Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Waiting for the Great Pumpkin

With the coming of the new year, predictions of what’s in store during the next twelve months are showing up here and there in the peak oil blogosphere: a feature of the season, really, as reliable as the icicles that hang from the roof’s edge outside the window of my study. Like the icicles, they’re enticing to look at; like the icicles, equally, a great many of them are guaranteed to drop to the ground and shatter at some point in the months to come.

That’s all the more remarkable in that, by and large, the peak oil community has been pretty much spot on when it comes to the general shape of the future. Five or ten years ago, it bears remembering, nobody else was predicting the sustained oil prices on the far side of $100 a barrel and the global economic gridlock that have become fixtures of the contemporary scene; the peak oil scene had that one nailed. A healthy skepticism toward whatever the current speculative bubble happens to be—tech stocks back in the days when the peak oil blogosphere was first getting under way, real estate in the runup to the 2008 crash, shale gas and shale oil now—has also been a common feature in the peak oil scene throughout its history, even when almost everyone else was cheering along the bubble du jour as the wave of the future.

Why, then, all the annual predictions that misfire—and in particular, why the same annual predictions that have misfired for years in a row? Why, for example, the relentless annual round of claims that the coming year will finally see a sudden and total economic collapse? That one’s been made time and again, often by the same bloggers, and the fact that each year goes by without anything of the kind happening somehow never manages to affect the next year’s confident insistence that this time around the wolves really, truly are about to eat all the sheep. It would be funny, really, except that pointing out the long string of failed predictions has become a standard rhetorical trick in the arsenal of those—either madmen or economists, to use Kenneth Boulding’s useful taxonomy—who want to insist on the possibility of limitless growth on a finite planet.

Now of course it’s only fair to point out that there are at least as many predictions on the other side of the picture that are still being recycled this year after an equivalent track record of failures. Hope springs eternal—or rather, as I suggested in last week’s post, the facile optimism of the privileged that masquerades as hope in too much of contemporary culture springs infernal—in the minds of the many bloggers who expect some shiny new technological gimmick to overturn the laws of thermodynamics and give us a glossy new future straight out of The Jetsons. The technological savior du jour, to be sure, changes even faster than the bubble du jour; we’ve seen ethanol, big wind turbines, and now shale gas touted as game-changing developments; neither ethanol nor wind turbines changed much of anything, of course, but when shale gas lands in the same category—as it will—there will be another candidate for the role

For that matter, those who insist that petroleum can’t run out because we want it so badly have had just as dubious a record, if not more so. I’ve reminded my readers several times already about Daniel Yergin’s 2004 prediction that new petroleum discoveries would keep the price of crude oil at a plateau of $38 a barrel, and he’s far from the only pundit who’s made claims that absurd and still had the media fawning at his feet. More generally, have you noticed that every couple of years, we get to hear some new claim that a vast new oil discovery somewhere is about to solve the world’s energy troubles? They’re as regular as clockwork or, these days, as speculative bubbles; the actual results, once the hype gives way to the business end of a drilling bit, range from modest to none at all; still, none of that slows down the missionaries of the religion of limitless petroleum.

It’s all uncomfortably reminiscent of the Peanuts character Linus, with his enduring faith that this year, despite all previous disconfirmations, the Great Pumpkin really will show up with candy for all on Halloween. Still, as I look back over the last dozen years or so, I notice a feature common to the predictions I’m discussing that Linus’ lonely vigil in the pumpkin patch doesn’t share. Is it just me, or do my readers also catch the note of increasing desperation in a good many of the latest round of familiar predictions?

On the cornucopian side of the picture, certainly, that note is hard to miss. One measure of this is the extent to which the most remarkable evasions of fact have been finding their way into the media of late when the subject of US energy production comes up. The example I’m thinking of just now is the claim, recycled by any number of supposedly serious pundits in the last few months, that the United States has become a net exporter of petroleum. As it happens this is—well, let’s be polite and call it an inaccuracy; a less courteous though arguably more accurate phrase would be "bald-faced lie." The US last year imported around two-thirds of the crude oil it used, just as it did the year before, and exported very little crude oil. Follow the footnotes, though, and they lead in interesting directions.

What has happened over the last few years, in fact, is that the US has become a net exporter of refined petroleum products. For many years before then, along with the vast floods of crude oil shipped in from abroad to feed domestic refineries, the United States imported a modest amount of petroleum products that had been refined overseas, and shipped a smaller amount of its own refineries’ products to other countries. As the current depression has tightened its grip on the country, though, consumption of gasoline and other petroleum products has dropped by more than ten per cent, and US refineries have found it profitable to sell more of their products overseas as the domestic market contracted. The total shift is not that large, and since what’s driving it is the ongoing contraction of the US economy, it might be better treated as a warning sign than a reason for fatuous misstatements.

Still, beyond the misinformation and disinformation, fatuous and otherwise, there’s a common thread running through all the various predictions I’m discussing here, and it’s a thread worth tracing. All of them—the claims that a crash is imminent, or that a technological breakthrough is imminent, or that an abundant new source of fossil fuels is imminent, or what have you—are at bottom claims that the troubled situation in which the industrial world currently finds itself can’t continue in anything like its present form. I’d like to offer instead the counterintuitive suggestion that it can, and most likely will.

What that would mean in practice can best be judged by thinking back a year or two, to the early days of 2011. The year that had just ended was a troubled time, with political turmoil, economic crises, a larger than usual number of natural disasters, and a pervasive (and in many cases quite accurate) sense on the part of many people that life was getting tougher and the solutions being offered by politicians weren’t solving much of anything. Once we got past the annual flurry of predictions about game-changing events of one kind or another, what actually happened? The game didn’t change at all. Instead, each of the difficulties I’ve just noted got a little worse. There was more political turmoil; the economic crises became somewhat more frequent and more severe; the number of natural disasters went up again—there were, as I recall, 32 weather-related disasters causing more than US$1 billion each in damages, which is a new record—and across the industrial world, people’s faith in their government’s capacity to do much of anything declined further.

That’s what happened in 2011. I’d like to suggest that when we take a backwards look in the early days of 2013, we will most likely see that that’s what happened in 2012, too: a slow worsening across a wide range of trends, punctuated by localized crises and regional disasters. I’d like to predict, in fact, that when we take that backward look, the US dollar and the Euro will both still exist and be accepted as legal tender, though the Eurozone may have shed a couple of countries who probably shouldn’t have joined it in the first place; that stock markets around the world will have had another volatile year, but will still be trading. Here in the US, whoever is unlucky enough to win the 2012 presidential election will be in the middle of an ordinary transition to a new term of office; the new Congress will be gearing up for another two years of partisan gridlock; gas stations will still have gas for sale and grocery stores will be stocked with groceries; and most Americans will be making the annual transition between coping with their New Year’s hangovers and failing to live up to their New Year’s resolutions, just as though it was any other year.

That is to say, nothing much will have changed, if by the word "change" you mean exclusively the kind of dramatic break with the existing pattern of things that so many people are predicting just now. From any other perspective, plenty will have changed. Official US statistics will no doubt insist that the unemployment rate has gone down—do you ever get the feeling that when the Soviet Union collapsed, the people who used to churn out all those preposterous propaganda claims for their government got hired by ours? I do—but the number of people out of work in the United States will likely set another all-time record; the number of people in severe economic trouble will have gone up another good-sized notch, and public health clinics will probably be seeing the first wave of malnutrition-caused illness in children. If you happen to have spent the year in one of the areas unfortunate enough to get hit by the hard edge of the increasingly unstable weather, you may have had to spend a week or two in an emergency shelter while the flood waters receded or the wreckage got hauled away, and you might even notice that less and less gets rebuilt every year.

Unless that happens, though, or unless you happen to pay close attention to the things that don’t usually make the evening news, you may well look back in the first days of 2013 and think that business as usual is still ongoing. You’d be right, too, so long as you recognize that there’s been a stealthy change in what business as usual now means. Until the peak of world conventional petroleum production arrived in 2005, by and large, business as usual meant the continuation of economic growth. Since then, by and large, it has meant the continuation of economic decline.

And the repeated predictions that the situation can’t go on? I’ve come to think that what motivates such predictions, and gives them their present popularity, is the growing sense of apprehension that it can go on—that the troubles currently pressing in on the industrial world could just keep on getting worse, day after day, year after year, for decades to come, following the same gradual curve that the industrial world followed in the days of its growth, but in reverse: descending into impoverishment and relocalization along some broad equivalent of the same bumpy course that brought the ascent to prosperity and global integration back in the day.

When you think about it—and in the back of their minds, I suspect, most people have thought about it—that’s really a terrifying prospect. What makes it most unnerving is that it’s not simply a matter of, say, having your standard of living ratchet down by five per cent every year, though there will be a fair amount of that. It’s far more a matter of never knowing when your number’s going to come up and land you out of work, out of money and out on the street, next to the others who landed there before you. How much of the popular sport of blaming the poor for their poverty, I wonder, and how much of the current pseudoconservative fad of insisting that the poor aren’t actually poor, comes from people who are desperately trying to convince themselves that their jobs are irreplaceable, their retirement funds secure, and the sudden dizzying fall into the ranks of the impoverished can’t possibly happen to them?

If the downward arc of business as usual in an age of decline is what we’re facing, though, that sort of tortured logic is a pretty fair guarantee of final failure. The only way out of the trap, as I’ve argued here rather more than once, is to accept a steep cut in your standard of living before it becomes necessary, as a deliberate choice, and to use the resources freed up by that choice to get rid of any debts you have, get settled in a location that has a fair chance of keeping a viable degree of community life going, and get the tools and learn the skills that you will need to manage a decent life in an age of spiraling decline. To those who cling to the idea that they can maintain their present lifestyles, admittedly, it’s hard to think of any advice less welcome, but the universe is in no way obligated to give us the future we want—even if what we want is a sudden blow that will spare us the harder experience of the Long Descent.

********************
End of the World of the Week #3

When it comes to comedy, timing is supposed to be everything. The same could be said about apocalyptic prophecy, except that nobody seems to be able to get it right. The example I have in mind just now is Sulpicius Severus, who was a close friend of St. Martin of Tours. In his biography of the saint, written not long after Martin’s death, Sulpicius mentioned that seven years previously the holy bishop had told him privately that the Antichrist had already been born, and would begin his unstoppable rise to world power as soon as he reached adulthood. "Ponder," wrote Sulpicius, "how close these coming fearful events are!"

You might think that a saint of Martin’s caliber—he was a major figure in the church of his time, and has been credited with an impressive roster of miracles both while he was alive and since his death—must have had a sufficiently clear hotline to the Almighty to get such an important detail right. Still, that’s not the way it turned out. St. Martin died around 400 CE, and Sulpicius’ biography seems to have been written not long thereafter. The Antichrist would have been able to buy his first beer, in other words, around 414 CE at the latest; some 1600 years later, the faithful are still waiting for him to man up and put in an appearance.

—story from Apocalypse Not

166 comments:

Ruben said...

Fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly coined a term that is relevant to this week's post, and to catabolic collapse in general. The term is shifting baselines, and it is starting to be seen as a major factor in ecosystem science.

It seems there is a perception bias, so scientists note the declines in a population of an animal, but don't consider that a similar decline could have been seen by the previous generation of scientists, and the generation before, and before....

And so, with the baseline always shifting, the reports are of modest declines, not the total decline seen in the last 100 or 200 years.

ofthehands.com said...

Thank you for mentioning this "net exporter of oil" nonsense. I actually just had a friend of a friend make this claim to me on Sunday and I must admit I was a bit flummoxed. I insisted it wasn't true and he insisted it was--"You really should look it up," I believe he said. I knew it couldn't be right for the simple fact that I know we burn more oil than we produce. Therefore, there's simply no way to be a net exporter. I tried to tell him this, but he seemed certain that China was being dastardly and buying up our gas, keeping prices unnecessarily high. After a bit of research, I found what you noted, that it was actually about refined fuels and that it has little to no bearing on anything of importance.

After reading your three peak oil books in reverse order of publication--as well as lots of reading of this blog, and now I'm reading Sharon Astyk's Depletion and Abundance--I eventually wrapped my head around the simple idea that we need to learn to be poor. Not that this is a new idea to me, but it was always wrapped up in so many other details and predictions related to our predicament. Once I managed to boil it down to that simple idea--and despite that you often state it in such plain terms, it still took time to clear out all the other clutter in my brain to fully grasp it--I began to better be able to plan my way forward.

The other thing I like about that simple idea is it's easier to explain to others (though that's often a lost cause, anyway.) But it's nice because other people can understand the idea, either because they've had a stretch of bad times themselves or because the idea of poverty is at least something our society recognizes, even if it has a lot of odd and messed up associations with it. Plus, poverty encompasses a whole lot of our issues: peak oil, yes, but also a dysfunctional economic and political system, increased climate disasters, and so on. And if you're talking with someone sane enough to embrace thrift, you can even work within simple moral values.

So that's the core of my project for this year: thrift and voluntary poverty. I'll be doing spot work for farms, hopefully work trade for rent, growing my own veggies, regularizing a series of homesteading activities, writing, studying, meditating and attempting to build some things out of salvaged materials. It won't all play out as planned, of course, but the core philosophy of continuing to learn how to be poor--something, thankfully, I've already started--will be there no matter what. I'm excited about it.

That's my prediction for the new year, as well. It's basically the same as yours: most all of us are going to become poorer. The farther you're ahead of that curve, the easier it'll be. Honestly, I think that's a really exciting challenge--one I find hope in, as a matter of fact. Here's to 2012: likely a harsh year that I'm hoping will prove one of my happier ones. I think it's a solid likelihood, but who knows? That's part of the excitement.

Joel

risa bear said...

All true. An interesting article to pair with this one -- a guest post at Dmitri's place. http://cluborlov.blogspot.com/2012/01/rise-of-tricycle-pushcarts.html

Texas_Engineer said...

In other words JMG - this is what peak oil looks like.

RainbowShadow said...

"How much of the popular sport of blaming the poor for their poverty, I wonder, and how much of the current pseudoconservative fad of insisting that the poor aren’t actually poor, comes from people who are desperately trying to convince themselves that their jobs are irreplaceable, their retirement funds secure, and the sudden dizzying fall into the ranks of the impoverished can’t possibly happen to them?"


EXCELLENT!!! You've managed to say in a single paragraph the sentiment I've been trying to express since I first posted on this blog!

Namely, the idea that being poor (either by your number coming up or by accepting the deliberate cut in living standards that you recommend) is somehow a "failure of personal responsibility" is, in reality, a way for the privileged to avoid THEIR personal responsibility, and that being poor or homeless does not make you a criminal to be treated with viciousness and contempt and possibly left to die!

John Michael Greer, thank you thank you thank you thank you! You've just made my day!

I can't always find the right words to express myself, so it always pleases me to no end when rational voices like yours manages to say what I constantly struggle to try to express to people, not always with success.

It makes me feel like me and my family of people who care about those who struggle aren't quite so crazy and "Un-American."

Fabrice said...

You may be wrong on that one. In 2008, the private sector failed and public spending came to the rescue. Public were not that good at that time but were still at a acceptable level. 2012 may be the year of truth for the public sector. Remember that both US and Europe have a big debt problem.

There are two scenarios. The long descent through austerity measures in order to put public finance in order, it will take at least a decade to solve the debt problem, or a sudden failure of the public sector. As Europe seems to be heading for recession in 2012. We are edging closer to the second scenarios and it may be 2012 for logical reasons. A reasonable probability is the only certainty...

flyingcardealer said...

I made the conscious decision to not read any of the new year's forecasts. As you pointed out with the icicles, they all manage to come crashing down anyways.

I'm sold on the downward trajectory and any prognosticating on where we'll be on the peak oil timeline and when we'll get there may be good for conversation but, in my mind, not particularly useful (or at least it hasn't been so far).

This year I resolved to focus on the present moment, control what I can control, and, as much as possible, enjoy the "green wizard" transitioning I'm in the process of making.

Thanks for the "green wizard" advice I've been pouring over recently, and a pleasant 2012 to you and your readers(the most polite in the blogosphere as far I'm concerned) regardless of where exactly on the "long descent" timeline we find ourselves at the end of the year. Take care.

Drew M.

oneiller78 said...

How do you boil a frog?
Slowly!

Jeff BKLYN said...

This may have been mentioned 10 times already but what about 'The Seneca Effect?'

I agree that our descent to less net-energy future will be slow but entropy may make short work out of our complex structures. 10 years from now I may not recognize my hometown... Lord knows after the condo frenzy of the past 10 years has me looking at Brooklyn askew. I'll be long gone by the time the 2nd law of thermodynamics works itself out on our society but I don't figure it'll be in 2012...

Which leads me to say thanks for chipping away at the whole 2012 thing. The Mayan odometer goes to zero. Big deal... it just starts all over again... we're already living the birthing pains... It's only the 4th of January and I'm already tired of '2012.'

russell1200 said...

The future change is immanent. It is. We just don't know what it is.

A lot of historical "big changes" occurred dramatically, but in piecemeal localized fashion. Even the Germans-Huns did not overrunun the entire Western Roman Empire all at one time (or if you wish to be esoteric the Eskimos overunning the Dorset). It happened in bits and pieces. Even the Vandals taking the Roman North African breadbasket could have been reversed if events in the Eastern Roman Empire had turned out differently.

The Arab Spring is a perfect example of a localized change.

On your week #3. Not saying that is a decided issue, but many associate Revelation's Anti-Christ disguised polemic against Nero. In which case his prediction would have been centuries too late as Nero died in 68.

alanturing94 said...

Another brilliant essay. I have to disagree with a certain point of yours, that is, that you believe that although life standards will continue to decrease and BAU continue(even if the definition of BAU changes radically) that there will not be a sudden collapse as forecasted by many doomers. Stress can be applied slowly to a beam, but after a certain buildup, the stress will be so great that it causes the object to snap violently and suddenly. Eventually, S#*^ will hit the fan, even if it occurs after years of incremental declines in living standards etc.

Andy Brown said...

I think you hit a nail on the head here. Personally, I gravitated toward some of the peak oil writings initially because the Establishment math didn't add up, and our entire society had come to have the feel of a speculative bubble. On the other hand, the gloom of many doomers seems to underestimate the human capacity to muddle along, even as the structures we rely on fall apart. I don't think we can predict what exactly the future will look like, because human ingenuity and desperation haven't been applied to it yet.

Fabrice said...

Further details of the logical behind a great leap downward in 2012

http://fabricemorisseau.blogspot.com/2012/01/2012-wolves-eat-sheep.html

Lloyd Lincoln Clark said...

The Linus obsession with the Great Pumpkin is an amusing and healthful antidote to the Santa fantasy. Perhaps in a way the now common annual prognostications of cataclysmic apocalypse serve somewhat the same purpose; their very diversity is self-lampooning.

Though the enormity and complexity of the global enterprise suggests a certain fragility, a vulnerability to the unanticipated, it also demonstrates serious momentum, or inertia, if you prefer. So while a rapid catastrophic collapse remains plausible, it seems rather unlikely. But for smaller parts of the enterprise the same is not so true. An additional failed state or two won't necessarily torpedo the world political and economic order, but it could certainly mean abrupt and unwelcome change for many who happen to live there. By the same token even the orderly contraction of capital enterprise, whether defined as private or public, can wreak havoc on lives dependent on the jobs eliminated.

Just as C.M. Schultz used Linus to advise on a more intimate level, repeated failure to materialize by the Great Pumpkins of the apocalypse continues to remind of the difference between hope and fantasy.

Steve said...

"I do—but the number of people out of work in the United States will likely set another all-time record; the number of people in severe economic trouble will have gone up another good-sized notch, and public health clinics will probably be seeing the first wave of malnutrition-caused illness in children. If you happen to have spent the year in one of the areas unfortunate enough to get hit by the hard edge of the increasingly unstable weather, you may have had to spend a week or two in an emergency shelter while the flood waters receded or the wreckage got hauled away, and you might even notice that less and less gets rebuilt every year."

My wife teaches 4th grade at a public school. It's common knowledge among the staff that many children dread summer vacation because they won't get enough to eat for nearly three months. Once school starts up again, they get free breakfast and lunch in the cafeteria. Whenever we have produce coming out of the garden, it inevitably ends up in her classroom, and the kids love it. This year her grade started learning about gardening, and this spring they'll be hatching chicks, some of whom will end up in our back yard.

As for less and less getting rebuilt, I immediately thought about New Orleans. A family friend who's in college is spending winter break building houses in New Orleans. To follow the news, though, is to forget that anything ever happened there, except perhaps football games and oil drilling.

In other 2012 news, a few more cities will follow the lead of Colorado Springs, CO and Highland Park, MI by turning off street lights because they can't afford the bills. Does that make every night in suburbia something of a little Dark Age?

p.s. The price of gasoline dropped to $3.05 over the past few days. I found myself thinking about how cheap that was, relatively speaking.

Penumbra said...

Wow - am I the first commentor? Well in any case, I am so glad that you continue to remind us in clear lucid terms that the future is the day after today. Apocolyptic visions are great for many things. They offer vengance for perceived failures or misjustices by the doomed society at large; the great leveling and jubilee times for the mini to become the mighty; and even just a cosmic channel change for the ennui riddled fatalist. I must admit I find myself drifting towards the latter and your advice has been a sage tonic in every sense of the word. I hope to become even more adjusted to reality in the coming year and look forward to more of your cogent advice.

Bret said...

JMG, I know you will have plenty of effective answers to what I'm about to say.... but: Where's the program? I say this out of love for your sensible vision and abiity to communicate it -- if the goal is to soften humanity's landing, shouldn't there be some.... organizing? Shouldn't there be more energy devoted (by the partnership among you and your readers) to planning and then executing specific actions? To creating a real, active network and spinning it up to do some of the work, in terms of education, skill-building, seed-storing, downsizing, library creation, etc., that needs doing? Or is the idea that this blog should stay above that fray, perhaps in order to maintain a firm focus on building memes the way you do so well? One can't complain of course.... what you do is wonderful.... but the big thing you so consistently point to does seem to cry out for readers to become change agents, not just as individuals (which, as you know so well, is very tricky for those of us trapped in the rat race), but in the manner of a community -- making use of our various existing skill sets and resources in concert in order to effect changes we can't effect atomistically. Maybe I'm missing something, but I don't see the Green Wizard forum as very active and it feels like there must be more concerted ways we can do what should get done. It seems like the choir hears the sermon loud and clear and maybe it's time they go out and do something about it. If not us.... who?

Daniel A. C. said...

Not knowing much about alt. technology, the only “Great Pumpkin” I ever placed my hope in was that, somehow, all these peak oil theorists were mistaken and I didn’t have to worry about all this, I could just trust industrial society to find a way.

When I began take authors such as J.H.Kunstler and yourself more seriously, however, I did notice in myself the tendency to almost want a decisive, catastrophic-type event to occur, and signal that collapse had in fact arrived. For several reasons, I think:

- I would know for certain that industrial decline was in fact a reality, and that we weren’t going to return to the way things were; basically, wanting the mental uncertainty to be ended

- I wanted everyone else, from the media to the people I knew, to be on the same page, so that I wouldn’t have to deal with the dissonance between my viewpoint and the more standard worldviews circulating on t.v. and in conversation

- I think I also felt that if there was a clear and decisive collapse event, everyone could see things the same way and begin working on solutions together, as we do in community crises like floods and hurricanes (I guess I pictured everyone tearing up their lawns for gardens together, making some sort of ramshackle industrial center out the local mall) – again , I think I was dreading the mental uneasiness of having to live having a foot in both worlds, of the old industrial, consumer society and this new world of collapse preparedness

As time has gone by though, I have become a lot more comfortable with uncertainty about the future, and with holding views greatly at odds with the ideas of the people around me, and I appreciate the fact that non-dramatic, incremental decline gives those who wish to use them some time and resources to make use of for the transition. And, I appreciate the sobering effect this blog has on me!

---

I really enjoyed reading Wealth of Nature, and it’s explorations of fantasy and reality in the world of economics – I was reading in the Globe and Mail business section this commentary on the crises in Europe, and this quotation caught my eye, as it seemed to encapsulate that sense of unreality in the economy, and what extent the players are aware of it:

“Crisis fatigue had set in, and that was a good thing; I have always believed that crises – and recessions – end when politicians and employers get bored with them and decide that going out for steak dinners, making things and spending money frivolously is more fun than endless Friday nights on the sofa, fretting.

Boy, was I wrong.”

Kevin said...

The predictions I'm wondering about are the ones I've seen on the Energy Bulletin for grand things to be expected from the Occupy movement, which (I am told) will usher in a new age of democracy and form coalitions to forge a new, sustainable economy. I can hardly wait, but if I have to hold my breath should I get an aqualung, or a snorkel?

Here's the latest in techno-triumphalist Clean Nuke salvationism:

http://poorrichards-blog.blogspot.com/2012/01/what-if-low-energy-nuclear-reaction.html

Tonight I overheard a sound bite of Mitt Romney promising to get "America back on track." His audience applauded wildly, so apparently it's what they wanted to hear.

Brother Kornhoer said...

Mr. Greer and fellow readers,

I hope all of you within the Southland made sure to eat your Hoppin' John, cornbread, and collards on New Years' Day for good luck this year, and left three peas on your plate (for luck, romance, and fortune). It's a fun and tasty tradition, and supposedly it arose during the years after the War Between the States, when the South was devastated, and black-eyed peas or cow peas (a main ingredient of Hoppin' John, formerly thought to be fit mainly for cows) were just about the only meal to be had. Similarly to other societies that Mr. Greer has pointed out, the South survived what must have seemed like the end of the world (or the beginning of the world for the newly freed) and even went on to prosper and improve.

Mr. Greer, I think you hit the nail on the head again when you discussed the phenomena of blaming the poor for their situation. I've always marveled at that way of thinking, since my father's family experienced going from a comfortable, privileged existence to being university-educated sharecroppers in the 1930s. All it took was one bad decision - cosigning a loan. So I've always been more concerned with how society aids the poor than how it unencumbers the rich, since it's so much easier to fall downward than upwards. But I suspect you're right - blaming the poor for their lot is a way of convincing yourself that it can't happen to you.

On another topic, I just did something I haven't done in a while - read a whole book in 24 hours - Apocalypse Not. It proved to be a potent antidote to a bout of debilitating doomerism I was going through. It really did put some things in perspective for me, and allowed me to focus on adaptive behaviors. Thanks!

Speaking of adaptive behaviors, I'm thinking a good project for me this year would be to scour the used bookstores of the internet for classic engineering and mathematical texts, in support of building a private library. I did see the idea of a private library on your linked Cultural Conservers Foundation website, but I've seen the idea before - apparently, from what I've read in a Harper's article a few years ago, opposition Cubans have built their own private book collections that they lend out, in order to maintain the currency of ideas unpopular with the government there.

I'm an environmental engineer, kind of a cross between civil and chemical engineers, and I'd focus my library on texts that show how to design things without computers or calculators. Not that I think those tools will disappear overnight, but working things out on paper definitely leads to deeper understanding than relying on a computer model. Once you learn to read a pump curve chart, you can simultaneously see all the trade offs between pumping power, electricity consumption, efficiency, impeller size, and how much lift the pump can do on the suction side. A computer model just takes your input and spits out a model selection for you. And who knows, that body of knowledge which is slowly being discarded or digitized, those tables of functions and information-packed charts laboriously calculated decades ago might be useful one day.

Shining Hector said...

Honestly, I'm not that certain most people really are thinking that much, subconsciously or otherwise, that this decline can continue. You do, obviously. It's a pretty natural conceit for anyone to assume everyone else pretty much kinda sorta thinks like they do, but it's not necessarily the case. I don't think most people are that reflective. They don't think things through. They're not anywhere near rational. In all honesty they generally don't need to be. You're not out of the mainstream because hardly anyone wants to hear what you have to say, you're out of the mainstream because hardly anyone really cares to think ahead as far as you do. Again, for all practical purposes, they don't really need to.

While you with a long-term outlook save up for a new greenhouse, some drug addict within walking distance from you is currently in their 6th ICU stay on the public dime, any one of which would have easily paid for a greenhouse with healthy room to spare, because that's what we do. I say that as a simple of statement of fact, you can add your own judgment as to the wisdom of it. Nobody dies when we can stop it, making sure they really have much of a life worth living afterwards, eh, not so much, we can't really be bothered. It's where our priorities are. Short-term heroics everyone involved can give themselves pats on the back for, good, long-term solutions to the problems causing the need for short-term heroics, eh, too boring. It's pervasive, and to ignore it to keep the comforting idea that everyone else could and would think as deeply as you do, "on some level" anyway, is to ignore reality. They just don't.

A not inconsequential amount of our abundant resources have been devoted to idiot-proofing our society. Every stupid law or regulation out there was enacted for a reason, and probably not really for the facile reason of ensuring some bureaucrat's job or somesuch, even if that's the end result. Somebody really was that stupid, to the point of someone else saying "there oughta be a law". I can tell you numerous accounts of just how difficult we've made it in this society to die from your own sheer short-sighted stupidity. We really will call down heaven and earth to save you, and then swoop down over and over and over again as you slowly self-destruct, even if you don't particularly want the help. And then of course let you go back into the world to start the same process over again, since we so cherish autonomy. It's beyond absurd. All for the sweetest intentions, seriously.

DeAnander said...

I find myself agreeing fairly strongly -- agreeing that my own sense of Imminent Doom or some kind of sharp breaking point is in a way a kind of wishful fantasy... imagining a sudden, perhaps traumatic but *decisive* transition to a less crazy future. The long bumpy decline seems like a far more realistic, messy, somewhat more depressing [or is it? radical breaking points are also pretty scary] prospect.

Whichever descent we believe in -- precipitous or bumpy -- I still find it unnerving, frightening and somehow dispiriting to live in the visible decline of the culture I was raised in. It's a bogus culture in many ways, to be sure -- an insane culture in many ways -- and I've critiqued it and wrestled with it and tried to reject much of what it taught me; but I'm still its child, and I still respond to the crumbling of all those comfortable conventions and expectations with anxiety, fear, even a certain amount of grief.

J9 said...

Hello!
Thank you for this week's post, and it makes me think about the psychology of change (eg actually dieting instead of talking about dieting) and a brief article I read that suggested people only really find the motivation to do the work to change things they know they should when there is either a direct threat or an immediate reward. (Sorry I didn't note the reference at the time and haven't been able to find it subsequently). Perhaps this is a reason why some people who ought to know better keep talking up the 'big change' angle - they're trying to push themselves into tipping into doing something. It is easier just to accept 'there is no brighter future' and suddenly the rewards to immediate action are clearer.

(To those people relatively new to this blog - i encourage a systematic reading of the earlier posts (in order) and if you can, all the comments too - there's good teachings in both.)

Finally .... a few weeks ago you mentioned a course in the new year... Is that still coming? :-)
Are there any more snippets about it you can share yet? Very keen to hear more!

Thanks as always!

Kfish said...

And a very Happy New Year to you too, Archdruid! Unfortunately, you've nailed my mindset until recently to a tee. "It can't go on forever ... can it?"

Fortunately, my grandparents were Outback farmers and stubbornly clung to habits of saving scrap metal and making new gear, even after moving to the city. Their back yard is distinctly countercultural, resembling a large scrap yard, allowing me to use old fencing, steel beams and timber in my 'new' place, which is a patchwork of old bits, most with stories attached. There's a certain comfort in being surrounded by things older than I am, that were handed down by people now gone. The point of all this is to say that the skills and values of salvage still live on in some unlikely places.

For your partner: a couple of very good new books on drop spinning have recently been published: "Respect the Spindle" and "Production Spindling". Abbey Franquemont, the author of the former, grew up in an Andean village where the creation and use of additional spinning tools was discouraged, the idea being that inventing a tool to do something was an admission that you couldn't do it with your own hands, the spindle and the yarn.

EchosRevenge said...

Well, I have been wishing I had something to say that would add to the excellent conversation here for many months...but I keep coming up thinking hard for days, but empty in the immediate present. So - good work! It is extraordinarily and increasingly rare to find such quality of discourse, clarity of thought, and clever prose all in one place, especially on the internet.

I suppose I do have a request, if you will - I would love to see you do something specific in some way to a younger generation. My partner and I are 27, and I often feel that most peak-preparedness writing is directed towards those citizens lucky enough to have had a chance to amass something, anything, before it all started collapsing (we've got books and skills, but nowhere to garden...and people aren't quite up to buying all-handmade socks all the time just yet). There doesn't seem to be much out there for those like us, who got...stuck...by being unlucky enough to be too young to capitalize on the growth economy while it was still around. We're already impoverished - many of our peers have five high figures in college debt, yet ten years after graduating are still stocking groceries or shelving books, and not for lack of applying to jobs. We are also fortunate to be the children of 70's-back-to-the-landers, raised with the knowledge that extracting infinite growth from a finite planet is not possible.

I would love to see something from you written for us - I born was two months after Reagan pulled the solar panels off the White House. We did not participate in the Great Checking-Out of the 1980's, nor did we have much of a choice about the Grand Consumption of the 1990's and 2000's (and ongoing). Many of us are doing what we can, but when you've never been able to afford more than ramen and thrift stores, how do you cut back? When you've never owned a TV or paid for internet service, when you eat beans and rice as a matter of course, and spend your evenings working Mechanical Turk tasks for $3 an hour, from whence does the extra income to eliminate debt and set yourself up in a community-rich environment come from?

I'll never forget the evening when my father, born smack in the middle of the Baby Boom, had a few too many single malts and sat me down to apologize for what his generation did to the world, and my generation's (and my children's, and their children's, ad infinitum) chances for survival in it.

Of all the people to whom we could cry in anguish, "What do we DO?! How do we live in the world we have inherited?"...I think you are the most likely to give an honest answer. Should we organize a mass agrarian occupation of BLM land and just go ahead with alternative social structures? Should we throw our Obama-electing generational weight behind the voluntary extinction movement?

In the words of the ever-so-fleeting Internet Picture of a Cat Stuck in Venetian Blinds Whose Owner Says "Hey, Get the Camera Instead of Helping This Creature Which is Obviously in Pain and Afraid, so We Can Exploit Its Fear for Cheap Entertainment"....HALP!

Cheers,
Celine & Patrick
Shameless Shop Plug

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

Uncertainty? Unknown, knowns - is that the technical terminology?

I've followed your long term strategy for years now, but stupidly moved into an area that is at risk of major wildfires... On a 40 year cycle too... Risk has benefits though - cooler climate and deep fertile volcanic soils. There is no perfect place here and you can reduce your risk with a lot of hard work.

In Australia, the building standards produce quite poor outcomes for mass produced housing, but are technically very complex for any one-off non-standard dwelling. Also, after the Black Saturday bushfires back in Feb 2009, complex construction standards were introduced for new houses in bushfire prone areas (which is about 80% of the state to varying degrees).

The first point to note is that disasters can sometimes be responded to by the authorities introducing even more complex regulatory regimes. This is an energy intensive response.

So, after building (myself, hands on) my complex (yet small) fire retardant house (note I didn't say fire-proof), I thought I'd go travelling recently to have a look at the areas most affected by the Black Saturday bushfires to see how people are coping with rebuilding with the new complex building regulations.

So, off I travelled to Kinglake (there's no lake - it's actually named after a 19th century politician) and Marysville and you know what. I didn't see a single new house with any of the required fire prevention systems. Sad, it was a wasted opportunity. My thinking is that if they have been in the direct path of a bushfire once, well it'll happen again.

Then I recalled, that the insurance payouts on the previous houses probably weren't enough to cover the cost of reconstruction under the new more complex (read more expensive) bushfire regulations. I also remember reading at the time that half of all of 2,000 odd buildings damaged or destroyed at the time had no insurance.

I think what happened is that a lot of people who rebuilt may have received special dispensation from the regulatory bodies. This response is good politics short term, but bad in the long term.

So, it's kind of like what you say. A disaster hits a place. Some people can rebuild, but others won't be able to. Those that can't will move on to easier pastures. Eventually, the population concentrates and is widely dispersed at the same time. This is simply a snapshot of how it was 100 years ago. Everything old is new again!

Just for interest, it might be worth mentioning that the death toll in major bushfires is quite high, but the overall number of properties damaged is actually quite low, although the extent of land damaged can be massive.

When you compare this to flood events (cyclone, hurricane, tornado etc.), it's the exact opposite. The death toll is quite low, the area affected is quite small, but the number of damaged houses is quite huge. In the floods in Brisbane last year, I think almost 35,000 houses were either damaged or destroyed.

More people live near rivers or the ocean I guess. Still I understand why insurers rarely offer flood insurance...

Decline is like death by a thousand cuts.

Perhaps in these types of areas it may have been a better response to build less permanent and more easily replaceable housing? Still, what would the Joneses think?! It'll happen naturally anyway.

Regards

Chris

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

I just finished reading George R R Martins, "Dance with Dragons" and enjoyed it, although the economy and ecology of the world left me in a state of grrr! Great story, but I kept thinking, how would you feed all of those armies in that ecology? Not possible.

So, I thought I'd dance with an old friend and dragged out a Jack Vance book, "Maske: Thaery" and read this little quote from very early on:

"The fact remains that these are strange times. We all know that change is on the way: the pressure hangs in the air and dampens our spirits, the more so because everyone resolutely ignores the matter."

Very prescient!

Regards

Chris

Lizzy said...

I wonder... I think a lot of what you write makes perfect sense, that we are in a steady decline. I also have questions about the massive debt that goes right through western governments and societies: can it ever be repaid? And if not, what then? Will Chinese and/or Japanese lenders invade the US to enforce payment? Or will they attempt to take the ownership of Manhattan? Or North Dakota? I can't see it.
Peak oil, peak oil. Yes. Steady and inevitable decline.

seeker77 said...

Hi Mr Greer,

Re your expectation that catabolic collapse will manifest as “a slow worsening across a wide range of trends, punctuated by localized crises and regional disasters”:

My key concern is the unprecedented degree to which global populations are in overshoot, and the lengths to which people, from individuals to governments, will go to ensure their survival. Unlike previous declines of civilizations, this time the Earth is exponentially more crowed, and the weaponry is of a completely different order of destructiveness. The resource wars have already begun, viz the devastation of Iraq and Libya.

As the resources and systems that created and sustained the overshoot dwindle and fail, I can’t help but think that, one by one, regions will reach their tipping points, and that the desperate measures resorted to will result in the inverse of what you are expecting - at least while the population corrects itself. I would sincerely welcome a rebuttal; there is no joy in harbouring such dire forebodings.

That being said, I am in complete agreement with the way forward you suggest in your closing paragraph and, as ever, I am grateful for your weekly essays on how to make the best of what is, and what is to come.

Warren

sofistek said...

Yes, I fear you might be right about the continual slow decline down. The main reason that worries me is that I'm now resigned to waiting for some really big signal to my family that what I've been trying to make them aware of is real. Without that event, my attempts to reconnect with the household economy are difficult.

Don't you think, though, that the Occupy protests might be an indication that once enough people feel disenfranchised by what is happening, there could be some ugly (at least from the point of view of the powers that be) confrontations that might flip our societies at least to a sufficiently different state that the decline will exhibit an abrupt enough change for many more people to sit up and take notice? Or am I dreaming?

jean-vivien said...

Hello Mr Archdruid,

yesterday evening I was most delighted to listen to your intervention on the KunstlerCast.
It seems to me however that you did not comfront Mr Kunstler on a point where I deem the two of you strongly disagree.
Every year or so he likes to sketch predictions on how the events will unfold in the world during the coming year, and every year he is proved overly pessimistic.
Maybe that is because he likes to rant, as you mentionned during the interview. For sure you two occupy very distinct segments in futurology :-)
Still it seems to me that this is part of the wish-fulfillment set of fantsies we like to project onto the future.
Overall his forecasts do make for a nice synthesis of the completed year, more than of the coming year.

Lee Borden said...

My family and friends, knowing as they do that I have been predicting that our modern industrial society will begin a slow collapse, are fond of asking me to tell them when we're going to see it start. My response is "we're in the middle of it now. This is what it looks like and feels like, so we better get used to it." Like you say, that's not what people want to hear.

Scott said...

Thanks as always for the great post - I see your general point (slow grinding economic and societal descent). Could be, but I also see the argument for the "breaking point" - or "hockey-stick-shaped" descent. Not sure which to hope for ... How did it come to this?

hapibeli said...

Another sober reflection on our current and future state of North American economics and society. It is actually more reassuring than the common New year refrains of "the best is yet to come", "the future is bright", or "gawd will save those who so believith in him(her?)".
It reassures precisely because it fits with the reality gleaned from a careful reading of the media ( internet,et al),as opposed to just accepting what is passed off as NEWS. Thanks John. Now we can continue to execute our plans and strategies to cope with the Long Descent of this mighty civilization. We won't need to fear, "is this or that moment the BIG ending?". LOL! Cheers and HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Mike said...

Another thoughtful article. You are one of the few writers that I have discovered, who address the 'kinetics' of change. (I have a synthetic chemistry background and getting reactions to work was always the focus).

What is of primary current concern to me is that a global financial collapse could precipitate a rapid decline. I am in two minds as to how much should be done to minimise such a collapse happening.

Chris said...

A timely, sobering, and most welcome post, JMG, in the flurry of predictions for 2012. Thank you.

Twilight said...

This one is likely to irritate a few people. The idea of a long, lingering decay is almost intolerable in some ways – having to wait and wait before getting to something better is just very hard to take. Until you accept that life is short, and we aren’t going to be getting anywhere at all by waiting. It isn't us that will live in whatever comes after, it's people who won't be born for a long time. THIS is our time – this time of transition is the straw we pulled. We've been conditioned to think we last forever, but we don't.

There's no point in being upset about that, nor in waiting for some game-changing event to make everything different and take away our responsibility to be the change we want to see. The world is actually changing very fast, it's just that our lives pass in the moments in between. Don't wait to live the life you think you should or make the changes you believe in, within the limits of what you have to work with.

In that context it will be a blessing if the decay is long and drawn out, as few of us are ready to survive without the products of the industrial age we were born into. I'll certainly need more time to adapt. If/when I get caught in one of those step changes, it will probably feel like total collapse, but having some vestige of a functioning society somewhere will still be a help.

If you look back a dozen years, the pace of change has been truly breathtaking, and I expect that to be even more true for the next dozen. But for each of us those external changes are overlaid on the arc of our own lives proceeding from birth to death, and that distorts the picture you get. Which is changing faster? For me the pace of change in my own life is usually faster, which tells me that when my time is up I will have changed more than the world will have. Waiting would be poor strategy.

James said...

The world will eventually resemble Leningrad during the siege, but in the meantime, until natural limits are reached, consider it a gift that you have at least several decades to prepare. You can increase the probability of survival of your genetic endowment from perhaps 25% to 50% if you care about that that sort of thing, or you can take pleasure in burning through your share of what remains. To maintain 3% growth for twenty-five more years we will need as much energy as humanity has burned to date. It's not going to happen. Instead we will get 3% contraction per year, perhaps more and the Leningrad siege effect will begin.

Chris Balow said...

One thing, I think, that carries the terror of a continued, slow decline over into apocalyptic predictions is the fact that dealing with a continued, slow decline is a lot of work. In a sudden catastrophe, the survivors are left with a world of abundance, as they suddenly have far fewer people with whom to share the remainder of the industrial world's resources and energy. The survivors of the apocalypse are a bunch of lottery winners, essentially--the world's abundance is theirs for the taking and none of them have to go to their crappy jobs anymore.

In the slow decline we've been seeing, you still have to go to your crappy job (if you can hold on to it), but then come home to extended hours of digging your garden, chopping your firewood, hand-washing your clothes and dishes, etc. Middle-class Americans have had easy, coddled lives over the last few decades, and the prospect of long days of hard labor is, I think, at the heart of the terror you describe.

Michael said...

Part of the reason your concluding advice is intimidating to many people is that they're thinking of doing everything at once. When we embarked on learning new skills, we decided to do it slowly, a couple at a time. Right now, I'm learning homebrewing and my partner is learning food preservation. In the spring, I'm going to start gardening. Later on, maybe beekeeping or something else.

Reducing expenses is also something that can be done in steps. Eat out less. Keep an aging car rather than trading it. Notch the heat down or the air conditioner up just a few degrees.

Eventually the changes will have to be significant, but they don't have to be dramatic all at once, if you don't think you can manage that.

John said...

The great pumpkin has apparently arrived in New Hampshire. As I tramp around my home state trying to determine if any of the candidates is any less disagreeable than the rest, I notice a striking similarity in their so called 'energy policies'. All of them tell us, as one put it last night, that all we have to do is 'unlock America's energy potential'. Then, with much arm waving the incantations of 'shale gas', 'offshore oil', and 'tar sands' are tossed out (never mind that the tar sands are Canadian, not American).

All of these options are, of course, desperation measures rather than great opportunities - pursued now only after all cheap, easy to get resources have been depleted.

No one in the audience questions any of this either. Everyone is quite happy to believe we are on the cusp of an energy bonanza. It's good that the descent is a slow one - it's going to take a long time to get most people out of their hallucinatory wonderland.

ChemEng said...

Mr. Greer:

First, as we start the New Year, I would like to thank you for the quality (and quantity) of your writing, and also for the quality of the responses that you elicit.

In this essay you state, I’d like to offer instead the counterintuitive suggestion that it [our current industrial situation] can, and most likely will [continue]. I wonder if this is one reason that so many intelligent and well-informed people do not acknowledge the issues to do with resource depletion and climate change. A gradual change can be difficult to see. For most of us our daily life continues much as ever. I work in the offshore oil and gas business where depletion issues are front and center; yet few of my colleagues seem to see the bigger picture, which is that every year oil is harder to find and more expensive to produce. Inevitably the focus is on day-to-day issues.

The one change that I do perceive (and this is necessarily a subjective statement) is that many people no longer have the easy confidence that the current economic malaise is just a phase. Increasingly they seem to recognize that some fundamental and permanent changes are taking place. One of the predictions that I read (from Sharon Astyk, I believe) is that Peak Oil may enter mainstream discussions in the year 2012, and that one of two individuals will become well-known spokespersons. I think that this prediction could indeed turn out to be correct.

On a personal front I am trying to raise awareness in the engineering community. I believe that engineers can make a significant contribution to our understanding of what’s going on and what we can do about it. For example, engineers and technical people in general have no trouble understanding rate and ratio concepts such as EROEI, and they are all trained in the laws of thermodynamics. And by nature they are problem solvers.

So far what I have done in this regard is to start a Peak Engineering blog. Also I offered a paper called Down the Hubbert Curve to a leading chemical engineering conference. They did not accept it, but put it in the poster session. Normally I would not bother going forward, but I may do so with this topic. (The purpose of the presentation is to examine what Dr. Hubbert actually said in his seminal paper of 1956.)

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Greetings to JMG and all--

Excellent post--a nice dose of reality after all the crazy predictions. But then, people expect the predictions--more exciting than "more of the same, only a little more dismal."

IMO the gas bubble may deflate sooner than we expect because of events like the earthquakes in Ohio.

I do think more and more people are waking up to decline, though, and thinking hard about sustainability and then getting together to do something about moving sideways (as I think of it) so as to move forward differently. Maybe it's just the interconnecting circles in which I travel--but the circles were far smaller and didn't so much interconnect a few years ago.

OT--am now memorizing the Ogham alphabet.

GHung said...

I never discount the possibility of a 'black swan' event, nor do I deny that an excruciatingly slow decline is more likely; a protracted collapse much as a pile of hay left in a field slowly disintegrates over the years. Either way, our strategy is the same. A program of reduced consumption, greater local self-reliance and community, minimizing exposure to economic artificialities, and an awareness of things as they are, not as we would wish them to be, all seem like win/win tactics, regardless of how things play out.

I expect that there will come a point when the global economic camel's back breaks, when credit and capital aren't capable of supporting the massive, complex systems that are essential to our current civilization. The repercussions of this are unknowable, though I also expect that this will be a major step down.

Regional/civil war in the MENA area over oil and religion (what a volatile combination) seems inevitable. Should this go nuclear,,, God help us all.
The Iraq/Iran/Afganistan/Pakistan/India crescent, combined with the Arabian Peninsula, Israel, Syria, and North Africa are in an extreme state of imbalance, politically, socially, economically, religiously and environmentally.

Globally, the social, economic, and physical threads that bind us grow weaker. Europe's economic union is in deep trouble, and political divisions in the west prevent meaningful solutions, even as the problems and predicaments compound themselves. Rationality is in short supply, while rationalizations saturate our culture. Expecting the center to hold is false hope at best. Best to hope that these threads unravel a few at a time, that these challenges present themselves incrementally, and act accordingly. Avoid complacency.

The path that has been laid out here seems to be the only sensible one. Add strong threads to your tapestry one day at a time; cut those which bind you to to the failing, false fabric that is your civilization in decline. What else can one do?

Nano said...

How close you would compare the current US declined to what happened say in Argentina and/or better yet Venezuela back in the 80's? As a child growing up in Venezuela, I can see many parallels to some of our current social issues as well as economic issues we are experiencing.

John Michael Greer said...

Many thanks to all for their comments! The old iMac my wife and I use for internet access is acting up again, so responses may be a bit slow for a few days. Still, while I'm on...

Ruben, thank you! I'll have to look into Pauly -- that's a very useful concept, and could be applied to a very wide range of current phenomena.

Ofthehands, excellent! You get today's gold star. I'd say that we have two choices: we can learn to be poor, or we can become poor anyway and not have a clue how to go about it. Learning how seems like the best option to me.

Risa, thanks for the link!

Engineer, yes -- but this is also what the decline and fall of a civilization looks like.

Rainbow, you're most welcome. Feel free to pass it on to anybody else who might be able to use it.

Fabrice, of course we're going to have a recession, or more precisely, a sharp downturn in the continuing depression, in 2012. Several governments will come apart, not necessarily in a peaceful fashion, and there will be a lot of human suffering. All that also happened in 2011 -- and yes, it'll likely be worse in 2012. That's not the end of the world...

Dealer, excellent. A wizardly new year to you and yours!

Oneiller, a nice slow simmer will usually do the trick!

Jeff, yes, I've seen the article, and was disappointed by it -- Bardi is usually a much more cogent thinker. I've discussed in past posts here the reasons why a steep-decline scenario misses the boat -- and of course the history of the Roman Empire itself contradicts Seneca pretty effectively, demonstrating that the way down can be, and usually is, far more drawn out than the fast-crash model allows.

Thomas Daulton said...

Good morning, JMG and readers, and best wishes for a happy and self-sufficient New Year! (The term 'prosperous' New Year seemed a little questionable given the subject matter of the column.)
While in a general sense I have come around to "your" way of thinking on this -- that waiting and hoping for an Apocalypse is kind-of like waiting for Godot -- I wonder whether the idea of "Black Swan" events deserves a mention. For example, a good strong earthquake here where I live in Southern California is a constant, though very small yearly, risk. If such a temblor took the Ports of L.A. & Long Beach offline for awhile, it would sideline something like 15% of the Nation's economy, with the added possibility of turning San Onofre into the next Fukushima. I can't help but imagine that the national emergency response and recovery/rebuilding would be only slightly better than what we witnessed after Katrina. (I'm sure people here in California are much better prepared from a personal safety perspective -- we have larger stocks of affluence to draw down, and there wouldn't be the lingering flooding and pestilence we saw post-Katrina -- but) I should think the whole U.S. economy would take a very noticeable, sudden, sharp downward turn.
Have you ever read John Robb over at the Global Guerrillas blog? The way he models it, these over-complicated systems (like our whole society) will limp along for awhile, but each year the cumulative probability of a "Black Swan Event" keeps adding up. (A Black Swan Event is a very unlikely, low-probability, but very damaging emergency coming out of left field -- an earthquake, an epidemic, etc. Pretty much by definition it's impossible to predict or prepare for one, and it would be economically wasteful to try. Bringing it back to _your_ terms, it's an emergency which cannot be prepared for efficiently; only with general resilience.) According to Robb's model, a complex system under general threat will limp along for years at a lower level of performance, in response to the general threats of decay and resistance; but the longer it limps along, eventually, some kind of unforseeable Black Swan disruption shows up which either overturns the system or else drops it down to a far lower level of performance; at which time its enemies, its rebels or competitors can more easily overturn it themselves.
Any thoughts on John Robb's theories?
(Robb, in general terms, seems to agree with you on the solution/defenses: only flexibility, broad resilience, and decentralization can work as defenses in this model, but a system's elites will always oppose those things, so the centralized systems and their elites will eventually fall.)

John Michael Greer said...

Russell, exactly -- look at major historical changes on a timeline geared to the human scale, and you very quickly find that for the people who experience them, they take quite a while. As for Nero, that's certainly one theory; as I'll be mentioning later on, though, much of the belief system surrounding the Antichrist was of medieval manufacture.

Alan, yes, I'm familiar with the analogy. Show me examples from history, paying attention to just how long the changes actually took.

Andy, while you're considering the effect of human ingenuity, please also consider that of human stupidity. Those are equal and opposite forces, you know.

Lloyd, exactly. People who were in New Orleans when Katrina hit experienced a very sudden collapse of their living standards, one that a lot of them didn't survive; a few hundred miles from the Gulf coast, life went on as usual. That's the sort of pattern that real-world collapse follows.

Steve, I've heard much the same thing from other parts of the country. Things are definitely tightening up. I'm delighted that your wife is teaching kids how to raise livestock -- that's a skill that will stand some of them in very good stead.

Penumbra, no, though you were fairly early on. Welcome to the conversation!

Bret, until you've made the relevant changes in your own life, you have no business trying to tell other people how to live. If you've already mastered the skills of green wizardry, are growing a noticeable fraction of your own food, get by on a small percentage of the energy most Americans use, and have gotten good at a couple of skills that will give you something to trade with your neighbors as the financial end of the economy comes unglued, then you can talk about organizing. Until you've done that, you pretty much guarantee yourself a place in the very large list of "do what I say, not what I do" activists.

Daniel, you're quite correct -- I think a very large part of the longing for a sudden catastrophe that shows up in the peak oil scene is the hope that this will finally make people admit that we're right and they're wrong. Me, I expect that to happen when pigs sprout wings and we catch our breakfast bacon with butterfly nets.

Kevin, an aqualung, and plenty of spare tanks. As for getting America "back on track," the thing nobody realizes is that the people who say this actually mean "tied to the tracks in front of an oncoming train."

Brother K., we did indeed -- I know, I'm only five miles south of the Mason-Dixon line, but I studied old-fashioned Southern rootwork with Cat Yronwode (yes, archdruids do things like that) and got thorough instructions in the proper way to bring in the New Year. As for your plan to gather books -- do it! This is a crucial step, and the more people pursue it in their own ways, the more likely we are to get something of value through the next century or so.

Mike said...

Hmm, I wonder if they were carding people in the taverns of 414? ;-)

Yupped said...

Back in the UK in the early 70’s, when I was a little kid, my parents gathered their brood up and told us that we were all going to be poor. Something to do with my Dad (who worked for the government) being put on a three-day week and having no savings. Or something. It all sounded quite bad. But, the next day I still had to get up and have breakfast and go to school. Life carried on. I mentioned this to my (now 90 year old) father a couple of weeks ago who only vaguely remembered it. He had been through much worse in WWII, as had my mother in the Blitz.

Point is, history is happening all around, sometimes quite noisily, but life moves forward anyway. The trajectory is going to be down into material poverty (unless of course we discover twenty years or so of miracle grow – actual, not headline fodder). But some of the events on the way down will be very loud indeed. For example, the US could launch a preemptive war for petroleum resources that leads to hundreds of thousands of dead and wounded, billions in borrowed expenditures and utter failure. Or entire nations could go bankrupt, completely unable to pay their bills, with social unrest and spontaneous street riots. Or there could be massive ecological disasters with entire areas destroyed and uninhabitable. Oh, wait…

And during all this, for most of us, we’ll just keep on trudging along. Personally, I’m going to aim to be quite cheerful as I do so, possibly annoyingly so. It did hit home for me, over the holidays, that despite various diligent attempts to save for my retirement, I won’t have enough to live on when I stop earning income, even with the various cost-cutting and homesteading efforts currently in progress. In other words, I will never "retire". Never. Except maybe for a very little while prior to popping my clogs. Oh well.

Andy Brown said...

Mostly, the ongoing decline is pretty unevenly distributed and relatively easy for people to misunderstand as they like. But one thing I've noticed affecting people across the board is how long it now takes to get the electricity back on after a storm. Where once it took hours or maybe a day, tens of thousands of people are waiting a week and more. How long before the power company is lobbying to "privatize" their more vulnerable lines? It's just a start, but de-electrification here we come.

DW said...

"The only way out of the trap, as I’ve argued here rather more than once, is to accept a steep cut in your standard of living before it becomes necessary, as a deliberate choice, and to use the resources freed up by that choice to get rid of any debts you have, get settled in a location that has a fair chance of keeping a viable degree of community life going, and get the tools and learn the skills that you will need to manage a decent life in an age of spiraling decline."

It seems this is set to become our Shibboleth, even as the evidence of its inevitability mounts.

If I was to set it as my personal touchstone though, I'd have to add a philosophical, or spiritual, aspect as well that respects the ecology of human life consciousness. Something along the lines of...

"What we have taken our selves to be is only a part of the truth. We are at once no-thing and every-thing. There is no me and no other, there is only we, together in relation. The more we identify with my-body, my-family, my-land, my-money, the more we suffer. This is not communism or a negation of responsibility, it is communalism and interconnectedness. It is a recognition that no part of the whole can exist in isolation; psychologically or physically. When we see the truth of our being, we no longer seek only for personal gain or personal longevity. Instead, we see the emptiness of being and move into actions that bring harmony in the physical and psychological realms. We cease looking for external justifications or reifications of a fixed self that needs material wealth to find meaning. And we are freed to live with the bare awareness and bare essentials of a human life on a fragile planet. When there is only This, only Now, you don't need Industrial Civilization or Consurmerist Civilization; you don't need to destroy the planet to prove you are an exalted and permanent being despite all the signs to the contrary. This is the Way humans lived for a long, long time. And its the way we'll return to on the far side of the Long Descent...provided some inhabitable planet remains."

A suggestion for experimenting with this way of thinking/being:

http://www.headless.org

Or the work of Joan Tollifson (a fellow So. Oregon-er JMG may have passed in Lithia Park)...


DW

http://amusingself.wordpress.com

Ventriloquist said...

JMG,

What is amazing is that Doug Casey gave a very recent interview in which he makes the "things gradually getting worse over time" theme pretty much the very same way as in your current post.

http://www.zerohedge.com/news/doug-casey-addresses-getting-out-dodge

Kudos to you both.

.

SLClaire said...

The part about less and less being rebuilt after a natural disaster - I'm definitely seeing that. My parents live in one of the Florida towns hit by Hurricane Charley in 2004. They've lived there since 1988 and we visit them every year or two. What I see is that while much has been rebuilt since Charley, some has not, and the older, poorer neighborhoods that suffered more damage are also those with a higher proportion of razed land and current economic difficulties caused at least in part by the impaired recovery from Charley added on to the current economic woes hitting poorer neighborhoods harder.

Similarly, the St. Louis metro area was struck by a tornado last April 22. If you didn't hear about it, it was because no one died or was seriously injured, thankfully. But that tornado took a 22 mile long path through a variety of neighborhoods. Again, the probability of a rebuild having been completed or at least being in progress is higher for neighborhoods of higher wealth. Poorer areas in some cases look almost as damaged as they did right after the tornado went through. A local monthly paper, the Ferguson Times, has an article in their Jan. 2012 issue about a study of the tornado's aftermath in Ferguson, one of the harder-hit communities. The study identified a lack of adequate homeowner insurance, prevalence of vacant land, low investment in public infrastructure, and absenteee landlordism as among the factors contributing to a local neighborhood's inability to recover rapidly from the tornado. The important point here, I think, is that as decline continues, more and more of us will live in neighborhoods with one or more of these factors. My own neighborhood has two or three of them right now. This means more and more of us, me included, are or will be vulnerable to the effect of a local or regional disaster leading to long-term damage. Thinking about ways to prepare for that might prove useful.

Like you, John, I see 2012 as bringing what 2011 did, in incrementally larger terms. One of the things that struck me when I was working for pay is just how resilient a large corporation is. They are designed to be that way - to survive major changes in personnel, shifts in demand, and so forth. Coming up on my 55th birthday, I now see that resilience in political and economic structures as well. As you've pointed out, the powers that be have a lot of ways to ensure that things continue on more or less the same for quite awhile, and they will use them when needed. That doesn't mean they or we can escape the laws of physics, but we live in a political and economic ecosystem, and like an ecosystem, it can take a lot of shocks and still go on pretty much as before. But the shocks do accumulate and change things substantially over long time periods. I can see a lot of changes when I look from the 1960s forward. I expect a lot more change, in the same downward trend, for the rest of my life. I'm doing the best I can to prepare for that, psychologically as much as physically. Fixed ideas can be the biggest barrier to responding gracefully to the needs of the moment.

Ruben said...

@alanturing94

re: a beam snapping under stress....

JMG has never said life won't get crappy, he just says it won't get crappy everywhere all at the same time.

So the question is, do you think the world is one big beam, or millions of little beams?

JMG's point that New Orleans was devastated while life a few hundred miles away proceeded normally suggests that N.O. was a little beam.

GHung said...

I'm always excited when two or more, I'll call them "Collapsologists", get together for a discussion, and I enjoyed the recent JHK/JMG Kunstlercast a lot, but was a bit miffed when I saw this week's gathering of Heinberg, Chomsky, Kunstler, Orlov, and Nicole Foss. It seemed like placing five Silverbacks (excepting Nicole, perhaps ;) in the same little glade and expecting something other than chaos. Dimitri Orlov likely came to the same conclusion as expressed in his post: A Dismal Public Affair. One wonders if this had anything to do with his early departure, and later in the session as the moderator went back to Richard Heinberg on the phone, there was a dial tone in the background as if someone had hung up on the conversation. JHK?

Anyway, I think I enjoyed the discussion, more than some of the participants perhaps. The forum eventually deferred to the more elderly Silverback (Chomsky) who took his time expressing his disdain that peak oil will be a long, slow process rather than a sudden decline in the availability of all things fossil fuel; "a disaster for the planet". IMO, he was expressing his belief that the planet can't afford another three or four decades of dig, drill, slash and burn, that, no matter how horrific a sudden collapse may be for humanity, it may be the better choice for the long term prospects for the biosphere, and indeed, our own species. I must admit that my inner sociopath has considered this point of view, as I'm sure many of you have. Not that we, collectively, have much choice in the matter.

One wonders, if some impartial supreme being came and announced that 80% of us must die in the next decade in order to save the planet, how many of us would step up? Perhaps not all who advocate, even hope for, a swift decline are as selfish and sociopathical as some would assume. Just some thoughts...

Perhaps Chomsky just realizes that his time will pass without his knowing if he really made a difference. You're not alone, Noam.

Jackson Browne:

Keep a fire for the human race
Let your prayers go drifting into space
You never know what will be coming down
Perhaps a better world is drawing near
And just as easily it could all disappear
Along with whatever meaning you might have found
Don't let the uncertainty turn you around
(the world keeps turning around and around)
Go on and make a joyful sound

Into a dancer you have grown
From a seed somebody else has thrown
Go on ahead and throw some seeds of your own
And somewhere between the time you arrive
And the time you go
May lie a reason you were alive
But you'll never know...

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

JMG has elsewhere written in some detail on the perils of slow decline. In a sudden collapse, he has written, shocked citizens rush around seeking to conserve what elements of their civilization can be conserved. In a slow decline, he has written, things by contrast slide, unaccompanied by salutary heroic reactions, with the final loss potentially higher than in a sudden catastrophe. (JMG: Might you possibly consider giving us a reference to that earlier writing?)

Thanks, Brother K, for raising the question of conserving technical books. I am myself trying to amass a set of books in practical radio, especially from before 1970. I have found it useful to go to ham-radio flea markets ("hamfests"). From hamfests one learns what people were using and valuing decades ago, and this then gives one pointers into followup researches on the Internet. It was through a combination of initial-hamfest and followup-Internet investigation that I learned, e.g., of the high repute of A.A.Ghirardi's "Radio Physics Course", which I hold in a 1932 edition or printing.

I have devised a simple modular library tool to help conserve books and documents. This tool is a stackable box, its dimensions selected to accommodate not only most books but also USA letter-length filing folders (for loose papers) and the equivalent European "A4" folders.

The design includes some drilling of holes, so that boxes can if necessary be fitted with rope handles (should the Visigoths, Huns, and Vandals suddenly invade the Toronto conurbation, forcing a library evacuation ahem ahem), and so that they also can if necessary be bolted together, to make a rigid book wall. I have built 64 such boxes so far.

A portion of this building work can be seen in a photo I just took, at

http://www.metascientia.com/CNNO____modular_library.jpg

In this photo, Ghirardi is the big fat red book just to the right of the little MFJ "Pocket Tutor" morse-code-training box on the carpet.

I have additionally put into the photo my circa-1968 high school slide rule. -Thanks, JMG, for your tip last week on a highly reputed slide-rule book.

Radio books are on the lowest level of shelving, and higher up are undergrad maths-physics and books for practical Linux-heavy computing.

The floorlamp in the photo is a thing of joy, being a massive lamp recently rescued from someone's yard sale. Although I lack proof, I like to think of the lamp as from the 1930s or 1920s, i.e., from not too long after the 1914 summer that pigeonholing professors might some day suggest as a mnemonic for the commencement of our slow and grinding decline.

On the coffee table is a sober reminder that this decline is not a new thing. The round wooden box with pull handle was made by my late relative ZZ in a Displaced Persons Camp around 1945.

ZZ's life is itself a lesson in surviving darkness. Facing, as a young Estonian engineering student, conscription into the Wehrmacht, ZZ trained in Morse code to the requisite 24 words/minute. He was thereby able to work in radio (as opposed to assault duty) for the army of the Big Fooey, and nobody in Uncle Joe's army shot him. I additionally suspect ZZ, being a radio specialist in a comms-monitoring taskforce, was not required to shoot anyone on Uncle Joe's side.


Toomas (Tom) Karmo
www dot metascientia dot com
VA3KMZ (mainly 40 metres, 20 metres, Sundays, mainly PSK31 and CW)

GHung said...

Oh! Sorry Jacks...

Jackson Browne For a Dancer

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

Here's an effort at a prediction.

Although the Internet, and with it the computer-retailing business, might collapse catastrophically in the coming years, it is also possible that the Internet, and computing generally, will degrade slowly.

We may see Internet service outages, as experienced already in Egypt, spreading to other troubled jurisdictions.

We may also see the Internet fragmenting, so that nodes in North America can still send their TCIP-IP packets to other nodes in North America and yet are now for "security" reasons blocked from reaching Asia.

I am trying to hedge all bets by on the one hand learning Morse radiotelegraphy (as the only communications technology that will remain viable in a dramatic collapse) and on the other hand learning practical computing (as a technology valuable in a slow decline).

If our decline is gradual enough, there might be a demand over the next 20 years for basic computer repair and salvage, getting bad old machines working somehow on a fragmented and increasingly flaky Internet.


Toomas (Tom) Karmo
www dot metascientia dot com

Cathy McGuire said...

Love the simile! Great Pumpkin indeed… we’ll all turn into pumpkins when Peak Everything Midnight hits (not to mix metaphors or anything...).

From what I can see, the insistence on huge change (up or down) is human nature: we can only handle so much uncertainty, then we “push” events just to have something change! I saw it as a therapist time after time (and have had other therapists also confirm) – it takes great maturity to face and maintain balance viz. ambiguity, anxiety and ambivalence. Green wizard skills often convey an added ability to tolerate these, simply because of the nature of the skills. Most people don’t have it, which worries me about what they will try to “push”. But still, the crashes will most likely be localized and therefore learning to put up with “waiting for the other shoe” is a skill worth learning!

As if to confirm some of what you said – this was in yesterday’s Oregonian:

“The Portland Bureau of Transportation, preparing to cut $16 million from its upcoming budget, proposes to stop repaving major roads for the next five years. That would save $4.4 million a year but would add to Portland's growing backlog of streets needing repair.
[snip]
Still, the repaving cutback isn't new. On average, Portland has trimmed $1.5 million a year from its paving budget for the past five, bureau spokeswoman Cheryl Kuck said. The city stopped repaving residential roads in 2009, for example. But Transportation Bureau director Tom Miller said Wednesday, "It hasn't been to this magnitude." “

So… things will keep deteriorating, and will get a few paragraphs/seconds in the news and few will connect the dots and realize the holes are getting bigger… unless they’re unlucky enough to fall through!

I’m continuing my green wizard practice this year, trying to memorize herbal lore and also keep a detailed journal of my garden, trying to identify and track the various plants, (weeds and desired plants), insects, etc – trying to really get to know my soil!

AFabrice: 2012 may be the year of truth for the public sector. Remember that both US and Europe have a big debt problem.
It still won’t all break down at once; some places will be (are!) worse than others, and the media will likely continue to report it as an unsettling anomaly (see above). Even if the pain is widespread, it will be experienced “locally” in different ways, and even friends and families will experience the downslides in different proportions (similar to now).

tubaplayer said...

Hi JMG,

An excellent post once again, thank you.

Maybe slightly off topic but did you ever hear of a small town in Austria called G├╝ssing?

Completely independent from fossil fuels -
worth a read http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/G%C3%BCssing

Not many places in the world are so blessed with the necessary natural resources, but it is only some 20-odd miles from here that I hope ITSHTF that it coud well work in my little district also.

John Michael Greer said...

Hector, no, most people don't think deeply about the future, but a lot of people these days sense that something is very, very wrong, and there's no sign that it's going to get better. While your point about idiotproofing society is well taken -- every time you think something is foolproof, somebody invents a better fool -- the habit of insisting that the average person is an idiot has always struck me as one of the more graceless affectations of the intellectual class.

DeAnander, it's important to acknowledge the grief and the pain of the process we're in. It's all too easy to run away from that into the sort of reflexive demonization of contemporary life that's so common these days, but to my mind, that's a cop-out. Every human culture is problematic in one way or another -- but every human culture is also a unique way of experiencing the cosmos, and when it dies, a part of the universe of human possibility dies with it.

J9, by "course" do you mean a new sequence of posts, or something else? I do have a couple of projects in the works, yes...

Kfish, thanks for the references! Sara's already got Respect the Spindle, iirc, but I don't think she's seen the other one.

Revenge, that's an extraordinarily thorny question, and it's not at all easy to come up with an answer, either, not least because it's been a good quarter century since I was in your shoes. Let me think about that and consider a future post -- and I'd like to encourage you, and other twentysomethings, to think about it, too, good and hard. You know the model of the future I've sketched out -- what options do you see for people in your situation?

Cherokee, there's much to be said for simple nomadic dwellings and other very inexpensive forms of shelter in a land that gets hammered by disasters. I suspect you'll see a lot of that as the money starts running out. As for Jack Vance -- now there was a brilliant writer!

Lizzy, no, what happens when a government can't pay its debts is that it defaults on them, either overtly -- the way Russia did in 1998, for example -- or covertly, by debasing the currency until the interest on the national debt will just about buy you a gallon of milk. Buyers of government bonds are simply gambling that it won't happen to them.

Seeker, I'd encourage you to look at what's happening in the former Soviet Union, which is losing population at a rate that will drop the numbers by 50% before 2100. That's a very steep drop in demographic terms, but you'll notice that it's not happening via some apocalyptic event; it's simply that more people are dying than are getting born, year after year. We're approaching that in America, by the way.

Sofistek, understood. One of the massive problems with a slow decline is precisely that people can talk themselves into believing tht it's not happening. As far as Occupy, well, how much did the protests actually accomplish? It's going to take a lot more than some people camping in parks to make change happen -- and again, it's got to start with people changing their own lives.

Jean-Vivien, I was a guest on the man's program; I wasn't going to be rude to him.
Lee, excellent! I'm going to evade my usual rule and give out two gold stars today, and you get the second. Yes, this is what decline looks like.

John Michael Greer said...

Scott, it came to this because a lot of people ducked out on making choices that had to be made. Simple as that...

Hapibeli, and a happy new year to you and yours!

Mike, well, to begin with, a rapid decline in what? A lot of the so-called wealth in circulation these days is basically a collection of consensual hallucinations, and can evaporate into pixie dust without anything real going away. It will be interesting to see just how things pan out as the economic situation lurches onward.

Chris, thank you!

Twilight, it's supposed to irritate a few people -- or more than a few. The interesting thing is that nobody questions the possibility, or the likelihood, that improvements can build over time to amount to major change, but if you suggest that, well, "disimprovements" can do the same thing, the howls of protest begin.

James, most of us will not leave any genetic heritage behind -- on a planet that can support maybe a billion people indefinitely, the vast majority of today's seven billion are going to draw the short end of Darwin's stick. It's purely a matter at this point of doing what we can to make sure that something of value survives this mess.

Chris, that's a large part of it, but there's also the collapse of meaning. A sudden catastrophe can be seen as a 'reset' button -- game over, start again, and progress again becomes an option, even if all you can hope to achieve is something better than you've got at the bottom of the catastrophe. Slow decline means that progress is over, and when the only sense of meaning you've got is fixated on the hope of material improvement, that means the game is still on but you lose, forever.

Michael, good. Yes, that's an important point.

John, I'm glad Maryland doesn't have an early primary. It must be a circus up your way.

ChemEng, that's excellent to hear! If the engineering community can get its head around the idea that peak oil is the ultimate problem solving exercise -- not because peak oil can be "solved," but because it's going to heap up problems by the dozen, many of which could be solved -- some very constructive work could be done. I'd encourage you to dust off your slide rule, though, and pick up a few old books on nomographs; low tech methods are going to be important tools, and worth preserving.

Adrian, if more people are waking up to the fact of decline, that's excellent news. Glad to hear about the Ogham work!

Ghung, a very solid summary.

Richard Larson said...

Oh yeah. I am getting an endless stream of "facts" to "prove" the great pumpkin is on the way. Oh well, if they are happy sitting in their pumpkin patch of facts, that is alright by me.

My bet is those value-added petroleum exports are also protected from US Taxation through Free Trade Zone status. Not much there for society as a whole.

Susan said...

A couple days ago Paul Krugman had a column in which he said, essentially, that we are not ever going to pay down our national debt (currently over $15 billion and scheduled to go up to over $16 billion real soon now). All we need to do, he said, is to keep the tax base growing faster than the growth of the debt, so we can just keep making our minimum payments on the national credit card.

Well, gee, if I'd known it was that simple, I'd have bought more of those Greek bonds... The problem seems to be that you gotta have economic growth in order to increase the tax base, and in order to have economic growth you need... oh, wait, that particular commodity peaked back about 2005...

At some point, our whole economic house of cards will come tumbling down (maybe when our national debt is larger than the total money supply of the whole world?). Will this happen in 2012? Hopefully not. Will it happen before I'm old enough to start collecting Social Security? I'm afraid it will, with absolute certainty.

Personally, I think 2012 is going to be one of those crazy, pivotal years, like 1968, where lots of weird stuff will happen, and everything is different afterwards. If the Supreme Court upholds ObamaCare, if Obama is re-elected, if the Euro collapses, if the crazy mullahs in Iran really ARE crazy, if the Federal Reserve keeps printing money because nobody else will buy our debts, if ... Well, if any of those things (or lots of other things) happen in 2012, they'll have at least one good effect: they will make it more obvious to even the most casual observer that things are getting worse, will continue to get worse, and will probably never get significantly better.

THEN, maybe, more people will start to sit up and take notice, and start to pay attention to prophets like the green wizard.

Dean said...

Mr. Greer,

Longtime reader, first time poster. I was very concerned about the opening lines of your most recent blog post. Icicles hanging from your eaves is most likely a sign of ice damming on the roof, caused by leakage of warm air into your attic. You should look into it. It is one of those energy conservation issues we Green Wizards are concerned about. Have you had a home energy audit done?

http://www.homeenergy.org/show/article/nav/renovation/page/4/id/682

Dean

Kieran O'Neill said...

I suppose I don't have much to say, other than that the Green Wizardry is coming along nicely. My humble container garden produced a good set of vegetables, and this year I intend on adding the 100 square foot patch my neighbour has given me to grow even more (I will be trying out a three sisters garden in part of it). I canned tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers, and made three kinds of jam. Not from my own produce, mind you, but at least from produce grown locally. This year I plan on brewing my wife some gluten-free beer from sorghum. It's been many years since I last brewed beer, and it was always from a kit. Hopping it myself will be a step forward.

But, slightly more on-topic. Each year for the last few I have followed Bruce Sterling and John Lebkowsky's State of the World discussion on the Well. This year's just went up, and Lebkowsky opened with an acknowledgement that "the world's been a little crazier and more volatile every year" since they started 13 years ago.

They're tech guys, but they're also quite aware of the decline. It's a good place to get a more grounded sense of the roles high technology will play over the next few decades, for good and ill.

dltrammel said...

Funny, I work at a typical blue collar manufacturing plant and I'm surrounded by people who take the attitude "This damned place can't run without me!".

It can and has several times over the past two years where I've watched Management purge deadwood from the ranks.

People have this misguided notion that everything is fine and going to continue as normal when looking at the Real World shows we are doing less high end products and more of the cheap stuff. Companies are cutting back on all sides.

IMO you are ever so correct JMG, Hell isn't a swift collapse but a slow stair step downward a slim slice at a time.

Wullow said...

John, I would suggest that the failure rate of so many dire predictions has much to do with the insistence on timing as a test of validity. Our prophets are required to assign a "year" to their warnings. But, as you mentioned, strong trends can persist for many years.

My view is that the role of the prophet is to prevent his or her predictions from coming true, or to mitigate their impact on society. It is unfair to expect the prophet to "nail it" in the time dimension. (or any other dimension, for that matter)

Another suggestion: Remember that the chorus of imminent doom represents a minority of serious thinkers. Don't let them distract you from staying focused on your core message. Just keep talking to anyone and everyone who will listen.

chemalfait said...

heh, over the last 15 years we've prepared a most sincere pumpkin patch. we're ready for the Great Pumpkin.lol
we haven't made 'agriculture' a big focus as it is too labor and resource intensive. We've opted for scouting out natural food sources which most folks are not even aware of.

Paul Thompson said...

". . . you may well look back in the first days of 2013 and think that business as usual is still ongoing. You’d be right, too, so long as you recognize that there’s been a stealthy change in what business as usual now means."

I've subscribed to the 'slow decline' theory for years, with one small caveat; The institutions, systems and structures that comprise a complex civilisation and its economy, depend on underlying flows of energy, rescources and information and when these flows drop to some critical minimum, the structures will collapse suddenly. But not completely. Just to a simpler, less rescource-intensive level that the reduced flows can support.

I see the 'long decline' as a series of 'steps' - periods of relative stability, punctuated by the collapse of signifigant institutions and (relatively) brief periods of instability as these institutions are re-jigged to match the new (lower) rescource base.

RainbowShadow said...

John Michael Greer, my deepest apologies if you think my post is a problem, but if I may interject, I agree the average person isn't an idiot.

But, in my opinion, if the average person was merely an "idiot," that would actually be an improvement. Socrates, for example, didn't actually have a problem with idiots because there were very, very few of them (I think this was briefly mentioned in Plato's Dialogue of Euthydemus, or maybe it was the Dialogue of Protagoras), and if you were one of those rare people who really didn't have the biological capacity to think that was hardly your FAULT, now was it?

No, "idiocy" is not the problem.

No, the real problem, according to Richard Paul and Linda Elder, whose standards of critical thinking I use to come to my conclusions, is that the average person has the capacity to think things through and chooses to NOT USE IT in favor of draconian punishments for people he doesn't like, or selfish accumulation of wealth for himself, or some of America's war policies you've been criticizing, etc. To Paul and Elder, it's not that the average person is "stupid" but that the average person is "unsophisticated". It's not that they're "stupid," it's that they're intelligent but deliberately choose to NOT USE IT, in order to justify abusing humans in ways such as child swimsuit pageants a la Jon-Benet Ramsay for example.

Jeez, Greer, you've even talked about this yourself! You've talked about that 25-year-old you saw on TV who had "no inner life worth mentioning;" you've criticized Americans for refusing to admit the Soviet Union wasn't the only one committing evil actions, you've criticized Americans for simply ignoring library books instead of burning them, which you called one of the most ghastly features of our time. Heck even in this very post you've criticized Americans for their mindless insistence that the poor are to blame for their own poverty.

So I don't understand, and please forgive my confusion, how you can criticize the decisions of the American public and their lack of respect for knowledge and learning and for voluntary poverty, but simultaneously blast intellectuals whenever they try to critique the same things you yourself talk about every Wednesday.

Oh, by the way, here's Richard Paul and Linda Elder's website if you're interested:

http://www.criticalthinking.org

J9 said...

Hi JMG,
sorry - i should have been clearer.
By "course" I was referring to a comment you made in late November when replying to Andrew.
"Andrew, a very good point indeed. There's a lot to be said for a less structured monasticism or, to use what used to be the standard term, a regular rather than a secular clergy, in movements such as contemporary Druidry. In fact, AODA is getting ready to launch (or, more precisely, revive) something along these lines in the new year. Stand by for details!"
http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.com/2011/11/pepperspraying-future.html?showComment=1322767969658#c3744684705555400667

Does this ring a bell or are you playing coy? :-)

John Michael Greer said...

Nano, the US decline is going to be harder, because neither Argentina nor Venezuela was trying to hold onto a global empire it could no longer afford. Still, there will doubtless be some similarities.

Thomas, what Robb misses is, first, that successful elites tend to be very resilient, and to build a lot of resilience into their critical systems -- that's why they're in power and their more brittle rivals aren't; and second, that the immediate response of everybody in the aftermath of a black swan event is very often to pitch in and try to salvage as much as possible. A sudden crisis or catastrophe can very often provide a society in deep trouble with something to rally around.

Mike, er, poetic license.

Yupped, yes, that's precisely what I'm expecting -- and I don't expect ever to be able to retire, either.

Andy, I'd noticed that as well. I figure we're maybe five to ten years from the point when electricity companies start charging people up front to have their homes reconnected to the grid after a big storm -- and those who can't pay, don't get back on the grid.

DW, I certainly can't argue against approaching all this from a spiritual perspective -- I have my own, about which I've dropped hints now and then -- but the readers of this blog come from every point on the spiritual compass from mainstream religions through any number of alternative visions to agnostics and atheists. I don't propose to offer a toolkit that will only be useful to those who agree with me about what is, after all, one of the most profound and personal choices a human being can make.

Ventriloquist, I hadn't seen that! Thanks for the tip.

SLClaire, that's a very important barometer to watch: when a society can no longer repair the damage it takes from ordinary disasters (and in the midwest, twisters are pretty ordinary), it's in catabolic collapse, pretty clearly.

Ghung, I'll check it out. I'm not a great fan of Chomsky, but the others are usually entertaining.

Tom, I'll have to look it up -- I've got a couple of hundred posts in the archive at this point! For what it's worth, btw, I think your model for the decline of the internet is very plausible, especially if you factor in a gradual shift to packet radio as the infrastructure starts to age out.

Cathy, five years of no resurfacing will leave a fair number of Oregon roads unusable. I've heard that some Western states are tearing up concrete and asphalt roads in rural areas and replacing them with gravel. Talk about progress in reverse!

Kfish said...

Regarding reproduction: it's easier if you change your perspective from handing down genomes to passing along ideas and values. I'm finding it much easier to get along with two that I know while teaching them about soil, getting their help with the chickens and worms or showing them how to spin. Surprisingly, they proved willing to go to work on some shared task rather than passively be entertained. Little bundles of inquiry and energy, and you can send 'em home to their folks when you're done.

Chuck Allen said...

Thank you for another great post. I have been a reader for about a year now and seem to agree with the majority of your ideas. I appreciate your logical and sensible approach to this often emotionally volatile subject. It has really helped me to come to a personal understanding of "the big picture" of post peak oil and has helped me to obtain some direction for my future. Again, thanks and Happy New Year to you.

John Michael Greer said...

Tuba, no, I hadn't! It's not all that difficult for a lot of places on your side of the pond to function without fossil fuels -- most of the built landscape dates from before cars, and there are plenty of people now living who remember having to get by on next to nothing during and after the war years. Might be worth having a conversation with some of the elderly people you know, get them to tell stories of getting by, and take notes.

Richard, the tone of desperation in those litanies of factoids is as good a sign of trouble as any.

Susan, oh, I think 2012 could turn out to be a very rough year. My guess, though, is that it's going to be after the apocalypse pulls a no-show that things are going to get wild.

Dean, thank you, but I'm on top of it. It's not an ice dam -- we had some problems with one of those the first year we were here, and got everything taken care of the following spring; it's a slightly leaky gutter in a place that gets plenty of sun, so icicles end up forming on the bottom of the gutter. It's very pretty, and as far as I can tell does no structural damage, so I've left it alone.

Kieran, good to hear that the work's going well! Thanks for the link; I'll check it out as time permits.

Dltrammel, and of course nobody's asking themselves whether the place has to run at all. There's a very rough future waiting for those who can't imagine the possibility of change.

Wullow, if I was going to be distracted from my work and my message, it would have happened a long time ago! No, I'm just riffing off other people in the peak oil blogosphere; contrast is a useful tool for understanding.

Chemalfait, well, but what other living things depend on those foodstuffs? I encourage gardening precisely because it feeds people without placing an additional burden on already strained ecosystems.

Paul, that's been the theory I've been proposing all along. I'd note, though, that even the steps take time -- the collapse of the US banking system, for example, has been under way since 2008, and will likely not have finished by 2018. Fast by historical standards, but by the standards of those who live through the events...

Rainbow, there's a difference between criticism and contempt. I see a lot of intellectuals crossing over that line.

J9, okay, now I know what we're discussing. It's not a course, so much as an entire structure of training, symbolism, ceremonial, and ordination; we're working on it right now, and hope to have something ready to share with the membership of the order this year. If you're on the AODA email list you should hear more about it within a few months.

John Michael Greer said...

Kfish, true enough. I have no living children; my genetics die with me; but there's one heck of a lot I want to pass onto the future, and this blog is part of that project.

Chuck, thank you! Glad that these essays are of use.

John Michael Greer said...

Another very warm thank you, by the way, to everyone who's chipped into the tip jar -- I'm frankly startled, and more than a little abashed, at the extent of your generosity. That solar greenhouse is a good deal closer!

DW said...

@JMG on spirituality:

I completely understand the desire to remain neutral when it comes to religion and respect that...although I do expect you to keep pontificating on the West's most universally accepted religion: Progress.

My comment was more meant as an opening to others to add to their considerations of appropriate "shifts" for the Long Descent. I believe we've covered this already in previous comment sections though when you were discussing EF Schumacher's _Guide for the Perplexed_ and so on, but there may be other texts and approaches from neuro-science to home-cooked philosophical inquiry (such as the "Headless Way" I referenced) worth visiting for the ever contemplative Green Wizards.

Next up for me is Tolstoy's _Confessions_.

escapefromwisconsin said...

I predict we'll here the phrase "the new normal" a lot. The best way to understand the future is the concept of creeping normalcy

When Roberto Benigni won the Oscar for Life Is Beautiful, he thanked his parents for the gift of poverty.

As I got older I understood what he meant. I think we are all beginning to understand - a fall hurts much less when you have less far to fall. Poverty also means that from an early age you also have to find strength within yourself rather than from outside. When you are not busy holding onto what you have, only then can you truly have freedom, to create, to experience, etc.; poverty gives you the gift of adaptability. Everything you manage to receive from the universe becomes a gift, not an expectation.

Best wishes for the new year,- CH

Breanna said...

EchoesRevenge: I could have written your post, except I won't be 27 until next month. Any chance you're in the Austin, TX area? I would love more friends who get where I'm coming from.

To answer JMG's request for thoughts from other 20-somethings, here is what I am doing:

I first took up cooking from scratch, then added a balcony garden to cook from, then took up sewing. My mother gave me a worm farm for Christmas this year so that I could compost more effectively in my tiny space. I have been learning and practicing what I can of food preservation techniques, focusing particularly on no-energy types like lactic acid fermentation and solar dehydration.

I have been reading about techniques for energy efficient and inexpensive homebuilding methods, animal husbandry things, herbalism, and I have been doing a lot of mental/spiritual work inspired by the series on magic here. My husband is learning smithing and considering how to build a life out of some sort of salvage metallurgy. When we have some money, we will probably also get him a decent bike for his work commute.

All that said, I find myself in the intensely dispiriting position that all of the above is simultaneously too much for me to handle properly (given my disability) and also not nearly enough to satisfy either my ambitions or my realizations about what the future is going to require.

The main thing I want to be doing, but cannot right now due to my situation, is forging mutually beneficial relationships where my youth and home-economy development might be exchanged for some of the things I lack. For instance, an arrangement where someone else had land and I had the desire and knowledge to garden it, to split the produce, or perhaps an older person who needed caretaking for themselves or their land who could provide housing in exchange. There are even sites that coordinate some of those things:

http://www.sharedearth.com/ - a site that links people who have land with gardeners who don't.

http://www.wwoofusa.org/ - connects organic farmers with young people willing to stay with them and intern/help with the farm work.

There is also a movement among our generation towards much greater sharing and finding ways to work around or change the laws that restrict it: http://www.shareable.net/

I have to say, I do hope for a financial system disruption great enough that all the vacant lots and properties can be "homesteaded" in a way, whether within or without the legal system, because I don't see many other ways most people in my generation (including my husband and I) will get land of our own.

In terms of a gradual decline that does not include such a drastic disruption, I think the most likely thing will be for people to combine resources and households - either by pooling together with other young couples or, in families that are compatible with it, going back to a multi-generational housing arrangement. Our best hope until recently was to combine households with close friends, but in their process of house-shopping, the husband of that couple became much more seduced by the siren of American middle-class autonomy, and it doesn't look like that's really on the table any more...and so it goes. That was very frustrating; after that conversation I was sobbing to my husband that my parents should have named me Cassandra.

So my plan for my generation: Learn all we can, practice whatever is possible in our circumstances, forge relationships with like-minded people, reject whichever laws and customs are not useful (such as laws against sharing things or norms of single-family petroleum-dependent autonomy), and if circumstances get really desperate, work on making the life of a freegan nomad feel like a transgressive protest against the establishment instead of looking at yourself as a dumpster-diving hobo.

Candace said...

@ Hector & JMG,

In my former occupation I ran into several rules that were created because something unfortunate happened and a rule was made up to try and prevent that unfortunate occurance again. The number of rules and regulations could get pretty overwhelming, and sometimes it did seem like a dose of common sense should have been a simple cure.

I do wish our language had a concise way to denote when some one is being "mentally lazy" or "deliberately obtuse". I haven't found a word that doesn't have the baggage of originally being a label applied to a type of disability.

Thank you for the interesting posts and comments. They always give me something new to think about.

Leigh Christina Russell said...

Hi JMG and readers,
Regarding prophecy, I believe that accuracy of content has to do with a seer's ability to understand patterns in the nature of the human psyche and circumstance as well as in the natural world - cause and effect and so on. In my view the matter of predicting by precise dates is likely to be beside the point and distract attention from other aspects of what is foretold which may be more useful. An interesting example of this is D H Lawrence's response to the announcement of the end of World War One: he did not join in the general rejoicing but said sombrely that war would come again - because of the hatred in men's hearts. Which it did, with even greater violence. If that hatred had been addressed the conflicts that led to World War Two may have taken a different course. In that context dates are irrelevant. Lawrence did not set himself up as a prophet; it was his deep understanding of how people function and affect each other which gave him that insight. He didn't need a crystal ball - it was obvious to him.

Regarding the situation of the poor, life is full of surprises, some pleasant others not: perhaps fifteen years ago I was working in a well-paid, reasonably prestigious job with no inkling that my life would soon change almost beyond recognition. I got ill and had to resign, and one way and another have not been able to get back to paid employment since. It's been a shattering experience, but... I've learnt a heck of a lot, and I know that being poor has certainly got me ahead of the wave of what others will need to learn as I've practised thrift and resourcefulness through sheer necessity, every way I can think of to enable me to manage on a fraction of what I used to. And it does take practice, years of it - what grows well and when to plant, figuring out preserving methods work, where to get things most cheaply - or even for free when few others are bothering to do so. This is what I've been writing about in my Chronicles - to encourage others to have a go and describe what isn't so difficult after all and doesn't require special brains or equipment, just an understanding of some basic steps which are simple enough in themselves. I have loads more articles to be added to my collection of writings as time and energy permit.

Regarding oil, really, the sooner we run out it the better off we will be, the better our chances are of not creating further ruin of our incredibly beautiful planet. It's been cheap oil which has enabled the foolish globalisation of the world economy which requires so much transportation of materials and goods from one part of the globe to another, and back again.

On a lighter note, this week I tracked down a delightful cartoon by Dan Piraro about 2012 and the (possible) cause of all the doomsday forecasts...
Mayan Mayhem by Dan Piraro

Thanks JMG, for keeping the ball rolling, and I'm delighted to hear that the tip jar is doing well. Long may it continue to do so!

Karim said...

Greetings all and a happy new year too!

Although I tend to agree with JMG that what we face is a gradual but relentless crumbling away of our standard of living, at different rates depending on location, we ought to also bear in mind that the present planetary mess can precipitate certain geopolitical events, such as a US/UK/Israeli attack on Iran who might just be able to create enough havoc in the Gulf area to choke off oil exports for an extended period with largely unpredictable consequences. Such events which cannot be discounted can really accelerate decline from which recovery would be partial and temporary. A long descent does not rule out bouts of accelerated declines for all given the interconnectedness of modern civilisation. Furthermore modern technology can really amplify the scope and extent of localised mischief!
Pray then that decline is so slow that it gives us time to adapt provided we read properly the signs of our time.

hawlkeye said...

I never understood what the whole Great Pumpkin thing was all about, especially the part where it resembles the fat man in the red and white suit.

But then one fine Samhuinn I saw the GP actually appear before my eyes. I was working on a vegetable farm just over the Maryland border in northern Virginia. That evening after dinner, all the workers ambled out to a little hilltop to sit and watch the full moon rise.

And as it happened, the pumpkin patch filled the east horizon, and dang if that big orange moon didn't look exactly like one of the pumpkins floating up into the twilight!

Bill Pulliam said...

I think the phenomenon of "blaming the poor for their poverty" is part of a general trend over the last century (plus?). This is the growth of individualist thinking at the expense of community thinking. This I think is primarily the result of the pervasive affluence that the era of cheap abundant energy has bought us. It's easy to think you can take care of yourself in a society that pours wealth and abundance on you from every direction. No matter how often we forget this, the majority of Americans still live in a world of affluence beyond the dreams of earlier centuries. The chant ought to be "'We are the 99% of the top 5% of the wealthiest era in human history!" Don't expect to hear that one anytime soon. Of course we have a sense of entitlement and a pervasive delusion that "You should be able to take care of yourself, I am not responsible for your poverty."

I have wondered, and still wonder, when this might really begin to shift and what might start it. I suppose the obvious answer is "creeping pervasive poverty." I expect, though, that Americans are more likely to look for scapegoats to blame this on rather than question their own sense of entitlement or accept that the era of affluence was fundamentally unsustainable and thus irrevocably over. It might not be able to shift until all currently living generations and our attitudes of affluence have passed from the earth.

The North Coast said...

JMG, Your memes are more important than your genes. No one remembers Mozart, Aristotle, Einstein, Horace, Galileo, Da Vinci, or any other genius for his or her children. Where these people had children, the genius did not transmit... but the memes were passed on by millions.

Edward said...

I started a book that's been gathering dust on my shelf for too long now - "The Celts' by Gerhard Herm. On page 7, it talks about the Celts moving into northern Italy and pushing the Etruscans towards Rome: "Indeed while the Celts drove the Etruscans back, the Romans subjugated them, incorporating Etruscan traditions into their own history books; it too them over a century to do so"

Hmmm, so it took the Romans over a century to digest the Etruscans? This point is easy to gloss over as a singular event in history. If you think about it, this was actually a process over 3 or 4 generations.

That gave me something to think about all day today!

phil harris said...

Bill P rings a bell with me on one of JMG's themes: the sport of 'blaming the poor for their poverty'. In 1994 I think it was when I was briefly working in California I saw the sticker: "I fight poverty: I work". (Someone else I remember wanted to wipe his a'se on a spotted owl.) Sad. Believed by even the unemployed I guess. We get versions of this here in UK, but I get the impression USA has this fake 'individualism' written in to the sugar candy. The gun crowd in particular seem to illustrate the real powerlessnes of a lot of American lives.
We do not have to be snobbish or fake intellectual to realise the intellectual dishonesty of this propaganda. I am glad JMG has nailed the nonsense about USA having reversed its net import status for petroleum energy. Worrying when a deliberate lie becomes a common meme throughout your continent. (Last time I noticed such arrant propaganda was when Iraq's Sadam Hussein was represented as responsible for 9/11.)

dragonfly said...

It's all just funny money anyway, but I can't resist pointing out Susan's misplaced decimal point regarding the national debt. It's 15-going-on-16 trillion dollars, not billion. But what's a few lost zeros amongst friends ?

As for the Great Pumpkin, I must humbly confess that I've been eagerly, and certainly naively, awaiting its arrival. Not so much for the visceral object lesson of the folly of our ways, but more for some relief from the numbing sameness of this industrial civilization - the vast, soulless, unimaginative concrete jungles that have come to signify "progress" and "civilization".

I realize, though, that the first best step towards said relief, and a more colorful, imaginative and beautiful world, is an individual one. It's also pretty darn scary, and a lot of hard work.

OK, off to morning chores for me !

Joel said...

I'm not sure I understand you correctly: are you insisting that the anti-Christ figure from a work of prophecy be assigned to precisely one individual within history?

Are you writing from the assumption that St. Martin of Tours viewed the concept of anti-Christ as something other than eternal?

Are you saying that Sulpicius Severus mis-understood both St. Martin and John of Patmos?

Or is your message some fourth possibility that I don't see?

John Michael Greer said...

DW, well, I hope I don't pontificate too much!

Escape, I suspect you're quite correct in that.

Candace, I think the word is "human." We all do it to one extent or another; it's just a matter of the extent, and what the thing is that we're trying to ignore.

Leigh, I love that Piraro cartoon!

Karim, granted, but even so, geopolitical crises are an ordinary part of history, and their impacts unfold over time. The US is very nearly in freefall internationally; people a century from now will look back and marvel at how soon after the Soviet Union's collapse we followed it -- but in the middle of the process, it can be hard to see exactly what is happening.

Hawlkeye, nice! Your book "The Great Pumpkin Code" will be a bestseller, I'm sure.

Bill, my working guess is that the more widespread poverty becomes, the more desperate will be the effort to find somebody or something on which to blame it

North Coast, granted, but I wanted to respond directly to the comment.

Edward, fascinating. Yes, that's the way historical change actually happens. What was life like for your ancestors a century ago?

Phil, unfortunately the US is practically drowning in lies just now. The "net exporter" nonsense is just par for the course.

Dragonfly, exactly. All reach change starts with the individual.

Joel, St. Msrtin stated that the Antichrist, as a specific, temporal, incarnate person, had been born and was growing to maturity in his own time. The most common interpretation of the Antichrist myth throughout the history of the Christian tradition has been that Antichrist would be every bit as much an incarnate figure active at a specific point in history as, well, Christ. Myself, I think your interpretation of Antichrist as an eternal reality rather than a historical one is far more useful, but the fact remains that it's a minority view, and Sulpicius Severus among many, many others saw things differently.

Tyler August said...

EchosRevenge (and Brenna) are echoing sentiment I've been wrestling with, too; I'm just a couple years younger, and somewhat better off, economically, it sounds.

Cooking, canning, pickling-- fine. Container garden? Check. My fiancee knits, and we fix our own bikes. It lessens our dependance on the money economy, sure. But take away either income we're on the streets right quick.

The worst part, for me, that is my hopes, ambitions and plans from before I realized the decline was upon us haven't just gone away. Neither my partner nor I can seem to give up our love of learning, our dreams of professorship. But the PhD is 5 years away. Tenure a decade or more. Where will the world be then? What odds the University system will be at its present size, much less hiring? Should we drop all we've worked for and get most onerous but highest-paying jobs we can (if we can) in a Northern Ontario mining camp, to build capital we can turn into land? Maybe. But I'm happy here and now, and can convince myself the slow prep is still better than most...

If only there were a time-line to the decline, I could read and decide. "Slow decline" holds far too much ambiguity; no wonder people hope for a crash. Then there'd be nothing to lose, and we could get on with the business of survival without the hand-wringing.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Susan,

It's not 15 billion, the debt is actually 15 trillion (that's 1,000 billion by the way).

The other thing to mention about Paul Krugman's strategy (which I have not seen) is that the debt base cannot continue to grow which it still is. Larger debt also decreases the ability of a country to service that debt.

I hope you guys noted that US military spending is set to be axed by $450bn over the next 10 years. Surprisingly this will also reduce your economic growth - tax revenue base etc...

Who knows where it will end up?

Chris

Gail said...

The very first comment on this thread mentioned shifting baselines, a very useful and pertinent concept. It explains that people compare conditions today to the recent past, and miss significant changes.

This is why people who go snorkeling think they are seeming something beautiful because they seem some colorful fish. They forget if they ever saw that just a few years ago before the corals bleached, they were vibrantly intensely colorful.

It is also why most people have no idea that trees everywhere are dying, let alone consider what that means for habitat, climate, and food. They accept that trees lose branches and fall over, have bark that is splitting off, and are studded with cankers and holes. Unless they were very old - at least a hundred years or many more - trees didn't look like that, even a few short years ago.

This is why I am not so sure we are going to have a slow bumpy ride down the backslope of industrial civilization. There are tipping points in nature, and in my humble estimation we have just about surpassed the point of ecosystem collapse - ocean and forest.

The decline could be vertiginously exponential, as food becomes scarce and that results in a huge increase in civil unrest, which last year's nascent revolutionary actions around the world already were unprecedented in number.

And then there's the methane emergency in the Arctic, and increased seismic activity from melting ice and deflecting tectonic plates...

Nature's pitchfork will likely trump economic and energy woes, on her own timetable.

Joel said...

"The most common interpretation...has been that Antichrist would be every bit as much an incarnate figure active at a specific point in history as, well, Christ."

Well put!

I think Christianity has always blurred this line, though. We write about a body of Christ that was shrouded and laid in a tomb, and about a body of Christ that we constitute by our participation in Christianity, and conflating these two senses of "body" is arguably what the Eucharist is all about.

Even if most of us focus on a specific historical individual, I think a good proportion of us also recognize that eternal principles are in play at the same time.

Allie said...

@Revenge
@Breanna

I'm a year your junior, but I, too, have the same concerns...I don't see arable land in an area close enough to a town/small city being within my means any time in the next decade, so I'm at a bit of a loss as to how my partner and I will get started growing enough food to make a difference.

Instead, I'm looking at a viable trade to produce enough income/barter "currency" to trade for necessities. Since discovering peak oil and digesting some of JMG, Heinberg, and others (not least, readers of this blog!), I've changed my career tack entirely, from computer engineering to alternative healthcare. I am now saving for an education in naturopathic medicine, with an emphasis on herbal medicine. I've been cooking from scratch since early college, and I do know how to do a bit of sewing (mending, mostly), and crocheting, but nothing to be particularly proud of. I realize that I need to step it up, while also trying to get my partner on-board (he realizes that the resource crises will happen at some point, but does not realize that the first round has already started, and that time is running short).

I wish I had a house with a garden plot to call my own, weatherstrip, fit with solar heat, and begin composting at. Instead, we have a poorly-insulated "modern" apartment, a commute to work, and little practical experience producing real goods (just like the other 20-somethings here). I think that viable trades will form an appropriate bridge, as suggested by JMG in The Long Descent - things as disparate as medicine, alcoholic beverages, specialty clothing (wedding dresses and work boots, anyone?) and tools will still support a body of professionals, since no one can possibly provide all of these things at decent quality at once due to the time these skills take to master. These sorts of professions will (I hope!) give those of us too young to have acumulated many real assets yet an opportunity to continue earning an income - probably as a blend of currencies and goods - and building wealth in preparation for householding later in life, while picking up basic householding skills as we go along.

I agree with Breanna that getting over the single-family-on-a-grass-patch idea is an essential process. Townhomes and apartments with shared common cultivation areas may be a good option, and not hard to achieve with existing structures, given a little insulation and digging-up of silly fountained courtyards.

It's hard not to feel like a nut for thinking this way while many our age run out to buy iPads and plan extravagant weddings with no recognition of declining resources whatsoever. But I am more concerned about making sure my partner and I are okay and able to help our community when the time comes than about being cool, I guess :)

I'm in WA but I look forward to hearing from both of you here - I've been fretting about what our age group should do for a while now!

~Allison

Leigh Christina Russell said...

Hi Breanna,
I can identify with your frustration of not being able to do all that you wish to and see the need for. I have physical constraints too as well as financial ones. However, it sounds as if you are nonetheless achieving a considerable amount. When I get stuck I always repeat to myself Theodore Roosevelt's advice to "Do what you can, where you are, with what you have" which is all any of us can do. That quote is from a military handbook, by the way, so I can visualize a war weary and probably physically deprived soldier camping out and making the best of things, which eases the loneliness of it somehow. Lately I've been unable to keep up with all my gardening and have had to satisfy myself with sitting quietly and watching the weeds grow, of which there are rather a lot. But if the day is beautiful, I can enjoy the garden for its own sake...

Regarding the shortage of garden area, do you have any community gardens near you? There are quite a few of these in New Zealand, which you can see here:
Community gardens in New Zealand
I haven't been involved with them directly but have toured some of them and they are GREAT! Some are even in the back yards of people who have space but aren't using it and are happy to make it available for that purpose. I remember coming away from that tour wondering why everyone didn't do it as it seemed so obvious.

I'm in my 50s now but remember well the dilemmas of my 20s, which were not all that dissimilar to yours. As we say in New Zealand, Kia Kaha, which is Maori for Be strong / I wish you strength, and here's a hug from me.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender) @Candace--is "bonehead" the word you're looking for?

sofistek said...

Oh, yeah, the Occupy movement hasn't been very effective but my comment about it wasn't so much about that particular protest but about the feeling of increasing numbers of people that events are not going their way, which has seen a lot of protests around the globe, over the last year. Do you think, as the numbers of excluded people grows, protests might be a factor that could alter the slow decline, punctuating it with more obvious changes?

Another factor which might alter the slow decline is surely something that is unique to this civilisation - climate change and environmental degradation. Has any previous human civilisation/empire/society had to contend with both resource depletion AND accelerating environmental change? I know you've discounted climate change (which is just one aspect of environmental degradation) for the short term, but extreme events seem to be becoming more frequent and more extreme (in fact, not just seem to be, I think a number of recent studies have shown them to be increasing).

Although I agree that not much will change in the next year, I do think that these extra factors may begin to exert a bigger influence over the next short number of years.

Tony

The Croatoan 117 said...

I've been an avid reader of the blog for about two years now and it is certainly one of the highlights of my week. I've always refrained from commenting but I enjoy the discussion among this group as it is largely devoid of the blowhards you find in MSM discussions (except for perhaps zogboy last week.) I was deployed to Afghanistan last year and you kind of became my chaplain. I'm not religious but I appreciated the straightforward sincerity in your words. Besides going to see the "real" chaplain involves a hefty dose of God and country which does very little for me.
What my deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan provided to me was a look at what societies can look like post collapse. Granted the situations there are quite different from here but they certainly provide good learning points. I will admit I do lose sleep worrying about sectarian violence here though due to the fractured nature of our society. If it does happen I don't think it will manifest itself on a national scale but will be confined to city level violence and be more akin to gang warfare than structured violence.
Another intersting thing, to me, is the fact that in both countries a lot of the ancient traditions have been preserved, particuraly
in regards to agriculture. I was always amazed at what the people were able to grow in such an unforgiving environment. In Iraq they actually use the exact same irrigation canals that the babylonians used many eons ago. The funny thing is (as in funny like the plague and World War I) that we are sending people over to Afghanistan to teach them "better" ways to farm. Ahh good ol' imperial hubris. Gotta love it.

Jeff Z said...

Thanks for the sanity! 'More of the same for 2012' has to be the most reasonable thing I've heard in the last two weeks.

As to the previous commenters looking for others to 'start getting organized' or for a decisive collapse event to convince others that they aren't nuts- I'd ask "why?".

Don't wait for other people to organize themselves (for what end I'm not sure) and don't wait for the validation of others to start making life changes.

Unless it refers to getting your garage or potting shed organized, I'm not sure what use getting others organized is going to do. I feel like I've been hearing agitators calling for communities to organize to combat a whole host of problems over the last two decades, and nothing much seems to ever come from it.

Start a garden now on whatever land you have. If you've never gardened, start it this spring. Don't order the freeze-dried seed packet from the back of the survivalist magazine because by the time you really need to use it, you won't know what to do.

Gardening, like voluntary poverty is an ongoing practice.

I've posted evaluations of all the seed varieties I planted in 2011 in our little city yard on my blog this week. Some seeds are truly more worthwhile planting in Minnesota than others. If you like, take a look at

http://eighthacrefarm.blogspot.com/2011/12/seed-reviews-2011s-results-2012s-hopes.html

Morrigan said...

I saw dltrammel's post referring to the road to Hell and couldn't resist sharing this quote from C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters, in which a senior-level demon instructs his nephew in the field on stylish ways to tempt humans to sin:

"Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one - the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts."

Meanwhile, I'm thinking hard about the pros and cons of buying a 10-acre farm and leasing some of the land to people like those here who want to garden but have no place to do it, but it means driving 45 miles each way to work for the foreseeable future.

John Michael Greer said...

Tyler, depending on your field and the details of the decline, you might or might not be able to fulfill those dreams. I'd encourage you to make sure you have a fallback plan, though -- and you might think, hard, about how to maintain your activity in your field if the academic industry comes apart, on the one hand, or simply has no place for you on the other.

Gail, we're in ecosystem collapse -- or, to be more precise, the rapid simplification and reorganization of existing ecosystems under stress. That's not an "if." The point I'm trying to raise is that what you're seeing around you may not be the run-up to the collapse; this is the collapse, and if it continues to unfold at the present pace for another couple of decades, we're going to be in a very different world.

Joel, granted! The problem as I see it -- and of course I speak as an outsider -- is the tendency to shoehorn the eternal principles into the standard issue apocalyptic myth.

Sofistek, the ancient Mayans are among the many societies that got hit with the double whammy of resource depletion and climate change; it's a fairly common mix, actually, since soil fertility is a common resource to deplete, and the consequences of depleting the soil often include things like deforestation, which can drive climate change by changing albedo and decreasing the rate at which water is returned to the atmosphere via evapotranspiration. I've long thought the Mayan collapse makes a fairly good model for the one we can expect...and it took around 150 years from beginning to end.

Croatoan, if what I'm writing makes sense to somebody in a combat zone, that's high praise -- thank you! I hope the people in Afghanistan have the common sense to tell the American agronomists to go home; the latter generally try to replace localized smallholder farms with big plantations feeding the global economy, which is a very bad idea at any time and particularly so now.

Jeff, thank you for the seed reviews, and also for getting the point of the last year and a half of posts here!

Morrigan, I find Lewis well worth reading -- some of his arguments are forced, but that's a standard occupational habit of apologists.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

Glad to hear that you enjoy Jack Vance's writings. I really love how well travelled he was (courtesy of the US navy and WWII) and it clearly shows in his writings, he has a gift for looking at other cultures, their idiosyncrasies and the human condition in general.

As to education, well it's a sacrifice in both time and resources. Strangely enough I know of 3 people who have completed a PhD and then promptly walked away from it. I think they didn't understand that it was a starting point and not an end point. As a word of caution to commenters - and I strongly support education - think very carefully and long term before commencing higher education.

A lot of people are commenting here in their 20's (a little bit more than a decade behind me now) about indecision. There was even a mention about arable land. It might be worthwhile mentioning that at this stage of the game, no land is perfectly arable. Industrial agriculture and housing reduces the productivity of land considerably (it is sort of like strip mining). So, I would suggest to these people that they start learning about building top soil using organic methods. At some stage in the future, top soil will be the real wealth - not that anyone would recognise it as such though. Most of the farmers around here would laugh at me if I told them that.

If you know how to build top soil, and as long as you have enough water for an area - most land will be arable to you - but not to others and this is a distinct advantage.

Hi Gail,

The forests aren't dying that I can see. In fact, around here they are getting older and healthier.

Regards

Chris

Fabrice said...

I have updated the values with more reasonable hypotheses. A stronger decline rather than a depression and the values gives vertigo at the European level

http://fabricemorisseau.blogspot.com/2012/01/2012-wolves-eat-sheep.html

phil harris said...

JMG wrote
"... replace localized smallholder farms with big plantations feeding the global economy, which is a very bad idea at any time and particularly so now."

For Afghanistan it would be a nightmare. As an agricultural scientist (albeit in a narrow speciality in plant quarantine) with an interest in 'resilience' I was keen nearly 20 years ago on the strategy proposed by Geoff Hawtin (then Director-General, International Plant Genetic Resources). Much of the indigenous farm saved seeds adapted to localised subsistence in Afghanistan had been lost due to persistent war. (A small farm economy under exacting - "harsh" - environmental constraints is highly adapted to local conditions and generates just enough surplus to support a small local craft/trading urban economy.) Not a good place to be in the cockpit of geopolitics of so-called 'cold war' etc.) Hawtin said that there were small collections of appropriate local seed lines (grains & legumes particularly) that could be distributed to re-build the degraded ancient systems. Situation was bad enough 20 years ago but I guess that his idea has not progressed since 9/11.
Congrats BTW to Croaton for keeping his head in the ongoing disaster, and a nod to JMG for helping.

Bill Pulliam said...

Gail... I suggest some research in a few more mainstream sources. Of the apocalyptic signs you mention, only the coral bleaching is really as severe as you describe (not that this isn't bad enough!). Forest declines are a localized phenomenon not a global pandemic (so far). Healthy trees DO shed branches and always have, it is a part of their hard-wired physiology and it is how they keep their leaves in the light and shed unproductive or damaged limbs as they grow. If dead and dying wood had not always been a major component of forest ecosystems, we would not have two dozen species of woodpeckers native to North America, nor the thousands kinds of amphibians, insects, fungi, etc. etc. that depend on this resource for their livelihood. There has been no increase in seismic activity; methane outgassing in the arctic remains an uncertain phenomenon that no one was even looking at a few decades ago so no one actually knows the long term trend -- there is no baseline to know if it has shifted or not. The hypotheses of possible calamities and mass climate-destabilizing outgassing events are just that -- hypotheses. Remember that this planet has had functional global ecosystems and climate stability in its geological history under many drastically different temperature and atmospheric chemistry regimes that what we see at the present.

JMG - as for "ecosystem collapse," I think you are also falling into an apocalyptic trap by using the word "collapse." We are seeing shifts, but "collapse" suggests fundamental breakdown of basic function, which is not happening by and large (except for coral bleaching) on a global scale. In North America, the populations of most native birds have actually been increasing over the last five decades, not decreasing. Forest cover has also increased in that time.

Not saying that ecosystems are not being stressed and greatly altered by human activities. But so far they are not flat out falling apart and collapsing in most areas even in response to some major blows -- eastern forests survived the effective extinction of the American Chestnut 80 years ago, they are surviving the gypsy moth. Western rangelands have been drastically altered by grazing and fire suppression, but they are still functional ecosystems. "Ecosystem collapse" just conjurs up images of, well, eco-apocalypse, that are not happening over most of the planet. Kind of like the difference between economic collapse versus economic decline. Economic decline could well even lead to long-term improvements in overall ecosystem function!

Chris Balow said...

JMG,

The question Revenge posed to you (about your advice for twenty-somethings), as well as the advice at the end of this week's post, has prompted me to think about this question of debt. At the end of your post, you advised people to clear their debts, among other things.

It seems to me that, for the vast majority of people, this is not an option. As Michael Rowbotham, Paul Grignon, and others have pointed out, nearly all of the money in circulation originated as a loan--meaning that all of it has interest demanded atop its repayment. Because the interest to pay off these loans was not created along with the principle, interest can only be paid off with one thing: more loans--which means more debt. Thus our present situation, where the amount of debt in the system far exceeds the amount of money available through barter, employment, etc. Even those who manage to extinguish their personal debts still live in nations, states, and municipalities that are themselves heavily in debt, and will demand taxes to pay for it.

So, again, those lucky few who can pay off their debts are certainly well advised to do so. But, perhaps in a future post, will you address what everybody else might do with debts that are--quite literally--impossible to extinguish?

Brad K. said...

JMG,

"All of them—the claims that a crash is imminent, or that a technological breakthrough is imminent, or that an abundant new source of fossil fuels is imminent, or what have you—are at bottom claims that the troubled situation in which the industrial world currently finds itself can’t continue in anything like its present form. " (emphasis mine).

What I see is that those looking to a solution, a breakthrough, or a surprising new resource, are intent on some magic pill that will solve the dilemma du jour they fear, and let them get back to the comfort of what they perceive as "their world" with most of their underlying assumptions and notions intact.

They look to put the discomfort of change behind them.

Those looking for a decisive event or cataclysm are looking for some formidable crossing point -- after which the rest of society and government will agree with their assumptions and notions.

@ Lizzy,

"And if not, what then? Will Chinese and/or Japanese lenders . . .? Or will they attempt to take the ownership . . .? I can't see it. "

Maureen F. McHugh envisions China taking ownership in her novel, "China Mountain Zhang". From what I read now, though, it appears less likely that either Japan or China retain the economic resources to get that involved with the US. "Why buy the cow . . " after all. Military instability and adventures is neither as likely, nor impossible.

@ Cherokee Organics,

About the military spending cuts.

It would be immensely difficult to guess at how much of a deterrent today's US military presence around the world has on instability and military adventures. For all the wrong done to American troops and to the peoples of Iraq, the world will still see very good reasons to avoid a similar incursion onto their own soil. No good comes from inviting war. You don't have to love what any military does, to ponder what a willing military can do to disrupt an aggressive foe.

We know what a lack of a benign military presence meant in the world leading up to WWI and WWII. The benign (most times) neglect of US military policy has likely, through it's very inconsistency and lack of mission, contributed to the long years of keeping armed turmoil mostly local.

The military has provided the poor and lower class young of America to mingle with, get to know, and to teach upper class young people about different cultural norms. This cultural leavening has benefited America in uncounted way, from allowing those of different regional backgrounds to work and manage diverse workplaces, to learn tolerance of faiths and values, and to understand that people can choose to change their lives. The impact of a single veteran can have generations of impact on the health of a community.

On the other hand, the boondoggles that the Federal Acquisition Requirements impose on how military money is spent for material guarantees that costs will be inflated and product degraded by graft, inefficiency, lost focus, and adherence to typos rather than the needs of the service.

Many military bases around the US are there precisely to satisfy pork barrel politics. A base means jobs and government procurements to the local and state economy, without regard to needs of security. That system of government handouts in disregard for security and preparedness needs to be overhauled, once we find the moral character and financial resources to rectify the problems.

Remember, though, that people serving in the military, and those making materials for the military, are all being paid with tax revenues. And people serving in the military aren't available to raise food, or contribute to local and state economies. Cutting back on military spending should have remarkably similar economic results to cutting back on entitlement spending. What is at risk is whether cutbacks also reduce American and world security.

Kevin said...

@ gail -

Now that you mention it, I've not only seen oaks with sudden oak death syndrome, but even redwoods that appear to be similarly afflicted. An affected tree will have one or two or several branches that are completely dried out, their little green needles all dessicated and brown. In decades of living in redwood country and seeing thousands upon thousands of that species, I *never* witnessed this - until the past couple of years.

Gail said...

Bill, you can see on the two links of "Basic Research" at the top of my blog here: http://witsendnj.blogspot.com/

that I have read and blogged about dozens and dozens of mainstream science regarding the effects of ozone on vegetation, research which has been going on for decades - and the nitrogen cascade, which has been called by experts "the worst environmental disaster you've never heard of", as well as books, and news reports about dying trees.

I know it's very hard to accept that the ecosystem is collapsing - very few people do, because the implications are what I call soul-crushing. I struggle with the burden of recognizing this trend every day, because if we continue to use the atmosphere and waters of this earth like an open sewer, the process of decline will become irreversible, if it isn't already - and there is no indication that people have any intention of making the drastic efforts to conserve and even ration fuel that would be required, unfortunately.

Justin said...

One recurring theme expressed here is an expectation of reality coupled with a value driven expression of that reality; reduction in standard of living. The range and scope of material possessions we will be able to possess in the future will be limited compared to today and a greater percentage of our physical lives spent in labor to support ourselves, i.e. gardening rather than shopping. But that is not a reduction in a standard of living where your standard of living is not wholly tied to your material wealth. Your material wealth will always play a part in your living standard, but if other things like sense of self as tied to personal actions in agreement with whatever philosophical, ethical, moral, religious, communal, artistic or other frameworks for meaningful behavior begin playing a larger part in your standard of living calculation, then life goes on, as it will, but standards could either rise or fall depending on our emotional and cognitive reactions to them.

Hidden Author said...

You guys talk about not being able to retire but what do you think will happen in the future to people whose bodies and/or minds are too frail for them to work? Remember, Mr. Archdruid, that you said that most people will not leave behind children. But since historically a driver of fertility has been to generate many workers per retiree to support the retirees, how do you think society's family dynamics will function in regard to these issues?

GS said...

Difficult to say what to do with debt. If it's serviceable, best to just keep on servicing it, but don't take on any more. If it's not serviceable, the best one can do is to take every avenue available to discharge it.

The debt that has been foisted upon Americans, particularly in the housing and education sectors, is one of the biggest crimes in history if you ask me.

Much easier to say what do with savings (though even this is a difficult question). I say keep cash for day to day living, perhaps enough to last several months, and keep the rest in gold/silver. I don't see any reason in this environment to invest in conventional instruments like bonds and stocks, as these markets are pretty much broken.

bleepr said...

Collapse is a problematic term. In hindsight people will look back and say our industrialied society collapsed, but in the present it is as you say, a process of attrition. That said, on a local or personal level, the experience of attrition can equate to collapse given a sudden loss of income, resources, and options. Anyhow...

Having experienced a high degree of relative financial stress for the past couple of years I can see the writing is on the wall. Still, I do not live in anything approaching poverty.

As we've seen in highly developed countries, people can suffer through having too much as well as too little. I like to think that material poverty can nourish the spirit. My growing understanding is that it is the effort required by necessity that will develop this inner growth.

I now take little for granted, and simple pleasures are, as they have ever been, the best.

EchosRevenge said...

The conversation here over the last couple of years, but especially this week, as well as some recent events and thought processes, have prompted me to reopen an old blog of mine, September's Virtue: Realism for a World of Consequences.

@Breanna, @Allie, @Tyler, and anyone else who would like to continue a conversation more specific to the challenges faced by the first generation to have had no serious part in the world's current state, yet the first generation to have to live with the consequences in a way that will affect us from the beginning to the end of our lives - is invited to please join in!

I'll be posting a lot in the next few weeks on re-imagining the nature of work, making a living outside the traditional employment paradigm, and the challenges of living in close, multi-generational communities of non-related adults.

My partner and I live and work on a 10-acre farm outside of Seattle, which the two of us share with 1 family, 1 couple, and two single adults (for a total of 9 people in 7 bedrooms and 1.5 baths). We also raise goats and chickens, have herding dogs (though the herding part is apparently news to them), and live by the Depression-era adage "use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without". We were both raised without TV, by parents who hoped in some way to prepare us for the world they would leave behind. September's Virtue is our way of muddling through, and hopefully sharing with and learning from others in similar situations. Join us, because you need something else to read on the internet!

spottedwolf said...

John,

In all the years I've wandered through the habitual ego 'contructs' of man from scientific 'escapism' to religiosity the mass' will always behave as 'lemmings'. The base nature of all belief systems once organized....revolve around 'messianic nuclei'. Thus it is how the populace at large maintain control....even though it is really little more than a sort of self-defecation. We refuse to notice the refuse of our passing....in our passing.

sjolyjuly said...

You said " ... get settled in a location that has a fair chance of keeping a viable degree of community life going,..." and I couldn't agree more. Does anyone have an idea about where that might be? Help.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Chris Balow,

A steady state economy is an inevitability in whatever form it takes.

The simple way to get out of debt is to not get into it in the first place.

Debt has been used in the past couple of decades to fund short term goals. This is where we have come unstuck. In funding short term goals, collectively we have improved or maintained our standard of living without the unnecessary difficulty of increasing our incomes.

It is the difference between paying for a night out on a credit card versus borrowing funds for a house. One will provide long term benefits - even if the value of that asset drops - whilst the other is just partying. We have been partying for too long now.

A simple way to get out of debt is to reduce your expenditure and have a lower standard of living. I know plenty of people that kept on partying and they are paying the price for that now. The longer you leave off making a decision, the harder it will be for you as an individual. A company or a country is no different either.

In the US debt has been used to fuel the increasing inequality in wealth and you guys are all paying for it. Well done you guys! I find it to be very amusing when you get grass roots groups calling on lower taxes for the wealthy. It is a purely aspirational goal for the people involved and the dream is now over. It would help them if they accepted that.

As to government debt, it will be resolved by either: repayment; devaluation of the currency; or default. Although I'm sure there are other methods (quantitive easing comes to mind which will lead to an eventual devaluation anyway - no one wants to be repaid in paper!). None of these outcomes will be good for people. Someone commented that fuel in the US is considered expensive at slightly over $3/gallon (it's almost double that here). Imagine what you'll have to pay as an importing country if devaluation occurs...

Regards

Chris

Fabrice said...

I wrote a poem about The Great Pumpkin

http://fabricemorisseau.blogspot.com/2012/01/poetry-32-great-pumpkin.html

John Michael Greer said...

Cherokee, as an organic gardener who tends to work small intensive gardens on what passes for soil in city backyards, I'm used to building topsoil more or less from scratch. It's an important skill!

Fabrice, duly noted.

Phil, agreed. As a rule, when men in business suits come toward you saying "We're here to help," the best response is to run the other way, fast.

Bill, you'll notice that I defined the term a little differently in my response to Gail. Existing ecosystems do fairly often undergo radical simplification under stress, of course, and a lot of them are doing that just now; my intention in using the C-word was to jar her out of the sudden-change mentality.

Chris, there's nothing most of us can do with the debts of banks, governments, etc. There's normally quite a bit we can do with our own debts -- pay them off and don't contract any more, for starters. What that does to the money supply is a lot less relevant than what being out of debt will do for your capacity to respond to economic instability.

Brad, pretty much, yes.

Justin, true, but that only goes so far; having a good quality of life when you can't get enough to eat is tough.

Hidden, a lot of people are going to die sooner than they otherwise would. That includes me, in all probability, as well as you and most of the other people reading this blog. It really is that simple.

GS, I recommend people to clear their debts and invest in skills. Those are two things where you know that, no matter what happens, you're going to come out ahead.

Bleepr, exactly. We'll know that America has gone sane when the idea of having too much wealth enters into our cultural conversation.

Spottedwolf, a functional if somewhat scatological analysis.

Sjolyjuly, look for a town or small city in the middle of an agricultural region -- if at all possible, one where you have family, friends, or other connections. That ought to do the trick.

Fabrice, thank you.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi all 20 somethings!

One last tip. Learn how to make drinkable alcohol. It is a method of food preservation you know and is a tradeable commodity.

Good luck!

Chris

greatblue said...

JMG, I think you've said that the powers-that-be will use their prodigious resources to maximize their own wealth and power as long as possible.

In that case, I would think that buying stock that pays a dividend would be a good way to share in the fruits of that force as long as money means anything.

Bill Pulliam said...

Gail -- all these stresses are real, and you happen to live in one of the highly populated and industrialized regions where they are especially bad. But whether or not they are going to cause massive global ecosystem collapse is another matter entirely. That's hypothesis and conjecture. Consider that they are all driven by fossil fuel consumption, which is going to decline dramatically over the coming century whether we like it or not.

Justin said...

Justin, true, but that only goes so far; having a good quality of life when you can't get enough to eat is tough.

Of course that is true.

I try for brevity, sometimes I truncate the meaning. There is a long fall from middle upper class McMansion lifestyles before you hit not enough to eat status. Of course, people are already at not enough to eat levels of poverty.

I assume that people who have access to internet technology and who read/comment here are more likely (though not all) to be closer to what I am talking about.

I haven't figured out how to say it succinctly yet, but all the doom and gloom about the collapse in a standard of living because we won't have cheap electronics assembled in the third world and have to make do with smaller living spaces is a drag. I am speaking from personal experience, having lived part of my childhood in upper middle class affluence, and the more formative years in Appalachia level poverty, I wouldn't say that my quality of life (defined as how I experienced it) was much better or worse in either scenario. Things were just different, less discretionary money, more time spent tending gardens and raising and slaughtering livestock. What I am trying to say is that things are harder, that doesn't mean worse if you re-calibrate your internal values to place less emphasis on your personal comfort. I don't know that I did this, but I was young enough that my expectations were not as hardened.

Of course, if you are starving, lack adequate shelter or clothing, then it is likely that no matter what your values, your standard of living will be very poor.

Justin said...

@Breanna

I am not in the Austin area, but... I don't know how far along your husband is in smithing/metal work. I have just started learning some stuff about it, and I am less than a beginner, but my brother has been a working smith for over a decade. If you husband is just starting out, I can dig up several books that will make that learning curve less steep.

I am at mccro8@gmail.com

Gail said...

Well, it's kind of a spectator sport to see what is going to bring down industrial civilization first - peak oil, war, ecosystem degradation from the nitrogen cascade and pollution, or climate change. Of course, the overpopulation crowd says all of that is secondary to exponential human growth.

Regardless of the timing for those events to play out, there is a great deal of evidence that climate change is going to lead to an uninhabitable planet quite suddenly and abruptly - but that is not the politically-driven scenario predicted by the IPCC and popularized by Al Gore.

I found some interesting links and videos about it this morning, and posted them here:

http://witsendnj.blogspot.com/2012/01/doing-maths.html

It really isn't hypothetical or speculative that catastrophic climate change is baked in the cake - that is based on irrefutable science. What is irrational is hope.

ando said...

JMG,

My fireplace insert/stove is installed and I am working leavces into my clay pit (garden), as per your suggestion. My neighbors think i am nuts asking for THEIR leaves, but it gets conversation going. Also burying all my kitchen scraps.

Any other suggestions for clay
soil preparation?

Thanks,

Ando

Dennis D said...

The shifting baseline of poverty is part of the problem. The groups that get their funding to `fight`poverty keep raising the bar on what constitutes `poverty`. My wife and I are in our late forties, and when she grew up, she lived on a farm in Canada, and was considered middle class. At the same time, her family lived in a house built by her father with `walking` water until she was 16 (walking water is where you walk out to the well with a bucket, lift up some water and walk back to the house with it). Today people in poverty wonder how to pay the cell phone and cable bills. The Wikipedia site has a good explanation on the difference between absolute poverty and relative poverty, where relative poverty is where you are at a percentage of the median local income, in the developed world 60%. This definition guarantees that someone is always in poverty, and this is where the backlash is targeted.

sgage said...

Bill, Gail, et al. ...

Here in New England, the forests are changing drastically. I don't know about "collapsing" - they are still recognizably forests - but they are becoming much less species-diverse, much younger, and more fragmented, and wildlife populations follow predictably. The baseline is constantly being lowered, but I remember. I've been keeping records here on my place for 2 decades, as well as simply paying attention, and I'm here to tell you that things are very broken. I remember going out on a May morning and being practically deafened by the massive thrush concert (wood thrushes, hermit thrushes, veeries, and assorted warblers for counterpoint). No more - now it's "cool, I heard a hermit thrush!". Same thing with frogs. And of course, the bats are destroyed by the white-nose fungus. I saw 1 (one) bat this past summer. Just a few years ago, the summer sky was full of bats - how I loved them! I could go on, but I'm depressed enough already.

Back to trees: We have lost the chestnut to the blight, of course. The elm sort of sputters along, but more as an understory tree, until it gets nailed by the dutch elm disease. The butternut is just about completely gone from a fungus very similar to the chestnut blight. The beech, a very important wildlife species, is suffering from a scale insect/nectria fungus assault. The hemlock is being hammered by the wooly adelgid - it's been extirpated in southern NE, and heaven help us if it moves north. Global warming, anyone? The ash is being hammered by who-knows-what? Some bizarre syndrome of mycoplasm, fungus, virus? "Ash Yellows", some call it. I can tell you they're dropping like flies all over. I'd say at least 50% of the ash component of the forest around here has gone away in the last 20 years. What's next? If the oaks get taken out, things really unravel. We have maple decline already. Birches seem to be hanging in there, but they are an earlier successional species around here.

I'm talking here about wild forests, not stressed city parks. And these are not simply successional changes as some have suggested (beech, hemlock? Give me a break!) I've been watching this thing unfold since the 70's (indeed, it's partly why I became a forest ecologist).

So maybe you don't want to call it collapse, but something really terrible is going on.
Some people notice, some don't. You know, the old 'boil the frog' thing. And the baseline continues to be lowered.

(the verification for this post was "inasong")

Ainslie said...

JMG- Your comment that we ARE in ecosystem collapse bit through to reality for me on an emotional level. Thanks. It seems that the work I've done on emotional process has given me enough tools to grapple with difficult realities once the tears hit- it's just that societally-pervasive denial that often keeps me feeling zombified. Thanks as always for being a voice of reason in the storm.

Fabrice said...

Another probable consequence of the decline

http://fabricemorisseau.blogspot.com/2012/01/poetry-33-great-pumpkin-2.html

Kfish said...

Another thing about practicing skills and building relationships as preparation for the downslide is that very frequently they feel good! Yesterday my husband and I tried to pack a sack of compost into our tiny car boot while being 'assisted' by extended family. Much laughter ensued.

Along with the compost, I took a few kilograms of my grandmother's tomatoes for bottling and saucing. When time permits, I will 'borrow' some more grass clippings and horse manure from their property - it seems to do amazing things for a vege garden and I, too, suffer from clay soils.

Hal said...

I don't claim to have the answer to the 20-somethings out there posing their very poignant questions, but the first thing I would say is relax a little, and try to get past the notion that acreage and separation is a solution to the non-apocalypse ahead. It may sound hypocritical, coming from someone sitting on more acres than I could ever personally farm, but I have a few things to offer from my position (which basically amounts to voluntary rural poverty.)

What JMG and my best judgement tell me is the most likely long collapse scenario involves a series of shocks, resource and environmentally based for sure, but primarily felt economically. Now, during hard economic times, what group of people fares the worst? Well, until the post-war years in the developed world, and all the way through today in the rest, poverty has had a rural face.

Prior to the industrial age, the countryside was always the location of the greatest poverty. Sure, ancient Rome and Louis XVI's France had urban poverty, but I'm pretty sure they didn't hold a candle to rural poverty in those societies.

For one thing, wealth concentrates in urban areas due to trade and industry. For another, political elites always fear their concentrated urban populations, and will, by force, distribute the produce of the country to the cities. Ancient Roman farmers were taxed so heavily that they couldn't afford to keep farming, but were compelled on threat of death to continue doing so. All to keep the bread and circuses going. In more modern times, Stalin starved the grain farmers of the Ukraine to feed his cities, knowing all too well what a hunger-induced urban revolution looks like.

Some day, the world of humanity will probably devolve into agrarian societies, a process that will take generations. And yes, in the meantime the resource sectors, including agriculture, are likely to play a much bigger role in a nation's economy than they have in our time. If you have the right skills, or are young enough to learn them, moving to a small town in an agricultural region might be a good move. Know how to factor cotton, or grade wool? Work on diesel engines and implement hydraulics? Write commodity contracts?

To be sure, outside of agribiz, a few people are making a pretty good go of it selling arugula and pastured poultry to urban elites. And this is allowing some of them to develop the skills and knowledge that will be necessary to grow our food and fiber in the future. I believe it's vitally important that there are people doing that, and that's pretty much what I've devoted the latter part of my life to.

If I could, I would try to recruit you to this life, but please don't think it would be an escape from the troubles ahead. People who think they can jump to 10, 25, or even 40 acres of rocky, hilly country -and that's all you're going to find, friends. All of the good bottomland is growing corn and soybeans for Cargill- and live in anything but the most abject poverty in the sort of future we're discussing here are kidding themselves.

Bottom line: You have many more options than you think. But you're going to have to look at the hand you're dealt and make your choices. As ever, there's no simple out, and I think that's the point of this week's post.

The suggestions JMG has already made in the Green Wizards posts is an excellent start. And you're young enough to avoid some of the debt traps that your elders are caught in. It may not be the easiest time in history to be coming along, but I think it's pretty damn exciting.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Brad K,

Nooooooo! I think we may have had an internet misunderstanding. All I was alluding to was that if the US government reduces spending on the military then that will impact the economy and hence the precious growth statistic.

I can't remember where I read it, but every $1 of spending by Governments is estimated to generate about $3 in the wider community.

As to your comments, you are spot on. Historically that has been the case too with the English and Australians. Join the military, see the world, climb the social ladder...

I know my history and the US military supported Australia during WWII when the Japanese imperial forces were bombing Darwin in the Northern Territory. There are historical reasons we have the ANZUS treaty and US bases such as Pine Gap, joint exercises etc.

Regards

Chris

Bill Pulliam said...

Gail -- "there is a great deal of evidence that climate change is going to lead to an uninhabitable planet quite suddenly and abruptly:

There is no "evidence" at all for this. There are hypotheses. Evidence is hard data documenting real, ongoing processes, not mathematical models being extrapolated beyond the limits within which they have been validated. The data document changes that in most of the globe have only just begun to exceed the range of documented historical variation. There is broad consensus that anthropogenic climate change is real and will have global ecological impacts; there is no consensus at all that this will lead to apocalyptic consequences. This conclusion is far from "irrefutable."

Gail and sgage -- you'll get no argument from me or JMG that humans are not having huge ecological impacts that are adversely affecting many aspects of ecosystems locally and globally. But this has been going on since we invented tools and fire all those millennia ago. The pan-boreal megafaunal extinctions of the late pleistocene were more likely caused by us than by the glacial cycles -- why did these critters survive ice age after ice age until organized hunters with advanced weaponry spread across the northern hemisphere? Much of Britain was deforested and converted to moorland in thousands of years ago by overgrazing. Native Americans' use of controlled burning altered the landscape here long, long before Europeans ever set foot on these shores. The arrival of the plow and the crosscut saw in the New World led to massive ecological upheaval centuries ago. Sure the rate of change has accelerated; but this acceleration happened in the 19th Century and one could argue that ecological decline is not happening much faster in the 21st than it did in the 19th in the industrialized world. This the era that lead to the second wave of megafaunal extirpations (remember the American Bison? Seen an Ivory-billed Woodpecker lately? Noticed any wolves recently?) and enormous soil degradation from deforestation and large-scale agriculture.

There's also a lot of confirmation bias going on among environmentalists (which I most definitely am one of myself). Declines and catastrophes are noticed much more than recoveries and successes. Yes the populations of the brown thrushes with the astounding voices have declined, and this is tragic. But meanwhile the populations of avian predators have ballooned (probably a combination of the DDT ban, better protection, and changes in attitudes among rural people with guns), and this is cause for celebration. Likewise most non-migratory forest birds in eastern North America have shown large region-wide increases in numbers -- the forests may be more stressed, but there are actually more of them than there were a hundred years ago in the eastern U.S.

Maybe apocalyptic predictions serve to motivate political change, though it has had no success at all in climate science where it is clear there is no global will for any meaningful action. I prefer reality rather than misrepresentations for political gain. But the fact is that we have been wreaking major change on global ecosystems for a very very long time. There is nothing new about this. The present always seems more vivid than the past, but that does not mean it is really more chaotic. I would repeat my own hypothesis here, that peak environmental degradation will coincide with peak fossil fuel consumption, which is more or less the era we are living in now. Beyond this peak I would think it is likely the degradation will slow down, to the point that it might even begin to reverse, even with climate change figured in to the equation. Hopefully the resulting global cooling will be slower than the preceding warming, or it will just restress the ecosystems that have finally begun to adjust to the warmer world.

Gail said...

sgage, thanks so much for sharing your observations. I think the important point is that there is an unmistakable trend, just as you described, and absent any forces to change it, it WILL continue in the same downward spiral.

When I first noticed that trees are dying (August 2008) it was after 2 months of no rain, and I thought I would go crazy if one more person said what great weather we'd been having. I called the NJ DEP and asked them about the drought, and they said, there is no drought because the reservoirs are full. That's how they measure it, but of course it's very different for trees if they get heavier but less frequent downfall. So at that point I started reading up on climate change, and trying to find out if there were any snowpack measurements over time. And it became very obvious to me that by the very process of evolution - genetic adaptation - there is no way that all those complex interdependencies between species that develop over generations can be maintained if the environment they are in - temperatures and/or precipitation - is altered. Climate change is always followed by mass extinction, it can be no other way.

As if this wasn't depressing enough, ironically the next summer I observed that young trees being watered in nurseries, water plants, and annuals being watered in pots were exhibiting the same signs of foliar stress, and so I very reluctantly concluded that it couldn't be drought, and the only thing all this vegetation has in common is the composition of the atmosphere.

Since then I have learned some facts that are very well known to scientists and foresters and certainly to government agencies like the Forest and National Park services, EPA, and Dept. of Ag, facts established from decades of studies but rarely discussed - which is that ozone is even more toxic to vegetation than to people (which is potent considering ozone gives people cancer, heart disease, emphysema, asthma, allergies and is linked to diabetes, autism, ADHD - all epidemics).

Controlled experiments have demonstrated numerous times that plants exposed to ozone are more susceptible to insects, disease, and fungus, so when you see all those things attacking trees, except for some invasives (like the chestnut blight) those are naturally occurring species that lived in balance with trees until the trees became more vulnerable, like a person with AIDS. It has been proven that trees damaged by ozone allocate less energy to their root systems so they are more likely to fall over in wind.

I would love to talk to you more about your impressions of NE forests. I've been further down the eastern seaboard, out to the west coast and even Costa Rica - the same injured foliage is everywhere now. If you want you can email me through the same address as the blog: witsendnj at yahoo.

thanks
Gail

Bill Pulliam said...

Gail -- near-surface ozone has a very short half-life (a few weeks). So its presence is dependent on ongoing sources of ozone precursors, mostly from fossil fuel burning. Thus its concentrations will rise and fall almost instantly as fossil fuel burning does likewise. So in the post-peak world, ozone will tail off too. The same is true for nitrogen, sulfur, mercury, CFCs, and heavy metal deposition as well. Methane is more complex with all its natural sources; but the big thing we are stuck with is CO2 for centuries to come.

Most (probably all) apocalyptic atmosphere/climate change scenarios assume unlimited growth in fossil fuel consumption. This just ain't likely to happen. I think we will be lucky (???) if we can push the fossil fuel economy far enough to get CO2 much above 500 ppm before it begins to tail off. It has been FAR higher than this in the geological past without destabilizing earth's climate or rendering it uninhabitable. All that fossil carbon used to be in the atmosphere, along with a whole lot more that is now tied up in carbonate rocks.

There's also a negative feedback here if climate and air pollution stresses really begin to get far enough out of whack to affect economic activity. Economic distress means less industrial activity which means cleaner air and lower CO2 emissions.

Karen said...

@ Bill Pulliam

I am finding your reasoned and informed responses to be very informative and helpful.

Breanna said...

@Allie: Alternative healthcare seems like a good choice. My husband is probably at a similar place as your partner - he recognizes the problem and agrees with me about much of what will be necessary, but right at the moment he has a decent job and he feels too despairing about the future I talk about, so he focuses on things continuing as they are, while cultivating hobbies that could turn into future income. As far as townhomes and apartments go, I walk around the lawns at my apartment complex and apply permacultural principles to them in my mind, noticing where the water runs and where the sun shines and wishing I could plant fruit trees and imagining that I could convince the apartment management to start up a community garden for residents. But it doesn't seem like the sort of thing they'd do.


@Leigh: That is excellent advice. My disability is a major mental illness, so my function is just extremely inconsistent. Sometimes I can do quite a lot, sometimes nothing at all. I have looked into community gardens, but I can't drive, so most of them are inaccessible to me. One is associated with a nearby church, so I am working on overcoming my interaction issues enough to see if I can be involved with that. Thank you for your well-wishes.

@ChrisBalow: Debt is a problem that has plagued me. I contracted 60k worth of educational debt back when I thought I could have a nice normal career. If I can get the disability discharge for that, all will be well. If I can't, I will never be able to earn an official income (garnishment) - though that's not a likelihood anyway for me, and I will never hold any property under my own name (liens, though I don't know if it's legal for them to be placed for an unsecured debt), so if we buy a house it will be entirely under my husband's name. My worst fear is of the harassment associated with debt collection, but if I don't have a telephone and don't have my name on anything official, perhaps they won't be able to find me. When the student loan bubble pops, I think there will be even more people in my situation. That will probably be the single biggest impetus for the coming increase in the gray economy - because one of the penalties for student loan default is loss of professional certifications, I am sure there will be doctors and professionals of all stripes trying to eke out a living on the margins, and plenty of other people who can't afford to pay a doctor who has to pay their student loans supplying business for them.

@EchosRevenge: Your situation sounds pretty great - I wish I'd met you before I left the Seattle area last spring. What is the link to your blog?

Breanna said...

@CherokeeOrganics: That is definitely one of the future steps. I'm trying to persuade my friend who is a beer aficionado and has a kegerator to get into microbrewing; I myself intend to try my hand at wine.

@Justin: I emailed you.

@Hal: I hear you about rural poverty. My husband and I actually did/do have the opportunity to effectively homestead a piece of family land, but it is so far away from the nearest town that working off of it was not a reasonable option and working on it would be a particularly grim sort of poverty. But that is our fallback. What I want is an acre or two near an urban area - for my husband to commute to for now and to be a market for his smithing and my cheese-making in the future, should the future work out for us according to my dreams. I don't expect an escape from the troubles; mostly what I hope for is to be in a position where I don't have to stare at my life saying "I knew exactly what I could have done to be more okay, but it simply wasn't possible." The future is exciting except where it leads to that sort of bitter frustration! I want enough land to produce my own eggs, milk (goats), fruits and vegetables, both for health and ethical reasons as well as to be a little store of security for the future, but I agree that the self-sufficient mountain-man ideal isn't the best approach (for an Alaskan, it is sort of a cultural ideal and so was hard to shake).

Leigh Christina Russell said...

Hello Hal,
How about you cut and paste your comment to the young people and put it into your blog? I shall watch with interest. :-)

John Michael Greer said...

Greatblue, not at all. The stock market these days is a crooked casino run for the benefit of program traders, and the ordinary investor's role there is to be fleeced.

Justin, that's true enough, and I share the sense of weariness with those people for whom not getting the latest electronic gewgaw is the end of the world! My point is simply that there's a middle ground, as usual.

Ando, just keep at it, and plant plenty of legumes -- the nitrates will do your plants good, and the roots will help break up the soil further.

Dennis, the interesting thing there is that on the way down, the shifting baseline can swing the other way just as easily. I suspect it will, if only because that's going to be very advantageous for the status quo.

Ainslie, glad to hear it. It's important to realize that collapse isn't in the future; it's here, now, all around us.

Kfish, very true.

John Michael Greer said...

At this point I'm going to draw a line under the debate over whether apocalyptic climate change is or is not going to happen. It's off topic for this post, and there are plenty of other places where people can debate it if they wish. 'Nuf said.

Ozark Chinquapin said...

I have noticed very stressed forests in many places too, particularly the Appalachians. Dying and dead trees are of course a normal part of the ecosystem, but when I see places where the majority of trees are unhealthy, of many different species and ages, that seems to indicate there's a problem going on. Where I've noticed this the most is in the Appalachians. I have lived briefly in Vermont and also in the NC Mountains. It's not nearly as bad in Missouri, although we have our own issues out here such as black oak decline, I don't see many forests where the majority of the trees of many different species are clearly unhealthy.

Often, the invasive species move in when the natives are already unhealthy, and then they take all the blame. There are certain invasives that I've seen taking hold in what seems to be pretty healthy forests, a notable one being oriental bittersweet, but even there I wonder how much of that is due to shifting baselines of what we consider healthy. Even when there's no invasive involved, one or a couple natives that are better adapted to the changed conditions will take over what used to be more diverse woods.

When in NC, I repeatedly saw areas where mountain laurel and rhododendron were the only species that were healthy, with the trees above in decline and no seedlings or wildflowers under the dense evergreen thicket. If the current trends continue, the trees above will die and leave a monoculture, which was already happening in some places. Mountain laurel and rhododendron are acid lovers, so I think the acid rain that's hit the Appalachians hard favors these monocultures.

I've heard that many experiments have shown that adding nitrogen to an ecosystem decreases diversity, as the weedier species that can take advantage of it choke out the others. Air pollution adds extra nitrogen to the system, and we also happen to be seeing a decline in diversity and increase in weedy species in many places. Of course there's other factors involved, but I think nitrogen is one that few know about.

The book "The Dying of the Trees" by Charles E. Little investigates these trends all across America. When I read it a few years ago (at the same time I was living in NC and the same trends were staring me in the face) it was the first time I had found anyone who noticed the same thing I had, and more. One of the things he reports on is that the hemlock adelgid epidemic might have been caused or at least greatly exacerbated by nitrogen pollution, as experiments show that giving hemlock trees extra nitrogen causes them to concentrate more of it in their needles, which in turn greatly increases the growth rate of adelgid populations. The adelgid was first found in Virginia in the 1950 and considered a minor pest, then three decades later started spreading like wildfire and killing so many trees.

While ozone and nitrogen pollution will decline along with the descent of industrial civilization, I am still quite concerned about all the more persistent pollutants that abound, and many will get worse before they get better because there is a lot that is locked away right now but may leak into the environment during the decline.

One thing I'm not sure about is how long the effects of acid rain would last in vulnerable environments, as they are to some degree cumulative. The acidic rain depletes alkaline minerals such as calcium, and even if the rain somehow returned to normal immediately, the effects in the soil would linger, but for how long I don't know?

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender) @Breanna--a year or two ago, a federal law was passed that forgives student loans of debtors if they are employed by a non-profit for a period of years. I would guess that this applies to student loans backed by the federal government, which most student loans are. I know someone who is clearing her debt under this program.

EchosRevenge said...

I think my link was eaten by blogger, so here it goes again (only because a couple of people mentioned it, sorry to clog your comments): www.septembersvirtue.com

Bill Pulliam said...

Ozark -- those sorts of air-pollution related forest stresses are strongest at higher elevations and near big population centers. The central and northeastern U.S. and central Europe have been big (and well-studied) problem spots for decades; in the U.S. there are also some areas in the western mountains near big cities (S. California, Colorado front range, Wasatch front, etc.). I'm sure it must be happening in the rapidly industrialized parts of Asia too. As I mentioned before, add this to the long list of ongoing strains and stresses that humans have been putting on ecosystems for at least the last 10,000 or 20,000 years. Long-term effects -- certainly; but the world we live in is already a palmipset of the long-term effects of layer upon layer of human impacts stretching back far into prehistory. This is what Global Change looks like.

John Michael Greer said...

Ozark, that's true, but it's also far from unprecedented. As I recall, there's some evidence for drastic changes in forest cover during the sudden temperature shifts at the end of the last ice age 11,500 years ago. Again, this is what rapid ecological change looks like; I'd encourage people to get used to it -- and to look into what they can do to help maintain the resilience of local ecosystems. I'll be posting something about that in a bit.

hawlkeye said...

To all the twenty-somethings here,

I’m moved by your articulate contributions; thank you. If I was your age today, I know I'd be in your shoes, too, because I was in your shoes back in the 80’s. In college, most fellow alums saw their degree as a ticket to maintaining affluence; my graduate school was a horticultural program, and all I wanted to do was farm.

But with neither land, equipment, nor development dough, farming simply wasn't an option for raising a family under Reaganomics. House flippers got rich and farmers all but disappeared. So each wave has its challenges.

New farmers today have a wealth of help simply unavailable even just a few years ago. County extension programs and classes, on-line courses, and work/trade options on working farms, all add up to a horticultural support system very often overlooked. Oregon State University Extension has a “farmer incubator” program that’s phenomenal. And of course there’s been a steady growth of organic outlets, farmers markets and CSA’s everywhere.

But where to find farmland? As JMG has mentioned here before, it is vitally important to revive the moribund safety-net institutions, in particular the Grange, or Patrons of Husbandry. While many local Granges have been sadly shuttered, many more are still hanging on by a thread. Though your average Grange may appear to be nothing more than a social club for a handful of old-timers, they've at least managed to keep their buildings somewhat intact. With new membership, these kitchen/halls can and will support a vast array of community feeding efforts, both socially and nutritionally. Occupy the Grange!

But the pertinent point here: this is where the old-timers ARE, and they’re the ones with the land. Here's an excerpt from Joel Salatin’s excellent new book Folks, This Ain't Normal (inspirational, wizardly and funny) describing a wannabe farmer’s search for land:

“…He wrote three farmers in the neighborhood where he grew up, explained his situation, and asked each if he could rent a few acres to get started. He reported to me that not only did all three write back to him, but all offered him their entire farm “because my kids aren't going to do anything with it…”

“…I routinely receive letters from elderly farmers wanting to rent or give away their land to some young person who will love it and care for it. These aging farmers say their children will just sell it for development…”

And now at the end of the housing bubble, even that automatic assumption is under drastic review in the rural areas. Here in Oregon, a group called Friends of Family Farmers has a matchmaking service for those seeking land and land-owners seeking stewards.
Perhaps other regions have something similar?

I raised five kids as a renter for over 30 years (not farming), and just bought a house on 6 acres last spring.

There are so many ways it can be done! Good luck!

Leigh Christina Russell said...

Hello again Breanna,
You are a brave woman to reach out and share as you have done. I understand about the nature of intermittent and unpredictable down time, which makes collaborating with others a more central issue that it would otherwise be. I hope that your efforts to become involved with other like-minded and similarly focused people are fruitful. You've done it here. :-)

TheDave said...

I think a major driver of the fantastic stories of sudden and pervasive change is simply impatience. I think most people can read the tea leaves and understand, on some level, that change is coming (whether or not this is admitted is another problem entirely). Most people do not enjoy prolonged periods of instability or uncertainty and very badly want a resolution to the current crop of problems on the horizon. This manifests itself as either a miracle cure or a catastrophic failure. Either way, the after-world is seen as fundamentally different in some way, but stable.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

As to the declining health of forests. We as a species have consistently killed and sometimes eaten the megafauna that move through these forests. Particularly those that pose a threat to humans even today.

The megafauna have a very big role to play in these forests - it's not just the trees. Think clearing, fertilising, spreading seeds. If you take these out of the ecology, then the ecology will change to a new equilibrium which will inevitably be simpler and less complex. Don't go looking for complex factors - it is our fault we upset the equilibrium. Bill mentioned this as well. Take out the megafauna and you'll find that you have to manage the forest environments yourselves.

I'll note that there is nothing new to this situation and it has occured historically with indigenous peoples as well. It is one of the steps along the road to a sustainable culture and it has to be addressed. There are very good reasons the Aboriginals here used to be so excellent with fire practices after they ate the megafauna. Think diprotodon.

What I'm noticing here is that through this mountain range as well as the usual marsupials, we now have escaped deer, pigs, foxes, rabbits and goats as well. They all contribute individually to the forest ecology.

Regards

Chris

ando said...

JMG,

Leaving aside apocalyptic climate change, the 50 and 60 degree ( a record 70 last week) january days we are having in St Louis are good for less wood and natural gas use.

I recall that in some of the contest stories the characters were no longer freezing in the winters.

namaste,

ando

Jennifer D Riley said...

End of week update to say my organic farming course started last Wednesday night. The first speakers were a couple who started organic farming by working farmers markets and taking over a kitchen garden spot in the backyard of a farmer who'd grown too old to farm and wanted the quarter-acre put to use.

For two years this couple lived in an old travel trailer, and were never more than 32 feet apart!. The woman described taking quick sink baths at Lowes Hardward. Reminded me of my early thoughts on mapping my city: know where to forage, know where the restrooms with showers are located. Sadly, the ones i know (office building, public television station, community college chem labs) are all now under lock and key.

The couple saved $110 thousand dollars and bought land in the center of our state. $50K from saving and $60K from forming an LLC and selling stock to friends and family. I offer it as the other side of the debt discussion here as the ungodly amount of up-front money and sacrifice it seems to require at least one couple in order to go "back to the land." Motivation is everything.

Am reading Gaia's Garden by Toby Hemenway. He states the largest rainwater collector is your roof, so take the freebie tip! to offset the ginormous money topic above.

It was announced last week the farm incubator that's been running now for five years is in a position to expand and offer 2-5 acre plots to lease for continuing use. Hello, asparagus.

Hal said...

Leigh, I don't know if your request is a polite way of commenting on my long-winded rant, but it always embarrasses me to see how verbose I can be. Apologies to all (not for the first time.)

As for my blog, I thought I had fixed it to be invisible. I am so ignorant of web knowledge. Anyway, I decided not long after starting it that there is no way I can keep it up enough to do it justice, so let it go. I am a very old-fashioned writer, and that means slow. I really have no idea how others do it.

If you wanted to comment on it, I would be glad to post it for that purpose. I don't know how much more I have to contribute, though I would be happy to help in any way I can.

Verification word is "bless." I am so blessed.

Kieran O'Neill said...

Regarding deforestation, it's worth considering what happened to the vast forests of the Middle East. I came across a fascinating essay recently which links the rise and fall of several historical cultures to what might as well be called "peak wood".

(Legal protections for forests in Edo period Japan might be a good contrast.)

Kieran O'Neill said...

@Revenge, and the others: I've heard good things about Detroit. There's a vibrant culture of young people reclaiming the ruins. The City also has a program where you can lease a vacant lot to grow vegetables on for $20 a year, and the city will plow it for you and give you the seeds!

http://www.planning.org/planning/open/aug/deliciousdetroit.htm?print=true

The crime could make life a bit tough, but if you don't have much to steal, that may not be a problem. And it sounds like there are many people in a similar situation to you making a life out there, so you would have a strong community to work within. Getting set up may also be difficult, although it seems the City has been offering cash incentives for some to come and live in abandoned houses.

Definitely opportunities there.

Laura said...

@EchoesRevenge, was going to respond, being only a few years older myself, but I think @Breanna did a better job. Still, if the goal is learning to be poor, you're actually in a great position, right?? The most I can add is, network with your neighbors; you don't have to have the same ideology as they do to set up mutually beneficial arrangements.

As far as debt is concerned, I like to recommend the "debt snowball"; it worked well for us. Pay the minimum amount on everything but the debt that can be paid off first; pay as much extra on this as you can. When the first one is paid off, put all the money that was paying down the first debt into the second every month, and so on. If you don't have much extra money each month to use to pay down debts, that's okay; you just start with a very tiny snowball. Whenever you get a windfall, take 1% of it and treat yourself; then throw the rest at your current debt snowball. Paying off debt, like collapsing a society that has overshot its resources, takes a long time. Be patient, and take comfort in the idea that at least you have a plan.

@Candace: the Germans (of course it's the Germans) have a related word: "Lebensluege," the lie of your life, or the lie that lets you keep living. Many people's Lebensluege is that some new technology will save us, or that we'll continue to progress forever. Facing up to one's Lebensluege is traumatic.

Leigh Christina Russell said...

Hello again Hal, In reply to your comment, I made that suggestion because I really liked what you contributed! I've left a more detailed response as a comment on your blog, and draw your attention to it here incase you're not hooked up to be made aware of it! :-)

sofistek said...

JMG, whilst I think you're right about this year, I'm still not convinced that we aren't in a unique situation, historically, with so many problems converging on our civilisation, most/all of our own making. Believe me, I want to be convinced, I really do, but I'm just not. At least not yet.

Brad K. said...

@ Sofistek,

"with so many problems converging on our civilisation, most/all of our own making."

Just a general observation, without getting into specific predictions.

History is written by the 'victors' or at least the survivors. When looking back, sometime after the dust seems to be settling, I imagine that historians will pick one or two of our problems, and claim, "This is why". The rest of our problems might be discounted, or only counted as pressures.

I cannot say which problems that we know of, suspect, or haven't realized yet,will actually drive the changes we see coming. Each problem reduces the number of comfortable options.

Brad K. said...

@ ofthehands.com,

I had a thought about the 'net exporter of oil' report.

Other nations can send their crude here for us to refine. Great. And we become a net crude waste dumping ground.

Jenny said...

Reading this helps me begin to let go of my selfish wish for a more precipitous decline. Outwardly I express hope that such a frightening jolt would finally align great numbers of people toward positive action and a chance to lessen the pain and suffering ahead for so many. Inwardly, though, I know that crises make new, necessary paths easier for those like me who are still caught in fear. More establishment-acceptable and mandated. Instead, what seems necessary is the far more difficult process of intensive, individual spiritual preparation and growth in this period of societal disconnect and inaction; a need to carefully re-create one's own connection with our shared Source. This seems as important a way to be of help in the years to come as continuing the outer work of greater resilience, lessening one's footprint and nurturing deeper connections within our chosen communities.
Thank you, JMG, for your patience with us wherever we are on the Journey.