Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Riddles in the Dark

Any number of metaphors might be used for the predicament today’s industrial societies face as the age of cheap energy stumbles to its end, but the one that keeps coming to mind is drawn from a scene in one of the favorite books of my childhood, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. It’s the point in the story when Bilbo Baggins, the protagonist, gets lost in goblin-tunnels under the Misty Mountains and there encounters a gaunt, slippery, cannibalistic creature named Gollum.

That meeting was not exactly full of bonhomie. Gollum regarded Bilbo in much the way a hungry undergraduate regards the arrival of takeout pizza, but Bilbo was armed and alert. To put his intended meal off his guard, Gollum challenged Bilbo to a riddle contest. So there they sat, deep underground, challenging each other with the hardest riddles they could think of. I sometimes think the rock around Gollum’s lair must have been a Jurassic sandstone full of crude oil; if Gollum were around nowadays, equally, I suspect he would be shilling for Cambridge Energy Research Associates, purveying energy misinformation to the media, and his “Preciousss” would be made of black gold. Certainly, though, the world’s industrial societies right now are in much the same predicament as Bilbo, fumbling in the dark for answers to riddles that take on an increasingly threatening tone with each moment that passes.

I’d like to talk about three of those riddles now. None of them are insoluble, but they point to a profoundly unwelcome reality that will play a major role in shaping the economics of the age dawning around us right now – and unlike characters in a children’s novel, we can’t count on being bailed out of our predicament, as Bilbo was, by the unexpected discovery of a magic ring. Here they are:

First: It is the oldest machine in the world; it has raised the world’s greatest monuments and destroyed most of them, saved lives by the millions and killed them in like number; and when it is not in use, no one can see it. What is it?

Second: There is a thoroughly proven, economically viable way to use solar energy that requires no energy subsidy from fossil fuels at all, and every mainstream economist thinks that getting rid of it wherever possible is the key to prosperity. What is it?

Third: Two workers in different countries work in identical factories, using identical tools to make identical products. One of them makes twenty dollars an hour plus a benefit package; the other makes two dollars a day with no benefits at all. Why is that?

The last one is the easiest, though you’ll have a hard time finding a single figure in American public life who will admit to the answer. It’s not considered polite these days to talk about America’s empire, despite the fact that we keep troops in 140 other countries, and the far from unrelated fact that the 5% of Earth’s population that live in the US use around a third of the world’s resources, energy, and consumer products. Like every other empire, we have a tribute economy; we dress it up in free-market drag by giving our trading partners mountains of worthless paper in return for the torrents of real wealth that flow into the US every day; but the result, now as in the past, is that the imperial nation and its inner circle of allies have a vast surplus of wealth sloshing through their economies. Handing over a little of that extra wealth to the poor and the working class has proven to be a tolerably effective way to maintain some semblance of social order.

That habit has been around nearly as long as empires themselves; the Romans were particularly adept at it -- “bread and circuses” is the famous phrase for their policy of providing free food and entertainment to the Roman urban poor o keep them docile. Starting in the wake of the last Great Depression, when many wealthy people woke up to the fact that their wealth did not protect them against bombs tossed through windows, most industrial nations have done the same thing by ratcheting up working class incomes and providing benefits such as old age pensions. No doubt a similar logic motivated the recent rush to force through a national health care system in the US, though the travesty that resulted is likely to cause far more unrest than it quells.

More generally, what passes by the name of democracy these days is a system in which factions of the political class buy votes from pressure groups by handing out what the political slang of an earlier day called by the endearing name of “pork.” The imperial tribute economy provided ample resources for political pork vendors, and the resulting outpouring of pig product formed a rising tide that, as the saying goes, lifted all boats. The problem, of course, is the same problem that afflicted Britain’s domestic economy during its age of empire, and Spain’s before that, and so on down through history: when wages in an imperial nation rise far enough above those of its neighbors, it stops being profitable to hire people in the imperial nation for any task that can be done outside it.

The result is a society in which those who get access to pork prosper, and those who don’t are left twisting in the wind. Arnold Toynbee, whose monumental study of the rise and fall of empires remains the most detailed examination of the process, calls these latter the “internal proletariat”: those who live within an imperial society but no longer share in its benefits, and become increasingly disaffected from its ideals and institutions. In the near term, they are the natural fodder of demagogues; in the longer term, they make common cause with the “external proletariat” – those nations outside the imperial borders whose labor and resources have become essential to the imperial economy, but who receive no benefits from that economy – and play a key role in bringing the whole system crashing down.

One of the ironies of the modern world is that today’s economists, so many of whom pride themselves on their realism, have by and large ignored the political dimensions of economics, and retreated into what amounts to a fantasy world in which the overwhelming influence of political considerations on economic life is denounced as an aberration where it is acknowledged at all. What Adam Smith and his successors called “political economy” suffered the amputation of its first half once Marx showed that it could be turned into an instrument for rabblerousing. Thus the economists who support the current versions of bread and circuses labor to find specious economic reasons for what, after all, is a simple political payoff. Meanwhile, those who oppose them have lost track of the very real possibility that those who are made to go hungry in the presence of abundance may embrace options entirely outside of the economic realm, such as the aforementioned bombs through windows.

This irony is compounded by the fact that very nearly every economist in the profession, liberal or conservative, accepts certain presuppositions that work overtime to speed the process by which the working class becomes an internal proletariat in Toynbee’s sense, hastening the breakdown of the society these economists claim to interpret. It takes a careful ear for the subtleties of economic jargon to understand how this works. Economists talk constantly about efficiency and productivity, but they rarely say in so many words is what these terms mean.

A glance inside any economics textbook will clue you in. By efficiency, economists mean labor efficiency – that is, how much or little of human labor is needed for any given economic task. By productivity, in turn, economists mean labor productivity – that is, how much value is created per unit of labor. Thus anything that decreases the number of employee hours needed to produce a given quantity of goods and services counts as an increase in efficiency and productivity, whether or not it is efficient or productive in any other sense.

There’s a reason for this rather odd habit, and it points up one of the central issues of the industrial world’s present predicament. In the industrial world, for the last century or more, labor costs have been the single largest expense for most business enterprises, in large part because of the upward pressure on living standards caused by the tribute economy. Meanwhile the cost of natural resources and energy have been kept down by the same imperial arrangements. The result is a close parallel to Liebig’s Law, one of the fundamental principles of ecology. Liebig’s Law holds that the nutrient in shortest supply puts a ceiling on the growth of living things, irrespective of the availability of anything more abundant; in the same way, our economics have evolved to treat the costliest resource to hand, human labor, as the main limitation to economic growth, and to treat anything that decreases the amount of labor as an economic gain.

Even when the energy needed to power machines was still cheap and abundant, this way of thinking was awash with mordant irony, because only in times of relatively robust economic growth did workers who were rendered surplus by such “productivity gains” readily find jobs elsewhere. At least as often, they added to the rolls of the unemployed, or pushed others onto those rolls, fueling the growth of an impoverished underclass that formed the seed of today’s rapidly growing internal proletariat. With the end of the age of cheap energy, though, the fixation on labor efficiency promises to become a millstone around the neck of America’s economy and, from a wider perspective, that of the world as a whole.

A world that has nearly seven billion people on it and a rapidly dwindling supply of fossil fuels, after all, has better ways to manage its affairs than those based on the assumption that putting people out of work and replacing them with fossil fuels is the way to prosperity. This is one of the unlearned lessons of the global economy that is now coming to an end around us. While it was billed by friends and foes alike as the final triumph of corporate capitalism, globalization can more usefully be understood as an attempt by a failing system to prop up the illusion of economic growth by transferring the production of goods and services to economies that are, by the standards just mentioned, less efficient than those of the industrial world. Without the distorting effects of an imperial tribute economy, labor proved to be enough cheaper than energy that the result was profitable, and allowed the world’s industrial nations to maintain their exaggerated standards of living for a few more years.

At the same time, the brief heyday of the global economy was only made possible by a glut of petroleum that made transportation costs negligible. That glut is ending as world oil production begins to slip down the far side of Hubbert’s curve, while the Third World nations that profited most by globalization cash in their newfound wealth for a larger share of the world’s energy resources, putting further pressure on a balance of power that is already tipping against the United States and its allies. As this process continues, the tribute economy will be an early casualty. The implications for the lifestyles of most Americans will not be welcome.

I have suggested in previous posts that one useful way to think about the transformations now under way is to see them as the descent of the United States to Third World status. One consequence of that process is that most Americans, in the not very distant future, will earn the equivalent of a Third World income. It’s unlikely that their incomes will actually drop to $2 a day; far more likely is that the value of the dollar will crumple, so that a family making $40,000 a year might expect to pay half that to keep itself fed on rice and beans, and the rest to buy cooking fuel and a few other necessities.

It’s hard to see any way such a decline in our collective wealth could take place without political explosions on the grand scale. Still, in the twilight of the age of cheap energy, the most abundant energy source remaining throughout the world will be human labor, and as other resources become more costly, the price of labor – and thus the wages that can be earned by it – will drop accordingly.

At the same time, human labor has certain crucial advantages in a world of energy scarcity. Unlike other ways of getting work done, which generally require highly concentrated energy sources, human labor is fueled by food, which is a form of solar energy. Our agricultural system produces food using fossil fuels, but this is a bad habit of an age of abundant energy; field labor by human beings with simple tools, paid at close to Third World wages, already plays a crucial role in the production of many crops in the US, and this will only increase as wages drop and fuel prices rise.

The agriculture of the future, like agriculture in any thickly populated society with few energy resources, will thus use land intensively rather than extensively, rely on human labor with hand tools rather than more energy-intensive methods, and produce bulk vegetable crops and relatively modest amounts of animal protein; the agricultural systems of medieval China and Japan, chronicled by F.H. King in Farmers of Forty Centuries, are as good a model as any. Such an agricultural system will not support seven billion people, but then neither will anything else, and a decline in population as malnutrition becomes common and public health collapses is a sure bet for the not too distant future.

For similar reasons, the economies of the future will make use of human labor, rather than any of the currently fashionable mechanical or electronic technologies, as their principal means for getting things done. Partly this will happen because in an overcrowded world where all other resources are scarce and costly, human labor will be the cheapest resource available, but it draws on another factor as well.

This was pointed out many years ago by Lewis Mumford in The Myth of the Machine. He argued that the revolutionary change that gave rise to the first urban civilizations was not agriculture, or literacy, or any of the other things most often cited in this context. Instead, he proposed, that change was the invention of the world’s first machine – a machine distinguished from all others in that all of its parts were human beings. Call it an army, a labor gang, a bureaucracy or the first stirrings of a factory system; in these cases and more, it consisted of a group of people able to work together in unison. All later machines, he suggested, were attempts to make inanimate things display the singleness of purpose of a line of harvesters reaping barley or a work gang hauling a stone into place on a pyramid.

That kind of machine has huge advantages in an world of abundant population and scarce resources. It is, among other things, a very efficient means of producing the food that fuels it and the other items needed by its component parts, and it is also very efficient at maintaining and reproducing itself. As a means of turning solar energy into productive labor, it is somewhat less efficient than current technologies, but its simplicity, its resilience, and its ability to cope with widely varying inputs give it a potent edge over these latter in a time of turbulence and social decay.

That kind of machine, it deserves to be said, is also profoundly repellent to many people in the industrial world, doubtless including many of those who are reading this essay. It’s interesting to think about why this should be so, especially when some examples of the machine at work – Amish barn raisings come to mind – have gained iconic status in the alternative scene. It is not going too far, I think, to point out that the word “community,” which receives so much lip service these days, is in many ways another word for Mumford’s primal machine. For the last few centuries, we have tried replacing that machine with a dizzying assortment of others; instead of subordinating individual desires to collective needs, like every previous society, we have built a surrogate community of machines powered by coal and oil and natural gas to take care, however sporadically, of our collective needs. As those resources deplete, societies used to directing nonhuman energy according to scientific principles will face the challenge of learning once again how to direct human energy according to older and less familiar laws. This can be done in relatively humane ways, or in starkly inhuman ones; what remains to be seen is where along this spectrum the societies of the future will fall. That riddle neither Bilbo nor Gollum could have answered, and neither can I.


Kevin said...

At this point in our history education grants may be regarded as a form of pork, as I have occasion to observe first hand. We in America don't admit to having a social contract, not in so many words, but there is one, and the public system of higher learning is a significant part of that. Its implosion, which is readily observable in California, will I suspect prove to be one of the bellwethers that demonstrate to the working classes that the old deal no longer applies and all bets are off.

Incidentally, think I've found the answer to all those riddles about where our economy is going:

SamLee500 said...

Not only is this blog the best I've read on the Peak Oil scene, but John is also a fan of Lord of the Rings !

You my good sir have got yourself a new avid reader, please keep up the great posts.

Sam, London

xhmko said...

I feel like by that definition the first machine occurred well before humans observed and imitated it. Observation of natural phenomena seems to be the only option for advancement for our predecessors. Hence so much importance placed on the traits of animals in their vicinity. Could humans have watched bees or ants and visualised themselves as having the capacity to work in such dedicated teams? Did we learn to build from the birds? Or did we too carry this instinct in us before slowly placing ourselves above all other creatures in the world around us? These questions all stem from sincere doubt that the basics infrastructure of a civilisation differs that greatly from the the various example of colony type insects, nest building creatures, and social herds.

Also, I just read Toynbee's book, (well most of it, the library needed it back) and there were a couple of chapters in particular in which I really saw parallels with your writing, whether you were directly inspired by them or just arriving at similar conclusions; independent co-arisings as my friend named the phenomena of the parallel evolution of ideas.

Ever since reading I've been thinking about America's limes versus its limen - where is that threshold now? I saw an example in Australian politics with the Pacific Solution and its asylum seeker deterrence policies, but America's Imperial network is far more complex.

bbcomm said...

As to your observation that "It’s hard to see any way such a decline in our collective wealth could take place without political explosions on the grand scale," I'd say well, it could happen *gradually*.

Best, Bill

Paul said...

Alas, JMG, your words ring ever true while the consequences of their implications bring fear to my mind.

I hope the process of industrial decline is long and drawn out, and that human civilization gets to rediscover the natural sources of non-human power that have helped us for centuries: water, wind, and animals to power machines, grind grains, pull plows, and provide transportation. I wonder in what year will it be common to see a mix of pedestrians, horse riders, bicyclists, steam-powered vehicles, and a few high-end cars on a small city thoroughfare - all at the same time.

I suspect any remaining land transport engines will have to be configured to run on steam from wood and coal, and on ethanol distilled from wood and other forms of vegetation.

I look forward to innovative development of cellophane, cermaics, glass and polylactic acid (PLA) as a renewable resource replacements for plastics. But how will we obtain the chemicals and machinery and power to manufacture them?

Even smart architecture can do its part - witness the Persian windcatchers ( and Trombe or Morse walls ( Capable of providing summer cooling to frigid temperatures and winter daytime heating to summertime temperatures. We aren't utilizing these old, yet incredibly useful technologies because oil and electricity is cheaper still, but I hope we start soon.

I wonder how much of a technological core needs to remain to continue development of advanced technology in the centuries ahead. I wonder whether future careers will involve the mining landfills for metals and plastics.

Will hydro-electric power continue to provide the benefits of electricity long after oil and natural gas infrastructures has become too expensive? Or are these thoughts too optimistic?

I apologize. Your posts always bring up a lot of thoughts in my head. And I try to focus on the positive instead of the negative.

Bill Pulliam said...

To paraphrase a cartoon I saw years ago during one of the many spikes in unemployment of recent decades:

"Remember back when we were kids, and they said that in the future machines would do all the work? What made us think we would still get paid?"

The great shadow looming over all this is slavery, and other institutions so similar to it as to make almost no difference. This was a widespread (near universal?) feature of pre-fossil fuel economies; it was only the industrial revolution that enabled the developed world to abolish it without sacrificing their standard of living. I see little chance of its not resurrecting itself in the coming centuries.

Ariel55 said...

Dear John,

I always wondered what the Germans meant by "Arbeit Macht Frei" in the concentration camps. I guessed that they actually DID benefit from the labor of their captives. My fear for America right now is the polarizing and inflaming rhetoric. It's better if we focus on food and family. But there goes the idealism which made the country great at one time. Sigh. I loved America! Best regards and thanks for the post as always.

Don said...

Your first riddle, the one about the machine, actually reminded me of one of Gollum's:
This thing all things devours:
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays king, ruins town,
And beats high mountain down.

I had initially thought the answer to your riddle was something similar to the answer to Gollum's, too. At first, I thought "wind," but I knew that was wrong because wind didn't raise the monuments, though it certainly had a role in destroying them.

At any rate, I wasn't prepared for the actual answer. Upon reflection, it seems obvious, though. And I can think of a very good example: between 1825 or so and the Civil War, the Ohio River valley east of Cincinnati became the USA's first important vineyard and wine producing region. The valley reminded the German settlers there of the valley of the Rhine, and putting it in vineyard must have made it even more Rhine-like. (Search Google Images for "Rhine vineyards" or "Rheingau," and you see what they look like.) I could imagine that the vineyards were planted along the steep slopes of the river gorge right down to the floodplain, just like the Rhine's. The main reason for cultivating the slopes is that the they would have very favorable microclimates for grape production, for several reasons I won't bore you with here.

The labor shortage caused by the Civil War, combined with a fungus disease called black rot that destroys the fruit before it's ripe caused the decline of the industry there and it never recovered.

Now, 175 years later, several enterprising souls are trying to revive the vineyards and the industry, and they're doing a very credible job. I visited one of the vineyards last autumn and immediately noted that the vines are planted on top of the ridge, not down the slope like the Rhine vineyards, or like I imagine the original Ohio River vineyards were. I asked why, given that the microclimate on top of the ridge isn't quite as favorable as those along the slope. The answer: the slope would be way too steep and dangerous for the tractor.

Cultivating those vines in the Rheingau is very human-labor intensive because they must use hoes and rakes, not modern power equipment. I can imagine that in the future, when tractors are no longer viable because of fuel cost and/or shortages, that we'll see the Ohio River vineyards, if the industry truly takes off, once again take advantage of the more favorable microclimates along the slopes.

Robert Magill said...

A 'Peculiar Institution' Revisited?
As we rapidly edge toward the end of a surfeit of cheap and plentiful energy based on the consumption of irreplaceable fossil fuel, a bitter ' historical' reality begins to present itself for our consideration.

For three centuries we have developed a growing dependence on highly concentrated forms of what is basically solar energy, sunlight, to ease our burdens and grow our societies. Before the general use of coal and later, petroleum, we were limited to hydro, wind, firewood and, if the hunting was good, whale oil, to help us. But what formed the basis of our walking around energy usage was horse,and human, muscle power.

Human power, beyond the personal and familial, was augmented by hired help and/or owned help. History is rife with doleful accounts of the later. In fact it was only in the 20th century that chattel slavery was finally abolished worldwide. Legal human slavery existed in the lifetime of a few elderly people still alive today.

How fantastic is a scenario predicated on the gradual lead-up to a condition of want and coercion that would lead one or more societies to consider reverting to that 'peculiar institution'? And if conditions had so deteriorated as to make the unthinkable attractive who would take the first step?

This list shows a few of the principal players in the enslavement of humans in modern society and the year that people were finally freed from such bondage. Judging by the dates, this is really not such ancient history after all.

China 1906

Zanzibar 1897

Brazil 1888

Cuba 1886

U.S. 1865

Russia 1861

Romania 1850

French colonies 1848.

British Colonies 1834

Mexico 1829

England and Scotland 1777

Care to make a guess at the year and the place it all begins again?

DIYer said...

Think how easy it will be to manage the field hands with inexpensive RFID chips and those cheap little button-size cameras like they have in cell phones.

-- I'm thinking the end of the silicon bid'ness may not be purely based on energy budgets.

(still making dangerous assertions, I see :)

hapibeli said...

Thanks for another cerebral scorcher! My cranium is is fit to burst with education and insights of our tendencies towards human frailty. Or, as my wife says, our modern world can be "dumber than a sack a hammers"! I'll keep putting one foot in front of the other down the slope of Hubbert's Peak working to build viable community of local agriculture, water resources, and energy conservation with small scale energy production.

Mark said...

Another term and movement for what you're touching on is taking fast hold on the young farmers of America in the form of what's being termed "Crop Mobs" or "Crop Mobbing". Groups of folks gather at a farm or garden and get to work in unison, completing tasks in record time. I was part of a crop mob of sorts two years ago raising a massive passive solar greenhouse. We were able to frame the entire (94'x 42') structure in one day with roughly 25 people on hand!

So I think that is one really effective tool we will start to see catching on in more and more places. Here's a few references to enjoy:|Sports|Lifestyles/story/49708/gardeners-and-farmers-form-crop-mob

John Michael Greer said...

Kevin, good. Since at this point, a college education benefits the college much more than the student -- who often never recovers financially from the impact of student loans on his or her pocketbook -- the higher education industry is a fine example of pork, and the decline of funding for it is a sign that even the middle classes can't count of their share of pig any more.

Sam, elen sila lumenn omentilmo!

Xhmko, it's an interesting question how the early civilizations moved past the informal cooperation of hunter-gatherer bands to create the disciplined human machine that made the pyramids possible. As for Toynbee, it's not a matter of independent invention on my part -- my thinking has been massively influenced by his work; I've got all ten volumes of his unabridged A Study of History on the bookshelf nearest my desk, and they're tolerably well thumbed.

Bbcomm, even the very gradual decline we've seen since 1970 has pushed social stresses in the US close to the breaking point. Much more decline, even if it's gradual, risks the arrival of a flashpoint at which those stresses will burst into active conflict.

Paul, all these are good points, and good questions to be thinking about just now.

Bill, slavery's tolerably common in nonindustrial societies, but far from universal, and societies that do without it tend to be more productive than those that cling to it, because free workers are by and large much better motivated than those whose sole motivation is avoiding the lash. Our descendants may well see it in one form or another, but it's not inevitable.

Ariel, good. The concentration camp internees provided a steady source of slave labor for munitions factories, and some very large German corporations spent the war years amassing sizable profits from their labor.

Don, that's an excellent example. In southern Oregon, where I used to live, the first stirrings of a local olive industry got under way a few years back. It's the same sort of thing: a suitable climate and a willingness to use labor-intensive methods opens up options not available to fossil fueled agriculture.

Robert, slavery still exists on at least three continents, so it can hardly be said to be waiting for a rebirth. Still, I suspect that in decentralized agrarian societies with modest supplies of salvaged tech that we're likely to get in the middle and far future, something closer to a medieval peasantry will prove more viable than slavery as such.

DIYer, field bosses are cheaper, and a lot easier to manufacture under deindustrial conditions.

Hapibeli, "dumber than a sack of hammers" is good -- I'll have to remember that. You're right, though, that the best thing most of us can do is to try to make appropriate preparations now. I'll be getting into more of that in the weeks to come.

John Michael Greer said...

Mark, that's very good to hear. The more people learn how to use Mumford's primal machine themselves, the less they will have to depend on hierarchies to make it work for them.

mattbg said...

Great post as usual, JMG.

I am very interested in the "how do we avoid reverting to slavery?" question. I think it's hard to look at the past because how a culture responds to a challenge seems to play a part in what transpires, and we have no template for the current culture.

I don't know how hyper-individualism, an entitlement culture, and an expectation (still) of incessant growth combined with a lack of interest in sacrificing to take on difficult challenges are compatible with going quietly into co-operation and voluntary downshifting, which seems to me to be necessary to avoid slavery.

But, who knows? Cultures can evolve in interesting ways when the truth of things becomes plain to see. It doesn't help that people aren't being told the truth by those that hold the information, though. It would seem to make the transition more volatile.

straker said...

I have gotten hooked on this blog lately, but I have to say that when you veer into Tea-Party territory of bashing health care or even lobbing veiled apologia for domestic terrorism, my eyes roll.

We all know that doom transcends politics, and that the center can not hold. The trap is for doomers to be subsumed into the groundswell of populist anger due to a common disdain for the status quo, and for larger issues of resource depletion to be lost in the shuffle.

I am starting to see this coalesce elsewhere as doomers start to take sides on behalf of Joe Stark or the Hutarees.

This whole debate about where we go from here is starting to move out of the realm of the theoretical and into the real world, as your "Endgame" post from a while back rightly indicated.

The things which we advocate therefore has real world implications as doom (at least the credit crisis and dollar collapse variety) becomes mainstream. So when talk radio or Fox news uses incendiary language, it can very well contribute to a rise of extremism and the use of vandalism or violence in lieu of the political process.

Likewise the vehemently counter-cultural doomer community is going to be forced to express which side they are on in similar ways that, for instance, the muslim community does with terrorism. The same sort of equivocation that comes out of the muslim world every time a palestinian blows up a Sbarro is starting to come out of the keyboards of doomers, and this is just not going to lead us anywhere near any "Ecotechnic Future".

I would assume that in such a dystopian world of the rise of the populist militia, enraged by their loss of 1st world status, assuming power as it did in Germany in the wake of the Weimar Republic, druids would not be well treated, nor doomers who advocate anything resembling powerdown, communal living, or treehugging.

Bill Pulliam said...

JMG -- I'll defer to your far greater historical knowledge on the slavery issue; it's good to hear your prognosis on this matter is more optimistic than mine was!

As for people hoping for a long gradual decline, there are other consequences of that scenario. First, if you look at the way we have behaved in recent centuries, there's not a whole lot of suggestion that society makes any difficult choices until it is forced to by circumstances that border on dire. Case in point -- the recent financial debacle. Have major reforms been made? No. Assessments of the current state of responsibility and rationality in the financial world are "just as bad as before, if not worse, but now with a guarantee of future taxpayer bailouts." Why? Because the total meltdown didn't actually happen. The "Great Recession" has not been painful enough for the people who comprise the power structure to trigger any real change. Major social change won't happen gradually and placidly; it'll be a long series of pushing the status quo way past its rational end until it crumbles and we are left with no means to resurrect it.

Another side effect of a long drawn out transition is that it leaves the industrial system free to continue to wreak more harm, environmental and social. I'm actually kinda hoping that the energy screws get tight fast enough to head off what appears to be a global resurgence of nationalism, just waiting to take on militaristic/fascistic form in various places, possible even here in the U.S. It may not be the likeliest scenario, but it would be in many ways substantially more unpleasant than economic depression. Which sounds worse, dying from food shortages or dying from wars? Large-scale totalitarian military regimes can't survive without abundant cheap energy.

Loveandlight said...

No doubt a similar logic motivated the recent rush to force through a national health care system in the US, though the travesty that resulted is likely to cause far more unrest than it quells.

Yes. The whole thing really demonstrated how the supporters of both major parties in this country are willing to blindly drink their respective flavors of Kool-Aid as if they were Sweet Nectar from Olympus. And this can be explained by the psychological deal that the US elite made with the US middle class (the priveleged working class, really). In return for getting a portion of the goodies of the industrial economy, the middle class is expected to be very willfully blind and ignorant to the extent of being immersed in a collective fantasy-world. The ways in which one sees this phenomenon at work are way too numerous to list.

But in this most recent political situation, you had Democrats and their supporters fighting tooth-and-nail for what was essentially a Republican plan from the previous decade (it won't be the two thousand teens until next year) as if it somehow represented real healthcare reform instead of poll tax to be paid to private industry; and the Republicans and their supporters treated what was once their plan as if it amounted to the implementation of a Stalinist dictatorship. (If this were indeed a Stalinist dictatorship, those Tea-Party fools who have been smashing windows as part of a political temper-tantrum would be so very sorry they did that right now!) How else to explain this other than to say that both sides are living in a contrived Orwellian pseudo-reality to which they devote much personal energy to maintain? How the crack-up of these ignorance-fantasies will play out as catabolic collapse accellerates is anybody's guess.

Dr. Travis Robertson said...

JMG - Loved the post!

Aaron said...

Great post and a very thought-provoking in terms of how messy a tribute economy coming apart at the seams could become...

However, I think the primal machine, in the form of slavery, will not reappear - or if it does only for a handful of years before collapsing.

The primal machine requires one fundamental necessity - the collection of a surplus of solar energy. Without a surplus above and beyond what is required by the "builder" of the primal machine, the builder is left to forming relatively egalitarian relationships with other people that are usually exhibited by indigenous peoples.

It's a mistake, IMO, to take a short view of history - especially when history has been so short.

Take a look at this graph and ponder it for a bit:

No one discovered agriculture. People didn't wake up to the fact, some 10,000 years ago, that planting seeds in the ground resulted in a growing plant. They knew it all along. But they didn't engage in agriculture simply because the climate didn't permit it - it was too unstable, generation over generation, to allow people to develop sedentary lifestyles based around the cultivation of crops.

Once they did begin agricultural lifestyles, they discovered they could easily produce surplus - collections of solar energy that could be stored and weren't immediately required. So then, instead of raiding the tribe in the next valley over for their horses or goats, they raided them for their people and acquired slaves which could expand their solar collection systems - their farms.

That's all going to change - and quicker than one might think. The climate is by default notoriously unstable - the Holocene is a singular aberration in stability. And the Holocene is rapidly drawing to a close. The capacity to collect surplus solar energy will no longer be with us within two generations, maybe less, as the global climate reverts back to its usual mercurial self. And we humans will be reverting back to our usual egalitarian bands of relatively nomadic hunter/gatherers/herders/gardeners. But slavery, and farming, won't make another appearance on this planet for thousands of years if at all.

Michael Dawson said...

I'm using The Ecotechnic Future in the Environmental Sociology course I'm teaching at Portland State University. Any chance you'd be willing to field some questions from the students?

Pops said...

Thanks again.

This contrasts nicely with the discussion the other day at TOD re. social equality, which I take as just another luxury of overabundant energy.

I'm looking forward to hearing your take on re-negotiating lifestyle since that seems more important than much of the blather surrounding PO/OP (Peak Oil/Over Population) hitting the fan.

hugger said...

Outstanding post, JMG.

I have thought for a while now that chattel slavery will return soon. It is the predisposition of overpopulated societies.

Ancient Egyptian armies used to go to war to capture slaves. POW's built the pyramids.

within our lifetimes we'll vast fields tended by slaves, on the level of chattel slaves in the Old South. Enforcers will stand over them. This will be done by the merging mercenary soldier class.

Opposing the existing elites, which are morphing as I speak to establish this new slave society, will be the rural elites. This elite is forming now, amongst the populations fleeing the sub/urbs to rural areas.

This rural population will have at most 2 generations to develop their leadership class. We might call this class Druid.

The rural elite will be racist against the polyglot, polyracial sub/urban slave core regions. The rural elite will breed for superior sensory ability (Remote Viewing, Remote Influencing), and develop a warrior caste.

The rural elite will attack the sub/urban elites by assassination of their leaders; by disrupting their slave control mechs (the media); by depopulation strategies (viruses, introduction of wolves, bears, cougars in the fringes of sub/urban population centers).

I live in the DC/Balt region and I can tell you it's a dead end, a soul killing meatgrinder. This is the future, and I see the fate of we who stay.

Tom Street said...

Do we try to keep the machine, including its necessary growth, continuing at all costs or do we recognize that the growth machine cannot continue for very much longer, much less forever, and begin to plan and transform our communities and cities to function in the energy starved future?

I suspect the former but wish for the latter.

I don't know what the future holds but still think we should embark on a project which attempts to enable a reasonable quality of life under the assumed constraints of vastly less fossil fuel energy and modest supplements of non fossil fuel energy.

A key component of this society would be one that is compact and devotes a minimal amount of resources to the provision of housing and transportation. A lot more labor will be devoted to food so it must be ensured that less time and energy needs to be devoted to some of the other basic necessities.

A capitalist society in its present form is not up to the challenge given it disdain for the collective and its refusal to share adequately. Sharing of resources and outputs will be essential so that we can avoid complete descent into the abyss of anarchy, violence, despair, poverty, and murder.

Bill Pulliam said...

xhmko -- indeed that first machine is far older than human societies. Many organisms from all of the Kingdoms of life have evolved various forms of cooperative, community living. It is entirely possible that every cell in your body is the result of an unimaginably ancient cooperation between two simpler microbes that evolved to live as one more efficient cell (what we now know as the mitochondria and the rest of the cell).

I hope JMG will forgive a bit of a sermon here; obviously if anyone else is reading this he must have. It is actually relevant to the topic.

A point that we humans tend to forget is that we are animals, pure and simple. We are not "more evolved" than other forms; evolution does not have a goal, hierarchy, or strategy. Everything we do is a natural manifestation of our animal natures. We do not have a "higher self" and a "base self" any more than a wolf does; we are just ourselves. Building computers and rockets is as natural when we do it as it is for a beaver to build a dam or an oak tree to grow twigs skyward and roots earthward. We also make no sense without our environment. We live only in context; a person in isolation is very quickly a dead person. A person devoid of a community is an aberration; our natural tendency is towards the collective. The entire ecosphere (except maybe for the deep ocean thermal vents) can be conceived of as this great primordial solar-powered machine. Human societies are just one subsystem of it, and even oil tankers and nuclear reactors are ultimately products of it.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Another great post.

Please add TV, the internet, all other electronic entertainment to your circuses.

If I may boast, I did guess your riddles, perhaps because I also spent my childhood immersed in Tolkien. Love your Gollum discussion.

When young I was all about the questing journey and made up my own Middle Earth country. But I became increasingly aware of Tolkien's sensitivity to landscape and all the living creatures therein, and of his themes of regeneration in a diminished age. (e.g. Sam helping restore the Shire from environmental degradation; Eeowyn and Faramir bringing Ithilion back to life and so forth).

This is another lesson we can learn from Tolkien for the coming age, I think. A Romantic deeply influenced by both the Arts and Crafts movement and the great wars (I and II), because he bridged the 19th and 20th centuries he clearly understood the losses that "progress" brought. His themes of regeneration show that in our future post-industrial world we have the hope of crafting new, satisfying ways of life during what to many will be seen as a diminished age. (And I guess it will be, and scary, too.)

Hope and preparedness are better than woeful despair, I think. Maybe I'd better get after reading Toynbee.

Adrian (formerly quakergardener)

Joel said...

That reminds me a lot of the central theme of Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash. I think moving/vocalizing in unison goes back extremely far in our heritage: I'm sure it's older than civilization, and I think it probably even pre-dates our upright posture.

But it's very interesting to imagine what effect it must have had when those movements were put to some purpose beyond maintaining group identity.

What a great post. Thank you!

DIYer: You're thinking too high-tech. Keep it simple! Why store all those terabytes of images and coordinates?

Here's a slightly simpler way: Children learn to play Rock Band or Guitar Hero, and then when they're big enough, they get a tool with a piezo sensor built in, and a workplace equipped with a board full of lights and (unless the work is noisy) loudspeakers. If they stay on rhythm well enough, they eat better.

John Michael Greer said...

Matt, I'm aware that a return to slavery is a possibility. Fortunately it's not a certainty, and there's room to move in the other direction.

Straker, "veiled apologia for domestic terrorism"? Hardly. It doesn't require any sympathy for the Tea Party to recognize the absurdity of the recently passed health care legislation, nor does the recognition that we're likely heading for civil war here in the US represent any kind of approval of that fact. Both parties, and indeed the entire political class, has become hopelessly out of touch with the realities of life in contemporary America, and the results of that disconnection are going to be ugly; pretending that this isn't the case won't make it any less ugly, either.

Bill, I wish I could say I disagreed with you, but you're quite right; a slow decline need not be any more pleasant than a fast one!

Loveandlight, thank you. Very cogently put.

Dr. Travis, thank you!

Aaron, I don't think the evidence really supports your analysis of the origins of agriculture. The first agricultural societies came into existence while the climate of their region. the eastern Mediterranean was still in chaos -- there's good reason to think that they turned to planting crops when the local ecology became unable to sustain hunter-gatherer cultures and growing edible grass seeds was the only alternative to starvation. For that matter, the Holocene has been a good deal less stable, in terms of climate, than the research of an earlier generation suggested.

By the way, hunter-gatherers have also practiced slavery -- you might want to look into the prevalence of the slave trade up and down the west coast of Native North America in precontact days -- so I'm afraid your argument wouldn't hold up even if the climatic argument worked.

Michael, sure thing. Drop me an email via info (at) aoda (dot) org and I'll be in touch, so we can do this by email.

Hugger, er, you need to read up on the pyramids. They weren't built by slaves or POWs; archeologists have found wage records, and graffiti on stones boasting about how the work crew from Abydos kicked the butts of the guys from Heliopolis. As for the rest of your racialist fantasy, well, let's just say your views have nothing whatsoever in common with mine, and leave it at that.

Tom, that all sounds very good, but what are you doing right now to bring it about?

Bill, I can certainly handle a Druid sermon. Still, it's worth remembering that another thing that's natural to humans is striving to make ourselves and our world a better place.

Adrian, you should certainly read Toynbee. As for Tolkien, it's a source of wry amusement to me that popular culture borrows so heavily from him while missing all the most potent things he has to say about contemporary culture. I should probably do a post on that sometime.

Joel, good. Yes, the primal machine taps into very deep biological drives; that's one of the reasons it's as powerful as it is.

Bill Pulliam said...

it's worth remembering that another thing that's natural to humans is striving to make ourselves and our world a better place.

Indeed it is. Even we who don't have literal children want to leave something significant for our metaphorical sisters, brothers, nieces, and nephews.

Some have commented (such as Kunstler) that this impulse seems to be abnormally weak, perhaps even dormant at the present time. I wonder how much this is because of the massive virtualization of experience through mass media, constant TV and internet. Perhaps our awareness is turned so inward into out own constructs that this is what we have come to view as "the world," and making the world a better place means better gadgets, more realistic virtual worlds, and the like. The condition of the physical earth, sea, and sky take a backseat. Just a thought...

kabir said...

Fantastic writing! I had an idea that was triggered by your blogs that I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on.

I work in the renewable energy field and install small wind turbines. After this and previous work at a coal plant I've realized that nothing can compete with $10/ton western coal on an energy cost basis. It is something like 32 times less than a gallon of gas. The recent thought I had was that if you can't beat them, join them. What I mean is what if coal was used as, in a clean low cost gasifier manner to fuel the development of the resilent communities that we need?

Actually in some states I think you could net meter coal as a Combined Heat and Power plant. I think this would be a money maker, if you were sited close enough to a railroad or mine.

I mean long term you wouldn't want a community to rely on coal, but what if in the short term keep things financially afloat and hedge against oil pricing?

BrightSpark said...

How fascinating - I'm currently working my way through Mumford as part of the background to my masters thesis on energy cultures. He raised concerns about peaking resources as far back as 1932 (Technics and Civilisation), and although he was wrong on the coal estimate, he was a good 20 years ahead of Hubbert.

I haven't yet got to the bit about the primal machine though, and it's probably a tad too much for my topic. However, I had the privilege of seeing it in action and participating in it last weekend on a working bee up at a small not-for-profit skifield in the mountains of New Zealand. This place runs on 1930s-era lift technology that you would have found in the United States when skiing first began, plus a good degree of more modern throw-away machinery.

The fascinating thing is that these places continue to thrive here (there are about 8 of them), and can normally find a good supply of volunteer labour to keep them ticking over. I guess it's about pride in building something using (mostly) simple hand tools and muscle and then spending the winter season enjoying it.

Brad K. said...

Reading your analysis, it seems inevitable that someone will hit upon moving displaced people from the internal proletariat - to a disparaged underclass role. Whether slavery, the "hobo jungle" of the Great Depression, or some denigrated class of poor - like the "homeless". Such an underclass would have the economic resources and expectations of yesterday's "third world" before industrialization crept in, and not consume appreciable "formal economy" resources.

An alternative, I suppose, would be to eliminate those "not contributing" passively by targeted neglect or actively.

I imagine the first targets will be those receiving unemployment compensation and welfare benefits. Such people are already half-convinced they are no longer part of the "real" economy, or what Sharon Astyk calls the "formal" economy. An informal economy would not be based on cash values, but on exchanges within the community - services, crafts and produce.

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, that's possible. I tend to see it as one of the unfortunate side effects of the myth of progress: when people believe that history has to get better by definition, they don't put as much effort into making it better.

Kabir, coal has some pretty substantial drawbacks, and unless you happen to live close to the mine you're putting yourself at the mercy of the transportation network. Why not concentrate instead on using local diffuse energy sources, such as sunlight, and accept the higher cost as part of the price of resilience?

BrightSpark, you'll find Mumford's discussion of the machine all through both volumes of The Myth of the Machine. It's a valuable insight, and as your example points out, it doesn't have to be used in an oppressive manner.

Brad, my guess is that the process of moving people out of the formal economy into various local underground economies will happen by itself, as the formal economy contracts in real terms (no matter what its measures of abstract wealth do). There's already a very substantial underclass, and the implosion of state budgets will put a lot more people into it fairly soon; a lot of what will happen in the next century or so can probably be read once it's clear what that enlarged underclass chooses to do.

Petro said...

You have certainly become required reading. I've thought on these things for years, and you bring provocative and clarifying analysis.

Appreciated the points on agriculture.

Aaron: I posted on some of what you commented on over at my place (though not with the scholarship of Mr. Greer!) I'm happy to invite you over to see what you think, perhaps have a discussion (click through my profile for the blog.)

MarcosLagoSalado said...

Hi--enjoyed your post, was wondering, is it passable to read the abridged Toynbee or would you strictly stick to the whole deal. i remember reading the full Les Mis--a lot of intersting French history asides got dropped in the short version.

Thardiust said...

I wasn't going to comment on today's post, but it was definitely one of the deepest on this blog since, it does a good job of explaining why every human invention, so far, is an imitation of something nature has already made.

hugger said...

JMG, I thought you think outside the box. I see you are toeing the PC line.

Re slave labor and pyramids, yes, there were paid, free laborers. But they were the minority. There's no way Egypt could have raised the food necessary to sustain hundreds of thousands of laborers on the projects. They weren't raising their own food; they were devoted to these enormous construction projects. So who grew the food?

These POW slaves were fed the minimum and worked to death. They lasted less than 2 years.

Regarding my racist fantasies, it's your turn in Cumberland soon. What are you gonna do when they show up and start in with their graffitti, drug dealing, hitting up white women, playing the AA card, gun fights, rapes, trash, burglaries and thug culture? And your taxes go up because you pay for increased jail space, cops, surveillance, interpreters, counselors, diversity coaches, school guards, and everything else that comes with colored invasion.

Yeah, you've got white trash meth heads already. Now you're gonna get the rest of the rainbow.

We're talking energy. Well, you either go racist or you go down. Because, as you say again and again, we either start using our wealth smarter, or there is no future. And tax revenue, and money, and all manifestations of labor, are energy. We don't have any to waste on Great Society B.S. any more. I mean diversity.

Racist, or die.

sgage said...


"I wonder how much this is because of the massive virtualization of experience through mass media, constant TV and internet."

I feel that is surely part of it, but that it is just the unfolding of the "consumerism" ideal.

I have felt for a long time that the capitalist program has been to divide people from one another, make relationships more and more difficult. Then, into the resulting empty gap that inevitably ensues, you can sell stuff as a palliative.

Happy people, with meaningful lives and meaningful relationships, don't tend to buy meaningless crap.

Cathy McGuire said...

Michael's already said it well, but for those who think slavery is gone, this is an eye-opening TED Talk:

According to Bale, about 26 million adults and children are currently slaves (the old fashioned kind - no pay, beaten if attempt to flee). And since he points to breaking down of the "rule of law" as the reason, that doesn't bode well (in my mind) for future societies during this decline. I wonder how many will have the resources to defend the defenseless, when they have their hands full just surviving?

But another thought that this week's post brings up for me is the huge number of people who are unable to do hard physical labor. It is our dependence on fossil fuels that have allowed such a large number of disabled, older and frail people to continue to live fruitfully -- and in my opinion, many of them have contributed a lot to the development of a creative and innovative society. But in a world of hard labor, most of these people might be "useless". What then?

BTW, I'm watching a hummmingbird feed, not 3 ft. away - I will mourn if/when I don't have the sugar to share with these little beauties...

Don said...

You and Adrian are so right about Tolkein and his critique of industrial civilization and the losses it caused. You're also right that modern society has largely missed this critique, though the counterculture in the 1960s who first popularized him in North America certainly did not.

If anyone wants to understand his attitude toward industrialism, one only needs to read his descriptions of the uses Saruman made of Isengard.

kabir said...

I don't have a problem paying what I am able to develop solar based farms and communities. The problem however as I see it is that land, the base commodity for such a venture seems to be priced according to what fossil fuel farming is able to pay, this IMO outprices those of us who would like to get down and dirty on the projects like this.

I think this is a big reason permaculture and other sustainable farming perennial techniques aren't taking off. Without the fossil fuel subsidy they just can't produce enough to make the operation work. Of course if we have to transition to these techniques down the road, and we already know that they don't produce enough to be competitive in a food system that is underproducing, it seems that we can expect some food shortfalls.

Nevertheless I am all for any ideas of how we can preemptively transfer corporate farmland to permaculture style farming now. Any good ideas out there?

Jack said...

JMG, I have trouble with your concept of a tribute economy. There are a number of countries that that are not US allies, yet have per capita incomes in the same range as the US. Switzerland, Sweden, Finland, Ireland, and maybe some others. In comparing their incomes to US income, you need to take into account the fact that these countries generally choose to take some of their prosperity in the form of more leisure, rather than more material consumption.

Note that none of these countries is now or ever was an empire (except maybe Sweden).

The tribute economy concept can explain a high US income but not the relatively high income of these other countries. So I don't find it convincing.

I remember that somewhere in George Orwell's essays he says that if it weren't for the Empire's exploitation of Asian peasants, the Brits would be very poor indeed.(He of course said it more pithily.) Well, the British lost their empire, and they are still a lot richer than most of the Asian countries they once exploited.

I don't think anyone has come up with a fully satisfactory explanation of why countries differ in per capita incomes. I have heard two arguments I find persuasive: (i) effective, clean government helps, and (ii) a big internal market helps. But it's still a puzzle.

T said...

I'm glad that you, unlike most other writers in this genre, don't set a definite timetable for when these events are meant to occur. Of course our empire, like all other empires before it, will fall one day. Only the most ahistorical among us (which, admittedly, is a huge group of people, fed since birth on "Star Trek"-type fantasies) believe that progress is some kind of straight line forward forever.

However, I do think that you underestimate the general human determination to keep up the status quo of life as we know it at absolutely any cost.

Yes, that means we'll use up every last drop of oil we can find by any means necessary and burn coal right up through Peak Coal, thus making, due to climate change, our whole predicament and eventual downfall that much worse, but it also means I don't think the downfall is coming as soon as you do. I think we could even have a few decades until things grow noticeably worse. (I have read your evidence claiming that point of view is overly optimistic.)

Since you are personally invested in old rituals and ways of life, I think in the interest of full disclosure it would be good to admit that your distate for modern society and its excesses might be affecting the clarity of your vision somewhat, at least in terms of how quick this is all going to play out.

I don't care about making a buck above all else, nor do you, nor do your other readers, but the people in charge of the world do, and they will find a way of keeping up the status quo for longer than I think you give them credit for.

Jack said...

By the way, just so you don't misunderstand where I am coming from politically, I think it is perfectly reasonable to speak of an American empire. Further, the US often uses its power to further what its political leaders regards as its economic interests. I just am skeptical that American imperial power does much for the economic situation of Americans generally. American corporations, yes, quite often.

xhmko said...

Bill, This is what I was getting at too. I just felt like once again an historian had anthropocentrified a tendency that belongs to evolution, not humanity. Any form of centrism tends to really annoy me. The big ones being anthropocentrism and Eurocentrism. I'm sure most of the time is an unthinking variety of these that occurs, and that perhaps they don't intend superiority to be intrinsic in their statement but so often it is.

And speaking of people just wanting to make the world better for themselves and this striving being an innate trait. I also see the tendency where many to want to be the best they can at what they do. Unfortunately when you look at the roles that society has to offer (some recent inventions, others from that blurry background from which we came) it is possible for people to excel at jobs that spindoctor, discriminate and destroy. It's not a new thing, but it's definitely still a very real problem.

JMG, I spent quite a bit of my youth watching insects and birds do their thing. I watched ants work from morning til night and watched spiders build their webs from scratch.

I once followed a hornet(similar to a wasp if you don't know)around as it made its mud home. I watched as it went to the edge of a puddle and rolled up a ball of mud and then flew back to its worksite and using its own saliva a binder it then built its nest.
I would watch peachfaces weave their nests from grass and palm fronds; stripping fat leaves into smaller workable pieces and tucking them into their feathers before flying up to their nest.

And we'd crawl under the bush where the bower bird had made his love nest with all the bits of broken glass stacked up on the bed at the end of his amazing little tunnel of love.

These watchings taught me at a young age the intelligence of all life, whether it is on par with ours or not, it deserves much credit. You can put it down to instinct if you like but sometimes that just seems like saying that "I don't want to think about it any more"
And as I got older and thought more about our ancestors and how observation was the key to survival, I can't help but think that mimicry is what gave us the ability to move forward into a sedentry lifestyle (sounds like a contradiction in terms)

And growing up in close range to many indigenous people at home I have seen that their ways were absolutely about knowing the world around them: supreme naturalists.

I have heard stories about kids being taken after school (probably in about the 1950's)to the river to learn to recognise insect footprints from replicas made by an elder in the dirt with a stick.

John Michael Greer said...

Petro, thank you.

Marcos, the two-volume abridged version is quite good -- the whole ten volume shebang is useful only if you want to get in under the hood.

Thardiust, excellent! Yes, that's a crucial point. All machines are simply reflections of nature, most often reflections of bits of the human body and mind.

Hugger, racism isn't outside the box. It's among the most shopworn notions of mainstream Western culture. I take it, though, that you aren't aware that I come from a multiracial background and a multicultural family, and I have very little patience with the cheap racial mythologies that you and so many others are purveying these days.

Sgage, good. If a product actually satisfies a need, that need can no longer be used to sell another product.

Don, the myth of the machine is a central theme of Tolkien's work -- and it's something he explores with a great deal more subtlety than most of his Sixties fans grasped.

Cathy, thanks for the link!

Kabir, yes, we're going to have some food shortfalls. One of the things I'm proposing as a way to start dealing with that is to start small -- backyard gardens and the like -- and focus either on noncommercial farming or on production for farmers markets and the like, so you're not competing directly with petroleum farmers.

Jack, of course there are several ways a nation can prosper, and some of the nations you've named are examples. All of them except Britain accepted a tacit bargain with the US at the end of the Second World War, agreeing not to challenge US hegemony in exchange for trade benefits and the very large financial gain of having no more than a token military to support; Britain, for its part, is one of the inner circle of US allies, and traded us its empire in exchange for a very sizable cut of the proceeds.

T, I'm quite aware that a great many people, in and out of the seats of power, will do absolutely anything to keep things going more or less the way they are now. That doesn't give them the power to overturn the laws of physics or conjure concentrated energy out of twinkle dust -- nor, of course, will it spare them the consequences of their own bad decisions. As for my biases, that's always an easy argument to make; are you sure you're not drawing your conclusions on the basis of biases of your own?

Jack, fair enough. I find the tribute economy one of the few ways of making sense of the wildly disproportionate share of the world's wealth that people in the US, which now manufactures very little other than IOUs, continue to use.

Xhmko, I spent a lot of my youth the same way. We have hornets on this side of the water, too!

hapibeli said...

Bill Pulliam said; "I'm actually kinda hoping that the energy screws get tight fast enough to head off what appears to be a global resurgence of nationalism, just waiting to take on militaristic/fascistic form in various places, possible even here in the U.S. "

Not possible Bill, but almost a certainty in places such as Texas, the state I grew up in. Though I realized it before leaving the States for Canada[ where I was born] in 2008, I knew the propensity for Americans to fight [literally] any belief other than "USA, better than anywhere else". Sit in on a football game or most other sports in America and you'll see and feel the power of righteous belief. It will be a tough time for many if not most, as the dream of better times[in consumption theology terms] repeatedly fail to come true.

Tigerbaby said...

JMG. again, thank you.

re; Ireland and its wealth. Well, i live here, and Irelands wealth was ( yes, past tense) predicated upon its unquestioning kow-towing to low regulation unfettered Banksterism. Our 'wealth' wasnt even built upon the illusion of sand. We basically played Monopoly for the last 15 years, and have recently woken up to reality. Now, we have a beautifully indentured future to which we can look forward. All in the name of maintaining 'confidence' in Ireland Inc. so that International Investors and Government Bond-Holders arent scared off. We should have done an Iceland, instead we ( the taxpayer/ citizen / consumer ? ) have bowed to the mighty Gods of Wall street. So yeah, I agree totally that we are part of the tribute economy, and must pay homage to the naked Emperors.

Finally, I have oft wondered where our advanced societies will end up.
We used to think about how we can raise Africa to first World standards. Well, I have reached the conclusion that Africa is the future, not the past.

Blagroll said...


I just had to comment on empire, tribute and Ireland, as I live in Ireland. If there was one poster child for the so-called global economy it was Ireland, and the basis of Ireland's status was/is based on it mutually parasitic relationship with corporate and government USA. We provide tax avoidance structures for US Corporations (and some EU corps) in return for solicitor, accounting and back office banking jobs. We also provide job skills as well as tax avoidance for many US pharamceutical companies (the US legistlation on health care will be positive for Ireland). In return for jobs, we accept the US way of doing business, and we provide the US military with full use of Shannon airport without any undue restriction. We also assist in arms manufacture.

As regard GNP/GDP per capita data, you should also consider that Ireland has income disparity in line with US standards. The working people, outside of US concerns, are being roasted alive. Our GDP has fallen by over 10% and wage cuts of up to 15-20% are the norm. Immigration is rampant again.

If ever there was a vassal country paying tribute then Ireland fits the bill every 17th of March when our leadership flies over to the US with sham shamrock in hand to pay symbolic tribute in lieu of the daily machinsations which constitute Ireland's meagre position vis a vis its US benefactors.

I don't necessarily disagree with your thesis, but Ireland was a bad example mate. gl

frijolitofarmer said...

I'll second Cathy McGuire's recommendation of the TED talk on slavery. Until I saw her comment, I was going to link to it myself. Reading through these comments, there seems to be a theme of "what if" or "when" slavery will happen, and treating it as some historical anachronism that's been done away with. I believe you pointed out, JMG, that slavery exists today on three continents. In fact, it's more widespread than that. It's here in the States, even if you set aside those forced into the sex industry. I recall reading a few years ago about a tomato grower in Florida who was using physical force to prevent migrant laborers from walking off the job, and in the Carolinas, farmers were mistreating and refusing to pay illegal immigrants, then threatening to turn them over to Immigration if they tried to leave or seek help.

Two things I found interesting in the video may prove relevant: Bale found a correlation between slavery and industries that are destroying the environment the fastest. If slavery becomes more widespread, then, perhaps this would contribute to the acceleration of catabolic collapse.

The other thing was that slavery is most prolific in places that have weak or corrupted enforcement of law. I find this especially disturbing, as part of the collapse is the dismantling of government services. Particularly if those last few powers able to influence government have an interest in letting slavery happen, I don't think we'll be able to rely on traditional law enforcement agencies to protect us much against slavery.

Indeed, given how the prison labor industry has grown in this country over the last couple decades, I expect that what remains of police agencies may essentially end up being slavers. Nobody cares about convicts being put to work until they or their loved ones are convicted of frivolous charges so they can be put to work, and by then it's too late.

Cherokee Organics said...

Thought provoking as always!

Your reference to Liebig's law from an economic viewpoint made me wonder whether this is one of the reasons that politicians are in favour of a continual growth model for populations? This desire seems to cut across most spectrums of politics here regardless of the actual carrying capacity of the environment. Still all in all, if you take oil out of the equation, it should fall back to a sustainable equilibrium? Our basic lack here is reliable water and top soil.

The other thing that comes to mind from your essay is that to my mind globalisation is simply another form of slavery. People may argue relativisms between countries and cultures but they are dressing up the situation.

To our shame in Australia, slavery operates here and now. There are people who are brought in from overseas by unscrupulous individuals for fruit and vegetable picking and basic agricultural work even in rural areas with unemployment. They aren't paid much and the conditions are not so good. Often if an employer doesn't want to pay them, they tip off the Immigration Department. Other enterprises that come to mind are illegal brothels. It's happening now although it is most definitely against the law.

Australia was settled by the British Empire for strategic and resource exploitation reasons using none other than convict labour which was little better than slavery. What do you do with the excess unemployed, n'er do well part of the population? Send them somewhere else! It would have been the equivalent of travelling to Mars today. Few if any of them (convicts or colonists) were ever able to return from whence they came. The powers that be would probably like to try something like that again if they could!

Good luck!

Cherokee Organics said...

Thought you maybe interested to see how the unhappy proletariat are doing here. It's been all about house prices here.
I smell a bubble. The baby boomer generation (which I am not a part of) here now controls 50% of the wealth of the country. We used to be a nation that prided itself on egalitarianism, but not so anymore. There's certainly a direct relationship between wealth on one hand and poverty on another. It certainly comes at someone else's expense. It's not really that dissimilar from globalisation.

Jason said...

JMG: I tend to see it as one of the unfortunate side effects of the myth of progress: when people believe that history has to get better by definition, they don't put as much effort into making it better.

It's true. Combine that with the use of 'scientific' determinisms to avoid the hard work of actually making something out of yourself. (Genes are classic now as excuses, but another popular one at the moment is 'our minds are flawed'. Remember Adrynian? ^_^)

Downward academic pressure often portrays human functions as traps in which we're helplessly caught, whilst jejune upward populism represents self-transcendence as shallowly available to anyone willing to delude themselves. A philosophy such as JMG's (in which training of the will can transcend both physical and emotional limitations)seems rare.

Please count this another vote for the Tolkien post! I find it interesting how the knottier problems he raises have been vitiated in the form he began -- the relation of greed and power to soul-death for example.

Bill Pulliam said...

Cathy -- make your yard a hummingbird feeder. Grow and encourage the native food sources that these little feathered gems relied on for thousands of years. Depending on where you live these will be things such as native (not japanese!) honeysuckles, wild impatiens, penstemons, etc. We have a bank of jewelweed (native impatiens) not far from our front door; in late summer when it blooms the hummers swarm around it. They won't be as omnipresent or as numerous as if you have a big bank of feeders, but it's a more tenable and natural situation for both you and the birds.

Re: Tolkein -- it's especially odd that people miss his message because he spells it out in no uncertain terms in his commentaries to LOTR that are included with the novels. As he says, he dislikes allegory. When he shows war, pastoral peace, and machinery scouring the landscape, that is what he is talking about. Saroman's military-industrial complex represents, well, the military-industrial complex. Not that hard to figure out, is it?? I'm not sure people "miss" it so much as simply don't want to think about it, perhaps evidenced by the fact that the scourging of the Shire was left out of the recent film version.

Jack said...

JMG, facts are stubborn things. You say the countries I mention have "no more than a token military to support" Not so. Sweden, Switzerland, and Finland all spend from 1%-2% of their GDP on their military, which is substantial, when you consider that the US only spends about 4%. And they, unlike the US, have compulsory military service, imposing a significant nonmonetary burden. Relative to their resources, their they have much more than token military forces.

One other problem with your tribute theory is that China is a major source of the "tribute." China is hardly a US ally.

I suggest to you that Americans have high incomes for the same reasons that Swedes, Swiss, Irish, etc, do. You don't need your tribute theory to explain it. Occam's Razor and all that.

Aaron said...

"I don't think the evidence really supports your analysis of the origins of agriculture. The first agricultural societies came into existence while the climate of their region. the eastern Mediterranean"

The eastern Mediterranean is not the origin of agriculture - agriculture originated simultaneously at multiple points across the planet. We like to think we're in charge of our destiny - that we discover and make it ourselves. The simpler truth is that we live in a very large and complex system, called Nature, which shapes every aspect of our existence - whether we recognize that or not.

Recent research has shown greater variability within the Holocene - but stability is relative and relative to the last several hundred thousand years the Holocene stands out as a placid island of stability when compared to previous rates of global mean temperature changes. The Holocene is a veritable Garden of Eden - and we are about to be shown the exit.

"By the way, hunter-gatherers have also practiced slavery -- you might want to look into the prevalence of the slave trade up and down the west coast of Native North America in precontact days"

The native Americans were not hunter-gatherers in precontact days - they were highly-advanced agricultural societies with urban centres stretching from Cahokia, Missouri all the way to Peru. And like most hierarchical agricultural societies they had lots of slaves. The myth of hunter-gatherer native Americans is largely due what the Europeans found after waves of disease had decimated their populations by as much as 90% - if 9 out of 10 people are dead your society falls apart and you go back to hunting and gathering. Charles Mann's "1491" is an excellent introduction on the updated view:

Cathy McGuire said...

“It’s not considered polite these days to talk about America’s empire, despite the fact that we keep troops in 140 other countries, and the far from unrelated fact that the 5% of Earth’s population that live in the US use around a third of the world’s resources, energy, and consumer products…but the result, now as in the past is that the imperial nation and its inner circle of allies have a vast surplus of wealth sloshing through their economies.”

I agree -- “productivity” that causes mass unemployment is not just unethical but stupid -– yet I don’t see the government as able to do a whole lot (besides a temporary WPA again)… the multi-national corporations now have the reins of economic power and they are playing chess with the various countries’ labor forces, unconcerned who gets the axe as long as short-term profits are maximized. Witness the recent bailouts to see who is holding who by the short hairs. Even the angry worker seems to understand that if the government (state or Fed) starts to push back at a multi-national, they just move offshore.

But I think we need to keep crying “Peak Oil” in the wilderness, as much as some did with climate change, which is, at least, finally on most people’s radar, though they are still trying to deny it. There was a news article today accusing speculators of running up the price of oil “while it is in ample supply for the next year” – as if short term were the only yardstick. It did mention the almost 19 billion barrels per day that the US uses… but in no way tried to put that in context for the mainstream reader. That’s somehow what those of us in communications fields need to try and do: create a mental picture that is irrefutable (I’m thinking about doing a comic book) showing mainstream America that it’s “use it AND lose it”, rather than “use it or lose it”.

My personal feeling is that Obama opened up off-shore drilling because he realizes we can’t hold the Middle East much longer; without being able to say it, I think his administration is scrambling desperately closer to home, because that’s all we’ll have left soon. And I’m guessing most of America would be very much “on board” with drilling (and mining) wherever they had to, if our 19 bbd’s suddenly dried up.

“…like every previous society, we have built a surrogate community of machines powered by coal and oil and natural gas to take care, however sporadically, of our collective needs.”

Having just seen a little video on that shows a robot folding clothes, plus reading an article about “smart robots” helping the elderly in their homes, I have to agree – we have taken “the convenience of machines” to an utterly absurd level! And it could only happen because we are willfully ignorant of the real costs (in fuel, raw materials, etc) of these machines. The fact that most of us don’t have a clue as to how they work just makes it that much more unworkable…

I'm at least trying to have backup machines that I understand (ie: handtools) for the most important jobs.

And as for the "Third World salary" -- many, many of us already have that; my white-collar friends are joking about being "the new peasantry", but deep in their heart, they know it's true.

mageprof said...

Bill Pulliam wrote about "the massive virtualization of experience through mass media, constant TV and internet", and he suggested that "perhaps our awareness is turned so inward into out own constructs that this is what we have come to view as 'the world' . . . The condition of the physical earth, sea, and sky take a backseat."

This was brought home sharply to me about ten years ago. A student who had taken one of my classes enjoyed challenging me whenever our paths crossed on campus, and glowed with delight whenever he could one-up me. But one day he challenged me with the question, what I thought about . . . and then some names and other words than meant nothing to me. I asked him what he meant, and he said something like " last night's [another unfamiliar name]." When I continued to look blank, he said, "You know, last night's TV." I replied that I didn't know, actually, as I hadn't watched TV in about twenty years. His jaw dropped, a look of disgust swept his face,and he turned away. His parting shot was:

"What do you do, live in some kind of dream world, or something?"

After that he never spoke to me again, and changed his path to avoid me whenever he saw me coming.

He aspired to be a professional politician, which might perhaps have contributed to his reaction. But even so, it was one of those AHA! moments for me.

John Michael Greer said...

Hapibeli, this is one of the reasons I worry about the risk of civil war here.

Tigerbaby, thanks for the Irish update; this is very much in line with what I'd heard elsewhere. As for Africa, in the year 1000 Africa was far more civilized and wealthy than Europe. In the year 3000 that may again be the case!

Blagroll, thanks for another Irish update! My understanding is that similar economic arrangements play a large part in quite a few other apparently prosperous European countries.

Farmer, all good points.

Cherokee, I'm not sure if the pro-growth attitude on the part of politicians has anything backing it as rational as Liebig's law; it may just be a matter of kneejerk adherence to the "growth is good" dogma. Tell that to a cancer patient.

Jason, indeed I do. Unfortunately it's very popular to argue either that the creative transformation of the self is impossible, or that it can be equated with any number of simplistic mind games.

Bill, there's a lot in Tolkien that people don't want to think about. Watch the way his work gets rehashed in contemporary fantasy, or rehashed in popular culture -- all the superficial imagery is there, and none of the depth.

Jack, the US spends more on its military than all the other nations on earth, put together, spend on theirs. Of course that works out to a modest amount of the US economy, since it's exactly my point that the US economy is being massively inflated by tribute. As for China, empires don't just get tribute from their allies! I've also discussed more than once the role of globalization in all this, and China's done very well in that context.

Aaron, of course agriculture appeared in different places, but the eastern Mediterranean was the heartland of Old World agriculture and there's plenty of evidence for stimulus diffusion from there as a major role for the other Old World agricultural seedbeds. (The New World, of course, had its own agricultural revolution several millennia later.) None of that invalidates my point, which is that climatic stress forced people to downshift from hunter-gatherer lifestyles in a relatively wet climate to farming methods that could keep going in drought conditions. As for slavery among the Native Americas, I gather you didn't actually read what I wrote, because the native peoples of the West Coast -- which were the ones I mentioned -- were in fact hunter-gatherers right up to the point of European contact, and they had a lively slave trade.

Cathy, my guess is that Obama opened up the coasts to oil drilling because it's beginning to sink in that the Dems are heading for a massive hit in the midterm elections, and he's trying to take as many debating points away from the GOP as he can. As for "the new peasantry," yes, I've heard that too; still, I don't think a lot of the people who say that have any real sense of just how poor they are likely to get.

Mageprof, good for you. Your student was the one who lives in a dreamworld, of course -- an electronic dream shared by umpty million people every night in prime time.

Khephra, the fantasy of limitless energy is very appealing to people who haven't yet gotten outside the modern mythology of perpetual progress. It's still a fantasy, and in the real world -- where useful amounts of highly concentrated energy are sharply limited -- it's a delusive and dangerous fantasy at that.

dltrammel said...

On those in power doing all they can to keep the machinery running, have you read about the move into Africa for farm land by foreign companies on a huge scale?

Seems to me when you have foreign companies buying up a large portion of your arable land to produce food for their own countries, while you and yours starve, that could easily lead to native people taking up arms.

Chris said...

How many people will read though these great essays?

Not many. I think few citizens will easily come to a cerebral understanding of energy density and comparative human labour that you are trying so valiantly to impart.

May I suggest a practical way to resolve this dilemma is to require every citizen to do the following exercise:

1. Fill a coke can with petrol (gas).
2. Imagine pouring that into your car's fuel tank. (If your car is average efficiency that amount of fuel will take you about 10 kilometres.)
3. Put someone in the driver's seat but don't turn on the engine.
4. Now push the car a distance of 10 kilometres. If it get's too steep at any stage you may use a hand winch.
5. When you get to the 10 kilometre mark take a well deserved break and think about the amount of energy you have expended and then about how much energy was in that little coke can.
6. Your car engine operates at about 25 percent efficiency, so now multiply that energy by a factor of 4. That's how much energy is locked up in that little can of fuel. By now we have a hard-earned understanding of how fossil fuel energy relates to human energy. In a word, it's staggering.
7. Now step out and go stand alongside a big freeway for half an hour and imagine the amount of concentrated fuel that is rushing down all those tubes into carburettors. And that's just one little bit of freeway.

At this point you will have earned yourself a practical understanding of how our technological society will function function when fossil fuels start to dramatically decline. In short, it can't.

Some may dream of a return to slavery, but even slavery on a grand scale could not provide the services we have gotten used to.

(Forgive my non-American spelling, I write from Australia.)

Don said...

@ Bill Pulliam, re. Tolkein: I can't read Peter Jackson's mind, of course, and I haven't heard him say anything about it, but my guess is that "The Scouring of the Shire" was probably left out of the movie because of its anticlimactic character. I think I likely would have done the same. it would have taken too long to develop the background information for it on film. And I say that even though it's my second favorite chapter in the entire trilogy ("The Shadow of the Past" is first).

Rather than asking Jackson why he left "Scouring" out of the movie, I would want him to explain to me why he changed the character of Faramir, having him lust for the Ring like his brother did. That, in my mind, was the most egregious and unjustifiable change he made to Tolkein's narrative.

@John: Could you explain what you mean by "myth of the machine" and what is so subtle about Tolkein's treatment of it? As I and Bill both mentioned, there is nothing subtle about Tolkein's critique of industrialism. I would really enjoy reading a future commentary on the LOTR trilogy. Please? :-)

Wordek said...

Hence so much importance placed on the traits of animals in their vicinity. Could humans have watched bees or ants and visualised themselves as having the capacity to work in such dedicated teams?
Oh dear, I had a thought like that some time ago which didn't lead to a particularly reassuring conclusion. One of the things that characterises human beings above other animals are the number of relationships we have with other species. Typically we refer to this as domestication because we see ourselves as somehow superior to our symbiont's. But the key word is symbiosis. There is a principle in cybernetics called “the law of requisite variety” essentially this states that “the controlling system must be more adaptable than the controlled system”. So reindeer don't follow Laplanders, Laplanders follow reindeer. The Laplanders are capable of more variety in their behaviour than the reindeer are and have adapted to the habits of the animals that they “control”.
Back in the mists of time this principle surely held true when people began to associate with canines. That is those of us who first associated with dogs learned to behave more like dogs. We integrated with a pack hunting carnivore. And those of us who first associated with goats learned to behave like goats. I wonder what it was like the first time dog people met goat people? And I wonder how many of the fruits of this human-human pack herd relationship are still with us today?

mageprof said...

Re: "the world's first machine," that is, "a group of people able to work together in unison."

I want to mention William H. McNeill, _Keeping Together in Time_ (1995). His first chapter, "Muscular Bonding," takes a sage look at the intense pleasure that is naturally felt by people in groups who use their big muscles briskly and in unison. His jumping-off point is his own encounter with military drill as a young soldier in 1941; but he casts his net very widely, and he talks a lot about dance as well as drill.

What one can learn from his book is that humans are hard-wired to enjoy this sort of activity, whether in an army, in a work-gang, in a ritual, or on a dance-floor. In short, there is an inborn propensity in humankind that naturally leads to the invention and maintenance of Mumford's first machine.

The philosopher Susanne K. Langer once proposed, somewhere or other, that the evolution of human speech (and language) rests on the same sort of muscular bonding, which for her was primarily expressed in dancing.

Lots to ponder here.

Wordek said...

Re my earlier post
Sorry that should be wolves not dogs. dogs came later
Ive frequently suspected that these carnivore meets herbivore type primal egregores may mesh in somehow to the whole slavery-exploitation thing, though I may just be overloving a personal theory.

Re slavery
Though not formally considered a type of slavery the last recorded instance of “wife selling” in England was in 1913

M. Francis Heins said...


Long time reader, first time poster.

I had to end my lurking in order to telecommunicate a hearty slap on the back to you for the wonderful Hobbit analogy in the opening of this weeks' post...


Good stuff, sir, damned good stuff.

John Michael Greer said...

Dltrammel, yes, I've been watching that, and you're quite right; it's an open invitation to violent insurgency.

Don, by saying that Tolkien's analysis is subtle, I don't mean that it's indirect or weak! What gives his work its power is the depth to which it pursues the psychological and spiritual dimensions of its analysis. Think of what Treebeard says about Saruman: "He has a mind of metal and wheels." When you become obsessed with the kind of power a machine gives you, in other words -- "wheels without wheels, with cogs tyrannic moving by compulsion each other," in Blake's phrase -- you begin to lose the capacity for any more human kind of interaction, and you slip into a very particular kind of stupidity that can't grasp the possibility that anybody else can see the world in another way.

Have you read the astonishing essay comparing the psychology of Morgoth and Sauron in Morgoth's Ring, one of the last volumes of his collected writings? It's an utterly unforgiving autopsy of the spiritual pathologies of industrial culture. You're right that it's something worth writing about, but I don't see any way to do that at less than book length -- not and make the thing worth doing -- and that'll depend on finding a publisher willing to contract the thing in advance.

Chris, that's good. I've been known to suggest that people who don't get the point you're making ought to push a car for 35 miles, and then remember that they've just exerted the effort contained in one gallon of gasoline -- but the soft drink can metaphor is in some ways even better.

Wordek, I've lost the reference, but quite a few years ago I read a comparison of human and wolf societies as an example of convergent evolution. Both species have much the same kind of hierarchy, with an alpha male usually in charge and other members of the pack sorted out below via a rough and constantly renegotiated pyramid of relative status. It's probably for this reason that canids were the first animals human beings ever domesticated, by many thousands of years: our pack rules and theirs were close enough that it didn't take much work to become members of a common pack. Inspiration from goats and the like may have played a role later on, as you suggest, but I suspect the basic pattern goes way back in hominid history.

Mageprof, thank you for the reference -- I read that book years ago, and haven't been able to find the reference since.

Francis, thank you!

Matt and Jess said...

I've been thinking a lot about the future of agriculture in a fossil-fuel scarce world. I've noticed some of your readers mention permaculture and so on ... and of course that was in your book. It's a shame that small-scale organic or permaculture farming is such a financially hard thing to get into these days because I think we need a big head start on spreading the knowledge of these methods around as well as on their practice. Sometimes, when I think about peak oil, I just kind of scratch my head and think, you know, it's really not that bad -- spread the population around, give everyone a bit of land, and just get serious with biointensive food-growing and land improvement methods. (Something I'm going to start looking into soon is Eliot Coleman's four-seasons farming methods.) I'm sure that's just some idealized fantasy, but I've never been much of a consumer myself, and it baffles me to some extent that *things* are highly valued. Gold--it's not even pretty. You know? I guess it just kind of sucks that today's land prices, property taxes, fixation on profit, etc. are prohibiting a lot of willing people from getting into organic farming--I've heard a lot of people my age (20s) say it's their dream (and again this was in your book) but they just couldn't do it financially.

joanhello said...

Kabir: In the U.S., it isn't the “fossil fuel subidy” as such that's keeping permaculture from being competitive; it's the straight-out government subsidies in that federal legislation known as the Farm Bill, which is heavily biased in favor of crops that can be machine harvested – and these are the most destructive crops both of the health of people who eat them (they are the basis for junk food) and the health of the ecosystem. Michael Pollan did a highly readable analysis of the situation for the New York Times a few years ago. It's at

As for transferring corporate farms to permaculture now, you can find activists near you by going to and typing “permaculture” into the full text search, selecting your state, province or country and clicking the purple Search button.

Jack: Jared Diamond devoted a whole book, Guns, Germs and Steel, to explaining the differences in standard of living between societies from his point of view as a biologist, focusing mainly on the head start that the inhabitants of certain places got because of the natural resources available to them including domesticable plant and animal species. (Example: Mesoamerican civilization developed the wheel but didn't use it for transportation because there's no advantage to wheeled vehicles without large beasts of burden to pull them.)

Justin said...

Kabir said:

"I think this is a big reason permaculture and other sustainable farming perennial techniques aren't taking off. Without the fossil fuel subsidy they just can't produce enough to make the operation work. "

I depends on what exactly you mean. As far as food production per acre, permaculture techniques produce far more food. Monocropping is incredibly inefficient in that respect. The main issue preventing permaculture type techniques from taking off is that they require a whole lot more human labor. They are quite intensive. In a future where labor is once again cheap, I don't see that being an issue. The issue will then most likely be that when the techniques are needed and viable, there won't be enough people with the necessary experience. As with any craft, intensive agriculture takes a great deal of time to master, and it doesn't seem like enough people will bother to learn until it is too late.

I wasn't going to comment on the ridiculous comments hugger made, but when I saw your response it raised questions of my own. Do you feel your multi-racial background will be an issue in the notoriously racist appalachian region when law and order starts to break down? My family's ancestry covers five continents between my wife and children, and as such it seems to me that returning to Hawaii (big island specifically, which still has a smaller population than in pre-contact Hawaiian times, so population pressure isn't much of an issue) would be the safest as far as avoiding exploding racial tensions go.

What are your thoughts on the role of racial scapegoating in the upcoming predicament? It has certainly played a large role in other recent local collapses (ahem, weimar republic). What advice would you have for an incredibly racially mixed family?

John Michael Greer said...

Matt, this is why microfarming on the backyard scale is such a crucial thing to get going. It's affordable for many people, it gives people the chance to work through the hard part of the learning curve, and it can make a very substantial contribution in crisis situations -- think Victory Gardens and the little garden plots that kept most of Russia fed when the Soviet economy collapsed. Ernest Thompson Seton's mantra -- "where you are, with what you have, right now" -- has rarely been so applicable.

Joan, no argument there.

Justin, see my comment to Matt. As for the racial issue, I look white, and something like a quarter of white Americans have, as I do, some First Nations ancestry, so I don't expect it to be a problem. My mixed cultural background -- I grew up with a Japanese stepmother and a flurry of relatives -- is even less visible at a glance, for that matter.

More generally, the once-frozen racial divides in this country are becoming increasingly fluid. Here in Cumberland, in what has historically been a part of the country with hard racial lines, I see a lot of mixed-race couples, and even more mixed-race groups of kids hanging out and playing together. I was interested to hear a few years back that Confederate heritage groups are now welcoming the descendants of black soldiers who fought for the Stars and Bars -- and yes, there were a fair number of those. I'm sure the future will hold plenty of ugliness, but it's just possible that the ghastly mess our society made of race in past generations is finally beginning to sort itself out.

spottedwolf said...

My applause....Johnny boy.
Pardon me if I say that you sound exactly like myself....and I like me.....

It is a lesson all societies have faced numerous times and the depression of the 30s deserves recognition herein. To divide is to conquer and royalty has long exploited its patrons by the "bread & circuses" technique. When the times are good....raise the taxes for added weight to the King's coffers and make the subjects leisure time keeps order. When times are bad.....blame the "others" or "god/nature" and offer handouts to the keeps order. It would seem the last 400 years of so-called democracy was just a timely experiment in egoism for our systems are reversing to a more natural order wherein nature will do the sorting and selecting who receives the illusion of profit.

Isn't it funny the way it all moves in all life.
The more we analyze....the more we criticize....until we realize....that we are as primitive and predisposed to self-ish-ness as every other species. The wish of some who argue a slow descent belies the hope for a "softness of deliverance" and shows the classically portrayed anthropocentric ideals of all societies.

I am amused by the almost certainty.....of global conflict by others and wonder if they've considered the "conflicts" industry and population industrialism seem to be exacerbating in the recent escalation of "natural disasters".
The world is already in a 'third world war', pun intended, if you ask me.....because what is taking place the world over would have looked as any of the prophets of old. Mother earth has long been the major battleground adversary of men.

Wordek said...

Hi John.. not quite the point I had in mind, and given the discussions round slavery id like to try and clarify ..
When my dog first tried sniffing kids (as they will do) I held him down firmly by the throat, stared deep in his eyes and growled. He didst do it again
As humans moved out of Africa, groups traveled to different places and were completely out of contact with each other for thousands of years. During this period most of these isolated cultures evolved as "naturally human"..
Because requisite variety suggests humans are the most behaviorally adaptable species however, when other human cultures began evolving in the first symbiotic relationships with wolves, (with all the aggression, threat and domination postures associated with the canines hierarchical system), this spawned an isolated human culture with "deeply carnivorous minds" and social rituals that were able to integrate with and begin to influence their wolf brethren.
Then a thousand years or so later some unsuspecting "herd followers" wandered over the hill..... What happens now?
Which brings us to the possibility that disturbed me when I got to this point myself:
Even assuming canines were the first domesticated animals, maybe people were the second

Makes a good campfire story anyway ;)

Cherokee Organics said...

Thanks for your blog. Although I am integrated into both a rural and urban community (not as a 9 to 5 commuter though) few if any people (only one other - who also put me onto this blog - Hi Ben!) I know express concerns for the issues that you raise.
It's interesting in a rural environment as most large scale farmers I talk with seem to think oil and super phosphates will go on forever. They don't take organics or permaculturalists very seriously at all and indeed they are no commercial threat. The advantage of the fossil fuel subsidy is that they can produce and transport their produce cheaper. Oh well.
Back to slavery though, I think that it is within human nature of some people to take advantage of others. There was a famous shipwreck off the coast of Western Australia in the 17th century called the Batavia. It is a good example of what can happen with group dynamics and psychopaths. Not nice... Getting back to the point though, there are enough of these nutters around to cause trouble for the rest of the population. Another example is the bush rangers that used to roam around this part of the forest not that long ago.
The only way out of this predicament for people in remote areas is to make yourself useful in some manner, such as what you suggested with the skilled practitioners from the Caribbean piracy era. It may work with slavers as well? Who knows?
PS Have you ever read "The Mabinogion" by Evangeline Walton? I'm looking forward to starting "Engine Summer" by John Crowley. I read "Little Big" almost a decade ago and really enojyed it.

Óskar said...

Regarding the tribute character of our current global economy, I would agree and had already concluded something similar. Jack dismissed it as some private theory of yours but I find it hard to refute the reality of massive amounts of real, physical resources and manufactured goods streaming into the United States and nothing nearly as substantial coming back in return.

I think an alien observing this reality from outer space, without being able to understand human languages, would simply conclude that there's a powerful empire on the North American continent receiving tribute from all over the globe.

So what about the "prosperous" and supposedly clean-conscience allies in Europe, Australia and Japan? It's harder to explain their role in the system but I think it's less one-sided than the US and more of a mix - Japan and Germany (and even Sweden to some extent) are still manufacturing nations producing cars and hi-tech that people want; others such as the UK and Australia participate actively in the American Empire and are effectively an extension of it. Of course all these countries have some mix of both going on, just in different proportions.

Regarding Ireland and Iceland, I say as an Icelander that the countries behaved very similarly in the past 15 years and have seen very similar economic and social consequences from it. I wish our nations had a closer relationship because we have plenty of common interests, such as countering English predation and defending our common wish to be independent and sovereign islands (in every sense).

@Tigerbaby: "We should have done an Iceland" - yes you should, although I'm not yet sure if Iceland itself is managing "an Iceland"! The foreign press has greatly exaggerated Iceland's supposed lack of co-operation with foreign debt-collectors. The current government has been co-operative rather than not but the population itself is indeed increasingly defiant and demanding a more hard-liner foreign policy.

Bill Pulliam said...

Justin: permaculture techniques produce far more food.

Data? From controlled studies by people with no vested interest in promoting the "Permaculture" brand? As the promotion of Permaculture is a business, I am as dubious of claims about its wildly superior merits as I am about all other advertising. "Alternative" agriculture is as prone to misrepresenting its positives and ingnoring its negatives as all other forms of branding and boosterism. There are many many forms of food production in the world, it's not just "Permaculture" versus industrial agriculture. It is far from the only non-monocultural system. Even the run-of-the-mill backyard garden employs crop rotation and interplanting. If you run down the alphabet soup of "OBREDIM" you might realize these "fundamental design principles" aren't any different than the process used to develop an urban skyscraper. I'd wager in a hundred years the word "permaculture" will be part of a vast pile of discarded turn-of-the-millenium jargon, akin to impactualizing synergy for rebrandification of truthiness.

Bill Pulliam said...

p.s. assuming that appalachian white folks are especially prone to racial stereotyping is, in fact, racial stereotyping. When I hear the "n" word spoken out loud here it is almost always from a recent transplant from Michigan or Indiana, not from a born-and-bred local. My extended family is conspicuously multiracial, and when they come to visit no one bats an eye when they see my siblings, inlaws, and nieces out in public together. In my experience the situation is at present far worse in bastions of the enlightenment such as California.

xhmko said...

WORDEK, Yeah a friend of mine had a band and a mythology to go with it about dogs and people co-domesticating each other. I guess I'm looking more at it from what inspired change through people noticing clever techniques from the world around them and employing those tactics in their own lives.

For instance, I think it was in Tibet (sorry I'm not %100) they discovered felt because they found yak fur that had been caught on a stick and then it got wet and dried over and again until it became firm. From that observation they discovered felting. Its not quite the same as seeking to model a society on insect behaviour but the point is the same.

It is the same scientific human trait that has helped us the whole way through. Accidental epiphanies
and experimentation.

Of course looking at how we linked up with wolves and goats and domestic animals is important in distinguishing some of our traits, but I also can't help but visualise some ancient sitting next to an ants nest and personifying them at least a little and then imagining the potential for people.

But it is just speculation.

I think wolfman meeting goatman may have led to the first war as wolfman's wolves ate all of goatman's goats.

hawlkeye said...

Re wolves: I've just been reading Temple Grandin's "Animals Make Us Human", where she cites research that corrects the common misunderstanding that wolves live and hunt in packs. Under natural conditions, they travel and hunt in family groups. Research that noted alpha-male and pack behaviors was done with wolves in captivity, who were essentially trying to form a family group with random individuals. When the big pack was released into Yellowstone a few years back, it gradually disintegrated into smaller sub-groups. Hmmm...

Justin, I was touched by your thought about returning to Hawaii to avoid racial static. I experienced plenty of racial static there as a white person; I don't think there's a place on earth without these shadows lurking in the background. Are they the most profound reason upon which to base a decision to relocate?

The collapse problem on the islands, as I see it, was nailed in your previous paragraph: "The issue will then most likely be that when the techniques are needed and viable, there won't be enough people with the necessary experience. As with any craft, intensive agriculture takes a great deal of time to master..."

When Hawaii was a permaculture paradise, territories were divided between ocean and mountain, because every zone had its goodies, from the sea-weeds to the forests with growing fields in between. Now that nearly all foodstuffs are imported, the forests are gone, and resorts choke the beaches, it's going to be dicey to get everyone to snap out of tourist dollar mode, and gather down at the taro patch.

But now is the time to act and get yourself to where you NEED to be. Ultimately, after weighing all the criteria we think is important; land, water, population density, racial static, etc., it really comes down to one question: Where is my true Home? It's time to be Home, and if Hawaii is home, then pack up your canoe!

Now to tie three apparently disparate threads together: I was thrilled to see Mageprofs reference to "Musclar Bonding" - "...the intense pleasure that is naturally felt by people in groups who use their big muscles briskly and in unison."

This phrase describes exactly my experience dancing hula. Yes, Hawaiian hula, though not the kitschy Hollywood, grass skirt cliche, but the ancient kahiko style for men. Every movement tells part of a story, and the whole group moves in unison, at our best, like a school of tropical fish. Sometimes I am inexplicably moved to tears by the synchronicity and grace of our otherwise clutzy group of geezers. But the local hula dancers in town now number well over 100, men, women and children, and we all love each other somehow; we've become a community without really trying.

I find myself describing hula as a vigorous work-out for body, mind, and spirit, like tai-chi with better music, but the truth is closer to this: we are practicing social permaculture, learning how to emulate the bees without realizing it, while getting in all kinds of good shape, building invisible resiliency.

But "muscular bonding" doesn't come close to describing it, "the world's oldest machine" even less. We can't reverse engineer the impulse to become re-indiginous to our homes. Machines were modeled after human movements, so perhaps we might try picking up where that left off? There's more Mystery than Mechanics in all of this.

For those curious, this next week is the Olympics of hula, the Merrie Monarch Festival, where the best hula dancers in the world gather to compete (video streaming online). And the excellent film, "Na Kamalei: Men of Hula" is what inspired me (a committed non-dancer) to learn hula in the first place.

In the first place, perhaps as in "reindiginous" or "re-indigi-Nation", the process of becoming Native, in the First Place, Home.

Shiva said...

Yet another thought provoking post! I was struck by this statement:

"we can’t count on being bailed out of our predicament, as Bilbo was, by the unexpected discovery of a magic ring."

As a paganish sort of fellow, I have become keenly aware of the changes happening not only in the physical planes, but the metaphysical ones as well. There are huge upheavals in human consciousness happening as well as very strange "unnatural" things happening on the earth as well.

While we can't count on a magic ring to save us, it's my hope that there might be one out there anyway. Reading your columns I have often wondered why, written by a druid, they are always very grounded in the physical. I would be very interested in learning more about your spiritual beliefs and your thoughts on the potential for metaphysical events to possibly be our magic ring.


ps. in a couple of months I will be right in your neighborhood for a wonderful magical event called Fires Rising happening in Four Quarters. You might dig it:

John Michael Greer said...

Spottedwolf, true enough. I wonder if all the people who blather about "man's conquest of nature" realize that a war against the entire universe is not one we can win, and the consequences of our defeat will not be pretty.

Wordek, it's a good campfire story, but dogs were domesticated such a long time before anything else that your goat people will have had dogs to help with the herding.

Cherokee, indeed I have, and also the original Welsh legends that inspired Walton's work.

Oskar, thanks for the Icelandic update! I hope your country and Ireland do get around to recognizing their common interests; both nations are small enough, and peripheral enough to the industrial world just now, that they could pull through the approaching mess in better shape than many others.

Bill, for what it's worth, I think that permaculture has some things to offer, but you're right that the moneymaking dimension of the movement has gotten very solidly in the way of its capacity to have a broader impact on the world. As for racism in Appalachia, this is good to hear; I'd wondered if what I've seen here in Cumberland was an anomaly, and it's good to hear that it's not.

Xhmko, I don't think it was in Tibet; felt is a very ancient technology, found pretty much wherever there's wool.

Hawlkeye, hula -- and its many equivalents in other cultures -- isn't the primal machine; it's the raw material, more or less hardwired into the human organism, out of which the primal machine was built (and of which the primal machine is, in a certain sense, a debasement or perversion, though sometimes a necessary one).

Shiva, the interface between the metaphysical and the historical is a #10 jumbo can of worms, and one of the places where delusion tends to set in first and fastest in eras of social crisis. It's very common for people in difficult times to convince themselves that some transcendent power will bail them out of the mess they've made for themselves! A meaningful response to your question would take at least a post by itself, but the short form is that the interface between the metaphysical and the historical exists wholly within the individual; it can and does reshape individual destinies, but hoping that it will fix the world for us is one of history's classic recipes for disaster.

As for the event at Four Quarters, thanks for the heads up! I'll certainly consider it if my schedule permits.

David Berberick said...

Another excellent essay to read carefully. I recently finished "The Long Descent," a wonderful work. I read it right after Lewis Mumford's two-volume "The Myth of the Machine." (Every one of your readers should pick up Mumford's books; the man was a genius.) He wrote about the need to create a "biotechnics" to challenge and replace "megatechnics." I'll move onto your "The Ecotechnic Future" shortly. Is "ecotechnics" similar to Mumford's "biotechnics?"

I didn't know know, Mr. Greer, that you are a fan of J.R.R. Tolkien. I would like to interview you, Mr. Greer, for my survey of Tolkien fans. My research is for a book about Tolkien's popularity I'm currently writing. Because I haven't found your e-mail address here on your blog site, I have to post this public request. If you are interested in an interview, please write to my e-mail address. Or you can visit my web site, I have my online questionnaire on the site.

David Berberick said...

Reading through the comments, I believe that some of us are misinterpreting Lewis Mumford's description of the ancient "human machine." Mumford harshly criticized the rise of the ancient Megamachine during what he called the Pyramid Age in Egypt. He believed that Ancient Pharaonic Egypt was the prototype for what we now call totalitarianism.

The ancient Machine was an incredibly brutal form of social organization, relying upon social regimentation, human slavery, and constant wars of extermination. Opposition was intolerable. Kings were divine, or descendants of divinity, and resistance to their rule was not only treasonous but also an absolute evil. Hence all of the savage tortures and executions used by kings, pharaohs, and emperors.

Mumford wrote that the ancient Megamachine was revived and revised in 16th-century Europe as the modern Megamachine. The modern Megamachine now relies heavily upon non-human machines -- our inanimate technology using fossil and radioactive energy sources (well, hydroelectric power, also).

But the terrible myth of the machine, Mumford writes, is a largely unconscious stew of "demonic compulsions" within the human mind, which is now allied with modern megatechnics, giving our 21st-century Divine Kings nightmarish and monstrous powers.

We're all living inside of the modern Megamachine. As environmental degradation and resource depletion continue, the modern Megamachine will eventually collapse. Or it will "devolve" back into the ancient human machine. But I certainly don't want to live inside the ancient model anymore than I want to live in the modern one.

Mumford condemned the use of the machine myth or the mechanical world-view as a basis for human societies. Apparently he hoped that a new form of society was emerging out of resistance to the Machine in the sixties and seventies, something he called biotechnics. Mumford could be vague in his descriptions, but I interpret biotechnics to mean human society and technology centered around human life and needs. These cannot be separated materially, and therefore sanely and non-destructively, from the lives and needs of non-human organisms.

I do foresee a return to the ancient model of the Megamachine, the old human machine, unfortunately. It will be resurrected by Those In Charge for the stated goal of collective survival. I don't know how well it will succeed. I would prefer that humanity seek to recreate other forms of community.

bryant said...

I think that permaculture has some things to offer, but you're right that the moneymaking dimension of the movement has gotten very solidly in the way of its capacity to have a broader impact on the world.

In fairness JMG, you don't give your books away for free either. I think that if someone is teaching something, they need some sort of renumeration; after all, education is a very energy-intensive. A fifteen day PC design class is usually about $1500, which includes meals. $100 per day is pretty cheap for in-depth instruction.

Is PC worth spending $1500 to learn? Bill Pulliam does not think so. I disagree. Dissensus at work; time will tell which of us is right

Wordek said...

I guess I'm looking more at it from what inspired change through people noticing clever techniques from the world around them and employing those tactics in their own lives.

I get that, and my belief is it was very common. Unfortunately the industrial revolution drove an increase in formal schooling which meant that people stopped learning by living directly in the natural world around them, and started learning to sit up straight and believe what was formally taught, and only that, under threat of punishment.
The personal observation and speculation that you describe would have got you “six of the best” (or worse) for “dreaming” in all the schools. This attitude has largely stuck to the present day though some scientists and others are increasingly going back to nature for inspiration.

So if Joseph Montgolfier had lived 150 years later than he did and and openly speculated that the property of “levity” was inherent in 'Montgolfier Gas' he would have likely been laughed out of town and we would be wondering why our “weather rocks” never make it to the stratosphere.

As for dogs verses goats, please drop the goats. The goats are incidental in this scenario. The emphasis is on the new canine-human symbiotic culture typeA meeting any human culture typeB and the outcome of that meeting. Group 2 could have been any other group.

( Goats!?! I'll never be able to look at another goat the same now – hmmm ...maybe thats a good thing)

Shiva said...

John, I think perhaps you misunderstand my position and part of that is my sloppy language using the words "save us". I would be very surprised (and maybe a bit disappointed) if a magic ring solution kept the empire chugging along into the next century, with its subsequent ecological devastation and devaluation of the natural world.

I am thinking magic ring more like a conscious evolution renaissance, that would help make it so that whatever comes after the crash will be an improvement over what we have now.

I agree that spiritual beliefs are an individual thing to some extent, but I also believe that the human species (among others) operates as a super-organism with each part inextricably linked to the others. This would make all individual choices and perhaps even thoughts effect the super organism. If enough turn to do or believe a certain thing it can have a major impact on the whole.

It seems to be a that a lot of people (at least here in the america) are experiencing a lot of consciousness expansion. Maybe its just the lens I'm looking through, but I consider myself much more of a skeptic than your average 2012 true believer and I really believe that there is *something* going on. Where it leads I have no idea.

Anyway sorry to digress so much from the post..

If you do come to fire rising, ask around for me (shiva). Would love to meet you. These all night fire circles are truly some of the most magickal events I've ever experienced. I've been to many and they can be very transformative events. Four Quarters is wonderful....check it out sometime.

tristan said...

Ting... ting.... ting...

Don't worry JMG I'm working on the magic ring - any day now...

Ting... ting.... ting...

One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them


Librarian of Hillman said...

thank you, i keep coming back, and being happy that i did!

"As for Tolkien, it's a source of wry amusement to me that popular culture borrows so heavily from him while missing all the most potent things he has to say about contemporary culture. I should probably do a post on that sometime."

please do?

so much good stuff in your essay, and from most posters, but i am drawn more to the LESS good stuff--and so regarding the 'huggers' in our midst, i will turn back to Tolkien, and point out that while Sauron, Saruman, Morgoth and such *chose* their paths, by and large they waged their wars upon the backs of "races" they corrupted and enslaved to become their tools.

i will leave it up to 'hugger' and any of similar angst, to consider who exactly is the slave and the tool, in their own personal social nightmares.

and hopelessness in Tolkien being one of the most mortal of sins, i would also point out to them, that what ever has been "made" may also be UN-made, and even Orcs have mommies and grandfathers.

(aside: when i imagine humans first acting in "machine" like co-ordination, by FREE choice, i see women washing clothes in a river, or pounding out flour from grains or seeds for bread, in unison and singing...they do not seem unhappy. there is perhaps a baby to be saved from that bath-water?)

xhmko said...

JMG, I wasn't suggesting that felt was invented in Tibet and then spread from there, just pointing out an example of nature providing the example and humans taking the hint.

Bill, The permaculture movement has taught me a lot. It can take on a sort of cultish air at times and it's definitely become the "in" superlative to be tacked onto any old unrelated theory but it does deserve respect for the body of knowledge it has helped develop and the community responses to toxic agricultural practices it has helped foster.

These could have occurred without the name permaculture and have but it has certainly been a great movement. Is just that like all great movements that start low key, eventually they become infested with people who want to sell it. Take for instance Hip Hop or the Beat Poets, two underground movements that were in a way hijacked by people who were in no way connected to their essence.

Justin said...

(JMG, I'm not sure how clear my last post was, in lieu of edit, can you just delete that one, since it hasn't been posted yet. A nap has done wonders for my mental clarity)

@Bill - I am not really a big fan of the term permaculture, as I don't agree with the decision to trademark the term and charge hundreds of dollars for classes and certifications. I chose the term (actually, I think I said "permaculture type techniques) to simply differentiate a more mindful style of farming from the thinly veiled industrial mono-cropping that is called "organic" these days. Unfortunately for your first question, all the controlled studies I've seen only pit mono-cropped, extensive industrial agriculture with mono-cropped "organic" extensive industrial agriculture, with predictably poor results. I can give you all kinds of anecdotal evidence of what is possible with layered food forests and waste recycling in every aspect of planning a garden (etc), but I have a feeling you already agree with me, but took issue with my choice of words. Please suggest a better word to express this type of gardening.

As far as the racism in appalachia, I guess I was extrapolating from my experiences in the midwest. I am glad to hear that it is better out there, though it doesn't make me to proud of Illinois. Suffice to say the rural midwest isn't nearly as progressive as out there. From time spent out in SC visiting my wife's family, I would hazard a guess that the deep south may be worse. At least, I've never had so many evil stares with my mixed family than I had around Charleston.


I agree that there is some racial static towards whites in HI, but it is far easier to avoid in my experience (I'm white). A deep appreciation of Hawaiian/local culture and having local friends goes a long way. On the other hand, in some rural areas on the mainland, such as the town I grew up in, there is no way to avoid hatred if you're black. KKK literature was passed out on my school bus in high school, and I've seen incredible displays of bigotry. I don't think that would be a safe environment for an extremely mixed family if law an order start to break down. I believe something like 2/3 of Hawaiian marriages are inter-racial, so it is a complete non-issue.

On the other hand, I'd want to be in Hawaii even if that wasn't an issue. It is ridiculously easy to grow food, and shelter consists of a roof to keep rain off. Unlike most other lush tropical locations, you don't have to deal with a horde of tropical diseases, poisonous animals and language/cultural barriers (not to mention the armed death squads that pop-up from time to time throughout latin america and africa).

I can live easily (though not pleasantly) off the land if need be, which is certainly not the case on the mainland. I do plan on returning, but my income would cease, so I'd like to get a bit of money for land together first. I am in the process of developing back-up plans if things move to quickly and I can't afford to return, hence my interest in appalachia.

John Michael Greer said...

David, my concept of ecotechnics is a bit broader than Mumford's biotechnics, but they're comparable.

Bryant, I certainly don't object to people charging money for books or classes. It's more the marketing hype, and the extent to which providing training seems to have become an end in itself in the US permaculture scene; I've seen very, very few people here putting the techniques to work in more than a demonstration-model context. If that continues, the US branch of the movement at least may end up turning into a multilevel marketing scheme in which you get trained for the purpose of being able to provide trainings, rather than for the purpose of doing anything with the training.

David, one of the places where I disagree with Mumford is precisely his characterization of the primal machine as inherently demonic. McNeil's book is a good counter to Mumford's overly dualistic thinking in this case (and some others). The primal machine doesn't require or, really, even benefit that much from a totalitarian ethos; a quilting bee or a bucket brigade putting out a fire is as good an example of it as a slave-worked plantation. What defines it is the ability of human beings to coordinate their actions down to a very fine level under a common intention.

Shiva, thanks for clarifying! I'm not at all sure what to say, other than that my experience differs from yours. I hear a lot of talk about changing consciousness, veiling a lot of thinking and action that dresses up the same old nonsense in pseudomystical drag. I'd be a good deal more hopeful if I saw more evidence that people were willing to reconsider their belief that the universe exists to keep them happy and comfortable! Still, I remain willing to be wrong. As for Four Quarters, I've been there -- a very pleasant place.

Er, Wordek, Montgolfier did live 150 years later; his name was Robert Goddard, and his principle of levity put rockets into orbit. I'm no fan of the mess that's been made of public education, but I find it hard to justify the claim that it's stopped free inquiry in its tracks.

Tristan, nah, the ring that can be made these days was the one Wagner talked about...

"As its gold gave me might without measure;
Now may its magic bring death to the one who wears it!
It shall gladden no happy man;
Its gleam shall light on no one lucky.
Who has it shall be consumed with care,
Who has it not shall be gnawed by envy.
Each shall be greedy for its goodness,
But none shall find any use in it!
Uselessly its lord shall guard it,
For it will bring him his executioner!
Given over to death, he shall be fettered by fear;
All his life he shall long for death;
The Ring's master shall be a slave to the Ring!"

...but that's a topic for another post.

Librarian, bingo. The Hobbits replanting trees all over the Shire are as much an example of the primal machine as Sauron's armies. One of the places where I quarrel with Tolkien, as it happens, is his tendency to make his villains' spear carriers incapable of being anything better. If elves can fall, why can't orcs rise -- as their equivalents in the real world do routinely? But again, that's a topic for a different post.

Xhmko, fair enough.

Justin, duly deleted!

Ariel55 said...

Dear John,

I might mention that Baja just had a sizeable earthquake. One poster on a news blog was watching a video of 2012 at the time...Actually I wanted to share the laugh I enjoyed from your response to "Bryant"--I once checked out a MLM (Multi-level-marketing) scheme where the product itself was seldom seen. They were "selling" the business!

Wordek said...

Hi Shiva

If enough turn to do or believe a certain thing it can have a major impact on the whole.

Funny you should mention that …..

I’ll make a wacky proposal. Since this will never happen please feel free to criticise it from any angle you choose. Here it is:

If every school student at say the age of thirteen as part of that single school year chose one energy system to study, over the course of 30 years or so the “residual echo” of that knowledge throughout the wider culture will largely solve the power generation and storage problems.

I suggest this is a wacky proposal because the crux of the problem isn’t so much that other sources of energy aren’t practicable, its that civilisation has become almost entirely dependent on one form of energy. And it isn’t even that this was “chosen” because its the best and most easily available source of energy. None of us can go out to our fuel wells with a bucket and fill up our cars. Ironically oil as a popular power source made its way into popular use primarily because it is not widely available or easily converted into energy. This proposal will never be implemented because the primary question which has always driven the resources given to technical development around energy exploitation has never been:

A) How can we produce energy into the future….. its

B) How can I get rich off the rubes

And oil fits that bill very nicely

Lets be honest, the list of energy sources tucked away in natures nooks and crannys is almost endless: Methane caltrates – thermo-generation seebeck stirling etc – RTG Strontium-90 Plutonium-238 etc – Thorium reactors – hydrogen – hydro including tidal, wave etc – geothermal – solar – coal – wind – wood – and all the other stuff I don’t know about.

But hydrogen has never made it through development for commercial use not because its scarce or the technology is too difficult, but because of its ubiquitousness; a child can produce it with nothing more than a lemon and a stick of zinc. High efficiency devices or engines face developmental roadblocks precisely because they are resource efficient . Any paradigm involving distributed power generation gets throttled because its ongoing production is not able to be centrally exploited. The energy required to plant a thousand trees, can be measured on the fingers of one hand, where the energy unit measure is tomato sandwiches!

Why are there power lines to your house? Not to supply you with easy power, they are there to supply others with easy access to your wallet.

Many people have noted that in a sense humanity is a giant computer (42?). But careless and deliberate application of the garbage in garbage out principle (i.e.: Brittney Spears >> My neighbours daughter – Happy clapper type religion, political fear-mongering etc ad nauseum) ensures that most of the rubes will always be little more than low grade resources in this “machine”. And indeed its not their role to put back, only to consume. This was the real roadblock, we had every opportunity to become more than we were and blew it by being so easily convinced that its our right and our place to magically become some version or another of the gods eternal children.

I’m sure you recognise some exceptions to, and over-generalizations in this commentary. I certainly do. But the principle is sound. We could have easily had a low power high efficiency economy instead of the one we have now. But at those many points in history where the vital choices were made B always trumped A and still does.

I still maintain that some places will be lucky though. Will they be like us? I believe not. How will their culture evolve? Who knows. Will their internal system make its way out to influence some wider civilisation? Heh heh .. see B) above.

John Michael Greer said...

Ariel, that's true of most MLM gimmicks -- they're pyramid schemes in which what you buy is the right to profit off the next round of people who want to get the right to... and so on.

Wordek, the reason hydrogen hasn't gone anywhere is that it's not an energy source. You have to use more energy to produce the hydrogen than you get from burning the hydrogen, and so if you want to launch a hydrogen economy, you have to have an energy source to produce all that hydrogen -- not to mention all the infrastructure needed to produce, distribute, and use the hydrogen.

As for "lots of energy in nature's crannies..." Er, did you read last week's post? The raw quantity of energy doesn't mean a thing; what matters is how much you have once you finish extracting it and concentrating it to a useful form, and with the vast majority of the energy available to us, that amounts to "not much." That's the heart of our predicament. It's very comforting, granted, to blame that predicament on the machinations of the rich and powerful (or some other scapegoat), but thinking in those terms doesn't help us deal with what we're facing.

Bill Pulliam said...

Re: Permaculture... the problem with Permaculture is not so much in the concepts. These are reasonable, if over generalized and a bit dogmatic; they are however for the most part not new. Permaculture is a nice compendium of practices and ideas that have been around in some cases since prehistory. The problem is with the packaging, "jargonification," and merchandising. In that way is has become far too similar (for my tastes) to the pervasive turn-of-the-millenium madison avenue - corporate speak frame of mind, which is antithetical to the goals it is supposed to be striving towards. As for right and wrong, my world doesn't deal in those terms, at least not in the big picture. Dualistic thinking is another of those unhelpful habits we humans like to get stuck in.

I live in a Transition Town (tm) and a hotbed of Financial Permaculture (tm). It was neither of these things when I first moved here, being just an isolated hillbilly town (a term the locals apply to themselves proudly, it's not an insult) with an unemployment problem, ideal climate, friendly atmosphere, and cheap real estate. Back in those long ago days (i.e. 2002) I was very interested in and sympathetic towards Permaculture when I was learning of it purely from books. As I gained more direct exposure to the Permaculture Movement (tm), however, my opinion shifted. The recent advent of Financial Permaculture (tm) has turned me rather firmly against it. When I go to the Financial Permaculture (tm) websites the corporate speak and jargon are layered on so thick I can scarcely decode what they are actually talking about. Jargon is almost always an attempt to cloak ideas that are either old or dubious in an aura of new and shiny.

I also notice that with some notable exceptions, most Permaculture advocates talk and plan much, but actually implement surprisingly little. Meanwhile the hillbillies in coveralls, baseball caps, and accents straight from "Hee Haw" are resurrecting small-scale local agriculture, raising and selling tens of thousands of eggs and tons of local produce, all through existing channels and without polysyllabic jargonomics.

Justin -- the South, like any other region, is culturally far less homogeneous than most think. Charleston SC is socially one of the most conservative cities in the region. In Atlanta, or even Nashville, no one would hardly notice anything unusual about your family. If you are thinking of relocating ANYWHERE I recommend you throw all regional generalizations away, chose specific locations, and become familiar with their particular social attitudes. There are all kinds of people everywhere you go. I was in line at our local post office once as the clerk and a customer were trying to determine if a parcel destined for the PR of China was correctly addressed. The clerk chuckled and said "We're just a bunch of simple small town hillbillies here!" I commented "Yeah, but we've got people living in this town from all over the world." She nodded and agreed "That is the truth!"

Wordek said...

Hi Justin

Please suggest a better word to express this type of gardening.

Maybe Ecosystem design?

Hi Tristan

Someone wanted a magic ring? No problem... Ill get my magic bell.. ding dong

Man!! .. I really am on a giant roll now!! …....................What? Oh no! .. A giant mouth!! HELP!

Wordek said...


but I find it hard to justify the claim that it's stopped free inquiry in its tracks.
Im sorry but as I understood it the question wasn't about formal free inquiry, it was about the average person being free and able to observe nature and achieve epiphany. as Montgolfier did with his fireplace. A different phenomena

Im not blaming the rich and powerful or a scapegoat. Machinations maybe. Consumerism (of all kinds) has made the idea that we should be independent and self sufficient beings a cultural fringe activity that will get you looked at sideways.
Which leads into “lots of energy in nature's crannies”
Agreed a national economy wont survive on any of these with the possible but highly unlikely exception of methane caltrates. National economies aren't where my thinking is though.

the reason hydrogen hasn't gone anywhere is that it's not an energy source
I hope we will agree to disagree on hydrogen to a point. I know its been covered and I agree a hydrogen economy is impossible for a number of reasons. I'm yet to be convinced that it couldn't be a practical storage medium in a number of contexts. Until I am I'm afraid its going to stick in my head to some extent.

More than anything I'm trying to get at the idea of achieving independence, whether personal or as a community or even a culture. Appreciate your patience, I'll attempt not to try it further

Cherokee Organics said...

I saw your comment regarding permaculture teachings and their focus on training. I think the correct term may be pyramid (or ponzi) scheme!

Society doesn't want for a lack of information on how to deal with the predicaments facing us all in future, it seems to me that individuals and those in power lack the desire to make the compromises to their lives that could possibly amount to a less difficult future sliding down the slope of Hubbard's peak.

If you want information on permaculture you don't have to sit a design course to learn it. Just go to a local library or a bookstore as people have already gone to the hassle of diseminating that information. The same goes for organic or non organic gardening. Even better, head out and meet people who are actually putting it into practice, they're usually more than happy to swap notes, answer questions etc.

It's best to glean information from all sorts of sources so that you can form your own opinion based on the reality that you are faced with.

As you quite rightly pointed out there does seem to be quite a lot more talking about local food production than what seems to be actually happening. We have a few hundred varities of fruit trees and are often scoffed at by the local farmers, but in any season here with the variability in our climate (a foretaste of what the rest of the world may soon be faced with because of global wierding), it's the only way to ensure you get at least some production.

Putting information into practice is one of the best ways to learn and is a very different method than what is taught in formal education (primary, secondary and university).

If you look at most religions there is no end of various groups, sects, permutations etc. It might get back to the fact that people are tribal in their nature and just want to belong to a group. The whole organic, permaculture, biodynamic thing is no different. From my point of view they have more in common than what separates them. I only hope that people understand the why of things and actually get out and practice it before it's too late.
Good luck and thanks again for an awesome blog!

Óskar said...

The argument Wordek just made is one I run into a lot when I discuss energy with people. The idea that the "oil lobby" is super-powerful and able to keep a whole planet of 7 billion people using an obsoleted fuel in the face of ubiquitous and easily accessible alternatives. Wordek, if other energy sources are so competitive with oil, wouldn't some oil-deprived elites (like the Europeans or Japanese) attempt to use that fuel to gain an edge?

On the topic of permaculture, I can only say that regardless of what may be going on with the marketing side of it, I find permaculture authors such as David Holmgren and Toby Hemingway to be every bit as visionary as our esteemed John Michael Greer. Perhaps it's just that the permaculture community has become big enough to have both good and bad sides to it.

On the topic of this weeks post... I love this line of thought. I used to reflect on what exactly some of our most celebrated technologies were trying to achieve and how much of it has ironically already been achieved by nature millions or even billions of years ago -- solar power? Photo synthesis, evolved and perfected over ~3.4 billion years; nano-tech? Bacteria and organic cells in general... the seed of a plant is like a miraculous self replicating nano-tech factory beyond our wildest dreams! Ditto for artificial intelligence. Why are we trying to reinvent nature, trying to outdo billions of years of evolution?

I find that the more I think this through the more convinced I become that in the absence of oil, food is the ultimate fuel and humans/animals the ultimate machines.

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, this has been my experience, too -- though I gather from some of the comments I've seen that this may be primarily an American thing. I'll have to look into the whole "financial permaculture" (tm) business, too; in my experience, whenever the jargon starts flying fast and thick, what's under it is usually some kind of Ponzi scheme. But we'll see.

Wordek, of course hydrogen is a potential energy storage medium; the problem is purely where to get the energy to store. As for independence, no argument there; the problem with most energy sources in the universe is that they take so much technology to extract that independence becomes impossible -- you have to depend on a technostructure. Thus my suggestion that human muscles may be the best option we've got.

Cherokee, I hope permaculture doesn't complete the process of turning into a Ponzi scheme! It would be a pity to lose the positive things in the system. You're doubtless right that tribal loyalties are involved; a lot of alternative movements function primarily as a surrogate for community, a place to park loyalties that society as a whole no longer retains.

Oskar, my guess is that so many people are trying to reinvent Nature because that way it belongs to them. I mentioned earlier an essay by Tolkien about the psychology of his two Dark Lords, Morgoth and Sauron; according to him, what drove Morgoth -- and by implication, much of industrial humanity -- is a rage at the world for daring to exist as something separate from ego, something with its own origins and history and destiny, that can't simply be subsumed into the projected images of ego. Thus you could say that Morgoth was the first New Ager, insisting that the only reality is the one he creates for himself -- but he's also the iconic figure of the industrial-age consciousness of which the New Age is a late and extreme form.

Óskar said...

JMG, I agree with the Tolkien explanation as far as psychological motives go. It's an unquestioned egocentric world view which leads to this pursuit. Like a child who, when refused new toys by its parents, insists it can buy the toys from its own piggy bank savings.

I think there's another reason too, which comes back to what you're saying in the past posts...

High-tech solutions are trying to work renewability and sustainability, the model for which must inevitably be found in nature, into our existing technological structure. Our existing technology is based around abundant fossil fuels and designed to channel mass amounts of energy into various productive and destructive tasks.

When we consider alternative (non-fossil fuel) sources of energy we fail to think outside of this box and look for ways to hook up the new fancy energy sources with our existing electric grid, cars, etc, just as they are.

This insistence on compatibility with the industrial infrastructure leads us to technologies like the photovoltaic solar cell, essentially a crude replica of what the biosphere has been doing for eons.

Ultimately it's the petroleum specific infrastructure which has to go (in due time) - notably electricity and motorized vehicles.

Primigenia said...

OT: (sorry, there's no other way to ask you two question.)

1. Came your way via your book. I've read through the history you gave and there's no mention of the ADF or it's founder. Is there a reason for this? This is an honest, non-confrontational type question. I'm sincerely curious.

2. Would you consider putting your blog on Facebook too? I want to keep all my good-reads in one place so I don't forget to read them. :D

Wordek said...

Hi Oscar
The argument Wordek just made is one I run into a lot when I discuss energy with people. The idea that the "oil lobby" is super-powerful and able to keep a whole planet of 7 billion people using an obsoleted fuel in the face of ubiquitous and easily accessible alternatives

Thats not quite an accurate description of my position. Think of the energy infrastructure as lantana or old mans beard or --insert your local pervasive weed plant here--. Other plants cant compete against it until the weed is cleared. Big oil is happy for alternative energy fans to do their thing. No one can really compete during the product development or implementation phases against the prices of such a well established industry in the “free” (read efficient not resilient -Tks JMG) market. Sure alternative energy has gained a tiny fingerhold by creating a “green market” through moral rather than economic appeal. But keep in mind that its not just the energy source thats the problem but that the whole infrastructure is built around massive waste. For instance cross country power lines will go. Too lossy. Massive fluctuations in oil prices for 15 years or so might incentivise action towards some mitigation of the impact here and there, But whatever happens its just all too little too late for “the system” as a whole to adjust gradually to a low energy locally focused paradigm. We have to look out for ourselves and what that ends up looking like will depend on your little patch of the world.

Matt and Jess said...

I don't know if I am allowed to make specific book recommendations here, but a really good home-scale permaculture guide that I have is "Gaia's Garden" (second edition). It has really specific instructions, such as how to plant seeds in sheet mulch, and when to put compost on your land. You can spend $20 instead of $1500 and learn probably just as much. I was surprised to learn that organic monocropping isn't really good for land either, though superior to traditional monocropping. As a vegan, I'm interested in the future of small-scale, animal-friendly farming as it relates to peak oil.

I think the human machine is awesome. There's nothing more satisfying than working hard for yourself or with friends. The machine in combination with unjust hierarchies and governments is when it gets bad, I guess. I also have anarchist leanings (in a good way), and I'm always hoping that people will be able to work together--mutual aid--as we transition past peak oil, rather than revert to some horrible form of injust society.

John Michael Greer said...

Oskar, exactly. As long as we keep on trying to power the infrastructure we've got by some other means, we're stuck in a room with no exits. It's only when we reframe the question as what kind of society we can have with the energy that's available to us that we can get anywhere.

Primigenia, I'm guessing that you mean The Druidry Handbook when you say "my book," but it's a guess, as I have better than 20 books in print these days. I didn't mention ADF or Isaac Bonewits by name because that book's not about modern Neopaganism; it's about the older Druidry of the 18th and 19th century Revival -- which, as I'm sure you know, Isaac and ADF pretty consistently denounce in heated terms. As for Facebook, I'll look into it.

Wordek, thanks for the clarification. That makes a good deal more sense!

Matt and Jess, I mention specific books here fairly often, so I see no reason why you can't! I've read Gaia's Garden, and it seems pretty sound.

Bill Pulliam said...

As someone who is not a member of either group but is generally on friendly speaking terms with both groups, I might comment on the ADF/AODA distinction (though this is not really the right blog for that, it does come up from time to time). ADF takes a reconstructionist approach, emphasizing archaeological and literary evidence of the practices and beliefs of pre-christian Indoeuropean pagan societies. It is solidly within the Reconstructionist sphere of contemporary Neopaganism. Isaac stresses scholarly research into historic and prehistoric pagan cultures as a foundation of belief and practice. In contrast, AODA is a revival of a syncretist/eclectic movement that dates back only a few hundred years. It encompasses elements from many traditions, and under JMG's leadership is expanding into contemporary environmentalism. Personally I value both approaches; they appeal differently to different people. Both are living, evolving, contemporary American religions, with generally compatible values, morals, and ethical systems as they pertain to living on earth amongst fellow beings, human and otherwise. And, unlike many other religions large and small, both are completely honest and forthcoming about their origins, foundation, rational, and history.

Cathy McGuire said...

This is more part of the previous posts, but since this is the most recent, I just wanted to bring this article to your attention. I have not followed Peak Oil in detail enough to know of Chris Nelder, but his article mentions a couple of recent announcements that indicate there is more recognition of Peak Oil in the mainstream media (all of the following is from the article):

Part 1: The End of Peak Oil Denial
Officials Wake Up to Peak Oil

(select excerpts)
… All that seems to have changed in the last month. A sudden deluge of reports and summit meetings suggest that the oil industry and energy officials are now taking peak oil very seriously indeed.
… The first bombshell was actually dropped on February 10, when the UK Industry Task Force on Peak Oil and Energy Security issued a report called "The Oil Crunch: A wake-up call for the UK economy."

According to reports from attendees, the summit yielded some (several other items)
…Communities will need to work quickly to reorganize around walking instead of driving, producing food and energy locally instead of importing, and generally try to reduce their need for oil.

… The next was a report that surfaced around March 12… The model estimates the world's ultimate crude oil production at 2140 billion barrels, with 1161 billion barrels remaining to produce as of the end of 2005. It forecast that world production would peak in 2014 around 79 mbpd.

… On March 22, another bombshell exploded in the press as former UK chief scientist David King and researchers from Oxford University released a paper claiming that the world's oil reserves had been "exaggerated by up to a third," principally by OPEC…. They anticipated that demand could outstrip supply by 2014-2015.

Wordek said...

Wordek, thanks for the clarification. That makes a good deal more sense!

Thanks and glad to hear it: Though in my mind, to clearly define my personal position a whole bunch of relevant stuff and clarification was missing.

But I think that's the nature of the communication beast. In a sense its not the things we actually say but the stuff we assumed didn't need to be said that leads to conflict or misunderstanding. That's why dialogue is an ongoing back and forth process rather than a set of gigantic novel sized statements. Its not my intention to raise hackles (there's those wolves again), but that said, if theres isnt occasional hackle-jiggle there's probably nothing new making its way into to the discussion.

--Takes off Yoda costume- puts on tutu - Wait!! somethings wrong here!!--

Jaryd said...

John, great work once again. From the first time I read it, the existence of your blog has been a weight off of my mind. It has seemed apparent to me that glutinous consumption of energy combined with the thin veil of cleanliness dominates my life and the lives of those around me; and I have often felt alone in this observation as few wish to have the fallacies of our lifestyles pointed out to them.

I assume you have had moments when your message is not well received. How do you cope with the sometimes quite aggressive counter arguments?
Having been raised Catholic, I find myself emotionally averse to to self-righteous, self-important preaching yet intellectually inclined towards it. Fighting that, I have found that I have the best luck by following the Socratic Method.

Do you have any recommendations?

Thanks in advance.

PS: Great article from PBS's MediaShift: "Is Digital Media Worse for the Environment Than Print?" It may be interesting to those who read these comments. The link is below.

Jaryd, Los Angeles

LynnHarding said...

Back to the Land of Mordor - whenever I am especially wishing that some person or other would just be wiped off the face of the earth I remember Gandalf (or someone) sparing Gollum's life because he may still have something left to contribute. Of course he had once been a hobbit, I think. So perhaps you are right that Tolkien doesn't recognize the possibility of redemption in the machine guys. Perhaps that is because they are machines. I don't know. It has been along time since I have read those books. I decided to see whether I could download them on Audible and listen again while I gardened but the "dramatization" is so over the top I couldn't listen. Too bad.
Ditto on Gaia's Garden. That book describes guilds and layering so you don't need to go out and take classes.

tearmunn said...

Bill Pulliam, my experience with the local permaculture has been exactly the same as yours (paralysis through analysis), and we're on the other side of the world. We have distanced ourselves from this group and just get on with it on our small farm, growing food and exchanging produce & skills with other likeminded people, whilst the local permaculture group is busy fighting over setting up a transition town, and more importantly, who should *rule* this tiny kingdom.

dltrammel said...

Just an additional comment for the record.

If the conditions for farm workers can be this bad, in Florida, which has at least some law enforcement, what will they be like in the big agro farms of Africa where power and money talk?

ifthisbeterror -- a Revolution of One said...

"This can be done in relatively humane ways, or in starkly inhuman ones..."

THE reason many would find the labor-gang-machine repellent rises directly out of our species' known history of its civilizations. The record shows that those who have the means to choose between farming the land and making things or instead, by subsidizing bullies, farming the farmers (and the makers), inevitably choose the latter.

The same forces that now make it impossible to effect any of the needed changes to avoid the worst of the catastrophes to come are the same forces that are almost certain to take us on the "starkly inhuman" course.

Some localities may be able to resist some forms of this tyranny, but I am not optimistic about most places with concentrated human populations.