Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The End of the Information Age

One of the repeated lessons I’ve learned over the three years since The Archdruid Report began appearing is the extent to which many people nowadays have trouble grasping some of the most fundamental facts about the crisis of our times. I had yet another reminder of that a few days back, when the comments on last week’s post started coming in.

A point made in passing in that post was that railroads, while they are much more efficient than automobile or air transport, still require relatively large amounts of concentrated energy, and so may become uneconomical for many uses at a certain point well down the curve of fossil fuel depletion. One of my readers took rather heated exception to this comment. Only America’s backwards railroads, he pointed out indignantly, relied on fossil fuel; since European and Japanese railways used electricity, they would be unaffected by fossil fuel depletion and could keep rolling along into the far future.

This kind of logic is common enough these days that it’s probably necessary to point out the flaws in it. Electricity isn’t an energy source; it has to be generated, using some other energy source to do so. The electricity that powers the European and Japanese rail systems is mostly generated by plants that burn coal, with significant help from nuclear reactors and a rather smaller assist from hydroelectric plants. Of these, only the hydroelectric plants are a renewable energy source; the others are poised just as firmly on the downslope of depletion as the diesel oil that runs American locomotives.

Coal is turning out to be much less abundant than the cozy estimates of a few decades ago made it sound, and of course there’s the far from minor impact of coal burning on an already unstable global climate. Fissionable uranium is well down its own depletion curve, and it’s worth noting that the enthusiastic claims sometimes made for breeder reactors, the use of thorium as a nuclear fuel, and other alternatives to conventional fission plants are very rarely to be heard from people who have professional training in the fields concerned. Thus my reader was quite simply wrong; the European and Japanese rail systems that so excited his admiration are just as dependent on nonrenewable fuels as the American system, and are also just as vulnerable to the economic implications of supply and demand as energy supplies dwindle.

Now of course there are other reasons why railroads may be kept in service, at least for certain uses, long after they become economic liabilities. Many of the world’s larger nations – the United States and Russia among them – grew to their present size only after rail transport made it possible to exert political and economic power on a continental scale, and future governments may well keep long-distance rail links going as a matter of national survival. That likelihood, though, does nothing to counter the point central to last week’s post: that in a world with much less energy, older and more energy-efficient transport methods such as canal boats may turn out to be much more economically viable than their more recent and more extravagant replacements, and those cities and regions well positioned to take advantage of waterborne transport may therefore thrive in the 21st century as they did in the 19th.

The same logic can be applied usefully to many other aspects of the future taking shape ahead of us right now. Probably the best example is the looming impact of a future of energy constraints on the ways that modern industrial cultures store, process, and distribute information.

It’s hard to think of a subject that has been loaded with anything like as much hype. Our time, the media never tires of repeating, is the Information Age, an epoch in which economic sectors dealing with mere material goods and services have been relegated to Third World sweatshops, while the economic cutting edge deals entirely in the manufacture, sales, and service of information in various forms. As usual – can you think of a short-term trend that hasn’t been identified as a wave of the future destined to rise up an asymptotic curve to infinity, or at least absurdity? I can’t – the standard assumption is that the future will be just like the present, but even more so, with more elaborate technologies providing more baroque information products and services as far as the eye (or, rather, the webcam) can see.

This is hardly a new vision of the future. In his 1909 novella “The Machine Stops,” which should be required reading for anyone who buys into the Information Age hullabaloo, E.M. Forster provided a remarkably exact dissection of contemporary cyberculture’s idea of its destiny most of a century in advance. It’s a great story on its own terms, but it also puts a finger on the central weakness of an information-centered society: information does not exist without a physical substrate, and if the physical substrate goes, so does the information.

In Forster’s story, that substrate was the Machine – an interconnected technostructure that spanned the globe and provided the necessities and luxuries of life to uncounted millions of people who spent their lives in hivelike cells, staring into screens and tapping on keyboards like so many of today’s computer geeks. Adept at manipulating abstract ideas, the inhabitants of the Machine lost touch with the fact that their universe of information only existed because the physical structure of the Machine kept it there, and their attitude toward the Machine gradually evolved into a religious reverence devoid of any reference to the practical realities of the Machine’s workings. The skills needed to apply physical tools to pipes and wires dropped out of use, and the consequences – minor malfunctions snowballing into major ones, and finally into total systems failure – followed from there.

Now of course fiction is fiction, and the events that cause the Machine to stop are unlikely to be repeated in the real world. The central concept, though, demands attention, because our Machine – the internet – depends just as much on a physical substrate as the one in Forster’s novella. In our case, that substrate is the global network of communications links and server farms, and the even vaster economic and technical infrastructure that keeps them funded, powered, and supplied with the trained personnel and spare parts that keep them running.

Very few people realize just how extravagant the intake of resources to maintain the information economy actually is. The energy cost to run a home computer is modest enough that it’s easy to forget, for example, that the two big server farms that keep Yahoo’s family of web services online use more electricity between them than all the televisions on Earth put together. Multiply that out by the tens of thousands of server farms that keep today’s online economy going, and the hundreds of other energy-intensive activities that go into the internet, and it may start to become clear how much energy goes into putting these words onto the screen where you’re reading them.

It’s not an accident that the internet came into existence during the last hurrah of the age of cheap energy, the quarter century between 1980 and 2005 when the price of energy dropped to the lowest levels in human history. Only in a period where energy was quite literally too cheap to bother conserving could so energy-intensive an information network be constructed. The problem here, of course, is that the conditions that made the cheap abundant energy of that quarter century have already come to an end, and the economics of the internet take on a very different shape as energy becomes scarce and expensive again.

Like the railroads of the future mentioned earlier in this post, the internet is subject to the laws of supply and demand. Once the cost of maintaining it in its current form outstrips the income that can be generated by it, it becomes a losing proposition, and cheaper modes of information storage and delivery will begin to replace it in its more marginal uses. Governments will have very good reasons to maintain some form of internet as long as they can, even when it becomes an economic sink – it’s worth remembering that the internet we now have evolved out of a US government network meant to provide communication capacity in the event of nuclear war – but this does not mean that everyone in the industrial world will have the same access they do today.

Instead, as energy costs move unsteadily upward and resource needs increasingly get met, or not, on the basis of urgency, expect access costs to rise, government regulation to increase, internet commerce to be subject to increasing taxation, and rural areas and poor neighborhoods to lose internet service altogether. There may well still be an internet a quarter century from now, but it will likely cost much more, reach far fewer people, and have only a limited resemblance to the free-for-all that exists today. Newspapers, radio, and television all moved from a growth phase of wild diversity and limited regulation to a mature phase of vast monopolies with tightly controlled content; even in the absence of energy limits, the internet would be likely to follow the same trajectory, and the rising costs imposed by the end of cheap energy bid fair to shift that process into overdrive.

The waning of the internet will pose an additional challenge to the future, because – like other new technologies – it is in the process of displacing older technologies that provided the same services on a more sustainable basis. The collapse of the newspaper industry is one widely discussed example of this process at work, but another – the death spiral of American public libraries – is likely to have a much wider impact in the decades and centuries to come. Among the most troubling consequences of the current economic crisis are wholesale cuts in state and local government funding for libraries. The Florida legislature was with some difficulty convinced a few weeks ago not to cut every penny of state support for library systems – roughly a quarter of all the money that keeps libraries open in Florida – and county and city libraries from coast to coast are cutting hours, laying off staff, and closing branches.

Some of the proponents of these budget cuts have been caught in public insisting that with the rise of the internet, nobody actually needs public libraries any more. (The fact that many of these people call themselves conservatives proves, if any additional proof is needed, just how empty of content today’s political labels have become; what exactly do they think they’re conserving?) Now of course public libraries provide many services the internet doesn’t, and it also provides them to all those people who can’t afford internet access. The point I’d like to make here, though, is that the public library will still be a viable information technology in a postpetroleum society. When Ben Franklin founded America’s first public library, it may be worth noting, he did it without benefit of fossil fuels.

If public libraries can be kept open during the waves of economic crisis that punctuate the decline of civilizations, then, everyone will likely be the better for it. I am sorry to say that this is probably not the most likely way things will fall out. The current wave of library downsizing is probably a harbinger of things to come; pressed between too many demands and too little funding to go around, library systems – like public health departments, for example, and a great many other institutions that make community life viable – are far too likely to draw the short straw. Exactly this sort of short-term thinking has driven the loss of vast amounts of information and cultural heritage in the collapse of past civilizations.

As we move into the penumbra of the deindustrial age, then, it’s crucial to start thinking about the options open to us – individually and collectively – with an eye toward their long-term viability and to the hard reality of a world of ecological limits. When today’s data centers are crumbling ruins long since stripped of valuable salvage, and all the data once stored there has evaporated into whatever realm magnetic patterns go to when they die, the thinking that led politicians to gut viable library systems on the assumption that the internet will take up the slack will look remarkably stupid. Still, the habits of thought instilled by the age of cheap abundant energy are hard to shake off, and from within them, such mistakes are hard to avoid.


Ruben said...
Thank you JMG, I feel less crazy when you say it too.

I have been saying the internet is just a fad, to spark conversation, for over a year now, and have never had anyone take it seriously.

The numbers I have heard are that all the servers, switches and home computers use 5% of global electricity and 1% of global power. The last number was likened to the total power use of the airline industry. (I hope I am using power and energy correctly).

I actually attended a scenario session on the future of the internet and suggested we ask what the digital equivalent of an Inter-Library Loan would look like, in an energy constrained future.

5/13/09, 5:39 PM

okieinbabylon said...
Perhaps the use of internet terminals in the future's public libraries will be one of the last vestiges of our current information infrastructure. Surely the energy cost of e-mail is lower than that of paper mail?

5/13/09, 5:59 PM

bodhifox said...
I was a bit dismayed listening to a publishing executive discussing the demise of print media on NPR. Seems, according to some to be a foregone conclusion the Kindle or whatever else comes along will do away with "books" in the near future.

5/13/09, 6:55 PM

mpg4 said...
Excellent post, as usual.

As much as I'd like it to be otherwise, I tend to agree with you about the fate of the internet in an age of scarce energy, but I'm curious why you place it with radio and television as destined for 'vast monopolies and tightly controlled content' even otherwise. The internet seems to have much more in common with print media -- some things like daily newspapers are the vast monopolies you mention, but magazines, newsletters, pamphlets, and zines can be found to cater to any interest. The barriers to entry (at the low end, at least) are very low, and there's no underlying scarcity like there is of frequency bandwidth in radio and TV.

5/13/09, 8:17 PM

Dode said...
I'm no expert on European hydroelectric but I think at least in the UK the majority of the Hydropower is pumped storage. So again we have a storage system for primary generation, mostly coal and nuclear.
It's often assumed this will be a vital part of our future renewable energy system. As far as I know No one seems to have looked to see if we will ever be able to run the pumps.

5/13/09, 8:19 PM

Lloyd Morcom said...
The other problem is the modern construction of books. How long does a modern book last anyway? We are going to need to re-evolve low-tech book printing if much is to be saved in any case. Hi-tech turns over every five years or so and we can kind of cope with, but my books from the seventies are getting to be unreadable with the glue that binds them falling to bits.

5/13/09, 8:44 PM

Kevin said...
I wonder how long before they bring back the card catalogs? I never did care for the notion of replacing those with computers, as it creates access problems at peak hours that almost never pertained with paper catalogs.

Having lived abroad I have reason to appreciate what excellent institutions are the public libraries we have to date enjoyed in the United States: the great literature of the world at your fingertips for free, the Encyclopedia Britannica even for the broke. The notion of losing this asset appalls me.

What you say also suggests that knowledge as such is likely eventually to become a rarer commodity, and therefore more valuable, and expensive. Forty years ago, with a robust U.S. economy and generous federal funding, university education was available as never before to millions of young people who were the first in their families to receive a higher education. But over the past thirty years higher education has become increasingly difficult for poor and even middle class families to finance, and I've known people whose college loans have proven a heavy burden, casting a shadow over their lives for many years afterward. Higher education seems to be returning to what it was a century or so ago: the province of a relatively privileged class. This in turn suggests that, if your prognostications turn out to be accurate, then there may be a lot more ignorant people around, relative to population. That doesn't seem to me to bode too well.

5/13/09, 8:51 PM

Bill Pulliam said...
The full text of "The Machine Stops" is available for free in several places online (being 100 years old it is well into the public domain). Two of these are linked from the Wikipedia page on the piece:

5/13/09, 9:13 PM

Kiashu said...
It's interesting to think about where libraries might go in the future.

Here Down Under we're not (yet?) having the same kind of economic crisis as the USA, so we're not closing libraries. But other things are happening.

A friend of mine works in IT support for a network of libraries, and he was saying that one of management's goals is to "get as much as possible of the community into the library." Not to get as many people as they can reading books, but physically into the library. Reading is supposed to just follow inevitably after that. So they're considering buying Sony Playstations to get teenagers in.

The theory is that once the kids are there, they'll sort of almost-by-accident read some books - maybe while they're waiting for their turn to blow away some virtual bad guys.

I find it hard to articulate the absurdity of it all, except to note as I often do that life looks different depending on you're sitting behind a desk or standing in front of it.

5/13/09, 9:31 PM

Danby said...
I agree with you about the need for libraries both now and in the long-term future. As for the reason a so-called conservative would advocate the gutting of the library system, remember that libraries, like a great many cultural institutions, were captured by the political left back in the '70s. A person who looks at all things from a partisan angle, as so many seem to in this country, could advocate such a crime simply to get at his opponents, much as the gay activists and atheists have gone after the Boy Scouts.

The whole attitude of "It doesn't matter how much good you do, if you oppose my agenda you are evil and must be destroyed." provokes me to despair of this country sometimes. Not that I'm an optimist to start with!

Getting back to railroads, people forget that any massive infrastructure project such as a railroad requires a massive investment in maintenance to keep in good running order. I live less than 100 yards from the main
North-South line of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad. The ties on the line get replaced every 5 years or so. The rails themselves get replaced periodically too, I think on a 30-year life cycle. Switches, grade crossings, telemetry systems, trestles, culverts have to be repaired periodically. And the line has to be repaired after natural and man-made disasters. I know that here near us, the line is shut down completely every four or five years when we get yet another hundred-year flood. Each of these events required hundreds of thousands of dollars in repairs and inspections. The Ash Wednesday earthquake of 2002 shut down the line and required millions in repairs. The train collision that occurred about 30 miles south of us in 1993 closed the line for almost 3 weeks, and required yet more millions in repairs.

The point is that it takes a lot of economic activity to sustain a railroad. When that sort of economic activity isn't taking place, maintaining a continental railroad network becomes impractical. Local rail lines will be around for a very long time, especially in places like the Northeast and the Northwest, where they will be powered by hydro. Long lines are going to be limited by economic conditions, and the cost of providing the service.

5/13/09, 9:41 PM

Stephen Heyer said...
Hi John,
Thanks! Finally a post with lots to disagree over, well… actually… to kind of go off at an angle to.


John Greer: “A point made in passing in that post was that railroads, while they are much more efficient than automobile or air transport, still require relatively large amounts of concentrated energy, and so may become uneconomical for many uses at a certain point well down the curve of fossil fuel depletion. One of my readers took rather heated exception to this comment. Only America’s backwards railroads, he pointed out indignantly, relied on fossil fuel; since European and Japanese railways used electricity, they would be unaffected by fossil fuel depletion and could keep rolling along into the far future.”

I can only repeat the points I made in my previous post - Thomas the Tank Engine railways, that is, simple, robust railways, probably mostly steam powered, like we had up till about the 1950s can:

1. Run on about anything burnable: low grade coal; peat, wood from plantations; compressed straw; compressed blocks from high-yield fiber plantations; probably even compressed cow dung. They don’t really require “large amounts of concentrated energy” in the modern sense so we are always going to be able to fuel this kind of railway. For the benefit gained the fuel costs are negligible and always will be.

2. Be built and maintained, including rolling stock, by workshops that any regional center can afford, as they often were in the 1950s.

3. All the equipment has a very long service life and most of the materials can be easily recycled.

4. The social and economic advantages of a rail network of this type are immense: Everyone who can is going to do everything they can to have one.

5. There is not that much to gain from the considerable cost of going to a “modern”, higher speed rail system.


John Greer: “Of these, only the hydroelectric plants are a renewable energy source…”

Sadly, while true in the strict sense, this is not true in practice: I’m told that all dams have a finite life, eventually they fill up with silt.

I suppose it could be cleared out, it would make good farm soil, but in practice this does not seem to happen.


John Greer: “…and it’s worth noting that the enthusiastic claims sometimes made for breeder reactors, the use of thorium as a nuclear fuel, and other alternatives to conventional fission plants are very rarely to be heard from people who have professional training in the fields concerned.”

We must be using different sources. About all the sources I’ve read extolling the virtues of the above technologies are/were nuclear industry insiders, often people with a lifetime’s experience in the industry.

In fact, I tended to regard their enthusiasm for all things nuclear with some caution precisely because they were industry insiders.

You can probably find links to some of the original papers at Energy from Thorium (

I have to emphasize that I’m hardly a nuclear enthusiast, but neither am I willing to dismiss a power source that could soften the transition, especially in the vast cities of the modern world.


John Greer: “…the two big server farms that keep Yahoo’s family of web services online use more electricity between them than all the televisions on Earth put together.”

Are you sure of this John?

On pure common sense grounds that just doesn’t sound right. To begin with, about every mud hut in the world has at least one TV that is on much of the night and TVs are hungry beasts when it comes to electricity: A significant fraction of the world’s electricity production must go to television sets.

Are you telling me that Yahoo’s two big server farms consume a significant percentage of the whole Earth’s electricity production?

I’ve been part owner and programmer of a medium size ISP myself and I can tell you that each client’s share of the power consumption of our server farm was miniscule. Our system handled thousands of clients and I guess consumed something like the power of a couple of normal suburban houses (not McMansions).

I might also add that IT and Telecommunications equipment is getting steadily more efficient in energy use. Further, there are several generations of new technologies in various stages of development that ensure it will continues to get more efficient for a considerable time into the future.

Perhaps this is why mobile phones and the Internet are continuing their astonishing push into some of the most benighted parts of the third world. This suggests that rather than fading during the Long Emergency, they will in fact flourish, replacing more resource intensive technologies such a publishing on paper.

P.S. I love books, so I say this in sadness.

5/13/09, 11:07 PM

Alexia said...
I love the internet. Without it we would not have access to such wonderful as your block. That said, I do not completely trust digital storage media. I use it, but I have duplicate copies of information.

It will be interesting to see what happens to online college, both internet only and classes offered by traditional schools. Online is a major part of some schools.

The same goes for internet based businesses. My son does most of his shopping online. I still prefer to shop in person. However, I do like the option of ordering books long out of print from places like

5/13/09, 11:18 PM

Librarian of Hillman said...
on behalf of Lesser Libraria--THANK YOU, Archdruid!

i've been worried about these issues from the time i started my Library Masters back in 1991, and was giving presentations in class to Explain Arpanet; and worried while asking my profs how these new technologies could be kept open to the less wealthy and less skilled...i got funny looks back, mostly.

i'm still carrying around a 5 1/4 inch FLOPPY floppy that holds 5 years worth of news stories indexed from a job i held in the later 1990's. good luck to anyone needing to access that info NOW.

i'm on the academic side of the fence these days, but i worry for those on the public side, and more for those who depend on them. i know many of my public colleagues will probably work for almost nothing, but you have to give them some support.

in the froo-froo academic lit realm, we are all about digitizing everything now, details be damned about the constant need to migrate that data to the newest platform, and the gamble we are taking as far as stability of the physical medium, access, or who owns it and can shut you out at will.

you know what rocks? books. on paper. even on crappy paper. keep them dark, cool, and slightly dry--it isn't rocket science.

and microfilm rocks too--lasts 50 to over 200 years with care and you can read that text and see the pics (in color now) with a magnifying glass and sunlight. can you do that with a jump drive? if you did not know what you held in your hands, how would you even begin?

people 1,000 years from now may well look back at the later 1990's, early 21st century, and find nothing a big empty black hole of nothing. they'll have lots of shiny cd/dvd mobile art pieces and drink coasters, though. frisbees? hats?

i work with many grad students now in the profession, and they get it! far more often and more easily than the 50 and 60 year olds running the show and teaching the classes at the moment. so, there's hope.

as well, NO ONE chooses to become a librarian for the money or the fame. most of us do it because we'd be doing the same thing for free anyway. so, i spose we're well placed to transition to barter or other economies. what do you want to learn? i'll help in exchange for that chicken you got there.

my advice from behind the library lines, is to keep those public library buildings open, no matter how limited the hours, keep some dedicated staff, and please hold on to the physical book collection intact! this is something that belongs to your town/city! protect it.

if communities can do that much, at least some librarians will stay to care for it and make it accessable to folks. we like cookies. we will work for cookies and thank-you's.

another suggestion--if you have BIG public library systems or universities near you, find out about their long-term high density storage...we all have them. MILLIONS of books per warehouse, stacked several stories high, not in any sensible order now without the database of barcodes, but at least they are not gone! people who know what they are doing could put them back in useful order.

for any collection still shelved for use, you can actually manage it okay without the computer--is this a trade secret?

...get a printout of the basic subject headings for Library of Congress or Dewey--whichever it is in. that's good enough to browse with some success through thousands of books. they are organized by subject, after all (that's what catalogers do.) you won't know if one particular book is there, but you can find a bunch on your general topic that way. i've had fun watching students panic when the network is down, and then discover that they can still get some good info without it!

and if you are lucky, you will also have some printed indexes to news & magazine stories. "the kids" today sometimes even get a smile out of that when they have to use them--"this is how your great-gramma did her research." i think sometimes they find it works better and faster than Googling even (for certain topics and time periods.)

5/14/09, 12:05 AM

Matt Picio said...
Railroads will likely be around for a long time, but perhaps not powered by hydro - I can't recall the exact percentage, but something like 95% of the available sites for hydro are already developed, and those sites are silting up every year, reducing their capacity for hydro generation. Hydro projects typically last about 100 years, and after that the reservoir is full of silt. It'll take years or decades for the silt to wash out of those basins after the dams are removed, and until new dams can be built, those trains may revert back to the only low-cost renewable, wood.

Wood has a lousy EROEI, however, when compared to coal or oil.

I think we have a ways to go - we can still reduce oil consumption by at least a factor of 2, and probably more than that for electricity. If we move back away from computers, we can really reduce our electrical consumption. Companies like Intel, for example use ridiculous amounts of electricity. Here in Oregon, Intel's data center alone consumes 3.5MW, or about as much as 3,000 homes. The manufacturing facilities in Hillsboro consume much, much more. Google's datacenter in the Dalles consumes over 100MW of electricity.

I have a feeling that as we continue down the energy curve, we could see the collapse of the Internet into smaller, local networks, and eventually back to non-networked machines and the ubiquitous handheld devices on rechargeable batteries.

One advantage is that today's smallest, least capable devices aer many times more powerful than anything from the early 80s.

5/14/09, 12:09 AM

Janne said...
People have been looking at me like crazy when I ask "Do you think we'll have anything resembling the current internet ten years from now? Twenty? Thirty?" They just can't imagine something like the internet just "going away".

I think the first stage of the "death of the internet" might be its dissolution into national, regional and corporate networks.

5/14/09, 12:53 AM

A. O'Kelly said...
Two thoughts:
First, railroad infrastructure will be quickly vandalised as society continues to decline. The cost of upkeep is tough enough now, but imagine once people start stealing everything from copper pipes from buildings to the actual rails for anvils etc.
This also applies to libraries. Books will be used for fuel soon enough. If I had to choose between keeping the books on the autobiographies of celebrities, or cooking my supper, I would sadly begin using this option as well.

Second, again we are back discussing the importance of starting your own personal library. My wife and I are currently trying to transition our own library into non acidic paper. Not an easy task.

We have enjoyed several generations of public works. It is time to start moving into a more decentralised community structure.

5/14/09, 1:14 AM

nutty professor said...

I am impressed by the breadth of knowledge across a range of disciplines that you demonstrate in your writings. Thanks for another post. You emphasize acquisition of information through reading. Do you have a suggested reading list, or collection of the most important/worthwhile texts for literate persons in the age of decline, other than your works, of course? Gathering such works will be an important step in developing a base of knowledge, whether in free libraries or some other institutions. Thank you.

5/14/09, 4:55 AM

LA said...
"the two big server farms that keep Yahoo’s family of web services online use more electricity between them than all the televisions on Earth put together."

How did you determine this?

5/14/09, 6:43 AM said...
Call me crazy, but as someone who covers exactly this area pretty extensively, I think you will be surprised, going forward, how much efficiency there is to be gained. So much so that I wouldn't be surprised if you had data centers situated directly adjacent to wind farms or concentrated solar power plants (or, especially in California, geothermal plants) that were self-sustaining.

Data centers are hugely wasteful, and that's a good thing - we are really just beginning to figure out how to make them radically more efficient.

It's not like you're the only one thinking about this - were you aware that the relevant performance metric in data centers is now instructions per watt (or per joule) not per second, as in the old days?

Combine that with a trend - brought on by companies that are forced to work in developing nations - toward low-power and low-cost computing, and I think you will find that moore's law means that every year it gets easier to make a machine that will do exactly what we need -- access the internet in a way that replaces print -- at a fraction of the cost and energy expenditure of today's laptops. It's already happening - ever heard of the hundred-dollar One Laptop Per Child?

more here:

5/14/09, 6:45 AM

david.eurin said...
Thank you for this long article. It's well written and gives some good pointers about issues surrounding our daily lives.

A few more things:
* Information age followed industrial age quite naturally, once industrial processes got optimised and our needs moved on

* You mention that information age is coming to an end because many will not be able to afford the service (due to rising energy costs). We should remember that energy efficiency is making leaps and energy requirements might also drop faster than energy costs. In particular, the networks you mention are using half the energy today to run (most recent technology) than when they got rolled out about 10 years ago: a 3G mobile base station needs about 8000kWh per year, while an old 2G base station needed 20000kWh. The same could be said about fixed networks. My company surveyed fixed telecom exchanges five years ago to find large rooms filled with A/C systems, not they fit in a corner of the same room as the active IT equipment. They also use half the energy or less.

* I think we can call information age a day, as well. Let's now be in the Energy Age. It won't last very long, because innovation goes faster nowadays than a century ago (took us 1000 years to get out of Middle Age, 300 years to get out of Revolution Age, 150 years to get out of Industrial Age, and it may take about 40-50 years to get out of the Energy Age (since 1970)). In a crystal ball, next Age could be Climate Age (don't print this and save the environment?).

Continue posting.


5/14/09, 7:14 AM

takchess said...
Could you provide a source of this info thanks

for example, that the two big server farms that keep Yahoo’s family of web services online use more electricity between them than all the televisions on Earth put together.

5/14/09, 9:10 AM

scott roberts said...
A very large portion of those server farms exist to store video. If the Internet were to revert to a mostly text-based information sharing system, rather than the entertainment source it has become, an enormous energy savings would accrue.

But that's not likely to happen, since entertainment is where the bucks go. However, as long as there are phones (or even ham radio) and computers, there is nothing preventing an "alternate" internet from forming. All the protocols, and programs to implement them, are public domain, so community-minded volunteers could establish name servers and routers, all of which can be done on a PC. And as long as communication is on dialup or packet radio, one will not be tempted to transmit many videos.

5/14/09, 9:18 AM

jevandorp said...
Much as I'm trying to see how skyrocketing energyprices will 'end the information age' I'm not buying into your arguments mr. Greer. The 'information superhighway' is a potentially massive CONSERVER of energy, because it allows optimal communication-at-a-distance, which means less personal miles travelled and thus less energy use. I say potentially, because we have yet to get over our (often) petty insistence to move our physical bodies about so much, despite the possibilities offered by the internet.

As energy prices rise going forward, personal transport will become unaffordable LONG before using the internet will.

Even if the internet infrastructure becomes too expensive to expand further on a commercial basis, it will certainly be maintained in it's present form. f.e. I currently enjoy the luxury of 20Mbit of download capacity. That's easily 19.9 Mbit more than I (or anyone) really needs! In other words: if I absolutely had to, I'd be happy to pay the same monthly fee as I do now for 20Mbit but get only 100kbit. The rest of that 19.9 mbit is sheer luxury. If that luxury would have to go: so be it! No skin off my back, and NOT the end of the information age.

I could go on....

Point is: the idea that internet will become uneconomical in the face of long-term energy scarcity or even extended economic malaise is just nuts. It would take global war to kill the internet.

Same difference concerning rail transport. Sure: you have to electrify it to make it sustainable, and the USA has failed miserably on that point (unless you count the present opportunity to modernise it now with gov't stimulus money as a positive, which you might!). But the energy efficiency of a MODERN electric train is extremely impressive! In the Netherlands our electric trains are routinely fitted with energy recovery braking systems, working >90% efficient. That makes the modern electric train easily the most sustainable mode of transport out there bar NONE (not even walking!)

So I conclude you missed the mark with this one Mr Greer! Doesn't mean I don't rate your other postings most highly and recommend your site to all my closest friends!

5/14/09, 9:36 AM

Anton Tykhyy said...
> the two big server farms that keep Yahoo’s family of web services online use more electricity between them than all the televisions on Earth put together

Don't write like an MSM journalist — give numbers not factoids. How many megawatts exactly? Besides televisions aren't all on at the same time, so your statement is misleading.

5/14/09, 9:46 AM

PanIdaho said...
Mgp4 said:

"The barriers to entry (at the low end, at least) are very low, and there's no underlying scarcity like there is of frequency bandwidth in radio and TV."

My guess is that before too long, companies that provide access will look a their existing price structures and decide that they can make more money with less labor and equipment costs if they start charging by the gigabyte for access. Some companies are already looking in that direction. If this happens, it will take us back to the early days when Internet access was something only a lucky few had - and those who did have it paid dearly for it. It will likely also cut by a fair margin the number of websites out there serving up "information" of one type or another, since fewer people will be able to pay to blog and twitter all day, and advertising revenues will drop due to lower traffic volumes.

Also, if the economy keeps going as it has been this past couple of years, who knows how many internet providers will still be around to provide service? Then we have to talk about the electrical grid, which is a whole 'nother can of worms.

More and more I am seeing the value of putting into place an independent type of "internet" network, for instance the HAM based packet radio JMG favors. Especially if it can be run off the grid when necessary - seems like it could be a good alternative method of communication if you can get enough relays going - a la FidoNet.

As for libraries, my feeling is that they won't be truly missed by the average person until long after they've been shut down due to lack of funds. Some communities (not governmental agencies, but people) may have the foresight to take them over and run them when the public funding for them runs out. We'll see.

scott roberts said:

"However, as long as there are phones (or even ham radio) and computers, there is nothing preventing an "alternate" internet from forming. All the protocols, and programs to implement them, are public domain, so community-minded volunteers could establish name servers and routers, all of which can be done on a PC."

I see you beat me to it! I agree - the future of the "internet" may well lie partially in our own hands.

5/14/09, 9:55 AM

Christopher Froehlich said...

Can you substantiate some of these claims? For example, "it’s worth remembering that the internet we now have evolved out of a US government network meant to provide communication capacity in the event of nuclear war". Whence did you conjure this opinion? I think it is widely recognized that the Internet evolved out of an academic network between universities wishing to share data. A quick read of the RFCs (Requests for Comment) that fundamentally define the construction of our current network topology would seem to confirm such a hypothesis.

I also think that your fundamental presupposition is wrong. You assume that on a philosophical level, content and access providers will attempt to grow without regard for resource provisioning. This flies in the face of technological advances happening all around us. Google is working with Intel to create chips that will run almost 10 degrees hotter than they can currently. In fact, Google is already running prototype chips that run 5 degrees hotter, and they are running some server farms without any air conditioning. When you consider that temperature control accounts for almost 75% of the total cost of operations, we are seeing vast improvements unfold before our very eyes. The push towards low power CPUs, solid state drives, geothermally cooled server rooms, even Google oceanic server farms (among others), is happening all around us. Considering further that wireless broadband is expanding, bringing high speed Internet to the country without new infrastructure to build and maintain--I see no reason to believe that answers to the energy crisis are not already being developed and deployed.

5/14/09, 10:35 AM

witchchild said...
You just summed up:
*why I work in a library (academic, big one at that)
*am getting an MLS
*why I'd love to work in archives
*why I give money and borrow materials from my public library

A while back you posted about one thing to do, one to give up, and one to preserve. I am coming to realize that I sum up all of those with my library work. Preserving and accessing "information," whether it be print or electronic, is what I do well.

5/14/09, 11:31 AM

Matthijs said...
Hi John, i commented on Facing Decline, Facing Ourselves and it should have been posted here.

5/14/09, 12:19 PM

Joel said...
>the digital equivalent of an Inter-Library Loan would look like, in an energy constrained future.

If only text is being transmitted, a lower data rate becomes acceptable and less power is required.

A digital message can cross the Atlantic using a 20 milliwatt (as in, about one two-thousandth the power of a lightbulb) radio transmitter (blog post).

This is an extreme case, obviously, but the tradeoff is real, and can be exploited.

5/14/09, 12:37 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Yes, I figured that this post would hit a nerve. Those of you who want to know the exact megawattage used by Yahoo's server farms can very easily look the figure up online; I used the more colorful and less exact image, which has been repeatedly cited in the peak oil scene, to give a sense of scale.

Quite a few of you also seem to have missed the central point I was trying to make, which is that in a more energy- and resource-constrained world, the internet will likely no longer be economically viable for many or most of its present uses. If you'd like to argue with that, by all means, but I'd appreciate it if you wouldf respond to what I'm actually saying.

Now, some specific comments.

Ruben, don't feel crazy. The internet is a bit more than a fad, but it's certainly not sustainable.

Okie, the energy cost of an individual email is fairly low; the energy cost of the infrastructure necessary to make email function is another matter. Paper mail was viable in pre-fossil fuel times, remember.

Bodhifox, people have been insisting that books are about to be replaced by some technology or other for about five decades now. Fortunately there are enough people who want books, not glowing dots on a screen, to keep at least some publishers in business.

mpg4, right now the internet has more in common with print media -- but we'll see how long that lasts.

Dode, thanks for the info! I wasn't aware of that; most hydro here in North America isn't pumped storage.

Lloyd, no argument there. Fortunately the old technology of letterpress and sewn-signature bindings is still very much alive.

Kevin, all good points. Mind you, a university education in the US these days is about the equivalent of a high school education in most other developed countries, just vastly more expensive.

Bill, many thanks!

Kiashu, that kind of absurdity is tolerably common here as well, I'm sorry to say.

Danby, the pseudoconservatives I've heard denouncing public libraries are out of the "all public services should be privatized" school of free-market Jacobins, but I'm sure the partisan issue also comes in. As for railroads, no argument there.

Stephen, yes, we've been through most of this before. Of course it's theoretically possible to keep a bunch of tank engines running on biomass or whatever; the question is whether it will be economical to do so in a future where the same fuel may have many other potential uses, and other modes of transport -- to say nothing of local manufacture -- will be competing with what's left of a rail system. Dams can indeed be dredged, and yes, the muck you get from doing so is a first-class soil amendment. As for the nuclear thing, well, we've been around that quite a few times and I see no point in rehashing the argument again.

Alexia, granted, the internet has major advantages -- I also buy used books online, for example. Might be worth using it while it's here.

Librarian, you're welcome! I'm delighted to hear that today's grad students get it -- they're the generation that will have to navigate what's left of today's libraries through some very trying times over the next several decades.

Matt, I agree that railroads will be around for quite a while -- it's just that they will stop being economically viable at a certain point down the slope, and those that remain will be kept going for political or military reasons. As for the internet, I don't expect it to fragment, barring a major war; more likely, it'll be maintained as long as possible, but access to it will become steadily more difficult.

Janne, I could see national networks if there's war, and corporate networks are also likely.

O'Kelly, the question of what to keep and what to salvage is going to be a major issue in the decades to come. It always is in the declining phase of civilizations.

Professor, I don't have such a list, and would rather see everyone come up with their own -- monoculture is as dangerous in the ecology of ideas as in any other context.

Slipr, I'm familiar -- at least in general -- with the push for efficiency under way in the computing industry right now. It would be interesting to see a net energy analysis on the improvements.

David, notice that your system of ages assumes that history speeds up as it proceeds. I don't buy that; it's simply that things look more important when they're closer to us. We're still in the industrial age, and that will most likely be followed by the longer, slower deindustrial age.

Scott, a packet radio system for text communication and file sharing is an excellent step, and I hope to see some projects along these lines taking shape in the not too distant future.

Jevandorp, communication at a distance has been available since the 1850s, with the emergence of the telegraph. Any savings of energy from teleconferencing, etc. were achieved long ago -- ever heard of a conference call? Yet the same rhetoric still gets rehashed every time somebody wants to insist that the latest, most resource-intensive and extravagant technology will save us money.

Meetings account for a very small proportion of energy use worldwide, and goods and services still have to be physically moved from place to place -- try eating a hamburger over a teleconferencing link sometime. As for the electric trains, you're still skating past the key point -- where is the electricity coming from? Talking about the wonders of electric trains without dealing with the source of the electricity is nothing more than handwaving.

Panidaho, this sort of internet rationing by price is exactly the sort of thing I expect to see in the not too distant future.

Christopher, my understanding is that the internet evolved out of DARPAnet, which was originally conceived as a hardened communications network for nuclear war; I've been told this by more than one professor of computer science. If it's inaccurate, well, there you are. As for the other issue, I think you've missed my point; I'm aware of the current push toward more efficient server farms; my argument is that in a world with radically curtailed energy and resource supplies, even a more efficient internet will no longer be economical for many of its current uses, and access to it will be sharply restricted in an effort to keep it running for government and business. Nothing you've adduced conflicts with that model of the future.

Witchchild, excellent. As you deal with other librarians and work toward that MLS, you might see if anyone else is open to thinking about ways to deal with the deindustrial future; that's one profession that could have a very positive impact on the future, if enough people get a sense of what's coming and what they might do about it.

5/14/09, 12:41 PM

Ruben said...
I feel that many of the comments missed the point, and got trapped in a sort of "we will too have railroads". As you pointed out, John, there will be a lot of competitors for wood heat, like, say, people's homes. So, we may move goods by wood-powered rail, but it will be a vastly smaller amount of goods than we do now. Which means the future will look unimaginably different than the present.

Similarly, I am not sanguine about the future of even proprietary generation systems, like Gooogle is building. We have recently seen, with the outrage over bailouts and bonuses, how quickly populism can spread. So, I am not confident that google will be allowed to keep its electricity. Society may quite easily decide that instead of porn, it would rather power incubators for newborns or manufacturing for insulin syringes.


5/14/09, 1:15 PM

Brian said...
A very interesting post, as I sit here in my local public library where I maintain the computer network. Our building is crumbling and promised government money has not materialized, yet with this economic downturn our patron visit, lending, inter-library loan and public computer terminal usage numbers are all WAY up. As inadequate as it is, this public institution is much loved by our local community, and I think it will be strongly defended against closure for a long time to come.

5/14/09, 1:44 PM

Christopher Froehlich said...
Mr. Greer,

I posit that your position is fundamentally flawed: you suggest that an energy and resource constrained future inherently negates the viability of technological progress. I submit that it does not for two reasons:

1. It is a given that non-renewable fuels are in shorter supply with each passing day; what is not given is the degree to which alternative fuels can and will be introduced to mitigate declining natural resources. If such alternative forms of energy are not created, the sustainability of the Internet is the least of our concerns.

2. You also seem to ignore the other aspect of technological progress in the age of diminished resources: that technology providers will out of necessity find ways to accomplish more with less. The drive to do this has already begun using (but not limited to) some of the advances I suggested before. It is utterly rational to presume that innovators will find ways to do more with less. This is the whole trend of technological innovation: reducing cost and increasing efficiency. The industry that has developed around the communications platform that is the Internet favors nothing if not prescience.

That said, I do not assume the 'magic' of technology will solve our problems for us; but the major players seem to be conscious of the stumbling blocks to continued sustainability and sufficient planning seems to be in the works to ensure the Internet's good health for many decades to come.

5/14/09, 1:49 PM

Blindweb said...
I see besides a very large and broad knowledge base JMG you also have great patience. I've always agreed with Bucky Fuller's assessment that narrowly educated specialists are unwittingly just tools of the powers that be. The hubris of technocrats (for lack of a better word) always get my blood boiling.

Anyways, on the topic of electricity generation: Besides the questionable net energy gain of renewable resources I start to question their environmental impact. If say there were massive solar farms producing 5% of current world power isn't that going to seriously effect the natural water cycle? Geothermal, cooling the earth? Hydro, obstructing ecologies? Wind, also the water cycle?

Thanks for the radio packet idea. As still an inhabitant of the text based BBS internet system it's very intriguing.rad

5/14/09, 1:50 PM

disillusioned said...
I'd like to chip in about - chips and data longevity.

Can IC / chip production be maintained in a resource-constrained world? I suspect that traditional fabs cannot - not because I know that, but because they sit atop a peak of interconnected technologies. So likely in my eyes to fail, simply due to their many dependencies.

That would suggest that in later years cell phones, landlines, the internet, PC's and all - will begin to fail due to unavailability of spare parts and power. I'd pencil that in for 2020 and on.

Couple that to the short life of most digital media:

HD's - 5 to 10 years (laptops often get less)
tape - 2 to 5 years
flash / USB memory 10 - 15 years
CD's - 10 to 20 years (some archival media rated at 100 years is marketed)

Data is usually saved over the long term by rolling it from old HD's onto new ones (often much larger). Of course, this needs an endless supply of new HD's....

Hm. Coupled with chip shortages (thus expensive and ailing hardware at home) we are like to watch our music, movies, photos and work fail as the host media reaches end-of-life. For me, losing my work and music is going to hurt, just about as much as not having a workable PC.

And what are we leaving for the future? How is a rare example of working digital media going to be read in ages to come? Perhaps digital formats with long life and accessible via simple technology are needed.

To address these issues - as far as I can - I'm...

a) retiring HD's from my laptop (which can now boot from an on-USB OS, with data saved onto another stick plus one more for backup), and

b) begun the “Digital Rosetta” project to develop “archaeological” lifespan digital media, suitable for low-tech access. Got designs for phase 1 (64Mbytes in a form good for 100+ years, readable by c. 1940 tech) almost complete, plus the key problems for a bulk, long life version (5Gbytes in a form good for 1,000+ years readable with c. 1990 tech) are notionally solved. On paper. Clearly this needs substantial $$ to make real, so I suspect it will stay on paper forever :(

One does what one can. Anyone know a philanthropist wanting to save our stuff for posterity?

(I just don't know if I can match the bandwidth / longevity of hieroglyphics carved into stone...)

5/14/09, 2:08 PM

Andrew said...
Oklahoma City is considering implementing an electrified mass transit system that will use wind-generated power.

Not sticking up for your indignant reader necessarily, but I do think its important to invest in mass transit to east the ride down Hubbert's curve. And I think our city leaders are doing the best they can on this one.

Oklahoma has tons of wind (good), but Oklahoma City if the fifth largest city in the US by land mass (630 sq. miles). Talk about a car-intensive culture. I'm amazed the idea is getting traction to be honest.


5/14/09, 2:13 PM

PanIdaho said...
On the origins of the Internet:

"The Internet was begun as a military command and control systems research project. As the network was deployed and more government and research institutions were connected to it, the Defense Department took over the project ARPA. The Defense Department adminstrated the network for several years, and so the name was changed to DARPAnet (Defense Advanced Research Projects Network) in the early to mid 70's.

The DARPAnet eventually expanded beyond the Defense Department's willingness to sponsor it. More than half the connected sites were Universities receiving government research grants; however, the networks were in use by more than just the researchers. "


"DARPANET (or DARPANet) is a term sometimes used for the ARPANET, the early network from which today's Internet evolved. The Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), the original developers of the early packet-switched network that came to be called the ARPANET, was renamed the (U.S.) Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in 1971. For this reason, it is often assumed that the ARPANET was then called the DARPANET. However, the Internet Society's own history of the Internet, written by its chief inventors, suggests that it continued to be called ARPANET until ownership was transferred to other groups. See ARPANET for more information.",,sid7_gci213878,00.html


If you are still not clear on the beginnings of the Internet, google "DARPANET" and "ARPANET." There's a lot more than this out there on the subject.

5/14/09, 4:33 PM

The North Coast said...
The internet may use 5% of the world's electric power, but can be, and ought to be,offset by massive savings in gasoline, pavement, printing, paper,postage, and physical storage.

Our physical transportation in this country, on the other hand, accounts for 70% of our oil consumption in this country, and that is only for fuel. Not included in this figure are the fossil fuels used in pavement, manufacture of the vehicles, and disposal of the vehicles.

When the time comes to make hard choices as to what we will keep vs what we will jettison, it would be wise to give the internet priority, while working to make it more efficient in energy use. My computer and wireless connection have made magazines, most personal printing, my old stereo rig, and television completely redundant. If you have your computer, there's no excuse for wasting money on these other things. I figure I have no excuse for owning a television or car, or subscribing to print publications I can access online or read at the library. Email and online bill pay save tons of paper and mail transport. Documents created and stored online save reams of paper.

I agree with you that we should make the preservation of libraries and print books on archival paper a priority, but it would be good to keep the internet as long as possible and let it be the very last thing to go.

In order to extend viability, we need to recycle our electronic equipment "in kind", since it can scarcely be recycled any other way. By "in kind" I mean that as many components of an obsolete device be re-incorporated into a new one of the same type. Computer screens and housings and, where possible, the components of the circuit boards, need to be reused for the same purpose.

5/14/09, 4:55 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Matthijs, please repost it here.

Joel, true enough -- though you probably want to go up to a watt or two to make sure you can get through under most conditions.

Ruben, well put. This is exactly the point I'd most like to see people grasp.

Brian, that's excellent. It's going to be local communities that save their libraries, if anything does.

Christopher, yes, we're on opposite sides of the line I traced in an earlier post, between those who recognize the force of ecological limits and those who think progress always trumps them. I'm quite familiar with the arguments you're making, and disagree with them.

Blindweb, an amateur radio license isn't that hard to get -- might be worth your time.

Disillusioned, bingo. That's one of the many problems faced by any attempt to maintain computer technology in a low-energy future.

Andrew, this is excellent news. I hope they go ahead with it.

Panidaho, thanks for the info.

5/14/09, 5:33 PM

Guilherme de Baskerville said...
This might be a somewhat long rant, but here it goes.

First, I want to say that I mainly (90% or so) agree with JMG on everything he says about the coming future. I'm definitely not a believer in unmitigated "progress" and I do believe we are on the doorstep of a radically different (and low-powered) future, but I do have some disagreements with some of the ideas exposed here lately, about what will and will not be viable on a future without significant fossil fuel usage.

I might be wrong, but I'm getting the vibe from the last few posts that the Archdruid believes that basically anything that didn't existed in 1830 or so will, gradually, disappear for good. All the technology invented since then is an attachment of the fossil fuel age and will die with it, even if it takes some time for it to happen. I disagree with that.

I do believe that there's a range of technologies that have been invented since the 1830's (and the information stuff of the last 40 years or so are big on my list) that are, in fact, sustainable without the ubiquitous use of energy we have nowadays. It's just that the use we currently apply to these technologies today is wasteful. The problem is on the "software" we use, not the "hardware", so to speak. In essence, I believe the way we USE the technology will dramatically change, but not the technology itself (with the exception of a few dead ends, things that exist solely to serve the consumer society).

I think the internet is THE major example of that. I have heard anecdotal evidence that about 80% of all internet traffic consists of video streaming or peer-to-peer networks (the last one can roughly be divided into video as well, computer games, music and programs, mostly pirated). There's also the old joke that half or more of said activities are porn-related in one way or another. So, yes, at present, the internet is a hugely wasteful system that can't be maintained. But, I do believe the internet passes the threshold where it's legitimate uses outstrip it's costs, even on a world with far fewer resources, that there's a good chance that it will be maintained in some form.

In general, I think a lot of the technologies the Archdruid is marking for extinction will, in fact, go trough a drastic diet. Some are dead-ends, for sure, and will vanish. The Internal Combustion Engine, in particular, seems to be heading for a very niche application on heavy machinery before it's final extinction, being substituted by a combination of electric engines and low-energy forms of transport (water canals, sailing/kite ships, etc) for some uses while other uses (commuting 40 miles each way for a deskjob alone in a SUV, for example) will simply disappear.

Think about electricity, for example, another technology that wasn't widespread until the turn of the twentieth century. Is that going to disappear as well? As in, no electricity anywhere, in a couple of centuries? Loosing the ability to manufacture a power generator? I think that's highly unlikely, unless some combination of nuclear war, disease, famine and climate chaos reduces the human population below a threshold of 100 million people or so scattered in small bands here and there. And I say that because electricity is a HUGE power-saver. A high-efficiency, low-power electric engine beats all other competing technologies, hands-down, on that aspect, even if you multiply the cost to build and maintain said engine several times(reflecting higher energy costs, etc), it's still better then anything else. It's simply a good invention, one that will likely stick with humanity for the future in the long run.

Yes, there are higher fixed costs in much of the technology we use today, and said costs will be increasingly more important in the future, as we go trough energy descent. That means some things will be too expensive to be used by "regular folks" everyday, some will be drastically changed and some will disappear. A lot of the wisdom of the past, on how to live with less, will be really important again. Growing food, for one. Patching up clothes and shoes, etc. I do not think, though, that we are basically going back to the early XIX century. I don't equate having to sew the holes in my future shirts with not having electrical lights in the house.

There are several reasons for that. One is that most of all technology is really widespread today. There are people who know how to build most of it in every corner of the globe. Even if a certain part of the world crashes badly enough to, say, loses the ability to build a certain thing, someone in another place will probably keep it going. That's basically how Europe crawled out of the Middle Ages. Second, we have an economic incentive to build crappy, inefficient things today. Once there's a incentive to do otherwise, I bet someone will come up with a computer chip that uses 1/10th the energy of today's chip, it will be able to run without significant cooling and will have a Mean Life of 15+ years. It will probably be slower then a chip today, and it will spend 15 years without gaining any performance, but that's not a problem, because even a low-performing chip can substitute hundreds and hundreds of human "computers" doing things like tabulating taxes, among a million others. A chip like that can have it's fixed costs amortized over a longer period and will be vastly more sustainable. Third, and more disturbing, I firm believe that the more powerful 1 billion people in the planet will let the other 5 billion die (and probably help it) before giving up electricity, for example. It's ugly, but it's the truth. Once we reach a suitable low-enough level of population, we can afford to maintain more things.

That last point ties with my last thought. That is, some of the things that were "sustainable" in 1830 were only so because they were being explored by less then 1 billion people. Also, some of it wasn't sustainable at all. I believe JMG himself wrote somewhere that coal was first widely used because of "peak timber" in Europe and I also read some interesting article on The Oil Drum about "peak whale oil" in the XIX century. Lighting by fish oil, firewood and peat is probably LESS economic and sustainable then a high-efficiency, low-power LED light-bulb, even if you account all the industrial costs to build it, if you are talking about lighting the houses of more then half a billion people or so.

Anyway, sorry for the rant and possibly for the confusion, I typed what came to mind, just adding my opinion on the matter.

5/14/09, 7:38 PM

Danby said...
This is amusing. As someone who has worked in corporate data centers for 15 years, and in the telecom business for 10, it seems to me that very few of your commenters have any idea of the amount of power needed to maintain our current telecom infrastructure.

My current employer, one of the largest telecom companies in the world, recently calculated their total energy footprint. They came up with a number in excess of 3GW.

It's far more than just the servers that deliver web pages. There are the telecom switches, the routers, the repeater stations every 10 Km on the fibre line, the microwave relay stations, the cellphone towers and their associated telecom hardware, the metering, billing and monitoring systems, the backbone interconnects, the customer support systems, the infrastructure for all the employees, the power conditioning and emergency power systems, the storage area networks and disk arrays, and most of all, the cooling systems.

Pace the above poster, a CPU that runs at 5 or 10 degrees above the current max is not useful improvement. At an earlier job, I worked in a data center that had some 50 midrange and high-end Unix servers, and 200 or so PCs, 3 telecom switches, and 5 storage arrays totaling 300TB. Quite small by today's standards. When the A/C broke down, the room went from 60F to 120F in 30 minutes, before we got the emergency ventilation system going.

The amount of energy used by the telecoms systems around the world is simply immense. I'm sure that the internet will be kept online as long as possible, but it really is an unsustainable luxury over the long term.

5/14/09, 8:03 PM

Librarian of Hillman said...
i wanted to make clear, almost all librarians that i know still love the internets, we love the Google, the is just that many of us are not willing to throw out all earlier formats, assuming we can forever rely 100% on this latest one.

being critical of a thing, does not always mean that in general you do not see the value in it.

multiple copies, multiple formats, multiple locations--that's how you save something for real, if you want to preserve access for the most people you can.

archivists, in particular, are geared toward looking as long term as they can, and preparing for as many eventual outcomes as possible--both good ones, and bad ones.

for Brian:

"The Public Library is the Poor Man's University."

--Andrew Carnegie

and many of them are once again serving more and more people, in more and more ways...and never getting the pay or the support they truly deserve.

(historical side note: as i understand/recall it, "the internet" as we think of it today arose from a couple of different defense, academic and commercial projects in the 1950's, 60's, 70's & 80's--D/ARPA was probably what really got it going hardware-wise on a big scale, but there was more than one seed, and more than one vision/visonary/goal, to be absolutely fair...our Baby has many Fathers and Mothers.)

5/14/09, 8:29 PM

John Michael Greer said...
North Coast, if there's a "last thing to go" it probably ought to be something more vital, such as food production. Your point about electronics recycling is an excellent one, though; this sort of salvage will almost certainly be a major growth industry in the years to come.

Guilherme, no, I'm not saying that everything invented since 1830 will go away -- and in fact, if you read over the post again you'll see that this isn't what I'm suggesting. What I'm suggesting is that many modern technologies will no longer be economically viable, and so will survive only if some non-economical factor (politics, warfare, religion, or the like) intervenes. As it happens, I think electricity is a keeper; I expect some form of radio to remain in use for the indefinite future; I expect to see refrigeration stay around, too. All of them involve technologies that can be made by hand from relatively accessible materials, on a local scale, if it comes to that. It's the technologies that require a huge infrastructure to operate that will be most at risk of loss.

Danby, thanks for the data. This is pretty much what I'd understood.

Librarian, I find the internet very useful myself -- you'll notice that this blog isn't going out as a print newsletter, for example! My point is not that it's bad, simply that today's levels of access won't be economically viable forever.

5/14/09, 9:00 PM

xhmko said...
Thanks JMG for another thought provoking post. I certainly hope you are archiving your own work here and hopefully some of the insightful comments you recieve too.

Wow, it looks like we'll have to keep walking and talking after all. I think alot of people, if not most, can't imagine the intensity of energy needed to sustain their cosy little corners of the earth even if they were drowning in flow charts. Its seems that people respond to crunches. The internet is one example of a resource that is used in excess which in turn uses other resources in excess. I see you mention refrigeration in a reply to someone and this is another example. There are ways of living without it and we often have fridges turned on to store wasted food. There are also alot of great and simlple ideas out there for keeing things cooler than air temperature. I have never lived in an extremely cold place but i have lived without a fridge in winter before and suggest that to anyone who's looking to make a simple change.

5/14/09, 10:22 PM

Danby said...
Totally off-topic, but, resource wars, anyone?

5/14/09, 10:54 PM

jevandorp said...
Dear Mr Greer. Thanks for your replies. Just a short reply:

I should clarify that I don't believe in a very high probability of having a long-term/permanent shortage of electricity availability. Electricity is extremely easy to make sustainably when the price is right (f.e. 2 or 3 times higher than the current price is more than enough to revolutionise electricity generation world wide within 20-30 years) and it is so crucial that consumers and producers will happily pay to get it, although they will complain. We may have electicity shortages in the short to medium term, but not long term. The problem is with oil supply. Liquid fuels. This has been discussed at length.

The ICE will be with us indefinately, because of it's low cost, low tech, and low/easy maintenance. When oil gets depleted, we will make synthetic- and bio-based oils. To be sure: The climate may change, the poor may starve: but ICE's are here to stay, and so are liquid fuels. (Unless there are major breakthrough in battery technology and/or hydrogen tech, which I don't expect. BTW. I'm betting on ICE's to take us at least through 2050)

Your right that IT doesn't bring me a hamburger or move goods, but it has myriad crucial selling points that make it a stayer, long-term. Other posters above have supported that already.

Best regards,

j.e.van dorp (MSc)

5/15/09, 3:32 AM

Christopher Froehlich said...
Mr. Greer,

Your post is too long to rebut line by line, but suffice it to say that this sort of FUD has been springing and respringing from the ashes since the Internet was first created.

Apologies for listing only one source, but as Techdirt always references their source material, perhaps it will suffice in this instance.

If there were no value to the communication platform the Internet provides, I might agree with some of your thesis; however, the Internet has been transformative. The wheel didn't suddenly vanish when we stopped making them out of stone, rather we made better, more efficient wheels. The whole trend of innovation through history, from the development of language to written language to digital language, suggests that we will adapt, improve and overcome.

Until presented with evidence to the contrary, I stand unmoved.

5/15/09, 6:28 AM

Kevembuangga said...
Oh, Yeah!
This is the end, too bad, it was fun.
“Prediction is difficult, especially about the future.”

5/15/09, 8:40 AM

The North Coast said...
I take your point gratefully, JMG. I should have put it differently, because you are so correct: NOTHING should come ahead of food production.

I was speaking of communication and transport technologies. Maintaining the net should come ahead of maintaining our overscaled transport infrastructure. We don't, for example, need 10-lane double-decked expressways to maintain the electrical grid , and we need to make it possible to maintain the net in the face of grid breakdown. Hence the push by many municipalities to make wireless broadband accessible to everyone. Down the road we might have to be wireless or have very little electronic communication at all as the grid disintegrates.

Pursuant to that, we need to emphasize local power generation, and develop every generation technology that offers any potential, whether it's nuclear technologies that extend the fuel cycle; solar, water, wind, or cleaner coal technologies, while emphasizing conservation.

The net has the potential to be much more efficient than it is, by various means, as other posters in here have pointed out. We can't afford to scorn the efficiencies of the net or its efficient alternatives to our most wasteful activities. Most of all, it would be a sad loss to civilization to lose this powerful means of exchanging current information and linking far flung communities of people together. I would not have your wonderful writing without the internet, for example, nor could so many people in search of viable alternatives to our current high-waste lifeways come together to form an alternative community of sorts.

5/15/09, 9:01 AM

Llewellyn said...
Will all telecommunications eventually go the wayof the internet , and if so,"whem"?

5/15/09, 9:24 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Xhmko, of course it's possible to live without a fridge, but refrigeration can be done on very modest energy inputs and it's a good way to limit food losses through spoilage.

Danby, no kidding. Expect many more.

J.E., I think it's quite possible that the internal combustion engine will be around for a very long time. We won't be able to use them in the absurd profusion that we do nowadays, and they will have to be fueled from current solar income, but in its own way it's an elegant technology for turning heat into motion and it's not that hard to make and repair.

Christopher, your comments remind me of the folks who were insisting, not that long ago, that the real estate boom was going to go on forever because people had been predicting a crash for years now, and hey, it's still going up! Still, as I commented in the earlier post, if you believe in the religion of progress, no words of mine are likely to shake that faith.

Kevembuangga, granted; on the other hand, it's a safe bet that an unsustainable condition won't continue forever.

North Coast, thanks for the clarification. You're certainly right that the net ought to be higher priority than new expressways, though if you want to talk about rebuilding America's rail network, that's another matter. Still, this is one of the reasons I keep talking about packet radio; there are ways to maintain something very like today's internet with much lower infrastructure costs, and getting those in process sooner rather than later is likely to be a very good move.

Llewellyn, my guess is that the current broadcasting model is on its way out, for the same reasons of unprofitability that are dooming newspapers. Other forms of telecommunication may have more staying power, and decentralized modes such as amateur radio could well be around for the long term. As for when, well, that's always the hardest question, especially since we're looking down a slippery slope rather than over a cliff.

5/15/09, 7:33 PM

Kiashu said...
Danby's comment about just how much energy and infrastructure our telecommunications takes up is very illuminating.

As something to consider - not a contradiction, just a thought - it's worth noting that the cheapest mobile phone rates and best coverage in Africa are found in... Somalia.

That's the lowest energy use, most chaotic place on the continent. Now, the locals aren't building and maintaining this infrastructure, but they're funding it with those cheap rates. So it shows what may be possible in a low-energy and low-organisation future.

They don't have internet access and streaming video. But they do have 11 FM radio stations and wide and cheap mobile phone coverage.

Likewise, in new states like East Timor, we find that they don't bother putting landlines in, but go straight for mobile phones - it's overall cheaper and requires less resources. And the mobile phone networks, being (largely) distributed networks (rather than One Big Facility) are quite resilient; a tower or two can go down and the rest take up the slack, with just a few dead spots.

Given that the infrastructure is built outside these countries and brought in, it seems more like some aspect of "the partial recovery during the general tumble down" JMG talks about.

Still, it's something to think about. It's not either broadband internet and mobile phones or horse-and-buggy carrying written mail. There are a lot of possibilities in between. It may be that some of them can be kept up in the long term, over centuries.

It may be, for example, that a town of a few thousand people could manufacture their own mobile towers, or some equivalent - not enough probably for everyone to have iPhones, but enough for them to have plain old talking phones.

I'm sure there are other possibilities people far more knowledgeable about telecommunications could suggest. I just point these out because it's what's actually happened. If you looked at Somalia, Timor and similar countries, you certainly wouldn't expect extensive and cheap mobile phone coverage there.

I find myself thinking of the article, "you have the internet but no running water?"

Again, this could just be the slight pause in the steps down, or it could be something we could keep up long-term. It's worth thinking about.

5/15/09, 7:53 PM

Danby said...
Honestly people, saying "The net must survive because I find it so useful" is not a valid response. Saying "the net is so much more efficient than all of the flying around and driving around that would be needed to do the same things" is not an answer. When the power runs out, and the Internet is too expensive to maintain, then PEOPLE WILL STOP DOING THOSE THINGS. Yes, the economy will take a hit. Of course, the economy will have taken a huge hit long before then anyway.

And the idea that technology will magically fix everything, when we are coming up against the hard limits of the technology, like quantum field effects and gigahertz molecular resonance is just pathetic wishful thinking. Computer technology is at about the stage of development that internal combustion engines were in the '50s. Truly transformative technological development is, at this point, very, very unlikely. We might drive power efficiency up 50% in the next 20 years. That level of development won't rescue the Internet.

Telecom tech is even more mature. The last revolutionary advance was fibre-optic transmission which dates to the mid-60s. There's nothing in the pipeline to replace it. Cell phones, which are really just code-multiplexed spread-spectrum radios,were developed in the early '70s. Digital radio transmission allows more efficient use of the radio spectrum, but really has no effect on energy usage.

More than the actual power usage of the transmission network itself though, is the vast infrastructure required to maintain the networks. Most of the energy efficiencies gained in telecom in the last 30 years have been through the replacement of of older, bulkier, more power hungry devices with smaller, more integrated, more efficient devices. These smaller devices are more difficult to build, and require HUGE infrastructure investments, massive energy inputs, and a level of economic organization and activity that are quite unlikely to be maintained in an oil-depleted world. You can't keep open a 6nM chip fab selling hundreds of thousands of chips each year. If you could, you would have to charge hundreds of thousands of dollars per chip. The energy requirements to design improvements to your chips would even preclude the efficiency gains you hope to make.

It's appalling to me that tech people would not see the dependence of our technology on the level of social and economic organization that our society has achieved. That level of organization has come about through the exploitation of stored energy in the form of petroleum.

When I posted my first comment in this thread, I talked about water transport and trains, because I considered JMG's remarks on the future of the Internet to be totally unremarkable. I guess I was wrong on that score.

5/15/09, 8:56 PM

Matthijs said...
John, you should publish your best posts in a book. For the sake of the preservation of crucial information ;-)

Your notion that the internet is the biggest consumer of electricity is spot on. I have read a Dutch report on this topic which concludes that 15% to 25% of all electricity is consumed by the internet (not including the production of new processors etc.). Unfortunately it is not available in English.

It may not classify as a 'hidden' technology but is it certainly one of the most important technologies that powers our economy/world.

5/16/09, 3:55 AM

Damien Perrotin said...
You are right about electricity and railroads, of course. Here we have nuclear fueled electricity and while it is cheap today, it is only because its cost is not payed upfront. Of course it will be when todays plants will be decommissioned, unless it won't and we'll end up with leaking radioactive corpses all around the country - and by the way there is no breeder in France, the only one was closed down because it cost a lot and did not breed.

The only nuclear free place in Britanny because of political struggles in the late seventies - the Plogoff affair.

Where I disagree is when you say that Russia, for instance, needed railroads to stay together. It conquered Siberia in the XVIIth century, before there was any railroad and there is no shortage of large state in the pre-industrial age (the Roman Empire, the Mings, the Maurya). I think that ideology and the ability to crush any rebellion is more important than quick transportation.

More to the point, I am a bit wary of predictions of such or such communication technology making obsolete such or such other communication technology. I remember a short story by Jules Vernes where papers had disappeared and news were delivered over the phones (and the States had annexed England).

What I foreseee is a growth in importance of local papers and radios. It is already underway here. National (elite and partisan) papers are clearly going under, regularly losing readers, while local papers are doing fine. The same about the Net, while the global net will probably become more and more restricted over time, local networks, supported by local authorities may rise to prominence.

5/16/09, 4:58 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Kiashu, of course they use cell phones in Somalia; piracy's a lucrative profession. Could they manufacture the technology there themselves, with the resources and infrastructure they have on hand? Not a chance -- and that's the critical point.

Danby, I've met very few techies who grasp the huge dependence of current technology on existing infrastructure and abundant energy supplies. It's a bit like asking an economist to notice that the natural cycles he dismisses as "externalities" are in fact the irreplaceable foundation of all economic activity. More generally, have you noticed just how many people commenting on the last two posts completely missed the economic dimension -- the core of the argument -- and insisted that because it's physically possible to keep, say, trains running, that they'll keep running? This kind of reflexive blind spot is one of the reasons I consider today's trust in progress a religion (or, if you will, a pseudoreligion) based on blind faith in emotionally compelling imagery.

Matthijs, thank you! I've already got one book out based on these posts -- The Long Descent -- and another, The Ecotechnic Future, will be published in September of this year.

Damien, the Japanese breeder reactor program ran into the same trouble. There's a certain bleak amusement in watching people here in the US who insist that we can use breeder reactors to solve the energy problem, and point to the French and Japanese programs as proof that breeders can work!

As for Russia, it's certainly true that they conquered most of their current land area in the 17th and 18th centuries, but I'm not at all sure they could have held onto it without the Trans-Siberian Railway. Certainly Canada is one country today, and not several, because of the Canadian Pacific railway; the same may well be true of the US.

5/16/09, 6:30 AM

truivia said...
I heard on the radio recently that the internet will soon start having "brown outs" to help save energy.
They will be at random with no notice. You will just be "frozen" online for the brown out time period.

5/16/09, 12:44 PM

Bill Pulliam said...
Wow, it's amazing all this discussion and debate about an observation that, as you point out, seems self-evident if you consider the ecological and physical underpinnings of economics and society. It just demonstrates how successfully modern society has hidden the incredible vast, pervasize, and complex infrastructure that props up the thin veneer of the mainstream life. Even though I understood this intellectually, it wasn't until I became a trucker than I truly comprehended it emotionally and personally. Like many other "support" occupations, trucking puts you behind the scenes of the great theatrical performance that is middle-class American life. Back there you see all the stars and starlets with no wigs, no makeup and their corsets loosened, an all the ropes, lights, and sleight of hand that go into the performance. It's ugly back there. And it is also a frantic, manic madhouse. Things are breaking, people are shouting, chaos is looming constantly. We are truly running as fast as we can just to stay in the same place. Millions upon millions of people labor day and night to keep up the illusion of endless material abundance and seamlessly invisible technology. If any of these cogs stutter, the system shudders. It doesn't take the end of the integrated circuit to cause the 'net as we know it to come crashing (or more likely fizzling) down. All it takes is a significant shortage of any of the key resources that keep civilization running, creating a really bad economic downturn, to make the financial balance sheets of some of the vast number of players become untenable, and the holes will start to appear. All the integrated circuits and WiFi chips on earth are useless without the financial will or economic ability to give them something to do.

5/16/09, 8:45 PM

Nnonnth said...
Someone wrote in earlier with the idea of a micro micro microfilm that could store a huge amount of info on something pretty small, made of exotic materials, essentially indestructible. You'd keep it at monasteries or wherever. Readable with just a microscope if I remember. That looked good to me at the time. The technology is already there, the window of opportunity is now.

It seems that some of the more knowledgeable on this page often lose patience with those still under the spell of 'endless industrial progress'. As a side-issue, what can be done to communicate the situation in a way that gets through better?

Personally I think JMG needs to do an Al Gore-style movie. Overwriting some quite key things in people's worldviews needs to be done by talking slowly and with good use of graphics. It's hard otherwise to get the basics digestible in a single meal.

5/17/09, 2:36 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Truivia, I hadn't heard that, though of course there's been talk of late about the burden server farms are putting on the already fragile electrical grid. It'll be interesting to see how that plays out.

Bill, an excellent point. Having worked in the grimy underworld of service industries myself, I'd agree with your assessment.

Nnonth, I'd be interested in making a documentary, but it would take somebody who knows the film industry to set that in motion. I'll see if I can find time to look into it.

5/17/09, 6:23 AM

charlie said...
I've been reading your blog now for the past year or so, and I must say you seem to have it right. I to believe we are on the long road down to a more sustainable life stile and after that it would be hard to say how much longer humans will be on this planet.

I am of the opinion that humans like all the rest of the creatures that have come before us will eventually fade in to the sunset. When that is, i am not in a position to say.

Keep up the good writing, who knows maybe you will convince enough people they can make it through the bottle neck of peak oil.

5/17/09, 9:08 AM

bkbyers said...
Back to talking about efficiency of rail. Steel is expensive but lasts. There was a rail in Eastern Canada, two cars and a sail. I think it's best speed was 60 mph. Thirty years of use.

5/17/09, 12:21 PM

Geoff said...
"The internet may use 5% of the world's electric power, but can be, and ought to be,offset by massive savings in gasoline, pavement, printing, paper,postage, and physical storage."

I wonder if people who are saying that the internet will survive because it offers savings over the traditional methods of moving things around have stopped to consider why we move those things in the first place?

What did we shift around before the current age of excess? When we've all returned to living in localised communities will there be any need for transporting things, sending millions of memos across the world etc? These things all exist to support the global & centralised economies in the shape they have today.

On the subject of efficiency, how much investment, time and energy is required for each fraction of a percentage point improvement in energy efficiency of high tech goods?

The resource constrained future will prevent the research and development needed to provide the efficiency improvements required for the survival of these technologies.

5/17/09, 7:22 PM

das monde said...
JMG underscores economic viability of railroad and internet several times. You might be interested in this video, especially the part around the 20-25 min marks. Here is a cursory transcript:

"There have been been crises of acceleration before in the last 150 years... One of them happened in the late 19th century... By that point, railroads and serious industrial manufacturing were in existence. People began to realize that they didn’t have a management structure to keep up with the production rate or growth of distributive networks... Vannevar Bush called it control crisis... Out of that crisis the modern corporation was born... By the 1920s, industry leaders began to realize that they are able to produce more goods than people actually want or need... They were discussing whether to slow down of find a way to stimulate people to buy more... and that gave the rise of advertising, as a way to keep the economic engine to move faster and faster..."

This gives reasons to generalize that the whole capitalistic model as we know it is utterly dependent on some growth (of production, consumption, stock markets or energy resources). Capitalism has yet to show how it can work decently when growth is obviously not possible. The collapsing phase might see virtually any economic activity unviable, in the sense that very few businesses could generate “worthy” profits.

I had some early experience of other economic model, the Soviet one. There is little good to say about it, though I did not face much of the often dramatized depressing facets either. But there were libraries even in villages, public transportation of various sorts, stringent education, basic health care, cheap recreation spots, and what not. Admittedly, most of the useful services, organizations, technologies were copied from the West, with a time lag of a decade or few. Maybe all that good was unsustainable, but the system got reformed and crumbled before we knew it. By now, libraries in villages are long gone, public transportation runs only on economically viable hours, recreation spots privatized, education dumbed-down, health care pretty depressing (with best doctors gone). And above that, the financial wonders of a few years ago turned into a nearly universal debt burden to (say) Scandinavian banks. The economic future of a prolonged downturn is now in the Eastern Europe.

I can foresee quite an irony of the capitalist versus socialist debates. The wealth/debt stratification will lead to quite feudal relations. Most essential goods or services will be basically monopolized locally, and along with renting that would be the only significantly profitable enterprises. The economy between the elites would look a lot like... communism; the lowly folks would do best avoiding paying rents and other forced payments as much as possible, and helping each other without significant monetary mediation.

The main point is that things like internet or railroads will survive not as viable enterprises, but as a hobby choice of some elites, or determined effort of enthusiasts or communities. It would be great if the standard of economic viability would be lowered to "getting about even" - the Socialist countries were not that far away from that management. Information technologies and railroads have a lot of synergy value; survival standards will depend a lot on where people's faith will lie.

As for preserving information, I mentioned two months ago here that perforated cards or tapes could be particularly durable. We may even start improving that technology (in density, or human-readable coding) now.

5/18/09, 3:37 AM

RPC said...
A minor quibble: hydroelectric facilities will continue to function as their associated reservoirs silt up; there'll still be a 300 foot drop at Hoover Dam even if Lake Mead becomes a meadow! What we lose is storage capability - we can't use more or less water than is coming down the Colorado.
I think in general a successful near-term strategy will be to implement low-tech ways of dealing with intermittent energy sources. For example, a tankd of brine in one's freezer is a cheaper, lower maintenance way of dealing with a power outage (or even photovoltaics) than a battery bank.

5/18/09, 8:48 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Charlie, thanks for the encouragement. Of course H. sapiens will go extinct eventually -- every species does, and it's only our delusions of being destiny's darlings that make it so difficult to accept that simple and prosaic fact. That being said, it doesn't have to happen any time soon!

BK, steel lasts if it doesn't get salvaged for some other use. Still, you're quite right that there are many ways to use existing rail lines if you've got them.

Geoff and Das Monde, excellent. Both of you get the economic dimension of our predicament, which seems to escape so many fans of high tech.

RPC, two counterquibbles. First, not all hydroelectric facilities have a drop like Hoover Dam's; second, the mass of water behind the dam provides pressure, not just storage, so the amount of energy you can extract from it becomes much less. That being said, dams can be dredged, using very simple technologies if necessary, so your broader point -- that hydroelectric facilities can stay viable for a long time -- is quite correct.

5/18/09, 12:21 PM

Danby said...
Hate to disagree, but your physics is off. The pressure at any point in a non-pressurized water system is always exactly equal to the weight of a column of water of the same horizontal area and height as the 1) area of interest and 2) difference between the height of the area of interest and the surface of the water subject to atmosphere. Plus the weight of a similar column of the atmosphere, but for electrical generation the weight of the air column is external to the calculation. Hence Snoqualmie Falls produces as much power per liter of water as Hoover Dam, despite the fact that the river is only 10 feet deep at the intake.

The purpose of a dam is to 1) raise the level of the water to a useful height for power generation 2) provide irrigation water for the lands that would normally be too far above the river 3) absorb water from rainy seasons for release in dry ones and 4) make a big ol' lake to play on.

For some projects (Pacific Power's South Umpqua Dam for instance) purposes 2 and 4 are not of interest, as there is already plenty of water and no convenient public access anyway.

Some power generation projects have their water intakes deep below the surface, so that they can continue generating even when the water level is seriously below normal. This is common where there is a lot of variability in river flow. In these cases, as the water level of the reservoir drops, the amount of power that can be extracted per liter drops as well.

5/18/09, 2:00 PM

Ahavah Gayle said...
I would have to agree that keeping the internet running will be a priority for the government and the populace - but the poorer neighborhoods will certainly be priced out of the market (they already are, in some places). What will happen at the level of government is what has to happen in any "tragedy of the commons" situation. There will only be so much electricity to go around - it's use will have to be regulated. Getting rid of forced air HVAC will be a big move - replacing forced air heat with heated floor tiles increases the efficiency by several orders of magnitude and air-conditioning will be permitted probably only in hospitals or other industries where it is "necessary." Another thing to go would be home dryers for laundry. Even in winter clothes can be hung up to dry (we do it - though we do fluff the clothes in the dryer for 15 minutes or so when they're dry to activate the fabric softener. Modern softeners rely on heat. I presume the old kind will make a comeback at some point). Anyway, eliminate these two things and most household's power usage would go way, way down - leaving plenty of household power for internet and refridgerators/freezers and tv/telecom.

5/18/09, 2:05 PM

Dan and Carrie Williams said...
"You wasted $150,000 on an education you coulda got for $1.50 in late fees at the public library." -- Will Hunting

So many things to comment on here.

@Libraries: At what point do they stop buying/cataloguing "worthless crap books"; and I'm not just talking Clinton Biographies, but all the fluff out there, and concentrate on preserving real literature, history, etc.? How much money/resources/time is wasted on trivial printing of the equivalent of a Paris Hilton CD? (Yes, I realize history re-judges some art that wasn't recognized for genius in it's day, but I can't imagine "drop it like it's hawt" is going to live forever, regardless what Bill and Ted have to say)

@ Hydro: Aging involves much more than silt. These are hugely complicated systems and some of the older ones are being mothballed rather than overhauled and put in continued operation. The Mid-Columbia dams are probably there to stay at any cost, but many hundreds of smaller dams will cost too much to keep running over the long haul. As with everything, even hydro is kept going by cheap fossil fuels.

@Interwebs: I too wonder when/if we'll go back to a much lower usage level; I had no problem using text based e-mail off a 386 machine to communicate with friends and family. All the rest of this fluff, the videos and facebook and online shopping can all go away. People can still blog and share information, but massive photos, videos, and streaming TV? Probably not.

We can preserve the best aspects of technology for a while, if we choose the soft way down...but if we go full speed ahead, it'll be off a cliff instead of down a hill.

5/19/09, 7:23 AM

RPC said...
Mr. Greer,
Thanks for your reply. Counter-counter quibbles (this had better stop soon!): first, pressure is due to head (height); you'll get the same pressure at the bottom of a vertical 60 foot pipe as you will at the bottom of Lake Michigan! No argument, though, that it will take a lot longer to drain Lake Michigan than the pipe. Second, the drop doesn't matter ( a lot); there are technologies such as Ossberger turbines that work well with low heads. Before they all got turned into hats, there were nine million beavers in North America making some hundreds of thousands of dams ( An argument could be made for duplicating their ecological function by building small dams designed to silt up and power systems that could be moved when that happened.

5/19/09, 8:41 AM

Clarke said...
Given climatalogical uncertainty (an ever-present part of human history) even presuming global warming to be a convenient fiction, along with other instabilities (social instabilities resulting in war, disruptions of trade, disruptions of energy transport, etc.) even if one disagrees with some of the particulars cited here, it is easy to appreciate the longer-term utility of print media.

However, with reference to libraries (and pace to those who labor in them with so little appreciation), a great many of them get rid of ("de-acquisition") many of their older books because they are not often checked out. There often seems to be a cost/benefit/profit style of management in libraries that favors new over old information, and popular versus unpopular information...notwithstanding the great and beautiful enduring passion of librarians for their work.

Since I currently sell these (and other) discarded books online, I am in a position to tell you that they often contain key pre-modern factual information, or early-modern industrial information (e.g., on easy chemical formulas, "simple" machinery, etc.) that we may well rue loss of access to that libraries traditionally provided.

Browsing the shelves and finding some long-forgotten nugget is now less likely than browsing the shelves and finding some popular book recently published that you thought the library wouldn't have yet. We may well be on our own in ways we couldn't possibly imagine.

5/19/09, 7:53 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Danby (and RPC), of course you're right; it's been too long since my last physics course.

Ahavah, it's not the household use of power that makes the internet unsustainable, it's the gigawatts going into the server farms and the rest of the infrastructure.

Dan and Carrie, libraries carry the books that people want to check out. Yes, that's a potential problem, but it's hard to see any way that publicly supported libraries could get by doing anything else.

RPC, I'd rather see the beavers reintroduced; still, micro-hydro is an excellent bit of appropriate tech and little dams have their place.

Clarke, true enough. I'll be doing a post about old textbooks one of these days.

Stephen, for some reason Blogger wouldn't publish your comment -- please resubmit it and I'll try again.

5/19/09, 11:37 PM

Stephen Heyer said...
Hi John,
Here is the second attempt, somewhat updated. I put it through a text editor in case some weird characters had snuck in and cut it into smaller posts.

Kiashu: “…it's worth noting that the cheapest mobile phone rates and best coverage in Africa are found in... Somalia.”

“Likewise, in new states like East Timor, we find that they don't bother putting landlines in, but go straight for mobile phones - it's overall cheaper and requires less resources. And the mobile phone networks, being (largely) distributed networks (rather than One Big Facility) are quite resilient; a tower or two can go down and the rest take up the slack, with just a few dead spots.”

Yes. That is what struck me: That the technology has now reached the stage where it is practical and affordable, even in such places.

They never have to be able to build such systems themselves from scratch; just support a world market big enough so that it is economical for the key system components to be built in a few places on earth, then shipped elsewhere for assembly in locally built towers.

Danby: “Computer technology is at about the stage of development that internal combustion engines were in the '50s. Truly transformative technological development is, at this point, very, very unlikely. We might drive power efficiency up 50% in the next 20 years. That level of development won't rescue the Internet.”

You might like to do a bit more research on this. There are a number of new technologies at various stages of development ranging from new manufacturing techniques that may reverse the trend of chip fabrication plants becoming ever more expensive and hard to build through to entirely new materials, perhaps the most promising being forms of carbon (never going to run out of that) that promise cheaper, faster (much faster) much more efficient chips.

In fact, there seems to be too many new technologies! They are jostling each other for limited research and development funds!

I doubt that digesting even these will be complete any time before well after the 2050s. Of course, if Quantum computers turn out to be buildable we may even be starting a new IT revolution with as long to run as the whole current computer business.

And all this is before we even begin to consider the impact of other probable near future developments such as the telecommunications holy grail of full optical switching. Just watch that one collapse electricity consumption in the industry.

Then there is the incredible bloated mess we call software. Sorting out and optimizing that horror should keep us busy and keep yielding improvements for at least three centuries.

Damien Perrotin: “…and by the way there is no breeder in France, the only one was closed down because it cost a lot and did not breed.”

Interesting! I was aware that breeder reactors are the worst of an expensive, dangerous, troublesome bunch and never likely to make economic sense as stand alone reactors, basically requiring a subsidy from the non-breeders they fuel, but I was not aware that France had closed its down.

But then, uranium continues to be amazingly cheap, so why bother with breeder reactors? Yes, I know there is all the fuss about it one day being relatively scarce and expensive, but for the moment it isn’t.

In fact, here in Australia it is almost a nuisance in some ore bodies, contaminating the copper, gold, silver or others metals they contain.

Interestingly, I was looking around a site (Energy from Thorium for historical stuff and was astonished to notice that much of the stuff the nuclear industry is squabbling about now, they were squabbling about in the 1970s and before. Seems they are just going around in circles.

But then, what else would you expect from an industry that fell off the back of the atomic bomb project.

5/20/09, 3:14 AM

Stephen Heyer said...
Hi John

John Greer: “More generally, have you noticed just how many people commenting on the last two posts completely missed the economic dimension -- the core of the argument -- and insisted that because it's physically possible to keep, say, trains running, that they'll keep running?”

John, I thought the very point I was making was that in a post oil age anything like you imagine it WILL make economic sense to keep railways, perhaps simple, robust, 1950s style railways running. It will in fact make enormous economic and social, and yes political and military sense to keep them running.

I’d suggest that some research into railways in the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century, especially on frontiers and places like India and China would give a better idea of the practicality of operating railways in relatively low tech, resource poor regions and of the enormous, transformative effect they had on economies and peoples’ lives.

Actually, if things turn out anything like you expect, the two current systems I would most expect to not merely survive but thrive would be railways and telecommunications/computers. Local links would probably be wireless and long distance fiber optic as now (it is very easy and cheap to lay and maintain and getting cheaper).

5/20/09, 3:16 AM

Stephen Heyer said...
Hi John

John Greer: “Ahavah, it's not the household use of power that makes the internet unsustainable, it's the gigawatts going into the server farms and the rest of the infrastructure.”

I think what Ahavah Gayle is saying is that if absolute or practical limits to electricity production are reached we may choose to allocate that available electricity in ways that try to maximize its social and economic utility. Probably, only a neo-con toady to the wealthy would think otherwise.

Oh! And I remember reading recently about some strange new mathematical process the mathematicians have come up with that may make Yahoo’s huge server farms obsolete. There is more than one way to solve a problem.

Same of course for any limited resource. If one day we are trying to run our societies entirely on renewables, growing wood and oilseed crops on every bank and field border, some would be allocated through various mechanisms such as market and tax to uses such as running the water supply pumps, trams, trains, telecommunications and contract machines that come in to do seasonal heavy work on the farms.

That is, after all, what having a society is all about.

5/20/09, 3:19 AM

Nnonnth said...
I'll post this again tomorrow, for UK readers a nice radio 4 segment on peak oil from 'You and Yours' -- infuential show so this is upping the communication factor.

Guests include Heinberg, who gave recommendations for the UK government including providing finnacial support to Transition efforts, "These kinds of efforts are already happening but they're more or less happening in the face of government..."

But also John Hemming. I didn't know it but there is an All Party Parliamentary Group on Peak Oil and Gas, and he's on it. He's not dumb at all; what influence they will have remains to be seen. But it's an interesting moment in UK politics as recent stands by the SNP have shown.

That group's website:

... includes a very good Peak Newsfeed for the UK.

5/20/09, 4:51 AM

Bill Pulliam said...
Interesting the places these comment threads wind up by the end of the week!

Hydro and beavers:

First, all the statements about pressure being dependent only on the depth of the water are true when you are talking about hydroSTATIC pressure -- i.e. water than is not moving. As soon the water begins to move, like when you turn on the hydro turbines, the situation changes. Then the shapes of things and paths of water flow matter quite a bit. This is why flushing the toilet scalds the person in the shower if your plumbing system isn't designed well. There is much more to fluid DYNAMICS than hydroSTATIC pressure.

Next, about beavers. They are doing a pretty good job of reintroducing themselves across much of North America. I share my farm with a very industrious pair. Until last week when the biggest flash flood in several decades blasted the stream channel clean, our creek was a continuous series of ponds making it a long skinny lake. This brings up a critical point: beaver dams are also DYNAMIC, unlike the STATIC dams that people construct. A small human-constructed dam does not at all duplicate the ecological function of a beaver dam. It creates a permanent barrier to migration of stream fauna and movement of stream sediment and particulate organic matter. The shoreline and altered water table it produces are fixed in place. Beaver dams are transitory things. The floods sweep them away, the beavers shift their home ranges (or die) and abandon old ones while building new ones, the ponds are always moving around. This creates a mosaic in time and space of habitats, incuding open water, filling in marshes, shrubby bogs, and lots of standing dead trees. It also allows for movement of aquatic animals upstream and downstream as the dams come and go. This is the environment that the wetland flora and fauna of BeaverLand evolved with and is adapted to. Static dams don't even create an approximation to this unless you are willing to tear them down and rebuild them in new locations at irregular intervals every few months or years. Recently I've begun to think that maybe the drastic 19th Century declines of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker and Bachman's Warbler were due as much to the elimination of beavers as the other more frequently cited causes.

So in short, don't use the fantasy that you are somehow duplicating a beaver as a warm-fuzzy-feel-good rationalization for damming up your streams. If you do dam your streams and you want to feel good about it ecologically, you will still have to build in mitigating systems to allow the animals to move upstream and the sediment and organic matter to move downstream. Or dynamite your damn every year or so (preferably during a flood) then rebuild it in a different location!

5/20/09, 6:23 AM

Greg said...
JMG said:

"Those of you who want to know the exact megawattage used by Yahoo's server farms can very easily look the figure up online;"

This just isn't true. I spent quite a bit of time trying to find this figure, including looking in Yahoo's annual report.

"Quite a few of you also seem to have missed the central point I was trying to make, which is that in a more energy- and resource-constrained world, the internet will likely no longer be economically viable for many or most of its present uses."

No, your critical supporting fact seems to be false, so the overall argument is on shaky ground.

Now, as of 2005 [1]:

"Total power used by servers represented about 0.6% of total U.S. electricity consumption in 2005. When cooling and auxiliary infrastructure are included, that number grows to 1.2%, an amount comparable to that for color televisions. The total power demand in 2005 (including associated infrastructure) is equivalent (in capacity terms) to about five
1000 MW power plants for the U.S. and 14 such plants for the world."

So ALL servers in the US were using about as much electricity as US TV's consumption which are only 15% of the total in the world [2].

So even if energy usage had doubled since 2005, all the servers in the US are still using nowhere near as much energy as the world's TVs.

JMG - love your work, but if you want to be credible research, or at least do basic fact checking.



6/25/09, 4:45 AM

Greta said...
Ahhhhh! My AP summer homework just never goes away, even when I get online for a break!

Our homework is to read Friedman's latest: Hot, Flat and Crowded, which is more or less speaking about the same things as you have in this post (I found a link to this post from twitter and have no background as to the rest of your blog) -- with one difference-- Friedman refers to what is happening as moving into the Energy-Climate Era, or the ECE for short.

His book, if you have not read it, spends about two hundred pages describing what exactly we're doing to destroy our world and then another two hundred pages on what we need to do to fix it, and many of his main points directly addressed the issues of energy (or lack of). One of the main recommendations is that we need to continue pushing (through government and businesses alike) for innovation while we create a new system of energy dispersal-- because as Friedman points out, the current system of utilities is incredibly inefficient, especially when working to transport energy from one place to another. ex) moving electricity produced by the wind turbines in northern Arizona to southern California

Many ideas for the new system and for energy efficiency are detailed in the tenth chapter: The Energy Internet: When IT meets ET.

Overall, if interested in this subject, I found the book quite interesting. A tad on the repetitive side, and cramming it all into one week of stressful homework finishing at the end of the summer was probably a bad idea, but I'd still recommend it :]

8/30/09, 8:45 AM

Siegmund said...
I think you're wrong.

There are two points you are correct on. Peak coal and peak uranium. The principle thing preventing move to breeder reactors isn't technological. It's political. For the US peak coal is far more of a big deal immediately. Yet no-one is talking about it.

With regards of uranium, the technology is there for 'sustainable' nuclear power - the by-product is potentially massive proliferation of fuel for nuclear weapons. Japan have thought ahead. In the absence of politically tricky (harbingers of mass proliferation) breeder-type reactors seawater extraction becomes economic as traditional reserves are squeezed.

These are not limits, rather signifiers of politicians facing a public that would not accept grown up choices until they're faced with them.

Peak coal is an immediate big deal. Particularly for the US and China. Peak oil less so. Uranium depletion less so (uranium depletion is nearly entirely about non-proliferation e.g. maintaining the nuclear weapon status quo).

8/30/09, 9:27 AM

cycnet said...
I'm lucky to live in a jurisdiction where 80 per cent or more of our energy is generated by renewable sources.

Of course our right wing government is trying to privatize it - but with any luck - we will preserve enough of the public system to revive our proud tradition once these fools lose office.

Good article.

8/30/09, 9:48 AM

Magen Melancholy said...
It's seems silly to me.. all this energy crisis talk when we have such an abundance of energy in the air and the water. Why are we still burning fossil fuels or whatever when we have the wind and the waves to provide energy without eating away at our resources? Humans are stupid. And always will be no matter how smart they think they are. It's like they love the drama the suspense in fucking everything up. It gives them something to talk about. It makes life less bring for them i suppse. And unless we start utilizing hemp all this paper and book talk seems ridiculous. We waste and waste and waste. We're doomed. We're all doomed.

8/30/09, 9:57 AM

cycnet said...

also google video has the movie of E.M. Forster's story "The Machine Stops"

8/30/09, 9:52 PM

Guilherme Balan said...
The internet will suffer because we won't have energy to run servers?? Computers are so low-energy consumers your statement could only be true if you're assuming we'll no longer have hot showers or refrigerators. And yet the internet crisis would be a minor collateral effect of a there's-no-gas apocalypse. No food, diseases, no transportation and then 'oh yes, no internet...'.

By the way, I consider preaching socio-economical apocalypse as evil as preaching a religious one. It causes fear and puts people into the fog of major events. Distorts reality in a not funny way.

8/31/09, 12:17 PM

DoubtingThomas said...
This comment has been removed by the author.

1/11/17, 1:45 AM