants running due to a lack of spare parts or materials coming our way. New power plants won't be constructed and current ones will eventually fail due to the rapid changes in Iceland's nature. I'm just worried we might have a temporary false sense of invulnerability - Icelanders are deluded enough already by the enormously fast technological progress we've seen in just 50 years.

P.S. You're right that Iceland had a democratic form of government historically -- though for the sake of accuracy I'll point out the historical parliament eventually faded once Iceland was subjected to rule by foreign kings (first the Norwegian then the Danish crown). The Icelandic democracy also wasn't unique (although tourist brochures will have you think so), it was simply a continuation - and the last stand - of an age-old Germanic system, whereby chieftains would gather regularly and discuss laws and settle disputes.

John Michael Greer said...

Hawlkeye, I've noticed that people who work with hardware tend to get this sort of point, while people who just work with software don't.

Bill, that's certainly been our experience. Nearly every inch of the plumbing in our place, for example, is immediately accessible.

Dltrammel, my guess is that fairly soon, with or without a pandemic, we'll be back to the point at which health care is something you get from your grandmother, or maybe a folk healer down the road.

DIYer, I have my doubts that chips will keep running for a century! Still, of course you're right that salvage of electronic parts will be common anywhere that electricity isn't too scarce.

Oskar, if the signal is in CW (Morse code) or AM, a very simple diode will do the trick. Soldiers in the Second World War used to take a razor blade and a bent safety pin, a handmade coil, and an earphone, and put together a crude but workable receiver.

John Michael Greer said...

Mash (offlist), apparently I need to quote from the comment I posted at the head of this thread:

"As I mentioned in this post, I expect to get a flurry of responses that simply ignore the argument it makes about economic viability and insist that since (insert the technology of your choice) is nifty, and technically possible, of course we can have it in the deindustrial future. Such nonresponses will not be put through moderation."

Your latest attempted comment did exactly that, and so it has not been put through. If you want to respond to the economic argument I've made, that's fine, but you need to address the argument -- not just ignore it and insist that anything that's nifty and technically feasible is an option in a resource-constrained world.

Randy Crompton said...

Danby said:

@Randy
Some volatility and the eventual demise of the commercial dairy industry aer certainly to be expected, but not in the manner you describe. What will happen is that after a few short power outages, the dairyman will get himself a diesel generator, so he can keep his milking machine and his refrigerators going. This will, unfortunately, drive up the price of milk, and the added cost will drive a few operators out of business. Eventually though, it will create an opening in the market for small operators, the kind that are not ALLOWED to function now, with 8-10 cows on 20 acres and a solar-powered or wood-fired refrigerator, milking by hand.

Danby,
I couldn't disagree with you more. It is clear from your comments that you are not a dairy farmer and are making a number of assumptions about how the real world works or doesn't. Commercial dairy men already have diesel generators. That is the only way they can cope with unexpected power outages which happen, sometimes on a regular basis in this part of the country (SW Virginia). You simply can't just go out and get one they day you need it, as cows must be milked twice per day regardless and farm sized generators are not sold at home stores. The problem is that generating your own power is very expensive as modern farms require huge amounts of it. For example, a farmer I know in Rural Retreat, VA who milks 350 Jerseys was without power for two weeks during an ice storm and consumed enough diesel fuel during that time to pay his electric bill for 4 months. That is not sustainable in any way shape or from. Simply assuming that farmers will run out and spend money on diesel fuel is to forget that fact that diesel is too expensive an alternative.
Also, I must point out that farmers DO NOT set milk prices! It is done by the milk marketing board and current prices are such that the dairies in the US are having a very tough time staying in business. The only dairy farmers that set milk prices are independent producers that process their milk into finished dairy products and there are not very many of those. A long term power outage would be very disruptive and would have lasting effects are cows are not machines that can be turned on and off. Stop milking them, they dry off and don't come back in for many months.
Wood fired refrigeration? Do you have any idea how much wood that would require? I am fine with hand milking a small herd but that is a lot of firewood to cut/split and haul. I lost count of how many cords I went through last year pasteurizing milk for cheese making. Oh, and if you have not guess, I am a dairy farmer who runs a small farm that makes cheese, and yes, I milk by hand.

Randy Crompton said...

Randy, that's why I specifically said "nonagricultural rural land" in the post. Major agricultural regions aren't likely to be cut off early on; those areas that survive on the tourist trade -- which accounts for large portions of the West these days -- are another matter. Further down the road, I'd expect to see big corporate farms keeping their power access, at least for a while, while their family farm neighbors get cut off. All the more reason for the family farms to get those windmills up and running!

John,
I do agree that alternative energy is a good idea and I am pursuing it as I am a small producer but the big farms that provide the milk will not have much luck milking 350 cows without 240 volt ac power to run those large milk pumps and bulk coolers. I looked into running my Surge Alamo pump (4 hp AC motor) with a DC motor and I would never be able to afford to buy all those solar panels and wind turbines that motor would require to start. As you know, the sun does not always shine and the wind does not always blow but cows have to be milked twice per day for 10 months of the year (12 if your not a seasonal producer such as myself).
As to load shedding, you are right, the non-ag rural areas would go first as they are not populated enough to cause much of a fuss, but as time goes by, more loads would have to be shed and that would hit the Midwest and the dairy industry would not fair well, and is not very flexible when it comes to making the kind of a switch you are suggesting. Hence the reason why it is likely to collapse in a heap and will take several years to sort itself out. During that time, I expect people will be beating a path to my door as I am one of the few dairy farms left in Floyd County, VA that is small enough to make the transition.
By the way, have you ever had raw Jersey milk? If not, get some, it is a real treat!

Mash said...

I was trying to show the following:

a) it's possible.
b) it's a lower continued resource drain than other solutions.
c) it provides higher benefits than the simpler solution.

Is that not the economics of the situation? A short-medium term investment that can provide a lower cost improved solution?

My last comment was generated partially by the following question you directly asked me:
"Does it offer enough in the way of benefits to be worth the considerable cost in resources"

You've talked about costs - but the following statements are what I see of your arguments about benefits: "Hardly." "could be done just as effectively". "For heaven's sake". "Works just as well" "meet its ACTUAL needs" (my emphasis - but I think that's the most telling statement of all).

So the goal of my last comment was to show you the vast gap between a notebook (your solution to knowledge sharing) and even a trivial network (my solution).

I was arguing for what I feel is something important. You don't think it really gains us much.

So I guess I failed. G'luck to you.

yooper said...

Hello John! It's not that I haven't read the post in it's entirety nor do necessarily disagree with the dynamics of how the grid might eventually collapse...Just wondering if you're not tremendously underestimating what the consequences might be, especially in regions that are likely to fall that much further as being more dependent on such a complex system (advanced industrialized)... I truly believe that in part, electrical delivery might be an "all or nothing" situation. I can't imagine one side of the street having power while other goes without, so to speak... Sure power might not travel the distances it once did, a sort of contraction and that in part because the generation plants themselves cannot provide what once they did for lack of fuel? Suppose that condition could happen to all, at once? Say natural gas became depleted rather suddenly and distribution ends for all users? Could coal driven plants be expected to take up that kind of slack and distribute it evenly? Are these plants located near major metropolitan areas? If not, how are these people going to adjust? Will everyone be expected to draw water from a local source at that point? Or will they have the time and resource to relocate as happens? How can you be so sure that this will gradually happen and not cause a significant die-off? Gee, I thought this period of rolling blackouts and brownouts was to be short lived as in weeks or months, maybe a couple years at the most, not decades? Followed by total collapse everywhere...

I think the way I vision it, can be fit into the framework of catabolic collapse. That is more decline but not so sever to cause a die-off (in earnest), then a rather sharp descent (die-off in earnest), continues until it has ran it's course and level off, it may be followed by more decline until somekind of resiliency can be found and a catabolic climb (I'm suggesting a reversed pattern) to commence from that point? This is the better world that so many of your readers are desperately seeking... Sure, some but not all may find an alternative lifestyle in decline but those tomorrows will continue to get even darker....I don't think "we" really have a choice in that matter, we must live within the framework of "our" society, whatever that turns out to be at that time...

Am I correct in assuming that you're suggesting a future that can be transition to, in other words managed or "controlled"? I'm of the mind that it is much more natural than what many of us suspect and in the process of the natural be-coming, certain places, times, and peoples will be-come chaotic. Some more so than others...

PanIdaho said...

hawlkeye said:

"I call it shop til we drop, but not the big box glamour gizmos most cherished by today's consumers. I say spend our last dimes on seeds, tools, pumps and threshers and their ilk, even if we yet have no clue about their proper usage. Someone will.

And real books. Old ones."

Absolutely. Tools are essential to making a transition - no, they don't last forever, but they will help bridge the gap and someone on the other side may be able to repair or duplicate them when they wear out. Tools will be worth their weight in gold some day.

I count books as tools, too.

Dwig said...

The thread in these comments concerning the fate of the Internet (and whatever XXXnet(s) arise around and after it) has hit home to me, and helped me to clarify some of the nagging issues that have kept my thoughts returning to it.

My main reason for continuing to focus on the Internet, and not consider it just one of the artifacts of industrial society that we can do just as well (or even better) without, is a feeling that it has already provided a valuable and unique service to those thinking about and planning for the deindustrial future. Also, a feeling that its presence in at least the next sere, and maybe one or two to follow, has the potential to make the descent much less catastrophic than without it.

I think the crux of JMG's position is expressed well in the quote Mash, thanks for responding with a more concrete example. Is that sort of thing technically feasible? Sure. Does it offer enough in the way of benefits to be worth the considerable cost in resources, when every scrap of energy and material has six serious needs begging for it, and communication on the scale you're discussing can be done just as well by a cheaper and less resource-intensive approach that does without computers? Hardly. (From JMG's comment of 3/27/10 4:58 AM.)

I think one possible disconnect between JMG and Mash (and to some extent myself) is due to a lack of common context. For example, the phrase "when every scrap of energy and material has six serious needs begging for it" implies a time of critical scarcity, when simple survival is the total focus of the day. In such a time, any resource, concept, or concern not directly relevant to immediate survival is dispensable. (Certainly there will be such times, but in a scenario that includes the eventual rise of an ecotechnic society, there won't be too many of them, nor too widespread.)

(Continued in the next comment, due to the 4K character limitation of comments...)

Dwig said...

My own concern, however, is more focused on the longer-term and more chronic challenges, appropriate to times in which issues like cultural conservation are relevant. And, to repeat what I said above, I'm more focused on near-term transitional seres.

At this point, I should outline clearly and compellingly the current and anticipated benefits I see from the Internet (broadly construed, as Mash has described). Unfortunately, the best I can offer at this point is some hand-waving toward what I feel is compelling, but can't express terribly well.

To start with, consider as an example the last few years of The Archdruid Report, its growing audience, the valuable challenges it has raised to various popular ways of conceiving the emerging crises, and its clear outline of better ways of thinking and acting. (Personally, I've found it extremely valuable in helping to shape my own thinking.) I doubt that it'd have been anywhere near as effective in a less widely used, lower-bandwidth medium. (Also in this vein, consider just the comment thread from this post. We've heard from several people who are already transitioning into the next sere in their own lives and environment -- valuable knowledge in its own right.)

For another example, consider the Cultural Conservers foundation that JMG and others have started. I think it holds much promise, but if the Internet somehow winked out totally in the next five years, I think much of that promise would remain unrealized. I feel much the same way about the rapid spread of the Transition Towns and prepper movements (and likely some other movements devoted to positive, adaptive action that I haven't heard of yet.) Note that these movements will of necessity be local in their natures and immediate impact, but "thinking and interacting globally" can help make them more effective, and give them the valuable spiritual support that comes from each local initiative knowing they're not going it totally alone.

Frankly, I seriously doubt that the kind of benefits I've pointed at could have been or could be in the near future "done just as well by a cheaper and less resource-intensive approach".

All that said, I do see the likelihood that in later seres, when the nature of society intrinsically involves doing things more slowly and deliberately, taking the time for wisdom to supplement and inform knowledge, then organic networks will likely do just as well, or even better than digital ones.

Cherokee Organics said...

JMG,

I stumbled across the comment saying that post WWII houses are of a lower quality than earlier houses. Sadly, the same is true here as well. A builder friend confided that most new houses here have a 35 year life span. The building codes have effectively been captured by the main players of the building industry and as such are written to enable the ease of construction for project (ie very suburban / conventional) type homes. These are constructed so that they can be easily built with a minimum of materials and mechanically heated and cooled without any thought to orientation, materials, repairability etc. I've had quite a bit of experience in building one off "old school" designs as old houses are an interest for me. There are quite large difficulties to overcome in our system for both the design and construction process. Few builders wish to touch these projects as they don't conform with modern building techniques and you are usually left to your own resources to construct them. The liveability factor, low energy footprint, repairability, long life and low maintenance is worth the hassle though. People fear house building, but it is not too difficult a task if approached from a common sense perspective. It's a sign of how disassociated people have become when their idea of involvement in construction of a house is choice of tiles, paint and carpet!

As for electricity, I think the readers may forget that their water and sewage is pumped using electricity. 3 days is how long it takes to die of thirst. Mind you everyone around here is on tank water (we have capacity for around 100,000 litres). Bores (I think you may call them wells) require quite a lot of electricity to be able to pump water so a hand pump may be out of the question unless your ground water table is quite high.

On a home front though, refrigeration will be missed most of all as I think that it may be the thing that most people take for granted. Not many people living in suburbia would understand that the diet they eat is enabled through cheap refrigeration. The need to preserve fruit and vegetables, butcher and smoke meats etc is seen as an old and dated art. Not having access to a refrigerator will change peoples diets fundamentally. I am unsure that most people now have the planning skills required to live such a life without going hungry, let alone put in the back breaking work required to produce the food in the first place.

I'd be fairly certain that you are right about the low voltage losses being high in the end of the electricity distribution system. In a low voltage solar power system you have to design in fairly heavy duty copper intensive cables to reduce losses. Tables on this are fairly easy to obtain, but the general rule is that the higher the current (amps) and the longer the run (metres) of cable the thicker the wire. Some of our main runs are 25mm2 thick copper. This is far in excess of the normal AC wiring in a house and I am aware that there are resistance losses even there too, although not sure of the amounts.

Good luck!

Bill Pulliam said...

Thinking more about the incremental contraction of the power grid, it occurs to me that this might create the worst possible scenario in terms of the evolution of the food production system.

Given the way our government and institutions always respond to crises, it's pretty clear how this might play out in agriculture. Obviously, the major centralized industrial producers will be the top priority for electricity. Small producers are viewed by economists and politicians as irrelevant to the question of feeding the electorate en masse. In their world industrial ag is the only ag that matters. Hence, the small producers will be cut off in great droves, and the industrial system will be driven to even larger concentration of animal operations, and larger scale cropping systems, with even more centralized control and organization than at present. In the end we have almost all ag (except for home gardens) concentrated in a few enormous "too-big-to-fail" operations. When "too-big-to-fail" fails anyway because the infrastructure, energy, and economics can no longer hold it up, there would be a precipitous drop in ag production. It's a very ugly picture -- imagine the recent financial crisis but with it being the food supply that is evaporating in to thin air, not paper wealth and property values.

Car Free Mile-End said...

Great post this week!
It is important to reiterate these sorts of things as a means to unlearning such deep-rooted assumptions as you discuss.
It is worth recalling, I think, the comment you cited by a reader whose optimism in current technological solutions was rooted in his example of the history of aviation: “going from Kitty Hawk to the sound barrier in just a few decades” (I paraphrase from memory).
Such an example is so incredibly indicative of the oversight baked-in to the faith in technology. The very simple fact is that his example is an illustration of what happens when you introduce copious amounts of concentrated energy (jet fuel) to an otherwise basic (albeit sophisticated) technology. Ingenuity is one thing, but fuel/energy is what does the work (by definition). So what will ingenuity, and the faith in that ingenuity accomplish in the face of the problem of diminishing supplies of energy. Certainly we can revisit “outdated” technology with the advantage of experience gained over the past century of success.

Ana's Daughter said...

Mash, speaking as a veteran bean-counter (20-odd years as a professional bookkeeper, mostly in a retail and small business setting), I'm seeing a mack truck sized hole in your assessment of the economics of keeping the internet around.

You forgot about money. Cash. Long green. Coin of the realm. And you can't afford to forget it, because it's the crux of the issue.

Economics can only be based on a cost-benefit ratio with no attention paid to cash on hand during a boom period of easy credit and high liquidity. If there's no credit, or very little credit, and you don't have a lot of liquidity (ie cash or readily salable goods that can be turned into cash) then it doesn't matter one hoot in heck how beneficial a thing might be, because unless you have the money in hand now to pay for it, YOU CAN'T AFFORD IT. I've seen this again and again in small businesses and large ones alike; cash flow and credit flow rule. When there's no credit flow and poor cash flow, you have no choice but to sit on your thumbs. Those limits are unarguable and they don't go away.

So when money gets scarce and credit gets scarcer, the folks who might keep a local internet up and running are going to have to choose between paying for that and paying for fuel to heat their homes, or buying food, or buying clothes, or fixing the roof, or any one of a dozen or two other more pressing and real needs. Somehow I don't think they'll choose the internet when they can choose the classic small-town way of exchanging information: gossip.

(I get the impression you've never lived in a small town. Nobody needs email when your regular errands will provide you with all the news and information you need. Between the clerk at the grocery store, the postal carrier, the bank teller, the neighbor over the back fence when you get home, and the folks you stood in line with, you'll hear everything that's going on. And that's assuming that the party line doesn't return as a common small-town telephone option.)

Lunchista said...

Sorry to be such a pedant, but the energy loss in the electricity grid happens mainly not in the transmission lines or transformers, but at the power plants themselves.

Any "thermal" generation (including Nuclear) produces on average only about one unit of electrical energy per three units of chemical energy in the original fuel.

But the practical upshot (rural places will de-electrify before urban) remains the same, because of the cost and effort involved in maintenance (rather than just plain energy loss) in the longest connections.

DIYer said...

JMG,
Again, I have several different idea-threads to comment on. I'm planning to return to lurking after this, perhaps read a few of your books, and may return later with an email. I need to pay some attention to my immediate surroundings now.

First, I would like to say I appreciate your effort to promote a cultural shift. If the paper version of your words is only temporary, and the electronic one even moreso, this would be the best way to improve the lot of our successors on this little blue marble. I am reminded of a story of the Samurai swordsmiths that was on public TV a while back. By virtue of several centuries of tradition, and using essentially stone-age technology, they manage to achieve a remarkable degree of control over the alloys making up their product. Perhaps constructing a similar set of traditions will allow for a quicker adaptation to a low-energy steady state a century from now.

To the remark on housing quality, I'd like to add a data point. Houses built in 2000, such as the one in which I am sitting. Probably about on a par with your 1950 and 1980 houses -- it'll be amazing if the OSB lasts another decade. I expect a lot of these neighborhoods to consist of rows of bare concrete pads by then.

As for the scavenging of old appliances, it's here now. Whenever my city's trash pickup department announces an appliance pickup day, the old vacuum cleaners and microwave ovens left at the curb rarely last until the trucks can get around. A fleet of beat-up old pickup trucks and similarly beat-up trailers arrives at the crack of dawn and starts cruising the area for these little collections of metals, magnets, etc. (probably no microprocessors yet)

In my previous post, I linked a video of a modern, but quite "retro" workshop. Many of its tools would be recognizable to a time-travelling visitor from 1850. Of course, Mr. Paillard's machines are made of modern steel rather than wrought iron, and powered by electric motors rather than hydropower. (and of course many of his other applications of electricity and chemistry have also improved over the last 150 years) Between dark-age technology and the 1850's, there are several levels of sophistication, mostly but not all built on fossil-fuelled invention. And between your 1850's workshop and a modern wafer fab are maybe another four or five levels of technological improvement (and correspondingly prodigious energy consumption)

What was on my mind is this: how does your crystal ball determine how far back our technology will fall, and how does one avoid getting into what I like to call the doomer's "rennaissance faire syndrome" where we predict the un-invention of the ipod, followed by the return of the LED digital watch, then the disuse of aluminum foil, etc., until everyone is wandering about in funny feathered hats and leather shirts and saying "thee" and "thou"? (my crystal ball doesn't actually work that way, but I just thought I'd ask; come to think of it my crystal ball doesn't work very well at all)

John Michael Greer said...

Randy, my guess is that the dairy industry will go through the same divergence as the rest of agriculture, with increasingly huge farms increasingly dependent on high-tech methods contrasting with increasingly small farms using increasingly low-tech methods. That's already happening, of course, as small farmers tap into farmers markets, CSAs and the like. I'll definitely try fresh Jersey milk, though -- thanks for the tip!

Mash, I wish you'd posted all this a few weeks ago, because your comments are very nearly the perfect example of the logic of abundance, the kind of thinking I criticized in this post. I don't think you've grasped yet that the future ahead of us is one in which there will be urgent, bare-survival needs clamoring for every watt of electricity, every scrap of salvage, and every hour of labor time. For a village to devote the electrical output of a waterwheel to a repeater could mean that the electricity won't be there to power a couple of refrigerators, so that children don't die of diarrhea from spoiled food, the way they used to do, every summer, in the pre-refrigeration US. The hours of labor needed to keep your computer system running is time that could be spent growing and harvesting more food, so the risk of going hungry before the next harvest will be a little less. That's the way life works when you don't have a fantastic abundance of cheap energy flooding through a society -- and it's a reality that most people these days seem unable to grasp.

Yooper, no, I'm not suggesting that the future can be managed or controlled; I'm suggesting that people will do their best to stave off worst case scenarios, and in at least some cases, they'll succeed, as history shows they often do. As for power being off on one side of the street and on on the other, er, this happens all the time in power outages, and yes, I think it will happen -- on many different geographical scales -- as the power grid slowly unravels.

Panidaho, good. And skills -- get those while you can.

Dwig, I don't deny that the internet is useful, just that it's going to be viable. I'm sure that every effort will be made to keep it up and running, too -- and this is why I'm arguing that the most likely future of the internet is one in which costs rise and access decreases, until it becomes solely a network used by government, big business, and the rich. There will doubtless be plenty of attempts to run an alternative internet for others, but without government and corporate funding, they won't get far -- and in the not too distant future, as energy gets very scarce and the economy sinks further, it won't be possible to maintain them at all. That's why we need to be thinking about cheaper, lower-tech ways of communicating now, so the skills are available when if you want to talk to somebody on the other side of the world, you'd better know Morse code and be able to run a shortwave transceiver.

John Michael Greer said...

Cherokee, refrigeration is a huge issue, and so is access to water in places that rely on wells or other pumped water systems. My guess is that water systems will get electricity as long as there's any electricity to be had; refrigeration is another matter, and some attention to alternative ways of running a fridge -- or, alternatively, storing food in other ways -- is crucial.

Bill, that's not implausible at all. The one source of hope I can think of is the rapid spread of little farms feeding into farmers markets, CSAs, food co-ops, and the like; post-collapse America, like post-collapse Russia, may end up feeding itself on backyard gardens.

Car Free, glad you liked it. It's exactly the prospect of revisiting older technologies with a better knowledge base that seems to me to offer the most hope for salvaging something from the current mess.

Ana's Daughter, the rules that govern energy and resources are even tighter than those that govern money. A bank can conjure a billion dollars of credit out of thin air -- but you can't conjure energy or minerals into existence the same way. That said, I think you're also right about money -- in anything but a bubble economy, if you don't have the money, you can't get the goodies. Too many people have forgotten that, and will have to relearn it the hard way.

Lunchista, yes, a couple of other people have mentioned that.

DIYer, your crystal ball question will take a post of its own to answer! It's one I'll want to make, though, in the not too distant future.

hac5x3 said...

There's no indication that anyone will be prepared or that we're moving toward even understanding the consequences. Governments have been mostly absent from the equation (although China seems to be ahead of the curve). In the US we're going to wait until the power is out before anyone opens an eye to what is going to happen.

PanIdaho said...

John Michael Greer said:

"Panidaho, good. And skills -- get those while you can."

For us, that always goes hand in hand: as we work to gain a new skill, we shift our budgeting priorities to allow us to acquire all the tools (including books) we need to go with it. Luckily, if you keep an eye open on the second hand front, you can still get a lot of good tools and books for pennies on the dollar compared to their new prices. There's no guarantee this will always be the case, so we're making the best use of it we can, while we can.

hapibeli said...

Hello all. here's an interesting idea when your electricity supply is uncertain;

http://sites.google.com/site/treadlepump/buildyourowntreadlepump

Houyhnhnm said...

Hawlkeye said, "I'm going to purchase a breeding pair of Suffolk Punch draft horses after taking a hands-on 'horse-farm school' course in the summer."

Suffolks are a good choice since this breed, although regaining interest, has reached critically low numbers.

I wonder however what you mean by a "breeding pair." I hope you mean two breeding quality mares. The French were famous for farming with a stallion hitched next to a mare, but most experienced American horsemen still blanch at the mere thought.

Like you, I have no illusions about horses replacing the car. However, car ownership is far more common than horse ownership ever was. First of all was expense. Second was human skill. Yes, draft breeding stock was decimated during the Great Depression, but bringing back the stock wouldn't be as difficult as training the people. A talented, fast learner might become proficient with horses in a few years. Few people are either. I hope you are both.

If you buy a solid, well trained team, they'll teach you a good part of what you need to know. Good luck!

Houyhnhnm

John Michael Greer said...

Hac, no kidding. The vast majority of people in the industrial world seem to have lost the ability to imagine themselves facing a future that isn't simply business as usual. I suspect that for most of them, the awakening is going to be ghastly.

Panidaho, I know you're on top of that particular point -- I intended it for other readers, who might not realize that tools and books very often need hands-on training to make them a viable resource.

Hapibeli, good. Now calculate how many watt-hours you can actually generate that way, and compare it to how many watt-hours your favorite electrical appliance uses.

Houyhnhnm, I trust he means a stallion and a mare, so he can start producing more of a good breed that, as you say, is in very low supply right now! He can start plowing with a team once the first couple of colts get old enough; the crucial point now is to get 'em breeding.

Danby said...

RE: horses
It's far better for most small farmers to keep a pair of mares than an stallion and a mare, for a couple of reasons.

First, stallions are unpredictable and prone to assert their dominance at inopportune times. An experienced horseman can handle these situations, but the last thing you need when you're trying to put up your hay during a short spring dry spell is a thousand kilos of horse challenging your authority.

Second, a mare can easily be bred by someone else's stud, for a relatively small fee (or for free if the fences aren't too good). Having two mares doubles your foal production, adding a bit to the profit margin.

And on a related note, you only want to breed the best males. Since one stud can cover literally dozens of mares in a year (hundreds if AI is an option) keeping all of the male population intact is a bad breeding plan and a waste of a lot of horses that would make perfectly good geldings.

For many uses, geldings make a better choice than a mare, i.e. where the teamster has no knowledge or desire to deal with breeding the horse, where the lower cost of feeding a gelding makes a difference, and where the horse will be in an urban environment around a lot of other horses, the gelding's more even temperament and lack of sexual aggression make him a better choice.

I have long been of the opinion that one of the worst ideas for most horse owners is keeping a stud.

Danby said...

@ Randy,
You are right that I am not a dairyman. I thought about it at one time, but I just couldn't make the numbers work. Unless you inherit the land, make some phenomenal once-in-a-lifetime deal, or have the debt capacity to borrow a million dollars, the cost of starting out are just too much, as I am sure you already know. It is currently, at least in Washington state, essentially illegal to operate a small dairy,unless you can find a way to sell your milk for upwards of $100/cwt.

And you are right that the scenario I describe just wouldn't work for most current dairymen, at least the ones in the fluid milk business. But the problem there is not the scenario, but the dairymen. Consider for a moment that one of the problems with our current agricultural system may well be that 350 cow dairy. Around here, until recently, the dairies were more likely to be of 1000 or more cows. Now, of course, they've all moved their operations east of the Cascade mountains to take advantage of the cheaper land and the larger numbers of illegal immigrants.

Anyway, a 350 or 1000 cow dairy of course needs electrical milking machines and has vast needs for refrigeration, manure handling, feed handling, and water pumping that could not be met with a wood fired refrigerator, a pair of horses, a windmill, and a pair of farmhands. How about 40 10-cow small holders? or 100 with 3 or 4 cows. Could they not manage things manually? As JMG would put it, the huge industrial dairy is a creature of cheap energy and will die as cheap energy goes away.

There was a time when every farm had a few cows, a few chickens, a few beef steers and a few pigs. The milk was collected and brought in to the creamery weekly, to be made into butter and cheese. Those farmers fortunate enough to have access to electricity could make a little more by selling fluid milk. The farmer made a little here and a little there, and the nation was supplied with dairy foods.

And the milk marketing boards have been used by the big dairy companies to force the small guy out of business. Have been almost since the system was set up, although (of course) dairymen have been told the opposite.

All of that said, you and Bill may well be right that there could well be a collapse in the dairy industry, leading to a serious shortage of dairy products for a year or two. In that case, I would expect black market to quickly develop in dairy products from unapproved and potentially unsafe operations. That would likely have two long-term effects. The price of dairy goods would go up relative to other foods, and the regulatory burden on dairy operations would go down, officially or informally, hopefully to a level that makes sense from a public health perspective AND allows a small farmer to sell his milk for a decent price.

Vic said...

JMG,Richard C. Duncan's Olduvai Gorge Theory can be read as nightmarish? Doesn't really address utility owners and government response. Definite time-line however,approximately 100 years. Interestingly, the rural electrification in my area came in the 50's I often speak to people who remember being without electricity.

John Michael Greer said...

Danby, I don't claim to know horses well, so I'll take your word for it -- but I hope there are enough farmers in every region who don't take your advice, so breeds don't go extinct because nobody thought it was a good idea to keep a stud.

Vic, yes, I've talked with Rich Duncan about that, and I don't think he adequately addresses the extent to which efforts will be made to try to respond to problems with the grid. Still, his basic theory of industrial civilization as a nonrepeating pulse waveform, in which energy per capita rises to a peak and then declines permanently, seems plausible to me.

sgage said...

Hawlkeye,

Where did you do your draft horse workshop? Was it Fairwinds Farm by any chance? (www.fairwindsfarm.org)

I ask because they work with (and breed) Suffolks, and often host the annual NE Suffolk Gathering. There are lot of Suffolk afficianados around here (VT, ME, NH) - I see a team come up the road most every day, and I am good friends with 2 breeders.

It seems to me the breed is on the ascendant. I hope so - as the Suffolk people like to say, they're a "doing" horse.

hawlkeye said...

Houy...

Thanks for the advice. I'm counting on learning from the horses themselves most of all.

And I like Pan's full-immersion study plan; I haven't yet found the how-to-plow website, but danged if there's not a video instructional series (I just ordered one). Now if they could only make it downloadable onto my iPod, then I could watch it while we work, no problem! (Excellent stuff @ Small Farmer's Journal...)

No doubt the learning curve for new teamsters is, uh, harrowing. But I hadn't thought it might take longer to learn the whole deal than to get a couple of new colts into the world. That said, I guess "the whole deal" is a life-time study for a few generations, but I'm not so sure there's time left for a considered approach beyond Ready, Fire, Aim and figure it out as we go...

What comes up for me is feeling like an idiot, but of course, anyone who tries to learn anything new has to forge through the "not-knowing" to the point of knowing how much else there is to know, at least. And not getting overwhelmed or discouraged along the way. And if that's impossible, then working through the various freak-outs and finding ways to get over them and get back to the furrow at hand.

I guess the trick is to temper boldess and go-for-it with as much savvy and restraint as we can tolerate. Because outright foolishness around big, powerful animals is dangerous, of course. And yet I can't let another growing season pass without progress in this field, with whatever I know or don't know already.

I like the Suffolks because they're not monstrous eaters like Belgians, and could be rideable, too. And there is breeding stock within a few hundred miles of me, not a few thousand. Also for selective logging in the winter; can't be having them sit around getting soft before spring plowing. Me neither!

Sheesh, ANOTHER learning curve; oh what a world. No end of things to learn... or re-learn.

Meg said...

JMG,

"Oskar, if the signal is in CW (Morse code) or AM, a very simple diode will do the trick. Soldiers in the Second World War used to take a razor blade and a bent safety pin, a handmade coil, and an earphone, and put together a crude but workable receiver."

I would /very/ much appreciate being directed to your reference for this, please. It has bearing on my current project. Via the email list would be fine if you don't want to prolong this thread.

Much thanks also to DIYer for the triode video.

bluebird said...

hac5x3 said "Governments have been mostly absent from the equation"

That's how I see it too. However, my spouse seems to think that the government is going to nationalize everything. The gov will make sure there will be electricity, clean water, food in the grocery stores, and gas in the cars. He says there is going to be a big reset, and everything will be fine. He builds and repairs things all the time, so maybe that's why he's not concerned. He says I worry too much.

Um, no I'm not, but I can't convince him. So I buy extra canned food, batteries, other staples, walkie talkies, a water purifier, and planting small garden. He just rolls his eyes at my preparations. My son sold his McMansion, but buying another for his wife and toddlers. Can't convince them either.

hac5x3 also said "In the US we're going to wait until the power is out before anyone opens an eye to what is going to happen."

Yep, if my family is indication of the majority, that will wake them up...and also the lack of money to pay the bills and buy stuff.

mattbg said...

JMG, this was a very interesting post and almost as good as your posts are the cohort of high-quality commenters you attract.

As with some other commenters, I was surprised and skeptical of the part about two-thirds of electricity being lost in transmission and distribution. This is very easy to calculate because you can compare electricity generated vs. electricity sold and assume the difference to be lost in transmission. In Canada, this shows up on my bill as a itemized distribution charge and is under 10%.

I found the follow-on discussion about the viability of the Internet to be interesting. I'm not convinced that the whole system is unsustainable. At its core is the same type of infrastructure you have behind the telephone system (though it probably uses more power, the communication switches that make the communication possible do not represent an exponential difference).

If the Internet was required to pare back to its bare essentials -- the minimum required to support distribution of information without all the YouTube, pornography, marketing, movie trailers, etc. I'm not sure how "heavy" it would be. When you reduce the size of these things, you also reduce the power required to operate the devices that connect to it. The advances in power consumption being made on devices like Smartphones are very impressive.

Before the Internet, we had electronic bulletin boards and services like CompuServe that ran over telephone lines. They were mostly textual but still facilitated the essentials of electronic interaction.

I'm not completely closed to the idea that it could be untenable at some point, but the Internet that exists today is so cluttered with garbage and much of it is high-bandwidth garbage that requires a lot of server power and bandwidth. The core of communication -- i.e. blogs like this -- require far, far less.

John Michael Greer said...

Sgage and Hawlkeye, I'll leave the horse conversation to them who have a stake in it.

Bluebird, I hear stories like this all the time. All I can say is try to do what you can.

Meg, I thought most people knew about foxhole radios! Here's a website that gives details of how to build one -- when I was a Boy Scout, the patrol I was in built them, and picked up AM radio signals loud and clear.

Matt, yes, all this has been discussed at some length in the comments already. For what it's worth, I remember the days of BBS systems tolerably well, and that's one of the reasons I'm skeptical that people struggling for survival are going to want to spare precious resources and electricity just so they can have internet chatrooms. Those things the internet does that can't be replaced by simpler methods -- for example, the ability to look up a diagram for a foxhole radio in seconds, as I just did -- are precisely those things that require the huge server farms and other unsustainable technologies.

Houyhnhnm said...

Thank you, JMG, for your most recent comment: "Sgage and Hawlkeye, I'll leave the horse conversation to them who have a stake in it."

After reading that, I decided that, rather than clutter your blog with the lengthy response I'd typed up to your comments to me and Danby, I will instead post it on my horse blog for anyone interested in "the horse conversation":

swifthorse.blogspot.com

For here, I will just say that the responses you gave to my post and to Danby's offered up bad advice. We all have areas of weakness. Now I know one of yours. Actually, it's rather nice to know you have at least one.

Houyhnhnm--pronounced Whinny-um

ezab said...

RE: living without refrigerators

The specific methods used to preserve food without refrigeration depend in part on the local climate. They used to dry fruit and fresh corn in the sunshine. They used to smoke meat and fish. They also salted meat... as in “salt pork.” Eggs were stored in isinglass to preserve them. Cabbage was preserved by fermentation: sauerkraut. Milk was used to make cheese, which would store much longer than fresh milk.

When you read books about England in the 1940s, it sounds like many people didn’t have a refrigerator. Instead, they used a cool place, a pantry or a meat safe, to store food for a day or two.

RE: the Internet versus snail mail... 200 years ago, snail mail was an expensive service. People would write a letter, then turn the page and cover it again with closely written handwriting at right angles to their first draft... to transmit as much news as possible on the sheet of paper.

ezab said...

bluebird said:

>I buy extra canned food, batteries, other staples, walkie talkies, a water purifier, and planting small garden.

I’m doing many of those things too. If we buy extra food supplies that have a long shelf life, what’s the harm? Cheese is a high-value food that stores well; so is honey. I found some well-designed lamps that run on batteries; my next step will be to get sunlight-rechargeable batteries. I’m thinking about planting a rosebush that will bear hips that are particularly high in vitamin C (that means, a variety with some rugosa parentage.) I may expand my herb garden.

Even the government and the Red Cross say you should have a three-day supply of essentials in your house... (and most people pay no attention.) If there were a natural disaster where I live, it could take much longer than three days for help to arrive... so an extra cushion of supplies makes sense to me. Sense for lots of different scenarios. Having extra canned beans on the shelf won’t prevent what JMG calls the Long Descent... but in certain situations they might come in handy. I say, you're taking good care of your family!

Danby said...

re: foxhole radios
My father was an artillery radioman in the Pacific campaign in WWII. His was the heaviest pack in the unit, and consisted of nothing but radio gear. The standard Artillery unit radio station weighed 50 lbs and the associated spare parts and antenna weighed in at another 20 lbs. He didn't even get a rifle, just a 1911 .45 ACP sidearm. And the antenna waving ten feet above his head made him a perfect target.

Anyway, one of the things he would do once the artillery arrived and they had set up a base camp was to set up a radio transmitter at 630 kHz. Packed carefully among the artillery pieces and shells he had his hand-wound portable phonograph and dozens of 10" shellac records of popular music. Sometimes he would just relay a music transmission from any support ships in the area, Other times he would DJ the show himself. For a while they even had a soldier along who had learned Japanese working in the bean fields of central California. He would provide a little propaganda service along with the music.

And yes, some of the radios tuning in to the show would be these tiny crystal sets.

Officially, of course, this was all strictly forbidden. Informally however, it was encouraged and aided by the officers, who not only enjoyed the shows themselves, but understood the importance of the effort to the general morale.

@hawlkeye,
If you would like to continue the conversation, contact me offlist at dan at bakerfamily dot us

mageprof said...

ezab wrote:

"Eggs were stored in isinglass to preserve them."

My great-grandmother preserved eggs by immersing them in water glass, not isinglass, in large stoneware crocks with stoneware lids. The eggs come out a bit different depending on whether you use isinglass or water glass.


ezab also wrote

"many people didn’t have a refrigerator. Instead, they used a cool place, a pantry or a meat safe, to store food for a day or two."

Certainly there was such a place ion my great-grandmother's house in Berkeley, Calif. It was a built-in cupboard about 2 feet wide and 4 feet high It had slatted shelves, so air could easily circulate, and a vent to the outside at the top and at the bottom. This allowed for circulation of air much as does a double-hung window opened at top and bottom. It worked quite well for almost anything that we moderns put in our refrigerators. (For what it may be worth, I still usually call a refrigerator an "ice-box," out of old habit.)

Bill Pulliam said...

Another thought about the effects of a declining internet...

I think it is safe to say that some of the major compulsions people in the U.S. are hooked on are smoke, booze, and internet porn. Smoke and booze are simple enough to provide for yourself: the two most popular smokes are extremely easy to grow on a small scale (literally like weeds), and wine, beer, and whiskey were homemade for eons before they became commercial industries. Internet porn is another matter. Millions upon millions of (mostly) men are now accustomed to an all-you-can-eat porn buffet at their fingertips, featuring just about anything you can imagine and much you probably can't. This is not just a feature of urbanites or people some might judge as "lowlifes;" it cuts across all classes and geographies. If access to this begin to shrink, I smell great opportunities for entrepreneurs and small publishing houses. Porn has always been a great driver of new innovations in media. As they say, the camera was probably pointed at a nude woman 10 minutes after it was invented. Porn has not ever been just an inconvenient sidelight online; it has been one of the major drivers of the desire for better connections and better multimedia technologies. I suspect we will find it retains this role as "the media" have to evolve away from universal electricity, gadgetry, and TCP-IP.

Some might say that online gaming has been as big a driver as porn for the expansion of online media. Perhaps, but it is also easier to replace with live-action roll-playing. Kids were playing "army" with sticks and dirt clods long before "World of Warcraft;" but I think you'd be hard-pressed to find a pre-internet equivalent of the present online phenomenon of great masses of ordinary everyday people making porn starring themselves in their own bedrooms, and sharing it willy-nilly with the entire world. It will be very interesting to see what directions these newly cultivated social movements take as the internet fades -- and whether they will be a driver to keep the internet going even after it does not make economic sense, or a demagogic hammer used to help smash it.

John Michael Greer said...

Whinny, I certainly don't claim to be omniscient.

Ezab, those older technologies are very much worth researching and putting to use now, while there's still a higher-tech fallback in place.

Danby, I've heard much the same story from other WWII vets. If it's possible to run a low-power radio broadcast in the middle of a battlefield, and listen to it on a radio made from razor blades and safety pins, then the chances that broadcast radio may still be an option in the deindustrial future seem pretty good to me -- if, that is, enough people know how to use methods that simple.

Mageprof, a good root cellar will also do much the same thing.

Bill, that's an intriguing point. When I was a teenager, certainly, outlets for pornography made up a fairly substantial economic sector -- most cities had a street or two on the wrong side of the tracks where peep shows, theaters running blue movies, porn bookstores, and the like could be found, and only the smallest towns got by without something of the sort tucked into a back alley somewhere. As the internet starts to price itself out of reach of consumers, will those make a comeback?

Danby said...

People seem to be excited by the idea of a home made radio. They might also be interested in a (legal) homebuilt AM radio transmitter. AM transmission within the commercial AM spectrum is perfectly legal, even without a license, provided the equipment is homemade, not built from a kit, does not output more than 100mw, and does not interfere with any licensed broadcaster. Oh, and the antenna may not be longer than 3M. Needless to say 100mw of power will not carry very far, probably not a full block in many cases.

Here's one that uses a transistor:
http://www.techlib.com/electronics/amxmit.htm

and an old-school triode-based design:
http://www.antiqueradio.org/transmitter.htm. I've built this one and it works very well.

Both are modern designs and can be built for less than $50. Considerably less if you have an old TV or tube-based amplifier around.

Who knows if the experience of building one might not come in helpful in the future. At any rate it's an interesting project.

Daniel A. C. said...

I'm interested in the idea of cultural conservation. Last week in the comments people were talking about how books printed on the type of paper the book industry currently uses will not last more than a handful of decades. I was wondering, does anyone know if learning to make handmade paper is a worthwile endeavor? Can a high-quality product be made on a small scale? I have read of a monastery which makes money by producing handmade books, so I just wondered.

Also, on that topic, in JMG's books and on the blog, I read about how in previous declines of civilizations monasteries, in the East and the West, sometimes kept the candle of civilization alive until society at large returned to order. Does anyone know of any good books on this topic? I know of Thomas Cahill's book on the Irish monks, but can't seem to find much else. Thanks.

spottedwolf said...

The image of "blind faith' comes to mind in these types of discussions. Well organized and written John. Send a copy to Obama....he'll listen. I think Harper is too stupid.

The Onion has a point about radio. My brother-in-law has a real old one. Gawd save the CBC !

I was listening to the concern over a new contingency of interest in the possibility of northern waterways opening to oil/gas exploration today. It epitomizes the ludicrous irony industrialists think with.

Iconoclast421 said...

Think about the amount of energy that is consumed doing just two things: running all air conditioners, and driving to restaurants to eat. I bet just those two things eat up 5% of US daily energy consumption. That is where cuts are going to come from. Until that happens it is far too early to speculate on how the grid is going to be carved up.

But do note that the grid may dismantle itself in a very controlled manner through normal market means. As energy prices rise, more and more energy intensive manufacturing will be relocated to resource rich areas. Things like solar panels, windmills, heat pumps, and LED lights will come down in price while grid power rises in price. This will prompt rural customers to switch over to off-grid solutions, simply because it will save them money.

It is not too difficult to imagine a future where the only grid we have a giant rail grid that carries people, freight cars, and pod car carriers as well as providing a low impedance electrical conduit for both power and communications. Such infrastructure could serve 10 billion people and cost less energy to operate than what just North America uses today. Building it is another story, but it is possible.

Wordek said...

Hi John.. Folks...first comment for me. I have been lurking for a while though and get a real kick out of the posts and the comments, so thanks to you all. Though I do have a different perspective on the future than JMG does, the principles behind the idea of a “decline” in the infrastructure that supports modern civilisation over the next hundred years are unfortunately more than sound. The uncertainty around population v resource constraints and “systemic” efficiency v resilience for instance are starkly obvious.
So I have been quite interested to see some of the different perspectives that the members of this community share amongst each other. In general I believe (barring widespread global conflict) that breakdown will be sporadically distributed rather than an ongoing widespread gradual decline and that some tech “islands” will remain well into the future. That said, unfortunately a big war will always throw a rock in the pot, and without knowing in advance who wins and what gets trashed, its impossible to know just what our analogy soup will taste like afterwards. So lets please try very hard not to do that. Regarding the idea of progress as a religion, the idea that progress consists of collecting as many big, fast, gaudy, intrusive, wasteful, status enhancing mostly useless “shiny things” as possible is certainly in the ascendancy at this time. There many reasons for this, and unfortunately in a very broad sense the “free market” really isn't free at all. However I have a far different take on what constitutes progress, so through my magic “progress goggles”, I see many progressive perspectives posted on this blog. Heh heh!! take that you lot!! ;)
Cheers

Alex said...

Correction on the statement that "...on average, only a third of the energy that comes out of electrical power plants reaches an end user; the other two-thirds are converted to heat by the electrical resistance of the power lines and transformers that make up the electrical grid."

(Sorry if this was already corrected -- I looked but didn't see a correction!)

The waste is from thermal electric power plants, for example coal-fired power plants. It comes in the form of waste heat, but not from the power lines. As another commenter pointed out, that's a minor portion. Rather, it comes from the thermodynamics of needing a temperature difference to drive the process. The higher the difference, the higher the efficiency. (cf Carnot efficiency). The waste heat comes out the smoke stack and cooling tower/pond/river/lake/ocean. The efficiency of fuel to electricity is around 30%.

Waste exists because it's cheaper not to use that thing, in this case the lower-temperature-difference heat streams, which have lower conversion (Carnot) efficiencies.

Thermal power plants can get up to 60% efficiency (fuel to electricity) by using a combined-cycle process. Or even higher overall efficiency by living with the 30% mentioned above, and grabbing another 30-50% in the form of heat for something useful, like district heating for buildings.

Cost and regulations (or absence thereof) drive the current pattern of waste. Electrical transmission and distribution aren't the main culprits.

brogh said...

Hi JMG, while the transition movement has it's faults, (i've yet to meet one that has done anything concrete in an area that is not a bit "new agey" for example) as someone living in england and loosely on the network i know of only one person who is both in local government and closely involved with the TT movement in my area.
As far as i know there are not any appointed transition officers with the government.
I'm sure it would be on the transition grapevine pretty quick if it did happen!

great site.

Kevin said...

Just wanted to chime in about paper. I recently read in the book Industrial and Commercial Geography 3rd ed(1947), some memorable facts about paper. on pg 369 "paper from wood pulp began in Europe in 1840 and in this country in 1865" "For centuries paper making was a handicraft carried n by the paper maker and his family who dipped sieves into vats of floating fiber and carefully lifted out upon the wire gauze enough fiber to produce a sheet of paper when dried" So it seems that without cheap energy paper maybe at premium, allowing written and audio electronic communication to compete effectively on cost. Communicating is valued and possibly necessary. It would be nice to have the option of a pigeon post as once was common but it seems likely that written text transmitted through wires or wireless through the air will remain the cheapest complication in many situations. The buying and selling of goods(could be necessary) should also be cheap and efficient using this form of communication.