Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The One Way Forward

All things considered, 2015 just isn’t shaping up to be a good year for believers in business as usual. Since last week’s post here on The Archdruid Report, the anti-austerity party Syriza has swept the Greek elections, to the enthusiastic cheers of similar parties all over Europe and the discomfiture of the Brussels hierarchy. The latter have no one to blame for this turn of events but themselves; for more than a decade now, EU policies have effectively put sheltering banks and bondholders from the healthy discipline of the market ahead of all other considerations, including the economic survival of entire nations. It should be no surprise to anyone that this wasn’t an approach with a long shelf life.

Meanwhile, the fracking bust continues unabated. The number of drilling rigs at work in American oilfields continues to drop vertically from week to week, layoffs in the nation’s various oil patches are picking up speed, and the price of oil remains down at levels that make further fracking a welcome mat for the local bankruptcy judge. Those media pundits who are still talking the fracking industry’s book keep insisting that the dropping price of oil proves that they were right and those dratted heretics who talk of peak oil must be wrong, but somehow those pundits never get around to explaining why iron ore, copper, and most other major commodities are dropping in price even faster than crude oil, nor why demand for petroleum products here in the US has been declining steadily as well.

The fact of the matter is that an industrial economy built to run on cheap conventional oil can’t run on expensive oil for long without running itself into the ground. Since 2008, the world’s industrial nations have tried to make up the difference by flooding their economies with cheap credit, in the hope that this would somehow make up for the sharply increased amounts of real wealth that have had to be diverted from other purposes into the struggle to keep liquid fuels flowing at their peak levels. Now, though, the laws of economics have called their bluff; the wheels are coming off one national economy after another, and the price of oil (and all those other commodities) has dropped to levels that won’t cover the costs of fracked oil, tar sands, and the like, because all those frantic attempts to externalize the costs of energy production just meant that the whole global economy took the hit.

Now of course this isn’t how governments and the media are spinning the emerging crisis. For that matter, there’s no shortage of people outside the corridors of power, or for that matter of punditry, who ignore the general collapse of commodity prices, fixate on oil outside of the broader context of resource depletion in general, and insist that the change in the price of oil must be an act of economic warfare, or what have you. It’s a logic that readers of this blog will have seen deployed many times in the past: whatever happens, it must have been decided and carried out by human beings. An astonishing number of people these days seem unable to imagine the possibility that such wholly impersonal factors as the laws of economics, geology, and thermodynamics could make things happen all by themselves.

The problem we face now is precisely that the unimaginable is now our reality. For just that little bit too long, too many people have insisted that we didn’t need to worry about the absurdity of pursuing limitless growth on a finite and fragile planet, that “they’ll think of something,” or that chattering on internet forums about this or that or the other piece of technological vaporware was doing something concrete about our species’ imminent collision with the limits to growth. For just that little bit too long, not enough people were willing to do anything that mattered, and now impersonal factors have climbed into the driver’s seat, having mugged all seven billion of us and shoved us into the trunk.

As I noted in last week’s post, that puts hard limits on what can be done in the short term. In all probability, at this stage of the game, each of us will be meeting the oncoming wave of crisis with whatever preparations we’ve made, however substantial or insubstantial those happen to be. I’m aware that a certain subset of my readers are unhappy with that suggestion, but that can’t be helped; the future is under no obligation to wait patiently while we get ready for it. A few years back, when I posted an essay here whose title sums up the strategy I’ve been proposing, I probably should have put more stress on the most important word in that slogan: now. Still, that’s gone wherever might-have-beens spend their time. 

That doesn’t mean the world is about to end. It means that in all probability, beginning at some point this year and continuing for several years after that, most of my readers will be busy coping with the multiple impacts of a thumping economic crisis on their own lives and those of their families, friends, communities, and employers, at a time when political systems over much of the industrial world have frozen up into gridlock, the simmering wars in the Middle East and much of the Third World seem more than usually likely to boil over, and the twilight of the Pax Americana is pushing both the US government and its enemies into an ever greater degree of brinksmanship. Exactly how that’s going to play out is anyone’s guess, but no matter what happens, it’s unlikely to be pretty.

While we get ready for the first shocks to hit, though, it’s worth talking a little bit about what comes afterwards.  No matter how long a train of financial dominoes the collapse of the fracking bubble sets toppling, the last one fill fall eventually, and within a few years things will have found a “new normal,” however far down the slope of contraction that turns out to be. No matter how many proxy wars, coups d’etat, covert actions, and manufactured insurgencies get launched by the United States or its global rivals in their struggle for supremacy, most of the places touched by that conflict will see a few years at most of actual warfare or the equivalent, with periods of relative peace before and after. The other driving forces of collapse act in much the same way; collapse is a fractal process, not a linear one.

Thus there’s something on the far side of crisis besides more of the same. The discussion I’d like to start at this point centers on what might be worth doing once the various masses of economic, political, and military rubble stops bouncing. It’s not too early to begin planning for that. If nothing else, it will give readers of this blog something to think about while standing in bread lines or hiding in the basement while riot police and insurgents duke it out in the streets. That benefit aside, the sooner we start thinking about the options that will be available once relative stability returns, the better chance we’ll have of being ready to implement it, in our own lives or on a broader scale, once stability returns.

One of the interesting consequences of crisis, for that matter, is that what was unthinkable before a really substantial crisis may not be unthinkable afterwards. Read Barbara Tuchman’s brilliant The Proud Tower and you’ll see how many of the unquestioned certainties of 1914 were rotting in history’s compost bucket by the time 1945 rolled around, and how many ideas that had been on the outermost fringes before the First World War that had become plain common sense after the Second. It’s a common phenomenon, and I propose to get ahead of the curve here by proposing, as raw material for reflection if nothing else, something that’s utterly unthinkable today but may well be a matter of necessity ten or twenty or forty years from now.

What do I have in mind? Intentional technological regression as a matter of public policy.

Imagine, for a moment, that an industrial nation were to downshift its technological infrastructure to roughly what it was in 1950. That would involve a drastic decrease in energy consumption per capita, both directly—people used a lot less energy of all kinds in 1950—and indirectly—goods and services took much less energy to produce then, too. It would involve equally sharp decreases in the per capita consumption of most resources. It would also involve a sharp increase in jobs for the working classes—a great many things currently done by robots were done by human beings in those days, and so there were a great many more paychecks going out of a Friday to pay for the goods and services that ordinary consumers buy. Since a steady flow of paychecks to the working classes is one of the major things that keep an economy stable and thriving, this has certain obvious advantages, but we can leave those alone for now.

Now of course the change just proposed would involve certain changes from the way we do things. Air travel in the 1950s was extremely expensive—the well-to-do in those days were called “the jet set,” because that’s who could afford tickets—and so everyone else had to put up with fast, reliable, energy-efficient railroads when they needed to get from place to place. Computers were rare and expensive, which meant once again that more people got hired to do jobs, and also meant that when you called a utility or a business, your chance of getting a human being who could help you with whatever problem you might have was considerably higher than it is today.

Lacking the internet, people had to make do instead with their choice of scores of AM and shortwave radio stations, thousands of general and specialized print periodicals, and full-service bookstores and local libraries bursting at the seams with books—in America, at least, the 1950s were the golden age of the public library, and most small towns had collections you can’t always find in big cities these days. Oh, and the folks who like looking at pictures of people with their clothes off, and who play a large and usually unmentioned role in paying for the internet today, had to settle for naughty magazines, mail-order houses that shipped their products in plain brown wrappers, and tacky stores in the wrong end of town. (For what it’s worth, this didn’t seem to inconvenience them any.)

As previously noted, I’m quite aware that such a project is utterly unthinkable today, and we’ll get to the superstitious horror that lies behind that reaction in a bit. First, though, let’s talk about the obvious objections. Would it be possible? Of course. Much of it could be done by simple changes in the tax code. Right now, in the United States, a galaxy of perverse regulatory incentives penalize employers for hiring people and reward them for replacing employees with machines. Change those so that spending money on wages, salaries and benefits up to a certain comfortable threshold makes more financial sense for employers than using the money to automate, and you’re halfway there already. 

A revision in trade policy would do most of the rest of what’s needed.  What’s jokingly called “free trade,” despite the faith-based claims of economists, benefits the rich at everyone else’s expense, and would best be replaced by sensible tariffs to support domestic production against the sort of predatory export-driven mercantilism that dominates the global economy these days. Add to that high tariffs on technology imports, and strip any technology beyond the 1950 level of the lavish subsidies that fatten the profit margins of the welfare-queen corporations in the Fortune 500, and you’re basically there.

What makes the concept of technological regression so intriguing, and so workable, is that it doesn’t require anything new to be developed. We already know how 1950 technology worked, what its energy and resource needs are, and what the upsides and downsides of adopting it would be; abundant records and a certain fraction of the population who still remember how it worked make that easy. Thus it would be an easy thing to pencil out exactly what would be needed, what the costs and benefits would be, and how to minimize the former and maximize the latter; the sort of blind guesses and arbitrary assumptions that have to go into deploying a brand new technology need not apply.

So much for the first objection. Would there be downsides to deliberate technological regression? Of course. Every technology and every set of policy options has its downsides.  A common delusion these days claims, in effect, that it’s unfair to take the downsides of new technologies or the corresponding upsides of old ones into consideration when deciding whether to replace an older technology with a newer one. An even more common delusion claims that you’re not supposed to decide at all; once a new technology shows up, you’re supposed to run bleating after it like everyone else, without asking any questions at all.

Current technology has immense downsides. Future technologies are going to have them, too—it’s only in sales brochures and science fiction stories, remember, that any technology is without them. Thus the mere fact that 1950 technology has problematic features, too, is not a valid reason to dismiss technological retrogression. The question that needs to be asked, however unthinkable it might be, is whether, all things considered, it’s wiser to accept the downsides of 1950 technology in order to have a working technological suite that can function on much smaller per capita inputs of energy and resources, and thus a much better chance to get through the age of limits ahead than today’s far more extravagant and brittle technological infrastructure.

It’s probably also necessary to talk about a particular piece of paralogic that comes up reliably any time somebody suggests technological regression: the notion that if you return to an older technology, you have to take the social practices and cultural mores of its heyday as well. I fielded a good many such comments last year when I suggested steam-powered Victorian technology powered by solar energy as a form the ecotechnics of the future might take. An astonishing number of people seemed unable to imagine that it was possible to have such a technology without also reintroducing Victorian habits such as child labor and sexual prudery. Silly as that claim is, it has deep roots in the modern imagination.

No doubt, as a result of those deep roots, there will be plenty of people who respond to the proposal just made by insisting that the social practices and cultural mores of 1950 were awful, and claiming that those habits can’t be separated from the technologies I’m discussing. I could point out in response that 1950 didn’t have a single set of social practices and cultural mores; even in the United States, a drive from Greenwich Village to rural Pennsylvania in 1950 would have met with remarkable cultural diversity among people using the same technology. 

The point could be made even more strongly by noting that the same technology was in use that year in Paris, Djakarta, Buenos Aires, Tokyo, Tangiers, Novosibirsk, Guadalajara, and Lagos, and the social practices and cultural mores of 1950s middle America didn’t follow the technology around to these distinctly diverse settings, you know. Pointing that out, though, will likely be wasted breath. To true believers in the religion of progress, the past is the bubbling pit of eternal damnation from which the surrogate messiah of progress is perpetually saving us, and the future is the radiant heaven into whose portals the faithful hope to enter in good time. Most people these days are no more willing to question those dubious classifications than a medieval peasant would be to question the miraculous powers that supposely emanated from the bones of St. Ethelfrith.

Nothing, but nothing, stirs up shuddering superstitious horror in the minds of the cultural mainstream these days as effectively as the thought of, heaven help us, “going back.” Even if the technology of an earlier day is better suited to a future of energy and resource scarcity than the infrastructure we’ve got now, even if the technology of an earlier day actually does a better job of many things than what we’ve got today, “we can’t go back!” is the anguished cry of the masses. They’ve been so thoroughly bamboozled by the propagandists of progress that they never stop to think that, why, yes, they can, and there are valid reasons why they might even decide that it’s the best option open to them.

There’s a very rich irony in the fact that alternative and avant-garde circles tend to be even more obsessively fixated on the dogma of linear progress than the supposedly more conformist masses. That’s one of the sneakiest features of the myth of progress; when people get dissatisfied with the status quo, the myth convinces them that the only option they’ve got is to do exactly what everyone else is doing, and just take it a little further than anyone else has gotten yet. What starts off as rebellion thus gets coopted into perfect conformity, and society continues to march mindlessly along its current trajectory, like lemmings in a Disney nature film, without ever asking the obvious questions about what might be waiting at the far end.

That’s the thing about progress; all the word means is “continued movement in the same direction.” If the direction was a bad idea to start with, or if it’s passed the point at which it still made sense, continuing to trudge blindly onward into the gathering dark may not be the best idea in the world. Break out of that mental straitjacket, and the range of possible futures broadens out immeasurably.

It may be, for example, that technological regression to the level of 1950 turns out to be impossible to maintain over the long term. If the technologies of 1920  can be supported on the modest energy supply we can count on getting from renewable sources, for example, something like a 1920 technological suite might be maintained over the long term, without further regression. It might turn out instead that something like the solar steampower I mentioned earlier, an ecotechnic equivalent of 1880 technology, might be the most complex technology that can be supported on a renewable basis. It might be the case, for that matter, that something like the technological infrastructure the United States had in 1820, with windmills and water wheels as the prime movers of industry, canalboats as the core domestic transport technology, and most of the population working on small family farms to support very modest towns and cities, is the fallback level that can be sustained indefinitely.

Does that last option seem unbearably depressing? Compare it to another very likely scenario—what will happen if the world’s industrial societies gamble their survival on a great leap forward to some unproven energy source, which doesn’t live up to its billing, and leaves billions of people twisting in the wind without any working technological infrastructure at all—and you may find that it has its good points. If you’ve driven down a dead end alley and are sitting there with the front grill hard against a brick wall, it bears remembering, shouting “We can’t go back!” isn’t exactly a useful habit. In such a situation—and I’d like to suggest that that’s a fair metaphor for the situation we’re in right now—going back, retracing the route as far back as necessary, is the one way forward.


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Allan Stromfeldt Christensen said...

For Immediate Press Release:

Could a world overpopulated with bum-bums be our best chance for sustainability? Find out why Julian Simon was right: Baby Doo-Doo: The Future is Here, and it's in the Rear.


So I suppose I've now lost my spectator status on The ADR. You can count that as my submission for the Great Squirrel Case Challenge of 2015.



p.s. If you left-click (or tap) the images they'll zoom out to fill the screen

p.p.s. A couple of weeks ago somebody asked if we could have industrialized without fossil fuels (or something like that). In response, a few months ago while at a library in Melbourne I came across a copy of New Scientist perched on the shelf with the cover story "A World Without Fossil Fuels: Could We Have Built a Civilization Any Other Way?" Surprisingly it wasn't half bad, and it mentioned a book or two I'm probably going to pick up. I just looked for the
link to the article
, but you have to sign up to read it. Otherwise, it was in the October 18th, 2014 issue. (Sorry if this is old news, but I haven't read the comments section on The ADR for some time now.)

Patricia Mathews said...

Just one ironic comment: In a crisis era like ours, St. Ethelfrith might be a very good saint to pray to! Because the name means "Noble peace." And "frith" means much more than just peace; it means a good, just, honest peace which is things as they should be.

The very opposite of the "wind-age, wolf-age, brothers will their brothers slay; sister's sons their kin betray.." Odin's seeress foresaw ahead.

Sophia MacRae said...

First time commentator - and I am first cab off the rank!
This in many ways is the best essay I have read from your large collection, and I have been reading your work since 2008.
Much of the peak-oil related material I was reading online back then inspired me to run for my local Council when I returned from Barcelona to live permanently in my home town of Adelaide, South Australia.
This essay has given me renewed inspiration for being part of local government policy making over he coming years.
Thank you!

Matthew Casey Smallwood said...

Athansasius against the world is a motto that comes to mind when I read your posts, O Archdruid. Bully for you - sanity is on your side. I think the powers that be are terrified, literally terrified, of what might happen if the cat comes out of the bag. And I'm not talking about elected politicians merely: there are scores, and literally scores of people in every small area who can ruin your life in a heart beat if they want to, all the way from being "concerned" that your kids play outside, up to the local judge who also runs a private asphalt business on the side. God forbid that the social control thereby exercised should be exorcised! For those with qualms, think about this way : don't you watch some period drama of the 1930s or earlier that you always imagine yourselves dreamily partaking in? So is there anything there to that, or not?

Stu from New Jersey said...

Thanks, JMG.
Perhaps some of the younger readers can give some thought on the art of rehabilitating old rail beds.
I've recently noticed a modest comeback being staged by milk delivery trucks. I have no idea what the energy economics of that is.

Tom Hopkins said...

I think the great false god PROGREsS was summed up most effectively by senator inhoff of oklahoma concerning the latest white elephant, the F-35 fighter plane....."its too modern to fail"...yikes

William Philipson said...

Dear Archdruid, I have read most of your posted work and several books. Well done. I would like to point out one perhaps silly issue that distresses me, which is that a prepositional phrase cannot modify the number of a verb. From this current essay: "An astonishing number of people these days seem unable", "a certain subset of my readers are", "a galaxy of perverse regulatory incentives penalize". If you delete the preposition, I think you will see my point. It is just that it makes my teeth grate. Bill

Tom Bannister said...

Might have mentioned it before in a comment on this blog but I'm starting to reckon that the way to get people enthusiastic about older and or simpler technology is to emphasize the aesthetics. Currently of course part of the appeal of ipods, computers, cellphones et all is that when we pick them up or see them we think 'wow its just like out 'XX' sci fi movie! wow I feel so... cool with this! i feel like I'm stepping into 'the future' Man! or perhaps to put it another way, its all about how 'thneeds' are marketed (if you've read Dr Seus you'll remember the manufacture of 'thineeds' that everyone 'needs' in the Lorax story). I reckon the same could be done (and in fact has been done) with older technology. Many people, even diehard petrol-heads still have a romantic affiliation with trains/ steam-engines etc. Exploit that and you might have an excuse to build or restore more railways. trams are another example in a similar vein. I would make a similar case for books too. Books, in my opinion anyway, are always much aesthetically nicer and more fulfilling than staring at an electronic screen. Or I recall the other day i was watching the film 'Cuban Fury' about Salsa dancing. Despite the film being very recent (released last year) and being about music, there were no ipods or even CDs in sight. Only turn tables and cassette tapes. Cassette tapes and turn tables are sexier I guess. Anyway you get the point I'm sure. Exploit the romantic dimensions of simpler/older technologies and you might be on to a winner! (the same could be said older social conventions too)

John said...

We may be further along the retrograde technology trajectory than most people know. There are already a number of small companies making obsolete parts for various older technology items - older cars, vacuum tube electronics, even obsolete integrated circuits for older defense systems. A company in that latter category has as its slogan 'The leaders in trailing edge technology.'

I am going to go listen to some vinyl disks on my turntable while reading one of those old fashioned paper books.

1950's here we come!

Vultwulf said...

I have given some thought to your suggestion. I would modify it in two key respects. I would like to see the knowledge we have gained through this point in time preserved, while opting to go in an lower energy direction. We have some better designs for instance for boats (new keel shapes), better bridge designs (such as cable stayed bridges that require less material), and so on. We can use those while reviving rail transit, which is the most energy efficient mode available. We have a world of 7 billion people, we must not poison ourselves with our pollution. I suspect that the economic system we we have will need to be modified to move away from a disposable, planned obsolescence economy because of diminishing resources.

I agree that at some point, we will have to do what we can with the technologies we have available. while operating under tight resource constraints. This will be a huge change from our current consumer driven society, based on extracting nonrenewable resources.

I studied engineering and recognize its limitations. In addition, I am well acquainted with history and what kinds of decisions societies have made in these situations in the past. I suspect that the initial political response will be to attempt to procure access to these resources by military means. Which will have the effect of accelerating the decline of these resources, thus giving less time to adapt.

Cynndara Morgan said...

An idea dear to my heart, JMG, but . . . don't we seriously have to consider the environmental downsides of 1950's technology? Much of it was specifically postwar application of German wartime advances in creating "ersatz" (substitute) materials from -- as surely you're aware -- petrochemicals and coal tars, to replace the organic foods, fibers, and construction materials that they had sourced from overseas before Depression and WWII closed down imports. The foundations for most of our Superfund sites were established in the 50's, along with the first worldwide spread of deadly environmental toxins like DDT. So while the human and economic benefits you describe are appealing, I'm wondering if 1920 or even 1820 might not be a better idea.

Shane Wilson said...

OMG! I think I had an intellectual orgasm when I read "Intentional technological regression" (does think count as profanity?) Let me get my dial telephone (I LOVED dialing the phone), put out the smoke stands and crystal ashtrays for the guests (though you did mention we don't have to return to previous social mores)! Awesome post that inspired! Thanks for coining that term to use, JMG, "Intentional technological regression"

Chester said...


What are some of the specific technologies you're thinking of taking retrograde?

I can see things like food preparation, home heating, transportation rolling back the clock. I guess the cool part of modernity is that we'd also get to keep practical low-energy things like LEDs too.

A recurring conversation I've had with millennial friends is what we do that will strike our kids and grandkids as passe and embarrassing. Being an energy hog, or hunching over our cell phones, might be the thing that makes the echo-echo boomers roll their eyes.

Dave Zoom said...

Regression has started in this neck of the woods , gone are the days of three cars , now there's one, usually a pickup that the entire family drives , the RV,s are gone too along with the boat ,all the toys are gone ,cell phones are going too .chickens are making a come back along with gardens and canning , Old folks are now founts of information instead of old fools ! .

thepublicpast said...

Attitudes can only revive if we let them. There's something rather funny to the whole concept of technological simplicity = social regression. If I build a windmill, then I must therefore beat my wife and own several slaves. Funny, and rather sad.

I'd like to think the concept of basic human rights was a little more resilient then that, but I might be fooling myself

Ryan Sharon said...

Greetings JMG,

Been a while since I've commented but I'm still reading your posts weekly.

I feel a need to point out with the greatest sense of irony that the last article I saw before reading your post was that Apple last quarter posted the largest earnings of any company in history...should be interesting to see how that looks in a year or two....

Yes the myth of progress is mighty powerful. I salute you for coming back each week to remind people that it may not all work out the way the ads suggest.

Even for those who agree with your views it is often very challenging to resist.

You made a post (several I think) that referred to the 5 stages of acceptance and I often find myself wondering which one I'm in; I think all of them at once.

I'm very curious to see how we're all going to handle the new bust. Even those of us who have been preparing (or trying to) for years will have need of the Mariners Rule you discussed last week.

At the same time my curiosity is getting the better of me on this subject; I must admit to spending quite a bit of time pondering, in equal parts trepidation and fascination, how it will all work out in the not-too distant future.

To that end, I have been thoroughly enjoying After Oil 2 ( already tore through book 1) as well as Cathy's excellent story on her blog (keep the chapters coming Cathy! The references to the Adjustment are great!).

For my part, I'm pleased to see that our horses have been doing a great job slowly converting a once clay field into a very usable pasture: we're starting to see grasses and legumes we seeded last year reseeding themselves.

Add to that the fact the fruit trees that were here before we bought the property are coming back to life after some solid pruning and life doesn't seem too bad (for now).

Looking forward to the excellent comments as always.


Eric said...

I remember learning that the Ford Model T got about 25 miles per gallon. That would still put us back before the 1920's at least.

Shawn Aune said...

Sense of urgency noted and reflected.

The desire to have the materials and ability to convey the details of our situation and the biophysical realities behind it has become an obsession lately.

I crave these tools as a defense against the stories exactly like and similar to the Oil War narrative you mentioned.

It has overshadowed the urge to actually practice the skills that are useless without practice which turns out to be the vast majority of them.

The near future may provide the required kick in the dupa and it is sad to think that I may not be able to report my progress here on the ADR once that kick finally arrives.


onething said...

Well, first of all, you must mean 1950s without the cars.

I have a question about all this. Why was it that in the 1950s and thereabouts, middle class people were fairly poor by today's standards even though if I understand your thesis correctly, we were in better financial shape then. We were energy independent, for one.
Or is it simply that we spend our money differently now? Like preferring to keep an adult at home to care for the family?

latheChuck said...

In the absence of a public program of technological retreat, each of us makes a choice (casts a vote) with every purchase: the import, the robot, or the craftsman? We can only hope that the craftsman who accepts our money has the wisdom to make equally responsible choices (as opposed to, say, upgrading HIS iPhone).

bg said...

I just feel like you could do all that, garden, fight off the hordes, learn to pull out your own teeth when the dentist is gone, or you could carpool.

Carpooling may not appeal to many, but it is relatively simple to do, and in fact the massive technology behind an iPhone and a traffic pattern database, already in the hands of most americans, is very different from anything that has existed previous

Of course it won't do the auto companies any good, but we could cut oil consumption massively in a week if we wanted to, with a better standard of living

Mike Carrick said...

Could not agree more.
This idea is quite viable. Just scroll back to 1938 in the David Rumsey archives to see a world built with slide rules that was quite liveable. The 50s saw the abomination of television which fI could do without.

Avery said...

If I am to discuss what is wrong, one of the first things that are wrong is this: the deep and silent modern assumption that past things have become impossible. There is one metaphor of which the moderns are very fond; they are always saying "You can't put the clock back." The simple and obvious answer is "You can." A clock, being a piece of human construction, can be restored by the human finger to any figure or hour. In the same way society, being a piece of human construction, can be restored upon any plan that has ever existed.

G.K. Chesterton

Cherokee Organics said...


An excellent suggestion. As an interesting correlating side note, I picked up this week a mid-80's second hand radio tuner for a bargain. Mate, this thing is the crème de la crème and still rates very highly even today. I live in a weak signal area - due to the surrounding mountains - so such things are important. My activities will drift into the ham side of things later this year - all being well with the environment here.

Interestingly too, being on the side of a hill I've been wondering about pumps. Hand pumps just seem like a lot of work and water has this pesky habit of always wanting to go downhill. So, anyway, I've been thinking about maybe a small wind driven pump. I tried the wind turbine for electric and found out that it wasn't windy enough for that here, but it probably is for pumping water. Dunno, I'll have a think about that for later in the year.

You know back when I was a young lad, if you wanted to purchase contraceptives you had to travel to the - what they used to delicately call here - R Rated Bookshops. A truly fascinating beast and it would have made an interesting research project - and most unlike the rather large and flashy brightly lit big box store equivalents of the modern era. Back in the day they did a roaring trade and it had a very naughty vibe which made it quite the experience. Personally though pornography bores the living daylights out of me and certainly the sheer availability of it undermines its naughty factor.

I'm very interested to see how Greece goes. If they had any cojones they'd withdraw from the Euro and do an Iceland in relation to their unpayable debt. Things would improve markedly for the average punter on the street and it may just halt the rise of extremism. Just sayin...

I'm a bit old school in my thoughts on debt as I consider that the lender has a responsibility to ensure that the borrower can repay those funds prior to lending them. The lender therefore has a measure of responsibility - and those guys are trying so desperately to ignore that these days and off load their risk onto the public. It isn't a good look.



PS: There is a new blog post up discussing: Australia day and triple J (YAY for the J's); more steel step stuff; finished concrete steps; even more steel steps (truly!); homemade steel fire shields for a timber door; apple cider vinegar; tree seed saving stuff; and I even managed to work in a photo of Scritchy up to her usual mischief: The seed of an idea

PPS: I've been repairing my trailer (7ft x 5ft) today so am covered in fine steel dust as I write this. I reckon repairing stuff will make a big come back too! Just sayin...

Chris Farmer said...

Well said.
If we went back 100 years, we could pick back up the wood distillation industry. As is evidenced by even a quick glance at Max Klar’s 1920 book "The Technology of Wood Distillation", one can gain quite an insight into how sophisticated and evolved the technology was of making charcoal in retorts before the petrochemical age squashed this industry like a bug.

This book is available digitally at:

And is available, amazingly enough, in physical form at:

Unknown in 1920 was the incredible potential for another use of the charcoal produced by wood distillation - biochar.

A great radio interview about the necessity of sequestering carbon into our soils through biochar (in order to ameliorate climate disaster) can be found here:
Thanks again for being honest.

Kutamun said...

I went on a flight the other day , and the terminals these days seem to be like some sort of liminal zone , people walking around in a daze , going on flights to random places so they can upload a selfie onto the internet , Neuromancer lite , to somehow make their otherwise boring and alienated life seem interesting . I watched as people walked face first into walls , one lady asking me rather brusquely where gate 7 was and i pointed to the big neon sign blinking "7" directly above her head and she just turned on her heel and stalked off , muttering something to herself . I found myself comparing it to a sort of modern self imposed concentration camp , only this one is voluntary , ( or maybe not ?) with people forking out large sums of many to satiate some sort of unconscious consumer programming they somehow feel compelled to follow . Dantes circles also sprang to mind .

I suppose in many ways it is the natural outcome of the Apollo missions , ( plenty of lunatics ) , everyone taking their own small step, detritovores ( william catton ) riding their own lonely little wave of geological passion , launching themselves through space with their own little tank load of stored sunlight , like so many little shooting stars , burning brightly and fading away . I felt we were a building full of little Nietzschean Ubermensch , desperate to suspend ourselves high above the orb like Stanley Kubricks Star Child in 2001 , or maybe Woody Allens mother . Nietzsche even mentioned pilots in his writings , warning them " to be careful " . Lonely little star children sailing through the silent , freezing wastes , as remote from The Earth as technology and their own finances will allow them , the modern version of leaping off a cliff with a flimsily constructed set of feathered wings , flightless birds taking flight ; Rootless beings , splendid in their isolation , languishing in their ruin , fate being their hunter . I wondered how many of them were on their way to yoga retreats and organic gardening conferences ??

As an exercise in sheer waste and futility , it is virtually unparalleled , and i think few in society will miss it as much as they imagine . There is so much fat in the system just waiting to be hacked out ....cheers mates ,
Amelia Earhart
( from among the ruins of an overgrown japanese POW camp in the remote pacific , now my own organic gardening personal cargo cult fiefdom )

Moshe Braner said...

JMG: you'll probably get pushback for this from a lot of angles. Here's one: I think that the lower energy and resource use of the 1950's was not as much due to the technology of the day as DESPITE the technology of the day. Many things - in the US - were done then in ways that were rather wasteful, or costly in resources. But the overall material wealth was lower, along with sparser population - and there was far worse poverty across most of the globe.

E.g., take a household radio. Back then it was a major investment, was large and held a lot of material resources, and used a lot of power to run relative to, e.g., the smallish but decent quality "transistor radio" I have these days that emits pretty good sound too. Even a computer these days uses less power to run, but there we're getting into a lot of "embedded energy". (And I am not pretending that the power running a smartphone equals the power running the internet. *)

But, in the 1950's, an American family would share one radio. Now it's several electronic devices per person (of all ages). Perhaps it's not so much old technology that we need to return to, but rather lower standards of living we'll be forced to return to?

(* I saw a silly report recently about futuristic, supposedly energy saving ideas coming out of some lab in California, and the text mumbled something about electric cars being charged by smartphones. Peak energy illiteracy?)

Pinku-Sensei said...

I see you took my observation that the future might see "reverse innovation" seriously, although I meant the phrase originally as importing low-tech inventions from the economic periphery into the high-tech core to cope with less energy and other resources, not "a great leap backwards." Even so, the term works equally well for both. The result would look a lot like the Agenda 21 "FEMA villages" portrayed satirically in Wonkette just after the U.S. general election. That association, along with the only country that I can think of that deliberately did what you describe being Cuba, might just make all the people who want to go back to the 1950s socially reject the idea of going back technologically. The irony might escape them, as they like technological progress, even if they despise the results of social change.

On another note, people are noticing that things are getting worse. For starters, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists advanced the Doomsday Clock to 11:57, the closest it's been to midnight since 1984. They invoked nuclear proliferation and climate change, not resource depletion, but they are definitely responding to the situation.

Tomuru said...

Well, I have to agree, we really don't know how far back we will have to go. To take it in stages does make some sense. The 1950's as I dimly recall was a time of oil still. I think we have to go earlier. If we look back things went from human muscle power to animal power, to wood, then charcoal, then coal, then petroleum, then nuclear, then solar panels then wind generated electricity. I have a feeling we will have to go all the way back to wood and charcoal. That would also include significant animal power like draft horses and oxen. It would also include moving air and water power but not for electricity unfortunately. They would have to be used directly to power grain mills, hammer mills, and sawing operations. The problem as I see it is the decline will be uneven. Those still old enough to remember the 1950s will be gone and never pass on what they know. Personally, I can assure myself of a modest supply of electricity for the rest of my life. I don't have any personal need to drop my lifestyle down much more. Now my kids will be a different story. So I will take the lifestyle hit for them. Drop down to wood and charcoal just to show them how it is done.
The difficult part for me will be slaughtering my own animals. My daughter wants me to raise them all as pets. How do you go about teaching that this is a necessary survival evil. They are not vegans but dislike the idea of their father beheading chickens and gutting them. Bleeding out a pig is ritualistic barbarism but if you like sausage what are you going to do? How do you get a supermarket culture to accept how you actually get tasty things like bacon and steak. I have been ankle deep in animal blood and entrails but my kids have not. I didn't necessarily like it but it is how one gets meat. I understand this but I haven't the foggiest idea how to teach that lesson. Do you let them eat only fruits and vegetables until they are sick of their blandness?

jean-vivien said...

Hi John,
at this point of the discussion, it bears reminding people that the technological regression you are talking about do fit into a certain framework of increased participation on people's part. That is, actively choosing to revert to a set of less complex technologies will shifht the balance of control we have over our tools back towards the individual.
In other words, if we get the opportunity to do things right, as we regress collectively on the technologies we use, we will progress individually to a far greater mastery of our tools...
That is one bright side of the medal we will have to carry forward.

And for those who don't necessarily have a horse stable or a waterway in their backyards, there are are so many more skills that make sense to learn inside a urban setting. Making basic wearables like gloves and socks is going to be essential, items that will be in high demand as human physical labour comes back to the center of work power.
Making cheese, soap and candles... All of which does not necessarily require even a backyard. A home forgery workshop might be practicable for those living in houses with a backyard. There may be an intermediary step in the way of homemade lighting devices, between the electrofluorescent lightbulbs we have now and the old-fashioned wax candles. That step waiting to be refined by the backyard tinkerers out there.

Jay said...

There are some post-1950 technologies that are probably essential. Cheap, effective birth control didn't really get started until the 1960s (AFAIK), but losing it would be disastrous for any society with hopes of sustainability and reasonably long average lifespans.

The other Tom said...

This ADR post was a perfectly appropriate ending to my day.
My city was in the bulls eye of the winter storm that left 30 or so inches of snow and drifts that buried cars out of sight. My street is not plowed so everybody collaborated on digging paths so we could all help dig each other out. Anyone who had snowblowers was not using them because the drifts were way too deep. It was all slow work with shovels, so we had all day to hear everyone's stories and get caught up. Every so often some of us would go into our apartments and bring out a thermos of coffee or sandwiches. We collapsed back to 1950 for a day. It may all sound like cliche, but people enjoy feeling useful and appreciated. I think most of us had a good time. I know I did.
So after reading this post I was thinking that maybe people are more resilient when when they don't have to consider progress or lack of it, when there is only one path ahead and they simply do what needs to be done without having to explain it.

Debra Lacy said...

Well, there's certainly folks who are going back a ways in technology, living off the grid, cooking and heating with wood. They still often have one foot in modern technology if they can afford it, by installing enough solar panels to run lights and the washing machine. Cars are the lifeline into town as a lot of these folks live out in the sticks. They're sort of a hybrid between pre-industrialized ways and modern technological conveniences. The idea is to minimize their 'carbon footprint'. Their part in saving the world, they think.

Let's face it. Most don't want to go back because it feels like failure and the past was perceived as riddled with hardships. What! No or limited Television? Surely, you jest! Never mind the mass texting withdrawal millions would go through. Personally, I couldn't take the TV dinners and margarine of the mid-century modern era. And don't forget, the folks of the 1950's were very forward thinking - dump the old ways because we have technology! Just look at the soulless, stark architecture that came out of that time. Suburban sprawl and car oriented landscapes. 1950ish was the demon spawn of what we have today. There's no utopia period because each era has its downside. Polio, TB, urban slums, tyrannical monarchies, plastic food, pollution, world wars, resource depletion and the plague if you hit the middle ages.

No, I think this whole modern, crazy system needs to play itself out as cycles do. Even a supernova spawns new beginnings.

jemand said...

I'm not looking forward to dealing with the coming year with the situation I have. I've only ever rented, though I have the unique distinction among people I know to have *never* spent a cent on interest, so debt free should be helpful.

I'll be finishing my physics PhD this year, and while as a naiver, different person starting the process 5 years ago, my plan was to stay in academia, I've long decided to hit the "eject" button on that.

My current plan is to try for a job decommissioning and disassembling aging nuclear reactors.

Are any other readers doing anything like this, and are there any suggestions? I know very well I've pretty much missed the boat on building up an independent farm in time, but given the numbers, and age, of nuclear plants in the country and my education, I'm hopeful I can still do something useful for the future, and not just mine. Seems like a growth industry...

Erica H said...

I've been grappling with the admittedly small but nonetheless valid regression from iPhone to cheapest phone available. I simply refuse to pay for a data plan anymore. So I went back to a phone that was probably en vogue circa 2004. Now this is not 1950's technology but it might as well be according to some tekkies that I know. How can I possibly text?! Why do I put up with it?! I actually enjoy the fact that the phone never breaks as opposed to my shattered iPhone, and the battery lasts for weeks. It does only one thing and that is to make and receive phone calls, but it does that thing splendidly. This arouses my suspicions that older technologies than this might even be more pleasurable to use. Shhh, don't tell anyone. Must go, I'm writing this from my shattered iPhone on a shaky wifi connection and the battery is about to die..

John Michael Greer said...

Allan, thank you! You're in the contest.

Patricia, I have no objection to those who want to put their faith in the bones of St. Ethelfrith. It's probably saner at this point than putting one's faith in progress.

Sophia, delighted to hear it. I look forward to the anguished screams from believers in progress when Adelaide becomes the first city in Australia to bring back old-fashioned streetcars as urban transit! (Not a half bad idea, mind you...)

Matthew, thank you. That last question of yours is remarkably insidious, btw... ;-)

Stu, I don't know, but it does seem to be on the rise.

Tom, good heavens. He actually said that? Yes, I know the man's a moron, but really...

William, so noted. Yes, that one catches me now and then, as my editors like to remind me!

Tom, yes, that's also part of the strategy, and we'll be talking about it in the not too distant future.

John, good; enjoy your vinyl. As for "trailing edge," if we start backing up, which edge is the leading edge then?

Vultwulf, good -- you're thinking through the implications of the proposal, and suggesting ways in which it might be modified. That is to say, you're already free from the "it's new, therefore we have to do it" delusion which was the main target of this post.

Cynndara, that's why I specified 1950 rather than the rest of the decade. Most of the "quicker dying through chemistry" stuff that you've referenced came into use after that.

Shane, you're welcome. By all means spread it around, and watch the shrieks of outrage it elicits.

knutty knitter said...

Just leave me a washing machine please :) The rest is doable really. I would like a few other things (like a refrigerator and a vacuum cleaner, maybe even my electric range and heater but they aren't anything like as necessary)

Mind you, I don't have to own one - just have the use of it say once a week.

As for collapsing - we are already at the bottom of the heap and own rather less than my grandparents much less my parents. I am going back to art school this year. I did think about how useful that would be and then thought that every age has artists to document life,the universe and everything so I will go. I already have lots of home skills having been brought up that way and having always made whatever is needed round here so I don't feel the need to learn much else urgently (except soap and that is this year's challenge).

I do enjoy this blog,


John Michael Greer said...

Chester, the question I'd raise about LEDs is whether they actually save energy if the entire process of manufacture and disposal, including all the supply chains right back to raw materials, is taken into account. I don't happen to know the answer, but that's the sort of question that needs to be asked.

Dave, glad to hear it. Where are you?

Thepublicpast, attitudes are only as resilient as the people who hold them...

Ryan, welcome back! Glad to hear about the pasturage and fruit trees; those are investments worth making.

Eric, yes, but miles per gallon isn't the only figure that matters. How much energy did it take to manufacture the Model T and all the parts, materials, and ingredients that went into it, right back to raw natural materials, and how does that compare to a higher-mileage car now?

Shaun, may I suggest that you don't wait for crisis to get you off the sofa? The sooner you get moving, the better...

Onething, there were a lot fewer cars, absolutely and per capita, in 1950 than there are today -- thus it's a major step in the right direction.

LatheChuck, an excellent point.

BG, it's going to take a great deal more than that, you know.

Mike, no argument there. Have you learned, or relearned, how to use a slide rule?

Avery, good. Very good indeed. What's that from?

Cherokee, fascinating. Here, "R rated" refers to something one step milder than that -- "X rated" is the term for people with their clothes off engaged in reproductive activity, etc.

Angus Wallace said...

Great essay, JMG -- I wrote a very similar essay last year, though without your flair :-)

I want to go back to the 1950s

One thing I didn't consider is whether the energy/resources available to humans would fall by returning to the 50s tech. But, as you say, the only way to know is to try.

Cheers, Angus

escapefromwisconsin said...

Here in Milwaukee, we never really left the 1950's lol. But seriously, it's already happening:

To the rallying cry, “Old is Gold”, millions are re-embracing technologies that seemed doomed to a cobwebby obsolescence. Clam-shell and “flip” phones are the new height of chic, with the likes of Anna Wintour, editor of US Vogue, singer Rihanna and actress Scarlett Johansson all flaunting the venerable devices. Good-quality examples of these old phones can fetch over £800 – far more than the latest Apple iPhone 6 – and so big is the demand that Samsung, the Korean manufacturer, is bringing out a new version.

The appeal is only partly faddishness. For the old phones actually do what phones used to do, which is to make and receive phone calls, without depositing your whole life in cyberspace where it can be stolen and used to embarrass you before the entire world. According to the New York Times, one of the main attractions of the retro-phone for celebrities is that it helps keep their secrets safe. And, as rocker Iggy Pop says, “You can drop it and it doesn’t break.”

The same sound reasoning may explain the extraordinary comeback of the Polaroid “instant photo” camera, once the instrument of choice for aficionados of amateur erotic snaps. Last year’s Hollywood nude photo scandal in which hackers accessed Apple’s iCloud storage system and put naked pictures of more than 100 actresses, including Jennifer Lawrence and Kirsten Dunst, on the internet, had a chilling effect in celebrity circles...

Even typewriters are bouncing back. Spooked by the WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden affairs, intelligence agencies and political groups are reportedly returning to Cold War technology to keep their secrets safe. The glamour is back, too. Movie star Tom Hanks recently published a “love letter” to the typewriter, declaring: “The tactile pleasure of typing is incomparable... there is a sheer physical pleasure to typing.”

Why low tech living is back

The thing that might bring it about, though, might just as likely be a major cyberattack that takes down the banking system or electric grid, or a Carrington event: Technological progress makes us more vulnerable to catastrophe (Aeon)

Steve in Colorado said...

JMG, I have been following your blog for several years, and not commented very often. So first, let me say thank you, for many good, thought provoking reads. I do have a small bone to pick with this week's missive:

It isn't (or really should not be) phrased as a rolling back to a technology of 20 or 50 or any number of years ago. That makes it seem as though the decision is picking the right point in history to regress to.

Rather, this change will give us the opportunity (read need) to apply some long missing engineering logic to how we do things and make things.

Due to the constraints of loosing much of the latest technology, we will be forced to actually look and evaluate how we do things, picking the most practical solution available, with far fewer resources to throw at problems.

Let's face it, does a toaster with digital readouts and a microprocessor really give you better toast than its 1940 counterpart, with a mechanical timer and no processing power at all? No not really, but the fancy dials/buttons and flashing lights lured many.

Marketing hype and unnecessary technological doodads won't be an option for most things. Products will be judged/sold/traded on practicality: how well they work, how long they last. Not on fancy ad campaigns and bells and whistles.

The level of technology used will differ, depending on the task at hand. Some tasks will warrant the use of whatever level of technology we can still scrape up and use (ham radio, communications). Other tasks may regress much further back, not because we don't have "newer" technology for them, but because they don't really need it.

I expect to see toasters again like the pre-electric ones that were meant to sit over a fire and would flip your bread with a quick turn of a wire bail. No heat source of their own.

A subtle point perhaps, but we should be thinking in terms of what level of technology do I really need to solve this task, instead of leafing through the history book and choosing a good year in technology to move back to. Innovation will be how little in the way of limited resources can go into a solution that still will solve the problem.

August Johnson said...

Hi JMG - Don't remember if I mentioned but a bit over a week ago I got my antenna back up and am on the air again. Good signal reports from all over the US and into Brazil on 20 meters. I hope that I'll be able to convince some of the other Hams here to get back on HF again and try to get some sort of HF net going, maybe weekly. Slow going so far.

I hope that I can get people discussing Ham Radio on Green Wizards or Green Wizards Radio. There are a few conversations starting, hopefully others will join in and keep this going.

In addition to doing work getting the garden beds prepared and fruit trees re-conditioned, I'm also continuing to expand my library. Along with all the appropriate tech and gardening/food preservation books I have been adding to my technology and Ham Radio books. For a while I've had an electronic collection of all the QST magazines all the way back to 1915 but now I'm developing my paper version collection. What a pleasure to read, especially the earlier days. It's really amazing what was done with equipment that today would be considered not only obsolete but downright primitive! The sad thing about building this collection is just how cheaply I'm able to do it, nobody seems to value these, even the ARRL stopped selling any form of back issue (even electronic ones) past about the last 10-15 years. You can sort of access old issues online, but only one article at a time.

I also got, for really cheap, a complete collection of The Mother Earth News, from the first issue through the mid-late 80's when they sold out and in my opinion became House Beautiful or Modern Country Living.

August Johnson said...

@Cherokee Chris - let me know when you start to get into Ham Radio. kg7bz at arrl dot net. August KG7BZ

curt goodnight said...

thanks for your posts- i've read them for a long time- have yet to really digest this one- i like the flavor tho.I have been intrigued by the Cuban take on modernity - the idea of a Maker style mindset- tons of re purposing , much web info transferred by CD, a coastline [last report] uncluttered by oil rigs, big on basic medicine tech , etc Man i hope the mega corps don't plunder it immediately! Yes,i know - art and political dissent are quashed- [not sure how many folk THEIR cops killed last year] but it seems a ready at hand lab for the thought experiment you propose...

John Michael Greer said...

Chris, and those are all good points, of course.

Kutamun, I know the feeling. On the rare occasions I set foot in one, I find airports surreal in the extreme.

Moshe, the embedded energy is one of the keys to the whole issue. It's the same sort of whole-system effect that's bringing the global economy down -- costs that are pushed off a company's or an industry's books by loading them onto the rest of society, or the biosphere, don't go away, and if they pile up high enough they can break the system. Sure, your transistor (or more likely integrated-circult) radio is very efficient compared to a tube-based radio. Factor in the energy cost of the infrastructure, the raw materials, and everything else, and you may be facing a very different reality.

Pinku-sensei, yes, it's much the same idea, but the different focus is crucial. The thought of becoming a third world country doesn't shake most Americans as forcefully as the thought of going back to the past.

Tomuru, what do you do? You wallow in ritualistic barbarism, of course. (What other answer did you expect from a Druid, for heaven's sake?) Do the thing, and after the first few times, it'll become routine.

Jean-Vivien, excellent; that gets you tonight's gold star, for pointing out what should be obvious and generally isn't.

Jay, good. You've grasped that we can pick and choose among technologies, rather than simply buying into the cant that insists that we have to take whatever progress (that is to say, the corporate marketers masquerading as progress) wants to give us.

Other Tom, true enough! I suspect we'll see quite a bit of that as things continue.

Debra, I've already granted that each period has its downside, and I defy you to show me where I claimed that the 1950s, or any other period, was utopia. If a period in the past had a technological suite better suited to our future than the one we've got now, why not adopt it -- instead of sitting passively on the sofa and "letting the cycle play out," reaching a destination I think you can identify just as well as I can...

Jemand, in your place I'd assemble a private company of physicists and engineers, and see what you can get in terms of contracts. My guess is that if you can get a foot in the door, you're on your way to a steady job, if a somewhat dangerous one.

Erica, good. Next, you can try a land line with an answering machine, which is what I use -- it does the job perfectly well, and doesn't allow people to harass me when I'm not interested in taking calls. As for posting comments, it's remarkable how often you can get an "obsolete" computer for free from those who can't handle not being able to waste their lives on the latest video game -- and that also means you only field emails and post comments when you deliberately choose to sit down at the desk and do that, and thus have plenty of spare time for other activities.

Knutty, by all means -- they had washing machines in 1950, you know, and indeed in 1920 as well. As for an art degree, it's worth a shot -- just don't let them talk you into abandoning your instinctive personal aesthetic and copying the latest dreary avant-garde dreck.

oilman2 said...

The single thing that I would prefer to not regress (ok, a little regression) is internet. Mesh nets will likely take over, and there is enough scrap computing power to do this easily, and solar can handle a lot of the load for mesh nets.

On our farm we have mostly old tractors and equipment because they are easily repaired, less gadgetry (air conditioning and leather upholstery on a tractor?) and there is more heft and iron in the product than comparable new models. Similarly, none of our farm trucks have ECU equipment, for similar reasons.

I do believe the turn of the century is a more likely level, as we will eventually require doing away with petroleum and its compact energy density on the whole.

Much of traditional steam technology has been lost to turbines, but can be revived, yet the only viable option for use is railroads, which the US has ripped to shreds.

Perhaps the other item that fits in with this regression should be a regression to a reduced pace of life. Things today are frenetic - some be be lastly gasping society or just the rapidity of digital communication and ubiquitous TV - but today, one must make conscious decisions to slow down and think. When I was young (early 1960's) we did not have make this effort - it was concurrent with society. 'Tweeting' is a glaring example of unthinking or carefully thought instant trouble...
Perhaps this 'regression of time-slicing life' might serve to engender civility towards others once more?? I do not know, but I do miss that...

Unknown said...

I think someone hinted at it, but the population of the 1950s was far lower than it is today, ex., in the US, something like 150M v. 335M today, in 1911 one site suggested we were well under 100M. This has to be something of a concern for food production and distribution among other things. And, as someone noted, not everything was more efficient then.

If we're going backwards technologically, need we take all technologies backwards?

I'd be scared to go back to 1950's antibiotics, for instance.

There was some promising work on biological antibiotics (well, penicillin is a natural product too originally) that got shelved with the rise of the wonder drug antibiotics. Don't know if it can be restored. Jerry Brunetti probably knows as much about that as anyone alive.

I'm also not eager to go back to 1950's safety standards in the workplace either.

Finally, I don't know the story behind St. Ethelfrith (sp?) and while there probably is/was a lot of chicanery/religious duplicity for profit's sake then and now, I'd like to point out that relics of saints and wonder-working icons continue to effect miracles in modern times. I've had some experience with this personally. Just because science can't explain it, doesn't mean it isn't real. It merely means science can't explain it. For me, its o.k. if God can't be explained by science.

John Michael Greer said...

Angus, nicely summarized! It's important to keep pushing that point, to get past the automatic rejection and get people thinking about whether we're "progressing" to worse and worse things...

Escape, thanks for the links! Hey, it's an idea whose time has come...back.

Steve, heh heh heh. Stay tuned...

August, glad to hear it! I've been up to my eyeballs in other work, so haven't been able to get on the air, but I haven't abandoned the project by any means. Getting people interested in doing anything -- well, other than a little light gardening -- is never easy, and especially so if it's something that doesn't fit the stereotypes we all carry in our heads. Still, I'd encourage you to keep at it -- I think of how many years it took to get The Archdruid Report past fifteen or twenty readers a week, and one or two comments.

Curt, good. Now explore how many things like that you can do in your own life.

Oilman, okay, you've got the central point, which is that we have the capacity to pick and choose -- you don't have to accept everything that's labeled "new" on faith. Still, whether or not a mesh net can be cobbled together for the short term doesn't answer the question of whether the internet as a whole is viable. I've talked to people who work in data centers; over and above the colossal power usage, they have to bring in whole semi loads of hard drives and other components every single day, to keep up with maintenance and equipment breakdown. That's probably not sustainable, and without the big data centers, how much more useful is your mesh net than an old BBS system?

Unknown, that is to say, you've found some downsides. I already addressed that in my post, and it's a bit rude, don't you think, to respond to a post and act as though the post didn't address the issue you're raising? As for St. Ethelfrith -- I don't happen to know if there's a saint of that name, btw -- as I noted above, I don't object at all to people putting their faith in saints, deities, or what have you. It's a better bet, all things considered, than trusting the future to the idolatry we call belief in progress.

Thirdeyerune said...

Hello JMG, so love your work and your site. I get so much from it and your books. I have to vote with one of your other guests that until the heavy burden of parasites, crooks, and grifters running the current paradigm are winnowed out, we are all at great risk. As such, a 1950's world will still mean they are in charge.

My partner and I are working very hard on a homestead and paying off the debt. We're so close. However, the tax burden is large. My worry is that the tax burden will grow to maintain the edifice of this paradigm until it has ruined way to many people. We must see a collapse in bloated government, pensions, school systems, taxes, and now command Heath insurance or more taxation. These weight heavily in forcing us all in debt servitude. With diminishing livelihoods I'm very concerned for the future. I know this sounds cynical. As JHK says, we'll be dragged kicking and screaming into this new future.

I know some of the answer is getting debt done and finding other ways to make a living, but almost every thing is regulated out of reach or dominated by cheap global competition. I'm 50 and almost all of my income producing experiences and skills are locked up in this paradigm. We're really struggling with this. But, you are right to ask us to work harder on these solutions.
Be well

RepubAnon said...

It seems unlikely that we'll have enough arable land to grow enough food to feed anything close to today's population due to environmental changes. Plus, quite a bit of food is transported from where it's grown to where it's consumed - which costs energy.

The First World countries will be shielded for a bit - but once the transportation net breaks, we'll be in for what the Chinese proverb called "interesting times."

Dwig said...

Very nteresting proposal, especially to me, having come of age in the '50s. Aside from technology, two major aspects of the U.S. culture stand out for me:
- This was the early post-WWII period, characterized by a confidence and exuberance that naturally followed the successful conclusion of a multi-year crisis. This, of course, led to the baby boom that was a major force for economic growth over the next several decades.
- This was the time of the growing competition between Capitalistic Democracy and Godless Communism (as seen from the US, of course). The Soviet Union, which was a valuable ally during The War, was becoming a serious threat.
Of course, these are two examples of things we wouldn't want to adopt.

As the article points out, however, we don't have to adopt the cultural features of the time to take advantage of the technological aspects. In fact, our imaginary technological downshift will need to be accompanied by a cultural one as well, both informed by applicable current knowledge. Some aspects that come to mind:
- As mentioned in the article, the move to 1950 technologies may well be taken as just a first step. It might well intentionally include planning for further steps down.
- In addition to technology, a population downshift will be appropriate (and maybe critical). Reproduction below the replacement rate might need to be a feature, to stay within the carrying capacities of our often crippled environments.
- "Ecological literacy" must be a standard feature of education, for adults as well as children, to inform going from a mindset of "we're separate from and above nature, and can bend her to our will", to one of a respect for Gaia and designing of all our practices to conform to her limitations and leveraging of the support she can give. For this reason, we'd want to adapt rather than adopt 1950s technologies.
- We might well study the experience of Cuba during the "special period" after the Soviet Union collapsed, and the massive economic and energy subsidies ended. Among other things, they developed a set of medical technologies and practices appropriate to third world environments and resources, that have achieved close to first world outcomes.
- There'd likely be a place for "culture conserver" efforts along the lines you (we) have explored.

Maybe creating the vision and outlining a "project plan" could be turned into a joint task of the "collapse aware" communities. (Note that by "project plan" I'm not talking about the typical industrial top-down project, but a loosely coordinated, combined effort of a variety of participants, somewhat like open-source software projects. Hmm, "open source intentional decline"?)

Stewart Maclachlan said...

It's great to have the prospects for western decline spelt out in such clear terms. Thanks JMG. But Cheer up you miserable old 'impending doom' bunch! It might never happen. Complex renewable systems will fade away, but solutions will always be found, when they have to be.
For years I've been working in the field of solar thermal cooking. We're ready to produce a batch of stoves now. Have a look at the project and be as cynical as you like, I encourage you.
I've been developing this in the UK and had some unbelievable results, despite the wet mackerel slap that we call weather here, up at 52 degrees north.
No, you can't use the sun to run your SUV down to the shop for beans and ammo supplies, but you sure can get a low volume vac tube oven past 200*C on pure sunlight and keep it there. You can use far less cooking fuel and jettison its infrastructure and you get the same result.

I hold that to get through the bottleneck ahead then half the world can improve their condition slightly using tech like this, whilst we must drop our expectations massively to meet them down there.
All the best Stewart

Avery said...

@JMG: What's that from?

It's from a book called What's Wrong With the World (Gutenberg link) -- practically a guide to how one might build a sustainable society using 1910s technology. Highly recommended reading for anyone who wants to think about this kind of thing.

murph & freeacre said...

It seems ironic, Archdruid, that I would have been the first to comment, but it has taken me this long to go through the steps of logging on - having to set up accounts in electric land to be able to comment. Just sayin'...

I feel like I am living much of a post-industrial lifestyle already on my one acre doomstead. We have a 2,200 sq. ft. garden from which we raise most of our vegetables. We raise rabbits and chickens for food and fertilizer. I gave up Teflon and Rubbermaid and even plastic wrap years ago. Just use wax paper and cast iron pans. Don['t have a cell phone. Haven't entered a Walmart since the mid-90's. Store and bake food in Corell ceramic dishware with glass lids. Make all food from scratch. Even have enough aprons for each day of the week. Joined the Grange. Organized a chicken coop and garden tour for the community. Make my own toothpaste from baking soda, glycerin, and mint extract. Buy most things from thrift stores. No debt. Life is good. Why wait?

Ben said...

Great post, JMG. Indeed, you may have managed to find a way to actually suggest an idea that is truly 'unthinkable,' at least in the modern American context. The world is probably primed for a 1914-style fireworks show. I suspect that a lot of my friends who have 1950s-ish hobbies may be inadvertently exploring a new line of work. I know I am.
One a lighter note, just the other day, I went bowling w/ some friends of mine. One of them is an airline pilot. He totally gets that peak oil is a real thing. Yet he is still apprehensive that drone technology will come into widespread use in the airline industry and put him out of the cockpit.

@ escapefromwisconsin - Since ecocide and resource depletion haven't done it yet, I was just think that something like a cyber attack that takes down the computing system long enough might shake America out of the techo-trance. Maybe combined w/ a crop failure or something.

@ cherokeeorganics - I agree that both debtors need to know what they are signing up for. That said, I think a lot of the hand wringing in Europe over Syriza's victory has more to do w/ Brussels' fear that if the EU is seen as reversible by it's member states, membership by outside states may no longer have the same attraction.

Nigwil said...

Hi JMG! Sounds a good plan, and it’s always good to have a good plan.

A swing back to simpler times will probably be accompanied by a significant unravelling of established regulatory authority such as national and local government laws and enforcement. With a decline in carrying capacity and a resulting temporary divergence between birth rates and death rates a smaller population will not be that interested in referring to a set of ordinances a million pages long held in some far off vault.

But that sort of ‘establishment thinking’ will not fade away quietly during the transition. Hopefully it will die off from our simple neglect of an unnecessary and overly expensive system which has well outlived its usefulness to those it is intended to serve.

Instead law and order, and the way any ideas for development ('A small dam for a water wheel, please?') will need to be administered in a much more community-and consensus-based way. If the 'laws' need to be written down to be remembered, then there are too many of them.

Simple agreements like
1. Don't hurt people, animals or plants
2. Don't take what doesn't belong to you.
3. Hold as much 'stuff' as common property as you can - holding only a few small items of value to yourself.
4. Respect and listen to everybody's opinion.
5. Be ready at a moment's notice to flee when the horsemen are heard coming up the valley.

A few other minor ones like 'We hang usurers' will be required to tidy things up through the transition.

Keeping communities small enough to be self-administering, forming outside links to neighbouring self-administering communities with common interests and goals will be key to resilience and security. It will be interesting to see who is left in the village when the last bus leaves for the dying city, as those folk left behind will be the raw material for the new way of life.

The Court Jester said...

I came across a very interesting article on an American Engineer Frank Shuman who built a CSP plant at Meadi, in the desert outside Cairo, Egypt. The plant was capable of p[umping 6,000 gallons of water PER MINUTE for 24 hours a day. The plant was robust enough to be run without too, much skill and maintenance and was very cost effective. This was in 1913! And this was Victorian technology. In 1913 Shuman addressed the German Reichstag on this as they were keen to use the technology for the African Colonies. Lord Kitchener of Britain was also keen to use the technology for the African colonies. And then disaster struck: Cheap oil and World War 1, so the project went no further. And the rest is history!

AR80 said...

What you are suggesting is that we go back to a 1950's -style industry.

That may have its merits. But it also coincides with a standard fairy tale story: that at one moment in the past we lived in paradise, lost it through our own actions, but that - if we follow the advice given - we may return to the idyllic world, the Garden of Eden we once had.

Jo said...

Ooh, I have been thinking about this one for a while. On contemplating how we can get our electricity consumption down to somewhere in the vicinity of what our solar panels produce, I was contemplating my very happy 1970s rural childhood in which a cassette player was probably the most advanced technology in the house, and then comparing it to our lifestyle now.. my plans are to power down gently.
First the tumble dryer broke, and I haven't replaced it. I don't have a smart phone, and don't ever plan to. I am having the TV conversation with the children..
I have decided not to buy anything new this year, but to make do and mend instead, and learn some new skills along the way. If I do buy, I'd like to buy secondhand and old-school, or local and artisan-made. Not only because I believe it is better philosophically, but because I am so tired of big-box store tackiness and ugliness.
Is it OK to reject consumerism merely because of its sheer ugliness and modern technology for its appalling rudeness? If one more person replies to a text while I'm having a conversation with them...

Bogatyr said...

Last week's discussion of farming vs growing food in an urban environment seems to have been particularly relevant: Have we reached 'peak food'? Shortages loom as global production rates slow.

Scotlyn said...

Rural electrification is the biggest difference between the place I live (northwest Irish coast) in 1950 and now... And where I see it unravelling. Storm damage to both the electric and to landline/broadband grids are more frequent and take longer to repair, and, tho it will take a while yet, I can sense that both grids will eventually withdraw back to population centres.

There used to be a railway terminus on the local pier (with sensible direct vesselside access) at our local fishing port three miles away. "Modern" wisdom tore up the rails sometime in the 60's, and the nearest terminus is now an hour's drive away.

I think propagating the idea of going back a step or two to something many still remember is the key thing. Shift people's minds first, and then the testing and adopting of different actual technologies from different ages can be discussed.

Jason Heppenstall said...

Technological regression is, I believe, not such a big issue on this side of the Pond. Outside the reaper classes (political, business elite, bankers) most people will easily admit that they are ‘fed up’ with the downsides of modern technology. A case in point; the area in which I live is getting super fast broadband installed at a cost of many millions doled out by central government. It’s an overwhelmingly rural area with lots of small villages inhabited by farmers, unemployed fishermen and little old ladies whose only use for the internet is to look up jam recipes - probably not the kind of people who need a 300Mbps connection. Nevertheless the project continues, roads are dug up, men in fluorescent jackets and hardhats are everywhere and large billboards announce its imminent arrival. Certainly among the people I know there’s a sense that this is all just ‘going through the motions’ — that it’s all about someone somewhere making some money. In the meantime the services and technology that they really want — local buses, local shops and decent public services such as open libraries, clean public toilets and functioning police stations — are being mercilessly clobbered because the relatively small sums of money needed to keep them going are vanishing into thin air. If a local politician were to come along and proposes scrapping the super fast broadband scheme, instead investing the savings in local services of the type outlined above, I believe they would be elected.

@William Philipson. Not wanting to delve too deep into the realms of pedantry, I believe JMG is right to to use the plural in these instances. This whole issue was a matter of some debate when I was a newspaper editor with a team of journalists from both Britain and the US. The house style was British English so I found myself constantly having to correct instances of ‘The staff is …’ or ‘A selection of voters was …’. Researching the issue it appears that — like many things in the English language — there are no hard and fast rules, only conventions. In this case the convention appears to be that if you are referring to a countable group of people then they are referred to in the respectful plural rather than the somewhat dehumanising singular. Given JMG’s huge breadth of reading I can only assume he has read a lot of books written by British or Commonwealth authors who abide by this format, and that this particular grammatical convention has found a willing home. In the case of the staff at the newspaper, they weren’t too happy, but that’s why I always kept a copy of Fowler’s Modern English Usage on my desk.

KL Cooke said...


"I have a question about all this. Why was it that in the 1950s and thereabouts, middle class people were fairly poor by today's standards even though if I understand your thesis correctly, we were in better financial shape then. We were energy independent, for one.
Or is it simply that we spend our money differently now? Like preferring to keep an adult at home to care for the family?"

I lived in the 50s and remember them well. People didn't have much in the way of consumer goods, because there wasn't that much to have, even for people with means.

I remember when the first transistor radios came out. They were a big deal.

Consumerism, as we know it today, didn't really take off until the 70s.

ben said...

here's some ammunition.. forward thinking!

thriftwizard said...

Part of my small business is sourcing - OK, rescuing - old items of domestic equipment & adornment, restoring them and selling them to those who either like the look, or appreciate the fact that they were made to last & still do what they were designed to do, in some cases over a hundred years after they were first made. Some of these people actually live in the era they have adopted as their own, trying to make everything in their homes & lives authentic, even doing their washing by hand, although some just adopt a 1950s or 1940s persona for the events that we trade at.

Like the re-enactors who "live" in an earlier alternative reality at weekends, re-fighting the battle of Waterloo, fletching medieval arrows or weaving homespun cloaks for Celtic chieftains, these people are actually keeping important skills alive & there are useful everyday ideas to be gleaned from their events. How to make a cake or a good loaf without a packet mix or stand-mixer, for example! Or how to turn a collar, how to make a good chutney, how to make a wooden button from a sturdy twig or a lucet from a forked one. They may seem laughable, or even pitiable, from the viewpoint of mainstream society, but such events are always a pleasure and an inspiration to be invited to trade at. Our customers are lovely people.

The best bits are the evening dances - live music, people having a LOT of fun, with minimal technological assistance; even if you're just sitting on the edge of the dance floor & watching in awe, your feet will be tapping. We also trade at our local big music festival, and watching people's bored faces at the headline acts, & total lack of any kind of involvement except taking selfies to prove they were there, I know which events I'd prefer to attend for myself! So a partial return to the technological level of the 1950s might not be such a bad thing...

Odin's Raven said...

Is this a counter-spell to the curses of the Wizards of Wall Street and the Pied Pipers of Progress? What will drive a stake through the heart of the Vampire State?

KL Cooke said...


"R Rated Bookshops. A truly fascinating beast and it would have made an interesting research project"

Yeah, right. "I was only in there on a research project."

Ares Olympus said...

A video I've seen a few times recently has a essay from Carl Sagan called "A universe not make for us." including a technophile imaginary of a great future if we just offered due attention to scientific knowledge.

But besides the "infinity and beyond" hype, I liked the stern quote for objective reality:
"Science has taught us that, because we have a talent for deceiving ourselves, subjectivity may not freely reign."

But for the moment we have successfully deceived ourselves, under a belief that necessity is the mother of invention, so something will come along right when we need it.

But no one is proposing "technical regression" as best I can see. I'm not sure about 1950, but my mom remembers having a coal furnace in the 1940's and shoveling coal into it to reheat the house in the morning. And apparently they didn't have thermostats, so you just let your house heat up to 90 degrees if you put to much coal in, and let it slowly sink back to 60s, or maybe open the windows if its really too hot.

And they had an "icebox" during the summer and an iceman came around with blocks of ice every week, and so your food would stay between 40-60 degrees. And her dad was a Milkman for a while and he'd deliver glass bottles of milk to people's steps every morning.

And although there was more food waste, there were pig farms within the city limits, and all the spoiled food and scrapes would be collected for free and dumped into the pens. I actually got to do some childhood archeology when they built a park in the 1970's on top of a local pig farm, and found ceramic dishes, and bones as they excavated.

Well, just thinking a bit of that past. But the key focus I see is we should measure security in "needing less money" in the future, and getting rid of debt is the first step, and sharing space, like making spare bedrooms available for cheap rent for trusted people who need a place to stay.

And interestingly for the moment, ObamaCare seems a boon for anyone who knows how to live cheaply, since it is subsidized based on income so that gives extract advantage to single-income families who are debt free, and can live on a fraction of the income of other families.

And for those of us who are debt free, knowing our 401ks are living on borrowed time, we might give it all away to charity, to a local institution meeting local needs, so they are not servicing debt.

Anyway, I guess the stage I see we're in is "wealth destruction", imaginary paper wealth is going to disappear, so anyone who has it, should take some extra time to see where it can be "spent" in the local community to make it stronger.

I almost think there will be a time when there will be widescale government paydowns of personal debt - student loans or mortgages, since the defaults and bankruptcies are going to force something dramatic.

Whatever else Paul Krugman is wrong about, sovereign debt allows wide choices of a central government, so we may become a dictatorship before the end, but money will keep flowing until it can be used to heat our homes.

Oh, that shows a MAJOR question - 1950's is pre-virtual money. Will we return to a cash-only system? At least an FDIC-insured account can instantly be raided in a crisis, or digital banking frozen, so between cash and local currencies, we have some experimenting to do.

Odin's Raven said...

Is un-boiling an egg progress or regress?

Nourishing Obscurity

Les said...


Thanks for yet another riveting post.

I do see a fly in the ointment, however: One thing that old tech requires that no-one (end users particularly) seems to grok any more is maintenance.

For example, recent cars (I hesitate to call them “modern”) servicing requirements seem to be to change the oil once every couple of years and at the same time, count the wheels. Our farm ute is a 1975 Land Rover, with which I am continually tinkering in order to keep running.

Similarly, our off grid system is equipped with Edison batteries, first patented in 1901. Lovely long lived things that I am hoping to get 50 years or more out of. Just yesterday I topped them up with a bit over 20L of distilled water. I’ll need to do it again in three months or so. And again three months after that. And once more three months after… …you get the picture. My still gets a huge workout, constantly. Luckily I can also use it to make vodka, gin and rum, so it’s not a complete waste 

Our water pumps were built in the thirties and need leather moving parts replaced annually or more frequently (the last service took me three days of grunting on the end of huge spanners to achieve). The forties vintage engines I use to drive them are similarly cranky at times. The cheapie fire pumps our neighbours use to move water kark it after three to five years, but probably haven’t even had their oil changed in that time.

From what I can see, kit that is considered “modern” is not merely disposable, but “maintenance free.” And it seems that, for most people in the richer part of the west, the maintenance free angle is the second most important component of a machine’s features (after its colour).

Somehow an enjoyment of tinkering needs to be rekindled in those that have lost it, or that horror of going backwards may never be overcome.


Kutamun said...

Gday Murph and Amp - love your dry sense of humour mate .... Any chance of posting your toothpaste recipe ?? Apparently that will be one of the hardest things to source come major supply chain disruption

Sophia MacRae said...

JMG, by 'street cars' you mean trams, right? Run by wired electricity, not horses, I assume, which would be 1890s tech rather than 1950s tech.
Our State Government has recently proposed that the tram network be reinstated throughout the Adelaide metro area, including a line through the Main Street of my Council. (Our capital cities in Australia, with the exception of Brisbane in Queensland, have many small municipalities within the greater urban area). This forms part of their Integrated Land Use & Transport Plan, which was released last year. To my knowledge, none of it has yet been implemented.... Everyone raised their eyebrows when it released, saying, yeah right, where is this government going to find the money to replace the trams and tramlines that were ripped up 60 years ago?
Adelaide does have one operating tram line, which got extended about four years ago. It proved so popular that the State Govt had to purchase some extra trams from Madrid.
Of course, trams form an integral part of Melbourne's transport system! And Sydney has been installing them recently.

Sylvia Rissell said...

I have been reading pre 1926 home ec textbooks on Google books for a few years now.

The reason that the role of the "housewife" was so common, is that the technology of the time (cooking, gardening, clothing, housekeeping, childcare) required the full-time attention of an adult, or the full time services of a hired adult (read "maid") Large houses might well have required more than 2 adults, in which case one or more servants would be hired.

You can claim the norm of who stayed home wouldn't have to go back to what it was in the 20s, but SOMEONE will have to!

Marc L Bernstein said...

There is one aspect of modern society in which it is quite understandable why people would prefer not to go backwards, and that is medical care.

We have become accustomed to x-rays, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) equipment, electronic body function monitoring (blood pressure, blood-oxygen level measurement, heart rate, etc.).

We take for granted blood electrolyte measurements, lipid readings, cholesterol readings, etc.

We also are accustomed to the use of antibiotics to fight bacterial infection and vaccines to prevent viral infections. Antibiotics might be simply impotent within 50 years or so due to evolved immunities of bacteria. The laboratory procedures which produce vaccines might become prohibitively expensive.

Going backwards will mean the loss of many of these medical services and procedures.

Eventually a prioritization of medical procedures will be necessary, with the more elaborate or expensive ones abandoned in favor of more affordable or technologically feasible ones.

This process of simplification of medical care will surely not be an orderly one. Wealthy persons will hang onto the expensive procedures that are offered at elite hospitals while the great masses of people will see medical care for them deteriorate and as a result see their life expectancy decline.

It' going to be disturbing and depressing. Our children and grandchildren may live in a very dark world filled with death and decay.

Matt said...


you contrast your proposal with putting our faith in a technology that will rescue us.

One of last week's commenters posted this astonishing fusion puff from The Guardian:

Costing billions, not expecting any net output from its (research) reactor until 1927....

The killer punch, for me, was from Steve Cowley, head of the UK's Atomic Energy Agency, no less:

“We don’t know where we are going to get our energy from in the second half of this century, and if we don’t get fusion working we are going to be really stuck,” he says. “We have to make [Iter] work. It’s not just because I work in it that I think that: it has to work and all this effort of thousands of people all the way round the world is to make sure that in 2100 you can flick a switch on the wall and have electricity.”

Brian Cady said...

Thanks for yesterday's piece. I particularly liked: ' An astonishing number of people these days seem unable to imagine the possibility that such wholly impersonal factors as the laws of economics, geology, and thermodynamics could make things happen all by themselves. '
As well as '... impersonal factors have climbed into the driver’s seat, having mugged all seven billion of us and shoved us into the trunk.'

It reminds me of the slowly exploding arctic methane emissions from melting permafrost and methane clathrates reported
Surprised you didn't mention these.

But I think you are uncharacteristicly over-optimistic about 1950's tech, which was fossil-fueled, and inefficiently at that. We seven billion plus today depend on a food supply itself half dependent on artificially-fixed nitrogen fertility. And this nitrogen fixation is fossil-fueled. The 1950's world population was about 2.6 billion, (while we're slated to reach 8 billion just after 2025).
I don't think steam-punk can fix today's nitrogen fertilizer supply without fossil fuels. (Did someone slip rose-colored glasses with star-shaped lens on your face while you were napping?;-))

patriciaormsby said...

I took a five-week break from modern technology, but made a point of catching up here--you have a great blog! My husband will not like my New Year's resolution to forego travel until we manage to buy farmland, but I share your sense that a crisis is imminent.
What immediately came to mind as I read this week's post is, what will it take to bring America past its punitive paradigm? I realize that there is a difference between the ground reality and stories being emphasized by the media, MSM or other. If I were in America, I'm sure I would have a different perspective on this. Nevertheless, this is what I see, in addition to the civil religion of progress (which we share in Japan), as a huge, if not the biggest, obstacle to necessary changes.
In Japan, uniformity is valued, and there are fewer people attempting to take a step back toward sustainability; but the media here have mild praise for cranks like me and I have yet to hear of a SWAT team busting an organic operation--or a SWAT team doing anything else in Japan for that matter.
If this punitive mindset is indeed a major obstacle in America, from your historical perspective, how long do you think this phase is likely to last, and what would put an end to it?
There seemed to be quite a punitive aspect to Soviet society, and I think it was resolved with the collapse of communism, though a right-wing minority still dishes it out sporadically.

DaShui said...

I'm so happy I get to keep my AK-47!

permiechris said...

Hi JMG - I've read your column pretty much every week since around 2007 or so, but I don't think I've ever commented before. Your passage about "cultural mores" during the 1950s got me thinking about another one of the effects of "progress" in the modern age that isn't often discussed -- the homogenization of culture.

During those times, you still had an adult population that grew up in a world with very distinct regional cultures (like my grandfather, who has lived all of his 96 years in Western PA). Some of them in the more rural areas without access to electricity (like my grandfather, again) grew up without even access to radio. This meant that the regional cultures that had grown up over generations there (his family settled there in the 1790s, when it was still "frontier") was still largely intact, with all of its peculiarities and uniqueness.

Contrast that with the manner in which first radio, then television, and finally the internet have served to effectively overwhelm all regional cultures and replace them with a single consumer culture. In the old cultures, making things yourself was prized because it was necessary. In the modern consumer culture it is denigrated as the realm of poor people unable to afford the latest and greatest. Likewise, even entertainment in those regional cultures was the responsibility of people to provide for themselves -- today all people have to do is sit back and be entertained.

I think that part of the horror with which people recoil from the idea of resetting at a lower technological level is the fear of abandoning all of the trappings of a homogenized, consumer culture and having to actually create their own culture once again. Additionally, we've been conditioned to believe that there are no differences between people or groups in the modern world, when the historical record (and experience of only 3-4 generations ago) tells us that there are vast differences.

Johannes Roehl said...

If you take Western Europe 1950 (or even 1960) instead of the US there will be far fewer cars. (I guess in many respects 1950s Europe was more like pre-war US)
My mom was born in 1945 and grew up in semi-rural (village but close to small/medium university town) Germany. Her father was rather old (born in 1895) and conservative as well as very thrifty, so they were somewhat late to amenities already common with most other folks. They had no inhouse toilet (but running water in the kitchen and electricity), no central heating, no car or motorbike. My grandfather was working for the postal service, often doing nightshifts and a farmer in his spare time. They were almost self-sufficient wrt food, raising and butchering two pigs every year (and maybe selling another one or two), selling milk, eggs and grain. Of course this was a huge amount of work, almost no spare time, but people apparently were used to it.

Even in my childhood in the 70s/80s, flying was an absolute luxury, not a common way to go for holidays (this changed rapidly in the 1990s I think). And we got most of our vegetables and fruit (including most jams and preserves) from grandmas garden.
Unfortunately I did not get to know this older grandpa and while my other grandfather lived until 2000 I neglected to pick up some of his considerably skills in gardening. Although I helpes with harvesting and other tasks it never occurred to me to ask about the important things like planting, which manure to use etc. I just was not interested as a teenager.

Brother Kornhoer said...

Vultwulf sez:

"I suspect that the initial political response will be to attempt to procure access to these resources by military means. Which will have the effect of accelerating the decline of these resources, thus giving less time to adapt."

A lot of people would argue that this already happened, beginning in 2003.

Merle Langlois said...

Nigwil, if you think government always gets smaller and life for the population always gets easier after a die off, look into the aftermath of the Black Plague in Europe. The power elite of the time realized that with less people wages were naturally starting to rise due to a labour shortage. Then through the control mechanisms available at the time they clamped down like a vicious guard dog. There were some peasant revolts but all failed. Conditions were worse even with a lower population trying to maintain roughly the same material society. It's strange how history has this counter-intuitive property.

Yupped said...

Falling back to an earlier time is an appealing prospect for me. I like simple systems, physical engagement in the world, nature, focusing on the basics. Those things have always held more excitement for me than the latest and greatest stuff. Plus I'm well into middle age now with the tendency to nostalgia that brings.

How can policy and government steer the process once the rubble stops bouncing and a majority of people stop resisting that reality? In part it will depend on what philosophical "isms" come to the fore (in the same way capitalism, socialism, consumerism and liberalism shaped policy on the way up). I assume for a while we'll have a few philosophical tantrums of denial, probably a bout of something looking like fascism, as part of the bouncing rubble phase.

But what philosophies and stories will the age of obvious decline give rise to, to help inspire people and to shape it? Can we get beyond fear and pessimism and just managing chaos? I bope we can. There can be something inherently good and beautiful in living a smaller and more physical life, in collaborating in community, in living on a human scale. But mostly that's a lived experience, not a philosophy.

Personally I'm going to keep simplifying my life, being happy as I do it and being as practical and helpful as I can through the coming difficult years. That's probably all I'll have time and health to contribute. But it would be fascinating to come back in a hundred years and take a look at the stories and philosophies that people are using to describe and shape their reality though.

Celine Patrick said...

Hello JMG and All;

Apologies for the comment unrelated to this week's post (but I hope acceptably in keeping with the theme of community building where you are, with what you have...), I have been requested to post a comment here to the effect that there will be a Reader's Meetup for the New England area on Feb. 28 in Southbridge, MA at 9:30am, continuing with an optional group field trip to Old Sturbridge Village museum of living history.

Dan The Farmer and I are attempting to arrange a carpool from the Midcoast Maine region (Bucksport/Belfast, and points south along 1), right now it looks like we have 3 seats claimed out of 5 (though we are still in search of a reliable vehicle to house said seats...) Anyone interested can join the conversation on the Green Wizards forum here or contact me directly at "Coastal Cafe And Bakery @ gmail . com" (remove the spaces to make it work). We'll be leaving wicked early in the morning and going to both sessions - morning at the library and afternoon at the museum - so a long day, but well worth it!

(Oh, and this is CLKelley, it's just not letting me log out of the cafe email to post this without losing it completely...aaah technology...)

Strovenovus said...


We've "regressed" on telephone technology to land lines and have ditched our coffee maker. The fewer gadgets the better!

I remain skeptical of the "demand destruction" explanation for the recent drop in many commodity prices, but couldn't agree more that everyone that can should make changes now. Your big picture views are dead on: we are all living on borrowed time.

Brian said...

I'm glad you stress regression here; a recent issue of National Geographic has the typical techno-hype quote that in 10 or 20 years we'll all be immortal because technology advances exponentially and life is a technical problem. Without regarding the horrific consequences if people don't die and the population keeps soaring! As I think Gandhi said, "Speed is irrelevant if you're moving in the wrong direction."

I would, like most people, hope to preserve some of the comforts we've grown accustomed to in recent decades. No one mentions it, but one of the greatest inventions of humankind is the window screen, allowing ventilation and light while keeping out biting insects. That was a huge leap forward and one we'd better preserve as insect-born diseases spread with the expanding tropical zones.

oilman2 said...

With respect to hanging on to the internet, let me point out that a tremendous amount of what ISP's call 'normal' traffic is, in point of fact, porn related, bot related and spammish in nature. Why? Because some idiot somewhere is clicking on a widget hoping to get something for free, or some company somewhere is hoping to 'leverage' sales (ever-expanding economic theory) via internet.

Further, what most people do not talk about is how much global and regional businesses have leveraged the net (think about your gas pump verifying your credit card, then multiply by 350 million every 48 hours as just ONE example).

These "server centers" will not be required for a mesh. As things devolve, porn will not go away, but if you have to choose between eating and porn, porn goes away. Similarly, a readjustment will be made in priorities when the personal pain level reaches a point - we are not yet there.

Mesh offers a locally controlled, distributed and low power alternative much more robust than the old analog phone system. Like anything else (Darpanet included as primary example), it could be made massively commercial at great energy cost. In our current setup, cui bono?

BBS is fine - have no issue with that or mesh. But today the cost for either is insignificant when laid aside what exists. I tend to go the way of mesh because it involves everyone, can be run on a simpe Raspberry PI and does not rely on centralization the way BBS does.

In general, a LOT of what we waste energy on today is simply due to consumerism, our 'lifestyle choices', a VERY high living standard and our view of normal. It is the 'normal' that will need to change, and dialing back expectations and delaying gratification will be required no matter how this plays out.

Low energy lifestyle does not mean squalor. It does mean you must take responsibility for your life and decisions at deeper levels, and this is an adjustment most cannot make in a consensus based society...

Charlie Bucket said...

As awful as oil is, without it there would not be a single whale left in the oceans! (Think whale oil for lighting, lubricants, etc.). And to turn away from computers would surely sentence all forests to the fate of those on Easter Island. So I am all for going backwards but without the mindless destruction of the planet and the creature sentenced to share it with us.

oilman2 said...

@ Jo -

It is totally your right to spend what you earn on what you want. We make conscious decisions in our family - like NOT buying washer or dryer with digital equipment that cannot be fixed or repaired by US. To buy locally made things that have some 'soul' of the maker in buy things that last in lieu of using for a year or two and then being worn out and useless.

Plastic is one of the biggest and most difficult to change. We buy glass and cardboard containers only, and this rapidly diminishes your choices no matter where you shop.

No - there is nothing wrong in your thinking - in fact, it is quite regressive if we look over our shoulders...

David Baillie said...

I have thought long and hard about this subject. I have not pegged down an era to roll back the clock to but assume we will end up with a patchwork of tech from all eras based on what is worth it from an energy perspective. I own a 1953 tractor that I have converted to run on charcoal that I make in my woodstove. The technology is 19th century in origin and ran most civilian vehicles during ww2. You hear a lot of talk about draught animals in green circles with no talk about the energy footprint they entail. I can and do maintain it on an energy budget a fraction of a horse's. Of course I'm rural in an area that still heats with wood as the norm; we're used to being out of step....

Myriad said...

Ah; a Butlerian Jihad of sorts. Interesting.

I'd personally benefit quite a bit from a regression to 1950's level of technology. My skills at building, repairing, and salvaging electronics were relegated to a quaint hobby by miniaturization (and the corresponding unavailability of component parts smaller than e.g. "the motherboard") somewhere around 1994. They would become economically valuable again.

(I suspect that will happen anyhow. In a collapse, salvage and repair become critical economic activities for a while, and what can be salvaged and repaired determines your new effective technology level. Which suggests that for consumer technology, we'll be revisiting the eighties, at least temporarily. I'm surprised there hasn't been more discussion of salvage and repair when the topic of useful skills to prepare oneself with has come up. I'd put them near the top of the list, and accordingly, that's where I've made many of my own preparations.)

That said, pick-a-year as a way of envisioning a future regressed technology suite might be a good starting point for illustrative purposes, but it can only be a starting point. As I've mentioned before, I believe that a scenario in which canal barges carry cargoes of wooden barrels of LED emitters is completely plausible, if it turns out that barge, barrels, and emitters are each the most resource-effective way of getting their respective jobs done. Note that in terms of how long ago they were invented, the barrels (~300 BC) are closer to the emitters (~AD 2000) than to the barge (~3000 BC).

The reason departing from a straightforward pick-a-year is necessary and useful is that every past time was, like the present, a hodgepodge of momentary expedients. Nothing was ever thought out completely or designed for sustainability.

Incandescent light bulbs, for instance. Were they really the icons of ingenuity, simplicity, and perfection we think of them as, or were they more like the printer ink cartridges of the early 20th century? When the filament goes, you have to throw away the whole thing!

If incandescents do turn out to be more resource-effective overall than LEDs, then let's at least redesign them so that when they burn out, you take them to a local shop to be opened up, have a new filament clipped in, the glass cleaned, and the bulb pumped back down and re-sealed. Why weren't they designed that way in the first place? Momentary expediency. If we're doing things right, nothing should be "thrown away" ever.

So, my version of the Butlerian Jihad, instead of banning specific technologies, would dictate general principles. "Every assembled part must be individually replaceable, and if broken, recyclable" would be a good start. The idea is to prevent less-resource-effective methods from exploiting the externalities of disposability to out-compete more-resource-effective alternatives. That seems a necessary step on any path to ecotechnicity.

Mister Roboto said...

Going back to 1951 technology-wise really doesn't strike me as that inconceivable. That level of technology would easily leave us with the modern conveniences that make life today so much easier than it was in 1851, and would also include radio, television, and basic transistor electronics.

The furthest back I personally could stomach going would be to about 1921. It was during the twenties that those household conveniences that we now take for granted largely came into being and entered the marketplace. And I like most people in this country am just too accustomed to having indoor heating in winter to imagine doing without it. Though I suppose those ignorant acolytes of progress you mentioned would assume going back to 1921 would mean reviving prohibition. :-/ But if we could have full civil rights for homosexuals and legal marijuana along with the mode of life of the twenties, then I could certainly learn to live without television and computers (which could very well motivate people to start interacting with their neighbors once again)!

Glenn said...

Gday JMG,

It's been said before, if you're a step ahead of the game, your a genius, two steps ahead you're a crackpot. I'm guessing you (and some of your readers) would best fit the later group :-)

In my mind, there's something to be said for having a flexible mind, especially in uncertain times when flow through can no longer be guaranteed. It hints at the the possibility, even necessity of living life closer to the edge, where consequences are close to hand. IMO a lot could be said about such a life?

In reference to this post, I can imagine the 1950, not so long ago is little more than a starting point?

I would think in a world as diverse as ours we can't simplify things down to urban or rural, 1950s or 1650's. It will always be a case of 'it depends' right?

For example in our particular context, with a surplus of field stones, the more ancient skills of the past may serve us equally as well.

As for the future, things certainly aren't lookin so good. Have read your Green Wizardry which was most enjoyable. Much thanks for that.

As you have said more than a few times, punctuated collapse/s are at this point a given.

As 2015 passes by, I'm looking forward to hearing what suggestions you have up your sleave.

What seems missing from all of this is all the good things that may come of once again becoming more grounded to a place and it's people.

Cherokee ... the idea of running on 12 volt power has a lot of apeal to me. Will have to pick ya brain on that one. Any links / references?


Pantagruel7 said...

A funeral last week took me down to the Amish country in Indiana. Driving past farmhouses with working windmills, no wires going to them, and maybe a horse-and-buggy in the yard, I thought that quite possibly the Amish will inherit this country, and that maybe they know it.

Greg Belvedere said...

Excellent post. I'm guessing some of your ideas for implementing technological regression can be found in The Wealth of Nature, which is on my to read list.

When considering exactly what kind of technologies we should use I find Marshall McLuhan's Tetrad and his concept of figure and ground useful tools. The concept of figure and ground is a good way for people to snap into thinking about whole systems. An example,

Figure: The car and how it seems to simplify transportation.
Ground: The massive infrastructure required to make driving a car possible. Resource extraction, manufacturing, fuel transportation, service stations, building of roads, taxes to pay for these things, etc.

People see the car, the cellphone, and the internet. But they don't see all the infrastructure that makes them possible. These things are often invisible unless you think about them a bit.

The tetrad is a useful rule of thumb for applying this and understanding what we gain and lose when adopting a technology. Some of McLuhan's applications of this are a bit too obtuse, but the model itself is useful.

1. What does any artifact enlarge or enhance? (Figure)
2. What does it erode or obsolesce? (Ground)
3. What does it retrieve that had been obsolesced earlier? (Figure)
4. What does it reverse or flip into when pushed to the limits of its potential? (Ground)

I have mentioned this here before, but it seems apt and worth mentioning again.

Frank Hemming said...

Hello JMG. Thank you for another thought provoking article. Pinku-Sensei wrote about importing low tech from the periphery to the core, and Chris Farmer mentioned charcoal making. Rocket stoves were originally developed for places like Guatemala, and have been adapted as rocket stove mass heaters for colder climates. Here's a link to an excellent rocket stove charcoal maker which seems to avoid much of the pollution created in traditional charcoal making.

Zach said...


There, got that out of the way. :)


Zach said...

We already know how 1950 technology worked, what its energy and resource needs are, and what the upsides and downsides of adopting it would be; abundant records and a certain fraction of the population who still remember how it worked make that easy....

On a more serious note, I want to quibble with this. It underestimates, in my opinion, just how much both technical skills and supply chains decay and disappear when not used.

So it's only "easy" for certain values of the word "easy" ...


Greg Belvedere said...

As a librarian, I feel many of my skills would be more relevant if we scaled down our technology and I would like to work in a public library again if things shifted about in this direction. The urban library I worked in had outsourced, centralized, or automated so many library tasks that there was little actual work to do, unless you count the busy work that supervisors always seem able to find. These are all things that reduce the number of librarians needed. In addition to this, most people go to the internet instead of a librarian.

At the same time, I do find the internet useful. Though I would argue that a large percentage of what we use it for is not. I think we might be able to preserve some EXTREMELY scaled down version of it, but I think by scaling it down and using it for only "useful" functions it might lose one of its greatest strengths. I find that someone or something's greatest strength is also their greatest weakness. With the internet this is the fact that anyone can put anything on it and potentially distribute it to everyone. So voices that don't get heard through older mediums have a better shot and people have a greater opportunity to hear diverse ideas, especially if they live somewhere that has limited access to different forms of media. On the downside, this means that a lot of the internet's resources get used to traffic in junk.

Of course this begs the question who decides what is junk and what is not. I'm would argue that it is librarians, but I'm biased. In any case, when applied this means regulation which is something that is anathema to most people who love the internet. Video would almost certainly be out of the question, but it might be possible to share audio if done properly.

A highly distributed network might be able to sustain a very simplified internet. A method of storing and sharing files closer to the way they are shared with Bit torrent, as opposed to using big data centers would greatly reduce the amount of infrastructure. But of course, the computers themselves require lots of resources, as does all the infrastructure that keeps data flowing. So it might not be possible to sustain any internet except perhaps for the government, libraries, and academic institutions. That is if it can be sustained at all.

I'm very doubtful it can be sustained. So finding ways to do some of what the internet does with more simplified technology (radio and packet radio, possibly assisted by librarians accessing paper archives instead of servers for the purpose of things like interlibrary loans and system wide electronic catalogs) seems like a worthy goal for the tech savy and those familiar with cybernetics. As does finding more resilient ways of recording audio and building computers simpler, so they require less resources and last longer. Even if this means they are not as fast or powerful. The first task I'm capable of tackling and plan to with librarians and tech people, the other I'm throwing out there for those with engineering etc. skills.

I do find it funny that so many people from all ends of the political spectrum idealize aspects of the 50s economy, but that they would all be equally horrified at the suggestion of going back to that level of technology. I have grown especially tired of techno-utopian solutions lately.

Travis said...

1820'S technology!? Water and wind mills!? Canal boats!!? is there a place I can sign up for that right now? Sounds fabulous to me!

Also I wanted to float a thought by you. Most people i know don"t think about these things seriously, if at all. They Especially do not read The Archdruid Report (poor suckers).
In fact I have never meet anyone in my voyages through physical reality who do read The Archdruid Report. So, what I am suggesting is -if folks are down with it- a voluntarily submitting of what state and hopefully town they are reading from, so that the alone I's can become happy we's. Then can be quenched and possibly pleasantly surprised by actual conversations, and corresponding collective actions, however small, but greatly meaningful.
Thanks again JMG!

George Coles said...

Thank you for this post, Mr. Greer. You have been a breath of fresh air. I wanted to offer a thought by Paul Goodman who wrote in his essay The New Reformation: "technology is a branch of moral philosophy, not of science."

ghostlimb said...

Perhaps this has been argued previously, but consider the curious case of Cuba and Havana in particular... a built landscape mostly frozen in time, with a modernized health care system profiled in Michael Moore's film, "Capitalism, A Love Story".

Havana has had to keep 1950s/60s cars running for half a century with a cottage industry of parts-makers and mechanics... same for their computers, a series of parts refurbishes and installers who keep dated computers running.

Evidently the public transit system is adequate in major cities, but not-so-much throughout Cuba... probably on the level of Detroit, having torn out their massive, 400 track miles of a street-car system in the 1950s, replacing it with car-centric infrastructure, and in turn committed civic suicide.

As relations with Cuba seem to be opening - one of the most frequent comments from eager travelers is, "I want to see it before the first McDonalds arrives."

While regressive, more analog, less pixellated, fragile and vulnerable 1950s era technology may take U.S. metropolitan areas to Havana-esque, hard-scape aesthetics and intermittency of utility systems and resource availability - it could be a far cry better the alternative, without the craft-skills and reduce/re-use/re-furbish/build-it-to-last mindset needed for the era to come.

Cathy McGuire said...

A good post, and I hope some who are reading it are in a position to argue it in the halls of power…and I haven’t even finished reading the comments yet! One thought I had was that the mobility of Americans works against your idea: because people leave an area within a couple years (avg), they don’t care about infrastructure, nor do they have the patience to wait. I’ve noticed in my rural community, where generations live, folks are much more easily riled up about negative changes and more interested in helping do something with lasting impact – because they believe their children will be there.

Ironically, there have been some high-tech gadgets that have helped the artisan and crafter majorly – for example the swiper on the smartphone that turns it into a credit card processor! So many spinners and other small artisans tell me it totally helped sales and made their company possible… one still has to have a foot in each world, though I have to smile at the site of a manual spinner selling via smartphone/swiper! :-)

BTW, there’s a good discussion over at Green Wizards forum – Scomber just posted images of a manual oil press he saw at a festival, able to be made from old pipes and an auger drill bit! Stuff is being invented, and lots of links posted on GWforum.

@Stu from NJ: Perhaps some of the younger readers can give some thought on the art of rehabilitating old rail beds.
Here’s a link to making pallet trucks that can use the beds to carry loads long distance – a good idea where the rails are abandoned (but be sure of that first!)

@Tom B: I'm starting to reckon that the way to get people enthusiastic about older and or simpler technology is to emphasize the aesthetics.
People have been doing that for years (Country Life mag, antiques stores – and now millenials having cocktail parties in frilly aprons!), but it’s not doing enough. Too many people are caught in survival or semi-survival mode these days, from what I can tell of my middle-class friends. They look for what works and/or what catches their eye in a shiny-bauble type way. That said, I believe there is a solid market for refurbished older computers running the old software that the boomers learned on, that allows wordprocessing and spreadsheets and is easier and less error prone than the new bells-and-whistles. If I wasn’t disabled, that would be the field I’d try to go into… as a side biz at first, then see how far it could go. Nostalgia is great, but it has to be practical, too. I have be praising the simplicity of manual kitchen tools for years to my friends, but they’ve gotten too busy to cook!

@John: There are already a number of small companies making obsolete parts for various older technology items - older cars, vacuum tube electronics, even obsolete integrated circuits for older defense systems. A company in that latter category has as its slogan 'The leaders in trailing edge technology.'
Who? who??? name names! Even better, go to the green wizards forum and post a link! I’m sure many of us would be interested….

Cathy McGuire said...

@Ryan S: You made a post (several I think) that referred to the 5 stages of acceptance and I often find myself wondering which one I'm in; I think all of them at once.
That’s very common; most of us go back and forth a lot, and also you can be in one stage for one aspect (say – technology) and another for another (say – ecology). And THANKS for the praise for my book! I do keep thinking of exactly what JMG is saying as I try to figure out how my characters handle (in different ways) a low-energy future.

@Avery – speaking of “putting the clock back” (good quote BTW) I have a windup clock as backup and love it! Buy them while you can!

@Tomuru: How do you go about teaching that this is a necessary survival evil.?Maybe we’ll have to find a ritual of gratitude/thanks that we do before butchering, to help the child see the cycle of life (like Natives did before killing an animal), and do the butchering fast enough the animal doesn’t suffer.

Cathy McGuire said...

TO ALL: I’ve been mulling the thought that we could lose some or all of our members to loss of internet, and I would hope snailmail would still be there (tho, I suppose that is somewhat debatable), so I’m wondering if commenters here would want to have a paper copy of “green wizards” to be able to connect via mail if internet gets too expensive… to that goal, I’m going to start a list of all those who want to give me address and/or phone number, email – whatever contact you feel comfortable with (and I swear on my green wizard credentials that it will go no further than green wizard members, including JMG) and I’ll figure out the logistics of getting a membership list to you. It might be via email the first time, to save printing, but I’ve done many small pamphlets, so once I get a sense of the size, I can estimate costs. I’ll put a notice up on the GW forum also. Those who want in can email me at c a th y@ cat h ym cgu ire. com (take out spaces). Not sure of the time frame, since I want to get the message out to whoever’s interested. If you send me the info, let me know if you want to be on the published list, or just on the “backup list” – held by me (and/or JMG) in case of need to contact you manually.

Ien in the Kootenays said...

Solar powered Victorian steam technology.... Yes! What a refreshing idea. I am prejudiced, since the fifties were my formative decade. (I liked the sixties better.) This was post war Europe, a different world from Norman Rockwell USA. Think "Call the midwife" vs MadMen. Anyway your post brought back memories of a flat with heating in the living room only. Lights religiously turned off wherever we were not. Meat on the table once a week. Vacations on the North Sea coast, not in Spain and certainly not in Thailand. Few cars parked in the street. A city (Amsterdam) with all the joys of cosmopolitan living, but small enough that a person could escape it on a free afternoon on a bicycle. Yup, I could do perpetual fifties. Just one thing. Is steam powered internet possible?

Kyoto Motors said...

File this entry in the folder marked "best ever" Bravo!
The obvious response from the mainstream will be one of confusion, as in "why would I not use a given technology, if I've got it?" Your point - that said technology will eventually disappear anyway - is unthinkable. I like your ideas surrounding centralized policy moves, but the likelihood quite marginal. Rather, if any leaders are to take a step in this direction, it will probably be in business, where the "retro" aspect can be marketed. Already there are niche markets for certain products that fit the description.
One particularly ugly habit we have developed is that of mass producing parts with molded plastics - which break inevitably, and cannot be replicated without the original mold. I'm guessing this is part of the culture of designed obsolescence that took over in the last fifty years - another thing that will have to disappear...

Shane Wilson said...

A few questions:
1950 was still a time of expanding petroleum production, in not only the world, but even the US. Energy efficiency was not exactly a watchword at the time, and many homes built during the time had to be retrofitted in the 1970s (though in their defense they were MUCH smaller than McMansions, and by that token, may use less energy) Cars, heaters, fridges, ovens, and a whole host of other things from that time used a lot of energy and were not well insulated, although they were built to last and be repaired when they did break. I'm guessing that in returning to older tech, resource depletion will be taken into consideration?
Because resource scarcity was not an issue, products used a lot more raw materials and were more resilient. In an age of scarcity, I'm thinking the cost of making things to 1950s standards is going to be much higher, and therefore the goods themselves will be reserved to only the wealthiest who can afford them--that 1950s goods would not be as widely available or affordable in a future age of scarcity as opposed to the 1950s age of abundance/expansion.
Regarding 1950s social mores, people forget just how LIBERAL the 50s actually were, compared to today. Unionization reached its peak in 1955, wages and benefits were sufficient to ensure a comfortable lifestyle for the working class, the top income bracket(s) paid 90% in income tax, schools, roads, public services, and infrastructure were well funded by sufficient taxes. Brown v. board was decided in 1954, and Truman desegregated the Armed Forces and the Federal Govt. It wasn't all McCarthyism and red baiting.

Kyoto Motors said...

The basics of bicycles were obviously perfected by 1950, with some valuable improvements since then, but also a host of unnecessary ones as well.
Granted, the best racers aren't going to win any races on a c.1950's Schwinn, but as far as day to day practicality goes, the $5000.00 specialty bike is effectively laughable.
Interestingly, where I live (Montreal) we have a sophisticated bike-sharing service. Custom made bikes, internet based membership with smart-phone app technology, solar-powered stations, the whole bit. Oh, and a multi million dollar price tag, cost over-runs and a continuing deficit. The same amount of public money could go toward very basic, free bikes for the masses... or to some other means of promoting bike ridership over personal car ownership...
Perhaps one day!?

Shane Wilson said...

I have this picture in my head of some millennial, 10-20 years from now, depending on the pace of decline, hunkered over his/her smartphone or computer for hours on end, cursing, trying to get it to work. Meanwhile, the neglected kids are rolling their eyes at their tech obsessed parents, wondering why they can't just give up and do it the low tech way. I could see screen addiction going the same way as other addictions--parents and families paying for ever more expensive data plans (higher prices are a result of scarcity/increased costs), while neglecting such necessities as food, utilities, etc.

DiverCity said...

I so very much enjoy your writing even though I come from a much different ideological (yeah, I know) perspective. It's interesting that we nonetheless arrive at the same destination on economic, technological, and environmental policy. I would also like to simply say that this is a truly beautiful sentence which boils modernity to its essence: "To true believers in the religion of progress, the past is the bubbling pit of eternal damnation from which the surrogate messiah of progress is perpetually saving us, and the future is the radiant heaven into whose portals the faithful hope to enter in good time."

Eric S. said...

It really does feel like the whole world is going insane these days. Another of my favorite ecologists, E.O. Wilson made a bizarre leap of logic and, despite his usually astute observations of the challenges facing our age decided that religion is to blame for all the problems facing the environment right now. ( You really are starting to turn into one of the only sane voices out there these days. I just hope that when you suggest that “where we are is where we have to face what’s coming” there’s still room for some of those learning curves. I started a lot of projects this year, and it’ll be a long time before I’m anywhere near mastery on any of them. I hope you’re right about the prospect of voluntary technological remediation entering into the public mindset. It rather reminds me of the “sustainability initiatives” the government kept passing in your Christmas 2050 story, so it’s not the first time you’ve suggested something of the sort could happen.

But the nature of the political unrest I’m seeing right now, makes me worry a lot about what the social aspects of the “new normal” on the other side of crisis. I’m noticing the way that hatred and vitriol towards specific religious and ethnic groups has, over the course of this last year, gravitated toward the center to become a unifying viewpoint across the political spectrum, and it’s become controversial to express the slightest concern about the trend. Europe in particular is beginning to look more and more like the Europe of the 1930s, which is, of course one of the points you made in the first paragraphs of this month’s post.

For a reminder of the ways people thought about the storms looming on the horizon back before the wars, I reread Howards End last week. I know you’re a fan of Forster because you’ve referenced the Machine Stops so many times, but in a way, Howards end is a novel even more relevant to our times right now. The book is sitting on a precipice, written in 1910, but looking at the factors looming on the horizon and the overwhelming sense that sometime soon there’s going to be an explosion. It touches on the influx of industrialism and urbanization, the decline of old, stable, traditional lifestyles, and even chillingly on the rising tide of nationalism and ethnic tension across Europe that would eventually spark the crises of that century.

Near the end of the novel, as the characters are looking at the smoke and rust of a creeping, expanding industrial London and reflecting on the fact that whatever the next era brings “life’s going to be melted down all over the world.” The response to the thought is something particularly relevant to this blog:

“Because a thing is going strong now, it need not go strong forever. This craze for motion has only set in during the last hundred years. It may be followed by a civilization that won’t be at movement, because it will rest on the earth. All the signs are against it now, but I can’t help hoping, and very early in the morning in the garden I feel that our house is the future as well as the past.”

Professor Diabolical said...

Rethinking follows from comparing to the 1950's.

Did a Model T have the same mileage as today? Yes, but it went far slower. Since resistance goes up by the cube of wind speed, going slower is an instant mileage gain. So we have simple cars that get 25mpg today: they're called "golf carts" and if you don't have to go fast or far, get exceptional mileage. No need for new inventions, but you can buy a Model T if you wish--they're just a large, tall golf cart.

Leads to the 2nd observation: when a 1949 Imperial got such terrible mileage, how was energy usage overall so much less? Simple: as above, they didn't drive that far or fast. 35mpg x 35 miles is no competition for 8mpg x 2 miles. This could be made easily true today. If everyone drove half as far to work, the US would be an oil exporter. The answer is: "We waste too much." And on dumb, unnecessary things.

In addition, calculate the all-in infrastructure. Roads: not paved. Helps reduce your speed. Roads: not plowed. Reduces unnecessary trips and encourages a home pantry. Number of parts in car: 1/20th as many. Lifespan of object: still running today. Most repairs done with hammer and screwdriver: check.

Liability? Not really. What's the real hardship of having a nice car that lasts a generation, is simple to drive, has cheap repairs, and gets you to a store and hospital which are now within 5-10 miles and not 50 miles? Actually, sounds pretty nice.

So that's part of your all-in calculation from 1950.

AngelusCruentus said...

My friends and I went to the Computer History Museum a few weeks back. I wasn't expecting much - it just sounded too niche to be a serious undertaking.

How wrong I was! It was in the heart of Silicon Valley and the enthusiasts spared no expense in collecting exhibits in a building so large that we were kicked out at closing and still hadn't seen everything. They had a working Babbage Engine there too - super freaking cool. And one of those massive room sized computer systems which actually ran and printed out prime numbers.

What's astonishing though is how much computing you can do with surprisingly little power. If chips were optimized for power consumption rather than speed, it wouldn't take much more than a trickle to support as much calculus as you could need for almost any engineering application. Chip manufacturing, too, was able to take place in a 1950s environment, the only difference was the logic gates were so big you could see them with the naked eye.

I think the internet and computers are going to be something that sticks around. Maybe a lot slower, sure. But even a computer with 1950s processing power, and consuming little more energy than a cheap calculator, is absolutely doable and would be more than enough to send people to Luna (if anybody a hundred years from now still sees any value in such an endeavor)

curt goodnight said...

JMG- in re to 'explore how many things you can do'-it IS what i do .. 40 acre homestead- solar power/heating; yes, still too much propane in my life but thats to help heat a shop where i am almost finished building a trailerable ocean capable catamaran....,none of this due to an overt bunker mentality- its just what i have always found interesting to do. Like repurposing - my home is 90% recycled material, i keep a couple old trucks [pre computer ] and old motorcycles up and running . Like being active in the closest small community- maintaining a tight and uber reliable network of friends . That last point- if your readers have not done all the other groundwork [i've been at it a few decades] I believe the one most important immediate action they can take is to nurture neighbor/friend bonds- especially with those who are "doing it"...

David said...


After reading your post last night, I took a few minutes this morning at work to dig through our vault (two doors down from my office) and find the electric operating report for 1950. (We have annual and operating reports for the electric and water utilities going back to 1914 and 1991, respectively, when the utilities were first bought by the city. The early years all handwritten.)

In 1950, there were 21,748,208 kWh of residential electric sales to an average of 10,477 residential customer accounts. This translates to a monthly average consumption of 173 kWh. By way of personal comparison, my household's monthly average is ~250 kWh, which is itself substantially below the modern norm. So now I have a new target :)

On another theme recurring theme, when I was driving in today, I noted the license plate of the car stopped at a traffic light in front of me. It had an Iraq Veteran plate and it read "JADED1" -- not exactly a good sign.

Ray Wharton said...

It was the start of winter 2012 when I started to collapse properly. One of the most vivid lessons I have learned is how much ones fortunes tie to the cycle of the seasons since. Summer it is easy to eat, because there is more lawn wishing to be garden than there are gardeners to help, this makes it easy to get veggies, and with easy veggies ones diet is over all quite cheap. The problem is winter, of course to the homed one can simply store food, with modest foresight and moderate efforts. For those with out a stable home the winter, even a mild winter like my region enjoys this year, is very difficult. Sure I can get out of the weather when I like, and am wealthy is social connections, but it is much more difficult to broker pantry and kitchen space.

Collapsing in 2012 did little to help me be prepared for the more general collapse around, contraction on my entire social ecosystem hit hard a little over a month ago and is accelerating. Nearly half the people I am close to are with in a couple bad rolls of full on crisis, or already in crisis. The most valuable part of collapsing has been the failure, living in a collapsing system means that failure in one form or another happens very often, and if ones ego is invested in a project it is quite humiliating and repetitive. That's ok though, because the vast majority of failures are not lethal, even in a crisis! And nothing is better than failure at teaching about oneself and kith. I hope these very non material lessons will be helpful.

Well, enough of this. Stay safe everybody! I have to hurry to get to my biodynamics class at the farm in am apprenticing at. At the moment that apprenticeship is the best card in my hand.

Roger said...

JMG, I remember when the TV had an antenna and we were only able to get 3 channels. Somehow it was enough.

I decided to take a small step backwards. This is my mini-rebellion against evil cable providers that go out of their way to annoy me.

I made an TV antenna from coat hangers, cardboard, a length of cable and a small device from an electrical supply shop called a "balun" that costs around five dollars. It took about two hours to cut up the parts and glue and screw them together.

Predicting how many channels you'll get over the air is pretty hard. It depends on a lot of variables.

From where we live we get 20 channels (that number includes sub-channels) using this simple contraption. The antenna sits on a bookshelf near the window. It's an ugly as sin conversation piece. But it works.

I was amazed that over the air broadcast channels also have sub-channels. For example, the PBS station - channel 17 - in Buffalo has sub-channels 17-1 and 17-2 each of which shows different programming.

And we gave the cable provider the heave-ho. Saved 60 bucks a month.

We can no longer watch the Kardashians (not that we ever did, no, not us, no way) or watch Adam Richman bust a gut. Boo-hoo.

I can feel my IQ re-bounding.

Oh yeah, we only use a telephone land-line and have no internet access from home. We use computers at the public library. We've never done on-line banking or on-line purchases as I figure this is just asking for cyber/identity theft. I figure that one of these days all this neat stuff is going to sputter and go dark anyways.

Moshe Braner said...

"the question I'd raise about LEDs is whether they actually save energy if the entire process of manufacture and disposal, including all the supply chains right back to raw materials, is taken into account. I don't happen to know the answer, but that's the sort of question that needs to be asked."

JMG: yes it needs to be asked, but there are ways to estimate a rough answer. Without subsidies, a good LED bulb costs about $30 these days. It supposedly will last a long time (several decades in normal use - and I've had CFLs last 20 years!). Over that time the LED bulb, relative to incandscent bulbs, will save about $150 in electricity cost - at today's power prices (subsidized by cheaply-sold fracked gas and allowed externalities). If the prices (after correcting best as we can for distortions) are like that, the embedded energy picture is probably similar.

And I am still asking the question: why do you claim that 1950 tech was more resource efficient, in general? For example, you wrote:

"everyone else had to put up with fast, reliable, energy-efficient railroads when they needed to get from place to place"

- but steam locomotives are horribly energy inefficient, requiring far more fuel than diesel locomotives. And for passengers (rather than freight) heavy rail is still inefficient, even if diesel powered. The lightweight self-propelled passenger rail cars may be more efficient than cars - but only if full. (Electric trams, now THAT's something I'd like to see come back.) For heavy rail to make sense for passengers you'd need to cram as many people into (and onto) the rail cars as they do in India, for example.

Yes I know, there is embedded energy in the highways. But we're not talking about rail to and from every door.

"If the technologies of 1920 can be supported on the modest energy supply we can count on getting from renewable sources, for example, something like a 1920 technological suite might be maintained over the long term"

- As already mentioned in some comments, it's not a complete technological "suite" from the past that will be needed, but rather a selection of old and new. For one thing, in 1920 the industrial countries were running on coal, not renewable energy. And why not use, e.g., solar thermal ideas from the 1970's (plus some PV tech from the 2010's) along with the rail, canals, and trams of 1920?

As for "mesh radio", yes it would be quite useful without the "data centers". I think you're confusing the current centralized, addictive, bandwidth-hogging time-wasters, such as YouTube and Facebook, with the "internet" as a whole. When the internet was invented, in the 1980's, it was specifically designed to be a method of running a decentralized communications mesh, making it reliable even in the face of random breaks in the mesh. Although invented by the DOD to provide communications in a world hit by nuclear war (necessitating the resilient-mesh structure), it immediately gave rise to freewheeling discussion groups on hundreds of separate topics, that functioned well on a peer-to-peer basis, without any central "data servers". That can work with any sort of mesh communications network, even via ham radio, albeit on a scale commensurate with the bandwidth available.

BoysMom said...

Did you all hear the NPR story about how the publisher of Laura Ingalls Wilder's annotated biography keeps selling out the print runs?
I think a lot of us 'Little House' fans would be willing to buy into much of that lifestyle. (Increased childhood mortality rates wouldn't be popular.) It's probably a very good sign for the future that a certain portion of the population is obsessed with that part of the past. I learned to make sourdough from the 'Little House' books, for example, and was certainly inspired to pick up some of the other skills I have by my childhood obsession with them, long before I ever heard anything about resource peaks.

. josé . said...

Sir and Archdruid,
Based on some of your earlier writings, and based on my own experience over the last few years, I had developed a very conception of what comes next, in terms of both lifestyle and available technology. I’d like to elaborate on this, but I’m going to start with some background and an anecdote.

As is the case with other commenters, I’m an early-collapsenik. Three years ago I had a well-paying career in software interaction design, was living in a three-bedroom high-rise apartment in San Francisco, and doing lots of air travel both for work and to plan my new life. I am currently unemployed, living in a one-bedroom remodeled fieldworkers shed on five hilly acres in rural SE Brazil. I’m in the process of planting a permaculture orchard / agrofloresta and expanding my organic garden (already over 300 sq meters, 3000 sf). My dream, if my retirement savings don’t run out or simply evaporate first, is to set up an ecolodge and research center for the near term future of energy decline. Things move slowly here in Brazil, but they are moving.

Where I live, power outages are common. During the rainy summer season, it may fail a couple of times a week, sometimes for a few minutes, sometimes for a few days. Many of my neighbors here have big generators, some of which kick on automatically – and noisily – even when they are not here. I’ve chosen to treat these as opportunities to practice for using less electricity and using it intermittently. From my first week here in the mountains, if I needed light, I would light candles.
So I posted a picture of my desk to Facebook, with the laptop still going (batteries!) but the paperwork illuminated with candles. A friend immediately gave me a present: one of those rechargeable LED arrays that are ubiquitous here in Brazil. At the time, it felt wrong. Candles felt right.
But here’s the catch: I almost never light candles now, and do so only for effect. Every time I need light in the evening and the power has failed, I use one of the LED arrays. (I picked up a couple that use rechargeable AA batteries to augment the original one.) They’re not as pretty as candles, but they are radically more convenient.

My conception of what is coming next is based on the sequence you laid out years ago:
Abundance industrialism, Scarcity industrialism, Salvage society, Ecotechnic future.
My design target is the Ecotechnic future. That’s what the ecolodge and research center are all about. In less than three years, I’ve planted over 800 fruit and nut trees, almost all of which are still growing well, and many of which have started giving small yields. (The Earth path called for one a year, but I upped the ante to one a day.) I’ve carved a number of swales into the hillside, and built terraced organic garden beds. I haven’t been able to find/afford photovoltaics around here (as you point out, absent the artificial support they’re uneconomical), but all my hot water comes from the sun (1880 technology). On long cloudy weeks, I use a washcloth and cold water (1820 practice). I’m building a wood-fired stove (local design, “fogão mineiro”) for backup cooking and heating hot water (pre-1820 technology and practice, though still very common in the region, particularly among poorer folk). In broad terms, it fits into the descriptions you give in your post.

(continued below)

. josé . said...


But I’m already in my 60’s, so I figure my remaining lifetime will be mostly in the era of Scarcity industrialism, bridging over to the beginning of the Salvage society. My target focus is certainly the Ecotechnic future, but my everyday coping strategies have been organized around Scarcity industrialism.

In my mind, that’s where the LED arrays come in. They are hardly an appropriate Ecotechnic technology, so I would not be interested in building any. (Setting up a candle-making workshop is more of what I have in mind.) They won’t last long enough to be useful during the Salvage society phase. On the positive side, they’re amazingly inexpensive, far cheaper to buy and operate than the equivalent in candles, and very safe to use, without open flames.

To be sure, I use illumination sparingly in any event. I walk into friends’ homes at night and everything is lit up like daylight. In my home, the dimmers and LED nightlights create a barely-lit environment, where task lighting is used only as needed. The example of LED lamps utilized as spot and emergency lighting, using rechargeable batteries as needed, provide a way to downsize from Abundance to Scarcity, while reserving my attention and focus for things which matter more (like planting trees, building rich soil in the organic garden beds, and building with passive solar – all for the future).

Moving from the personal to the global, I have a nephew who is working on a super-efficient motor design, using quantum math to rethink the precise angle of the windings and the switching of the electromagnets. Totally new, in some ways the very definition of high-tech. But in other ways, an adaptation to scarcity. The same motor power output requires less copper in the windings and loses less in the conversion from electrical to mechanical energy. This example is even better than that of LEDs, because it remains available during the Salvage society, and perhaps all the way into the Ecotechnic phase.

So that’s the conception I had built up of what’s coming next in the Scarcity industrialism phase.

Helix said...

This essay mirrors my own thinking almost exactly, and lays it out much more clearly, concisely, and elegantly than I could ever hope to myself.

I was thrilled to see someone finally bring up the topic of trade policy. Ours is suicidal. Not only does it encourage labor arbitrage, but even more importantly allows multinational corporations sidestep the environmental laws, workplace safety standards, and acceptable living conditions of any particular country.

I think it's safe to say that most people think the main driver of offshoring is lower wages in places like China, Malaysia, Vietnam, etc. But this is only a part of the story, and perhaps not even the major part. At least as important are the almost non-existent environmental protections and abysmal prospects for workers in these countries. Japan was at the top of the list for offshoring until Minamata disease resulting from mercury dumping in rivers and Yokkaichi asthma resulting from sulfur dioxide belching in the atmosphere led Japan to rethink its environmental policies.

In the nick of time, China opened its doors, dooming Japan's role as the multinational corporations' favorite manufacturing swamp. Within ten years of China's shift in its economic policy (in 1980), Japan's economy was in shambles and pollution levels in China's industrial centers were going off-scale.

In the meantime, matters in the US were becoming grim. New plants in the US required a lengthy study of environmental impacts, and existing factories had to start cleaning up after themselves. In other words, they could no longer "externalize" the costs of cleaning up the crud they produced as byproducts of their activities.

At the same time, they were given no protection from competition from overseas factories who had no such economic burdens to bear. Suggestions that such protections were in order were met with shrill denunciations of the "restraint of free trade" sort, which served as a substitute for critical analysis. Evidently, the "free-trade" advocates will not be satisfied until pollution is ubiquitous and labor has been reduced to a level of bare survival.

I'm certainly not an advocate of over-regulation. But I think prudent oversight is mandatory, and a tariff schedule that offsets the competitive advantage "enjoyed" by corporations who can pollute and exploit with impunity in foreign countries is long overdue.

Neo Tuxedo said...

I can't say it better than Mad Malik (LKA Sinister Dexter) did in the "Interview with Norton Cabal" that appears as a special afterword to the 1979 Loompanics edition of the Principia Discordia. Hopefully, I can say it only slightly worse:

"[Technological regression is] a dilemma. If everybody [gave up their energy-addicted technologies] then everything would be perfect. But nobody is going to [give up those technologies, especially the war machines,] unless I [do] first. But if I [do] and somebody else [does] not, then I get screwed. [There are] five choices under that circumstance. The first [is] napalming farmers and the second [is] executing your parents. The third [is] hypocrisy, the fourth [is] cowardice, and the fifth [is] to swallow the dilemma."

Even a small dilemma is a hard thing to swallow, though, and this dilemma is bigger than most.

Matt Wallin said...

JMG,I found it very interesting to hear you echo some of my beliefs about the 'alternative' and avant-garde folks in culture. I found my own nascent thoughts on the subject stated in a much more thorough and eloquent manner in the book "Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture became Consumer Culture". I can thank that book for helping me, as a younger man, put to rest those nagging feelings of wanting to be 'cool'. It has a great analysis of coolhunting, putting it in its proper context, which has plenty to do with baboons snarling their teeth and which piglet gets which teat. I find it occasionally interesting to witness the paradox of just how much more rigid the conformity is in hipster or 'alternative' groups. These folks don't seem to catch the irony of implying that they are horribly stifled by the wider culture, all the while they are immersed in ceaseless evaluation for the 'correct' views and opinions, as well as material belongings by their peers. I write it all off to the increasingly narcissistic tendencies of this culture at large. Everyone wants to be special, but don't want to actually have to *do* something special to earn that recognition. Just another facet of the raft of delusionary thinking that pervades everyday life.

bdy1 said...

People can self-organize as a species to live as well as we like (all of us) on solar income. That's no more or less a statement of faith as saying that we can only enjoy information technology and space travel on our current reckless energy diet. It's a matter of politics. If peaceful discussion carried any political weight folks could (and likely would) arrive at tech c. 1950, 1920 or 1777 as we like – scaling back until we find the limits of practice and resources that allows everyone to contribute and live well.
All scientific and technological research can continue as long as it’s confined in scale. (Neal Stephenson’s Anathem presents a plausible culture where more tech can be acquired for less juice when there’s a tight gate between the lab and the market.) Channeling research toward cultures that privilege efficiency, compassion and balance over power and consumption is one way to confine technology’s scale.
I’m a city guy, so I too will have to make do in clusters of like-mindedness that make up for a lack of self-sufficiency with cooperative effort. Nothing suggests that EROEI values aren’t susceptible to technological and political pressure, and won’t be operating at different local levels due to differing political conditions. Maybe the global general strike of 2xxx will herald an era of loosely aligned Anarcho-Syndicalist city states – all with good relations to their pastoral surrounds, cooperatively making best use of resources. More likely, the cities that persist will operate at vastly different tolerances for injustice and efficiency, and different ways for directing energy will be localized.
So, assuming mobility, planning ahead means voting with our feet in advance. I’m considering our current digs: the American SW. Magic 8-ball likes a future of retro-grade fascism struggling to hold onto scarce food and water against multiple rural warlords. Exit strategy critical. Getting away from all these guns a top priority. Vancouver might be better place to land than Sarasota.

Lili said...

Intentional technological regression is not just possible but very cost effective. About 10 years ago I replaced my modern refrigerator with a 1934 Monitor Top. It eliminated 2/3ds of my monthly electric bill. (And it's a whole lot prettier). I long ago disposed of the dishwasher and the garbage disposal. I live in a 2359 square foot apartment and my energy is supplied by the local energy coop. I've opted for the 100% renewable super-crunchy nirvana blend, which is expensive, and my bill last month -- in the bleak mid-winter -- was $15.46. Don't wait for public policy to change. This is something we can all do right now.

Mean Mr Mustard said...


Trouble is with regressing to the 50's is that plenty of rungs on the 'progress' ladder between then and now have been chopped away. Falling that far might be rather painful.

There's still a few 50's icons about, but only for the price of admission. Come see the Sabre jet, Meteor and MiG (all rich boy's toys, even the Soviet product) flying nearby here. And those shark finned pastel shaded and chrome cars were real nice too, a few do still emerge in our English Summer. But, even back in the 70's, we Brits saw them as ridiculous gas guzzlers.

Sadly, our local and very authentic American diner adorned with commercial art posters died in the early 90s recession. I'd settle for the Bill Haley and Chuck Berry riffs and home made ice cream sodas, and consider myself very lucky to have seen those fast swept-wing jets fly.



Rita said...

@Jay--If I recall correctly the birth control revolution in the 60s consisted largely of the hormonal methods: birth control pills and later, implants. IUDs were also developed in this time period but fell out of favor in the late 70s because of the side effects of one brand. The real revolution here was that women controlled the use--at least once they had gone through the hoops of the male dominated medical establishment. A woman didn't have to beg her partner to put on a condom or to pull out. Condoms have been around for centuries, the basic D&C abortion could be performed in Roman times. Access is usually the problem, whether access is limited by cost or by social gatekeepers such as the Catholic Church or the AMA.

Agent Provocateur said...


This post brings to mind your Utility versus Cost chart some posts back.

I mangled your basic idea in a late comment to the same post by thinking of plotting technologies that fulfill the same function on a similar (but not identical) chart.

I defined Utility as what most people (not you or I) think is more useful, convenient, efficient, profitable, etc. I defined Cost as just straight up front costs (i.e. not including total costs like injury to the environment etc.). Thus my use of the terms Utility and Cost were not the same as yours were.

I think this chart, and the technology function curves one could construct on it, are a useful model for thinking about this week's post. I'm certain this way of thinking is not for everyone, but it helped me and so it might be helpful to others.

Let me give the example of technologies for transportation for trade. Trade by boat, rail, truck, and airplane would plot out on a concave curve. Each of these technologies is a point on the chart that forms a curve with its slope decreases to the right. The curve is concave because each marginal increment in utility generally costs marginally much more. Each technology currently in popular use for a given function (e.g. transportation, communication, agriculture etc.) must fit on its function curve more or less; otherwise a less expensive or more useful technology would eliminate it from common use. One could plot wind powered ships on the chart but it wouldn't fit on the current trade transportation curve. Such (currently) obsolete technologies would always plot to the right of the curve i.e. too expensive for a given utility.

Excessive costs due to resource depletion will drive us to rely on more basic technologies for any given function. Thus each such curve is pulled to the right until the top end technology hits a wall i.e. the point where it is too expensive to maintain. As the curve is pulled to the right, some old technologies like sail might find themselves on the curve again.

Generally we will be moving from high cost tech to low cost tech. Granted some (formerly) intermediate cost technologies currently in use may fall off the curve before a currently higher cost tech on the same curve, as the cost increases may not be proportional across the curve. Nonetheless, generally we can expect the high cost tech to drop off first because they are already the most expensive.

The point of collapsing now is to make an easier transition down these curves to ensure there is no discontinuity in the fulfillment of the basic function each represents. We are looking for the system to degrade gracefully not fail catastrophically. However progressive loss of Utility is certain as the top end technologies are removed from common use one by one. Basically you get what you pay for, and you can increasing only pay for less.

Changing technology subsidy policy will certainly affect the process I just described because it changes the costs of the affected technology. What is most certain is that as governments find their tax base diminishing, they will just stop providing certain services. These services include providing subsidies to current technologies, principally their infrastructure. I agree that loss of the affected technologies will not intentionally happen as a matter of conscious choice right now. Governments will simply find that they can no longer subsidize the technology in question and so they won't.

Nonetheless, in theory, just as individuals can make the conscious decision to collapse now and beat the rush, so can governments. Perhaps once it becomes unavoidably clear collapse is underway and will not be reversed, conscious collapse may be politically possible. However, the first step down, sadly, is not going to be by conscious choice for societies as a whole and so this step is certain to be catastrophic (but not completely apocalyptic) for many people.

svealanding said...

Since I haven't lived the life of 1820, or 1920 either, I dont know if it will be okay but in my mind it doesn't seem too bad. Actually there may be benefits that I can think of.

However, there are a couple of things that worry me, once there.

Antibiotics and advanced medicin. I guess those will go down the drain. Seems a pity since they are of good use, I would have no wife or children if it were not for antibiotics.

Knowledge, or lack of. Will we have time to learn, or use for, the level of knowledge about natural sciences that we have now or had during e.g. the 1950's? I'm afraid of superstition and its impact on society.

The journey to get there is the part I really dread... I hope it will not be too horrendous. Brought up in the 60's and 70's in europe I still wince when I hear the "emergency" signal being tested - a wailing siren warning us of disaster. Memories of the cold war and the bomb still freaks me out. Not to mention what crashing economies will do to the people of the world.

I wonder what we will become? How will we fare psychologically from the collapse? A big difference compared to the post WW II times is that while they were marching in to a bright future with lots of energy, for us there will be no relief.

dltrammel said...

I'm about half thru the comments but don't know if I'll read them all today. Probably tomorrow when I finish my work week.

Something I wanted to point out, I see many responding to JMG's retro tech idea with assumptions that if we return to 1950s era tech that means that all factors of our lifestyle are stuck at 50s level tech.

I suspect that just as the Collapse is a fractal process not lineal, then too will retro progress be the same. The next century will no doubt see technological collapse happening at different rates in different sectors of our life.

Some things may still retain a more modern tech level, while others devolve quite radically.

We may well have a scavenged solar panel on the roof and battery backup to keep a small freezer going to preserve food and at the same time light the house in the evening with candles made with a solar cooker not bulbs.

We could have old tube radios back, and nightly news on the hour, and no broadcast during the day. Mail and print magazines, and the ADR via bi-monthly newsletter, and still some sort of community Saturday night with DVDs played on a projection TV on the side of someone's house.

And popcorn over the local bonfire lol, 25 cents a bag. Please save the bags and return them.

I could easily see a kitchen with a multi-fuel stove, that incorporates a haybox for large meals, yet at the same time a micro-microwave or flash electric coffee pot on the cabinet.

That microwave may well have a hand crafted wood exterior too. Regional areas with some access to rail lines, for resources and hydro power to sustain their manufacturing should do well.

I suspect that first adopters, those who collapse now to avoid the rush will try to use the best of past tech, and not the bad sides.

For me, when we see the reintroduction of pay phones into communities then I'll know that retro tech collapse is here, lol.

LewisLucanBooks said...

The other day, a 1928 Ford coup pulled into my yard. A real rust bucket, but it ran like a Swiss watch. I was as thrilled and excited as my granddad probably was when he saw his first airplane.

Several people have mentioned how much stuff junks up the Internet. Porn, spam, etc.. Another problem is that everything has to be so "graphics rich." I remember when you could pick a "text only version" that greatly increased speed. But now, not much "works" without the graphics.

@ Greg Belvedere - Recently, a much loved children's librarian took an early retirement in our library system. I had worked with her and knew her pretty well, so in a quiet moment, asked why she was REALLY retiring. Because so little of her time was spent on books and programs for the kids. Most of her time was spent training people on the computers, retraining (due to the fact that computer literacy is a constantly shifting moving target ... you can't acquire the skills and let it go at that), dealing with computer glitches, printer glitches, etc. etc.. Due to print abuse, the library now has a "simple" 7 step process to get a page printed off the Internet.

Ellen He said...

@JMG: Excellent post. However, I don't have the time to perform complete and total exposition and condensation, two topics I helpfully learned about in depth from this Ribbonfarm essay in which Venkat, the main blogger, is surprisingly behaving like Neil Postman in his viewpoints toward how industrial civilization has degraded the average person's ability to truly understand, analyze and modify concepts and text, albeit with the technocratic, progress-ist ,pro-Internet claim that the Internet helps restore these lost arts through websites such as Tvtropes, which condenses and expounds on memes found in literature, mythology etc. , but I would agree that deliberate technological regress is necessary and that imagining this as a step forward is a useful tool in one's mental toolkit.

Marcello said...

Sorry but I disagree about the viability of recreating 1950 technical/economic America. It existed in far different circumstances in terms of natural resources, population etc. etc. Details like the others major industrial states being on their knees, when not outright piles of rubble for example.

We might see is slices of 1950, dressed in rags. Widespread rail passenger service might indeed make a comeback as air becomes untenable for the unwashed masses, but likely on existing cheapo freight track. People will have to put up with it, just like russians have to put up with a week on the train for a Moscow-Vladivostok trip.
I doubt however we will see large scale production of things vacuum tube radio. For this sort of stuff I would expect existing items and legacy production lines being repaired and run as long as possible. By the time vacuum tube radio is the most viable option it would likely be a limited production item for the wealthy/military/specialists.

Automation offers a range of benefits beyond cutting labor costs and in the event a well paid workforce is a very substantial financial incentive towards automating.
I would expect it being abandoned due to a combination of dirt cheap labor, low economies of scale, breakdown of the related supply chains and/or similar factors.

Top-down mandatory technology downgrade seem unappealing for military reasons as well. It will happen at its own pace.

John Michael Greer said...

Thirdeyerune, one of the lessons of history is that the supply of power-hungry scoundrels is always more than equal to the demand. Thus waiting for them to go away is a good argument for doing nothing, and that seems like a waste of time to me.

RepubAnon, er, did you miss the part of my post discussing the massive crisis that's approaching? In case you did, why, yes, that's included. We're talking now about what comes afterwards.

Dwig, all good points. There are many ways to regress to a 1950-style technology -- a point we'll discuss further down the road.

Stewart, when you say "solutions will always be found," you do realize that you're uttering a faith-based mantra, don't you? No law of nature mandates the existence of solutions to our problems. I know that's a blasphemous concept to true believers in the Great God Progress, but you'll just have to deal with that, you know.

Avery, many thanks. I'll put that at the top of the get-to pile -- in the sequence of posts ahead, it's going to be highly relevant.

Freeacre, no argument here. We make tooth powder instead of toothpaste, btw -- works at least as well, and it's dirt cheap.

Ben, thank you! I do my best. ;-)

Nigwil, we're still a few centuries from the stage of the historical cycle at which laws are few and simple enough to be memorized by the town elders. One step at a time!

Jester, yep. You'll find that discussed in detail in most good histories of solar energy -- and yes, it's worth remembering.

AR80, now go back over my post and find a single place where I said or implied that there's anything idyllic about the 1950s. No, what's happened is that you've bought into the standard mythological rhetoric of the religion of progress -- which insists that any resistance to whatever's defined as progress must be based on nostalgic longing for an imaginary past -- and slapped it onto the pragmatic strategy I'm presenting.

Jo, it's absolutely okay to reject consumerism and technology for any reason that makes sense to you, all the way down to sheer bloodymindedness. You are under no obligation to buy into the cult of progress, or to cooperate with other people's insistence on doing so. You've got the freedom to say no -- even though the whole weight of modern marketing and propaganda is devoted to convincing you that you don't.

Bogatyr, as usual, Richard Heinberg is spot on: we've reached peak everything.

Bob Patterson said...

A couple of interesting facts that have recently come out - 1.) all job growth in the US since 2008 can be attributed in one way or another, to fracking and 2.) one of the scary things about oil demand has been the continual decrease in demand by the tradition Western customer of mid-east oil (if the emerging nation's demand was not there).

Bob Patterson said...

A really precient interview with James Goldsmith about GATT in 1994
Which implies, that all that is needed to return jobs to the US is an intelligent use of tariffs.

Ed-M said...

Oh, Dzhease, 133 comments already and I've only time so far to just glance through the article! But from what I have looked at, the analysis looks spot-on. Carry on, Mr. Greer; splendid!

Bob Patterson said...

I really like your "regression as policy" idea. A few suggestions to implement such:
1. A ban on all Federal support for airlines and airports
2. A requirement that all construction will include a stout weather shell and floor loading to
allow re-use of buildings for other purposes (esp. malls)
3. A federal subsidy of all uses of non-petroleum/coal energy
4. A federal subsidy of all vocational training in the US.
and a stop to all college student loans (why train people for jobs that are not there?)
5. Free internet access to all in the US.

John D. Wheeler said...

Expanding on what Jay said, we don't have to choose between the options of Progress and Regress. Once we start looking at what's appropriate, all kinds of options become available. Imagine mag-lev steam engines... or horse-drawn plows with laser levels. Or, as Orrin showed us after the first Age of Limits conference, 1950s machine tools with electronic digital micrometers. None of these examples might ultimately be appropriate, but in recognizing that everything is a tradeoff (as opposed to "Progress is Good" or "Progress is Bad") opens up lots of solutions.

latefall said...

re embodied energy and communication/electronics
A short search brought up this regarding the never ending topic of semiconductor energy costs. This is for a calculation for a wireless cell-base station. Figure 3 on page 6 could serve as a conservative estimation of general consumer grade electronics as well:
They get 75 GJ (44% in semiconductor part) baked into hardware. So approximately 21 MWh = 21000 kWh = energy to make 26000 loaves of bread in Chris' oven. They expect the thing to be up for 10 years (12% maintenance). In another measure that energy could bake 7 breads a day for you for the next 10 years. If one assumes a 10% fossil->food calorie efficiency a bread comes in at just under 19 kWh + 1 for the baking, equals a bit more than 1000 breads in total. If you chose to forgo cell service you could share these 1000 breads over 10 years with the other people in your neighborhood (approx 1 mile = 1.6 km radius in a city, according to link).
That does not sound too bad if you assume 1000 people covered by the base station. It means every 10 years it is your turn to buy the telephone guy a bread. Or you supply your 20 kWh with 200 x 1h installments of 0.1 kWh each on the bike-generator. Sounds less attractive?
Oh, and they assume approximately twice the energy for actually running the base station. So it is 6 days out of 10 on the bike for indefinite service. Regarding paying for the phone I can only suggest you don't change it every 2 years... or again, sharing it with 1000 people.

@Myriad re maintenance and momentary expediency:
Spot on from my perspective. Resource efficiency and expectations are crucial. If we double or tripe maintenance (12%) on a device that is designed for long life - I would expect the optimum to shift way, way past 10 years. One would have to get started with doing it though, you can only model these things in a limited way.

@Oilman2 re mesh nets
I am afraid you'll run into (and past) an optimum on small mesh nets. The smaller the cells the more units you need to cover an area. Larger cells need mostly broadcasting power but relatively few additional integrated circuits. Doesn't make them impossible, and yeah, BBS was nowhere near its potential when youtube rolled along.

latefall said...

@Jean-Vivien re wearables:
I'm not sure but I think it was not mentioned here a lot yet: felting - sooo low tech, and sooo easy to get into. You can surely cobble together a set of hand carders if you don't want to spend money on a set of "professional" ones (or you're sitting in a bunker somewhere). <-- but don't get scared by the rest of the article it really is pretty darn easy to get started with.
From floor covering, over shoes, to archdruid hats everything is in your grasp (if you have a little water and soap to spare). There is a little optional theory to it - but generally it is 5 sentences and the rest is learning by doing. Floor space foot print is almost 0 (except the wool). And you walk away with something you made in an afternoon (granted it may still be a bit wet - it is wool though, so no problem). It is also good for (short attention span) guys to blow of steam with.

latefall said...

@Unknown re "I'm also not eager to go back to 1950's safety standards in the workplace either."
Although I would generally agree with the thrust of your argument I feel one may have to consider the workplace safety from various perspectives.

Re food and other essentials (e.g. infrastructure related): I hadn't understood JMG's article in a way that we get rid of everything that happened technologically after 1950, print new calenders and wake up in the morning in "1950 Second Edition".
However I want to warn people not to focus so much on (luxury) consumer goods when thinking this through. I think in terms of mass and energy flow of stuff that gets bought & discarded there is very little in the 50s US home compared to now. These things can and will be covered with an attitude adjustment (or slow death through lack of luxury).
For me the interesting part is HOW to get from B to A (and decide to go for C once you aren't even half way out the door). He presumed an intentional change in that direction. To be honest I see some of the groundwork being laid in many places Europe, admittedly next to projects that make you scratch your head). However I think in terms of global impact of the West the ship has pretty much sailed. Actual value generation has largely moved to Asian countries. Population wise we won't make a dent. And with regard to resource use I think one of our largest contributions could be as an example how not to do it.

Tom Gaspick said...

Here's my nominee for the vehicle to be regressed to:

Lynford1933 said...

Hello JMG et al:

Next week I will be 82. I just graduated from high school and started college in 1950. A few people had small gardens but not many. The stores were full of food and other necessities but nothing like a typical Walmart full of 'wants'.

Life was different but much the same as now. I had my grandson over today to work in the wood shop (he is building a guitar and learning to use a fret saw) and he is concerned with studies, grades, friends and girls like I was. He is on his phone a lot more than I ever was but he also uses it like and encyclopedia which I used a lot and not near so convenient as his (and my) phone.

Metallurgy was not so great then and an automobile engine would not last very many miles like today but we knew how to overhaul an engine with new bearings, rings and reground valves. I did it a few times.

The population then in the US was about 150 million and now it is over 300 million. What to do with more than half the people? I don't know but twice the people require twice the resources and we had enough to get along fine with '50s technology but we didn't have a lot of surplus.

We hunted a lot and a mess of rabbits did for our family and neighbors that did not hunt. My dad used to say that our relatives put their food money in the gas tank and came to our house.

The 'pill' was a major change in the social environment. Good or bad, I do not know but it certainly changed dating, sex and marriage though even now a few young girls get pregnant out of wedlock. I am not a bastard as many think because about age 14 I figured out my parents were married three months before I was born.

I am long time reader, peak oil nut from the '70s, kind of a Prepper, my solar golf cart can power our place for a while. I enjoy the sun oven. At our age we look at things a lot different than you as what happens 30 years from now is not much of a worry. I do spend quite a bit of time teaching woodworking with hand tools. Not the large heavy projects I used to tackle but mostly furniture. I told my daughter I probably have one more set of cabinets in me to go with their kitchen remodel and that's what I am building now.


Oh yes, I mess with radios too. Ham extra class since the '60s.

Arnold Fouts said...

I'd like to point out that the internet consists of the transmission lines, routers and DNS (domain name servers). The server farms are simply users like the rest of us. The internet itelf is much less exspensive in any terms (money, hardware or energy usage) compared to the big corporate/government users.

Considered in these terms the internet is an extremely valuable resource which can be maintained through a large (or many small) scale-backs(s) in energy availability. As it becomes uneconomical from a business standpoint it should fall to something like the post office to maintain.

Of course what actually happens is up to we the people and our Psychopath heavy (dominated?) oligarchic leadership.

Doctor Westchester said...


Thank you for starting this new series of posts. It has the potential to be one of your more critical ones, like the Green Wizardry series. I suspect that the rubble wouldn't need to be completely still before these ideas could find some use.

The idea that we could still have a world with 1940 - 1950 technology, for a while only I understand, is one of the most personally hopeful things I've heard. Now, how to get to work on it...

Peter VE said...

I went to visit the Cooper Hewitt Museum in New York several weeks ago. The top floor is an exhibit called "TOOLS: EXTENDING OUR REACH" The central element is an "installation" of several hundred flea market hand tools suspended from the ceiling, with no reference to how they actually can be used or what purpose they serve. I have many of the same tools in my basement, and I know how to use (and sharpen) them.
In contrast, off at the end of the exhibit is a large model of Bertha, the tunnel boring machine currently awaiting repair 150 feet below Seattle. The model still works, though. Even though the exhibit opened on December 12, 2014, a year after Bertha went on the fritz, there was no notice given to the failure of that very expensive piece of technology. Some of my fellow visitors and I did take a certain amount of delight in elucidating the problems to the other visitors.....

Martin said...

Ah, the Fifties - I remember them well - and I'll willingly go back with you, minus the construction of freeways instead of more and better railways and the advent of muscle cars (even tho' I owned one myself; a '57 mustang fastback).

SLClaire said...

I think you are right: a major issue around re-adopting 1950 technology is that far too many people think it means moving "backward." That belief acts like a monster under adult's beds. Best to drag this monster out into the cold light of day so we can confront it, as you've done. It won't go away on its own and until we chop it down to size, we'll make things harder than they already are for ourselves and others.

I'm not old enough to remember 1950 and its technology but I am old enough to (barely) remember 1960 and its technology. There were some differences but not all that many, according to what I've been told by those older than me. Plenty of people in 1960 still lived with 1950 technology for the most part, and I knew some of them.

Since my husband and I began our collapse in the 1990s, our house looks a lot like a 1950 house, upgraded by things such as increased insulation plus a few later technologies we consider expendable. The 13 year old computer I'm typing on, for instance, is expendable: nice while we have it but not needed (we have a manual typewriter and we still write letters by hand). We didn't have internet access till 2001 and I won't mind when it goes away. I'll made limited and carefully considered use of it while it's here and be ready to say bye-bye with no regrets when it leaves. We have adopted the same attitude toward the other post 1950 technologies we retain for the time being.

It strikes me as odd that some readers seem to think that we have to go back to 1950 technology at 1950 efficiency. The two are not locked together. The wood stove we bought a few months back is a metal box which has US EPA registration for low particulate emission. It does this through good engineering and a mechanical timer that slowly closes the back draft after a new piece of wood is added. Not a bit of electrification or computerization in/on it (there are wood stoves out there that come with *remote controls* of all things), and it burns pieces of wood, not pellets. It's simple to use and works very well. When we can no longer afford natural gas heating, we can warm part of the house and cook, using small amounts of properly dried wood so as to make the minimum pollution possible. We have a human-powered wood splitter as well as the hand tools needed to process wood. We're burning wood from a tree we had removed two years ago, prunings from our trees, and scavenged wood. My husband enjoys processing the wood and we both like the sight and sound of the fire and the warmth of the stove. It does require us taking personal responsibility for heating instead of relying entirely on other things and people for that function. That takes some getting used to; it's another monster under the bed, one I had to wrestle with. I'm winning so far, and I expect to face this monster in different guises as we continue to decline, so I might as well get used to the process.

Twilight said...

This idea appeals to me greatly, and I often look for ways to implement it at work. However, I do have some concerns which derive from what I think is relevant experience: I design products for a company that has been designing and manufacturing electrical instrumentation for some 110 years, and I have been there for 26. For a short time after I started I participated in manufacturing with some of the older technology products, so I learned a bit of what was required. We have old linen drawings from the early 20th century, and a few old notebooks and texts, etc.

However I don't really have the skills to design the types of equipment that was being made there in the 1950's, although perhaps I could learn. The thing that concerns me most is that 1950's technology was built on 1940's technology, and so on back to the beginning of industrial manufacturing. The specialty materials and components they used, and all the supporting industry, tools, knowledge and practices grew along with it, and all of that is gone now.

So my question to you is: From your excellent historical view, has something similar to this ever been achieved before? Can technology unwind gradually and gracefully backwards, or must it crash to a base level to be reinvented painfully from the bottom, with perhaps a few preserved clues to point the way? Good parallels might be difficult to find, ours being the first and last industrial society to collapse, and our technologies being more complex and specialized.

John Michael Greer said...

Scotlyn, good. You've grasped the strategy.

Jason, exactly -- and so what's needed now is to get the concept of deliberate technological regression into the hands, and minds, of the people who would support it.

Ben, many thanks for the link.

Thriftwizard, fascinating. I'm familiar with the reenactor scene -- there are Civil War and French & Indian War reenactors all over the place where I live -- but not with people who simply adopt the lifestyle of an earlier time. Can you point me to more information about them? That would be extremely helpful for this sequence of posts.

Raven, why, yes. Watch how the incantations develop...

Ares, of course nobody's talking about it...yet. The plan is to change that.

Raven, good question, since absurdity fits equally well with the past and the future.

Les, that's one of the downsides I mentioned. The corresponding upside is that 1950 technology can be maintained, where most of today's can only be discarded.

Sophia, I do indeed -- "streetcar," one word, is the US term for what you'd call a tram. I'm delighted to hear that they're coming back in Oz; it's a source of some amusement, though, as when Seattle got its waterfront streetcar line a few decades ago, they bought used cars from Sydney, I think it was.

Sylvia, true. Now factor in the fact that all those things still have to be provided today, and paid for, and that you normally get a better product or service for less money by doing it yourself. As a more than occasional househusband myself, I've been pleased to notice how much improvement in quality of life can be provided that way.

Marc, I don't know, I think I'd take a simpler form of medical care in exchange for doctors who actually made house calls again, and could treat a simple illness without driving the patient into bankruptcy.

Matt, good heavens, I couldn't have made up anything so absurd if I'd brooded on it for a week. "We have no idea whether it'll work, so let's pour all our remaining resources down this rathole instead of doing something sensible like, um, using less..."

Andy Brown said...

My next foray as an anthropologist is going to be a couple of weeks in central Appalachia talking to people about the transition away from coal (as an economic (and symbolic) driver). Now, with this essay in mind, I'll be keeping my eyes open for inklings about those who want to move "back" (forward) rather than "forward." Transition to what? is the research question. I'm curious to see what the state of The Faith is when it comes to Progress.

John Michael Greer said...

Brian, we're not going to support eight billion people on this planet for long, no matter what we do. The question at this point is how to handle the inevitable contraction.

Patricia, societies get into a punitive paradigm when their basic ground rules stop working, but nobody can admit that. That's when violence becomes the preferred option, in an attempt to force things to conform to a failed belief system. Once the failure on the belief system becomes impossible to ignore -- the collapse of the Soviet Union being a good example -- the paradigm shifts.

DaShui, pick up a 30.'06 and you can handle quite a bit more regression!

Permiechris, no argument there. The preservation and revival of what remains of regional and local cultures is another important theme, one we'll be discussing a little later.

Johannes, good. As I noted in my post, 1950 technology took different social, economic, and cultural forms in different parts of the world, and it's by no means likely that the American applications of the 1950 technosystem will be the only ones applicable in a future of deliberate regression.

Yupped, agreed; one of the great frustrations of the historian is not being able to hang around long enough to see a historical process all the way through.

Strovenovus, glad to hear it.

Brian, window screens go back at least to 1950 -- the houses I grew up in had them, and they weren't brand new by any means. Yes, they would be worth keeping.

Oilman, yes, but it's those uses that by and large pay for the internet. A technology has to be economically viable to be viable, and it's quite likely that without pornography, spam, and the like, the internet would never have gotten much beyond the Usenet era, and started losing even that much functionality once budget cuts began. On the other hand, if a BBS system is all you want, that might work, at least for a while.

Charlie, computers haven't noticeably decreased the consumption of paper, last I heard. Nice try.

David, the value of a specific era is that it gives a clear, easily understood target to shoot for. Of course there's plenty of wiggle room -- as noted in the post, 1950 technology meant something very different in Djakarta than it did in New York City -- but the conceptual frame of "1950 with some adjustments" is different in a useful way from the way most people conceive of the future just now.

Myriad, no, not a Butlerian jihad; that also had a single general principle, of the sort you're suggesting: "Thou shalt not make a machine in the image of a human mind." What I have in mind is something considerably more limited, and also more precise. Still, you've given me an idea...

oilman2 said...

@ JMG - what I am endeavoring to say is that the infrastructure is built and extant today is far greater than we need. Regress it by unloading the porn, bots and spam - use the existing backbone for intercontinental comm and mesh nets for local with a single net-linked node. Poof!

A single solar panel and 12V battery can handle a lot of computer work if you are not trying to stream and display video all day.

My kids (22, 26, 28, 29) all agree that this is almost a requirement with libraries being gutted these days, and so much publishing gone electronic already.

I think the wealth of distributed knowledge the internet represents and the ability to email are worth keeping, especially since postal service is likely to die...

John Michael Greer said...

Mister R., oh, I'm sure they'll insist at the top of their lungs that going back to a 1920s technology must mean a return of prohibition, and Warren Harding for president -- though I have to admit his previously unchallenged status of worst president in US history is getting a run for its money these days.

Glenn, I wear my status as a crackpot proudly!

Pantagruel7, always a possibility.

Greg, good. Yes, McLuhan does get obtuse tolerably often, but the figure/ground distinction is a keeper -- and crucially important in this context especially.

Frank, charcoal burning in the forest involves a little more deliberate regresson than 1950 would involve -- closer to 950, in fact! Still, that's also an option.

Zach, and proud of it. As for "easy," I mean, of course, easy when compared to the demands of putting together a brand new system using untested technologies in the midst of an existential crisis.

Greg, I'll have quite a bit to say about the skill set of old-fashioned librarians as we go deeper into this series of posts. Stay tuned!

Travis, that's oneof the things the Green Wizards forum is for -- might want to try that there!

George, thank you! It's been way too long since I've read Goodman -- will have to renew my acquaintaince with his work soon.

Ghostlimb, given the economic trouble McDonalds is in these days, there may be no need to rush.

Cathy, er, once again, all I'm talking about is technology; 1950 technology flourished in both more and less mobile societies, you know. As for post-internet Archdruid Report contact, I'm tempted to ask Violet Cabra and/or anyone else involved in zine culture to consider starting an ADR zine, which could manage the thing quite capably. More on this as we proceed.

Ien, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling did a novel about that, The Difference Engine, with steam-powered Babbage computers running a Victorian internet. So it's at least conceivable!

Kyoto, thank you! Yes, the niche-market crowd is where something like this is already beginning. The people involved in that may just be early adopters of the actual future...

John Michael Greer said...

Shane, as Johannes pointed out up the comment thread a ways, 1950 technology was used in a much more frugal way in Europe than it was in the US. I suspect that was true for most of the world, for that matter. Thus the basic technology can certainly be made to work without tailfins and other forms of needless excess!

Kyoto, exactly. That 1950 Schwinn was a good sturdy vehicle perfectly suited to everyday use, which is after all considerably more important than letting a handful of jocks set new records.

DiverCity, thank you. The world has got to be big enough to allow for a wide range -- a diversity, in fact -- of ideological perspectives.

Eric, I think it's quite possible that Europe is going to melt down completely into neofascism, mass persecution of Muslim minorities, and a spiral of religious warfare between Christian and Muslim zealots which will have no winners. I don't think that's anything like certain, but it's a real and hideous possibility. Thanks for the Forster reference -- haven't read that one yet.

Professor D., exactly! Those are all factors in a whole-systems analysis, and thus the sort of thing that current economic analysis typically leave out. Thank you.

Angelus, fair enough. I've commented here repeatedly that I'll happily assent to the survival of computer systems into the deindustrial future if someone will simply build one in their basement. Not, btw, a single transistor or something -- a computer, however simple, from raw materials or readily available scrap.

Curt, delighted to hear it.

David, there you are. So you would have to cut your energy consumption sharply to get down to what was average in 1950; yes, that's a valid target!

Ray, no question, it's a rough road. Thing is, one way or another, we're all on it, and you're just a bit further down than some.

Roger, while I'm no fan of TV, if you're going to watch, that's the way to go about it.

Moshe, I gave you the answer in the post: sharply lower energy and resource consumption per capita. Could similar decreases be obtained in other ways? Heck of a good question -- while we know for a fact that the 1950 technostructure worked under those conditions, and provided a relatively high standard of living.

BoysMom, no, but I'm not surprised. A quite reasonable nostalgia for a less industrialized, less antlike lifestyle has focused on those books as exemplars since about an hour after they were published.

Betsy Megalos said...

OOPS Sorry, in case you got a repeat, I did not know I was Writing under my Husbands Google account!.. so

Thanks for the blog. Keeps me motivated. I just added to my collection of hand food processors. My wish is to have a trading post / resale store someday full of vintage/antique useful goods. Doing my best to disconnect from visions of linear progress.

Here is a very interesting link.. One of the best collections of corporate Marketing the Religion of Progress... EVER! offered by Union Carbide.
One particularly unsettling example is the one "Science helps build a new India" " A hand in things to come" "UNION CARBIDE".
This was a good reminder for me that modern "Progress" carries a load of downsides. Helps me put "Progress" into perspective. "Simpler, or appropriate technology" has its upsides!

Allan Stromfeldt Christensen said...

@Glenn: I've yet to go through it myself, but I know Chelsea Green recently released the 2nd edition of the book
Do It Yourself 12 Volt Solar Power

Lili said...

Hello JMG, the best and most impressive example of the sort of person ThriftWizard is talking about was probably Tasha Tudor, the author and illustrator. She wanted to live in the 1840s and that's exactly what she did. There are some wonderful books that document the life she lived at her Vermont farmstead If you want to know more about her you might enjoy the Private World of Tasha Tudor.

Zachary Braverman said...

Here is a really good blog post about just how poor people were in America in the recent (but not remembered) past. It's pretty bracing to think that we may be returning to this:

Clark Harris said...

Here is the kind of post that most first worlders are looking towards as the secular savior:

The interesting part about all of this is that we will be here to witness it, whether we go into steady decline and return to our life as mere mortals or rise to godhood in the face of the singularity.

And of course there is the hybrid prediction which could be stated something like some rise to godhood, while the rest slowly return to a sustainable lifestyle or any other combination of and/both.

Robert Mathiesen said...

@JMG and Brian about window screens.

They're decades older than the 1950s. When I was a pre-teen in the 1940s we lived in a house that was probably built around 1890 or 1900. The back of the garage had a strong shelf on which there were, depending on the season, either storm windows or window screens for every window in the house. Each consisted of a wooden frame the size of the whole window, with either glass or screening. They were big and awkward, and the storm windows were also heavy. Twice a year my father went up on a ladder to change them all. Mounted on the window frame above each window was a pair of broad metal hooks, which matched broad metal eyes on the frame, and acted like hinges. He went up the ladder, unhooked the one that was there, carried it back down, then carried the other one up the ladder and set it on the top hooks, and came back down a second time. If it was a window screen, there also was a hook toward the bottom on each side of the screen, and a corresponding eye in the window frame, that held the bottom of the screen snugly in place. If it was a storm window, there two or three hooks of varying lengths on the window, so you could either hold the bottom of the storm window snugly in place, or let it stand ajar to some degree if you wanted to change the air. These bottom hooks were worked from the inside, so that you could adjust the storm window without going outdoors in the cold weather. I think it was my job to fasten the hooks from the inside once my father had put the screen or storm window in place from the outside.

Each window had an upper and a lower sash, and in the summer you opened both of them to bring cooler, fresher air in at the bottom and let warmer, more stale air out at the top. In the winter, usually both were tightly closed.

These window screens and storm windows seemed to be a little younger than the house itself, for each window was also equipped with louvred shutters that could be tightly closed and fastened from the inside. The louvres were adjustable, so you could let a little fresh air in even when the weather was stormy. The shutters only worked if neither the storm window nor the window screen was in place, so they were probably the original equipment of the house, and the window screens and storm windows a later addition.

It's forgotten technology these days, but I am here to say that it worked rather well. Our house was snug even in a great gale that brought a tall tree down across our roof and broke the ridge-pole in two, up in the attic. It took a while to replace that!

Oh, and the house had a coal furnace, but also a working (not just ornamental) fireplace on the ground floor.

Yupped said...

One of the key features of current technology is that it's very often computer-related and virtual. Having spent much of my working life in the computer world I could consider myself quite technical. But in truth I'm just a software jockey - I can tell computers what to do in several languages, but I'm quite a few layers of software away from the hardware, the actual physical moving parts. And as for users of computer technology - we're all just staring into screens, a virtual rendition of reality. Older technology - tools to accomplish basic everyday tasks - will be much closer to physical reality. Overall I think that's a healthy thing in itself.

Thirdeyerune said...

jMG, Your point about power-hungry officialdom diminishes with energy is well taken. I by no means wish to stifle anyone here in preparing for the future. I'm an underwriter by profession. Risk analysis is a blessing and a curse. Please know we're very busy. I know making preparations are overwhelming, but trying to set aside a little for the tax man (where possible) would be a good thing as we try to mind more resilient ways of making a living.

Be well,

Raymond Duckling said...


Sir, I think you have it backwards...

> I think the wealth of distributed
> knowledge the internet represents
> and the ability to email are worth
> keeping, especially since postal
> service is likely to die...

The fact remains that what you pay for that wealth of knowledge is next to nothing. Your ISP charges you barely for the cost of the "last mile" connection. Of course they have to make a profit, so they make bombastic claims about "infinite" plans, and then do they level best to give you as little bandwidth as possible without you to notice (much).

One of the neater tricks is to use proxies. If you and your neighbors are all downloading the same content, the ISP keeps a copy around from the first trip to the original source, and just gives the copy to whomever request it in the next X minutes. This does not work well for research of truly valuable knowledge... or for the highly personalized gossip of social media, but it does wonders if you are downloading lots of mainstream multimedia (mostly entertainment).

At the far side of the wire, there is a content provider. The majority of those are, again, distributors of entertainment multimedia. Some of those are subscription based (ahem... porn) but many are in the business of pushing targeted adds to people. This is so lucrative business that many big players give you a free account to publish whatever you want, build a following, and then offer the opportunity to sell your readership down the river for a couple of cents per click. It is a blessing that our host has actual books of his authorship to advertise instead of the random grovel of adsense.

All this content providers have real costs, sometimes very high. They are in business ultimately as long as they can sell the adds, and the businesses that buy such adds can only do so as long as they keep getting actual customers that way. Not likely to play out right in the near future.

Finally, we get to the connection infrastructure, the backbone. Which paradoxically may end up broken by the proverbial shaft. You pay maybe a little bit for it, in the form of taxes... but you have no control of how much. As it exist today, it is mostly a government kickback to the entertainment and advertising industries. You don't directly pay what it costs to get your contents delivered, but as long as that contents makes someone connected a bit of money, you keep getting your daily fix.

Now, think about it. It is not that someone is going to hunt down anyone publishing valuable information in the Internet. It is rather that those that do rarely have a direct business model to make money out of that transactions, so they will be one by one priced out of the market by the shovelers of plain entertainment. Those will remain for some more years while the infrastructure is still maintainable, and there is money to be made in the maintenance.

Tye said...

I buy into Hubbert's peak and all that--finite oil limits a growth-based belief system. But the crash in commodity prices seems less a function of diminishing finite resources than the bursting of speculative bubbles created by lots of QE money and loads of sloshing global funds looking for a better return than 0.1% (or negative rates in Germany). Nevertheless, the brave prediction you made about this being the year the wheels come off may be accurate given the possible chain of defaults and economic cascades following a Greek default coupled with similar demands from the other Piggs, while a fracking bonds default unfolds here with its ripple effects.

My puzzlement is how this is related to peak oil. Civilization decline?--ok. But this impending convulsion has more to do with political and financial disfunction than the decline of cheap energy.

N Montesano said...

I don't know how old your kids are, but I can tell you my own experience. (Incidentally, I'm a vegetarian today, except for some fish -- but I've been a little surprised to realize I actually know more about where meat comes from than many meat-eaters I know).
I was not-quite-6 when my parents moved our family, including my little brothers, to a 5 acre farm. They proceeded to buy calves (I don't know how it's done now, but then you got them from dairies -- 1970s), weaner pigs, chickens, etc., and raise them for meat (and eggs). They were clear about it, calmly explaining that we were going to butcher the male calf when he grew up, and keep the heifer to milk, and butcher the pigs, etc. Possibly to drive the point home, they gave them names like "T-bone," and "Pork chop." Today I'm rather more squeamish, but at the time, they were so matter of fact about it all that we just accepted it. I even recall having conversations with my mom about this, at the time.
They gave me the job of doing much of the bottle feeding. I stayed in my room during the actual butchering, which did not prevent me from learning how it was done -- with the chickens, at any rate; professionals handled most of the other livestock -- but my first biology lessons came while watching my mom clean the chickens after they were plucked. "See, Honey, this is the gizzard, and this is the liver..." It was interesting.

Myosotis said...

Overall this seems a good thought experiment to get people accustomed to the idea of regressing in their own lives. On the other hand, I agree with the people who've mentioned accessible, reliable birth control as a key technology. I'd give up a lot to keep control over pregnancy.

I've been watching a tv show with a friend, based on a nurses memoirs from the 1950's "Call the Midwife"(I know, I know but it's one show and it's on her netflix ) and from it I learned that the Pinard horn, a special stethescope can be used instead of a Doppler fetal monitor. The former is made of metal or wood, the latter is a relatively complex piece of machinery. Outside the US, it is apparently common to go with the Pinard horn.

Cathy McGuire said...

Another thought I had – maybe if we drop back to about the 50’s, we can get rid of 90% of the advertising that sucks up money and craps on our senses. ;-)

@JMG - re: the zine. Depending on how ambitious, it could be a bit of a project. I was once the asst. manager for a small literary magazine of note, and it was a huge amount of work, even using a mail service (bulk mailing is now a royal pain!)One thought on the zine would be to make it a branch of the GW blog - direct all those wanting to write articles to contribute online and maybe make a pdf that could be downloaded quarterly to start? Just a thought...

@Steve in Colorado: There are already no-electric toasters that sit on top of the stove or grill (someone linked to them here a week or so ago), and I have an old “flip flop” toaster (that’s what my great-aunt called it anyway) that’s electric but no timer – you put toast along both angled sides and then drop the cover down when one side is done and the toast slides down and “flips” so you can toast the other side. :-)

@Unknown: I'd be scared to go back to 1950's antibiotics, for instance.
We’re already going there – the new strains of virus are multi-antibiotic resistant, and they’re not finding new meds to replace the old ones! That issue will be out of our control, and unfortunately might take care of the overpopulation problem.

patriciaormsby said...


I'll offer up my toothpaste recipe:
Infuse liberal amounts of dried peppermint, with a little stevia and a local antifungal plant (Japanese hops, which is becoming an awful weed in parts of the US; it was considered an awful weed 1000 years ago in Japan, whereas kudzu was not) in a cup of coconut oil (which can be replaced by other stable oils). This is done by heating the oil with herbs in a water bath to just under boiling, letting it cool, then covering and storing it in a cool place.
To make the toothpaste, I decant about two tablespoons of this oil, add about one tsp. baking soda, one tsp. bentonite and one tsp. pulverized egg shell.
My source for the basics of this recipe was a commenter on (the comments section is always worth a gander), who specified diatomaceous earth instead of eggshells, but that was unavailable in Japan. I'd heard that eggshells can be used to protect plants from insect pests, much like diatomaceous earth, so gave them a try in my toothpaste.
My dentist was impressed with the results. I could never say the same for commercial products.

Moshe Braner said...

Well here's one way "the internet" could start a death spiral: some governments may actively repress it - along with telephones too!

"Anyone buying a mobile phone or a computer in the restive far-western Chinese region of Xinjiang will have to register their personal details with police, state media reported, in the latest sign of tightening government restrictions.

The measures were designed to "prevent people spreading harmful information and carrying out illegal activities", ...

Xinjiang, which borders Central Asia, Pakistan and Afghanistan, has struggled with violence in recent years between majority Han Chinese and mostly Muslim Uighurs."

John Michael Greer said...

Jose, that's certainly the obvious fallback position as we move deeper into scarcity industrialism. My thought is that there may be less obvious options.

Helix, no argument there at all. The only people who benefit from free trade are bankers and the very rich; everyone else suffers, as a result of a "race to the bottom" that affects wages and quality of goods alike.

Matt, thanks for the reference -- I haven't read the book, and am mostly riffing off insights I picked up hanging out on the fringes of a number of avant-garde subcultures over the years. I'll put it on the get-to list.

Bdy1, no, insisting that politics can allow us to ignore the laws of thermodynamics is far more a statement of faith than saying that those, as well as all the other laws of nature, constrain what we can do. As long as you remain fixated on the idea that the universe is somehow obliged to cater to human desires, you're going to be blindsided by one preventable disaster after another.

Lili, thank you. You get tonight's gold star -- antique gold, in fact -- for summing up the benefits and opportunities of technological regression so crisply, and sharing your own experiences with it.

Mustard, a deliberate regression to 1950 technology would involve a lot of scrambling to get there, no question. Still, remember that 1950 America is not the only possible model.

Agent, good. That sort of thinking is a useful tool.

Svealanding, as I mentioned in my post, of course there will be downsides. The question is how they measure up when put side by side with the downsides of remaining on our present course.

Dltrammel, of course -- but I want to pursue a thought experiment for a moment, and imagine a deliberate attempt to regress to 1950 technology as a way to keep from plunging much, much further. Stay tuned!

Lewis, it occurs to me that if somebody were to start making 1928 Ford coupes again, not some fancy version, just the standard model, I suspect they'd do very well indeed.

Ellen, please reread the block of text above the comment field, and notice where it says "relevant to the topic of the current week's post." This comment got put through; the next one may not.

Marcello, now go reread my post and find the place where I said we were going to be reestablishing the economy of 1950 America. Hint: I didn't. Thus you're whacking a straw man, and using the paralogic I critiqued in the post itself, which is really rather weak, you know.

kiwiaka said...

As a long term reader of this great blog I feel the urge to take part in saving the world, so here is a link to my entry for The Great Squirrel Case Challenge:

onething said...

Marc Bernstein,

We all have our opinions on things medical, but I believe there are and were some very effective and inexpensive therapies that were nixed as medicine got greedy for profit. IV vitamin C and H202 for example.

John Michael Greer said...

Bob, those are indeed crucial points. We'll likely find out just how crucial in the months ahead. As for your policies, you had me until the last one. How about, instead, ample funding for public libraries on the condition that they do what they were founded to do, and maintain a large, diverse book collection for circulation in the community?

Rd-M, er, "Dzhease"? Isn't that a bit baroque?

John, ah, but then you throw away one of the core advantages of adopting an older technosystem: we know what works, and how it worked, so can deploy it without the inevitable delays and failures that come from integrating untried combinations and systems into a whole. I also think it's high time that we take a look at regression, and give it serious thought, instead of dancing past it as fast as possible on the way to some shiny new model of progress.

Latefall, fascinating. Thanks for the link -- I'll check it out as time permits.

Tom, I won't argue!

Lynford, glad to hear that you're teaching. That kind of experience is worth preserving.

Arnold, sure, but what makes the internet useful for most of the people who pay for it, directly or indirectly, are the services those huge server farms provide. Once those go down, how many people are going to agree with you about the importance of the basic internet, to the extent of willing to see scarce resources go to that rather than to the many other critical needs of a difficult age?

Doctor W., I'm scratching my head here. Why is it that every time I go zooming off into what ought to be the sort of unthinkable heresy that ought to send five or ten thousand readers storming away in a huff, since I've just challenged the foundations of their worldview, what I get instead is a mixture of (mostly) intelligent commentary and people saying "Thank you, that's just what I needed to hear"? It's a real puzzle. ;-)

Peter, that's about par for the course. Our culture is utterly uncritical when it comes to its blushing schoolgirl crush on technology. Once, just once, I'd like to see an exhibit on technology with a banner saying, SOLVES MORE PROBLEMS THAN IT CAUSES, WE THINK.

Martin, no argument -- and I never owned a muscle car!

SLClaire, yes, and that's another point I propose to bring up as we proceed. Even in 1950, there were many ways to do 1950 technology, some considerably more efficient than others. More on this down the road a bit!

Twilight, individual technologies have regressed many times, and so have specific technological suites -- consider the way that manufacturing technology in China grows more complex in periods of economic growth and centralization, and simplifies again when the dynasty passes its peak and declines. You're right that some high-end 1950s tech might not be replicable, at least at first, but a lot can be -- for heaven's sake, I've been able to design and build regenerative receivers with modest electronics knowledge, and those were outdated well before 1950.

John Michael Greer said...

Andy, I'll look forward to hearing the results.

Oilman, yes, I realize that. What I'm saying is that once you unload all the things that attract most users to the internet, you then have to find a way to convince everyone else that the costs of maintaining the core of the system are worth covering, at a time when many other things will be begging for scarce resources. As for postal services, those are viable in a wholly nonindustrial society -- they existed before the Industrial Revolution, you know -- and so are arguably much more likely to survive than any form of the internet.

Betsy, no, I didn't get a double post. The thought of Union Carbide boasting about its contribution to India calls for a one-word response: "Bhopal." Quicker dying through chemistry...

Lili, thanks for this! I'll look her up.

Zachary, yes, that's what human life looks like without absurdly extravagant amounts of energy. The fact that it horrifies people today will make our descendants giggle.

Clark, if you remember December 21, 2012, you know exactly what's going to happen as these Rapture prophecies in sci-fi drag go skating past, the same way that one did...

Robert, I went to a Boy Scout summer camp that had screens like that, and helped put them up! Thanks for the details.

Yupped, exactly. I sometimes think that we ought to replace the word "virtual" with "vicial."

Thirdeyerune, if you're up off the couch and doing something about the future, I have no criticisms.

Tye, nah, the economic and political dysfunctions are the symptoms; the end of cheap energy and the destabilization of the biosphere are the causes. It's because so much more real wealth every year has to be funneled into maintaining resource production rates and coping with the mounting costs of ecosystem disruption that the political and economic crises are building the way they are.

Myosotis, let's take the thought experiment a bit further, then. Given the resources available in a 1950 technology, how many ways can you think of to provide safe, effective birth control?

Moshe, and of course that's also a factor.

Kiwiaka, excellent! You're in the contest.

Matthew Heins said...

Great post. This series is clearly going to be very worth reading!

With so many comments already, I would like comment mostly on the comments if I may. ;-)

First, I STRONGLY agree with JMG about the utility of " x time-in-the-past technology plus adjustments" framework for discussion. I use this often with good results. Talk of energy and whole systems thinking and general engineering principles gets glassy-eyed response very quick. People actually have some interest or understanding of past tech suites. So it is a good beginning.

Second, while as an early Net geek, I agree more with those positing that a much lower resource using Net has more staying power than JMG argues, I would like to assure all that nothing like "the internet" is required to get us most of what we use the Net FOR. In response to the above mentioned "solar steam Victorian future" post, I set out to design a way to have our dear ADR using Morse Code telegraphy a la the 1890s, and I believe it would work well. If I ever get time, I will write it up in detail for Green Wizards. Suffice to say here that if JMG strolled down to his local neighborhood radio telegraph office on a Wednesday evening, and had the coders send off this week's tlog (telegraph log, 'natch) post, we could all pick it up at our local radio telegraph office Thursday morning. During Thursday we all comment and have those sent off back to JMG (no comments after 4:00 PM East Coast time, please). JMG then composes his replies - perhaps while enjoying a light meal at a nearby solar steam cafe? - and has them sent off Thursday evening for our consumption Friday morning. The process then repeats daily, until the discussion peters out towards Monday, as it usually does now.

As slick as Net based blogging "powered by Google"? No. But would it get us what we use the ADR FOR? Yes, in spades. With 1890's tech.

Most of the useful stuff done with the Net can be done this way, from Green Wizard style fora to Wikipedia to Twitter-based news reporting and "online magazines".

Now, I am not specifically suggesting any such thing. What is important is that we adopt the principle of asking FIRST what job needs to be done THEN what technology is best to do it accounting for all factors. This I think is a good way to postulate what "adjustments" are needed in an "x time-in-the-past plus adjustments" scenario.

Thank you and looking forward to the rest of this series.

yvesT said...

Regarding the tax system, the rebalance should be between taxing work and raw materials (fossile fuels in particular), that is lowering taxes on work, raising them on fossile fuels (and as volume based taxes, as for the bulk of taxes for vehicle fuels in most European countries right now, and not on price).

KL Cooke said...


"Our children and grandchildren may live in a very dark world filled with death and decay."

That's not a "may," that's a "when."

Bill Blondeau said...

Some synchronicity here.

I have been thinking about JMG's remarks a while back about a possible quarterly Post-Peak fiction magazine. My interest was mainly that it would be another outlet for publication.

However, given the accelerando we're seeing this year, I assume that such a magazine might reasonably be back-burnered. Therefore, in the spirit of many hands -> light work, I had decided to offer volunteer services to any project of that sort get up and running. I'm a decent story editor and proofreader, and I can also handle any database/programming tasks that the magazine would need for subscription management, shared content management for staff, etc.

I asked Cathy McGuire if she knew of anything like that emerging. She (and here's where the synchronicity comes in) pointed me to JMG's comment that he was considering asking Violet Cabra to start a Green Wizards zine. So, if such a thing comes to pass: Violet (or whoever's at the helm), I'm on board if you'd like.

And, the same offer applies to any Post-Peak fiction magazine that may get rolling (provided there's no insuperable conflict of interest with my wish to publish stories therein.)

Any interested party: contact me at my gmail address, username whblondeau.

Any contributions I might make, to any ecotechnic/peak oil periodicals, would be free of charge.

My earnest promise: I'm worth every penny.

John Roth said...

@Ares Olympus

As far as 1950 being before “virtual money.” Credit cards go back to the 1930s as department store cards. Fractional reserve banking is almost as old as banks.

@William Philipson.

I see nothing wrong with your three examples. Those prepositional phrases are genitives, which makes them determinators, and determinators can, in some circumstances, determine whether a noun phrase is singular or plural. I know the “rule” that’s taught in schools, but the actual rule in practice is that the verb’s number relates to the noun’s number in the reader’s head, not the number on the page. That’s why a lot of “singular” uses of they seem perfectly acceptable while others grate.


I have to chuckle about your trip to the Computer History Museum. The first computer I was paid to work on had vacuum tubes (an IBM 705 II). It’s perfectly possible to build transistors and small integrated circuits with 1950s tech, but they’re not going to do what we think of as “computing” today. Those were the days where the IBM 407 was the workhorse of what passed for big business; they came with a full-time customer engineer, at least if you had enough of them. Clean rooms are not as complicated as a lot of people think. They were invented not too far from where I live, and people thought the guy who invented them was faking it - it couldn’t be that simple!

You can’t run what we think of as the modern internet on 1950s (or even 1960s) computers. The inner workings are simply too complex. You’d be back to putting the handset of your wired telephone into this big box called a “modem” and watching the teletype print out characters slower than you could type. I kid you not - we had an operator who could reliably bring an IBM 360/50 down by typing too fast for the console to keep up.

@Moshe Braner

How soon we forget. When the internet was invented, ARPA was not DARPA - it had not yet been handed over to the Department of Defense. In any case, before the Internet, there were a huge number of different, incompatible electronic communication systems. That’s the reason it’s called the “internet”: it was designed to connect other, and frequently incompatible, networks.

#Zine culture.

I fondly remember the old Mercury Hour. It came out once a month and was almost all letter column. Science fiction fanzines were legion.

#re Bhopal

The plant had a two mile or some such “no build” zone around it, exactly to cover that contingency. Then people built houses right up to the plant door. Why should they live far away from where they worked? You can’t do a whole lot if the government won’t enforce the restrictions that they signed off on when the plant was built.

Moshe Braner said...

"once you unload all the things that attract most users to the internet, you then have to find a way to convince everyone else that the costs of maintaining the core of the system are worth covering, at a time when many other things will be begging for scarce resources."

- right, but also keep in mind that, after that unloading, the remaining costs are a lot lower. As long as we maintain a network of wires that branches to most places (if we do - and the fact that it already exists helps a lot) then we can use them for some sort of networked communication schemes. Yes most people today would think of a text-based decentralized BBS system as boring and useless - until they live with nothing (in the way of network messaging) for a while. Back in 1990 a lot of people thought that was quite useful. A bunch of BBSs even survived well into the early internet era.

oilman2 said...

@ JMG -
There are no longer traditional copper wires being run to most homes - it is optics. Phone switching is no longer analog. The cost for running an analog copper line to my farm was $1500, where analog is revised into digital (not at all thought out but meshing of old and new systems).

In lieu of the phone or telegraph system, what I am suggesting is meshes or BBS or similar things that quickly and more concisely disseminate knowledge than verbal or printing.

Postal service would not be needed and is dying due to email. Fedex/UPS are handling packages, but that will devolve into station to station with rail.

If it is even a roughly controlled regression, digital information will not be left behind by Gen-X and Millenials. If it is, it will be temporary - digital would be generations to disappear at this juncture simply due to inertia.

Perhaps you need to clarify the point in future you envision - that might bring us closer to understanding one another. Looking back we tend to build on previous generations knowledge, even before petroleum. The time-local knowledge bases were churches and universities. That allowed control of the same. I would much prefer that same knowledge base be let loose in the wild - solar powering mesh or similar will survive unless the know-how is locked up, and this same system is more data dense than print or phone/TTY, and removes much of the postal load as well.

We may just disagree here...

Moshe Braner said...

Another way for technology to regress, and also related to a previous discussion here:

"American scientists and the general public hold vastly different views on key scientific issues including the role of people in causing climate change, the safety of genetically modified food, and evolution, a poll released on Thursday showed. ... "science is being trumped" by factors including political views on climate change, religious beliefs on evolution and lack of scientific understanding..."

sgage said...

@ JMG,

"Why is it that every time I go zooming off into what ought to be the sort of unthinkable heresy that ought to send five or ten thousand readers storming away in a huff, since I've just challenged the foundations of their worldview, what I get instead is a mixture of (mostly) intelligent commentary and people saying "Thank you, that's just what I needed to hear"?"

No puzzle at all - you've been softening us up for years ;-)

john said...

I think Chris Rock said it best: "Men can not go back sexually, and women can not back financially" . Give the man a little money and he is not going to give up the lifestyle that supports his woman.

Bill Pulliam said...

Wow the volume of comments gets out of hand fast lately!

I'm wondering if there is a significant stop for us to make in the 1970s-ish level first on our way to 1950. Interestingly, if you look at current young male fashion trends with the "Brooklyn Beard" and "Lumberjack Chic" we are already headed there fast. Kind of amusing for us 50-somethings who have been wearing the beard and the highly practical and durable denim-and-flannel wardrobe our entire lives to suddenly be the height of trendy fashion... Anyway, in my mind one of the biggest changes to "go forward" to the 70s would of course be the drastic reduction of media. The internet is not going away that soon, but the constant connection to it through expensive hand-held devices and service plans could easily be a casualty of a forced wave of personal austerity. Same for 500-channel digital TV and gigabit media streaming. If this happened within the next decade or two, there would still be many of us around who remember what we used to do before we spent all our time connected to media (like blogs...). Because a first step to ANY of this is to get people back in the world where we gathered together face-to-face, shared, learned, argued, and reconciled FACE-TO-FACE, with real consequences and rewards for our actions, and without antisocial anonymity.

Greg David said...


I’d like to make some comments on two aspects of your most resent blog. One comment is on the spirituality of progress and the other is on the practicality of progress.
My comments about spirituality are immediately below. I’ll put the practicality comments in a separate post.

It seems to me that going back to the past (technologies of the fifties) could be a very useful and rewarding experience not only practically, but also spiritually. What make a person happy and fulfilled is not having the latest curved flat screen TV, or a seven bathroom house, or two Ferraris in the garage, but rather, being happy and fulfilled is about finding meaning and purpose in one’s life.

Knowing that your life has meaning and purpose fulfills a deep inner sense of self worth, that to my mind, fulfills a spiritual purpose (Why are we here?) of human existence. What gives purpose and meaning to life is not to be gained by a materialist perspective... It is the spiritual aspect of human life that provides meaning and purpose.

As for happiness, in his book A Revolution of the Middle...and the Pursuit of Happiness, John Ikerd writes, “ [O]ur happiness depends on our having a clear sense of purpose and meaning in life. Without purpose, there is no right or wrong, good or bad; no amount of wealth can give meaning to our thoughts and actions. We are multidimensional beings – physical, social, and spiritual; happiness requires a life of harmony and balance within the whole of our being.”

And so, going back to the fifties, where life was more about relationships, knowing and helping neighbors, living in neighborhoods, and generally more people and purpose oriented, will not only be more secure in our relations with the ecological world, but also be potentially a more happy and fulfilling type of lifestyle.


librarian@play said...

Perhaps of interest to TAR readers: The Pew Research Center and the American Association for the Advancement of Science released results from an opinion poll on how Americans scientists view science and climate change.

Tyler August said...

I find it interesting that so many here assume we have to adopt the technological suite of 1950 wholesale. I find Myriad's vision of canal barges carrying barrels of LEDs far more compelling-- not for that exact technological mix, but because I think it's far wiser to pick-and-choose from history's junk-pile than unthinkingly adopt anything.

A couple examples of regression in action:

An Ontario, Canada automaker did try in the 2000s; "Feel Good Cars" set themselves up to produce 'restored' 1950s Renault Dauphine electric cars, sold in North America as the Henny Kilowatt.(Naturally, there weren't enough electrics to go around; they were importing the bodies of petrol-powered Dauphines from France for the conversion/restoration.) The use of vintage car bodies was supposed to allow the company to escape onerous and expensive safety tests and other sorts of red tape. There was, at one point, a waiting list for the cars, but I don't actually know how many were ever sold. The company changed its name and became a subsidy dumpster, near as I can tell. (They have part-ownership of a battery technology under development, EEStor)

It's a better game on the Aviation front:

The iconic de Havilland Otter and Beaver float-planes are already back in production by Viking Air of Victoria, BC (though with modern turbofan engines). The company got their start rebuilding old airframes, but demand exceeded supply, so they decided to build more.

The even more iconic DC-3 is back on the market as the BT-67, but the company, Basler is still rebuilding old airframes at this point. They estimate there are around 500 such available.

I also cannot avoid mentioning the Coalition for Sustainable Rail in the US, which ADR readers may be familiar with. Combining known low-tech advances in steam technology, they aim to produce a wood-pellet-powered passenger locomotive that can out-compete diesel electrics. Like all of the companies I've listed, they're starting with a conversion of old rolling stock, the ASTF 3643.

It's actually quite exciting out there on the trailing edge!

Cathy McGuire said...

JMG: Here's one article I recalled reading about folks who are deliberately living in the 50's -

Shane Wilson said...

I'm sorry, but I can't think of 1950, or even 1930 or 1940 without thinking of universal smoking and smoking glamour. Seriously, though, smoking for the last 100 years or so has been a battle between Big Tobacco, which had the upper hand for the first decades, and Big Healthcare and its associated biophobia, which reigns supreme today. 100 years from today, when neither of these industrial behemoths will wield much power, what will be the social role of the demon weed? What will be the social acceptability of smoking in the future, when neither the pressures of tobacco advertising nor the biophobia pushed by Big Healthcare come to bear? When premature death is no longer an issue, when people have more important problems to consider? I tend to think that smoking has resilience as a social phenomenon, as a social glue. Interesting to ponder.
OMG, I think I'd cancel the internet altogether if the ADR went hardcopy! I don't think I'd have a reason to be online anymore! Be the change you wish to see in the world, and I'd love to be an example of someone under 80 who is completely offline! Sign me up, I'll be the first one to pay for a hard copy subscription to the ADR!

Roger said...

Not long ago I was waiting for a bus. Beside me was a young woman absorbed in her I-device. And a grubby young guy came by looking for change. He didn't look quite disabled but sounded mentally slow. I coughed up a loonie, the chap thanked me and went on his way.

It made me think back 50 years. My dad worked for a local company in my hometown. And they employed a young guy much like the one I just mentioned ie developmentally slow. He worked on a machine that produced a lot of steam and heat. A repetitive, strenuous job. Not pleasant. I used to see him around town. He had money in his pocket, a place to live and some measure of self respect. Not like the young guy that had just come by.

I shook my head and looked at the young woman beside me. I said to her just look at that poor guy, fifty years ago the young fellow would have been able to find work. But now? Not even with university. And she said yeah, nowadays university is the minimum. And she went back to her gadget.

I suppose she thought it was just the ruminations of an old man. I guess it was. But, to me, this so-called "new normal", is nothing normal.

As for young folk, this is all they know, they haven't seen a time when locally owned businesses employed people, if not in the lap of luxury, at least with a semblance of a living wage.

And so to the point: you mention predators that ruthlessly gut economies in search of the lowest wage. We see the results everyday. Like that young guy.

But the statistical agencies claim that there's - cough - "growth". See, they have the numbers. Well, no, there ain't "growth". It's a bloody lie. The mess of an economy that we DO have is fake, based on artificially easy credit. As we've seen multiple times recently, this leads straight over the cliff.

You mention tariffs. That is a swear word to the elites. They cover their ears. They fooled people with all this big talk about free trade and free markets.

The politicians talk big about building infrastructure and lowering corporate tax rates to bring back industry. This is just a smoke screen. Do you know why? You can build infrastructure up the wazoo and you can lower corporate tax rates to zero. Won't matter. The CEO folk don't care. No, they look at wage rates. The politicos know this.

But you can't fool all of the people all of the time. The big talkers can talk big, the statisticians can lie like hell. None of that pays the bills.

If the elites were smart, which they're not, but if they were smart, they would take steps to un-do some of the damage they've done if for no other reason than for their own benefit.

I'm not holding my breath. If tariffs happen it will be with elites being dragged, kicking and screaming.

Shane Wilson said...

Regarding the internet,
I just wanted to kind of second what JMG was saying. As he's constantly reminding us, you can't go by the theoretical/utopian effects of a technology, but the actual, real world effects of a technology. The question, therefore, that needs to be asked, is, "has widespread internet access made us a more informed, literate, connected society?" I would dare to argue on all of those points, the answer is a definitive "no". On any measure of literacy, logic and intelligence, I'd say that any measure of today's American society measures far below it's 1970s or 1980s counterparts. As far as social connectivity goes, the internet fails that test, as well. We're a way more atomized, isolated society now than before the internet was widespread. So, if you're looking at the actual, not theoretical, effects of the internet, it's effects are to normalize porn, decrease social connectivity, and to decrease attention span and literacy rates--that is its actual, real world effects. The book, newspaper, and magazine filled libraries of yesteryear did a way better job of educating the populace than the internet ever will, precisely because of what others have already mentioned--the bread and butter of the internet are the ads and the porn that keep it going. Therefore, like any business, the internet exists not to inform people, but to get them to buy stuff, either directly or indirectly.

Peter Neal said...

I've been experimenting a little with older technologies. Here's one:

Instead of emails or texting, I've been using a fountain pen that I refill periodically with a syringe from a bottle of ink. A scrap of paper or a postcard to write on, some words scribbled down, a stamp affixed, and away it goes.

Not only is it a meditative way to sit, collect my thoughts, and try to reach out to a friend, but it's a medium where the technology involved might contain a bit less guile than a modern smartphone and the heavily surveilled networks that a smartphone requires.

Bob Patterson said...

For those that would like to explore some "out of the box" thinking about bicycles go here -

Mickey Foley said...

Congratulations on blowing my mind yet again, Mr. Greer. "Intentional technological regression" is an idea so incendiary to our civil religion that merely writing it is an impressive feat of intellectual innovation. After the initial shock of that ideological broadside had faded, I realized the same thing had occurred to me after I learned about Peak Oil a decade ago. But I dismissed it as impractical given our dismantling of old infrastructures. I may have been too hasty. To what extent can our current infrastructure be retrofitted to support previous technological suites? I thought such a project would be too grand and energy-intensive for a resource-constrained society. I assume you'll be addressing this in future essays. I invite all ADR readers to check out my blog, Riding the Rubicon, which basically functions as a companion to ADR with a(n unorthodox) Marxist critique of Capitalism thrown in for good measure:

FLwolverine said...

@Lili - I've always found it deeply ironic that I first encountered Tasha Tudor in an article in "Victoria", a magazine that was beautifully photographed and written so as to evoke nostalgia for simpler, gentler times, but seemed to be aimed primarily at convincing its readers to spend money. "Celebrate a Rural English Christmas ..... [enticing photos]..... china, silver, linens, and furniture available at finer stores; see our shopping list on page xix."

Remembering that magazine also reminds me of a family friend who would have preferred to live in pre-industrial England - as a gentleman, of course, not just one of the ordinary people. After his parents died, he eventually pursued this goal by moving to the Isle of Man, buying and refurbishing a 4-story 19th century townhouse, and engaging a local woman as cook and housekeeper, with her husband as a sometimes handyman and driver. He furnished the house with everything (and I mean everything) from his childhood home. The blonde 50's bedroom suites looked a little odd against William Morris wallpaper and drapes, but he was happy surrounded by his "things". Of course it didn't hurt that the Isle of Man was a tax-haven for those who could qualify.

He is the only person I know who has a walk-in safe to store valuables, which is also reinforced to serve as a bomb- and fallout shelter.

No, we don't keep in touch.

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