Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Imperfect Storms

Last week’s post on the need to check our narratives against the evidence of history turned out to be rather more timely than I expected. Over the weekend, following hints and nods from the Fed that the current orgy of quantitative easing may not continue, stock and bond markets around the globe did a swan dive. In response, with the predictability of a well-oiled cuckoo clock, the usual claims that total economic collapse is imminent have begun to spread across the peak oil blogosphere.

As I write these words, the slump seems to have stabilized, but it’s a safe bet that if it resumes—and there’s reason to think that it will—the same claims will get plenty of air time, as they did during the last half dozen market slumps  If that happens, it’s an equally safe bet that a year from now, those who made and circulated those predictions will once again have egg on their faces, and the peak oil movement will have suffered another own goal, inflicted by those who have forgotten that the ability to offer accurate predictions about an otherwise baffling future is one of the few things that gives the peak oil movement any claim on the attention of the rest of the world.

Mind you, worries about the state of the world economy are far from misplaced just now.  In the wake of the 2008 crash, financial authorities in the US—first the Department of the Treasury, backed by Congressional appropriations, and then the Federal Reserve, backed by nothing but its own insistence that it had the right to spin the presses as enthusiastically as it wished—flooded markets in the US and overseas with a tsunami of money, in an attempt to forestall the contraction of the money supply that usually follows a market crash and ushers in a recession or worse.  The theory behind that exercise was outlined by Ben Bernanke in his famous “helicopter speech” in 2002:  keep the money supply from contracting in the wake of a market crash, if necessary by dumping money out of helicopters, and the economy will recover from the effects of the crash and return to robust growth in short order.

That theory was put to the test, and it failed. Five years after the 2008 crash, the global economy has not returned to robust growth. Across America and Europe, in the teeth of quantitative easing, hard times of a kind rarely seen since the Great Depression have become widespread. Official claims that happy days will be here again just as soon as everybody but the rich accepts one more round of belt-tightening (also a feature of the Great Depression, by the way) are increasingly hard to sustain in the face of the flat failure of current policies to bring anything but more poverty.  Meanwhile, the form taken by quantitative easing in the present case—massive purchases of worthless securities by central banks—has national governments drowning in debt, central banks burdened with mountains of the kind of financial paper that makes junk bonds look secure, and no one better off except a financial industry that has become increasingly disconnected from political and economic realities.

Thus the boom is coming down. On the 18th of this month, Obama commented in a media interview that Bernanke had been at the Fed’s helm “longer than he wanted,” an unsubtle way of announcing that the chairman would not be appointed to a third term in 2014. Shortly thereafter, the Fed let it be known that the ongoing quantitative easing program would be tapered off toward the end of the year, and the general manager of the Bank of International Settlements (BIS), one of the core institutions of global finance, gave a speech noting that central banks had gone too far in spinning the presses, and risked problems as bad as the ones quantitative easing was supposed to cure.

Markets around the world panicked, and for good reason. Most of the cash from quantitative easing in the US and elsewhere got paid out to large banks, on the theory that it would go to borrowers and drive another round of economic growth. That didn’t happen, because borrowing at interest only makes sense when growth can be expected to exceed the interest rate.  Whether it’s 18-year-olds taking out student loans to go to college, business owners issuing corporate paper to finance expansion, or what have you, the assumption is that the return on investment will be high enough to cover the cost of interest and still yield a profit. In the stagnant economy of the last five years, that assumption has not fared well, and where government guarantees didn’t distort the process—as happened with student loans in the US, for example—the result was a dearth of new loans, and thus a dearth of new economic activity.

Unused money in a bank’s coffers these days is about as secure as it is in the pocket of your average eight-year-old, though, and for most of the last five years, the world’s speculative markets were among the standard places for banks to go and spend it.  That helped drive a series of boomlets in various kinds of speculative paper, and pushed some market indices to all-time highs. The end of the quantitative easing gravy train very likely means the end of that process, and for an assortment of other fiscal gimmicks that have been surfing the waves of cheap money pouring out of the Fed and other central banks in recent years. A prolonged bear market is thus likely.

Could that bear market trigger a run on the investment banks that, under the cozy illusion that they’re still too big to fail, have become too arrogant to survive?  Very possibly.  The twilight of “Helicopter Ben” and his spin-the-presses policies also marks the end of the line for a coterie of economists and bankers, most of them associated with Goldman Sachs, who came to power after the 2008 crisis insisting that they knew how to fix the broken economy. They didn’t, and they are now in the process of discovering—as the neoconservatives found out before them—that while the American political class has almost limitless patience with corruption and venality, it has no tolerance at all for failure.  I expect to see a fair number of prominent figures in the nation’s financial bureaucracies headed back to the same genteel obscurity that swallowed the neocons, and it’s by no means unlikely that Goldman Sachs or some other big financial firm may be allowed to crash and burn as part of the payback.

And beyond that? One way or another, the end of quantitative easing bids fair to trigger a wave of harsh economic readjustments, government defaults, corporate bankruptcies, and misery for all. An immense overhang of unpayable debt is going to have to be liquidated in one way or another, and there’s no way for that to happen without a lot of pain.  That may well involve a recession harsh enough that the D-word will probably need to be pulled out of cold storage and used instead. Will the remaining scraps of democratic governance in Europe and America, and the increasingly fragile peace among the world’s military powers, survive several years of that?  That’s a good question, to which history offers mostly unencouraging answers.

Still, these deeply troubling possibilities aren’t the things you’ll hear aired across the more apocalyptic end of the peak oil scene, if recent declines in global stock markets continue. Rather, if experience is any guide, we can expect a rehash of the claims that the next big economic crisis will cause a total implosion of global financial systems, leading to a credit collapse that will prevent farmers from buying seed for next year’s crops, groceries from stocking their shelves, factories from producing anything at all, and thus land us all plop in the middle of the Dark Ages in short order.

It’s here that the issue discussed in last week’s post becomes particularly relevant, because there’s a difference—a big one—between the imaginary cataclysms that fill so much space on the doomward end of the blogosphere and what actually happens. Financial history is full of markets that imploded, economies that plunged into recession and depression, currencies that became worthless, and all the other stage properties of current speculations concerning total economic collapse, and it also has quite detailed things to say about what followed each of these crises. Without too much trouble, given access to the internet or a decently stocked library, you can find out what happens when a highly centralized economic system comes apart at the seams, no matter what combination of factors do the deed. The difference between what actually happens and the whole range of current fantasies about instant doom can be summed up in a single phrase: negative feedback.

That’s the process by which a thermostat works: when the house gets cold, the furnace turns on and heats it back up; when the house gets too warm, the furnace shuts down and lets it cool off. Negative feedback is one of the basic properties of whole systems, and the more complex the system, the more subtle, powerful, and multilayered the negative feedback loops tend to be.  The opposite process is positive feedback, and it’s extremely rare in the real world, because systems with positive feedback promptly destroy themselves—imagine a thermostat that responded to rising temperatures by heating things up further until the house burns down. Negative feedback, by contrast, is everywhere.

That’s not something you’ll see referenced in any of the current crop of fast-crash theories, whether those fixate on financial markets, global climate, or what have you. Nearly all those theories make sweeping claims about some set of hypothetical positive feedback loops, while systematically ignoring the existence of well-documented negative feedback loops, and dismissing the evidence of history.  The traditional cry of “But it’s different this time!” serves its usual function as an obstacle to understanding: no matter how many times a claim has failed in the past, and no matter how many times matters have failed to follow the predicted course, believers can always find some reason or other to insist that this time isn’t like all the others.

It  happens that I’ve been doing plenty of thinking about negative feedback recently, because I’ve fielded yet another flurry of claims that my theory of catabolic collapse must be false because it doesn’t allow for the large-scale crises that we’re evidently about to experience. Mind you, I have no objection to having my theory critiqued, but it would be helpful if those who did so took the time to learn a little about the theory they think they’re critiquing. In point of fact—I encourage doubters to read a PDF of the original essay—the theory of catabolic collapse not only assumes but requires large-scale crises. What it explains is why those crises aren’t followed by a plunge into oblivion but by stabilization and partial recovery.

The reason is negative feedback. A civilization on the way down normally has much more capital—buildings, infrastructure, knowledge, population, and everything else a macroeconomist would put under this label—than it can afford to maintain. Crisis solves this problem by wrecking a great deal of excess capital, so that it no longer requires maintenance, and resources that had been maintaining it can be put to more immediate needs. In addition, much of the wrecked capital can be stripped for raw materials, cutting expenditures further. Since civilizations in decline are by and large desperately short of uncommitted resources, and are also normally squeezed by rising costs for resource extraction, both these windfalls make it possible for a crumbling society to buy time and stave off collapse for at least a little longer; that’s what drives the stairstep process of crisis, stabilization, partial recovery, and renewed crisis that shows up in the last centuries of every historically documented civilization.

That sequence is so reliable that Arnold Toynbee could argue, with no shortage of evidence, that there are usually three and a half rounds of it in the fall of any civilization—the last half-cycle being the final crisis from which the recovery is somebody else’s business.  Our civilization, by the way, has already been through its first cycle, the global crisis of 1914-1954 that saw Europe stripped of its once-vast colonial empires and turned into a battleground between American and Russian successor states.  We’re just about due for the second, which will likely be at least as traumatic as the first; the third, if our civilization follows the usual pattern, should hit a battered and impoverished industrial world sometime in the 22nd century, and the final collapse will follow maybe fifty to a hundred years after that.

Now of course there are plenty of people these days insisting that industrial civilization can’t possibly take that long to fall, just as there are plenty of people who insist that it can’t fall at all. In both cases, the arguments normally rest on the blindness to negative feedback discussed above. Consider the currently popular notion, critiqued in one of last month’s posts, that humanity will go extinct by 2030 due to runaway climate change. The logic here follows the pattern I sketched out earlier—extreme claims about hypothetical positive feedback loops, combined with selective blindness to well-documented negative feedback loops that have put an end to greenhouse events in the past, propped up with the inevitable claim that the modest details that distinguish the present situation from similar events in the past mean that the lessons of the past don’t count. 

Current rhetoric aside, greenhouse events driven by extremely rapid CO2 releases are anything but rare in Earth’s history. The usual culprits are large-scale volcanic releases of greenhouse gases, which  boosted CO2 levels in the atmosphere up above 1200 ppm—that’s four times current levels—and thus drove what geologists, not normally an excitable bunch, call “super-greenhouse events.”  If massive CO2 releases into the atmosphere were going to exterminate life on Earth, these would have done the trick—and super-greenhouse events have happened many times already, just within the small share of the planet’s history that geologists have enough evidence to study.

What stops it? Negative feedback. The most important of the many negative feedback loops that counter greenhouse events is the shutdown of the thermohaline circulation, the engine that drives the world’s ocean currents. The thermohaline circulation also puts oxygen into the deep oceans, and when it shuts down, you get an oceanic anoxic event.  Ocean waters below 50 meters or so run out of oxygen and become incapable of supporting life, and the rain of carbon-rich organic materials from the sunlit levels of the ocean, which normally supports a galaxy of deepwater ecosystems, falls instead to the bottom of the sea, taking all its carbon with it. It’s an extremely effective way of sucking excess carbon out of the biosphere:  around 70% of all known petroleum reserves, along with thick belts of carbon-rich black shale found over much of the world, were laid down in a handful of oceanic anoxic events in the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods.

Oceanographers aren’t sure yet of the mechanism that shuts off the thermohaline circulation, but it doesn’t require the steamy temperatures of the Mesozoic to do it. At least one massive oceanic anoxic event happened in the Ordovician period, in the middle of a glaciation, and there’s tolerably good evidence that a brief shutdown was responsible for the thousand-year-long Younger Dryas cold period at the end of the last ice age. Not that long ago, global warming researchers were warning about the possibility of a shutdown of the thermohaline circulation in the near future, and measurements of deepwater formation have not been encouraging to believers in business as usual.

Meanwhile, other patterns of negative feedback are already under way.  Across much of the tropical world, increased CO2 levels in the atmosphere are helping to drive bush encroachment—the rapid spread of thorny shrubs and trees across former grasslands.  Western media coverage so far has fixated on the plight of cheetahs—is there any environmental issue we can’t reduce to sentimentality about cute animals?—but the other side of the picture is that shrubs and trees soak up much more carbon than grasslands, and in many areas, the shrubs involved in bush encroachment make cattle raising impossible, cutting into another source of greenhouse gases. Meanwhile, the depletion of fossil fuels imposes its own form of negative feedback; as petroleum geologists have been pointing out for quite a while now, there aren’t enough economically recoverable fossil fuels in the world to justify even the IPCC’s relatively unapocalyptic predictions of climate change.

Apply the same logic to the economic convulsions I mentioned earlier and the same results follow. The reason a financial collapse won’t result in bare grocery shelves, deserted factories, fallow fields, and mass death is, again, negative feedback. The world’s political, economic, and military officials have plenty of options for preventing such an outcome, most of them thoroughly tested in previous economic breakdowns, and so these officials aren’t exactly likely to respond to crisis by wringing their hands and saying, “Oh, whatever shall we do?”  For that matter, ordinary people caught in previous periods of extreme economic crisis have proven perfectly able to jerry-rig whatever arrangements might be necessary to stay fed and provided with other necessities. 

Whether the crisis is contained by federal loan guarantees and bank nationalizations that keep farms, factories, and stores supplied with the credit they need, by the repudiation of debts and the issuance of a new currency, by martial law and the government seizure of unused acreage, or by ordinary citizens cobbling together new systems of exchange in a hurry, as happened in Argentina, Russia, and other places where the economy suddenly went to pieces, the crisis will be contained.  The negative feedback here is provided by the simple facts that people are willing to do almost anything to put food on the table, governments are willing to do even more to stay in power, and in hundreds of previous crises, their actions have proven more than sufficient to stop the positive feedback loops of economic crisis in their tracks, and stabilize the situation at some level.

None of this means the crisis will be easy to get through, nor does it mean that the world that emerges once the rubble stops bouncing and the dust settles will be anything like as prosperous, as comfortable, or as familiar as the one we have today. That’s true of all three of the situations I’ve sketched out in this post. While the next round of crisis along the arc of industrial civilization’s decline and fall will likely be over by 2070 of so, living through the interval between then and now will probably have more than a little in common with living through the First World War, the waves of political and social crises that followed it, the Great Depression, and the rise of fascism, followed by the Second World War and its aftermath—and this time the United States is unlikely to be sheltered from the worst impacts of crisis, as it was between 1914 and 1954.

In the same way, the negative feedback loops that counter greenhouse events in the Earth’s biosphere don’t prevent drastic climate swings, with all the agricultural problems and extreme weather events that those imply; they simply prevent those swings from going indefinitely, and impose reverse swings that could be just as damaging. If the thermohaline circulation shuts down, in particular, there’s a very real possibility that the world could be whipsawed by extreme weather in both directions—too hot for a few more decades, and then too cold for the next millennium—as happened around the beginning of the Younger Dryas period 12,800 years ago. Our species survived then, and on several other similar occasions, and the Earth as a whole has been through even more drastic climate shifts many times; still, it’s a sufficiently harsh prospect for those of us who may have to live through it that anything that can be done to prevent it is well worth doing.

It’s only the contemporary fixation on “perfect storms” of various imaginary kinds that leads so many people to forget that imperfect storms can cause quite a bit of damage all by themselves. Yet it’s the imperfect storms, the ones we can actually expect to get in the real world, that ought to feature in predictions of the future—if those predictions are meant to predict the future, that is, rather than serving as inkblots onto which to project emotionally charged fantasies,  excuses for not abandoning unsustainable but comfortable lifestyles, or what have you.


wiseman said...

Brilliant, a succinct description of what's wrong with many people in the PO community (including myself).

All these failed predictions have been a lesson to me, I have made a resolve not to make any more predictions about our short term future but to teach people through action and conservation efforts, action speaks louder than words right.

Andrew H said...

An excellent post. I look forward to reading your posts every week.
I am glad you covered the middle ground between the two extremes, particularly with climate change. I somehow doubt too many climate scientists would disagree with you, when put in the terms you have used. However I suspect what you consider middle ground is another persons extreme. After all, in those terms calling a bit of flooding and a few hundred deaths in New York, a major disaster or catastrophe, just underlines the lack of appreciation of the range of potential outcomes over the next decades to centuries.

Heraclitus the Obscure said...

I am reminded of a saying of Heraclitus on the Logos that steers all things, (which both does and does not consent to be called by the name of Zeus):

"Though at variance with itself, it agrees with itself. It is a backwards-turning attunement like that of the bow or the lyre."

One of my greatest regrets about the transition to strictly linear time is the loss of that musical sense for how events are strung in the humming space between complementary contraries—I really appreciate your longstanding attention to feedback loops in our ecological, political, and social systems.

I do sometimes wonder if that inclination to extremes which also characterizes our civilization is a product of how intellectually specialized we have become. How bizarre it would seem to, say—a Galatian celt—that our culture is able to host "peak oil blogger" as an identity. The trend is, if anything, worse in academia, where a welter of hyper-specialized minds compete to wrestle through whatever half-baked disciplinary imperialism currently claims to solve all the oldest problems (cognitive science being the current darling).

As a historian, I'm very interested in finding ways to reclaim the cohesive, narrative forms of history that died off in the first half of the 20th century (and which make your own analyses so striking). My current post on "The Sacrificing Animal" is an attempt to outline a method for reintroducing this kind of storytelling:

The Four Mothers of Human Causality

In which a green sprig gives birth to human desire, Jared Diamond ignores the miraculous character of the Russian Revolution, an ancient Peruvian ceremony of divine kingship has erotic outcomes, and I tell a story intended to make me better at telling stories

One thing I do wonder about your opinion on: One of the often unnoticed constants in the historical record, is that the ideology or social structure that currently seems like the "winning-nest" is apt to briefly dominate the market in imitation by others.

Examples include the Byzantines adopting Iconoclasm after the Muslim Arabs gave them a drubbing, the nations of Europe in awe of 17th century Bourbon France, the widespread adoption of European secular nationalism in—say the Balkans in the late 19th century—and (most often forgotten) the adoption of Fascism and Communism in the 30s and 40s—most notably by a humiliated Vichy regime. "Mussolini made the trains run on time" as the saying goes.

The same goes for the "End of History" when US brand "liberal democracy" glutted the world market after the US victory in the Cold War.

It seems clear to me that the onus of the "loser stigma" will land at the feet of the United States in the coming decades. The logical next step is for many subaltern states to look to another, more "winning-est" ideology or state structure, but honestly, I have no idea what that might be. Chinese authoritarian capitalism seems unlikely, and the loud-mouthed anti-American petro-states are going to be having troubles of their own.

Where will people look to? I have trouble imagining a serious comeback for old-fashioned Fascism or Communism, the traditional alternatives.

But I don't know, I could be very wrong.

Thijs Goverde said...

Thanks or the links! They're food for thought, the kind of stuff I come here for.
I'm not entirely convinced by either, but in general your theory of catabolic collapse sounds plausible.
Of course 'merely' going through WW I-style societal upheaval is a dreadful enough outcome of any scenario, especially if you happen to have a boy who will reach maturity in five years or so.
Oh, yes, and nukes. I know you don't believe they will ever be used, but if we get a field marshal Haig sort of pea-brain near a button somewhere, the results might be grim.

I don't really fear the incoming sea-level-rise-driven flood, even though I live in the Netherlands. MY proximity ton the Ruhrgebiet has me more worried, actually.

Grebulocities said...

JMG, I'm intrigued by the timeline you give for catabolic collapse. The period 1914-1954 is given as the first wave. But almost all of the world's petroleum consumption to date occurred after 1914, and more than 85% of it since 1954. So that I can visualize how your theory of catabolic collapse works, I have a few questions.

In your view, is oil exploitation and the economic boom it produced part of the unsustainable, but still temporarily effective, methods of keeping Western civilization going between the first and second waves of catabolic collapse? If so, do you interpret the the second wave as starting at the peak of conventional oil production in late 2005 and proceeding through the Great Recession of 2007-9, the present shaky plateau, and so on until we reach the point where only ~15% (if that) of the world's conventional oil that will be extracted remains, somewhere around 2050?

Finally, what sorts of systems could sustain a low-petroleum society for 50-100 years in the aftermath of the second wave? Are you thinking that some combination of energy sources like solar PV, wind turbines, coal, and biofuels will allow some semblance of Western society to persist for another century or so until a third wave strikes?

John Michael Greer said...

Wiseman, an excellent strategy.

Andrew, oh, granted. Three or four decades of rapid global warming followed by a shutdown of the thermohaline circulation and a plunge into near-Ice Age temperatures would pretty much guarantee a huge death toll. My point is that there's a great deal of territory between business as usual and the end of the world, and that territory is where our future will be.

Heraclitus, my guess is Caesarism -- more or less authoritarian states centered on a charismatic leader, probably without the party and ideological apparatus of Fascism or Communism. More on this as we proceed.

Thijs, exactly -- it's only in the US, which was almost absurdly sheltered during the 20th century, that the thought of going through the forty years following 1914 over again seems mild. As for nukes, it's always possible that some could be used -- but if I lived as close to the Ruhr as you do, I'd be worried, too.

Grebulocities, my guess -- and it's a guess -- is that the version of industrial society that comes out of the next round of crisis will be what I've called scarcity industrialism, and will involve drastically lower standards of living for most people, as well as a sharply lower population. That could be supported in some countries, for a while, on remaining fossil fuels plus biofuels plus other renewables. The final period before the ultimate collapse would then see the same thing, with even lower standards of living, contracted to a very few countries, and without the fossil fuels. Long before that happens, most of what's now the industrial world will have reverted to peasant subsistence economies, padded out with a bit of salvage. More on this as we proceed!

GuRan said...

Very nicely put, John Michael.

Your paper on catabolic collapse was one of the very first works of yours I came across. I was, and remain, impressed.


Avery said...

It seems that I've become conditioned to pull up this blog on Thursday afternoons (my time zone) until I get to see the great new post.

A few months ago, the chief economist of the IMF, Olivier Blanchard, said: “We don't have a clue of what financial stability actually means.” This was not a "leak" or anything, he was stating that on the record for the New York Times. I appreciate the honesty; I hope his successor will be as honest. But how much of our slowing, calming negative feedback loop relies on the illusion that someone out there knows how to "fix things" so that we can go back to the doom days portrayed in American Psycho, I mean, Wall Street?

godozo said...

Thanks for expanding out on the negative feedbacks on the "Global Warming" stuff. I've always felt that there was a point where heating up the earth (as it is now) would lead to a snapback in temperatures and coldness, even if my model was a bit simplified (that iceberg slipping off of Greenland was my model); your explanations give a fuller, more satisfying reasoning of things.

And as for a nation cannibalizing itself, I see that happening all over NW Indiana. Gary is being stripped for copper and metals as we speak, Hammond hasn't had buses running within it for over a year now, and I've actually watched much of the industrial capacity of the area torn down, stripped of everything useful and thrown away, leaving lots of flat lands (and skeletons of buildings where the company has proven too lazy to do a full teardown). The only thing missing is the acceptance by the society at large of the tear-down.

PhysicsDoc said...

JMG, Nice post and great title as usual. Although you are focusing our attention on negative feedback for good reasons (it is not as sexy as it's positive counterpart), I would argue that positive feedback is also ubiquitous. Oscillatory patterns in nature that are not due to simple decaying resonance (e.g. a ringing bell: resonance plus negative feedback) involve driven systems that include positive feedback. Essentially the positive feedback continues until some point at which saturation occurs and/or a critical threshold is crossed at which time the positive feedback loop stops or is replaced by negative feedback. In my world positive feedback in op-amp circuits is used to make oscillators. The saturation process can be due to opposing negative feedback mechanisms as you mention. There are some systems, however, that undergo irreversible state flipping through positive feedback although the initial states are often unstable or metastable. The classic example is a pencil balanced on its tip, hence the concept of a tipping point.

Grebulocities said...

I remember now - you alluded to a phase of scarcity industrialism in The Ecotechnic Future, so I can see how that fits in with your theory of catabolic collapse. I agree with that analysis; scarcity industrialism is the most plausible outcome I can think of for the near future.

I'm still curious though: am I right that most of the Petroleum Age fits into the period of unsustainable policies that characterize the half-century between first and second catabolic waves in your theory, from 1955 to 2005 or so? Is exploiting oil and gas reserves the way that Western civilization maintained itself between the end of colonialism and the end of cheap fossil fuels?

DeAnander said...

when I hear all this talk about catastrophe (and big drama!) I think of Orlov's description of the population reduction (not trivial) that took place after the fall of the USSR. iirc, he said that it wasn't all that spectacular: after a while you might notice that you had been attending a lot more funerals than christenings -- something like that.

it made me realise that a human die-off doesn't have to mean piles of corpses in the streets, mass graves being filled with quicklime by grim crews of FEMA workers, etc. it could be as simple as an ambulance service that used to get you to the ER on time not doing that any more; or a gradual abandonment of the policy of prolonging the lives of very ill, very elderly people into the vegetable state and beyond. or increased child and infant mortality, which imho is already happening in the US (the US had the 12th lowest infant mortality rate in the world in the 1960's -- now it's the 34th: either other countries are catching up and surpassing US health care standards, or US health care standards are slipping; I suspect the latter, particularly for the poor who just plain can't afford any medical care.)

I reflect rather dismally that tens, maybe hundreds of millions have died in Africa from one cause and another -- massacres, AIDS, famine, drought, civil wars -- during my lifetime, and yet there are still African states, languages, etc. ... despite losses and tragedies that seem pretty apocalyptic in scale. collapse, I guess, looks like Africa: brutal resource extraction, concentration of wealth, corruption of government, immiseration of ordinary people, reduced life expectancy. it was either B Sterling or W Gibson I believe who quipped "Sooner or later, everywhere becomes India." I think he was talking about catabolic collapse.

Bobkó Csaba said...

I agree with you on catabolic collapse and negative feedback, but what about the fate of the unsustainable nuclear industry, an epidemic of Fukushimas across the globe? Can you imagine any negative feedback for that? Isn't that enough to cause a fall to the Dark Age? And I didn't mention yet the nuclear weapons.

Bill Blondeau said...

Excellent survey of the core arguments against End of the World thinking, JMG - thank you.

It has only recently occurred to me that proponents of doom have a special Get Out Of Jail Free card that they brandish regularly, if only half-consciously: the notion of asymmetrical outcomes. The concept of annihilation is so compelling that it assumes disproportionate weight in reasoning about events to come.

A simple example of this principle is that the odds in Russian Roulette are 5 to 1 in favor, but the value of payoff is so weighted towards the bad that it's baffling that anyone would play it at all. Proponents of imminent doom have been psychologically captured by the tendency to contemplate the worst; but should you point out that there are still 5 empty chambers, they impatiently dismiss such evidence-based reasoning by reiterating the dreadful nature of the worst outcome. Thus are they protected against counterargument...

One unrelated, but fussy, technical point: when you say "The opposite process is positive feedback, and it’s extremely rare in the real world, because systems with positive feedback promptly destroy themselves", I have to take issue.

Positive feedback is ubiquitous, not rare. Everything that swings, buzzes, rustles, vibrates, waves or hums is, after all, exhibiting positive feedback. Negative feedback is just as ubiquitous as positive, and ordinarily a little bit more: this is, if nothing else, a characteristic of our thermodynamic world.

What I presume you meant to say is that systems dominated by positive feedback do in fact blow themselves to bits. Forgive my fretful pedantry, but misstatements such as this - especially from such a careful writer as yourself - tend to take on a life of their own.

Yupped said...

JMG wrote: "negative provided by the simple facts that people are willing to do almost anything to put food on the table, governments are willing to do even more to stay in power, and in hundreds of previous crises, their actions have proven more than sufficient to stop the positive feedback loops of economic crisis in their tracks, and stabilize the situation at some level".

This is the crux of the issue it seems to me. There are plenty of people, the vast majority probably, who both want and assume that the current system to continue. And so it will continue for a good while to come, shifting shape on the way down but trying its best to look like business as usual. Many rules will be changed to support this, until some crack appears too big to be papered over.

God knows when the next big crack will come along though: sometime between today and just after it happens I suppose. That's the frustrating part - not being able to have a clear picture on timing. This causes some of us to make predictions on timing that we have no business making. We want certainty, but we can't have it, so we tell stories about it. And sometimes we call these stories analysis.

wrt to the financial markets, what has happened since 2008 is that the rules have been changed to encourage markets to go up. And so they have gone back up, substantially so. If you were expecting a mass outbreak of hyper-inflation or sudden debt deflation, based on your understanding of the rules, then you will have been disappointed. Who would have predicted that the Federal Reserve would have bought bonds and expanded liquidity on the scale that they have? Insiders probably did. But external critics didn't, for the most part. Those who trusted the insiders and the business as usual bias did well, I'm sure.

And how long can this continue on? Probably for quite some time I'm guessing. My savings account is giving me a worried look right now.

Ian O said...

I'll have to do some checking but the linked "The UN’s future scenarios for climate are pure fantasy"
by Kjell Aleklett (which passed without comment back in 2009) doesn't match the current understandings. I was under the impression that by 2013 we have 7x the amount of proven (or claimed*) fossil carbon needed to push then planet into very uncomfortable if not disastrous temperature rises. Such that at least 75% of all stocks need to stay in the ground, let alone any newly discovered options.

(*we usually only have the Oil Companies claims of reserves to go by, reserves that have a strong bearing on those company's share valuations.)

Odin's Raven said...

Why date the first ctisis to 1914 rather than 1789?

Liquid Paradigm said...


The Onion anticipates likely coming developments, once again.,32880/

SMJ said...

Hello JMG

Many thanks for this post (and for all the ones before it and for all your books too). The explanation of the specific mechanisms of negative feedback fills in a lot of gaps around generalized undetailed concepts.

Your 27 Feb post was about the end of the shale bubble. How will that and the end of quantitative easing affect each other?

russell1200 said...

You seriously need to update the Table 1 in your catabolic paper. Oddly enough, while the dating is off, the actual dating would probably help support a lot of your arguments.

Somewhere around (and not instantly) you have the collapse of the Mycenaean (Palace Era) Greeks, the Minoans, the Hittites, the Harappan (in India), and major pull backs in New Kingdom Egypt, and Assyria/Messopotamia.

Some of the areas collapsed (Greece)and appear to have had 90% die-offs, and others, like Egypt, managed to hold on. There was all sorts of bad things going on, so that historians of the individual areas can postulate all sorts of individualistic causes. For myself, a shift in weather patterns, causing migratory disruptions of folks further north (Sea People and such) causing a chain reaction breakdown, along with the inability to cope with local disasters in the crises, seem like a reasonable cause.

But my main point is that not everyone collapsed immediately, and that some groups (the Jewish followers of King David for example, or the Phoenician/Canaanites) eventually wind up doing very well for themselves in the power vacuum. And although it takes a number of centuries, the Assyrians, and the Egyptians come back.

So even what is likely the closest thing to a singular "global" collapse of civilization was incomplete, not on a singular sudden timeline (at least not for everyone) and had a silver lining for some.

Andy Brown said...

Very nice post. I think you do a good job of defending yourself. One of the things that first brought my interest to peak oil was all of the naive and unconvincing math used in the mainstream to imagine the future. One of the things that has kept me on the margins of the peak oil 'movement' is a sense that too often the competition to be "peak-oiliest" involved wringing the most dire scenario from a given pot of data rather than the most accurate or likely prediction. Dire predictions are important, I think, if only to understand the potential stakes, but still . . . .

Josh Floyd said...

A couple of years ago I put together a simulation of your catabolic collapse model for a post-grad course Principles of Sustainability that I teach, using the system dynamics software Vensim.

It's a pretty rough and ready implementation, but it does illustrate the basic behaviour that you claim the model can account for. It makes especially clear the role of negative feedback--this being a central feature of system dynamics or stock and flow modeling.

As a very basic model, it doesn't show stepwise decline. I think demonstrating this require the constants used to define initial conditions for each simulation run to be made dynamic variables i.e. to include feedback that affects these also.

If anyone with a suitable technical bent is interested in having a look at it, the Vensim model file and background info on how to use it are all available here:

Feedback welcome (pun intended)--including any improvements that anyone would like to suggest. It's really just a starting point. And I'd be very happy for someone else to take it further.

Bill Pulliam said...

Oh, but a survivable collapse just sounds like so much work and discomfort... all that sweat, and itchy bugs, and smelly dirty things, and having to figure so many things out, and eating gross stuff that hasn't been inspected, sanitized, processed, fumigated, and cooked for you by some machine somewhere... it's just so much easier to think about sitting at your computer typing away until the curtain comes down and we all just die.

Get your terminology right, we don't call them "cute animals." The correct technical term is "charismatic megafauna." Every conservation organization knows that finding a member of the charismatic megafauna as your spokescritter is essential for success.

At some point you might want to remind your readers of the definitions of catabolism an anabolism, to help them hold on to the key concept of your theory. For someone with biological training, the notion that a declining society will catabolize its capital to continue functioning is pretty straightforward (since it is exactly what a living organism does when it can't get enough food); but folks from other backgrounds might not get the analogy as readily.

Andy Brown said...

I appreciate the effort you're making to keep people on the middle ground between blithe complacency or apocalyptic fantasy. My own personal sense of what collapse is likely to look like come out of my own anthropological work in Kazakhstan. A not-so-bad scenario is Almaty in the mid-nineties. The normal economy had collapsed, but society held pretty much together. There was a significant die-off underway for most of a decade- mostly people dying early for lack of medical care, young people not having babies, and men killing themselves with alcohol and every form of recklessness. Mass migration out of the country as well. The other side of the spectrum was the fact that when you spoke with anyone over the age of 60, they had direct experience of famine and war. They (and certainly their parents and grandparents) had experienced personally hunger, exile, mass deportations, gulags, pogroms, and being at the mercy of a dysfunctional, unpredictable, even lunatic state. The people of this city were the survivors of that, and everyone knew individuals and families who hadn't survived it. If I had to take a guess at the future (a fool's game, I know) I'd hope for the first, but not be surprised by anything approaching the second.

Leo said...

Stuff like the shutting down of the theromhaline circulations will have interesting effects. You were talking about Japanese migration the USA via the Kuroshio (or was it another) current.

But if the ocean currents shut down that potential route does to.

I've never heard anyone mention what could happen to the trade winds or roaring forties. Their going to be fairly important for Australia's future if they stay around.

The strategic situation is completely different this time round, so the outcome should be quite different.

William Church said...

One of my favorite commentators has a saying about these types of situations: "It isn't the end of the world, it's just the end of you."

A lot of the economic apocalypse embrace by many is, at least in my view, a reflection of the very real fear many have about their own insecurity. Many with very good reason. The middle class has been sacrificed at the alter of the reserve currency and globalization. Folks can't help but notice when one by one their neighbors and friends get tossed off the middle class wagon.

But the tools to understand what has happened aren't available to many of them. The entire concept of financialization and what that means to productive industry has not and won't be explained to them. So you get liberals and conservatives pointing at the same mess, misidentifying it, and then deriding the other side for creating it.

A complete reset of the economy would do the trick but we missed the opportunity to do so 5 years ago. The course has been set.

I would disagree on one point though. Those losses which needed to be cleared from the economy are, at least in large part, now on the books at the central bank and the GSEs (which were used as fall guys to siphon up toxic MBS). The central bank is not going to put them out on the market they are going to sit on them and digest the losses for the banking system over the next 20 to 30 years. F&F are going to try and do the same, taking their losses and bailouts in piecemeal fashion over a long time horizon.

The taxpayer will be slowly drained. There will be no sudden collapse that wipes out the banking system. The biggest danger is a rejection of US debt and currency on the global market. That would be catastrophic perhaps, but the dollar is being decommissioned as we speak. It may take decades to play out as well.


Twilight said...

We seem to have a tendency to personalize everything, to map all the scenarios we discuss onto our own lives or the phase of life we're in now. This creates several distortions, one of which is to compress the time scale in which we imagine these events will play out. We also seem to be drawn to those scenarios that seem like they can play out in that timespan. We imagine these things happening to us and how we will react, I suppose because it makes us feel insignificant to think we won't get to see how it works out.

This distortion masks how fast things really are changing. If you went back in time even a dozen years and showed people the headlines of today they would be dumbfounded.

It is certainly true that dramatic and traumatic events happen to individuals, so some (many) will be caught up in major disruptions and to them it may feel like Armageddon at the time, but there are others who are not and are struggling mightily to persevere. So things change fast but not everything changes in an instant, or in one lifetime.

One of the other distortions is to superimpose the arc of our own lives onto the events of the world outside. To old men the world seems to be falling apart at a rapid pace, while to young men nothing seems to happen fast enough and everything should be possible. It is really hard to imagine what life would feel like living through history's major changes, but as you have pointed out before many never knew that they were – they were too busy living their lives. Which is probably good advice.

rabtter said...

Do you remember a guy, Loren Soman, who last August who was obsessed with discrediting your Catabolic Collapse theory? As of then (last August) he was claiming we were weeks or months away from catastrophic collapse. He had a blog in which it seem he mostly wanted to embarrass you. I watched it for a while, it went off topic after only a couple of posts, there's been nothing new since last October.

Maybe you can invite your critics to join his blog.

onething said...

Why, for pure concentration of common sense this post rivals the concentration of energy contained in a barrel of oil.

Merle Langlois said...

Thank you for the post JMG. Your habit of dealing with what are essentially plot hijacking trolls on your blog with a counter-post is appreciated. That being said, the amount of whiners you let on here really irritates me. The internet people, the fusion people, the NTE people, all of them drive me nuts. I know it goes a way to prove your points when you do a whole post on some of the popular but off topic nonsense but the delay between when the single issue people start hijacking your blog and when you finally deal with their single issue is hard to bear.

Nestorian said...

Two points (in two separate posts):

1) At both the ASPO-USA conference in November 2010 and at the recent Age of Limits conference, I tried to point out that those in the Peak Oil scene who assert there is not enough burnable carbon for even the best-case IPCC scenarios to come about have overlooked the existence of a huge abundance of very low-grade carbon reserves (e.g.: "Oil shale" deposits in places as diverse as Latvia and the Rocky Mountains, to say nothing of vast swathes of burnable forests - that will be burned in desperation as the world at large increasingly comes to resemble Haiti in this and other regards). It is reasonable to expect these to be wantonly burned in coming decades as the energy situation becomes increasingly desperate - even if the energy pay-off in the end barely justifies the trouble.

In neither forum (ASPO or Age of Limits) was my point in this regard adequately addressed. I therefore conclude that the Peak Oil community has yet to think through the implications of the abundance of potentially burnable very-low-grade carbon reserves in any kind of considered way.

Nestorian said...

As to my second point, I reiterate once more my position that US military preeminence over Russia and China is currently so vast that there are in fact substantial grounds to argue that the US will emerge from the second wave of world civilizational crises around 2070 or so - to which JMG refers - with firm control over the bulk of the world's remaining energy reserves and other critical resources. What's more, these will still be sufficiently substantial at that time to permit the US to exercise world domination for another generation or so after that.

If you doubt this is true, just consider that world domination by a single power was an entirely realistic possibility at the time of World War I in the early 20th century, based on resource consumption levels that are a small fraction (just a few percent) of what they are now. It will thus likely be more than a century before energy resources are constrained to the point that the world domination project is no longer viable due to resource limits. That puts us into the early 22nd century – more than a generation after the conclusion of the second wave of crises of world industrial civilization posited (very plausibly, in my view) by JMG.

All that is required for the scenario entailing continued US global hegemony in 2070 to come to pass is for US elites to exercise the raw destructive power they wield with sufficient ruthlessness in coming decades. Obliterate North Korea in a sufficiently wanton way, for example, and even Russia and China would be filled with the fear of God.

For it continues to remain very much open to question whether they are in a position to stalemate the US on the basis of the Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) scenario that prevailed during most of the 20th century standoff between the US and the old Soviet Union. If they were, then I doubt the US would be encircling those powers on every side and in every other part of the world as aggressively as in fact they are.

To cite just one example where the conventional wisdom concerning increasing parity among world military powers seems badly off, the ongoing revelations associated with the Snowden affair strongly suggest that the US is far and away ahead of everyone else in the area of cyberwarfare, in both a quantitative and the relevantly qualitative senses. It therefore becomes increasingly implausible to suggest that cyberwarfare will serve as an equalizing arena for today’s major world powers, leading in the long run to effective military parity. Snowden’s revelations imply, to the contrary, that the US has quietly been acting to make itself unsurpassable in the area of cyberwarfare for quite a long time, and with a great deal of success.

What’s more, the belligerent tone currently being adopted by the US government against Russia and China in connection with the Snowden affair suggest that US elites are increasingly moving in the direction of thinking along the wantonly aggressive lines I am suggesting. They would not, of course, blow North Korea to smithereens in an awe-inspiring demonstration of their destructive power - and their wantonly reckless willingness to use it - in order to secure custody over Snowden. However, they will prove very much willing to engage in such chilling acts of destructiveness when the stakes are sufficiently high in coming years and decades.

laughingbirdfarm said...

"The negative feedback here is provided by the simple facts that people are willing to do almost anything to put food on the table, governments are willing to do even more to stay in power, and in hundreds of previous crises, their actions have proven more than sufficient to stop the positive feedback loops of economic crisis in their tracks, and stabilize the situation at some level."

Thank you. When the rubble stops bouncing after the next crisis, we might find ourselves living in a state of martial law, much poorer, and without the internet or other things we take for granted, but it's not going to be the next Dark Age (yet). So much information and cultural heritage is in danger of being lost precisely because it will be a long, slow grind instead of a rapid descent.

I'm starting to think more and more that people should be required to pass a basic course in thermodynamics before graduating high school. I think it would put a stop to a lot of this nonsense.

con-science said...

One of the great examples of negative feedback is the relationship between food availability and population growth. For any species this means it can never grow beyond the carrying capacity of its ecosystem. With the invention of totalitarian agriculture (a term coined by Daniel Quinn to describe the relentless conversion of all life forms to production of human food) our ecosystem is subject to positive feedback - each increase of food production is followed by increase of population which is then followed by another increase of food production and so forth. DQ calls this the food race. This practice has been "successfully" implemented for 10 000 years, but it is doomed to end with ecological collapse, resulting in the planet becoming uninhabitable for large mammals. Do you think that is a real possibility?

Rita Narayanan said...


does the life of the Amish community bear any resemblance to your envisaged community life(in the US), because some people believe even that would be a luxury.

Thanks for all your posts!

GHung said...

Having spent more time than I probably should in the 'peak oil blogosphere', I haven't seen much unchallenged insistence (at least, on the more reasonable sites) that a total, swift collapse of humanity is virtually certain. While there are always those who posit more extreme scenarios, the consensus seems to be generally within the same range of possibilities that you propose. I don't equate the processes of what are often more open forums 'working the problem' as an endorsement of a particular outcome. Most sites have their own variations on 'negative feedback', including yours; their own cast of characters, so to speak. Some sites allow for a broader range of discussion than others. I think this is useful.

I often take a position somewhat beyond my base of beliefs simply to stir the pot, see what comes up (as I'm sure you've noticed). I do this when I cook as well, not always successfully, but, in time, I tend to gain more than I lose. I take neither my cooking nor my views about the future too seriously. I'll never make a living doing either.

I haven't declared NTE as an impossibility, though it is quite low on my list of probabilities. What is clear is that humans are able to adapt to a wide range of conditions, and I don't see much point in dwelling on Nature's final solutions. Beyond that, the question of how long nature will tolerate humans repeating the same mistakes, again and again, is a valid one, IMO.

John Michael Greer said...

GuRan, thank you.

Avery, that may be one source of negative feedback, sure; another is that the financial industry is much less relevant to everyday life than it thinks, and could be gutted, stuffed and mounted in some quasi-nationalized form with relative ease.

Godozo, good. The rust belt has been deep in catabolic collapse since 1974 or so. That's one of the reasons why I expect that region to be a major source of new initiatives in the decades to come -- in Detroit, Gary, Hammond et al., the future is now.

PhysicsDoc, thanks for the correction. Of course you're right; I should have said unrestricted positive feedback.

Grebulocities, smack on target. We replaced a colonial empire over the Third World with a colonial empire over the prehistoric past.

DeAnander, exactly. A couple of extra funerals a year in everybody's circle of friends, and human population is cut in half in a century or so.

Bobkó, has Japan descended into the dark ages as a result of Fukushima? Of course not. Even granting a worst case scenario where no effort at all is made to stash wastes in an out-of-the-way area, where the inevitable leaks will only be a local or regional problem, you've got a bunch of local or regional problems, and dead zones that contract over time to the immediate vicinity of the dead nukes. That's bad, but -- ahem -- it's not the end of the world. As for nuclear war, I've already discussed that in an earlier post here.

Bill, duly noted and thanks for the correction.

Yupped, I expect there to be some semblance of a functioning stock market well past the end of my life. Not that I'd put a penny there, mind you!

Ian, the oil (and other fossil fuel) companies' estimates are exactly the problem. What Aleklett and others are claiming is that those estimates have been massively inflated to boost stock prices, and that much of what's on the book as "reserves" either doesn't exist or will never be economically viable to extract. So far the evidence seems to favor the peak oil end of the debate, but for obvious reasons, climate change activists haven't been too interested in that.

John Michael Greer said...

Raven, 1789 turned out to be the beginning of the struggle between Britain and France to see which nation would dominate the European global empire kickstarted by the Spanish and Portuguese. 1914 was the beginning of the end of that global empire. Not every crisis is a crisis of decline.

Liquid, funny. Thank you.

SMJ, we'll see. My guess is that it's going to be ugly.

Russell, if I were to rewrite the paper I'd change a lot of things. As I said, that's the original paper as first put into circulation.

Andy, that's what I've called "apocalypse machismo" -- the competition to see who can imagine the ghastliest future. It's a real force in online doomer culture.

Josh, thank you! VenSim is right over my head, but I'm delighted to see my theory being subjected to some quantitative modeling.

Bill, yes, I considered the technical term, but decided to write my post in English instead. ;-)As for anabolism and catabolism, you're doubtless right; if I ever do a series of posts expanding the catabolic collapse paper -- and I may do that one of these days -- that would be a good subject for a post.

Andy, Almaty in the mid-1990s, Gary, Indiana today -- yes, pretty much, that's catabolic collapse as it appears on the ground. I like to encourage people in the sudden-crash end of things to read good accounts of what life was like in post-Soviet central Asia, or eastern Europe between 1914 and 1945, say, as a corrective to the facile assumptions of the overprivileged.

Leo, that's a good point, about which I know nothing -- I don't know if anybody's even modeled what would happen to the trade winds in a thermohaline-shutdown situation.

Will, well, we'll see. My take is that current economic arrangements are fairly brittle, and a black-swan event could push it over into crisis pretty easily.

Twilight, exactly! That's one of the reasons I keep on pointing out that this is what collapse looks like -- we're in it right now, and it's proceeding at the normal pace.

Rabtter, yes, and I was disappointed that he didn't keep up his crusade. I've had a number of people over the years go into a Donald Duck frenzy about me or my ideas -- longtime readers will likely recall Jason Godesky, the neoprimitivist guy who used to try to post 20-screen rants on the comment page here, and after he got banned, set up an "Archdruid Watch" web page where he could post his attempted rebuttals to each of my weekly posts. It's all been excellent publicity for me, not least because Godesky, Soman, and several others I can think of all had a genius for making enemies and irritating people. An astrologer friend of mine tells me that I'm destined to receive good fortune through my enemies...;-)

Moshe Braner said...

Hi JMG. Regarding: "the ability to offer accurate predictions about an otherwise baffling future is one of the few things that gives the peak oil movement any claim on the attention of the rest of the world."

- Given your avoidance of short-term predictions, I was rather surprised two weeks back that you wrote (in a comment, not the main article) a prediction of fairly major events, with a rather specific time horizon specified:

"... it's pretty clear that the groundwork is being laid for a "color revolution" here in the US, paid for by foreign money, to embarrass, cripple, and if possible overthrow the current US governmental system. Our government is aware of that, and is preparing to oppose such a revolution with force, in exactly the same way that Assad is doing in Syria. That's my take, at least, and I'd be amazed to see this decade end before that particular balloon goes up."

I am very curious as to why you feel so confident in this prediction, and am also baffled by the suggestion that "foreign money" is acting here in the US in this manner. Who? How?

Ursachi Alexandru said...

Here in Romania the most recent collapse was, obviously, the end of communism. It got pretty rough in the 90s (pretty much the same economic hardships since the 80s, when Ceauşescu's regime imposed austerity in order to pay for the country's external debt) as the transition towards market economy was under way. I grew up in the 90s, and some things are better now but others are worse.

I could only have dreamed of something like today's internet back then. Me and my parents lived in a two-roomed flat, we had a black and white TV set, no car (we never ever owned one) and no telephone either. Not even talking about owning a washing machine, microwave oven, or a computer. It was a modest but more than bearable life.

Stuff began changing in 1994-1995, when we got cable television. I owe the fact that I can speak fluent English mostly to watching Cartoon Network in my childhood, since back then it wasn't translated and I also had English class at school. We still had the black and white TV for a couple more years.

Today I am one of many people in this country who has more than one family member working and living in Western Europe, and I am considering following that path myself. My country has been doing its best to copy the West, for the better and worse. As far as human rights and political freedom are concerned, we're better off now because of conditions imposed by the West for joining their political, economical and military blocs. But also, more and more cars are filling the streets (and sidewalks, for that matter - we're not very good at parking spaces), more and more big and ugly suburban-type neighborhoods are popping up around the periphery of urban areas, and our culture is being drenched in a ugly mix of Balkan bling-bling gypsy music and a Western-copied decadent pop culture. There are a few creative and talented exceptions, but mostly it's like that. Also, huge churches are being built all aver the place.

I'm not saying that we lost some past glory. We were always a peripheral people, subject to someone else's imperial ambitions in the region. The very creation of Romania in the 19th century is owed to French political support. Which is why our attempts to follow the West go way back. And why during communism, Romania was not as obedient as Moscow would have liked it to be. But I notice that some things that you people in the West are trying to learn, we've always done and considered normal. Like preserving food in pickle jars. Or buying food from local markets, at least fruits and vegetables. And if you owned a house, having your own garden was pretty much an obvious choice, even in the city, and poultry or farm animals as well. Near the block of flats where I used to live there was a house, and people there raised pigs. It wasn't at all unusual to see cows and horses grazing the grass near the tramway lines, but that's another story. :D (that sort of thing still happens once in a while)

In this new suburban sprawl here you don't see that gardening stuff. Of course I buy stuff from big supermarkets myself, because some are cheap. But I can't help noticing that a lot of things are being built and an ever increasing rate, while our population is in a serious decline and our culture is being turned into this bland nothingness.

I'll end this long comment with a song which you may like. It's about or natural heritage. :)

Josh said...

Could you discuss more about the encroachment of shrubs and trees on grasslands? Alan Savory gave a TED talk that claims that grasslands can draw down more CO2 than forestlands, and that intensively managed cattle grazing can enhance this process. I'd like to hear what you think about those prospects.

fromorctohuman said...


"If only people were different..."

Well, they aren't. What's more I don't think it is necessary to desire that they be. In fact, I think it may be counterproductive.

For whatever reason, I have come to realize that *I* am different than most. That is, my values are not shared by the many.

This has been a great source of anxiety for me as I pondered whether something was wrong with "me or them." What I have come to realize, is there is nothing "wrong" or "right" with either.

At a base level, we are who we are simply because of wiring (this does not preclude choice, however, as I'll get to later on).

If you think about it, breeds of dogs have different personality traits, for example, one breed being very aggressive, another being very docile.

It stands to reason that many of the personality traits we consider to be part of us by “choice” are no more chosen than they are by a breed of dog. Each of us falls on a continuum between competing traits, some of which are:

Risk phobic – Risk philic
Compassion – aloofness
Social – Isolantionary
Controlling – easy going
Docile – Aggressive
Conformist – Non-conformist

That these traits are “wired” into us, however, does not mean that a fatalistic attitude should be adopted - that is it doesn't matter what I do, things are as they are. In fact, the opposite is the case!

Discover who you are, and be it with Gusto! This is a choice of great importance. Also, in this process, you will have input, and choices must be made between varying traits as they come into conflict, forcing you to place higher value on some rather than others.

Why is that relevant here?

I think that it is safe to say that the majority of the people reading this blog are outsiders. As outsiders, it is a considerable challenge to learn who you are and to be comfortable with it as there will be very little positive feedback from society.

For myself, I have accepted that I have been born into the wrong time if my desire is to live in a society that shares and rewards my values. If JMG is right, that time is coming sometime in the future, but I will be long dead before it does!

Be that as it may, I must be who I am, because it is me. Whether or not it is materially relevant is beyond the scope of what I can choose.

Here’s the rub. Learning who you are and being true to it is valuable in and of itself. To put it plainly, there may be no practical benefit to choosing to be true. The world may or may not be a better place as a result! At least in a material sense (you could even lose your life, while your enemies laugh the whole while).

The world will certainly be a better place for at least one person, however. And that is a great and profound thing.

(Warning, I’m about to say what appears to be the opposite of what I’ve said so far.)

There is a huge paradox, however, and that is that being true to who you are, does have the potential to *change* those around you, making them (inspiring them) to be more like you - re-wiring them, so to speak. This is also a great and profound thing.

The effect of changing others is largely local though, and for any who desire to change the world on a grand scale (besides failing because such a desire is false to the self) will fail unless they have been blessed with a heroic spirit (which spirits come very seldom, and not by their owners choosing!).

Anyway, being “true” for the sake of changing others is to be false, so it is impossible to affect others by desiring to do so! This is how you know whether you are on the path to being true to yourself: you stop desiring others to be other than they are. They can no more be different than they are than you can, though both can pretend to be.

Pretending prevents the honest work that actually matters.

Again, FWIW.


Richard Larson said...

I'm waiting for negative feedback loops in a great many areas to take effect!

This information helps my disposition.

Marcello said...

"If you doubt this is true, just consider that world domination by a single power was an entirely realistic possibility at the time of World War I in the early 20th century, based on resource consumption levels that are a small fraction (just a few percent) of what they are now."

Several countries tried to attain hegemony in Europe in the nation states era, always with bad results for themselves. There are good reason for such pattern.

"Obliterate North Korea in a sufficiently wanton way, for example, and even Russia and China would be filled with the fear of God."

That's a neocon fantasy. The US pretty much obliterated all that there was to obliterate in North Korea in 1950-1953, with about 650,000 tons on bombs and napalm dropped on pretty much everything from cities to villages and any bit of infrastructure that could be of use to the CPV or the KPA. While the russians and the chinese did take note they did not exactly rush to hide under their beds...

"For it continues to remain very much open to question whether they are in a position to stalemate the US on the basis of the Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) scenario that prevailed during most of the 20th century standoff between the US and the old Soviet Union. If they were, then I doubt the US would be encircling those powers on every side and in every other part of the world as aggressively as in fact they are."

I suggest you to read a good history of the Cold War. First of all the USA has always encircled Russia and China. Western Europe, Japan, Turkey, Iran, South Korea etc were bases or potential bases for US bombers and missiles. If anything the 50's and early 60's were the worst period as the soviets had not yet deployed reliable and numerous intercontinental weapons, while the USA had both them and many more shorter range ones that could be used from the afore mentioned forward bases. In fact I suspect that the USA might have well managed to incinerate the USSR losing maybe a couple of cities or so in exchange in that period. Interestingly however no american president was really keen to find it out for real, wonder why...

Of course the USA has left Iraq and guess who is the biggest player in the iraqi oil sector? (hint: it is not the USA). It is going to leave Afghanistan and in order to do so it is willing to talk to the same talibans it kicked a decade ago.
It has managed some penetrations in Asia in the former soviet sphere and can push back the chinese a bit in Africa. But as a certain georgian leader found out a few years ago the US cannot just snap its fingers and make the russians disappear...

Tyler August said...

I have to admit I must have missed something in your theory of collapse. If The West started its breakdown in 1914, then it hasn't much to do with Energy, does it? Per capita consumption has risen tremendously since then, in Europe and elsewhere. For that matter, the lot of the common man in Western Europe seems like has it improved dramatically in some ways. Europe herself may have lost relative position on the international front her self-inflicted wounds in the World Wars, but she recovered marvelously on the domestic front.

I suppose I need to re-read your essay, as I have a hard time understanding how an ostensibly growing society undergoes catabolis.

Does all this mean that the collapse is uninterpretable even if some boffin does come up with a fairy-dust fusion reactor?

John Michael Greer said...

Onething, thank you!

Merle, I think it's important to address common misunderstandings directly, and the subject of the current series of posts seems to attract those! Still, duly noted, and we'll be back to the core theme of this series in the coming week.

Nestorian, first, you need to look at the economics of burning really low-grade carbon. If the cost of extraction is higher than the profit to be made by burning it, taking into account the whole system costs involved, it won't be extracted and burnt -- and that works whether costs are counted in dollars, joules, or what have you. Furthermore, as Gail Tverberg has been pointing out for a while now, if your total net energy gain isn't enough to maintain today's sprawling energy infrastructure, that in itself puts a hard lid on how much can be burnt.

As for your second point, I spent much of last year explaining why the US is far weaker and more brittle than it looks, and its chances of getting through the next few decades with its empire intact are minimal at best. As I recall, you disagreed with me then, too. Now of course you have every right to do so, but I've seen no reason so far to change my view that the US today is in the same position as Britain exactly a century ago, and is facing the same fate -- except that we don't have a friendly power ready to bail us out and take over our empire, as they did. The current toothless bluster of the US government over the Snowden case is hardly evidence of any great national strength!

Laughing, no argument there. A complete unwillingness to deal with the laws of thermodynamics is responsible for a lot of folly these days.

Con-science, no, it's a classic example of the kind of too-linear thinking that pervades modern culture. Quinn's taken a complex historical and ecological reality, flattened it out into a simplistic conflict between Good and Evil, and sent his wind-up Evil doll lurching along a linear course toward total destruction. Negative feedback in this case is taking the form of bush encroachment, rapidly evolving pesticide and herbicide resistance, climate instability, and all the other factors that are making agribusiness increasingly brittle and vulnerable to breakdown.

Rita, thank you. Amish life, by the standards of most of the world, is pretty luxurious; we'd be very fortunate if that's the kind of lifestyle Americans can have at the bottom of the curve.

Ghung, well, as I've been saying all along, it's certain that humanity will eventually go extinct, and it's always possible that something will do us in sooner rather than later. My quarrel is with those who insist that such an outcome is inevitable -- and use the rhetorical gimmicks outlined in this post to do it.

Moshe, oh, I'm sure you can think of a country that has a lot of spare US dollars, no love for the US, and ambitions to replace the US as the next global hegemon. I don't claim to be able to prove that, of course, but if you compare what's going on in the US to the run-up to color revolutions elsewhere -- the systematic delegitimization of the government among all major citizen blocs via social media and the internet generally, for example -- it does look remarkably similar.

Gaianne said...


It is unclear whether you are delighted or alarmed by the seeming omnipotence of American power, but in any case your belief in that omnipotence is unwarranted. To take your smallest point, the US can no longer afford to “[o]bliterate North Korea in a sufficiently wanton way,” because North Korea is now a nuclear power, and the blow-back on key Asian allies could not be sustained—by the US! As for Russia and China, both have been aware for years that the US is crazed, greedy and ruthless, but what of it? That is just everyday politics, and has not prevented either country from achieving strategic victories. One worth mentioning is the Russian defeat of the US in the Georgian War of August 2008. The Russians used main force to repulse Georgian occupation of South Ossetia, and the US found itself both unable (insufficient forces in-theater) and unwilling (the propaganda war was lost and escalation too risky) to support the Georgians. That defeat in turn put an end to NATO expansion.

Despite seeming omnipotence, the US has been losing its recent wars. Iraqi oil production is largely back on line, but the oil flows east, to China, not west to the US, nor do the American oil companies get a cut of the profits. The US is withdrawing troops from Afghanistan by airlift, (spiking and) abandoning its military equipment—which it lacks the means to extract and save! Again, if the US did indeed induce the Taliban to reverse its position on opium (originally they were against it) the opium money now flowing is not flowing to the US. The Syrian revolution seems over almost before it started and the idea of backing the insurgents (actually foreign mercenaries) with a no-fly zone seems dead-on-arrival in the face of a flat Russian determination to back the Syrian government with effective anti-aircraft weaponry. Again, the US does not have the forces in-theater to do what would need to be done.

The US tantrum over Snowden is a sign of incompetence and weakness, not omnipotence. Everything Snowden has said in public has been known to the Russian and Chinese governments—not to mention countless bloggers—for years. It was only the American public in particular and the larger world community in general that was unaware of what the NSA was doing. This is a huge propaganda defeat, and now that the cat is out of the bag the US wants revenge: They want to catch Snowden and torture him. But this in turn just exacerbates the bad propaganda, and calls more attention to the NSA's misbehavior.

It is one thing to wield terrifying power. It is quite another to wield it in a way that achieves goals and objectives. The US wields its power ineffectively and thus actively accelerates its decline.


Yupped said...

I'm interested in why you wouldn't put a penny in the stock market - you've mentioned that a couple of times over the years. Is it because you see it in short-term risk of a crash, or just don't want to be engaged with such a circus? Note - I'm not looking for investment advice. I keep what savings I have in old fashioned savings accounts (which in today's ZIRP world may just as well be a sturdy box under the rhubarb).

John Michael Greer said...

Ursachi, it's the peripheral societies that are likely to have the practical knowledge to maintain a decent standard of living as the global economy comes apart. I hope you and others in Romania are keeping useful habits like preserving food!

Josh, sure, if you happen to have the right kind of grasslands and are managing the cattle Savory's way, grasslands can absorb more CO2 than established forests. That's not how most global grasslands are managed, of course -- short term profit takes precedence -- and trees and shrubs colonizing new ground take up a lot more CO2 during the colonization process.

Orc, good. There are many ways to start from the level of the individual, and that's certainly one of them.

Richard, just remember that they may be as rough as the disturbances that trigger them.

Tyler, depletion of fossil fuels is simply the specific form of overshoot and collapse that's affecting us right now, in the runup to the approaching crisis. In 1914 it was depletion of the "wealth pump" of empire; in 2126 or whenever it'll be something else again. The process is the same, whatever the resource that's being drawn down.

zedinhisbigflyinghead said...

is there any environmental issue we can’t reduce to sentimentality about cute animals?

You obviously need some kind of charismatic megafauna as a symbol as well.
Hmm ... something oil-related ...


Also discovered is a nearly intact mammoth skeleton, nicknamed Zed...

Well this one gets my vote at least.

blue sun said...

I never fail to be impressed by the breadth of your knowledge. Your global thinking abilities are unparalleled. In fact, there was a paragraph there when you started going off about finance and I wondered, did somebody else write this week's post? But then you threw in a "bids fair" and I breathed a sigh of relief-- I knew it was you. (I'm teasing that you're the only author I know who uses the phrase. Shows how little I read.)

I recently finished reading the Tao Te Ching. I guess it went way over my head. I really have no idea why you recommended it as a book on systems thinking. I saw it totally as a mystical/ spiritual book (maybe it was the translation I had, R.B. Blakney).

As for this week's topic of negative feedback, maybe a couple months ago Kunstler had a podcast interview with Orlov. In it, when describing how Russia is today, Orlov more or less said everything's great now (I'm paraphrasing). He seemed to be contradicting his entire point of the Soviet Union's collapse. I wanted to ask him, "Well, did they collapse, or didn't they? I don't get it." Maybe collapse doesn't mean apocalypse.

I think most folks (myself included) get stuck in binary thinking, even when we're aware it's happening. We can follow an upward trend line or a downward trend line, but why is it so hard to combine them? The stairstep curve shouldn't be that hard to understand. I think it may have something to do with human expectations and perception, but I'll have to think about that some more.

Moshe Braner said...

"the systematic delegitimization of the government among all major citizen blocs via social media and the internet generally..."

The fact that it is happening "among all major blocs" can perhaps be interpreted as the effect of outside meddling. But it can also be a sign that the government really is ineffective (gridlock in Congress being one major issue). And that the citizens are noticing, at least subconsciously, that things are heading downhill, and they blame it (rightly) on the leadership, or lack thereof. Foreign money may be flowing to a few paid internet trolls, but that requires very little money, thus could come from much more numerous minor players. And it has a significant effect only if it hits a chord with the audience, i.e., it can only amplify existing social currents.

Helix said...

@Josh Floyd -- I just read JMGs original Catabolic Collapse treatise. A very interesting read.

One thing I notice in this model is lack of a pathway from the waste stream to the resource stock. That is, recycling is not explicitly represented. Implicitly, it seems to be incorporated into the rate at which capital stock becomes waste, or perhaps as a component of the resource replenishment rate. I'm not sure this accurately models the recycling or "scavenging" process, because it provides no means by which the resource replenishment rate can be affected by the existing capital stock or the cost of maintaining it.

I would think that it is exactly this process that is enhanced during a depletion crisis. When resources are plentiful, why recycle? But when resources become scarce or economically unviable, scavenging becomes commonplace. Witness the cannibalization of building stone to create new and simpler structures during and after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. Should we view the recycled stone a resource or as an addition to the existing capital stock at the cost of some existing capital stock?

If it is treated as a resource, one can see how a depletion crisis could cause a stage-like collapse. The recycling of the stone both reduces the existing capital stock and increases the resource stock, leading to an equilibrium state at a lower level of capital stock. At some stage -- as dictated by the law of diminishing returns -- this recycling process becomes uneconomic. A new depletion crisis then ensues: the society must adjust to yet another and lower level of resource availability (the scavenging component has dried up) and capital maintenance cost (the second law of thermodynamics suggests a lower capital stock during a catabolic process). A new round of scavenging then becomes feasible. The cycle repeats until scavenging cannot significantly affect the rate of resource regeneration. The depletion crisis becomes, in effect, a maintenance crisis, possibly at a severe depletion level.

As a second refinement, I would think that lumping in human labor with other forms of capital is problematic. Humans differ from other forms of capital in that motivation is an extremely important factor in the value of that particular capital resource, whereas it is non-existent in, say, a machine that automates some process. Motivation is highly dependent on the prospect of some reasonable share of the capital being produced accruing to the human whose labor is involved in producing it. The "requisite share" is, in turn, affected by the degree to which that share satisfies the human's basic needs and then wants. There is a feedback loop in there which might be a useful enhancement to the model.

Just some food for thought...

Thanks JMG for yet another thought-provoking article, and to JF for taking an initial stab at modeling these processes.

Ian O said...

JMG: the stocks of oil may be ephemeral, but the coal and tar sand reserves will be more than enough to get us into trouble.
I suspect that while the Atlantic thermohaline flow may shudder to a halt if too much fresh water leaks off Greenland, there may not be a repeat of the Younger Dryas or if there is it will be largely confined to Europe which depends on warm air off the Gulf Stream for its climate. The Younger Dryas was not accompanied by skyrocketing heat trapping gases in the atmosphere.
What will be a worry is what will happen to all the energy the oceans currently transport from the tropical Pacific and Atlantic to the Arctic region? It will have to go somewhere. If the water doesn't cool, sink and return in submarine currents back ultimately to the Northern Pacific, it will try to carry on into the Arctic ocean proper. Sheesh, I wouldn't like to try modelling the consequences of too much fresh water leaving Greenland.....8-(

Ursachi Alexandru said...

JMG, I think the half of our population which lives in rural areas is up for the job. I'm from the city, but food preservation is something common here as well. Whether I'll stay here or emigrate, I want to learn more useful skills myself.

mallow said...

A thermohaline circulation shut down would be very bad news for Northern and Western Europe right? Where would be a better place to be if that happens?

David Korowicz said...

Firstly may I say how I enjoy and appreciate your writing, in particular your historical insight.

However, as somebody who has written about ‘fast collapse’, one feels a certain disorientation as the concept is shoe-horned into your highly rigid utopia-apocalyptic meta-narrative. That apocalyptic and utopian thinking are a part (but just a part) of human culture, in particular Judeo-Christian traditions is without doubt, but fast collapse as a dynamical process could be just that, a dynamical process dependent on present conditions of dependency.

I have elsewhere tried to define collapse of our complex civilisation as a ‘relatively’ sudden collapse in societal complexity as might be measured by exergy use/ mass of complex society- or more directly, a major drop in the ability of civilisation to usefully use energy (and other resources). Further, that such a drop would force a radical re-structuring of how needs and wants were met. It does not mean ‘hero-to-zero’ in one foul swoop! It does not mean certain doom for all and sundry. Our civilisation could experience global collapse, or multiple collapse phases; and/or forced localisation and localised collapse. Properly defined, fast collapse is not incompatible with catabolic collapse.

But why ‘fast’ collapse, what is ‘relatively”? The Western Roman empire, the Maya, or the Angkor declined over generations. The central issue for the rate of a collapse episode is, I would argue, the levels of complex interdependency, the speed of processes (from supply-chains to financial flows), the de-localisation of those welfare supporting functions, and the ‘networked’ structure of contemporary dependency. Each of us (in the developed world) rely for our welfare upon a vast network of high speed interdependent conditions smeared over the globe.

When Aleric sacked Rome, life at that moment continued as before in the far flung regions of what remained of the Roman empire, where dependent conditions remained largely localised and signaling moved at a horse’s pace. But when the Icelandic volcano spewed its ash cloud or the tsunami in Japan crippled local production, supply-chain shocks were felt around the world within days. The fuel blockades in the UK (2000) indicated how interdependency could rapidly cause wider systemic failure. And as for global financial shocks, they live in seconds. In the broadest sense, the complexity of our globalised economy is orders of magnitude greater than past civilisations prior to collapse- and this means something. This does not mean history is not a guide, but it is not a rule.

And what of negative feedback? Our complex globalised economy has been stunningly resilient by just such processes. One of it’s characteristic features has been its ability to displace risk in time and space. Civilisations of the past where largely localised and hierarchical that controlled to a significant degree the conditions of their own dependency. Our contemporary globalised economy is characterized by multiple networks of dispersed, globalised and interdependent control. The interest of those who wish to protect themselves -national governments, monetary authorities, banks, national populations do not control the sphere of their dependencies, they do not even understand them, nor could they. They may act to protect themselves, and by doing so further de-stabilize their surrounding networks, feeding back into their own reduced welfare supporting function. Here I think lies another myth, the illusion of control.

To dismiss the idea of fast collapse as mere ravings of fantasists, deluded souls beating to the drum of some archaic myth divorced from contemporary reality is an unfair characterization of those of us, who like you, are trying to understand the nature of our predicament.

Wishing you well,
David Korowicz

Helix said...


Although I agree with what you say, there is another perspective which views the events you describe in a very different light. Namely, that the objectives underlying the attacks of Afghanistan and Iraq are at variance with those stated and widely believed by the public.

It could be the case that the US does not attack North Korea not because it could not obliterate that country at will but because it is useful to have an external foe in the wings to justify the extraordinary expense of the DoD, NSA, DHS, and all of the other entities involved in the National Security industry. Ditto for the unending wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The intention was never to "win" the wars. The objective was to fight them. War is big, big business, and a sure way to justify the financial rape of US citizens under the guise of "National Defense". Just think of it! One doesn't even have to produce a product or service that people will willingly pay for! One only has to influence a very small number key politicians and they'll extract the money from the population for you! What could be better?

We then abandon the equipment in Afghanistan because it's served its purpose -- to make money for the manufacturer. We abandon it there because bringing it home would deny the next manufacturer its cut when the next war must be fought.

Ditto Snowden. Quite frankly, the NSA/DHS/DoD axis could care less if the American people know about their activities. There's nothing we can do about it anyway. But there's no way they're going to let a "crisis" like this go to waste. Nope, it is clear from the Snowden incident that enemies lurk everywhere and we must redouble our efforts -- and budgets -- to "protect ourselves" from them. Trust me when I say this: if they wanted Snowden, he would have "committed suicide" by now.

There is a hierarchy of interests being served by the current system. Most people understand that the rank-and-file as at the bottom of this pyramid. What most people don't understand is that the Federal Government is not at the top of the pyramid. It is the next level up from the rank-and-file. Don't agree? Then consider that the Federal Reserve lends money to the US Government, making the Federal Government subservient to it (and its member banks) in this respect. Ditto multinational corporations, who have essentially dictated US trade policy to the obvious detriment of its citizens. How can this be?

There are, of course, higher layers to this pyramid: the IMF, the World Bank, the Bank of Internal Settlements. And those who hold controlling interest in such institutions. Ever wonder why the BIS can launder money for drug cartels and the IMF can rape the finances of nations (and then monopolize their capital and resources) with impunity? What does this imply about the positions of the various players in the pyramid?

So when we see that Iraqi oil is flowing east to China rather than west to the US, what does that tell us? That China is the rising power? This misses the point. The real power lies not in nations but in the Corporate and Financial players who control them. Oil flowing east to China only indicates that it is in the financial interest of these players that it flows that way: more money, power, and control accrue to them under this regime than if the oil goes to the US or to the EU.

The US government omnipotent? Think again. The US government is really just a convenient tool. It is either omnipotent or impotent as the occasion requires.

Ric Steinberger said...

JMG (and others) - I've been a follower of this blog for quite a while and am fairly well read in the works of Heinberg, Klare, Martinson, McKibben, Rubin, Tverberg, and many other "real world" energy, environmental and economic writers.

Here's the question: I'm in my early 60s and my kids are 28 and 26, the older one about to give birth. What can I tell them about the likely future, and how to prepare for it? And how do I do that? I can't just say, "read these books and blogs". They're young and full of youthful enthusiasm. I don't want to scare the crap out of them, or have them think that I'm crazy. But I do want them to try to be prepared for a different future than the "official" one.

I'm open to ideas, especially from people who have talked with their kids about the future, peak oil, civilizational declines, etc.... ricst (at) usa (dot) net

Leo said...

There winds, so there powered by heat differentials. If I remember right, global warming is increasing heat differentials (land and sea absorb heat differently), so they could easily get stringer. Possible less reliable as well. Or some other factor takes part.

Because if they stay and remain minimally reliable (that's also an issue), then Australia's links will be very different to what people expect. Since it'll be much easier to go east-west than north-south in sailing ships, I wouldn't expect many links to Asia relative to the links to South Africa and South America.

Even the Polynesians ended up going more east and never went south to past Australia's north coast.

Jonathan Byron said...

It is good to reflect on the balance of negative and positive feedback mechanisms at work in the world. I'll wager that the most dangerous form of positive feedback we face is human conflict, which can quickly escalate to war - and in these days of hydrogen bombs, it could be a rather nasty form of war. Which is not to say that it is inevitable or that there are not some countervailing pressures. But human thinking and action lacks the dependability and predictability we see in physical mechanisms, especially when the fear centers exert control over the mind.

seemorerocks said...

Much of what you talk about is NOT negative feedback, but simply something that coutneracts the main trend.

One example would be particularates in the atmosphere as a result of industrial pollution.

They tend to reflect sunlight and thus counteract the consequences of greenhouse gasses.

Clean uo your act and you can unleash runaway global warming.

For it to be a negative feedback the following would have to be true: "the cooler it gets the quicker it gets cooler"

I suggest you watch a talk by David Wasdell on Arctic Feedback Dynamics to get an idea how this acts itself out.

Joseph Nemeth said...

@JMG: The usual fare: excellent.

You're doing a wonderful job of reframing. It's fascinating to watch my own shift of awareness as I continue to engage this discussion. Thank you. I'm looking forward to the next phase of this.

James Fauxnom said...


As Comrade Greer has pointed out in previous posts, China and Russia don't need to defeat America militarily. All they have to do is hold their own. A stalemate is not victory if your goal is hegemony.

Albatross said...

Hello Mr. Greer.

Great writing every week. How do you manage? That kind of discipline is lightyears away from my capacity. Though I enjoy writing songs, which involves hours of staring at a blank paper. Thus time slips away.

This is off topic as I but wish to word my appreciation for one of the most relevant blogs I've come across, yours that is. Thanks. (The commenters are doing a fabulous job too.) Allow me but to share a link to an article of a week ago in ScienceDaily that proffers a new, and rather scary, analogy for the workings of a city: Cities Are a New Kind of Complex System: Part Social Reactor, Part Network. ( )

"New research by Santa Fe Institute Professor Luis Bettencourt suggests a city is something new in nature -- a sort of social reactor that is part star and part network, he says.

"It's an entirely new kind of complex system that we humans have created," he says. "We have intuitively invented the best way to create vast social networks embedded in space and time, and keep them growing and evolving without having to stop. When that is possible, a social species can sustain ways of being incredibly inventive and productive.""

The analogy is interesting. Yet "Growing without having to stop" seems a bit of overshoot.

In my time-zone, Sweden, I get your blog on Thursday mornings, just in time to read through before I go to work. Keeps my mind off the drudgery.

All the best,

Juri Aidas
(Aka. Albatross of the Cyber. Long Distance Navigator.)

Leo said...

I think part of the problem is that most doomers (or at least the ones I've read) have zero/minimal understanding of non-fossil fuel based energy systems and industrialism. Too many people forget that Industrialism was started with wind and water, not coal as pop culture says it was.

I looked up the Archdruid Watch and the first post I saw had this:

"Steel is an alloy....but if you want to rework steel, you’re going to need fossil fuels (usually coal) to do so."

Also looked up the long screeds you mentions. Do you still have that hatchet made from a dead car? sounds like a good example of salvage.

From the Doomstead Diner: Paleo or Phyle? Part 2 "As the Iron Age came about, lots of Coal was burned to smelt out the Iron."

Both of those statements show enough ignorance about basic metallurgy and energy resources, that I can feel confident saying they don't understand at all these issues.

I'll explain for anyone who doesn't know why.

50 years ago, Sweden was making some of the highest quality steel in the world with charcoal. The reason being that both coal and charcoal are the same, pure carbon.

Except that coal always has impurities (sulfur for example), while charcoal is often pure. Charcoal can also have more energy in it. So when we switched to using coal to make steel, we actually reduced the quality,but it became cheaper and was compensated by other advances.

All but a handful of alloys and metals can't be melted by charcoal. Liquid tungsten will freeze in lava, so it probably won't be melted by charcoal. But almost everything can be.

Volume and how much you can melt is the problem, not the inability to work and melt metals.

And we can still have some mechanical aids and basic industrialism, wind and water powered it before. And it sure beats doing everything by hand.

Alvin Leong said...

Savory's method is nothing new. People have been doing it for thousands of years. It's called nomadic pastoralism.

Looking at the map he used in a video presentation. I thought it was obvious that the desertification is caused by the displacement of nomads by settled governments since the beginnings of satellite inagery.

Dave Kimble said...

> [ JMG in Comments ] My point is that there's a great deal of territory between business as usual and the end of the world, and that territory is where our future will be.

Yes, OK, but where is the discussion of this great deal of territory? This article is just having another kick at NTE, and ignoring all the other collapse predictions.

If the electricity goes off, we lose the internet and telephones and TV and radio and all banking details. No one will be able to find out what's happened ,or communicate. No one will be able to organise a recovery, order in the troops, or order more food to sell, or pay for it, or bank the cash.

The world has NEVER been in a situation like this, so ancient history is nothing to go by.

The skills and infrastructure of 200 years ago are lost - they may be documented on the internet, but that's not working, remember?

I find it difficult to believe you can't see this as THE positive feedback that will throw the world into such chaos that 1813 will seem like a sophisticated utopia.

How it can happen is dealt with in Korowicz's "Trade-Off:
Financial System Supply-Chain Cross-Contagion - a study in global systemic collapse. "

Can you do that scenario next, please.

John Michael Greer said...

Zed, funny.

Blue Sun, exactly! Russia's a good example of the way collapse actually happens -- that is to say, things get bad, and then they stabilize and may even improve. Even the briefest glance at history shows that this is what normally happens.

Moshe, that's one possible explanation, but I'm far from sure how well it works.

Ian, not so -- the Younger Dryas took place in the wake of a major warming trend in which, in fact, greenhouse gases moved sharply upwards. I'd encourage you to read some paleoclimatology!

Ursachi, if half your population is still rural, you're in better shape than most developed countries!

Mallow, almost anywhere else, since one major impact would be to give Western Europe roughly the same climate as Labrador.

David, thank you for a spirited reply! As I commented in several earlier posts referencing your paper on systems collapse, it's a very well-thought-out scenario, and where it departs from reality -- in assuming that governments will take the minimum possible action, when this is not what history shows -- you state that presupposition up front. I'm curious what kind of responses you get to your paper; when it gets quoted here by commenters, it's almost always being used to support the claim that there's nothing that can be done (and thus, inevitably, that there's nothing that ought to be done). I'm sure that wasn't your intention, but it's consistently been my experience!

Ric, that's a very challenging question, and one to which I have no good answers. I'd be interested in hearing what other people might suggest.

Leo, I'd encourage some research into paleoclimatology; there may already be estimates for what the global wind pattern was like in the Younger Dryas, say.

Jonathan, notice that hydrogen warheads have never been used in warfare. Negative feedback applies there as well.

John Michael Greer said...

Seemorerocks, I suggest you read some basic systems theory, and find out how negative feedback works -- you appear to have misunderstood the concept.

Joseph, thank you!

Albatross, thank you! I'll check out the link as time permits; still, when people start yammering about infinite growth, I tend to roll my eyes.

Leo, exactly. The best preindustrial steel in the world, tamahagane (Japanese sword steel), is smelted with pine charcoal.

Alvin, I think Savory's method is rather more complex than that.

Dave, and how are you going to get all the electricity to go off, everywhere in the world, all at once? Nice try -- and there are also these things called libraries, where a remarkable amount of old information is stored. As for the Korowicz thesis, I've already discussed that repeatedly here, and the points raised in this post apply to it: it presupposes that everyone affected by the crash will sit around and do nothing, which is not exactly easy to justify. The discussion of the territory between business as usual and instant crash? It's at a blog called "The Archdruid Report," which you might try reading one of these days.

Cherokee Organics said...


Glad you wrote about these economic events and I was surprised that no one commented on it last week. I’m never quite sure what standard of news reporting goes on in the US?

It was fascinating that the "sort of" announcement was an intention to stop quantitative easing at some point in the future and not an actual specific plan to do so on a particular date. Magic at work! Perhaps they were testing the waters with their toes and found that it was too cold? It certainly had repercussions here.

I would have directed the funds from quantitative easing into infrastructure projects whilst those funds were still worth something rather than pumping up the financial system, but no one asked me. That money is going into beefing up dodgy balance sheets (that’s my take on it anyway and I could be wrong) and I’m not entirely convinced that it is public funds well spent. A cynic would possibly describe it as a heist.

Catabolic collapse has a largely unconsidered benefit in that it reduces the complexity of our society. Too often people respond to situations by adding layers of complexity. Someone in the comments mentioned FEMA workers on scene after a disaster and surely it possibly may have occurred to them that the local community has to get off their bottoms and respond (or indeed prepare in advance) too? Relief workers are a product of a society that has the surplus to support them. So many things are like this.

Which gets me to weddings, of all things. Why is it that people want to spend so much money on a wedding? The problem is that they all end up looking the same. Boring, dull and not even remotely perfect. Try something different, how about eloping and saving the cash? What’s wrong with these people?

I reckon this happens on a big scale too as various countries mimic the economic leaders and end up pursuing the same strategies with the same (or remarkably similar) outcomes. QE anyone?

Surely, any future after catabolic collapse will be a future of many different societies and ways of living. Dissensus will rule the day out of necessity.

PS: I’ve been working too hard of recent times. This week has been feral as it is almost like Spring weather here, so I’m getting the place ready in advance for summer conditions (winter is work time here). The batteries and water tanks are all now full. I noticed last week in the comments I was writing about an Autumn update and wished you a pleasant Spring. Oops! I meant Summer. Sorry, my gaffe. Oh well, how is summer going anyway?



Dave Kimble said...

JMG, I see that Korowicz feels that you haven't done his thesis justice, and you think you have. I'm sure this gap is where our attention should be focused.

How could the electricity go off all around the world? Well for a start, we have seen cascading black-outs that started with a software bug at a control room in Ohio, and cascaded to 55 million people in the US and Canada, halting all rail and aircraft in New York. 10 years later could the decaying infrastructure mean even bigger problems? Or is it a cyberattack? Or an EMP nuclear attack? How do we find out what happening?

With the power out, the High Frequency Traders on Wall Street can't function, causing a panic in London and Tokyo, leading to a UST bond collapse, wiping trillions from the asset books of banks around the world. LIBOR markets instantly freeze up, meaning the end of commercial interbank lending and import/export letters of credit not being honoured. This brings all international trade to a halt, as it did in 2008. Then it took 4 days, but then it was a surprise, now they are ready for it.

The collapse in USTs causes as cascade of corporate bond collapses as well, including electricity generators. Suddenly the coal miners are worried that the generators might not be able to pay for the coal, so they stop supplying coal until things sort themselves out. But before they do sort themselves out, Goldman Sachs declares bankruptcy over a $300 billion deal in credit default swaps that has gone bad, and the entire system locks up. Just like it did in Cyprus a couple of months ago.

So without coal moving to the power stations, the electricity goes off throughout the US, and the internet goes down. Nobody wanted it to happen. It just happened, at least I think it did, but its difficult to know with the phones and TV not working.

What would be the effect on the world of the internet going down in the US ? A similar panic in the UK, Europe, Shanghai and Japan, with the same outcome.

Yes, some countries probably are still running, but who would know, if we can't get in touch with them? Or trade with them.


mkroberts said...

JMG, you seem to be saying that there are very few positive feedback loops for global warming and many negative feedback loops. Is that right? I'd be surprised at this, as I have difficulty finding negative feedbacks mentioned but no difficulty finding positive feedbacks (many involve methane but are different positive feedback loops). Indeed, the one you mention, appears to have a positive feedback at the south pole, though a negative feedback at the north pole. However, I've also seen an hypothesis which suggests that the THC may not slow down at all, as El Ninos might increase. Consequently, it seems like conjecture that negative feedback loops will somehow regulate temperatures so that it doesn't get too bad. Maybe it will, maybe it won't.

However, it seems as though you're invoking negative feedbacks to propose only that the extermination of all life is unlikely, not that conditions won't become very poor. Indeed, you see there being a severe die back. In this case, I'm not sure why you bring up the negative feedback idea. If negative feedbacks merely allow some kind of life to continue, maybe even a few humans, this has nothing to say for civilisation and societies, other than negative feedbacks won't halt or slow collapses.

Even more, in comments, you anticipate an effective collapse at the next crisis, since the picture you paint of the resulting society is very different from the ones we live in now. That seems about right. I feel that effective collapse will hit many people in today's civilisation long before the time that future historians might determine the collapse was complete.

mkroberts said...


I see what you're saying but your definition of negative feedback is wrong. "The cooler it gets, the quicker it gets cooler" would be a positive feedback (if we were talking about global cooling). A negative feedback merely has to counteract the current trend (warming, in our case) and act to moderate or reverse it. However, once it reverses the trend (if it does), it becomes a positive feedback, if it is still occurring in that situation).

At least that's my understanding.

Interesting videos by David Wasdell, though. If he's got the science accurate, that is very worrying stuff.

irishwildeye said...

Leo said...
"I think part of the problem is that most doomers (or at least the ones I've read) have zero/minimal understanding of non-fossil fuel based energy systems and industrialism. Too many people forget that Industrialism was started with wind and water, not coal as pop culture says it was."

I think this is right. We have many problems, but we have a few things going for us and one of them is the enormous amounts of refined metals we now have. I know nothing about working metals but it seems to me that with some refinement a solar furnace could provide the heat to work metals, if charcoal is scarce. With this kind of technology people could create a whole fleet of simple (mostly human powered) machines, like bicycles, treadle water pumps, treadle sewing machines and of course guns.

I think it's very important to draw a distinction between industry, which existed in many forms before the industrial revolution, and industrial civilisation. Leo is right many doomers equate the two and imagine a return to the stone age as the only possible future after the collapse of industrial civilisation. I doubt people will forget the idea of the wheel, the gun, the crank, the pedal, the treadle or the blade.

With over 7 billion people and a reasonably fit adult able to produce in the region of 70 to 100 watts of power on a sustainable basis, it seems to me that the real power source of the future is human power. My son and I, some years ago, felled a years supply of firewood (for our very small house) with a bow saw, hauled it home (about 800 hilly yards) on a handcart, cut it into short logs with the same bow saw and split it with an axe. Compared to a chainsaw and a tractor this is slow work, but it is pleasant work, quiet enough to talk, listen to the birds sing and enjoy the countryside. It was not drudgery, it got the job done and it took a fraction of the energy. A society that can make handcarts and metal saw blades would not be a bad place to live, it would be a quieter, more convivial and safer world that our modern world.

MawKernewek said...

@uraschi - I hadn't realised there was such a religious revival in Romania. Is it mainly focused on traditional denominations or newer churches?

The First World War was a resource crisis because the Scramble for Africa was by then complete, and further colonial expansion by any of the European powers (notably Germany which had come late to the party) could only come at the expense of the others. Moreover I expect that the costs of empire were rising more than the benefits. I'm not an expert on the details of this.

@Leo - yes, I remember hearing about special operations in the Second World War in order for the British to get ball bearings from Sweden.

@Gaianne - I don't know what purpose torturing Snowden would do for the US, it would make the US look less legitimate in the eyes of the world, but I suppose the US government wouldn't want to give him due legal process because that would further expose their surveillance activities to scrutiny.

What I find really disingenuous, are the fervent denials by the PRISM "partner" companies of their role in it all. I find it really sickening how the UK Home Securetary Theresa May has tried to exploit the tragic murder of Drummer Lee Rigby in London to revive the so-called "Snooper's Charter" (Communications Data Bill).

@Helix - there's plenty you can do about it, there's plenty of free email encryption software available. Also remember that writing anything on social media is equivalent to shouting it through a megaphone in a city square, or putting it in a letter to the press. I'm aware the UK National Domestic Extremism Unit (run by the London Metropolitan Police) is analysing social media, but this is based on material already made public.
Using proxy networks like the Tor Project can help obsure things like IP addresses that will tie an online identity to a real world person. It's not foolproof but does make the trail harder to follow.

The changes to atmospheric circulation will have far more immediate effect than any potential change to ocean circulation. What happens is that the Arctic warming, accelerated by positive albedo feedback, actually lessens the temperature gradient between the tropics and the pole, which slows down the jet stream which makes the waves in it larger.

Yupped said...

@ Ric Steinberger, regarding talking to kids. I have three, 21, 18 and 15. I've done three things to try to inform them. First, we've changed our lifestyle quite substantially, with a focus on energy conservation, growing our own food, less consumption, etc. So we've tried to hint towards the shape of the future in our actions, which always speak louder than words. Second, we've always had talk in the household about managing their expectations of the future, the need to understand the times they live in and to live appropriately. We've talked openly about the big themes of energy depletion and economic challenges and the future not being like the past. But we've done this within the context of the long arch of history, of slow change, of ups and downs, of nobody knowing the details, etc. As you say it doesn't make sense to scare them and parents can only plant seeds after all. Third, we've tried to steer them individually to learning practical skills wherever they can, to working hard and avoiding betting on a life plan based only on sitting in offices typing stuff into computers. Which is probably a good thing anyway, regardless of energy depletion.

I don't know how successful this will be, though. They'll probably rebel as kids do and follow their own path to some degree. But maybe we've given them some reference points to which they can return if they need to. Time will tell!

Leo said...

Quite often the capabilities of non-fossil fuel energy systems are ignored. Yes they can't power modern industrial civilization, but they have powered basic industrialism and improve living standards compared to human only energy systems. Besides, if you start by reducing consumption and improving efficiency, you increase what they can do.

And the ones that powered proto-industrialism weren't even perfected and new ones have been added since there (like solar). And ancillary technologies have appeared that can dramatically extend their use. Electricity can be used in radios or telegraphs and allows aluminum to be smelted. Napoleon had an aluminum dinner set, it must have taken a ridiculous amount of coal/charcoal to make. Mind you recycling is easier for aluminum, but other chemicals are similar in that electricity is the easiest way to get them.

Still have to do research on it (I have a lot to read first), but my impressions from metallurgy is that a lot of its advancements weren't energy based. More along the lines of better design, realizing you can do "X" and get a better outcome than anything else. Improved furnace designs would certainly help each bit of charcoal go further.

Precision tools and machining might be similar, some other technologies could also count in this category.

One of the main things I plan to explore in 10-20 years time when I'm a professional engineer and have some experience.

mallow said...

Thank you. And how would we know if or when it's happening? Will we have a few decades to watch it unfold and make decisions do you think?

Andy Brown said...

@ Rick, Re: giving advice to the offspring. It’s tough, because you don’t want to demoralize or burden your children, when so much is still uncertain, but you want them to be prepared as much as possible for whatever may be coming down the pipeline. Anyway, here are my few words on the subject to a son setting forth. Otherwise, all I can do, and all parents have ever been able to do, I guess, is to try to be a resource for the kids.

ando said...


Here at the war factory we have fewer people, fewer resources, and less time, but the MBAs want more revenue.

Looks and smells like collapse to me.



Joseph Nemeth said...

I recall reading some blog in the wake of one of the recent hurricanes in Florida by one of those natural-born organizers who can't see a rusty can in the street without thinking of six ways to make a profit from it, and he talked about the way he had just grabbed people off the street -- wandering around in shock in the wake of all the destruction -- and put them to work clearing lumber and trash, fixing the hole in his roof, fixing the hole in his neighbors' roof, etc.

That is a sudden and devastating crash. It brings the natural organizers out of the woodwork. There's a period of very hard work for everyone; fortunes are lost (or started anew); the social pecking order softens and people move up and down the scale of importance. But when that's all done, the work lets up, the new social order congeals to some extent, and life goes back to (the new) normal.

That resilience -- the tendency of people to make the most comfortable life that they can within the constraints of their resources (and beliefs) -- is left out of the calculations of the systems-theorists. After all, how many systems-theorists would have predicted that during the devastation of the Black Death, the exhaustion of European soils, the Little Ice Age, and the depredations of the landed class, that people would build cathedrals?

fromorctohuman said...


Not sure what a grandparent should say to a grandchild but what we say to our children is "No".


Resilience is what our children will need more than anything else and saying yes obliterates resilience.

Of course, we say yes as well, but if you were to ask our kids, all we ever say is no!

This is really quite a challenge for us, because we also believe that socializing with their peers is critical to their psychological development. One consequence of our saying no, is they do not mesh well with their peers (who's parents seem to always say yes).

What we do say yes to, even at great expense, is participation in organized activity (sports, drama, clubs, camps).

It's a balancing act though, and beware that if you're kids do not feel loved, and you always tell them no, you will lose them for sure. Or at least warp them into sociopaths.

On the "message" side. I do not discuss the nitty gritty of peak everything, but all my kids know that at least oil will run out eventually and their reality in the future will be dramatically different than what it is now. I don't know if they believe it - they're just kids - and all they're peers disagree, but they do have a sense of it.

That's where we come back to the no part. Whether they believe it or not, they will be better equipped to deal with the crisis ahead if they are in the habit of not always getting what they want.

Hope this helps at all though I realize your situation/perspective may be quite different. If it is different, please let me know as I'd like to hear about it.


Mike R said...

I'm interested in how one of the most dramatic societal collapses of relatively recent decades fits into your theory: that of Germany in 1945. It's hard to imagine a country in the last several centuries as utterly devastated as Germany was at the end of the war, yet within a few decades it was again a prosperous country.

I understand that the Marshall Plan helped rebuild the country and so on, which is the type of resource that won't be available in the future, but I guess I'm more interested in the possibility that human capital and determination can rebuild from even the most dramatic societal collapses. I suppose the simplest answer is that such a dramatic rebuilding and recovery won't be possible in the future because of the scarcity of energy, which was of course abundant in the 1940s.

John Michael Greer said...

Cherokee, when my wife and I got married coming up on 29 years ago, we had the ceremony in my dad's back yard, the food was cooked by my relatives, the photos were taken by friends on ordinary pocket cameras, and we spent maybe $500 on the whole thing. To this day people who were there reminisce about what a pleasant wedding it was. I don't get the lavish-wedding thing at all, either. As for summer, why, it's hot, humid, and sticky, and the garden's happy as can be.

Dave, that is to say, you can cobble up a cascading series of worst case scenarios to get the world, at least in your imagination, to a preselected future. The whole point of this week's post is that this sort of thing may be an amusing hobby but it's not a useful way of trying to anticipate the future, because the resulting predictions reliably fail.

Mkroberts, no, not quite. What I'm saying is that in the real world, greenhouse events get shut down by negative feedback instead of going to Venus-like extremes, financial panics get terminated by negative feedback instead of running us straight into the Dark Ages, and so on. I'm making a statement about the observed behavior of systems. That doesn't mean that things won't get bad -- you're quite correct there; what it means is that in the real world, crises are followed by periods of relative stabilization. It fascinates me that so simple an idea is so hard for so many people to grasp!

Wildeye and Leo, bingo. A deindustrial society is not a society without tools, without energy, or without the prospect of a decent and humane existence; it's simply a society without factories, and without the absurd levels of energy use per capita we're used to these days. Getting there, mind you, will likely be rough...

Mallow, watch the Gulf Stream. If it stops flowing, Western Europe is in deep trouble. How fast might it shut down? Nobody knows.

Ando, no argument there!

Joseph, a good systems theorist ought to anticipate that, because that sort of self-organizing property is a standard feature of complex systems. In a crisis, it's another form of negative feedback.

Mike, that's an excellent example, because it shows the capacity for dramatic recovery when (a) the collapse is sudden, and (b) you've got plenty of resources. That's another reason why fast-crash theories don't work: if some sudden event were to terminate industrial civilization tomorrow, and there was any significant number of survivors, they'd rebuild in short order, because an industrial society is the only way they know how to live, and all available resources would go into a quick rebuilding of the old order. It's when change unfolds over generations that there's no recovery of prior conditions, because nobody alive knows how things worked back in the day.

Robert Mathiesen said...

@ Dave Kimble

I don't get it. You're talking about electricity going off "all around the world," and you instance North America, Europe and Japan, with a nod to Shanghai? They're all so-called First World countries. How does the First World come even close to counting as "the world"? The First World is not where it's at anyway, not in the long run.

If the First World entirely vanished overnight, the human species would still carry on as tenaciously as cockroaches do, and it would move easily forward into the sort of future we're all facing anyway -- just faster.

I'm not really carping at you alone when I say this. It seems to me that many commenters on this blog talk as if there's not much difference between the collapse of our First-World civilization and the extinction of our species.

Martin said...

JMG: Not a few of your readers have commented to the effect that 'it will all be over' when: fuel for vehicles will be a rare thing; electricity will become unreliable or nonexistent; the supermarket shelves will be mostly empty; etc., etc.

There was a period of time here in the Pacific NW (as well as in other places, I'm sure) at the end of the depression and during WWII when fuel was sometimes unobtainable or was rationed and electrical power was not widespread and/or was often sporadic and a trip to the grocer often did not fulfill all of a household's food needs.

Communication was conducted face-to-face, by telephone, or telegraph or took place courtesy of the USPO. Written communication was either produced by hand or by the use of mechanical typewriters.

Accountants, bankers, storekeepers, et al, used hand-operated mechanical devices to keep track of their respective business calculations.

There was no commercial television and, of course, computers and the internet were not even a glimmer. People relied upon radio broadcasts and movies for entertainment - other than creating their own - and for information (movie houses usually included 'newsreels' along with the main feature).

Large-scale commercial aviation was a thing of the future, so a 'vacation' often consisted of a family weekend at the beach now and then - if you had enough ration stamps for the fuel to get there and back. Also, the national speed limit was 35MPH, so you couldn't go far in any case.

Many people grew much of their own food in so-called 'victory gardens' and/or specialized in producing an overabundance of some food product, such as milk, eggs or meat to trade for whatever the garden didn't produce. People canned and/or pickled whatever they could to put food by for a time when there might not be much available.

And so on.

I know all this because I lived through it as a child - until I was ten years old at the war's end.

Was it ideal? Not at all - it was hard work, even for kids. Am I nostalgic for it? No, but I know it might be a way of life for many once again in the future and from time-to-time I mention that to my thirty-something step-kids and their spouses.

Robert Mathiesen said...

@ Ric Steinberger

It's simple, really, to prepare your children for the coming collapse, if you're determined enough. Live your own life now as you want them to live theirs in the coming future. Of your own free choice, do without the conveniences that they won't be able to do with. Not necessarily *all* the conveniences, just enough of them so that living with some physical labor and a lot of deprivation seems natural to them: that's just how people live, or at least just how *we* live. Don't spare yourself any trouble you expect they will have to face in their turn.

Model in your own adult life how you expect them to act in their adult lives. They'll rise to the occasion when the time comes. Talking never works, modeling does.

I'm, 70, and our children are in their 40s. That's how we raised them. They'll do just fine, and be able to live under any likely regime of deprivation and hard work that the future imposes on them.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

@Cherokee Organics--a small fraction of QE money is going into infrastructure improvement indirectly. In some parts of the US, real estate prices have recovered halfway from the value drop after the bubble popped. While that recovery lasts, property tax receipts to local governments are rising. The taxes are being spent on all sorts of things, improved maintenance of roads, bridges and pipelines being among them.

My county and the county bordering to the north used to have a decent passenger rail system, which was dismantled right after WWII. We are rebuilding a part of it; the partial economic recovery allows the line to be extended farther south. Oddly enough, the old system was electric and the one they are building is diesel powered. I expect that will have to be fixed later, as we don't have the acreage to support biodiesel.

Lee said...

@ Ric S.

I am not a parent, so cannot advise you as one. But I would share two observations.

1. The only way a significant part of the population is ever going to actually see what’s really going on, is for something/someone to genuinely scare the crap out of them.

2. Those of us who are of the same mind as our host will continue to be thought of as crazy until #1 happens and our views are no longer considered fringe.

I do have two nephews in their late teens. They have to have all the latest gadgets, name brand clothing, and so. I find that all I can do is let my life be my example. The rest is up to them.

Ric said...

Re "CO2 levels in the atmosphere up above 1200 ppm—that’s four times current levels":

As I'm sure you are aware, current levels are just passing 400 ppm, so 1200 is 3X.

Phil Knight said...

Couple of quickies:

1. The reason lavish weddings are popular nowadays is because they create self-induced pressure for a couple to stay together to make up for the absence of overwhelming social pressure to stay together that was experienced in "traditional" society.

This rarely works in practice.

2. Fast crash scenarios are usually promoted by people who take the aberrant example of the USSR as their model for all civilisational collapses.

The USSR is a particularly bad model to base predictions on because its multi-decade experiment in autarchy meant that its collapse had almost no negative effect on it neighbours or other major powers. This meant that no other nation had any self-interested reason to help prop up the Soviet system.

On the other hand there are a great many nations who will be negatively affected by the collapse of the USA, and who will therefore do whatever minimum they can to keep it in some semblance of working order - at least until abandoning it can no longer hurt them.

ezab said...

You wrote:
>The usual culprits are large->scale volcanic releases of
>greenhouse gases, which boosted
>CO2 levels in the atmosphere up
>above 1200 ppm—that's four times >current levels

Actually, it’s three times current levels.

The Times says:
"The level of the most important heat-trapping gas in the atmosphere, carbon dioxide, has passed a long-feared milestone, scientists reported Friday... Scientific instruments showed that the gas had reached an average daily level above 400 parts per million... The best available evidence suggests the amount of the gas in the air has not been this high for at least three million years, before humans evolved..."

Leo said...

Thinking about negative feedback. With reduced production and consumption, due to economic problems, fossil fuel reserves will have an increased life span than predicated.

At current production there's 70 years of economically proven black coal reserves in Australia, it's growing at around 5% which will make it last 40 years. But if production declines, then the reserves life span is extended. Brown coal has around 500 year.

And since production will drop in crisis periods, that will leave more for the recovery period. Which will act as negative feedback to the crisis

@ Irishwildeye

Low-tech magazine has stuff on solar furnaces.

There actually an old scientific tool, the gas laws were found with them, because they only produce heat. Charcoal fires produce contaminants.

Mind you, you want that sometimes. The carbon from the charcoal chemically reacts with the ores to rip the oxygen from the metals. And steel is actually an alloy of iron and carbon.

So you could get two furnaces, one which is charcoal powered and the other solar powered. That way you can extend the charcoal and get more energy/products.

Also on low-tech magazine is stuff on pedal power and other things to improve human energy. That would be an good area to look into and invent things for.

Replacing chainsaw or axes for felling trees with pedal or crank power may be hard, but the sawmill could be easily replaced. It would make things easier.

If you count flint napping and similar pursuits as early industry, it's older than agriculture. Earlier hominids did it and we've just evolved for it (stronger wrists for example). The neoprimitivists (at least one said we should abandon tools and clothes) ignore that tool making, invention and so on is at this point deeply part of being human.

DeAnander said...

Apropos of not much, I just caught up with the recent doco "Chasing Ice," which is stringently-edited footage from a 3 or 4 year project taking time lapse pictures of glaciers. I guess I don't have to tell you what the pictures show. But one of the most interesting parts of the doco is a rapid montage of video clips of talking heads denying climate change -- mostly Faux News, but some other more serious sources as well. Interesting. It's a good doco. Great photography and a poignant view of spectacles and landscapes that may be gone sooner than I used to believe possible.

Meanwhile, Calgary flooded, then massive high pressure system parked over the W N Am coast bringing record high temps (again). Obama's latest major speech directly addresses climate change and (wonder of wonders) questions whether Keystone pipeline is really in the best national interest, also threatens to cancel govt subsidies for the oil majors (!!!). More daringly, he refers to climate change deniers as "flat earthers" which is pretty inyoface for a Presidential address :-) The rest of it is just the usual Cool Whip airy synthetic sugar fix, flag waving and promises of "growth" (oh spare me), but there are these chewy nuggets here and there.

Mainstream weather websites now offering entire pages devoted to articles about climate change, global warming, etc. Seems like something has shifted, some tipping point in mainstream discourse has been reached. I've been waiting for this for a loooong time, so maybe I'm just seeing a trend/pattern where there's just the normal random jitter of the infomercial culture.

Anyone else getting the impression that climate change, CO2 buildup and global warming are no longer Verboten topics for mainstream US media? (Canada, alas, still seems to be observing a content blackout!) A tipping point in public discourse and public opinion could be one of those negative feedback paths that JMG was talking about: the sudden "uncooling" of gross fossil fuel overconsumption could have mitigating effects.

KL Cooke said...

"That is a sudden and devastating crash. It brings the natural organizers out of the woodwork. There's a period of very hard work for everyone; fortunes are lost (or started anew); the social pecking order softens and people move up and down the scale of importance. But when that's all done, the work lets up, the new social order congeals to some extent, and life goes back to (the new) normal."

Anyone with experience in amateur dramatics is probably familiar with the old chest nut "The Admirable Crichton."

Possibly it represents an analogy for the "new normal." Without the rescue, of course.

Cherokee Organics said...


It is definitely a case of less is more and it sounded lovely.

I'm at 18 years now and way back in the day it cost us about $2,000. It was a pretty serious recession here at the time too. The ceremony was held beneath very old oaks, plane trees and elms (sorry, but I do like elm trees - it is a relative to eucalyptus kind of thing which is hard to explain). It was low stress and pleasant which is how these things perhaps should go.

The rotunda at Williamstown was the place for the ceremony.

I seriously think that a reduction in complexity would be a good outcome for society as it encourages the growth in individual responsibility. We have such strange values in society today and too often this responsibility is outsourced.

Hi Deborah,

Thanks for the correction. Of course you are correct. Anecdotal reports here suggest that for every one dollar of government spending, three dollars is spent in the community.

Glad to hear that you are getting upgraded train services. Diesel is the cheapest option for rail as it doesn't require overhead lines or sub stations. But you are also correct about the long term prospects.

The state government here extended the electric rail service out this way recently and are even installing a new line (diesel) across to the west. It is impressive to look at on the trips on the train into the big smoke. It always amazes me what people can achieve when they put their minds to it.

Unfortunately most of the rail services were laid down here in the 1880's to 1890's and like your area they decommissioned a lot of lines after WWII.

PS: The mead is still good and I’m now trying apple and blackcurrant cider! The scrumpy (apple) was a bit rough…



MawKernewek said...

Can you clarify when the 1200ppm occured? Looking at a graph based on Robert Berner's work at Yale, in the Cretaceous CO2 peak at around 6 times current levels. Though in the Cambrian at 500mya, it reached even higher levels. Current levels defined as pre-industrial levels I think.

Phanerzoic Carbon Dioxide

James Fauxnom said...

Phil Knight

Although Cuba is by no means a major power or close the FSU, it did suffer from the collapse of USSR. Politics and human rights aside, these events do have further negative consequences for supported nations.

The continued decline of the United States will negatively affect many more countries, agreed. But who will be able to aid them in times of widespread social unrest?

What meager band of peacekeepers will Canada muster when suffering from the same issues? Mexico, Latin America, what aid will they provide? Europe can barely contain issues at home. China and Russia don't have much sympathy for American distress.

No one will be propping up the United States, regardless of any desire to do so. You might as well expect a pack of hungry hyenas to hold up a sagging elephant.

irishwildeye said...

RTE Ireland's national TV service made a really good series about traditional Irish craftspeople in the 1980s called "Hands". They updated the series recently and found that many of the families are still in the craft business. If anyone is interested they can still view some of these programs on the RTE Player The programs still available for viewing are about a shoe maker, a weaver and a saddle maker.

Unfortunately no longer available is the program about the Power brothers of New Ross, Co Wexford, who still melt and cast iron in their back yard, in a "wind blown furnace". Here is a link to an local newspaper article about them and their foundry business

A short clip from the RTE program

A society without factories could still produce cast metal tools and machines.

Leo wrote
"Low-tech magazine has stuff on solar furnaces"

Thanks Leo, fascinating stuff, we use vast amounts of fossil fuel to generate heat, when much of this could be done with direct sunlight. The basic technology required is the ability to make mirrors.

JP said...

Hey JMG, here's a blog post from CHS (my favorite permabear):

He loves talking about collapsing systems for some reason.

Any thoughts on CHS, with respect to your views here?

JP said...

And JMG, here's my current thought on the "Rise of China".

Here's my current thinking.

If China pursues the Japanese development model, it will have the outcome of Japan, meaning boom followed by stagnation, making major (catabolic) war less likely.

If China develops it's own internal development model, it will both increase its relative power, and make major war more likely, along with the accompanying general (catabolic) devastation.

dltrammel said...

Ok, now you ARE scaring the (deleted) out of me John, lol.

Phil Harris said...

I came to it late this week but it has been a very good read.

Maybe at present we are only looking at the end of any real growth in Western economies, which is not exactly ‘collapse’ but could be something of an historic turning point, even in the sheltered USA. It is nice then to see David Korowicz joining in discussion about fast collapse scenarios, and to read your reply.

I suppose it depends on what you call collapse and how you describe fast. I am thinking of your very memorable fictional account of a not too distant future. This featured a series of domino moves that saw the loss of US military air supremacy and the ability to project military dominance and left us with a lasting and dramatic image of the US super-aircraft carrier abandoned on a sandbank somewhere off Zanzibar. All over if I remember in a matter of days – and concluding with the breakup of the Union and a cheery political new-normal getting a new currency based on the Canadian dollar.

I can’t remember how or if the rest of the privileged countries were able to cope with what I would have to guess would have been severe results.

Phil H

Ángel said...

Long time reader, first time poster.

Thank you for your blog, JMG. As Franco Battiato, the italian singer, I was looking for a constant point of gravity among the peak-oil community. A series of failed predictions and near apocalypses don't help to move people to action.

On top of that, I have read through your blog and two of your books and I haven't found any mention to Marvin Harris, the anthropologist. Have you ever written about him? I really think that his cultural materialism fits with some other of the authors that you usually cite.


John Michael Greer said...

Martin, an excellent point. My grandparents lived through the same era, not to mention the Depression beforehand, and their lifestyles from 1930 to 1945 were very much along the lines you've sketched -- that is to say, not much different from life in a Third World country today.

Ric and Ezab, thanks for catching the typo.

Phil, the thing that fascinates me about the use of the USSR's collapse by fast-crash theorists is that the USSR collapse followed my scenario, not theirs -- a period of crisis, followed by stabilization and modest recovery. Is Russia today a wasteland full of corpses? Not hardly; people adapted, and life goes on.

Leo, the wild cards there are the economics and thermodynamics of fossil fuel extraction. If you no longer have the surplus energy to be able to afford mountaintop removal mining, or tar sand extraction, or what have you, then that process stops; equally, if the remaining reserves don't have enough net energy, factoring in all systems costs, to justify their extraction, then they stay in the ground. My working guess is that a lot of theoretically extractable fossil fuels will never reach the surface due to one or the other of those factors.

DeAnander, it's an interesting question, and yes, I've seen some movements in that direction.

KL, good!

Cherokee, well, a reduction in complexity is clearly good for weddings!

MawKernewek, I said "above 1200 ppm," which includes the Cretaceous peak. I was specifically referring to the Toarcian, Aptian, and Cenomanian-Turonian greenhouse events; in each of those, the thermohaline circulation shut off when CO2 got past 1200 ppm or so, according to the link I included in the post.

Wildeye, thanks for the links! It amazes me that people forget just how complex a technology has been maintained without factories, using hand tools supplemented with the occasional water wheel and windmill. I may have to do a series of posts on that one of these days, just to drive the point home.

JP, I read CHS occasionally, but don't really have an opinion on his ideas; his subjects of interest have some overlap with mine, but not that much. As for China, of course -- thus the massive effort they're making to build domestic demand.

Dltrammel, good!

Phil, once again, the difference between my views and the fast-crash theorists is not that I don't expect sudden crises and discontinuities. It's that I argue, on the basis of ample historical evidence, that those sudden crises and discontinuities will be followed, not by an accelerating plunge into the abyss, but by stabilization and partial recovery. I wonder how many times I'll have to repeat that here before it finally sinks in!

Angel, I haven't written about Harris, though I've read some of his work; I think he pushes his cultural materialism model further than it can really be taken, but he's got some excellent points. I'll see about bringing him into the discussion at some point.

Glenn said...

@Phil Knight

The U.S. is pretty much filling the role of the late British Empire in keeping the sea lanes open. We have global hegonomy in that respect; as much as we are a failure at land wars in Asia (which do blow up stuff and make money for the Military-Industrialists though). Anyway, that is one reason why we spend as much money as the entire rest of the world on our War Department [Cough, cough, dept. of defense]. And is possibly why the rest of the developed world cuts us so much economic slack, lets us use so much oil and keeps using the US Dollar as the world's reserve currency, to our trade benefit. For the time being, they figure it's cheaper to let us be the "muscle" (world's policeman is a misnomer, what the developed nations perceive as trade with the poorer nations is more like an old fashioned extortion racket.)

So I would say, we are already being "propped up" and might have collapsed shortly after the old Soviet Union without the cooperation and help we've had so far. How long this will last depends on how usefull the arrangement is seen by the majority of our partners. It could come unwound rather quickly when they change their minds.

As for China, regardless of all the power of a command economy, they are joined at the hip to the West; without Western consumers their business model collapses. They also have a far more restive population than the U.S., and are up against real resource limits and environmental limits when their trade declines. China's ability to control the extraction of oil, food or other resources from Africa could get very difficult if the U.S. Navy leaves the Indian Ocean. They may be trying to build bases there, but I don't think their ability to project power will be large enough or soon enough to sustain any Imperial ambitions. I would give Chinese dominance less than a decade if it occurs.

Marrowstone Island

Phil Knight said...

@James F

China is propping up the USA right now! You don't have to like or approve of a country to be involved in a precarious economic arrangement with it.

Andy Brown said...


I think you're right that climate change is being acknowledged more often rather than completely ignored. The next step will be the idea that some fossil fuels will need to be left in the ground. Up until recently even environmentalists seemed unwilling to mention that inconvenient truth. But lately I've seen the idea being mentioned - if only in passing. That's really going to be the test.

Cherokee Organics said...


haha! Very amusing. I brought up weddings as it was on my mind after a bit of a "what's going on?" discussion about them that day.

They're just another on a long list of vanity projects that will inevitably get scrapped or altered as belts are tightened.

I really don't have a lot to add to the discussion this week as I'm in agreement with your conclusions. I've been watching financial matters for decades and I find that the shenanigans going on just mystify me. I've often suspected that they are a protected species because if you take them out of the GDP picture, a worrying picture emerges from the dust about the true state of the economy.



DeAnander said...

Downscaling/simplicity could be very good for marriages :-) and I don't only mean smaller, less ostentatious ceremonies, but the fact that -- when good will is present -- there is something immensely bonding about undertaking the project of survival together, something way more bonding imho than just coming home from our respective office jobs and being glad to collapse and watch some TV together before bedtime. When the chair you sit in was made by your spouse, or when the meal you eat was not only cooked but *grown* by your spouse, or by your joint efforts, there's a kind of connection that imho is different and deeper in quality than the bonding of, say, going out shopping at IKEA together on the weekend for a new chair, or catching some great italian food downtown.

I'm not knocking the charm of great italian food downtown -- love it actually -- and I'm sufficiently corrupted by civ, I do confess, to enjoy shopping at times [shocked I tell you shocked]; but I'm speaking here of a kind of emotional bonding that I feel with my current partner in our present, gradually-simplifying lifeway, that I have not felt before under more urban circs.

I dunno if "simple" is quite the word (we just spent 2 days installing the drip irrigation system I designed, and before that we've been spending almost 2 weeks dealing with 3 downed trees, and we think a whole lot about our well and whether it really needs some refurb); but a lot of our activities are directed towards simple *goals* like food and firewood, shelter and long-term subsistence on our modest property. And we work together a lot, because a lot of this work is hard and tiring and much easier with two people pitching in.

There's a kind of gratitude I feel when my partner is out there in the blazing sun, swatting bugs and connecting drip emitter hoses right along with me, that is different in quality from the kind that I feel when my partner takes me out to dinner or buys me a trinket. Both are nice, but I think the teamwork, strategising and grunt labour that go into the "simpler" lifestyle build a special kind of bond, and I suspect that it can, with the right people, forge that bond more strongly than some more frivolous "consuming together" activities that -- for some -- comprise the bulk of their time spent together.

I can only compare it to water and roots. Feels like the team effort on subsistence activity encourages deep tap roots of affection and mutual reliance, while the frivolous fun stuff is like surface watering that encourages lots of frilly root growth near the surface. As any arborist can tell ya, the surface stuff is nourishing but it doesn't contribute much to windfirmness. Trees without deep roots can blow over in the big gusts. And now I'm sounding so darned preachy that I think I'd better get off the soap box.

Holy cow, my Captcha says "teragod"!

kalek said...

Readers who are interested in some more on circular time and circles-within-circles might want to read this introduction on adaptive cycles at The Automatic Earth.

It talks about how nested cycles give rise to stair-step rise and decline in the example of financial markets. Splitting hairs, I'd say it's more saw-tooth as activity alternately over then undershoots the fundamentals. The theory also exhibits patterns of threes. There might be some truth in the old saying "misfortune comes in threes".

Seeing the diagrams helps it sink in for me.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Phil,

Thanks for the insight. I've read that arranged marriages often have a much lower divorce rate than conventional.



Cherokee Organics said...

Hi DeAnander,

Well spoken!

I hear you. We've been out collecting and splitting firewood stores all day today.



Stephen Heyer said...

Leo: “I've never heard anyone mention what could happen to the trade winds or roaring forties. Their going to be fairly important for Australia's future if they stay around.”

Given what drives them I’d kind of expect them to stay working.

At least I hope they will, given my little fantasy of the Great Southern Trade Alliance, basically South America, Australia, New Zealand and perhaps South Africa all trading along and bound together by the ocean superhighway of the Roaring Forties and Frantic Fifties.

Yes, I have this vision of a super clipper ship, one of many, made of laminated, bio-engineered wood with bio-engineered hemp sails rounding the Horn with a future me enjoying the trip.

Stephen Heyer

Sky McCain said...

Re fast crash theories: I agree they nearly all, "…make sweeping claims about some set of hypothetical positive feedback loops” but I'm sceptical about the global warming example because on that subject there is such a confusing mix of valid data and hypothetical projections based on it.
Although an oceanic anoxic event falls into the negative feedback category, it may not help much because the process and mechanisms involved might well cause a catastrophic decline of species similar to the final phase of the Permian–Triassic (P–Tr) extinction event.
Data and comparisons re the similarities of the rise and fall of civilizations all occurred since the beginning, around 11k years ago, of the present (Holocene) interglacial period There have been approximately 5 of these glacial/interglacial cycles over the last million years. Projections of the effect of our present interglacial are largely based on the results of ice core examinations revealing something of past conditions.
Although the worn out phrase, 'this time it is different', is normally fallacious when applied to the rise and fall of civilizations, I suggest it could have some truth in it as regards global warming for the following reasons.
(1) The combination of orbital forcing cycles such as obliquity, eccentricity and precession vary dramatically over time. The present and near future do not portend a negative feedback cooling trend. Berger & Loutre (sciencemag June 2008) suggest that we will simply skip a whole cooling phase.
(2) As oceans warm, they expel CO2 and cannot absorb more until a 'cooling trigger' is pulled. That cooling trigger, in the past, has been the combination of the CO2 sequestration by trees, bushes and grasslands and cooling support from the orbital forcing cycles mentioned above. Never, since the glacial/interglacial cycles began over a million years ago, has this strong negative feedback mechanism failed. However I strongly suggest that humans have destroyed Gaia’s ability, at the present time to effect a cooling cycle.
(3) One of the primary observations made by scientist James Lovelock was that although the sun has increased its insolation or solar irradiation effect gradually since life emerged, survival temperature has been maintained. According to the Lovelock/Margulis Gaia Theory, it is life-forms themselves that maintain life sustaining balance. Several of these balancing mechanisms have been destroyed over the last few thousand years, a key one being the loss of trees. One of several atmospheric air-currents was responsible for moving the moisture emitted by trees in the Amazonian rain forest northward toward the American Southwest. True, there have been several serious droughts in the area over the last couple of thousand years; however, the rainforest remained – till now. As I write, Phoenix AZ is recording record high temperatures.
(4) We're off the chart with predictability of how increasing CO2 will affect climate. There is no evidence that CO2 has been this high over the last million years.
(5) I am wearied by hearing how hot it was millions of years ago. Yes, CO2 was many times higher than now. But let's remember that humans had not yet evolved and greenhouse gases were necessary to maintain the surface temperature necessary for life. In fact the greenhouse effect is still necessary but it must be maintained in balance. Gaia was doing a pretty good job until she was overrun by humans.

Joeln said...

Thanks again!
Your work consistently opens my eyes to topics I know little about...and invariably I want to know more of. My pattern is one of reading your blog and then heading to wikipedia.

In order to make your work more useful to me, I am interested in generating a topic index to your posts. Have you or any of your readers created such an animal? -Joel

Something along the lines of:
June 26, 2013 Imperfect Storms
Negative feedback
Financial crisis
Anoxic event
Thermohaline circulation

June 19, 2013 What actually happens
Cyclic history
Failed narratives of extreme scenarios
Check your dearly held beliefs against the facts on the ground

June 12, 2013 A question of values
It's different this time
A person's faith derives from their values

DeAnander said...

"Overrun by Humans" would make a good book title.

It's sometimes very sobering (to me) to wonder whether my own species is a bloom/blight like a big locust emergence (but in slower mo). Whether we're sweeping across the planet (speed up the movie a bit) like the cloud of locusts, eating as we go, until there's no more, and then we're over. Whether in the grand scheme of things, my own species is like a pest or a bacterial infection (we've sure given Gaia a fever). We're so used to thinking of ourselves as magnificent, special (but every life form is magnificent and special -- can you beat the mantis shrimp for insane, dangerous kewlness and avant-garde decor?), *exceptional*.

Being just one more plague, that's quite a demotion.

But what if that's just what we are. A virulent bacillus that has given its host a bad fever and a lot of collateral damage? Sigh.

Glenn said...


The Trades are driven by the Hadley cell, and the Westerlies by the Ferrel cell. Both are convection cells driven by solar heating with poleward flow vectored west (NE and SE trades) and flow towards the equator vectored east (the Westerlies) by coriolis effect. Their boundaries are shifting slightly due to climate change, the Hadley looks like it will expand about 2 degrees northward by the end of this century; but no major changes in circulation. Water is much denser than air, and can hold much more heat, so changes in the thermohaline circulation could affect this. However, due to the slow speed of the circulation, it will probably take centuries. Even over a millenium the result will tend to show as slight boundary shifts and variations in strengths; the basic pattern is defined by earth's orbit, axial tilt, atmospheric composition and thickness, and to a lesser extent, continental configuration; this last affects currents more than wind though except for very high mountains such as the Andes or Himalayas.

I think the Trade Winds will remain usable for your purposes. Don't know why you'd need to "bioengineer" hemp. People have done a fine job spinning and weaving it into sailcloth for over 2,000 years as it is, Latin cannibas is the root word of English canvas. For that matter, they've also done a fine job of riving, hewing or sawing trees into pieces and pegging or nailing them together into appropriate shapes. It's a lot of labour, but that's what the future will entail for the majority of us.

Marrowstone Island

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

Some traditional cultures mandate weddings that are expensive relative to the resources of the marrying couple. This is in addition to property settlements required by the marriage contract.

There are parts of India and the
Muslim world where a wedding entails providing hospitality for the extended families of the bride and groom for a couple of weeks, culminating in a three day long feast to which the entire village is invited, and the hiring of musicians and dancing girls.

These sorts of traditional weddings redistribute wealth within kinship networks. Because they are so expensive, many couples have to postpone getting married or can't afford marriage at all, which probably keeps down the birth rate.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

@Cherokee Organics--If I'm ever in your neighborhood, I'd love to sample your ciders. I drink perry when I have the opportunity.

Glenn said...


Strike my last and reverse it on Coriolis effect. _Poleward_ flow is diverted East, producing the Westerlies and _Equatorial_ flow is diverted West, producing the Trades. I was envisioning the tops of the cells in my mind, not the surface levels when I wrote my previous post. Sheesh! I should not post before breakfast.


Chris G said...

I have a question that comes from this post as well as the previous and the series that began with The God With Three Heads. It seems that "What Happens Next" is in the context of civilizations, a long process. I'm 36, likely to live through the second phase of collapse of industrial civilization, wondering what exactly to do.

Because "What Happens Next" is that most people go on their way of acquiring as much stuff as possible - which is ironically the problem, and a necessity, if we are to pass on some of the tools the next generation will need.

As someone who has no assets and a lot of student loan debt, coming from a background of working for law firms, and opposed to being involved in the mainstream economy because that's the very thing causing problems; I can see that doing a job and getting up enough money to buy land, even a suburban neighborhood plot, gives me rights going forward, and a place to pass on that is the only sine qua non for sustainability: land.

To get land, I need some work, and I think working on selling some of the alternative energies like solar and wind is an option: while it can't last forever, done well especially, it prolongs the catabolic collapse. So I feel I've resolved a dilemma: getting land and doing something that doesn't hasten problems but prolongs solutions.

And this points to a larger question, about time and the self. If I were to summarize our present crisis - particularly the unwillingness to deal openly and honestly about resource constraints, which "closetedness" of awareness leads both to the delusion that it will go on forever, and the delusion that it will suddenly fall apart irreparably - it's basically that there's a giant unspoken conspiracy to do whatever we want with no regard to the future or to the consequences of present actions.

So it's important I think to discuss this in a religious context and I'm glad you went there, because, so I've come to think after reading this series and other perspectives, religion is about the relation of one's self to the past, to the future, and to other selves like one's self in the present.

Thinking about the long-term cycles of civilization get one thinking about one's relationship to those long-term cycles, which to me ends up being spiritual. The pressure though, is to accommodate one's sense of connection with the future to the real world demands of the present: the need to carve out some space for oneself in a contracting world.

Leo said...

Its the anniversary of the carbon tax here in Australia.

Report on it:

It's done exactly what it was expected to do and due to various tax cuts, tripling the tax-free threshold for example, it didn't adversely affect most people.

I remember you put up proposal for a new tax system and part of it was resource taxes. So as a case study, it seems to work.

@ Stephen Heyer
@ Glenn

Good to hear that they'll likely stay.

Bioengineering could help. The main problem with wood is the lack of tall straight trees, most have been cut down. And due to explosives, wooden hulls have to be clad in iron ('ironclad').

So other materials would likely be best for the next few centuries. Ferrocement, fiberglass, aluminum, steel, iron and so on. Sails should remain wool or fiber.

There's a lot of new sailing techniques being developed, so the question is more what survives, works and is developed. Sky sails (like kite surfing), solar wings and automated sails, by electronics or design, for example.

Glenn said...


We're veering a bit off topic here, so I'll try to keep it short. In the 1920's and '30's
during the last days of the wool and grain trade under sail to your part of the world, the ships were were of 8 to 12 thousand ton deadweight capacity with hulls, masts, lower yards (uppers usually wood), standing rigging and some running rigging all of steel; the sails were factory spun and woven hemp, and the remaining running rigging was also hemp or Manila.

In a salvage or even an ecotechnic economy it's all quite possible. During the intervening dark ages? Not so much, but I hope they're far enough in the future that the forests can recover as our population declines...

Marrowstone Island

Jim R said...

I'm not so sure that the ocean going anoxic would be reasonably dubbed 'negative feedback'. At least not a linear type of feedback. It would essentially be the catastrophe many of us would hope to forestall.

One of the other effects of a cessation of thermohaline circulation should be a warming of the cold ocean floor. The geothermal heat which exists below the seabed will no longer be countered by the cold brine from the arctic branch of the thermohaline system. In turn this would lead to a release of any and all frozen methane, another *positive* feedback event. Another nonlinear event, or catastrophe.

As to whether our next catabolic step will be fast or slow, I have an analogy. Apologies if you have already used it yourself.

As a watermelon sits in the summer sun, you do not notice it changing for perhaps a week or so. All the bacteria and yeast proliferating in its interior do not affect the rind, until the whole thing collapses over perhaps an afternoon.

From the viewpoint of a yeast organism, this collapse might not be noticed at all. So long as there is sugar in the watermelon flesh that has not yet been converted to vinegar, the yeast might get along just fine. That is, until it finds itself in the gut of a fruit fly maggot. Then it's catastrophic.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Deborah,

There is always mead and cider for visitors to sample! You would be welcome. I'm currently making toasted muesli in the wood oven in between reading the comments.

Back in '98 I travelled across northern India by train and whilst at first I was a bit culture shocked, by the end of the trip it all seemed quite normal.

I saw first-hand those weddings that you mentioned and it appeared to be a big event.

What surprised me the most was that upon returning to what is thought of as a vibrant inner city area, I found it to be quite dull, colourless, quiet and lifeless after the cultural immersion of life in India.

PS: Just in case anyone is interested, a week after the winter solstice, the girls have come back on the lay. I'm getting between 3 to 8 eggs per day (up from 1 to 2 eggs per day over autumn) mostly from the silkies, australorps and plymouth rock chooks. Interesting stuff and it is fascinating to watch the cycles of the different breeds.

I'd have to say that the plymouth rock chooks are some of the best all round chooks here. The isa brown and araucana chooks only lay well between spring and summer. Like any type of agriculture it is good to have a diversity of genetics as not everything does well every year.



Stephen Heyer said...

Leo: “Don't know why you'd need to "bioengineer" hemp. People have done a fine job spinning and weaving it into sailcloth for over 2,000 years as it is, Latin cannibas is the root word of English canvas. For that matter, they've also done a fine job of riving, hewing or sawing trees into pieces and pegging or nailing them together into appropriate shapes. It's a lot of labour, but that's what the future will entail for the majority of us.”

Yes, natural hemp is a wonderful material but I’m sure it can be improved, perhaps especially in the area of useful life when exposed to the weather. Plus, of course, the plant can be made tougher, higher yielding and pest resistant.

As for timber engineered for ships hulls, how about resistance to marine borer and rot, fire resistance, lightness and strength combined with being easily worked? Then there is the whole issue of tough, fast growing and pest resistant trees.

But mostly I just think that under those circumstances bioengineering just has such a huge EROEI that it will be used on about everything.

To begin with, bioengineering is inherently a laboratory scale system and the equipment and chemicals it needs are also inherently laboratory scale, you don’t need a huge industrial scale economy to do it, yet its products can be self reproducing and thus power your whole economy – that EROEI again.

I’m guessing it will be one of the main enabling systems that will allow economies that can no longer depend of vast scale and fossil fuels to still give people much nicer and more prosperous lives than many would suppose.

Stephen Heyer

G Wang said...

Of course the current crises confronting humanity do not imply the END of the world and of humanity. James Howard Kunstler said as much in his The Long Emergency. "There will be a die-back, but not a die-off." Given the sort of things many of us stand to face in the near future, though, I think it might just as well be the end of the world. The notion that negative feedback mechanisms woven into the fabric of reality will prevent the storms from being 'complete' ones offers scant comfort in this respect.

nomadicista said...

"There's a lot of new sailing techniques being developed, so the question is more what survives, works and is developed. Sky sails (like kite surfing), solar wings and automated sails, by electronics or design, for example."

Actually pretty much all commercial sail rig design stopped in about 1890. The only exception to that (that could be useful for commercial shipping) would be the Hasler/McLeod junk rig with improvements by Arne Kverneland.

Sky sails don't seem to be getting any traction in commercial shipping (where their only purpose is to reduce fuel consumption), and the rest of sail development in the last 120 odd years, has been based almost entirely on the bermudan/Marconi rig. Which apart from being the most expensive rig, is only really suitable for going around circular or triangle shaped race courses.

These comments, that I make are based on having grown up, living on yachts, as well as being a fourth generation maritime worker, stretching back to the days of commercial sail.

Realistically, when the time comes to go back to using sail for maritime transport, we will be going back to around 1890 and starting from there, and that's providing we can recover enough of what has already been lost of that technology.

Joseph Nemeth said...

@JMG -- In most cases, if not all, the issue with negative feedback is non-linearities that cause one of the forces to change its nature.

An example is bending a piece of raw spaghetti. The more you bend, the harder the spaghetti pushes back, trying to retain its stable (straight) form. To a point. Then the structure of the spaghetti becomes damaged, the force rushes to a single point and breaks the spaghetti, and the aftershocks snap it, not in two, but in at least three pieces, sometimes more. (Science News, Nov 12, 2005)

Homogenic negative feedback -- building dikes to hold back flooding, superstructures to hold up buildings, economic tweaks to support a crumbling economy -- use what we might call "communal will" as one of the key structural elements: when overstressed, it crumbles and people simply give up on an enterprise, whether it is a dike, or a business, or a town, or a civilization.

Communal will is a complex compound that involves people, religion (or belief-systems), energy, raw materials, and a story to bind it all together. It's tough stuff: it (almost) never breaks all at once, and you'll have stray clumps of it that resist virtually all outside forces for centuries.

The focus on "perfect storms" is understandable: communal will withstands single shocks pretty well. It's not so good with multiple concurrent shocks.

What isn't so understandable is our penchant to ignore erosion, because it seems the force against which communal will is least durable. The most common form of erosion is story-erosion: a creeping discrepancy between the story and reality. The bigger the discrepancy, the more energy goes into telling the story in a louder voice (another form of negative feedback). At some point, the story breaks, and communal will loses its central binding element and begins to crumble.

I'm going to speculate that story-erosion is a major component in Spengler's civilizational cycles, perhaps the main component, because civilizations can survive other shocks, like religious transformation, energy and raw material shortages, attacks and even conquests. They don't survive a loss of their story.

The US built its communal will on the twin stories of freedom and opportunity. First, opportunity, in the form of boundless raw material and slave labor in the 1500's. Then religious freedom in the 1600's. Then enlightenment ideals of freedom in the late 1700's, that carried us through the abolition of slavery. Then back to opportunity in the late 1800's and our own industrial revolution. Then freedom again, from WWII through the end of the Cold War with the Soviets. Then again financial opportunity up to the present.

But the dissonance grows. In a zero-sum economic game, freedom and opportunity are in opposition -- my freedom comes at the expense of your opportunity, and vice versa.

Furthermore, our national leadership -- the focal point of the story that binds our communal will -- has apparently abandoned both narratives. Opportunity is increasingly restricted to the ultra-wealthy, and even they -- if they aren't stupid -- understand how shaky is the ground they stand on. All the symbols of freedom important to the story -- search and seizure, habeas corpus, fair and swift trials, privacy, redress, freedom of speech, assembly, and religion -- have been under increasing attack since the 1950's, particularly in the last decade.

If the US is a nation of neither freedom nor opportunity, then what is it?

Joseph Nemeth said...

@JMG -- please note that I am (again) not positing apocalypse.

Nations lose their stories all the time. They don't often disintegrate. Instead, they reorganize. In the process, of course, they lose their premier status as most powerful empire on the planet.

John Michael Greer said...

Cherokee, exactly. Right now, in the US and a lot of other "industrial" countries, a greater and greater fraction of total economic activity consists of abstract games with money, i.e., things that don't actually produce any real wealth at all. How long that house of cards can continue to prop up the illusion of a growing economy is an interesting question.

DeAnander, this has been my experience as well!

Kalek, many thanks for the link -- I managed to miss that.

Sky, well, then, we're even, because I'm at least as wearied by people who insist that evidence from more than a million years ago somehow doesn't count.

Joel, as far as I know, no, nobody's done that.

DeAnander, all those metaphors assume that humanity is somehow separate from, and alien to, the biosphere. What if we're simply what the biosphere happens to be doing right now?

Unknown Deborah, true enough.

Chris, good, but I'd encourage you to be wary of the sort of provisional living that puts sustainability on the back burner until you get some land. There are many other ways to be resilient in hard times, other than the life of a subsistence farmer, and plenty of skills you could be learning and putting to use right now, while paying off your student loans and hoping for a shot at land someday. I'd encourage you to explore those.

Leo, that's good to hear.

Jim, now go do some research about the dozens of previous shutdowns of the thermohaline circulation, and find out why your hypothetical runaway feedback loop has never happened. Honestly, if you'd set out to demonstrate exactly the kind of shoddy logic I critiqued in this week's post, I don't think you could have come up with a choicer specimen.

G Wang, I'm not trying to be comforting. I'm trying to point out that in a world of imperfect storms, there's still a point to taking constructive action, and to dismissing the popular logic that says, "Oh well, we're all going to be dead by 2030 anyway, might as well just keep on sucking at the teat of consumer culture."

Nomadicista, that's been my sense all along. Thanks for the confirmation.

Joseph, I didn't think you were positing apocalypse. You did a good job of describing the approaching crisis of legitimacy I explored in last year's posts on the end of America's empire. If the US is no longer a nation of freedom and opportunity, what is it? A crumbling, corrupt, and self-catabolizing empire, which might -- with a great deal of hard work -- someday become a democracy again; that's my take, at least.

Ben Simon said...

2 July ‘13

Dear John;
I am very interested in trying to deal with the developing historical situation of what is to follow with the depletion of resources and all of its other related effects. A serious aspect of my concern is the need for methodologies that can preserve what humanity has learned for successful survival and development. It can be debated that this is a hopeless and/or unnecessary task, but I am very reluctant to accept this position. This is simply a way, for me to actualize some kind of meaningfulness and purpose to human ( my) existence. It would also be a kind of penance for the irresponsible mindless waste and destruction of the earth’s resources that humanity has perpetrated for the past 500 years.
The acquisition of physical knowledge of the world has been a long and difficult process. It has been aided greatly by the ready availability of energy sources and related technology. To allow its demise, I think, would be, an unforgivable act of omission.
The technologies available today are not sufficiently robust and capable of preserving material longer than approximately a thousand years, at best. My view is that at least a ten thousand year time period needs to be framed and longer, if feasible. This creates the possibility for the appearance of developments that can be used to generate human adaptation to future circumstances.
Prior to an actual effort is the necessity to conceptualize what would be of real value, at that point in time. I think a main “given” would be an environment of low energy utilization rates. This concept may be one means to filter out what will not be available and can be put aside as non-useful information. For example, no mass entertainment activities or space shots, (do I repeat myself, here ?) .
Offhand, I cannot think of any means except the use of lasers to burn letters through thin, high nickel content, stainless steel sheet. This results in a ”stencil”, that can be used to reproduce the information with simple materials. There would be a need to protect the produced stencil “library” in various ways, from destruction through the short sighted interests of salvagers, “religious” or political entities and the like. Beyond this, I am bereft of imagination. I think this work needs to be started very soon, before the energy resources to do it become unavailable. Others should be engaged to work on this issue and that an attempt at implementation should be made. Participating in this project would help channel people into “doing something” for the long haul, similar to the efforts of monks in the previous era of social disorganization.
I hope these thoughts are of some value and will be responded to.
Ben Simon

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

DeAnander, I never married, but my strongest friendships have been based on equal parts of enjoying each other's company and collaborating on projects. What you write makes sense to me.

Mr. Nemeth, I disagree with one statement in your post on loss of story. I believe there has never been a time when the United States had more religious freedom than it has right now. Religious freedom has widespread popular support and is backed by many organizations and most institutions. Religious diversity is growing in all parts of the country. Being unchurched is a social and economic handicap in the more conservative parts of the country, and a bar to being elected to the highest political offices, but is otherwise unremarked.

Though conservative Christianity is making headway in writing its views about human reproduction back into law, in other areas it cares about (content of popular media, sexual mores, gender identity) this faction has a tenth of the power it had in the 1950s.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

I wrote a high school term paper on clipper ships. Clippers were faster than previous oceangoing freight carriers in large part because of systematic, incremental, model-based improvements in hull design. There were highly competitive design and building shipyards in New and old England.

I learned that clipper ships performed as well as the steam powered vessels of their era. Their speed required large, skilled crews to adjust dozens of sails to constantly changing conditions. Labor costs, not technical inferiority, did them in.

During the transition from sail to steam, there were hybrid vessels, which I imagine had the same sorts of advantages and disadvantages as hybrid automobiles.

John Michael Greer said...

Ben, to borrow a Russian proverb, it's not helpful to let the perfect become the enemy of the good. The dark age following the collapse of a civilization usually lasts between 500 and 1000 years, and there are plenty of technologies that can preserve written documents that long -- ordinary sheepskin parchment, if it's kept dry, will do the trick. You might also consider finding ways to encourage the survival of living traditions of knowledge -- for example, making sure that enough people know how to practice the scientific method would go a long ways toward helping that crucial bit of knowledge make it through the mess ahead.

Unknown Deborah, square-rigged sailing ships are an extremely efficient technology; the great drawback, as with all wind-powered technologies, is intermittency. My guess is that future ocean travel will involve square-rigged or junk-rigged ships with backup diesel engines, burning biodiesel, for the kind of prolonged calms that used to be the windjammer's bane back in the day.

DeAnander said...

Re: clipper and other ships. Two things guaranteed the complete predominance of infernal combustion -- the conversion was a runaway trend once it started. One was (as noted) the elimination of paying jobs by substituting fossil slaves for wage slaves: when fossil fuel was cheap, the argument was irresistible to profit-seekers. The other was compelling even to the independent small fisherman, and that was predictability, reliability; the infernal machines permitted you to be someplace when you planned to be, and to get out of places and situations that were getting sketchy or out of control. The whole predictable/reliable nexus -- which translates to "increasingly insulated from the realities of the natural world around me" -- is fundamental to civilisation (I think I was rabbitting on about this earlier). It's very, very attractive and seductive and quickly addictive.

I have sailed with and without engines, and it's a very rare purist who manages to get far (and stay out of trouble) going strictly engineless. Even the famous Pardeys are known to have accepted quite a few tows in their time :-)

Anyway, as a long time sailor, and builder of a cambered Hasler/Kverneland rig (trad 3-master), I could go on until everyone starts scrolling desperately past :-) there's a *lot* to be said and thought about the revival of sail transport. For now I'll just remark that I hope to live to see it!

Robert Mathiesen said...

@ Deborah Bender:

Well into the middle 1800s religious freedom was a regional thing in British North America, varying enormously from one colony (later, one state) to another. It was, for example, absolute and protected by law in Rhode Island, and nearly so in Plymouth (the old colony), Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and the south-east corner of Connecticut. In other colonies, the picture was different, but again it varied from one colony to the next.

In all periods up to the Civil War, the sparsely settled western frontier was religiously free, as a simple consequence of being sparsely settled and weakly governed. Only after the Civil War and the closing of the frontier (conventionally, 1870) did the concept of a Christian United States really get much traction, and even so it never got enough for any of the so-called "Christian Amendments" to the Constitution to have the ghost of a chance of passing. A lot of the opposition to the idea of a Christian USA and various Christian Amendments came from the alternative religions and occult movements, which flourished as never before in the USA from about 1850 onward.

Actually, the nadir of religions freedom in the USA (as a whole, not just in specific states) was probably the period between about 1940 and 1970, when you and I were growing up. That was, I think, the first *nation-wide* "blip" in the history of religious freedom in the USA.

Chris G said...

JMG, I appreciate the response, and the overall context you've been discussing, the cycles in time. I am hoping you will delve into discussions of what the self is, since it's so related to the matter of time. To understand oneself as related to and part of 200 years from now... that's a big change for people to make in their mental categories.

Regarding the Fed's movements: on the one hand it's strange, as St Louis Fed Regional guy commented: since inflation was still below target, usually the response would be more QE, especially since unemployment is still high. So there's more to it; the usual metrics are not predictive.

The reaction to Fed comments was first in stocks. Money drained out and started looking for other places. The StL Fed guy said bonds start having a better return than stocks, so money goes into bonds, prices spike, later level out. Lots of private liquidity will flow into the bonds, short term during that rate spike.

Other Fed comments suggest that the Fed wanted others to take up some slack from the U.S. public coffers. lots of foreign national banks responded with announcements of liquidity easing if in the absence of Fed action that might become necessary: China and other East Asian countries, as well as the ECB announced they will proceed with their growth, inflation, unemployment targets.

So overall the Fed is shifting the burden to those other nations and to other private sources, not public debt. Partly, they want buy-in; the Fed feels its responsibility for short-term stability is done.

Also, the Fed Bankers' comments seemed to suggest to me that they're saying, "enough has been done on the monetary side, so work on the fiscal side, because we've identified a number of structural problems, notably unemployment (inflation has not been a problem); so take what money you have and put it to work." Contrasting with the monetary side, which kind of boils down to money supply; the fiscal side has many more options and is much more complicated, which helps explain the overall political paralysis. Tax rates versus social welfare being primary, but myriad other options are left for "what to do with the money." The helicopter is really the least effective possible use of money.

I think also the Fed competes with the ECB and has interests in breaking up the EU currency union, so has another reason to shift burdens off to other central banks; effectively the Fed says to the ECB, "you want liquidity, you raise your debt; we're on break." And if the ECB can't hold it together, that just makes Europe an easier target for property-grabs during the decline.

Chris G said...

To finish up about the Fed: China is an interesting dilemma too. I wonder if they may be contemplating militarization. If I was them, I don't think I'd fully trust the U.S. to honor its debts. China made some rather bland comments to the effect that they hoped the U.S. would honor debts, during the debt ceiling crisis. And what are they going to do about it? considering we're well positioned on much of the world's key resources... If they show signs of militarization, we cut them off. But what direction can China grow into? It's well-positioned in physical capital and labor. Even if they effectively keep giving things away in return for debt.. can they expect everyone to pay those debts back in a contracting situation? Or should we expect China to go on its own little splurge right as we start heading into decline? What form does that take? Land grabs all over the world? We won't stand for it, on too large a scale. Debt is just words on paper, a gun speaks a different tune.

And that's a huge dynamic I think: military superiority, at present, and we can control much of the global market. This makes US public debt more secure than anywhere else. Our debt is high, though not off-the-charts like some: yet our interest rates remain incredibly low - periodically, lower than inflation, which is pretty remarkable. It means effectively people are paying the government to keep their money safe. That suggests no one is really concerned about US default, since if we default, that means the global power structure crumbles, currencies become vague suggestions, and all that's left is war anyway. It also turns into a positive feedback loop: more debt needs more military needs more rates stay low even though we have huge debt, because there's nowhere safer to put money.

Our military creates an interesting situation during the step-downward decline: as things contract, money floods into the safe-harbor US bonds; this props up the military with debt, extending our reach over resources, making the safe-harbor bonds even safer. (Manufacture whatever excuse to invade a market that might be needed.) Countering these positive feedbacks are some negative feedbacks: resource limitations, public opinion worldwide, mainly (I can't think of others.) But the main point is, the strong U.S. military makes U.S. debt bonds a safe-harbor that not much really counteracts. I think this will play a large role in how things could play out in the descent.

Leo said...

The future of sailing ships seems an to be a topic people are interested in. Quite a lot to it as well.


Off-topic yes, but the topic we're on now is a fairly important one.

The advantage if we go back to wooden ships a few centuries from now. A technique was invented (can't remember what it is, don't have the book on me) just as wooden ships stopped being built that allows a far greater size, think it was around 10x bigger.

@ Nomadicista

I have a book "history of warships" by James L.George. I don't have it with me and I can't remember the exact examples, but I will have it in a few days if you want the details.

One of the trends he mentioned is that at the end of any naval era/major technology, the solution to it's major problems are solved. Above I mentioned for wooden ships which can be far bigger now.

This trend was around for galleys (oars), sailing ships, ironclads, wooden ships, boarding, cannon warfare and so on. The reason that commercial rig design stopped was because it was dying (to diesel) not because advances had stopped happening. And so they never got implemented in a major way.

Low tech Magazine: Sailing at the touch of a button. "The 1902 Preussen (pictured here yesterday) was the first ship to automate sail handling. It had no auxiliary engines for propulsion, but it made use of steam power for the operation of the winches, hoists and pumps." You could do the same with electric motors and I remember someone talking about using knots for automatic sails.

The same trend has appeared for windmills. A huge range of advances appeared, just as they were being phased out and too late to save them.

That's why the question is what survives. These only matter if they survive and are passed on.

Stephen Heyer said...

Glenn: “And due to explosives, wooden hulls have to be clad in iron ('ironclad').”

“So other materials would likely be best for the next few centuries. Ferrocement, fiberglass, aluminum, steel, iron and so on. Sails should remain wool or fiber.”

I don’t understand? Warships perhaps, but what has that to do with trading vessels? There are plenty of wooden commercial vessels in various parts of the world doing a perfectly good job right now.

And remember that we were discussing bioengineered (including but not limited to genetic engineered) laminated timber for ships. That is going to be one tough material.

I don’t expect front line military vessels to be much different to current designs, at least given John Greer’s implied model of no major technological breakthroughs, (i.e. Cold Fusion, Vacuum Energy, whatever). Except, that is, that they’ll probably burn coal rather than oil as coal will probably remain available for high priority government use for hundreds of years.

Long range patrol vessels of course will be designed to be fast under both sail and engine.

Stephen Heyer

Jasmine said...

Dear Mr Greer. Excellent post. I am an environmentalist. However one of the major problems with environmentalism is that environmentalists keep on making apocalyptic predictions of catastrophe or collapse within the next 10 to 20 years. The trouble is that we find that 10 to 20 years later we are still here and that things seem to be going along perfectly well. It is hardly surprising that people stop believing what environmentalists say.

Of course there is a lot of environmental damage going on under the placid surface of western consumer society. We are also beginning to run in to the limits to growth brought about by the peaking of oil supply and resource scarcity. However because we have not yet run into the apocalyptic catastrophes predicted by environmentalist and by some peak oilers, it is very easy to dismiss their predictions. Unfortunately the emphasis on apocalyptic predictions has done a great disservice to environmentalism

nomadicista said...

There is somewhat of a misconception about the costs of running sailing ships. It is certainly not a speed issue, as sail power held the Atlantic crossing record until well into the 20th century. But, as JMG mentioned it is intermittency that is the big problem.
The economic worth of a ship is in how many voyages it makes in the life of the hull. If you are floating around waiting for the wind to pick up, you are not making paying voyages, while the economic life of the ship is still ebbing away. Another issue, which my Great Grandfather experienced, was getting hit by a big storm which destroyed the rig and blew the ship past the country of destination (New Zealand). It took them six weeks to get back, after a change in weather and having rebuilt the rig.
That said, in the last few years, shipping lines have taken to a policy of slow steaming, to reduce fuel costs, this is a world wide behavior now.
As a note on the power of sail, unlike engine power, you cannot de-power sail at will, the way you can with an engine. This can and did result in ships being driven straight through waves, instead of over them.

sgage said...

@ Sail Transport Afficianados:

Here are a few references gleaned from that may be of interest:

Building the Vermont Sail Freight Project

Sail Transport for New York City Takes Shape

Holland's Sail Transport Success Today

wiseman said...

There is some work going on in this regard.

Adrian Skilling said...

Thanks for educating me about the possible CO2 dumping mechanisms, I was totally unaware of these anoxic events. Of course its not terribly comforting to get a large scale extinction of marine life, and shutdown of the Thermohaline current would make the UK (where I live) rather chilly. However, this isn't totally extinction of all lifeforms so technically this is the wide expanse of middle ground - and obviously much harder to face because of this. Of course we are already in a large scale extinction event, it just doesn't feel like it to most people.

Talking of feedback I see that Mark Carney (Canadian) , previously CEO takes over at the Bank of England. He is reportedly very keen to monetary policies such as QE, so I expect to see some positive feedback actions shortly hence making a crash deeper.

It seems to me that a common pattern in feedback mechanisms is that inappropriate positive feedback actions will be applied for a while. Think of, pumping up the next bubble with QE, government underwriting of mortgages to boost house prices, spending on low EROEI energy sources. Eventually nature fights back with a big dose of negative feedback mechanisms and we collapse down to the next stage in a catabolic collapse. Your theory seems incredibly convincing to me.

Roger said...


You are right, and I say the same thing, that a few hundred CEOs dictated US trade policy for their own benefit, for the sake of their own enrichment and to the detriment of the common citizen. It's the same thing where I live, half of all workers according to one widely quoted study, now work in so-called "precarious" occupations, that is, in jobs that are part-time, short-term with poor pay and sparse or no benefits.

This place used to be an industrial power. No more. My home town used to have a plant that employed 2,000 men plus a steel mill, two flour mills, a shoe factory and a cement plant. All gone. Boarded up businesses and brownfields everywhere. Nothing but the dead and dying back in my little town.

And you wonder about the logic of it. Through offshoring these titans of industry collectively destroyed the manufacturing capacity of the US (and that of other countries, including mine) and consequently destroyed the incomes of the middle class and the consumer market that used to buy the products that their companies made. So, a question: is the bankruptcy of the US government and the recent succession of financial crises the logical consequence to the offshoring? To put it another way: were the various recent financial crises, at least in part, the financial echoes to events happening in the real economy?

And you wonder also about this so-called military/industrial complex. Looks like the industrial half of the complex, that used to supply and finance the military half, got up and left. Every last nut and bolt of productive capacity, that could be offshored, was offshored. Their former workforce in the US, who used to earn a decent buck and who paid the taxes that financed military expenditures, was replaced with foreign, dollar an hour labour that cannot afford to buy the products that they make. And most importantly, don't pay taxes to US treasuries.

These mighty industries are now on Chinese soil and within easy reach of a giant, rapidly modernising, nuclear armed and notably unsqueamish Chinese military. How can this have happened? I mean, think of it, to build up the economic and war-making capacity of a foreign, unfriendly power, to put your industrial assets in the clutches of a hostile army? And to hobble the country that you rely on to protect you and to defend your interests? Could these geniuses in the C-suites possibly have been this boneheaded? What am I missing here?

Roger said...

Begging your indulgence JMG, I have a few more bits here to cap off my earlier post:

The western managerial class that was behind this history making shift of productive resources and power may have fattened their wallets for now. But what are they without the American social, legal, governing and military infrastructure that they've done so much to undermine? What power do they have? Who makes laws to suit the interests of this managerial class, who maintains the judicial systems that enforce their claims, who raises the troops and police forces that protect their lives and assets? Where does the money come from to pay for all this?

And who does this managerial class think will defend them? An enfeebled US government that's drowning in debt and corruption? Or do they think the Chinese will step up? I say the Chinese, given half a chance, will eat them alive and pick them clean. Mercenaries? Will a mercenary step in front of a bullet to save an American plutocrat? Not likely.

The C-suite suits may think they live at 30,000 feet but they don't. They may think that they're self suffcient but they're not. They rely on a social and economic "eco-system" to survive just like everyone else. They may think that they wield power through their briefcases and lawyers, they may think they can do what they want and they may even think that money talks.

But I say that, at the end of the day, the suits live at the sufferance of armed men. Do you think the CEO of Wal Mart is powerful? Who is more powerful, the CEO of Wal Mart or the army general (whether he's Chinese or American) that commands infantry divisions? Who is CEO Mike Duke going to deploy? His minimun wage work force? Money may "talk" but I think Mao was right, power comes from the barrel of a gun.

So, my question is this: Is the US military blind to the enormity of what's been done? Maybe they are. But will they eventually wake up? What if they do? What is the likelihood that senior US officers, growing ever more dismayed at the economic decline and financial corruption and political disarray engulfing the US, decide to take matters into their own hands? (Would this qualify as a negative feedback loop?)

I'm in no way shape or form arguing in favour of a military coup. I put it out there as a possibility. Most of us tend towards optimism, we'd rather think the best of people rather than the worst. But the events of the last century don't give me much cause for optimism.

So I'm wondering, will an American Army general become a modern day Odoacer? And will an American President become the modern day Romulus Augustulus? Can you picture a US citizenry, so fed up with their declining circumstances and fed up with Wall Street and Washington, actually welcoming such a development?

Mark Angelini said...

negative feedback loops are incredible. In the sense of putting food up: canning, dehydrating, and fermenting are the negative feedbacks I use to keep the positive feedback of decomposition at bay until the food enters my digestive system.

Also, since you mentioned the successional pathways of grasslands regarding carbon sequestration, there's a whole gang of graziers and farmers employing ruminants in intensively managed systems of grass, productive trees/shrubs, and animals that rapidly stores carbon as humus and produces food with super minimal input. That's some productive negative feedback looping...

Grebulocities said...

I wonder - is there a reason that ironclad battleships and subsequent all-metal ships were only invented around the time fossil fuels replaced wind as the most common way ships were powered? I can't think of a reason a metal ship couldn't have been made in 1800, but if memory serves me right, there were none in existence at the time.

Phil Harris said...

I think I understand your necessary distinction between a ‘discontinuity’ and an ‘apocalypse’, both in the various historical examples and in the current American mind. (‘Collapse’ seems an ill-defined notion between the two. ‘Apocalypses’ seem historically to have been few and rather local, though they left lasting impressions.) I would make an additional category – the so-called ‘existential threat’ to a national or trans-national entity or identity. These latter threats are defined usually in the context of war or internal subversion.

For example, Britain in 1940 was said to be facing an ‘existential threat’, which even now seems a highly plausible categorisation. In the mind of Winston Churchill it included a threat to the continuing existence of the British Empire – which latter of course was indeed finally unravelled by the war. (Churchill later seems personally to have ‘squared’ this loss by focussing on an entity he called ‘The English Speaking Peoples’; aka the USA, the new hegemon. The USA sought dominance in military projection, trading advantages and client states, rather than in ‘colonial occupation’.)

Invasion and war on American soil seems a remote possibility, although Van Woodward writing in 1952 drew attention to the ongoing effects of having had a ‘defeated and impoverished’ South within the ‘can-do’ triumphalism of the Yankee dominated Union. Conversion of the South, by means of petro-fuelled industrial modernisation and its ‘business’ mode had only just got into its stride. I conclude now though, that, even with an oncoming collapse of the American advantage derived from its global business model (an historical ‘discontinuity’), war on American soil is unlikely for any reason for many decades yet to come? I believe you have already set out your opinion on this, certainly regarding direct invasions. I see though that many Americans fear such an eventuality (‘existential threat’)?

I would like to examine ‘famine’. This can be much more than a ‘discontinuity’ or an ‘existential threat’. Famine can kill 10s of millions very fast (weeks) and displace many more on a scale at least as great as that posed by war, pogrom or attempts at genocide. My brief look suggests, however, that like invasion, famine is not probable in the USA, even if there is a ‘collapse’ of the present inflow of global resources. The USA has all the resources to hand that are necessary to keep Big Farming and essential distribution functioning to feed the urban nation. The ‘joker in the pack’ might be successive climate related disasters, though even these are more likely to affect international food trade, rather than pose a threat of famine in the USA. Home grown vegetables could help a lot of urban people be better fed, but famine can only be prevented by distribution of ‘big’ primary production – grains, legumes and vegetable oil.

Over the next 100 to 300 years of course the trend will move against ‘big farming’ and large urban populations, and such a trend will eventually transform even the USA. But it is unlikely to be sudden at least in your part of the world.

Phil H

Joy said...

Reclaiming and deconstructing Detroit structures - wonderfully catabolic!

Leo said...

@Stephen Heyer

Merchant ships are targets. And if necessary they are press-ganged in times of war.

The two goals of naval war are to deny the enemy use of the seas for shipping and secure friendly shipping.

Then theirs all the pirates, privateers, corsairs and so on.

Merchants used to be armed, they will be again in the future.

It's not a matter of wood not being tough, wood is a fairly solid material. But the type of force.

I don't remember the details, but wood can resist cannonballs, while explosives shatter it.

Military ships will look incredibly different, simply because their goals and enviroment is.

Coal isn't actually that useful for them, too bulky and heavy. Liquid fuels are better while sails work strategically.

@ Grebulocities

It was linked, but not dependent.

Before a couple of metallurgical tricks were found, iron plates would shatter when cannonballs hit it. The forces of an explosion and a cannonball are different.

Also, they were still figuring out how to lower the heat and charcoal cost of making iron and steel.

eric said...

What the Fed did hardly qualifies as Bernanke's famous "helicopter" strategy. Yes, the money supply increased, but it's by no means clear that the money was reaching actual people with the means to spend it. Instead it probably served to shore up the balance sheets of big banks, which did NOT spend it. Also, during the years after the crisis, state and local governments cut spending. So there was hardly the glut of money sloshing into the economy that some people like to pretend. But thanks for the post--mostly very wise as usual.