Wednesday, June 23, 2010

A Pathless Land

The discussion of revitalization movements and fantasies of collective redemption over the last two weeks here on The Archdruid Report had an interesting though by no means unexpected result. Several people asked me whether I thought it might be possible to harness some movement of the same broad sort to get people to do the things they need to do to get ready for peak oil.

This is hardly a new idea, of course. Back in the late 1990s, when the first peak oil email lists were taking shape, the idea of organizing a peak oil movement on the large scale came up for discussion now and again, and some attempts were made, though none of them managed to find much of an audience. More recently, toward the middle of the last decade, the Post Carbon Institute launched a network of relocalization groups, which flourished for a while and then suddenly folded for reasons I’ve never seen discussed. Over the last few years, in its turn, the Transition Town movement has made its own transition from a college project to an international network helping communities put together plans to cope with a future of energy scarcity and strict carbon-footprint limits.

It’s fair to say that none of these was or is a mass movement of the kind I was discussing; the earlier examples belong on the same list of would-be mass movements that never got off the ground as, say, Technocracy, while the last is still very much in the early phases of its trajectory, early enough that its final destination is anybody’s guess. Still, it’s easy to see why the idea of a grand collective movement in the direction of sustainability is so appealing to so many people.

To begin with, the failure of the established order of industrial society, and of the political classes who manage it, is becoming hard to ignore. Consider the way that the world’s political leaders have reacted to the implosion of the global economy, or the way that the US government and BP management have reacted to the ongoing death by oil of the Gulf of Mexico: in each case, it’s a broken-record sequence of understating the problem, trying to manage appearances, getting caught flatfooted by events, and struggling to load the blame for yet another round of failures onto anybody within reach. Rinse and repeat a few times, and even the most diehard supporters of the status quo start wishing that somebody, somewhere, would stand up and demonstrate some actual leadership.

At the same time, for those of us who have been trying to get the message of peak oil out for the last decade or more, the spreading cracks in the great wall of denial can give rise to a certain intoxication. When pundits insist that there’s enough oil in current reserves to last 800 years , or that oil discoveries have more than kept pace with extraction rates all along, or that the only limits to the amount of oil we can get out of the earth are economic – all of which statements have appeared in the media in recent weeks, and all of which can easily be disproved by readily available figures or, in the last case, by plain common sense – it’s hard to miss the desperation in their words. “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win,” Gandhi said; at this point they’re fighting, and some of the peak oil community are starting to think about what victory might look like.

That’s a fair question. What would victory look like? Imagine for a moment that the arrival of permanently scarce energy became as much a part of the conventional wisdom in the decades ahead of us as it became, however briefly, in the 1970s. It would be easy enough to blow the dust off the plans and dreams of that latter decade, and there’s arguably a real point to doing that, but the world has changed; the reserves of fossil fuels that planners in the Seventies counted on to cushion the descent into a low-energy future have been severely depleted in the years since, and there are twice as many people on this small and crowded planet as there were back then. By any realistic measure, we’re in a heap of trouble, and the hope that a mass movement might yield enough enthusiasm and commitment to deal with that heap is an easy one to understand.

Still, that hope isn’t one I share. Quite the contrary, I’ve come to think that the rise of a mass movement centered on peak oil – whether or not it turns into the sort of revitalization movement discussed in the last two posts – might well put paid to any hope of avoiding a profoundly unwelcome future. The best way to explain that sense is an indirect one, and so I trust my readers will have patience with a divagation in the direction of Philadelphia.

I was there a little while back, speaking at a conference at a posh downtown hotel. I’ll spare you the details; it was one of those gigs that peak oil speakers dread, the sort of event where you’ve got twelve minutes in a panel discussion to explain why the future everyone has taken for granted isn’t going to happen, and why whatever plans they happen to be promoting need to make room for economic and social collapse, mass impoverishment, and the whole cheerful landscape of a deindustrializing world. Well before your twelve minutes are up, it’s clear that you might as well have spent the time reciting texts from the Iguvine Tablets in the original Umbrian; there’s a little polite applause, the audience asks a few polite questions, a few people come up to thank you for your speech, and none of the attendees mentions peak oil in your hearing again.

Afterwards, I ducked out of the hotel and walked the streets of downtown Philly, partly to find some comfortable dive for dinner, but mostly to shake off the sense of intellectual mummification that events like that always leave behind. A session of t’ai chi on the grass in Rittenhouse Square startled the pigeons and a couple of transients but left me feeling a good deal less numbed, and I did indeed find a comfortable dive (and had a good dinner there a bit later), but what turned the day around was a couple of lines written in fading gold lettering on a window in an otherwise undistinguished block of shops and offices, announcing to the world the Philadelphia branch of the United Lodge of Theosophists.

I suspect this phrase will mean nothing to most of my readers. The original Theosophical Society (TS) was founded back in 1875 in New York City by Helena Blavatsky, a Russian emigré, and a small circle of American mystics and occultists. Its purpose was to provide an alternative to the dogmatic religion and equally dogmatic scientific materialism of the day, and it offered public lectures and instruction at a time when most other esoteric spiritual groups kept their teachings hidden away behind tightly locked lodge doors. Other groups had tried to do the same thing in various ways for decades beforehand, but for some reason Theosophy caught on where these others failed, and found itself with local groups and a mass following on four continents.

Blavatsky, who by this time was the unquestioned leader of the movement, then found herself facing the same predicament that confronts every spiritual movement that attracts a large following Of those who joined the Society, only a small percentage were actually interested in studying the philosophy, practicing the spiritual practices, and making use of the rest of what it had to teach; the majority wanted to participate in it for what amounted to social reasons. She responded by reorganizing the TS, creating an Esoteric Section for those willing to commit to daily meditation and study, and using the rest of the Society as an outer court where those interested solely in the social aspects of a mass movement could take part and contribute whatever they could.

That structure stayed in place until Blavatsky died in 1891. The Society broke apart in the years that followed; most of the Theosophical groups that emerged from the confusion kept the same policy, but he largest of the fragments did not. Headed by suffragist and Fabian socialist Annie Besant, this branch – called the Adyar TS, after the location of its headquarters – pursued a mass following, and turned into a full-blown revitalization movement when Besant decided that a boy named Jiddu Krishnamurti, the son of a Hindu servant at the Adyar headquarters, was the next World Teacher, the successor of Buddha and Christ, who would lead the world to salvation under the banner of Theosophy.

In the short term, it was a hugely popular move; the claim that the Adyar TS had a messiah on hand who would shortly launch his career of redemption proved to be a membership magnet of immense power. Chapters of the Order of the Star in the West, an organization launched in 1911 to promote Krishnamurti, sprang up like mushrooms across much of the world. After the First World War, the implosion of Europe’s global ascendancy and the betrayal of wartime promises made the dream of a redeemer profoundly appealing. Meanwhile Krishnamurti grew to manhood, trained and prompted for the role he was expected to play. Finally, in 1929, a huge rally of the Order was summoned to be present as Krishnamurti formally began his career as World Teacher.

I sometimes wonder what must have gone through his mind as he mounted the podium that day and looked down at the ocean of upturned faces gazing at him in adoration. My readers might wish to imagine themselves in the same position. There you are, with tens of thousands of people eagerly awaiting your least word, and hundreds of thousands more around the world longing to receive the message you are about to give them. Will you call them to manifest your highest ideals, will you tell them to fulfill your basest desires, or will it be, as it usually is, a bit of both?

It’s an intoxicating image, but there’s another side to it. Not one of those tens of thousands of people has to be there; not one of the hundreds of thousands is required to listen. They are there for reasons of their own, reasons that mingle high ideals and base desires in the usual human proportions, and if the ideals or the desires you call on them to pursue are far enough from theirs that they see no way of fulfilling their own agendas by helping yours, they will turn away and go looking for another movement that shows more promise of giving them what they want. That’s the trap that waits for every mass movement that tries to change society, because the ideals and desires of the majority define the structure of society as it is; a would-be mass movement that pursues a different path will reliably find itself failing to attract members, while a mass movement that reshapes its message to attract a large audience will inevitably turn into a mechanism for replicating the existing order of things.

Whether this is what went through Krishnamurti’s mind is anyone’s guess, as he refused to talk about the experience later. Still, by the time he descended from the podium, the elaborate fantasy Besant and her colleagues had built around him, and the revitalization movement that had grown up around that, were blown to smithereens. Truth, he told his listeners, is a pathless land; no messiah can take you there, or lift the burden of thinking for yourself off your shoulders. In front of them all, he disavowed his role as World Teacher and dissolved the Order of the Star in the West. The mass movement popped like a bubble, and all the Theosophical organizations suffered huge drops in membership; Besant’s career was effectively over, though she lingered on for a few more years. Ironically, Krishnamurti went on to a long career as a spiritual teacher, but he steadfastly refused to allow any organization to form around him, and I don’t know of anybody who claims that he really was the World Teacher.

The peak oil scene is a long way from finding its Krishnamurti, or even its Annie Besant. Still, the future after peak oil is also a pathless land, and as the reality of limits to growth goes mainstream and peak oil speakers find audiences more responsive than the one I faced in Philadelphia, the trap that waits for all mass movements waits for it as well. A survey just splashed over the American media points up the difficulty: a large majority of Americans surveyed agreed that the energy situation was a crisis and something needs to be done, but very few of them were willing to accept a solution that involved gasoline prices going up. The temptation to promise people that they can have a green energy future and still fill their tanks for less than $3 a gallon will be immense; those groups that do this can count on being flooded with recruits, while those that admit that in any realistic green energy future, most Americans will no longer have cars at all, will find themselves in the same sort of situation I encountered at the conference in Philadelphia, trying to talk to people for whom the future might as well be written in Umbrian.

Now it’s easy to insist that getting people in the door is the important thing, and once they’re in the movement they can be led gradually to more accurate views. The history of mass movements shows otherwise with depressing consistency. The leaders who imagine themselves drawing the masses step by step to some better set of beliefs and behaviors generally find out the hard way, as their predecessors did, that they are the ones who will be drawn step by step into whatever set of beliefs and behaviors will maximize the size and influence of the movement they head – which amounts to whatever set of beliefs and behaviors the masses want them to have. We’ve already seen some parts of the peak oil scene moving in this direction; the insistence that an optimism that will attract crowds is more important than a realism that can guide a meaningful response comes to mind in this context.

The pursuit of a mass movement is not the only option we’ve got, fortunately, and other options – one of which I plan on exploring in detail in next week’s post, and in the weeks to come – offer a great deal more potential for viable change. Still, one of the simplest was on display in the quiet little library and meeting room of the Philadelphia United Lodge of Theosophists. The ULT stayed aloof from Annie Besant’s shenanigans, and has quietly continued to follow the original plan of the movement, offering lectures and opportunities for study to those who are willing to learn. I went there after dinner and took in a talk and a lively discussion about certain points of Theosophical teaching, and had a fine time. Druidry and Theosophy are by no means the same thing, but there’s enough common ground to make for congenial conversation, and you don’t come through the kind of traditional occult training I had back in my misspent youth without knowing your way around Theosophical ideas. When I walked back to the hotel that evening, the day felt a lot less like a waste.

Still, the moment that remains with me happened before the meeting, while I was chatting with some of the Theosophists. One elderly African-American man mentioned that a few years back, considering the state of the world, he and his wife had decided to give up their car. Of course, he admitted, it involved some changes, but Philly public transit got them where they needed to go, and he found that doing without the costs of car ownership left him with so much money left over at the end of the month that at first he kept checking to make sure he’d paid all his bills.

I thought about him as I took the train home the next day, and I also thought about the Amish family seated behind me on the train, father and the boys in white shirts and black hats, mother and the girls in bonnets and ankle-length dresses, talking quietly to each other in the German dialect everyone around here calls Pennsylvania Dutch. The lesson I took from them is that it’s the choices of individuals that ultimately make any difference that’s going to be made. It’s tempting to think that the social pressure of a mass movement can lead people to make changes they aren’t willing to make on their own, but in practice, that’s not the way it works; instead, what generally happens is that sooner or later, those who hoped to lead the world to some shining future en masse find themselves sitting in the smoking crater left by the total implosion of their dreams, wondering what happened. It would be unfortunate, to use no stronger word, to have that sort of fiasco replicated in the peak oil movement.


Apple Jack Creek said...

Wait a sec ... do you mean I don't have to feel guilty because I hate the thought of driving into town to attend meetings about Sustainability and Simple Living and Relocalization Initiatives? Are you saying I don't need to feel like I'm nothing but a Closet Peak Oil Believer because I don't belong to any Official Movement (TM) and haven't got the t-shirt or bumper sticker? Do you mean to say that making my corner of the world as ready for a differnet future as possible (complete with the side effects of that which are visible in the Regular World, like gathering leftover food from the office to feed the chickens at home or talking about my garden or sharing grass-fed lamb sausage at the pot-luck dinner) are the kinds of things that might actually ... well... help?

If so, that'd be cool, because I sure hate meetings. :)

Roy said...

The part that catches my attention most is your observation of the Amish people. I think that they will be one of the groups that people will turn to after this luxurious style of life collapses. The only reason they even need money is to pay tax. Or so I have heard. My brother and I long thought of creating a Celtic Revival society that we named Caora Dubh, meaning Black Sheep. Our goal was to create a community that organized on celtic beliefs and research, as people visit to learn these ways they would find the sustainable style of community life appealing and hopefully find themselves settling in our community and teaching others as well.

mageprof said...

There is a quote, possibly apocryphal, attributed to Gandhi, that illustrates this point very well: "There go my people. I must run to catch up with them, for I am their leader."

Your post says so well what I tried to convey in my comments to last week's post. Thank you!

John Michael Greer said...

Apple Jack, as I see it, those things are the only things that actually do help. Meetings are entertainment -- for those that enjoy them, naturally.

Roy, if you can get together the resources to pursue a project like that, go for it. If not, find something that's more within your budget, and go for that.

Mageprof, the discussion in last week's comments helped me hone this week's post -- not an uncommon event, that. Thank you for contributing to the conversation!

gn0s1s said...

Great post! I live a few blocks west of the National Headquarters for the Theosophical Society, which is oddly located in one of the most religious (Christian) towns of the United States. They have always fascinated me, and I was happy to see you post about Theosophy. In fact, I just mailed some of their brochures to a fellow Druid in Idaho. Their teachings were far too esoteric for me, as a young boy, but I always respected them because they also are housed in a town that is so fundamentally Christian that the local college bans dancing and drinking. It offered me a way, growing up, to see an alternative way of thought.
Theosophical Society in America

Bill Pulliam said...

Isn't the rise of some sorts of messianic figures inevitable when the realities of decline really begin to hit home on a day-to-day basis? Unfortunate though it may be, isn't this just something that we really need to plan around, assuming that whatever terminology we might use (such as the very term "peal oil") will likely get co-opted and probably then discredited, in the mass mind? It would seem to me that the hard work will be keeping the fundamentals clear in our own heads, avoiding being confused and disoriented by the winds of movements blowing this way and that.

As anyone who has ever travelled overland without the aid of a path can tell you, it is important to remain keenly aware of your surroundings, mindful of the terrain, cautious about the hazards, and always willing to adjust your planned route in response to new information, changed circumstances, and surprises encountered on the way. And you need to be really careful about the apparent paths you do come across; there's no guarantee they were layed by someone or something with needs and desires at all compatible with your own!

Nebris said...

Krishnamurti's quote, "It is no measure of good health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society," is my principle operating motto.

The Onion said...

I'm not much for mass movements. Perhaps some have been effective, like the Civil Rights movement, but I prefer to simply remain in planted in society and negotiate the turns as they come. I'll try to attain whatever level of self sufficiency I can muster and focus on maintaining a household and a social circle. I figure, why create a new town from scratch when there are plenty of smaller towns and cities that will be workable well into the future?

I think that sometimes the big changes happen when people simply do what is necessary to weather the storm and it turns out that the chosen course of action was the best thing to do at the time. I imagine that's how my Grandparent's generation dealt with the 30s, they just leveraged all of the skill of the home economy and made do.

The discussion you had previously about fraternal organizations sticks in my mind as one of the more effective ways to mitigate the decline of government services. It scales down to the local level.

Brad K. said...

One movement comes to mind - the way Victorian mores and attitudes subsumed previous beliefs and society rules.

How did the restrictive rules, the constricting dress codes, and emphasis on social status and symbols of affluence get established? Is there a way to use that approach?

The "hippies" from the 60s and 70s are still around, the Fox Fire books still sell, and Mother Earth News (and Small Farmers Journal, and Draft Horse Journal, and Rural Heritage Magazine) is still on the news stand.

Pauline Ashwell's "Unwillingly to Earth" was a science fiction novel from several years back, on the topic of the ethics of social engineering, and what social engineering means. Considering anything related to causing a community or larger group to choose different paradigms, different values and approaches, to me smacks of social engineering.

A parent has the responsibility to engage his/her child(ren) in learning and experience activities, regardless of the child's resistance or fears. Among adults, only slave masters have that relationship. To a lesser extent, employers and military leaders have some responsibility for requiring efforts beyond personal agreement from those under their sway.

Yet we talk about how to prevent nations and multitudes from wasting energy, from polluting the air. I wonder who has the authority - and responsibility - for causing millions and billions of people to change. Change, after all, is a "little death", clearing away the life that went before to make room for what comes after.

I wonder if the difference between where we are, and where we are headed, isn't as simple as the difference between a Toy Story action figure - and a rag doll. One is highly marketed, the only real value of the other is the affection and effort to make the rag doll, and the love that it stores and produces, the embodiment of magic.

Blessed be.

Kevin said...

Krishnamurti could have had a sweet, lucrative gig had he chosen to fill the position designed for him by Besant and her colleagues - much like some later gurus I could mention - but wound up living and teaching in a small house in rural California. I've always respected him for eschewing Messiah-hood, and in a way which must have taken great moral courage.

I've tried listening to some of his speeches and reading his books, and found him just as hard as his disappointed followers must have done. He's quite difficult to understand and when you do seem to be getting it, what he proposes is not at all easy.

I think some aspect of the "bright green" movement could easily become a revitalization movement, or a major component of one, because as the screws of poverty tighten people will be desperate for "solutions" to their (implicitly soluble) "problems," with all the fatal Obama-style Hope which that suggests.

Speaking of Bright Green Hope, a couple of nights ago I tried watching a video of Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute speaking at MIT. By the time he was mentioning the Pentagon as a potential supporter of the projects that he favors, I'd had enough.

We do indeed seem to be lost in a pathless Emyn Muil, on our way to worse places, and many may prove desperate for guides of far more questionable character than Annie Besant.

spottedwolf said...

John....The post reminds me of the song I wrote last week, " Islands of Peace"
I shall continue trying to keep the survival side of me 'leashed' and remain committed to experience the rest, or maybe the unrest, of my life trying to reduce the ol' feetsprint down to a walk. I continue to school myself in the vagaries and immensities of the mind while sharing every shred with all who are interested in unravelling their personal propensities and obsessions.
Because I dig love and because I can. It is enough.

spottedwolf said...

Apple kinda bro !

Roy...I have a traditionally Reiki trained good friend in Pennsylvania who is moving to property in an area of Amish community.

MageProf....write up and right on !

Richard said...

JMG, I am so glad to see this post. For the last ten years or so, I have been telling people that change happens first at the individual level, and then propagates up through higher and higher levels, not the other way around. Looking for meaningful change coming from the top down will be a very long wait. Each of us will, in our own time (or not), come to this realization and start making preparations to take care of ourselves, our families, and small community groups.

Avery said...

Krishnamurti was simply refusing power. He was a genius and could easily have accepted the messiah position and made a comfortable living for himself by gathering followers and coining the soundest aphorisms in world history, but instead he decided to give them the gift of the truth. Perhaps truth and power are simply incompatible forces. In any case, let us hope that peak oil is never cursed with a self-proclaimed messiah.

P.S. Star in the West -> Star in the East

galacticsurfer said...

Reading this I had to think of the saying:

"When the student is ready the teacher will appear" which brought to mind the similar "You can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink" and "You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes,you get what you need."

I think people have to realize things of their own accord and learn them too. Being shown how to do something is simple and saves time but then learning to do it oneself by repeating the actions agian and agian is important and finally internalizing the meaning of the actions (e.g. a child brushing its teeth fianlly accepting that yes it is important so as not to get cavities and not doing it just so it will not be punished). We all go at our own pace and learn in our own way according to our resources (mental, social, economic). USA is less ready than other countries as they had different resource advanbtages which let them enjoy the good life longer so will play catchup with others and so on.

nancy said...

Mageprof, that is a wonderful quote.
JMG - thank you yet again for such an illuminating post, and a new word - divigation - to boot. I was discussing your reaction to FYG with my husband, and saying that I wanted to ask you what you would do if you were given a $1 million donation with the instruction to use it to help change the world like they were. He said you would buy a Druidmobile and a Druid cloak and some fetching Druid pants (worn on the outside of your tights, of course) and roam the American countryside spreading the word. But I don't think he is right, is he?

Cherokee Organics said...


Here in Victoria we have the same predicament. People are concerned about the affect of burning all that brown coal in power stations for electricity generation, yet consistently in polls few people would pay extra to revamp the power generation infrastructure to a more renewable and/or less polluting source.

Even worse, the powers that be pursue the dream of clean coal as a mantra. Even if it was technically feasible, people don't realise that adding another layer of processing, infrastructure and storage in the electricity generation process can only increase the cost of the electricity generated.

Your post this week also put me in mind of the US governments budget which runs in near constant deficit.

The effectiveness of a democracy is lost once the clamour of competing interests drown out common sense and long term vision. Especially when the representative members can pretty much only publicly support the ideals that will get them put back in their seat for another term. Tax cuts are much more appealing than higher fuel or food prices. You can't please everyone, but at some point in history the very wealthy start throwing their resources behind maintaining the status quo. At this point meaningful reforms become impossible to implement. I would say that in Australia we are entering (or have entered) this time. For those that are interested, the government is trying to implement a new tax on the profits of the mining industry. Interesting times.

Movements I reckon, are feel good things. It's interesting when you write that the vast majority of people join for purely social reasons and I have to agree as I've noticed this happens in groups here. This in itself is no bad thing, but it effects little in the way of real change. As they say talk is cheap...

Good luck!

Jason said...

JMG: the Transition Town movement has made its own transition from a college project to an international network helping communities put together plans to cope with a future of energy scarcity and strict carbon-footprint limits.

Except that (from my experience) it's not that -- or not necessarily so. To me it's simply a set of protocols. You can adopt them to get things moving in your local area, or ditch them if you don't work. Two things that interest me minimally are a) What TTs distant from me are doing, or whether it resembles what I'm doing, and b) What TTs are 'supposed to do'. But then I'm not a meetings guy either, as I mentioned last week.

In my local area TTers attend draught-busting workshops and worm-composting demonstrations, organize allotments and garden swaps... things like that. Growing your own food, reskilling, and getting to know your community -- in fact precisely what's talked about here so often. I don't feel involved in a big 'network' at all. As a result I find the disdain occasionally expressed for TT as a 'mass movement' to be a little overdone.

In the UK, at any rate, the chances of TT coming together under one big Annie Besant-style message seem very slim to me. Who's going to emerge as leader when the point is to be local? Who would care? Not me for certain.

I remember from your Encyclopedia, JMG, that you thought Krishnamurti's rejection of his designated-messiah status an act of great courage -- personally, I don't think so. He did become a guru for the rest of his life anyway, after all. After having proclaimed truth a 'pathless land', he went on preaching his own truth very didactically just the same, and was just as much a guru as if he had been still involved in Theosophy, which I think he principally junked because the spirits it put him in touch with misled him in his opinion.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi all,

I've noticed in recent weeks that there's been plenty of discussion about permaculture groups and transition town movements etc. Much of it's been in the negative.

I can't speak for the transition town movement and have never done a permaculture course, however, the permaculturalists do have some pretty good ideas and the majority of the Western population is so disconnected from nature and their food source that they probably need all the help that they can get.

I don't wish to do a course for economic reasons, but the information is all there for those who wish to read. Think libraries, book stores or the Internet. Much cheaper!

Also remember there are plenty of different ways to grow food and there are also numerous sources of information on which to draw upon. Don't get too dogmatic! Be observational instead.

At the end of the day though, it's no good having a permaculture design certificate if you don't do anything with it as it's the actual practice of growing things that is essentially useful to yourself and society.

Remember stop worrying about this group or that group and spend more time worrying about your top soil and future water sources!

Good luck!

knutty knitter said...

Nice...I think I belong in Apple Jack's world - I hate meetings but love doing actual stuff :)

I've dabbled at the edges of Theosophy and Freemasons too but found that whilst they had some interesting things to say, I could not fit into their molds easily enough to really belong. Same goes for most of the religions I've visited (and there are quite a few!).

I like to be able to freely think for myself when it comes to this sort of stuff and get very irritated with those who don't think but merely follow blindly. (However, I like my friends and people in general and will defend their right to whatever belief they choose as long as it doesn't harm anyone else)

It will be interesting to see just where our local transition town ends up. As this area is pretty laid back and hippyish and already has a pretty strong community spirit, it may develop enough action to amount to something. It certainly seems to have got going with a plan and some action so we'll see.

Really like these posts btw and all the comments too.

viv in nz

divelly said...

Back in the late lamented '70s,when I was known as a "back-to-the-lander",I belonged to a small co-op in rural WA.I now describe a co-op as that group,which when the building catches fire,you call a meeting!

Don Plummer said...

Last week Quimby, New Thought, and the American gnostic movement; this week Theosophy. It's a good thing, I think, to be reminded of these nineteenth-century esoteric religious movements and the influence they had. Many Americans have probably never heard of them, let alone know much about them or their influence. I had forgotten about Anni Besant and Krishnamurti.

The title of this weeks post reminds me of the Spanish saying that Dwig posted in the comments last week: Caminante, no hay camino. Se hace camino al andar.

Pat said...

Interesting post.
I led and lobbied for a legislative change in healthcare that benefitted many but found exactly the same experience that you have observed. People joined my efforts for different reasons than mine but the result was positive.

There is a benefit to meetings, joining initiatives and striving for a clearly articulated goal that raises awareness of the issues and allows synergy of thought and ideas in finding options to deal with them that should not be under-rated.

John Michael Greer said...

Gn0s1s, that's the American headquarters of the Adyar TS, which (to give them fair credit) backed away from the mass movement stuff after Besant's time and has mostly gone back to doing what Theosophy was designed to do.

Bill, exactly. That's why it's crucial that at least some peak oil people stay aloof from nascent mass movements and maintain alternate perspectives in public.

Nebris, that's classic Krishnamurti.

Onion, that's exactly the strategy I've been suggesting.

Brad, the rise (and fall) of Victorian morality happened on a grassroots level; there was no organized mass movement involved.

Wolf, that's the way.

Kevin, I have the same response to Lovins' take on things. He's very much into maintaining the status quo on different resources, and from my point of view, that's barking up the wrong stump.

Richard, bingo.

Avery, of course you're right -- got my alleged messiahs mixed up, as sometimes happens finishing a post late at night.

Surfer, I like that -- the Rolling Stones as a source of gnomic wisdom.

Nancy, he's quite wrong. I'd use it to start a matching fund to provide small-scale, local sustainability projects with zero-interest loans, thus getting a major obstacle (lack of funding) out of the way of useful projects.

Cherokee, a movement is a great thing if you want to hang out with congenial people and do interesting things together. It's just not usually a good way to make change happen.

Jason, as I said, it's early days yet for the Transition Town movement. Its great weakness is that its fixation on optimism makes it raise expectations it can't possibly fulfill; the question that hasn't been settled yet is what happens to it once that becomes obvious. As for Krishnamurti, well, to each their own; I think you're massively underestimating him and his work.

Cherokee, as I've said repeatedly, I have no problem at all with the ideas of permaculture; it's purely some of the ways it's taken shape as a social movement that give me pause.

Knitter, if your local Masons are telling you what to think, they've lost touch with some of the core principles of the Craft. As for your local TT group, it's entirely possible that things might turn out well; it's the lack of attention to the possible downside that troubles me most about that.

Divelly, good. I think one of the main things that sank the communes of the late Sixties was the fixation on endless meetings; you can only do that so long before fleeing becomes the best option.

Don, thank you! Especially in America, there's a huge history of alternative thought that could be a massive resource for today, if people noticed that it was there.

Pat, oh, granted -- a group or a movement that has a tautly focused goal, a practical way of achieving it, and a realistic chance at the approval, or at least the tacit agreement, of the majority can be a worthwhile project. That's a fairly limiting set of circumstances, though.

Gregory Wade said...

And then, there are those who need not wait around for a movement or the affirmation of the social. Personally, I fear the notion of a revitalization movement centered on the Peak Oil scene more than the status quo. The fact that the gulf's essentially septic, I'm certain the status quo will not last much longer. Peak oil on the other hand is alive with fantasies that should remain in the realm they originated. Few, in my opinion, have shown the inclination to deal with the world in a sensible fashion such as the one you tend to express.

David S said...

I have some information about what happened to the Post Carbon Institute. I was an active member of their network, the prime contact for an Ottawa member organization.

There was apparently a board meeting in which the idea of supporting the launch of Transition Town USA was discussed. In that meeting it was decided to fold the Post Carbon organization and transfer its resources (and a not inconsiderable sum of money) to Transition USA. At that same meeting, the two original founders of the PostCarbon Institute resigned. The details of the meeting were never made known to the member organizations, nor were those members polled for their input. When I asked about this afterward (after all, it directly contradicted their policy of democratic process) I was told that there wasn't time to discuss the question with member organizations.

At the time, I was leading a discussion of Transition Town on the Post Carbon email list, a discussion that explored some of the potential shortcomings of that movement, so I was disappointed (to say the least) that my organization had morphed into TT without my knowledge or input.

The active email list has since died, which I greatly regret. There isn't another that I am aware of that supports the quality or diversity of conversations that happened there. TT (of which I am a member) is a much more constrained organization, it seems to me, where contrary ideas tend to be seen as disruptive or damaging to morale, rather than stimulating and interesting.

DC said...

"They are there for reasons of their own, reasons that mingle high ideals and base desires in the usual human proportions, and if the ideals or the desires you call on them to pursue are far enough from theirs that they see no way of fulfilling their own agendas by helping yours, they will turn away and go looking for another movement that shows more promise of giving them what they want."

Ah... What a Folgers moment early in the morning. The selfish paradox of the Western mythos--do nothing that which does not satisfy your "own" earthly desires first however altruistic the gesture may be--do nothing which does not "lead" you on or "give" you a path to walk on to personal fortune or salvation no matter what the social costs entail.

Thank you, JMG for another thought provoking piece! I am eager, as I always am, to discover your ideas for moving forward--without the toils of mass movements of yesteryear.

writerspice said...

Great post!

Last night I went to the second Transition Towns meeting in my town and squirmed in my chair from the optimism.

They showed a feel-good film that Ottawa's TT put together which described the new Ottawa as "a kinder, gentler place". Obviously, the film was made in the summer. Lots of bikes and productive gardens and not so much people starving/freezing to death in their homes.

But while it rankled me, I thought a lot about how under-practiced we are in making community. We have become so accustomed to our petroleum-fueled pods where we can be alone and don't have to engage in discussion, conflict, planning, engaging - all the hard things about being a human in a human world.

I am committing to the fumbling and naively hopeful project because they are other human beings and it's my feeling that community is one of the things that we are SO going to need in the coming years.

For bartering, sharing, helping - all those things that might sound Pollyanna to our independence-oriented lifestyles but were simply facts-of-life a hundred years ago.

JimK said...

_The Mountain of Truth_ is a wonderful book by Martin Green, on the old hippies of Ascona: folks like Isadora Duncan and D. H. Lawrence. That's another counter-culture movement that surely had some influence but sure didn't redirect our trajectory enough to land us in paradise. There is a fabulous picture in there of the sort of core shaman fellow of the group - see

The photo is of Graeser in Munich in about 1945, standing against the rubble of bombed out buildings.

I am fascinated by counter-culture groups of all stripes. Joscelyn Godwin's _Theosophical Enlightenment_ is a great telling of the Blavatsky et al. Who can say how powerful an influence, positive and negative, these groups have had, even if then never really took over as the dominant cultural structure. Leadership and hierarchical authority are different! (Of course you know this, Mr. Greer, but still, it's a point worth stating explicitly.)

Andy Brown said...

As a young anthropologist I went to Kazakhstan 3 years after the break-up of the Soviet Union. I went with an interest in political and cultural rhetoric and ideology. The old communist system had crashed to the ground and I wondered what was going to take its place.

But when I got there, I found that no one wanted to talk to me about politics or ideology or any of that. They'd had enough of that already, and were more interested in talking about their current efforts about getting food on the table and a roof overhead and keeping their son out of the army and getting medicine for grandmother -- all in a climate of economic collapse and political uncertainty if not chaos.

There were a few spiritual or political entrepreneurs around, but they weren't getting much traction. Most people knew they had been lied to and misled for so long by leaders of all stripes that they weren't buying into any of it. (This was distressing to the free market reformers, but that is another story.)

For me the interesting question of the next decade is going to be, whether our cultural/economic system so discredits itself that people re-focus just on something as mundane as getting by -- or living "simpler", community based lives. Or whether people will still be clinging to their ideas of progress, materialism and privilege in ways that allow gurus and other cultural entrepreneurs to lead them to those craters you mention.

Thanks for another stimulating post!

tideshift said...

I agree that individual actions hold the most promise, because, among other things, individuals only control their own actions. The "established order" is way beyond control.

But I would argue that there's a big degree of difficulty difference between making individual changes within a supportive social network (a mini-movement, perhaps) than doing it alone and alienated. So I do see value in the social network building aspect of peak oil planning - thus am working with a TT group in my town.

I think it's especially true for the emotional aspects of the plummet off the oil peak, which is one reason I think hard-headed realism about the pain ahead needs to be blended with some optimistic sketches about the aspects of life that might be better at the bottom of the hill.

The sheer terror of looking over the edge, as we all are, can be paralytic. And thinking about it/planning for it in local social groups can, I think, lessen the intensity of that fear enough to permit greater creativity, efficiency and flexibility in preparations.

Brad K. said...


One of the powerful national motivators is the BEM - bug eyed monster, the implacably hostile and menacing foe. WWII turned around the Great Depression.

The Vietnam War turned a defense and militarily oriented nation to generations of knee-jerk repugnance of guns, authority, and defense. (As in the Brady Bunch wanting to make themselves safer by disarming victims. Not that I have any particular thoughts on that.)

Bresant and Blavatsky fought duel monsters - mainstream religion and science, portrayed as blinkered forces that run over obstacles.

Politicians use the BEM argument all the time - as in B. Hussein Obama's call for tap and tax, because the BP oil well blew out in the Gulf of Mexico. Al Gore tried to ride global warming to political prominence (witness the celebrated lack of consciousness about his personal home). Climate-gate did nothing to diminish global warming. Instead, Climate-gate denounced the hubris of those clearly manipulating the BEM call (with climate change as the BEM). By defeating the initial BEM charge, climate change was relegated to just one more, among many competing mundane priorities and causes of the day.

Right now, presently, at this hour, there is nothing on the news compelling enough to emotionally outweigh whatever snippets and perspectives and persuasions that occupy the mainstream media "news"-for-entertainment channels. Today we are angry about this, this evening about that - whatever happens to be top place on the news. Unless you live near the Gulf of Mexico, or are impacted as businesses in the area fail and start impacting other businesses, products, and consumers on an ever-widening wave front of direct and indirect impact - you might be focused instead on whether Congress represents the will of America, or whether those that manage to accumulate money (or energy) deserve to be punitively taxed. (Don't you love the Christian preaching about "money is the root of all evil - give us a chunk of yours to spread the message and do good?")

JMG, I am not sure if the Church's message in the Victorian age created the topic, stumbled onto it, or cribbed it from someone else (like much of their teaching). But the Victorian message about skin and sex being the tool of the devil certainly provided the BEM the church needed to preserve vestiges of their demonizing of casual nudity until even modern times.

Plagues among crowed and dirty cities in the past have driven exoduses to the country side, for the rich and those with the means to flee. Wars provide a focus that brings nations together. The US military has long been a socially active, unifying social engineering force for American society, imposing tolerance for those from differing backgrounds and social strata, providing social mobility to various individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds, all in the name of defending the nation.

Peak Oil is based on an understanding of the specter in the wings. It might be clear to the knowledgeable that 2005 was the tipping point - but not clear at all, to those with bigger BEM's on their plate this morning.

It seems that the BEM that would drive the world, as well as America, into a reasoned, effective response to Peak Oil hasn't yet arrived. The deceptive use of warnings of what is to come, portrayed as actual BEM sightings, have nearly de-fanged this BEM's ability to arouse and motivate. Today the incidental harbingers of the BEM are counted as the BEM itself; we get a politician having a meeting or making a statement, and write each off as "handled", just like so very many contrived political "dangers" topics.

The knowledgeable, I expect, will continue to prioritize their lives in ways that seem best to them. The vasty hordes, I expect, will continue to yield to the fickle social pressures that move populations hither and thither - until the next BEM rears its ugly head.

Yupped said...

Thanks for another interesting post. The “what happens after peak oil?” question is of course massively complex and uncertain and unknowable, and I appreciate your measured and focused discussion of one or two angles each week. Thanks for putting in the time that you do.

I like the phrase “pathless land” very much. I’ve always hoped and sometimes believed that I follow some sort of path through life, but the path wanders a lot, as I adjust to the things I encounter on the way. So I don’t expect anyone to follow the same path as me, and of course a mass group of folks won’t be able to follow one another, in a reasonably orderly way, down a rough path of rapidly descending material expectations. I don’t believe that even the strongest and clearest leadership we could hope for will be sufficient to prevent chaos down that path. A leader’s vision is often an illusion, and that isn’t helpful when trying to accept reality.

As I have started to adjust my own expectations over the last few years, the anxiety and confusion one feels can be very intense. It’s not pleasant, and initially didn’t bring out the most rational side of me. But it’s something we’ll each have to go through, with no guarantee of success. A key factor will be the amount of time we have to adjust, which will vary again depending on our individual circumstances. Hopefully enough individuals will find enough time to adjust and find their own way through. I suspect the beneficial role of mass movements will be the signposts they can provide to individuals on the way, in terms of information and tools and good and bad examples of various sorts. We’ll see what happens, I suppose.

Lance Michael Foster said...

JMG- What do you see as the possible/probable role of the occultist or other spiritual practitioner in the long emergency? The ethical and those not so...

Will we see the return of the cunning folk, the hexenmeister, the gypsy, the shaman, the wandering priest/monk, the village witch, the druid, the wizard in his remote keep? Not in medieval garb lol, but in a new postmodern, postindustrialist form?

Is this what the legends foretold...will Merlin truly return? (The archetype of the wizard if not the historical figure)

Or could that be an upcoming book? ;-)

joemichaels said...

JMG - I've been reading your posts for a couple of years and I look forward to them. Today's post really struck a chord with me and I felt compelled to post a comment.

"A Pathless Land" as a pronouncement of our future is a discouraging prospect. We are social animals and there is an innate need to "find our tribe".

Yesterday there was an open thread on The Oil Drum entitled "The Road Not Taken" discussing the event of President Carter placing solar panels on the White House in 1979 and President Reagan removing them in 1986. I had assumed that 30 years later we could easily see the folly of the refusal to accept limits. Even on a progressive forum such as TOD there was little consensus.

The framing of Carter as a "bumbling incompetent" was in fresh display. Opinions are now valued more than facts. There was hope that President Obama would be that leader who would lead America to a brighter promise. Now many are disillusioned that he is only a politician and a mere man with feet of clay.

What is clear is in the absence of leaders and national movements there will be very little done to mitigate the existential disaster coming with Peak Oil and the "Tragedy of the Commons".

The Peak Oil and transition movements aren't looking for Messiahs. They are however looking for leaders around which to organize effective strategies. The reluctance to follow dangerous political paths isn't courageous nor fact it is quite the opposite.

"The full round, the norm of the mono-myth, requires that the hero shall now begin the labor of bringing the runes of wisdom, the Golden Fleece, or his sleeping princess, back into the kingdom of humanity, where the boon may redound to the renewing of the community, the nation, the planet, or the ten thousand worlds."

Joseph Campbell, "Hero With A Thousand Faces" Return: Refusal of the Return


ramps said...

Nice to see a mention of Krishnamurti. I discovered his work just after he died and spent a few years devouring his talks and books in the late '80's. Not easy, as Kevin says, but very satisfying all the same.

I suspect Jason may not have read much of his work. Krishnamurti's approach was constant enquiry, not didactic preaching.

Interestingly, Rudolph Steiner was a prominent member of the Theosophical Society but left in disgust when the order designated Krishnamurti as it's leader.

gooboo said...

In any case, you can not survive on your own. We will need some sort of social structures.A very good starting point is a cooperative. Work for each other's succes in a cooperative manner. A Kibbuz was quite ok or the Eden Obstbaugesellschaft but they failed because they were too enthusiastic that they can overcome the "human condition". People do not want to spend their whole live on ONE system. They want work time and leisure time and hollidays and service times. That needs to be accepted. Having a meal with the entire cooperation every time like the amish do is not really applicable. We need more social research on that issue. So building up many different local movements with all different "group approaches" will be intersting. Do not plan to become a mass movement. Then you will fall into a multipartisan trap.

John Michael Greer said...

Gregory, that's an intriguing point: the status quo is already on its way out, so the real dangers focus on what will replace it. Well worth keeping in mind.

David, thanks for the details. I've fielded offlist emails more or less confirming this.

DC, you're welcome.

Writerspice, I certainly agree that most of us in the industrial world need practice in engaging with other people, and I don't mean to discourage people from attending TT activities if those are congenial to them; it's the broader questions I want to address here.

Jim, you're quite correct that these forgotten countercultures had a huge if mostly indirect impact on our world today -- I wonder how many people who read fantasy fiction, for example, know just how overwhelmingly it's been shaped by Theosophical symbolism. (Robert Howard's Conan the Barbarian, for example, swaggered and fought his way through an imaginary past almost entirely based on Blavatsky's writings.)

Andy, that is indeed one of the big questions. I hope people will buckle down and focus on the practicalities, but I suspect there may be a wild ride or two before we get there.

Tideshift, if you find a TT group useful, then by all means -- just don't fall into the trap of thinking it's the only option.

Brad, granted, but there are two details not often remembered about the story of the boy who cried wolf: (1) the wolves were real, and (2) they ended up eating all the sheep. That applies to some BEMs, too.

Yupped, nicely summarized. I'd say the best way to gain time for the changes is usually to become downwardly mobile before you have to -- still, I'm sure you can imagine how well that goes over these days!

Lance, it's an upcoming post -- next week's, in fact!

Joe, I saw that Oil Drum thread also, and winced. Incantation shapes a lot of our collective memory.

Ramps, that's always been my take on Krishnamurti as well. You're quite right, of course, that Steiner was another Theosophical alumnus -- arguably the most creative of the lot.

John Michael Greer said...

Gooboo, exactly -- this is why I'd be a lot happier seeing many different approaches and templates rather than just one! Yes, that would be true even if the template were mine -- wasn't it Groucho Marx's comment that he would refuse to belong to any club that would have him as a member?

Brad K. said...


About Nancy's "said you would buy a Druidmobile and a Druid cloak and some fetching Druid pants, would the Druidmobile look something like a wooden hand cart?

And I suppose you could hire a textile crafter to make the druid cloak and fetching Druid pants of homespun, maybe gifting them with the patterns and styles.

Not quite off-topic, do you see a change in dress, as emphasis on velcro and designer sneakers shifts to something more robust, that isn't transported across oceans, and might make use of local materials (leather, trees, maybe ceramics or metals)? Could evolving from jersey-knit t-shirts to (Druid style) tunics and cloaks be a walking symbol of preparation for a new way of life? Hint, hint? Now, if only someone had access to the way clothes were made and style, for work and social use, before the industrial age. Maybe we need the SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism) as much as the Amish, for making clothes, footwear, and rope beds. If only we can avoid going to war each summer, for recreation . . .

MIll Lee Farm said...

Hello all,
My first post here, but I wanted to address the notion that the Amish (or Mennonite) community will be able to help us in a difficult future. I have heard this repeatedly from my mother growing up, and it seems to pop up all the time in the collapse/peak oil arena as well. I actually have come to look at it as exactly the type of false 'revitalization' hope these essays are addressing.

I have grown up on a hobby farm in central PA with both Amish and Mennonite neighbors. I've played with their children when young and maintained personal and business contacts to this day. I have some knowledge of their ways and customs, but am far from an expert.

Their community suffers the effects of cheap energy and globalization as badly as the rest of us. They provide very little for themselves. Most don't farm anymore, but work in our 'English' society either as labor, or self employed in a family business.
They do maintain gardens, forego modern convenience in their homes, (barns and business are different, and often have electricity, lighting, and everything modern) and sew their own clothes, but are in the grocery store and Walmart with the rest of us, and get their fabric from China. They do know more than most of us and there is a lot to be learned, but most of the old ways are gone.

I was talking to an Amish gentleman who built a beautiful french door for me. His shop has all the same industrial machinery and electricity that you would expect, and he knows nothing about production with old hand tools etc. We were talking about all the lost knowledge and he agreed.He said, for example, that all the 'old ones' that knew how to raise a barn and do timber frame joinery have passed, and none of the young were interested enough to keep it going. New buildings are built exactly the same as anywhere else in the country, often with electrical from the grid, or a generator to run the power tools.

While I have no issue whatsoever with their way of life, their 'simple' lifestyle is total social engineering designed to reduce jealousy in the community. The church decides what is acceptable and everyone stays roughly the same. (no 'keeping up with the Jones's') It has nothing to do with avoiding the latest tools, materials, and techniques to get the job done easier. They are arguably a little better off than the rest of us, but they will suffer the same if things get hard. What if they can't light their homes with propane, heat their houses with oil, and run their farm machinery with gas/diesel? No one tans leather for horse harness (China). No one blacksmiths replacement parts for their field equipment (China). No one makes lumber without gasoline.

I just want to dispel the 'hope' that the Amish will be able to teach us much to help us. Nothing different than your grandmother could have really.

...of course, different communities elsewhere could be different. Many Amish families are moving to Mexico.

Their biggest asset is their strong community. And that wont really help 'us' unless we learn from it and build our own.

sorry to post a book for my first submittal :-)

Wendy said...

That's just what Margaret Meade said - it's that small group of people who are willing to commit to an idea that will, ultimately, change the world.

straker said...

"Tideshift, if you find a TT group useful, then by all means -- just don't fall into the trap of thinking it's the only option."

There is something to be said about avoiding duplication of effort. For instance, Transition already faces an uphill battle as it deals with the preexisting bright-green groups that have already staked their territory. I faced this problem in my town.

You think Transition is too optimistic, you should check out the prior generation of environmental groups that advocate nothing more than screwing in CFLs and turning down the thermostat!

Why should we have two or three environmental groups all stepping on each other's toes? At some point you have to decide if you can't beat em, join em. That seems to be what has become of the post-carbon institute lately.

Is that really a bad thing?

I have my own reservations about TT, but I simply have NOTHING BETTER to support. Do you? Should we just sit around passively and wait for some other movement to come around which satisfies all our wants and needs? Do we really have the time for that?

Considering the "frog in the pot" theory, sitting around waiting for the neighbors to feel pressured enough to panic and desperately tear up their lawn to plant seeds is not my idea of a recipe for success. That is what my definition of "muddling through" is. It's people having a death-bed conversion, and jumping into a survival strategy totally clueless and with the odds seriously stacked against them.

It's very easy to criticize and nit-pick. It's a lot harder to actually build something from the ground up. I think Transition should be commended for what it's accomplished so far, at least in the UK. It's starting to gain a lot of credibility as an organization. And that is extremely important when the locals evaluate whether what you're trying to do. You are starting with the momentum of the rest of the organization to back you up rather than just your own individual charisma (or lack thereof). You can whip out videos from existing transition movements to show what it's all about. It's a powerful calling-card.

Sometimes I think peakers have become a little too comfortable with the lay of the land. The idea of everything coalescing into a single movement threatens the status quo of peakdom being this amorphous clique of whiney social critics and isolated individual preppers twiddling their thumbs anxiously awaiting TEOTAWKI. The schadenfreude club.

If peak oil and prepping actually goes mainstream, then all the peakers lose their status as feeling smarter than everyone else, of being ahead of the curve. Far better to keep all this stuff underground, right? I really think some of that feeds into some of the overly-eager nit-picking of Transition that I read here and elsewhere. A lot of people are looking real hard for a reason to REJECT Transition and go back to being the grumpy blogger/commenter rather than trying to find a role to play to help it along.

This is the selection bias that I see when I surf the doom blogosphere. The most active transition people aren't the ones posting comments here or under Sharon Astyk's site. They aren't posting on or LATOC. Heck, they aren't even posting that much on the Transition NING sites. They are working in their local groups and so they are invisible to the larger internet peaker virtual community.

So I think if you want to find things to complain about, you'll always find _something_. And if that's the criteria you use to determine whether to endorse something, you'll never endorse anything and we'll just spiral all the way down to every-man-for-himself lifeboat ethics.

And if the internet is still up we can trade stories about how many zombies we plugged each day.

pgrass101 said...

I find it hard to comprehend that so many people think that life will continue like it currently is without oil. In my experience once they realize just how dependent on oil we are they begin to figure out how different the future will be without oil. Of course these are the few people who are not either stuck in denial or who are unwilling to think about potentially distressing things.

I do not foresee us descending into a MadMax world of a rapid societal collapse, like so many Peak Oilers do. But I do try to talk about how the cost of everything is going to increase and that we will not be able to afford the lifestyle that we have now. If I can get just a few people to realize that roads, telephone lines, cell phone towers, water and sewer systems and every other part of the infrastructure that our current civilization depends on will not be as well maintained and be repaired less frequently or not at all than it is now as the cost of the maintenance goes up. While I do not think that there will be food shortages in this country, I do think that we will see greatly diminished choices in our stores (and soup lines in large cities again) and food riots and massive famines in other countries.

I do dread what will happen to our oceans as Japan and other countries that rely on fish for their protein sweep the oceans clean. I fear that the environmental toil that the death throes of the industrial age cause will eclipse all that we have seen so far. With less regulation (either by law or by scarcity of regulators) the sociopathic corporations will cut even more corners in their hunt for short-term profit. I am trying to give my sons skills and a stable homestead for their future use, so that they will not experience the horrors of a mill town that my own grand and great grandparents experienced (my Great-grandmother was sold by her parents to a textile mill at the age of 7).

I have no illusions of life continuing as it is now, but only try to prepare for a future of austerity.

tristan said...

"wasn't it Groucho Marx's comment that he would refuse to belong to any club that would have him as a member?"

Woody Allan?


MisterMoose said...

Ever since we expanded our vegetable garden into our front yard, lots of people who used to just drive by have been stopping to chat. Usually, it's a variation on the theme of, "How'd you get those tomato plants to grow so big?" One thing inevitably leads to another, and we'll end up showing them one of our square-foot gardening books or the plans for the self-watering earthtainers, or discussing soil pH or how to deal with those @#$%& gophers. Quite a few of our neighbors are growing, or at least starting to grow, small gardens of their own, and most of the rest are thinking about it. This is very encouraging.

We are not shy about telling everyone the main reason why we are doing this. Sure, gardening is a great hobby, and the food does taste better than those square tomatoes at Safeway, but the main reason is because we need to learn how to be more self-sufficient in the event of, well, you know...

But here's the interesting part: almost everyone we've talked to is aware of the concept of Peak Oil, and they all know that our fossil-fueled way of life is basically unsustainable, and they are interested in learning how to grow their own food because they suspect that they are going to have to learn how sooner or later (that is, if they want to keep eating after the delivery trucks stop arriving at the local supermarkets).

Nobody has a clue as to when or how civilization as we know it is going to fall apart, but they're all aware that things are slowly sliding out of control. Thanks to news about the Gulf oil spill, the growing national debt, and similar current events, everyone (and I mean EVERYONE) we talk to is growing more and more concerned about the shape of the future for them and their children and grandchildren. They seem to know, at some subliminal level, that things are just going to keep getting worse, and there probably aren't going to be any magic bullets.

So, we don't need no stinkin' meetings to find like-minded people and talk about the kinds of things that the archdruid writes about. Are we going to start a transition town here in the middle of Arizona? No, but we have found out that lots of people are at least starting to think about these topics, and more than a few are starting, in their own small ways, to take what they have already realized are necessary steps.

There may not be an official movement, but the meme is definitely out there. It may not be much in the great scheme of things, but it's a start...

Hal said...

Hello, all. Long time reader here, first time poster.

I have a question for Mr. Greer. joemichaels' question reminded me of something I wondered after reading last week's blog. I was thinking of incantory magical examples from the history of my consciousness of the energy issue, and it occurred to me that both Carter's placement of the solar panels and Reagan's removal of them fit your definition. They both were done far more for their symbolic value than for anything tangible they accomplished. The difference is that Mr. Carter's action would probably be considered a weak one, and indeed, was widely viewed as such at the time (I remember some wag pointing out that the acronym for Carter's term "Moral Equivalent of War" was MEOW.) Reagan's action, though, strikes me as very powerful. He very unequivocally let it be known from the start he would brook no talk of limits and that pretty much set the tone of every administration to follow.

My question is: Are negative actions (in the literal sense, not making a judgment about this one, though the consequences should be clear by now) necessarily more powerful than positive ones? I can see intuitively that it would be a LOT harder to make a positive piece of magic work. I'm thinking you generally have to make something happen that wouldn't otherwise. On the other hand, a negative effect can be had any number of ways, anything that stops something.

Or did Reagan just have stronger juju?

I would think this would have a strong influence on the ability of the transition or any other initiatives to have a positive effect.

madtom said...

Concerning Amory Lovins and RMI -

As a techno-optimist (chemist, science teacher, science editor) I used to be a fan and contributor. Then he embraced Bush's hydrogen economy, which for me was laughable from the very first mention.

So I emailed Lovins about the many hazards of hydrogen for professionals, much less in the hands of millions of Joe Sixpacks.

During my brief time in a commercial research lab circa 1967, a hydrogen fire brought in the ambulances and fire engines. And those guys were already working in the concrete bunker out back, because they *knew* the hazards.

Lovins responded with some hair-splitting about the difference between 'explosion' and 'deflagration' that totally ignored the inevitably high leak rate and the negative Joule-Thompson coefficient that can make leaks self-igniting.

Right then I happened to be editing some translations of Japanese research on the size and configuration of the blast walls that would be required around hydrogen filling stations to protect nearby buildings from the inevitable explosions.

For me that exploded Lovins, despite his apparently good work elsewhere.

Bill Pulliam said...

Andy -- your experience in Kazakhstan is what I expect to see here (and throughout rural and small-town America). The regular folks here are not that far removed from their roots in the dirt. All the signs I see among the general people (not the green movement) are that their concerns are with being able to grow food (as well as smoke and ingredients for brew, of course) and keep a roof over everyone's head. I expect the community will naturally tighten as suburban money-based "self-sufficiency" becomes less and less practical. We saw suggestions of this in our 1000-year flood last month -- the community self-organized and mobilized even before the water was down and the dead were buried. In th emuch longer term, when the energy problems really come home, I don't think we'll see people flocking to the Transition Town meetings or $1000 Permaculture workshops, nor to church anymore than they already do. In recent years when the gas prices have soared and "OUT OF GAS" signs have appeared on station pumps, people didn't make a run on the Green Cafe Evenings. They made a run on the Mall*Wart, the local nurseries, and the Amish markets for gardening and canning supplies.

Rudi said...

You've said things praising the Amish before, but I wonder how warranted the praise is -- I suspect that the Amish are ultimately just as dependent on the fossil fuel economy for their prosperity as everyone else (they can make their own clothes; can they make their own cloth? They're wealthy because they can sell their crops; who do they sell them to, and how are they transported? Lots of questions to ask here). This leaves aside the fact that the Amish have the same dark underbelly that everyone else does. The couple behind you on the train may have been quaint, but Amish communities are also afflicted by sexual abuse and domestic violence, as I know from first-hand reports; they're just closed enough that few people outside will ever know about it.

The problem is that your anecdotal and oblique praise of the Amish amounts to the presentation of Amishness as a solution, and an individual one at that.

In all, I have a predictable reaction against the tenor of this post. "A social response to a social problem is impossible; only an individual response will mean anything. There is no social action anyway; there are only individual actions which together make up society." You sound disturbingly like Margaret Thatcher here -- "there is no such thing as society; there are only individuals." I can say quite simply and directly that this is wrong and wrong-headed.

History affords us abundant examples of social delusion. However, history also affords us abundant examples of effective social action. Is it really time to give up hope and retreat? I'm not convinced.

K said...

When a contributor to Forbes magazine, that archetypal organ of sunny capitalism, chimes in with a piece on peak oil, particularly one in which the topic is taken quite seriously indeed, you know peak oil is going mainstream. Remarkable, really. Check it out:

Joel said...

Hm...I wonder if it makes sense to (extending the metaphor a little) do some earthworks anyway. There are lots of paths, roads, and superhighways, but maybe the world needs a few more swales.

noxpopuli said...

My wife's grandfather was the U.S. Army officer who received the ceremonial katana when the Japanese surrendered in WWII. After the war, he became friends with the Japanese officer who handed it to him. They corresponded regularly until his death two years ago. His lesson was, "big changes don't happen in mass movements, they happen one-on-one: people to people."

I heard echoes of his words in your story about the couple in Philadelphia who quietly gave up their car: the suggestion that responsible earth-stewardship, like social change, happens not when grand movements command it but when individuals accept their responsibility.

I'm sorry that it's not happening faster. The situation in the Gulf is so bleak it makes me weep.

James Wilson said...

I think the line about "I am their leader, therefore I must follow them" was first attributed to one of the 19th c French upheavals, probably 1848, about someone who was asked why he was disconsolately trailing after a raging mob.

The fate of Cassandra was not pleasant; better not to seek it. If you annoy the public too much, they may use some of the scarce supply of oil to burn you as a witch. If you cultivate your own and your friends gardens, you may not be one of the prophets whose burning illuminates a future night.

Nicholas said...

I was hoping for some help with two practical(ish) questions:
1. What steps would I need to take to store potatoes in the indianapolis, indiana (Koppen climate DFA)area so that they would be good to plant next spring (I'm expecting a September last-harvest)
2. In a post-oil world, how likely are conditions (passable roads, fine chains) that would make it plausable to transition from cars to bicycles?
Thank you!

Michael Dawson said...

I wonder, then, what your interpretation of things like the Civil Rights, suffrage, and abolitionist social movements might be. Central American solidarity and anti-apartheid?

How do you square these things with what you are arguing here?

sgage said...


that was definitely old Groucho.

Here's my favorite Woody Allen quote:

"More than at any time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness, the other to total extinction. Let us pray that we have the wisdom to choose correctly."


sgage said...


I used to be an Amory Lovins fan back in the 70's. He said wonderful things like:

"Nuclear energy is a future technology whose time has past",


"Using nuclear energy to make domestic electricity is like using a chainsaw to cut butter".

Alas, in my opinion, he left the path of wisdom and dedicated his whole trip to making personal cars workable forever.

Oh well...

John Michael Greer said...

Brad, reenactment groups such as the SCA are a good place to learn older skills. I have no idea whether people will be heading back to medieval garments, or loincloths, or whatever -- predicting the future of energy is hard enough; predicting the future of fashion is impossible!

Mill, granted. Leigh Brackett many years ago wrote an SF novel in which a post-nuclear war USA adopted Amish and Mennonite lifestyles en masse, but that's hardly a viable option; I mentioned the Amish family behind me on the train as an example of a group of people who have done what they thought was right, without waiting for a mass movement to fix the world for them.

Wendy, thanks for the reminder!

Straker, you're getting well into the yellow range of my troll-ometer with this comment. Ad hominem insults that attribute the worst motives to those you disagree with are not a helpful contribution to a conversation, and doing more of that will get you shown the door.

In response to the substantive part of your comment, though, why is signing up for a movement the only alternative you can see to sitting on your hands? I've discussed many other alternatives here, and will be focusing on another in the weeks to come.

Pgrass, getting ready for austerity is one of the best things you can do right now. Another is to embrace austerity before you have to, so you know how to do it with some degree of skill and comfort.

Tristan, nah, it was around long before Allen.

Moose, that's excellent news -- both that people are interested, as that they're tuning in. The strategy you're practicing is central to what I'll be talking about in upcoming posts.

Hal, positive actions can be just as strong as negative ones, but Carter simply wasn't that good of a magician. If he'd been less out of his depth as president, he might have been able to seize the initiative, transform the collective conversation, and make sustainability seem not merely necessary but desirable. I grant that he tried, but he didn't have the mojo to do it.

Tom, good heavens. Half of my remaining respect for Lovins just went out the window. Whether somebody gets burned to death in an explosion or a deflagration won't matter much to their next of kin.

Bill, that seems quite logical.

Rudi, on the one hand, I'm not presenting Amishness as any kind of answer -- you're reading that in. (See my earlier response to Mill Lee Farm.) On the other, where do you get the idea that joining a social movement is the only alternative to giving up hope and retreating? That sort of false and forced dichotomy is sloppy thinking at best.

K, that's well worth reading. Thank you for the link. Mainstream, here we come!

Joel, by all means save the swales.

Nox Populi, agreed.

James, that's also a consideration.

Nicholas, your best bet as far as potatoes is to check with local gardeners and people who have root cellars; I've never lived in that area so don't know the climate and conditions. As for bicycles, that would require a post of its own, but the short form is probably not once we get past the salvage stage.

Michael, you're talking apples and oranges. I've already pointed out that organized social movements seeking specific, achievable changes that the majority either favors or is willing to tolerate can, in at least some cases, accomplish something. If the nascent mass movements in the peak oil scene were pushing for goals like that, I'd be much less worried about them. As it is, they're making sweeping promises they can't possibly fulfill, and being very, very vague about how they expect to get there. There's also far too much of the attitude expressed by several commenters here -- that joining the movement du jour is the only alternative to sitting on your hands and giving up all hope. Those signs tell me that something has gone very much amiss.

quantumskunk said...

i think the uhmerikan way of life is toast. the gulf spill will end that.

but all through my town and county sections of roads have been repaved under the american reinvestment act and "tiger", some sort of goobermental acronym.

i predict an abrupt phase change. when money no longer buys anything then society and civilization will change.

there is a product available i have just seen. it's sea salt infused with fragrance. the box sed use only with non food glass cup or bowl. do not ingest the crystals and do not handle. what does that tell you about "where we are at" and where we have to go?

i work in a "blacksmith shop". no
air conditioning, lots of dirt, dust and noise. enough money to pay taxes and bills and buy a six pack on friday. i look forward to the end of my "luxurious lifestyle".

Petro said...


Excellent application of Krishnamurti-an thought. You are full of surprises for me (I studied K's writing and lectures for decades, until a few years ago when the "aha" moment happened.)

I have been following your writing closely of late, and nothing said today disabuses me of that impulse.

While you are giving me a bit of writer's block (I'm in "sponge mode," as you are aptly pulling and weaving a lot of important threads together here), I won't hold that against you... which is to say, "Thanks!"

Rudi said...

The lack of nuance is in tarring all social movements with the same brush, as you do in your concluding paragraph. Indeed, there are other options than deluded messianism and retreat. Those options involve engagement with social movements that are not deluded messianism. Perhaps we are condemned to liberty, but we are equally condemned to society.

The most powerful individual actions are those of individuals acting in concert with others; it's the nature of our humanity. Rather than think "social movement = delusion doomed to end in a smoking crater," perhaps think, "I have a responsibility to participate in social movements in a way that will help render them more realistic and more effective." Of course if we don't believe that social movements can be realistic or effective, we won't be interested in such work.

Petro said...

This question of "victory" when peak oil goes "mainstream" - one thing I've learned personally of late is what Cassandra surely knew millenia ago.

As frustrating as it is to be a trumpeter of future scenarios, it is doubly annoying to have the later adopters insist that you were still flaky for worrying about it "back then." And refuse to take your new outlying observations seriously either.

For example, many of the sane economists who warned of that crisis are still marginalized, except in select (read "fringe") circles.

The Archdruid Report is very, very good for my sanity, let me tell you...

Cherokee Organics said...


I was thinking about your response to my comments re Permaculture and I think I may have misrepresented my thoughts.

Essentially the core of what I was trying to say was that people can become very dogmatic in their allegiance to certain tribes (or schools of thought).

As an individual the best outcome would be to apply the practices and learning's from a multitude of sources and then observe over a long period of time which of these provide the best outcome for your given scenario.

I hope this is clearer than my previous post, but I'll give an example as well. Much to the horror of organic growers and permaculturalists, I can see that a one off initial application of superphosphates could have long term beneficial effects. Heresy, I can see the pitchforks coming over the horizon already!

Social movements are always a pain because it is impossible to manage the competing visions and opinions of it's members. Not to mention that some people are just dysfunctional! I have faced down an angry mob of people I knew and it was an unpleasant experience which I am not keen to repeat.

A good example is that villages are an excellent and mostly sustainable social unit, but they evolve over a long period of time. Contrast these to a multiple occupancy arrangements which are created in a relatively short period of time. These tend to dysfunction and collapse after a fairly short period as reality kicks in about what is actually required of the individuals involved. I don't see any difference between these and social movements. The breadth of their vision is too narrow relative to their actual capacity and people are simply flawed. Rhetoric doesn't put food on the table!

Good luck!

Bill Pulliam said...

Wow, did someone send out a memo? On last week's post, Tony commented (in reference to criticism of Transition Town movements):

"I dislike how people get entrenched in their opinions and seem to enjoy arguing for the sake of it... I see some of that here in these comments. It's really easy to nitpick..."

Now this week, we have Straker, about the same issue, writing:

"I really think some of that feeds into some of the overly-eager nit-picking of Transition that I read here and elsewhere. A lot of people are looking real hard for a reason to REJECT Transition and go back to being the grumpy blogger/commenter rather than trying to find a role to play to help it along."

As I commented to Tony, the thing is, the critical analysis that permaculure and transition have been getting here is hardly "nitpicking," it is going at the basic conceptual foundations of the movements and the whole nature of the individual-community-activist dynamic. Dismissing this as "nitpicking" sounds like either (a) a knee-jerk emotional response, or (b) a meme that has been passing around in Transition Land.

Either way, the response of "you're just a grumpy nitpicker who likes to argue just for the sake of arguing" is not an especially strong argument in its own right. And, as JMG pointed out, you are pretty much just accusing those who disagree with you of being too lazy to get off their butts and do something to make the world a better place, which is perilously close to ad hominem. Besides, many of the people (including me) who I think you are slapping this on are in fact working our butts off doing many things, and sharing them with other people, just not in the particular way that you advocate.

joanhello said...

I'm glad to hear so many people standing up for collective action. This movement is so full of people who can't stand a group bigger than four people sitting around a kitchen table that I sometimes wonder if there's a place in it for someone like me.

I'm one of the more social of our social species. On my own, I might get an idea and flounder around with it for a few days or a few weeks, but then most likely I'll return to the core of my comfort zone, the text-oriented life I adapted to in my former career as a computer programmer and tech writer. On the other hand, if I have a supportive group around me, I can do darn near anything in the realm of the physically possible. Changes I've made to my life as part of a group, even if the group later broke up and scattered to the four winds, have tended to be permanent. Right now I have one friend IRL that I can talk about peak oil with, a disabled man who is bitterly cheerful about the expectation that, when modern medicine and the rest of our high-tech infrastructure goes, he may go with it. Given the choice to act alone or not at all, I dither and procrastinate while the money set aside to buy real estate sits in the bank earning less than the real rate of inflation. From time to time I have had the thought that what I need is a good environmentalist cult to manipulate me into getting off my butt. Never thought to check out TT, but after reading all these criticisms, I think I will. It sounds like just the thing.

John Michael Greer said...

Sgage, Lovins wrote some excellent stuff back in the days of Rain and Journal of the New Alchemists; I'm not sure what happened. Mind you, Stewart Brand, who used to be an environmentalist, is pushing nuclear power these days...

Skunk, we're definitely moving into a period of discontinuities, though it's still anyone's guess which systems will freeze up and in what order. Your blacksmithing job still probably makes you better off than most of the people reading these posts.

Petro, thank you. I can't claim to be a particularly deep student of Krishnamurti, but his writings have always been useful.

Rudi, your lack of nuance in claiming that I'm tarring all social movements with the same brush is at least as striking, if not more so. To say that all human action takes place in relation to community, while quite true, does not mean that the particular form of ersatz community manufactured by mass movements of the specific kind I discussed -- the sort that pursue membership at the expense of message -- is always, or ever, the best available option.

Petro, granted. What makes the current situation interesting is that -- like the economic crisis, or the BP oil spill -- what starts off as a crazy worst-case scenario only discussed on the fringe seems to keep turning into the best assessment of the situation, and the allegedly reasonable claims made by allegedly reasonable people keep on being exposed as so much handwaving. I'm not sure how Cassandra would have done if she kept on scoring hit after hit after hit...

Cherokee, thanks for the clarification. Your comparison of villages and apartment complexes makes a good point; systems, social as well as ecological, that evolve over time are generally more viable and less prone to disaster than those that are cobbled together in a hurry -- and especially than those that are cobbled together in accordance with some abstract notion of what the system ought to be.

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, someone may well have sent out a memo. A little while back I had several people contact me out of the blue, making identical allegations about the same (admittedly controversial) figure in the peak oil scene; their emails read like copies of one another. If that's indeed what's happening, it's a trend worth watching.

Joanhello, if TT appeals to you, then by all means pursue it. The principle of dissensus, which I've discussed here often enough, applies to my views as much as to anyone else's; the funny hat I wear in my official capacity as archdruid doesn't confer any sort of infallibility. Still, I'd be remiss if I didn't offer a warning where I feel one is badly needed, or if I didn't remind people that there are choices other than signing on to a movement that is beginning to show some very troubling features.

Kevin said...

"I'd say the best way to gain time for the changes is usually to become downwardly mobile before you have to --"

I'm so glad you said that! I thought I was a laggard, but now I realize I'm way ahead of the pack.

There's much talk here and elsewhere about the sustainability of villages and small towns, but what if you're a black sheep type (like me) and don't fit into those rather conservative kinds of communities? Most of them aren't too friendly toward religious nonconformists either. I hope there'll always be something like an East Village, a Hashbury or a North Beach for weirdos - er, I mean for nonconformists to go to, or it'll be a cold, cold world. Perhaps there are a few small hip towns somewhere?

I happen to be acquainted with one of the founders of the SCA, and am interested in certain of the relevant crafts. Perhaps I'll have to consider some involvement there.

Bill Pulliam said...

I find it disturbing, this recurring theme among some comments here, that if you are not involved in an activist movement then you are not involved in your community. This is an extremely narrow view of the relationship between the individual and the community. I am quite involved in several communities, both local and regional (and yes I do mean real, live, in-person human beings, I'm not counting the internet). Being active in your community can take many, many forms other than pursuing a cause or promoting a message. Does the garden club have a worldview it is trying to promote? Not in general, no. But can it be a place for people to share ideas and knowledge that is useful both now and if/when the energy manure hits the fan? You betcha! Am I not being involved in my community when I talk to my neighbors and the operator of the small commercial egg farm up the road (as a NEIGHBOR, not as an organizer) about animal keeping practices and the challenges of finding markets for local farm produce? Am I not being a valuable community member when I buy and move in to a beloved but neglected 19th century farmhouse (that appears to have at one time housed an aunt of everyone in the county), and bring it back to life one board at a time? Does being a NOAA Storm Spotter not count as a valuable community service? Do my daily rainfall reports to CoCoRAHS have no bearing at all on understanding and tracking one of the "Twin Challenges" that the Transition movement is preparing for? Does all of this amount to "doing nothing?" To read what some write here, one might conclude that.

Sheesh, the reason I am even on this blog in the first place is because I met JMG in person at a flesh-and-blood community function. And, as memory serves, he was not there to tell everyone to just go home and forget about all this pointless community nonsense.

Ric said...

The following doesn't directly address this weeks post, but it does have bearing on many of the comments:

The Anosognosic’s Dilemma

(the link is to part one of a five-part article; links to subsequent parts are at the end of the footnotes)

Reading that made me wonder what six impossible things I believed before breakfast this morning. It also makes one realize the size of the task at hand.

My personal experience with movements, organizations, and what not, from student council in the sixth grade, to political parties, religious organizations and intentional communities, is they all ultimately fall to Pournelle's Iron Law:

"In any bureaucracy, the people devoted to the benefit of the bureaucracy itself always get in control and those dedicated to the goals the bureaucracy is supposed to accomplish have less and less influence, and sometimes are eliminated entirely."

Which is why at this point in our lives, it's just my wife and I planning how to take care of ourselves and our parents. I'm sure we'll happen across those we can share our knowledge and experiences with and who will exchange their knowledge and experiences with us. But anything that involves committees, break-out sessions, Power Point slides or bumper stickers, and we'll be saying, "No thanks!" with a big cheery smile.

MisterMoose said...

I just remembered reading a study several years ago that the "ideal" (or at least natural) size of an organization is around 50-100 persons. For example, this seems to be the size at which a successfully growing start-up company has to become more bureaucratic (in order to continue growing), which changes the whole nature of the organization. Small tribal units throughout history also seem to fall into this range. Do you think data points like this might influence how we could design communities to help address big problems like Peak Oil? Instead of a big, all-encompassing movement, we should let a thousand flowers bloom, or something like that...

John Michael Greer said...

Kevin, by all means find a community where you do fit in -- they exist, no matter how weird you are. ;-)

Bill, I've noted before how often talk about "community" these days, in the peak oil scene and elsewhere, tends to avoid dealing with the communities we actually inhabit in favor of an imagined utopia. One of the best features of the transition town approach, at least so far, has been its efforts to grapple with real communities. One of the many problems with mass movements is that they tend to replace such on-the-ground communities with an ersatz community of participants in the movement, from which "outsiders" -- no matter how local they happen to be -- are increasingly excluded. You've noted examples of that in the transition scene where you are; I hope it doesn't spread.

Ric, a while back I saw an article -- I've lost the reference -- that claims that PowerPoint has a large role in a lot of the really bad decisions of recent years. No matter how irrational a plan may be, it looks great as a PowerPoint. So that may not be a bad litmus test -- though for my part, glossy videos full of emotional hooks and discreetly managed consensus processes are the warning signs that tell me to look elsewhere.

Moose, letting the flowers bloom -- what I've called the strategy of dissensus, the deliberate avoidance of consensus in favor of the cultivation of divergent approaches -- is the basic strategy behind biological evolution, and I consider it the best option when facing the sort of unpredictable mess we're facing now.

straker said...

"Ad hominem insults that attribute the worst motives to those you disagree with are not a helpful contribution to a conversation"

Maybe I wouldn't be so touchy about this if not for the fact that Rob Hopkins already had to come on here to ask that you to retract a mis-characterization of the TT movement. I really think that post, and the repeated instances of bringing up Transition have set a negative tone here, which the commenters are tuning-into.

Speaking as someone who has gone to Transition training, I've definitely identified a schism between doomers who support Transition and those who don't. And if the two sides merely retreat to their base and criticize each other behind editorial sandboxes, then it's not helpful.

One thing I appreciate most about your writing is the way you challenge people to look at their own biases and evaluate why they feel the way they do. It's with that in mind that I lobbed what you consider to be "ad hominems".

My feeling is that the debate you had with Astyk, Heinberg, etc... regarding the nature of community is perhaps the #1 discussion that needs to be taking place right now. There hasn't been any closure in that debate. It just fizzled out, and I didn't feel that dueling blogs was the proper way to conduct it either.

You wrote in this blog post about how you wasted your time in a public speaking engagement. Well, I certainly hope one day you'll appear on the same stage with Heinberg, Astyk, Orlov, AND Rob Hopkins to continue that debate because the issue just isn't going away.

nancy said...

JoanHello - hello to a fellow wanderer in this pathless land. I too have been sitting with my $1 million wondering what to do, but despite my admiration for the founding inspirations of permaculture and transition towns I know I am no joiner. By far the best discovery for me arising from Peak Oil has been JMG and his enormously stimulating fellow posters. For a former CEO in the old world who never went to university, but who loves to learn, this blog has been an even better alternative. Krishnamurti's story and that wonderful Ghandi quote from Mageprof have inspired me.
JMG was right. There is a place beyond hope and despair for each of us, and for each of us it will be different. I'm lucky enough to live in Australia and I am off to try learning a bit from the wise Aborigines about how to evolve, (and practice austerity) and if they can use my $1 million for sorely needed funding it will be energy well directed.

hapibeli said...

I think that those who participate and enjoy the benefits in such things as organized movements, would do well to keep their ear planted firmly to the ground. The propensity for humans to use such a vehicle (movement) as a stepping stone to power, will always be tempting. With a clarity of mind, you will be able to step away as the "inevitable ?" perversion of the movement becomes apparent.

Jason said...

@Bill: I find it disturbing, this recurring theme among some comments here, that if you are not involved in an activist movement then you are not involved in your community.

I would say it's more funny than anything. Perhaps too much time spent being an activist, thinking that makes you the 'person in the right'?

BTW, I'm somewhat involved in Transition Towns, but not involved in any 'activist movements'.

@JMG: One of the many problems with mass movements is that they tend to replace such on-the-ground communities with an ersatz community of participants in the movement

So true. What's great though is that this mistake has been made enough times, by very good writers, that the problem is visible. I think particularly of the wonderful William Irwin Thompson, whose Lindisfarne Association, as a think tank, was a real who's who (Bateson, Lovelock, Margulis, Schumacher, you name it) and who chronicled all the psychological and mundane tics that sank the intentional-community aspect of what he tried to do, in great books like this one, co-authored with David Spangler.

JMG I don't know how much Jack Vance you've read, but in the lovely late Cadwal trilogy a fine satirical moment occurs when a progressive political party is confronted with the fact that their plans for the disadvantaged will actually make them into an exploited peasantry. The reply is: "You don't understand, these will not be ordinary peasants, but joyous ones who play the guitar!"

Fleecenik Farm said...

I am going to take a more practical approach to what we are facing.

I don't think people want to pay 3.00 a gallon for gas. For many reasons, but most prominently, now, is that people just don't have the money to cushion against such price increases as they may have just a few short years ago. But we really will have no choice in the matter. As the price and supply disruptions begin to take hold I think that on an individual level we will be adapting as best we can. When gas was 4.50 a gallon folks carpooled, conserved, took mass transit, began gardening in greater numbers.

Government might try to address the broader issues of energy and adaptation. But to me that seems like a promise of redemption from the pulpit when really it is our own small actions that determine our own salvation.

Vic said...

Great post JMG. The period, the place (Pennsylvania), the Russian émigré, small circle of people, and a strong sense of path albeit a more violent one brought to mind two more infamous people: Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman. They believed their path would usher in a better world. A case were the path entailed murdering the director of Carnegie Steel, Henry Clay Frick, thereby galvanizing the workers and avenging the state sponsored deaths of the Homestead strikers. The reality however turned out to be quite different. They tried to read the historical facts thought they understood them and proceeded with no small amount of hubris to pull history in the direction they thought it should go. The workers of course wanted none of this and disavowed the act. There are many well worn paths in history some should be abandoned. A pathless land, once again, has a liberating feel to it.

I haven't done this for some time so here goes (the tired old quote): in society is not free. We influence, burden,harm and disturb the lives of our fellows, whether we will it or not...We must bide by the truth that we humans are condemned to live upon the freedom of our fellows,that we are condemned to live upon the work and toil, upon the health and life of others.
K. Polanyi, 1929. Good luck to all.

G.E.L.C. said...

This post actually addresses somewhat the issue I had with the previous one. I think the "There is no brighter future" is a start, but not as functional as it might be as an incantation. It really depends on what you define as a brighter future after all, and what your purposes are in the incantation.

I'd worry that as it stands, it runs a real risk of producing 'learned helplessness' responses. There's always a contingent anyways that thinks being numb, being blind to the problem, etc., is the only thing left. If there is no option but defeat, why bother?

I'd look rather to the suggestions made by happiness studies lately that point to our happiness as a culture lagging severely behind our material wealth. People just don't seem to be any happier with more stuff, more options, etc. after a very limited point. Basics do need to be covered for happiness, but our basics aren't really what we usually think they are.

So I guess I'd propose (if you will please pardon the considerable hubris!) an alternative sort of incantation - Less Really Is More. It still innoculates against a great number of potential stupidities, while giving people something productive to be doing - without further damaging the planet, it doesn't promote complexity or fluff, and it isn't quite so depressing. (note that it doesn't particularly encourage meetings, bumper stickers, etc., either - I really do abhor most meetings)

To me, it seems like this would lead to such choices as the gentleman and the Amish in your post have made. Even if it can't 'fix' the problem, it at least promotes some functional thought about it, instead of paralysis. Maybe it could even promote some actual life changes. It is self-reinforcing after all, if one accepts the premise that most folks are usually a bit happier when they begin to reduce their reliance on too much of everything. And self-reinforcing habits have a better chance of survival than those that induce avoidance.

John Michael Greer said...

Straker, fair enough. I hope you didn't take my comments to mean that I consider all speaking gigs are a waste of time! I'd be very interested in a discussion of the sort you've outlined, though the most likely outcome would be the same as that of the blog debate -- no resolution, just a greater clarity concerning where the lines of division can be traced. The split between those who approve of the Transition movement and those who don't is real, it goes down to core issues, and I don't think it would be to anyone's benefit to patch over it or pretend it isn't there.

Nancy, directing that $1 million to the Aboriginal people sounds like a very good idea indeed!

Hapibeli, yes, there's always the political dimension -- a problem all the more likely to balloon out of control if it's ignored.

Jason, I haven't read that bit by Vance, and obviously need to! As for Thompson and Lindisfarne, no argument there; it's experiences of that kind that are behind my skepticism toward lifeboat ecovillages, intentional communities, and other attempts at planned societies.

Fleecenik, bingo.

Vic, I doubt we'll see anybody from the peak oil scene go gunning for Tony Hayward, but the gap between what members of a radical minority think people will do, and what people will actually do, is a recurring problem.

GELC, "there is no brighter future" was crafted for a specific purpose -- as indeed any worthwhile spell is. Notice, in this context, that you're assuming that the only alternative to a brighter future is defeatism and despair. Why is that? Most people, through most of human history, have gotten along just fine and found plenty of reasons to live even though they didn't believe in the fantasy that the future was by definition going to be better than the present. Why is this unthinkable now?

Bill Pulliam said...

Straker --

You wrote "I really think that post, and the repeated instances of bringing up Transition have set a negative tone here, which the commenters are tuning-into."

I don't even remember that post you refer to. My own opinions about the Transition Town thing are based on my personal experience of living in a Transition Town (which it was not when I moved here almost a decade ago). Initially I thought "cool," but over the years I have seen what they actually do and do not, how they conduct business, the sorts of people from the pre-existing local community they attract and don't attract, their online writings and in-person presentations, and the gestalt of what they consider valuable and what they ignore. My opinions are based entirely on this. I suspect I am not alone in that; most of the TT boosters and critics here probably formed their opinions much as I did, based on their own experiences, not based on JMG's writings or the rantings of we who comment here.

Some other things you wrote...

"if the two sides merely retreat to their base..."

"There hasn't been any closure in that debate..."

TWO sides? I think there are FAR more than two ways to look at the downside of peak oil and the ways that individuals and communities can respond to this. There aren't two sides, there's not a right and a wrong, there are a vast number of ideas and opinions in a multidimensional conceptual universe. There's not "closure in the debate" because there is no "answer."

Finally, you noted:

"[T]he issue just isn't going away..."

No, it isn't. Ever. That's the way the world works. There's no moment at which disagreements are settled and we proceed as one. There never is. About anything. We go forward on our own and in groups, a million different meandering ways, bumping in to each other and swapping ideas and tools, getting in to arguments, exchanging embraces and punches on the way. Humans have always been thus.

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, the post Straker mentioned was the one where I suggested, based on comments made in a widely circulated critique of the Transition movement, that a number of TT people had leveraged their involvement into paid jobs with local governments. Hopkins posted here saying that that wasn't true -- though someone else also posted the name of one person who did so. Either way, it was a minor point, and entirely peripheral to the issue I've been raising in recent posts.

The broader issue, of course, is this notion that there are "two sides." One of the problems with the rise of a mass movement of any kind is that this very quickly becomes true in one narrow sense: there are those who support the mass movement, and those who don't. That's a broader reflection of the way that a mass movement so often shifts from addressing an issue to being an issue, with its supporters becoming convinced that supporting the movement equals dealing with its ostensible purpose, while its critics too often get drawn into a mirroring stance and spending more time critiquing the movement than offering alternatives. I'll be shifting the focus to alternatives next week, in case you were wondering. ;-)

pgrass101 said...


Reading the comments it seems that you a cautioning people into not thinking that permaculture and transition towns are a way (or the way) to mediate the bumpy road on the downward slope of the industrial age. While both programs have their merits I do not (and thought maybe foolishly that others felt the same) think that they will do anything but help to slightly ease the pain that individuals who belong to these movements feel in the future, and not preserve life as we know it today.

Or are you cautioning against developing tunnel vision by becoming too focused on one set of ideas/beliefs and therefore losing sight of other potential avenues of resource use and societal development?

P.S. I am currently reading The Ecotechnic Future.

joanhello said...

@ MisterMoose;

Could you be thinking of Dubar's number? That's 150 people. Some years ago now, I visited Twin Oaks, one of the largest and best publicized survivors of the Vietnam War era intentional community movement. The group was then constructing what they intended to be their last unit of housing; wanting to clear Dunbar's number by a large margin, they were capping membership at 100.

I was told there that the number called Dunbar's was actually discovered centuries earlier through trial and error by the Hutterites (the exception that proves the rule regarding planned societies; it was founded in the 16th century, with the design coming out of the earliest participants' Bible studies, came through many experiences of persecution, and is today thriving). They wanted to create a society where labor contribution was on the honor system with no coercion. They found that, at populations of below 150, it worked because slacking felt like ripping off family and friends, while at above 150 slacking became significant because people felt like they were ripping off an impersonal collective authority. This was word of mouth, so I can't offer any verification for it, but it matches up with my intuition.

Red Neck Girl said...

With all the talk about Transition Towns and the transition movement I feel lost. I've had little success getting anyone I've spoken to to even consider the situation and frankly I'm not going to try anymore. I feel my best option is my stable, after all, a picture is worth a thousand words.

The people I invite to join me on the stable will be heavily weighted toward older people but once the slide becomes apparent I don't think there would be any dearth of young people willing to work and learn a skill.

I personally don't have the charisma or the education to lead a group of people unless they were already dedicated to the task at hand. And that maybe where John's medieval social structures start revealing itself as guilds.

At any rate I intend to do what I can to ensure as many people as I can manage to have references that can be used to create their own paths in an era of declining energy resources. I'll be buying more and more how-to books to put in my personal library for seekers to use in mastering skills they can support themselves with. For all of us it will be learn as you go.

Will the transition be rough? Of course it will! We're a big bunch of pampered babies and honestly most of us have NEVER had to work as hard as our G'grandparents did. The party is over and we're going to be having a big hangover, the systemic problems caused by too much of a good time revealed by blisters, sore backs and a persistent chorus of 'Poor me! Why me?'

As far as transition towns and the people trying to organize for the fall off the peak, we've already made party clothes out of our parachute, the best we can do now is keep our feet together, arms tucked to our sides and go in feet first. Then our arms can get to work pulling us up to the surface where we learn how to become a duck. There is no other viable option.

Cherokee Organics said...


Err, apartment complexes... They're not good either, but I actually meant communes, like (I'm not sure what you call them in the US) intentional communities.

I've just finished reading James Lovelock's book "The vanishing face of Gaia - A Final Warning" - a bleak and yet probably honest assessment of the situation - not far from your assessment either.

Good luck!

TimG said...

Mr Greer,

I just discovered your blog, though I think I came across your book on ritual magic several years ago and remember thinking that you were the only person I'd read who didn't make magic seem like a bunch of superstitious, ungrounded, vague mumbo-jumbo. And here, your criticisms of our culture are spot on, from my point of view. In fact, you are the only person to write about modern economics that I've come across that makes sense of all the BS that passes for economics now days. Plus you are a swell writer. Bravo!

My perspective varies from yours a bit though in that from my point of view the vast majority of problems we face are due to the fact that almost all of us are asleep at the wheel - so to speak - with fierce attachments to delusions, identities, defense mechanisms, cherished beliefs, desires, hopes, fears, addictions (emotional as well as substantial) and other "veils" that obscure our ability to perceive the truth both inside and out. No wonder we're driving over a cliff, collectively. Any new social, energy or political plan would merely be a reshuffling of the deck of shadows instead of waking up and walking out of the cave into the light of day (to use Plato's metaphor in a mixed sorta way). Some call it enlightenment, but to me it just seems to be the most obvious and ultimately practical response to the insanity of ego that is the norm here on earth. In fact, J. Krishnamurti's writing helped me start down this path.

All that said, here's an interesting video on a new water-powered car the Japanese have created. I've heard of these before, but they always seem to go nowhere - at least here in the US. Perhaps they're bought out and hidden away (see above reference to attachments ;))? Anyway, it looks promising. Anyone know anything about these?


tom rainboro said...

I suppose our human herding intincts must have given us a genetic advantage at some point in the past. Today, though, when we have mass communication and propaganda and a crowded world with declining resources the effects can be alarming. Maybe at a Nuremberg rally a rational person could have found the posturing of the leaders laughable but surely the attitude of the FOLLOWERS would undoubtedly have been terrifying.
Humans in groups can do strange and unexpected things. Something that now makes me cringe with embarassment is the memory that one Saturday afternoon as an enthusiastic teenager I ran with a crowd of lefties through the streets of a nothern English town shouting 'the workers united will never be defeated'. It must have surprised the shoppers! I did it because I was persuaded that this was a good response to the recent election of an alleged neo-fascist to the local council. I was made to feel guilty if I didn't respond. Looking back it was a rather pointless thing to do but throughout it all I personally meant well and had the best of intentions. Shortly afterwards I was the founder member of both a workers' co-op and a housing co-op (still in existence) and had plenty of opportunities to see group dynamics in action.
As a result I was very encouraged when I saw initial TT documents that seemed to show a keen awareness of the problems of groups. For example a recommendation that initial founding groups in each locality should 'plan their own demise' and let the local organisation 'go where it wants to go'. Unfortunately the authors of this document did not follow their own advice and instead set up a centralised organisation with its own brandname. I don't know what to expect next from this organisation! For example, a couple of weeks ago at a UK Transition conference, four youngsters from midWales launched a 'Transition International Youth' project. (Details on the conference blog.) Why would a movement focussing on localisation want an international youth project? Surely an international youth project would be preceded by local, regional and national youth projects? Surely for a international project you need members from a wider area than one small part of Wales? My guess is that someone was worried that an uncontrolled youth organisation might arise somewhere else. My point is that the group has now taken over both its leaders and its followers.
I have always liked the thinking of anarchists and taoists with respect to groups and the most wisdom I have ever read in one place about the subject is in Ursula K LeGuin's 'The Dispossessed'.

Kevin said...

I can think of at least one defense of apartment complexes, from an energy savings standpoint: a building with multiple dwellings packed together is easier to heat and to insulate than so many separate dwellings. The only major energy drawback is the need for an elevator - unless you don't mind a walk-up (not good for the frail or old folks). I don't care much for apartment buildings, but there are some that are esthetically okay. They're fine for urban density with easy walking distances. The whole country can't turn into quaint little villages - sounds too much like suburbs to me.

"I'm not sure how Cassandra would have done if she kept on scoring hit after hit after hit..."

By the time the Argive soldiers were piling out of the Horse and burning the city, her fellow Trojans may have realized they'd been a bit dense: but by that time it was too late.

Richard said...

I just want to counter some of the claims about intentional communities, sure there are plenty that don't work but it's the same way with many other human endeavors such as small businesses. Some have lasted for quite a while however. I live in one of them, one that's been around since the 1970s. There are advantages and disadvantages to communal arrangements, if some newcomer mentions the word "utopia" here we all have a laugh, but the advantages are enough for a certain subset of us to keep them going. I don't claim intentional communities are for everyone, but they can be viable.

Those of us with a lot of experience of intentional communities can often recognise ones that are bound to fail. Look through the listings at and you'll find tons of ones where one or two people list themselves as a community and are trying to attract people, they're usually bound to fail for a number of different reasons, all the successful ones that I know how they started started with a group of at least four people, often much more. That way, the land and infrastructure was the community's from the beginning, rather than there being an initial founding couple that thinks they want a community but really when it comes down to it they still want too much control for it to work.

Then there's the ones that have such an exact vision that unless they got followers nobody else would share it so exactly.

There's also the cohousing communities, many of which are successful but are often really just a development with a common house.

However, once you weed out most of them, you'll find a number of successful communities that really do have s different social arrangement. No, none of them are utopias, although some were founded on utopian ideals but got more realistic later, which I think counteracts the claim that utopian movements invariably either lead to nowhere or end in disaster. Some just adapt and become more realisitic. We have problems, yes, but for those of us who prefer the communities, it's still the better deal for us.

All in all, having the communal option around for those who desire it I think goes well with JMG's point on dissensus, many people trying out different ways and occupying different niches.

John Michael Greer said...

Pgrass, more the second than the first. As I've mentioned here before, I think the basic ideas of permaculture are good, my quibbles are purely with the way it's taken shape (here in the US -- I don't have any direct contact with its forms in other countries) as a social phenomenon. As for the Transition Town movement, I think that in effect they're making promises they can't possibly fulfill -- insisting that we can build the future according to some plan that appeals to a contemporary consensus of middle class people in the industrial world, it seems to me, is begging the question, and indeed, begging for trouble -- and the blowback from that is going to be terrifying; in the meantime, though, it's not impossible that the movement can accomplish some worthwhile things.

Joanhello, most interesting! While numbers aren't the only factor -- I've seen communities turn into a complete mess of freeloading with far fewer than 150 people -- that's a valid point.

Girl, I think a horseflop is worth a thousand words just now -- you can compost the former, after all. Your metaphor of party clothes and ducks is a great one, by the way.

Cherokee, my misunderstanding!

Tim, thank you. Of course you're right that there are important inner dimensions to the mess we're in; the mass flight into fantasy that broke out around 1980 and wasted the thirty years that might have made a smooth transition possible was in large part driven by the kind of murky motives and personal dysfunctions you've mentioned. Still, each audience needs to be addressed in a different way.

As for water-powered cars, though, I hate to disappoint you, but they're a Brooklyn Bridge scam that keeps surfacing every few years. They work exactly as well as perpetual motion machines, and for much the same reasons -- a good chemist can walk you through the reasons why you can't "burn" water and get any useful energy out of the process.

Tom, you're quite right that H. sapiens has much the same kinds of herd instincts you'll find in most other social mammals. All in all, they're very useful to us, but they do have their disadvantages. The tendency for organizations to function as organisms, and put their own survival and growth ahead of their ostensible purposes, is one of those. The "international youth movement" is worth watching; I'd keep an eye out for other signs of centralization.

Kevin, the problems with apartment complexes I mentioned are social, not technical -- in energy terms, living in apartments is much more efficient, and if we hadn't just blown the market for new housing for a couple of decades, it might be worth considering how energy-efficient multifamily housing might be able to help things.

Richard, fair enough. Dissensus, as I've said before, certainly applies to my ideas as much as anyone's; a case could probably be made that the intentional communities of the last century and a half in the US (they've been around that long, as I'm sure you know) have been a Darwinian environment from which viable forms could be expected to emerge sooner or later. If that's happened, that's good to hear.

Loveandlight said...

This really is a brilliantly shining example of why I read this blog every week. I especially appreciate the fact that you drink any given flavor of ideological "Kool-Aid" vastly less than any thinker on the Internet I have yet read, and in so writing have helped me to live a much more "Kool-Aid-free" life of the mind. I find that especially healthy given my observation that so very many people are dealing with these scary and uncertain times by guzzling their preferred flavor of KA by the gallon-jug!

Here's some irony for you: The captcha word is "tastrat". The taste of rats is what those flavors of Kool-Aid would truly taste like if people would stop lying to themselves!

Edde said...

Hey John Michael,

Hope you've been enjoying this lovely Strawberry full moon, now waning.

Too bad more folks on this list don't participate in movement groups - those groups would sure benefit from yall's good thinking and communication. Ideological blinders take time to overcome, not to mention ignorance.

But it is certainly true, there are no guaranteed outcomes and you gotta deal with all those people with all those ideas shaped in the corporate culture, cop infiltrators or those just missing a check, commies, pro-nukers, Hare Krishnas and all.

It takes a strong person with a firm grip on reality, unfettered with big ego, not out to make a buck, willing to tolerate differences of opinion, willing to listen, teach, and learn. Also, it doesn't hurt to have a pretty firm grip on your weaknesses, aren't too easily injured intellectually or emotionally and have a pretty powerful sense of humor (dark humor particularly, eh;-).

Throw me in that briar patch.

We just had 700 neighbors hold hands around a local lake downtown as a demonstration of our unhappiness with the situation in the Gulf, just a few miles down the road. Such a powerful opportunity for engaging & sharing ideas. I rode my bike to demonstrate that even in warm weather alternatives to air conditioned autos are viable.

Just saying...

Best regards,

DIYer said...

Nice stuff on Krishnamurti, with my 5 minute attention span, I had never really looked him up. Always thought he was a really nice smart guy but didn't know that much about his origins.

Just last week, it seems you were talking about revitalization movements. Well today I stumbled on this fellow, come to think of it I've seen his name floating around but never followed a link until now -- anyway this fellow who claims to be the enemy of the banking elite and the CFR. Says to join his movement and make everything better. Sounds sort-of like Methodists vs the Presbyterians or something. (not going to mention the name)

So I went to his website and filled in a formmail ... passed along our secret phrase ;->

Mark said...

I'm glad you brought this into light.

By talking about peak oil or any other related issue with people, I feel -- as one of my friends put it to me -- that "if I plant a billion seeds, a million will germinate." But, it makes some folks uncomfortable to think that the future will not be brighter. I experienced this last night when I was in a conversation about the long-term instability of the internet -- being that the information is stored on hard drives, inside massive servers that require relentless energy consumption, and sooner or later those hard drives decay and there won't be enough resources to keep the system in tact. The response was "I'm sure they will figure out a way to keep it going. They just replace the hard drives as they get old." I have a feeling there's a lot of misunderstanding out there about the laws of thermodynamics...

John Michael Greer said...

Loveandlight, thank you! I have to admit that "tastrat" makes me think of the "Rat On A Stick" franchise you could buy in one particularly demented Dungeons and Dragons game packet -- yes, I played D&D in my misspent youth, and look what happened. You could get a Rat On A Stick franchise for I forget how many gold pieces, and when you were tired of fighting trolls and goblins, you could settle down and provide 'em with fast food...

Edde, I'm still getting used to humid heat -- we've been having a bunch of that here in Cumberland, and it's not something I learned to live with in the Pacific Northwest! My take on movements, though, is that they very quickly develop a life and a trajectory of their own. It's a common fallacy to think that the right person can lead them; much more often, the movement picks its leader, and goes the way it was going to go in the first place.

DIYer, nicely done. Heh heh heh...

Mark, I wish it were legal to hit somebody over the head with a wet mackerel the moment the moment they utter the words "I'm sure they will figure something out," or the equivalent. What that means, of course, is "I refuse to think about what you're saying." Gah.

Jeffrey said...

I am new to this blog but not to your writings or to the subject of resource depletion which has been an obsession of mine for the past decade. I read twice through the past three posts in June. I let a week pass between readings in order to incubate about what you wrote.

I have spent many years in rural developing countries where folks were pretty much occupied with the essentials of their survival with no real surplus for excessive consumption. Collectively these folks usually displayed quite a lot of happiness, personal well being, generosity, and because they didn't have any excess wealth to project toward trying to save for retirement or holidays or healthcare insurance etc. they were mostly living in the moment. Of course they suffered in the moment as well. But the suffering wasn't the anxiety of losing what they built up because they didn't have more than their homes and their subsistence work. They suffered real concrete physical sufferings and many certainly died early due to lack of resources for health care.

So when I look at resource depletion and the great pull back of wealth that will strike our industrial civilization with the progress of peak oil I see a lot of the non essential consumption falling off but I imagine there will still be a lot of energy remaining for quite a long while for the essentials like food, transportation, sanitation, basic health care etc. I don't have any concrete data to back this up but I would guess that of all our energy consumption a great majority of it goes toward non essential consumption and that only a small percentage is really dedicated toward the essentials for survival.

It seems to me that for this reason the adjustment coming up is really going to impact us far more psychologically and culturally than actual threaten most peoples survival.

Along with all the desperate attempts with revitalization movements and people trying to bring back what they thought were the good times wont we also see the emergence of also a growing sense of well being and contentment as all the loss of chasing the consumption dream forces folks back to some of the simpler pleasures that is associated with taking care of your most essential needs?

Could a real mass movement toward a sane transition toward a new cultural paradigm not come out of the rediscovered pleasures of the simpler life that awaits us? Or is this just naive ramblings?

Bill Pulliam said...

About the humidity --

A couple of decades ago, a friend I had known from my time in NorCal had just moved to North Carolina, and was visiting us where we lived then on the coast of South Carolina. It was April of his first spring, and we were already having our first 90 degree days. He commented that it just could not possibly be true that it was 90 degrees and humid without a break for months on end, people simply could not live in such a climate. Fast forward to August of that same year; he came to visit again, by then in full-on steam bath with dew points in the upper 70s to go with the temperatures in the mid 90s. After a hot day out in the field I asked him if he still thought it was impossible to live in such a climate. He responded "Did I say that? Well, yeah, whatever. I guess it was a pretty hot day, wasn't it?"

Hang in there, you'll adjust. It could be worse; one of the many community things I do is a series of roadside bird surveys for the FWS, run on the same routes all over the continent every year since 1966. Anyway, they begin 30 minutes before sunrise, and one datum you collect is the air temperature at the start time. A couple of weeks ago on the one I do near Reelfoot Lake in west Tennessee in the Mississippi delta, I recorded a pre-dawn start temperature of 81 F. Be thankful that's not something you're likely to come across up there in Cumberland!

A bit more to the point, I think Southerners have almost entirely forgotten the basic techniques and routines that used to be universal and learned in childhood for coping with the hot damp without air conditioning, dehumidifiers, or even electric fans. How many houses are built now with screened sleeping porches? Or front-to-back breezeways oriented with the prevailing wind? Or detached kitchens? Answer: absolutely none.

Wordek said...

Hi Phil.

Sorry, I kind of abandoned you there with that deleted comment. I wrote it while I was hungover (I do all my best thinking with a hangover –--- I'll bet) and after recovering a bit I looked at it and thought it looked a lot like meandering drivel. Now I know many people might say, “what else is new, it was up to your usual standard” “Why so sensitive this time?” I might respond “get stuffed” ;)

I think the most relevant side of the idea I had in mind is the premise that you are unlikely to found a successful “movement” by focusing first and foremost on developing and defending your “core values” (whatever that means) you should mostly attend to the interface between the group and everyone else. Because its how that interface develops that will determine whether society at large (again – whatever that means ) will throw flowers or stones when they discover what you stand for. And its also from that interface that your core will either be enhanced or destroyed over time. I'm thinking that if you can also find ways of enhancing that interface so that your groups core values naturally develop in the direction you are seeking then you could become one of history's greats.

Of course it doesnt make it easy that you are dealing with the absurd chess game that is history in the making. Out there knight can not only take bishop, knight can also turn into bishop … or rook or pawn, and back again. Yes: its a stupid planet, but what can you do?

But what do I know? I'm just some guy with a hangover. (who is meandering again)

Edde said...

Greetings John Michael,

The less you use air conditioning, the easier it is to adapt to hot & humid. My gig is bicycles (I built houses for 25 years, too) so I live outside. I keep hydrated, stay in the shade when possible, even when riding (we fortunately have a network of historic "canopy roads") and use fans. Mid-day naps help, too.

Bill P. - vernacular architecture is making something of a comeback down here in NoFla - "cracker" houses (lite) are catching on with the "Southern Living" crowd.

Our shack, built in '82 has high ceilings & ceiling fans, cross ventilation, porches for sleeping & entertaining (we're members of Professional Porch Sitters Union;-). I still need to build an outside kitchen & dogtrot (already drew the plans) but do much cooking outside on the deck. (A confession: the wife curates a museum collection that includes a semi-working 1890s farmstead - we couldn't help but notice how it was done BEFORE AC.)

We didn't cut down trees so we live in their cooler mini-climate. We also minimized west windows, keep them shaded during hot afternoons, etc.

You learn to get along.

As for group leadership, there is an informal social/political network around here who keep in touch indirectly and/or socially. We often "herd" groups in a saner direction and occasionally defeat the most egregious compromisers with smarter analysis;-)

Haven't yet got much traction with "prosperity without growth [radical contraction]" eh;-) 5% or less of current resource use frightens the Bejesus outta the "green sustainability" Chamber of Commerce crowd.

We're blessed with a substantial minority of city & county commissioners who pretty much "get it," although they'd (we'd)do much better if we reverted to much more overt organizing (as in the mid-to-late '80s) when we had majorities on those commissions.

It may be inconsequential, but groups like Transition Town aren't (what I consider) "movements" but just one group among many, one iteration of the "environmental & cultural resource depletion response movement." We all need to find a group (like this one, or others) which suit our style and ideology, and get it on...

Pace yourself (ourselves;-) though, its a LONG haul...

Best regards,

Jim Brewster said...

@Bill & John -- I grew up in upstate NY, so always knew humidity; moved to Baltimore and learned about sustained heat and humidity. We're one of the few homes in the neighborhood w/o central air, so the last week has been, shall we say, sticky. At my work the thermostat is set to 72F but the AC can only manage 77 in the PM. All my officemates complain about the heat, but it's almost chilly to me. Hang in there John, acclimation is possible. (BTW a shave and a haircut can help immensely ;-) ).

Which ties into my main comment. On NPR this morning was a story about the problems of unreliable electricity in the face of summer heat in the cities of southern Iraq. Seems we're not the only ones who've forgotten how to beat the heat w/o cheap energy. Too many levels of irony to even go into...

I just wish there had been more (read any) coverage of how people are really muddling through, besides how the local grocery is managing to find enough gas to keep their generators going. There could be some lessons for all of us.

geminijim at gmail

post tot discrimina rerum said...

Nice work. This reminds me of Adorno's conclusion to "Cultural Criticism and Society", in which he relates the problem not only of mass movements, but of thinking itself in the sorts of societies we have created:
"The more total society becomes, the greater the reification of the mind and the more paradoxical its effort to escape reification on its own. Even the most extreme consciousness of doom threatens to degenerate into idle chatter. Cultural criticism finds itself faced with the final stage of the
dialectic of culture and barbarism. To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. And this corrodes even the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry today. Absolute reification, which presupposed
intellectual progress as one of its elements, is now preparing to absorb the mind entirely. Critical
intelligence cannot be equal to this challenge as long as it confines itself to self-satisfied contemplation.

Richard said...

Once I was having a discussion with someone who's peak oil aware, and he mentioned that he thought many people would die in the hotter parts of this country if the air conditioning was gone. at first I automatically dismissed him, after all people lived in those same places in the past and adapted. I live in a climate myself without air conditioning where most everyone else has it.

However, he then pointed out what Bill just pointed out, that so many structures are built with air conditioning in mind and would be practically unlivable without it, but people with nowhere else to go might still have to live in them, and that's where the problems will start.

Later I thought of several other factors, the urban heat island is one, cities can be significantly warmer than their surroundings because of all that pavement absorbing the sun, and the cities in the south are far bigger than before air conditioning. The other is simply people themselves. Heat related deaths tend to occur in people with health issues already, and since there's so many people around who are in weakened states, only kept alive by the medical system and could not physically adapt to the heat. Global warming will likely be an increasing factor in the future but even if it isn't, the other factors would be enough to have quite an impact.

I don't expect a lack of air conditioning to cause a mass dieoff, but I do think many structures will be uninhabitable in the summer in hot climates, and heat related deaths will likely increase to much greater proportions than before air conditioning, at least for a period of time.

John Michael Greer said...

Jeffrey, I don't think you'll get a mass movement out of that, though you might just get a fair number of people shaking themselves awake and realizing they really don't need another round of cheap gewgaws from Mall*Wart.

Bill, oh, I'm sure I'll adjust in time; it's just early in the curve, and I haven't yet had the time or the money to get the attic properly vented, so the house is hotter than it needs to be.

Wordek, quite the contrary. It's a very wise planet, and that's why it knows better than to do what we think we want it to do.

Edde, I certainly agree that it's a good idea to get together with other people in congenial groups -- that's called "community," last I checked. The question is what kind of group you're going to pick; my preferences tend toward old-fashioned fraternal and charitable groups -- the Masons, the Grange, and so on -- and groups that are in harmony with the oddball religious tradition I follow, such as the Theosophists; still, to each their own.

Jim, a shave and a haircut? Bah.

PTDR, good. Mind you, poetry is anything but impossible after (fill in your iconic atrocity of choice here); the sack of Troy was pretty ghastly, too, and it made great poetry. Other than that, though, Adorno made some excellent points.

Richard, I think some people will die, if only because they don't have any way of dealing with heat than turning up the AC; not that many years ago, remember, Europe had a heat wave that killed 30,000 or so. More generally, there are a lot of preventable ways to die that won't be prevented because most people these days have no clue what to do without a sheltering technostructure to take care of them. That's one place where constructive action might focus.

Bill Pulliam said...

Jim -- the hair and beard are quite effective at keeping mosquitoes and flies off the face and neck. I use my ponytail like, well, a pony's tail, to shoe the bugs off my (almost always bare in summer) back. Of course they do need extra checking for ticks a couple of times a day...

Our house is an 1886 dogtrot, built in the floorplan of the "3-pen" log cabin (two cabins w/ dogtrot under one roof, third pen behind one of them to serve as kitchen. It's a wood-frame house (balloon framed), though, not log, and the kitchen is not detached (though it is easy to thermally isolate from the rest of the house). The dogtrot is enclosed, of course, but with double doors on both ends. A house of this style is actually pretty easy to retrofit with insulation, as everything can be pried off and then nailed back in place with little impact on the structure.

JMG -- a novel idea for you, I bet, having to caulk and weather strip to keep heat OUT, not just in! Those nice heavy winter curtains work really well in summer, too, especially if they are lined so that the outward facing side is white.

As for people dying of heat stroke in modern houses... before that happens I expect you will find folks making many improvised modifications, slapping together screened porches and attatching them wherever they can be fit, busting extra window holes, trying to find some way to make it work. When we get far enough down-peak that electricity is no longer reliable in the suburbs, selling your house and moving in to or building a better one won't be an option any more for most, so people will figure it out somehow. Urban apartment life is another matter, although people lived in that situation before air conditioning as well. One sees lots of images of people sitting in windows and on fire escapes.

hapibeli said...

Though I now live on one of British Columbia's lovely Southern Gulf islands, I grew up near Houston, Texas. We had no A/C till I was 16! We survived pretty well with window or attic fans and screened porches. Better still were the old homes of my Mom's family in Florida and Georgia that were built for the heat and humidity.
An easy way to cool those modern, foolishly designed homes, is to cut and screen small foot long by 6" to 8" high openings near the floor for the incoming breezes. Cut exit holes at the opposite end of the house at ceiling height. Natural convection will pull cooler air at ground level through, up and out of the house at ceiling level. Just plug them with insulated closures for winter. Good insulation and trees planted to shade the house in summer will finish the job. Check out those old Mother Earth news zines for more retrofit ideas.

G.E.L.C. said...

Hmm, I think rather what I was trying to get at is that it's altogether likely that the future will be a great deal less materially wealthy, but not necessarily a future of defeatism and despair.

Of course there are entire vast possiblities between 'brighter' and 'unbearably awful'. But I think the mindset that one has going into it determines to a great degree which shade of gray you end up with, and it seems to me that people who have little hope are not so likely to make needed changes that could at least smooth their way.

But maybe my definition of 'brighter future' is a good deal different than most.

Stella said...

Bit off-topic, perhaps, but I thought the community of readers here might be interested in this story:

"Deep in the forests of central France, an unusual architectural experiment is half-way to completion, as a team of masons replicates in painstaking detail the construction of an entire medieval castle.

"The ­Chateau de Guedelon was started in 1998, after local landowner Michel Guyot wondered whether it would be possible to build a castle from scratch, using only contemporary tools and materials."

Hal said...

I never knew anything in Tennessee other than the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis counted as "Delta."

About community. Before moving back to my home in the Delta, I spent about 10 years helping to start the oldest cohousing community in the US. I had many wonderful times with people I will love forever, but in the end it wasn't home to me. There are many reasons for that, but there's one thing I have seen and wonder if it's universal. Is there something in the nature of the types of people who believe you can build a consciously planned community that makes them, to use blunt language, inherently unreliable? (Yes, I include myself in this.) I've seen 3 "ground up" cohousing communities get started in N Cal and I don't think any of them had a majority of the founding members still present by the time the first dirt was moved. The retrofit community I was a part of also had a very high turnover. Mostly I think because the sort of educated, affluent, progressive-minded person interested in these sorts of things tend to be highly mobile. There's always a job offer somewhere else to consider, or, gee, I always wanted to spend time in Hawaii, etc.

I guess I'm just saying I don't know if I'd put a lot of trust in a group of people who mostly arrived from somewhere else and now want to "build" a community. Most places other than suburbs that sprang into existence in the last half century already have a community, or several communities. Those communities might be suffering from a lack of resources, or might have lost their local sense of a relation to the land. They might very well need a shot of conscious input and some information on getting through the coming times, but they don't need to be "built."

I've been helping a local Farmer's Market, now in its third year, both as an organizer and as a grower. It's been very fulfilling, but one thing I noticed was my tendency to jump in and try to focus and organize the meetings we have ("facilitate" for those who know the jargon). I almost want to kick myself when I get started on that, but it has helped us move through some meetings with some degree of effectiveness. There's nothing like the incantation, "Let's form a subcommittee on that," or, "Should we put that on the agenda," to keep things from bogging down in a meeting.

I guess I'm saying that there is a lot of good information and even some useful organizing skills out there that a lot of people have spent a lot of time and energy developing. They might even be of some use to a local community as it approaches some of the difficulties ahead, despite the shortcomings that have been pointed out here. I would love to hear other's ideas on this.

Apologies for the long post. I'm lacking time and skill for a short one.

Joshua said...

John, I think you were taking part in a unique Philadelphia ritual. Organizations seeking respectability hold meetings in Philadelphia. If the local newspaper totally ignores the meeting, the organization is deemed respectable. What you said was not important. That you were speaking at a meeting in Philadelphia attended by nominally respectable people was important. I really doubt that the entire progressive wing of my home town is brain dead with respect to our current situation.
BTW, Madame Blavatsky used to live in Philadelphia, in a building which now houses the White Dog Cafe on 3400 Sansom Street, across from Penn's law school.

Villager said...

I have used Acrobat OCR to turn your scanned pages into a somewhat more readable form. The resulting file is about 1/3 the size and most of it seems to look OK. The flipped page tables won't convert. Here's the link

Simon said...

JMG, passed the first part of the assignment some twelve years ago when I purchased the entire set and index of the Tasmanian Organic Society magazines. Some ten years worth, monthly.
My job in a recycling yards is an appropiate techies nirvana. Just yesterday I picked up all the ducting for my passive aircon system, some perfect stainless steel racks for my solar dryer, and the copper to make stills for 6 survival partners. My hot water system is solar, and made from 40 and 50 year old copper hot water cylinders that are in near new condition compared with their "modern counterparts". I am about to buy dorper sheep to render weed management redundant, and transform it into food creation. My house is energy intensive, but designed with a life span measure in centuries not decades.