Wednesday, January 30, 2013

We Don't Live In Neverland

The return to an older American concept of government as the guarantor of the national commons, the theme of last week’s post here on The Archdruid Report, is to my mind one of the crucial steps that might just succeed in making a viable future for the post-imperial United States. A viable future, mind you, does not mean one in which any signficant number of Americans retain any significant fraction of the material abundance we currently get from the “wealth pump” of our global empire. The delusion that we can still live like citizens of an imperial power when the empire has gone away will be enormously popular, not least among those who currently insist they want nothing to do with the imperial system that guarantees their prosperity, but it’s still a delusion.

The end of American empire, it deserves repeating, means the end of a system in which the five per cent of humanity that live in the United States get to dispose of a quarter of the planet’s energy and a third of its raw materials and industrial product.  Even if the fossil fuels that undergird the industrial product weren’t depleting out of existence—and of course they are—the rebalancing of global wealth driven by the decline of one empire and the rise of another will involve massive and often traumatic impacts, especially for those who have been living high on the hog under the current system and will have to get used to a much smaller portion of the world’s wealth in the years immediately ahead. Yes, dear reader, if you live in the United States or its inner circle of allies—Canada, Britain, Australia, Japan, and a few others—this means you.

I want to stress this point, because habits of thought already discussed in this sequence of posts make it remarkably difficult for most Americans to think about a future that isn’t either all warm fuzzy or all cold prickly.  If an imagined future is supposed to be better than the one we’ve got, according to these habits of thought,  it has to be better in every imaginable way, and if it’s worse, it has to be worse just as uniformly.  Suggest that the United States might go hurtling down the far side of its imperial trajectory and come out of the process as a Third World nation, as I’ve done here, and you can count on blank incomprension or self-righteous anger if you go on to suggest that the nation that comes out the other side of this project might still be able to provide a range of basic social goods to its citizens, and might even recover some of the values it lost a century ago in the course of its headlong rush to empire.

Now in fact I’m going to suggest this, and indeed I’ve already sketched out some of the steps that individual Americans might choose to take to lay the foundations for that project.  Still, it’s also worth noting that the same illogic shapes the other end of the spectrum of possible futures.  These days, if you pick up a book offering a vision of a better future or a strategy to get there, it’s usually a safe bet that you can read the thing from cover to cover no reference whatsoever to any downsides, drawbacks, or tradeoffs that might be involved in pursuing the vision or enacting the strategy.  Since every action in the real world has downsides, drawbacks, and tradeoffs, this is not exactly a minor omission, nor does the blithe insistence on ignoring such little details offer any reason to feel confident that the visions and strategies will actually work as advertised.

One example in  particular comes to mind here, because it has immediate relevance to the project of this series of posts.  Those of my readers who have been following the peak oil scene for any length of time will have encountered any number of enthusiastic discussions of relocalization: the process, that is, of disconnecting from the vast and extravagant global networks of production, consumption, and control that define so much of industrial society, in order to restore or reinvent local systems that will be more resilient in the face of energy shortages and other disruptions, and provide more security and more autonomy to those who embrace them.

A very good case can be made for this strategy.  On the one hand, the extreme centralization of the global economy has become a source of massive vulnerabilities straight across the spectrum from the most abstract realms of high finance right down to the sprawling corporate structures that put food on your table.  Shortfalls of every kind, from grain and fuel to financial capital, are becoming a daily reality for many people around the world as soaring energy costs put a galaxy of direct and indirect pressures on brittle and overextended systems.  That’s only going to become worse as petroleum reserves and other vital resources continue to deplete.  As this process continues, ways of getting access to necessities that are deliberately disconnected from the global economic system, and thus less subject to its vulnerabilities, are going to be well worth having in place.

At the same time, participation in the global economy brings with it vulnerabilities of another kind. For anyone who has to depend for their daily survival on the functioning of a vast industrial structure which is not answerable to the average citizen, talk about personal autonomy is little more than a bad joke, and the ability of communities to make their own choices and seek their own futures in such a context is simply another form of wishful thinking.  Many people involved in efforts to relocalize have grasped this, and believe that deliberately standing aside from systems controlled by national governments and multinational corporations offers one of the few options for regaining personal and community autonomy in the face of an increasingly troubled future.

There are more points that can be made in favor of relocalization schemes, and you can find them rehashed endlessly on pro-relocalization websites all over the internet.  For our present purposes, though, this fast tour of the upside will do, because each of these arguments comes with its own downside, which by and large you won’t find mentioned anywhere on those same websites.

The downside to the first argument?  When you step out of the global economy, you cut yourself off from the imperial wealth pump that provides people in America with the kind of abundance they take for granted, and the lifestyles that are available in the absence of that wealth pump are far more restricted, and far more impoverished, than most would-be relocalizers like to think.  Peasant cultures around the world are by and large cultures of poverty, and there’s a good reason for that:  by the time you, your family, and the other people of your village have provided food on the table, thatch on the roof, a few necessary possessions, and enough of the local equivalent of cash to cover payments to the powers that be, whether those happen to be feudal magnates or the local property tax collector, you’ve just accounted for every minute of labor you can squeeze out of a day.

That’s the rock on which the back-to-the-land movement of the Sixties broke; the life of a full-time peasant farmer scratching a living out of the soil is viable, and it may even be rewarding, but it’s not the kind of life that the pampered youth of the Baby Boom era was willing to put up with for more than a fairly brief interval. It may well be that economic relocalization is still the best available option for dealing with the ongoing unraveling of the industrial economy—in fact, I’d agree that this is the case—but I wonder how many of its proponents have grappled with the fact that what they’re proposing may amount to no more than a way to starve with dignity while many others are starving without it.

The downside to the second argument is subtler, but in some ways even more revealing.  The best way to grasp it is to imagine two relocalization projects, one in Massachusetts and the other in South Carolina. The people in both groups are enthusiastic about the prospect of regaining their personal autonomy from the faceless institutions of a centralized society, and just as eager to to bring back home to their own communities the power to make choices and pursue a better future.  Now ask yourself this:  what will these two groups do if they get that power?  And what will the people in Massachusetts think about what the people in South Carolina will do once they get that power?

I’ve conducted a modest experiment of sorts along these lines, by reminding relocalization fans in blue states what people in red states are likely to do with the renewed local autonomy the people in the blue states want for themselves, and vice versa.  Every so often, to be sure, I run across someone—more often on the red side of the line than on the blue one—whose response amounts to “let ‘em do what they want, so long as they let us do what we want.”  Far more often, though, people on either side are horrified to realize that their opposite numbers on the other side of America’s widening cultural divide would use relocalization to enact their own ideals in their own communities. 

More than once, in fact, the response has amounted to a flurry of proposals to hedge relocalization about with restrictions so that it can only be used to support the speaker’s own political and social agendas, with federal bureaucracies hovering over every relocalizing community, ready to pounce on any sign that a community might try to do something that would offend sensibilities in Boston or San Francisco, on the one hand, or the Bible Belt on the other.  You might think, dear reader, that it would be obvious that this would be relocalization in name only; you might also think that it would be just as obvious that those same bureaucracies would fall promptly into the hands of the same economic and political interests that have made the current system as much of a mess as it is.  Permit me to assure you that in my experience, among a certain segment of the people who like to talk about relocalization, these things are apparently not obvious at all.

By this point in the discussion, I suspect most of my readers have come to believe that I’m opposed to relocalization schemes.  Quite the contrary, I think they’re among the best options we have, and the fact that they have significant downsides, drawbacks, and tradeoffs does not nullify that. Every possible strategy, again, has downsides, drawbacks, and tradeoffs; whatever we choose to do to face the onset of the Long Descent, as individuals, as communities, or as a nation, problems are going to ensue and people are going to get hurt.  Trying to find an option that has no downsides simply guarantees that we will do nothing at all; and in that case, equally, problems are going to ensue and people are going to get hurt.  That’s how things work in the real world—and it may be worth reminding my readers that we don’t live in Neverland.

Thus I’d like to suggest that a movement toward relocalization is another crucial ingredient of a viable post-imperial America. In point of fact, we’ve got the structures in place to do the thing already; the only thing that’s lacking is a willingness to push back, hard, against certain dubious habits in the US political system that have rendered those structures inoperative.

Back in 1787, when the US constitution was written, the cultural differences between Massachusetts and South Carolina were very nearly as sweeping as they are today.  That’s one of the reasons why the constitution as written left most internal matters in the hands of the individual states, and assigned to the federal government only those functions that concerned the national commons as a whole:  war, foreign policy, minting money, interstate trade, postal services, and a few other things.  The list was expanded in a modest way before the rush to empire, so that public health and civil rights, for example, were brought under federal supervision over the course of the 19th century. Under the theory of government I described last week, these were reasonable extensions, since they permitted the federal government to exercise its function of securing the national commons.

Everything else remained in the hands of the states and the people. In fact, the tenth amendment to the US constitution specifically requires that any power not granted to the federal government in so many words be left to the states and the people—a principle which, perhaps not surprisingly, has been roundly ignored by everyone in Washington DC for most of a century now.  Under the constitution and its first nineteen amendments, in fact, the states were very nearly separate countries who happened to have an army, navy, foreign policy, and postal system in common.

Did that system have problems?  You bet.  What rights you had and what benefits you could expect as a citizen depended to a huge extent on where you lived—not just which state, but very often which county and which township or city as well.  Whole classes of citizens might be deprived of their rights or the protection of the laws by local politicians or the majorities that backed them, and abuses of power were pervasive.  All of that sounds pretty dreadful, until you remember that the centralization of power that came with America’s pursuit of empire didn’t abolish any of those things; it simply moved them to a national level.  Nowadays, serving the interests of the rich and influential at the expense of the public good is the job of the federal government, rather than the local sheriff, and the denial of civil rights and due process that used to be restricted to specific ethnic and economic subgroups within American society now gets applied much more broadly.

Furthermore, one of the things that’s rendered the US government all but incapable of taking any positive action at all in the face of a widening spiral of crises is precisely the insistence, by people in Massachusetts, South Carolina, and the other forty-eight states as well, that their local views and values ought to be the basis of national policy.  The rhetoric that results, in tones variously angry and plaintive, amounts to “Why can’t everyone else be reasonable and do it my way?”—which is not a good basis for the spirit of compromise necessary to the functioning of democracy, though it makes life easy for advocacy groups who want to shake down the citizenry for another round of donations to pay for the never-ending fight.

One of the few things that might succeed in unsticking the gridlock, so that the federal government could get back to doing the job it’s supposed to do, would be to let the people in Massachusetts, South Carolina, and the other forty-eight states pursue the social policies they prefer on a state by state basis. Yes, that would mean that people in South Carolina would do things that outraged the people in Massachusetts, and people in Massachusetts would return the favor.  Yes, it would also mean that abuses and injustices would take place.  Of course abuses and injustices take place now, in both states and all the others as well, but the ones that would take place in the wake of a transfer of power over social issues back to the states would no doubt be at least a little different from the current ones. 

Again, the point of relocalization schemes is not that they will solve every problem.  They won’t, and in fact they will certainly cause new problems we don’t have yet.  The point of relocalization schemes is that, all things considered, if they’re pursued intelligently, the problems that they will probably solve are arguably at least a little worse than the problems that they will probably cause. Does that sound like faint praise?  It’s not; it’s as much as can be expected for any policy this side of Neverland, in the real world, where every solution brings new problems of its own.

Now in fact relocalization has at least two other benefits that tip the balance well into positive territory. One of them is an effect I haven’t discussed in this series of posts, and I haven’t seen covered anywhere else in the peak oil blogosphere yet; it will need a post of its own, and that will have to wait a week.  The other, though, is a simple matter of resilience. 

The more territory has to be governed from a single political center, all things considered, the more energy and resources will be absorbed in the process of governing.  This is why, before the coming of the industrial age, nations on the scale of the present United States of America rarely existed, and when they did come into being, they generally didn’t last for more than a short time.  In an age of declining energy availability and depleting resources, the maintenance costs of today’s sprawling, centralized United States government won’t be affordable for long.  Devolving all nonessential functions of the central government to the individual states, as the US constitution mandates, might just cut costs to the point that some semblance of civil peace and democratic governance can hang on for the long term.

That probably doesn’t seem like much to those whose eyes are fixed on fantasies of a perfect world, and are convinced they can transform it from fantasy to reality as soon as everyone else stops being unreasonable and agrees with them. Still, it’s better than most potential outcomes available to us in the real world—and again, we don’t live in Neverland.


John D. Wheeler said...

"If this ever changing world in which we live in
makes you give in and cry,
say live and let die." -- Paul McCartney

I think that is the anthem for relocalization.

And thank you for the chastisement. I may come off as overly optomistic, but that is to counterbalance my natural tendency towards doom and gloom. I recognize the downsides instinctively so I have to keep reminding myself of the positives. But that's not necessarily what others need to hear.

Joel Caris said...

Clearly there are some ideas trying to get my attention. I've been thinking a lot lately about our culture's need for narratives and happy endings--either in the form of good outcomes or in the long-sought apocalyptic outcomes. It seems like we want things wrapped up in a neat package, all the problems solved, the ending as straightforward as your average Hollywood production. But that's about the last thing the future is promising us at the moment. Instead, it's offering us lots of dangling threads and unsatisfying trade offs and a future of muddle rather than glory, of making do rather than having it all.

I'm a big proponent of relocalization. As such, this is a great post to dwell on. I actually have had similar thoughts. A few of the posts I've written on my blog--one on raw milk, one on the cult of the expert, some on homesteading--have caught quite a number of visitors beyond my usual traffic by making the rounds on Facebook or Cryptogon. The audience brought by these linkings, I've seen, has tended toward extremely libertarian and anti-government, often pro-gun, very much concerned with freedom and, well, of the conservative ilk, so much as they can be (unfairly) categorized. As someone who's always self-identified more as liberal (and has voted for Obama, much hated amongst many of these visitors) some of that early traffic proved a wake up call about the wide variety of opinions amongst people interested in relocalization, sustainable agriculture, and collapse. That realization led naturally to what you write about here, which I must admit provided me some initial disquiet.

I've largely gotten over it, though. I still like the idea of local autonomy and think it's one of the best possible responses to the future we face. I don't like the idea of how that will manifest in certain areas, but good lord--I can't control the world, now can I? Not to mention, I shouldn't. There are a lot of ways to be a human in this world, a lot of ways to build and maintain a community, and to claim that I know the best or that I should dictate only one way is a dangerous idea, indeed.

And that's the other idea that has been grabbing my attention lately, and about which tonight I've been (so far unsuccessfully) trying to write a blog entry. This sort of narrative expectation for a tidy outcome seems to me at least partially rooted in the high level of control that industrialization has made to seem normal. If we can control all the variables and manipulate the system with massive amounts of energy and resources, then we should be able to twist it to whatever desire we have, right? But that sort of control is exactly what's going away, because it's been based on massive amounts of energy derived from fossil fuels. And instead of micromanaging every variable, we're going to return to the mercy of whole systems, all across the board. It seems to me that it will be as true of governance as it will be of agriculture.

Or maybe that's not quite the right way to think of it. After all, we've always been at the mercy of whole systems, it's just that our ability to manipulate the variables has given us an illusion of control. I don't know, I'm not sure I quite have this train of thought figured out.

Anyway, I'm very intrigued to see what next week brings.

DeAnander said...

Again I project large intermittent migrations should relocalisation really come to pass, for the reasons JMG outlines above. I suspect there might be states from which, say, all the gay people (not to mention Druids!) flee if relocalisation enables majority rule by fundamentalists of the Westboro flavour. Could get interesting as attraction and flight would intensify existing differences, as those who disagree with local cultural consensus depart, and those who are drawn to e.g. a Dominionist experiment -- or a Marxist experiment for that matter, though the chances of that in the US seem vanishingly slim -- arrive. There might be a hardening of existing ideological/cultural divides.

One fear this immediately raises for me is the potential for holy wars; if such winnowing and intensifying does take place, it gets even easier to advocate for war on Them, as They become less and less like Us and We become more and more homogeneous.

I can illustrate this process with the laughable-yet-scary prospectus for The Citadel, a sort of Epcot or idealistic planned community for the ultra rightwing gun enthusiast demographic. One of its key quotations (for this reader) is this: "Marxists, Socialists, Liberals, and Establishment Republicans may find that living within our Citadel Community is incompatible with their existing ideology and preferred lifestyles."

What strikes me here is the hardening and intensifying of ideological boundaries that results in lumping Marxists, socialists, liberals, and establishment Republicans into the same category of Not-Us (wow!). It's a classic instance of the drive for ideological purity, expanding the Them category and narrowing the Us category until Not-Us covers just about everyone "excepting thee and me dear, and even thee's a little queer, dear!" Similar tendencies plagued most Marxist revolutionary movements -- schisms and purges resulting in a smaller and smaller group of ever-more-nervous "ideologically sound" persons.

Imagining true relocalisation, a collapse of Federal power (at least of any kind that can be projected with regulatory or punitive force), it's not so unlikely that Citadel-like projects could flourish, in some form, for a while. Not too palatable, for me anyway. The "ecostery" is more to my taste, but I worry that the ecostery may not be able to defend itself against the belligerent righteousness of a nearby Citadel -- especially if the ecostery is more successful at growing food and has stores worth stealing.

Georgi Marinov said...

I have a very hard time seeing how relocalization of the kind you propose can be a sustainable long-term solution.

The same pattern has been repeated throughout all of human history, on different scales - you start with a number of small tribes, cities or states, they end up fighting each other, eventually someone emerges as the dominant force, an empire is built, it expands, it collapses, the cycle repeats itself.

If the US gets split into individual states, the same thing can be expected to happen, especially given the cultural divide you focused on.

The only way this can be avoided is if nobody gets the urge to expand his culture and influence over his neighbor. Needless to say, this is not the situation at present and there is no indication it has any chance of establishing itself in the future. But there is a more fundamental problem with this and it is that you only need a single group of people to get that idea and then the rest will either have to become aggressive themselves or they will be subjugated. And, crucially, the more groups you have, the higher the probability of this happening, i.e. the more localized things are, the more certain it becomes that the boom and bust cycle will restart at some point in the future.

The only way out of this and towards a planetary long-term sustainability in general is to have only a single group of at least somewhat like-minded people over the whole planet, governing themselves through a single entity, i.e. the complete opposite of localization. Which, given the current biobehavioral characteristics of the human species, is, for obvious reasons, not a viable proposition and can only end up in a disaster. Unfortunately, relocalization does not look viable to me either.

Jonathan Byron said...

In many ways, relocalization is inevitable; fossil fuels gave us the ability to move things far and fast, and that led to a type of globalization (not the only type of globalization that is possible, but the type we actually have). The physical and material transportation components of our economy are certain to contract in a world with less liquid fuel. But I suggest that we not discount the ability of the electronic/information economy to maintain some degree of long distance communication. Certainly, these technologies are brittle in various ways, and we cannot guarantee that all of them will survive an energy descent and the various forms of collapse that might occur. Yet things like Moore's law and Buckminster Fuller's ephermalization point to us doing more with less when it comes to communication and culture. Even if electronic and communication technologies are decimated, it would remain far above the pre-industrial age. Will that save modernity and the empire? No. But it will provide an opening for some important adaptive responses over the next century.

brian said...

As a member of the political right, I agree that a new Massachusetts Bay Colony could do whatever it wanted so long as South Carolina has the same freedom. I'll leave it to history as to who was right and wrong.

John Michael Greer said...

John, it's not the anthem I would have chosen, but point taken!

Joel, definitely keep working on that issue of the fantasy of control. I think you're on the trail of something worth exploring in detail.

DeAnander, my working guess is that any project along the lines of the Citadel, in the event of a real disintegration of political and economic systems, would dissolve in a hail of gunfire as people who no longer had Marxists and liberals as targets for their rage turned on each other. Still, like the successful monasteries of dark ages past, your ecostery should be located in an isolated and mountainous region, and pursue a policy of strict poverty and community service to the locals.

Georgi, of course the cycle will continue. Did you think I was saying that history will come to a halt? Maybe, just maybe, we can use the tools of democratic governance in a deindustrial setting to decrease the number and severity of internecine wars and other avoidable disasters. I think the chance is good enough that it's worth the effort.

Jonathan, er, are you aware that Gordon Moore himself is arguing that Moore's law shouldn't be used to predict the future? Let's not even get started on Bucky Fuller -- a fascinating man but one who earned the label "failure-prone." That said, I think it's quite possible to maintain some level of long-distance communication over the fairly long term, and maybe indefinitely; if you're interested in helping with that project, a ham radio license is a good place to start.

John Michael Greer said...

Brian, thank you. Now we'll see what the response is from Massachusetts!

xhmko said...

On Australia as an ally. Notice our government NOT racing like a slobbering dog to Mali at the moment. It seems the French just don't have the right whistle.

Georgi Marinov said...

"I have a very hard time seeing how relocalization of the kind you propose can be a sustainable long-term solution. "

I think JMG is talking about humanity getting by as best they can without abundant energy, not sustainability. In reality, sustainabilty is tiring and sweat intensive. But he is also saying that sustaining a centralised control centre for such a massive land mass like the USA is far less sustainable long term than having localised decision making that, while possibly - and most likely definitely - offensive to your neighbours, it will at least be better in general at managing the resources of the area.

xhmko said...

On long distance communictaion. Charles O'Hara Booth, a commandant at the Port Arthur prison settlement in Australia's convict era set up a chain of signal stations that worked with a form of semaphore using three sets of double arms set up on poles on hilltops and islands. The arms would be set at various angles with each angle allotted a numeriacl meaning, with each grouping translatable into words, phrases and wholes sentences with the code book he developed. Booth spent long nights woring on it. It eventually had over 11,000 signals and in clear weather, a signal could be sent from Port Arthur to Hobart (about fifty kilomtres as the crow flies) in about half an hour. A message could reach Eaglehawk Neck from the prison (about 18km's) in a minute! All without the use of electricity!

Thijs Goverde said...

Well JMG, living in Nederland I'm guess I'm closer to Massachusets, culturally, than to any other state you've got. (Quite apart from being the closest on Earth to Neverland, in a punning kind of way)
So here's my response:
The second drawback you mentioned seems more of an advantage to me, actually. I'd be more than happy to live a life uninfluenced by the values of the Bible Belt residents.
I'd feel very sorry for their kids, especially those residing in the gay end of the sexual spectrum, but there it is - it would be foolhardy to deny there's an egoist streak in any attempt at relocalisation.

Jonathan Byron said...

Of course, Moore's Law should not be used to predict infinite progress or anything of that sort - as chips get smaller and smaller, we will hit limits - single atom transistors are rather small, fragile, they start doing weird quantum things. And agreed, let's not get into Fuller, at least not here and now - although many of the reports of his failure were clearly premature.

My point (to better express it) was that the capabilities we have today in the electronics and communications sector (even if all new developments slow or stop) is very large compared to the energy costs, and even if we lose much of it, we will be far ahead of our grandparents. Culture is based not only on the ability to create material artifacts, but also to innovate, spread and preserve mentifacts and sociofacts. Ideas, laws, customs, taboos, myths and goals, songs and other cultural things are all weightless and dimensionless... all can be shared at a fraction of the cost of shipping a sofa from China to the local IKEA.

I'm not saying that cultures won't also splinter or otherwise re-localize (the centripetal forces will be strong), merely that the material sphere will be hit by the new geography sooner and harder. In our brave new world, I think it likely that it will be possible to send an email with much less cost or energy than is needed for a paper letter and envelope. ---

I was getting into Ham stuff way back in the day, around the time of the Bicentennial. But since then, have staked my ground in the areas of food production and herbs... permaculture on my half acre backyard, have a larger plot for a winery that is in need of building.

Stacy said...

Yes, I expect there will be many things we'll turn up our noses at (including our regional neighbors' behavior) and many things we'll miss and mourn, but ending the Culture Wars might keep the nation nominally together for awhile longer. And perhaps this will make our Empire's passing easier for some of us. Here's a "live-and-let-live" vote from Oregon.

Leo said...

Everyone will have to accept their neighbours differences anyway, might as well start now. Besides, if they values system you use is actually superior (as opposed to equal), then if you follow that system and continue dialoque with your neighbours, eventually they'll change.

The decline of America will make Australia's foreign policy interesting. China lacks the ability for an alliance similar to the USA's or Britain and its, very, uncertain if it can gain it.

Robert Mathiesen said...

Georgi Martinov wrote:

"I have a very hard time seeing how relocalization of the kind you propose can be a sustainable long-term solution."

A solution requires a problem. JMG has been saying all along that we don't face a problem, but a predicament -- many of them, in fact. Predicaments don't have solutions.

What can you do with a predicament, Georgi, then, if you can't solve it?

All you can do is tweak your corner of that world to give yourself and your neighbors slightly better odds. Relocalization is such a tweak.

Nothing we can realistically hope to do can ever be anything more than a tweak, and a more or less *local* tweak, at that.

JMG has been saying all along that there is no brighter future ahead of any of us. He's been talking about economic mattes, mostly, up to now: there is no brighter economic future ahead in which we can all share.

But it's not just economics. There is also no common *brighter* political future in which we can all share. There is no common *brighter* moral or ethical future toward which we can work jointly. There is no *brighter* spiritual future ahead of all of us as a nation, much less as a species.

Or, more bluntly, Martin Luther King Jr. was very wrong indeed when he said, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." It didn't bend toward any shared goal, and now it no longer has the power to do so.

Not toward justice, not toward progress, not toward virtue, not toward any nation-wide or planet-wide thing . . .

And that's OK. We can live with that, each of us can, each of us in our own local way. We can because we must, if we are to keep living at all. Our only other choice is to die, and for enough of us (or our descendents), that already is the only possible future.

And nothing you or I or any of us can do now will guarantee who of us will live and who will die. The dice have already been thrown on that gamble.

Robert Martini said...

John Michael Greer,

I find the contradictory nature of these recent two post very interesting and ironic at the same time. Though, I do not think you are naive enough to be proposing a single grand view as a body of work, rather than a simple discussion about complex things.
It is clear that a reduction in energy flows and intensity of centralized powers would lead to greater decentralization. However, In order for a commons to become properly managed, it needs a centralized power. This provides for a very interesting situation where the commons could simply end up aa place being fought over, such as Asia Minor was between the Muslims and the Byzantines. Maybe so, a republic of some states will end up battling a confederation of other states over various breadbasket/resource rich lands.
If this re localization movement comes to fruition in mass by force or by more political causes, it is sure we will discover a land much more abused, degraded and forgotten than what we had before. I know it is sometimes a mistake to idealize the past, but in this case, the mass mono-cropping, pollution and more variable climate may make this endeavor more difficult than it ever was for the people who managed even a hundred years ago. I sometimes wonder if it isn't the fate of agricultural man to turn the world into a desert? We did it in the fertile crescent, and possibly the Sahara before that? In my heart, I feel the hunter-gatherer lifestyle is the only one truly compatible with nature itself. On the timescale you have discussed, I wonder how the conflict between the decentralizing forces and the decadent-weakening centralized power will manifest itself? How long can the loose plutocracy hold on to control, till they realize that their vast stores of derivatives, credit swaps, loans and other forms of abstract wealth can never be redeemed for real material objects?

wonderful post, as always,


Stuart Jeffery said...

It was DeAnader's point that was going through my mind when I read your posting. Migration between the states is likely to increase as they become differentiated with people making hard choices about leaving their land and moving to places where culture / society / government suits them better.
There is almost a cyclical issue of rise and fall states that will be enhanced through localisation. As one state becomes attractive and has a better standard of living, it will attract people and may topple over - your concept of decline on a very local scale.
So the question is how does migration affect localisation?

Richard Larson said...

Reviewing the risks and planning for the worse case scenario is totally void on the right, on the left, and only partially covered by the Transition Folks. The problem with a lot of them, the Transition Folks that is, especially the writers who publish, is they aren't feeding themselves from their gardens and aren't reducing their dependence on government/economic/energy system (relying on government and the economy is relying on energy). Even if they have the means, they refuse to trade their current life style for solar panels - thus are still feasting on the energy/economic/government system. In other words, they aren't doing anything 'cept jet-setting around talking to each other.

Ok, so we can find a few doers. The next downside to consider is what happens if the local crop fails because of this radically changing weather? After the federal government collapses, there will be no safety net. Do you think any of the Transition Folks believe they might go really hungry for awhile? I doubt it. The people who haven't considered this might have to add a few more reallys, because they never considered being hungry and never planned for it.

Oh, I could go on and on, but I have yet to find anyone in person who can stick around long listening, and wonder just how far you can push your readers too, Archdruid.

Oh, one other thought quick, that feudal lord or local sheriff will also have a hard time in keeping the local population in line with what he thinks is good for everybody, as all it takes is one single bullet to the brain to change a local tyrant's mind.

And banning any and all weapons will not help them!

So I am in keeping with there better be a lot of democracy going on, as per The Archdruid Report.

wiseman said...

Good Post.
However like Georgi I shudder to think what will happen in the absence of central power(s) in Asia.

We have cultural differences hundreds of times bigger than those in America, at least you guys speak the same language more or less.

I just don't see how we will end up living together without vast amounts of resources to suppress all dissenting voices. Everyone must prepare for large scale migrations in future.

Avery said...

Also speaking as a member of the right wing, I think it's absolutely fine for Massachusetts to rule itself as much as Texas rules itself, and I'm surprised by the really negative reaction these comments are taking to intentional communities that want to form a strict identity and keep outsiders out. America doesn't rule France, and they seem to get on fine; why should Massachusetts rule Texas?

I guess now I'm starting to understand more about the importance of centralization in the liberal mind than I ever knew when I was liberal myself.

Georgi Marinov said...

Robert Mathiesen wrote:

A solution requires a problem. JMG has been saying all along that we don't face a problem, but a predicament -- many of them, in fact. Predicaments don't have solutions.

What can you do with a predicament, Georgi, then, if you can't solve it?

One can not be 100% certain about anything.

While I generally agree that we face a predicament rather than a problem, I do not estimate the probability of this being true to be exactly 1. So I do have room in mind for thinking about in what ways we can organize a long-term sustainable future society. And when I do this, I am thinking on timescales of thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of years, etc.

That's why I am not a big fan of relocalization - small scale societies have historically been unsustainable more often than not, and as I said in the original post and as has been discussed here extensively, they tend to produce boom and bust cycles of empire building (which are even more ecologically unsustainable). Something I assign a very high probability to is that this will eventually lead to premature self-inflicted extinction of the human species, quite possibly not that far into the future. I want to avoid that.

I am also completely aware of all the cognitive and behavioral deficiencies of the human species that drive this suicidal behavior and the only way I see that they could be overcome is through knowledge and awareness and those get established through education, which requires certain amount of resources and infrastructure. I don't see those things thriving in localized communities - they have very hard time spreading even in today's globalized world, imagine what it's going to be when the Bible belt and the Muslim world are on their own. Let's say some localized sustainable communities establish themselves - those will be quickly overrun by their unsustainable neighbors, who haven't gotten the message or believe in some medieval religious nonsense that it's their duty to spread the word of whatever deity they believe in.

That's where I differ from JMG - localization may be the better and more practical short-term response, but on a very long-term scale, the only chance of achieving sustainability is a global society (not one of 7 or 10 billion people, obviously) each and every member of which goes through the kind of training that will, to the extent that it's possible, cure them of those suicidal biobehavioral tendencies. Yes, that's an utopia, but even if it has only a tiny chance of happening, it is worth pursuing because the alternative is history repeating itself until it eventually ends prematurely.

John D. Wheeler said...

@Georgi Marinov: You said, "The only way this can be avoided is if nobody gets the urge to expand his culture and influence over his neighbor." I will definitely agree with you there. And I agree that if your perspective is long enough, say, a Millenium, then absolutely, I think someone will get the idea to try it again.

But let me ask you this (and this is @Robert Mathiesen too), do you get the urge to kill your neighbor and eat him? I'm pretty damn sure the answer is no. There is a pretty universal revulsion towards cannibalism.

This, Robert, is the brighter future that lies ahead. Those that manage to make it through will be so repulsed by the mess that was made that the things that created it will become taboo. I suspect the urge to create an empire will be one of them. And since the entire world will experience the collapse, there won't be any pockets waiting to spring back up. Yes, eventually, someone will try it again, but that is not our problem to solve.

Whether that spot of brightness is worth the cost is certainly debatable. However we are going to need to pay the cost anyway. And the process is inevitable. What we might be able to influence is exactly what becomes taboo. Some people are already blaming all of technology. I would love to live in a world without empires but not so much one without tools.

Yupped said...

I believe in local solutions to problems, but this needs to be at whatever level people can reach realistic agreement on pressing problems, discuss and agree viable solutions, and move forward with practical action. And I believe this needs to be very local indeed to bear fruit.

In my local region of shoreline Connecticut, for instance, I live in a classic blue town (whatever that means) which neighbors a more wealthy upper income red town, an older agricultural town and the city of New Haven. Just in New Haven county alone it would be quite tricky to forge agreement on practical responses to the nature of our unfolding reality. And even within our blue town there are many, many different people with different outlooks and circumstances and we could spend weeks debating at town meetings what to do and get pretty much nowhere.

But, change is starting to happen. It's happening on a family and neighborhood basis, in response to specific, fairly cut and dried situations between people who have known each other and have some basis for trust and compromise. People are cutting expenses in response to job loss, learning and sharing old-timey skills, bartering is on the increase, train ridership is up, more kids are passing on college in favor of practical skills, community gardens are being built, and so on. Nobody had any town meetings to discuss any of this, it's just happening in response to reality as some people see it. And it's not all comfortable, and there's plenty of denial and anger and all that. And of course, plenty of other people are continuing to party likes its 1999. But, change is happening in the way change does: bottom up adaptations to specific circumstances that effect you personally. Little platoons, and all that.

I must confess, the prospect of getting involved in town politics to discuss this and share ideas leaves me cold, and not just because I don't like debating in public! It just seems like such a waste of time to be debating the nature of reality with town politicians, most of whom have a fairly fixed view of things. Time that could be better spent getting things done. Is that bad? Probably. There will come a time for town-level planning, but only after a good number of families and neighborhoods have taken their own steps forward.

mallow said...

JMG, do you really think there'll be starvation? I mean in the US or client states in the next few decades?

Jeffrey said...

The emerging generation born into the new set of complex problems created as a result of an empire in decline and energy resources in decline and biosphere stability in decline will not have to worry about the illusion of Neverland.

As we baby boomers age into obsolescence and the gauntlet passed to a new generation born without expectations of Neverland, who will really care about our generations concerns and struggles of weaning ourselves from our false illusions?

I ask myself how we baby boomers can be mentors to the young emerging generation as we ourselves are just taking the first baby steps toward an unknown future?

John Michael Greer said...

Xhmko, France has its own interests in western Africa, which are not necessarily identical to those of the US. Thus the mismatch of dog whistles.

Thijs, fair enough.

Jonathan, factor in all the inputs necessary to keep the internet up and running, and the letter's cheaper. A message relayed by ham radio operators, on the other hand, is cheaper still.

Stacy and Leo, so noted -- two more votes for live and let live.

Robert, there's every chance that some dimensions of the commons will be fought over, repeatedly, on the way down. One of the advantages of democratic process is that it allows some of those conflicts to be worked out in less bloody ways. Yes, it's going to be a long, complex, interesting process.

Stuart, if historical examples are anything to go by, migration isn't geographically uniform -- some places are more accessible than others. I've been discussing the likelihood of mass migration as a major factor in the deindustrial future since the early days of this blog, and the only answer I know of is to settle someplace that isn't likely to bear the brunt of mass population movements.

Richard, yes, I've noticed that -- a lot of people in the Transition scene haven't yet grappled with the end of their own relatively privileged position in the world, and what that means. Hunger is only part of it, though it's obviously an important part!

Wiseman, well, it's not as though Asia hasn't had thousands of years of practice living with only the energy you get from sun shining on grainfields. The transition back to that is going to be rough, admittedly.

Avery, good. When's the last time you read Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France? Burke -- the founder of conservatism, though you won't find many conservatives who are aware of that any more -- has some things to say that are highly relevant to today's politics.

Georgi, neither you nor I nor anybody living today will have the least input on decisions made on the very long scale. I'm concerned about the next few centuries, and at that, I'm pushing things.

John Michael Greer said...

Yupped, if politics isn't your calling, it isn't your calling. Keep talking to your neighbors; that'll lay the foundations on which future political processes can build.

Mallow, I'd expect malnutrition rather than actual starvation to be the major problem here over the next few decades. Globally, grain stocks are low and falling, but so far it's pretty much a matter of rationing by price -- the price of food trends upwards, so the number of people who can afford to eat well goes down, those who can't get by on an increasingly impoverished and unhealthy diet, and actual starvation is mostly exported to the Third World.

Jeffrey, excellent! That's a question that far too many Boomers aren't willing to ask themselves. The answer is that you can't -- you need to be out there learning right alongside them. Age does not equal wisdom.

CGP said...

Another advantage of allowing states to govern their own affairs is that there would be greater variability in the lifestyles available to U.S. residents and therefore greater choice and more freedom. One major downside of industrialisation (and globalisation for that matter) was the rise of cultural homogeneity which is anathema to dissensus. Given the need for differing views and practices in a post peak-oil world, relocalisation offers the best chances of creating more much needed diversity. Relocalisation offers the same advantage to many other industrial countries as well. As for states adopting practices that would be considered objectionable by others, that is an unavoidable consequence of greater freedom. Freedom is generally a warm fuzzy for people but they forget that freedom means the right to suffer just as much as it means the right to prosper.

hawlkeye said...

The challenge of re-localization as outlined in this fine post, is that geo-political boundaries get conflated and confused with their suffering bio-regions. In other words, there is no such place as Massachusetts or either of the Carolinas, as much as actual Berkshire and Blue Ridge Mountain watersheds.

For purposes of discussion we can refer to Mass and SC, but perhaps the more accurate generalization would be “urban” and “rural”. In truth, the blue pills and red pills are scattered all over every neighborhood. You can run but you cannot hide. And most cultural identities based on ephemeral modern media “communications” are nothing more than elaborate strategies for hiding.

No inhabitant of these regions lives in those States nearly as much as they subsist in a state of dependence on the Energy Bubble Incorporated in Memeland, USA. Using the names of these States to metaphorically illustrate the widening cultural divisions among ex-Americans is useful as far as it goes. But it will never work to go so far as to move from State to State for any of these reasons. That’s another delusion; still hoping to live and travel under the comforts of empire, with plenty of fun spots to stop for snacks along the way…

The sad truth is none of those States can feed themselves. Re-localization and migrations will begin in earnest, not for ideological or political reasons but for nutritional motives currently widely unimagined. As we shall see, some places have the potential to feed themselves, and some places don’t, regardless of current Empirical Denomination.

Geography rules. States crumble.

As red and blue identities become more and more brittle and shrill, the smart re-inhabitor will learn the phatic language of both groups and move smoothly between them, avoiding the polarizing labels of each. And we’ll do this by feeding everyone within our sphere, by becoming a local source of good food and shared good-will.

Producing and sharing food has perhaps the best chance of being successful at busting up all those binaries… (along with home-brewed beers, a pint that can’t be raised often enough!)

We all need to move out of our energy-slave-techno-bubble dependence trap far more than we need to re-locate to any particular Town, City or State.

Wasn’t it Gertrude Stein who famously said, “There’s no there, there…” ?

I guess what I’m trying to say is that the neighbors are the only people who really matter, the only ones you can really do anything about. This is perhaps the only useful “us-and-them”; all the others get really shaky without a grocery store under them.

At the end of the day in reality, your neighbors are the people you’re stuck with, so you better get to know them well. I’m starting to think of this principle of sustainable living as the Crucible of Proximity.

I suspect the only common ground possible is, uh, common ground itself, and its ability to support a local food supply. When food-supply gets local, is when local gets real.

Feed One Another.

Come What May.

Wherever You Can.

Odin's Raven said...

When the world's most over-educated generation of subsistence farmers dies, their replacements, who will have been brought up working every minute of the day to eke out a bare living, may not be interested in interfering with the peasants of many miles away.Their rulers, the Gore-Kennedy-Obama Lords (or hereditary Senators), may be more interested in squabbling with their immediate neighbors than in spreading righteousness far to the South.

Lacking the resources to maintain a powerful state or interfering leftist clerisy, the problem of Massachusetts attempting to dominate North Carolina may pass away naturally in a few decades.

Ian said...

Nice post. I would suggest, too, that relocalization might benefit from reacquainting ourselves with how global the preindustrial world was, in some ways moreso than ours. Traders, entertainers, pilgrims, missionaries, nomads, soldiers, diplomats, all moving through regionally distinct worlds. Compare to our techno-globalism which just seems to be building hotels everywhere--you travel to see the same rooms with different ('authentic') wallpaper.

Also, I suspect we will all have surprises in store for us as relocalization becomes a necessity. There's no state so clearly red or blue that there won't be heated political battles over the direction of the state.

I don't mean that in a cynical or dismissive way--it could be good medicine to invigorate democracy (or poison, if it goes badly, but that's always the case). Folks who calmly say 'yes, relocalize' may not know how much their assumptions about their own locale may be challenged in the process.

sgage said...

@JMG and Jeffrey,

There are plenty of "Boomers" who have dedicated their lives to understanding the issues we're facing, mitigating them somehow, learning skills, relocalizing, you name it. And teaching, mentoring, what have you to younger people. I'm one of them.

Yes, indeed many of my peers sold out later in the 70's, but I and many others did not.

As for the sellouts, they have a contribution to make as well. In the immortal words of Mae West (and you have to think of this delivered in her unique voice)...

"If you can't set a good example, you can at least serve as a warning".


Maria said...

I think I have successfully completed my transformation to a curmudgeonly misanthrope, because I'm not buying the "live and let live" idea. Oh, I think people feel that way NOW, but the reality later on will be different.

Let's say there are a few hard winters up here followed by a couple of short, wet, cold summers and famine ensues. Most of the animals are slaughtered to fend off starvation. Meanwhile, our friendly neighbors to the south are faring much better. Maybe the northerners indulge in a little cattle raiding. Or maybe they trump up a good (and phony) ideological reason why we should go to war against our southern neighbors and take most of their stuff. (You know, kind of like going to war because of mythological WMDs.)

Or maybe the situation is reversed because there is a resource mined in the Berkshires that folks of the future want and need. So war is declared on us for an equally trumped-up "good reason."

I've seen too many people do too much lying, cheating, and stealing that they justify because they are somehow "right," or better or more deserving than someone else, even in situations where the stakes and the rewards were almost laughably low. The mind boggles at what people can get up to when the stakes are high.

I hope for a live-and-let-live policy. I just don't think there will be one.

Wullow said...

I am of the opinion that the fundamental problem with governments at all levels is collectivism. Collectivism is the lie that enables the few to enslave the many. And it goes against real human nature, which is individualistic.

Love and caring start with the family and, in a free society, naturally extend outward to friends, neighbors, the village, and perhaps even neighboring villages.

Individualism is not incompatible with preservation of the commons, nor with the rule of common law. Individuals can and do agree to restrain themselves from destroying the commons, because it is in their best interests to keep it healthy and to live in harmony with their neighbors.

Wolfgang Brinck said...

JMG, thought provoking post as always.
I would like to suggest that in the face of declining resources and a collapse of empire there are other options besides a return to 18th or 19th century pastoralism. Relocalization is of course an option but can have different faces depending on population density. Many of the Southwestern States in the US have a very low carrying capacity for human enterprise if you take away cheap transportation, imported food and pumping of water from elsewhere. Current population densities are just too high to sustain in the absence of a generous energy subsidy. Relocalization for the most part will look more like abandonment. Population densities may well become low enough to again make subsistence lifestyles an option. Don't forget that in various native communities there is still some knowledge of how to live off the land by means other than farming. The same goes for Alaska. There is still a significant native population there which to some extent still lives a subsistence lifestyle. Annual culture camps in native communities now have classes on collecting and preparing traditional native foods. Not that most natives living in Alaska would welcome a return to a petroleum free way of life but it is certainly an option for them. Relocalization for most Alaskans would look very different from what it would look like in Illinois or South Carolina. The same goes for the desert parts of the southwest where farming is not an option.

JM said...

"..tenth amendment to the US constitution specifically requires that any power not granted to the federal government in so many words be left to the states and the people—a principle which, perhaps not surprisingly, has been roundly ignored by everyone in Washington DC for most of a century now." Ron Paul was all about following the constitution and returning power to the states.

Jon said...

Mr. Greer,

I believe localization must happen on the local infrastructure of governance that we have today. I can tell you the governance infrastructure will collapse very quickly in a very ugly way here in Florida without significant, continued Federal support.

Imagine the millions of retirees from other states without access to Social Security, Medicare & Medicaid. Imagine what Florida would look like today if the Feds didn't underwrite natural disasters. South Carolinians & Massachusett(ians?) may have their disagreements, but when they are overrun by millions of hungry Floridians, those will be the least of their issues.

Unknown said...

The lefties in Massachusetts who have big problems with South Carolina governing themselves as they may are also the ones who still retain faith that their elected representatives share any of their values and actually serve out of a desire to govern for the common good. They are a small, wealthy, painfully naive, but loud subset of the population here (I am in MA.)

The rest of us say only do what thou wilt southern righties, with the sole caveat that it'd be nice if you could let your gay teenagers and other devalued groups migrate up here instead of bullying them into suicide. We'll be delighted to take 'em off your hands.

Harry J. Lerwill said...

A slow return of powers to the states is certainly preferable to another civil war. Many will exclaim loudly that they will move states if the social changes being proposed are actually implemented. Experience has shown, however, that few actually do. I lost count of the people who said they would leave California if taxes were raised, but they are still here.

Balkanization is one of my concerns, as that cultural divide widens some may figure they can keep the status quo by deporting those who disagree, or worse. The other is the exodus of the dispossessed to states that choose to retain a significant level of welfare, from those that implement far more severe austerity measures.

Localization movements interest me. One of the reason I like working for the Yellow Pages is that it’s a model of advertising that is low energy, low resource, and very environmentally friendly. “Green” pressures have influenced most publishers to use 80% recycled, despite that being more expensive than the traditional wood chips from lumber mills. Yellow Pages, and the technology of communication upon which is was based, the land line telephone, is practical with the energy and resource levels of the late 19th century.

My question (to you and other readers) is, “What could be added to the Yellow Pages to increase its usefulness to relocalization efforts?

I’ve been advocating for a “home gardening” or “victory gardening” section, a couple of pages written by local enthusiasts who know the growing patterns of the area and can offer practical advice on planting times – a garden planner for those taking the first steps to self-sufficiency. More food grown at home takes pressure off the pocket, hopefully allowing local people to have more disposable income, which if spent locally, can help mitigate the speed of collapse. When cheap oil no longer gives Walmart and Amazon’s distribution models a competitive advantage, we may see a revitalized retail community.

Wendy said...

Hear, Hear!

I'm all for returning the function of governing to the States. The US is made up of such a diverse population spread out over so many different ecosystems that making policy that benefits (or doesn't cause problems) for everyone is simply not possible.

Joel Caris said...


Slept on the post and have some new thoughts. Isn't much of this idea about having people live the way we think they should really just rooted in the degradation of community living? We're not very good at living in communities and we don't understand the kind of trade offs and compromises that it takes.

This goes back to your Recovery of the Human post and the I-It, I-Thou forms of thinking. In a world powered by sunlight, labor is done not by machines but by humans and animals. As such, if you're going to survive, you're going to have to learn to get along with a number of the local humans and animals. But they're not machines--they're creatures, and they have their own thoughts and desires and opinions and particularities just as you and I do.

Since I started farming and living out in rural areas, I've come to much better understand the dynamics of living in communities. When I lived in Portland, I was largely able to sequester myself in groups of people who thought like I did. Out in the country, not so much. So you learn to get along with people even when they disagree with you--even when they are diametrically opposed to much of what you think. You figure out when to keep your mouth shut, when to talk in round about ways, when to find common ground and stay on the common ground even as you see chasm after chasm all around you. You figure out who you can debate with honestly and who you need to toe the line with. You make do. You muddle through.

Working with animals is more or less the same, just with a lot less talking. You want a cow to go somewhere in particular? You're going to have to work with it's natural instincts or provide it a motivation to go where you want it to. You better have some good food on hand or understand that if you run right at a cow, it's not going to go where you want. If you walk slow, make adjustments with its wary movements, utilize the landscape and position yourself just right, you can often guide it where you'd like.

But we're all so used to getting by with the abundance of fossil fuels and empire, we don't understand how not to use a heavy hand and we don't understand that the world doesn't exist to do every last thing we please. It's so much easier to buy food at the grocery store than it is to deal with the local farmer or to deal with the plants, if you're growing it yourself.

One of the common refrains in the city is just how frustrating everyone else is and how great the world would be if everyone would just get in line and do whatever it is the speaker seems to think should get done. I hear it in the country too, granted, but not quite so often. But that there's a fundamental misunderstanding of community and the reality of living with other creatures, rather than living a life surrounded by machines who do expected things and do it only when you flip on the switch. We're used to machines, not humans, and we've been taught to discard the humans (or animals, or plants, or whatever) when they get in the way of what we want (hence the way we abuse the land to our liking, scream at our children when they act like children, abuse animals when they don't do what we want them to, and obsess over "individual rights" with the assumption that those rights mean that no one should ever stop you from doing whatever it is you want to do.)

Most of us likely interact with machines as or more often than we do with humans. We're surrounded by massive control schemes rooted in industrialism and abundant energy. We can't seem to conceive of a different way of living and so we apply these familiarities (which all seem to be rooted in control) to our visions of the future. Except the machines and the huge control schemes are the exact things we aren't going to be able to maintain in the future, and so we're going to have to start thinking of it all differently, and we're going to have to relearn how to exist as functioning members of a community.

Andy Brown said...

Well, anthropologists have combed the world's cultures pretty thoroughly and failed to find utopia, so I won't be surprised if we don't found it now. Like you, I put our hopes in re-localization - not least of all because it's coming anyhow invited or no. But more so, because of the dissensus it represents. We can't predict the details of what is coming, so a thousand thousand projects might cook up some worthy survivors among the also-rans and embarrassments.

Loch Wade said...

Relocalization- a spiffy new term for the circular nature of the historical dialectic...

ie, back to feudalism.

In a few places- where the ground is too rocky, and the air is too dry, and the mountainsides are too steep, a sort of clan-based, crofter culture will develop. It will be based on a culture of weapons, and on the principle and right of blood feud.

These people, who base their strength in family ties, and who are so wretchedly poor and so remote from the centers of power that it is not worth anyone's effort to subdue them, will be the repositories of freedom.

For everyone else, they will be subdued by the first bloodthirsty sociopath to come along. This person will steal everything, the land, the water, the money, and the guns, and make serfs or slaves out of everyone else.

As you said, relocalization is inevitable, due to the inviolate laws of thermodynamics and the economic dead end of EROEI; and brings with it its own peculiar downsides.

If you hate slavery, move to an inhospitable region, start a family, and teach your kids how to shoot straight.

Nano said...

"...settle someplace that isn't likely to bear the brunt of mass population movements."

So we are looking at what, the rust belt? I can imagine that as things really start to crumble some of citizens living in the bigger cities, on either coasts, will end up in some crazy adventures.

Where will all those displaced folk move to?

wiseman said...

True. But we've never had so much population before.

Rough is an understatement.

Reverse Developer said...

@ Georgi and JMG re the local/Global antagonism. There is an Old saying that points in the direction of conscious progress for humanity: Think Globally. Act Locally. (as if we had any choice). If the blogosphere, digital community can be thought of as the hive mind, a reflection of the global self, then perhaps we glimpse the meaning of the adage: Not Global government, but global dialectic. Not emulation at local scale of dysfunctional potency models of empire and rule by thugs, but the honesty and openness of our common condition that is undeniable at local scales.

Carolyn said...

Have you read the book American Nations: A History of the Eleven Regional Cultures of North America? I don't recall seeing it mentioned on the blog, but I'll be a bit surprised if you haven't. I had several family members highly recommend it; I've only just started but I'm finding it fascinating. It explains so much.

Oh, and I saw this and immediately thought of you (especially the mouse-over text).

Jonathan Wisor said...

Recent changes in the laws of Washington state and Colorado- both of which have decriminalized marijuana-demonstrated that relocalization has already begun. Both states have decided to withdraw from the federal war against drugs and are now approaching the problem of substance abuse with their own local strategies. And it is interesting to see that, just as predicted in this week's post, federal hackles are raised.

Dan L. said...


It's great to see this stuff discussed realistically. It shouldn't be so difficult at this point in history to acknowledge that any possible policy has both good effects and bad effects and that choosing a policy requires taking both sides seriously and deciding whether the good outweighs the harm.

I especially resonated with the bit about "relocalizers" in Massachusetts vs. South Carolina. As a Massachusetts resident and advocate of relocalization I've become very frustrated with liberal arguments about the necessity of protecting the civil rights of everyone in the US. Of course I agree with this in the abstract but it is clung to as tenaciously as any religious dogma. It's this probably more than anything else that has made me rethink identifying as a liberal. Standing strong in one's values is a virtue but an inability to compromise is not.

"Know thyself and do the work that is closest to you." I'm not a huge fan of Plato but this is still pretty much the best advice ever given in the history of the western world in my opinion.

Alphonse Houner said...

Great notions in this post unfortunately in practice it would likely produce chaos. The Civil War was the end of the first round in the attempt to establish a national consensus this attempt to create peaceful dissensus is unlikely to go well.

The weakening of our central government has already devolved into governance by military intimidation and intrusion as we have progressively militarized the police, taken away civil rights and violated every aspect of personal privacy. We are now effectively a true Fascist state and reversion to primitive local social practices, such as the old south or Salem Mass. trials, as our society loses cohesion due to the federal abandonment of social programs.

Transition towns are wonderful utopian notions that are only possible in socially liberal democracies. They tend, as I believe Totnes does, to be the product of aging liberals with fading dreams of an era when “peace and love”, with a generous boost from drugs, made dreams of a perfect world seem possible. The reality will be harsh through the transition as central control over social programs disintegrates and military control hardens.

I do not agree with those believing suburban or urban re-localization is possible as urban areas are by their nature unsustainable. The most realistic approach is a carefully considered re-location and a gathering of individuals into small communities with a very low profile. This approach is far more informal than the regimented Transition Town process which, as now postulated, cannot survive without the largess of an entrenched central government. Such actions anticipate a future beyond an exceedingly difficult transition when life is indeed harsher, as you have indicated, and considerably more violent but the simple rewards of such a life could indeed be sweeter by virtue of that difficulty and simplicity.

Such a time is beyond my remaining years but it is possible my adult children may experience the impact of the changes that may come and for that reason we have already re-located and re-localized.

Dan L. said...

"Brian, thank you. Now we'll see what the response is from Massachusetts!"

Haha, well you have mine at any rate. As Joel said, I can't control the world and I probably shouldn't want to. The best I can (morally) do is to explain what I think is right and why and hope others are willing to listen -- and of course, to be willing to listen when they do the same.

Liquid Paradigm said...

As I watch the warbling aria of alternating hope and despair play itself out in the comments, I have to wonder how much of the cultural divide in the USA currently is the result of the machinery (literal and metaphorical) of a slowly panicking industrial world beginning to see its version of the Grim Reaper descend. From right and left, there appears to be the presumption that the species is thoroughly incapable of adaptation, particularly in the area of moral values.

If a struggling de-industrial community has desperate need for a particular skillset, I don't think it's likely to shrug it off and die rather than endure the horror of a gay pagan blacksmith or the pestilence of a straight tailor who's found Christ. Right now we can afford to castigate and ostracize to our heart's content, because Beloved Empire is still getting food to our tables and heat to our homes. But when it comes down to survival, those designations and divisions don't amount to a bucket of warm spit (to borrw the phrase and the euphemism which was substituted in it for more polite gatherings).

There will undoubtedly be enclaves of insert-your-bugbear-here, but I'm willing to bet they won't be as successful in the long term as some people here seem to fear.

Just Because said...

I'm sure you heard the news coverage recently about the petitions to the White House for certain states to be allowed to leave the Union. The media mostly treated these petitions as a joke. Your posts over the past several months and discussion of the viability of the U.S. breaking up into smaller regions created an interesting backdrop for this news coverage. I think the sentiment for having more local control runs much deeper than the national news media or folks in Washington can appreciate.

Bill Pulliam said...

People, people, people. The culture wars are a fabrication of media and political parties, they are NOT REAL. They do not come from an inherent profoundly binary schism in the american psyche, this is purely manufactured to help keep those in power able to manipulate those who could remove them from power. Really, pulling out the Red/Blue terminology, when they are nothing but tag-lines for truckloads of synthetic cold pricklies? And in true knee-jerk style (from all directions), individual commentors here have pulled out their own cold prickles to throw around. I got news for you: some gay teenagers are getting bullied to suicide in EVERY state. And some out gay couples are living contentedly, unmolested by their friendly neighbors, in small towns and rural areas, in EVERY state.

Folks also seem to be slipping into the notion that the future will be planned. The past was not planned. The present was not planned. The future won't be either. The decentralization and relocalization will happen because thermodynamics will force it. It is not a matter of choice.

Carlo said...

I agree with Mr. Wade - only by removing yourself to a difficult and defensible geographical niche will you and yours have any chance of self-determination. Entities that can muster significant force of arms will control the territory necessary for their survival. The city-state is probably again going to be that entity and the neighborhoods within will be ruled by the gangs that currently exist on the fringe. I grew up in California, and long ago made the decision to see whatever comes through to my end - nowhere else to go really, never belonged to any tribe.

The current trend in localization seems quite posh, but all of the productive resources are sure to come under the central control of the aforementioned Entity, eventually. And those resources will be applied to the need for defense and maintenance of the ruling entity and its ruling elite, no?

These city-states will enter into whatever trade and mutual defense treaties as makes sense to them and, over time, the rhythm of state versus large landholders will pulse until larger entities rise to dominate larger geographical regions. And what this will look like with the technologies now at hand, and as long as those will last, will be quite interesting.

So the long descent looks like a long break and bears the promise of a long and wild ride. We know it’s already beginning and have an idea of what will come, so we might be able to use that knowledge to stay just a little ahead of the breaking wave. But don’t get too wrapped up in all that, take the time to explore your connection to this unfolding phenomenon called human life, and don’t forget that “No one here gets out alive.”

Matthew Lindquist said...

My father is fond of saying "Giving people freedom means giving people the freedom to be awful." I've had this same conversation with other re-localization-friendly people, and it always comes down to the same problem: Short of going full-bore William Tecumseh Sherman on the red-state culture/the modern urbanite's totem of fear, there's no way to stop them from doing what they wish after the federal restraints dissipate.

I would suggest that people on either side take a page from an earlier era of local control: In medieval towns and cities, peasants who managed to escape from serfdom could enjoy the protections of full citizenship of whatever city they had managed to reach. They also had to live there for one year, but we can tweak this for the modern age!

Honestly, the psychology of the modern American liberal requires something like this in order for the idea to be acceptable; anything else conjures frightful imagery of the oppressed and benighted slipping back into whatever nightmares supposedly existed before Progress. Which means there has to be some escape, some pressure-release valve for these emotions, because anything less means Progress might be turned back, and that is viewed as an existential threat.

Nevermind that many real and concrete measures of progress have already been turned back, especially for the people dismissed as "rednecks", but that seems to be more off-topic than I've currently veered.

Point is, people need their sacred objects, and providing a safe haven rather than energy-intensive federal intervention might be a better idea anyway. Formerly wealthy New England residents unused to sharing scarce resources might have a different opinion once the hordes of starving gay teenagers actually arrive, but again, I don't want to veer too far off topic, and apologies if I already have.

P.S. I am REALLY looking forward to your much-hinted-at post on the culture wars; mainly because I'm sure the right has its own motivations and existential threats, I'm just not familiar with them. Also, I've ordered some of your books- this blog is not just an amazing source of insight and discussion, but also, it seems, a good investment!

Paraquat Glyphosate said...

I have one good friend who is a real enthusiast for the localization thing. He seems to enthusiastically relish the collapse of the current system of food distribution, centrally generated electricity, banking services, cars, trucks, etc. He was very vocal in hoping that Dec 21, 2012 really was going to be some kind of civilization collapse, though he's not nuts and said he didn't actually expect it to happen. He did sound very confident that if things had collapsed, he'd be OK - he'd just go "back to the land," grow his own food, etc.

But a tree fell down in his yard during a storm last summer. He had to call me up and ask if I could drive over to his house with my chain saw and remove the tree for him. He doesn't have a chain saw, or even an old-fashioned axe. He has no tools at all, not a rake, not a hoe. He's never planted a garden. He doesn't know how to patch a tire on the 20-speed bicycle he owns. When the local water company had to cut his service for three days to repair a water main, he lived off of bottled water that he bought from the supermarket, until service was restored.

In other words, if the collapse comes, he'll be among the first to perish.

I'm not opposed to relocalization efforts. Indeed, in some ways it's a good thing. But the message I have for those who so enthusiastically wish for a systemic collapse: "Watch what you wish for."

Mark Angelini said...

This reminds me of something a friend said in his workshop this past weekend at one of our state's small farm conferences. "Farming's Not For Sissies" That seems to sum up what you're saying. But to add to this, I would say that at the end of the day, being just-fed and tired can be very rewarding, and even looking back on the most grueling work I've ever done (which is probably not very much compared to, say, a farmers life in 20th century Japan) it all feels very worthwhile. Pain and hardship remind me of my limits and how each moment really is a blessing. Add to that, that I already live in what most Americans think of as poverty, I don't have much to lose.

Now say this to one who has temper tantrums while waiting in a traffic jam... Ha ha...

One last thing--one of my buddies,, when talking about relocalization and all associated acts, brings up the point that everything we're doing from day to day is really practice, because we still have the luxury of being able to fall back on the oil economy. Our seemingly hard work pales in comparison to what it will be like to live in a world where our same acts can add up, quite literally, to life or death. Always a poignant reminder for me.


dowsergirl said...

Thank you all for the thought provoking discussion. It brought to mind two relocalizations that have historical interest to me.

The first was the relocation of several Mennonite communities from Manitoba and Sasketchewan to Mexico in reaction to the attempted forced schooling of their children. Mennonites in Mexico now number around 80,000, and their communities are thriving.

The second is what I learned in the movie Detropia that I saw last week. In the heyday of the Motor city, the 1950's, there were close to 2 million people living and working there. The 2010 census now shows a poplulation of 713,777. Buildings are crumblling, services lost. The interesting part to me is that young people are moving there because of the cheap real estate, and there is some semblace of renewal and creative use of ideas.

I'm too much of a country girl to want to be a part of an urban renewal, but my friends who live in Boston just love the vibrancy of what it has to offer. And they can walk to where they want to go.

Of course there are always the food issues. Foraging in the city is a little more difficult.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

Some forms of empire are compatible with localization.

Rather than ruling directly, the ancient Persians and the Ottomans sometimes appointed governors from the elites of conquered nations. They permitted ethnic communities considerable internal autonomy, allowing them to retain their ancestral customs, laws, languages, dress and religion, as long as taxes were paid and draftees supplied for the army.

In pre-industrial conditions, a system like this is stable as long as the imperial overlords don't get too greedy.

There is no imperial citizenship, only rulers and ruled. The majority of people interact mostly with people of their own nationality, but bureaucrats, traders and scholars have access to a wider world.

Kurt Cagle said...

My thoughts on relocalization very much reflect yours. What I think may become a sticking point in that movement is that even within specific cities or towns there is often very much a disagreement about what exactly the particular values of that region are. The consequences of that can often look more like the Serb-Croat ethnic cleansing that occurred after Tito died than a peaceful relocation process.

In many respects what worries me so much about the more rabid members of the gun culture is that they appear to be setting up for precisely this sort of conflict - that the goal is not being defensively prepared in the event that "the government" will come for them, but rather being offensively prepared to assert their view of culture over others at the point of a gun should the opportunity present itself.

I believe that relocalization is a very likely end state - as systems decompose, they typically create organizational patterns at lower energy levels until the energy drops below the threshold necessary to sustain the weaker systems. Assuming a negative energy gradient throughout the next century though, I have a feeling there will be a great deal of social experimentation going on before we're at a space of heterogeneous city states.

Betsys_Backyard said...

Localisation has been on my mind for many years now. So excited for the post. Growing up in a very Old rural region in Pennsylvania.. I grew up with a good deal more Localisation than I have now, here in Suburbia, NC. I must admit, The best part of living right here now, it is the relationships made in my 'burbs.. what could be a daily dose of pablum.. is made very satisfying by mentoring neighborhood children, teaching things like nature observation, gardening and cooking.. all of this is greatly enhanced by the recent internet application of offering a private "neighborhood" blog spot. My next door neighbor launched it and now, if someone needs a reference for a carpenter, help with the family who's mother died, or simply someone to house sit.. that is now in place. Not my ultimate goal.. but with committed folks who help and share and give, makes for a very unifying situation right now. Something that is within the means of most everyone reading this post.

That said, I still wish, hope to, eventually move back to my home land.. the susquehanna river valley of pennsylvania.
why? rich soil, pre-industrial ag and product networks, folks who never forgot how to small scale farm, train horses for buggies, build buggies, , local cottage industry supported by the market house system... The potential for massive migration, food insecurity, gasoline wars, weather trauma, is all a crap shoot. I acknowledge all of that as a possibility. I hold this in my thoughts. but this I have observed,,, in a small town, particularly in "old precolonial towns"- which, is honestly the kind I am most familiar with growing up..there are still some systems for keeping things going.. Ag extension service, Granges, church communities that cooperate, Masonic temples , etc.. No , not that we all get along, agree on who to vote for, all of that,, but the main reason I hope to move back home is that i do have a history there.. I think i could do some good for the community that might be useful..and maybe be tolerated!
something I long ago learned is , in a small community, I can actually see the effect of my one small action. So, I hope to make it mostly good.
I don't know what will unfold , especially for the metro regions of the world..and frankly, I hope in the rural region I grew up..will be spared any overwhelming migration. but, i dunno. I feel a real change in events these days and am glad for the posts.
Well, thank you all for my rambling

Ares Olympus said...

JGM, you're a very difficult person to find disagreement with, or maybe we just have the same concerns on the limits of relocalization and the need for trial by fire. Sometimes I think we also have to differentiate on social roles, or a "voluntary class" that leads the way..

Maybe like Daniel Quinn's "New Tribalism" which basically suggests cooperative poverty niche feeders who exploit any wasted fat of a current abundant society and do what they love (maybe like Richard Bach's Jonathan Livingston Seagull minus the solitude and ascension into lala land)...

or like Dorothy Day's Idealistic Catholic work service to the poor where the empathetic proving grounds of humanity is discovered, and funded by affinity boomers who feel guilty by their affluence.

Maybe another group, the technocrats, knowledge loving people (including your Green wizards) Systemic thinkers who don't like to work hard, and yet can earn more than they need, and can afford to give their remaining talents away for free.

I do wonder about your past critique of the Occupy movement's failures for idealistic consensus decision making, but I figure it was real life learning (how to cooperate with strangers) that you can't learn in school.
So anyway, I guess that's my approach, relocalization means looking for lost cost local solutions that meet needs and teach skills and bring people together. I mean I'm seriously cynical about human nature, and our ability to be deceptive and exploitive, but there has to be some way to work all that out without depending on Big Brother to give us all the security that life-long debt can provide. There's a better way for many, better with hidden costs we have to discover as you say!

Drathro said...

I agree with some of map proposed by Igor Panarin.

SophieGale said...

Oh, dear, oh, dear! I'm a Boomer. How, oh, how will I ever cope? Luckily I'm 62 (almost)so I figure I will be out of here in another 15 years. But I expect my generation will be able to fall back--kicking and screaming, perhaps--to something like the lifestyle we led growing up.

I never lived in a house with air conditioning--never played Atari!--till my mid-thirties, never owned a microwave till I was in my 40's. When I was six, we had a big fan in the bathroom, and my mother would open the living room window about three inches and put a pan of ice on the window sill, and we would play on the floor in front of that ice. Or we would lounge on the front porch, or she would make us a clothes line "tent" in the back yard.

When I was 7 we moved in with my grandmother: three adults and three girl children with one bathroom. We had washing machine, but the clothes went through the wringer into the first rinse tub and then the second rinse tub, and we hung the wet clothes outside in the summer and in the basement in the winter. We all walked to school, church, grocery store, etc. unless it was raining cats and dogs, and maybe a neighbor would take pity and give us a ride. We rode the bus, we played in the park.

My great grandfather built that house in 1911. The doors all had transoms, and my dad and the cousins used to sleep on the screened porch in the summers. We had the first private telephone line in the neighborhood--my father needed it for his job. And there was just the one phone in the dining room; us kids didn't touch it till we were in our teens, and there was no such thing as a private conversation.

I may have lost most of the practical skills that my parents and grandparents had, but I at least know what I'm missing. I remember the tools, I can still visualize the tasks. --Which is more than Gen X, Y, and the Millennials have. Mercy, we got new clothes three times a year--Christmas, Easter, and back to school--and my mother sewed a lot of that, and my cousin sent hand-me-downs from "out East."

I can, I have, I will continue to collapse without too much pain--but this "relocalization" is definitely giving me "cold pricklies."

SophieGale said...


As it happens, I've just finished reading Gideon's Trumpet by Anthony Lewis. It's rather startling to learn that the Bill of Rights guaranteed the right to a lawyer only to defendants in Federal criminal cases. If you were a poor person accused of a crime under state law, you were only entitled to representation if you were illiterate, mentally incompetent, or maybe charged with a capital crime--but the prisons were full of poor people who didn't receive counsel. For 20 years the US Supreme Court upheld states' rights. Not till March, 1963, did the Supremes decide that EVERYONE was entitled to a lawyer upon arraignment.

And--synchronicity--here in Peoria we are celebrating in three weeks the 50th anniversary of hometown daughter Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique. And I just finished watching A Ripple of Hope on PBS. Bobby Kennedy was scheduled to give a campaign speech in a poor black neighborhood in Indianapolis the night that Martin Luther King was murdered. Against all advice, he went to the hall and shared the loss of his own murdered brother. Indianapolis was about the only big inner city community that didn't burn that night.

When I read "relocalization," Massachusetts, and South Carolina, and "live and let live," I start thinking about Emmett Till, I start thinking about the family that lived up the street when I was a kid--everybody knew that the retarded teenager had a child by her father, but it was none of our business. Wife beating was ignored. My fifth grade school teacher let little girls dance on his desk top so he could look up their skirts...for years and years! Live and let live!

I've been a feminist since I was six years old; I've probably been a Pagan since I was four. I remember watching on the news the freedom marches in Selma and Birmingham. I so do not want to go back to "relocalization."

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Phil,

Relax, to err, is to be human. To acknowledge where you have erred is the beginning of wisdom. I make mistakes too!


Greg said...

Long time fan of the blog here, but I've one critique of this post. You bolster an otherwise fine argument with an appeal to the Tenth Amendment without any mention of the Ninth. A right can only "fall through" to the Tenth if there's no decent argument that it's covered by the Ninth.

Cherokee Organics said...


I've been thinking for a while now that (and I may well be incorrect) that relocalisation involves sacrifice and it is my opinion that this point is lost on most people currently pursuing movements such as the Transition Towns.

Anyway, I have an amusing Jack Vance dialogue quote for you from the book "Araminta Station":

"Is democracy impractical? Is this what you are saying?"

"As I recall, Baron Bodissey had something to say on the subject."

"Oh? Was he pro or con?"

"Neither. He pointed out that democracy could function only in a relatively homogenous society of equivalent individuals. He described a district dedicated to democracy where the citizenry consisted of two hundred wolves and nine hundred squirrels. When zoning ordinances and public health law were put into effect, the wolves were obliged to live in trees and eat nuts."

"Bah," said Julian. "Barron Bodissey was a man from the Eocene."

Hope you enjoyed the witty dialogue!

You know, I've given something up as per your suggestion (the details of which shall remain a secret) and I'm now left wondering why I ever consumed it in the first place. It is a very strange sensation and possibly has also left me a bit confused?

Regards and thanks for suggesting the practical exercise.


flute said...

Slightly off-topic, but interesting is the concept of "functional stupidity", which explains why a certain "stupidity" is functional for certain organisations.
Read the article here:

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

@SophieGale--I'm about the same age as you, and have similar memories of how things were for poor people, blacks, the handicapped and women in my youth, and no nostalgia about that.

It's a reflex for liberals of a certain age to think of the federal government as the great guarantor of human rights, because it often was so in the middle decades of the twentieth century.

But the Feds are not automatically a bastion of civil liberty, and sometimes when they are trying to be, there are unintended consequences. The great Earl Warren signed the order that deported Japanese Americans to prison camps.

If the Supreme Court of the 1840s and 1850s had not been dominated by Southerners, it might have decided the Dred Scott case differently. If the court had left enforcement (or not) of fugitive slave laws to the states, instead of putting the force of the federal government behind the property rights of slaveholders, citizens of free states would not have been forced to act against their consciences, and perhaps the Civil War could have been averted.

It took the country about fifty years to recover from the Great Experiment of Prohibition.

My late mother grew up when abortion was a crime and she believed in abortion rights even more strongly than I do. Roe v. Wade attempted to establish that right in federal law, and IMO it backfired.

Marriage law and regulation of abortion used to be matters mostly left to the states. In the middle of the twentieth century, it was difficult or impossible to get a divorce or a legal abortion in some states and easier in others; these things were not available on demand anywhere. The more socially liberal states were gradually loosening restrictions on divorce and abortion and making them more easily available. The more conservative states were not changing their laws, but public opinion was shifting in most jurisdictions towards liberal views.

The Supreme Court left divorce law to the states and the process of liberalizing them continued. The Court imposed one abortion standard on the entire country. The result has been that the states where a lot of people disagree have resorted to harrassment and murder to shut down clinics where abortions are performed, and public opinion has not shifted much from where it was decades ago.

Both Prohibition and laws criminalizing abortion are applications of versions of Christian morality to civil society. The question of whether gay people can marry each other is another. If the First Amendment did not forbid the USA from having a federal established church, there is no limit to the number of laws we might have imposing the moral views of some segment of society on everyone. Since there is no way to persuade everyone to adopt the same views, some group ends up feeling mightily oppressed and angry about it.

CGP said...

Bill, when you say the culture wars are not real do you mean they are not happening but the media pretends that they are or they are happening but have been manufactured by the media and are therefore not an inherent part of the American psyche? Also, if they are happening, are you saying that certain viewpoints (e.g. being opposed to abortion) are not significantly more prevalent in some states?

Sleisz Ádám said...

Nice post, JMG!

The idea about the decline of civilization can be interpreted several ways, but the "everything comes with a price" narrative seems to be one of the most powerful among them. It is quite simple and concise, and no adult person can argue against it sincerely.

Good luck for decentralization efforts in the US! We may have a similar thing already happening in our European Almost-Union. Not intentionally, by the way.

phil harris said...

I have a great respect for the American Constitution and the fact that it was essentially formed by a relatively small agrarian nation (in population) before the Age of Cities. Only 2% of the population here in Britain is involved in farming or horticulture, and I believe it is these days under 5% in USA.

I also think Europe as well as America must still think about Tom Paine and The Rights of Man. Again, this was essentially a pre-industrial concept. There was a 'rule of law' here in Britain that provided some checks and balances on ownership and privilege, well before the emergence of modern 'democratic' forms, but it needed a lot of buttressing, especially when we lost a lot of 'customary' protection during 18thC And 19thC 'modernisation'. There were even international treaties, though these seem always tricky in the extreme. Still a lot to play for though!
PS Might not be a bad idea though to open up a discussion of whether the American Constitution could do with some ‘reinforcements’, perhaps, in future?

laughingbirdfarm said...


I have a few questions for you. First, as relocalization happens, what do you think the chances are the federal government could maintain control of civil rights for the next few decades at least? As a lesbian couple living in the south, we would be in very real danger of being literally strung up if collapse happened overnight. Yet, this is our home and we don't want to move north (nor could we afford to buy our 10 acres in say, Massachusetts).

Secondly, how do you see these migrations playing out with the other migrations that will occur as collapse deepens? I see a lot of people from the far north moving south, not to the deep south but to Ohio, Kentucky, Carolina, etc, as heating oil gets too expensive or unavailable. Not all of them will be able to insulate or put in wood stoves; some of our modern housing is unsalvageable. I know people who already pay as much as $1100 a month for heating oil in winter.

Finally, it's slight off-topic, but I finally found a copy of A Study of History (at the local college library, no less -all 12 unabridged volumes!) and have been working my way through it. At the beginning of the first volume there is a poem, written in Greek, and there is no translation of the poem or even the title. I have tried finding out what this poem is to no avail. I am slightly OCD about such things. Would you happen to know the title of said poem? Thanks!

Russ said...

John: some of your readers may be thinking about communicating beyond the local neighbors when we are in the "predicament". I suggest they look for CB radios at flea markets and yard sales. These are voice operated on the 11 meter band and put out about 5 watts. With one or two 100 watt solar panels, a charge controller and a 12 volt battery there will be enough power. On that band there is better propagation during daylight hours. Antennas can be simple 1/2 wave dipoles or 1/4 wave verticals. A single vertical (aluminum pipe) about 9' insulated from the ground with similar length wires as ground radials should do the trick. A dipole would be about 9 feet of wire on either side of an insulator strung up in a tree. This should be fed with 50 ohm coaxial cable. The TV variety (75ohm) will not work too well. I have been a licensed ham radio operator since 1973. In my later years I have operated morse code with about 5 watts out and, from experience, one can communicate quite well on low power - which is about all one will have during the long descent. I have had confirmed 5 watt contacts with all fifty states on multiple bands and over 200 countries worldwide. Obviously some of these long distance contacts in Asia and Africa were at optimum conditions with a directional 5 element yagi antenna. It's a pleasure reading your blog and the comments. Russ

Will said...

the Google monster ate my comment again because i was too slow with the password, so here is the a version:
you are a good writer and a wise person. wisdon is harder to find than mere smarts. so, thanks!

where we differ is, I see that we now have means for harvesting sun and wind energy that are MUCH more efficient than those available to organic societies. solar cells work MUCH better than photosynthesis.
hence, if we can avoid disastrous wars, we may emerge from a transition lasting about 200 years into a world of sustainable, high-tech but resilient and relatively rich economies, enjoyed by perhaps 2 billion people total.
it will be hard and complex getting there, but it can be done. the numbers work. people in the final analysis are more flexible than you give them credit for. that future is what i work for (i work in the conservation movement)

Robert said...

Does Peak Oil mean that centralised huge states will become unviable? I'm not so sure. The vast Tsarist Russia colonised the whole of Siberia long before fossil fuels became the main energy source. They did it when the sole means of transport was by horse. Ditto the huge Chinese Empire. The USA spanned the whole of North America before 1859 and the age of oil.

GHung said...

"The other, though, is a simple matter of resilience. "

Location, location.... One reason I decided to make a stand, so to speak, where I did, is that I realized early on that there is still a memory of being local, and that individual resilience is a subset of community resilience. Pragmatism trumps ideology. I note that virtually all of the 50+ tiny churches in our small county have been in existence for many decades; churches of many faiths. The Baptist resists chastising his Methodist or Catholic neighbor about his religion, because the Baptist wants/needs to breed his cow to the Methodist's bull again next spring, or needs the Catholic to purchase his crop. Skill sets generally aren't exclusive to one ideology, so if you want to employ the best carpenter, you better be able to coexist with the Jew down the road. The same common sense applies to the Democrat doctor or Republican banker in town. If we don't do these things for each other and ourselves, we all suffer the losses; costly losses for all.

There is a deep memory of these things here. One reason I have doubts about 'intentional communities' is that they have no memory, no past.

There are certain ways of behaving that local, resilient communities simply can't afford, especially in times when external inputs are either unavailable or unaffordable. It takes time, generations perhaps, for this realization to become part of a local culture. While disputes and conflicts always occur, the collective has laid the groundwork for discouraging long term "feuds"; the Hatfield/McCoy meme is too costly for the community at large, and generally not tolerated. I expect that, over time, this sort of pragmatism prevails, but when our social systems become too large and complex, when external inputs (and/or extractions) dilute the need for such, things begin to fall apart.

One of my favorite quotes, from the show "Mountain Talk":

"We didn't even know we was poor until the Federal Government came in and told us we was."

Best hopes that local communities can remember or relearn these things.

Adrian Skilling said...

Excellent. A good solid analysis as always. You didn't say it, but the Transition Towns movements does have an overly rosy picture of localization - its an interesting debate as to whether this is honest and is potentially in danger is being easily discredited. I happen to believe it still very worthwhile.

The current UK government pretends to be keen on localization, but isn't brave enough to give people real power. Local councils are all too easily bulldozed on planning issues by national government, and there's always a huge fuss when any kind of medical provision depends on whether you live.

Right now the UK government in slashing funding for local councils forcing them to raise local taxes. Be aware that we have no state sales tax equivalent in the UK. Taxes are pretty uniform across mainland Britian. Yesterday I heard Radio 4 interview regarding how council leaders would deal with this cut, one in the relatively poor NE and one in the prosperous Cotswolds (Rural and full of rich with 2nd homes). The interviewer showed no appreciation of the difference in localities which meant that the poor council needed to rise council taxes and the rich council didn't. The rich council was going to slash force 2nd home owners to pay full council tax rather than half - which is a good money raiser and a proposal I thoroughly support (obviously I don't have a 2nd home!). This cut forces local areas to be more self sufficient which is pro-localization but will cause great hardship for poorer areas - discuss.

My point that often we are unaware of differences in locality, and that localisation will cause great (and necessary) upheaval, and that its happening now.

blue sun said...

Some of your readers who see the historical references in your post and have trouble swallowing them (they may find themselves muttering, "No, no, it can't be…that's not what I was taught…") yet still have a sneaking suspicion that you are on to something, may want to consider that their high school history education was not only lacking, but also intentionally thought-stopping and biased.

I had the privilege of one of the better public school educations in America, but since I never took a history class beyond high school it took me a long time to recognize this. Thankfully, I was fortunate to come across the book Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen. Although Loewen has some of his own biases, I learned that, in recent generations, American history textbooks published in the USA nearly universally use passive voice when presenting any given social problem, thus making the problem appear to arise from nowhere, and, with no context whatsoever, portray the federal government as stepping in to solve the problem. Thus history appears as a pre-scripted linear progression with the federal government leading the way (sound familiar?).

This makes it difficult for anyone "schooled" by these textbooks to think clearly about historical context. This was certainly my situation. There may be other relevant books, but I would recommend Loewen’s as a starting point.

blue sun said...

Some of us live in neither Massachusetts nor South Carolina, yet we are, metaphorically speaking, straddling the fence and enjoying having "the best of both worlds." Me, there are some cultural values I prefer from South Carolina and others from Massachusetts. I can pick and choose and, by plugging into a world of mass media, I can convince myself I’m getting the best of both worlds.

But sooner or later the music will stop. Sooner or later we'll have to choose sides if we want to be part of a local community. The mass-media-all-you-can-eat-buffet will end and of course the physical trips to South Carolina and Massachusetts to enjoy the selected fruits of each will end.

It reminds me of a quote by Wendell Berry I've posted here before, but I think it is worth repeating for all of us seriously pondering relocalization. When asked how he decided his hometown was a suitable community to move back to, he responded:

"No community is suitable. There's plenty wrong with them all. I could construct an airtight argument for not settling in my own community. [But] the fact is that I'm spending my life constructing an argument for being here."

Kurt Cagle said...

As another reader put it, this is the kind of topic you need to sleep on to really appreciate the nuances.

There's another aspect to relocalization that is intriguing in its own rights - migratory populations. In the current age, there's two such waves, the first a kind of high tech nomadic wave that travels from city to city, typically doing IT work to support themselves. The IT work itself I expect to see fall off pretty quickly, but especially in a transitional society I can see a steady network of people that "run the circuit" either looking for work or just enjoying being on the road. As the oil economy fades, I also see them being the merchant traders, entertainers, journeymen artisans, journalists, teachers, preachers, mercenaries, wildcatters and the like.

What's significant with this group is that they are actually fairly well adapted to a slow collapse. They've learned to travel light, have learned the skills to get to (and in some cases, out of) town regardless of what kind of transportation is available, are not heavily invested in the status quo, and in many respects are already developing the kind of community that tends to bind such migrants.

On the other hand, I think that the immigrant worker migration patterns that have become such a staple in contemporary society will eventually break down, simply because the potential benefit of migrating for manual labor drops down below the costs. Re-agrarianization means that such workers are competing against locals who are now far more fully vested in those same jobs, and the benefits to farmers in using those migrants (principally wage costs) disappears as demand for even low wage jobs rise again.

It's likely that those in the larger city states will tend to take as dim a view on whatever migrant population emerges as has always been the case - migrant populations are considered shiftless, thieving, untrustworthy, and morally depraved by the townies and always have been, but that's never really stopped the migratory flows.

Michelle said...

To Hawlkeye: You said, "The sad truth is none of those States can feed themselves. Re-localization and migrations will begin in earnest, not for ideological or political reasons but for nutritional motives currently widely unimagined."

Here in Massachusetts, or the Berkshires' watershed, if you prefer, the discussion is, at least, being conducted. Prof. Brian Donahue of Brandeis University has done extensive work on this subject and has presented his findings fairly widely around the region. You can read a summary of his presentation and/or view same here:

Tor Hershman said...

Our empire does, still, have many an H bomb.

Renaissance Man said...

I believe economic localization is inevitable.
The cheap-energy fuelled round-the-globe manufacturing processes will reduce back to local production of intermediate materials, say, bulk metal from foundries near ore mines, or bulk cotton cloth from cotton-growing areas transported around to lcoal shops and mills for final end-use production.
I like the image of the prosperous small-town of artisans, but...
I am not entirely thrilled beyond words at the prospect of political localization.
What truly concerns me is the return of "local" values which may be at odds with "human" values, i.e., the return of slavery.
The issue was NOT settled 150 years back.
e.g. across Tennesee today there are monuments to Nathan Forrest the white-washed hero. (Yes, that's a double-entendre. I objectively lump Forrest, a cruel, cunning brute who found a way to perpetuate slavery by other means, with Sancho Panza.) There are virtually none to the couragous and moral people who ran the underground railroad.
I'm sure you're keenly aware of the sick irony of the antebellum arguments for slavery being cast as a struggle for rights and freedom. Freedom being a word bandied about quite... freely, so to speak. But this word... I do not think it means what they think it means.
If the United States dissolves, then the 13th Amendment ceases to exist.
What then?
Overt slavery still exists around the world even today, so why should it not rear it's ugly head in a populace that is already primed to accept it?
That is a downside of "local values" that no proponent talks about, but it's not implausible, I think. Even Canada once had a brisk "trade" in orphans from Great Britain to work on farms as indentured servants as late as the 1950s, so no nation or people is entirely guiltless.
But I do have to note the general tendency (as far as I've read) for human rights to have advanced more under a stronger central government than they have under entirely local governments. Maybe it is because the central government 'averages out' the disparate value-systems, or something.
So, given the choice, I'd prefer a gentle devolution of powers. If I had the choice.

John Michael Greer said...

CGP, that's certainly an argument for relocalization, yes.

Hawlkeye, you're missing a central issue, which is that Massachusetts and South Carolina are political and legal realities -- that is, they are set up to function as distinct units of government, with all the necessary institutions already in place. Also, given that the US remains one of the world's largest exporters of food, there's a logical problem with the claim that no state can feed itself!

Raven, look up sometime what happened to the senatorial class of ancient Rome when the empire went down. Here's a hint: they weren't the people who became the war leaders of the age that followed, or the feudal magnates of the age after that.

Ian, true enough!

Sgage, of course that's a valid point. I was overgeneralizing.

Maria, that's why I'm trying to encourage conversation about modes of relocalization that leave a national government in place, and give it the power -- if necessary, at gunpoint -- to keep one state's population from engaging in violence against another.

Wullow, okay, let's take a look at what you've just done. You've taken the extremely complex landscape of relationships between individuals and the communities to which they belong, flattened it out into a polar opposition between the individual and "the collective," turned the two endpoints of that spectrum into things in themselves, defined one as "human nature" (and therefore presumably good), while labeling the other one, in so many words, as the source of all evil. In Druidry we call this habit binary thinking, and it's the source of around two-thirds of all the unnecessary suffering and violence that human beings inflict on one another.

If you were one of my Druid students, I'd give you two assignments. The first is to come up with three ways that too much individualism can be just as destructive as too much collectivism; the second is to find a third option -- not individualism, not collectivism, and not some half-and-half mix of the two, but a genuine third option distinct from both. That usually succeeds in breaking people out of a binary-thinking rut. Still, since you're not one of my Druid students, by all means stay in the rut if you prefer.

Wolfgang, of course there are other options. My guess is that the most likely option for the desert southwest is uninhabitable wasteland, at least until the next cycle of droughts is over, but we'll see.

JM, so noted. I hope some of his other ideas didn't turn too many people off the idea.

John Michael Greer said...

Jon, Florida is toast one way or another. A lot of the currently popular geriatric ghettos are -- even those that aren't going to be underwater in the foreseeable future.

Unknown, so noted!

Harry, that's an interesting question -- I'll give it some thought.

Wendy, thank you!

Joel, that's very well put.

Andy, exactly. If fifty states each pursue their own notion of how to get through the mess we're facing, the chances that at least one will find something workable go up significantly.

Loch Wade, it's been my experience that when people insist that history must inevitably follow a rigidly defined narrative, the insistence usually has much more to do with personal psychology than it does with the facts on the ground. You might want to explore the reasons why you're so stuck on worst case scenarios; I'm far from sure that it's healthy.

Nano, for the next half century at least, they'll be moving to wherever they think they can find jobs. Once again, remember that we're not talking about a sudden total collapse -- just a steady worsening of trends across the whole range of factors.

Wiseman, yes, it's an understatement. History sucks sometimes.

Reverse, given that the internet isn't likely to outlast even the fairly elderly people on this list, let's just say I have my doubts.

Carolyn, yes, I've seen it, and also the earlier The Nine Nations of North America -- it's a meme that surfaces now and then. Thanks for the cartoon! Very funny indeed.

John Michael Greer said...

Jonathan, expect to see a lot more of that as we proceed.

Dan, I'm quite a fan of Plato myself, and yes, it's good advice.

Alphonse, you seem to be missing the central point of this post, which is that in the US, at least, we've got the great good fortune of a means to relocalize without giving up the benefits of a national government as defined by our constitution. Since we've got that option, my suggestion is that we start talking about how best to exercise it.

Liquid, it's the transition to common sense that's the rough period -- the time before people grasp the fact that they do have to get along with their neighbors, or wreck their own chances at survival. Once that becomes clear, things should go more easily.

Just Because, remember the Gandhi quote: "First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win." Now you know what stage we've reached.

Bill, the culture wars are a media invention, granted, but there are significant differences in cultural style between different regions that give the invention what credibility it has. I promise you that the ideas that seem like common sense to my friends in Oregon would be rejected with quite some heat by my friends in Oklahoma!

Carlo, eventually, city-states are probably a good bet -- they're one of the most resilient human social forms, after all. Again, though, I'm mostly concerned just now with the next few centuries.

Matthew, good! Yes, that's probably a good strategy -- and back in the day, you did get a lot of internal movement as young men and women moved from where they grew up to where they felt the social climate was more to their liking.

Paraquat, that's too funny. Yes, I know people like that, too.

Mark, that's true. The line between practice and reality, though, may sneak up on us...

Dowsergirl, again, remember that we're not talking overnight collapse. Cities will still be viable places to live for a long time -- especially smaller cities that have lost population in recent years, and so have plenty of cheap digs.

Bill Pulliam said...

CGP -- I am saying that the media and political parties have taken a broad spectrum of political sentiment across the continent and projected two rigid ideologically opposed warring camps onto it, and then have drawn a bogus geographical divide to separate the nation into "Red America" and "Blue America." The reality is that sentiments, beliefs, and practices are not polarized like this, they are vastly and multidimensionally diverse. And though there are certainly regional differences, there is more diversity within any given region than there is between the "averages" of different regions.

This is done because it benefits these institutions for the reasons LMG discussed a few weeks ago. It helps them on fundraising, electoral politics (especially in primaries), and ratings. It clearly does NOT benefit the actual functioning of our political institutions!

John Michael Greer said...

Unknown Deborah, this is one of the reasons I argue that the end of US empire will not be the end of empire, or even of global empire.

Kurt, again, this is why I'm proposing a form of relocalization that keeps a national government in place, to limit the risk of things dissolving into local war.

Betsy, good. The points you've raised are among those that need to be kept in mind by anyone looking for a place to settle.

Ares, the reason I critiqued the Occupy movement was that it was spinning its wheels in ruts that have been dug deep since the early 1980s. It's one thing to pursue learning in place, and quite another to refuse to recognize that an experiment has failed, and go do something else instead.

Drathro, it's an interesting thesis, but Panarin needs to do more research into where the geographic fault lines in the US actually are.

Sophie, now that you're finished venting, you might want to reread my post, and notice that one of the core points I'm making is that a planned devolution of powers to the states could maintain federal supervision over civil rights issues, where a chaotic disintegration of the US will not.

Greg, the amendments don't work sequentially -- nothing has to "fall through" the ninth to "get to" the tenth. The ninth indicates that the rights reserved by the people are not limited to those enumerated in the constitution or its amendments; the tenth states that the federal government only has those rights and powers specifically given it under the constitution. They're related, but distinct.

Cherokee, classic Vance! Thank you.

Flute, thanks for the link.

Sleisz Ádám, thank you.

Phil, granted, the constitution could use a couple of amendments, and we could all use a rereading of Tom Paine, odd duck though he was.

Laughing, first, that depends entirely on whether relocalization happens in a reasoned manner, with the constitution in place, or whether it's an uncontrolled fall into chaos. Second, remember that climate change is moving climate zones northward -- there are now people in Massachusetts growing peanuts in their backyard gardens, for example; thus there may be fewer moving south than you expect. Third, the title of the Toynbee poem is "Syngrapheos Bios" -- I haven't found that first word in the Greek dictionaries available to me, but the title appears to mean "A life written jointly." I'm pretty sure Toynbee wrote it himself; he was, like most British university graduates of an older generation, fluent in Latin and Greek to a degree most people nowadays can't even imagine.

Bill Pulliam said...

JMG -- see my response to CGP. The variation within a region (even a small one) is greater than the differences in the means. Just in our tiny rural Tennessee county in the heart of "Red America" and on the buckle of the Bible Belt, we have friends who span just about the entire range of political, religious, and other viewpoints that you would fine anywhere in the U.S. And I mean far into the extreme loony territory in all directions. Heck scratch "in our county" and replace that with "in our hollow" and you would almost be right, still! You yourself have noted a surplus of Druids in Tennessee, which according to the media presentations is entirely populated with evangelical christians.

Matt and Jess said...

We live in a place where "local" is a very big deal. So in one sense that's a good thing, since the local farmers have really thrived. On the other, it becomes a misused buzzword. A lot of things labelled "local" really have elements that come from far away. We see coffee labelled local all the time, but of coursee the beans come from thousands of miles away--it's just roasted here in town. Which of course is still far superior.

By the way, you've been talking about the pleasures of good beer for a long time now and again, which I didn't understand, but I recently had the good fortune to discover that many of our local brewers put out some amaaaaazing stuff :)

Robert Mathiesen said...

@JMG on "Syngraphéōs Bíos":

"Syngraghéōs" is the genitive singular of "syngrapheús," which means a writer, more narrowly, a historian. So "Syngraphéōs Bíos" is simply "a historian's life."

In standard Classical Greek, the letters "ng" are spelled with a double "gamma", not with "nu" followed by "gamma." This makes it impossible for an inexpert reader to find such words in a Greek dictionary.

Robert Mathiesen said...

@Georgi Marinov and John D. Wheeler:

My take on this whole question is that the probability of humanity ever creating any sort of utopia that lasts even one generation is exactly zero.

Also, I (for one) would hate to live in a utopia, no matter how it would be structured, and I would not wish to impose the burden of utopia on anyone else. For the same reason, if any God were ever to offer me immortality, I would refuse the gift: it would soon become another unbearable burden, the more so as each new thousand years rolled by. Think about this, please . . .

Fortunately "Aus so krummem Holze, als woraus der Mensch gemacht ist, kann nichts ganz Gerades gezimmert werden" (Immanuel Kant). This means, "From timber so crooked as that from which humans have been made, no carpenter can ever build anything altogether straight." The more common translation simplifies a little, but is more memorable: "Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made."

This, I think, is as uncompromising a law as the laws of thermodynamics.

"Ahavah" Gayle Bourne said...

This touches somewhat on a discussion I had recently on linked-in. I have worked in nonprofit management for several years and I see the handwriting on the wall. The inevitable dysfunction of the fed govt will completely overload charities. Right now, most are too concerned about grants, fed funding and public outcry to be overtly discriminatory regarding whom they serve. That day will end. Eventually charities will have to pull back out of an economically necessary triage and will only be able to serve "their own," however they define that to be. For this generation of Americans, who have no community life to speak of, live far away from family, and shun organized religion, that's going to leave them out in the cold. It literally already is in many cities where govt has given up even trying to pretend to help the homeless.

It is going to come down to each "local group" having to devise strategies to care for "their own.". I also believe there will be rather large migrations of people away from "unfriendly" localities to wherever more of "their own" are located. So we will end up exactly as you describe - each community making rules based on their common philosophies, which others won't necessarily like when they find themselves suddenly considered an unwanted "minority" in some little fiefdom.

This will be shocking to this generation of Americans, but throughout history various social, fraternal, ethnic and religious federations have provided their own social services, medical care, lawyers, and even security for "their own." The current US model of "rugged individuals," aside from being somewhat historically inaccurate, is economically unsustainable unless anarchy and a complete breakdown of society is your goal. Unfortunately, that does seem to be the goal of some groups. The rest of us need to take the problem seriously and start laying the groundwork for such federations now - or resurrecting them if they once existed. But it's hard to find people willing to consider that "somebody" won't actually take care of them when push comes to shove.

Cathy McGuire said...

I’ve been enjoying reading and thinking about the recent posts and thoughtful comments, but just haven’t gotten time to write a thoughtful comment myself, mostly because I’m in the crazy process of arranging for hip replacement surgery (finally absolutely needed) on Feb 12th. Between pain and pain meds, the ol’ brain is “bright as Bush” (as we liberals might say). I hope to be back with longer posts soon, but I just wanted to say that I think about this a lot, now that I live in a reddish rural community. I’m proof that one can be good neighbors with those on the opposite spectrum – my neighbor will be getting up from watching Faux News to take care of my chickens while I’m in hospital. And I just brought them over some cookies today. It’s do-able; like Joel says, you have to know when to speak and when to change the subject. I’ve thought a lot about how areas will separate out into very different philosophical and social rules if we really relocalize, but like someone’s comment about us being too used to machines, I think we just don’t understand that most societies that really interact with each other have always been like this!

And as for the reality (vs. the fantasy) of re-localizing, I quite often think “this is much closer to reality than my mall-wandering suburban friends” while I’m doing yard chores, working hard to keep animals and veggies alive, and making do with scruffy old clothes and tools rather than tossing them and buying new ones. The further I get outside of our “Better Homes and Debit Cards” society, the more unreal (and fragile) it looks. Real re-localizing will be much more like the patched and scruffy homes and people I see in my family’s old photos than the current “handcrafted organic” polished goods I see at farmer’s markets. There’s still much too much pressure to produce “pretty” veggies; that will change.

One possibly relevant thought I had was that since in the past few generations there has been more intermarriage, there are more connections than there used to be among groups and thus perhaps more pressure to be a little more open as a society.

In any case, thank you, JMG, for describing the process warts and all, for those who want to face the future with eyes open.

Robert H said...

Anyone who believes in a simple solution to a dreadfully complex and interrelated system of problems is either a moron or a politician. I have no particular interest in conversations with either. It is most enjoyable to rediscover your writings.
I do not think we can expect to survive in any significant numbers in the approaching series of disasters, nor do I have the faith in human goodness required for such an expectation. I think, in short, that the world is going to be an ugly place, before it can possibly get better. Perhaps I am condition by a fairly hellish childhood of every sort of abuse, but faith is hard to come by. That said, I think relocalization is one of the first tools or structures we must begin with, with all of its faults. Thank you for mentioning those faults. I am trying to build the alternative technological systems necessary.

Robert H said...

We are trapped, like flies in ancient amber, in the moment when we realise our fate. Relocalization is necessary, especially in light of the limitations on transportation fuels and exhausts. Anyone who believes in infinite growth on a finite planet is either a moron or an economist (or both). I am not terribly attached to what has been a largely hellish life. Nonetheless, many who care will suffer a great deal from the consequences of change, which always involves suffering. Much of this pain is caused by the inertia of systems in place. Thank you for pointing out some of these problems; I was aware of them, and I hoe others will gain an understanding of them.

CGP said...

Bill, thanks for your response. I see where you are coming from. I agree that the media sensationalizes and looks to market conflict and drama to the populace. In doing so they over-simplify and over-generalize and completely ignore any and all nuances and subtleties. True understanding is lost as a result. Politicians then take advantage of the manufactured melodrama by creating wedge issues to distract from what is truly relevant and important. They do this in many domains such as gender (the so-called gender wars) and age (generational wars). Such a strategy seeks to exploit the tactic of divide and conquer; making the people fight amongst themselves rather than turning their attentions to what really matters.

I think, though, that many people, especially less well informed individuals (and people who have poor critical thinking abilities), start to buy into all the melodrama and then the mass manipulation starts to become a self-fulfilling prophecy (at least to some extent). I am not sure if you would agree with the preceding sentence though.

morenewyorknews said...

My question can be applied to any country not only US :
1)Most of the land in US is held by corporations,federal govt and state governments.Will they allow their land to be used by marginal farmers?
2)Can federal and state govt really give up their tax revenues and power of bureaucracy? If i remember,even after collapse of soviet union,very few of the laws made by communists were repealed.They still exist and are enforced even today.
3)Do consumers really want local products?Will they be willing to pay the price?

LunarApprentice said...

[This might be a repeat except for "seccession" instead of "succession"]
Just Because and JMG: Regarding your comments about seccesion or the disaggregation of the US ... "Just Because, remember the Gandhi quote: "First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win." Now you know what stage we've reached."

I live in a small city in the Puget Sound region. If the US falls apart, the Pacific Northwest would look like sparsely populated, richly endowed real estate from a Chinese perspective. What what stop China from simply appropriating this region? I fear they would be the real winners from the US becoming unglued; this is not something to hope for.

hawlkeye said...

Well, obviously MA and SC are political and legal realities with all the necessary institutions already in place. They just don’t have “their own” dependable food supply. And I’m saying this is the foundation upon which the others must rest; when there’s no food in a place, people will go look for a place where some can be found. I see this as the greatest potential reason for coming migrations.

Every state in the Union is a net importer of food to an insane degree, relying on just-in-time grocery store deliveries from thousands of miles away. Even farmers who don’t put their stuff on a truck must earn dollars by exporting fertility; there are so few subsistence models of any scale beyond the backyard (for now). And subsistence agriculture, not the vaporous grocery stores, is what must expand for any hope of food during the coming rumbles we’re discussing.

Industrial agri-business subsidies from the Federal government account for the vast majority of what passes for food on the average table. Without these props, the food supply in every State looks very shaky. Agri-business as a long-term food-producing strategy is already bankrupt; a treadmill running on eggshells with more and more inputs required for less and less result, all with increasing fragility and vulnerability. Throw in another year (or four) of drought, and the US will quickly lose its food export hegemony like many others. And using wheat like a weapon to protect the wealth pump hasn't made us too many friends around the world, either.

So I stand by my claim that the individual States in the USA cannot feed themselves. Not without food from far out-of-state. Not without Federal food stamps and cabinet posts for Monsanto executives. And not with food that’s only temporarily available as a purchasable commodity. Not with frozen ground half the year and negligible subsistence skills within the general population.

Franklin and Jefferson never dreamed we’d need a Food Freedom Amendment some day…

PS @ Michelle,

Thanks for the link, I'll check it out! I used to farm in the Berkshires and have friends who do still...

SLClaire said...

JMG: Bringing in the concept of commons from last week's post and building on what you've said in your comments to some people this week, we could regard civil liberties as one of the commons or commons-like areas that the federal government would retain its jurisdiction over while re-localization occurs. I can imagine a newly independent state or small confederation of states deciding that not protecting the civil rights of some group of people the majority doesn't like much could make sense in the difficult economic and environmental climate of a re-localizing period. Don't like non-Christians? Make them miserable enough that they leave, and that's that many fewer people to feed and house and school and govern. Of course, that state's private profit is a loss to the areas where the displaced people have to go. Multiply that by the different groups of people that the majorities of different independent states may wish to drive out, and you could get a displacement so large as to overwhelm all parts of the former US. There will be unavoidable internal migration as it is as we get farther into the consequences of the decline. If we can maintain sufficient cohesiveness as a country to keep basic civil rights in place, we can at least keep the suffering and consequent migration to that unavoidable minimum.

The set of civil rights that we now have isn't a bad set at all, as you and others have pointed out. I am curious as to the amendments you'd like to add, if that isn't already planned for a future post.

trippticket said...

Happy Candlemas, JMG!
A snowy one here in north Georgia.

Glenn said...


Our beef came from a mile down the road. There are three organic farms in our county selling grain (Wheat, oats, rye). Farmers within 10 miles of us sell lamb and pork. Our freezer is full of our garden produce, crab we caught and wild berries (off our own land) we picked. We have several local dairies, including a goat dairy 2 miles away.

We live in Western Washington state. If every state is such a net importer of food, how is it that the U.S. as a whole is a net exporter? Are you saying it's because of specialization, so that each agricultural state exports one thing and imports everything else? Yet all three West Coast states actually produce and export a wide range of food. Shyer on grain in California, but it used to be grown extensively there. Still, no problem with the West coast as a region being self sufficient in food.

Put a border running North to South anywhere between Boise and Denver, and the area West of there can support itself.


In any situation where China casts covetous eyes on the West coast the Aircraft Carriers and Submarines stationed here will still be useful. By the time they can't be fueled and fought, China won't have transpacific abilities either.


Marrowstone Island

Alphonse Houner said...

The point of my original comment conformed to the thrust of your post as our re-location and re-localizing were only possible under the current circumstance. Unfortunately my response did not deal directly with your point.

Re-location and re-localization are possible now and we have exercised that option. I believe that option may well be gone in the very near future and any attempt to re-localize in place, such as an urban or suburban area, will likely be impossible. That reinforces the need to act while the opportunity exists, which seems to have been your point.

I also noted the current crop of "Transition Towns" and don't expect devotees of that methodology to agree with my comments. Their basic problem seems to be a deep reliance on a specific methodology while failing to realize just how much they do rely on the existing system. Tre reality of the coming transition demands flexibility and the ability to utilize the existing social structure an circumstance while it still exists - call that "dissensus."

Anyway, thanks for a great post and your thoughtful response.

John Michael Greer said...

Russ, that's excellent advice -- for local communication, the 10 meter CB band is quite adequate, and these days you don't even need a license to operate on it.

Will, by all means keep working for that! I don't think it's within reach, for reasons I've already discussed at length, but I have no argument with anyone who's actually doing something to create the future they want to see, as opposed to sitting at a keyboard spinning fantasies.

Robert, of course such states have existed before -- you might also have included the Roman and Ottoman empires, just for starters. I have no doubt that they'll exist again, too. In every case, though, power was much more decentralized than it is nowadays -- local governments had a great deal of authority over local issues. Thus my suggestion that the US get ahead of the curve by reviving forms that worked in a pre-petroleum era.

Ghung, exactly! We've got 78 houses of worship here in Cumberland, a town of 24,000 people, including the oldest synagogue in Maryland; everybody basically gets along. At lodge the other night, where we were initiating candidates into one of the York Rite degrees, two of the candidates were friends since elementary school; one of 'em's a rock-ribbed conservative, the other's what passes for a flaming liberal here (he'd be mildly right of center in Oregon), and they're still fishing buddies and lodge brothers. In a small town setting, that seems to be pretty standard.

Adrian, I've hammered on the Transition Town scene enough for now! Your point's a valid one, mind you.

Blue Sun, all good points. Yes, Lies My Teacher Told Me is a good starting place; it would be useful to have a more general history of the US that covers all the stuff you're not supposed to learn, but without the heavy spin to leftward or rightward you find in almost every example of the genre today.

Kurt, that seems quite plausible. Most agricultural societies, if not all, have at least a small nomadic population along those lines; I tried to weave something of the sort into my blog-novel Star's Reach for that reason.

Tor, that's already been discussed in this post.

Renaissance Man, er, Sancho Panza? As in Don Quixote's sidekick? That one has me scratching my head. Here in Cumberland, by the way, in what was a slave state back in the day, the local Episcopal church takes great pride in the fact that it was a major way station on the Underground Railway, and leads tours of the tunnels underneath the church where escaped slaves used to wait for nightfall and the guide that would take them north to Pennsylvania and freedom.

Bill, all I can say is that that isn't my experience at all. You left out half the anecdote about Druids, by the way; the order I head has a lot of members in Tennessee, and almost none in California; some of the other Druid orders have a lot of members in California and few or none in Tennessee. The difference? Those other orders make a big deal about their support of a more or less liberal political agenda; AODA is strictly apolitical and somewhat old-fashioned in its habits. The conclusion I draw from that is very different from the one you've drawn.

John Michael Greer said...

Jess, welcome to real beer! I thought I hated beer before I had my first microbrew.

Robert M, thanks for the correction. I don't have any background in Greek at all.

Ahavah, your crystal ball is working well today, I see. We'll be talking about that in detail in another couple of posts.

Cathy, exactly. I think a great deal of what drives the cultural schisms in today's America is the sheer lack of personal contact with people on the other side of the various lines of division, made easy by the habit of watching media instead of getting a life.

Robert H, my childhood also sucked, and I don't tend to put any great amount of faith in humankind in general; you may be right that those two phenomena have a lot to do with each other. My gamble, though, is that a large enough minority of people will be willing to rise above the ordinary level -- as has happened before in history -- to do the things that will make the future less ghastly than it will otherwise be.

News, the US government used to give away land to farmers all the time; look up the Homestead Acts sometime. If it's politically to the advantage of governments to placate the population and increase food production, you bet. The federal tax burden will likely decrease only after a fairly serious constitutional crisis, but we're headed that way anyway; and people will buy local products in a hurry if it's that or nothing at all, or if rising transport costs make products from elsewhere more expensive, or if sensible tariffs -- of the sort the US had until after the Second World War -- give domestic products some protection against other countries' predatory mercantile policies.

Lunar, this is why I suggest that returning to the constitutional division of power between states and the federal government is a good idea. That way states regain the ability to settle most social questions to their own satisfaction, but we still have a federal government with the power to maintain an army, a navy, and other Chinese-deterring factors.

Hawlkeye, yes, and since I'm not talking about a sudden collapse, and I am talking about maintaining the Union more or less as defined by the constitution, individual regions will have more than enough time to rebuild local food production as the global economy winds down. That process is already under way -- look up the rate at which farmer's markets and community-supported agriculture schemes have been proliferating over the last two decades.

SLClaire, exactly! You get today's gold star, for paying attention to what I've actually said. It fascinates me that so many people seem to have been able to process the idea of relocalization under a constitutionally limited federal government, which would retain its core role of protecting the national commons -- and yes, civil rights count. As for constitutional amendments, hmm -- I'll consider a post on those.

Trippticket, and a happy Imbolc to you and yours!

Alphonse, thanks for the clarification. There are certainly some cities, and some suburbs, where relocalization in place isn't an option, but there are a surprisingly large number of places where it is -- and for those who aren't in one of those, yes, moving now is probably your best bet. I've discussed at length in previous posts some of the principles that might guide relocation at this stage of the game.

Fabrice said...

Hi John,

I haven't read your fictions about the fall of American Empire but this post and it's really interesting. You definitely strike a point with the concept of relocalization as something we should do.

Yet, I just wrote a post where I had the exact opposite thought. With the energy depletion, we must go for optimization of land and renewable use means there are no future for peasants but farmers ...

Shouldn't we talk about optimum relocalization to take into account the benefits of progresses ?

Renaissance Man said...

Urk* (damn crappy memory..)

No, no, not Don Quixote's sidekick.

It's been a while, and I cannot now recall the details (nor do I have the reference book to hand, nor can I find an online link to send you) of a rather nasty Spanish guerrilla who was very good at cavalry hit-and-run attacks on the Napoleonic French during their occupation of Spain.
I remember reading that they caught some members of a French Hussar regiment and burned them to death while the regiment watched from across the valley. There was no quarter given on either side after that.
He and his men were eventually killed, but it took the French a couple of years to chase him down.

For some reason, I could remember "Sancho Panza" most likely because it's a familiar Spanish name, but that is, of course, definitely not correct. It's also possible I confusing the name with Pancho Villa, the bandit raider, who escaped from Gen. Pershing, also not the guerrilla in question.
My point was, as I have read a lot about cavalry tactics, I don't find Forrest to be as exceptional a cavalry commander as he is made out to be. I can find many more across history who understood hit-and-run tactics. Cossacks, for example, Mongols, for another. Moreover, his slaughter of the black soldiers he caught ranks as a war crime, not someone anyone should be proud of, no matter what else he did.
In contrast, apparently, people who participated in the underground railroad are virtually unknown and are definitely not publicly lauded and popular heroes in Memphis or in Tennessee generally.

Bill Pulliam said...

JMG __ well, I only knew the half of the story that I heard from you. Regardless, my experience has always been that everywhere I have lived (which has ranged from very conservative small town South Carolina to the San Francisco Bay area) I have found all kinds of people, just in varying proportions. It seriously puzzles me if you have found the opposite, and it makes me wonder how we can be coming across such vastly different cross sections of the populace.

John D. Wheeler said...

@Robert Mathiesen

I'm not sure where you got the idea what I was proposing was a utopia. Even if all of the problems the world faces today were solved, I'm sure a whole new set would be created. I'm not even that optimistic. I think one or several major problems will be solved for a good, long time.

Your quote gave me a good laugh. My reaction was "why would you ever want to take the beautiful curves out of a human and force them into something straight?"

@JMG -- If I were one of your Druid students, what would I call you? Can I take a stab at the second assignment for sgage? Would an Amish community count as a third alternatice? The individual is supposed to submit completely to the will of the congregation/collective, but only after joining the congregation of his or her own free will. And he or she is also always free to leave the congregation, but that decision is basically irreversible. And every congregation is independent of each other.

BlueTemplar said...

Hello, long time reader, first time poster here...

I was stupefied by this article :
This is an article talking about things like the Limits of Growth, and that progress might come with some downsides, or might even have to slow down... on a transhumanist website!

Yes, yes, the Singularity-believing, mind-uploading-supporter, pie-in-the-sky, humanity+ magazine!

On another subject, do you know of any druid/resilience/relocalisation community(/ies) in France? Because we'll have to deal with our local reality, and I'm not planning to move to the USA any time soon... Thank you in advance for your answer.

John Michael Greer said...

Fabrice, the first question to settle is how many of the benefits of progress will still be around in the absence of cheap abundant fossil fuels. My guess, as discussed here at length, is not much.

Renaissance, okay, that makes a bit more sense. I'm not particularly up on the history of the Peninsular War, so can't help you with the name of the person in question. As for cavalry in our Civil War, I've always tended to think highly of Col. Benjamin Grierson, who led a flying column of Union cavalry down the Mississippi valley from Illinois to Baton Rouge, straight through Confederate territory, distracting the Confederate command during the time Grant needed to get across the Mississippi to begin the Vicksburg campaign. A brilliant exploit, and hugely important in the outcome of the war.

Bill, fair enough; experiences differ, and so do interpretations.

Templar, now that's fascinating to see! If the transhumanists start to get a clue, they might put their intellectual abilities (which in some cases are considerable) to some use. As for communities in France, I don't know of any, and my advice remains the same -- the communities that matter are existing towns and villages, preferably where you already have friends or family, or some other tie (in my case, Masonic connections) that enables you to find a niche. The success rate of intentional communities is very low -- most disintegrate within a couple of years of their founding -- and that's a risk that, to my mind, is not worth taking at this stage in the game.

John Michael Greer said...

By the way, they're really coming out of the woodwork at this point. I've started regularly fielding attempted comments touting perpetual motion machines -- "over unity engines" seems to be the euphemism du jour for those -- as the solution to our problems. As I commented in a post last month:

"As the decline accelerates, anyone who offers Americans a narrative that allows them to pretend they’ll get the shiny new future that our national mythology promises them will be able to count on a large and enthusiastic audience. The narratives being marketed for this purpose need not be convincing; they need not even be sane. So long as they make it possible for Americans to maintain the fiction of a brighter future in the teeth of the facts, they’ll be popular."

Robert Mathiesen said...

@ John D. Wheeler:

My comment wasn't directed so much at you as at Georgi. You were mentioned in the header because you, too, had addressed Georgi, and mentioned me also.

That said, I do not see any signs whatever of *durable* moral or ethical progress in the human race over the last 5,000 years or so, and particularly not progress due to finer sensibilities or to any new sense of revulsion.

I would not kill another person *just* to get his meat in order to keep myself and my loved ones from starving to death. In such a situation, I would prefer to offer myself to be killed and eaten so that my loved ones might live. If it ever came to that, I hope I could find the courage to save their lives in that way.

But I can certainly imagine a situation in which I might kill another human being in order to defend my loved ones from attack.

And just to being this repellent discussion to its logical conclusion . . . Of course it's a very much less likely situation than needing to kill another in defense of one's loved ones . . . but if somehow that killing were to be followed by impending starvation for my loved ones and me, with no other food in prospect at all, I know myself well enough to know that I could and would manage to butcher that available human corpse and cook its meat without very much hesitation (though certainly with some revulsion at the butchering), just in order to provide food for my loved ones, and I, too, would eat it.

But, as I have said more than once in earlier comment threads here, I am a grim old man. Among the things my brother and I played with in my great-grandmother's house, when we were a child, was an actual human skull. It was an anatomical preparation created at the end of the 1800s. So I am not very squeamish about human remains in general.

John Michael Greer said...

I was fascinated to find an online Russian translation of my recent fictional exploration of the end of the American empire, "How It Could Happen" -- that's Kak Eto Mozhet Sluchitsya. My high school Russian isn't up to the task of checking it for accuracy -- perhaps one or more of my Russophone readers might take a look at it.

DeAnander said...

Not entirely off topic... the long historical cycle and the rise and fall of civilisation (and the various effects of relocalisation) are touched on more than lightly in the strange and (for me) compelling novel "Cloud Atlas" (from which the strange but of course far less compelling movie was made). I've been enjoying the author's speculations on the fall of industrial civilisation and the continuation of the human story -- not necessarily very nice humanity, but history goes on... The movie betrays the original work in several places, particularly in an egregious plot development -- I don't want to inflict major spoilers, but the movie makers could not handle the essential truths of the novel and resorted to space travel and "starting over on an exotic new planet". The original novel does not fall into this easy, dishonest narrative trap: the human story continues right here, on the only Earth we've got.

It's been an interesting discussion, many thanks to all. I have little to add... save that I find JMG's proposal (preserving some core of federal govt including the ability to project moderate force to protect the most basic human rights w/in its writ, otherwise devolving power to the local) not only sane, but comforting compared to many alternatives. I wish I knew how to get there from here.

The insanity of "rule from Ottawa" is obvious to many folks out here on the Wet Coast. So many decisions might be better made if the decision making power devolved to those directly affected, instead of remaining with theory-geek bureaucrats far far away. How to engineer this devolution w/o complete and disorderly balkanisation seems to be the riddle of our time. A political party with this as its central agenda would be worth starting *now*.

PRiZM said...

While watching the Super Bowl, a power outage for over half an hour occurred, and I couldn't help but think of what a superb example, and time, for how America is in decline.

Jeannette Sage said...

@ Blue Templar

In the nineties, I lived near Brasparts, Bretagne for a while. Brasparts was home to the Breton archdruid, and close to the mystical chapel of St. Michel de Brasparts, in the heartland of the Monts d'Arrée.
Here is an article on that archdruid (the English version, there is also a French one):'hlan_Le_Scou%C3%ABzec

And on his successor:

A work of fiction that you may appreciate is that of Henri Vincenot - "Le pape des escargots", about the deeply entrenched druidism in catholic Bourgogne.
Tranlated quote from the Wikipedia entry on this writer:
"The oeuvre of Henri Vincenot is profoundly marked by his attachment to the Bourgogne. He revalues the old, pagan, celtic practices, while showing at the same time how deeply they are integrated in the popular, catholic culture. His colourful characters often use Bourguignon language, which, according to Henri Vincenot, trickles back directly to the celtic language."

Overall, life in France is more geared towards strong, resilient communities than life in America is (as I know from experience). Many French feel very attached to the region they grew up in, and/or to their families. You may feel the same. In that case, staying in your familiar neighbourhood might be your best bet.

I hope this has helped you,

Robert said...

Wow! In Russian as well as Spanish! I'm sure Mr Putin will be reading it with interest in the Kremlin palace...

Cherokee Organics said...


It has cooled down in the past week so I've been out getting stuff done in the orchard and haven’t quite had the chance to read all of the comments, but I’m getting there.

The heat is coming back again this week though.

January shatters Australian heat records

Up the north of the continent though there was major flooding. I mentioned flooding recently as being an insurance nightmare. It is a good example of the failure of trying to legislate a societies way around a real world problem. You may find this article to be interesting:

Flood Bills and Levees

For those who aren't up for reading the link, you'll note that flood insurance coverage for people living in extreme risk areas can rise to as high as $24,000 in New South Wales and $19,000 in Queensland. For an average flood risk it is $4,700 a year in NSW and $8,000 in QLD.

Apparently only 2% of households in areas with a flood risk have taken up this insurance premium option. You don't have to be Einstein to understand why at those premiums.

Yes, governments can legislate that insurers are to provide flood insurance, but in turn those companies can make it so unaffordable that no one can take up the policy. It is a good example of catabolic collapse in action.

By the way some of those towns have had 3 major floods in 4 years. The risk odds are not good and there may get to be a point in time when those houses and infrastructure are not rebuilt.

What will happen, I'm guessing, is that people will stay on their land (which will be unsellable) but will live in temporary - outside the system - housing. Caravans (you call them trailers in the US), sheds, tents etc. The structures will become less permanent as time goes on. The same thing will happen where I am.



Danil Osipchuk said...

JMG, greetings from Russia.

Yes, we are reading you here and some of us are learning a lot (speaking of myself).

The translation is accurate, even literal somewhat. It is a bit rough hence and a native speaker will certainly instantly know that this is a translation. Nevertheless, it reads fine and I would like to encourage the translator to keep going!

best wishes,

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG and all,

I'm surprised by peoples thoughts that relocalisation involves moving somewhere else. Why?

I tend to think of the Depression era here as a pretty good example. There were no great violent uprisings - because they, well, take large amounts of energy. People generally got poor right where they were. There was a section of the community that hit the road looking for seasonal agricultural work, but again, it takes a huge amount of energy to walk reasonable distances.

If we all get poor then the government gets poor too, so projecting influence over the sort of pointless activities that government gets involved in these days (raiding raw milk suppliers comes to mind as a good example) is far more difficult as a result.

People don't seem to understand that when you get poor it equates to a shorter lifespan on average and as individuals we will be exposed to greater risks from both nature and injuries.

Industrial society as we know it provides us with a cushion against so many pitfalls we fail to even notice that they are there, but they haven’t gone away, we just ignore them.

If you go back further historically then you get fairy tales of seven league boots (about 21m or 30km). Think about it, to travel that far swiftly was a fairy tale, so what does that say about mass migrations and people’s ability to travel in a low energy environment. To be part of a mass migration is akin to attempting suicide as the odds are very low of survival. The reason for me writing this is because it is virtually impossible to forage for food and migrate at the same time and you would be very unlikely to find a warm reception at the other end.

Far better to spend the time learning what is edible in your own area. I was in an industrial estate the other week and noted several fruit trees and many different edible greens (some people may use the word "weeds" to describe these plants). If these plants could grow in such a place who knows what else is around... Relocalisation involves using your eyes and brain!



John D. Wheeler said...

"Fabrice, the first question to settle is how many of the benefits of progress will still be around in the absence of cheap abundant fossil fuels." That is the 6.4 billion person question (way more important than $64). Many things we can be certain will disappear with the loss of cheap fossil fuels, because they are completely dependant on them. For everything else, however, we can not settle the question ahead of time, because it depends on the actions of all of us, except perhaps the oldest and the youngest of us. If as you suggest we all give up something, learn something, and save something, we can make a tremendous difference.

RPC said...

To those of you talking about mass migrations, it may be worth noting that one of the things repressive regimes (from the scale of Jonestown to North Korea to the Soviet Union) do is establish extensive means for keeping their "citizens" put. These things do break down eventually, but usually only after a great deal of misery.

BlueTemplar said...

"Вопреки своим довольно странным религиозным увлечениям" = "Despite his [JMG's] somewhat weird religious leanings"
Funny how if you take the time to study your writings you see that these "weird" leanings are actually quite directly related to the reason(s) why this short story was written...

John Michael Greer said...

DeAnander, the first step is getting the idea some exposure, so that it can find a place in the collective conversation of our time. After that, yes, organizing around it would be the next stage.

Prizm, fascinating. Welcome to Third World America, where we can't even keep the lights on during the Super Bowl.

Robert, I'm sure Putin was well aware of the possibilities long before I started writing about them.

Cherokee, that seems likely enough. We've got a pretty fair assortment of routinely-flooded real estate here in the US, too. As for relocalizing in place, for anyone who can do so, it's the best option; not all places are well suited for that, however. That being the case, those who want to move had better get busy.

Danil, спасибо!

John, exactly. There are things we have now that I'd like to see get through the postindustrial dark ages and be available for future societies -- organic gardening methods, solar thermal technology, long distance radio, and more. All of them could be maintained and used without an industrial system to support them, and all could contribute mightily to human life.

RPC, true enough.

Templar, funny! Just wait until they start reading the posts on magic from the fall of 2011... ;-)

John Michael Greer said...

Nicholas (offlist), I have no way to respond to offlist comments unless you include your email address.

hawlkeye said...

Well, I’m not talking about a sudden collapse either. I understand your points about holding the Onion together, I’m just not so sure it can hold together long enough for a dependable, regional food supply to emerge before some Constitutionally critical fan-blowing.

I’m one of those folks who’s been starting farmers markets and CSA’s for those last twenty years, so I’ve seen these trends first-hand. Growers markets are an ancient pattern, good seeds for the future, to be sure, but very few sell more than specialty crops in-season and many are just another chance for bobos to brag about how green they are. The market share of growers markets is nowhere near any tipping points toward sustainability; yes, their numbers are growing, which is great, but they’re still a small blip in the larger oil-food bubble.

I have much more hope for the Community Supported Agriculture model, (where eaters buy shares in a local farm) for the re-emergence of an authentic food-growing culture. The original idea of sharing the risks of agriculture has decayed a bit into simpler subscriptions, but the brilliance of CSA is that it actually builds a local network of relationships around food production. Shares bought for dollars today can be traded for other things later, and it encourages diverse production and healthier farm organisms. This is the important transition, from food products bought and sold to food items traded and shared. The revolution will not be micro-waved!

Places like the Western Cascades, where Glen and I both live, are further ahead of the general curve in these regards, yet the transportation cost on every current calorie is still quite steep, since every morsel gets moved around so much. All the subdivisions in my watershed were preceded by pears, and before the orchards, many locally-adapted wheat varieties were widely grown, kinds we are currently bringing back from the blessed archives.

The current crop of Americans trained to be consumers have lost the grassroots political skills, as you’ve pointed out. And they’ve also lost the agri-cultural identity that will serve them as it did when the Constitution was written. Throw in vanishing seeds, water pumped by electricity, and the vast scale of current acreages and machinery, the transition to a food supply that will survive their breakdown and carry the good Amendments forward is far from assured, especially with all the other stressors tugging at those borders, political and otherwise.

The type of food supply required for democratic citizenship is not a food-product supply, but food that is no longer a commodity. Big Phewd and Big Pharma currently dictate Federal food production policy because they own it; the USDA and FDA are protection rackets for them at the moment. And they are dead-set against the upstart competition, witness the new bills requiring extensive “health and safety” and “seed registry” paper-work from small producers. As we do whatever we can to strengthen local food resiliency, looking to the Feds for “help” is a big mistake.

How can the Union hold together without a regionally strong, dependable food-supply that’s subsistence based? The food comes first; without it, political influence doesn’t amount to much. I'm curious why you're so assured this can happen in time enough to forestall a Constitutional crisis?

wiseman said...

There are different kinds of Mass migrations, those that happen during wars, conflicts, riots and ethnic cleansing and those that happen once an oppressive regime takes over. I think you are referring to the latter.

An example of the former would be the the Irish migrations, India's partition, those during the Bosnian-Serb conflict, Jewish migrations and those of Armenians and Kurds.

The latter one would be that of Russian and Chinese migrations during the Stalin and Mao era respectively.

RPC said...

wiseman: my original comment was set in the scenario discussed in the post and comments. History seems to indicate that the People's Republic of Massachusetts and New Reign of Christ in South Carolina will be at least as likely to try to "re-educate" their dissidents as they will to allow or force them to leave.

Glenn said...


Point taken, and example: My "beef from a mile down the road" has to be taken to Port Angeles to be butchered due to "health and sanitation" laws, then I have to drive to P.A. and back to bring it home. This mitigates against the small farmer or rancher. Still, I get grass fed organic beef for $3.00 a pound, including my gas, but not my time to pick it up.

So anything we can produce on our own place at least eliminates the carbon footprint (and passed on fuel costs) of getting food to the store; even when it's produce on a local organic farm.

Agreed about the excess profit motive, our local ranchers make a living without gouging us. I attribute a lot of it to reducing the number of middlemen.

Marrowstone Island

LewisLucanBooks said...

@hawlkeye - Re: Wheat. I live in W. Washington, halfway between Seattle and Portland. Rural county. Our local newspaper runs a "looking back" column with snippets from the paper from the 1880s to the 1950s.

A little item from a couple of years ago stuck in my mind. It was mentioned in 1888 that there was a bumper crop of wheat coming in from the Big Bottom. This is a pretty high valley in the eastern part of our county.

Now, the Big Bottom is underneath a reservoir behind a hydro dam. I haven't heard of anyone around here growing wheat. There also used to be huge hop yards. All gone, as near as I can figure. But there is a hop vine growing up the side of one of my sheds.

karlos said...

JMG-awesome work you are doing.
Relocation might have you surrounded by admirers and such for the lucky!

Relocation in SE alaska would involve mainly hunter-gather living with short summer season for gardening. Also, following history of the area depends on water transport. In your opinion; how does this situation rate as relocation prospect?


LewisLucanBooks said...

Relates to your post of 1/9. A podcast on Krampus! He is getting around ...

backyardfeast said...

I wanted to write in support of what hawlkeye is saying, which I don't think contradicts JMG's post.

Regardless of the current relocalization of food movement, I would argue that beyond the Amish (which those of you in the East are lucky to have--in fact, we are all lucky that they have kept the market for low-tech hand-tools, etc alive in North America during this fossil fuel boom), no one currently farming knows how to do so without fossil fuels.

We might be able to grow a few vegetables in our gardens without synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, or if you don't live on the West coast, without summer irrigation. But without row covers, plastic hoophouses, drip irrigation, cars to drive to get supplies or get crops to market? Refrigeration? I keep chickens now as part of my "sustainable" homestead, but I have few illusions about being able to provide enough food for them. I am lucky enough that I could get sort-of locally produced feed that comes by rail. But I'm not optimistic that even the rail lines will continue indefinitely...

There are MANY--thank goodness!--who are developing techniques to re-build the knowlege and systems that can support some aspects of sustainable agriculture: permaculture focuses on water, soil building, and perennial system backbones, for instance. Others are bringing draught horses and oxen back over tractors. But I'm not aware of anyone who is doing it all on any scale, and the learning curves and time it takes to get systems in place should not be underestimated.

Add to that the backdrop of *severely* depleted soils, arable land long paved over by subdivisions, and climate change that is making our "breadbaskets" marginal producers,and you can start to see the scale of the problem.

Hawlkeye is also exactly right that our current global agricultural system is exclusively set up for international corporate profit, not for efficiently feeding people. Transitioning that system to work in other ways will not be easy.

We are all correct. Fossil-fuel-free agriculture can be done and will be done again by necessity. But the transition won't be easy, and we are far too optimistic about what it might provide for us and how many people it might support.

I think this is exactly the difference that JMG points to in this post; that those who are prepared and a little more skilled might be able to "starve with dignity," while others simply starve.

backyardfeast said...

LewisLucan, your post reminded me of a relevant anecdote. Folks around here have been working to organize a permanent, indoor farmer's market. In a local paper several months back, a fellow wrote a letter in support of the market proposal. He wrote about how his (great?) grandmother always loved her experiences at the farmer's market back at the turn of the century. Her story?

In the wee hours of the morning, she would gather what there was to sell, and walk? her way down to the jetty. She would then ROW across a Vancouver Island inlet that is now serviced by a 20min car ferry. From there she would take the train into town (don't know how long that took, but it's still almost an hour drive now) and get set up at the market. When the sales day was over, she'd return home the same way.

I found this shockingly remarkable both because expending that kind of effort just for transportation (let alone the farming!) is literally inconceivable today, and because in fact the transportation aspect of the story was completely beside the author's point, which was that his ancestor enjoyed her weekly outing thoroughly.

Anyone interested in these food issues might enjoy Rebecca Hosking's Farm for the Future documentary on YouTube. One of her conclusions after talking with a local elder about her experiences in her youth was the recognition that our population (even those farming today) just doesn't have near the physical strength and endurance that folks in those times had as a matter of course. Making hay, threshing grain, working all day with animals, walking long distances to go to a dance :), chopping and milling lumber, grinding flour...and now not many in the general population can excercise for 30 minutes three times a week! Won't be that many who make it through, I have no doubt.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Hawlkeye,

Quote: "Food comes first".

I agree with your sentiments and they apply Down Under even more so.

Our blog host is correct also though. An historical example of land giveaways occurred here after WWI where the government was virtually handing out land to returning war veterans to be operated as small scale farms. Mind you the drought in the early 1930's wiped a lot of them out and in the process caused much ecological damage that otherwise wouldn't have occurred.

My experience here has taught me that establishing infrastructure for a small scale farm is quite complex. The reason for this complexity is that to be resilient, you have to experiment, succeed, fail, observe and learn all at the same time. This takes a considerable period of time which if you are hungry, you just won't have. Also, it takes a lot of time, effort and honesty to modify your existing infrastructure to take into account what you have actually learned. Water is the limiting factor Down Under – both too much and not enough!

Also Glenn mentioned local products. Well, the products may not have travelled far - and I'm not having a go, so please don't misunderstand me - but the fertility for those products could have travelled a long, long way even under the best organic practices. I have a great admiration for the work that Joel Salatin does at his Polyface farm and the systems are amazing. But, scratch beneath the surface and he imports his feed stock grains from elsewhere. Now, because he is recycling a lot of nutrients back into his soils - whilst exporting farm products - he can balance out the nutrient/soil equation in his favour. Can he do this long term though if those grain supplies were cut off? Dunno, but probably not seems to be the correct answer to me.

The extremes of climate seem to be getting more extreme too. It is 37 degrees (98.6 Fahrenheit) here today. Yet in the US much of the country freezes over winter and this is a serious limiting factor for local food production, which is why I keep banging on about food preservation techniques – and it doesn’t freeze here at all and yet I still preserve produce.

Civilisations - particularly cities - require healthy soils to exploit as those cities tend to be one way nutrient sinks. It doesn't have to be that way, but both nowadays and historically it mostly always is!

Hi Lew,

Hope you enjoy that hop vine! I can think of a very good use for that vine.



Leo said...

thought youd be interested

DeAnander said...

Speaking of devolution and local rebellion against long-distance governance...

A new term: Municipal Disobedience. I like it.

Adam Smith said...

This may seem like a small point, but the US did not have an army at the time of the ratification of the constitution. It only had a Navy. This is a crucial detail left out of most 2nd amendment debates. Citizens could bear arms because they were the only form of common defense. It's to our discredit that we have inflated our police forces, our military and it's myriad contractors.

Russ said...

I second Adam Smith's comments. We had just defeated the British; they were still to the North of us and the Spanish were to the South. In the West were my wife's relatives , ready willing and able to kill us. We had no standing army, little or no navy - all we had were the militia of the several states. And the only way to defend the union was to encourage the citizens to keep their guns to defend the fledgling union of 13 states. Now we don't need any militia. We have a standing army, a navy and multiple police forces. The first phrase of the 2nd amendment quite clearly sets out the condition precedent. We should be able to outlaw guns of any description. Russ Day