Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Hagbard's Law

The dubious statistical measures that were the theme of last week’s Archdruid Report post have had a massive impact on the even more dubious decisions that have backed the United States, and the industrial world more broadly, into its present predicament. When choices are guided by numbers, and the numbers are all going the right way, it takes a degree of insight unusual in contemporary life to remember that the numbers may not reflect what is actually going on in the real world.

You might think that this wouldn’t be the case if the people making the decisions know that the numbers are being fiddled with to make them more politically palatable, as economic statistics in the United States and elsewhere generally are. Still, it’s important to remember that we’ve gone along way past the simplistic tampering with data practiced in, say, the Lyndon Johnson administration. With characteristic Texan straightforwardness, Johnson didn’t leave statistics to chance; he was famous for sending any unwelcome number back to the bureau that produced it, as many times as necessary, until he got a figure he liked.

Nowadays nothing so crude is involved. The president – any president, of any party, or for that matter of any nation – simply expresses a hope that next quarter’s numbers will improve; the head of the bureau in question takes that instruction back to the office; it goes down the bureaucratic food chain, and some anonymous staffer figures out a plausible reason why the way of calculating the numbers should be changed; the new formula is approved by the bureau’s tame academics, rubberstamped by the appropriate officials, and goes into effect in time to boost the next quarter’s numbers. It’s all very professional and aboveboard, and the only sign that anything untoward is involved is that for the last thirty years, every new formulation of official economic statistics has made the numbers look rosier than the one it replaced.

It’s entirely possible, for that matter, that a good many of those changes took place without any overt pressure from the top at all. Hagbard’s Law is a massive factor in modern societies. Coined by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson in their tremendous satire Illuminatus!, Hagbard’s Law states that information can only be communicated between equals, since in a hierarchy, those in inferior positions face very strong incentives to tell their superiors what the superiors want to hear rather than ‘fessing up to the truth. The more levels of hierarchy between the people who gather information and the ones who make decisions, the more communication tends to be blocked by Hagbard’s Law; in today’s governments and corporations, the disconnect between the reality visible on the ground and the numbers viewed from the top of the pyramid is as often as not total.

Many of my readers will be aware that two examples of this sort of figure-juggling surfaced in the last couple of weeks. From somewhere in the bowels of the International Energy Agency (IEA), a bureaucracy created and funded by the world’s industrial nations to provide statistics on energy use, two whistleblowers announced that the 2009 figures that were about to be released had been jiggered, as past figures had been, under pressure from the US government. The reason for the pressure, according to the whistleblowers, was that accurate figures would be bad for the US economy – as indeed they would be, for much the same reason that a diagnosis of terminal illness is bad for one’s prospects of buying life insurance.

Of course news stories about the leaks brought a flurry of denials from the IEA. Doubtless some people were fooled; still, the gaping chasm between the IEA’s rosy predictions of future oil production and the evidence assembled by independent researchers has been a subject of discussion in peak oil circles for some years now, and it was useful to have insiders confirm the presence of fudge factors outside analysts have long since teased out of the data.

The second and much more controversial example came to light when persons unknown dumped onto the internet a very large collection of private emails from a British academic center studying global warming. Like everything else involved with global warming, the contents of the emails became the focus of a raging debate between opposed armies of true believers, but the emails do suggest that a certain amount of data-fudging and scientific misconduct is going on in the large and lucrative scientific industry surrounding climate change.

This sort of thing is all too common in contemporary science. In many fields, ambitious young scientists far outnumber the available grants and tenured positions at universities, and the temptation to misconduct for the sake of professional success is strong. Though overt fakery still risks punishment, less blatant forms of scientific fraud pay off handsomely in papers published, grants awarded, and careers advanced. Since science is expected to police itself, scientific fraud gets the same treatment as, say, sexual abuse among the clergy or malpractice among physicians: except in the most blatant cases, punishing the guilty takes a back seat to getting along with one’s peers and preserving the reputation of one’s institution and profession.

The result is a great deal of faux science that manipulates experimental designs and statistical analyses to support points of view that happen to be fashionable, either within a scientific field or in the broader society. I saw easily half a dozen examples of this sort of thing in action back in my college days, which spanned all of five years and two universities. Still, you don’t need a ringside seat to watch the action: simply pay attention to how often the results of studies just happen to support the interests of whoever provided the funding for them. You don’t need to apply a chi-square test here to watch Hagbard’s Law in action.

There’s good reason to think that the feedback loop by which popular attitudes generate their own supporting evidence via dubious science has distorted the global warming debate. The fingerprints show up all over the weird disconnect between current global warming science and the findings of paleoclimatology, which show that sudden, drastic climate changes have been routine events in Earth’s long history; that the Earth was actually warmer than the temperatures predicted by current doomsday scenarios at the peak of the current interglacial period only six thousand years ago; and that the Earth has been a hothouse jungle planet without ice caps or glaciers for around 80% of the time since multicellular life evolved here. Technically speaking, we’re still in an ice age – the current interglacial is on schedule to end in the next few thousand years, giving way to a new glaciation for a hundred thousand years or so, with several million years of further cycles still in the pipeline – and claims that setting the planetary thermostat a little closer to its normal range will terminate life on Earth are thus at least open to question.

What interests me most about the current global warming debate is that these facts, when they get any air time at all, commonly get treated as ammunition for the denialist side of the debate. This hardly follows. Paleoclimatology shows that the Earth’s climate is unstable, and prone to drastic shifts that can place massive strains on local and regional ecosystems. It’s equally clear that number juggling in a British laboratory does not change the fact that the Arctic ice sheet is breaking up, say, or that a great many parts of the world are seeing their climates warp out of all recognition. Even if natural forces are driving these shifts, this is hardly a good time to dump vast quantities of greenhouse gases into an already unstable atmosphere – you could as well claim that because a forest fire was started by lightning, dumping planeloads of gasoline around its edges can’t possibly cause any harm.

The problem with the global warming debate just now is that tolerably well funded groups on both sides are using dubious science to advance their own agendas and push the debate further toward the extremes. The common habit of thinking in rigid binaries comes into play here; it’s easy enough for global warming believers to insist that anyone who questions their claims must be a global warming denier, while their opponents do the same thing in reverse, and the tumult and the shouting helps bury the idea that the territory between the two polarized extremes might be worth exploring. As a result, moderate views are being squeezed out, as the radicals on one side try to stampede the public toward grandiose schemes of very questionable effect, while the radicals on the other try to stampede the public toward doing nothing at all.

It’s instructive to compare the resulting brouhaha to the parallel, if much less heavily publicized, debate over peak oil. The peak oil scene has certainly seen its share of overblown apocalyptic claims, and it certainly has its own breed of deniers, who insist that the free market, the march of progress, or some other conveniently unquantifiable factor will make infinite material expansion on a finite planet less of an oxymoron than all logic and evidence suggests it will be. Still, most of the action in the peak oil scene nowadays is happening in the wide spectrum between these two extremes. We’ve got ecogeeks pushing alternative energy, Transition Towners building local communities, “preppers” learning survival skills, and more; even if most of these ventures miss their mark, as doubtless most of them will, the chance of finding useful strategies for a difficult future goes up with each alternative explored.

The difference between the two debates extends to the interface between statistics and power discussed earlier in this post. Both sides of the global warming debate, it’s fair to say, have fairly robust political and financial payoffs in view. The established industrial powers of the West and the rising industrial nations elsewhere are each trying to use global warming to impose competitive disadvantages on the other; fossil fuel companies are scrambling to shore up their economic position, while the rapidly expanding renewables industry is trying to elbow its way to the government feed trough; political parties are lining up to turn one side or the other into a captive constituency that can be milked for votes and donations, and so forth.

This hasn’t happened with peak oil. Now it’s true, of course, if the world’s petroleum reserves have already peaked and other fossil fuels are shortly to follow, the game is over and nobody wins. The end of the Age of Abundance promises to tip the world’s industrial economies into permanent contraction, leave political parties without the resources needed to buy support from increasingly needy constituencies, curtail the global military reach of industrial nations, and foreclose most of the options for the future on which industrial society relies. Still, a modest round of global warming – something, let’s say, on the order of the temperature spike at the end of the last glaciation 11,000 years ago, which jolted global temperatures up 13 to15°F in less than a decade, melted continental glaciers as large as the world’s present ice caps, and sent sea level up 300 feet or so, drowning millions of square miles of formerly dry land – would have equally challenging impacts on industrial society.

Why should that possibility become a political football, while peak oil remains all but unmentionable in polite company, and has been embraced so far only by political groups on the outermost fringe? It’s a fascinating question, for which I don’t have a simple answer. The evidence supporting peak oil is at least as strong as the evidence backing claims that global warming will rise to catastrophic levels, and the consequences for industrial society are pretty much the same. The conspiracy-minded can doubtless come up with some reason or other why the currently fashionable incarnations of “Them” would favor one rather than the other.

Still, I find myself wondering if Hagbard’s Law plays a much bigger role here than any deliberate plan. The global warming story, if you boil it down to its bones, is the kind of story our culture loves to tell – a narrative about human power. Look at us, it says, we’re so mighty we can destroy the world! The peak oil story, by contrast, is the kind of story we don’t like – a story about natural limits that apply, yes, even to us. From the standpoint of peak oil, our self-anointed status as evolution’s fair-haired child starts looking like the delusion it arguably is, and it becomes hard to avoid the thought that we may have to settle for the rather less flattering role of just another species that overshot the carrying capacity of its environment and experienced the usual consequences.

It’s hard to think of a less popular claim to make these days. Similar logic may be behind the way that both climate change believers and deniers shy away from the paleoclimatic data that shows just how lively Earth’s climate has been in prehistoric times. A species that’s desperately trying to maintain a fingernail grip on an inflated self-image has enough trouble dealing with the fact that an ordinary thunderstorm releases as much thermal energy as a strategic nuclear warhead; expecting it to grapple with the really spectacular fireworks Gaia likes to put on when she jumps from one climatic state to another is probably too much to ask.

All this, as suggested above, has potent effects on what we can collectively accomplish in the twilight of the Age of Abundance, and those effects show themselves with particular force in the political arena. Hang onto your hats, dear readers, because next week we start talking about the political economy of peak oil.


Bored said...
You make a lot of good points (though they've been made many times before, by yourself and others). I think there's a touch of irony in your tendency to backhand scientists while showing astute knowledge of a lot of their findings, including some that depend on a certain amount of guesswork and filling in the blanks.

There's good and bad apples in science, just as in every other field of human endeavour. But let's not forget that real science--as opposed to mumbo-jumbo--has to stand on its own merits: on the data, on the methods, on the arguments; and it has to stand up to scrutiny. I assume that's why you're willing to accept that some science is at least tentatively trustworthy (like paleoclimatology).

Love the Illuminatus! reference, btw. Been listening to an audio dramatization lately. A favourite book.

12/2/09, 7:48 PM

Mark said...
Wonderful essay. I appreciate the consistent reminder that yes, we've been here before, and no we're not that special.

Global warming seems too specific of an idea about what's happening. The climate is changing, just as the seasons change. But, we must also remember that we are a keystone species; we effect our habitats disproportionately relative to our biomass. The realization of this will surely aid us immensely as a species.

12/2/09, 7:53 PM

G said...
You said: "the Earth was actually warmer than the temperatures predicted by current doomsday scenarios at the peak of the current interglacial period only six thousand years ago"

I looked up what they say temperatures were back then, and read that they were 2 degrees celsius warmer than the present day.

Was that the amount of warming you were referring to? Because people such as James Hansen have been warming of warming far above that, at least 4 degrees or more, which I think would have much stronger effects.

Also, though it's true that we've been without ice caps for most of our history, it's not true that we've been without out them during human history. That's the timescale that should concern us most, as all of our systems are built around the world at its current temperature, not world-historical temperatures.

Regarding the climate change emails, have you got any links to emails that indicate data tampering? I haven't searched through them, I've only read a couple of the most talked about ones, such as the one with the word "tricks", and they seemed like they could have fairly innocent explanations in context.

I'd like to read more of them however, but don't feel like sifting through all of them. If you've got any that seem pertinent, would you be able to post links in the comments? Thanks.

12/2/09, 8:11 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Bored, of course there's quite a bit of good science out there. The point I meant to make is that in fields of scientific work that are heavily politicized, or subject to the temptation to tell funding sources what they want to hear, protections against scientific misconduct are faltering and a lot of faux science is slipping past. That's a crisis of no small importance.

Mark, no argument there.

G, last time I went through the paleoclimatological literature, temperatures were thought to be 2 degrees C. higher in the early medieval climatic optimum, and pushing 6 degrees higher in the interglacial hypsithermal around 6000 years ago. Those numbers may have shifted with the latest ice core data. Of course you're right that humanity isn't used to Earth's normal climate; we're a species of Ice Age mammals, after all. But that's exactly my point. A round of global warming, anthropogenic or otherwise, will certainly flatten industrial civilization, and it could take out our species, but the Earth will be fine.

As for the climate change emails, if I get a chance I'll see what I can do. It would be helpful if somebody with spare time and no ax to grind could sort through them and publish an analysis!

12/2/09, 8:32 PM

Richard said...
I personally have found very few people who think global warming would extinguish life on Earth. I'm with you in general on this issue, although from everything I've read I do think the temperatures will probably rise significantly more than during anytime in the present interglacial, the last time CO2 levels were this high was some number of millions of years ago, and anthropogenic CO2 may just break the cycle of glaciations that's been going on for the past few million years and turn us back to the state of no permanent ice caps that was the rule for millions of years in the Earth's past.

The larger issue however is that you (and me) have what are considered very extreme views by the majority of people. Sure, in some circles, particularly certain internet circles, very extreme views e.g. all life on Earth gone from global warming or instant apocalypse from peak oil predominate and those with views more like us can consider ourselves moderates, but to the mainstream which still believes our present trajectory is workable, any scenario that involves major disruption of civilization is seen as very extreme, people are scared to death of a meter rise in sea level this century, and if you mention rapid climate change, the same type that's occurred throughout geological history, it's unimaginable to them.

Also, I always find it a bit amusing when a denialist uses the fact of past climate shifts as "evidence" there isn't anthropogenic climate change, when in fact all those shifts in the past make it clear the Earth's climate is finicky, that messing with the atmosphere can have unintended consequences.

12/2/09, 9:07 PM

tristan said...

I often get a giggle when I read your comments about global warming. You consistently point out that a few degrees rise will not "terminate life on this earth" or some other phrase that indicates that (using a biblical quote that was made into an apocalyptic Sci-Fi novel) "Earth abides".

But I have only come across one person who has published anything remotely that apocalyptic and that is Mark Lynas - and he is not a scientist. And even he points out that 6 degrees (the name of his book and the limit of his projections) would be very bad but that the earth has been that warm before.

I don't think even the most apocalyptic global warming advocates think that life on Earth will end. I think the most extreme "mainstream" point of view is Lovelock and even he ends with a worst case scenario of human survival (much less planetary survival).

Are you sure you are not "straw manning"?


12/2/09, 9:22 PM

SouthFlorida said...
I have my own theory about the contrast between the high-profile nature of the climate change debate and the sub rosa character of the Peak Oil movement - though it doesn't necessarily contradict yours, JMG. In my experience, global warming activists tend somewhat toward wooly-headed optimism about the future, notwithstanding their more dire sorts of warnings. The end of Al Gore's movie, with its inveterate techno-optimism after well over an hour of somber warnings, was a good example of this.

By contrast, the Peak Oil crowd consists predominantly of hard-headed pessimists, and this sets a tone for the movement that contrasts markedly with the wooly-headed optimism of the Global Warming types. For reasons that have been abundantly discussed in Peak Oil circles, society at large finds wooly-headed optimism much more palatable and appealing than hard-headed pessimism. Hence the tone of global warming advocacy has been much more conducive to making it a high-profile issue than the hard-headed pessimism of Peak Oilers.

12/2/09, 9:54 PM

G said...
Thanks for your answer. It would definitely be useful to see those emails parses through.

As for the warm period 6000 years ago, these two sources say 2 degrees:

They're not the scientific literature, but I'd be surprised if they were off by 4 degrees.

I don't think 4 or more degrees of warming would end life on earth. I agree that the earth will likely get along just fine.

But I don't think that's what most scientists or most of the most alarmed commentators are warning about. The credible ones are warning of consequences for our civilization.

So while I think you've made some good points here, I have to take issue with some of your conclusions from the climate science section.

12/2/09, 10:23 PM

tgmac said...
I've been trying to utilise a sceptical approach to both the climate change and peak oil debates. One has a tendency to seek out the extremes on each end of the debate and chart a course between the extremes to arrive at an understanding of the issues. However in both these cases if either event exhibits a tendency towards an undesirable outcome, even a marginal alteration in the case of peak oil, charting a middle course will have been futile. We need to be able to at least form a probability distribution of outcomes. In order to do this we need complete information to make informed calculations on both issues; although I'm coming to the conclusion that one also needs to be clairvoyiant in the case of Climate Change. We'll never be provided with complete information.

Lacking complete information is bad enough but when the issues become politicised, clarity of analysis becomes almost impossible. (Even "real" scientists are political animals.) The increasingly opaque nature of the debate seems to indicate that those who deny peak oil, particularly, have in a sense won. When the majority of people are not sure about something or can't form an opinion based on coherent and currently factual data, we have a tendency to accept the status quo as a default position.

Personally, I'm monitoring things; trying to be as green as possible; but quietly preparing for an more extreme lifestyle. But let's face facts, if a horribly extreme "natural" event occurs, whether abetted by humankind or not, all the personal preparedness in the world will be fairly useless. Societies, in their entirety, need to deal with these two huge, complex issues of pollution and resource depletion. Given the current and increasingly opaque natue of the debate, and also the desires of governments across the globe to get the global economy running as it was before the financial debacle, there is little hope of a concerted effort to inform the people and take appropriate action. As usual, we are left to the whimsies of fate, and if things go arse over tip those who profit by the current regime can simply blame fate or ill luck in the future. The deficiency of accoutability is probably the most salient feature of our inability to as rationally as possible deal with these complex issues.

12/2/09, 11:15 PM

Vic said...
The historian Gabriel Kolko makes reference to the tendency of subordinates to tell superiors what they want to hear.I imagine he would appreciate Hagbard's law:

"...foreign and military policy, not just for the United States but also for other nations, is that all decisions on vital questions are filtered through the prism of ambition. Since men and women who aspire to attain influence and power very often give advice with a view to advancing their own careers, they are generally anything but objective assessors of options. Decisions are made to attain success; choices are rarely made with an eye on the facts."

I've watched this process first hand. The damming of rivers in northern Manitoba for Hydro generation is a prime example.The province has an environmental impact study done and so on. Native groups are promised jobs, fishing compensation,a chance to be a 'stake holder' the list goes on and on.Before you know it a dam is built and fragile systems are further exacerbated.Native communities never improve,fishing and hunting become worse. Power sales are made usually to the US and somewhere in the neighborhood of 70% (this % can change) of the power generated is exported.

Unexpected large dumps of rain, that fill reservoirs quite suddenly and pose serious risk to dikes and structures are referred to as "rain events",a term that didn't exist 10-15 years ago.

Now, here's the real kicker you can try to explain, till you're blue in face, that hydro electricity is completely dependent on fossil fuel and people will not believe it. I mean it's a power company for heaven's sake think of how many employee's would have a strong background in physics. For the most part they believe there's an endless supply of energy locked up in watershed draining into Hudson's bay and that Manitoba will be an "innovative energy leader in the 21st century" and so on.
Oh, Lake Winnipeg is, for the most part, an ecological basket case.All done in an incredibly short time.Talk about a "Rogue Primate".

12/3/09, 12:01 AM

medved said...
Kevin Andreson of Tyndall Centre UK (together with PIK Postdam Germany probably the most trustworthy) compares the funding of climate change science as "less than Formula 1 research" - see

On human level, this is, I believe, a very frustrating field to work in. I hope the mail affair will force the climate scientists to open their kitchens, as they wonderfully do at

12/3/09, 12:08 AM

Bernd Ohm said...
Hi John,
I suppose the question of how much warmer or cooler past ages were than today depends on what region you're looking at. On average, the Medieval Warm Period seems to have been a littler colder than today (see, but that's only the statistical mean, certain regions could have been much warmer (and Greenland certainmly was). Likewise, the Holocene Maximum, on average, was slightly below today's temperature values (see, but local temperature variation (e.g. check the medium blue curve in the graph) could be as high as 2,5 degrees C. If you look at the data from the Vostok ice core drilled in Antartica (, you'll see that some of the previous interglacial periods were warmer than today, but only by one or two degrees C. Maybe those "six degrees" you read about were actually Fahrenheit...?
Greetings from Germany

12/3/09, 1:48 AM

Ken said...
@G: A good place to start on the geological record is the Wikipedia article on the Ice Ages. The Global Warming crowd claims to know the future, but I've never seen them explain the past.

@JMG: You ask why climate change gets all the ink, and peak oil is a wallflower?

One possible explanation is listed in a paper "Cognitive biases potentially affecting judgment of global risks", in which the authors mention that public credulity is greater for "disaster-movie scenarios". A climate-change has lots of potential for special effects, while a peak-oil movie has none.

Peak oil will be a grim, exhausting, and everlasting grind. Try pitching that in Hollywood.

12/3/09, 2:30 AM

Andrew B. Watt said...
I love Hagbard's Law, and have ever since a friend introduced me to the Illuminatus trilogy.

Based on the IEA whistleblowers, and the other more independent analysts you mention, what's left of our current oil reserves, both pre-pumped but not spent, and in-the-ground?

And when you remark on the terminal nature of the patient's illness, do you mean six administrations, six decades, or six months? I know you don't want to get into the predictive game here, so this is largely a rhetorical question. All the same, timeframe looms large over Peak Oil, for exactly the reasons you mention near the end of your article. Are we in unavoidable overshoot, with predictable results? Or is there time to build alternate cultural momentum?

In your letter to the activist of several years back, you pointed out the danger of a story involving a gullible public, a rapacious corporate shill, and an altruistic activist.

Is it not possible to reframe this current story in a way that makes positive outcomes more likely?

12/3/09, 3:34 AM

6p00e5537f462b8834 said...
When I saw "Hagbard" in the title, I just knew. I heartily recommend Neuroeconomics by Hagbard Celine. You can find it in Robert Anton Wilson's Illuminati Papers

12/3/09, 4:17 AM

RDatta said...
Just as our bodies are a product of our physical milieu over countless millennia, so too our ideas and ideologies are a preduct of our cognitive milieu, and are subject to change over mech shorter timeframes. The influences in the latter can be just as subtle, such thai the individual has no idea of malice / mischief until someone from outside their box sees it in a different light.

But one method of weighing the issues comes from the Greek barber at the time of the Roman Empire, whose barbershop was frequented by Latin scholars who would there engage in vociferous debates in Latin.

Although the barber knew no Latin, he could say who was wrong. When finally asked how he did so, he said that he noted which person raised the voice first.

12/3/09, 5:30 AM

Matt said...
Could somebody please post a link to those two stories that you mentioned John? The one about IEA number fudging and the climate emails? Thanks.

12/3/09, 5:32 AM

Tiago said...
Dear John,

Your essays are most inspiring, many thanks.

I would like to add an argument for you to consider regarding science.

Current academia happens in a very atomized and specialized way. Geneticists know of genetics, mathematicians know maths, computer scientists know CS, philosophers know philosophy and so on...

Most of this work, say climate modeling and prediction requires lots of interdisciplinary knowledge: Even if you believe that you can model such a complex system as the one underlying climate you then have to know maths, computers (to program the models, etc).

Many of people in science live in bubbles and clear have delusions of grandeur: A specialist in e.g. biology of fish surely can learn in a couple of weeks how to program and do a model of fish expansion. This is an example of a Dunning-Krueger effect: people are deluded that they are too smart and that they can learn other things fast and well. Most peers (which will review papers) will also agree.

In fact if you look at the code made by some these specialists, it will look somewhat like code made by a high-school kid. With reliability to match.

I give the example on having to know programming to "model and predict" nature. But it could be other things like good grasp of maths, philosophical stances on the problem under prediction, etc...

The specialized and closed nature of every department assures for an approach that is not much holistic.

Another issue is that of transparency. While with climate we start seeing people showing models, data and software (but still not all!), in many other areas there is still great lack of transparency. E.g. people don't show their data or their code (or whatever).

It is not really true that things are made in full transparency, quite the contrary in some areas. Many people seem also to not know basic things like Popper's falsifiability principle. Actually full areas of knowledge seem to ignore it.

Atomization, massive competition, very closed and opaque environments.

12/3/09, 6:56 AM

Arabella said...
@Matt - IEA link:

12/3/09, 6:56 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Richard, exactly -- the natural instability of the Earth's climate is the best reason not to mess with it. Mind you, it's only a small minority that think in such terms, which is one of the reasons why I doubt anything useful will be done about climate change until well after New York City is 200 feet underwater.

Tristan, maybe it's just that I field a lot of email from wackjobs, but I've heard a number of people insist that runaway global warming will turn Earth into a twin of Venus. Please note that I didn't say that scientists were claiming that, just that it's being claimed.

SouthFlorida, that's quite plausible. Of course the optimistic ending of the climate-change story is another affirmation of our alleged power, too.

G, I have no argument with those who suggest that a sudden burst of global warming will bring industrial civilization to its knees -- though that will have to happen soon, or peak oil will get there first.

Tgmac, personal and local preparedness is the only option we've got, because -- for many reasons, including those you've enumerated -- our societies are not going to make the necessary changes soon enough, and indeed the window of opportunity is past in the case of peak oil, and probably past in the case of global warming. I'll be discussing more of the reasons for this in the next couple of posts.

Vic, thanks for the Gabriel Kolko reference, which I'll certainly follow up. Your account of the mess in Manitoba is an excellent example of Hagbard's Law at work -- I also note the way that institutional momentum helps drive this Sorcerer's Apprentice scenario.

12/3/09, 7:41 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Medved, I hope so too. The tendency of any intellectual elite to become a closed priesthood expecting the laity to take its pronouncements on faith is fatal to good science, and unfortunately it's well established in many fields.

Bernd, this flies in the face of everything I've read about the subject. In the early Medieval climatic optimum, southern England was a significant wine producing region; in the hypsithermal 6000 years ago, rain belts shifted so far that the Sahara was one big savanna, complete with zebras and giraffes, and boreal forests grew 200 kilometers further north in Canada than they do today. Those are just a few of the data points from paleoclimatological literature that point to much warmer temperatures in the Holocene than we've got at present.

Ken, a very good point!

Andrew, your best source for estimates of remaining oil reserves is The Oil Drum," where this stuff gets discussed by first-rate number crunchers all the time. As for the terminal diagnosis, my prediction is what it's been all along: a ragged decline, punctuated by catastrophes and brief periods of partial recovery, taking maybe a century or two, and ending in a dark age several more centuries in length.

That's the normal fate of civilizations that outrun their resource base, and we're far enough into it that I don't foresee any way of preventing it. Cultural momentum, by the way, isn't "built" -- it's a product of nonrational factors rooted in human ecology, rather than something we can choose to make happen. (Oppositional movements within society, I would argue, are themselves products of cultural momentum, rather than creators of it.)

As for new stories, well, what do you think this blog is primarily about? ;-)

(number string too long to type), glad you enjoyed it. Fnord.

RDatta, funny! Thanks for that.

Tiago, nicely summarized. The Dunning-Kreuger effect is particularly relevant; I've lost track of the number of times, for example, I've watched respectable scientists make the kind of philosophical howlers a good sophomore course in introductory epistemology could have prevented.

12/3/09, 8:00 AM

Don said...
I have a couple of comments. First, regarding the leak of information from the University of East Anglia, hardly anybody has commented on the fact that this leak was the result of an illegal act--the burglarizing of the computer system and the theft of private e-mails. While I don't want to dismiss the findings merely on the basis of ad hominem arguments regarding the moral character of the perpetrators of this burglary, it does, in my mind at least, call into question the validity of the data they have released. Why should we believe that they provided us with the full contexts of these leaked emails? Why shouldn't we at least suspect, absent evidence to the contrary, that they cherry-picked them, lifting them out of a context that might mitigate what they reveal about these scientists and their research methods? After all, this leak seems to be carefully timed, coming as it did on the eve of the UN Copenhagen climate conference. While it certainly won't derail those proceedings (not that I hold much hope that any serious mitigation strategy will come from them), it certainly gives lots of fodder to those whose business it is to cast doubt on the scientific findings--fodder that has found its way into all corners of the climate-denial culture.

Second, regarding the fact that the earth has had climate shifts in the past, this is certainly true. However, the latest warnings from scientists (and I wish I remember where I read this so I could link it) is that we might witness a rise not of two to four degrees Celsius, but 15 to 20. That puts the heating beyond what happened at the end of the last ice age. In fact, the earth hasn't been that warm since the end of the Eocene, 30-40 million years ago. That's before most of the modern lines of primates evolved. No, I don't expect humanity to become extinct, but I think the possibility that we might witness a rise in temperatures greater than ever existed in our history should give us a pause when we try to imagine adaptation strategies.

All this said, you are certainly correct that peak oil is a more immediate predicament. It certainly doesn't make much sense that we've heard relatively little about peak oil from media and government, especially when compared to the almost deafening cacophony over climate change, given that peak oil is likely to be the more immediate cause of the unwinding of our industrial infrastructure (I think Dubai might be worth another look in this regard). I look forward to your comments next week.

12/3/09, 8:16 AM

Tiago said...
Dear John,


Of all your books, would there be one you would recommend as an intro regarding your mystical views. One that would appeal to someone with a scientific mind (so scientific to the point of rationally questing current scientific practices)?


12/3/09, 8:19 AM

mageprof said...
"The more education they've got, the easier they are to con!" -- so my father's step-father, who had been a carnival worker in his teens. Understanding one thing very well indeed, they think they understand everything better than most people. The toughest "mark" to con is a street-smart kid who never had a single advantage.

12/3/09, 8:47 AM

mageprof said...
Than was a propos the Dunning-Krueger effect, by the way.

12/3/09, 8:49 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Don, no question this was timed to hit the fan in advance of Copenhagen -- not that anything constructive was going to come out of Copenhagen anyway. As for claims of a 15-20C. rise, that seems improbable to me; I wonder if they're taking into account where we are in the Milankovich cycle, for example. The earth will doubtless revert to its climatic norm eventually, but glacial eras last, what, eight million years on average? This one's only been going for two million so far.

Tiago, The Druidry Handbook is probably your best bet of the things I've published so far. One of these days I need to make time to do a good solid book explaining magic ("the art and science of causing changes in consciousness in accordance with will" -- that's Dion Fortune's definition, and as good as any) to those who've been turned off by all the twinkle dust and poseurism that so often surrounds it.

Mageprof, holy gods, yes. The more caught up in a belief in their own cleverness people are, the easier it is to convince them of any absurdity.

12/3/09, 10:55 AM

nun said...
"This hasn’t happened with peak oil. Now it’s true, of course, if the world’s petroleum reserves have already peaked and other fossil fuels are shortly to follow, the game is over and nobody wins."

Surely you jest. When the industrial economy breathes its last murderous breath, every non-human species and non-industrial culture on the planet is relieved of great oppression. And Homo sapiens just might stand a chance of persisting beyond mid-century.

If we're committed to a 4 C rise in global average temperature by mid-century, as conservative projections indicate, our species is done shortly thereafter (along with most others on the planet). Is that what we want? Apparently so.

We must terminate the omnicidal culture of industry to give the living planet a decent chance (hence give our own species a shot at persisting a few more decades). When will you start promoting this morally imperative message, JMG?

12/3/09, 11:06 AM

madtom said...
Thanks for that! I look forward to your new post every week, knowing that I will enjoy both substance and style.

While I personally am a climate-change alarmist, it is mainly because I selfishly value my comfort, and don't like the disruption and suffering that our contribution to warming will cause.

But I have to admit that those beautiful tropical islands that will soon go under the waves never would have existed at all (atoll?) if the corals that formed them hadn't been submerged for a long time while the water now in the ice caps was instead part of the world ocean.

Then change happened, and they were left high and dry for the benefit of us land-dwellers by the sequestration of part of the seas as polar ice. What a disaster for the poor corals, though, stranded to die in the sun and air by the receding sea!

I guess it is time for another round of underwater reef-building on top of those old structures, as we help to re-melt all that ice.

I don't see us doing anything differently anytime soon, and even the remaining coal will be burned by people who find it the most sensible thing to do.

12/3/09, 12:57 PM

barry_NZ said...
It is tempting to think that there is a middle ground between global warming alarmists and deniers. However the middle ground is still pretty worrying. The middle ground says that temperatures are now nearly 1 degree higher than it would be without human climate meddling. Even if emissions stopped now there is still about half a degree of warming to come because it takes some time to reach equilibrium. Business as usual will mean at least another 2 degrees rise by the end of the century. Sea levels will rise by about half a metre by the end of the century.

Now scare stories about 6 metres of sea level rise, and 6 degrees increase are probably not helpful, but to put them on the same footing as the denialists, who latch onto any crazy theory to present a case for doing nothing is unreasonable.

Paleoclimatology is hard. Some deride the currently accepted climate proxies, but then go back to other proxies which are even less well supported by science. Your claim that medieval temperatures were 2 degrees higher, is based on some very unreliable proxies (e.g. viking sagas). The best evidence is that modern temperatures are the highest for several millennia. Exactly how reliable that evidence is, is still a matter for debate, but there is not much doubt that human activities are warming the planet significantly.

Comparison of Milankovich parameters indicate that we probably have about 10000 years of relatively stable climate before we slide into another ice age. At that stage we are going to wish we still had some fossil fuels to help us manage.

12/3/09, 1:18 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Nun, thank you -- this is exactly the kind of self-righteous, buzzword-laden, and hopelessly inaccurate apocalyptic fantasy I meant to critique in this post, and it's useful to have an example on hand.

Mad Tom, generally speaking, warm intervals in the Earth's climatic history are good for biodiversity, though the sudden temperature spikes on the way there can be rough for large species to get through. If our CO2 emissions do succeed in jolting us out of a glacial era into Earth's more usual jungle planet conditions, that'll be hard on Ice Age mammals like you and me, but party time for a lot of other organisms.

12/3/09, 1:25 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Barry, my claim about the early medieval climatic optimum isn't based on Viking sagas -- it's based on changes in growing zones (such as the wine harvest in southern England, as mentioned to Bernd above) and a good many other proxies. Paleoclimatology may be hard, but that doesn't make it impossible! Interglacials normally run 10,000-14,000 years, and we're 11,000 years into this one; thus we're unlikely to have another 10,000 years -- more like 0 to 3000.

Nor are interglacials stable; the Younger Dryas cold phase, the Boreal hot phase, and the Little Ice Age are good examples of the kind of wild climatic swings that count as climate as usual on this planet. That said, I don't disagree that a 2C. rise in temperature will be very rough going for industrial society, and if it could be prevented, that would be a good thing -- but I think we both know that it won't be prevented at this point.

12/3/09, 1:37 PM

nun said...
JMG, if I'm to be lumped with somebody, I might as well be tossed in with the leading 3,000 global-change scientists in the world. It's become clear that four is the new two, and if you're willing to promote omnicide over life itself, I guess we know where your morality takes you (and most of the species on the planet, including ours).

12/3/09, 1:39 PM

barry_NZ said...
I think you need to do more reading about Medieval climate. For example there is probably more wine being produced in England today than at any time in the past.

I agree that we are not going to prevent another 2 degrees (Celsius) of temperature rise. However we can reasonably make a difference of up to one degree by the end of the century. That will already be quite significant.

Interglacials normally run about 11000 years, but not all are the same. The current one is expected to be longer than normal. see e.g.

12/3/09, 2:38 PM

Don said...
John, I don't know about the Milankovich cycle; I believe the predictions of a global rise of 15-20 degrees C is based on the possibility of runaway methane release from the Arctic permafrost and the ocean sediments.

If I can find the article where I read that prediction, I'll post it here.

12/3/09, 2:57 PM

Bill Pulliam said...
This old saw has been circulating by mimeograph, then fax machine, and now the internet for decades. It is Hagbard's Law exemplified in a short, humorous summary (slightly sanitized for JMG's policies):

In the beginning was the plan.

And then came the Assumptions.

And the Assumptions were without form.

And the Plan was without substance.

And darkness was upon the face of the Workers.

And they spoke among themselves, saying, "It is a crock of crap, and it stinketh."

And the Workers went unto their Supervisors and said, "It is a pail of dung, and none may abide the odor thereof."

And the Supervisors went unto their Managers, saying, "It is a container of excrement, and it is very strong, such that none may abide by it."

And the Managers went unto their Directors, saying, "It is a vessel of fertilizer, and none may abide its strength."

And the Directors spoke amongst themselves, saying one to another, "It contains that which aids plant growth, and it is very strong."

And the Directors then went unto the Vice-Presidents, saying unto them, "It promotes growth, and it is very powerful."

And the Vice-Presidents went unto the President, saying unto him, "This new plan will actively promote the growth and vigor of the company, with powerful effects."

And the President Looked upon the Plan, and saw that it was good.

And the Plan became Policy.

This is how Crap Happens

12/3/09, 3:19 PM

peterjbarber said...

"The Global Warming crowd claims to know the future, but I've never seen them explain the past."

I think that is rather harsh.

The IPCC reports, and the published literature, are very careful not to claim to "know the future", instead carefully stating levels of probability associated with particular scenarios. The fault lies more with well meaning but scientifically-illiterate campaigners or journalists who either misinterpret the findings, or select the most shocking scenarios in a bid to grab people's attention - but that doesn't alter the facts.

As for past climate: the overall consistency of so many climate proxies, from oxygen-18 ratios in ice cores to annual rings in corals or trees, independent of methods, institutions or regional politics, suggests to me that climatologists do have a fairly good idea about the past. Again, they don't claim perfect knowledge, as a quick reading of the discussion section of any journal article will quickly reveal.

"A climate-change has lots of potential for special effects, while a peak-oil movie has none. "

I would dispute that climate change makes a good disaster film. Individual extreme weather events might grab the headlines but they are local in extent. The scenarios in the published literature suggest that climate change will be "grim" and "exhausting" just as you describe peak oil. Marginal land gradually becomes unviable; seas slowly encroach on fertile river deltas; disappearing glaciers gradually deprive people of summer water; crop productivity gradually falls as temperatures rise above their optimum. We're not going to suddenly wake up one New Year's Day to find the environment collapsed overnight while we were partying, whatever that awful film "The Day After Tomorrow" might imply.

12/3/09, 4:24 PM

Thardiust said...
The Soviet Union exploited their ecosystems worse than the United States does today since they had an even more rigid economic system than we do. The problem I notice with U.S. economics is, even though we drain our environmental resources less than the Soviets did, we're just doing it slower and still bound to run out at our current pace of environmental extraction unless we base our economy more on observation than speculation. The same can also be said for mainstream science. In the end though, the Earth itself doesn't really care if humanity lives or dies but, the fact that it's ecosystems are about to go into a phase of dramatic change will obviously force everyone in industrial society become more observant of what's going on around them and, hopefully more creative. Also, anyone interested the Dunning-Krueger effect may want to read this web book since, it has some interesting, and maybe even satirical, facts about mainstream education.

12/3/09, 5:35 PM

Yarra said...
I used to ask the rhetorical question of "when IS it a good time to pollute the planet with greenhouse gases?" but I think I'll use this instead now:-

"Even if natural forces are driving these shifts, this is hardly a good time to dump vast quantities of greenhouse gases into an already unstable atmosphere – you could as well claim that because a forest fire was started by lightning, dumping planeloads of gasoline around its edges can’t possibly cause any harm."

12/3/09, 5:35 PM

wylde otse said...
"Hagbard's Law"...he he. Love it.

* Well, no. We don't include THEM in our unemployment figures - they've given up looking *

I don't know if this is a live metaphor but... Our whole culture is acclimatized to putting the best face on everything, and not just on numbers.

For instance, at a funeral, the dearly departed is embalmed, perfumed, powdered and made so rosy - that one can only remark,
"My, how well he looks !"

12/3/09, 5:57 PM

ariel55 said...
Dear Mr. Greer,

Thank you for the post. I love your perspectives on things. And "untoward" and "brouhaha" are two of my favorite words! Best wishes.

12/3/09, 7:17 PM

Apple Jack Creek said...
My 13 year old son describes climate change this way: "Mother Nature has had enough and she's about to hit the reset button".

I try to think about the 'big picture' of what that reset means, but I always find myself returning to my small corner of the world, and thinking "okay, sea level rise ... there goes Vancouver Island, oh that's awful ... but ... what will happen *here*?" We're landlocked, so we'll have the volatility and weird weather, and probably people relocating inland from the coasts as things shift out there. But, if the moisture patterns settle out to something reasonable, we might end up being able to grow some more fruit trees and things that require more than 2 months of warm weather, and it's hard to think of that as anything but a plus. :)

The ride through the reset cycle is going to be rough though, and so far, it seems that the best bet is to diversify: plant a variety of things, hope some of them survive whatever wackiness comes this season, and use extension strategies like cold frames and so forth to mitigate what you can.

But these sorts of mitigation strategies are very local (like, "in your back yard"-local). They don't scale up very well to a field of grain or peas or soybeans. Add in peak oil and you get something even more frightening. I drove through Saskatchewan last summer, and thought to myself ... there is simply no way fields that big can be managed by hand and draft animals. Even if they were, how would we ship the grain to everyone else? It was very sobering.

One problem or the other, and maybe we could cope: but climate change plus peak oil ... well, I imagine we'll still manage, but it's going to look very, very different, and the time of the transition could be very interesting.

What is it they say about resilient systems? They're the ones that can cope well with change. I'm trying really hard to set things up so my tiny corner of the world has more resilience. But, I'm new to country life, and one of those weirdos who would actually drive to town to hear JMG give a lecture :) and until things shift a fair bit more, feedlots and fertilizer and diesel are going to remain business as usual, and nothing I might say to the ‘real farmers’ who live around me will make a difference.

12/3/09, 7:59 PM

Freelander said...
"Why should that possibility become a political football, while peak oil remains all but unmentionable in polite company, and has been embraced so far only by political groups on the outermost fringe?"

Because the peak oil argument cannot be used to justify policies intended to advance international socialism.
No government can muster enough resources to overcome a shortage of conventional resources necessary to continue civilization as we've known it, but they CAN take stuff away in order to advance their own ends.
remeber, government does not create - it is not an independently thriving organism; it is a parasite, sucking the lifeblood out of productive society, in this instance, for the ostensible purpose of saving us from ourselves...

12/3/09, 8:17 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Nun, it must be comforting to live in a world where anybody who disagrees with you is evil incarnate. "Nuf said.

Barry, I've been reading about the Middle Ages for most of four decades. Still, I see no point in getting into a duel of factoids.

Don, please do. From what I've read, methane releases are certainly a possibility, but the paleoclimatological evidence I've seen suggests that it's a normal part of sudden global warming spikes, thus not likely to get too far out of hand.

Bill, you know, I was thinking about that one!

Peter, you're quite right that real climate change won't make a good disaster movie. That's probably why so many people outside of a fairly narrow band of scientists, if they embrace anthropogenic warming theory at all, turn it into a Hollywood disaster movie scenario.

Yarra, by all means use it!

Thardiust, thanks for the link. A good point, too: totalitarian systems such as the Soviet Union are brittle precisely because they don't take in information that contradicts ideology. Unfortunately the US is approaching that condition as the age of progress comes to an end around us.

Otse, very funny!

Ariel, thank you.

Apple Jack, the interesting thing is that Saskatchewan was settled and farmed successfully with horsedrawn plows and combines. You need smaller farms and more intensive methods, but it can be done.

Freelander, I don't think it's useful to demonize government. Of course government's not productive; it's not there to be productive, it's there to keep things from running off the rails. Granted, ours doesn't work too well right now, but it seems silly to me to insist that because a tool doesn't work well, it's a malevolent force!

12/3/09, 9:08 PM

Ken said...

Thanks for the thoughtful clarifications. My own knowledge of the Ice Ages doesn't extend beyond Wikipedia and a book I read decades ago by Fred Hoyle. I do recall that one theory has them connected to rotation of the earth's axis (I forget the term for that).

I don't imagine that climate change will be a disaster-movie-like event, only that it can be pitched that way to a gullible public. I agree that actual climate change, in either direction, will be even more grueling than peak oil. Nor is our lack of knowledge an excuse for wantonly continuing to waste oil.

I live in Europe, where governments officially accept the Al Gore hypothesis to the point of outlawing incandescent light bulbs (to start in 2010), but road building and even cash-for-clunkers programs continue apace, giving the lie to the official lip service.

My gripe is that climate change is popularly portrayed in simplistic terms and treated as a near-certainty. Doubters are treated as pariahs and kooks. At the same time I see no appetite (even in northern Europe, where there's decent public transport and high population density) for reducing the role of cars and dispersed, suburban housing.

12/4/09, 12:39 AM

das monde said...
Lying with statistics has certainly evolved since the times of Mark Twain, and even since Lyndon Johnson. I have the impression that today's politicians are much less scrupulous with pushing for "right" statistics; they look very confident (and even entitled) that "right" numbers can always be found. The understanding of public service has degenerated so much in recent decades (as, say, Paul Volcker observes). Was there just as much talk about “government is a problem” before 1980’s?

But JMG’s view on integrity of scientific community is not consistent. It is amusing to read about “lucrative scientific industry” and tense competition of ”ambitious young scientists far outnumb[ing] the available grants” in adjacent sentences. Can we have some numbers at last, which business (climate skepticism or scare) is more lucrative? Or is this data far less accessible than CRU servers in East Anglia?

I notice frequent implications of Hagbard’s Law in climate science but little evidence. How do you tell that grant givers are so obsessed with positive proof of global warming? Or that scientists are so eager to please this implied wish?

I attempted to turn into climate science a few year ago. I got the polite attention, yet there was no flourish of grants in sight. Neither I noticed wink-wink appeals of how can I “help”. The people I talked to were doing a lot of good work, hardly directly related to the decisive temperature question, and the sight was not particularly lucrative. If you are a big leader there, you work your ass day in day out with various responsibilities. On the other hand, their protectiveness of data and little obsessions whether “observational data is of poor quality” did stroke me as less than scientific. It is not that I entirely abandoned that project...

As for the lack of “middle ground”, I wonder again how the political climate changed in the last decades. Not so long ago policy makers were discussing “The Club of Rome” and possible peaks of resources - but now these considerations are left entirely to the blogosphere. At the very least, we have to include into political equation unabashed advocacies of the think-tank institutions. They do employ considerable brain power with visible lucrativeness and influence, but little scientific or political responsibility.

12/4/09, 2:27 AM

Tiago said...
Regarding peak oil, I just discovered algae biofuels, and the first impression is that it is the first realistic alternative to conventional oil.

Just a first impression, though. If anyone is aware of major pitfalls, info would be appreciated.

12/4/09, 3:33 AM

blue sun said...
[expletive] man! Is your bag of insights bottomless?

Well done (again)!

12/4/09, 5:30 AM

Bill Pulliam said...
Setting the humor aside for a bit,

In a given academic field, it is very well known and discussed quite openly that at any particular time there are certain catchphrases, buzzwords, and trendy topics that will greatly improve the chances of your grant proposal being funded and your manuscript of being published in a high-profile journal. In the environmental sciences, "global change" and "climate change" have been high on this list for about two decades. Even as far back as the early 1990s, it amused me that just about every poster or presentation at the Ecological meetings ended with a coda declaring that whatever the object of study was, it would be especially sensitive to climate change.

Scientists are people, same as everyone else, subject to fads, trends, herd mentality and (in their case formal and institutionalized) peer pressure. This doesn't negate the validity of scientific findings; it just means that they need to be understood as imperfect products of imperfect human activities, just like every other aspect of society.

12/4/09, 5:46 AM

nun said...
JMG, I read your posts because your views of philosophy and history are expansive, and nicely tied to contemporary events. And I certainly welcome -- and, in my classrooms encourage -- informed disagreement. Further, I'm merely the messenger in this case, just passing along the mainstream, conservative news from mainstream, conservative scientists who indicate we're headed straight for extinction in the absence complete economic collapse (e.g., Where we part ways is your insistence that the industrial age can keep rolling without killing us. But industrial culture is already killing a lot of people, and we're ratcheting up the omnicide with every delivery to the grocery store.

Please let me know, with reasoned and reasonable arguments, what I'm missing. How can we maintain the industrial age without causing our own extinction? Bear in mind that emissions during 2008, the most economically dire year since the Great Depression, were the highest since 1990 ( How can we save the living planet and save the industrial economy?

12/4/09, 7:22 AM

Blue Peter said...
Discussion of the Medieval Warm Period and specifically the growing of vines in the UK can be found here:


"Monks in medieval England grew vines as wine
was required for sacramental purposes. With careful husbandry,
vines can be grown today, and indeed, vineyards are
found as far north as southern Yorkshire. There are a
considerably greater number of active vineyards in England
and Wales today (roughly 350) than recorded during medieval
times (52 in the Domesday Book of A.D. 1086). Vine
growing persisted in England throughout the millennium.
The process of making sparkling wine was developed in
London (by Christopher Merret) in the 17th century, fully
30 years before it began in the Champagne region of France.
Thus the oft cited example of past vine growing in England
reflects little, if any, on the relative climate changes in the
region since medieval times."


12/4/09, 8:40 AM

wylde otse said...

Sometimes The Achdruid seems a little curt, but, God only know what the great man has to put up with sometimes.

Since I've been in here (#88 or so,500 elite contributors/readers ago), it is my impression JMG has long considered the damage the insatiable industrial age has wrought on his fellow humans, and, if anything, is undressing the denoument.

However, the charge (however lightly veiled) of contributing, at least, to omnicide is one no loyal supporter or fan of JMG, can allow to slide unchallenged.
Perhaps JMG is even omniverous, yet even there, I recall him advocating balance (like, you don't just have only the two choices: either eat everything - or eat nothing)
[As for myself, I tried being a vegan, once.]
(A funny thought struck me - An Archdruid who would eat meat six days a week except - guess what day this is - on fridays when he would have none ...but, I won't say this out loud - you see, I'm a closet humanitarian.)

12/4/09, 11:57 AM

Friend said...
I love your writing--very crisp and clear. And I love your points about how the government/military provides indirect subsidies to centralization and that when those go away so do some of the supposed advantages of centralization.

I want to mention what I see as a couple of potential flaws in the logic that guilds can be a net positive in small decentralized economies, however. I'm very curious to read your thoughts related to some of these points.

First, for context, here is a quote from the book "Economics in One Lesson" that is good and relevant here. "The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups."

With that in mind, here are a few of the potential issues I see with the logic about the positive influence of guilds.

1) If I total up the winners and losers from the strong guilds, it seems to me that the master craftsmen are big winners. However, their apprentices, working for very little or even for free for seven years(!) were losers. In a freer, competitive economy, they would have been able to command wages above the free room and board level long before year 8. In fact, the only reasons these people put up with being underpaid for so long is that the guilds prevented them from charging money for their skills. And rather than revolting, they put up with it because they expect that they will be overpaid once they become full members of the guild. The people paying inflated prices for things like nails lost. Money they could have used for other productive things went to subsidize the master craftsman's leisure time. The master blacksmith got to sit around upstairs studying the clock (and in most cases adding nothing to overall clock technology development) precisely because he was able to overcharge for his products while underpaying for his labor.

2) You seem to be making an implied assumption that the blacksmith deserves to be paid a high price for his highly skilled labor 5 days a week even if there is only 1 day a week of demand for that highly skilled labor. You accurately state that in a town of 5000 there isn't enough demand for his highly-skilled work to sustain him as a highly-paid, full-time blacksmith. But there is another, more efficient solution to the problem than to give him a license to charge a high price for unskilled work. Let the unskilled work be competitive. Small nail producers would compete, improving effiencies, driving prices down, and freeing up money for better uses than subsidizing the blacksmith's leisure time. The blacksmith could then sell his highly skilled labor for a high price one day a week. He doesn't have to own the business, he can just sell his labor. The other four days a week, he could do something else--work as a farmer, work on lower skill blacksmithing (but for a fair price, not a high price) etc.

3) You point out that in the absence of price competition, people competed on quality which drove innovation. But too much competing on quality may not be efficient for society if there is no demand for the increased quality. If people have less to eat because they are subsidizing the blacksmith's "research," that may not be altogether a good thing. When the airline business had regulated prices, airlines competed on service, food, etc., and flying was nice. But it was very expensive and a smaller percentage of society could afford it. After deregulation, the food is bad and the service is bad, but flying has been democratizede. And we can bemoan the decreased quality of the experience, but the truth is that affordable flying is the bigger priority for the customers. Some people who really value the food and service will spring for first class, but most people just want to get from A to B.

12/4/09, 12:10 PM

Kurt said...
In regards to the human species being able to change the atmosphere on a large scale there was never an argument about the ozone hole or the causes of it. Just science and policy.

To me global warming is just something to argue about to waste time and energy. Hey, let's get into a fight about the weather. Whereas, the measurements of the PPM of atmospheric gasses now and through ice core samples. Not as subject to interpretation (well, not that I've seen).

Anyway, astronomers have already proved with certainty that the earth will go through catastrophic life ending global warming in the future. :)

12/4/09, 2:37 PM

tristan said...

re: nun

I take my straw man accusation back.


12/4/09, 3:47 PM

James said...
Well, I'm intrigued. I just bought a copy of Illuminatus (won't be home for 3 months so I can't go to the library). Out of curiosity, when you say that dishonesty is a sign of weakness, how would you explain the even more blatant dishonesty of countries like China, where the power is more concrete and concentrated than here? Obviously their dishonesty is the result of fear of losing that concentrated power, but does this necessarily mean it is a sign of weakness, or perhaps just brittleness? Of course, it seems the Chinese would be better off if they learned from the western cultures and marginalized and drowned out unpleasant facts or viewpoints with a cacophony of angry talking heads, catchy images and buzzwords.

12/4/09, 4:03 PM

Arabella said...
Um, if you think JMG insist[s] that the industrial age can keep rolling without killing us, I'd say you need to read some more of his posts, or even just the subtitle of his book, "The Long Descent : A User's Guide to the End of the Industrial Age"

12/4/09, 4:03 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Ken, that sort of contradiction between supposedly fervent beliefs and a complete unwillingness to take corresponding action pervades society today. My favorite example is the huge SUV I saw one day with the bumper sticker on it saying "Live Simply That Others May Simply Live."

Das Monde, of course you can take phrases out of context to create the appearance of contradiction. I pointed out that in many fields, the supply of grad students exceeds the supply of grant money; I also referred to the fact that as scientific fields go, global warming studies are tolerably well funded right now. Your own experience shows that it's not funded well enough to accommodate everyone who wants to cash in on it -- but what field of science is? More generally, though, I was expecting more snark from scientists about my less than flattering comments; thank you for not disappointing me.

Tiago, I'll devote a post to algal biofuels one of these days, since they make a perfect example of the economic pitfalls of trying to make renewable energy replace fossil fuels. The short form is that the numbers don't work; one study of a particular algal biodiesel startup ran the figures and noted that the fuel produced by the project would become economical just as soon as the price of diesel fuel topped $800 a gallon.

Blue Sun, thank you!

Bill, that's been my experience as well -- and of course you've had much more direct contact with the scientific scene than I have.

Nun, I take it you haven't been reading this blog long; as several people have already pointed out, you've misread the view of the future I'm discussing here. Industrial civilization is not going to continue into the future; we don't even have the option of a controlled transition to some sort of low-energy future -- that option was foreclosed when Reagan took office in 1980. We are facing what normally happens when a civilization outruns its resource base: a ragged decline, punctuated by localized catastrophes, ending in a dark age.

Over the next couple of centuries, the world's human population will drop by maybe 90%, and most of the knowledge we've gathered in recent centuries will be lost forever. Thus the image of Man the uniquely destructive ravager of nature -- which was never anything but a new version of Man the uniquely creative conqueror of nature -- is going to have to give way to the realization that we're just one more species that overshot the carrying capacity of its environment and went through the usual balancing process.

It's only from within the fantasy of human omnipotence that buzzwords like "omnicidal" seem meaningful. I'd encourage you to let go of that fantasy, and notice that humanity's capacity to cause damage to the biosphere is one of the many things subject to hard planetary limits. We can't, for example, pump more carbon into the atmosphere than we can extract from the ground -- a detail the IPCC scenarios pretty consistently miss.

Once again, as I pointed out in my post, that doesn't mean we should dump carbon into the atmosphere at will. Quite the contrary, it's the recognition that the biosphere could brush our entire species out of existence in an eyeblink of geological time, that might best lead to a bit more ecological wisdom among human beings. Still, that's a point I've made repeatedly on this blog already.

12/4/09, 6:11 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Blue Peter, you'll notice that the comparison between present and past vineyards uses absolute numbers rather than per capita figures -- of course there are more vineyards today, just as there are more ice skates -- and ducks changes between Domesday Book and today. Still, as I said, I'm not interested in getting into a duel of factoids.

Wylde Otse, yes, as it happens, I'm an omnitarian. All living things feed on the bodies of other living things; right now I eat cows and pigs (among other things) and in due time worms and fungi (among other things) will eat me, so it all goes around.

Friend, of course the guild system had its problems, like every other economic system. I brought it into the discussion not because I think we all ought to go out and start guilds -- though it's an option that might be worth exploring -- but because it points up some of the core flaws in today's free market ideology, and some of the economic challenges that will have to be met by any attempt to create a relocalized economy.

Kurt, oh, granted. Like everything else, Gaia has a limited lifespan, and long before the sun goes red giant on us and Gaia gets snuffed out, our species and everything it ever did will be a thin layer of fossil-bearing strata, perhaps pored over by the intelligent descendants of today's chipmunks.

Tristan, thank you. I couldn't make this stuff up if I tried.

James, thanks for the link!

Arabella, I've noticed that a lot of first-time posters on this list have no idea what it is that I've been saying for the last three and a half years. Me, I thought I'd been yelling at the top of my lungs!

Justin, China's a huge country with a long tradition of revolt against ineffective central authority; the current regime, like every other Chinese dynasty, knows that its power could evaporate in a few weeks if it blunders badly enough.

As for dishonesty and power, in 386 BCE, an army of Celts invaded Italy, and the Romans, having been clobbered by them on the battlefield, agreed to buy them off with 1000 pounds of gold. During the weighing, the Romans noticed that the Gauls were cheating on the weight, and complained. Brennus, the Gaulish commander, said "Vae victis" (rough translation: "It really sucks to lose, doesn't it?") and tossed his sword onto the weights to throw it even further off balance. The Romans paid up anyway. The moral of this story? When you don't even have to pretend to be fair, you've got real power.

12/4/09, 6:31 PM

Don said...
FWIW, one reason the vineyards of Britain are flourishing today is that they are growing cool-weather grape varieties that didn't exist in the Middle Ages. Two of the most popular varieties are Müller-Thurgau, a cross developed in Germany that can ripen without a lot of heat and in a short growing season; and Seyval, a hybrid between European and North American species that also does well in cold weather (and capable of producing excellent wine here in the northeast and Midwest US and also in southern Ontario.) Both Müller-Thurgau and Seyval were developed in the late 19th century.

John, I still haven't been able to find that article asserting the possibility of a 15-20 C rise in global temperatures. I went through my Internet history and didn't see it. Maybe it was my imagination... :-)

12/4/09, 7:45 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Don, that's an interesting point! Thanks for mentioning it.

Nun (offlist), at this point you're beating a dead horse. Let it rest.

12/4/09, 9:40 PM

Patz said...
Where I live, Vancouver, we have been bombarded with denier ads claiming that the earth is actually cooling*. Huh! Tell that to the polar bears. (*Sponsored by "The Friends of Science---Orwell would be proud.)

The large majority of climate scientists subscribe to a large degree of anthropogenic input into climate change. They are accused by the deniers of doing this to get the millions of dollars of grant money to come to forgone conclusions. The question of who would want them to come to those conclusions and why is never really addressed.

On the other hand, the deniers with only a handful of credible scientists on their side are well funded by industries with a large stake in the outcome of the debate. They don't have to win the debate, just cause enough confusion to forestall meaningful action. Recent polls point to the success of their tactics as the percentage of Americans who support climate action has dropped dramatically in the past year or two.

We rarely talk about the damage CO2 is doing to the oceans causing increasing levels of acidification. The worlds oceans are in arguably worse shape than the atmosphere but the conversation dwells on the earth and the atmosphere while ignoring the contribution to our life and livelihoods from the oceans.

Dead zones are growing and merging in the worlds oceans. Fish stocks are collapsing with large species like shark becoming endangered. Anthropogenic CO2 is joining with overfishing and pollution in a positive feedback loop that is threatening the whole maritime ecology.

For some reasons the scientists who've studied this and are as worried as the climatologists haven't had their voices heard either.

If you're interested listen to a lecture by Dr. Jeremy Jackson of the Scripps Oceanographic Inst. called Brave New Oceans.

12/4/09, 11:19 PM

knutty knitter said...
Observational science can be a tad irritating. I once spent three months trying to prove a difference that I could see and feel but couldn't quantify. Nothing would cancel out the bits that wouldn't fit and that we couldn't leave out. We gave it up as a bad job for a while.

Then someone made a suggestion out of left field and we tried it and it worked. We finally had legal proof of what we'd known all along!

I have a suspicion that this could apply to several areas in climate science too - you can sense it but not quantify it.

Proof isn't easy!

viv in nz

12/5/09, 1:48 AM

Tiago said...
Dear John,

Thanks for your answer. I sincerely hope that you do that post on algae biofuels. I have been a "peak oiler" for quite some years and just recently (by accident) started considering algae biofuels (I never considered other types of biofuels because converting food to energy strikes me as genocidal - like pricing out poor people of food to fuel up SUVs).

I wonder if current cost per gallon is just a side effect of being a very early technology. Notice the pattern of costs going down by orders of magnitude when something matures and goes into massive usage.

Anyway, as a more general question, I am trying to understand how can we (as a species) delay Malthusian events. The truth is that, until now, we have been quite successful.

12/5/09, 5:53 AM

Tiago said...
Just a correction, Malthusian doesn't strictly has to be "sudden".

12/5/09, 5:54 AM

Vic said...
I recently visited the "Energy Bulletin" website ( three books happened to be under review: William Catton's "Bootleneck"; John M. Greer's:"The Ecotechnic Future" and Barbera Ehrenreich's "Bright-sided".Interestingly,there was an editor's note attached to Catton's:

In response to the premise of this book, I can heartily agree with Nate's point above:
"As an editor here, I continually struggle to find a balance of discourse that presents scientific reality in ways that don't come across as apocalyptic or frightening. In my opinion, the larger the lens with which we view our situation, the more informed choices will be made towards more sustainable trajectories."
To reiterate: read widely and read well. Once again, I recommend John Michael Greer's works as well as those of Rob Hopkins. And when you are not reading, either find your local Transition Town group, or start one. I strongly believe that responding to these issues in community is the only sensible way forward. -KS

I find this caveat odd, if a caveat it is? I've sent a query off to the Bulletin but have not received a reply.I have not read the book but I'm unaware of any serious refutation of the thesis in his '83 book "Overshoot". As it happens you're one of the author's not only under review but you're cited in the proviso as well and you are no stranger to Catton's work. I thought I would ask what you think? From an historical perspective I wonder what kind of reaction his book "Overshoot" had on comparable journals and so on in "83. It was probably met with "embarrassed silence".

12/5/09, 8:18 AM

Ruben said...

I think you went too light on Friend. You said you introduced the discussion of guilds to point up some of the core flaws of the free market system, but Friends post is riddled with core flaws--assumptions and blindness--a fish swimming in the free market.

12/5/09, 10:25 AM

Danby said...
For nun and the other global warming enthusiasts,
The major revelation of the CRU emails is that the agency and persons primarily responsible for processing gloabal climate data have been fudging the data to support a conclusion already arrived at. Whatever conclusions have been reached in the last 20 years or so about paleoclimatology are not reliable.

The real problem is that the researchers do not release their raw data. Without the raw data, it is impossible for anyone else to verify your conclusions. This is what leads to Mann's now discreditied "hockey stick" graph. He dropped the observed temperature data for the last 15 years, and substituted far less reliable proxy data. McIntyre found that the tree ring data Mann used came from 3 trees from the Yamal peninsula in Siberia, which were apparently cherry picked to substantiate exactly what Mann already believed to be true.

I am not a global warming denier, but without the data, we have not had science on this issue, but polemic. Until we have the actual data, rather than preordained results, no reliable conclusions can be drawn.

12/5/09, 2:09 PM

James said...
"... the radicals on the other try to stampede the public toward doing nothing at all."

JMG, as I read this essay today for the second or third time, the dissonance of that phrase jumped out at me. Even moreso because of what you clearly mean by "doing nothing at all". Heh, it's a brilliant combination of opposites.

In this context, "doing nothing" involves (with mechanized assistance) digging several trainloads of coal out of the ground every day and shipping it to enormous furnaces where it is burned to generate steam. The fly ash and sulfur are filtered from the flue gas, which is then vented through very tall stacks high into the troposphere. So "doing nothing" is really doing quite a lot.

Interestingly, it will not even be possible to "do nothing" for much longer on a historical time scale.

12/5/09, 5:44 PM

Patz said...
The CRU emails aren't a side issue; they're a sideshow.

According to Peter Galison physicist and professor of science history at Harvard they don't actually prove or disprove anything. He says for instance that the reliability of historical temperature data from weather stations is notoriously difficult to establish and some manipulation is scientifically justified based on other evidence.

Tiago suppose algae biofuels did work out--what then? Another 'free' energy resource like oil would only contribute further to bloom and overshoot. It might forestall collapse for a short time if at all.

12/5/09, 5:52 PM

Kevin said...
Hagbard's law seems to me a powerful principle, and accounts for much that happnes in the world. I love Wilson's way of thinking. Haven't read him seriously, but his speeches are all over YouTube and elsewhere, and bear repeated listening.

Industrial civilization is not going to continue into the future... We are facing... a dark age.

Over the next couple of centuries, the world's human population will drop by maybe 90%, and most of the knowledge we've gathered in recent centuries will be lost forever.

...long before the sun goes red giant on us and Gaia gets snuffed out, our species and everything it ever did will be a thin layer of fossil-bearing strata...

Man, you sure know how to deliver a cold, cold shower. There is absolutely nothing in any of that which offers the slightest comfort to human vanity.

...I eat cows and pigs (among other things) and in due time worms and fungi (among other things) will eat me...

Nor to your own, if any. Where did you learn this ruthless realism? I suspect Epictetus must have something to do with it. I must say the little I know of Epicurus gives me a much warmer, fuzzier feeling.

12/5/09, 7:00 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Patz, it's interesting to me that I can say repeatedly, in so many words, that climate change is happening and dumping lots of CO2 into an already unstable atmosphere is a very dumb idea, and yet people on your side of the climate change debate insist that I must be a denier because I point out that there's dubious logic and distorted evidence on both sides of the debate.

Viv, oh, granted. One of the problems, though, is that researchers can start out certain that they already know what is happening, and pursue evidence that supports that conviction while discarding evidence that doesn't fit.

Tiago, we've only been successful postponing Malthusian events in the industrial world by encouraging them in the Third World. For most of humanity, the last century has been pretty ghastly, you know.

Vic, Catton's book Overshoot had a huge influence on me, and still deserves close reading by anybody interested in these things. The thing that made it embarrassing to the mainstream then, and is making his latest book even more embarrassing now, is that he doesn't pander to the fantasy that we can fix everything and live happily ever after. I suspect that's what lies behind the comment on "Energy Bulletin" -- a lot of people in the peak oil scene, and almost everyone outside it, are acutely uncomfortable with the prospect of an unwelcome future that we can't prevent. Blind faith in human omnipotence runs very deep in our culture!

Ruben, I could have gotten into a line-by-line quarrel with Friend, but I've learned repeatedly that that's generally a waste of time online -- it seemed more useful to point out that he'd missed the point of the post.

Danby, the data on all sides is a mess, and I doubt the situation is going to get any better anytime soon -- not as long as there's political hay, internationally as well as domestically, to be made by ramping up the rhetoric.

James, thanks for the link.

DIYer, granted; "doing nothing" in this case means "doing nothing to slow down the current headlong charge toward self-inflicted disaster."

Patz, I don't find Galison any more convincing than the denialists who insist that the CRU data fudging means the melting of the arctic ice cap is an illusion. For every expert there is an equal and opposite expert...

Kevin, thank you. I've learned a lot from, and owe a lot to, Epictetus and the Stoics -- still, it's as true that I find them congenial on the basis of a take on the world I had long before I read a word of Stoic philosophy. It has always seemed like simple common sense to me that humanity is simply one species among many, and the powers that oversee our destiny are as ruthless toward us -- and even more ruthless toward our vastly inflated sense of self-importance! -- as they are toward every other species. Each of us will die, as will our species, as will our world, and IMO it's high time that we accept those facts and get on with living instead of feeding our egos with delusions of godhood.

12/5/09, 11:12 PM

Patz said...
JM I am not exactly on a side of the climate change debate. I agree with James Lovelock who says it's too late to fix anything and we may as well just enjoy ourselves. And regardless of the rights or wrongs of either side of the debate the debate itself is futile. No one is going to do anything significant in Copenhagen or anywhere else.

12/5/09, 11:47 PM

Tiago said...
Two comments: I remember the time when all things were "Made in USA" (or local - I am a Southern European). It was possible to have a "modern" society without resorting to destroy China/India or even enslave Africa (which we did in the past). I think the social contract before Reagan/Tatcher was not dreadful (barring too much consumption of resources).

Second, accepting Hagbard's law as a given in science (I do) it entails that even if there are people inside the scientific community who agree (or even have strong evidence) with the idea that much of what is going on is fishy, they will have to contain themselves (especially if they are in lower ranks of the hierarchy).

Note that Hagbard's law is really not correct and should be generalized: If you depend on your peer's opinion you will not want to offend them if they have "mob thought" (ie, they all think in the same way). There is another kind of hierarchy: hierarchy to the collective. Even if you are an equal, a peer to other individuals.

12/6/09, 7:17 AM

Bill Pulliam said...
JMG -- open-minded analysis and true empirical skepticism are seldom welcomed in lay public or political discourse about scientific topics. Analytical skepticism is an essential foundation of scientific reasoning; all scientists are supposed to be skeptics. But in general discourse you are expected to promote and defend an opinion and attack "the opposing camp" (as if there are only two ways to look at anything), data be damned. Hence, if you apply reasonable skepticism to the totality of the data and to the arguments of all the "warring camps," they will all come to see you as belonging to the "other side."

Danby -- There are many data sources available online and in the literature about climate trends in history and prehistory. If you really want to understand the data situation, then it's necessary to learn a modest amount about many of these that come from diverse approaches, and the strengths and limitations of each of them. Particularly, learn abut the basics of conventional temperature measurement, satellite measurement, ice cores, and tree rings -- what they actually measure, and what their limitations are. It is from this large view that the consensus of actual climate scientists has emerged. Data cherry picking is widespread, but in general the "global warming is a fraud" school of thought engage in it much more extensively. My favorite is how they like to compare 1998 and 2008 and show how much cooler the latter year was than the former, concluding "global warming is over, if it ever even existed!" Of course they neglect to mention that by most data sets 1998 was the warmest year in recent centuries, 2008 was still above the long-term average, and the difference between the two is generally accepted by climatologists as being due to the ENSO cycle, not a long-term trend.

These are the sorts of patterns and processes one needs to understand if one wants to make an informed conclusion about the data on climate trends, without having to just take the word of loud disputants with vested interests.

12/6/09, 8:08 AM

Robert said...
Another balanced analysis of emotion charged issues. Thank you.

Hagbards law suggests that Peak Oil has no potential as a political or social movement. So what to do? Perhaps we could wrap it in a new robe. One so compelling that it is embraced with religious fervor. Of course it must achieve the necessary goals of drastically reducing fossil fuel use, re-allocating remaining resources, and developing alternatives.

We will of course need to give hope when citizens are sitting in unheated homes or walking through snow instead of riding in SUV's. And, we need a catchy name. Lets see,... I know, lets call it Global Warming!

12/6/09, 12:19 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Patz, you're certainly right that nothing is going to be done at Copenhagen, or anywhere else, to stop or even noticeably slow down CO2 emissions. The action at Copenhagen, like that at Kyoto, will be elsewhere, as the US and Europe try to push the rising BRIC bloc back into subordinate status, using global warming as a lever. The attempt to do it in a straightforward manner, by global trade treaties, ground to a halt with the failure of the Doha round of trade talks, so global warming is being used as an excuse to do the same thing indirectly.

Tiago, an excellent point! You're quite right; peer pressure is as potent as hierarchy as a source of communications failure. Of course science as practiced is far from egalitarian, but the point still stands.

Robert, an interesting notion. Are you suggesting that the peak oil movement ought to try this tack, or that this is what's behind the global warming crusade in the first place? Either way, frankly, I have my doubts, but I want to make sure I'm responding to your intention here.

12/7/09, 6:40 AM

marielar said...
ophyHello all,

JMG, As usual, an excellent post! I still read your blog every week.

A lot of the debate about climate change completely miss the point, IMO. People are caught in debating specific numbers and figuring exactly what will happen and this is impossible. We are dealing with a very complex system which is in large part unpredictable and will remain so. I would suggest many readers would benefit from reading David Orrell "Apollo's Arrow". Orrell is a mathematician and he has done an excellent work of clarifying for the layman the limits of models (climatic, financial and epidemiologic) to predict the future. Forecasting what will be the outcomes of spewing greenhouses into the atmosphere is similar to guess what will be the consequences of John Doe drinking heavily and driving every week-end. The best all our models can do is come up with general warnings. The fact that we cant predict the specifics of the future should have us embrace a cautionary approach.

12/7/09, 7:11 AM

Bernd Ohm said...
A commercial wine-grower just planted a vineyard on the island of Sylt, up on the German-Danish border (check out this site ), so clearly, Europe today can't be that much colder than during the Medieveal Warm Period... Besides, wine from Northern Europe in the Middle Ages wasn't quite the same thing as wine from the Loire today - they put all kinds of spices in it to make the stuff drinkable, and you'd probably get the same quality from the Thames valley right now - only the English are not accustomed to making it anymore.
As for the Holocene Optimum, I expect the monsoon rainfall to return to the southern Sahara within a couple of decades or even years. Not all climate change is necessarily swift, and the sudden interruption of the thermohaline circulation through the emptying of Lage Agassiz may not be a suitable role model for each and every kind of change in the weather patterns.

12/7/09, 8:56 AM

bryant said...
the US and Europe try to push the rising BRIC bloc back into subordinate status, using global warming as a lever. The attempt to do it in a straightforward manner, by global trade treaties, ground to a halt with the failure of the Doha round of trade talks...

Nice observation! I have also concluded this based on my reading of Walden Bello amongst others. The U.S. failure in Miami was dramatic and no amount of "shuck and jive" by Zoellick could hide what a huge reversal it was.

Did you draw this connection yourself? If not, could you point me towards your sources?

12/7/09, 10:38 AM

Patz said...
marielar says Forecasting what will be the outcomes of spewing greenhouses into the atmosphere is similar to guess what will be the consequences of John Doe drinking heavily and driving every week-end. The best all our models can do is come up with general warnings. The fact that we cant predict the specifics of the future should have us embrace a cautionary approach.

Maybe I'm missing something but isn't that exactly the point(s) that climate scientists are trying to make? If John Doe drinks heavily every weekend and drives you may not be able to predict he'll t-bone a Ford F150 next Saturday but you can certainly say he is greatly increasing his risk of having an accident, and a serious one, than if he didn't drink while driving.

12/7/09, 8:27 PM

Tigerbaby said...

thank you once again. Reading your weekly blog this last two years is uplifting. No room for cant or nonsense, you just call it the way it is. Approaching my mid century mark shortly, I have long learned to discard the obvious ( to me ) nonsense that makes up 99% of informed debate in this World. I leave your blog each week refreshed, challenged and renewed in the belief that my thoughts are not alone in this World, just isolated. Like Neil Young said of Jimmy Page; you're "like a water-washed diamond in a river of sin".
thank you. Tadhg Russell, Dublin, Ireland. ps... am re-reading KS Robinson's "Mars Trilogy". Both of your styles, right down the coherent analysis of driving forces in society, are so similar. Surely related ? non ?

12/8/09, 4:47 AM

John Bray said...
Emails: If you google "" you'lll be able to download the lot (over 60Mb). Then you can form your own opinion :o)

12/8/09, 10:51 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Marielar, granted -- the precautionary principle should be central to all our thinking about the environment. The other principle that needs to be applied, though, is that the remedy should actually do something about the problem -- a test that (for example) "cap-and-trade" giveaways fail abjectly.

Bernd, when warming deniers use this sort of anecdotal argument, warming believers get all over them like ugly on an ape. What's sauce for the goose...

Bryant, I figured it out for myself -- if you've got a link or two to other discussions of the point, I'd be grateful.

Patz, the better scientists are saying this. The politicians and activist are saying "we're all gonna die unless the following policies" (that just happen to further unstated agendas) "are enacted." There's a difference here that needs to be recognized.

Tigerbaby, thank you. As far as I know, Robinson and I aren't related -- I should read some of his stuff someday; I drifted out of reading science fiction around the time he started becoming a presence in the genre.

John, thanks for the link.

12/8/09, 11:23 AM

Ricardo Rolo said...
Well, I'm not surprised with this East Anglia fait divert. My experience in the scientific medium showed me that ,since early, the would be scientists are trained to get certain results in the class experiments ( if not, go back and redo it ... tell me what is the message this sends to the kids brain ;) ) and to play with the experimental error margins and statistical methods to twist the data to look better . Pick a person trained this way, add political/peer pressure (and that pressure is quite intensive... even in studies regarding patterns of migration of animals you can feel a high pressure to blame any shift to AGW. That I felt in my own skin some years ago) in a area where it is hard to get a inequivocal falsification like climatology (because we simply don't have a spare Earth to test the hypothesis or to use as control) and it’s inevitable that there will be major twists to the data fit better, consciously or not , regardless of how solid the data is (it’s particularly shaky in climatology). To make things worse, we are talking of computational climatology ... as much as we would like otherwise, computers are deductive creatures and don’t give us better data than the one we put there, and most of the times defects on the programming or in the assumptions made to code (some of the models used in climatology even assume that all clouds are equal in terms of radiative equilibrium, a thing that even a kid with 8 years that is used to play outside knows that it isn't true, or worse,that the solar radiative output is constant ad aeternum... and this in the area of study that was the pioneer on the studies on chaoticity (definition of chaotic : small diferences in the input data can generate (or not) big diferences in the output) only make things worse. The same argument can be used for the IEA issue, line by line.

About the diference between the AGW and the peak oil debates: my opinion is that the biggest diference is in the distribution of hubris between the sides of the debate. In the first it’s roughly equally distributed: both proponents and detractors normally assume that can control the planet climate in the way you control the air conditioning. The peak oil debate is assymetric in that regard: it’s hard to think that you can control the ammount of usable oil in the planet as easily as that (in spite of some people act on the basis that oil can be summoned at will), so the people that think there is a issue in that regard have far less margin for hubris than the ones that think that (insert something here) will save us from our energy problems (and even if that happened, it would be a HUGE issue to replace the infrastructure that is designed for oil to anything else...). As hubris and publicity/financing have a strong positive correlation ( even if because politics/publicisers choose the projects to support in the base of what one is more showy ) , they will gravitate to debates where there is strong hubris in both sides ;) .

To end, I'm quite disgusted to see the tendency to mingle the AGW issue with the sustainanbility issues in one big front ( not you ,but is a common trend ). They are quite diferent issues: it is always a good idea to not think on spending more than you have acess to,and this is completely disconnected of the global temperature. Because of that some measures that can even make some sense in terms of sustainability will have nil or negative effect on terms of CO2 concentration on the atmosphere ( as people tend to forget water vapor and methane .... )and measures to reduce it will not be necessarily sustainable. As a example of that kind of nonsense: two days ago I've seen a cement company in Portugal claiming that it was contributing to reduce the CO2 emmisions by using tranparent plumming with algae to sink the CO2 exaust as biomass. All fine, until the reporter asks what they do with the algae fattened with that CO2 :"We transform it in biofuel and burn it to power our factory".Lavosier would be horrified with this suposed magic trick ;)

12/8/09, 1:35 PM

The Naked Mechanic said...
George Monbiot zoomed in on the "climategate" nonsense quite comprehensively.


12/8/09, 7:46 PM

Gene Shinai said...
JMG, Here's a take I hadn't considered. Personally I feel that the debate is not does global warming exist? In my mind the debate is rather, it exists, do we tell the people or not? The Game apparently still goes on...


12/9/09, 10:19 PM

Nyx said...
Thank you for a very interesting post. I just wanted to note that I feel that Hagbard's Law must be part of something larger, however. What is it that keeps the superiors giving those employees who are so often the least competent ones "satisfactory" reviews year after year, sometimes even raises? Often these unfortunate souls, who are never given any appropriate constructive feedback are suddenly dismissed with little explanation. In my line of work (er, I work at a law firm), it's not uncommon that when a young associate is perceived to not really be doing very well, but everybody likes him/her, he or she just stops getting work above a certain level, but no one will ever tell that person that. Or why. Meanwhile, the reputation spreads. But everybody likes that person, so every year that person is told they are doing just fine. 8 years later, they won't make partner. When bad times hit, they are the first to be laid off. But they will always wonder why. Is there some sort of corollary to hagbard's law that covers that?

12/11/09, 8:25 PM

Kiashu said...
" the [climate scientist] emails do suggest that a certain amount of data-fudging and scientific misconduct is going on in the large and lucrative scientific industry surrounding climate change."

Not really. But it seems that for all your brilliance, you like many are subject to the problem exclusion principle.

No more than one global problem may be acknowledged by a person at one time. After the first problem is acknowledged, any others must be downplayed or denied.

JMG acknowledges the problem of peak oil, thus has difficulties accepting the problem of climate change. This is entirely human, but represents a large blind spot in his thinking.

12/12/09, 4:05 AM

zapoteca said...
Mr. Greer,

Another enlightening read. I appreciate the way you put a conceptual framework to the anxiety I have felt for years. Knowing what to call 'it' makes me feel calmer, strange as that sounds.

Anyway, I just wanted you to know that I have bought your books and they have helped me to think about these 'decline' issues more clearly. It is always nice to know that we are not alone in history.

I do exercise my critical faculties, by weighing what you write against what I 'know' and what I have experienced. Actually, I'd be quite pleased if I could find a real area to dispute. Just want you to know that I am no blind acolyte!

You got this woman's allegiance because, sir, you earned it!

12/12/09, 5:10 PM

Jim Brewster said...
Dang, you're stealing my thunder again! I guess all I need to do in my blog is refer the readers to your archives. Not that I have many readers mind you...

Hagbard's Law is the same as the SNAFU Principle, and naturally is a big part of the cause of the current oil gusher in the Gulf of Mexico. It's pretty much endemic in our climate of bureaucratic-corporate collusion.

Regarding paleoclimatology, I remember reading years ago the hypothesis that the current configuration of continents in the last several million years, most specifically the polar position of Antarctica and her isolation from South America, is what precipitated the current Ice Age. The resulting Circumpolar Current allows the formation of a persistent Antarctic ice sheet and is a dominant worldwide influence on ocean currents and winds. Without going into too much detail, continued warming will eventually result in massive ice slippage, essentially tripping the planet into another glacial period. No one really knows how much human activity is accelerating this trend, but it certainly warrants our attention.

6/16/10, 5:57 AM