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.


1 – 200 of 246   Newer›   Newest»
JimK said...

My forty pound expedition bike gets sneered at by the carbon fiber crowd. But I can haul a bushel of sweet corn from the farmer's market over the nastiest potholed roads in the county!

Texas_Engineer said...

One of your best ever John.


BruceH said...

When the term resilience first started getting tossed around by Transition Towns folks and others a few years back, I found it encouraging. After all, I learned years ago in studying Ecology that one of the characteristics of healthy ecosystems is resilience.

However, after a while the term seemed to be just one more trendy idea with most people having only a very shallow concept of what it actually meant and entailed.

So I very much appreciate your concise comparison of resilience and efficiency. I can use that. Thanks.

And one more thought, back in the day, it seemed my little 6 transistor radio could pick up a lot of stations from quite a distance that the radios I own today can not. And my grandpa's old tube radio picked up the BBC, Deutsche Welle and other broadcasts from around the world and provided hours of entertainment even if we didn't know the language. My bedside radio can't even pick up local AM stations from Milwaukee and that's only 30miles away.

What happened? Are today's smaller radios just that much weaker at picking up signals or has there been a change in how things are broadcast these days?

pasttense said...

What is next after the series on green wizardry is finished?

Lloyd Lincoln Clark said...

The catechism of efficiency has always been problematic for me. But until now I hadn't realized that was simply preference for resilience, an essentially conservative ethic. Defense in depth, enabled through the creation and retention of options is expensive risk reduction strategy. But anything less is merely gambling.

oji said...

We have this very conversation/debate every year at my house when it's time to spend a bit of money (and effort) putting in the year's garden. It gets worse (for me) as crops come into season at the supermarket (before they ripen at home) and prices drop.

Seems I'm constantly reminding my wife our home-grown food is not sprayed, dusted, or treated, etc... and almost certainly contains a fuller amount and range of nutrients.

Oh, and I do all the work, start to finish. Still worth it though...five cups of black currant jam this week!

BTW, what do you think of monolithic domes?

Here are some examples.

I have no affiliation to the site, btw, and do not put it forward as a recommendation or endorsement in any way. Just a visual aid and a bit of info.

John Michael Greer said...

Jim, that expedition bike will be worth its weight in gold.

Texas, thank you!

Bruce, it's partly antennas, partly electronics, and partly the choice of frequencies. To start with the last, your grandpa's radio could tune into the shortwave bands, which most modern radios can't; it also didn't screen out faint signals, and probably had a very robust internal antenna, much better than the ones in modern radios. (The single easiest way to improve your reception in most cases is to improve your antenna.) You might look for an old tube radio with shortwave band capacity -- an excellent thing to have, and the good ones were also very attractive pieces of furniture.

Pasttense, next I'll be talking about the decline and fall of the American empire, in detail. I've started the necessary research these last few months.

Lloyd, exactly.

oji said...


Others will no doubt know far more than I, but I believe broadcast laws now limit stations to 50,000 watts, whereas I know of at least one (WLW out of Cincy) that used to be 500,000 back in the day. This meant a national audience-- not to mention a national fan base for the Red(legs).

Greg Reynolds @ Riverbend said...

Nice work. It's late and I have to get up early, so I'll make my excuses for the disjointed comments and get on with it.

First question: How long did you work in industry ?

I think that it has been mentioned before, but The Resilaint Gardener by Carol Deppe is a thought provoking book.

I'm not sure that resilaince is the opposite of efficiency. We need to close nutrient cycles to continue to produce food in a sustainable manner. That level of recycling seems very efficient. Same with weather stripping, insulation and caulking, they all mean cutting less wood.

JIT is not effiecient. Let one part of the system break down and the entire process goes haywire. That idle time can not be made up by resuming deliveries of whichever widget went AWOL.

Please make the connections between quality, energy, resiliance and efficiency.

I think that you need to remember that Bucky was working with pre 1970 technology and ideas. He was an engineer, not a philosopher. Ayn Rand anyone ?

The problem today is that lowest cost/price is the only thing that is valued. It drives ecverything. It is not efficient to buy a new car because you can't afford to repair (or replace the parts) the old one. It is simply the lowest short term cost. The most efficeint way own a car is to absolutely drive a car into the ground. The longer it lasts, the more efficient it is.

The rub is that the efficient modern model makes it possible to afford resiliance. It is hard to square that.

Counting on the hypercomplex system that provides our food, the soil, has broken down this year with the extremely variable weather. This year has shown that not much grows when you have record rainfall and below normal temperature for several interrelated reasons.

Vacuum tubes are readily available at the better grade of surplus stores. They can even test your old tubes. Diodes and triodes might be hard to find. Selenium rectifiers are pretty robust - good enough for Norton.


GHung said...

Jeez! I haven't finished reading this week's post and my mind is already buzzing with enlightening thought....Thanks!

As a teen in the '70s, I was at first fascinated by Fuller and his unique(?) perspectives, along with Frank Lloyd Wright's. Sometime back then, it occured to me that Fuller was simply building better mouse traps, reinventing wheels. I moved on (still an admirer,, of Wright as well). When most of my contemporaries were specializing, I remained the stubborn generalist, trading efficiency for resilience it seems.

The discussion of Fuller brought to mind something one of my favorite authors wrote a few years ago:

A culture, any culture, embodies a particular range of human possibility, and like everything else, it suffers from the law of diminishing returns. Sooner or later, everything that can be done from within the worldview of a culture – everything religious, philosophical, intellectual, artistic, social, political, you name it – has basically been done, and the culture fossilizes into a civilization. Thereafter the same things get repeated over and over again in endless combinations; disaffected intellectuals no longer capable of creativity settle for mere novelty or, worse still, simple shock value; artistic and intellectual traditions from other cultures get imported to fill the widening void; technology progresses in a kind of mechanical forward lurch until the social structures capable of supporting it fall away from underneath it.
JMG-Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Pop culture is an excellent barometer of cultural stagnation, as of late especially. Same stuff, different format, different decade.. Just more vulgar and intrusive. It occurs to me that Woodstock wasn't the beginning of some revolution of awareness as much as it was the last honest, screaming expression of a culture, a civilization that had peaked.

I've had a growing awareness that Peak Oil is only relevant as an indicator of peak civilization (this one, anyway); peak energy and resources are subsets of our cultural cycle's peak. Nothing new...

Anyway, back to the above quote:

..artistic and intellectual traditions from other cultures get imported to fill the widening void..

Isn't that what we're doing now? Trying to fill voids? And I've been thinking we, here, are special somehow...

More efficient, perhaps ;-)

Apple Jack Creek said...

The 'just in time' thing has always bothered me ... I always thought "and what if something goes wrong?" - which is, of course, your point. I sleep better at night knowing that at least some parts of my life are not absolutely reliant on the fragile house of cards that is our current infrastructure. Oh, to be sure, we're not 'self-sufficient' or anything, but every step towards being able to do for yourself (or being friends with someone who would happily help you out for the things you can't do on your own) sure makes for peace of mind.
A woodstove, a garden, some livestock, some chickens (when I read "One Second After" I kept wondering how *nobody* in the whole area had any laying hens...), solar power for the lights & the well (though not enough for everything), friends with horses, friends with cattle, friends with different things in their gardens ... each step is one more step in the right direction.

Marc Pfister said...

"Both those choices made the Dymaxion car more efficient but less stable, and at highway speeds that’s not a safe tradeoff to make."

Less stable? The rear-wheel steering Bucky used is dynamically unstable. There's a reason it isn't used on a single commercial road-speed vehicle.

GHung said...

BruceH, regarding radios: The EM spectrum is also far more crowded than it was in your grandpa's day; more interference from stuff in your environment, more competition for bandwidth. Modern comm devices have circuits to discriminate 'usable' signals amongst the noise, making them more.... efficient :-/ Protects you from static.

Thanks for bringing in an excellent analog to our overall situation.

Susan said...

Gee, I can hardly wait for "just-in-time" deindustrialization and societal collapse!

We have so many possible points of failure, and we are adding more every day. Look at Cloud Computing for example. When everything is on your own hard drive, if the Interweb goes down you'll at least still have your programs and data. If you depend on the Cloud and the web goes down, you'll lose everything. Oops...

All this "efficiency" came about for perfectly justifiable reasons; If your company can outproduce the competition, or at least cut costs by implementing techniques like JIT delivery, you'll be able to gain market share at the expense of the competitors who still do things the old-fashioned way, and they'll have to play the game by your new rules or else they'll go out of business. In the end, everybody has to adapt.

After reading One Second After I actually downloaded (and read) the EMP Commission report to see if all the scary hype was warranted. The potential effect on automobiles would probably be less than everyone worries about; however, the real damage from an EMP attack would be to the network of computers that control everything from from the electric grid to the natural gas pipeline system to the inventory and delivery systems for every major wholesaler and retailer, to the air traffic control system to the banking networks that allow you to swipe your credit card at the gas pump (assuming the pumps still work after the local electric grid goes down)...

In other words, we'd be screwed. The probability of a bolt-from-the-blue EMP attack is pretty low, but even a relatively small series of terrorist attacks or natural disasters hitting the right targets could ruin big parts of our economy for years. We are just too vulnerable. Remember that classic science fiction story The Machine Stops?

So, what to do?

The problem, as you have pointed out, is that it is economically non-competitive (and thus money-losing) to deploy and rely on more robust technologies when the rest of the world is becoming more "efficient." I recall some comments in recent weeks about the expense of raising horses, for example.

We all know that a hundred years from now we're going to need lots of hay burners to replace the current fleet of gas guzzlers, and cowboys will come back into vogue in much of the areas currently devoted to fossil fuel-based row agriculture in places like Nebraska and Kansas, but getting a head start on a horse-based transportation system right now will merely drive you into bankruptcy.

It seems to me that only serious hobbyists or people with sufficient disposable income can afford to do the kinds of things that will make a real difference in a timely manner.

Steve in Colorado said...

I find myself in the unusual position of disagreeing with you on this essay, JMG. Try as I might, I don't think that resiliency and efficiency are natural opposites. Rather I think it is an effect of the MBA take over of most company management the last few decades that give this illusion.

Efficiency after all is a human concept; it attempts to minimize some inputs to a process. Which inputs are considered most valuable and get minimized in the name of efficiency is entirely a human decision.

Over the last three decades, the MBA mindset has ruled, and the asset most valued was money. Our efficiency was synonymous with reducing the cost of goods and services. In an age of cheap energy and resources it meant that using more energy and resources was usually the cheaper alternative and thus more efficient. A similar logic is behind the move that sent overseas most of the local manufacturing jobs(cheap labor).

There is no reason efficiency cannot be aligned with resiliency. And in fact they will likely be natural allies in the future, when resources and energy are not cheap inputs that can be thrown at any problem to solve it. It is perfectly natural (and was for many centuries prior to this age) for a process to be efficient when it minimizes the use of rare and expensive inputs, thereby saving the supply of those inputs for future needs.

There is no reason that a "more efficient" process cannot produce a more expensive product that lasts longer, works better, and so on. It is only the MBA mindset of the day that has made "more efficient" synonymous with cheaper.

I would argue that it is not efficiency which is the enemy of resiliency, but the mindset that values money over resources, human labor and even quality of product.

Glenn said...

JMG, sorry, continuing leftover discussion from last week. Please let us know if you want us to take it off line.


Climate Change.

I was just giving the general picture for those not familiar with the patterns. I'm familiar with the relative latitudes, and don't expect the latitude of the NW to have anything to do with differences between it and the East or interior of the continent. Just being immediately downwind of the Pacific.

Europe will have problems if the reductions in Arctic Salinity as the polar cap melts shut off the thermohaline circulation boosting the Gulf Stream. The Pacific equivalent is the Kurishio Current, which due to lack of thermohaline circulation, is much weaker, but still brings us considerable moderation. The difference in the sizes of the two oceans and the Atlantic's thermohaline circulation is why Europe is warmer for a given latitude than the West Coast of North America. Not much, but it's noticable.

Mind you, I'm not betting the farm, as you say, on any of this. We've seen quite a lot of _normal_ climate variation here in the last decade. We plant a wide variety accordingly, and accept the failures as well as the successes. My wife' mantra is "more cold frames, bigger greenhouse."

Mudslides and flooding are not a problem in our neighborhood, my biggest concern is forest fire, but it's been so damp here the last 50 years it hasn't been a problem in this county. If things do dry, we'll have to cut our perimeters further back and install a dig a pond with a firepump.

I suppose it's the devil you know rather than the one you don't. I'm comfortable building to decent seismic standards, and the local volcanoes are comfortably far away. I'm actually looking forward to our next big subduction quake if it happens in my life. Should rationalize a lot of bad architecture around here real quick.

Don Mason,

One reason I find it difficult to take invasion by starving hordes by land or sea too seriously is the way human nature tends to work. By the time people realize they're going to starve if they stay where they are, they don't usually have the resources to go far. Unless the U.S. collapses first, and surviving foriegn governments supply and equip said hordes, they just won't be able to get here.
How well can a person fight who is faint from hunger? They may be desparate, but not very effective.

Having concluded that the Eastern U.S. can't hold onto the West Coast in a post industrial world, you then consign us to invasion and civil war. Sounds like sour grapes at losing your transcontinental empire to me.

While I don't personally hate the East, I certainly won't miss it much if it lets us go.


Marrowstone Island

Don Mason said...

Re: Bucky Fuller

Fuller was maddening because he was correct often enough that you couldn’t automatically discount some of the crazy things he would come up with.

Some of his engineering work (the geodesics, etc.) was outstanding.

But then he’d propose to mass produce prefabricated geodesic domes and helicopter them into remote Third World locations to give the inhabitants modern kitchens, bathrooms, and living rooms.

He wanted to replace their local vernacular architecture made from local materials with space age, mass produced materials from the First World – and the irony was that those geodesic domes would almost certainly have leaked, whereas those locals had had many, many generations of experience in how to construct a roof made of local materials that would shed water.

When you build a house for the first time, you inevitably make a lot of mistakes – but at least I didn’t make the mistake of trying to build a dome.

Drip, drip, drip…

nate said...

resilience is a luxury

BrightSpark said...

Amazing rationalisation and discussion of a number of themes that have banged around in my head for years.

Within the salvage theme I am hoping that you are going to touch upon scrap metal cycles and metallurgy, in much the same way that you did with copper. Rust never sleeps, but neither does metal once mined entirely disappears.

MNilan said...

John Ralston Saul has also talked about "efficiency". From his 1995 book "Unconscious Civilization". Ralston Saul contrasts efficiency with effectiveness. He is coming from a different perspective, but it is still relevant.
From the chapter 4 "From Managers and Speculators to Growth"
"Debts and cuts are just two of what I call the little ideologies, that distract the managerial class from any admission if their fundamental passivity before the inevitable. Efficiency is another one to watch for. This minor shop floor characteristic has been promoted to near membership in the Holy Trinity. Notice that it is efficiency not effectiveness. Effectiveness is about content and policy delivery. Efficiency is just an abstract and primarily negative term.

All the things which technocrats fear are incapable of efficiency - risk, thought, doubt, admission of error, research and development, long-term investment, commitment to concrete places. Even identification with real production is inefficient because it does not conform rigorously to models. An obsession with efficiency prevents growth and stymies capitalism. For technocrats, one of the attractions of what is called service industries is the servile and non-concrete character of such businesses."

Ruben said...

Your column tastes quite nice paired with The Automatic Earth this week.

p.s. Apropos of TAE, the security word is tailing(s).

Robo said...

EMP? What about about natural forces beyond human control? Our technological house of cards still stands only because the Sun has been fairly quiet for the past 13 sunspot cycles. A massive solar flare like the Carrington Event of 1859 would quickly inform us about the true resilience of modern electrical and electronic systems.

An author named William R. Forstchen has written a book on this subject, titled "One Second After".

I'd like to think that the selenium rectifier in my 1957 Telefunken could survive that kind of blast, but there wouldn't be anything left on the air to listen to anyway, even if I could generate the power to run the receiver.

Except for those resilient few who have an abacus, mechanical adding machine or typewriter, most of us are just one super-flare away from old-fashioned pencil-powered calculations and communications.

By the way, regarding BruceH's question about reduced AM radio reception, another important factor is the vast increase in noise and interference caused by digital devices everywhere. The broadcast airwaves were much quieter back in the analog era, so stations sounded better and were audible over much greater distances. It is also true that most modern receivers have minimal antennas and extremely cheap radio and audio circuitry.

Susan said...


Yes, monolithic domes make a great deal of sense. Here are some links you might find interesting:

(This last one features a picture of a community of underground homes that looks amazingly like the Shire...)

My husband, the retired civil engineer, has been working on plans for our future energy-efficient underground concrete dome Hobbit House for some time now. They can be very sturdy, and last for hundreds of years (unlike the current ticky-tacky tract houses or McMansions). Now all we need is some money and some land...


I just finished reading The Ecotechnic Future, so here is my first contribution to the dissensus:

I think we need to bring our scattered relatives (and selected friends) together into extended families living in fairly close proximity, just like our great grandparents did. We need to practice old-fashioned home economics, with not only goats and chickens and a vegetable garden and a nice kitchen for canning food, but also studios and workshops and other amenities that could allow us to have one or more small family businesses, or at least be self-sufficient in things like clothing and home-made soap.

One or more people can work at outside jobs (while jobs are still available), while others do the farming and construction and maintenance and cleaning and cooking and taking care of Grandma (that would be me). I envision something like one of those family compounds like they have in Afghanistan or Pakistan, or a manor house in the south of England (without the servants quarters or the Agatha Christie murders during fox hunting season)) that can stay in the family for generations.

That last point is very important: without a large inheritance or a winning lottery ticket, it will take generations to turn a small farmstead into a relatively self-sufficient family enterprise with the home-made windmills and four-season greenhouses and humanure composting and methane-generating waste recycling system, etc, that will permit it to be sustainable over the long run.

In the first few decades, while the fossil-fuel-based industrial economy is still sputtering along, we will still have access to jobs and the Internet and money. This would be the time to build up a library of reference books and get the garden going and caulk those leaky windows.

While the electric grid is still up and running, we could use power tools to build the workshop in which we could later build the solar panels and wind mills to generate our own inefficient (but very resiliant) electricity after the grid goes down. After I'm gone (I want to be buried in my rose garden), the next generation will have a base from which to do whatever needs to be done next, and so on, unto the Nth generation.

A hundred years from now, my great-great-grandkids may be raising draft horses for the Yellow Cab company in the nearest big town, or manufacturing small electric generators from salvaged truck alternators for all the neighbors (my son, the gun nut, wants to make gunpowder using the traditional recipe of saltpeter, charcoal and sulfur).

We want to be land owners, not renters or refugees (who knows, maybe only land owners will get to vote in a future society, just like 200 years ago). In a thousand years or so, it would be so much better to be landed gentry than serfs, in whatever kind of society that develops. Land, especially agricultural land, has been the traditional basis for wealth and power for thousands of years, and after the last drop of oil is pumped out of the ground, it's going to be like that for thousands of years to come.

Now all we have to do is prevent some future child from losing the family estate in a poker game (that's the kind of thing I worry about sometimes after reading all those historical romance novels)...

jbucks said...

There's a good book about resilience I read a couple of years back called Resilience Thinking: Sustaining Ecosystems and People in a Changing World by Brian Walker and David Salt, which explains resilience in the same way (as being opposite of efficiency).

It seems to me that a loss of resilience is starting to happen in the computing/internet industry with the trend towards 'cloud computing'. This is a trivial example, but the more of my files, music, and software is held in the 'cloud' and not on my own computer, the less resilient I am!

Cherokee Organics said...

Hey JMG,

It's interesting that you mention resiliency. People don't get it - yet. I get strange comments from people regarding the diversity and number of fruit trees here.

I grow 250+ different fruit trees, essentially because I like home grown organic fruit, but also years ago I realised that the climate was extremely variable from year to year and that unexpected things can happen such as locust plagues - with little warning.

Without the huge diversity, it would be a very risky venture relying on that fruit production. I'm unsure how mono cultures succeed without large inputs of fertiliser, water and pesticides.

But with the diversity I can shrug off shocks. Some years yellow stone fruit do better than white stone fruit etc. Sometimes the high humidity encourages fungal growths. Sometimes low humidity produces small intensely flavoured fruit (higher sugar levels) but you have the risk of bush fire.

The same principles can be applied to chooks. There's about 7 different varieties in the chook run so I get eggs all year - even today in the middle of winter - love the Silkies. If I only had Isa Browns, there'd be no eggs for the next few weeks until the days get longer.

You can do the same with vegetables, don't grow one sort, grow 50 sorts and stick to heritage varieties as you'll be able to collect the seed and breed up strains that suit your area, soil and climate.

Power systems are the same and I'm thinking about adding a small wind turbine to supplement the solar PV over winter.

Resiliency may also mean only having two lights on in the house over winter to reduce your power usage though. Like today after three days of sitting in a cloud...

As to EMP, well people were asking me about this in relation to solar PV power generation. Basically the inverter and the regulator in such a system would be stuffed. However the panels and batteries should be OK. Some panels have a diode which may be fried, but this can be bypassed. The diode (which works by letting energy flow in one direction only) is there to stop power leaking out into space at night through the panel from the batteries. You could still have a useful system without the other two components - it may be a bit manual though - I'm not sure what you'd connect up to that system though unless you had some more resilient form of appliance such as a valve radio. I'd think one of the small thermoelectric fridges would probably be OK too as they're pretty simple.

If your area was hit by an EMP pulse get back to basics straight away and there's still plenty of biological systems and basic tools that would still mean that you could have an OK life. Plenty of people lived in pre-Industrial times.

My advice to people is stop worrying and get on and do something productive.



Mean Mr Mustard said...


I used to be a Business Continuity Planner for a large public sector organisation. I suspect the post was established as a knee-jerk to 9-11. Even in the relatively good times, I had no budget to go with the role. I wasn’t allowed to disrupt routine business to test ‘resilience’ in exercises, but the series of incidents – power cuts lasting days, IT networks failing for a week, water cut off, gas leaks, flooding, severe weather, and even pestilence, in the form of Swine Flu, all provided me with abundant real-world material for Lessons Identified papers (as distinct from Lessons Learned) which I would dutifully offer to those above me. Whereupon they would receive a Good Stiff Ignoring, as the particular crisis had just passed.

I think much of the problem I had in convincing these so-called managers, preoccupied with efficiency drives and tactical firefighting, was to think strategically, ten years out, and properly consider the likely disruptions over that timescale. For a business, loss of people, equipment, premises, power, information or reputation just about covers it all. Still, there’s no benefit in strategic and negative thinking when the next Quarter’s results are due in and highly visible tactical efficiency drives are all the rage, and nobody ever got Brownie Points for preventing a crisis unseen, only for overtly solving one that had already blown up.

Anyway, I could see that my caring employer was in long term decline and accordingly made my own plans, and thankfully, I no longer work there. Since I left, they’ve concentrated onto a single site, endured severe budget cuts and reputational attacks, and their decline trajectory has deepened somewhat. Sadly, the same is true of the Business Continuity specialism in general, invariably seen as an add-on and not remotely connected to the survival of a business.

These days, I still apply Business Continuity principles in my domestic setting. Meanwhile, over at FEMA...

At his first all-staff meeting with FEMA employees, Fugate asked for a show of hands: “How many people here have your family disaster plan ready to go? [If you don’t], you just failed your first test … If you’re going to be an emergency manager, the first place you start is at home..”

Water, meds, light, heating, food, information (car radio), cash, bug-out bag in case of a family crisis, and so on. Check. I recently did some simple business continuity exercises here at Chateau Moutarde – checking my email account worked on the local library computers, and going through emergency equipment and papers in the car. How many people check the pressure of the spare tyre..? Remember folks – do try this at home, and never, under any circumstances, keep your appointments and vital contacts in a computer based system. 

Lizzy said...

This is an excellent article, thanks. I look forward to Thursday mornings when I can read your latest thoughts.

Has anyone else heard the expression "over engineered", as in "the washing machines are over-engineered and inefficient"? It's exactly what you are talking about. It annoys me hugely that I had to throw out a washing machine last month, because the "efficient" and "smart" electronic controls had died in our last, very cold, winter. The mechanics and the motor were perfectly sound. Replacing the chips would have cost almost as much as a new machine.

One of the projects I have here is to learn about mechanics. How engines work, how to make things.

Best wishes

sofistek said...

Brilliant. You have a knack of turning perceived wisdom on its head and transforming into actual wisdom.

Karim said...

Greetings all!
It is amazing how you, Mr JMG, can come up with so many fertile ideas and concepts! You are certainly not pass peak, thankfully for us all!

Just to add my little contribution, it seems that resilience is elastic: it springs back if not stretched too far apart, whilst efficiency is like brittleness: past some point it breaks down and becomes non functional. They can be conceived as opposite poles of a continuous spectrum, the more efficient a process becomes, the less resilient it is and the more brittle it ends up and vice versa.
So in the end we need to make our civilisations more elastic!

Rhisiart Gwilym said...

"It may well turn out that burning through the available resources, and then crashing into ruin, is simply the [psychologically-inevitable] way for a civilization to go."

Forgive my emendation John Michael. I wonder, as an erudite historian, do you know any exceptions which might counter-argue my hunch? I can't think of any.

phil harris said...

Good one.
I heard recently the 'container revolution' described as the means by which 'globalisation' expanded this last 30 years, and the essential enabling condition for the expansions of GDP that went with it. (The finance system went along with that.) Could well be a correct hypothesis.
Another fine example I see close to my home on the Scottish Border, is that technological marvel the John Deere tractor. They do not break down often, but if they need a spare part, an electronic message to Texas brings the part on the afternoon plane. These marvels do make for timely cultivations and harvests - you can do most of a large farm in a few days, and with our weather that means a great deal for crop yields. Now we could make do with less efficient machines (we did) or even with horses. One farm near here in living memory had 26 pairs of Shires, but these dear creatures could only work hard 8 hours a day and needed a lot of ground to feed them.
The equivalent I suppose to valve radios in farming is very sturdy ICE-based machinery that can be blacksmithed and run on local oil-seed diesel. But even then, a robust diesel motor is a very sophisticated piece of kit.
It will be a very different world for us if we have to live on salvage like many parts of present 3rd World. We will still need those bags of grain and legumes even in our buttoned down little howf with a vigorous veggie and fruit garden.
Lucky perhaps they restored the old Water Mill down the road as a tourist attraction! :)
I think I am joking. More significantly, we can actually each reduce our personal 'demands' and get by better, as you say, investing time 'profitsably' if 'inefficiently', on the house and garden and any manner of apparently daft projects.

Yupped said...

Great topic. The question of trust runs through it to some degree. For example, in the last 50 years food production has largely moved out of backyards and local farms to regional, national and now overseas markets without a lot of hand-wringing about whether we should trust all these people we don’t know to feed us. Same with manufacturing, customer services, banking, etc. We’ve been quite comfortable in trusting “the system” to provide. Astonishing, really, for a species that isn’t always that great at getting along with the neighbors.

I think people believe on some level that “the system” is more trust-worthy, reliable, and resilient than what they can do locally, and that it provides lower cost, more choice and more fallback. At some point in the evolution of these markets that was probably all true. But as the systems matured and became more dependent on a few weak transportation links they became more brittle. But I don’t think most people have realized that yet and in the meantime they don’t trust themselves to do much locally anymore. So we have to lose trust in the system, while building it back up in ourselves. That will be a neat trick.

On a related topic, it’s amazing how much resiliency there is baked into one of the key enablers of all this efficiency – the information technology infrastructure. Redundant network connections, onsite power generators, fallback data centers, hot and cold failover systems and backup services of all kinds. When I was doing IT for a living, we could think of all kinds of reasons why the computers might fail, and how they would need to be double and triple protected, but we didn’t give quite so much thought to the risks inherent in moving the accounting department to India. Oh well.

anagnosto said...

I was having similar ramblings last week when I acquired another two Aladdin paraffin lamps. Now leds are firmly stablished they are clearly much efficient even with house produced electricity. But what in 50 years? Even without standard chimneys, mantels or wicks supplies, the old lamps can be put to work.

Twilight said...

I introduced the efficiency vs. resilience idea into my workplace (a small electronics manufacturer) when you discussed it some time ago. I've noticed it entering discussions several times since then. There are things we can do along those lines, such as substituting labor for automation, and I've managed to get some of that adopted.

Still, we use electronic components from a complex global supply chain. It's not been lost on me that it's impossible for such an activity to become truly resilient. But maybe the idea will stick with some, and that was really the reason I introduced it anyway.
completely agree with your ideas of salvaging resiliency, and it's well known that older products were designed with much more margin, as without computer aided design one could not design so close to the edge. Now that extra is considered waste, as people cannot seem to imagine the role it was playing - until it fails. However, I don't put much stock in the whole EMP thing - sure it would destroy many electronic circuits, but probably not the ones I design. There are many good standards in existence now that test how products will perform when subjected to various transients and surges. You certainly can protect against such things, but of course it always depends on just how hard you hit it, so there would be a lot of variability depending on location. And most products do not carry those costs.

MNilan said...

Also from Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of "Fooled By Randomness" and "The Black Swan":
Be Inefficient, Increase Redundancy, Beware Optimizers

Much of the happiness research invites people to be satisfied with their assets and live comfortably on 1.x times minimum wage. “Money does not make you happy” they say, self-servingly, since they are all academics and do not necessarily know what money means outside of experiments which they seem to call “real-life” (I don’t believe it is that simple, as general statements like these have so much variance that particulars might not match). But I am certain that “having money” is certainly necessary; greed and hoarding are good, particularly when you don’t spend it and wake up every morning to count the beans. Why? Because of the possibility extreme, unexpected events. You just need a larger buffer than we are told by the fools. You need redundancy. A lot of redundancy.

Complex systems tend to optimize –therefore become more fragile. Electricity grids (Barabasi, 2003) optimize to the point of not coping with unexpected surges –Barabasi warned us of the possibility of a NYC blackout like the one we had in 2003. Quite prophetic, the fellow. Electricity kept getting more and more efficient since, particularly in the UK. No slack.

Only idiots (such as Banks) optimize, not realizing that a simple model error can blow through their capital (it just did). Goldman Sachs experienced 24 x the daily transaction volume in August 2007 –would 29 times have blown up the system? The only weak point I know of financial markets is their ability to drive people & companies to “efficiency” against risks of extreme events.

I was in a hotel room in Istanbul when the internet cable connection died. I called the operator who connected me to a gentleman who had a strong Indian accent –“I see, sir, that rrrrooooom 223 should now have a connection, sir, now, go, sir, connect again, sir”. I asked him out of curiosity if there were many Indian techies in Istanbul (I was also impressed with his non-Mediterranean politeness). “No, sir, I am not in Istanbul, sir”, he replied. He was in India and could tell that room 223 was now connected. So efficiency is driving us to use Bangalore (etc.) as our IT because it is very optimal. But what happens to the world if there is a problem there? Are we equipped?

Option-theoretic analysis: redundancy is like long an option. You certainly pay for it, but it may be worth it.

Biology: Complex systems, like the human body, and mother nature, are NOT optimized. They harbor plenty of duplicate pathways, plenty of redundancies.

Jason said...

I love this JMG. I also can use this. It's a variation of the thunderstorm-not-lasting-all-day of Lao-Tzu. Enormous power is held in reserve in nature but used correctly, invested in stable structures etc.

As all the qigong players will know, that evolved methods of using bodily energy the same way, with a good reserve on board. Hard to argue with the results.

Talking of which, before you do the decline and fall thing, I hope you'll have something green-wizardly on medicine.

idiotgrrl said...

As I put it in my weekly summary to a friend, "efficiency is lean, mean, and brittle. Resiliency is big, durable, and has backups."

I've been going for the latter as a stated goal for some time now.

Eric said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Thijs Goverde said...

Love this post! Useful dichotomy to have at one's disposal... 'no dear, I'm not being inefficient, I'm being resilient'. (I've just started gardening and so far I'm very, um... resilient? Though I may be stretching the proper use of the term a bit?)

@ Oji: I think I know what you mean. In my house, gardening counts as one of my hobbies. So if the financial costs don't outweigh the benefits - and one or two good pumpkins should be equal in price to a small packet of seeds - all that you're putting into is is work-hours.
Workhours that might be spent making money.
But you're not doing it in lieu of work, you're doing it for relaxation. At least, that is the convention.

Alexander Ac said...

John Michael,

first of all, superb post!

And several notes. My concerns started with climate change which brought me to the fact that we must reduce fossil CO2 output.

Logical outcome was nuclear power (as the only concentrated alternative to coal/oil, given that electromobiles etc. are also there..)

But later I discovered peak oil and I was first happy that we will be *forced* to sustainability and eventually to nuclear power (+ bit of wind and solar).

But later I discovered complexity issues and realized that one cannot support highly complex nuclear electricity in a de-complexifying world. Indeed, you cannot support a whole lot more things. This knowledge waits for the discovery by many climate change forced nuclear advocates (Monbiot?)...

So now we have it - gas, coal, oil and nuclear are all going wrong - so not much complexity is left in the eco-technic future and how many people are ready to accept such reality? May I suggest that almost nobody?

And a final point, I think that it makes no sense to be resilient in a city (hey, (mega)cities are much more efficient than villages etc...), only outside urban areas, so... how would such a world look like?



gaias daughter said...

A note of interest: Lloyd Kahn (author of the aforementionned _Shelter_) is still around and still publishing. His website is ripe with interesting tidbits and his new book, _Tiny Houses_, is due out soon. Besides which, Lloyd is just one gnarly dude!

Kirk said...

A great post! Maybe I won't take down the old TV antenna tower next to the house. Could be great for amateur radio since it's surrounded by trees and thus not useful for wind power.
We need to address the generations-long trend toward genetic efficiency: breeding the broodiness out of hens, foraging ability out of "meat" chickens, and so many other examples. Resilience is also the opposite of specialization!

Glenn said...

Excellent subject, my brother and I have been discussing it between ourselves for a couple of years now, in terms of rural life. Having to drive to get propane vs the effeciency of piped in Natural Gas in a city; buying a bag of chicken feed once a month (if you can' grow your own) vs buying commercial eggs at the big grocery store; buying firewood by the gallon of chainsaw fuel... None are effecient in terms of our time, anyway, but it sure is resiliant.

I've heard the grousing about Buckminster Fuller's domes for years. Yet I've known many people in the damp NW who built them and did _not_ suffer from leaks. They all did the same two things; paid carefull attention to flashing on the upper panels, and covered them in shingles or shakes over the structural plywood and either good thick tar paper or Tyvek. I believe Bucky intended them to be factory built with cleverly engineered seals at the joints...
I also recall reading an essay that said they were originally engineered to use bent plywood as the structure, without the lattice frame.


Marrowstone Island

Don Plummer said...

A leaf rake is certainly far less efficient than a carbon-energy-powered leaf blower. But I can repair the rake if one of the bamboo tines breaks off. I can't repair the leaf blower if it breaks down. And if I become incapacitated and can't rake my yard, I can pay a neighbor kid some cash (or in kind, if necessary) to do it for me. How resilient!

beneaththesurface said...

Your post made me think of why I still continue to do a lot of my personal bookkeeping and accounts in my own handwriting in notebooks, even as I still value some aspects of computer technology (reading and commenting on your blog for one thing!).

Maybe it would be more efficient for me to keep financial accounts on computer spreadsheets that do that calculating automatically for me, but I prefer to write them by hand. I can access them when I want, regardless if the electricity is out or I am having computer problems. And even aesthetically, I like seeing the humanness of my own handwriting sometimes.

Lately, I have experiencing going to appointments, the library, or wherever and find that computer system is down, which makes things much harder. Patients'/members' info and schedules can't be easily accessed, sometimes to the point that the daily routine is adversely affected and events need to be rescheduled. If people had relied more on simpler, maybe less efficient handwritten accounts, these problems would occur less.

I also notice that with greater efficiency, people's day-to-day basic skill levels often go down. I particularly see this in basic math skills. Part of the reason why I sometimes do my own calculation for my own accounts even if it takes longer, is that it helps reinforce my math skills. I am surprised at how many people I meet who have had many years of advanced math, yet they can't do basic math in their head or on paper for practical purposes in daily life.

I remember being the only one in my high school calculus class who didn't have a fancy graphing calculator (my parents, probably remembering not needing one in the days they took calculus, didn't think it was a necessity and wouldn't buy me one). It often took longer for me to figure out calculus problems than my peers without one, at least initially, but it was advantageous because it made me learn and understand calculus more. It increased my resilience of a certain kind.

Sixbears said...

I'm currently living in a dome home I built in 89. All my seams were covered with ice and water shield before putting the roofing on. No leaks. Even my skylights don't leak. Like the dome design, but Bucky's materials weren't up to it in the 60s.

If I remember correctly, at one time Russian fighter planes had tubes when we had solid state so as to protect against EMP.

Trends in nature seem to go towards efficiency ending in collapse. Looks like societies will do the same. However, unlike the natural world, we should be able to guide our social evolution. Doesn't seem to be happening though.

At least the possibility for resilience exists at the personal level. Individuals can make choices.

Cities are more efficient than single country homes, but a lot more prone to system failure -and societal failure.

Norberto said...

This is an interesting approach to Resilience. However, i prefer to see resilience as the other side of "vulnerability".

As far as i understand, resilience is the ability to recover rapidly from a failure. In an ecological context, resilience is defined as "the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and still retain its basic funcion and structure". Form a community point of view, building a resilient community means developing its citizens and institutions' capacity to be able to respond to and influence the course of social and economic change.

i like to think about resilience as the capacity of being ready to upcoming changes, social, economic, ecological. It is not about preventing change, because change happens, no matter what. Rather, it is about increasing our capacity to change and adapt.

Another way to see resilience is the capacity for continuous reconstruction, in ourselves, our communities, our systems.

Richard Heinberg says "it is no longer about saving the planet but rather, cooperating with the changes the planet is forcing upon us".

i wonder if we could even say that becoming resilient will mean to be increase our efficiency to adapt ourselves to whatever is coming.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Most interesting. In addition, an emphasis on efficiency can can kill problem-solving and creativity, which require "inefficient" think-time and play-(or experiment) time--sort of like what inefficient nature is doing all the time with evolution? So an "expert" in a field might be more efficient, but less adaptable/resilient?

This leads me to think that the quality, or ontology, of resilience also involves adaptability and flexibility along with redundancy: not in a causal relationship, but as interrelated systems elements? In human individuals, human societies, other species and biosystems? (Can someone help me with this?)

Not to mention my own garden, where I'm going right now. Where I grow pollinator plants--"inefficient" because they don't (directly) provide me food--along with vegetables and fruits. This spring I noticed an increase in honeybees: traced them to a new beehive in a backyard about a block away. Their bees, my plants--together, an increase in local resilience.

Zach said...

An excellent explanation - thank you!

I suppose I have an odd perspective (shaped by years in software, plus experience and observation in manufacturing and agriculture), but the tradeoff between efficiency and resiliency is just so... OBVIOUS ... to me that I find it hard to explain. However, this does explain my annoyance with the Cult of Efficiency.

One thing to keep in mind when the spectre of "efficiency!" is raised, is that efficiency is always relative to some chosen metric. "Efficient use of what?" is always a good question.


Cathy McGuire said...

Thanks, JMG, for helping me clarify an aspect of my new lifestyle that was troubling – I consciously and instinctively was aiming for resilience, but was disturbed by the increasing inefficiencies in my life: all the redundant supplies; the slower, less time-efficient methods, grated on my old sensibilities. It’s helpful to think of it as an either/or, because then my choice is clear: resilience is the goal. It also helps clarify the tradeoffs of public infrastructure, in a way that I might be able to use when discussing with friends.

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. Well, dang – efficient till the end… what a way to go! ;-}

But even so, sometimes it seems my lower-level tools are more efficient than the tech ones. For example, it’s great to be able to grab my scythe and whack down the few taller weeds in my front yard, rather than starting the mower just for those weeds. It takes a couple minutes; I don’t have to wonder if it’s “tuned up” and it’s quiet and easy & quick to put away! No stink either. :-)

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.

This sounds like a great new job for someone who’s good with glass and basic radio – making “survival sets” to sell to all those who are now aware of the danger and want to have a backup!!

@GHung: When most of my contemporaries were specializing, I remained the stubborn generalist, trading efficiency for resilience it seems.

Yes, I couldn’t stick with specialization, and blamed myself for being unfocused. But it’s quite probable that some inner gut feeling was pushing me to keep a little skill of each type. I’ve always enjoyed being a “Renaissance woman” (ie: jack of all trades, master of none).

Please pardon any typos, I’m writing with a baby rooster sitting above my keyboard, learning to crow!

Petro said...

JMG - The clarity of your writing - your easy conversion of ostensibly complex ideas into simple common sense - humble this writer.

I am reminded of a quote from the execrable (but fun! fun! fun!) movie Independance Day (Brent Spiner's chracter, Dr. Okun):

"You're really starting to make [me] look bad."


Moncrief Speaks said...

Really brilliant and thought-provoking information, JMG! I look forward to your next series of posts.

Moncrief Speaks said...

Meanwhile, the New York Times imagines an oil-less future in its design/fashion section.

DaShui said...

Greetings Archdruid Greer!

I know of one place that the government has taken the cause of resialtcy over corporate interests, that would be passenger aviation. All passenger airplanes are required to have at least 2 of everything, up to two engines, two pilots, and carry extra fuel, which of course means more weight, and more fuel use. I'm sure the airline industry would prefer 1 or even no pilot and carry just enough fuel to arrive. Years ago, even before you started this blog, I quit flying, because I saw a chart of fuel production compared to fuel consumption, and
I realized that there is no future for commoners in aviation.
As a side note, French airline pilots drink wine in the cockpit

DPW said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Carl said...

Dear JMG

A couple years ago after reading your blog and books I decided to take up the hobby of homebrewing beer to be more resilient in my community. I've enjoyed it over the years and my India Pale Ale with homegrown hops is getting better with each batch. While I agree that a good homebrew beer will always be in demand during decline, making that same brew could be a problem. I live in Napa, CA and we grow a lot of grapes (all dependent on electric provided irrigation), but no barley or wheat (though in the early 1900's our hills were covered in winter wheat and this area was the biggest supplier of wheat west of the Mississippi). Without supplies of malt extract coming into my homebrew shop from around the world, my brew days would be numbered. Bags of barley could be stored, but that would only be a short term solution and not sustainable with about 10 lbs needed for an all grain batch of beer. I don't even think barely is raised in CA on a comerical scale. So seeing my beer making days limited without a reliable source of barley, I've recently taken up mead or "honey wine" making.

As I'm sure you know, mead has been around for thousands of year and predates beer and wine in Africa. It was very popular in pre-Roman Europe (the Romans wanted wine and beer made as they could tax the grapes and barley, but harder to tax wild honey) and was made everywhere honey was found. So with a good supply of honey, which is available locally, I can be making a tasty fermented alcoholic beverage that would be in demand when beer and wine is in short supply.

Well that's the plan so far to have more resiliency in the future. Thank you for all of your ideas and time over the years. I've also recently bought your Druidry Handbook and I'm looking forward to my next ceremony on August 1st.

DPW said...

On a lighter note: efficiency is often a matter of ignoring externalities...the classic economic juggle-wiggle of dismissing what can't conveniently be brought into the model.

Take dinner: the most efficient way to get calories for me is 1) fast-food, 2) small-restaurant 3) pre-packaged frozen, 4) cooking from prepared ingredients, 5) cooking from scratch...with a few more shades in there.

But I take the time to cook almost every night/day because it's a good exercise in resilience AND it's better for my family when considering the externalities of obesity, chemicals, labor-practices, self-sufficiency, etc.

I made a wonderful chicken korma last night in under an hour from scratch...though the coconut milk, rice, and spices did travel a mighty long way to my cupboard. At least the chicken and veg were local-ish.

solon said...

Great post, thoughtful, I'd echo that it's one of your best ever. I hope it's widely read.

John Michael Greer said...

Oji, I prefer megalithic to monolithic. ;-)

Greg, I didn't work in industry. Before I made it into print, I worked in what Reagan-era Republicans used to call "high paying service jobs" (that is to say, minimum wage scut work) and did a stint as a househusband. As for efficiency and resilience, I don't think you're paying attention to what the words actually mean. Saying that just-in-time systems are inefficient because they break down when challenged, for example misses the entire point of my post, and makes hash out of the meanings of the words.

Ghung, you're welcome -- and you're quite right; none of this is new. Just the names have been changed.

Apple Jack, exactly. It's a matter of moving in the direction of resilience, focusing on what you can do now with what you have, and then taking the next step from there.

Marc, well, yes, but it's not just that. A narrow wheelbase and a high center of gravity means that you roll very easily.

Susan, bingo. Hobbyists -- that is, people who do something for reasons other than economics -- are one of the only hopes we've got at this point. "Help me, basement inventor! You're my only hope."

Steve, that's a different issue. It's also a relevant one, but I don't think you've grasped my point. Whatever the resource that is being conserved by efficiency, the more efficient an object or process is, the less margin for error that object or process has in relation to whatever that resource is needed to do -- whether it's structural strength in a bridge, or whatever. To make something resilient, it has to have that margin for error, which it can only have if resources are used in a less than efficient way.

Don, exactly. It's Fuller's ability to reason brilliantly from hopelessly wrong preconceptions that makes him worth studying.

Nate, true, and so is survival. Both are luxuries I like to have around.

Spark, I've actually discussed it here in the past, though it's been a while. The neoprimitivists used to get very sullen when I pointed out that rust makes a very good iron ore, which can be smelted into usable form over a charcoal fire.

MNilan, thank you for the reference! I'm not familiar with Saul's work, and clearly I need to be. said...

I'm actually off work for a few months thanks to 'efficiency' changes at work, which led me to an acute stress reaction and a form of PTSD. I'm not the only one, either, to have this sort of reaction to these changes. When one is dealing with human lives, increasing the level of stress on nurses and other direct care providers does not do the patient a bit of good, and indeed can do a good bit of harm. Witness the increase in *serious* medication errors reported on the national news recently. One nurse committed suicide after just such an error which killed a preemie.

I see this as a direct result of 1. putting cost efficiency before people and 2. valuing management over the line staff that make management's jobs possible.

anognostic: your aladdin lamps DO in fact depend on fossil fuels. They don't work without the paraffin or kerosene to fuel them. I have several kerosene lamps and one aladdin lamp, which burns many times the fuel my kerosene lamps do - it also gives off much more light and heat, so we do use it in winter for the benefits. They have their issues though. Olive oil (or other vegetable oil) does NOT work in those lamps. They only became possible as a result of fossil fuels - do some research on what they used before paraffin and kerosene. It's pretty ugly.

Rechargeable solar lamps may not last several lifetimes as a kerosene lamp has already done, but they will last for many years. By the time they no longer work, we will be back to plain old oil (not fuel oil, vegetable oil) lamps and less agreeable alternatives. Frankly, it's better if you just plan on going to bed and getting up with the sun. It's what humans have done for millennia.

JMG, thought you'd find this article interesting, as it indirectly supports your point about efficiency and shows the ultimate result:

Bill Pulliam said...

Glenn -- I will just point out again that climate is an incredibly complex systems, and the models that are predicting climate change are many orders of magnitude simpler than the real world. Hence one should not say "will" or "won't" when talking about it; it's questionable if one should even say "expected" or "not expected." In the last decade the apparent global warming effects in the Arctic have been running faster and in different directions than what was "expected;" meanwhile the "expected" Antarctic warming is difficult to find.

To repeat this weeks theme -- Resilience. This means planning your system to survive a wide range of possible futures, and not putting too much stock in what climate models, demographers, economists, historians, and random blog commentors say "will" or "won't" be. There are some really big forces that can be reasonably foreseen -- like diminishing global energy availability and such. But the details? Nope.

wahkiacusw said...

@Susan wrote:
"It seems to me that only serious hobbyists or people with sufficient disposable income can afford to do the kinds of things that will make a real difference in a timely manner."

There's at least a third option, that of voluntary associations of people with like interests. Such organizations have the potential to incorporate various skill sets and levels of interest to create a network that can manifest and spread information. The annual G-Wiz event ( ) is an example of an association that's focused on the manifesting the concept of Green Wizardry.

Voluntary associations are a way to bring social capital back into the equation, something which modern calculations of efficiency exclude.

John Michael Greer said...

Ruben, true enough. I read TAE fairly regularly, so there may be some influence going on. At least your security word wasn't "toxic waste in your water supply, thanks to the current natural gas bubble"!

Robo, what I've heard is that the old rectifiers are vulnerable to EMPs. You'll want to have a spare in a metal box somewhere, or replace it with a diode tube. Solar flares are a different matter -- they don't produce the sudden pulse that fries solid state electronics; with a big flare, we have to worry about the electrical grid turning into a giant antenna and picking up voltages that will fry every grid transformer in North America.

As for nobody being on the air, that's why I push ham radio -- there'll be plenty of retired engineers with old "boatanchor" rigs on the air all over the amateur bands, setting up emergency communication nets and expanding the old message traffic system, because that's what hams do. I've met guys to whom you could hand a heap of old electronic junk, and thirty minutes later they'll have built a transceiver, powered it off an old car battery, strung a dipole antenna, and be tapping out a message in Morse code to somebody in Botswana. Seriously.

Susan, if you can stand your extended family, that's a great plan.

Jbucks, thanks for the book recommendation -- I'll check it out. As for cloud computing, it amazes me that anybody's dense enough to buy into that. The computer I write my books on isn't even connected to the internet -- I promise you it doesn't have much trouble with viruses!

Cherokee, biological diversity is another form of resilience!

Mustard, I've heard the same sort of story from others -- businesses think they can add on resilience without costing them anything, and so they don't actually do anything but hire somebody and then ignore him. The FEMA story is great!

Lizzy, definitely learn about mechanics! Here's a secret that may make you plenty of money (or get you plenty of bartered goods) down the road: learn how to tear out the electronics from washing machines, and other useful devices, and replace them with cheap, sturdy, old-fahioned mechanical timers and the like. Your business in salvaged and reconditioned appliances will boom.

Sofistek, thank you!

Karim, excellent! That's a very useful metaphor.

Rhisiart, neither can I. It might be possible for a civilization to downshift into resilience rather than collapsing through efficiency, but I don't know of an example.

Kieran O'Neill said...

Musing #1: Vacuum tubes vs integrated circuits

While I agree on the resilience of vacuum tubes, their power draw is potentially a problem.

But that said, they do illustrate the point that resilience is also in opposition to complexity.

As for the lack of resilience in modern digital technology, there are some frightening examples of the vulnerabilities created by packing too many digital components into otherwise simple systems. The first is Stuxnet, a computer virus almost certainly created by a country's national intelligence service which actually physically damaged centrifuges in a uranium processing plant in Iran. The other examples are much more frightening -- computer security experts have found vulnerabilities and performed proof-of-concept hacks on both cars and pacemakers. There are no reports of these being used in practice as yet, but you can bet that whomever created Stuxnet has been busy experimenting with the idea of assassination by computer virus...

Garbage Man said...

Salvaging salvage from my hometown:

"In a sign of the recession-era times, old cars that once would have been simply scrapped are now being stripped to the bone first, to supply an increased demand for cheap replacement auto parts."


Kieran O'Neill said...

Musing #2: This post brought me back to the excellent Shop Class as Soulcraft essay which EscapeFromWisconsin posted in the comments last week. In that essay, Crawford points out that the assembly line was a means of replacing skilled workers with unskilled ones plus a business process, with a resulting loss in quality but a great gain in efficiency of production.

I was thinking that can be extended to say that the assembly line's increase in efficiency also reduced both the resilience of the products made and the resilience of the society and economy overall (the latter by removing skills from the workforce).

Interestingly, modern (Western) management experts seem to have some sense of the idea that efficiency is not the be-all-and-end-all of production.. To quote that link, "n the context of process reengineering, Lon Roberts (1994: 19) defines efficiency as "to the degree of economy with which the process consumes resources-especially time and money," while he distinguishes effectiveness as "how well the process actually accomplishes its intended purpose, here again from the customer's point of view."" Or, taken further, that efficiency can be viewed as picking "fast" and "cheap" on the project triangle, at the expense of "good" (aka "effective").

Yet we still have declines in resilience and quality of goods. I have a sneaking suspicion that this is a result of neoliberal market policies pushing economic efficiency over all else, but I don't consider myself enough of an expert in economics to strongly assert that.

gwizard43 said...

"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."

I remember in the days after Fukushima, numerous financial writers predicted a shortfall in parts, and an attendant widespread ripple effect which would cripple industries (for example, electronics and automotive). People were talking about how much GDP would be shaved off of various industrial nations.

That did not seem to happen - at least, not to nearly the degree predicted. There were some plant shutdowns and slowdowns, but all were transient effects. Overall, a mere blip.

So could it be that there *is* some resilience, still, built into the system? If so, where, exactly? An analysis of this episode might be most instructive.

Fukushima was a wake-up call on many levels, for certain, but it could be that this example actually has more to say about the (residual?) resilience remaining in globalized industrial systems than about the vulnerabilities due to efficiency.

mageprof said...


[On keeping one's accounts by hand on paper:]

Here in Rhode Island we have, from time to time, power outages. When we have one, most stores stop selling.

It's not so much a matter of whether the clerks can figure out the correct change in their heads. That is an issue, of course; but even if you have the exact price, company policy doesn't allow any buying or selling unless it can be entered in their electronic data bases at the precise moment when it happens. (The cash registers do this automatically, of course.)

A clerk will be fired for completing a transaction manually (e.g. when the registers are down), and the store manager will be fired for allowing this to happen.

Steve said...

The conflict between resilience and efficiency also relates to the previous post about embodied energy and the decline in quality of manufactured goods. I picked up a wheelbarrow at a garage sale a couple years back - it was old and rusty, but still serviceable. I've fixed it up well and use it, but the bin is starting to rust clear through in spots.

In looking to buy a newer, heavy-duty barrow to supplement it and pass on to the future, it's been a discouraging experience. All the new ones are made of thin painted steel that won't last a decade of serious use, and those that are thick are made of plastic with cheap parts.

It seems that manufacturers have been looking to material "efficiency" at the expense of tool resilience. They still call it a wheelbarrow, but it's only expected to last a few years until you have to buy another one. The question of future availability of cheaply made goods seems to be assumed, while the possibility that this tool should last for decades is completely ignored.

Looks like I might be better off finding a shop to weld some heavy-gauge steel onto my rusty old barrow, and keep my eye out for estate sales for its companion.

p.s. Looks like Atlantis made it back to Earth one last time. RIP US Shuttle Space Program.

DW said...

The request for GreenWizardry in medicine is a good one and ties in well with what's been discussed so far. Traditional Medicine has much to offer there when it comes to preventative measures (and some what to healing acute issues).

However, its hard not to point out the difficulties coming in allopathic medicine in the years to come...acute surgical fixes are going to be hard to come by as the machines are incredibly complex beyond easy comprehension. Basic surgery will continue for sure, with much having been learned in basic sanitation (though also much lost in the durability and resilience in the tools of many medical instruments are used once and discarded?). The best we may have to carry forward is the type of triage and make-do medicine used in Wilderness first-aid.

On a close and personal level, my awareness of this means I'm suggesting my wife goes ahead with a recommended, but not absolutely critical, surgery in the near future.

Trivially, I'm considering Lasik surgery now for similar reasons.

Maybe I could spend the money instead on buying land or some such, but since I'm so incredibly far away from that reality, it seems a sensible thing I can do is take advantage of the technology that exists, while it still does.

Note: that doesn't mean buying a Wii.

Kevin said...

I've always loved Bucky's ideas. They have a visionary quality that strongly appeals to me. They were popular at a time when it seemed we could make a better world with material prosperity for everyone on the planet, in direct contradiction to grim Malthusian and social Darwinist ideas. His "more-with-less-ing" technology, which was indeed all about efficiency in the use of materials and energy, really seemed like it might achieve that. Whether it would have worked if implemented on a global scale at that time, I don't know. It was all predicated on using industrial technologies and economies of scale which now appear to be stretched to their breaking point.

The one statement Fuller pretty consistently made with which I've always disagreed is that overpopulatioon isn't a problem. I am quite sure that it is.

As you know I'm very interested in domes and a have a geodesic project of my own in the works. As with his other inventions, Fuller meant these to be built using the most advanced technology of the time - viz., aerospace technology. That's probably why enthusiastic hippie carpenters have had trouble with them. It's my impression that the lowest level of tech with which one can build a viable (i.e., non-leaky) geodesic is ship-building technology. A dome must be made like the hull of a boat, able to withstand exceptional stresses and to resist leakage. With a little luck, I hope to soon be putting this proposition to the test.

To return to the theme of universal prosperity: the last time I can recall having heard this idea put forth by a figure of any prominence was when West German Chancellor Willy Brandt proposed that the wealthy nations of the world institute a program to help out poor countries with meaningful economic and technical development, in a spirit more or less diametrically opposed to that of the IMF. That was in the first half of the 1980s. Since then that sort of idealism seems to have evaporated. I really miss it. Now it seems that we'll scarcely be able to enjoy a tolerable standard of living even when viewed from a narrowly selfish and nationalistic standpoint. Idealism bites the dust.

I've always heartily agreed with your suggestion that the 80s were when it all went wrong and short-sighted greed brought us low.

Rita said...

Actually, California does produce barley and wheat in the Central Valley. But turning barley into malt is a more complex process than making mead. It also requires fuel, which might become a limiting factor.

Rita said...

To the beer maker, actually California does produce barley, and wheat in the Central Valley. However turning barley into malt is a more complex process than making mead. It also requires fuel, which might become problematic. I keep wondering when the wine market will become saturated since it seems that more and more cropland and former pasture has been planted in vineyards recently. There has to be an upper limit to wine consumption.

Nano said...

Great post as everyone else has pointed out.

My question for the hive mind; what would you all do if you needed to ad to your home. My wife and I need/want a bit more space and don't want to move as we lucked out and got a decent sized lot with an older house that we've upgraded with new windows, insulation and the such, over the course of the past 5 years.

For our home project we would like to strike some sort of balance between the needs of now and what we will need in the future. We live in the Dallas area, out in the burbs with lots of heat and a great south facing area which would make solar and perhaps wind a possibility, but I am getting stuck at seeing all the different options there are for home building. From the standard, sticks and chalk walls to solar passive homes. There are an incredible amount of options. Can anyone share or recommend ways to get going on this? I've found some local architects that do "green building" and will get to them eventually.
I just wanted to tap this source of knowledge.

Thank you all

Eric said...

Nice Posting this week. Thanks.

Here is the word origin for resilience: 1620s, from L. resiliens, prp. of resilire "to rebound, recoil," from re- "back" + salire "to jump, leap" (see salient). Cf. result.

so it means "to jump back". In conjunction with your discussion today it seems that as we "jump back" in energy time so to speak we will need to be able to "jump back" in technologies as well. Resilience gives us that ability. Interesting that there are all kinds of examples of this kind of thing happening right now. Take the Space Shuttle as an example. We currently have no ability to put any of our astronauts into space. And it seems that we have no option for doing so anytime soon. Is this part of our "push for efficiency". I think so.

Seems to me that we are going to "jump backwards" over the next couple decades without the ability to "jump back".

Rashakor said...

There is actually an example of civilization that downshifted into resiliency to avoid societal and ecological collapse. It was actually a top-down forcefully imposed life-style change.
It is known as the Shogunate in Japan from about the late 1400 to 1850.
Japan sacrificed trade and contact with the rest of the world as a consequence of it (not the other way around). Tokugawa prevented ecological collapse by basically taking over the wood resource and prevent the tragedy of the commons (complete deforestation of Honshu), he stabilized society by basically imposing 400 years of martial law. It is not generally the solution that people want to advocate though...

Nathaniel said...

The idea of resilience is already getting "softened" in the academic world.

About a year ago, I was in a meeting where two professors were disagreeing over the meaning of resilience as a theoretical concept. One gave a definition similar to my own understanding - the ability of a thing or system to absorb shocks and maintain its function outside of normal parameters. The second disagreed with him, and said that resilience was properly thought of as the ability of something to elegantly fail, and then to be rapidly rebuilt/reconstituted.

So, the concept of failure is already being infused into resilience. I wonder how long it will be until Newspeak has turned the idea completely around?

Bill Pulliam said...

Back in the 1980s and 1990s ecosystem scientists talked about resistance versus resilience of ecosystems in response to disturbance. A resistant system is adapted to tolerating a high degree of forcing without losing its basic structure and function; a resilient system is one that is able to restore structure and function rapidly after a disturbance disrupts them. For a resistant ecosystem, imagine a coastal forest adapted to tolerate strong winds and salt intrusions so that winds and tides from storms do not cause major disturbances to it. For a resilient system imagine a chaparral, which is adapted to burn completely to the ground during a wildfire, but then regrow rapidly afterwards so that things like biomass and primary productivity are rapidly restored.

The two are not necessarily tradeoffs; alpine tundra, for example, is neither resistant nor resilient. Trample it and it dies and takes a very long time to grow back. Fire-adapted southeastern pinelands might be seen as both resistant and resilient, at least in terms of fire -- most fires burn through and cause little disruption; when the occasional severe fire kills the trees new pines regrow quite rapidly (maybe part of why these ecosystems have been so easily and extensively exploited for commercial short-rotation timber production).

Since human societies and households are nothing but ecosystems with a big human component, perhaps the same pair of ideas might be useful there, too

John Michael Greer said...

Phil, the container revolution, in part, was made possible by the rock bottom oil prices of the 1980s and 1990s, which made it profitable to ignore distance as a cost factor. So you've got, as usual, several different factors -- technological, political, economic -- facilitating change.

Yupped, I think IT infrastructure is so resilient because the technology is so new, and thus tends to break down quite often. If it were more mature, outages would be less common and more traumatic.

Anagnosto, true, but you'll want to make sure those lamps can burn something other than petroleum distillates. A good oil lamp might be a worthwhile investment!

Twilight, that's interesting to hear. Has your firm considered starting a line of sturdy, battery powered, tube-based radios for the prepper market, by the way? You could probably make a midsized fortune that way, especially if the rigs could tune into shortwave and emergency-services bands.

MNilan, exactly! Optimization works fine, until it doesn't. Redundancy works, period.

Jason, I'll consider it. Thanks for the link!

Grrl, a good summary.

Thijs, actually, you are being resilient as a beginning gardener; all that room for improvement is a resource! ;-)

Alex, oh, granted -- very few people are willing to consider the possibility that all the comforts and conveniences we've gotten used to are going to go away over the decades ahead of us. It's the few who are willing to grapple with that prospect who will define the shape of the future.

Daughter, I didn't know that! Thanks for the info -- Kahn's gnarliness was unknown to me, but Shelter has been a core part of my Naked Hippie Library for decades now. I'll check out his site.

Kirk, specialization is a major source of efficiency -- that is to say, you're absolutely right. As for the TV antenna tower, leave that puppy where it stands! You can load all kinds of useful ham radio antennas on one of those.

Glenn, granted, you can make a geodesic dome rainproof if you work at it, but you need the triple or quadruple redundancy of shakes or shingles over tar paper to do it.

Don, got it in one.

Beneath, not only that, but when spreadsheet programs and computers aren't available to small businesses any more, you can count on a very nice side income teaching double-entry bookkeeping to the pencil jockeys who will be hired in their place. One of the reasons I like to do math on a slide rule is that you have to understand what you're doing; you can't simply plug in one set of numbers and get another out the far end.

Angus Wallace said...

"It might be possible for a civilization to downshift into resilience rather than collapsing through efficiency, but I don't know of an example."

I'd like to know a bit more about this (anecdotes, examples of a collapse through efficiency). Would you say that this is what happened to the Romans?


John Michael Greer said...

Sixbears, individuals are intelligent but societies are not. As organisms, they have roughly the brain power of an unusually bright slime mold. That's why individuals can change their trajectories, but societies don't. (How's that for heresy?)

Norberto, all that's quite true, but it doesn't really address the point that I was trying to discuss, which is that the pursuit of efficiency increases a system's vulnerability.

Adrian, good. Very good. You're quite right that resilience isn't simply redundancy, though that's a key part of it; flexibility, which can also be thought of as a capacity for redundancy in the choice of paths, is important; so is feeding the wider system -- what you're doing with your pollinator plants, and I'm doing with mine.

Zach, and of course that's also a crucial point. The financial system we have right now, for example, is very efficient at making money for its upper management, and hopelessly inefficient when measured by any other metric you care to name.

Cathy, that's a good point, and mirror's Zach's point in a way. A lawn mower may be more efficient at cutting grass, but less efficient at using your time. Thus it's a source of resilience, in an odd way -- you can always free up extra time by letting the grass grow!

Petro, thank you.

Moncrief, thank you -- and thanks for the link! You'll have noticed, of course, that one of their oil-less future vehicles still uses oil, and another is made out of petroleum products.

DaShui, a good example. It's worth noting that it took government regulation to make those necessary redundancies happen, too.

Carl, I'm delighted to hear about your brewing exploits! IIRC, though, there's some wheat and barley grown in the Central Valley, and a lot more in Oregon and Washington, an easy trip by freight train north of you. Malting your own grains isn't that hard if you take the time to learn how to do it -- I've known homebrewers who did it, and sparged the result to make an excellent wort and fine beer. Add that to your skill set, and either grow hops yourself or find a local gardener who will do it for you and take payment in beer, and you're good for the long term.

DPW, that's an excellent point, of course. Much of what passes for efficiency is only efficient within an artificially narrow circle, and offloads costs beyond it.

Solon, thank you!

sgage said...

@ gwizard,

I just heard a piece on the news blaming the latest round of dismal employment figures on parts shortages due to the tsunami.

You may not have noticed it much, but it was not just a blip. Not particularly resilent.

Glenn said...


I'm aware of all the caveats, mights and maybe's proper to the discussion of climate (or any other) science.
I didn't care to go into great detail on this forum for two reasons.

1. I'm not a climate scientist; but I am a well educated sailor who has transported the best and brightest U.S. climate scientists to the North Pole.

2. Even what I do know, I felt was too detailed and not to the point of this thread or site.

Unless JMG specifically says we can!

If you want to discuss this further off line, I can be reached at glennwoodbury(at)gmail(dot)com.


John Michael Greer said...

Tinfoil, I worked for a while back in the day as a nurses aide in the nursing home industry, so I've seen what you're discussing, and it's not pretty, no. I hope you're recovering well, and have the chance to move to a less ghastly position. Thank you for the link, also -- here it is for others who may not be able to access it as it came through.

Kieran, power draw's an issue with tubes, which simply means that you can't run them all the time; you listen to the radio when you've had enough wind to charge the batteries. As for hacking pacemakers, etc., appalling, yes; surprising, no.

Garbageman, that's the wave of the future.

Kieran, there's also the fact that management experts don't always have that much influence over the way that business works...

Gwizard, there were certainly some overblown predictions. Still, have you seen the numbers on Japan's economic losses? The knock-on effects from the disruption of supply chains were considerable; the fact that it didn't bring everything to a grinding halt doesn't mean it didn't cost.

Steve, find a shop, and see if they'd be willing to cut and fold some good robust sheet steel into a wheelbarrow body, and drill the necessary holes. You can prime and paint it, and then you're good to go.

DW, that's a good point. A great many medical conditions that are treatable now will not be treatable in the future, so if you're willing to risk the not inconsiderable dangers of modern medicine -- which kills more people in America these days than any other cause, between hospital-based infections, drug side effects, sheer incompetence, and the rest of it -- that might be a good plan.

Kevin, I'm all in favor of domes when there's a good reason -- for example, an esthetic one -- for using them, and of course there are many ways to make a dome that don't involve Fuller's patents. I think his schemes for universal prosperity were pipe dreams, but they were generous pipe dreams, which is something.

Nano, get some books on solar and energy efficient homes, read them along with your spouse, come up with a wish list, then find a friendly architect who will listen to you and see what you can do. If you've got the money, you could come up with a very livable home that will be good for the long term.

Eric, good. You get today's gold star for etymology above and beyond. Much of what I'm trying to do with this blog and the associated books is to get people thinking about how to jump back and land on their feet!

Rashakor, 1603 to 1854, to be precise. That's an interesting point and would be worth research. I'd considered the Tokugawa period as an age of enforced stability rather than one of movement toward resilience, and the forest laws of the shogunate were a reenactment of much older laws dating back a millennium -- Japanese governments got a clue about deforestation at a stunningly early date -- but it might be worth revisiting.

John Michael Greer said...

Nathaniel, they both needed a good dose of systems theory. One was talking about the resilience of an individual component, the other of the resilience of the whole system -- which is what would do the rebuilding, of course. Still, you're right; the word is being diluted into nonsense, which was part of my motivation in this post.

Bill, thank you! You've just provided a better set of words for the concept I was trying to communicate to Nathaniel. Yes, it's a good distinction.

Angus, more or less. The radical centralization of government, the movement toward mass production of agricultural and consumer commodities, the pursuit of military efficiencies -- all very much the case in the decline of Rome. It would take a post or two all by itself to go through the details; you can probably do as well by getting a couple of solid histories of civilizations in decline, and tracing the parallels yourself.

Glenn (and Bill), at this point it probably would be best to take the discussion offlist. You've both done a good job of clarifying the issues for the rest of the community here, and that's been helpful, but the last few exchanges seem to be repeating themselves a bit. Thank you!

Tom said...

I don't think the term resilience can be applied to technology. Reliability and repair-ability are design and manufacturing criteria. In the planned obsolescence world, a product's life cycle is intentionally short. To be resilient, equipment would have to self-repair.

Resilience is, to my mind, the ability to take an unexpected hit and bounce back. It is adaptability to changes in the environment that go beyond the normal range. It is biological/organic, not mechanical.

Adaptation is done by individuals and communities. They will be limited if their technological tools turn into bricks, but the creative are not stymied. Still survival can not be taken for granted.

For humans resilience includes mental toughness and faith, in addition to the ability to improvise for short term and/or long term survival. Long term we survive based on community.

Modern engineering efficiency creates advantages within systems of its own making. There are also limits that risk management studies point out. This is where management needs to be truly honest and listen to the engineers and the greater community.

Nuclear energy was going to produce electricity so cheaply that it wouldn't have to be metered. Ultimate total system costs were minimized/ignored. Such "failure of intelligence" seems to occur wherever unbridled optimism meets unwanted scenarios. Too good to be true is a tough standard.

Given the vast debt in the world, private and public, plus unfunded liabilities, the future I see is retrenchment. We are headed back to the 1950's where deferred gratification was known and practiced.

People saved to buy what they wanted; they waited. As a child, you'd circle ten things in the Christmas catalog and be happy to get one. In the new 1950's there will be racial and gender equality, communications technology to minimize isolation, but a necessary leanness for most.

True resilience is something that isn't known until tested. I think New York City displayed great resilience during and after 9/11. The perpetrators were isolated and communities responded to the need.

New Yorkers became more alert as they went about their recovery and were less afraid than those in the hinterlands across the U.S. who had not been attacked.

A Resilience Capacity Index has been developed by the University of Buffalo's Regional Institute. See it online at

Richard Larson said...

Just in time is just not an industry standard.

Need a bolt? Drive the vehicle to the store and get ONE.

Wouldn't an EMP shut the radio stations as well?

Susan said...


"There's at least a third option, that of voluntary associations of people with like interests. Such organizations have the potential to incorporate various skill sets and levels of interest to create a network that can manifest and spread information."

Precisely. I have actually lived in such an arrangement. We ended up incorporating, moved to Silicon Valley on my husband's credit card (the U Haul slogan, "An adventure in moving!" is all too true), and eventually sold the company to a large software firm, and walked away with thousands of dollars.

It was exciting, and interesting, but I never want to live in a house full of hackers again. Guess who ended up doing most of the clean-up? Friends who have lived in communes in California have reported similar experiences. You want to set up the enterprise as a corporation, with each person getting shares of stock (even if no money changes hands), or create a similar structure to share responsibilities and rewards. Otherwise, the person who is least tolerant of chaos will end up always doing the dishes, and there will be disputes, etc.

Over on SurvivalBlog there are lots of people who are interested in setting up their own little survival communities with like-minded folks. We've thought about doing that whole survival retreat thing for when the end of the world happens, but JMG's philosophy of green wizardry seems a lot more realistic and reasonable. Besides, the mutant zombie bikers of the apocalypse aren't gonna get very far without gas for their Harleys...


"Susan, if you can stand your extended family, that's a great plan."

Well, duh... As I keep telling my son: "I brought you into this world, and I can take you out..."

I might be open to adopting some new kids (my husband says he wants to take in that cute blonde girl down the street), but if my crazy Mom ever needs to move in with us, she's getting her own little house somewhere else on the property.

Yes, we have to give any new "family" arrangement some serious thought. We've had enough experience to be able to appreciate what actually works and what doesn't. I suspect that many of the older, more traditional set-ups (clans, tribes, etc.) will come back into play in the coming centuries.


"A clerk will be fired for completing a transaction manually (e.g. when the registers are down), and the store manager will be fired for allowing this to happen."

See, this is why we need guns... If it's a robbery, the clerk and the store manager can't be held accountable and won't be fired. Also, the security cameras will be down, so they won't be able to identify you. Then, after the power comes back on, you can go back to the store and leave an envelope with the correct amount of your "purchase" (including sales tax, of course) and the clerk can ring it up as a new sale, and everything will be okay.



After our adventures in Silicon Valley, we moved back to the midwest, and I worked for several years for The Phone Company (actually, Bell Labs, which became Lucent). Everything that you read in the Dilbert comic strip is absolutely true and is based on things that actually happened.

My husband has worked on various large construction projects for several different government units and agencies (including NASA), and he has told me similar horror stories from the public sector. I think it's just part of the nature of human nature...

anagnosto said...

From the comments I got from the Aladdin lamps it is clear that a variety of views of the future exist, and I like to contrast mine with historical uses. I believe future will be a bouncing going back to XIXth century, and petrol started being used for ilumination when most ships were still moved by wind. Petrol extraction and trade will not dissapear before or after collapse, even when it will not be able to fullfil all the calls it does now.
With an erratic and dwindling supply, some few liters of kerosene could last for months used in lighting or a single day in heating. Further an Aladdin lamp is a collection of technologies put together, that can be downgraded if necessary. You can strip the mantel (which is the really tech difficulty, not the kerosene; back to thorium I guess), the heat resistant glass (another technological difficulty, but we know how to add boron for that) and at the end it is just a deposit for combustible with a mechanical device to raise a rag. The reason for trying to keep this technology as long as possible is given by the delight XIXth century people received it. Try to read by candlelight!

hadashi said...

As it happens, just in the past few days at the walking track, an old Japanese gentleman of about 70 has introduced himself to me (here in Japan). He lacked the habitual shyness of most of the Nihonjin because he is a, wait for it, shortwave radio operator. He has friends around the world. Hmm, maybe I could learn the tricks of the trade from him. I'd need to improve my Japanese, he'd need to improve his English, and the exercise might well prove inefficient . . .

Brad K. said...


My first reaction was that efficiency and resilience are not opposites at all, that they are nearly orthogonal.

Reading Norberto and Cathy McQuire's comments changed my mind.

I consider resilience to be the insensitivity of a system to inputs that tend to disturb it, that is, unexpected inputs.

Efficiency is the measure of an expected output with respect to specific inputs. Increase the fuel to the engine, watch the revolutions or power increase. Efficiency. Increase rate of buying mortgaged homes, watch the capitalized mortgaged-backed securities bubble expand.

The difference, I think, is one of focus. Efficiency is amount of change in desired output with respect to change in expected input. Resilience examines changes in output with respect to unexpected inputs. I think robustness is very similar to resilience.

Too much single-focus "efficiency" tends to degrade resilience. This is an amateur, unprofessional example of lack of engineering (design to cost) skills. I note that resilience without efficiency is worthless - the system isn't producing anything, thus wasting all inputs.

@ Cathy McGuire,

I hope you reach your goal of learning to crow soon! Um, that is, unless it is the young rooster learning to crow. Me, I just reply with a spoken "Er, er." It seems to make as much sense to the chickens as any other noises I make, they seem much more attuned to body language and movement of feed buckets.

My senior bantam rooster demonstrates what I have long imagined, that the "Wedding March" is a satirical piece. Played as the bride approaches the ceremony, the opening strains echo my rooster's (patrician!) "Er, er, er-er!" It is other times of the day that he pays attention to the hens.

My junior rooster just went through the voice change, and has settled into a mature, and more traditional, crowing. The hens haven't shown much response.

oji said...

I'm going to nitpick on the Tokugawa Era, if you don't mind.

(you don't need to post this if you think it too OT)

The Shogunate ruled from Edo castle until 1867/68. Even though the Bakumatsu is generally considered to begin in 1853, foreign powers did continue to deal with the Shogunate (signing treaties, for example) as the ruling power (not the Emperor) until the Meiji Restoration in 1868.

Also, Tokugawa Ieyasu effectively took control of Japan in 1600, following the Battle of Sekigahara, though the administrative regime was not set until 1603.

As such, 1600-1868, or 1603-1868, is generally considered the Tokugawa Era by Japanese historians.
Coins, from the two eras, for example, reinforce these dates-- I have several myself, some as old as the 1630s.

NZSanctuary said...

I don't think Steve missed your point, JMG. It seems more like it is a quibble over what efficiency is, and in my view efficiency shouldn't be a short-term issue, it should be a long term one – I think that is what Steve means.

Using minimal resources to building a bridge can only be considered efficient in the short term, but not the long term. And that is the real problem. Efficiency has been hijacked by the modern MBA mindset that only looks at the short-term.

We need to get back to the idea that long-term efficiency is important (not short-term) – if we do, resilience and efficiency will once again be more synonymous.

Craig said...

I've been preparing for the move off the grid for five years and am doing it at the end of August. It is a great felling. So these articles have been amazing.
People are so anxious to get rid of old hand tools that they will often give them away (if they know that you will actually use them). I've been able to collect 2 or more of most tools from saws, hand drills, hammers, shot guns, bicycles, fishing poles, axes...etc..
Most people just can't believe that they can live without high voltage grid electricity. The attitude I have encountered when telling my plans is usually fear and panic. Living without TV seems to stress people highly. Yet the only real practical use of electricity is refrigeration and maybe lighting. LED lighting is sufficient and learning to live off of dry goods and produce that is not so fragile as to rot in a few days is not difficult. But as you say not efficient.
Just as consumerism is a mind set in need of reprogramming so is this contemporary concept of entitled life style. I guess they prefer listening to the band play as the ship goes down rather than finding something that floats.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hey JMG,

I worked at a service business in the mid 90's that still ran a fully manual Accounting system. They had over 100 employees and used a paper system called a Kalamazoo. But it was basically a manual cash book, payroll, debtors ledger. Easy.

As a confession, I converted them to an electronic accounting system, but wouldn't have been able to do this if I hadn't understood the manual system first. I'm not convinced many people understand the fundamentals anymore and I've had plenty of first hand experience with numerous graduates (I ran a graduate program for a few years at a big business - it was fun and rewarding).

Also interestingly a manual system is less able to have transactions pushed away into rat holes like suspense accounts (a very stupid idea). There's a place for everything in a manual system and everything is generally in it's place.

The other thing that I keep seeing in comments is people saying that setting up a garden or orchard is expensive. I can't imagine Johnny Apple Seed cared too much about expense.

The reason I say this is because people have forgotten that every time you cut open fruit you see seeds. You can plant them out and the trees are often hardier to drought / cold / flood than grafted trees because they have bigger roots and generally aren't transplanted. They may not grow 100% true to the parent but in most cases they're close enough. Collecting heritage variety veggie seeds is almost 100% idiot proof. If you have to buy seeds in firstly, they really don't cost that much at all.

As to waste, every time you flush the toilet or take out the garbage then there is all manner of organic product leaving your property. If you composted these so called wastes and put them back into the soil you won't even have to bring in organic matter from a garden supply place.

The problems we have are of our own making. It takes more effort to do all of these things, but if you don't then you are totally dependant on the system to supply them and you have to work to pay for this supply. You might just also miss out on the entertainment from a family of Blue Wrens cruising through your veggie beds cleaning up the bugs - which is happening as I write this.



Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Greg Reynolds,

See my earlier comment about variable weather. Try raised garden beds for vegetables. We had record rainfall this year and the raised beds here just shook it off. As for an orchard, build up the soil humus to avoid the roots of the trees drowning. Also don't grow fruit trees below a dam (pond?). Dams always leak.

Hi Steve in Colorado,

Your comments about the MBA mindset are a sweeping generalisation. Not everyone with an MBA thinks the way you think they do. I've noticed a growing general lack of regard for education in recent years. Even if you disagree with the specifics of an education, it still teaches you a lot of things. I have a favourite saying in these circumstances, "I went to the school of hard knocks too, but I also went to university". Don't knock it until you've tried it.

Hi Glenn,

As to forest fires and your dam and pump. Make sure that the pump is close to the house because most houses burn down from ember attack which happens before and after the fire front has passed. The fire front usually passes within a few minutes and serves to heat up all of the available fuel (inside and outside) via radiant heat. The embers are what sets a house burning though. A good reason to seriously think about caulking the house and roof.

Also have a think about what type of pump you're going to put in. Petrol (gas?) pumps vaporise the air/fuel mix and cut out in high air temperatures. Diesel seems more resilient in these conditions. Electric pumps must have an independent power supply (good luck with the grid in a forest fire). The old timers used to use knapsacks which are a 5 gallon tank on their backs with a hand pump to pressurise it - it's more effective than you'd think. Also don't wear synthetics, always stick to heavy wool or cotton at a pinch. Don't be outside when the fire front hits. Good luck!

Hey Cathy M,

Good on ya for keeping a rooster. Too many people only keep hens and it's a real genetic risk. Sure they're noisy, but they're also great watch dogs too. Plus, it's not for no reason that the French have Coq au Vin!



Don Mason said...

Nano asked:
"My question for the hive mind; what would you all do if you needed to ad to your home."

The hive says BZZZZZ!

In Dallas, you’ve got temperature extremes: pretty cold winters, and really hot summers. If you do passive solar to help heat the house in the winter, make absolutely certain that it won’t add to the heat load in the summer.

About 20 years ago, we built a super-insulated, passive solar house in Northern Illinois. After many years of living there, my conclusion was that the south-facing windows didn’t help as much as we had hoped in the winter because the winters here are so cloudy – but even though an overhang prevented direct sunlight from coming in during the summer, enough was reflected inside that it added some unwanted heat. (Building insulated shutters with reflective foil inside helped a lot with that problem, though.)

We used 16” deep, double-stud exterior walls filled with fiberglass. I would definitely use super-insulation if I ever build a house from the ground up again (which I probably won’t – I’m getting too old and may not be able to finish the job. Rehabbing our current houses is slow enough.)

Even though the saying is “The last inch of insulation is never cost-efficient”, I like the resiliency that massive amounts of insulation gives you going into the future: no matter what the climate does in the coming decades – hotter or colder, tropical or New Ice Age – the additional insulation will always help to moderate how it affects you. Insulation is simple and not real sexy, but it works.

So my advice is: insulate, insulate, insulate. And when you’re done insulating, insulate some more. Then think about solar heating – and in your climate, be real careful about summer overheating.

John Michael Greer said...

Tom, not at all. A screwdriver is resilient if you can use it hard, even for things it's not quite designed for, without breaking it. Self-repair is one specific strategy to achieve resilience. As for the new 1950s, we don't have enough fossil fuels left to plateau out at that level; think 1880s if we're lucky and smart, 1820s if we're not.

Richard, true enough. That's one of the reasons I'm pleased to have old jars full of bolts and nails in the basement. As for the radio stations, well, why do you think I keep on talking about ham radio?

Susan, you're probably right in the middle to long run. Just now, though, I'm happy to have been able to wave goodbye to my dysfunctional relatives.

Anagnosto, fair enough. That's one of the reasons I hope to maintain a modest amount of electricity, enough to run a couple of light bulbs for reading purposes.

Hadashi, oh man. Japan has some of the best ham operators in the world, and far and away the best way to get started in amateur radio is to find what hams on this side of the world call an "Elmer" -- an experienced ham who's happy to share what he knows. In your place I'd pursue that acquaintance!

Brad, those definitions of efficiency and resilience will do very well.

Oji, of course you're quite correct -- I was relying on memory for the dates.

Sanctuary, then we get caught up in quibbles over how short and how long a term, etc. The problem as I see it is that "efficiency" these days more or less equates to "doubleplusgood," and so trying to say "efficiency has downsides" is uncomfortably like saying "Big Brother is ungood."

Craig, good for you! I've noticed the stark terror so many people feel at the thought of doing without TV; I don't understand it at all -- I stopped watching in my late teens because it bored the stuffing out of me -- but it's a powerful force. You're quite right that there are a lot of people who would rather drown than climb aboard a raft. In many cases they'll admit to it -- how many people do you know who say outright, "I just hope I die before any of that happens"?

Still, good luck in your adventure!

John Michael Greer said...

Cherokee, I roll my eyes when people claim that gardening is expensive. It's not. My total cost each year consists of maybe a dozen packets of seeds, to add to what I've saved from the previous year, and a bit of extra water. Fertilizer comes from the compost heap and lots of legumes, I've been using the same sturdy hand tools for years, and I get many hundreds of dollars of fresh produce out of the deal over the course of the season, as welk as herbs for health care and, yes, plenty of natural entertainment -- today it was the robins' turn again, since they love splashing around under the sprinkler on a hot day, searching for bugs and bathing at the same time. Not to mention fireflies at night!

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Brad K,

Thanks for the laugh.

Roosters are an ungentlemanly lot! Of the chooks there's only one left who is tough enough to fend off the two strutting Casanovas. Actually, she also goes to attack the dogs too when they're on the outside of the chook run. Seems OK with the other chooks but will only sleep on the highest perch. I worry about the sugar glider getting too close to her one night!



Robo said...

JMG, are you an active ham operator yourself? As a broadcast radio person, I've often thought about getting into amateur radio, particularly low-power QRP. Over the years I've tuned into discussions over-the-air and read the various magazines, but it always seems like technique, equipment, contests and hamfests are the only topics of interest. These are fine things, but are there many radio amateurs out there who like to discuss more esoteric subjects? If so, are such exchanges practical in Morse Code? I suppose it could be rather like a form of Haiku, or at least Twitter.

mageprof said...

Susan wrote:

"See, this is why we need guns... If it's a robbery, the clerk and the store manager can't be held accountable and won't be fired. Also, the security cameras will be down, so they won't be able to identify you."

Wishful thinking, Susan! We have lived in our 100-year old house since the early 1970s, and shopped at the same neighborhood stores, or their successors, ever since we moved in. People can identify us even without security cameras.

mageprof said...

Tom wrote:

". . . the future I see is retrenchment. We are headed back to the 1950's where deferred gratification was known and practiced.

People saved to buy what they wanted; they waited. As a child, you'd circle ten things in the Christmas catalog and be happy to get one. In the new 1950's there will be racial and gender equality, communications technology to minimize isolation, but a necessary leanness for most."

I was a 'teen in the 1950s, and no! The '50s was an opulent, cornucopian time compared to the 1930s and 1940s. Antibiotics began to be used in general practice in the 1950s, and fewer of our classmates died of illness before they reached adulthood.

[A friend who is 15 years older than me, and grew up on the Gulf Coast, told me once that when she and her classmates went back to school in the Fall, the first thing everybody did every year was compare notes to see which of their friends had died over the Summer. Every year there were more than a few of them.]

JMG is right, it will be like the 1880s if we're *very* lucky. That would be when my great-great grandmother, Nellie, was a middle-aged wife. She could actually own *one* fashionable dress and hat, and knew a little about make-up. Her mother, Sarah, on the other hand, probably never used lipstick in her life, and her fanciest clothes were plain clean house-dresses.

I'm thinking the 1820s sound about right. Sarah's father-in-law, John Acker, turned 50 in that decade, and was busy uprooting his family from a small town on the Erie Canal (which had become too densely populous for him, with several hundred families), to move with 9 of his 10 children to southern Michigan and carve the last of his successive farms out of the unsettled wilderness.

By all accounts, John Acker thought he had a good life. He worked very hard -- punishingly hard, by our standards today. He smoked and drank most of his life, and he lived to be a few weeks short of 100 years old (1774-1874).

Now there's a man who had resiliance!

Marek said...

Thanks for your post. I like your definition of resilience as the opposite of efficiency for its clarity. But it seems to me such a notion is not compatible with your succession model as outlined in your book The ecotechnic future where you write:

"Like all R-selected seres, though, the industrial economy wal vulnerable on two fronts. First, it faced the certainty tha a more efficient K-seleceted sere would evenetually outcompete it. Second, its need to use resources at unsustainable rates made it vulnerable to cycles of overshoot and crash tha would eventually give a more efficient sere its opening wedge. Both those events ar now under way." (pp 24)

Are these terms really opposite?

Cherokee Organics said...


Speaking of resilience...

I was taken out by a trojan today, the Windows 7 Home Security 2012 trojan so I'm back to reinstalling Windows 7 and then restoring from a backup image. Hopefully all is OK and I don't lose too much hair over it. It is my work machine after all - it puts food on the table. At least they didn't take out the network. I keep a spare laptop for such occasions. Top effort to the people that created that beast, I'm most unimpressed with their activities. I hope they find something else to do come any downturn..............



Les said...

Hi JMG, Thanks for what is probably your most eloquent post to date.
And spot on.
As a committed, stubborn generalist, it's always fascinated me to see the limitations of specialisation in action. While working in IT, I was (am still?) always a bit flummoxed by arriving at a site and fixing a problem in a few hours or, at worst, days, that specialists have been working on for weeks or even months.
As soon as a problem deviates even slightly from the specialist's area of knowledge, they're toast.
And I couldn't even guess how often I have seen this happen. Each time, it just reinforces for me that it's good to be the generalist.
On the unexpected joys of gardening (thanks to you all that have shared), I was on the way, with last night's apple peel, to the chook shed this morning and heard a noise right next to my ear as I was going under the arbour. Stop, look, try and focus that close (getting more and more difficult as time goes on) and it's a rainbow lorikeet telling me off. Normally they wouldn't let me get within three metres. And this one just stares me down. So I reach up to touch it and get a gentle nibble on the end of my finger. I guess it's the hungry time for these guys just now, not much fruiting or flowering. So I proffer a bit of apple core. Her mate is yelling at her from the tree across the garden, but as soon as he sees she's eating, he's right next to her, sharing in the bounty.
I would never have thought they would be so easily tameable (not that I would do such a thing – at some point I am going to find some idiot who still believes in growth economics to buy this place – the last things these guys need is to be depending on me).

Seani said...

Its interesting because at the same time this came out I watched a video from the author of Black Swan, Nassim Talib. In the first few minutes he explains that we will not know what the black swans will be and the lesson from that is that we need to have resilient systems. He is very much against efficiency.

GHung said...

It seems, from the comments especially, that resilience is always in flux, more dependant on current circumstances, stituational awareness and one's vulnerability to external processes. Vulnerabilities born of efficiency reduce resiliance.

We often hear organizations and Govt. reminding us to "protect our identities" (a concept ripe for discussion in itself). Imagine a person in Florida, who has worked hard to keep their personal information personal, suddenly hearing that the state DMV has sold the personal information of licence holders in the state for $62 million dollars; an efficient way for them to raise money. Resilience in today's world can be fleeting.

This reminds me of Blank Reg in the old (originally Australian) TV series "Max Headroom". "Reg is a "blank", a person not indexed in the government's database."

Challenges to our level of resilience exist on many levels. Perhaps we need a list of things common to most of us,, then each of us should make a list more specific to our own lives so that we can begin to make better choices, reducing our vulnerabilities, rethinking the trade-offs. It's the little efficiencies in our lives that add up, slicing big chunks from our resilience.

BTW: Blank Reg had an 'underground' mobile TV station, an attempt to counter the lies and control of the MSM. Their slogan was
"All day every day, making tomorrow seem like yesterday."

I'm considering a new handle:

Twilight said...

JMG - I'm afraid we don't do radio. Electronics design and manufacturing is a very broad field and everyone has some specialty. Even a small electronics firm is a highly specialized entity - the knowledge of the design team, the sales and marketing groups, the contacts and applications knowledge, different kinds of parts and components, etc.

Most engineers have no knowledge of analog design, let alone vacuum tubes. It's all digital and software now. I have little experience with tubes but I can understand it and I've started looking into it again.

I don't think the structures in place today are going to be useful to make the kinds of things your looking for - that will require a different organization, but it should be doable in a craft-type environment, maybe eventually expanded to somewhat larger enterprises.

das monde said...

What puzzles me on this blog is that almost every week the diary contains a few snide words towards (rather fellow) peak-oilers, old or new type greens of "lefties". As if they are the root or main hurdle for the crises and self-destructive quests of today. What is the point on piling on those rather constantly but inconsequentially right? Especially when they can't buy a confidence boost this century? What can be resolved or adjusted when the dominant adulterers of Earth's and social resources are left free to grab their profits and privileges without any accountability? Are you unhappy that the greens and the left do not put adequate pressure on them?! Put that pressure yourself, man!

So after the first paragraph there is not much fancy to go deep with this week's topic. The opposition of resilience and efficiency is rather shallow: You could be more efficiently resilient as well, optimize for that. To me, the point of resilience is not to be fixated on a small set of parameters and measures, but value functionality across a wide range of aspects and conditions.

GHung said...

Correction to my previous post:

Max Headroom was originally produced in the UK. My first viewing was in Perth, WA. My mistake :-/

DPW said...

From FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) Commissioner John Norris yesterday:

"For America to be competitive in a global economy, we need to have a transmission grid that efficiently interconnects customers with energy sources. That grid must be well designed and planned. We aren’t looking for a transmission system that is bulletproof or “gold-plated”, as some have suggested; rather, we want a system that is solid and stable. In this high-tech world, we are highly dependent on stable electricity flows, and the bulk transmission system is key to ensuring those stable flows.

We also have to recognize that our current transmission system, the largest machine in the world, is aging and was never built or designed to do what we are asking it to do today. The electric utility industry has done a tremendous job maintaining and adapting the transmission infrastructure we have today to meet the needs of consumers and the economy the best it can. But I am reminded of my time on the farm where we could sometimes hold a piece of machinery together for a long time with some baling wire. This is becoming ever more difficult to do with an increasingly old transmission grid - the average age of our substation transformers is over 42 years, and we have poles and cross beams out there that are nearly 100 years old. We’re depending on these aging assets to keep the grid in balance in sub-second time increments."

Sometimes truth lurks in the strangest places...not that those who speak it always understand its implications.

The result here could be to downshift and figure out what needs really need to be met and how best to do it.

Instead, a 620-page behemoth of a ruling follows that puts all sorts of new requirements on electric utilities to get busy "building and modernizing" the grid.

trippticket said...

Definitely one of your best posts ever, JMG. And that's saying something, since I haven't seen a bad one yet. Never considered that efficiency might be worth questioning, or that its headlong pursuit could even reinforce the peak resource argument. But you're right! It's hard to preach a message of inefficiency in this culture! People always ask us why we have to do everything "the hard way."

So what about system designs that improve both resilience AND efficiency? Currently I spend about 10 hours a week spot watering the 115 fruit-bearing woody perennials I planted this spring - everything from blueberries and kiwis to olives and pomegranates. But before next season we hope to install a water catchment system on the barn uphill from the garden, and install drip tape irrigation on all the perennials in the upper sections, at least. That would save me well more than half of that time spent spot watering, AND provide a backup water supply requiring less energy to operate than the well. Just open a spigot at the right spot and go do something else!

Surely that is the goal of the permaculturalist. Both resilience and efficiency. And I celebrate solutions that achieve both, especially during the very busy initial homesteading years. But I would definitely agree that resilience is the first priority.

johnthackara said...

Your introduction contains a bit of a bait-and-switch, JMG. You write that "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. Trying to maintain the comfortable lifestyles of the recent past is a fool’s errand".

The only people I know of who propose that resilience has to be "society-wide" are the technology and 'homeland security' industries. Everyone I know in transiton-land emphasizes the same priorities as most of of your readers here: locality and diversity.

Tom [above] puts it well: "Resilience is biological/organic, not mechanical". Or even simpler: it's a social not a technical quality.

Stan Gardeys said...

Damn brilliant, sir. I never thought of efficiency and resilience that way before, even though the duality was staring me in the face everytime I went to my work at a garage. Today's cars ARE more efficient, but far less resilient, because there's so much stuff in there that can break, and everything must be at optimum, or there are expensive problems. Keep up the good work.

Gavin said...

Hi John,

Off-topic but: I once pulled you up on a prediction you made about the EU consolidating into a more superstate-style union in the future. I thought collapsonomics would surely lead to its break-up. Well I take my hat off to you watching the news today - here we are talking about moves towards fiscal, not just monetary, union, at least in the eurozone countries. I have to say, as bad as the UK's prospects are, I'm rather glad to be here where we are not (yet) being railroaded by our leaders, without popular consent, into that arrangement.

Wullow said...

Thanks for clarity of thought, John. This is a subject many of us understand intuitively, especially those of us who tend to be "preppers." We understand the fragility of civilization and the reality of Murphy's Law. In the preparedness community, there is a principle called the rule of three: "Three is two, and two is one." Meaning that you need to have (or have access to) at least three of everything you require in order to survive.

Susan said...


I just checked out your Luddite blog site. Gee, my husband used to look just like you (same beard, same hat), although he's a little grayer now...

On a recent trip back to the midwest, he looked at several potential sites for our proposed farmstead. One that he really liked had a mixture of field and forest, with a power pole right in the middle of the property. That would provide electricity for the near term while we built the windmills and solar panels for the long term. Unfortunately, someone else made an offer on the parcel shortly after he looked at it...

By a rather strange coincidence, we already have several of your links in our favorites folder, like the Low Impact Woodland Home. Please keep us all posted on your move off the grid.

Susan said...

Don Mason:

I cannot stand heat! This is ironic, as we currently live in Arizona, but that's another story. I have already rejected several design proposals from my Hubby for our proposed farmstead, as they used what I felt would be too much passive solar for the summertime.

The current iteration includes underground construction to take advantage of the relatively constant ground temperature, with lots of north-facing windows for ambient light, plus massively insulated straw bale construction for the above ground parts, plus lots of overhanging porch roofs and reflective drapes.

Mike Oehler, who has written several books on earth-sheltered construction, wrote one called The Earth-Sheltered Solar Greenhouse Book. We will probably build something like this on a south-facing slope adjacent to, but separated from, the main house. In the winter, it can provide warm air to the main living quarters via buried ductwork, but in the summer it can be a separate unit. Final design details will depend on the specifics of the site we finally choose. We want to be able to have a cool home.

Susan said...


Actually, Big Brother would be Double Plus Ungood...

Brad K. said...

@ das monde,

"almost every week the diary contains a few snide words towards . . "

Just guessing, here, but the opposite of efficient is not resilient. True and pure waste of inputs without useful output is the opposite of efficient. Those concerned about peak oil, green activism of many flavors, and others that receive less than laudatory notice, from time to time, seem oft time, to many, to be distracted from a useful direction. I imagine part of the angst you notice is a lament over effort that should have been useful in accomplishing some cherished goal, but instead accomplished little beyond perhaps media exposure or recreational use of communication channels. And then there are the efforts of some that, intentionally or otherwise, poison the waters for others that intend to improve the outlook for tomorrow.

Global warming efforts, with the disclosure of intentional political and social manipulation of the science efforts and of the scientific findings have damaged the ability of others to present a reasoned approach to dealing with climate change, especially since the concept of human activity affecting climate change has been cast into dispute for many, for some of us irreparably.

Acts of disrespect and malicious mischief committed by Greenpeace, anti-abortion activists, and PETA set the tone for a general perception of those interested in social change. That is a hurdle that must be overcome, to accomplish something worthwhile -- unless, that is, one chooses to bide one's time, and prepare for a different world. One might wish to keep in mind the activists out there, each a step away from rousing a backlash that could negatively impact everyone, including those wishing to just keep to the fringes and make their lot, or corner, or back yard a refuge and training ground for their personal future.

Name calling does little to enhance a conversation. Ignoring aspects of those that pose particular problems or threats, however, might be polite but very foolish. It is a fine line to tread.

John Michael Greer said...

Robo, I don't currently have a working station -- time and funds have had to go into other projects, though I have some old Heathkit gear that should be fairly easy to put into working order once I have the chance. At this point, as far as I know, there isn't a peak oil net, much less anything more esoteric, but that could always change.

Marek, the increase in efficiency between different seral stages is only a small part of what drives succession; much more potent is the fact that each sere changes the ecosystem umtil it's no longer suited for that sere, and then another takes over. The new sere does tend to be more efficient, and so less resilient -- note that if you devastate a vacant lot full of weeds, next year you'll have a vacant lot full of weeds; if you devastate an old growth forest, it'll take a century or more to recover.

Cherokee, ouch! That's one of the reasons I stay away from new software. Hope you get everything put back together without too much hassle!

Les, I gotta say, you've got much more colorful birds down under than we've got up on this side of the planet. We've got plenty of friendly birds in our backyard ecosystem, but the most brightly colored of the lot is the male of a pair of cardinals that live in the woods next to our house.

Seani, thanks for the link! I'm not surprised that Taleb is on top of this point -- he's one of the few economists who noticed the housing bubble while it was happening.

GHung, that's a good point.

Twilight, understood. It simply occurred to me that somebody was going to make a bunch of money along those lines!

Das Monde, for heaven's sake, if you don't like the tone of this blog go read a different one.

DPW, that's fascinating. Now let's see if anybody comes up with the money for it.

Trippticket, that's one of those complex situations where you're dealing with the interface of multiple systems, and measuring efficiency in different places. Yes, you can sometimes increase efficiency in one place and increase resilience in a different one -- in this case, increasing the efficiency of your time and the resilience of your water supply.

Johnthackara, clearly you don't get the same emails I do. I hear all the time from people who insist that it's not only possible but necessary for our entire society to follow some kind of grand plan for transitioning to a green economy which will allow everybody to have a middle class American lifestyle powered by sun, wind, and biofuels. That's what that passage is meant to address.

Stan, thank you!

Gavin, there was always a chance that you'd be right, too, but a lot of influential interests in continental Europe want a United States of Europe and will do what they can to make that happen. It'll be interesting to see how far they get -- though I'm as glad not to be part of the experiment.

John Michael Greer said...

Wullow, that's very good to hear. I have my disagreements with some parts of the prepper community, but at least they're doing something -- more than can be said for a lot of people who claim to be aware of the mess we're in -- and the willingness to take action, along with a clear sense of what resilience entails, are crucial steps in the right direction.

Susan, of course you're right; my fluency in Newspeak is distinctly ungood.

Susan said...


I briefly worked at the Walgreens in our little town, so I understand what you're talking about. We actually faced the situation you described when the power went out, and had little old ladies who really needed to get their prescriptions RIGHT NOW!!!

We worked out a plan whereby we would write down the UPC and price, calculate the sales tax, and do an "illegal" transaction in exchange for cash or check only, and then make it "legal" after the electricity came back on. It was sort of like the drugstore scene in One Second After.

Concerning what level of technology at which we can stabilize, I expect we'll see a mirror image of the development on the upside of Hubbert's Peak. A hundred years ago, heavier than air flight was in its infancy. A hundred years in the future, the military may still have some planes and zeppelins, but the rest of us will be riding mostly trains and horses.

My husband is a great railfan and model railroader, and he thinks (or at least hopes) we'll see a big resurgence in rail travel. The earliest trains were pulled by horses. Then came wood-powered steam engines, followed by coal-powered steam engines, followed by diesels. Each transition happened because the new fuel was more efficient (there's that word again) than the previous one.

So, just as with airplanes, a hundred years from now we will see a lot fewer people in private automobiles and more people riding the rails. 150 years ago, during the Civil War, all of the locomotives were powered by burning cordwood. This wasn't as good as using coal, but the fuel actually did grow on trees, and could theoretically last a long time, assuming the forests were allowed to regenerate themselves like in Japan (unfortunately, this didn't happen 150 years ago in Europe and America, which is one reason they switched to coal, but there is always hope we can learn at least some lessons from the past).

As a side note, I remember riding on the Mike Fink keelboats at Disneyland. Over the next century or two, we'll probably see lots of pole boats and sail boats and horse-drawn canal boats on the waterways, plus a restructuring of population centers to be closer to the lakes and rivers and canals and remaining rail lines.

So, assuming a stable population, we could very well stabilize at an early 19th century level (plus some electricity and modern medicine) and stay there for a long time. That wouldn't be so bad...

And on a completely different note, I have this global warming fantasy vision of a future naval war between Canada and Russia over the newly ice-free Arctic Ocean, fought between fleets of sailing ships just like they had during the Napoleonic Wars (the newly independent nation of Alaska would probably play a pivital role in this conflict, possibly aided by the neighboring city-state of Ecotopia)...

Don Mason said...

@ Susan and Nano:

Re: Water: The Great Destroyer of Houses (New Construction and Insulation/Vapor Barriers)

A good site to check out for information on energy efficiency and reduction of moisture related issues is

They have information on techniques that work in different climates, since the positioning of (or even the use of) a vapor barrier/vapor retarder differs greatly with the climate you're in.

If you do it right, the house is relatively cool in summer, warm in winter, and you won’t have mold problems.

If you do it wrong, you could end up living in a house full of mushrooms the size of your kitchen table.

Grossly oversimplified, the rules are:

In the dry, very cold north (like central Canada): use a vapor barrier (like polyethylene) on the warm side.

Anywhere else: it all depends.

The vapor barrier issue gets very complicated because in some climates (such as areas with cold winters and hot, humid summers like parts of the Midwest) the water that inevitably finds its way into any wall or ceiling has to dry to the outside of the house during some parts of the year, and has to dry towards the inside of the house during other parts of the year.

Putting a highly impermeable barrier like polyethylene on the inside can prevent drying towards the interior, whereas a less impermeable barrier like two coats of latex paint on drywall still allows some drying to the interior.

It is even further complicated because the use of air conditioning or dehumidification can radically change the temperature/humidity gradient.

It is even further, further complicated by climate change. The climate you initially design the building for may not be the same climate twenty or forty or sixty years down the road. It’s a good bet that it will be warmer, but will it be drier at your location or more humid? And which season will be drier or wetter? Summer or winter? Predicting the change in humidity is much shakier; and predicting which particular season will be wetter or drier is much, much shakier.

But read up as much as possible on this insulation/moisture issue before you build, because some almost-new houses have been torn down due to mold issues because of miscalculations.

Reading is doubleplusgood – but only if you read materials approved by the Ministry of Insulation Truth.

Kieran O'Neill said...

@Chris (re: trojans)

Does your work require software that won't run on Linux (or for which there aren't good free alternatives)?

If you want to increase resilience on a computer, switching to Linux is a pretty good option. It's still miles ahead of Windows (or MacOS) for security, and this combined with the relatively small market share makes viruses for Linux very rare.

Of course, JMG's strategy of keeping the work machine disconnected from the Internet is also a good one (if possible). You just have to watch out for viruses that can travel on USB sticks (or other disks).

As for virus writers finding something better to do in a contracting economy and unstable world: already there is a strong financial incentive -- most modern viruses exist to set up bot nets of hundreds of thousands of computers that can be controlled from a central point and rented for sending spam or making DDOS attacks. As the wealth gap grows, and digital technology creeps into more and more parts of the wealthy elite's lives, I can only see that incentive growing.

Chris Bird said...

I very much enjoyed this post, thank you. It is timely for me, because one of the aha moments at a recent airline industry technology conference was "Irregular operations are the new regular". That cumbersome phrase unpacks to noting that the management of aircraft schedules, and the ability to fly the actual schedule is significantly compromised - all in the attempt to be efficient. The whole air traffic system suffers from a lack of resilience. The challenge that I would like to place on the table is how do we design Systems (big S, not just information technology) that recognize that things are no longer on the happy path - we don't have enough resiliency/redundancy (and redundancy can be a way of achieving some resiliency) to deal with the new normal. What axes of efficiency do we give up on to get to suitable resiliency?
Keep up the great work, thanks. Chris

Ruben said...

Somebody mentioned Lasik... I just got an eye exam yesterday, and asked a few questions about Lasik. First of all, it is not great for astigmatisms, which is what I have. And, your vision is corrected, but your eyes still age, so you end up needing reading glasses anyway.

So that pretty much killed my faint interest, since I would need glasses in a few short years anyway.

sofistek said...

Steve in Colorado is right, in one aspect of efficiency. An example might be the dreaded motor car. A typical internal combustion engine is very inefficient in it's use of the fuel; converting, I think, only 30% or less of the energy in the fuel to motion of the car. It's hard to imagine how a more efficient engine could be less resilient but, in general, JMG is spot on.

A.K. McKay said...

I guess it all comes down to how you define efficient. Economists of course define efficiency as anything that costs less money. For those of us not blinkered by the dollar signs many of these systems are both highly inefficient and highly resilient.

For example in New Zealand a species of fish, jack mackerel, is caught and frozen at sea. It is then landed in New Zealand, freighted all the way to China to be processed and then sent back to New Zealand to be processed.

To anyone on the outside looking in this is an insane waste of resources, highly inefficient and highly unresilient. But because it costs less money, it is defined as the height of efficiency.

Bill Pulliam said...

JMG -- "Les, I gotta say, you've got much more colorful birds down under than we've got up on this side of the planet. We've got plenty of friendly birds in our backyard ecosystem, but the most brightly colored of the lot is the male of a pair of cardinals that live in the woods next to our house."

Actually, your area contains dozens of species spectacularly colored birds to rival those of the celebrated tropics. However, they will not come to your backyard feeder. You have to venture forth with binoculars and patience to find them. Open your field guide to the wood warblers; most of those species can likely be found quite close to your backyard at the appropriate season.

Mark said...

I see the "efficient" for "resilient" trade-off all the time. Even in the solar hot water and PV business. Here's just one example...

The latest "fad" in solar hot water is "evacuated tube" collectors. I won't go into details but suffice it to say that under some conditions they are more efficient than flat plate solar hot water collectors.

Evacuated tube collectors are tubes of glass that hold a vacuum. Inside the tube is a collector surface. Fluid in the tube vaporizes, rises to the top of the tube, condenses (and heats a manifold) and falls to the bottom of the tube to start the cycle over again. The tubes are light-weight and about 3" in diameter. Installers like them because they can carry up one or two tubes at a time without assistance. And, typically, takes only one person to install the roof hardware.

The installers sell the systems by touting their improved ability to convert sunlight to hot water (efficiency) but the real efficiency is the lower labor costs and greater profits to the installer. The efficiency benefit is not for the customer, its for the installer.

People seem to forget however, that "Nature abhors a vacuum" and that traditional solar hot water panels (called "flat plate collectors" by installers) last for decades.

In fact, we regularly service solar hot water systems with flat plate collectors that have been in use since Jimmy Carter was president (the late 1970s).(Flat plate collectors are just an aluminum box with a black collector surface and some piping inside and a glass front.)

Does anybody really think that evacuated tube collectors will be functioning in 40 years or that the extra efficiency is a worthy tradeoff. I promise you that the extra efficiency over their life will not make up for the 30 or 40 years of extra production (resiliency) you'll get out of the flat plate collectors.

Footnote: Whenever we remove vintage collectors, there is always someone interested in repurposing them - we just list them on Craigs List or Freecycle. I have a friend who's uses a pair to heat bio-diesel oil to make it easier to filter out the french fry and McNugget crumbs! I have another friend who built a parabolic mirror structure aimed at pair of flat plate collectors to make super hot fluid (he actually destroyed some vacuum tube collectors by overheating them with the same mirrors). And, I have a pair of vintage collectors soon to be deployed on a solar space heating project.

Marek said...

John, but you say the next sere is the sere of salvage economy. According to your succession model this new sere should be more efficient. If the efficiency is the opposite of resilience than it implies the new sere should be also less resilient. But here you write: The emerging patterns of the salvage economy that have been discussed here over the last few weeks feed into this same quest for resilience.

z said...

regarding peoples predictions on the down slope of the hubbert curve being a mirror image of the upslope, that is dangerously simplistic thinking: Previously the 'natives' didn't use their oil, and were easy to exploit and control. Now they are voracious oil consumers. Check out the land export model on wikipedia. The oil exporting countries will keep the oil themselves before exporting it as it becomes scarce. This will 1970's type shortages for shorter and longer periods of time, starting in the near future. In Ireland we may be able to do a deal directly with Libya or similar to get oil in exchange for cattle for instance (we feed 100 million europeans with beef)but we have little oil of our own. I see direct agreements happening.

Regarding efficiency versus resiliance, yea I broadly agree, but be careful to avoid binary thinking here: It is good to be resiliant (plenty of spare capacity, and using systems that are not dependent on complexity and centralization) but also to be efficient with resource use, just like the k selected old growth forests. There will be no redundancy without efficiency,otherwise we would use the resources we would otherwise have as backup. Therefore resilience is impossible without efficiency. However efficiency without resilience is a common trap to be avoided

John Michael Greer said...

Chris, that's fascinating. Thanks for the data.

Ruben, that's about what I expected. I don't do modern medicine, by and large, so wasn't looking at Lasik anyway.

Sofistek, to get much past 30% you're pushing at thermodynamic limits, and that would involve complex (and therefore brittle) technology. There's your greater efficiency and less resilience!

AK, and of course that's another part of the puzzle. Efficiency always has to be defined by saying what's being used efficiently, and efficient with money isn't necessarily efficient with fuel, or time, or anything else.

Bill, I stand corrected.

Mark, thanks for the example! I'm certainly planning on flat plate collectors when we finish raising the funds for our solar water heating system.

Marek, no, the next sere is scarcity industrialism. That's the efficient (and less resilient) sere under current and near future conditions. Under those conditions, the salvage economy is less efficient -- which is why it's more resilient; when it becomes the most efficient economy available, once fossil fuel supplies are gone, then it'll begin to show its own lack of resilience (for example, what happens when the salvage runs out?) and the next sere, the ecotechnic sere, will start to emerge in places where resilience matters.

Z, I've already covered the downside of the Hubbert curve, in terms not too different from the ones you've used, in discussions of scarcity industrialism. As for the tradeoffs between efficiency and resilience, of course you can leverage efficiency in one system, or according to one measure, to get resilience in another system or measure -- and vice versa. The direct tradeoff between efficiency and resilience applies to a single system measured according to the same parameter.

Cathy McGuire said...

@BradK – LOL! I learned to crow years ago, mostly over my accomplishments. ;-) Louis my junior roo, is learning to crow over being male (there I go, being sexist…;-)) My new routine (until it gets late enough in season to leave them outside) is to bring both roos inside mornings, to prevent neighbor complaints. He also seems to think this white screen pointer is a fly; hoping he doesn’t peck through the screen. LOL.

@JMG: I roll my eyes when people claim that gardening is expensive. It's not.
That’s another problem – many people call it “gardening” when they go buy 4ft already-flowering plants and stick them in the ground… they are not much more ready to garden "post-garden-shops" than those who’ve never tried to turn the soil! I’m finding that seeding takes a whole ‘nother level of skill, and I see where practice has improved my skills a lot!

@Les – Wow! Gorgeous bird! I’d love to have one eating from my hand.

@Trippticket: Just open a spigot at the right spot and go do something else!
As long as you don’t forget to inspect them regularly. That’s the downside of “efficiency” – we think our machines and gadgets are working, so we neglect our need to be sure all is well (spoken by someone who’s done that too often). Machines and gadgets are mindless; we have to supply the mind.

Tony said...


I bet your grandpa's shortwave had a decent antenna attached to it. My grandma's radio had a 3-foot-diameter loop antenna inside; she listened to Franklin Hobbs nightly at bedtime. Good luck fitting that in a bedside job.

Wrap one end of a long piece of INSULATED wire around the outside of that radio several times. I bet that those impossible Milwaukee stations suddenly pop out of the aether as if by magic. Even without a connection the long wire will induce a better signal into that teensy crap antenna inside.

Now figure out a way to make that permanent. Or get yourself a nice Grundig-grade real radio. Because snazzy designer plastic and miniaturization cannot overcome the laws of physics.

idiotgrrl said...

IN June I opened a spigot at the right spot and went and did something else - and forgot I'd done so. I came back a week later to find the hose serving the Japanese peach tree was going full blast - and apparently had all week. I promptly turned it off.

My June water bill ran me over $200. Part of that was that they took the usual price of the water I'd used in that enormous usage spike and slapped on a "conservation charge" (i.e. water wasting fine) for the same amount.

Well deserved, too. In a drought you do not mess around with such things. I now have a time on the spigot, but for many uses, dip a bucket into my bathwater (use Dr. Bronner's soap, well diluted, don't worry) and distribute the water, already used, that way.

artinnature said...

Mark--"The latest "fad" in solar hot water is "evacuated tube" collectors. I won't go into details but suffice it to say that under some conditions they are more efficient than flat plate solar hot water collectors"

Last weekend I attended the NW Solarfest in Shoreline, WA. Lots of great vendors, but I was immediately struck by these evacuated tube collectors (they all had them proudly displayed). One look and I had this uneasy feeling: there is no way that these glimmering glass vacuums could be remotely as resilient as flat panel collectors. And regarding their "increased efficiency", JMG has shown us that using the sun to make water hot enough for bathing, etc is easy to do, why sacrifice resiliency for a tiny improvement in efficiency with this particular technology?

Thanks JMG for another stunning post.

sofistek said...

JMG, I'm not sure that your point about thermodynamic limits is valid, with regard to car engines. With just this one example, we see all sorts of efficiency levels in car engines (or maybe the whole car). And engines have gotten more efficient before pushing up against the limits of thermodynamics. All I'm saying is that it's possible to think of examples of efficiencies that aren't the opposite of resilience; rather orthogonal to it. This doesn't detract from your central message - it's just that it is not always a trade-off between efficiency and resiliency, even if it is most of the time.

Zach said...

It may be worth pointing out that it's not a purely inverse relationship between efficiency and resilience.

As efficiency increases, resilience necessarily decreases.

However, a system can be inefficient without also being resilient.


Tom said...

Hi JMG -

Just passed through your city yesterday. I've read other of your posts and am in alignment with the need for a far more thoughtful future.

Having read the early issues of Mother Earth News, I ended up in the Shenandoah Valley in 1973 as a regional planner. When it came to gardening, I was amazed at how much I already knew, having been learned from my father in the 1950's in Wisconsin. I read about the 12V DC house, but never got around to building one.

Here in Town I've not had a garden since 1982 when I became a single parent. No time. Today deer appear in daylight to eat the apples in the yard. I appreciate that, but the high populations of deer are negative for gardening.

As a planner, I see resilience as a key need for communities. The "emergency preparedness" processes that local governments are required to use can lead to over-kill in terms of preparation. Every community needs a SWAT team, armored car, mobile command center - the Homeland Insecurity script.

Each locality/region needs its own assessment of risks, as well as response plans. This means neighboring communities must communicate in advance to provide back-up.

Whether or not a community was resilient is known in the debrief. Being prepared for the known and being able to adapt that for the unknown is the foundation for being resilient.

I think resilience as a term is different in relationship to the scale.

No one has posted definitions, so here's what I found at

re·sil·ience n.
1. The ability to recover quickly from illness, change, or misfortune; buoyancy.

2. The property of a material that enables it to resume its original shape or position after being bent, stretched, or compressed; elasticity.

resilience n.
1. Also called resiliency the state or quality of being resilient

2. (Life Sciences & Allied Applications / Environmental Science) Ecology the ability of an ecosystem to return to its original state after being disturbed

3. (Physics / General Physics) Physics the amount of potential energy stored in an elastic material when deformed

JMG wrote: "A screwdriver is resilient if you can use it hard, even for things it's not quite designed for, without breaking it."

I think the ecological approach is closer to the actual resilience need we have. The ability for the screwdriver to keep its shape is a function of the specifications of the manufacturing process. The screwdriver itself will survive many events, short of being thrown back into a pot of molten steel.

JMG wrote: "Self-repair is one specific strategy to achieve resilience." This is one that machinery and electronics have trouble with. A broken gear tooth or circuit board failure can be total breakdown. A human can loose an appendage, even consciously cut off an arm or leg pinned between rocks, to be free and go on, and live and adapt. That is resilience.

JMG wrote: "As for the new 1950s, we don't have enough fossil fuels left to plateau out at that level; think 1880s if we're lucky and smart, 1820s if we're not."

Going back 60 years finance wise would put younger Americans in deep shock. I can go lower energy, but do not want to give up this - the Internet and the ability to communicate. Small towns and rural areas in the 1950's could be quite isolated.

If we were to go back to subsistence agriculture, then there would be a great population and culture loss. The loss of cities that enable specialization and therefore civilization, is a tragedy I do not want to see.

As a regional planner, I found that, over time, my five county, single city and 14 town region were able to work together when they became a "regional community of communities."

Surviving the present over reach on resources and adapting to a world with less is the challenge for us. Moving to an age of human unity and cooperation would be a resilient response. Organic efficiency, resilience and community top to bottom.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Bill,

Rainbow Lorikeets aren't tropical birds. They're generalists and spread all the way from Queensland to as far south as Tasmania. Actually a I suspect from your comment that a big difference between birds here and where you are is that a lot of our wild birds have adapted quite well to urban environments. Many years ago I used to live 4km from the CBD in an old area (the house was from the1890's) and Rainbow Lorikeets were a regular visitor to my garden.

I don't get them here, but I do have a family of about 30 crimson rosella's who are performing the same function that chickens (excluding the eggs of course) do in the orchard and grassed areas. I provide them with rye seed and they provide me with fertiliser.

I can't let the chooks free roam because of wedge tail eagles during the day and powerful owls at night. Everyone around here who has chooks tell sad tales about losing the chooks to predators. You just have to enclose the run - steel heavy gauge chook wire with a plinth at the bottom and bird netting on top - there is no alternative.

My neighbour has pied currawongs which get into their chook run and eat the eggs.

Anyway, in the spirit of last weeks pointless discussion about "eastside is de best", I dare you to find a more attractive commonly found bird in a cool climate than our crimson rosella!



z said...

Actually the example you give IS a prime example of the trade off between efficiency and resilience. For the Carnot heat engine, efficiency is maximised by having the greatest possible difference between Th and Tc (wiki carnot cycle for details. The same is true for an electricity generating steam plant, which runs on the rankine cycle. Unfortunately the materials of the system do not respond well (resiliantly) at higher temperatures. In a steam generating power plant, we cannot increase the temperature above 565 degrees celcius, otherwise we gett creep in the stainless steel. Therefore the higher we try to push efficiency, the less resilient the system becomes.

hawlkeye said...

When someone hires me to install an automatic sprinkler system for their new food gardens (no new lawn systems anymore), they've usually been watering by hand, which they deem highly inefficient. They seem to think that once everything is on a timer, they won't have to think about it one bit further. As if that was a good thing.

But I always tell them that any "low maintenance" automatic system will be much closer to "high maintenance" than "no maintenance", which always baffles.

Because the least efficient method of hand-watering requires the dedicated attention of the gardener at all times (lest we space out the running hose all night and run the well dry, or worse - sorry to hear that, grrl). Yet this allows us to observe everything going on, forcing us to pay attention, which makes us better gardeners.

As soon as there's a timer, instead of ignoring the whole works, I tell them they must check every sprinkler often, nearly every day, because if something fails on a hot week, plants die, and no-one is there in time to notice.

So I'm concluding that true resiliency results from mindfulness, and we've come to expect effiency to translate into non-involvement.

The most efficient hammer today is one that runs off an air hose from a compressor. The most resilient hammer ever must be a rock. Somewhere in between is that wooden handled critter with a claw on the end. Best of both...

Houyhnhnm said...

Susan said, “A hundred years from now, my great-great-grandkids may be raising draft horses for the Yellow Cab company in the nearest big town . . . .”

As a language and horse person, I feel compelled to nitpick.

First, the word cab is itself a shortening of cabriolet, a two-wheeled, single horse carriage. The word carriage further connotes a comfortable vehicle used for the transport of human passengers rather than cargo.

So, unless the future Yellow Cab is no longer in the business of transporting individuals, I hope your g-g-grandkids would be trying to sell light breeds rather than drafters as cab horses. Hitching a draft horse to a cab is rather like using a Kenworth to pull a tiny U-Haul trailer. Plus, drafters don’t trot fast enough to provide the speed most cab passengers want.

That said, it’s currently common to see a Clydesdale or Belgian plodding along some mall pulling a panel-boot victoria and other elegant carriage. Passengers today accept this because few know history or horses and even those who do are generally tourists or people celebrating a wedding or something rather than cab passengers who want to get across town ASAP.


Tyler August said...


The resilience vs. efficiency dichiotemy does very much apply to internal combustion engines, just not in production models.
For example, take an old VW bug. Stock that little air-cooled engine gives you, what, 40HP? Bore the cylinders, up the compression ratios, etc, and you can more than double that.
More power doesn't sound more efficient, but because it's coming from the same size engine your power/weight goes way up. Which is one measure of efficiency.
OR if you want the same power, cut the motor in half (it's relatively easy to build a two-cylinder VW engine) and you've got the same power as before, but gain efficiency from not hauling around so much engine.
Of course the darn thing, sooner or later, is going to explode... you lose in resiliency, for sure.
Straight-up fuel economy mods don't usually go this route, and so I'm not surprised it didn't occur to you, but any gearhead (with a different metric for 'efficiency') -- or even a gearhead's heretic cyclist son, like me-- could tell you that yes, resiliency can be traded for efficiency in an ICE.

This isn't done in production autos because a certain degree of resiliency is viewed as essential-- it has to last out the warranty, which the modded half of a bug engine I describe above would not--but if you were trying to maximize efficiency above all else, the trade is there to make.

DavidB said...

Great post and discussion.

As an educator I wanted to think in larger terms about efficiency/resilience. It seems to me a logical extension of the idea might be found in modern systems of formal schooling. I'm thinking for example of my parents both of whom at midcentury learned Latin in school. Teaching Latin these days would be considered woefully inefficient: not 'just in time' enough to be directly serviceable for particular job requirements. Who wants to pay for a bunch of classics teachers and "frills" such as dead languages? Yet that knowledge base lends itself toward a degree of resilence in the sense that in circumstances of communications breakdown where, say, one encounters a word one doesn't know, one can often guess its meaning with a fair degree of accuracy. This then would be but one example of a bit of resilience that's been eliminated from standard school curricula in favor of efficiency.

Extrapolating for all of this, it seems to me we can make an analogous critique of our educ. system generally. We see an increasing drive for direct, immediate and short-term relevance in the form of specific job skills and a concomitant decline in a commitment to less efficient but--ex hypothesi--more resilient instruction in arts and humanities, history, etc. One might even add instruction in basic math and science rather than "technology."

I can't help but feel that this narrow vocationalism typical of recent educational experience is making us more brittle--less resilient--in the face of the coming challenges. On an even larger scale, we can think of what a more truly resilient education would mean, not just for children but for all of us. The sorts of things many of us are trying to accomplish presently, e.g., analogous to the vacuum radio tubes, re-learning the lost skills of so many kinds we are going to need when the lights go out.

So...what do you think? Is applying the notion of resilience to education like this an overextension of the idea? Or a fruitful avenue for inquiry? It seems like it may be a helfpul notion in this area. Thanks.

John Michael Greer said...

Cathy, that's an important point. One popular gimmick for marketers for a long time now are what I like to call "pseudocrafts" -- activities where most of what you do is spend money, but you put a few pieces together or follow some instructions for the final step or two, and then, hey! You tell yourself you did it all yourself. Gardening gets that as much as anything. As far as I'm concerned, if you start with anything but soil, seeds, hand tools, and compost you make yourself, you're spending too much money and not learning the skills you need. Now of course I'm biased!

Grrl, ouch. More efficient, but definitely less resilient.

Sofistek, I disagree. If you're measuring the same system in the same way, and in terms of the same value, resilience and efficiency are inversely related; it's when those conditions don't get met that it looks as though you can have both.

Zach, it sounds as though this could best be modeled by defining a third factor. As efficiency increases, resilience necessarily decreases; as resilience increases, efficiency necessarily decreases; but efficiency and resilience can both decrease in a system at the same time. What increases in proportion to those decreases? My intuitive guess is "waste," but it's an interesting point.

Tom, of course an age of human unity and cooperation would be very helpful, but unless you have some way of making one of those happen -- and the ways that have been tried so far have consistently failed, and not uncommonly produced spectacular body counts -- it's probably more useful to assume that human beings are what they are, and plan accordingly.

Hawlkeye, that's an excellent example. You're right about the quest for mindlessness that pervades contemporary culture, too; I'll be discussing that in a future post.

Houyhnhnm, a useful point. I'm rather looking forward to the day when cabriolets and one-horse shays are common again.

David, it's not an overextension of the idea at all, and in fact the current state of education (that is to say, rigor mortis) is one that I was planning on discussing in an upcoming post, very much along the lines you've suggested here. More on this soon!

Bill Pulliam said...

Chris-- the major difference is that the natural landscape in the eastern U.S. is one of tall, closed-canopy forests. Our native songbirds are canopy gleaners and thicket skulkers that are heard far more often than seen -- much like the situation in tropical wet forests. Indeed, during the summer, our forests are not that different in physiognomy from forests of the humid tropics. Birds of closed forests worldwide are notoriously difficult to get good looks at. Many a birder has drooled over the pictures of rainbow-colored Amazonian birds, only to get there and discover that they can't actually SEE any of them most of the time. Plus, we here in the U.S. drove our only native parrot to extinction long ago.

Angus Wallace said...

I've been thinking more about the whole efficiency vs resilience, and I don't think it's a zero-sum game.

Firstly, I think there are lots of definitions of efficiency, but a common one is to look at the ratio of usable outputs to required inputs: the more output for a given input, the more efficient.
We (as a society) have a bad habit of ignoring parts of processes (kind of like the accounting that ignores the "value" we derive by dumping pollutants in the atmosphere for free). If one were to follow this train of thought, one might conclude that efficiency could best (most holistically) be defined as the ratio of useful outputs to waste outputs. (ie. The higher the ratio of useful to waste outputs, the more efficient).

If viewed in this light, natural process (and, presumably, appropriate technology processes) would be seen as much more efficient than is currently recognised.

I think what I'm saying is that we should be pushing for a new understanding of efficiency, rather than criticising it as a concept.


sofistek said...

OK, JMG and Tyler, maybe an ICE wasn't the best example. It just seems to me that there are examples in which efficiency is not the opposite of resilience, whilst not, at all, detracting from JMG's argument in his article.

A general class of examples might be how one uses tools, let's say a scythe (but it could be an axe, a digging fork, a saw, and so on). Certain techniques are not very efficient and can both tire you out or make you sore much more quickly than other techniques. Or some techniques take longer to complete the job than other techniques. It may be the way you set up the scythe, hold the scythe swing the scythe, how often you hone the blade, or whatever. Increasing effiency doesn't seem to decrease resilience to me. In some cases, perhaps with woodworking or metal work, your techniques may use less material, thereby increasing the efficiency of the use of materials and increasing resiliency (because there are less resources consumed to replace).

Sorry to belabour the point. I agree with your article - it was brilliant - but Steve in Colorado's post just made me think that it is not always as straightforward as one might think. There are some cases where increased efficiency doesn't reduce resilience.

Oh, I just thought of another example with setting a fire. A local organics magazine mentioned this - an upside down fire. The fire is prepared the opposite way to convention - i.e. empty the grate, stack wood fairly tightly on the bottom, then some smaller kindling, some tinder wood on that and finally something to start it off, say strips of newspaper. In this way the fire burns more slowly and more efficiently, with less soot. It seems to work. I can't think how resilience is compromised there, either.

sofistek said...

When you start your series on the decline of the American empire, it'll be interesting to see how it intersects with Dave Cohen's blog, Decline of The Empire. Are you familiar with that blog, JMG?

. josé . said...

JMG in response to Zach: ''As efficiency increases, resilience necessarily decreases; as resilience increases, efficiency necessarily decreases; but efficiency and resilience can both decrease in a system at the same time. What increases in proportion to those decreases? My intuitive guess is "waste," but it's an interesting point."

Yes! Exactly!
I read this post and the first batch of comments on a flight to Europe a few days ago, (two browser windows cached, so that I can switch back and forth between JMG and the readers) and had planned to respond with exactly that formulation. I'm glad I decided to read on before commenting.

The other key refinement in the comments & responses is that efficiency is necessarily measured against a clearly enumerated set of variables (or even just one, such as cost, labor time, or energy), while a well-designed resilience may be based on evolved or traditional systems, so it may address a broad spectrum of factors.

Looking at a system as a whole, any parameter that has become highly efficient becomes a weak link, and serves as a place where the system can fail when it is stressed in an unexpected way. By contrast, a system that optimizes for resilience broadly, avoiding gratuitous waste but not narrowly targeting efficiencies, is less likely to fail when stressed.

And all of our systems are about to be stressed.

. josé . said...

As an aside, I've been using the "jmg" initials - though in lower case - since the 60's. I guess I won't do so on this blog :)

- josé

Cherokee Organics said...


About fruit trees. Given it's late summer where a lot of commenters are, there's comments about watering fruit trees.

It can get pretty hot and dry here over summer. As a general rule though, because of limited water supplies, I only water the fruit trees when there will be two weeks of temperatures in excess of mid 35 degrees celsius with no rainfall.

Even then, I only give them a bucket or so of water - just enough to get through.

The reason for this is because it encourages resilience in the trees. Over a number of years they start to develop deeper root systems. If you water them regularly during these periods, the trees become dependant on this service and keep their shallow root systems. This resilience is another reason I encourage people to plant seedling fruit trees because they have naturally deeper and more extensive root systems.

The main reason for grafted fruit trees is to reduce the mature size of the tree through using rootstock which has a smaller root system ie. it deliberately slows the amount of nutrients available to the tree. Smaller root systems means the end tree is less able to scavenge water and nutrients in extreme conditions though. It's a trade off between size and survivability.



Houyhnhnm said...

@DavidB and JMG--

Attacks on a broad liberal arts education often focus on its lack of efficiency. Since I believe the most "efficient" courses aren't necessarily those that promote resourceful, flexible thinking, I've argued for decades about the need for depth--for resilience--in education, but these days efficiency rules.

Looking forward to a discussion on this topic.


idiotgrrl said...

DavidB, you have just convinced me that my next curse of studies should be Latin.

It's been tickling the back of my mind for some time. I have all I need for a minor in Medieval studies, for which the courses in modern Spanish counted, but how can you begin to understand Medieval thought without reading their works in the language the scholars all thought in?

Plus it puts all the Romance languages at my fingertips, plus as you said, all the big words in the Germanic languages, provided the big words aren't just agglutinates (the weapons lab joke label "das eargeschplittenloudenboomerundlargenholeingrundundalleskaput" comes to mind. It was on a V-2 warhead, c. 1962.)

Finally, the Romans wrote the book on urbanization, republics becoming empires, the course of empire and decline & fall thereof, and how to survive the fall to end your days in the long morning of the Middle Ages. (As Augustine of Hippo. Ask Boethius.)

So -- semper progrediamur!

hadashi said...

Hi JMG and also @Davidb

I'm one (or should that be two?) with you on this one. I look forward to a follow up on this topic. I'm also in the field of education, providing student support for a Polytechnical Institute. Efficiency has been management's slogan for about the last 10 years in my place of work. About 6 months ago I can remember trying to get across the notion that the more efficient we make ourselves, the less robust we become, in that we make ourselves more susceptible to unexpected snafus. At that staff meeting, I remember nothing but blank stares in response.

Brad K. said...


Draft horses are intended where more strength is needed for work, and as a genetic asset for cross-breeding horses intended for use where above average strength, or weight, is needed.

Back in earlier years, there were more "chunks" or draft breeds crossed with light horse breeds for an in-between model.

Another point to mention, is that draft horses have a shorter average life span that ponies or light horse breeds. We don't usually want to put horses to work until they are mature, about age four, for draft horses. Drafts mature slower, and may continue growing through age five or six, but about age four most of the important skeletal growth points have been achieved, and even more importantly, the brain or mind achieves a mature level.

Light horses live longer, so there is less investment in the average working life in the horse -- something that will be important to a commercial venture.

The average life spans of horses vary, as do the number of useful working years. Some horses are typically used very hard, and retired early (like modern Western Quarter Horses on ranches from Western Nebraska, as a single, isolated instance), others are used well and cared for with an object of an extended useful life. Many modern horses live unnecessarily shortened lives because they are overfed.

I might note that most horses eat about the same amount of food, per pound of bodyweight. Thus, the daily feed bill for a 550 pound pony will be about 1/2 that of an 1100 pound Standardbred, or 1/4th that for a 2200 pound Belgian Draft or Shire draft horse breed. If you only have work for a pony, that difference adds up.

But, in general, I imagine the Yellow Cab company of the future will use the draft horses for group hauling, and lighter breeds or crosses for quicker and lighter uses.

John Michael Greer said...

Gus, if you redefine one of the terms in an equation then, granted, the equation no longer works. To my mind it's more useful to take the concept of efficiency as it now exists, and is used throughout the industrial world, and show its downside.

Sofistek, again, you're comparing apples to orangutans. If you use less metal in a tool, to borrow one of your examples, that tool will be less resilient in the face of stresses; I've already pointed out that you can sacrifice resilience in one place to add to it in another. I know this is a counterintuitive concept, but please try to understand what I'm actually saying!

As for Cohen's blog, I don't follow it; what I've read of it seems to be heavily into the popular political demonology of our time, which doesn't seem helpful to me.

Jose, thank you! Yes, exactly -- and accounting for waste as a third factor gives the model a good deal more relevance, I think.

Chris, true enough. I chose dwarf rootstock trees simply because I don't have a lot of space, and have to work with what I've got -- in this case, room for two apple trees and a quince bush in front, plus a grape arbor in the back yard.

Houyhnhnm, exactly.

Hadashi, excellent! You'll probably have noticed that I'm getting a fair number of those blank looks here as well; the idea that efficiency can be a disadvantage is quite literally unthinkable to most people these days. Still, it's a concept that has to be grasped.

sofistek said...

Hmm. I understand what you're saying JMG and I'm even abandoning the idea that there are many examples of where efficiency need not be the enemy of resilience. I'm not sure why you read into my last set of examples that the tools would have less metal, or wood, to be more efficient - I was merely referring to the techniques of using the tools or of making the tools or of setting the fire. The tools themselves need be no different. But I guess efficiency of technique is not what you were talking about anyway.

Point made.

Cohen's blog? I'd always thought of Dave as a great writer, when he churned out his weekly articles for ASPO-USA, before embarking on his blog (not too far removed from your considered style). The blog entries are less considered, probably because he churns out one a day. But I don't think they can be dismissed as easily as you have. Sure, some of his posts rail at politicians, which is absolutely right, but he doesn't think it will change anything - he doesn't think the empire can be saved or the decline halted. His blog is about trying to educate people in what he sees as the realities of the decline, though he often blogs about more global issues.

If nothing else, you both date the start of the decline to about the same time 30-40 years ago.


Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Bill,

You dodged the colour challenge!

I've been to the Amazon in Eastern Peru and seen Macaws at a salt lick on the side of the river. Very impressive.

Strangely enough, the canopy of the Amazon wasn't as closed as I would have expected - perhaps it was because I didn't venture too far from the River and logging had occurred at some stage because of the convenient transport at hand.

I've never heard of your forests described as rainforests and I've wondered about this. If the canopy is closed and humidity is high then it follows that they'd be rainforests?

For all sorts of people related reasons, we have no mega fauna and few predators (other than people) on the continent, which perhaps explains the large diversity and numbers of our bird populations. Certainly you are misinformed about it being only tropical species. It seems to be quite a different experience to yourselves.



Cherokee Organics said...


Since you're speaking of resilience and after reading your book I note that you have an interest in economic affairs...

I came across an article in the weekend paper entitled "You wouldn't credit it, but once upon a time we saved up". It was interesting because it listed current government debt to GDP ratios and it was scary:
US 92%
Greece 142%
Ireland 96%
Italy 119%
Spain 60%
Portugal 93%
Germany 83%
France 81%
Britain 80%
Australia 22.3%

The article likened the situation to a Ponzi scheme - which it most likely is. I'm old school in my thinking and am highly debt adverse, but from all accounts it looks like I'm missing out on one massive party. I wonder at what point the bill will turn up - it can't be far away?

Ponzi schemes are a house of cards at the best of times and only rely on the confidence of the spruikers.



Marek said...

JMG, thank you for clarification.

If I understand it well, then you say: There is transitional phase called scarcity industrialism between industrial society and salvage economy. And correspondingly there will be conceptually similar transitional phase between the salvage economy and the ecotechnic society...

DavidB said...

JMG, Hadashi, idiotgrrl, Houyhmhnm...,

I'll greatly look forward to your analysis, then, JMG. Glad that extension of the idea resonates. I love the Latin point and am always happy to defend the most obscure sorts of scholarship! To me the classicists--and by extension medievalists--are one of our canaries in the coalmine. What a great idea to atrophy our cultural memory to make a quick buck! At my university the focus is now wholly on grant-getting, which mostly boils down to as direct as possible servicing of short-term corporate and political interests. Not a great environment for history or my own pathetic little field, philosophy.

It does strike me that 'resilience' may offer a more concrete and convincing rallying point for defending a more holistic conception of educ., not just traditional liberal arts but also the "good" kind of vocational educ., elements of which can be found in certain 'progressives' of yesteryear such as John Dewey, one of those figure imho so often cited but not really attended to. It's a kind of cultural resilience at both the individual and collective levels. An inherently holistic notion more congenial to a more defensible vision of human flourishing than educ. as hyperspecialization, where we become mere appendages to tech-aided capital accumulation.

I suppose one counter consideration could be that when we're talking about mass societies, whether it be human beings or, say, ant colonies, there are contexts where efficiency and resilience are not so neatly opposed. Take ants. (See Mark Moffett's wonderful work.) It seems to me that these massive ant colonies, often with millions of individuals, achieve a high degree of resilience via a high degree of specialization-driven efficiency. It's more about the distribution of the efficiencies across the community rather than efficiency per se. So you could destroy half an ant colony and it would be able to build itself back up in short order. But if, say, all the ants with Function X were all located together and could all be destroyed, then sans Function X the colony would die. So I'm thinking that resilience and efficiency aren't necessarily opposed. It's that there is an optimum level of efficiency where, if it's distributed in a certain way, actually enhances resilience. But then there's a point of diminishing returns, and then a point where efficiency is actually inimical to resilience.

Cathy McGuire said...

@Chris: My neighbour has pied currawongs which get into their chook run and eat the eggs.
Darn – that bird is a lot plainer than its name! Looks like our Brewer’s blackbird… the name is just begging to be a rock band name, though!

@hawleyeSo I'm concluding that true resiliency results from mindfulness, and we've come to expect efficiency to translate into non-involvement

Yes, this is what I’ve observed in myself and others – that we want to “not have to think about it”… but ultimately that is self-sabotaging. Better that we change our attitudes toward willing involvement in life, in the things we take on… I see it as a low-income version of the old aristocracy’s “let the gardener take care of it”.

@JMG: One popular gimmick for marketers for a long time now are what I like to call "pseudocrafts" -- activities where most of what you do is spend money, but you put a few pieces together or follow some instructions for the final step or two, and then, hey! You tell yourself you did it all yourself.

Oh, I have been so thoroughly sick of those kinds of “kits” for years!! When I learned to embroider (okay, I sound like an old fogey) you had to create the image yourself, by sewing various stitches along pre-drawn outlines. Now there’s a printed photo or painting, and you add maybe 2% in a couple of stitches here and there.. and “you’ve” made it?? Not hardly. And even though I sometimes drool over the amazing bits and pieces they have made available for scrapbooking (I make artists books), I still am disheartened by the fact that the intention is to get folks to buy expensive doodads rather than going on a “treasure hunt” in the local thrift store.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

DavidB, Houyhnhnm, idiotgrrl, hadashi

Besides Latin, I’d like to put in a plug for ancient Greek. I never became expert, but have never, ever regretted the time spent. Also useful for Medievalists, one would think.

As a teacher, I think it’s a good sign for the future that a number of readers/contributors here are involved in education. A broad liberal arts education does directly interface with resilience: it was designed to produce generalists. When we discussed college, my dad said, “get a good liberal arts education.” So I did—and, like Cathy and GHung, was never able to fit in any specialist slot. I used to joke that the great books program I enrolled in spoiled my career chances.

Now I spend time challenging my students’ assumptions about “the good life,” “what education is for,” and trying to get the head of facilities to plant more native species in place of all that chemically dependent grass.

I, too, look forward to a future post on education.

Jason said...

Looked at the "decline of the empire" blog -- JMG is right, it's the same old thing:

If DOTE represents anybody, it represents America's disenfranchised citizens. I have gone to great lengths to point out how this country has been stolen from its citizens over the last 30 years. This has resulted in the ongoing destruction of the Middle Class [... blah blah...]
Rich, powerful special interests stole the country
[... blah...]

... ending up with a reference to the 'ancient Gnostics' who 'thought the Prince of Darkness ran this world', giving him a chance to say:

The Gnostics were right.


I'm sorry, but anyone who "thinks" this way is just wasting my time. Here at the 'report I can get real analysis and ways forward, and I can also trust someone who quotes 'the Gnostics' might have a clue what they're talking about -- and why 'the-world-is-bad' spiritual conceptions have always proved popular at decline times, as people confuse their predicament with the machinations of an evil universe rather than accept collective societal responsibility and the natural arc of cultural 'progress'. It's only one step from there to Derrick Jensen, the Anders Behring Breivik-in-waiting of modern ecofistwaving.

Maybe JMG has spoiled me but Cohen is still in the anger, bargaining, depression, stages -- looking for scapegoats and shaking his fist Ahab-like at the heavens which he comprehendeth not. Who has the time? I'm just digging out my recipes for caramelizing our homegrown beetroot; that's the ticket.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

JMG and all,

(Note to JMG: I sent the previous "convenience" comment before it was ready: this is the real one.)

The discussion of resilience has been extremely interesting because of the way commenters so clearly betray their fields of activity/reference/education in the way they define and conceptualize the word. The discussion has certainly enlarged my personal conceptualization.

Also, what about the term “convenience”? It seems that in everyday life we think that something is efficient if it’s “convenient”—which often involves immense amounts of inconvenience for other people and the ecosystem. The folks living in mountaintop removal areas are deeply inconvenienced--to put it mildly--so we can "conveniently" and "efficiently" power our lights and computers. It’s more “efficient”, e.g. “convenient,” to take “disposable” plates, etc. on a picnic. And then there are "convenience" foods, about which no more need be said.

And "efficiency" and "convenience" can be code for "have someone else do the work."

This relates directly to what hawlkeye is saying about mindfulness (I’m a hand waterer, so I totally get it). Turning on a sprinkler is more “convenient,” especially if you have someone else install it and maintain it.

Much “convenience” requires mindlessness, even willful mindlessness—also called “denial.”

RPC said...


You're going to have put me in the "efficiency and resiliency are orthoganl" camp. I bought a Honda Fit; my coworker bought a BMW 500 series. We both use our vehicles to commute alone. My ride is both more efficient (cost less to purchase, costs less to run and maintain) and has made me more resilient (I have more money left over for other things).
Or, to use an example from Amory Lovins (I know, I know...), you can build a house for $X with an HVAC system; for $Y you can either upgrade to a more efficient HVAC system (more efficiency, same resilience) OR you can make the house not need an HVAC system at all (increasing both efficiency and resilience).
I've repeatedly found that if one takes the effort, an elegant solution can be found that increases both efficiency and resilience.
(I'll be passing through Cumberland next week on Amtrak; should I wave out the east or west window?)

PhilJ said...

"NASA is starting to think big again"
quote from New Scientist 'after Atlanta' article.
Some big and very intelligent people are refusing to get your argument John. None so blind....

Zach said...

Dear JMG,

There's definitely at least one more factor at work. I'm not sure "waste" is the most useful term, as that's what the efficiency optimizer thinks they're eliminating...

This is reminding me somewhat of the engineering proverb: "Better, faster, cheaper -- pick two."

"Quality" might be closer to the term we want here - a system that lacks both efficiency and resilience is simply a bad system, badly designed (or badly implemented).


John Michael Greer said...

Sofistek, okay, I think we're on the same page now. I used the example of tools with less metal because it allowed me to focus on the specific point I've been trying to make all along. As for Cohen, well, if you find his writing useful, by all means!

Cherokee, it is a Ponzi scheme. Once politicians realized they could buy reelection by spending money now and pushing the bills off on the future, most of the industrial world backed itself into a corner from which there is no way out.

Marek, no, for heaven's sake, that's not what I'm saying at all. Scarcity industrialism isn't a "transition state;" it's a stage in its own right, like abundance industrialism, the salvage economy or the ecotechnic economy. Like the other stages, it will blur into those before and after it, and last longer in some places than in others; that's one of the reasons why it's possible, for those who want to do so, to leapfrog to a less efficient but more resilient stage in advance.

BTW, the two comments you tried to make on the issue of efficiency versus resilience simply rehashed misunderstandings I've already addressed half a dozen times already. See the note above the comments window about hammering on a point already addressed!

David, are you at all familiar with Ernesto Grassi's very interesting work, some decades old at this point, on rhetoric in Italian humanism as a mode of philosophy? Donald Verene and James Goetsch also had some useful things to say along the same lines, mostly with regard to Vico. A good deal of my current work -- and some of the forthcoming post on education -- riffs off some of the points they raised.

Cathy, glad to hear it.

Adrian, I hope that you and the other educators here aren't too offended by my comments. I have some very harsh things to say about the state of education in America these days, and though I'm not interested in pointing fingers, some of my proposals tend to upset people in the industry about as thoroughly as my ideas about economics upset economists.

Jason, yes, that was basically my take. Caramelizing that beetroot is a much better plan -- or weeding the garden; we had a break in the heat this morning, and I was out there with a hoe for a couple of hours.

Adrian, I tend to define "convenience" as "privilege" -- something is convenient if someone else does the work.

RPS, here again, you're not measuring resilience and efficiency in the same terms or with reference to the same specific system. I wonder why it's so difficult for so many people to get past using those words vaguely, and evading the specific sense I've defined repeatedly here? It's rather reminiscent of the way that netheads used to insist on talking about something else whenever I pointed out that the internet has to pay for itself.

Phil, I think it was Upton Sinclair who pointed out that it's very hard to get someone to understand something if their salary depends on not understanding it.

John Michael Greer said...

Zach, well, I'm certainly open to other suggestions.

Ruben said...


Your Honda Fit is the equivalent of the more efficient HVAC system, which Lovins has spent his life trying to avoid. His concept of "Tunneling through the cost barrier" is when we find a way to design the house so it doesn't need HVAC, and all for a lower price than efficiency.

In the BMW/Honda comparison, the third--resilient--option is a walkable community.

Your choice of the Honda has done nothing to release you from dependence on global fuel, materials and manufacturing systems. It has saved you a modest sum on gas, which you may use to buy solar panels. Or you may just drive further, as is the usual pattern with efficiency. Or you might blow it all in Vegas.

So yes, efficiency and resilience are different conversations, and I think that is what JMG is trying to point out here. Let's not lose a useful term as we try to rebrand Business As Usual.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...


Re education: thanks, and no offense taken on my part.

I teach part time at a community college--by definition not an academic. As an educator, I am perhaps more like an environmental than a mainstream economist. The administrators at my college? Now they are part of the industry.

I take teaching, and my students, very seriously, and also consider teaching to be a form of green wizardry. Someone needs to be in the classroom offering a reality-based alternative reading to BAU and standard cultural assumptions.

The educational system as it stands? Well, I have plenty of criticisms to make, and they might not be too far off yours. I look forward to reading what you write, since for sure it will be thought provoking. I'll let you know if and where I disagree.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Yes, cultural resilience! And some of us have attended to Dewey and find that his philosophy and methods influence our work in the classroom.

LewisLucanBooks said...

@ Cherokee Organics & Bill Pulliam - If you haven't seen them "The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill" is worth a look. Book and DVD. A fellow in San Francisco who watches over quit a flock of escaped parrots. The funniest part of the film is an opening scene. "Mr. Business Man" is talking to the guy who looks out for the birds and just doesn't "get it."

I seem to also remember that there are large flocks of escapes in ... the Bronx or Brooklyn? Somewhere I read that Quaker Parrots (non-native escapes) are beginning to fill the niche of the now extinct Carolina Parakeet.

@ Cathy McGuire - On kits of one kind or another. When boxed cake mixes first came out, they were not very successful. All you had to do was add water.

Market research revealed that they were too easy. So the mix was changed so that you had to add an egg and milk. Those took off like a rocket. It was a psychological thing. Just the act of cracking an egg and measuring out some milk gave the "cook" the feeling of doing "something." That they could claim to have made if from scratch. I'm not explaining this very well.

Houyhnhnm said...

Brad K. said,

Re: "draft breeds crossed with light horse breeds for an in-between model.”

Looking at a Quarter Horse/Clydesdale cross at a Colorado Driving Society practice event, I thought how quickly America could turn out farm chunks. We could also cross today’s trophy horses—Friesians, European Warmbloods, Gypsy Vanners--on our abundant supply of Quarter Horse mares. Connemaras and Welsh Cobs might blend in too. Plus, we need to reclaim our remaining old style Morgans.

Smaller ride/drive/pull horses strike me as a better fit for future ecotechnic farms than any of the current purebred draft breeds.

“We don't usually want to put horses to work until they are mature, about age four, for draft horses. Drafts mature slower, and may continue growing through age five or six, but about age four most of the important skeletal growth points have been achieved, and even more importantly, the brain or mind achieves a mature level.”

Mental maturity is one of the main reasons the Spanish Riding School waits until four. Using their model, I didn’t start riding my Anglo-Arabs until four, and even then the first year was light work. Unlike the SRS horses though, my youngsters spent their first years learning to accept tack, follow voice commands, and ground drive through obstacles and down the road.

Until I read Ph.D. bone paleontologist Deb Bennett’s books and articles, I too thought breeds/types matured at different rates. Bennett, formerly of the Smithsonian and now a full-time horseman, convinced me otherwise. She says horses of all breeds and types mature at five and that the problems incurred by early use often don’t start where we think they start. Here’s a link to a revision of her famous “Ranger” article, which still circulates on the Internet: “Timing and Rate of Skeletal Maturation in Horses: With Comments on Starting Young Horses and the State of the Industry."

“The average life spans of horses vary, as do the number of useful working years.”

Not only do the life spans vary by type and breed, they vary by bloodline. Decades ago, I noticed one line of Arabians where old meant fifteen and eighteen meant dead. On the other hand, I still expect Arabians with considerable Abu Farwa (1940-1972) in their pedigrees to be hard at work in their 20s.

“Some horses are typically used very hard, and retired early . . . . “

Retired. Nice euphemism. The average three year old Thoroughbred racer is dinner in Japan and France. The same's true for many well-bred cutting and reining Quarter Horses. It’s telling that auctions of “well started” two year old cutting horses include full sets of X-rays.

“Many modern horses live unnecessarily shortened lives because they are overfed.”

Americans foist their eating habits onto their animals. In horses, our ignorant kindness brings on epiphysitis and laminitis—deformities, pain, and death.

Of course, as hay becomes more expensive, more and more horses are likely to score 3 or 4 on the Henneke scale rather than 8 or 9. Abandonments and starvation are in the horse news daily.

“But, in general, I imagine the Yellow Cab company of the future will use the draft horses for group hauling, and lighter breeds or crosses for quicker and lighter uses.”

Out of curiosity, I just checked “History of Yellow Cab" and confirmed their business was and is only a car/cab business.

How about we start a company for the future: Green Wizard Cab, Coach, and Dray?


John Michael Greer said...

Adrian, I have immense respect for education, and for people -- teachers and students alike -- who take it seriously. Most of my criticisms of the current industry come out of that. More on this soon.

Houyhnhnm, if there were a branch of that firm in my neck of the woods, I'd pay good money for the more than occasional bit of light haulage -- to say nothing of the fun of taking a hanaom to the Masonic lodge here for meetings!

Houyhnhnm said...

JMG said, “I have some very harsh things to say about the state of education in America these days, and . . . some of my proposals tend to upset people in the industry [emphasis added] . . . .”

Industry? Education is--or should be--a passion. To me, educating horses and humans is a spiritual adventure, a never-ending journey rife with dark alleys, magic meadows, and the occasional arching rainbow. Linking the words "industry" and "education" annoys and threatens me even more than our West Nile-infected mosquitoes.

From what I’ve already read, I suspect those of us who’ve already commented may well surprise you and others with our observations and experiences. Industry, my asterisk!

By the way, JMG, have you read Richard Hofstadter’s 1964 Pulitzer winning Anti-Intellectualism in American Life? It’s an enlightening history of thought—or rather of hostility towards and lack thereof—in America. For a hint of what’s inside, click “here," then click on Amazon's "Search inside this book link. Then click on Table of Contents.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said, “Besides Latin, I’d like to put in a plug for ancient Greek.”

Excellent! Icelandic’s good too or Chinese or Sanskrit or Farsi. The key is to find something difficult, something that forces you to learn to think in alien ways.

While I’m at it, I’d like to put in a plug for listening to “Beowulf" in Old English.



Bill Pulliam said...

Chris -- I wasn't aware there was a challenge or that we were having an argument. My comment was just directed at JMG's perception that his region suffered a relative lack of brightly-colored birds.

Re: rainforest -- these are temperate deciduous forests. They are largely leafless half the year, during which time most of our brightly-colored birds fly south to the tropics. "Rainforests" are in general evergreen. But "rainforest" is actually a poorly-defined term that ecologists rarely use anymore. Most tropical forests worldwide are actually classed as "dry forests," and many are also at least partially deciduous.

pg said...

Brilliant post, Sir, and, as usual, marvellous discussion since.
Most of the time I have little to add. If this subsequent bit isn't useful, by all means delete.

About a dozen years ago the US Air Force switched personnel systems from the traditional unit to something quite different: a just-in-time system (the bucket system) where everyone stateside had to plan on being deployed according to a quarterly terraced yearly system. Meaning, if you, with your career field (MOS) talents, needed to be plugged in to somewhere in the sandbox, well, off you went.

Reading your essay made me see that this efficiency mantra had already percolated far deeper into this huge organization than those who fear it (stateside) might appreciate.

Also, as totally off post, knowing that unit cohesion had already been well compromised by the Error Force (LeRoy Jones' term) policy, doesn't that provoke wonder when the unit cohesion argument is trotted out....

I really appreciate such amazingly deep, generous, and disciplined discourse on this blog.

If I may to Dr Pulliam: I get bobolinks, kestrel, scaled quail, but also guys I can't find in Sibley's. Is/are there ID sources, beyond Cornell's, you find useful?

dancegirl333 said...

"Efficiency is just the straightest path to hell."

I don't remember where I saw that quote, but I love it. Maybe it's from some archdruid...

sofistek said...


I'm not sure how anyone can come to an opinion about a blog by reading one entry. Please don't put too much weight into individual sentences of an occasional post in a long line of posts (365+ each year). Cohen was certainly less angry in his weekly, much longer, posts for ASPO USA, up to about 18 months ago. He's always been angry about how his country, and the world, have been allowed to go downhill, indeed have been pushed that way; this isn't some early phase but I guess in daily posts, the anger will come to the fore. I browse some his posts but most of them are well worth reading if one wants to understand just how much of a mess the US empire has become. I'm sure that there will be some overlap with what JMG will write about (I can't imagine that each blogger will find a completely different set of issues to map the decline - if so, you can guarantee that the situation is much worse than either will document).

Andrew said...

Hmm, Not sure I agree with many of the comments about internal combustion engines.
I used to work with a water pump powered by an old single cylinder diesel engine. Didn't matter whether I forgot to top up the oil or use dirty fuel, and I doubt the oil had been changed for years but it just kept chugging away. ie resilient but not efficient for sure.
I would like to see how resilient modern engines are under the same conditions.

Tom said...

Hi JMG -

What better reason to have an age of "human unity and cooperation" than environmental bankruptcy?

More have that recognition now than in the 1970's, but the wall is getting closer. A greater community recognition is coming.

Your blog is helping expand it. We will need to be smart like our resource challenged ancestors. They had knowledge and skill in their world. Life has become too easy, yet more stressful. To respond we will need to link and build communities.

On the practical side, any thoughts on replacement windows for a 1938 built house where the original windows are solid, but the 1970 era storm windows are unrepairable?

New, modern windows are $200 each, installed, about $6000 for my home. Storm King in Michigan still manufactures the aluminum add-ons. I can get them for about $50 a piece and, of course, installation is much cheaper.

I'm also considering going to vinyl siding. Does it pay to have a 1/2 inch insulating under-layment? I had cellulose blown in in the 1970's.

I've not found anything useful on the web to answer such questions.


Ruben said...

As always, very interesting:
Low-tech Magazine: The bright future of solar powered factories

Esmeralda said...

You made me think, thanks, now my head hurts.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hey Cathy,

Yeah it would make a great rock band name. Think the Black Eyed Peas - you could have the Black Eyed Currawongs.

Come to think of it, there's a current UK band with the name The Wombats - why they'd use that name is beyond me. Maybe, they wanted the name of the Wombles and didn't want to pay the royalties. Actually they're not bad either. Wombats are lovely creatures - bit grumpy though, like most of the other Australian fauna. Hearing a male Koala call when you're alone in the forest is a blood curdling experience - it's like hearing Razorback the wild boar coming for you - not friendly like their cuddly image. The call of the currawongs is one of the most mournful bird calls in the forest - you can hear it on Wikipedia.

Hey Lewis,

I reckon if we released some Lorikeets or Rosella's over there they would go feral pretty quickly!



trippticket said...

@JMG: I've been reading a bit about your background lately, and I have a question for you. As an agnostic-cum-something-akin-to-a-pantheistic-animist, I can't help but wonder if a cohesive group "religion" of one sort or another is the norm for humans, and that regular access to knowledge that can convince us that the god we learn about in Sunday School doesn't exist, and that evolution is both an elegant and convincing alternative, is quite anomalous and temporal.

Many industrial humans were never "bothered" by such thoughts, and so might cruise right through the period of human origin enlightenment without a dent in their cultural armor. But for those of us who do hold that knowledge, this understanding makes us cultural outcasts, to one degree or another. Especially here in the US southeast.

From your esteemed vantage point, can you offer some insight as to whether or not a lower energy future might have the effect of "reining in" the "wayward" intellectuals? At least as the generations become more removed from access to that knowledge? I'm not suggesting that we will all go back to being baptists, or become inquisitors, but do you think it likely that some local spiritual tradition will become more ubiquitous as we move away from electron micrographs and genome analysis?

Scale is everything in this matter, and I could very easily see neo-tribalism often organizing itself along the lines of cohesive spiritual traditions. Perhaps one of those new tribes in any given region could remain the agnostic tribe, but, at least in my area, that seems like a recipe for imminent annihilation by a neighboring group of, um, less tolerant souls.

Any advice on riding the slide in terms of group spirituality? Do you feel safe, being who you are, in a crowd of narrow-minded folks potentially looking for a "Satan" to root out so that everything can return to "normal"? [If this is too hot a topic, just skip it for now, or hit me offline. Thanks]

x said...

I'm thinking the economic article cited below pretty much aligns with your points on the trade off between efficiency and resiliency:

Currency Solutions for a Wiser World

" ... Lietaer points out that according to the World Bank there have been 96 Banking crises and 176 monetary crisis in the last 25 years due to structural causes –the current banking system lacks resilience because it lacks diversity and has too much interconnectivity so problems cascade through it in a reinforcing way."

cheers: make do and mend

GHung said...

It has occured to me over the last few weeks that it may, in our family's case, be possible to salvage a bit of temporary resilience from our government. We have never availed ourselves of tax credits or other govt. programs, excepting an erosion control program @ 20 years ago; matching funds to fence livestock out of our sensitive springs and creeks.

While I've been working to configure/reconfigure our acreage to allow a sustainable level of small livestock production, I visited our county agent to see what aid may be available to small land owners attempting to get their property back into agriculture in some form. It turns out that there are some things available, mostly in the form of education and advice, but some funds as well. We'll see how it goes.

The County food stamp office shares a building with the County Agent, and it turns out that our family's evolution towards reducing our dependence on the formal economy has put us in the rather interesting position of qualifying for food stamps. Since we have always been net contributors to the 'collective', always paying our taxes, including social security and medicare, and it's likely we won't see much, if any, of the promised returns, perhaps it would be wise to set aside any idealogical or moral objections we may have and free up some (meager) resources to put towards other resilience projects. It occurs to me that folks like us may be the 'food stamp program' for others, in the mid/long term.

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?

Comments invited....

Isis said...

Off topic, but holy cow, it's gone mainstream:

Peak oil, I mean. I can hardly calm myself down enough to read this carefully and see what they're saying (nothing that's news for us, I'm sure, but the news is that it's in the news!).

trippticket said...

@Adrian (or any other commenter who feels qualified to answer): My daughter just turned three in May, and I can't for the life of me imagine where she's going to go to school in this conservative little southern town. I'm not even sure that school will mean the same thing for her generation as it did for mine. In fact, I highly doubt that it will. We're not thrilled by Montessori, and less excited about any religiously-affiliated programs. We're permaculturists, so we want a curriculum rooted in the Earth and not standardized for corporate drone production (not the teacher's fault), and Waldorf seems to be the cream that has risen to the top of the glass in the last few months of research.

Any thoughts about Waldorf?
Thanks for your time.

peacegarden said...


Modern medicine and an early 19th century level of technology? I would say modern medicine is one of the most complex, therefore most fragile, systems out there. Very little of modern medicine can be sustained long term, as the whole system is fossil fuel dependant.

Traditional medicine could fill the part of the void. That would require many more students keeping the knowledge alive, plus as many people as possible growing the correct herbs. Then there is the need for non-disposable scalpels and other tools to be made and kept sharp…and so on…early 19th century medicine may well be overly optimistic.

About the trains…yes, yes, yes! I hope that happens.



John Michael Greer 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. As for languages, no argument there; I'd be happier if every American in school was expected to learn one modern foreign language, one ancient language, and the Native American language spoken in the place they now live. That way they'd actually be able to think their way out of a paper bag, without getting tangled up in the kind of nonsense that comes from being trapped in the worldview of a single language.

PG, it's useful -- more useful than you think, in fact. I'm doing a lot of study in the fields of strategy and geopolitics right now, with an eye toward anticipating the messy future of American global hegemony, and this is a data point worth having.

Dancegirl, thank you! 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..."

Adrew, as you see, your posts are now getting through! That's an excellent example -- that engine could have been made much more efficient, but only by making it more subject to potential failures, i.e., less resilient.

Tom, yes, and if pigs had wings we'd all catch our breakfast bacon with butterfly nets. The fact that something would be nice doesn't make it possible, much less likely -- and so it makes a great deal more sense to plan on human beings being human beings, i.e., as likely to quarrel and cheat as to cooperate, and easily swayed one way or another by unpredictable factors. As for the window question, in your place I'd simply get new storm windows and put the money you save into something else useful.

Ruben, thanks for the link!

Esmerelda, then my evil work is done! Bwahahaha, etc.

Trippticket, that's an exceedingly complex question with no simple answers. The degree to which human societies expect religious conformity of their members varies drastically from case to case, and the hot tempers on both sides of the current Darwinist vs. fundamentalist split actually have very little to do with religion as such -- in a society where social caste is as off limits in polite company as sex was in Victorian England, surrogate markers such as religion get put to use as targets for class hatred on all sides. As for me, I've had no trouble at all, though that's partly because Cumberland MD is about as cosmopolitan as a small city in the north central Appalachians is likely to get -- there's an annual drag queen pageant here, for heaven's sake.

X, thanks for the link! Yes, that does seem to be making much the same point I've been trying to get across here.

GHung, I'd let that depend on whether I actually needed the help, and on whether my doing so would make it less accessible for someone who needed it more than I do.

Isis, I saw that! Yes, the cat is well and truly out of the bag at this point. I prophesy that both presidential candidates in 2012 will be ignoring peak oil at the top of their lungs; in 2016, both candidates will be insisting that their administration will be uniquely able to cope with what they, along with everyone else, admit is a reality.

Steve said...

Hello GHung

In my opinion, anything you can do to stretch your resources now is the thing to do. Take the assistance.


John Michael Greer said...

By the way, I've had several other people try to post comments insisting that efficiency and resilience aren't opposites, because if you measure the efficiency of this system in this way, and the resilience of a related system in this other way, and define both terms loosely enough, voila! You can have both at once -- or at least score points on the internet. I deleted the lot of them. Most of you seem to have gotten the point I was trying to make, and with more than 200 comments this week, I don't have time to rehash the same simple point over and over again for the others.

«Oldest ‹Older   1 – 200 of 246   Newer› Newest»