Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Hair Shirts, Hypocrisy, and Wilkins Micawber

I’d like to go into a little more detail about the core theme of the last several posts, the proposal that using less – less energy from nonrenewable sources, that is, and less of everything made using energy from nonrenewable sources – needs to be central to any serious response to the predicament of our time. It’s both a more complicated and a more practical project than it may seem at first glance, and some of the comments I’ve fielded over the last week have pointed up some of the challenges involved in getting to work on it.

One of the problems with the project is that it sounds too much like the kind of fashionable faux-activism that was skewered a few years back in a wickedly funny song by the British singing group Fascinating Aida. I’m sure we’ve all met people who make quite a show of boycotting anything environmentally destructive on loudly proclaimed moral grounds, just so long as they can replace it without any actual change in their lifestyle or decrease in their comfort level. That’s not the sort of approach I have in mind, of course, but I’m also not suggesting that my readers put on a sustainably harvested hair shirt and retire to a Bat Conservation International-certified bat-safe cave in the mountains to offer up their sufferings in the hope of assuaging the wrath of Gaia.

America’s Puritan heritage being what it is, it’s not surprising that the idea of using less has at times been applied in both these unproductive ways, and rather more often been mistaken for them. Still, the point I tried to make in last week’s post is that under many circumstances, making yourself much less dependent on the resources provided by a failing system is far and away the most practical thing you can do. Those circumstances, I’d like to suggest, are very much in evidence right now.

Here’s an example. I field emails and comments a couple of times a week from people who are seriously troubled about the future. They see themselves as trapped in a system that’s already started to go to bits around them, and lacking the money and other resources that would be needed to make the preparations they’d have to make to weather the approaching crash. A good many of them are living in apartments with nowhere to garden and few options for energy retrofits, and they quite reasonably worry about what’s going to happen when access to energy becomes intermittent, food prices spike, and what now counts as a comfortable urban lifestyle begins the long downhill skid into the shantytown existence facing something like half of the American people within a few decades. They want to know what options I can suggest for them.

The core strategy for people in this position? Use much less, so that expenditures drop well below income, freeing up money to be used to get out of the current, unsustainable situation. Most Americans can cut their expenses by anything up to a third in short order by simply giving up the energy- and money-wasting habits of the consumer economy. That may involve moving to a smaller apartment with lower rent, fewer amenities, and a bus line close enough that you can get to work by public transit; it may involve not buying the new computer every two years, the plasma screen TV, and any number of other expensive toys many people think they have to have; it may involve learning to cook, eat, and enjoy rice and beans for dinner instead of picking up meals at the deli; it will likely involve plenty of other steps of the same kind. The payoff is that you get the extra money you need to learn the skills that will make sense in a deindustrial economy, and can save up a down payment for a fixer-upper house with good solar exposure, a backyard well suited for an organic garden, and a basement where you can get to work learning to brew good beer. For people in that position, using less now has nothing to do with hair shirts or hypocrisy; rather, it’s the entrance ticket to a better future.

More generally, it amazes me how many people seem to think they can downshift in a blink from a modern American lifestyle, with all its comforts and privileges, to the close-to-subsistence lifestyle most of us will be leading in the middle future. It’s reminiscent of those old-fashioned survivalists whose idea of being ready to feed themselves once the rubble stops bouncing is a nitrogen-packed tin of garden seeds, a random assortment of tools, and a manual on how to garden, which they read halfway through on a slow afternoon ten years ago. Those who adopted that approach have been very lucky that their doomsteads have never had to function as anything more serious than deer camps, because if they’d tried to feed themselves that way, death by starvation would have been the inevitable result. Growing food in an intensive organic garden is a skilled craft requiring several years of hard and careful work to master, and if you hope to rely on it for even a small part of your food, you need to get through the steep part of the learning curve as soon as possible.

The same thing is true of most of the other skills that are needed to live comfortably in hard times. If you don’t know how to do them, you’re going to make a lot of mistakes, and suffer a great deal more than you have to. The sooner you start that learning curve, the easier the curve will be, because you’ll still have the resources you need to pick up the pieces when your early efforts fall flat. If you wait until you have to live with less, you won’t have that cushion, and the potential downsides can be drastic. It’s entirely possible, for example, to live through summers south of the Mason-Dixon line without air conditioning; people did it for a very long time before air conditioners were first marketed in the boom times following the Second World War, after all. Still, it’s not simply a matter of gritting your teeth and sweating. It requires certain skills and, in most recently built houses, certain modifications to your home, and if the thermometer hits three digits when you haven’t yet installed the attic fan or figured out how to open a couple of windows at the right angle to catch the breeze and keep heat from building up, you could be risking heatstroke. Starting the learning curve now provides a margin of safety you’ll be glad to have.

Furthermore, most current talk about the impact of peak oil assumes that the end of the industrial age is a nice, cleanly marked point located conveniently off somewhere in the future, and that’s a potentially dangerous oversimplification just now. Those Americans who have run out of their 99 weeks of unemployment checks and become members of the new class of economic nonpersons, after all, have just been pushed out the exit doors of industrial society. For them, the end of the industrial age has arrived. That same eventuality could show up on any of our doorsteps with 99 weeks of warning, and quite possibly less. If that happens to you, will you be better prepared to meet it if you’ve been spending everything you earn and then some, in standard American middle class style, or if you’ve cut your expenses, cleared your debts, mastered the fine art of getting by with less, and learned the skills and bought the tools you’ll need for a backup profession or two? You tell me.

All this amounts to variations on a common theme, which is that the rules governing life in a stagnant or contracting economy are precisely the opposite of the rules governing life in an expanding one. In the growth economy of the recent past, it usually made sense to spend money freely and gamble that you could always get more, because the sheer fact of continued economic growth meant that more often than not, you were right. With the end of economic growth, the Micawber Principle – "annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness; annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery" – once again comes into force. Most Americans haven’t yet grasped this or any other implication of the end of economic growth. For all of that, most Americans wouldn’t recognize Wilkins Micawber if W.C Fields rose from his crypt to reprise his sole (and brilliant) serious dramatic role on screen. Still, ignorance is not bliss; the consequences of the former of these blind spots, at least, are likely to include a horse doctor’s dose of economic misery.

So much for the practicality of using less now. The complexity deserves a few words as well, though partly that’s a matter of finding the right way to talk about the subject. Choosing a term can have remarkable consequences. The wife of a good friend of mine pointed out the other day, for example, that part of what tripped up climate change activism was the choice of the phrase "global warming" as a label for the problem the activists hoped to address. To most people, "global" sounds positive and "warming" even more so; the resulting phrase simply didn’t have the threat value to inspire a mass movement. She suggested the alternative moniker of "radiation entrapment" – a good description of what excess CO2 does in the atmosphere, you’ll notice, but also a a pair of words that have unsettling negative connotations of their own. If a politician insisted that radiation entrapment wasn’t a danger to anybody, can you imagine anyone within earshot thinking anything other than, "He’s lying"? I certainly can’t.

I don’t have anything so elegant to offer. What comes to mind at this point, rather, is an acronym – LESS – that stands for "Less Energy, Stuff, and Stimulation." In outline, that’s the strategy I’d like to propose for those who want to weave the green wizardry we’ve been discussing in these posts into a broader way of life; just as it’s a lot easier to heat a house with solar power when you’ve already got to work with insulation and weatherstripping, so that the house doesn’t leak heat from every wall and corner, it’s a lot easier to live a life in an age of decline when you’ve made sure your life isn’t leaking energy and other resources from every available orifice. That’s what the LESS strategy is meant to do; think of it as a way of weatherstripping your life.

The last part of the acronym, "stimulation," may seem surprising to my readers, but it’s a crucial part of the recipe. For the last thirty years and more, Americans have been pushing their nervous systems into continual overload with various kinds of stimulation, and I’ve come to think that this is another symptom of the deeply troubled national conscience discussed in recent Archdruid Report posts. A mind that’s constantly flooded with noise from television, video games, or what have you, is a mind that never has the time or space to think its own thoughts, and in a nation that’s trying not to notice that it’s sold its own grandchildren down the river, that’s probably the point of the exercise. Be that as it may, recovering the ability to think one’s own thoughts, to clear one’s mind of media-driven chatter, manufactured imagery, and all the other thoughtstopping clutter we use to numb ourselves to the increasingly unwelcome realities of life in a failing civilization, is an indispensable tool for surviving the challenges ahead, and one that I’ll be talking about at more length in a future post.

"Stuff" may seem a little less puzzling, but getting out from under the tyranny of excess ownership may be every bit as challenging for many Americans as shaking off the habit of stimulating the mind into a state not far removed from coma. As far as I know, ours is the only civilization in history in which storing personal possessions that won’t fit even in today’s gargantuan McMansions has become the basis for a significant economic sector. It’s a critical issue to confront, though, because our passion for what I’ve elsewhere termed prosthetic technologies – machines, that is, that are designed to do things that human beings are perfectly able to do for themselves – has built up habits of dependence that could easily, and literally, prove to be fatal if they’re not broken before demand destruction puts the machines and the power needed to run them out of reach. In an expanding civilization, your success is marked by what you have; in a declining one, your chances of survival may well be measured by what you can readily do without. That’s another point I’ll be expanding on in a later post.

"Energy," finally, may be the most obvious factor in the equation, but some of its aspects are far from obvious to most Americans today. A very large fraction of the energy that props up the American lifestyle, for example, gets used to manufacture, package, ship, retail, power, maintain, and dispose of the heap of consumer goods that people in this country commonly mistake for having a life. Another very large fraction, as just suggested, goes into technologies meant to keep human bodies and minds from doing things they’re perfectly able to do, and as often as not become unhealthy if they’re not allowed to do. For every watt-hour that can be saved by direct methods of the sort I’ve discussed in this blog already, there’s more than one – very often, many more than one – that can be saved by indirect methods such as buying used goods from local sources rather than new items from chain stores with intercontinental supply chains. That, too, is a point I’ll be developing in a post later on.

Still, the basic concept should be easy enough to grasp. The habit of living beyond our means is as much an individual problem as a collective one, and it’s a significant factor keeping many people stuck in a set of lifestyles that are as unsatisfactory as they are unsustainable. Freeing up the money, the time, and the resources to make the shift to a more sustainable way of life needs to be high on the agenda of anyone who’s seriously planning to deal with the cascading crises of the decades ahead of us, and using LESS may be the single most important and accessible tool for doing so.


On a different note, I’m delighted to announce that my third and latest peak oil book, The Wealth of Nature: Economics as though Survival Mattered, is hot off the press and available for purchase. Those of my readers who remember the series of posts a couple of years back on ecological economics (and why you can get better economic advice these days from a randomly chosen fortune cookie than from a professional economist) will find the themes from those posts explored at greater depth; those of my readers who are new to the journey we’re making together on this blog may find it useful, or at least interesting, to check out some of the basic concepts underlying the Green Wizardry project.


Glenn said...

Hmm, I found myself at first reading tending to say, that's silly. Then I thought for a bit. We took this approach from the day we met, when I was still in the Coast Guard and making a good wage, even with a quarter of it siphoned off to child support payments.

As a consequence, when I retired from the Service we owned 8 acres of land outright, and had $50K in the bank. We now have a well, septic, grid power (Hydro from Bonneville Power, 50 years ago the Pac NW traded salmon for cheap electricity), a small unfinished cabin, homebuilt yurt for a bedroom, a 3200 Sq ft. garden and orchard, a dozen fowl and a hive of honeybees.

My wife is a NW Ethnobotanist and is taking the Washington State Master Gardener's course. I joined a local beekeeping club 2 years ago. Last fall I started using my G.I. Bill to attend a 12 month Wooden Boatbuilding course. The last two years I've been crabbing under sail in our little daysailor.

So, the archdruid's advice is sound. We did it pretty much the way he describes. We saved our money instead of spending it when we had a good income. We invested in land, tools and skills. We're not where we want to be yet, but we're pretty far down the road.

Marrowstone Island

Ana's Daughter said...

I'd like to offer a few suggestions for the city apartment dwellers who are trying to figure out what skills and resources will help them survive in the absence of the ability to grow their own food, retrofit their living spaces, etc. Many of these are ideas that lower class or temporarily broke urbanites already use to get by, and they're pretty time-tested.

If you need something, try to find it at a thrift store before you go shopping for it at a regular store. Always examine thrift store finds for quality -- loose seams, tears, broken zippers, loose handles, etc --- and buy the good ones, not the clunkers, where possible --- or buy things you know you can repair, if their flaws are small and their basic condition good.

If you need to buy something at a regular store, go for quality, not for price. If you can spare $50 for a well-made pair of shoes, it'll last you much longer than five $10 pairs of cheapies that fall apart in two months.

If you can manage the time and have the necessary facilities (such as a working oven, or counter space for a crockpot) in your kitchen, learn to cook and bake from scratch, using dry beans, grains, flour, and common fruits and vegetables (apples, potatoes, onions, celery, carrots) as your base. Cookbooks from before about 1950 are full of recipes for good, cheap food made from mostly pretty cheap ingredients, not from spendy processed foods.

Eat foods that are in season; they're cheaper than imported out of season crops. Grapes in July or August are cheaper than grapes in February because in July or August they were probably grown in the US but in February they were shipped up from South America.

Learn to sew, knit, crochet, and repair clothing, including socks. If you can make, alter, and repair garments, you're one step ahead of most people. You can also keep your clothes going longer when you have those skills.

Learn to find other ways to be comfortable than spending energy. Turn off the computer and listen to the radio or cd player; it uses less electricity. In winter, layer your clothing and top it with a sweater; that helps you keep the heat down (a necessary survival skill if you want or need to prune your heat bills). Pile more blankets on the bed. Wear socks at night. In summer, open the windows from the top down to let heat out, and use small electric fans to direct cool breezes across your body. If it's really hot, dump some ice cubes into a pan or bowl and put that in front of the fan to make the breeze cooler. Make lemonade (from sugar and bottled lemon juice) and iced tea (from tea bags or bulk tea) instead of drinking soda pop; it's the same cost or cheaper, and better for you.

If you don't have a savings account, open one. Most banks will let you open one for an initial deposit of $100. Put money in it every single month if you can. Start small; put away $5 or $10 per week. Save your change, roll it, and deposit it in there for another boost. Every little bit helps, and baby steps add up. If you have something in savings, that gives you a bit of a cushion against emergencies or other problems.

Stuff like this is how our grandparents (and in my case, my parents) weathered the depression and spent the 1950s moving from poverty to affluence. Our time for affluence is past, but we can still get by better with less.

Lloyd Lincoln Clark said...

Many of those choosing to remain peripherally (un)aware of the increasing certainty of those "cascading crises of the decades ahead of us" are indeed not "seriously planning to deal with" them, preferring instead the gamble that the sheer inertia of the current system will delay the onset of serious discomfort beyond the date they expect to check out for good. I imagine that those with the initiative and perseverance to make the sorts of necessary changes in their lives advocated by our host, and that enjoy for themselves and perhaps their children prospects for hanging around for more than a few more decades, may take exception to that attitude as the crises begin to manifest. They might even be so moved as to help some of the former cash in their chips a little early. The value of wisdom earned of experience is in the sharing. Teaching is a skill the more advanced in years might find useful to practice.

Luciddreams said...

I was just thinking about an attic fan today. My wife essentially lost her business and income approximately a year ago. Luckily we see quality in frugality. It's been a slow process learning to grow our own food and live with less. We've had three years to learn these things and it's taken that long for everything to sink in and become real. I feel like the real work is just now starting for us, and yet when I reflect on the way we live now it's leaps and bounds beyond what the status quo is. Summer heat is a great, and current example.

I have been fighting turning on the AC tooth and nail lately. I live in the south. It was 80 degrees in my house when I woke up this morning (hence me thinking about the attic fan). We had to close the windows last night because of the thunderstorms. The wife and I sat down this morning and I posed the question: "At what inside the house temperature are we going to turn the AC on at?" We figured around 85. I know when that happens it's going to cost roughly 100 dollars a month if not more. I have a very old house.

Today it reached 82 in the house. All the windows were open and all of the fans were running and we had nothing but underwear and flip flops on. I don't have any discretionary income at this point. We ate a salad that was 80% leaf lettuce and spinach from the garden for dinner tonight with dressing that was made with local eggs (my chickens are only three weeks old). I think I'm going to talk to the wife about that attic fan in the morning. Maybe if we agree that we can handle 90 degrees in the house then we won't need the AC anymore. The AC is broken in both of our vehicles and we don't have the money to fix that either. It's starting to look like a blessing.

One thing about acclimatizing,the more you live in relatively harsh conditions, the less harsh those conditions become. One may even find oneself south of the mason dixin line living in a house that is 90 degrees and still happy.

About the stimulants. I have recently given up alcohol for an undetermined amount of time (currently two weeks sober). I've drank alcohol for the last 12 years. I also make cider and mead. Next I'm going to let the coffee go. I enjoy tea more anyways and that's just one more small way to save money. Coffee ain't cheap anymore, at least not good coffee. I'd rather drink compost tea than the manufactured, pre-ground, crap they pass as coffee at the grocery store anyways.

JMG, your contributions to where I'm at can't be overstated. I sincerely thank you.

x said...

To ana's daughter: You brought memories flooding back to me with a smile. You're describing my granny and mother's lifetime activities - me, not so much.

I'm a confirmed 2nd hand buyer but I tend to find reasons to buy things rather than buying what's absolutely necessary, but I'm learning (or delearning consumer habits).

One step back, two forward. Self Discipline is the hardest part.

John Michael Greer said...

Glenn, it sounds silly for those who already know how to do it. You might be amazed how many people don't.

Ana's Daughter, thanks for the tips!

Lloyd, I have to confess that I have utter contempt for the people whose sole response to the mess they've helped to make is to hope that they die before it hits. What a gutless way to live!

Lucid, you're welcome! An attic fan's on our shopping list, too -- it'll have to wait for a better than average royalty check, but that'll come. We're all of five miles south of the Mason-Dixon line, nothing like so hot and humid as it gets further south.

X, self-discipline is the hardest part but it's crucial. It's also known as freedom -- making your own choices, rather than having automatisms or other people's pressure make them for you.

greatblue said...

Skills and tools are important. I also think that two other aspects are equally, if not more, important: getting fit and strengthening your connection to other people in your community.

Being over 50, I found a book called _Younger Next Year_ a good motivator for getting fit. Of course, there are two parts: eating nutritionally (many people in the US really don't know how to do this) and getting proper exercise. The older you are, the longer it takes to recover lost ground. So it's never too early to get started.

Strengthening your connections to people who live nearby takes a long time. You have to spend quantity time to get quality time. It's important to get to know people who live nearby because we won't travel nearly as much in the future as we do now. When I commuted an hour each way to my all-consuming job, I knew very few people in the town in which I actually lived. That would be an unhelpful and possibly dangerous strategy for the coming hard times.

Getting fit and getting involved don't need to take much money. They do take time. Both of them take some energy, but you also get energy back from both. The future will require more physical labor and will have fewer medical and food options, so we'll all need to be as fit and healthy as possible. In chaotic times, it will be helpful to have a tribe of people who care about us close by for mutual aid and defense.

As far as cutting expenses, I read _Your Money or Your Life: Transforming Your Relationship with Money and Achieving Financial Independence_ a long time ago. It was a new (for me) way of thinking about money and a major motivator to work toward leaving the rat race behind.

Janne said...

John, what would you say to my fallen hero, George Monbiot? ( He is now convinced that since the global economy did not collapse overnight because of peak oil, the economy will keep on growing until it kills us all. I think that's one of his central fallacies. Another, I believe, is that he believes we can somehow design a new global society and economy.

Les said...

Hi Mr. G.
LESS is more, and a very timely and thoughful post.
Many people talk about sustainability as if there is some kind of continuum, a sliding scale, between totally unsustainable and completely sustainable. As in “my Lexus hybrid 4wd is more sustainable than your Toyota Land Crusher.”
Lately, it seems to me that being sustainable is a little like being pregnant. You are or you aren’t.
For some years my wife and I have been trying to push our lives along that imaginary continuum, growing food, setting up community gardens, getting involved in the local permaculture group, proselytising to those friends who still will talk to us, etc. The consensus is that we’ve actually gotten pretty good at it, to the point that our home is being featured in Geoff Lawton’s new Urban Permaculture DVD (see here and here for a couple of stories on our place, if you are interested).
But we’ve concluded that it still doesn’t cut it. While a good chunk of our veggies and protein can be produced in our own back yard, the city in which we live is fundamentally flawed. Our neighbours think we are freaks (even though, or perhaps because, over 200 people came to see our setup on National Permaculture Day a couple of weeks ago) and we think they’re freaks, which won’t help relations as they start to lose their highly paid banking jobs.
So we’re selling up. Moving three hours out of the city (by road, more like six hours by train, assuming passengers are ever carried on the track again) and trying to find out what really being sustainable means.
Now for the interesting bit – neither my wife nor I are twenty-something any more. Even thirty-something feels a bloody long time ago. For sure, going farming is way too much work for us to do on our own. Joel Salatin suggested that the best way forward for us is to go find someone who is twenty-something and team up. At the permaculture convergence last year we met loads of enthusiastic young’uns so we feel optimistic that this will actually work.
So to all you twenty-something apartment dwellers stuck out there, go out there and find an analogue of us - just as we are going out there to find an analogue of you - and together we can beat this.


Archivist/Cultural Liaison said...

I still find you are still concentrating on how individuals and families can be made to work, when what needs to be accomplished is how to make whole communities and even cities work.
A simple illustration. 4 farms that share a common corner with shared walls even when they solid will use less ernegy. one slightly larger water heater replaces the need for 4 smaller ones. etc. 2 people can do even the simplest job quicker than 2 individually. remember how barns used to be built by whole communities working together.
Village came about because they could do more.

Jason Heppenstall said...

“A mind that’s constantly flooded with noise from television, video games, or what have you, is a mind that never has the time or space to think its own thoughts, and in a nation that’s trying not to notice that it’s sold its own grandchildren down the river, that’s probably the point of the exercise.”

That's my cut-out-and-keep quote from this post. I spent some time in a room with a bunch of teens/20 somethings about a month ago and observed their total lack of ability to concentrate on anything other than their smart phones. In fact it almost seemed like the phones were controlling them, administering little 'treats' (such as calls, SMS's, tweets, Facebook status updates) every few seconds. Pavlov's dogs spring to mind.

But I think what many readers here worry about is the actual time-span of decline you are talking about in your blog and books. On the one hand you talk about the 'long decline' over a period of centuries, and on the other it seems like you are talking about sudden collapse that could happen at any minute. At least that's my impression. I know nobody has a crystal ball and that you espouse preparation as the best insurance against futures shocks, I'm just saying that I can understand the anxiety – especially if you're whole economic existence is hanging from a thread and all you can hear is the sound of scissors being sharpened.

Also, people living in rented apartments, nervously wondering how they are going to overcome their predicament might do well to look at things from another angle. In a way they might be the lucky ones – I read recently that 85% of home owners in Las Vegas are facing a negative equity situation – with a scary amount of others across the US in the same situation. Is it inconceivable that in a few years there will be millions of unsellable and empty houses that people of limited means could take over for a pittance?

Would it be wise to remember the core message of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, written by Douglas Adams, who died 10 years ago this week? The message written on the cover was: DON'T PANIC

ps I have sent off for your new book and await the postman's knock with anticipation

das monde said...

If I may ask, what are cooperative resources to meet the decline predicaments? I do not mean here grand utopian schemes or top-down world-saving agendas. Yet cooperation generally does offer alleviating possibilities, doesn't it? What is the right scale of trust in a fellow man and community organization? What help is worth extending if one feels confident about personal subsistence? How many people would you like to have enlightened?

It can be argued that one of sore modern afflictions is utter individualism and the ill-advised competition culture, particularly for the middle and lower classes. The existing power and wealth flow structures will probably persist longer than market freedom rationalizations, thereby providing a relatively comfortable ride for some haves and steady taxing tolls on the most. What resources and types of organization are needed to have freedom from all of that?

Joining the race to the 0.01% most luckily wealthy still offers the most attractive survival position - knowingly or not, however improbable, and with whatever costs to the global civilization. This is another ground where people ought to look away from the apparently best chance. How much should people resist the highest but diminishing bids? How can they see other ways of contentment?

A particular issue is, say, solar and wind power farms. They will not hold the whole civilization, but they could provide high level of autonomy to rather complex communities. How many such autonomous colonies can be expected in the decline history?

Kieran O'Neill said...


On the topic of cheaper cooling in Summer, my recollection from living in South Africa (where it gets easily as hot or hotter than in the Southern USA) was that a combination of ceiling fans and manual air flow management (windows opened at night to let cool air in, closed during the day to keep it there) worked pretty well. I knew very few people with AC in their houses.

Anyway, ceiling fans might be a useful stopgap until you can afford the attic one. They still use electricity, but much less than the AC, and they're a lot cheaper than an attic fan.

@JMG: "LESS" -- I like it. It's simple and catchy, yet deeply expressive. I think it has solid meme-potential. It's certainly a useful tool for lifestyle evaluation.

Ken D. Berry said...

Gardening and composting are such easy and rewarding ways to begin to "uncomplicate" one's life, it seems everyone would want to practice them, and no one would be offended by their suggestion.
There is no secret to gardening, only practice...

Sixbears said...

Heat isn't the problem here in northern NH, but plenty of people have AC too. People have gotten used to living in a very narrow temperature range.

It was 32 this morning. For me, that was a good excuse to light the woodstove. I could take the chill out of the house, make a pot of coffee, and breakfast at the same time. Also have a clothesline by the woodstove. It's comfortable.

LindaM said...

We were a one income family before my husbands company folded 2 years ago. We had to supposedly give up alot for me to stay home and raise our children, a choice I made willingly.
What did we give up? A mortage and car payments. There was a great deal of pressure fom others or us to conform. Yet we were free more or less, and they were not.

What else did we give up? We were able to save and buy a farm using cash. When my husband lost his job, we had savings. We also had a stockpile of food and countless DIY skills by then. When your agenda is to save money by forgoing certain things, you tend to find great deals on the things you really need. You become beautifully resourceful. And you have time to learn many things.

Its not an easy life, but its satisfying. Transitioning is the hardest part.

Cherokee Organics said...


I joined the workforce back in the late 1980's. By the early 1990's Australia was in recession and I was retrenched. The federal treasurer at the time described Australia's economy as a "banana republic" and also described the recession as "the recession we had to have". Strong words.

Living through this time, made me realise that things are subject to change at short notice, without warning. As such I have always worked hard, kept up with current events, built skills, pursued education and above all, lived frugally.

I was reminded this very evening of a rather stupid comment made at the time and often repeated as some sort of mantra before economically things went sour. The head of IBM Australia said in the early 1990's, "we (meaning IBM) refuse to participate in the recession". Well, it didn't work out so well for that company here during that period as they like everyone else shed a huge percentage of their staff.

It's funny how when the fundamentals are broken and there is no other option that our leaders look to magic to sustain their positions.



Brad said...

Most of what we are doing in preparation I've wanted to do for years anyway--moved to a farm, raising sheep, milking my own cow, learning to grow food (much harder than I ever thought it would be, by the way), learning teamster skills, living in a sun and wood warmed house and cooking with wood. But all of this pales in comparison to the problem of transportation. We live 14 miles from my work and 25 miles from my wife's job. The thing we fear the most is the isolation if we are not able to get to work or make contact with friends in the town we moved from. Using considerably less gasoline would probably mean not getting to work and not seeing the people we care about (at least as much as we do now). Replacing friends with current neighbors is necessary, perhaps, but certainly not easy. This will, perhaps, be one of the more interesting aspects of the journey.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hey all,

This is off topic, but I'd appreciate some help from the lovely people here.

I often read people referring to the gaelic language and celtic mythology and wanted some help with giving my house a name. I know it's a bit cheeky to ask, but I am serious!

The area has a lot of 19th century English style gardens with some lovely names, for example (Glenrannoch, Ard Rudah or Dreamthorpe). Anyway, there's a lot of magic in a name and my mind keeps coming back to the commenters here who know far more about these things than I.

Some features of the place which may assist commenters are: Orchard; Valley Views; Forest Clearing; Small holding; Eyrie. Hope that helps.

Please help!



whblondeau said...

JMG, you've written more than once on the coming shutdown of the Internet due to an expected lack of economic justification when times get tough. Your arguments are cogent, but I think overly focused on high-bandwidth frivolities like Netflix, porn, massively multiplayer online gaming, and so on. Those uses will die back or vanish, certainly. I agree that video and bookstores will tend to fill the gaps when Internet connectivity and bandwidth get expensive or unavailable. (And of course the gamers always have classic tabletop-style D&D. :-)

However, such uses are not really the core utility of the Internet. Posts like this are a superb counterexample of the WWeb's true usefulness. The real content of this site, and, and other such helpful projects, requires very little bandwidth, but the value of such posts and the ensuing discussions is very great for those of us who are not trying to die before things turn hard.

I suspect the Internet will shed characteristic bandwidth before it disconnects altogether. When that happens, The Archdruid Report will be largely unhindered, and will continue to provide the same sort of value.

I can easily live without the high-volume content (especially in light of your remarks about Stimulation) but it would be a grievous loss to become decoupled from the smart, high-quality intentional communities. I see the Internet as an irreplaceable lifeline in the near to medium term.

(Unrelated side note: your use of the term "steep" to refer to the difficult parts of a learning curve is in error. It's a very common error, driven by intuitive conflation with steep hills being hard to climb, but mathematically the steep parts of a learning curve are the easy, efficient ones.)

Jason said...

JMG I've been waiting for people to notice about stimulation for ages so thanks. ADHD (in which I know you don't really believe) is very much a part of that.

I hope -- expect actually -- you'll be tying that in with the comments on the spiritual sometime. The ability to experience peace isn't enlightenment, but it's ahead of buzz addiction by quite some margin. And I think you've really nailed it by saying this is simply about consumption, consuming less of our nervous system's strength. In many case that I personally know, that kind of overstimulation was actually, literally, what the future was sold for.

I'll get your new tome at full price, and wish you an attic fan.

John Michael Greer said...

Greatblue, two very good points. The one caution I'd offer is not to confuse fitness with current fashions in body type; it's quite possible, in particular, to be too thin -- to lack the fat reserves necessary to weather a period of fod scarcity or a serious illness.

Janne, I talked about him (and that essay) in last week's post.

Archivist, until there are individuals and families willing to make the changes that have to happen, it's a waste of time, and a distraction from the issues that matter, to talk about cities. Real change comes up from the roots.

Jason, I'm not sure why so many people seem confused about what I'm saying about the timescale of decline, as I've been saying the same thing for the last five years. We're in a long process of decline and fall, which will probably last one to three centuries, consisting of periods of severe crisis separated by periods of relative stability and partial recovery. One of those periods of crisis is breathing down our necks right now. It's not going to send us straight into the Dark Ages, but it's going to be a bear to live through, and those who don't take appropriate precautions may not live through it at all. Is that a bit clearer?

Das Monde, as I see it, cooperative schemes are important, but they're a second step. The first is to give individuals the tools they need to get their own lives moving in the right direction; as that happens, cooperative networks will evolve by themselves.

Kieran, thank you! By all means spread it around.

Ken, well, that's why I spent the first six months or so of Green Wizardry posts here talking about gardening!

Sixbears, true enough! A woodstove, first as backup and eventually as main cookstove, is on our shopping list as circumstances permit.

Linda, many thanks for sharing your story!

Chris, and then they don't even do magic competently. Sheesh.

Brad, yes, that's one of the big challenges. As transportation fuel prices itself out of reach, a lot of social networks are either going to have to relocate themselves, or dissolve.

gaias daughter said...

For those who are looking for ways to live with LESS, I highly recommend Possum Living by Dolly Freed,, which is now not only a book but a website with tips and recipes. Also of interest is Sharon Astyk’s list of ways to riot for austerity:

And as for ‘stimulations’ -- the phrase ‘bread and circuses, without the bread’ plays through my mind like a record with the needle stuck.

John Michael Greer said...

Chris, sorry to say I don't know Gaelic at all -- my grasp of the Celtic languages is limited to being able to more or less work my way through Welsh and Cornish. Best of luck, though!

Whblondeau, the utility (or lack of same) of the internet is actually not that relevant. What matters is whether it will be able to pay for itself economically in a time of energy and resource shortages, when there are cheaper ways of providing the same services. For example, would this essay have been any less useful to you if you'd read it in a printed newsletter or monthly magazine -- the form in which it would have appeared thirty years ago?

Jason, I don't disbelieve in the existence of ADHD -- I simply think that most often, what gets slapped with that label is ordinary childhood behavior, which can then be medicated at a high profit to the medical and pharmaceutical industries. As for the spiritual dimension, well, it's not an accident that just about every spiritual tradition in existence starts people off with a practice that involves being quiet, focused and intent on something other than the cravings of the ego. Whether that's prayer, meditation, or what have you, the common theme is worth noting.

John Michael Greer said...

Gaia's Daughter, I was planning on recommending Dolly Freed's book! As for the "bread and circuses" line, that's very well put -- your coining, or from another source?

Shiva said...

Great post. I've been simplifying my life for years now and continue the process. For people beginning the process I'd suggest looking closely at your day to day expenditures (like that daily $4 latte!). Civilization is designed around leeching the money out of our wallets. What I do is after my bills are paid I simply buy materials for my homestead leaving me very little spare cash laying around. I'd rather have useful stuff around that money in my savings bank anyway. Anyways, the posts lately have been great and I love the emphasis on the practical. Keep up the great work!

Cherokee Organics said...


Thanks anyway!

Forced or intentional communities rarely have the cohesion of a community that has evolved. I'm in a rural area close to a major city and it's always fascinating being involved with local groups. The politcs and inter generational connections is mind boggling for me. How anyone thinks they could reproduce these relationships in a short period of time, I don't know?



Wandering Sage said...

LESS is a great acronym. And thank you for starting to address the Stimulation part. This is a major theme of my work and calming the mind is really one of the only ways we are going to be able to navigate the coming difficulties.
wishing you much peace

Lei said...

Maybe I have missed something somewhere, but there seem to be very little if any attention paid to bicycles and their role in the post-peak world here. And I have found only a handful of posts and discussions on this topic on the internet, which however basically agree on that the bicycle will play an important role for several reasons, and in spite of the adverse effects of de-industrialization. Of course, it is related to the issue of repairing and recycling old bikes and the ways to keep them running without some presently easily obtaiable components.

I have discovered some studies saying the bicycle is one of the most ingenious human inventions and that its energy efficiency is hardly surpassed e.g. even by birds, which only confirmed my impression and passion for this thing. And I have been using my bike as a means of transportation since my childhood, - going to high school in my hometown, and now commuting each day in the capital where I live (10+10 km per day, ca. 160 m elevation difference, which keeps me fit), of course I heavily relied on it when studying in China in 2000-1.

It seems to me that learing how to repair a bike, especially in an improvising way, could be a skill needed in a not too distant future. There were so many street menders of bikes in China!

Bob said...

As a father and psychologist who works with children, this post made me think of the somewhat famous "Stanford Marshmallow Experiment" by Walter Mischel. In 1972 Mischel put pre-schoolers in a room and put a marshmallow on the table in front of them. They were told they could eat it right away or, if they held off for ten minutes, they would get a second marshmallow. In addition to the pure entertainment value of watching 4-year-olds squirm around and employ dozens of goofy strategies to get through the time without caving, the study yielded significant results. Not only did those students able to delay gratification do better in certain measures used in follow-up studies (SAT scores, for one), but it is now generally understood that self-control is actually something that (just like gardening or home repair or weatherstripping) can be taught (Mary Karapetian Alvord has a great book on the subject for interested parents or practitioners). As our society has spent the past few decades trying to encourage the OPPOSITE, it appears that the limits to growth and the impending crises JMG has been discussing here will force us to re-learn these skills and make sure the next generation(s) have them in large doses. (That would probably also go a long way in reducing much of the behaviors that end up being labeled ADHD, as well.) I am no longer surprised by how accepting my children are when I tell them that, while we could afford to buy that DVD or computer game or toy, that we would prefer to spend our money on more important things. The parents who have been indulging their children and will be forced to stop abruptly will be in for a great deal of extra and unnecessary pain.

ZZ said...

For those living in apartment building and not being able to find land to grow some of their own food, there are some interesting projects under the name of "window farming", check out these links:

Bill Pulliam said...

[continued from above]

So... the big difference between an attic fan (whole-house exhaust fan) and an air conditioner -- the attic fan does not change the dew point of the air it sucks in. The air conditioner lowers the indoor dew point, by quite a bit. An air conditioner might only drop the air in the room from 84F/29C to 80F/27C, but it might have lowered the dew point from 72F/22C to 63F/17C, and that will make a huge difference to the comfort and fungal-unfriendliness in the room.

Using less does not necessarily mean abandoning air conditioning entirely, especially when you live in a really damp place. You can use LESS air conditioning. Small window units are actually not all that inefficient if you install them tightly in ways that do not compromise all the rest of your insulation and weatherstripping. With good insulation and vapor barriers, a small A/C can keep your sleeping/clothing storage area comfortable and dried out for MUCH MUCH less than $100/month. Conceivably the smaller units could be powered by a P/V or other small home generation system especially if you concentrate its use to the critical afternoon hours of maximum heat gain. Of course, like everything else, this only works if the space is well insulated.

Air conditioning (cooling and dehumidifying) is not an all-or-nothing thing. You can scale it back and limit how much of your space you apply it to without abandoning it completely, especially as you learn how to adapt your living space in total to being less A/C dependent.

About the cost of an attic fan -- I don't recall that mine cost even $100 to buy and install (work done by me, not by a hired electrician). I think it might have been a lot less than that. More labor, but not necessarily much more cost, if you need to modify your attic to increase the air outflow from it. Add an inexpensive home-made insulated door to cover it when it is not in use (to avoid making a big gaping thermal hole in your ceiling -- those aluminum louvered shutters that come with it let the heat right through) and you are good to go.

Bill Pulliam said...

There's more involved in the practicalities and strategies here than just the temperatures. There's also the amount of water in the air. For some reason the popular media weather people decided long ago to focus on relative humidity as the number they would promote for telling people how humid it is. This is not really a very useful number. It changes drastically during the course of the day even if the actual amount of moisture in the air stays constant, and it gives you very little indication of how damp it will be inside your house. If it is 40F/4C outside and 100% humidity, it is likely pretty dry inside your heated house. But if it is 90F/32C outside with 40% humidity, then it is likely rather damp inside your un-airconditioned house. In recent decades they have also started throwing around their fanciful "heat indices" or "feels-like" temperatures that supposedly combine the effects of heat and humidity. Sorry, but 90F/32C with high humidity does not "feel like" 104F/40C with no humidity. The two are drastically different, both in how they affect your own well being and in how they affect the regulation of heat and moisture in your house.

The number that people need to become familiar with is the dew point. This is a real, basic, meaningful measure of ABSOLUTE humidity. The weather people use it all over the place in their own work, but for some reason they think that their mass audience is too stupid to understand it so they rarely mention it to us and almost never highlight it. It's a very simple number -- it is the temperature that, if you cool the air, the water will begin to condense out as dew or fog. If the dew point is 50F/10C and you have a glass of water that is barely warmer than this, it will not "sweat." If the glass is slightly colder than this, it will "sweat." It does not depend on the air temperature; heat the air and the dew point does not change. Cool the air and it does not change until you get the air cooler than the dew point; then the water condenses out (as dew, frost, rain, snow, or fog), and the dew point drops to stay in synch with the temperature. It is physically impossible (in the real, wild atmosphere) for the dew point to be higher than the air temperature.

So.. the relevance of this babbling to living without air conditioning: In the southeastern U.S., summertime dewpoints are quite high. In the mid-south and southern Appalachians they tend to stay in the 60sF/16-20C, but close to the coast and in the deep south they can be up in the mid 70sF/25C. I have once or twice experienced dew points of 82F/28C, which is just beyond the design tolerances of the human body. In contrast, in drier places even when the temperature is very high the dew points are often quite low. In Arizona it might be 113F/45C, but the dew point is likely well under 50F/10C. And in general it is the dew point that determines how intolerable and damaging the sultry summer weather will be. With low dew points you can be comfortable with a breeze, some shade, and a glass of water. With high dew points that won't be enough. My own experience is that the boundary between these two conditions is dew points around the low 60sF/high teens C. Plus, high indoor dew points promote rampant mold growth. When we lived without air conditioning on the coast of South Carolina, anything leather left in the closet would rapidly turn green and fuzzy. This also contributes to respiratory problems and wood decay, on beyond just being inconvenient.

[continued below]

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Greetings to all!

Such worthwhile stories and tips.

JMG, I know you're a Druid, but in this post you sound like a Quaker (different from and at one time persecuted by the Puritans--too peaceable and friendly to the Indians--but that's another story). LESS (lovely acronym) is built right into our way.

To Cherokee Organics, aka Chris:
Since you live in Australia, would it be appropriate to choose a name that refers somehow to the indigenous people's relationship with the land? They did live there successfully for so many thousands of years. Or, if you are of Celtic descent, could you choose a name that somehow refers to both traditions?

Loveandlight said...

Those Americans who have run out of their 99 weeks of unemployment checks and become members of the new class of economic nonpersons, after all, have just been pushed out the exit doors of industrial society. For them, the end of the industrial age has arrived.

It really makes me sad to think of the dehumanized way those who get to remain inside the system for a while longer will view those who have been pushed out. I base this supposition on how those who have fallen from a higher station these past thirty years have been regarded by their more fortunate peers. I can honestly imagine quite a few people commiting suicide rather than dealing with the social stigma of being one of the profoundly despised "homeless".

Do you suppose that this pronounced lack of empathy and compassion (which will only help to seal our society's impending utter doom, IMHO) is a distinctly American way of assuaging the guilt of being the beneficiary of a system that treats people in such a manner? I would say that this is just another manifestation of the cognitive dissonance that makes people blame supposedly all-powerful shadowy elites for giving the population what we wanted when we had a choice to make back in the seventies.

Julie Smith said...

Thanks for a great post! Just finished reading "The Long Descent" and appreciate the call to awareness.

We have been part of the downturn as my husband works in construction. We have really not had an income for two years and are living on our retirement. In spite of my two years search for a job, nothing has turned up. But these circumstances have been such a blessing and they have started us on a path of frugality that is far more in alignment with our spiritual intentions and path.

As a result of losing a large account, we sold equipment, office, and house and now have 7 acres with two old barns and a house that are paid for. We just finished a chicken coop and are starting a large garden. I love your acronym of LESS. Yes, you can do with less! We have and are the happier for it.

Thanks again for sounding the voice of reason and a call to awaken.

Twilight said...

In real life we must deal with compromise, and part of living through a time of transition, as opposed to some clean break, is that we must live with a foot on the dock and one in the boat. I would love to make many more changes to my life much more quickly, but alas I have to accept that at 47 I have accumulated a number of attachment and obligations. I am a child of the empire. Other members of my family have expectations and visions of the future that differ a bit from where I have arrived at – my life is tied to theirs and I can but lead as best I can in the direction I think we should go. It's not that we see extremely different things, just perhaps a different level of urgency.

So I still work a steady job and commute 50 miles a day by car. I'd rather be home working on the garden and other projects at home, but I'm lucky to have it and we'd lose our home without it. Moving is not an acceptable option, so I enjoy our rural property and wonder if we will be able to hang on to it once the job inevitably goes away. But while the ties to the world that is failing force me into major compromises, that does not mean there is nothing I can do!

I'm doing the garden over yet again – the tiller has been parked for good and I'm double digging it by hand. I'm way late, but it does not matter because my goal now is to learn how, not to feed my family from it this year. As for other Green Wizard type projects, I know full well that I'll be disappointed by how little I get done this summer due to time pressures from work and other obligations and maintenance projects, but I will do what I can, focusing on those things with the greatest potential of return.

One thing that everyone should keep in mind is that the coming time of transition will be a period of chaos. There are no assurances on an individual level, and that same shantytown may await for any of us. You simply cannot predict how it will play out for you. That's why it's best to focus on skills and knowledge, backed by practice and experience. It's also where disnsensus comes in – for example, my wife may not fully agree with my vision of what is coming, but I could well imagine that her skills with animals and her ability to meet and connect with interesting people with relevant skills and knowledge may be more important than my skills with tools and (ultimately) gardening.

The point I guess is that you cannot dismiss those things you could do just because they won't be adequate, just because you won't be fully prepared (whatever that means) when you are done. Most of us have spent our lives up to now learning to live in the world that is fading, and we are not going to be able to compete with those who learn these skills from childhood. But here we are, this is our lot, and we may as well do what we can.

Nick said...

As a relative youngster (28) who may have prematurely exited the industrial economy through overly adventurous, though well intended career choices. I find myself fairly far along the path of radically using less. I'm a competent jack of all trades with a BS in Mechanical Engineering, and seem to be threading together my life with odd roofing jobs, farm work, and general thrifting.
My latest recommendation for food thrifting is to make an acquaintance with a dairy farmer, give him $5 above the going rate/100lbs of milk and then make huge batches of yogurt. I simply can not think of a healthier cheaper addition to ones diet.

Great post as usual!

The carp who jumped Hukou Falls said...

@Cherokee Organics

BBC Wales has an online house name generator, if you're up for Welsh rather than Gaelic...

(Choose the Welsh!)

Luciddreams said...

I recently read "Possum Living," and found it a great read. She was 18 when she wrote that book and living with her father. In the copy I bought, which was new, there was an afterward from Ms. Freed. Ironically she ended up working for NASA and regretting a lot of what she said in the book. And her father died from alcoholism!! The concept is a great one. Essentially freedom through scavenging and needing little by way of materials.

About Netflix. I have enjoyed netflix because it's 10 dollars a month and there are no commercials. We don't have television at my house. However, I have started thinking lately that while it's a very cheap and unlimited amount of entertainment, it's also a very powerful distraction. It's been a guilty pleasure. I keep thinking about all of the time I have wasted in front of the television watching commercial free entertainment when I could have been reading one of the many books I have sitting around waiting to be opened. Or, for that matter, how much time I could have been spending on increasing my green wizardry repertoire.

The carp who jumped Hukou Falls said...

@Jason et al,


British education guru Sir Ken Robinson has something to say about that in a short talk on YouTube. Well worth watching.

Guilherme de Baskerville said...

Mr. Greer, is there someplace I can order your three books? And have them shipped to south america?

John said...

One way of doing with less that I never see mentioned has to do with vacations.

For most people today, a vacation consists of flying or driving a great distance (the more exotic the location the better), staying at an expensive hotel, eating at expensive restaurants, seeing expensive 'attractions' (e.g. disney world, Las Vegas casinos, etc.), shopping, and coming home. Time alloted is typically one week or less.

Since the time is so short and the amount of money spent so great, most people run around frantically trying to 'see' and 'do' something every waking minute. They come home exhausted and broke.

In the old days when people went on vacation they went somewhere and stayed there. My parents did this when I was growing up in the 50s and 60s. We would spend almost all day getting to a beautiful seaside village in Maine and rent a cottage there for a month.

Once we moved in we almost immediately settled into the relaxed rythm of the place. We would do things like go to the beach, take walks in the woods or the seashore, socialize with the local people or other vacationers, or sit on the porch and read books. None of this took much energy or money.

For meals we would buy food from local farm stands or seafood shacks and prepare it at the cottage. It was some of the best food I ever had, and, of course, it was much cheaper than any restaurant.

I remember these vacations as some of the most profoundly relaxing and enjoyable ones I've ever taken. No 'corporate' vacation I've taken in later years could match them.

It is still possible to take vacations like this, although few do anymore. As fuel and money become scarcer, I'm waiting for people to 'discover' this kind of vacation again.

Yupped said...

Peer pressure helped to drive us into this consumer society, and peer pressure can help to drive us out, assuming we are hanging out with the right peers. For example, I just started working with people in town to build up a community garden, and instantly have a group of people surrounding me who are working in the same direction - with even a little quiet competition to use less. My wheelbarrow broke and as I pondered the choice between a workable if ugly repair job or a trip to Home Depot, I was mindful of the frowns I would get if I wheeled a shiny new barrow into the garden plots. So I patched it up and saved a good amount of money.

It's a little thing really. But growing up in England in the 60s and 70s, I distinctly remember the power of the "make-do-and-mend" ethic, which was presumably just a reflection of the way things worked prior to the triumph of advertising and consumption. My Dad, and certainly my Grandad wouldn't have thought for a moment about not repairing something that could be repaired. So I wonder if, as the basics of life get more tenuous, and money gets ever tighter, that old-fashioned prudence and parsimony won't make a comeback and using LESS will become a virtue again.

Don Mason said...

Re: A suggestion for reducing rental/mortgage expenditures

For those who get it but are of modest means, one possibility is to follow a contrarian investment strategy: find a location, location, location that you suspect may have a future, but that the marketplace currently says that you are wrong, wrong, wrong.

Location: During the era of cheap energy, the American housing market motored south and west. As that era sputters to a stop, consider the northeast quadrant of America: the Rust Belt.

Location: Look for a city under a quarter-million in population that is surrounded for at least 25 miles in all directions by fertile, rain-fed cropland so that the city can eaily feed itself.

Location: Look for an older, walkable, mixed-use neighborhood towards the city center where the buildings are structurally sound, but rough around the edges because they haven't been maintained since the factory jobs started leaving in the 1970's.

There are many older neighborhoods in cities in the Rust Belt that meet these requirements.

If you buy a beat-up, foreclosed house in a carefully-selected neighborhood in one of these Rust Belt cities, you may be able to:

Save Money: Prices in these neighborhoods are currently as crazy-low as the prices in 2007 Las Vegas were crazy-high. The current average home sale price in our ZIP code (61104 in Rockford, IL) is only $22,000. Within two blocks of our house, single-family homes have sold for $10,000, and a six-flat just sold for $20,000. These prices are much cheaper than renting.

Learn Skills: These buildings need a lot of work. You can camp out inside the house while you learn to do roofing, plumbing, flooring, etc. (Our two-flat had no running water when we moved in, but plenty of roof leaks. We used rainwater for many months.)

Learn the New Social Order: The informal black/gray market that will soon emerge is already present in an embryonic form in many of these neighborhoods (see Orlov and FerFAL) You'll get a headstart by learning now who the "playas" are.

Gain Self-Respect: No one will laugh at you if you don't have a high-prestige/high-paying job. (Most of the people in these neighborhoods don't even have a "real job".) The reponsible neighbors will welcome you because you're improving the neighborhood by repairing your house. In fact, they'll welcome you just because you're responsible.

The carp who jumped Hukou Falls said...


You're spot on about Beijing. I once had to abandon a bicycle at Fuchengmen station because I happened to get a double puncture, and didn't have a repair kit. There weren't any of those corner bicycle repair experts anywhere nearby; there was no way I was walking the bike home to Jishuitan, and the cost of a taxi would have been more than the cost of a new bike. Not coincidentally, that was in the thoroughly developed and Westernised Financial Street area. On the other hand, in the old-fashioned area where I lived, there were repairmen every couple of streets. My chain once locked up while I was going around the Second Ring Road near Dongsishitiao, and I coasted to a halt right next to one of them, who had me on my way in a couple of minutes... Definitely a more civilzed way of living...

John Michael Greer said...

Shiva, that sounds like an excellent strategy. Thanks for sharing it!

Chris, it's been my experience that a lot of the people who talk longingly about communities in the abstract have gone out of their way to avoid dealing with the actual communities they live in; the result is a lot of fantasy that has about as much in common with real life as romance fiction or porn have with actual relationships.

Sage, it's as crucial a part of my work, though it hasn't come up here very often.

Bob, of course self-discipline and the deliberate direction of will can be learned. A hundred years ago there were entire books on the subject -- I've got some -- packed full of exercises to strengthen the will the way that pumping iron strengthens your muscles. It might be worth blowing the dust off some of those practices.

Lei, that's a good point. I walk rather than biking, for a variety of reasons, but for those who like or can handle two-wheeled travel, it's a great choice -- and learning bike repair could be an excellent route to a future job.

ZZ, many thanks for the links!

Bill, many thanks for all this -- solid points, and highly useful for those of us still learning our way around hot and humid summers.

Adrian, it's an interesting detail of history that the modern Druid movement and the Quaker faith both emerged around the same time in around the same place -- that is, England around the beginning of the industrial revolution. I don't know of any direct connection, but there may be some shared intellectual heredity there.

Loveandlight, yes, I think there's a lot of that. It's also a futile attempt, by those people who are still clinging to their jobs and homes, to insist that they won't lose everything because the people who do, well, it's their own fault. Batwitted as it is, that kind of rationalization is all too common.

Julie, many thanks for sharing your story! I suspect it's a great help to those who are nerving themselves up to take the plunge that those already in the water are paddling around comfortably. ;-)

Twilight, exactly. You do what you can with the hand you've been dealt. I have to spend more hours at the keyboard, and fewer in my garden or workshop, than I'd prefer, because that's what keeps the mortgage paid -- so you're far from alone.

Nick, excellent. That kind of negotiation outside the mainstream economy is going to become a major element in survival strategies in the years ahead. Have you considered learning how to make cheese, by the way?

Lucid, that happened to a lot of members of that generation. Not sure how I dodged the bullet.

Guilherme, drop an email to info (at) newsociety (dot) com, and they can point you to Latin American distributors.

John, that's an excellent point. The old-fashioned seaside or lakeside or mountain cabin, to which every vacation was inevitably destined, has a lot going for it in the short term, and in the long term it might become a crucial fallback option.

Yupped, good for you! Getting involved in local community gardens might be a good option for the young apartment dwellers who've posted comments here, too.

John Michael Greer said...

Don, funny you should mention that, because that's exactly what my spouse and I did two years ago. We paid a bit more for our house than the prices you've quoted, though we could have gone down to that level; as for the rest, though, we're in a slightly down-at-the-heels neighborhood on the wrong side of the tracks in an old mill town of 24,000 people in western Maryland, within easy walking distance from everything, and among many other benefits, our cost of living has dropped through the floor.

Jason Heppenstall said...

On the subject of air conditioning, I was fortunate to meet someone doing up a 17th century olive mill in Spain, and renovating the old Arabic air conditioning system built into it.

It works by funnelling air underneath the building and passing it across pools of water. Not exactly the kind of thing that could easily be retro-fitted, but worth thinking about for new buildings in hot areas.

For anyone interested you can read the article here:

Stephen said...


I am an urban planner who fully appreciates the enormous predicament currently unfolding around us.

I believe the catabolic model offers a singularly brilliant (albeit abstract) assessment of the transition the world in general and the US in particular will encounter as the long descent accelerates.

I discuss these issues frequently and openly with my colleagues. They listen politely as I attempt to describe as eloquently as possible the need for resilience and curtailment to preserve the quality of life in our cities. However, they largely dismiss the need for LESS.

In spite of my description of issues like EROEI, scaling, sunk costs, etc. these bright, well-meaning folks genuinely believe that technology can 'save us' from having to contend with LESS.

Many seem confident that major US cities can undergo a gradual "Europeanization" process (ultimately using, as you've commonly noted, one third the oil that the US currently uses). They contend that undertaking large infrastructure projects including regional rail, urban streetcars, renewable energy, and smart meters can save us from LESS. Their argument seems to run: "if only the proper infrastructure projects were subsidized sufficiently, we could all live without having to give up MORE."

I remind them that European lifestyles aren't sustainable when one looks beyond mere land use considerations and factors in consumption patterns and the structural dependency of our economy on continued growth. That's pretty much where the conversation ends.

However, one thing occurred to me from your post this week which helps me understand this endemic anti-LESS sentiment. It's a take on Pascal's Wager that goes something like this: "a rational person should wager as though MORE exists, because living life accordingly has everything to gain, and nothing to lose."

Culturally, LESS is perceived as tantamount to throwing in the towel; that it's a necessary result of failure rather than a goal to be pursued. In other words, LESS will always be waiting for us, so why embrace it earlier than necessary?

If this is the train of thought that descent-savvy planners have to contend with, it may be a bumpy ride down the front half of this century.

Blackbird said...

I think the one thing that can't be stressed enough is that using "LESS", as you say, can be enjoyable. My wife and I (plus our two children) have been growing vegetables in our backyard the past 3 years and have enjoyed not just what we grow, but the process of growing as well (Of everything that we grow I am amazed at how much better our broccoli tastes then even organic broccoli you can buy in a store). While we are far from self sufficient, my wife cans salmon that she and her mom catch, I butcher my own deer that we will eat over the winter/spring, and we freeze, can and dry some of our fruit and vegetables that we grow.

We haven't removed ourselves from technology (although we don't have cable TV), but our favourite spot to vacation is at a cabin we are looking after that is completely off the grid. We have there an 800 gallon water catchment system, we bring propane for a stove and fridge, and we bring our own drinking water. There is also next to no cell phone reception so there is truly no contact with the outside world. There are no roads nearby (only deer trails) and my two children think it is the best place in the world. I get up at first light early in the morning before everyone just to wander in the woods (sometimes with my dog if she feels up for it). I walk the deer trails and occasionally spot them along with many different types of bird. I try to learn a few different plants and bushes as I pass underneath the canopy of the massive alders and hemlock. The word 'magical' springs to mind. While on the walks I can feel all my stresses of my daily life (work) fade away.


Karen said...

To Ana's Daughter: Excellent tips.

My Grandfather used to have a saying (he was poor and lived through the Depression of the 30's): "I am too poor to buy cheap".

Well made/good quality items last much longer and it is less wasteful to purchase one well-made item versus several cheap things.

I also have put into practice many of your tips over the years so that they are now a way of life.

Thank you for sharing!

Bill Pulliam said...

...and we'll see how long it takes Google to find the 48 comments it lost...

Those of you who argue for the indispensibility and immortality of the internet, yeah uh huh. One programming glitch by one (private, can do whatever they like with our intellectual products, just read the terms of service) company. Frailty, thy name is High Tech.

Luciddreams said...

yes, it's frail, but how much more so than us as a species? In a way the internet is the perfect representation of us as a species.

Steve said...

"The payoff is that you get the extra money you need to learn the skills that will make sense in a deindustrial economy, and can save up a down payment for a fixer-upper house with good solar exposure, a backyard well suited for an organic garden, and a basement where you can get to work learning to brew good beer."

That's the trajectory we've been on, and it's finally happening. Making our 1960s ranch house more energy efficient, converting to a "working" kitchen, adding a woodstove, and putting in a garden are tops on the list of "fix-up" projects. I have also gotten hold of some used solar hot water equipment discarded from some neighbors.

While we didn't make the move to a rust-belt city and the housing market here still has a ways to fall, our mortgage payments now are less than our rent was, and we're still close to family. With luck, at least one of us will have a job at any given time, and our setup at this point means only one of us needs to work to make ends meet. While we're both working, we're putting money toward cutting our dependence on energy, food, and other resources that we don't provide ourselves.

Are we as prepared as we could be? No, but we're working on it one step at a time. Within two years, our half-acre of grass and juniper will be 80% converted to food production. We can bus to work, the farmers market, and the forest. I'm working on a stout recipe that's become popular, the chickens are coming next spring, and there are wild mushrooms on my way to work. For some perspective, three years ago we joined a CSA for the first time and tried eating mostly local as an experiment - we were worried about what we were "giving up." Things have sure changed.

Thanks, JMG for the consistent encouragement and helpful advice on how to better position ourselves for the future. Your blog and books have been an inspiration!

Lloyd Lincoln Clark said...

An apt lesson indeed. I learned long ago to save and so shall re-post should no recoverable archive be found to exist... assuming of course that someone or something is looking for it. Meanwhile, I await a few choice words on the subject from JMG.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hey Bill,

Very cheeky! I checked yesterday and there were around 146 comments. Looks like they've restored from a backup.

People, the Internet like all digital media is an extremely vulnerable place to store data for any length of time.

I remember reading that NASA had archived all of the data from their Viking voyage to Mars in the 1970's on tape. Yet by the 1990's none of the data was retrievable as they neglected to retain the tape reader device.

There is no alternative to practice, practice, practice!



idiotgrrl said...

I noticed. It ate your post and it ate everything from Double Nickel Farm in Alamogordo after May 10th. And she was going to post a homemade cat food recipe to match her homemade dog food (the May 10th one) some time. Anyway, *very* glad to see you back. Maybe we need to copy to a Word file on a flash drive?

*You know you've taken Old English too long when you see a code word "hylst" and read it as the second person singular of hulan - a verb that does not exist, to the best of my knowledge. Thou hylst, he hylth?

Don Mason said...

Re: A suggestion for reducing rental/mortgage expenditures

For those who get it but are of modest means, one possibility is to follow a contrarian investment strategy: find a location, location, location that you suspect may have a future, although the marketplace currently says that you are wrong, wrong, wrong.

Location: During the era of cheap energy, the American housing market motored south and west. As that era sputters to a stop, consider the northeast quadrant of America: the Rust Belt.

Location: Look for a city under a quarter-million in population that is surrounded for at least 25 miles in all directions by fertile, rain-fed cropland so that the city can easily feed itself.

Location: Look for an older, walkable, mixed-use neighborhood towards the city center where the buildings are structurally sound, but rough around the edges because they haven't been maintained since the factory jobs started leaving in the 1970's.

There are many older neighborhoods in cities in the Rust Belt that meet this profile.

If you buy a beat-up, foreclosed house in a carefully-selected neighborhood in one of these Rust Belt cities, you may be able to:

Save Money: Prices in these neighborhoods are currently as crazy-low as the prices in 2007 Las Vegas were crazy-high. The current average home sale price in our ZIP code (61104 in Rockford, IL) is only $22,000. Within two blocks of our house, single-family homes have sold for $10,000, and a six-flat just sold for $20,000. These prices are much cheaper than renting. Sell crazy-high, buy crazy-low.

Learn Skills: These buildings usually need a lot of work. You can camp out inside the house while you learn to do roofing, plumbing, flooring, etc. (Our two-flat had no running water when my wife and I moved in, but plenty of roof leaks. We used rainwater for many months while I started rehabbing it.)

Learn the New Social Order: The informal black/gray market that will soon emerge is already present in an embryonic form in many of these neighborhoods (see Orlov and FerFAL). You'll get a headstart by learning now who "da playas R".

Gain Self-Respect: No one will laugh at you if you don't have a high-prestige/high-paying job. (Most of the people in these neighborhoods don't have "a real job"; many have never had "a real job"; and more than a few are utterly incapable of holding down anything that even resembles "a real job".) The reponsible neighbors will welcome you because you're improving the neighborhood by repairing your house. In fact, they'll welcome you just because you're responsible.

idiotgrrl said...

And when you said "...those old-fashioned survivalists whose idea of being ready to feed themselves once the rubble stops bouncing is a nitrogen-packed tin of garden seeds, a random assortment of tools, and a manual on how to garden, which they read halfway through on a slow afternoon ten years ago." I gulped, blushed, opened my tent bag, and actually set up the thing, reading the instructions all the way. And took a nap in it and took it back down. Rinse and repeat - tomorrow and every day - until I can do it in my sleep. In the dark.

Thank you for getting me up off my paved-road-to-the-Underworld-ed fat rear end.

Karen said...


I fully agree.

I saved my comment but it was in reference to Ana's Daughter's comment which unfortunately I did not save...

That is why I always write things down in my planner, it is impervious to power failure, it can be dropped, be in the sun and won't self-destruct if water is spilled on it, unlike most electronic "high tech" instruments.

Matt and Jess said...

My goodness. I was looking forward to reading some of the comments that had been left before! Oh well. I did get a chance to see a few.

Anyway ... someone did post a comment saying that a good plan is to move to a smaller rust belt city and buy a home for around 25k, and fix it up. This would be a solution for all of us young'un apartment dwellers who want to live a secure life but can't afford much.

I've gotta say ... that's a good idea, but I think we're all a little afraid of moving to someplace where the people are very different from us. Any input on what the areas like this are actually like? Of course it may be the smartest choice, but it's a great plunge into the unknown for a lot of us.

I would also like to recommend a book called the Tightwad Gazette for those of us who are in the situation of hunkering down and saving up for a more secure future. It's excellent!

Kevin said...

You're sooo right Bill. As it happens I've already lost my web connect because my computer went down a couple of days ago, and if it weren't for a helpful friend I would be utterly unable to afford to repair it. I'm using his antiquated loaner 'puter right now.

I find myself in very much the situation that JMG describes for many people: knowing full well the gravity of the situation and the shortness of the time in which to prepare, but totally lacking in the necessary resources with which to make said preparations. You can do a lot on little money, but not so much on NO money, which is about what I've got to work with. I find myself stuck in the situation of having to look desperately for work in a dying economy so that I can prepare to bail out of that economy when it takes the final plunge. There is of course absolutely no guarantee that the time spent on this possibly futile jobsearch will not be competely wasted, but there seems to be little other option. Given the urgency of the situation, I find myself freaking out and starting to panic. So if anyone has any miracles to recommend, I'm ready to listen!

barath said...

Bill -

You're definitely right about the vulnerability of the Internet even today. I thought I'd mention two things that your comment made me think of:

1. There's a disconnect between what Internet researchers think of as the Internet and how others view it. Generally we think of it as the set of protocols that enable routing (e.g. BGP, OSPF), data transport (e.g. TCP), internetworking (e.g. IP), etc. and the infrastructure over which these protocols run. In this view, the Internet is actually fairly resilient (though not in the long term).

2. The trend towards cloud-based services has made common-mode failures a bigger problem than in the past. Twenty years ago this blog and its comments would have been a moderated Usenet group, and because Usenet was decentralized it would have been more resilient to failure. Maybe we should / will revert to such systems in the years to come.

John Michael Greer said...

Well, that was exciting, wasn't it? A dry run for the day when each of us will no longer be able to communicate via Blogger, either because we can no longer afford internet access, or because Blogger can no longer afford to offer free services like this one, in an age of rising energy and equipment costs.

Bill, I think some of them got accidentally reposted to last week's post.

Lucid, nah, human beings are by and large tough generalists, right up there with cockroaches and rats. We'll be around long after the internet is forgotten.

Steve, excellent! That's very good to hear.

Lloyd, glad to hear it. I write my posts on my work computer, which has no internet access, and back up regularly, for much the same reasons.

Chris, nearly all the data collected by NASA from before the 90s is unreadable now. It's not just the tape readers; nobody remembers the programs that were used at the time.

Grrl, no, that's the point when you've taken enough Old English. Anything less is for dabblers. (Thou dabblest, he dabbleth?)

Don, glad you saved that comment! Given that my spouse and I did pretty much what you're advocating two years ago, and are sitting pretty in a comfortable house for an absurdly low price in a good location to surf the waves of decline and fall, I'm hardly going to disagree.

Grrl, that's good to hear. Most of the excuse for this blog is that it does sometimes remind people who are mostly doing the right thing to take it that one further step.

Karen, true enough. Nothing beats hard copy.

Matt and Jess, people are people. Sara and I moved from the west coast to an old mill town in the north central Appalachians, and had no trouble settling in -- the local Freemasons welcomed me as a brother, Sara's teaching spinning classes at the local yarn store, etc. It's a good idea to bring an income with you -- there are very few jobs in most of the Rust Belt, and one of the things that can raise hackles is if the locals think you're there to take a job or two away from them and their neighbors -- but since I write for a living and Sara telecommutes, and we made sure the word got around, that wasn't a problem.

Kevin, I don't have any miracles to recommend but I do have a strategy. Obviously I don't know what kind of skills you have, but for most people, this is the last time to be devoting all your remaining resources to a job search. Several middle-aged to elderly couples have commented to this list in recent weeks that they'd happily take in a young person or two and give them a place to stay in exchange for farm labor. If you're not afraid of hard work and can check your ego at the door and learn, that may be the best option you've got just now. In your place, I'd certainly consider it.

Bill Pulliam said...

Another story that will be of interest to those who have large amounts of significant writing or other information archived "in the cloud..."

A little while back, Google inactivated my account because of suspicious activity. My blog and my g-mail just vanished from the face of the earth. I eventually found out that pretty much the only way for me to get it reactivated was to give them my wireless phone number so they could send me a text, that I could then reply to confirming that I was me. Begrudgingly I did so, not at all happy about Google having yet another piece of personal information about me. Apparently at some point my g-mail account had been hijacked and used for sending Russian spam. I saw a couple of hints of this in strange e-mail bounce messages, then it all went away.

Our internet services are mostly provided by private companies with incomprehensible terms of service. They are not benevolent public utilities that people seem to believe they are. Now that our civilization relies on Skype(tm), Twitter(tm), YouTube(tm), and Facebook(tm), I cringe even more about the even narrower corporate hold on all our communications media... and almost no regulation of any of them.

Y'all are aware, aren't you, that Google remembers every search you have ever done, and every link you have ever clicked in the search results? But of course they would NEVER do anything with all that data that you could POSSIBLY disapprove of.

Astrid said...

For those city dwellers that are wondering "should I stay or should I go?" this link is to an excellent post by Sharon Astyk on the pros and cons of city and country living. A worthwhile read.

Petro said...

"...but I’m also not suggesting that my readers put on a sustainably harvested hair shirt and retire to a Bat Conservation International-certified bat-safe cave in the mountains to offer up their sufferings in the hope of assuaging the wrath of Gaia."

You really are quite the humourist sometimes, Greer.

Lloyd Lincoln Clark said...

Reprise of the google-gobbled comment that I posted yesterday:

Many of those choosing to remain peripherally (un)aware of the increasing certainty of those "cascading crises of the decades ahead of us" are indeed not "seriously planning to deal with" them, preferring instead the gamble that the sheer inertia of the current system will delay the onset of serious discomfort beyond the date they expect to check out for good. I imagine that those with the initiative and perseverance to make the sorts of necessary changes in their lives advocated by our host, and that enjoy for themselves and perhaps their children prospects for hanging around for more than a few more decades, may take exception to that attitude as the crises begin to manifest. They might even be so moved as to help some of the former cash in their chips a little early. The value of wisdom earned of experience is in the sharing. Teaching is a skill the more advanced in years might find useful to practice.

Petro said...

OK, I finished the post, and I want to make a comment about "preaching to the choir."

I'm pretty much in "the choir," as it were, with what I think is a decent grasp of the slow-motion crisis we are experiencing.

However, let me say that you have a laser-like focus and logic that I find invaluable. Invaluable even to my "independent" thinking. I can almost feel the cranial hemispheres firing up.

Thank you, John Michael Greer. Good work. Great work.

SweaterMan said...


It's not just NASA electronic data that is lost.

In the mid 80s I was at a meeting at Rocketdyne as part of a project (the ISS). As part of the hospitalities, we had a tour of the facility and ended up in a HUGE room chock full of file cabinets. Think of the government warehouse at the end of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" - but instead of artifacts it was full of two and three-drawer cabinets.

One of the engineers remarked to me that the original engineering drafts of the Saturn F-5 rocket engines were somewhere in that room and it was a shame since Rocketdyne was transitioning to an electronic record-keeping format and that all the info in that room was not scheduled to be moved to the new format, and thus would be lost.

I don't know if the engine designs ever made it to today's world or not, but it was my first lesson in serious knowledge loss and it has stuck with me through the years. Sad to think of all the knowledge we'll lose over the next few decades; even though moon rockets won't help me in my vegetable garden it's still a loss to us all.

John Michael Greer said...

Barath, thanks for the info. Yes, I think there will definitely be a downshifting to less "cloud-based," more resilient modes...perhaps like packet radio, perhaps like print media.

Bill, a useful cautionary tale!

Astrid, Sharon's blog is worth reading nearly always.

Petro, thank you. I think. I'm not sure if I'm a humorist, or if the situation would make Calvin Coolidge crack a joke.

Lloyd, it's common enough; I've heard any number of people say, "Well, I just hope I die before it happens." What a craven, contemptible evasion.

Petro, thank you. This time, definitely. Really, though, the only advantage I have is that I've been brooding over this stuff, and researching it, since the middle 1970s, since I never did get around to drinking the Reagan koolaid; thus I've had the chance to get to conclusions I think most people would have reached on their own in the same amount of time.

Sweaterman, you know, I sometimes wonder if there's a poorly concealed hatred of history woven into the collective thought of our time. It seems so obvious to me, and is clearly so opaque to so many people, that something like the original Saturn 5 plans should be kept for the future, as part of the history of one of the grandest things our culture will ever do.

Don Mason said...

Re: Matt and Jess

As JMG said, "People are people"; a few people you get along with really well; a few you don't get along with very well; and most are okay. It's mainly your own attitude that counts.

In general, though, the larger the city, the more diversity you'll encounter.

Our particular neighborhood (Northwest Midtown in Rockford, IL) is eclectic to the point of being somewhat bizarre.

On our block alone we have six primary languages/dialects spoken: 1) Vietnamese, 2) Sudanese, 3) Laotian, 4) Spanish, 5) Standard Midwestern English, 6) Ebonics/Black English/or whatever it's currently called.

Education varies from doctorate level to functionally-illiterate-and-proud-of-it.

It's a mixture of older people who worked in now-closed factories and have lived in the neighborhood most of their lives, plus some recent immigrants, plus some medical students, plus some people on welfare, plus some younger working people who see the long-term potential in the neighborhood.

We have a young couple rehabbing their home and putting copper valleys on their roof, while down the block junkie squatters are stripping the copper plumbing out of a vacant house to sell for drug money.

So you have to be able to live with ambiguity.

These Rust Belt cities haven't fared well under the global economy, and tend to be somewhat inward-looking. But as the global economy melts down, that inward focus may hopefully become a source of strength: a return to self-reliance.

Jobs are scarce - but jobs are scarce everywhere, and they're probably going to get scarcer everywhere. The advantage to these central city neighborhoods in the Rust Belt is that the current cost of survival is lower: housing is cheaper, and you have inexpensive mobilty options besides the expensive automobile: public transportation or walking or bicycling.

Since building ecovillage/lifeboat communities in rural areas would be prohibitively expensive, my hunch is that these older, mixed-use, compact urban neighborhoods are where many of the more realistic members of the downwardly-mobile middle class are going to settle, because higher-density neighborhoods are where it's the most cost-efficient to maintain infrastructure (roads, bridges, electrical lines, natural gas lines, telephone/fiberoptic lines, water lines, sewer lines, etc.) and to deliver governmental services (police, firefighters, paramedics, teachers, librarians, public health workers, etc.).

The sprawling, low-density suburbs with their McMansions may prove to be too expensive to maintain their own infrastructures and provide themselves with professional services; consequently, many may turn into little more than squalid refugee camps: impassable roads, collapsed bridges, backed up sewers, no running water, no electricity, no police, no firefighters, no public health workers.

Welcome to the Third World, America.

The carp who jumped Hukou Falls said...

I posted these previously, but they seem to be lost in the cloud, so here goes again.

@Cherokee Organics: Irish, Scots Gaelic and Welsh are all branches of the Celtic tree. If Welsh is of any interest, BBC Wales have an online house name generator. I speak Welsh, so I can confirm that they are traditional names, reflecting the environment around the house.

In a comment to the last post, Nathan mentioned Open Source Ecology. The founder, Marcin Jakubowski, gave a TED Talk about it, which is worth watching.

Another video link is to Sir Ken Robinson, British education guru, in which he talks a fair bit about educational paradigms and ADHD, another topic that's had a bit of discussion here recently.

Finally, it may not matter anyway, as we could all have starved before the oil crunch comes. Recent research confirms that the collapse of bee colonies is connected to cell phone usage. If we have to ask people to give up mobile phone usage in order to protect bees, it doesn't take much to imagine the response. Future historians (should there be any) may conclude that we were the first civilisation to choose 'shiny' over food.

Mean Mr Mustard said...

I once heard about a large aerospace corporation wanting office space in the main facility of a national aircraft manufacturer which they had taken over. Fortunately, they gave an amateur aviation enthusiast and former employee who just happened to be around 24 hours to clear the office of the unwanted company archives. This was more historical and cultural stuff, fit for a museum, rather than precise engineering information. Another example of how an entire history can so easily be wiped out by ignorance, indifference, hubris and sudden change.

Honky said...

Hi John,

As usual, a rational perspective and entertaining read. Ideas which would have been just as valid on the rising tide of non-renewable consumption as in the ebb of industrialisation. However, one question which always rattles around my head when I take the time to read your blog is "what is the time scale?"

My expectations for the decline of industrial civilisation are (I believe) akin to yours. No dramatic armageddon or the like, just an increasing infeasibility of excessive energy consumption. However, I get the impression you see this impacting the biological necessities of life rather more rapidly than I believe will occur. For example, I would be a little surprised if, within the lifetimes of most of your readers, supermarkets do not retain their position as the primary hunting grounds in western countries. If you have already posted about the time scale of decline I would be fascinated to read what you wrote, if not I would be fascinated to read what you would write.

I am certain that dramatically reduced energy consumption is better for our mental and physical well being (plus it's fun to scrape out that extra nugget of non-consumption). However, I have not yet heard a convincing argument for it based on the urgency of preparing for a deindustrialised world. After all, will the shortages not come in dribs and drabs as they already do? After the first winter of feeling the financial sting of buying strawberries, will people not move on to oranges? If there is a good argument in this regard, I suspect you can wield it.

Cherokee Organics said...


Sometimes it's a bit surreal reading the Archdruid Report from an Australian perspective. I agree with your sentiments, observations and advice, however, over here your concerns appear to not even be on the average persons radar.

Since the 1970's, I've seen our society change from carefree and egalitarian, to a more competitive and individualistic nation.

Over here our economic well being depends on two main industries: mining and agriculture. Both are heavily subsidised through the use of oil which is getting more expensive every year. As both are extractive industries in their current forms, they provide little to no long term prospects for the country. This is a taboo subject here.

How is it that people believe that the economy, their assets and their wages can keep growing year in year out?

You can see the cracks in the system increasing yearly. Our infrastructure does not match the size of our population, or is failing. You read articles in newspapers where people say they are doing it tough and when you read the details, they have a before tax income of $120,000! Why is our median house price for Melbourne (from today's newspaper) $705,000? How can people think spending $45,000 on a family car is cheap?

What's wrong with them?

Sometimes I feel like that there's a party going on and I didn't get an invite!

I've always worked hard on numerous fronts, pursued education, built up general skills and avoided debt. I've got plenty of mates, but I'm seriously lacking peers.

People are so caught up in their domestic situations that they never take the time to look around them at the changes that are occurring. As an outsider, it's like watching a slow motion car crash. I can see the social and financial pressures building around the people that I know and the impact it has on their lives, but I can't assist them in any way as they choose to tie themselves to the great carousel that is the system. The grip is tenacious and I can see that they'll hang on right up to the last second when there are no further options.

For food, I'm about 30% self sufficient, which should rapidly increase every season now. I've hit 100% for electricity, water and heating and have no hope ever of producing fuel for a vehicle. I'd drink or trade alcohol long before putting it into a vehicle.

The problem is that in undertaking this journey, I realise how deep in the poo as a society we are. Most people are in a dream, or they're asleep at the wheel and they are all to happy to let me know what they think which is that what I'm up to is mildly eccentric.

However at the same time, I often see people pointing at Cuba and saying, "they did it, so it must be 100% too easy". I don't believe that we can transition to organic agriculture and retain any semblance of a middle class, first world lifestyle, it's just not compatible. Few would even consider the ecological concepts such as carrying capacity and what it means to them and their families.



cwthompson said...

Hello JMG. Thanks again for Star's Reach stories.
I'm curious about what store of value one can use to save some of net income given the premise of catabolic decline. USD is a disaster as a store of "wealth" even now. Is there a financial option, or is the only long term wealth asset skills you store in your brain? Thanks, CWT

Bill Pulliam said...

FYI, people who think about these things professionally recommend a three-pronged approach to data preservation: Hard, local electronic, and cloud. Each important datum should exist in all three forms, and each must be archived and maintained. So you need to periodically upgrade your local electronic form before it becomes obsolete or decays, and when you think Flikr might be on its way out you need to duplicate your cloud photos somewhere else. Preserving information always takes continuing work. The cloud can work to your advantage, but only if you are smart and cautious about it.

I have 35 years of field notes about all the birds I have tallied everywhere I have ever been. I spent many months transcribing them to the cloud in case something horrible ever happens to my local copies. But I also entrusted them to a site run jointly by an Ivy League university and one of the world's oldest non-profit conservation organizations. I didn't just give them to Google Documents. My cloud archive gives me great peace of mind about my data, should I ever find a mouse ate one of my stored field notebooks. And it allows my data to be used by others along with similar contributions from many thousands of additional people. But it's only one of the three prongs.

Mark said...

So here's my weekend: Tilling the garden (manually) moving wood from a tree I cut down to expand my garden, stacking the wood (to feed the wood stove I don't have yet), collecting paperwork for a refinance (to substantially lower my debt service). Screaming at my kids to turn off lights and take shorter showers. Despite these efforts I am far from being resilient (Chris Martensen's idea of resilient) and would really like to know how much time I have to prepare. (Nothing focuses the mind like a deadline.)

Perhaps you've heard about the wisdom of crowds and the example of the county fair game where people try to guess the weight of meat from a butchered ox. Turns out that the average of the guesses was closer than any individual, including experts. (see James Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds)

Using that same approach, I wonder if we, JMG's readers, could generate an answer to "How much time do we have to prepare?" The problem with this approach is that we have to answer the question, "Prepare for what?"

What is the equivalent to "Weight of a butchered ox." When we are talking about an energy-expensive future? What milestone(s) would indicate that we are "there?"

Here are some possible milestones:
Big box store chains start closing
Gas hits $6/gallon (SUV's left stranded on major highways)
New Zealand Apples no longer available at the grocery store
Price of a Working chainsaw exceeds price of a 50" flat screen TV (be creative :-)

So, first, let's define what the "butchered ox" looks like then see if we can figure out how long we've got until we are there. Who's in?


(FYI, there are, of course, weaknesses to the wisdom of crowds - for example, one important component is the secret guess - each guesser does not know what the other fair goers guess, otherwise that would influence my guess and throw off the statistics)

Twilight said...

An excellent example of the vast vulnerabilities of this complex system, and an excellent analogy for much of our modern industrial life. I think people will be quite surprised and perplexed when things stop working.

One of the things I find interesting about the the world we've created around us is not only the complexity but also the level of abstraction involved. The actions that people take to use things like the internet are relatively simple and completely unrelated to types of things that are going on beneath the surface to make it work, nor to the level of complexity. You'd need a high level of specialist training in several areas to really understand it. I have only a basic understanding of the protocol complexity that barath was discussing, but I design electronic circuits and understand the complexity and vulnerability of the hardware. But from the user's point of view there's nary a hint of what is going on, and I wonder how often throughout history mankind has been able to create such systems of great hidden complexity.

The only other systems I can think of that have these characteristics are biological and ecological. I can learn to use the soil in my garden, but I don't really know what's going on in there, and when we mess with ecosystems we often find that seemingly small changes have large unintended results. Still, I think those systems, having evolved over very long times, are more resilient and self-correcting than something like the internet.

Jason said...

Blogger Schmogger; when this makes the BBC, we're in business. :)

Tracy G said...

Bill wrote: "Y'all are aware, aren't you, that Google remembers every search you have ever done, and every link you have ever clicked in the search results?"

Indeed. That's the reason I prefer Ixquick for research. I rarely use Google unless I'm searching for an Icelandic word or phrase as part of my language learning process, and I want to take advantage of Google's translation service. Um, good luck to anyone who tries to interpret that data. (Incidentally, I talked a bit about why I want to be bilingual in this old thread at Green Wizards, if anyone's curious. I'm still finding those efforts to be extremely valuable.)

Regarding LESS, well, I couldn't agree more (sorry, couldn't resist). I've found I need to keep a tight reign on stimulation to feel mentally balanced. The easiest way for me to do this is to simply limit the number of electronic gadgets that I own. So I have four: a hand-cranked emergency AM/FM/weather radio with a built-in LED flashlight at my home, a second weather radio at my office, a CD player at my office which provides soft music during my client's massage sessions and yoga lessons, and one laptop computer (plus one back-up external hard drive, a pair of earbuds, and a printer that I share with my husband).

I don't have, and don't want: a television. A cell phone. An MP3 player. An e-book reader. A game console. A GPS. And probably a lot of other stuff that I don't even know about, as my exposure to advertising is happily rather limited. I also camp at at least once a year and completely unplug for several days. I have to. It helps me remember who I really am.

One of the Remnant said...

@ Kevin

I seriously feel for you, dude. As Douglas Adams wisely put it, though, the first rule is: 'Don't Panic'. Part of the issue may be this: you feel that no money = no options. I would suggest this mindset derives from our set of cultural myths revolving around money as the be all and end all (kind of ironic when you consider how wholly unsubstantial our fiat money system is).

You actually may have more resources than others who have more money. Your age, your social support network and family, your location, the time you have on your hands - all these and more may constitute resources you may be able to leverage.

I would also suggest the old adage that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Have you find a single step you *can* take? If so, have you taken it? In many sense, I think this is a journey which requires one to build confidence in oneself as one goes, and those small steps are quite important in this regard. Find something to do, and do it. Then find something else to do, and do that. And so on. You don't have to be able to map out a clear path to sustainability now - once you've started thinking and moving in that direction, the next steps may show themselves.

My scientifically minded Buddhist friends would tell you that taking a small step will kick off neurochemical changes associated with intention which then can begin to build momentum.

A good place to begin is to read past posts here if you have not (go back at least a year), and also to join the site that JMG has set up. There are forums there in which you can interact with others in similar positions, ask questions, vent your frustrations, glean helpful info, etc.

Good luck, don't panic, and know at least that you are not alone!

- Oz

Cathy McGuire said...

Not only your post, but the way it was there and gone again, helps to reinforce the fact that any lifestyle that depends heavily on our complex, interlinked culture will be unpredictable by definition.

Most Americans can cut their expenses by anything up to a third in short order by simply giving up the energy- and money-wasting habits of the consumer economy.

I have found this to be true, but I am sure it’s hard for couples or parents, when those around them don’t share the drive to reduce. It was only when I became single again that I was really able to do it, and I am amazed and proud of how possible and pleasing a low-income lifestyle can be – there are tradeoffs, but they are worth it. In these uncertain times, it’s really good to know there’s a solid base that won’t disappear with the economy.

The same thing is true of most of the other skills that are needed to live comfortably in hard times. If you don’t know how to do them, you’re going to make a lot of mistakes, and suffer a great deal more than you have to.

I second and third this! I’m on my third year gardening in this plot, and even though I’ve gardened for two decades, there is a learning curve viz. this soil and this micro-climate, not to mention the types of seeds I’m choosing. My project this summer is to explore solar cooking and distilling (found what looks like a double-boiler w/tube out of top part – at Goodwill – looks like distiller to me) such that I can make some herbal tinctures and things. And today I’m off to a local plant sale to look for a few more herbs, some hop plants and bay laurel, as I work to get my homestead full of what I use regularly. It takes time; you can’t do it in one season. “Instant” is the old consumer mantra – it doesn’t work.

The last part of the acronym, "stimulation," may seem surprising to my readers, but it’s a crucial part of the recipe.

Yes!! I have found, by withdrawing from most modern media, and being very selective, that once the illusion of the ads wears off, the world looks really different. In the past three decades, I’ve watch ads slowly take over, creating a “Better Homes and Garden” mindset that is enslaving (that’s not too strong a word) most people such that they can’t see their modest homes & lives as wonderful. Also, there was a post over at Oil Drum,
“The psychological roots of resource over-consumption” that helps explain why the pull is so strong… not that it should be used as an excuse, but I find that knowing there is a hindbrain aspect to my craving stimulation, to my craving “fun” helps me know when to apply discipline, to “ride it out” until the craving passes rather than giving in (like not scratching an itch).

Oh, and the code word today was "dunfer" which sounds too close to "done for" - yikes!

Julie Smith said...

John, just finished reading your book, "The Long Descent" and thoroughly enjoyed it. With that said, it is not for the faint of heart! But, I think you are right on the money with your thoughts and predictions.

My husband and I have experienced an accelerated version of learning to do more with less as he is in the construction trades. After losing a major account two years ago, we quickly started selling equipment that was no longer keeping busy, our office, and our home. We eventually were able to downsize and the bonus is that we now have a home and two barns on seven acres that is paid for! We have dreams of converting one barn into a greenhouse, installing solar power, growing a huge garden, and become more self-sufficient.

It is a continual process to become more conscious and making decisions that are for the benefit and health of our earth and for each other. Living in Oregon, we already recycle and drive a green car, but there is ever so much more to learn and do.

It seems that once you start on this path, the more you realize how much more you could be doing or doing without. I love your acronym LESS. Still learning.

A shout of thanks for the consciousness raising work that you are doing. It makes a difference. Thanks!


Luciddreams said...

A word about information, more precisely stored information, and it's loss.

I can't help but think about how fickle any type of stored information is! Obviously electronic information is more susceptible to loss just due to it's complexity. The written word is definitely more resilient, but it's still at the mercy of fire and decay. About the most resilient would be something scratched into rock, but even that is subject to mother nature. After all, the great Mississippi River is apparently thinking about changing course presently.

I have thought about this before because I have kept a journal for the last 13 years electronically. I printed it one day for preservation purposes along with all of my writing. I also have all of that backed up by various electronic means and in various locations. But there are times when it is all in the same house. My house could burn down and take all of that information with it.

The most resilient place to store information is in the human mind. Sage wisdom has been around for many millennium because it has been passed down orally and recorded in generations of the human mind.

The question comes to mind...if something is so transient than why is it so important? I suppose to be practical about this matter than it's relativity cannot be denied. Without this relativity than somethings permanence dictates it's importance. History is a record. Records can be changed just like in Orwell's "1984." After all, history is written by the winners.

So, my point is that what is truly important should reside in the human mind. That information is as resilient as you can find, and is subject to forces much greater than society and controlling agendas. Maybe this is why story telling is so important to humanity. The stories are coded with important information and wisdom

LewisLucanBooks said...

When I was taking some library classes (never became a "licensed" librarian :-) ) I wrote a couple of papers on "data migration."

A little dated (1995), but Clifford Stoll's "Silicon Snake Oil" covers the loss of data, usually due to changes in hardware. It's truly frightening what has been lost. Census records, data on the Viet Nam War and large chunks of the space program.

Matt said...

Re: The predicament of Matt and Jess.
We found ourselves in a similar situation, i.e living in a small downtown apartment and with not much money to use to change the situation.
One step we took was to set up a "shared house" within the same city - further away from downtown, but still accessible by bike and transit. We rent the suburban house, and then (somewhat carefully!) invite others to live with us as roommates. It's been quite successful so far, as the rent and expenses are split between several people, so our cost of living is much lower than it was in our little apartment. We also now have workshop and basement space, and a yard where we are gradually building up a garden.
Another benefit (although many of our peers do not see it this way) is that it makes life richer by bringing more people into your life. We learn all sorts of things from the different people that we have shared the house with, including how to get along with people who are a little different to us.
This idea works for us right now. Perhaps in future we'll need to find another arrangement, but for those who feel stuck in their situation this is fairly easy to do and can bring a lot of benefits.

Glenn said...

Cathy McQuire,

Your Goodwill "Distiller" is actually a Steam Juicer. We have one, you described it perfectly; "A double boiler with a tube coming out of the upper part." A very usefull tool, but not a still.

Marrowstone Island

Glenn said...


We still can read cuniform writing on baked clay tablets thousands of years old, as discussed on this forum near the beginning. So some information storage mediums last longer than others.

One of the reasons our civilization has managed to advance so quickly during the last 10,000 years is indeed writing and the ability to acumulate technical and social knowledge without relying on the mutability of human memory.

Whether or not this is a good thing is another matter.

Marrowstone Island

Jason Heppenstall said...

@ Mark - I think trying to guess 'how long we've got' is an almost impossible question to answer. So much depends on where you are living and to what extent the local infrastructure and people are resilient to shocks. For example, I was until recently living in Spain, and many of the people around me still had a full set of skills as if the latter half of the 20th century never happened. The region had no supermarkets, all the food was locally produced, people could still make their own baskets, clothes and have a good old knees up with rough home made wine. If the big box supermarket on the coast disappeared they wouldn't notice it! Contrast that with, say, Las Vegas and I'll think you see what I mean.

BTW in Britain we've already seen a few chain stores crash. Also, the ridiculously large out of town mega malls are faring badly as people find they have less disposable income and can't afford to drive so far to go shopping (or drive at all).

I saw this article today about young Greek people abandoning Athens and heading back to their ancestral villages - the first reversal of urban drift in a century.

Of course, the journalistic tone was all doom and gloom, but I doubt I'm the only one on this forum who sees this in a more positive light.

Tiago said...

"As far as I know, ours is the only civilization in history in which storing personal possessions that won’t fit even in today’s gargantuan McMansions has become the basis for a significant economic sector."

I was biking in Missoula (it is my 4th time in this city) and it really struck me the amount of storage businesses around. Indeed, on the route between Missoula and Flathead Lake you can see quite a few of these business. Much less common on the other side of the (almost as wasteful) Atlantic pond.

John Michael Greer said...

Don, that's certainly akin to my experience. Our house here in Cumberland is in a transition zone between a more or less middle class neighborhood uphill to the east, a lower class neighborhood shading into one of the town's skid rows on the south, project housing to the west, and a poor neighborhood to the north. Cumberland doesn't attract a lot of immigrants, but other than that it's quite a mix. Still, everyone pretty much gets along, and we've had no trouble at all.

Carp, I'm pretty sure the problem with bees is multifactorial; in particular, the use of neonicotinoid pesticides plays a very large role in Colony Collapse Disorder. Still, the cell phones will go away in good time.

Mr. Mustard, I've heard all too many stories like that, and there isn't always anybody to pick up the pieces.

Honky, I've written about time scales at great length. The supermarket is a fairly recent phenomenon -- they were rare before the Second World War -- and will start to break down as soon as transport costs become high enough that they begin to lose market share to smaller and more nimble stores selling local products, which are starting to take shape within the farmers market movement right now. It's almost always a bad mistake to assume that the details of daily life will remain the same for more than a few decades; the kicker, for us, is that most of the changes we're facing will be in the direction of contraction and relocalization.

Chris, Australia is still a bubble economy. When it pops, and it will, you'll see a very different reality beginning to emerge.

CW, that's a common question to which there's no good answer. Your income and value are basically hallucinations, and will turn into some malign equivalent of pixie dust as soon as the trip ends and the hangover begins. Learn skills rather than trying to stash "value" and you'll be much better off.

Bill, that sounds like a good approach, though I use the cloud only when I have to -- copies in the hands of other people is my third option.

John Michael Greer said...

Mark, the new reality is slowly taking shape around us right now, moving at different paces in different places and for different people. To use one of your examples, the big box stores aren't going to close all at once; some of them are closing right now, others will linger for greater or lesser intervals, and by the time the last of them shut down, most people won't notice. Thus the time to start is now. We're already in the crisis, and there is very seriously no time to waste.

Twilight, that's a very useful point. The great thing about soil is that it maintains itself, given half a chance and some compost to do it with!

Jason, thank you for that! We're definitely moving deeper into the crisis.

Tracy, excellent. I'll be talking at some length about degadgetizing in an upcoming post.

Cathy, it's taken me many years to get fairly good at organic gardening, and I'm still finding that I have a lot to learn here in a new bioregion with a full-sized garden for a change! As for the ad-world, I think of it as the pornography of materialism; the world shown by ads has the same resemblance to actual life as the world shown in pornography has to actual relationships.

Julie, thank you! It's a long strange trip, no question, but there are a lot of good things to be found on the way.

Lucid, bingo. For years now I've been talking about the old Art of Memory and other systems of mind training, which allow the human mind to store and access information very efficiently. We're going to need a lot of that as things continue to unfold.

Lew, and that's just for starters. As far as I can tell, for example, the copy of the Master Conserver handouts I have is the only one that survived. The rest ended up in some dumpster somewhere.

Matt, excellent. That's good to hear.

Jason, if the megamalls were to be hit by airstrikes, it wouldn't be too soon. I've loathed malls since I was a small child!

John Michael Greer said...

I've also had to delete two more otherwise useful comments because of profanity. Please do remember that the paragraph above the comment box is not there for the sake of decoration; comments that don't follow the suggestions made there will not be put through. Please don't waste your time and mine by using obscenities, as you're all perfectly capable of making your points without them!

Odin's Raven said...

Here's an article showing that frugality will continue to be important in an economy beyond subsistence level:

One of the Remnant said...

@ Matt

I think that's one of the very best suggestions I have yet seen here for folks with tight finances. It's probably also one which is last on the list for many, accustomed as we have become to our own living space. The mere mention of sharing it with strangers will no doubt generate resistance (I can sense this within myself, for sure, which points me to where my work is :). And yet, there's little doubt that not only is this sensible now, but will very likely become de rigueur in the future out of simple necessity.

Since for those of us who rent, that expense tends to be the largest, then cutting it down to size will result in the biggest savings. Very straightforward.

Those who have been asking, "I don't have money - what can I do?' please check out Matt's suggestion.

One of the Remnant said...

@ Honky

Assuming that supermarkets will still be around throughout your lifetime seems to me to be wildly optimistic. I mean, it is possible you are right, but what if you are wrong, as I think most folks who have studied peak oil would contend?

Risk = probability * consequences

Consider: if your assumption causes you to put off learning to grow your own food, for example, then I would say you are putting yourself at very high risk, because the consequences could be quite severe, even if you think the probability is low. Personally, I think that both the probability and consequences are very high and rising for the near term - we're talking years and not decades here.

The assumption that we'll witness a slow degradation (i.e. the downslope of Hubbert's curve will look much like the upslope, only in reverse) seems to me to be an example of a failure to understand the nature of complex systems. A system designed to function properly only under conditions of growth, when deprived of the required level of inputs, does not shrink - it breaks.

I'd suggest you take a look at the notion of catastrophic bifurcation as explained by David Horowicz out of FEASTA in his 'Tipping Point' paper, available in PDF format here:

This remains one of the best analyses I've seen, because it is one of the few which explores the subject from the standpoints of systems theory and complexity analysis. Further, Horowicz analyses specifically what you seem to feel is likely - the linear decline scenario - as well as an oscillatory decline scenario, and finally the systemic collapse scenario. HIs rational, systems based analysis concludes the latter is more likely than either of the two former scenarios. Whether he is right or not, the point that a rational analysis without obvious flaws concludes this should be enough to make one think twice about simply assuming a smooth and linear decline.

Sound bite from that paper:

"We are at the cusp of rapid and severely disruptive changes. From now on the risk of entering a collapse must be considered significant and rising. The challenge is not about how we introduce energy infrastructure to maintain the viability of the systems we depend upon, rather it is how we deal with the consequences of not having the energy and other resources to maintain those same systems. Appeals towards localism, transition initiatives, organic food and renewable energy production, however laudable and necessary, are totally out of scale to what is approaching."

One of the Remnant said...

I am somewhat surprised that more comments haven't referenced rainwater catchment. This not only fits perfectly in the use LESS paradigm, but water is the most primary physiological need, before food, shelter, etc. It doesn't strike me as unlikely that shortages in clean water may well strike before food shortages. And while involuntarily skipping lunch may be no picnic, drinking contaminated water can ruin your whole week, or worse.

For those who don't know, Brad Lancaster, the guru of rainwater catchment, wrote a two volume series on it (Rainwater Harvesting, vol 1 and 2) which I highly recommend.

For those looking for effective actions, harvesting your rainwater might be a good first step.

sofistek said...


This bit near the end of your post: "to make the shift to a more sustainable way of life" got me wondering if you've addressed sustainability, directly, in any of your books or on this blog. That's a question, not a criticism. I read and hear the term "more sustainable" a lot and, to me, it translates to "less unsustainable". That is, still not sustainable but may be able to be maintained for longer.

Is it possible to get to sustainability, do you think? I'm not saying that a society, or community, can go on forever, because there are external forces at work that humans can do nothing about but I'm wondering if it's possible for humans to behave in such a fashion that doesn't bring about their own demise.

I tend to think of a hunter-gatherer lifestyle as being sustainable, in that sense, but I can't figure out what a more stationary type of sustainable human community might look like. Is sustainability achievable?

I tend to think this question might be important because, if sustainability is unachievable, what is the ultimate purpose of something like the green wizard project? Is it just a case of surviving for a bit longer? Till one dies? For a few generations? Is that a worthy enough target?

Cathy McGuire said...

@Carp: Finally, it may not matter anyway, as we could all have starved before the oil crunch comes. Recent research confirms that the collapse of bee colonies is connected to cell phone usage. If we have to ask people to give up mobile phone usage in order to protect bees, it doesn't take much to imagine the response.

Hey! There’s a novel solution to the unemployment crisis – hand pollinating all the food plants & trees! :-)

@Cherokee: I've always worked hard on numerous fronts, pursued education, built up general skills and avoided debt. I've got plenty of mates, but I'm seriously lacking peers. I’m right with you on that! I keep wondering how my friends, who grew up like I did and are facing many of the same problems (most of them still have jobs, though, while my freelancing is falling off seriously) can be so blind to the general trajectory.

People are so caught up in their domestic situations that they never take the time to look around them at the changes that are occurring. As an outsider, it's like watching a slow motion car crash. You nailed it! That’s what I feel, and worse, I can’t say anything, because they long ago let me know that it’s not welcome.

@Glenn: Your Goodwill "Distiller" is actually a Steam Juicer. We have one, you described it perfectly; "A double boiler with a tube coming out of the upper part." A very usefull tool, but not a still.
Oh, thanks for the info!! I knew it was too simple to be a total still, but thought it was a steam separater somehow. Could you describe how you use it – over on the greenwizards Food topic? (I know you’re over there sometimes). That would be helpful. I want to combine solar cooking and some of my projects so that I can feel confident in case there are extended power outages (which there have been in this rural area).

@JMG: the world shown by ads has the same resemblance to actual life as the world shown in pornography has to actual relationships.
Oh – very well said!!!
the copy of the Master Conserver handouts I have is the only one that survived. The rest ended up in some dumpster somewhere.
Well, there’s at least one more copy now – mine is printed and in my binder with the other great how-to’s that the green wizards are posting and linking to!

Julie Smith said...

John, Yes, an interesting journey to be sure, but one that is exciting and educational. What an interesting time it is for all of us that we have chosen to be born here and now. There have been innumerable gifts that have emerged and that continue to emerge from learning to do with less. Less is a bit of an oxymoron, because the less, in reality, is actually more.

Part of our adventure here is in creating a homestead. I have always loved simple technologies and the simple beauty of homemade/handmade things and now we have the chance to fully develop and embrace this. We have two horses, four goats, and 14 chickens, along with two cats and two adorable parents, the latter of whom live in a manufactured home on our property.

We are incredibly blessed in spite of the fact that we have been without an income for two years. Our retirement is dwindling, but thank heavens, we had some retirement! Rather than look at what we have lost, we are choosing to celebrate what we are learning.

The real payoff is in moving from a materialistic focus to a spiritual one and seeing ourselves in relationship to the earth and coming into balance and harmony with it and with our fellow travelers along the way. If anything is to be gained, my hope is that difficult times will bring about what successful ones could not, and that is that we learn to honor life in all its beautiful and various forms.

My hope is that as we each struggle with the challenges we are facing that we will find courage in the companionship of one another.

dr-beowulf said...

I'm a little late to the party, but I wanted to direct y'all's attention to an article by Vaclav Smil in the latest issue of American Scientist: "Global Energy: The Latest Infatuations".

I don't think the points he makes will be new to most of the readers of this blog, but he makes them with solid supporting data (and pretty graphs): Alternative energy sources such as solar and wind power would require so much investment in infrastructure (e.g. major upgrades to the power grid) that they're not likely to be viable replacements for our current system for a generation or more (even assuming we can go ahead and build them). Smil points out that per capita energy usage in the US and Canada is about twice that in western Europe, yet Americans and Canadians aren't twice as well off as Europeans. Using less energy, Smil says, is pretty much the only workable strategy to reduce carbon emissions and climate change in the short term -- newfangled techno-fixes will simply take too long to build.

Smil doesn't say much about peak oil -- of course, in a contracting economy with falling energy supplies, the time it would take to build a new power grid, enough carbon sequestration capacity to matter, etc. goes from "decades" to "forget it". But Smil's point is still valid, and it's good to see someone advocating using less (or using LESS) in a fairly popular science magazine (i.e. not as widely distributed as _Discover_ or _Scientific American_, but still available on newsstands and bookstores). Most of the popular science mags these days seem to be cheerleaders for industry, or at least focus on the amazing new techno-fixes just around the corner -- it was good to see a more grounded, less romantic article. Some of y'all readin' this might want to check it out.

Anyway, time to hit the sack -- tomorrow I've got tomatoes, peppers, sweet potatoes, and a whole bunch of flowers to put in. . .

Kevin said...

Many thanks for the tip, JMG. Unfortunately that won't work for me, because I'm no longer young and almost certainly lack the necessary pysical stamina, and because familial obligations forbid me to walk out on those whose lives are bound up with mine.

Oz, I think you have it exactly right:

Part of the issue may be this: you feel that no money = no options. I would suggest this mindset derives from our set of cultural myths revolving around money as the be all and end all

I think it's fair to say I've been letting that mentality get the better of me and freak me out. My options are not quite foreclosed yet, though immediate action of the sort you propose is definitely indicated. I'm active on the Green Wizards forum, and for the moment have the great blessing of being able to use my time as I see fit, so perhaps the best thing is to further focus and intensify my efforts: expand the nascent veggie garden, make more & better solar cookers, etc. - even if my "budget" obliges me to settle for wheat-paste-and-cardboard tech. One must do what one can.

Ric said...

[What follows may be a dupe; Blogger seems to still have issues.]

As someone who also lives in an apartment on limited income, I can certainly relate to those posting here who feel vulnerable. Our focus for the last five years has been getting small and flexible, shedding Stuff at every opportunity and refusing to re-acquire. When the asteroid hits, we want to be the small, fast mammals, not the big lumbering dinosaurs.

We also like to experiment; the current one is a cheap way to keep some of the heat out of the apartment (living in Central Florida means keeping warm is almost never a problem...) So far, it seems to be helping, but the really brutal heat is yet to come.

Others have made the point and JMG repeats it several times a week: the American lifestyle is so over-the-top extravagant, everyone can drastically reduce in hundreds of ways and still have more of everything than 90% of the world.

My recent reading that has tied into the conversation here: Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath (update the language and most of the dialogue is what I heard every day at work) and Amity Shlaes' The Forgotten Man. And even Wiley Miller is reminding me of conversations here.

And just because it doesn't get said enough: Thank you JMG for all the hard work you do here.

SophieGale said...

So many threads of conversation here!

I think LESS is in the air. This turned up in my email box on Friday: The Green Thing

On CBS News the other night: The "education bubble" is about to burst. 2009 college graduates are still trying to find jobs, and the 2011 grads have already been sending out resumes for six months with no results. The news story did not mention that most of most of them are already starting out with huge student loan debt. If you are considering a career change, you probably want to cross off careers that are going to leave you "under water" financially. Look at vocational schools and apprenticeship programs.

Boing Boing had an article on Friday: "Dirty Jobs creator on the need for skilled tradespeople in America"

SophieGale said...

Google seems to have sent off my message in mid post. Thank you, Google. I was trying to add:

"Mike Rowe, creator of the TV show "Dirty Jobs," testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation on the de-skilling of America, and the way in which skilled manual labor has been undervalued and derided in the USA to its detriment... Millions of parents and kids see apprenticeships and on-the-job-training opportunities as 'vocational consolation prizes,' best suited for those not cut out for a four-year degree. And still, we talk about millions of 'shovel ready' jobs for a society that doesn't encourage people to pick up a shovel."

John Michael Greer said...

Tiago, true enough. You find 'em around every American city and town, and as often as not out in the middle of the country as well.

Raven, many thanks for the link.

Remnant, that's a very good point. Anyone with a downspout can do the simplest version and put a rainbarrel in, after all.

Sofistek, there are cities in southern Europe, China, and several other corners of the world that have been continuously inhabited for 4 to 5 millennia. I think it's quite possible to have long-term sustainability at a technical level far beyond the hunter-gatherer; it's simply a matter of evolving the toolkit. That being said, the crucial point just now is to get through the next few centuries with at least some of the better achievements of the last three hundred years; at the moment that's the degree of sustainability that I want to focus on.

Cathy, excellent. Yes, I know a number of other people have printed copies out -- but the process that got it to you, and them, was a very chancy one. That's one of the reasons I encourage people to buy old appropriate tech books!

Julie, it sounds as though you're approaching this in the best possible spirit. That's very good to hear.

Dr. B., thanks for the link. Smil's work is generally very high quality and worth close attention.

Kevin, I was, obviously enough, making a guess, which turned out to be wrong. You're in a very tight spot, and will have to accept some sharp decreases in your standard of living, but you do have options, of course.

Ric, excellent -- it's the people who are willing to experiment who will provide others with the fixes they'll be using ten years later.

Sophie, all good points. If I were getting out of high school right now, wild horses wouldn't be able to drag me into college -- it's an industry at this point, designed to extract money from the government and leave former students mired in unpayable debt. I'd look for an apprenticeship instead.

sofistek said...


So you're focusing on behaviour that may last the next few centuries. I suppose that's reasonable but I wish I could find some examples of thinking about what a relatively stationary sustainable society might look like. Do any readers here have any links?

I guess, when you say that there are some cities that have been continuously inhabited for millennia you mean that people have lived in that location for millennia, not that their societies have remained unchanged for millennia. I'm sure that the societies that they are part of now are not sustainable.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hey Carp,

Thanks for the link. What an awesome and simple idea.

As to bees, I think Australia is one of the last continents with large populations of the European honey bee. We've been exporting them back to the rest of the world. There is also some sort of mite which is decimating populations around the world, as well as all the other usual suspects. My neighbour has several hives and they do good work amongst my fruit trees. Fresh honey is a real treat. The climate here is too cold for sugar cane, so I'm growing sugar beets and stevia. Someone recommended mangel wurzels too, although I'm unsure whether they are being serious or not.

Salt would be hard to obtain here too. I've been wondering about this because both sugar and salt are heavily used in preserving.



LewisLucanBooks said...

Re: Ric. To jettison "stuff." What I'm going through right now. In nine months I'll be living somewhere else, hopefully, "out" somewhere. Opportunities are presenting themselves...

To travel light. Ah, yes. I keep remembering (reminding myself) that in '68 I moved to Seattle and everything fit in my VW Bug. Ditto the move to S. California in '72. Ditto the move back to Portland in '76. Moving here in '81 it all fit in one small pick-up truck. Since then, it's been all downhill..." Junk expands to fill the space allowed." TM.

I've taken over 50 boxes and several small pieces of furniture to the auction over the last 2 1/2 months. Numerous trips to the dump.

Winnowing out the books. Oh, my. Two good books on herbs. 2 or 3 good books on local wildcrafting. Both of Cody Lundin's books. Idiot's GT Hiking & Camping. Found a wonderful little paperback the other day I didn't even know I had. "The Home Workplace." Rodale, 1978. 127 pages of wonderful, useful things to build. And so it goes.

Jason Heppenstall said...

"the copy of the Master Conserver handouts I have is the only one that survived. The rest ended up in some dumpster somewhere."

Actually there are a few more copies dotted around Spain and England now. Just before I quit, I took the liberty of printing a few copies off on my ex-employer's state of the art laser printer - normally used to make 'consumer porn' mockups - and gave them to anyone I thought might have use for it.

BTW have you considered self-hosting this blog with Wordpress? It's a step down from the cloud, and you can make regular backups.

Honky said...

Many thanks One of the Remnant, I have started reading the paper you mentioned and it is interesting so far. That the relevant timescale is years not decades is still being debated in my head.

Despite that, I agree that the risk analysis definitely supports learning to grow your own food, but at this stage I am doing it because I enjoy it, not because I expect I will need it.

I wonder if some of the difference in my perspective comes from the fact I am resident in Europe and not america? Much of the produce I buy, even in supermarkets, has travelled at most one or two hundred kilometers. Much transport is also conducted by train or barge. Of course many food items travel much further, but I don't yet see the reduction in energy necessitated by dwindling oil reserves as a necessary driver for rapid societal collapse, or disruptive change.

I do confess to not understanding complex systems. But, as an engineer challenged with understanding much less complex systems on a daily basis, I am skeptical of any suggestion that anyone else does. That said, even if I don't understand how and how fast society will change I could understand more than I do now.

beneaththesurface said...

I couldn’t agree more with your post…. Although an awareness of my environmental impact may play a part of why I live frugally, truthfully, it’s just the all-around practical thing to do and a great source of freedom and empowerment in my life. I sometimes feel I have the opposite
of the typical American problem… it’s hard for me to bring myself to
BUY stuff every once in a while.

While I understand that there are some people who can’t cut back their expenses much more without being out of a place to live or food at the table, I definitely think the majority can do with much, much less and still be comfortable. My situation: I’m in my early thirties, and with the exception of one year (when I made slightly more), I have made
less than $15,000 dollars annually during all of my adult life so far. But because I’m frugal (don’t need/have a car, make most of my meals from scratch, and don’t buy things I don’t need), I have been able to save quite a bit (probably enough that I could survive six years without income if I had to…assuming currency keeps its value). I probably could easily buy a house with all cash in certain parts of the country too. Economically, I’m probably doing way better than the
$100,000-plus income household that’s living paycheck-to-paycheck,
deep in debt, and very dependent on the global economic system. Yet,
many people look at my lifestyle as not being “well-off.”

However, I still have a lot I need to work on in acquiring various new
skills, but thankfully, my lifestyle allows some time to make that possible. Your posts are encouraging me to keep doing more.

On the topic of low-cost travel, I highly recommend using the couchsurfing network ( ) instead of spending a hundred or two dollars for a hotel room. There are close to three million people worldwide who are a part of it. I have both hosted a number of people, and I have also “couchsurfed” multiple times in other locations. It’s completely free, a way to use less
energy/resources (I suspect much of the hotel industry wastes a lot), and most of all, a great way to meet local people when you do need/want to travel. Some of my travel experiences would have been completely different and less enriching without it.


Unfortunately I’m not too fluent in Gaelic, but I happen to have a
real interest in it (more Scottish than Irish Gaelic). I was regularly doing lessons on my own. It is a hard but really beautiful language. I happened to purchase a Gaelic dictionary. I just looked up orchard and this is what I think would be: An Ubhal-ghort As for the other possibilities, I unfortunately
can’t translate them. I’m sure you could find someone through the
web to help out though!

sofistek said...

Honky, you might want to read William R Catton Jr's book Bottleneck. What I got from it was that collapse is unlikely to be confined to a single country, though collapse will proceed at different rates. Your country is likely just as dependent on the global economy as (almost) every other country in the world. Maybe it will be the last domino to fall, maybe not, but I wouldn't be that complacent if I were you.

As for food not travelling as far as it does in America, maybe that's the case for what you buy and eat but are there any data that show your country, overall, is much better than the US in terms of food miles? Not that an economy and society consists of just food trade.

One of the Remnant said...

@ Honky

I'm so glad you're finding the paper worthwhile. :)

And, I think you hit the nail on the head in terms of outlook being different between those in Europe vs those of us living in America. I have thought for a long time that the change is more likely to be disruptive here simply because we have so much further to fall, being so much more addicted to oil.

Many of the systems used in Europe - e.g. the trains and barges you mention - are much more sensible from an energy perspective, and I'm inclined to agree with you that the effects will not be uniform across even the (over)'developed' nations.

Regarding complex systems, I think this essay does an admirable job of outlining the basics:’s-not-simple

That explanation goes a long way toward explaining why I see government agencies, at least here in the US, as being in way over their heads. Based on my understanding of history and political dynamics, I think the only types of entities capable of responding effectively to complex predicaments are those which spontaneously arise out of civil society - what today we think of as non-profits and NGOs. Bureaucracy is by its nature poorly suited to such tasks.

For more on that, I highly recommend Rebecca Solnit's 'A Paradise Built in Hell,' which reviews a century's worth of data from the field of disaster sociology and analyzes what actually happened on the ground after many of the world's most serious disasters - man-made and otherwise - of the last century.

Anyone wishing to read a solid, evidence-driven case for the capacity of ordinary people to come together and create effective, collective responses to calamity should read this book. I wish more in the peak oil community would read it, because it overturns - actually, disproves would be a better word - a lot of the conventional wisdom which I see every day in peak oil forums across the web.

- Oz

SophieGale said...

For the apartment-bound dwellers, check out Hyperlocavore to see if someone in your area is willing to share a yard:

Folks with no money. Google "barter economy"

Ric said...

For making a local copy of my Blogger blog, I use the HTTrack Website Copier. It was pretty simple to set up so that it copies what is mine and not everything I link to. I haven't been able to get it to copy comments, which would be a problem for TAR, but thought I'd toss the idea out there.

John Michael Greer said...

Sofistek, no human society anywhere has ever remained unchanged for thousands of years, so that's hardly a target to aim for -- nor would it be a good thing if it happened. I figure the next few centuries are as much as we can hope to influence; the goal is to make sure the people then have at least as much to work with as we'll have once the fossil fuels are gone.

Chris, people in central Europe used to survive hard times on mangel wurzels; don't knock 'em.

Lewis, I know the feeling. When we moved out here to Cumberland, the single largest item in the van was 62 banker boxes full of books. We've added more since then.

Jason, all my posts are written on my work computer, which has no internet connection, and backed up in a couple of ways. (Including revising posts into books!) If Blogger went into terminal collapse tomorrow, I could repost every post I've ever made the next day.

Honky, you might want to doublecheck where your food comes from -- last I read, Europe gets quite a bit of its fruits and vegetables from the Third World and most of its grain and other bulk products from various other continents. Some European countries could feed themselves in an emergency; some others would become charnel houses if they tried, given the mismatch between population and agricultural production.

Beneath, excellent -- both because you've done well, and because you know you need to do more.

Remnant, Solnit's book is well worth reading, but it's based on a subset of cases. There are many examples of the kind of behavior she describes, and other cases where the opposite happened. The factors that make the difference are an intriguing study.

Sophie, thanks for the links!

Ric, thanks for the recommendation! Still, the comments are the only thing I'd need to save -- as I mentioned to Jason above, I write all my posts off Blogger and copy and paste them in. It's better for durability, and also makes writing and editing for coherence more than a little bit easier.

John Michael Greer said...

And as a very cheering note -- at least from my perspective -- Ugo Bardi, one of my favorite peak oil authors, has a very thoughtful post on the limits to growth and Stoicism just out. Well worth a glance!

One of the Remnant said...


"Remnant, Solnit's book is well worth reading, but it's based on a subset of cases. There are many examples of the kind of behavior she describes, and other cases where the opposite happened. The factors that make the difference are an intriguing study. "

A valid point - as I understand it, one of those factors is the degree of wealth and income inequity present in a society prior to the disaster (obviously, this finding does not bode well for present-day America). I'd love to find a treatise which examines such factors in detail.

The importance of Solnit's work, IMO, is not as some sort of proof that civil society is a quasi-miraculous engine for responded to complex predicaments (though I do tend to think it's better than the alternatives); rather, it's to dispel the inverse mythology, so prevalent and pernicious - that absent government action and management, horrible things necessarily ensue after a disaster.

I think the book's value is as a reminder that people, neighborhoods, and communities can often (not always) experience, during times of social turmoil, an unexpected empowerment which is lacking under 'normal' circumstances, and for specific reasons. In that sense, it serves as an antidote to the 'conventional wisdom' that I think is too often taken for granted in some responses to the prospect of peak oil.

@ beneath

Wow - 30,000 couches available in Brazil! Awesome site - thank you so much for the link and the info! :)

- Oz

sofistek said...

JMG, I was talking about a sustainable society, which doesn't necessarily mean unchanging, though I'd guess the rate of change would be low.

The next few hundred years is a good target, until maybe five to ten decades away from the end of that period when any alive then will have to think about how to move to sustainability.

Whether people in the future will have as much to work with when the fossil fuels are gone would require us to be living sustainably by then (not consuming resources beyond their renewal rates and not altering those rates by the way we use them). External factors will likely come into play to alter the available resources, so I'd prefer to hope that the type of society then can adapt to the usually slow changes that nature imposes, as opposed to the rapid changes humans are bringing about.

Lei said...

Maybe I have missed somewhere something, but I see little attention paid to the future of bicycles in the post-peak world, though it is seems a big issue to me. I have found only few posts and following discussions on the internet dealing with it, and they tend to concur on that in spite of the adverse effects of deindustrialization and the ensuing problems with getting some components, the bike will be possible and very practical to run then. The picture of China in the last decades appears to confirm it.

I have been thinking of learning how to repair bikes, ideally in an improvised way, since this skill may be in high demand in the future. There were so many street bike repairers in China in 2000-1 when I was studying there! And they would fix almost anything on the spot for a handful of yuans.

I have recently learned that some studies conclude that the bike is one of the most ingenious human inventions and that its energy efficiency is enormous, surpassing even that of birds in flying. I am glad to hear it as I have been using a bike as a means of transportation since my childhood. I used it to get to the high school in my hometown, and I use it now to go to work in the capitel where I live, 10+10 km per day, almost every day except for dense snow etc., ca. 160 m elevation difference, which keeps me relatively fit. It is a passion and it has many advantages - though many people would tell you you are a fool - it is dangerous, and you sweat, and, and...

Cherokee Organics said...

Hey Matt,

For many years I lived in share houses. Lots of fun plus pain however, as a bonus it teaches you both tolerance and compromise.



Cherokee Organics said...

Hey Sofistek,

The word sustainable means many things from different perspectives. I've been wondering about this too because I was caned on the Internet over my useage of this particular word. Wasn't you using a different name, huh? Only kidding. I always laugh when I see people trot out the expression, sustainable growth.

I reckon you're spot on when you say sustainable can be used to mean less unsustainable. People are looking for guarantees from systems where there are none. The other thing that stands out is that all systems require some sort of external input in order to function on a long term basis. Even old growth forests have external inputs and are in a state of flux.



Cherokee Organics said...

Hey Cathy,

Yeah, no one wants to hear it do they? It definately falls into the taboo subject area. I've long since given up talking to friends and acquaintenaces about any of my concerns as it kind of seemed pointless and created a lot of stress where there was none. Easier to say nothing and let people come to it when the time is right for them.



Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Beneaththesurface,

Thanks, for looking it up. I don't even know where to start. If you could provide some pointers I'd very much appreciate it.



Cherokee Organics said...

Hey Honky,

Dude, lots of produce is grown in Africa and shipped to Europe. I wouldn't be too confident of being able to feed the population there without it. I'd recommend that you do a bit more research into this issue before declaring that most produce comes from within 200km's of your location.

It's pretty easy really. Have a look at all of the packaging for food in your own home and see where the origin of the products is. Not where it was packed, but where it was grown. Does it say local and imported ingredients as this is code words for imported?

The other thing that comes to mind for me is that relative to the rest of the Australian mainland, I have a short growing season. However, although the trees go deciduous over winter here and easily receive enough chilling hours to bear fruit, there's little snow, and plenty of other fruit and vegetables still grow. Mid winter, I'm still eating fresh greens (plus some citrus, mmm fresh lemons) grown outside in raised garden beds.

Now, I think about this and then try to imagine what it would be like in Europe with freezing winters, frozen ground and I can't imagine that you produce much fruit and vegetables out of growing season. Without having massive stores of food or preserves, how could you possibly think that all of your food is locally produced all year around. I'd be interested in the outcomes of the research.




Thanks for the recommendation on the mangel wurzels - it's a funny name. I've just finished the last of the quinces (poached in sugar syrup, mmmm). Also the juice wasn't wasted as it went into breakfast and also, well, it does go well with vodka too! I recommend trying this taste sensation.



Coco said...

In the spirit of preserving historical knowledge, I´ve run across a promising blog - using almanacs etc., especially interesting for those in the Northeastern US.

Also, they´ve got a BBC documentary video featured - A Farm of the Future dealing with peak oil issues and contemporary agricultural practice.
In 5 parts and lasts approximately 1 hour. A very good introduction for those who aren´t as aware of the issues we face.

Jason said...


I must admit I have not taken the time to review all the comments and have only just been introduced to your blog, so I'm not aware of your previous posts other than this one. With that said, I think overall your suggestions are poignant and relevant with regard to using less, eating less, and spending less. But we must remember, without consumption, there is less and less industry to go around to employ labor, which in turn will create more jobless people until equilibrium is reached. Moreover, I have questions to practicality of your suggestions with regard to setting up outside of town. A good portion of city dwellers will have to leave the city to find their “1 acre of land” (a metaphor, of course) to become sustainable, the question is, does the world have enough habitable; and more importantly, arable land for human development? What will come of the species of animals that currently occupy this land? Will cross country movement be deregulated? These are all off-the-top of my head questions, but they are relevant and should be considered when discussing these matters.

With more urban spread and development, natural resources (timber for homes among others) will be become more and more scarce until nature can renew its bounty. Also, will there be enough fresh water? This will be detrimental to survival as you well know. This also raises concerns over security, piracy, and bandits. This is a very difficult and complex topic to talk about and disseminate only in categorical measures and we must be careful how we pursue this as a society and we must think holistically when we make each step. I fear an inadequate plan could have far worse consequences for the living population (including the animals) if the developing system is not stress checked to take all into consideration.

Tracy G said...

Lei, thanks for resubmitting your bicycle comment, which I remember reading before the glitch.

I didn't have a rideable bicycle for many years. I finally acquired a secondhand model last November. She's a Bike Friday from Eugene, Oregon. My husband has one, too, in a larger size. They fold up so we can pack them for easier travel by train.

I have to say I am absolutely loving this bike. Although I am a strong walker (averaging about 1,300 miles per year starting in 2007), she greatly extends my range. The community garden is a 5.8-mile round trip from my house. Now I can visit our rental plot without taking an hour and a half out of my day just for foot travel.

I do still have a car--it's the one I inherited while in school, now almost 22 years old and showing 193k miles. Without the bike, I was in a situation where I had to drive about once per week. I so far haven't driven at all this May!

I've named my bike "Poppy" because she's orange like some Iceland poppies. I like that the Icelandic word for poppy, draumsóley, translates literally to "dream buttercup." What could be more charming?

Umm, I'm glad I'm not the only one here who enjoys bestowing foreign names on special things! I'm afraid I can't help with anything Gaelic, though, for Chris.

One of the Remnant said...

@ Jason

"without consumption, there is less and less industry to go around to employ labor, which in turn will create more jobless people until equilibrium is reached."

Imagine a situation where the jobs which have been eliminated due to productivity increases by way of mechanization reversed itself. More jobs would be created as fossil fuel powered machines and transport became too expensive, and human labor more cost effective, in particular, at the local level. Counter-intuitively, then, productivity decreases (as traditionally defined) drive an increase in jobs, without the need for increase in consumption.

And what about the household economy, which will grow in significance as the years pass and access to fossil fuels wanes? Is this factored into the notion of "industry" you are considering? The notion of 'employment' will certainly shift in some radical ways going forward. People will 'consume' less necessarily as the economic decline steepens.

Your model seems to be characterized by a specific set of (unsustainable) conditions found only in the last couple of centuries of exploding fossil fuel use. I'd say it's not a general model, but rather one reflective of that set of conditions, which are now set to change fundamentally.

You may wish to check into recent thinking on a 'steady state economy' - this would be one place to start:

Further, it seems quite clear that the unsustainable nature of our agricultural model has resulted in an exponential increase in population, and that current levels cannot be maintained. A dramatic realignment toward the available carry capacity of the planet seems likely. That is to say, a precipitous drop in population seems baked in at this point. Fewer humans means fewer jobs needed, less land needed.

One of the Remnant said...

@ Lei

Chris Martenson offered a couple of excellent guest posts on bicycles:

Glenn said...


The primary thing most people miss about the efficiency of bicycles is the embedded energy in the roads they use. They don't have to be as well built as roads for autos and trucks, but still, it is embedded energy, and some maintenance is required. But we will have "legacy" roads for a long time, and even after the pavement is converted to a series of chuckholes connected by gravel bicycles will be faster than walking and cheaper than a horse.

Kunstler and a few others of his ilk dismiss them after the first decade due to lack of spares or, more critically, tires and inner tubes. Between blacksmiths and home machinists spares need not be an issue. Real costs, measured in terms of man hours of your labour to effect repairs will increase, whether you make the parts yourself or barter/buy them from the smith/machinist (fabricator?) so bicycles will certainly become more expensive in real terms Tubes and tires are another matter. Currently they are made of petrouleum derived rubber in factories. Natural rubber needs to be imported from the tropics. I have wondered about substitutes made of pitch impregnated heavy fabric and or leather with tubes of animal intestine. No, I have not tried a working model! In Ashley's book of knots he describes using a loop of heavy rope or a large rope grommet as a temporary expedient fo a bike tire. There may be many ways if we think hard enough.

And yes, I am a regular cyclist. When I was 17 I spent almost a year cycling the length and breadth of what was then Western Europe. I currently bicycle 4 miles each way to boatbuilding school 4 days a week. I turn 54 in June and am in moderately good health.

Marrowstone Island

Luciddreams said...

I haven't read the last update of comments, but I wanted to paste this here for obvious reasons. This is from the essay that Remnant linked to (thankyou by the way, I agree with your assessment of the essay, best I've seen in such a short report on the issues):

7.1 The De-Growth Delusion
Over the decades as the evidence mounted that infinite growth was not possible in a finite
world, the question was asked if we could live sustainably by reducing growth. It has
been noted since Epicuris and the Buddah, and buttressed by modern studies that beyond
a certain level of wealth, marginal increases do not make us more content. Why not live
with less and share our surplus with the destitute? In general we don‟t do this, not by a
long shot. Status anxiety, the sunk cost effect, personal/kin/tribal preferences and more
ensure that the issue is far more complex in actuality.
More recently a number of authors addressed the issue of peak oil and recognised that
economies must contract as oil availability declines
Would it not be wiser to do a .
planned de-growth or powerdown so as to avoid the worst economic shocks and ease the
transition by moving in the direction in which the wind is blowing anyway?
These studies and arguments generally leave the energy-economy relationship
unspecified, or assume the decline curve assumption. They have made suggestions
including changing the debt based money system; pricing environmental externalities;
reducing the working day; consuming less, controling population, increasing the lifetime
of goods. In the context of the current financial crisis they often include some control on
financial speculation.
So let us ask the question, could we do a managed de-growth and what might it imply? In
the dynamical systems perspective could we find a stable or semi-stable path to a steadystate economy with much lower energy and resource flow throughput? The following
reasons, in no particular order, suggest it is a vain hope:

I find it strange that just about everything said in the essay I could expect to hear from you, JMG. I know it's 50 pages, but I think it's at least worth the look. I'm sure I don't speak for just myself when I say that I would love to hear your input as to why they are wrong in this essay. While everything said in it could very well have come from you they are arguing for a rapid collapse. Very convincingly arguing for a rapid collapse. I have a feeling they are using a different lens than you. Maybe you could clarify?

Ruben said...


You and JMG have gone elsewhere in your conversation about sustainable cities, but your original question about "more sustainable" and "less sustainable" tweaked a memory. Bill Rees, the creator of the Ecological Footprint concept, says sustainability is like pregnancy, you either are, or you aren't. It is a hard line that you cross. Now, it is impossible for us to know where the line is, which should encourage us into precautionary and resilient planning.

So, I try to use more or less green if I am trying to describes something that is less bad, but still not good. Like mega-cities. Big cities may be greener, but they will never be sustainable. You will note JMG recommends small cities as a good place to relocate.

Honky said...

Many thanks for the responses. I think I might have given the wrong impression with my comments about where food comes from. The majority of food travels much longer distances. This includes many ridiculous examples such as imported beef from Argentina which comes back on the boats that export beef to Argentina. The point that I was unsuccessfully trying to make, is that reducing the energy consumed by some percentage doesn't necessarily represent a complete societal change. I can very well imagine an increasing cost of high energy produce leading to decreasing volumes and increased use of more efficient foods. There is so much wanton energy consumption that reducing it incrementally without collapse must be possible. For example we could even eat all of our own beef!

I shall read through the suggested literature and then make the necessary adjustments to my thoughts again.

Jason said...

BTW the previous 'Jason' to post was not me.

This could get tricky.

Apple Jack Creek said...

An interesting article from the Canadian Globe & Mail, about Winnipeg's work to reverse suburban sprawl.

Quote from the article:

Ken Greenberg, a Toronto-based architect and urban planner, says cities around the world are realizing that promoting population density is no longer negotiable.

“Whether you like it or not, what’s going to drive the change between city and suburb is the cost of energy,” he said. “This is a crisis. It’s not even worth debating whether it’s worthwhile making these changes, the trick is to get ahead of the curve as much as possible.”

This means getting people to live inside cities rather than on their periphery, as sprawl requires new infrastructure and support services, which municipal governments do not have the money or the time to adequately provide.


Adrian Ayres Fisher said...


Thanks to your link, I just read the Ugo Bardi, and he does an excellent job of pulling together and explaining the concepts that comprise the peak oil world view--and I've always appreciated Marcus Aurelius.

The Bardi piece is notably interdisciplinary; it occurs to me that one reason I found it so interesting is because I've read background literature directly relating to what he was talking about in a variety of fields (while admitting I can't do math and never took a physics course).

How would people not so well versed in the literature find his piece? Has anyone put together a kind of basic reading list for those willing to put the time into educating themselves in this way?

It seems to me that as concerned as we are about the practical matters of using less, making gardens, and applying appropriate tech, it is equally important to keep educating ourselves and thinking about things beyond the merely "practical."

Also re college: I'd like to point out that well-structured college courses can be extremely useful for acquiring critical thinking skills, developing an inquiring approach to learning, and studying a field in an organized fashion.

There's much to be said for rigorous liberal arts and sciences courses. One reason I know about Marcus Aurelius and Limits to Growth is because I went to college and learned from professors who knew about these things and gave me the tools to go further.

This kind of education is different from the high-status, high-cost, for-profit, specialist-job-oriented model most people think of when they think of college these days. I don't disagree with your criticism of that.

I think many college instructors are natural cultural conservers by inclination and training. Also,it is possible, by attending community college, to get some of the benefits of college and even some apprenticeship training without going broke. (Disclosure--I do teach courses part-time at a community college.)

This is not to say young people should not be taught to do as well as think--just that both are of vital importance.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

@Chris aka Cherokee Organics--

Re names: my other comment got lost.

Lucky you, to have a place that can be named--I just have a plain old street address. ;)

I like the Gaelic idea, though it's fiendish to pronounce and I don't know any. But I'm thinking, since you live in Australia, might it not be appropriate to use a name (even in English) that refers somehow to the culture of the indigenous people that lived there so sustainably for so many thousands of years? That somehow refers to their beliefs about/attitudes towards the land? And also the land itself?

Here in upper Midwest, I often think of the tribes that lived here since the retreat of the glaciers--their ways of life and their attitudes toward the land. If naming, I would refer to that somehow.

I guess what I'm suggesting is a truly place-based name. (Like Fallingwater for the Frank Lloyd Wright house built over a waterfall.)

Alexander Ac said...

Wow, this is fantastic article!!!

Great job John Michael, thanks!


Matthew Heins said...

To sofistek and Cherokee Organics,

I think "sustainable" can be made more universally comprehensible by adding time-based gradations.

As in natural gas electrical generation for a grid system is turning out to be around 100 years sustainable, while wooden waterwheels on rivers powering wood and iron tools through mechanical conversion of the river's energy is already 1000 years sustainable and likely Indefinitely sustainable.

Wouldn't be as clear cut as mm, cm, m, km, but 100yS, 1000yS, and IyS (or whatever) might give us a more convenient way of sharing information and opinions on the subject.

Sofistek seems to tend to focus on Indefinitely sustainable technical society (which JMG has named "ecotechnic"), I believe?

JMG has discussed the Industrial age, Scarcity-Industrialism, the Salvage era, and the Ecotechnic age.

We might put the Industrial Age (including Scarcity Industrialism) at something like 300-400yS (from the Steam Engine, say), the period of Salvage at something like 200-300yS (IIRC) and then the Ecotechnic as something like IyS (good symbol for "Indefinite" needed).

I don't know, is this a decent first draft of a scale perhaps?

Such a scale for technics and technical systems and metasystems and societies seems needed, in any case. I've witnessed too much confusion on the subject already.

-Matt (H.) ;)

Matthew Heins said...


I believe Rees's analogy is incorrect.

When we talk about "sustainability" we are usually talking about society as a whole, broad technical metasystems like Suburbia, narrower technical systems like Automobile Roadways, or single technics like Automobiles (which are made up of various amounts of machines working together at various levels of complexity.

Like any artifact, technical society and systems can be identified based on the energy necessary to create and sustain them (maintain them, keep them working, etc.).

So -IMHO- "sustainability" should NOT be like pregnancy, an either/or proposition, but should be scaled based on HOW LONG something can be sustained.

It is like holding a rock.

What I'm is doing when I am holding a rock is utilizing chemical energy to power muscles that allow me to resist the pull of Gravity as it trys to move the rock to the center of the Earth's mass.

But all rocks are not made equal. ;)

I can hold a large -say 100lbs- rock (cradled in my arms) for a rather short period of time, maybe several minutes, likely less.

I can hold a smaller rock -20lbs- for a bit longer, quarter of an hour? longer?, I've never tried.

A small rock of just a pound or two I would imagine I could hold for hours.

But a tiny pebble, I, and anyone, could hold all day long.

So, I can "sustain" rock holding for different amounts of time according to how large the rock is -and therefore how much energy I must expend to loft it.

If we allow "sustainable" to ONLY mean "Indefinitely sustainable" then we discount the ability to lift anything other than a pebble.

If the Long Descent is to be guided to any degree -or even just proactively adapted to- we will likely need to use some of the extra energy we have from Fossil Fuels and Industrial Civilization now, and the dwindling remnants of them in the near-to-mid-future. I believe we can do so better if we understand "sustainability" to be scalable.

-Matt (H.)

One of the Remnant said...

Like Adrian, I think the Ugo Bardi piece is brilliant, thanks much for the pointer, JMG. Further, another piece he wrote which he links to extends his thinking by using the Roman Empire analogy, and is also brilliant:

@ Apple Jack Creek

Very interesting article. But it reminded me of a TOD piece by Jeff Vail called 'Rescuing Suburbia' which I think is thought provoking, because it attempts to get past the standard knee jerk thinking among peakists (and, apparently, some city planners) about suburbia and examines possibilities for transforming it into something entirely other, rather than assuming abandonment is the only option:


"I am confident that there is a tremendous potential for building self-sufficiency in fundamental requirements like food, water, and energy in suburbia. Not necessarily suburbia as it exists today, but as a lattice and foundation, as a structure that can change and evolve into something that is not just significantly self-sufficient, but that is vital, that produces culture and civitus, not just as a consumer of it. That might seem like a radical vision, but let’s look at the specifics and see how far-fetched it is or isn’t: ..."

- Oz

John Michael Greer said...

Remnant, that's reasonable enough. I see so many all-or-nothing arguments that I sometimes see them where they aren't being made!

Sofistek, my thought is that each generation should think about the next couple of hundred years; it's going to be a constantly changing curve all the way down the Long Descent, and fifty years from now, a lot of the ideas that seem like good bets today will be in need of a mid-course correction.

Lei, the bicycle's an amazing technology, and I suspect that skilled bike repairpersons will have as easy a time staying fed as anyone will in the years ahead of us.

Chris, I'll definitely try that! The quince, dwarf apples, and grape vines we planted this spring are doing very well -- doesn't hurt that we've had a warm, wet spring. I was mostly thinking about quince-raisin pie, an old favorite, but there are lots of other good things to do with the fruit.

Coco, many thanks for the links!

Jason, er, I'm not sure where you get the idea that I'm advocating that today's urbanites head out into the countryside and buy up acres of farmland. I'm not. My proposed strategy is based on people either staying where they are or relocating to underpopulated small cities and towns in the Rust Belt and similar areas, where they can combine paid work with a greatly expanded household economy, backyard gardening, and tooling up for the jobs that will make sense as the current economy slowly comes unraveled around them. That doesn't involve any amount of sprawl -- quite the contrary, it's a matter of retrofitting existing housing and repurposing back yards and basements for other uses. You can find the details in my book The Ecotechnic Future, or by paging back through the last few years of posts here.

Tracy, that's good to hear. Me, I don't trust myself at the controls of anything faster than a pair of shoes, but for those who have the coordination to manage a bike, more power to you!

Remnant, nicely put.

Glenn, friends of mine who are old enough to remember Vietnam up close and personal tell me that in the early days of the Ho Chi Minh Trail an enormous amount of stuff was moved on bicycles, with very little help from paving. There may be possibilities for bike technology apart from those requiring paved roads.

John Michael Greer said...

Lucid, their argument makes the usual mistake in fast collapse scenarios -- it assumes that everyone involved will sit on their hands and do nothing while their societies unravel. National and local governments have plenty of other options, right up to declaring martial law, confiscating and rationing food and fuel, and shooting looters on sight. Given that the US is a net food exporter and is still the third largest petroleum producer on the planet, a fast collapse could be stopped in its tracks by decisive action -- as, indeed, one was in 1933. Ireland isn't in the same advantageous position, but in a life or death crisis, I think the folks at FEASTA would be startled to see how many options actually still exist.

Ruben, I'd suggest that Bill Rees is quite wrong, and that his claim is extremely counterproductive. Among many other things, we have no idea what will or will not turn out to be sustainable over the very long term; all we can do is guess, and be ready to modify as needed.

Honky, that's another matter, of course. There are parts of Europe that could probably surf the wave of descent without complete restructuring, though there are others that almost certainly can't; much depends on where you are.

Apple Jack, good to know! Thanks for posting that.

Adrian, in the abstract I agree with you. The problem is that at this point, the vast majority of young people in America who go to college will leave it with a debt burden from which they will never recover financially. Many of them will not get an education worth the immense cost, either. Community colleges are a good deal better than four year institutions, granted, but even there I've heard plenty of horror stories.

Alex, thank you!

Matt (H.), good. I like the idea of defining sustainability by time frame -- that's a very helpful way of quantifying the issue.

Remnant, I got to hear Jeff's piece at ASPO; worth hearing, though I think he's wrong about some points. Still, the basic idea -- that the space currently occupied by the suburbs can be turned into something more useful -- is quite valid; until the 1950s and 1960s, most of what are now suburbs were truck farms, chicken farms, local dairies and the like, providing food for urbanites, and they very likely will turn back into those things in the decades ahead.

sofistek said...

Hi Chris,

Well, "sustainable" is certainly used inappropriately. I take it to mean able to be sustained, with no conditional time phrase attached. As soon as that conditional phrase is attached, all that's being talked about is some temporary condition. Like you, I cringe at the term "sustainable growth" though what is meant is "growth that can be sustained for a number of years".

In terms of our lifestyles, I think of a sustainable lifestyle as one that can be sustained for ever, if no external events intervened. That is, humans are living sustainably, if their behaviours don't, themselves, bring about an end to that lifestyle. I still don't feel that quite explains it but I hope you get the idea. Nothing can exist for ever in practice but we shouldn't be the architects of our own demise.

By the way, I didn't write that "sustainable" could be taken to mean "less unsustainable"; the phrase that is equivalent to "less unsustainable" is "more sustainable".

beneaththesurface said...

@ Chris

As far as some leads to where you might find more help with English-to-Gaelic translations, perhaps you can contact someone at one of the Gaelic colleges:

Or find someone through some other resources:

Also, in my previous post, I mentioned If you get on the network, you can search for people by the languages they know. You could find someone who is fluent in Gaelic (I know there are some because I've searched that before) and send them a message and ask your specific translation questions.

Luciddreams said...

JMG said: "National and local governments have plenty of other options, right up to declaring martial law, confiscating and rationing food and fuel, and shooting looters on sight. Given that the US is a net food exporter and is still the third largest petroleum producer on the planet, a fast collapse could be stopped in its tracks by decisive action"

What you described scares me more than government collapse, although I admit that maybe it shouldn't. I have a very strong skepticism and no trust where national government is concerned. I think the worst scenario I could imagine would be that we devolve into a 3rd world in the states ruled over by the military. An Orwellian world scares the crap out of me.

I have often wished that the future state of affairs would take an Orwellian world off of the table. I think a government desperate to keep the reigns of power would have no qualms fitting the Orwellian mold (indeed, they already have).

I have hoped that the government would go the way of the Soviet government. As Orlov has said the Russian people just stopped taking the government seriously. "Reinventing Collapse"? 3rd world is our destiny? That is a very sobering message. People live in denial about it. The economic nonpersons are starting to look more and more like Proles. From Wiki about Proles:

"In the novel, the society of Oceania is divided into 3 distinct classes: Inner Party, Outer Party, and proles (upper, middle, and lower classes, respectively). The proles constitute 85% of the population. They receive little education, work at jobs in which tough physical labour is the norm, live in poverty (but qualitatively richer than the Outer Party members with regard to certain freedoms inherent to their relative anonymity), and usually die by the age of sixty."

The CEO's of the corporatocracy and the politicians are the inner party, those of us still working are the outer party, and the economic nonpersons are the growing class of proles. I do believe that 1984 has already come to pass. Now it's about staying out of room #101. If you're going to continue working that is. Becoming a prole means no healthcare in a poisonous world. What kind of place is that to raise a family in? Yet Proles were the only hope for humanity in 1984.

I realize that pointing this out may be a disservice. However I feel that it is true. Which is why my denial has been fantasizing about fictions like "The World Made by Hand" as reality. I would rather live in that world than in the modern version of 1984.

I think the most important survival tool is getting your head firmly wrapped around reality. I think I have PO OCD!

sofistek said...


I'm not sure what you mean by a "Indefinitely sustainable technical society" that you say I'm focusing on. I really don't know what a sustainable society might look like - which is why I often raise the question. It may have a lot of modern technology, it may have none, or it may have something in between.

All I'm trying to understand is whether it's possible to have a sustainable society (as defined by not bringing about its own demise) and, if so, what that might look like. Although we need to get through the next few centuries first, as JMG rightly says, I can't get rid of the notion that if a sustainable society is unachievable, should we just aim for the most satisfying and comfortable one we can and accept the consequences?

sofistek said...


Again, it sounds reasonable for each generation to look only to the next couple of centuries and allow the resulting lifestyle to be modified by the next generation. A constantly adjusting outlook.

Actually, this sounds even more reasonable given the possible changes in climate and the environment over the next few centuries; those alive at any point would almost certainly have to readjust to a changing environment.

But this 200 year outlook raises a question, in my mind. How would people determine (guess) if their lifestyles could survive 200 years? In principle, they could say, "if we use resource x at a constant rate of y, then it would last 200 years", but the resource would then be gone after that. Maybe this is where your notion of trying to ensure that those alive in 200 years have as much to work with as we have (at the end of the age of oil, coal, etc.) comes in. However, doesn't that mean that, effectively, each generation would actually be planning for their society to go on indefinitely? I.e. sustainably?

Maybe you answer some of these questions in The Ecotechnic Future. I'll have to get round to ordering that soon.

Glenn said...

The Archdruid:
in the early days of the Ho Chi Minh Trail an enormous amount of stuff was moved on bicycles, with very little help from paving. There may be possibilities for bike technology apart from those requiring paved roads.

Right, and during the Boer War, English soldiers used bicycles to pursue Afrikanner's cross country
(Bicycles in War; Martin Caidin and Jay Barbree 1974).

The point I was making is that good roads increase the usefullness of a bicycle by at least one order of magnitude. It is an irony of modern history that good roads built for bicycles were taken over by automobiles which displaced them; most of the current cycling advocacy websites and blogs make a point of mentioning this. Walking does not require roads either. But the Romans built a very impressive network of them to speed it's Legions to all parts of the Empire as well as easing trade and tribute.

Marrowstone Island

Lei said...

Glenn: I am aware of the issue of infrastructure for bikes, but sincerely, it is sometimes exaggerated. Bikes can go on very simple field paths, though at a lower speed - which will be not needed much, I suppose; after all, most of the smaller roads in the country were without any pavement or asphalt few decades ago, so I think it is not such a serious problem.

Of course, tires and tubes definitely are a problem, but as people suggest, there are ways to cope with it. For example, old unused tires and tubes can be exploited to repair the ones you need to use for decades, etc. It may not be a solution for centuries, but such solutions are quite irrelevant now.

After all, deindustrialization does not seem to mean that we are going back to the neolithic by 2050, and as I said, China was replenished by bikes in the times it was a very backward country. One thing is clear - the bike will be more expensive. As well as everything. But the car is expensive now as well, and it automobilism is soaring - maybe, in the future, the ratio of economic output and bike costs will be proportionally the same as the present GDP and cars are now.

Tracy G said...

I hear you on the coordination issue, John Michael. As much as I appreciate my new bike, I never wheel around without helmet and gloves. Riding does require faster reaction times than walking.

Alas, it's not terribly safe to walk where I live, either. Our public library director was struck in a downtown crosswalk just a few weeks ago. Both her wrists are broken. I'm glad she wasn't mangled any worse. And I'll never forget the day that Mr. G and I were walking side by side in a different crosswalk and an elderly gentleman, who'd brought his vehicle to a complete stop, suddenly decided it was time to go. My husband leapt forward. I leapt back. The car passed between us with only inches to spare.

A portion of the road out to the community garden is marked at a speed limit of 45 mph. There's no sidewalk and no shoulder. Possibly I'm a little more visible sitting upright on my bright orange bike than walking on the road, stepping off into the weeds when I see traffic coming. I'm not really sure, though. I do sometimes worry about it.

Right now, in my area, it's considered mildly eccentric not to take a car when one is available. Drivers fail to notice pedestrians and cyclists simply because they're not expecting to see them. I like to think that will change as our numbers increase. Either that, or the potholes will swallow the drivers who fail to pay attention, heh.

Meanwhile, the final quarter mile or so of my route out to the garden is already gravel. I've been relieved to discover that Miss Poppy Friday is a lot more sure-footed on that surface than I was expecting!

Glenn said...


We seem to have crossed posts. For the most part, I agree with you. What I was saying initially about bicycle effeciency referred to road infrastructure costs. It is fair to compare bikes straight across to cars or animal drawn vehicles. To compare the effeciency of bikes to animals such as fish or birds the cost(s) of the roads must be factored in. When you do so, I don't think _that_ particular comparison works out in the bikes favour.

But, we do not have the option of turning ourselves into birds and fish very soon ;) And bikes are the most effecient human transport ever.

The Victorians built bicycles with only steel, rubber and leather (starting to sound like a different forum for a moment). And while they invented asphalt roads, built many of gravel and stone first.

But they did use fossil fuel in their steel and rubber industries in the form of coal. So, our long term challenge (I'm with you on salvage for the next couple of decades) for bicycles in the ecotechnic future is producing steel and rubber without using fossil fuels at a price in terms of money or man hours that future organic farmers can afford.

Marrowstone Island

One of the Remnant said...


"National and local governments have plenty of other options, right up to declaring martial law, confiscating and rationing food and fuel, and shooting looters on sight."

I think this is the first time I've heard you express this notion about how governments may well react to an escalating, permanent energy crisis. Essentially, this would represent the imposition of an overt police state (for our own good, of course), the tools for which are all now in place - gutting of Posse Comitatus Act and Insurrection Act, domestic surveillance and 'counter-terrorism' measures, "homeland security" measures, etc. While I've long thought this likely, since the trajectory toward it is already well established, I wonder how long such a state could be maintained in a milieu of diminishing energy.

The capacity to project power to the extent required to maintain this sort of societal control depends on fossil fuel-based technology, after all, so at some point, it becomes an impossibility (especially given the inherent inefficiencies of a command economy that would accompany such a sociopolitical environment). But, it seems likely that such a point would be decades away, rather than years. Many variables are at play, of course.

To be honest, this is perhaps the most worrisome near term prospect in my view. I am hoping that such concerns are the result of paranoia, but a careful reading of history in this regard does not make me sanguine.

- Oz

Zach said...

The discussion of the Art of Memory and the fragility of archived information reminds me of the scene from C. S. Lewis's Out of the Silent Planet with the sorn:

Ransom saw well enough that he was brought
there to be shown to a great scientist. The cave, or, to speak more correctly, the system of
excavations, was large and many-chambered, and contained a multitude of things that he did
not understand. He was specially interested in a collection of rolls, seemingly of skin, covered with characters, which were clearly books; but he gathered that books were few in Malacandra.
"It is better to remember," said the sorns.
When Ransom asked if valuable secrets might not thus be lost, they replied that Oyarsa always remembered them and would bring them to light if he thought fit.
"The hrossa used to have many books of poetry," they added. "But now they have fewer.
They say that the writing of books destroys poetry."


One of the Remnant said...

@ luciddreams

I share your concerns, and also understand how far we truly have moved toward an Orwellian world, implicitly now for some time, and threatening to become explicit in the years to come. I often think of JMG's notions about how we think with myths, and recognize the myth of a socially beneficent government that hobbles, IMO, most American's minds, in the face of much evidence that the government is no such thing, except around its edges from time to time.

Most peakists have no problem seeing through the myth of cornucopia, or the myth that humans are above and distinct from nature, both of which plague many in mainstream society and inhibit acceptance of peak oil, climate disruption, etc.

But myths about government-as-protector-and-helper seem to remain firmly in place across much of the environmental movement, including peak oil. If in fact government is not, as a general rule, teddy bear, but rather grizzly, then this has great potential to impact our efforts going forward in ways most are not thinking about.

Most people I know who have similar fears devolve into conspiracy thinking (truthers, chemtrails, HAARP mind control, etc - i.e. a shadowy cabal pulling all the puppet strings), which I do not (that's merely, IMO, an attempt to oversimplify things, and reduce anxiety by clinging to a false sense of certainty).

But I do think the levers of power are wrestled over and grasped by various elite factions to advance their pecuniary interests, which tend to be (though are not always) diametrically opposed to those of the average citizen (a truly brilliant, very scholarly analysis of this reality is Thomas Ferguson's 'Golden Rule: the Investment Theory of Party Competition'). But the outcome is effectively the same: growth of State power and attendant reduction in liberty and power among the citizenry (not that this is new, as Higgs' 'Crisis and Leviathan' shows).

And it's quite clear that the 'proles' are viewed as livestock or worse by those wielding those levers of power. I hardly think it could be clearer after the last few years that we exist for their benefit. We are a resource to be extracted. This, at least, is how it seems to me.

Without resorting to outright paranoia, I think it's important to discuss such concerns. They weigh heavily on my mind.

- Oz

Ruben said...

@ Matt

Well, the topic of JMG's post this week is less, and he points out that our only hope of being sustainable is to use less. So I think you have hit the nail on the head--hold a small pebble, not the big rock.

And regarding other comments on the time frame of sustainability, if we are going to plan only for 200 years, then the Oil Age looks pretty darn smart. Too bad it is making a fair try to cause the demise of billions and knock our civilization back before, well, the Oil Age.

JasonET said...

@ Remnant

Thank you for offering the variant perspective, I'm sure many will find it difficult to live under a reduced living standard and I wish them all the best. I suspect, we will more than likely be living a similar lifestyle to what the Chinese do now. Let's hope this can be as peaceful of a process as possible.

Matthew Heins said...


Yes. That's why I'm suggesting quantifying sustainability on a time-scale, because I think we are being hindered by this type of miscommunication.

When I say that you "focus on" an indefinitely sustainable technical society all I mean is that -it seems to me- when you discuss "sustainable society" that is what you mean, translated into my way of putting it.

As you write, you define sustainable society as one that will "not bring about its own demise". You leave out any indication of time scale which -to me- implies that you mean such a society would not self-destruct over an indefinite period.

I see sustainability differently. Similar to the vision that JMG details in The Ecotechnic Future. I see the indefinitely sustainable society as the "climax phase", akin to an old-growth forest here in Cascadia. But I also see other techno-social set-ups as sustainable within their own limited time scale, akin to the "seres" of various weeds, grasses, and shrubs, that inhabit a piece of the forest that has been disrupted before the trees can take back over.

For me the question of "is a sustainable society possible?" has been answered in the affirmative. Even if it is a society of hunter-gatherer bands employing stone, wood, grass, bone, sinew, and other wild materials for tools and living in caves and huts, SOME kind of Human Society is likely to last in some places on the globe as long as ANY medium-sized land-based omnivores can live anywhere at all.

I think more about the questions:

What sort of technics will societies have available to them tomorrow, next year, in a decade, in a century, in a millienium, etc.?


How long can any of these possible technical societies be sustained in their various forms?

Which leads to:

What technics do we have available to us now? What will we likely have soon? What did we have before? Why don't we have it anymore? Can we recover it or adapt it to today's or tomorrow's needs? What amount of energy, skill, and complementary technics will be needed to maintain any of this? Can it be done and HOW can it be done?

And lastly:

Does any of this indicate that we can guide technical society and the transitions between types of such societies in any way on any scale (including just individual and family, a la Green Wizards)? If yes, what ways and scales would it be useful to work on first, second, third, etc.(i.e. if the project is a go, what is the work schedule)?

Do you recall our exchange a while back where I brought up the idea of "Simple Living Communities" supported in multiple ways by a broad groups of people who would only "dip their toe" in indefinitely sustainable living for the weekend or a vacation or whatever? I think that if such communities could be started, and if they could dedicate themselves to working out a sustainable system at increasing time-scales, then we would be taking a big step to answering your questions and mine.


John Michael Greer said...

Sofistek, the only way to be sure a lifestyle is actually sustainable by your definition would be to test it forever, which is a bit difficult. There's no other way to know -- thus a less rigorous definition would be useful.

Lucid, why is it that the sort of comment I made always seems to inspire Orwellian fantasies? That's as unnecessary as assuming that every collapse must be sudden and total. You might want to look up how the United States government under Franklin Roosevelt responded to a very serious economic collapse in the spring of 1933 as a counterexample.

Sofistek, yes, it's a way of striving for sustainability, but coupled with a recognition that there's no way to know whether you've got it or not until the passing years turn something up that you need to fix. It's rather like the logic of the scientific method: a scientific theory can never be proven, it just keeps on surviving attempts to disprove it.

Glenn, that's sensible enough -- and decent roads, on at least a small scale, can be built fairly easily.

Tracy, one of the reasons I've made a habit of living close in to downtown -- however big or small downtown happens to be -- is that the options for pedestrians tend to be better!

Remnant, I used to talk about it quite a bit when it was popular to insist on the inevitability of a fast and total crash. No, it doesn't amount to the imposition of a police state. It's something governments do all the time in emergency situations, to whatever degree the emergency requires, and they usually back away from it as quickly as possible because a police state is an expensive and inefficient way to run a society.

Zach, excellent! Lewis is a favorite writer of mine -- a convinced Platonist and a wry critic of many of the excesses of the modern world.

sofistek said...


"implies that you mean such a society would not self-destruct over an indefinite period"

Well, yes, but there is no need for the last phrase, "over an indefinite period".

"For me the question of "is a sustainable society possible?" has been answered in the affirmative. Even if it is a society of hunter-gatherer bands"

I think I did ask about a "stationary" sustainable society. Hunter-gatherers have to move around. Even if a hunter-gatherer lifestyle was available to everyone, I'm not sure it's the type of community I'd like. Stationary communities can develop more, I think, but such communities may not be able to be sustainable. I don't know.

I'm not familiar with your use of the term "technic". Maybe that is something from JMG's Ecotechnic Future, which I definitely will get around to ordering and reading, one day - soon.

Draft said...

JMG - while you're right about the need for a downshift, and that most folks can't do a major downshift without preparation, I have my doubts these days that the downshift will need to be major.

Those of us who've been reading about peak oil for over a decade expected a peak or plateau - and we got it - and we expected a decline after that, but it never came. Now some plausible analysis like this new one at the oil drum project such a gradual decline (maybe half a percent) that it might not ever "hit" us. Instead there'll be a long-term gradual shift and business-as-usual will more or less continue.

I know you never bought the doomer projections (I never did either), but now I'm wondering if even the moderate decline you expected won't happen.

Matthew Heins said...


If the Oil Age had actually been planned it would very likely have turned out "smart". ;)

Heck, if we could just plan the last half of the Oil Age it could still look pretty good.

Doesn't seem to be happening though.

I still hold out a bit of hope for such planned or guided or -to be more democratic- intentional societies. I think that if we are "lucky" enough to be hit by a couple or three short, sharp shocks earlier on in the Descent, some greater level of intentionality might gain enough popularity to be put into action.

But, in general, I don't see my role as planning so much as anticipating or contemplating the possibilities.

As for the billions-soon-to-be-no-more:

Wasn't the global population only a couple of billion before Oil usage ramped up? And a billion or less before coal got Industrial Civilization going?

I see the closing of the Oil Age as being accompanied by a return to pre-Industrial population numbers, not a "die-off" but a return to equilibrium.

As for the pebble:

The analogy may have been poorly conceived. My point was that the fundamental factor in how long each lift -or style of technical society- could be sustained was the total available energy that could be made to work keeping the rock away from the Earth's center.

But the analogy doesn't effectively cover another important factor, we might call it ingenuity to go on with. My ability to hold the 20lb rock is vastly improved if I use some of my energy to make a backpack to carry it, instead of spending it all just in holding the rock with my arms, for example.

So yes, the pebble can be held the longest -tie it to a slim rope tied around your neck, and you can wear it forever, no problem.

But are we already at the point of saying that we can only take the bare minimum with us on the road to a Ecotechnic society?

My goal would be to bring as much as was good, or useful, from the Oil Age with us for as long as we can, and then not lose it, but give it up, place it in a museum, or adapt it to new conditions.

So, there ya go. Hope you were interested! ;)


Bill Pulliam said...

Sofistek et al re: sustainability...

In the long run we're all dead. No one knows the future, so how can any one be in a position to know what "sustainability" really means. It is a useful idea in general, but like all useful general ideas it can easily become a trap. There are those that would argue that the only truly "sustainable" society is one that travels the stars setting up centers all over the galaxy, so that one single cataclysmic event in one single planetary system can't obliterate it. Or those who would argue that to be completely sustainable we must geoengineer the entire Earth so that we can subdue the natural forces that fight against our survival.

Using less and being more adaptable are good survival strategies in a time of increasing resource limitations, which there are many good reasons to believe we are facing even allowing for the fundamental unknowable nature of the future. Sustainable for 10 years, 100 years, 10,000 years, 20 billion years? How can anyone really say?

Anyone who feels that the truly sustainable life is that of the hunter gatherer is quite free to adopt that lifestyle. This isn't a snark or a joke. I mean it. I hear so many people express this thought, yet have never once met someone who has acted on it, moved into the wilds with buckskins and stone tools to live indefinitely, for the duration. And I have lived in the sorts of places where I would have encountered these people if they existed in non-trivial numbers. I would love to meet him or her if s/he is out there, and have a long talk about his/her experiences, successes, and challenges. No sign of them yet. Conversely, I have known many people who have chosen to live on less, and succeeded at this for the long haul, even into successive generations.

John Michael Greer said...

Draft, okay, now go read all the way through the article you just cited, and notice what it says about the amount of fuel going to the industrial world. We're already seeing significant declines, and it'll be cold comfort to think of the middle class Chinese and Indians driving around in their cars. There's also the wider point that the measure being cited in that article, total liquids, double-counts a growing fraction of energy -- a point I'll be making in more detail in this week's post.

Bill Pulliam said...

Draft -- they're talking a few decades (at most). JMG's decline models talk in lifetimes and centuries. No comparison.

I's also suggest taking a much deeper and longer look at the state of the world economy and society if you think there us anything "Usual" about the current "Business"...

sofistek said...

JMG and others,

Thanks for the responses. This has actually been possibly the best discussion I've had on sustainability.

The problem is determining whether a society's behaviour is sustainable or not. You're right, we'd have to wait forever to determine that for certain. So it really comes down to regular checks, perhaps each generation, though we might be able to do better than that for some checks (e.g. the level of pollutants in the air). After the checks, adjustments.

However, you wrote "by your definition", which worries me. In a sense, it's not my definition at all. Richard Heinberg pulled together some thoughts (from various people) on sustainability, a few years ago, in his article, Five Axioms of Sustainability. I've summarised to two points, just to capture the essentials: consuming any resource beyond its renewal rate is unsustainable, behaviour that degrades our habitat is unsustainable. Is there another explanation of sustainable, in which those axioms don't apply or in which there are further axioms that need to be followed?

So there is at least one aspect of a society that we can say is sustainable or not: its use of non-renewable resources, or resources that have a renewal rate measured in many human lifetimes. If the resource is consumed - i.e. it can't be reused in whole or in part, in the future - then a sustainable society can't make ongoing use of non-renewable resources. (By the way, I think a very low rate of consumption combined with recycling might enable the consumption of some non-renewable resources to be considered effectively sustainable.) The other aspects of sustainable living (consuming renewable resources and our behaviour's impact on the environment) are probably harder to determine and judgements and adjustments would have to be made on a continuous basis.

That still leaves me with no really clear idea of what a society that sticks to these axioms might look like.

hawlkeye said...

Since we've all been born within the oil bubble, we can only make educated guesses about what a truly sustainable life might look like. Of course, the term has been diluted to near uselessness, but I think of it as similar to Peak Oil; you can only say it happened for sure AFTER the numbers come in.

Fifty years from now (and easily sooner) take a look around and see how your neighbors are feeding themselves; plenty of sustainable silliness will have evaporated by then, leaving a much clearer idea of how to continue from there.

Sustainability is what works over time, and we'll need to work overtime to get there, wherever that may turn out to be.

And @ Remnant:

JMG has pointed out here many times the tendency of the conspiratorially inclined to use their various tropes to avoid personal responsibility for their own involvement with our common predicament.

True enough in a culture of entitlement where avoidance of personal responsibility is institutionalized as a virtue.

And it's true that many people who are fearful of their future find excuses to hang it on, like many of the topics you mention, chemtrails, HAARP, banker cabal, etc... there are plenty.

But are you really saying there is zero truth to aany of these subjects? Absolutely nothing going on here but canard and excuse, avoidance and absurdity? Not a shred of anything but fodder for contempt and dismissal? I do wonder...

Dismissing every single thing we don't know about shenanigans in these arenas, saying those subjects are all entirely just an escape from reality, is to my mind a rather closed-minded approach.

Indeed, to dismiss out of hand everything we do not immediately grasp about our situation, is ALSO (to use your fine phrase): "an attempt to oversimplify things, and reduce anxiety by clinging to a false sense of certainty".

I see it going both ways. Nobody has all the answers, and I think it's counter-intelligent to stop asking questions. When I encounter outright dismissal of anything, I sniff around for denial of something...

Will someone PLEASE invent a Big Sugar-Detector app for my hand-held device...?

Ha! Dang, I love this blog...

Mark Angelini said...

If I've learned one thing in my practice of LESS, it's that less is often times more; more time in nature, more time to think, to meditate, more health & nutrition, more rest, and more (front-yard, backyard, everywhere-yard) food, water, soil, chickens, and so on!

It appears that Americans and other cultures enamored by progress are fervently practicing the opposite of what you describe: more energy, stuff, and stimulation. That's a MESS I'd rather avoid...

Mark said...

Peak oil makes the editorial page in the Boston Globe.

I guess this is progress even if only one person reads the Peak Oil Wiki after reading this editorial.

Though Keane doesn't quite get the description right, he gets the implications. "“Peak oil’’ theorists argue that someday soon — maybe even now — we’re going to run out of new oil supplies and prices will rise permanently."

Unfortunately, I have to agree with Keane's conclusion - behavior will not change until it hits the wallet.


Here's the link:

One of the Remnant said...

@ sofistek

I agree with you - really good discussion on what-is-sustainability going on here.

As I read through the comments, I felt a bit of deja vu. I used to involve myself in various political forums of the libertarian persuasion, and the discussion here reminds me a bit of the debates (and often flame wars) between minarchists and anarchists. The point then, which may apply now, was that I realized we as a society are so far from either of those - living in a wholly Statist society - that the finer points of minimal-State vs no-State didn't really matter. Moving rapidly toward a less centralized, State-dominated society was something everyone pretty much agreed on, although the hard core anarchists had a very hard time with even agreeing on that much, so 'pure' was their vision. In fact, this sort of puritanism, if you will, was why the anarchist community officially rejected Murray Bookchin, the ecological pioneer, when he suggested that neighborhood assemblies in a participatory democratic mode should be the primary source of political power, and he felt this was in line with the tenets of classical anarchism.

In my view, this is an example of allowing the great to be the enemy of the good.

I think the same thing can be said here. As a society, we are so far from any reasonable definition of 'sustainable' that to quibble overly much about
'true' sustainability can become a distraction.

Just a thought...

- Oz

Jason said...

@Sofistek: That still leaves me with no really clear idea of what a society that sticks to these axioms might look like.

Have you read Elinor Ostrom yet? She is the closest yet.

One of the Remnant said...

@ hawlkeye

"it's true that many people who are fearful of their future find excuses to hang it on, like many of the topics you mention, chemtrails, HAARP, banker cabal, etc... there are plenty. But are you really saying there is zero truth to aany of these subjects?

Dismissing every single thing we don't know about shenanigans in these arenas, saying those subjects are all entirely just an escape from reality, is to my mind a rather closed-minded approach."

This is a bit of a straw man - the topics I mentioned were, specifically: HAARP, truthers, chemtrails, all run by some shadowy cabal of puppet masters.

I have looked into these specific beliefs, and for the first three, concluded that there is little to no chance of them being correct based mostly on technical analysis and simple (but sound) logic. Further, I have entered into dialogue with folks that believe these things and I have concluded that, in every single instance, they either assume premises based on faith instead of evidence, or the logic which follows from their premises is flawed or faulty. In those cases, it seems pretty clear to me that the critical thinking needed to establish such beliefs as probable is lacking.

As for the shadowy cabal, I gave a source which does a terrific job of dismantling that case (Ferguson's book).

So what I am saying is simply that these beliefs appear to me - based on a fairly rigorous analysis IMO - amount to the result of magical thinking, and that a good solid logical case has not been made for them. They fail the tests of logic, and so I am comfortable rejecting them on that basis, unless and until a solid case is made.

It's similar to how I think about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.

But, then you mentioned a 'banking cabal' - well, by definition, the Federal Reserve Bank is a banking *cartel*. That's not a matter of logic, but of fact. Is it a cabal? i.e. a 'secret group of plotters'? You could probably characterize it as such, inasmuch as many of its creators hid their identities on the way to the secret meeting at JP Morgan's island at which the Fed was planned. Sounds pretty cabalistic to me. Passes the smell test. Read 'The Creature from Jekyll Island' for more.

And what we now know about the modern day banking cartel - as exposed by Matt Taibbi and others - looks exceedingly cabalistic to me as well. A conspiracy to move debt off the backs of the banks and onto the backs of taxpayers seems to be exactly what happened. Again, this easily passes the smell test.

Overall, it's a matter of using logic properly and accounting for confirmation bias as best we can. The way I think of 'conspiracy theorists' is people who generally 1) start with conclusions and work their way back to premises, often making the logic 'fit' via fallacy and selectivity, and 2) do not account for confirmation bias.

I try to 1) start with premises, test those premises, then reason my way to a conclusion, and examine my reasoning for flaws, and 2) account for confirmation bias. But I'm human and am aware that my brain is susceptible to illogic and confirmation bias in subtle ways. So the main difference, as I see it, is that I do not claim to 'know' - I think in terms of levels of confidence or probability. As such I would never say 'the US government didn't blow up the Twin Towers' but rather, 'it seems very, very unlikely to me that the US government did so.'

So in this case, I am not so much dismissing something "out of hand" (i.e. without due consideration) as saying 'I've spent time and mental energy considering that possibility and I've come to the conclusion it's improbable and I'm moving on.'

Hope that answers your question. :)

- Oz

mallow said...

I need some advice please! I live in a tiny apartment in the centre of Dublin. I have a well paid, secure as it gets, government job. Me and my partner are both in negative equity (2 separate properties) and may well remain so for the rest of our lives to be honest. There are no houses with more than postage stamp gardens within cycling distance of my job (at least none that i could afford to buy (if we did ever get out of neg eq) or rent). I could find somewhere on public transport routes but I've watched them here continuously hike prices and cut routes even before they started bailing out the banks. I can only imagine how much of a priority affordable public transport will be when/if we do default, which may well happen sooner rather than later, so i don't want to rely on it.

I'm paying off my small personal debt as fast as I can and have built up a nice library of useful books as recommended on this blog and elsewhere. My next project is learning soap making. I've grown things on my balcony for years. Can't get an allotment because there aren't any that i can get to during the week or without a car. I'd love to move out of the city and get my garden but I can't believe that it would be a good idea to ever quit my job, although given the state of Ireland i fully expect that decision to be made for me at some point. It's not just great money, I also really like the job and there's nowhere else that I can do it. I work for the taxman basically so am hopeful that the powers that be will continue to pay me out of self interest if nothing else for some time yet. What to do?

Cathy McGuire said...

@Sofistek: if a sustainable society is unachievable, should we just aim for the most satisfying and comfortable one we can and accept the consequences?
That is a temptation for many, but my perception is that it is leaving your moral choices up to others. The world will end – for you – inevitably. In every case. And they all say you can’t take it with you. So – do you grab all the gusto no matter who you skewer in the process? Do you try to grab what you feel you deserve, again no matter who gets ripped off? This is a decision each person makes, consciously or unconsciously.

I respect your attempts to look for the most sustainable future, and yet, most of that is out of our hands (due to population, other people’s choices, etc.) Since there is no perfectly sustainable society, nor any way to negotiate with Death, how do you choose to live? Only you can make that decision for yourself. I have looked at my role models and have consciously chosen to reduce my participation in a consumer society, for many reasons. But my reasons might not be yours. Keep asking, keep observing, and you will find you have made many of these decisions as you continue to live. Maybe I’m giving too philosophical an answer to your concrete question, but at 55, I’ve realized all my best attempts have been like a tiny drop in a large ocean.

One of the Remnant said...


"It's something governments do all the time in emergency situations, to whatever degree the emergency requires, and they usually back away from it as quickly as possible because a police state is an expensive and inefficient way to run a society."

This may be true, but it is often irrelevant, as numerous durable historical police states demonstrate. Further, we're talking about a permanent emergency, and one national/global in scope - so past responses to regional afflictions like earthquakes and hurricanes may not be analogous.

I don't find the notion that the goal of politicians is in fact to run society in an inexpensive and efficient way to be persuasive. The current set of powers-that-be in America are running our own society in a highly inefficient and expensive way, accruing ever more power to themselves in the process, and show no signs of backing off. This is in response to a national/global crisis, note. We are no longer the nation we were in 1933.

Of course, if you look at efficiency from the standpoint of efficient redistribution of wealth to those in the top of the pyramid, we're a veritable model of efficiency! This should make us think, IMO. I think that's how the 'algorithm' of our political system works, without any need for conscious 'conspiracies' to accomplish it.

In fact, across U.S. history, what one finds is not so much an accrual of power when facing crisis (manufactured as often as not), followed by a relinquishment of it, but rather a 'ratchet effect' whereby power is acquired, and then only a portion of it surrendered, repeated iteratively such that the net trend is always up. And in fact, this is what is compellingly argued in Higgs' 'Crisis and Leviathan.'

It is this pattern that concerns me. I could easily foresee, for example, nationalization, or 'Sovietization' of organic farms once the industrial ag system falters and a growing percentage of people go hungry - IF the current political system is still around by that point. From this perspective then, backyard gardens become even more crucial.

This is why I think dispelling political myths is as important as dispelling those in the ecological realm.

All that said, I am convinced that the only viable way forward to an individual or family remains: to use LESS, while building backyard gardens, building community, and adding new and potentially useful hand-skills to one's repertoire.

- Oz

One of the Remnant said...

@ mallow

I have no idea of whether your situation or Irish law would permit this, but have you considered bankruptcy? If so, you could begin to devote your income to the future instead of to the past.

- Oz

The carp who jumped Hukou Falls said...


Many moons ago, I spent a short while working in tax enforcement. Not a particularly happy time, though it gave me some stories. As you suggest, there'll always be taxes, so there'll always be taxmen of a kind.

As JMG has pointed out many times, you're not necessarily in a bad place; urban life is very energy-efficient, and Dublin has been a vibrant city since long before the oil age; I imagine it will be one long into the post-oil descent as well.

I think we in these forums can get over-fixated on the "growing our own food" concept. I'm starting to do it because I live in a semi-rural area with access to a large garden. You don't have such access, so your balcony is the best you can do.

Instead, consider pre-oil society. Think about the ways in which people made a living. Do any of these appeal to you? Peasant farmer isn't my number one choice, not by a long shot. That's why I'm training up in healthcare techniques that don't use pharmaceuticals. Read up on the history of Dublin: even those Viking Jarls had specialised tax collectors, and I bet those guys didn't grow their own food. Soap-making is well and good, as long as it's something you could enjoy doing to earn a living, and you know what your supply chain would be. Entertainers, actors, musicians and the like will always be in demand. Tailoring will be in demand.

I'm just saying, life will go on. There will still be plenty of options. It would be wise to choose yours as soon as possible, though, while the training is still easily available.

sofistek said...


By a sustainable lifestyle, I've been referring to one in which the lifestyle doesn't cause its own end. So I'm not referring to single human lifetimes or to external events that may, or will, happen to put an end to our ways.

I've explained that there are a couple of simple (to say) rules about sustainability, regarding resource consumption and environmental impacts. If you can counter them, please do so.

I've also mentioned that a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, which may be the only lifestyle that has qualified for sustainable status, is not within reach of most people, considering the number of us and the damage we've already wrought on our biosphere. So your remark does come across as a snark or joke, even if that wasn't intended. If a few people can adopt that lifestyle individually, that hardly classifies as a sustainable community, does it?


Yes, oil decline hasn't quite worked out as "expected". The Oil Drum article mentions, but glosses over, the fact that a severe recession (that may not really be over) has had an impact. JMG has mentioned double counting, also. However, with the world population growing at about 70 million per year and countries desperate to get economic growth moving again, even a plateau, never mind gentle decline, is a huge impediment to business as usual. And if the attempt at growth starts to tear society apart, oil declines may be punctuated by sudden lost production, i.e. it may not be a steady decline but a ragged decline.


Thanks for the link. I haven't read Ostrom. Though it doesn't sound like what I'm after, it looks like an interesting read and I've added it to my wishlist. In looking for it on a local book site, I also came across,
Sustainability or Collapse?: An Integrated History and Future of People on Earth (Dahlem Workshop Reports)
, which looks like it might cover some of the arguments here. I've added that, too (along with Ecotechnic Future; so many books to read!).


Thanks. Yes, I've grappled with those thoughts too. To be honest, I can't see myself turning my back on all I've been trying to do and I do think it's both the morally right thing to do and the only real response to the predicament the human race is now in. However, there are still plenty of moments when I want to throw in the towel and there's still a slight chance that I could do so, if someone could convince me that sustainability is unachievable. Luckily, or not, my conviction that it is possible is still quite strong.