Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Investment Delusion

You might think that my position as head of a contemporary Druid order, with the colorful title and funny hat that go along with it, would keep me safely out of touch with the mainstream of American opinion. Still, it's been my experience that when I talk about peak oil to a pagan audience, I get the same reactions and questions I can expect from the most mainstream listeners.

I had a reminder of that the weekend before last, when I spoke on the future of industrial society at Pantheacon, one of the largest pagan conventions in America these days. Yes, pagans have conventions; this one happens annually on President's Day weekend at the Doubletree Inn in San Jose, California; it's an endless source of amusement, at least to me, that conference rooms more often used for corporate sales meetings spend one weekend a year hosting something so different.

Pantheacon is always a learning experience. (Mind you, one lesson I learned this year was that it's wise to avoid the Doubletree's pet steak house, Spencer's, unless you fancy undistinguished food and glacially slow service at a jawdropping price.) Still, I also gained a useful reminder of the way that certain misguided ideas pervade every corner of contemporary society, and it came – as such insights usually do – during the question and answer session that followed my talk on peak oil and the coming deindustrial age.

The questions that get asked after these presentations are as predictable as a politician's excuses, though not all of them are as pointless. There's always somebody who is sure that I haven't heard of the energy source he's convinced will enable the world to keep on increasing energy use at an exponential rate forever. There's always somebody who's convinced that an evolutionary leap or some other deus ex machina will allow us to dodge the consequences of our own bad choices. There's always somebody who thinks I'm talking about fleeing to a cabin in the hills with plenty of ammo and canned beans. All these get crisp replies detailing the reasons why I think they're deluding themselves. Then there are the people who want to know what they can do to deal with the challenges of the future, and they get the best advice I can give them.

Finally, though, there's always somebody who wants to know what investment strategies I recommend. These days, the person who asks that question is usually silver-haired, nicely dressed, and visibly worried. I wish I had a crisp reply for that question, or for that matter, some good advice to offer. I don't, because the question itself embodies a series of fatally flawed assumptions that reach right down to the nature of wealth itself. On its own terms, it's as unanswerable as a question about how to build a working perpetual motion machine.

Yes, someone at my Pantheacon talk asked about investment strategies, and yes, she was silver-haired, nicely dressed, and visibly worried. I fumbled through an answer, but the question deserves more than that, if only because it's on so many minds these days. Thus this week's post. I should caution those of my readers who have investments that they won't like what follows.

Let's start with fundamentals: the nature of wealth. Ask ten people on the street today for a definition of wealth, and dollars will get you doughnuts every one of them will tell you that wealth consists of the possession of plenty of money. That's what nearly everyone thinks, but they're quite wrong, and it's easy enough to show the fallacy.

Imagine that a private jet full of politicians makes an emergency landing on an uninhabited island in the Pacific. Each of the politicians is carrying a briefcase containing $1 million – we'll be polite and say it's from campaign contributions. The island has a water supply and enough natural foodstuffs that the politicians don't have to worry about starving to death. Will the politicians on the island have a standard of living corresponding to their net worth of $1 million each? Of course not; their actual prosperity will be measured by the breadfruit they harvest, the fish they catch, the huts they make, and so on.

Money, in other words, is not wealth. It's a social mechanism for distributing wealth. It means nothing unless there's real wealth – actual, nonfinancial goods and services – to back it up. In a healthy market economy, there's a rough balance between the amount of money in circulation and the amount of real wealth produced annually, and so the confusion between money and wealth can slip by unnoticed. When money and wealth get out of sync with one another, problems sprout.

The economic history of the 19th century offers a good example. The rising industrial economy of the time drove a massive increase in the production of real wealth. Most industrial nations, though, inherited money systems backed by gold reserves that offered few options for expanding the money supply to match the supply of real wealth. The result was a deflationary spiral that brought major economic depressions every couple of decades for most of the century. In response, in the 20th century, nation after nation abandoned the gold standard's straitjacket and retooled their money systems to meet the needs of an expanding economy.

That's the context of the present crisis because, in terms of real wealth, we no longer have an expanding economy. The production of real wealth in the world's industrial nations has been in decline now for decades. Some of the deficit has been made up by importing real wealth from overseas, but not all; compare the lifestyle available to a single salary working class American family in 1969 to the lifestyle available to a similar family today and it's possible to get a glimpse of just how much impoverishment has taken place over the last forty years.

This impoverishment went unnoticed by most people because the money supply didn't follow suit. Until the economy came unglued in the second half of 2008, money had never been so abundant or readily available. Some of it got spent on real wealth, which is why real estate and other commodities soared to giddy heights, but most of it was diverted instead into various forms of abstract pseudo-wealth related to money in much the way that money relates to real wealth. Yes, I'm talking about your investments.

The confusion between money and wealth and the biases imposed by the long economic expansion of industrialism have made it almost impossible to talk sensibly about investments these days. It seems normal to most people that they should be able to invest their money and, as a matter of course, get back more than they put in. This reflects the dynamics of an expanding economy; if the production of real wealth is increasing, investments on average will increase in value over time to match the growth in real wealth, and the payback on investments reflects this. Outside of the special conditions of a growth economy, though, that logic no longer applies.

The long economic expansion of the industrial age has fostered the massive growth of what old-fashioned Marxists used to call a rentier class – a class whose money makes money for them. Even among people who work for a living, the idea of joining the rentier class on retirement, and living comfortably off investments, has become very popular in recent years. The problem, of course, is that the age of industrial expansion is over; it was made possible in the first place only by exponentially increasing the use of fossil fuels and other natural resources; like all exponential growth curves, it faced an inevitable collision with the limits of its environment – and that collision is happening around us right now.

We are thus entering a period of prolonged economic contraction – not a recession, or even a depression, but a change in the fundamental dynamic of the economy. Over the centuries just past, a rising tide of economic growth was interrupted by occasional periods of contraction; over the centuries ahead, the long decline of the industrial economy will doubtless be interrupted by occasional periods of relative prosperity. Just as a rising tide lifts all boats, a falling tide lowers them all, and if the tide goes out far enough, a great many boats will end up high and dry.

The desperate attempt by full-time and part-time members of the rentier class to avoid dealing with this unwelcome reality has had the ironic result of making the situation much worse than it had to be. As actual investments in productive economic activities stopped yielding a noticeable profit, more and more investors sought to make money via a menagerie of exotic financial livestock notable for their complete disconnection from the economy of goods and services. The result was a series of classic speculative bubbles, culminating in the crash of 2008 and the crisis still unfolding around us. In the process, eager investors who might have lost their money slowly over a period of years have, instead, lost it all at once.

Still, in a contracting economy, on average, all investments lose money. This is the hard reality with which all of us will have to deal. This is why, in the twilight years of the Roman world, a complex money economy that made heavy use of credit and investment gave way to purely local economies of barter and customary exchange, in which money played a very minor role and credit was unheard of. It is also why the two great religious movements that rose out of Rome's ruins, Christianity and Islam, both considered lending at interest a mortal sin – though Christianity managed to talk itself out of that useful teaching some centuries ago.

Thus the only investment advice I can offer is to get out of investments altogether, and put your money into something that will actually be useful: training in practical skills that will make you employable in a deindustrializing economy, for example, or extra insulation so you can keep your home livable with less energy. At this point in history, the belief that it's possible to have your money make your living for you is basically a delusion; it's likely to be a fairly persistent one, but those who can shake themselves free of it and adjust to life in a radically different economic reality are likely to do better than those who keep on chasing the prospects of an age that is ending around us.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Unnoticed Technologies

When people talk about the role of technology in the future, most of the time the technologies they have in mind are the flashy ones – that is, those that haven’t been around long enough to slip into the background texture of everyday existence. Especially in periods of decline, though, it’s far more likely to be the technologies so common they’re hardly noticed that determine, by their survival or disappearance, the fate of societies.

For the Polynesian inhabitants of Easter Island, for example, deepwater canoes had been part of daily life for thousands of years. This, I suspect, is among the core reasons that nobody on Easter Island seems to have anticipated the consequences of cutting down too many trees. The resulting deforestation eliminated an essential resource – large tree trunks – without which deepwater canoes could not be made, cutting off the majority of the island’s food supply and, at the same time, the only way out of the trap the Easter Islanders set for themselves. The canoe had been so omnipresent a part of life for so long that the possibility of its absence very likely never entered into the islanders’ darkest dreams.

A similar sort of inattention, according to the medieval Arab historian ibn Khaldûn, played a catastrophic role in the collapse and abandonment of cities across the Middle East and North Africa in the centuries prior to his own time. The Muqaddimah, ibn Khaldûn’s treatise on the forces that shape history, paid close attention to the relationship between settled agricultural civilizations and nomadic herding societies. It’s a relationship worth watching; as far back as ancient Sumer, which in historical terms is pretty much as far back as you can go, the ebb and flow of power between desert herdspeople and settled agriculturalists sets the heartbeat of history. In Mesopotamia and many other places, civilizations rise on the backs of new technologies, prosper and expand at the expense of their nomadic neighbors, transmit their technical skills to those same neighbors, and then falter and collapse beneath nomad incursions.

What sets ibn Khaldûn’s analysis apart from those of the many other historians who once tracked this cycle is his attention to the role of background technologies in bringing the cycle to an end. From Sumerian times onward, irrigation canals formed the backbone of settled life across the Middle East. While irrigation in a desert setting can cause salinization (the slow buildup of salts in the soil), this does not happen as automatically or as disastrously as some current theorists insist; it’s rarely mentioned, for example, that Syria – where grain agriculture was probably invented, and has certainly been practiced as long as anywhere else in the world – is still a significant exporter of wheat today. Two other factors less often discussed in modern studies of ecological history played at least as large a role.

The first of these, and over the long term the most important, is climate change. Over the ten thousand years or so since the end of the last ice age, climates have shifted dramatically many times over large areas of the world, and rarely so drastically as in the Middle East. The ice age climate spread deserts over much of the world, including areas that now receive plenty of rainfall, while a few regions that are now barren – for example, the Great Basin deserts in North America – got heavy rains and supported rich ecosystems and human societies. The chaotic climates that followed the breakup of the glaciers, and likely made the lives of our ancestors all too interesting, eventually gave way to what paleoclimatologists call the Holocene Climatic Optimum, a period of several thousand years in which global temperatures were much warmer and wetter than they are today.

During those years, the winter rains that now fall north of the Mediterranean swept across it to douse North Africa, and tropical monsoons rolled north into today’s deserts from Ethiopia to Pakistan. As recently as 6000 years ago, as a result, hippopotami flourished in a great chain of lakes across what is now the southern Sahara Desert, and further north the lakes and marshes gave way to a vast savanna full of giraffes, gazelles, lions, and elephants. Similar conditions prevailed over large parts of the Arabian peninsula and across the band of deserts that now stretch from Mesopotamia east to India.

What dried up the lakes and replaced savannas with sand dunes was the gradual cooling of the Earth’s climate, which shifted the rain bands toward their present locations, leaving deserts in their wake. Whole river systems vanished, along with the people who once lived beside them, as the rain that once fed both went away. The process took time – as late as the heyday of the Roman Empire, for example, North Africa still received winter rains and remained the Mediterranean’s major grain-producing area – but by ibn Khaldûn’s time it was essentially complete. This was where the third factor, central to his own analysis, came into play.

The cyclic interaction between settled urban societies and desert nomads depended on the maintenance of irrigation technologies first put into place by the ancient Sumerians. The slow march of climate change made irrigation more difficult and more necessary at the same time, and most desert civilizations had to direct a fair proportion of their economic output into maintaining the canals and waterworks on which survival depended. This, as ibn Khaldûn pointed out, became their Achilles’ heel, because the desert nomads who conquered the urban centers never quite grasped the necessity of the irrigation systems, and starved them of resources until they slid down the slow curve of failure. Like the deforestation that doomed the people of Easter Island, the abandonment of the irrigation canals was a one-way ticket to collapse; once farmland turned into desert, the agricultural wealth that made canal building and repair possible was no longer there to be spent, and regions that had been settled for millennia turned into deserts spotted with crumbling ruins.

All this has more than a little relevance to the twilight of the industrial age beginning around us today. Like the inhabitants of Easter Island, we depend on the reckless exploitation of limited resources to sustain our way of life; like the civilizations of the Middle East whose fate was chronicled by ibn Khaldûn, our survival depends on fragile infrastructure systems that few of us understand and most of our leaders seem entirely willing to starve of necessary resources for the sake of short-term political advantage. The industrial system that supports us has been in place long enough that most of us seem to be unable to conceive of circumstances in which it might no longer be there.

One of the wrinkles of catabolic collapse – the process by which societies in decline cannibalize their own infrastructure to meet immediate needs, and so accelerate their own breakdown – is that it can trigger abrupt crises by wrecking some essential technology that is not recognized as such. We are already witnessing the early stages of exactly such a crisis. What large trees were to the Easter Islanders and irrigation canals were to the early medieval Middle East, the current form of money economy is to modern industrial society, and the speculative delusions that passed for financial innovation over the last few decades have played exactly the same role as the invading nomads of ibn Khaldûn’s history, by stripping a fragile system of resources in the pursuit of immediate gain. The result, just as in the 1930s, is that a nation still relatively rich in potential resources, and provided with a large and skilled labor force, is sliding into crushing poverty because the intricate social system we use to allocate labor and resources has broken down.

Other unwelcome surprises along the same lines are likely events in the future. Before we get there, however, those of us who are concerned about the possible downside of history might be well advised to pay more attention to the unnoticed technologies in our lives, and to start thinking about how to make do without them, or get some substitute in place in a hurry, if the unthinkable happens and one or more of them suddenly goes away.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Toward Ecosophy

Two weeks ago, in The Ecology of Social Change, I suggested that the great flaw in most of today’s schemes for social change is their failure to grasp the ecological dimensions of human society. That flaw has been almost impossible to avoid, because it is not simply a matter of consciously held beliefs; many of the people drafting plans for social change these days have learned quite a bit about ecology. It’s the unexamined and often unconscious presuppositions underlying most such plans that blind them to ecological reality – and the struggle to confront one’s own presuppositions is very challenging work.

One of the things that makes the end of the industrial age so difficult for many people today, after all, is the way that it drives a wedge between science and what has often been called scientism. Science, at its core, is simply a method of practical logic that tests hypotheses against experience. Scientism, by contrast, is the worldview and value system that insists that the questions the scientific method can answer are the most important questions human beings can ask, and that the picture of the world yielded by science is a better approximation to reality than any other. Science and scientism are not the same, but it’s one of the most common habits of modern thought to assume their identity – or, more precisely, to fixate on science and fail to notice that scientism as a distinctive worldview exists at all.

This is not a new thing; most sets of intellectual tools have given rise to their own worldview and values. Classical logic followed the same trajectory. Greek and Roman philosophers took logic as their basic toolkit, defined reality as whatever could be reduced to verbal statements and analyzed by logical means, and consigned the rest to the apeiron, the realm of the formless and unknowable. The results predetermined most of the successes and failures of the ancient world’s intellectual history. It’s easy enough to condemn the old philosophers for their failures – the debates about justice, for example, that never quite stopped to ask if there might be something wrong with the ancient world’s economic dependence on slavery – but of course equivalent blind spots pervade modern thinking as well.

What verbal statements were to classical logic, quantification is to the scientific method: phenomena that can’t be expressed in numbers usually can’t be investigated by the scientific method. Many scientists have reacted by consigning anything that can’t be quantified to their own version of the apeiron. Recognizing this bad habit is not a condemnation of science, or even of scientism; rather, it is simply an acknowledgment of the fact that no tool is suited for every job. Still, the natural tendency of a small child with a hammer to believe that everything is in need of a good whacking isn’t the only factor at work here; the scientific method itself very often becomes an obstacle in the way of clarity.

Worldviews and values, after all, are among the things the scientific method handles most poorly – it’s very hard to quantify a value judgment – and this problem becomes particularly serious when the scientist faces the worldview and values that derive from science itself. No controlled double-blind experiment could possibly prove, for example, that truths revealed by science are more important than those uncovered by other means, much less that the scientific method is the best hope for the human future! The fact that scientists have made these claims doesn’t make them scientific. Rather, they’re among the value judgments that unfold from scientism.

The same point can be made with even more force about humanity’s supposed “conquest of nature,” perhaps the most distinctive concept of scientism. A military metaphor that defines humanity as Earth’s enemy is an odd way to understand our relationship with the natural systems that sustain our lives. Still, scratch today’s attitudes toward the natural world and the hackneyed image of Man the Conqueror of Nature is rarely far below the surface. Even the narratives of modern environmentalism, far from rejecting this view, reinforce it; most of them glorify human power, in fact, by embracing the claim that humanity has become so almighty that it can destroy the Earth and itself into the bargain.

The conflict between these beliefs and the hard realities of the predicament of industrial civilization could not be more stark. Human limits, not human power, define the situation we face today, because the technological revolutions and economic boom times that most modern people take for granted resulted from a brief period of extravagance in which we squandered half a billion years of stored sunlight. The power we claimed was never really ours, and we never conquered nature; instead, we stole as many of her carbon assets as we could reach, and spent most of them. Now the bills are coming due, the balance left in the account won’t meet them, and the only question left is how much of what we bought with all that carbon will still be ours when nature’s foreclosure proceedings finish with us.

Such perspectives are impossible to square with most contemporary attitudes about nature and humanity’s place in it, and they conflict just as sharply with the Enlightenment faith in reason as the door to a better world. From the perspective of that faith, it’s axiomatic that anything unsatisfactory is a problem in need of a solution, and that a solution can be found for it. The suggestion that deeply unsatisfactory conditions cannot be solved but, rather, have to be lived with, is unthinkable and offensive to a great many people. Yet if human life is subject to hard ecological limits, the narrative of human omnipotence falls, and a popular and passionately held conception of humanity’s nature and destiny falls with it.

It’s easy to turn scientism into the villain of this particular piece, but scientism is simply a recent example of the human habit of using successful technique to define the universe. Hunting and gathering peoples see the animals they hunt and the plants they gather as the building blocks of the cosmos; farming cultures see their world in terms of soil, seed, and the cycle of the year; the efforts of classical civilization to inhabit a wholly logical world, and those of modern industrial civilization to build a wholly scientific one, are simply two more examples. Nor was scientism always as maladaptive as it is today. During the heyday of the industrial age, it directed human effort toward what was, at that time, a successful human ecology. In retrospect, scientism’s limitless faith in the power of human reason turned out to be a case study in what the ancient Greeks called hubris, the overweening pride of the doomed. At the time, though, this wasn’t obvious at all, and there’s a valid sense in which scientism has become problematic today simply because its time of usefulness is over.

Still, the cultures best suited to the deindustrial age will have to embrace an attitude toward nature differing sharply from scientism: an attitude that starts from humility rather than hubris, remembering that “humility” shares the same root as “humus,” the soil on which we depend for the food that keeps us alive. That attitude offers few justifications for today’s arrogant notions about humanity’s place in nature. Still, just as Greek logic was pulled out of the rubble of the classical world and put to use in a string of successor civilizations, the scientific method is worth hauling out of the wreckage of the industrial age, and could function just as well in a culture of environmental humility as it does in today’s culture of environmental hubris. My guess, for what it’s worth, is that the environmental sciences offer the most likely meeting ground for such a project of rescue.

Every culture draws on the techniques it finds most useful to provide it with its worldview. Industrial civilization thus drew most of the ideas of scientism, and even more of its symbolism and emotional appeal, from the world revealed by Galileo and Newton in the seventeenth century and embodied in the first wave of industrial technology a century later. In the same way, the crucial role ecological knowledge will likely play in the wake of the industrial age makes the emergence of a broader way of thinking modeled on ecological science a near-certainty over the centuries immediately ahead of us.

Call that way of thinking ecosophy: the wisdom (sophia) of the home, as distinct from – though in no way opposed to – the “speaking about the home” that is ecology, or the “craft (techne) of the home” that is ecotechnics. Ecosophy isn’t a science, any more than scientism is, nor is it a religion – though ecological religion is likely to be significant in the deindustrial age, whether it borrows existing religious forms or evolves new ones of its own. Rather, ecosophy is a worldview and value system that gives meaning to ecology and ecotechnics, and makes sense of human life not in terms of some imagined conquest of nature, but of our species’ dependence and participation in the wider circle of the biosphere.

Some elements of ecosophy already exist, and others will evolve gradually as the twilight of the age of cheap energy makes environmental realities impossible to ignore. Still, there is also a point in sketching at least some of the outlines of an ecosophic worldview here and now. The Christian worldview of the Middle Ages appeared in the writings of theologians such as Augustine of Hippo long before it rooted itself in the imagination of the medieval world; in the same way, founders of modern science from Galileo to Darwin explored the worldview of scientism in their writings, and from there it spread into popular consciousness. Some of the essays in the months to come will discuss authors that have contributed most to the emerging ecosophical worldview, and explore angles along which a vision of human existence founded on ecology might be developed.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

A Deindustrial Reading List

Over the last few months a number of people have asked me what books I think they ought to read to help them prepare for the slow unraveling of industrial civilization now getting started around us. This is frankly the kind of question I try my best to dodge. Premature consensus is arguably one of the most severe risks we face just now, and any image of the future – very much including the one I've sketched out here – is at best a scattershot sampling of the divergent possibilities facing us as the industrial age comes to its end.

Thus anything that tends to encourage people in the peak oil movement, or the wider society around it, to think about the future in any stereotyped way is potentially fatal. Still, several readers have noted that the ideas in The Long Descent and these essays presuppose a worldview and a cultural and intellectual inheritance that aren't exactly widespread in popular culture these days. They've asked, if I may paraphrase a bit, what they should read to make better sense of my ravings. Put that way, it's not an unreasonable request, and since the view of history that shapes those ravings flies in the face of most of the common assumptions of the modern world, a little background may not hurt.

I've thus sketched out a reading list of sorts for those interested in exploring in more detail the viewpoint I've presented here. It contains nearly as many broad categories as specific book recommendations; I have my preferences, and will suggest them, but here again diversity of opinion and information are essential. If everybody in your neighborhood reads and uses the techniques in a different gardening book, the resulting knowledge base will be much larger and more useful than if everybody relies on a single text, with its inevitable omissions and errors.

For similar reasons, most of the books mentioned below are relatively old, and some of them are out of print. There are excellent new books on most of these subjects, and I certainly encourage you to read as many of those as appeal to you, but books written during any historical period mirror that period's presuppositions and habits of thought to a much greater extent than anybody notices at the time. One advantage of older books is precisely that their unthinking assumptions are easier to catch, and this in turn helps foster the awkward but essential realization that thirty years from now, the unquestioned truths and apparently reasonable assumptions of the present will look as outlandishly dated as bell bottom pants and disco music.

Very few of the books I've suggested here are practical, in any ordinary sense of the word, and those that have that distinction are meant to be read and interpreted in rather impractical ways. The sheer diversity of potentials and needs that will likely open up in a deindustrializing future makes any sort of practical booklist an exercise in overgeneralization; the entire thrust of the deindustrial age heads from standardized approaches toward the diversity that comes from a renewed engagement with the local realities of one's own place, time, and community. A reader whose future career involves raising draft horses in rural Iowa has completely different practical needs from a reader who, ten years from now, will be salvaging and repairing appliances in a small West Coast city; what they need in common is a framework of ideas that will help them make sense of the wider picture, and the ideas I am trying to explore here provide one of these.

Finally, I've made some suggestions about how to approach the books mentioned below. At the risk of sounding like a 19th-century schoolmaster, I probably need to point out that you won't get much out of any book if you approach it passively, and let the words dribble through your mind and out your ears like so many sitcom plots. The books I've suggested are not there so that you can agree with them unthinkingly; they are meant to get you to look under the hood of the ideas I've offered and see how the machinery works.

With those caveats, here goes. The following books should be read, if you can manage that, in the order I've listed them.

1. A basic textbook of ecology. It really doesn't matter which one; the two on my bookshelves are Richard Brewer's Principles of Ecology and Eugene P. Odum's Fundamentals of Ecology, but that's simply because these were the college textbooks I studied back in the day. What's essential is that the book you read should be a general textbook of scientific ecology, not a popularization or a polemic. A great many people have embraced ecology as an ideology or a sentimental pose without ever getting around to learning how living things and their environments interact. In the future, I'm convinced, a clear and unsentimental understanding of the way ecology works will be the most essential branch of human knowledge, and could spare individuals and communities some bitter lessons in the years to come. A basic grasp of ecology is also essential for making sense of the next three books.

2. The Limits to Growth by Donella Meadows, David Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III. Get the original 1972 edition rather than either of the two updates, in which the original message has been partly overlaid with political polemic. The most insightful and thus inevitably the most vilified of the 1970s collapse literature, The Limits to Growth was the first book I know of to point out the central paradox of a perpetual growth economy: if economic growth is pursued far enough, the costs of further growth begin to rise faster than its benefits, and eventually force the growth economy to its knees. Joseph Tainter's The Collapse of Complex Societies explored the same territory later on from another angle, and my essay on catabolic collapse did the same thing from a different angle again; still, the original presentation remains the most useful. Note whether The Limits to Growth makes more or less sense in the light of the basic ecological principles you read in the first book.

3. Overshoot by William R. Catton Jr. Still far and away the best book on the twilight of the age of cheap energy, Overshoot is also one of the very few explorations of that troubling territory that is fully grounded in a clear grasp of ecological realities. A good half of the ideas explored in The Archdruid Report can trace their origins to one page or another of Catton's book. It is challenging reading and, in many places, depressing as well; Catton resolutely refuses to offer easy answers for the predicament into which industrial society has backed itself. Of all the currently out-of-print books on this list, though, this is the one I would most like to see reissued by some small publisher. Once again, assess Catton's claims in the light of the basic ecological principles you've learned.

4. A practical introduction to intensive organic gardening. John Jeavons' How To Grow More Vegetables and John Seymour's The Self-Sufficient Gardener are among the examples on my shelves (along with a number of more recent books, of course). It's best to choose one you haven't read before. The goal here is not to learn how to grow food using intensive organic methods – though that's very likely a good idea – but rather to think through the practical implications of the ecological ideas you've just studied. Ask yourself where the system of gardening presented by the book you're reading works with ecological cycles, and where it conflicts with them; imagine ways in which the logic governing organic gardening could be applied to other aspects of society and economy, and try to get a sense of the costs and benefits of making a transition from current practices to the ones you've imagined.

5 and 6. The Decline of the West by Oswald Spengler and A Study of History by Arnold Toynbee. Get the abridged edition of each; the complete two-volume Spengler is hard to get, and only obsessive history fans like me work their way through all twelve volumes of Toynbee, but the one-volume Spengler abridgment and either the two-volume or the later one-volume versions of Toynbee are cheap, readily available, and no great challenge to read. These are the two great modern presentations of the case for cyclic history; they cover much the same territory, but each one does it from a unique perspective. Read them close together, and notice the places where Toynbee is arguing with Spengler's theories and conclusions; the Great Conversation is rarely quite so audible as here. While you read both books, notice whether the ecological perspectives you've absorbed from the first three books cast any additional light on the cycles outlined by these two authors.

7. The history of a dead civilization. It doesn't matter which one, and you have plenty of options to choose from. The only requirements are that the civilization should be as extinct as a dodo; the book you choose should focus on history rather than culture – that is, it should talk about what events happened in what order, rather than simply wallowing in the cultural high points and quietly neglecting how things fell to bits thereafter; and it should cover the whole history of the civilization from its origin to its collapse. As you trace the rise and fall of the civilization you've chosen, bring the lessons of the first six books to bear on it. What role did ecological factors in general, and the specific problems traced by Meadows et al. and Catton, play in your civilization's rise and fall? How well do Spengler's and Toynbee's accounts of historical change fit the facts in this specific case?

8. Muddling Toward Frugality by Warren Johnson. This one may be a challenge to find; it appeared right at the end of the 1970s, had a brief flurry of popularity, and then vanished without a trace in the wave of reaction that swept Ronald Reagan into the White House and the lessons of the previous decade into oblivion. Regardless, it's one of the most thoughtful works to come out of the last energy crisis, an argument for unplanned, undramatic, and thoroughly non-ideological change as the best option at the end of the Age of Abundance. Johnson's analysis is much subtler than it looks; this is another book that needs to get back in print sooner rather than later. While reading it, bring your previous reading to bear on it; in particular, ask yourself how useful its proposals would have been if implemented at various points in the decline and fall of the civilization you studied.

9. Where The Wasteland Ends by Theodore Roszak. A brilliant, engaging, frustrating work, this is Roszak's exploration of the narratives and assumptions about reality that undergird modern industrial civilization. Some of my readers will find its argument appealing, while others will find it intolerable; both groups stand to learn a great deal from this book if they set aside these emotional reactions and pay attention to the way that Roszak crafts his case, to his choice of examples and evidence, and also to the things he doesn't address. As you read it, put it in its historical context: if it had been written in a dead civilization just before decline set in, what would Spengler and Toynbee have said about it? Then take it out of its historical context: what does its argument have to offer us now?

10. A book predicting a dramatic social transformation that didn't happen. Choose one that you would have rooted for at the time. If you believe that civilization is the root of all evils, pick up the sturdy Victorian radical Edward Carpenter's Civilization: Its Cause and Cure; if you believe that we are on the verge of breakthrough into a new kind of consciousness, try Charles Reich's The Greening of America; if you're secretly hoping for social collapse and mass dieoff, read one of the hundreds of books that have been predicting exactly that for the last dozen centuries, and so on. Try to put yourself into the mindset of the readers who believed it when it first saw print; see why it seemed to make sense at the time – and then step back and explore the reasons why nothing of the sort actually happened. Bring everything you've learned from the previous nine books to bear on this one.

There you have it. It would probably be possible to draw up a list of books in print that would cast the same light on the ideas I'm trying to explore here. It would also be possible to draw up a list drawn entirely from Greek and Roman classical authors – though this would take a tolerance for the sort of thinking modern people mislabel "mysticism" well beyond what most readers have nowadays. Still, this is my list, and I'm stickin' with it; those who tackle it, on the off chance that anybody does, will end up with a much clearer idea of what I'm trying to say in these essays, and with any luck, will be able to go further with these curious notions than I have.