Wednesday, April 07, 2010

The Twilight of the Machine

The end of the age of cheap abundant energy, as last week’s Archdruid Report argued, brings with it an unavoidable reshaping of our most basic ideas about economics and, in particular, economic development. For the last three centuries or so, the effective meaning of this phrase has centered on the replacement of human labor by machines. All the other measures of development – and of course plenty of them have been offered down through the years – either reflect or presuppose that basic economic shift.

The replacement of labor with mechanical energy has even come to play a potent role in the popular imagination. From the machine-assisted living of The Jetsons to the darker image of reality itself as a machine-created illusion in The Matrix, the future has come to be defined as a place where people do even less work with their own muscles than they do today. All this is the product of what an earlier post called the logic of abundance: the notion, rooted right down in the core of the contemporary worldview of industrial society, that there will always be enough resources to let people have whatever it is that they think they want.

Abandon that comfortable but unjustifiable assumption, and the future takes on a very different shape. In a world where everything but human beings will be in short supply, it makes no sense whatever to deploy increasingly scarce resources to build, maintain, and power machines to do jobs that human labor can do equally well. An example may be useful here, so let’s take Rosie the Riveter, the iconic woman factory worker of Second World War fame, and match her up against one of the computer-guided assembly line robots that have replaced so many workers in production lines in the industrial world; we might as well pit icon against icon and call the robot HAL 9000.

Both of them serve the same economic function, we’ll assume, riveting parts together on an assembly line. It’s a credo of contemporary economics that HAL is more efficient than Rosie; since the term “efficiency” in contemporary economic parlance means “labor efficiency,” or in other words how much production you can get per worker, any machine is by definition more efficient than human labor. In a world of resource constraints, though, this definition of efficiency becomes very hard to justify. It may be true that HAL can work long shifts at all hours with only the very occasional break for maintenance – at least this is what the robot salesman will tell you – and Rosie cannot. Still, in a world of resource scarcity, Rosie has a crucial advantage that more than offsets HAL’s capacity for night shifts: her operating requirements are much less energy- and technology-intensive to meet than HAL’s.

We can start with the energy source used by each riveter. HAL requires electricity – quite a bit of it, within fairly tight specifications of voltage, amperage, and cycles per second. For her part, Rosie requires food, and though she’s been known to take a second helping in the factory cafeteria, her fuel needs are fairly modest compared to those of the machine. Her tolerances for variability in energy sources are also much broader than HAL’s – if you have trouble believing this, a few minutes paging through an old wartime cookbook should settle the issue.

HAL’s maintenance requirements are just as exacting. He needs lubricants that meet precise specifications, and an assortment of spare parts ranging from zinc bushings to integrated circuits, none of which he can provide for himself. All of them must be manufactured off site, and some (such as the integrated circuit) cannot be made without extremely expensive, complex facilities demanding intricate technological infrastructures of their own. Rosie’s maintenance needs, by contrast, involve little more than eight hours of sleep and a modest additional amount of food. (“I’ll have two scoops of slumgullion today, Franny, thanks; it’s been a hard shift.”)

When it’s necessary to replace HAL, a huge array of industrial facilities – mines, smelters, chemical plants, chip fabrication plants, and one or (usually) several factories – have to be brought into play to produce HAL 9100. Unlike HAL, Rosie can manufacture her own replacement, and while it will take most of two decades before Rosie Jr. is ready to tie her hair up in a bandanna and take her place on the assembly line, Rosie’s own working life is longer still, so the replacement cycle is not a problem for her. In a world with nearly seven billion people on it, of course, it’s hardly necessary to wait for Rosie herself to reproduce in order to find a new riveter, or ten thousand of them.

Finally, what happens if the economy changes so that there’s no longer a need for as many riveters, as happened (for example) at the end of the Second World War? It might be possible to retool HAL for some other industrial process, but for reasons of efficiency, most assembly line robots are designed for a very limited range of operations, and get mothballed or go to the scrap heap (to the tune of a substantial tax writeoff) when the demand for their services goes away. Rosie, on the other hand, is capable of a nearly limitless range of productive economic activities, and can head off to some other career when the factory closes down, leaving HAL to sing “Daisy May” to himself on the deserted assembly line.

All this could be developed at even greater detail, and with less whimsy, but I trust the point has been made: HAL’s appearance of greater efficiency depends on access to a support system of factories and services vastly larger than the one Rosie needs, and his support system necessarily depends on the availability of cheap abundant energy and a wide range of specialized resources and supplies, while hers need not do so. What makes HAL more economical in an age of resource and energy abundance is ultimately the abundant supply and low cost of fossil fuel energy. During an age of resource scarcity, the equation changes completely, because the goods and services that support Rosie can be produced with a much simpler technology, and with much less in the way of concentrated energy, than the goods and services that support HAL.

There’s a reason for this, of course: human beings evolved over millions of years in a world of energy and resource scarcity, along with all other living things. Our hominid ancestors, and all their ancestors down the lineage of evolution all the way to those first prokaryotic cells back in the dank Archean mists, spent most of their lives confronting the hard logic of Malthus by which population rises right up to the limits of carrying capacity. There are some multicellular organisms that have requirements as exacting and purposes as limited as most machines, but not many, and our species ranks right up there with rats, crows, and cockroaches among Nature’s supreme generalists.

It’s only in the highly atypical conditions of the last three centuries, then, that machines become more economical than human laborers. This is why, for example, nobody in the Roman world thought of using Hero of Alexandria’s aeolipile, the first known steam engine, as a source of power for industry or transport. Craft traditions in the Roman Empire would certainly have been up to the challenge, and the aeolipile was much discussed at the time as an interesting curiosity; what was lacking was the recognition that the black gooey stuff that seeped from the ground in certain places, or the black flammable stone we call coal, could be extracted in large quantities and turned into fuel. Lacking that, in turn, the aelopile could never have been more than an interesting curiosity, for the fuel supplies the Roman world knew about were already committed to existing economic sectors, while human and animal muscle were abundant, familiar, and cheap.

As the industrial age winds down, in turn, human muscle will again be abundant. Will it be cheap? Almost certainly, yes – and that means that real wages for most people in the industrial world will continue their current slide toward Third World levels. I wish I could say otherwise, not least because my chances of taking part in that slide are tolerably high. Still, part of what has made the last three centuries so atypical is the extent to which ordinary people in the industrial world have been able to rise out of the hand-to-mouth existence typical of most of humanity for most of history, and partake of a degree of comfort and security that monarchs of past ages have often sought in vain. That state of affairs could never have been permanent, because it was made possible only by using up fantastic amounts of fossil sunlight at a pace so extravagant that the quest to figure out what to do with all that energy has been a major driver of economic change for more than a century now; it’s simply our bad luck to live at a time when the bill for all that extravagance is coming due.

All this should be fairly straightforward and uncontroversial. It isn’t, of course, because the contemporary faith in the superiority of the machine reaches deep into the irrational levels of our collective psyche. When Lewis Mumford titled one of his most significant books The Myth of the Machine he was not engaging in hyperbole. The thought that Rosie the Riveter could go head to head with HAL 9000 under any conditions, and win hands down, is unthinkable to most of us; it’s a matter of folk belief throughout industrial society that the machine always wins, or at least that any victory over it is as temporary and fatal as John Henry’s Pyrrhic triumph over the steam drill.

The machine is our totem, the focus of a great deal of our culture’s sense of value and purpose, and most people in the industrial world accord it the same omnipotence that older religions claim for their gods. The sheer volume of popular culture over the last century or so that fixates on the notion of machines taking over the world, and treating humanity the way industrial humanity has so often treated other living things, is one indicator of the mythic power machines have come to hold in our collective imagination. It’s for this reason, I think, that so many of us simply can’t imagine a future in which machines will be less economically viable than human labor.

Yet if it costs the equivalent of $5 a day to hire a file clerk and a secretary at Third World wage scales, and it costs the equivalent of $10 a day in expensive and unreliable electricity to run a computer to do the same things, those businesses that hope to succeed will hire the file clerk and the secretary, and the computer will be left to gather dust. Now it’s true, as fans of computers are quick to point out, that computers will do things that secretaries and file clerks can’t, but the reverse is also true – try asking your computer sometime to go pick up takeout lunch for the office from a place that doesn’t deliver – and many of the abilities unique to computers are conveniences rather than necessities; businesses got along very well without them for thousands of years, remember.

Once again, however, this points up the value of E.F. Schumacher’s concept of intermediate technology – or, as it was usefully retitled in the Seventies, appropriate technology – for the deindustrial future. The technology that’s useful to help a human worker do his job more effectively is not the same as the technology that’s needed to replace him with a machine. As cheap abundant energy becomes a thing of the past, replacing workers with machines will no longer be a viable option, but providing workers with tools that will make their labor more productive is quite another matter.

The problem here is that very few people are used to thinking in these terms. The vast majority of thinking about appropriate technology these days still envisions it, as Schumacher did, as something to be used in Third World countries only. Worse still, while every industry in the world once had a vast amount of practical knowledge about the tools and training human workers needed to do their jobs well, nearly all of that knowledge is endangered if it hasn’t already been lost.

Consider the slide rule as one example among many. Until the 1970s, it was the engineer’s inseparable companion; every technological advance from the mid-19th century until Apollo 11 landed on the Moon was made possible, in part, by competent manipulation of this simple, flexible, ingenious tool by people who knew how to make the most of its strengths and work within its limits. Since it doesn’t require a massive and technologically complex support structure to construct, maintain, and operate them – any good cabinetmaker can make one, and their proper fuel is a scoop of the same slumgullion that kept Rosie going on her shift – slide rules are likely to be just as useful on the downslope of the industrial age as they were on the way up. If, that is, anybody on Earth still remembers how to use one when we get to that point along the curve of deindustrialization.

This is where the myth of the machine – the conviction, as irrational these days as it is pervasive, that the best person for any job is always not a person at all, but a machine – stops becoming a curious twist of our collective imagination and turns into a trap we ignore at our peril. As peak oil moves closer to center stage in the historical drama of our time, making the gargantuan technostructure we’ve built on a foundation of cheap abundant energy ever more problematic to sustain, the most common response from the centers of power and the masses alike is to call for the development of even more complex, gargantuan, and tightly interlinked machines, pushing the technostructure in the direction of greater risk and greater dysfunction. It’s hardly an exaggeration to suggest that if it turned out we were all about to perish en masse from building too many machines, the first reaction of most people in today’s industrial cultures would likely be to insist that the answer was to build more machines.

Thus we will doubtless see plenty of shiny new machines built in the years to come, and they will doubtless do their fair share and more to push industrial civilization further down the arc of its decline. As the ancient Greeks knew well, it’s the essence of tragedy that the arete, the particular excellence, of a tragic hero also turns out to be his hamartia or fatal flaw; put another way, a civilization that lives by the machine can expect to die by the machine as well. Still, among the heretical minority that has learned to mistrust the myth of the machine, it may well be worth remembering that as the age of scarcity dawns, educating people is a far more useful project than building machines, and doing as much as possible to insure that individuals, families, and communities have the skills and simple tools they need to work productively is one very promising response to the future ahead of us. We’ll talk about one application of that approach next week.


dltrammel said...

"There are some multicellular organisms that have requirements as exacting and purposes as limited as most machines, but not many, and our species ranks right up there with rats, crows, and cockroaches among Nature’s supreme generalists."

Lets hear it for the generalist Perhaps we will be able to survive after all.

RDatta said...

Each part of the complexity is inextricably dependent on other sectors of the complexity. Through multiple points of dependence on the whole, we have painted ourselves into a proverbial corner. The transition out of this will not be easy.

Large sectors of the complexity may collapse quite rapidly, taking with them the tertiary and quaternary economies.

Apple Jack Creek said...

Your tale of Rosie and Hal reminded me of a phrase I heard managers use quite a bit on some software projects I worked on: “use the least cost alternative”. If there were 2 people capable of doing a job, and one was a highly paid contractor and the other was a data entry clerk at entry level wages … well, for grunt work, you got the less expensive resource to do the job and reserved the highly paid contractor for the trickier stuff (which is presumably what they were being paid the big bucks for anyhow). It just made sense from a bottom-line perspective. Now, that was a comparison between two human resources, but surely some clever bean counter who thinks outside the box will, at some point, observe that human hands could do a job for less cost than maintaining/replacing the machines and propose the change to management.

It’s actually one of the things I fear when I look at my own job’s future: I work on software that is extremely helpful to our customers, but it’s not absolutely necessary … people with ledger books and careful paper records could do the job – they have before, and no doubt will again. When I’m out in the garden thinking “oh, I don’t feel like pulling up any more weeds, it won’t affect the harvest much if I stop now…” I remind myself that if too many people decide it’ll cost them less to go back to ledger books and paper, I’ll find myself with more time than money and be shopping in my back yard instead of the store … so I’d better pull those weeds.

Justin Ritchie said...

Most all of our educational structure, specifically in the sciences, have become completely reliant on machines to do the work. Little of the focus is on memorizing for posterity and most of my fellow grad students and I rarely leave the Googlesphere when seeking out fundamental information to our work.

All this leaves me rather pessimistic on using the human labor that's been invested in the current higher education infrastructure in a meaningful contribution to our future. There won't be many PowerPoint presentations delivered to the society well into the post-peak decline.

Our societies send their best and brightest off to be as far away from manual labor as possible and into the laboratories full of machines (which require their own means of degrading work for maintenance).

How much of the work in scientific journals could even meaningful without the computers to do the mathematical calculations?

Great post as always, I was half expecting a reference to E.M. Forester's The Machine Stops somewhere in there... so I'll add one in to round things out:

"I have seen them, spoken to them, loved them. They are hiding in the midst and the ferns until our civilization stops. Today they are the Homeless - tomorrow ------ "

"Oh, tomorrow - some fool will start the Machine again, tomorrow."

"Never," said Kuno, "never. Humanity has learnt its lesson."

Danby said...

Years and years ago, when the Internet was a shared secret of an elite geeky few, cell phones were large, expensive and restricted to very large cities, and universal email was not even a dream, I worked for Atlas Telecom. We had a finger in several pies, but one particular pie, the cash cow for the company, was a world-wide fax network. Any company on the network could send a fax to any other company on the network, or via normal phone lines from our partner companies to any fax machine on the same local exchange. It sounds like a limited service now, but was very useful to our customers and very profitable for us.

Part of the way we made money from this arrangement was to sell store-and-forward fax servers to our partner companies. Since they were making a few cents on every fax they forwarded, it was easy to make those sales. They would profit, we would profit, and the faxes would go through. So we had servers set up in every major city in the non-communist world.

Except Hong Kong.

No matter the calculations we could do, no matter how many faxes were forwarded by our partner company, they would simply not buy a server. So, when one of their executives was over for a visit, I asked him why. Were they getting a better deal from someone else?

The answer was no, they were not using a fax server at all. They had hired several clerks, all women, to simply print out the faxes and send them on their way, manually. The reason they would not buy a server was that it would increase their costs by about $0.005 (1/2 cent US) per page, impinging on the profitability of the business. Since they were our only portal into mainland China, they were handling several million faxes per month, and that .005 wound up as a lot of money. That conversation opened my eyes to a lot of things I had never considered in my techno-geeky assumptions about the world.

One thing I learned is that efficiency is not a universal. One can be efficient, but only of a particular resource (time, space, labor, electricity, fuel, water, capital, design effort, computing resources, social stability, reputation, etc), but one cannot be simply "efficient", with no qualifier. And improving efficiency in one area ALWAYS requires expending resources, and thereby reducing efficiency, in another. Think of it as the 2nd law of thermodynamics (there ain't no such thing as a free lunch) expressed in terms of efficiency.

And what you efficiencies you choose to improve says a lot about what you consider important.

John Michael Greer said...

Dltrammel, I've always figured that our chances of survival are pretty good. Us and the rats and the cockroaches...

Rdatta, bingo. It's going to be a rough ride.

Apple Jack, learn how to do -- and more importantly, how to teach -- double-entry bookkeeping. Next to nobody knows that any more, and when bookkeepers are once again less costly than machines, you'll be ready to teach those who are clueless without a computer how to add columns of figures and check their work.

Justin, I've used Forster's story pretty heavily in past posts, so figured I'd give him a break this time. But it's a great story -- you have to hand it to somebody who could invent the internet, complete with its most common pathologies, so many decades in advance.

John Michael Greer said...

Danby, that's a great story -- and your point about efficiency needs to be brutally burnt with a branding iron into the backside of every economist who thinks that efficiency in the abstract can be computed and compared in any meaningful fashion.

Ruben said...

As someone trained in Industrial Design I have spent some time with machines and manufacturing processes. And I have often bemoaned how we have taken all the interesting and challenging work--all the processes that require judgement and craft and body memory--and given them to the machines, leaving for ourselves the jobs of pushing the button or pulling the lever. Over and over and over again.

And I am reminded of a story I heard of a modern German furniture factory, full of machines so complex and capable you can scarcely believe what they can do. The only staff needed to operate the factory are a man and a dog. The man feeds the dog, and the dog keeps the man away from the machines.

DIYer said...

... and of course when the battery on that iBauble won't take a charge any more, it will transition from a wonderful store of information to a much less-interesting paperweight.

I'm still trying to suss out the shape of this curve. And I still think that our technology will make this collapse different than the decline of the Roman Empire. Not necessarily better, but different. It isn't a utopian vision by a long shot, the technology is all here right now, and could as easily be configured for Orwell's totalitarian state.

And as I see it, the longish twilight of cheap energy (after all we've only burned a bit more than half of it) will allow some measure of networking and such to continue for a time.

Followed by the almost instantaneous loss of most of it -- there won't be any moldering sheepskin scrolls with slowly fading lettering for future scholars to ponder, eh.

Apple Jack Creek said...

@ Danby: Wow, you provided a perfect example of the "least cost alternative" being people vs. tech ... and it was identified by the bean counters! I wonder how long until the bean counters decide I cost more than I'm worth. I hope they wait a bit. :S

Love the bit about efficiencies, too. I'm gonna write that down!

@ the Archdruid: Double entry bookkeeping, eh? I think I'd probably better brush up on my abacus first. They are handy for those like me who need help with even basic math and are addicted to spreadsheets. Then maybe I'll get brave and try a slide rule.

Brad K. said...

JMG, I think you might be leaning too much on the simple adaptability of human muscle. You are overlooking the education/training requirement to "retool". I fear deindustrialization will destroy the generalist education foundation we take for granted in the US. That, and the way book publishers are going broke, going digital (retiring printing apparatus and the people that understand printing), and turning out ever cheaper, less robust products. Though most of my purchases in recent years have been (science) fiction, the number of broken bindings, shed pages, faded (thirsty) ink - are all increasing. We may not have the documents to support general education, in a post-industrial environment. Yes, I know that the content of today's reference books is often slanted and incomplete anyway.

And I have to take issue with the dynamics of your stand on human vs. machine applications.

Your opening paragraphs illuminated a thought for me. The allure of affluence. That is, if I might define affluence as "freedom from rote labor".

In slave-holding cultures, in cultures with lower classes, and any time there are affluent and non-affluent, much of the measure of affluence is causing work to be accomplished without personally performing direct labor. Investment? A second derivative removed from direct labor, thus very attractive, for the savvy. Government I might consider a third derivative removed from direct labor.

I consider replacing human effort with machine as being an expression of conspicuous consumption - affluence. Just as hiring others to tend the garden, the fields, the house, one's personal needs was at one time a privilege of the affluent, machines or commercial equivalents - grocery stores, convenience stores, etc. - cheap energy provide the machine and vast personal transportation range to afford even the very slightly affluent similar indulgence.

Anyone deliberately choosing to perform rote work will necessarily have to redefine affluence - or redefine their role in society as "subsistence". I don't think there can be a middle ground.

We will need to recognize and elevate an informal economy, to reposition those needed for rote work and enable them to perform needed tasks.

We will need to redefine poverty. Rather than an absence of affluence, poverty should not be defined by performing rote labor. Poverty should be insufficient means to acquire, without thieving, clothing adequate to current exposure, food adequate to work and effort required and maintain health sufficient to accomplish the work required.

We have to acknowledge that we need affluent people to provide direction and security to the community and nation; and that not many can be affluent in terms of cash or relief from rote labor.

Class mobility may turn out to be a function of affluence. I hope not; mobility is a useful mechanism for getting the best use of the best people.

The loss of educational material and content bothers me a lot. Deindustrializing should be much simpler, if we can retain education enough to retain technological flexibility. Like how to sharpen a cross-cut wood saw, as opposed to a rip saw.

greatblue said...

People who grew up in the 1920s used to be able to do a tremendous amount of math in their heads. Why? Because they were taught those tricks. I have seen beautiful many-columned ledgers
produced by people of that generation in much better handwriting than you are likely to find today. These folks might have finished high school (or might not). My generation got new math, where understanding how to get the answer was more important than getting the right answer. Our new math textbooks began each set of problems with the command: "Compute:" We used to laugh and say "Now we are full-fledged computers." Little did we know we would have to go to college to become even marginally employable.

@Danby: "And improving efficiency in one area ALWAYS requires expending resources, and thereby reducing efficiency, in another." We used to say when asked to do a job, "You get to choose two out of three: fast, good, cheap." It **does** seem to be a basic law.

P.S. Wikipedia says the title of the song is "Daisy Bell," not "Daisy May."

Paul said...

I grew up in Africa in the late 1970s to early 1980s.

We didn't have a dishwasher or washer and dryer or lawn mower or lawn sprinkler, or vaccuum cleaner. Well, actually, we did.

His name was Fiyah and he cooked and cleaned and washed dishes and dried them. He washed our clothes by hand and hung them up to dry, then ironed and folded them. He swept the floors, watered the plants, cut the lawn by swinging a machete. He worked from sunrise into the evening and only took two days off per month. All for a sum of around $70 per month plus rice, vegetables, meat, and cooking fuel (coal).

He was an honest, good, hardworking man. A good guy. To this day I wish we had paid him more. In much of the Third World, many middle class households still employ domestic servants because it is far cheaper.

spottedwolf said...

well...if I didn't say I loved this'n....I'd be forked of tongue.

The first giggle erupted as I remebered "Soylent Green" and quickly moved to this....

"to rise out of the hand-to-mouth existence typical of most of humanity for most of history, and partake of a degree of comfort and security that monarchs of past ages have often sought in vain."

for its an interesting aside that it took the seeds of our own destruction ie; overpopulation and industrialism pave the undeniable truth about envy of the avarice monarchies live within.

My generation will struggle with these truths as we 'slide out the back door' either sorrowing over the mess we've left our children, struggling to example optimism, or belligerently continuing to deny. The generations behind....I can merely speculate patterns of extremism. It isn't going to be a simple arena of contest....and that IS the reality.

Cherokee Organics said...


Yet again you have put together an awesome post with very salient points!

I went through high school in the mid to late 1980's and had a teacher who just wouldn't let us use calculators, even under exam conditions. Very old school, but on reflection I now approve. It does train you to perform calculations quickly (practice makes perfect). Those who have always used calculators may not understand the "why" of a calculation or be able to perform them in their head or on paper. They might also be just mentally lazy. I have had the pleasure (sic) of training some generation Y graduates who have missed out on the fundamentals behind their profession and it is painful for all concerned.

At university, I remember a time before google when if you wanted to perform any sort of research it meant actually going through a card database and then microfiche records at the university or state library and then hoping that the reference material was appropriate and/or the books were actually on the shelves!

It seems to me that with the Internet, the volume of information has increased massively, but the quality of that information has decreased substantially. For example, it was not possible before mainstream acceptance of the Internet for well financed interest groups to spread misinformation about a particular topic (think clean coal, climate change deniers etc) to any great extent without having to publish a book or publication and get it stocked at a library or a university. Fast forward to today and it is relatively cheap to put up a web page with said misinformation and that page is widely available and used as a source for the general populace in the industrial world. Even worse it is often relied upon by the media and politicians who end up repeating the misinformation. Critical thinking and independence is quickly becoming a lost art. I don't think that this is a good thing for anybody.

Apple Jack Creek referred to the fear of manual ledger systems replacing software and I would like to add that this is a very real fear indeed. It was not that long ago that small to medium enterprises used manual paper based accounting systems. It might surprise younger people than myself, that computers and the associated software have only been powerful enough and cheap enough to use in these businesses in the past two decades. I certainly remember "upgrading" a business in the very early 1990's with multiple offices and 100+ employees from a paper based system to a computer ledger. The computer software produced nicer looking reports in quicker time, but at the end of the day the paper based system still produced the same numbers.

One of the things that I often wonder about is that people learn to use software. I've heard people say that they know this package, but not that other package. Well, if they understood the fundamentals it shouldn't matter whether they use whatever package or do it by paper instead. The problem is that they don't understand the fundamentals. This is exactly like the use of the slide rule that you mentioned and it is a major weakness in our society.

Good luck!

autonomyacres said...

I have a relative who is a civil engineer who was educated in the old school way. Pen, paper, slide rule,and his brain. This person is one of the smartest people I know, and it is interesting to hear them complain and worry about the next generation of civil engineers. They rely on computers so much, that they no longer really know how to do the calculations them selves. These are the people who build dams and bridges etc. So not are we only entering a world of less available energy, but also a world without as much working knowledge. That is a scary cocktail.

Don said...

Some of the machines that people think they can't live without seem to me to be ridiculous, costly, and actually quite inefficient (especially in terms of energy use). Take the leaf blower, for example. Why does this contraption even exist? It's loud and obnoxious, and spews out toxic fumes. But even more ridiculous, watching people blow leaves around their yards is about the silliest thing I've ever seen. It could make a hilarious ballet or dance interlude in a musical show.

To invoke the bard of Middle-Earth again, hobbits "do not and did not understand or like machines more complicated than a forge-bellows, a water-mill, or a hand-loom, though they were skillful with tools" (prologue to "The Fellowship of the Ring," p. 1).

Maybe I think a bit like a hobbit. Yes, I still have my bamboo rake. It's a bit beat up, but it still works. And the level of skill needed to operate it doesn't require a long apprenticeship. Although age is beginning to creep up with me, with its attending muscle aches and joint pains, I'm still not so lazy that I would refuse to get out and use it. It sure beats walking behind one of those loud, smelly machines.

John Michael Greer said...

Ruben, that's a great story! But the man and the dog might want to begin studying for their second career -- say, herding sheep.

DIYer, granted -- the internet and all won't go away at once. My sense, though, is that it will increasingly be rationed by price as energy and materials become more costly, and as less of the cost of running it gets picked up by advertising -- when most people are flat broke, after all, it doesn't make a lot of economic sense to pay lots of money to run ad campaigns to sell them products they can't afford to buy.

Apple Jack, an abacus is certainly an option, and with a little practice it's quick and easy to use. Slide rules won't do you as much good for bookkeeping, since they don't add or subtract. Still, you might look around for a few old bookkeeping textbooks from the 1950s and 1960s, and start learning the fundamentals; it's not that difficult.

Brad, I don't think anyone's going to need to redefine poverty, find a role for affluence, etc. These things will happen by themselves as the economic reality undergirding our current attitudes changes irrevocably. As for flexibility, people become remarkably flexible if the alternative is not eating!

Greatblue, you're quite right -- I'll get that corrected.

Paul, in America until the Second World War, most middle class households had a couple of servants. It's fashionable these days to disdain that habit, but it provided plenty of jobs to people who had limited intellectual possibilities but a good work ethic.

Spottedwolf, one of the things that worries me is just how extreme the tantrums will be when today's overgrown children (we have very few adults these days) find that they can't have their toys any more.

Cherokee, you've put your finger on one of the crucial issues here -- the abandonment of fundamentals in favor of a button-pushing approach in just about any profession you care to name. There's going to be a post on that one of these days.

Autonomy, all the more reason for those of us who recognize the problem to collect and circulate knowledge while it can still be found.

Don, I've sometimes thought that the leaf blower is the quintessential technology of late industrial culture: it's loud, it burns fossil fuels and produces pollution, it pushes the problem it's supposed to solve from one place to another without actually doing anything about it, and everything it does can be done much more effectively and cheaply by a much less complex technology. Yes, I have a rake, too, and use it relentlessly to gather leaves for composting every fall.

hawlkeye said...

The exhaltation of the machine has gone hand in handle with the debasement of the muscle. Most of the terms we use for vigorous physical labor; "grunt work" "stoop labor" and the like, display complete disdain for manual accomplishment.

"So, what do you do for a living?" If your answer involves using your hands, it's immediately assumed it's because your brain is too feeble to get paid for using it alone. And if you do manual labor in the machine culture, it's usually without your brain engaged, because you've been turned into a machine yourself.

And if a human appears to be in fine physical shape, do we ask, "Have you been working?" No, we ask, "have you been working OUT?" meaning, have you been wrestling with machines at the gym... Maybe we could solve our energy problems by hooking up little generators to all the treadmills at the YMCA?

My favorite example of Rosie and Hal are horses and tractors, because they point to the fork in the furrow where we took the wrong turn. Our preoccupation with things mechanical is a luxury made possible by mechanical food production in the first place.

What was Hal actually doing out there in space, looking for better places to forage? What kind of death machine was Rosie really rivetting? Eating wasn't an issue.

The main thing we've got to bolt back together today is a food supply system that behaves like an organism and not a mutant mechanical droid.

Which will happen one way or another, I suppose, wherever humans decide to do the same.

pgrass101 said...

I am worried about our current crop of high school graduates who are so reliant on machines to do even the simplest tasks. This goes from cash registers at fast food restaurants that have pictures of the items on them instead of actual numbers, and cashiers at most any retail store that cannot do simple math to calculate correct change if their register has already calculated it for them.

When I worked for a university police department a few years ago I responded to a young lady who could not get into her car. When I arrived I found out that she did not lock her keys in her car, but her batteries in her key fob had died and it would not unlock her door when she pressed the button. It never occurred to her to use the key, until I asked her if the key still worked.

While this is just one instance I am worried about what is going to happen when the young adults that are living today have to use physical labor to accomplish simple tasks and they have no idea on how to use pulleys, levers, block and tackles and other simple human powered machines.

Jason said...

Talking of tricks for doing quick sums, as well as the slide rule and abacus people should check out the trachtenberg speed system, often used by accountants right before the microchip came in.

You can find old books on it at Amazon etc., and wikipedia has an entry. Does the four basic operations *extremely* quickly, first on paper then in head alone -- ultimately you can do many, many figures, far more than fit on a calculator screen.

There's also an earlier 'vedic mathematics' system which is similar apparently, but I don't know that one.

About the lack of adults -- I'd like to put in a word again for studying ancient Stoic philosophy, or its modern equivalent, Albert Ellis' "Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy." I just read an interview with Ellis which contained this typical bon mot:

People act as [exdeleted] babies much of the time all their lives, and I show them how to grow up, be themselves and not give too much of a [exdeleted.]

Kevin said...

I'm gratified to see that leaf-blowers are being slammed. I have a special loathing for them. They're conspicuous manifestations of idiocy, and the noise pollution drives me out of my mind. I'll miss many things I might live to see the end of, but not those!

Ruben said...

The abacus comment reminded me of another story. I lived in Japan for a couple of years and a store I used to frequent had a desktop abacus with a built in digital calculator. (since the abacus is operated by hand I know I will get digital calculator jokes here) Anyhow, the owner added up my purchases on the calculator, and then, just to make sure those silicone chips had neglected to carry a one, checked the total with the abacus.

And another thing, if Japanese people trained on the abacus were asked to do a math problem in their head, they would often wave their fingers in the air as used a mental abacus, and then give you the answer.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

An interesting post (with pictures, no less!) and interesting responses. Mine echoes some others’ and is, I fear, overlong, but here goes.

The central trope is apt, yet still bound by the machine--perhaps purposely. You talk about Rosie the machine part, and of course assembly lines were invented because they hadn't got robots yet. It's striking that Rosie was assembling airplanes, a prime artifact of the industrial age.

While you are using Rosie as a trope, I'm thinking about Rosie the person. I know from experience that days spent in a classic repetitive motion assembly line deaden life and spirit in the extreme, as do other purely physical jobs designed so the workers are devoid of the autonomy and creativity that distinguishes us from machines. The term wage-slaves comes to mind.

Since humans on an assembly line are a sort of apotheosis of humans serving the machine, or being required to act as though made of mindless plastic and metal within a fossil-fuel-fired complex, I wonder about the real future and how it will reflect the past. As an affluent American beneficiary of machines and industrial production, it's easy to imagine a more satisfying future full of satisfying handwork and community cooperation. Yet as a woman, I'm grateful not to have died in childbirth, and to be able to spend so much of my time reading, writing and teaching--and not so overburdened by household chores that I have time for these activities.

It's one thing to keep up one's chops vis a vis cooking, baking, handwork and gardening, yet to be able to go buy bread or clothes when one gets busy teaching or writing; and quite another to have one's family survival depend on those efforts. Not for nothing did Thoreau, despite his critique of work for gain, refuse the invitation to join the utopian Brook farm. For good reason: he needed time to write and couldn't see using up his energy in amateur subsistence farming, when real farmers could do it so much better.

It is interesting that that firm in Hong Kong hired women to perform the faxing tasks. Why not men? And while true that being a household servant could be considered a useful job for persons of limited intellectual possibilities, many servants have historically started at such young ages it might be hard to tell what their intellectual possibilities are, especially if from a lower class. I wonder how that African servant thought about things and if anyone asked him.

I dread a future that is a reboot of the past in which many men rode lightly and lived large intellectual and artistic lives dependent on the subservience of women, whether as wives or members of the troops of household servants that even moderately prosperous houses require when reliant on human labor. When people are confined to menial tasks, it's easy to think of them as parts of the machine, as lacking capacity for thought, as being unfit for such things as education and culture and intellectual work. A sweatshop full of young women producing clothing for non-living-wages under the thumb of harsh overseers is grim, whether using needle and thread in the 17th century, treadle sewing machines in the 19th century, "smart" electrical machines in the 20th and 21st centuries, or whatever we’ll use in the future.

Ursula LeGuin’s speculative fiction is instructive in this area.

Thus I find Rosie an ambiguous figure, independent and earning wages for possibly the first time in her life, yet doing so by being required to fit her work habits to monotonous machine rhythms that in other ways help deaden her mind and rob her of her humanity. And like other machine parts, discarded once the replacement parts arrived, shipped in from overseas.

(BTW, a good novel I'm reading that discusses some of these themes (including Brad K's allure of affluence) in the context of late 19th cent. England is A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book. It's full of lessons for us in our later empire.)

astrid said...

As a woman, I couldn't help noticing that your parable of Rosie the Riveter and Danby's anecdote about the army of female clerks in Hong Kong featured rote labor done by women. In the twentieth century the first "calculators" -- people who laboriously crunched through the calculations required for rocket trajectories etc. using slide rules -- were women.

If we see a return to more humans doing rote labor, I have a feeling I know which humans are going to be doing it. It was only within my grandmothers' lifetimes that women were liberated from backbreaking domestic drudgery and frequent and dangerous pregnancies. Yes, there will be plenty of hard work to go around, but I suspect the burden is going to fall very heavily on girls and women.

vera said...

Indeed, JMG. This “efficiency” that is bandied about with abandon turns slippery at close range. I have been trying to rethink the idea that large industrial farms are more efficient in feeding people than small farms. It turns out that when yield is compared, big wins. But when outputs minus inputs and externalities are compared, the small farm comes out ahead.

But these studies compare small vs large farms that both run on oil. I am curious if any studies have been performed comparing the output of small farms run on oil with those that run on horse, human, and water/wind power – they could use the more conservative Amish and Mennonites in the study. This could be eye opening. My best sense is that we have been sold a bunch of woo-woo with all that talk about efficiency that is ungrounded in the realities of day to day life.

Wordek said...

As cheap abundant energy becomes a thing of the past,
A) Replacing workers with machines will no longer be a viable option, but
B) Providing workers with tools that will make their labor more productive is quite another matter.
This took me back to times in the past when observing this threshold (going from B to A of course) being crossed was so emotionally disturbing. As you imply, its one thing to come up with an innovation which makes a persons daily activity more efficient, freeing their time to express their versatility, in other ways. Its entirely another to come up with an innovation that replaces them entirely, then ditching them. I've seen some older people who were “involved” in their work lose a sense of their value as individuals. Replaced by machine? And those up the chain switch so quickly from utilisation to exploitation that sometimes its like we stepped through a gateway into another universe populated by pod people. People became simply “labour units” interchangeable with “stock units” and “production units” instead of valuable resources. Existential angst anyone?
Hi pgrass101
I am worried about our current crop of high school graduates who are so reliant on machines to do even the simplest tasks
Thats part of this phenomena as well - Next to zero training (investment) required so the person can be hired and jettisoned with less than a moments notice. The good thing is that people enjoy learning to learn when there is a need and a opportunity to do so.
Hi DIYer
And as I see it, the longish twilight of cheap energy (after all we've only burned a bit more than half of it) will allow some measure of networking and such to continue for a time.
I think the good thing (if you can call it that) of uneven decline is that the opportunity exists over time for persons who have one foot in both worlds so to speak, to extract and re-record the information that counts from electronic to a more easily decipherable format. I've been half-wondering if printed metal combined with a magnifying glass system might be a durable space efficient “steampunk” information archive. Warning! If you print stuff on paper for long term storage select your ink and paper carefully... I found some stuff I printed and stored in the 90's thats faded to almost nothing
Hi Don
But even more ridiculous, watching people blow leaves around their yards is about the silliest thing I've ever seen.
Its at its most entertaining on a nice windy day... I love humanity!!

z said...

Studies done earlier in the 20th century showed that a healthy 35 year old man could produce around 75watts of power for an 8 hour shift, necessitating a calorie intake of 2500 for working alone. 75 watts for 8 hours is 0.6kWh, about the same as the energy harvested. To put it in context, this amount of energy can be gotten from burning around 160 grams of dry wood. At current electricity prices, you are looking at 10c, almost insignificant even if electricity prices went up by a factor of ten. To put it another way, a low tech thermal solar panel can absorb 10kWh on a good day. It is obvious that humans were not designed to be energy machines!
Having read the Ecotechnic future and all blog posts since that, I have to say this weeks effort does not rank with some of your finer efforts to date

tristan said...

Curse you JMG (and those of our ilk). I am one of the almost 20% of Americans who is un or under employed. I have a very good shot at a state job and am going to a 2nd (and final round interview next week).

The problem is that even though the job is grant funded and therefore guaranteed to not disappear until the term of the grant I can see (thanks to people such as yourself) that the project is completely hopeless and misguided. It likely will not be completed and if it is it will serve little or no good as the infrastructure that will be required to support it will be unsustainable in a just a few years after it is up and running.

So, here I am, I need the work, I can do the work but if I get the position, although I will do my best, I will be beset by the knowledge that I am putting a big red hat on a stone monument that faces out to sea.


p.s. I promise I will make is a nice red hat!

Ariel55 said...

Dear JMG, Pass around the slumgullion! Last evening I viewed a t.v. landscaping show, where an army of workers with a plan worked miracles in a single day. They used a tool I had never seen for moving heavy plants around. Many people plus tools. Am I on the right track?

RPC said...

The reduction in labor costs is not the only reason for using machines. When I graduated from college and began working in product development, it was pointed out to me that it frequently paid to replace human labor by machinery even when installing and using the machinery cost more. The reason was that human labor could not produce a sufficiently consistent product; either the manufacturer had to test each item and the failures had to get reworked or the manufacturer took a financial bath on warranty claims. One of my prized possessions is a 16th century clock I inherited from my father; each tooth on each gear is exquisitely hand cut, but try to run it and eventually the wrong teeth try to mesh and the clock just...stops.

The upshot is that one can't just replace machines with human labor; the work itself must be altered to play to human rather than machine strengths. Otherwise you end up with unhappy people and shoddy products.

PanIdaho said...

You're absolutely right - it's definitely the opinion of our tech-loving culture that machines should do all the manual work, and people should only be required to push their buttons or the work won't be done "efficiently." But even though we still have relatively abundant, cheap energy at our disposal at this time, using an appliance is not always the most efficient way to get much of our everyday work done. As you mention, using many supposedly "time saving" electronic gadgets is only practical if you discount the time required to earn the extra money to buy them, the time required to earn the money to buy the electricity to run them, and the time and money spent tending to their special needs (cleaning, adjustments, lubrication, storage, repair and replacement of worn or consumable parts.) If you subtract all of these inputs, their "time saving" efficiency ratings won't look nearly so good.

Take for example, food preparation in the home. These days, when someone in our family needs a tool, we will almost always choose the human-powered version over the electrical-powered one. We don't use electric can openers, we use manual ones. If it takes an extra few seconds to open a can, what of it? Are we in *that* much of a hurry? We no longer even use a food processor to do things like chopping vegetables. Why? Dragging out an electrical appliance, putting it together, using it, and then taking it apart again to clean it back up is just too much work, especially when someone of moderate skill with nothing more than a sharp knife can do the job in the same amount of time (or less in some cases!) and leave far less mess in their wake. Even human powered machines (hand-cranked apple peelers, hand powered food mills, etc) do as good or better a job than most electrical appliances, even when processing food in volume for storage and in most cases only require slightly more work to clean than a good sharp knife and a pair of willing hands.

Realizing this has helped us to clear our cupboards of a lot of unneeded electronic gadgets over the past couple of years. The only electrical appliance I find we still regularly use is our very simple, handy-dandy stick blender. I'm still looking for a good alternative for that one!

Seriously, I think it's time we started looking at how we do work with a much more critical eye, and not just take some technogadget salesperson's word for it that our lives will be so better if only we would turn more of it over to machines.

LynnHarding said...

Most people can't hire other people to work on their farms or in their homes because of the labor laws and the tax structure that taxes labor instead of capital. Paperwork is onerous, dealing with the state and federal government departments of revenue is a nightmare for a small farmer. Recently, I have heard that the government is cracking down on internships.
It was bad enough before the financial crisis but now small business and households can't get credit to tide them over cash flow problems so they can't make payroll, can't make quarterly payments etc etc. Our tax structure has created a situation where even very small farmers can't trade food for work.
I wonder when in the collapse process those things might change?

Cathy McGuire said...

The great comments have brought a question to mind: if you had to hand-copy a book (as in samizdat), which one(s) would you think it worth it to copy?

I will have to think hard for my own list, but meanwhile, it'd be interesting to see what others think!

Bill Pulliam said...

astrid -- while your great grandmothers were engaged in household drudgery and dangerous pregnancies, I find it extremely unlikely that your great grandfathers were sitting around smoking their pipes and reading books. I suspect they were toiling away at dangerous agricultural and industrial jobs that were no less demanding and life-threatening than the duties of their wives. Subsistence poverty is an equal opportunity employer, no one has an easy ride. Has there been a time where the life expectancy of men was actually longer than that of women? If pregnancy and household drudgery were more oppressive than agricultural, military, and industrial demands and dangers, you'd expect to have seen this. Pregnancies have killed a lot of women; wars and accidents have killed a lot of men; diseases and hunger have killed a lot of people of all ages and genders.

xhmko said...

Wow, there should be a society for those against leaf blowers. So relieving to find so much disdain. Although I once worked as a shed erector and we used the leaf blowers to remove all the little metal filings from the roof to prevent rust which was the most effective thing I've ever seen them do. Hooked up as a bellows maybe; blowing leaves around in circles, c'mon - get a rake.

I live in Hong Kong so all this talk about abacuses and the old systems is really cool. It's mostly only old people in old shops that still (very quickly I might add)use one though. Most people use a calculator, often twice to make sure of even the smallest sums.The youth are youth in this age of gloabalised trends.

But I used to go this market back home in Australia and the fruit and veg guy there was incredible at adding up all the goods. He'd weigh and multiply and add and give you a total while packing your stuff with a smile. It was really a kind of wake up call to what came before the era of barcodes.

I'm gonna jump randomly back to the orient now to some things I witnessed in China while I was there:

A three story house being demolished by a gang of workers with sledgehammers crushing the concrete and salvaging the rio-bar; somebody just rocking up to the side of hill and cutting bricks directly out of the clay and drying them right there before moving on to the next site; terraced agriculture as high as your eye can see and some oldie carting maize or something down in a huge basket on their back and a donkey loaded up; shops that collect and repair or hack just about everything; wandering blade sharpeners - I could go on.

It was such a great thing to see people just doing the hard work with muscle and many hands rather than machines. I'm sure if many of those people could afford to get a machine to take their hard work away they would, but still, seeing it in action is the best kind of mindblowing. And seeing, what is in the west, the dying art of general repairs on such an overwhelming scale gives an indication of something we lack; scarcity. We lack scarcity in our lives, or at least we wander around in a misled fantasy about it. These people know it intimately, as our ancestors only two step back did if they were not of any privilege; and as will we.

It'll be hard to adjust but we will, I know we will. When we do rats, chickens and cockroaches will be totemic.

R D said...

I don’t mean to be overly critical, but $10 per day in electricity to run a computer? It must be a really big computer. My I-MAC uses 110 Watts and at 12c per kilowatt-hour, that is only about 10c per day. I suspect you may have used your new slide rule to calculate this. I used one for many years and I know from painful experience how easy it is to be off by a factor of 10 (or 100)! But, this did get me thinking. Is human labor really cheaper than machine labor?

Lets take your example of hiring two people to replace a computer. We don’t know what pay rates will be in the future, so lets assume they are slaves. Even so, there is a minimum cost of labor, and that is the cost to feed them. Depending on agricultural conditions, that requires at least 1/4 acre of arable land per person or 1/2 acre for our two slaves. The computer will use about 240 kilowatt-hours of energy in a year (260 days, 8 hours per day). Assuming the grid is gone, we will need a generator. PV would be better but diesel generators are low tech and can be made in any competent machine shop from common (salvaged) materials. Not so with PV. Diesel generators consume about 0.1 gal of fuel to produce a Kilowatt-hour of electricity, so our computer needs about 24 gallons of fuel per year. Rapeseed oil makes good diesel fuel and one can harvest about 120 gallons per acre. Our computer needs only 0.2 acres of land to feed it. Less than half of what our slaves need. This is of course a poor example. Better examples can be found in agriculture, construction, transportation, and military. (I can supply examples if you would like.) Having grown up on a farm, I am convinced that farmers will grow oil crops to feed their tractors rather than hay and oats for draft horses. And, as Z suggested, wood will make a comeback as fuel.
As long as machines can be made, they will, precisely because they use less energy than people to accomplish the same task. This will become increasingly essential as fossil fuels deplete.

I don’t dispute the possibility that social turmoil following peak oil may well destroy our ability to make machines. You make a compelling case for that. But we should not celebrate the end of the machine.

Thardiust said...

This article definitely does a good job of explaining one reason why the U.S. has lost many of its manufacturing jobs to China and India.

Jose said...

The deprecation of machines ceases when we have our angina attack or our cerebral ictus or fracture of a hip.Granted that machines are noisy and leaf blowers particularly bothersome. personally I can't manage my property without them unless naturally I move into a little apartment where my children and grand children won't be able to visit. I am encased within certain social forms, I can't flee from them. I recognize that life is tragic, that the ultimate failure stares me on the face. Death.

Petro said...

Thanks for the work you do, JMG.


for its an interesting aside that it took the seeds of our own destruction ie; overpopulation and industrialism pave the undeniable truth about envy of the avarice monarchies live within.

Elegantly said. Everyone wants a place at the lobster buffet...

disaffected said...

"To put it another way, a low tech thermal solar panel can absorb 10kWh on a good day. It is obvious that humans were not designed to be energy machines!"

True, as far as it goes. Of course the solar panel has to be first brought into existence by a whole variety of industrial processes - nearly all of which are currently fossil fuel dependent - while the humans, who presumably already existed, would also be the beneficiaries of the effort thus expended. Geez, do we REALLY need to keep going over and over these things?

ric2 said...

Another excellent post. This series is (almost) approaching the quality of your series of posts on the primary/secondary/tertiary economies from last summer.

I was reminded of that line by Yul Brenner in The Magificent Seven, "men are cheaper than guns":

Hilario: We must buy guns. We know nothing about them. Will you buy them for us?

Chris: Guns are very expensive and hard to get. Why don't you hire men?

Hilario: Men?

Chris: Gunmen. Nowadays, men are cheaper than guns.

John Michael Greer said...

Hawlkeye, good. There are still some parts of American culture where it's a matter of pride to be strong and good with your hands, but they're definitely on the fringes. (It's been pointed out, and truly, that the only two groups of people that liberal Americans think it's okay to publicly despise and denigrate are working class American men and fat people.)

Pgrass, a lot of people are going to have to unlearn a lot of habits in a hurry. Some of them, I suspect, will get failing grades on Darwin's test.

Jason, excellent! Yes, the Trachtenberg system would be very much worth revisiting. Also Stoicism, of course, but that's been discussed once or twice. ;-)

Kevin, no argument there.

Ruben, the funny thing is that a good abacus user can add faster than a calculator. For that matter, I found that the math you need for amateur radio can be done much more quickly, and with fewer steps, than on a calculator.

Astrid, of course a majority of those doing hard manual work in the deindustrial future will be women. A majority of 52% -- or whatever the percentage of women in the population turns out to be. As you say, there will be plenty to go around.

Adrian, of course Rosie is an ambiguous figure. On the other hand, if I'd used a male factory worker as an example, I'd have received a comment -- probably about the same time yours arrived -- chiding me for symbolically erasing the history of women as factory employees, and so on. Such are the complexities of gender politics these days.

Vera, since the only efficiency tracked by economists is labor efficiency, of course small farms look bad. If I were to invent a new measure, "petroleum efficiency" -- mind you, I'd just call it "efficiency" -- I could easily show that Amish farms are the most efficient in the country, since they produce more food with less petroleum than anyone else.

John Michael Greer said...

Wordek, no argument there.

Z, sure, if you ignore the entire discussion in my post and seize on one not very relevant statistic that seems to discredit it, you're not going to think highly of it. How many megajoules does it take to build and maintain the support structure for the machine, compared to that needed for the worker? That's the point that believers in the myth of the machine constantly finesse, or (as in your case) simply ignore.

Tristan, go ahead and build that red hat -- but use some of the proceeds to educate yourself to do something more useful.

Ariel, you're on the right track!

RPC, excellent. Another way to say it is that human labor is much better at making tools than it is at making machines -- the difference being that a tool amplifies the effect of human labor, while a machine replaces it.

PanIdaho, good for you! We use very few machines in our kitchen -- or, really, in most other parts of the house -- because you're quite right; it's usually faster and simpler to grab a hand tool.

Lynn, my guess is that as unemployment continues to climb, those barriers will start to give way. Still, we'll see.

Cathy, one of these days I need to do a post on the ingenious ways that people in the Middle Ages got around the shortage and high cost of books. Hand copying is one option, but surprisingly, it's not the only one.

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, no argument there at all. Looking over my family tree, I note that most of the men in my great-grandfathers' generation died a long time before the women of that same generation.

Xhmko, excellent. Yes, we have a shortage of scarcity. Still, there's a great deal in the pipeline, and I'm sure it will arrive in time.

RD, has it occurred to you that electricity might go up in price? As the fuels that produce it go up in price? That was what my example suggested, you know. Also, like Z, you're ignoring the central point of my comment: the reason that machines look more efficient is that the energy and resource costs of their support system aren't taken into account. Your computer needs much more than human workers when you remember that its needs aren't limited to electricity. If you want to disagree with my point, by all means, but please don't pretend that I didn't say it!

Thardiust, there's more going on than that, but yes, that's a crucial reason.

Jose, death isn't a failure; it's the natural fulfillment of life. People used to realize this back before we started trying to think of ourselves as machines.

Petro, you're welcome.

Disaffected, thank you for getting it! It intrigues me to watch people act as though I haven't said the things I've said, and keep on rehashing arguments that don't address my points.

Ariel55 said...

Cathy, I was drawn, via this blog to seek other books by the Archdruid Author. I was grateful to receive them, and would willingly have copied them by hand, because of my interest in the subject matter. I recall that the Bible was often copied by monks and scholars. I'm glad they did. Best wishes.

sgage said...

"(It's been pointed out, and truly, that the only two groups of people that liberal Americans think it's okay to publicly despise and denigrate are working class American men and fat people.) "

That is a rather facile characterization, and I rather vehemently disagree. "Liberals" do not "despise" working class American men. Most liberals that I know are firmly on the side of the "working class" American man. Hell, most liberals that I know ARE "working class". For sure conservatives are defined by being NOT on the side of working class American men or women. Not sure where you were going with that comment.

Please rethink your bizzarro totalizing language here.

As for overweight individuals, that is their personal issue. None of my business.

I think you were letting the rhetorical flow of things get away from you. I understand, I do it all the time...

dltrammel said...

Danby said:
"One thing I learned is that efficiency is not a universal. One can be efficient, but only of a particular resource, but one cannot be simply "efficient", with no qualifier."

That reminds me of the poster I used to have up in my shop (we did welding and fabrication). The poster had a triangle drawn on it with "Fast, Cheap, and Good", one in each corner.

We would tell customers pick two. You can get Fast and Cheap, but it won't be Good. So too, Fast and Good, but not Cheap.

It always amazed me how many people think they can have all three, especially the "Cheap" one.

I see reading further thru the comments, Greatblue has added this as well. Funny how often you see this poster in places that the people in them still work with their hands.

JMG said:
"Dltrammel, I've always figured that our chances of survival are pretty good. Us and the rats and the cockroaches..."

I was actually thinking of those of us in the population who are not specialist in some field, but who have learned a broad range of skills.

For some reason I had this picture pop in my mind.

Years from now as the decline has made its way to all corners of the world, the sight of a man wearing the tattered remains of a business suit, clutching a battered briefcase, holding a crude sign hand letter, "Will Sue For Food!", as the horse drawn carts roll slowly past him.

Cherokee Organics said:
"I went through high school in the mid to late 1980's and had a teacher who just wouldn't let us use calculators, even under exam conditions. Very old school, but on reflection I now approve."

Being a decade older than you, I can add this example. I've worked in various manufacturing fields most my life, and these past 3 year, had to rely on Temp Services to find job. Most companies now use them as their Human Resources Departments because it's cheaper.

Before being place at the company I work for now, the interviewer actually asked me this question; "How many 1/16 of an inch are in an inch?" I thought he was pulling my leg for a minute until I realized he was serious.

Its a sad comment on our education system, or lack of one, that people don't know the answer to his question, more times than you would think.

JMG said:
"There are still some parts of American culture where it's a matter of pride to be strong and good with your hands, but they're definitely on the fringes. (It's been pointed out, and truly, that the only two groups of people that liberal Americans think it's okay to publicly despise and denigrate are working class American men and fat people.)"

While I have had people look down on me as a man who works with my hands, it is always amusing when you are the first one they call to fix something around they

I have read somewhere that a measure of how important your job is in the grand scheme of things, is how dirty and/or casual in appearance you can show up for work, and not be sent home.

Brad K. said...

@ LynnHarding,

There is still a bit of flexibility. If you bring in someone, give them a room to sleep in, provide meals and maybe more - you can claim them as a dependent, tax wise, rather than an employee. But that means they cannot claim any value toward social security payments, etc.

If the extra person is a roommate, paying rent, then you don't have to account for shared efforts.

@ Vera,

Efficiency, like return on investment, is always taken from some distinct person's point of view.

One measure of efficiency is how completely an enterprise consumes its budget. Another is how much effort a manager must expend, or a customer, on a given project.

Big farms are really efficient, in terms of requiring fewer implement providers, fewer ports to gather the produce and export it, fewer enterprises for the state to account for, and for the USDA to canvas every year. The feds pay attention to efficiencies like that. Seed companies and dairy companies like big farms, because the big orders and big quantities handled are simpler to arrange with big trucks - fewer drivers, fewer ads, fewer contacts. Much more efficient to serve the big farm!

While we are picking on big farms, let me consider WalMart for a moment. WalMart exploits an efficiency of lots of product moving through a relatively few very large stores. This is efficient, to stock lots of baloney in one store as opposed to some baloney in four or five stores. It is efficient of WalMart to let myriad customers commute and travel miles and miles to get to their store - WalMart isn't paying for the time the customers spend, the transportation costs they incur, to get to the big store.

Let cheap energy turn expensive, and that efficiency turns on its head. I predict that as cheap energy goes away, that WalMart will (and should!) turn to cookie-cutter neighborhood stores, perhaps every few blocks, to be near customers no longer able to travel far to get to the WalMart products. Then the efficiency will be distributing the goods to local stores, when costs prohibit gathering large crowds of customers to a central location. This is very much the same discussion as whether big farms or small farms are more efficient.

Today WalMart enjoys managing a lot of stores, and serving a great multitude of customers. In a dispersed mode, there would be much more management structure and overhead, much more distribution costs, to serve those same customers with locally available stores in their greater numbers.

Wordek said...

Hi R D
Having grown up on a farm, I am convinced that farmers will grow oil crops to feed their tractors rather than hay and oats for draft horses. And, as Z suggested, wood will make a comeback as fuel.
I think its more likely you will see a spectrum of methods including animal power, but the individual farmer will lose his tractor and a specialist tractor contractor who also has diesel fuel production skills takes its place. Likewise your small engine (chainsaws etc + methanol ? ) guys. Dont forget your steam engine guy if theres lots of wood, peat or a coal seam in your area.
Or you could use my fathers vintage chainsaw from the '60's. It weighed the same as a volkswagen and used no fuel because it was impossible to start. But by throwing it at the tree repeatedly you could induce it to fall over. ;)

Hi Cathy
Sometimes you can kill (or at least wound) the utility and entertainment birds with one stone. Heres a book review to illustrate the point
Although written many years ago, Lady Chatterley's Lover has just been
reissued by the Grove Press, and this pictorial account of the
day-to-day life of an English gamekeeper is full of considerable
interest to outdoor minded readers, as it contains many passages on
pheasant-raising, the apprehending of poachers, ways to control vermin,
and other chores and duties of the professional gamekeeper.
Unfortunately, one is obliged to wade through many pages of extraneous
material in order to discover and savour those sidelights on the
management of a midland shooting estate, and in this reviewer's opinion
the book cannot take the place of J. R. Miller's "Practical
-- Ed Zern, "Field and Stream" (Nov. 1959)

straker said...

I think an important detail has been missed here.

Isn't energy inflation going to be followed by food inflation? And as cost of living goes up, won't salaries need to keep pace? Nobody will work for starvation wages. (And what about health insurance?)

You see, humans ARE machines in the sense that most of our food owes itself to fossil fuels and machines. The diesel tractors, the trucks, the refrigerators, the packaging, the supermarkets, etc...

The only fair comparison of man vs. machine in an age of scarcity would be a man living on some subsistence doomstead who would not be impacted by food inflation. But that is not an option available to all 6.7+ billion of us.

I'm afraid when human power becomes dominant again, we will have already passed through the population bottleneck and out the other side, with much less technology available to provide this comparison anyway.

John Michael Greer said...

Sgage, in my repeated experience, most American liberals love the "working class" as an ideological abstraction -- but living, breathing, politically incorrect, socially conservative redneck American working stiffs? Hardly; contempt and crude stereotyping are the order of the day. Some other time we'll discuss the claim that liberals are the friends of the American working class; for now, let's just say that it's interesting that so few people in the working class think that way.

Dltrammel, excellent! "Will sue for food..." You could replace "sue" with any of scores of other products of the current disservice and misinformation economy, to borrow a Marvin Harris line, with equal force.

Brad, good. Now factor in the end of global supply chains and the rise of small local suppliers, whose distribution works best through local jobbers. Mall*Wart's supply chain becomes a nightmare, and the little independent store -- which has much lower overhead costs, because its management consists of an owner who's on a first name basis with a couple of dozen local suppliers and jobbers -- becomes economically more viable.

Wordek, farmers will doubtless keep using tractors for a while, but a pair of tractors don't breed very well, you know. Still, I loved the book review!

John Michael Greer said...

Straker, you're thinking in economic terms, which is good, but failing to take things to their logical conclusion. Rising energy costs aren't going to drive up salaries in real terms -- did the oil spike of 2008 cause salaries to rise? -- because the economy of abundance that allows most people in the industrial world to make more than the standard Third World salary of $2 a day is totally dependent on cheap oil. What I'm suggesting is that energy costs will rise and salaries will fall, because people will take work at starvation wages if the alternative is no wages at all.

For a growing number of people in the US right now, that's already becoming a factor, and I'm suggesting that it will become much more of a factor in the years to come. Thus I see this happening as we approach the population bottleneck, though you're quite right that it will define things afterwards as well.

dltrammel said...

JMG said:
"What I'm suggesting is that energy costs will rise and salaries will fall, because people will take work at starvation wages if the alternative is no wages at all.

I can give you a real world example of this.

I am a skilled machinist with over 25 years of experience making things. When the economic downturn happened I was seeking work thru temp services with a $12-15 salary base.

Now 18 months later I took a job that paid $8 an hour, because I had a choice of working at that rate, or near homelessnesss living in my sister's basement.

Real world salaries have dropped alot.

Whether they will go back up in the short term is a real question.

Danby said...

Wow, staring societal collapse in the face, and not one but two people respond with concern about their favorite ideology. In the long term feminism just isn't all that important.

In the summer of 1976 (before I first met JMG) I was in the YCC, a government program that hired young people to work in the national parks and forests. My assignment was to Mt Rainier National Park. Sometime we worked out of our base camp at Longmire, other times we would go out into the backcountry for a week at a time to make improvements to campgrounds, build trails, dig latrines, pull weeds, etc.

Like any government job, some of the tasks were pointless and ludicrous, such blasting a beaver dam that threatened to wash out a road. Every two weeks. For the entire summer. The little bustards would keep rebuilding that dam, like it was their home or something.

Some were very interesting, like tearing out a 1920's era latrine from what had been, in those days, a luxury ski area. Gilt-framed mirrors, a gold-plated cistern pump handle, mauve wallpaper and mahogany seats. Very classy.

One of the jobs was to move about 12 trees into a campground (at Nickel Creek) where the trees had all been banded and killed by vandals. The trees were Douglas Firs that had been identified as candidates some 3 years before.

Now, I don't know if you've been around Doug Firs, but they grow fast. The 2-3M tall tress that had been identified as candidates had grown to triple their previous size. They were now 6-10M (20-30 ft) tall and a couple hundred kilos each.

Fortunately Doug Fir has shallow roots and no taproots. So we built a platform 2Mx2M using wood from the dead trees, and dug up the live trees a similar distance from the trunk. With some leverage we'd get the tree up onto the platform and brute force it about 200M to the campground, dig a shallow hole, and plant it.

And when I say brute force, I mean it. 8 14-18 year olds and one adult counselor, most hauling on ropes with two (the two least effective pullers) using pry bars to lever the front of the skids over any obstacles.

We could do 2 or 3 in a day. And every one of those trees had survived when I revisited that campground a few years later.

I have no doubt you are right about the current generation of farmers when you say they would rather raise oil crops than give up their tractors, just as many farmers held on to their horse and mule teams well into the 1960s. Over the long term though, evolutionary advantage will have it's way. At some point, a farmer trying to till or harvest with a tractor will be looked upon as a a sad and slightly potty figure, or at best as "not a REAL farmer" as horse-powered small farmers are looked down upon today.

After all, if you can afford to feed that tractor, you must literally have money to burn and are just playing at farming.

Danby said...

Is it conservatives or liberals that consider "redneck" a pejorative term?

How many liberals mock and disdain Sarah Palin specifically as a working-class woman, graduate of a small state college, who worked for years at manual labor in her husband's fish packing business? How many conservatives lover her specifically for those attributes?

Liberals like nice liberal working-class people with none of those working class attitudes to sex roles, gun ownership, patriotism, class, abortion, religion and race. Workers who know their place and let the liberals run things in what is obviously the working class' best interest. Real working-class people, as they are found in the wild, they tend to mock, dismiss, villify and damn.

The official party of conservatives, in this country at least, really doesn't think much more of working-class people than the liberals do, but they never say so. Given the choice of one party that officially disdains them and everything they consider most important and a party that merely takes them for granted, they have lined up with the GOP.

That's what is so encouraging about the tea party movement. It's about actual working-class conservatives rising up against the party that is supposed to represent them. Have you noticed that most of the actual targets of the tea partiers have been Republicans like Charlie Crist Dede Scazzofava and Kay Bailey Huthcinson?

Wordek said...

a pair of tractors don't breed very well, you know.

No tractors dont breed but I think you may be underestimating what human ingenuity is capable of when there is a clear advantage to being ingenious.
I think theres some flaws in the extreme “things will revert” type perspective, not so much in the wide reaching sense but when it comes to local place to place variation . Once something is invented it cant be uninvented and even if its current iteration is rather pointless and inefficient ( assuming our changed definitions of efficiency come to pass) it is still available as the inspiration for something more relevant and useful to those people in that place and in their unique predicament.
So as the definition of tractor evolves from “shiny standardised mass produced thing from a far away factory”,to “any engine on wheels with a power take off shaft” some exploitable niches will appear in the various schemes of things for those with the appropriate skills and ambition.

straker said...

"For a growing number of people in the US right now, that's already becoming a factor"

I'd say anyone who is literally starving probably doesn't know how to manage their money, considering how dirt cheap calories are, let alone the continued welfare-state (unemployment, food stamps, etc...). And I mean calories, not necessarily nutrition. We're talking about cheap carbs and factory-farmed meat, not Whole Foods. But if you want to stay alive, it's not hard to do it. That's why so many poor people are obese. Cheap food isn't good for you, but it at least you won't starve.

Post peak it's a different story...

I often come across the World Made By Hand meme which is ultimately a hopeful tale in which we cast aside machines and live like neo-Amish. Happily ever after, basically. The story goes that since old-school farming is labor-intensive we will need lots of farm-hands. The more the merrier, right? Give us your poor, your huddled masses, and we'll hand them a pair of overalls and a shovel! But EROEI applies to human labor just as much as it does to machines. You can not employ an infinite number of farm hands. There is a point of diminishing returns beyond which adding more doesn't increase productivity, but just sucks away net profit.

As such, population overshoot will probably first be seen in terms of job overshoot. People may work for starvation wages, like you said, in which case they will in fact starve, which will be the invisible hand's way of balancing the scale of employee supply and demand to a point in which salaries can find some sustainable equilibrium. And we all know that when people starve, then things could go all George Romero, if you catch my drift.

John Michael Greer said...

Dltrammel, if I had a dollar for every example like yours I know of, I could buy takeout pizza for everybody who's taking part in this conversation.

Danby, there's a breathtaking amount of doubletalk from both parties and all sides of the political class about the American working class, but you're right that the Dems have done more to express their contempt for the common American working stiff than the GOP. We'll see about the Tea Party; my guess is that it'll be a flash in the pan.

Wordek, if it costs less to manufacture, maintain, and feed horses than tractors, then it's a safe bet that human ingenuity will be employed on the horses, not the tractors. Machines have no inherent economic advantage over living things; the appearance of greater efficiency, to repeat the point of this post, is an illusion produced by the fact that most of the energy used to build, maintain, and run them is offsite, in the complex technical structure that supports them, while everything the horse needs is right there on the farm.

straker said...

"That's what is so encouraging about the tea party movement. It's about actual working-class conservatives rising up against the party that is supposed to represent them."

The Tea Party movement is the physical manifestation of the "anger" phase of Kubler-Ross grief cycle, nothing more. It has very little to offer us that is useful, unless you think waving around Obama signs with Hitler mustaches painted on them or throwing bricks through windows is useful.

Moreover, looking at this issue through the prism of class relations is not seeing the forest through the trees.

The credit crisis has really drawn a lot of people's attention away from the bigger issue of limits to growth in order to fixate on the more immediate problem of fiat currency, federal debt, and the evergreen topics of more vs. less government.

If doomers feel pulled to commiserate with the tea partiers out of some common disdain for TPTB, don't expect them to react well to any discussion about peak oil, global warming, or population overshoot.

So think twice before hoisting the working class on some pedestal like they know best how to proceed. Given the reigns, they'd push us over the cliff just as well.

John Michael Greer said...

Straker, we're already post-peak; world production of conventional petroleum peaked in 2005, and even with the addition of increasingly energy-costly unconventional sources, things have been on a plateau with a downward creep since then. Since the evidence suggests that the postpeak decline will be fairly slow, around 3-4% per year, the signal will largely be hidden (as it currently is) by economic noise.

Still, you're basically right that the first clear sign of population overshoot will be job overshoot. That's already happening, and putting a powerful downward pressure on wages. As for starvation, that's beginning, as states slash public assistance and people on long-term unemployment begin to run out of benefits; it won't be fast, and it will be systematically ignored by the media and the politicians, but keep track of public health statistics and I think you'll see evidence of serious malnutrition in the most vulnerable populations within a couple of years at most.

Probably not much in the way of Romero flicks, though...

Bill Pulliam said...

Actually, Wordek, "Tractor" already means (and always has meant) simply "thing that pulls." Folks who work with heavy equipment know this, and don't get the slightest bit confused about the farm tractor that pulls cultivating, planting, or harvesting implements at 3 m.p.h., versus the tractor that pulls a semi trailer down the highway at 80 m.p.h. The term is already generalized. They know perfectly well that the important thing is traction (pulling power) and IN THE LONG RUN have never been nor will they be wedded to any particular source of traction if some other source serves better. People who actually do physical things tend to be highly adaptable and innovative. It doesn't matter how beautiful your scheme might have seemed; at the end of the day the job needs to have gotten done by whatever means you came up with. The physical world is superb at telling you whether you have succeeded or failed at your task in plain and incontrovertible terms, without the need for a discussion panel or working group breakouts.

straker said...

"most of the energy used to build, maintain, and run them is offsite, in the complex technical structure that supports them, while everything the horse needs is right there on the farm."

You may be aware of John Howe and his solar tractors? Aside from the PV, the tires, the batteries, and the electric motor, those things are antiques. John is leveraging antique embodied energy. It's of little interest to him how many BTUs were required to manufacture those tractors.

I was just using that as an example, although you could certainly use a stock tractor with on-site biodiesel or SVO.

So for the foreseeable future, I see a booming market in salvaged machinery long after it's affordable or even feasible to make new machinery from scratch. There is just too much "stuff" already in circulation for it to be abandoned.

There is a long-tail of industrial vapors to cannibalize.

straker said...

"Still, you're basically right that the first clear sign of population overshoot will be job overshoot. That's already happening"

This time around I think it had more to do with the mass hysteria that caused millions of people to buy ARMs who couldn't afford them, and institutions to package them up into falsely-AAA-rated products and sold to the world like some sort of unintended mail-bombs.

The sad fact is that the looming fall of the US and the dollar is liable to continue to obscure the impact of peak oil for years to come.

Danby said...

It has very little to offer us that is useful, unless you think waving around Obama signs with Hitler mustaches painted on them or throwing bricks through windows is useful.
If that's what you think is what is happening at tea partues, you're sadly mistaken. Don't believe most of what you're told about the tea party.

I don't get your comment about doomers joining with tear partiers. I'm neither a "doomer" nor a tea partier, so I'm just not sure what you mean.

And I don't think anything can save us from collapse, so I don't look for the elites or the working class to do so. What I do hope for is a degree of freedom and common sense on the downslope that I don't see coming from either side of the current political divide. Instead I see a drive for more and more social control, less and less personal and economic freedom, and the beginnings of a police state.

As a working-class conservative myself, I think working-class conservative ideas will lead to a better outcome than the current course, if we can force our ideas to be taken seriously, instead of simply being given lip service by one side and ignored and mocked by the other, as they have been since the Clinton administration.

team10tim said...

One suggestion and two quibbles.

On exergy and Rosie the Riveter. You've spent a great deal of time lately analyzing the differences between the centralized, energy intensive, industrial production methods of the age of oil and the local, versatile, resilient, low energy realm of appropriate technology and I thought that you might appreciate the term ergosophy, the wisdom of work. Coined by Frederick Soddy, the Nobel winning chemist turned rogue economist in his 1930's book The Role of Money. He realized that all economic activity required work, in the thermodynamic sense, and that money represents a claim on that work. On that note, I asked a while back for a term to replace economics should it ever become a proper science along the lines of chemistry replacing alchemy and I think ergosophy is a good contender.

On efficiency. Efficiency is usually expressed as a percentage, a dimensionless number, because the context is assumed to make its meaning clear. But it actually needs two units to have any meaning, an input and an output, miles per gallon, KWh per photon, labor hours per widget, etc.

On the topic of calculators and math skills. People develop the skills that are appropriate to their lives. In societies with oral traditions individuals possessed phenomenal capacity to recite lengthy tales because memory was the only method available to preserve important information. The written word eliminated that need and modern folks are consequently poorer in their faculty for remembering things verbatim.

Likewise calculators and spellcheckers reduce the need for rote arithmetic and spelling capabilities. Should little red lines cease appearing under my words as I type them then I would endeavor to memorize the myriad of ridiculous and counterintuitive spellings in the English language as literate folks did before the CPU superseded the task and doubtless will again when machines abdicate the responsibility.

Wordek said...

Hi Danby
Now, I don't know if you've been around Doug Firs, but they grow fast.
After all, if you can afford to feed that tractor, you must literally have money to burn

How about wood to burn then?

At some point, a farmer trying to till or harvest with a tractor will be looked upon as a a sad and slightly potty figure, or at best as "not a REAL farmer" as horse-powered small farmers are looked down upon today.

I never mentioned tilling or harvesting, and my hypothetical farmer doesnt have a tractor. True I did mention diesel, however in the longer term if you can train your horses to eat wood, then I guess your point is fair. You may have to find a way to keep them away from the house though...... electric fence perhaps? ;)
My point is this:
That the break even point for some activities will usually lie somewhere on the spectrum, not right off the end.
That break even point will vary from place to place and/or time to time
This opens a niche which someone will very likely find a way to exploit.

And even ignoring that, we haven't even discussed a major advantage that fuel and engines will always have over horse and oats or even come to think of it, people. Can you guess what that is?
Neither are edible ...

Wordek said...

Hi Danby

Lookin back on my post I think we may have had a wee misunderstanding because I didnt properly indicate which part of my comment was a quote from a previous comment.

Apologies, My bad
-- hangs electronic head in silicon shame--

However my points are still incredibly fantastic and insightful.

--polishes halo -- uses personal magnetism to perform high energy physics experiment--

Twilight said...

I really agree with your point here, even though I still work designing the machines - although that is clearly a temporary situation.

One could argue that the tenant farmer and the tenement dwelling family working 16hr shifts were not really enjoying the luxury of the monarchs of yore. The reality is that in the US prior to WWII the rule was incredible exploitation leading to continuous and widespread riots and rebellion, violently suppressed by the use of the military against civilians.

Eventually fear drove the creation of a middle class to serve as a buffer - a larger segment of the population with an interest in supporting the system. But that was only possible because of empire and oil. It was only really since WWII that the US has enjoyed the luxury of the kings of old. Apparently it only takes 70 years for the entire society to forget.

Now that empire and oil are failing, so too is the middle class. Without that buffer the exploitation, violence and instability are also likely to return, though I doubt it will be the wobblies and the socialists this time.

Also, the Tea Party is yet another corporate created false grass roots organization. Angry and ignorant people duped into spouting nonsense that furthers the agenda of one group of very wealthy people (see the Koch brothers) as they battle for power, distributed through the usual corporate outlets. It's always good to be skeptical about the waving banners and shouted slogans - make damn sure the cause is really one you believe in.

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, anything that decreases the need for discussion panels and group breakouts is a plus in my book!

Straker, yes, I've discussed this in detail in The Ecotechnic Future and posts here as well. Mind you, since salvaged tech will also be a major source of political and military power, holding onto it may be a bit troublesome...

As for the relationship between peak oil and the economic bubble-and-pop of the last decade or so, that's a subtler question than it appears at first glance, and deserves a post of its own. The short form, though, is that the mass pursuit of speculative bubbles is a warning sign that more productive economic activities are no longer paying off as well as they used to -- and in this case, peak oil is an important reason why.

Danby, well, I hope you're right about the tea partiers. I've seen way too many of the Obama posters with Hitler mustaches, crude racial slurs, etc.

Tim, thanks for the reference! Ergosophy, hmm? I'll check Soddy's work out, and give it some consideration.

Twilight, my comments about monarchs were mostly focused on the current experience, of course. I'd note also that empires generally produce large middle classes -- they need 'em for the managerial work having an empire requires -- and that the decline and fall of empire normally involves the decline and fall of a lot of the middle classes as well.

John said...

I enjoyed your contrast betewen Hal and Rosie. Interestingly, the argument can be carried to a much smaller scale and still apply. For example:

Suppose you are working in your shop and have a large number of screws to drive. Your local big box hardware store will sell you one of those battery powered screwdrivers. It will cost a fair amount upfront, require constant charging, be relatively heavy to use, suffer battery degradation during its (short) lifetime, require that battery to be replaced from time to time, and evetually be discarded in a landfill when it breaks or the battery is no longer made.

The alternative is the Yankee screwdriver. This ingenious device was invented more than a century ago. It consists of a hollow steel tube, about a foot long, with a handle on the end. The other end has a spring loaded steel rod with a helix cut into it and a screwdriver bit on the end. When you push on the handle the tube engages the helix, spinning the rod and driving the screw. Two or three good pushes will drive most screws in.

The yankee driver is as fast or faster than the battery equivalent, requires no charging, is lightweight and compact, requires for maintenance only a drop of oil on the helix every ten years or so, and can be completely recycled.

You will, however, not recycle it because it will last longer than you do. The one I use was left me by my grandfather - who died in 1955. I estimate it is about 70 years old and still looks and works as well as the day it was made. My son will own it someday. I doubt any modern battery powered tools can make that claim.

Yankee screwdrivers were common in the early part of the 20th century, but hardly anyone knows about them now. I get a warm feeling whenever I use mine, knowing that grandpa unwittingly left me a great piece of appropriate technology for the years ahead.

Yankee screwdrivers, slide rules and many other almost forgotten technologies will be rediscovered in the coming years as their 'efficient, modern' equivalents become increasingly unwieldly and impractical.

Don said...

Wordek, re. the Field & Stream review of "Lady Chatterly's Lover": the medieval poem "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" comes with complete, detailed instructions for dressing a deer.

Hippie said...

I have a beef with the dishwashing machine.

My roommates over the years have defended their champion, the personal dishwashing machine, as a saver of water and time. The see my sink washing method as wasteful and inefficient. I find their logic faulty.

When calculating the machine's water consumption, the roommates routinely fail to include the rather large amount of water that they use to "pre–rinse" the dishes before loading, an amount that I could use to wash the same dishes two or three times over.

I can also wash the dishes in about twenty minutes, while the machine takes over an hour, and my dishes dry quicker.

How is the machine saving water and time?

Combined with the machine's other faults, in that it uses electricity, leaves some dishes unwashed, is noisy, and smells bad, I choose to wash the dishes by hand.

I also choose to use the smallest amount of water and soap necessary for each round of dishes. A machine cannot fine–tune its efficiency like a conservation–minded person can.

Alfred said...

I remember someone walking 2km to get fuel for the powered lawnmower rather than using the freshly sharpened pushmower sitting next to it. We're talking about a hundred sq ft of lawn here too. The idea of using a manual tool is totally foreign to some. I even pointed out how silly it was, and they said 'too much work'...

I was reading about the PPPM ( powering tools and how inefficient cordless tools are. That surprises me, and is a pity, because I was thinking that being able to run a drill off of a few solar panels would be a good solution.

dltrammel said...

I think its a mistake to simplify the anger that has given rise to the Tea Party here. The people at Dark Mountain have a very good analysis of the situation on their latest blog post.

BTW JMG, I'm looking forward to reading the article you submitted for their first issue of their new magazine.

Wordek said...

I have always considered it odd that the word liberal is used by conservatives to describe themselves as progressive and then in the same breath used to describe others as socialist. The left wing and right wing mean nothing like their original meanings and class... well what on earth IS class anyway? Is it an income threshold, a set of attitudes, a group of professions, a sense of social status? And has anyone else noticed the phenomena where the “middle class” think that everything can be described or explained adequately with theories that resemble nothing but the constructs and precepts of their own professional expertise. I.e. lawyers say “lets make a rule”, economists say “stimulate the market”. Politicians encourage political movements.
I suspect we are all still just members of the third estate anyway and these ambiguities and thesis-antithesis dichotomies simply prevent us thinking sensibly and cooperating in a useful fashion

That said I'm yet to find a dentist who thinks that things have a dental solution. Perhaps we should be pushing the idea of a Dentocracy?

Hi Bill

Tractor" already means simply "thing that pulls

don't get the slightest bit confused
im not

the important thing is traction (pulling power)
I would suggest in an agricultural context power delivery to an implement(s) is often the more important consideration

how beautiful your scheme might have seemed
I have no scheme.. If I did though it would likely be as pig ugly as I could make it. I notice that people in general gravitate towards beautiful schemes and want to be near the most beautiful ones they can find. Soon all the “beauty” is dissipated and they disappear again. Weird huh?

the job needs to have gotten done by whatever means you came up with

discussion panel or
After failure discussion can inspire an improved approach

working group breakouts
What is this anyway?

Brad K. said...

As long as we are talking tractors vs. horses - horses don't need tires. Or the electronics most modern tractors need - electronics don't last as long as the electrical systems of earlier generations.

Rubber - that will get more expensive. Scarcity of rubber may limit road travel, or limit use of vehicles. Consider the rationing of fuel and rubber for WWII - and the threat of rationing of fuel in the 1970s.

Tractors have to be produced - but so do horses. Ramping up to provide a significant number of work horses, in the field, will take years to accomplish. Working horses is a lifetime's accomplishment - the most effective way to learn horses is at your father's or grandfather's knee - and too many today lack the horses to teach the next generation of horse people.

And when talking about farming and work, don't overlook oxen, or even putting cows (not just the steers trained to draft work) in harness. It worked before. In Jackson County, TN, about 10 years ago the publishers of Rural Heritage magazine told me that at the time, locals preferred oxen for hauling lumber in the "hills" - steers are more sure-footed, if not quite as fast as horses.

The Small Farmers Journal, Sisters, OR, publishes books on training and working draft horses and the equipment that goes with horse farming. Their journal includes training and use of oxen.

In the past, early farm tractors included a few wood fired, steam driven, steel wheeled models.

I expect the future holds a place for all of these variations, and more, depending on the resources and resourcefulness of the people in the region.

Stephen said...

Not sure about the Horse verses bio diesel tractor in land efficiency debate. I have not yet seen the cost of manufacturing or maintaining the tractor taken into account although these costs will be less during the scavenging stage of collapse.

But there could be another factor that both side of this debate are missing. If the farmer can keep hold of the property rites and profit motive then the most desirable option is that which can bring the most food to market out of the given land area. But if not a more important factor may be how many people the given land area can support, in which case both the horse and the tractor are a waste of acreage which could be better used by more humans with hoes.

Although I know that subsistence is an extremely bad word to economists. But some archeologist are beginning to realize that the tribally managed lands of the European Iron age and Dark Ages had larger and healthier populations than the civilized Roman Empire and High Medieval Renaissance.

dltrammel said...

Straker said:
"I'd say anyone who is literally starving probably doesn't know how to manage their money."

I debated for a couple of days now whether to reply to this, and guess I will.

You are absolutely wrong.

Once you are unemployed you either don't have any where near the revenue stream you did have, or in my case, had no revenue coming in at all.

You can't manage what you don't have.

I unfortunately voluntarily chose to quit a job, in Sept 08, to go do some much needed work on my Mother's home, secure in the knowledge that like most times before, when I went looking, I could get work within a week. By quitting, that made me ineligible to receive unemployment checks.

I have a incredible resume, with a wide range of manufacturing skills that normally pay very good.

In Oct 08 when the financial meltdown began, people stopped hiring. What job openings there were, had hundreds of applicants.

I watched a bank account of over $5K drop bit by bit, often times budgeting weekly food bills to $20 or less. Remembering college, I bought ramen noodles and made it my meal of the day.

In November of last year I had all of $30 in my bank account.

Luckily, by being a pest, checking in twice a day to a temp service, I managed to be placed at my current job. That and my sister is compulsive about saving money and was able to float me a loan for rent. That is all that kept me from having to beg for quarter on the off ramp.

So I take just a little offense at your assumption its the people unemployed, who are at fault.

Don't get me wrong, I have worked with many who seem to feel working hard is beneath them, that sweeping the floor and carrying out the trash is something they just won't do. But because I did do those things, the supervisors noticed, and placed me at a better job.

I don't for a minute forget though it all can change in a second. I'm still eating ramen and putting every penny into savings for the next time. What money I can spare, is going towards a garden in the back yard.

That's why this time is different. It's not just those who don't want to work, who are on the bread lines. Economic recovery, not in my view.

For the US, job over shot is already here.

Wordek said...

Hi Brad
Nice post

Or the electronics most modern tractors need
Diesel and steam are both electronics free in their basic iterations. Park your diesel on a hill for an environmentally friendly “starter motor”

horses don't need tires
They need shoes though – a lame horse can be roasted with some fennel and garlic. Bon Apetit!!

cows (not just the steers trained to draft work) in harness
Yep good old bessie will no doubt be the first animal off the rank – draft horses and oxen are rare as hens teeth compared to a century ago (even if you can find, catch and break in wild animals) Steers cant reproduce so castrating your stock may be a bad idea until numbers improve. A twisted sense of humour means that I do hope to one day see someone plowing with a retasked racehorse. Usain Bolt perhaps??
Modern dairy animals have been bred for milk production over everything else and require daily or twice daily milking otherwise they will suffer chronic mastitis. We will have to start selective breeding for robustness again
But dont forget to put your smallest bull over your first calvers and keep their food intake well limited in the last month of pregnancy to help reduce losses (death) during the birthing process.
Bloat can kill an entire herd in a few hours on a legume rich pasture, you will need to pre spray the grass with vegetable oil or (neat trick) move them onto a hill where the gas pressure should “release itself naturally” ( I love euphemisms! ) But dont delay if you notice even the slightest symptoms of swelling!!
Have we missed anything? ...You bet

xhmko said...

Brad K, "Rubber - that will get more expensive. Scarcity of rubber may limit road travel, or limit use of vehicles. Consider the rationing of fuel and rubber for WWII - and the threat of rationing of fuel in the 1970s."

Rubber has been on my mind lately as a worthwhile investment for local communities for its amazing properties and relatively easy harvesting and maintenance. Also the small forests that are created through their presence could serve another function as a microclimate for other (I hesitate to say it after last week) permacultural uses.

I'm not sure of the energy requirements or chemical additives needed for producing the end results of tyres, tubes, insulation and so on but if its feasible to adapt the process in the light of limited resources then you will have a lucrative industry indeed. Not to mention the awesome properties of the raw sap itself which is amazingly, err well, rubbery.

Cherokee Organics said...


I've noticed that quite a few of the comments are skirting around the issue of Infantilism in adults which you see a fair bit of in the community nowadays.

It's only a truly decadent culture that doesn't kick out children from the family nest once they reach the age of maturity. I think that having "kidults" (kidults are adult aged people living with parents) in the family home is a status symbol of both wealth and a strange confirmation of parenting skills. It is something of a negative feedback loop as it delays both the parents and the kidults integration into the larger community. In effect it allows both parents and kidults to maintain an inward focus rather than look outside the family situation. It also has the benefit for the parents of delaying the acknowledgement of the ageing process and as such the kidults lose out in that bargain.

At the age of 18 I didn't think anything about moving from the family nest. From my current perspective I wonder whether I hit on the peak of the bell shaped resources curve and if share houses are an anomally. I considered them a right of passage and they also provided the useful service of having strangers not tolerate behaviours that family otherwise would (normalisation). However, people in general appear to be tribal in nature and don't wish to go outside this.

The difficulty I think for the current kidult generation is that they are a bit lost between being treated like children and developing a sense of their own independence. This is currently socially acceptable but given history, has not been so in the past. They are in effect a group in transition and may not make a move until such time as they are married, their parents die etc. It's not a good outcome for them and they are not being equipped with the skills they need to navigate their way in society, otherwise they'd be doing it.

Who knows how they would be able to deal with a world in which they have to fend and feed for themselves? Probably not well.

The kidult would probably not be a sustainable arrangement in a resource constrained environment.

Good luck.

Twilight said...

dltrammel - The anger is what powers the Tea Party. It's a genuine feeling of discontent driven by real problems in the society. There is less to go around now that we've passed peak oil and people are discovering that the society does not work the way the happy myths said it did - and they have little power to effect change (i.e. get more of the pie) from within the system. The system blocks that because it was designed to protect wealth and power from change.

The Tea Party organization itself is how that source of social power is manipulated. It's not spontaneous, it was created by some very wealthy people to advance their own agenda. That's made possible because the participants lack a knowledge of history and are still expecting the system to serve their interests as they were taught that it did.

Howerd Zinn's "A people's history of the United States: 1492-present" is a good perspective. It was written from a particular point of view, but he is very open about that. Even if you read it only as a listing of events you'll get an understanding of the continual conflict of our history. We've been here before, it's just that the incredible abundance of the age of oil allowed more people a bigger share of the spoils, which in turn created more stability. Now that's done, people are losing what what they had and they're angry. Ambitious people will try to capitalize on that anger, and the ones that they fool into helping them are unlikely to benefit much.

Joan said...

It sounds like the most valuable thing in my bookshelf is going to be the historical calligraphy book with the instructions for making a pen out of a goose quill and a recipe for boiling ink from black walnut hulls. Now all I need is one on pre-industrial paper production. Or maybe I should just look for land that has natural chalk deposits; students will be using slates again.

Joan said...

I have this mental picture of a future time when the use of diesel vs. animal power is a marker of former social class. The descendants of industrial workers will use the machines because the machines require the skills they already have, or at least have the rudiments of. Horses will be used by descendants of college-educated families who once encouraged their daughters to participate in dressage competitions, or of idealistic alternative-ag types who dropped out of comparative literature programs at big name universities to raise high-brix organic vegetables for the kind of educated families who will pay for that kind of thing. I can imagine the two populations forming separate "tribes" and remaining mutually hostile long after they have become, for all practical purposes, equals.

xhmko said...

Cherokee Organics, while that may be true in Australia to some degree, it is certainly a very big and ugly generalisation to say that 'It's only a truly decadent culture that doesn't kick out children from the family nest once they reach the age of maturity.'

People that stay with their family can have plenty of scope for personal development. There is potential for connections and family trades passed down that are beyond the reach of those who are kicked out or who just choose to leave early. If they are lucky then will have support and love and security which is truly a great thing for anyone. There is something to be said for being thrown out and to fly or die, but decadence is hardly the only reason for families staying together.

I live in Hong Kong, but I'm from Oz, in fact I'm back at the moment, but I have been asked on a number of occasions why westerners tend to leave home so early while Cantonese people tend to stay at home longer. I thought about it and saw it as a kind of rite of passage for us and a way for us to learn to look after ourselves. But their history and culture still retains a focus on family piety, which for us has become gradually less important. Theirs comes from Confucianism but both of ours stems from a history of interdependence necessary for survival in close knit communities.

Of course there is the potential for restricted development, particularly when the kids have to follow only their parents lead rather forging their own path and incubating their own sense of self, braced by critical thinking and decision making. But it is not intrinsically flawed.

In fact it seems like a case of the grass is always greener...There has been a lot of romantic searching within Australian society for the close knit family ties of other cultures, while it seems many other people from other societies would love the opportunity to be freed from the shackles of a life dictated to them by the needs and customs of their family.

I understand what you're saying about people not being able to survive without someone else thinking for them but I don't think it's quite right to put it all on family structure. If i got kicked out of home at 15 and had to live on the streets and had no love and never learned to develop emotionally past fight and flight then I could too end up a very dependent individual.

Having said all that, I would also like to say that I often appreciate your comments as they are grounded in your experience rather speculation. Where in Oz are you at?

Honky said...

Machines are just tools. Humans are so versatile because of the tools we use, even Rosy needs them. We are not physiologically nearly as flexible as rats, but compensate with tool use.

Just because one empire falls doesn't mean machines will disappear everywhere. There are still many nations which have sufficient energy for a long time to come, just not when exporting to vast consumers like the USA and China.

Of course that may be the seed of some nasty wars. However, even if that happens, after the dust has settled, I would be very surprised if there are not energy oases left in the world regardless of what happens in the USA. These will use machines because they really are a lot better at doing what they are built to do than people, if you have the energy keep them ticking.

Even in the USA, although machines will not be quite so futilely ubiquitous (e.g. leaf blowers), genuinely useful ones will remain (it is still a long way down the other side of Mount Peak Oil and oil is not the only fuel source). Excepting in the apocalypse scenario of course.

Brad K. said...

@ Wordek,

A number of people here in Oklahoma raise cows for beef. They are not trained for draft use, but they aren't industrial Holsteins, either. The big issue, as with horses, is training the animal to work in harness.

The steers part is because the hormone driven bull is unpredictable and strong. The steer is nearly as strong, and not prone to the aggression of the bull. As with all livestock, animals that aren't controllable make good stew meat.

Typical lifespan for cows in cow-calf herds run 8 to 12 years. A steer might work in harness (you call him an ox when he gets to age four) from age four to 10 or 10. Today we often slaughter for market between 6 months and 2 years - so even planning on using steers allows for a lot of growth in cow/oxen populations. The choke point will be finding people to train the oxen (it starts at 3-4 months for the calf), and finding people that know how to farm, and also to work that farm using oxen, horses, tractors, or the wife and kids - or some combination. In the past, farm families were *large*, since the more hands working, the more chance of a harvest that increases assets.

Bloat is only one of many issues facing the farmer and livestock husbandman. Balancing nutrition needs, keeping water in clean condition and in sufficient quantity, managing pests from fungus, mold, and rodents to coyotes, wolves, and thievery, these will keep a farmer busy.


I thought my Junior High social studies book said that rubber came from the tropics. I presume the transport cost from the tropics to Oklahoma will get more expensive, making rubber more expensive.

Today I believe tires are made on a body woven of nylon, with high tensile strength strands of steel woven under the face of the tire. During WWII, I think tires were made of cotton. If we could get the rubber trees to grow in America - or we make deals or merely conquer Central America - possibly a return to cotton based tires will keep the "rubber on the road". The vulcanizing - baking the petroleum-based carbon particles in the latex to prolong the life of the rubber - I believe replace the earlier technique of smoking the rubber over a smoky fire, somewhat similar to embedding carbon in the fibers of leather when "curing" it. (Do you suppose sitting around the campfire, was what made the cowboys of old so "leathery", possibly even better suiting them to a life outdoors?)

Brad K. said...

@ Cherokee Organics,

"It's only a truly decadent culture that doesn't kick out children from the family nest once they reach the age of maturity. "

I can see a couple of reasons for kicking the kids out. One is lack of resources in the area to support multiple adults. This could be a natural lack of produce, or a punitive government. Another motivator could be the modern nonsense of the "single family dwelling" being a symbol of "manhood".

I think it is the occupation, not the dwelling, that should be the focus. Children can learn enough to do measurable work on a small, mixed crop and livestock farm, from age five or six. In a housing development, there may never be a useful way to use the kids - or to provide them with meaningful labor to allow their character, diligence, patience, and endurance to develop. For the Amish, this is a matter of faith, that the farm is a good place to raise children.

The prevailing notion of rote labor being the antithesis of affluence - i.e., the "modern" lifestyle - that is going to be a tough world view to challenge.

Personally I think a couple should expect to live with her parents or his, at least until their firstborn is school age. In the US as recently as 100 years ago, and in many parts of the world today, children weren't completely weaned until age four or five. They make fun of this in Kevin James' upcoming movie, "Grown Ups" (due in June) - with a kid nursing at age four. What makes the scene in the promo trailer funny - is the generations since the dairy industry and industrial baby formula makers began denigrating breast feeding.

I am told that the average age of marriage in the US Colonies was about 13. The Amish practice apprenticing after 8th grade, it seems to work for them.

I don't know that marriage and moving out have anything to do with decadence, other than the obvious display of conspicuous consumption with the single family dwelling. Putting people to work at an appropriate age, now that is something we need to address.

hapibeli said...

Well Jose...I might take issue with your; "life is tragic, that the ultimate failure stares me on the face. Death." As I believe that our corporeal existence is just one manifestation of reality, I don't see death as "failure". It is just changing realities.
We will learn to get along without the medical accoutrement of the modern world. There will just be fewer of us, as in; those who don't puny up and die, and those who do. :} :} A shorter life need not be brutish. Even today, a long, financially rich life can be "tragic", or boring, or foolish. There has always been wisdom available to teach us how to make the best of our lives, no matter how severe. We need only listen. Blessings to all.

Lance Michael Foster said...

I support the idea of being able to repair things rather than buy them brand new all the time.

Part of the problem is that compared to a few decades ago, not many things are made repairable today.

It used to be you could service and fix a lot more things on your own car at home: brakes, carburetors, etc. The newer models are so high tech and electronic, you can't do a lot of this stuff at home, and even many private shops can't do them.

In third world countries like Nigeria and Cuba, home mechanics can use their ingenuity to fabricate and cobble together parts on older models and get them back on the road. That used to work here, but not any more. You have to take everything for a newer car into a dealer and pay much much more.

Now I am not arguing for cars but just using this as one example. You can hammer dents out of metal, but not out of plastic. The resilience and repairability of wood, metal, stone is opposed to the need to replace plastics in entirety (not to mention the problems in peak oil since plastics are petroleum based and require even more petroleum for recycling).

You could keep old radios and TVs going a lot longer when they ran on tubes. Now you have to trash everything.

Planned obsolescence encourages a high rate of replacement rather than repair, and thus it also keeps a higher rate of resource consumption.

It troubles me, as one of very limited means and continuing economic decline, that you can't repair stuff the way you used to be able to. It troubles me that with all the "green products" the focus is much more on energy use rather than longevity or repairability of the product.

There is a real opportunity right now for small companies to create sturdy serviceable tools and low tech machines (lamps, refrigerators, etc.) and focus on parts and repairs, and develop small-shop service networks in various places.

Mark said...

"It’s hardly an exaggeration to suggest that if it turned out we were all about to perish en masse from building too many machines, the first reaction of most people in today’s industrial cultures would likely be to insist that the answer was to build more machines." Haha... it's a sad but VERY true statement. It's akin to the industrial mindset that if you've got cancer then why don't you pay someone to inject radiation into your blood stream.

I also wanted to make a comment on modern economic thinking in terms of food production. The current mainstream belief is that our agricultural systems are the most efficient and productive they have ever been. Scientists splice genes, factories create ammonium nitrate and glyphosate, then a john deere rips open the earth, shooting a seed into it, comes back in 4 weeks to spray some glyphosate, then returning in 16 more weeks to pull all the seed off the heads with a diesel guzzling robot. "200 bushels an acre of corn!" they'll exclaim, but never will you hear a farmer (I mean robot assistant... or is it slave?) or economist mention how many gallons of diesel, tonnes of topsoil, or billions of organisms vanished in its wake.

On the other hand, we have the direction our food systems must go in if we want to make it, and that looks a lot like a forest -- perennial polycultures of multi-purpose plants. The defining characteristic of farming in the 21st century will be in carbon sequestering systems that are powered, propagated and planted by the sun (humans). Even sustainable farming won't cut it, our food systems must create more fertility and calories than they take to be grown -- food growing must be regenerative. Annual agriculture in terms of energy input is not sustainable nor efficient -- at least not anything beyond garden scale. So, I see a lot of jobs being created for herders, berry pickers, coppicers, and nut harvesters in the next century...

Have you heard of the book Edible Forest Gardens by Dave Jacke by chance? Amazing text on the subject.

Wordek said...

The biggest problem with speculation is that in order to create a scenario we need to make and agree on certain assumptions. All it takes to invalidate the scenario and to find yourself somewhere else radically different, is to modify the assumptions, which of course is easily done since they are “just assumptions”.

Has anyone else seen Connections by James Burke (He's English) I saw this over 30 years ago.For some reason its been popping into my head again recently and surprise, its available on youtube

Try watching episode 1 “The Trigger Effect”. (the episode has been split into 5 parts )

You may have to browse to page 2 of the search results to find part 5 of this episode and if like me you dont have a fast internet connection, get a youtube downloader to save the files locally.
And you will also need to develop a tolerance for the 70's leisure suit phenomenon (sorry 'bout that)

Hi Joan
“instructions for making a pen out of a goose quill”
Good ol' geese.. It seems thats not all they are good for. Whiskey anyone?

Robert C. Guy said...

Thank you for this most recent post and the attendant dialogue beneath it. Even before reading the comments of course I thought, like Justin, of E.M. Forster's The Machine Stops. For any who may have not had the pleasure yet of reading this certainly interesting 1909 story..
In plain html here:
Available on Scribd here:

Robert C. Guy said...

Please forgive me this second post immediately after my last but I could hardly help myself but read over the story again in brief, skimming it to bring back to mind the words and interconnections of it and this portion of The Machine Stops I very much wanted to share for those who may just happen by half interested and not pursue the reading entirely:
...and progress had come to mean the progress of the Machine...
"The Machine is stopping, I know it, I know the signs."
"Can you imagine anything more absurd?" she cried to a friend. "A man who was my son believes that the Machine is stopping. It would be impious if it was not mad."
"The Machine is stopping?" her friend replied. "What does that mean? The phrase conveys nothing to me."
"Nor to me."

hawlkeye said...

Oh sure, everyone loves to hate the leaf-blower, and the middle step of typical 'Murican yard maintenance, mow-blow-and-go.

(I will only award it points for the job it does removing leaves from gravel paths and bark chip mulch; rakes and brooms do NOT work on them. And yes, those materials are equally useless, but that's another tantrum.)

As someone who assists in the evolution of ornamental into edible landscaping, I've long resisted owning one of these odious beasts, and can count on one hand the times someone else's leaf-blower has perched on my back.

But what about it's equally annoying cousin, the string-trimmer? Yes, the weed-whacker and I have a much more complex relationship. Unquestionably the most obnoxious tool in my rig, I hate to use it, but I love the job it does; clean, smooth trimming around rocks, posts and edges, and it goes SO fast.

Of course, I own a fine Austrian scythe and know how to use it, sharpen it and hammer it out. But it's a fragile, specific tool that fits an entirely different kind of days' work, and would be outright dangerous to swing it anywhere near the tightly clustered cookie-cutter condos, still my bread and butter for just the time being.

Then I go out to my cover-cropped field and imagine how enjoyable it would be to mow it all with the scythe; the quiet, steady rhythm of the swing, the grasses laying over, birds singing in the sunshine... But that would take the whole morning, and I've only got about an hour before I have to... well, it doesn't matter what, exactly. Just straddling two worlds, looking at two kinds of tools, surviving in one world today while it dissolves into another tomorrow.

But as long as I have to earn dollars and make a living in the oil-dream, I'm going to grab the noisy, smoky tool, because there's only so much time in a day to get paid and get back to my knitting lessons, or the skillset du jour.

And I know the day is not far off when the weed-whacker rusts in the shed and my callouses come from a wooden handle. Meanwhile, I ponder the ways these two particular tools symbolize our predicament...

xhmko said...

Brad K, I was living in a Mediterranean climate and the rubber trees would grow like a weed. They are a tropical plant but they will thrive in other environments, perhaps not as well as their Thai cousins but well enough to suit harvesting. Interesting history of tyres though, thanks.

Apple Jack Creek said...

Mark, your comment about the "200 bushels of corn!" (and everyone ignoring the cost of the inputs) reminded me of something I saw in 4-H of all places.

The objective is to grow your lamb (or calf) as big and as quickly as you can, to get it to market fast. So, people buy grain and other fancy mixed feeds, and feed up their baby animal so it will grow quickly. There are prizes for the fastest rate of gain and the biggest, heaviest animal generally sells for the highest price.

The first year we were involved, we did that kind of thing - we weren't really trying to win, we were just learning, but you know, everyone feeds lambs creep feed, so we bought creep feed. You need to, right?

However, part of 4-H is to do recordkeeping. So, at the end of the year we looked at the input costs and the price per pound of the finished animal. Surprise, we were losing money. The usual strategy then is to buy better feed, or get more grain going in. We chose to go the other route - instead of increasing our inputs to increase our outputs, we decreased our inputs to decrease our costs. We have more control over the costs than the retail price, and if we're okay with the growing out time taking a bit longer ... well ... it's working for us.

You do have to be willing to wait, which most people aren't, and go go against the 'trends' (which if you are selling at auction is guaranteed to be a problem - we ignore the auction & sell direct). The end product is just as good (if not better), but you can't convince 'real farmers' of this, for the most part. And honestly, at larger scales, the auction is probably all that makes sense - so they are caught in the existing infrastructure.

Timing the downshift, even if you believe you need to do it, is really tricky, especially in an industry as fragile as agriculture. I feel for all the farmers who are caught in this spot.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Brad K,
There's a logical fallacy to your argument that people should stay at home until their firstborn children are school age and that is that one of the parental partners must have moved away from their family home to join a new family home.

What you are describing is typical of hunter gatherer societies in that there are support structures in place for raising children (and these are largely missing in Western society). However, in times of scarcity everyone had to pull their weight. In times of abundance though there was allowance for plenty of indulgence. In fact the early Aboriginals used to laugh at the amount of work that the Europeans did even though there was plenty of resources around. I'm often reminded of the feted explorers Burke and Wills who died of both arrogance and stupidity and whilst ignoring assistance from the Aboriginal population. The other side of the coin so to speak is that with hunter gatherer societies, if you were female and of breeding age, you were probably traded off into another tribal unit and if you were male and in excess of the tribal requirements you were sent off to war on another tribe. Not one for the romantics and it's a bit different from working on the family farm!

The other problem with family farm's and it is rarely spoken about is succession planning. Which children continue the farm upon the death of the parents. What if there is a dispute between competing children? What is there is a perception that one child has more skill in this area than the others? What if one of the children is just hopless? Again without the village these people have no where to go to. If you look at the practicalities family farms are not that romantic either.

The family unit is not an end in itself, it is the begining, and of itself it is not sustainable in an age of declining resources.

Good luck!

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi xhmko. Thanks for your thoughtful reply. The core of my previous post was that the family structure is not the appropriate structure with which to survive in a declining age of resources. The simple reason for this is that families tolerate behaviour in individuals that society in general will not tolerate. In addition to this families will also allow some family members to passenger along and not pull their weight. This is increasingly evident in our current society (both East and West) where there is access to resources in excess of what you'd expect to find in either an agrarian or hunter gatherer society as parents utilise this excess for the indulgence of their offspring. In China you can see the rise of the problems with children being treated as "little emperors" which is a direct result of the previous observation.

I have travelled widely through Asia and have a deep respect for their culture and peoples. China is also certainly on the ascendancy as the US empire declines. It is however worth noting a weakness in that most company structures in Asia are based around family units, even very large companies. The problem with this is reflected in the Chinese saying that wealth rarely survives three generations. I've always interpreted this as meaning (and I may be wrong, please correct me if this is the case) that the first generation generates the wealth, the second spends it and the third laments it's passing. I've worked for wealthy people and this seems to be the case here as well. The family unit doesn't provide a broad enough range of experiences and knowledge to be able to survive as a single entity, which is why I advocate for people to leave the family nest upon completion of their formal education. The family unit will be simply part of a survival mechanism, but it is not sustainable in itself.

In ecology it is remarked that you require a population of at least 500 individuals in order to maintain a sustainable population. These cannot all come from the same family as you require a bit of genetic diversity to avoid congenital diseases.

I keep coming back to the idea that as an agrarian (hunter gatherers are a different case) society you have to operate as part of a village in order to be sustainable whilst also retaining a useful range of goods and services. These societies differ from ours in that they self correct individuals poor behaviour and because you need to eat, everyone has to pull their weight. It's never ceases to amaze me that in a small community everyone knows and discusses everyone's business. Yet this tendancy has it useful purposes.

Hope this clarifies my earlier post.
PS: I'm at Cherokee in Victoria.

Good luck!

Meg said...

Bill Pulliam: Yes, one example: Paleolithic North America. Our skeletal records, while admittedly patchy, show men living to 40-something and women to 20-something. The men's skeletons have the sort of injuries you see in rodeo clowns, the sort that come from sharing close quarters with large frightened animals. The women's skeletons mainly suggest malnutrition; this might have been one of those cultures where the mighty hunters eat first to keep up their strength, and the women survive on what's left.

Cathy: a hectograph is not that hard to make if you've got gelatine and something that can serve as ink, and was actually quite popular for samizdat-type publications. You can get fifty copies off one blank if you do it exactly right.

Cherokee Organics: Actually, the historical norm in most cultures has been to live with your parents all your life, until they died and you inherited their house. The only 'moving out' that happened was brides moving in with their husband's parents, or vice-versa. If you delayed marriage until you could afford to buy real estate you'd die single, and if you went away and left your parents behind they'd starve once they were too old to work. If you live at home, everyone pools their money, Grandma or maiden Auntie are around to babysit the kids, nobody dies alone, and the property stays in the family. Most of Asia still finds this a functional system.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Meg,

Your points are extremely valid and I don't disagree with you.

These societies that you refer to have spoken or unspoken mutual obligations between family members that must be upheld or the whole arrangement falls apart.

What I was referring to in the original post was the rise in infantilism in young adults which is evident in many societies today. This is a historically recent occurrence and is only possible due to the squandering of scarce resources on peoples offspring. You overlook the fact that in these historical arrangements children are often seen as work units, retirement funds/support, are often married off early. In the west we have romantic notions of family life in other cultures, but the reality rarely lives up to these notions.

The arrangement that you refer to is born of the necessity of both having children and scarce resources at the same time. It is a predicament. The problem occurs when the children do not uphold (or are not held to account for) their part of the domestic arrangement. Also, it is not quite as simple to divide up the resources of a deceased parent/s among competing interests as you suggest. I referred to the difficulties of this situation in relation to family farms (in an earlier posting) and the difficulty they have in relation to succession planning. There is little or no difference between a family farm and a family house in this regard.

An additional point of differentiation is that for a generation at least it appears that life holds alternatives that their parents never may have had and it is generally treated by the individuals involved as an expected part of their life. Think all sorts of things such as higher education, friends that you have to travel by vehicle to see, travel, freely available contraception, movement to employment in distant locations (this occurs even in poorer countries too), vehicle useage, domestic heating and cooling, food availability and quantity etc. All of these expectations fuel a sense of entitlement and a resentment when they are not met. What we are witnessing currently is the unravelling of those expectations.

It's not for just any reason that peoples expectations have risen to unsustainable levels. It is a result of the useage of non renewable resources at a rate that is non sustainable.

I'm simply suggesting that it would be preferable if those individuals/generation were cast onto their own resources as it would accelerate their growth and resilience. Perhaps they may even push for change? It's not an easy path, but is it that much different from the path that we all must eventually take as resources become increasingly scarce? I suspect that we are all in for a rough ride.

Good luck!

MawKernewek said...

Something of a tangent to this disussion, are you familiar with the work of the Cornish sculptor David Kemp? His medium is the artifacts/detritus/junk of the industrial age. His latest exhibition "The Botallack Horde" is based upon a future he envisages in which artifacts of the machine age such as old computer keyboards are recycled into totems of ritual significance.

The ritual and totemic aspects of machine use must be considered if we are to think about any transition away from the use of machines.

In a post-machine age, machines will take on ritual significance long after they have ceased to be the most efficient way of doing things.

Arguably this has already happened.

Bill Pulliam said...

Meg -- paleolithic skeletons aren't really an "historical" example! If one has to dig back 10,000 years to find an instance, I think that pretty well supports my original point. Only the most extreme apocalypticists hypothesize a return to the Neolithic; the Paleolithic would require a complete loss of cultural continuity continuity, artifacts, residual infrastructure, domesticated plants and animals, etc. Also, rather that hypothesizing that the evil oppressor males starved their women to death, one might hypothesize that the young males tended to die away from the village (falls, drownings, animal incidents, raids and skirmishes between bands, etc.) and their skeletons might not be so easy to find; whereas the young women more likely died in the village and were buried close to home. Hypotheses about Paleolithic societies are mostly collections of Just So Stories based on spotty evidence and heavily influenced by the preconceptions of the hypothesizer.

Agriculture has been persistent for millennium upon millennium, through all sorts of cultural upheavals and environmental catastrophes. We're not headed for a hunter-gatherer world.

mattbg said...

I also wonder how much stuff we simply wouldn't do if we didn't have a machine to do it for us.

i.e. maybe we would wear fewer clothes if we had to wash them by hand

i.e. maybe we would economize on travel if we had no assistance, or scarce access to motorized transportation

i.e. maybe we would grow different vegetation if we didn't have a powered lawnmower

i.e. maybe we would use our land to grow our own food if human-raised food was expensive

i.e. maybe we would not go breezing around the planet via plane and car on a whim if we didn't have such easy access to these things

i.e. maybe we would make more food ourselves, by hand, from raw ingredients rather than having machines process them into ready-made foods for us

I'm not sure how directly machine labour is convertible into human labour because we would just stop doing a lot of the stupid, frivolous, wasteful stuff we do now with the assistance of machines if we didn't have machines.

Cathy McGuire said...

To answer my own question, I think I'd probably copy out the "how-to" books (how to farm, how to sew, etc.) before I copied out novels, but perhaps I'd do my favorite poems, to keep them in circulation...that's of course assuming the paper is available.

Meg: I checked out "hectograph", and it seems like the process I use for marbling paper and fabric! Cool, but I doubt it would help reproduce a book; the ink transfer would ruin the original. So, possibly for small pamphlets or flyers...

JMG:one of these days I need to do a post on the ingenious ways that people in the Middle Ages got around the shortage and high cost of books
I'd love to hear about that! Certainly, I know about doggerel - as a poet, I'm always making up silly rhymes to help me remember all the garden details - timing, fertilizer, pH, etc. Can't seem to get it to stick without a rhyme! And probably nothing beats a good apprenticeship, even nowadays.

Adrian: It's one thing to keep up one's chops vis a vis cooking, baking, handwork and gardening, yet to be able to go buy bread or clothes when one gets busy teaching or writing; and quite another to have one's family survival depend on those efforts.
I concur -- the more I shift toward simple living, the more I appreciate the incredible hard work that goes into surviving when you can't use machines! Every summer I make jam from my berries(being grateful I don't have to hand-make the sugar first!)and I think, "No wonder women went gaga over machine-canned food!" And as Hawlkeye said, when you have a hour to do a task versus all day, using a machine is irresistable. Even though I know this culture's not sustainable, and we will have to adapt to a human-powered world,I don't want to idealize that state -- much of the educational/academic life will likely grind to a halt (slowing discoveries), plus most of the art, music, dance (and I'm not refering to crafts or folk dance -- but the performances that come from talented people being able to train most of their lives)... I don't look forward to that.

Meg said...


"You overlook the fact that in these historical arrangements children are often seen as work units, retirement funds/support, are often married off early. "

I don't ignore this in the slightest, in fact it was the point I was trying to make. Properly viewed, dependent but able-bodied adult offspring are potential resources rather than luxuries, though I grant your point that we mostly waste this resource just as we waste others. But this 'unromantic' perspective is exactly why I think more multigenerational families are likely to arise; I think being cared for by their children, however reluctantly, is the only viable prospect for our elderly once social insurance goes.

To quote you, "Has there been a time where the life expectancy of men was actually longer than that of women?" That was the only question I was answering - yes, actually there has been. And you never specified that it be a /historic/ time. But I am being pedantic.

Having started in that vein, however, I may as well continue. In order: a) While it's true that my examples are several millenia old, that era makes up a far larger proportion of the human past than 'history' has done so far, so it's not fair to dismiss it as a marginal abberation. But after slogging through a degree and a half on this subject, I can't fault your observation that archaeological evidence can support widely varying interpretations. B) Nowhere did I so much as hint that I think the Neolithic will ever return. In fact I think this is the least likely outcome, ranking it even lower than complete extinction. A forager culture normally requires either a rich environment, or a large territory with very low population density, and our problem is just the opposite. C) Regarding meat distribution, I was drawing an analogy to historic-era cultures that worked this way. This system is arguably justifiable on libertarian grounds - compensation is precisely defined in proportion to how much each individual contributed. However, if you want an alternative hypothesis, multiple closely-spaced pregnancies deplete the body's reserves with no recovery period, and forager women often have frequent miscarriages in addition due to their lifestyle. That might account for the depleted state of young female skeletons.

Bringing this tangent closer to home: a few posts mention that contraception is likely to become less available. While contraception per se is not dependent on industry - sausage makers have the necessary raw materials for condoms, which in the original model were reusable, and the Romans had a moderately effective oral contraceptive - anything where a steady supply is important is especially problematic. However, anthropology provides plenty of examples of 'family planning' customs of a non-medical nature. Some are obviously not suitable for our context, but with North American culture experimenting with varied forms of partnering and childrearing, some might have a chance of catching on. Lengthy breastfeeding, for example, has preconditions and pitfalls, but it's a popular strategy in hungry times for other reasons, and is not a huge modification of our existing practices. Can anyone suggest others?

Brad K. said...


It is amazing that your responses to Bill and Cherokee tie in so closely.

Perhaps one of the biggest drivers for change in modern times, is the myth of the "single family dwelling". Separating children, early, from family teaching is an immensely powerful tool for social engineering (i.e., public schools, kick the kids out as soon as marginally economically viable, tuck old folks into "care" facilities).

For stability, continuing the association within the family on a daily basis increases transfer of generational wisdom, and multiplies chance of solving problems within the perspective of maintenance of the family and community.

I think the "return of the neolithic" or paleolithic is much less likely, if we endeavor to bunch up, form communities of accommodation and interaction (rather than sharing a builder's "subdivision"). Shed the "useless" old folks early on - and I think we are headed more for Lord of the Flies than for Little House on the Prairie.

DIYer said...

It's probably worth noting that HAL is from 1968 and Rosie is from 1942. I'm wondering if we aren't getting just a touch of Renaissance Faire Syndrome here: future history isn't going to be a film run in reverse.

To add a bit of counterpoint to the discussion, Rosie was the product of more than a half century of fossil-fuelled mechanized agriculture, and a lot less self sufficient than shown. And I would guess there'd be resistance to grinding her up and feeding her to the other Riveters when it's time to downsize. And of course HAL was from an era when a computer had its own wing of a building, with a raised floor, air handler, chilled water supply and power mains. Currently such a computer is the size of your thumbnail and can wring an hour or two of full speed operation from a 900mAh rechargeable cell. Of course its intelligence is also still pretty insect-like.

So OK, I've read Stuart's article now. Relocalista and Singularitaria. I think both models are wrong, for cultural/social/political/financial reasons. We are watching our lovely global economy crash in real-time now. It is my guess that this, and the ensuing economic depression, will limit both Rosie's enthusiasm and the financial wherewithal to build those next-generation solar-powered silicon insect robots. So I'm a relocalista, but not until a copule more big steps down the catabolic ladder.

Seems to be sort of a regular schedule now. The Archdruid report comes out on Wednesday, and Stuart's engineering perspective on the following Thursday. Must be nice to know your words are read, JMG :-)

Danby said...

Can anyone suggest others?

Well, there's the traditional Western European one, of chastity, combined with delayed marriage in lean times. Not that it's popular, but it is very effective.

isochroma said...

Slave labour is the normal mode of surplus accumulation in machineless societies.

Therefore, a return to slaver is imminent.

June 29, 2008: Black America and Peak Oil: Back to the Plantation

Gabriel said...


I, as one of those slipping into double income trap, couldn't resist to post lyrics of one song here,
created by John Lennon I believe (I like the David Bowie's version more).

Working Class Hero

As soon as your born they make you feel small,
By giving you no time instead of it all,
Till the pain is so big you feel nothing at all,
A working class hero is something to be.

They hurt you at home and they hit you at school,
They hate you if you're clever and they despise a fool,
Till you're so fucking crazy you can't follow their rules,
A working class hero is something to be.

When they've tortured and scared you for twenty odd years,
Then they expect you to pick a career,
When you can't really function you're so full of fear,
A working class hero is something to be.

Keep you doped with religion and sex and TV,
And you think you're so clever and classless and free,
But you're still fucking peasents as far as I can see,
A working class hero is something to be,

There's room at the top they are telling you still,
But first you must learn how to smile as you kill,
If you want to be like the folks on the hill,
A working class hero is something to be.

If you want to be a hero well just follow me.

dayzero said...

Great post, and great comments too.

There are solutions to hand...
One of them I describe here;

Hope you look into Freeconomics!



gordonsson said...

"Capping such a flow a mile under water is beyond current technology; if things go that way, there may be no other option than waiting until the flow drops to a more manageable level. If that means the death of every multicellular organism in the Gulf of Mexico, storm surges this hurricane season that leave everything for miles inland coated with black goo, and tar balls and dead birds floating ashore wherever the Gulf Stream goes – and yes, these are tolerably likely consequences if the wellhead blows – that’s what it means".


With respect, I partly disagree with the first part of the paragraph. Whilst capping may not be possible, one or other of the relief wells will likely (albeit not certainly) kill the well.
It will take an estimated 2 to 3 months to do so.

The initial well was drilled and (thought to have been successfully) completed, which would imply that stopping the flow (with a relief well) is by no means technically infeasable.

However, this does not stop the whole thing being an unholy mess, with most likely another half million tons of spillage yet to hit the gulf in the best case.

Forward to a few years or decade hence, technical capabilities may well have degraded sufficiently that such an event is insoluble.

Industrial civilisation may well be on the way out, but is not quite dead yet.

I would wager (for bragging rights only) that:
1. The flow will be stopped sometime in the next 6 months.
2. This will not be the end of deepwater drilling.
3. There will be more hideous incidents somewhere in the world (we're clever monkeys, but infinitely capable of screw-ups).