Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Limits of Incantation

Since I started talking about the end of the industrial age in this blog, not quite five years ago, a fair number of my readers have had some difficulty imagining what industrial decline would look like in practice. That’s been a hard question to answer, not least because the notion that the only possible futures are progress or catastrophe has been repeated so often that it’s become integral to most contemporary worldviews.

Still, events have taken care of the matter. Readers of this blog who still want to know what the decline of an industrial civilization looks like need only take a good look at the latest news.

I could pull out any number of examples from the ongoing flurry of current affairs, but the ones that come readiest to hand are also the ones on most people’s minds these days. The cascading series of disasters in Japan is first on the list, of course. Poised unsteadily on a set of volcanic islands in one of the world’s most tectonically active areas, the Japanese have been hammered by massive earthquakes and tsunamis at regular intervals since before the dawn of recorded history, with a commensurate cost in death and human suffering; there are good reasons why Japanese culture so insistently stresses the impermanence of life and the transience of worldly things.

This time, though, the ordinary convulsions of the earth and sea intersected with an aging and brittle technostructure in ways that are amplifying the damage. Exhibit A, of course, is the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Built in the early 1960s using a design now considered dubiously safe, and pushed past the safe limits of its working life for the usual economic reasons, the plant turned out to be just that little bit too fragile to deal with the tsunami. A breakdown in the cooling system launched a series of cascading systems failures; as I write these words, it’s anyone’s guess whether the emergency crews who are risking their lives in the face of potentially lethal radiation will be able to get the crisis under control, or whether a chunk of northeastern Japan will get a dusting of high-level nuclear waste.

Meanwhile large sections of the global economy are quietly grinding to a halt as products and components from the shattered factory belt of northeastern Japan vanish from the world’s shelves. Global supply chains and just-in-time ordering turned out to have the same problem as every other attempt to improve efficiency by eliminating redundancy: they work great, until something goes wrong and you need a fallback option. Another object lesson in the hazards of too much interconnection is coming from global stock markets, which have been slapped silly by the sensible decision of millions of Japanese to cash in their foreign investments and get some liquidity in place where it counts right now, at home. The yen is up, most stock indexes are down, and another layer of instability has been added to a global economy staggering under the blows it’s already received.

Instability of another kind comes from the Middle East. In Libya, what looked like yet another canned “color revolution” suddenly had the script torn up by Col. Moammar Gaddafi’s unwillingness to play along. Whatever his failings as a person and a head of state, a lack of resolve is clearly not one of them; while Western politicians were smugly dismissing him as a has-been, Gaddafi marshalled his remaining forces, consolidated his position, and then launched a forceful military response that seems to have turned the civil war in his favor. Proponents of nouveau internet insurgencies take note: tanks, fighter planes, and infantry may be hopelessly old-fashioned, but that doesn’t make them ineffective.

The ruling house of Bahrain turned to similar methods when the insurgent flashmob occupying large sections of the capital turned violent. A call for help to neighboring monarchs brought in troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who promptly crushed the rising. The Saudis themselves had gotten on top of a similar rising at a much earlier stage; Western reporters in Saudi Arabia have noted with some discomfort that anyone who tried to organize protest rallies on the internet or the cell phone network could not be contacted shortly thereafter. It’s not unreasonable to be appalled at such methods of repression, but it’s worth remembering that the Western heads of state who denounce them, if they were faced with the prospect of an armed insurgency in their own countries, would do exactly the same things.

Behind the spread of insurgencies across the Arab world, in turn, lies the simple mathematics of food prices. Last month the cost of food worldwide passed the previous record set in 2008. To most people in America, where food accounts for a small portion of the family budget, that’s an inconvenience; to most people in the nonindustrial world, where it’s not uncommon for families to spend half their income putting food on the table, it’s an existential threat. Starving people do desperate things, such as trying to overthrow the local government. Autocratic governments with their backs to the wall do equally desperate things, such as calling in air strikes, or shoving dissidents out the back end of a van in the middle of the Arabian desert a couple of hundred miles from the nearest water source, doubtless with a pious wish that Allah will protect the virtuous.

So we’ve got technological crises, economic crises, and political crises, all driving a variety of feedback loops that intersect with other dimensions of the predicament of industrial society in ways that are hard to predict. Those of my readers who want a model for the long twilight of the industrial age may find this one useful; rinse and repeat, with occasional pauses and intensifications, and you’ve probably got a decent model of the next couple of centuries. Still, there’s another factor in play that’s worth a comment or two.

When Gaddafi refused to bow out and the insurgency in Libya tipped over into civil war, my readers will have noticed, President Obama’s response was simply to proclaim, as loudly as possible, “Gaddafi must go.” He had plenty of company in saying those words, but neither he nor any of his fellow heads of state did anything noticeable to make Gaddafi’s departure happen. Meanwhile, Gaddafi’s tanks and planes continued to pound the insurgents.

It’s not as though the western powers don’t have options, either, at least in theory. Any European nation much larger than Belgium could easily stop Gaddafi’s offensive in its tracks and take out his air force into the bargain, and we won’t even talk about what a spare US carrier group could do. For that matter, a few well-packed planeloads of munitions landing at Benghazi would probably be enough to turn the tide of the civil war back in the insurgency’s favor. The problem is that the situation in the Middle East as a whole is risky enough that any intervention, anywhere, could trigger drastic and highly unwelcome shifts in the balance of power.

At this point, after all, in the wake of the West’s abandonment of longtime ally Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, the Arab nations that produce most of the world’s oil have got to be asking themselves whether a sudden shift in allegiances might be in their best interests, and Western support of the Libyan insurgents would put ample frosting on top of that cake. If the Saudi monarch were to pick up the phone one fine morning, dial Beijing, and inquire about the possibility of a mutual defense pact, I doubt he’d be put on hold for long An awareness of this possibility has to be on the minds of policymakers in Washington and Brussels. This likely has much to do with the fact that the titular commander in chief of the world’s most expensive military machine has been reduced to mouthing “Gaddafi must go” as though it was an incantation.

Most of the way around the world, in Japan, the same reliance on incantation is playing a significant role in the Kan administration’s response to the Fukushima disaster. Right now, to be fair, the only factors that actually matter are the small team of beleaguered technicians who are struggling there at the plant, on the one hand, and the remorseless laws of nuclear physics on the other, so officials in Tokyo really have few other options. Incantations have long counted among the fine arts in Japan – it bears remembering, for example, that the imperial broadcast that announced surrender at the end of the Second World War referred to Japan’s total defeat in that conflict by saying, “the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage.” When a high government official announced a few days ago that one of the containment vessels at Fukushima Daiishi was “not necessarily intact,” in other words, those who were paying attention knew that it was time to worry – or to relocate.

Still, far and away the most colorful use of incantations in response to the Fukushima disaster has been in the media and the blogosphere here in America, where proponents of nuclear power have worked overtime to try to put their particular spin on a situation that seems to take a perverse pleasure in frustrating their efforts. It’s likely that much of this is being bought and paid for by the nuclear industry; using paid internet flacks to saturate social media with a desired message has already become a standard tactic in the worlds of politics and big business.

Still, whether they’ve issued from paid cyberflacks or unpaid true believers, the incantations in question make an intriguing spectacle. They started out, in the early days of the crisis, presenting rosy estimates of the situation, even claiming that the results of the tsunami showed just how safe nuclear power is. When reactor buildings started blowing up and made that last claim a bit hard to defend, insisting that the problem was a matter of one obsolete reactor design, and trotting out various pieces of untested vaporware as the wave of the future became the order of the day. When the situation started really spiralling downhill, it was time for rants about the evils of coal, as though that’s the only alternative, and then, inevitably, claims that the only alternative to nuclear power is to slink back to the caves.

There is, of course, another alternative. It’s the alternative that we’re all going to take anyway, as fossil fuels deplete and the various subsidies that make nuclear power and most of the other alternatives look economically viable go away forever. That alternative is to use much less energy than we do today. Here in the United States, it bears repeating, we use three times as much energy per capita as people in most European countries, to prop up a standard of living that by most measures isn’t as good. Fairly modest conservation measures, of the sort discussed in recent posts here, could render every nuclear power plant in America surplus if they were applied nationwide; a more serious national effort aimed at getting down to European levels of consumption could probably manage to turn most of the coal-fired plants into museum pieces as well.

Again, this is what we’re going to do anyway, whether we choose that route or not. The vast government subsidies that currently prop up not only nuclear power, but most of the rest of America’s energy production and consumption, are not going to be sustainable for all that much longer; neither, of course, are the “energy subsidies” that every other energy source derives from the immense quantities of cheap petroleum that are used to mine, transport, and provide raw materials for everything from solar panels to nuclear power plants. Equally, the American imperial presence in the Middle East and elsewhere, which currently backstops a global economic system that provides the 5% of us who live in America with 25% of the world’s energy resources and around 33% of its raw materials and industrial product, has a relatively short shelf life ahead of it, and as that comes unraveled, we are all going to have to learn to live with much less.

Faced with these unpalatable prospects, and a distinct shortage of practical options for doing anything about them, it’s not surprising that incantation has become the order of the day. In the twilight years of civilizations, as political, economic, and technological systems failures hamstring the ability of leaders and pressure groups alike to get their way, it’s a fairly common experience. Still, as an archdruid, I have a certain professional interest in incantations, and I find it disappointing to see them applied in situations where they’re not going to accomplish anything – say, to unseat a dictator who’s proven his willingness to use more robust means to keep himself wedged in place, or to make a brittle, dangerous, unsustainable, overcentralized, and fantastically expensive technology like nuclear power meet the needs of a declining industrial civilization. If any of the people involved would like to learn something about the proper uses and limits of incantations, I’d be happy to provide some tips.


On a brighter note, I’m delighted to report that choreographer Valerie Green and Dance Entropy, a New York City-based experimental dance troupe, will shortly be premiering a new work, “Rise and Fall,” inspired in part by my book The Long Descent, with music by nonconventional industrial group the Tone Casualties. Green writes:

“’Rise and Fall’ is an abstract dance for five performers based on the cycle of a civilization. This experimental dance work is comprised of multiple sections running the course of the following cycle: a new beginning, tracing footprints and remnants of the past, on to a developing population, agriculture, industrialization, modernization, awareness, gross consumption, terror, decline, population dissipation, and knowledge to begin again. The inspiration from this book cane from a recent visit to the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico, and the book The Long Descent by John Michael Greer...I have found the above ideas thought provoking and an inspiration in the development of a non-traditional movement vocabulary, and a compelling work of dance.”

Readers of this blog in the NYC area can see “Rise and Fall” at Dixon Place Experimental Theater at 7:30 pm, March 31, or at the Green Space Studio at 8 pm, April 8 and 17.


Wandering Sage said...

The Earth quakes
The Water flows
And Ripples Through the World
Sending waves of Fear and Doubt
Of Life and Death Unfurled
Today it’s Here
Tomorrow Where?
The Time has Come
We are not Separate from this Earth
Not Separate from
Each Other

by Aaron Hoopes, 2011

Please keep the people of Japan in your prayers, however you may pray.

And for everyone who is overdosing on Media


Remember Now
The Time has Come
To do Important Things
Go Outside
Touch the Earth
Breath, and Cry and Sing
I Know It’s Hard
A Very Tough Decision
Make it Now
Turn it Off
Unplug your Television

h2-1 said...

A nice summary of the recent week's developments. Needless to say, I share your views largely on the overall tendencies and patterns developing. I've expanded on one of my recent TOD comments on my blog, and have also shifted the primary focus of that blog, after debating for about year if I should dump or keep it. I'm going with keeping it for now, because I think we've finally hit the inflection point. I'll be expanding some more recent tod postings for now when time permits, but can't really dedicate the kind of time you do to the project at this point, but hopefully that will change in the future.

John Michael Greer said...

Sage, thank you.

H2, I appreciated your posts on The OIl Drum's Fukushima thread -- it's frankly high time that the paid cyberflacks started getting called to account.

M. Francis Heins said...

"The Alternative That We’re All Going to Take Anyway" is a song that needs to be re-sung into the collective unconscious.

My personal hope is that out of the Fukushima disaster -whatever order of magnitude it may, in the end, take- a real shift in popular attitudes toward the "Atomic Age" end of the Progress Utopia spectrum might occur.

A -relatively- small problem within the Peak Energy Predicament, as I see it, is Nuclear Waste, whether it be so-called or called "Power Plants" or "Strategic Weapons" or even "Medical Waste".

I think this meets the Y2k-crisis standard of a definite timeline within which to solve a definite problem. We have until fossil fuel shortages make it impossible to use the current industrial and social capacity to decommission all fission electrical plants, stand-down and "warehouse" all nuclear weapons and weapons platforms reactors (aircraft carriers, submarines), and either store them in one or a few places to mitigate the impact of their sure leakage, or attempt to mitigate that same danger through the use of as-yet-unproven Thorium Fission reactors.

A consensus that this can and needs be done seems to be growing -if Germany's loud proclamations of its existing decommission plans and China's quieter brakes-pressing on Big Nuke's new cash cow can be take as such. But whether that is true yet or not, I think that just leaving the Nukes to rot has been effectively taken off many a table.

Can we, as a people, do this one little thing? To make sure that the techno-hubris of our grandfathers stands as little of a chance as possible of skewing the patterns of evolutionary Life off course -perhaps- for much of the half-billion years of time left to terrestrial life at all?

I'd like to think so, and I'd very much like to know what you and the regulars here think as well.



P.S. I do realize what a grandiose thing such a conscious effort to end the Atomic Age as nicely as possible would be. I am, however, beginning to suspect that the grandiosity of the disaster may compensate for that seeming flaw.

Cherokee Organics said...


The mantra of growth is strong, master. Few there are, that hear and heed the call of energy conservation. Strong indeed is the magic and I see it's assault on people and the environment, everyday and everywhere. Few envision inconvenience to themselves in the near to far future. I fear change will be forced on all sooner or later and it will be driven by the fossil fuel subsidies in the food chain.

I can't think of a more useless occupation than cyberflunky. I've encountered them in my own efforts and they sap energy and distract people from the big picture. Also an interesting technique they employ, is that they latch onto one aspect (often very minor) of a larger picture. They then set about discrediting it rightly or wrongly. This technique is used to empower themselves and distract people from the central message. You see it used in climate change debates all the time. I feel sorry for them, as they criticise that which they themselves lack the wit to build.

Incidentally, Australia having large resources of uranium has reconsidered publicly debating nuclear energy as an option due to recent events. We are still under pressure to sell yellow cake to India, who incidentally haven't signed the nuclear non proliferation treaty.

Interesting times.



adamatari said...

JMG, I want to believe that intelligent, sensitive people can all put one and one together as far as the nuclear crisis is concerned, and it's very tempting to believe that much of it is paid hacks.

Sadly, I really think the paid hacks are at best 5% of the pro-nuke contingent. Otherwise intelligent, sensitive people can't imagine the world being run differently than it's run today, and especially the idea of less power is beyond them. I think their emotions, rather than pushing them toward what in this case would be a fairly reasonable rethinking of nuclear power, push them toward denial. They think of nuclear power as part of the magical techno-world that they are a part of, and so it's indispensable. It's a "risk we can't afford not to take". They think because we have airplanes (temporary as that may be), we should have nukes. I want to believe it's just an industry line, but the sheer scale of it and hearing the line from people around me makes me think otherwise.

I have to thank my parents for raising me with hiking and going to beach on vacation, and for living somewhere with a fair amount of woods for me to play in. I look at these things, or the moon in the sky, and realize that our powers are terrible but very finite. The real world is not what shows on the computer screen.

Speaking of Japanese art and the realization of the transience of things, have you read "Hojoki", otherwise called "An Accout of My Hut"? It's a quick read, you can find a passable English version online, and I think you would like it.

Of course, modern Japan favors the apocalyptic, but sometimes I wonder if they aren't just two faces of the same realization - that all things fade in time.

tubaplayer said...

Thanks JMG for the insight.

Reminds me of the bloke that asked about aircraft safety - "Do these aircraft crash often?" "No mate, only once!"

I have been quietly anti-nuclear for many, many years - since the days when Calder Hall as it was then (they keep changing the name, hoping it will go away) spread fallout in a plume across the Lake District of the UK, causing the farmers in its path to have to pour away the milk from their cattle for a long time.

DIYer said...

Here's a direct link to H2's comment at TOD, and I think it's worth repeating:

"But overall I view the daily progress of these threads as most interesting as exposing the methodology of the nuclear industry's spin and PR methods, whether directly, from paid posters, or from people who have absorbed the message from corporate media sources over the years without realizing it, then internalized it (like the film Inception, for example) until they believe it's their belief/conclusion."

Phil Knight said...

Hello Archdruid,

This is somewhat off-topic, but I often use your posts and comments to pick up tips on books, and I wonder if you could point me towards a good book on sacred geometry. Thanks in advance (and apologies for digressing.)

Slightly more on-topic, I often tell the people I know down the pub that the only long-term replacement for oil is horses. This usually results in about a minute of irrational rage, then a period of silent contemplation, then another minute of irrational rage about how all the oil is being wasted and needs to be conserved.

John Michael Greer said...

Francis, I'd like to believe that could happen. Still, I think it's a good deal more likely that there won't be enough of a consensus until the resources to do that don't exist any longer, and so our descendants for the next ten thousand years or so will have to get used to the fact that there are places you can't go, water you can't touch, etc.

Chris, the obsession with growth is exactly what has to be confronted, as often and directly as possible.

Adamatari, granted, there are a lot of true believers as well. It's just been fascinating to see the sudden flurry of posts on various forums from brand new posters, all with their carefully polished arguing points, who vanish without a trace when somebody calls them on an inaccuracy. As for Hojoki, I haven't -- I'll check it out. Many thanks!

Tubaplayer, nice!

DIYer, many thanks.

Phil, yes, it's off-topic, but I can't help but reflect just now that the more people study disciplines like sacred geometry, instead of figuring out new ways to generate and waste electricity, the better off we'll all be. Miranda Lundy's elegant little intro Sacred Geometry is a good starting place, from there I'd go on to Matila Ghyka's The Geometry of Art and Life and Robert Lawlor's excellent Sacred Geometry: Philosophy and Practice.

As for horses -- good. If people in pubs are willing to stop and think long enough to get past the first pulse of irrational rage, there's hope for the future.

Jim Brewster said...

Great to hear someone is using your work to inform their art. That's sure to be a sign of more to come. Greek tragedy, anyone?

Blue Oyster Cult hit the nail on the head in 1977 with the song "Godzilla," and the line "history shows again and again how nature points out the folly of man."

Lately world events have been pointing out the irrelevance of the US federal government. (though the fact that John "Bomb Iran" McCain isn't at the helm right now is some consolation for the moment...)

Chris said...

An excellent essay - I drifted away from your essays, perhaps more than a year ago, but returned today out of curiosity to find this eloquent and charming piece.

I particularly liked the subtle stab at the pro-nuclear apologists.

I am tempted to conclude that perhaps you have read a recent exchange on The Market Ticker blog between Nicole Foss (Stoneleigh of and Karl Denninger (Genesis). The exchange starts near the top of page three.

Denninger falls clearly into the camp of intransigent nuclear supporter. He states in an almost militant style, just how prepared he is, to happily accept the risks of nuclear power in exchange for "first world status" and we have no alternative unless we can satisfy all of his criteria for alternatives.

Nicole Foss and others attempted to challenge Denninger on his risk-to-benefit bargaining - but his tantrums looked too much like the petulance of a small child, or the insistence of public employees with previously strong unions to insist that the tax payer reach further into their empty pockets!

Denninger's cognitive dissonance is almost palpable.

Fleecenik Farm said...

That phrase "rinse and repeat" struck me this morning. It was nearly a year ago that we had our own catastrophic failure in the Gulf Of Mexico. The hacks are hard at work this time around trying to lay blame on the lack of domestic drilling. Like a bad wind-up doll, Palin's, "drill baby drill" makes my teeth grind. Meanwhile, because of our inability to deal with the decline in energy we are going to have vast swathes of our planet poisoned.

It saddens me.

Don Plummer said...

I found another comment by H2 on that TOD thread very interesting:

"The nuclear expert was asked, ok, say we can't afford to leave the country, what should we do? The expert replied: leave the country. Wish I could source that, but that's the gist of it."

John, ever since news of this disaster first broke last Friday I began wondering whether your Neeonjin Country might be a bit closer to becoming a reality.

Twilight said...

This is a comment I posted on TOD earlier, but it will probably be ignored there and seems appropriate to the previous discussions here concerning matter and energy flows:

“People keep making the point that the consequences of failures involving radioactive contamination are far longer lasting and more severe than other types of accidents that largely affect those immediately involved. It's a simple concept and I have to wonder why some seem to not understand it. The major exceptions to that are the climate change resulting from fossil fuel use, and the general burden on our planet's ecosystems that our energy-driven overpopulation is causing. However, nuclear power is doing nothing to alleviate either of those situations.

Note that it is not just the failures of nuclear power that have long term negative consequences, it is the refinement and concentration of nuclear materials period. We have no means to deal with this concentrated radioactive material after it has been used, and there is zero possibility that we will be able to maintain a society with sufficient skills to handle such material even as well as we do now for as long as would be required. Therefore, what will ultimately happen to all of this material is exactly what you see happening now - it will disbursed over the surface of the earth, eventually to be returned to a much more distributed state as it was when we found it. We have concentrated this material, and entropy will ensure that it becomes less concentrated again.”

Since posting that I realized there is another possibility – that life forms will accumulate the material effectively using solar energy to maintain its concentration, or at least to delay its redistribution.

nutty professor said...

I very much like your postings on current events, interspersed with practical instructions on solar heating, energy conservation, food, etc.

I understand that one valid human objective is balance with the elemental and natural Forces; however, given the seemingly arbitrary ways that such Forces manifest in human experience - some might use the term "capricious" - it seems to be that any sense of human will or might against such Forces is at best wishful thinking. Wouldn't you say that Nature trumps all of our illusions of control, and therefore, a more legitimate response might be to transform the myth of illusion, rather than to continue to live within our myths? Do we need a new philosophy? A new religion?

Loveandlight said...

It would appear that the Obama Administration is starting to realize how silly it looks relying on incantation alone to influence the situation in Libya.

Chris: You misunderstand the situation in Wisconsin. The public service unions have agreed to Walker's drastic fiscal demands and are simply fighting to maintain their ability to collectively bargain, without which unions are little more than glorified social clubs. Do yourself a favor and stop listening to Rush and Fox News.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Hello to JMG (and all here),

I'd just like to say thanks--as the world as we know it unravels (in whatever often-tragic plunkity-clunkity nonlinear fashion), it is oddly heartening to come by each week and read news from the real world.

What I'm doing personally often seems like very hard work, between learning new skills and communicating with others about issues and methods--especially during busy, busy spring.

But I believe there are so many who understand how fragile the current system is and who are turning, however tentatively, to more ecologically tenable ways of doing things--many more than is generally reckoned. A decentralized, non-organized movement is growing, a groundswell, if you will. I see it everywhere I go.

Wish I could attend that dance performance!

guamanian said...

Hi JMG -- A 'minor but important' point: As a long-time close observer of revolutionary processes, I think it is incorrect to typify the Arab Revolution as a 'color revolution'.

The way I use the term, color revolutions are externally sponsored and well organized pseudo-revolutionary events intended to reverse political developments in a target state. An amusing 'marker' of a color revolution is the presence of expensive large-scale video arrays at the central square where events unfold... the Spectacle in it's most blatant form!

Starting with the self-immolation of a young Tunisian street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, the Arab Revolution instead has the earmarks of an unplanned popular insurrection -- vanguard parties caught unawares, self-organization, emergent leadership, and strategy created on-the-fly.

The reason the difference makes a difference is that 'color revolutions' are not deeply rooted, and are easily dispersed by their paymasters when they no longer have utility.

Popular insurrections don't dissolve so easily. With the uprisings crushed in Bahrain and Libya, and an army-lead counter-revolution in Egypt, I expect the Arab Revolution will disappear as a mass democratically-oriented protest movement... but in being crushed it may well give rise to new armed underground groups, further destabilizing the region.

In addition to defining the fate of the generation of hopeful young people who created the uprisings, this will also prevent anything resembling a return to autocratic 'normality' in the Middle East. The current regimes may cling to power, but that power will be brittle and repeatedly challenged, and the region will be far less governable than in the past.

Democratization might have released social pressure and slowed the pace of collapse in the region. I don't believe that will happen now.

Richard Larson said...

Over the last five years I have been studying the fossil fuel intensive lifestyle in the United States ever more realizing the decline that IS ongoing.

The nuclear event in Japan will have more than a radioactive consequence, but is also going to effect the supply of electricity for a long time. Where was the planning for either?

Sadly, the people in the US are walking in the same footsteps as those Japanese living near the old nuclear power plants at direct threat of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown.

There is a reason some major religious books end with descriptive ends (of life). They have learned by experience. Again. Again. And now again.

More pain to come. Nice read, your penchant for good news notwithstanding.

Mark said...

I present this data not in defense of Nuclear Power, but to show just how much energy we (Americans) use.

Full Disclosure: I am a former Nuclear Engineer (BS/MS) but now install solar electric and solar hot water systems. The only nuclear reaction I really pay attention to is 93 million miles away and it's fusion, not fission.

Seabrook Nuclear Power Station is a Westinghouse Designed Pressureized Water Reactor located in Seabrook NH. The plant is rated at 1124 megawatts-electric. That means that its peak (instantaneous) POWER output is 1,244 megawatts.

Seabrook's average capacity factor for the last three years was 88%. That means it operated at peak power for 88% of the 8,760 hours in each of the past three years (or some combination of below peak and peak such that the total annual production was 88% of it operating at 100% power for the full year).

The ENERGY output of the plant for each of the last three years is 1,124 MW x 8,760 hours x 88% = 9,622,439 megawatt-hours.

That's a lot of energy but it's hard to imagine how much so let me put it in terms of solar panels in Massachusetts (where I do my installations).

A typical solar panel is around 200 watts of peak power.

In MA, the solar capacity factor for an unshaded, south-facing, solar array is about 13%. That means for every 1,000 watts of solar panels, you'll get about 1,200 kilowatt-hours per year.

When installing solar panels on "ground mounted" or flat-roof arrays, we can fit, on average, about 7 watts per square foot. (we have to space panels out so they don't shade each other).

If we want to generate 9.6 million megawatt-hours in a year using solar, we need more than 40 million 200-watt solar panels.

At 7 watts per square foot, those 40 million panels require more than 41 square miles.

And that's just to replace Seabrook Nuclear Power Station.

We use far far too much electricity...

Mark Durrenberger (

Gabriel Balaz said...

I was nuclear energy believer, even so that I have masters degree in this field..
Gradually I have become more and more skeptic. As my knowledge of details grew I became concerned about many things:

- nuclear waste and its long time management , there project to recycle nuclear waste (and reduce the half life of elements 10 000 times as byproduct) but only in theory

- nuclear power plants are true marvel of engineering but they operate on such a thin margin of error – in 1st reactor in my country (Slovakia) serious accident occurred in 1977 during fuel loading (which I guess most people would consider to be save state of operation since the reactor is “stopped”), this INES level 4 accident resulted in damaged fuel integrity with extensive corrosion damage of fuel cladding and release of radioactivity into the plant that was consecutively shut down and is still (!) being decommissioned, ironically the share of nuclear power since this accident has risen significantly.

- overall EROI which was naturally not mentioned in uni courses and to be honest not required but the true believers that attended

Nowadays I often find myself holding down the horses of nuclear optimist in our debates of energy future (one goes a long way).
The waste we have produced in recent decades remains and it will likely remain longer that life expectancy of our species. We will have to pay lot of attention and money to deal with it.

Alchemyguy said...

I have nothing more valuable to add than that you know you've made it when your work becomes fodder for interpretive dance!

Don Plummer said...

@Fleecenik: sadly, I think you're right. I've thought about this a lot in recent weeks. The end of the industrial age will probably be accompanied by an acceleration in environmental damage--in both amount and kind--as our society desperately tries to hang onto what we ultimately cannot keep.

bccarver said...

hi JMG

i run a small lpg delivery co. and am forced to belong to the Canadian lpg association at the cost of $1500/yr. Their sole purpose, other than their emergency response team, is to promote the increase use of lpg. They are constantly lobbying govt and industry to use more fuel, consequently increasing the price. I am lobbying them to focus their efforts into conservation, reducing demand , thereby reducing the price. To no avail.

jim said...

I found a group that is working on a project called the Global Village Construction Set. The goal of the project is to develop open source tool set that should allow small groups to turn local raw materials into a wide range of products for local use.

I see these folks as being somewhere in between green wizards and transition towns.

Here is a link to their blog:

Andrea G. said...

While everything you say is true, I still find myself grateful that it was a nuclear power plant that got hit rather than, say, a chemical manufacturing facility. To paraphrase Neil Gaiman, uranium has a half-life of 100-million years, but arsenic is forever.

blue sun said...

About a decade ago, back before I knew about peak oil or had any idea that there were empires in the modern world (not to mention that the USA had empirical holdings, such being the conventional understanding gleaned from high-school-level "history"), we rented a travel video about Portugal. We had a great laugh when Rick Steves introduced Lisbon by saying that an earthquake ruined the city in 1755 and it never recovered. Of course it was also the way he said it, but to spoiled Americans who had only experienced the 1980s and 1990s, it seemed so completely ridiculous that it became something of an inside joke. Who could imagine one earthquake knocking out a city for 250 years?

Such is the shortcoming of pop history to focus on a single event. Viewed from the broader perspective of empire, however, it makes much more sense. Perhaps in 1755 Lisbon SEEMED a great and mighty city of a great and mighty empire, but the empire is always kaput long before anyone will admit it, and keeping up appearances is much easier than actually maintaining the mighty empire. No doubt Portugal was on its last legs for some time beforehand. Thus the earthquake was all it took to push it over the edge, although a gnat's wing might have done the same.

I would guess Japan is probably in the same position today. Anyone familiar with recent financial history knows that ever since the Japanese economy took a nosedive around 1990, it has never been the same. Don't underestimate the power of our modern industrial countries to "coast" and pretend that nothing's wrong. I would not be surprised if Japan nevers recovers from this.

If that's the case, the simple-minded historians of tomorrow may blame the earthquake itself for Japan's demise, but I'm sure the more discerning minds will trace it back at least two decades earlier to the great debt bubble which signified the beginning of the end, and, of course, the broader picture of global overshoot due to the limits to growth. The way things are arranged these days, every industrialized country is an overextended empire, is it not?

We here in the USA are probably only a few years behind Japan. "Extend and pretend" is a common enough phrase in the banking industry today. Our leaders and most of the world media still maintain the illusion that the USA is invincible.

cburch said...

I appreciate your writings every week. Thank you.

You may have been a little facetious, and I doubt the intended audience even knows of your existence or mine, but you piqued my interest when you wrote:

"If any of the people involved would like to learn something about the proper uses and limits of incantations, I'd be happy to provide some tips."

Any pointers for the rest of us?


M. Francis Heins said...


In the cold, sobering, light of morning I tend to agree with you. If so it will really be quite a tragedy. At least it will be wrapped up in a neat enough package to allow future generations to easily appreciate the lesson to be learned.

Germany's decommission program and China's recent moves do give me a fair bit of hope that the first steps of my "plan" -shut down before breakdown, and some concentration of the waste- stand a good chance of being undertaken in some places while there is still the resources to "easily" do so, however.

Also, I have been thinking a lot about what reaction we can expect from the Japanese themselves, once the crisis has cooled and stock can be taken. Of course we can't speak of the Japanese as a monolith, but I do think there may be cultural features of the Japanese that may guide their response to Fukushima in a fairly radical direction. Not just the understandably more complex attitude toward Nukes than other cultures (Godzilla has already been mentioned here), but I am also reminded of the Tokugawa Period, and its inward turning, its strict resource management for self-sustainability, and its general disregard for "western" machine-based solutions. Food for thought.

Your post got me imagining those inhabitants of the far future and how they will make sense of such forbidden areas. Will primitive and ahistorical tribes merely discover, and rediscover, and rediscover again, that such and such a place is deadly? Will some kind of Morgul Vale legend have survived to scare the young shepherd boys of a simple farming society from letting the flock wander into a dangerous place? Will some sort of religious order have astonishingly preserved something of the truth and thus keep even the unlettered of an ecotechnic civilization from harm?

It is a bit hair-raising contemplating such deep futures!

Lastly, on the cyberflacks:

Has anyone else had this spooky experience?

You are lurking or commenting on an article-attached thread on some popular social/political "news and opinion" site (for me it was when suddenly you realize -or get the paranoid thought- that EVERYONE else on the thread is a cyberflack of some stripe? That in all the noise you are the only person really "there", in the sense that you are actually writing up your thoughts and opinions, not propaganda tricks?

It reminded me of an incident that happened to me in a cave system once. After getting distracted for a seemily short while by the markings of an old bear snuggle spot, I stepped into a chamber to find, to my surprise, it totally dark and empty. The clear conversations and footsteps of the main body of the tour group ahead of me were actually coming from several chambers further on, not the one next to me, as I had thought. Echoes had led me to think I was in (or near) a large company, when I was really quite alone! Eerie experience.


greatblue said...

JMG, another stellar post. I've been waiting to see what you would say about all that's going on. As always, in thoughtful and measured commentary, you provide a context that no one else provides, impeccably expressed.

Quite apart from the nuclear aspect, it's hard to grasp the magnitude of the devastation in northeastern Japan. Completely amazing to this American is the incredibly calm, orderly, and mutually helpful behavior of the Japanese people who have been affected. Such a contrast to the chaos of Katrina. The Japanese people have been showing the world how to behave in a crisis. We would do well to follow their example.

I've found it telling that in both the Gulf Oil disaster and this Fukushima nuclear disaster, the source of most information about what's going on is a corporation. In the first case, that corporation took steps to ensure as much as possible that others could not find out what's going on. In the second, the danger of the situation itself is keeping others away. The stranglehold that corporations have on technology and information is an aspect of modern life that is truly malignant.

I've been reading _Thinking in Systems: A Primer_ by Donella H. Meadows, a book that was recommended a number of weeks ago in the comments of this blog. It is excellent. It's clear and appropriately paced for the layman. But I think the really great thing about the book is that for each abstract concept she gives specific illustrative examples drawn from a wide variety of disciplines, such as agriculture, small or large business, forest management, the biology of disease, macroeconomics, city crime levels, bathtub water levels, and home heating, among others. Therefore, even if you don't have a clue about some of the disciplines, you probably have personal experience with at least one of them. This makes a potentially difficult subject easy to grasp for just about anyone. I'll add my high recommendations to those already expressed.

Here is a quote that seems to express our worldwide predicament very well: "There will always be limits to growth. They can be self-imposed. If they aren't, they will be system-imposed. No physical entity can grow forever. If company managers, city governments, the human population do not choose and enforce their own limits to keep growth within the capacity of the supporting environment, then the environment will choose and enforce limits." (_Thinking in Systems_, p. 103)

If more people understood this natural law, we'd be in a lot better shape, no doubt. Wouldn't it be great if there was an incantation that could embed this idea into our brains...

Odin's Raven said...

Most of the adjustment is likely to be compulsory, following the decline of the dollar. Once that starts to hit, all the virtuous and diligent 'ants' are likely to be slaughtered by the greedy and improvident 'grasshoppers'.

Chanting is not likely to hold them off. When 'Bad Leroy' arrives, it could be very helpful to know someone like this 'guru', who can 'call spirits and have them answer when he calls'.

lagedargent said...

Priceless wrap up of last week's f***-up. Thank you.
In the last sentence before your 'brighter note' you proffer tips for clueless politicians on the effectiveness of incantations. Better not! They might take heed.
I seem to remember you've dwelled on this topic in a former post. Do you happen to recall where I should look for that particular passage. I'd like to read it again.
As far as incantations go, I once read about one that really worked, in Sallust's Bellum Iugurtinum, retold very humorously by Robert Graves in one of his Claudius novels. Lost in the desert of today's Morocco and low on water (and ale), a Roman legion partly consisting of Germanic auxiliaries, chanted an incantation to the local deity 'Gwa-gwa' - does that remind of 'aqua'? - to make rain. Their plea was so successful that the whole plain became inundated at once. The local tribes, who had observed their enemies from a distance, waiting to strike the final blow, were so impressed by their magic that they came meekly offering the rebellious king the Romans had been hunting for weeks.
If the G7 had followed your earlier advice, this time it could have been Gaddhafi.

John Michael Greer said...

Jim, now there's a blast from the past. Those old monster movies are looking a bit prescient at the moment, too.

Chris, faith in progress is the religion of our society, and the nuclear reactor has long been one of its central totems -- as well as one of the main target of faith-based notions about a future of perpetually abundant energy, now that fossil fuels are pretty clearly not going to provide that. Expect a lot of irrationality on the subject from here on in.

Fleecenik, the one thing to keep in mind is that you can only rinse and repeat a few times before the fabric starts going to shreds or the soap runs out.

Don, funny you should mention that. I was thinking the same thing.

Twilight, nicely put.

Professor, basically, yes. The myth of progress and its surrounding mythology have become dysfunctional, so what we need are other myths that make more sense of the universe of our experience.

Loveandlight, my guess is that it's going to be a case of too little and too late. Gaddafi needs about 72 more hours to finish the job he's started, and it will take more than a no-fly zone to stop him.

Adrian, I've gotten the same sense -- as Ghan-buri-Ghan put it, "wind is changing." We may see some unexpected and welcome shifts in the years just ahead.

Guamanian, it's a heck of a good question just how spontaneous the latest round of revolutions in the Arab world is. The manuals developed by the CIA et al. for color revolutions have gotten into wider circulation at this point, and almost anybody -- foreign or domestic -- might be using the same stratagems; equally, though, since they're based on experience from relatively spontaneous risings, it's hard to tell.

Richard, no question, it's going to be a mess. It will be interesting to see in hindsight whether the electrical power now permanently offline in Japan ever gets replaced.

Mark, this is why I don't put a lot of faith in PV systems. Sunlight is diffuse enough that converting it into anything but heat is a losing game. Leave it as low grade heat, though, and it'll heat your home and your bathwater, and cook your meals very nicely on sunny days. More on this in next week's post!

Gabriel, those are basically the reasons I don't think we'll have nuclear power around for long once cheap fossil fuels become a thing of the past. The waste, unfortunately, is with us for much longer.

Alchemy, I was thinking something of the sort!

Carver, that's par for the course. It's frankly up to the consumers of energy to get the changes started.

John Michael Greer said...

Jim, nice. Thanks for the link!

Andrea, northeast Japan is a major factory belt, and there were plenty of industrial facilities right down close to the shore, where they could load and unload from freighters. As the situation becomes clearer, you're going to find plenty of destroyed chemical factories, too. Arsenic may be forever, btw, but it takes a lot less plutonium to kill you.

Blue Sun, excellent! You get today's gold star for paying attention to history. You're quite correct; a natural disaster near the inflection point in a declining society can cause a sudden speedup to the decline, to the extent that the damage never gets made good.

Chris, that's a subject for a book in itself. The key concept, though, is to remember -- in the jargon I studied back in the day -- is that "the planes are discrete and not continuous." That is to say, incantations are good at what we might as well call magic, that is, the art and science of causing changes in consciousness in accordance with will; even on that plane, they can be countered by a sufficiently strong or skilled counter-incantation; and down on the plane of matter, where fuel rods heat up at their own inexorable pace, they don't do much. Again, this is a very brief overview of a very complex subject; I may have to post something at length on the subject one of these days.

Francis, the First Nations of the Puget Sound area have legends going back to the reflooding of Puget Sound at the end of the last ice age, so oral history can last for a very long time. My guess is that in age after age, people will tell their children whispered tales of the Accursed Place, heavily reinforced by the fact that those who ignore the tales -- and there will be a few in each century or two -- die of sudden and incurable disease. That's the future we've made for our descendants.

Greatblue, thank you. The Meadows quote is of course dead on.

Raven, most of the ants I know are armed; many of the grasshoppers are not. That does change the odds a bit.

Lagedargent, I'll have to go look it up -- you might try searching for the words "incantation" of "magic" on the blog search function. As for the story, that's great -- maybe we can get some soldiers from the Bundeswehr to give it a try.

Rich_P said...

As our industrial society unwinds -- and we expend more energy dealing with its waste products -- I'm reminded of Richard Feynman's quote about the Challenger disaster: "For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled."

Though perhaps we should replace "technology" with "society."

Notice how often PR talking points are trotted out in debates about climate change or nuclear power. What useless distractions; let's stick to the observations, folks. At the end of the day, Nature doesn't care about you or your industry or your talking points.

I think it's safe to say that from here on out, any city leveled by a natural disaster will never really recover to its previous state. There's just not enough net energy around to make it happen.

SunsetSu said...

Before the earthquake and tsunami, Japan supplied some large percentage of the world's silicon chips for computers. I would guess that the computer industry - and everything that is dependent on computers, which is nearly everything - will be deeply affected.

Then there is the growing cost of cooling, heating and maintaining the buildings that house all the computer server farms in CA. In the not-so-distant future, many households may no longer be able to afford private computers.

Our cheap and speedy access to the Internet may be short-lived. For that reason, I plan to download and print out much of the material provided by this site.

Don't become too reliant on the Internet. Keep buying reference books and getting to know your neighbors.

Odin's Raven said...

The Ants may be armed as individuals, but the Grasshoppers will control the armed forces of the country. The Ants can easily be demonised as kulaks, hoarders, selfish anti-social elements, and righteously angry forces of overwhelming power 'democratically' sent against them.

You may be able to kill or scare off a few looters, but I hope you can bring the Tuatha de Danaan back from the Otherworld and prove a greater Druid than Mogh Ruith if you expect to prevail against the army, air force and police!

Wendy said...

My recent blog post is about "electricity", and I talk about the fallacy of depending on nuclear energy as "the" answer. It was interesting to me that one of the people who left a comment said, essentially, that nuclear is the only thing that can take the place of oil, as if we should be finding a substitute at all.

Great post. I linked to it from my facebook page, because there's a lot of that "we shouldn't abandon our nuclear energy program" talk on Facebook, too, and you say better what I've been trying to say for the last few days.

John Michael Greer said...

Rich, good. Post-Katrina New Orleans and post-auto industry Detroit are good models -- some recovery in some areas, others completely abandoned. We'll see a lot of that.

Sunset, a year or so ago I spent several weeks trying to talk about that here. It was quite a spectacle; I kept on pointing out the economic limits to the internet, and a lot of the people who commented literally pretended that I hadn't said anything about that; they kept on talking about ways that it might be technically possible to maintain an internet in a deindustrial future, since after all we have to have an internet, and avoided the economics as though the issue had never been raised. I ended up posting an all-out rant, and deleting every single comment that didn't address the issue I was raising. It was educational to see just how many people will do their level best not to think about the very real limits to that hugely expensive and energy-intensive technology.

Rsven, er, you need to read fewer bad future-dystopia novels. In the US, at least, the military's way ahead of the curve -- they've been talking peak oil for years now, and there's a reason the Air Force has a large biofuels program -- and it'll be an interesting question who controls who as we slide further down the long ragged curve of decline. The future tyranny meme is simply one more offshoot of the Book of Revelation, with various supposed badguys playing the role of Antichrist; it's much more likely that we'll face a shortage of public order than an overdose of it.

Wendy, thanks for the link! You've touched on the driving force behind a lot of the pro-nuclear sloganeering -- the notion that we have to have a replacement for oil. People will try to convince themselves of almost anything rather than come to terms with the fact that in the future, we'll simply have a lot less energy.

SophieGale said...

Youngstown, OH, has been bulldozing a few hundred vacant houses a year since 2005, and now the mayor of Detroit is talking about bulldozing one quarter of the that city:

On a lighter note (I think...)Vermont is using draft horses to pull high speed Internet cable into rural areas.

Cherokee Organics said...


I recall in my travels in the Northern Territory of Australia, that the Aborigines in their wisdom avoided areas which had naturally occurring high levels of uranium. This was an outstanding bit of observation on their part over many generations. The areas were taboo and considered to be places inhabited by evil spirits. Top work.

I always despair when I hear about people promoting some sort of apocalyptic fervour. I'm left wondering how much of their desire for such a condition is a result of their domestic situations and their secret desire to not have to go to work on Monday... Controversial, but I can't see why people would keep harking back to this, do they actually understand what they are longing for? Me thinks not. Even de-industrialisation would mean lots of very hungry, cold, desperate people.

I am unaware that any large scale nuclear reactor has actually been completely decommissioned.

I'm also not sure that a large scale nuclear reactor building program will ever get off the ground anyway. There are a couple of reasons for this:

The fossil fuel subsidies for nuclear as you quite rightly point out will become more difficult to justify with each year; but more importantly

Who is going to pay for the building of the new nuclear reactors? It can't be ignored that Western societies produce less tangible goods each year. For a new reactor to make financial sense, the energy has to be used to produce materials or goods which can be sold overseas, otherwise it is simply for peoples comfort. Has anyone considered the level of foreign debt in the US? Japan's foreign debt is 200% of it's GDP and they are also a large holder of US bond debt. It's pretty hard to get insurance in an earthquake zone, so they'll be financing their reconstruction by selling off US debt. Printing money in the US wasn't a good idea, but the world will be flowing shortly with US bond debt. There are only so many buyers for such large amounts. Building nuclear reactors takes real world wealth.

In the West we have neglected to invest in our common infrastructure for many years now. What did we do instead? We voted ourselves in tax breaks and spent far less on commodities than their actual cost. Basically it was a big party and I reckon the bill is coming soon.

With each successive crisis we move one step further down the ladder. It didn't need to be this way.

PS: Congrats on the dance.



R D said...

And so, I sit, in the middle of the night. I am old. I should sleep easily. But I do not, and drink offers no comfort. I have seen the zenith of the industrial age, and as a technologist, I have added my small share, and relished the achievement of mankind. Men walking on the moon, men flying through the air faster than the speed of sound, men feeding a thousand others with the work of their hand.

Now I see it collapsing. A tragedy with 6 billion voices. But, when the history is written, so little will remain than it will be as if none of it ever happened. Who would ever believe that 6 billion people lived at one time. That cities lit the earth so brightly, they could be seen from space, and men could look down on it. Shining cities. Crops stretching to the horizon. A land where the poorest were obese. No one will remember that time. All lost. Yet, it need not have ended. Not as totally and absolutely as it did.

We understood how to limit fertility. Yet the population grew faster than the ability to feed.

We understood how to provide safe abundant nuclear energy and instead chose to use dangerous inefficient processes to produce plutonium for bombs, and only incidentally, electricity. We have enough plutonium to set ablaze the entire surface of the earth. And still we make it, and, refuse to burn it for power.

We could have created enough energy to hold billions of people in luxury for a millennium. Instead we chose bombs.

Humans held the key to a shining future, and threw it away.

A sadness that defies expression.

Loveandlight said...

WRT your discussion about the short life-expectancy of the Internet: The reason you were encountering this manifestation of irrational thinking was because the people who were all la-la-la-I-can't-hear-you with their fingers in their ears, were addicted to the Internet. I think Internet addiction is especially bad in the USA is because we are such a desperately socially atomized society in very deep denial about many things, and so the Internet is our ad hoc antidote for the resulting loneliness and alienation. And yes, I speak to at least some extent from my own personal experience on this matter.

andrewbwatt said...


I'd add to your mention of Miranda Lundy's book on sacred geometry for reader Phil Knight, that he could look at Andrew Sutton's book Ruler and Compass. I've found that the personal investment to learn how to make various polygons with the tools of the geometer's profession, is what causes me to see sacred geometry in nature.

As above, so below. As within, so without. We and nature are not separate.

Ric said...

On TOD today (Drumbeat, 3/18), there's a link to Ray Kurzweil's prediction that solar power, which has doubled quickly and repeatedly these last few decades (haven't checked the numbers, but that sounds reasonable), will continue to do that for another decade or 2, resulting in global 100% solar power. No worries! By solar power I assume he means the usual ways of producing electricity from panels and so forth.

Mr Kurzweil, certainly a clever fellow in many ways, didn't mention something that would back up his prediction very solidly, namely the ability to make solar power from previously produced solar power, and nothing much else. If he can do that, then I will bet heavily on his prediction. Without that, not so much!

Ric Merritt

douglas.harvey said...

I've just ordered "Prescription for the Planet" by Tom Blees in order to fully acquaint myself with his arguments. Can anyone here put up reasons why his arguments for integral fast reactors are not a feasible solution? I'm really trying to be open minded about the issue since most (all) arguments I read about nuclear energy posit waste as the main opposition.

Cherokee Organics said...


I've spent some time today reading the news and opinions about the derailing of the nuclear industries hopes and aspirations. It's facinating but no one has mentioned the elephant in the room. As you quite correctly point out, there is an unquestioned belief that energy consumption per capita should be increased, hence the focus on supply issues.

I accept and live with boundaries to my consumption, however, if my associates and contemporaries do not then we'll all go down in the sinking ship together.

For various reasons I am disinclined to activism, hence my tendancy towards projects like the Green Wizards which is an attempt to achieve something long lasting and practical.

You stated that it should be confronted, yet I find no groundswell of support in the wider community. Instead I see people putting on a veneer of concern, yet going off and doing much of the same as everyone else before and around them.

It's my opinion that people won't take active steps until such time as they have no choice (ie. a crisis of one sort or another affects them personally). History bears me out on this.

What do you reckon? I am uncertain what you meant by the word "confront"?



Lance Michael Foster said...

"What is life? Is it separable from Earth? At the most elemental level, we living beings are not even properly things, but rather processes. A dead creature is in every respect identical to a live one, except that the electrochemical processes that motivate it have ceased. Life is a performance- heavens' performance- which is fed and held in place, and eventually extinguished, by fundamental laws of chemistry and physics. Another way thinking about life is that we are all self-choreographed extravaganzas of electrochemical reaction, and it is in the combined impacts of those reactions, across all of life, that Gaia itself is forged. Thinking of life as something separate from Earth is wrong." -Tim Flannery, Here on Earth: A Natural History of the Planet (2010).

John Michael Greer said...

Sophie, Youngstown and Detroit are the wave of the future. As for Vermont, I trust the horse teams will be available to haul away the cables in good time, too.

Chris, that's an excellent point, and applies more generally: who is going to cover the cost, in money, resources, and skilled labor, for any of the grandiose plans being floated to keep energy supplies increasing?

RD, it's important to feel and give voice to the tragedy, even at the cost of some sleep; it's an experience I've had tolerably often as well. It's also important to remember that every civilization ends this way, its larger dreams and hopes unfulfilled for the usual and profoundly human reasons. My guess is that within a hundred light years or so, there's at least one other world where at least one other intelligent being, probably unrecognizable to us, is wishing that it could do whatever its species does in place of sleeping as it contemplates a similar tragedy. "One always knew," wrote Robinson Jeffers, "that life's end is death."

Still, there's another side to the picture. We may never be able to have the shining future we imagined, but we can make the future that's barrelling toward us a good deal less ghastly than it might otherwise be, by making sure that as much as possible makes it through the twilight of this civilization and gets to the waiting hands of the cultures that will come after ours. As one of the technically literate, you have a lot to offer in that struggle, and I hope you'll put your abilities to good use in the years just ahead.

Loveandlight, that's probably a very large part of it. I plan on flogging the issue further in posts down the road.

Andrew, I recently picked up Sutton's book, but haven't had the spare time to work with it. Still, glad to hear it's a good choice. I'm planning a book on the subject of sacred geometry a couple of years down the road, for whatever that's worth.

Ric, yes, I heard about that. What a crock of crap.

Douglas, I haven't read the book in question so can't comment specifically on it. My main objection to nukes in general isn't waste alone; it's that all existing nuclear technologies, as distinct from untested vaporware, have massive problems on many different levels, and it's therefore most likely that the untested ones will also have similarly massive problems once we've poured enough billions of dollars (that we don't have) into building enough prototypes and testbeds to find out. Fusion power was supposed to be a done deal, remember, and the existing fission technologies were promoted by earlier generations of pro-nuke types as safe, clean, and so cheap they'd make electricity too cheap to meter.

Chris, by confronting I mean first of all bringing up the alternative -- that is, getting by with less energy -- when the point comes up for discussion, on the internet and elsewhere. Second, I mean doing the thing oneself, so that those who insist it can't be done short of a return to the caves face living counterexamples. This is going to have to be done one person at a time, but since energy prices have been on a ragged upward curve for more than a decade now, as that and economic factors bite deeply, my guess is that many more people are going to find a sudden interest in saving money by saving energy. More on this in later posts.

Lance, thank you!

Rich_P said...

Speaking of Youngstown, have you listend to the Bruce Springsteen song of the same name? It's one of his best, and captures the rise and fall of American heavy industry:

"Now the yard's just scrap and rubble
He said, "Them big boys did what Hitler couldn't do"
These mills they built the tanks and bombs that won this country's wars"

Cherokee: Sometimes when I'm stuck in rush hour traffic, I secretly hope for the immediate collapse of industrial civilization, just so I won't have to deal with cars and traffic and underfunded transit systems. But then I come home and grab a cold beer from the fridge and realize how much I'll miss (most of) it when it's done and gone.

Michael said...


A few weeks ago, I commented that there were windows with considerably higher r-values than your rule of thumb, and you asked:

Michael, have you had those figures independently evaluated? That seems very high.

Check out this link:

You will see r-values of 7.7 for casement windows, and 11.1 for fixed picture windows.

I think window technology may have improved quite a bit since the 70's.

Unsurprisingly, though, these windows are very expensive.


Don Plummer said...

It's interesting that you mentioned Ghan-buri-Ghan. I've been reading Jared Diamond's Collapse. Reading about Easter Island and the giant statues always makes me think of Tolkien's PĂșkel-men. In fact, the red stone cylinders on top of some of the statues are known as "pukao." I wonder if there's a connection.

cwthompson said...

Thanks much for this blog and especially for Star's Reach. I've found both only recently, following a link from
Could you venture an estimate of how long petroleum products will remain affordable/available for civilian economies on the down slope of world Hubbert's peak?
Decades or years?
Thanks, CWT

goedeck said...

I have been hoping you would give your opinion on nuclear power, because it seems like there is more of what Kunstler calls "something for nothing" thinking when it comes to energy in this regard. Specifically, there is one blog I read where the editor constantly says the thorium reactor is the answer and there is copious amounts of fuel etc. etc. I know of no country using thorium reactors, and we have known about the technology for a long time.

It seems like too-good-to-be-true wishful thinking, but admittedly just my opinion.

Bill Pulliam said...

Michael -- you missed a key word in JMGs comment about the high-R windows: INDEPENDENTLY evaluated. Information provided by the manufacturers who stand to profit from the product is by definition NOT independent.

For a long time aluminized bubble wrap was sold with claims of very high R values from the manufacturer, supposedly backed up by tests. Real independent tests found that these claims were vastly higher than true performance, and the aluminized bubble wrap is pretty much now considered worthless junk for most applications.

NEVER believe manufacturer's performance claims if they are not supported by evidence from real independent sources (published in venues other than the manufacturer's own catalogs and websites) who do not have any financial interest in the products!

sofistek said...

"So we’ve got technological crises, economic crises, and political crises..."

We also have environmental crises. Surely that rise in food prices is partly due to the losses due to drought, flood and hurricane?

Spot on with the incantations about nuclear and coal. I get so frustrated on forums that discuss these issues because, even with supposedly "green" supporters, most people just take it for granted that we need more energy and that nuclear energy needs to be "replaced" with something else (in green circles, that's so-called renewable energy). There is almost no consideration of making do with less.

It is this inability for (it would appear) most people to think in new ways that makes me near certain that collapse is inevitable (or I should say, further collapse is inevitable). I'm keeping my fingers crossed that it won't get too bad before people wake up and perhaps make the steps down not too uncomfortable for the society in which I live.

John Michael Greer said...

Rich, there are times when the Boss is the voice of our age.

Michael, er, those are manufacturer's statements. That's about as trustworthy as a nuke manufacturer's insistence that nuclear power is safe, clean, and cheap.

Don, if so, it would be just his style. Tolkien was a master of the utterly obscure, utterly deadpan multilingual pun. I recall how I chuckled when I found out that the name Gandalf used among the Haradrim, Incanus, is Latin for "gray."

CWT, it's not an all-or-nothing thing. For civilian economies in the third world, they're already running out -- check the energy news from Pakistan one of these days -- and they'll be rationed by price here and elsewhere for some time yet, so that you'll still be able to get plenty of gas as long as you've got enough money. A good working guess is that there'll be some petroleum and petroleum products available for the next fifty years or so, but at rising prices -- as in unaffordable for most of us within a couple of decades -- and the infrastructure for using them, especially highways and gas stations, is already coming unraveled in physically and economically peripheral areas. So it's not as though nature's flipping the off switch; it's a matter of turning down the volume year after year until you can't hear the song at all.

Goedeck, good. You get today's gold star for realistic attitude. Nuke fans are obsessive about vaporware these days, largely because you can pretend that something's perfect if it's never been built. I'm going to have some comments on that next week.

Bill, you beat me to it. The words "never trust a sales pitch" ought to be brutally burnt with a branding iron into the bare backside of every American.

Sofistek, yes, and a baker's dozen of other kinds of crisis as well. You're dead on about the blindness to using less, though; that's the great legacy of the 1970s -- the fact that it's possible, using off-the-shelf technology, to have a comfortable life on a fraction of the energy people in the industrial world think they have to have -- and I think it's high time for that to be pointed out a little more forcefully once again. We lack the time and resources for most other options at this time, but conservation is still available.

Michael said...


> Michael, er, those are
> manufacturer's statements.
> That's about as trustworthy as a
> nuke manufacturer's insistence
> that nuclear power is safe,
> clean, and cheap.

Skepticism is a useful tool, but it's also useful to seek the best available data. Consider the following:

"NFRC is a non-profit organization that administers the only uniform, independent rating and labeling system for the energy performance of windows, doors, skylights, and attachment products. Their goal is to provide fair, accurate, and reliable energy performance ratings.

"All of the window series we manufacture are tested by an accredited NFRC lab. The NFRC label we place on each and every one of our windows is a proof that we are driven to provide one of the highest performing windows on the market. Just compare our label to the competitions; you’ll see that our numbers are better."



"Since the weakest insulation point of any window is the frame, it is important that the measurements of a windows insulation values (R-Value or U-Factors) are given as full frame values and not only Center of Glass (COG). It is easier to get a higher insulating value when just measuring the COG, and it is much more difficult to get a high insulation value when measuring the full frame insulation power of a window."


That's the best data I've been able to find.


Don Plummer said...

"Tolkien was a master of the utterly obscure, utterly deadpan multilingual pun."

Oh, absolutely. I just didn't think Tolkien went in for Polynesian languages.

My favorite Tolkienian multilingual pun is the Elvish name for Tom Bombadil: Iarwain. During the Council of Elrond, Elrond says that it means "the oldest of the old." So iar is Elvish for old. Well, iar is the Welsh word for hen. The Welsh word for old? Hen.

isochroma said...

Japan gets about 30% - let's say a third - of its power from nuclear fission.

All it would take is unscrewing every third lightbulb, and Japan could shut down every single dangerous, perpetually risky nuclear plant!

France doesn't have that option right now - it obtains 75% of its electricity from nuclear.

Bill Pulliam said...

Michael -- find the data published somewhere other than on the manufacturer's website and catalogs, find it from analyses that were conducted by a lab that was NOT paid by the manufacturer to carry out the tests, then you might have something you can put credence in. It is very easy to design test systems that optimize results but do not in any way reflect real world conditions, nor allow direct comparison with numbers from other sources. A common type of trick would be to have results that show effective R values ranging from 3 to 9 depending on wind speed and orientation of the window, and to only report the 9 in your advertising, forgetting about the 3... or to only run the test under the conditions you know are likely to produce the highest values. It's not technically fraud.. but it is incomplete and misleading.

Sadly, tough times tend to be really lucrative for snake-oil salesman. I think we can expect quite well-lubricated serpents in the coming decades.

Cherokee Organics said...


All is now explained. Thanks, you do what you can. People look fearful when they see for themselves the reality of living with less energy. I haven't noticed that much difference myself, I think the fear may be an inconvenience thing for them?

Hi Rich_P,

I can see a future for you in the home brew industry! I'm hoping to get into making some alcoholic apple cider myself!



tom rainboro said...

Tolkien and puns: Maybe there's more to the idea than meets the eye - after all here in England we have plenty of 'River Avon's (Afon = Welsh for river). So Bree Hill would be a similar construction (bri = Welsh for hill). We also have Rivers Usk, Axe, Exe etc where 'uisce' (?) (as in whiskey) is the Gaelic for water and the various rivers 'Frome' where ffrwm (?) is the word for turbulent. He would have been very aware that this sort of confusion is widespread where cultures mix. (Apologies if my Celtic spellings are wrong).

Twilight said...

@Loveandlight - I know that I have become addicted to information. Sometimes I think about what life was like in the ~35 years of my life before internet access to information, but it's now almost impossible to really recall it fully. It's like having unrestricted access to all the world's great libraries instantly, plus the events that are happening right now anywhere in the world.

I know it will not continue that way, and eventually people will return to having only a few sources that are easily controlled and often quite delayed.

On the other hand, all this access to information tends to make us feel that somehow we are a critical part of what is happening, when in fact we are not. I saw this quite clearly on the TOD threads on the BP Gulf oil disaster, where people seemed to almost believe they were in some important way participating, and had an almost obsessive need to keep up with the latest. In fact I doubt that had almost any influence on what was done or how things unfolded.

Most of the considerable time I spend keeping up with current events would be better spent in actual effort toward lower energy use living. But then if I had not spent that time my understanding of things would be nowhere near where it is today - so it's a quandary. I think the answer is to limit and focus the time I spend to a few places that best match what I believe I need to accomplish - which includes the The Archdruid Report and a few others.

But then I am an addict and so when something happens I get easily pulled in....

Bill Pulliam said...

Tom -- on the linguistic digression, we on this side of the Atlantic of course have the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the Rio Grande River, and most amusingly in Colorado there is Table Mesa (atop of which sits the National Bureau of Standards; apparently not linguistic standards!). This is all even sillier than the Welsh-English redundancies you mention as Spanish is a much more widespread and familiar language in the U.S. than Welsh is in England.

Cherokee Organics said...


Thought you may be interested.

I came across a reference to the actual tribe and ancestral spirit in the strangest of places a couple of days after my post... Kind of errie really.

The Aboriginal tribe in question is the Jawoyn and their creation ancestor spirit is Bula, who lives beneath the land and if disturbed causes widespread sickness.

The area in question is a region bounded by the East, West and South Alligator River systems in Northern Territory and it correlates with large deposits of uranium.



sofistek said...


"Most of the considerable time I spend keeping up with current events would be better spent in actual effort toward lower energy use living."

Bingo! Exactly my thoughts and I have the same problem you do. I sometimes reduce my time on-line, but it will often creep up. I argue (or I should say discuss) my position with many but I can't say I've ever persuaded anyone to alter their views. So I don't really know why I do it. Frequently, I tell myself that I should stop all this and just devote my time to doing the things I know I need to get done to improve the chances of my family getting through the long descent.

Apart from looking for practical information, I spend a lot of my on-line time reading sites that I know overlap my own opinions but I feel that is wrong and I should be spending time trying to find counter views. I do that in a small way, I suppose, but I see wishful thinking so often that I just can't be bothered to continue.

I suppose I spend time on-line trying to discern the point of collapse, as that may swing more of my family and friends to look at reality. At the moment, it's looking like a slow long descent, which is unfortunate, since I think it will take one of the collapse steps to get enough people to take notice of what's happening.

In the meantime, I'll continue trying to fit everything in. I dug up my first yacon, this autumn (in New Zealand). Interesting flavour.

M. Francis Heins said...


I disagree.

Utilizing the Internet while we still have it seems to me in perfect keeping with the notion of a "Long Descent".

Of course, "utilizing" and the actual things we tend to do in Net chatspaces may be two very different things. But imagine that some time in the not-to-distant future, you have no Internet access. Even the futility of communicating effectively through that medium may well provide you with lessons that benefit you in ways that you are unable to see now, with that medium's current ubiquity.

I am recently coming off a nearly year long hiatus from the net due to the birth of our first child and other reasons, and I am finding the contrast between net-flood, net-drought, and net-flood to be rather illuminating.


sofistek said...


I'm not sure what you're disagreeing with. The only thing I wrote about not using the Internet has to do with reading sites that put a counter opinion. I come across so much wishful thinking, or what JMG refers to as vapourware, in his next post.

Other than that, I find the Internet a very useful resource though I expect it to fail, to some degree, during the long descent. We may, for a while, have many internets and it will get a lowercase initial letter, instead of the uppercase that it now has.

Jay dancing bear said...

As a vegetarian admirer of your blog, I would be interested to read your thoughts on all the energy used to raise animals for food, as well as the related issues. Perhaps you could write a post on this.

Dr Peter Hayward said...

Hi Michael

been following you for quite a while and using you in the classroom with studenst. I just saw this TED presentation and I'd be interested in your response. It does seem a scalable and worthwhile exercise, obviously still early days.

Keep up fighting the good fight

Peter Hayward