Wednesday, November 24, 2010

No Time for Lullabies

At this point we’ve covered the core techniques of backyard food gardening, one of the three basic ingredients in the bubbling cauldron of green wizardry. Those core techniques are far from the only things that can usefully be added to the pot, of course, but I don’t propose to go into the other options in any detail.

First, and to my mind the most crucial, is the need for dissensus. It’s impossible to know in advance what particular set of tools and skills will be the one best suited to squeak past the mess taking shape around us – and by this I mean to include both the short-term mess defined by the implosion of America’s debt economy and its overseas equivalents, and the long-term and even more daunting mess defined by the head-on collision between a civilization and technostructure predicated on limitless expansion and the hard limits of a finite planet. Green wizardry, as I’ve already discussed here, is only one option, and even within green wizardry there needs to be plenty of room for different paths, new inventions, local traditions, and a good helping of outright eccentricity.

Those of my readers who took me up on last week’s challenge and sat down with a copy of Darwin’s The Origin of Species and a tall beverage of choice already have some sense of the importance of variation in evolution; that’s what provides the raw material that gets sorted out by natural selection. There’s no shortage of natural selection piling up for us in the not too distant future, that’s for sure, but it’s up to us to provide the variation. That’s part of what’s behind my recommendation that aspiring green wizards haunt used book stores and go digging for obscure pieces of information, and it’s also part of the reason why I’ve focused almost monomaniacally on a very specific version of backyard food gardening – the version that evolved in the 1970s energy crises – when there are many other options out there. The logic here is straightforward: a pretty fair fraction of green wizards who didn’t grow up during that decade are bound to get irritated by the deliberately annoying Seventies-centric approach, and that irritation will send them looking for other options.

Another important reason, though, was brought home to me by a book that arrived on my doorstep not too long ago. I’m not going to name the author, the publisher, or even the subject matter, because it could have been any of a hundred books; these days they’re as interchangeable, as forgettable, and as inescapable as American politicians at election time. I’m not sure why it was mailed to me, as it came unannounced; I have to assume that since I blog about the crisis of industrial society, and this book claims to offer a solution to that crisis, the author or the publisher’s marketing department decided that I probably ought to know about it.

You already know the kind of book I’m discussing. It begins with several chapters of potted history that combines an overheated version of the mess we’re in – slanted, naturally, toward those aspects of the mess that the proposed solution is supposed to solve – and an equally colorful account of the prehistory of the solution that traces it back to an exotic and currently fashionable source. It goes on to talk about the proposed solution with the kind of overhyped enthusiasm and rose-tinted assumptions more often associated with the press releases of small tech startups that will be bankrupt within the year. It spares a brief chapter or two to mention criticisms directed at the proposed solution in order to dismiss them out of hand, and then finishes up with a vision of the glorious Utopian future that awaits once the Party’s latest five year plan – er, excuse me, once the proposed solution gets the universal acceptance and ample funding the author hopes to attract.

What isn’t in books of this kind is as important, and as worth mentioning, as what is in them. You won’t find any substantive discussion of the limits of the proposed solution – what dimensions of the crisis of industrial civilization it can’t solve, which bioregions or human societies can’t use it effectively, what resource requirements, environmental effect, or economic factors place constraints on its use, and so on. You won’t find any substantive discussion of the downside of the proposed solution – what burdens it will place on already stressed resource supplies, ecosystems, or economies. Equally, you won’t find meaningful comparisons between the proposed solution and other ways of accomplishing the same thing. Since there are always limits, costs, and alternatives, and a reasoned approach to any kind of decision needs to take these three things into account, their exclusion from such books is not exactly a minor point.

Still, there’s another factor left out in the sort of book I’m discussing: there’s nothing the reader is supposed to do in response. Until recently, if you picked up a book that took some current crisis, painted it in the most apocalyptic terms available, then trotted out some solution dolled up in glowing colors for your approbation, you could safely bet any sum you like to name that the final chapters would try to sell the reader on a product to buy, a service to pay for, a movement to join, or something similar. That sort of snake oil sales pitch is as old as the hills of Iowa and twice as corny, but at least it’s relatively straightforward.

The books I have in mind are anything but straightforward. Like the sales pitches just mentioned, they work overtime making whatever crisis concerns their authors look as dire as possible, and gild their proposed solutions with a glitter of infallibility as glorious as anything a carnival pitchman ever claimed for Doctor Fox’s Genuine Arkansas Snake Oil, but they’re not written to sell. It finally occurred to me, while reading the example mentioned earlier in this essay, what their actual purpose is: they’re written to soothe.

This sort of lullaby literature is very popular just now. Shorter pieces humming the same tunes can be found all through what passes for news media in America these days. The New York Times is particularly fond of such things; my adopted kid sister Sharon Astyk neatly eviscerated one example from that source in a recent blog post, but it’s a safe bet that neither the author nor the intended audience of the piece will notice. They are paying attention to something else.

Especially but not only in America, an awareness is spreading through the crawlspaces of society that the current round of troubles might not just be a speedbump on the road to the shiny future our society’s myths promise us. The sense that something has truly, deeply, desperately gone wrong, right down at the core of the world we’ve created for ourselves, has made itself the background to most of the collective conversations that define our culture. The popularity of soothing narratives about the future just now is, if anything, a marker for just how pervasive that background has become; it’s only when fears are inescapable that efforts at mass reassurance find a market.

Still, there’s another dimension to all this, and it bears directly on the Green Wizards project. One of the things that makes our predicament so difficult for so many people to face just now, and especially for so many Americans, is that every available option for the future includes the certainty of massive impoverishment. The five per cent of us who live in the United States have gotten used to living on a quarter of the world’s energy supply and around a third of its raw materials and industrial products. Even if the world wasn’t facing the rapid depletion of its readily accessible fossil fuel reserves, the equally rapid depletion of many other nonrenewable resources essential to the economy, a global climate tipping toward critical instabilities, a dizzying array of local, regional, and global ecological shifts, and the inevitable feedback loops and synergistic effects these changes are going to cause – and of course the world is facing all these things, and will be facing more of them with every passing year – even if these things weren’t happening, the arrangements that provide Americans with so huge a share of the world’s resources are not going to last much longer.

Those arrangements were the product of a particular set of historical conditions. A century ago, those conditions didn’t exist; back then, it was Britain that received a disproportionate share of the world’s wealth, as the beneficiary of an imperial system that directly ruled a quarter of the world’s land surface and also dominated the world’s oceans and, by that fact, most of its international trade. America in those days was a rising power, to be sure, but wasn’t even close to the world’s biggest economy; it had to shelter its industries from the impact of the British colossus by exactly the sort of trade barriers the Chinese are using against us today. (Yes, British economists criticized the US in much the same terms our economists now use to denounce the Chinese; we didn’t listen and neither will they.)

It didn’t take a hundred years for the British empire to be replaced by ours, and it won’t take a hundred years for ours to be replaced by someone else’s. Since we can’t rely on the unusual historical circumstances that allowed Britain to maintain a few shreds of its imperial dignity and some of its privileged economic standing – they were basically able to rent their island out to the American military as an unusually large aircraft carrier conveniently anchored right off the shores of Europe; we don’t have that geopolitical advantage – the aftermath of the American empire is almost certain to be much more like the aftermath of most other empires: economic collapse, massive political dislocations, and a long period of turmoil and contraction until the bottom is reached and recovery can finally start to take shape. The global empire that preceded Britain’s, the Spanish Empire, may provide a more accurate model: that empire imploded in the early nineteenth century in the wake of Britain’s rise to global power, and it wasn’t until the late twentieth century that Spain finally managed to pull itself out of the long nightmare of impoverishment and political chaos that followed.

Again, this is what we would be able to expect if the global economy was entirely based on sustainable resources and the global ecology wasn’t redefining itself in the face of a couple of centuries of fossil fuel-powered abuse. Factor in the impact of energy and resource depletion, climate change, and environmental instability, and the very high likelihood of an increasingly desperate and violent scramble for remaining resources on the way down, and the effects of the end of American empire are likely to be more drastic than anything we’ve seen in the western world since the fall of Rome.

I suspect most Americans these days know this, or at least sense it. These days, when I give a talk on the future to an audience outside the peak oil community, I can begin it like this – “Remember all those scientists a few decades back who warned that if we didn’t make some drastic changes in the very near future, we’d be in deep trouble in the early twenty-first century? Well, guess what.” – and far more often than not, nobody argues. Some of them, at least to judge by the comments and questions I field, are already beginning to try to fit their minds around a future in which nearly all of us are desperately poor by today’s standards; many more are hoping that the worst of it will miss them somehow, or that they’ll be lucky enough to die before it hits – I’ve had people, not all of them elderly, express this latter hope to me in so many words.

Even among those who insist that it won’t happen – those who claim that the center of the Earth really is full of limitless oceans of oil, or that holding hands in a circle and singing “Kum Ba Ya” is a viable strategy for an age of imperial decline and global overshoot, or that the Rapture or the Singularity or 2012 or some other deus ex machina will annihilate history and save them from the future – I have to question how many people actually believe what they claim to believe. I know far too many people who insist the world will end in 2012, for example, who are still putting money into their retirement accounts, and it’s been an open secret for the last decade that the vast majority of people who like to imagine living in a lifeboat ecovillage have not been willing to lift a finger or spend a dime to bring such a project into being.

I’d like to suggest that this is because daydreams about nonexistent lifeboat ecovillages and planet-ending catastrophes two years from now that weren’t actually predicted by the ancient Mayans at all share a common purpose, one that’s also shared by abiotic oil, fusion power, and a dime store’s worth of other lullabies disguised as solutions. Their purpose is to give people something more pleasant to think about than the future that’s breathing down our necks. Yes, planet-ending catastrophes are more pleasant to think about than a couple of centuries of ragged decline, impoverishment, and population loss; if we all get blown to kingdom come in one vast fireball, at least it’s over quickly, and you can probably get some consolation in the few seconds before you’re vaporized by reminding yourself that, after all, it wasn’t your fault.

The irony here, and it’s a rich one, is that potentially workable projects can be turned into lullabies just as effectively as the most dubious daydream. I’m not exactly a fan of the lifeboat ecovillage concept, but it’s always possible that one or more of the handful of voluntary communities that have adopted this role might turn out to have had the right idea all along; it’s the ones that haven’t been built, will never be built, and function primarily as lullaby fodder that are guaranteed to be useless. Equally, some of the other approaches that have become the focus of soothing pronouncements that the solution has been found might actually do some good – and in some cases, quite a bit of good – if they’re treated as projects needing immediate hard work by anyone who wants to see them happen, rather than as props for the fantasy that somebody else is going to do everything that’s necessary.

Green wizardry is vulnerable to exactly the same process. That’s one reason why I don’t intend to present a nice neat all-encompassing plan for saving the world in these essays, or the book for which they form the very rough initial draft. Green wizardry can’t save the world, if by “saving the world” is meant finding some way to allow Americans to keep on living some semblance of a lifestyle that requires a third of the world’s economic activity to support it; but it won’t even accomplish those modest but useful tasks that it could potentially do if it gets treated primarily as raw material for lullabies.

We don’t have time for lullabies. With the United States government openly covering its debts by printing money, food and commodity prices spiking, the number of permanently unemployed people soaring across the industrial world, and China cutting deals with its other major trading partners to price goods and handle exchanges in yuan and local currencies rather than dollars, we face a high risk of serious discontinuities in the relatively near future. That’s why I hope to goad those people already involved in the Green Wizards project to get going; it may be winter here in the northern hemisphere, but that’s a good time to plan those garden beds, order seeds, keep the compost going, and put some tools on the list of holiday presents.

Next week’s post will push the envelope a bit further by talking about the value of some bits of the old appropriate tech toolkit that have been consigned to the fringes. In the meantime, I’d encourage any of my readers who might have been using these posts as lullaby fodder to think again. If you’re going to be desperately poor by today’s standards, and you are, you might as well learn how to handle that with a certain amount of skill, and maybe even a bit of grace. Knowing how to grow some of your own food, keep your home comfortable with minimal energy inputs, and do the other things green wizards can do will help with that; listening to lullabies won’t.

70 comments:

Jeremy said...

I have been reading for a while without doing anything much concrete, as most of my efforts are still going towards academic work (as if I think that is really the best use of my time). But I've just set aside a pile of Green Wizard spell-books to read this winter, and as soon as I get our back deck rebuilt (my wife's top priority around the house) I'm going to use the scraps to put together a set of compost bins and some growing containers for the driveway. Your words tonight reminded me that my green-wizard skill-building intentions are worth little unless and until they become actions. Thanks.

Steelkilt said...

Bravo.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

So, that's what other people are doing. Pretty much what I thought - not much. Quietly dreaming in the suburbs seems to be a reasonably apt metaphor.

I needed a pep talk. Thankyou.

Unfortunately, I put most of the people I know into this basket too, which is a real bummer. The difficulty is that with the entrenched "gimme" culture, should the time come my own resources may be very stretched.

I've always liked your strategy of looking poor (monastery's) and thus not standing out. People think we're poor now anyway, which amuses me no end.

Limiting your energy useage and setting up your domestic situation to reflect this fact is considered eccentric. Someone asked me recently if electrical appliances ran slower on solar power. I'm still not sure whether they were serious or not. This person also uses in under two days the same electricity I'd generate and use in over a month and a half!

The real wealth will actually be in the ability to absorb some shocks that will inevitably be thrown your way.

At the moment apart from the house, I am studying and developing our soil. One of the consistent things I've noticed is that in developing the fertility of the soil in a human time frame, you have to bring in fertility from outside the area. In effect you are taking fertility from one area and moving it to another. Fortunately for me, some of this fertility is currently treated as a waste product, but it still takes a lot of energy to move it from one area to another. I don't kid myself that increasing the fertility of the soil (and the house itself) doesn't come at anything other than the end of a long industrial process. It is not sustainable in the long run which is why now is really the time to undertake this activity.

I have no doubt that we as a society are capable of transition from an industrial agricultural model to an organic (or traditional) one. However, we are going to lose a lot weight in the process. It's not the labour that troubles me, it's the rebuilding of the soil fertility and supply lines. It is a huge task.

Recently, I've also been looking at the woes of Ireland. Without doubt you could substitute Australia and Australian city names and read the same sad articles. The only difference is that we're sitting on massive supplies of energy and resources. However, I can't see us learning any lessons from their situation anytime soon.

Good luck!

anagnosto said...

I got this week a glimpse of the inertia moving the scientific corp. This year has been named the year of biodiversity, so we got at the research institute some interesting talks showing at the same time how fluid nature is and its many ways to adaptation, several of them unthinked before full genomes sequencing, and how antinatural conservation of biodiversity is becoming (try to keep an endemic species at the same place after climatic change). On the other hand we just received a notification that we should reduce working expenses. We will get an initial amount at the beginning of next year and it has to last for all year expenses... Sounds like Russia 1991.

Tripp said...

@Cherokee Organics - On more than one occasion I've told my readers that collecting fertility is one of the most important tasks they can be engaged in right now. In the US, our neighbors very politely bag up large sacks of fertility and place them on the curb every fall. By all means we should be helping ourselves to this "windfall." Bat houses, pigeon coops, integrated livestock systems, free wood chips from tree services, brush prunings, collect the whole set. Biomass is biomass, and it's time to bring it in. Permaculture sites often have substantial areas of infertile square footage adjacent to deep, fluffy, rich growing areas. You certainly don't need your footpaths to be productive. So perhaps that can be viewed as a microcosm of the "fertility robbing" you mention. As in economics, it's just as natural for rich ecosystems to get richer while the poor ones get poorer.

Those sacks of leaves won't be available forever.

Don Plummer said...

Your talk of lullabies reminds me of James Howard Kunstler's comment about Americans "sleepwalking into the future."

I heard this on a news report earlier this week: Ohio University has received a $3 million grant from the state's Third Frontier R&D fund to conduct research on algae, in particular to study the possibilities of producing biofuels from algae and to use algae to mitigate air pollution. It sounds fascinating, and its certainly reasonable to engage in such research, as some very useful things could well come out of it. But are we going to be running our entire auto fleet on algae-generated biofuel any time soon? Not very likely. And what are the unintended consequences of burning algae fuels? Will the parties that awarded the grant also want them to be researching cautionary or contraindicating findings?

When I heard the report, I got the feeling that this would be interpreted as another attempt to soothe the populace: don't worry about it; we'll come up with a solution and everything will be all right.

i1 said...

Thanks for posting the link to an article skewering that CFR hack Krauss. Rhymes with Strauss.

Judging from local behavioral patterns, I'd posit there's still quite a bit of discretionary gasoline consumption going on, which is good for those of us preparing for a four wheelin'/jet ski-free future.

Just how is it possible that Canada produces 2.75mm barrels of C&C per day, exports 2.48mm barrels per day to the US, and yet consumes 2.15mm barrels per day. The only thing I can think of is, that they must import.

Canadian Consumption-
https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/fields/2174.html

Canada-US exports-
http://www.eia.doe.gov/energyexplained/index.cfm?page=oil_home#tab2

Canadian Production-
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Petroleum_production_in_Canada

Canadian Imports-
https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/fields/2175.html

DaShui said...

Dammit Archdruid Greer!

Last week I maxed out my credit cards buying stock in Doctor Fox’s Genuine Arkansas Snake Oil Biotech Company. The guy who cold called me told me that I was gonna miss out on the upcoming bull market led by nano-teched, bio-engineered, holographic, quantum- computed snake oil industry, so I better jump in with both feet.

I hope you are happy. You destroyed my dreams yet again!

Keith said...

So, if lullabies, won't work to locate our future, where then do we look? I've been searching to more than read about the "Long Descent".

The science fiction writer William Gibson wrote,  "The future is here now--it's just not very evenly distributed".

What places have gone through, economic collapse, an extreme oil shortage and come out the other side? Russia, comes first to mind. However, Russia's fall has been cushioned by rising energy prices, fertile soils, and a vast resource base.

A better model for our future lies only 90 miles from Florida--Cuba. By being so far behind, Cuban's arrived in our future 20 years ago.

The complete collapse in support from the Soviet Union in 1991 devastated the economy. In one year, the country lost approximately 80% of its imports, 80% of its exports and its GDP dropped 34 percent. Food and medicine imports almost halted; oil imports from the USSR dropped 90 percent.  The effect was immediate. Dependent on fossil fuels to operate, the base of Cuban society—its transportation, industrial and agricultural systems—were paralyzed. 

Cubans went hungry, the entire nation lost 25% of it's weight. While, nearly everyone went hungry, no one starved. Paradoxically, diabetes, heart disease and even general mortality dropped. From the devastation, that the Cubans call the special period, Cuba learned to cope and even to modestly thrive by developing a low-energy economy and a sustainable, organic agriculture. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special_Period

As the US economy submerges, as massive debt crises cripple Ireland and Greece, as Japan and UK's economies grow vulnerable, as China's economic growth slows, and as oil and food prices are again rising, Cuba's last twenty years is one path into our future.

My guess is that communism and Fidel, had little to do with the resilience and resourcefulness of the Cuban people. I'm thinking that the 50 year blockade by the US might have give Cubans more experience than the rest of us on living with less. From what I can glean from reading, Cuba and maybe Bhutan have the worlds most sustainable economies.

Hopefully, I will have something report back in March. I have signed up for a Global Exchange tour in Feburary, that explores this idea: http://www.globalexchange.org/tours/1140.html

Keith Webb, Banff, Alberta, Canada.

Mark said...

Yes, bravo. It's a quarter past the eleventh hour, don't you think?

We've piled several yards worth of compost, prepped our garden beds, stocked the chicken feed, and put the row covers up in the hoophouse.

This past week, instead of delving into Darwin (which I plan to do in the near future) I dove into taoist philosophy -- which in my opinion seems to offer great insight for an impoverished future in America, where aside from gathering calories, clean water, and maintaining our body temperature, we can allow ourselves to reflect and meditate.

But yes, the future is likely to become miserable for most, as the common trend seems to be to live fully in a 2nd dimension of daydream and lullaby as the 3rd dimension literally passes us by...

William Hunter Duncan said...

Thank you, John Michael Greer. Blessings,

William Hunter Duncan
www.offthegridmpls.blogspot.com

Richard said...

JMG or anyone else, one thing I'm curious about is the percentage of people during the peak of the Roman empire that were farmers? I'm sure it's substantially higher than in America or other developed countries today. I've just been thinking that the differences in agriculture may set us up for an even worse crash than the Romans. There are many other factors involved of course, and I'm no expert on Roman agriculture, but I would think that our modern agricultural system would be way more vulnerable to disruption considering the vast majority of food is grown as basically a process of using land to turn fossil fuels into food. Ancient agriculture wasn't always sustainable either due to land degradation, but at least they weren't working with a system that only gets out a fraction of the calories put into it such as ours.

Not only is there a lack of skills, but much land has been depleted so much by industrial agriculture that without external inputs it would take a long time to heal to the point of giving good yields. Cherokee makes a good point, one that I've realized too. While there are many examples of degraded land being restored to health pretty quickly using organic and permacultural practices, all the ones I know of have imported fertility from elsewhere. I've done my share of that too and it's a good idea when so much fertility is being wasted anyway and it's easy to move. However, I think that has given people a false impression of how quickly land can be restored on a larger scale, we're robbing Peter to pay Paul, and with this high a population with this much degraded land, it's hard to see a way that there won't be major large scale famine sometimes (or more likely multiple times, more in some places than others) during the descent.

Considering China, while they've played their cards right in some ways, I'm not convinced they'll do any better than America in the long run. Their massive environmental problems and huge population is likely to catch up to them. At least much of the US still has a relatively low population density, even areas with a good climate, while in China everywhere with a reasonable climate has a real high density.

Brad K. said...

@ Cherokee Organics, and JMG,

I realize there are no magic bullets. But in building soil fertility, two concepts intrigue me.

Has anyone tried biochar, and actually seen improvement in soil fertility improvement? What kinds of soil respond the most? How critical is the rate of application, and is it better to apply the low-heat, regenerated-process carbon in a single pass, or as a series of applications? Has biochar been used for extensive farming as well as intensive farming?

Does biochar made from grasses, leaves, or branch ends (trimmings) work as well as good chunks of wood? Does biochar improve the soil as much as the same mass in the form of compost?

Are the plans for a biochar converter available, or are they proprietary?

The other concept is the Hugelkulture approach, where a long pile of discarded wood is packed and covered with soil and planted.

Thanks, JMG, for restating the need for diversity, even dissensus.

Paula said...

I'm glad to know that I'm not crazy for thinking along the same lines as you do. I'm expecting a strange and uncomfortable future, while actively planning and getting ready for it. I sincerely hope we're wrong, but want to be ready in case we're right.

Learning how to feed yourself is really hard. I'm still trying to learn how to plan and sow things to be ready at the right times. A book I read that was useful for this next growing season was The Resilient Gardener, by Carol Deppe. She doesn't answer all the questions for me, but because a lot of what she does is geared around Native American practices and being able to ignore your garden for awhile without it going to hell, her information could be useful for a lot of people. Her contention is also that the small gardener will be feeding neighbors because the current agricultural system we have can't be supported in the future.

The first thing we did to this house (built in '76) was to replace the windows, one of which on the south side of the house was replaced with an 8 foot sliding glass door. The carpeting was replaced with black slate, and on the few sunny days we get in the winter, I can quit the wood stove around 9AM because of the passive solar gain that I planned for. We're saving for a metal roof and rain harvesting system. As the electrical waffle iron and hand mixer conked out, they were replaced with the old fashioned stove top iron and hand operated egg beater that don't use electricity.

I'm probably not doing enough, but I hope that I can at least figure out how to grow what we need on what's left of our quarter acre.

Cathy McGuire said...

This is off-topic but I think of some importance to our group that prizes old knowlege bases:


http://heterodoxology.wordpress.com/2010/11/24/save-the-bibliotheca-philosophica-hermetica/

The Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica (BPH, or Ritman Library) in Amsterdam has been a very important institution for research into hermetic philosophy and related currents, particularly early modern Rosicrucianism and alchemy, for decades. In a dramatic and very unsettling turn of events, the library’s existence as we know it is now being threatened. It is all very unclear what will happen, but there is no doubt that spreading the word and creating attention around the developments is the least we can do to try and influence things in the best possible direction – to save the library, the staff, and its national heritage collection of manuscripts and printed books. Please sign this petition, and feel free to spread the word to anyone you think should know about this.

(snippet of a much longer post):
An extremely valuable medieval manuscript owned by the BPH (The Grail of Rochefoucauld) was put on sale at Sotheby’s, and this triggered a reaction from the Friesland Bank, which took possession of the library, that had apparently been brought in as collateral, in order to get back a 15 million euro loan from mr Ritman. At present the BPH is closed, and intense negotiations are going on behind closed doors. It is impossible at this moment to predict the outcome, but there is no doubt that the situation is extremely serious. There is a very real possibility that the Friesland bank will try to sell at least the ca. 60% of the library that is still owned by mr Ritman, and nobody knows what implications this will have for the rest of the collection and the BPH as a whole, including its staff. The brand-new government of the Netherlands has announced a program of radical financial cuts in the culture section and elsewhere, which makes a renewed intervention from that side highly unlikely.
If the Ritman library would go down, this would mean an enormous blow to international scholarship in hermetic studies. The damage would be irreversible.

Cathy McGuire said...

Especially but not only in America, an awareness is spreading through the crawlspaces of society that the current round of troubles might not just be a speedbump on the road to the shiny future our society’s myths promise us.
You've hit the nail on the head -- I have noticed that my friends are getting less, not more, willing to discuss the current problems and their implications. It's like they can feel the tsunami coming and know they can't get out in time, so they are just cringing in place and pretending nothing is amiss. And I've noticed more "lullabies" (good term!) recently, too -- kind of like the haunted woods scene in Wizard of Oz when the tin man swears he doesn't believe in spooks. Reality doesn't require belief.

I have been working hard on the homestead lessons (possibly two steps back for every one forward, but I'm trying). I just finished yet another version of a rain shelter for my hens - reusing an awning frame (I always feel good when I can reuse), and I'm working on Astyk's Anytime(?) plan, listing all the gaps preventing a "manual" lifestyle -- I'm in much better shape than all my friends and family (who consider me desperately poor and even backward), but I still have significant gaps that I will work on. Soil fertility is something I'm still unsure of - I wish there were a regular way to test soil, so that I don't have to figure it out via a puny, dying plant. But I've got a large, toasty compost heap that should be ready by spring. And I'm gathering a very nice collection of manual tools, and learning to use them. I just saw a photo of a foot-pedaled scroll saw - that looks worth building!

Daily, I'm already living the "sudden downturn" that's gonna be more or less permanent, and I steel myself by reminding myself that sliding most of the way down the slope means I don't have as far to fall when/if a nasty reversal hit us. I can already live without junk food, microwave, tv & movies, etc -- I think most people will go into in shock. Thanks for the continued reality check!

John Michael Greer said...

Jeremy, you're welcome.

Steelkilt, thank you!

Cherokee, bingo -- as the Stoics pointed out a long time ago, real wealth is measured by what you can do without.

Anagnosto, that's about what I was expecting to hear. Here in the US, at least, we are the Soviet Union in 1991 or thereabouts.

Tripp, well put. My neighbors think I'm a bit batty for raking up leaves from the back alley; on the other hand, I think some of them have noticed that I had the best garden in the neighborhood last season.

Don, the algal biodiesel business is half lullaby and half marketing gimmick; the one thing it isn't is a viable approach to producing fuel. Still, people love to be soothed.

i1, you'll notice that Canada isn't a member of OPEC. It may be a slight net exporter, but since Canada's one of only two nations on earth that use more energy per capita than the US, they have to import a fair bit.

DaShui, just a moment while I twiddle my mustache and say "Bwahahaha!"

Keith, Cuba was able to accomplish those changes because it's a dictatorship. If a US president tried to do that, he'd be stonewalled by Congress and voted out of office at the first opportunity -- the name "Jimmy Carter" may come to mind in this context. In Cuba, Castro could say "do it," and anyone who disagreed could discuss the matter with his fellow political prisoners for the next decade or two. Now of course dictatorships have other disadvantages, but they tend to get into power precisely because they can be better at crisis management than democracies.

Mark, if you want to read Lao Tsu before Darwin, I'm not going to argue. He's another great source for green wizard philosophy.

Doctor Westchester said...

JMG,

This is belated but welcome back!

We have spoken before on what can be done on a community and higher level that would serve as an intelligent response to our situation. As I mentioned before I started a Transition effort in my county. What has mostly accomplished is allow me to find more and more Green Wizards, most in training and some not. Jim Kunstler is right about my area, it and the metropolis to the south of it exist in a “bubble-fantasyland”. Yet both have their share of Green Wizards.

As I was reading your column, my wife handed me the latest issue of all things, “The New Yorker”, and said that there was an article in it that I would be interested in. It was their Thanksgiving food issue and indeed there was one. It was an article about Green Wizards, although it’s likely the author has never heard of the term, and the “underground” food movement. In particular, it was mostly about a radical edge of extremists cloistered away in rural outposts that were doing things that …err … were common a century or so ago probably even in this country.

It was a very informative article. It had an excellent explanation of why your adopted kid sister could only eat fermented foods during her early pregnancies, her body having the wisdom to know that such foods are among the safest possible in regards to not transmitting food poisoning.

Yes, I think that awareness of our situation is growing. Food tends to be a gateway issue, especially among the comfortable. Of those that read the New Yorker article, most will mildly pooh-pooh the zany actions of these food extremists. An unpleasant minority will note with delighted disgust the non-orthodox sexuality of the groups profiled as a way to marginalize what they are doing, not realizing that this was a selection made by the author. Others will be taking notes as I am. Some who do so will be the food-faddists looking for the next trend; others will be looking at what could be applied in anticipation of the grocery shelves being empty.

We will see if Transition Initiative happens in a community in my area. With what I see happening with the financial melt-down and squalls of peak oil and climate hitting our country, is that one may happen but it will be a little too late for having endless meetings and most “Kum Ba Ya” chanting. Not that those things won’t happen. However, since the issue of keeping people fed will soon become even more pressing than today where currently roughly 15% of our nation on food stamps, those who want to actually accomplish something will need to minimized such additive activities and get out and turn some dirt with others.

You are right sir. Lullabies are painless, they bring about many changes. One can only hope that one is avoiding them.

John Michael Greer said...

William, you're welcome.

Richard, a great deal of Roman agricultural land was severely depleted by the time the empire collapsed, and the small farms that had been the backbone of the old economy had almost entirely been replaced by huge latifundiae (that's Latin for ConAgra) worked by slaves. Even so, a larger fraction of people in Roman times worked in farming, but it's worth remembering that fossil fuels aren't going away all at once, so there's some room for that particular transition.

Brad, I'd be delighted if somebody were to publish a book with that information. Pretty much everything I've seen on biochar so far has been lullaby literature. I'd love to promote biochar -- it seems like a great approach -- but I'm not going to do so until I can get facts rather than soothing propaganda!

Paula, a lot of people worry about whether they're doing enough, and that seems counterproductive to me. The important thing, as I see it, is that you're doing something -- rather a bit of something, in fact -- rather than sitting on your rump listening to lullabies.

Cathy, I've been noticing the same reluctance on the part of people to face up to the immediate future. My guess is that we're on the cusp of a sea change, though -- that sort of nervous silence fairly often comes right before people come out and start talking openly about their fears. That could open a window of opportunity; I hope we can use it well.

John Michael Greer said...

A reminder to all: if you try to post something, and you get the Google screen insisting that the post is too big, it's lying to you. If your post is actually too big, you get bopped back to the comments page with a note in red under your attempted comment. I've had a number of people post the same comment three and four times, each time progressively shorter, when the first one went through just fine!

sgage said...

My impression of biochar (we're talking aboutcharcoal, for godz sake - "biochar" is a marketing term) is that it is potentially useful in warmer, moister climates, where organic compounds tend to break down and get leached away readily. I.e., tropical rainforests.

I don't think it offers much for those of us in more temperate zones.

Whatever it is, it is not some miracle soil amendment. But I don't think it probably hurts anything, so give it a whirl, if you're so inclined.

John Michael Greer said...

Doctor W, that's good to hear! One of the reasons I have high hopes for the Green Wizards project is precisely that it's something individuals can start doing all by themselves, and so it doesn't surprise me that green wizards are sprouting up all over the place. As for the M*A*S*H* reference, nicely put.

Andy Brown said...

I lived in Kazakhstan in 1994-96 studying as an anthropologist, and witnessed the bottoming out of the post-Soviet economy first hand. One thing I noticed was how little interest people had in the "lullabies". Not only had they stopped listening to their leaders, but regular people had no interest in the various propagandas that outsiders were trying to export to them (free market from the US and EU, secular Islam from Turkey, etc.) They were focusing all their considerable energies on putting food on the table, keeping the roof overhead, keeping their sons out of the army and so on.

I think regular people here are waking up to the fact that the economy they knew is abandoning them. As that becomes clearer, I hope people respond like they did in Kazakhstan - not with an eruption of fanaticism and delusional lullabies - but rather with a serious buckling down to the matters of survival, even in impossible times. That's probably the best case scenario that I can envision right now.

Tiago said...

Another thing is coming to play in my experience: peer pressure.

My partner thinks of me as a bit wacko for suggesting that agriculture is the future.

My grandfather, who has a small plot of land simply does not understand the idea that I want to co-cultivate with him. His dream is that I will become a somewhat successful person (according to the standard definition, of course) and hire a "servant" to maintain our beloved plot of land. That I might depend on it for survival is simply unthinkable to him. And can I blame him? All his life he has seen progress develop around here. The idea of less tech, less wealth simply never happened in is lifetime. It was always growth.

Mind you, this in a country which is scheduled to go bankrupt in March with unemployment already hovering 11%. But people (left or right, religious or not) cannot conceive the idea that something structural is going on.

I am very afraid of the impedance between expectations and future. More than anything else...

Richard said...

Thanks for the info about latifundiae, didn't realize about that particular aspect of the Roman empire. On biochar, I did a small experiment this past year. Last winter I made some on a small scale, tried several methods and settled on building a fire in a wire cage made from a scrap piece of fencing and then putting it out by putting a 55-gallon drum on top of it. I scattered some thinly on a number of garden beds that were later hoed in, but with one I did a real experiment, shoveling the bed onto the path and adding it back with a layer of soil, then biochar, then soil again several times. I did this with half the length of the bed and left the other half alone. I did not add any nitrogen with the biochar, as many recommend, although most of the beds got their normal compost before planting.

I grew beans in the bed that I did the experiment with, thinking the nitrogen fixing ability of the beans would mean they wouldn't have any problem with the initial nitrogen depleting effect of the biochar that I'd heard about.

As far as the yields, the row of beans showed no difference at all between the half with biochar and the half without, they both did well though. I've heard that it may have more of an effect after a year or two so the experiment is still going, with a different crop there next year although I haven't decided what yet. Someone knowledgeable about biochar suggested to me that it may be because my soil was rich to start out with, that biochar makes the biggest difference on soils that start out poor. I have the luck of working with a garden that's been gardened organically for 35 years (only for two years by myself however) with much more added to it than taken from it, so the soil test I sent in last spring showed organic matter above 6%. I also have some new (as of this past year) garden space with half the organic matter content, but that wasn't where I put the biochar. If I do any this winter I'll try in in the newer garden, and mix it with compost at application.

I also didn't really pulverize it, I pounded it enough to get it into fairly small pieces but didn't know of a way to easily get it smaller with the tools I have.

I don't think biochar will make much of a difference in climate change because it would have to be used at such a large scale to sequester much carbon that there would be other ecological impacts, but if it does improve the soil then that would be reason enough to use it on a small scale. For me, I have lots of limbs and branches down in the woods from a massive ice storm a couple years ago, so it does the double function of clearing out that which is too small to do much as firewood. As far as I've heard however the jury's still out on temperate biochar.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

I know it's charged with cultural baggage, but I keep seeing a green flag flying with a dark green wizard's hat embossed on it. Mind you, I do like keeping a low profile though...

Thanks again for all of your works. I appreciate and respect it.

Hi Tripp and Richard,

I see people with trailer loads of mown grass driving it down to the local waste transfer station. I'm still not sure why they never chop and drop the grass (on the lawn). It disappears after a couple of days anyway and finds it's way back into the soil humus. Oh well. Fortunately the local council composts it and adds other green waste and sells it back to people living in the area. The sad thing is that supply exceeds demand and some of the compost ends up in landfill. It makes you wonder when people will wake up.

As for leaves it doesn't get much better for the soil (unless you're unlucky enough to have too many eucalypts around which not only acidify the soil, but don't breakdown for at least 2 to 3 years)...

An untapped resource is roadkill covered in mulch. Awesome! You just have to ensure that no one's around. Some people may think that it is anti social for some reason. I think driving past is disrespectful to the animal.

Hi Brad K,

I've run a few experiments on charcoal in the soil (out of wanting to look for a quick and dirty solution) and it doesn't really seem to make much difference here (cool temperate environment with temperature extremes of between -1 and 40 degrees celsius). On the other hand: mulching; composting; and worm farming have a massive impact on the soil fertility. I try not to dig repaired areas of soil, but on the rare occasion you can see the development of top soil in these treated areas. There doesn't seem to be any quick and easy way to replace the natural processes which work the best anyway.

Good luck!

phil harris said...

Biochar reports seem mostly anecdotal. I have yet to see experiments that allow for the import of the soil nutrients P & K that come with the residues left after wood gasification. (The gas is supposed to have been used as fuel.)
No gardener of course will waste ordinary wood ash and in UK this traditionally went on orchards or was mixed with composts or other organic waste.
Experiments need to allow for P & K additions if they are looking for any benefits actually from the charcoal itself.

Harry J. Lerwill said...

"The sense that something has truly, deeply, desperately gone wrong, right down at the core of the world we’ve created for ourselves, has made itself the background to most of the collective conversations that define our culture."

- should that be "our culture" or "our civilization?"

After finally getting around to reading Spengler, I'm beginning to see the difference. Hail Caesar!

Harry J. Lerwill said...

My 17-year old step-son has been very melancholy the last few days. I finally managed to tease out of him what was bothering him.

It was the realization of the future that awaits his five-year-old half-brother and three-year-old half-sister. Not his own future; he believes that knowing that hard times are coming means he can make the best of it. The other side of his family is still in denial even though he has tried to bring it up.

It was his eighteen-year-old cousin bringing up resource depletion (although he didn't use that term) and how bad the future was going to be that triggered it.

The lullaby is not working on all of that generation. If acceptance of the loss of the future they thought they had follows the K├╝bler-Ross model, we may have an angry generation of disaffected youth the likes of which we have never seen.

Susan said...

I've never posted before, although I read your blog regularly, and I know you've mentioned this idea in the past, Mr.G.; but before Cherokee and the "biochar" people get away with saying you have to import fertility to your garden, have they thought about how much fertility they might be flushing away? Check out this informative site: http://www.humanurehandbook.com/

Also I'm reading a book right now that I wish we could start a book club to discuss (since discussing it with my husband is dicey): it's called "Sex at Dawn,the Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality." I am gripped not so much by its description of our likely "precivilized" sexual behavior, but by its portrayal of agriculture as the biggest mistake humanity ever made. I guess they're not the first authors to posit this theory, but it's certainly food for thought.

Thanks for your voice in the wilderness, Mr.G!

sofistek said...

I'm not totally convinced by eco-villages either. Most seem to be a kind of way to feel good about oneself whilst being happily embedded in the current unsustainable society. However, there is the occasional bright spot. A group of people in my country, New Zealand, have been practising permaculture for many decades, refining their techniques and knowledge, over that time. Now, they are planning a new eco-village that is intended to be self-sufficient and sustainable (eventually). Unfortunately, I don't have the opportunity to join in, otherwise I'd jump at the chance, having followed the writings of the drivers of the group and attended a gardening course. They are well aware of the predicament we're in, and I think this could be the right project.

Meanwhile, back in my water deprived, slow growing garden ...

John Michael Greer said...

Sgage, the impression I've gotten from anecdotal reports is precisely that -- that biochar works well in wet tropical climates, where nutrients leaching out of the soil are a major limiting factor, and doesn't do much elsewhere. Still, I'd like to see some meaningful studies.

Andy, I share that hope. We'll see.

Tiago, this is one of the reasons I want to encourage eccentricity and things people can do all by themselves, without the cooperation of others. Peer pressure is a massive limiting factor; finding ways that it can be avoided is an important step.

Richard, thank you! That's exactly the kind of data that's needed -- straightforward reports of people's experiences with different ways of doing things.

Cherokee, I'd much rather just see people wearing the hats. Less baggage, and it also helps keep rain off your head.

Phil, bingo. It wouldn't be too difficult to figure out approximately how much P and K are in biochar, and then do an experimental plot, half of which gets biochar and the other half of which gets a comparable amount of P and K in some other organic form. The results would be more useful than a dozen bookshelves of lullaby literature.

Harry, in Spengler's terms we're certainly well into "civilization." I don't use his specific phrasing too often, partly because most people don't understand it and partly because I quibble with his (and Toynbee's) negative valuation of societies that continue in established paths rather than continually innovating. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" is good advice; it's precisely the Faustian insistence on bigger, better and more that's sending our own society into the dumpster so much faster than some others. As Dion Fortune liked to say, "Up with the rocket, down with the stick."

If your stepson's generation is really catching on -- to the extent of recognizing just how harsh it's going to be for younger siblings -- that's excellent news. There's a great deal that can be done once people break out of the delusion that things have to get better.

Susan, importing nutrients by way of a good composting toilet is an important part of the Green Wizard package -- it's been a while since I discussed it in detail on this blog, a deficiency I should probably remedy soon. As for agriculture, though, I'm familiar with the argument, but don't find it convincing; hunter-gatherers can (and do) also ravage ecosystems, while a mature organic agriculture can coexist with natural systems extremely well. I'd encourage you to pick up a copy of FH King's Farmers of Forty Centuries sometime for an interesting view of that subject.

Sofistek, if they're actually putting their money where their mouths are and building an ecovillage, more power to 'em; I hope they prove me wrong. It's the folks who daydream about ecovillages as a substitute for constructive action that make me roll my eyes.

nutty professor said...

Archdruid, as you say, the future is not brighter.

I am one of those who is honestly grateful that the worst will probably happen after I leave this life; but the children will face different kinds of challenges, and it is hard to imagine what their lives will be like when they reach adulthood and beyond.

It is hard to know how to think about these things without shifting into dreams or nightmares

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Susan,

Good call. At my place all organic matter (human or otherwise) stays on site. I run a gravity fed (ie. no energy required at all) 3,000 litre worm farm which processes everything and returns the resulting nutrients to the soil. All the plumbing in the house looks normal too. There is no odour from this system either unlike composting toilets.

I'm soon to get some chickens and it will be a difficult choice between feeding the chickens or the worms!

When I speak of importing nutrients, I mean everything organic that you bring onto your site which stays there is an import. For example if I purchase coffee from a farm in Queensland and consume it here and the used coffee grounds get dropped into the worm farm plus my excrement later then I've imported nutrients. The same goes for everything from paper to chicken food.

I'm amazed at how useful and simple the system is. Sometimes as a society we look past the easy solutions because we're so programmed that it must be a highly technical solution or it won't work. We are all part of nature and not above it.

Keep on posting, these conversations need to be had.

Good luck!

marielar said...

Biochar is an offspring of the work done to understand Terra Preta soils. In large tracks of the Amazon, the natives improved the fertility of degraded soils by adding charcoal as well as nutrients from organic wastes such as fish offal. One must keep in mind that humid and hot climate, the degradation of organic material is very fast and charcoal would be more resistant to decomposition and have more lasting effects than compost. I suspect the charcoal additions increased the cationic exchange capacity, in other words, the capacity of the soils to store nutrients which exist in positively charge forms, such as potassium, calcium and magnesium, as well as the buffering capacity, ie, resistance to pH fluctuations. If that is the case, the type of soils which would benefits the most would be coarsed texture, acidic ones. A lot of North Eastern Americans soils fit that bill. Biochar is not to be seen as a fertilizer, but as a soil amendment. It wont address the lack of nutrients so much as it will help in preserving and storing them. But that is just a guess..

John Bray said...

At this time of year, we plant out broad-bean seeds on any unused patches of land. The seeds are collected from earlier in the year and so are virtually free. Yes, we could eat them but you can have too much of a good thing :o)

Next year, when we need a patch for something else they can simply be strimmed/rotovated/dug back in to the soil. Seems to work well as a way of getting carbon & nitrogen from the air and a few chemicals from the land and using water plus sunlight to turn it into vegetable matter to improve/maintain the soil.

Bill Pulliam said...

Many favorite lullabies focus on coal (clean or otherwise) as at least delaying the trials and tribulations until far down the road. So I was very interested to see the talk on The Oil Drum recently about some studies suggesting that peak coal could be coming in the quite near future, as soon as 2011 in one case. I had not heard any suggestions of such a thing before; is this new thinking or had I just missed it? An early peak in coal would actually be better in the long run, as that would put the final nail in the coffin on most of the extreme doomsday global warming scenarios. The post-peak-carbon world is coming someday no matter what, and the earlier it comes the easier it might be for whichever generations have to live through the decline.

Dan said...

What I don’t get is how natural selection somehow makes a species more likely to survive; which is not to say it doesn’t exist, it obviously does. However, my understanding of natural selection is that it selects certain traits over others for survival in response to a stress. On the other hand, the ideal traits to deal with a different stressor may be the very ones selected for extinction by the last stressor. It seems to me that by lessening diversity natural selection makes random short term selections that lessen diversity giving a short term edge while simultaneously increasing the long term odds of the extinction of the species. When we claim natural selection makes a species more likely to survive we are imposing our will to a seemingly random process where it doesn’t belong, methinks.

Gary said...

I like my lullabies! But I try not to be lulled to sleep. My green wizardry takes the form of serious gardening. (See for example the results of my latest experiment growing and harvesting amaranth.http://squashpractice.wordpress.com/2010/11/24/the-grand-amaranth-experiment/) So although I can’t see any good coming from capitalist/industrial society in the near term, neither can I see green wizardry doing enough to do much more than lead by example.
The horns of our dilemma is that our problems are so entrenched and so far reaching that any hope for a gentle landing requires immense changes in both attitude, understanding, and behavioral changes on a global scale. Certainly the green wizardry concepts are part of this process. But practical solutions relevant to global climate change, population growth, resource depletion and allocation, etc. are not likely to spring forth from green wizards.
For example, let us continue the discussion of biochar in this context. I’ve played with this stuff a little as well, with equivocal results. Part of the problem is that biochar production and use really belongs on an industrial scale rather than a backyard one. Biochar production involves the partial combustion of woody biomass that can be difficult to achieve in a manner that doesn’t generate more pollution and its worth as either a soil amendment or for carbon sequestration. The largest benefit with biochar would be on poorer soils, e.g. Australia where there have been significant positive benefits reported at industrial scales, http://www.publish.csiro.au/nid/84/paper/SR10014.htm, but there are also reported benefits at commercial scales in Canada(http://xa.yimg.com/kq/groups/22438052/740714074/name/BlueLeaf+Biochar+Field+Trial+08-09+Report.pdf). Really understanding the impact of large scale use of biochar requires large directed research efforts with multiple locations, soils, crops, etc., as well as consideration of the impact and technology require to make large quantities of char. Policy matters in these cases. Green wizards can’t hide in their gardens if they want to have global impact when these kinds of decisions come up for discussion. One soothing lullaby we have been asked to fall asleep to is our state government’s “renewable portfolio standards” for our electric generation providers. Although largely a good idea, these standards have priced industrial biochar out of the range a farmer can afford. Policy details matter.

John Michael Greer said...

Professor, that's why I use history as a template; our current crisis is different in scale from past cases of overshoot and collapse, but it's not different in kind.

Cherokee, feed the chickens. Their droppings will put your compost into overdrive.

Marielar, one of my concerns about biochar is precisely that most presentations of it, at least, are pulling one ingredient out of the very complex mix of terra preta, and treating it as a universal remedy. That strikes me as the usual sort of oversimplification our society likes so much, and gets into so much trouble from.

John, now that's a sensible approach.

Bill, the 2011 date is new, but there's been a lot of discussion in the last decade about the limits to coal being much closer than comfortable stereotypes placed them. Richard Heinberg in Peak Everything, if I recall correctly, put peak coal around 2040.

Dan, selecting traits with narrow applicability isn't the only thing natural selection can do. Place a species in an environment that throws lots of different stressors at it, and the variants that survive will be those that are good at surviving lots of different stressors. That's how we evolved; we're among nature's supreme generalists, right up there with rats and cockroaches, because we evolved during a period of extreme environmental variability that put a premium on the ability to adapt to just about anything nature might throw our way.

Gary, I'm not suggesting that green wizardry can bring about a gentle landing. I'm suggesting that there's not going to be a gentle landing. The Hirsch report showed us that any effective response to peak oil had to get under way 20 years before the peak; it's now five years after the peak. The "immense changes in both attitude, understanding, and behavioral changes on a global scale" you're calling for wouldn't arrive in time even if there were any realistic hope that they're going to happen, which they're not. That's the rationale behind the Green Wizardry approach; while the rest of the world twiddles its thumbs or demands massive systemic reforms that are not forthcoming, those of us willing to get to work can at least do something useful.

As for industrial-scale biochar, that's another one of those paper solutions that look great until you run the numbers. Our species is already using far too much of the world's biomass, and that sort of massive biochar program would require using a great deal more -- or putting yet another use for crops in competition with human food, as ethanol and biodiesel are already doing. There's also the additional demand for energy and resources to build those factories, produce and distribute the biochar, etc., etc., which would have to be met out of existing (and rapidly depleting) stocks, all of which are already overcommitted -- and all this when the benefits of biochar as such have yet to be proven to any sort of reasonable standard. Policy details may matter, but daydreams don't.

Bill Pulliam said...

mareliar, re: biochar--

"If that is the case, the type of soils which would benefits the most would be coarsed texture, acidic ones. A lot of North Eastern Americans soils fit that bill."

Hot, rainy, sandy, acid soils are mostly a feature of the coastal plain of the southeastern US, and are not ubiquitous even there. We lived for 5 years near the S Carolina coast on Lakeland soils, which are just about as sandy, acid, and heavily leached as they come in the U.S. Picture a shiny white sandbox 30 meters deep, under pine straw with 60" of rain a year in a subtropical climate where palms grow wild in abundance. We were relatively novice gardeners there, but once we figured out what we were doing we got veggies to grow big and lush the old-fashioned organic way, without "biochar" or any other kind of processed soil amendment. Many of our neighbors did likewise.

As for biochar as carbon sequestration, the idea of strip-mining forests to procure as much biochar carbon as we are currently strip mining as coal (you need greater than a 1:1 biochar:coal ratio if it's going to work) is terrifying. Especially remembering think that if you compress the carbon of a forest into a single thin coal-like layer, it's only a few millimeters thick. So you're talking about strip mining thousands of times as much forest (on an area basis) for biochar as you are doing for coal. There's nothing "green" in that.

Tom said...

JMG a very thoughtfully presented post. I enjoyed it.

@Cherokee Organics
Would it be possible to get information on or the reference to where you got the design for your "gravity fed (ie. no energy required at all) 3,000 litre worm farm which processes everything and returns the resulting nutrients to the soil."

marielar said...

JMG wrote:

"one of my concerns about biochar is precisely that most presentations of it, at least, are pulling one ingredient out of the very complex mix of terra preta, and treating it as a universal remedy. That strikes me as the usual sort of oversimplification our society likes so much, and gets into so much trouble from."

Absolutely. In research trial plots, many traditional practices tested individually fail to produce the results obtained in real life by small scale traditional farmers. The approach is just too reductionist. You cant isolate just one single practice and expect it to work in real life. Lets go back to Terra preta for an example: the main source of high quality protein along the Amazon is fish. So, in addition to the charcoal coming from in situ trees, there was massive addition of nutrients coming from the nearby watershed. Basically, all the material to build the soil fertility was local. And add an abundance of rain to extinguish the fire before complete combustion of the wood. It made sense to do it that way. We can also assume quite safely that the Indians, outside small fire for cooking, had very little competing uses for wood. Tropical climate eliminates the need to warm yourself in winter with a big roaring fire. You can divert that wood to improve the soil without freezing your buns at minus 30C.

With agriculture, there is no magic bullet, no solution that can be applied at a large scale with a guarantee that it will work. There is only local knowledge, observation and experience which comes with growing stuff and raising animals day in and day out for a long time. Once you got that under your belt, you can make some kind of educated guess that one specific technique or practice MIGHT work in your context. That is why I think your green wizardry approach is the way to go. The solutions will come from the bottom up from people who walk the walk and make do with the resources at hand. Not from people who try to sell their own cookie cutter solutions like permaculture or biochar. There will be a lot of snake oil salesmen in the coming years. Hopefully there will be a parallel increase in common sense and experience in the population to avoid diverting limited and precious resources in those unholy schemes doomed to failure.

hapibeli said...

Thank you JMG. Keep on gardening, learning skills that need little or no oil/coal products, build strong community, protect the written word,& don't buy SNAKEOIL

Gary said...

JMG,
“Policy details may matter, but daydreams don't.”
I try to restrict my dreaming to potential technologies that have a chance of scaling under the present capitalist industrial system – fatally flawed though it may be. Sure, we are going down in a big way. But it is by no means clear that the green wizardry approach has the best chance to replace the dominant paradigm. See for example Stuart Staniford’s essay about the future of agriculture: The Fallacy of Reversibility (http://www.theoildrum.com/node/3481). Nor is it clear how sudden will be our demise.
My daydreams are restricted to a short list of technologies that I feel have potential to mediate some of the damage done to the earth’s metabolism, while at the same time offer profit to our pathological economic system, since that’s the only way it can scale enough to matter. On this short list are two energy technologies, solar thermal systems, and high altitude wind power (HAWP), and biochar for agriculture. Solar-thermal is well developed, but restricted to a few sunny locations. Biochar and HAWP are both too new on the scene to know the full score. Neither is a magic bullet, but even us green wizards would like to be able to spend an evening on our computers or at least reading by and electric light without adding to the burden this earth has to put up with.

sofistek said...

Gary,

Stuart Staniford's essay was one of his weakest, at that time. In my view, he stated the "reversalist" argument in a way that he felt he could counter with historical data (rather than in the way that who he calls reversalists actually stated their arguments), and also assumed that historical data was as relevant for a post peak future as for the abundant cheap energy past.

I don't think you need worry about our "pathological economic system" much longer; it seems to be on its death bed. What we don't need are ways to fit into that system because that implies unsustainability. What we need are new ways of thinking. Green wizardry may not be new, but it is certainly forgotten about, in our complex world where every little action seems to have a specialist to do it. Right now, green wizardry feels new. We can't forget about energy but I think we can forget about the energy that would be needed to keep industrial society going.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Tom,

It's a commercially sold product here with EPA and local council compliance. The company's website provides no technical details on the construction of this system. A soil engineer was also required to test the soil on site for the specific drainage requirements.

I'm assuming you're not in Australia.

Any system that deals with human waste (black water) will have to comply with your local regulations.

That's the disclaimer. If you choose to replicate the process below then that's your business.

Here's how it works:
All household organic waste (plus waste water) enters the top centre of a large poly tank. There's an access trap on top of the poly tank for inspection and adding organic matter. The tank is wind ventilated to ensure the process doesn't go anerobic. There is a filter on the bottom of the tank to allow the excess water and vermicast to slowly wash through the system into absorption trenches. The worms and slugs live in the organic matter at the bottom of the tank. The trenches allow the water and vermicast to be slowly distributed into the soil for the purpose of growing trees, grass etc. It's very green there. Worms and slugs are an excellent way of dealing with the bacteria etc. in human waste.

It replicates the process of a rainforest floor and the smell at the top of the tank is slightly of humus, but you have to take a deep breath indeed. As I'm on a slope the whole process is powered by gravity. It never has to be desludged like a septic system.

If you were a pretty clever Green Wizard you could convert an existing septic system (with drainage trenches) to operate along these lines. Much better for the environment and ground water.

It's a commercial process so obviously you have to extrapolate for yourself the small details.

Good luck!

Josh said...

I've been reading for quite a while, and a lot of what you've brought up has blown dust off old memories of helping my grandparents garden when I was a child. It's even prompted me to shift a few behaviors in tending the couple of garden boxes I have. However, most everything you've covered in the Green Wizardry line thus far seems predicated on the idea that some land (even an 1/8th acre back yard) is available for use. Do you have anything to say to those of us living in small spaces and relying on public transit (and our own feet) in urban cores?

Bill Pulliam said...

The difference between the Staniford and Greer approaches in their visions of the future of agriculture is simple:

Staniford bases his on a few decades of data concerning one sector of the economy all during the pre-peak and at-peak times. Greer bases his on thousands of years of human history and the patterns shown by all sectors of economy and society over many rises and falls.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Hello, and OK, I'm waking up already!

Seriously, a bracing post for Thanksgiving: let's give thanks for our ability to think and do, and the ability to adapt. Post and comments spark so many thoughts...

To Marieler and others: interesting comments about biochar and complexity. Can't imagine trying to do biochar on the prairie.

Local ecosystems are worth studying and learning from, especially in a re-localized, low carbon future. Dissensus.

As Aldo Leopold said, it's necessary to learn about the land on which you live "as it was; as it is now; as it might be." I'm working on a couple of projects with a couple of different groups where this is a guiding principle. This is a kind of knowledge that many folks lack, though so much is readily available--even from, in the U.S., folks in state DNRs, Fish and Wildlife, ecologists and others.

This base of information about where you live (as so many commenters on this site demonstrate), combined with green wizardry, will generate very local ways of solving ag and other challenges. There were some very good reasons why American Indian cultivators along the Mississippi didn't square off their fields, leading to Euro accusations of "laziness." Those raggedy margins were a good place to catch small game, among other things.

I also read that article in The New Yorker and plan to learn something about fermentation as a food preservation technique.

A current dilemma: gaining knowledge, learning skills, doing projects, working with others--all takes so much (good productive) time it's getting hard to fit the day job in. But only the day job generates cash, and we're still living in and enjoying the fruits of the current economy and lucky to have jobs, and we're saving to buy land...

Gary said...

I don’t want to belabor this too much, since I’m basically with the rest of you in temperament on a personal scale. I ride my bike to work; I tend my garden through the winter, save and give away seed, practice plant breeding and compost art, etc. It’s great fun and maybe it’s the future – but maybe not for Josh living in the middle of the city along with millions of others.

To a large extent, the green wizard revolution can live within a gift economy and ignore the outside world. But the rest of the world is going to make economic choices based upon costs and needs. The take away message I get from Staniford’s piece is that industrial agriculture is here for quite a while – especially as energy costs increase. Presently our economic problems are not one of shortage but of a general glut of cheaply produced industrial goods. And indeed we seem on the cusp, as from Yeats…

TURNING and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity. …

It is indeed the lack of conviction of the best the passionate intensity of the worst that defines our moment in time. Our social/political institutions are rending in two – but not so much our basic energy and economic system yet. But, it is the failure of these institutions that generate a paralysis of action which leave us all much more vulnerable to the vagaries of the future. I suspect that peak oil will be less disruptive than the social unrest caused by the ever widening gap between the rich and the poor. Climate change will eventually dominate our conversation – but not for decades after it is too late.

In the mean time, where there are pockets of sanity, we have to make our efforts known. Policy decisions matter. When we eventually pick up the pieces, we need the well thought out ideas ready to go. Green wizardry is part of this process, but so are science, education, and debate.

dr-beowulf said...

Josh, I'm not JMG, but in your shoes I'd guess that the best thing you could do would be to learn skills that can be practiced in a small space and that are likely to be valuable to your neighbors. These could be anything from appliance repair (once we can no longer replace one cheap flimsy appliance with another cheap flimsy appliance, the art of actually fixing the blasted things should see a revival), to home improvement and energy-efficient retrofitting, first aid and emergency medicine, knitting, sewing, brewing beer. . . whatever you're good at, and whatever holds your interest. Some of these might sound more "green" than others, but any of these and more would give you something to contribute to the community you're in -- and community ties are going to be more and more important in getting through the long and bumpy descent.

Bill Pulliam said...

Gary -- no one knows the future. This is one of the few real "knowns" in all of this. Industrial agriculture might persists, it might slowly fade away, it might grow, it might collapse overnight in a global debt crisis. No one knows, though many seem to think they do. The important fact is that most of the world now has all its food-supply eggs in the one industrial globalized agriculture basket. In a time of major societal and economic shift, this is a bad idea for ANY critical survival function.

Staniford or anyone else saying "don't worry about it, it will be fine" as an only answer to the issue is a BAD idea. Same for anyone who says "this one particular thing is what we all need to do."

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, the notion that we can use biochar to offset the coal we burn is one of the least plausible lullabies in circulation these days, but of course it's popular -- so many people want to believe that they can continue their current lifestyles and have somebody else do something to clean up the mess.

Tom, thank you.

Marielar, exactly. Terra preta is a fascinating, complex, bioregion-specific vernacular technology; if it can be successfully reverse engineered, the results for tropical America could be impressive, and if some similar method turns out to work in the Old World rain forest belt, even better. The mistake, as I see it, is pulling one ingredient out of that complex mix and treating it as the solution to all our problems.

Hapibeli, or if you want to buy a bottle of snake oil, don't pretend that it can be used for anything but oiling snakes... ;-)

Gary, interesting that you should mention that essay by Stuart. I responded to it at length in an earlier post here, The Next Agriculture, where I pointed out the whopping logical fallacy at the core of his argument. As for the technologies you like, are you -- you personally -- doing anything to make them happen? (Talking them up on the internet does not count.) If so, good. If not, then you're just singing lullabies.

Sofistek, good. Thank you for getting it.

Josh, we'll be getting into more things that are obviously relevant to the landless urban lifestyle in a bit. For now, I'd point out that many urban people in multi-unit dwellings manage to garden in neighborhood allotments, or by "vertical farming" using balconies, windowsills, and the like, producing soil via a worm bin in the closet. In the meantime, if you use public transit and your feet rather than a car, you're making a bigger contribution than most!

Bill, thank you!

Adrian, very well put. Granted, there are only so many hours in a day; I'd be a lot further ahead in my own projects if I didn't have to keep earning a living!

John Michael Greer said...

Gary, how much influence do you have over international policy decisions? It's great fun to talk in the abstract about what could or should be done, and that can easily substitute for doing anything. The point to green wizardry is not that it aspires to live in a bubble supported by a gift economy -- I'm not at all sure where you got that, by the way; clearly not from the essays I've posted here -- but that it allows people to take immediate constructive action, here and now, in ways that will help them deal with the multiple impacts of a disintegrating industrial economy and a global biosphere going through a very ragged transition.

Right here, right now, food prices are climbing steeply as climate change and the speculative bubble du jour impact agricultural commodity markets. Planting a backyard garden is one sensible and eminently practical response to that; so are many of the other steps we'll be discussing in a bit, which allow people to get by more comfortably with fewer inputs from the industrial economy. Energy prices are low right now, due mostly to the overproduction of shale gas (which itself is driven by a complex set of economic forces), but it won't be for long; when it spikes again, all that effort that you put into insulating and weatherstripping is going to pay off. That's one of the central points of green wizardry; it's aimed at real issues in the real world -- issues that are coming to bear all around us as I write this.

It's very easy to insist that people ought to focus their time and attention on unproven, exotic technologies, say, or policy debates that never quite manage to do anything but business as usual. As Adrian pointed out, though, there are only so many hours in a day. I'd encourage people to put more of those hours into actually doing something that can have a positive effect, even on a very small scale, and less into sitting on their backsides waiting for someone else to trot out the policy or the technology that will supposedly save us all.

Beowulf, excellent advice! I'll be talking about a bunch of these points in more detail down the road a bit.

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, thank you again. There are a lot of people who think that singing "Don't Worry, Be Happy" is the best response to the mess we're in, and they have any number of excuses for singing it, but it's still a bad idea.

Master Oogway said...

Another fantastic source of material is Google Books. In this case I refer to an "advanced search" whereby you get lots of historical books, some dating back a couple of centuries or more. Many of these books are old enough to have become public domain and thus you can download the pdf's for free.
There is a wealth of old knowledge, instruction and skills there.

PR

sofistek said...

JMG, it's a shame that you still have to "earn a living". I decided, about 6 months ago to stop earning a living and try to become as self sufficient as we can. I think we probably have enough money for about 15 years, living frugally and modestly. Hopefully, before then, we will be able to survive comfortably on what we can do and produce ourselves (or, at least, close to it). If that 15 years is over and we haven't made it, or society has not devolved to some lower level (even if it can't be technically viewed as collapse), I'll be amazed. I still think we'd be in a better position to help ourselves and the community, though.

Gary said...

JMG, your response to Staniford’s Fallacy of Reversibility essay was well argued. I particularly liked your analogy to non-linearity with melting ice. There are certainly a lot of feedbacks in our economic system, but I’m not sure how many of them are negative. In fact, I would say that’s the problem at the moment. Most of the feedbacks are positive – tending to concentrate wealth and generate exponential and oscillatory behavior rather than stability. Hence the reason why Policy Matters – that’s usually the source of what negative feedback there is. But perhaps it doesn’t matter if we are headed toward are true non-linear bifurcation, or just a plain vanilla exponential overshoot.

My comment on a gift economy comes from an extrapolation of my own observations about what happens when you have a neighborhood of greening wizards. When you turn consumers into producers, there is a plenty to distribute. People like making social bonds and a gift economy lubricates the process. I give away honey and seeds. Friends give me wine, eggs, beef, etc. No cash, no barter, no expectations, but certainly the desire to “give back” that helps strengthen neighborly ties. If this isn’t part of the informal green wizard approach, it should be!

My small experience with industrial scale biochar came about when one of the large sawmills in town decided to build a large biomass burning power plant. When I heard about biochar a few years ago, I ran a few back of the envelope numbers and came to the conclusion that it was hard to make biochar pencil out unless it was combined with a complete co-gen system that efficiently used the sensible heat and combustion products. It occurred to me that this was a ripe opportunity to piggy back the technologies. I met twice with the principles of the operation and we had a good chat. Nothing may come of this… but then again maybe down the road… Presently there is little motivation for them to make char because of the high value of turning the material to smoke due to the “renewable” designation of their plant. Some details of the case to be made are here: http://squashpractice.wordpress.com/biochar/seneca-power-plant-could-be-a-step-in-the-right-direction/

SophieGale said...

@Josh: You might check out HyperLocavore to find a yard share in your area--or organize one yourself.

http://hyperlocavore.ning.com/

I have a neighbor who put in a garden the summer before last. I don't know if she kept it up last summer, but I intend to contact her and offer to contribute to her compost pile in exchange for a few tomatoes.

You might also look into Crop Mob and see if there's any action in your area.

http://cropmob.org/

I, too, rely on public transit. I can haul home a 40lb bag of topsoil on the bus. (Then I have to go die in a corner for a while.) I had rotten luck with container tomatoes so I am creating a pollinator garden on the postage stamp-sized patio. At least I can help the bees. I am also thinking about planting on the grassy strip between the sidewalk and the street.

Master Oogway said...

Try cherry tomatoes instead SophieGale. Very prolific, sweet and you can do lots with them. Roasted garlic and cherry tomatoes on noodles is to die for. We make that sauce up and freeze it in servings.

Michael Dawson said...

I'm a touch disturbed at the motion that devoting serious attention to large-scale affairs is somehow different than green wizardry. JMG, the reason to study and know and debate foreign and national policy is not that one can do anything practical about them at present. It is that one will need to do something about changing their course if the opportunity arises. Social movements have always been the main engine of democracy, and they are impossible if nobody sees the need for the next one.

Keeping ones nose to one's gardening strikes me as a pretty lousy thing to be promoting. Can't one read book and blogs as well, and maybe even attend meetings and attempt to re-build popular power? Why not?

And there's also the argument that, if the world's power structures are left to their own devices, they might very well succeed in blowing up or otherwise destroying the basis for any kind of decent survival whatsoever, green wizard fiefdoms included.

John Michael Greer said...

Oogway, true enough.

Sofistek, getting 15 years' worth of living expenses put by on a writer's income is easier said than done!

Gary, while it may be true that policy matters, are you taking any concrete role in trying to influence policy? Again, talking things up on the internet doesn't count!

Michael, you're taking my comments completely out of context and bending them around to mean things they don't mean. I've talked extensively about economics and politics here, for example. My point is simply that people who insist that X is going to save us had better be doing something concrete to make X happen, or they're singing lullabies.

sofistek said...

JMG, that 15 years of living expenses is a guesstimate. I was able to take out all of my pension savings, without penalty, which is what I'm now living on (I'm 56). I reckon that opting out of the consumer culture and spending only on green wizardry (or pretty close) means that very little money is needed each year.

I expect (but, of course, don't know) society to fall apart enough, in those next 15 years, that my pension funds would have been worthless if left in their investment vehicles, either because they would have fallen dramatically in value or because there would simply be no way to get at funds managed by a company long deceased. I don't expect the next 20 years to be a continuation of the last 20 years, so I thought I'd better get on and improve my, and my family's, chances of making it through the descent, short or long.

Bill Pulliam said...

Michael -- you must not have been reading here very long. Gardening is what this blog has been talking about in the immediate past; before that is has covered a whole lot of topics, practical and conceptual, from mythology to economics to sociology to thermodynamics to politics and beyond.

Fiefdoms? Where did you get that from? I think you are projecting unfounded frustrations here. And you have missed one of JMG's most fundamental themes, which is for people to explore ALL VARIETY of things, including the exact opposite of whatever he might be promoting in any given week.

straker said...

"A current dilemma: gaining knowledge, learning skills, doing projects, working with others--all takes so much (good productive) time it's getting hard to fit the day job in. But only the day job generates cash, and we're still living in and enjoying the fruits of the current economy and lucky to have jobs, and we're saving to buy land..."

That's where people have to be part of teams. Part of the team stays in the world of BAU so the other half has time to build the lifeboat. Unfortunately, it's pretty hard to make ends meet as a single wage earner, but lots of people are already out of work due to the recession anyway.

Steve said...

Welcome back! Between your guidance for composting and growing carrots I was feeling that you had gone all happy-talk on us. Thanks for coming back to reality and reminding us, as your counter-spell states, that "There is no better future." As I wrote to a community gardening friend who shares my (our) dark view of the near future, my intentions are to find a survivable option for my family and friends. It will be up to my sons to find a sustainable option. In solidarity.

John Michael Greer said...

Sofistek, that seems reasonable. Me, I'm eight years younger than you, and have never had a job with pension benefits, so I earn my living with my word processor.

Bill, that's the odd thing -- Michael's posted here before, quite a while back.

Straker, true enough. I think those teams used to be called "families."

Steve, never fear; the reason I've been talking about carrots and compost is that a lot of us are going to need that information to scrape by in the years to come. The Green Wizards project is going to be central to this blog for another six or seven months -- that's about how much information I have for it -- and then it will be spun off to a different set of forums and the like while the blog moves on.

Master Oogway said...

Take heart Straker, you have done a bunch of learning already. Much of what you currently know and the skills that you are using to bring in cash are transferable with a bit of tweaking.
I don't know what you do but there are a general set of skills in any profession. Management skills can be used anywhere, so too can manufacturing/trades skills. Examine what you know and look for the common themes and requirements.
To put it very simply, if you know how to swing a hammer then you can use any type of hammer with just subtle changes. A little more obscure but just as valid; as you swing the hammer concentrate on the forces that you apply and the stresses that occur on your arm and hand. That understanding is helpful in awareness of the strains on a backhoe arm.
I've operated most types of machinery and I've very confident that any new equipment I may encounter I can master quite quickly, based on the commonality of how machines function.

kelleyo said...

Hi JMG,

so any chance you'll tell us which book it was so we can not bother reading it?