Part One: Failure is the Only Option
The old legend of the Holy Grail has a plot twist that’s oddly relevant to the predicament of industrial civilization. A knight who went searching for the Grail, so the story has it, if he was brave and pure, would sooner or later reach an isolated castle in the midst of the desolate Waste Land. There the Grail could be found and the Waste Land made green again, but only if the knight asked the right question. Failing that, he would wake the next morning in a deserted castle, which would vanish behind him as soon as he left, and it might take years of searching to find the castle again.
As we approach the twilight of the age of cheap energy, we’re arguably in a similar situation. It seems to me that a great deal of the confusion that grips the peak oil scene, and even more of the blind commitment to catastrophically misguided policies that reigns outside peak-aware circles, comes from a failure to ask the right questions. A great many people aware of the limits to fossil fuels, for example, have assumed that the question that needs answering is how to sustain a modern industrial society on alternative energy.
Ask that, though, and you’re back in the Waste Land, because any answer you give to that question is wrong. The question that has to be asked is whether a modern industrial society can exist at all without vast and rising inputs of essentially free energy, of the sort only available on this planet from fossil fuels, and the answer is no. Once that’s grasped, other useful questions come to mind – for example, how much of the useful legacy of the last three centuries can be saved, and how – but until you get past the wrong question, you’re stuck chasing the mirage of a replacement for oil that didn’t take a hundred million years or so to come into being.
Other examples could be cited easily enough. As the world’s political leaders busy themselves in Copenhagen for a round of photo ops and brutal backroom politics, though, the unasked question that hangs most visibly in the air is why human societies, faced with choices between survival and collapse, so consistently make the choices that destroy them.
It’s implicit in most discussions of peak oil, climate change, and nearly any other global issue you care to name, that if we all just try hard enough we can overcome the crisis du jour and chug boldly on into the future. Those in the political mainstream tend to insist, in the face of the evidence, that replacing the people currently in charge of political or economic systems with somebody else will solve the problem. Those outside the political mainstream tend to insist, also in the face of the evidence, that swapping out current political or economic systems with others more to their liking will solve the problem.
Nearly all the media coverage of the Copenhagen circus, mainstream or alternative, falls into these camps. While the mainstream right pounds its collective fist on an assortment of lecterns and insists that the polar bears would be just fine if the last round of elections had gone the other way, the mainstream left fills the air with pleas that Obama live up to the nearly messianic fantasy role they projected onto him – will somebody please explain to me someday how a head of state got given the Nobel Peace Prize while he was enthusiastically waging two wars? Meanwhile the socialists are insisting that it’s all capitalism’s fault and can be solved promptly by a socialist revolution, never mind the awkward little fact that the environmental records of socialist countries are by and large even worse than those of capitalist ones; other radicalisms of left and right make the same claim as the socialists, often with even less justification.
Still, I think a great many people are beginning to realize that whatever results come out of Copenhagen, a meaningful response to the increasing instability of global climate will not be among them. James Hansen, among the most prestigious of global warming scientists, has announced to the media that he hopes the Copenhagen talks fail, because none of the options being taken to the talks would have any useful result; we’d be better off, he argues, to start over again from scratch. He’s right about the first point, it seems to me, and wrong about the second, because if we start again from scratch, care to guess where we’ll end up? Right back where we are now, face to face with the yawning gap between those things that are politically possible and those things that would actually deal with the crisis at hand.
Those people who are not in positions of power, and thus don’t have to face the consequences of political decisions, commonly insist that politicians can or should simply leap across chasms of this sort to deliver the goods to their constituents. Copenhagen offers a useful lesson on why such rhetoric is wasted breath. Suppose, for the sake of discussion, that Obama agreed to cut US carbon emissions far enough to make a real impact on global climate change. Would those cuts happen? No, because Congress would have to agree to implement them, and Congress – even though it is controlled by a Democratic majority – has so far been unable to pass even the most ineffectual legislation on the subject.
Suppose the improbable happened, and both Obama and Congress agreed to implement serious carbon emission cuts. What would the result be? Much more likely than not, a decisive Republican victory in the 2010 congressional elections, followed by the repeal of the laws mandating the cuts. Carbon emissions can’t be cut by waving a magic wand; the cuts will cost trillions of dollars at a time when budgets are already strained, and impose steep additional costs throughout the economy. Those latter would be unpopular even if the consensus on climate change were accepted on faith outside the scientific community, which it isn’t. Even those Congresspersons who would most like to see carbon emissions cuts made into law do think about their prospects of remaining in office now and again.
Even between nations, a rough and ready version of the same pattern of checks and balances applies; any nation that accepts serious carbon emission cuts will place itself at a steep economic disadvantage compared to those nations that don’t. Watch the way the competing power blocs at Copenhagen are trying to shove responsibility for emissions cuts onto one another, and you can see this at work. Remember the failed trade negotiations of the last decade, in which Europe and the US tried to browbeat the rising industrial powers of the Third World into accepting a permanent second-class position? They’re at it again, using carbon emission allotments in place of trade treaties, and the Third World is once again having none of it.
Notice that what’s happening in all these cases is that the system is working the way it’s supposed to work. Elected representatives, after all, are supposed to worry about what their constituents back home will think; the excesses of each party are supposed to be held in check by the well-founded worry that the other party can and will make political hay out of any missteps the party in power might happen to make. For that matter, national governments justify their existence by defending the interests of their citizens in international disputes. In most cases, these checks and balances are not only useful but vitally important; unchecked power in any aspect of human life pretty consistently turns into tyranny. In certain cases, though, these otherwise helpful protections turn into barriers that keep necessary decisions from being made.
The belief that none of this matters, and that somebody or other could fix the problem if they wanted to, runs deep. This is why so much of the rhetoric on both sides of the climate debate focuses so obsessively on finding somebody to blame. Of course there has been reprehensible behavior on both sides. Business executives whose companies will bear a large share of the costs of curbing carbon emissions have funded some very dubious science, and some even more dubious publicity campaigns, in order to duck those costs; academics have either tailored their findings to climb onto the climate change bandwagon, or whored themselves out to corporate interests willing to pay handsomely for anyone in a lab coat who will repeat their party line; politicians on both sides of the aisle have distorted facts grotesquely to further their own careers.
All this has been fodder for endless denunciation. Beneath all the yelling, though, are a set of brutal facts nobody is willing to address. Whether or not the current round of climate instability is entirely the product of anthropogenic CO2 emissions is actually not that important, because it’s even more stupid to dump greenhouse gases into a naturally unstable climate system than it would be to dump them into a stable one. Over the long run, the only level of carbon pollution that is actually sustainable is zero net emissions, and getting there any time soon would require something not far from the dismantling of industrial society and its replacement with something much less affluent. Now of course we would have to do this anyway, since the world’s fossil fuel supplies are depleting fast enough that production limits will begin to bite hard in the years and decades ahead, but this simply sharpens the point at issue.
Even if it turns out to be possible to power something like an industrial society on renewable resources, the huge energy, labor, and materials costs needed to develop renewable energy and replace most of the infrastructure of today’s society with new systems geared to new energy sources will have to be paid out of existing supplies; thus everything else would have to be cut to the bone, or beyond. Exactly how big the price tag would be is anybody’s guess just now, but it’s probably not far from the mark to suggest that the population of the industrial world would have to accept a Third World standard of living, and the population of the Third World would have to give up aspirations for a better life for the foreseeable future, for such a gargantuan project to have any chance of working.
I encourage those who think this latter is a politically viable option to try to convince their spouses and friends to take such steps voluntarily. Any politician rash enough to propose such a project would be well advised to kiss his or her next election goodbye. Any president who even took a step in that direction – well, I doubt many people have forgotten what happened to Jimmy Carter. For that matter, I’m sure there must be climate change zealots who have given up their McMansions, sold their cars, and now live in one-room apartments in rat-infested tenements with six other activists so all their spare money can go to building a renewable economy, but I don’t happen to know any who have done so, while I long ago lost track of the number of global warming bumper stickers I’ve seen on the rear ends of SUVs.
Nobody, but nobody, is willing to deal with the harsh reality of what a carbon-neutral society would have to be like. This is what makes the blame game so popular, and it also provides the impetus behind meaningless gestures of the sort that are on the table at Copenhagen. It’s a common piece of rhetoric these days to say that “failure is not an option,” but this sort of feckless thoughtstopper misses the point as totally as any human utterance possibly could. Failure is always an option; when trying to prevent it will lead to highly unpleasant personal consequences, without actually having the least chance of preventing it, a strong case can be made that the most viable option for anyone in a leadership position is to enjoy the party while it lasts, and hope you can duck the blame when it all comes crashing down.
Those who have their doubts about anthropogenic climate change can apply the identical logic to the industrial world’s sustained nonresponse to the peaking of world oil production, or to any of half a dozen other global crises that result from the collision between an economy geared to infinite growth and the relentless limits of a finite planet. In each case, the immediate costs of doing something about the issue are so high, and so unendurable, that very few people in positions of influence are willing to stick their necks out, and those who do so can count on being shortened by a head by others who are more than willing to cash in on their folly.
There’s another way to understand the paradox that makes failure the only viable option, but it will involve a glance backwards over the history of the sustainability movement and the theoretical structure – systems theory – that once undergirded it. That glance, and its implications, will occupy the second part of this series.
12/9/09, 3:31 PM
However, with the current situation that includes climate change, peak oil, peak phosphorus and a population that is well above the carrying capacity of the planet, the situation will change. Whether that is a voluntary and managed change or a precipitious and chaotic series of events is now the choice that we have to make.
It appears that our civilisation is collectively making the choice to go with the chaos. It reminds me of the expression of Chief Seattle.... that when the damage is done we have "the end of living and the beginning of survival."
12/9/09, 3:39 PM
Guilherme de Baskerville said...
12/9/09, 3:54 PM
Bravo! For taking on the Copenhagen summit. It seems to be a "brouhaha" in the making. One that I prefer to avoid completely.
At the same time, I have this funny feeling that few are going to stand neutral on this.--Best regards to the Archdruid.
12/9/09, 4:57 PM
In The Long Descent you mentioned something to the effect that the fundamental unit, the monomer of civilization, is not the family or the state, but the community. I believe you. For several years, I have been directing my energy to raising organic food, improving the soil on our 30 acres to retain increasingly erratic rain fall better, and, more recently, to strengthening community institutions that share my concern for local food, healthy food, and sustainability. It's a worthy endeavor for the final third of my life. (I'm 65, and a retired physicist.)
I look forward to the next installment, which you described so cryptically in your last paragraph.
P.S. I appreciate the generally civil tone of comments on this site, which contrasts to so many others such as the Oildrum and, worse, HuffingtonPost.
12/9/09, 4:58 PM
Duncan Kinder said...
Responding to your post, I could don sackcloth and ashes, grab a sign saying "Repent! The End is Near," and parade up and down Main St.. However, that would only cause my family to be more embarrassed about me than they already are.
So what am I, as an individual, supposed to do with this information? Go fishing?
12/9/09, 5:06 PM
In fact, most academics have spent many years and significant effort attempting to understand an immensely complex system, and have mostly come to the same alarming conclusion, with little or no political pressure to do so. Few academic subjects have been so thoroughly vetted as climate change, and the degree of consensus and scientific support for the evidence is overwhelming. As a result, I think you give a bit too much credit to the opposition by assuming some sort of equivalence between the errors of the anti-climate change lobby and those made recently by a few climate change scientists.
Of course, as you have correctly pointed out, whether or not the scientific evidence will have any impact on public policy is another matter; but when the seas rise and everything goes to hell, the scientists will have every right to say "we were right and we tried to warn you."
12/9/09, 5:36 PM
Some answers include the common belief that some new 'technology' would replace the need for trees, that some type of 'god' would ensure that life went on, the though that it was possible there were other trees somewhere that they just hadn't found yet....
I think the person who cuts down the last tree on Easter Island is thinking: "If I don't cut this down then my neighbor will, and then he'll have the firewood and not me"
12/9/09, 5:53 PM
Two examples of this: in the teeth of the greatest worldwide recession in recent memory, oil has only come down to the 70-80 dollar a barrel level - a price that was considered nosebleed high just a few years ago. No one in the media seems to have noticed this.
The other example is the Nov 30 news release; http://finance.yahoo.com/news/Supermajors-Resources-Might-ms-1638858549.html?x=0&.v=1
stating that ConocoPhillips would reduce its capital spending and asset base (its reserves, in other words), basically because there is no more oil for it to find. The article itself obfuscates, never once mentioning peak oil, and suggesting at the end that oil companies engage in 'megaprojects' to get at increasingly costly to extract oil. This article too was ignored by the media.
12/9/09, 5:54 PM
The catch is that people like them aren't noticed by the mainstream or if they are, they're dismissed as at the best quaint or at the worst as "cults", while there are certainly real cults out there, as a member of an intentional community myself albeit not one as radical as the one I linked to (I'm using this computer for one thing), but still with significantly less impact the n the average American, I have seen so much misperception from the mainstream about any group that decides to live a different way as being a cult, even groups like many intentional communities where there's no leader, common religion, and there are so many variations in opinion between members.
12/9/09, 6:30 PM
I refer to AGW as a hypothesis because recent disclosures ("Climategate") have cast such doubt on the quality of AGW science that its conclusions should thrown out, especially considering the global "governance" that the Copenhagen conference is about to usher in, should it succeed. This ain't just me talking; there are more skeptical scientists and meteorologists than there are true believers. Among the most vocal and articulate skeptics are Lord Christopher Monckton. I encourage everyone to read and listen to him with an open mind (you all know how to google by now).
My own layman's research leads me to the conclusion that CO2 follows, not causes, climate change; that it is a tiny fraction of our atmosphere; that it benefits all plant life; and that anthropogenic CO2 levels are insignificant to Gaia. This is not to say that I believe man is impotent to affect our climate; a few hundred ICBMs launched in a moment of panic would probably forestall any chance of global warning.
Nevertheless, I hope that fossil-fuel emissions will dwindle -- because of the many other, real atmospheric pollutants that pour out of automobile tailpipes and industrial smokestacks all over the world, 24x7.
12/9/09, 6:34 PM
12/9/09, 6:36 PM
Cumberland MD will soon begin to be a holy pilgrimage place... for me at least.
Come to think of it, from my computer simulation classes back in college; collapse of populations is a normal and expected behavior of populations (from bacteria to humans). If we finally abandon the arrogant assumption that humans are not animals and live apart from natural cycles, we can find peace in the thought that we are living normality.
The whole problem is as you pointed again and again, the whole concept of what is normal has been corrupted beyond any recognition.
Thanks again to reveal what is normal and put it in much more eloquent terms what i could ever achieve.
12/9/09, 6:43 PM
12/9/09, 6:43 PM
Jacques de Beaufort said...
12/9/09, 6:43 PM
John Michael Greer said...
Jane, oh, it'll be uncontrolled and messy. We flushed our chance at a controlled descent around the time Reagan took office.
Guilherme, thank you.
Ariel, you're probably right -- it's going to be lonely in the middle ground, with so many people running to extremes. Still, in some sense, that's my job.
William, I do have to delete the more than occasional troll, but on the whole, agreed -- I appreciate the number of people whose comments here are thoughtful and courteous! As for your projects, excellent -- this is exactly the sort of thing that makes me less gloomy about the far future.
Duncan, I've already explained what individuals can do in a couple of dozen posts and two books, so I'll refer you to those.
Rick, in my experience it's a good deal more than a few recent errors. I've heard from scientists in a number of fields -- most of whom are in agreement that there's some level of anthropogenic climate change -- who've talked about the way that climate change has become the latest fashion in a range of environmental sciences, to the detriment of good research. That's what underlies my comment.
John, good gods, yes. You can just about guarantee that any media article about energy will get everything that matters dead wrong.
Eric, thanks for the link! This is promising. You're right that it's not going to slow things down noticeably, but at least these people are living their beliefs -- and Gandhi's comment about being the change you want to see in the world is a potent strategy.
Wrad, that's an interesting hypothesis, though I find it hard to imagine that the megatons of CO2 we're dumping into the atmosphere are having no effect at all -- it's a basic rule of ecology that there's no such place as "away." Nor is the collapse of the arctic ice sheets disproved by some dodgy numbers in one of many climate centers.
Shooter, you know perfectly well that that's not what I'm proposing. At this point, nobody's going to step up to the plate and do anything significant to stop destabilizing the climate; that means that the work ahead of us is local mitigation and preparedness -- which involves a lot more than a farewell buss to any particular species of livestock.
12/9/09, 7:00 PM
John Michael Greer said...
Armando, thank you -- you actually get it. Yes, exactly, overshoot and collapse are normal behaviors for many kinds of living things, including us. This example is a little bigger than most, is all.
Pete, thank you.
12/9/09, 7:05 PM
12/9/09, 7:22 PM
Going green is a marketing slogan.
Hans Christian Anderson was from Copenhagen; he too wrote some really great fairy tales.
Cadillac makes an Escalade Hybrid that gets one mile per gallon more on the highway than the non-hybrid.
Innovation, ingenuity and cold fusion will save the day.
And Florida has some really great beach front property for sale right now---get down there!
12/9/09, 8:25 PM
Bill Pulliam said...
Which of course comes back to one of your grand themes, the myth of progress. We are a civilization composed of Al Haigs -- we're in charge here, dammit. We can control things, we must attack with plan and proposal and scheme and make it all WORK. Never mind the fact that the present was not planned, but just sort of happened; the FUTURE can be exactly what we chose for it. This sticks the collective mind in the rut of sustaining what we already have -- after all "sustainability" is the buzzword of the New Millenium so far -- which means sustainable versions of what we already have, so we can sustain ourselves and the world as we know it. I needn't tell you, JMG, that most people of all political stripes are so deeply steeped in this that they are almost literally blind to any other view.
There's another fellow who moved here (just 7 miles down the road) at about the same time we did, from only about 15 miles away from where we had lived in Colorado. The parallels between us seem superficially bizarre, but they don't go very deep. He is a died in the wool Peak-Oiler, but whenever I talk to him it's all about politics, technology, socioeconomic conspiracy theories, the price of gold, and the like. His head is filled with geopolitics and elaborate permaculturish schemes for raising tomatoes on trout urine, etc. (I hope he's not one of your readers, or he'll surely recognize himself...). I'm always listening to him and thinking, "Dude, if you really believe the fossil-fueled industrial system is on its last legs, as you say, then might you not be better spending your time planting a garden, learning how to manage a coppice, figuring out how you might get drinking water without electricity, and that sort of thing?"
In my immediate neighborhood, there is a de-suburbanization happening on a small scale. One fellow has bought up three residential properties and converted them into a small (real) free-range poultry operation, another now has chickens, hogs, and a horse on acreage where the previous owners kept only a herd of riding lawn mowers, and we are repairing, restoring, and weatherizing our 19th century house rather than razing it and slapping together something from prefab materials bought at the Home Despot. None of this is happening as part of any grand plan, these neighbors are hillbillies, rednecks, and country folk to the core. They are responding to the changes they feel in the world and deciding how they want to shift their lives in their community. Meanwhile the "official" green community is busy writing grant proposals.
Ooo ooo do we get to pull out our energy circuit diagrams for the next installment???
P.S. for Duncan -- Fishing might in fact be an excellent idea
12/9/09, 10:09 PM
12/9/09, 11:05 PM
Just a theoretical (very long-term - not really practical for the problems at hand) note: In theory solar energy is infinite (given our needs). So, in the long run, given the proper technology, it could fuel "infinite growth", no? This is more a theoretical question than something applicable for the next 2 decades....
User quote: "In fact, most academics have spent many years and significant effort attempting to understand an immensely complex system, and have mostly come to the same alarming conclusion, with little or no political pressure to do so"
I am a PhD student with a strong connection to predictive science and I have to say that this sentence is completely at odds with the reality that I live every day: Extreme competition for grant money, need to be perceived as important to get tenure, etc.... This is not wonderland. In fact is more like hell.
Also, there is an underlying assumption on the above reasoning: that human beings are capable of understanding complex systems. It seems like an assumption of omniscience. Are we so sure that we are, as a species, that much more smart than baboons?
12/10/09, 2:32 AM
...applies to science. There more potent claim you can make the best you are doing to your career.
Let me give the example that I know in first person: If you work in epidemiology, you will want to claim that your ideas can "cure, control and eradicate" a certain disease. If you search the literature you will find unbelievable things, like people stating that if you follow their proposals you will be able to "eliminate malaria in a certain region in 4 years, confidence interval +- 1.3 years". You can find papers where people state that they can eradicate malaria. Or that "such and such" proposal will have some kind of marvelous effects.
All based in quantitative predictive "science". Normally a mathematical model from which "hard" results are extracted.
Have you heard of "quantitative finance"? It is the same kind of philosophical underpinnings. "hard", quantitative "facts".
If you take the intellectual stance that you cannot make such bold promises then you are stuck writing papers that seem modest and irrelevant compared with bold claims about curing diseases, the end of the world through warming or making lots of profit.
"Bold" science drives out modest science.
12/10/09, 3:13 AM
I think you raise an important question which you don't answer here. This question, of course, is "since the world's political systems are not going to solve the energy problem by creating an alternative energy solution, and since they are not going to voluntarily downsize themselves... what should the average, ordinary person or household do in order to survive the coming catabolic staircase?" and the related question is, "what is worth saving, and how?"
Can, for example, the Internet be saved? Quite likely not, but there is a possibility that we could keep it running for a few hundred years... if...
Can long-range transport be saved? Probably not super-tankers... can we rebuild the clipper ship industry? probably not...
Can we rebuild local food networks in the United States? Not without a lot more farmers... a lot of lawyers, doctors, teachers, design professionals are going to have to give up their jobs and go back to the land.
What IS worth saving, JMG? And how?
12/10/09, 3:36 AM
What amazes me about these climate talks is that they always say that we'll cut x amount by 2020 or 2050,by the time those dates arrive we'd have emitted another x amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Another point is that doesn't these so-called alternatives use fossil fuels either directly or indirectly in their manufacture and implementation?
12/10/09, 3:52 AM
12/10/09, 4:26 AM
I more-or-less concur with you on the subject of general economic and industrial decline, but I'm not yet willing to give up on the issue of global warming. And there's always the possibility that, along with general decline, some locales may be able to maintain (relative) prosperity.
One last thought... you make good points vis-a-vis political "reality", but that only points to the need for concerned individuals to get away from the computer, shove aside some of their apathy and distaste for their fellows, and organize locally - into what Saul Alinksy called "mass power movements". Yeah, maybe it won't amount to much, in the end, but how can one know that? Perhaps it will. If idiocy can go viral (see YouTube), why can't good ideas, too?
12/10/09, 5:49 AM
John Michael Greer said...
12/10/09, 6:37 AM
John Michael Greer said...
Patz, a good collection of one-liners.
Bill, good to hear about the desuburbanization! I get a lot of emails from people who have the same sort of attitudes as your neighbor, and my response these days is to roll my eyes and suggest they try growing a garden. As for energy diagrams, you know, that might be a very interesting thing to apply to the rise and fall of systems theory as a quasipolitical movement. More on this later...
Loveandlight, as long as you're willing to say "the kind of civilization we have now," I have no quarrel at all. My problem with neoprimitivism is its habit of assuming that everything this side of hunter-gatherer society is uniformly evil.
Tiago, "infinite solar energy..." I really do need to do a post on that someday, as there's a crucial misunderstanding about the nature of economically useful energy embodied in that sort of phrase. Thank you, though, for your comments about science -- this is the same sort of thing I saw when I was at college, and everything I hear from people in scientific fields these days suggests it's only gotten worse since then.
Andrew, I've addressed that question at quite a bit of length elsewhere, especially in my recent book "The Ecotechnic Future" -- might be worth a look.
Llewellyn, very good! Yes, and you'll notice that the latest proposals allow carbon emissions to keep increasing up to 2020. By then, of course, the treaties can be rewritten to allow increases to continue up to 2050, and so on. You're also right that it always comes down to burning more fossil fuels; that's really the only way modern industrial society knows how to get anything done.
Don, I don't know what's currently in print, but some very good basic texts ought to be available on the used market -- I'm thinking particularly of Edward Kormondy's Concepts of Ecology (Prentice-Hall, 1969) or Eugene Odum's Ecology (Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1975). Both of these are short introductory textbooks meant for college undergraduates, light on math and good on basic concepts.
Tony, I think biochar's a technique very much worth exploring, but it's no magic bullet. Think for a moment about how much biomass would have to be converted into char daily to deal with the carbon emissions from
the 84 million barrels of oil the world burns every single day, for example, and the size of the challenge becomes a bit easier to grasp. As for mass movements, when people aren't willing to accept a low-carbon lifestyle, what makes you think they'll sign onto a mass movement with the goal of making people accept a low-carbon lifestyle?
12/10/09, 7:05 AM
Kevin Anderson K9IUA said...
Your opening paragraphs reminded me of the Will Smith movie, "I, Robot," which has been playing a lot on cable TV lately. In particular the bits in the movie where the detective has to ask questions of this futuristic holographic graphic device, where the doctor/inventor who apparently committed suicide recorded clues for the detective. To paraphrase, using your theme as an example:
Detective, asking the device: "What am I seeing here?"
The device: "My responses are limited. Ask another question."
Detective: "Can we stop climate change"?
The device: "My responses are limited."
Detective: "Can we save anything from our current technological society?"
The device: "That, detective, is the right question...." and goes on to give another clue.
12/10/09, 7:42 AM
To be entirely honest, on an emotional level I suspect this assumption might be true, but on an intellectual level, I recognize that I don't really know that as an irrefutable fact. Nonetheless, that emotional part of me honestly expects this whole misbegotten project to end with a full-on exchange of nuclear-warhead-tipped ICBMs before it has all played out.
This is going to sound terribly flaky and "woo-woo", but one commentor's statement about overshoot and collapse being normal things is one of many phenomena that have me thinking that life in the Third Dimension of Density (AKA "physical reality") doesn't really work, but this plane of existence nonetheless provides a harsh yet valuable spiritual experience to sentients who incarnate here.
12/10/09, 7:54 AM
What this tells me is that the future is going to be a syncretic mishmash of methods and ideas put to practice that we don't quite fit under any ideological umbrella. It's about figuring out how to live a full life that honors other life drives many of these folks on the rewilding frontier. For that, I have nothing but praise for them.
I highly recommend checking out primitive skills gatherings to anyone who gets the chance. There's a good vibe and good skills at these events, and I think most here would appreciate them. I can personally vouch for the Rivercane Rendezvous in Georgia and the Firefly Gathering in Asheville as being excellent, both of them.
12/10/09, 8:03 AM
Nickname unavailable said...
12/10/09, 9:02 AM
I'm not certain all this hyperbole is helpful, e.g.,
"I’m sure there must be climate change zealots who have given up their McMansions, sold their cars, and now live in one-room apartments in rat-infested tenements with six other activists so all their spare money can go to building a renewable economy ... "
What is the point of implying that our options are limited to living in McMansions with cars and living in crowded, rat-infested apartments? I live in neither and neither do you ... and neither, I assume, do most of your readers. I gave up my car years ago and you never had one, right? The only thing this contributes to the situation is to discourage people from making the adjustments to their lifestyles that might make the coming transition manageable.
"Nobody, but nobody, is willing to deal with the harsh reality of what a carbon-neutral society would have to be like."
You're somebody. So am I. So are your readers. My impression is that most of us are trying to do just that. Of course, a good case can be made that we are far too small a group to make a significant difference but who's to say what's significant at this point?
With regards to the third world standard of living. It's not necessarily all that bad. There are third world slum dwellers who I have known for a dozen years who live tolerable lives, in my opinion. The fact that I have not chosen to join them has as much to do with family ties here in the first world as it has to do with any distaste on my part with their lifestyles.
12/10/09, 10:15 AM
1) That cutting our net greenhouse gas emissions to zero would cost trillions. Lester Brown lays out a much cheaper path to 80% cuts in 12 years. While his Plan B depends on things like plug-in hybrids and renewable energy trying to perpetuate some of what's wrong with our current setup, there are other paths -- like holistic land management which puts carbon into the ground through biodiversity while transforming our petro-heavy agricultural system -- that rely less on mining copper, silicone, etc. In fact, much of our reductions SAVE us money. Think $300 billion farm bill, ludicrous highway spending, trillions on the carbon-obscene Pentagon apparatus, etc. The industrial food and transportation system is also creating an epidemic of chronic disease costing us untold billions in health expenses.
2) That the global political apparatus is doing the bidding of the world's people. Are you kidding?!!!! Plain and simple, the only constituency our elected officials are representing are private interests who are well-organized and well-funded. Yes, there's a chasm that we must get beyond, for survival's sake. And the way across might not be to engineer an expensive shiny green bridge. But we still need a political solution.
Which brings me to my last point. You name socialists as one hopeless alternative. But you completely neglect the Greens as a possibility.
Now, I'm the first to admit that the Green Party in the United States has failed to live up to its foundational vision. But with a playing field tilted so sharply against it, it's pretty incredible that the Green Party is still around at all!
We need collective, bottom-up solutions to peak oil, climate change, and an inherently unsustainable economic system. We need political solutions. The Greens are all about alternatives to the failing paradigm of the growth economy. The Greens stand for an ecological political framework and represent one way that we can organize mass power in a decentralized, grassroots fashion.
Check out what they're doing in Copenhagen:
It's a critical moment for our species. Do you have a firm basis to write off political action? Or are people finally waking up from their sleepwalk and trying to disrupt our suicide march over the cliff?
12/10/09, 10:24 AM
"Scientists hope that 2010 also will see the launch of laser technology's greatest challenge: creating an inexhaustible supply of clean, carbon-free energy."
Of course, no mention about EROEI - can you imagine how much power it takes to get 192 laser x-rays going?
(and LOL to Bill Pulliam's "civilization composed of Al Haigs" comment.)
12/10/09, 10:29 AM
Draco TB said...
12/10/09, 10:50 AM
Draco TB said...
Brings in the question of whether we're intelligent or not and seems to put the answer in the negative. Surely, as an intelligent race, we would be able to recognise overshoot and prevent it.
12/10/09, 10:54 AM
John Michael Greer said...
12/10/09, 11:01 AM
I have recently discovered your blog, which does indeed seem balanced compared to the extremist rants usually found in blogland. While by your title it appears you are indeed a follower of druidic wisdom you also appear to have a good knowledge of some of the issues of sustainability affecting the human enterprise as currently configured. I have however only had space to read a few of your posts.
I was wondering if you were familiar with John Galls work on ‘systemantics’? He posits the idea that a system, or more precisely a system involving humans tends to become more complex and tends towards redirecting all resources towards its own existence, rather than towards the task it was originally set up to do. Also, it becomes more and more distant from the reality in which it is based, as the controlling part of the system receives less and less feedback from the outside world:
"where Ro equals the amount of Reality which fails to reach the Control Unit, and Rs equals the total amount of Reality presented to the system. The fraction Ro/Rs varies from zero (full awareness of outside reality) to unity (no reality getting through)." (From: "The Systems Bible: the Beginners Guide to systems large and small", John Gall, 2006. P.46-7)
This points also to a function of the system that is the human being, in that it too generally lives in something of a bubble reality. How big that bubble gets and how far it strays also depends on the amount of info getting through to the control system – via that other fantasy called the ego!
Are you familiar with the work of David Bohm who, amongst others, tried to build a new view of Reality with his ideas on the implicate order and the holomovement? Personally I think one of the real problems that is never (or rarely) discussed is that we are still looking at the world from the wrong perspectives, often involving an amalgam of pseudo religious thinking and outdated philosophies that are fundamentally incongruent with the way the world was and is now. Like never before we need a new view on reality. But given the human minds tendency towards attachment, its implementation would be nigh on impossible. Systemic collapse at all levels looks increasingly likely.
As for any predictions on the future, one only has to look at sub-Saharan Africa to see a pretty good model of how things will play out with little energy, falling food production, land and resource degradation and human nature in its most base mode. And that is not a comment on the good people of Africa, who have been robbed of their previously often sustainable cultures and inculcated into an industrial mindset without the benefits that industry brings but with all its problems.
As for your comment:
“Babaji, spiritual wisdom's a complex thing, and its application to the nuts and bolts of everyday life is rarely simple or univocal.”
I would argue the exact opposite. Spiritual wisdom is incredibly simple but the human mind (system) that loves complexity refuses to acknowledge it and goes of eating its own tail. The real difficulty lies in truly being with what is, including the awful and painful stuff. But that’s just my take on it – each to their own, eh?
12/10/09, 11:27 AM
John Michael Greer said...
Loveandlight, life on the material plane works just fine as long as you accept the reality of limits. As I see it, it's our culture's failure to do that, not any imperfection in the world, that's landed us in this mess.
Evan, no argument there! I think that groups that have preserved or recovered old technologies -- the folks at primitive skills gatherings among them -- are doing very useful work; it's the ideology, not the praxis, that gives me hiccups sometimes, and as you point out (and my experience supports this), the people who are doing the praxis aren't usually the ones pushing the ideology.
Unavailable, I've discussed the basis for my claim that alternative energy can't replace fossil fuels in literally dozens of posts here, and in both my books on peak oil. Since I'm writing weekly posts and not weekly booklength manuscripts, I don't have space to cover every topic previously mentioned.
Robert, the comment isn't hyperbole; a great many people in the Third World, and indeed in US inner cities, live in such conditions. The point I was trying to make is that the changes that will be required, if we are actually going to transition to a zero-net-carbon economy, will involve drastic changes of a kind that most Americans -- and indeed most climate change activists -- would find horrifying to contemplate. You're right that I don't live six to a room in a rat-infested tenement, but then I also don't claim that my lifestyle is an answer to climate change. It's not; it's simply the best compromise I've been able to find so far between lightening the burden I place on nature, on the one hand, and the work I do and the things I love, on the other.
Otromundo, what I've seen of the Green Party in the US gives me no reason to think it will influence our collective dialogue at all. Even for a US minor party, it's been remarkably disorganized and ineffective, and the position papers I've seen issued by Green Party groups have shown very little sign that anybody is ready to grapple with the severe limits we face.
I'm aware of Brown's claims, and find them dubious, to put things mildly. As to the insistence that all politicians (outside of your own party, presumably) are wholly owned by "special interests," yes, I know that's a popular claim these days; I'll be addressing it in more detail shortly.
Arabella, somebody ought to put together an anthology of this sort of thing. It'll make excellent gallows humor twenty years from now.
Draco, intelligence isn't an all-or-nothing thing. Human beings have a tolerably high level of intelligence; it just doesn't happen to be enough to keep us out of certain complex predicaments that kill a lot of us every so often.
12/10/09, 11:37 AM
Second, I wanted to point out that when you say that society continually make the choices that destroy them, I wanted to say that that isn't necessarily true. Your basing that on past choices that have ruined societies, but what about all the choices that have been made that have brought us along this far? Look at the federalist/anti-federalist debates of the early american republic. We don't know what would have happened if we had not created a federal government, but it is fair to say that the possibility of societal collapse was present at that time, too. It wouldn't have been ecological, but it might have come politically, socially, or through military conquer. But we didn't collapse then, so perhaps we made a choice that didn't destroy us.
My point isn't to argue the past decisions and what could have been. My point is to say that I think we in the peak oil movement have to stop looking at our future as a future in which society fails or succeeds and start recognizing that a successful and secure future means a de-industrialized future.
You're right, no one wants to look at that or go there, but a lot of that resistance is because we assume that a future without an oil powered industry means a failure. We associate failure with misery and, as you illustrated, living in poverty with rat infested overcrowded apartments that we cram ourselves into for the sake of the preservation of our resources and alternative energy.
There are many alternatives to our current lifestyle that do not involve living a life of poverty. While numbers are disputed, some of the most probable estimates put the Native Hawaiian population at 800,000-900,000 in pre-contact times. They weren't impoverished. They weren't disease ridden. They weren't military nothings. They weren't unintelligent. They also weren't anarchic, socialists, capitalists, or run by dictatorships. While they weren't perfect by any means and had an extremely deep awareness of their racial superiority and were largely oppressive toward women, they weren't ruining their environment or in societal collapse. There were many changes going on with the cultural hierarchies at that time, but to say it was collapse is a stretch of the imagination. While I am not advicating a return to "the old," I am suggesting that perhaps the Hawaiians were on to something that we can learn from in our time today.
So I agree that we cannot sustain industrial society with alternative energy. But I am suggesting that we in the peak oil movement avoid getting caught in the mindset that a non-industrial society is an impoverished, anarchic, and miserable state of existence.
.... no wonder no one in the mainstream is listening to us...
12/10/09, 1:23 PM
12/10/09, 2:07 PM
And science is not proved by consensus. When Einstein was told that Germany had assembled two hundred scientists who had come to a consensus that his theories wene wrong, he pointed out that it would take only one scientist to prove him wrong.
And with regard to Copenhagen:
12/10/09, 2:23 PM
It is actually not a matter of intelligence, or empathy, or however you want to call the ability to recognize patterns in complex and chaotic systems.
It is a matter of will.
As a multicellular organism, Humanity, is not more intelligent that colonies of bacteria. In both cases no single bacterium can sway the will of the colonies into limiting their growth. Only an impassable physical limitation at the scale of the colony can.
In the case of the Humanity cluster, the limit is a planet-sized Petri-dish.
12/10/09, 2:57 PM
John Michael Greer said...
And of course you're right that not all societies make all choices in a self-destructive manner. I mostly meant to point out the ways in which ours is doing so.
Robert, maybe it's just me, but I don't think it's unreasonable to suggest that somebody who gets a peace prize ought to have done something to promote peace, and fighting wars doesn't qualify.
Rdatta, true enough! And thanks for the link.
Armando, there have been quite a few human societies that managed to limit their growth rates to keep within the limits of their ecosystems. Ours just doesn't happen to be one of them, mostly because our cultural institutions were formed during an age of rapidly expanding resource supply.
12/10/09, 4:12 PM
12/10/09, 6:35 PM
In answer to your question "how much of the useful legacy of the last three centuries can be saved", there is a web site (or two) that shows examples of simpler technologies used in the past, follies of the past, and perhaps is an anthology of sorts that could be of use here. Try;
We will need to learn what was usefull relationship wise in the past and bring that into the future by living it. Not all the social relationships our modern society has cultivated will work in the future. Perhaps we will need to reach back to our tribal hunter gatherer roots if we can discern how they organized a culture. Or perhaps even further back to something like our Bonobo primate ancestors. At least they seem to settle disputes in a fashion we could learn to like if we really tried hard.
12/10/09, 7:43 PM
12/10/09, 9:21 PM
Once again I must be the voice of insight that points out the flaw in your article.
It is a well known fact that that "grail castle" is actually inhabited by 8 score blonds and brunettes (all between 16 and 19) who spend their time bathing, dressing, undressing and making underwear. Their headmistress Dinga however has an evil twin sister Zoot who often tends to light the grail shaped beacon atop the castle (beware) to tempt unwary knights.
This if course does make a perfect metaphor for our situation in regards to Peak Oil, Climate Change and Overshoot.
I'm just not sure what that metaphor is...
12/10/09, 9:48 PM
Rhisiart Gwilym said...
OTOH, JMG's repeated point that neither side of this controversy has taken on board adequately the conclusions -- and the implications -- of paleoclimatology +is+ genuinely pertinent.
We just don't know, and probably can't know in detail what's going to happen. Some rise in temperatures seems inevitable, because probably we will do nothing effective to stop it. Whether that will trigger catastrophic runaway events to create a crash as bad as the Great Dying that ended the Permian Era is much less certain -- though still a realistic danger, it seems.
Still, the Long Descent from the present peak of the Industrial Era seems pretty well assured, whatever we do.
And the dieoff from the present overshoot also looks pretty certain now. I've wondered for some time, though, whether that might manifest in the event by the global death rate quietly overtaking the birth rate by a modest but significant amount, and then staying there for enough time to pull total population down to livable levels again, but without any of the fevered apocalyptic scenarios currently afloat in the meme-sea actually happening at all.
This post remains up to the usual stratospheric standards of your blog, John. Many thanks, as ever, for such deep, clear, useful perspective.
12/11/09, 4:58 AM
Rhisiart Gwilym said...
I'm liking 'Star's Reach' more and more too.
Nadolig Lawen ac Blwyddyn Newydd Hapus i chi a'i teulu, JM!
12/11/09, 5:41 AM
The intensity of this spiritual dualism I suspect shall rise as we descend. Trying to find other people of like mind will be determined by a wide range of factors place being a large one.The other factor will be one's ability to be able to do a wide range of intellectual gymnastics. I can't precisely define the term.In your book you use the analogy of the "monkey trap" it seems my arm is in and out that trap all the time and trying to maintain equanimity requires a vigilance that this culture has not taught many of us. The encouraging thought is that one can learn to "face the future wisely" a truism that your report helps make clear. Now for my tired old quote-a religious one today-- many of the nations at Copenhagen purport to be Christian.
In the hour when the Holy One (blessed be he) created the first man. He took him and let him pass before all of the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him see my works how fine and excellent they are. Now, all I am going to create for you I have already created. Now, Think about this. And do not corrupt and desolate my world for if you corrupt it there will be no one to set it right after you.
Commentary on Ecclesiastes, 8th century
It's an interesting quote and I use it for it's historical value. That's it!
12/11/09, 6:17 AM
I don't actually think biochar is a magic bullet. There obviously is no such thing as a magic bullet (vis-a-vis global warming, among other things), except perhaps for a global economic collapse, which obviously would lead to lower CO2 emissions.... I'm actually intrigued by your comment on systems theory, because that informs my thinking... in the most recent update to the Limits to Growth, the authors make a good case for the need to embrace a range of solutions, from technical to ethical.
I don't want to mis-characterize what you said, but I think there's a way to interpret your words that says "well, it won't solve the problem, so why bother doing it?" In the context of the 350.org movement, we know we've already surpassed planetary limits regarding greenhouse gas emissions, so in addition to emitting less (perhaps by "failing", i.e. collapsing), it behooves us to invent and implement solutions that also sequester CO2. The danger is that such solutions might create new problems (most geo-engineering solutions seem to fall into that category). However, biochar has great possibility, I think, for being a technique that has multiple positive benefits (all those things I said in my earlier comment).
Regarding mass movements, you ask "when people aren't willing to accept a low-carbon lifestyle, what makes you think they'll sign onto a mass movement with the goal of making people accept a low-carbon lifestyle?" I don't accept your basic premise, there. I can only speak for myself and the people I know in my community (Lancaster, PA), when I say I see a lot of people, first, intellectually accepting that a lower-consumption lifestyle can be more fulfilling than a high-consumption lifestyle. Second, I see a significant number of people, especially those my age (mid-20s to low-30s), completely rejecting the lifestyle choices and, more to the point, the life goals of our elders. Give 'em 30 years and they might turn into a blight similar to elder failed hippies, but right now there is much promise... and, after all, there isn't 30 years. It is rapidly becoming apparent that humanity has exceeded its sustainable limits, and I don't see how our so-called "leaders" can continue to deny that reality. They are becoming caricatures of themselves.
This comment is becoming overlong, but I also want to suggest that I have no desire of being a part of a movement that makes people do, or accept, anything. That would be another case of "the chief cause of problems is solutions." A "solution" that works by coercion hardly deserves the moniker. I would, however, much like to persuade people that there is a better way.
12/11/09, 10:49 AM
Try us. I am longing for someone to finally spell it out.
12/11/09, 4:27 PM
John Michael Greer said...
Roger, I hope we don't have to go back to a bonobo level -- given the state of the biosphere, maybe two or three million human beings could support themselves worldwide on that basis. Think of the closest two thousand people to you right now, and then imagine that one of them survives -- and it's not you. Thanks for the links, though.
Dunstergirl, thank you!
Tristan, so is global warming the vorpal bunny of Caer Bannog?
Rhisiart, diolch yn fawr!
Vic, it may be an old quote but it's far from worn out. I wonder to what extent the ecological problems that contributed to the fall of Rome might have inspired reflections of this sort in early medieval monasteries.
Tony, Lancaster PA is one of the few places I know in the US where there are enough people practicing a low-carbon lifestyle to make a difference, at least locally. It helps to be in Amish country! Take a wider look around, though, and you'll find a huge number of Americans (and others) unwilling to do without the very real benefits of fossil fuel use.
As for biochar, the fact that it's not a magic bullet certainly doesn't make it useless. It'll be interesting to see if it has the same effects on crops in temperate climates that it has in rain forests.
Vera, that's fodder for a post all to itself. Still, as a very rough measure, go over your household budget, and imagine that your income was just cut by 85% while all your bills remained the same. Work out what kind of lifestyle you could manage in that situation. How willing would you be to accept the change to that situation voluntarily? And, yes, it would come to that, or close -- when I do a post on that subject (and I will, probably in January), I'll cover the reasoning.
12/11/09, 4:43 PM
"Nadolig Lawen ac Blwyddyn Newydd Hapus i chi a'i teulu, JM!"
A hefyd gyda chi, Rhisiart!
12/11/09, 4:44 PM
Draco TB said...
Oh, I'm aware of that. Decision making requires correct information and we've been fed the wrong information for decades if not centuries. The Catholic Church telling us that use of contraceptives was against gods will, people protecting "liberty" by saying that we're allowed to have as many children as we like and others stupid exaggerations and misinformation.
We knew that overshoot was possible, Malthus told us about it a couple of centuries ago and we did nothing to prevent it. We just assumed, and were told, that infinite expansion was possible.
12/11/09, 7:30 PM
wylde otse said...
If so, then the winter is not a total loss - if not an effusive hearth, then at least a cheery candle.
Luckily and wisely, like our friends in the great outdoors, we have stored our honey, and squirreled away our nuts.
12/11/09, 11:16 PM
We live in a successful back-to-the-land community dating to '73. The community is planning to turn a passive heated & cooled community structure into a fossil fueled dungeon because we have forgotten (were retrained by dominant culture) why & how we got here. Over the objections of a few community members.
Isn't that the most likely case of the current generation unless a genuine crisis prevails? Indeed, industrial society should fail.
12/12/09, 6:52 AM
12/12/09, 9:19 AM
12/12/09, 12:03 PM
John Michael Greer said...
Otse, basically, yes. Our culture insists that summer must be followed by uber-summer, and that by uber-uber-summer, and so on up the grand scale of progress; thus we've wasted the autumn harvest under the mistaken impression that it would just keep on getting bigger and better forever. Now winter's upon us.
Edde, it's certainly possible; my wife and I have a European-sized energy footprint, which amounts to a bit more than yours. To do it, though, we've had to give up a lot of things most Americans can't imagine living without.
Gardenserf, welcome to the Report!
Kevin, the scientific rationalist worldview is not merely endangered, it's dying. Still, it won't be today's media-manufactured fundamentalisms that replace it -- they've basically shot their bolt at this point, and are losing ground as fast as the rationalist materialists are (which helps to explain why Richard Dawkins sounds remarkably like Pat Robertson these days). I would encourage you to look for ways that the scientific method can be passed to the future -- that's the important thing; the rest can be rediscovered if the method survives.
12/12/09, 4:00 PM
The only relevant question will be, what changes will be coming and how will they interfere with the way we individuals would want to keep on living. Yes, energy will be in shorter supply, but what else do we know? How and what to plan, and most of all, how much time have we got? I am 61 now, and will I really live long enough and have to deal with the consequences?
Not only is it pointless to worry about the future, there is also no need, if one is simply prepared to accept whatever will come and then decide how to best deal with it. I have, and I can, lived all over the world, so change is no real problem.
For myself I found only one question to follow up: What will the drinking water situation be like worldwide? And what kind of information will be needed in a changed world, because of course the internet also will no longer exist in the way we know and use it right now...
I see no reason to consider the coming changes a big problem. The way humans tend to live, it is foolish to expect anything else to happen sooner or later, and childish to expect a solution that will prevent it.
12/12/09, 6:16 PM
~Noam Chomsky (Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky, 2002)
Are Americans Too Broken for the Truth to Set Us Free?
12/12/09, 6:31 PM
12/12/09, 8:32 PM
12/13/09, 1:20 AM
Florence Nightingale said...
"Iraq's oil capacity could reach 12 million barrels per day (bpd) in six years, the country's oil minister says. Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil exporter, has a capacity of 12.5m bpd.". So are we all wrong? Is there after all enough oil? and if yes how we will managed the global warming?
12/13/09, 4:35 AM
"Iraq's oil capacity could reach 12 million barrels per day (bpd) in six years, the country's oil minister says."
It could! And the Pink Unicorn Fleet could land on the White House lawn tomorrow morning, and reveal the technology for cheap unlimited energy, the cure for cancer, the formula for peace on Earth, and so forth.
But even if Iraq were to reach 12 million barrels per day in 6 years (which no one besides the oil minister suggests is remotely possible), it would not make up for the decline in production of all the other producing nations.
I don't like being a wet blanket, but clinging to these sorts of announcements are distractions from the real work that needs to be done... whatever that is...
12/13/09, 11:28 AM
John Michael Greer said...
Tony, if you've built a second career and a public reputation advocating a failed strategy for social change, as Chomsky has, of course you're going to insist that it's a good idea to keep on throwing energy and resources into that failed strategy. Still, when the ship's already on the rocks, insisting that there's still plenty of time to change course isn't optimism, it's delusion, and it can get in the way of the hard work of lowering lifeboats and getting people into them, which is what's useful at that point.
Bacondoyle, well, yes, cynicism's always an option, too.
Skintnick, of course you don't have to be a socialist to criticize capitalism, or to recognize that the bizarre corporate socialism we have in most of the industrial world these days under the label of "free market capitalism" has done quite a bit to make our problems worse. I'm less concerned with globalism just now, though, as it's already coming unglued around us. Expect that process to accelerate in the years ahead.
Florence, even if that turned out to be true, which it almost certainly won't -- I get the sense that "Baghdad Bob" is writing press releases for the Iraqi oil ministry these days -- most of the world's oil fields are in production decline right now, and Sgage is right; that 12.5 mbpd would just help make up for dwindling production elsewhere, until it, too, tipped over the peak into decline. That's the thing that makes peak oil so daunting; even if we found another Ghawar or Cantarell next week, that would merely slow the decline for a little while.
Sgage, well, I've made my suggestions about the real work that has to be done; I'm sure that others have their own ideas; and there's plenty of work right here in front of us. Let's get to it.
12/13/09, 12:17 PM
So, when you write:
John Michael Greer has left a new comment on the post "The Human Ecology of Collapse":
Prof. Volland, granted, the future will take care of itself. Still, it seems to me that there are actions that can be taken now to make the future less difficult than it has to be, and good reason to try to do that just now.
Then I have to ask:
Precisely what kind of actions do you have in mind ?
Are they concerning the change, the preventing of the change, or the future after a change? And what is it you want to do now, when no one really knows what will happen, and what the world will look like afterwards?
12/13/09, 2:18 PM
You bet! Though I was sort of banking on the Pink Unicorn Fleet angle. Oh well, back to the drawing board. :-)
Seriously, one wants to have an open mind and all, and people want to be so hopeful, but when you're dealing with folks who haven't really been thinking this stuff through, it's tough to know sometimes when to be the wet blanket. I experience this all the time.
This might be a topic for a future essay or two - how to gently get people to see what's really going on. I mean gently. It's really touchy out there, with folks under the gun financially and all.
I used to say "would you rather be right or effecive?", but after a particularly fine rant one recent evening, my interlocutor made it very clear that I was not being effective at all.
So I've been processing that, and trying to learn how to effectively speak truth to ignorance. Ignorance, in the sense of really good people who don't have the time or scientific/historical/sociological chops to sort things out.
what a world!
12/13/09, 3:52 PM
JMG - a couple of theoretical questions:
1. If oil had not been discovered (or at least not exploited), do you think the human population would still have ballooned the way it has?
2. If, as I suspect, the human population boom can be attributed, at least in part, to access to easy energy, why is that? All I've been able to come up with is making the public health infrastructure more easily and widely available. But I'm not sure it's widely available in places like India and China where the population has bloomed the most. Your thoughts?
12/14/09, 6:43 AM
John Michael Greer said...
Sgage, I wish I had some way to get people to see what's in front of their faces when that's the last thing they want to see! So far, though, it's been my experience that most people choose the future they want on emotional grounds, and then go looking for evidence to prop up an existing belief.
Arabella, two excellent questions to which I have only speculative answers. Lacking fossil fuels, I doubt human population would have exploded the way it has, simply because this sort of population bubble never happened in pre-fossil fuel times. The question of what exactly fossil fuels did to foster population growth on such an exorbitant scale is another matter; my guess is that many different impacts played roles of their own, with the expansion of carrying capacity through long-distance trade as one major factor. Still, it's definitely something that could use some research.
12/14/09, 7:09 AM
This is something I was pondering the other day in trying to work out a way to start a community support group in the 200-300 residences close to my house. By curious coincidence the following post was published just at the same time:
So, if JMG doesn't mind referencing some of Nate Hagens' latest thoughts on his blog then it does provide some interesting stuff and perhaps he is heading in the same direction - toward a way of getting this message across to the "masses".
12/14/09, 8:01 AM
Such works as Necessary Illusions and his book with co-author Edward Herman, Manufacturing Consent is a good analysis of the mass media: as they point out it's a close approximation of a "complex" social institution . The "propaganda model" of the media is a useful tool. Let's be honest there are few public intellectuals who are willing to admit that they have privileged positions in society and therefore feel an obligation to educate.
Your Archdruid Report is a way of teaching people "intellectual self-defense" a strategy few who read this blog would argue with. Now,the uncomfortable question I am embarrassed to ask because I'm unaware of the "failed strategy for social change" that Chomsky has advocated. Aside from his urging people to think for themselves and question power, because most is illegitimate,could you briefly explain it or point me to essays or books that can?
I recently viewed a film called "Blind Spot" and there's a physicist by the name of Albert Bartlett who expressed his shame at coming to realize,late in life, that there was no one in Washington looking after things. It is an amusing aside. And demonstrates that missing the point is human, all too human.
The Washington Connection was also co-authored by Ed Herman.
12/14/09, 9:06 AM
Matthew Wood said...
What are the strategies for surviving what's to come?
12/14/09, 6:42 PM
You observe, in your comments about Copenhagan, that the political system is operating as intended. It seems that representative democracy has come up against a problem which is is grossly unsuited to solve - as does any system, in time, of course. Do you have any thoughts about what political systems might work best for us in a relocalized future?
12/15/09, 10:57 AM
jagged ben said...
Last week you parroted the accusation that the hacked CRU e-mails actually show wrongdoing or mistakes. (As Kiashu said, "not really...") Albeit a minor point in the essay, it was disappointing, and distracting. And if I had to hazard a guess, I would wager you didn't read those e-mails.
This week's commentary strikes me as entirely more conventional than I normally expect from you. I can go to RealClearpolitics or the Huffington Post for blustering about present day political structures. Also, I know you don't think highly of renewables, but is it really necessary to repeat the strawman that renewable electricity is about "running a modern industrial society", or the nearly irrelevant fact that renewables will "have to be paid for out of existing supplies" (as if anything doesn't)? Gail the Actuary puts forward these points every couple of weeks at TheOilDrum, so the niche is filled. Personally, to use your phrase, I think it's a case of asking the wrong question about renewables...
In addition, I also agree with Vic's comment about Chomsky. (Where's the failure? What's the alternative approach that's somehow more successful?) He's basically built his second career doing the same thing you do; asking people to think for themselves and not to be fooled by dominant narratives.
12/15/09, 2:22 PM
12/15/09, 2:32 PM
John Michael Greer said...
Vic, "telling people to think for themselves and question authority" -- which amounts to telling them what to think and which authorities to question, of course -- is a strategy. More precisely, it's part of the strategy of mainstream liberal political activism, which has had very few successes since the right learned how to run rings around it in the mid-1970s. Sure, we can all read another round of books and articles, or listen to another round of speeches and podcasts, about the horrible abuses committed by the people we don't like, and how much better things would be if our friends ran things...but at the end of the day, what has that accomplished? Four decades of it certainly haven't stopped, or even slowed, the plunge into overshoot that is defining our future right now.
Matthew, you know, I've said this several times already in this comment thread: I've discussed in great detail what to do in two books and dozens of posts here.
David, that's a complex question, and I can't see any way to answer it in less than a couple of posts. Fortunately, those are the next couple of posts I have in mind, though this week's may seem off topic at first. Stay tuned.
12/15/09, 2:38 PM
John Michael Greer said...
12/15/09, 2:40 PM
I tend to give considerable weight to what you say, but I can't help wondering: what direct evidence is there to support this statement? Have people been leaving the sciences in droves? Its institutions are still intact, more or less. Doesn't science still have considerable prestige to lose? Who exactly is ceasing to believe in it?
...it won't be today's media-manufactured fundamentalisms that replace it -- they've basically shot their bolt at this point, and are losing ground as fast as the rationalist materialists...
I do so hope you're right. But what reason is there to suppose that they've no more poisoned darts in their bolt bucket? I'd love to see them definitively run out. But surely there are always plenty of like-minded enthusiasts...?
I have my complaints about the scientific mindset, but I also have a feeling I'm going to miss it when it's gone.
12/16/09, 12:47 AM
12/16/09, 3:41 AM
12/16/09, 11:00 AM
James the Thickheaded said...
12/16/09, 2:06 PM
12/16/09, 6:41 PM
Bill Real said...
12/18/09, 9:53 AM
Just finished reading "The Ecotechnic Future". Beautiful and elegant. I didn't know about R-selected and K-selected seres prior to reading your book, but I found the concepts arresting enough to find out more. Along the way I came across Holling's Panarchy theory (Stoneleigh also referenced Panarchy on a very interesting post she made on 1 January 2010 on "The Automatic Earth"). You can find a description by Holling himself here: http://www.peopleandplace.net/perspectives/2009/1/26/collapse_and_renewal
Panarchy theory has direct and pertinent relevance to the ideas you expanded upon in The Ecotechnic Future--adds a few interesting twists. In the large you were spot on, but Panarchy has some interesting things to say about the collapse and renewal phases of an ecosystem (whether that system be social or physical). The ideas of Remember and Revolt have particular relevance to your concept of dissensus.
Do check it out, I have no doubt you will enjoy the collision with your own ideas!
Keep up the great work.
1/10/10, 1:28 AM
Jim Brewster said...
"1. If oil had not been discovered (or at least not exploited), do you think the human population would still have ballooned the way it has?
"2. If, as I suspect, the human population boom can be attributed, at least in part, to access to easy energy, why is that? All I've been able to come up with is making the public health infrastructure more easily and widely available. But I'm not sure it's widely available in places like India and China where the population has bloomed the most. Your thoughts?"
1) Probably not.
2) Fossil fuel allowed us to overshoot long-term carrying capacity because it bypassed some of the limiting factors that would have otherwise kicked in. Human and animal labor require food, so EROEI limits would have become a factor. Fossil fuel gave us the mechanical energy to clear, till, and fertilize at a much higher rate, and to grow an unsustainable level of food, and mitigate increasing degradation of the land. Fossil fuel also allowed us to distribute food around the world except where there were political barriers.
6/16/10, 8:25 AM