Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Salvaging Resilience

Regular readers of this blog will know by this point that my efforts to make sense of the shape of the emerging deindustrial future involve the occasional odd detour, and one of those is central to this week’s post. Mind you, those same regular readers may be wondering if the detour in question has to do with Ben Bernanke’s secret name as a Sith Lord, a point which occupied some space in comments on a recent Archdruid Report. (The best proposal so far, in case you’re wondering, was Darth Flation – think (in)Vader, (in)Sidious, etc.)

Still, that tempting topic will have to be left for another week. Instead, I’m going to have to clear up the confusions surrounding a bit of jargon popular in the current peak oil blogosphere. That process is more than a little reminiscent of fishing scrap metal out of a swamp; in the present case, the word that needs to be hauled from the muck, hosed off, and restored to its former usefulness, is “resilience.”

The rise of this term to its present popularity in green circles has a history worth noting. A year or two ago, the word “sustainability” began to lose its privileged place in the jargon of the time, as it began to sink in that no matter how much manhandling was applied to that much-abused term, it couldn’t be combined with the phrase “modern middle-class lifestyle” without resulting in total absurdity. Enter “resilience,” as another way to talk about what too many people nowadays want to talk about, generally to the exclusion of more useful conversations: the pretense that a set of lifestyles, social habits, and technologies that were born in an age of unparalleled extravagance can be maintained as the material basis for that extravagance trickles away.

The word “sustainability,” it bears remembering, has a perfectly clear meaning. It means, as the word itself suggests, the ability of something to be sustained, either for a set period of time – “sustainable over a twenty year period,” for example – or indefinitely. That was its problem as a green buzzword, because next to nobody wanted to talk about just how long the current crop of “sustainable” tech was actually likely to stay viable (hint: not very long), and even fewer were willing to grapple with the immense challenges facing any attempt to sustain any of today’s technologies into the indefinite future.

The problem with “resilience,” though, is that it also has a perfectly clear meaning. Once people figure out what that is, it’s a safe bet that they’ll be hunting for another buzzword in short order, because resilience can be defined very precisely: it’s the opposite of efficiency.

Okay, now that you’ve stopped spluttering, let me explain.

We can define efficiency informally as doing the most with the least. An efficient use of resources is thus one that puts as few resources as possible into places where they sit around doing nothing. The just-in-time ordering process that’s now standard in manufacturing and retail, for example, was hailed as a huge increase in efficiency when it was introduced; instead of having stockpiles sitting around in warehouses, items could be ordered electronically from a database so that they would be made and shipped just in time to go onto the assembly line or the store shelf. What nobody asked, and very few people have asked even yet, is what happens when something goes wrong.

The great Tohoku tsunami a few months back provided a wakeup call in that direction, as factories across Japan and around the world suddenly discovered that the shipment of parts they needed just in time for next month’s production runs had been delivered instead to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. In the inefficient old days, when parts jobbers scattered all over the industrial world had warehouses full of parts being produced by an equally dispersed array of small factories, that would have given nobody sleepless nights, since the stock of spares on hand would be enough to tide things over until factories could run some extra shifts and make up the demand. Since production had been efficiently centralized in very few factories, or in some cases only one, and the warehouses full of parts had been rendered obsolete by efficient new ordering systems, knock-on costs that would have been negligible in 1970 are proving to be very substantial today.

Efficiency, in other words, is not resilient. What makes a system resilient is the presence of unused resources, and these are inefficient by definition. A bridge is resilient, for example, if it contains a good deal more steel and concrete than is actually needed to support its normal maximum load; that way, when some outside factor such as a hurricane puts unexpected stresses on the bridge, the previously unnecessary structural strength of all that extra steel and concrete comes into play, and keeps the bridge from falling down. Most bridges are designed and built with that sort of inefficiency in place, because the downside of too little efficiency (the bridge costs more to build) is a good deal less troubling than the downside of too little resiliency (the bridge collapses in a storm). Like every project worth doing, a good bridge has to strike a balance between many conflicting factors, no one of which can be maximized except at the expense of others of equal importance.

This is something that one of the iconic figures of the Seventies, Buckminster Fuller, never quite grasped. For me, Fuller is what another iconic Seventies figure called a worthy opponent; his writings constantly force me to reexamine my own ideas, because they grate on my nerves so reliably. Partly that’s a function of Fuller’s insouciant assurance that technology inevitably one-ups everything else in the cosmos – Theodore Roszak’s apt gibe, “I would not be surprised to hear (Fuller) announce someday that he had invented a better tree,” comes to mind – and partly it’s his insistence that the universe had to make the kind of sense he wanted it to make – this is a man, remember, who spent much of his life insisting that pi couldn’t really be an irrational number – but the issue that comes to mind right now is his consistent preference for efficiency at the cost of resilience.

That’s not to say that Fuller didn’t score some major successes. If my house was in a good location for a wind turbine, I’d almost certainly use Fuller’s octet truss design for the tower, and a lot of very sturdy geodesic domes have been built using his patents. Still, it’s worth noting that not even Fuller was able to live for long in a dome house made to his own designs; if it had been perfectly caulked, it would have provided a comfortable home with very efficient use of materials, but since caulking is never perfect in the real world, it leaked like a sieve whenever it rained. That’s one of the reasons why Lloyd Kahn, the compiler of Domebooks I and II and a major proponent of geodesic domes back in the day, backpedaled in his 1973 compilation Shelter. That very worthwhile piece of Green Wizard literature talked at length about the problems with geodesic dome construction, and put most of its space into vernacular building from cultures around the world, from yurts and tipis to good sturdy old-fashioned carpentry that holds off the rain.

Most of the troubles that saddled Fuller with the label “failure-prone” were, like the vast number of leaky geodesic dome houses that sprang up in the Sixties, the product of too much efficiency and too little resilience. The Dymaxion car of 1933 is a case in point. In most respects it was a brilliant design, maneuverable and ultraefficient, but its career came to a sudden halt when one of the three prototypes got bumped by another car on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, flipped, and rolled, killing the driver and seriously injuring everybody else on board. Fuller designed the car with a narrow wheelbase relative to its length for the sake of maneuverability, and a high center of gravity to provide a smoother ride on rough roads. Both those choices made the Dymaxion car more efficient but less stable, and at highway speeds that’s not a safe tradeoff to make.

Thus efficiency is not resilient, and resilience is not efficient. Just-in-time ordering is conceptually the same as the Dymaxion car’s narrow wheelbase and high center of gravity: a great idea, as long as nothing goes wrong. Since it may have occurred to you, dear reader, that today’s industrial civilization seems to have a lot in common just now with these examples of high efficiency and low resilience, you may be thinking that it might turn out to be necessary to accept a lower degree of efficiency, in order to provide our civilization with the backlog of unused resources that will give it resilience.

Ah, but here’s where things get difficult.

There’s a reason why contemporary industrial culture is obsessed with efficiency, and it’s not because we’re smarter than our grandparents. Every civilization, as it nears the limits of its resource base, has to deal with the mismatch between habits evolved during times of relative abundance and the onset of shortages driven by too much exploitation of that abundance. Nearly always, the outcome is a shift in the direction of greater efficiency. Local governments give way to centralized ones; economies move as far toward mass production as the underlying technology will permit; precise management becomes the order of the day; waste gets cut and so, inevitably, do corners. All this leads to increased efficiency and thus decreased resilience, and sets things up for the statistically inevitable accident that will push things just past the limits of the civilization’s remaining resilience, and launch the downward spiral that ends with sheep grazing among ruins.

Trying to build resilience into a system that’s already gotten itself into this bind is a difficult project at best. The point of these efficiency drives, after all, is to free up resources to support the standards of living of the privileged classes. Since these same privileged classes are the ones who have to sign off on any project to redirect resources toward resilience, the difficulties in convincing them to act against their immediate self-interest are not hard to imagine. Since efficiency tends to take an aura of sanctity in such cases – privileged classes, after all, are as prone as anyone else to convince themselves that what’s good for them is good for everyone – proponents of resilience face an uphill fight against deeply rooted assumptions. After all, who wants to go on record in support of inefficiency?

And of course that’s exactly what we’ve seen in recent decades in industrial society. The Glass-Steagall Act, which imposed resilience on the US banking system at the cost of a fair amount of inefficiency, is a good example; it was gutted by an enthusiastically bipartisan majority, giving us the highly efficient but hopelessly brittle financial system we have today. Many other measures that put resilience into the system were also scrapped in the name of “competitiveness,” though it’s worth noticing that America’s ability to compete in any arena that doesn’t involve blowing large chunks of a Third World country to kingdom come has gone down steadily while these allegedly competitive measures have been at work. All of it, slogans aside, served to free up resources to maintain living standards for America’s privileged classes – a category that extends well down into the middle class, please note, and includes a great many people who like to denounce the existing order of American society in heated terms.

That’s our version of the trap that closes around every society that overshoots its resource base. The struggle to sustain the unsustainable – to maintain levels of consumption the remaining resource base won’t support indefinitely – always seems to drive the sort of short-term expedients that make for long-term disasters. I’ve come to think that a great many of the recent improvements in efficiency in the industrial world have their roots in this process. Loudly ballyhooed as great leaps forward, they may well actually be signs of the tightening noose of resource constraints that, in the long run, will choke the life out of our civilization.

Thus it’s a great idea in the abstract to demand a society-wide push for resilience, but in practice, that would involve loading a great many inefficiencies onto the economy. Things would cost more, and fewer people would be able to afford them, since the costs of resilience have to be paid, and the short term benefits of excessive efficiency have to be foregone. That’s not a recipe for winning an election or outcompeting a foreign rival, and the fact that it might just get us through the waning years of the industrial age pays nobody’s salary today. It may well turn out that burning through the available resources, and then crashing into ruin, is simply the most efficient way for a civilization to go.

Where does that leave those of us who would like to find a way through the crisis of our time and hand down some part of the legacy of our civilization to the future? The same principles apply, though it’s fortunately true that individuals, families, and local communities often have an easier time looking past the conventional wisdom of their era and doing something sensible even when it’s not popular. The first thing that has to be grasped, it seems to me, is that trying to maintain the comfortable lifestyles of the recent past is a fool’s errand. It’s only by making steep cuts in our personal demand for resources that it’s possible to make room for inefficiency, and therefore resilience.

Most of the steps proposed in these essays, in turn, are inefficient – indeed, deliberately so. It’s unquestionably nefficient in terms of your personal time and resources to dig up your back yard and turn it into a garden; that inefficiency, however, means that if anything happens to the hypercomplex system that provides you with your food – a process that reaches beyond growers, shippers and stores to the worlds of high finance, petroleum production, resource politics, and much more – you still get to eat. It’s inefficient to generate your own electricity, to retrofit your home for conservation, to do all the other things we’ve discussed. Those inefficiencies, in turn, are measures of resilience; they define your fallback options, the extra strength you build into the bridge to your future, so that it can hope to stand up to the approaching tempests.

The emerging patterns of the salvage economy that have been discussed here over the last few weeks feed into this same quest for resilience. Many older technologies, of the sort that might readily be salvaged and put to use, are a good deal less efficient than their modern replacements, and therefore much more resilient.

Here’s an example. There’s been plenty of talk in recent years about the risk of an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack against the United States. It’s been the subject of Congressional hearings, a popular novel, and a great deal of hoopla in the media. There’s some reason for all this concern, as a single modest nuclear warhead detonated up in the ionosphere above the northern Midwest would generate a pulse that would fry electronic equipment over most of the continental United States, and it’s been argued that any of several non-nuclear technologies could do the same thing on a more local scale. There’s been a great deal of backing and forthing about how to shield national infrastructure against such an attack, but it’s only occasionally been noted that electronic technologies that are very nearly invulnerable to EMP already exist, and can be found in antique malls across the country.

The secret to those technologies? The old-fashioned vacuum tube. Vacuum tubes use plenty of power and convert most of it into heat, and the sturdy structure made necessary by that inefficiency makes tubes shrug off sudden transient pulses of the sort an EMP generates. Modern integrated circuits are many orders of magnitude more efficient, and so those same transient pulses go right into the heart of an IC chip and destroy it. If you plan on using a tube-based radio for communication in the event of an EMP attack, mind you, you need to be sure that it doesn’t have first-generation solid state components such as selenium rectifiers, or replace those with diode tubes, and you’d probably better do the sensible thing and get your amateur radio license, too, so you can get in some practice with your rig in advance. Still, it’s a viable approach, and a good deal cheaper than the alternatives – and it would be just as viable, and just as cheap, if the US government were to do the smart thing and arrange for a couple of midsized domestic electronics firms to start manufacturing reliable tube-based electronics as backups for critical infrastructure across the country.

There are countless other examples. By and large, older technologies are less efficient, because they were made in an age when efficiency wasn’t as overvalued as it is today. That means, in turn, that older technologies are by and large more resilient, and those who are concerned about resilience will often find that older, simpler, sturdier technologies are a better bet than the current state of the art. By and large, in turn, making use of those technologies means accepting downscaled expectations; a tube-based radio is easy, a tube-based television is challenging, and a tube-based video game would be around the size of a double-wide mobile home and use as much power as a five-story office building. This is why, sixty years ago, radios were common and cheap, televisions were less common and pricey, and games were played on brightly colored boards on the kitchen table or the family room floor without any electronics at all.

Still, downscaled expectations will be among the most common themes of the decades ahead of us, and those who have the uncommon sense to figure this out in advance and start getting ready for a less efficient future will very likely benefit from the increased resilience that will provide. Over the weeks to come, as I finish up the discussion of salvage and prepare to wrap up the entire series of posts on green wizardry that have been central to this blog’s project for more than a year now, I hope to be able to suggest a few more options for resilience along these same lines.


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Bill Pulliam said...

pg -- if you are in North America north of Mexico it is very unlikely you have birds that are not in the Sibley Guide or any of the other comprehensive North American field guides -- even many of the likely escaped exotics get included in the guides now. For beginners I actually think the Peterson guides are the easiest (just make sure you have the right one, east vs west). I am not fond of online identification resources, and rarely like the field guides based on photographs rather than illustrations by skilled artists. Most important of all is to get an idea of what the common species in your area are, and learn them. eBird ( can give you a bar graph checklist for whatever county you live in, provided you don't live in a very rural area from which little or no data have been contributed. Go to "View and Explore data," pick "bar graph" then select country, state, and county. Note the species that have big fat lines; these will be the large majority of the birds you spot. Don't get bogged down in all the dozens and dozens of others with the skinny and irregular lines until you know the common ones well. Also very important is to remember that any given species comes in multiple plumages depending on age and gender. In the upcoming post nesting and fall migration seasons, only a small portion of the birds will be adult males. Most will be young-of-the-year, which are often plainer and less distinctive.

beneaththesurface said...

Question: If you qualified for food stamps and other govt. assistance, would you take advantage of these programs while they last? Perhaps buy in bulk and stockpile staples/basics (ala Church of Latter Day Saints), increasing your resilence somewhat?

Well, one effect of having embraced voluntary poverty is that I qualify for Medicaid now. I do take advantage of it, while fully aware that government health assistance might not survive long-term. Purchasing health insurance is too costly for me (plus I'd rather not give large amounts of my money to insurance companies).

I choose to go to a more holistic doctor now that is not covered by Medicaid (so those costs I pay out of my own money). But blood tests and the specialist care I've gotten recently is covered completely by Medicaid (dental check-up, a dermatology app. and vision check-up). And I have some peace of mind that if I needed urgent or emergency care, I wouldn't suddenly be in major debt.

I myself have contributed through federal taxes to the government, so I don't feel bad about getting a little something in return. And since I really focus on preventative health, I don't feel I'm so much a drain on government money and resources by being on Medicaid.

I am in pretty good health, and although I do strongly believe in some government assistance for the poor, I also believe in taking personal responsibility for my health to the extent I can (by eating properly, exercising regularly, etc.). Not only for my own sake, but also because I realize that the costs of poor health are paid for by society too.

GHung said...

Bill P. and Chris, Re: Rainforests: Wikipedia describes rainforests as: "Rainforests are forests characterized by high rainfall, with definitions based on a minimum normal annual rainfall of 1750-2000 mm (68-78 inches)." and a Temperate Rainforest : "For temperate rain forests of North America, Alaback's definition[1] is widely recognized:[2]
1.Annual precipitation 200–400 cm
2.Mean annual temperature between 4oC and 12oC. (39o and 54o Fahrenheit)

However, required annual precipitation depends on factors such as distribution of rainfall over the year, temperatures over the year and fog presence, and definitions in other countries differ considerably. For example, Australian definitions are ecological-structural rather than climatic.." the definition is certainly broad. Our area has been described as a temperate rainforest, average rainfall over 65 inches (73 inches here last year), and nearby micro-climates get well over that. This interesting map actually shows the Southern Appalachians as the only temperate rainforest in eastern North America, perhaps due to high rainfall combined with frequent heavy fog and humidity.

My fear is that these islands of diversity are indeed less resilient due to their special nature, more vulnerable to climate change. One can only cope and hope..

RPC said...


By and large I agree with your overall argument, but I have trouble with your statement of it. Please point out the hole in my logic, which is: 1) define a task (I need to get between two towns, neither of which has public transit, 30 miles apart); 2) define an event against which you wish to be resilient (e.g. an increase in the price of fuel); 3) define a strategy (e.g. use less fuel (the Fit) or none (bicycle)). Where I'm falling down is that I don't see how reducing or eliminating my use of a resource leads to decreased resilience against the curtailment or loss of that resource. Thoughts?

Robert said...

JMG wrote:

"education should be a passion, but in contemporary America, it's an industry -- a rapacious and remarkably corrupt industry, even by American standards."

So true! I taught at one of the Ivy-league universities for 40 years, and I saw this change on the college level up close and personal. Oh, the stories I could tell ..!

One good source for news on the escalating corruption is Margaret Soltan's blog, "University Diaries."

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...


Thanks for asking.

Is there a Waldorf school in your town, or are you planning to homeschool using Waldorf methods? The advantage to homeschooling is you can customize to the child and pick what works. Alternatively, public school can be balanced by home life.

As it happens, at one time I taught young children at an arts-based school. We used Montessori and Waldorf elements, but also included other teaching methods and materials. Any educational system based on the ideas of one person can be overly rigid and can foster a "true believer" mode not unlike some of the conservative religious schools. No one educational method has all the answers.

Much depends on the teachers and administrators. Much also depends on the parents--and the children.

When they were too old for that school, my children went to public school, which is in a decent system, and which was well-balanced by our home life. We made sure we were involved parents.

It wasn't perfect, and we had our bad moments, but the children turned out ok. They had some truly dedicated teachers (and also some less so). Had the school system been worse, I would have homeschooled.

Waldorf's emphasis on nurturing imagination and love of the earth is laudable. Looping is great. There are other aspects I would question, such as not using printed books for younger age-groups. Also, how does anthroposophy fit in with your family's spiritual beliefs?

I guess what I'm trying to say here, is that what's most important for a child's education (in a holistic sense) is what happens at home, and how interests and talents are nurtured in the context of the family culture. This holds true through high school.

Being permaculturalists as you are, your daughter has already started absorbing the best earth-centered education she could get.

At three (a lovely age!) what's important is lots of play, "helping" with tasks, being with other children, playing outdoors, learning about plants and animals, books (family reading), music (family singing), art materials--and little-to-no computer/TV time.

This isn't really an answer or advice, but I hope it helps.

Don Mason said...


If I were you, I’d take the government assistance.

You’ve paid your taxes; you’re not defrauding anyone; and it’s not your fault that living in as sustainable a manner as possible has defined you – according to the rules of the system – as low-income.

If you were going to blow the freed-up capital on something stupid like buying a Maserati, then no, you shouldn’t take the government assistance. In that case you should send the freed-up capital directly to me so that I can buy more insulation ;-)

You’re investing whatever you can scrape together in increasing your sustainability (like the solar heating panels), so consider the food stamps as Ronald Reagan’s apology for tearing Jimmy Carter’s solar panels off the roof of the White House when he took office.

@ Tom

Check my post above about

Jason said...

JMG: I'm reminded of the time someone quoted a very nice quip to Oscar Wilde, who said, "Oh, I wish I'd said that!" Said his companion: "You will, Oscar, you will..."

That companion was the painter James Abbot McNeill Whistler, for the record.

Planner said...


I just finished The Wealth of Nature. High points: HAL vs. Rosie, explanation of difference between concentrated and diffuse energy, building on Schumacher's work, and assessment of the US' international status and fate. I'm excited to see which dimension of the energy descent predicament you focus on next. Lend a hint?

I liked the post this month. Obviously you have a strong grasp of the incompatibility between efficiency and resilience. However, for my fellow readers who are interested in reading more on the subject, I highly recommend 'The Logic of Sufficiency' by Thomas Princen. He goes into great detail on this very subject in a common sense fashion. You two are neighbors on my bookshelf!

Lisa said...

You can contact me if you want about waldorf education.We ended up there after a long search for something suitable.
I am at

Cherokee Organics said...


I'm watching the debate on the debt ceiling - which has stalled. Perhaps default is the most efficient way to go? It seems self defeating to me and I'd also tax the wealthiest 1% until things were more egalitarian. I can't get my head around why this concept would cause such upset in the general masses - perhaps people are still aspirational?

Anyway, we had a sort of similiar situation here back in 1975 where one political party (they controlled the upper house)wouldn't allow the budget to be passed by the party which formed government (who controlled the lower house). It was resolved quite simply when the Queens representative sacked both houses of parliament and called for an election. There was a bit of outrage at the time, but the ruling party were not returned for good reason.

Good luck!

Hey Bill,

No stress, I was being cheeky! Thanks for the rainforest explanation - few plants here are deciduous so sometimes you forget about how massive a change must occur in your forests year after year.



Bill Pulliam said...

Rainforests tend to get overrated in terms of their contributions to biodiversity, especially in the temperate latitudes. Peak diversity on the west coast of the U.S. is NOT in the "rainforest belt" but farther south in semi-arid California (actually if you look at the west coast of North America as a whole, the peak of diversity is in western Mexico in the "dry forest" belt). Likewise, here in TN, biodiversity does not peak in the soggy rainy Great Smokey Mountains but rather in the highland rim farther west (not coincidentally where I happen to live), at medium elevations, medium topography, and medium rainfall. Some of the most diverse tropical forests are actually those on the wet end of the "dry forest" zone, not the wettest "rainforests." The term "rainforest" has acquired a lot of romance and mystique about it that sometimes is not well correlated with ecological realities.

Mel, Foxtail Farm said...

trippticket: Perhaps you've already considered and rejected this, but have you thought about homeschooling? There are a lot of resources out there to choose from, allowing for far more customization than you'll find in any public or private school. It is more work and above all more responsibility, but I believe that it is worth it.

John Michael Greer said...

RPC, what is the specific system you're measuring for efficiency, and in what units are you measuring it? What is the specific system you're measuring for resilience, and in what units are you measuring it?

Robert, you might consider writing those stories, using aliases as needed to keep the lawyers at bay, and either put the result on the web or get it into print. It would be useful to a lot of people to have a counterpoint to the mindless cheerleading about higher ed that fills so much space these days.

Jason, the author of The Gentle Art of Making Enemies seems like a good source for the comment!

Planner, the next book is on the Green Wizardry I've been discussing here for the last year. The next theme here -- after we finish up with Green Wizardry -- is the politics, geopolitics, and near- and middle-term implications of the imminent implosion of America's global hegemony.

Cherokee, one of the huge advantages of a parliamentary system is that you can have snap elections like that. Here, one or both parties can engage in all kinds of nonsense, on the assumption that when elections finally roll around the public will have forgotten.

Tripp said...

@GHung: My wife and I have been riding exactly the train of thought you're contemplating for the last two years. Last November I was asked to do a talk on home-scale poultry systems at the south regional Georgia Organics conference. Some lovely local folks attended my talk and offered us a place to live with plenty of acreage to do basically what we pleased with. After a full three years of "down-teching," simplifying, and increasing our food production capacity, we are damn near making a living out of our garden and have trimmed our monthly bills down to ~$150 total (none of which we couldn't live without, excepting perhaps refrigeration, for the moment). And that's without using any alternative energy supply. We feel we're now in a position to replace what little bit of electricity we use with PV solar, and some of the direct mechanical technology we discuss here. At least for a few crucial functions.

Back to your question, we have been receiving food stamps for the last two years, because we don't make or spend very much money (we've been paying off debt despite making 20% of what we were making 4 years ago when we acquired that debt), and we tend to spend a fair chunk of it on seed stock - potatoes, garlic, beans, etc - and have become self-reliant in these seed stocks. And we now have about half an acre in intensive permaculture production, plus some diffuse livestock systems on larger acreages (our Jersey cow is a huge boon), with plans to be a source of regional genetic stock to repopulate this area with magnificent biodiversity, and to be a provider of human scale jobs in a gasping industrial landscape, as the opportunities arise. Our model is basically "we did all this by directing our meager government support budget away from looking for work in a collapsing system, and into procreative, regenerative human ecosystem support structures, and you can too (if you hurry)."

Ship's going down, man. I don't see any way around it. You paid into the good ship USS America for years and will never see any of it back if you don't take it wherever you can get it, and do it now. There are plenty who will argue with that approach, as if your statistically-non-existent allotment is responsible for bringing down the house (trust me on this one), but if you are directing it in such a way as to provide real, long-term human resources, if you are using it to repair natural capital - the only kind that matters in the long view, then I for one think you should take the pittance and put it to good use.

I sleep really well at night knowing that I am taking a pocketful of decaying currency, based on a completely unsustainable model, and turning it into something of actual value. Within two years we'll be producing more food than my entire extended family, and all of our friends, could possibly eat, and doing it without a fossil fuel subsidy of any kind. Socially, accepting food stamps is a hard choice; ecologically, it's a no-brainer.

Tripp said...

@Adrian: Some valuable thoughts to chew on, thank you! If I knew for sure that there would be teachers like you at the public school I'd send her on!

@Lisa: Thank you for the invite. I just might take you up on it.

@Mel: Yes, we are thinking home school, or starting a small village school if there are other like minds around that are up for it and willing to share the teaching load, although none have shown themselves yet. Our best friends have a 3 y.o. who is headed for the Episcopal Montessori, which is also an option, but not our first choice. I really don't like the notion that everything is "work." We still have some serious homesteading to do, so I hope her education can just keep evolving as we roll!

Brad K. said...

@ GHung,

"Question: If you qualified for food stamps and other govt. assistance, would you take advantage of these programs while they last? Perhaps buy in bulk and stockpile staples/basics (ala Church of Latter Day Saints), increasing your resilence somewhat?"

Calling gov't assistance "resilience" may be an unwarranted assumption.

Receiving assistance, like taking a job, or obtaining livestock or growing a garden, is life changing. Yes, you get access to funds and programs. You also take on the burden of living to the expectations of each of those programs. For each opportunity that appears, you may take on the responsibility to deny others.

Adding rules, and constraining your access to resources, seems to me to be the opposite of resilience. You are subjecting yourself to many program drivers that will affect the choices you make in your daily and monthly routines, from separating out program purchases from non-program purchases, to turning down a low-paying day job because it might interfere with one of your programs.

It might make you feel more secure, and maybe more comfortable, but when the day is done I am not sure I see the resilient part.

For one thing, all your program benefits are *very* sensitive to the debt drama going on in Washington, DC. Making your situation sensitive to more ways to fail is the opposite of resilient -- failure prone.

Sorry, JMG, I still think resilience and efficiency occupy different axes on a graph, and not opposite ends of the same axis.

Glenn said...

Marginally OT here. Lowtech magazine site has just put up a very nice essay on the direct application of Solar Heat for Industrial purposes without all the foolishness of converting it to electricity first.

I don't expect it to prevent the decline of our particular version of Industrial Civ., but it's a nice glimpse into what an Ecotechnic Industry might have available in a few centuries.

Marrowstone Island

Houyhnhnm said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ruben said...


But, when you have defined a task, an event and a strategy, you are by definition not resilient to everything else. I would think that would actually increase your brittleness.

Cherokee Organics said...


Thanks for that. I don't really understand the details in US government system.

I had a flash of insight that I wanted to share and get your thoughts on - sorry it's late in the weekly cycle.

Over here there's been a debate about a carbon tax scheme which should get through Parliament and be enacted as law soon-ish.

I was wondering though about the focus on climate change over say other pressing issues such as peak oil or peak resources for example. It occurred to me that from a political perspective climate change is a good issue to focus on because the details and specifics are unknown whilst the generalities are known. It is also a bit fuzzy on the timing of the particular climate changes. As well as this, and as much as people dislike tax in general they're not unfamiliar with tax and it isn't a request to change their lifestyles.

However, with other issues such as peak oil or peak resources, it would be politically unpalatable to acknowledge either issue. To do so would mean that politicians would have to acknowledge that there is an end game to business as usual.

It seems quite a difference to me.

PS: The Australian dollar is rising as currency traders are fleeing the US$ and the Euro. Word on the street is that they consider the Australian dollar as a defacto purchase of commodities.

Actually the fall of the US$ will put immense pressure on the ability of the US to import oil. It may not be a bad thing from a big picture perspective though.



Cherokee Organics said...

Hey Ghung,

The wettest parts of the state that I live in receive on average about 2,000mm of rainfall per year and they're definately rainforest. I'm growing some of the same plant species here as they are also quite drought hardy. Australia used to have rainforest covering about 1/3rd of the land mass before people came along and upset the equilibrium. So it can grow here in very low rainfall areas. They're amazing plants and worthwhile keeping.

Yikes! 73inches. I thought it was wet here last year and we received a record 55 inches! The ground must have never dried out...

Hey Bill,

Actually the drier areas here also have the most diverse flora and fauna - just like your area. My interest in rainforests here is to reduce evaporation over summer, provide more shade than the eucalyptus canopy and reduce the overall flammability of the forest. As we have a boom and bust cycle - which I don't think you people in the Northern hemisphere can quite empathise with - most of the rainforest trees are quite adapted to both really wet and really dry years which is a major advantage. The closest exotic trees I have seen to them in terms of survivability in extreme conditions are oak trees which seem to shake off drought conditions quite easily. They do here anyway.



Bill Pulliam said...

Re: Higher education.. I left Academia after realizing it was no longer the home of the Scholar, and had been replaced by yet another home for the Salesman. The old guard, who were scholars, did not seem fully aware that this had happened. Not having a salesman's temperament, it was clear there was no happy career path for me there. So I became a trucker, a simple and marketable trade where I provided a service that was undeniably in demand and left my mind free to explore the universe. You can think about all sorts of things while you spend 10 hours a day watching an ever-changing panoramic view of the world and society from your rolling office and its picture window, and you get to see all the backstage ugliness that keeps the grand pageant of American middle class life going. The show is never the same when you have seen all the actors without their corsets or makeup, pitching tantrums while spilling their whiskey on themselves, surrounded by rickety scaffolding and frayed ropes among cardboard props and plywood sets.

I am not sure where the home for the scholar is in America at the present. A few who manage to combine both the scholar's and salesman's temperaments endure in Academia, but I am very uncertain what has happened to the bulk of us.

Bill Pulliam said...

Chris --the thing about the boom/bust adapted trees, though, is that I expect they simply *survive* the dry years and only actually make significant *growth* in the wet years. So even though they may endure a drier climate, without irrigation I would be surprised if they would actually grow well there. As for evaporative losses, in most situations plants from wetter climates are LESS conservative in terms of transpiration than those from dry climates, not more. So again I would expect that in order for them to actually grow, they would need to transpire more water than semiarid trees. Also, a denser canopy can likely only be maintained with more water in the long run. Now as for reducing flammability, that's definitely a good point.

I might suggest considering a different tack -- in your semiarid climate, there must be SOME native non-eucalypt trees, even if only a few species. If these are less flammable you might try replacing the eucalypts with them. If you have some irrigation water to spare you can likely get a denser canopy cover. But in natural forests, leaf area index (the total square meters of leaves found over 1 square meter of ground, including overlapping strata) is pretty well correlated with water availability. I doubt you will be able to support a much denser canopy long-term without providing more water.

GHung said...

JMG, Steve, Don M.: Thanks for the inputs. Things have been tight since '08 when both my wife and I lost our full time jobs 3 weeks apart (company folded, and no unemployment for me). Thanks to our frugal lifestyle, savings and part time/side jobs, we've made it OK so far, otherwise we'd have been sunk. My wife landed a solid job last winter, albeit part time, >1/2 her previous pay. Taking an 80% cut in household (formal economy) income overnight was, IMO, analogous to a major step down for the economy to come.

I would like to think the last three years have only been a dress rehearsal for the future, but it's beginning to look like we've gotten a headstart on many of you in more ways than one ;-)

Despite our best efforts, this year's harvest looks to be mediocre at best, mainly due to the heat and a major outbreak of chinese stink bugs. Many crops did well early, but declined quickly once the heat set in. My cukes produced well, then crashed (they usually produce through August). Tomatoes refuse to ripen in the heat, so I've been picking mostly green and bringing them indoors to finish ripening. Summer greens and edamame were a no go this year, while corn and okra seem to be ok. Shallots did well, but the onions went to seed early refusing to respond to nipping. They are still nice, though small. Herbs doing well as always. Garlic crashed; leaving in ground through next spring. Squash and peppers are still doing well, especially the hot peppers.
The blackberries had a bumper crop, raspberries ok, blueberries didn't like the heat it seems. Beans got tough; having to pick young (heat?). My potatos in bags seem to be doing well. We tested one bag of young Yukons last week: Superb! About 14 pounds from one feed sack. I think the technique is a keeper.

I'm hoping for good fall crops, cloning tomato plants for a late crop and planting another round of dry beans and field peas.

One high note on cukes and tomatoes: We planted a variety of heirlooms and this is a good experiment to determine what varieties will do better as the world heats up. The hybrids resist bugs and blight better but seem to have a narrower heat range than some of the old timers.

I urge you growers to keep a log/diary so to keep track of what does well where, when, and under different conditions. Get used to planting a wide variety, and stick to it.

Anyone have a good source for, or any advice regarding Japanese Rice (as featured in JMG's "Adam's Story")? We have a small wetland (not the environmentally sensitive type) below our smaller pond. Paddies would be very doable.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...


Thanks! Here are some more thoughts.

re Montessori: The episcopal Montessori might be ok, depending on how it's run (is it flexible or rigid? Does it include playtime and the arts? Are the teachers friendly, loving, and caring?).

Your daughter would not experience it as "work," and having a friend there would be a big plus. It might also be helpful to you and your friends, in terms of shared family cultures and school involvement.

Maria Montessori used the word "work" in a particular sense relating to the child's real task of growth and maturation--not in the pejorative sense that many adults attach to the word. (Not saying you do! You obviously love your work.)

She wrote some worthwhile books, such as The Secret of Childhood that I'd recommend to any parent, whether or not the aim is to send the child to a Montessori school. Many of her ideas make a great deal of sense.

Setting up a village school sounds good--but is a full-time job for whoever does it and it takes real commitment. Some folks I know have set up a Friends (Quaker) school and that has become their real work. Homeschooling requires less administration/overhead/funding--but still requires a serious time commitment from someone.

GHung said...

Tripp, thanks, seems warped minds think alike ;-) This would be a very hard choice, though, as suggested by JMG, I've checked into whether our utilizing this available resource (while certainly temporary) will have virtually any effect on the system or others' access. Nil, though some folks will counter; "What if everybody went on food stamps?"....

As you suggested, combined contributions from my wife and me are now well into high six figures, perhaps seven, all things considered. She owned and ran a business for ~20 years, employed many people,,,so we only need do the math. She was "eliminated" by large corporations pushing the small folks out via changes in State licensing requirements. She couldn't even sell her business after 20 years. Her long-time clients threw her a party, some wept over loosing her services and the prospect of having to do business with the impersonal corporate beasts. But that is long in the past.....

Brad K.: Thanks as well. Read Tripp's response, above, to get a sense of where we are in our thinking. Our lifetime, and especially the last 15 years of above average self-reliance won't be upset by accepting a small return on our investment into the collective (mess) that is our tax system. Our annual realized benefit would be roughly equal to our property taxes. Of course, if the Govt. will just give us back half of what we've put in, we'll be glad to call it a wash and put it to good use.

I'm 53 and my wife is 56. We're the baby boomers you read about who are 'fixin' to get screwed out of most/all of the entitlements we've been promised, payed for. As I've said, this ain't no party. Unlike many folks out there, we're already comfortable making tough choices.

BTW: I'll be glad to trade food stamps for a good job any day, preferably one that doesn't contribute to the madness. Meantime, I have weeds to pull, wood to cut, and veggies to deliver to the church food pantry.

GHung said...

Chris: "Yikes! 73inches. I thought it was wet here last year and we received a record 55 inches! The ground must have never dried out..."

While the ground here rarely really dries out, the forest is like a giant sponge, usually able to accomodate several inches of rain at a time, slowly releasing it into springs and streams and replenishing the aquifers. A bit like Australia, these are old, old mountains. Flooding generally only occurs due to development, though one goal of TVA's implementation was flood control.

We are fortunate to own an entire small watershed (our back property line is a TVA watershed division line), so we have no risk of foul runoff from others' properties: one reason we chose this site; all of our water falls as rain-fog-snow and rises on the property, something to consider when choosing land. Having a great stream on one's land is fine, until some irresponsible pig farmer moves in up the hill :-/

gordon said...

Regarding food stamps: They can be used to purchase seeds and plants that produce household food. Information at

GHung said...

Bill P., Chris, et al: Here's one good description of The Appalachian Mixed Mesophytic Forests, for your learning pleasure..

GHung said...

Bill P.: BTW have you been to the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest to see the forest giants? One of the few places where one can get a sense of what the eastern forests were like, pre-columbian. Not too far from here, we try to go annually, sort of a pilgrimage. A bit off of the beaten path, though I consider it a must see for those in the area. Great birding, but bring your big eyes, as most of the birds are way up there.

More here.

Houyhnhnm said...

@Bill Pulliam--

I ran into an article a while back on IQ distribution by profession. I found it unsurprising that the highest IQ individuals were truckers. Freedom to think is a major attraction for the scholar.


Houyhnhnm said...

I deleted a previous version of this and am submitting an edited version. I should not try to write after eight hours in the hot sun followed by two glasses of wine in celebration of the near completion of the duck yard.

JMG said, "Houyhnhnm, of course education should be a passion, but in contemporary America, it's an industry -- a rapacious and remarkably corrupt industry, even by American standards."

This remark hit an academic hot button, not because I disagree, but because it's a sweeping generalization. That the comment is 99.99 (or whatever) percent true does not relieve it of its status as a logical fallacy. As support, I present myself--the endangered non-industry academic. Resume available upon request.

My original comment on passionate teaching was not to deny the evils of "the industry" but to point out that MOST teachers, instructors, and professors who follow your blog are UNLIKELY to be offended by your attacks on "the industry" because they are ALMOST CERTAINLY in the fractional number that invalidates your sweeping condemnation.


John Michael Greer said...

Glenn, it might also be a very valuable source of energy for transitional industries, so useful here and now.

Cherokee, that may be part of it; climate change also seemed to offer another way for the US and Europe to pressure China et al. into accepting a permanent second class status, once the first attempt to do so (the WTO) fell on its nose (though the Chinese were no more gullible at Copenhagen than at the various trade meetings).

Bill, finding a place for scholars in near-future America is an important issue and one I plan on discussing.

Ghung, an 80% income cut is about what I expect most people to face, so you're ahead of the game.

Houyhnhnm, saying that an industry is corrupt and rapacious in no way implies that every person working for that industry is corrupt and rapacious; in the same way, the fact that there were some genuinely compassionate people in political posts in Stalin's Russia, say, does not make a statement such as "Stalin's Russia was an oppressive dictatorship" inaccurate. Of course my statement was a generalization -- all discursive knowledge consists of generalizations -- but I don't think it can be dismissed out of hand in the terms you've used, and I don't think that piling on the qualifiers does anything to improve communication in this case.

Houyhnhnm said...

JMG said, "I don't think it can be dismissed out of hand in the terms you've used, and I don't think that piling on the qualifiers does anything to improve communication in this case."

You saved yourself here with "I don't think it can," but using an I statement tends to diminish the power of an argument, reducing it to an IMO statement.

Qualifiers do not have to be piled on as I did for emphasis, but preparing a strong argument and then pinning it on a sweeping generalization is like insulating the house and then leaving the front door cracked open.

I've created a sport of spotting logical fallacies in speeches by the admin at my school, and I encourage students to slam me for mine. Fallacies occur in most of the world's famous essays, so we are all in good company.


RPC said...

But if I have to be resilient to _everything_ haven't I set myself an impossible task? My feeling is that I should deal with the high-risk stuff first. (risk: the likelihood of an event multiplied by its severity.)

I think where you're losing a lot of your mathematically literate readers is that we convert the statement "Resilience is the opposite of efficiency" into the equation (efficiency plus resilience equals some constant). But, by the math, this means that _anything_ that reduces efficiency increases resilience. And this leads to absurdities like "pouring a gallon of gas on the ground every time you refuel your car increases your resilience." Now, the statement "Resilience is almost inevitably gained at the cost of efficiency" doesn't have that problem - but it also lacks the shock value that was no doubt part of your intent in putting it the way you did!

Zach said...

And -- in an interesting display of synchronicity, we have John Robb's "ON BECOMING A RESILIENT INDIVIDUAL" today:

He does not explicitly address any trade-off vs. efficiency, however. :)


Robert said...

Bill Pulliam wrote:

"Re: Higher education.. I left Academia after realizing it was no longer the home of the Scholar, and had been replaced by yet another home for the Salesman. The old guard, who were scholars, did not seem fully aware that this had happened."

Again, I can echo Bill's words here. I survived as long as I did there by drawing on the survival skills -- including the arts of deception -- that I learned from my grandparents and great-grandparents when I was a 'teen, and from the stories they told of their earlier lives and the lives of their impoverished ancestors. (There is a fine art to "flying under the radar," whether that of the wider society or that of one's university administrators.)

But finally it became too difficult to work as a scholar there, and also to function as a teacher who cared more about his students' best interests than about university policies. And I had no respect for the sort of values that my university had begun to exhibit. When I realized that I had become deeply ashamed to be a professor at Brown University, I knew that it was time to leave.

Fortunately I was already in my middle sixties, so I simply retired. That was more than half a decade ago. It is sheer bliss to be done with the institutions of higher education.

MY wife and I have lived very frugally all our lives. We have not had any debts for the last 25 years -- that's a really important point! We are too old and creaky to do the heavy work of raising all our own food, but we are very rich in much younger good friends who are able to do that kind of work. And we have very many half-forgotten useful skills, as well as several uncommon resources, that put us in a good position to barter for food. (And old people do not need as much food as young ones do.) We expect to survive long enough to pass on these useful skills to a few young people in the next generation.

And then we die. In any forest, generally speaking, the old trees must die if the young saplings are to grow to their full stature and the forest is to live. Being at peace with one's own impending death also counts as a "survival skill," not for the individual tree, but for the forest. You can cultivate this skill even if you do not believe in any sort of individual survival after death.

@JMG: I agree, the book you said I should write might be of interest. However, I think institutional higher education will collapse soon enough without my help. A rotten tree will fall in a strong wind, even if no axe is laid to its root. One need merely wait to collect the fallen wood. (Yes, some of it may need splitting after the fall.)

Also, what time I have left is better spent writing other books, which might be of greater use to future generations.

Robert (mageprof)

Ozark Chinquapin said...

@Bill, Chris, Ghung et al, interesting info about forest types and climate. Where I live in Missouri the dominant forest trees are a number of species of oaks and hickories, although there is much diversity in the area, oaks still comprise over half of the large trees in the majority of the forests.

This is the fourth year I have lived here, the first two years I wondered why so many of the trees from further east were absent or uncommon here. For example, we have no tulip poplars, although I have seen planted ones that are healthy and even seeeded themselves in a few areas, and we have some maples (sugar and red) here and there but they tend to stay on cool, moist ravines and northern slopes and never reach the stature they do in the north and east.

2008 and 2009 were wetter and cooler than normal summers. I received my answer about why the oaks and hickories are such dominants these past two summers, which have been hot and dry, this year on pace to be worse than last year. The oaks and hickories, along with redcedar and shortleaf pine which are abundant in some areas here too, have shrugged off the dry conditions, while maples, elms (except winged elms), mulberries, serviceberries, and many other trees look visibly stressed. So I'm in agreement with Chris about oaks. Fires in the past reinforced the natural tendencies, as the more drought tolerant trees are also more fire resistant, with the exception of cedar.

Although I did my research on the climate before moving here, I did not realize some important factors. I had lived in the northeast, southern Appalachians and Minnesota and knew those climates well, and when I looked at the averages for my area of southern Missouri, we get about 44 inches of rain in an average year, with a peak in May and a smaller one in the fall, and a dip in July/August and winter. What it took me a but to realize was the whole feast or famine phenomenon with the rain here. This year we had around 17 inches of rain in a two-week period in late April/early May, with lots of flooding, but have only had one rain event over a half inch in the past two months. Being from cooler climates, the speed at which the intense heat sucks the moisture out of the ground still amazes me. Combine this all with the thin soils common around here, and the ozarks are much more drought prone than other places I've lived, even places with significantly less average precipitation. If you're planning on relocating, be aware of all these factors.

Ruben said...


Well, you don't have to be resilient to everything, but then again, you also don't get to choose the future. Evaluating and responding to high-risk events seems smart, but is not the point of resilience.

The reason resilience is so often spoken of as redundancy, and therefore as being inefficient, is that you want to increase your flexibility in responding to a large number of unknown and likely unpredictable events. Lovin's third way helps. Braungart and McDonough talk about Bad, Less Bad and Good.

Maybe another way to think about things is as failsafes. When an escalator fails, it is till stairs. When an elevator fails it may be a death trap. So is a fuel-efficient car like an escalator or an elevator?

Bill Pulliam said...

Ghung -- yes have been to Joyce Kilmer several times. There are other scattered original forest remnants (many VERY small) throughout appalachia and the southeast. It is humbling to remember that in many cases these remnants got left because these were the SMALL trees that were not worth logging! We have an original growth white oak near our house. It was not logged because its bole forks too close to the ground to have been considered good for anything but firewood. It is of course now the largest tree (by diameter) on our entire property.

About oaks -- it needs to be remembered that there are many species of oaks in North America, and that they vary enormously in their ecology. Some are trees of dry rocky uplands, some are trees of swamps that expect to have their roots flooded for many weeks each year. Some grow tall, fast, and straight, some grow short, slowly, and gnarly. Some have edible acorns, some do not. Just here on our own 40 acres we have 8 species of oaks (along with 3 species of hickory, another diverse genus); several others grow in the vicinity but just not on our land.

Ozark -- there are a whole suite of Appalachian species that don't make it to the Ozarks, mostly because of (as you noted) the more variable, continental climate there. Tulip Poplar is a biggie to be missing; it is one of our most useful native trees for structural lumber. Our house is built almost entirely of lumber made from the first cut, old-growth tulip poplar on this land. Some others of these appalachian trees make it as far west as where we live (we still have Sourwoods, which are ALREADY turning crimson in the ongoing dry spell) but drop out just to our west and don't cross the Mississippi.

Ozark Chinquapin said...

@Bill and Chris, In a feast of famine situation with rainfall, I consider building soil to be one of the most crucial tasks we face. I notice a huge difference in water retention in my garden soil in areas with higher organic matter compared to lower areas. If rainforest used to cover more much more of Australia, I wonder if the rainforest trees build soil better than the eucalypts and thus over time build an environment better suited to perpetuating themselves. I have noticed differences over here in the soil beneath different types of trees. Improved soil means more moisture storage, meaning more moisture-demanding plants can thrive, which also tend to transpire more. If enough area was changed in this manner, rainfall would likely begin to increase. On the other hand, land degradation leads to the downward spiral that's all too common in the present time. The soil is one of the foundations for our own existence and health, it's about time it was granted more attention.

I do believe that the idea of planting very densely to shade the soil and reduce moisture loss is misguided. It's pretty obvious in my garden that plants with more space don't need as much watering, and crowded ones dry out fast. It's the same as the pattern in nature, where plants space themselves out more and/or are smaller in drier areas. Transpiration by plants tends to take more moisture out of the soil than evaporation, although I have noticed a huge difference in how much water different species suck out of the soil. I had a patch this year that I hoed up in late May to plant, but didn't get to actually plant it for over three weeks, in which there was almost no rain, so the top was dusty and no weeds sprouted. However, when I came to plant it, it was pretty moist a couple inches down, while nearby grassy and weedy areas were dry to the depth of a shovel. Leaving bare soil for an extended time isn't the best thing because the organic matter slowly gets depleted, but if you break up the top inch or two to stop capillary action to the sun-baked and windswept surface, it actually retains its moisture during dry periods very well because of no transpiration.

If you build soil that retains more moisture, that land may be able to support a more dense planting, however that dense planting still uses more water than a sparser planting of the same species. For the short-term, sparser plantings conserve water. However for the long-term health of the soil, there needs to be enough biomass growing from it and then recycled back into it to keep the soil healthy.

Along this line, global warming can be thought of as not simply an increase of carbon in the atmosphere, but also a shortage of carbon in the soil. Any method that puts it back into the soil is good for the soil and the atmosphere.

Zach said...


I think where you're losing a lot of your mathematically literate readers is that we convert the statement "Resilience is the opposite of efficiency" into the equation (efficiency plus resilience equals some constant).

This is precisely the point JMG and I were discussing. There is a third quantity in the equation - it needs a name, candidates so far are "waste" (negative term) or "quality" (positive term).

But, I think your first error is considering that what is being described is an equation. Consider it, rather, a limiting inequality. So, I would rewrite your expression as '(efficiency + resilience <= some constant)'.

This fits your example nicely, where efficiency is decreased without providing a corresponding increase in resilience. What you need to provide, though, to disprove JMG's point, is an example where increasing resilience does not decrease efficiency (or conversely, where efficiency can be improved without reducing resilience).

Actually, as I think about it some more, the inequality/third term model would cover examples of that sort -- but, the very fact that you could improve both resilience and efficiency would demonstrate that the system had 'slack' in it that gave room for that improvement (in other words, there was sheer waste to be eliminated, or the quality was poor). In your contrived example, we could stop pouring the gasoline on the ground and see a win in both categories...


sofistek said...

I think JMG has nailed it but perhaps hasn't explained it well enough. Not that I can do any better - maybe it's not possible to do any better.

One thing that occurred to me is that the argument implies that the first version of any thing or process is the best that can be done. You can't make it work better (increase the efficiency of the process or product) without increasing the risk of breakage but can't increase the resilience without making it less efficient. However, I don't think that's a reasonable thing to infer. There is no "optimal" condition for a process or product, there is just what is the best for our particular circumstances at any one time. So the first version can be improved, either in efficiency or in resilience, but not both and which way you go depends on what you want to achieve. If it looks like you've done both, perhaps you haven't taken everything into consideration.

The only exception seems to be technique. Humans can wield a tool more or less efficiently and wielding it more efficiently can increase resilience, whether that's because your body lasts longer and better or because the tool lasts longer as a result or because using the tool efficiently cuts down on waste.

sofistek said...

I have to admit, JMG, that having started to read The Ecotechnic Future I had the same confusion as Marek. Unfortunately, I'm no clearer following your, sometimes impatient, exchange with Marek. I'm not suggesting that resilience and efficiency are not opposites, only that I still don't quite get what you mean by efficiency in terms of seres. You appeared to be saying that a more efficient sere will out-compete and replace the current sere, until we get to a sustainable climax sere. Sustainable seems to be the most resilient one, so I'm clearly missing something that your exchange with Marek hasn't really cleared up.

Are you likely to post on this any time soon, as I don't think a few lines in a comment section is likely to help much?

Sorry to be so stupid.

Scyther said...

John, I just read this post, and have not read through the comments, so most likely I am re-iterating, but I will quibble with you about the efficiency/resilience thing:

What you are saying is valid when comparing a tool between different versions of itself. For example the very sturdy resilient bridge vs the very efficient but much weaker bridge. Or we could compare a 1950's massive chainsaw that requires a Bunyan to wield it and is unbreakable but uses far more fuel than today's light mostly plastic machines.

OTOH, if one compares different tools that do the same job, more efficiency and more resiliency can co-exist. The chainsaw compared to the handsaw, for example. The handsaw is much easier to keep operational, and runs on the same fuel as the human body. More time is required, but still arguably doing more with less of what is scarce.

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