Wednesday, February 04, 2015

As Night Closes In

I was saddened to learn a few days ago, via a phone call from a fellow author, that William R. Catton Jr. died early last month, just short of his 89th birthday. Some of my readers will have no idea who he was; others may dimly recall that I’ve mentioned him and his most important book, Overshoot, repeatedly in these essays. Those who’ve taken the time to read the book just named may be wondering why none of the sites in the peak oil blogosphere has put up an obituary, or even noted the man’s passing. I don’t happen to know the answer to that last question, though I have my suspicions.

I encountered Overshoot for the first time in a college bookstore in Bellingham, Washington in 1983. Red letters on a stark yellow spine spelled out the title, a word I already knew from my classes in ecology and systems theory; I pulled it off the shelf, and found the future staring me in the face. This is what’s on the front cover below the title:

carrying capacity: maximum permanently supportable load.

cornucopian myth: euphoric belief in limitless resources.

drawdown: stealing resources from the future.

cargoism: delusion that technology will always save us from

overshoot: growth beyond an area’s carrying capacity, leading to

crash: die-off.

If you want to know where I got the core ideas I’ve been exploring in these essays for the last eight-going-on-nine years, in other words, now you know. I still have that copy of Overshoot; it’s sitting on the desk in front of me right now, reminding me yet again just how many chances we had to turn away from the bleak future that’s closing in around us now, like the night at the end of a long day.

Plenty of books in the 1970s and early 1980s applied the lessons of ecology to the future of industrial civilization and picked up at least part of the bad news that results. Overshoot was arguably the best of the lot, but it was pretty much guaranteed to land even deeper in the memory hole than the others. The difficulty was that Catton’s book didn’t pander to the standard mythologies that still beset any attempt to make sense of the predicament we’ve made for ourselves; it provided no encouragement to what he called cargoism, the claim that technological progress will inevitably allow us to have our planet and eat it too, without falling off the other side of the balance into the sort of apocalyptic daydreams that Hollywood loves to make into bad movies. Instead, in calm, crisp, thoughtful prose, he explained how industrial civilization was cutting its own throat, how far past the point of no return we’d already gone, and what had to be done in order to salvage anything from the approaching wreck.

As I noted in a post here in 2011, I had the chance to meet Catton at an ASPO conference, and tried to give him some idea of how much his book had meant to me. I did my best not to act like a fourteen-year-old fan meeting a rock star, but I’m by no means sure that I succeeded. We talked for fifteen minutes over dinner; he was very gracious; then things moved on, each of us left the conference to carry on with our lives, and now he’s gone. As the old song says, that’s the way it goes.

There’s much more that could be said about William Catton, but that task should probably be left for someone who knew the man as a teacher, a scholar, and a human being. I didn’t; except for that one fifteen-minute conversation, I knew him solely as the mind behind one of the books that helped me make sense of the world, and then kept me going on the long desert journey through the Reagan era, when most of those who claimed to be environmentalists over the previous decade cashed in their ideals and waved around the cornucopian myth as their excuse for that act. Thus I’m simply going to urge all of my readers who haven’t yet read Overshoot to do so as soon as possible, even if they have to crawl on their bare hands and knees over abandoned fracking equipment to get a copy. Having said that, I’d like to go on to the sort of tribute I think he would have appreciated most: an attempt to take certain of his ideas a little further than he did.

The core of Overshoot, which is also the core of the entire world of appropriate technology and green alternatives that got shot through the head and shoved into an unmarked grave in the Reagan years, is the recognition that the principles of ecology apply to industrial society just as much as they do to other communities of living things. It’s odd, all things considered, that this is such a controversial proposal. Most of us have no trouble grasping the fact that the law of gravity affects human beings the same way it affects rocks; most of us understand that other laws of nature really do apply to us; but quite a few of us seem to be incapable of extending that same sensible reasoning to one particular set of laws, the ones that govern how communities of living things relate to their environments.

If people treated gravity the way they treat ecology, you could visit a news website any day of the week and read someone insisting with a straight face that while it’s true that rocks fall down when dropped, human beings don’t—no, no, they fall straight up into the sky, and anyone who thinks otherwise is so obviously wrong that there’s no point even discussing the matter. That degree of absurdity appears every single day in the American media, and in ordinary conversations as well, whenever ecological issues come up. Suggest that a finite planet must by definition contain a finite amount of fossil fuels, that dumping billions of tons of gaseous trash into the air every single year for centuries might change the way that the atmosphere retains heat, or that the law of diminishing returns might apply to technology the way it applies to everything else, and you can pretty much count on being shouted down by those who, for all practical purposes, might as well believe that the world is flat.

Still, as part of the ongoing voyage into the unspeakable in which this blog is currently engaged, I’d like to propose that, in fact, human societies are as subject to the laws of ecology as they are to every other dimension of natural law. That act of intellectual heresy implies certain conclusions that are acutely unwelcome in most circles just now; still, as my regular readers will have noticed long since, that’s just one of the services this blog offers.

Let’s start with the basics. Every ecosystem, in thermodynamic terms, is a process by which relatively concentrated energy is dispersed into diffuse background heat. Here on Earth, at least, the concentrated energy mostly comes from the Sun, in the form of solar radiation—there are a few ecosystems, in deep oceans and underground, that get their energy from chemical reactions driven by the Earth’s internal heat instead. Ilya Prigogine showed some decades back that the flow of energy through a system of this sort tends to increase the complexity of the system; Jeremy England, a MIT physicist, has recently shown that the same process accounts neatly for the origin of life itself. The steady flow of energy from source to sink is the foundation on which everything else rests.

The complexity of the system, in turn, is limited by the rate at which energy flows through the system, and this in turn depends on the difference in concentration between the energy that enters the system, on the one hand, and the background into which waste heat diffuses when it leaves the system, on the other. That shouldn’t be a difficult concept to grasp. Not only is it basic thermodynamics, it’s basic physics—it’s precisely equivalent, in fact, to pointing out that the rate at which water flows through any section of a stream depends on the difference in height between the place where the water flows into that section and the place where it flows out.

Simple as it is, it’s a point that an astonishing number of people—including some who are scientifically literate—routinely miss. A while back on this blog, for example, I noted that one of the core reasons you can’t power a modern industrial civilization on solar energy is that sunlight is relatively diffuse as an energy source, compared to the extremely concentrated energy we get from fossil fuels. I still field rants from people insisting that this is utter hogwash, since photons have exactly the same amount of energy they did when they left the Sun, and so the energy they carry is just as concentrated as it was when it left the Sun. You’ll notice, though, that if this was the only variable that mattered, Neptune would be just as warm as Mercury, since each of the photons hitting the one planet pack on average the same energetic punch as those that hit the other.

It’s hard to think of a better example of the blindness to whole systems that’s pandemic in today’s geek culture. Obviously, the difference between the temperatures of Neptune and Mercury isn’t a function of the energy of individual photons hitting the two worlds; it’s a function of differing concentrations of photons—the number of them, let’s say, hitting a square meter of each planet’s surface. This is also one of the two figures that matter when we’re talking about solar energy here on Earth. The other? That’s the background heat into which waste energy disperses when the system, eco- or solar, is done with it. On the broadest scale, that’s deep space, but ecosystems don’t funnel their waste heat straight into orbit, you know. Rather, they diffuse it into the ambient temperature at whatever height above or below sea level, and whatever latitude closer or further from the equator, they happen to be—and since that’s heated by the Sun, too, the difference between input and output concentrations isn’t very substantial.

Nature has done astonishing things with that very modest difference in concentration. People who insist that photosynthesis is horribly inefficient, and of course we can improve its efficiency, are missing a crucial point: something like half the energy that reaches the leaves of a green plant from the Sun is put to work lifting water up from the roots by an ingenious form of evaporative pumping, in which water sucked out through the leaf pores as vapor draws up more water through a network of tiny tubes in the plant’s stems. Another few per cent goes into the manufacture of sugars by photosynthesis, and a variety of minor processes, such as the chemical reactions that ripen fruit, also depend to some extent on light or heat from the Sun; all told, a green plant is probably about as efficient in its total use of solar energy as the laws of thermodynamics will permit. 

What’s more, the Earth’s ecosystems take the energy that flows through the green engines of plant life and put it to work in an extraordinary diversity of ways. The water pumped into the sky by what botanists call evapotranspiration—that’s the evaporative pumping I mentioned a moment ago—plays critical roles in local, regional, and global water cycles. The production of sugars to store solar energy in chemical form kicks off an even more intricate set of changes, as the plant’s cells are eaten by something, which is eaten by something, and so on through the lively but precise dance of the food web. Eventually all the energy the original plant scooped up from the Sun turns into diffuse waste heat and permeates slowly up through the atmosphere to its ultimate destiny warming some corner of deep space a bit above absolute zero, but by the time it gets there, it’s usually had quite a ride.

That said, there are hard upper limits to the complexity of the ecosystem that these intricate processes can support. You can see that clearly enough by comparing a tropical rain forest to a polar tundra. The two environments may have approximately equal amounts of precipitation over the course of a year; they may have an equally rich or poor supply of nutrients in the soil; even so, the tropical rain forest can easily support fifteen or twenty thousand species of plants and animals, and the tundra will be lucky to support a few hundred. Why? The same reason Mercury is warmer than Neptune: the rate at which photons from the sun arrive in each place per square meter of surface.

Near the equator, the sun’s rays fall almost vertically.  Close to the poles, since the Earth is round, the Sun’s rays come in at a sharp angle, and thus are spread out over more surface area. The ambient temperature’s quite a bit warmer in the rain forest than it is on the tundra, but because the vast heat engine we call the atmosphere pumps heat from the equator to the poles, the difference in ambient temperature is not as great as the difference in solar input per cubic meter. Thus ecosystems near the equator have a greater difference in energy concentration between input and output than those near the poles, and the complexity of the two systems varies accordingly.

All this should be common knowledge. Of course it isn’t, because the industrial world’s notions of education consistently ignore what William Catton called “the processes that matter”—that is, the fundamental laws of ecology that frame our existence on this planet—and approach a great many of those subjects that do make it into the curriculum in ways that encourage the most embarrassing sort of ignorance about the natural processes that keep us all alive. Down the road a bit, we’ll be discussing that in much more detail. For now, though, I want to take the points just made and apply them systematically, in much the way Catton did, to the predicament of industrial civilization.

A human society is an ecosystem.  Like any other ecosystem, it depends for its existence on flows of energy, and as with any other ecosystem, the upper limit on its complexity depends ultimately on the difference in concentration between the energy that enters it and the background into which its waste heat disperses. (This last point is a corollary of White’s Law, one of the fundamental principles of human ecology, which holds that a society’s economic development is directly proportional to its consumption of energy per capita.)  Until the beginning of the industrial revolution, that upper limit was not much higher than the upper limit of complexity in other ecosystems, since human ecosystems drew most of their energy from the same source as nonhuman ones: sunlight falling on green plants.  As human societies figured out how to tap other flows of solar energy—windpower to drive windmills and send ships coursing over the seas, water power to turn mills, and so on—that upper limit crept higher, but not dramatically so.

The discoveries that made it possible to turn fossil fuels into mechanical energy transformed that equation completely. The geological processes that stockpiled half a billion years of sunlight into coal, oil, and natural gas boosted the concentration of the energy inputs available to industrial societies by an almost unimaginable factor, without warming the ambient temperature of the planet more than a few degrees, and the huge differentials in energy concentration that resulted drove an equally unimaginable increase in complexity. Choose any measure of complexity you wish—number of discrete occupational categories, average number of human beings involved in the production, distribution, and consumption of any given good or service, or what have you—and in the wake of the industrial revolution, it soared right off the charts. Thermodynamically, that’s exactly what you’d expect.

The difference in energy concentration between input and output, it bears repeating, defines the upper limit of complexity. Other variables determine whether or not the system in question will achieve that upper limit. In the ecosystems we call human societies, knowledge is one of those other variables. If you have a highly concentrated energy source and don’t yet know how to use it efficiently, your society isn’t going to become as complex as it otherwise could. Over the three centuries of industrialization, as a result, the production of useful knowledge was a winning strategy, since it allowed industrial societies to rise steadily toward the upper limit of complexity defined by the concentration differential. The limit was never reached—the law of diminishing returns saw to that—and so, inevitably, industrial societies ended up believing that knowledge all by itself was capable of increasing the complexity of the human ecosystem. Since there’s no upper limit to knowledge, in turn, that belief system drove what Catton called the cornucopian myth, the delusion that there would always be enough resources if only the stock of knowledge increased quickly enough.

That belief only seemed to work, though, as long as the concentration differential between energy inputs and the background remained very high. Once easily accessible fossil fuels started to become scarce, and more and more energy and other resources had to be invested in the extraction of what remained, problems started to crop up. Tar sands and oil shales in their natural form are not as concentrated an energy source as light sweet crude—once they’re refined, sure, the differences are minimal, but a whole system analysis of energy concentration has to start at the moment each energy source enters the system. Take a cubic yard of tar sand fresh from the pit mine, with the sand still in it, or a cubic yard of oil shale with the oil still trapped in the rock, and you’ve simply got less energy per unit volume than you do if you’ve got a cubic yard of light sweet crude fresh from the well, or even a cubic yard of good permeable sandstone with light sweet crude oozing out of every pore.

It’s an article of faith in contemporary culture that such differences don’t matter, but that’s just another aspect of our cornucopian myth. The energy needed to get the sand out of the tar sands or the oil out of the shale oil has to come from somewhere, and that energy, in turn, is not available for other uses. The result, however you slice it conceptually, is that the upper limit of complexity begins moving down. That sounds abstract, but it adds up to a great deal of very concrete misery, because as already noted, the complexity of a society determines such things as the number of different occupational specialties it can support, the number of employees who are involved in the production and distribution of a given good or service, and so on. There’s a useful phrase for a sustained contraction in the usual measures of complexity in a human ecosystem: “economic depression.”

The economic troubles that are shaking the industrial world more and more often these days, in other words, are symptoms of a disastrous mismatch between the level of complexity that our remaining concentration differential can support, and the level of complexity that our preferred ideologies insist we ought to have. As those two things collide, there’s no question which of them is going to win. Adding to our total stock of knowledge won’t change that result, since knowledge is a necessary condition for economic expansion but not a sufficient one: if the upper limit of complexity set by the laws of thermodynamics drops below the level that your knowledge base would otherwise support, further additions to the knowledge base simply mean that there will be a growing number of things that people know how to do in theory, but that nobody has the resources to do in practice.

Knowledge, in other words, is not a magic wand, a surrogate messiah, or a source of miracles. It can open the way to exploiting energy more efficiently than otherwise, and it can figure out how to use energy resources that were not previously being used at all, but it can’t conjure energy out of thin air. Even if the energy resources are there, for that matter, if other factors prevent them from being used, the knowledge of how they might be used offers no consolation—quite the contrary.

That latter point, I think, sums up the tragedy of William Catton’s career. He knew, and could explain with great clarity, why industrialism would bring about its own downfall, and what could be done to salvage something from its wreck. That knowledge, however, was not enough to make things happen; only a few people ever listened, most of them promptly plugged their ears and started chanting “La, la, la, I can’t hear you” once Reagan made that fashionable, and the actions that might have spared all of us a vast amount of misery never happened. When I spoke to him in 2011, he was perfectly aware that his life’s work had done essentially nothing to turn industrial society aside from its rush toward the abyss. That’s got to be a bitter thing to contemplate in your final hours, and I hope his thoughts were on something else last month as the night closed in at last.


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Degringolade said...

Catton's Overshoot and Rifkin's Entropy in the early 1980's made me a believer in a very unpopular religion.

It is 35 years later and seeing these names brought me way back to the past and the really odd decisions that we all made.


AngelusCruentus said...

I've got a question that might really annoy you, but it's been on my mind of late so I really have to ask.

You're a pretty alternative channel when it comes to the destiny of industrial society, and I've managed to come across you in a way I think is probably quite dissimilar from other readers. There are a lot of voices, some of them exceptionally strange, that constitute the And taking into account the content of your other blog, I'm hoping you've got something to say on the following question.

Do you think there's anything to the UFO technology angle? Everybody who knows anything about anything knows about the CIA's psychotronic research, and is likely to have heard rumors of the particular interest UFOs seem to show in our nuclear facilities. There's lots of claims out there from seemingly credible people - as well as a great many incredible ones - as to the strange abilities and properties of these objects.

There seems to be a lot of smoke about metamaterials, exotic energy sources, and other similar technologies relating to this phenomenon. Do you think there's anything to it? Is it just another march of squirrels? Is it deliberate dysinformation? Is it well-meaning people who have an unusual number of puzzle pieces but who are assembling it incorrectly?

I'm hoping you'd be willing to comment on what you think about this.

ando said...


I am saddened to hear of Mr Catton's passing. "Overshoot" sits in a drawer, along with your books, in my nightstand. Fortunately, (unfortunately?) for those who wish to read it, it can be bought used for next to nothing. I think the shipping was more than the book.



William Rae said...

His legacy will be found in people that have changed their life.

Last month I disconnected the telephone line. This month I will disconnect the internet. Next month I will disconnect the power grid. I'm enjoying not being distracted and reading more. I'd encourage everyone to set goals and slowly meet them. I think you can wind back, but don't be brutal with the disconnect. Go slow and enjoy the change. Find what works and embrace it.

latheChuck said...

This week's essay, slightly abridged for Morse Code distribution:


Yeah, life's going to be a lot simpler without the Internet.


latheChuck said...

The original 1972 "The Limits to Growth" book is available as a quick and easy, no registration, no apps, 211-page download at

You might find other items of interest at this web site.

John Michael Greer said...

Degringolade, you're welcome. I have a shelf of books from that era close to my writing desk, as a useful corrective to hubris.

Angelus, not annoying at all -- in fact, I wrote an entire book on the subject a while back. The short version? The UFO phenomenon was manufactured by Air Force Intelligence in the late 1940s and 1950s to distract domestic and foreign observers alike from tests of wholly terrestrial aircraft of various kinds: high-altitude balloons early on, then spyplanes such as the U-2 and SR-71, spy satellites, early stealth planes -- do you recall when all of a sudden UFO watchers started seeing black triangles? Compare the dates to the history of the Stealth program and you can draw some interesting conclusions.

Now of course this means that "UFO technology" consists of a mix of wholly terrestrial technologies, smoke and mirrors from the spook industry, and the fantasies of those who've swallowed the bait, and so doesn't offer any solutions to the end of the age of cheap energy, but that's just one of those details, I suppose.

Ando, I'm glad Catton didn't have to live off his royalties!

William, thank you. That's good to hear.

LatheChuck, I didn't have time to weigh in on the telegraph internet discussion last week. Of course you were quite right that that won't work; what would happen instead is that I'd wire the week's essay to a weekly magazine publisher, who would print it in regional distribution hubs as part of the week's issue and get it to subscribers that way. Much more cost-effective!

Mark Rice said...

You covered two factors that impact the complexity of industrial society:
1) Thermodynamic -- the difference between source and sink energy concentrations.
2) Knowledge. With knowledge we can do more with what we have. We can have more efficient engines etc.

The Thermodynamic driver is declining while -- so far -- the knowledge is still increasing.

I want to suggest there is a third factor at play. That is wisdom. With more wisdom we could handle our predicament far better.

Unfortunately it seems our wisdom is declining as fast as our energy supply. The level of discourse is getting stupider and stupider. Just watch say -- some Fox News -- or Obama speaking. I rest my case.

Andy Brown said...

Sorry to hear about his passing. No, he didn't change the course of industrial civilization, but he did enable so many people to live with a little less delusion in their lives - and that counts for something.

kibbles n bits said...

I was out for 6 weeks after surgery and spent the time reading both overshoot books.I highly recommend them. I am sad to hear that such a bright light is out.

AngelusCruentus said...

That's a totally plausible, coherent, and reasonable answer to my question. Maybe I can rephrase it in a way that will dispel that remaining niggle.

UFOs might have been a loaded approach to take. Let me rephrase that and ask about something like nature sprites. To me, the existence of such spirit beings, and auras and the like, is so patently obvious as to be almost blasé to mention. I can't find the exact attribution, but the attitude you're implying seems to suggest that "the planes are discrete." That what we get from our interactions with such phenomenea is expanded awareness and - dare I suggest - wisdom, but not something that can move a 2 ton block.

Is that simply the way we have to approach reality? There's really no way to imminatize Satori - in a way that can do real physical work for human beings? Maybe I'm just being dumb - after all, the ancients were no less enlightened than we are today, but common sense suggests that there were a lot of broken bones and scraped knees erecting Stonehenge.

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

Mark, that's a valid point. Maybe we can start talking about a wisdom shortage...

Andy, it does indeed.

Kibbles, as do I, and as am I.

Angelus, exactly. The planes are discrete and not continuous; trying to make spiritual forces power material machinery is like trying to disprove a rock in the expectation that this will make it disappear. Furthermore, do we really want to be talking about how to enslave nature sprites to power our industrial machinery? That's what it would come down to, of course.

As for Stonehenge, there are stone circles being built today, by Druids and others, and yes, it involves a lot of aching muscles and some risk of physical injury if you do it the old-fashioned way.

Kutamun, thank you. That's a very moving passage, at least for me.

Charles DeYoe said...

I've been slowly working my way through a textbook of ecology, mostly inspired by the old post about a post-industrial reading list. (I aim to get to The Limits of Growth and Overshoot this year!)

Already though I understand the frustration of people who don't get it even if they say they do! So I will sometimes hear from people that re-using old materials isn't really important because it's ugly to, for example, grow potatoes in a stack of old tires. Or even though many folks recognize that monarch butterflies are in decline due to a lack of milkweed, some of those same folks will express the preference for being around neatly-mowed grass lawns.

I realized last summer while looking at the night sky that it's a lot easier to be anti-light pollution than it is to be anti-street lights. I guess there's the rub of it.

And of course, I have to confess I have my own hypocritical tendencies. But I'm trying to be better than I have in the past...

Shining Hector said...

Your comments on the relative sunlight that lands on the tropics makes me curious as to what you think of the likelihood and effects of future attempts to fully exploit (the positive and negative connotations of using this loaded word is fully intended) for agriculture and energy. You've talked a lot about corn ethanol EROEI never being worthwhile thermodynamically, but for example Brazilian sugar cane ethanol has a more favorable EROEI. I don't see this discussed much at all, as cornucopians and doomers instead seem to prefer clubbing each other over the head over the promise and shortcomings of corn ethanol, because it's what they know. Corn ethanol is purely a product of politics and lobbying, though. If sugarcane grew in Iowa like it did in Brazil, you could take it to the bank we'd be subsidizing sugarcane ethanol instead and the numbers would probably look a bit different. Same thing with biodiesel. Oil palms for example are like 8 times as productive as soybeans from what I've read, but again, soybeans grow in Iowa while oil palms do not, therefore palm oil biodiesel is not on many people's radar. Algae could grow in Nevada, hey, let's talk about that instead even though it's vaporware. The common debates fairly reek of provincialism, but it is what it is.

I'm not trying to push the cornucopian party line that we're just a couple of tweaks from having Kuntsler's happy motoring forever, just rather curious what you think happens when the dominant narrative catches up to the idea of living within our thermodynamic limits, then takes it that step further to deciding that appropriating more of the earth's sunlight budget for our own purposes is an excellent idea. No orbital solar collectors, colossal algae tanks, Nevada-sized solar panel arrays, etc. required. Probably a lot less virgin rainforest after all is said and done, though.

James Barnes said...

As soon as I finished Overshoot, way back some 24 years ago, I called up people late in the evening and demanded that they read the the book, immediately if not sooner. The book influenced my life and my activism; I've never forgotten its lessons and I teach them to my students whenever I get the chance. Sad to hear of Catton's passing and I'm grateful to you for memorializing his work.

James Barnes

Pinku-Sensei said...

"[I]nevitably, industrial societies ended up believing that knowledge all by itself was capable of increasing the complexity of the human ecosystem. Since there’s no upper limit to knowledge, in turn, that belief system drove what Catton called the cornucopian myth, the delusion that there would always be enough resources if only the stock of knowledge increased quickly enough."

I've seen this from you in another form last April, when you wrote the following in The Four Industrial Revolutions:

"Well before the analysis got this far, of course, anyone who’s likely to mutter the credo “Technology will always be with us” will have jumped up and yelled, “Oh for heaven’s sake, you know perfectly well what I mean when I use that word! You know, technology!”—or words to that effect."

Technology serves as a good stand-in for knowledge and the belief in both works as the same kind of thoughtstopper, both of them reassuring the utterer and the hearer that our intellectual and engineering prowess will allow us to continue increasing carrying capacity for humans as we have been for the past 500 years. It also enchants people into thinking that both will also allow our civilization to escape the fate of the Western Roman Empire, decline and fall related to exhausting both the resource base and the belief system that supports our civilization.

As for the rest of Catton's lesson, I pass it on to my students as "The economy depends on society, which depends on the natural environment. That means that without a healthy natural environment, there is no society. Without society, there is no economy." Consequently, the emphasis on the economy above all else is worse than missing the point.

Finally, I wish to direct the attention of you and your readers to an infographic from the BBC, Apocalypse When? It lists all the kinds of catastrophes that could befall us and the likely time scales during which they'd arrive. Some definitely would be the direct result of resource depletion and pollution, such as loss of honeybees, loss of topsoil, overpopulation, and climate change. Others would be more indirect, like nuclear war and bioterrorism. For some reason, Peak Oil wasn't among them. Gee, I wonder why?

Clay Dennis said...

I too picked up copy of Overshoot at a college bookstore in 1983. This weeks post bring's up a question I have been asking myself for a long time now. For a decade or two I have remarked to my wife, and anyone else who would listen, that the two most valuable subjects that anyone could ever study are Thermodynamics and Ecology. The first of these I learned in depth as a mechanical engineer and the second by pure chance as it was the only natural science class that fit in my schedule.
So I agree with you that these two disciplines are of the highest importance in understanding our current predicament but are rarely learned by most people. The only exposure most people get to these subjects is a superficial nod to thermo in high school physics and an even shorter exposure to ecology in Biology.
The thing I have been asking myself is if this a giant oversight by our educational system or is it intentional. Having too many people know too much about these two things might make pushing the religion of growth, technology and resource extraction more difficult. What do you think?

John Michael Greer said...

Charles, excellent. The fact that you're aware of your own potentials for hypocrisy is a very big step. None of us are, or can be, pure, and pretending otherwise isn't a useful habit. The point is to move in the direction of LESS (less energy, stuff, and stimulation) and keep moving that way.

Hector, the issue that has to be worked out before that question can be answered is whether the rest of the whole system that uses liquid fuel can be supported on a biofuels basis, and if so, how large and complex of a system? That, more than the mere EROEI of the fuel, is going to determine just now much tropical real estate will be growing oil and/or ethanol crops in a deindustrial future.

James, thank you.

Pinku-sensei, well, of course I've said it before -- we're discussing some of the foundations of the thinking that goes into this blog, and as such, those points have been referenced repeatedly in various ways.

John Michael Greer said...

Clay, I think it's a profoundly human mixture of the two. The mythological thinking that undergirds modern industrial culture demands that humanity progress endlessly toward omnipotence. Ecology and thermodynamics both tell us, in no uncertain terms, that that's a fool's errand, and bound to end badly. Thus those who believe the myth -- and human beings, even (or especially) in industrial societies, do far more of their thinking with mythic narratives than contemporary culture is willing to admit -- are going to ignore or reject ecology and thermodynamics whenever they think they can get away with it, since the ignorance and rejection allows them to keep cognitive dissonance at a minimum. That's where proposing new narratives, and new (or old) ways of looking at human existence, are crucial parts of the work -- it's only when people have learned how to tell different stories about themselves that they'll be able to handle seeing those things the currently popular stories can't face.

D.M. said...

Knowledge is power, just not the kind that make light bulbs work or allows a vehicle to go down a road.

Gardener Green said...

JMG you are a Sweet Man. Lovely memorial for Catton.

One thing I have thought about a lot. Whoever came up with the Latin "Homo Sapiens" or Wise Man designating humans must have had a huge amount of Hubris. Now "Cunning Man" I could accept but my suspicion is that if Foxes and Coyotes had fingers and thumbs they would have run humans right off the planet. said...

All hail William Catton. May his words live eternally. May his soul have peace.

I suspect he knew, even as he was writing his first book, that he was going to be perceived as a Cassandra, and his particular "curse" in life was to see the future all too clearly. I suspect that he had come to terms with that reality quite some time ago; people who live under extreme stress generally do not live so long a life as Mr. Catton. I am glad he made the effort to get the word out none the less. Changing the world? Not really feasible. Changing a couple thousand lives, whose lives in turn may save thousands of others? A worthy cause, undertaken by a noble man. We are diminished by his loss.

Snoqualman said...

AngelusCruentus, I am inclined to believe in UFOs, or in something that might explain why, despite all the horrendous near misses, we are all still here. Something, someone, has gotta be watching out for us....or so it seems at times anyway.

Regarding Mercury and Neptune, our host had me going for a little bit there. Something I have long wondered about is whether energy actually "decays" or just diffuses.

Say you are a photon blasting out from the Sun on your journey. Many of your fellows reach Mercury, making it very hot there. You miss it and continue on and eventually (after what, a day or so? Less?) reach Neptune, and hit it along with relatively few of your fellows, warming it only slightly.

You yourself did not become any less energetic, did you? My guess is no, you did not. So the inverse square law is really just a function of spherical geometry, no? The sphere that encloses the solar system out at Neptune's orbit is just that much bigger.

So it would seem then that the inverse square law really only applies to an omnidirectional emitter of energy. If I have a beam antenna, or a laser or any kind of focused beam, the energy stream from it is not going to diminish according to the inverse square law. If it could be perfectly focused, would it decay at all?

So is that why my neighbor with the five element beam on a tower gets out so much better than me with my little vertical?

73 de KG7KNP

MindfulEcologist said...

JMG - Thank you for bringing Mr. Catton's work to a wider audience again and respectfully carrying on his analysis. I used Overshoot as the basis for a series of posts that started with Approaching Ecology went through carrying capacity and cargo cults, spent some time with Homo Colossus and ended with Not Cleared for Takeoff from his second book, Bottleneck.

He is one of the authors I can honestly say changed my life. It was an honor to be able to share his work with my readers. I invite anyone interested to take a look.

John, thank you again. He was one of the Northwest's finest jewels and will be missed.

Ryan Sharon said...

'it's only when people have learned how to tell different stories about themselves that they'll be able to handle seeing those things the currently popular stories can't face.'

I seems to me the fact that the After Oil anthology was popular enough to have a sequel recently suggests that an increasing number of us are ready to see those things ;)

Entropy in particular has been on my mind of late: trying to work out the flow of water over 20 acres and slow as much as possible through the system before it gets to the road. But in addition to that one has to consider ecological factors: put in a pond > attract deer > deer attract mountain lions, many cases it seems best to just send it towards the nearest lump of flora and let them soak it up (which they do quite happily). Just my own personal homage to the Gods of Thermodynamics.

Returning to Catton and what he was trying to tell us all with his writing: it is not at all surprising that people ignored/avoided his message as there was no myth that enticed people. Compare that the popularity of dystopian or apocalyptic fantasy and what is the major difference? Both Overshoot and something like, I dunno Bladerunner, have a depressing message about our future, but one of them is giving us the facts while the other is telling us a story.

I'm writing this on a mobile phone and its hard to keep my thoughts straight when I can't see my previous sentence, so apologies if this isn't as eloquent as i'd planned.

In closing I'd just like to take a line from Terry Pratchet:
'Humans need fantasy to be human. To be the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape.'

Val said...

If I'm not mistaken, the difference in the concentrations of solar energy reaching Mercury and Neptune may be considered as a function of perspective, and is governed by the inverse square law, which states that the intensity of light falling upon a surface is inversely proportional to the square of its distance from the light source.

The difference in solar energy striking the arctic region versus that hitting the equator of the earth is also a matter of perspective, but is governed by cosines which are related to the obliquity of those rays to the surface.

This makes me wonder: if a solar panel located in the arctic circle (during the long arctic day, and in clear weather) is directed perpendicularly toward the sun, shouldn't it receive as much energy as the same panel located at the equator, and similarly directed toward the sun, on a clear day? For its reception of solar energy surely cannot depend upon that of the surface on which it rests, but rather upon its own obliquity or perpendicularity to the light source.

As for the rest, I think we are in for a bad time. I try not to think about it more than I have to.

Val said...

Ah! It's just occurred to me: the solar panel in the arctic will probably receive less solar energy than the same panel in the tropics, because of the obliquity of the atmosphere. Sunlight at the equator - hence overhead - has less atmosphere to pass through than in the arctic, where it must penetrate the atmosphere at a shallow angle. I wonder how much difference it makes, as a percentage of total energy intake?

Chris G said...

I recently read Overshoot. I was left wondering whether Catton was a reader of Edmund Burke. Catton would have likely agreed with Burke. Burke was basically pretty skeptical of human reason. He noted its advantages, but Burke recognized the risk is not necessarily to suppress human reason, but to let it run out of control.

An energetic superabundance seems to let us throw caution to the wind: this has been done, and our energy source, like a drug, is now in charge, and as a society we are about as effective as a junkie or a pet at dealing with life. I have no mind to go back to monarchy or much of what Burke might have embraced as traditional, but his analysis of the psychology of the French Revolution, on which all subsequent revolutions have been based, is pretty telling.

It seems often to be the case that much of the cornucopian thinking comes from those on the leftward edge of the political spectrum. That stands to reason, since Justice tends to be the left's standard, whereas Order for the right, and essentially the Enlightenment and Ages of Revolution - monuments to Reason - have been paid for by increasing territorial expansions...conquest of two continents, then theft of populations from a third to work the land of the two; and ultimately the theft of ecological balance on a global scale, when fossil fuels blundered their way into the scene in a really unanticipated way. I really think fossil fuels was totally unexpected - but strangely, fossil fuels may have not been discovered if the Revolutions had not come first?? If the new worlds had not been discovered first, bringing the expectation of floods of wealth...

Anyway, Catton for an ecologist spends a considerable bit of time in Overshoot digesting the detritus of Revolution. Now most scientists tend to stay in their domain, it is a credit to Catton's bravery to address the subject of revolutions in an ecological context - but also perhaps part of why he is ignored. It's controversial. Let the kids deal with it.

But now both Justice and Order are basically being upheld by economic abundance...for a time... both the Right and Left have gone "All-In" as the poker players say, on the abundance. If it is not a new technology, SOMETHING is hoped for: the Great Awakening. The Great Transformation. some final human Revolution. So, new age magical thinking of this kind is predominantly a manifestation of the political left...
On the right, Order is pretty straightforward. History tends to Entropy and the right wants to keep something of what was. Regardless, both sides can call the purpose, whether Order or Justice, whatever they want.. It always tends to be rather abstract, and on further inspection outside of certain boundaries, basically a call for Justice or for Order become signals to consume the abundance... form matters less than use... as the energy flows through the increasingly ossified system, the society hardly understands the words it's saying anymore. It is all ritual with no content. It is quite like a senile elderly person.

And on these terms, there is nothing left to do. Read Orlov's column today for an example. I'm inclined to agree - just relax a bit. If anything, perhaps our problem is too much industry, however it's powered.

Gerald Smith said...

Re. Pinku-Sensei's comment: when I was a physics student at university, I used to taunt the chemists by telling them that there's a branch of physics called thermodynamics, and a branch of thermodynamics called chemistry. I didn't know any economists, but if I had, I might have added: there's a branch of chemistry called biology, a branch of biology called ecology, a branch of ecology called anthropology, a branch of anthropology called politics, and a branch of politics called economics.

Shawn Aune said...

I'm sorry to hear of his passing but in some way am thankful he will not see the bottleneck. Well not with his main five senses.

From what you wrote I gather that If one had the gift and the drive to help people realize the thermodynamic and ecological reasons behind this unfolding disaster, it would be a valuable thing to persue.

Just not at the expense of practicing life skills. ;)

How far off the mark am I?

changeling said...

I've made some study of Great Depression, seeing how next decades could be repetition of sort (especially in Europe) , and found this essays:

"It is easy to believe that the things we have succeeded in getting are necessities." Yes, and we should add: "and that nothing can take them from us"/

Witter said...

Here's my submission to the Great Squirrel Case Challenge.

If only it were that easy.

RPC said...

"Furthermore, do we really want to be talking about how to enslave nature sprites to power our industrial machinery?" Isn't that exactly what we've done? If you were to say a prayer for all you were ending, as a hunter would before slaying a bison, and the length of the prayer were proportional to the energy gained, you'd never get around to turning that ignition key. Hmmm...

Odin's Raven said...

If 'as above, so below' how do these physical principles apply at a spiritual level?

Is there an ecology of use of spiritual 'energy'?

Is there a system of predators and prey? Might we be zebras who think they are lions?

Does this more detailed modern physical understanding imply that the understanding of say, Neoplatonism or Hermetism, can be analogously improved?

Does the concept or experience of limit and finitude apply only to the realm of quantity?

Are such physical and logical restrictions lower manifestations of Platonic forms?

Has somebody written competently on such matters, or might you address them on your other blog?

Phil Harris said...

Good on you.

A thought this morning after a dream the night before - here just now at 55 deg 40 North I closed the shutters and the curtains to keep the warmth in, not to as it sometimes feels, to keep out the Dark.

Except in summer as Keats put it: "A bright torch, and a casement ope at night,
To let the warm Love in!"

Phil H

Andrew Crews said...

Mr. Greer,

I think I have actually found a point where we might have disagreement, which doesn't happen often. I think there might be something wrong about the whole idea that, "we could have done something about this mess(on a large scale)" if we had started years and years ago. I see this oft expressed in peak oil circles, but it seems to fly in the face of reason and history for that matter. There seems to be mechanisms and feedback loops that keep this sort of soft landing phenomena from happening, unless you hit the cultural lottery of belief systems as happened with soft collapses of certain Japanese Dynasties. Is it an intellectual cop-out to say there is no reason to feel sadness that everyone didn't buckle down and embrace the simplicity of a low energy lifestyle? I could list feedback loops in the political, social, and religious spheres that all worked against this sort of thing ever becoming a reality (on a large scale). Metaphorically, I often see the entire course of civilization in making, lighting and watching a campfire smolder all the way to ashes. Should it make me sad or frustrated that a we didn't set aside a few logs so that the fire burned more evenly on its way out? The industrial world really is an ecosystem, But do I judge the Lioness for eating the gazelle, or hold contempt for the mosquito's methods of survival?

This sort of melancholy tone is in my opinion a curse to the legitimacy of the peak oil, limits to growth scene (a bit of dark magic ;) ), that ends in a cycle of self defeating misery. Unless the scene is trying to martyr, Man the conqueror of nature, then I think that this belief hurts way more than it helps. But I guess it all depends on your beliefs in human agency.

"De gustibus non est disputandum"

Loving Well of Galabes and this post as well. Beautiful summary of the rarely mentioned whole systems laws and ecology.

Best Wishes,

Yupped said...

Whenever you refer back to those years of lost opportunity in the 70s and early 80s it always stirs up such memories for me, since I was coming of age in those years in the UK. I've commented before I think that I don't recall back then a framed choice between ecological common sense or over-exuberance. At the time for me, as a confused teenager, the choice seemed to be served up as political one of failing state socialism vs a return to vigorous enterprise and capitalism. That's was Thatcher's thing in 1979, at least. I wonder if she (and Reagan) actually understood the choice in those ideological terms, or whether she knew the real the choice was as Catton and others described it?

Anyway, I think there is a very interesting history book to be written about those years, with a focus on how the choices we faced back then were framed and why society chose as we did. And what the consequences have been.

We're going through the same confronting of reality now of course, but this time the choice can't be framed in terms of left vs right, because governments are mostly all some version of growth capitalism across the world.

Finally, around the last time you mentioned Catton I believe another commenter mentioned one of my favorite TV shows from back then - the UK's "The Good Life". It's still a great thing to watch on YouTube and gives a glimpse of how these topics were handled by the BBC at the time. It tells of an upper middle class executive going back to the land in London suburbia, but not because of impending ecological overshoot - rather because he was tired of the corporate rat race.

Adrian Skilling said...

Wise words as always.

I was struck the other day by a short 'conversation' I had with a dog walker while we waited for cars to pass by a huge pothole (hole in road) - spashing water over the pavement. We noted that this hole had opened up again only a week after its repair.

In seconds, this man, had moved from pot holes to the decline in schools, the health care system and more, and that it was all due to immigrants.

The conversation was over in seconds, and I barely had chance to think. I wish I'd tried to correct his views and explain that the limits of natural resources were being reached and this was impacting our wealth, etc... but I knew I'd be wasting my breath and there would be a lot of ground to cover.

In this case I failed to even start to change opinions. We need some shortcuts to this viewpoint that will be understood.

Unknown said...

Regarding enslaving Nature spites to power industrial machinery. My oldest child is reading a children's fantasy series called The Magic Thief, by Sarah Prineas, that creates exactly this situation.

The peak resource parallels in the story are quite striking, for a book that is not explicitly apocalyptic (in the way Paulo Bacigalupi's books are, for example.)

Our children know what is coming for them. It is woven into their plans and assumptions about their futures. Even when their parents choose to have no clue. The books popular now among kids 8 to 16 years old are not just being selected by the adults. THey are what the children feel they need, in their bones.

Dau Branchazel said...

Hi JMG, here is my contribution to the contest for outlandish energy sources. The only problem with this one is it is likely to work too well to be classed as fantasy. Enjoy.

inohuri said...

It isn't the absence of wisdom so much as the outright rejection.

In "advanced" society this currently starts as industrialized schooling and an emphasis on data regurgitation. This indoctrination continues to the profitable trivia push of commercial sports and celebrity worship. It is also in industries we have been trained to value such as modern medicine or banking. Much data, little practicality, lots of unearned profit.

If you can't do anything practical with knowledge it is of no value.

With wisdom it is possible to extrapolate something useful from knowledge.

Without wisdom it really doesn't matter how much knowledge there is.

Texas_Engineer said...

Thank you very much JMG.

I was not aware of Catton's death. Like you I read his book years ago. About 5 years after I read Limits to Growth. I have never looked at the world the same since.

I also talked to Catton at that ASPO conference. I only had about 10 minutes with him - but I walked away feeling I had met a person of great wisdom.

BTW - I was also an avid reader of the ADR at that time and enjoyed a brief conversation with you at that conference.

Both books (LTG and Overshoot) are still in my nightstand. Along with The Long Descent.

Thanks for you post of today. It is a keeper.

redoak said...

Here is an illustrative example of the power of the cornucopian myth. This week I attended a work shop for business owners and emergency managers to plan adaptive strategies to climate change, which here in New England means getting ready for extreme precipitation events. The meeting took place in a Gold Certified LEED factory with a global supply/distribution chain. Very fancy. They were proudly working on reducing their CO2 footprint and composting food scraps from the staff kitchen. The keynote came from a climatologist at a prestigious college who concluded that “we” would without doubt tackle the CO2 problem “in due time” through geo-engineering (no details on what that would look like, of course). Then we work shopped on how to make area businesses more resilient to flooding. In other words, we’re going to keep turning the crank no matter how crazy the weather gets.

I feel like a wet blanket here. From a systems perspective we are basically working on ways to continue to add CO2 to the atmosphere resilient to the inevitable and accelerating impacts of climate change caused by the very effort! Hello!

Worse, the event was sponsored by a local university and the sustainability students were all there enthusiastically planning how we will have our cake and eat it as well, fully encouraged by LEED certs and geo-engineering. So much excellent potential pointed in such a stupid direction.

I keep at it, teaching and living it the way I see it. But some nights I really look forward to the pop of that bottle of Sierra Nevada’s finest.

Shane Wilson said...

I think this post explains the "how and why" last week's post "intentional technological regression" is necessary.

Helix said...

This is a beautiful essay, and the parallels between Catton's life work and insights he discussed in Overshoot are both ironic and poignant.

I would like to propose, however, that things are not so tragic as they might seem. Catton's views have not become exactly mainstream, but they have had some traction. This blog, for example, as well as a number of others, have picked up the torch and carried on this work. More and more people are coming to appreciate the dilemma we face and are grappling with how to respond in their own personal lives.

As the saying goes, the first step in dealing with a problem is admitting that we have one. The second step is to understand the dimensions of the problem in order to develop effective responses. I would argue that Catton's book, and this blog, are incredibly valuable in exploring the dimensions of the problem.

The ripples go all the way to the edge of the pond, and I'm not sure that the ripples form Catton's work have all dissipated at the shoreline. For now, the world can mollify itself with the Cornucopian Myth. But not everyone is fooled, and these people might yet have a say in how the future unfolds.

Andy Brown said...

I think our cultural illiteracy when it comes to thermodynamics is really significant. I still remember a science teacher once (8th or 9th grade) giving us a brain teaser about this. As near as I can recall it was something like – “You’re stranded on a barren little mountain-top with plenty of water and firewood, but nothing but your own supplies to eat. Your supplies consist of a live hen, a couple of boxes of corn flakes, and a case of canned soup. What do you do to spread your food supply as long as you can in order to survive until a rescue can get to you?” It seemed obvious to me that you’d better kill that chicken sooner rather than later and eat it up, since it was sitting there burning up your allotment of calories. But no one else seemed to get that. Many people just ate their stuff in no particular order. Some saved the chicken for last. The cleverer ones fed the corn flakes to the chicken for eggs before they ate the chicken. But the thing that stuck with me was they just didn’t get my take on it at all – they couldn’t see past the cornflakes and eggs to the abstraction of calories and thermodynamics.

Friction Shift said...

Back in the 1980s, a friend gave me Overshoot, saying "Here. You'd better read this." I did, and like most who read the book, it changed my thinking profoundly. Having grown up in a family of natural scientists I was no stranger to ecological principles, but never had I read such a crisp, clearly-reasoned argument that, yes, ecological principles apply to humans, too.

In subsequent years I have recommended the book to dozens of people as the essential explication of our civilization, but few have taken it up. I especially push the book on my many well-meaning alt energy evangelist friends, but most of them are as reluctant to get real as any member of Congress.

Still, as much as Catton spent his career crying alone in the wilderness, I predict this book will become much better known in the years ahead.

Sadly, as you point out, too late.

Travis said...

You have done Mr. Catton's work much honor; that will also be ignored and laughed at by industrial culture. To me however touching the vast ocean of the rest of our species (as tantalizing the idea may be) is not the point. The point is its effect on those of us who would pay attention, helping us to keep our sanity, and not feel alone.
And so I thank you for another stimulating and provocative post!

Josh said...

JMG your writing is always great, but this week's installment is truly excellent- thanks!

Eric Hacker said...

Another excellent essay. My only minor quibble is where you say "a green plant is probably about as efficient in its total use of solar energy as the laws of thermodynamics will permit." This would be better stated something like "a green plant in a stable ecological niche will become as efficient in its total use of solar energy as possible."

I haven't looked at Jeremy England's work yet, but I think the book Into the Cool: Energy Flow, Thermodynamics, and Life by Eric D. Schneider covers this area pretty well if not proving it. The controlling factors are thermodynamics and life/evolution.

The consequence of this on biofuels is of course that one can't get a plant to produce a significantly higher energy output unless one can can control the parasites and predators without negatively impacting the symbionts. Any genetic engineering or chemical manipulation gains will be unsustainable because evolution isn't going to leave that extra energy alone. Obviously that means of controlling the parasites must use less energy than the gains.

Nothing new to this blog, just emphasizing some points.

Myriad said...

Another key principle of ecology is competition. If all the world's plants got together and agreed to just grow along the ground and share the space, they'd collectively get the same amount of solar energy and they wouldn't have to expend most of it transpiring water up vertical stems, growing those vertical stems in the first place, or producing vast numbers of seeds.

Similarly, if all the world's communities and nations got together and agreed not to use momentary resource advantages to oppress or out-breed our neighbors, we could willingly decline in peace and equilibrate at a much higher achievable level of personal liberty and comfort.

Both of those prospects, I submit, are equally impossible. They might not even be desirable, in the grand scheme of things. For instance, without the inadvertent benefits plants provide by growing stems and so forth, the rest of the biosphere would be vastly diminished. And what would the plants do with that energy they saved? What other purposes do they have?

What other purposes do we have?

I regret that Mr. Catton's warnings were not heeded, in the same way I regret death and taxes. But given his knowledge of the principles of ecology, did he have any reason to expect otherwise? Do we? Should we not expect that particular lesson of ecology, the preferential selection of those individuals who successfully complete to exploit available resources, to apply to us?

Kyoto Motors said...

I have not gotten to "Overshoot" as of yet, though I do feel that you have transmitted well his core message - if I can take your word for it ;-)
...But it is on my (ever-growing) list of things to read. Now I am all the more motivated to put it at the top.
Speaking of motivation, your analogy using gravity sits well with me, as I have been working on an essay where the central metaphor of simulated weightlessness serves to illustrate the (con)temporary illusions we have surrounding, well, the nature of things. I just might have to quote you, and embed a link to this post of yours!
As an aside, for meit was Richard Heinberg's "The Party's over" that got me onto this path - He's an author I know you've endorsed in the past also, and I'd recommend to your readers to check out his latest, thoughtful piece at:

Ray Wharton said...

I will get that book as soon as I can. The sad thing is that populations do not seem to be very receptive to highly refined knowledge. Any particular piece of refined knowledge is only available to those individuals who have developed the appropriate receptivity. But individuals run amok are the spores of what populations can know. William had a positive effect on you JMG, and I would bet many others from your generation. Far too few to move a mob, but enough to do something that otherwise may not have happened at all. One of the few useful terms I still remember from post modern philosophy was 'becoming imperceptible'; it is too late to see or measure the influence of his work, but if I understand the human conversation at all then William Catton made a big difference, even if along paths that are too fine to see.

Off to class!

anothershamus said...

Critical Path, by Buckminster Fuller did it for me in '80 or '81. Amazon is asking $20.00 ish for the book now that he has passed.

Matt Wallin said...

The cornucopian view of the world is something that seems to transcend education. Even people who should know better get stuck in the delusion that you can get something for nothing. As one example, I recently ran into someone whom I went through mechanical engineering school with. We had a chat about what we had been up to over the years. This person, whom I had actually sat next to in a university thermodynamics class, was telling me of a this 'invention' of a hydrogen injection system where the electricity of from the alternator of the car electrolyzes water to provide the hydrogen. I laughed and made a wisecrack about perpetual motions machines and such...only to realize that he was dead serious. After a few probing questions aimed at the thermodynamics of it all, I left the conversation just stunned. Another conversation I had with a Catholic engineer (who was working on child six, at the time) turned towards resource depletion. His response to my points about the finite nature of fossil energy resources was "God will provide". These two individuals "know" better, but this knowledge is completely unintegrated with their worldview. The fact that the dissonance hasn't prompted them to reexamine that worldview is disheartening, if these two folks educated in the sciences far beyond what you could expect from the average person, cannot connect the dots...ugh.

dfr2010 said...

What to do when a hero dies? JMG, I think you already took up his torch, and are carrying it high. So many things fall into obscurity almost daily: ideas, narratives, history, breeds of plants and animals, skills, even arts. The only thing any of us can really do right now is to take up torch, and hope that you light the way or even inspire a younger one to do likewise.

Shawn Aune said...

@ Odin's Raven

May I proudly present the most approachable (while complete and informative) introductory work I've read on the subject of Spiritual Ecology... :)

Stu from New Jersey said...

"number of discrete occupational categories" as a measure of complexity occurred to me some years back (in the more vague form of "number of job descriptions", which has a lot of problems). But I could never think of a way of measuring it, and was unable to find if anyone else had tackled it.
(Anyone have any leads?)
Of course, my interest was a little academic; events since then have made it all too clear that the trend is down, and I no longer feel an urgent need to put a number on it.

("You don't need a weather man to know which way the wind is blowing." Bob Dylan, for those readers not from the US.)

I liked the way you got down to brass tacks in this one, JMG.

Shawn Aune said...

@Andrew Crews

"I think there might be something wrong about the whole idea that, 'we could have done something about this mess(on a large scale)' if we had started years and years ago."

I think you're right. As Greer noted,

"The complexity of the system, in turn, is limited by the rate at which energy flows through the system, and this in turn depends on the difference in concentration between the energy that enters the system, on the one hand, and the background into which waste heat diffuses when it leaves the system, on the other."

That difference is called the gradient.

The universe loves a gradient and seeks to disburse the gradient as efficiently as possible.

Great Resource:

It is large energy gradients that allow systems to self-organize into complex flow networks.

The larger the gradient the faster the system tends to evolve. Until the limits of the energy gradient are reached the system tends to evolve in ways that provide fewer and fewer restrictions on the energy currents that flow through it.

Our economy has evolved the exact same way and I don't think it would have been possible to stop the process given the size of the gradient (millions and millions of years of sunlight).

The financial "innovations" we saw during the Reagan years are a perfect example of that.

In fact, most of the innovation we've seen over the past 100 years has been of this type and it could be argued that the last real innovation we saw took place in the 19th century. I won't argue that though because it is beside the point.

My point is that efforts to stop this juggernaut were likely to be in vain no matter how well funded or intended.

I think we're here now, knowing what we know and reading the blogs we read for a very good reason. I think this particular reason happens to exist somewhere in the far future.


August Johnson said...

@Snoqualman - The Inverse Square Law applies to all emitters of energy, omnidirectional or not. The reason your neighbor gets out better with his beam is that it's not unidirectional, all the energy is concentrated in a narrower beam instead of spreading out in all directions. However that beam still falls off the same with distance. That even applies to a beam as focused as a laser, it just is focused into a narrower beam.

Instead of being measured in degrees like the beam antenna, a laser beam's divergence is measured in milliradians. A milliradian is about 0.05 degrees. The beamwidth of a tpical Helium-Neon (HeNe) laser is around 1.0-1.5 milliradians. A solid-state laser is larger. Your laser pointer spot gets larger with distance, the concentration gets less as it's spread out over a larger area.

If there was a perfect beam that didn't diverge, then there wouldn't be the attenuation, however nobody has made such a beam.

jeffinwa said...

JMG, Bloody hell sir, what a heartacheingly beautiful epitaph to a modern prophet. It took the wind right out of my sails and took me right back to grief. He did what he could and that's all any of us can do.
Somehow I don't think Frodo will be able to get the ring back to the fire this time.
It makes my stomach tingle to realize that what I've seen coming for so long is here, now, today.
So it goes.
Planting some more fruit and nut trees and some berry bushes as our gift and apology to those who will come after.

August Johnson said...

@Val - Yes, that solar panel located at the pole would receive the same energy if it was perpendicular to the sun except for the fact that the earth has an atmosphere. The light from the sun has to travel through much more (many times as much) of that atmosphere to to reach the panel at the pole than it does to reach the panel that the sun is directly overhead from. The difference in energy that falls on the panel is considerable.

donalfagan said...

After reading your last article, I ran across a Michael Crichton Q&A that asserts that we are fixing climate change because we are transitioning from carbon-rich fuels like coal to oil, to methane, and soon to hydrogen - each of which has fewer carbon atoms in its molecule. Crichton is of course a fine teller of stories. Then I read the anti-peak oil Counterpunch article someone posted, and also ran across a feel good post by James Hamilton, which had two very good contrary comments, which I reposted here:

As Gallup recently noted people are starting to disbelieve the official employment numbers, but I do feel that the powers-that-be have a few more delaying tactics, and the powerless-that-be have a ways to go before even contemplating any sort of revolt. In the meantime, a lot of us are just trying to keep up with the Red Queen.

Martin said...

The book and author that opened my eyes to what we're now experiencing was Environment, Power and Society by Howard T. Odum, which I read, as I recall, back in '72. Much of what you used illustratively in your essay relative to Catton and his book Overshoot was iterated back then by Odum, albeit in a rather less conversational manner. I write this not to detract from Catton and his work, which is of course superb, but rather to note that there have been a number of unsung and unnoticed heroes along the way.

Lazerus Long said...

I am a big proponent of appropriate technology and the recognition of the symbiosis among society, economy, and the environment as a unifying concept, principle, and practice of applied ecology for optimum sustainable design, operation, repair, and replacement of our power, transportation, water supply, flood control, waste management, and recreational infrastructure.

I was with you/Catton until you got to the point where a solar-powered lifestyle is inherently incompatible with modern civilization. We shouldn't have to live like the Amish to live solely off of the various renewable forms of solar, geological, and gravitational power at renewable rates.

I don't disagree that we should be living off of our solar interest and not our solar capital, and initially every unit of alternative energy we bring online will have a fossil fuel footprint, but as that effort advances, more and more of the alternative energy supplies will be developed with energy from alternative energy supplies, and the fossil fuel footprint will shrink very rapidly.

The solar-powered lifestyle may be incompatible with our wasteful, disposable modern civilization, and perhaps one in which there is only horizontal development. However, with recent developments in vertical agriculture and aquaculture, I am convinced that we can finesse the Malthusian limits once again and share in that vertical bounty fairly among all the peoples of the worlds.

What has to change is the illusion and myth that there is a market price for everything, that the unregulated free market always and everywhere balances supply and demand for resources and good and services developed from those resources in the most efficient and cost-effective manner, and that modern economics is not a fatally flawed set of self-consistent rules of a game that creates wealth out of nothing and ignores most of its social, economic, and environmental externalities, masquerading as a science.

Nevertheless, if population growth continues apace, eventually even vertical agriculture and aquaculture will not be able to keep up with the demand, and we will again exceed our technology-augmented, solar-powered carrying and assimilation capacities.

ed boyle said...

27 Consider the lilies how they grow: they toil not, they spin not; and yet I say unto you, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.

But they do lots of work, as you have pointed out in your discussion of trees. I am reading Spengler on entropy. He seems skeptical. His attitude seems to be that we have an analytical mindset. God is energy, space, whatever. We just renamed it. I wonder how the next civilization will think. Is entropy real or just how we like to see it?

do bacteria make up 99% of biosphere weight?
Plants, insects how much percent? Mammals very small % but we use most of output of earth. Our demise would be positive.

We are to earth as cells are to an individual person. Cancer cells perhaps. At any rate balance is missing. Yin and Yang. When one is at extreme, human dominance, then the seeds of change lies inside it. Earth fights back its position of dominance for nature over artificial civilization.

PO said...

Take heart! After we've finished off ourselves (and, sadly, many other creatures of true innocence) and our society, a few tens or hundreds of millions of years hence, oil, coal, etc, will have had a chance to replenish and if something else has managed to evolve to a technological level, perhaps THAT species will get it right(er).

I also suspect this sort of problem is why there is the "great silence" (no signs of advanced technical civilization transmitting signals in the galaxy). Perhaps it is just a flaw in living creatures that are capable of technological society that they too suffer the same delusion of endless growth...until it is proven impossible by cold, hard reality.

Eric S. said...

This was a well timed discussion, since that thinking is seeping in everywhere right now. On the front pages of the newspapers that adorn the front desks at work, in overheard conversations, and even in links posted on this blog. I’m sure you caught the article someone linked to near the end of last week’s discussion attempting to “debunk” peak oil using the “we’ll just keep inventing new technologies to drill deeper” argument last week. And that article included a link to an article that was attempting to “debunk” the very concept of ecological laws as applied to humanity right up to the basic concept on human carrying capacity using the fact that Malthus and other early thinkers on the potential for human overshoot had questionable motives and morally reprehensible ideas. In a lot of ways, it feels like we’re slipping right back into the 1980s mindset. Things seem to be teetering right now between imminent crisis on the one side and another (probably shorter) collective vacation from reality right now as discussions of peak oil and resource scarcity sinking back into the shadows.

As that happens, I do occasionally find myself in the back of my mind entertaining the question “what if the other side of the conversation is right and there’s more accessible oil than we think? Of course none of those people ever even in passing mention concepts like EROEI, and it’s always the same basic arguments that don’t hold up to 2 seconds of hard scrutiny. At the same time, I do occasionally feel the need to do those thought experiments… engage with the arguments I disagree with and ask myself how their being right would impact my decisions. I really don’t think it would. In a lot of ways, that leads to an even more terrifying future than the one we’ve been discussing here for the year this series has run as a fully powered society runs top speed into the limits of the planet’s biosphere. Whether this civilization loses momentum and grinds into crisis right now or holds its momentum for decades or centuries, this is a crucial time. If your New Year’s prediction was right, these may be the last years for a long while to do anything and still have a stable world to do it in, and even then there’ll be high stakes and seat of the pants improvising. If we’re going back into a period of extravagance and denial, this may be the last chance to preserve skills and lifestyles that are passing out of living memory with every year for the day when they’re needed again.

I do think that’s something that’s changed now from the 1970s… People are uneasy about the future and the implications of our civilization more than ever. Species are going extinct at an alarming rate, the planet is warming, people are more alienated and isolated than ever despite being in constant contact, and the few World Fair dreams that came true turned out to be dehumanizing, degrading nightmares. Overshoot is ceasing to be an abstract concept for many people today. There’ll always be people who opt out for what’s easy at the slightest hint of a choice. But it also seems that with every crisis that forces people to opt out of certain benefits of industrial life, there’s a larger group of people who just can’t bring themselves to opt back in when the opportunity comes.

Ruben said...

JMG, to avoid sycophancy, I seldom post simply about how good your posts are.

But this one is just spectacular.

David said...

I just requested a copy of Overshoot via our interlibrary loan system. I'll likely be adding it to my personal library, though. (My usual practice is to look a book up on Amazon, then go and order it through our local bookstore, doing what I can for the local economy. I'm willing to pay the few dollars more to keep a bookstore in town.)

In a few hours, I'll be starting my lecture for the evening at the local two-year college campus where I periodically teach an evening course on algebra. As I gaze over my shelves of math texts from my own studies, I go back to your earlier discussions of what knowledge will pass through the gate of the coming dark age and what will not. I must confess that the thought of such beauty (mathematical and otherwise) disappearing does make me sad, but I do see how the inevitable choices will have to be made and how the course of natural selection will filter out much of what we have. My solace is that these gems will not destroyed, merely buried, and a future civilization will discover them all over again.

In the meantime, I will do what I can to salvage what I can, one step at a time. Brewing, baking, canning and ham radio. It's better than despair.

John Michael Greer said...

DM, nicely summarized.

Gardener, oh, no doubt. It was the luck of the evolutionary draw -- I won't say whether the luck was good or otherwise -- that our species happened to get both sentience and good manipulative organs.

Tinfoilhat, he'd certainly come to terms with it by the time I saw him speak at the ASPO convention, for whatever that's worth.

MindfulEcologist, you're welcome, and thank you.

Ryan, that's an interesting point. It's certainly worth trying the power of stories at this point, certainly -- and I'm grateful to all those who are working on it (take a bow, Cathy, and the other authors of After Oil stories.

Val, the atmosphere's a very muddy window. You'd have to do some research to find out the exact difference made by atmospheric absorption between the equator and the poles, but as I recall, it's pretty substantial.

Chris, exactly -- but there's a twist. Inside the existing structure, everything descends into senility and all parties support the same self-defeating goals...but there's room outside the structure, and an increasing number of people quietly heading that way. That's where words can start meaning something again. More on this as we proceed!

Shaun, one hand for yourself, one hand for the ship. Not far off, all things considered.

Changeling, thank you for the link! Very thoughtful stuff.

Witter, good -- that one definitely got a laugh. You're in the contest. Still, I'm surprised the GOP didn't support the bill -- after all, they claim to be opposed to regulation...

RPC, excellent. You're getting the idea.

Raven, also excellent! Those are good questions to ask just now; if you were a student of mine, I'd encourage you to spend the next month meditating on them. Well, all but the last. ;-)

August Johnson said...

@Val - Here's a description of the reduction of solar energy due to increasing Air Mass.

Air Mass and Insolation

At the pole when the sun is only 5-10 degrees above the horizon, there will be 1/3 - 1/2 the energy just due to the additional atmosphere.

John Michael Greer said...

Phil, thank you.

Andrew, I don't mean to be rude, but yes, I think it's a copout of sorts. Not all societies collapse catastrophically -- in fact, there's a spectrum of possibilities from relatively smooth contraction all the way to face-into-the-concrete collapse. Had certain choices been made collectively at the end of the 1970s, we could have managed something closer to the smooth end of the spectrum; as it is, we're pedal to the metal, and the concrete wall's in sight. I think it's crucial to acknowledge that, recognize the mistakes that were made, and do our best not to repeat them on a smaller scale in our own lives and communities. We still have choices to make, and the insistence that our choices are preordained to disaster isn't especially useful in that context, you know.

Yupped, I don't know enough about Thatcher to be sure, but I'm quite sure Reagan didn't have a clue. He was a washed-up movie actor playing a role, and that's about it. There were people in his administration who I suspect did know what was going down, but my read is that they had convinced themselves that there had to be another answer, that the unrestrained free market (blah blah blah) would somehow take care of it, or what have you. Such evasions were very common just then.

Adrian, we do indeed. That's one of the reasons I'm doing a lot with fiction just now.

Unknown, fascinating. If that's the case, we may be in better shape than I'd feared.

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

Inohuri, oh, granted. Wisdom's all around, but when it conflicts with momentary cravings, it takes a little forbearance and self-control to listen.

Texas-Engineer, you're welcome and thank you. I also enjoyed our conversation!

Redoak, I field screeds and less lengthy comments from such people all the time, and I agree -- it does make a microbrew even more welcome than usual. Gah.

Shane, good. You're paying attention.

Helix, maybe so, but the fact that the message hasn't gotten completely lost, to my mind, doesn't change the tragedy of the fact that it wasn't heard.

Andy, when I write my primer of ecology -- and it's a when at this point, not an if -- it's going to start from systems theory and thermodynamics, and keep on going back to those over and over again. That is to say, you're right, and the inability of people these days to grasp so very simple and basic a set of laws is not a good thing.

sgage said...

@ Shawn

"My point is that efforts to stop this juggernaut were likely to be in vain no matter how well funded or intended."

Speaking as someone who has been ecologically aware since the very early 70's...

This has been my impression for decades, right down to the word 'juggernaut', which is the concept I have in my mind about it. Pretty much all you can do is hope to not get in its way, while doing your own thing.

America came to some sort of edge in the late 70's, looked over, and just totally failed of courage and vision. Decided to just double down on the old paradigm. Reagan and his woebegotten hangers-on, while perfectly emblematic of what happened, were not the cause of this - they were merely manifesting the reaction of the electorate to all the change. Too much! For many people. Fear.

Oh well. What might have been...

Globus Pallidus XI said...

Well said. Kudos.

Here are a couple of other takes on the matter:

1. The population explosion that is the root of this problem was deliberately created by the rich because cheap labor. The 'cornucopian' myth did not come about as an act of madness or wishful thinking, but was deliberately fostered as cover for a policy of cheap labor and big profits through sustained growth.

Example: the Sierra Club used to have the position that rapid population growth was bad for the environment. Then a wealthy billionaire with an arguable stake in cheap labor donated (or perhaps, bribed) $100 million to the leadership of the Sierra Club if they would only stop talking about population growth in an intelligent manner.

This is just one example, but my point is this: both classical and Keynesian economists agreed that there were limits and that rapid population growth would create poverty. The change in this view starting around 1970 did not come about because of new data, careful analysis, or even wishful thinking. It was because the rich and powerful used their influence to corrupt public discussion.

Check the mainstream media: virtually any mention of a link between rapid population growth and anything bad - traffic congestion, availability of fresh water, etc. - is virtually forbidden.

2. You and I won't like it when civilization runs down - but the super rich will like it just fine. In imperial China most people lived miserable lives working very hard for very little food - but the landed aristocracy did very well. With 100 starving peasants competing for every job, both the economic and the social power of the elite is maximized ('shave your head and kiss my feet or you are fired and then you and your family will starve')

Conclusion: the coming collapse was all deliberate. And the rich are going to like it just fine. Affordable and docile labor forever! (Or at least, for a very long time). And perhaps some of this is our fault, for being cowed by baseless cries of 'racism' or 'you are a looney' or 'nobody believes that.'

Thirdeyerune said...

I look forward to reading Overshoot as soon as I can. Further, I'm sad to hear that your mentor and like-minded colleague has passed. When someone comes into our lives and shows us things about ourselves to improve or develop, they are great Buddhas to us in that moment. It's clear that Mr. Catton was so for you; not unlike, I'm sure, you are to many others.

It's not sad that Mr Catton's work didn't set the world on fire in a new direction because as long as the current system is in control I don't think he or anyone could. The timing of it was to early. But, he helped set you afire and many others. Now, look how you light the way for many more. Who knows what will come of it!

It's important that we each push ahead to be the change we seek. As such, the awaken shouldn't wait for the collective to provide the solution because it is lost in itself. To often I think too many of us that know better are still sitting back waiting for others to pave the way with solution, to make it just that much easier. How sweet to our karma and for the karma of others that we do it for others.

Joel said...

One tiny quibble:

You claim knowledge "can’t conjure energy out of thin air."

It theoretically can, although the conversion rate is extortionate (cf. making matter from energy, by eg. colliding two electrons in a particle accelerator to produce three electrons and a positron).

The thought experiment called Maxwell's Demon gives an example of such an apparent violation of the second law. In practice, though, the amount of knowledge needed to conjure a given amount of energy, would take a much greater concentration of energy to discover.

For the demon to learn the speed of air molecules precisely enough, for example, would call for a very good LIDAR system (or the functional equivalent). Absorption of the LIDAR's beam would heat the gas in the cold reservoir. Also, not coincidentally, running such a LIDAR system would consume more energy than a normal refrigerator would consume in producing the same effect as Maxwell's Demon could produce based on that quantity of knowledge.

I was one of the people who objected to your use of "quality" in the thermodynamics jargon sense, but I don't disagree with your conclusions, and didn't at the time. It's a small technical point, and I am glad to see the same argument presented here in a more defensible fashion.

Shane Wilson said...

Off topic, but this just made me laugh. Honestly, how they can come to this conclusion, considering cultural differences, is beyond me. Russians seem naturally unexpressive, to me. Anyway, according to this, JMG, you and Putin share something in common!

sgage said...

@ Shane Wilson

"Russians seem naturally unexpressive, to me. "

I have a very well-travelled friend, experienced in many cultures,who has said to me that Russians are really like Italians wrapped up in an icy Swedish shell. Once you break through the Swedish shell, it's all go!

My limited experience with Russian nationals bears this out. Warmer, more expressive people you could not hope to meet.

Martin Vachon said...

@Stu from New Jersey

"number of discrete occupational categories"

Just look at the length of the title and the number of acronyms people needs to put on their business cards and résumés to distinguish themselves from the lot. I've often an hard time refraining a laugh when I read them and imagine myself asking people if they really are so special"ized" that they are essentially useless to humankind as a whole.

Kyoto Motors said...

And of course another delusion in the age of entitlement is that energy can be replaced with money; that throwing enough of the stuff at a problem will make it go away. The printing press has been spitting out currency for a while now (it appears that it's Europe's turn). The end of QE here seems to have contributed to the bursting of the tracking bubble.... Tho' I could be wrong.

jonathan said...

my fear and loathing of collapse became much less once i succeeded, at least partially, in overcoming my anthropocentric views. if we manage to make the earth uninhabitable for humans, it may nonetheless become a perfectly lovely environment for some other species.
we can speculate endlessly about why the myths of endless growth and progress are so pervasive and why humans seem to be unable to come to grips with our present dilemma but i'm not sure it's a worthwhile endeavor. to paraphrase larry niven, maybe it's best just to "think of it as evolution in action".

John D. Wheeler said...

Please don't take this personally, but to me your question sounds a lot like the reckless little kid asking why he can't use the sharp scissors.

We've made quite a mess of things with the industrial, nuclear, and genetic engineering technologies we already have. The last thing we need are even more powerful technologies to mess things up even faster, be they extraterrestrial, spiritual, or magical even. Maybe once we learn how to play responsibly with the toys we have, then we can get shinier newer ones.

Julian R. said...

Cargoism: I need to remember this word for debating with some techno optimists that I know in "sustainability" circles around Austin.

Thanks for distilling some of this for us! It's helping me.

On a different note, I've tried to join Green Wizard forums a couple of months ago and never received an email. The site recognizes and doesn't recognize my yahoo email address depending on if I try to create a new account, or get the password sent to me. I'm hoping that a forum admin will see this here. I can't figure out how else to contact anyone.

John Michael Greer said...

Friction, too late to do what Catton hoped it would do, and convince enough people to change the course of industrial society. Not too late, I hope, to give a growing number of people a new and more useful sense of how we got into this predicament and how we are going to have to change our lives to build anything of value out of the wreckage.

Travis, you're welcome and thank you.

Josh, thank you.

Eric, oh, granted -- I could have been more precise.

Myriad, of course, but there are a variety of strategies that can be used to maximize evolutionary fitness. Industrial society's chosen the weed strategy -- grow like mad on disturbed ground, reproduce like mad, and then die. Then there are the trees, which grow slowly, sink deep roots, and outlive the weeds by centuries. Human beings can do either, and all the points in between as well.

Kyoto, by all means -- you can quote anything you like so long as there's a link to the original. As for Heinberg, no argument there at all -- The Party's Over is one of the two books that convinced me it was worth trying to write about the limits to growth again. (The other, of course, was Kunstler's The Long Emergency.)

Ray, well, I hope so.

Anothershamus, hmm! I'll have to read that; what I've read of Fuller so far reeks of hubris -- "I would not be surprised to hear," Theodore Roszak said once, "that Bucky claims to have invented a better tree." Still, I should give Critical Path another look.

Matt, that's why I consider belief in perpetual progress to be a religion. It's not a rational belief, but a mythology based on faith, and it has to be confronted on the level of story, not that of reason.

Dfr, me? Good heavens, no. I took a spark from his torch and am using it to light a variety of lamps, some of them in fields I know he found baffling at best. The world could use another credentialed scholar to take on the same job -- but that's not a job for which I'm qualified.

Stu, interesting. No, I'm not sure how to quantify it in any rigorous fashion, but it's worth pursuing.

Jeffinwa, oh, I think one way or another the Ring is going back into the fire; it's just not going to be followed by cheering crowds welcoming Frodo -- or rather his youngest cousin -- back from Mount Doom. Still, if you've grasped that we're in the middle of the thing now, that's very good to hear; so many people are still sitting on their sofas, convinced that it's still comfortably off in the future, and will stay there until the lightning falls on them.

Steve Morgan said...

@Stu from NJ

The Bureau of Labor Statistics might be a good place to start. Here's an alphabetical list of "Standard Occupational Classification" Occupations from 2010.

There's another SOC list from 2000 somewhere on that site, too. Perhaps an inquiry about previous iterations would help quantify things a bit better.

Alternatively, the IRS might be a good place to check. They've been around a bit longer, I think.

For a broader historical reference, it might also be worth checking records of businesses covered under the National Industrial Recovery Act rules during the 1930s, or perhaps some old census documents that classify occupations.

John Michael Greer said...

Donalfagan, of course. I don't expect serious revolt to happen by itself -- but then it didn't happen by itself in Libya, Syria, or the Ukraine; the US bought and paid for it in those places, and I think it's very likely that other powers can play that same game here.

Martin, you'll get no argument there. If someone ever gets around to chronicling the attempt to bring about a green transition back in the 1960s and 1970s, there'll need to be a list of characters in front! That's not the kind of writing I do well, and I'm frankly too emotionally invested in the subject to do a good job of it anyway, but it's a history that needs telling; I hope someone tackles the project soon.

Lazerus, when you say "we shouldn't have to live like the Amish," what's the basis for that claim? Every attempt I've seen to make that case either finesses or flatly ignores the huge costs in real wealth -- that is to say, energy, labor, and resources, rather than paper money -- that would be needed to make that happen, even if renewable energy could provide the kind of highly concentrated energy needed in enough quantity to matter. Every real world test of renewable energy, furthermore, makes it clear that renewables won't do the job.

There are certainly some renewable technologies that can be integrated into a lower-tech setting -- solar water heating and solar ovens are two of my favorites -- but at this point, frankly, keeping a lifestyle as comfortable as the Amish have is probably going to be off the plate for a couple of centuries. Yes, I'm aware that's an unpopular thing to suggest, but frankly, I'm past caring. The universe is under no obligation to give us the lifestyles we want, and insisting that one more round of technological vaporware will surely save us all isn't a useful habit at this stage of the game.

Ed, nah, we're just the current climax predator. Carnosaurs in their day absorbed, directly or indirectly (by way of food comsumed by prey species), a pretty fair proportion of the photosynthetic production of the areas where they hunted. When we go, whether that's soon or late, other species will take over the top-of-the-food-web niche.

PO, good. I've been arguing for years now that Fermi's Paradox isn't a paradox; it's proof that limitless technological progress is not an option for intelligent species anywhere in the universe. I suspect each intelligent species burns through whatever concentrated energy sources it can get, and then either dies out (if it bungles the transition badly enouugh) or, having finished its adolescence, reaches maturity as a species and does more interesting things thereafter.

Eric, there's been a real effort to push 1980s-style cornucopian thinking -- have you read the steady drumbeat of denunciations of peak oil in the media? -- and it's having its effect. The only difficulty in the way is that things are going wrong too quickly; where the surge in petroleum production after the 1970s crisis lasted for twenty years, the fracking boom peaked in five, and climate change is becoming very hard to ignore. It's possible, as I've noted before, that we're on the brink of a sea change of some magnitude, in which a lot of currently accepted ideas get hauled off to the glue factory and some ideas that have been exiled to the fringes for a long time find their way back in from the cold. Still, we'll see.

Ruben, thank you!

David, exactly. The best way I know of to avoid despair is to get up off the sofa and get to work.

Helix said...

@Kyoto Motors -- I'm not sure that those at the helm suffer under the "delusion ... that energy can be replaced with money." In my opinion, that the bailouts, ZIRP, QE, etc. were ever intended to fix the main street economy is a story that just doesn't add up. Consider who has ended up with the money, which at least at this point in time can still be converted into real wealth. Such considerations suggest an entirely different reason for all the printing.

John Michael Greer said...

Globus, yes, I'm familiar with those claims. Never blame conspiracy for what can be adequately explained by stupidity. As for the elite being just fine with dark age conditions, not the elite we've got now -- as I pointed out in this post and this one, they don't have any of the skills necessary to rule, or even to survive, in a society that no longer has the intricate mechanisms of control that currently keep them in power. That's what leads the elites of a falling civilization straight to their destiny as decorations for lampposts or the equivalent.

Thirdeyerune, "become the change you seek" is good advice at any time, but it's especially crucial in times like this one.

Joel, funny. Did you notice that I specified whole-systems analysis? If it takes Maxwell's demon more energy to detect the heated molecules than he could get by creating a differential between warm molecules in one tank and cool ones in another, as it necessarily would, you haven't conjured any energy at all -- you've just exchanged one form for another, with the usual losses to entropy.

Shane, does this mean I get to ride a bear?

Kyoto, no, I think you're right. It was only one factor, but it was a significant one.

Jonathan, this is a tough planet. It's shrugged off asteroid collisions and ice ages, and it can certainly brush aside us and our pinpricks, too. Still, I have a certain fondness for my own species, and we're also fairly tough, all things considered -- right up there with rats and cockroaches in our ability to adapt to rapid change and keep the species going. So I make plans and take action in the expectation that some of us will scrape through.

Julian, by all means pick up Overshoot soonest, then! You'll find plenty of ammo.

Derv said...

Oh, I had another thought somewhat related to a point that's come up recently on this blog, and in this post's comments. People are discussing whether we could have done something to avert this disaster, or whether failure was an inevitable outcome (either of our civilization's stage of collapse or simple human short-sightedness). Additionally, many people have been saddened or disturbed at the idea of decline, that all we have to look forward to is a collective decrease in wealth and scientific knowledge.

I can't help but be struck by the simple use of "we" for all these things, from myself included. There is an approach here that sees either our nation, Western civilization, or humanity collectively as "we," and then makes general statements regarding "us." It's a noble sentiment, surely, but I can't help but feel that the sadness of decline will be greatly blunted in the future by this "we" disappearing altogether.

For most of human history, there has been an in-group and an out-group; people cared about the collective welfare of their village/tribe/clan/kingdom, but only rarely humanity. A reversion to that is, I think, an inevitability given how much bigger the world will soon become. It's hard to see any connection at all between myself and, say, Parisians, when my only mode of speedy transport is a train and the internet no longer functions. It might as well be the moon to me.

So whatever sadness we feel at our collective decline will, I think, eventually be undone by the ordinary forces of history reasserting themselves (not that they went away, but I'm sure you catch my meaning). The collapse of industrial civilization will be to our descendants like the collapse of Rome - a tragedy, to be sure, but something the Romans did, not we Spaniards/French/Italians/Etc. Even in decline various peoples and places will have greatly differing fortunes, often at one another's expense. Humanity may be declining, but your future kingdom may be (relatively) thriving!

It is likely not much of a consolation to most, that the death of globalism will mean the end of global identity and, eventually, an end to the sadness many of us feel. But I thought it worth pointing out. The forging of new identities (and with them new purposes, and eventually new civilizations) will wash away the sadness we feel over what might have been. Not many Iranians are weeping over Xerxes' missteps at Salamia and Plataea, after all.

I for one welcome our new tribal overlords, and place the blame for this Fourth Rome's failure squarely on the shoulders of those perfidious swindlers from Michigonia! And from it a new empire will be born to replace the old one, identical to America in every way except for language, ethnicity, structure, culture, and location. But still! To arms, for the Holy American Empire!

Øyvind Holmstad said...

"Paul Hughes Says:
February 5th, 2015 at 2:13 pm e


To me this is an open and shut case. Kevin Carson already won this debate with Greer. The real debate is will society maintain cohesion long enough to develop the requisite systems. So it’s not a matter of if it’s possible – it is. It’s a matter of can we build it in time? This isn’t at its core a resource issue, as Tverberg claims, this is a structural issue based on the current powers deliberately suppressing the very things necessary to create the successor society. One piece of good news here – the tools of abundance are now multiplying faster than they can be expropriated.

I wish I had more time to discuss this with you here. This is why I choose instead to focus on one or two points at a time to see if they stand up to scrutiny. The continued talking point amongst doomers that phosphorus is running out in the next 50-100 years is simply not true. I haven’t determined if this meme is based on ignorance or politically motivated disinformation. It’s not even running out in 300 years. Next point, solar energy can and will have the capacity to power civilization far more complex than our own. This is so easily proven, that I’m shocked and amazed otherwise educated people like Tverberg are arguing otherwise. As an ex-physicist I’m perfectly aware of energy flux density. Although that’s important in terms of how much space a solar panel takes up based on its efficiency, it’s a non issue in terms of us having enough space to capturing enough to do the job. At 12-15% efficiencies a smallish section of the upper Sahara would be enough. New panels now have double those efficiencies, thus cutting the necessary area in half. Super cheap organic solar cells are coming, yet already solar is reaching fossil fuel parity. Batteries are closing in on oil’s energy density. I will happily debate both Tverberg and Greer publicly on solar having the capacity to power human civilization. What is more arguable is will be able to replace fossil fuels with solar electric equivalents in time? That’s a good question, and the jury is out.

Regeneration is not an energy intensive issue, it’s about the deliberate creation of super durable but fully reusable, regenerative, and/or compostable materials from the get go! Duh! For example, stronger C-N nanomaterials will obsolete most need for metals anyway, not to mention the deliberate creation of modular reusable tool sets designed not to break, therefor no replacement cost and new materials needed.

Where Tverberg may be correct is will we experience an economic domino like collapse before alternative financial instruments can take over? She says no, and I can’t say she’s right or wrong. Several years ago, I would have more easily agreed with her. Now, and despite Bitcoin’s flaws, we have at least one. Other efforts at decentralized financial instruments are making headway.

We need to start separating out more meaningfully the differences between the many types of growth, complexity, novelty, change, stability, etc. Having over simplified black and white conceptions of each, results in the conflation of one with the another, resulting in what looks like serious one sided framing from both Greer and Tverberg."

First paragraph in the comment missing because of the 4096 characters limit.

Gloucon X said...

John Michael Greer said..Matt, that's why I consider belief in perpetual progress to be a religion. It's not a rational belief, but a mythology based on faith, and it has to be confronted on the level of story, not that of reason.

Speaking of stories, who is willing to confront this story? It’s hard to see how the people a country could ever make an effort to care about the long-term future when they have faith in an irrational story such as this:

By the year 2050, 41% of Americans believe that Jesus Christ definitely or probably will have returned to earth. Only a 46%-plurality of the public does not believe Christ will return.

This stunning fact (which was also a fact in the 1970’s) was the main reason why I was certain that the US was never going to take collective action to limit growth out of concern for future generations. Why worry about your grandchildren’s future when your sky god is going to drop down and fix everything in a few decades?

But what was really disappointing was that those countries not cursed with a large population of irrational rapturists and with good science education systems also failed to make the collective choice to limit growth. They could have set an example. Do any of us have an explanation for that failure?

Cherokee Organics said...


Vale William Catton.

Sorry to hear that an intellectual inspiration to you has passed. Continuing and extending his ideas and work is a thoughtful form of remembrance and eulogy.

Is it my imagination or are there deeper messages to be found in your essay this week?

It has been crazy busy here this week, so I didn't even get the chance to reply until Friday evening (tonight) sitting out with the chickens as they scratch around the orchard. They're a bit grumpy with me as I threw some of the broody chickens out into the orchard to stretch their legs and have a good scratch around. Those broody chooks aren’t sitting on fertilised eggs so it does them no harm. I should raise some chickens from eggs one day in the future…

As I was in the city last evening, I dropped into the cinema to see the film "Wild" which recounts the story of Cheryl Strayed who was emotionally damaged and self-destructive after the untimely death of her mother (Cheryl was 26 at the time).

After a harsh journey in the land of the plenty in which she found no solace, she sought to emotionally heal herself by reconnecting with nature by undertaking the Pacific Coast Walk which is 1,000 miles in length - alone. A beautiful film and story and also a good insight into some of the many paths which people take as their emotional strengths are tested against the harsh realities of the world that we live in. I salute her strength. She even had a totem animal in the form of a fox which would appear from time to time. My totem animal would be a wombat – no question.

I don't read Dmitry Orlov usually, but I do remember reading his descriptions of the breakdown in the Russian character and people as the Soviet Union collapsed. There but for the grace of the Gods go we and thus shall our future play out...

You might find this to be a funny observation, but at one point the story passed through Ashland, Oregon and oh yeah, I hear you man! Just sayin...

Yes, it reminded me very much of the time I was in Nimbin and visited the hippy museum. Not only did the town disappoint me, but the hippy museum hadn't showed much gumption on the part of the locals for over 30 years or so. They looked the part, but scratch just below the surface and they loved their SUV lifestyles. Oh yeah did they what.

Now I'm on a roll. Years ago, I went to a hippy camp out "Confest" which was massive. You know I turned up wearing my normal gear and I got ribbed from one end of the camp site to the other. And boy, was I grumpy with that after a few hours. So what, if I failed to display tribe colours. Big deal, but not to them, I guess. I got the last laugh because the funny thing was that a day or so later, it rained heavily and then all that tie-dye, cheese cloth gear got dumped and they all started wearing jeans and t shirts etc again. Any fool can put on the clothes but few indeed have the gumption to take up an alternative lifestyle. I never went back to either place...

Sorry again for the loss of your intellectual peer.



PS: I've got a new blog entry up too showing re-use, repair and recycle in action Down Under style: The T-rusty Trailer. At least I thought that the title was clever.

I also took some great photos of Fatso the wombat last night and will put them on next weeks blog. Him big! One wombat to rule them all! hehe!

ed boyle said...

I finished reading chapter spengler on entropy. Book 1,chapter 6, part 14.

faustian science merges with historical reality. Entropic process irreversible like human history. Entropy as 'Goetterdaemmerung'.

Kutamun said...

For me , Cattons words seem to mirror and magnify the sentiment of D.H Lawrence in that prototypical avant garde ecological tract " Lady Chatterlys Lover " , which at the time was quickly derided as a smutty bit of porn
"We must get back into relation, vivid and nourishing relation to the cosmos and the universe. The way is through daily ritual, and the re-awakening. We must once more practice the ritual of dawn and noon and sunset, the ritual of the kindling fire and pouring water, the ritual of the first breath, and the last. This is an affair of the individual and the household, a ritual of day. The ritual of the moon in her phases, of the morning star and the evening star is for men and women separate. Then the ritual of the seasons, with the Drama and the Passion of the soul embodied in procession and dance, this is for the community, an act of men and women, a whole community, in togetherness. And the ritual of the great events in the year of stars is for nations and whole peoples. To these rituals we must return: or we must evolve them to suit our needs. For the truth is, we are perishing for lack of fulfillment of our greater needs, we are cut off from the great sources of our inward nourishment and renewal, sources which flow eternally in the universe. Vitally, the human race is dying. It is like a great uprooted tree, with its roots in the air. We must plant ourselves again in the Universe."

Vic Postnikov said...

Thank you, JMG, for the tiubute to the late William R. Catton. You may be interested to know how I came to know him, and I think I was blessed.
The first time I heard about William Catton and the word “overshoot”, circa 1996, when I began to roam Internet and bumped into the Jay Hanson’d Dio-off website. By that time, I was already well-educated in the energy and ecology link to grasp the meaning of the passage from Catton’s book posted on the site. In fact, at this time, I was reading the course in Energy and Ecology for the students in Kiev Polytechnic based on the works of Howard Odum (Emergy), Donella Meadows (The Limits of Growth), and Fritjof Capra (System theory, ecoliteracy). So I was “ripe” to pick up what Catton was saying. And it affected me considerably. From that moment on, I was trying to read more of him.
In the late 90-s, I moved to the deep ecology, and started translating key anti-nuclear and anti-industrial thinkers. Then I remembered Catton, and thought it would be wonderful to publish his seminal book in Russia. However, no-one in Ukraine/Russia was particularly anxious to publish serious thinkers as the publishers preferred either New-Age stuff or business manuals. At that time I joined the left biocentrism (leftbio) group initiated by late David Orton, and through him I found Dr. Douglas Tompkins, and the Deep Ecology Foundation that helped me with the funding of the translations project. That was sheer luck. In 2006, I received a grant for translation and publication of two books - William Catton’s “Overshoot” and Jerry Mander’s “In the Absence of the Sacred”. Thus I had a great privilege to appreciate the depth and radicalism of William Catton’s thought. I will never forget the communication that we had with him at that time. Probably the happiest and most fruitful period of my translation work. I treasure his letters and the books he presented.
He also sent me his latest book, “The Bottleneck: Humanity Impending Collapse”, where he predicted the collase from yet another viewpoint, and that is the unbridgeable division of humans casued by specialization and general complexity of life. Its dehumanizing effect is now seen everywhere.
I’ve tried to popularize his ideas as best as I could, and I will always remain his grateful disciple.

- VP said...

Another fact that many are unaware of or simply don't want to acknowledge, is that when you tally it all up, about 97% of the energy that powers our economies comes from burning dead things that used to be alive, via fossil fuels, biofuels and food. The nuclear fantasy barely even registers. So it's impossible to deny that we are still completely dependent on ecology.

I think so many people reject these truths because they reveal that a lot of our progress, what people like to believe to be a result of human ingenuity, greatness, and free will, is actually just a result of a cold hard law of nature, kind of like a machine. This doesn't really jive with contemporary and religious views of what makes humans human. It also deflates everything economists have told themselves for the last several centuries, pretty much invalidating their entire discipline of study. It also doesn't bode well for politicians who would like any growth we attain to be sold as a result of whatever policy they're flogging to get re-elected, and who want to encourage people to get to work even harder to further build our societies into greatness.

Furthermore, almost all of the advancements in technology over the last half century have had to do with information management, not with hard things like energy and resources. But you can't live off information. Most of the advancements in the thermodynamics realm were made along ago, and any of the more recent ones (eg Green Revolution) are fully dependent on fossil fuels.

Having said that, I don't think solar energy is as diffuse as you are making it out to be. It is tremendously concentrated, and a patch of solar panels 400 km square would provide enough energy to power the entire world. But the problem is that they provide only intermittent electricity, which limits their usefulness. Electricity prices have been dropping almost continuously for at least a hundred years, something the Peak Oil blogosphere rarely if ever mentions. A hundred years ago, a kWh cost around 8 cents, the same as today, not even accounting for inflation! That's what solar power has always been up against, and explains a lot about why it is so hard to gain traction. Furthermore, it has an EROEI challenge (it's still positive though), since it has to also compete with coal which isn't terribly expensive and has a pretty high EROEI in comparison.

If someone could figure out a reaction for artificial photosynthesis then the game could be changed since it would allow solar energy to provide complex hydrocarbons (which is what we are currently running short of) independently of biological ecosystems. This wouldn't change our ultimate destiny, however, since we'd still be in overshoot with regards to so many other services that ecosystems provide. In fact, it would probably just permit us to grow a little bit further and make the ultimate crash even worse. But with coal so cheap I don't see much of an incentive for artificial photosynthesis developing.

Eric S. said...

Yes, I've definitely been seeing the cornucopian thinking. If I try to follow the state of the oil industry at all, it's almost all I see lately.

"It's possible, as I've noted before, that we're on the brink of a sea change of some magnitude, in which a lot of currently accepted ideas get hauled off to the glue factory and some ideas that have been exiled to the fringes for a long time find their way back in from the cold."

I can only say... I hope you're right. And yes, the short lifespan of the Fracking Boom is one very encouraging sign that our civilization at least has some small chance of slowing down through resource depletion first before it crashes full speed ahead into something far, far worse.

Bogatyr said...

@sgage and Shane Wilson: sgage's friend is right. Speaking as a Brit in Russia, I've found the Russians to be a very friendly people indeed. Sometimes you need to get through the outer shell, very often it just isn't there at all.

On a different topic, I found this interesting: Back for Thor: how Iceland is reconnecting with its pagan past:

Linus Orri, a thoughtful 25-year-old environmental activist, says he thinks the group’s appeal lies in the fact that “in a world that is quite artificial, here there seems to be an interest in the real, something authentic – whether that’s searching for some older wisdom or the truth about how society was, or whether it’s [our] commitment to nature, I can’t really say”.

The laugh-out-loud moment for me was this:

Unlike some neo-pagan societies across the world, the group has been careful to permit no space for far-right ideology and has severed all ties to outside organisations (“Some of them are really pissed off that a stupid hippy nation should have the sources in their own language,” says Hilmarsson.)

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Commenting late, but thanks for this, JMG.

Like so many others here, I'll never forget when I first encountered Catton's ideas, at about the same time I discovered peak oil and read "Limits to Growth." I can't say they exactly revolutionized my physical/material life. My childhood was spent in something like a commune of intellectual hippies and as an adult my own family was already living as environmentally friendly as we could manage, and would continue to do so. But the theoretical discussion, along with the concepts of Gaia and AGW that I had become aware of somewhat earlier, gave me a much larger, more complex intellectual/ethical world-construct in which to operate and from which to make decisions.

And what is success? Ideas circulate for a long time, in ways we can't always track (sort of like energy through through an ecosystem, as it were? Or maybe like the carbon cycle?).

Joe Roberts said...

Some grump has reverted information about William Catton's death in Wikipedia because "no reliable source" confirms it. If anyone here has a link to a death notice or obituary for Catton online, please edit Catton's Wikipedia page with that link as a reference or, if JMG doesn't mind, leave the link here and I'll do it. Wikipedia is definitely not most people's favorite website, but it is a major go-to source about lesser known topics, and I feel it's important to keep it updated.

Shane Wilson said...

I'm probably stating the obvious to this group, but one of the major flaws of modern psychology/mental health is that it" normalizes the majority", that whatever is" normal" or" average" among the majority is considered healthy functioning. There's no room in modern psychology/mental health for" society gone mad" or" collective schizophrenia", even though we know societies do occasionally" go mad" like the Khmer rouge, or Europe during WWII. Yet, the onus is on the person that is a misfit, or senses very acutely the collective illness of a society to "fit in", there's no space in the collective conscious for those who identify a society "going mad" because the norm, the average is by definition healthy and "functioning prproperly" I majored in psychology, so I know a little about these things.

Steve Carrow said...

As we revisit the underlying principle of thermodynamics and energy flows, it once again reminds me of what implicitly seems to be our host's goal here at ADR ( and maybe explicitly stated some time before I began following?). Using his chosen tools of words and magic, he is planting meme seeds, hoping to help those of us that are predisposed, ( fertile soil, dissensus rules) to begin the transition from r strategy to K strategy we will ( must ) adopt in order to continue as a species in the coming low energy environment. In essence, an optimistic and stewardship based life path. Thanks for that.

The fossil energy era has been quite the ride. I think it was inevitable that it would have been exploited, that is what life does with energy sources, but as Heinberg said, "The Party's Over".

The added bummer for this transition is that we've also upset the global geochemical equilibrium, so the next equilibrium state ( whenever that happens) might be too much for an ecotechnic future to occur any time soon. It's worth the attempt, however,as "life finds a way".

Paul Chefurka said...

It's not much of a stretch to say that William Catton's slim little book "Overshoot" changed my life.

I don't remember how I first heard of it, but it was shortly after I had figured out the significance of climate change and the realities of Peak Oil about a decade ago. I do remember the impact it had on me. I had read perhaps two chapters when I put down the book, stared off into the distance, and for the first time in my life thought those fateful words: "We're fucked, aren't we?"

Of course I didn't fully believe that epiphany on the spot - I still had a lot of work to do. I was the product of a progressive, liberal, scientific home; I was a hard-core software engineer during the peak of the tech boom; I personified the power of human ingenuity; I especially believed in exploring the truth or falsehood of any proposition on my own.

I began to look at the world around me more critically. Did what I see fit better with the cornucopian views I had held for the previous 50 years, or with this brand new, utterly heretical idea I had just encountered? The more I looked, the clearer the answer became. The human species is undeniably in the state of overshoot that Catton described so unsparingly.

Accepting that premise, however, brought me face to face with an extremely uncomfortable set of conclusions. Situations that are unsustainable will not be sustained. Overshoot implies correction. Correction implies dieoff. Dieoff implies a radical alteration of our species' accustomed way of living.

I began looking for signs that the human ingenuity I worshiped so fervently would be able to turn the situation around before Mother Nature, red in tooth and claw, stepped in to do the job for us. This time, the more I looked the less evidence I saw. When COP15 blew its brains out in Copenhagen at the end of 2009, I finally accepted that despite the best intentions of a few, the human collective has no intention whatever of trying to rectify the situation. We seem utterly committed to a one-way trip off the cliff, with the movie "Thelma and Louise" as our roadmap.

With that acceptance came a burning desire to understand why we are doing this. Why does our course seem irreversible? What is locking us into such an obviously catastrophic course of action?

My efforts to unravel these questions have led me a long way from the cornucopian tranquility of my software engineering days. The investigation has taken me down rabbit-holes I could never have predicted, where I found such gems as the materialist anthropology of Marvin Harris, Howard Odum's Maximum Power Principle, evolutionary psychology, complex systems, cybernetics and finally the non-equilibrium thermodynamics of Ilya Prigogine and Eric Schneider.

Bill Catton's seminal concept has been at the core of my writing for many years now. It helped to disabuse me of the notion that humanity could ever be a truly sustainable presence on the planet. It has allowed me to frame the radical understanding that even a few tens of millions of humans, living as we now do, are far too great a load for Mother Earth to bear. It has helped me come to terms with the possibility that our species could go extinct far more rapidly than most of us can comprehend.

Fortunately, in this life every coin has two sides. In the end, Catton's terrifying idea was responsible for triggering the spiritual explorations that have taken me through the "gateless gate" into a quieter and more joyful landscape. There aren't enough words in the English language to express my gratitude for this unexpected result.

So Bill, wherever, whenever and whatever you now are, thank you from the bottom of my heart. Thank you for your clarity, your courage, your wisdom, and for the humanity that flowed from you so naturally. You were touched by the glow of Diogenes' lamp, and became a beacon in your own right.

Rest in peace.

Mickey Foley said...

Kudos, JMG, on another great essay. You've covered this ground before, but, by articulating it in different terms, the subject is refreshed and cast in a new light. Funny how that works. At the risk of riding your coattails, I'd like to encourage people once again to visit my blog, Riding the Rubicon. This week's essay, "Nuremberg Redux," is an encapsulation of my views on the American Empire as they pertain to our Salutes to the Troops:

SLClaire said...

My recollection of the 1960s and 1970s matches JMG's pretty well. The new ideas of ecology, limits to growth, and the need for energy conservation were in the air, being discussed even in public schools. I grew up learning about some of those ideas. Back in high school, I and a few others in chemistry class co-wrote a report covering the atmospheric damage being done by chlorofluorocarbons, the health issues of vinyl chloride, and global warming.

In my junior year of college (1978) I interviewed for and was offered a summer job at Rodale's research lab, not far from the college. I'd accepted it when I also received an acceptance for a summer job at Bell Labs. Here's the relevance to this post: as concerned as I was about the environment, I'd chosen a major in chemistry instead of environmental studies, and I turned down the Rodale job in favor of the Bell Labs job. Call it my personal contribution to the tragedy you described. I consciously chose to better my career prospects at the expense of contributing to the efforts underway at Rodale to address environmental issues. While I did come to my senses in the early 1990s and started living a life of LESS, I missed the chance to add my efforts to the developing understanding, and I missed the chance to learn from all the interesting things going on at Rodale at the time (most of which I didn't find out about till the 1990s). It seems to me quite right to call this a tragedy. My personal and our collective greed led us to make a conscious choice to put ourselves first. Enough of us knew better that we could have changed course, me among them. It might help people of the future to preserve and tell that story, in case something like that choice faces them at some point. They might do better than us if they know our story.

Varun Bhaskar said...


This is really sad news. I got the book right after I read your first mention of it here on ADR. Same Cover as the one you mentioned.

What frustrates me most about all the information you talk about is that none of it was introduced to my generation. Ecologists discovered the single most valuable model to explain human behavior and it is totally ignored in every university. Glossed over by the econo-centric model of human society.

The world may have ignored Catton but there are still plenty of us who will be aided by his work. May he rest in peace.



Ed-M said...

Hello, JMG!

Well, touching base with you last week concerning my "baroque" spelling of the word Jeez, it's just the transliteration of the Russian spelling of the "J" sound with the ending of "please" tacked on. Now why didn't I get back to you last week? The comments went over 200 very early on, and, having no access to a computer with Firefox or Google Chrome, I found that both Safari (on my I-phone) and Windows IE (on a library computer) had problems dealing with the comment load, and would not afford me an opportunity to reply.


And now on this week's post: looks like I have to add two volumes to my reading to-do list. I haven't heard of William Catton but I have heard of Jeremy Rifkin, probably through the site.

Karl said...

Related to your series on civil religion, here is a recent post by a Yugoslav economist about the religion of Marxism.

I was in elementary school when the Cuban missile crisis happened and I still remember the feeling of dread that took over everybody.

If all of mankind had to reach Communism, I thought, then we cannot have a nuclear holocaust now since it would destroy the mankind before it had acceded to Communism. Thus I decided that Marxism provides a very effective rebuttal to any possibility of a nuclear war. My fears receded. For, I thought, if there is a war, the scientific study of where the mankind is going would be proven incorrect. And, on that soothing note, I went to bed, sure that no world war would break out.

Now, almost half-a-century later, as I was writing about the war, I realized how Marxism in that case really fulfilled the essential functions of a religion. It is often said that Marxism, with its succession of social stages and with the beliefs it engenders in people, is a secular region. But in this case it was more than that: it dispelled the fears of death, like any “serious” religion would.

Moshe Braner said...

Followers of HT Odum seem to like to lambast the trajectory we are on, and, in the same writings, mention the Maximum Power Principle as if it were the 4th law of thermodynamics or something. As other comments here have mentioned, the competitive advantage of using energy more rapidly (if available) has made the trajectory we are on rather likely, and perhaps unavoidable. But just because something is "natural" does not mean that it is "good", and does not mean that we should refrain from criticizing it. Racism, sexism, egotism, kleptocracies, warlords, and also intentional behavior justified by the Maximum Power Principle, like smallpox and cancer, are all natural but arguably bad.

Yes, I know, the concept of "natural but bad" is rather non-PC in our culture. See for example the widespread denigration of Hardin over The Tragedy of the Commons. Why can't they instead hear Hardin's warning that we need to set up rules to guard against the consequences of perfectly natural tendencies to over-exploit what is open to all?

Joel said...

Glad you got a kick out of it, but I brought it up to cover the case where there is pre-existing knowledge.

I think it's worth watching out for efforts to "burn" stored information, because the theory allows for energy to be harnessed this way. Vast amounts of data would have to be made unreliable in order to accomplish tiny amounts of work, but I could see people taking a gamble on it, if an obfuscation (cf. Steorn's use of ferromagnetism) can be interposed between investors and their common sense.

Patricia Mathews said...

The price of a print copy of OVERSHOOT seems to have shot up. I hit the book business' Evil Empire's website this morning and copies are running around $25 from 3rd party sellers. And are out of stock from said Evil Empire itself. luckily my daughter's family gave me a gift certificate for Yule.

Douglas Tingey said...

JMG This is to my mind one of your better posts. Keep the quality coming.

Cathy McGuire said...

Thanks for a wonderful eulogy and summary of Mr. Catton's work. I read the book after seeing a great interview with him on youtube:

in which he summarizes much of his work, and you also get to see something of his personality. I highly recommend it.

Cathy McGuire said...

@Shane Wilson: I'm probably stating the obvious to this group, but one of the major flaws of modern psychology/mental health is that it" normalizes the majority", that whatever is" normal" or" average" among the majority is considered healthy functioning.
As a retired mental health therapist, I totally agree. It was one of the things that drove me out of the system – blaming the victim for a perfectly healthy anger or anxiety over their socio-economic plight, and recommending pills to “help function”, ie: help dull the awareness. And it’s only gotten worse since I’ve left.

@Kutamun: Thank you for that amazing quote from Lady Chatterley’s Lover!

@Julian R: email me at cat h y @ cat h ymcg ui re. co m (remove spaces) and tell me the user name you picked, and I’ll get you signed on the Green Wizards site! So sorry about the glitches!

Cherokee Organics said...



Quote: "It is tremendously concentrated, and a patch of solar panels 400 km square would provide enough energy to power the entire world. But the problem is that they provide only intermittent electricity, which limits their usefulness. Electricity prices have been dropping almost continuously for at least a hundred years, something the Peak Oil blogosphere rarely if ever mentions. A hundred years ago, a kWh cost around 8 cents, the same as today, not even accounting for inflation! "

Well for a start, Down Under I believe they pay about $0.28 to $0.30 per kWh.

Now your assertion about solar is wrong because you simply fail to think in terms of the entire system. Have you not heard of transmission losses? The house here is not connected to the electricity grid, so I survive on solar PV alone. Even over the short distances that electricity moves from the solar panels to the controllers and batteries - there are significant losses of energy. And I do everything I can to reduce those losses. You wouldn't think it, but the cables cost more than the PV panels.

Storing and moving electricity is like trying to keep water in a leaky bucket. It oozes out everywhere. At every point in the system there are losses...

And, do you not realise that the amount of available sunlight is not consistent from one day to the next? In the depths of winter here I'm lucky to get a reliable one full hour per day of strong sunlight per day. And the farm here is at 37.5' latitude South - which is reasonably temperate.

Your calculations are wildly optomistic - get thee to a nunnery!

PS: It would be nice if you were in fact correct about the 400 square whatevers, as it would save a lot of heartache and pain, but unfortunately if your idea was the hope for the future, we're in for a world of trouble.

PPS: Off grid electricity here is about $0.80 per kWh here.



Stu from New Jersey said...

@Steve Morgan:

Thanks for the BLS link - it's now in my favorites and I'll go back to it occasionally.

I notice they have only 8 entries starting with 'Software'. I don't know how many there actually are, but I would think it's somewhere north of 40. (These same 8 existed when I was a youngster, and the field is much more complex than it was then.)

Another problem with a list like this is the probable failure to erase those that become extinct. But it's the best example that I've seen.

Thomas Prentice said...

Your writing is worthy of the Nobel Prize in both Literature and Physics.

Sobering. Awesome in the literal sense of that vastly overused word. Frightening. Tragic. Devstating. Profoundly sad. Lo, the missed opportunities.

Eureka: I finally see now where all this "Education is the be-all and end-all of everything" emerged from. And why Thank you. I was a teacher and valued learning of course but could not buy the catechism but didn't quite know why.

I just finished reading Barry Commoner's "The Closing Circle: Man, Nature and Technology" (1971). Without mentioning Climate Change, Global Warming, Peak Oil, Civilizational Collapse or any of the terms and knowledges we wrestle with today, Commoner laid out PRECISELY -- EXACTY -- what the problem was and how to prevent it from getting worse -- far worse it seems than he ever knew. The Closing Circle was published maybe a year following the first Earth Day which is now just One More Politics and Policy-Free Valentine's Day on the calendar.

I was constantly interrupted while reading The CLosing Circle by closing it and slamming it on the table, the air turning blue, demanding WHY didn't I read it THEN as a sophomore rather than NOW as a geezer, and WHY didn't anybody heed the warning 25 years BEFORE Al Gore went and invented both Climate Change and the Internet in the 1990s?

Commoner's chapter on Lake Erie was, well eerie. The same kind of massive algae bloom just happened near Toledo last autumn placing the city's water supply in jeopardy. 45 years later everything is the same, only different.

How does one deal with the anguish of putting knowledge out there -- as Cotton and Commoner both did -- and me realizing that helping start local Earth Days in 1970 and joining the Sierra Club and agitating for pollution controls just either wasn't enough, didn't do the trick, was already too little too late, or was inevitably to be undone by the Reagan/Clinton/Bush/Obama coup d'etat era?

I look forward to reading Dr. Catten's book.

Meanwhile it seems time to start thinking about what we're going to be talking about around the campfire we build on the wreckage. I did find a helpful excerpt from Benjamin Franklin's writing on the Indians this week that might be a useful guide:

"Benjamin Franklin answers these questions: Did the Indians have Police? Prisons? What about “Artificial Wants”? Democracy? Leisure?"

Bruce The Druid said...

I never received a formal introduction to Ecology, but we did study it in Anthropology, which is a multidisciplinary field anyway. I have found it indispensable in making sense of the world, but I am astonished at how many people are ignorant of its basic principles. Even pagans, I am discovering, who profess a love of nature, are ignorant of Ecology. Druids on the other hand, seem to be ahead of the game.

There was this bearded Man,
Who drummed on many drums.
Of all the drums He did drum,
The one called Ecology,
Was my favorite drum of all!

Ozark Chinquapin said...

I'm not sure that the decline in solar energy is the main reason that biodiversity declines so drastically from the tropics to the arctic tundra. It's one of the reasons, but according to this article (and other things I've read too) there are a number of causes for low arctic biodiversity, but no consensus as to the most important. The fact that the tropics tend to have more climate stability, and the arctic gets more extreme climate changes, is one of the major reasons. Also, the arctic ecosystem just hasn't been consistently present on the geological time scale. All the species there have had to adapt to that biome since the last time Earth cooled down from a much warmer climate, and only a fraction of those warmer climate species have ended up adapting to the arctic.

latheChuck said...

I have a question for the group here: On Shrove Tuesday (Feb. 17), my church holds a festive pancake supper, followed by a "talent show". I'd like to perform a song with guitar, and I'm looking for something that will hint at the topics of this blog. "Good planets are hard to find." (Steve Forbert, 1996) is on the right track, but I've done that before.

My goal is to try to raise a little consciousness in the faith community, in an entertaining way.

zentao said...

Hello John Michael,

Very eloquent. But perhaps I will paraphrase a few things for some...

In my lineage there we recognize three "planes" and I think that Catton managed to thread them together very well. There is the physical - the cold and dry world of science -, the energetic, which includes qi, and the spiritual.

It is great to read Catton, Jantsch and Rosen to satisfy the physical but deficiency in the other two still leads to imbalance. There must be effort work on the other two realms. We have strayed far from this path.

I was taught that one should seek out three ancient traditions, experience them to the fullest, and then take the best to the future. These are not "-isms" but actual practices. Not philosophy but daily life.

As much as I enjoyed Catton's book I always was left with a vacuum due to the seemingly purely scientific viewpoint. Did you detect some aspect of energy and spirit within him when you met him?

If we cannot combine the realms then I do not see how this species advances much further...

Bret said...

Cathy, thanks for posting the wonderful Cattan interview. What a wonderful father figure and sweetheart of a teacher.

JMG, this one is for the ages -- magisterial, accessible, the whole ball of wax. (Though I crave understanding of, yet lack the background to understand -- the equivalency between ecosystem complexity and water flow rate; they just don't seem analogous in any way I'm aware of or can intuit. Does Prigogine set out the answer?)

Paul Chefurka, can you briefly sketch, or link to a discussion of, or otherwise help interested parties to identify the particular nature of your spiritual explorations, your gateless gate?

I'd certainly be grateful for any favorite references and recommendations you (or any JMG readers) can suggest toward well-formulated discussions of "spiritual goods" that derive from all of these discussions. (I appreciate another commentator's mention of JMG's "Mystery Teachings" which I own but haven't yet cracked open.)

Because I can't resist wondering... is there a teleology buried in all these mysteries of energy and ecology and civilization? Thermodynamics seemingly lends direction and pace to the unfolding story of the universe (and our strange little place in it), a role until recently played by various deities... is there a new gospel floating around somewhere in the vicinity of the peak oil discussion? Could some properly contextualized and distilled formulation of the big picture Cattan, Heinberg, Odum and JMG describe ever take people by the shoulders and... gently shake them awake?

Kyoto Motors said...

And of course I meant "fracking" rather than "tracking" but so it goes...
As for JHK's Long Emergency, me too!
It's funny how the two of them - JHK & RH, who have done online work together since - seemed to be completely unaware of each other at the time. The two books, when viewed from a distance are practically identical! I mean, you could write one "cole's notes" version for the two of them.
Anyway, it's what, twelve years on? one book can only do so much. Lots more work to be done!
on another note, if you don't mind, I'd like to share this link:
Which I happened upon at
The "promise" of self-driving cars seems to carry a fair bit of weight in the collective conversation. I just don't take it seriously as a matter of course, but apparently it's something that looms large... But the article is especially good for the historical perspective on the car in America. I'll never thinkof Groucho Marx the same again...

dltrammel said...

While long and a bit technical, here is an interesting take on the next 5-8 years of oil production and the economics of it.

Jeremy Grantham Divines Oil Industry’s Future

He seems to confirm much of what you say about the coming decline.

Kyoto Motors said...

I hear what your saying. But I'm thinking of a different phenomenon, where the naive participant in the culture of entitlement (with a credit card) sees not the energy behind the availability of stuff. everything under the sun is made available with the right app and a valid CC#. So long as there is enough fictitious wealth floating around cyberspace, we can pretend to have an economy thanks to the willful participants who want to believe that the economy is somehow taking care of them - or worse, don't even think about it.
For sure the ultra rich are building real estate in the hills, and are profiting while the getting's good. Largely this is because the masses are clueless about the flow of energy in one direction, and the shifting of material wealth in the other.

steve pearson said...

Hey Kutamun,Beautiful passage from Lady Chatterly's Lover.Definitely time for me to start re-reading D.H.Lawrence.I have always felt his mystic connection with the earth, and thought what was considered smut was his evoking that same mystic connection through human sexuality.
I did some work in the mid 60s in Sydney for a short lived magazine called Chance International; I thought it was a rather good magazine. The owner/ publisher/ editor was a bloke named Gareth Powell. He made his fortune in the UK in the late 50s or early 60s by publishing Lady Chatterly's Lover. It was long since out of copyright so he just went ahead and did it.He was, of course, taken to court...and won.It sold like mad,probably because people did think it was smutty,and the money just kept rolling in.
He, on the other hand, saw it as neither spiritual nor smutty, but a good business opportunity and an opportunity to pull the establishments tail, which he dearly loved doing.
Cheers, Steve

steve pearson said...

Its odd, but I think I Have always believed that we were in overshoot since being a little kid. I don't know if I was wired differently or it was growing up in the cold war, or seeing my favorite woods bulldozed for ticky tack housing. Catton's Overshoot and various other books felt like confirmation bias to me. I sometimes wonder if that's what I am doing on this site now and "they" were right, like my parents friends who thought I was such a no hoper for not enthusiastically becoming part of the establishment, especially during the age of American triuphalism the truculent latter days of which I believe we are seeing now.
No, I wouldn't trade my choices fur nuthin, but sometimes 75 years of dancing to your own tune in a crowded ballroom begets its own sort of black humor.
Just sayin, Steve

Crow Hill said...

Hello JMG. I am sorry to hear about William Catton’s passing. Thanks for bringing up his life’s work and his book Overshoot. I would personally have embraced the alternative future he proposed.

Found this quote of Catton in a review on Amazon: "Those who don't see ecologically see antagonistically," …"barring human extinction, there will never come to an end man's need for enlightened self-restraint."

I would like to know if you have treated the question of humans’ duty to live ecologically not because this exclusively serves us, but with the premise that other life forms and geographical features have value in themselves? If so I would be very grateful if you could give me the reference.

Dau Branchazel said...

I just read a brief article about the tasting of soil to determine pH levels. It, to me, sums up the attitude you often describe here, where people just cannot believe that people in the past were capable of using their brains as effectively as we do. When it really so often is quite the opposite it would seem.

"In the old days, some European immigrant farmers would actually taste the soil of their new American holdings to determine the pH, though it’s not likely they realized what they were testing for. Acidic soils (that is, those with a pH of less than 7) tend to be tart, while alkaline soils are somewhat sweet. While we wouldn’t recommend putting dirt in your mouth (who knows where it’s been!), the flavor apparently really can indicate which crops will grow best in your soil."

They talk about them as if they were colonists talk about the local indigenous people, "They make a serious of grunts, but it could hardly be deemed a language."

How hard is it to believe that knowledge they claim to only have just discovered through science, could have been known by those immigrant farmers doing the exact same thing? Surely they can't have understood the content of the thing on which their lives depended. Surely, farmers who most likely inherited their skills from their forbears, surely they couldn't "Know."

Then to prove just why they aren't as clever as our hero immigrants, they suggest that you don't taste it. To ensure that you stay un-barbaric I guess. Please don't taste the soil, soil is bad, use chemicals made who-knows-where to test it, and please don't try this at home. Ask a scientist to supervise you.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

@Kutamun--I haven't read Lady Chatterly's Lover because I didn't think it would interest me. Your quotation from the novel interests me a great deal.

A religious movement called Wicca apparently originated among a small group of English people in the 1940s. As Wicca has matured, its practitioners developed every kind of ritual that Lawrence mentions, with the possible exception of the star rituals. That makes sense since the "great events in the year of stars" are according to Lawrence the business of entire nations and peoples. The division of labor of who performs the various rituals falls out in Wicca similarly to what Lawrence prescribes.

The sources of Wicca seem to be primarily literary, with influence from Freemasonry and a seasoning of British folk practices. It became a living religion largely through the creative contributions of its adherents. This also tallies with Lawrence: "To these rituals we must return: or we must evolve them to suit our needs."

Another Laurentian tie-in is that Wicca, unusually for a
Western religion, contains overt eroticism in its mythology and erotic symbolism in its ritual practices.

Wicca has outlived its founders and currently boasts at least a million adherents in the English-speaking world, having grown in numbers and influence without benefit of charismatic leaders or moneyed interests. I don't expect Wicca to become a mass religion, though it might contribute elements to whichever new popular religions emerge. I do think Wicca qualifies as proof of concept for what D. H. Lawrence says the human race needs.

I totally agree with the last four sentences of the quotation, at least as they apply to human beings who live in industrialized nations.

Vic Postnikov said...

Thank you, Cathy, for a wonderful video with an interview with Prof Catton. It's priceless. And I'm appalled by the scarcity of viewers.


dfr2010 said...

You've mentioned the abrupt about-face the US culture took in the early 80s many times, and it has been stewing in the back of my mind. In the fall of 1980, I started first grade. My age group may have the psychological equivalent of cultural whiplash. Our formative years were the mid to late 70s, but after the early 80s recessions everything changed, and we were a bit too young to understand the sudden whipsaw.

As for myself, I have gone into the woods, at the dead end of a dirt road off of another dirt road, and have gone back to what seems "normal" to me - the way we lived in the late 70s, complete with a garden and a bunch of canning jars.

jonathan said...

@jmg: thank you for "never blame conspiracy for what can be adequately explained by stupidity". an outstanding application of occam's razor and an aphorism worthy of ben franklin. i expect to use it frequently (with attribution of course).
@lathechuck: consider that old standard "eve of destruction" maybe in one of it's updated iterations. listen to luciano's version on youtube. or, you could update the lyrics yourself. everybody from the the dickies to crashdog has done it.

Bill Blondeau said...

@latheChuck, this probably isn't exactly what you had in mind, but I'm calling synchronicity on this one. ;-)

Recently, I was moved to listen to come of the works of Texas songwriter Guy Clark - I had almost forgotten about him, and never appreciated just how brilliant he is. Happy to learn that now.

Anyway, just yesterday I ran across one of his songs, and it's hands down the best anthem for LESS that I have ever heard.

It isn't that he's preaching. Nothing overt. It isn't just the simple, very good, very memorable and singable tune. It isn't even how the two of those come together so well, making the kind of magic that songwriters are always trying to nail - but only occasionally getting right.

What makes it a powerful statement of LESS is that it makes simplicity, humility, and figuring out what's important in life so straightforward and achievable and unremarkable and appealing to just about anyone, irrespective of political ideology or social origin.

Guy Clark: Stuff That Works

Stuff that works, stuff that holds up
The kind of stuff you don’t hang on the wall
Stuff that’s real, stuff you feel
The kind of stuff you reach for when you fall

Dale Bogucki said...

I haven't had the time to read everything. I simply don't have it, but today while reading a book ran across a name of a historian/philosopher, and wondered about your take on him. Especially in light of your recent posts he comes across as someone you might have read. His stuff is very academic, but there is intense practicalities I wondered if you had thoughts.
I am sorry if this seems an inappropriate place for this head scratching. I understand if it does not make the cut, but would be interested if you would mention him in a post.The person is Paolo Rossi.

Roger said...

JMG I think the problem is human nature. People want the smiling, striding optimist. They don't want the cringing, frowning pessimist. People want good news. The optimist is reassuring. He says go ahead, you only live once.

You see, optimists are fun, they laugh, they're the life of the party. They don't sit around looking sour. No, they get up at the microphone and sing, they buy you a drink, they tell great stories. They tell you about the time they shook hands with the Pope or chatted with Richard Gere or got asked to dance by Janis Joplin.

That huge mortgage? Don't worry, it's forced saving. The monumental car payment? You'll get by. Retirement? No sweat, come by the office, he'll show you, you're richer than you think. Peak oil? Oh please, those losers, don't listen to them.

Sometimes I see hope. I have long experience with Americans. I've seen American can-do-ism. To my eyes Americans are empiricists, they do what works (er...when they're not screwing up colossally), at least more so than other people.

But Americans still puzzle me in some ways. I mean, what is this business with guns? I've never really grokked it. Just a fetish of sorts? One of those cultural weirdnesses handed down by history?

Or is there something else behind it? Maybe Americans see through the political word-fogs and distracting Hollywood frivolities and Beverly Hills vulgarians. Have Americans always had doubts? Maybe they've connected some dots. Maybe they worry about their world coming apart. Maybe Americans aren't the un-thinking meat-balls as popularly portrayed.

We see the body count on the news. Are all the guns a cause for despair?

Well JMG, you're an American. I'm not. You see, in this place, in many things, good and bad, we take America as the example.

John Maiorana said...

Nobody really knows what entropy and energy really are.

There is a story that goes:

When Shannon first derived his famous formula for information, he asked von Neumann what he should call it and von Neumann replied “You should call it entropy for two reasons: first because that is what the formula is in statistical mechanics but second and more important, as nobody knows what entropy is, whenever you use the term you will always be at an advantage!


“It is important to realize that in physics today we have no knowledge of what energy is”, said the Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman in his Lectures. “Nobody knows what energy really is”, one reads in Bergmann and Schaefer’s Experimental Physics (1998). We cannot answer the question of what energy really is, explain Dransfeld et al. (2001). Although everybody has a feeling of what energy is, wrote Çengel and Boles (2002), it is difficult to give a precise definition for it. According to Halliday et al. (2003), it is very difficult to give a simple definition of energy. If we cannot explain in a clear way what energy is, the concept of energy must be a problem in science teaching.

But there does seem to be at least a formal connection via entropy between information and energy. Entropy is given in terms of probability of events (states or messages). Probability is a measure of events, which are collections of outcomes that are indistinguishable, suggesting a highly subjective component to the whole subject because what is distinguishable by one observer may not be by another.

Dennis D said...

Here is my entry for the contest:

Snoqualman said...

August Johnson, thanks for your explanation on the inverse square law. I am still having trouble getting my hard head around the idea that focused beams diminish at that rate.

On the off chance that you are still reading late comments here, can you recommend any reading on that?


Dennis D said...

One thing that I noticed when I first was exposed to the concept of overshoot: overshoot extends to Die off, simple arithmetic shows that number wise, Asian deaths will be larger due to higher due to higher starting numbers, therefore pointing this out becomes racist or Nazi. This was a discussion stopper because putting oneself in the Nazi camp pretty much put you out of polite company. If you looked deeper, the local carrying capacity of currently overpopulated areas was usually badly degraded, so an even higher die off would be expected. I see the comments directed at the whoever put up the Georgia guidestones, and their mention of stable, sustainable population numbers. Just mentioning that we can't breed exponentially forever seems to bring out these labels. How do you get around these thought stoppers when having a serious discussion?

August Johnson said...

@Snoqualman - A focused beam only means that more of the energy radiated from the source is directed in one specific direction, meaning that you start out with more in that direction. The intensity still drops off at the same rate since you are only concerned with the energy that falls on your target. Any that goes in a different direction is irrelevant. The angle the target intercepts from the source is 1/2 in two directions when the distance is doubled, therefore the energy intercepted is 1/4.

Here's a link about the inverse square Law in general:

WikiPedia - Inverse Square Law

Here's a link that may help see it for a focused beam, scroll down to the bottom of the page:

Inverse Square Law

Their example of a wide or narrow beam would be the same as a low or high "gain" antenna, the light drops off at the same rate, you just start with more with a high-gain antenna.

Moshe Braner said...

@Snoqualman: re the inverse square law. Physics is often best understood via "thought experiments". Think of it this way: imagine a light bulb in the middle of empty space. The light goes in all directions and its intensity diminishes by the inverse square formula. Now put an opaque hollow ball around the bulb. No light comes out, it all gets absorbed by the black paint on the inside of the ball. Now cut open a smallish hole in the ball. Light comes out, but only in a certain direction (plus/minus some angle). That light knows nothing about the light headed in other directions that did not escape that ball. The escaping light still diminishes with distance just as if the ball was not there.

A directional antenna, or focused flashlight beam (or laser, etc) is more like such a ball with a mirror-finish inside, so that the light going in other directions bounces around at first but eventually exits via the hole, rather than being absorbed by the dark wall. That part of the light, once free of the ball, also diminishes with distance the same way thereafter.

Regarding the solar panels in the arctic, the effect of an oblique path through the atmosphere may or may not be large, depending on how "dirty" the air is. But even ignoring that effect, that solar panel casts a long shadow with the sun being low in the sky. In other words, you can only fit a few solar panels in a given horizontal area of ground. And the same holds for green leaves, nature's solar panels.

Which reminds me of one of the nonsensical (IMO) ideas that for some reason hold a sway over the imaginations of many concerned people these days: "vertical gardens", as if they are the solution to the lack of space for urban agriculture, or for growing plants inside glass-faced buildings. But, if the sun is high in the sky, the upper leaves in a vertical garden shade the lower ones, denying them the energy source. If the sun is low, a vertical wall of leaves may get plenty of sun - but only when the sun is shining from the right direction, and this wall of leaves too will cast a long shadow. All this is not to say that you shouldn't grow something vertically up a pre-existing wall at the edge of your garden, especially if it is at the North end of your Garden (in the Northern hemisphere).

Cherokee Organics said...


Well things have taken a turn for the truly bizarre down here. Our Prime Minister awarded a knighthood to Prince Phillip of all people. I assume and guess that such actions are indicative of his current mental state? Yes, the results are in and they're not good.

As an interesting side note he is now facing a leadership challenge this week and we may have a new PM before the week is out. Ned Kelly the famous bushranger was reported to have said just before he was hanged (or is it hung? I guess it must be hanged because other people were doing that to him? Dunno) "Such is life".

I must say that whilst you have a very genial President over there, his ability to say one thing and do another over a long period of time is possibly a good strategy for his own personal mental health. It'd be a taxing job for sure. I've always guessed - and I could be wrong - that our recent most popular Prime Minister Kevin Rudd who actually made things happen had a bit of a mental spill as once he was deposed as PM he was hospitalised for a week or so... Just sayin...

As another interesting side note, my gut feel says that the current incumbents took so much money in the form of donations (or should I say bribes / favours is that politically correct?) that they are now in a grid lock and the policies that they are pursuing are deeply unpopular as witnessed in the recent state elections. Then – again I’m guessing – the PM went, well at least I can do this one act and awarded the knighthood – only to find that the country as a whole was repulsed by it. Even his staunch supporters in the media are questioning this one. It just looks odd.

Hi Kutamun,

Great quote from DH Lawrence. Very, very good.

Hi everyone,

Now about Lady Chatterley’s lover. Look, I'm just sayin - it aint worth reading - seriously. The male character showed about as much sensitivity and care for the good lady as a rutting wombat in heat. Not that the husband was any better - he was also a thoroughly dislikeable character as perhaps he had to be. Perhaps on reflection though the wombats were actually far more sensitive and concerned for the welfare of their partner. Not a good recipe for a long term relationship.

I was expecting a literary classic, but on reflection I reckon the book only had titillation power going for it and that is about it. Still respect to the guy for writing it, my words won’t be around in as many years into the future.



Cathy McGuire said...

Slightly off-topic, but touching on older posts:there are some who are fearful that letterpress is dead or dying and want to keep it alive - apparently it's quite alive (and outrageously priced!) - check out this bookfair where the books seem to run about $2,000 each (this is the list of sellers; click to their webs to see prices:

but somehow I don't think these printers and binders are preparing for a low-tech future, as such. ;-)

latheChuck said...

Bill Blondeau- Thanks for the tip on Guy Clark. I might use that one.

Anyone else have some suggestions? I don't "understand" music, but I observe that just about everyone needs it, in one form or another. Maybe we need to assemble a "Peak Oil/Long Emergency/Overshoot Songbook"?

latheChuck said...


The inverse-square law holds as long as the source is far enough away from the detector that it appears to be a "point". If you had an infinitely long line of sources, the power would be just the inverse of distance. If you had an infinite plane of sources, the power wouldn't decline at all, because the detector would see more sources just as the power from each source diminished.

Justin G said...

I think you misunderstand some basics with thermodynamics.

The amount of energy that can be extracted from sunlight is a function of the difference in temperature between the sun and earth, not earth and earth. As you can imagine, this is a fairly large difference in temperature, and it gives a theoretical maximum Carnot efficiency of 95% or so (not too shabby, though a bit less if you account for the specific entropy of the light). Obviously there are plenty of practical considerations that drop that considerably, and that certainly doesn't mean that you can extract enough energy from it to power a modern industrial civilization, but your invocation of thermodynamics was misplaced. To use your stream example, the velocity of the water wouldn't diminish if you diverted part of the stream.

Also, if you want to then calculate the complexity-creation potential of the energy flow, deep space certainly is the appropriate heat sink. Using Earth at the heat sink doesn't really work because, as you noted, the whole planet is irradiated.

I'm not trying to argue your conclusions, but your reasoning here doesn't sit right with me.

7a688e80-b988-11e3-97eb-000bcdca4d7a said...


You wrote --

"Then to prove just why they aren't as clever as our hero immigrants, they suggest that you don't taste it. To ensure that you stay un-barbaric I guess."

They have better reasons. Use Google to search for "Baylisascaris" and "Ascariasis" while you still have the Internet. Print that stuff out for future reference.

People had trouble with this, here and in the Old World. Ever taste absinthe? It is the most bitter of all distilled spirits. The wormwood and other strong herbs in the beverage kill worms. Those herbs have been used for this purpose for thousands of years.

If you're going to eat dirt to check soil pH, have a glass of absinthe now and then, or consult your local herbalist.

A lot of good folk are going to suffer in the descent scenario, because they are going to try things their ancestors did, without the lore of their ancestors *or* a public health infrastructure.

Janet D said...

@Eric and others, re: the return to the mindset of the 1980's.

It's interesting you mention this, because I have REALLY been "feeling" this's almost like there's a spiritual *vibe* that our country has dug it's heels in, with a re-affirming of our belief in the superiority of our cultural paradigm.

A little of my feeling has to do with some of the recent political happenings - after all, 40 U.S. Senators (40%) just voted that humans are not impacting the climate at all, and they approved the Pipeline (that's not a political statement, either, because when the Dems had all the power, they did diddly squat for the environment). But it also has to do with conversations I have. People are happily asleep, convinced that we just need to __________ (fill in the blank with whatever simple solution related to other people being the cause of "the problem" you like).

It's depressing as hell. I am so glad for this group. I don't often have time to post, but I so appreciate the clarity of thought, the grappling with our true reality(ies), the sincere effort and dialogue that occurs here. It's the only place I feel I can breathe fresh air.

John Michael Greer said...

Derv, oh, granted -- and there will be plenty of nations and cultures for whom the messy end of industrial civilization will be the first bright dawn of their own time of flourishing. I'm simply reflecting on things from the perspective of my own place and time.

Oyvind, so? Of course the purveyors of crackpot optimism are going to reject what I have to say -- after all, look at all this vaporware they've imagined! The proof of the pudding, though, is in the eating, and despite all the constantly shifting claims about this or that or the other miracle technology that's sure to save us all, the decline and fall of industrial civilization is still following the familiar trajectory.

Gloucon, I see that as evidence that a very large number of Americans have deliberately chosen to blind themselves to the future their actions are creating. (Jesus explicitly said that the Second Coming would happen when nobody expects it -- the fact that so many people are expecting it thus shows that it's not going to happen during the period they've assigned to it.) Not a good sign.

Cherokee, I don't know that there are deeper messages this time -- more personal, maybe. As for Ashland, oh man. Do not get me started!

Ed, good! Keep reading; there's much more.

Kutamun, I've long thought that it was the ecological spirituality, more than the sex, that got that banned.

Vic, thank you for this! I'm delighted to hear that Kiev Polytechnic had a class like that -- such things have been all but banned in the US for decades.

Markbc, 400 kilometers on a side? Sure, and if pigs had wings we'd all catch our breakfast bacon with butterfly nets. It's that kind of wildly impractical fantasy that keeps people from noticing the reality of the limits we're under. I have a suggestion: talk to people who actually supply their own power, off the grid, via sunlight, and find out from them just now much work it takes to get a trickle of concentrated energy that way.

Eric, well, we'll have to wait and see.

Adrian, thank you for this.

Joe, well, that's about what I'd expect from Wikipropaganda. I bet they delete the whole entry as soon as they think nobody's looking.

John Michael Greer said...

Shane, well, yes. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, there was a movement called "radical psychotherapy" that took the opposite stance, identified the existing order as basically stark staring nuts, and set out to teach people how to become sane despite it. I'm sure you can imagine just how long it took them to have their funding and access to peer reviewed journals cut off.

Steve, I don't think I've stated it quite that baldly, but yes, that's the basic strategy.

Paul, many thanks for this!

Mickey, Schopenhauer says early in The World as Will and Representation that his entire work is the explication of a single thought; the same thing is true of this blog. In both cases, it's not an easy thought to grasp, so exploring it from many different angles seems to be a good idea.

SLClaire, thank you for having the courage to tell your story. I know a lot of people who made similar choices, and very, very few who are willing to talk about it today.

Varun, that's why I've been trying so hard to get that model into the hands of the people who were denied access to it!

Ed-M, oh, I figured out very quickly what you were doing with the baroque spelling -- what interested me was why. I'd noted in the other blog how many atheists won't use the word "God" without rewriting it "Gawd" or "Ghod" or some such thing -- a habit that, to me, looks like an expression of superstitious fear.

Karl, thank you for that! I've known American Marxists for whom their ideology functioned as a religion; it's fascinating to hear that it functioned the same way on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

Moshe, I consider the Maximum Power Principle dubious as a description of nature and positively pernicious as a justification of human behavior. Many species, and many human societies, don't act that way.

Joel, okay, that's considerably more interesting. Can you point to some practical (i.e., not demon-infested) examples of that?

Patricia, that's fascinating. Last I heard, it's still in print and available from the publisher; of course I don't patronize the Evil Empire, so can't speak to that.

Douglas, thank you!

John Michael Greer said...

Cathy, many thanks for the video!

Thomas, yes, exactly -- education is the cornerstone of the whole project. As long as people remain utterly ignorant of, and resistant to learning about, the fundamental processes that keep us all alive, we're going to run face first into one preventable disaster after another. More, much more, on this further down the road.

Bruce, some of the most stunning examples of belligerent ecological ignorance I've ever seen have come from people who claim to be Pagan nature worshippers. I wish I could say that Druids in general had a clue about ecology, but that sort of knowledge isn't as widespread yet as I'd prefer.

Ozark, of course there are many factors, all of which limit polar biodiversity. My point was that the energy gradient imposes an absolute thermodynamic limit at the top, and everything else pushes it down from there.

LatheChuck, hmm! I don't have anything to mind, but a songbook along those lines would be worth compiling.

Zentao, Catton dealt purely with the material plane -- that was his focus, and also his professional and cultural bias. I don't think that lessens his achievement, though it does mean that there's plenty of work to be done integrating his insights into the broader view that spiritual traditions offer. One point I'd make, though, is that -- as I've noted here before -- the planes are discrete and not continuous; the laws of material nature are what they are, and the laws of other planes don't cancel them out in the realm of matter, however well they apply to other planes.

Bret, by all means read Prigogine. It's not an equivalence between complexity and water flow, but between energy gradient and water flow; complexity in a thermodynamically open system corresponds to the amount of kinetic energy that can be extracted from running water via a water wheel, turbine, etc.

Kyoto, those of us who were thinking in terms of the limits to growth around 2000 were very sparse on the ground, and a lot of us were working in complete isolation, surrounded by people who had no clue and would react violently if any attempt was made to give them one. Still, as Charles Fort pointed out, it steam-engines when it comes steam-engine time...

Dltrammel, thanks for the link!

Steve, well, I haven't been at it for 75 years yet, but that's a dance I'm very used to doing.

Crow Hill, I haven't talked about duty, because that's wasted breath for anyone who doesn't already recognize it. Ethics have been mired in the language of "thou shalt" for so long that I think a lot of people forget just how useless that is without a preexisting ethical consensus to give it teeth.

Dau, that's true, but you'd want to be careful these days, given the amount of toxic waste that's been dumped into the soil! Still, simple litmus or pH paper wouldn't be difficult to make and use for the same purpose.

Snoqualman said...

Thanks to all who responded to clarify how the inverse square law works. Obviously I have a lot to learn. And thanks to our host for permitting such an off topic hijacking. Next time I promise to find a more appropriate forum for such questions. It's just that most contributors here seem so dang aware of things.....most all kinds of things.

John Michael Greer said...

Dfr, I know a lot of people from your generation who are aware of that whiplash. That's one of the reasons I talk about it, when most people of my generation won't -- it's crucial that the generations that didn't take part in the mistakes of that time understand what happened, and why.

Jonathan, thank you! It's not original to me, but I've long since forgotten where I found it.

Dale, which Paolo Rossi are we talking about? The historian of Renaissance thought, the football player, or who?

Roger, to some extent the problem is the dualism. Optimism and pessimism aren't the only two options; what about heroism, for example, the attitude that recognizes bad things coming and proposes to face them head on? No "cringing" there. As for guns, you have to remember that the US is not a civilized country. It's in exactly the same state as those regions on the fringe of the Roman world that adopted some of the habits and many of the vices of Roman civilization, while still practicing headhunting, tribal feuds, and the like.

John, one of the problems is that so many people who know something about entropy default to the information-theory interpretation of it. I'm talking about the old-fashioned physical version of it, the sort of thing you use to calculate the potential efficiency of a heat engine -- which is what the Earth-Sun system is, thermodynamically speaking.

Dennis, excellent. You're in the contest -- bonus points if you get contacted by a clueless investor. As for population, that's one of several reasons I don't discuss it; the more important of them is that human population is a dependent variable, and will decrease when and as energy per capita drops below subsistence level.

Cherokee, I don't know if I'd call our president "genial" -- "utterly detached from reality" would be a closer description as far as I can see. It interests me that over the last few decades, the people who have been willing to run for that job have been increasingly inexperienced and clueless -- as though those who've been around long enough to get a clue know better.

Cathy, yes, it's become embarrassingly overpriced. I hope that bubble pops sometime soon, so that ordinary people can afford letterpresses again.

Justin, you know, if I'd tried to come up with an example of the current blindness to whole systems, I don't think I could come up with a better one than the argument you've tried to make. Let's transpose the issue into simpler terms for the sake of clarity. We have a steam engine and a boiler, and a firebox of burning coal that heats the boiler. Okay? Now move the firebox 100 meters away from the boiler. Here's your question: once that has been done, does the amount of energy the steam engine can produce depend on the heat emitted directly by the burning coal in the firebox, or by the fraction of that heat that makes it across 100 meters of inverse-square diffusion and atmospheric filtering to heat the boiler?

If you have any questions, I encourage you to try the experiment with any kind of heat engine and any heat source you care to use. You can also do it with a light source and photoelectric cells, by the way. Under any set of conditions, the actual efficiency possible depends on the energy gradient between the energy that reaches the absorptive surface and the ambient background, not the gradient between the source and the ambient at the location of the heat engine.

What you're missing, of course, is that the sun and the solar collector are parts of a whole system that also includes 93 million miles of empty space and the whole thickness of the atmosphere, and the impact of the inverse-square law and the work done by the sunlight in heating the atmosphere has to be included if you want to avoid absurd conclusions.

Dwig said...

I recently read Catton's Bottleneck, which contains some enjoyable autobiographical notes, in particular the following passage (on the adaptability of human hands):
I don’t remember whether or not I noticed during that evening of reading in the Oberlin library the fact that all of this lovely study-partner’s fingers were unadorned, but less than a year later it was my privilege to adorn one of them with a diamond ring, and a year after that with another gold band—still in place today 59 years later.
I think this nicely illustrates Catton's abilities to look at life from multiple perspectives at once, and to appreciate the values highlighted by the view.

Re: "Andy, when I write my primer of ecology -- and it's a when at this point, not an if -- it's going to start from systems theory and thermodynamics, and keep on going back to those over and over again." I'll buy that! Figuratively and literally. Actually, it fits into an idea that I've been mulling -- the need for a multi-level, multi-year curriculum on "navigating the decline". I see this beginning with children around 10-12, and on into adulthood ("lifelong learning"). Certainly a large piece of this curriculum would focus on the practical, coming from sources like Green Wizardry. However, learning to "see systems whole" and relate them to practical concerns would avoid a lot of trial and error, and provide a common "working language" for communities relearning self-sufficiency. Ideally, your primer could serve as the basis for expansion into a full sequence. (In terms of Rob Hopkins' triad, this combination would cover the Head and Hands; for the Heart, maybe something from Merlin's favorite well...)

Re: "... those who believe the myth -- and human beings, even (or especially) in industrial societies, do far more of their thinking with mythic narratives than contemporary culture is willing to admit .." Perhaps another primer/course, on the nature, use and misuse of myths and mythologies? (I've been reading several of Joseph Campbell's essays lately; it makes me wonder about the possible overlap between mythology and the occult. I'll bring that up on Galabes when I can.)

Re Fuller: John Michael, don't read Critical Path unless you're in a mellow mood, have a pleasant libation handy, and can surf the currents of Fullerese with aplomb. However, you'll also find some howlers that'll give you a good belly laugh. When he was wrong, he didn't do it halfway.

richard b said...

Thanks for a brilliant blog site. I was reminded of the fact, by seeing Al Gore's presentation to Davos, that we can burn only 20 percent of our known remaining fossil fuel reserves before we trigger run away global warming.

At current consumption rates we will do this in 16 years. To my mind the peak oil concerns (incredibly valid though they are) almost pale into insignificance in the face of this dreadful prospect.

I'd love to know your thoughts on this one....

Scotlyn said...

Mama Mia! Ordinary, worn copies of Overshoot are now selling on AbeBooks for over £300 (sterling)! I could, of course, have snapped up the real bargain copy at only £128, but I think for now I shall continue to benefit from W Catton's wisdom & insights as filtered through this blog... For which many, many thanks!

Karim said...

Greetings all!

JMG wrote: "Jeremy England, a MIT physicist, has recently shown that the same process accounts neatly for the origin of life itself."

With due respect to you John, over the years you have shown yourself to be a careful and insightful writer, but don't you think that you are overstating your case in the above?

Although I am NOT a physicist, I have spent the last few days going through a couple of papers by England and others on the matter at hand.

In those peer reviewed papers they do not appear making the claim that they have neatly accounted for the origin of life itself.

From what I have understood (and I could be wrong!) they have attepmted to demonstrate that the statistically irreversibility of self replication imposes a thermodynamic constraint of a minimum of energy dissipation into the surroundings.

Furthermore, from what I understood, they have provided a theoretical framework to show that self replication forms of organisation of matter are particularly suited to dissipate heat in a non equilibrium situation.

It also appears that they have offered a thermodynamic equivalent to the Darwinian account of adaptation.

I apologise to the many physicists reading the above if I have misrepresented what England and others have acheived.


Scotlyn said...

I also thank Cathy fir Catton interview link. No doubt, the book is well-priced if all who buy read and appreciate it rather than put it on a collector's shelf...

Phil Harris said...

Perhaps its a bit late to join the conversation on inverse square law. The way I was shown to visualise it was geometrical. Wikipedia has a reasonable illustration.

Arrange a sphere at a good distance from the source of energy (e.g. sun heat and light and other frequencies of the EM radiation spectrum).
The 'collecting sphere' intercepts all the energy.
Then double the distance of the collecting sphere from the source. The same total energy is collected though the radius from source is now double. But ... the big but ... the surface area of the 'collecting' sphere is now x4 (2x2) that of the inner sphere. Thus the energy collected per square metre is now a quarter of that collected on the closer-to-source sphere.

Of course, the temperature of the radiation through vacuum space is still the same as at source. For demonstration, even when it has passed through our atmosphere if we erect a large enough collector and focus sunlight on a spot, we can vaporise a chunk of metal. (If the radiation was from a lower temperature source, then no matter how large the focussing collector the temperature of the metal could never rise above the temperature of the original source.)

Now … I feel better. Smile
PS JMG Thanks very much for the Jeremy England link!
Phil H

Phil Harris said...

Durn it!
I wrote just now re inverse square law:
"Arrange a sphere at a good distance from the source of energy (e.g. sun heat and light and other frequencies of the EM radiation spectrum).
The 'collecting sphere' intercepts all the energy."

I should have included [so the collecting sphere] "surrounds" the source of energy.

Phil H

Dau Branchazel said...

To 7a688e80-b988-11e3-97eb-000bcdca4d7a and JMG,

You're both right. An after reading what I wrote, the way I spoke about the authors of that quote was unfair. It's not the first time I've said something rash, and ill thought out, and despite my optimism, I doubt it will be the last.

As you have both pointed out, there are obvious reasons why tasting dirt may not be recommended, and that possible dangers of tasting it are most likely worse now, than they were in the time of those immigrants.

I originally took issue with the comments about the immigrants probably not understanding what they were doing. It's something I take exception to. When "modern man" can't entertain the possibility that our ancestors might actually be sentient. There are crows that can solve problems many adult humans would struggle with. Is it so hard to believe our predecessors were intelligent people, not so different from us?

My comments however, I think, reflect more my own mood that day. Their words were naive at worst, not malicious, but still in my opinion, a throw-away example of what one might call "chronological parochialism"; the casual assumed superiority of "us now" over "them then", so prevalent in our times.

Moshe Braner said...

"You can also do it with a light source and photoelectric cells, by the way. Under any set of conditions, the actual efficiency possible depends on the energy gradient between the energy that reaches the absorptive surface and the ambient background, not the gradient between the source and the ambient at the location of the heat engine."

- well you have to be careful with that word "efficiency". The "efficiency" of a solar panel is the ratio of output electrical power to input light power. That does not depend on how far it is from the sun. The same solar panel that has, say, a 15% efficiency on Earth has the same 15% efficiency on Mercury or Neptune. The actual amount of power output will of course be very different. The "efficiency" determined by the laws of thermodynamics is that ratio of output to input, not the absolute power level. If you could construct a ball of solar panels that completely encloses the sun (ha!), you'd harvest 15% of the sun's output, regardless of the diameter of that ball.

Now that's the "efficiency" of the solar panel itself. The efficiency of the total physical-economic system that includes mining and transporting the materials, processing them into solar panels and the other related equipment, distributing the electrical power, etc, that's another story. And I agree that you won't do that much better overall than Nature's green plants, designed and perfected over a billion years. Except in the sense that, through the burning of long-accumulated fossil fuels for performing much of those processes, you can create the appearance of a bustling solar-energy conversion scene. Like the still-bustling fracking fields of North Dakota, faking the appearance of an energy source.

Moshe Braner said...

This real-world proposal can be included in the "squirrel" contest as is!

Donald Hargraves said...

Re: The whipsaw of the eighties:

- On August 3rd Ronald Reagan threatened to fire the Air Traffic controllers if they didn't cancel their strike.
- On August 5th Ronald Reagan made good on that promise, going so far as to ban the workers from any form of Government employment for life.
- Soon after companies started actively busting unions on their own, driving unions to strike as an excuse to replace them with Scabs (rechristened "Replacement Workers") or just plain locking out the old workers when they weren't in the mood to play nice. Wages for workers fell freely in the eighties, and unions were stuck with cannibalizing other unions to try and shore up their numbers.

Other effects, relating to this blog and the 80's discussion:

- Demand destruction. Workers earning 3/4 of their wages (if lucky, not counting lost benefits) can't buy new cars or do those vacations they used to, thereby putting a downward pressure on oil prices. Add to that Alaska and the North Sea and you have cheaper gas for those who made it through unscathed (relatively or absolutely).
- Raising up of Management as good, with all that that entails. When workers had some security one could easily diss the management as being unaware of the realities on the ground, once working for a living became unstable Management gained stature beyond what it earned - or deserved.
- Fixation on University as the way towards the American Dream. How else, after all, is one going to find a job that doesn't leave you open to firings at a whim? The cleansing of all non-degreed management from corporations in the nineties exacerbated this.
- I'm-All-Right-Jack-ism. If any and all forms of collective action are made impossible below a certain level of status, then the ability to "raise one's self by one's bootstraps" (remember THAT phrase?) becomes a necessary part of one's beliefs. Never mind the extreme emphasis on working with whomever you're placed with that was all the rage in University (this directly observed by yours truly in the late eighties), one's position came about by one's own efforts. Here the term "meritocracy" suddenly becomes possible.

Add on thirty years of echo chambering, and you get today.

Justin G said...


I think you're still confusing two separate things.

I specifically talked about the heat sink being deep space in the context of energy flowing through a system (Earth) creating complexity (Nature). Nature as a system is working with a much larger energy gradient than you give credit for. The individual subsystems may be working with smaller gradients, but the whole is a different story.

On a smaller scale, yes the amount of work that can be done by a heat engine on earth is dependent on the temperature gradient between the hot and cold sources. That doesn't directly translate to solar energy in the way you think.

Work and most forms of energy don't directly affect entropy. That is the basic principle behind a reversible process. Thermodynamics really only comes into play with temperature gradients. While in reality all forms of energy eventually become heat, this doesn't really affect the broader point here.

With solar energy the energy concentration between the sunlight and surroundings only matters for a solar heat engine.

Sunlight may be somewhat diffuse, but concentrating energy isn't really that big of a deal. That is why heat pumps can have efficiencies of over 1000% (or 90% depending on what side of the equation you are basing it on). Methods of concentrating electrical energy can have even higher efficiencies since they aren't subject to direct thermodynamic Carnot cycle losses, but are instead only limited by less restrictive 2nd law, which really only says the efficiency can't be 100% since in the real world some heat is always generated.

In that sense, the total amount of energy incoming really is more important than the concentration. What determines usefulness to human civilization are EROI and economic concerns, which have only an indirect relationship to energy concentration. Conflating EROI and economics with thermodynamic feasibility is a mistake.

As I said earlier, I'm not trying to argue that solar energy can power a modern industrial economy, but it isn't thermodynamics that stands in the way, it is other practical considerations.

Shane Wilson said...

I wanted to second dfr's experience. I was born in '75, and have a dim recollection of the '70s. I don't think all the remnants of the '70s died until Reagan's reelection in '84. I remember, the older I got, feeling a profound sense of loss at having missed the '70s, that something profound was lost. When I get frustrated at the dysfunction of the Millennials and younger generations, I remind myself that they have even less of an awareness of what was lost, and that they were the recipients of their parents guilt and anxiety for selling out and selling their children downstream (helicopter parenting and other dysfunctions)

Ed-M said...

@ Jamet D,

Regarding your comment to Eric and others concerning the return to the mindset of the 80s:

You said it was some kind of spiritual sense that this nation just won't let go of. I think this is typical of Empires in decline ( examples: UK, Spain, Rome) in that they hold on to their civil religious faiths and their shibboleths for as long as possible. That would explain the on-again, off again persecutions of Christians under the Romans until Constantine came along and put a stop to the whole thing. And of course, Julian the Philosopher (a.k.a. Apostate) tried to regain the old spirit of Rome.

@ JMG,

Well I was just spelling it in a way that would pass your profanity filter. Considering you let the f-word nested inside a quote pass, I'll just use the regular spelling next time I use it.

Justin G said...

"I encourage you to try the experiment with any kind of heat engine and any heat source you care to use. You can also do it with a light source and photoelectric cells, by the way. Under any set of conditions, the actual efficiency possible depends on the energy gradient between the energy that reaches the absorptive surface and the ambient background"

Sorry to double post, but I forgot to address this. Funny you should say this, because I am part of a research group investigating perovskite and quantum dot solar cells, so I experiment with solar cells for a living and do have some knowledge of the subject. What you said above regarding solar cells is absolutely and incontrovertibly false. The theoretical maximum of a solar cell depends only on the temperature gradient between the sun and earth as well as the specific entropy of the photons.

The amount of work that can be done by the energy gathered is a function of the efficiencies of the energy storage and concentration systems and the device performing the work, which are also only subject to Carnot cycle losses if they are heat engines. Even with existing battery and electric motor technology you can get pretty darn good efficiencies on this end.

You are trying to apply thermodynamics much more broadly than you accurately can. In this case the 2nd law does come into play, but all it says is that you can't actually reach the theoretical maximum efficiency. It doesn't say anything about how close you can get though.

LewisLucanBooks said...

@lathechuck - Hmmm. Soundtrack for The Decline? How about "Big Yellow Taxi" by Joni Mitchell. Or, "Little Boxes" by Cohen?

Shane Wilson said...

Late, but,
Sgage, bogatyr,
I should've said "PUBLICLY not very expressive" since I'm sure the Pentagon was basing it on public footage.
That's between you and the bear. Bear charming is probably a better fit for your other blog. ;)

heather said...

@Steve Pearson and dfr2010-
I was in first grade when the Carter vs. Reagan presidential election occurred. My school also held a mock election. I was devastated when Reagan won the school popularity contest- I still have no idea why. Politics were never discussed in our household, and it's not like I was watching the debates at age 5. But I just had the definite conviction that the wrong guy, the bad guy, had won. I was comforted by the idea that at least it was just a bunch of dumb kids who had chosen wrongly, at least the grown ups would surely get it right in the real election. Imagine my distress when this turned out not to be true. As I said, politics were never discussed in our house, so it wasn't until my early adulthood that I grasped any of the effects of that election. When I learned about Reagan removing the solar panels from the White House, my first thought was, "Aha! I knew it!"
--Heather in CA

heather said...

I definitely also appreciated the thermodynamics review. Always good to step way back and refresh the mind with a check-in on the basics. Like Bret, I also said, "Wait, what?" when we got to the part about energy flow and complexity. I think I will need to go visit Prigogene's work too. I have a mental image of riffles and swirls in the current of a river, which get bigger and more intricate as the water flows faster- yes, I know we're talking energy and not water, but I'd like to check out whether the analogy works.

Like Cherokee, I also perceived deeper meanings in this post. In particular, the line, "Knowledge, in other words, is not a magic wand, a surrogate messiah, or a source of miracles," put me in mind of a certain set of rowan staves and their misunderstanding, as might be discussed on your other blog.
--Heather in CA

heather said...

That sort of curriculum on "navigating the decline" is _exactly_ what I am working on developing for my own two homeschooled kids, ages 7 and 10. We are heavy on math and all the sciences, lots of history, and of course reading of all sorts, with a focus on critical thinking. I am constantly seeking rich source materials and would most certainly put to use an ecology primer developed by our host, knowing that I would likely need to adapt its contents somewhat for my younger child.

I would love to discuss this topic with you, with Phil H, who posted last week about the possibility of children corresponding with a post-collapse character (possibly via ham radio), and with anyone else who would be interested in sharing ideas. I am going to the Green Wizards forum right now to try to find an appropriate spot to start a thread.

And just incidentally, as JMG mentioned, it is not at all difficult to make your own litmus paper at home. We did this just this past week with purple cabbage juice, and tested the acidity of various household substances. My daughter then used the colored strips to make a very nice woven paper mat. The trick for soil test purposes, of course, would be standardization from batch to batch (which would itself make a rich topic for discussion and exploration!).

Hope to hear from some folks over on GW-
--Heather in CA

Paul Chefurka said...


My spiritual explorations began in 2007. I talk about the earliest stages of the journey in an essay on my web site:

Starting from that initial recognition of my pantheism, I incorporated Deep Ecology along with elements of a wide variety of traditions - animism, shamanism and Wicca; Sufism, Mahayana, Vajrayana and Zen Buddhism; Taoism and Advaita.

There have been a variety of awakening experiences along the way, including the effect of reading Catton's book that I described above, movie-like visions of human history, a classic Buddhist satori during a guided meditation on a blade of grass, an Advaita realization of no-self, up to my recent understanding of the role of non-equilibrium thermodynamics in shaping human behavior at the biological and cultural levels.

Along with that learning has been a lot of self-inquiry aimed at relieving my emotional reactivity. My desire has been to develop the ability to "step back" far enough to see what's really happening in the world without freaking out and taking it all personally.

It has been a decidedly personal, "salad-bar" approach, driven by my own motivation, interests and character. I have made only peripheral use of teachers, mostly in the early days because I didn't have a clue how to undertake such a journey - aside from reading Joseph Campbell, of course.

These days I work mainly from the principles of Taoism and Advaita, garnished with the Four Noble truths. Even that is changing though, as I come to the realization that all there really is, is life - to be lived as it presents itself. Once the concepts have been understood they are no longer important, and may hold us back if we cling to them.

The journey seems to spiral repeatedly back through the place it began, though though of course each time the person on the road is different. It's only life, after all. As a Canadian Zen master might say, "Chop water, carry wood."

latheChuck said...

I'm not sure that Carnot efficiency is a useful concept when considering photovoltaic solar power. The mechanism of PV cells is quantum-mechanical, depending on the energy of the photon exciting an electron into conduction. The energy of the individual photon could be regarded as a product of the source temperature (the sun), but I don't see how a PV panel can be analyzed as a heat engine.

In a way, it's like comparing incandescent light bulbs with LEDs. In the incandescent bulb, light is essentially a by-product of the filament temperature (a black-body radiator), and halogen bulbs are more efficient just because they can run hotter (shifting more radiation into the visible range). But in an LED bulb, electrons jumping the quantum bandgap emit visible-light photons directly, and the heat is just a byproduct of the light-generating process (and losses in the power-conditioning electronics).

Photosynthesis uses just two energy bands (red and blue) of the visible spectrum, green being largely reflected away, and infrared (I suppose) helping with the transpiration that brings nutrients up out of the soil. Vertical urban farming might have a chance (though I'm still skeptical) if it's cheaper to bring energy in from the "wind/PV fields" to the LED panels than to bring in the produce, and to process the compost and humanure in the city instead of trucking it out to the farm. Of course, this assumes that multi-story buildings in cities themselves are feasible.

By the way, I found a web site offering to let me download a PDF of Overshoot, but I didn't trust their downloader application not to contain malware.

John Roth said...


I suspect you’re looking at it in the wrong way. There are a huge number of technologically oriented species in the universe, and it’s quite possible to “tap into” what they’re doing by various means that currently go under the umbrella term “magic.” The history of trying to do a tech transfer that way has been uniformly negative. I don’t think that it means it can’t be done; only that any technology that isn’t rooted in your own tech base has too many assumptions for a lone inventor to handle.

On top of that, what we desperately need is a drastic change of attitude on a species-wide bases. If the attitude doesn’t change, nothing we do technologically is going to have any significant effect. If it does, the unthinkable will at least become thinkable. What JMG is doing here is part of that attitude adjustment, but at the moment the odds are not looking particularly good.

@Charles DeYoe

As far as anti-light-pollution goes, look at Tucson, Arizona.

@Shining Hector

You might want to look at the economics of sugarcane ethanol again. The reason it looks so good is that it’s using the waste from processing the cane for sugar; they’re not paying either for their raw materials or for transportation: they plants are located right next to each other. The cellulosic ethanol industry here in the US doesn’t have that advantage. As I understand it, the Brazilian industry would not be at all happy if they had to allocate raw material costs to the two products in an appropriate proportion.


As far as nature spirits go, I’ve been working my way (slowly) through the first exercises in the Druid Magic Handbook, and I’m up to the Gate of Water. The largest body of water around here in Albuquerque, NM, is the Rio Grande, and as far as I can tell, he’s really, really pissed off. I’m still contemplating how to handle that part of the ritual.

@Andrew Crews

Exactly. That’s why I said we need an attitude adjustment on a species-wide scale.

@Lazerus Long

One of the things that often gets missed in the electrical energy debate is that central power generation involves a huge amount of waste in terms of power that’s just thrown away because it’s generated and nobody is there to use it. You’ve got losses in transformers, losses in power lines and boatloads of other losses. I’ve seen figures that at much as 75% of generated power goes to waste.

See Chris’ (Cherokee Organics) comments on the same issues.

@Eric S.

The pessimist says the glass is half empty, the optimist says it’s half full. The engineer says it’s overbuilt - it should be half the size, and the pragmatist picks it up and drinks it.

Sure, I see the “progress is wonderful” stuff too. I also see more and more articles questioning the basics of the progress mythology in one way or another, in venues where that would have been unthinkable a decade ago.

Example: an article in the current online Wired about high-tech dumpster diving that illustrates just how much good stuff gets thrown away right out of the stores, and even gets into J. Gordon Lippincott, one of the high priests of planned obsolescence. “Our willingness to part with something before it is completely worn out is a phenomenon noticeable in no other society in history,” he wrote. The phenomenon “is soundly based on our economy of abundance. It must be further nurtured even though it is contrary to one of the oldest inbred laws of humanity—the law of thrift.”


As far as solar energy goes, there’s a race on to replace silicon with something that’s cheaper and simpler to produce. Perovskites are the current fair-haired boy, and seem to be simple enough that they can be produced in a traditional chemistry lab with readily available materials instead of requiring expensive clean room techniques and long supply chains. Will any of them see commercial production?


That’s an oldie - I’m surprised you’ve never run across it. The version I’ve seen the most is “never ascribe to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity.” The original is supposed to go back to Napoleon.

Cherokee Organics said...


Yes, personal is perhaps a better descriptive. It is funny that you say that about the old timers in the political field being too experienced to want to get into the ring. The same thing is being said here: Few if any want to put their name forward for the leadership spill which ended up in favour of the PM. Credibility is hard to earn and easy to lose.

However, I'd also like to point out that the powers that be only have themselves to blame for the toxic environment that they find themselves in. They want to take the donations and yet can't seem to understand that the entities and people making the donations want a return on that investment. They also engender a mode of dialogue which is combative and could be so easily squashed - if they had the will to do so. Too bad, so sad...

Except that it is into that power vacuum that someone sooner or later will soon step and I almost guarantee that we will all (mostly) be cheering them on.

OK, I won't start you up about the whole Ashland thing. ;-)! I must say that up in Nimbin they have a hippy museum and it was old, dirty and shambolic and as I left that building I could only think that the actors had somehow played their part and lost nobly and then pretended to somehow evolved on to better things. I felt really irritated by that realisation as so much promise was just lost / given up. The hippies kept the look though so that they were immediately identifiable - they just sort of failed to follow through on the harder side of that particular culture.

Oh, sorry, I'm ranting... hehe!

I spotted this small article in the paper discussing the loss of refinery capacity in this country: Car registration costs to rise as refinery capacity disappears: inquiry hears. Some of the statistics are very alarming - like 91% import reliance! The big news is always to be seen in the small articles which people tend to overlook.



Avery said...

We've passed a momentous occasion this weekend: according to Reuters, fracking production has officially peaked.

"Meanwhile, production has slipped slightly from record highs, falling 36,000 barrels per day to 9.2 million bpd last week, according to government data." ... "many analysts expect further reductions as firms slash spending plans."

Your choice of accompanying music: (1) (2) (3)

Ruben said...

For all those concerned about the safety of tasting dirt, there has been some research on the benefits to the immune system of such behaviour. One article even suggest the behaviour of babies eating dirt may be evolutionarily selected.

Also, there has been some research on using parasitic worms to treat allergies and even multiple sclerosis.

John Michael Greer said...

Dwig, oh, I know. Fuller to me is what a different iconic figure of the same era called a worthy opponent; grappling with his ideas always makes me think harder.

Richard, I've discussed this repeatedly here. When people start going on about "runaway global warming," that's usually a good sign that they haven't taken the time to look up what happened the last dozen or so times the Earth's climate was destabilized by massive greenhouse gas releases, and so they don't realize that this simply means a shift from our current climate equilibrium to a warmer one -- closer to the jungle-planet climate Earth has had for most of its history. If you go back to last year's posts on Dark Age America, you'll find the likely effects traced out in some detail.

Scotlyn, it's still in print, and available from the publisher for US$28.00.

Karim, interesting. I haven't had time to read England's paper; the reports in the science media were that his theory makes the emergence of life a very likely event anywhere conditions permit.

Dau, the thing is, your point was a good one, even though the specific illustration was problematic for certain reasons of detail.

Moshe, "efficiency" probably wasn't the best word, as Justin (below) proceeded to fixate on the efficiency with which individual photons get turned into electricity: a small portion of the whole process that connects sunlight with useful work. It's the efficiency of that whole system which declines as the energy gradient becomes shallower, as I understand -- and that's before factoring in manufacturing and maintenance costs.

Donald, a useful summary.

Justin, conflating the Earth's energy budget as a whole with the practical possibilities of tapping into energy flows to power an industrial economy is a neat rhetorical trick; switching the focus to the quantum-level efficiencies by which individual photons drive electrical current flow is another, and the combination of the two leads you to make claims that have already been shown to be mistaken by actual experience. To cite just one example, the more diffuse your solar energy input, the larger the area of solar panel needed, and so electrical resistance -- which is proportional among other things to the length of a conductor -- eats a larger share of your intake. There are dozens of other diseconomies of scale that come into play when you're working with diffuse energy, which is why nobody I've ever met who actually depends on an off-grid solar power system agrees with this notion that we can maintain anything like our current lifestyles on solar power -- and also why large-scale solar PV installations only make money if they're propped up by government subsidies. The proof of the pudding is in the eating; if solar PV were as great as its proponents claim, why doesn't it work that way in the real world?

Ed-M, hmm! I missed that one. I don't always catch everything. "Jeez," by the way, isn't a profanity in my book.

Justin, here again, you're fixating on the microscale, the efficiency with which individual photons drive eletric current. I'm talking, again, about whole systems. If you have a light bulb that emits 1000 watts of radiant energy, how much of that energy can you pick up with a 1 square inch PV cell and use to do work? The distance between the source and the PV cell does indeed affect that, according to the inverse square law. When you ignore that, you ignore one of the main factors shaping the performance of the whole system.

John Michael Greer said...

Heather, nice. Yes, Einigan's rowan staves are relevant in this context.

LatheChuck, the point in using Carnot efficiency is that it tends to work on the macroscale no matter what the underlying mechanism is; photosynthesis is a quantum process ultimately, for example, but when I was taking ecology classes, certainly, analyzing an ecosystem as a heat engine produced useful models and useful results. In the same way, the PV effect is simply a way of converting energy flow from one form to another, and it can be -- at least in current theory -- a highly efficient one, but that still represents only one energy conversion in a whole system, and that system can be modeled conceptually in terms of general thermodynamics with good results.

Cherokee, fascinating. If refineries are shutting down, that's a significant bellwether.

Avery, okay, good -- right on schedule...

Cherokee Organics said...


Yes, that is my thinking too and the operators are citing economic reasons for mothballing the existing huge capital refinery investments. It is hardly like they can rehabilitate the clearly toxic land for another use. Common sense says that the operators are cutting costs by walking away or selling to other operators which happened here recently and was mentioned in the article.

Did you notice the 91% import number for Down Under? Or that half of that 91% is sourced from just one refinery in Singapore?

It is sometimes the small articles that tend to get overlooked that carry the biggest import.



Phil Harris said...

Regarding the interesting Jeremy England – it looks as though he has a testable hypothesis though nothing can be ruled out – how living material is an integral property (possibility) of the universe. He says from the basis of his own thinking and work so far:
“This means clumps of atoms surrounded by a bath at some temperature, like the atmosphere or the ocean, should tend over time to arrange themselves to resonate better and better with the sources of mechanical, electromagnetic or chemical work in their environments,” England explained.
… Self-replication (or reproduction, in biological terms), the process that drives the evolution of life on Earth, is one such mechanism by which a system might dissipate an increasing amount of energy over time. As England put it, “A great way of dissipating more is to make more copies of yourself.”

Phil H

Phil Harris said...

Hi Heather in CA

Thanks for your interest last week. I am interested in helping setting up a 'zine' via probably a combination of internet and Ham international radio. This would hope to draw in young people. I can manage some of the input needed and am in contact with others about infrastructure including help for creative writing as well as hardware to make it 'realistic'.

I am over at Green Wizard in 'Introductions'.

Phil H

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

Malvina Reynolds wrote Little Boxes.

I loathed Ronald Reagan on account of things he did when he was Governor of California. At this remove I have more objectivity. His defeat of Carter and his reelection show the importance the power of story to motivate human behavior.

Carter probably would have lost to any Republican opponent on account of the economic problems during his one term plus the failure of the State Department to see that Shah of Iran's days were numbered. Carter wasn't a very effective politician and one illustration of that was that he did a poor job of framing efforts at energy conservation in a way that would make ordinary people accept them as a good idea or a patriotic duty. It is possible to get Americans to change their habits by a long advertising/propaganda campaign (Only you can prevent forest fires! Don't litter, please.) The economic interests on the other side would have drowned Carter out, but he could have done a lot better.

Reagan's campaign and his speeches in office were mostly fact-free iterations of the most popular tropes in American politics: unfettered individualism, American actions are always morally right, it's our God-given destiny to lead the Free World and get richer and richer, etc. It takes a gifted politician to say anything different and get people to believe it.

Arnold Fouts said...

Unfortunately malice, stupidity and conspiracy are not exclusive of each other. Combine these 3 with means/ends plus tactics/strategies and you have a significant portion of human history.

Agent Provocateur said...

JMG, Andrew, Shawn, and All,

Re. “It could have been different”

When I first read Andrew's comments and Shawn's response, I found myself agreeing with them. I knew, John, that you would respond in a contrary fashion, so kept a low profile until you gave your polite broadside. Alas I find myself agreeing with you as well. How can I resolve this? Here's an attempt:

If we look at the Club of Rome report way back when, if I'm not fundamentally misunderstanding it, I think its main conclusion is that no matter how one tweaks things, the basic pattern of events implied by the various computer models/runs is essentially the same. If I may paraphrase Monty Python, these models suggested that the brontosaurus we call industrial civilization would be big in the middle and small at both ends.

I imagine Mr. Catton would also agree that, on a large scale, there is a certain inevitability to how things would turn out no matter what we did. As soon as one bases one's civilization on drawdown, overshoot and crash are certain.

On the other hand, zoom in to the scale on which any of us actually live our lives and the differences in the various scenarios of the Club of Rome, or any others, would have been / are very important to us living now. As a specific example, though Hubbert’s curve is also much like a brontosaurus (for exactly the same reasons), it is by no means fixed in shape any more than the Club of Rome's curves were. The only thing that is reasonably fixed for Hubbert's curve is the area under that curve i.e. the Ultimate Recoverable amount of oil. The issue was always making the backside of the curve less steep and so the crash less catastrophic.

So, on the scale that really matters to people alive today, yes, we could have made much better decisions. Then again, given the realities of our culture, I think doing so was about as likely as the Greenland Norse making a smooth transition to a way of life more like the Greenland Inuit that survived them: theoretically possible, but culturally almost impossible. Solar panels on the White House were an encouraging sign though. Maybe one of those Greenland Norse actually tried out a kayak with harpoon, who knows. Anyways, in both cases it didn't last for whatever reason.

Given we are so late in the game, I think we can agree that what matters most right now is what each of us has already done and/or in the process of doing.

Ed-M said...


It's true the important stuff is buried in articles small enough that noone notices. Sometimes here in the US, it's even worse! You have to know which media outlet to look in -- usually The Economist or The Financial Times, maybe The New York Times, and if not in any of those, in specialty publications and Govt press releases at their websites. The Wall Street Journal? Well I wouldn't trust that Murdoch rag as far as I can throw it!


Well I haven't read the word Jeez in your blog articles prior to this week.

Jess sayin'...

SeaMari said...

On the topic of songs, here's a link to a YouTube version of The Ash Grove.

beneaththesurface said...

William Catton's book Overshoot greatly influenced me too, and I was sad when I read your post and learned about his death. I was in the middle of reading Overshoot when I attended ASPO conference 2011, and I too had the opportunity to meet him. I happened to be sitting next to him during lunch and talked to him for a half an hour. He had a humble, soft-spoken, friendly demeanor and I feel grateful for the interaction I did have with him. I remember when I mentioned that I was reading his book, he seemed worried. "Oh no, I hope I'm not depressing you," he said, perhaps concerned that I as a young person he was shattering my optimism. I told him not to worry -- I already had a worldview that could handle it. He signed my copy of his book, and in it he also wrote "I hope that we "pessimists" are wrong, but we most probably aren't." He clearly was not in favor of what his worldview meant for the next century, but it's not a matter of "liking" or "not liking" it that determines the outcome.

One of his ideas of which I am constantly reminded is his dislike of the word "production" when talking about oil production. He preferred using the term "extraction" which more truthfully conveyed what was going on -- we do not "produce" oil, only extract it.

It would be great a publisher to re-publish his book--I think there could be enough of a market for it. There are only so many used copies one can buy online. In the DC library system where I work, there is one copy available, but it has been checked out fairly often through the years. I worry that one day it will go missing, and our library would not be able to re-order it.

Moshe Braner said...

@latheChuck - it seems like perhaps you took my "vertical urban farming" phrase to mean growing plants under electric lights. I only meant growing under sunshine - and even that I doubt is very useful, as I wrote above. Yes there are people who think that growing plants (for food) under electric lights is a great idea, but as they say, "don't get me started" on why this is totally insane, even if done with solar panels and LED bulbs.

Monbiot (IIRC) once calculated how much the electricity (alone) for growing one loaf of bread would cost that way. Nuts.

Agent Provocateur said...

Heather, Dwig,

Re. Homeschooling curriculum for “Navigating the Decline”.

As I'm also schooling my children, I've given this issue some thought. In fact the issue weighs very heavily in the back of my mind almost all the time.

One problem, beyond giving my children a basic understanding of where we are as a civilization, is that I am not at all certain that I myself am navigating the decline appropriately. Further I'm not sure my mode of navigation will work for them even if what I am doing is appropriate for me.

This is not to mean I'm doing nothing. I'm well along the path of producing a fair amount of our own food in a relatively low tech way. Still, this path is highly subsidized by several sources of off “farm” income. I suspect it is not much more resilient (and perhaps very much less so) than most other ways of muddling through. And yet, I have nothing else to offer them.

After just writing the paragraph above my daughter came downstairs to inform me that she is “cold and hunger”. There you go. It may not be working that well. Well actually, yes, we do have some heat and some food. The illness of an elder relative means these are not well distributed between our two households as we lurch between the two to keep things going. She's now cooking an egg our hens laid this morning.

Another source of concern is the desire not to “steal their hope” for a happy future (in a dark time). My in-laws and my wife and I used to talk a great deal about the ecological state of the world. My father-in-law gradually backed away from such discussions as he began to perceive its negative effects on the mental health of his partner. Seeing these negative effects, he also began to become concerned about such talk on the young minds of my children. He felt it was wrong to blunt the hope and optimism of the young. Part of the beauty of youth is this almost completely unfounded optimism. Oddly enough, this optimism can be very helpful at that stage in life. How else could the young dare to tackle life?

Nonetheless, truth is better than illusion for making realistic choices. What exactly those choices should be, is not certain to me though. I'm still just guessing myself. Its hard to form a curriculum on guesses. Maybe our life now is the curriculum and that is as good as it gets.

Unknown said...

On occupational categories, I was fascinated by E.A. Wrigley's book Poverty, Progress, and Population. It's a bit dry in stretches, but he does chart changes in occupational complexity in England during the early phases of the industrial revolution. (Perhaps I should say, in the transition from the Baconian to the Wattean revolution.) The book goes on to discuss how a town or city not only had to have a certain minimum population to achieve a given degree of occupational complexity, but that there had to be enough smaller towns in its hinterland as well. It's pretty neat human ecology stuff for those of us whose interests incline in that direction. I'm sorry I can't point toward a similar study with a more contemporary focus.

Cherokee Organics said...


Quite a few people seem to have trouble with the concept of renewable energy sourced from the sun.

I reckon a good analogy is that here at this latitude (37.5'S) the available sunlight supports an evergreen forest. Those evergreen forests extend a bit further south too.

But if you were to move much further south again beyond those evergreen forest limits, then clearly nature cannot support an evergreen forest in that location and therefore the general conclusion has to be drawn from that particular observation that:

- electricity from solar panels at the latitude here can reliably provide an average of one hour per day during the depths of winter. If conditions were optimal it would probably be one and half hours.

- Move further south than here and that time becomes less and less until it doesn't provide much more energy than a very loud mouse fart.

I just can't understand why people don't get that if they live in an area that has evolved deciduous trees as a winter survival strategy, then relying solely on solar PV over winter is a waste of time. Sure it will power a few lights and a radio and maybe even a fan or two - but anything more is unlikely to be achieved and certainly not an industrial civilisation used to throwing around the great amounts of energy that we do.



pg said...

Maybe something Pete Seeger did, like "The Garden Song." If your audience has an earthy sense of humor, Lee Hays' "In Dead Earnest" (aka The Compost Song) might appeal. Cf. Arlo Guthrie/Pete Seeger album "Precious Friend" and YouTube.

Gloucon X said...

John Michael Greer said...He knew, and could explain with great clarity, why industrialism would bring about its own downfall, and what could be done to salvage something from its wreck. That knowledge, however, was not enough to make things happen; only a few people ever listened, most of them promptly plugged their ears and started chanting “La, la, la, I can’t hear you” once Reagan made that fashionable, and the actions that might have spared all of us a vast amount of misery never happened.

You say that Catton knew of some positive actions that could be done in 1980. I don’t have the book, and I imagine many of your other readers who also don’t have the book would like to know what were those things that he said could be done. As a thought experiment, change President Reagan to President Catton; give him a rubber stamp congress and supreme court:

Can you itemize for us the top five things he would have done?

Nathan Donaldson said...

I'll be getting the book shortly; just curious, does he discuss why in nature some species routinely overshoot like the snowshoe hare?

I had a thought earlier today while reading a book about the mechanics of bird flight and came up with the following analogy: airplane is to bird as solar panel is to tree. Mankind's collective gas guzzling ingenuity is no match to the efficient complexity that nature has created over eons of time.

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