Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Dark Age America: The Fragmentation of Technology

It was probably inevitable that last week’s discussion of the way that contemporary science is offering itself up as a sacrifice on the altar of corporate greed and institutional arrogance would field me a flurry of responses that insisted that I must hate science.  This is all the more ironic in that the shoddy logic involved in that claim also undergirded George W. Bush’s famous and fatuous insistence that the Muslim world is riled at the United States because “they hate our freedom.”

In point of fact, the animosity felt by many Muslims toward the United States is based on specific grievances concerning specific acts of US foreign policy. Whether or not those grievances are justified is a matter I don’t propose to get into here; the point that’s relevant to the current discussion is that the grievances exist, they relate to identifiable actions on the part of the US government, and insisting that the animosity in question is aimed at an abstraction instead is simply one of the ways that Bush, or for that matter his equally feckless successor, have tried to sidestep any discussion of the means, ends, and cascading failures of US policy toward the Middle East and the rest of the Muslim world.

In the same way, it’s very convenient to insist that people who ask hard questions about the way that contemporary science has whored itself out to economic and political interests, or who have noticed gaps between the claims about reality made by the voices of the scientific mainstream and their own lived experience of the world, just hate science. That evasive strategy makes it easy to brush aside questions about the more problematic dimensions of science as currently practiced. This isn’t a strategy with a long shelf life; responding to a rising spiral of problems by insisting that the problems don’t exist and denouncing those who demur is one of history’s all-time bad choices, but intellectuals in falling civilizations all too often try to shore up the crumbling foundations of their social prestige and privilege via that foredoomed approach.

Central to the entire strategy is a bit of obfuscation that treats “science” as a monolithic unity, rather than the complex and rather ramshackle grab-bag of fields of study, methods of inquiry, and theories about how different departments of nature appear to work. There’s no particular correlation between, let’s say, the claims made for the latest heavily marketed and dubiously researched pharmaceutical, on the one hand, and the facts of astronomy, evolutionary biology, or agronomy on the other; and someone can quite readily find it impossible to place blind faith in the pharmaceutical and the doctor who’s pushing it on her, while enjoying long nights observing the heavens through a telescope, delighting in the elegant prose and even more elegant logic of Darwin’s The Origin of Species, or running controlled experiments in her backyard on the effectiveness of compost as a soil amendment. To say that such a person “hates science” is to descend from meaningful discourse to thoughtstopping noise.

The habit of insisting that science is a single package, take it or leave it, is paralleled by the equivalent and equally specious insistence that there is this single thing called “technology,” that objecting to any single component of that alleged unity amounts to rejecting all of it, and that you’re not allowed to pick and choose among technologies—you have to take all of it or reject it all. I field this sort of nonsense all the time. It so happens, for example, that I have no interest in owning a cell phone, never got around to playing video games, and have a sufficiently intense fondness for books printed on actual paper that I’ve never given more than a passing thought to the current fad for e-books.

I rarely mention these facts to those who don’t already know them, because it’s a foregone conclusion that if I do so, someone will ask me whether I hate technology.  Au contraire, I’m fond of slide rules, love rail travel, cherish an as yet unfulfilled ambition to get deep into letterpress printing, and have an Extra class amateur radio license; all these things entail enthusiastic involvement with specific technologies, and indeed affection for them; but if I mention these points in response to the claim that I must hate technology, the responses I get range from baffled incomprehension to angry dismissal.

“Technology,” in the mind of those who make such claims, clearly doesn’t mean what the dictionary says it means.  To some extent, of course, it amounts to whatever an assortment of corporate and political marketing firms want you to buy this week, but there’s more to it than that. Like the word “science,” “technology” has become a buzzword freighted with a vast cargo of emotional, cultural, and (whisper this) political meanings.  It’s so densely entangled with passionately felt emotions, vast and vague abstractions, and frankly mythic imagery that many of those who use the word can’t explain what they mean by it, and get angry if you ask them to try.

The flattening out of the vast diversity of technologies, in the plural, into a single monolithic shape guarded by unreasoning emotions would be problematic under any conditions. When a civilization that depends on the breakneck exploitation of nonrenewable resources is running up against the unyielding limits of a finite planet, with resource depletion and pollution in a neck-and-neck race to see which one gets to bring the industrial project to an end first, it’s a recipe for disaster. A sane response to the predicament of our time would have to start by identifying the technological suites that will still be viable in a resource-constrained and pollution-damaged environment, and then shift as much vital infrastructure to those as possible with the sharply limited resources we have left. Our collective thinking about technology is so muddled by unexamined emotions, though, that it doesn’t matter now obviously necessary such a project might be: it remains unthinkable.

Willy-nilly, though, the imaginary monolith of “technology” is going to crumble, because different technologies have wildly varying resource requirements, and they vary just as drastically in terms of their importance to the existing order of society. As resource depletion and economic contraction tighten their grip on the industrial world, the stock of existing and proposed technologies face triage in a continuum defined by two axes—the utility of the technology, on the one hand, and its cost in real (i.e., nonfinancial) terms on the other. A chart may help show how this works.

 This is a very simplified representation of the frame in which decisions about technology are made. Every kind of utility from the demands of bare survival to the whims of fashion is lumped in together and measured on the vertical axis, and every kind of nonfinancial cost from energy and materials straight through to such intangibles as opportunity cost is lumped in together and measured on the horizontal axis. In an actual analysis, of course, these variables would be broken out and considered separately; the point of a more schematic view of the frame, like this one, is that it allows the basic concepts to be grasped more easily.

The vertical and horizontal lines that intersect in the middle of the graph are similarly abstractions from a complex reality. The horizontal line represents the boundary between those technologies which have enough utility to be worth building and maintaining, which are above the line, and those which have too little utility to be worth the trouble, which are below it. The vertical line represents the boundary between those technologies which are affordable and those that are not. In the real world, those aren’t sharp boundaries but zones of transition, with complex feedback loops weaving back and forth among them, but again, this is a broad conceptual model.

The intersection of the lines divides the whole range of technology into four categories, which I’ve somewhat unoriginally marked with the first four letters of the alphabet. Category A consists of things that are both affordable and useful, such as indoor plumbing. Category B consists of things that are affordable but useless, such as electrically heated underwear for chickens. Category C consists of things that are useful but unaffordable, such as worldwide 30-minute pizza delivery from low earth orbit. Category D, rounding out the set, consists of things that are neither useful nor affordable, such as—well, I’ll let my readers come up with their own nominees here.

Now of course the horizontal and vertical lines aren’t fixed; they change position from one society to another, from one historical period to another, and indeed from one community, family, or individual to another. (To me, for example, cell phones belong in category B, right next to the electrically heated chicken underwear; other people would doubtless put them in somewhere else on the chart.) Every society, though, has a broad general consensus about what goes in which category, which is heavily influenced by but by no means entirely controlled by the society’s political class.  That consensus is what guides its collective decisions about funding or defunding technologies.

With the coming of the industrial revolution, both of the lines shifted substantially from their previous position, as shown in the second chart. Obviously, the torrent of cheap abundant energy gave the world’s industrial nations access to an unparalleled wealth of resources, and this pushed the dividing line between what was affordable and what was unaffordable quite a ways over toward the right hand side of the chart. A great many things that had been desirable but unaffordable to previous civilizations swung over from category C into category A as fossil fuels came on line. This has been discussed at great length here and elsewhere in the peak oil blogosphere.

Less obviously, the dividing line between what was useful and what was useless also shifted quite a bit toward the bottom of the chart, moving a great many things from category B into category A. To follow this, it’s necessary to grasp the concept of technological suites. A technological suite is a set of interdependent technologies that work together to achieve a common purpose. Think of the relationship between cars and petroleum drilling, computer chips and the clean-room filtration systems required for their manufacture, or commercial airliners and ground control radar. What connects each pair of technologies is that they belong to the same technological suite. If you want to have the suite, you must either have all the elements of the suite in place, or be ready to replace any absent element with something else that can serve the same purpose.

For the purpose of our present analysis, we can sort out the component technologies of a technological suite into three very rough categories. There are interface technologies, which are the things with which the end user interacts—in the three examples just listed, those would be private cars, personal computers, and commercial flights to wherever you happen to be going. There are support technologies, which are needed to produce, maintain, and operate the output technologies; they make up far and away the majority of technologies in a technological suite—consider the extraordinary range of  technologies it takes to manufacture a car from raw materials, maintain it, fuel it, provide it with roads on which to drive, and so on. Some interface technologies and most support technologies can be replaced with other technologies as needed, but some of both categories can’t; we can put those that can’t be replaced bottleneck technologies, for reasons that will become clear shortly.

What makes this relevant to the charts we’ve been examining is that most support technologies have no value aside from the technological suites to which they belong and the interface technologies they serve. Without commercial air travel, for example, most of the specialized technologies found at airports are unnecessary. Thus a great many things that once belonged in category B—say, automated baggage carousels—shifted into category A with the emergence of the technological suite that gave them utility. Thus category A balloons with the coming of industrialization, and it kept getting bigger as long as energy and resource use per capita in the industrial nations kept on increasing.

Once energy and resource use per capita peak and begin their decline, though, a different reality comes into play, leading over time to the situation shown in the third chart.

 As cheap abundant energy runs short, and it and all its products become expensive, scarce, or both, the vertical line slides inexorably toward the left. That’s obvious enough. Less obviously, the horizontal line also slides upwards. The reason, here again, is the interrelationship of individual technologies into technological suites. If commercial air travel stops being economically viable, the support technologies that belong to that suite are no longer needed. Even if they’re affordable enough to stay on the left hand side of the vertical line, the technologies needed to run automated baggage carousels thus no longer have enough utility to keep them above the horizontal line, and down they drop into category B.

That’s one way that a technology can drop out of use. It’s just as possible, of course, for something that would still have ample utility to cost too much in terms of real wealth to be an option in a contracting society, and slide across the border into category C. Finally, it’s possible for something to do both at once—to become useless and unaffordable at something like the same time, as economic contraction takes away the ability to pay for the technology and the ability to make use of it at the same time.

It’s also possible for a technology that remains affordable, and participates in a technological suite that’s still capable of meeting genuine needs, to tumble out of category A into one of the others. This can happen because the cost of different technologies differ qualitatively, and not just quantitatively. If you need small amounts of niobium for the manufacture of blivets, and the handful of niobium mines around the world stop production—whether this happens because the ore has run out, or for some other reason, environmental, political, economic, cultural, or what have you—you aren’t going to be able to make blivets any more. That’s one kind of difficulty if it’s possible to replace blivets with something else, or substitute some other rare element for the niobium; it’s quite another, and much more challenging, if blivets made with niobium are the only thing that will work for certain purposes, or the only thing that makes those purposes economically viable.

It’s habitual in modern economics to insist that such bottlenecks don’t exist, because there’s always a viable alternative. That sort of thinking made a certain degree of sense back when energy per capita was still rising, because the standard way to get around material shortages for a century now has been to throw more energy, more technology, and more complexity into the mix. That’s how low-grade taconite ores with scarcely a trace of iron in them have become the mainstay of today’s iron and steel industry; all you have to do is add fantastic amounts of cheap energy, soaring technological complexity, and an assortment of supply and resource chains reaching around the world and then some, and diminishing ore quality is no problem at all.

It’s when you don’t have access to as much cheap energy, technological complexity, and baroque supply chains as you want that this sort of logic becomes impossible to sustain. Once this point is reached, bottlenecks become an inescapable feature of life. The bottlenecks, as already suggested, don’t have to be technological in nature—a bottleneck technology essential to a given technological suite can be perfectly feasible, and still out of reach for other reasons—but whatever generates them, they throw a wild card into the process of technological decline that shapes the last years of a civilization on its way out, and the first few centuries of the dark age that follows.

The crucial point to keep in mind here is that one bottleneck technology, if it becomes inaccessible for any reason, can render an entire technological suite useless, and compromise other technological suites that depend on the one directly affected. Consider the twilight of ceramics in the late Roman empire. Rome’s ceramic industry operated on as close to an industrial scale as you can get without torrents of cheap abundant energy; regional factories in various places, where high-quality clay existed, produced ceramic goods in vast amounts and distributed them over Roman roads and sea lanes to the far corners of the empire and beyond it. The technological suite that supported Roman dishes and roof tiles thus included transport technologies, and those turned out to be the bottleneck: as long-distance transport went away, the huge ceramic factories could no longer market their products and shut down, taking with them every element of their technological suite that couldn’t be repurposed in a hurry.

The same process affected many other technologies that played a significant role in the Roman world, and for that matter in the decline and fall of every other civilization in history. The end result can best be described as technological fragmentation: what had been a more or less integrated whole system of technology, composed of many technological suites working together more or less smoothly, becomes a jumble of disconnected technological suites, nearly all of them drastically simplified compared to their pre-decline state, and many of them jerry-rigged to make use of still-viable fragments of technological suites whose other parts didn’t survive their encounter with one bottleneck or another.  In places where circumstances permit, relatively advanced technological suites can remain in working order long after the civilization that created them has perished—consider the medieval cities that got their water from carefully maintained Roman aqueducts a millennium after Rome’s fall—while other systems operate at far simpler levels, and other regions and communities get by with much simpler technological suites.

All this has immediate practical importance for those who happen to live in a civilization that’s skidding down the curve of its decline and fall—ours, for example. In such a time, as noted above, one critical task is to identify the technological suites that will still be viable in the aftermath of the decline, and shift as much vital infrastructure as possible over to depend on those suites rather than on those that won’t survive the decline. In terms of the charts above, that involves identifying those technological suites that will still be in category A when the lines stop shifting up and to the left, figuring out how to work around any bottleneck technologies that might otherwise cripple them, and get the necessary knowledge into circulation among those who might be able to use it, so that access to information doesn’t become a bottleneck of its own

That sort of analysis, triage, and salvage is among the most necessary tasks of our time, especially for those who want to see viable technologies survive the end of our civilization, and it’s being actively hindered by the insistence that the only possible positive attitude toward technology is sheer blind faith. For connoisseurs of irony, it’s hard to think of a more intriguing spectacle. The impacts of that irony on the future, though, are complex, and will be the subject of several upcoming posts here.


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MindfulEcologist said...

There are some technologies I consider to be revelatory; they assist in uncovering details of our world that would be inaccessible without them. The microscope, telescope and prism featured in my post this week where I tried to explain how they might be used in this role by examining how having a hand lens always close by prompts one to look again at what we so easily take for granted.

I have worn out three of these little lenses over the years. Might I recommend that perhaps many of your readers might find the same practice a source of wonder and generally beneficial?

Btw – thank you very much for suggesting After Virtue. It is a rare treat to encounter such a profound work.

Ventriloquist said...

The family down the street,
they are suffering,
they are hungry,
they are insecure
she spoke, slowly, measuredly.

Well, he said,
searching vainly
for words,
we can
give them some food,
is that any good?

Maybe, she said,
They need much more,
they need our comfort.

pyrrhus said...

A very interesting subject! Arbitrarily grouping some popular technologies of the moment, we have: 1.Internet marketing and social media related to the use of laptops and smartphones, including Amazon, FaceBook and their many competitors and thousands of related apps and sites. Most of the IPO money has gone to this group. Not innovative in most senses and completely dependent upon cheap transportation costs. If transportation costs triple, most of this group is DOA.
2.Medical technology, almost all of it highly expensive, and generally falling into the drug or the device category, with some procedural stuff like organ transplants, IVF, and vanity surgery. Most of it isn't cost effective and much of it, especially surgery and drugs with major side effects, isn't effective at all in a net sense. In a Malthusian society, 99% of it would disappear overnight.
3. Really practical technology, like thermal windows and various superior materials applications. Will stick around as long as no materials bottlenecks.
4. Computers and various internet related technology--important for control at all levels, and will be supported by the Governments until they can't--but would lose much of its utility if the internet is shut down or heavily censored.
5. Consumer products that require distant sourcing--see your Roman Empire illustration.

Ruben said...

JMG, this is a very interesting and important explanation.

For those who enjoy thinking about technology, I cannot reccommend highly enough Ursula Franklin's "Real World of Technology."

Violet Cabra said...

Earlier today, while harvesting carrots, I engaged in a conversation with a coworker about health care modalities that quickly spiralled into a theological debate. He owned the fact that he considered ALL modalities of healing that aren't included in the strict canon of Western Medicine to be quakery, at best examples of the placebo effect. I asked him that, since the placebo effect is frequently both effective and harmless, IF certain healing modalities make effective use of the placebo, isn't that a valid form of healing? He attempted to construct several straw man arguments before the conversation fizzled. My coworker was completely unwilling to acknowledge anything not transparent to the human intellect

I'm wryly amused by the blind faith in "technology" that persists in so many despite:

1) the rather obvious and acknowledged downsides of complex technologies.

2) the rather obvious and acknowledged fact that the resources that fuel said technologies are running out.

I don't know how this blind faith will play out as the future unfolds, but I doubt it will be pretty.

In reply to suites of technology with varying levels of staying power that is one of the reasons why I've spent such a long time learning the ins and outs of gardening and am now learning about the ins and outs of farming. Harnessing the photosynthetic capacity of plants is the primary foundation of all other technology be it fire, horticulture, medicine or building. The technologies that we collective use to define the collective meaning of our Civilization may come and go but the garden, the woodlot, the pasture and the field of grain all abide.

Iuval Clejan said...

How does one get the funding for what you propose (I have proposed something similar for a while)? It just takes land, tools and startup food, until they can be produced. It does take a coordinated effort of at least 200 people. There is still much money available, but usually in the hands of adherents of the Religion of Progress. It is in the realm of changing their consciousness, i.e. magic. Your expertise. It is not enough for all these individuals who are barely scraping by to do their thing. We need a concerted effort. I've been doing all I can, but it isn't enough, and any isolated effort by homesteaders isn't enough.

We are trying to start an institute to do technology research (but of the type you propose) and also free people from the worst middlemen of our society, i.e. landlords. To buy land from them and manage it by groups who use Elinor Ostrom's principles for commons management. But how do we get funding?

William Knight said...

Very nice diagram of technological cost and utility! It is quite provocative.

I would like to propose a particular technological suite for possible triage: information technology, as embodied in our personal networked computing systems. I maintain these technologies will always be useful (above the line). Currently they are squarely in quadrant D with the bottleneck technologies being the densely-patterned silicon chips that must be produced in multi-billion-dollar factories.

I'm not aware of any obvious alternatives that could be mass-produced as the vertical line slides left. Vacuum tubes and relays won't cut it for useful 'low-tech' computing. But perhaps some kind of technology involving organic semiconductors and nanolithography could be cobbled together to produce smaller numbers of less-dense processors and memories. As a computer fiend, it's something I dream about quite a bit for our post-industrial future.

donalfagan said...

These guys at Counterpunch see no point to even green tech if it is service of the same consumer/growth paradigm that got us in this mess.

Shining Hector said...

Interesting post.

I don't know, the four boxes wasn't immediately intuitive, and it seemed rather subjective what goes in what box, and what factors shift the lines.

What actually made more sense to me in visualizing your concept was a single dividing line through the origin. Its slope would be represented by utility/cost. You only have 2 categories that way, but they're useful and don't require a rather arbitrary cut-off. I'd have a hard time justifying keeping something at the lower right area of A and tossing something at the upper left area of B under your system, regardless of where you drew the lines. Board games might be less useful than the Internet, but they're so cheap I'd have a hard time seeing them ever really go away regardless of how tight things got, for instance. In this scheme, basically anything above the line represents a worthwhile use of resources, anything below would not be worthwhile.

The amount of spare resources the society has to spend basically defines the acceptable slope of the divider. Our current society accepts a fairly flat slope, maybe 0.25 or something. Expensive stuff is fine as long as it provides some acceptable amount of utility, and fairly useless stuff is still acceptable as long as it's not too ridiculously expensive, so something at (3, 10) would pass muster, as would something at (1, 3), but (1, 10) would not. As soon as resources get tight, the slope of acceptable cost increases. At a slope of 0.5, anything at less than a 2:1 ratio of cost:utility gets scrapped. Bring the slope to 2 or 3 and only extremely cheap and somewhat useful or modestly priced and extremely useful things survive.

dfr2010 said...

"such as electrically heated underwear for chickens"

Now THAT is a true thoughtstopper ... way too much humor as I immediately had the mental image of trying to put such a thing on my crew out in the coop.

Now, back to attempting to read past that phrase with some semblance of seriousness.

John Michael Greer said...

Ecologist, I see you're also familiar with the properties of crystal balls! I'll be talking about those, and other basic technologies of observational science, in an upcoming post.

Ventriloquist, and of course that's true right here, right now.

Pyrrhus, good. Yes, that's the kind of first-approximation analysis that needs to happen, followed by more detailed examination of what will still be useful and affordable, where the bottlenecks will be, etc.

Ruben, thank you for the tip -- I'll put Franklin's book on the get-to list.

Violet, good on both counts. I've used the same argument on true believers in mainstream medicine, and gotten equally incoherent responses; and as for the skills needed to work with photosynthesis, no argument, those are near the top of the list. It's when those are well in hand that other options can be worth exploring.

Iuval, no, that's not what I'm proposing at all. That sort of funding is not and will not become available; the acreage, the people, etc. are not going to come your way; deal. Instead of pining for something you can't get, why not follow Ernest Thompson Seton's advice instead? "Where you are, with what you have, right now" -- what can you do? Plenty, if you get out from under unproductive daydreams about things you don't have and won't get.

William, fair enough. Are you willing to invest your own time in finding ways around the multiple bottlenecks involved? If something like that is going to happen, it'll be because a handful of computer fiends like you got to work on it -- not at some point in the vague future, but right now. Are you game?

Pinku-Sensei said...

"I’m fond of slide rules, love rail travel, cherish an as yet unfulfilled ambition to get deep into letterpress printing, and have an Extra class amateur radio license..." These look a lot like the the list you posted in January, one that I summarized as 'A Steampunk calculator' and six other sustainable technologies from The Archdruid. I'm glad to see that you're consistent, and not in the manner that is the hobgoblin of little minds. As for what the near future holds, it might look like the "reverse innovation" of technologies intended for the developing world, where the resource constraints awaiting North America already exist, are imported here. I told you about the latter in a comment to "The Steampunk Future Revisited" back in March. I recall you got a good chuckle out of the expression back then, comparing it to the "glorious victories" during Germany's retreat along the Eastern Front.

On the other hand, there are technologies that you have said are headed for the scrap heap and soon. One of them is crewed spaceflight. I bring that up because NASA is testing what it's touting as it's next giant leap, the Orion spacecraft tomorrow. They think it's a new dawn. It may just be a sunset.

Kutamun said...

Yes , the mining industry in western australia here is a classic study of the complexity of tech in an era of decline . It appears that China is simply trying to move the ore mountains wholus bolus from the Pilbara to port facilities in China itself . Old timers tell me that thirty years ago you could strike an arc on the ore as it came out of the ground , such was its iron content , though these days the grade is much lower and this would be impossible , so vast quantities of energy are used to process the metal from it as you say .
Years ago the wise patriarchs of w.a. decreed that mines should be accompanied by fully functioning townships complete with church , footy club school and sporting oval in order to preserve moral and spiritual well being of miner who was able to live with his family ,though this has since given way to the rise of the FIFO " fly in fly out " workforce to work the increasingly robotised and automated site . So we have the full gamut of precision GPS aviation technology which accompanies mining , GPS Satellite tech also presumably guides the driverless trucks , ore trains and ore ships .
One of the side effects of drug the remote often absent FIFO workforce has been depression , divorce , obesity , drug and alcohol addiction among its disenfranchised , increasingly atomised workforce , so i suppose you could include the technologies of crystal meth production and law enforcement in the "mining suite " these days . Mining companies have taken to launching full blown tactical police raids complete with sniffer dogs onto their own worksites to try and contain this problem , which is largely of their own making . ( mining townships tend to form strong communities and hence labor unions ) .
Without going all Ben Von Daneken on you I sometimes think that we are already living among the ruins of unrecognisable ancient technologies ; none of us really know what the pyramids actually are or how they were even constructed ( Pete Lemusurier gives it a shot ) . I wonder if NASA have found any old satellites in orbit that after rubbing away the dust found some ancient sumerian writing, translated " do not remove hatch cover during flight " ?? .

Seems the GPS constellations with their propensity to fix ones temporal position to a set of terrestial map coordinates will be the subject of much myth and legend making in future ; perhaps they will become a new set of Gods ? . I like how in the recent movie "Interstellar" some scientist turned corn farmers bring down an old solar powered military drone which is still circling the globe many years after the industrial project has ground to a halt ..
Cheers Mates

ivar laegreid said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John Michael Greer said...

Donalfagan, I'm delighted to hear it. The insistence that we can keep on sustaining our unsustainable lifestyles via green tech is one of the major forces keeping people from grappling with the challenges of our time.

Hector, yes, you could graph things that way as well, but that wouldn't point up the issue I wanted to raise -- the way that technological contraction doesn't happen in a linear manner, but involves the impact of bottlenecks and fragmentation. That issue will be central to some of the discussions ahead.

Dfr2010, okay, good. I was hoping that at least some of my readers would enjoy that image!

ivar laegreid said...

been reading and listening to you for awhile and want to say thank you for making use of the available technology to prepare us for a less "advanced" future :)

Junto Felicidad said...

>>"while enjoying long nights observing the heavens through a telescope, delighting in the elegant prose and even more elegant logic of Darwin’s The Origin of Species, or running controlled experiments in her backyard on the effectiveness of compost as a soil amendment."

If only the science-warrior crowd actually liked science enough to engage in those kinds of activities. Most of the ones I've met tend to limit their involvement in "science" to watching popular television shows were a charismatic scientist-evangelist lays down the Proven Facts.

Atilio Baroni Filho said...

Hello JMG!

That's a very usefull way of thinking about the subject. Once you start figuring out which technologies go to the bottleneck box, and things like oil drilling/refining, electricity production/distribution, container shipping and soil fertility management start coming up, you realize how fragile our whole system is. Interlinked bottlenecks can create very big holes on the technology landscape.



diogenese said...

The first step back of technology has happened ,that was supersonic passenger travel , Concorde cost billions never paid for its costs and died , no one has ever tried to build the second generation , cost of a ticket versus time gained was a bust , accept for the military with their VERY deep pockets supersonic flight is over .

Janet D said...

re: the animosity felt by many Muslims toward the United States. I remember reading Queen Noor's autobiography when it came out & being really surprised/amazed about some of the actions of the U.S. Presidents that she described. And I'm not talking front-page political decisions, I'm talking personal agreements made & then broken, placing the leaders in an awkward light with their own people; lots of conflicting messages, poor personal treatment, blah blah blah. Her book wasn't done in a backstabbing, tell-all way, either, just a matter-of-fact this is what happened. It definitely opened my eyes to how "we" can come across.

"In the same way, it’s very convenient to insist that people who ask hard questions about the way that contemporary science has whored itself out to economic and political interests, ... just hate science." This. I think I might pin this on my wall. The most recent example being the Discover Bill Nye article someone posted on last week's blog. All of the "pro-science" comments were "Why isn't Bill Nye supporting Science? GMO Science is perfectly clear, legit & thoroughly researched." It was depressing, really.

Great post this week. Hit the nail on the head.

Gloucon X said...

...especially for those who want to see viable technologies survive the end of our civilization.”

Since we are such a foolish and destructive civilization, I don’t want to see any of our ideas, let alone any of our technologies survive to contaminate the people of the future. We don’t have the wisdom to know which bit of technology we leave to them could be the bad seed of something that could curse the people of the future to repeat the same destructive technological cycle that we so foolishly adopted. I’m hoping for a blank slate for those who follow us. If I could leave them some kind of warning, I would, but I doubt it will matter, they probably wouldn’t listen anyway. Humans, like any animal, will adopt any resource or technology that provides for their immediate needs, and they won’t care about any advice or warning from the people of this failed civilization. If they’re smart, they should kill anyone who tries to pass on any such advice or knowledge originating from this wicked civilization.

Which leads to thoughts on the history of science of our own civilization. I hold that it would have been better if all of the science and thought of Classical civilization had been wiped out completely and not brought back during the late Middle Ages to contaminate the simple Christian civilization that existed from about AD 600-1000. As someone mentioned in an earlier post, The Church itself is at fault. I believe it was the formation by religious authorities of the first universities that began us on this path of science and the ensuing destruction. Hopefully, whatever religious body rules the future will be wise enough to stick to reading their holy books and will destroy any technology that is beyond the rudimentary level.

Merle Langlois said...

We've already had "but we'll keep the internet!" I've marked that down on my Annoying Memes that Never Die on the ADR Bingo Card. Now I'm just waiting for "but we'll power a sustainable society on windmills" and I'll be that much closer to a BINGO.

For some reason these posts about technology and the inevitable response that we're gonna keep this or that far fetched technology irk me more than crazy political/religious tirades.

Paul K. said...

I'm super interested to hear more of what people think will "make the cut" in terms of utility and feasibility. I shouldn't be so surprised to hear many votes for what I call "high tech light." But I am.

I will cast a vote for what I think is "low tech light," specifically the group of technologies that it would take to make garden tools, such as a trusty digging fork. Need some way to repurpose existing metal (maybe from cars?), shape and harden it sufficiently, and then attach it to a wooden handle. Anyone know how to do this? :)

Cherokee Organics said...


I just picked up a new colony of bees this morning and I'm very excited by that.

I reckon there is an inherent failure to consider whole systems in our society’s pursuit of science. The bees are a good example of that sort of thinking. Nobody denies that there is a decline in the number of European honey bees around the globe. There are clearly many causes of this decline including: the methods of bee-keeping; use of pesticides; and use of herbicides.

The weird thing about the situation is that everyone is pointing fingers at everyone else, whilst few consider the entire system and decline marches steadily onwards oblivious to opinions.

A good example of this is that beekeepers are fixated on orthodoxy to a point that drives me to distraction. However, there are a few dissenting voices in the beekeeping world that have some interesting observations to make and alternatives to orthodoxy. They should be considered.

Orthodox opinions concerned about the die off of European honey bees blame all sorts of things like: bee predators, parasites, pesticides, herbicides and mono-culture agricultural practices.

Yet the dirty little secret is that most of those beekeepers and/or their families may also be purchasing their fruit and vegetables at a market or supermarket where the produce supports the use of herbicides and fungicides - not to mention the mono culture!

People tell me time and time again, they'd really like to eat organic produce, but it's like really expensive man...

So the poor bees have to exist in a world of herbicides, fungicides and mono cultures and they're doing their very best. It’s just that they get weakened in that environment and then opportunistic predators and parasites move in and start taking advantage of that weakness.

Then weaknesses in the orthodox bee-keeping methods that have previously been able to be brushed under the carpet start showing up.

Few want to consider what is best for the bees themselves.

Honestly, our entire society is guilty of neglect and in it up to our eyeballs!

I'm ranting now... I heard a report from the UN climate body today saying that this year looks like it will be the hottest in recorded history (you don't need to tell me that). But then, I'm sure they want further funds to study it.

It's like if the IPCC comes out and says the most probable reason for all this heat is because our civilisation is using the atmosphere like a sewer and it isn’t going to get better any time soon, then why do we need to continue studying and researching it? Seriously, shouldn't they now be saying, perhaps adaption is not a bad idea at this point in time...

Honestly, blind Freddy would have a thing or two to say about the lot of them.

PS: I've got a new blog entry up showing continuing shed building activities (I’m sure such activities count towards my official ruinman status?), hot dogs (not the sort that you eat), kangaroos and cool insects: Steel yourself



MawKernewek said...

The Internet, and mobile telephony, are examples of technological suites where utility depends on how many of your contacts are also on it.

The economics of it with an increasing user base allowed services to be offered cheaply in the expectation of a growing customer base. The network effects could work in reverse if the user base shrank. So here we have a different perceived utility based on expectations about the future.

A decade from now you may want to replace your computer hard drive, but it turns out that as the market saturated demand dropped so replacements are only made in small batches, which means a higher cost.

Shortages of unobtainium, necessary for the production process mean that some months production grinds to a halt, and it becomes difficult to get them because government data centres are desperately needing to replace their ageing hardware.

In the longer term energy descent scenario, I imagine most of the technologies of mining raw materials would be lost because mining in a strongly energy constrained future would not be able to compete versus salvage of industrial age structures.

Another factor to consider is externalizing costs, which is why fossil fuels have looked cheap, but I suspect externalization of costs is a post of its own.

Bill Pulliam said...

I don't see what the problem is. We'll just 3D print everything. I just heard today on the radio that you can now get everything you need for it down at the Home Despot.

Sheesh, such a luddite!

Michael Baccari said...

"Where you are, with what you have, right now" -- what can you do?

I use what resources are available from my participation in the existing economic system to acquire the materials and knowledge/skills to carry on after that system fails. Gardening, harvesting seed, studying and using wild edibles, medicinal herbs and alternative medicine, collecting and using human powered tools, heating with wood and solar, collecting and treating rain water, etc. In addition to its practical benefits,it is a rich and exciting life of learning and sharing- a ward against the despair that our present situation can give rise to.
Your writing is an inspiring part of the journey! Many thanks!

Michael in NC

John D. Wheeler said...

@Iuval Clejan,
Funny you should ask, I was about to mention Open Source Ecology as an example of a group that is trying to create a deliberately reduced technological suite they call the Global Village Construction Set, which consists of a set of 50-60 related machines. They have been fairly successful at fundraising, after a decade of tireless effort. You might do well to go back through their archives to see how they progressed.

JMG, I was wondering if you had heard of them? It's definitely an interesting concept, and I truly hope they succeed, but one scary part is that they are relying on CAD/CAM systems, so I suspect there are a number of bottlenecks that they are not accounting for, like maybe clean-room technology.

William Knight said...

JMG: I will give it a try, thanks for the encouragement!

For others on this blog who might be interested in homebrew computer tech, here is a cool web ring for home-built CPUs. People are actually making functional processors using wire-wrapped TTL chips, just like in the bad old days. But to do anything useful they seem to still require modern memory chips.

Svencow said...

Interesting post. I have recently been tinkering around with old cameras, and wondering how long down the descent film development and exposure will be a viable undertaking. My guess is not long. But perhaps there will be some other technology suite that all of these small lenses can alleviate a bottleneck in.

As an example of how technologies are being lost as we sit here, a company bought a Polaroid instant film factory some time ago and now several years later are still unable to produce a film of the same quality and development speed as the original Polaroid film. I believe Polaroid stopped manufacturing the film themselves in the early 2000s, so it seems either a knowledge or some other resource bottleneck got lost in that short period of time.

Svencow said...

My favorite useful technology suite has been the bicycle, which I believe you have also mentioned before as technology suite where the jury is likely to remain out for a while. I believe it suffers from a pretty serious support technology weakness though, vulcanized rubber tires. For now, I just ride and rehab old bicycles and will continue to do so as long as possible. Perhaps leather tires could be fashioned, or something else. Or perhaps the bicycle is just something that could ease the descent as long as old tires and parts are able to be found or patched and repaired, and then it will be on to something else. Can a bicycle really out-compete a horse? I think the question is, will it mow your pasture and fertilize your plot as well? Perhaps in areas limited in land it may have a chance.

Steven said...


In the past you've talked about the internet being very sensitive to bottlenecks: cheap electricity, cheap manufacturing, and constant maintenance come to mind. 

I am amazed at how often people -- Stephen Hawking is a recent example -- fear that Artificial Intelligence will soon render Homo Sapiens obsolete. As if our most complex tools can get along without the resources and supply chains that we provide.

Yet another apocalyptic fantasy. Many are so dependent on digital electronic technology that they neglect their natural talents. And believe that without such technology, we will go extinct.

As always, pleasure to read your thougts.


Gwaiharad said...

You've likely read, or at least heard of it, but I'm still going to recommend Tom Standage's book "The Victorian Internet". Telegraph wires to go with your railways, sailing ships, and slide rules!

However, I doubt we'll see the return of the telegraph anytime soon, if ever. You, personally, may not like cell phones, but most of the world disagrees. For example, in India, air conditioning is a luxury (a reasonably affordable luxury, but a luxury nonetheless) and washing machines rare (it's cheaper to hire somebody to wash your clothes by hand!), but cell phones are pretty common; I've heard this is true in Africa as well. I'd expect cell phones, and the communications network that supports them, to be one of the technologies that people will try to keep operational as long as possible, although the details of how it works may change. Far-sighted researchers are already trying to find ways around using rare-earth metals, many of which are bad news for a large variety of reasons ranging from geopolitical to ecological to humanitarian. And given the growth of semiconductor technology over the last few decades, it's not unreasonable to think they'll come up with some good solutions.

Agent Provocateur said...


As a guess, “Last on, first off” might be a good first approximation for how things will unwind. The reason I think this is so is that the last technologies to be developed are typically the most complex. Complexity implies greater vulnerability to interruptions in supply chains. Last on also implies we don't really need it since we've managed to do without up until recently. On the other hand, the simplest (and so generally cheapest) and most useful technologies have been with us for some time, well before the advent of cheap energy. These need not disappear although we can expect them to become more expensive. I'm thinking such things as shoes, pencils, ceramics, paper, glass, wood construction etc.

If we are talking machine technologies, the first that can be called “industrial” are still with us and have not fundamentally changed since their invention. Here I'm thinking steam engines, diesels, gasoline engines, electric generators and motors, refrigerators, pumps etc. Certainly the control systems and other stuff hanging of these machines have become more sophisticated, but the technologies themselves are still fairly simple. I think we can expect this sophisticated (generally computerized) overlay to disappear first. In theory there is no reason why such will not be replaced by what it replaced.

When all cell phones, ipads, digital cameras, GPS receivers, flat screen TVs, and computers ceased to function (as indeed they will), there are cheaper, less complex technologies to fulfill the same functions. I'm not saying the simpler replacement will do the job as well (e.g. typewriters vs word processors), but if the job really does need to be done, there is a simpler/cheaper technology already in existence that can do it. Once it is clear to the managers of these technologies that things must be simplified, graceful degradation is possible. Of course possible does not necessarily mean likely. By “managers” I'm not thinking politicians, I mean those people whose job it is to keep the machines running i.e. engineers.

The real issue is graceful degradation versus catastrophic collapse. Which it will be, in the case of each technology suite, is still likely a function of its complexity. As an example: I can see commercial air travel disappearing in a heartbeat. Gas turbines (jet engines) and avionics are extremely complex. Gas turbines are so complex, each generally can only be repaired where it was manufactured. On the other hand, a diesel engine powering a boat or train is far less complex. Diesels can be repaired just about anywhere.

This line of thought leads to the suggestion that the most recent and most complex technologies will collapse soon and catastrophically while the other older and simpler technologies will hang in there and degrade more gracefully.

A good analogy would be from biology. I'm thinking Stephen Gould's "Full House" and his graphs of number species vs complexity. Each major extinction only seriously affected the right side of the graph i.e. the newest and most complex species of the time.

John Michael Greer said...

Pinku-sensei, why, yes, it's a very similar list; no doubt I'd be into canal boats or tall ships if I lived someplace where they were currently viable! As for the Orion spacecraft, it'll be interesting to see how long that's going to be able to get funding. I have my own guess, but we'll see.

Kutamun, GPS satellites don't have a very long lifespan in orbit, so their usefulness as a theological resource for the future will probably be limited. As for ancient technologies, curiously enough, I'm working on a book on one of those; the thing that makes it intriguing is that, because it doesn't look like anything we'd consider a technology, only a few eccentric researchers have noticed that it used to function as one, and still does where people remember the trick.

Ivar, you're welcome and thank you!

Junto, that doesn't surprise me in the least. I wonder if it could be documented -- that would make a nice detail for further discussions of the degeneration of faith in science into a cargo cult.

Atilio, exactly.

Diogenese, yes, that's one -- though it's not the only one. Consider the space shuttle; reusable spacecraft capable of landing on an ordinary runway, which were supposed to be the wave of the future, are now a thing of the past.

Janet, thank you. For what it's worth, I plan on defending Nye's reputation here in an upcoming post; you'll notice that in the minds of the folks who post on Discover, "scientific" means whatever Monsanto says it means.

Gloucon, that's your value judgment, and though you have as much right to it as anyone else, I don't happen to share it.

Merle, no argument there. These days, when somebody comes barreling onto the comments page with an off-topic diatribe about how we're sure to keep this or that or the other sparkly technology, I just delete it unanswered and go on. There aren't enough hours in the day to waste them trying to point out mere realities to true believers.

Paul, good. There's plenty of low tech lite around, and a fair amount of low tech porter and stout, too -- a Kentucky long rifle is a very elegant piece of equipment, and there are people who make them using relatively simple machine tools today. I'd like to see more middle tech lite -- simple shortwave radios, for example -- though even there, that's becoming more popular than it used to be.

Cherokee, no argument there. Thinking in systems is hard work in a society that systematically teaches people not to do so.

MawKernewek, excellent! Yes, that's very much the sort of analysis I'm trying to suggest, with nontechnical variables present and accounted for.

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, what a great idea! All you have to do is print your own fully stocked Home Despot, to make up for the regrettable shortages at the one up the road! ;-)

Michael, excellent. That's a very popular set of skills among the people I know who are working along these lines, and for good reason -- and you're right, of course, that pursuing that work is a fine alternative to despair.

John, I am indeed. To my mind, their dependence on complex computer technology makes their entire project unlikely to accomplish much. Why not instead go to tools that can be built using noncybernetic means, and rely on the one form of computing technology we've all got readily available -- the kind between the roof of your mouth and your scalp?

William, thank you. You get tonight's gold star for putting your money (and time, and effort, etc.) where your mouth is. For what it's worth, I hope you can manage it.

Svencow, in your place I'd start finding out how photographic emulsions were made and developed back in the days when photographers did that themselves, in their own labs and darkrooms. 19th century glass plate photographs and tintypes are probably a lot less vulnerable to bottlenecks than Polaroid film! As for bicycles, it's probably worth trying to find a substitute for rubber tires if you want them to survive.

Steven, Thank. You. For. Getting. It. It's fascinating how frantically people try to come up with something that will do us in, other than the things that we're doing that are well on their way to accomplishing that!

Gwaiharad, this is why I've been saying all along that radio communications are probably going to make it. Cell phones per se probably won't be viable, due as much to the economic burden of trying to maintain that complex a technology, but radio? Easily done. For decades before the introduction of cell phones, a much simpler and more robust network of 2 meter FM transceivers and repeaters offered much the same service to amateur radio operators over most of the US and many other countries as well; the infrastructure's still largely in place, waiting for the next generation of radio geeks to get working with it.

Agent, that's plausible, except where (a) all available options require a bottleneck resource that isn't available, (b) the collapse of a complex technology removes any value from other technological suites, or (c) the knowledge base needed to downshift to a simpler technology isn't there any more. It's these three factors, and others like them, that make me think that even a relatively slow contraction will see a lot of sudden technological discontinuities -- and yes, air travel is a good example of one of those looking for a spot marked X.

GuRan said...

This seems as clear a description as any I've seen of Industrial Ecology. Its hard to miss the analogy with ecosystem damage!

Thanks as always for continuing to shine a light into dark corners.


Raymond Duckling said...

Well, I guess you can count semiconductors as a bottleneck technology. In addition of the many and relatively well know complexities in the manufacturing process itself, the industry has to deal with the economic realities of being a relatively obscure step in long supply changes.

Back during the 2008-2009 crisis, I was working for a big semiconductor company. It shredded more than 20% of its work force in a little more than one year, and those of us who remained had to take one week of unpaid vacation per quarter to avoid further layoffs.

The reason: Our customers were handling the reduction of consumer demand by decreasing their inventories even more aggressively. This caused that even a mild slow down in the sales of products using our components resulted in several rounds of drastic reduction of orders for said products, followed by urgent orders to correct each overreaction.

What's more. The impression I got from talking to our suppliers was that we were pulling the same trick on them, so they were even worse off than us. By example, it was virtually impossible to have prompt support from the vendors who made the machinery used in semiconductor manufacturing, because people with key knowledge had either been laid off or sent on unpaid vacations themselves (one week per month, I was told once).

By the time I left in 2011, we were a team of 14 people doing the (most urgent subset of the) work which had kept busy a group of 30 at the first half of 2008. From those of us who left voluntarily, only about half of the positions were filled again, so even if the economy was now "recovering" the company did not seem interested in regain it's former capabilities.

ed boyle said...

As I work through Toynbee I will throw in his ideas here. He would say "idolization" of an ideology, organization, or technology or tactic(military) for example leads to overlooking ots weaknesses or competitor's alternate solutions. He includes the nation state as an idolized object along with specifc greek and roman military formations. People "rest on their laurels" after success, missing signs of the times. We are at that point with fossil fuel based industrial sci-tech.

Avery said...


I've often wondered what will happen to the technology of print books post-collapse. Like us, the Romans stored all their books on paper. But during the fall of Rome, 95% of all Latin and Greek literature was destroyed. The reason Latin has such a reputation for preserving "classics" is because medieval Christian and Muslim scholars only preserved the most valuable works: the wizard-like engineering of Archimedes, the history of Livy, the philosophy of Plato and Augustine, the rhetoric of Cicero, and the poetry of Homer. But how about the other 95%? We only know snippets of it due to some freak accidents of history.

For example, Euripides is known to us from ten plays, called the "select plays", which show a master at his best. Scholars might have assumed he wrote only ten plays, if this were all they had to go on. But in fact we also have some other plays which are not so good and all start with the letters E through K, obvious evidence that they at one time were a single volume of the Complete Works of Euripides. From the size of the volume, we can guess that he may have written as many as ninety plays which were mostly uninteresting to people of later generations. There must have been hundreds of playwrights like this whose work received a Complete Works edition but was later found useless and turned into scrap. Christian works did not fare much better; there is a letter of Clement, the Church father, that only happened to survive because it was used to wrap a fish and handed to an Italian university student at a medieval market.

At some point during the long descent I am guessing that a lot of books will make the transition from "cheap and useful" to "useful but too expensive," or even eventually "expensive and useless." If a cold Viking in December happens to spot an academic study of the pamphlets of Revolutionary France, it may be more useful to him as a way to keep warm than as unique historic information. Now imagine millions of such people, defining a new cultural norm. Now imagine millions of priceless books in the tropics rotting away quickly without air conditioning (this already happens in India all the time). By the time some people want to save books again, they may have a job similar to the German archivists of the 17th and 18th centuries, reassembling minor works 1500 years after anyone cared-- a very long time for paper, and even longer for CDs and DVDs, which tend to rot after a couple of decades. It is not too hard to imagine a future where James Joyce is known principally from a summary of "Dubliners" found in a Second Religiousness writer's retrospective on Western culture (itself extant only in quotations by later writers), and secondarily in a dozen hand-copied, fragmentary pages of nonsense called "Finnegans Wake Part 7," buried in a cave around 2200 AD, attribution dubious.

If you want to write books that will last, it might be appealing to write book that people will need in the near future, like green wizardry. But history shows that the best thing to write is a classic. :)

KL Cooke said...

"Each major extinction only seriously affected the right side of the graph i.e. the newest and most complex species of the time."

That bodes ill.

KL Cooke said...

"...the stock of existing and proposed technologies face triage in a continuum defined by two axes..."

I'm guessing this is one of them.

Bruno B. L. said...

JMG, the one technology I would like to help keep for the future is anesthetics. They are one of the greatest contributions of mainstream medicine of the last two centuries, and I would be very pleased if, in the far future, people still have access to them. I'm still planning on how to do it, but I'm making some progress - so far, I'm hoarding old inhalers and cylinders, like those Thomas Green Morton used in the nineteenth century. Thoughts?

Thomas Mazanec said...

I think a technology which will survive long into the Decline will be role=playing games. All you need is hex paper, rulebooks and background books, little figurines of mediocre quality,character sheets and pencil, and dice.
Monopoly was the game of the Great Depression...I suspect GURPS will be the game of the Hyperdepressions of the decline.

jonathan said...

in agriculture, this concept is referred to as liebig's law. productivity is limited not by the total available resources, but by the scarcity of the least available resource. so a drought limits production even if all other essential inputs-land, seed stock, fertilizer, labor-are in abundance.

the principle is equally applicable to all sorts of problems, including population growth and industrial production.

what is especially interesting about our current situation is the number and variety of candidates for the role of least available resource. as societies become more complex the list grows to include not just physical resources but systemic issues such as reliable systems of dispute adjudication, dependability of currency values, war and the threat of expropriation by governments.

i was convinced for years that energy depletion would be the deciding factor. at this point it seems more likely that the inability to continue raising and servicing debt with the consequent political instability will be the back breaker. watch for the next round of financial panic when one of the eu countries bails on it's debt and the world-wide daisy chain of sovereign debt based derivatives begins to unravel.

Edde said...

Greetings John Michael,

Do you see rail as a transition technology to a time of far less travel and great "localism"? I live in a neighborhood where some members haven't traveled into the next county, let alone another country (not our affluent little "intentional" community but the African-American neighborhood we bought into).

I keep neighbors in functional bicycles (people give me bikes, most nearly un-ridden, even fairly competent cromo multi-speed bikes), which makes their travel up and down our country road much easier.

Teaching maintenance is my toughest task - life being mostly maintenance of one sort or another...

Great post, THANKS!

Best regards,

daelach said...

@ JMG:

The same kind of "the problem doesn't exist" is what leads to the rise of fascism in general - because the "democratic" parties choose to ignore the problems of the citizens. Criminal immigrants? Racism! Decreasing wages for workers in favour of increasing income for managers? Social envy! Rising unemployment? Laziness! And last but not least: Peak oil? Just a lie!

As for technology - funny that you mention video games. I used to play them a lot on my PC in younger days, but I've lost interest in that. It is always the same, just with better graphics. The only games I regularly still play on my PC are classics like chess and backgammon. Funny that you mention cellphones; I stopped one step later than you, not owning a smartphone but a classic cellphone. However, I usually leave it at home and take it only with me if I anticipate concrete use, e.g. when travelling long distances by train for announcing whether I'll be late - trains are not reliable here.

I've finished a little technology project, half-serious and half-parody in nature. It is a low-tech tablet. Basically, a wooden picture frame with glass cover containing a printout of my training exercises. On training days, I use little wooden pieces to mark what exercises I'm done with. Plus an hourglass (with sand) for the pauses between the sets. That's a training app and a timer app. Someone called it a "Flintstone tablet" - nice expression. (: However, it does have a serious purpose, and that's showing the use of low-tech to people used to indulgence in high-tech. I've noticed that people tend to resist less if you introduce new thoughts in a funny way.

And it lines up nicely with my calligraphy nib in steel plus inkpod, my slide rules and my DIY abacus plus the DIY logarithm table. All of them will clearly belong to category A one day. That is, after the more powerful tools like computers will have broken down and gone out of mass use because their support chain is not sustainable.

As for the medical system.. it's many, many years since that an old man in my family got seriously ill. The emergency doctor who had been called came up with the right diagnosis and concluded correctly that the man had to be operated on immediately, or else he would die within one or two days. The man refused to go to the hospital. The doctor insisted that this was the only option, thinking that his patient hadn't understood the matter.

But no, he was well clear about what was going on and told the doctor that he had had a good and long life (he was in his mid-80s then), that he had been smoking all his life, that he had smoker's legs and heart problems anyway, that his overall condition wasn't good. He said that if he went to the hospital, he would never get out alife. Therefore, his days were over anyway, beyond his choice. But he still had one choice left, and that was where to die. His decision then was to stay at home and die at peace. So he thanked the doctor for his effort, but asked him to leave.

Back then, I was too young to understand his choice. Now I do, especially since I've seen others in such a sitation making the error of choosing the other option; and I know he was a wise man. Even more since he wasn't into religion, so no support from this side for facing his death. No philosophy or so either. Just a simple and still great man. Should such a day come to me, I hope I will be able to match his example.

That is a skill which isn't too widespread now but clearly should be in category A - the art of dying well - not to be confused with "despair"! It is useful, and since dying in itself will always be affordable, this conclusion seems logical. But I guess that's already touching the sphere of your other blog, isn't it?

Twilight said...

There is another dynamic occurring in parallel to what you describe, having to do with the changing skills, training and specialization of the population, combined with the increasing complexity of the technological suites. The ability of the population to comprehend what is behind the interface technologies has rapidly faded, to the point that few understand much about how something like a smart phone works. Indeed the complexity is so high, in turn requiring such a high degree of specialization, that few who work on these things understand the big picture.

Further, some of our most complex technology suites and implemented infrastructure are now quite old, enough so that they have been inherited by new generations of people with different skills and training from those who designed and built them. The centralized electric power grid is an example of this, and I don't think of it much differently from those old Roman aqueducts still in use long after those who designed and built them were gone. These days the skill sets of those running it are more likely to be things like IT and network security as opposed to electrical engineering with a focus on 3-phase power systems. It is not a binary condition of course, but there are fewer who understand the fundamentals of the functioning of the power system. Then too there is the general hollowing out of the organizations that run it layered on top.

So you get things like the Smart Grid, which at its core means that since we cannot afford to increase the capacity of the system, we will instead layer on a high speed control system to allow us to push the old system to a greater percentage of its capacity for a greater percentage of time. The results will be predictable, if in fact we can even afford to implement it. I guess you could say we have a general bottleneck that affects all technology suites – human skills and training.

Kenaz Filan said...

Although he is not especially popular here, I might note Martin Heidegger's definition of "technology" -- a way of engaging with the world which reduces it to its resource-value. Heidegger was one of the first and most cogent critics of industrial-technological society and his "Question Concerning Technology" is well worth a gander. (It is also among the most readable of his works, small comfort though that might be... ).

Heidegger correctly noted that "technology" is just one way you can engage with the world. Many of his followers, and even more of his detractors, have used this to create a false dichotomy between "science" (good/bad) and "religion" (bad/good). In actuality each of these ways are useful in their own sphere but less so in others. (Heidegger particularly cautioned against technology's tendency to reduce humanity to its use-value ala Marxism and Capitalism, its contemporary Dual Contending Heads).

Bill Blondeau said...

@Svencow: "Can a bicycle really out-compete a horse?"

As someone who commutes via bicycle year round (in Wisconsin!) and who owns three horses, I've thought about this question from time to time.

My clearest answer is that deindustrial bicycles are likeliest to flourish in whatever passes for urban areas; while in rural settings, horses and other transportation and draft animals will be far more practical.

The key discriminators are pavement and manure. Only in urban areas are we possibly going to see pavements that make bicycle technologies practical. In those same urban areas, manure is a problem: lots of horses in a city will generate more than the city can consume, even positing intensive urban gardening. Manure is a health problem and a practical obstacle for getting around in the street. There's plenty of incentive to use bicycles, if you can.

In urban settings, bicycles can move individuals and light cargo very efficiently. They are much safer than horses and wagons, and crowd the streets far less for a given amount of traffic. And, on the other side, bicycling is far quicker and easier than walking for distances exceeding a few blocks. This is especially true for cargo-capable bikes.

Deindustrial rural areas, by contrast, will never sustain paved roads such as we see today. To those who proudly argue that they have ridden their mountain bikes on gravel/dirt roads for miles and miles, I reply, well yes. Kudos. But I'm gonna ride a horse. Deindustrial bikes, even the best, will be heavier and less mechanically efficient than today's $2500 mountain bikes. And I'd rather arrive with some energy left.

And, of course, in rural areas, manure is a treasure not a burden, as long as you don't pack your animals too closely.

Thomas Mazanec said...

I guess this is as good a time as any for me, as a new follower of the AR, to introduce myself.
I am a Roman Catholic science fiction and furry fan who lives in north Ohio and is pushing 60. I have been trying to predict the future for approximately 100,000 man-hours, and I ain't succeeded yet. When I was a kid, I thought the future would be like my Astroboy and Jetsons cartoons. When I went to CWRU in the Seventies I thought it would be like whatever the future predicted in my most recently read Futurology book was. I now think of us at the head of a river delta, with countless distributeries ahead of us, some sizable streams, some fine threads. I will try to focus on the distributery depicted here, and not contradict you too much (there is one website I follow which projects a World War between the West and a Sunni-Sino alliance in the very near future, killing half the human race, followed by a hyper intelligent AI driven Singularity transforming the world beyond recognition in the 2030's. He makes a good case, just as you do. I have learned that disputing his scenario is a quick way to basically get called stupid).
I think what will be preserved in a coming Dark Age depends on whether it is what I would call a Technology or a Trick (let me know if you have your own terms).
A Technology is something that requires such a level of infrastructure and resources that it could not exist without them, and could not have been invented any earlier...for example, a Hydrogen Bomb. If we had gone back to WWI and given the US blueprints for the H-Bomb to win the war, I humbly submit that they wouldn't have a prayer.
A Trick is something that could have been invented centuries earlier. An example is mentioned in a recent Analog magazine...any ancient civilization that could make jewelry could have made a radio, if they just knew how.
Musical CDs are almost certainly Technology, musical notation, pace Saint Isidore of Seville, is a Trick.
As for my own interests, the Furry subculture should survive...Beast Tales were so popular in the Middle Ages that the French word for "fox" is "renard", which is like us calling hedgehogs "sonics" (which, with the Robin Hood archetype of the cartoons and comics, is something we just might do in a few centuries). Science fiction may survive as post-modern Fairy Tales, or perhaps we will go to Fantasy in a ex-Industrial World (LOTR is likely going to be the most famous 20th century story in 2500). The moveable type printing press is 15th Century technology (or 13th if you count the Goryeo Dynasty) so an individual volume should not represent a man's Lifework. I hope we can keep at least 1% of all the books of the Industrial Age available in a few libraries at least...we will have to see.
I also like to collect tchotchkes (baubles or trinkets), such as paper money, water globes or lenticular prints. These are cheap, and they might be in what the Renaissance called "Cabinets of Curiosities" (I think snow globes are a Trick, lenticular printing is a Trick but I don't know if plastic lenses need industrial infrastructure, and paper money would likely be replaces by postcard type cards for local fairs and towns...although Medieval China had paper money).

Mark Rice said...

I used to visit a factory in southern Japan. The men's room did not have heating or air conditioning. This was a way to save energy.

But the toilet seats had built in heating and cooling. Conduction is a very effective means of heat transfer.

At first I though this technology would stay in the A category for long time. Less energy means low cost. But the supply chain for the cooling part is a bit more complex.

We may have heated seats for a long time but I do not think cooling will make the cut.

Eric S. said...

I’m still working on the basic lifestyle changes, learning how to garden and preserve food, learning how to scale the environment I live in into a working system I can benefit from, learning how to wean myself away from my lifestyle addictions and reclaim the everyday skills my grandparents’ generation took for granted. That is slow, frustrating work with its share of slumps, regressions, and the occasional tumble off the wagon, but I’m trudging along. I’ve tended to think about the tinkering and inventing as the next step. To draw on the “wizardry” parallels in Green Wizardry, giving things up would be the daily meditation, learning basic life skills would be the core ritual practice, and tinkering with technologies that seem worth preserving would be the more advanced workings that aren’t much use without a firm foundation. I keep a list of things I’d like to experiment with “someday,” but something about this post leaves me wondering if that’s just me putting up another road block for myself. I don’t need to have the time, space, skills and resources required to build a radio, make photographic plate film, set up a wind turbine, make a saltwater battery, or grind glass for a microscope to get an old book of fun and useful science and technology projects for high school students and hobbyists from the ‘70s and start playing around with it in my fun time.

Meanwhile: The shale producers yesterday and today are sounding uncannily like the pulp villains in your “Far Side of Denial” post. My favorite quote was from an energy strategist who said “they’ll scorch the earth before they touch our dividends.”

Nastarana said...


Check out a company in Missouri, which makes discarded agricultural discs into a line of the finest garden tools you have ever used. Don't take my word, check out the online reviews. I have a grape hoe, scraper/ice chipper and a rake. I would not be without any of them.

Howard Skillington said...

As always, your post this week provides welcome clarity to a process in which we all should be engaged. Your little chart and “bottleneck” concept are actually pretty similar to my own thinking with regards to my furniture making shop.
I figure online resources could disappear at any time; loss of access to the drawing files in my computer is an eventuality.
When I can no longer get carbide tooling professionally sharpened I will need high speed steel blades that I can sharpen myself. How should I organize my work for the time when electricity is intermittent? What tools and skills do I need to acquire for the day when electrical power is no longer available? What workarounds are possible when bottlenecks in the economy prevent the manufacture or distribution of sandpaper and finishing products? What sorts of products will I be able to build from salvaged materials?
Then there is the whole equation of bottlenecks effecting the people living nearby who will be my only potential customers. I need to anticipate simple, essential things they will need built or repaired so that they can create their own workarounds – things for which they might trade a sack of beans or a cartload of firewood.
I have been trying to think through these things for some time but your post helps me realize that I need to be more systematic about it, so I have begun to think through my process step-by-step. Each step raises potential bottlenecks and requisite workarounds. I know that I won’t be able to anticipate every possible scenario, but have to hope that this mode of thinking, planning, and adapting will prepare me to deal with those I fail to anticipate as they arise.
I think that’s about the best that we can do.

Don Plummer said...

One example of a current technology that I would quickly assign to category B (affordable but essentially useless) is the electric can opener. I remember when my parents bought one, thinking how much less effort it would take to open cans. I always found them cumbersome to use (and as often as not, they didn't work--that is, they didn't fully open the can) and opted to buy a hand-held and hand-operated can opener as soon as I was on my own. I suppose these devices might be helpful to people with severely arthritic hands or similar disability, but otherwise I never saw much point in them.

(We could, I suppose, talk about the technology suite behind the need for can openers of any kind--the stream of technology that makes commercial food canning possible.)

The Amish, of course, are commonly labeled "anti-technology" by outsiders, but this actually isn't true. On the contrary, they simply have decided as a community not to accept a new technology just because it exists and is affordable. Rather, they evaluate each technology according, especially, to how its adoption and use might affect the community. They rejected private automobiles, as a well-known example, because they perceived their use to be harmful to community. (I find it hard to argue with that assessment--our wholesale adoption of automotive transport seems indeed to have caused harm to our communities.) On the other hand, Barbara Kingsolver, in her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, reports that Amish farmers adopted automated milking technology because they determined that the amount of time and labor saved over hand-milking each cow would produce a benefit to the community.

avalterra said...

This weeks blog reminded me of a question I have been meaning to ask. "Just how big is your library?"


Steve Carrow said...

John Michael- Your Krampus wish list challenge from Jan 2013 got me thinking along these lines, and I worked up the start of a descent engineering proposal, but did not get it completed by the deadline. ( As many others did not. Specific solutions are in my opinion, a lot harder than speculation and commentary on the ideas of others). As your post now points out, I quickly started realizing that in order to use solar heat to maintain the ability to smelt metals and do other high temp material processing, there were many other technologies that got dragged in to the description. That is part of the reason I did not finish the exercise. John Muir's quote- “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world" applies equally well to the technology ecosystem. I think another parameter to consider in deciding where to place our bets on technology is time scale. Some technology might prove quite useful, and worth the investment of energy for the next couple centuries of cannibalizing our artifacts for better use, but long term, the basics of working within the limitations of the carrying capacity of the soil,sunlight, and local biome will become more preeminent. We will need to do both, but with the understanding that some will be transitional and temporary.

Karl said...

When you talked about the suite of technologies it reminded me of the (now classic) story "I, Pencil" by Leonard Read.

Professor Diabolical said...

Technology: a wide and slippery slope. Flint arrowheads are technology.

Cameras existed through the middle ages, as a "Camera Obscura", even without a lens. What they lacked was film. But never fear, "film" is nothing more than a plate of silver that oxidizes more rapidly when exposed to light. That we got.

Back to Steampunk and Victoria, the Telegraph was digital. We went backwards (in our terms) by "advancing" to the analog telephone. Now we're back to digital, with the very same telegraph, only with phenomenally faster switching. Point is that radio, which can be created at home with copper wire, can be used to transmit digital (or analog). Text messages, no problem. Therefore IRC, even BB groups printed on ticker tape, no problem.

As there is a steam engine for work, there is also an old air conditioner called an "Icyball" which uses a fire under a sealed metal ball of ammonia--all perfectly attainable, even to Greece or Rome.

Similarly, the mathematics possible with slide rules, abacus, and clockwork is extraordinary and attainable even with wooden gears. Don't sell humans short. These are more than adequate for almost all math. The only reason to have better adding machines is for computers, which only use the underlying math to accomplish communication and modelling tasks that have nothing to do with math itself. With Babbage's Difference Engine, we could calculate well enough to travel to the moon. Except niche areas, we instead use it to send pictures of cats playing piano--not a core cultural need.

The main thing that recurs in all these arguments, like the Icyball, is whether you WANT this function. For instance: having poisoned most of the earth, we farm mussels (or fish) using aquaponics to propagate the larva which have to parasite the gills of fish before settling down and being seeded on mussel ropes by fishermen on diesel boats. Primitives CAN row out and do this, just as they COULD have ground a shoulder roast into hamburger in a few hours with a mortar and pestle, but wouldn't it be far EASIER to just stop polluting and let nature grow your mussels and dig them out of the sand by the hundredweight for free?

And "Easier" is a way of suggesting the Energy, EIEIO equation all life instinctively has. Wouldn't it be easier just to build a house on the river, or like a Hacienda, than cut firewood for an icyball? Or steam engine? Because Nature runs itself, on her own energy, with $multi-trillion$ in net benefit compared to humans performing all functions themselves. Cleaning the air, water, moving weights, refreshing soils, everything.

This is why Native cultures were prosperous. They didn't have to DO things, but let nature do it for them with careful culture, then just go out and collect the year-round bounty; a technology which is recorded in books, never implimented.

There's more to technology and culture than circuits and gears.

rsuusa said...

Not sure about indoor plumbing being cheap and necessary at least not for black water uses. I just got approval for a subsurface water disposal system for my very small 600 sq ft home. The law requires that I have this system in place even though I compost my poop. Gray water systems are easy to deal with but black water not so much and if the state is involved and they are, at least for the present,that means hiring an engineer and a licensed contractor because unless you hold these licenses you generally can't do the work yourself. The cost is very high half as high as my home and the utility for me is very much in question. Does the cost and utility of taking drinkable water and mixing it with potentially dangerous fecal matter and the purifying it really make sense in the long run? I'm not yet sold on it. Although an indoor sink and faucet are greatly appreciated.

patriciaormsby said...

I propose another category: A+ It is a very narrow rectangle extending across the top of A all the way across the top of C. It goes beyond utility, and is something that people will starve themselves to afford, or rob others for the money, or steal it outright. I'm talking of severe addictions.

Of course, ultimately, simple unavailability will put that category out of its misery.

Myriad said...

JMG wrote: To my mind, [Open Source Ecology's] dependence on complex computer technology makes their entire project unlikely to accomplish much. Why not instead go to tools that can be built using noncybernetic means, and rely on the one form of computing technology we've all got readily available -- the kind between the roof of your mouth and your scalp?

I suspect the answer is to make the tools competitive with other alternatives in the present-day global economy. Expecting a machine operator to spend an hour making e.g. a tractor wheel mount using a non-computer-controlled metal cutting machine (such as by controlling the machine by guiding a stylus on a template, or by skilled eye and hand) is unrealistic when that hour instead could be used at some other task to earn enough money to buy four wheel mounts from an overseas foundry. That would undermine OSE's goal of distributing productive power. The digital control allows the operator to spend a few minutes setting up the cut and then turn to other tasks while the machine takes the hour to finish on its own.

By the time the digital components become unavailable, so (in all likelihood) will the cheap alternate sources of the end product. At that point the machine can be modified to operate by hand or stylus-and-template instead. That's assuming that maintaining tractors would still be worth the additional labor of operating the cutting machine that way—which seems reasonably likely.

(This is my own surmising, not based on any inside information about Open Source Ecology's plans or expectations.)

Russ said...

John: I would be surprised if your dissertation doesn't closely follow Joseph Tainter's thesis in "The Collapse of Complex Societies" and his ensuing work: "Drilling Down".. Both volumes are well researched with many annotations. 73, Russ

Juhana said...

It is also quite interesting how fast previous layers of technology are lost when more efficient but also more fragile versions have commercially replaced them. In my home county we have this... er, let's call it "community workshop", I have no better translation for it. It is medium-sized workshop renting space from government-owned building. Appropriate trade unions (steel and construction worker's unions mainly) are funding it, and altruistic companies from said trades have donated old machine tools like lathes, oxygen cutting tools etc. to it.

These machines are really old, some of them are from 50's and having stamps " made in DDR/Czechoslovakia/USSR". You get the picture. OLD STUFF. Still they are solid pieces, big and strong, parts are mainly shaped from solid steel in lathe, no thin injury-prone sheet metal there. They are made to last, with proper maintenance they have long work-lives ahead. No fancy NC-technology there, but old hand-based tuning systems.

Idea of the workshop is that people pay small membership fee, after which they are allowed to do their own projects with machines after proper introduction to them. There is reservation calendar, and everybody have to leave machine spotless and clean after their reservation or face penalties or expulsion.

Surprise has been how hard it was to find old-timers who actually has practical knowledge concerning said machine tools; who actually know how to use them in practice, not in the paper only. Problem has been solved and knowledge passed on, but it was real-life example how easy it is to lost deeper knowledge about how something actually functions in industrial society. Just wondering.

Ed-M said...


I'm starting off topic today, but I'm replying to your last response to my comment RE: Evangelical Christianity. I'm not as keen on developing trends there, but if the emerging churches are anything like Seattle's Mars Hill Church under Robert Driscoll, which is essentially a clone of the 1980s-1990s Boston Church of Christ under Kip McKean, the trend is nothing good. Besides, did you not say to a poster to keep an eye on the House Churches a while back, and did he not respond that he was intimately familiar with them, and did he not state that if anything, they were even crazier and more fundamentalist, thereby more conservative and controlling, than the mega-churches with their Christ-Psychoses of the Prosperity Teaching and Dominionism?

Brian said...

I'm a software developer and I see your points about the diminishing returns of technological complexity and the difficulty of maintaining a "technology suite" as its dependent parts fail.

If you haven't seen it before, the following post illustrates how this works in the software world in darkly humorous fashion. The day I read this I think I wasted about 4 hours of the work day trying to get a broken printer to work and then the other 4 hours trying to diagnose error messages caused by the breakdown of a web service that someone else maintains and is totally beyond my control, so it rings very true.

beneaththesurface said...

I agree that the technological shape of the deindustrial future will in many ways look like a reversal of the technological trends of the industrial growth era.

What I'm not so sure of is the timeline when which various technologies will become uneconomical for the majority of the population who once regularly used them. For example, cell phones: When might we see a time when it's uncommon to see someone using a cell phone in an urban American center?

I know you don't make predictions, but what would be your rough guess of the time frame over when this change would happen? A few decades?

A few weeks ago I walked into a metro station in DC and it seemed like almost everyone was using a cell phone. I decided to do a brief survey. I counted the first 25 people I could see and noted how many of them were using a cell phone. 21 of them! Yes, 84% of the people I saw were texting, talking on, or using their cell phone in some way.

I know horrifying events will likely be a part of our deindustrial future, but I admit there are some things I'm looking forward to, such as: the end of smartphones, television, video games, and advertising. How I wish the end of them could come sooner rather than later!

wagelaborer said...

I also enjoy rail travel and don't have a cell phone. On Mother's Day, I took off from Chicago, towards California. We got stopped by tornadoes in Kansas, and then a rockslide in the Rocky Mountains. I assumed that my nephew,whom I was supposed to meet in California, would be told by his roommate, an Amtrak employee, what had happened.
Imagine my surprise to get to California a day late, and have the entire family in an uproar. The delayed train was apparently not a subject of Amtrak conversation in California, and it was only when I didn't show up that my family called Amtrak to find out where I was. They were told that they were the ONLY ones who called. Apparently, all of the other hundreds of people on the train had cellphones.
On the idea of useless commodity goods, the battery operated flashing shoes and clothes have concerned me. Those batteries then go into the landfill, and leak into the water supply. Is it really so necessary to have flashing shoes?
And now we have the detergent pods, for those people who find measuring detergent into their automated washing machines too onerous. The pods kill kids. You would think that dead kids would trump washday convenience, but you would be wrong.
People are heavily regulated in our country. Witness Eric Garner, who was killed for selling individual cigarettes. But corporations? Not so much.

Clay Dennis said...

I have thought about the issue of bottlenecks in technology with relation to bikes for a long time also. As someone who gave up a business in the large scale manufacturing of custom metal components for things like buses and cell towers for a one man shop making garden tools and bicycles I think about this everyday. I try and make as many bike components as possible with simple machine tools (non-cnc) and have come to the same conclusion as the previous poster that rubber tires and tubes are the bottleneck.

Tires are don't require the technological suite of computer chips or automobliles so I think they can be made a couple of generations in too the future, but probably not after that. That is ok because the road network needed to support bicycle travel ( mush lower threshold than cars) will probably only last a 100 years or so. This makes bicycles a perfect chronological compliment to Horses. Bicycles will probably only be usefull for 2 or 3 generations and it will probably take that long to breed a large enough population of horses to take over a significant portion of the transportation needs of even of shrunken future society.

Erik Buitenhuis said...

Dear JMG,

Thank you once again. I'd be really interested if you could at some point give your opinion on the post by Richard Rees this week, that the neck-and-neck race might actually be won by the renewable resource soil:
Which I read as the effect where the phantom acreage (of fossil fuels that make phantom fertility but both destroy the natural soil fertility and generate phantom human population in excess of carrying capacity) runs out faster than the natural renewal can replace it. Given the high productivity of labour intensive food growing and the phenomenal increase in soil fertility we've seen in 4 years of CSA I'm not entirely convinced it's going to be an issue, but it would be particularly important to get this one right, hence the request for your opinion.

donalfagan said...

Someone mentioned electric can openers, which are actually devices to alert one's pets that feeding time is imminent. In catalogs there used to be a gag gift of an electric fork to go with one's electric carving knife. I can't remember the last time I saw an electric knife, but I'd nominate leaf blowers as the most egregious, 'affordable but stupid' technology. Get a rake!

I thought that Discovery article about Bill Nye was very revealing. Today's NYT has an article about the Curies and their employees who both discovered and fell victim to radioactive materials. Frightening stuff, but apparently the allure of new discoveries was so great some of them ignored the risks.

Laylah said...

@Avery, have you read Eternity Road, by Jack McDevitt? It's set a few centuries after a (probably fast) collapse, and is an adventure story about a team trying to reach a rumored library from before the collapse (built by the Roadmakers - that's us). The catalyst for the adventure? The discovery of a copy of Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, whose title was known but whose copies had been assumed to all be lost.

I have a feeling it may be interesting to a number of the readers of Star's Reach, actually; they're the same genre of future, with different approaches to the details.

Kathleen Quinn said...

The all or nothing aspect of the comments you field re: science and technology reminds me a little of the common argument against taking steps as an individual to address carbon emissions and climate change. I am hearing—often from other “greens”-- that if you can’t do EVERYTHING and thus ELIMINATE your carbon footprint then your efforts to reduce it are rendered meaningless by your hypocrisy, and are therefore not worth doing. A handy excuse for doing nothing. (For what it’s worth, I keep doing it anyway.)

Likewise, it’s so much easier for us to dismiss you as a neo-Luddite than to consider that your lack of a cell phone might be the result of a conscious decision based on clear reasoning and practical considerations, rather than strictly philosophical ones, and that maybe we should start thinking like that too. It’s too uncomfortable for those of us enthralled by the latest and greatest little gadgets, or the prospect of a colony on Mars, or the idea that geoengineering will save us all, to consider the actions of those who reject such values as being anything other than “quaint.” After all, if we had to admit that you might be onto something, then we might have to turn off the TV and do something different. And that would be hard work.

My family and I are smack in the middle of that “do something different.” My husband, who runs an “alternative energy” company, is finally tired of being handed weekly ADRs, Daily Impacts, books like Klein’s “This Changes Everything.” He’s tired of being buffeted by so many factors outside his control—the price of gas, the prospect of a shale bubble, the lack of sustained public investment in renewables, the deep pockets of the fossil fuel industry. He’s tired of letting me have all the fun of trying to raise a family on nothing (since so much of his “pay” gets “reinvested”), and managing the farm all by myself. So today he decided it’s time to get out, and do something different. This is likely to result in something that looks like catastrophe (in a 1st world sense) to our peers and families: bankruptcy, or foreclosure—a short sale at best. It will mean renting instead of owning, living with one car or none, and giving up what little is left of conventional “comforts”, like cable-based internet. Sounds bad, right? Well I couldn’t be happier. The kids? Well, they’ll come around. Collapse now and avoid the rush, eh?

Ultimately I think we’ve been practicing your skills of analysis and triage on a very personal basis for some time. Now I guess we’re onto the salvage part, and I for one am looking forward to what we might create out of what is left.

Incidentally, your mention of Bush’s famous “they hate us for our freedoms” quote reminds me of a recent radio show I heard on Alternative Radio. Surgeon and author Chris Giannou, born in Canada to Greek parents, trained in medicine in Egypt and for years a surgeon with the International Red Cross in war zones around the planet, paraphrased that same line “they hate us for our values,” and then added that in fact people in the Middle East “love you for your values. They hate you for your hypocrisy, because you do not live up to your values. The vast majority of the American public has absolutely no idea of what their government does in their names around the world.” He goes on to enumerate all of the specific grievances the people of the Middle East have against the West, and says, about like you do, that their animosity is based on specific actions, not abstractions, whatever our leaders may tell us. Anyway, you or other commenters might find it worth a listen.


Thomas Daulton said...

Whoa nelly JMG, you sure are not shying away from controversy by opening a post about technology worship with a parallel to the war against Muslims and peppering it with examples from health care! I am flat-out astounded (pleasantly) that the comments have remained as polite as they have been so far.

In the similar vein of diving right into controversy and current events, I would simply add another brief example where that pattern of obfuscation you identify applies far beyond technology and into politics. A bit off-topic but it fits your pattern, that the "rising spiral of problems" is met by insistence that "the problems don't exist and denouncing those who demur".

This week I have read and heard to my face, several examples where white people try to make the case to me that the rising protests in Fergusen and now NYC are completely off-base, and justice and the law is obviously on the side of the police officers who killed these black persons during the course of their duties. When it's a personal friend saying this to my face, I try to explain, "You don't have to make the case to _ME_, I'm white and I'm not out there protesting. You have to make the case to _THEM_, that a pattern of beatings and shootings against unarmed members of their local population which have been going on for decades or centuries by authority figures is merely well-deserved justice." The conversation usually stops right there.

Who was it who said "When faced with the choice between changing yourself, and proving there is no need to do so, most people get busy on the proof"? Historically, it is so very much more comforting to just sit back in your gated castle and tell yourself the barbarians are crazy and will go away soon. Unfortunately that doesn't stop the barbarian hordes from storming your gates.

A month ago I would have given more credence to your Ebola prediction, than your prediction that the unrest in Fergusen might continue and expand into a broader protest against the system itself. Looks like my credence should have been reversed.

Varun Bhaskar said...


I'm less worried about our physical technologies than I am about our organizational technologies. What angers me the most about technophiles is that they will happily trade something as valuable as liberal democracy for more doodads.

Slight side note. I said earlier I would let you all know when my trip lines for potential insurgency started kicking, well the last few weeks they have. The first is the obvious ongoing protests over the grossly unjust killing of unarmed black men. I would normally ignore them but too many are occurring too close together. Also FBI Arrests Two Accuses of Bomb Plot. Keep in mind these are not yet supported by foreign factions, but considering what we're doing to Russia that's coming in the next two years.



The Raven Collective said...


Last week I found myself unable to get to the comments page on either of your blogs due to some re-direct to a malware download site with an image of the figure of Death playing a penny whistle or something!

Some feathers got ruffled somewhere!

I'm glad to see that I can comment once more.

Phil Harris said...

JMG & All
I posted this last week, but right at the end. I think it worth sharing again.
Some big change came over scientists as a collective this last 20 years. The line has shifted.

Michael Dittmar is a physicist in Switzerland whom I have come to know and appreciate who has adopted a teaching role and usefully researches the impacts of industrial civilisation. He compared scientists' response to the 1992 Rio Summit with the 2012 version.
Quote: in contrast to the strong 1992 declaration “Warning to humanity” (World Scientists' Warning to Humanity) signed by hundreds of Noble laureates and supported by more than 1700 world renown scientists, the 2012 follow-up led to no statement of a common view within the scientific community demonstrating an even smaller acceptance of responsibility to inform the world population and pressure governments to act."

Dr Dittmar tells me that judging by some of the scientists he has met, the august bunch back in 1992 did not read or understand properly what they were signing! It sounds as if the reaction back then derived from social rather than scientific context – so I guess the change since then has been in society, and that scientists respond as social actors just like the rest of us.

Phil H

John Michael Greer said...

GuRan, thank you!

Raymond, that's fascinating. Lack of stability as a breakpoint for critical economic sectors -- hmm. I need to research that, and then factor it into my evolving projection, because it could be a major issue.

Ed, thanks for the timely reminder! Yes, that's very much what's going on at this point -- the idolization of science and technology is a poster child for the effect Toynbee discussed.

Avery, this is one of the reasons I'm interested in seeing letterpress technology make it through the current decline. East Asian civilizations lost a lot less during the declines of the last millennium or so, because they has woodblock printing to replicate documents.

KL, funny!

Bruno, I don't know much about anesthetics, so I'd encourage you to keep studying the subject and see what you can learn.

Thomas, hmm. I used to play D&D back when it was staplebound booklets -- the titles Greyhawk, Blackmoor, and Eldritch Wizardry may ring a distant bell of memory in some ears -- and I'd like to think that you're right, but I have my doubts. It's interesting, to use no stronger word, that D&D and so many other roleplaying games are set in an age of constant violence and warfare, with a relatively primitive technology confronted by ancient artifacts no one understands any more -- a world, that is, like the one our descendants will inhabit.

Jonathan, I'm not sure I'd agree. Economics is simply a game played with arbitrary tokens, and if one set of tokens stops working, another can be cobbled together in fairly short order. It's the decline in real wealth -- energy resources, etc. -- that I think will turn out to be critical.

Edde, rail will only be an option in those regions that have a fairly resilient rail system now. The United States is not one of those regions, and at this point the window of opportunity to change that has probably closed.

Daelach, your low-tech tablet is brilliant -- I hope it catches on. As for the art of dying well, and neither too early nor too late -- well, yes; that's as important as anything else a human being can learn. What it requires, as you've suggested, isn't religion, philosophy, or any other body of learning, but that quality that used to be called "character."

Twilight, a very good point, and one that EM Forster explored trenchantly in his short story "The Machine Stops."

Kenaz, you know, that's the first time in a very long while that anyone has mentioned anything about Heidegger that made me consider revisiting him. Thanks for this.

Leo Knight said...

Thanks again for such a thoughtful essay. This brings up so many issues for me. My father was born in 1908, and my mother in 1919. They survived the 1929 Depression. They both had a healthy skepticism of gadgets, but still wanted things like washing machines and automobiles. They drew the line at dishwashers and clothes dryers. A sink and clothesline worked fine. They both passed away in the 70s, but I think they would have found the current crop of "must haves" amusing.

After my mom's death, I had to fend for myself at the age of 18. Because I couldn't afford much, I quickly learned how to do without. I recall the dismay from some friends when I told them I washed dishes by hand and hung my clothes up to dry. They thought I was so deprived! Like you, I still do not own a cell phone. My friends marveled when I finally broke down and got a Hotmail account.

I work at a flower shop, and I'm still amazed when I meet people who can't read a roadmap. They rely slavishly on GPS, and flounder helplessly when it (regularly) gives them false directions. Our shop is on a main road, clearly marked, in the same location for 50+ years, yet some people cannot locate our address without calling on their cell phones, and getting detailed, blow by blow instructions from me. I like to joke, "Smart phone, dumb person." Unkind, I know, since they have never had to learn to navigate on their own.

So much technology today is the "black box" variety, with little outward clue as to how it works. I joke that such devices are powered by black magic and voodoo. I could understand how a car engine from prior to about 1985 worked. I actually, with almost no practical experience, just reading, fixed a parted accelerator cable on a Ford Aerostar, using only the spring from a ball point pen. I was inordinately proud of that. But a modern car, with all the electronics? I may as well wave a rattle at it.

Kaitain said...


The ancient technology that you referred to in your response to Kutaman: That wouldn’t happen to be the system of geoengineering and sacred geometry discovered, or rather, rediscovered, by John Michell and discussed in books like “The View Over Atlantis”, would it?

NosVemos said...


This was a very thought provocative entry in your ongoing series.

I'm not sure why, exactly, this comes to mind, but here it goes: after the bottleneck comes release.

I remember a few years ago, when I was likely at my mountaineering peak (in terms of physical stamina, strength, ambition, recklessness), and was undergoing a point of careful examination in my life (what makes me happy? what do I want? what do I need?).

It was very hard to imagine my life (let alone my most passionate interests) outside of their current milieu (expensive gear, complex logistics, extravagant technology which actually undermines my better/higher instincts, etc). And then, while on a trip in the Tetons I learned that on Grand Teton there was a circle of black stones had been discovered by one of the first climbing parties exploring the route that would eventually take the name of Owen-Spalding.

A circle of stones placed carefully--perhaps ritualistically--in one of the most daunting locations in the world. It was like a spell had been broken. The circle of stones (though I never saw them and I'm not sure if they are still there) seemed to show that life was still possible (perhaps better, even!), that the passion and devotion I felt for this activity, this ritual, were still possible, and, in fact, took on more humane and humbling contours in this previous iteration.

And so, I believe, it will go with many things.

latefall said...

JMG thanks for kicking off this discussion!
Very, very useful modification of a typical cost/benefit type diagram. Very generic but yet highly illustrative. I came close to this when giving talks on the topic but I hadn't thought of just visually moving the borders. It is great because I can see an important part of the relevant audience grok this in seconds. I just don't like the letter designations. I suggest animals or products help with talking about it.
I wasn't very happy with the post and discussion of last week, although I was mostly in agreement on the main drivers and likely consequences - so I guess that makes it academic...

I think it may be useful to consider this whole development not "at thermodynamic (or social) equilibrium", but with many of the dark age factors sketched out by JMG making it very "kinetic" at times. It is not unlikely if you stumble into this blindly you will end up in a very small local optimum in the desert.
Also once a different paradigm is accepted things become extremely political as resource bases for any planning period tighten. The definition of utility will become particularly difficult/contested (also when mating behavior comes into play...). Ripples of uncertainty may knock over many techs or forestall investment, on the other hand price spikes may attract investment if the customer has deep enough pockets not to go broke directly.

I guess one could call it an industrial "revolution" in the original sense of the word. How many RPMs is that?

@Merle re Windmill power (I'll run right into it)
Umm... the Netherlands a good while ago? Of course not exclusively windmills but significant chunks for sure...

@Paul K. re Making the cut
Yeah I'd be very interested as well, also what people perceive are the most likely showstoppers for techs. I assume the ripple of uncertainty that goes through complex technical fields whenever something vaguely related goes offline for good and no one is really sure if and when this will impact their own corner of tech will cost a lot of opportunity. People may get very conservative about innovation (in many cases the adaptation that would have been necessary).
re Metal re-purposing:
If you have the space, collect aluminium cans and scraps NOW. Mold making and casting is low tech but fun and takes some practice. Watch a couple of youtube videos and download them or film them. When you need the video is when you won't get it anymore. You need hardly anything for this except the costly refined aluminium. For gardening tools it is probably second or third choice but it'll be one of the easiest ways to keep a foot in metallurgy I assume.
re Mining versus Salvage:
I believe that will depend strongly on the (paying) capita development. If it is for a tech that is perceived as necessary and people will choke up the money, mining may continue unless we get a steep enough drop in capita.

re 3D printing:
Here's one for ya:
I've talked to one of their sales people and they are acutely aware of the interdependent tech situation. I did not have the time to breach the decline aspects in our last conversation, but seeing that the person collected roman artifacts I may assume that possibility has crossed his mind once or twice after watching the news. To me it makes more sense to refer to 3D printing as an additive manufacturing tech. The computer is optional, I can do it with hot glue or toothpaste if you like. The utility of the products is not different in many of the cases. But printing a mold for my equally additive carbon or glass fiber lay-up may come in quite handy indeed. Or making spare parts you need for some of the designed to break plastic products. It is not the individual tech that makes or breaks a civilization.

latefall said...

For the die hards - here's a silicon scenario: MountainTop silicon
You have relatively large amounts of electricity from solar (DIY) and hydro (sponsored by feudal lord in friendly agreement that you won't poison it again). You don't need much up there in terms of raw materials and can do most of your import/export via airship on a few calm days. Until someone lays waste to your place with a large mortar. The next time you'd better produce some more optical lenses for your feudal warlord friend on the side.
Clean room tech may really not be so much of an issue. There wasn't really enough pressure, time, and understanding in semiconductor fabs for innovating a small footprint clean room (just think of! , support tech. Small mesh filters aren't terribly complex. Low vapor pressure sticky stuff may be easy enough to source. Shave the staff, drench them in oil or something and have a look what the particle count is like. Of course it is kinda hard to copy this exactly if you source most things locally. But you have to keep in mind that the pressure to make a new product will slow down dramatically - which allows for rather different engineering.

@John D. re Open Source Ecology:
I've heard that some (most?) of the plans require you to ditch the metric system and most of their products, which made it a no-starter in a place in Senegal that was looking into using it. Trying not to criticize their effort but highlighting some of the complications...

re Gas turbines
High end designs may be pretty complex at the moment. But there's also the money to pay for it (and probably will be as long as there is a lot of gas hydrocarbons to burn). Turbines in general are not terribly new, complex, or costly. Diesels probably span a similar range in technological complexity (optimized burning, injection, etc.)
I have high hopes that large scale (safe) air travel may hear the shot but not the echo. They attract a lot of bright minded people that seem to lack guidance or judgement. When they talk about systems engineering they should try a wide cut-off range at times... Also if air travel/bombing goes it leaves much more utility for less forceful communication tech such as radio or glass fiber.

re Bikes and rubber:
I've said it before. Grow some russian dandelion for starters:
I think they may be useful longer than 2-3 generations if there's demand in some cities. Bikes are mostly useful in a dense urban environment I'd say. Wait till the cars are gone - they'll shine. In rural areas where good surfacing is too expensive and you have long distances to go - you often have the space and feed for a horse.

@donalfagan: "Frightening stuff, but apparently the allure of new discoveries was so great some of them ignored the risks."
I would put this in present tense having worked in the development of new materials.

Thomas Mazanec said...

But the beautiful thing about GURPS is that the U stands for Universal. If our descendants want to role-play being space explorers in an alternate history where Industrial Civilization never fell, or cyberpunks in 2025's One Percenters (still having the best tech, and still 3 million Americans), or anthropomorphic animals battling Robotnik/Eggman, or whatever, they can do it. As long as he have time to dream (and I read somewhere, maybe here, that Medieval peasants had more free time and less taxation than an average American worker), technology to print a rulebook, and the human love of Make Believe, role playing games should survive.

jonathan said...

in a sense you are correct-money is simply an arbitrary token, but it represents a claim upon real, productive wealth. that's why the financial collapses, e.g. of 1929 and 2007 had such dramatic affects on the real economy of production and employment.

today in the u.s. oil patch, drillers finance their production with junk bonds and dicey loans that are secured by the oil in the ground. the fall in the price of oil has made these bonds and loans very default prone. the financing is drying up, the projects will be shelved with consequent loss of jobs and investments. these will be real, hard losses. the oil will still be there, the rigs and labor will still be there, but the financial crisis caused by falling oil prices means that these assets will be unused.

historically, financial crises such as the debasement of a currency, n.b. the roman drachma, have lead to economic disaster. sure, another currency can be introduced, but by whom, and how many will die in the interim?

onething said...

it’s very convenient to insist that people who ask hard questions about the way that contemporary science has whored itself out to economic and political interests, ... just hate science."

Well, it is an ad hominem. Ad hominem is used constantly, and in my book, who uses it loses. If you had a real argument, you'd use it.

SLClaire said...

In common with a couple of other folks who have commented, I am concerned that knowledge of how to use technologies that might otherwise make the A category in a low energy world is the bottleneck to their making it through decline.

Take one I just wrote about, the scythe. It consists of a metal blade, a wooden handle, and a metal piece that joins the two. It relies on woodworking and metalworking machinery and skills surviving and on people who know its value preserving the knowledge of how to make and use it. How many of you have used a scythe to mow or trim, or even seen anyone using one? I had not before I bought a scythe. For me it turned out that in order to use a scythe well, I could not just read about it, I had to watch someone use it. Easy enough now via video, and in fact that is how I learned to use it. But later on, when video is no longer available because it hits its technological bottleneck first, the scythe too could be lost if knowledge of how it is used isn't passed on person to person, by someone who knows how to use it showing someone else who wants to learn.

I'm not the person to learn how to do woodworking or metalworking. On the other hand, I have learned how to use a scythe and can show other people how to do that. I know you, JMG, are planning to talk about adult education later on, as a way to deal with the knowledge bottleneck. I think this is one place where I will put my efforts.

Raymond Duckling said...

Glad to be of any help, John.

I'd say that I was able to recognize the situation thanks to have read about the Beer Game in Senge's "The Fifth Discipline". Most people I interacted with did not seem to have much of a mental model of the situation, and were just pissed of with the company for laying off people at the same time when big urgent orders were coming from customers.

Wikipedia has a brief summary of the game. I think it will be a good starting point for your research:

Slow Moe said...

Of all the pieces of literature I can think of, the one I care the most about preserving has to be the Epic of Gilgamesh.

If the worlds oldest piece of literature doesnt survive the dark age intact, my ghost would be very sad.

But Greer, how could I go about preserving it, or at least an english translation of it (I wouldnt know where to find it in original sumerian)? Get a copy put on acid free paper or something and have it leather bound or something? I dont know anythiing about books or book binding or book preserving.

I would be so sad if the worlds first great piece of literature would be lost. Its over 3000 years old: I pray it lives another 3000, or more.

Lastly, Greer, from personal curiousity, have you ever found the time to read it? Its relatively short, at least, compared to something like the Mahabharata (but then most things are).

John Michael Greer said...

Thomas, welcome to the ADR community! The distinction between a technology and a trick us a keeper; thanks for that.

Mark, heated and cooled toilet seats? Very Japanese!

Eric, I'd encourage you to replace "someday" with "now" on your mental calendar. There really isn't any time to waste at this point.

Howard, thanks for the reality check!

Don, no argument there. I put bread machines in the same category: complex, finicky, and less fun than getting your hands in dough and doing it yourself.

Avalterra, I've recently given away a couple of hundred books to friends who are starting a library for their permaculture meetup group, so my wife and I between us are down to around 3200 books. It'll creep back up, no question -- though I also get the benefit of a very good interlibrary loan system, and borrow books that way from all over Maryland.

Steve, exactly. It's a real challenge, and points up just how much ruthless simplification will be needed to get a set of technological suites suited to a deindustrializing world.

Karl, now there's a blast from the past! Thank you.

Professor D., of course. I've discussed those points at length in earlier posts and in two of my books, The Ecotechnic Future and Green Wizardry.

Rsuusa, I should have specified indoor running water -- the sooner flush toilets give way to composting toilets, the better off the world will be.

Patricia, to my mind that's simply the top end of A, seen from a particular standpoint. Unavailability's one thing that will push those over into C; another is what happens when resources that might be used for something necessary, such as food, get used instead for the pursuit of various addictions.

Myriad, granted, that's likely to the the issue. By becoming too well adapted to the present, the project makes itself nonviable in the future: quite a common thing, really.

John Michael Greer said...

Russ, er, which dissertation would that be? I don't have a doctorate.

Juhana, I remember old machine tools like that -- as heavy as a T-34 tank, and about as fragile, too. They're worth their weight in gold. Over here, by the way, that sort of facility is called a "MakerSpace," and they're becoming quite popular.

Ed-M, that's far enough off topic that it'll have to wait until we get to the social, cultural, and religious dimensions of the descent into a dark age.

Brian, thanks for that essay! I know enough tech geeks to know that, if anything, it's an understatement.

Beneath, heck of a good question. The long-term viability of cell phones depends on so many variables I'm not going to hazard a guess.

Wagelaborer, next time you take a train trip, tell the people who'll be picking you up to check the status of your train on the Amtrak website, and give 'em the train number. That way they can find out whether your train's been delayed, without your having to haul around a cell phone.

Clay, a great deal depends on the rate of climate change. If the continental US warms enough that rubber trees are viable here, the issue of tubes and tires will solve itself.

Erik, organic techniques can make rich fertile soil out of almost anything, but it's very hard to use those methods on a large scale; they're well suited to small intensive gardens, less so to grain farming and the like. My guess is that we'll see soil fertility collapse over large parts of the world, but those people and groups who invest the time into building their soil now will be able to take up at least some of the slack.

Donalfagan, thanks for the link. Leaf blowers? No argument there -- way down in category B.

Kathleen, exactly. The Russians have a proverb that translates out more or less as "Don't let the perfect become the enemy of the good."

Thomas, I'm fine with controversy. When this blog first got under way, the suggestion that the future might not be either business as usual forever or overnight Armageddon was very controversial! As for the protests, well, yes; it's so much easier to ignore the fact that extrajudicial executions of minorities are business as usual on America's streets these days.

Varun, no argument there. To my mind, the possibility that the current mess will tip over into a sustained domestic insurgency is hideously large, and everyone who might do something to prevent that seems obsessed with a desire to look the other way.

Raven, fascinating. I wonder how widespread that was.

Slow Moe said...

@Jonathan, isnt currency debasement a symptom of decline, not a cause?

Anyway, the british debased their gold and silver currencies without collapsing for centuries. Dont fool yourself into thinking that currency debasement is one of the principle causes of Rome's collapse...

Slow Moe said...

"Russ, er, which dissertation would that be? I don't have a doctorate."

JMG, I believe he is innacurately referring to this most recent essay as a dissertation.

He just got his words a bit mixed up is all.

Slow Moe said...

"Varun, no argument there. To my mind, the possibility that the current mess will tip over into a sustained domestic insurgency is hideously large, and everyone who might do something to prevent that seems obsessed with a desire to look the other way. "

Wait, Greer, insurgency by who, and for what reasons? Are you referring to the thing in Ferguson?

What might be done to prevent such a thing, and who has the power to do so?

John Michael Greer said...

Phil, it's the same change I've been talking about for years -- the vacation from reality the industrial world tried to take starting in the early 1980s has become pervasive, spreading throughout contemporary culture. Those scientists who objected were generally sidelined where they weren't forced out of their jobs, so it's no wonder the current crop aren't interested.

Leo, excellent points all around. I'm sure you've noted the common thread uniting black-box technologies and people who can't find their way without moment by moment GPS guidance; in both cases, and of course many more, it's a flight from having to understand the world.

Kaitain, no, though Michell's work was among the things that led me to it.

NosVemos, holy people in a great many traditions used to climb to the top of the nearest peak, no matter how high it was or how difficult the ascent. Thus I think mountaineering in some sense is guaranteed a future.

Latefall, by all means adjust the diagram and the explanation as needed!

Thomas, no doubt. Has it occurred to you that most people in most other human societies in history don't show any sign of having wanted to pretend they were something and somewhere they weren't? It's occurred to me more than once that we may be the first society in history to make everyday life so fundamentally unsatisfying that people are driven to that extreme...

Jonathan, oh, no question we'll get dramatic events, and quite possibly a fair amount of turmoil, impoverishment, and immiseration. That doesn't equal the collapse of civilization, though; the exhaustion of vital resources, on the other hand, can do that quite handily.

Onething, no argument there. In high school debate club, we used to say that anyone who makes an ad hominem attack has just demonstrated that he has no case.

SLClaire, glad to hear it. In the meantime, I'd encourage you to see if you can find anyone who wants to learn how to use a scythe, and teach them.

Raymond, many thanks!

Moe, of course I've read the epic of Gilgamesh! (I grew up on a child's version of it, and graduated to the original in translation in my teens.) Saving it is a worthwhile cause; I'd encourage you to do some reading and research into document preservation, and also see if you can make contact with other people who love it and want to see it saved. Networks of those who care enough to do something are probably the best option for saving cultural treasures. More on this in a future series of posts!

Don Plummer said...

John, I've never used a bread machine or even seen one! :)

Rita said...

@ Agent Provocateur
One problem I see with falling back to earlier forms of technology is that even the simpler ones, such as steam engines were developed in a time of plentiful energy and were very inefficient in the use of that energy. Steam engines relied on plentiful coal or wood, later. Early automobiles got very poor mileage--most of the improvements in MPG are a result of computers replacing the earlier systems and of synthetic materials lighter than metal. Earlier societies denuded their forests just to run simple smelters and forges. We may have situations in which even simple tech simply won't make the cut in terms of real expense.

Michael Stephenson said...

Hi JMG, I have read the ecotechnic future recently, I was interested in your discussion of lifeboat eco village, I googled about to see if you have ever discussed jonestown, it does not appear you have. Jonestown seemed to be a pretty successful attempt at a lifeboat eco village by prodominantly poor black people from california that suicide itself in what they saw as a protest against imminent destruction by US force after the visit of a US senator, a not unfounded fear given US action in Latin America.

I find it an interesting subnext and was wondering about your opinion on the affair.

Janet D said...

@Ed-M, re: religion / evangelical Christianity.

Well, I'm no expert, but I do follow trends and I think the evidence clearly shows some rapid declines with religion (and, specifically, Christianity) in America. (Which does not mean that I discount it.).

You might want to look up the Pew Research Report, "The Rise of the Nones", which caused a lot of hearts to stop when it was released in 2013. The Religious 'Nones' are the fastest growing group in America today (without an "outreach" budget or campaign), and currently comprise 1 out of every 5 adults in the U.S. (1 out of 3 for those under 30, more than double the number of young people who self-selected as "Evangelical Christians"). The category of "Other" for Religions is now up to 6%. reports that 1/2 of those who report themselves as Christian rarely attend church. They also report that 4,000 churches close their doors every year, while only 1,000 new churches are started.

Research by the Barna Group (a Christian organization) also highlights the decline of Biblical knowledge/views and church participation.

Yes, America will continue to be a religious country, particularly in the South, where I could forsee an eventual theocracy taking place (just my opinion, folks, so Bill, don't freak out on me....:-) But things are changing really, really fast.

I don't know that these trends are 'good' - one could easily argue that a people w/o a unifying belief system is a powder keg, but they are there, nonetheless. I personally think that the decision to mix religion and politics, starting in the 70's/80's, was a death wish (there were several prominent Christian leaders who were urging Christians not to go that route - to no avail). However, that trend shows no sign of slowing, either, so we'll probably continue to get growing fractions, with each side hardening. Sigh.

We live in interesting times.

Bytesmiths said...

"I have no interest in owning a cell phone"

I'm with you there!

"... and have a sufficiently intense fondness for books printed on actual paper that I’ve never given more than a passing thought to the current fad for e-books."

Although I love physical books, I've given more than passing thought to e-books, to the point that I've purchased a dozen demo Kindle DX Graphite e-readers with broken screens, and then bought new screens, batteries, and USB cords, and am now in the process of refurbishing them.

Why? Well, there's a lot of information out there that is either not available in paper form, or the convenience of its electronic form is overwhelming. Where will it live when the last disk stops spinning?

With its thousand-hour battery lifetime, static display, 4 GB of solid-state storage, rudimentary keyboard, and Linux underneath, the Kindle DX e-reader has a lot to offer. With a simple hack to get rid of the misnamed "screen saver," you can have a technical drawing or schematic open forever, without power, sitting on your workbench while you work on a project.

I don't expect to change your mind. But I'm constantly on the lookout for technology that is fairly de-coupled from civilization, that might have a chance of being around for some time.

Patricia Mathews said...

I am elderly and arthritic and see no need for electric can openers either. Nor remote controlled garage door openers. My house is as old as I am*, and the garage door is spring-operated and so nicely balanced I can handle it myself. Also, when the clothes dryer quit, I bought some nylon cord at the big box DIY store and strung it under the eaves of my back deck. Behold! Solar clothes drying! Also, Desert nonHumidity-assisted drying.

A lot of what I do calls for trying to remember what my mother, born in 1914, did when I was a child. Of course, then, she was a lot younger than I am now!

*You thought that "1939" in my gmail address was meaningless? Naah.

Thomas Mazanec said...

But plenty of other cultures have fiction about Magic, Nonhuman people, strange societies...
Well, I am sure of only one thing in the future:
The Parousia will occur sometime between Today and Ten Trillion AD.
Everything else I am broadminded about.

Eric S. said...

"I'd encourage you to replace "someday" with "now" on your mental calendar. There really isn't any time to waste at this point."

Exactly. That's what this week's essay kind of shed some light on for me. I might not have the time, means, or skills to go through Edison's journal and try to recreate all his inventions from scratch or do something on that scale right now. But I can get a few hobby books, start tinkering with circuits and batteries, and see where it leads. Even that much could find some practical use in the here and now, since even the electricity produced by a homemade Babylon battery based on technology thousands of years old could be used to make colloidal silver for medicinal purposes. And the more tinkering that happens, the more likely it would be to escalate.

In another comment you said "don't let the perfect become the enemy of the good." That's a really important concept, and a really difficult one to grasp. It's certainly been the cause of most of the stumbling blocks I hit in Green Wizardry, in magic, in general life development, and it's only been over the course of this past year that I've really started to see that saying "I've got to do it all and it has to be just right, right now or it doesn't mean anything" is really just another version of "they'll think of something" or "we'll all be extinct in 30 years."

It's a really hard bit of thinking to unlearn, but once I realized I needed to things finally started happening that I'd been trying to get to happen for years. "Don't let the perfect become the enemy of the good." That's an incantation I need to start waking up with every morning.

Eric S. said...

(A continuation of my last post: apparently that quote comes from Voltaire, so French rather than Russian.)

August Johnson said...

I know that you see the limitations of our technologies, it can be hard to do this unless you are willing and able to look beyond the “benefits” that we often think we get from them.

As far as computers, given my background in using them, designing and building interfaces to scientific research experiments, I don't understand how people think that we're going to be rescuing old 286, 386 computers and putting them back to use in the future. Yes, there are those who have old copies of MS-DOS on floppy, but how many of the thousands of different software drivers for different peripherals do you have? Remember all the fun of configuring the autoexec.bat and config.sys files with himem.sys and other programs? Those are all necessary to make those old computers run, along with all the lost documentation. You won't get one of those systems to start without a functional floppy drive and these and many more programs already on a readable floppy. Just like trying to read a 50 year-old ebook!

When I first started working with computers, in the early 1970's when I was in High School, the two types of systems I got familiar with were the Data General NOVA series and an even more “primitive” processor, the Autonetics D17B Inertial Guidance Computer from the Minuteman I missile. These had been released by the military for use by researchers. It was a simple 24-bit computer with only a 2700 word or so Hard Drive. No RAM. This was built with all discrete components, no IC's at all. In fact the logic was built using RDL (Resistor-Diode Logic) unless gain was required and then DTL (Diode-Transistor Logic) was used. This is a computer that I can see being able to dig out of a scrap pile and, with maybe just some documentation like this, get up and running. No Internet though! And not power economic, it takes 28 Volts at 25 Amps to run it.

The Data General NOVA computers were similar, the basic model came with 4K 16-bit Core memory and was built entirely from SSI (Small Scale Integration) and MSI (Medium Scale Integration) IC's and discrete transistors. No LSI (Large Scale Integration). All schematic diagrams, truth tables and diagnostic information was provided. See here. I did much repair of CPU, Memory and Peripherals on these computers as well as designing and building custom interfaces. The CPU was built from about 200 IC's on a 15 inch square board and with the diagnostic programs, which could even be entered from the front panel switches if necessary, you would trace signals through the entire CPU with an oscilloscope until you found the bad gate. These also can be brought alive without any special software, you can enter a program on the front panel switches directly from the Programming Manual provided. Yes, you may need to find old TTL IC's to repair one, but that's easier than the special proprietary IC's in later computers that have no documentation. None of this is possible without a massive store of very special and no longer available hardware(working floppy drives anyone?) and readable software for an obsolete IBM PC Clone computer. However, even these older computers are often just as extinct as the later computers, they pretty much only exist in a few people's memories and in long-buried landfills and scrap piles.

August Johnson said...

In my writing about Ham Radio I will not be talking about any commercially manufactured antennas but will be showing how to make any antenna you need. Be on the lookout for rolls of wire and pieces of plastic and metal tubing in your neighborhood! My preferences in actual radio equipment will seem archaic to some, I prefer the older tube and solid state radios that don't have an microprocessors in them. I like a radio that's really repairable. Yes, it's often possible to repair newer radios but there are so many obstacles compared to radios that don't have all the extraneous stuff stuck on the side of a basic superhet radio. The microprocessors add so many different loops that it's often not possible to figure out what's the actual dead part without resorting to shotgun replacing of things until you get it working.

Keeping the skills and knowledge alive for simple radios will be invaluable, it's possible to build radio receivers and transmitters from almost any scrap electronics that still contains discrete transistors. Not to mention that there are huge piles of components stored away in many people's workshops. Given that there are many companies selling surplus components by the millions to hobbyists, there is no shortage of parts for a long time into the future.

I hope that it's going to be possible to get at least a few people who are genuinely interested in Ham Radio and Green Wizardry on the air and communicating about these types of tech subjects. I have started talking with some local people about a lending library of books covering a wide variety of subjects, for years I've been collecting any how-to, gardening and “Appropriate Tech” type books that I come across, even duplicates to give to those who might need then. It would be nice if a few Green Wizards types also participated in something similar for Radio type equipment, parts and books. I have a great starter heap! I'm also on the lookout for people who want to participate in a so-called Makerspace for Appropriate Tech.

BTW, my mother only had a washing machine, never had a dryer. She hated them and always hung her clothes up on either an outside clothesline or a rack inside in bad weather. We do the same, there's a dryer in the laundry room but it's almost never used.

latheChuck said...

I recommend "Engineering in the Ancient World", by J. G. Landels, U of California Press. A rather small book, and fun to read.

Also: bought a Royal manual typewriter at a yard sale, with case and new ribbon, $10.

Cathy McGuire said...

Thanks for the clear framework and the graphics - too many people I talk to seem to have no clue about the resources needed to give them their various "necessities". It may be one of the most insidious poisons of the modern culture, that people have gotten so separated from physical reality that they have no clue at all about the layers of interconnected complexity they rely on!

@Bill Pulliam: I don't see what the problem is. We'll just 3D print everything. I just heard today on the radio that you can now get everything you need for it down at the Home Despot.
And obviously HD doesn't think it's putting itself out of business offering that crap! ;-D

@kathleen Quinn: good luck with your transition. One of the hardest parts of this decline, psychologically, I believe, is the unevenness of it - we have to shift suddenly while others don't, and at this point the others are not seeing (or not wanting to see) that it's getting dicey for most people. JMG used to talk about "muddling through" in earlier posts, and I've used that phrase a lot in my own pep talks, telling myself that I'm learning how to muddle through, and will have a graduate degree in it by the time others are just starting to learn!

@ Brian: thanks for the link to that programmer's rant! I used to work in hi-tech and have learned 5 programming languages (4 of them now "ancient") and nowadays have no idea what's going on in most of the electronics I use - I totally believe that rant, and it's scares me, because of how many things are now all electronic (ex: our county court has just switched to mandatory e-filing - all case records and lawsuits must be sent to the court via computer only! Oh, boy, is that an accident waiting to happen...)

Cathy McGuire said...

I just had to add this - an article about a supposedly "green" couple - really worth reading the whole article -w hat a perfect example of this week's post!

Exhausted By a House That Saves Energy

...They were environmental and community advocates, so they wanted it to be as sustainable as possible — ideally net-zero, producing as much energy as it used. And because they would be living on a modest fixed income, they needed to make sure it was inexpensive to maintain.
But they didn’t want to scrimp on luxury or size, so against their architect’s advice they insisted on 5,000 square feet, enough space to accommodate all their children and grandchildren at the same time. And a $30,000 hydraulic elevator, so they could age in place. And a separate apartment for the inevitable time when extra help was needed.
The indoor pool was just for fun....

Merle Langlois said...

Gloucon, the simple Christian civilization which existed between 600-1000 CE would have been completely overrun by the Ottomans by 1529 or earlier. Backwardness might have its advantages, stability being one of them, but it leaves a civilization vulnerable to outside forces should any outside civilizations want to conquer them.

Latefall, regarding windmills, high tech windmills such as exist today to partially power our electricity grid are so far into "impossible to make during the serious part of the decline" category as to be laughable. The fact that these nice windmills exist right now and are contributing to the power milieu is fine but by no means sustainable. We're talking about a cascading series of crises which will most likely take down electricity grids period, so what need would there be for such windmills, even presuming the early stages of descent when they could still be made?

wiseman said...

On the subject of can make transistors at home, it's difficult but I suppose a small or medium scale enterprise could easily do it.

Even small scale integrated circuits are possible. So computer technology isn't dying any time soon and once you have mini computers like the ones on board Apollo missions they can be networked using radio communications or cables to create a rudimentary internet. It's not very far fetched at all.

John Michael Greer said...

Don, glad to hear it. I've never used one.

Michael, I haven't researched that subject so don't have an opinion on it.

Bytesmiths, if that works for you, by all means. If I want a schematic with me at the workbench, and it's not in one of my electronics books, I generally draw it -- and with any luck it doesn't end up looking too much like this one. ;-)

Patricia, excellent. I bet you make a lot of thirty-something tech geeks look like wimps, too.

Thomas, but people in other times don't seem to have had the need to engage in make-believe about those things; they recognized that the world around them was magical, and full of nonhuman beings, strange societies, etc. As for the Parousia, I had fun while working on my book Apocalypse Not working out a scripturally based prophecy of the Second Coming at least as plausible as the ones the Rapture bunnies are always trotting out. You'll recall that 2 Peter 3:8 says that a day to the Lord is as a thousand years, and that Daniel 8:14 says that the sanctuary shall be cleansed after 2300 days. 2300 days of a thousand years each, counting from the destruction of the Temple by the Babylonians in 587 BC, puts the Second Coming spot on schedule for the year 2,299,413 AD. That would fit within the time frame you've proposed, too!

Eric, hmm! I didn't know it was Voltaire; I was introduced to it as something Russians say -- though they could well have gotten it from V., of course.

August, I hope the project can take off! I think there's a huge need for it, and a great many possibilities that could be opened up by people who are willing to take up amateur radio as part of their Green Wizardry. As for computers, I used to write my own config.sys and autoexec.bat files, and got good mileage out of a Sanyo MBC-550 computer with two 5.25 floppy drives and no hard disk, so I'm not disposed to argue!

Cathy, thanks for that article. What a shining example of what not to do...

Wiseman, I'm going to ask you to prove that assertion. I've heard all kinds of easy reassurances about how this or that or the other form of computer technology can be built from scratch, but I have yet to see anybody make their own transistors or ICs and build even a rudimentary computer with them. I'll be happy to accept that claim just as soon as I see an actual, working example. Until then, as far as I'm concerned, it's just vaporware.

anagnosto said...

Dear John, I am a plant molecular biologist redeploying into a new field: allelopathy. This is the chemical warfare that plants use to get an edge in resource competition among them, and a reason for industrial monoculture agriculture. The other of course being the requirement of manual workforce in mixed cropping, what will be a less of a constraint in a oil-less society. I consider the need for the creation of disarmed and resistant varieties of plants for the obtention of new compatible groups, like the south american triad corn-bean-pumpkins. This would fall straight into your view of ecotechnological future, excepting that I believe transgenicity is the best way (and often the only one) for getting the results. At a later moment we will lose the capacity for creation of these varieties, but the seeds will still be there. Of course the harvest has to be able to be used for sowing in the following season, so no big agrocompany will be ever interested in those. J

Michael Stephenson said...

JMG, the Wikipedia page on People's Temple provides a good in to, be sure to listen to the death tape, in which it is clear that their suicide is because they fear annihilation by the Guyanan Defence Force's after a visit from a US senator in which he must have issued threats, and they naively believed that the world would see their suicide as an act of protest against the US State.

It was an archetypal example of a lifeboat eco village, made up of poor black californian's who envisaged a better life living an agrarian lifestyle.

daelach said...

@ Leo: my parents had a car, clothes dryer, microwave, dish washer and coffee machine. I could afford all of that, but I consider these things as useless.

As for GPS - there are even dumb drivers riding their car into rivers, despite the warning traffic signs, just because their navigation system tells them to. Maybe installing the "brain 1.0 app" would be a good idea for them?!

When I was a child, I learnt how to read a map, use a compass, tell the cardinal direction by time of day and position of the sun, how to find the north star. In big cities, bus stops or metro stations usually have maps. I have even come up with the revolutionary idea of just asking a passerby!

@ Rita: no, modern cars are not more efficient - mainly because most of the better efficiency has gone into bigger, heavier and faster cars. Same for the electric cars which have the same range as a hundred years ago, despite modern battery systems. 20 years ago, I could drive a VW Golf 2 at 5.5l/100km (42.8 MPG), and that was with only a 4-speed gear box and petrol, not with 6-speed and diesel. Out of towns and when limiting the speed to 70km/h (44 MPH), even less than 5l/100km (48 MPG) was possible. A modern VW Polo which has about the same size as a Golf 2 from the early 1990s doesn't consume less.

So despite 20 years of engineering, I don't see progress when it comes to the mileage.

See also here:


It gets even worse because that is just the mileage of the cars themselves. The whole electronics in modern cars takes extremely much energy in the production, plus that they cannot be recycled because the real resource killer starts in the production process, i.e. after having the raw materials available - and it is only the latter step that recycling could hope to aim at.

That is also a killer point with carbon fibre material. Unlike metal, it cannot be recycled, and even burning it is difficult because of the epoxy glue.

Maybe today in the US, people drive cars with better mileage than back then. However, that doesn't come from technical progress, but from switching to less overdimensioned cars. Of course a modern VW Polo takes less fuel than a V8 road cruiser. But a Golf from 20 years ago also.

(I'm not making VW advertisement here, these are just the cars I happen to know personally from the past and from car rental.)

@ JMG: Concerning computers - many of the tasks done today by computers will not make sense in a deindustrial world and with the intermediary system (e.g. administration, office, finance) drastically cut down. Plus that Roman aqueducts and European cathedrals were built without computers, as well as jet planes (e.g. the ME 262 in 1942).

I once read a study concluding that manufacturing a PC costs as much resources as producing an electronic-free car like the VW beetle from the 1950s. Maybe there will be small scale production facilities e.g. for the military, think of encryption, but by and large, no.

When resources get scarce, there is not much point in wasting them for mass production or maintainance of tools whose tasks are gone. Or for pure commodities like the internet which isn't sustainable anyway because of the resource demand of its supply chain.

wiseman said...


Here it is...homemade transistor

www dot youtube dot com slash watch?v=w_znRopGtbE

wiseman said...

and this..forgot to paste in last comment

www dot youtube dot com slash watch?v=Nv2TxiwAquM

russell1200 said...

There is no evidence that I am aware of that transportation failed in the Western Roman Empire prior to one of the many (mostly) German tribal forces were sitting in the territory of question. Example: The very important shipments of grain from North Africa stopped when the Vandals conquered it around 429.

Roman technological achievements were anemic for such a long lasting, powerful empire. The Chinese, or possibly even the Ottoman Turks, would make a better case for the interaction of technology and societal collapse. Both were powerful at the time of the European industrial driven expansion. In the case of the Ottomans, possibly even had the lead for the time in gunpowder technology, but lost that edge at least in part through a general political-social malaise.

William Zeitler said...

You made the observation recently about something like one minute of Rome's music has survived. As a musician myself, that got me thinking about what of our music could survive in future centuries due to technological constraints irrespective of popularity and interest. Up until about 1800, musical instruments were made by hand in fundamentally agrarian economies. There are still folks making violins and guitars by hand, so that's a go. Wind instruments changed considerably after 1800 -- all the 'orthodontia' added to flutes and oboes, for example, made economic by the rise of Modern Industry in the 19th century. I'm sure machining will still exist in centuries hence, but it may be more economic to go back to 'baroque flutes', and you can't play Mahler on a baroque flute. Somewhat ditto for brass -- brass generally had no valves -- slides at best -- pre-1800. Keyboard instruments like harpsichords and pianos were made by hand in low-tech shops until after 1800-ish; early pianos would have been the small low-tension instruments of Mozart's day -- nothing like the big beast modern concert grand that is completely dependent on large scale industry (start with piano wire -- high grade steel polished to eliminate surface micro-fissures, allowing the modern piano to have 200 lbs of string tension per string vs. the Mozart era piano of maybe 30 lbs). Thus, if distant future generations were so inclined, it would still be feasible build instruments to play Bach and Mozart, but Chopin and Mahler could be simply out of the question. (The knowledge of HOW to play those instruments is yet another discussion.) Electric guitars could also be problematic. Of course future generations may have little interest in playing Chopin, but this little thought experiment furthers the useful exercise of realizing how much current technology we take for granted. (BTW, piano technology is another one that's disappearing, as most folks are perfectly happy with an electronic one. So the knowledge of how tune by ear, for example, is disappearing into the aether.)

Clay Dennis said...

I used to be like the commentors who beleived that cell phones were a technology that would keeps it's utility into the future of diminishing resources. But that was before I moved my workshop in to a building next to a large cell tower.
Like many things in the world much of the energy use and complexity of widespread cellular service is hidden from the average user. The cell site next door has a concrete building the size of a suburban garage. Mounted on it are two large cooling units, each the size of an economy car. They run night and day putting off a waste heat Breeze that you can feel from 40 feet away. Every few months a crew of at least 12 men and 6 large trucks arrive to change out electronic parts or every year or two they change out the big cooling units ( I assume they wear out). When I multiply the energy use, need for replacement parts and fleets of petroleum powered service trucks that I see used next door by every cell site in America it is clear that it is not a technology that will continue very far in to the future we have in store for us.

Raymond Duckling said...


Assuming availability of current supply chains and everything, I have 3 questions. Please provide ballpark approximations within 30-50% accuracy.

1. In your opinion, what would be an adequate budget to set up a personal workshop to make DIY transistors? Assume a serious hobbist with access to reasonable (but not infinite) resources.

2. Assuming availability of resources and no learning curve, How many hours of labor would it take to make 1,000 transistors? NAND gates - which can be used as a single building block to all logic - require 4. Flip flops - which are needed for your circuit to run series of steps instead of single calculations - require 12. I (kind of) recall how to make a full adder out of those components, and can investigate how to do all 4 basic arithmetic operations from there.

Also, according to this source, transistor count for minimum computers are in the low thousands ballpark.

3. Please enumerate a list of the most important raw inputs / materials needed to run the workshop, and how to get them (assuming availability of current supply chains). The list does not have to be exhaustive, but do not cheat and say that you can make everything out of very clean sand.

I will be transparent and say that I expect your response to confirm this technology will fall into B category, even today. However, I would be delighted to be proven wrong.

Patricia Mathews said...

Make the kids look like wimps? Sigh - between moving slowly, an arthritic left leg, and what appears to be a personal catabolic collapse in process- and of course, Albuquerque sprawl - I've ended up as a member of the Burna Lotta Gassa tribe in bad standing.

However, I can hand-sew, and need not hem an overlong coat with staples and duct tape (true story! She never heard of any other way!) and make a pot of vegetable soup. And bake, though no longer able to knead without overstraining my right arm.

I finally gave in and gave up my bicycle last month because things are NOT getting any better, saving a miracle. So - day by day, eh?

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

@August: I am repeatedly struck by the depth of your knowledge, and concomitantly by my own shallowness in computing and ham radio. Your references at to the circa-1970 Nova computer prompted me to glance at It is a lovely machine. It appears that the programmer of a Nova will acquire almost a computer designer's grasp of registers, buses, and machine language.

Now a few small points that might perhaps help someone:

(1) I say again, and now slightly amplify, what I have said before on the ADR blog: I find that one can get lots of ham radio books, including a few from before World War 2, by visiting Toronto-area hamfest fleamarkets. I have a couple of shelf metres of these things, with provision in my last will and testament for their rational handing-on.

(2) The year-2000 Charles Petzold paperback Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software has enough info to let one design a CPU and bus and RAM from scratch, using if necessary even relays - as opposed to the technologically more demanding transistors and vacuum tubes.

(3) A computer made from relays was built around 2009 by Prof. Harry Porter. Some details are available at

now turning to maths
(I am doing vector-calculus
Jacobian determinants
in a conceptually explicit
notation which eschews
the conceptually opaque
Leibnizean derivative-"d" and Leibnizean partial-derivative-"curly d"),


Toomas dot Karmo at gmail dot com

www dot metascientia dot com


PS: May as well add: to make things explicit in multivariate calculus, it is useful to apply the ideas from 1930s mathematical logic developed by Alonzo Church as "lambda calculus" ("functional abstraction"). As the Dark Ages encroach, we seek among other things some conserving, and where possible even some modest improving, of techniques in pure maths.

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

Woops, sorry: should also add, on August's theme of computing and the i286 and i386 families, that at least some Linux kernels WILL run on the i386. (On the i286, not.) So this gives one a conceivable tactic for breathing life into a junkyard i386, without going into the horrors (August stresses these) of Microsoft auotexec.bat and himem.thingie.



Marcello said...

In regards to bicycles, I suspect it is an industrial technology.
Where I live the town pavement is largely pre-industrial: the main roads are paved with setts or slabs within a shouting distance of being kinda, sorta smooth, the rest is natural river stones hammered by hand on a layer of sand. The ride is such that a broken axle does not surprise me anymore.
Outside cities absent a roman style focus on infrastructure all you can hope for are gravel roads roughly maintained by corvée of peasants: a collection of potholes.
What the cost-effectiviness life expectancy of a bycicle/velocipede built with pre-industrial tech might be I do not know but if understand correctly the early 19th century types were basically gizmos for dandies to show off on the most fashionable (and presumably better mantained) streets of Paris and London. I bet they were not affordable for the proles, for that matter.

Kathleen Quinn said...

Thanks for the proverb, JMG--that sums it up nicely.

@Cathy McGuire thanks for the words of encouragement--well timed and appreciated! And for the NYT article link--what not to do, indeed! It sounded a bit like it was from The Onion...

Iuval Clejan said...

Dear JMG and John Wheeler,

The New Alchemists got funding for appropriate tech in the 70s and there is still funding from all sorts of places (including crowd funding), but it mostly goes to third world efforts, or people like M. Jakubowski of Open Source Ecology, who rely heavily on computers. I think the main thing is the marketing. You have to do it in ROP memes. Here is an effort of ours to do that: (watch video)

LewisLucanBooks said...

Yo, JMG; I guess a story about can openers is on topic. I moved away from home on my 18th birthday. A room mate and I had spent the day moving, and it was pretty late when we settled into getting something to eat. We had the bread, the canned tuna, the mayo. But ... no can opener!

And kids, this is in the days before 24 hour everything. The solution? A boot and a screw driver. A little messy, but it worked.

@ Cathy McGuire - Ah, yes. Muddling through. To long a story to go into here, but I have just been through 8 days of no water. Came back on about an hour ago. I was prepared for water outage, but not of such duration. But, I muddled through. The animals and I are fine. A week long freeze on top of the water just made for more challenges. Still love living in the country. Plans afoot to better survive long outages in the future. Lew

Agent Provocateur said...

I suggested that as a first approximation we might reasonably expect that the “... most recent and most complex technologies will collapse soon and catastrophically while the other older and simpler technologies will hang in there and degrade more gracefully.” I think your first two exceptions [(a) and (b)] are implied in this and so I think we agree on how complex technologies will fail. I'm not sure if we agree or not on how things will unwind for the simpler technologies.
At the risk of grossly oversimplifying the development of technologies from low to high, let me suggest the following: Generally we picked the low hanging fruit first. From there the combination of information, energy, and matter becomes increasingly rarefied and complex; typically to meet increasingly abstract and less essential desires. But the basic technologies did not disappear as the more complex ones were added. The model I'm suggesting is that of a pyramid. The most complicated tech only exists based on the continuing existence of the simple stuff.
I think we agree that the pyramid will lose its cap first and easily. I think we also agree that, though this will cause a lot of disruption, industrial societies will not fall apart all in one go because of it. Air travel, computers, and electronic gadgets are the last layers of complexity in industrial societies. I can see these disappearing first and very quickly along with their associated technology-specific knowledge for the reasons you gave. Fortunately, for the most part, we don't really need them.
The next layer of technologies down, as I see it, are the ones that we really are dependent on to meet our most basic needs in an industrial society. These are “steam engines, diesels, gasoline engines, electric generators and motors, refrigerators, pumps etc.” These all require the same basic information, stuff, and energy to make, transport, use, and maintain. These technologies often contain embodied knowledge that is easily deciphered. Unlike a computer or cell phone, open up one of these most basic machines and one can figure out how they work by just looking at them. Its not that big a step backwards to retool the numerically controlled lathes etc. to make the end product without computers or robots.
So the weak link in these more foundational technologies is not likely to be information (your exception (c)). By definition, low tech is simple. Its energy (and so getting the basic stuff) that is the limiting factor. We should see the large firms that produce the big stuff going bankrupt first because their profit is too unreliable and their profit margins are too thin due to (respectively) wild swings in, and gradual escalation of average, energy costs. I'm more sanguine for small machines producers but, nonetheless, eventually we'll be back to the village blacksmith with plenty of scrap metal, a steam powered generator, a basic foundry, and a lathe. If he can't make it, it won't exist. This is your squeeze into a smaller and smaller “Area A”.
Admittedly there is an issue of how diffuse low tech knowledge and skills are right now. None of the foregoing suggests people should not immediately get the low tech skills, knowledge, and resources necessary to make the transition more comfortable for themselves personally. There may not be any immediate concern about essential knowledge, skills, and resources disappearing completely; but everyone should be concerned if they themselves possess these now.

August Johnson said...

@Raymond Duckling – You beat me to these same questions! I see that your link on transistorized computers even mentions the D17B computer that I mentioned. 1521 transistors, and that does not include any memory. They used a hard drive with one head per track for the program as well as data memory. To get a decent program execution time, you had to play all sorts of tricks with the programming storage locations, you had to know the execution time of each instruction and place it on the hard drive so that it was read just as it was ready to be executed, if you just placed the instructions in sequential locations on the track, you’d have to wait a full revolution for the next instruction to be read as the processor wasn't fast enough to pick up the next sequential location. I don't think hard drives will be built by anyone in their workshops, so let’s make static RAM instead. Add 2 or 4 transistors per bit for memory if you are using flip-flops for memory (2500 words x 24 bits x 2 = 120,000+ a few more for addressing). Now how long is it going to take you to make and assemble them into a computer?

Let’s go a bit farther and see what’s needed to make a packet radio TNC as first built by TAPR in the early 1980’s. Intel 8085 processor, 16K bytes RAM, I won’t bother with the peripheral chips, only a few thousand more transistors. 8085 Processor = 6500 transistors, memory 16,384 x 8 bits x 2 transistors/memory cell = 262,144. We’re well over a quarter million transistors now, what do you want to bet it won’t get built?

August Johnson said...

Oh, and I'd make the same bet about any group of Green Wizards building the same computer out of transistors that are already made, found in a bag of one million. If you read about the history of computers, in the prototyping stages of both the tube and transistor ones, just making sure you wired the beast correctly was a major problem.

Kaitain said...

My nomination for delusional headline of the year, courtesy of the Wall Street Journal:

Baby Bust Threatens Growth:
‘Economists Say the Recession Ended in 2009, but Nobody Told American Women’

jonathan said...

i think currency debasement is a cause of difficulties, not a result. thought experiment: you are a merchant doing business in the roman empire. times are good, the empire is peaceful, profits are high. but--you are a greed burger--would you clip the edges of a few denarii to pad your profits? easy answer, right? if you're the emperor might you do the same? now multiply by thousands.

Jo said...

I have been reading Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series for a bit of escapist reading over the last year. The plot: WWII nurse finds herself in 18C Scotland a couple of years before the Battle of Culloden. As you can imagine, she finds a lot of nursing work to do. When she returns to the 20C she retrains as a surgeon, which is handy, because when she returns to the 18C she can now do rather painful surgery. In the course of her soap-opera-worthy adventures she finds herself in America, on a homestead, doing experiments with ether and making penicillin with mouldy bread and a microsope. It was like Little House on the Prairie with modern surgery and a knowledge of germ theory. Her daughter, with a degree in engineering, was trying to make pottery plumbing pipes at the point of the series that I am up to (waiting for the next book at the library).
The series has been intriguing primarily in that it has prompted me to think that yes, when it comes down to it I would become resigned to living without most of my mod cons but I would be so relieved to know that my children would not die of an infection or a burst appendix.. so my vote goes to basic modern surgery and a way to treat infection (penicillin not looking so good for that any more..). Oh, and indoor plumbing is always a bonus.

Agent Provocateur said...

Yes, I think you are correct on all points.

Retrofit the core technologies of steam, diesel, gasoline engine etc with non-computer control systems and you will certainly lose the efficiency the computers delivered. Its the standard trade off of losing efficiency to gain resilience.
In my second post I used the metaphor of a pyramid. The core technologies are the base of our industrial culture. Computers, digital electronics, air travel, etc. are not nearly as essential and are far more complex and so far less resilient. I expect we will lose these first and fast. Though doing so will be very disruptive, it will not end industrial societies. On the other hand, no diesels does mean the end of industrial societies.
Ditto about the forests. The area where I live was deforested 150 years ago to make charcoal to run a failed iron smelter. The smelter failed because the poor quality of the ore (for the time). The issue is scale. I make charcoal from a few dead elms every year (elm is too much trouble to split for firewood or heating). My next experiment is to use it to work iron. I don't need a smelter, there is loads of old farm machinery around to get scrap iron from. In the mean time I hope to keep my core (non-computer controlled) technologies of chainsaw, truck & car, wood splitter, and rototiller running for as long as I can.
You are also right about simple tech not making the cut due to the cost of production. Here I suspect scale will also play a dominant role in sorting out what we lose first. I don't have a full cogent argument, but my guess is we will lose the large machines first as economies of scale work in reverse on the downside.
But just to be clear, computers and their like generally have very short lives by design. A simple small diesel farm tractor (with some maintenance) can last longer than many of us … also by design. This is typical of core technologies. Because they are so essential, if you design it to fail early, you go out of business fast. (No so for the more trivial parts of our economies.) These machines are so necessary to our way of life that there is a much stronger market for them in the long run. Still they too will fail as you suggested, but later and I suspect (for small engines especially) more slowly

chrome_fox said...

Hi JMG, I have been following your posts for almost one full year now. Thought it's time to introduce myself since this topic of technology is one of interest for me.
I am an Indonesian and currently works as a software developer in Singapore after graduating from a university in Singapore. I think those facts alone should place me as a minority among your readers.

I'd like to offer my opinion as a member of the startup community on new "technologies". I personally think that the utility of many new startups (both Silicon Valley or local) has been pretty marginal lately. For example, Alfred (TechCrunch Disrupt 2014 winner) is simply an internet version of a maid/butler services. I see it as yet another way to make people work for less than minimum wage level in the same vein as TaskRabbits or Uber in the increasingly "crapified" economy (as Yves Smith from Naked Capitalism) put it.

Another major development is in the data-mining discipline. The essence of data-mining is to discover hidden correlation between variables. I have friends working day and night to discover the next Amazon suggestion algorithm for their Information System PhD. I see this development as another technology to support more advertisement/marketing. There might be some merit for suggestion algorithm that leads us to new and useful related information, but this can be achieved with a "low-tech" solution by forming an interest club in your community. I think we have forgotten how to "share" knowledge without internet.

I would actually put many of these "new and cool" ideas in box D, given their marginal utility and high cost. I have a few questions to ask you and the community here:

1) What is your view on the sustainability of a city-state country like Singapore and their fate during the period of decline? There is certainly not enough arable land to feed the 5-6 millions soul in the city. Will those states dissolve given their primary role as an intermediate hub in the global economy (providing administrative/business services and logistics hub)?

2) What is your advice for people who are living in metropolitan cities? For people living in the cities, technology is at the center of their life. What can they do to start preparing for the decline? Many of the skills taught (and valued) here (in Singapore) are intermediary skills: management, accounting, law, etc.

Carl said...

Dear JMG,
After reading this post I realized how many bottlenecks I need to start working on in my beer brewing. I grow my own hops, but depend on natural gas to boil wort, store bought White Labs yeast and liquid malt extract. I need to build a rocket stove, do full grain brewing (barley is grown in California), and learn how to culture yeast from spent batches. Lots of projects to work on..

wiseman said...

Hi Raymond,
First of all I'd like to put a timeline because predictions are all about timelines.

Here I am talking about the next 50-70 years coz beyond that it gets very difficult to predict anything and it's a pointless exercise as far as I am concerned.

With that out of the way...

To answer your question, it's beyond an individuals capacity to manufacture BJT's or MOSFET's at home. I doubt if even a village working alone would be able to do it.

Most probably it would require the effort of a town or city to do it that too by collaborating with other cities. The clean room required to prepare even semi pure silicon wafers alone is a very challenging task and if someone wishes to build a gemanium diode like the one built by Shockley and Bardeen, it would be very hard to source a semi-pure germanium ingot.

The point of my vid was that it does not take billions of dollars to make transistors just because today's fabs require billions of dollars to run. The fabs we have today manufacture transistors at nano meter scale, they do it because the economy demands that, if someone wanted to setup a fab that built transistors at millimeter or centimeter scale it would be very cheap and very much doable with probably 1/100th of the resources.

Moreover there are billions of individual transistors manufactured today and they don't decay so easily if stored properly, it's more than likely that people wouldn't even need to manufacture their own transistors anytime soon, the mountains of e-waste lying around guarantees cheap electronic components for generations. People would also be very careful with how they use their electronic stuff when the economy isn't doing so good, I am sure you are familiar with TV's running for 20 years or more.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi daelach,

Your quote: "I used to play them a lot on my PC in younger days, but I've lost interest in that. It is always the same, just with better graphics."

Exactly. You know how many times I've seen the game Elite reborn but with better graphics? Honestly a Commodore 64 used to rock. How about games like the Ultima series which behemoths like World of Warcraft are based on? They're just playing the same games over and over just with flashier graphics. And those originals in turn are based on Dungeons and Dragons. Honestly, people forget their history - or don't dare to look too deeply into it for fear of what they may find.



Cherokee Organics said...


I spotted a 3D printer in a retail electronics shop the other day and so thought it might be worthwhile asking a few hard questions, given how much air time they get from the hopium crowd.

Firstly, it should be pointed out that the 3D printer looks like it works suspiciously like a plastic welder that can operate on a small highly controlled 3D axis.

I happened to see a plastic welder in action once close up when repairing a hole in polyethelene water tank. That is a surprisingly hard job to do as very little materials sticks to that particular plastic other than itself.

Anyway, the 3D printing device comes in a flat pack form and takes upwards of 5 days to assemble (I'm unsure whether they were joking around, but they looked serious and matter of fact).

The small object that they'd printed as a demonstration which was about 2 inches by 2 inches with a funky twisting shape - but otherwise completely useless - took 3 days to manufacture on the printer from start to finish.

Now call me a luddite, but 3 days to print some bit of rubbish that I could have whittled out of a wood block with a sharp knife in an hour or so, seems excessive at best.

The 3D printers churn out plastics too, not high temperature metals - which would actually be reasonably useful.

I don't know much, but I wouldn't want to bet the farm on those toys making any practical contribution to the future.



Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Varun,

I heard a radio report on stalking people by using smart mobile phone devices a few weeks back. I don't own a smart phone and wouldn't get one.

Anyway, the gist of the matter is that some nefarious people - generally well known to the victims - are installing hidden surveillance software on people's (or generally their partners) smart phones unbeknownst to the victims.

That rates pretty highly on the invasive and weird scale of things.

However, the thing that shocked me was that employers were installing these programs on employee’s smart phones - and nobody on the radio show questioned this or even indicated that it was unreasonable. I heard that and alarm bells were ringing for sure.

Secret phone apps



August Johnson said...

@wiseman - A comment on the lifetime of computer parts. Most computers, or even most electronics today, isn't limited by the lifetime of the semiconductors. The main component that limits the lifetime is the electrolytic capacitors. Even the best electrolytic capacitors have a lifetime that's considerable shorter than that of transistors and IC's.

Slow Moe said...

Apparently we have reached Peak Antibiotics. Just one more thing in a long list of things we will no longer have.

Ed-M said...


Ayyup. I can wait.

Now on topic, the coming resource and knowledge bottlenecks will not only jettison those technological suites that are superfluous and expensive, but also could rip great gaping holes in those that are affordable, useful and even vital, like clean water and basic sanitation, and writing and literacy.

Cathy McGuire said...

@Lewis Lucan: Yikes - 8 days w/o water?? And I'm sure no warning... I have a manual pump on my well, and I know I can get 5 gals from just the pressure left in the system, but I've never done a test pumping to see if I can draw up water (for fear of messing up the auto system and then having to pay a plumber...) but that's foolish. I need to work on that - thanks for the reminder.

In general: the hardest part for me about all this uncertainty is that we mostly need to be keeping tabs on what is available now, because it's not feasible (unless you have a big place)to literally store all the things that would be needed at each level of decline. You might know where they could be found, but that changes, too... so info is my best bet - I have books and printed plans, and I can look around for talented craftspersons who will build if the need arises... in exchange for the plans.

Ed-M said...

Hi Gloucon!

Well now I know what sort of Evangelical Christianity you've been rooting for last week. As for me I dread the thought that that sort of fundamentalist religion will have control over the coming Dark Age and the next Civilisation.

Humans like any animal, will adopt any resource or technology that provides for their immediate needs, and they won't care about any advice or warning from the people of this failed [or any] civilization.

So the problem is not with Western Catholic civilization, but with the species.

Also that Christian Civilisation of 600-1000 CE ended with the Crusades -- it appears there was a huge problem with knights attacking other lords' properties and people for the benefit of their own lords. So a medieval pope saw what could be done with all that manpower under the sword and the rest is history. In other words, it was inevitable we would go Faustian -- if not as a Christian civilization, then as a Muslim one.

Tyler August said...

I've been offline the last month as a social experiment, and I must say that I came back to quite the treasure-trove of posts. This Dark Age series is shaping up to be amongst your best works.

I want to chime in on the case of horses v. bicycles. I think right now we fail to take into account where the horse lies on that graph right now, and in the immediate future. To whit-- most horses are toys. Expensive toys. I've heard that already the horse population has begun to drop in the face of rising expenses, as many animals become luxuries the middle classes cannot afford to keep; moving into quadrant D, since they don't actually have any use for the animals.

There are enough far-sighted horse lovers that I don't have any worry we'll lose more than a few good breeds, but! It's going to make for a mean shortage of horseflesh in the near term, I suspect.

What will compound that shortage of horseflesh is a serious reduction in fertility --remember that huge swaths of our continent are totally leached of fertility, kept in production only by massive applications of artificial fertilizers. Extra land to feed the horses is a luxury I fear we won't have until the human population is out of overshoot.

Given that, and the plentiful supply of old bicycles and scrap that can be made into bicycles, I suspect that in the short term at least, the bike will be king. I even suspect that for a brief window, pedal-tractors like this one will be more common in rural areas than horse-drawn equipment.

In the end, of course, horses breed, and populations align with resources, so that window will close and the bicycle will most likely be pushed off the farm to more suitable occupations. That's my guess, anyway. Only time will tell.

Ed-M said...

Hi Janet D!

Well I'm a none myself after being a born again Christian most of my life.

I am not surprised that only 1 out of 6 young people identify as Evangelical Christian due to their manifold Christ-Psychoses* that are spread in their churches. And where I am, the Evangelical Churches are still thriving. A new one called "HOPE Church" has outgrown its original church house.

As for a theocracy? I can see it not just in the South but nationwide as the politicized Evangelicals once more attach their star to the resurgent Republican party. But I don't see a de jure theocracy like in Iran, more like a de facto one like in Russia.

* Dominionism, Prosperity Teaching, homophobia and denial that LGBTs exist, obsessions over women's reproductive health choices, control freakery disguised as "discipleship," extreme authoritarianism, and so on.

Roger said...

"Hate" is a strong word. That word, like the word "phobia", is waved around way too much. In my experience, the accusation that someone "hates" science or technology is used in ridiculing or mis-characterizing an argument or point someone is trying to make.

So, I don't "hate" technology. But I, like others, have mis-givings as to where we're headed. Especially with recent behaviour of people in governing circles and institutions.

Do we really want governments and corporations to be engaged in mass data gathering and surveillance? Especially when they lie about it?

Many people, maybe most, are un-concerned by this intrusiveness. Young 'uns, especially, smirk and scoff at the notion of privacy. Others, with devices festooning every bodily appendage and orifice, shrug and ask what on earth they're supposed to do about it. Some think it's creepy if you don't lay yourself bare on social media. Others say if you're not doing anything "bad" why are you so worried?

The definition of "bad" changes over time. Some of us remember more repressive eras, not all that long ago, when certain activities that are deemed acceptable nowadays could get you arrested or fired or ostracised. Do we think things can't regress? Or that times can't change?

Some of us remember when really nasty, totalitarian regimes ruled large parts of the world. Secret police had informants reporting what you said and did. Even family members reported on one another. One wrong word could get you a long stint in a brutal prison camp.

Boundaries for socially or politically or legally acceptable activity or speech can change. Better be careful. As it is a lot of prying eyes out there, including governments, want to know your business and what say and do and where you go. New technology gives them the tools.

James Fauxnom said...

I enjoy reading the comments as they often go a long way to illustrate the points John makes in his essays.

In the case of city-state scale of computer manufacturing, at what point is there incentive to build your own computers, or whatever technomarvel we currently enjoy?

Certainly not when the economy is connected. Why would a town build their own inferior ceramics or computer when they come in on the next galley?

When trade is disrupted is anyone going to invest precious resources into building a computer when ink and paper does the job?

Technically possible, yes. But I don't see it happening without considerable concerted effort on the part of computer fanatics. I'd compare it to building a temple while the levee sags.

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

Hmmmm....on Prof. Porter's circa-2009 relay-operated computer again: a glance at some of his documentation shows that his CPU and address bus and data bus and program sequencing are implemented with relays, his RAM is done with an integrated-circuit chip. Dang. Regarding this compromise Prof. Porter writes as follows: I could have implemented the main memory using relays, using circuitry like the register,
but it would have made the whole computer really large.

Still, I would suggest that if construction of a RAM implemented in relays is hard for a lone academic, it is at least feasible for the government of a small nation (as it were, for that future sovereign state, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts).

It is also helpful here to recall that the first generation of computers managed to be productive in physics or chemistry calculations while running only a small RAM. From its first run in 1949 until 1952, the Cambridge University EDSAC 1 had storage - I think this is RAM - for just 256 (36-bit) words, and had no equivalent of drum or disk memory (no equivalent, that is, of the sequential-access "backing store" that became prominent on the improved mainframes of the later 1950s).


Tom (Toomas Karmo)


Chris G said...

(Please delete previous comment if you can... sorry, I wanted to add more.)

Just finished reading Ivan Illich's Tools for Conviviality. Less appropriate to this subject of technological triage than it is appropriate to understanding all the ways that industry possesses humankind (not the other way around as the educational trains us to believe - another of his subjects.)

I contemplated writing a kind of "book report", but the book can be read in entirety here, and is a good critique. ( and I've copied a lot of good quotes to goodreads here (

I would offer that the shortest summary of Illich's concern can be stated thusly: "A convivial society should be designed to allow all its members the most autonomous action by means of tools least controlled by others. People feel joy, as opposed to mere pleasure, to the extent that their activities are creative; while the growth of tools beyond a certain point increases regimentation, dependence, exploitation, and impotence."

He focuses considerably on the way medicine takes over self-care, and eventually starts creating disease (he opens the book with this example, calling the former The First Watershed, roughly around 1913, and the latter The Second Watershed, roughly around 1955); but also considers education, which in much the same way takes over self-learning (first watershed), and then the institution of education actively begins serving its own interests first and treating the problems it creates with yet more of the same prescriptions - more "standardization" is the word du jour (second watershed).

Illich also describes how automobiles become a "radical monopoly" - not just a monopoly of ownership but a monopoly that practically compels people's participation, or marginalizes them.

Notably, Illich, like many others, seems not to see the self-terminating nature of the industrial civilization. He also seems to dream of designing society a little bit - as per many of his class and his education (ironically).

He gets at the core of the industrial civilization's degenerate status: everything is about "having." Real communion among many people except in almost secretive intimacy is such a distant and unimaginable state of being... people literally can't imagine what they're missing, buried under all this junk.

Notably, radio would be a very convivial tool. But really, I think most of the technologies just kind of fade in importance beyond the centrality of hopefully recovering or re-learning how people will need to rely on each other and work together in joy.

sgage said...

@ Tyler August

I think you don't quite have a grasp of the working horse world. Many horses are of course 'toys', or ornaments. But there is a large and growing number of people actually working with draft horses. Farming, logging, haying, etc.

We are not going to lose _any_ draft breeds, because there are large and enthusiastic associations around all of them (I'm partial to Percherons myself). As far as the middle class having no use for horses, well, the argument could be (and has been) made that the future has no use for the middle class.

The notion of pedal-power doing serious agricultural work in real fields strikes me as absurd. Maybe on perfectly level and prettily manicured showcase farms, but in real, e.g., grain fields, I just don't see it as being more than marginally useful.

And there will be no shortage of horses as they are needed - there will not be a call for total replacement of petro-powered tractors overnight, obviously. There are lots of horses already, and as you noted, they breed. 2-4-8-16... you get the picture.

Nor is there any loss of the knowledge of how to work them, and the technology of horses, and it is easily taught. Heck, I learned it. In fact, the technology is highly evolved and continuing to evolve - have a look at Small Farm Journal, Rural Heritage, or Draft Horse Journal if you want a look at what's going on.

I think you (and others who post here from time to time on the subject) are way too pessimistic, and really, rather uniformed, regarding the state of working horses and their potential.

In closing, one word: Amish :-)

EntropicDoom said...

I dreamed at dawn of a new life,
far away, from my present strife.
My life today is rife with toil,
attending meetings and hunting oil.
Charting numbers, void of meaning,
Growth declining and progress steaming

I dreamed of new life sprouting up,
From under pavement, the dirt corrupt.
What is the point of power points,
When there isn't oil at fracture joints.
When toxic brews dumped down new wells
Only bring up poisons from lower hells.

I dreamed my old life ended short,
faced with cancer and days in court.
My thicken blood no longer flowed,
Encompassed fat was all that showed.
The casket gleamed, but still I rotted,
Estate entwined, the lawyers plotted.

I dreamed the grave was transitory,
another life and another story.
The next ones out in nature's bounty
Barefoot, stooped, in a barren county.
Toiling long with hoe and shovel.
Living plain, in a peasant's hovel.

I dreamed my life was hard and plain,
I lived again under sun and rain.
This time working by hand and foot,
planting, reaping, shoveling soot.
My present life is all inside,
But electricity and gas had all died.

In future times the soil matters,
Electric lines are all in tatters,
While planting seasons come and go.
Power points, seminars, were all for show.
In future life, make note, I reckon,
Love, tillage, critters, children beckon.

In my dream I lost my powers,
I no longer drove or took hot showers.
No longer managed an expanding staff.
I had no team to feel my wrath.
I stooped in dirt, tending flowers
Ducking under towering bowers

In my dream I had no bosses,
Profit, cash flow or system losses.
In my dream I worked to feed,
A family of many, mine to breed.
The toil was endless, the long days many.
But no longer ignoring Henny-Penny.

This world will end in future days.
But we continue, an essence stays.
The warnings that our follies doom
the present to collapse and swoon,
falls on deaf ears, trapped in cars,
racing off to singles bars.

When folks are warned, their spirits shaken,
Their inner worries are not awakened.
They point fingers at the oracles pleading.
Denying decline and nature's bleeding.
They claim eminence over all they see
And plot to rape Earth's last virginity.

Henny-Penny had it wrong, they say,
The future is bright and growth's the way.
Your warnings are just a nursery tale
Meant to scare us, but your pleas will fail.
Progress demands of us, the Earth to flay,
And all the beasts and animals to slay.

When I woke up and came back to here,
I confessed my sins, but thought of beer.
I cannot go on charting graphs,
in boring meetings, seeking laughs.
I hear the call that Earth is finite,
And those aware, must stand and fight.

What lives await us in the future's calm,
With no more Ebola or Atomic bomb.
The worries then are smut and mold,
Not dancing girls, but plants turned old.
Smelly cold hovels sunk into the earth,
Poems, puns and singing provide our mirth.

What can we do now, in this muddle,
While politicians and the wealthy huddle.
Planning more progress, which makes us slave,
to growth, while Earth goes to her grave.
I dreamed I lived again in another day
Where raising gardens was to only way,

To feed the family and the community.
I don't claim enlightenment begets immunity.
I dreamed of the destiny of we who plunder,
with impunity, and will someday ponder,
Why did they do this to their mother,
Who loves us dearly, way back yonder.

Chris G said...

Also, thought this quote would bear specific mention - so appropriate to last week's discussion of the Suicide of Science:

"“Above all, political discussion is stunned by a delusion about science. This term has come to mean an institutional enterprise rather than a personal activity, the solving of puzzles rather than the unpredictably creative activity of individual people. Science is now used to label a spectral production agency which turns out better knowledge just as medicine produces better health. The damage done by this misunderstanding about the nature of knowledge is even more fundamental than the damage done to the conceptions of health, education, or mobility by their identification with institutional outputs. False expectations
of better health corrupt society, but they do so in only one particular sense. They foster a declining concern with healthful environments, healthy life styles, and competence in the personal care of one's neighbor. Deceptions about health are circumstantial. The institutionalization of knowledge leads to a more general and degrading delusion. It makes people dependent on having their knowledge produced for them. It leads to a paralysis of the moral and political imagination.”

From Tools for Conviviality, Ivan Illich

Thomas Mazanec said...

Please forgive the change in precise topic, but I don't see your email or see a way of searching the blog to see if you covered this:
What is your opinion of which seems to be right up your alley, a depiction of post-petroleum, global warmed Industrial Civilization in the process of falling?

The other Tom said...

Thank you for another brilliant analysis of a subject that I have sometimes tried and failed to discuss with others.
I have long thought that a first small step in preparing oneself for a radically new future is to wean oneself off as many unnecessary technologies as possible. This is an advantage even to those who believe growth can go on forever. It means free time and financial freedom. What do people do, without endless distractions? They TALK to each other.
Those of us who want to keep leading interesting lives will need to foster a culture of self education, as institutions become ever more impractical to most of us.
Usually, when I bring sustainably issues into a conversation, people throw up their hands and say they don t want to think about it. They think I am delusional when I say that I can imagine an interesting and rewarding life after this way of life is over.

Gloucon X said...

Thanks Ed-M and Merle Langlois, I agree with all of your points.

When I made my comments I was thinking of JMG’s example of the period of Higg and the Baron with it’s economic and technological simplicity and stability. I was fantasizing of a Christianity that could somehow completely suppress potentially harmful scientific and technological development and somehow also remain isolated and fend off outside ideas and forces. (Btw, I do realize that in reality Christianity is inherently aggressive, unstable, and even revolutionary thanks to its millennialism and proselytizing.)

If such a culture somehow took over the whole world, we could have remained in such a state for millennia until the next ice age swept it all away. It would have been a world without overpopulation, nukes, or a wrecked climate. Of course it didn’t happen, and such fantasies about living in comfortable stability are part of human nature (think Garden of Eden), as are Utopian fantasies. They probably originate in memories of an idyllic childhood. But real life is chaos and accident, stability is fantasy, and planning for unknown futures is futile. But that not going to stop people from trying. Futility is also part of human nature.

Speaking of futility, I was rereading The Limits to Growth this week. It’s laughable that people seriously believed such a Utopian scheme was possible.

Yanocoches said...

I sometimes can’t help myself and return to the basics of the basic thinking about the list of absolute necessities for human life: food, clothing, shelter, and water. My impression is that while those in the collapse-aware communities discuss food and shelter quite frequently, not much is said about clothing. With regard to your exposition this week on technology and its limitations given its utility vs. its cost and our looming inability to pay for some of those costs, be they in tokens or availability of resources, I wonder how clothing, one of the apparent absolute necessities, fits into the picture.
Granted, clothing is relatively cheap and abundantly available currently, but some of that availability has to do with transportation and ability to ship large quantities over long distances, not to mention cheap and abundant labor (overseas), machinery, and raw materials, both animal- and plant-based. Clothing, including shoes and warm outerwear, might not be so readily available in the future with a decline in transportation and cheap labor. Who knows how to make a pair of shoes? Cobblers are few and far between in my experience to the point where it’s even difficult to find someone who is able to do a simple shoe repair, easier to throw away and buy new.
And who knows how to construct a pair of pants or a shirt? As someone who learned to sew as a matter of course in grade school/junior high “home economics” classes, and as a result at one point knew her way around a simple sewing machine and could wield a needle and thread quite handily, follow a pattern, even create and modify one, I wonder what we are all going to be wearing over the long course of the decline. And will fashion trends fall away, will clothing fads continue to cycle through the populace, or will clothing be ultra-utilitarian and homogeneous? Will we wear the uniform of our guild/community/family group even more commonly than what occurs now? I realize there are still quite a number of people who sew and make clothes, so it's not as if the technology will disappear, it's too much of a necessity, but I suspect the quantity and almost limitless choice in color, style, fabric, quality, etc. that make up today's clothing industry will be severely constrained.
And who knows how to create fabrics from plant and animal materials? I would guess that polyester, being oil and natural gas based, may become a distant memory. I have considered learning to weave but that implies first learning how to spin yarn, which in turn requires some sort of natural fiber, cotton being the most common, which requires climate to grow, a harvesting method, and ginning before even thinking about the spinning wheel. Perhaps yarn will continue to be available given that spinning was one of the first processes to be industrialized. And that leads back to the necessity of weaving yarn into cloth. What will the huge cloth and clothing industry look like locally once current systems of mass agriculture, cheap overseas labor, and long distance transportation break down?
A fig leaf just doesn't cut it in most climates.

August Johnson said...

@JMG & others on the subjects of computers and Ham Radio – I’m sure that some here think I’m being unduly pessimistic when I express my doubts about being able to use computers much in a less complex future. My apparent and real pessimism comes from the experience of working with a wide variety of computers during the best of times and understanding just what it takes to make them work. By “working with” I mean bringing them up from scratch, not just programming an already running system.

My early times, during and after High School, were with both then current and older computers. After High School I was working in research labs at the University of Arizona. None of my 19 year career at the U of A was at all high paying, in fact I was often at the mercy of Professor's research grants which weren’t all that reliable. I worked directly with the hardware of several of the Data General Nova series and the Digital Equipment PDP-8 variants. I built both MITS Altair 8800 and IMSAI 8080 computers from kits and designed and built interfaces from both the Data General buss and the S-100 buss to different laboratory experiments.

I was also deep into the software on these computers, from doing SYSGEN’s on DG DOS and RDOS operating systems, we had a primitive multi-user system with Fortran IV compiler, assembler and relocatable linking loader running on a NOVA 2 with 32K 16 bit words of RAM and a 5 MB Hard Drive, to progressing from the original 4K MICROSOFT BASIC on paper tape up to CPM on dual 8” Floppy drives on the Altair/IMSAI systems. All of us in the lab were thrilled to have me carry a $500 check down to the local Altair store to buy the first copy of Altair/Microsoft BASIC on paper tape when it came into town. We got the first copy in Tucson! Then it took a half hour to load into the computer with a 10 cps ASR-33 teletype.

I was also at UC Berkeley for a few years supporting the IBM and UNIX systems there in the early 1980’s. IBM 4341 and 3081 mainframe systems running CMS, DEC PDP-11/70, VAX 11/750 and 11/780 systems running BSD 4.2 Unix. IBM PC, IBM AT and many clones.

Yes, there are some who have built relay based computers and others who say we can still do it with lots of salvaged or unused transistors. Take a look at the power consumption of this type of computer. The simpler computers of the past were by no means power misers. Think about how to power that computer while you're thinking about building it. Those computers from the past were built with a very different kind of resource base than ones in a low energy future will have.

August Johnson said...

I got into Packet Radio in its early days in the mid 1980's as a friend of mine was one of the Charter Members of TAPR (Tucson Amateur Packet Radio); even then we were working with networking over Ham Radio. We were using the suite of programs written by Phil Karn KA9Q for running TCP/IP over 1200 baud packet. We had mountaintop radios to connect cities together with packet. Here’s some info on the new at the time G3RUH 9600 baud modems that we used to make the first 9600 baud 220 MHz radio link in Arizona, from Mt. Lemmon near Tucson to Pinal Mountain near Globe.

I contrast the really massive complexity of even these systems, which are considered “primitive” today with the relative ease of building and using simple radios which can be (and have been) built by almost any child of High School or even earlier age. Read books on the history of computers and compare this with books on the history of Radio, or specifically Ham Radio.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be using the equipment we have today and only use “primitive” stuff, but we should be aware that this great modern resource we have won’t always be available.

I’ll really be surprised if things “crash” fast enough that many of us alive today actually need to use these simple radios for important communications, but as JMG keeps reminding us, we need to keep this knowledge alive to be used in the future. That's why I hope we can get a group of Green Wizards on the air to keep this knowledge alive in all it's forms, from current digital communications to simple Morse Code networks. Yes, there are some people who still enjoy the simpler modes, but by and large, those are the older Hams who are dying off. We need younger Ham Operators with a Green Wizards interest to preserve this ability. If you read books on the history of Ham Radio such as 200 Meters and Down and The World of Ham Radio 1901 – 1950, you will be totally amazed at what communications networks were built with totally home-built spark-gap Transmitters and Coherer Receivers.

I apologize for the length of my posts this time, but these are the things that come to mind whenever I see the casual assertions that we will keep computers available even when we have far less energy to work with.

Bill Pulliam said...

"Theocracy" does get tossed about around here in the comments. Folks should perhaps think a bit more about what one of those really is. It doesn't mean political leaders who throw religious slogans about as a way to win votes. It doesn't even mean political leaders who claim religious justification for the laws they actually enact. Nor does it mean that a lot of religious leaders get elected to office. It means direct and formalized rule by the religious leaders and institutions. It means church=state officially, codified, legally. Not just that church has a strong influence on state. That is very often the case in a democracy - religious citizenry will elect religious leaders, and their religion will influence their governing. That is not theocracy. That is democracy.

Just like we in modern america really don't know what "fascism" is, yet love to accuse each other of it, we don't really know what "theocracy" is either.

wiseman said...

@August Johnson
Yes and that just further augments my point, making caps is far easier than building IC's.

The Five major reasons why equipments go bad are

1. Electrolytic Caps : Solution is more reliable caps, replacing at regular intervals
2. Poor power supply : Can be prevented with stabilizers and good design
3. Electrostatic Discharge : Can be prevented with proper precautions and grounding
4. Humidity and Temp : Insulation, Sealed enclosures with silica gel goes a long way.
5. Tin whiskers : Using solder with lead.

Most of the problems exist because no one cares about reliability anymore. Where reliability is a concern...(aerospace, industrial and military), electronic parts run for decades because they are designed like that.

Redneck Girl said...

@ Tyler August and sgage:

Tyler you underestimate the flexibility of horses. That's partially a factor in the long existence of the species, (it's 50 million years old, 48 million more then human beings! With essentially, all of it here on this continent!) And strangely enough wild horses are generally less spooky then domestically bred horses. As I've said before, equids and horses in particular, are extremely adaptable. There was a herd at White Sands until they polluted the watering holes to the point the herd was being poisoned. There have even been wild herds in the Mojave Desert, around the fringes of Death Valley. A wild herd will travel around 30 miles a day in their quest for herbs, minerals and calories needed for their good health. Since they only digest 1/4 of what they eat they excell at distributing seeds over their home ranges. The main threat to wild herds RIGHT NOW is corporate ranches! They have the asinine idea that the horses are 'stealing' grass from their strip grazing cattle herds. (This is on open range legally allotted to horses!) Cows pull plants out by the roots and they stay in one place until the feed is gone. Buffalo is better for the land but Ranchers can't hold a buffalo herd with a simple wire fence. Being migratory when they want to go they're going! IMO the nation would eat better and healthier if we went with a buffalo common but the meat industry wouldn't quite know how to maintain their strangle hold on the market. Sorry for the digression but when things really begin to break down wild horse herds will come back in the millions, along with buffalo.

sgage, I like the Morgan horse for a good all around farm animal. The breed is prepotent, easy keepers, calm personality. I should know, I had a Morgan Appaloosa cross and his build couldn't be mistaken for anything BUT Morgan! He was beautiful, willing, agile and strong and I still miss him terribly. And for a generic farm draft horse if they don't destroy those herds, the horses around Tule Lake Calif. are heavily influenced by draft breeds. During the winter when the draft horses weren't needed the farmers turned them loose on the open range. When that area went to mechanized farming most of the farmers never retrieved their teams. You get some really typey horses out of those herds. Huge, dramatically majestic, built like a rock and just about as strong and durable as basalt.

As a side note, America developed more draft horse breeds than any other country in the world. A recent and still relatively rare breed is the American Cream, a dilute colored horse, creamy white with amber eyes and hooves. One draft breed that is near extinction is the Cleveland Bay, a horse used often to cross with Thoroughbreds for hunter jumpers because of their 'size and sense!'

I'm just a horse nut, from cradle to grave!


Cherokee Organics said...

Hi August,

I'm interested in the ham radio, but am overloaded with projects trying to get the farm more resilient to the possibility of bushfire. Last summer was too close for comfort.

Interestingly, I spotted your comment: "it takes 28 Volts at 25 Amps to run it."

Yikes, that's a whole lot of power. The solar photovoltaic (PV) here which is of 4.2kW PV capacity and can produce 115A at 28.4V easy (remember PV solar output is only really 80% of the rated panel output under normal conditions), only produced 130Ah in the past 2 days because of the very serious and heavy cloud coverage / rain here. Not sure I'd spare the power on that particular PC. A good desktop and all ancillaries these days uses only about 5A at 28V (given conversion losses for the DC to AC inverter).



Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Cathy,

Thanks for the laugh. Their ideals do them credit, but it is just not possible. They are definitely in la la land.

For the past few days the solar electric system here has generated 3.5kWh, 3.5kWh and today 2.16kWh because of the stormy weather. I'm not sure that much energy is enough to run those peoples hydraulic elevator and it is summer here.

5,000sq ft is huge, massive, humongous for a house. It is just not possible to heat a large home in an environmentally responsible manner. Kitchens used to be the centre of older house because the wood stove used to have to run 24/7.

Their house cost between $500k and $600k and has 71 solar panels and the poor wife has the job of sweeping the snow off the solar panels. You know, if the grid fails then the solar panels will provide a nice shade over the roof, I guess - they won't do much else.

You know, that's exactly why I didn't bother attending the local talk fest on renewable energy systems - despite being harassed several times to do so, because people expect that the future will look like today, just with no bills.

What's wrong with these people? hehe!



Marcello said...

"This is why Native cultures were prosperous. They didn't have to DO things, but let nature do it for them with careful culture, then just go out and collect the year-round bounty;"

A lot of those cultures relied on agriculture/horticulture and the stereotypical plain indian hunting bison on horse carefree was an indirect byproduct of western practices (hunting bison on foot and relying on dogs as pack animals was not quite same).

Steam engines were used to pump water out of mines, there might not be necessarily a steady water stream or wind around to perform the same function.

Marcello said...

"What angers me the most about technophiles is that they will happily trade something as valuable as liberal democracy for more doodads."

From a practical point of view it is irrelevant, a shrinking economic pie is what will kill modern liberal democracy.

"Slight side note. I said earlier I would let you all know when my trip lines for potential insurgency started kicking, well the last few weeks they have."

Dunno, it would be far more dangerous if it were the social groups which provide the system with enforcers.

In general I do not get the emphasis on keeping computers going. Their use in a drastically simplified society isn't such as to make them a must have item. That said I would not expect mechanical typewriters to be put in mass production again, though existing ones might last quite a while in the offices of whatever governments and business might scrape by during the collapse.

Russ said...

John: Back to the dictionary, (Webster's Collegiate, Fifth Edition, 1944) - "dissertation: An extended treatment of a subject, exp. in writing; essay; thesis". Best Regards, Russ

Rebecca Brown said...

I can't argue that my cell phone will be useless in the future (though I would argue that it is profoundly useful to me today) or with any of your other points.

What most people don't realize, I believe, is how *simple* most of our truly effective technologies are. Take medical technology, for instance. It's not MRIs and chemotherapy that saves most lives, but simple things. Proper sanitation, IVs, oxygen, antibiotics, insulin, certain surgical procedures like Cesareans and appendectomies. I could make insulin and antibiotics in my garage, for crying out loud. There's no reason a humane and stable society shouldn't be able to afford those things, but whether we will or not remains to be seen.

The same is true for any number of other technologies at risk of fading away in the Long Night ahead.

Ed-M said...

Hello again, Gloucon!

Yes, you are very welcome. To me it seems that the instability and aggressiveness of Christianity goes back almost to the very beginning, when Paul had a falling-out with James, John, Kefa (Peter) and the rest of the Evionim followers of the historical Jesus over the keeing of the Torah, the Noachide Code, and (possibly) setting up Jesus as an idol -- although that last bit seems to have been expurgated from all of Christian history (thanks, Luke and Eusebius!).

On a similar note, recent archaeological findings have exonerated Nero Caesar from starting the 64 CE fire of Rome. Yet Tacitus tells us that the incendiaries told the people fleeing the flame that they had a principal (auctor) behind them. So who else could have started the fire, save the Christians?

And now we get to the Christians' response to a chaotic, unjust and indifferent universe: Apocalypse! Basically throughout Christianity's history Christians believed that the Paroisia of Jesus would bring on the Apocalypse, followed either by a Millenium or the Final Judgement, depending on who you asked. And they got their belief from the Jews, who, until Rome finally put paid to their revolts in 135 CE, believed God was about to intervene, cause the Apocalypse to happen, and usher in the Messianic Age.

Well events didn't exactly pan out as expected, either for the Jews or the Christians, did they? But the Christians got a boost with the union of Church and Empire, beginning with Constantine and becoming as intimate as can be under Theodosius I.

Candace said...

@ Bill, not wishing to quibble, but,

The words "de jure" and "de facto" come to mind. You describe a "de jure" theocracy. There are certainly historical times and governments that could be seen as "de facto" theocracies. I would not describe the US as either at this time. But there are places at present that could reasonably be described as "de facto" theocracies even if the legal structure of the system is defined differently. The US is supposed to be a representative democracy, but there is at least some support for the assertion that it has become an oligarchy.

"In theory, theory and practice are the same, in practice they are not.". ;-)

August Johnson said...

@Cherokee - Yes, my comment about the power taken by that computer is important. That's one of the main reasons that chip makes today keep making things smaller on the chips. The smaller the transistors are, the less power they consume. The newer Data General computers I used that were built out of IC's needed a 5 volt 25 amp power supply to run them. That only ran the processor, an input/output interface and 64K bytes of core memory. Transistor memory would have used far more power. I really don't want to think how much power would be needed to run something built out of thousands and thousands of discrete transistors! It's a point that's always glossed over.

Thomas Prentice said...

Indeed: "you'll notice that in the minds of the folks who post on Discover, "scientific" means whatever Monsanto says it means"

Carl Chat said...


Aha, I suspected you were a licensed amateur radio operator based on your inclusion of the “radiomen” in Star’s Reach and your other mentions of Ham radio as what I’ll now call a “Category A” technology. For your readers who may not know, in the USA there are 3 levels of FCC licensing for amateur radio: Technician, General, and (what JMG has) Amateur Extra. Each license requires the passing of a progressively more difficult exam, and allows you to transmit on progressively more radio bands. Also note that Morse code (or “CW”) is no longer required for licensing. You need to be licensed just to transmit though; anyone with the proper equipment can listen in. My interest in amateur radio is mainly focused on emergency communications, and I (like many Hams) am equipped to operate indefinitely off-grid if needed. Amateur radio is a great hobby with lots of practical applications, and I've found the Ham radio crowd to be a great self-supporting learning community.

73 to all.

Cherokee Organics said...

HI everyone,

A lot of people have recommended the recent film Interstellar. Well, I went and saw it a few nights ago and three things stood out:

- Given that they were a civilisation short on food, all of the actors excluding the lead Matthew Mconaughey looked pretty well fed;

- I'm unsure whether anyone noticed just how much fuel they were chucking around around on frivilous activities;

- The corn farms seemed to be run completely by very large automated machines. Firstly, as energy intensive as corn is, you have to eat other food types. Sorry, but thats the truth. Secondly, why would machines be doing work that could easily be done by people? There seemed to be a lot of standing around looking thoughtfully off into the distance and not a whole of work being done. Just sayin...; and

- Blights are a problem in a mono culture: i.e. you're growing the same stuff, in the same paddock and only that crop, year in year out. It can't actually be that way in a deindustrial future farm and can only be done now because of all of the energy we throw at large scale agriculture. We are eating energy...

Oh yeah, that's four points. Oh well. I enjoyed the film, but the premise was slightly off and fed into the apocalypse meme.

One more point... It is crazy to think that something in nature won't adapt to take advantage of a widespread blight. For example, the Portuguese millipede entered the country here in the 1950's and exploded as a population because nothing ate them here. Eventually selection pressures meant that a local nematode which normally eats the local millipedes adapted to eat the introduced species. Just sayin...



John Michael Greer said...

Anagnosto, premodern peoples had no trouble at all growing a complex mix of crops -- corn, beans and squash, for example! -- without genetic modification. Why not pay attention to what they knew, instead of monkeying with natural systems that we don't even pretend to understand?

Michael, I'll find time to look into it as circumstances permit. I don't use Wikipedia, though -- it's too heavily distorted by political biases for my taste.

Wiseman, okay, that's one step. I'm aware that transistors can be made in the basement. What about a computer -- even a very simple one? "In theory" isn't good enough in a situation like this one.

Russell2000, now go back and read what I said about how the failure of a technology doesn't need to happen for technical reasons to matter. Barbarian invasions aren't technical problems, but they have to be included in the whole picture, you know.

William, I play lap and hammered dulcimer, both of which can unquestionably be made and used in very simple conditions -- the lap dulcimer aka Appalachian dulcimer was the traditional folk instrument of the poorest region of the United States, and it's a very elegant if idiosyncratic instrument. Still, as you point out, you can't exactly play Chopin on it, and the instruments necessary for most of the last two centuries of music pretty much require either extremely demanding craft techniques or an industrial system. There's likely to be immense losses this time around as well.

Clay, thanks for the data! That's what I'd read, for that matter.

Patricia, day by day. I still think you're doing better than a lot of the geekoisie.

Marcello, that's increasingly my sense as well.

Kathleen, you're most welcome.

Iuval, the New Alchemy Institute was decades ago, and they pretty much collapsed when the powers that be took their funding away -- do you want the same vulnerability in your project? If you depend on the system for your funding, you will be limited to doing what the system wants you to do...

Lewis, funny. I've opened cans with field expedient technologies myself, for that matter.

Agent, basically, yes, we're in agreement. The point I wanted to make is simply that technological contraction isn't a linear process -- as bottlenecks come up, entire technological suites can go defunct all of a sudden, and that imposes additional challenges in the course of the decline.

John Michael Greer said...

Kaitain, that's pretty good, but I'd have a hard time deciding between that and the national retail federation's claim that Black Friday sales were off 11% because people are prosperous now, and don't feel so driven to run out and shop...

Jo, fair enough. What are you, personally, going to do to make that happen? Someone has to do that, or those things aren't going to be saved, you know.

Chrome_Fox, I don't know enough about the factors shaping the future of Singapore to offer any kind of meaningful answer. I've got enough work to do trying to get a clear sense of the future of the US!

Carl, good. That kind of analysis is what'll get you past the bottlenecks before they have a chance to form.

Cherokee, everything I've seen about 3D printers makes me think that, like so many of the current gizmocentric cyber-fads, it's a complicated and very expensive way to do something an ordinarily competent craftsperson could do in a fraction of the time, for a fraction of the cost, using hand tools. Their main function seems to be as holy icons before which true believers in the cult of progress can prostrate themselves!

Slow Moe, yep. Many US hospitals are already riddled with resistant microbes, and the toll from hospital-borne resistant infections rises year after year.

Ed-M, well, yes, that was among my points.

Tyler, possibly, but there are plenty of working horses in the US these days, and quite a few people who know how to use them. It'll mostly be a matter of how fast horses can be bred and drovers and riders trained.

Roger, good. That's another of the reasons I prefer to keep the electronics turned off, if they're even in the house, and do things less vulnerable to intrusion.

James, good. My guess is that when computers are once again as bulky, expensive, and energy-intensive as they were in the days of Bletchley Park, they'll only be used for things as urgent as the decipherment of enemy codes in wartime, or what have you.

Chris, as far as I know, I never got the earlier comment -- Blogger's been eating comments of late. A solid summary of Illich's strengths and weaknesses; many thanks.

Doom, that's certainly one way to cope.

John Michael Greer said...

Thomas, I haven't read it, thus don't have an opinion.

Other Tom, I've seen the same thing. It's a source of wry amusement to me that people are so terrified of life without the current suite of timewasting technologies...

Yanocoches, I'd encourage you to meet with some of the many people these days who spin yarn from raw fiber and weave it into cloth on a handloom. It's far from a lost art.

August, oh, granted! I'm perfectly willing to admit that we'll have computers in the deindustrial future, provided that the people who make that claim are willing to build one from raw materials -- or even from salvaged transistors! -- and make it work. Until that happens, I reserve the right to listen to people such as yourself, who know the technology a lot better than I do, and remain wholly skeptical.

Bill, true enough. Thank you.

Russ, clarity in writing requires attention to connotations as well as denotations.

Rebecca, can you, yourself, with things you have available to you, actually make insulin and antibiotics in your garage? As with deindustrial computer technology, I'm a bit skeptical of claims that pharmaceuticals can be manufactured on a low-tech scale under the sort of conditions we're facing.

Thomas, I'll be talking about that further this week.

Carl, yep -- I was originally licensed when in the Boy Scouts, as WN7BFS, then WB7BFS; after a long hiatus, I got relicensed again and did all three tests at a sitting, emerging as AD7VI. I haven't had a lot of chances to spend time on the air due to workloads elsewhere, but I hope to remedy that in the not infinitely postponed future...

Cherokee, from what I've heard, I probably won't go see it. Thanks for the review!

Iuval Clejan said...

Dear JMG, you are correct that if you keep relying on funding you become vulnerable to the system pulling it away and are beholden to it (this happened in India to the village production movement headed by Kumarappa, supposedly). But I am proposing becoming independent of it pretty quickly. Just a kickstart to get going. There is even more funding available today than in the 70s for all kinds of technology projecs. It just takes Thaumaturgy...

David Hunter said...

Interesting article in mainstream media considers possibility of failure of US Govt:

onething said...

"people expect that the future will look like today, just with no bills."

Now that was truly funny.

Optimism, eh?

Nastarana said...

James Fauxnom, To add to your point about ink and paper, copying and filing are really good employment for people who have a lack of other useful skills. Keeps them busy and out of trouble and the work really does need to be done.

Yanocoches, Two of the most foolish things Americans have done, or allowed to be done, are outlawing the growing of hemp and moving our textile industry overseas.

There is at present lots of fabric around; we are awash in the stuff, and it can always be cut down and resewn. Thirty years from now, everyone may be wearing artistic patchwork until we can get a new, localized, textile industry up and running. Sheep, llamas and alpacas now live in North America in large enough numbers that they are not likely to disappear, and the camelids are not yet so overbred as to be unable to forage for themselves. Cotton is essentially a swamp plant--the Egyptians grew it along the banks of the Nile--and is grown with a truly astonishing array of chemicals and herbicides. Flax(linen) and hemp are far superior for most uses. Linen does need to be retted, which I understand is a nasty job, and one which, one would hope, would be shared among a population, or perhaps assigned to malefactors as an alternative to incarceration.

Shoemaking might be a very good career choice for young persons looking to develop needed skills. There are also, right now, far more shoes in the world than are truly needed, and those can be patched and repaired for some time to come Also, slipperlike footgear can be made from sturdy fabrics, possibly ten or so layers of denim quilted together for the soles.

jim said...

That thoughtstopping noise dollar? That is one fat hot dollar right now, tell you what.

Gloucon X said...

To follow up on what Candace said. We may not be a theocracy, but it may be of some importance if major political leaders, including those who end up in the White House are conducting foreign policy based on their belief in Messianic theology. Aren’t such people hoping the world will soon go BOOM! so they can get to heaven...and not caring much if nature is being destroyed, etc?

Bill Pulliam said...

Candace --

The fundamental difference between the two is what it takes to install or depose one:

De Facto: an election
De Jure: a revolution

This is a qualitative distinction.

Other point -- All government structures seem to get pulled towards oligarchy, including monarchy and anarchy. So we are nothing special there. The magnitude of it ebbs and flows, but it is ever-present.

KL Cooke said...

"I even suspect that for a brief window, pedal-tractors"

I used to have one of those.

Tomuru said...

I would think carpentry with electric tools to supply carpentry with just hand tools should be in the technologies necessary to preserve. A good set of hand tools lasts a lifetime or more. I need the electric tools as my muscle mass has declined with age and my son and daughter are not full grown. I am passing on what I know to them. I teach them a lot by example. This past week someone threw out a wooden ladder that was broken. Heavy as it was, I still grabbed it off the street, repaired it and now have added it to my tools available. It only took about 10 minutes to repair with an electric drill, a screwdriver, and six woodscrews. I needed the ladder to do repairs on the roof. One has to keep ones eyes open for the obvious opportunities. I worry about the availability of wood screws but can always go back to homemade glue and wooden dowels.

Cherokee Organics said...


Agreed. At this stage, they are the quintessential example of a boondoggle. Glad you enjoyed the film review too. I actually enjoyed the film, but could easily gloss over the memes.

Still what did you once say about the dangers of a practising mage being most at risk when they felt that they could best identify and avoid the risks inherent in other magics? Many weaknesses I have but hubris is not one of them, I fear strong magic.

PS: Have you heard that there is another Star Wars film about to be released?

Hi August,

Yikes! 25A at 5V would produce some serious heat, I hope that the heat sinks were both good and large. It is interesting that you say that about capacitors too as the renewable energy crowd Down Under have come to a similar conclusion very recently. I am seriously considering obtaining some spares for the DC to AC inverter here. The ham radio network gets volunteered into helping out here when things get a bit rough. It is funny to think about the serious advantage that this informal network provides at a much lower economic and energy cost than systems like the Internet. There are just not enough hours in the day here.

PS: I've got a new blog entry up with more misadventures with Scritchy the boss dog. Lots of rain in the past few days has provided some solid photos about all the low stress water catchment techniques here too. Plus there is some jam and apricot preserve stuff too: A hive of activity



Dagnarus said...

The idea of creating artisan computers has come up in the comments and I thought I might chime in. While the first problem is of course is it actually possible to do, the second has to be, can you actually make a computer which can do the task which you set faster than a human, and if so fast enough to actually matter.

Another thought which occurred to me was that general purpose computers are both harder to make and generally speaking slower, use more transistors, and more power than a specialized piece of hardware designed for a specific task. Given that my suspicion is that if somebody actually wants to try and preserve computing technology into the future they may want to look into the feasibility of making specialized hardware for some common tasks performed by computers. A possible application would be the simplex algorithm for optimizing linear equations.

Phil Harris said...

JMG and All
Some breeds of heavy horses shrank to danger levels in UK after wholesale disposal after WWII, but this fellow is doing well.!stallions-for-hire/c17jt

We can see the farm from our window!
Phil H

Tyler August said...

@ JMG, sgage, Wadulisi
Re: Horses.

Thanks for all the input.

I freely admit that I've next to no experience with the animals. While I do worry that sometimes we're all a bit too sanguine about our pet projects' survival chances, I concede the point in this case. If wild horses can thrive in desert conditions, well! That's exactly what I was worried about. I may not be a horse person, but since I did take the (My Little) Pony as my totem, I am certainly not sorry to be wrong.

@August, wiseman, et al.,

It seems clear that a post-peak computer is going to use a great deal of scarce electric power and suck up tens of thousands of man hours in its construction -- showing that it's possible is one thing, but what about showing that it's necessary? I'm not sure what the "killer app" for a solver of linear equations would be along the long road of decline that would make it worthwhile. (To put my skepticism into context, I was involved in some scientific computing, briefly. It would have been faster and easier to do the experiments bench-top, and this was on supercomputers.) I'm sorry if this is old ground we're going over, but it just seems assumed that everyone will desperately want The Computer.

Ed-M said...

Hello again, JMG!

Shoulda remembered. But these days, I forget. A lot. :(

magicalthyme said...

Redneck Girl, funny you should bring up the morgan horse. After much thought, I had decided that would be the breed I'd be betting the farm on. They are, after all, the horse that built America. To that end, I am at this moment in the process of purchasing an old-style morgan (not the heavily saddlebred mix "show horse" that has taken over in recent decades) mare who was at high risk. Hope to have her home by Yule.

Slow Moe said...

Rebecca Brown

Sorry to burst your bubble about Antibiotics, but those wont be around for ever. Bacteria is quickly becoming more resistant to them. This has been widely known for years now.

We will still have those other things you mention, but the antibiotics you can make in the garage just wont work anymore because the bugs will mostly all be resistant.

Check my link earlier in this comments section for an example article, but you can find more on the internet about resistance to antibiotics quite easily.

RPC said...

August Johnson et al.: "The smaller the transistors are, the less power they consume." No longer true; one of the big problems at 25nm and below is leakage current. I suspect in this, as in many things, there is an optimal tradeoff.
"I really don't want to think how much power would be needed to run something built out of thousands and thousands of discrete transistors!" When I started my EE degree, one of the professors had kept an original PDP-8 as a museum piece. Three side-by-side 6 foot racks, all discrete components, 4k of core memory. The thing was capable of serving twelve teletypes with paper punches running BASIC programs, but the power cord was 208V three phase 20A! I think it's possible to build computers of lower technological complexity, but it won't be done unless there's no other way to achieve the same result.

Raymond Duckling said...

@Tom Karmo

About Linux kernels. I think it can be done, but would advice to give yourself
a finite date and run the experiment yourself to get an idea of the effort involved.

In my semidefunct blog "Alma del Hacker Verde", I documented my attempt to test the
hypothesis that a reasonably intelligent end user could salvage her Windows XP machine
by installing some Linux distribution, and that said distribution would be user friendly
enough to be used by the non initiated.

The short version is that I disproved my hipothesis and concluded that while I eventually
succeeded, I came close to bricking the subject (a not so old i686 PC from circa 2000)
on several ocasions and only was able to recover due to both the technical knowledge to
identify the problem and the social techno-geek awareness needed to ask for help online
without being told to go Read The F...earsome Manual (seriously, for those who are
not familiar with the expression, go google RTFM and see the level of hostility that
community displays towards newcomers).

I think at some point there might be a market for a craftsman to do this kind of
retooling in the near future, but only once the waves of computer enabled gadgets get
themselves priced out of market.

@August Johnson

I set my personal threshold at the PDP-1, apparently the first interactive computer in
the world. I assume any lesser computing device will be outcompeted by the abbacus. The thing
is a moster of 2,700 transistors that at the time did cost in the ballpark of one million
2014-dollars, so I do not set my hopes high, but maybe some fundamental discoveries were
been made in the last 50 years.

As for bets, I think there is a fair chance that it will be put together at some point,
though it's probably going to be sponsored by some Pol-Pot type, so it will be a
moral/ethical question whether one wants to get involved in that particular project.


We are talking business now. Yes, I agree that computers can remain a viable technology
for the remaining of the 21 Century. And I agree that fundamentally this is going to be
an undertaking for organizations that have both the resources and information processing
needs to make it worthwhile.

What issue I have is with your non-portrayal of the impact this would have on the typical
TAR reader's life (or their descendents). Not that you are at fault, but a naive reader
may have come out of it thinking that social media and what not might be accessible to
the masses, at least potentially. These are not machines any common folks will be laying
their hands (or even their sights) on. And the consequences will likely be much more dire,
either for good or ill. Much like early computers had an impact on the lives of those
who went through WWII (or didn't).

Raymond Duckling said...


I let myself be talked into seeing Interestellar - went there with a cousin since my wife
was smarter and didnt want to. What I found most amaizing was how they manage to pack so
many blasphemies in mere 3 hours. Man makes man in its own image - check. Let's ditch Mother
Earth for the next rock that can barely sustain life - check. Fathers don't know what's good
for their children and need scientist to override their decisions - check. Old folk who
have gone through fair harder times than ourselves and warn that, yes, common sense tells
that what we are doing is stupid gets turned into strawman and take a beating - check.

Not even my own intelligence was spared, since apparently once you make the ultimate
sacrifice, it will end up costing you nothing for the power of love. Go figure...

Johnny said...


I happened to read this book “Healthy at 100” recently and one of the things discussed in it is that people who have positive attitudes towards the aging process tend to do better as they age, rather than people who struggle to look like they are teenagers and dread the end of their lives they are sure they’ll spend sick in old age homes, as it tends to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. It occurred to me that this might be similar with societies facing catabolic collapse, that our attitudes about our roles toward the future, with goals of preserving and passing down knowledge we gained through our “youth” among other things, helps us accept and see this as a natural process we can embrace and find meaning in rather than just a tragic disaster.

Also, as another of your readers who saw Interstellar I will say that there is a sort of sad desperate logic to the film's message that was not without entertainment value. It reminded me of The Swimmer with Burt Lancaster if you ever saw that one. I certainly wouldn't recommend it to you, but I would happily enjoy reading your reactions to it if you happened to decide to inflict it on yourself.

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