Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Illusion of Invincibility

One of the wry amusements to be had from writing a blog that routinely contradicts the conventional wisdom of our time is the way that defenders of that same conventional wisdom tend to react.  You might think that those who are repeating what most people believe would take advantage of that fact, and present themselves as the voice of the majority, speaking for the collective consensus of our time.

In the nearly seven years since I started this blog, though, the number of times that’s happened can be counted neatly on the fingers of one foot.  Instead, those who rehash the conventional wisdom of our day inevitably like to portray themselves as innovative thinkers bursting with ideas that nobody has ever thought before.  It’s those whose views most closely ape fashionable clichés culled from pop culture and the mass media, in fact, who are most likely to try to strike a pose of heroic originality, just as it’s those rare thinkers who stray from today’s popular orthodoxies who most reliably get accused of being rigid, dogmatic and closed-minded.

Quite often, for instance, I field flurries of emails and comments on my blog insisting that I really ought to consider the new and radical idea that technology can overcome the limits to growth. The latest occasion for this curious claim is a new book titled Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler, which is currently benefiting from a well-funded publicity campaign featuring lavish praise from the likes of Richard Branson and Bill Gates. I haven’t read it; doubtless I’ll do so once the public library here in Cumberland gets a copy, if only to find out if the book can possibly be as full of meretricious twaddle as it looks. 

What interests me, though, is that by and large, the people who have emailed me recently invoking the book as proof that I’m wrong about the future admit that they haven’t read it either. The mere fact that somebody has insisted in print that we’re going to get a shiny high-tech future of limitless abundance seems to be enough to convince them.  That the same claim has been breathlessly retailed in print for the better part of three centuries, as of course it has, seems never to enter their minds, and when I point this out, the response is the online equivalent of a you-kicked-my-puppy look and an insistence that I ought to be more open-minded to their supposedly new ideas.

In reality, if course, it’s hard to think of any cliché in today’s pop culture more trite and hackneyed than the notion that technology always trumps resource limits. That shopworn Victorian trope very nearly defines the conventional wisdom of our age. The evidence doesn’t support such claims, for reasons I’ve discussed on this blog many times already, and claims about the future that take that notion as gospel have already proven problematic, to use no harsher word. Yet it’s as certain as anything can be that when the hullabaloo over this latest book dies down, and some new book comes out rehashing the same weary cliché, I’ll field yet another round of enthusiastic emails from people who insist that it’s saying something new and exciting that I must never have heard before.

Glance over at the other side of the conventional wisdom and you can see the same process at work.  The flurries of emails and comments I get pushing the vision of a bright new future are equalled, and more than equalled, by the flurries I get insisting that I obviously haven’t heard about the exciting new notion that something or other is about to squash industrial civilization like a bug. It’s all the funnier in that these flurries continued apace during the year I spent running the End Of The World Of The Week Club, retelling the story of some failed apocalyptic prediction of the past with every single weekly post. When I point out that the people who make such claims are rehashing the oldest and most consistently mistaken of all historical clichés, in turn, I can count on fielding another flurry of angry rhetoric insisting that I need to be more open-minded about their allegedly innovative ideas.

Amusing as all this is, it’s anything but unexpected. Every human society draws a boundary between  those ideas that are acceptable and those that are beyond the pale, and modern industrial civilization is no exception to this rule; it’s simply that modern industrial civilization also likes to preen itself on its supposed openness to novel ideas. The habit of pretending that repeated rehashes of the conventional wisdom are always new and innovative, no matter how many times the same things have been repeated down through the years, and insisting that ideas that challenge the conventional wisdom aren’t new and innovative, even when they are, is as good a way as any to duck the potential conflicts between these two emotionally powerful cultural themes.

Appealing as though such habits might be—and they certainly help spare people the hard work of coming up with ideas that are genuinely original—they have at least one serious drawback.  If the conventional wisdom is leading straight toward disaster, and only a radically different way of looking at the world offers any hope of escaping a messy fate, a radically different way of looking at the world is exactly what you won’t get, because everybody thinks that the only way to get a radically different way of looking at the world is to keep on regurgitating the conventional wisdom that’s leading toward disaster in the first place.  It’s much as though people trapped in a burning building went around writing FIRE EXIT in bright red letters on every door that led straight back into the flames.

With these points in mind, I’d like to talk a bit about the latest attempt to rehash the conventional wisdom under the guise of rejecting it.

Over the last six weeks or so, I’ve fielded emails and comments from many sources insisting that peak oil has been disproved conclusively by the recent fracking phenomenon. This is hardly a new theme—in recent months, the same claims have been repeated almost daily at earsplitting volume in the mass media—but there’s a difference of some importance. The people who are sending these claims my way aren’t trying to claim that everything’s fine and the future of perpetual progress promised us by our culture’s most cherished mythology is on its way.  No, they’re insisting that because peak oil has been disproved, I and other peak oil writers and bloggers need to get with the program, stop talking about peak oil, and start talking about the imminent threat of climate change instead.

It’s a curious claim, all things considered.  For well over a decade now, predictions based on peak oil have proven far more accurate than predictions based on the conventional wisdom that insists resource limits don’t matter.  A decade ago, cornucopian theorist Daniel Yergin was loudly proclaiming that the price of oil had reached a permanent plateau at $38 a barrel, smart money was flooding into exciting new ethanol and biodiesel startups, and everyone other than a few peak oil writers out there on the fringes assumed as a matter of course that the market would provide, ahem, limitless supplies of energy from alternative sources if the price of oil ever did rise to the unthinkable level of $60 a barrel.

Meanwhile, those peak oil writers out there on the fringe were garnering almost universal denunciation by predicting a difficult future of triple-digit oil prices, spiraling economic dysfunction, and the failure of alternative energy technologies to provide more than a very modest fraction of the vast energetic largesse our society currently gets from fossil fuels. The conventional wisdom was that this couldn’t possibly happen. A decade on, it’s not exactly hard to see who was right.

As for the claim that the fracking phenomenon has disproved peak oil, it’s worth revisiting two graphs I’ve posted before. The first one tracks oil production in the United States between 1920 and 2012:

See the little bitty uptick over on the right hand side of the graph?  That’s the vast new outpouring of crude oil made possible by fracking technology. That’s what all the shouting and handwaving are about. I’d encourage my readers to take a long hard look at that very modest upward blip, and then turn to the second graph, which should also be familiar:

This is the diagram of peak oil from M. King Hubbert’s original 1956 paper on the subject.  Those of my readers who are paying attention will already have noticed the very large area on the right hand side of the curve, more than two and a half times the size of all cumulative production and proven reserves  shown, labeled “future discoveries.”  The Bakken shale?  It’s included in there, along with many other oil fields that haven’t even been found yet.

The current fracking phenomenon, in other words, doesn’t disprove peak oil theory.  It was predicted by peak oil theory. As the price of oil rises, petroleum reserves that weren’t economical to produce when the price was lower get brought into production, and efforts to find new petroleum reserves go into overdrive; that’s all part of the theory.  Since oil fields found earlier are depleting all the while, in turn, the rush to discover and produce new fields doesn’t boost overall petroleum production more than a little, or for more than a short time; the role of these new additions to productive capacity is simply to stretch out the curve, yielding the long tail of declining production Hubbert showed in his graph, and preventing the end of the age of oil from turning into the sort of sudden apocalyptic collapse imagined by one end of the conventional wisdom.

Pick up any decent book on peak oil, or spend ten minutes of independent research on the internet, and you can learn all of this. Somehow, though, the pundits whose heated denunciations of peak oil theory show up in the mainstream media nearly every day don’t manage to mention any of these points. It’s not the only noticeable gap in their reasoning, either:  I’ve long since lost track of the number of times I’ve seen media stories insist with a straight face that kerogen shales like the Green River formation are the same as oil shales like the Bakken, say, or duck the entire issue of depletion rates of fracked wells, or engage in other bits of evasion and misstatement that make our predicament look a great deal less challenging than it actually is.

Until recently, I’ve assumed that the failure to do basic research implied by these curious lapses was simply a product of the abysmal ignorance displayed by the media, and American society in general, concerning the important issues of our time. Still, I’ve had to rethink that, and a good part of the reason is a chart that was picked out of the mainstream media by one of the ever-vigilant Drumbeat commenters over on The Oil Drum—tip of the archdruid’s hat to Darwinian.  Here it is:

You can find this graph in various forms in quite a few places in the American media just now. You’ll notice that, at first glance, it appears to be showing domestic production of petroleum here in the US rising up inexorably to equal domestic consumption, and leaving imports far in the dust. Take another look, and you’ll see that the line tracking domestic production uses a different scale, on the right side of the chart, that just happens to make current production look three times bigger than it is.

Perhaps some of my readers can think of an honest reason why the chart was laid out that way. I confess that I can’t. It seems uncomfortably likely, in other words, that peak oil theory has racked up another successful prediction.  It’s one that my regular readers will remember from several previous posts, including this one from last June: the opening up of a chasm between those who are willing to face the reality of our situation and those who flee from that reality into fantasy and self-deception.

That chasm runs straight through the middle of the contemporary environmental movement, very much including the subset of that movement that concerns itself with climate change.  It doesn’t run in the obvious place—say, between the techno-environmentalists who insist that everyone on the planet can have a lavish American middle class lifestyle powered by renewable energy, and the deep ecologists who see humanity as a gang of ecocidal apes yelling in triumph as they rush toward planetary dieoff. Both these extremes, and the entire spectrum of opinions between them, embrace the core presupposition that undergirds the conventional wisdom of our age.

What is that presupposition?  Total faith in the invincibility of technological progress.

That’s the common thread that unites the whole spectrum of acceptable viewpoints in today’s industrial society, from the cornucopians who insist that the universe is obligated to give us all the resources we want if we just wave enough money around, through the faux-environmentalists who are out there shilling for the nuclear industry because the other options are a little bit worse, right across the landscape of ideas to the believers in imminent apocalypse and the darkest of dark green ecologists. What differentiates these viewpoints from one another is their assessment of the value of technological progress:  the cornucopians think it’s all good, the techno-environmentalists think most of it’s good, and so on along the line to those extreme neoprimitivists who have convinced themselves that the invention of spoken language was probably a bad idea.

If you want to trace the fault line mentioned above, suggest to any of them that technological progress might stop in its tracks and give way to regress, and see how they respond. Mind you, by making that suggestion you’ll put yourself on the far side of a different line, the line between those ideas that are acceptable in industrial society and those that are beyond the pale. It’s acceptable to glorify progress as a mighty steamroller that will inevitably flatten anything in its path; it’s acceptable to argue that the steamroller has to be steered onto a different course, so it doesn’t flatten something of value that’s currently in its path; it’s acceptable to rage and weep over all the things it’s going to flatten as it continues on its unstoppable way; it’s even acceptable to insist that the steamroller is so mighty a juggernaut that no one can stop it from rolling over a cliff and crashing to ruin on the rocks below.

You can say any of these things in polite company.  What you can’t say, not without meeting total incomprehension and violent hostility, is that the steamroller’s fuel gauge is swinging over inexorably toward the letter E, and the jerry cans in back are dead empty.  You can’t mention that ominous grinding sounds are coming out from under the hood, that trouble lights are flashing all over the dashboard, and that the steamroller’s forward motion is already visibly slowing down.  You can’t even suggest as a possibility that in the not too distant future, the mighty steamroller will be a rusting, abandoned hulk, buried up to its axles in mud, stripped of all usable parts by roaming scavengers, and left to the patient and pitiless wrecking crew of sun and wind and rain.

Now of course some people are saying this.  To step back out of the metaphor, they are saying that technological progress, as well as the sciences that helped to make it possible, are subject to the law of diminishing returns; furthermore, that what has been called progress is in large part a mere side effect of a short-term, self-limiting process of stripping the planet’s easily accessible carbon reserves at an extravagant pace, and will stop in its tracks and shift into reverse as those reserves run short; more broadly, that modern industrial society is in no way exempt from the common fate of civilizations.  Ideas such as these have a long and intriguing history in the modern world, and I’ll want to discuss that history here one of these days.

Still, the point I want to make just now is that until recently, those who embraced the conventional wisdom simply ignored those of us who embraced these deeply unfashionable ideas.  Climate change activists, to return to the point at issue, could simply brush aside the peak oil perspective, and keep on insisting that the only thing that can stop technological progress from destroying the planet is more technological progress—biofuels, solar energy, geoengineering, you name it; plenty of technologies and their supporters vied for the lucrative role of planetary savior, but next to nobody questioned the assumption that some technology or other was going to play the part.  When peak oil researchers pointed out that predictions of catastrophic climate change assumed continued increases in fossil fuel extraction at rates the planet couldn’t provide, nobody paid the least attention.

The flurry of emails and comments I’ve received of late suggest that we aren’t being ignored any longer, and I think I know why.  It’s the same reason why peak oil theory keeps on getting denounced on a daily basis in increasingly shrill tones in the mainstream media, even though nobody with access to the mainstream media is arguing in favor of it, and the reason why those denunciations have strayed further and further into what looks remarkably like overt dishonesty.  For the last decade and more, again, predictions based on peak oil theory have proven substantially correct, while predictions based on a rejection of peak oil theory have been embarrassingly wrong. For that matter, the "standard run" model from The Limits to Growth, the most savagely denounced of the Seventies-era predictions of industrial civilization’s fate, has proven to be the most accurate projection of future trends to come out of that decade. One more graph:

The further we go into the future traced out by M. King Hubbert and The Limits to Growth, and the wider the gap that opens up between the myth of perpetual progress and the realities of contraction and regress that are taking shape around us right now, the more effort the chorus of believers will likely put into drowning out dissenting voices and proclaiming the infallibility of an already disproved creed. Why this should be so, why the illusion of invincibility is so central to the myth of progress and its believers, is an intricate question, far more complex than a single paragraph or a single post can cover. To explore it, I’m going to have to plunge into one of the handful of subjects I’d originally decided to leave severely alone on this blog: the religious implications of the end of the age of oil. We’ll start that discussion next week.


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Eric said...


We have chickens now and the neighbors are trying to get rid of them. Even though they are perfectly legal at this point (We only have three). Funny how having an "unconventional" pet makes people crazy.

I guess "society" just has to hammer down the nail so to speak. Seems to me that that is exactly what is happening with Peak Oil Theory.

John Roth said...

I've been wondering about this for a long time - why people keep repeating the same tired old conventional wisdom arguments as if whoever they're talking to has never heard them before, and if they're simply repeated in a louder voice, why, they'll become self-evidently true.

It's irritating, is what it is.

Richard Larson said...

Contemplating the three sided chart brought to mind a descriptive name - for the true believers in perpetual progress - I have been thinking about as late; The System Man.

Now, your blog has fashioned The System Man. He has three hands and a foot. And he flails those three hands about, passing himself off as a magician, dazzling the simple-minded with the wore out card tricks.

The crowds cheer, if not only to justify the price of admission, in thinking his loss of balance and subsequent falling face first into the mud was part of the act.

Works for me! Looking forward to what your thoughts on the coming religions might be.

TaylorTeal said...

"The flurry of emails and comments I’ve received of late suggest that we aren’t being ignored any longer"

"First they ignore you; then they ridicule you; then they fight you; then you win." - Gandhi

John Michael Greer said...

Eric, exactly. Josephin Peladan, the 19th-century French occultist who is among my sources of inspiration, liked to say that society is an anonymous enterprise for living a life of secondhand emotions; the notion that somebody might have his own thoughts, his own feelings -- or his own chickens! -- is unthinkable to a great many people.

John, it is indeed. It might be useful to start making fun of the habit, if only to make the people who do it a little more self-conscious about it.

John Michael Greer said...

Richard, now there's a lively metaphor! Thank you.

Taylor, you know, I was thinking of that while writing tonight's post. I'll take your reference to the saying as a good omen.

Philip King said...

Love your weekly blog. Will send a substantive comment once I get this process to work.

Best Regards, PhilK

BrightSpark said...

Climate change predictions sure are funny. I read Aleklett's paper on the problems with the IPCC models, and even his reasonable request for the IPCC to run their sophisticated models on his more accurate reserve data, and was astounded by the lack of follow up that it got. It's almost akin to the treatment that Dean Radin and others get.

I even made the mistake of referencing that paper in my masters thesis, which earned a few black marks and academic frowns. In hindsight though, it was worth it for the experience of how compartmentalised knowledge works - of what questions are OK, and what aren't.

We've still got a fair degree of warming locked in, but not the catastrophic scenarios as currently predicted.

Mr O. said...

That chart of oil imports/consumption is straight out of 1984. What I find extraordinary is someone must have deliberately set it up to mislead people. Is this anti-peak oil more organised than a knee jerk reaction?

Thijs Goverde said...

Hey, did anyone already mention the fact that Japan has succeeded in mining frozen methane hydrates from the deep seas?
There's a lot of gas down there!
This could be a real game changer, people!

When the technique will become commercially viable is, ahem... wait for it... not clear as yet.

medved said...

I feel encouraged to mention that the new catholic bishop of Rome (usually called pope) took the name of "Francis of Assisi, a man of peace, a man of poverty, a man who loved and protected creation, and the poor." I took at as one of few hopeful signs, that this theme will be meditated by so divergent minds. For those who care, fruitful Easter week.

Justin Wade said...

I'm interested to see where this goes.

If the energy reserves existed, we would surely burn our way into extinction (and may already do so as the ecology changes.) The ideological underpinnings of the march of progress is hard to get my head around in an explanatory sense except for the vague notion that abstract intelligence is an evolutionary dead end. I.e. the capacity to insulate oneself from existential threats with abstract delusion/tricks ensures destruction on a long enough timeline from a species perspective. Coming at the question from a religio-cultural explanation is a tangle in my mind, interested to hear what spin you put on it.

flute said...

I'm really looking forward to the religious implications of the end of the age of oil next week. It's something I've been thinking about myself but haven't gotten around writing anything about it yet.

Avery said...

There's actually no need to read through the whole book Abundance, because it was quite earnestly summarized in this 200-word blog post.

I beg that the readers of this blog take a few seconds to flip through that post. If you aren't laughing out loud by the end, you must be new here.

Gee whiz!

Avery said...

Erk, sorry for the double comment, but when you start your discussion of religion and peak oil, I really do hope you take a long and thoughtful look at the work of René Guénon. On your bookshelf, I understand, you frequently consult Oswald Spengler, who predicted the Cold War, the European Union, the rise of the suburbs, etc. But Spengler, as a materialist, had only a superficial understanding of why cultures appear in the first place and what happens when civilizations come to an end. Although I have relied on this blog for my understanding of the material underpinnings of a "long decline", I owe my understanding of the spiritual consequences of such a decline to Guénon, who outlined a specific course of action for those who would pursue a spiritual stance against modernity.

Compound F said...

You are easily one of the most measured, convincing, and engaging writers in blogtopia.

Here's my problem (you knew it was coming!): The sheer complexity of the industrial world, mainly built on energy and debt-based finance, make even the most erudite predictions utter guesswork with respect to, say, the speed of disintegration. Throw in the additional non-linearities of climate change just for fun!

Bottom line? You're working with a lot of non-linearity, way, way, way beyond what the engineers at Lockheed are dealing with in their latest x-wing fighter; and their situation is constrained from the gitgo.

Please address that in a future post.

Best regards. Love yer work.

Odin's Raven said...

Where material progress has displaced spiritual hope it's perhaps not surprising that people cling to their materialistic religion in which technology replaces theology. Instead of Byzantine Christological disputes there are American technological disputes. The future may find them equally baffling.

Eiskrystal said...

We have chickens now and the neighbors are trying to get rid of them

You should get a large dog that's bigger than all 3 chickens put together, makes 10 times the mess, and barks all night. Much more socially acceptable to the "modern" mind... and actually legal in more places than chickens.

I have yet to see any mainstream article "disproving" peak oil that wasn't a known and shameless lie. Easily spotted by the layman once the thoughtful, evidence backed comments come in which get dismissed by the author as the ravings of madmen.

OrwellianUK said...

Hi John

A good description for people's belief in conventional wisdom is what I call the "They'll think of something" mentality. Note that its always someone else who will save the world-as-we-know-it in this assumption, never themselves. I recall you've covered this in previous years when you encouraged people to put their money and energy where their mouth was and do some of that basement invention.

People's religious core belief in the inevitability of technological progress is so strong that it is impossible to reason against it. I had this recently with a lady who insisted that as yet unachieved nuclear fusion was an assured result of progress sooner or later. My suggestion, plagiarised from your blog, that viable fusion was unlikely on anything smaller than the scale of a sun was met with irritated hostility and shaking of the head at my audacity in challenging the power of science.

Attempts to explain that nuclear power (not to mention modern science) only exists in the first place because we have chucked extravagant amounts of fossil fuel at this energy equivalent of Formula One motor racing, met with the same reaction.

Compound F said...

also, off topic: I was beginning to enjoy your series on "magic," or thaumaturgy, as you called it; I was keen on detecting the supernatural, or what I would consider supernatural, in your work, which I never detected. So, I guess I'm interested in hearing more on the subject from you and your historical sources. To my recollection, it sounded more like mind conditioning, in a positive, inductive sense, but definitely not in the Skinnerian sense of extrinsic incentives, 'tho once one goes into "conditioning", the behaviorists cannot be considered irrelevant. Edwin Ray Guthrie was no slouch. I've read a little Boethius, which seems on target philosophically, but hardly constitutes an education on the "more mystical" appeal of earlier centuries you were talking about. Yes, perhaps I was hearing a joint appeal from Boethius and Edwin Ray, whose writing reminds me of yours for its rather brilliant plainness.

Maybe you've already written a book on this...?

ChemEng said...

Mr Greer:

You state that we have, “Total faith in the invincibility of technological progress” but that, “only a radically different way of looking at the world offers any hope of escaping a messy fate. . .”.

I have always been intrigued by the concept of Hegelian Synthesis. In the context of your discussion the “thesis” is pre-industrial society, the “anti-thesis” is industrial society and the “synthesis” is the society which will develop from the previous two. It will be contain elements of both but be different from both. This means, therefore, that, whatever form that future society may take, it will not be the same as the one that existed before the 18th century. We cannot forget all that we have learned in the last 300 years - nor should we.

Given that engineers created the world that we now live in I wonder how engineers can help develop the new synthesis. For example, however radically different the new world may look, I know that it will still be rooted in the First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics (Peak Oil and Global Warming respectively). This means that the challenge for we engineers is to “think the unthinkable” and to develop new technologies that are not just a variant of current or past approaches but that are still based in thermodynamic reality.

John R said...

First of all, I think you're right. That is, I think "business as usual" will not continue as usual, and that the steamroller probably will run out of fuel before we cook the planet to crisp.

But I've been wrong more than once before, and I am painfully aware that I will probably be wrong quite a few more times in the future.

And the timing as to when the steamroller stops rolling matters. If it splutters along for a few more decades than you and I think is likely, then the planet could get very badly singed.

Even then, I'm optimistic for the biosphere in general - it will adapt.. eventually. But I do worry about my kids, who are only babies now.

So I still think the climate risk means that it's prudent to try and minimize the rate of fossil fuel depletion, despite what I said in the first paragraph.

Of course, a lot of the steps that can minimize greenhouse gases will also take some of the sting out of peak oil, or at least delay it a bit, but I agree that the LESS approach (= less energy, stimulation and stuff) is a much better way to go than simply trying to keep the steamroller going with biodiesel or solar power.

Michelle said...

Good morning, Mr. Greer. Thanks for yet another compelling read. I have a couple of mostly-formed thoughts to share.

First - I have noticed that as I have pursued a way of living that seeks to consume fewer resources and which has enough integrity to soothe my conscience, I hear, over and over, "It's so great what you're doing. I could never do it, though." Whether the 'could never' is due to time constraints, or self-discipline constraints, or because it's odd and outside of social acceptability is always left not articulated.
Second - belatedly, I'm hearing that at least a few Protestant denominations are engaging in conversations about slowing resource consumption on a personal and congregational level. (ref: It's not much, and it's quite late to the party, but it's a conversation, at least, and an encouragement toward such radical notions as carpooling and drinking tap water out of your own re-useable bottle.

Anywhere But Here Is Better said...

Someone once said (or did I dream it?) that when you seek the truth, you will recognize it by the clarity of its expression.

Your clarity is astonishing, a lone light in this dark world of public disinformation a.k.a. the mainstream media. Thanks for the regular enlightenment, Oliver

Juhana said...

Correction: When talking about fuels produced by old Suid Afrikaanse Steenkool en Olie using Fischer-Tropsch process, term biofuel is incorrect and term synthetic fuel correct. My apologies for this mistake, english language is still blunt instrument in my hands.

John D. Wheeler said...

Thank you so much for this post, I suspect I will be referencing it many times. For while I am a believer in progress, it is not technological progress that I see as the way forward. Generally speaking, I see the potential for great strides in what is traditionally known as husbandry or stewardship. The key difference with technological progress is that it demands profound changes in our behavior. I believe those changes will come in a Darwinian fashion: only those who adopt the appropriate behavior can ultimately survive (can, not will, because those clinging to the consumer lifestyle will probably take many down with them).

Jeffrey Kotyk said...

One implication that I haven't seen really addressed by writers in the peak oil community is the energy intensive institution that is a modern justice system.

For example, take into consideration all the education, staff, technology, expertise, literature, office space, electricity and imported coffee that goes into a forensics lab which proves someone innocent and spares them the death penalty. Or, for that matter, a justice system which has ample resources to jail someone for life at state expense rather than executing them shortly after the guilty verdict.

In less energy intense times, justice was a lot more swift and crude. Here in Nepal I hear unless it is a foreigner or important person in question, they don't really have the resources to have extensive ranks of lawyers, forensics experts, investigators and so on, let alone the labs. Justice is a lot cheaper and perhaps comparatively unfair.

So, as time goes on and we have a lot less gas in the system, we can logically expect to see an end to the modern complex justice system and all its benefits (like proving the innocent as innocent).

That might be equally as terrifying to some as, say, an end to the internet or private cars. It might also serve as a marker to gauge how far along we are (much like declining food surplus or increasing blackouts). We might observe the decline of modern justice as energy availability likewise declines. "Peak Justice". But then people will likely adamantly deny this and just think it is corrupt government. What do you think?

Yupped said...

As you've said before, faith in progress is a religious belief for many if not most of us. Faith in a big narrative - in this case "forever upwards and onwards with human innovation" - does help us to organize our lives and thoughts and helps us feel safe. It's very painful when the details start to prove the narrative wrong. You can see that all through history, with various ideologies and systems continuing well past their sell-by date because true believers kept pursuing them in spite of the facts. You can also see it vividly in blog comment threads. It's particularly interesting that comments seem more angry when followers of a doomer type blog have to deal with details that suggest reality is not as bad they thought it should be. So we cling to the narrative even when our lives could be better off if we didn't. So much for rationality.

I used to think this was just because humans are better at seeing the forest for the trees, but I think now it's because we unconsciously pick out the facts that least threaten our faith, often without realizing consciously that we have faith in the first place. On an unconscious level our minds provide this filtering for us. I've lost faith in a couple of big narratives in my life and man was it painful. I probably would have done anything to put the toothpaste back into the tube. But once it's out, it's out and there's no going back.

M said...

"...and so on along the line to those extreme neoprimitivists who have convinced themselves that the invention of spoken language was probably a bad idea."

Funny! I also enjoyed the steamroller metaphor (though a bit sad that it came sans bouncing rubble;^)

I've seen this desire to keep the wool over one's eyes up close and personal. This past fall I attended a local lecture that featured a well-known NYT environmental blogger and the original Riverkeeper of the Hudson River, among other panelists. They were talking about this problem and that dilemma, and proposing this and that technical solution, when I mentioned the problem of peak oil and other resource shortages (if memory serves, it was in relation to how energy-intensive the Internet is). My question was sidestepped completely as one of the panelists picked up on a tangent. I have to assume these respected thinkers and scientists are aware of peak oil, but they are doing nothing to acknowledge it publicly as the factor.

I also observe that whenever I bring up discussion of this topic among family and friends, I am more often than not labelled a doomer. I get this sobriquet simply by pointing out such facts as Hubbert's curve. How negative of me to point out reality! I guess they prefer their reality served on tv. What's needed is a nationally recognized spokesperson for peak oil. Maybe if Joe Biden loses in a run for President...

Meanwhile, at 53 and with very myopic eyesight, I wonder how long I will have access to contact lenses--or cataract surgery should that become necessary.

RPC said...

Re. TaylorTeal's post, I'd add: "Truth passes through three stages. First it is ignored; then it is violently opposed; then it accepted as self-evident." (Schopenhauer). (I particularly like the "self-evident" part.)
One of the unmentionables following on from the unmentionable you've mentioned here is that we've reached the stage of Least Bad Choices. That is, all the options are bad; what we have to do is try to evaluate which is least bad overall. Redamming the streams and rivers of New England for hydroelectricity will disrupt fish runs; is that better than burning lignite? Fluorescent lamps contain mercury; is dumping them in landfills (the energy to properly recycle them is disappearing) worse than burning coal (which also contains mercury) to light incandescents? And so on, down the line. Facing up to and acting on the semi-palatable options we've got is tough, but it's preferable to keeping one's head in the sand (or other dark places).
(BTW, "those extreme neoprimitivists who have convinced themselves that the invention of spoken language was probably a bad idea" nearly washed my monitor in coffee - thank you!)

Mister Roboto said...

Many observors have noted that middle-class Americans in particular have turned living in denial into something of an artform. I have an immediate family member who is the very embodiment of this. I frequently find myself slapping my hand to my forehead in amazement at the things he is able to make himself believe. At this point, I wouldn't be surprised if I heard "The sky is orange and two plus two equals five" coming out of his mouth.

blue sun said...

To arm you and your readers for the upcoming war of charts and graphs, one thing "you really ought to consider..." (ha! I couldn’t resist) is Edward Tufte's essay The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint.

It deals specifically with Microsoft's PowerPoint software, and the way it structurally reduces one’s ability to communicate data, but I think the concept generally extends to communicating any technical information. Despite being a serious essay, it’s also quite amusing. He provides hilarious examples of bad slides, and seriously compares PowerPoint's rate of data transfer to Pravda—the organ of Soviet propaganda. Another eye-opening example contrasts a handwritten data table from 1662 to a modern slideshow.

I don’t doubt there’s a lot of intentional dishonesty going into the charts we see in the mainstream media (and will continue to see). I think, however, the issue extends beyond mere manipulation, and ties into the whole issue of education and the ability to think that you’ve discussed in previous posts.

Tufte’s essay introduces the sort of structural "dumbing down" imposed by the medium itself, which most of us are quite simply unaware of. I think it provides a sort of first inoculation. It did for me. The scientists and engineers in the audience will especially enjoy this one, at least those who aren’t too proud of their PP presentations.

Malcolm Green said...

As always, brilliantly insightful and well written! Just wanted to say thank you for the meditations you've provided me.

Ozark Chinquapin said...

I look forward to your discussion on the religious implications of peak oil.

On the topic of today's post, I noticed that the predicted trend on the limits to growth chart labeled "global pollution" climbs much more sharply than any of the other lines, and doesn't peak until well after everything else is in decline. I'm guessing it's probably about all the contaminants that have been created by industrial society but contained in various places now leaking into the environment. If pollution does more than triple from 2000 levels that will make the descent that much more difficult.

The attitudes that you write about concerning the idea of the invincibility of technological progress seems to be closely paralleled by the idea of the invincibility of the American government. Both its supporters and its harshest critics tend to buy into the idea that its power is invincible or at least close enough that it would take an apocalyptic type event to bring it down.

Wolfgang Brinck said...

"I’m going to have to plunge into one of the handful of subjects I’d originally decided to leave severely alone on this blog: the religious implications of the end of the age of oil."
Looking forward to it. Lots of interesting stuff here. Everything from the origin of the great world religions as a response to political chaos in the axial age to more recent phenomena such as the ghost dance religion as a response to the end of the Native American cultural collapse and phenomena like the cargo cult as an attempt on the part of Pacific Islanders to bring back the material plenty that disappeared when the US military left after WWII.
I hope you can squeeze more than one post out of this rich topic.

wvjohn said...

I hereby nominate you (and Darwinian) for the Emperor's New Clothes Award for 2013. I have seen that chart many times, but never looked closely at the scales being used. Simply astounding that it is so widely accepted, and that people purporting to be scientists didn't fall out of their chairs laughing when they saw it. Sadly, one must concur with your suggestion as to motive. A quick google search on the image gives 50+ results, and I'm sure that text references are in the thousands. I read the Oil Drum from time to time, but missed this one. Thanks for bringing it to a wider audience.

Karim said...

Greetings all!

The myth and illusion of technological invincibility is so powerful that even in Mauritius I no longer challenge anyone who says that technology will find a solution to whatever predicament our society faces.

As to the idea that technology will/is facing its own limits, its a bit like heresy. Better not utter it!

It's like progress and technological inventions have become religions in their own right and have surpassed Christianity in Europe at least. No wonder that atheism and agnosticism have shot up in Europe as the religion of progress took over.

I guess that as progress dissolves away we ought to see the resurgence of religious movements in Europe itself.

It also looks as if progress became the vehicle of a basic human need: the need for hope. As such it took over this role from traditional religions.

In turn, as progress dwindles away, another vehicle must be brought out, hence the possible resurgence of religious movements.

One could argue that as we slide down Hubbert's curve, religion may once more become a central pillar of human societies, Europe included.

Could we not argue that Peak Oil is after all a crisis of religions? One passing away and giving way to new ones or to old ones reinvigorated.

Finally, a big thanks to you JMG for your steadfastness in fielding all those comments from so many people and making this blog something out of the ordinary.

James Yamano said...

Hello Mr. Greer,

I have been reading your blog since two years ago (I am now 21 years old), and this will be my first comment on your blog.

When I was reading this week's post I could not help but be reminded of the experiences that I had in my attempts to have a decent conversation regarding resource-depletion with my friends (many of whom are close to my age). As you might guess, they always claim that new technological innovation will save our society's needs for more resources such as fresh water, topsoil, fertilizers, energy resources, etc. Once they make such a claim, they shut out whatever arguments I have against the notion of technological progress. I know why they do so, it is because without those resources, all of the luxuries that they enjoy in their lives will come to an end.

I am hoping to one day have a decent conversation with them regarding the subject, until then I intend to adapt my lifestyle to the looming de-industrialized age.

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

Thanks, JMG, for pointing out the misleading use of two different vertical-axis scales on the graph captioned "As crude production has surged while demand is in structural decline, net imports have been falling substantially."

There is a further problem with the graph, which may sucker at least a few naive people (not, I would imagine, the readers of this blog, and certainly not you): neither of the two vertical axes starts from zero. The effect of starting the vertical axes from well above zero is to make the rises and falls in the plots look more dramatic than they in fact are.

In particular, it will look to some naive people as though the "net imports" plot has gone way, way, way dramatically down, becoming nearly negligible, when in fact America's net imports are according to the graph still in excess of 7 million b/d (in other words, are according to the graph still somewhere between 7 per cent and 10 per cent of total world output: I think, subject to correction from others on this blog, that world output is, to one significant figure, either 80 million b/d or 90 million b/d).

I recall reading, somewhere, that the presentation of graphs whose vertical axes start from a point well above zero is a rather well known trick in political advocacy.


Toomas (Tom) Karmo
www dot metascientia dot com

Bytesmiths said...

Although you've been admirable in showing those on both sides are nut-cases, there are a couple solid reasons to lean to the "doomer" or "hard crash" side.

First, there are nearly seven billion more of us now than there were before the widespread use of fossil sunlight. That is a mass not easily steered, even if most of them see themselves being carried along by the crowd toward a looming cliff. Have another Big Mac and enjoy the spectacle.

Second, ecological examples based on the "logistics equation," show that resource overshoot nearly always results in a hard crash. The famous "hare and lynx" study is but one example. This is simply what happens in dynamic systems that are in overshoot.

Third, from an emotional point of view, the notion of a hard crash can move people to action who would be more inclined to go with the flow otherwise -- sort of the opposite of "boiling frog syndrome."

So this is why I tend to be a bit of a doomer -- to get people off their butts and to get them to care about what is happening, and to get them to do whatever personal actions they can do to mitigate it.

Yea, the gauges on the steamroller are beeping and flashing. But we're nearer the edge than we think, and there's enough fuel to get us over the edge. But I find the notion that the steamroller will stutter and stall no better than the other notions you decry.

The key is to sabotage the steamroller! Pour sugar in the tank! Take wire cutters to the fuel lines! Stuff a banana in the exhaust! Pour mud in the air intake!

This is not for the faint-of-heart. Sabotaging the steamroller means, in the original words of Thoreau, voluntary poverty. It means living simply, that others might simply live. It means scaling back, reducing your hours, working less for money and more in your garden.

Starve the beast!

My donkey said...

Regarding the "First they ignore you..." quote that another reader mentioned, apparently there is no record of Gandhi saying this.
A close variant first appears in a 1918 US trade union address by Nicholas Klein.

Misattributed quotes are common on the Internet; perhaps they're another example of "repeated rehashes of the conventional wisdom" that you mentioned today?

Peck's Bad Boy said...

The Economist just came out with an 'everything coming up roses' piece. I like that my sugar snap peas are coming up.

Robin Datta said...

It may also be useful to discuss and/or dismiss the assertion that some six or so degrees of warming and 90 or so meters of sea-level rise is now baked into current carbon dioxide levels, and multiple self-sustaining positive feedback loops have been triggered, including methane clathrates, permafrost methane, the albedo loss, etc.

Cat Strickland said...

Or, as bossy Lucy in the Peanuts comic strip says: "If you can't be right, at least be wrong at the top of your voice!"

Is there a new version of the final graph available? This one is thirteen years old.

mtngirl said...

The CitiBank graph floored me ... and didn't. What floored me was the blatant mis-direction and assumption that "no one will notice." What didn't floor me was that it's been swallowed (almost) hook, line, and sinker (emphasis on the sinker) by so many. A sad confirmation of the lack of real education in the art of critical thinking.
I am looking forward to next week's post. Based on history and the study of human behavior, I suspect it won't be pretty. Sigh.

Unknown said...

I don't really see a contradiction between peak oil and climate change. We're running out of oil, but we still have rather large reserves of low-quality coal. It's very possible, and in my view quite likely, that both are peak oil and climate change are real problems; climate change may even be the more acute one since that oceanic methane clathrates seem to be volatilizing at an increasing rate.

Russ said...

John: Excellent! The simple logic of resource depletion is overwhelming. It defies credulity to assume otherwise. As with climate change, resource depletion is one of those subjects Mother Nature handles on her own. She doesn't care what anyone else believes, what political party or religion you might belong to. When Hulbert's Peak is reached the downhill slide begins. With regard to renewable energy, our personal experience is that it helps in this "long descent," but it is no substitute for cheap concentrated energy. Refer to "Reneweable Energy Cannot Sustain a Consumer Society" by Ted Trainer. It is difficult listening to or reading other's positions especially if there is adamant opposition. In such situations one is always accused of being bull-headed or closed-minded, but I have yet to hear an argument in opposition to the peak oil theorists that makes any sense at all.

In a similar vein, last year I read Bjorn Lomborg's article in the July 2012 Foreign Affairs "Environmental Alarmism, Then and Now": a critique of The Limits to Growth. At the time I wondered about his intellectual honesty. I will be interested in your thoughts about religion. Since escaping teen age I have always thought the religious concept of a creator, especially an active one, as an illusion - probably created at that time in the world's evolution in order to explain our existence and the heavens out there, but now it is inconsistent with reality. Russ

Zach said...

I can only guess that you'll be taking on the Religion of Progress!™ (which acts as our effective civil religion here in America). I look forward to it.

That Gandhi quote has been coming to my mind also. It does seem to me that we're passing from the "ignore you" to the "ridicule you" phase. Hang on for what follows after that...


Richard Green said...

“When peak oil researchers pointed out that predictions of catastrophic climate change assumed continued increases in fossil fuel extraction at rates the planet couldn’t provide, nobody paid the least attention.”

My sense is that we are quickly approaching a planetary climate shift out of the Holocene and the impact on agriculture, for example, will be all-encompassing (see Dan Allen’s two-part piece at I’m worried that the industrial extraction machine does in fact have plenty left in the tank to push us into a catastrophic situation. In his recent Rolling Stone piece, Bill McKibben makes the case that we can put another 565 gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by midcentury and still have some reasonable hope of staying below a 2 degree Celsius global temperature rise, the generally agreed upon number in the scientific community that keeps the planet, as James Hansen puts it, from long-term disaster. Bill goes on to highlight another number, 2,795 gigatons, that “describes the amount of carbon already contained in the proven coal and oil and gas reserves of the fossil-fuel companies, and the countries (think Venezuela or Kuwait) that act like fossil-fuel companies. In short, it's the fossil fuel we're currently planning to burn. And the key point is that this new number – 2,795 – is higher than 565. Five times higher”.

What I’d like to see are some estimates as to what percentage of the 2,795 gigatons of proven reserves can realistically be expected to be extracted and burned, taking into account JMG’s critical point that technological progress will at some point shift into reverse. I have an unfortunate hunch that the number is greater than 565.

Steve in Colorado said...

The third graph is so brazenly dishonest that... I'm reminded of Soviet propaganda, and of Darrell Huff's classic How to Lie with Statistics.

Somewhat off-topic: I've noticed that the same process that you describe here occurs elsewhere in our culture. For instance, every few years someone comes out with a book presenting Startling New Evidence that human beings are "naturally" either A. Brutal, competitive, patriarchal Hobbesian chimpanzee or B. Kind-hearted, cooperative, egalitarian Rousseauian bonobos. Just as the Unending Progress vs. Sudden Apocalypse myths have in common the faith in technological invincibility, the interminable Hobbes vs. Rousseau myths have in common the belief in a single, universal human nature. You've talked a great deal about how to think your way out of false binaries. I wonder if one method is to see what belief the two sides have in common, and then see if THAT belief holds up to examination?

William Yeates said...

Hello My Greer,
Long Time listener first time caller to the Archdruid report.
I was listing to the most recent podcast of the C-realm podcast with Kmo and Guy McPherson and they where talking about 9 feed back loops that have already been activated within the ecosystem. I got the impression that at this late point in the game there isn't much that we can do to stop climate catastrophe?

Source_Dweller said...

Holy synchronicity, Grand Archdruid!
Re your last paragraph and next week's essay, a quick morning browse reveals "Twilight of the Standard Model" a guest post by Wm. Duncan on kulturCritic, and similar, albeit succinct thoughts at Philip Carr-Gomm's site.
Could this be an idea whose time has come, or rather returned?
Anticipating your next missive,
Source Dweller (Robert Beckett)
PS Do you track # of hits to your blog?

Yourmindfire said...

Thanks for the post, could you give a source for the first graph please? I don't doubt the data but it would be useful to have some provenance.

A google image search on the graph largely returns peak oil blogs (In your 'Into an Unknown Country' new year post you source the graph to a Jim Kunstler post, but he doesn't seem to source it's appearance in his article 'Forecast 2013: Contraction, Contagion, and Contradiction')

A Business Insider post gives the source as the EIA, but i can't find it on their site, although there is a similar one here using slightly different metrics:

The different scale also creates a slightly different impression of the 'plateau'.

The graph/image you use is titled 'US oil prod plain_edited-2' (and was in Kunstler's article too) - it would be good to know what it was edited from (and by whom?).

Sorry for the pedantry! But there is a lot of hype emerging here in the UK about fracking right now - your point about the little bitty uptick is strong - I would like to feel secure in the data.

Just Because said...

Thanks for another good post.

I haven't see that particular version of the third figure related to The Limits of Growth. Is it from the 2004 "Update" book, or another source?

Hal said...

"Quite often, for instance, I field flurries of emails and comments on my blog insisting that I really ought to consider the new and radical idea that technology can overcome the limits to growth."

A techno-optimist reading this will say you are painting technology with a broad brush. I think that part of the problem might be that for some of us, who have been around and contemplating these issues from a more distanced perspective for some time, we can afford to discuss technology in such terms. This approach has its perils, of course, but experience and study ought to be good for some things, and being able to generalize a little is one of those things.

To someone enmeshed in the daily, personal view, however, it's hard to see something as pervasive as technology as having generalizable tendencies. And for someone who is new at contemplating these issues, it's also harder to find patterns.

Each new savior technology emerges for most of us from a consumer media chute full born and presented for all the world as a radical break from the past. What's lacking is a historical back-story and a basic scientific literacy that would supply the tools for discriminating adults to evaluate these claims. Those aren't taught, as far as I can see, through the university level, and the media marketplace of ideas certainly doesn't promote those qualities.

What to do? Talk to people as adults, instill a healthy scientific literacy and skepticism in young people, and always call out the Emperor on his new togs.

MidMichMatriarch said...

Hello Again Mr. Greer,

I'm still reading along both here and over at The Oil Drum. I even joined my city council about a year and a half ago so when the time comes to change the ordinances to allow chickens or whatever I'll have a vote not just a say in how that goes.

It's interesting how what we read changes how we perceive the world. Here are some things I noted this week that I may have ignored if not for your teachings to help shape my thoughts.

NPR has been interviewing people (mostly women) from around the world who are telling us that the wars were worth it.

The price of gas in Chicago hit $4.49 last week.

The major issue in our city's (we only have 300 residents) budget discussions Friday evening will be whether or not to continue paving our local roads.

I saw a huge billboard on the side of the expressway this morning proclaiming.....
Save Lives
Save Money
Just Fix the Roads
This tells me that our state and city are facing the same issue.
“When peak oil researchers pointed out that predictions of catastrophic climate change assumed continued increases in fossil fuel extraction at rates the planet couldn’t provide, nobody paid the least attention.”
This reminds me of something my mom used to say…. “They haven’t got enough brains to blow themselves to Kingdom come.” Perhaps is should be, “Not enough fossil fuel to blow themselves up.” I’m not a religious person but if I were I’d be thanking my divine spirit of choice for the not giving us the option.
I will be looking forward to next week’s discussion on religion as my son has been asking me to research the possibility of using the modern Asatru movement as a community building tool. He has a strong interest in history and mythology and a bit of an interest in genealogy (my daughter claims that we don’t have a family tree, we have a wreath).
JMG, I do hope that you take some comfort in knowing that we are listening, sharing and shaping our futures according to the knowledge that you present to us each week. Thank you for all your hard work and for not giving up on us.

Bill Pulliam said...

Two passing comments I have heard today...

First a story on why the Chinese solar power industry is fizzling, noting that the weak global economy had reduced demand. Well, if solar power is going to save us from petroleum depletion, then it should be generating its own demand and revitalizing the global economy.

Then, in that very graph you posted, the note about "structural decline" in demand in the caption. Structural decline is happening because the price of oil is unsustainably high. If fracking had solved peak oil, then oil prices would not still be unsustainably high.

Joe M said...

While agreeing with what you've said here, I just want to comment very briefly that climate change is already happening and is likely to worsen for the immediate future, even as we sputter downward on Hubbert's peak. I think what some climate-change people are trying to say is just this: some effects of climate change are worsening, AND at the same time, we're depleting our fossil fuels, of course.

(Am I being Captain Obvious here? If so, my apologies. I just felt that this point of view wasn't acknowledged in this post.)

Joel said...

Two quick points:

We aren't the first species to adopt a new way of life with such abandon that we alter atmospheric chemistry and cause a dieoff. We're less adaptable than blue-green algae, and so the climate change we're inflicting can't be as extreme as the oxygen catastrophe was, but the idea that our nature isn't consistent with the ecosystem as we found it doesn't have to include any comment on the nature of technology. Photosynthesis would have been very difficult to adapt to even if it had never "progressed", and it may be that the same holds for technology.

Secondly, I think the idea of technological progress is almost like the idea of evolutionary progress. There are times when niches close, and precious things which had depended on them are lost; there are times when niches open, and an amazing variety blooms to fill them. Technologies depend on one another in a qualitatively and quantitatively different way than species depend on one another, but I see more similarity than difference in the patterns of interdependence and adaptation. People who insist on seeing progress can find a lot of "advances" in medieval technology and tertiary biology, which followed from the elimination of Romans and dinosaurs, respectively; people who don't can see some tragic losses and some new developments.

Jason Heppenstall said...

A few years ago, before I discovered the writings of yourself and others, I would have characterised myself first and foremost as an environmentalist. Having then become peak oil aware - with all the implications that brings in terms of the steamroller - doesn't necessarily create a dichotomy. I think that a lot of environmentalists hear the word 'oil' in peak oil and have an emotionally negative reaction to it. It is almost as if you are a traitor!

I don't see it as a binary either/or position. It is perfectly reasonable, and in my opinion sane, to understand and accept peak oil, while trying to minimise one's impact on the biosphere.

The steamroller might be running out of steam - which is good news in terms of climate change - but it will still cause plenty of havoc before it grinds to a halt. Seven billion people looking to get a share of a shrinking cake isn't going to be pretty.

@Eric - I hope this clip from the 1975 British sitcom The Good Life cheers you up!

Jasmine said...

Dear Mr Greer
I agree that western society’s belief in endless progress is the biggest impediment we have to dealing with peak oil and the end of growth. I have found your insights on this issue to be invaluable. However this belief in progress should not necessarily prevent society from accepting the reality of peak oil. After all large parts of our society did start to get the idea of peak oil back in the 1970’s, during the oil crisis. I am sure that many people back then thought that we would continue to have endless progress because our cleverness and technology would help us to find other sources of energy to replace oil. But that does not take away the fact, that many of the responses that western societies made at the time did reduce oil consumption by some 10 to 15%. A belief in progress did not stop society dealing with the oil crisis in the 1970’s. If such a response were made now it would not prevent the decline of civilisation, but it would certainly help to soften the blow.

But if society was able to start to accept the idea of peak oil back in the 1970’s, why is it not able to do this now. I think that what you say about our deep cultural belief in progress has a lot to do with it. However there are other factors involved. The oil crisis of the 1970’s was caused by political events in the Middle East which brought about a sudden reduction in the amount of oil available to western societies and a huge increase in oil price and recession. This was a shortage that could not be ignored.

However while production has flattened out since 2005, there had not yet been a decline in oil production. This makes it easier to maintain the illusion that production will soon increase. The other problem is that the peak oil crisis has been obscured by the huge financial crisis of 2008. All those critics of capitalism have been able to blame our present problems on the bankers and the out of control financial system. And these critics are right, as the financial system bears a lot of responsibility for our present economic plight. But this makes it easy to ignore the role that the tripling of oil prices had in precipitating the financial crisis of 2008. With a price rise like that we would have eventually ended up in a crisis no matter what kind of economic system we had. Yet everyone is so focussed on the immediate financial crisis, that the deeper problem of peak oil is ignored

Ian said...

I feel like I've crossed a milestone of some sort--I've accepted the reality of energy limits deeply enough that when you were talking about the assumption of technical invincibility, I was actually thinking, "come on, no one really believes that, do they?"

Then an unrelated bit of link following landed me in the middle of this:

"Smartphones give way to tablets to phablets to wearables to implantables to swallowables to replaceable eyeballs to neo-sinus body-nanofab systems (using mucous as a raw material) to brainwebs to body-rentals.... All of this strikes me as plausible assuming that we don't run into major catastrophic downturns, which tend to push us towards more tribal behaviors and demand strict adherence to norms (where threatening community stability also threatens community survival). So there's your choice: Burning Man or Walking Dead."

Sheesh! It's brains in vats of our own mucus or cannibals with guns, apparently.

Thanks for the good post and the reminder of how starkly that line between reality and fantasy gets painted these days.

onething said...

Would someone please explain to me in that second to last graph, why the dark blue line for domestic production is using the scale on the right, whereas the other lines are not?

I assume the scale on the right refers to millions of barrels per day? It doesn't say.

Koshka said...

Good luck on the upcoming commentary.

It was recommended in these comments that you take into consideration the works of Guenon.

Please don't unless to highlight how this fascist sympathizer posits a theory of society that is thoroughly anti democratic and a "metaphysic" that projects the end of the world as cosmic fate.

Harry J. Lerwill said...

Another factor that is absent from discussions these days is the relationship between energy availability and jobs, and how the cycle of “solve the problem with more technology” reinforces a destructive spiral.

It takes a lot of cheap energy to keep a cubicle worker in a middle class lifestyle. As energy costs rise, the incentives to “improve efficiency” are more pressing. Where I work, we have closed eleven of sixteen offices, cutting the umbilical cord for the sales people and letting them work in a “virtual environment.” This has resulted in about 40% of the non-sales jobs disappearing, with only IT and marketing sectors escaping the axe.

How have these “great savings” been accomplished? By going digital of course! The project has greatly increased efficiency, with the productivity of each remaining worker enhanced the number of customers each sales person sees has gone up. The number of “support” staff needed has declined dramatically.

Unfortunately, the energy footprint of each contract sold as increased, as computers, mobile internet connections, the related infrastructure, the back-end servers - all require ever-increasing amounts of energy to operate, with costs offset by lower payroll costs and less facilities in local communities.

The results are an arresting of the decline that our industry has seen since the start of the great recession. Note: we stopped the decline, we did not return to the level of growth of the first eight years of this century. It is catabolic collapse playing out in my work environment month after month. The trimmed fat is what is keeping us alive as an industry.

We see the same dynamics playing out with our customers, triumphed as “market forces at work” when the number of employers in a given field continues its relentless slide down from the peak.

We increase our energy footprint per dollar of profit while former cubical workers learn first-hand how an empire collapses. The anemic “recovery” is little more than economic cannibalism on a social scale.

uniquemuch said...

Thought I'd drop by and say 'Thanks!'. Discovered your blog a while back and look forward to it each week. Been working my way through previous posts as time permits. Refreshing to encounter a rational being that doesn't reject, umm... metaphysics(?) out-of-hand. At least, I hope I read you right. ;]

Thanks again, all best.

PS I've been wondering re: the reports of mining methane ices, etc. I'm no chemist, but it seems if the oceans are going to warm enough that the methane is no longer locked up we might be better off mining the stuff and using it for fuel. That would result in dumping (yet more) CO2 into the atmosphere instead of the methane, which I'm told is much more active as a greenhouse gas. Looks like one-to-one on a molecular basis...

Peakoilwelder said...

Hi John, thanks for a great post. It's just right for the conversation I'm involved in with my father in-law. While out for dinner recently I mentioned " Peak Oil", we were barely able to speak about it before our wives eyes glazed over, and it was time to go home. Shortly thereafter he sent me an essay pulled from some oil industry online publication. Stuff you've illustrated here and more comprhensively in " The Long Descent"(said book forced me to reevaluate my own perspective). I work in the oil/energy sector as a welding contractor, its an honest living that I usually enjoy. I am not blind to the ecological aspects of my trade, and I am looking forward to the religious and spiritual posts, as these are of enormous importance to motivation, perspective, and actions of people no where they fall on the perspective of our current predicament. --JC

My donkey said...

Another example of your point about people coming up with "fresh" ideas that really aren't new: a NYT article today claims that scientists have come up with a new architecture for sustainable development.

I hadn't heard the relatively new term Anthropocene (for the geological epoch that will follow the present Holocene), but the rest of the article sounded old to me, including the usual economic growth nonsense near the end.

Juhana said...

My original comment got lost in the cyberspace, so to explain my correction here are original ideas in the nutshell:

Persons who are denying peak cheap oil have limited their gaze to the societal circles of equal material abundance as with Orange County housewives. First actual victims of plateau oil production are already here: small-scale agriculturalists, peasants of Central Asia and Indian subcontinent are already facing starvation and famine because rising prices of "Green Revolution" products. Situation can be similar in other areas too, but as I have no experience about them, I do not speak about them. We can assume that if person is starving, he is ready to buy ANY alternative product offered to him by classical market theory. As there is no viable alternatives popping up with rising demand, it must be case that inside prize range available for these populations there just in no alternative for fossil fuel based products. Price of oil barrel is no abstraction for these persons, as it is for inhabitants of more abundant countries. Yet.

By wide margin, most successful project I have encountered to produce more energy-intensive end products from raw materials with lesser energy value is apartheid-era Sasol plants in SA, using Fischer-Tropsch process. These plants were impressive even after apartheid-era, when I got some rudimentary knowledge about them.

They show that ruthless regime can produce fuels to satisfy industrial infrastructure even under siege conditions and with very small amounts of crude oil available. But we also must notice that this production does not add to wealth of nation, as it is actually using up existing wealth in form of tax subsidizes. Economic contraction cannot be avoided with alternative methods, even if falling back to horse chariots can be.

I believe that deep inability of well-educated persons to accept reality of limited oil reserves has a lot to do with future that this situation implies at. If religion of progress fails to deliver, vacuum shall not last long in historical perspective. These new (or old, revitalized) faiths probably do not share same perspective towards nature of man or his/her place in the world as our current doctrine. Fear of different value systems looming ahead is probably greatest barrier preventing some rudimentary mathematics doing a home run with our current elites.

Renaissance Man said...

I've long thought of what passes for mainstream economics and mainstream beliefs to be like Hooke's Law of springs.
Every physics text will show you that the graph of force to distance is a straight line up to a point, after which the spring becomes deformed and no longer works and the graph starts to go wonky.
All our mainstream economics and beliefs are/were perfectly valid, within the straight-line portion of the graph that was the past 200 years. We wanted more, we just dug up more coal, or drilled more oil. That allowed us to devote a lot of effort to exploring engineering and invent new and better machines and so on, right?
But, like I discovered 30 years ago, mainstream economics did not, and does not, have any way of coping with a shortfall of available energy. When I questioned my economics professor about the mismatch between an economic theory that not only posits but requires eternal exponential growth against the reality of the finiteness of our planet and viable, extractable resources, he waved his hand and -- I kid you not -- said "oh, that's a long time in the future."
I think we are not different from "primitive" tribes trying to placate the gods of the volcano to keep it from erupting by praying loudly and dancing round a pole. Just, we are performing our ritual of placing magical symbols on pressed wood pulp to proclaim our beliefs (i.e. writing) and demand no bad thing happen to us.

Alphonse Houner said...

Terrific post! By the way, how are the Quince trees doing?

Unknown said...

I am surprised at your easy dismissal of the climate change problem. We are now seeing the effects of CO2 levels from 25-40 years ago so we already know that there will be big changes in climate even if we stop burning ff today.

While I think most of the climate models are wrong (due to well known limitations), what I see around is the beginning of the positive feedback loops that will probably bring the Earth out of the Ice Age (meaning no permanent ice at the poles).
This is not a call to action - human nature will not change so we will keep burning as long as there is something to burn. It's just that in my opinion we already passed the climate change threshold so it does not matter how much oil is left.

Alphonse Houner said...

It really is amazing. I made a print copy of the EIA, CITI research chart and took it to several of my fellow employees. No dummies these, they work with financial issues all day long but, when presented with the chart the immediate reaction was exactly predictable - "Why we are now nearly energy independent." It was not until their attntion was drawn to the different scales on the chart they dispondently realized the fraud.

Neat trick EIA, CITI and media.

Glenn said...

My wife and daughter noticed there's another little incongruity, (absence?) in the EIA graph. Current imports are slightly over 7 M B/D, domestic extraction is slightly under 7 M B/D, for a total of about 14 M B/D. Yet current consumption is shown at about 19.5 m B/D. It doesn't add up for me, there's about a 5 M B/D shortfall. Anyone got an idea where this is coming from? I find it hard to believe that 25% of our current U.S. oil consumption is coming from the Strategic Oil Reserve.

Marrowstone Island

andrew said...

Mr Greer,
In most respects I agree with your thesis, but I take issue with the final chart in your post. The "out-of-sample" validation data that somehow proves the limits to growth model (70s-2000) is really just an extrapolation of historical trends. I will be much more convinced in, say, 2025 when some of these curves are predicted to peak. Again, I agree with your thesis but the jury is still out on the prescience of the standard run model.

My donkey said...

Such-and-such cannot possibly happen.
Until it happens.

And after it happens, the folks who said it couldn't are usually at a loss for words, other than, "Gee, I didn't think it could happen."

And then we find out that it happened because of some human error or technical malfunction (or cascading series of same), or it was due to innocent negligence or an intentional cost-cutting measure, or it happened because of a design flaw or invalid assumption or misplaced modifier, or it occurred because a butterfly in Ecuador flapped its wings yesterday afternoon, setting in motion an extremely improbable but statistically possible chain of events that somehow resulted in the fall of Constantinople ten years too early in 1443! Or whatever.

And once in a long while we never find out why it happened. It just... happened!

JMG wrote:
"When peak oil researchers pointed out that predictions of catastrophic climate change assumed continued increases in fossil fuel extraction at rates the planet couldn't provide, nobody paid the least attention."

This is a remarkable assertion. So remarkable, in fact, that I cannot possibly have heard it before, because I cannot possibly have forgotten it if I ever came across it even once.

Are you saying that runaway global warming cannot possibly happen from burning fossil fuels?

Justin Patrick Moore said...

I always love it when you plunge into things you hadn't originally planned to write about. I wouldn't have a nice cloth bound copy of "The Blood of the Earth" if you hadn't!

You mentioned "Ecostery's" in one of your posts or books. I looked it up and found out more about the concept and the people who are doing something to fruition. Thinking about the neopagan movement in general and the Druid Revival in particular, I can see groups of people purchasing land and continuing to set up things like this. A monastic model has much to offer -though its not for everyone. And delving into some writings about Wales at the time when the Elder Faith and Christianity existed in a more harmonious equilibrium also gives me a vision of what an Ecostery for the post-industrial age might look like. Of course it will still be drastically different... any case, continue to write what you think you shouldn't! I think you should!

Helix said...

ChemEng said... Given that engineers created the world that we now live in I wonder how engineers can help develop the new synthesis.

Engineers will be among those who will bring about the "new synthesis", along with agronomists, laborers, and social thinkers. This will be an evolutionary process, the chief new element being awareness of the limitations of living on a finite planet becoming mainstream as those limitations become undeniable reality.

But while the limitiations are clearly knowable, what is not is society's response to those limitations. Will the 0.1% continue to extend their power and privilege, consuming an ever larger proportion of the available resources while the next 9.9% hang on to their coat tails and the remaining 90% left up the creek without the proverbial paddle? Or will the principles of "Liberté, égalité, fraternité" be reaffirmed and the available resources be equitably distributed? I suspect that this could well become a titanic struggle between two groups having very different views on the proper ordering of society. In the meantime, developing resilience, skills of value to the local community, and political organization would seem to be prudent steps to take.

As JMG stated, "... [t]hose of us who see the potential, and hope to help fill it, will have to get a move on."

ganv said...

THere are more reasons than you note that the anti-technology viewpoint is such a minority. A good part as you note is the attractiveness of deceiving ourselves into believing the fairy tale that we are smart enough to solve whatever problems come up. But the empirical facts of 21st century life show a world radically changed by the human mind and the technology it has created. You seem to assume that this will go away as the energy binge of the last century passes. But we are not going to forget the principles of mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, and many branches of engineering. And a human society after the energy binge that remembers the principles upon which their technology was built is going to adapt existing technology and build new technology so that looking back at the post-peak transition it will look not at all like technological progress came to a stop. I have taken this to be part of what you meant by 'ecotechnic', but here you much more blatantly reject the key role that technology is playing and will play in making the outcome of our current crisis so unpredictable. I think you don't realize how dramatically different the world must always be before and after a species develops a good approximation of the laws for how the universe works. For humans this happened roughly between 1680 (Newton) and 1938 (understanding basic quantum mechanics and the nucleus). One kind of expects us to make a mess of organizing our society in the wake of a change of this magnitude. Science and technology have made vast stored energy available so energy abundance has coincided with technological advance. You seem to be wisely opposing those who assume that technology can always make energy abundant. But I expect that looking back from 2100 we will observe that the downside of the energy peak saw more technological innovation rather than less. That is how it has always been...change and necessity create new evolution, societies, and technology. And after the advent of modern science this is even more true than before. Technology will not make the energy crisis go away. But it is impossible to comprehend the road ahead without carefully considering the new technologies that humans will develop in response. The notion that technological development will stop is a failure of the imagination. Why would it stop? Just because much current technology runs on oil says very little about what can be built without oil. As long as there are humans, they will innovate. It is this unpredictability of technological development that makes our path through resource depletion so difficult to chart.

John D. Wheeler said...


I tend to be on the doomer side to, in the short term; however, as to the title of this article, it is not because of the invulnerability of technological progress, but because of its flaws.

To continue the steamroller analogy, while the beast may run out of fuel, so too could the engine seize up, catch on fire, and explode. The whole system is LITERALLY being held together by magic, and one small thing like taking a few billion dollars of insured deposits has the potential to rip the whole thing apart if people lose faith and start to panic.

As to your practical suggestions, I would not call them sabotaging the steamroller, I would call them jumping off and running away as fast as possible. I think if you look at JMGs posts on Green Wizardy you would find much the same as what you're thinking.

Unknown said...

Great essay. I always look forward to reading your blog. I totally think the religious outlook forms our reaction to peak oil, climate change, and technology. At least for the U.S., whose government and politics and morality were formed and informed by Christianity, I see a lot of entitlement. Certain people take it as "gospel" that the earth was given to man, and man is to subjugate the earth and the animals and everything in it. To this type of person, anyone suggesting something different is tantamount to blasphemy.
~ Cecilia

Carl Hutchins said...

Maybe my tired old eyes are missing something but the graph in question, if read correctly, also seems to show a drop in consumption of around two thirds. Can't find any supporting evidence of that.

phil harris said...

Not a lot to add to your excellent review. That graph ... good for Darwinian and I am glad you gave it another showing. A lot of decent enough people in the USA it seems who can't quite bring themselves yet to believe they are being misled and/or lied to on important matters.
Just one point about climate change: atmospheric CO2 level is higher than it has been for about 5M years and the rise shows no sign of slowing down. So-called debate especially in the US can seem a bit quaint. Over here in Britain it is enough to see who the deniers actually are to know the score.

Lee said...

@ Jeffrey Kotyk

“One implication that I haven't seen really addressed by writers in the peak oil community is the energy intensive institution that is a modern justice system…. Or, for that matter, a justice system which has ample resources to jail someone for life at state expense rather than executing them shortly after the guilty verdict……So, as time goes on and we have a lot less gas in the system, we can logically expect to see an end to the modern complex justice system and all its benefits…”

I work for the state Department of Corrections here and can see the impact of decline already starting to happen. Due to the state’s financial crisis, we are understaffed (nearing the point where we can no longer fulfill our mandate safely), facilities are falling apart, and the inmate population is still increasing. Something will have to change significantly in the next decade or so. Recently there has been talk in the ultra conservative legislature of changing marijuana possession laws (2oz or less) from a felony to a misdemeanor. This is a huge deal here (a significant part of the inmate population falls into this category).

I have come to believe that our present judicial model will not be affordable in a deindustrial future.


“The key is to sabotage the steamroller! Pour sugar in the tank! Take wire cutters to the fuel lines! Stuff a banana in the exhaust! Pour mud in the air intake!”

I love it!!

S P said...

I find myself very much on the same wavelength, and thanks for blogging about this. It reminds us that we are the sane ones.

Little by little the facts creep up to the surface. Ultimately, what will convince everyone is bankruptcy. That is what it will take...not having any money left.

When you don't have any money left, no amount of credit creation or artificial stimulus or anything of that sort can change the equation.

You are...bankrupt! It's like a divorce or being diagnosed with an's very hard but only at that point do you realize when something has ended.

William Zeitler said...

Just saw a news blurb about how Apple is now using "100% renewable energy" for something or other, and solar was prominently featured. But I wonder: just how 'renewable' is a solar cell? It is really environmentally nasty to make one in the first place (generate your pollution all at once instead of spread out over time?). And once they fail (solar cells DO have a limited lifetime), can they be recycled sanely?

John Michael Greer said...

Well, that one certainly got a lively response! To everyone who simply wanted to post words of praise, many thanks; it's good to hear that my posts have an appreciative audience. Please consider yourself thanked individually.

BrightSpark, exactly. Nobody in the climate change scene wants to factor in resource limits, and it's interesting to explore why.

Mr. O, it's very well funded, and very well organized. I'll have some speculations as to why this is as we proceed.

Thijs, funny. You know, there's also tons and tons of gold dissolved in seawater -- if you can just work out a way to extract it, you'll be a billionaire!

Medved, and a happy equinox to you and yours.

Justin, stay tuned. We'll also be talking about the nature and history of abstract intelligence, interestingly enough.

Flute, get writing!

Avery, oh man. "Meretricious twaddle" is if anything an understatement. As for Guenon, well, I'm not at all a fan of the capital-T Traditionalists, for a variety of reasons; Spengler's materialism, irritating as it is in some ways, saves him from certain intellectual pitfalls that were common in his and Guenon's time, while Guenon was not so lucky.

Compound, there are two ways to predict a complex process. The first is to try to come up with a sufficiently complete analysis of why it happens that you can model it from within. The second is to observe the way the process works in its natural environment, and model it from without. The former works extremely well in simple systems but fails to deal with complex ones, for the reason you've suggested. The latter -- the basic approach of ecology -- is the best tool for really complex systems, and that's what I'm doing here. We know how civilizations fall, on a wide range of geographical and technological scales; there have been plenty of previous examples. All that's necessary is to scale up the model sufficiently, and adapt as needed to fit the distinctive features of the present case.

Raven, the parallel is even closer than I think you realize. We'll get to that as things proceed!

Lee said...


I look forward, with great anticipation, to next week’s post. I believe religion plays a stronger role in our society’s delusional thinking than most people are willing to admit.

John Michael Greer said...

Eiskrystal, I've seen some that were pretty clearly the work of clueless true believers, but for the most part, it's pretty obvious that those who write such articles are aware, on at least some level, that they're shoveling smoke. It's intriguing to think about what must be going on in their minds.

Orwellian, if a friendly deity gave me one wish, I'd ask to have every person who responds to the depletion of fossil fuels with the words "I'm sure they'll think of something" poked in the backside with an invisible branding iron. That is to say, yes, I've watched that thoughtstopper in action far too often.

ChemEng, I'll be taking issue with Hegel in an upcoming post. In the meantime, I'd encourage you to learn, or relearn, how to practice your engineering specialty with slide rules, nomographs, and other low-tech tools; there's going to be a huge need for competent engineering in the deindustrial future, but only those who can crunch the necessary numbers on the back of an envelope need apply.

John, of course it's wise to cut down on our fossil fuel use, for the sake of the biosphere as well as our own survival. Climate change is a real issue -- my objection in this post is to the insistence, on the part of some people in the movement, that peak oil doesn't matter.

Michelle, the next time somebody says "But I could never live that way," tell 'em, "Yes, you can, and in fact you will -- as the oil runs out, you won't have any other choice. Why not get started now, so you can get good at it before it's a matter of life and death?"

John, why not let go of the whole language of progress, and start talking instead about, say, wisdom? More on this as we proceed.

Jeffrey, it's a huge issue. Here in the US, we have a vastly inflated prison population -- the US has a larger fraction of its population in prison than any other nation on earth -- and that's going to have to be cut back drastically as we proceed.

Yupped, the apocalypse narrative is the flipside of the progress narrative, and both of them are passionately held statements of faith. It's going to be rough to go beyond both of them, but that's what we're going to have to do.

M, old-fashioned eyeglasses can be made quite readily with 17th century technology, and last a good long time. You might want to get yourself a couple pairs and stash them for future reference.

RPC, exactly. That's what I was trying to get at a while back when I warned people that there's no bright future ahead of us.

GreenEngineer said...


Relevant to this, are you familiar with the Export Land Model of global oil availability? It suggests that the oil actually available to importing countries is going to decline much faster than the raw decline rate in production (based on increasing domestic consumption in the exporting country). Since most of the remaining exporters are petro-states which passive their population at least partially with very cheap fuel, this is likely to be a factor.

GreenEngineer said...


For example, however radically different the new world may look, I know that it will still be rooted in the First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics (Peak Oil and Global Warming respectively). This means that the challenge for we engineers is to “think the unthinkable” and to develop new technologies that are not just a variant of current or past approaches but that are still based in thermodynamic reality.

As a fellow engineer, can you tell me what this statement means? You clearly understand that we cannot circumvent the laws of thermodynamics. As such, I am not sure what "new technologies" you are hoping to see. All technologies are still constrained to the thermodynamic box.

As far as I have been able to see, our only hope is to adopt a different set of priorities, and a different set of design techniques. Specifically, we have to start any design problem by asking what is already available in terms of natural resource and energy flows, and designing our solutions around that. (This is permaculture as applied to engineering design.) This requires a radically different outlook and set of mental habits, but it can readily be done with the technologies we already have.

(Maybe this is what you mean by "technology"; the term does apply in the broadest sense. But it's not what most people think of when they hear the word.)

This is why I hold the position that no amount of new technology can save us, but we already have the technology required to save ourselves, if we apply it correctly.

artinnature said...

JMG, I was reading that thread on The Oil Drum the other day and thought to myself...could someone here with the proper skills redo that ridiculous graph with one rather than two vertical axes and post it here so all can see the reality of the situation? I have not been back to TOD to see if someone over there has, but it would be good to see an accurate version posted here as well.

Cheers from Cascadia

Avery said...

JMG, I respect your opinion on Guenon and look forward to what you have to offer in that respect, but to the guy attacking him as a "fascist sympathizer" and "anti-democratic", I feel like I must offer a link to your earlier post about "warm fuzzies and cold pricklies". I hope that whatever readers do propose and discuss will be based, not in vague terms that sound warm and fuzzy to us right now like "Earth-first theology" or "dark green", but what is genuinely going to keep people sane in a world where scarcity is the norm -- even if that turns out to be traditionalist Catholicism.

John Michael Greer said...

Mister R., that's a neat and quite accurate characterization. These days, to keep on chugging along what used to be the ordinary American middle class lifestyle, you have to engage in the most monumental acts of make-believe on a daily basis -- that, or go stark staring mad.

Blue Sun, thank you for the reference!

Ozark, that's a valid comparison, not least because the people who run and benefit from both sets of institutions don't seem to be noticing how their actions are driving away popular support and guaranteeing a crisis of legitimacy in the not too distant future.

Wolfgang, I expect to be writing posts on it for at least the rest of this year.

Wvjohn, it's quite the specimen, isn't it?

Karim, exactly! You get tonight's gold star; the peak oil crisis is precisely a crisis of religion, in a sense I'll be exploring in detail as we proceed.

James, I'd say that your best bet is to concentrate on getting ready for the deindustrial world now, and let them get a clue when and if they manage to do so.

Toomas, that's another very good point. Thank you.

Bytesmiths, and there are an equal number of reasons for leaning onto the non-doomer side. That's why I take the middle ground.

Donkey, thanks for the correction.

Peck's, okay, then we're definitely doomed!

Robin, I've commented on this blog at quite some length that I expect the Greenland and West Antarctic ice caps to begin breaking down in my lifetime, and to see quite a bit of climatic and biotic chaos driven by anthropogenic global warming. I'm not disputing that at all; what I'm disputing is that this justifies ignoring peak oil.

dowsergirl said...

Thank you for your inspiring thoughts. I wonder at the polarized thinking issue. I have noticed it happening in two particular venues that I participate in. One is the local organic farmers association. On the one hand are the younger hipper back to the earthy types, and on the other hand are the got away from investment banking and have now started a nifty little winery types. The younger back to earth types work for pennies for the others and everyone hangs out together and contra dances.

The other venue is the local solar festival. It really is a fun time, but again we have the people who are truly living off of the grid, and those who are trying to reinvent the grid with all sorts of nifty technological(read expensive) gadgets and promises of a future without oil. Of course the vehicles they arrive in, get the picture.

My local Subaru dealer has been sending me tons of "upgrading my vehicle" printouts that are trying to show me how much money I will save if I buy a new one now. My biggest complaint is that the mileage for the newer vehicle is actually LESS than the older one I own now. How is this making any sense?

The idea that technology always trumps resource limits reminds me of how much time and energy computers were going to save us. I work more than I ever did before, and have less time to read because of it.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. I think I am getting depressed now. We had another 2 feet of snow on Tuesday.

GuRan said...

Sir and Druid,

You've hit the nail on the head, as usual. As an engineering academic I've been struggling to find a sense of identity and purpose in the face of our predicament. What is an engineer, especially a research engineer, but a champion of technological progress? Technological progress is our whole reason for being. Our efforts to keep the steamroller moving forward are perhaps not wise...

Like you've said so many times, the stories we tell define us. A threat to our story is a threat to ourselves and provokes the same kind of reaction. It's enough to push people to want to make dodgy graphs, and worse.

ChemEng: it seems to me you're proposing exactly what our beloved host has just finished explaining - doing the same thing while being convinced you're doing something different. I'm not convinced that we can develop such technologies, or even that we should. See Kenneth Boulding's utterly dismal theorem.

Technology requires resources (modern technology requires a lot), which we're running short of and hence we're probably near the limit of what we can and should do (see above). What we're short of much more than technology is knowledge (more properly the domain of science than engineering). Knowledge requires a lot of resources to obtain, but much less to maintain (and others have commented on this). What we lack even more than knowledge though, is wisdom - which our host is doing his level best to address.

Yupped: yes, very painful. I can really relate to what you're saying.

Bytesmiths: whether or not you're right on the hard crash is all a question of timescales. A crash taking 100 years will look like a hard crash on the timescale of civilisations, not so much on the scale of human lifetimes. Mitigating against your hard crash scenario is that, at least in the west, there's an awful lot of fat to be metaphorically cut before we're unable to meet people's basic needs.

Jeremy Leggett had a pretty realistic take on the balance between peak oil and global warming (to paraphrase): if we burn all the remaining oil and gas we may just be ok, if we burn all the coal reserves we're toast.

Sir, like many of your other readers have posted, I'm also really looking forward to your dissections of the religious implications of peak oil.
By the way, what's the source for your last graph? It's a beauty - I've seen the data before, but not so well presented.


John Michael Greer said...

Cat, I haven't seen one -- this is from a Smithsonian article from a while back.

Mtngirl, that chart's a classic, isn't it?

Unknown, now go research how much of that low grade coal contains less energy than would be required to dig it out of the ground.

Russ, exactly. We've landed in one of those ghastly situations where the thing that most needs to be grasped is also the thing that nobody is willing to hear.

Zach, I'll be doing a bit more than that. It's necessary, it seems to me, to talk about where the religion of progress came from, why it replaced Christianity as the established religion of the western world, and what role religions might play in the coming deindustrial age.

Richard, I don't expect us to stay below 2 degrees C. As I mentioned to an earlier commenter, I expect the collapse of the remaining polar ice caps, the flooding of the world's coastal lowlands, and climatic and biotic chaos driven by anthropogenic global warming to be among the defining facts of the 21st century. My point is that the exhaustion of fossil fuels and the collapse of systems dependent on cheap, abundant, highly concentrated energy are also among the defining facts of the 21st century.

Steve, excellent. Excellent! Yes, that's one very good way of breaking out of binary thinking.

William, nobody knows what effect those particular loops will have, or how many negative feedback loops will also come into play. Thus it's all the more crucial to act now, to cut your own carbon footprint, so as not to make the situation any worse than it has to be.

Dweller, thanks for the heads up -- I'll check 'em out. As for site stats, I don't track hits as such, but I get upwards of 200,000 page views a month here, plus however many people read my essays on and the other sites that carry these weekly posts.

Yourmindfire, I got it from Jim Kunstler's post, checked the numbers against a couple of publicly available databases of US petroleum production to make sure it was basically accurate, and posted it here. I'd encourage you to check it yourself against the available online databases -- Google will get you plenty of those in a few seconds.

Phil Knight said...

This really is a great post.

I think the God of the religion of progress is Man himself. Alot of the brittleness that surrounds discussions regarding technology is that when technology fails, Man fails.

That will leave an even emptier cosmos than the one that Christians had to face after evolutionary theory dislodged their God.

It really will leave people feeling unbelieveably bereft.

passingthrough said...

tiny bone to pick: i would have to say that saying the neoprimitivist folks believe in the invincibility of progress makes little to no sense, the vast majority of them that i've met are in agreeance with your general assessment of the current state of things. perhaps those who question the myths of civilised culture that have existed for thousands of years before industrial civilisation get even more derision than those who stick to peak oil and the problems arising now. the comment about spoken language honestly feels like a cheap attack, as i've never heard such from people likely to consider birdsong an intelligible "language." kinda getting into some us vs them feel, like taking a viewpoint and finding it's most clown-nosed fanatical adherent to portray them as whatever Other's norm. Even here in Dixie there is a fantastic and diverse community of farmers, homesteaders, earthskills-y types, 70's back to the lander's, permaculturalists, hippies, punks, etc where many many (but of course not all) saw trough myths of progress and apocalypse quite some time ago. I think the people who accept the type of future you foresee are unlikely to bother engaging with even the non-mainstream media. i've probably read your blog for 6 or 7 years myself and never made a comment. while it is a sad minority in our culture, lot's of people have been learning and sharing skills and becoming more resilient and i dare say many "life boats" have already untethered from the ship.
all that said, i love reading your blog and enjoy most the more unlooked at nooks and crannies of the implications of peak oil that you shine your headlamp into. i just wouldn't expect the babble and echo chambers of the internet , much less television, to accurately represent those who get the point of your writings and follow through with personal actions within its cross-section. cheers!

sekenre said...

Hi All,

On the subject of amusing graphs, my brother found this amusing post from the economist which "clearly disproves" peak oil.

Focus Peak oil

So forecast which does not reach a higher level than the original peak, "disproves" peak oil. Yeeeah...

OrwellianUK said...

Hi again John

Now that I can look at the Citibank graph here at home on the laptop as opposed to the tiny image on my phone earlier, I'm struck most by the simple fact that if you applied the domestic production to the graph with the same scale as the other two factors, it would never actually appear on the graph since the maximum value is less than 7mb/d! That to me is deliberate and cynical dishonesty, not self deception.

BrightSpark said...

Rennaissance Man - you are completely accurate when you say that mainstream economics has no way of dealing with a shortage of energy. It's even more blind to this as it is to the environment and externalities. I used to be strongly in favour of Keynesian solutions until I realised this point.

oneotaBill said...

Thanks, John Michael
I really appreciate this column, in particular, in that it relieved my loneliness surrounded, it seems, by those who believe that "They" will solve it [with technology]" and some of whom are angered by statements as simple as "Life will be a lot different 30 years from now. And not because of personal aerocars.

I also appreciated the wit ("who believe the invention of spoken language was a bad idea" ) and the occasional eloquence.

I guess I will keep doing the little I can to grow food, plant trees, nurture our little organic local food coop (4000 members, $4M in sales and rising, for the moment at 15%./year in a county of about 25,000 people). I also raise a few grass fed Dexter cattle--recent research (Allen Savory) has shown the properly managed grazing REVERSES desertification.

Keep up the columns!

Leo said...

Its not particularly hard to see why Christianity was rejected here in Australia.
From the convicts.
"He prays for our souls on Sunday, and takes it out of bodies during the rest of the week."
Also they burnt churches.
The convicts left an interesting legacy behind.

made biodiesel and then used the glycerol to make bioplastic, worked pretty well. considering how easy it is to make the ingredients on a small scale it should be a prosperous industry.

Rita said...

Oh ye of little faith. There is an unlimited source of power and Robin Sloan in _Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore: a Novel_ has revealed it.In a list of real and fictional Google projects: "They are developing a form of renewable energy that runs on hubris."

Liquid Paradigm said...

I am sure it is not purely coincidence that I read this week's entry at the same time I have noticed a proliferation of highly romantic quotes of Christopher McCandless doing the social media rounds.

I've already seen some truly ugly responses to my concerns about the wishful thinking that dominates our culture and its religious devotion to the myth of progress. Gods help me when I finally lose my cool and point out that McCandless was not a romantic hero, but a deluded young man who starved to death in the Alaskan wilderness because he didn't have the sense G-d gave a turnip.

I can't help but see parallels between McCandless' tragic story of poor insight and even poorer choices and the current cultural responses to peak oil (and climate change, for that matter). It leaves me feeling slightly sick and panicked. I am grateful for local breweries in ways they will never fully appreciate.

I've already been considering the impact of, and impact on, religion by the crises of our time. I look forward to your coming thoughts.

streamfortyseven said...

Most of the misleading propaganda about the "end of peak oil" is coming from oil companies and their PR people; what they're really doing is overstating the amount of capital they have. The reason they do this is simple: if people were to act rationally in the face of petroleum/fossil fuels depletion, they'd act so as to conserve that resource like they did in the late 70s. Oil company incomes would decrease, their profit margins would shrink, and their earnings growth would go negative, resulting in angry shareholders and falling stock prices. They want, like any other corporation, to avoid poor quarterly earnings reports, and so they misstate their capital. And everyone believes them, because they wanto to go on with Business As Usual.

Doctor Westchester said...


You are probably aware that a different version of the US oil production graph has been shown in the Stuart Staniford’s Early Warning blog, which indicates that the last two years of oil production has shown a more significant spike than Jim’s graph indicates, which would appear to only be up to 2010. A quick look at the EIA website seems to support Stuart’s view. (Still, it is the EIA. Other confirmation would be useful. Sad.)

That would explain a lot of the salivating that has going on with the cornucopians. Yes, it is going up like a rocket!! A bottle rocket, that is. And it is likely to be going down in the same way, if the depletion rates are what they seem to be. If so, Stuart’s comment that the tight oil revolution is more significant than the North Slope might be a bit … premature.

Unknown said...

It doesn't seem to me that anyone has commented on the fact that we are also at (beyond, actually) peak scientific research. The abandonment of clear thought and the rejection of even a shallow understanding of philosophy has resulted in a considerable number of would-be scientists making up the rules of research as they go along, imagining that if they can construct a narrative that might explain the phenomena they are exploring, they have therefore proved that narrative. Reading that on "The New Atlantis" was a tad unsettling, but nothing too surprising. Basing almost all current medical research on poorly understood epidemiological statistical constructs also seems like it is yielding diminishing returns. One wonders what bits and pieces will be salvaged over the years from the current overabundance of technological "solutions" to the problems characterized by Gautama Buddha as birth, sickness and old age..

Iodhan Silverbear said...


The great effect of having read many of your posts (for about a year and a half now) is the way that it has allowed me to look at the effect of increasingly expensive and limited resources. Even something as simple as going out to a restaurant for dinner and observing the lackluster food and smaller portion sizes brings to mind how business' are increasingly required to take shortcuts in order to maintain their profit margin. It would be one thing if the quality of such food was maintained while the price went up, but instead, the price increases while quality and portion size decrease. It's a simple observation and yet one that I am making more and more frequently. One could question the quality of such food in general (it was a chain restaurant) but our infrequent forays to such places have come to an end. Better to forage in our own garden than an olive garden.

More to the point, I have friends who are techno-utopians. They watch re-runs of Star Trek and imagine our future. I often wonder where we might be energy wise had we invested much of our energy reserves in designing energy efficient systems but even if that were possible, I believe we are well beyond the tipping point for that project.

team10tim said...

RE: Misleading charts

The Energy Export Databrowser over at has oil production, consumption, import, and export graphs for most of the world. You can select USA, oil, bbl to see Darwinain's graph on a uniform scale. It's a very cool tool for looking at countries or groups and they have coal, oil, natural gas, hydro, nuclear, and total energy.


barath said...

For what it's worth, I did read the Diamandis's book Abundance just to see what his arguments were, and wrote a bit about it last year. His approach, it seems, is to flood the reader with anecdotes about random technologies to then make the case that somehow they all add up to "abundance" (his definition of it, anyway).

DeAnander said...

I ran across a set of pictures recently

Abandoned Wonderland

and of course it struck me as a perfect illustration of where we are, where we're headed. Farmers stolidly planting corn amid the just-barely-abandoned, not-even-ruined-yet ruins of a technomanagerial utopia so dysfunctional that it beggars description. The juggernaut with the wheels off (and doubtless repurposed by someone or other) and peasants busily growing food crops in its various buckets and shovels.

When Rome fell, peasants eventually started pulling blocks and bricks out of the walls to build farmhouses and fences (or so I'm told). All juggernauts can be reduced to component parts that might come in handy :-) I think the future is going to look a lot like that photoessay: the ragged armatures of our hubristic present, abandoned in situ and 90 percent complete, being recolonised by human-scale purposes.

I think this may have been what Sterling meant when he titled an anthology "A Good Old-Fashioned Future". The religion whose crise de foi we are all experiencing seems to be the Religion of Futurama; when did it start?

By the 20's it was already established and firmly wedded to consumerism, its lifelong partner.

I was amused in passing by the reference to cargo cults as a possible component of our post-peak future... I think of us as living in a cargo cult right now; what else can we call the staunch denialism and graveyard-whistling of the techno-optimists and the flat-out Know-Nothings of our time? Abundance and luxury will continue (or return) because... well, because. Because! We are not yet building bamboo airplanes and leaving them on runways, but... cargo cultists nevertheless, imho, all of us raised in the cult and experiencing a painful spiritual and psychic wrench as we lose our faith.

And yes, that passing swipe at the neoprimitivists was perhaps a titch unkind, but it did make me chuckle!

John Michael Greer said...

Just Because, it's from a Smithsonian article from a few years back.

Hal, the irony here is that I've had techno-optimists use the phrase I cited, in so many words. If anyone's treating technology with a broad brush, it's them.

Matriarch, your son's got a good plan. Asatru's one of the most vital and solid of the new religious movements to come out of the pagan revival, and may just have a substantial future ahead of it.

Bill, two square i' the clout.

Joe, I've talked about it quite often in past posts, so didn't think I needed to reference it here. Of course climate change is happening, and it's going to get much worse -- and as it does so, our ability to access cheap abundant energy from fossil fuels to counter its effects will be going away. That's the future the dimwitted choices of the last thirty years have given us.

Joel, biological evolution has been distorted to make it fit the myth of progress. A seagull is no more "advanced" than that charming little pterodactyl, Vectidraco daisymorrisae, that filled a similar ecological niche on the coasts of Laurasia in the Mesozoic. One of these days I ought to do a series of posts on evolution, to make this point!

Jason, of course cutting your carbon footprint is a good idea. My point, again, is that we need to deal with peak oil and climate change, not buy into the hype around fracking and the myth of perpetual progress.

Jasmine, the lack of sharp declines is certainly part of the issue; I've also discussed, in previous posts, the way that those who abandoned their environmental ideals at the end of the 1970s are unwilling to revisit the issues, due to an acute case of bad conscience. More on this later on.

Ian, good for you! When you reach the point that giddy nonsense about brains in vats looks like, well, giddy nonsense, you've managed to shake off the "mind-forg'd manacles" of the mythology of progress.

Onething, both scales refer to millions of barrels a day. The production line uses a different scale because the person who made the graph is trying to trick you into thinking that production is three times bigger than it is. That is to say, the graph is lying to you.

John Michael Greer said...

Koshka, if I discuss Guenon I'll do it from my own perspective, thanks. I'm not a fan of his, for whatever that's worth.

Harry, what you've described is catabolic collapse in action. You'll notice that nobody ever connects shrinking payrolls with the fact that fewer and fewer people are able to buy products...

Uniquemuch, why not use the word "religion" instead? It's far less confusing. As for methane hydrates, you might want to look into the economics, which are the opposite of favorable.

Welder, it's an honest trade, and ought to give you skills you can use in the future to build small scale renewable energy systems or the like! Glad the post is of use.

Donkey, yes, it's the usual nonsense. Many thanks for the link, and the object lesson.

Juhana, an excellent point. Of course it will be possible for small amounts of liquid fuel to be produced by various means, but you're quite right -- if the production has to be subsidized, it's not adding to the national wealth the way petroleum extraction is, it's subtracting from wealth that would otherwise have different uses.

Renaissance, exactly. Exactly! Mainstream economics is blind to the hard fact that economies are dependent on ecosystems, and can't produce wealth out of nothing.

Alphonse, one quince tree -- it's budding nicely, preparing for another season of growth. The dwarf apple trees, elder bushes, and grape vines are also doing well -- we'll probably get our first crop of grapes this year. Good to hear that your colleagues caught on, at least when prompted...

Unknown, perhaps you should try reading my post, since there's no "easy dismissal of the climate problem" to be found there.

Glenn, I missed that! You're quite right, of course. Thank your wife and daughter for pointing it out.

Andrew, you might want to take a look at the predictions made by the many critics of The Limits to Growth, which insisted that most of those lines were going to change direction between then and now. My comment stands: The Limits to Growth standard run remains the most accurate prediction of its kind from that decade.

GuRan said...

Leo, re:biodiesel - I suppose you bought catalyst? (NaOH or KOH).

It would be possible to make NaOH yourself, even better Na metal, using salt water and quite a lot of energy (electrolysis of brine followed by electrolysis of molten NaOH).

But then it's not so simple anymore...


John Michael Greer said...

Donkey, I'm astonished to hear that you missed it. There was quite a bit of discussion about that a few years ago -- Kjell Aleklett published a paper analysing the IPCC models and showing how those models assumed production rates of fossil fuels that can't be justified on the basis of reserve data. You shouldn't have any trouble finding it -- try searching the archives on The Oil Drum.

Justin, interesting to hear that you've been thinking along those lines. So have I, with results that will be in circulation in AODA shortly.

Ganv, yes, I figured I'd hear those objections. It's easy to claim that our current scientific knowledge can't be lost, and that innovation will continue, but history disproves both claims. There have been periods thousands of years in length, many of them, in which cultures experienced no technological innovation at all; there have also been countless examples of precious knowledge being lost forever -- and you might want to look at the extremely fragile nature of the storage media we use nowadays before assuming so blithely that current scientific theories and practices will survive a deindustrial future.

Mind you, I want to see the scientific method survive, along with useful sciences and technologies -- but that's only going to happen if people stop assuming that this is guaranteed, and get to work making it happen.

Unknown Cecilia, I'll be discussing that mindset. I'll also be discussing how bizarre a perversion it is of the historical teachings of the religion people making that claim think they follow. (Hint for Christian readers: I don't recall "blessed are the greedy squanderers of irreplaceable resources" figuring anywhere in the Beatitudes...)

Carl, nah, the consumption figures use the scale on the left hand side of the chart, while the figures on the right are purely for production.

Phil, see my comments earlier about climate change.

S P, for some people it'll be bankruptcy. For others it'll be the day when they realize they can no longer afford the gas to commute to work. For others -- well, catabolic collapse has many faces; and then there will be some people who never do get it, who go to their deaths convinced that a shiny new world of perpetual progress is right around the corner.

William, excellent. You're asking the questions that most people who put their trust in "green energy" refuse to ask. Look up the answers; what you find won't reassure you.

Lee, very much so -- though it depends to some extent on the religion!

John Michael Greer said...

GreenEngineer, very much so -- I read Westexas on The Oil Drum regularly. He's got all the logic and evidence on his side, which is probably why everybody outside the peak oil scene ignores his argument so completely.

Artinature, that would be welcome. Anyone want to give it a try?

Avery, yes, I noticed the cold pricklies. If Traditionalism is what works for you, by all means; my sources of inspiration lie elsewhere, in territory Guenon and other Traditionalists tended to dismiss out of hand.

Dowsergirl, don't get depressed! Remember that the Subaru dealer is lying to get you to buy something you don't need -- that's the nature of business in the US these days, after all -- and you can ignore him. As for the snow, be grateful; the more of it that falls late in the season, the less trouble you're likely to have when fire season comes around.

GuRan, as an engineer, you've got skills that will be crucially necessary to the deindustrial transition ahead. If I may misquote Ernest Thompson Seton a bit, there are two ways of doing something: throw lots of energy at it, or know what you're doing. You might, with this in mind, begin picking up the skills that will allow you to know what you're doing (and thus use much less energy) to do things that will need to be done in the deindustrial world.

Phil, exactly! You get tonight's second gold star. It may not surprise you that Nietzsche will be playing a role in next week's post...

Passingthrough, Jason Godesky used to post lengthy diatribes here assailing my views, until I banned him, so I've had some exposure to the neoprimitivist way of thinking! Please don't confuse invincibility with moral goodness; I'm quite aware that most neoprimitivists think of civilization as evil incarnate, but a great many of them seem to think that all they can do, to return to my metaphor, is to wait around until the steamroller rolls off a cliff. (Godesky's theories explicitly made this argument, for example.) Mind you, if they've started to grasp just how fragile industrial society is, and noticed that it's already on its way down the curve of the Long Descent, that's a good thing.

As for the crack about spoken language, I wish I was making that up. I've long since lost the URL of the website that made that claim, so you'll have to take my word for it, but I did see that claim being made.

Sekenre, thank you! A forecast, please note, which is based on wildly inflated reserve data...

Orwellian, yes, I spotted that! You're probably right that it counts as deliberate dishonesty rather than self-deception.

Bill, it's the little things we do in our own lives that make the big differences. Keep up the good work, especially with those cattle!

dragonfly said...

A shout out of thanks to Richard Green, who very late in last weeks comments provided a link to this excellent essay by Paul Kingsnorth. A timely read, well worth the time.

Also, apropos not so much of this post, JMG, but your broader theme of "not the future we ordered", I am reminded time and again of the phrase:

"I believe I was promised a jet-pack ?"

John Michael Greer said...

Leo, that's good to hear -- biodiesel and bioplastics are both worth learning how to make, and both will have plenty of uses down the road.

Rita, okay, that one nearly made me spray tea on the keyboard!

Liquid Paradigm, local breweries are a very good thing -- and I share your take on McCandless. I suppose it will be good for the crows and other scavengers if more people decide to follow his example.

Stream, especially in the fracking industry -- which is currently surviving on a torrent of money from Wall Street -- that seems quite logical.

Doctor W, even if the shale "revolution" is slightly bigger than the North Slope, it's worth remembering that production from the North Slope didn't cancel out the long curve of declining production -- it just pushed it out a ways. I'll be interested to see how things proceed over the next few years.

Unknown, that's fascinating. Can you post some links? I'd like to follow up on this.

Iodhan, that's what I call "stealth inflation" -- like the shrinking size and declining quality of products in grocery stores. Instead of raising the price, you cheapen the product. It's very common, and will likely become far more common as we proceed.

Tim, thanks for the link!

Barath, many thanks for the review. I plan on doing a comparison of Diamandis' book with an earlier example of the same genre, once the local library gets Diamandis in.

DeAnander, I understand there are entire social media communities dedicated to photographs of abandoned buildings, theme parks, towns, etc., etc. There's quite a lot of them these days -- which in itself says something!

John Michael Greer said...

Dragonfly, good. I keep thinking of the domed cities, the regular rocket service to the Moon, etc.

John Michael Greer said...

A reminder to all: I've had to delete two otherwise good comments due to profanity. Er, I mean what I say in the text above the comment box; if you use swear words in your comment, it will be deleted. Profanity is the least creative form of discourse, not to mention one of the most overused these days. If you want to insult something, take the necessary few moments to think up something colorful and interesting to say, instead of going for the wearily overfamiliar resources of gutter language.

con-science said...

Thank you for the great blog, another piece that I could send out to people with educational purpose. I would like to make a comment on the cultural mythology that you bring up.
How does the world look to the early founders of our culture? Civilized folк is always pressured for food or new areas to put under the plоw - there is the drive for permanent progress. Everywhere they go, they find resources to fuel the progress - it seems like it is the world's purpose to support us in our conquest. Now add to this the fact that our early cultural predecessors had no idea where the world ends, or how old it is, it might have just as well been an endless flat field that came into existence together with civilization - try and explain limits to growth to these people.
Every time reality deals a shaking blow to our cultures fundamental beliefs it has managed to recover. God did not put us in the center of the universe, well it put us in the center of creation. He did not make us the center of creation, but 200 years after Darwin, the majority of people still believe humanity is somehow special, not a subject to the laws of ecology like the other species.
When reality denies that the world and god always support our mission this I think will be the blow that breaks our cultural juggernaut. When humanity swallows this bitter pill and the culture finally collapses there may be some hope that we will learn to live as one with the planet once more.
Most people however are so inert, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it and its cultural foundations.

mkroberts said...

When peak oil researchers pointed out that predictions of catastrophic climate change assumed continued increases in fossil fuel extraction at rates the planet couldn’t provide, nobody paid the least attention.

Quite true (apart from a few peak oil observers). However, Kjell Aleklett may have got it wrong, of course or we may get catastrophic climate change, anyway. The 2 degree limit (which the IPCC think would likely be breached) wasn't a limit that science imposed, it may have been informed by the science at the time (though some disagree with even that) but the scientific assessment of the risks of 2 degrees has moved on, with closer to 1 degree now looking just as bad. However, even 2 degrees is beginning to look baked into the cake. As Richard Green pointed out, there is only a certain amount of more carbon equivalent that we can shove into the atmosphere to get to 2 degrees and it looks likely that it will get shoved there within the next decade or so. How much fossil fuels are left after that will be irrelevant, so far as the 2 degree "limit" is concerned.

Climate science is starting to recognise that extreme events are become more extreme and more frequent, with only 0.8 degrees of warming, so catastrophic climate change doesn't seem to be too much of a leap. And if the Arctic sea ice continues it's trend, catastrophe may come much sooner than even the catastrophists had predicted.

Please don't be so dismissive of the problem.

Cherokee Organics said...


Great essay.

As to climate change, my experiences and observations here tell me that it is going to be weirder than anything people (or scientific models) can predict.

The Earth is a mostly closed ecosystem and as such, whilst we are possibly likely to destroy our civilisation and a great deal of the ecosystem, we are unlikely to be able to wipe out all life on the planet through global warming.

On a completely different note, I took your advice. I often travel by the country train service into Melbourne. However, this time, I took a holiday by train into Melbourne and it was a truly civilised and low stress way to travel. Having never done this before, I think I'm now hooked. It is much better than driving. Living in the middle of nowhere (but not too far from a railway station) makes a trip to the big smoke seem like quite an exotic experience.

Southern Cross Station in Melbourne is a truly amazing construction. Check out the photos of the roof, it is an awesome bit of engineering and design.

As to the crazy weather, I'm cooking in the wood oven tonight and you know what? Wednesday coming up is meant to be 35 degrees (95F)! I've got a wind turbine turning up soon so this year, I'll hopefully kick the fossil fuel habit (whilst the system holds together at least). That pareto principle is a real nightmare.

What I'm seeing though, is that in order to have resilient systems that get you through the worst of times, you need to have a reserve of excess capacity. I understand firsthand now why ecologists state that in order for a human population to be sustainable, they must not consume more than 30% of the available resources.

PS: I went gleaning for apples today to make scrumpy and cider (plus chook food). Dinner included fresh tomatoes and dessert is a rhubarb and apricot stew. The quinces are slowly ripening too and when they do, I’ll poach them. Yum!

Regards, and congratulations on the success of the blog (122 comments to date must be something of a record).


The carp who jumped Hukou Falls said...

1043I've just finished reading through the huge number of comments that had accumulated by the time I came online this morning! Lots of interesting contributions. I was particularly struck by the metaphor of bankruptcy, as the point where true believers in 'progress' are forced to confront reality.

How appropriate, then, that the next thing I read was this: Gas is running low as chill continues. Unseasonally cold weather means that the UK's natural gas reserves are close to exhaustion, with restrictions on supplies to industry contemplated. New nuclear power stations 'are being built', though the subtext is that no-one will actually build them unless promised vast subsidies.

The UK is a surprisingly good candidate to be one of the first industrial nations to go energy-bankrupt...

phil harris said...

Thank you for referring me to your earlier reply to Richard re Climate Change:
"I don't expect us to stay below 2 degrees C. As I mentioned to an earlier commenter, I expect the collapse of the remaining polar ice caps, the flooding of the world's coastal lowlands, and climatic and biotic chaos driven by anthropogenic global warming to be among the defining facts of the 21st century. "

This paper provides some backing for your assessment. And see the chart - click to enlarge - to back-up the claim about emission scenarios.
The latest carbon dioxide emissions continue to track the high end of emission scenarios, making it even less likely global warming will stay below 2 °C. A shift to a 2 °C pathway requires immediate significant and sustained global mitigation, with a probable reliance on net negative emissions in the longer term.

Your expectation seems to me by far the most likely outcome.
Phil H

Leo said...

To make the biodiesel I used rice bran oil, methylated spirits and Drano (NaOH).
First two are easy to get and the third is also known as Lye, which is made with wood ash and water on a small scale. you don't need a lot. Then I mixed then fried use starch, vinegar, water and glycerol (waste from biodiesel).

Leo said...

I did it as part of the EWB challenge (part of a course). Basically design something they can implement in a Timor Leste village. So if my team wins the competition the idea will be implemented. It would be interesting to see what the villagers would do with it.
(I'll probably post the entire design project or a summary when its finished).

Since its a thermoplastic you could use it as an adhoc sealant, basic tableware and possible pipes.

The carp who jumped Hukou Falls said...

Here's an interesting sign of the times. Emerging from the crisis in the Eurozone is, apparently, a "Movement for a Happy Degrowth in Italy"; degrowth is actively being discussed by the wild card in Italy's recent election, comedian Beppe Grillo's M5S: "“We want a government with priority about public water, degrowth and smart mobility”, according to the party's Senate leader.

What is particularly interesting in the context of this week's post on TAR is the conflict identified between the degrowth movement, and advocates sustainable development - the spokesman for the latter comes out with one of the most bizarre arguments against degrowth that I've ever seen!

Worth a read: Degrowth enters the Italian political arena.

yvesT said...

Last forecasts from Jean Laherrère :
(from a new report to appear soon)

Bill Pulliam said...

Matriarch -- NPR is of course thoroughly within the mainstream. Still, it's best to criticize people for what they actually say, not for things that you project on to them. The interviews I have been hearing this week have been about the personal experiences of women serving in the armed forces and in combat (several of whom have mentioned having to reconcile doubts about the validity of the war with fulfilling their own assigned duties). It's about confronting gender roles. One of the stories was about the huge incidence of sexual assault and ubiquitous sexual harassment of women in the US military. It is not a cheerleading piece for the wars.

They have also been running a lot of highly critical pieces and interviews, with this being the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. There has been plenty of coverage of the falsified pretexts, the ill-conceived strategies, and the atrocious treatment of returned veterans.

Now as for the topic of this weeks post, of course they are as big a booster of the brighter future through alternative energy as any media outlet. I don't think they have mentioned the words "peak oil" in years.

MidMichMatriarch said...

@Jeffrey Kotyk

As Lee said the constraints on the Justice System have already begun.

I visited my 22yr old son in state prison last evening. He said that the previous evening he was so hungry he was searching his cell for anything he could trade or sell to another inmate for food. He is there for fist fighting with another young man over a girl when he was 17. Nobody was injured. No drugs or weapons were involved. He was serving 2 1/2 to 10 until another inmate tried to steal his food and he fought back. He has been resentenced.

There was an article in the Detroit Free Press yesterday stating that due to the lack of funds Wayne County would no longer be providing prosecuting attorneys for traffic court, misdemeanors, or violations of personal protection orders.

ganv said...

Yes, you are right that much of our knowledge is stored in electronic and human repositories where it can be easily lost. But a large part of it is also stored on paper and in engineering artifacts that are pretty stable. I also don't expect us to lose the ability to print on mass scales and I don't expect us to lose the ability to store and copy electronic information.

The applicability of historical precedents is a central question. I can't see how information lost by pre-literate societies is relevant at all. So that leaves just a few examples (Rome, Mayan civilization, maybe one or two others). I think the differences in scale limit the conclusions that can be drawn from history. Only a tiny fraction of the Roman empire was literate (estimates say less than 20% of urban residents). And a much smaller fraction had their everyday lives directly dependent on technology that was later lost. And there simply is no historical precedent for modern science. There has never before been a civilization that understood the basic physics, biology, ecology, and geology of their resource base. So we have very little historical precedent to rely on in estimating what effect technology will have during and after this crisis.

Thanks again for your very stimulating commentary. There are very few places with such clear critiques of the assumptions that are all around us.

John Michael Greer said...

Con-science, the trajectory of our ideas is a good deal more complex than that, and has been distorted substantially by the mythmaking of the scientific revolution -- for example, people in the Middle Ages didn't believe that humanity was at the center of creation. (I'll be discussing that point in an upcoming post.) Still, your larger point stands: it's going to be a wrenching experience for people to realize that the universe is under no obligation to cater to their sense of entitlement.

Mkroberts, I'm not dismissive of the problem. I'm dismissive of the way the problem is being distorted in the service of political agendas and popular mythology.

Cherokee, nah, 122 comments in the first day is well on the upper end, but the recordholder for comments here is still The Twilight of Meaning back in 2011, with 277 comments.

Carp, the UK is hugely vulnerable on a great many levels. Energy bankruptcy is certainly one of them.

Phil, I've taken the usual strategy of finding the rhetorical extremes, splitting the difference between them, and checking that against the science to see how well it fits. It's a surprisingly effective approach.

Carp, thanks for the link! I'm delighted to see degrowth getting any attention at all in the media -- definitely a positive sign.

Yves, now there's a blast from the past. More than a decade ago, when the peak oil movement was just getting under way, a new forecast from Jean Laherrère was always a cause for close attention. Glad to see he's still hard at work!

Ganv, there have been scores of literate societies that have collapsed and taken most of their knowledge with them -- you really ought to learn a bit more about ancient history. As for the rest, I'd encourage you to talk to a librarian about the lifespan of modern paper and the extreme fragility of other data storage media. This is an immense problem, and one I wish people concerned with the sciences would take more seriously.

onething said...

I decided to wander over to the essay linked by Dragonfly, and found this too appropriate to the upcoming topic at hand to pass up:

"(re the brushcutter) It’s a horrible, clumsy, ugly, noisy, inefficient thing. So why do people use it, and why do they still laugh at the scythe?

To ask that question in those terms is to misunderstand what is going on. Brushcutters are not used instead of scythes because they are better; they are used because their use is conditioned by our attitudes toward technology. Performance is not really the point, and neither is efficiency. Religion is the point: the religion of complexity. The myth of progress manifested in tool form. Plastic is better than wood. Moving parts are better than fixed parts. Noisy things are better than quiet things. Complicated things are better than simple things. New things are better than old things. We all believe this, whether we like it or not. It’s how we were brought up."

I had been planning to make a joke about giving up my electric can opener, but really, what I gave up last summer was a lawnmower, and replaced it with a reel mower. Now, my daughter asks for a turn mowing. It's fun, satisfying, easy, and makes little noise, has no fumes, doesn't need to be filled with gas or started with a pullcord.

jollyreaper said...

Regarding McCandless: A friend was enthusiastic about the movie because it was filmed at his school while he attended. I knew nothing of the story, not even that it was a true story. (I have a thing about knowing as little about movies before watching to maintain surprise.)

As I'm watching it I'm getting increasingly irritated with his behavior. I could agree with him on some points but felt others were naive and tragically unprepared. I started yelling at the screen saying how if this were a movie based on real life, this Darwin Award candidate wouldn't make it out alive. My friend says "Well, about that..." No spoilers! Heh.

I seem to recall in the movie he reached his epiphany about the great mistake of his life too late to actually make use of it, all those people he met and left in pursuit of his quest were the actual goal all along.

His death was so unnecessary.

Alaskan Park Ranger Peter Christian wrote:

When you consider McCandless from my perspective, you quickly see that what he did wasn't even particularly daring, just stupid, tragic, and inconsiderate. First off, he spent very little time learning how to actually live in the wild. He arrived at the Stampede Trail without even a map of the area. If he [had] had a good map he could have walked out of his predicament [... ] Essentially, Chris McCandless committed suicide. Retrieved August 26, 2007.

Jason Heppenstall said...

I too am looking forward to the posts on religion and progress. Might I hazard a guess that Francis Bacon will be making an appearance?

@carp - I moved back to the UK a week ago after spending 13 years abroad (the impressions of which I have put in my blog). In those seven days we've been told the gas might run out next week, a vital continental interconnector has broken down, a massive nuclear power station has been given planning permission (but the French operators want massive state-backed guarantees which are probably unaffordable), gas fracking companies are to be granted tax concessions and Sellafield nuclear power station had to be half evacuated today because of a snowstorm.

At the same time we've got the coldest March on record, torrential flooding in some parts of the country and snow storms sweeping across much of the rest. It all goes to show that a lot can happen in a week - I have barely had time to unpack my suitcase!

Unknown said...

I corrected the line in that graph to match (the vertical placement of the new line is arbitrary, but this will show the extent of the distortion:

DeAnander said...

Maybe McCandless was secretly a member of VHEMT?

Will said...


there is another option that you don't take seriously, but should.
it is that by volunary action of billions of mainly urban people, birth rates are already collapsing annd will fall further.
the transition to a sustainable population level will be complex, raising many hrd problems. it will take about 200 years. but at the end of that time it is perfectly reasonable to speculate that about 1 billion people (total) will lead very pleasant lives, richer than our own, on a green planet, based on the annual sun budget of energy and on mainly renewable resources.
we can screw it up, but we will have many chances to correct our errors.
i for one think that if we can avoid big wars, things don't look too bad for the year 2300-plus

MidMichMatriarch said...

@ Bill Pulliam

I heard those interviews as well. Those are not the ones I was speaking of. They also interviewed a woman from Iraq whose life was improved by the war. My comment was not intended as an insult. Without JMG's teachings here I would have enjoyed the piece as a human interest story. But now everything is filtered through the thought process of how much of the earth’s natural resources the wars have cost and that efforts of this nature are probably not only a part of our past.
P.S. There are several regular posters here whose comments I look forward to reading each week. You are one of those.

Ric said...

For those who wonder about the provenance of the first graph (US oil production):

If you are interested, I encourage you to look around, as suggested by JMG. I do have some concern that the data may have been chosen (by someone upstream, not by JMG) to minimize recent gains in US production. Such gains do make some difference, in the short run.

That said, it's global production that really counts, for the economy, as measured conventionally (or however you prefer!). And also for the climate. Whatever quibbles are raised about the exact numbers, I've seen enough of these figures, from diverse sources, that I don't feel the need to root around further at the moment. JMG's main points remain well supported whatever the details of the graph or competing data sources.

phil harris said...

For Britain and the rest of NW Europe, the Jet Stream has been stuck in 'the wrong place' for a month and it has been unseasonably very cold, and likely to continue that way for a while yet. Spring is postponed. You might just have heard that our stocks of Natural Gas are not keeping up with demand under these conditions and we are likely to need to import more expensive NG to heat our homes.

Our situation reminds me of Tony Blair. (Some of your readers might remember him?) I have spent idle moments over the years, wondering why he got most of his key decisions (on everything) so wrong. Just before his party turned him out of office I saw a brief interview, which struck me as illuminating. Somebody had managed, unusually, to buttonhole him; (Tony was pretty quick). "What happens when our N Sea Nat Gas runs low?" Tony was asked. Tony did not need to pause. "We've fixed that: a new pipeline to Norway." The interviewer was able to persist: "Yes but what happens when Norway runs lower?" Our Tony: "Technology!" and quick as a flash, he was gone.

He always had an answer, but this one provided perhaps a clue to my puzzle.

Phil H

phil harris said...

A postscript about Tony Blair.
The talk of ‘Progress’ as our ‘real’ Religion causes me to speculate about Tony.
He converted to Roman Catholicism late in his premiership; well nothing wrong with that, one might say.
It has just occurred to me that perhaps for Tony and for others ‘Progress’ is seen as a result of their religion, not a substitute. In his case ‘religion’ seems to have helped him take what he called; “hard decisions”. God was taking care of the progressive Plan, as it were; and Tony just needed to step up to the plate. I can only guess about individual psychology, but my guess is that Tony probably never took a ‘hard decision’; he just, rather expertly, discerned ‘the flow’; George B and destiny, or whatever, and went along with it. All in a good cause, don’t you know!
Hmmm …
I look forward to next week.
Phil H

Cherokee Organics said...


I wish you well then!

Did you notice on the limits to growth graph that the food graph falls just before the peak whilst population continues to rise before declining?

Interesting stuff. Food is a fascinating issue and also one that gets peoples feathers ruffled. I always find it to be quite strange that we are as wealthy as we are and yet the food being provided by the system is of such low quality. Not many people seem to notice either.



team10tim said...

RE: misleading EIA graph

Hey hey JMG and Glenn,

Current imports are slightly over 7 M B/D, domestic extraction is slightly under 7 M B/D, for a total of about 14 M B/D. Yet current consumption is shown at about 19.5 m B/D. The production and import stats are crude plus condensate. The consumption graph is of total liquids. Total liquids includes biofuels, natural gas liquids, and the dubious 'refinery gain.' Refinery gain is the increase in volume (not energy or mass) that happens to crude oil when it is refined. One barrel of crude becomes 1.x barrels of gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, asphalt, etc.

There are some pretty thorough discussions of it over on The Oil Drum.


Steve Morgan said...

I had a little spare time while running samples today, and decided to take on the homework challenge of recreating the graphs in this post. I'm not an experienced blogger, but I managed to put together this post that shows the data in a more (ahem) conventional format:

Glenn's wife and daughter are onto something significant with the missing oil, as it adds up to something substantial based on the data I found.


I am thrilled to see the upcoming mentioning of the unmentionable. From what I've been able to squeeze in reading NTFWO, it looks like the religious/psychological dimensions of Peak Oil and the long descent are far too crucial for us to understand to avoid bringing into the online discussion. Thanks for breaking your own taboo, JMG, and a Happy Equinox to you and to all!

Amy said...

Hello Mr. Greer,

Wonderful post, as always.

I am a longtime reader of your blog and also quite a fan of your books as well. With the general ideas being your last few posts in mind, I was curious what your thoughts might be on educating children for a low-tech future, especially as low-tech math tools go. I have always educated my daughter at home and would be interested in preparing for the future world that is likely going to be hers to inherit. I do believe the education of the young may be an important step to "reinventing America"

On a slightly related note, my family is currently residing in a military town and we've recently learned the DOD schools may be shifting to a four day school week to fulfill the sequester furlough requirements. There is part of me that is not surprised to learn this news. I have heard of school districts in rural areas of Kentucky that have moved to a similar schedule due to rising oil prices and the costs of transporting students. It appears the crumbling of the US educational system may be closer than many people realize and may become considerably more noticeable in the near future.

wiseman said...

First actual victims of plateau oil production are already here: small-scale agriculturalists, peasants of Central Asia and Indian subcontinent are already facing starvation and famine because rising prices of "Green Revolution" products

No they are not here already, I think people are just selectively looking for what they want.

A lot more people used to die of starvation when the British were in charge, in fact some of the biggest famines to ever grace the subcontinent happened when they were around not after green revolution.

It's true that there is starvation, I can even give you the name of states and districts where this happens but it's not connected to PO.

Rising prices are causing discomfort not starvation and rising prices are not just a result of PO there are plenty of socioeconomic factors as well.

team10tim said...

Hey hey JMG,

Last year I was brooding over one of your old posts, An Elegy for the Age of Space, because let's face it, space travel and the internet are just really super nifty, when I saw these magazines on the same rack practically staring each other down. MIT Technology Review with a grumpy looking Buzz Aldrin that read "You promised me Mars colonies. Instead, I got Facebook." with a subtext "We've stopped solving big problems. Meet the technologists who refuse to give up." vs the supersonic jet on the cover of Popular Science proclaiming "You will live on Mars, if you want to" and the return of supersonic jet travel by 2030.

As you know the USA had just shut down the space program and the Concord has been out of business for decades. I happen to work at the store that sells those magazines and for the whole month I watched Buzz look on disapprovingly as the technologists from MIT promoted the big technological solutions we could have if only we are brave enough to dream them. While Popular Mechanic's supersonic jet mocked him with all the scientific fantasies of a teenage boy offered up as a forgone conclusion by their scienticians. The magazines never fought. I believe that Mr. Aldrin's good character kept him from tisking at the neighbouring pipe dreams and it was probably beneath the jet's dignity to check for poor track records and broken promises.

The weird thing was that no one noticed the cognitive dissonance radiating out from the magazine rack. No one said anything about the space shuttle's last hurrah or the last 40 years of progress that had failed to resurrect the Concord. It was totally invisible. The problem, I think, is that, as you said in The Twilight of Meaning, the myths you really believe in, of course, are the ones you don’t notice that you believe. Or, to put a slightly different spin on it, you can't choose something that's not on the menu.

So, if the problem is running out of oil and the solution is continuous progress (of course, that's the only choice on the menu) then the explanation that comes out is meretricious twaddle. Anything that might result in not continuous progress isn't an option. It can't be an option because you don't believe in it. Not progress is unreal and therefore doesn't exist (Kiri-Kin-Tha's first law of metaphysics). Because the myth is central to our world view and we don't know that we believe in it in the first place we are literally unable to think thoughts that contradict it. It is unthinkable. I believe that is why the five stages of grief exist. They are a process to form the neural circuits and intellectual constructs necessary to be able to think about a previously unavailable idea.

Robert Martini said...

John Michael Greer,

I thoroughly appreciate the time and effort you put into answering and engaging in thoughtful discussion with myself and other readers,

After reading through the comments and the post a few more times, I discovered something a bit tangible as to what direction you might be heading towards. I was thinking about the inherent myths and faiths we invent for ourselves without realizing it. Faith in technology, the mythology of progress.

I was wondering about something I like to call the "Illusion of Control". Our reality, is a mental model of causation in which we can only see correlations.

In the age of Keynesian economics it is commonly assumed we can grow and stimulate the economy through monetary policy, like someone would turn the dials on a light switch or press a gas pedal. In reality, we do not have any direct influence on the economy. the flipping of a light switch itself is a simple wish that the complex system that makes it function is working at the moment. This is not the same sort of control we are used to dealing with by throwing a rock/spear or jumping off a ledge. On long time scales, these things are truly nebulous and direct influence is something extremely difficult to objectively discern.

With mental imagery we create climate change and peak oil as symbols that are tangible and to scale in order to understand them. However, this model of reality in our minds, subjects us to an illusion that we could take a hand and grab the carbon dioxide out of the environment, this symbol in our minds is able to manipulated, when in reality it is fixed.

Why do we look to "humanity" as a concerted force to be controlled in order to solve our greatest problems, rather than our greatest problems embodied as simply another force of nature? Shouldn't we be looking, as individuals, at how to survive the human storms of resource depletion, economic collapse and political uncertainty? Is it our outdated evolutionary hardware that leads to the personification of complex processes and systems, in a way that eludes true understanding?

Cherokee Organics said...


I've recently began delving into the fascinating world of mushroom growing. It actually never occurred to me to try this, but there are just so many trees here with which to inoculate logs... I've started with shiitake and oyster mushrooms.

PS: I'm not sure why Druids aren't that fond of Elm trees? Is there a particular reason for this? I travelled by chance down a very old Elm lined path a few days ago and it was really lovely, although I have to admit, it was a bit of a monoculture. I think we have some of the last remaining Elm lined avenues in the world down here.



Cherokee Organics said...


Forgot to mention. After a bit of encouragement from a friendly contact in the world of renewable energy, I've since started arc welding using power that would otherwise have gone to waste from the off grid system here. Very exiting and it has opened a whole new world of steel construction to me.

After the first project of a mini trailer which is now almost complete, I'm going to build a proper frame with door for the bird netting over the strawberry patch. The cheeky wallabies had learned to jump on the netting to squash it down so that the strawberries and bushes could be eaten. Needless to say, I haven't had more than a few cupfuls of strawberries this year.

I can't stress enough to people that it takes years to learn all of the skills, make mistakes and then trial any improvements to systems in the real world before they are completely productive.



phil harris said...

Good points about famines and 'the green revolution'.
In modern times it seems that modernising administrations (quasi-industrial) disturbed large food producing areas and their traditional agrarian arrangements and triggered massive famines. As well as British India I can think of Stalin's Russia / Ukraine and Mao's China.

19thC Britain / Ireland were a bit different - the mainland despite efficient organic agriculture could no longer feed its rapidly growing population, already three times bigger than 140 years earlier. Cheap imported food was not yet available and the technology not yet developed. It was lower cost for landowners to pay to transport the people to Canada and other places.)

The 'green revolution' as you know was about breeding crops to use more NPK synthetics.
Interestingly the USA went through its NPK ‘revolution’ as late as 1930s.
See my supplementary post below.
I find your comments of considerable interest.
Phil H

phil harris said...

Supplementary – hope it is of interest to readers. A lot of early USA agriculture was effectively ‘slash & burn’ – even George Washington et al. Use up the easy fertility and move westward – necessity invented the ‘restless spirit’ and the ‘frontier of innovation’? And motivated the hustling and the bottom line? In the book On the Great Plains, we read that the 1000 year accumulation of soil nutrients was quickly spent:
Quote: “They applied manure as it was available, rotated legumes when it was convenient. But they had no strategy for the very long term. By the 1930s, Rooks County fields had been planted, cultivated, and harvested sixty times without rest. Soil nitrogen was about half what it had been at sod-breaking and crop yields declined steadily. And now no western frontier remained. From the vantage of 1930s, crop agriculture in Kansas does not appear very sustainable. All the arable land in Rooks County - and in the nation for that matter – had been identified and plowed. Soil nitrogen and organic carbon drifted steadily downward, and with them yields and profits. Faced with this dilemma, farmers implemented a dramatic innovation in soil nutrient management. Rather than adopt one or more of the ancient strategies, farmers (and the industrial nation behind them) created a new option. They appropriated abundant cheap fossil-fuel energy to import enormous amounts of synthetically manufactured nitrogen onto their fields. …” page 219, ‘On the Great Plains: Agriculture and Environment’, Cunfer 2005; preview in googlebooks
Phil H

Anywhere But Here Is Better said...

Hats off to Steve Morgan for doing his 'homework'. This is scientific proof that we are deliberately or at least carelessly being misled by the mainstream media (who appear to publish disinformation in the absence of due diligence about something previously known as "fact").
Best wishes to all, Oliver

Cherokee Organics said...


At the heart of economic theory is that growth and wealth is predicated on the exploitation of natural capital.

What I don't understand is why it is so hard for people to understand that if you (referring to country, company, individual etc.) are importing more energy than you are extracting from your own available natural capital then you are a loss maker?

With loss makers, sooner or later a time of reckoning comes as I have never heard or read of anything that extends credit ad infinitum.

Do you think that this situation arose because we (as a society) moved too far away from the natural world?

The ability or inability to accept limitations as individuals and/or a society definitely seems to be driven by the predominate religion.

Hi Leo,

Well done, what a great achievement on both counts. Just out of interest, can you make biodiesel using olive oil as a base?



Bill Pulliam said...

Matriarch -- ah okay, sorry for the misunderstanding. I might have caught a bit of some of those but I think they were on at a time of day when I'm not always near the radio. I tend to leave them on in the background as my one mainstream media news source that is more tolerable, though there are many days when the "story du jour" which seems to be on every program is driving me up the wall so I opt for the gentle background of birds, creeks, wind, and rain instead.

I'm not sure if it is my own awareness shifting, or a real phenomenon, but the gulf between the NPR perception of ongoing historical trends and my personal conceptualization of them feels to be growing ever wider. Oddly, at the same time, my old-school hillbilly neighbors seem to be getting closer to my own ideas. I guess the reality and nature of the long decline is more obvious to the less affluent.

Glenn said...


I take your point, but is the combination of Natural Gas liquids _and_ refinery expansion enough to account for 25% of U.S. oil? That's a 33% increase.

The format of the initial graph simply made me think that someone was doing the usual lying with statistics; presenting actual facts in a misleading fashion.

The bad math, on the other hand, makes me think perhaps that someone has deliberately falsified the numbers as well, and should not be believed. More charitably, the preparers of the graph made a mistake, and should not be believed.

Being so substantially wrong really erodes an argument.

Marrowstone Island

Paul said...

Another commenter already mentioned this:

If this is correct, then you should correct your post and admit the mistake.

I've been reading your blog and books for quite a while and I am sure you do not want to mislead. But the addition of the last two years shown in Staniford's graph is large enough to matter in this discussion and it would be misleading to leave your graph up without comment.

Thank You

onething said...

Phil Harris,

I can attest that you are correct in your suspicion that some Christian thinkers consider that the entire progress of science coming from the west is the result of Judeo-Christianity.

Cherokee Organics,

You find it strange that the food in our wealthy nations is of such low quality, and that few people notice. I don't find it strange, as I can follow the path which lead to it. It happened by degrees, as agribusiness took over. It followed the same trajectory as other institutions by the corrupting influence of money and greed. Advertising, TV, and the slow swap of lousy ingredients for prior natural ones.

The food is markedly better in some European countries. Apparently not so in Australia?
When I traveled to Ukraine a few years ago, I as a daily Whole Foods shopper, came home angry that no amount of money could procure the amazing quality of food that was everywhere available in Ukraine.

That people don't notice often amazes me, especially where I am now living. For example, we bought a pig from an elderly couple who are farming for pleasure in their retirement, and went to their house to cut it up under their direction. When we got hungry and went upstairs for lunch, the wife made her husband a hamburger from their own grass fed beef - and inserted a piece of fake American "cheese food" between two slices of Wonderbread.

Something that has been interesting me is the increase in weight, even including my own daughters. There are very few young people who are as naturally thin as my generation was. I raised my kids eating like I did, no soft drinks, healthy home cooked food, and yet they were not as lean as teenagers. I think that the situation now is that the nutrition is worse and worse due to soil depletion to be sure, but there are so many other insidious processes that it takes real research to uncover them. For example, the book Wheat Belly attributes weight gain to the fact that older forms of wheat are no longer grown and newer forms that have been developed for reasons to suit agribusiness, are more difficult to digest, lower in protein and lead to weight gain. So a slice of whole wheat bread might not be the same as the one my mother made me eat - alone in the entire school! - of Wonderbread eaters.

DeAnander said...

Ronald Wright (A Brief History of Progress) wrote a novel (A Scientific Romance) which is rather fun. At some point in the book (which I don't have beside me, so please bear with an inaccurate citation), a professional archaeologist muses on the collapse of cultures. And he says something like this: "The official record shows no sign of collapse; there's never an admission that anything was going wrong. As the empire starts to crumble, what we find when we dig in the ruins is bigger monuments, more extravagant praise of the virtue and courage of the king, proud lists of victories in battle... and then, silence."

MidMichMatriarch said...

No apology needed Bill. I think you're right. What I’m hearing on the radio and what I’m seeing in my neighborhood, in my refrigerator and in my checkbook are so different that I’m feeling rather betrayed.

Ric Steinberger said...

I'm wondering if you see the eventual end of technical and industrial progress as also leading to an end of, and partial reversal of, social and political progress. Put another way, does a post peak oil society imply a post progressive society too? Can various hard fought human rights (e.g., civil rights, voting rights, women's rights, gay rights, child labor laws, rights to some minimal education, basic precepts of fairness, habeas corpus, anti-slavery laws) be preserved and protected, or are they so dependent on fossil fuel supported infrastructure that they will inevitably decline as we slide down Hubbert's peak?

Roger Bigod said...

The VA story is a little more complicated than slash&burn. There's an economic history of 17th Cent. VA on the internet that discusses this.

From the beginning of tobacco culture around 1620, the farmers noted that on freshly cleared land, tobacco quality declined noticeably after 3 years . They tried all the available techniques -- crop rotation, a fallow period, using land for pasturage to fertilize it with manure, spreading "marls". These only delayed the decline. Plantations were large because they planned on clearing forest.

One guess is that Peak Tobacco was around 1750 due to soil depletion and market conditions. Two wars (French&Indian, Revolution) interfered with export. By the 1780s there were newspaper editorials suggesting that growing tobacco had been a big mistake. By 1800, the big plantations on the lower James River had been abandoned or converted to other uses. The economy of VA hit bottom around 1820-30 and there was a huge exodus, described in a book by the historian David Hackett Fischer. But it wasn't because of a restless spirit. They didn't want to leave.

The way George Washington fits in is that when he inherited Mount Vernon, the soil was already depleted. He tried growing tobacco for a couple of years and wisely gave up. He didn't choose "slash and burn" -- it was the only way to grow tobacco.

To a casual amateur like me, the first question is "What were they thinking? They had 200 years to consider the problem." Our host may have some insights on this.

sgage said...

@ Bill Pulliam,

" Oddly, at the same time, my old-school hillbilly neighbors seem to be getting closer to my own ideas. I guess the reality and nature of the long decline is more obvious to the less affluent. "

I live among less affluent, rural people. Indeed, I have become one. Of course they will feel the reality of the long decline first. But in my couple of decades amongst the rural less affluent, I have to say there is a susceptibility to demagoguery leading to fairly grotesque scapegoating. Yes, I'm talking about taking Fox News as gospel truth. And I see as well a tendency towards conspiracy theory type thinking.

I agree with you about NPR, but again, the case is usually overblown. They are somewhat left of center on certain social issues, and center right on most everything else. Especially BAU and beating the war drums.

And that's as far as I'll go with that.

Now let's see if I can decrypt the foolish captcha thingy...

Leo said...

@Cherokee Organics
I used olive oil for the first test batch and it worked pretty well.

The arc welding sounds interesting.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

@Cherokee Organics--to quote Rudyard Kipling:

Ellum she hateth mankind, and waiteth
Till every gust be laid,
To drop a limb on the head of him
That any way trusts her shade.
But whether a lad be sober or sad,
Or mellow with wine from the horn,
He will take no wrong when he lieth along
'Neath Oak, and Ash, and Thorn!

"A Tree Song"--Puck of Pook's Hill

passingthrough said...

JMG, i've never been a fan of Godesky and would not base an opinion on neoprimitivists on him at all, not that that is a term they use much themselves. But there is a nationwide network of all ages that is very much into hands on activity, not just proselytizing, and of those I know all are aware of the implications of peak oil and the expectation of fast crash or magic bullets is not the norm. i would imagine them to be among your audience and that you would feel at home at some of the gatherings I've attended where primitive living skills were amongst the things taught.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Phil,

Yeah, it is a bit strange that few seem to notice. The soils Down Under are older than pretty much most of the rest of the world. Being old they are seriously depleted in trace minerals (particularly phosphate). Some of the oldest rocks on the surface of the planet are to be found in Western Australia. I live on the side of a relatively recent volcanic massif (hopefully it is not still active – wouldn’t that be a surprise for me one day!) so it is not too bad here, although the soils generally lack organic matter as the native eucalypt forests are a bit of a disaster. However, those mineral deficiencies in the rest of the continent result in the slow growth of plants which evolved in richer areas (ie. pretty much most of the Western diet consumed here) which means that the food products derived from those plants are mineral deficient and no one really seems to notice. It is little wonder that farmers here love applying NPK to their crops, but they forget that plants actually require a whole lot of additional minerals as well.

The plant products grown at the farm here feel different and taste differently to the stuff supplied in supermarkets. Some friends have even complained to me that the food tastes too strongly here (which I took to be a compliment). The whole situation scares me silly.

I don’t doubt that you are correct about your suspicions in relation to wheat. Australia used to have a huge diversity of locally developed wheat varieties but they have been slowly lost as agribusiness takes over. I often get wheat and barley growing here as a weed and have been letting it go to seed so that it becomes more acclimatised to the area and thus better adapted. It is a slow process though and much has been lost.

PS: I bake my own bread using an old variety of wheat as the flour base and most people that eat it, love it and it disappears very quickly. A few months back at one of my mates houses they were telling me (excitedly) how long their bread lasts and stays soft. I was going, “guys, that’s just not right”. The bread baked here lasts for only about 1 day and then it is chook food as it is no longer fresh as it is stale.

Cheese here is pretty good, but it travels such a long way. You can even legally buy raw milk cheese here now after a long and protracted legal battle.

Dunno, but food is not food.


Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Leo,

Thanks for that as it is good to hear that Olive Oil can be used for biodiesel. Victoria has a great climate for Olives and I grow quite a lot of them here. The trees themselves are very low stress and will quite happily grow wild.

Thanks about the arc welding. The contact in the renewable energy world has been off grid for over two decades (and is a real inspiration to me) and he was saying that you can even DC weld using a large enough battery (with a bit of skill). Just for your interest the welder uses about 0.162kW switched on at idle. When it starts it uses about 2.16kW, but when continuously welding it only uses about 0.35kW.

Being off grid, it really surprised me how little energy it required and all of it comes from the sun. The welder was donated from a neighbour, but being an older unit (dating from the late 70's early 80's), locally made and very heavy it looks like it will have a very long life.

The plastic is really interesting because the ability to store and move water is a real advantage. I wish you well.



Rita Narayanan said...

all over here in India- people can't wait for that western dream to come true. Of nice clean cities like the ones in Europe, even many environmentalists tend to culturally/educationally closer to the West(even though they cause wise orient themselves to the dispossessed).

It makes me shudder to think of what is going to happen, everybody is reaching for the stars and wants the good life.

The West has had a shot at the growth dream, democratic craving and globalisation is making everybody do an Oliver Twist act "can I please have some more ".

Juhana said...

@Wiseman: My use of terminology may have been hyberbolic. From persons living around mentioned areas I have understood that rising prices are squeezing peasants and their kin badly - very badly. At the same time, I am aware that at least inside region of Assam there is some very deep troubles going on. As a passer-by, I still should not jump to conclusions; thank you for reminding me that.

When it comes to wider picture, it is good to remember that current economic model of global markets is build around perpetual growth model. Energy inputs, which actually produce real wealth, don't have to drop dramatically for this kind of economic system to crash and burn. Flat energy production line or modest drop in it is all it takes for all these investment machinations waiting interest surplus rolling in to malfunction. In general, I have deep conviction that most people in affluent classes or societies have no idea how hard this inability to produce major profits to be shared by investors is squeezing the most defenseless links in the chain, those subcontractor manufacturers around the globe. For many of them, investment to actual infrastructure of working places has hibernated many years ago. This ongoing socioeconomic earthquake is already cannibalizing lowest levels of production line, throwing people there to relative misery. And beginning of that earthquake can be traced back to tightness and subsequent price of crude oil during "good old days" at -08.

And about this religion conversation. All those who are welcoming forthcoming dark ages and have high hopes about somekind consciousness shift... I just can't believe it works that way. For what I have seen, crumbling of material hopes and insecurity of future makes great masses of people - masses who actually decide what shall be accepted norms of the future - turn into more conservative, more traditional, less "progressive" forms of their ancestral faiths. No room for nice, academically constructed hippie beliefs there. Those American poor agricultural (probably white) laborers whom many here call with racist term "hilly billy" are no exception here; people of all colours and creeds are doing the same thing simultaneously around our beloved globe, turning into more fundamentalist forms of their respective faiths. It must be that "hatespeech of the left"-thing going on, that you don't give same opportunity to those heroes of manual labor with white skin in southern parts of United States. Why they should be open-minded or progressive with their beliefs? What is in that deal for them? Rigidly structured religion, which draws harsh lines between what is accepted and what is not is probably best community to shield poor people from hungry predators in our world of continuing economic downfall. Gun and Bible, it sounds like winning strategy in my ears. One ingredient offers internal cohesion, other part shields community from hostile outsiders. Openmindness is overrated.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Deborah,

Thank you. An excellent poem, from an outstanding author and poet.

All is now explained. My confusion arises because the local eucalypt trees here (eucalyptus obliqua - or messmate) do the exact same thing. It is always an unwise activity for people to make camp beneath a eucalypt tree as they are also known as "widow makers".

In defence of the elm trees - unlike eucalypt trees - they do provide shade (of a dubious quality if branches drop on your head which tends to be a fatal occurrence) and they also build up organic matter in the soil.

See, things could always be worse!

I've built the chook house and run underneath three very large eucalypt trees (I call them the three sisters). The trees themselves date back from regrowth after the first logging operations here in the 1860's and they are massive (Oregon timber millers named the area after the American Indian tribe). When the wind howls though, I wonder if the chooks will be OK?



Cherokee Organics said...

Hey everyone,

I'm on a roll...

Just in case you thought that my previous comment about eucalypts was negative, just to let you know that I am also quite fond of them.

Here is a photo of a really Big Tree here and a shadow of the giants that once lived in my neck of the woods (and may again one day).



Juhana said...

And about this Fox News issue popping up time after time here in JMG blog: from where is this irrational hatred against this one cable channel coming from? I can read or listen news with three foreign languages; strong progressive attitude coloring actual news ( I call this phenomenon "liberal trash" with my friends) is so common, that Fox News are actually very refreshing exception in this propaganda mill. It is even more true here in Europe, where all kind of boringly blind liberals are conjuring their superstitious handwaving tricks to lead dear old EU from one abysmal failure to the next. I don't AGREE with this ideological wrapping coming with Fox, but I don't agree with liberal leanings of other media outlets either; how is Fox worse than rest of those propaganda machineries? It sounds to me that all these Fox-haters buy all this liberal brainwashing coming with more "respected" media outlets, but disagree with pseudoconservative brainwashing coming with Fox. So Fox must be BAD. Maybe it should be even banned..? Or at least regulated..? My deepest belief is that we all are just cavemen and -women, protecting our territories and beliefs with modern equivalents of stone axes. We, as species, have not evolved at all from those days, and we never will. We just have better technology. There is no sounder proof for this argument than behaviour and attitude of so called "liberals". They cannot follow what they preach. At least pseudoconservatives (which I am not) deliver what they promise.

About only good thing in this ongoing contraction is that soon we don't have anymore resources nor time for these sandbox games with deadly weapons in hands of mental childrens.

wiseman said...

Yes, the way agriculture was done for centuries here was that farmers depended on rains and seasonal check dams for irrigation. The salt content in that water is next to zero so it didn't damage the soil permanently.

Rivers weren't dammed so every three-four years it used to flood thereby renewing the soil. It wasn't rich agriculture but it was sustainable. Farmers were independent then, now those who get water from the dams or can afford to use diesel pumps make a killing at the expense of farmers who depend on rain fed agriculture. Big farmers have cannibalized smaller farmers.

Farmers are left at the mercy of bureaucrats who sit 2000 km's away and decide when to open the gates and when not to. They can't dig their own canals and cannot build a check dam without writing an application in triplicate.

plotinus said...

Just a note about the slow downward grind of the empire.

Bill Pulliam said...

sgage -- my way of dealing with the demagoguery (and all humans like to do that; look at how much educated urbanites demonize and scapegoat your own less affluent rural neighbors!) is to just ignore those media manufactured "wedge" issues. I don't bring them up, and when they are mentioned I just ignore them or deflect the conversation another direction. Or make an excuse and go find something else to do or someone else to talk to. When it comes to the nitty gritty of life, the Faux-news watching Obama-fearing country folks are keenly interested in growing food, finding ways to use solar energy that are cheap and effective, and helping each other out of tight spots and after misfortunes. Long after the Tea Party is relegated to the forgotten trash heaps of history, those are the things that will really matter for community survival.

SLClaire said...

As a lapsed scientist (I quit after eight years of practicing industrial research), I can easily see scientists as the priests and priestesses of the religion of science/technology/abstract thinking that is put at peril by peak oil. Are not scientists usually portrayed in religious garb (lab coats) in their religious temples (laboratories) filled with arcane religious objects (lab ware) used in rituals (experiments)? Just think of the popular photos of Einstein, surely the high priest of science if not a god per the insight of an earlier comment. Marie Curie would serve nicely as high priestess. Even better that Einstein and Curie worked with the most arcane subjects of all (quantum and gravitational theory for Einstein, radioactivity for Curie), subjects far beyond the ability of us mere mortals to grasp. Popular culture also has scientists living monkish lives: stereotypical loners who don't get along with people and instead spend their time manipulating abstract mathematical symbols that later get turned into objects of religious adoration (tvs, cell phones, computers, rockets ...). So far they have been pretty successful at satisfying the religious needs of their societies (ever more fun toys have been cranked out for the ever-expanding collections of the people). But suppose further manipulation of abstract symbols produces fun toys at an ever-slower rate due to peak oil? I don't like thinking about what has happened to religious leaders of previous cultures when their powers have failed.

I'm very much looking forward to see where you will go with your discussion!

sgage said...

@ Juhana:

"And about this Fox News issue popping up time after time here in JMG blog: from where is this irrational hatred against this one cable channel coming from?"

It's not irrational hatred. It's great skepticism about the veracity of much of what they report. Created by Rupert Murdoch and run by Roger Ailes (Republican operative), they are caught delivering false "news" from time to time.

I do know a lot of people for whom it is their only news source.

I don't think you know much about it, and perhaps you were just getting hyperbolic again :-)

sgage said...

@ Bill Pulliam,

I try very hard to avoid the "wedge" issues as well, and other than a couple of insistent raving haters who try to turn every conversation into Obama-is-the-devil-incarnate, mostly succeed.

I agree with your entire post here - I reckon my earlier reply was kind of an over-reaction, but sometimes I sense a real hatred being incited among my neighbors and friends, and it worries me.

Liquid Paradigm said...


"Rigidly structured religion, which draws harsh lines between what is accepted and what is not is probably best community to shield poor people from hungry predators in our world of continuing economic downfall."

In this country (USA), rigidly-structured, "conservative" religion is often the institution doing the fleecing of the "least of these." I speak, unfortunately, from direct and protracted experience.

"Gun and Bible, it sounds like winning strategy in my ears."

It is. Until it suddenly isn't, and the people who hold so tightly to it just as suddenly find themselves unable to adapt to changing circumstances, and so perish with a hallelujah and a yeehaw. Please don't give me that old-time binary thinking; I'm out of time for such nonsense.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

@Rick Steinberger--My guess is that some human rights have a better chance of survival than others, and local cultures and conditions will be the deciding factors.

Child labor laws were a Progressive response to industrial capitalism. They aren't enforced in the developing world and I think they are doomed. Children whose parents are not rich will have to work for a living. In the US right now, child labor laws are relaxed for farm work.

I am more pessimistic about women's rights than JMG is. If women do not have reliable means of contraception, their relative physical weakness is going to restore traditional sex roles pretty quickly.

Habeas corpus and widespread basic literacy predated the Industrial Revolution in England.

Racial caste systems are not tied to any particular economic arrangements; the ancient Romans had a multiracial empire and were more class than color conscious.

The concept of "homosexual" as a personal identity is a product of late 19th century modernity; attitudes toward homosexual activity are not correlated with any level of technological complexity.

Slavery seems to be most prevalent in empires at any technological level. I see more situations than JMG does where keeping slaves is economically worthwhile. I expect household slavery to last pretty much forever; the ancient Israelites and some Indian tribes kept slaves.

Glenn said...

Update on oil numbers, and why they don't seem to add up. My brother, who follows the Oil Drum, explained it to me, as he has frequently encountered the same discrepency.

Refinery expansion is about 10%, so that adds about 1.5 M B/D to the 14 M B/D of crude extracted domestically and imported. There's about 1.75 M B/D of corn ethanol and soy and other biodiesel. Corn ethanol is not a net energy gain, but the input is primarily natural gas as fertilizer feedstock. The remaining 1.75 - 2.25 M B/D is from "natural gas liquids".

So, the math works, though the presentation in the graph appears deliberately deceptive. The bio-fuels, especially the ethanol, is a way of converting Natural Gas to liquid fuel, and Natural Gas liquids are not useful as vehicle fuel. And of course, fracking has very fast depletion rates, so the amount of products derived from it will plummet as fast as the fracked gas production does. There's no energy future there.

Marrowstone Island

shadowheart said...

The problem with the illusion of invincibility is the invincibility of illusion. Humankind is always supplanting one illusion in place of another, rather than facing reality, as has been commented on in your blog and subsequent comments.
It has been written that man is only partly rational, which has been my own observation---of myself, also.
In terms of evolution, cognition and reason are still new to the human experience, which is why even the smartest among us fall prey to character vices, such as greed, prejudice and wishful thinking.
And in today's America, the infantilizing of our culture---as coined by Chris Hedges---has made the current illusion of eternal progress that much more intractable.
As throughout history, it will be a vanguard of visionaries followed by people of courageous intellectual honesty that will manage to survive, and in some cases, thrive in a collapsing civilization.
And this time around, the stakes are much higher, with the impending chaos greater and the fallout bleaker than anything we've seen before. If only because, unlike in more primitive(closer to earth) times past, the distance of the reversion back to simplicity is far greater and today's techno-industrial temperament is much less prepared for such a drastic change. True to the saying, "The higher you go, the farther you fall."
I read somewhere that nature is the basis of reality. That being the case, developed nations are in for a long overdue reality check.
Thank you for another brilliant post and I wait with anticipation for next week's post on the role of religion relative to our current dilemma.

Bruce The Druid said...

It occurred to me last week that much of what you are engaged in with this blog is what we called in college a paradigm shift. As others pointed out, there is much resistance to a new idea until a certain number (or class) of people adopt the new idea, where upon a "tipping point" is reached. Then the landslide begins as practically everybody rushes to other side, as the evidence becomes "overwhelming". I have seen this at work in a jury, where people switched sides when certain individuals changed their own opinions. In other words, some people trust other opinions more than they trust their own reasoning process. It is the herd mentality at work.

As for the chickens, raising chickens in the city is the surest sign of hard times and the encroachment of the "shanty town". We have mocked third worlders for so long, we are not about to let our suburban neighbors raise chickens! What's next, hanging out your laundry to dry on a line? Outdoor toilets? A still in the backyard?

Bill Pulliam said...

Juhana -- a note about American culture and language for a non-native:

The terms "redneck" and "hillbilly" have been thoroughly reclaimed by the working class residents of the American South and Appalachia. They are now self-chosen identity labels, not terms of derision. People proudly describe themselves with these terms now. The liquor store that just opened here, after a long political battle to overturn local prohibition, chose to call itself "Hillbilly Liquors" and is run by local natives, not transplants trying to be fashionably ironic. Their logo is a cartoon of two stereotypical hillbillies in a rickety boat with their cane poles and their two jugs of moonshine labeled with the archetypal "XXX." I think there's a sense of having seen what Urban Coastal Metropolitan Culture has to offer and responding with, "no thanks." Of course once you go inside you have your choice of wines, whiskey, and other spirits from around the world -- thanks to globalization. There is the real irony, totally unintended.

Bill Pulliam said...

Juhana again -- About Fox News:

A recent study of Americans and how well informed they were found that viewers of Fox News scored worse than people who watched or listened to no news at all. The questions were basic facts that were not subject to political bias (e.g., Which party has the majority of seats in the U.S. Senate? Did the Egyptian protests succeed at removing Mubarak from power?). So, yes, when a news outlet leaves its viewers less well informed on basic factual issues than if they watched no news at all, I think it is fair to single them out for special criticism and call them by derisive nicknames. Interestingly NPR listeners scored the highest of major broadcast news outlets.

William Rae said...

The last graph that shows the limits to growth has been doing the rounds in peak oil circles for a while now. I wanted to cite it so I started looking into its provenance. I found the original paper here: and came to the conclusion that the graph in question is a composite of other graphs. I believe the data is misleading and would like to very politely suggest that you use the graphs in Graham Turners Paper instead.

• In the matter of technology not saving us, it isn’t certain if it will or it will not. The logic used is an example of the fallacy of arguments by analogy. I’ll try to explain my point. If we take four numbers 1, 2, 3 and 4. Now if we add the 1st number to itself we get the second number 1+1=2, so if we were to accept an argument by analogy each number added to itself is the next number in the sequence so 2+2=3, and 3+3=4. This is obviously wrong, just like basing decisions on previous experience don't mean that the conclusion is correct. Like != Same, or like is not equal to the same.

Thomas Malthus would have been right if it wasn’t for the industrial revolution, oil revolution and green revolution. He may still be right if you accept he didn’t have all the data. We have been given a grace of 250 (approx) years because of technology. On the other hand there is no guarantee that technology will save us. It’s easy to cite several examples of civilizations that could not develop new technology to save themselves.

I agree with the idea of resilience in the face of catabolic collapse but not at the expense of learning and discovery. I am keeping a foot in either camp, preparing for the worst and hoping for the best.

wiseman said...

I am from Assam, the problem in Assam is not that of PO, it's an ethnic conflict arising out of people living south of Assam migrating northwards and occupying territory where the tribals have historically lived.

If you want to see PO problems, go to Punjab or Rajasthan where they are using water pumped from a depth of 200-400ft to irrigate their fields, it's unprecedented, has never been done before and is possible only through the use of cheap FF. That water has so much salt it will turn your utensils white, I can't imagine what it's doing to the soil.

India is in the bull's eye as far as PO or AGW goes but I think we should be careful to point out the right examples.

Juhana said...

@sgage: Yeah, I probably was a bit hyperbolic again ;). Still, there is a point in that this time. You guys are talking a lot about binary thinking; it should be remembered that this problem lurks in EVERY direction. You should not build boogeyman image around your political enemies. Most people watching Fox News are probably quite decent, ordinary folks. Just like most persons with especially rosy leftist-liberal worldview are nice people just trying to do right thing. Neither side is evil, they just look same thing from different perspective. I have been in regions healing from recent civil war, and what strikes me there is stealthy nature of escalation: things escalate out of hands step by step, everything seems like it is business as usual, until it is not. Please, you mighty Americans, don't escalate things. You are big and strong country, your population shares widely many basic values, build on it. Stop your own hatespeech, before you start nagging about to it to other side of conflict.

@Bill Pulliam: When I was studying English, term "hillybilly" was told to be degoratory and insulting. It seems that our teachers were a bit out of touch, like they usually are :).

@Liquid Paradigm: Christianity in North America is very different from its European forms. That's probably because you have so many reformists there, historical roots are not that strong, traditions are only some 500 yrs old; that is very short time for a cultural tradition. Many Manichean and old Zoroastrian doctrinal traits passed to current Abrahamic traditions have been rolling on some 2500 yrs now; it makes it quite hard for some TV preacher to flatten all mystical elements to some money fraud scheme over here in Old World. Still, it is not me who is doing binary thinking here, but you. You are reflecting your own inner daemons to external person with different opinions. I stated very clearly that I don't share pseudoconservative worldview of some TV gospels over there; I just expressed my compassion and understanding for poor white folks choosing their own way to deal with current crisis of Western culture.

In Western countries, leftist-liberal thinking and moral code works very well among educated, wealthy people. It is upper-class ideology, and it works well within that group, at least for now. To poor working class persons, picture is very different. For them philosophically fragile and complex value base of liberalism offers different outcome. Broken single-parent families, chaos of gender roles, boy-men who never grow to be decent responsible adults, predatory attitude towards sexual relationships, very common and casual drug abuse and total emptiness where your inner values should be. Belonging to Southern Baptist Convent is probably VERY good deal for these people, offering them real community and real values instead of this genocidal destruction left behind by Western leftist-liberal values. You know, you really should think more out of the box for time to time.

Juhana said...

@wiseman: I have this feeling that everything is not going well with tea plantation workers either..? I have not all background information, but I mentioned Assam because I had feeling everything is not all right over there. It is religious and ethnic conflict also, am I right..? Bodos, Dimasa-Kacharis and Muslims fighting it out..? Illegal immigration is running rampant there, and I know local people are not happy with it. You should honour your tribal ties, blood ties and blood lines are more important than anything else, but hopefully you guys can yet find peaceful solution.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi everyone,

This comment is an open apology to those that support home school.

At a recent local farm tour, I finally met two children that are home schooled and they were both precocious and responsible individuals undertaking large and complex tasks on the farm. They did however, have difficulty with listening and interpretation skills (empathy skills) but I assume that this may have been due to the large numbers of people that they conversed with on the day. In addition to this they seemed to have no trouble interacting with the other children there.

So, yeah, I was wrong...



Juhana said...

@sgage & Bill Pulliam: I background checked information given by BP about Fox News; okay, study seems to indicate that mentioned channel is NOT doing very good job at delivering news. And that IS a problem. Not...delivering...actual news when you are basically, you know, a news corporation.

Their political leanings instead are no problem per se. EVERY news corporation has political leanings, and you probably don't bash those that have same leanings as you do, eh..?

Here in Europe, we are ruled by liberal hegemony right now. There are right-wing liberals (equal to your mainstream Democrats perhaps) and left-wing liberals, but we have no conservatives in positions of power. What we have is growing nationalist and "far-right" opposition, especially popular among frustrated, under 40-year old working class males. Situation is same in basically all European countries. This situation has led to massive propaganda campaign by European news corporations, marketing rosy future of borderless, multicultural and happy EU to ignorant plebs.

At the same time, this political system of Europe build after WW2 and updated after fall of CCCP is practically falling apart. Economy is in free fall, and I truly mean free fall, and violence is popping up here and there. Everyone knows about Greece and Spain and to lesser extent about Italy, but did you know for example that immigrant youngsters are building barricades and throwing petrol bombs in Sweden? Rinkeby in Stockholm has seen some interesting action lately. It is like some street scene from Northern Ireland during Troubles.

This bad situation gone worse under propaganda coverage denying it all has made me little bit allergic to attacks against "conservative" and "nationalist" channels. Here in Europe we have seen SO MUCH liberal hatespeech and hatemongering against what is basically working class response against decaying and dysfunctional bureaucracy of EU that I just cannot listen what I suspect to be hatemongering against "conservatives/nationalists" without responding.

But thanks for you guys about some informative tips, now I know little bit more about your country, again :).

Zach said...

Zach, I'll be doing a bit more than that. It's necessary, it seems to me, to talk about where the religion of progress came from, why it replaced Christianity as the established religion of the western world, and what role religions might play in the coming deindustrial age.

Good! I will be following closely, whether or not I end up commenting.

This triggered an "aha!" inspiration for me - I am already familiar with the fact that this replacement occurred, but I don't think I've ever considered carefully why the religion of progress won out. Perhaps I haven't freed myself of the thaumaturgy of "inevitability" as much as I had thought.


Bill Pulliam said...

About religion and hard times...

My recollection is just fuzzy and about some facts I might have heard or read years ago, but I thought the statistics showed that the level of religious belief in the United States actually dropped substantially during the Great Depression; it did not rise. Does anyone have real info to confirm or correct this?

Deborah about women -- iron age and early medieval societies in northern Europe tended to grant women more rights and freedoms than the feudalistic and imperial systems that followed them, didn't they? Contraception is one of those things that existed at some levels back to ancient times; it may get less effective without the pharma-industrial complex, but it won't vanish.

General note about acronyms -- PO, AGW, BAU, GWXQZ, this isn't twitter, and trying to remember and decipher everyone's pet acronyms makes my head hurt. Is it that hard to spell it out, at least once per comment?

team10tim said...

Hey hey Glenn,

There is some serious discussion about the veracity of various numbers over at The Oil Drum. There are some large discrepancies between the EIA, IEA, BP statistical review, and the JODI data. I dug up some old posts that covered biofuels, refinery gains, and natural gas liquids:

scroll down to comments and charts by aardvark, Darwinian, and advancednano

A guest post about refinergy gains, biofuels, and natural gas liquids with time series for volumes for the USA:

And some time series charts of refinery gains, biofuels, and natural gas liquids for various countries and regions:

It's not simple or straightforward. There are loads of different standards and categories measuring in tons of oil or barrels of oil equivalent and counting different substances as oil or other liquids. Not all the numbers are good (self reporting from Saudi Arabia) and some of the agencies have vested interests in one direction or another.

John Maiorana said...

The last graph you display from The Limits of Growth shows population increasing as non-renewable resources are used at a high rate initially, peaking and then declining as these resources run out, thus suggesting a positive correlation between wealth and population growth. However there is a well known phenomenon known as the demographic-economic paradox which is the inverse correlation found between wealth and fertility. Increased wealth may also temporarily suppress death rates, by reducing childhood deaths mostly due to better hygiene. This effect wears off after a while, because people seem to be able to live only so long. Thus wealth leads suppresses population.

Populations naturally exhibit exponential growth patterns and are stabilized by natural feedback mechanisms. The negative correlation between wealth and fertility is one of them. A real problem in any dynamic system is that sudden changes induce large overshoots in seeking a new stable state, which can result in catastrophe if large enough. So perhaps one real problem throughout human history has been these wild over corrections to sudden changes, which are likely to be more severe in highly centralized systems.

This supports decentralization, cautious adaptations, and of course, conserving non-renewable resources.

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