Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Parting of the Ways

Chalk it up to an adolescence spent reading such cheerful books as The Limits to Growth and The Coming Dark Age, but it takes quite a bit to make me fret about the future. Even now, as industrial civilization begins to sink down the far side of Hubbert’s curve, and facts and figures come rolling in on a daily basis to sketch the predicament of our time in ever more detail, I usually find it easy to nod and make a note and go on with the work at hand, whether that’s bringing in greens and snow peas from the garden or hammering out this week’s Archdruid Report post.

Still, a series of news items over the last week or so have me worried. No, it’s not the latest news about methane plumes in the Arctic Ocean; it’s not the current round of economic idiocy from Europe, where the bizarre conviction that banks ought to be sheltered from the consequences of even their most clueless investment decisions has become the centerpiece of an economic nonpolicy that will likely tip the entire EU into mass bankruptcy; it’s not the death struggle between two failed ideologies that’s frozen Washington DC into utter political paralysis at a time when avoiding hard questions any longer may well put the survival of the nation at risk. No, quite the contrary: it’s the rising chorus of voices, from all across the political and cultural spectrum, insisting that everything really is all right and that any suggestion to the contrary ought to be shouted down as quickly as possible.

That’s been one of the less useful habits of large parts of the American right for some time now. Still, the habit of detachment from reality reached new lows this month, as North Carolina’s senate passed legislation forbidding the state from considering scientific evidence for rising sea levels in any policy dealing with the state’s low and vulnerable coastline. Texas and Virginia have already taken similar steps; it’s reminiscent of King Canute, who famously commanded the tide to retreat and just as famously got his royal feet good and wet.  Since all three of these states are in the hurricane belt, and rising sea levels add mightily to the destructive impact of hurricane storm surges, it’s unlikely that this attempt to better Canute’s score will end so harmlessly.

Over on the other side of the spectrum, mind you, there’s no shortage of equivalent ideas. My fellow peak oil blogger Jan Lundberg, an activist well over on the leftward side of things, recently posted a thoughtful critique of the ideas on display at a San Francisco alternative culture expo. In there with the alternative healers and pop mysticism was a pervasive and contemptuous rejection of the idea that there might be limits to material abundance. That habit’s been popular in the New Age scene for decades—Rhonda Byrne’s meretricious The Secret, with its insistence that focusing on your sense of personal entitlement will browbeat the universe into giving you all the goodies you want, has a long pedigree—but as Lundberg pointed out, it’s become tangled up with frankly paranoid conspiracy theories and frankly delusional notions about the human mind’s alleged ability to repeal the laws of thermodynamics. Lundberg suggests that what’s emerging here is a New Age equivalent to the Tea Party, and he’s quite correct:  there’s really not much to choose between "visualize, baby, visualize" and "drill, baby, drill."

I had a personal run-in with the same sort of thinking not long ago, in the course of finding a publisher for After Oil, the anthology of peak oil science fiction to which this blog’s readers contributed so many excellent stories late last year. (Yes, it’s going to press; I hope to have a tentative release date shortly.) One potential publisher, who had been enthusiastic about the project early on, rejected it with some heat once he read the manuscript.  He didn’t object to the literary quality of the stories; no, what upset him was the fact that the stories assumed that people in a post-peak oil world would be more or less like people today, living in a world no more loaded with miracles than the one we now inhabit. Why, he asked, couldn’t the authors have written stories in which the problem of peak oil was solved by people sprouting psychic antennae, or creating new forms of kinship with water molecules, or at the very least powering the world on algae fuel?

Now of course there is an answer to that question, which is that the point of the anthology was to tell stories about the kind of futures we’re going to get, rather than chasing pretty daydreams that start by pretending that the realities of our predicament don’t apply to us.  In the real world, my readers will have noticed, there’s a distinct shortage of people who grow antennae, psychic or otherwise; while cultivating a sense of kinship with water molecules seems reasonable enough to me—the human body is mostly water, after all—it’s not going to make water behave any differently than it does today; and there are solid thermodynamic reasons, discussed here and elsewhere, why algal biodiesel will never be more than a laboratory curiosity on the one hand, and a lure for unwary investors on the other.  Still, it became clear very quickly that this answer was not the sort of thing the publisher wanted to hear.

It’s something a great many people don’t want to hear these days, and the refusal to hear it is getting distinctly shrill in some quarters—consider the angry tone of the latest press releases from the financial sphere insisting that peak oil is nonsense—after all, it ought to be obvious to any reasonable person that waving around enough money will brush aside the laws of physics and geology, right?  Not too long ago, that insistence used to be expressed in tones of insufferable superiority—think of Daniel Yergin’s dismissals of peak oil, or the airy optimism of Bjorn Lomborg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist. Now of course Lomborg insisted that the price of oil would remain at $20 to $30 a barrel through 2020, and Yergin in 2004 claimed that the price of oil had reached a permanent plateau at $38 a barrel; the failure of oil prices to do as they were told doubtless contributed to the more strident tone such proclamations so often get these days.

Still, it’s not the shrill tone of the latest round that has me watching with more than the usual concern. It’s the increasing sense that not even the people who are promoting such claims actually believe them any more. The North Carolina legislators who are trying to pretend that sea level rise won’t happen, like their equivalents in Texas and Virginia, remind me of nothing so much as six-year-olds who stuff their fingers in their ears, scrunch their eyes shut, and chant "I can’t hear you, la la la" at the top of their lungs. The New Age equivalent is a little more subtle, but after half a century of failed predictions of saucer landings and leaps of consciousness—and let’s not even talk about what happened to the millions of Americans who tried to use The Secret to make boatloads of money for nothing by investing in the late real estate bubble—there can’t be many people left in the scene who don’t know, on some level, that they’re kidding themselves.  For that matter, if the publisher who turned down After Oil suddenly sprouted a pair of antennae, it’s probably a safe bet that, instead of embracing the event as a welcome miracle, he’d call a dermatologist in a fair state of panic.

If that’s the case—if the incantations being repeated these days to justify doing nothing significant about the crisis of our age are no longer even plausible to most of the people who mouth them—we are a good deal closer to a critical juncture in the downward slide than I thought. Visible ahead of us is a parting of the ways that will define a great deal of what we will experience in the years to come.

To understand that parting of the ways, it’s important to get a good clear sense of how self-deception works. I suspect most of my readers have had the experience of arguing themselves into believing, at least for a short time, something that they knew was not true.  It’s a fascinating study in the corruption of the intellect. To start with, much more often than not, questions of the truth of the belief in question are ignored or actively evaded; what matters is that accepting the false belief will bring practical benefits, or please another person, or identify the believer with an admirable person or group.

As the false belief is affirmed in public and expressed in action, though, the critical space required to accept the belief publicly without believing it inwardly trickles away.  The cognitive dissonance that comes from affirming and enacting a belief without believing it is hard to bear, and the more the belief is affirmed and enacted, the more painful the dissonance becomes.  One way out of the dissonance is to abandon the false belief, but social pressures often make that a costly and embarrassing step; the other option,  to make yourself believe that the false belief is true, routinely comes with equally substantial social rewards. It’s not surprising that a significant number of people make that latter choice.

Once it’s made, though, the pathologies of repressed disbelief unfold in predictable ways.  The believer becomes brittle and defensive about the false belief, affirming it loudly and publicly, and taking on the familiar social role of the strident true believer.  Elaborate arguments for the truth of the false belief take on an ever larger role in his mental life; if books of such arguments exist, you can count on finding them on his bookshelves, while his willingness to encounter differing views—not even opposing ones, but simply those that are not identical to the cherished false belief—drops like a rock.

Convincing the rest of the world of the truth of the false belief becomes a central concern, since every new convert to the false belief helps shore up the believer’s self-imposed conviction that the false belief really is true. Onto those who refuse to be converted, meanwhile, the believer projects not only his own unspoken doubts, but the bad faith and hypocrisy that surrounds those doubts.  Thus, in the mind of the believer, the unbeliever gets turned into a caricature of everything the believer can’t stand in himself, and serves by turns as a straw man, a scapegoat, and the supposed cause of everything evil in the world. 

How this trajectory ends is determined by the nature of the false belief itself, or more precisely by the relation between the false belief and the world of objective fact. If the belief does not require the world to behave in a way that it manifestly doesn’t, it’s entirely possible for believers to spend the rest of their lives loudly proclaiming the truth of a belief they know is false, and hating those people who reject the belief for openly speaking the truth the believers are unwilling to utter, without going further into oughtright psychopathology.  It’s when the false belief makes specific, falsifiable claims about the way the world works that problems crop up; the more central these claims are to the belief system, and the more obviously and repeatedly the claims are falsified, the more difficult those problems become.

The most productive way to cope with those problems is to abandon the false belief, and of course a good many people do that after a sufficiently forceful disconfirmation. Much less productive is the option of doubling down on the belief system, insisting on its truth in the face of any amount of evidence, and following it out to its logical conclusions no matter how horrific those happen to be. That’s how mass suicides happen:  back yourself into the blind alley of unconditional commitment to a belief you know to be false, and reject even the slightest doubt about the belief as a failure that’s unthinkable precisely because you’re constantly thinking it, and the temptation to prove your loyalty to the false belief in the one ultimately unanswerable way can be very hard to resist.

Most of my readers will be able to call examples of this trajectory easily to mind, and a fair number will have experienced at least a small part of it themselves. I’ve come to think, though, that in the years immediately ahead of us, it’s going to be almost impossible to miss.  Plenty of belief systems will have to deal with repeated disconfirmation, but the one that’s likely to get hit the hardest, and may well produce the biggest crop of pathological behavior, is the established religion of the modern industrial world, the belief in the inevitability and goodness of progress.

I’d like to suggest that it’s precisely the failure of the modern faith in progress that’s driving the rush to illusion discussed earlier in this post. Belief in progress has no place for the awkward reality that the wastes we’re pumping into the atmosphere are putting pressure on an already unstable global climate, sending meltwater flooding into the oceans and raising sea level; after all, according to the believers, progress is supposed to solve problems, not cause them. Belief in progress has no place for the hard fact that economic abundance can’t simply be wished into being, but depends on ample supplies of the cheap, concentrated energy that, in this corner of the universe, can only be had in sufficient quantities from the fossil fuels we’re depleting so rapidly. Belief in progress has no place at all, finally, for the unwelcome but necessary recognition that we won’t get far by sitting on our backsides and waiting for psychic antennae or some other miracle to save us from the consequences of our own mistakes.

Precisely because it has no place for these things, in turn, the faith in progress is taking quite a beating these days.  As the United States quietly folds up its space program, hands over its infrastructure to malign neglect, allows measures of public health to drop toward Third World levels, and lets what’s left of its economy devolves into a dishonest casino game, the mere fact that a narrowing circle of well-off individuals can buy electronic toys slightly more complex than last year’s equivalents just doesn’t have the cachet it once did. Even the mainstream media has had a harder time clinging to the mythic power of progress than it once did; it’s symptomatic that the Wall Street Journal’s MarketWatch—reread that, and let it sink in for a moment—recently hosted an essay pointing out that the idea of infinite growth is a delusion, and that economics has become a pseudoscience incapable of providing meaningful information about the future. ("What do you call an economist who makes a prediction?  Wrong.")

The question is how people will react to the increasing disconfirmation of the myth of progress. Some, I am relieved to say, have bitten the bullet, accepted the fact that progress was a temporary condition made possible by extravagant and unsustainable exploitation of the Earth’s fossil fuel reserves, and begun to grapple with the challenges and possibilities of a future where progress no longer takes place and contraction and regression are the rule.  More will likely do so as we proceed—many more, in all probability, than I thought possible when I launched this blog six years ago. Still, I doubt the refusal to give up on the failed myth will be limited to North Carolina politicians, San Francisco New Age aficionados, and avant-garde publishers.

I suspect, rather, that the refusal to recognize and deal with the end of progress will become a massive social force in the decade or so ahead of us, and that the great divide in American society during those years will not be the one between left and right, or between rich and poor, but between those who have accepted history’s verdict on our fantasy of perpetual progress, on the one hand, and those who cling to the fantasy despite all disconfirmations, on the other.  Since refusing to recognize the fact of decline is a good way to get clobbered over the head by one or another of that fact’s manifestations—a point that the inhabitants of coastal North Carolina are likely to find out the hard way one of these days—those who choose the path of denial may be in for a very rough road indeed.

End of the World of the Week #26

Most fans of really bad cinema have enjoyed, if that is the right word, Ed Wood’s 1959 opus Plan Nine From Outer Space, the Golden Turkey Award winner for worst movie of all time. I sometimes wonder how many of them realize that the bizarre talking head who opens the movie, spouting preposterous prophecies in a stentorian voice, was once a significant cultural presence—the Amazing Criswell, America’s least convincing psychic!

Jeron Criswell Konig was a Hollywood figure in the 1950s and 1960s, a close friend of Mae West and a regular guest on The Jack Paar Show. His career as a psychic began inauspiciously enough when he needed material to pad out what would now be called "infomercials" for vitamins he was selling, and decided to put in predictions about the future. Giddily improbable though his prophecies were—he predicted that Denver would be destroyed in 1989 by a ray from space that would turn metal and stone to the consistency of rubber, that an epidemic of cannibalism would devastate Pittsburgh in 1980, and that Mae West would be elected President of the United States—he managed to get three books of predictions into print. (I read one of them in the Burien, WA public library when I was seven or eight years old, and even at that age found it utterly unconvincing.)

The end of the world, inevitably featured in the Amazing Criswell’s repertoire. That was scheduled to take place on August 18, 1999. A black rainbow would appear over the earth and, by some means not given in detail, would cause all the world’s oxygen to disappear, suffocating every living thing on the planet. It’s probably unnecessary to point out that, like most of Criswell’s other predictions, this one turned out to be a dud.

—for more failed end time prophecies, see my book Apocalypse Not


Guardian said...

Thank you for a great article. The wishful thinking you mention can be seen over here in Europe in the chorus of politicians and people who would prefer to ignore the fact their countries are living a lifestyle they can no longer afford and instead talk about a 'growth agenda' as if merely repeating this mantra will somehow make growth appear. Interestingly most of this proposed growth seems to involve using someone else's money to stimulate this so called growth. No one in the mainstream media has raised the possibility that maybe the days of growth are over.
However on the BBC website I found this very interesting article comparing the end of Roman Britain with the current situation.
Possibly very prescient. I wonder how that slipped through...

Thijs Goverde said...

This is a fairly early comment, so I may be the first to note that Canute was a great deal more intelligent than the NC legislators.

He knew full well that the tide would not obey him; after all he had commanded it to recede only to shame a courtier who had been flattering him to much.

Our age has seen great progress in knowledge, yet the question remains what the value of that knowledge is when a legislative body in the most scientifically advanced nation in the history of the planet displays more ignorance than an 11-th century viking.

Of course those guys from North Carolina may know, lik Canute knew, that the sea is not interested in their commands. Yet he did it to shame a flatterer, but they do it to please their constituents. Go figure.

(Heh. First 2 letters of my athentication text: NC) said...

A nice post this week, JMG. As always, I wonder if it might be a bit of confirmation bias, but I agree that it seems the harsh reality of limitation is becoming more known or intuited all the time. I'm lucky in that the social circles I run in tend much more toward the acceptance of this reality rather than the denial of it. But the idea that our future split in ideology will stem more from that acceptance or denial makes a lot of sense to me. There seems also a growing sense that both sides of the political coin we call American politics is full of . . . well, I can't use that term here.

I have to be honest, I find it fascinating to see the rise in recognition of the limits to growth. And I find it fascinating to see the way more and more people seem to understand that things aren't going to go back the way they were. I realize this isn't everyone, and it's not even a majority, but it most certainly seems to be something of a wave or a trend--kind of how the local food movement has unfolded. I have no idea where it will end up, but I didn't really expect to see so much change so fast, so it does make me happy.

I've been enjoying the last few points and their forthcoming nature. Interestingly, they've been corresponding with a good stretch of my life. My somewhat solitary life of living on a farm and working as a farm hand while trying to put some voluntary poverty actions into place has suddenly become infused with the unexpected energy of a couple WWOOFers who are now living with me and helping me with my large garden. The weather's becoming nicer and I'm suddenly seeing a real possibility of being able to work out a deal to settle in on a small piece of land, homestead, and do farm work for rent and a bit of cash. Not sure if it'll all work or not, but it's funny how life takes sudden turns and how quickly things can change or fall into place.

Exciting times. I may regret the future turns that excitement takes--I still imagine it's going to be a rough future for most of us--but it's fascinating to be in the midst of it as it unfolds. I continue to work on taking it in stride, rolling with what happens, doing my best and trying not to become too bogged down in regret or overthinking. There's too much to do, after all. We all have so much work to get going on.


Karim said...

Greetings all!

Very good overview of how people react to the crumbling away of modernity and progress. Once a friend with whom I tried to raise issues of resource and energy depletion and the dysfunctions of modernity replied back: "Modernity knows no major dysfunctions only minor ones which are fully expected" I admit of being taken aback by the blind and total faith he displayed in modernity. Since then I have never raised this particular issue with him.

It seemed to me that NO amount of evidence can as yet shake his belief in the absolute power of modernity. I guess it will take a good dose of collapse in modernity for him to begin to accept the fact that our way of life is truly unsustainable.

In the meanwhile it is clear that such people are and will do everything in their power to maintain the status quo even at the huge expense of others and that will turn into a powerful social and even a political force with the potential to cause much mischief. As time goes by ways will have to be found to deal with the deniers before they deal with those who get it! Confrontation is inevitable. May it be non-violent!

LunarApprentice said...

Hello JMG.
This would be my first posting.

In one of your postings way back when, you propose that the dominant religion of our time is not Christianity, but "Progress", and that "Progress" has adopted Christianity the way a hermit crap inhabits the shell of a deceased sea creature.

That image has stuck with me. Your blog today calls it back to mind, especially in light of some recent news items about atheism. recently posted a feature about atheism in the clergy,, and I've also recently come across an article on rising atheism among US youth (I can't find it again).

I can't help but wonder if this increasing prevalence of "atheism" is in reality a recognition that "progress" is a false god.

Knut Petersen said...

Good one. I remember the story of Canute such that he deliberately ordered the rising tide to back off as a means of teaching humility to the hypocrite adorers and moochers of his court. Maybe those low tide legislators you mentioned will involuntarily achieve the same.

Sadly, shadow projection remains a common property of the human psyche even if a majority accepted the end of growth and the probability of hefty catabolic collapse.

I am reminded of Rawles' militaristic survivalist novels, where a naive black-and-white thinking prevails: The good guys are so unambiguously good that they can afford to execute "looters" and other unambiguously bad guys on a moment's notice and without a second thought or feeling. Add to this an unreflected Earth-detached religiosity and a number of ridiculous conspiracy theories, and you immediately see the third road beyond acceptance and denial: Give up one delusion and quickly replace it with an even grosser one...

Mean Mr Mustard said...


As I related last week, I worked in an organisation locked into long term decline - most days there were pretty much like living a Dilbert comic strip. (But there again, Scott Adams was originally a management consultant, so he should know). In this supposed employment utopia, the senior management always insisted prospects for their staff were excellent, when any cursory look at the declining product lines instantly confirmed otherwise.

The seniors carried on with that ‘line to take’ when the redundancies and relocations came, citing the great prospects for those that chose to move with them and take on a fresh scary mortgage for such a great continued employment opportunity.

We cynics, who saw things for what they were, politely queried the senior folks in open meetings, but this was most unwelcome as it directly challenged their credibility and authority. I’m still proud to say that I actually informed one Director that I would rather be unemployed than work in his Corporate Worker’s Paradise.

Later on, the overworked and mostly cynical staff opted to give their leaders a Good Stiff Ignoring, and stopped attending the open sessions altogether, so some were summoned instead on a three-line-whip to provide a sullen audience. I think that moment of truth happened when the top boss was helicoptered in – literally – while the staff were subjected to severe restrictions on modest travel and subsistence allowances.

Some of the managers – my own cheery optimist senior boss included - actually loved Big Brother, and believed the guff they were writing and spouting forth, really thinking they worked for a wondrous caring employer. Still, we all know ”It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!"

And then, we cynics all left in droves, and so came our welcome Parting of the Ways.


John D. Wheeler said...

Thank you for pointing out two of the joys of my belief system: first, my projections won't be falsifiable for centuries. Second, they have a large self-fulfilling aspect, so if few others adopt my belief system, they never could be falsified.

xhmko said...

Well! That Marketwatch peice is unbelievable. My eyes literally widened reading that. Reminds of that old film "The Network" where the news presenter starts letting it all out live on TV. Wow!

I've just had an experience that relates closely to what you are talking about. I was having a discussion about planes of existence and whatnot and I said something along the lines of "You know, I do believe that we consist of uncountable numbers of enrgetically bonded atoms that somehow do their thing just right and make us human, and so is the bench in front of me, but I don't believe I can pass through the bench using the power of my mind."

To which was replied, "Why not?" with a genuine tone of disdain with my lack of faith; for being "too based on facts."

As someone who has left a large proportion of my life to the wind, to do what it will, I feel like I have alot of faith. Faith in people to be people. Faith in life to be life. Faith in benches to hurt me if I try to walk through them.

Later on, after twists and turns in the conversation, I said that basically my vision of our relationship to life is simple.

In the past their were people, and some were nice and some were not. Some who were nice turned nasty, and some who were nasty turned nice. Some went back and forth, between the two all throughout their lives.

And in our times, there are people who are nice, and some who are not. Some are...soon and so forth until I get to part about the future where I repeat the same thing again. Add all the other emotions and behaviors in their and you get the idea.

Thus is my canvas for humanity's survival, painted with a brush dipped in the hues of a remnant industrial age, big thick impasto strokes of the mass diasporas that have been enabled by that age with scattered Pollock-esque dribblings of ecosytemic PTSD splashed seemingly all through the pictorial narrative.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

On cold clear winter nights here I make sure to take the time to step outside and stare at the milky way. There's very little light pollution here because of the topography and most nights if you wait long enough you'll get to see a shooting star. On some of these occasions other people are with me and they’re also waiting for their chance to see a shooting star.

Yet, depending on their disposition they have to wait a bit as it is a random event. You can almost hear them wishing that a shooting star would just show itself by sheer force of personality. If they’re very impatient, then it is almost an affront to them.

Somehow I think that the whole sheer force of personality thing is ingrained in our culture and it will be to our detriment.

I don’t really engage people anymore outside of this blog about the whole peak oil thing as the reactions aren’t worth the hassle from the yes, we can have as much oil as we like as long as we believe hard enough brigade.

Anyway, I have had some interesting finds this week: tansy; mother wort; ladies bedstraw; blue hyssop and the Druidry Handbook by a certain author. All interesting finds. I can't tell you how much I'm enjoying the herbal knowledge, who'd have thought it?



Dale Asberry said...

Denial and the neurological underpinnings have been a topic of interest to me. I would strongly recommend coming up to speed on 'anosognosia' to see denial in the extreme and to understand how it operates outside of and contrary to conscious thought.

GuRan said...

Hi JMG - a small edito: devolves should be devolve. Cheers,

chrisroy said...

Mr Greer, you ve nailed it again i have notiiced the same divide between the 'get it' and 'refuse to get it' crowds- both in the on-line community and the community at fact, i m struggling with how to deal with my girlfriend's refusal to discuss or for that matter care about the concept of peak everything; i seem to be faced with a choice of camps- and by extension a value judgement of her importance to me in the face of mounting evidence...having grown up in the woods and dirt, i have many of the skill sets i will likely need, so feel slightly less apprehensive about my own prospects in the event, so to speak; but the thought of trying to prepare solo as half of a couple gives me pause to say the least! it sure sucks to see the pathology of denial in someone so close, lemme tellya, and i can see some hard choices in my not-too-distant future...thanks again for the invaluable resource your blog has become; i hope to be on the first subscription list for the vellum edition of The Archdruid Report

Mister Roboto said...

As you may well expect, the classic example in my experience of what you're talking about here occurs in the form of the Democratic Party and its willing codependent-doormat supporters who have decided to "Cling To The Old Rugged Cross" unconditionally to the bitter end. Wisconsin's recent recall election and the characteristic manner in which the Democrats brought a rubber dagger to a sword-fight, was the last and greatest example of a string of the sort of disillusioning events you described. (Obviously, I discussed my disgust over the situation on my own blog recently.) This was enough to make me decide to cut myself off from all Democratic-Party-oriented blogs, podcasts, and whatever else because I know what's going to happen. The "Old Rugged Cross" crowd will indulge ever-deeper cognitive dissonance to justify their continuing support of Barack Obama and his dying, clueless, ineffectual party, and any left-liberal who has had enough of what you have correctly labeled "the politics industry" will be excoriated to beat holy thunder. I should have known it would be this way from the very beginning, and I'm embarassed that I had to go through so much unnecessary song-and-dance to arrive at this point. I'm sure you're glad to hear this news because that means I will probably soon stop using the willful codependence of Democratic-Party supporters as examples in my comments. :-)

GHung said...

Indeed, here in North Carolina, I've been a bit miffed by the gradual 'righting' of State Government. That said, I was looking for a discarded water heater to make into a smoker and stopped by the county dump. I was approached by a rather rude, weaselly man who informed me that the "liberals" in Raleigh had put "layers and layers" of regulations in the way of my removing anything from the "his facility". Turns out the man is the "supervisor of waste management" for the county, and absolutely not interested in promoting the 'reuse' part of reduce, reuse, recycle. Sad, since I had already spotted my perfect smoker-to-be.

Anyway, while going back home, pondering last week's “Collapse Now” post and some of the comments, and doing an evaluation of our personal adjustments, it occurred to me that the idea of “collapse” doesn't fit our situation at all. While we've been hit hard by the overall financial decline of the last few years, this has been entirely motivational. I've made real progress in another direction; “collapsing in place”, as it turns out, has been a progression in many ways, an exercise in hope building. For me, at least, it has been incremental baby steps, a series of inter-connected small successes, some failures, which, when one steps back and takes it all in, may be realized as huge steps forward. Collapse, it seems, doesn't mean moving backward at all.

We (my little community) are well into accomplishing a goal I've had for years: bringing a source of potable water to our garden 'complex'. We've been irrigating our large garden by solar-pumping from the adjacent pond, and, while the water is fine for the plants, it's not safe to drink and the inevitable algae growth causes problems in the system. I've been scrounging the materials to tap and pipe a robust spring system in the forest above the garden. Last weekend, the three “roosters” in our little garden group pulled together, tapped the spring and piped 3 GPM of clean, cold, drinkable water to the garden. I'm in the process of burying the lower tank and plumbing it to the solar pump which will send it to another tank buried on the hill above the garden. Gravity will do the rest. Should pumping become non-viable in the future, I've also made provisions to be able to flood irrigate directly from the spring. Unlike the current system, the new system will be resistant to freezing, though I've designed it to be easily drained down in the winter.

I have reasonably good documentation that a Cherokee Indian used this same spring to make the moonshine that helped him avoid the “Trail of Tears” in the 1830's. Our little valley carries his name. The arrowheads we find while working the garden are proof that we are just another band of humans who found this spot and decided to stay for a while.

Beyond irrigation, we plan to build a cookout shed for gatherings, complete with a canning center so that we can preserve food directly from the garden, at the garden. I've even salvaged a large stainless sink and commercial food prep table. Initially, propane will suffice until I can get a wood-fired stove in place. The aformentioned smoker is also in the plan, and we've picked a spot for a horseshoe pit. It looks like our little community has found its center.

So.... fear not collapse, as it can be a way forward. Make your plan, prioritise , be patient, and enjoy the benefits of your diminished reliance on complex systems, and increased reliance on community and things that matter.

Stu from Rutherford said...

Plan Nine from Outer Space has an honored place on my bookshelf! It's difficult to get an opportunity to watch it, since everyone I live with loathes the movie, but I still laugh myself silly any time I get that opportunity.
As far as Progress is concerned, I found it easier to abandon my faith in it in light of things like World War II, VietNam, Bhopal, Chernobyl, Love Canal, etc. But you're right - the civic religion is a huge obstacle to any new culture.

Robo said...

In regards to the USA at least, the idea of progress has always been baked into the Constitutional mythology. Aside from a few periodic panics, depressions, recessions and other temporary setbacks, the infinite horizon of progress has always beckoned and the inclination of the road ahead has always been upwards.

It's asking a lot to expect Americans to question the national belief system and think outside the box of exceptionalism. Unlimited resources and steady progress toward infinite horizons are all that most of us have ever known or expected.

Without those fundamental expectations, the American dream is impossible. Without the dream, the United States is impossible. There would be no common ambition of growth and prosperity to hold us all together. Without the dream, a chaotic explosion of collective anger and dispair would likely tear the US apart.

Small wonder then that most American citizens cling so desperately to hopeful visions of the future and cherished memories of the past. We've enjoyed our vivid and exciting dream for hundreds of years. Who would wish for that dream to end?

What kind of American would willingly rise from their lifelong reverie and go forth to trudge down a dreary road of diminished expectations, limited possibilities and meager comforts? A traitor, that's who. An enemy of the United States and everything it stands for.

We are all traitors here and should expect to be treated as such by those who have not yet awakened.

Alex Boland said...

Not on the topic of this post, but on the topic of this blog:

Do you read Chris Martenson? He does a weekly podcast where he interviews a special guest and I think and interview between you two would be a very interesting one.

ChemEng said...

Mr. Greer:

I wonder if your concerns to do with denial of climate change are over-stated. I work as an engineer in the energy business in Houston, Texas. Therefore most of my friends and colleagues are (a) conservative politically, (b) have a "can-do" attitude, and (c) possess a confidence in technology to come up with solutions. (I share many of these attitudes myself.)

We will soon be moving to Virginia (probably not all that far from where you live). We have multiple reasons for moving but one of them is to do with the climate. South Texas has always been hot, but last summer was brutal and the lack of rain was a major problem. And I don’t think that it was a one-time event.

When I – jokingly - tell my colleagues that we are among the first wave of climate refugees, their reaction has always been one of understanding. No one argues back; I think they recognize that the climate here really is getting hotter and drier and no amount of talking is going stop the change.

Regarding King Canute, it was my understanding that he was being flattered by his courtiers. They told him he had the power to stop the tide from coming in. He knew that this was silly and so made the attempt in order to show them up. In other words the man had a sense of humor – something else that seems to be increasingly short supply.

M said...

I've been noticing the same rise in the decibel levels of denial in the media. Talk about meretricious, the NYT is a veritable fountain of misinformation fit to print. Here are just two examples from this weekend:

America's New Energy Reality

And the wise editors there have also determined that, thank goodness, hydrofracking is safe:

Americans need to know that hydrofracturing is safe.

It used to be the NYTs was a bit more subtle, but these days they are one of the biggest proponents of the myth of inexorable progress. Don't even get me started on their columnists.

Yupped said...

You summarized: “I suspect, rather, that the refusal to recognize and deal with the end of progress will become a massive social force in the decade or so ahead of us, and that the great divide in American society during those years will not be the one between left and right, or between rich and poor, but between those who have accepted history’s verdict on our fantasy of perpetual progress, on the one hand, and those who cling to the fantasy despite all disconfirmations, on the other”.

I suspect you are right as well. If you look closely, you can begin to see fractures along those lines across various segments of society now: “eco-liberals” who are pretty horrified at the idea of living in a Tiny House; pro-business/foreign expansion Republicans vs the Ron Paul wing; Millennial teens who aren’t buying (literally) the driving and shopping lifestyle. Even our local Garden Club has a fierce rift between organic and pro-pesticide members. The logic of resource depletion says these fractures have to grow, and could well become a defining realignment. It would certainly be interesting in ten years to see today’s staunch “conservatives” and “liberals” holding hands as they coalesce into the “Let’s Keep The Stuff” party.

It will be passionate. I already get more than a few comments that my behavior (of using less) is what is causing the economic problems (which I suppose is true in a way). And it really hurts the head to change behavior when you’ve spent your whole life hurtling in the other direction. I have ten 10 gallons of home brew fermenting away in the house today, which could come in handy.

Eric said...

Surprised that nobody has brought up No Impact Man in relation to last week's post about "Collapse Now and Avoid The Rush".

While Colin didn't "collapse now" because of Peak Oil, he did it for environmental reasons, he offers a great example of how to go about "collapsing" for all those interested.

Great book and the documentary is good too!


Joe and Tracey said...

Excellent summation of the predicament in which we find ourselves. When the Wall Street Journal opines on the inefficacy of economics, you know we're moving into uncharted waters.

I was on hand at the Age of Limits conference when you uttered the words "Collapse now and avoid the rush." Those words have stuck with me and have become, for me, the perfect vision statement for future thinking and actions. Many thanks.

- Joe B.

Justin Patrick Moore said...

The interview JMG graciously did with me on my radio show is now available as a podcast:

We discuss Blood of the Earth and The Mystery Teachings of the Living Earth, Magic, and Peak Oil.

Thanks JMG and to all who listened to the original broadcast live!

It was quite a blast...

lamentforthetirnanog said...

This parting of ways as you so aptly put it worries me more than anything else. No combination of economic collapse, material scarcity, or environmental chaos keeps me awake some night like the thought of the mass psychopathology of those who have "doubled down" on the continuation of the modern world of progress. It is almost enough to make me think that the survivalist with his bunker full of guns perhaps ought not to be dismissed out of hand. Almost.
This is another of the things that concerns me about the more outward forms of collapse-related activism (collpstivism?) like Transition Towns. One gets the impression from some of these people that when things start to get bad, the masses of the unprepared will flock to them, like a messiah, to teach them the gentle arts of permaculture. However I think there is an equally real possibility that they might simply become scapegoats for the frustrations of those whose false belief is being eroded away.
Perhaps it might be smart for us who are preparing and changing our lives in anticipation of what lies ahead to consider going at least partially "underground".

JP said...

I know that you are trying to make a point with respect to MarketWatch, but using a Paul Farrell article to make your point is more along the lines of Invoking Exception That Proves The Rule.

Paul Farrell is the Resident Curmudgeon at MarketWatch and has been for some time.

He's apparently allowed to say whatever he wants and has been for some time.

So, yes, his articles are generally going to be closer to the actual truth than the rest of the the business press whose sole job appears to be sales.

He hyperfocuses on the negative and The World Is Always Going to End in his mind.

He's too far from the optimistic realism that is necessary here.

He's fine with the realism. The problem with realism is that you can't add pessimism to it or it shades off into despair.

He always leaves me feeling worse instead of better. That's generally not helpful when you need to Get Things Done.

Unless the 21st century is presented as an Adventure, a Challenge, and a Glorious Opportunity all rolled into one, a person is unlikely to find the inner strength to cope with what I expect to be the Calamitous 21st Century (ht to Barbara Tuchman).

don bates said...

As to how people will deal with the end of progress, I have to say that most of my acquaintances are doing exactly that on a personal level. While few of them have come to any realization that this is a gloabal phenomenon, in their own personal lives they know that "progress" has ended- their personal economies have shrunk drastically and their prospects are not bright. But they are adapting to new realities. Some more gracefully than others.

ando said...

Excellent Blog, as usual JMG. As they are folks who are not in denial, Paul Kingsnorth and The Dark Mountain Project are looking for help financing the third book, with pre-orders.

Did not know if it was okay to mention it here, but thought I would mention it.



Adrian Skilling said...

"six-year-olds who stuff their fingers in their ears, scrunch their eyes shut, and chant "I can’t hear you, la la la" at the top of their lungs"

I have a three year old who is very good at denying reality, like shouting at the top of her voice "I AM BEING QUIET!".

I observe my children gradually accumulating appreciation of longer distances, time, the size of the World and the number of people on it and bigger and bigger concepts. Its VERY slow.

Its clear to me that this deepening of understanding continues into adulthood but slows or halts in many people.

To put it another way, some people never grow up!

So we need to deal with limitations in ourselves and others as well as the planet.

Mark Angelini said...

The other day when I took a ride to pick up straw (for a new garden and the chickens coop), the radio was turned on to NPR as I started to drive. I am normally highly allergic to even the tone of voice of "news" reporters, but I figured I'd listen for a couple minutes to hear what folks are bombarding themselves with all day long... The reporter brought up a predicament at the state capital, where the municipality is in such a shortfall with their budget, that they're voting to sell a large parking lot and draw $600,000 from a savings account to cover the quarterly mismatch.

I thought to myself, "Wow! This is ~exactly~ what peak oil and industrial collapse looks like! And yet barely anyone is doing anything about it... 'just keep drawing down reserves.'" I then shut off the radio, chatted with the friendly farmer I was purchasing the straw from, and contemplated on my way home, of how different the landscape is becoming, in more ways than just its appearance...

I spent the rest of the day into the evening, building soil and tending plants. What a contrast.

Erik said...

As a resident of North Carolina (several hours inland and slightly elevated, thank goodness), I really do despair of our leadership on both sides of the aisle... between the coastal nonsense (there was an interesting discussion about this on a local radio show last week, worth a listen), the "sure, fracking can be safe as long as the politicians are involved" mess, and the screw-thy-neighbor marriage amandment, I'm finding less and less to love about the state I've called home for over 30 years.

Fortunately, there is one bright spot - my county (Aaron Newton is a neighbor, I think you know him) is becoming a regional leader in support for local food and other post-peak necessities. So, at least on the very local level, there is some room for hope...

James said...

Imagine giving a hurricane a brain and organs to enable movement. What would it do to stay alive? Move towards warm water with little wind shear. As dissipative structures, humans and other organisms are little different except they harbor information that gives them complexity. Give a human a brain and where are they going to go? They’ll move towards wealth/energy and away from “immediate” danger. Future dangers count little in their calculus as they bounce about like skittles in a box seeking their next big energy/money score.

The limbic system suppresses any cortical rationality that interferes with this survival program. Rationality must serve the immediate needs of the organism, not the future needs. “Take care of today and tomorrow will take care of itself.”

Tomorrow will see most writhing and screaming in the water as their support disappears into the murky depths. What a shame.

How do you change them? How do you change their innate nature?
Some will want swimming lessons too late, others are already paddling towards a new shore.

Mike said...

The game now is for the elite to hold onto their "wealth" while beating back the masses who are slipping further down the social ladder. There really are no more economic bubbles to inflate so as to keep the illusion going that wealth is spreading to everyone. But the war card is still available and it always seems to get played when the peasants get unruly. And we do have the perpetual War on Terror which has spawned Drone Warfare and the 'whack-a-mole' strategy. Maybe they'll use that on us here in the homeland when things go from bad to worse.

Erik said...

You might be interested in this lecture on the supposed Roman precedent for monetary union (the lecturer takes the contrary position)...

Seaweed Shark said...

Your gloomy but eloquent and sadly convincing essay last week, and even more so this one, reminded me powerfully of the long chapter in Olaf Stapledon's "Last and First Men", in which a global civilization centered in North America, powered by coal deposits mined in Antarctica, discovers that its energy source is running out and, unable to accept its impending collapse, reacts by drowning its fears in a perverse orgy of waste and extravagance, gigantic staged air battles and the like, eventually leading to bizarre quasi-religious manifestations of cultural breakdown as the cities cease to function and millions perish. Fun times.

escapefromwisconsin said...

This is interesting timing, given that climate scientists are now receiving death threats:

On a related note, see this: Americans Want Government Action on Climate, As Long As It Doesn't Directly Affect Them

"One, perhaps slightly cynical, take away from these results is that Americans support action on reducing climate pollution when doing so constrains the actions of others (reducing emissions from large industrial sources, making utilities generate a certain amount of electricity from clean sources), but when it comes to taking actions that will directly affect them (increasing taxes on fossil fuels, and even more so gasoline) they are strongly opposed. This actually fits very well with the results of the previous survey on attitudes about warming itself. Personal experience here is the deciding factor in influencing belief."

Which comports nicely with what you've said recently.

More amazing than Paul Ferrell's article is this one that appeared on the BBC: Resource depletion: Opportunity or looming catastrophe?:

Imagine a world of spiralling food prices, water shortages and soaring energy costs.

For many living in the world today, this nightmare scenario is already a reality. Even for the well-off living in developed economies, it is becoming all too familiar.

And on current projections, it's going to get a whole lot worse. Short-term fluctuations in supply and demand aside, a global population explosion combined with finite resources means the planet cannot sustain ever-increasing levels of consumption using current models of production.

And there isn't much time to do something about it.

"The challenge we are facing over the next 20 years is unprecedented," says Fraser Thompson, senior fellow at the McKinsey Global Institute.

Remember, this is the Web site of the BBC, funded by the British government and one of the worl'ds most visited and respected media organizations. They would not put up anything they don't stand behind.

Jeff Z said...

Best post yet! I always enjoy it when you address the psychological aspects of dealing with (or not) peak oil and mapping the likely future zeitgeist. These last few have been fantastic, and the analysis of someone defending a false belief system is priceless.
On another, related note, I have a four and a five year old, and I have at times heard them say things, or make policy decisions, if they can be called that, far better than what we regularly get from our legislators. And we don't live anywhere near North Carolina. The six_year_old with his fingers in his ears may just be trying to block out the adult stupidity he's hearing.

I posted a primer on starting a garden on eighth acre farm this week and an update on our new urban community garden. I don't like to flog the blog here too much, but it might be useful to those who have just become peak oil aware. http//


Sean the Mystic said...

John Michael, I’m puzzled by your assertion that “progress was a temporary condition made possible by extravagant and unsustainable exploitation of the Earth’s fossil fuel reserves.” If we consider things like fire-making, writing, metallurgy, the wheel, calculus, telescopes, Newtonian physics, etc. to be progress, then hasn’t it been going on since before homo sapiens even arrived on the scene? How is this kind of progress – a general expansion of human knowledge (with occasional local losses) – a myth? I sometimes get the sense that you are treating peak oil as if it were some kind of apocalypse for human discovery and invention, which seems rather overstated.

escapefromwisconsin said...

I nearly fell out of my chair when I read this: the Black Plague is sufacing in the United States!

I'm beginning to feel like Philip K. Dick living simultaneously in modern day America and the Roman Empire. Anyway, it's summeritme so I'm off to the new stadium...

Odin's Raven said...

Here's an article broadly supporting your viewpoint,without mentioning 'peak' anything.It just wants to get away from crookery.

sgage said...

@Justin Patrick Moore

Very good interview! I've heard a few interviews with our esteemed host here, but this presented some stuff I hadn't heard from him. Worth it for the occasional wicked chuckles alone ;-)

I recommend folks give it a listen. Just be warned that the interview doesn't begin until well into the playback - over 15 minutes of music and whatnot in.

Including "Mississippi Queen!" I hadn't heard that song since highschool (early 70's). Good ol' Mountain/Lesley West...

Speedscribe said...

Thanks for the post, John Michael. I read your blog every week.

I've already made my plans for the coming collapse: eat a gun. Mind you, I haven't bought the firearm yet, but it's on my list. I have no faith in me or anyone I know personally -- especially my very white, very middle-class, very conservative family -- to even muddle through the coming difficulties and disasters, conflicts and cataclysms. So my plan is simple: continue to live as I have, which has been a slow slide into penury and isolation and despair, and when I do finally reach a zero balance in my bank account, put a bullet through my head (with that final credit card purchase being the firearm and ammunition). I may make corpose-disposal arrangements prior to doing this, but only so my family won't have to foot the bill.

So I translate "collapse now and avoid the rush" as "kill yourself now and avoid starvation, permanent incarceration, rape, torture, and murder."



Allison said...

Thanks for this post, Archdruid; I'd have to agree. Even my own circle of friends and family is becoming split into those who accept the end of growth and are looking beyond it, and those who do not accept it and remain entrenched in the growth mindset.

I do have a concern that I have not seen addressed in detail thus far on the Archdruid Report (though it does seem to be a consistent issue in Star's Reach). Admittedly I may have missed it, as I only became a regular reader last year.

My concern is this:

Humanity has, via nuclear fuel production, churned out millions and millions of gallons of nightmarish radioactive waste, most of which is sitting in pools that may easily ignite if the grid-powered coolant pumps that keep them under control turn off, and diesel generators with sufficient fuel cannot be supplied in time. Much of this stuff, if released into the environment, is toxic for 100,000 years. I am now seeing reports indicating that much more has been dumped carelessly from the 1940s through today that we even know about. There is enough of this stuff to contaminate all the soil and water of the world for a good long time, turning our foods into poisons. There is currently no way of dealing with all of this waste, and our government can't even be bothered to bury it in dry casks. Meanwhile, more poison is produced every day, all over the world.

In light of such a daunting and unacknowledged - indeed, unspeakable, if the Japanese government's gutless denial in the face of disaster is any preview of what ours' will be - is Peak Oil still our most pressing concern? To be more precise, could the Peak Oil-induced electrical grid failures touch off an extinction event, if without them nuclear cooling systems fail and the radioactive waste catches fire in many places? I am really worried about this; what good is it to garden and grow food if wind- or water-borne fallout from the latest nuclear waste pool explosion will only poison my soil? I live in Seattle, and I worry about the plume spreading from Japan. How do I trust the safety of the soil, air, and water, if the government lies in the nuclear industry's pocket as much as it does in Big Oil's, and it doesn't care whether I live or die as long as the money rolls in? I'd like to believe the reports saying things are still safe here, but, for the reasons mentioned in today's post, I cannot.

When did money become more important than clean air, clean water, and the ability to grow food to eat? Do politicians and CEOs imagine that they will be able to buy themselves a new earth when ours has died?

I have never felt so dark about the future, Archdruid. I am happy to prepare for a world without oil, but I wonder if I won't be killed by the irresponsibility of past generations first. How does nuclear waste fit into the Peak Oil equation? What can we do to protect ourselves and the next generations from it?

I wish mankind had never discovered atoms, much less decided to split them. I'll never forgive my parents' generation for deciding that it was just fine to continue creating a massive mess that it had no idea how to clean up, and leaving my generation to mop it up somehow or die trying. Are we at or near 'Peak Nuclear Waste' or is that just getting started?

Archdruid, is there anything we can do about this?

blackwingsblackheart said...

Nice job, as usual, JMG! Reading about the New Agers reminds me of my time training as a Dianic ritual priestess. We had a guest teacher one session, and the first thing she asked was, "How many of you think you could fly?" No one raised a hand, but being the polite Upper Midwesterners we were, we sat there instead of getting up en mass and fleeing the room. She then told us, "I usually teach in California, and in any group there's always one or two women who will raise their hands and say, 'Well, if you BELIEVED hard enough, then you probably could.'" We then started a discussion of what magic can and cannot do, and the session, fortunately, went quite well after that.

Kurt Cagle said...

Thanks for this, JMG - as usual, a very thought provoking post.

Cognitive Dissonance arises when the model of reality you create in your head gets out of sync with the "real world", and systemic thinkers in general are usually the first to understand that their models don't match the evidence, while dogmatic thinkers establish their models early (and often "borrow" them in the form of religious or ethical "belief" systems) rather than remaining critical of stimulae.

This is one of the reasons I think that we're seeing a fundamental political realignment with the systemic thinkers on one part of the divide and status quo dogmatists on the other, with a floating "third party" of sociopaths (who generally tend to be systemic, but are motivated completely by self-interest regardless) who are in turn driving the dogmatists.

This doesn't cleanly correspond to a left/right duality - there's a swath of "progressives" (and yes, there is irony here, given your astute analysis of the term) who have become alienated from the concept that government is THE solution given that government cannot function when too much power has been lost to competing special interests, and who are increasingly sounding like the more intelligent of the libertarians (and "moderate" Republicans" who find neither party compatible as a reasonable home) who have become increasingly disenchanted with the corruption intrinsic to oligarchies, along with a growing number of secular humanists and pragmatic pagans who see the existing culture as toxic and are thus predisposed to dealing with changing realities. It's a small group in comparison to the corporate cultists right now, but it is growing and coalescing, seems to be primarily an urban-centric group, and hasn't yet fully materialized. There are signs of it in OWS, but that movement is still too inchoate to shift politics, though again I think this will change.

Regarding the New Agers: they are dogmaticists with fairy dust and angel feathers. The biggest difference between a New Age Bookstore and a Christian one is generally that the New Age book covers feature nude female angels and fairies, while the Christian ones usually show them clothed with Jesus in the foreground. (sigh)

Mike Donovan said...

Well said, Sir!

Keep looking ahead and speak what you see, for way on ahead at the base of a tree, an ear that has heard the seed that you planted, will teach not to take dear Gaia for granted.

Robert Mathiesen said...

@ Speedscribe (David):

By all means buy that gun if it gives you comfort and a sense that you are no longer trapped in a world gone mad. (It's much the same thing as the terminally ill person who is afraid of dying, and has a secret lethal stash of some appropriate pill. Many of these people never get around to using their stash; it's enough to know that they have a way out if they need one badly enough.)

But every day ask yourself first, is there anyone out there whom I really care about?

If so, then ask, is there anything I can do,anything at all, to make that person's life better today and tomorrow and the next day -- not better for years to come, just better for the next few days?

If so, do it, and save the gun for some other day. You can always use it then.

I write this not because I object to suicide. I don't object to it. I write this because I enjoy making things better for my friends and family, if only for a little while.

I'm a medievalist, so I'm used to taking the long view of every human endeavor. But taking the long view is a very seductive habit, which I must guard against. Each one of us actually lives out our life day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute -- not year by year or decade by decade.

Chris said...

I just wanted to suggest to chrisroy, about his girlfriend - I married my polar opposite too. He also comes from a long line of deniers who actively use Middle Class as a beating stick for people who are different.

The interesting thing when you get into a relationship with your polar opposite, is that over time you rub off on one another. I'm not as die-hard for my cause as I used to be, and he's not as denialistic as he used to be either.

It's somewhat frustrating because I want to go more extreme in doing without, and he sees it as somewhat of a step down. But the point I really wanted to make is, what you experience with your polar opposite, is exactly the kind of relationship JMG is talking about the parting of the ways.

I didn't part the ways with my husband's heritage, even though it goes against everything I believe in. And what this taught me was we cannot afford to leave people behind. What my husband and I are sharing, is what the larger world needs to develop - a relationship.

A parting of the ways is one way to describe it, but it's also the unfinished dialogue that must have a conclusion if we are to succeed at community. Some people aren't going to come all the way over, but they are also part of the community.

So that parting of the ways doesn't result in all out civil war - I think it's wise to keep an open relationship with others. I'm not advising you to keep your girlfriend (that's such a personal decision) just pointing out generally, there are advantages to keeping doors open.

Bruce The Druid said...

Interesting. I had just picked up "The Myth of Progress: Toward a Sustainable Future" by Tom Wessels from my local library branch. One of things that surprised me is that Chaos Theory was renamed Complex Systems Theory. I highly recommend it to readers who want a good overview on the ideas of Ecology/complex systems and how they apply to economics and politics. Its a short book (122 pages) and an easy fast read, but with lots of things to think about long after you set the book down.

While so much of the book is relevant to this discussion, one paragraph is particularly relevant: "Just as the notion that ever-increasing growth will generate further progress has no scientific grounding, our current global economic system is behaving in a way that is absolutely contradictory to the way all natural complex systems function. Where natural systems grow more diverse, integrated, and efficient, with each specialized part working to support the other parts in a stable system, our global economic system is moving in the opposite direction. It is moving toward simplification and homogeneity through competitive exclusion, wasteful use of resources, and lack of integration, with each corporate entity looking out for its own interests--profits--rather than the well-being of the whole system. Which model would you bet on for long-term sustainability [...]?"

planningdown said...

Thanks for a great post, JMG. You know, funny you mention the Marketwatch editorial - I read it myself the other day and did a doubletake. Then I read the comments section and you know what - every single comment I read commended the guy for writing it and warned him of the likely retaliation... which never came. Interestingly, nearly all the comments supported the limits point of view. For a site like Marketwatch, I thought that was fascinating.

Having said that, I do think your belief that the next decade or so will likely be bifurcated between those who belief in infinite growth despite the abundant evidence to the contrary and those who are interested in small scale, local, appropriate-tech, community-based solutions is valid.

I know which side of the fence I'm on, and I know we're outnumbered. However, I think there are some people who are a nudge or two from falling over into our camp. Point being, going forward it's important to remain open and accepting of those who doubt today who might need our help tomorrow.

BTW, it was great to chat with you at Age of Limits a few weeks back!


John Michael Greer said...

Guardian, thanks for the link! It's interesting to me that the media do quite often dabble in historic parallels, even though they never take that to the point of learning lessons from the past.

Thijs, granted! Myself, I tend to think that 11th century Viking kings were probably smarter, as a rule, than 21st century American politicians; in a world in which leading national politicians were expected to lead their armies into battle, sword in hand, the kind of bland blinking idiocy so common these days faced a Darwinian selection process slanted sharply against it.

Ofthehands, that's promising -- the sooner we start seeing networks of people who have accepted the reality of decline, and are willing to take action to deal with it, the better.

Karim, that's absolutely classic. "Modernity knows no major dysfunctions" -- well, we'll see!

Lunar, I don't know; in my experience, a lot of atheists are devout believers in the Great God Progress. The article on clergy who come out of the closet as atheists is no surprise, but the reasons for that remark will have to wait for my series of posts on religion in the age of peak oil.

Knut, granted, accepting decline is no panacea; the one thing it has in its favor is that it doesn't require as much belief in the obviously absurd as faith in progress will require in the not too distant future.

Mustard, I've been told that Scott Adams used to receive thousands of true stories from the corporate trenches every year, and used a fair number of them in "Dilbert." Might explain why I rarely found anything unlikely in that comic...

John, er, it sounds as though you're admitting that your belief system is false; if you believe that it's true, wouldn't it be more interesting to look forward to its being proved true?

Xhmko, good. My response to people who think people can walk through solid matter is, very simply, "Okay, why don't you demonstrate it, then?" In terms of magical philosophy, they're confounding the planes -- an elementary mistake, but a common one.

Danogenes said...

Interesting that you should take on progress. I delivered a sermonette at our church in Vt a couple of weeks ago on that theme. To whit.

We have been sold a pack of lies in order to keep the economy growing, Its time to admit those lies are killing us. The worst of those lies tells us - we can pretty much ignore the costs of our excesses because our technological ingenuity will always save us.
To help me with such understanding, I often to turn to the teachings of St Wendell Berry, whose Agrarian Essays have much to say on the subject. He notes:
The higher aims of “technological progress” is our money and ease. And this exalted greed for money and ease is disguised and justified by an obscure cultish faith in the future. We do as we do, we say “for the sake of the future” or “to make a better future for our children.” How can we hope to make a good future by doing badly in the present, we do not say. We cannot think about the future, of course, for the future does not exist: the existence of the future is an article of faith. We can be assured only that, if there is to be a future, the good of it is already implicit in the good things of the present. …….. We have no need to contrive and dabble at “the future of the human race”; we have the same pressing need that we’ve always had–to love, care for, and to teach our children.
To truly understand the damage caused by this ideal of technological progress we need to see how it works with it’s sister our much beloved “market system”. Together they have oh so effectively transferred much our wealth from the common populace to the moneyed interests. Together these systems depend on a myth of an “infinite earth” which will keep providing resources long into that dreamed of future. We are learning that this isn’t true --but we are incapable of stopping ourselves from demanding more. Why? Berry thinks this is because we have become quite stupid. He says:
After several generations of “technical progress” in fact we have become a people who cannot think about anything important. How far down the natural order must we go to find creatures who raise their young as indifferently as industrial humans now do,? Even the English sparrows do not let loose into the streets young sparrows who have no notion of their identity or their adult responsibilities. When else in history would you find “ educated” people who know more about sports than about the history of the country, or of uneducated people do not know the stories of their families and their communities?”
How do we counter this state of affairs?

Berry would have us all renounce the machines, move back to nurturing the land and re-discover the power of indigenous culture. I would like to suggest that we at least consider a great pause in our pursuit of progress. There is certainly good reasons for considering this. Look at our frightfully early spring, the failing crops around the world, dying fish in the Gulf and the petroleum wars that afflict us.
It is time for a bold approach. I suggest a proclamation: Progress is our most destructive product. We’ve got to pause and digest the implications of what we have done already. We must put off the seductive promises of a better future and nurture the world of today. But as good Progressives, That’s not going to be easy.

Ozark Chinquapin said...

One thing I've been thinking about lately regarding the Thrive types and those who believe there's some great energy source out there that will save us, and think those of us who see limits are just pessimists. There's two beliefs that they must have about whatever energy source to take that position. One is to believe in its physical feasibility. The second is that it would be positive to have.

Almost all the discussions center around the first belief, the technical aspects of what's being proposed. Those are important discussions, of course, but it's worrying to me that the second belief isn't questioned hardly at all. It's just assumed that a major new source of energy would be a positive thing, so the believers can call us the pessimists.

I do question that belief too. For a thought experiment, lets consider what might happen if against all odds, a free energy source or one at least one that's so cheap and abundant that it's nearly free were to be discovered, and let's say, as some of those theories do, that it's clean and produces no pollution, and would be easily enough to produce that people would have ready access to it. I would think that would not be positive at all, in fact it would be the worst thing to ever happen to humanity and the Earth. The finite amount of energy that fossil fuels has brought has already brought so much destruction to the Earth, not just through direct pollution but through all the ways we use it. Those who think that free energy would bring a utopia have a fundamental misunderstanding of people. If free energy were available, that would also mean, extremists, terrorists, governments, corporations, whoever it is you're most afraid of would also have free energy, It would increase the consequences exponentially of not just evil, but also simple mistakes. People having free energy would be like a group of small children finding dynamite. It would then be possible for a human action to literally end the world. I'd much rather face the effects of peak oil than a world of free energy.

I used that line of argument recently with someone whom I'd debated the subject with before, who'd into Thrive. I didn't convince him but it did make him think a lot more than talking about thermodynamics and such did. He finally came up with a response that he thought that if people had free energy, they'd be satisfied and conflict would end because people wouldn't be fighting over anything anymore. My reply was that having all the energy from fossil fuels didn't turn people into saints, so why adding more energy do so? People would be the same, the stakes would just be higher.

I'll definitely be using the "free energy would be undesirable" line of reasoning again, as arguing thermodynamics with someone who has already decided they think they know of an exception doesn't go anywhere. I don't really expect to convince many people, just point out an underlying assumption that they mat never have thought to question before.

Richard Larson said...

I have heard it all, and have received a triple dose of denial as having incorporated many peak oil ideas into a presentation leading up to a proposal in offering the installation of solar water heaters.

I proudly wear the badge of honor in being ushered out of more than one house when it became clear to the homeowner just having hot water would be a luxury in the future. They wanted a three year payback on the conservative side, or they wanted the government to pay for the entire cost on the liberal side, and since neither was possible, I might just as well tell them the truth, right?:-)

Anyway, there is one story that travels along the same lines in that I was instrumental in having Representative Roscoe Bartlett come to my town and lecture on the aspects of peak oil (2007) to the local Republican leaders (mostly environmentalists-types came, packed the place they did).

Afterward, this Vice-Chairman of the county party made it a point to hand me a ream of paper he had printed off the internet denying peak oil. He basically called me an idiot, and with most of the Republican parrots repeating his accusations I am the cause of the problem, and Representative Bartlett was a turn-coat. Now I am no longer a Republican, and am still harassed in chance meetings by some of them.

Although this is a lessor occurance, they tend to avoid me now, more often than not, as I have become quite good as presenting the information to refute all the normal denials.

So it will be no surprise to me if and when they pass a law to prohibit ANY talk of peak oil...

Good luck, we are all going to need it!

Jennifer D Riley said...

As someone who lives in North Carolina, I can state that the state house has just turned Republican for the first time in several decades, so, yes, you will see Republicans using this change to ramrod through every piece of legislation they can.

I have Republican pals who believe, without any question whatsoever, absolutely everything they hear from Fox.

Nathan said...

My favorite part of the Yergin editorial in the Times is: "The prospects for actual energy independence remain elusive. It takes some very heroic assumptions to see that happening." One person's (tragic) heroism is another person's delusions of grandeur.

Robo: Luckily the genetics of the United States also includes a strong strain of pro-traitor thinking that extends all the way back to the founding of the country.

John Michael Greer said...

Cherokee, one of the most basic steps in becoming a mage consists of figuring out what things can be changed by means of will and imagination, and what things can't. Dion Fortune, one of the major magical theorists of the 20th century, suggested puckishly in one of her books that the whole fetish of limitlessness was given to the pop occultists of their time to keep them from hurting themselves; the secret of power, after all, is in concentration, and concentration may be defined as the acceptance of limits.

Dale, I'm not at all sure that it's valid to confuse anosognosia and denial -- the attempt to reduce psychology to neurology, though it's scored a few hits, seems to me to have racked up a lot more misses of the standard reductionistic type.

GuRan, thank you.

Chrisroy, that's a hard row to hoe. I'd encourage you not to push the issue with her -- do what you can on your own, without bringing her into it, and see if she figures things out when she doesn't feel she has to defend her own viewpoint. As for the vellum edition, well, I hope there'll be a letterpress edition on paper before then!

Mister R., "a rubber dagger to a sword fight" is a nice crisp description. The problem with the Dems these days, as I see it, is that the DNC gets more money when they lose than when they win -- Dubya was a financial godsend to them -- and since they don't have, as the GOP does, an agenda to push -- that's why every Democratic president since 1980 has simply copied whatever the last successful GOP president did -- the temptation to throw elections, and profit from the flood of panicked donations from supporters, is very strong.

Ghung, that's really good to hear. What you're suggesting, if I may sum up a bit, is that we can fall forward rather than falling back; it's certainly worth a try.

Stu, nicely put -- and good for you for catching onto the fact that the faith in progress is a form of civil religion.

Robo, there's more than one American dream, and the dream of limitless economic betterment has always had to contend with the dream of a willing embrace of hardship in service to a high ideal, the way of thinking that brought the Pilgrims and so many other religious groups here. It might be possible to tap into that latter; I'll be talking about that down the road a bit.

Alex, I've met Chris and read some of his work; we certainly have some interests in common, though there are also some disagreements. I'd certainly be up for a talk on podcast, but then that's true of just about anyone.

ChemEng, fascinating. I suspect it varies from place to place; Texas is on the front lines of the shift, and so it doesn't surprise me to hear that people there are getting a clue. Still, I'd like to see that sort of common sense imported to North Carolina before climate change clobbers that state!

M, I don't read the NYT unless I have to. "All the news that's fit to spin" just about covers it these days.

Diane said...

your concerns are very real, but there are alternative scientists (for want of a better word) who are addressing the issue. I highly recommend the Institute of Science and Society website, where you can find this excellent article

John Michael Greer said...

Yupped, I've found that one of the benefits of living in a relatively impoverished part of the country is that if you live cheap, most people politely assume that it's as much as you can afford. Mind you, the homebrew will likely come in handy one way or the other!

Eric, I wasn't familiar with him. Thanks for the link!

Joe, glad to hear it. Spread the word!

Justin, many thanks for posting -- it was an entertaining conversation.

Lament, I think it's important to avoid being too stridently public, to be sure, and equally important to avoid giving people the impression that you've saved lots of goodies from the crash. This is one of the reasons why poverty is so useful a tool as we move ahead.

JP, if you go around telling people that the end of the industrial age is a glorious opportunity, you're lying to them. It really is that simple. It's going to be a difficult, wrenching time with a lot of suffering; there will be consolations and triumphs, to be sure, but it's an embarrassing sign of the sense of entitlement that pervades our culture that so many people think the future has to be sugar-coated. As for inner strength -- er, have you ever had to deal with a real tragedy or an imminent threat to your own survival? Playacting the heroic adventurer isn't a useful response in such times; the strength that matters comes from confronting the full reality of the situation, and going ahead anyway.

Don, that's pretty much how I expect things to unfold. As people find that progress has ended for them, some of them will be open to the recognition that it's over for the world.

Ando, by all means mention such things; if I think some post isn't appropriate, I can take care of it.

Adrian, nicely put. Stewart Brand was dead wrong when he said "We are as gods and might as well get good at it." We are humans, and might as well get modest about it.

Mark, exactly! You get tonight's gold star for recognizing what should be obvious, and isn't: this is how peak oil happens; this is how the deindustrial age arrives. It's one one financial crash, one budgetary shortfall, one pink slip at a time.

Greg Reynolds @ Riverbend said...

Gosh John, I don't know what you are talking about. Why just this week I heard on National Propaganda Radio that the good ole US of A has a 100 year supply of oil in shale formations. Oil prices are down. The future looks bright.

I'm hoping to get my Jetson's style flying car in the next couple years...


John Michael Greer said...

Erik, the local level is where everything useful has to start. We're past the point at which systemwide fixes are possible; there may be more options as the approaching round of crises hits, and again after it passes, but until then, "where you are, with what you have, right now" is a good motto.

James, I'm always suspicious of arguments that claim that bad decisions are hardwired into the human brain, not least because there are so many counterexamples in history.

Mike, no, the game is for the middle class to hold onto its wealth while blaming everything bad that happens on the people whose power the middle class supports, and profits from. Didn't you get the memo?

Shark, good heavens. I'd completely forgotten about that part of the novel. Many thanks for the reminder!

Escape, thanks for the links! Yes, it's interesting to see the BBC talking in those terms.

Jeff, thank you. There'll be a lot more like this down the road a bit.

Sean, the kind of argument you're offering here is very common, of course. What it misses is that for most of human history, progress was rare and sporadic, and was nearly always balanced by regress. Not that long ago, most people used the same technologies for farming and other economic activities that their great-great-great-great-grandfathers used.

It's only in the last 300 years that that's stopped being the rule, and that change was due to fossil fuel energy,. As fossil fuels go away, in turn, all the technologies that depend on ample supplies of cheap, highly concentrated energy will go away as well. Will new techniques get invented after that time? Sure -- but in all probability, it'll be about as common as it was before the age of fossil fuels, which means that once again many generations will go by between one minor technological improvement and the next.

Escape, plague's been in this country since around 1905; there's maybe a dozen cases a year, every year. What will happen once antibiotics stop being useful due to microbial resistance is a good question with few pleasant answers.

Raven, thanks for the link. I'm glad the article mentioned the education industry, which to my mind is way up there on the scale of corruption.

John Michael Greer said...

Speedscribe, that's really sad. There are hundreds of more constructive ways you could face the future, you know. I'd encourage you to consider getting some counseling.

Allison, it's important to recognize the difference between a real problem and the use that's been made of that problem for propagandistic purposes. Yes, there's quite a bit of nuclear waste out there, and at this point there's no realistic hope that any of it is going to be stored in anything remotely like a safe manner before decline takes away the funding that would have been needed for so huge a project. That means that for many centuries to come, some areas of the Earth's surface are going to be places where you don't go, because those who go there get sick and die.

That's the ugly reality. That's not the same thing as an extinction event, though, and those who have been claiming that, say, the collapse of Fukushima Daiichi reactor building 4 will bring about an extiction event are engaging in the same sort of hyperbole as those who claimed that the Deepwater Horizon oil spill was going to cause an extinction event. As more and more of the waste gets released into the biosphere, there are going to be many deaths, many cancers, and a wide range of other health problems -- but you know, that's equally true of many of the other forms of brainless meddling industrial civilization has inflicted on the biosphere.

There are things that can be done, if you happen to be downwind of a major nuclear waste release, to limit its impact on your health; you'll find a lot of material about that in the older literature of survivalism, the stuff that focused on making it alive through a nuclear war. Ultimately, though, each of us is going to die sometime, and in the deindustrial age beginning around us right now, it's fairly likely that most of us aren't going to die of advanced old age. Getting used to that, as our ancestors were used to that, is a valuable skill.

Blackwings, an excellent teaching story! I've had to deal with students like that -- and, yes, it was mostly in California.

Kurt, good. I see the same sort of realignment in its early phases right now; it'll be interesting to see how it develops in the years immediately before us.

Mike, thank you.

Chris, well put. There has to be room for conversation, even -- or especially -- between people who disagree on fundamental issues.

Bruce, thanks for the recommendation! I'm not familiar with that book, and clearly need to fix that.

Danogenes, nicely put. This discussion is a good generator of slogans and punch lines!

Ozark, excellent! I don't usually give out two gold stars in a night, but you get one. Keep on pursuing that line of argument, and see what kinds of responses you get. It's counterintuitive enough that it might just work.

Richard, wait a few years. Some of them will be seeking you out in a fair state of embarrassment to ask your advice. Others will be joining a fanatic religious cult that claims that Jesus will bring back the oil if they just pray long and hard enough. Still others will turn beet red and fail to look you in the eyes when your paths cross on the street. It's going to be an interesting time.

Jennifer, I hope you live well inland.

Nathan, practically an epigram!

Glenn said...

IIRC, plague's been in the American Southwest since the Conquistadores. It shows up now and again, coming in cycles through the rodent population. Without antibiotics it could easily become epidemic or pandemic. A post-industrial population drop would pretty much guarantee the former, with predictably grim results for any future society on the N. American continent.

Parting of the ways? Hmmm, JMG you're starting to sound a bit like one of the gospel parables about separating the sheep from the goats... :)


Marrowstone Island

MilesL said...

Spectrum Crunch Video

Just watched this. This deals with the short term. Shows how even those who believe in progress are having to deal with limitations. Reality trumps all else.

beneaththesurface said...

When I’ve mentioned peak oil to a friend of mine, he doesn’t necessarily deny it. But he responds, saying something like, “Well, there may be some challenges and setbacks in the future because of peak oil, but it seems almost inevitable that progress will continue. The exciting part is that no matter how far down the road of progress we travel, we can only see as far as the horizon, and beyond that, the possibilities remain endless. There are really no limits to what human creativity can accomplish.”

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about human creativity, what it can accomplish and what it can’t, and how the belief in what it can accomplish has become very twisted in this age, due to the temporary abundance of fossil fuels and other non-renewable resources. For the record, I am someone who believes in the power of human creativity, and bemoans a pervasive lack of creativity in this age. I believe that to be fully human is to live a creative life. But to me, human creativity is not synonomous with finding creative ways to (supposedly) transcend natural limits (Kurzweil’s “The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology” is an extreme example of equating creativity solely with surpassing all limits.) The kind of creativity which is really needed in this age, is creativity in living within limits.

I think we live in a society, so dominated by passive enterntainment and multiple choice tests and the like, where very few people are truly living creative lives that are even close to their potential. Therefore I find it ironic that some suggest that we are living during the greatest outpouring of human creativity in human history (well, there are more humans now than any other time, so in some sense there may be more ideas, but I don’t buy into the belief that other time periods were less creative than the modern era). For the large marjority of people currently living, it is certainly not true.

Creativity is not always about expanding possibilities, but also creatively recognizing & responding to impossibilities!

Some people think I don’t have faith in human power to overcome any roadblock in its way. I do have some cautious faith in human power, but paradoxically, I think the most profound human power can only come about when confronting & accepting the limits to human power. That’s a paradox that people in the industrial era have largely failed to grasp. I think a statement of this sort needs to be carved into stone for crowds of passers-by to contemplate…

Red Neck Girl said...

I'm an odd duck. I've been longing for a more natural way of living since I was a young teen growing up in the lumber camp. Even at my age, (I'm 60 now), I dearly want some property somewhere that I can turn into a nearly self sufficient farm. A place where I can garden, keep my horses, goats and some chickens. I seem to have a fair talent for such things in spite of having grown up in an industrialize society. But I have promised to care for my best friend who can no longer care for herself and I will stay as long as she needs me. I do have to fight the restlessness a need to have my own place brings out.

If I were younger I don't think I would be afraid of 'things to come.' (Cue the portentous music!) The world needs a rest from too many people and thoughtless use of her resources.

There's no need to argue with people who are afraid to look into a future of living in an energy budget. And the energy window we had to escape the planet to harvest resources in the solar system to continue our feverish growth has passed. At least for this turn of the wheel.

I prefer a return to the green arms of the planet but she'll have a few things to say to us in regard to the mess 'We' have made.


phil harris said...

@ escapefromwisconsin thinks that the BBC is UK government funded and is impressed by an example of talk about “unprecedented challenges over the next 20 years”.
The BBC is not actually "government funded". We here in UK all pay a licence fee if we own a TV. (BBC radio is free if there is no TV.) The current leading politicians in our coalition government have an anti-BBC stance and recently encouraged Rupert Murdoch to become majority owner of TV Channel BSkyB as the main and more powerful alternative. That deal did not happen at the last minute because of revelations of illegal activity at Murdoch's newspapers in the UK. Hacking by reporters into the cell phone of a murdered little girl finally broke through into public awareness and caused a revulsion against the Murdoch Empire, and that stopped the deal.
Having said that - in the past the ‘independent’ BBC has soft-pedalled climate change and given a platform for deniers posing as 'scientists'. And 'Peak oil' is still usually projected as a long way out in the future, if at all. The BBC will alarmingly parrot too many press releases.

MawKernewek said...

I've been reading Kim Stanley Robinson's 2312 recently. Although he doesn't seem to have the same techno-utopianism of Star Trek - where anything you want can be instantly called forth from a replicator, I do have doubts about the space elevators.

Resource issues are something he is aware of though to some extent, since the population of Earth is high due to radical life extension. In his Mars trilogy it is ~ 18 billion in the 23rd century.

In 2312 it is revealed that Earth to a large extent relies on food imports from hollowed out asteroids.

It is however unlikely that the resources will be there to support the first permament Mars settlement by the 2030s, as Red Mars is predicated on.

I however find that on this side of the Atlantic at least, faith in progress hasn't been strong for a good while - not many people actually have a strong positive vision of the future, not like people in the 60s when they thought there'd be electricity too cheap to meter thanks to nuclear power, flying cars, and holidays on the moon by the year 2000 (not that I'm old enough to know).

Though few anticipate a return to 1930s living standards, with private motorised transport and international holidays a luxury of the few, and possibly a return to 1930s international relations within Europe (notwithstanding certain Euro 2012 football (soccer to most of you) fans.

Poland v Russia attracted a certain amount of violence with about 200 arrests made in Warsaw on matchday. Good job Euro 2012 isn't in winter as Putin might just have turned off the gas.

latheChuck said...

In response to "Yupped", who said that he's being accused of contributing to our currently-thought-to-be-distressing economic conditions...

Some people say that we need to spend more (than we need), to create demand, which creates jobs, which is good for the worker. (These people often have something to sell you.)

Some people say that we need to save more, to create funds for investment, to make production more efficient or credit less expensive, which makes goods cheaper, which is good for the consumer. (These people often have suggestions on how they can invest your money.)

They can't both be right, can they? The beauty of capitalist idealism, in this case, is that it justifies you just doing what you want. Tell them that the Invisible Hand of the Marketplace will take care of the Economy either way... while you proceed to live lightly on the earth, and make your preparations to take care of those closest to you. Just do your best to be productive.

Mister Roboto said...

the temptation to throw elections, and profit from the flood of panicked donations from supporters, is very strong.

As it happens, I have a classic example of what you are describing. On the eve of Election 2004, I was as fired up as any Dem, so much so that I gave $50 to a telephone-fundraiser for John Kerry who contacted me. About two years or so later, I found out that Kerry had a slush-fund of leftover donations he obtained for the 2004 campaign he had never actually spent, which meant that he was holding onto they money I had given him that he had deceptively procured in order to further his own future political ambitions. And of course, in the Election of 2004, the Republicans blatantly and openly stole the election in Ohio (and probably Florida again as well), and the Democrats once again responded by sitting on their hands and playing dumb!

There is also the relentless torrent of political spam I get in my e-mail inbox in which the Democratic Party and its operative and front-groups try to parlay every single little thing that happens (including the recent embarassing defeat in Wisconsin's recall election) into a donation. {SIGH!} Sometimes I feel like I'm living in an episode of one of those comedy cartoon-shows such as "The Simpsons" or "Family Guy". (Interestingly enough, the "captcha" letters for this comment spell out "BS Big".)

Michael said...

You've written often about preserving our civilization's achievements, amongst other things, the scientific method and logic. I'd always assumed that losing digital knowledge and then physical books would be the main problem, but for some time I've been realizing that may be the least of our worries. The scientific method appears to be becoming the "new magic" with scientists and philosophers the "witches and wizards" to be subjected to ducking stools and burning. One thinks of Republican presidential candidates; "evangelical Christians" murdering doctors; and now this!

JP said...

I'm not trying to play "Heroic Adventurer" as much as I'm trying to make the point that there has to be a Purpose to What Is Happening.

Without any sort of Final Cause, the suffering that will ensue will lead to outright despair.

For some, it will be showing leadership to keep their families or communities from starving to death.

"What it misses is that for most of human history, progress was rare and sporadic, and was nearly always balanced by regress. Not that long ago, most people used the same technologies for farming and other economic activities that their great-great-great-great-grandfathers used.

It's only in the last 300 years that that's stopped being the rule, and that change was due to fossil fuel energy,. As fossil fuels go away, in turn, all the technologies that depend on ample supplies of cheap, highly concentrated energy will go away as well. Will new techniques get invented after that time? Sure -- but in all probability, it'll be about as common as it was before the age of fossil fuels, which means that once again many generations will go by between one minor technological improvement and the next."

I think that this is somewhat inaccurate. I think that what occurred, generally, was a slow, steady rise in progress to the extent that the progress was sustainable with respect to the boundary conditions of human life on earth.

This is where I take issue with Spengler's fatalism. I think that there is some dim line of progress, however slight the upgrade.

What I see in the entire Peak Cheap Energy is what amounts to a Metaphysical Bubble. By this I mean that massive spiritual and cultural misallocations that have thrown us wildly above trend.

The bubble is bursting and we will face a Crash. But the underlying trend is still there. And it's still up. We're just going to be below it for a wee bit 'o Deep Time.

The best Final Cause I can think of in this mess is to Preserve What Actually Works.

On the flip side, some books actually do need to be burnt and this is an excellent time to do so.

xhmko said...

JMG said “…which means that once again many generations will go by between one minor technological improvement and the next.”

Not to mention that said improvement may never extend more than a five kilometre radius form the place it was made.

I think another all-pervasive fallacious assumption of modern life is the idea that every human is responsible for every bit of progress that has ever happened. You hear it in comments like, "We can put a man on the moon", where "we" actually means an uncountable team of above average engineers, rigorously trained Air Force Pilots, number-swallowing physicists and number-swallowing accountants't involve the commenter. Humans seem to be compulsive credit takers.

@ Danogenes, St. Wendell Berry, I like it. I'm no church goer, but if I was, then your church sounds like the place to be on a Sunday morn.

Twilight said...

Regarding the issue of nuclear waste that Allison brought up – this is a neat problem that incorporates the issue of denial of reality that is the point of this post. To be sure it is not clear how much the presence of so much nuclear contamination will affect the population of a region a few hundred years down the line. On the other hand there is ample evidence that it does pose a severe threat to health. So while we can accept that we are temporary and life is dangerous (which has been a major focus of mine recently, and does not bother me), it would be easy to simply deny the threat especially since it is invisible.

My namesake ancestor sailed from Holland to Pennsylvania in the 1750's, but all these years later most of his descendants are still in the same small region. That means it's likely most of mine will be too, unless one of us takes some more drastic step. This region is full of nuclear power plants, it's clear the fuel is unlikely to be moved and it will be released in time. The people who live in this region will probably suffer a lot more health problems than they otherwise would have, maybe devastatingly so. So do I adapt in place or flee – not to save myself but to try to get a foothold in some safer region where I might help my children get established? If I stay is that a case of self-deception and denying reality? Accepting one's mortality need not mean staying in obvious danger. These are not trivial problems, and unfortunately the issue of nuclear contamination is a wild card, a new problem that past populations have not had to deal with. At the least it's an additional adversity we surely didn't need.

MawKernewek said...

The BBC often reflects a broader Establishment view than the government of the day.

Hence it is generally quite conservative on the monarchy and constitutional issues.

Matt and Jess said...

Hi, JMG. Progress is clearly on the decline in these parts. Still, it's unthinkable to do some of the things we're considering doing. Our car was totaled in an accident recently; we sure can't afford a new one with the meager amount the guilty party will giving us so we are going to get some decent long-lasting bikes and equipment to tote around two young children. Our auto adjustor is convinced that we need to take out an auto loan and an additional student loan to purchase a new one, but we can pretty clearly see how much of a burden that would become in the future and we're going to stick with our bikes, and our lives are going to become much, much smaller. I suppose the upside of this is that I may finally lose those last five pounds, but it's our first real, personal impact of decline and it really isn't heroic, just a little bit sad, like a little part of the world of progress and opportunity has died.

susana said...

Dear JMG,

Thank you for your blog and your books. The lessons and insights you have shared these past few years have been very helpful in illuminating an uncertain path ahead. Your writings have helped to inform some very important personal realizations and decisions.

A few years ago I discovered your book The Long Descent, and it made me feel a whole lot better after reading a lot of wound-up survivalist screeds. After reading your book, I told my mother about this wonderful author named John Michael Greer, and how his book helped to make sense of the economic situation in the context of human history and civilization. She replied, 'Oh yes, John Michael Greer. That dear boy, I was just talking to him about economics last week'. Apparently the two of you had attended camp together that Summer. She passed away the following year, and among her effects were two of your books, half-read.

I feel certain that your advice to collapse in place doesn't apply to me, as I live and work in the epicenter (California) and I have been waiting and watching the exits for a while. I absolutely am the monkey with her hand in the jar, and an honored Hagsgate dinner guest. I originally came from the streets and dumpsters of the big city and I have survived my own personal depression. I have been acquainted with hard times and it is difficult to accept going back to that, but in a way those were also the best of times. I have recently quit a fat corporate job and am working towards moving away to a smaller, more affordable town. It takes a lot of mental, emotional, and spiritual preparation to manifest such a change, and I thank you once again for all your help in making sense of this bewildering mess.

Allison said...

@ Twilight: Thank you so much for understanding what I meant, and for re-phasing it more clearly. You've conveyed the heart of my concern.

I am 26 years old, and I have not yet had children, any I am not sure that I ever mean to, given the shape of things. But if I do ever have any, through deliberate choice or through unplanned events, I do not want them to be poisoned from their first breath if I can do anything to help, because children are even more susceptible to the effects of food-, air-, and water-borne radiation than adults are.

Many radioactive compounds which will be released from the pools we have sitting around today have very long half-lives of up to 25,000 years, so they will continue to accumulate in the food chain for generations - and animals do migrate. If there are enough of them, the land in many places will likely become sicker, not healthier, for centuries or even millennia after industrial civilization is gone, and the sickness will spread via ocean currents and groundwater. As Twilight mentions, this is something for which we have no historical precedent. How does this influence the theory of catabolic collapse and successor civilizations?

I have the greatest respect for the Archdruid's ideas on our predicament and I find him to be the clearest and most sensible voice I've ever heard on these things. But mustn't we include this wild card in our models, too? Isn't this too serious a problem to ignore when deciding to settle in place, if one is fortunate enough to still have a choice in the matter?

I wish to be clear that I hope that it will not be as bad as this. But without reasons to hope that the waste will spare significant areas of arable land and water, an ecotechnic future begins to look like another comfortable fairy tale. It pains me greatly to suggest this; I want our collective great-great-great-grandchildren to have a shot at a better mode of human life on a healing earth so badly.

I wonder if there is any credible data on exactly how much of the longer half-life material (plutonium, et al) is out there, and how it might begin to circulate when it leaks or explodes out of those pools. The Hanford cleanup continues to turn up unwelcome surprises, and I don't suppose we know where and how all those warheads in the world are stored, or do we? The fact that nuclear facilities tend to be in population centers (often so situated due to other needed resources nearby) and near coastlines and rivers (or in submarines) bothers me a lot. The nuclear waste might spare some land, but will future humans be able to inhabit the lands that are spared, or will they largely be in the middle of the Sahara desert or atop the Himalayas or something?

@ JMG - Thank you for your response. I hate to be so dark, but I think we should have this discussion (as rational adults, not survivalists-gone-paranoid-conspiracists!), and I would be thrilled if the Archdruid would consider it for a future post or series of posts, if only to help those of us who are concerned about it to come to terms with the idea.

Jim Brewster said...

JP, you said "I think that what occurred, generally, was a slow, steady rise in progress to the extent that the progress was sustainable with respect to the boundary conditions of human life on earth."

I think it would be more accurate to say that pre-industrial progress was marked by punctuated equilibrium, to borrow a term from evolutionary biology, that is long periods of relatively stasis interspersed with rapid change during which much is gained and much is lost. Some of what looks like progress is the reworking, rediscovery, and synthesis of very old ideas. It happens to be the dubious good fortune of Western Europeans that they rode the wave from exploration to colonial expansion to fossil fuel industrialism all in the course of a few centuries.

Twilight, I hear you on the nuclear issue. I'm in metro Baltimore, and between Calvert Cliffs and Peach Bottom it's hard to get far enough from a nuclear plant. Both plants, and several others on the East Coast, can be expected to fall below sea level in the coming centuries. Then the "Land of Pleasant Living" will be a shallow toxic sea bordered by the land of unpleasant death.

We are contemplating a move to higher ground and cheaper land in York or Adams County, where we'll still be close to my wife's family. But we'll still be too close to the nukes IMO! My hope is that my children will head further inland. Or maybe to North Carolina, where sea level will not rise because the legislature says so...

deeperthanecology said...

My thoughts on how people will react to the debunking of "the myth of progress" are that few will voluntarily make any significant changes to the way that they live. The reason for this is that whilst power lies in the hands of those who control the fossil fuel based economy, the system will (inadvertently or purposely) continue to school us in the ways of consumerism. Few if any large powerful organisations could, at present, stomach promoting a lifestyle of less and I suspect that few consumers would listen if it sounded at all like they would have to give up their luxuries. Of course these changes will be enforced at some point, but until then I suspect that the defectors will only trickle out at the edges of the mainstream. I suspect that they will for the most part leave consumer culture quietly and go on to lead simple unglamorous lives largely unnoticed by the consumer behemoth that they left behind.
It will be interesting to see what effect the inadvertent lesson in humility provided by the North Carolina senate will have on the rate of defections.

keep up the good work

Glenn said...

xhmko said...
"JMG said "which means that once again many generations will go by between one minor technological improvement and the next.”

Not to mention that said improvement may never extend more than a five kilometre radius form the place it was made."

You have reminded me of an old historical/anthropology joke: "How fast did the knowledge of domesticating horses spread?" Answer: "How fast can a man ride a horse?" The corollary is that weapons and war technologies tend to spread extremely fast.

Considering all the developments in China that later showed up in mediaeval Europe, I'd say any significant invention will spread at a rate proportional to it's usefullness/superiority over an existing technology.

Marrowstone Island

P.S. Yes, I know that horses were first hunted then domesticated for meat and milk long before anyone figured out how to ride them and that it was a notable improvement over trying to ride cows, pigs or goats.

flyingcardealer said...

i didn't know that about NC. yikes. sure hope that one gets revisited and overturned--the sooner, the better.

also, congrats on moving forward with the space bats anthology.

probably looking too far down the road, but any chance of a second contest in the future? it seemed to me that your first call out for stories was quite successful.

take care.

drew m.

Tyler August said...

@Allison, Twilight, et al
re: Nuclear Waste

There are folks living in the Chernobyl Zone of Exclusion. You might dismiss it as a handful of stubborn, tough old biddies, but they are there, and they are still alive. According to this article Chernobyl itself has around 60 permanent inhabitants :,1518,412954,00.html
The Zone is also proving to be a fine refuge for wildlife of all descriptions-- especially large mammals which have become vanishingly rare elsewhere in Europe.
Oh, yes, cancer rates and birth defects would go up if there were a large enough population to measure such effects upon-- but probably not so much as you might think, especially if you trade all the other carcinogens in the modern world for the radiation alone. Putting on my physicist hat, I will say ex officio that radiation is scary stuff, but it should not be terrifying.

Allison is right when she says there's been much more radioactive contamination than is commonly known, but take heart! That's a good sign. If the effects of a little fallout were as bad as some would have you believe, how could it have gone unreported or unremarked upon?

Bonus reading: the natural reactor in Gabon.

SLClaire said...

Regarding the idea that there are no limits on human creativity: Any life form has "accepted" limits on itself based on the conditions it evolved under and the niche it evolved to inhabit. We humans evolved under certain limits and we express ourselves within the limits of the (admittedly broad) niche we inhabit. Our brains and thought processes are limited as is everything else about us. It seems to me that thinking that any way we humans behave has no limits is an expression of adolescence. Unfortunately too many adults outside of this blog don't seem to have gotten beyond adolescent behavior -- maybe because of the fossil-fueled expansion of what we humans have been able to do for the last few hundred years.

I also have a response for those who argue that more available energy, or more money, enhance creativity. My experience has been the opposite. It was by accepting severe limits on our household income that my husband and I became more creative, because we had to do ourselves what we'd been able to do the lazy way with money or machines before. I'm not arguing to get rid of all machinery, just that the less of it that you use, the more you have to figure out how to obtain needs and wants without it, and the better you get at distinguishing between needs and wants. And by doing that, you grow out of adolescence into maturity.

John Michael Greer said...

Glenn, yes, but I'd keep the goats. I've tended goats -- charming, intelligent animals with plenty of personality -- and much prefer them to sheep!

Miles, thanks for the link.

Beneath, the fetishization of human creativity is one of my pet peeves. You know Swami Beyondananda's comment about channeled entities, "Just because they're dead doesn't make them smart"? In the same way, just because something is creative doesn't mean it's a good idea.

Phil, thanks for the clarification.

MawKernewek, I think a return to 1930s living standards is about the best we can hope for. Space elevators, Martian colonies, and hollowed-out asteroids? Ahem. Here in the US we don't even have the real wealth (as opposed to paper wealth) to maintain our road system, which is falling to bits as I write this. I hope we can skip the 1930s politics, though.

Chuck, nicely done! I particularly like the invocation of the Invisible Hand, the god of modern economics.

Mister R., bingo. Most people I know who support the Dems have had identical experiences in recent years.

Michael, exactly. The thing that seems most crucial to me is that individuals -- yes, that means you and me -- need to learn the scientific method and use it, if at all possible in "citizen scientist" projects where it's possible to get some training and help from experienced scientists; we can then pass on that knowledge to others later on.

JP, when anybody who isn't a native speaker of German begins throwing capital letters around to emphasize Very Important Concepts, I tend to roll my eyes. No, there doesn't have to be a Purpose (or even a small-p purpose) to what's happening; it can be, to paraphrase a famous definition of history, just one fool thing after another, and yes, it's perfectly possible to go on living with that outlook, even (or especially) in hard times. As for progress, well, far be it from me to try to argue anybody out of their religious belief! Please be aware, though, that I don't share your faith, and I don't see Spengler's vision as any sort of fatalism -- quite the contrary, it refuses to shackle the human future to a linear trend of supposed progress, but leaves each Culture the right and power to envision the cosmos in its own unique (and uniquely human) way.

Xhmko, thank you! That's an excellent point.

John Michael Greer said...

Twilight, I have to admit that if I was living close to a bunch of nuclear plants, I'd move, simple as that. There are plenty of good places that have distance and geographical barriers separating them from such obvious major hazards.

MawKernewek, thanks for the correction to the correction!

Jess, good for you. I'm sorry to hear that it took an accident to make it happen -- and I hope you and Matt are unharmed! -- but the sooner people get out of their cars, the better.

Susana, thank you -- I don't feel quite so middle-aged after being referred to as a "dear boy"! Agreed as to staying in California -- my wife and I left Oregon for similar reasons, and Oregon isn't half as problematic as its big neighbor to the south. If you can handle winters, consider the Rust Belt; houses cost a small fraction there what they do on the left coast, and if you choose your location right, the people are by and large a lot more friendly, too.

Allison, I'll consider it, though I've got a stack of things to talk about in the months to come already!

Spiller, well, we'll see. It'll be interesting to see how the cognitive dissonance works out as people are told to consume, then deprived of the income that would be needed to allow them to consume.

Flying, that'll depend on how the first one sells. In the meantime, there's a Green Wizards story circle over at the Green Wizardry site, and a magazine of post-peak science fiction shaping up as well.

SLClaire, excellent. That gets today's gold star for clear exposition of an unpalatable truth.

Renaissance Man said...

As the story of King Canute was originally about a pious king demonstrating to his sycophantic courtiers that he was not as powerful as God, I find how the tale has morphed over the 20th Century to be about arrogance and hubris an interesting and instructive commentary on our modern (supposed) leaders.
As for people lost in the myths: Prime Minister Stephen Harper, today announced (after a marathon session in Parliament where the opposition fought a gallant rear-guard action against the wholesale gutting of some 70 laws, especially surrounding environmental protections, that supposedly keeps the industrial capitalits from fully exploiting our resources without interference) that Canada and Michigan will jointly be building another bridge across the river between Detroit and Windsor to alleviate congestion on the Ambassador Bridge and to "enable further growth for the future".

Bill Blondeau said...


You say "I have never felt so dark about the future, Archdruid... How does nuclear waste fit into the Peak Oil equation? What can we do to protect ourselves and the next generations from it?... Archdruid, is there anything we can do about this?"

Have you considered that you may indeed be in a position to do something about this yourself, without waiting for JMG's leadership, or pleading with him to investigate, analyze, and explain the particular topic of nuclear waste?

You seem intelligent, articulate, and coherent; this is clearly a topic about which you are passionate; you have the Web at your fingertips. You could educate yourself about these issues very effectively, I think.

Not intending to sound patronizing, but here's some advice from an old dude who's been through more than a few of these personal cycles: when something is bothering you, really bothering you, learning about it in some depth is one of the smartest things you can do.

If you can dig into the problem of nuclear waste, and pass from your current fearful but superficial assessment of the predicament into a more solid understanding, you would probably feel a lot better about it, even if the answers themselves turned out to be uncomfortable.

And again, not intending to sound patronizing but probably doing so anyway: whenever I sounded the way you are sounding now, whenever I thought I was looking for someone else to fix a big intractable problem so I wouldn't have to worry, I was really waiting for myself.

xhmko said...

JMG, it's so true,creativity is not always a good thing, for instance, think how creative you gotta be to come up with a weapon that could kill a hundred thousand people before they see the flash.

@ Glenn, I rode a pig when I was a kid, though it was on the way to the kill room at the local slaughter house. It's fair point about horses though.

Of course some developments spread fast. But others don't leave the backyard, and probably wouldn't be suited to any other place anyway, yet they are real developments; fitting adaptations to need and place that are a part of the total output of human endeavour.

A major factor in this is parochialism, and the distrust of "them queer folk" as Tolkien explains in his sagas and their strange ways. I would imagine plenty of people would have thought the first horse riders to be messing with things that they shouldn't have been, as indeed some vegans and animal lovers do today. They also would have been scared to the point of incontinence as those crazy Mongols rode into town.

Another factor access is to resources. You know, you can start a fire with a block of ice, but that won't help you in the tropics. There is even a technique that comes out of the jungles of south-east asia, where they create this pump-like tool out of bamboo, and use pressure to create the heat needed to ignite tinder, but growing bamboo in the artic circle...well, actually that might be easy enough, soon enough.

Allison said...

@ Bill B: Thank you for your reply; you're right of course. I'm trying to educate myself about the topic, but it's been hard-going on the Web so far, not least because the parties most likely to have relevant data - energy companies, various governments - are the least likely to release any of it. There is, as JMG notes, a lot of propaganda, and a lot of nonsense. There is also the problem of honest ignorance - we honestly don't know how big of a problem this is. We'd only have 60 years of data if perfect records and measurements were kept, and that tells us nothing about the environmental effects of the longer half-life isotopes. That doesn't mean I'm planning to stop looking, but there are some serious impediments to legitimate citizen research in this area.

That's precisely why I chose to bring up the issue here, to JMG and the group of intelligent and thoughtful people here, many of whom have been mulling over various important environmental issues since before I was born. I suppose I think of you all as "Elders" in the sense of people who have acquired wisdom through experience, which I have not yet, so it seemed appropriate to earnestly ask for advice.

Anyhow, I will indeed continue research as best I can on my own.

John D. Wheeler said...

JMG, thanks for the response. I did not mean to give the impression that I know my belief system is false. I am certain it corresponds well to ultimate reality. I do however freely admit that it is completely and utterly unreasonable, as in "The reasonable man sees how the world is and adapts to it. The unreasonable man sees how he wants the world to be and adapts it to him."

I fundamentally believe there is a level at which humans can give back more than they take. People like Coyote Thunder show it is possible. I don't know how far down that is or how long it will take to get there, but unless we choose a path to extinction, we will get there eventually and start building from there.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John and everyone,

Wow, who'd have thought nuclear waste would be such a hot topic (pun intended)?

As a disclaimer, unlike the eminent scientist, Sir James Lovelock, I would never want to reside next to a nuclear reactor. The reason for this is that humans cut corners or just get things wrong sometimes, plus there is always the black swan...

On the other hand, the Northern Territory of Australia has a huge percentage of the world’s available uranium deposits and it has also been continuously inhabited for well over 40,000 years. You don't have to travel far there to find Aboriginal references to areas with bad spirits which are no go zones. It is an absolute credit to the Aboriginal peoples observational skills that they knew this intuitively and observed this without knowing anything at all about particle physics. This is your future for you and your children if you reside near a nuclear plant. It certainly isn’t a death warrant, but I would be very careful myself if in that circumstance and you need to ask the question of yourself, “How closely do you observe your current ecosystem?”. If you don’t observe your ecosystem closely, then you are probably not up to the task of living with nuclear waste.

The other elephant in the room about nuclear waste is the question, "Are you benefiting in any way from this energy source?" If your household is connected to this machine, then you have a simple conflict of interest. I sympathise with your conflict, but it is not possible to argue it away with clever words, concerns and/or demands. I am sorry to point this unpleasant circumstance out, but it is there.



MawKernewek said...

Doing a bit of online research, this article states that a worst-case scenario of prolonged cooling failure at a facility where spent fuel is stored underwater, could contaminate an area of 5200 This is the same order as the "zone of alienation" around Chernobyl.

Dry cask storage has lower short term risks, but apparently corrosion related cracking is a risk after 30-100 years.

Of course, there are people living in the Chernobyl exclusion zone, I read about a story of an 80 year old lady who returned a couple of years after the disaster.

In a future scenario where there is widespread poor sanitation, and antibiotic resistant infectious diseases, it is likely infectious diseases may claim more lives than radiological contamination.

Handsome, alas unpopular (must be a prick) said...

What shall we call the new political spectrum you are suggesting: Progressives versus Realists* perhaps.

May I suggest in that case that most future realists will be sourced from the current political right. There will be an inevitable, grudging recognition of the job at hand and then the wheels will start to move in another direction, albeit grimly (but so is reality).

* Interestingly the progressives have currently hijacked this term. Some Left Wing-Pinko-Greeny somewhere may suggest a slightly different way of doing business and immediately be labelled as "unrealistic" by a progressive.

Johan said...

This sounds very much like another aspect of what you wrote in that brilliant blog post in August 2011, The Twilight of Meaning. I've long thought that one of the most painful and visceral companions on the long descent will be society's steady march into apparent madness. I don't mean just "the mainstream", I mean an explosion of groups, individuals, movements with opinions and actions that seem so crazy that they're nearly incomprehensible. It seems like a sort of social evolution in action: the shared narratives provided a steady environment with (more or less) stable niches, or at least recognizable niches. As the narratives fail, those niches fade with them and the social environment becomes unstable.

There'll probably still be an order to the madness, and this split into broad categories of denial and acceptance sounds probable. I expect to see nearly every possible variation of denial and acceptance tried out in practice, though.

Jaqship said...

1st time commenting.

Thank you for a gripping article.

When you comment "if I was living close to a bunch of nuclear plants" how close is too close?

I live in (N side of) Chicago, so w/ in 50 miles of the deactivated Zion, IL plant.
(I gather that your Cumberland home is closer to the Western PA plants that to any of the MD plants.)

The Croatoan 117 said...

JP said:

"On the flip side, some books actually do need to be burnt and this is an excellent time to do so."

I agree with the emotion behind this sentiment. The Glenn Beck fireside library certainly comes to mind. I have had this thought many times. That being said, that is a very slippery slope to get on. If it's ok to burn books I disagree with, then I can't judge when other parties burn books I think have value. I have an extensive library of books on the history of the Islamic Golden Age that I cherish and feel should be preserved for future generations. There are probably many more people in this country would love nothing more than to see those books be part of a zoroastrian ritual. I also feel that getting rid of a book or idea I disagree with is simply a step closer to having the desire to get rid of the person, espousing said belief or idea. As JMG has so often elequently phrased it, the culmination of all of this ends with people, bound and gagged, face down in ditches. From a more pragmatic standpoint, I generally buy my books secondhand, and I often see books I would love to see used as fire starters. I am on a limited budget so for every book I would buy to destroy, I would be missing out on buying a book I think should be preserved. So it comes down to I am going to being a protector of things I cherish, and feel have value for future generations, or a destroyer of things I don't like. I choose to be a protector. I also feel that some of the stupidity today, that trees have so valiantly died in vain to produce, have value in the sense that future generations can study them to gain insight on how it all went wrong.

Leo said...

just to let you know, theres a competition here for essays on australias future by victorian students (john button school prize) and for my entry i'm thinking of using your theory of catabolic collapse as the subject.
current title is:
A potential Future
the effects of global catabolic collapse on Australia and how Australian policy can affect the outcome.
its focus is politics and policy on the issue (the competition).

hannah_lewis said...

Reading this post left me musing on what it is that we think is "collapsing", and what may (in parallel or intermingled with the collapse) be growing / developing at the same time.

Terms such as collapse, decline, contraction and regression were used repeatedly here without specifying their object. This conveys a general message of "be afraid", and I am. But like most readers here, I am also attempting to plan and live my life in a meaningful way, in this context where so many of the systems we know and depend on for constructing meaning and for surviving, are collapsing or overdue to do so.

To me this begs the question of what, if any, systemic elements we may reasonably seek not only to conserve (in the hope that they will survive the collapse) but also perhaps to develop to greater levels of complexity, interrelation, synergy and beauty.

As far as I can see the concept and current reality of collapse refers to at least three (intertwined) processes:

1. "The far side of Hubbert's curve" - the inevitable global decline of energy use as fossil fuel reserves dwindle.

2. The collapse of ecosystems at various scales, including a devastating wave of extinctions.

3. The collapse of the human economic, social and cultural systems that constitute civilization as we know it. This side of the coin is perhaps most evident in places like the USA and my home the UK, that have been dominant powers of the industrial age and are by most measures now declining rapidly (while a chasm of inequality still permits the illusion of opulence for those financially propped up by the remnants of the established system). In other parts of the world like China, India or Brazil, a different part of the growth trajectory is in progress - and it is still "progress", despite the wider context of point 1 above.

These processes of collapse no doubt have shared resonances for those of us experiencing them all simultaneously; but they are not the same process, and the situation as a whole allows a wide range of opportunities for us to respond and intervene in these processes in various ways through our individual or collective human agency.

Placing the emphasis on "collapse" and its synonyms encourages responses that are focused on conservation / preservation of existing functional elements, with the expectation that the system as a whole will get simpler and lose many of its existing functionalities.

Such responses certainly have validity and importance. But I do wonder if the current situation does not also have potentials for "emergence" of new complexities and functionalities - which the emphasis on fear, where it excludes hope, may prevent us from perceiving.

hannah_lewis said...

[comment continued from above... this left me with a lot to say!]

For example, as a woman, I appreciate that the processes of social change that have take place over the last century or so, while cataclysmic in many ways, have at the same time opened up opportunities that would previously by no means have been available to someone of my gender. The same is true, to varying degrees, for people of many oppressed minorities. Conversations take place every day, on the internet and in all sorts of events and meetings everywhere, between people whose voices would not previously have been heard or had the opportunity to form alliances and begin creating the changes they wish to see. Different modes of expression and creativity allow the emergence of new social forms.

Yes, there are of course all sorts of nutters forming alliances too - but partly, you see what you're looking for. If you look for hope, generosity and wisdom, there is plenty to be found, and I personally have been staggered by the evidence of positive human qualities that I have stumbled across through my involvement in my local Transition initiative and the alliances it has formed.

I see a danger in the focus on "collapse" if this puts on blinkers that stop us from seeing what may be getting better, as well as what's getting worse. Perhaps we only see "collapse" to the extent that we identify with the systems that are collapsing. From the 3-point list above, it seems quite correct to me that we should identify with 2 - collapsing ecosystems - because we are, in physical reality, dependent on those systems.

But in the case of points 1 and 3, it would seem desirable to me that we dis-identify from those systems (fossil fuel dependent economies and industrial civilisations) as quickly as possible. Our identification with them is psychological; to a great extent it is also currently physical, but the sooner we can put in place alternative ways of meeting the needs they currently meet (from energy and food production to meaning and purpose), the less we will experience our lives as being part of those particular processes of collapse. It then becomes more possible to think in terms of development, emergence, and perhaps the "maturity" somebody referred to above - beyond our fossil-fuel powered "adolescence"...

Stephen Heyer said...

Hi John,

I was kind of puzzled by “The Parting of the Ways”. I mean, if you had have been talking about growth rather than progress I would have understood and entirely agreed: Most people (at least here in Australia) know infinite growth in a finite world is impossible.

Even my business, developer and speculator acquaintances do, they just hope to make a fortune, then get out with theirs. But you are talking about progress and I just did not get it.

Then, oddly enough, we were watching the (English) Queen’s diamond jubilee tattoo and admiring the ceremonial cavalry (we’re kind of horsy). Anyway, I got to thinking that if you were right and no new power sources emerged by the end of this century, cavalry could very well be back to being the core of a modern 22nd Century army, at least in the form of Light Horse like the highly effective Light Horse Australia fielded WW1.

I was thinking about ways in which the application of modern knowledge and whatever technology was available would make the early 22nd Century Light Horse different from our early Twentieth Century Light Horse.

Just progress in action.

That’s when it occurred to me that when you and I use the word “progress”, perhaps we don’t really mean the same thing. If the “progress” you are discussing is more or less a straight line extension of our current, fossil fuel fueled, high growth system, whereas I mean discovering/rediscovering new/better ways to adapt to whatever the needs and circumstances of the time and place are, then what you wrote makes perfect sense to me.

Is this true? Have I got it right or have I missed the whole thing, because if I have it right then we aren’t that far apart?

You see, I really like the idea of 22nd Century Light Horse and square rigged sailing ships.

Stephen Heyer

phil harris said...

Regarding radiation as a threat.
Knowledge helped me a bit.
'Fallout is bad news', indeed. I had it from a specialist physicist at the time that if the Chernobyl 'cloud' had turned over and reached Kiev there would have been tens of thousands of prompt deaths. As it was, it was high enough temperature to widely disperse. There was large enough deposits of radioactive iodine round my house (Scot/Eng border) if the cows had been grazing outside i.e. a few weeks later) then their milk would have needed to be thrown away. Iodine is short lived but I understand did the most damage to children in the USSR, because it concentrates dramatically in the thyroid gland.

Biological concentration is a significant source of threat more generally. Strontium, for example in young bones was significant after earlier atom bomb testing. UK still must control sheep meat from certain pastures contaminated by Chernobyl Caesium 131. X-ray dosages in medicine, radon gas trapped in houses need to be kept to a minimum.

Having said the above, we all have natural ionising radiation in our bodies. All potassium worldwide contains a modicum of the radioactive K isotope. This 'background' level is unavoidable and something we live with.

These were starting points for me when I measured the radioactive levels on our lawn that Sunday all those years ago.

I was always worried by the danger of nuclear war, and we came close a few times in my lifetime.


dltrammel said...

I came across this quote, that I thought was appropriate for the discussions:

""The Roman Republic fell, not because of the ambition of Caesar or Augustus, but because it had already long ceased to be in any real sense a republic at all. When the sturdy Roman plebeian, who lived by his own labor, who voted without reward according to his own convictions, and who with his fellows formed in war the terrible Roman legion, had been changed into an idle creature who craved nothing in life save the gratification of a thirst for vapid excitement, who was fed by the state, and directly or indirectly sold his vote to the highest bidder, then the end of the republic was at hand, and nothing could save it. The laws were the same as they had been, but the people behind the laws had changed, and so the laws counted for nothing."

- President Theodore Roosevelt

John Michael Greer said...

Renaissance, it is indeed. I should probably have been more explicit in comparing the North Carolina legislators to the courtiers rather than the king.

Xhmko, exactly. For that matter, think about all the creativity that's been lavished into coming up with reasons to believe that something miraculous is going to happen on December 22, 2012.

John, well, whatever. To my mind, the notion that any belief system can correspond to ultimate reality is the height of hubris, and deserves the shellacking that hubris inevitably brings; the best we can do, I would suggest, is to come up with models that don't stray too far from the way that reality has appeared, so far, to an idiosyncratic set of primate sense organs and nervous system.

Cherokee, and of course that's the elephant in the room, isn't it? Way too much of the protest against the industrial system in all its forms, including nuclear power, comes from people who benefit directly from that same system. Mind you, I'd be satisfied if anybody who disagrees with nuclear power were to cut their personal use of electricity by a fraction equivalent to the fraction of their local grid power that comes from nukes.

MawKernewek, bingo. Radioactive contamination will be just one of many common causes of death in the deindustrial future -- though I expect there will be no-go zones, close in to the old fuel storage facilities, where the levels of radionuclide contamination will be high enough to kill fairly quickly for a long time to come.

Unpopular, don't you think you've taken truth in advertising a little too far? Aside from that, I'd like to see more realists on the rightward end of things, but right now the pseudoconservative movement is packed with exactly the kind of utopian revolutionary zealots that Edmund Burke and Eric Voegelin critiqued so cogently. It's really sad to see how far the right has fallen away from its own former ideals!

Johan, exactly. A "march into madness" is a very good description of the last three decades, and we're likely to see it take on even more floridly psychotic forms as we proceed.

Jaqship, depends on prevailing wind direction and topography. Here in Cumberland, most of the PA and all the MD nuclear plants are well to the east and thus downwind; the nearest western PA plant, Beaver Valley in Shippingport, is well over 100 miles away, and the winds normally blow in a different direction. This website doesn't show deactivated plants, but it's a good place to start making sense of the issue.

John Michael Greer said...

Croatoan, well, I'm not a supporter of burning books under any circumstances. As it is, though, any modern book that isn't reprinted on acid-free paper or some other durable medium is going to be gone forever in the not too distant future, since current high-acid paper turns back into sawdust in fifty years or so.

Leo, excellent! After the competition is over, perhaps you could post the essay to a website and put a link here; I'm not the only one who will want to read it.

Hannah, I use terms like "decline" and "collapse" because it's been my repeated experience that people -- especially those who belong to the middle classes of the industrial world -- tend to brush aside the very personal impact that the end of the industrial age will have on their standards of living and lifestyles. It's easy to talk about replacing what we get from collapsing industrial systems with something else, as you have, but the stark fact is that most of it won't be replaced -- it's going to have to be abandoned and foregone, because renewable systems can only provide a small fraction of the energy inputs we currently get from fossil fuels.

That means that your standard of living, and mine, and that of everyone else reading this blog, are going to drop precipitously in the years to come. The pervasive sense of entitlement that pervades middle class culture these days makes that concept almost unthinkable, and so I've found that it's necessary to use strong terms to break through the delusive notion that the gravy train will continue to roll, no matter what. Once we can get past that delusion, and accept the fact that by contemporary standards, all of us are going to become very poor in the future, we can start talking about the emergence of new possibilities; as long as thinking about those possibilities is held hostage by the fantasy of middle class entitlement, it's a waste of time, because the only thing people want to talk about is how they can cling to the privileged lifestyles they enjoy today.

Stephen, excellent! Yes, by the word "progress" I mean the Carl Sagan fantasy of humanity climbing an endless stair of technological complexity toward some undefined but glorious future out there among the stars. That's the great myth of our age, toward which I am a disbeliever and a heretic. Adaptation, on the other hand, is an essential human trait; we're very good at it, and you're quite right that the navies of the 22nd century will use different kinds of sailing vessels than those of the 18th century did. (We could have an interesting conversation about that sometime; the very short form is that once shells replaced solid shot as cannon ammo, the wooden ship became a deathtrap, but steel-hulled windjammers proved their worth as a viable technology in the late 19th century, and will probably be the mainstay of oceanic trade and naval architecture in the 22nd.)

Phil, all highly relevant. A post or two on the nuclear aspect of the future is probably inevitable, I gather.

Dltrammel, thank you for the quote!

Rita said...

On the question of Progrss--it seems that we often confuse change with progress--the newer must be better merely because it is newer. That which we can accomplish in the present must be better than what we could accomplish in the past. A small example from the textile arts. Compare microfiber hiking socks with a pair of microfiber fashion stockings. The hiking sock is objectively better in certain ways than a cotton or wool sock, as it fulfills the functions of a sock better. It cushions the foot with less matting; it wicks sweat away more effectively, it insulates from cold, it reduces abrasion from the shoe, etc. The fashion stockings resemble the hiking sock in being produced from petrochemicals by complex manipulation and advanced technical processes. But are they in any way objectively better than a silk stocking? they contribute nothing to the safety, comfort or health of the wearer. While oil is cheap they will be cheaper, but better? Not really. Loss of modern cold and wet weather gear will be an inconvenience to those who will have to work in cold, wet environments. Loss of microfiber stockings will be easier to bear.

As for book burning--I will here confess that back in the 70s I threw away a box of copies of a right wing screed called _None Dare call it Treason_. Someone had given them to my dad and when tasked with cleaning the garage I made sure they disappeared. A total waste of wood pulp IMO.

Kieran O'Neill said...

Something which came to me in response to this post was an experience I had a few years ago, back in South Africa.

I was travelling across the country for reasons related to my studies, and staying at a reasonably well-to-do bed and breakfast on the way. The place offered dinner as well, which I took advantage of, and spent an evening chatting with the owners (a retired couple of white South Africans), and the other guests, a young American couple. At some point the conversation turned to standards of living in the country, or some such, and the owner began talking of one of his children being in some successful profession (accountancy, perhaps?) and earning a comfortable wage by first-world middle class standards. I then made the point that the average wage in the country was about R3,000 (about $400) per month. He looked at me with contempt in his eyes, and said "Oh, come on..."

What he didn't say, but left hanging in the air, was something to the effect of "you mean all those poor (mostly black) people. They don't count." It was fairly clear that his world only really included the middle class (who incidentally cannot make up more than 5% of the country). I left it at that, not wanting to start an argument with the people whose roof I was sleeping under that night, but I suspect the American couple had a brief but educational experience from it.

What made me think of this story, in the context of this post, is that the parting of the ways will likely be between an ever-shrinking middle class, and a vast less-privileged majority. And it got me to thinking that Apartheid South Africa is a good model for how this might play out. In that case, the classes were split along hard racial lines, but the concept was similar -- the government did everything it could during the 60s to the 80s to maintain a comfortable bubble around the middle class (in this case white South Africans), while carefully hiding the often horrifying lengths they had to take to keep the underclass in line.

There are differences in the situation, most notably that in most developed countries, everyone gets to vote, whereas under Apartheid only the middle class did, but I can certainly see this as a potential pattern for the future: governments beholden to the moneyed classes, dedicated to keeping them in a contented bubble for as long as possible, while suppressing everyone else.

To some extent, this is already true, given the degree to which government is beholden to corporate sponsors, who have a vested interest in keeping the middle class comfortably consuming.

SophieGale said...

More maps: nuclear power plants, nuclear research sites, and seismically active parts of the U.S.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

Thanks for the new word: "puckish". Like it. Very appropriate. I hope there is a little bit of room in the circle for a firebrand?

Yeah, I'm no purist either and I'd be happy too, if people started to produce more in their domestic economy and consumed less energy and stuff. Oh well. The northern Italian peasants I’m reading about are obsessive about this point having lived through hard times in living memory. I get them.

Hope you noticed the outcome of the Greek election? Sounds to me, as if it was a collective decision to delay the inevitable just to party on for a couple of more days still.

Still, from my readings there doesn't seem to be much partying going on in Greece currently. Lots of shortages - even basic medical supplies are no longer available, let alone advanced stuff like chemotherapy - as trust is broken down. It would be instructive for readers to have a look at what is going on there as it is their future.

Over the years I've seen lots of businesses repeat this same process on a micro scale. I'm starting to wonder whether this process is an intrinsic part of human nature? Catabolic collapse certainly embraces this point.

However, I have never seen any benefit from delaying the inevitable, other than the fact that it delays having to make any changes to avoid the situation. There always comes a point in time though when the charade can no longer be maintained and either the business slips into a simpler state (ie. administration) or it collapses (ie. bankruptcy). It is inevitable for Europe under the existing culture and political systems. I would say that the PIGSI countries are now under the administration of their northern peers and I fear the coming backlash as standards of living plummet in those PIGSI countries.

By the way, brace yourselves, your government in the US as well as in the UK is also possibly about to enter another round of quantitative easing (ie. printing money to supply to the merchant and retail banks). Well done, the last printing worked so well.



Sean the Mystic said...

So are you a fan of Evola's Traditionalism? Your ideology sounds very rightist (in the old sense), with strong doses of German romanticism and Eastern fatalism. In fact you don't sound all that different from some of the early National Socialist ideologues!

Don't you think that static societies are dominated by monarchies, chiefs and emperors, and that most of our modern ideas about social progress are likely to go away along with the material progress? I would very much like you to address some of the more unpleasant political ramifications of this end of the age of progress which you are prophesying, because I'm not sure that most modern people really understand what it would entail.

macsporan said...

I've always thought it curious that when people talk of 'progress' they mean material things.

It is not that long ago that the word was held to mean social things: the diminishing of violence, discrimination, racism and harshness.

The considerable success most states have achieved in the last eight centuries in decimating murder and putting an end to various forms of cruelty, considered absolutely normal for millennia, have got to be our civilisation's finest achievement.

Thus while I could with reasonable equanimity bid farewell to the Internet, the Fashion Industry and Fast Food, the thought of living in a society that practices witch-burning, massacre of religious dissidents, slavery, flogging and judicial torture, fills me with the deepest dread.

The social software that has banished these practices to the unheard-of is as fine an example of benign trailing-edge technology as can be imagined.

I hope we keep these precious gifts of the Civilising Process and the Enlightenment, though all else be lost.

The fact that these things have origins and trajectories unconnected with fossil fuels and their attendant technology makes me quietly hopeful.

Twilight said...

The dangers of those areas in Australia were not revealed to the Aboriginal peoples by anything anything so obvious as a stroke of lightening, rather they observed the subtler signs of people who were sickly and did not thrive, and probably increased birth defects. It was indeed by being in tune with their environment that they figured this out, aided by a lot of time – time during which a lot of people probably suffered. The concentration and variety of radioactive material we've placed in these plants dwarfs what occurred naturally too.

The basic question comes down to how large the yet to be created no-go zones will be. If they are large enough to begin to span the distance from one plant to the next (which I believe to be true), then whole regions will badly effected. I'm 12 miles from a boiling water reactor, which is certainly too close.

The Archdruid's post this week hit fairly close to home for me, and as luck would have it the comments brought out the reason. This issue of nuclear waste is the bit of reality I've been refusing to deal with, and while I know it and I'm not trying to pretend otherwise the mental effects are still there. A look at the map on Mother Jones charting nuclear facilities shows the entire eastern seaboard from Virginia Beach to Boston, along with the entire eastern half of Pennsylvania is likely to be contaminated. Not to mention Tennessee and the Carolinas. I know this but I stay, because of family and social ties, because I still have a job and a mortgage on my home, because of a lifetime invested here, because I love this place and there is a tiny chance the fuel may be removed. But really, I know the truth.

I'm not sure our host needs to spend time on a key post on this topic as it's not that hard to find out the facts. In a general sense, this week's post has already addressed it – it's not a matter of needing someone to tell you what to do, it's more a matter of allowing yourself to perceive what is clear to see, just like peak oil, climate change, rising seas, and so on. And then acting appropriately.

Cathy McGuire said...

Great post – sorry it’s taken me a while to get to the comment (summer doesn’t seem any less busy on the homestead-ette than spring). One of the thoughts I had on the parting of the ways is that the complexities both of nature and society mean that most people can’t really picture the changes that are taking place. The “denialist” folk I talk to look around at the acres of local forest and say we certainly have enough forest! They look at the fields and cattle and say the descriptions of agi-business destruction are just sensationalism. Some people almost have to experience some “peak” resources themselves or see it locally, to understand or believe it. I once thought internet would make a huge difference there, but not so much. Yes, there are those who now use the ‘net to “witness” what’s going on elsewhere, but too many people either don’t look, or don’t trust what they see (understandable, given the various lies and biases), or simply can’t fully grasp what they haven’t experienced. It may always be thus.

I’m getting more involved in my local-food network, and hopefully will have a chance to help present some of this information to the local population, which is strongly conservative and suspicious of “new agers” (which label they apply to anyone who professes love of the Earth). I like some of the approaches suggested. Recently, I had a chance to mention my current contract position as administrative assistant for the state’s Green Schools association to my Limbaugh-Republican neighbors, and of course they howled at such a “lame-brained” (not the word they used) concept – I pointed out that many schools are signing on to recycling, conserving, reusing as a way to save money, because it does! And they admitted that – if it saves money – then it’s a good thing to do in this economy… so there are backdoor ways to get some of these concepts through.

The Apple pectin link doesn’t seem to work – it’s i-sis, not isis

John Michael Greer said...

Rita, an excellent point. Change for the sake of change -- not to mention change for the sake of making somebody a dishonest dollar -- is not improvement.

Kieran, that's basically what's going on in America right now; the squawking from the middle class is coming from the sudden realization that a good many of them are being chucked outside the bubble.

Sophie, many thanks!

Cherokee, I'll be talking about paying bills by printing money -- er, quantitative easing -- in an upcoming post. It's a warning of no small importance.

Sean, good gods, no -- I've read Evola, but I'm familiar enough with the wider context of his ideas to recognize that what he presents as "Tradition" is simply a mishmash of early 20th century pop spirituality with a rightward slant. (That's true throughout Traditionalism, for that matter.) As for your little dig about National Socialist ideologues, er, do you actuall know anything about the cultural origins of National Socialism? Whether we're talking about the occult traditions that fed into it (von List, Lanz von Liebenfels et al.) or the secular ones (Chamberlain, Rosenberg), there's little in common with what I've discussed here.

As for the relationship of the belief in progress to democratic styles of government, advanced technological societies have about the same track record as their more static predecessors -- some relatively free societies, some abject tyrannies, and most examples in the very wide space in between.

Macsporan, good. What can you do personally to see that this "social software" survives into the future? This is not a rhetorical question; what survives will do so because somebody cares enough to make it survive.

Twilight, in nuke-heavy regions such as the US eastern seaboard, there's going to be a lot of very badly affected territory, no question.

Robert Mathiesen said...

@Sean the Mystic:

I've been reading this blog since it began, and I've never seen any sympathy in it for traditionalism as defined by Evola and his ilk. What did you see in it? Inquiring minds want to know . . .

As for the idea that social progress is likely to go away along with material progress, this seems spot on to me. Ideas and ideals are pretty much always dependent on some sort of material basis for their influence.

But it's by no means clear that the only alternative to modern progress is some sort of absolutism or totalitarianism. Anthropology has found that a very wide range of social structures can and do exist under conditions that we moderns would regard as greatly impoverished. Therefore, if we manage our own collapse skillfully, we should be able to avoid the arbitrary rule of naked power.

Indeed, this is one of the two most important lessons I have drawn from reading this blog: we do have agency as things fall apart, but that agency of ours will have to be exercised in unaccustomed ways. (The other is the supreme importance of stories and myths as we exercise that agency.)

Or, more simply, design your own collapse wisely, and tell powerful stories to support what you design.

Jim Brewster said...

Sean and macsporan, the juxtaposition of your posts is interesting, and shows just one of the wild cards in trying to predict what sort of society will emerge. I tend to think things will become generally more authoritarian, but enlightenment ideas will continue to exert some influence as long as they are preserved. These tensions, along with decentralization, could lead to a patchwork of local responses and wildly different levels of liberty -vs- authority in different locations.

"The fact that these things have origins and trajectories unconnected with fossil fuels and their attendant technology makes me quietly hopeful."

For me that hope is tempered by the fact that these trajectories stem from a dynamic of European expansionism--William Catton's "age of exuberance", of which fossil fuels were only the latest stage. How the ideals of liberty and dignity will stand up in the future is anyone's guess.

Global Nomad said...

I wonder if the push to deny “peak everything” is a function of limited consciousness. It could be that people have developmental stumbling blocks that won’t allow them to progress to the point where they can actually comprehend the concept. Therefore they reject it outright- as impossible. To me this is a subtle distinction from regular old denial, which seems rooted in sloth.

el emer said...

I'm new to this blog--and glad I found it. Just a question for now: What do you, JMG, or anyone reading this, think of Archi's Acres and/or hydroponics with closed loop irrigation?

LunarApprentice said...


Regarding the problem of nukes, when Fukushima melted down, I debated considering whether I should acquire radiation detecting/measuring equipment. I live in the Puget Sound region, and the fallout from Fukushima concerned me, especially as reporting by US sources did not seem trustworthy, and Canadian monitoring was actually scaled back during the crisis.

Geiger counters or radiation meters are easy to acquire, and quite cheap, only a couple hundred $. Unfortunately, this equipment only detects and measures radioactivity per se; it does not identify the isotopes (e.g. of cesium , iodine, strontium, plutonian, etc...) producing said radiation.

I did not (and do not at this time) worry about dangerous doses of radiation, but I would sure like to know what sort radiactive isotopes are wafting to, or through, my environment. So I did some homework as to what sort of equipment you'd need to measure such: Basically you need a gamma-ray spectrometer; any given isotope emits it own characteristic energy of gamma ray. So measure the gamma ray energy-spectrum of your sample, and you've fingerprinted the isotope. A good way to sample the air is simply to use your car's air-filter to trap any fallout.

Gamma-ray spectrometers are around $10,000, and not the sort of thing I can just spring for. So I did more homework (I'm a former electrical engineer, now a physician), and learned that you can gin up one with a detector made from a sodium iodide crystal doped with thallium, a photomultiplier tube with pre-amp, miscellaneous commercial electrical hardware and a lap-top computer. I arrived at a cost for this system of around $2000, but what stopped me was having to write the software. I just don't have the time for this task.

When all is said done, this project still sits at the back of my mind; I think I could actually do it. What I am wondering is: should I? I'm worried that being "blind" to the isotopes in my environment may constitude a big risk in my future. But my time is committed as it is being a physician, being a dad of 2 young kids, trying to pay down student loan debt, a mortgage, and trying to prepare in place for the economically rugged future that appears to be bearing down on us all. Your thoughts on this topic interest me.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

I'm interested in your direction. Remember the old adage, "whomever controls the debt, controls the asset". As a gentle reminder the Chinese have US$3.3 trillion in foreign exchange reserves.

It is interesting too, because if the US prints money, then those Chinese reserves are worth less. But the US also runs the very real risk that the Chinese could sink your economy by dumping large volumes of US dollars. Think imported oil is expensive now, well you aint seen nothing yet? Still, it's not in their interests to do so, but it is an option.

Little wonder they are spending it on Australian commodities at a staggering rate...



John Michael Greer said...

Cathy, that's a crucially important point. One of the things that's helped create the current dismissal of green technologies on the part of conservatives is that much of what is sold as green technology these days is simply another form of conspicuous consumption, sold to a mostly privileged audience using ecological slogans. The older and simpler technologies that were central to Seventies appropriate tech, by contrast, got a lot of use across the political spectrum because they saved money. (Example -- my dad, who voted for Reagan twice, also installed insulated window covers and drove a fuel-efficient car, for the most pragmatic of economic reasons.) The same pitch can be used by green wizards today.

Nomad, I don't think so. I think it's partly that progress has become a civil religion and most people are true believers, and partly that most people are scared to death about the consequences if the religion of progress turns out not to be true.

El, I haven't studied hydroponics -- I tend to aim much lower on the technological scale.

Lunar, it may not be something in which you can invest a lot of time right at the moment, but you might ask around -- perhaps on the Green Wizards forum -- and see if there are others interested in working together on such a project. It would be a very useful technology to have around.

Cherokee, there's a very delicate dance going on right now between China and the US -- each nation is dependent on the other, even though one is trying to supplant the other and the other is trying with increasing desperation not to be supplanted. One possible future, though the odds against it seem fairly long just now, would see a declining US in desperation cut the same sort of deal with China that Britain cut with the US in 1945, allowing China to take over as global hegemon while the US maintains some scraps of its dignity and its current empire. if it comes to war between the two of them -- even proxy war, which seems far and away the most likely outcome -- it's going to be a much rougher future.

el emer said...

JMG: What a relief...I'll, er, take a leaf from your low(er) tech preference; it's mine, too.

The Watchman? said...


Can you give me a little direction for reading about the possibilities and limitations of Thorium? Thanks.


Raymond Duckling said...

hi there! Kind of similar profile here: C hacker by day, Chinese acupuncturist on the side, full-time dad.

As much as I'd like so see your project come to fruition, there might be some copyright issues with my current employer. But even if I cannot give you a hand directly, there are a couple of peak oil aware colleagues who do not have those constrains.

Definitively post this in the green wizard forum. Will contact you there.

Ray Duckling

Lauren said...

Some of the Big Businesses may be catching on a bit when some of the environmental deficits hit them where it hurts. Of course, the middle-class consumers are not being alarmed by government, big Business or the media.


The 'Word of the Quarterly Earnings Season' in the latest edition of the Bloomberg Orange Book must be "Weather." Nearly every company made some mention of the record high temps and talked about the influences on their respective earnings performance. Retailers like Urban Outfitters, warned "We believe the early, usually warm weather in the first quarter may steal some sales from the second quarter." Essentially all apparel and footwear retailers noted a sizeable increase in demand for spring apparel. Restaurants benefited by an early opening of patio and outdoor dining.

Not everyone saw the sunny skies and warmer climate as favorable. Food producers felt a sting at traditional winter travel destinations; Sysco said: "...we were hurt in areas where you would expect winter to be beneficial. So the big ski areas in Colorado and Utah and Florida, you know, we did not do as well in those areas and so I'm not going to say it netted out, but it wasn't a totally positive thing from a weather standpoint."

Better than expected conditions caused the rails to take it on the chin due to lesser demand for raw materials. Norfolk Southern claimed "Chemicals volume was flat for the quarter, as gains in plastics and crude oil from the Bakken and Canadian oilfields offset declines in rock salt for highway treatment due to the mild winter." Meanwhile, Union Pacific said "...volume decline in our Energy business during the quarter was largely the result of a dramatic weakening of demand for coal, driven by a near perfect storm of very mild winter weather and low natural gas prices...""

bagman said...

Once again JMG you've brought the readers’ attention to a problem that must be understood and squarely confronted by all those who wish to navigate the treacherous decline of industrial civilization in the most clear-sighted manner possible.

I agree, there will be those who will steadfastly refuse to give up the ghost of progress. They will throw their money and their energy into every dangerous, last gasp campaign to preserve the American way of life. Like desperate junkies they will attack anyone who tries to prevent them from trashing the planet for another petroleum fix.

In the spirit of killing the messenger they will attempt to crush and villainize those of us who wish to “collapse now and avoid the rush.” We will be called enemies of America and progress--unchristian, anarchists, eco-terrorists, atheists and pagan Earth worshipers who want to drag the world back into the misery and poverty of the dark ages. Should they maintain and extend their grip on power, no one who refuses to drink their cool aid will be safe from persecution.

However, JMG, over the past several blogs, I’ve noticed your aversion to discussing the political questions some readers have raised about how to resist this dangerous threat to those of us who wish to live in harmony with, and respect for, the laws of nature.

I truly hope you aren’t one of those people you’ve described so accurately who becomes “brittle and defensive” when people raise issues that don’t fit comfortably into your strategy for coping with collapse. As you point out, ignoring and evading the need to confront uncomfortable truths is a sure path to “corruption of the intellect.” Yet, last week, when NTROPEE said your approach to handling collapse was a completely necessary but insufficient response to ecocide, tyranny and war. You told him to take his political concerns to a Marxist blog--then you told him to "go away." Instead of dismissing him I would like your thoughts, which I so respect, about this issue.

SophieGale said...

Synchronicity: I walked into the public library yesterday and found a new book, Visit Sunny Chernobyl: And Other Adventures in the World's Most Polluted Places by Andrew Blackwell.

It's a sarcastic, madcap book. Life goes on after, around, and through disaster.

One of the books Blackwell read prior to going to Chernobyl was Voices from Chernobyl:
The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster
which is available as a free PDF.

Alan Weisman has also written about the aftermath of Chernobyl in The World Without Us.

Individually humans are frail, but Life is pretty resilient.

dltrammel said...

El Emer, the downside to any hydroponics system is of course the water pump. During the Descent, you would want to cache spares and figure out some way to power it, perhaps with a solar panel/battery bank set up. This is going to bear on how long the system will work for you.

But if you worked that into a budgetable situation, then I'd recommend going one step further, and do "aquaponics", which is a hybrid of a hydroponics garden and a fish farm. We have a thread on that on the Green Wizards Forum here:

For all the techno-wizardry of hydroponics, I believe JMG is pointing out, that learning how to grow your own food, is a simple system of "vegetables grow food, we eat it, and then compost the refuge, and then feed the vegetables that compost" loop, which has alot less complication to it, and is hardier to stress.

Plus a lot of seeds can be carried in a very small container, should you need to move from your current location and restart. Lugging the tanks, hoses, pumps and power supply, for a hydroponics set up...not so small of a container.

John Michael Greer said...

El, by all means -- dirt, seeds, and compost are a lot less technically complex, not to mention less expensive!

Watchman, unfortunately I haven't had the spare time to do extensive reading on every form of vaporware being proposed in the energy field, so can't help you there.

Lauren, most interesting. I know the insurance industry is already screaming about climate change, since they're getting clobbered in the pocketbook.

Bagman, I'm far from convinced that the scenario you've outlined is likely, much less as certain as you apparently think it is. I've discussed my view of the political dimensions of the approaching crisis in quite some detail in past posts, and will be talking about that in more detail later on as we proceed. What I'm not interested in pursuing is the sort of radical demonization of opposing views that you seem to be applying to believers in progress. If you want to pursue that way of thinking about political issues, by all means, but this isn't the place to do it; this blog focuses on other ways of approaching the question.

As for the person you mention, he didn't get banned because he brought up politics; he got banned because he responded to my comments with personal abuse. Those who insist on doing that, no matter what their opinions might be, aren't welcome here.

Sophie, I'll have to read those! Thanks for mentioning them.

phil harris said...

A brief word about hydroponics.
I did a fair amount of lab and greenhouse work with hydroponics decades ago.
The short answer is you do not get something for nothing. We needed 'covered cropping' for fast growing plants that never went beyond the juvenile phase, and that also were hungry for NPK and needed constant watering. Large pots or beds of deep soil were 'not on'. However, we did not progress to full 'hydroponics' because of the tricky control systems needed to maintain a constant ionic 'salt' concentration, the proper ratios of a complete suite of dissolved minerals, and also pH control. We used minimum soil/peat/growing medium with limited intermittent use of dissolved NPK etc. The growing medium had a buffering 'ion exchange' capacity and allowed high density fast growth in small pots that could be thrown out; the place to be sterilised and the cycle to be repeated every few weeks. Expensive and daft for food growing and not a lot of use unless you have a very high financial value or illegal crop to maximise through-put in covered space. (Incidentally, the ‘space’ needs other environmental controls. This is not 'closed-loop'; water and gas-exchange is to the air and the dissolved nutrients need constant monitoring and supply with controlled feed-back inputs.)
Have a look at some modern 'temperate' indoor tomato systems which use low volume 'soil' and constant liquid 'feed'. And look and taste the product. They look like tomatoes when cellophane-packed but are not, in my view, tomatoes!

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

Thanks for the term, "proxy war". I was aware of the concept but not the terminology for it.

Perhaps the manufacturing side of things is also another factor reducing the possibility of an armed response? In my mind, the US much like Australia is in bed with China. I think your earlier parallel with the US – UK hand over is closer to the mark although admittedly reading the future is not a speciality of mine!

The reason I mention manufactured goods, is that like a cargo cult, the Chinese are very cleverly providing the Western world with what they want – at a good price too – and we are stupidly dismantling our own manufacturing facilities, using our own stupidly short term economic ideology to boot!

Am I wrong, or does it seem that historically in the past century or so, that the country with the largest manufacturing base tends to be the dominant culture?

I can’t speak for the US experience, but possibly up until the late 1980’s / early 1990’s Australia could have withstood a supply shock relating to manufactured goods but now we are the worst of addicts and the supply chain has grown long indeed.



Mean Mr Mustard said...

Regarding Thorium vapourware, this 2010 position paper from the UK National Nuclear Laboratory should suffice.

"To progress to commercial deployment would demand major
investments from fuel vendors and utilities. Such investment
has yet to be justified by market conditions and there is no
immediate prospect of change in the next ten years. Beyond
that, however, the conditions may favour thorium if uranium ore
prices increase and/or uranium reserves become more scarce."

John Michael Greer said...

Phil, many thanks for the info. That was always more or less my impression, but it's good to get some data based on practical experience.

Cherokee, exactly! "Service and information economy" is simply another way of saying "former industrial nation on the way down."

Mustard, the quote seems reasonable enough, but the URL doesn't appear to work.

Mean Mr Mustard said...

I've embedded hyperlinks before but this time tried to test it in preview and got bounced out of blogger altogether.. Anyone interested can copy and paste into their browser.

Jim Brewster said...

I can see some advantages in a bargain with China similar to what the US and UK worked out, but I think popular sympathy is more with India. It will be interesting to see what happens if those two should clash. Just as pro-British and pro-German factions contested US policy a century ago, pro-China vs pro-India may become a debate in the near future, but this time we'll be in the role of the British, keeping our fingers crossed that we are picking the winner. We'll also have Brazil and possibly a resurgent Russia, as well as other players to deal with. Canada could swing a different way, and we could well be a pawn in the proxy war, rather than a main contender. Interesting times, indeed.

Just heard about the latest free-trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership from which China and India are conspicuously absent. Sounds like more attempts to leverage wealth pumps, but for whose empire? Chile, Singapore, and New Zealand were the original negotiators.

hapibeli said...

I would say to Guardian that the question is not "I wonder how that slipped through...", but why would they care? The real news, as JMG points out, is not desired by a great many people. Those who believe in the likelihood of an end to our consumerist way of life are already at least considering what may come.
The corporate/consumerist culture machine is speaking to the converted.

Here's one from the Dragon's lair, and again, why should most care? They'll just naysay any such truth;

hapibeli said...

So little more needs saying...

auntiegrav said...

"It’s the increasing sense that not even the people who are promoting such claims actually believe them any more. "
Yes. It's not just technological progress and capitalism, though: you can walk into any church in the country and find that the people are mostly there for the donuts and the dancing (and because they meet up with their community). Few actually believe the premises presented in reality. They know it's a marketing shtick(sell a product that never has to be delivered), but they also know it has community and human merits.
They just can't say they know.
This peer-perception brow-beating is what is working so well against the truth everywhere.
Homo sapiens: an ape-like animal that spends its youth building an artificial universe model in its head, and upon physical maturity moves into the model; avoiding the real universe at all costs.

Alan said...

In the 1970s, there was a radio comedy sketch (I can't remember the name of the group which performed it -- wish I could.) In this sketch, we hear the grunts, groans, and cries of a large number of people who are dragging a jet airliner across the landscape towards the Grand Canyon. Some "leader" has convinced them that if they succeed in shoving this hulk of aluminum and plastic off the edge of the Grand Canyon, it will fly -- you know, like airliners in the Age of Petroleum once did. The deluded laborers are unwilling to give up on the idea of airliners cruising through the sky, as they did in times when they were growing up.

The story is clearly derived from the tales of "Cargo Cults" on South Pacific islands where islanders constructed "runways" and "control towers" in the belief that western cargo planes would land and disgorge cargoes of foodstuffs, tools, cigarettes, and alcohol, as such planes had done during World War II.

Christophe said...

I have been having trouble getting this comment to post. Hopefully the third time will be a charm. My apologies for taking so long after the Age of Limits to find my books on lime plaster. The most informative book I have read on building with lime is aptly titled Building With Lime: A Practical Introduction. It is written by stafford Holmes and Michael Wingate and was published by ITDG Publishing in 1997 and 2002.

Though lacking in some of the finer details (and much of the obsolete jargon) covered in lime manuals from the 19th century, Building With Lime condenses useful information from various specialty texts in one place. It covers renders, mortars, stuccos, limewashes, brown coats, finish coats, moldings, hydraulic limes, and lime cements as well as giving specifications for limestone, aggregates, and additives.

I've made it sound tediously technical, but it is actually a pretty good read, especially if you keep in mind the historical context that killed the lime industry and made Portland cement king. A lot of incredible benefits were traded away in that deal.

For a more polished, photo-filled homage to lime I would recommend Using Natural Finishes by Adam Weismann and Katy Bryce, published by Green Books in 2008. For an historical snapshot try the trade manual Concrete, Cements, Mortars, Artificial Marbles, Plasters, and Stuccos by fred T. Hodgson, printed in 1916 and again in 2003 by Fredonia Books. There are plenty of books out there right now about Venetian plastering and strawbale housing; however, as trendy status indicators, they pass on a lot of disinformation in the form of exaggerated claims and enthusiastically believed myths. For example, most commercially available Venetian plasters do not "breathe" any more than paint due to their acrylic latex base.

On the subject of this week's post, the nuclear industry seems to be dutifully trying to inflate a new "clean-nuclear" bubble in case the Marcellus bubble can't float the markets to new highs. Several commenters at Naked Capitalism have started an incessant drone about thorium reactors, their untold benefits, and their complete lack of drawbacks. Oddly, they have been garnering breathless support form otherwise sane readers. You were right -- in the face of limits and lack all sorts of snake oil cures will find eager markets.

Brad K. said...

American history does appear to embrace the understanding that there are finite limits.

The various gold rushes all devolved from masses of amateur seekers to a few systematic, industrial approach business people, some of whom still make a profit.

The rush west of the early years of the Union encountered the end of the wilderness -- the Pacific Ocean, or California. Both put a coda to expanding westward in search of resources.

Both examples seem to be useful metaphors for the likelihood of peak oil, and also for the impact.

Just one for-instance, I imagine that the end of the westward migration meant hard times for the Connestoga wagon builders in Pennsylvania and other places east of the Mississippi. Making a better wagon wouldn't mean a lot, once the last family heading West was packed and loaded.

Allison said...

@ Lunar - I'm in the Puget Sound area and will be happy to help if I can!