Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Economic Superstitions

It has been an interesting week for connoisseurs of decline and fall. As I’m sure all my readers are aware by now, a small volcano in Iceland managed to chuck a sizable monkey wrench into the gears of business as usual across Europe by filling the upper atmosphere with a massive plume of what amounts to finely ground glass: just the thing you want to put into the intake of your favorite jet engine.

Most volcanic eruptions don’t do this, but Eyjafjallajokull – say that three times very fast – happens to be under a glacier. (It is located in a country called Iceland, after all.) Or, rather, it used to be under a glacier; bring molten lava into contact with a glacier and you don’t have a glacier for long. What you have instead is what volcanologists call a phreatic eruption and the rest of us call a steam explosion. Rinse (with lava) and repeat, and you get two things. The first is a stratosphere full of fine sandpaper grit; the second is most of a continent flailing helplessly as one of its transportation networks shuts down for several days.

The human reaction was instructive. One of my regular readers commented that his wife, who works in the travel industry, has been deluged by calls from irate travelers who seem convinced that she can make the ash go away with a couple of phone calls. An EU commissioner was caught in public saying that long distance tourism was an inalienable human right, while airlines demanded that governments compensate them for the closure of the skies; at least they had the grace not to demand the money from Iceland. Meanwhile Great Britain, which gets most of its fruit and much of its vegetables from the Third World by air, was facing the prospect of bare shelves in the grocery stores for the first time since the aftermath of the Second World War.

It’s been a while since we’ve had so clear a reminder that the intricate and fragile clockwork of industrial society depends so completely on Nature’s whims, but as usual, most people managed not to get the memo. Me, I didn’t give it much thought, since I was reading a different and more familiar memo, the one brought every spring by lengthening days and the waning risk of frost. I was out in the garden planting bush beans, dwarf peas, and Danvers carrots, since the weather was warm and the Moon was in a fertile sign.

Yes, I plant by the signs. I originally learned that habit out in the Pacific Northwest, where very few people do it, and it’s ironic that I ended up moving to the Appalachians, where most gardeners keep an eye on the almanac when choosing planting dates. Do I think it works? A lot depends on what’s meant by that rather facile question. It certainly doesn’t do any harm; my gardens get good results at least as reliably as those of my neighbors, and it’s no particular inconvenience to check the signs when deciding when to plant the next round of seeds. I don’t know for a fact that it helps, but then the same thing could be said for many other things I do in the garden. (I’m more interesting in growing vegetables than in proving a point, so I don’t deprive part of my garden of compost, say, to find out whether putting my kitchen wastes in the compost bin rather than a landfill makes as much difference as it seems.) Besides, planting by the signs has entertainment value: I’ve come to enjoy the theatrics the habit attracts from rationalists who get incensed by anything they consider superstitious.

Of course they’re quite correct that planting by the signs is a superstition, but that word has a subtler meaning than most people remember these days. A superstition is literally something “standing over” (in Latin, super stitio) from a previous age; more precisely, it’s an observance that has become detached from its meaning over time. A great many of today’s superstitions thus descend from the religious observances of archaic faiths. When my wife’s Welsh grandmother set a dish of milk outside the back door for luck, for example, she likely had no idea that her pagan ancestors did the same thing as an offering to the local tutelary spirits.

Yet there’s often a remarkable substrate of ecological common sense interwoven with such rites. If your livelihood depends on the fields around your hut, for example, and rodents are among the major threats you face, a ritual that will attract cats and other small predators to the vicinity of your back door night after night is not exactly foolish. The Japanese country folk who consider foxes the messengers of Inari the rice god, and put out offerings of fried tofu to attract them, are mixing agricultural ecology with folk religion in exactly the same way.

There’s a lot of this sort of thing in the world of superstition. I have long since lost the reference, but many years ago I read an ecological study of human hunting practices, which pointed out that nearly all cultures that get much of their food from the hunt use divination to decide where to hunt on any given day. The authors pointed out that according to game theory, the best strategy in any competition has to include a random element in order to keep the other side guessing. Most prey animals are quite clever enough to figure out a nonrandom pattern of hunting – there’s a reason why deer across America head into suburbs and towns, where hunting isn’t allowed, as soon as hunting season opens each year – so inserting a random factor into hunting strategy will pay off in increased kills over time. As far as we know, humans are the only animals that make decisions with the aid of horoscopes, tarot cards, yarrow stalks and the like, and it’s intriguing to think that this habit may have had a significant role in our evolutionary success.

Is this all there is to the practice of superstition? It’s a good question, and one that’s effectively impossible to answer. For all I know, all those ancient civilizations that built vast piles of stone to the honor of their gods may have been right to say that Marduk, Osiris, Kukulcan et al. were well pleased by having big temples erected in their honor, and reciprocated by granting peace and prosperity to their worshippers. It may just be a coincidence that channeling the boisterous energy of young men into some channel more constructive than civil war is a significant social problem in most civilizations, and giving them big blocks of stone to haul around in teams, in hot competition with other teams, seems to do the trick; it may also be a coincidence that convincing the very rich to spend their wealth employing huge numbers of laborers on vanity buildings provides a steady boost to even the simplest urban economy. Maybe this is how Kukulcan shows that he’s well pleased.

Still, there’s a wild card in the deck, because it’s possible for even the most useful superstition to become a major source of problems when conditions change. When the Mayan civilization overshot the carrying capacity of its fragile environment, the Mayan elite responded to the rising spiral of crisis by building more and bigger temples. That had worked in the past, but it failed to work this time, because the situation was different; the problem had stopped being one of managing social stresses within Mayan society, and turned into one of managing the collapsing relationship between Mayan society and the natural systems that supported it. This turned what had been an adaptive strategy into a disastrously maladaptive one, as resources and labor that might have been put to use in the struggle to maintain a failing agricultural system went instead to a final spasm of massive construction projects. This time, Kukulcan was not pleased, and Mayan civilization came apart in a rolling collapse that turned a proud civilization into crumbling ruins.

Rationalists might suggest that this is what happens to a civilization that tries to manage its economic affairs by means of superstitions. That may be so, but the habit in question didn’t die out with the classic Mayan civilization; it’s alive and well today, with a slight difference. Ancient cultures built huge pyramids of stone; we build even vaster pyramids of money.

In Cardano’s Cosmos, a thoughtful study of the life and times of the great Renaissance astrologer Girolamo Cardano, historian Anthony Grafton tried to explain the role of astrologers as advisers to Renaissance governments by comparing them to economists in today’s world. Plausible as this comparison may seem at first glance, I have to say that it is deeply unfair to astrologers. Whether or not astrology works as advertised – a question I don’t propose to address here – no competent astrologer claims that the Sun will rise in the west or that Jupiter will swing between the Earth and the Moon. By contrast, it’s not hard to find economists blithely insisting, as many did during the recent housing bubble, that a speculative frenzy can keep on inflating forever, or claiming, as many are doing right now, that a nation can make itself prosperous by running up mountains of debt.

Economics is our modern superstition – well, one of them, at any rate, and one of the most popular among the political class of today’s industrial societies. Like any other superstition, it has a core of pragmatic wisdom to it, but that core has been overlaid with a great deal of somewhat questionable logic. My wife’s Welsh ancestors believed that the bowl of milk on the back stoop pleased the fairies, and that’s why the rats stayed away from the kitchen garden; the economists of the twentieth century believed that expanding the money supply pleased – well, the prosperity fairies, or something not too dissimilar – and that’s why depressions stayed away from the United States.

In both cases it’s arguable that something very different was going on. The gargantuan economic boom that made America the world’s largest economy had plenty of causes; the accident of political geography that kept its industrial hinterlands from becoming war zones, while most other industrial nations got the stuffing pounded out of them, had more than a little to do with the matter; but the crucial point, one too often neglected in studies of twentieth century history, was the simple fact that the United States at midcentury produced more petroleum than all the other countries on Earth put together. The oceans of black gold on which the US floated to victory in two world wars defined the economic reality of an epoch. As a result, most of what passed for economic policy in the last sixty years or so amounted to attempts to figure out how to make use of unparalleled abundance.

That’s still what today’s economists are trying to do, using pretty much the same habits they adopted during the zenith of the age of oil. The problem is that this is no longer what economists need to be doing. With the coming of peak oil and the first slow slippages in worldwide conventional petroleum production, the challenge facing today’s industrial societies is managing the end of abundance. The age of cheap abundant energy now ending was a dramatic anomaly in historical terms, though not quite unprecedented; every so often, but rarely, it happens that a human society finds itself free from natural limits to prosperity and expansion – for a time. That time always ends, and the society has to relearn the lessons of more normal and less genial times. This is what we need to do now.

This is exactly what today’s economics is unprepared to do, however. Like the Mayan elite at the beginning of what archeologists call the Terminal Classic period, our political classes are trying to meet unfamiliar problems with overfamiliar solutions. The results have not been good. Repeated attempts to overcome economic stagnation by expanding access to credit have produced a series of destructive speculative bubbles and crashes, and efforts to maintain an inflated standard of living in the face of a slowly contracting real economy have heaped up gargantuan debts. These measures haven’t worked; the one significant attempt to do something different, the neoconservative project to invade Iraq and put its oil reserves in American hands, was even less successful; and at this point fingerpointing and frantic pedaling in place seems to have replaced any more constructive response to a situation that is becoming more dangerous by the day.

Are there constructive things that could be done? Of course, but every one of them flies in the face of the currently accepted economic superstitions, and most of them also involve requiring the people who benefit disproportionately from the current state of things to give up some of their perquisites – not exactly a winning bet at a time when political power has become so diffuse in most industrial nations that some pressure group or other can be counted on to veto any attempt at systemic change. I’ve already suggested several possible steps in this blog – replacing income and sales taxes with resource and interest taxes; making corporations subject to nonfinancial penalties for criminal acts; reinventing urban and suburban agriculture; tilting tax policy to encourage single-income families; rebuilding the household economy, and more – but I’ve done so in the full awareness that none of these things are going to be discussed in the corridors of government any time soon. Those that will happen at all, will happen because they can be set in motion by individuals, families, and local communities; those that can’t be pursued on that level – well, let’s just say I’m not holding my breath.

The act of faith that leads policy makers today to think that policies that failed last year will succeed next year is only part of the problem, of course. The superstitions that lead so many intelligent people to think that our problems can be solved by pursuing a flotilla of new and expensive technological projects are another part. There are technologies that can help us right now, granted, but they’re on the other end of the spectrum from the fusion reactors and solar satellites and plans to turn all of Nevada into one big algae farm that get so much attention today. Local, resilient, sustainable, and cheap: those should be our keywords just now; there are plenty of technological solutions that answer to that description, but again, our superstitions stand in the way.

The widespread reaction to the Eyjafjallajokull eruption, for that matter, points up what may just be the most deeply rooted of our superstitions, the belief that Nature can be ignored with impunity. It’s only fair to point out that for most people in the industrial world, for most of a century now, this has been true more often than not; the same exuberant abundance that produced ski slopes in Dubai and fresh strawberries in British supermarkets in January made it reasonable, for a while, to act as though whatever Nature tossed our way could be brushed aside. In the emerging postabundance age, though, this may be the most dangerous superstition of all. The tide of cheap abundant energy that has defined our attitudes as much as our technologies is ebbing now, and we are rapidly losing the margin of error that made our former arrogance possible.

As that change unfolds, it might be worth suggesting that it’s time to discard our current superstitions concerning economics, energy, and nature, and replace them with some more functional approach to these things. A superstition, once again, is an observance that has become detached from its meaning, and one of the more drastic ways this detachment can take place is a change in the circumstances that make that meaning relevant. This has arguably happened to our economic convictions, and to a great many more of the commonplaces of modern thought; and it’s simply our bad luck, so to speak, that the consequences of pursuing those superstitions in the emerging world of scarcity and contraction are likely to be considerably more destructive than those of planting by the signs or leaving a dish of milk on the back step.


Loveandlight said...

the one significant attempt to do something different, the neoconservative project to invade Iraq and put its oil reserves in American hands, was even less successful;

Then again, perhaps it was successful.

Bill Pulliam said...

First a technical point -- the ash from this eruption for the most part remained in the troposphere and did not actually reach the stratosphere.

Appalachian gardening.. forget everything you learned in Oregon! Pretty much none of the varieties of anything that did well in Colorado are worth a fig here in Tennessee; Ashland versus Cumberland is probably similar in that regard. A pointer I picked up from a local old-timer has been very useful: Plant your tomatoes when the black walnuts bloom. This really does seem to work, and factors in year-to-year variability as well as microclimates. It only works, of course, if your flagship walnut is in the same microclimate as your tomato patch. Around here a walnut in the bottom of a hollow blooms about 1-2 weeks later than one on a ridge, which is just about the same as the difference in average freeze dates. Since I started using this rule I've had no significant freeze disasters (at least with the tomatoes). Right now the catkins are lengthening on our indicator walnut, but the blooms aren't yet open and adding their pollen to the rich mix we are already inhaling, so my tomatoes and peppers remain safe inside in spite of balmy weather. So is this an empirically determined phenological correlation, or is it an old folk superstition? Depends on whom you ask, I guess.

Folks around here will also tell you that water makes it cold. If you're near a pond or a creek, you'll be colder at night. Technically, they are wrong. It isn't the water that makes the low spots colder, it's the cold air drainage. But, since the thin layer of cold air on a calm clear night, and the water that feeds the creeks and ponds both flow downhill and accumulate in the hollows, they do both tend to wind up in the same places. So you might say it's a superstition that the water makes it cold (actually, building a pond will make your holler a teeny bit warmer at night, not colder), but it's still a good guideline to use when evaluating where the frost pockets are likely to be. We live between two creeks and surrounded by ponds, and on a calm clear night we are just about the coldest spot in middle Tennessee (I have the numbers to prove it!).

As for economic superstitions, JMG got the nail on the head. I already posted a small rant about the media pundit reaction to the Icelandic volcano on my own blog.

Wordek said...

Dagnabit JMG
How is it that you so often describe the things I think 10X better than I do!!

WWII as BAU. I gave up mentioning that one a decade or two back. Too many funny looks

“power has become so diffuse in most industrial nations that some pressure group or other can be counted on to veto any attempt at systemic change”

I guess many of us realise that the implications of that with regards the political vector of change that will likely arise arent all that pretty to consider. Should we try to push the inevitable off in the hope that “something” better will appear in the interim, or do we start right now in the hope that after the dust settles there will still be some resources left to work with. Purely rhetorical question since none of us get to decide those events, but maybe interesting to discuss.

the Eyjafjallajokull eruption and superstitions
People have been posting on yahoo (12000 comments so far) some of their personal thoughts regarding the event (and the other posters). It is informative in an entertaining way in regards to the sophistication of the “modern” human mind and how superstitions old and new, well disconnected from the reality they attempted to model, still have life. I wont copy any of those but here are 4 succinct responses to original posts. I think I would like these people if I met them.

Headline “Iceland evacuates hundreds as volcano erupts again”

“Please everyone, just relax. Sometimes planets just EXPLODE. This isnt anything you can do about it, so just open a brewski, have a nice snack and wait for the Big Bang.
Dont cry either, it wont help.”

“Your village called. They want you to come home. They miss their idiot.”

“Your teeth have become infiltrated with commies and they have formed a conspiracy to take over your body. Then you add fluoride and you think youre safe and then one day BANG..... your a big commie tooth and theres nothing you can do about it
true story”

“This is surely Dumbathon 2010”

Babaji said...

I don't know how accurate the Olde Farmers' Almanack is, but here in South India almost everyone has a Vedic lunar astrological calendar called a Pañcāṅgam tacked to their wall. It is remarkably accurate at predicting the weather, planting seasons and determining more arcane things, such as the correct timing for weddings and Vedic esoteric temple rituals. With a little research, one can also find Vedic ślokas that describe methods for invigorating seed and the soil that work very well. The neem tree alone provides so many natural remedies, for everything from acne to malaria and diabetes. The ancient Vedic ways are still very much in use here, especially in smaller villages, and appropriate technology is as close as your nearest autonomous mobile organic recycling center, sometimes known as a cow. There is a fully redundant natural backup system for everything here; the electricity could go off permanently tomorrow, and while there might be some temporary inconvenience, most people's lives would not be in danger. Don't try this at home, kids—at least in the West. The deeper we settle into the ancient rhythm of life here, the more we are amazed at the power of the ancient cultural wisdom still kept alive in the hearts of the villagers, especially the older ones. We will be learning here for a long, long time.

MawKernewek said...

Where did you get your statement that most of Britain's fruit comes by air?

I would suspect that that is not actually true. I certainly haven't noticed the shelves being empty of fruit.

One practice that occurs is that the pre-prepared packs of exotic fruit that can be bought (expensively!) are often pre-prepared in the country of origin because the labour is cheaper and freighted by air.

I think it is mainly things like summer fruit out of season, and some exotic tropical fruit and veg that comes by air. I'll let you know if any of that stuff is missing if I get to a supermarket in the next couple of days.

The authorities seem to have changed their mind about whether it is safe to fly through the ash cloud. It isn't clear whether this is because the situation has changed in some way or that they have caved into pressure from airlines to increase the "safe" limit of particulate levels.

People are blaming the authorities for allegedly being over-cautious, but surely the precautionary principle applies here.

I really hope no government in Europe bails out any airlines because of this.

I would really like to see Ryanair go under. They seem to miss the fact their passengers are actually paying customers, just because they are cheaper than some other airlines doesn't mean they should have the rudest staff on the planet...

Librarian of Hillman said...


as usual, YES. but/and...what are we going to do? is there any hope?

and how fast can we learn all of this? i guess we can only start now!

if anyone lives near south-western PA, maybe i will see you at one of these?

Pittsburgh Food Forest's Free Workshops
Saturday April 17, 2010 and Saturday April 24, 2010 10am - 3pm
"...plant a Food Forest on Second Avenue in Hazelwood"

Grow Pittsburgh: City Growers program, A Garden Primer!



Rain Water Harvesting and Watershed Awareness

Raccoon Creek State Park PATH WAYS (acronym for Primitive skill, Awareness of nature, Teaching of History – which we believe leads to – Wisdom and Action, Yielding Stewardship.)

PASA Educational Outreach series

Farmer's Markets


Dear Author JMG.
The wait for Wednesdays in India when I get to read your weekly blog is becoming tough, week after week.

heres an insight i've recently discovered, reflecting on your writings,- that Just like neural networks within a mammal's body, the common sense and scientific foundation of intelligence is spread far and wide across our civilization.
but if some cancerous mutation (for example the law of interest accumulation on notional value) causes the neurons to outpace and outgrow the muscle , bone and organ tissues, the result is a dead mammal.
why is that not common sense as far as economic perceptions are concerned, is perhaps the most mind boggling mystery of these most interesting times.
thank you for so much nutritious food for thought.

Janne said...

Another great one! Thanks JMG!

Erica said...

Meanwhile Great Britain, which gets most of its fruit and much of its vegetables from the Third World by air, was facing the prospect of bare shelves in the grocery stores for the first time since the aftermath of the Second World War.

Though I agree with most of your other comments, this simply isn't the case - in Great Britain most fruit and veg comes in by land or sea and only a small minority is air freighted. There were small gaps in the shelves in supermarkets for items such as fresh chillies, sugarsnap peas and baby sweetcorn, but most were unaffected.

lagedargent said...

An enticing essay, Mr. Greer, reads like a fairy tale.

Don said...

John, as usual, a very thoughtful post. Most of our culture's myths--progress, independence of Nature, prosperity--have become superstitions in this technical sense; that is, divorced from their original purpose and reality. Haven't they?

I wanted to try planting by the new moon back in March, per John Jeavons' "How To Grow More Vegetables," but I got to the garden a bit later than I wanted because of work duties. The peas, carrots, radishes, spinach, and lettuce are all coming up and looking good anyway. I think I'll be able to put the corn, beans, and squash in by the next new moon, though.

By the way, did you happen to see the moon last night? It was at first quarter, almost directly overhead at sunset, and Mars was glowing about three degrees away at about the 10:00 position. A very pretty sight!

Natasha said...

beautiful thought provoking article jmg, thanks

every generation especially this one thinks it is superior and more knowing than the last but the reality is we just repeat patterns over the generations.

I had never realised how practical ancient superstituions were at least at one time, and absolutley can see the equivalent pattern to todays belief in economics. Good stuff

hawlkeye said...

Yowza - from the physics of solar radiation to lunar cultivation - this blog's one heckuva ride! I suspect you're dangling this moonbait for the entertainment value it can catch from all the rationalists right here...

(For those requiring scientific references, the research of Maria Thun and other Biodynamic students of Rudolph Steiner on "planting by the signs" is voluminous.)

I've used and taught these methods for over 30 years with great success, and their value is evident not only in the garden but within the gardener as well. As any plant person knows, the trick is not only knowing what to do, but also knowing when to do it. Timing is everything.

Walk out into your garden at a busy time of year, and all the many tasks are clamoring for your attention; do I turn the compost or thin the carrots, or...(add 6-10more items). If the moon's in a fertile sign, it's the latter, a fire sign, the former. Of course, this is a simplification, but my point is that the moon is as much MY time organizer/prioritizer, as it is an influence on all the other water-bodies in the world.

Among the more insane superstitions of our industrial malaise is our framing of time itself. We're convinced that time arrives in incremental cubicles of second, minute, hour, day, week, month, year... after punching time clocks for so long, the poor clock's pretty pummelled!

The collapse of our modern superstitions must also include the dissolution of our temporal fantasy of progress, and find ways of feeding ourselves according to current solar income. Mark it with a big red sharpie in your "day runner" - our institutionalized calendar is scheduled for extinction.

In other words, we've got to start living on plant-time; the collapse won't happen within months, years, or centuries; it'll happen during a growing season. Will it be this one, or the next, or the one after that?

I've found no better way to get back on plant time than to start paying very close attention to the moon.

"The gardener doesn't make the garden; the Garden makes the gardener." - Alan Chadwick

Edde said...

Good Morning John Michael,

Beltane is soon upon us - have a great celebration.

When framing proposals for taking actions to cope with resource depletion or climate change, should we not show the benefits of taking those actions and negative consequences of failure to take said actions?

All too often we couch our proposals for change as loss of prerogatives & value, giving up some treasured stuff or idea, living a less fulfilling life with fewer opportunities. Given this approach, its a wonder there are as many of us as there are who search for a "better" tomorrow or simple survival.

We needn't be "boosters" and Pollyannas, nor become doom sayers, either.

"Loss" of private single-occupancy autos for local transport has so many benefits and alternatives that it is easy to point 'em out as well as point out the down sides of continuing a fruitless motorized rat race as an example. Is there actually a real loss for most of us or have we been sold non-existent and ephemeral benefits?

To be sure, there will be dislocation, particularly during a transition period. Successfully navigating that dislocation may help set the stage for acceptance of (and advocacy for)more changes to come.

Of course we insert a value system (and its reification) in this conversation and its changes. We replace theirs with ours. Isn't that what change is about?

The change may be smaller than we think, although since I live at the fringe to begin with, I may misunderstand how vehemently some will hold onto non-existent fantasy lives.

Best regards,

DC said...

Nice piece JMG!

However, I would recommend shying away from describing the Maya as a *homogeneous* lot that put all of their eggs in one basket so-to-speak. Rather, the Maya were quite diverse both spatially and temporally in there social structures, domestic relations and modes of production and distribution. Many ethnic groups among the Maya did not have expansive economies or a linear epistemology.

While you are correct that lowland Maya built vast trade networks and institutionalized religion, labor and taxation to expand a vast empire which eventually led to the collapse you described. I will say, however, the highland Maya (with whom have never *collapsed* and still have socio-cultural ties with the indigenous farmer cooperatives of Guatemala and Southern Mexico) have managed to maintain the local, resilient, sustainable and non-hierarchical relationships that many of us should learn to emulate. Ya Basta!

I respect and appreciate your input and always enjoy reading your blog.


Ariel55 said...

Dear JMG,

Such an excellent post! I love your awesome thought processes. Just as I am about to jump out of my skin in reaction to my perception of the latest bad news, I remember my ancestors also doing "superstitious" things in reaction to gut feelings. Well, it got me into the gene must have worked! My thanks to you.

skintnick said...

Thanks for another of your invariably informative and entertaining posts. I hesitate to correct you, but I think it's important not to exaggerate when making a point, but so far as I know there have NOT been serious shortages of fruit & vegetables here in the UK (somewhat to my surprise, and, perhaps lead time means the worst is yet to come)

John Michael Greer said...

Loveandlight, the Chinese are doing pretty well by it!

Bill, I've been getting heirloom varieties from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange and following the gardening tips in an old book, A.B. Ross' "Big Crops from Little Gardens," which was largely based on his experiences in western Pennsylvania; so far, so good. We don't have a walnut nearby, though!

Wordek, I dunno -- I think Dumbathon 2010 is like this year's Seattle Rain Festival; it began on January 1 and will continue until December 31...

Babaji, good to hear that the local traditions of time are still alive and healthy where you are! I'd hesitate to refer to the Vedas as "superstition," but they certainly contain a lot of practical lore as well as spiritual teaching -- as, of course, do all the old traditions.

Maw Kernewek, I got the info about Britain's importation of fruit by air off the BBC, for whatever that's worth.

Librarian, I've been talking about what to do over and over again in these posts; it also seems sensible to talk about why it has to be done. The events you've posted are part of what to do!

Janne, thank you!

John Michael Greer said...

Purity, if you could ask a cancer cell whether there were any problems with unrestricted growth, I'm sure it would insist there were none. That's why your useful metaphor isn't common sense!

Erica, well, I may have misunderstood the Beeb, then.

Lagedargent, now if only the prosperity fairies would agree with you!

Don, exactly -- progress has become a superstitious belief. I didn't see last night's moon, unfortunately, through slaving over a hot keyboard until late.

Natasha, good. You get the gold star today, for seeing past the popular delusion that each generation is unique, to the deep patterns that keep on repeating.

Hawlkeye, yes, I admit dangling an enticing bait for rationalists is almost as fun as goading believers in the eternity of the internet. Your point about scheduling is an excellent one, too!

Edde, discussing the changes ahead of us in positive terms is very popular these days, and I can understand the motivation. The problem, as I see it, is that this does nothing to prepare people for the very harsh side of the future barreling down on us right now. If a ship is sinking, it's not necessarily helpful to announce this fact by cheerfully telling people that it's time for a nice brisk swim!

DC, granted, I should have said "classic Lowland Maya."

Ariel, thank you!

Skintnick, thanks for the clarification -- that'll teach me to trust the Beeb...

mxyzptlk said...

Your overview of initially-useful superstitions provides a great rebuttal to those who'd claim that blissful ignorance is better than sad wisdom. Blindly twiddling the same knobs that worked last time is nowhere near as effective as working out the circuitry that those knobs control.

Of course, as your "planting by signs" example illustrates, a reductive explanation is *not* a prerequisite for rationality: All you need is conditional independence--if planting by signs gives you better results than your prior for not using signs suggests, go for it.

K said...

Great post!

Not that JMG needs my clarification help, but he did say that Britain was "facing the prospect" of bare shelves of fruit and vegetables, not that such a thing had actually occurred.

And that's actually true, for some fruits and veg. Had this thing dragged on longer -- or if the ash causes disruptions in the future -- the supply of certain fresh products, be they fruits and exotic fruits, will be significantly disrupted. Where do you think bananas are grown? Devon? Brittany?

Douglas Smith said...

A minor comment on a very fine post: In paragraph 8 you mention "an ecological study of human hunting practices" for which you have long since lost the reference. Likely the study in question is that by O.K. Moore, "Divination: a new perspective", published in the American Anthropologist back in 1957. Called "scapulimancy", the divination technique involves heating the shoulder blade (scapula) of an animal or the breast bone of a bird, then interpreting the resulting cracks and char marks.
One objection to the view that scapulimancy serves to randomize hunting decisions is raised by Adrian Tanner in his monograph "Bringing Home Animals." Tanner notes that divination is generally not undertaken at a time when Cree hunters do not know where to go hunting.
Academic niceties aside, I very much look forward to reading your thoughts on the divine science of astrology, of which I became a practitioner following years of cultivation in the lofty groves of anthropology.

Pops said...

Thanks again, JMG.

In the back of my mind, I've always had the belief we aren't quite as insulated from "nature" as many of my boomer peers - or as immune to gremlins in the machinery of 'civilization' either.

JMG, I hope it isn't impolite but I'd like to recommend John Ikerd, Professor Emeritus, University of Missouri, an agricultural economist who has written about small farms, small towns and sustainable agriculture with an eye to peak oil. His new book is free online A Revolution of the Middle...
This book was a little too much change for publishers of his previous books, I guess.

Thanks again.

DIYer said...

Another week, another piercing insight. Thanks, JMG.

Probably the most destructive myth in the carve-a-bigger-stone-head department is "War is good for the economy".

As for the volcano, Iceland should be sending a bill to Europe for improving their soil. "Here's your several cubic kilometers of potash, in a convenient slow-release silica matrix. No charge for the magnesium".

wylde otse said... have some audacity to suggest economists are mere superstion mongers, like astrologists are sometimes purported to be. Next, you will be adding Roman Catholic Priests to the list.

But, for all your negativity, there still exists a small ray of hope for our society. A survey taken by the people who publish my bathroom reader found that 10% of North-Americans still leave cookies out on Christmas eve.

Mike said...

RE: Allegedly incorrect BBC report on fresh by air.

I got this from a quick search of the BBC web site:

It states that 1.5% of fruit and veg come by air to the UK.

Which BBC report did you (JMG) hear?

mattbg said...

I know it's just a minor point, but saying that invading Iraq to get access to oil was a failure might be a bit too short-term in thought:

"Over the next seven years Iraq intends to go from producing 2.5m barrels per day to 12m b/d, a target that exceeds Saudi Arabia’s current output by more than 30%."


Rita said...

Not perhaps on topic, but worth mentioning, I believe: _Foreign Policy_ on line has an article about peak phosphorus. The author gives a 30-40 year estimate for depletion of known resources. The article explains the essential nature of phosphorus for modern agriculture.

mattbg said...

I think it's too simplistic to compare modern economics with a Welsh grandmother putting a bowl of milk out the back for good luck.

Economics is not an exact science, but it is at least as scientific as sociology or psychology. Supply/demand theory serves us quite well. It is true that, as something becomes more expensive and give or take some elasticity, people will try to use less of it to accomplish the same result or switch to an alternative. That's not superstition.

It is true that you can construct an economic environment that makes it more attractive to do business in one place rather than another.

It is true that, if you lower interest rates, people will borrow more money and it will likely flow into the economy. It is then likely that inflation will follow.

And you can't say that economics is a supersition without saying that global warming science is also a superstition.

Keifus said...

First of all, I love the notion of economists as court soothsayers, suddenly out of their depth. Yes, the pursuit has been a good-faith attempt to describe human behavior that is deep-down based on observations, but it's also frequently been self-serving justification, and I have a constant distrust of the precision that it claims for itself. A gripe I have about modern economics is that as a model of human behavior, it produces some major shortcomings when it comes to describing actual decision-making, and how authorities operate.

But (you knew this was coming, right?), I think it's important to note that we're describing a few schools of economic thought advising the current political landscape. Schools that have, as you say, basically been adapted to describe the ridiculous energy abundance we've enjoyed for 150 years. The general study of economics, however, is older than that. If you go back to the seventeenth and eighteenth century, then you'll find prominent ideas that are very much connected to agricultural production and sustainable population. Malthus and Mill didn't have the numerical finesse (or tools) of the eggheads and sharks on Wall Street, but that doesn't mean they weren't sharp. (Hopefully, there's a better scholar of Mill around.) More to the point, they were writing to describe the observations of their times. Malthus was done in by some technological innovations--he had inadequate numbers, but he had the right idea. Today's capitalists may find themselves outside the range of their base assumptions before very long as well. The study will adapt again, and still try to describe the world accurately like any good gang of rationalist.

The current batch sure does have a lot to answer for, for neglecting those older constraints.

It's interesting how economic theory has supported governing or dominant-class interests (like mercantilism, or the capitalism of today) or opposed them (like Marxism, or Enlightenment-vintage capitalism). I wonder what ideas will latch on in a few years.

Houyhnhnm said...

re: "irate travelers who seem convinced that she can make the ash go away with a couple of phone calls?

This statement shows another side of superstition. Too many of us have an inherent trust of technology and those who use it. Surely the travel agent can simply hit a few keys and clear the skies!

Today's culture promotes this type of disconnect. How many of us leave a large house on a small lot to enter an attached garage, climb into a car, click a door opener, drive to an underground garage, take an elevator to an office, and reverse these steps at the end of the day?

Why wouldn't such people think a travel agent could control the weather? There's gotta be a button for it somewhere.

While urban superstitions annoy me, I respect the superstitions of the signs and the almanac if only because they keep us in touch with outdoor world.


blue sun said...

Bravo! You really tied a lot of threads together on this one.

I feel I can quibble with words because this is a near-perfect post. For what it's worth, I would say a tradition is an observance that has become detached from its original meaning, and a superstition is a belief that has become detached from its original rationale or logic.

Otherwise, thanks for another good one. You're on fire this week! (no volcano pun intended)

Loveandlight said...

It rather makes sense that the Chinese have been benefiting nicely in terms of oil-production from our Iraq misadventure; after all, they're pretty much the ones who have been financing the whole thing from the get-go!

Petro said...

Regarding planting by signs - a minor intellectual observation, FWIW:

The "rationalists," I presume, use a calendar instead? Well, the calendar is merely an abstract representation of growing seasons, which are articulated real-time by these "signs." As I've mentioned before, I feel that climate change is going to put the calendar into serious misalignment in terms of agriculture. Those who go back to the original info ("signs") will then be the "rationalists," IMO.

Ariel55 said...

Dear JMG, I can't resist sharing the news posts regarding the meteor in the central U.S.:"That thing better not be lighting up no dang sky!" Well, who are you gonna call? A "meteorologist", of course!
One more: "I love this! It's so entertaining talking to the crazies!" And, "Thank you, Mr. Smart Person, dude, sir"--and Druid too! :)

RDatta said...

Perhaps one of the best posts to date; with focus on the present, showing widespread and subtle but powerful influences of the past - which an implicit continuum into the future.

Incidentally, a person at my place of work who was reared in Hampshire (not the "New" one) said that her mother would put out a saucer of milk with bread soaking in it at night and they would watch the hedgehogs feed on it. Perhaps a form of pest control.

Wordek said...

Hi hawkeye
“We're convinced that time arrives in incremental cubicles of second minute, hour, day, week, month, year”
I have noticed that the way I age is -period of stasis-period of change-period of stasis-repeat until dead. Perhaps we should replace annual birthdays with some other milestones. Funerals I guess can stay the same ;)

Hi mattbg
“Economics is not an exact science, but it is at least as scientific as sociology or psychology. Supply/demand theory serves us quite well.”
You kind of prove the point by comparing economics to sociology and psychology. I have (usually) no beef with the observational side of the soft sciences, its the “lets make up some containers to stuff our data into and defend those containers at all costs because they are actually real” side that is ultimately responsible for behaviour that resembles what we are calling superstition.
When I was a kid supply/demand was known as “we're running out of stuff, lets get some more”
Also: What keifus said

“And you can't say that economics is a supersition without saying that global warming science is also a superstition.”
You are kind of correct here. There isnt actually anything called global warming science. I dont think anyone would have a beef with climate science if it werent for the panic mongers suggesting that the sky is about to fall coupled with the opportunists suggesting that if we give them our money and do as we say they WILL fix it and we will all live forever in fluffy bunny land. You know nobody hates oncologists but what about the guys that get rich selling fake cancer cures? Which interestingly enough kind of leads us to.....

…..Hi Blue sun
“superstition is a belief that has become detached from its original rationale or logic.”
Maybe just me meandering a bit here but I reckon a goodly chunk of the detachment that superstition has from actual events was deliberately managed and had to do with control. If the priesthood can get you to do the “correct behaviour” whilst keeping you abstracted from the actual environmental trigger that prompts the behaviour, then that gives them power. Question though: What happens over the generations when the priesthood starts to actually believe the mythology created by their predecessors? Whoops

You're on fire this week! (no volcano pun intended)
Are you SURE that pun wasn't intended? ;)

For some reason I'm reminded of a fiction book I read years ago called “The Magic Goes Away” about some magicians from an earlier time who realised that their spells were no longer working. They discovered that magic relied on a natural resource called mana that was being rapidly depleted by such ostentatious displays as floating palaces and so on. So they determined to find and execute the last remaining god so they could harvest its mana and cast a spell to bring the moon to earth to serve as a new power source. Needless to say it didnt end well and the moon is still in the sky today....

John Michael Greer said...

Mxyzptlk -- am I right that your handle is from an old comic book, by the way? -- exactly; a reductive explanation is simply one, rather restrictive form of model that can be used to make sense of experience. There are plenty of others.

K, there used to be plenty of greenhouses in Britain that could and did grow tropical fruit. That's a Victorian habit worth reinventing!

Douglas, thanks for the reference! As for astrology, that's a topic for a different forum.

Pops, it's not impolite at all; I can always use new sources. Thank you!

DIYer, have you seen the joke letter the Icelandic government supposedly sent Britain? "Dear sirs, we have received your demand for a great deal of cash. Please note that the letter "C" does not exist in the Icelandic alphabet. We have complied with your request to the extent our language permits; please consider yourself paid in full."

Otse, that would be funnier if most Americans didn't believe that the economy is one big Santa Claus!

Mike, I'll see if I can find it.

Matt, Middle Eastern governments are not exactly known for the accuracy of their press releases. From what I've read, Iraq's chances of ever producing that much oil are exceptionally slim.

Rita, thanks for the reference! You won't find the Economist mentioning this, but phosphorus is one of the reasons why composting human waste and plant matter is so valuable; it keeps the existing stock in circulation, which is always a better strategy than relying on nonrenewable sources.

John Michael Greer said...

Matt, how many economists -- out of the many thousands of them currently pulling down large salaries right now -- publicly warned that the housing bubble was going to end in a crash? That I know of, it's a two-digit number, and not a very large one at that. Most economists who said anything at all were cheerleading a speculative bubble that was doomed to blow up. If economics is to deserve the label of science, it needs to make accurate predictions of events in its field. Today's economics consistently fails to do so. When that changes, I'll reconsider my judgment.

Keifus, oh, granted -- there have been economists who don't deserve the blanket label I've suggested for them; John Kenneth Galbraith, who was too good a historian to fall for the quantitative delusions that pass for economic thought these days, is a favorite example of mine. Still, how much attention do they get in the discipline these days?

Houyhnhnm, no argument. If anything, the rise of virtual (un)reality has put that sort of disconnect into overdrive.

Blue Sun, no, a tradition can still be fully connected to its meaning; gardeners who wait to plant tomatoes until the black walnut blooms are following a tradition, but they generally know exactly why they're doing it -- to avoid the danger of late frosts. All that's required of a tradition is that it be handed down from the past.

Loveandlight, nice! And now they get to collect on their investment.

Petro, a good point.

Ariel, hadn't heard that yet! I'll check it out.

RDatta, very likely so. Hedgehogs eat grubs and insects, and having one that likes to hang around your garden is a very good bit of biological pest control. I didn't know they also liked milk!

Wordek, that was a Larry Niven novel, wasn't it? I read one of his short stories set in that world, back in the Seventies, and thought it made a great metaphor for the end of the age of petroleum. Yes, I was thinking in those terms even then.

Kevin said...

I suspect that people's reactions to the recent air travel fiasco will prove a fine predictor of reactions to more a more general loss of technological assets. The need to place blame on some group of humans for a natural phenomenon and make them pay seems to be foremost among irrational responses. Already everyone seems to be assuming that things will henceforth be "back to normal" on a permanent basis.

From what I've seen, those stranded while traveling on a shoestring budget were most likely to be stuck without recourse, while those flying with upscale airlines were typically put up at company expense in posh hotels. It tends to support what you've written in the past about those with the most wealth being best able to shield themselves from dire consequences.

I've already started leaving out a saucer of milk for local strays, as I plan to relocate my still tiny tomatoes to the back yard.

Brian Johnson said...

On interconnectedness, a recent study from Nature reveals that vast, interconnected networks are extremely fragile. One wonders how much attention these confirmations/realizations will receive. To that end, I heard an interesting article regarding network control on NPR . As countries try to crack down on internet use, they may isolate themselves, creating there own regional networks apart from the Internet. Would the growing realization of the fragility of interconnectedness drive this effort, and an effort to break up other networks proactively. Will countries that do take these steps come out on top in the mad resource scramble of the coming decades as their competitors wallow in a sea of cascading failures? Dunno, just a thought.

John Michael Greer said...

Kevin, true enough -- our collective imagination is so firmly stuck in the delusion that human beings are the only active force in the universe, and everything else is passive, that looking for a human scapegoat is very nearly the only way many people nowadays know how to respond to problems. It's not a small issue, either; that way lies madness.

Brian, I saw that. My guess is that the obsession with interconnectedness will continue in most if not all large-scale contexts; it's on the middle to small scale that disconnection, and thus resilience, is most likely to happen. That is to say, each of us can get working on it.

Cherokee Organics said...

Go John!

The future of agriculture most certainly belongs to the gardeners once the inherent subsidies of mono culture farming fade away.

I don't think that it is that far away that food prices are going to go through the roof (Oil is now at approximately US$83 a barrel) as transport and heating compete with agriculture for oil, not to mention the peaking of super phosphates.

Biological diversity in any farming activity seems to be the way to go. We even let the weeds go here as they provide useful fodder for the predator insects and fauna kicking around the place. They haven't taken over yet and provide useful soil building / retention and shading services.

I'm convinced that the biodynamic, moon planting methods are quite good, although having a curious mind I still like to understand the "why" as to how things work. Also, with a bent towards experimentation and observation in the garden and orchard I don't quite have the mindset to follow instructions very closely. Oh well, however it works I guess.

As to superstitions I'll note that people are hard wired to believe things even if they aren't true and factually based. Look at the power of religions in peoples lives / actions or climate change denialists for that matter. Marketing wouldn't have any power at all if it wasn't for this simple flaw in peoples nature. I sometimes wonder why people seem to be in some sort of denial about peak oil, as resource depletion seems such a simple concept to grasp.

Has anyone noticed that this year is both warmer and wetter than previous? In the past decade or so I've noticed that the conditions in this part of the world (Victoria, Australia) seem to be gaining almost a monsoonal aspect as the warmer, wetter weather travels further south? I've often wondered whether increased temperatures will result in an increase in the Earths hydrological cycle as evaporation in the oceans increases?

Anyway, Good luck!

Cherokee Organics said...

To DIYer

As for the volcano, Iceland should be sending a bill to Europe for improving their soil. "Here's your several cubic kilometers of potash, in a convenient slow-release silica matrix. No charge for the magnesium".

That was pure genius. It still makes me smile thinking about it.

JMG, I've published in magazines (still do), but never posted on the internet and realised how quickly you can be misunderstood or misinterpreted until posting here. I don't read any other blogs. Much respect to you. Regards and Good luck!

Wilmer said...

"RDatta, very likely so. Hedgehogs eat grubs and insects, and having one that likes to hang around your garden is a very good bit of biological pest control. I didn't know they also liked milk!"

Hedgehogs are lactose intolerant and feeding them milk can kill them. Most mammals will be sick from drinking milk as adults and most humans too!

Wordek said...

Hi Brian

“reveals that vast, interconnected networks are extremely fragile.”
Just a pedantic point about "cause". I think you might find that this fragility derives from dependence on a few “primary nodes” and/or “essential services”. Sharing those “nodes” or relying on a single iteration of the “essential service” through ever more networks will increase the risk of spreading the effects of any collapse through the system should one of them fail. So I think its not so much interconnectedness thats at the core (if you can call it that) of the issue, but homogeneity.

The connections documentary from the 70's that I shared here a couple of weeks back showed how that effect can make an electricity delivery system fail.

“If economics is to deserve the label of science, it needs to make accurate predictions of events in its field.”
Hear hear

Hi Wylde otse
10% of North-Americans still leave cookies out on Christmas eve.
Hoping to attract accurate economists? ;)

The Magic Goes Away
Yes Larry Niven. Funnily enough when I googled this I found a review on Hmmmm, I sense a theme developing.

--stretching--fingers twitching-- “Cant......quite......reach......irony......switch...ARRGGGHHHH!!!”

Anne said...

Great point about economics being a modern superstition. The fixation on economic growth is a prime example of how deluded economics is. For a very funny refutation of perpetual growth check out this short animation by the New Economics Foundation - the Impossible Hamster

With respect to the volcanic eruption, yes a great wake up call to the future without air flight. Video-conferencing businesses have done very well out of it and businesses are waking up to flying less will cost less money & time. As for tourism this should make a lot of people think about holidaying closer to home, aided by the fantastic spring weather we are having in the UK at the moment. As for me and my druid friends the ash cloud is not a problem for us because we are gathering in a field for Beltane Camp for the next 10 days.

As for superstition as a Buddhist and Druid I believe and have experience of stuff that is not explained within our current scientific paradigm working - whether you call it prayer or magic. A friend of mine was stuck in Portugal due to the ash cloud, she did Green Tara mantra (Green Tara is the Buddhist Goddess of active compassion who will help in all sorts of situations) and had a remarkably smooth journey home despite train strikes. And even if doing this stuff can't be proven to have an effect in the world, it helps us to be more centred & less thrown off balance by what the world throws at us and more open and compassionate towards others. I hope this can be explored further in your blog in the future.

hawlkeye said...

It's my understanding that certain cover crops can dive deep into the subsoil and recapture many of the nutrients that have been leached down from above, including the precious phosphorous. Farms that require mining are mines themselves, with depletion their ultimate destiny.

As for the saucer of milk on the porch; no way, Jose. There are already too damn many cats in my neighborhood, yowling around at night using my carrot seed-bed for a catbox. (Criss-crossed blackberry branches on the surface discourages this, but it's a pain in the fingertips).

And any objections to Fifi's night-time freedom you might voice to her owners in defense of your food supply makes YOU the freaky neighbor. Everyone loves their pets like children, but food's just another bag of groceries in the minivan.

Modern dog owners can be worse. On Easter Sunday, some neighbors had a visitor whose dog got loose, slipped through our fence, chomped one of our chickens and tattered the rest. The owner is a Buddhist nun who mentioned a similar incident with the same dog (!), and advised holding the bird compassionately and it would be alright. (My remedy - holding my Glock compassionately and squeeezing off a few rounds into the chicken-killer - was not voiced at the time).

The animal control officer and I agreed we'll likely see more such conflicts between backyard livestock keepers and clueless pet owners as their respective numbers reverse.

And when the emerging oak leaves are the size of a squirrel's ear, it's time to sow the corn...

Zach said...

I love the phrase "prosperity faeries" -- I shall have to recycle it!

This topic is timely for me, as I've been asked to teach an economics class for our homeschool co-op. While I've already got some resources available, I would appreciate pointers to good books or articles that work well to de-mystify the dismal science and aren't too technical for bright high-schoolers.


Bill Pulliam said...

FYI -- cats, stray and otherwise, wreak indiscriminate havoc with local populations of native birds, small mammals, reptiles, and amphibians. Using a cat to control mammal pests in your garden is akin to soaking it with pesticides that will entirely wipe out the insect populations because you have a problem with aphids. Try physical barriers, as well as planting enough that you can tolerate some losses. Domestic cats are not a part of your local ecosystem that the native fauna have coevolved with.

My rule about strays: If you are going to feed them, fix them. And then feed them enough that they won't need to hunt for food (they'll always hunt and kill for fun, they're cats, after all).

Draco TB said...

I think it's too simplistic to compare modern economics with a Welsh grandmother putting a bowl of milk out the back for good luck.

You might but reality doesn't agree with yuo.

Economics is not an exact science, but it is at least as scientific as sociology or psychology.

No, actually, it isn't. Sociology has moved on from the 19th century and economics hasn't.

Supply/demand theory serves us quite well. It is true that, as something becomes more expensive and give or take some elasticity, people will try to use less of it to accomplish the same result or switch to an alternative. That's not superstition.

No, that's not superstition. The fact that economists expect and believe in eternal exponential growth is.

It is true that you can construct an economic environment that makes it more attractive to do business in one place rather than another.

Again, true. But not necessarily true is the fact that economists hold business as the answer to all our ills.

It is true that, if you lower interest rates, people will borrow more money and it will likely flow into the economy. It is then likely that inflation will follow.

Again, true. But still no wealth has been created no matter how much money has been borrowed.

And you can't say that economics is a supersition without saying that global warming science is also a superstition.

Actually, I can. Very easily. How can I? Because AGW is based upon real observed facts and economics is based upon what people want to be true.

Zach said...

Forgot the Icelandic volcano joke I wanted to add:

"It was the last wish of Iceland's economy that its ashes be scattered over all Europe...


Óskar said...

You're right about how our leaders will keep applying the same solutions in the face of changing conditions. The comparison to Maya kings is quite appropriate.

What this makes me reflect on, is the role of non-renewables in economics and how they block our understanding of system costs and sustainability. Looking at both the past and present of history I'm struck by a certain pattern.

Centers of power arise around, essentially, the plunder of some non-renewable energy source - be it oil, coal, virgin forests, soil.

Those centers of power develop some cultural image around their success, e.g. a magnificent civilization such as Maya cities, the Roman Empire, or modern industrialized nations, that captivates the people and unites them under this project.

The human leaders that manage those powers are as deluded as anyone else by their cultural myths and cannot see how their prosperity is founded on the exploitation of the non-renewable resource. Once the resource goes into depletion and the power fades, the leaders are useless because they cannot think outside the box of their system.

The question that haunts me is just how much of human civilization has been based on plunder of some kind versus how much has been somewhat sustainable?

I suspect you might answer that Oriental civilizations achieved some degree of sustainability.

Looking at the Middle East and Europe, however, it seems like a long story of relentless resource depletion, with the dominant culture simply shifting gradually northwest into less depleted areas. First the soils and forests of the Fertile Crescent, then of the Mediterranean as a whole, then moving on to Northern Europe and Russia. Eventually it exploits coal and then petroleum to replace what could not be had directly off the land in the form of soil and wood.

My point is that it seems to me that industrial civilization is not fundamentally different from the past in its exploitation, just quantitatively different in the power of its energy source.

Without coal, oil, and vast expanses of old growth forests and fertile soils, what will civilizations of the deep future exploit? Will they perhaps not arise at all while there is no non-renewable to exploit?

John Michael Greer said...

Cherokee, I'm a little less tolerant of weeds -- they go into the compost bin -- but that's because my gardens look like weed patches anyway, the different crops all intermingled and cheek by jowl, so the soil stays shaded and companion-plant effects are maximized.

Wilmer, I know plenty of adult cats, and adult humans, who disagree with you, and to be frank, I'd sooner trust a Hampshire grandmother's observations about hedgehogs than yours.

Wordek, now that's funny. Heroic fantasy meets contemporary economics. Next, no doubt, we'll see reviews of all three volumes of "The Lord of the Market" -- "The Fellowship of the Market," "The Two Brokers," and "The Return of the Investor."

Anne, I've tended to stay well away from talking about magic on this blog, because most readers can't tell the difference between magic and the sort of nonsense retailed by Harry Potter novels et al. (It's always been a source of wry amusement to me that if you suggest that emotionally powerful symbols and psychodrama can be used to catalyze significant changes in the way an individual experiences the world, and thus change the results he or she gets from interacting with the world, most people will agree; but if you say that magic works, most people will disagree -- even though these two utterances mean exactly the same thing.

Hawlkeye, you might ask your Buddhist neighbor to take a leaf from one of the Jataka tales, and let the dog bite her instead of biting the hen. If applying the business end of a BB gun to the dog's backside is legal in your area, that might also be an option.

Zach, the book I'd start people with -- because it's incredibly relevant just now -- is JK Galbraith's "The Great Crash." It's utterly readable, very funny, and anyone who reads it and thinks about it will never thereafter be taken in by claims that some investment or other can increase in value forever.

Wilmer said...

"Wilmer, I know plenty of adult cats, and adult humans, who disagree with you, and to be frank, I'd sooner trust a Hampshire grandmother's observations about hedgehogs than yours."

And I'd sooner trust medical literature and experience than a Hampshire grandmother ;)

As a medical student in Scandinavia I often come across lactose intolerance in clinic. While most europeans (and our american descendants) can drink milk the immigrants, especially from Africa, often get sick if adopting our diary heavy diet. When looking at earths population as a whole lactose tolerant people are in minority.

The fact that adult humans can drink milk is an abnormality that stems from us being one of few animals having animal husbandry. And obviously many animals will drink milk when encountering it, the last time they got milk was from before being weaned so they only have a positive experience with it.

If you really care about your resident hedgehogs don't feed them milk! If you won't take my word for it do some research (or if you're cruel, do experiments and see for yourself how the hedgehog fares and if it survives if it keeps drinking the milk).

Isis said...

I was just thinking how this eruption was in fact a very good thing. It's just as Dmitry Orlov wrote (not exact quote): the worst thing that can happen is to have a perfectly functioning system that collapses over night and leaves everyone stranded. The fact of the matter is that we'll have to learn to live without planes, and quite soon (within a decade? two maybe?). Now, it would be most unpleasant (for all sorts of reasons!) if we had to learn this lesson over night. Minor disruptions such as this one force us to recognize the vulnerability of systems that we got used to taking for granted, and consequently, to start looking for alternative ways to get things done, or to live without getting them done. Given that flying (at least for all but a very, very limited number of purposes) is going away in the near future, and permanently, this was a valuable practice run.

Keifus said...

For what it's worth, there's a field of "environmental economics" that alleges to incorporate resource limitations and environmental impacts much more quantitatively. Unfortunately, I know even less about it than I do regular economics. I always meant to at least read more about it. (If you have an angle, I'm sure I'd be interested to read it.)

Richard said...

On the subject of milk and lactose intolerance in animals (and some humans), I think the reason the advice has changed so much from the days when people left milk for animals to drink is the difference between raw and pasteurized milk. Raw milk has lactase, an enzyme that aids in the digestion of lactose, but pasteurization destroys the enzymes. Many lactose intolerant people who get sick from pasteurized milk can tolerate raw milk (for those who still can't fermenting it into yogurt, kefir etc breaks down most of the lactose and adds even more enzymes) Presumably the same is true for at least some animals, pasteurized milk will make them sick but not raw.

ShortTheGalaxy said...

If the purpose of economics is to release the energy that has been stored over the years so that it can 'follow its bliss', then I think it is a fabulous machine that is very efficient. Does nature abhor a vacuum/accumulation yet the Earth is quite content with it? We cannot discuss the 'whole system' because we generally cannot see beyond our own selfish needs.

I love your writing. I will read your posts for a years looking for more of your thoughts on these topics because I can't help but think that our fate is more of a thermodynamic consequence. Perhaps we are just on the geodesic through civilizations state space. All is as it should be. I know this doesn't mean anything but yet it is endlessly fascinating especially when you begin to question the arrow of time itself.

Thank you for your posts.

xhmko said...

A note on calendar/season conventions which ties in to the comments. In South Western Australia the Nyungar people counted six seasons whose arrivals were heralded by changes in the environment around them, say the flowering of a tree or the migration of a bird. According to this interpretation of the seasons they were able to wander in a very structured way through their country and know when and where to hunt certain animals or collect the
eggs, fruits or vegetables that were available at that time in that area.

In the western desert region they counted three seasons.

When the British arrived with the four season model firmly implanted in their minds and culture, and their sedentry and agrarian lifestyles completely at odds with what most saw as impoverished random wanderers, very few of the benefits of these local customs were absorbed or understood. It is tragic really and yet the upside (at least in SW Australia) is that the knowledge is still available and able to be applied. But how do you convince people that summer, winter, autumn and spring are not actually universally applicable but based on general guidelines taken from what was once local observations.

Wordek said...

Hi Draco

“No, actually, it isn't. Sociology has moved on from the 19th century and economics hasn't.”

Wasnt Marx a “classical” economist and our pre-eminent guys today “neo-classicals”

Just a thought that occurred to me though. I wonder how EF Schumachers fledgling economic philosophy might have been influenced by the fact that he wrote the stuff that got him noticed while working on a farm? (compulsory internment during WWII) Contrast that with Marx who spent all his time in the British Library.
Maybe we can go a long way towards solving some of our economic woes just by making these guys get “REAL jobs” for a change?

Hi Richard
“Many lactose intolerant people who get sick from pasteurized milk can tolerate raw milk.”

Bingo! I think you have hit on something
My father hated “town milk” with a vengeance, he said it was “no good for you”
And this was a guy who said “the only drinks that are worth having are beer and milk”. As I recall though milk was not the fluid being consumed when that statement was made... heh

Librarian of Hillman said...

sorry! maybe i should clarify, having read you here for over two years anyway now:

"Librarian, I've been talking about what to do over and over again in these posts; it also seems sensible to talk about why it has to be done. The events you've posted are part of what to do!"

i was trying (and failing maybe) to express what most--who do NOT read you--feel, i suspect? and what i feel myself sometimes still--there is SO much to do, to re-learn, and things move so fast can be overwhelming? it was a rhetorical *sigh*?

you recommend many good strategies but sometimes the biggest gap is in between even the step-by-step, and the part where we all actually put the tools in hand and begin? i know people can do this and i believe that in many ways most will be better off for the change, but i worry about how much time we have...and getting them/us/me started!

if it all fell down tomorrow, i think with guidance and a group, i'd make a decent shot at it and mostly be happy doing so. but i wonder where that puts me in terms of most of my neighbors in a medium sized mid-western city! maybe i will find out when i go to all those classes i posted the links for?!

as for the volcano--i think in the long term is it a lucky thing, a warning shot across the bow of our ship.

building on the further discussion, i think astrology and certainly astronomy can be access points for re-connecting with the natural whole of the planet? it helps to know where and *when* you are, and humans seem to like to use the stars for that. it is all circles anyway, so whether you start with the Sun or bigger, or with microorganisms, both paths come together? and from either direction you can learn a lot about the biology of life!

Óskar said...

John, looking back at my post I feel the need to clarify my choice of words... it's misleading of me to refer to soil and wood as non-renewables, because they are indeed renewable on a human timescale. Unlike fossil fuels which are only renewable on geological timescales, if at all.

My point was that human cultures have had a strong tendency to draw on the capital instead of only the income, whether the source of energy is soil and wood or some fossil fuel. Under those circumstances soils and forests become "non-renewable" in the sense that they are gradually depleted through overuse.

John Michael Greer said...

Draco, I'd point out the difference between economics and global warming a bit differently. The vast majority of climatologists studying global warming have predicted that the world would get warmer over time, in an unpredictable and uneven manner; they were right. When economists make a prediction, by contrast, they're right about as often as blind chance -- and sometimes not even then. That's a crucial difference between a science and an ideological construct: the capacity to make accurate predictions.

Bill, I suspect that's why the custom of leaving milk at the back door is common in Europe, where the domestic cat has been part of the ecosystem for millennia, and not common in the New World, where it's only been a few centuries and the local fauna haven't had time to adapt.

Zach, funny! That may be the best of the lot.

Oskar, civilizations -- like all other organisms -- exploit readily available, abundant nonrenewable resources first; they pursue sustainability only as a last resort! That's why the areas where a high level of sustainability has been attained are all places that have had urban civilizations for a very long time, and have been through repeated cycles of expansion and contraction as different resource bases were used and overused. We're running into one of those contraction phases right now, of course.

John Michael Greer said...

Wilmer, I remember rather too well the days when every doctor insisted that all cholesterol is bad for you and polyunsaturated fats are good for you. Fashions in medical thinking come and go; Hampshire grandmothers represent a more enduring basis of experience.

Isis, true enough. The rising cost and dwindling convenience of air travel is already helping with that -- I know quite a few people who have given up entirely on air travel because it's just not worth the hassle any more.

Keifus, I've read some things from that movement; it's certainly a step in the right direction.

Richard, hmm! An interesting idea.

Short, excellent! Spengler points out that our conception of time as an arrow, rocketing off into the infinite space of the future, is of a piece with the rest of our culture, and entirely a cultural construct. Questioning the arrow might not be a bad idea just now!

Xhmko, the ancient Chinese recognized five seasons; the ancient Celts and the first nations of coastal northwestern North America recognized two. You're quite right that local traditions trump arbitrary importations!

Wordek, a good point. Schumacher also spent most of his career as the chief economist of the British Coal Board, where he had to cope with the real world; I don't think it's an accident that most of today's least functional economic delusions reek of the ivory tower.

Librarian, my apologies! I misunderstood your comment. Yes, there's a lot to do, but Lao Tsu is apposite as always: "The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." Sounds trite, but it's still the only way.

Oskar, you were quite right; soil and wood are renewable, but only when managed in such a way as to allow them to renew. They can all too easily be made nonrenewable.

hapibeli said...

Say JMG, have you read "Salt; A World History" by Mark Kurlansky? A fascinating look at the importance of salt to nearly every civilization. Only some Northwest Indian tribes lived without some form of salt works as part of their makeup. There is a resource just waiting to be added to someone's livelihood after the long descent begins in earnest.

Corpus Callosum said...

JMG said:
John Kenneth Galbraith, who was too good a historian to fall for the quantitative delusions that pass for economic thought these days, is a favorite example of mine. Still, how much attention do they get in the discipline these days?

When cleverness and knowledge arise great lies will flourish. ~Lao Tzu

When J.K. Galbraith had the temerity to point out a few of those "great lies", his fate was the same one that had already befallen those who had pointed them out from the beginning. Marginalization, along with not-so-subtle hints from the mainstream Keynesian "conventional wisdom" - a phrase that Galbraith himself had coined - that perhaps advancing age had begun to diminish his judgement.

I would recommend as a Financial and Economic "starter" his vastly abridged version of "The Great crash" called "A Short History of Financial Euphoria", released in 1990, just as the great bubble was building its foundation of novel financial "innovations" - mainly, the Stock Mutual Fund, and "transformational technology" - computers and the internet. "This time, surely, it really would be different!", the age-old mantra would echo again, and prove just as disastrously false.

The timing of this little gem of a book, and that it was clearly aimed at as wide an audience as possible, being at once short, humerous, ironical and very readable, I suspect was not a complete coincidence. In the crash of '87, Galbraith had forewarned that markets were dangerously over-extended and vulnerable, and had been roundly condemned in some "conventional" circles for actually causing the crash. That, I suspect, caused him to disguise his warning of what he saw coming in a more broadly historical frame. Nonetheless, he didn't pull any punches, particularly in citing the potential of accumulating vast sums as the chief corrupting influence in any academic pursuit of economic truth.

Corpus Callosum said...

looking for a human scapegoat is very nearly the only way many people nowadays know how to respond to problems. It's not a small issue, either; that way lies madness.

"Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people." ~Eleanor Roosevelt (did ER really coin that? I have a feeling she must have read it somewhere.)

I realize I may be grasping at the ghost of a "conspiracy theory" here, but it seems to me that the so-called "dumbing down" or infantilization of the masses, particularly in respect to general knowledge of Economic Theory, serves a vital purpose in the practical application of Keynesian theory to public policy, to wit: if one believes that economic slumps are merely the result of random psycological factors - the "Animal Spirits" as Keynes called them - and that there is no curative purpose to the slump, (i.e. correcting the prior imbalances brought on by excessive and unjustified exuberance - malinvestment as the Austrian School terms it), then the refurbishment of the "Animal Spirits" by psychological means - "green shoots", "prosperity is just around the corner" - that is to say, by PROPAGANDA, becomes the economic medecine of choice. But this medecine, like magic, can only work through belief, and has no effect if it is not believed.

This explains, at least in part, the egregious predictive inaccuracy of "conventional" economic analysis. It doesn't matter if it turns out to be wrong, as long as it's believed at the time. Note the emphasis on political expediency rather than the long term effects that these days are called, "sustainability", which unfortunately has become a "buzzword" that those opposed to the concept simply don't hear anymore. Mostly though, the inaccuracy is, in my opinion, a simple result of having incorporated in one's analysis, assumptions that are not just wrong, but diametrically opposed to the true state of affairs.

The reason I have so much disdain for Keynes and his legions of followers is because he, and they are what I have come to "believe" are examples of the two most dangerous agencies that exist within Humanity: the elitist, and the utopian. And the third most dangerous, I leave it to Lao Tzu to describe:

To know yet to think that one does not know is best; Not to know yet to think that one knows will lead to difficulty. ~Lao Tzu

Cathy McGuire said...

Thanks for the great post, and all the comments! I’m sorry that I haven’t commented earlier, but I was busy with the four chicks I just bought, both making them comfortable in the makeshift brooder and in building the coop & yard that I’ll transition them to! Ah, so many learning curves!

Two comments on your post:
It happens that a human society finds itself free from natural limits to prosperity and expansion – for a time. That time always ends, and the society has to relearn the lessons of more normal and less genial times.

I agree, but the parallel I see isn’t superstition, it’s developmental, though you (and commenters) pointed out the specifics of the developmental issue: if you keep a child from experiencing the limits of their abilities and/or the resources available, they will grow up expecting to have unlimited talents and resources! And that’s what we’ve done in the last couple generations, with the best of intentions, mostly. And now that people are starting to learn the hard limits, some are adapting, and some are having temper tantrums (just as all children aren’t alike in their rate of learning) .

By contrast, it’s not hard to find economists blithely insisting, as many did during the recent housing bubble, that a speculative frenzy can keep on inflating forever, or claiming, as many are doing right now, that a nation can make itself prosperous by running up mountains of debt.

My only quibble with this is that economists aren’t a “group” any more than “teachers” are… the variations and perspective differences are massive! And the “mountains of debt” is a horrible idea in the long run, but the parallel I compare it to would be a farm that is having a bad year – it’s not good to be continually in debt, but it’s “penny wise and pound foolish” not to invest in something if it can help that year (ie: extra fertilizer or row covers if there is a weather crisis)… if by investing, you save that year’s crop. Similarly, spending money in a recession (on the right things… and that is another issue, I know) might keep some from going under who just need a bridge to the next step, which might very well include one-income householding or backyard “farmette”. However, I recognize the impossibility of mandating sensible adjustments as the prerequisite for spending the money.

And on your comment I suspect that's why the custom of leaving milk at the back door is common in Europe, where the domestic cat has been part of the ecosystem for millennia, and not common in the New World, where it's only been a few centuries and the local fauna haven't had time to adapt.

I wonder if a big piece of it isn't that cats also had natural predators when they were “working cats” on farms (ie: wolves, bobcats etc.)… and those predators have been eliminated as we became more “civilized” and now the cat population is unbalanced.

@Edde "Loss" of private single-occupancy autos for local transport has so many benefits and alternatives that it is easy to point 'em out as well as point out the down sides of continuing a fruitless motorized rat race as an example. Is there actually a real loss for most of us or have we been sold non-existent and ephemeral benefits?

Speaking as someone living in the countryside, a truck is my only way around… after I’ve exhausted myself working in the garden, I am not able to ride a bike a mile into town for groceries (and if I did the grocery trip, I’d get half the gardening done)… but I agree with you that in towns with decent public transport, it should be used much more often – but that would require folks to slow down… I used buses & tram when I lived in a city (3 years back) and it took me on average ½ hr more to get where I needed to go… so it is a trade off, and has to be made consciously…

And thanks to those who posted the Icelandic jokes… wonderful irony…

Corpus Callosum said...

mattbg said:
"It is true that, if you lower interest rates, people will borrow more money and it will likely flow into the economy. It is then likely that inflation will follow."
Draco TB replied:
Again, true. But still no wealth has been created no matter how much money has been borrowed.

I suggest that you're both right, and that you're both wrong. This is only sometimes true and then only apparently so, which points out the difficulty of the Quantitative approach.

@Draco TB: wealth may or may not be created. It depends on the uses to which the credit is put. Credit is not evil in and of itself, the evil is entirely in its quantity. Too little stifles enterprise, and too much leads to "malinvestment" such as, oh say Mortgage Backed Securities and the great tracts of empty McMansions and upscale condos they represent, for example.

The question is: should rates be set by the conditions in the economy itself (with all of its rough justice), or should that be the purview of some committee of “experts”?

@mattbg: Adam Smith said something like (quoting from memory): It may be taken as a maxim that when a great deal can be made by the use of money, a great deal will be paid for the use of money; but that when little can be made by the use of money, little will be paid for the use of money.

Do you see that Keynes turned this maxim on its head and has confused cause and effect? Interest rates don't "drive the economy", the economy drives interest rates. That the former often appears to be true is only because, in the main, the economy is operating within normative bounds, where the "curve" is linear. When the economy, in the aggregate, approaches debt saturation - as it does now -, then the curve is anything but linear. But worse still, Quants aside, there is no curve, that is to say, no coherent mathematical function that defines Human behavior across the entire range of their emotions and actions.

There could be, perhaps, a Greed function, and a Fear function, but then is there also a Satisfaction function, a Survival function, a Love function and a Hate function? It's a fool's chase, and one ultimately inspired, I humbly suggest, by the Power function: the desire to control the masses for one's own aggrandizement - a further result of the deadly and psychologically twisted Vanity function so ably lampooned by Ecclesiasticus (King David?) in that quaint yet vastly under-appreciated tome called “The Bible”.

"If only everyone would do just as I say, then what a lovely world it would be." That's Keynes to a "T", and the same goes for Marx. In spades.

But this debate has been had before: Cardinal vs Ordinal scales of value (or Utility, in econo-speak). The attempt to put numerical (cardinal) values on Human wants and needs is fundamental to any Quantitative approach to Economics. Again, Classical theory warned against such folly stating that such desires can only be ranked ordinally and that such ranking will change depending on circumstances. For this bit of evident good sense, they've been ignored, and even vilified in the bargain.

That Ludwig von Mises seems to have been convincingly painted (by whom?) as a Nazi sympathizer - even here on this blog from time to time - is a very great injustice, and a sad statement on the effectiveness of calumny and propaganda.

Corpus Callosum said...

mattbg said:
Economics is not an exact science, but it is at least as scientific as sociology or psychology.
Blogger Draco TB replied:
No, actually, it isn't. Sociology has moved on from the 19th century and economics hasn't.

This is patent nonsense. What are we discussing here but the desultory attempt of economists to not just emulate - that alone is admirable and acceptable - but rather to imitate the hard sciences? The standard textbook in universities since about 1948 by Paul Samuelson purports to model economic equilibrium on the physical equations of thermodynamic equilibrium. Surely one must wonder if one's own behavior is really as predictable as that of a molecule. (As an aside though, the concept of Entropy - shorn of any attempt at quantification - can be quite instructive in the Social/Historic sphere.)

But surely there are durable first principles in economics that are no more tendentious than Newton or Watt are in Physics. That is the path from which "modern" economics diverged, and the goal must be to find our way back to that path - because it represents sound observations on Human behavior in the economic sphere - not to "throw the baby out with the bathwater", or to "re-invent the wheel". That path, I believe was largely blazed by the Classical Liberals, and continued by the Austrians - though no-one has followed them since Keynes came on the scene with his vain promise to "turn stones into bread". Incomplete it may well be in light of the peculiar characteristics of resource depletion and energy in particular, Austrianism is, I think the point of departure for any future advancement.

In fact, the words of mises quoted from his great yet neglected Economic treatise "Human Action", have recently become somewhat famous and widely quoted on the web, and deserve to be taken seriously:

"There is no means of avoiding a final collapse of a boom brought about by credit expansion. The alternative is only whether the crisis should come sooner as a result of a voluntary abandonment of further credit expansion or later as a final and total catastrophe of the currency system involved."

Is this not the pretty pass where we now find ourselves? I believe it is, and the next stage is the hyperinflation or the "Crack-up Boom", where the faith - i.e. belief - in the stability of the currency collapses such that people will rush to convert their currency holdings into "real goods" whether they need them or not, because those goods - any goods - become a better "store of value" than the discredited monetary unit which, by contrast, loses value literally by the minute..

Of course, the ultimate "good" is gold itself. I’d advise you, despite specious questions about its “spendability”, to get some while you still can. Of course, gold - or any form of money - is just a command on goods and cannot command goods that don’t exist. Far better to have, or produce yourself, the goods you need most urgently - like food for example. Becoming your own producer of essential goods is probably the best way to go.

However, that the cult of personality that present-day Austrianism has become is least likely to blaze that path to the future, and has become embayed in a back-water of denial and false hope, is very unfortunate indeed. But that's another story.

Draco TB, when one has taken the wrong path, the first step back is the first step forward.

John Michael Greer said...

Hapibeli, I haven't read it yet -- there's a copy at the local public library, too, so I can remedy that. You're quite right that it's a commodity of huge importance, and those who can produce it from seawater, say, will have a very useful trade in hand.

Cathy, taking care of poultry is more important than reading this or any other blog! I hope they thrive, and keep you well supplied with eggs.

Corpus, I have to confess to very mixed feelings about Austrian economics. I've learned quite a bit from them, but I'm not convinced that the Austrian take is actually that much better a fit to the real world than the views it condemns. (The opposite of an error is not always a truth.) For that matter, the classical liberal economists were as much ideologists as dispassionate students of economic behavior; I've discussed, in an earlier post, the way Ricardo's meretricious arguments in favor of "free trade" have been used by two successive empires, British and American, to obfuscate the harsh reality of a tribute economy that concentrates wealth in the imperial nation to the detriment of everybody else.

Cherokee Organics said...

To Hawlkeye,

"It's my understanding that certain cover crops can dive deep into the subsoil and recapture many of the nutrients that have been leached down from above, including the precious phosphorous. Farms that require mining are mines themselves, with depletion their ultimate destiny."

You may find that phosphates are washed overland and through the water table into the creeks, rivers and eventually the ocean. They are actually a pollutant as they encourage too much plant, algal and bacterial growth in those systems killing the natural flora and fauna. Not good.

The other main loss of phosphates is in the plant itself which is not generally returned to the soil in the area that it is grown. The reason for this is because of large scale sewage treatment processes and the habit of sending food scraps to landfill involved in Western industrial cultures actually creates a broken nutrient recycling system. It doesn't need to be this way.

Peak phosphates will most certainly be a major wakeup call for Industrial societies. Take for example the large scale corn farming which occurs in the US. Corn itself is a very heavy feeding plant and without the addition of super phosphates to the growth cycle of that plant, there will be over a few short cycles diminishing returns in output per acre. Corn is a central crop of the US food chain and this is certainly a major unspoken weakness.

Australia will be hit pretty hard too as our landmass is one of the oldest on the planet and all of our soils are deficient in phosphates. Most of the native plants have evolved to deal with this, however not many have made their way onto the Western table (the Macadamia nut is an exception - most of which are now grown in Hawaii). Which also leaves us with the problem of what to do if the phosphate supplies ever dry up.

You are correct though that some plants have very long root systems which are able to mine nutrients and minerals from quite a depth. Lucerne is one that comes to mind and it's roots can tap down to at least 4 metres I believe (possibly more). Comfrey, clover, alfalfa are good too. There are heaps of them, but most phosphates are simply lost to the area that they are applied.

A lot of leaching of minerals occurs due to heavy rain, exposed soil or over watering (which happens more than people would like to admit). It certainly does in commercial orchards where the farmer is paid by weight rather than quality or taste.

Sustainable agriculture will be a long and interesting journey in itself and best of all, we'll all be along for the ride.

Good luck!

Cherokee Organics said...

To Xhmko,

The same is true about six seasons here in SE Australia as well. Regards.

quantumskunk said...

i read the airlines did not consume $600 million worth of jet fuel. i wonder how much anthropomorphic CO2 was avoided for 3 days? any boffins out there who can calculate? and how much CO2 did the icelandic volcano inject into the atmosphere?

i want to start a garden for 2 years now but i have to condition a plot. raised bed needs dirt & fence, etc. i get home dog tired from the factory. one paradigm (wage slaving) leaves no time for other paradigms. i also want to put up a green house. ordinances and taxes are regressive. hah-hah! i live in "the garden state"!

Wordek said...


“but I'm not convinced that the Austrian take is actually that much better a fit to the real world than the views it condemns.”

The point of view that I take which suddenly makes all economic schools make sense is that they do not (despite what their proponents might suggest) model the real world at all. If anything they resemble philosophies (Theology and ideology are similar phenomena)

I'm not sure that I can describe this adequately but lets try. Economists model a state of human affairs from a subjective standpoint. That is to say the economist is a working part of the model he describes, and by describing it whilst being a part of events, he modifies the events he is attempting to model. Now this is a terribly confusing position to be in. How can one accurately describe something when the very act of description modifies that which we are attempting to describe?
So there are essentially three responses to being in this position:
1)Maintain stasis. Insist that the snapshot in time that you originally described is always accurate and label any evidence of changing phenomena as invalid.
2)Surf the wave: Understand your place in the changing state of affairs, give up the attempt at accurate modeling and trim your output to influence the state of affairs to your benefit
3)Something else (please fill in)

So no, economics cannot rightfully or honestly claim to be a science, but it may need to in order to be effective if our economist (or economic school) chooses option 2.

Patz said...

Jared Diamond poses a question in his book Collapse as to what was going through the mind of the person who cut down the last tree on Easter Island. I.e. how could they have depleted their entire forest of palms in order to erect ever bigger monuments--the moai? The answer was probably the same as with the Mayans: that the practice had served them well in the past so they kept at it even though conditions had changed. And like the Mayans the practice had probably employed large numbers of young men from the several tribes they were divided into--better that than warring, which they did later anyway.

As you say the fundamentals have changed and thus what worked before will not work now and will in fact make things worse. The measure of an economy is its ability to do work. Thus GDP is another way of measuring work done. In a world of declining net energy less work can or will be done. This partly explains the frenzy of financial manipulation in a vain attempt to substitute for the contraction of productive work.

Loveandlight posts a link to the blog Early Warning which has a very thoughtful post regarding the possibility that Iraq's oil reserves could extent the advent of Peak Oil by up to a decade. Could that happen? Possibly. Would it be a solution? Not in the least. First, 10 years from this point would probably narrow to 5 with accelerated usage especially from China and India. And experience tells us that there is little chance our leaders or anyone else able to make a difference would seize the opportunity to bring alternatives on line. Finally, it is the abundance of fossil fuels (cheap energy) that caused what will be our biggest problem: our efflorescence as a species, positioning us for a collapse and die--off.

At the risk of quibbling, 'times arrow' is not just a cultural construct. It is demonstrated in the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, as entropy goes in one direction. It is thought to be an "initial condition" of the universe and may correlate to an expanding universe. (Wikipedia).

Wordek said...

Hi Corpus Callosum:

“because it represents sound observations on Human behavior “

You know I rather like some of Thorstein Veblen's observations like conspicuous consumption and the leisure class... Not to mention the fact that he did a lot of work while living (you guessed it) on a farm!!

MawKernewek said...

I'm not sure what the ecological functions of traditional superstitions are, but I wonder if the traditional superstitious worldview is not in some ways better adapted to ecological realities than the modern scientific materialist. If you want to read more, have a look at my most recent post (A Glorious Dawn) on my own blog.

One of the things I suggest is that the disenchantment of the world, in which the existence of non-human spiritual entities is denied by the scientific materialist worldview, goes a long way towards causing our present disconnection from ecological realities.

It has enabled humanity to think of itself as being separate from and above creation rather than part of it. That combined with the use of fossil fuels to transcend the limits of natural ecosystems.

Some Christians also seem to go along with this idea, based on a misinterpretation of the early parts of Genesis.

Ariel55 said...

Dear "Wordek",

I liked your idea of making a philosophy to coping with fritzy economics. I forever vacillate between "sheltering in place" and outright changing locations. Would that do for option #3?

Wordek said...

Hi Ariel55

I dont know that I was making a philosophy, but then again, I dont know much of anything at all! So sure, why not? The more the merrier (unless its a brawl in a phone box) ;)

Ned said...

To hawlkeye "Criss-crossed blackberry branches on the surface discourages this, but it's a pain in the fingertips."

It's not as local and renewable, but I keep the cats out of the carrot seedbed by laying old chickenwire flat on the bed: after the carrots get a couple of inches tall (no longer inviting as a litter box,) the chickenwire is lifted off with no damage. If I ever run out of chickenwire, though, I have plenty of berry brambles....

To corpuscallosum "But surely there are durable first principles in economics that are no more tendentious than Newton or Watt are in Physics."

Careful here: Newton and Watt can be, and are, bench tested and verified by thousands of people in hundreds of different labs every year, year after year after year. (I marvel now at the number of hours I spent doing just that getting my physics degree.) We build on Newton not because he was brilliant (although he was,) and not because his mathematics were inspired and beautiful (which they were,) but because his work not only explained observed phenomena, but accurately predicted future results. You're referencing a standard that economics can't hope to approach.

Before buying gold (at over $1k/oz) one should consider both a possible functional repeat of the Gold Reserve Act, in which you might be left only with rapidly inflating fiat, after all, and the relative utility of other investments. In my case those investments have included upgrading my house (the previous owners burned 1500 gal of heating fuel per season, my family of four accomplished all space heating and domestic hot water last winter with two cords of firewood), fruit trees, nut bushes, and improving the soil of my gardens. I am trying to invest in things that do and will have value to me, but are in fact NOT very negotiable, and are therefore more problematic to take away from me and my family. This summer I rebuild the falling-down garage.

To Patz: Although it's a less romantic vision, the last tree on Easter island probably died standing. What is a lone tree (or small patch of trees) that was once part of a larger forest ecosystem? Dead, and likely sooner rather than later. What was the feller thinking? Probably wondering why "all the trees died."

Wordek said...

Hi MawKernewek

“One of the things I suggest is that the disenchantment of the world, in which the existence of non-human spiritual entities is denied by the scientific materialist worldview, goes a long way towards causing our present disconnection from ecological realities.”

Its funny isnt it that people can discuss such entities as “the id”, “the superego”, “Homo Economicus”, even “mind” with a straight face as if they were discussing something “real” and then laugh at the mere suggestion of demons or gods.
Entities that fit into the material world-view do so mostly by dint of their origin. Engineers are quite happy to use “gremlins” and “bugs” as place-markers for phenomena they dont understand.

God is a bearded man who sits on a throne in the sky. The devil has horns and lives under the ground in a burning lake of brimstone (Thats a burning lake of S to any chemists out there). It doesnt help any that so much of our current representation of traditional entities largely consists of imagery from medieval times repackaged and sold on to the “punters” for large profits.

Nowadays neuroscientists are scanning brains looking for god. Heh..They dont quite get it do they? Well at least they're trying ( Likely they'll find some bugs instead ) ;)

I suggest that until both materialists and non-materialists understand the limitations of both worldviews taken in isolation, and we learn to split our language to clearly identify which perspective on the universe has primacy at each point in time, the loggerheads, the confusion and the antipathy will continue.

Im holding my breath (metaphorically) til that day

xhmko said...

Economics is not a science but economists employ some scientific methods in their social studies and extrapolations. Economics is different to finance. Finance is pure math mingled with speculation. Economics is about human endeavour and how each endeavour is linked to other endeavours and how their singular and united actions effect perceptions of value and worth. It is no surprise though that what many economists are asked to provide or wish to propose they are capable of is "economancy". The main problem with their interpretations is not isolated to their profession alone though, for the ignorance of the Earth's continuous supply of all that makes us so special is rife through all modern life.

DIYer said...


Here's an educated guess:
The eruption at Eyjafjallajokull saved us about 206,000 tons of greenhouse gas. The scale of our atrocities against nature are mind-boggling.

xhmko said...

Cherokee Organics, That's really interesting. Are you based in Gippsland at all coz that would be comparable to the SW. I've heard talk from good sources about long distance travel by elders in the past and continent-wide convergences and the like. I wonder how much influence international meetings like that could have had on peoples systems of understanding. For instance the word for faeces (I feel so mature saying that instead of ....) is the same in NW QLD as it SW WA. Could the elders have met up and discussed the benefits of counting six seasons? Lets just have a minutes silence for all those lost in battle in the colonising of Australia and all the amazing things we could have learned.

mattbg said...

JMG, I agree that economists are notoriously inaccurate at predicting -- when have the majority ever successfully predicted any of the crashes? -- but I think this just furthers the idea that it is a social science and not a hard science.

Talking up the economy or smoothing your tone about it has an effect on the economy itself. You can't verbally stroke an atom into submission, but you can verbally stroke people to the same to some extent.

I completely bypassed the notion that anyone would take economics seriously as a hard science because of this fact. I just don't think anyone can claim it qualifies in that category. I'm sure some do, but I don't know how they could ever be taken seriously. There are too many competing theories about the same thing, and none of them work precisely because human behaviour is involved.

How many sociologists are right? How many psychologists are right? Physics is pretty much the same in every country in the world, but sociology, psychology, and economics are not.

Why is Chile by far one of the most successful countries in Latin America and one of the few with a somewhat certain future? Surely nothing to do with Pinochet-driven market reforms?

Our system is no better than Chavez economics? USSR economics? If not our current system of economics, then what?

All I am saying is that economic theory has value. It is not trivial and it is not as if we would do just as well without it. It does change and evolve in response to events. Obviously, it's not perfect.

With respect to the global warming comparison, at a very simplistic level they are observing a short period of warming and trying to attribute it to carbon dioxide buildup and human activity. Many involved are then trying to silence people who want to make it more complicated than that. The huge number of possible interactions in the climate are reduced to simplifications. Climate models have never predicted anything other than future catastrophe, as far as I know. And they can't tell us what we need to do to solve the problem. I do not see much of a difference when compared with economics: valuable, but let's not take it too far.

Draco, when you harvest resources and use them to make products, you create wealth. There are a lot of "polish blanket tricks" in the economy, but there is still wealth and value being created in many other areas.

Bill Pulliam said...

JMG -- are you enjoying your first dogwood winter? Did you get frost? We escaped by about a degree; but since the black walnut hasn't quite flowered yet my tender plants are still inside and safe anyway! We still have blackberry winter to go, but that rarely includes frost, just a final chance to put on your sweaters and jackets before the warmth arrives to stay.

Interesting reading about your garden; your recent journey has many parallels to mine (from Colorado to Tennessee) at the beginning of the millenium. I too started out with dense "french intensive," "square foot garden" style interplantings. Over time I came to realize that shade and soil moisture were less important here than were dampness and air circulation, so I opened my beds up some and focused more on rotation than interplanting. I also found that the thick mulches so valuable in Colorado tended to promote damping off and slugs here, and were irresistible lures to chickens. So now I go for bare dirt. My plantings are still in beds, not rows, and my interplant spacing is about half of what is conventional in row cropping, so I met somewhere in the middle. Will be interesting what you find; your microclimate may vary!

A hippie horticulturist advised me that it can be useful to plant some of the modern hybrids as well as a variety of heirlooms. I live in a fog pocket where fungal diseases can be more a problem due to persistent fog until about 10 a.m. many mornings. I also have found that it's good to plant a wide range of varieties every year, even some that did poorly last year. Moisture and sunlight can vary enormously between years in appalachia, and different varieties will perform with drastically different results between years. 2009 was wet and cloudy and cold; 2008 was hot and sunny. Might as well have moved from Maine to Oklahoma as far as the plants were concerned!