Wednesday, June 01, 2011

In The World After Abundance

Over the past month or so the essays on this blog have veered away from the details of appropriate tech into a discussion of some of the reasons why this kind of tech is, in fact, appropriate as a response to the predicament of industrial society. That was a necessary diversion, since a great many of the narratives that cluster around that crisis just now tend to evade the necessity of change on the level of individual lifestyles. The roots of that evasion had to be explored in order to show that change on that level is exactly what can’t be avoided by any serious response to the crisis of our time.

Still, if it’s going to do any good, that awareness has to be paired with something more than a vague sense that action is necessary. Talk, as Zen masters are fond of saying, does not boil the rice; in the rather more formal language of the traditions of Western esotericism where I received a good deal of my training, the planes of being are discrete and not continuous, which means in practice that even the clearest sense of how we collectively backed ourselves into the present mess isn’t going to bring in food from the garden, keep warmth from leaking out of the house on a cold winter night, or provide a modest amount of electricity for those bits of modern or not-quite-modern technology that will still make sense, and still yield benefits, in the world after abundance.

That last phrase is the crucial one. In the future ahead of us, the extravagant habits of the recent past and the present will no longer be an option. Those habits include most of what people in the industrial world nowadays like to consider the basic amenities of a normal lifestyle, or even the necessities of life. An unwillingness to take a hard look at the assumptions underlying our current notion of what a normal lifestyle comprises has driven a certain amount of wishful thinking, and roughly the same amount of unnecessary dread, among those who have begun to grapple with the challenges ahead of us.

One of the best examples I can think of is provided by the ubiquitous wall sockets that, in nearly every home in the industrial world, provide as much electric current on demand as the residents want and can pay for. In most circles these days, when conversations turn to the prospects of energy for the future, the belief that the only possible way to use electricity is to keep uninterrupted power flowing to those sockets is very nearly as sacrosanct as the belief that the only possible way to handle transportation is to find some way to keep hundreds of millions of private cars fueled with as much ethanol, or biodiesel, or electricity, or what have you, as their drivers can afford. Both these beliefs take the temporary habits of an age of excess and treat them as necessities, and both of them box our collective imagination into a futile quest to sustain the unsustainable instead of looking at other options that are well within reach even this late in the game.

The sheer inefficiency of today’s habits of electrical generation, distribution, and use is rarely recognized. Behind those wall sockets lies what is very probably the world’s largest single system of infrastructure, an immense network linking huge power plants and end users via a crazy spiderweb of transmission lines covering whole continents. To keep electricity in those lines, vast amounts of fuel are burnt every day to generate heat, which produces steam, which drives turbines, which turn generators, which put voltage onto the lines; at each of these transformations of energy from one form to another, the laws of thermodynamics take their toll, and as a result only about a third of the potential energy in the fuel finds its way to the wall socket. Losses to entropy of the same order of magnitude also take place when electricity is generated by other means – hydroelectricity, wind power or what have you – because of parallel limits hardwired into the laws of physics.

When the resulting current comes out of the wall sockets, in turn, equivalent losses take place on the other end. Most electricity in today’s industrial societies gets turned into light, heat, or mechanical motion at its end use, and each of these transformations involves unavoidable inefficiencies. Furthermore, a very large fraction of today’s end uses of electricity are things that could be done just as well without it, with the application of a little ordinary muscle power or some other readily available energy source. That’s not even counting the gigawatts that go into lighting, cooling and heating unoccupied rooms, keeping electronic devices on unnecessary standby, drowning out the stars with light pollution, and, well, let’s not even start talking about Wii.

Having an energy system geared to so grandiose a level of excess seemed to make sense in the days when fossil fuels were cheap and abundant. Quite a few absurd things seemed to make sense in those days, and even when they no longer make any sense at all, the habits of that brief interval continue to dominate contemporary thought to an embarrassing degree. Notice how our economic system, as well as nearly all economists, still act as though replacing human labor with fossil fuel-derived energy is always a good idea, even at a time when unemployment is pandemic and the cost of energy is a rising burden on economies around the world.

The same fixation on maintaining the extravagant habits of the recent past still holds most discussions of energy hostage. Every source of electrical power these days is measured against the yardstick of whether it could provide enough cheap, abundant, reliable, continuous power to keep our existing electrical grids running. Proponents of each of the various contenders trot out an assortment of canned studies insisting that their preferred energy technology can do just that, while challenging competing systems with equally canned studies that insist that no other option will work.

Given the billions of dollars that have already been paid out to the winners in these competitions, and the trillions more that will likely follow, this sort of propaganda dolled up in scientific drag will most likely continue to be standard practice until the money and other resources for grandiose projects simply aren’t there any more. Meanwhile, there’s really no way to be sure in advance that any of the options can keep the grids running, and if there is, the chance that the one that ends up clawing its way to the top of the heap in the political free-for-all now under way will just happen to be one that will do the trick is not exactly something on which I’d choose to bet.

The difficulty here is that most current conversations about the future of energy are trying to figure out an answer without first making sure that what’s being asked is the right question. “How can we keep an electrical grid designed around the unquestioned availability of cheap abundant energy?” is the obvious question, and it’s also the wrong one. The right question – the question that we should be asking – is something more like “How much electricity can we count on having in a future after fossil fuels, and what are the best ways to produce, distribute, and use it?” That question has hardly been asked at all. It’s high time to remedy that omission.

There are many reasons for thinking, in fact, that trying to maintain an electrical grid on a regional or national scale in a future of scarce energy is a fool’s game. To run a large-scale grid of the sort currently in use, you need to be able to produce huge amounts of power every second of every day. It’s very difficult to get that much power that reliably by any means other than burning a lot of fossil fuels, either directly – say, in a coal- or gas-fired power plant – or indirectly. Tot up the total energy content of the fossil fuels needed to mine and refine uranium and urn it into fuel rods, to build, maintain, and decommission a nuclear reactor, to deal with the short-term and long-term waste, and to account for a share of the energy cost of the inevitable accidents, for example, and you’ll have a sense of the scale of the energy subsidies from fossil fuels that prop up nuclear power; do the same math for today’s giant wind turbines, and a similar realization is in store. Lacking these subsidies, it’s probably a safe bet that nuclear reactors and giant wind turbines can’t be built or maintained at all.

Still, an important point is generally missed here. Gigawatts of power are necessary for an electrical power grid. They aren’t necessary for any one of the homes and small businesses that make up the great numerical majority of end users. Get rid of the pointless excess that dominates our current approach to energy, and limit your use of electricity to the things it actually does better than other readily available energy sources, and a 12 volt circuit at very modest wattage is very often all you need. Powering a 12 volt circuit at modest wattage is child’s play, and can be done by any of a baker’s dozen or so of readily accessible technologies that can be built, maintained, and used by any moderately skilled handyperson.

Equally, having all that power on call every second of every day is necessary for an electrical grid of the modern kind. It’s not actually necessary for homes and small businesses. Again, get rid of social habits that amount to wasting energy for the sake of wasting energy, and it’s not that hard to live with an intermittent electrical supply, either by using electricity whenever it happens to be available and not otherwise, or by using batteries to store up current for a short time until you need it.

Seventy and eighty years ago, this latter was standard practice in a great many American homes. One of my vintage radio textbooks, A. and M. Marcus’ excellent Elements of Radio, dates from those days. At that time radio was the hot new technology, and even out in farm country, where rural electrification took its sweet time to arrive, most families who could scrape together the cash had a radio in the parlor, linking them to news, music, and other cultural resources from hundreds of miles away. Where did they get the power? Batteries, two of them per radio: an A battery to power the filaments on the vacuum tubes and a B battery to provide the working current. The A battery needed frequent recharging, and wind power was among the options for that; the iconic and ubiquitous windmills of rural America three quarters of a century ago had plenty of uses, and as often as not, that was one of them.

Long before electrical grids extended out of America’s urban cores, in fact, it was fairly common for households elsewhere in the country to have a modest amount of electricity to hand. There are a few things electricity does more efficently than any other form of energy – radio, broadcast or two-way; other electronic devices such as the phonograph; safe, smokeless lighting for the parlor and the kitchen for a few hours after sunset – and those were what people at that time did with electricity. (Nowadays a well-insulated refrigerator and the pump for a closed-loop active solar water heater might be worth adding to the same list.) Those things that electricity only does inefficiently and other energy sources do well – for example, providing diffuse heat or high-torque mechanical energy – people did by other means. Fairly often, those other means required a certain amount of muscle power, but that’s an inevitable reality of life in a world after abundance.

The distinction between those things electricity does efficiently, and those things that it doesn’t, is as important to keep in mind as it’s commonly neglected. Kris de Decker, in a recent and useful article on pedal powered technologies in Low-tech Magazine, has done a good job of mapping out the issues involved. He points out that most pedal power devices currently on the market use the back wheel of a bicycle to run a generator, and then use the electricity produced by the generator to do something. For most uses, this is hopelessly inefficient, since every transformation of energy from one form to another involves losses to entropy which can be saved by leaving the energy in its original form. How serious are the losses? Enough that you’ll be pedaling two to three times as long to do the same task with electricity as you would if the bicycle’s mechanical power did it directly.

If you want to power a blender to make yourself margaritas on hot summer days, for example, it’s a substantial waste of energy – your energy, expressed in sweat and tired muscles – to hook your bicycle to a generator and wire up the generator to the motor that drives the blender. The more efficient option is to use the mechanical motion of the bicycle wheel to spin the blender blades directly; there are still losses to entropy, of course, but they’re a small fraction of what they would be if you stick a generator and motor in the middle where they’re not needed.

The same principle applies to a great many other things that are currently done by means of electricity. Regular readers of this blog will readily be able to think of another example, since I’ve discussed more than once the misunderstandings that bedevil solar energy. They come from the same set of blinders as the notion that pedal power ought to be used to generate electricity, rather than being used to drive the mechanical motion a great deal of today’s electricity is used to drive. Sunlight can be turned into electricity on a small scale in several different ways; none of them are very efficient, and they’re all intermitted and difficult to scale up, but several are quite good enough to drive the sort of small-scale 12 volt system discussed here if you’ve got a good southern exposure. What sunlight does with great efficiency, on the other hand, is convert itself to diffuse heat – the sort of heat that will warm a room, heat a bath, or bake a loaf of bread in a solar oven. When planning for solar energy, in other words, it’s best to do as much as possible with the diffuse heat sunlight provides so readily, and convert sunlight to electricity only for the handful of uses where electricity is the only thing, or the best thing, for the job.

Apply the same logic across the board and you end up with the most probable energy system of a world after abundance: a patchwork of different energy sources and applications, right down to the level of the individual household or business. In the American households of three quarters of a century ago I mentioned earlier in this post, that was perfectly normal; the radio ran off the A and B batteries, the stove was powered by wood from the woodlot, two lamps in the parlor ran off batteries charged by the windmill while the rest burnt kerosene, the sewing machine ran off a foot-operated treadle, the water was pumped by the windmill and heated by the sun – yes, solar water heaters were hugely popular in the 1920s, especially but not only in the Sun Belt. One consequence of this crazy quilt of energy options is that if something disrupted access to any one source of energy, the rest of the household chugged on unaffected. Compare that to the electricity-dependent household of the present, where a blackout renders the whole household inoperable and quite possibly unlivable.

The crucial point to take away from all this, though, is that expectations formed by the extravagance of the recent past are not a useful guide to the best options available to us in the post-peak future. It’s a safe bet, of course, that plenty of resources will be thrown down a dizzying assortment of ratholes in the attempt to keep the infrastructure of the age of abundance up and running even as the abundance itself trickles away. Long after private cars have stopped making any kind of economic sense, for example, what’s left of the American economy will still be being jiggered and poked in an attempt to keep some mummified simulacrum of an auto industry propped up in its corner, and no doubt similar efforts will be made to support the big regional grids even when the impact of shutting them down would be less of an economic burden than the cost of keeping them going. That’s why it’s all the more crucial for individuals, families, and community groups to start shifting over to the habits of energy use that will make sense in the world after abundance, to work through the learning curve and develop the skills and technologies that will be there to pick up the pieces when the legacy technologies of our fading age of excess finally grind to a halt.


Paula said...

I have found that I have more control on my wood cuts with a hand saw than with my electrical saws, and am very close to selling the electrical saws (I have several panels of plywood to cut, so we'll see how I do there first). But I'm ready to start looking for other hand tools to use for my wood working, instead of power tools.

Sawing wood by hand takes longer, sure, but it's kind of meditative in a way. I have a feeling that once we all get used to not living the way that we are currently, we might actually learn to like it better. I like building stuff by hand, really by hand, a lot better.

Zach said...

There is an example of a 1910 farmhouse at Sauder Village. I noticed that its basement had a bank of 12V batteries. When I asked, the guide said that the home had a diesel generator, which the family would run for 20-30 minutes per day. This was a sufficient charge for the batteries that it provided for the household's electric needs.

Moving forward in time, I had a good friend who was a PhD candidate in Electrical Engineering back in the late 80's, and whose research was into the stability of the grid. Apparently, the math was more than he could explain over a beer with friends, but the upshot is that Every. Single. Day. that the grid doesn't collapse is a marvel of modern engineering.

Hardly any discussions of take the grid into consideration. Consider wind power, or solar farms. All of the best sites are remote from the centers of power consumption. Furthermore, these technologies don't provide baseline power, which is important to keeping the grid running. These are non-trivial problems... even if they are off the public radar.


GHung said...

Actually, the blender is a splendid use for intermittently charged battery power ;-) We have two ....sorry.

One thing we've learned in 15 years of off grid living is to dole out what we have gathered. In terms of watt-hours, small appliances like a blender, toaster, even my electric grinder, chop saw, table saw, and my wife's hair dryer are doable. We use the microwave every day. Good management of a power source is the same as good management of a food source, water source, or money. Mismangement results in going without for a time. Sawing too much lumber this afternoon may result in no window fan tonight. But, unlike money, aquiring and storing energy requires only a little active participation on our part (firewood excepted).

While modern off-grid systems are programable (our inverters and controllers will begin shutting things off if the voltage gets below setpoints), and I have meters and gauges, including computerized data logging, most of the time the simple voltage and amp meters tell us what we need to know. This all started with three salvaged 75 watt PV panels, two golf cart batteries and an RV.

I gotta go vacuum the kitchen before bedtime. Sweeping stirs up too much dust. (Make a note to hose down the panels tomorrow; only 19.4 kwh today- maybe pollen, or the heat).

BTW: 12VDC blenders are available from RV catalogs :-) Cheers!

Matthew Heins said...

I've compiled a quick list of the pedal-powered machines mentioned in the Low-Tech article:

-water and air pumps, cocoa grinders, apple grinders, corn grinders, other food grinders, threshers, tile makers, nut shellers, washing machines, winnowing machines, grinding machines, drilling machines, sewing machines, potter's wheels, paint sprayers, crop dusting equipment, cassava graters, coffee pulpers, grain hullers, fibre decorticators, balers, band saws, blenders of everything from drinks to soap, egg beaters, can openers, nut choppers, fish skinners, meat and cheese slicers, cherry pitters, feather pluckers, potato diggers, corn shellers, grain cleaners, rice polisher, oatmeal rollers, stone polishers, drills, wood carvers, brick makers, wood turners, wood strip cutters, circular saws, lathes, peanut shellers, smith's hammers, algae formation processors(!), and lastly electrical generators.

That's 40-plus distinct machines or types of machine (like "blender", or "grinder") before we even get to the electrical generator and that's from just one NGO in Guatamala, 3 '70s-era efforts, and a couple of scattered tinkerers.

Imagine what more could be done with a little effort!

Human-powered machines combined with direct-mechanical water- and wind-powered machines can give either a transitional stage society or an ecotechnic/indefinitely sustainable one a huge lifestyle and comfort boost before electricity and electrical generation even come into the equation.

de Decker is right. More effort and research into the possibilities of pedal power are needed and should yield very useful results.

(I myself immediately think that more could be done with gearing and multi-person power. Couldn't the dozen or so people pedalling on the pictured electrical generator be able, through a system of gears, to combine their effort to move a very large flywheel that would generate electricity better, for instance? )

Coming home from my job at the pedal-powered furniture-making factory to a steaming bowl of solar-oven chili, a local beer brewed with bellows water-powered by the Spring thaw on the nearby river, served cool from the cellar, chilled from the trickle-charged fridge, or frosty from the icehouse, and the wife reminding me that the wind's been dead so I better hook the thermoelectric generator up to the masonry stove if I want to listen to the game on the radio and still have the juice to run the little worklight above my drafting table in my workshop in the old garage... that all sounds pretty darn good right now, actually!

If the world can contain a pedal-powered algae formation processor, then my dream may just come true. ;)


Don Mason said...

JMG said: "plenty of resources will be thrown down a dizzying assortment of ratholes in the attempt to keep the infrastructure of the age of abundance up and running even as the abundance itself trickles away."

... And part of that age of abundance infrastructure is in the houses themselves.

I've spent the last few years totally gutting and rehabbing our two adjacent old houses.

The older of the two is about 150 years old. Originally, the owners were probably using kerosene lamps for lighting. A couple of decades later, they brought in gas lighting, because I found the old gas lines routed to the center of the ceilings, but they obviously hadn't been installed when the house was first built. A couple of decades after that, they installed knob-and-tube electrical - which is now totally frayed and a fire hazard, so I'm installing non-metallic sheathed cable that should last about a century.

The other house is about 120 years old, and the four bedrooms had a grand total of four electrical outlets: two in one bedroom, one each in two other bedrooms, and none at all in the fourth bedroom.

So I've been rewiring with outlets every twelve feet per Code, etc.

But my wife and I are using only a small fraction of the outlets that I've installed.

In twenty or thirty years, when we're dead and gone, the people who replace us probably won't use them, either, because they won't have access to cheap energy.

So today I've been crawling around in a hot, dusty old attic, pulling cobwebs out of what's left of my hair, running hundreds and hundreds of feet of expensive copper cable, thinking to myself "I'm spending massive amounts of time and money to install outlets that nobody is ever going to use - just to bring this old house up to Code. Is this rational?"

Kieran O'Neill said...

I thought I should speak in defence of the Wii -- as consoles go, it's actually quite energy-efficient (somewhere around 14W). As more powerful consoles go, they're also a lot more efficient than modern gaming PCs (~80W vs up to several hundred).

But the Wii is actually a step away from flashier graphics and ever more power-consuming gaming (even on the over-stimulation front, it advocates a more relaxed, social style of gaming). I see it more as a step in the right direction (relative to the rest of the computer gaming industry, of course).

Ruben said...

Speaking of cocktails, Margaritas are traditionally not blended and are therefore a lower-energy drink. The ice on the other hand...

I am sure GHung has the microwave on a power bar, but I did some research into behaviour and energy, and found that the clock on the microwave uses more power in its lifetime than is used to cook food. Now look around your kitchen and count how many clocks there are...

Of course it is hard to find microwaves without clocks. I imagine figuring out which clock wire to snip that won't cut the controls will be a good little industry.

KWohlmut said...

Apropos of the earlier discussions regarding how people fantasize about the world's ending, instead of working to alleviate the problem:

(Above cartoon comes from an Australian page about Peak Oil that I stumbled into)

SophieGale said...

Voila! The Fender Blender Bike Blender!

These are meant for entrepreneurs at Green Festivals, etc. where the bike is part of the show. The blender is an Oster and the video says the base will accept other Oster units like a coffee grinder.

Stephen said...

A refrigerator need not be electric. Electricity in a refrigerator is used to drive a pump there are many ways to drive a pump

Cathode Ray said...

best bike blender is friction powered...see it at

The xtracycle is also a wonderful cargo bike

Cherokee Organics said...


Great post.

You know, I often read claims by someone saying they've done the numbers, and if only we as a society covered every roof surface with PV panels we'd produce more power than we currently use.

In the theoretical world, they may well be right. In the real world, they have surely been smoking.

The only people who make these sorts of claims don't live with solar power. Like Ghung, I'm off the grid and live with the limitations of solar every day. The other crazy thing that people forget is that the sun don't shine at night and long lasting batteries are really heavy and expensive.

I love solar energy, but there's just no way the average McMansion can power all of it's current users perceived needs. It's not possible at all without having access to unlimited resources. I often laugh to myself when I see these huge houses with a small 1kWh solar power system on their roof. What a waste of time - it's a feel good gesture.

What's worse about it too, is that the occupants of these places often use more electricity than the average house because they have this sense of entitlement from having the small solar power system on their roof. Bah!

The rural areas where the last to be connected up to the national electricity grid. It's all going to unwind as natural disasters strike. The first thing that happens in a natural disaster is that the electricity grid gets knocked out either deliberately or otherwise. The question is, in an era of declining resources will it get reconnected? I'm not so sure.

Over here some of the worst bushfires are caused by the electricity grid itself. Imagine this, hot windy days with lots of households turning on airconditioning. As the current in the cables increases, the cable sags (yes wire expands when heated). The cable then either earths out and sparks or the heat causes nearby eucalyptus trees which may be touching the cables to ignite. It's the wrong day for such an event... The result massive bush fires.

Look up the Black Saturday bushfires in February 2009 on Wikipedia to get an idea of where it can go. Nasty. Anyway, after this fire, people got together and started a class action against the electricity distribution company for the Kilmore fire. I keep telling people around here that if that action is successful, the outcome will be that they will shut down the grid to bush areas on those high risk days. People always look at me in disbelief when I tell them this. It's like I'm speaking another language... Some have even mentioned essential services legislation, like that would override vested commercial interests...



Cherokee Organics said...


Whilst I'm on my soap box!

You are 100% correct. There is no reason why individual households need to use as much energy as they are using at present. People think of it as some sort of right, when if you look outside the priviledged world you'd see that most people get by on only a tiny fraction of this amount of energy and it is far from constant.

In my mind eye, I always imagine electrical generation and distribution systems are like trying to hold water in a sieve. Electricity is lost everywhere.

I'm writing an easy to read series on solar power for the Permaculture Research Institute of Australia. It's written for non techo people and the end point is how to go about wiring up your own emergency solar power supply - a must for Green Wizards. JMG was alluding to such a power supply in todays post. The link for the series is here (please feel free to drop a comment): McLeod



Phil Knight said...

Hello Archdruid,

Just thought you might be interested in watching Adam Curtis's new BBC documentary "All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace".

The second episode is about the collapse of the communes in the early seventies, and the rise of systems theory and the idea of the limits to growth.

The iplayer version is here:

galacticsurfer said...

sounds good for rural inhabitants with place for a woodlot. I hear Pakistan has a lot of problems with energy shortages and in say Tokyo. You can make a big list of industrial or free time activity, like restaurants, factories, air condtioning, etc. that will disappear without a centralized electricity system so collapse ill come to mass urban existence and population will go down dramatically as oil generators won't be supplied with oil.

So what you are saying will be true for the few but situation in NYC, Karachi Tokyo, London, Lagos will be different. Since I was offline for half a year you probably covered this topic. This is the reason that so much rides on keeping the current grid up. Because the FIRE economy depends on it. Growth comes through easy energy so people can buy more electronic toys. Economic collapse will lead to war for the few remaining resources due to the media propagated "truth" that growth is good.

I know you are just writing for us few who are trying to save ourselves but as no man is an island, I suspect everyone will get caught up in the big crisis (war, universal draft, rationing, martial law, closed borders, travel restrictions, media and communications restrictions) and only after grid collapses will the few scrape out some old techniques with a bit of ingenuity and the internet community won't exist to spread these ideas around.

So a clear break will occur. In the meantime a few people will practice survival and be ready if they survive the inevitable crisis to survive long term.

"Keep dancing till the music stops" would be bad advice except for a NYC resident or similar , dependent on the grid for life the only possibity.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hey Ghung,

I dream of 19.4kWh generation as I've never seen it here! The batteries only hold 30kWh when 100% full which is rare.

It's the depths of winter here and most of my energy sources is timber (the local eucalypt species yields 650kg/m3 timber) which burns quite well for cooking and heating (house and water). The electricity is really for lights, computer, refrigeration and pumps.

I noticed you mentioned the microwave oven and from my experience, it is singularly the most energy intensive appliance here. Not sure whether I've got a shocker, but it doesn't get switched on much - or for very long.

I love the timber because so far tonight it's:
poached quinces for breakfast and juice
cooked a loaf of bread
baked a quiche
dried the washed clothes
heated the house and hot water

On a funny note, every morning I get up and record the battery voltage so I can tell what the state of charge of the batteries is. It's like a barometer for my useage for the day. The voltage is only really accurate at that time as an indicator of the state of charge.

Much respect dude!


Andy Brown said...

I've been reading the pedal power posts with interest. Houses have sockets, so everything is designed for that. A great deal of farm equipment, whether mobile or stationary, at least as I remember it, was designed to run off a tractor, which offers a rotating drive off the back. So tinkerers will have to design stuff that offers some kind of multi-use, interchangeable coupling that is not a two or three pronged plug, but makes use of rotating motion. I'm not enough of an engineer to imagine that, yet, but it's fascinating. I'll have to get my 13 year old son onto it.

Lee Borden said...

I realized this morning that, of all the columns and blogs I read, and I read a LOT, I look forward most to yours. Your style of writing is thoroughly approachable, of course. Case in point: "this sort of propaganda dolled up in scientific drag will most likely continue to be standard practice until the money and other resources for grandiose projects simply aren’t there any more." That's good.

But what I love about your column is that it combines great writing with clear thinking. Bravo, and thank you.

Rialian said...

===The connection between electricity and water is one of the more problematic issues I know we have. While we are on a well, that well is dependent on electricity, and our well is a bit deeper than what I have found the deepest hand-powered pumps are designed for. (Off the top of my head, I think I am at 275 feet, give or take 10.)

===I am looking at the possibility of a cistern to help with that least a rainwater one that I can filter (any additions to this house will have a metal roof, not the tar-shingle-stuff that most folks use these days, including what is on the house now)

===the "hammer" of electricity has certainly made the use of other tools in design and planning less likely...which really shows when you think of ways to deal without having said hammer easily available.

Fleecenik Farm said...

In our push towards progress in the 50's many rural dairy farmers gave up farming because the USDA required refrigeration for their milk. In many rural areas of Maine there was no infrastructure built for the electric grid so the farmers could not scale up existing energy sources on their farms to meet these regulations.

I have a friend who moved to Maine as one of the many young homesteaders to settle the backwoods of Maine in the 70's. It was by this time that rural electrification was beginning to occur. He came from New Jersey where the practice of out door lighting was well established by then. He was struck by the many farm houses he would drive by at night that would only have one lamp on in the whole house so that the residents could read the newspaper at the end of the day.

z said...

Hans Rosling talks about the magic of the washing machine on TED: . I wonder if we could hook a mechanical version up to a pedal generator. That would be nice

Ventriloquist said...

Question for JMG:

In a comment from a previous posting (May 4, 2011) you responded to someone regarding firearms as protection from those who would rob you of your food stores --

"As for self-defense, that's why you want to base your plans on skills, not stockpiles; I've discussed this repeatedly here, but it's probably time for another post on that subject, too."

I understand what you are saying, to a point. But, even if you have skills, at some time (most likely at the end of the harvest season in autumn) one will have (hopefully) a food stockpile for the winter. If those who have not prepared want to rob you of your food stores, should you not be prepared to defend yourself and your loved ones against them?


Sixbears said...

We can expect the grid to disappear from rural areas first. No sense in running a line out to a handful of people -who probably can't pay the bill anyway. As storms and decay take their toll, the outlying areas will get less and less attention until they get none at all.

Local grids near a power source will make sense for quite a while longer. Say you have a hydro dam. Industry that requires electricity will be located next to that damn. Would make sense to have the local government seat there and something like a public stage for performances.

There's a lot of materials in the form of wires and towers that could be put to better use.

Edde said...

Good morning John Michael,

Enjoying the "dark of the moon" as we don't have so many outside lights in our neighborhood that obscure the sky. Lovely starry night...

You mention bicycle power in this week's post, we have a recumbent pedal power generator in the works, power source, actually. The design I have in mind could hook up to various machines in a similar fashion to a power take-off on a tractor.

I scavenged a main pulley system from a rail road maintenance shop that was designed to run various rotating shop tools like lathes and milling machines. The shop is long gone but the main shaft has some possibilities I'm just now exploring. Our local food co-op has a pedal-powered peanut butter grinder, for instance.

As for transportation cycling, both the bicycle industry and roadway systems managers decided bicycling makes worlds of sense for local trips of ALL sorts. Most bike and accessory manufacturers have transportation cycling products from trailers to racks & bags, to lights and much more comfy/practical bike designs. With the commitment of long term investments, this looks like a trend rather than a fad.

BTW, I'll happily get you onto a bike (trike?) you can easily control and will make local trips more fun and efficient. Maybe we could swap for a visit & talk to local sustainability community...

Best regards,


jj said...

We've been doing a lot of things by hand, trying to get the acreage (and us!) into shape. We've found it doesn't even always take longer than a machine would, once you factor in running the extension cords, getting everything ready, making sure to be safe, etc. We recently cut some doors through wood paneling in the barn, and the skil saw kicked so bad I was afraid one of us was going to cut a leg off. In the end, we used a bow saw for the majority of the project, and it worked very well.

After a week of digging fence post holes (3 feet deep in clay) by hand, my husband said he was really, really proud of the fence. Much more of a sense of accomplishment when you do it that way.

Advantages to hand tools include the exercise, way less noise, more portable, more control, and higher level of satisfaction. We are slowly trying to replace all of the electric implements we use regularly with a muscle-power counterpart - it takes some research and trolling of garage sales, but it is amazing what tools are out there...

Tom said...

You describe my grandfather's dairy farm in northern Wisconsin perfectly. They had two windmills, one to pump water from the well and the other to run a generator that charged up batteries, some that would provide lighting in the evening, and others in a cabinet in the parlor that would power a radio that sat on top. I still have that cabinet.

They also had an icehouse, lined with straw, in which they would keep ice, sawed from the river in the winter, through the summer months to keep the milk cool before it could go to market, and for the icebox in the kitchen.

I still grow the Swedish brown beans that they brought over in 1878 and were passed down from generation to generation. I'll plant 10 rows of them today. Later than usual, as we had a cold dry spring in Santa Fe and I couldn't put my soaker hoses out until last week.

Richard Larson said...

The idea of powering the blender directly through the use of a peddle bike is a terrific idea. I have made a mental note of it and will be looking for the parts as I cruise the isles of the local thrift shops.

Pulleys, belts, attachments, frames, and I'll have to buy some blenders to take apart. Hmmmm, got to be other devices to fashion in the same manner. Of course, that is your point...

The Insane Society will work to keeping the current system operational. More fuel will be required per unit of power which will hasten the end of this current system.

Long Descent may become Steep Descent.

GHung said...

Hi Chris. Remember that the 19.4 kwh includes ongoing usage, not just power to batteries: powering the fridge, a load of laundry, etc. Our battery bank is @44kwh storage. Yesterday's production was actually fairly good for a very hot, hazy day - stifling high pressure, here in the SE US. As I mentioned last week, I built (3 of 4) our trackers from old C-band satellite dish mounts. See them here. Tracking has increased our panel's output significantly, ~ 20%-40%. depending on season. Particularly useful in winter.

The sat dish mounts (all salvaged) have 24vdc actuators, same as our system, so the tracking arrays are self-powered. I order the electronics from a guy in BC, about $140 US per. I originally used a simple reversing switch to re-aim the arrays a few times a day. Having tiltable/adjustable arrays can greatly improve output. One school of thought is that monies are better spent on more PV panels, though this also requires more BOS (balance of system) stuff, and since I built my trackers mostly from junk .....

Regarding microwaves, et al, my point was this:

While energy intensive, these things are used for very short periods. A 1200 watt microwave used 5 minutes a day at full power uses 0.1 kwh. A blender used 1 min/day will be negligible. All are one dedicated switches.

We decided not to throw out the babies with the bathwater until we have to. These, of course, are discretionary uses, depending on battery/solar conditions.

Life calls, back later. Thanks!

jb said...

"Powering a 12 volt circuit at modest wattage is child’s play....any moderately skilled handyperson."
I am an intelligent person but completely unskilled handyperson. I have been trying to figure out how to use solar to power lighting. I bought a solar rechargeable flashlight which works great, but so far have been unsuccessful at finding anything else. Solar powered lantern? Solar power to recharge batteries to use in a lattern? I heard the RV industry is great for having solar powered stuff, but since I know nothing about it, I don't know what to believe when I read about products.
So...... any advice on where to learn about go small?

rylan said...

“planes of being are discrete and not continuous”

Could well be I am not tracking your thinking here but let me offer a contrary view.

While I agree that planes of being between physical ream and the mental/spiritual ream are much more of a discrete phenomenon than a continuous one, but this is in no way an absolute. There are significant and vital interconnections that must be considered.

In practical terms, I agree that the first step is to quit talking and start doing. However, I do not think this alone is going work. The greater group mindset issues(s) also have to be addressed.

Jason Heppenstall said...

It's a wonder to me how national energy grids have survived this far. In my previous life I was an energy trader and I got to see how many times the grid came close to falling over.

Apart from all the usual accidents that happen from day to day (power station outages, trees falling on power lines etc) there's the added risk that an insider with malicious intentions could bring the whole thing crashing down.

I even wrote a fictional short story about it which Green Wizards can read at the following link:

The Toffee Hammer

My final point in that story was that when something like that does inevitably happen everyone will start pointing fingers and apportioning blame rather than addressing the root cause.

JP said...

JMG says:

"Talk, as Zen masters are fond of saying, does not boil the rice; in the rather more formal language of the traditions of Western esotericism where I received a good deal of my training, the planes of being are discrete and not continuous, which means in practice that even the clearest sense of how we collectively backed ourselves into the present mess isn’t going to bring in food from the garden, keep warmth from leaking out of the house on a cold winter night, or provide a modest amount of electricity for those bits of modern or not-quite-modern technology that will still make sense, and still yield benefits, in the world after abundance."

The planes are both discrete and continuous.

Just like light is both a particle and a wave.

If the planes were completely discrete, they would be inaccessable to man (who depends on the planes *not* being *only* discrete.

Just a nitpick.

Yupped said...

Thanks again for another great post. I’m half way through your recent book and enjoying it also. Your assessment of our predicament at the systemic level is compelling. I expect the system will continue to lumber along for as long as it possibly can, until it can’t. So we use the time available to build skills and prepare.

I’m finding these posts on energy generation and management helpful, but they are highlighting for me an important challenge with this whole program of lifestyle change – the point at which I cross into full time/dedicated pursuit of a new style of life. You can make a lot of changes – use less, garden extensively, tend chickens, travel differently, etc – while still holding down a job and appearing to your neighbors and children to be roughly within the norm. I really want to spend more time on these more ambitious projects, like domestic energy generation, solar heating, etc, but I am running out of hours in the day. It occurs to me that the average owner of a 1900 era rural household, with a basement full of 12v batteries and a garden full of produce, probably spent most of their time at home, working on the homestead and tinkering in the basement, and didn’t have to commute to a cubicle someplace. So that decision is coming for me, sometime soon I think. That will put a new spin on the whole work/life balance thing.

Justin said...

You mentioned active solar water heaters again, and it got me thinking. Is the added complexity of the active set-up really a good idea? It means more maintenance, higher likelihood of failure, and lower chance of being able to find/afford appropriate replacement parts or even anti-freeze in resource constrained future.

What if a dual set-up was used instead, where a passive thermosiphon solar water heater was used whenever temperatures were above freezing, but then yet another passive thermosiphon system, this one running through the wood stove, heated water in the winter. It wouldn't be wasted heat, as long as water, in say a bathtub, wasn't allowed to drain until it had reached room temperature. In fact, the tank would act as a good thermal mass and a means of tranferring heat from the stove on the first floor to the second floor (although admittedly this would be a less desirable setup in a one story house). This also depends on having a good supply of wood, of course, but that is one of the more likely home heating options in the winter anyway, and it is possible to build or buy wood stoves with excellent efficiency.

One of the Remnant said...

@ Ventriloquist
"... regarding firearms as protection...If those who have not prepared want to rob you of your food stores, should you not be prepared to defend yourself and your loved ones against them?"

1 of 2

We might view this in the same way that we view an organic garden: you want to make your garden attractive to those critters which will provide a benefit, and unattractive to those whose presence would be detrimental.

How can you make your food stores unattractive to unprepared folk who would be tempted to steal them? The threat of being shot would seem a sensible deterrent to me, provided that the thieves are not so desperate as to be beyond any kind of reason. So IMO, firearms clearly are as sensible a precaution as a rainwater catchment system.

Think: shotgun. Ideally, it would never be fired. Walking your property with a shotgun in plain sight would seem a good way to increase that probability.

After all, what we are talking about is taking personal responsibility for oneself as much as possible - in terms of providing for one's food, water, energy needs. I hardly see it as consistent with this philosophy, then, to assert we should outsource all responsibility for security needs.

This applies at the individual level, of course - IMO, a community which is known to be well armed and to look after its own, will have improved chances at pre-emptively warning off those who would seek to steal from or otherwise assault its members. This presupposes that such a community did not manifest anything like the current levels of social inequity, nor the (not unrelated) current levels of hype-militarized law enforcement.

In this view, firearms are the second line of defense, whereas community building, in terms of doing one's best to ensure an absence of desperation, is the first.

to be continued...

- Oz

One of the Remnant said...

2 of 2

Frankly, I think it highly likely that the real danger of stolen food stocks will not come from private citizens, but from government and its agents. They maintain their current existence by stealing, after all, and there's every reason to think that will become, at least in the initial stages, more egregious when things begin to crumble.

Nationalization (or selective "re-privatization" to the well connected) of organic farms, for example, seems a plausible action to me. Also, 'food taxes' - wherein the State confiscates much of the food private citizens grow for themselves (much as, today, they confiscate much of the monetary fruits of our labors via withholding and income taxes) is also eminently plausible. It would be no surprise that bureaucrats get first dibs on such food. History is replete with such examples.

After all, look at today's society and you will see plenty of "those who have not prepared" for even the vicissitudes of our current existence - they turn to government to get 'their share' - why should this change going forward? Note that I am not passing judgment on these folk - many have been put explicitly in this position by governmental policies. As Harry Browne once said: "the government breaks your leg, hands you a crutch, and says: see? if not for me, you wouldn't be able to walk.'

Government at federal and state levels is seen by many in today's society (indefensibly, I would assert) as the 'appropriate' agency of forced redistribution of wealth - I'd imagine that as wealth declines across the board, and food stores come to represent wealth, this harmful sensibility will continue to manifest in ways quite detrimental to the average Jane and Joe, at least for a time. Just one more legacy of our current misguided system.

I guess the point I'm making is: you first have to figure out from whom you are protecting your goods before you can determine the most sensible means of protecting them. The threat will change over time as conditions change.

So from this standpoint, not only does it make sense to be prepared from the individual and community levels, but also perhaps vital to engage with local governance entities to accomplish things like this:

Power to the people indeed...

- Oz

One of the Remnant said...

Since JMG brought up lowtechmag in this post, thought I'd point out this article for those who may be interested:

Ropes and knots are the 'forgotten technology' which will, it seems to me, necessarily make a comeback at some point in the deindustrializing future. I haven't tied any real knots (granny doesn't count!) since I was a boy scout, so I'm digging up a knot chart to re-burnish those skills.

Usefulness aside, I remember knot tying not only as delightful - amazing what you can do with a piece of rope or two! - but as a sort of Zen practice - though I probably would not have described it that way when I was 10. :)

- Oz

John Michael Greer said...

Paula, that's been my experience as well. I have a few power tools, but rarely use them; the more precise handling and finer work that hand tools provide is worth more to me than rushing through the job.

Zach, thanks for the link! Using an engine for a short time every day to charge batteries is another potentially good option -- I'll be talking about some of those next week. As for the grid, bingo -- it's a potential source of drastic problems that very few people are taking into account right now.

GHung, that's an option, at least while the economy of abundance still churns out the necessary hardware, but I prefer to look a little further down the track. There are very nice hand cranked blenders available from Amish and Mennonite stores, too, you know!

Matt, it does sound pretty good, doesn't it? Now get out there and make it happen. Goethe's dictum -- "Begin it now!" -- is worth applying here.

Don, an excellent point. Still, remember that a few decades from now, you can pull all that wire out of the conduits and either sell it for a nice premium, or use it to run current in from your thermoelectric generator to your batteries!

Kieran, or you can put down the sweatshop-manufactured electronic pseudo-badminton racket, turn off the machine, step out into the back yard, set up a badminton net, invite some friends over and get your exercise and social interaction in the real world...

Ruben, maybe it's a west coast thing; the margaritas I'm used to drinking are blended. As for your job suggestion, though, you're spot on; we'll be discussing careers in repurposing old technology in a post in the fairly near future.

KWohlmut, thank you! That's delectable -- and all too true.

Sophie, good! But they're hardly limited to festivals; one would work well in restaurants, bars, or any other place where the blender gets used a lot. For less intensive use, a hand cranked model is probably more economical.

Stephen, true enough! The one advantage of electricity for a refrigerator pump is that it's very easy to switch it on and off instantly via a thermostat; there are other forms of energy that share that advantage, but most have a much slower response time, which is a problem for refrigeration.

Ray, thanks for the links!

Chris, that's another good reason to move toward home-generated power. Thanks for the link to your paper -- I trust somebody will get that posted to the Green Wizards forum.

Phil, thank you, but I don't have an iPlayer, and my creaky old internet computer doesn't handle modern media well.

Surfer, notice that you're leaving out the entire range of settlement between rural areas and New York City -- and it's between those two extremes that most people live. There are many more options available if you remember that a spectrum consists of more than its two endpoints!

One of the Remnant said...

@ rylan

"I agree that the first step is to quit talking and start doing. However, I do not think this alone is going work. The greater group mindset issues(s) also have to be addressed."

I think the first step is to stop talking and stop doing and to focus on *being*.

This response is a bit facetious, I will admit, but I'm actually trying to make a serious point.

A friend of mine is fond of quoting Matthew Ricard:

"The basic root of happiness lies in our minds; outer circumstances are nothing more than adverse or unfavorable."

This makes the point that it is not so much external circumstances which cause us to feel happy or sad or whatever - but rather the way we choose to *relate* to those circumstances.

Often, we throw ourselves into *doing* in an attempt to control circumstances which cannot be controlled, with the idea that, if only we can arrange externalities to our satisfaction, then all will be OK. I don't think this has worked very well traditionally, and I think its even less likely to work well going forward, as external circumstances become increasingly chaotic. The more we can relate to that chaos with acceptance rather than aversion and the illusion of the need for control, the better.

So by all means, get to *doing* - when it is the doing of worthwhile things - but don't forget that, in the end, it is the way in which you are capable of simply being that will make most of the difference.

Just one man's opinion, of course.

- Oz

John Michael Greer said...

Andy, you're quite correct -- and it's not hard at all to work up a simple coupler that will allow the rotary motion produced by, say, a bicycle rig with a flywheel to power scores of different useful machines. Do get your 13 year old on it; once the 13 year olds of the world get hooked on Green Wizard geekery, amazing things will follow.

Lee, many thanks!

Rialian, standard practice in most parts of America three quarters of a century ago was to use wind power to pump water from deep wells up into a cistern. If you've got a decent site for a windmill, you're good to go -- it's a mature, efficient, and very sturdy technology.

Fleecenik, that's a great anecdote. Thank you.

Z, a pedal powered washing machine should be a piece of cake. If I recall correctly, in fact, there were prototypes built during the Seventies.

Ventriloquist, I deliberately avoid that subject on this blog. Very few Americans on any side of the gun debate are entirely rational about the subject; when it comes up, things quickly polarize between people who are terrified of guns and people who have made a fetish out of them, and it doesn't take long for shouting to start and communication to stop. That doesn't further the purposes of this blog, and of course there are plenty of other places to talk about guns and home defense online if that's what you want to do.

Sixbears, excellent. You get today's gold star for realism. That's exactly how infrastructure goes down in the real world -- a chunk at a time, starting at the geographical and economic fringes and gradually working inward from there.

Edde, good to hear about the recumbent pedal power project! I'm always up for speaking gigs, and my rates are reasonable, but I'll pass on the (b/tr)ike and I'll quibble hard about your comment that it would make short distance travel more fun. As a lifelong walker, I've come to delight in traveling at a human pace: slow enough that swallows dance around me as I walk through the big vacant lot on the way to the grocery store, slow enough to pay attention to the wild herbs and the subtle changes as the seasons turn, but quite fast enough to get me where I need to go in good time.

JJ, excellent. I've found the same things regarding hand tools -- and you're quite right that there are some remarkable things out there if you know where to look.

Tom, do you still have the radio? Those old vacuum tube receivers still work well; you can get replacement tubes if you need them, and -- catastrophe fans take note -- they're invulnerable to electromagnetic pulse effects, because they're much less fragile than solid state equivalents. I hope, by the way, you're sharing those brown beans with friends who garden; those old heirloom varieties are worth their weight in gold, even at gold's currently inflated prices.

Richard, that is indeed my point, and the more people who take it the right way -- as you're doing -- and get to work tinkering, the more of a safety net will be in place as the cumbersome mess of a system we've got now breaks down.

JB, that's an excellent question that deserves a longer answer than I have space for here. The short form is that you've got to start with the basics. if you want to do things with PV, for example, you need to know how electricity works, and also how to solder, test, and use simple electrical and electronic circuits -- otherwise you're stuck depending on someone else's claims of expertise, and as you've noted, that's not a good place to be. The payoff is that once you know enough to build and wire your own solar panels -- and that's not that hard to do -- you can also rebuild appliances and do a lot of other practical things most people don't have a clue how to do these days. More on this in an upcoming post.

John Michael Greer said...

Rylan, to say that the planes of being are discrete isn't to say that they don't influence one another. It's to say that the influence crosses from plane to plane through specific and limited channels. When you turn a word in your mind into finger movements on a keyboard, you've moved something from the plane of thought to that of matter, but that crosses the boundary through the specific and narrow channel of your nervous system.

Jason, many thanks for the story! As with many everyday miracles, the hard work and luck that keep the grids running may only be appreciated when they stop working.

JP, as I mentioned to Rylan, "discrete" doesn't mean "separated by an impassible barrier." Human beings are as complex as they are because they're composite entities existing on several planes at once, and the links from plane to plane even within the individual can be cumbersome and cranky!

Yupped, that's one of the issues I haven't discussed yet in this sequence of posts, but it's come up earlier. One of the crucial steps, for people who live in family groups of one kind or another, is to arrange to get at least one adult free of full time employment so that he or she can get to work in the household economy and start rebuilding that vital and neglected sector. For the foreseeable future, nearly all of us are still going to need to have some cash coming in, but the less dependent we are on money, the better, and the more working hours that can be put into noncash economies, especially but not only at home, the better off people will be.

Justin, depends on where you are. In a lot of North America, there's a fair amount of solar energy to be had during seasons when it gets below freezing at night, and in those places, having an active system pays for itself in savings on fuel -- even when the fuel in question is wood. In other areas, your approach would be quite feasible.

GHung said...

@jb- The first source I refer folks to for all home based/DIY renewables is Homepower Magazine. I simply couldn't have done what I've done without it. My collection of hard copies is kept in a secure/secret location ;-) Many articles are available free online. They feature real-world examples of all sorts of stuff, including diagrams, specs and cost breakdowns.

For an example of a small off-grid PV system, including easy diagram, see this article about a small installation in a school in Somalia.

Other great articles at Homepower include biodigesters, small hydro, wind, EVs, etc. Some behind an inexpensive paywall/subscription; many free. Look for older articles for more primative stuff.

Disclaimer: I have no affiliation with Homepower beyond my subscrition, though I am beholden to them for all I have learned there since 1987. Look for older articles for more primative stuff.

Another good jumping off point is Power to the People, mainly stories about small installations in the 'third world'. Good links there.

Gray (sort of coming out here ;-)

William Hunter Duncan said...

I'm starting to see this impending collapse as having rather exciting potential for opportunity.

rylan said...

One lesson I’ve learned the hard way is that we are still in the world of abundance, the greater society creates the framework we must exist within. The basic rules will slowly, or not so slowly, as the case might be, change as we progress into the world after abundance. Things that make no sense right now might become very important in the future.

Horses for example, where/how are they going to fit into the future. My wife and I have learned the hard way that they do not make much sense right now. We decided to stop talking and start doing and started to breed horses.

The breed of horse we picked I still think is the best breed we could have picked. They are a light workhorse that is said to be pound for pound the strongest of all the horse breeds. They are intelligent to the point that some trainers don’t like to work with them. While they excel at draft work, they make good riding horses. If you could only own one horse for your small farm, I think this breed would be an excellent choice.

All this is good and fine except there is no market for them now. The few we have sold have returned maybe 30 cent on a dollar. At this point, we are strapped for money to the point that we have shut things down. We gelded our boys, which was a hard thing to do since this is a rare breed.

I still think it is time, past time, we stopped talking and started doing but we need to realize that we are going to be bucking a powerful head wind until things change.

Carolyn said...

Hello JMG,

I've been reading your blog and books for years, but I think this is the first time I've commented. I was wondering whether you enjoy science fiction at all, because I just finished a book I found really fascinating, Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl. It's set in an energy- and resource-scarce future where nearly all energy is produced by muscle power, which comes from calories, which are hard to obtain because many of the world's food crops have gone extinct. An excerpt from Wikipedia:

"The Windup Girl is set in the 23rd century: Global Warming has raised the levels of world's oceans, carbon fuel sources have become depleted, and manually wound springs are used as energy storage devices. Biotechnology is dominant and mega corporations like AgriGen, PurCal and RedStar (called calorie companies) control food production through 'genehacked' seeds, and use bioterrorism, private armies and economic hitmen to create markets for their products. Frequent catastrophes, such as deadly and widespread plagues and illness, caused by genetically modified crops and mutant pests, ravage entire populations. The natural genetic seed stock of the world's plants has been almost completely supplanted by those that are genetically engineered to be sterile."

I don't know if that's your thing or not, but I found it very enjoyable and thought-provoking, so I've been trying to spread the word.

Tom said...

Sorry, John, that old vacuum tube radio is long gone.

I share the Swedish brown beans with lots of folks, giving peanut butter jars full of them as gifts to my children, friends, etc. I even brought some to an Ohkay Owingeh seed exchange last year. They weren't a big draw with the Pueblo people, however. But, my experience is that they are more resistant to the Mexican bean beetle than the Pueblo beans. Go figure.

Kieran O'Neill said...

Thanks for the article on pedal power. It's a point well made.

I can, however, think of one instance where it made sense to use bike generators -- the Ginger Ninjas car-free and off-grid touring band. They've travelled quite far from their native California -- all the way up the West Coast to Vancouver, and all the way down and around rural Mexico, taking all their equipment, instruments and support personnel on long-bed Xtracycle-format cargo bikes. At their gigs, they would hook up a few bikes to generators, and get the crowd to supply the electricity...

It may not be the most practical solution in the longer term, but they're definitely practicing what they preach, and it's good to see that the concept can work in practice.

sekenre said...

@Jason I Really enjoyed your story, thanks for sharing!

GHung said...

JMG: "GHung, that's an option, at least while the economy of abundance still churns out the necessary hardware, but I prefer to look a little further down the track."

I'm with you on that, John. That's the reason I have a collection of things like two nice, big cross-buck saws, a human-powered plow/seed drill, plenty of hand tools including a nice brace'n bit set, saws, hand planes, even a hand pump for the cistern. I'm proficient with all of these things, and well aware of the energy (and blisters) required to use them. Prefering to use these things in times of plenty or as a hobby is also a choice, easy to make under current circumstances.

I also like belt powered stuff. I have a drill press, bench grinder, table saw and my granddaddy's vintage wood lathe, all powered by either an AC or a DC motor; my choice. They could be human powered as well.

Paula said: "Sawing wood by hand takes longer, sure, but it's kind of meditative in a way. I have a feeling that once we all get used to not living the way that we are currently, we might actually learn to like it better. I like building stuff by hand, really by hand, a lot better."

While I agree with the gist of this, Paula assumes she'll have the time and energy. Methinks that, if she has a PV powered saw and an endless list of other chores, she'll choose to "git'er done".

My point (see my comment about throwing out the babies with the bathwater) is that, going forward, especially in what will essentially be a survival situation, any non-human energy slaves remaining and available will free up energy (calories), and time for the endless other tasks required for self-sufficiency. While total reliance on technology to perform any one task is not recommended, using anything at hand to make one's outfit more efficient now will be the order of the day. Small example: I have a nice hand operated coffee mill/grinder. Why use it up when I have two small electric food grinders, easily operated on PV power, which I use to grind herbs, medicinals, etc. (I make great "Ramp Dust", BTW.) One of these is still working fine after 30 years. My mortar and pestle aggravates my arthritis, as do hand sawing, hand drilling, etc. "A man has to know his limitations."

It's a bit like using what fossil energy remains available to build out more appropriate technology. This ain't going to be no party. I'll use (and teach my get to use) whatever is available at the time to gain and keep a sustainable foothold, and plan for when such advantages aren't available.

The blender will be reserved for making apple brandy smoothies. The kids can hand crank the icecream maker :-) (Thanks for the tip on the hand-cranked blender. I want one, just to have!)

One of the Remnant said...

@ Jason H

Excellent story! I'm sure Edward Abbey would have enjoyed it. :)

- Oz

Shiva said...

Another excellent and stimulating post though I took exception to the title "In The World After Abundance". A more appropriate title might be "In The World After Abundance of Easy Energy".

As part of my life I am always trying to redefine language to best suit my purposes and goals. There are many forms of abundance and I think in many ways we will have MORE kinds of abundance after a crash. An abundance of cleaner air and an abundance of quiet for a couple of examples.

I recall a few years back I was camping for the summer in the White Mountains. One night we were sitting by the fire and I was so happy and contented to be in this beautiful place with my loved ones. The sounds of the forest animals and the fire crackling. I thought to myself that there were so many millionaires living in plastic homes surrounded by artificiality and although having far less money at that moment than millionaire, I realized just how abundant I really was.

So yes let us look forward to much more abundance coming our way in the future after the "abundance of energy" is a distant memory!

The Heirloom Troubadour said...

My apologies for not commenting for a while. I have still been around, reading your blog faithfully every week, but the demands of the growing season have eaten away at my internet time as of late. Anyway, it amazes me how dependant people have become – at least in their own minds anyway— on the grid for their basic ability to survive. This week of 90 degree temperatures and high humidity in Central Maryland was a perfect example of this as people appeared to be unable to thrive if not for the modern convenience of air conditioning. One would have thought that I sprouted a second head, and maybe even a set of wings when I told one of my co-workers this week that my house does not have air conditioning installed, but instead relies upon the shade from trees, as well as a low-powered attic fan to draw cooler night air in from outside during the evening. The notion that electricity on demand will always be there, just because in the very short span of modern history it always has, is a fool's folly indeed.

As I stood in my yard this week, sweating in the sun to install a drip irrigation system to my food garden, I started to think about how fulfilling it truly is to build something with one's hands, without modern electricity-based tools. When the project was complete, and after digging nearly 150' of small trenches with a shovel, the feeling of satisfaction was pretty amazing. The "modern conveniences" of daily industrial life were supposed to make things easier, but in my opinion, instead they muddy the mind and make the body feeble. Doing is the key to both physical and mental fitness, and the quicker folks realize this, I think the easier the transition to a simpler lifestyle will be. You don't need air conditioning or power tools to survive, however, a strong body and a sharp mind can permit one to thrive, even in the event that the electricity grid on which our industrial society hinges becomes unglued.


Bruce The Druid said...

Greetings! I recall reading an article about life in Palm Springs before air conditioning. Since daytime temperatures in the summer could reach 120 degrees, night time temps would still be over a hundred. So the challenge was keeping the heat out. But since most houses still got unbearably hot, the solution was the "submarine"! This was a half tube of wood and sheet metal construction with a bunk inside for a bed. Canvas was then stretched over the roof. A soaker hose was placed on the ridgeline, I believe. A short time before retiring for the evening, the canvas would be drenched in water. As the water evaporated in the desert air, the "submarine" would lose 20 degrees or more, enough to make sleeping comfortable. A second drenching was often needed to keep things cool.
Speaking of the power grid, it should be noted that electrical vaults routinely blow themselves up, the transformers on the power poles (the big bucket things) contain flammable oil, and the cable insulators (the big ceramic jobbers on the cable) collect dust and cause electricity to arc. One simply has to experience the humm and "popping" of a main trunk line.
Finally, perhaps when all the noise of modern civilization has died down people will hear slightly better. Oh by the way, for those still using microwaves, look up ionizing radiation and what it does to your food. What microwaves do best is destroy the nutritional content of your food, much like tv destroys critical thinking in the brain. P.S. Has anyone heard of the SmartGrid? I read a blurb off my Rueters rss. Its supposed to be a hundreds of billions of overhaul of the electrical grid to incorporate more alternative power generation, that will supposedly save us Trillions. Not so sure, but if that's not an admission of the end of abundance, I don't know what is. P.S.S. Margaritas are definitely blended. I am in southern California just a couple hours from Mexico. Last time I was in Tiajuanna they were blended.

Twilight said...

From my front porch I can clearly see the power lines going past our house. Two lines, each a thin twisted pair of copper wires, many decades old and with plenty of splices. Having worked designing products for the electric utility industry for almost 25 years, I have a fair idea what the infrastructure and equipment behind those wires looks like, and just how vulnerable it is. And much of it quite old too. System stability is indeed a big issue, especially with lots of distributed intermittent sources.

Never fear though, as the Smart Grid is coming, and it's going to make all of our technological dreams come true. Thanks to the Smart Grid we'll soon all have solar panels and wind turbines and grid ties plug-in hybrid EVs and networked appliances turning on and off at the optimum times. And thanks to the Smart Grid technology, we'll be able to smooth out all the peaks and dips so we can use almost 100% of our existing capacity all the time without having to invest in new generation. Remember that efficiency vs. resiliency trade off?

Except that's not happening, at least nowhere near as fast as proponents seem to think, and not all of the ideas will even work. Smart Grid is basically an incantation, magic words used to ward off unpleasant thoughts of having to live with less energy. Of course for many it's just a way to siphon public funds into private accounts. What will happen is that the resources to maintain that grid infrastructure, even as it is, will go away. There will be less to go around, and more of it will go towards increasingly expensive input energy, leaving less for maintenance. Someday another of those trees they stopped trimming will fall, and no one will come to fix this old dead end line on our little road – they'll just cut the wires and keep the main branch on.

Interestingly enough I'm almost finished dismantling our old oil fired heat and hot water system, and I'm installing a standard electric hot water heater. Basically I have no confidence in the future availability of any of the existing energy sources, so I'm going for minimum up front investment – for $400 I can have hot water for a few more years while the grid still works, and hopefully put my real effort into solar and/or wood fired hot water pre-heater.

Glyn said...

Another good post John! I do look forward to reading your and Dmitry's thoughts and it's interesting to hear how the old farms used to be.

It's more a shortish-term carry forward than a long term tool but has anyone here considered the prospect of one of those '$100 One Laptop Per Child' laptops, like they're mass-producing for poor countries? The blurb about them alleges they're more rugged and longer lasting than normal laptops with a 5-8W power consumption, falling to 1W in the upcoming model. Apparently they have "a sunlight readable display so that it can be used outside. It has no moving parts, can be powered by solar, foot-pump or pull-string powered chargers and is housed in a waterproof case." You can't buy them new at the moment but second hand ones are on eBay and others have made means for making them pedal powered:$100-laptop-powered-by-pedalling

Brad said...

I know engineers and I'm no engineer--so here's my practical question: Is battery construction likely to be continuing in the de-industrial future? If so, does this make some level of PV or other charging mechanisms less of a short term investment?

LewisLucanBooks said...

@ jb - Learning the basics of, say, woodworking or electricity. Someone asked the same question over on Kunstler's blog, today. Children's books! Either from your library or local thrift store.

Solar powered whatever. Amazon! I'm dumping my electric dryers (gave me the willies every time I plugged them in). But here in the Pacific NW, we can't always depend on good weather when it's time to dry things. I'm looking at small solar powered fans to increase the efficiency of my dryer.

@ z Saw a pedal powered washing machine somewhere on YouTube in the last two weeks.

@ MJG Re: The Decline and Fall of practically everything. I think it was your book (or was it Orlov? Or maybe, Kunstler) that said the coming years will be like a film running backwards. First, in the rural areas, the power will become unavailable. The roads allowed to lapse back to gravel. All ready happening in many areas. The last served will be the first to go.

I've used that term, posting to other blogs. Like a film running backwards. Here, over the last 15 years or so, we're having terrible problems with floods. Some rural bridges, serving small populations of people are on their third replacement. The County is darn near broke and the State on it's uppers. These replacements can't last much longer.

One of the Remnant said...

@ JB

If you really are looking to start from scratch, you might consider picking up some kits targeted at inquisitive school age wannabe engineers - some links:

The latter has some electrical and electronics kits that include numerous projects/experiments. These would give you the basics - and the principles should scale nicely into 'real' solar projects you might consider, especially if you are gonna stick with DC.

- Oz

sgage said...

@ rylan,

What breed were you working with?

I'm a Percheron guy, myself, but I've seen a lot of interest around here (Northern New England) in Suffolks, and know a lot of Suffolk people. Also a lot of Halflingers.

Sololeum said...

G'Day Folks,

"this sort of propaganda dolled up in scientific drag will most likely continue to be standard practice until the money and other resources for grandiose projects simply aren’t there any more."

John is right, the "Powers that be" will continue to destroy the earth until the lights go out.

Since food and heat are the only real problems during a power down, it would make sense to concentrate on getting a resilient form of agriculture up and running in your area. Soils in European rotational agriculture using animal power have found to have 7 times the water absorbtion of Monsantos "Zero Til".
"In a comparison of Amish horse powered agriculture to conventional no-till practices in Holmes County, Ohio, water infiltration rates were approximately seven times higher in the Amish system. There was also little erosion or rue-off recorded. Researchers concluded from the nine ~year case study of farming practices in Pennsylvania mentioned above that when all resource costs associated with soil erosion are included, resource-conserving practices outperform conventional approaches by almost a two-to-one margin in net economic value per acre."

Its time to link up with Tillers International get some training and start old fashioned farming. Apparently you can rent land pretty cheap up in the New England as the old dairy farms have gone bust.

Kieran O'Neill said...

@Paula, or there's the pedal-powered table saw option.

Note the sage advice of its maker, however: "you will always want to keep a sharp saw blade in the saw at all times, else you will run the risk of overheating the power supply and causing it to stop".

For control, etc, I would suspect that a table saw with appropriately set up jigs is likely to give you much cleaner and more precise cuts than a handsaw.

For meditative woodworking, traditional Japanese carpentry is pretty sophisticated, and might be a good place to look for techniques.

sofistek said...

Great start, JMG. I'm often arguing with those, even greenies, who think that they have to figure out a way to keep everything going, more or less, as it is - with the greenies arguing for renewable ways of doing that.

However, I was a bit surprised at what you think is the right question to ask, “How much electricity can we count on having in a future after fossil fuels, and what are the best ways to produce, distribute, and use it?”. Just before I read that, I was thinking the question was going to be something like, "What kind of society makes sense in the reality of a resource constrained world with an environment that has limited ability to harmlessly absorb our waste, and what kind of energy would we need to make that society liveable?".

Having said that, your subsequent paragraphs were probably not far off answering that latter question.

On a related note, have you looked at The Venus Project? I haven't looked at it in detail but came across it whilst watching the Zeitgeist movies. The claims made seem outrageous to me, full of assumptions, and probably doomed to failure, even if the movement could garner enough support to effectively overthrow governments. It seems to be the ultimate technotopian fantasy - technology can deliver a sustainable world whilst everyone sits around playing instruments or painting pictures, in between their 4000 mph trips to far off places.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hey Ghung,

I checked out the photo's. Nice work.

With the microwave, I was thinking more in terms of people using it for half an hour cooking rice. Running it for a minute or two has no impact on power useage at all.

Having said that though, I only leave a few items switched on standby because they are performing a useful function.



Cherokee Organics said...


As you point out, there are plenty of people out there making their own solar panels out of the scraps of the solar PV production process. They're ingenious and it will also provide a useful skill in being able to repair existing solar PV panels should they ever need it.

As part of the series I'm writing, I'm specifically excluding soldering because a lot of people don't have the skill or access to either the iron or the solder. As I said it's aimed at low tech users wanting to put together a small power supply.



Greg Reynolds @ Riverbend said...

The problem is that even with $10 a gallon gasoline (ONO) my '40 Farmall H does a lot more work than a team of horses and I don't have to feed and water it all winter. I just got in from plowing up an 8 acre field that is getting planted to soybeans and sorghum for a green manure crop for next year's vegetables.

Horses make a lot of sense, but are a lot of work to maintain. My Dad worked for 10 cents per day in the age when gas was 15 cents per gallon and tractors were replacing horses.

Muscle power is not cheap and at a time when cheapness is the only thing that is valued, it is a hard sell. Add in a liveable wage and it makes no sense whatsoever. Bring on the pedal powered potato digger. I'd like to see that!

You're right that we are living way beyond our means. But why not take advantage of the resources that are being wasted to make our lives more resiliant and sustainable ?

That is a bit of a rhetorical question, but not completely. i think that you are on the right track and are writing about important issues, but we all have to live in the world as it is. How do we bridge the gap to what will be ?

One of our next projects is a pedal powered barrel washer. It still relies on grid electricity for the water...


astrogoat2 said...

Athens Industries in Liberty, KY, makes a one and two horse treadmill that can run any small piece of stationary equipment found on a small farm including milk pumps, grain mills, hammer mills, hay elevators, buzz saws for cutting limb wood, wood splitters, pumps for pumping water from deep wells, refrigeration units for milk coolers or a house hold refrigerators as well as washing machines. These treadmills are modern and well built. As to the advantage of horses over tractors, just remember, tractors require more the fuel, they need parts that most of us can't manufacture, batteries and tires. Horses require hoof care, some vet care and they replace themselves. I sold both of my tractors last year and replaced them with a team of Suffolk Punch drafts and have never looked back. The Archdruid is right, decentralized power is the future not the grid that exists today. It will be gone sooner rather than later.

John Michael Greer said...

Ghung, thanks for the links and suggestions!

William, the difference between opportunity and crisis is usually a bit of advance preparation. A word to the wise is sufficient...

Rylan, it's unfortunate, but that sort of thing is going to happen quite a bit. This is one of the reasons I encourage people to start small, and work up from there as resources and opportunities permit.

Carolyn, thanks for the recommendation! I stopped enjoying science fiction about the time that cyberpunk became fashionable -- still love the older stuff, even though I don't believe in the myth of human destiny central to most of it -- but I'll consider trying Bacigalupi's book.

Tom, delighted to hear about the beans. An heirloom breed like that will still be feeding people centuries after the last molecules of the radio have gone their separate ways.

Kieran, oh, granted, there will be specialized applications for pedal powered electricity, and rock concerts are one of them! It occurs to me that if you could come up with some kind of treadle device to pick up power from all of the listeners tapping their feet and moving to the music, you could build a rock venue that would require no outside power.

Ghung, of course -- there's no one toolkit for everybody, and you have to figure out what works best for you.

Shiva, understood, but so often people use that sort of language to try to wriggle out from under the painful side of the future ahead of us -- and there will be a lot of pain in it, a lot of loss and limitation and harshness. I feel it's crucial to acknowledge that, and face up to the number of hopes and dreams that are going to die ugly deaths in the years immediately ahead of us.

Bobby, no argument there. It was nearly as sweltering up here in the mountains of western Maryland, and though I don't mention to our neighbors that we don't use air conditioning -- they already think we're weird because we don't drive -- we did just fine without.

Bruce, no question, the constant noise of industrial society is one of the things I'll miss least.

Twilight, excellent! Yes, the words "smart grid" are an incantation, and not even a very effective one. Effective magic demands a clear sense of the boundaries and connections between the planes; when you try to use incantation, unsupported by physical plane action, to deal with a problem that has deep roots on the physical plane, you're not going to get far.

Glyn, as a short term option, it might be worth trying, yes.

Brad, batteries are easy -- all you need are two different metals, a mild acid electrolyte, and a watertight container, and you've got current. Alessandro Volta made batteries in 1800, and there are some odd jars with iron and copper in them dating from 2nd century AD Mesopotamia that have been claimed, plausibly enough, as very early batteries, perhaps used for electroplating. They'll be around for the long term, so long as the knowledge necessary to make them gets preserved.

idiotgrrl said...

Passive solar greenhouses actually in use - no supplemental heat or electricity required.

Ruben said...

A comment about how rural areas will lose the electrical grid first reminded me of a beef I have.

It may be especially noticeable to me, as I live on the West Coast of BC--so I am familiar with the ferry system and some of "the North". I put that in quotes because Northern BC starts about halfway up, and that is before we even start talking about the Yukon.

Anyhow, the current narratives are that the ferry system is part of the highway system, and so we should be able to ferry as freely as we drive. Another narrative is that you should be able to have everything in the smallest, most remote town you can get in the metropolis.

I think we need a narrative of choices. I choose to live on an island, and I understand that comes with trade-offs, like restrictions on my mobility. I choose to live in the north, and that comes with trade-offs. I get to spend more time with bears and caribou, and less time with top cancer wards.

I often think about how, just 150 years ago, if you emigrated from Europe to Canada you would expect to never see your family again. Now we feel it is our god-given right to fly back whenever we feel like it. I know a woman whose mother flew across the continent because she had a cold.

So, I think one of the things we will need most critically, in a time of descent, is stories that explain why what is happening to us makes sense.

Zach said...


Its time to link up with Tillers International get some training and start old fashioned farming.

Tillers International is an excellent resource -- my only issue with them is figuring out how to free up the time and the resources from my business-as-usual treadmill I'm on to get to their classes... oh, and finding one of those farms to rent locally. :-/

I once mentioned to my father (a conventional farmer in Ohio) a study showing that the Amish farms were some of the most profitable per-acre in the State. His immediate retort: "Sure -- because they're not spending all their money on fuel!" I imagine he'll retire before he changes his ways and buys a team... but maybe he won't think I'm entirely nuts if and when I am able to get horses for myself.


John Michael Greer said...

Lewis, my working guess is that the next decade is going to see much of the peripheral infrastructure in the US collapse completely. Rural roads and utilities are already on the chopping block; when poor urban neighborhoods start losing water and power -- not officially, you understand, it's just that repairs don't get made -- then the writing's on the wall.

Sololeum, that's certainly one option. Most of the people I'm in touch with don't have the money to rent farmland, and haven't got the skills to farm it -- yet. That's why I'm concentrating on intensive gardening on a backyard scale for now, using methods that are even more effective at building and preserving soil fertility.

Sofistek, very good. You're quite right that the question I brought up was simply a subset of the much broader question you pose. As for the Venus Project, it's well named -- they obviously don't live on the same planet as the rest of us. If they're honest, they're delusional; if they're not, it's one of the most cynical bits of political manipulation I've seen in a long time; either way, the chance that they'll follow through on those glowing promises makes a snowball in Beelzebub's back yard look like a good long term investment.

Chris, here in the US you can pick up a soldering iron and solder suitable for electrical work at any hardware store for maybe $15, and it's an easy skill to pick up -- I'm not particularly deft with my hands, and I had no trouble building a regenerative receiver as my first project after nearly a 30 year hiatus. Still, availability may be more of an issue down your way.

Greg, it all depends on what your situation is right now, and what you hope to do with it. If I had significant acreage, I'd probably have an old tractor in the barn, though I'd also be putting time into learning how to handle horses on the assumption that fuel might price itself out of my reach in a hurry, with little warning. That's the problem with using a temporary abundance of resources; if you get dependent on them -- and it's hard not to do so -- that can kill you, in the most literal of senses.

rbtp said...

Recently, I've become facinated with aquaponics as a way to produce fish and veggies in small spaces with fish food as the only input. Ok, not the only input, it needs energy to move the water and/or air to keep the fish and plants alive. A backup energy source is essential.

There seem to be lots of good ideas being kicked around, so I'm hoping for suggestions on keeping a system running 24/7, with redundancy.

JMG- I'm interested to hear your thoughts on aquaponics as a food production system as well as its viability after the lights go out.

Thanks for the consistently thoughtful posts.

Ruben said...

Excellent article on EROI.

The Tyee – How Fish Use Energy Teaches True Oil Economics

Rialian said...

===Thank you for the reminder on the windmills...I just did a search, and dropped a promising lead a line ot see how well one might work with my current system. ( for those interested )

RichardMitnick said...

I am just interested to know if you know John McPhee's "Encounters With the Archdruid", about David Brower.

Glenn in Maine said...

This concept dovetails neatly with one you raised a long time ago concerning cultural triage and salvaging abandoned appropriate technology. One practical manifestation that I applied a long time ago is using key wound clocks instead of battery or electric. I have antique two mantle clocks, one wall clock and two night stand alarm clocks, along with three antique pocket watches and one wrist watch. They keep reasonable time and provide a pleasing white noise (can’t beat that classic tick-tock). The total electrical savings is probably small, but over time (and in conjunction with other similar applications like hand tools, kitchen gadgets etc), it adds up.

hawlkeye said...

I’m one of y’all who’s been beating the wizard drum for a long time, while everyone else dances to the petroleum piper. Of course, since that’s the background noise for us all, the challenge, as many have highlighted in this thread, is living in both worlds; making a living while also preparing for the afterlife: after everyone’s done making a killing.

And while most people are clueless behind the curve, my heart goes out to those who got a bit too far ahead, like our friend here with the prematurely postponed draft horse plan. In 5-10 years he’ll have a waiting list, but how to maintain preparations for the future local economies by paying for them in this current subsidized insanity? (oh yes, and please DO tell us the breed; Connemara’s?)

When folks ask me what tools they should own to live more sustainably, they think I’m going to say, “cross-cut saw” “scythe” and “donkey carts” and you should see the faces drop on the Prius purists when I say “chainsaw” “weed whacker” and “pick-up truck”. Huh? Well, of course, eventually you’re going to need the hand tools, and now’s a good time to collect them, perhaps practice a bit, but forget about actually using them to get any work (or income) done now. The game is still played for a while yet on oil-can rules.

Simply put, in order to have the time to do both, we must use the time-saver tools while we can. When someone can thin the woodlot and buck rounds with the chainsaw, mow the cover crop quickly with the string trimmer, and haul yet another load of manure to the compost yard, then I consider them to be far more prepared for doing all of it with hand tools, than they would be by placing some antique object de art found at some yard sale on a basement shelf and calling it “ready”. No blisters, no progress. Or, uh, adaptability, that’s it.

But if you live in the woods and don’t heat with it, live next to horses and don’t collect the fertility, or insist on a manicured lawn with tight edges, then these tools are indeed tools of the industrial empire.

Ultimately, any tool is only as good as the heart and hands behind it (and that goes for guns, too, although I suspect I should not go there out of respect for the druid’s turf). “Environmentalists” hate the bulldozer as a symbol of rapacious destruction, and lord knows examples abound. But in the hands of an old master, it can carve a perfect pond, setting the stage for many years of reinhabitory wisdom to take root downstream.

I love how an old Indian guy framed it for me a long time ago; you’ve got to lash two canoes together for this ride. In one of them, you’ve got your computer, your grid, your grocery store, and how you figure on paying for all that modern lifestyle.

And in the other canoe, your seeds, your hand tools, your skills at using them, and all the things you suspect might come in handy some day.

And while it might be difficult and cumbersome to stock and navigate that craft, there will soon be a wild set of rapids just before a fork in the river. That’s when you cut the lashings and hop in the “future canoe” and do your best to ride it out.

Even the best paddler can flip their boat; no amount of any provision is a guarantee of safe arrival. But when the roar of the rapids is behind us, we’ll be well-prepared to make a decent camp. And that’s the best we can hope for.

Because plenty of folks will take the wrong fork, and have useless stuff in their boats.

divelly said...

The Margarita is shaken.It can be served on the rocks or up.A blended is a Frozen Margarita.

One of the Remnant said...

Re: All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace

Found this on youtube for those interested:

Unfortunately, the film-makers create a straw man out of the 'limits to growth' approach, and seem to intentionally obfuscate the notion of the 'balance of nature' - also made into a straw man.

It's hard to say if the film's makers are consciously disingenuous, or if they are simply misunderstanding the various concepts they are presenting and mis-explaining them as a result, in their eagerness to make their points.

As an example, they present the ecological notion of a balance of nature as implying a static, unchanging, rigid state - and claim that evidence of dynamism in nature (e.g. the fact that moose and wolf populations do not graph out in straight lines, but rather fluctuate) refutes the entire notion of a natural balance. Either the notions of dynamic equilibrium and homeostasis are beyond their grasp, or they've intentionally omitted them.

They go even further, and insist at one point that nature - far from being characterized by balance, is in fact characterized by "chaotic instability" and that this means that self-organization - of natural systems including human systems aimed at achieving egalitarianism - is an unworkable myth.

They also make much of the idea that the limits to growth study treated humans as mere 'machines' in the systems models, and couple this to some wacky techno-hippie manifesto about rabbits and computers living together in nature in harmony as though these were equivalent concepts.

They also point out instances of over-reach among systems modeling ecologists and imply that those instances 'disprove' the entire approach of systems modeling, and that in fact systems theory has therefore been totally discredited in modern ecological circles. This is a method of criticism that seems very reminiscent of the dishonest critiques of the limits to growth study itself back in the 70s. It is also quite interesting, inasmuch as recent analyses of the limits to growth study show that we are right on track (ex: with many of its assertions.

In sum, the film seems willing to bend the facts and to use semantic tricks to make its point.

It's too bad, because they do raise some thought-provoking points along the way which deserve to be explored honestly.

- Oz

One of the Remnant said...

@ rbtp

I recently attended an aquaponics workshop, and I agree with you that this is a fascinating approach to food production in small spaces. Protein and veggies in one quasi-closed system - a nicely elegant engineering solution.

As you note, the 'quasi' is the problem - aside from fish food (which could potentially be grown as a part of the system), you need to pump the water from the tank through the growing bed, and that function needs to be ultra-reliable (even a relatively short downtime for the pump and the fish can die).

A couple of weeks ago JMG mentioned the Seebeck effect for generating thermoelectric power, and there was some discussion in the comments. So while I was at the aquaponics workshop, I was wondering if it would be possible to power a pump via a thermoelectric generator. Typical fish tank pumps are pretty low energy consumers - 5W or so IIRC - so seems that this might be a good application.

Perhaps others in the community here who have specific knowledge in this regard could comment on the feasibility of this scheme?

- Oz

One of the Remnant said...

@ hawlkeye

Your canoe analogy is one of the best, most clarifying, most useful, that I have encountered. Thanks so much for sharing that.

- Oz

Craig said...

Well said. Perhaps one day common sense and practicality will become valued once again.

Bill said...

Could you talk a bit about the difference between a short sighted view of personal change that involves financial costs as opposed to long sighted views that involve quality of life for future generations? How can we re-frame our mindsets to shift from sacrifice and compromise to farsighted appropriate change? What would prompt one indoctrinated to a capitalistic lifestyle where every choice is governed by "the cost of" to how will future generations fare by the choices I make today?

David said...

Thanks for the post JMG. Had a bit of a dry run this week, when a couple of crows took out an overhead power cable.

It seems a bit off topic, but could I briefly defend Adam Curtis' Machines of Loving Grace?

The theme that runs through his work is Power: who seems to have it, and who really does have it?

He's not attacking Limits to Growth, or Systems Analysis, or whatever, but rather the way that these ideas are hijacked by the powerful to consolidate their power.

Theories of the Balance of Nature can be used to maintain the status quo, at the expense of the poor. Theories about networks and systems can be used to give the illusion of democracy, while more power quietly shifts to the rich.

I'll understand if you've had more than enough television critics in the comments this week.

Twilight said...

@ hawlkeye - I agree! I love hand tools and there are many tasks for which I use them and for which they are superior. And there are quite a few absolutely gratuitously ridiculous power tools out there anyway. But one thing I figured out a while ago is that if you want to live in a world made by hand using only the tools and techniques of our forebears, then you'd better have the lifestyle, family and social arrangements and knowledge and skills they had too.

You can't be working at and commuting to a 40hr a week job, and living in an isolated nuclear family while you try to learn it out of a book and survive that way.

So collect the tools and cultivate the skills, keep and eye on the storm clouds, and move in the directions we'll all need to go - but we will live in a time of transition, so we'll still need some of the tools and skills of the old world too. Also, it turns out that many of the tools I would like to buy are rather expensive, and the time available for flea markets and such is very limited, so there are limits as to how many things I won't need soon I can actually buy.

So for now I the tools I use will be a hodgepodge of the very old, the sort-of old, and even some new. Life's a compromise and you've got to be able to adapt.

John Michael Greer said...

Astrogoat, I suspect it'll vary from place to place, but I'm guessing that fifty years from now there will be very few power grids in North America -- and a lot of draft horses.

Grrl, passive solar greenhouses have been in use for many decades! It's about as mature a technology as we've got.

Ruben, I call that one the narrative of entitlement. It's very common these days, and I have a persistent sense it's going to cause a lot of corpses.

Rbtp, I think it's doable, though you'd have to be careful not to get caught using a level of technology for the pumps that you can't replace or repair yourself. Might be worth experimenting with species such as carp, who don't need heavily oxygenated water.

Ruben, thanks for the link!

Rialian, you're welcome.

Richard, I've heard of it but haven't read it. Ironically, when The Archdruid Report first started attracting attention, a lot of people thought that that's where the name came from. Not so; "archdruid" is my job title, as head of one of the dozen or so Druid orders in America.

Glenn, it's the same concept! This blog is basically exploring a single structure of ideas from a variety of different standpoints; those who have been reading for a while, as you have, will be noticing a lot of the same concepts coming up again and again in different ways.

Hawlkeye, that's a highly useful metaphor.

Divelly, hmm. I think we're dealing with a theological debate at this point. (How many angels can dance on the head of a Guinness?)

Remnant, thanks for the review.

Craig, one can hope! Thank you.

Bill, er, I've been talking about that in this blog for the last five years. The crucial point is to start by changing your own attitude and your own life.

David, well, since I haven't watched television since the late 1970s, and found most of it stunningly dull and propagandistic even then, most of that conversation has gone right over my head.

A.K. McKay said...

I grew up in New Zealand, and as a student trying to save money we normally tried our clothes outside on the line, or of the weather was not agreeable on racks inside. The electric dryer was very rarely used, if at all.

I was quite appalled when I moved to Vancouver to see the lack of clothes lines in peoples back yards that could easily have them. Loads and loads of washing are put into the electric dryer every week, and towels normally take 1.5 to 2 hours to dry at full heat.

Today, for probably the same price or less as it costs for one load of washing I tied some paracord from the back fence onto the house. The light clothes dry in less than an hour, and in full sun the towels maybe take 3-4 hours. It will be interesting to see how this effects our hydro bill in the summer months. I have a feeling the savings will be substantial.



One of the Remnant said...


"Apply the same logic across the board and you end up with the most probable energy system of a world after abundance: a patchwork of different energy sources and applications, right down to the level of the individual household or business."

It took me a couple of days to realize the implications of this statement - which go directly to one of the questions that crops up here a lot, to wit: what sort of skills can be trained up that can guarantee a living in the age of deindustrialization?

Seems like learning the wide ranging skills that will be needed to implement and support such a patchwork would not only be personally useful, but offers a potential career path. It's a pretty sure bet that such skills will be in high demand for some time to come, and the sooner one forges them, the more ready and ahead of the curve when the demand begins.

This also highlights one of the potential advantages of our current grid-based, always-on, all you can eat electrical system: city electrical codes are based on the assumption that this is the only way people will choose to power their homes and businesses.

The introduction of, say, mechanical ways of powering devices, or perhaps even low voltage, battery powered devices, may entirely get around the restrictions that electrical codes represent. In this sense, the field would seem to be wide open to innovation and invention without meddling local bureaucracy getting in the way.

- Oz

Julie Smith said...

Great post, JMG! I would like to suggest that the universe is an abundant place, always has been, and always will be. In reality, it is we who create the idea of scarcity. Perhaps we might call this time the end of materialism or the end of extravagant consumption or the end of 'me, me, me' at the expense of the earth and our fellow travelers.

Our problem, it seems to me, is that we have been so focused on the material dimension to the extent that we have forgotten what is really important. The age-old concept of duality, where I am separate from you and where I have to get mine because there may not be enough to go around, seems to be at the root of much of what we are suffering from.

Reduced to the lowest common denominator, what we suffer from is a low level of consciousness. If we were to suddenly change our level of awareness, we would see some dramatic shifting of resources from those who have much to those who have little, because when you realize that we are all connected, there is no separation. If you are suffering, I am suffering.

I don't see that happening anytime soon, but the possibility does exist.

Cathy McGuire said...

Loved reading the post and the comments... a book I'm reading now (in between all the gardening) is "Conversations with (Oregon) Pioneer Women", transcribed from 1920's interviews. If that doesn't make clear the incredible changes in the past 160 years...!!! It's really amazing to read... and I'm getting some good hints about making do!

rylan said...

@ sgage

The breed of horse is the Canadian. We have a neighbor with a big Percheron mare that looks somewhat like our Canadian's only half again bigger. We have a web site that is way out of date but might be of interest.

Houyhnhnm said...


Like sgage, I too want to know what breed of horse.


Thanks for the info on the treadmill.

For anyone else who’s interested, here’s a YouTube video:


John Michael Greer said...

Andy, North Americans waste a lot of energy. Using dryers when the sun's shining is part of it -- and good for you for making changes in your own life in response.

Remnant, good! Yes, and we'll be talking about that in the not too distant future.

Julie, I'm familiar with the philosophy you've brought up here, and with some of the reasons why it's so popular nowadays. Just now, though, at this turn of history's wheel, I've come to think that it misstates some of the most important features of the universe of our experience. Do we create the idea of scarcity? Tell that to the young robin who hatched and fledged outside my study window; he was the only survivor of three nestlings, because there wasn't enough food to go around during a cold and rainy spring, and now he's been driven off the territory by Mom (a feral cat got Dad a month ago) because that's the way robins deal with the hard limits of resource scarcity.

The universe contains some things in abundance and some things in very limited supply. Right now, seven billion people depend for their survival on some of the things that are in short supply, and they're using them at a rate that will guarantee that in the not too distant future, there will be a lot less than seven billion people on this planet. Distributing real wealth more evenly won't stop that -- remember that a very large fraction of the "wealth" possessed by the so-called rich consists of abstractions with nothing backing them.

Given the predicament that we're in, I think it makes for a wiser philosophy to accept that limits are real, and -- as the old mystery traditions teach -- that accepting the reality of limits is not just good for us but the foundation of all human wisdom. Still, I know that that's an unpopular view these days, and I don't expect a lot of people to embrace it.

Cathy, that sounds like a great resource!

One of the Remnant said...

@ Julie

"The age-old concept of duality, where I am separate from you and where I have to get mine because there may not be enough to go around, seems to be at the root of much of what we are suffering from."

Imagine if Alan Watts' 'The Book' was required reading in public schools! Well, maybe in Butan... ;-)

- Oz

Lloyd Lincoln Clark said...

No Grid. Whether it withers away in fits of disruption and restarts, or crashes wholesale in a cascade of mostly irreparable damage, would seem to make for some important differences in he effect of the loss upon the users. The vulnerability of the enterprise, it appears, derives both from the state of repair of the physical system hardware, as well as from a fostered and pervasive user dependence.

The very engineering of complex interdependent connected system to mitigate the risk of local disruption compounds the probability of larger scale failure. The appropriate solution to this problem is to prepare for disruption at the most local scale possible - at the level of the individual user. The more users who can tolerate an intermittent electric grid and the longer they can manage without, the more resilient the system will be overall and the longer it might remain at least partially functional. With some luck we may enjoy the relative ease of a managed and gradual diminishing of electric grid function rather than a chaotic journey through the punctuated equilibria of a system reacting to crisis, or the harsh reality of a rapid and permanent cessation of service.

Though experience is gained of necessity when electric service is interrupted - I'm thinking that, excepting the off-grid pioneers among the readership, planned practice of the contingency for the purpose of noting weakness would be a wizardly-worthy enterprise.

Edward said...

I agree about the necessity of change on the level of individual lifestyles. The prospect of scarcity in the future gives an urgency to it, but many of the changes would be good for us in so many ways even in the times of plenty. There is something that is just wrong about living fat, dumb and with the illusion of happiness. Even before the focus on peak everything it seems, thoughtful people were questioning the emptiness of endless consumption.

One of my favorites of the ancient stoics is Epictetus. In his slim volume, the Enchiridion, he brings home the point of worrying about the things you can control. One can not control the actions or the attitudes of others, especially when they don't want to change. Unfortunately for some of us, those others who don't want to change are our own family members or others who are close to us. This leads to some difficult moments even in the times of plenty.

One finds oneself trying to be thrifty, simplify, and use less, while those in the same household just don't get it. What's going to happen when times get really hard? I can see the work and preparations of an individual becoming overwhelmed by those close to him.

Consider this scenario: We become increasingly independent in our own food production and manage to get by from the fruits of our labor and our foresight. Now what are we to do if our teenager invites hungry friends over for a meal. This could quickly turn into something that is unsustainable. These are people who we care about and it would be hard to refuse them. This is probably as likely or even more likely than the scenario of roaming bandits.

One person or one family doing well among others who failed to adapt is going to lead to lots of unpleasant situations. This may tie into the advice to include community building in our preparations. It is making me ask myself some hard questions about my values. And I suppose that this is related to the spiritual preparations that were mentioned.

Julie Smith said...

JMG, I'm certainly not disagreeing with what you're saying here, and I don't believe in the notion of just wishing for something and it magically appears nor am I talking about the current popular beliefs that are pedaled around as abundance Christianity and books like The Secret.

I'm talking about a deeper level of consciousness. The outer world is always a reflection of the cumulative consciousness of humanity. Nature suffers because of our choices. Everything is affected by our level of development and consciousness from weather patterns to seismic activity. Our current level of consciousness has gotten us into our current experience and I believe that we reap what we sow. I also think that by experiencing scarcity we have the opportunity to learn just what happens when we live out of balance with nature. Scarcity is a great motivator. I do believe that there are motivations higher on the consciousness level, however, than scarcity. My hope is that some day humanity may aspire to find out just exactly what that looks like.

John Michael Greer said...

Lloyd, very well put. The exercise of doing without electricity for a day, or longer, is indeed worth trying.

Edward, good. You're grappling with some of the issues that matter.

Julie, no, I didn't think you were simply parroting The Secret. Still, I'm not at all sure the frankly extreme anthropocentricity of the worldview you're proposing will be helpful in coming to grips with a future in which, as I see it, the great mental challenge we face is coming to terms with the fact that we're not destiny's darlings -- that weather patterns and seismic activity, not to mention petroleum reserves and the laws of thermodynamics, don't care what we think, or what level of consciousness we do or don't achieve. To my mind, it's as unhealthy -- on any level of consciousness -- to think of the universe as a passive mirror of our mental states, as it is to treat the other person in a marriage or other relationship as a passive mirror of our desires and ideas.

Kate said...


Your scenario is one that is already playing out for a significant number of families since the financial collapse began. Increasing numbers of homeless and chronically unemployed families/young people find themselves already in just the position you describe.

What if those teens your child brought home to eat had no home of their own and hadn't eaten in several days? It's a reality not always in some hypothetical future.

This question and others like it are what have me reading this blog. I like the answer of building communities because it's too big a stressor for individual families to bear alone.

Cherokee Organics said...


I find Julie's comments to be quite interesting from a cultural perspective.

Having seen a few natural disasters and their aftermath now, it tells me that nature doesn't really care at all for humans and what they may think. Vast quantities of land can be burnt in a bushfire in a matter of hours and you really don't want to get in the way of that. Nature is the boss and we exist at her whim. We mess with her at our own peril.

I reckon that over the past few decades there has been a shift in our culture from a collective culture to that of an individual response.

What's really interesting is that after a disaster the collective culture reasserts itself (for the majority anyway - there are always a few nefarious individuals).

Some of the commenters worry about hoards of zombies descending on their organic vegie patches (don't forget the fruit trees too!). If you look at the depression era, this never really happened. Historically around these parts anyway, the records indicate that most people were doing it tough (unlike today) and were grateful for any shelter, food or assistance.

The actions of marauding zombies takes a lot of energy and calories which if they're not around makes it pretty hard on them.

I sometimes wonder whether the concerns about marauding zombies are a manifestation of the rise of the individual culture. What do you reckon?

PS: The rise of the individual culture may just be a classic play on the divide and conquer strategy from companies and marketers just trying to sell you stuff. Historically, this ploy gets rolled out time and time again, because it's sucessful for a while at least.

PPS: I with you in not watching TV, what a waste of brain cells and you also benefit by reducing your exposure to marketers!



hawlkeye said...


Some thoughts re: your fine grappling…

I’ve come to the conclusion that “independence in our own food production” is not an individual project, despite the highly personal initiative required as labor and foresight. Right now, we’re easily tricked into thinking this way, because we all are supposed to have our own incomes, our own bank accounts, our own favorite grocery store, etc. But the household economy is not bounded by its own backyard, it weaves among and through all those neighbors.

When those teenagers come over, you absolutely must feed them your very best. After all, by then they’ll be using more than their little thumb muscles on a keypad, and will probably have been helping with the haying all morning, anyway. You want them to be thrilled by your meals, because you want them to feel like they owe you something. And they will, gladly. Manipulation? No, reciprocity. In modern corrals, this has been re-branded “the gift economy” and it’s a real mind-bender for the retail-impaired.

Say you’ve planned on growing all your own potatoes. Of course, you plant a little extra in case the gophers get too many, you know, always build in a little buffer. Barring complete disaster, you could well end up with more spuds than you need, and the surplus is tradable for whatever your neighbors have that you do not; something fished, something hunted, something smuggled by their cousin, etc.

One family doing well by its household economy cannot help but help the others nearby, which alleviates the potential for unpleasant situations. Your neighbors are your allies, your eyes in the night, the ones you can count on to watch your back. They become this through your generosity in feeding them. And vice versa is the whole point. Feed One Another.

And yes, “alleviate” is admittedly far from “removed”. Many a person will become unhinged from their moral bearings and team up with those who never had any to begin with, and all kinds of havoc is entirely likely. Responses will also tug on those same behavioral moorings.

Protecting farm and family from outliers is old business that is simply part of the game we haven’t had to play individually for a long time. Now is the time to ponder the whole package, pack up the smiley face, and start cooking the hybrid neighborhood watch food club. It’s not enough to just know your farmer, you’ve got to LOVE your farmer!

Now for the previous poster wandering around the perimeter with a shotgun, I have only two words: rock salt. For those who want to make a profound, but non-lethal impression, like many Korean shop owners in the LA riots, simply having a sign You Loot We Shoot was enough to keep their storefront windows intact. Similar strategies could well become necessary.

My Buddhist friends cringe at my new definition of compassion: Come to my door in the daytime, you’ll be fed. Come over my fence at night, you’ll be shot. Kinda harsh, yes, as I expect these times to become. Building perimeters of safety wider and wider through the neighborhood is perhaps as significant as building the topsoil upon which it stands.

Perhaps this doesn’t pass as “spiritual preparation” although it may bear greater fruits than much of what passes for a Practice these days; often merely the recantation of personal affirmations of mental safety, and the concurrent expectation that they will become, yes, mirrored by the Universe. Since when did it All work like that? Still a mystery to me…

PS – thanks, Oz!

Julie Smith said...


I really don't think we are saying different things necessarily, but saying them in a different way. I'm certainly not purporting that nature is a passive reflection of our consciousness, but an active one. We are in a dynamic relationship with the earth. Ignoring this is like being married and treating your partner in a bad way, expecting that they will tolerate you forever. I'm not suggesting that we have an anthropomorphic view of things, but that we do realize that the earth responds to polluting our rivers, destroying our forests, and a number of other harmful things we do to the earth, by creating a balancing factor. We pollute our nest, we live with the results.

I do agree with you that this conversation probably does not benefit the majority of folks and that the main task at hand is to just get people to see that the future is not gilded with gold by the hands of the gods and that we really do need to wake up to what is coming down the road.

I do maintain, however, that the universe is infinitely abundant, that that abundance is not for our exploitation, and that we our currently going into an age of scarcity as a result of our extravagance and the exploitation of our natural resources.

A change in consciousness always results in a change of action which then does have an affect on the earth. Otherwise, why should we try to make a difference? If we do not think that the earth will eventually heal itself if we change our destructive treatment of it--then we should just party on until the wheels come off. Or if we didn't think that by educating folks on the effects that are generated by exploiting the earth that they will change their behavior, we wouldn't waste our time. But neither of us believe that or there would be no use in having these conversations.

Nuff said--anyway, thanks for listening. I'm sure we're not as far off as it might seem.

One of the Remnant said...

@ Edward

"One of my favorites of the ancient stoics is Epictetus. In his slim volume, the Enchiridion, he brings home the point of worrying about the things you can control. One can not control the actions or the attitudes of others, especially when they don't want to change. Unfortunately for some of us, those others who don't want to change are our own family members or others who are close to us. This leads to some difficult moments even in the times of plenty. "

Thanks for the pointer - haven't gotten round to Epictetus yet, so will be looking for this on my next used book store trolling expedition. :)

I do want to point out that one of the nuances here is embodied, IMO, in the word 'control.' We do have a civilizational bias toward clinging to an illusion of control, pretty obviously. I found that in trying to push my family and friends to make changes, I ran into the same 'difficult moments' that you describe. That changed when I moved into thinking about influence, rather than control, AND employed (as best I could) Gandhi's notions about non-attachment to results.

As any good Buddhist could tell you, attachment (in the sense of emotionally clinging to) is the heart of suffering - both endured and imposed. Cultivating a sense of non-attachment (which, note, is different than detachment!) tends to free one from the frustrations which arise when one is attached to the change that one desires to see in others, and in my experience this actually leads to greater influence. The subtle trick is, of course, if you go into it with this as the goal, it doesn't work.

I think there is a psychological mechanism at work: the more you are perceived to be 'pushing' a contrarian human (most of us have this trait to some degree - some, like me, in spades!), the less effective you will likely be. If you cease to push, and concentrate on self-cultivation, this often results in movement in the related other. At least, this has been my observation.

And if it doesn't, then this is simply what is, for now, and beyond your 'control.' Console yourself, if that's needed, by realizing that you've done what you could by planting a seed - and you can do little to control the conditions which will determine whether it germinates in some future time or not.

- Oz

One of the Remnant said...

@ Kate

"What if those teens your child brought home to eat had no home of their own and hadn't eaten in several days? It's a reality not always in some hypothetical future.

This question and others like it are what have me reading this blog. I like the answer of building communities..."

Too true. My thought is, if the teens are hungry, a few hours earnest effort in my garden would entitle them to a meal or two.

A fascinating read is Rebecca Solnit's A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster - this goes to Chris' and Edward's points as well - in which she examines what actually happens in communities after disasters (aka disaster sociology).

At one point, she looks at the nuclear scare in the 50s in America, where families were being encouraged by the government (the master fear monger) to build backyard fallout shelters. And so families and communities wrestled with exactly the sorts of questions Edward poses - to only look after one's own, or allow neighbors into the shelter? Here's how she puts it:

"an episode of...The Twilight Zone featured a false alarm in which 'the thin veneer' of civilization was once again ripped away as neighbors became enemies in a scramble for survival" - she then gives other examples of the mainstream perception of 'mob panic' in the face of calamity, yet examination of the facts of the period led one historian to conclude: ""slowly but surely, millions of Americans came to the conclusion that private fallout shelters were morally indefensible." Folks like Dorothy Day led the way in this "collective mulishness" wherein the average Joe and Jane refused to turn their backs on their neighbors - even when they felt their own survival was at stake.

It's not a guarantee by any means, but we do have reams of evidence from studies of disaster sociology which make clear that the notion of 'mob panic' and neighbor-against-neighbor are far less common than the mainstream would have us believe. Cooperation is far more common than competition in such circumstances. Obviously, the more community building that happens prior to, the better.

Worth noting: the instances where this tends NOT to be the case are in societies where the social inequity is vast.

- Oz

One of the Remnant said...

@ hawlkeye

"It’s not enough to just know your farmer, you’ve got to LOVE your farmer!"

Another one for the quotes file! I want this for a bumper sticker but I don't think it will fit on my bike. ;-)

Also, for your cringing Buddhist friends, you might note that the Buddha himself allowed monks the use of staffs (real weapons in the hands of a master) for self defense, and also noted conditions might render it necessary to kill in order to save life. Later Buddhist commentaries (especially in the Mahayana tradition) reversed this teaching, but this would seem to be a case of later Buddhist leaders imposing their own vision in place of the Buddha's (in other words, as is common, the later institutionalization of spiritual teachings invariably distorts them).

I have found that most American Buddhists don't have a very good handle on such discrepancies, because they want to see Buddhism as a unified and inerrant philosophy (a cultural deficit) - despite the fact that the Buddha himself made clear he was a mortal, fallible man and not divine or all-knowing. He stated very clearly: I teach one thing and one thing only: suffering and its end.

(I always wondered if the Buddha was evincing a sense of humor here, since by my count that is two things :)

One of the Brahma Viharas is, after all, equanimity, which is all about balance. It seems to me that in suggesting rock salt, in place of, say, a standard velocity 2 ¾-inch #1 buck shotshell (16 pellet payload), you have found a skillful and equanomous way of expressing the Buddha's teaching. :)

- Oz

Rita said...

I have a friend who worked for Southern California Edison back in the 80s and she also had tales of barely escaped catastrophic failure of the grid. There have been years more of deferred maintenance since then.

The natural gas infrastructure is also aging and failing. A small explosion a couple of years ago near Sacramento, CA (Rancho Cordova) destoyed one home and damaged others. The bigger one in San Bruno last year made it clear that PG & E (or Plunder Graft and Extortion as it is called by some activists) is not spending enough on maintaining and repairing the pipes. In the reverse of the electric grid situation, this will be more a problem for urban areas than rural, since rural areas never were piped for gas and use propane instead. At least this is the case in California.

Back in the 80s I read some of the survialist literature about building and defending your stockade in the woods. A lot of adolescent fantasy of the "they think I'm the weird one for doing this, but they will be sorry when the urban hordes [black gangs] raid the suburbs and leave them raped and dead on the wall-to-wall carpet" variety. The fending off of potential thieves is another reason to prefer medium sized communities (including compact city neighborhoods) to either suburbs or rural retreats. Communities already have police and fire departments with the mission of protecting citizens. Much easier to refocus an existing structure than to put together a committee of vigilance.

Loch said...

The local Electric Cooperative has a hydro-power plant in our neighborhood. The plant was installed in the early '50's. The turbines and generators themselves are original- massive, simple, over-engineered and practically unbreakable.

In the back of the powerhouse lies a scrap-heap of the original control equipment- manual throw switches, mechanical relays, etc. The modern control equipment is all computerized and solid-state.

If we have any collapse of infrastructure, the hydroplant will last about six months, tops before it is useless. If the original control equipment could be re-installed, it could be repaired with available tools and home-made parts, and the plant could be operational for years. Viva computers! (not)

Mary said...

Clearly you feed the visiting teen and feed him well. Gardens are not static things -- they can be enlarged, they need weeding and maintenance. Many hands makes light work. Today you feed the teen; tomorrow he weeds, hoes, etc.

The same can be true within your community. If you have prepared and your neighbor has not, then you feed your neighbors today, help them turn the new garden, teach them how to save seed, how to start seedlings, etc.

Gardening and farming are best done in communities. Your crops may fail; your neighbors may grow extra. And as others wrote -- you raise one thing, the neighbor fishes or hunts something else. You both do better when you can share and barter.

Ah, I've read about the Canadian horse, and seen some pics. As I recall they seemed similar to our Morgan horse (the original type, not the modern ones) which are still to be found at UVM and with backyard breeders in Vermont and Maine. Those two breeds, and the Haflinger, make excellent "double-duty" family horses -- light plowing, carriage and riding horses. Easy keepers, nice temperaments, intelligent, etc...


John Michael Greer said...

Chris, the current American fascination with zombies, vampires, and other dead things has complex and murky roots, but I think a large part of it is a matter of projection. I'll have to do a post on that around October 31 this year.

Hawlkeye, your Buddhist friends need to study their own tradition in more depth. There's a reason why many Buddhist sects in China and Japan were closely associated with the martial arts, and we're not talking about supposedly "nonviolent" martial arts here; the Shaolin temple was a Buddhist monastery, and Zen was extremely popular (and seriously cultivated) among the samurai class straight through the worst part of Japan's violent sengoku jidai period of civil war.

Julie, you know, it's perfectly okay to disagree. You have your vision of the universe and I have mine, and each contains elements that are incompatible with the other; 'nuf said.

Rita, excellent! Two solid points. You're quite right about natural gas pipelines; fracking ought to give us five to ten more years of relatively cheap natural gas, and then the bottom falls out; as costs rise and maintenance basically stops, I expect a lot of fireballs. As for the advantages of small cities and rural towns, which already have the infrastructure for public safety, well, I've settled in a town of 24,000 people, so you've certainly got one vote.

Loch, if you or someone else can arrange to salvage some of that scrap, learn how to build, maintain, and operate switches and relays, and in the process get good at small-scale electrical power operations, you've got a guaranteed job for life once things start unraveling in your neck of the woods.

John Michael Greer said...

Richard (offlist), please don't just post a download link with no explanation! These days a lot of people are rightly suspicious of that sort of thing, and I don't usually put them through.

gordon said...

There is an excellent article at the Energy Bulletin titled Nuclear Fusion: the elusive genie. Read what a nuclear physicist has to say about why we don't have it yet and why we likely never will. He explains it in language anyone can understand.

Don Mason said...

@ Remnant said:

"The introduction of, say, mechanical ways of powering devices, or perhaps even low voltage, battery powered devices, may entirely get around the restrictions that electrical codes represent. In this sense, the field would seem to be wide open to innovation and invention without meddling local bureaucracy getting in the way."

I agree that the current building codes and zoning ordinances - the "meddling local bureaucracy" - are one of our major obstacles to survival.

I served for seven years on a township land use planning commission, and eventually concluded that although the original intent of these laws was to improve our lives, they were ultimately going to get a lot of us killed.

The underlying premise of modern zoning ordinances is that land use conflicts can be resolved or minimized by legally imposing distance (sprawl), and then relying on the free marketplace to resolve the problems of distance by insuring a reliable, unlimited supply of cheap energy.

So perfection in codes and zoning is best represented by the suburbs of America built since WWII: every building must be built to Code, and every building's use must be compatible with the other uses in its zoning district.

It's all neatly according to plan.

And doomed.

Doomed. Doomed. Doomed.

Don Mason said...

@ Hawlkeye

If that "old Indian guy" is still around, tell him thanks for that analogy of the two canoes lashed together.

If I could extend it to help some of the people posting about family members who don't quite get it:

The fact that other family members are not on exactly the same wavelength as you is not necessarily a bad thing.

You have to exist in two worlds - in two canoes - for many years to come - and for most people, one of those canoes is starting to flounder, and the other isn't yet finished being built.

JMG has mentioned that when you grind out the numbers, it often doesn't make economic sense for both individuals of a cohabitating couple (married, domestic partners, whatever) to work in the market economy after analyzing the costs of commuting, eating out, day care, etc.

So you sometimes find one person working a standard 9-5 job while the other person is trying to cobble together the skills needed to build up their household economy.

Since that goes against the current economic culture that believes that everyone should aspire to "a real job", the person trying to do the household economic development is often viewed by the rest of society as being somewhat aberant.

So we sometimes see two canoes lashed together: one canoe named "The Normal One" that is being paddled by the person with "the real job", and the other canoe named "The Strange One" that is paddled by the person trying to develop their household economic base.

Note: If you're reading blogs like this one, then you are probably in the canoe named "The Strange One";-)

But at this point in history, it doesn't hurt at all to have a life partner who fits in really well with the existing economic model while you scramble around trying to patch together something that will function in the future - and like the poster with the Canadian horses, sometimes your experiments won't work out the way that you had hoped.

(A lot of my experiments sure haven't.)

So your more-mainstream partner helps keep you afloat today while you're cobbling together a future; and then as the current economic model gradually (or suddenly) implodes, you can help your partner crawl into the "Strange" canoe, cut the lashings binding you to "Normal", and then both of you can paddle like mad and hope that "Strange" works.

Don Mason said...

Re: Feeding hungry people

Four churches within three blocks of our house in Rockford run soup kitchens and/or food pantries, which attracts large numbers of vagrants from as far away as California.

A church a block away has put out chairs so that the vagrants can relax, since they have put in a long day stealing copper from vacant houses in the neighborhood to get money to buy booze and drugs.

100 feet from them is a community garden, set up by another church, that the bums refuse to work in and is instead growing weeds. (I can't work it because I'm too busy getting our 2 lots into production).

The vagrants' attitude seems to be: "God says to feed the poor. We're poor. So get to work and feed us."

As times get tougher, I expect that I'll be feeding some of my responsible neighbors.

But I'm not feeding those vagrants.

It's like feeding rats.

The churches, of course, disagree - but not a single member of any of those churches lives in our neighborhood and has to live with the problems that these lovely people are causing.

barath said...

I've been thinking lately that it'll be important not only for us to properly prepare for the end of abundance, but also to begin educating the next generation so that they're ready as well.

To that end, I've been wondering about two things, and would be very interested to hear your (collective) thoughts:

1. What might be good projects to get young people (say ages 8-14) started on to help get them immersed in the ways of thinking espoused at this and similar blogs?

2. What might be good books for them to read? (My assumption is that The Long Descent, The Long Emergency, The Party's Over, The Limits to Growth, etc. are a bit too advanced, but they cover the topics I think need to be covered.)

Cherokee Organics said...


I'd very much appreciate that! It took me a while to get why you were so specific about the date... We don't celebrate Halloween here. I've seen people trick or treat, but they are in the minority. There must be some interesting material behind Halloween too.



Donal Lang said...

One of the problems we have is that the debate about alternative technologies is being directed by companies who want to sell 'products', rather that any offer of appropriate solutions which don't make a profit for the inventor or manufacturer. The result is a two-level debate; the do-it-yourselfer who cobbles together a working but often Heath-Robinson-looking device, and the gleaming techno-solution, 'eco-bling', that gets the support of governments, media and loan companies.

I'm not sure what the solution is - perhaps a social enterprise to share and distribute this knowledge, designs, parts and local manufacturers? Maybe a wiki?

What would be good about this is that htese technologies are as relevant to developing countires as westernised ones, and may offer an alternative development path to divert them from the same mistakes we've made.

idiotgrrl said...

I had been racking my brain over how to get up a clothesline, being neither handy nor strong, and what sort and where to put it. A.K. McKay suggested running a paracord from, in my case, the southernmost deck post parallel to the southside neighbor's chain link fence back to my own back fence.

I was about to look up how long that lot is, when I noticed the long-unused folding clothes rack (gotten of Freecycle for hanging monsoon-season jackets on) sitting between the dryer and the recycling bins. Moved to the back yard, it worked a treat.

Another victory in making do with what you have, and for single people in hot dry climates, the clothes rack would probably be adequate. For things you don't want seen, which are probably nylon anyway, the shower rod does very well.

Especially with the sort of cheap 2-clip hangers the stores are often willing to let you carry your purchase out the door still attached to when you go to replace those nylon items.

Julie Smith said...

JMG~Yes, of course, disagreeing is OK. :) I very much appreciate your thoughts and ideas. The world would be rather a dull place if we saw it all from the same perspective!

Glenn said...

How to get young people involved? We've had mixed success. My older children were heavily influenced by their mother, my ex. They want nothing to do with dirt, discomfort or manual labour on the land.

My youngest, whose mother and I have been married for 14 years, has her own patch of garden on our place. She also builds tree houses and requested a row boat for christmas (and will receive it in a few days).

My brother's step son went away to college and "the city" for a couple of years. Came back, contributed his Pell Grants for cabin building materials and got to work in the garden.

I hope in 5 or 10 years as the economy gets rougher that my older children will wake up.

Marrowstone Island

Laney said...

@ Barath
I have a 14 year old daughter, and I'm a youth librarian. The tv has been switched off most of her waking hours since she was born. She's smart, and she reads, so she worries about what our generation is doing to the world she is inheriting. Post apocalyptic fiction is quite popular with young adult readers right now, but she avoids it because she sees those worlds as all too possible. I try to steer her toward historical fiction that incorporates the value of self-sufficiency and the importance of community -- and the two are not mutually exclusive. I'm also helping her build the beginnings of a nonfiction personal library that will serve her well throughout her life.

She showed a real interest in raising chicken, so now there are chickens in our back yard, eggs in our kitchen, and chicken husbandry books in her bookshelf. She saw me knitting and wanted to learn, so I showed her how. Now there are scarves and sweaters in her closet, some quality knitting needles that will last a lifetime in her knitting basket, and basic knitting reference books in her bookshelf. She watched me baking bread and wanted to learn how, so I let her help me until she could do it herself. She' s never asked for anything before, but she says she'd like to have her grandmother's bowl that we mix the dough in. I plan to pass it to her when she has a home of her own. Her dad is building her a recipe box for next Christmas, and all those family recipes she has been learning to cook, as well as the vegetarian ones she has discovered on her own, will go into it. And maybe I'll find her a good book on artisan bread.

This summer I'm building a solar oven, and I'm sure she'll be helping. And then she'll be testing recipes in it. And then I'll be looking for a book on solar cooking for her birthday.

The best advice I was given when she was a toddler was to never rescue her from boredom. We didn't always buy the latest toy (or entertainment system) in a never-ending attempt to keep her amused. We didn't plug in a video while we tried to cook supper. She worked through her boredom, saw us doing interesting stuff, and wanted to join in. And we let her, even it meant that what we were trying to get done took three times as long. It has paid off in a capable, inquisitive young woman.

So, good projects are ones that tie into a young person's interests. Then support that interest, but know when to back off and let her figure things out for herself. Provide quality books as well as experience. And don't make it all about preparing for the fall of the grid. Make it about embracing the reality, rather than just the virtuality, of life.

Same for the books. Figure out what your young person is interested in, fearful of, curious about, and go from there.

rylan said...

@ Julie

What you mean by the universe is an abundant place? If your meaning is more the mental/spiritual ream is full of untapped abundance then that seems likely. However, the physical ream seems to be by its very nature, limited and constrained.

If we look at what is really important, my thinking at the moment anyway, is that we need to embrace and accept that we have a true need to support and maintain our ego. However, we need to understand that how we are presently doing this, for the most part, is horrendously counterproductive if our goal is to live in a peaceful, stable, loving world.

So what I am thinking is that we need to get our ego blows, that this is a basic need. So how do we do it in a healthy way?

An example, buying a pair of pants.

One way to get an ego blow is to go to a big box store and buy it on the cheap. We only need one but on the cheap we can buy several and we can get the big ego blow by self-congratulating ourselves about what a “smart” shopper we are. Of course we are playing a win lose game here with all the negative consequences and karma.

Or, we can buy the one pair we need from a local craftsperson who uses locally grown organic cotton… We gladly pay the full asking price and may even give a tip to show our appreciation for the efforts put forth in our behalf. Here too we can get a big ego blow that I think is inherently both more satisfying and longer lasting.

Stop talking and start doing, horse chores... :)

LewisLucanBooks said...

@ Rita - Natural gas. Every year I kept meaning to call the gas company to disconnect the gas for the summer. $35 a month to keep the pilot light running seemed ... excessive.

Well, I finally got around to disconnecting, as I won't be here next year. The young man told me that if I re-conneted within 12 months, I'd be liable for past service charges. So, it wouldn't have done me any good, anyway.

@ Loch - Our town also has an old hydro-power plant. It dates back a ways. Used to provide all the power. Now it only provides 30%. But it keeps our rates considerably lower than the next town over.

Every once in awhile, someone on our city council starts making noises about selling it off. Then I fire off a letter to the local newspaper and also post on the newspapers forums about the horrors of privatization. Then things quiet down for awhile. It's like they keep testing to see if anyone is paying attention, or if anyone cares.

Any time someone comes by stumping for a city council post, it's the first thing I mention. "Do not sell off our electric utility."

One of the Remnant said...

@ Donal

"One of the problems we have is that the debate about alternative technologies is being directed by companies who want to sell 'products', ..., 'eco-bling', that gets the support of governments, media and loan companies.

I'm not sure what the solution is - perhaps a social enterprise to share and distribute this knowledge, designs, parts and local manufacturers? Maybe a wiki?

What would be good about this is that htese technologies are as relevant to developing countires as westernised ones, and may offer an alternative development path to divert them from the same mistakes we've made."

There are already loads of social enterprise groups which are doing exactly what you suggest already, have been for years o even decades, both here and in the so-called 3rd world - that's a band-aid, not a solution. The problem you are referencing - at its core - is the entire modern socioeconomic - as well as political - system.

The only way to address a systemic problem is with a systemic solution.

Thus, the only "solution" is a complete system redesign - and includes the overturning of the status quo. And since it is way past obvious that the economic-political structures we have been foolish enough to allow to evolve (which are neither capitalist, nor democratic, despite conventional wisdom) will absolutely not tolerate real threats directed at the status quo from within, it will have to be done for us from without, compliments of 'Mam Gaia' - and this is where peak net energy comes in.

It is really the old argument about 'reform' (working within the system to tweak it) vs 'radical' (replacing the system) - it seems abundantly clear that it's far too late for reform, and radical is headed our way, like it or not. Who knew Mother Nature was such a revolutionary??

- Oz

One of the Remnant said...

@ barath

"1. What might be good projects to get young people (say ages 8-14) started on to help get them immersed in the ways of thinking espoused at this and similar blogs?"

In a comment to last week's post, sgage provided this link, which looks very cool:

Targeted to kids starting at 9, up to 17 (day camp down to 4 yrs old). Wish I'd known about this when my kid was at those ages! I woulda sent him every year.

And of course, no reason why a kid should not (with some guidance) be able to setup and tend their own small garden, learn how to perform simple repairs on their bike, do lotsa camping, etc. Heck take 'em to a local farm - let 'em try to milk a cow! Teach them where their food comes from - talk about it while grocery shopping, that kinda thing. There's a zillion things that could be integrated into daily life.

Of course, there is no substitute for modeling behaviors and activities on the part of adults in the child's life. If Mom and/or Dad is/are deeply connected to nature and its rhythms, chances are the kid will lean that way, too.

"2. What might be good books for them to read? (My assumption is that The Long Descent, The Long Emergency, The Party's Over, The Limits to Growth, etc. are a bit too advanced, but they cover the topics I think need to be covered.)"

Much depends on the kid, of course - what would be appropriate for a 14 year old would not be for an 8 year old, or for other 14 year olds, for that matter.

I doubt even most 14 year olds can handle the concepts that underpin the peak oil thesis and make sense of them in a way which would be useful in a practical sense to them. I would be concerned that exposing them would simply result in indoctrination. I see this happening as often with environmental ideologues as with religious ideologues - both are distressing and do the kids a disservice, IMO.

Perhaps better to present them with material which presents low tech in a positive light, and also shows the ecological and social costs which are incurred in providing the 'benefits' of modern industrial society.

IIRC, someone on the green wizards forum started a thread which linked some yesteryear kids books - primers and such...found it:

Many for younger kids but you might take a look.

- Oz

dltrammel said...

Standing in my side yard, looking at the garden I've made this year, and sipping my morning coffee around 6am today, I remembered a desk lamp I had many years ago. It was a car tail light bulb with a transformer base which converted that 120 volt electricity generated miles away with coal, back into 12 volt power.

Seems a better way would be to just use a PV panel and store the voltage in a few batteries in the basement to power that 12 volt lamp.

Since I've managed to cut my electricity use down to the point that in the evening my only light is a 40 watt lamp, a PV system could easily replace that.

(Of course I also have a computer running most of the evening as I work a side job on the Internet. A situation I expect will take care of itself as things wind

Funny as I stood there sipping coffee and enjoying the quiet, my neighbors air conditioner kicked on. Even though the temperature is in the mid 70s, some people will cling to their comforts, blissfully unaware of the coming storm.

Oh and I second JMG's comment, please everyone stop by the Green Wizard's forum and get involved.

jmasters10 said...

We live in a time of excesses. It is time to stop and save some resources for future generations. I try to be frugal and would like to have solar and an on demand hot water heater, but they are expensive and it takes the electrical company time to accept and apply the solar meters.
Also, more people demand more energy. It is time to stop over populating our planet..Much to do!

e3d16e92-8fe1-11e0-93c1-000bcdcb2996 said...

What kind of light bulbs did pre-grid Americans use? Where can one read more about this?

We have solar-charged LED lanterns that we already use a lot. By Ledtronics and d.light.

The latter has several models. I think I'm going to become a distributor. These really light up an area well. You can easily read with them.

And they will make great barter goods.

Shivani in WI

Dennis D said...

My favorite saying regarding power tools is that they let you make mistakes much more quickly. That said, a power tool can be a force multiplier in enabling a single person to do the work of many. My day job is in one of those coal fired power plants, and the numbers that they produce are so large that it is difficult to see how renewables could compete (over 3 million shaft horsepower at the generators, 2200 Mw total output, all produced by burning 1200 tons of coal per hour. This plant runs 24/7, and the units are only off for maintenance. In this environment, the arguments that seem to have the most effect is 1) disaster insurance, where I point out the alternative, if there is a disaster, is moving to a local gymnasium, where they will share their 3'x8' square space surrounded by several hundred other people, and their upset kids. The second argument is that as the price of power rises, a solar setup is giving tax free returns that is not subject to theft by bankers or governments in far off cities. I do practice what I preach, in that my house is self built passive solar, wood heat and gets about half it's power from the sun. I am currently building wind generators to supplement the solar. One other risk factor in addition to the aging infrastructure, is the aging workforce that maintains it. twenty years ago, they could work 16 hours a day for weeks if required, now three days of that schedule would be pushing it, as far as any productivity goes.

One of the Remnant said...

@ Dennis

"as the price of power rises, a solar setup is giving tax free returns that is not subject to theft by bankers or governments in far off cities."

Don't forget the batteries - grid tied systems go down when the grid goes down, turning those solar panels into rather expensive roof weights.

- Oz

sofistek said...

There have been some mentions of solar PV in comments here and I've toyed with the possibility. What has put me off in the past is the need for batteries, which need to be replaced every decade or so. Should I become reliant on that kind of system?

However, I recently came across the claim that the embedded energy in a solar PV system would take up to 50 years to reclaim. If that's right, solar PV would do nothing to reduce our footprint, unless they can last a lot longer than 50 years (provided you, and your family, can get, or refurbish adequately, batteries over that time).

Cherokee Organics said...

Hey grrl,

We use washing horses to dry clothes on over winter. It's 99% relative humidity outside right now, and the clothes dry really well inside in front of a fire box. If you're in a hurry to get them dry you can drape a sheet over them too and leave the front open to the fire box and this toasts the clothes up really quickly.

Hope you sort out a clothes line, because they're pretty handy.



Cherokee Organics said...

Hi jmasters10,

I see that you refer to over population. I hope that you have also not contributed to this problem? I've noticed that there is a certain wealthy section of society now concerned about this issue and note that most of them are hypocrites. I sat through a recent documentary from David Attenborough about this issue and noted that he has two children. It's a good message, but like Al Gore, it lost with him on film flying around in helicopters which also happen to use quite a lot of energy. It smacks of do as I say and not as I do. Be careful with that argument. I haven't contributed to the problem, but most others seem to.



Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Dennis D,

Renewable energy doesn't stand a chance of providing the same amount of base level power that a coal fired power station does. The sun doesn't shine at night, the wind doesn't blow all of the time. Perhaps geothermal, but they're having trouble with that here. Lots of drilling, but not much in the way of results.

Once privitisation happened to the generators, apprentices were laid off or not put on here too. It was a waste of a generation of potential.



G said...

With the possible exception of some remote rural arias I doubt the electric grid will ever be taken offline unless a big disaster strikes. Nor should it be: you mention that just a third of electric power, finds it's way to the user. This might be truth, but that does not necessarily mean the alternative is any better. If every household would create their own energy it could have disastrous local health and environmental effects.

If the grid disappears people will try to get energy by any means necessary: that won't be pretty. As long as their is diesel, they will burn diesel. If that's gone they will burn wood or their old furniture. And that's just for heating alone.

The home creation of energy is less efficient then the mass production of it. A coal-based energy plant might not be the most environmentally nice thing, it's still a lot cleaner then if every-one tapping in to it's output would produce their own co2. Besides, their is a reason we don't want power plants in the neighbourhood of community; getting them in our homes doesn’t seem like an improvement we should applaud.

Getting energy from you're own renewable source would not be a great alternative either: if you have you're own windmill you're going to lose a lot of electricity. Half the time you don't need the energy-output of you're windmill.

And once you need it, their might not be any wind. That's where a global power grid comes in. You give the energy of you're windmill to other people when they need it, and you get if from them, when you need it. (for another example: you don't use light's during the day, but that's the time the electricity originates from you're solar energy source. At the other end of the globe it's night already: you're energy is very welcome there)

Finally: if you look at current developments: globalisation of electric grids increases more, then it decreases, now that we use more alternative energy sources. In Europe, for example, by 2020, 20% of all electricity will be created by renewable energy sources. That has tremendous impact on the grid: renewable energy is less reliable. The cure for this is increasing the amount of powerlines between nations: something that's invested in heavily. You're electric bill will be a lot more expensive in the future, but it will still be there.

Julie Smith said...

@ Rylan

Of course I am talking first of all about the spiritual planes. The old adage, "As above, so below" applies here. My point is that our circumstances on the physical plane are a direct correlation to our condition on the spiritual plane. I'm not talking about specific individuals, but our experience collectively. If we were to change in more subtle realms, or if our spiritual intentions would change, it would change our experience in the physical realm.

For example, if greed were not a major problem in the collective consciousness of our world, we would not be experiencing the rape and plunder of our earth's natural resources. We would not see the exploitation of weaker individuals, there would not be a disparity between the rich and the poor because our actions would reflect our intentions. The abundance that resides in the subtle planes is unlimited. We can call down whatever we choose. It is we who limit it through our own narrow lenses and our tendency to focus on low level stuff.

You can't have this conversation without mentioning the effects of group karma and that when we participate in a group, we experience the effects of that group's karma. This is fairly evident if you live in America right now. We are reaping what we have sown. You can mitigate the effects of that karma by making personal changes, but you won't escape them altogether. JMG has spoken of communities working together to mitigate the effects and I think that his idea illustrates this nicely.

We are in the construction trade and our business has dwindled to almost a trickle. We haven't had a paycheck in over two years and I'm getting very creative with how to live a more sustainable life. I could view this as scarcity. I choose to view it as an abundant opportunity for personal growth and the chance to make needed changes in my own practice and consciousness.

If I view abundance as something as other than material, I can tap into abundance in a more subtle form. Suffering and difficulty are a spiritual path if one chooses to view them in that light.

But even on the physical plane, we can find abundance. The ability of the body to heal itself is one amazing example. The ability of the earth to heal itself is another. We may run out of fuel, have to live in the dark, or fight about many stupid things, but nature will find a way to regenerate itself. I have hopes that we will too :)

z said...

@ Cherokee and JMG: the zombie stereotype may not be all that fast off - Here in Ireland in the 18-19th centuries, we were plagued with one famine after another, at intervals of roughly one per decade, culminating in the great famine of the 1840's. There are stories about gangs of marauders on the hunt for food. Most of them ended up in the hangman's noose if they weren't lucky to be sent to Van Dieman's land.

In the Ukraine in the 1940's during the peak of WWII's desperate times, if you saw smoke coming from someone's chimney, it was a sign that there was a person being boiled up for food.

Notwithstanding that I'm favouring the probability of a long slow decline, fast changes in circumstances can precipitate some nasty situations.

One of the Remnant said...

@ sofistek

"I recently came across the claim that the embedded energy in a solar PV system would take up to 50 years to reclaim."

I posted a comment in last week's - or was it the week before? - comment section that includes a link which conclusively disproves this assertion. Of course, this hasn't stopped this from becoming one of the peak oil movement's urban legends, widely touted, rarely examined in detail.

In essence, the study which "proved" that solar's emergy was that poor was looking at a solar UTILITY (thus, emergy included the solar power plant's concrete structure, ongoing maintenance, work force, etc).

Studies of home solar PV find typical emergy payback in the range of single digits: 3 - 7 years, something like that. Eminently sane.

- Oz

Astrid said...

O.K. on the subjects of clothes lines and trying to get other family members on board with conservation...
When I dry stuff outside it gets hard as cardboard. This is NOT acceptable to the other members of the household, especially when it comes to towels. A visiting houseguest once got a good laugh when he was handed a bath towel that didn't bend :0 Does anyone else have this problem? Any solutions?

One of the Remnant said...

@ Chris

"I see that you refer to over population. I hope that you have also not contributed to this problem?"

In my experience, many if not most people who come to the realization that overpopulation is a serious problem do so only after their child bearing years. Even were it not so, expecting people to deny a biological imperative for the sake of an abstract, intangible future good seems certainly doomed to failure. We're simply not made that way, IMO.

Even China's misguided 'one-child policy' which has been in place for 30 years hasn't done much good in terms of slowing down their contribution (though it has distorted the male-female ratio dangerously), and that was enforced by a totalitarian regime. Part of this is that only about a third of the population was subject to it.

Point is: voluntary choice in this matter won't make any difference. We'll simply have to let the natural world work its characteristic magic in this regard.

- Oz

One of the Remnant said...

@ G

Just out of curiosity, did you even read the blog post this week? The points you are asserting seem almost diametrically opposed to its thrust, and yet you offer no evidence or logic to refute JMG's argument, and further you offer nothing more than opinion to back up your own.

No offense, but as a result of this, I'm having a hard time taking your comment seriously.

- Oz

sofistek said...

Thanks, OZ. Now, I might be tempted to say that you would say that, wouldn't you (about solar PV emergy)? I tend towards your viewpoint but I suspect the true answer is a little worse than you claim, though that would still make me feel better about installing some PV capacity.

I'll see if I can find that link you posted.

sofistek said...


I think this is the link you posted:

Energy Payback of Roof Mounted Photovoltaic Cells

It refers to the a grid-tied system and so does not account for the emergy of batteries and charge controller. It also seems to discard some of the manufacturing energy ("Process steps which are specifically needed for the micro-electronics wafers are disregarded") because of the use of 'waste' materials. There may be other inputs that aren't accounted for either (it was difficult to tell from that paper alone).

However, given the uncertainties, it looks like the energy payback time may be roughly equivalent to the lifetime of a battery. That's a lot better than I feared.

Mind you, I was uneasy at the final sentence, "Thus small-scale roof mounted PV systems have a positive energy payback and are capable of contributing to a sustainable energy future." As the paper didn't seem to address sustainability issues at all, I don't see how the authors could make this claim. Also, we don't know how many such systems can be constructed with the resources we have available (and can be done so sustainably).

One of the Remnant said...

@ Julie

"if greed were not a major problem in the collective consciousness of our world, we would not be experiencing the rape and plunder of our earth's natural resources."

Methinks you've misidentified the root problem. It's not greed (a by-product) - it's violence. Our system of governance is wholly predicated on domination and violence - and it is this, IMO, which leads to the domination and violence we direct against the natural world.

Bookchin's thesis deserves to be more widely considered in the eco-community:

"The notion that man must dominate nature emerges directly from the domination of man by man… But it was not until organic community relation … dissolved into market relationships that the planet itself was reduced to a resource for exploitation. This centuries-long tendency finds its most exacerbating development in modern capitalism. Owing to its inherently competitive nature, bourgeois society not only pits humans against each other, it also pits the mass of humanity against the natural world. Just as men are converted into commodities, so every aspect of nature is converted into a commodity, a resource to be manufactured and merchandised wantonly. … The plundering of the human spirit by the market place is paralleled by the plundering of the earth by capital."

Frederick Bastiat said:

"When plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men living together in society, they create for themselves in the course of time a legal system that authorizes it and a moral code that glorifies it."

We plunder each other, and, worse, many of us call for the plundering of other humans in the name of compassion or environmental policy or whatever, so why should it be such a shock to see the wholesale plundering of the natural world? It is all of a piece, IMO.

If we sim[;y go after a by-product - greed - we miss the opportunity to restructure our social relationships in a way that can lead to harmonious co-existence with nature.

That is to say, so long as we perpetuate governmental systems which are based on domination and violence, so long will the society associated with it direct violence against the natural world.

Most Americans are incapable of perceiving the violence inherent in our system of government - not just police brutality or war, but quasi-axiomatic aspects like taxation as well. I know, it's not 'sophisticated' or 'progressive' to recognize that taxation relies upon violence and its threat, but the fact is, most taxation is extortionist, and thus only perpetuates the dominance paradigm. (If you disbelieve, try not paying them.)

If I am right, then every call to 'raise taxes' (or even to pay them) is an unwitting call to perpetuate the violence against the natural world. This will be very, very hard to accept, for many. That doesn't mean it's not true.

As stated in this thought provoking essay:

"In my opinion contrary to popular belief ‘man’ and his social order are not ‘naturally’ violent and abusive. ...In nearly every harmonious and healthy indigenous culture I’ve studied going back thousands of years, violence and abuse was simply not a central part of their society as it is today with ours. And if the reader cannot see the violence everywhere s/he looks this is evidence of the reader’s total assimilation and adaptation to our cultural violence. When it has become so integrated and seamless that it can no longer be seen, our conditioning is nearly complete."

Even those who have peeled back the obvious layers of the onion can miss the subtler, more pervasive ones.

I'd urge all those who wish to see humanity connecting to the natural world in ways which are non-violent to think carefully about is and how they support the violence which we constantly direct against each other via the mechanism of State.

- Oz

sofistek said...


I don't think you can claim that the earth heals itself. That implies that it will always return to some defined state. However, this isn't the case; the earth is always changing and humans have been fortunate in living at a time of relative stability (which is probably why we've lasted so long). Now, humans are probably causing changes that may ultimately be our downfall, though the earth doesn't and won't care.

Of course, the earth will, from time to time, experience relatively quiet periods between quite extensive changes. Ultimately, however, it will become a lifeless ball. So I'm not sure that it's helpful to think of the earth healing itself.

G said...

@One of the Remnant,

I've been following this blog for a couple of weeks now and find it's premise, the decline of civilization that follows the new scarcity of energy-resources, interesting. We're all going to have to learn how to live with a lot less energy.

That said: i don't think the basic premise of this post, that we can't maintain (and maybe should not even want to maintain) the electrical grid is right. JMG points to the wasteful grid, but for a number of reason's the alternative of a non-grid-electrical society isn't that much better.

Home-energy sources can be damaging to local environment or can not be counted on to provide at all times.

Besides a lot of people in city's can't even build them. How is the inhabitant of a small apartment in a big flat going to provide himself with electricity?

You need a big grid to compensate for unreliable wind and sun if you want to use solar panels and windmills, for example. Hydro-power is renewable: but you have to get it to users; even if that means energy-loss in the distribution. Otherwise, the energy would simply be lost.

I dispute the thought there won't be enough energy for the grid. In Sweden for example, the production of renewable energy is already at 42 or more. Even if all other sources of energy disappeared tomorrow: that would be more then enough to keep the grid running. In actuality fossil fuels will be around for a couple of years: and the investments in renewables don't stop.

On a personal note: I really hesitated posting for a second time on this blog. You say I don't offer any evidence or logic to refute JMG's argument. That's a bit rich, don't you think? You might think my reasoning flawed, but I wouldn't know what part of it you mean, since you didn't engage any of my arguments. I tried to better explain my point of view in this post, but since I don't know what you're problem with it was exactly, I might not have succeeded. If you have question's about statements and think they lack underlying data, I’ll be happy to provide you with useful reports and numbers. I saw that JMG discourages links to sources in replies; that's why I didn't use them.

Another reason for hesitating to reply to your post was you're last remark: I know now beforehand you're not going to take me seriously. I also should not be offended by this, you say. I'll try.

Tracy G said...

@ Astrid,

When the items on your lines are mostly or entirely dry, a quick tumble in the dryer for five or ten minutes should help to fluff them up.

Laundry is one area where I struggle with conservation. As a massage therapist, I need fresh linens for each client, and state law specifies a specific minimum temperature for sanitization purposes. I agree with the regulations, which for the most part follow good common sense, so I'm not complaining. But sadly, yeah, the laundry from my office always goes in the dryer. The household laundry is hanging on the lines even as I type this.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hey Remnant,

Please don't take offense as I enjoy your posts and thoughts. We have to agree to disagree on this matter.

My reasoning for this is that you have no moral authority in this area. It is akin to the error that Al Gore made with his great documentary "An unpalatable truth" when he lives in the mother of all McMansions and is seen flying around in a helicopter. People aren't stupid. The difficulty for me is that it smacks of a do as I say and not as I do.

Also claiming biological imperative is the defense of a victim. A lot of people claim that reproduction was an accident, however on closer inspection, you can see that failing to make a choice in a first world country when contraception is easily available is actually making a choice.

I truly hope I haven't just alienated the entire blog community, but this is a really difficult and emotive subject. People want to be able to justify their reproductive choices when in fact their actions are just pushing other plants and animals out of their natural environments. The world does not have unlimited resources and everything we do affects some other lifeform which usually has far less of a say in the outcome than we do.



Glenn said...


We've never had the problem of "cardboard towels", but we live in the Coastal Pacific NW, with mild temps and relatively high humidity. You may need an extra rinse, or, as Tracy says, throw them in a tumble dryer for a few minutes without heat. It's the heating part that makes electric dryers such energy hogs.

Marrowstone Island

Astrid said...

@ Tracy G

Thanks for the tip. I'll give it a try.

I must say, I enjoy the comments on this blog. They go from practical laundry tips, to technical talk about pv to waxing philosophical on the abundance of the universe. Much to ponder, puzzle and practice!

Jason Heppenstall said...

I'm finding it quite absurd all this talk about electric clothes dryers. Having never owned one I have always hung the wet laundry up on a line - outside in the summer, inside during the winter. Yes, it may go a little stiff and take a while longer to dry but surely this is one of the lowest hanging fruits in the saving energy game?

@Chris, I have two kids, so I'm probably adding to the population crisis. However, I don't really see it like that. I'm attempting to foster a sense of wonder in my kids and kindle their creativity and imaginations so that they do not grow up to be mere consumers. I want them to have the same kind of reverence for the natural world that I have, and I hope that one day they will pass that on to their kids too.

Thanks everyone who read my story!

(JMG - The Wealth of Nature finally arrived yesterday - six weeks after I ordered it. Apparently there were 'supply problems' with it - so hopefully that means they are selling like hot buns!)

One of the Remnant said...

@ sofistek

I'm glad you found the PV link - and I agree that there are valid questions that continue to need to be asked. Remember that this paper was a 'meta-analysis' in that it was an overview and analysis of other research. The authors do not claim to have conducted research themselves. This is common in academic circles when one wishes to get an overall sense of what the research to date is telling us.

So to answer your individual questions, I would follow up and look at the individual studies that this meta-analysis includes. Those may - or may not! - resolve your questions. At the very least, you are now grappling with the real questions, rather than relying on some study that people widely cite without understanding its methodology or context, which is, of course, where we want to be - asking the right questions.

What is obvious is that solar PV fabrication relies on current industrial processes, which are egregiously unsustainable. PV cells are semiconductors, and as such require very large amounts of water and toxic chemicals (not to mention loads of electricity) to produce. So while 'sustainability' means different things to different people, I don't think that solar PV could by any stretch be said to be a 'sustainable technology' - it certainly isn't in my book!

But we have to note that sustainability is not the only relevant criteria at this point in time. As JMG noted in response to that particular comment:

"the interesting thing is that right now, whether or not PV is a net energy gain, it's a good idea. Why? Because it leverages energy costs between the present and the future. The energy that has to go into making and installing a PV panel goes into it now, while energy is relatively cheap and abundant, but a good deal of the energy that comes from the panel is available years from now, when energy will very likely be much scarcer and more expensive. (I discussed this at some length in The Long Descent) Especially on the home and local community scale, PV is a useful option; I'll be discussing that in more detail in an upcoming post."

So, we have that to look forward to. :)

- Oz

afterthegoldrush said...

I thought it was about time I posted a comment as I've been following your blog for a few years now.

Firstly, JMG, let me just thank you. I can't tell you how much I value your weekly writings (and your books) and how useful they have been to me and my family. But more than that, they provide a medium for connection in this troubled age with other souls that get it and for all the usefulness of the internet, I can honestly say that the thing that I will miss the most on that fated day when it goes down for good - is your weekly blog and all those who contribute in the comments. So thank you for your words, energy and commitment.

On that, and other grid-related matters I can only add my own recent observations. Last week I was driving to work through a remote part of mid-Wales and was marvelling at the sheer number of telegraph poles installed to carry power/telecoms to fairly remote farmsteads - and the time and labour it takes to install and maintain them. I'm sure lots of other people who read your blog do similar mental exercises in trying to understand the frankly mind-boggling energies already committed to our infrastructure. And no doubt it is this attention to energy which cultivates the certainty of it's ultimate demise. Looking at those wooden poles and contemplating the electronic lives lived down those cables is sobering when one appreciates just how fragile that infrastructure is and how reliant most of us are on it. What struck me most about this was the sheer hubris in our culture that allowed us to install this infrastructure in the first place - I guess that's perspective for you!

Ironically, a few days after this journey I pulled up behind a telegraph pole installation truck (having never seen one before in my life) and marvelled at our ability to make machines for every purpose - and yet the futility of it!

@ Oz

Thanks for the pointers on social ecology. This connection to violence is something I've long understood innately and yet haven't been able to articulate very well. So I'll be adding Bookchin to the reading list!


Mel, Foxtail Farm said...

There are several things you can do to reduce the crunchiness of laundry dried outside. One thing is to use a detergent that doesn't leave residues. I happen to like Charlie's Soap, but I'm sure there are others. If your water is hard, you can add a softener like Borax to the wash, or vinegar to the rinse. Crunchiness is also caused by things drying too quickly with too little movement, so coolish days with a nice breeze will give you softer clothes than a hot, windless day. In some climates, that might mean drying clothes overnight. You can also hang two or more layers of towels together so that they dry more slowly.

As far as using the dryer to fluff, I've found (with my dryer and my climate) that the 10 minutes is better used at the beginning of the drying period than at the end. They get softer that way, and then you don't have to remember to get them down from the line in time. I do this with the cloth diapers, as crunchy diapers irritate sensitive skin.

One of the Remnant said...

@ sofistek

"I don't think you can claim that the earth heals itself. That implies that it will always return to some defined state."

A very good point.

Biogeochemists studying the problem of earth's early atmosphere (i.e. what sort of atmosphere would support the creation and maintenance of the necessary precursor organic molecules which led to life) theorize vastly higher levels of methane, vastly lower levels of oxidizing molecules like O2, H2O, etc, and posit that when oxygen first became present in large quantities, this proved deadly to early forms of life.

Would those early life forms have been any different than us in insisting that the planet would "heal" itself (i.e. that it would rid itself of all that new and toxic oxygen)?

The one constant in the universe, after all, is change, or impermanence - as true for the Earth as for the inhabitants of it.

If we define 'healing' as 're-achieving a state optimized for humans,' then this is necessarily anthropocentric. If we broaden the definition to include all life, then biocentric.

Most of us have a hard time, for example, thinking everything would be fine and dandy if the Earth were once again to become a lifeless chunk of matter moving through the deeps of space. But would this matter to 'the planet'? Or, for that matter, to the universe? Might not *that* be considered a form of the planet healing itself by ridding itself of a virulent 'infestation' of biological life??

We so readily place ourselves at the center of all things that we find mention of that not being the case as deeply and viscerally offensive. Alternatively, some in the ecology movement (in particular some of the deep ecologists) see humans as a pathogen, and wish for the demise of our species so that other forms of life could propagate unmolested by us. We may well achieve their goal in a not too distant future. If not, then in a more distant one, certainly.

George Carlin may have been off base on some of the particulars in this clip, but the notion that 'the planet will shake us off like a bad case of fleas' does, I think, have the merit of recognizing a more realistic relationship between us and the Earth.

We are effectively powerless to 'harm' the planet. We can degrade the biosphere - and more particularly the biotic component of it - to the point where it cannot sustain us. But the biosphere, in its time, has suffered graver indignities that we, even in our worst moments, seem likely to inflict - and it has prospered. Even in times when the entire planet was, alternately, a fireball, or a snowball, life persisted somewhere and made a comeback. The impacts of meteors, asteroids and other bodies from space have at various times destroyed much of life (though they may also have contributed to it, and they gave us our moon) , but life came back. So, at the least, life seems robust. Humans, perhaps not so much.

- Oz

hapibeli said...

I'd say that the beginning of the end of the travel free for all is here.
"Airlines lose economy passengers as soaring fuel bills force up ticket prices"

One of the Remnant said...

@ Chris

"Please don't take offense as I enjoy your posts and thoughts. We have to agree to disagree on this matter.

My reasoning for this is that you have no moral authority in this area. It is akin to the error that Al Gore made with his great documentary "An unpalatable truth" when he lives in the mother of all McMansions and is seen flying around in a helicopter."

Fear not, my friend - I enjoy your posts as well, very much in fact, and I've taken no umbrage at all.

I would, however, like to point something out. You have assumed I am, like Gore, guilty of what some might call hypocrisy, or at best, rationalization. This is a case of assuming facts not in evidence. In point of fact, I have chosen not to have biological children, and I do not think I implied otherwise anywhere in my post. I have a son, but he is not my biological progeny.

So perhaps I do not entirely lack moral authority in this regard, as you suggest. :)

And so a question arises: why were you so quick to assume that one who disagrees with you must necessarily be engaged in self-justification? It's a friendly question, and one I pose because I have often found myself doing something similar, though for all I know, your internal process is totally dissimilar to mine! :)

We can certainly agree to disagree, but I stand by the point I was making, which was that, regardless of moral arguments one chooses to make, the fact is that the vast majority of folks, including in those parts of the world where both education and contraception are widely available, have demonstrated no propensity to make the choice you consider to be the moral one, and there seems little reason to suspect this will change going forward, at least voluntarily.

- Oz

One of the Remnant said...

@ Matt

Thanks, man - glad to be able to offer something of interest. :)

Re: Bookchin: You may find the following to be an interesting resource - I know I did:

Defending the earth: a dialogue between Murray Bookchin and Dave Foremant

Basically, there is a schism between the social ecologists and the deep ecologists, and the foremost proponents of each held a debate some years back, which is captured in this book (only the first 30 pages or so are shown - I have it on order). It's very interesting to me, because I come down with Bookchin on some areas, and the deep eco's on others. That said, I see no necessarily fundamental disagreement - a synthesis would seem to be in order.

But what I think is fascinating - and dangerous - is the short shrift I see given to the sociopolitical aspects of the problem from the vast majority of modern environmentalists. Calls to empower the federal government to 'deal with' eco-problems are routine, as though this were the only reasonable option, when in fact - let's not forget that the US federal government is arguably the most polluting entity in the world today - this may be not simply ineffective, but a path which leads to making things worse.

This possibility rarely even makes it into the discussion - and certainly not in 'polite' progressive society (a fact to which I can personally attest in light of my experiences at the Bioneers conference in Boulder last year). This tells me that we are in the realm of social myth, unexamined, and perilously present.

- Oz

Houyhnhnm said...

JMG said in response to Astrogoat, “I suspect it'll vary from place to place, but I'm guessing that fifty years from now there will be very few power grids in North America -- and a lot of draft horses.”

Producing an abundance of draft stock in the future should be a relatively easy task. Producing an abundance of people knowledgeable about horses will be a far greater problem. When I tell potential students that becoming reasonably competent with horses takes at least four years, few believe me. After a couple years of study, most question whether they’ll be reasonably competent in ten. By that time, they understand that knowing what to do when things go right is the easy part; learning to respond effectively when things go wrong takes many years. Ever seen a draft team bolt through a school yard?

Unfortunately, few “horsemen” today even know how to hold a lead or a lunge line in the safest fashion. For example, a couple of years ago one of my students helped a local trainer lounge horses before a show. She told me several people asked her why she held the lounge line as she did.

I wrote about why after a young woman in Florida lost her hand last year.

One of the Remnant said, “. . . as is common, the later institutionalization of spiritual teachings invariably distorts them.”

This applies in horsemanship too. Of course, I consider learning horsemanship a spiritual journey.

Mary said in response to Ryan, “Ah, I've read about the Canadian horse, and seen some pics. As I recall they seemed similar to our Morgan horse (the original type, not the modern ones) which are still to be found at UVM and with backyard breeders in Vermont and Maine. Those two breeds, and the Haflinger, make excellent "double-duty" family horses -- light plowing, carriage and riding horses. Easy keepers, nice temperaments, intelligent, etc...”

I’ve been thinking about the draft horse of the future. Right now, I favor starting with the old style Morgan. Double duty horses make total sense. What worries me is the round body of almost all draft stock. My bet is that the horse of the future will be working on less feed in higher temperatures. That puts the tall or well-sprung animal at a serious disadvantage since horses are far more prone to heatstroke than humans. The slab-sided horse survives where the wider, “better built” horse will die off.

Anyone else worried about how to keep strength while breeding for the shape of horse found in Cuba or the Middle East? My current thought is infusing a bit of Arab or better yet Akhal-Teke onto the old style Morgan.


Steve said...

Brilliant post, JMG. The issue of energy conversion is something that most in the "green" movement seem to gloss over. I have a few friends who are working in "smart grid" companies and the like, and judging by the frequency with which they rub elbows with DoE types and utility insiders, that gravy train has plenty of track left.

At the same time, bringing it back to basics with what types of energy do which things well is a great mental exercise. The solar PV system makes sense, but only for limited applications. It's also even more effective when you don't bother converting from DC to AC and then back to DC. The idea of trying out such mixed energy sources in the home is really inspiring, so thanks!

Steve said...


Regarding the population issue, don't worry, you haven't alienated me, at least. So far, in your terms, I have moral authority to discuss it. With any luck, I'll lose that authority in a couple of years as my wife and I have our first child in our 30s.

If the societal collapse in the US turns out as expected (the Great-Grandmother of all Depressions, more wars, declining public health facilities, addiction, depression, etc.), the population will decline as is happening elsewhere, and per capita consumption will drop as well. From my perspective, the drop in the ocean that our child(ren) will represent in terms of planetary damage is outweighed by the probable good they can accomplish being raised in a Green Wizard household - steeped in the values of frugality, creativity, reverence for the natural world, and love; with plenty of hands-on hard work to hone their skills.

I'm also being very selfish about it. Reading about the Great Depression lately I've learned how for many people the deciding factor between an overcrowded household and homeless poverty was whether you had any relatives with a job. I'm looking at my options for retirement with a very sober eye, and raising grandkids while tending the family garden looks vastly preferable to relying on the kindness of people who aren't kin.

z said...

@ G: As OOTR says, you came to a conclusion without giving any reasoning behind it. Everything else you said was not relevant to your point. The reasoning for being self sufficient on solar PV was given here and over the last few weeks posts and comments. I suggest you re-read them carefully for more insight. As regards sweden, they are not the US which is the case in point. But in their case, 42% of intermittent hydro supply is enough reason to make the grid go down even when nominal load and supply are well balanced, ask any Venezuelan how the drought conditions of late have being suiting them. But the main problem arises when the demand is larger than demand, or supply cannot be guaranteed because of political, financial or resource reasons. Combine those factors in any way you wish and then add the time dimension: the situation deteriorates over time to the point where it is not worth depending on the grid, thus having a further malign catabolic effect, until it disappears completely. It matters not if there is a substantial renewable element in the equation as they cannot supply electricity if the system is not working, thus becoming bankrupted themselves as they are denied their revenue streams

Mary said...

Houyhnhnm, I have an old-style arabian who is a powerhouse. The damage she did to my barn as a foal literally dropped the jaw of my veterinarian (who's used to 2,000 pound Eu warmbloods). Dahli's not slab-sided by any means. Rotund is more like it, as she looks at food and gets fat (thus now lives in a grazing muzzle). Heat doesn't phase her, even with her black-bay coat and rotund body. Even though she's almost black, she seems no worse off in the heat than my golden-bay, slabbier-sided arab. While I can't see her doing the very heavy work of a draft horse, she could do morgan-level light draft for sure.

The problem when you get the lighter, narrower frame is that you lose strength. But the old-style arabs are more round than flat, and obviously as desert horses can handle the heat. The humidity can knock them back a bit, but dry heat just makes them more manageable. My old gelding was at his best when the rest of us were wilting in the upper 90s or so...


One way to get around the worst of the heat is to do the heavy work at night or in the wee hours.


idiotgrrl said...

Albuquerque - there goes the clothes rack until the air clears!

Our air is full of smoke and ask from a fire over in Arizona, whose plume is big enough to be seen as a haze in Iowa, big enough to be seen from space. The public health people are telling people to turn off the swamp coolers and - get this,in 90 degree heat - stay indoors with the windows closed.

I got ashes in my eyes two days running when I went out in the afternoon to check the mail.

Drying the clothes outdoors in that would simply get them dirty again. After some thought, I decided not to bother even with the floor rags!

Hard cases....

And bathing and washing hair at night to get the stuff off you before you go to sleep.

One of the Remnant said...

@ G

"I've been following this blog for a couple of weeks now and find it's premise, the decline of civilization that follows the new scarcity of energy-resources, interesting. We're all going to have to learn how to live with a lot less energy.

That said: i don't think the basic premise of this post, that we can't maintain (and maybe should not even want to maintain) the electrical grid is right. JMG points to the wasteful grid, but for a number of reason's the alternative of a non-grid-electrical society isn't that much better.
On a personal note: I really hesitated posting for a second time on this blog. You say I don't offer any evidence or logic to refute JMG's argument. That's a bit rich, don't you think? You might think my reasoning flawed, but I wouldn't know what part of it you mean, since you didn't engage any of my arguments."

I'm glad you did post again, because I think I see the issue now.

You note that you've "been following this blog for a couple of weeks now" - you are going to need to go back a lot further than that (I'd go back at least a year in this blog and read your way forward) to grasp the basics of the geophysical logic which underlies the peak oil thesis. Better yet, pick up a copy of JMG's 'The Long Descent' and 'The EcoTechnic Future' if you can.

I'm sorry if you found my response unhelpful, but you sort of showed up at the 8th inning, talking about 2nd inning stuff, in a sense.

The sorts of assertions you are making have been repeatedly addressed in comments over the last year or so, and therefore I would simply ask you to do your due diligence and educate yourself as much as possible, and I will agree to try to be more helpful in addressing specific issues that you raise.

As one example, you state that "for a number of reason's the alternative of a non-grid-electrical society isn't that much better" - but what you are not realizing, it seems to me, is that it's not a matter of choice: grid or non-grid electric. We are well beyond these sorts of choices at this point, and that is the point.

Oil and net energy (a vital concept to grasp) already have or are at the cusp of peaking. That means that our economic and social systems, which are wholly predicated on *increasing* flows of energy, are now about to begin to experience permanent declines in available energy. Not simply because oil is at its peak (geophysical reality), but because of the implications of this (socio-economic reality). As available energy decreases, it becomes, by definition less available. Less available for transportation, less available for industrial use, less available for conversion into 99% of the food we eat - and yes, less available for electrical utilities.

To oversimplify considerably, would you deny agricultural entities the considerable fossil fuel inputs they need to grow food to keep the grid up? Or vice versa? And all this assumes someone in a position to actually make that decision, which is not at all guaranteed.

The point is: our current mode of operation is utterly unsustainable - wildly so. Trimming a few corners just won't cut it. We're in for a wild and chaotic ride.

So what most of us are discussing is not whether or not the grid should be maintained - because it is abundantly clear that in fact this is a literal impossibility after some point (quite possibly in the near future) - but what are some alternatives to it once it begins to go down, and doesn't it make sense ro start thinking those up now, rather than after the lights go out?

Drawing on history, JMG offers the notion of a patchwork of systems to provide power - NOT necessarily electrical power - to homes and communities in the absence of an ever-present, all you can eat source of electrical energy like the grid.

I'll include some suggested reading in a second comment...

- Oz

One of the Remnant said...

@ G

Suggested readings, in addition to JMG's work:

Very basic 'what is peak oil' essay from Gail the Actuary, a well respected figure who moderates

For that matter, if you have technical questions, I suggest you get to know the petroleum geologists, engineers, etc who hang out at That site is a gold mine of techie info.

To understand the key concept of net energy, this one is good:

To understand the key concepts of thermodynamics and the 'limits to growth', these are good:

To begin to grapple with complexity, I like these:

And if you wish to view peak oil and its ilk through the systems theory lens:

You might also look for and rent the documentary titled 'Crude Awakening.'

Good luck with your studies. It may seem like a lot to encompass, but it will be well worth your time to become educated in this subject. As Richard Heinberg said in a commencement address he recently gave:

"We are at one of history’s great turning points. During your lifetime you will see world changes more significant in scope than human beings have ever witnessed before."

- Oz

sofistek said...

Hapibeli, thanks for the link about airlines suffering. One of the frightening things there is the assumption that biofuels are good and that all it will take is to up the quantity being produced.

[By the way, I produced the link above with the following text:

thanks for <a href="">the link about airlines suffering</a>

I mention it just as an example of including links since I notice that some posters have simply pasted the link's URL into their message, which is a little more awkward to use.]

Zach said...

@Remnant said:

But what I think is fascinating - and dangerous - is the short shrift I see given to the sociopolitical aspects of the problem from the vast majority of modern environmentalists. Calls to empower the federal government to 'deal with' eco-problems are routine, as though this were the only reasonable option, when in fact - let's not forget that the US federal government is arguably the most polluting entity in the world today - this may be not simply ineffective, but a path which leads to making things worse.

As JMG says, I'd like to distill this into something more pithy and brand it onto the backsides of those who think all we need to do is to get the right rascals into office in Washington (or Brussels, or Turtle Bay) and hand them the power to make other people do what we wish they would do.

Hmm... I wonder if this isn't one more scheme to dodge personal responsibility for changing lifestyle? "Oh, if only the government would ratify Kyoto / implement cap-and-trade / raise CAFE standards, then I'm sure everything will be fine!"

As a nasty side-effect, this means that the 'polite' environmental movement has effectively cut itself off from the thinking of E.F. Schumacher, or G. K. Chesterton, or anyone who thinks that political decentralization would be better than concentration of power. Subsidiarity seen as planet-hatred. It boggles the mind.


dltrammel said...

quote jmaster10:

"We live in a time of excesses. It is time to stop and save some resources for future generations."

I could not disagree more with your second statement.

No matter how hard you cut your use of energy and current resources, there are dozens of people out there who will continue to use them up at the rate we now have. The resources are going away and no amount of conservation is going to stop that.

We can't stop the train wreck that's about to happen, only try and educate our fellow riders on how to survive the crash.

What we can and should be doing now is learning to live in a world of limited resources and getting ready to teach those skill to people when the time comes. If you can live on a quarter of the normal energy demand then you are one step ahead of the people who can't now, but will be knocking on your door for the info soon.

Lloyd Lincoln Clark said...

Please think on it again Steve. This caretaker for your later years that you are planning to gamble for need not be progeny. Nor does kinship necessarily lend certainty to the enterprise. The essence of the project you propose is the education of an individual; it's premise specific compensation for the sum of your experience shared. Might not someone born to less fortunate circumstance be the more grateful for the options you expect to afford than one literally conceived for your purpose. Consider too in your calculations the relative value to the village of responsibly raising the orphaned.

Perpetuating a system of good and useful values is a worthy goal. Teaching children would rightly be a critical part of that process. But having babies is not; and the best of intentions notwithstanding, may even prove counterproductive.

Please don't misunderstand. I am not suggesting that no one should procreate, or that it is somehow immoral to do so. I am expressing an opinion that until the population is reduced to below the carrying capacity of the planet fewer babies are preferable to more babies, not least in interest for the welfare of those who are born. Therefore, those in possession of understanding and options have an obligation to their prospective children, to themselves, and to all the rest of us to consider very carefully the reasons, expectations and prospects for their child bearing and rearing endeavors.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Remnant and Steve,

I'm a bit of a firebrand on this issue. Oh well.

My thinking on this issue is that people lie to themselves and others so that they can sleep at night. "No, my choices don't make a difference, don't worry about it everyone else is doing it anyway". As they say here, "she'll be right, mate".

The planet can only support so much life and with each new human life, other plants and animals get displaced. I worry for those plants and animals.

Seriously though, don't let me dissuade you though. This is not my intention.

Generals have a saying that battle plans rarely survive the first wave. I read a lot of comments here about people bemoaning how their partners, children and family aren't on board with any Green Wizard concepts and the difficulties that they encounter with this situation.

Seriously, how do you propose that you will be any different? I'm asking this to provoke your thoughts, because to have grand plans (particularly in relation to other people) is one thing, but to achieve them is something else again. It's hard.

People are lost in the mundane aspects of their lives. The day to day activities of life have caused their dreams to become small.

We are all the poorer for it.



Cherokee Organics said...


You are cheeky in that you're training me to read your posts more carefully.

Well, I re-read it and can only apologise as I jumped to conclusions that were not based on any facts.

Hi Jason,

I wish you well in your training and I hope they get put to some positive healing work.



One of the Remnant said...

@ Zach

"Hmm... I wonder if this isn't one more scheme to dodge personal responsibility for changing lifestyle?"

I think that's a big part of it, though this is largely unconscious, IMO. It is an inculcated mindset. A nation like ours which bases itself on authoritarian governing structures - which go largely unrecognized - is taught to cede personal responsibility to the collective, in the form of our 'leaders.' Of course, the widespread inability to think critically, which derives from our public system of (dis)education, doesn't help.

"As a nasty side-effect, this means that the 'polite' environmental movement has effectively cut itself off from the thinking of E.F. Schumacher, or G. K. Chesterton, or anyone who thinks that political decentralization would be better than concentration of power. Subsidiarity seen as planet-hatred. It boggles the mind."

Good point. We might call this 'short-circuit' thinking: when any major problem arises, we blind ourselves to all other options and automatically ascribe responsibility for solving it to the centralized authority - the very opposite of subsidiarity. It is a divestiture of ownership.

Back in 1965, the brilliant Jacques Ellul described this process in compelling detail in 'The Political Illusion' - from the intro:

Ellul "concludes that all facets of political activity as we know it today are a kaleidoscope of interlocking illusions, the most basic of which are the illusion of popular participation, popular control, and popular problem-solving in the realm of politics.

The first great evil from which most other evils spring is politicization (the act of suffusing everything with politics and dragging it into the political arena). In our modern world, contrary to what was the rule in all previous ages, everything is politicized: men seek political solutions for everything, whether the problem be freedom or justice or peace or prosperity or happiness. (Oz: or ecocide)

As a result of this politicization of all aspects of life and of the orientation of all thought and energy toward politics, men increasingly turn to the state for a solution of their problems, though the state could not solve them if it tried. And everywhere in the world this increasing inclination to turn to the state leads to three evils:

- boundless inflation of the state's size and power;
- increasing dependence on it by the individual;
- decreasing control over it by the "people" who think they control it, whereas in reality they merely surrender all their powers to it."

This explains much about our modern world, IMO.

Ellul is not a well known name, which is unfortunate, as he deserves to be widely read by those who wish to come to terms with the myths with which we think, as JMG puts it.

Aside from 'The Political Illusion,' he also wrote 'The Technological Society' which warned of 'technological tyranny' - technology (including the media) as threat to humanity and human freedom. The applicability of that thesis to human ecological areas is obvious - we discuss it every week here.

He also wrote 'Propaganda,' in which he posited that: people become "caught in a web of facts they have been given. They cannot even form a choice or a judgment in other areas or on other subjects. Thus the mechanisms of modern information induce a sort of hypnosis in the individual, who cannot get out of the field that has been laid out for him by the information."

IMO, all of this bears on the sociopolitical aspects of our current set of predicaments: technology, propaganda, politics - these provide the 'web' of context in which issues like peak oil get 'caught.'

- Oz

Houyhnhnm said...


You bring up some excellent points.

I stood an Arabian stallion for well over a decade and owned him until he died at 30. Although he sired a purebred Res. Nat. Champion driving horse and many superior Arabian performance horses, he was more popular with Morgan and QH people than many of the halter-only Arabian people who considered him “coarse,” because he carried so much muscle and bone. Were he still around, I’d be using him to turn out light draft stock rather than dressage and eventing horses.

I have only seen photos of the tough 19th C. desert Arabs, but I do know that the best horse Davenport imported in the early 20th C died without leaving one foal in the US. He did however win one class—model Morgan stallion at the Vermont Morgan show! I think there were over 40 stallions in that class too, so obviously the desert-bred can be highly Morgan in type. Of course, a good many scholars think that Figure aka Justin Morgan was himself carrying a high degree of Arabian blood.

You are quite right that dry heat favors Arabs and other hot breeds. I'm sure those Akhal-Tekes could never have completed that 1932 trek from Ashgabat to Moscow--something around 4800 km in 84 days--unless the riders traveled mostly at night.

So humidity definitely worries me; humidity and swampy ground stopped the Mongol horsemen and killed off most of the early equine imports to Central America. The import survivors bred on as slab-sided, heat-radiating little weeds like the ones in today's Cuba. They aren't capable of heavy work, but they survive.

Of course, people worry me far more than the climate. How many horsemen do you who are competent and comfortable working horses at night or in the wee hours? I know only a few, but I know many otherwise competent horsemen who are afraid of the dark. For example, I know a man who walked his horse the last ten miles of the Tevis, sacrificing a top ten finish, because he didn't trust his horse enough.

Unfortunately, I know all too many people who own horses and are not competent to work them at noon in a climate-controlled indoor arena.


Tom said...

“It's more a shortish-term carry forward than a long term tool but has anyone here considered the prospect of one of those '$100 One Laptop Per Child' laptops, like they're mass-producing for poor countries?”

I had a response to that particular scheme a while back...

The article is outdated, but if we are to have computers connected to something like the Internet (to visit JMG’s blog, for instance) I think it's a better idea to recycle old parts and use what you have… until the whole thing eventually goes down.

Matthew Heins said...


See if you get this before the new post.

Don't mind the shortness. ;)

We can't just average out the population problem like that. Where you are and how you live matters. North AND South America combined have about 1 billion people, but way more than 1/7th of total earth resources. Asia has nearly 5 billion but way less than 5/7ths of the total resources.

A rural or small city North American living a low-energy lifestyle can have children more sustainably than a resident of Beijing or Shanghai.

Australia's sustainable population s much less than current population. North America's (based on Ag exports for starts) sustainable pop. is less than current pop. as long as wasteful lifestyles are eliminated.

So, not only should you perhaps not have kids, you should also probably emigrate. ;)


Apple Jack Creek said...

For those looking to feed dogs in a low resource world, may I suggest meat rabbits?

I know, it's a difficult thing to contemplate - I actually have a pet bunny, and I can't quite get my head around killing one for food ... but ... if it came down to it ... well, needs must.

We have really big outside dogs who guard our sheep. They aren't optional - without them, we'd lose lambs to coyotes and wolves and cougars. I was on a farm once where the people kept meat rabbits and fed them to their guardian dog - killed and skinned and given to the dog whole. With great big dogs like these, that is workable, with smaller dogs, you'd need to do some butchering.

I actually know where I can get meat rabbit breeding stock nearby, and should I get to the place where I have more time than money, that's a transition I'm prepared to make. The rabbits will eat weeds and grass that the dogs can't survive on, then feed the dogs, who guard the lambs who eat weeds and grass that we can't survive on, and then, in turn, feed us.

Not an easy thing to contemplate ... but a realistic option, I think.

Oh, if you have an abbatoir nearby you may also want to check with them about buying organ meats and trim - we always get everything back when we have animals butchered, and then we supplement the guardian dog's diet with frozen meat when it's really cold outside (since even at -40 they will NOT come in the house, they refuse to leave the flock).

ProTectn said...

I have looked for kindergarten solar. I am a 59 yr. old female, who knows in my heart all of what you are saying is true...our world as we have known it and know it, is changing rapidly, and I am not sure how rapidly. But I do not know how to solder, or how to make even the simplest alternative energy source for my home. I would like to make solar lights that hang out in the day,and are brought in at night. Do you have any links for 12 v lights, power, etc.? I can build an ice house, or even a house out of anything I need to, but in some things I am at a total loss, and we are not in a wind area. Thank you, gloria