Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Political Ecology of Collapse, Part Three:

The Bomb at the Heart of the System

The outcome of the Copenhagen climate change talks last week could not have been better suited to illustrate the points I have been trying to make in the last two posts. After all the high hopes and overheated rhetoric, as I (and of course a great many other people) predicted some time ago, what remains in place as the dust settles is business as usual.

The United States and China, who head the main power blocs in the negotiations and also generate more CO2 than anyone else, minted a toothless accord that furthers nobody’s interests but theirs, and proceeded to tell the rest of the world to like it or lump it. A few climate activists are still gamely trying to find grounds for hope in the accord; others are shrilly accusing Barack Obama of betraying the messianic expectations they projected onto him; and a certain amount of stunned silence, in response to the failure of climate activism to have the slightest effect on the proceedings, is also being heard.

It’s probably worth pointing out that the results would not have differed noticeably if John McCain had won last November’s election. The consensus that has been fixed in place since Ronald Reagan’s first term, in other words, still dominates American politics. Despite increasingly desperate efforts on the part of both mainstream parties to appeal to an increasingly disaffected electorate via increasingly overheated rhetoric, it takes a micrometer to measure concrete differences in policy between the parties. Each party has its captive constituencies, to which it makes appropriate noises come election time; Republicans claim they want to ban abortion, Democrats claim they want to protect the environment, but neither party ever gets around to turning any of this talk into action.

The most popular explanation for all this relies on the sheer hypocrisy of politicians, and such a case is not too hard to make, not least because it’s rare for politicians to be any more ethical than the people they represent. Some versions of the case insist that politicians are cynical beasts who are in it purely for the money, and find shilling for various corrupt interests more lucrative than serving the public. Other versions, in the ascendant these days, insist that politicians are puppets of some sinister elite pursuing a totalitarian agenda, and then try to find reasons why every turn of events furthers that agenda.

Now of course it’s tolerably easy to find examples that can be used to support these claims. Some politicians are blatantly corrupt and self-serving; others just as blatantly put the interests of their allies in the business world ahead of the people they are supposed to serve. It furthers many political narratives to portray the situation as an episode of Dudley Do-Right, with some wicked elite or other in the role of Snidely Whiplash, tying the American people to the train tracks, as Dudley Do-Right scoops up an armload of protest signs and position papers and gallops off to the rescue. Still, I’m by no means certain this is really all there is to the matter.

The counterexample that comes to mind is Afghanistan, and specifically Obama’s decision to send another 30,000 troops (and an undisclosed number of “civilian contractors,” the modern military version of disposable temp labor) into that quagmire. To call this decision self-defeating is to understate matters considerably. Afghanistan is where empires go to die; the debacle of the Russian occupation a few years back was only the latest in a long and unbroken history of failed attempts to conquer Afghanistan. Not even Alexander the Great managed the trick, and whatever the personal qualities of the airbrushed machine politician in the Oval Office and the camo-clad bureaucrat who manages his war might be, I confess to a reasonable doubt that anybody in the future will call them Obama or McChrystal the Greater.

Leave aside moral issues for a moment, and it’s tolerably clear that only two strategies could prevent total US failure in Afghanistan. The first is to reinstate the draft, conscript half a million new soldiers, shift the US economy over to a wartime footing, and go into Afghanistan with the same overwhelming force the Chinese deployed successfully on similar terrain in Tibet. The other is to declare a victory and get out. Any other choice means the United States will keep on spending money it doesn’t have and prestige it can’t spare on a war it isn’t going to win.

I doubt that any of this is invisible to the experienced military planners in the Pentagon, or the politicians who give them their marching orders. Why, then, the futile gesture?

The hard fact of the matter is that neither of the two potentially successful strategies is politically possible to an American government today. Exemption from forced military service was part of the price the American middle class exacted in exchange for their abandonment of the radicalism of the 1960s, and no politician is willing to risk the backlash that would follow an attempt to tamper with that bargain. Furthermore, it’s by no means certain that America has the economic strength left to fight a real war at this point, and it’s not hard to name hostile powers who would be happy to use any such opportunity to push us over the edge into national bankruptcy.

Declaring a victory and getting out is a good deal more viable, and it’s the option that Obama’s successor in 2013 will likely be forced to embrace. Accepting it now, though, would offend many constituencies, not all of which have financial motives for supporting the war, and it would require America to give up on intervening in the Great Game of geopolitics now being played in central Asia – a goal many factions in the American political class are unready to abandon.

Behind the decision to send an inadequate force to prop up a losing struggle, in other words, lies the complex nature of political power in contemporary America. A great many people nowadays seem to think that because they don’t have the power to impose their agendas on the country, someone else must have that power, and the increasingly self-defeating decisions coming out of Washington must result from deliberate policy on the part of that someone else. Comforting as that belief may be, the facts don’t support it. A century of political reforms have diffused power so broadly in American society that no one group has a monopoly on power, and any group of would-be leaders has to build alliances and garner support among a great many independent centers of power with agendas of their own.

Now of course it’s quite true, as the left is fond of pointing out, that a great many of these power centers are interested primarily in pursuing their own interests, and are perfectly willing to do it at the expense of the common good. It’s also true that this indictment can be applied to the left as much as to the right. Still, behind the inevitable chicanery found across the political spectrum lies the insoluble dilemma in which the American political system has been caught since the 1970s – the inevitable failure of government by pork barrel in an age of decline.

Like most of the nations that call themselves representative democracies these days, America operates by means of a system not too different from the one that graced, if that’s the right word, the twilight years of the Roman Republic. The ultimate mandate for power comes from popular vote, and so every possible means is used to make sure elections come out as desired. Vote fraud is one such means; propaganda is another; but the most effective is to buy the loyalty of voting blocs with cold hard cash. From defense spending to entitlements to economic stimulus programs, that’s the name of the game, and it pays off handsomely come election time.

There are, however, at least two massive problems with this sort of pork-fed politics. First, the number of groups to be placated tends to rise as the size of the pork barrel increases. In today’s America, any group that can organize and raise money effectively enough to influence elections can usually elbow its way to a place at the feeding trough. (That today’s radicals of left and right alike are, by and large, inept at organizing and fundraising goes a long way to explain their insistence that power is being kept out of their hands by a malevolent elite.) It’s not hard to respond to a changing world when the interests that have to sign on to policy changes are few and clearly defined, as they were fifty years ago, but it becomes much harder when power is diffused through scores of competing factions, and it takes an alliance of a dozen disparate interest groups to get anything done at all.

This happens in the life of nearly all republics, and it plays an important role in the political breakdowns that afflict them at regular intervals. Still, another factor will be familiar to regular readers of this blog: the mismatch between growth and the limits of the environment that provides the basis for growth. In societies that use resources at a steady rate, those limits are always close at hand, and struggles between interest groups over the distribution of pork are recognized as zero-sum games, in which somebody has to lose for somebody else to gain; thus the multiplication of factions tends to be limited by the fixed size of the feeding trough.

In a society that relies on rapidly expanding production of resources, on the other hand, this can be evaded for a time. The first two-thirds of the 20th century thus saw an explosion of factions that spanned the entire upper half of the American class structure, from the ultrarich to unionized labor. The result was a vast number of people who all expected to get financial benefits from the government. Yet the end of America’s real economic expansion in the 1970s meant that these demands had to be paid out of a dwindling supply of real wealth.

One result has been a drastic narrowing of the options available to politicians. A great many simple and necessary reforms that could be enacted without harm to anyone – for example, putting a means test on social security pensions – are completely off the table, because nobody can put together a governing coalition without the support of groups that oppose such measures. Equally, a great many ghastly policies – for example, deliberately inflating financial bubbles – have become political necessities, because they allow governments to get away with the pretense of paying off their supporters. Meanwhile any sector of society not organized enough to defend its interests can basically count on being thrown to the wolves.

The rising spiral of crises that threaten the survival of industrial society might be expected to trump such matters. The problem here, of course, is that prophecies of imminent doomsday have been standard political theater in American public life for more than a century, and most people in politics have long since stopped listening to them. There are plenty of people in politics who still remember, for example, the widespread insistence that the energy crisis of the 1970s was supposed to be permanent; the fact that there were plenty of less shrill predictions that have proven to be much more accurate in retrospect is nothing like as memorable.

Behind all of this lies the central political fact of the limits to growth: the reduction of First World nations to a Third World lifestyle that will be the inevitable result of any transition to a postpetroleum world, whether that transition is deliberate or unplanned. Metaphors about elephants in living rooms don’t begin to touch the political explosiveness of this fact, or the degree to which people at every point on the political spectrum have tried to pretend that it just isn’t so. Still, set aside delusions about miraculous new energy sources that show up basically because we want them to, and it’s impossible to evade.

Let’s walk through the logic. The most reasonable estimates suggest that, given a crash program and the best foreseeable technologies, renewable sources can probably provide the United States with around 15% of the energy it currently gets from fossil fuels. Since every good and service in the economy is the product of energy, it’s a very rough but functional approximation to say that in a green economy, every American will have to get by on the equivalent of 15% of his or her current income. Take a moment to work through the consequences in your own life; if you made $50,000 in 2009, for example, imagine having to live on $7,500 in 2010. That’s quite a respectable income by Third World standards, but it won’t support the kind of lifestyle that the vast majority of Americans, across the political spectrum, believe is theirs by right.

That’s the bomb ticking away at the heart of America’s political system. When it goes off, the entire system of government by pork barrel will explode messily, and it’s only in the fantasies of reformers that what replaces it will likely be an improvement. (My guess? Anything from a military coup followed, after various convulsions, by a new and less centralized constitution, to civil war and the partition of the United States into half a dozen impoverished and quarreling nations.) In the meantime, we can expect to see every possible short term expedient put to use in an attempt to stave off the explosion even for a little while, and any measure that might risk rocking the boat enough to set off the bomb will be quietly roundfiled by all parties.

A meaningful political response to the growing instability of global climate is one such measure, and a meaningful political response to peak oil is another. No such project can be enacted without redirecting a great deal of money and resources away from current expenditures toward the construction of new infrastructure. The proponents of such measures are quick to insist that this means new jobs will be created, and of course this is true, but they neglect to mention that a great many more existing jobs will go away, and the interests that presently lay claim to the money and resources involved are not exactly eager to relinquish those. A political system of centralized power could overcome their resistance readily enough, but a system in which power is diffused and fragmented cannot do so. That the collapse of the entire system is a likely long-term consequence of this inability is simply one of the common ironies of history.


Shiner said...
I fail to understand why you continue to cover for the Wall St Ghouls who have most definitly usurped power in the USA. This small group of people is easily identifiable and their power is not hard to see. The media is now owned by the Wall St Ghouls. They have turned it into a lie machine and and use it to keep our politicians in check. The Wall St Ghouls control of the treasury and the FED along with the media have our politicians against a rock and a hard place.

The Wall St Ghouls come from a certain sub-culture in the USA but if you mention that you are called all kinds of names and all the facts are forgotten. This subset also controls book publishing in the USA so that might explain your reluctance to tell the truth.

Not long ago you posted about a energetic president villifying Islam in an attempt to push fascism. We have already went down that road with GWB and the people did not swallow it. Arabs have not used the central banks to enrich themselves buy up the media and then usurp our gov't. The people are starting to wake up to which "religion" has.

I believe you are correct that the USA is in danger of a leader leading us down the road to ugliness but it will be the usual suspects paying the price for what looks more and more to be their usual crimes. Not Islam. All the suppossed "myths" that happened in the past don't look like myths anymore to me.

I know you won't post this and will likely pretend I am wrong but you are too smart not too see it as clearly as I do. On this subject you throw logic out the window in favor of vauge references like the one about how power is so decentralized in this country. The power in this country flows from a few Wall St banks. these banks usurpation of our gov't is complete. The people at these banks who have done this can be easily named. I understand you don't want to shoot your book deals in the foot by challenging them but you really should stop carrying their water by claiming they don't exist. It is making you look foolish.

12/23/09, 8:54 PM

hapibeli said...
I like the 15% argument. As a U.S. retiree living in Canada, my partner keeps telling me that my Postal and VA retirements are not going to be around. As I've told her, when that happens, very little else will be working very well either! My current retirement income is about 45% of my old salary, so I'm on my way to that 15%. LOL! We're doing the chickens, goats, and small farm thing anyway. Maybe that will see us through a few such years. Maybe not! LOL! Besides, if we're all in the same boat, why complain? It's when so many seem to have so much, and you may have so little, it magnifies what you don't have...

12/23/09, 8:59 PM

PRiZM said...
First, once again I want to thank you for the thought provoking articles. I still follow on a weekly basis to see where you are leading us .. I have been left strongly with the impression you are leading each of us into ourselves in the hopes that each of us will realize that the needed change must come from within. If so, well done and thank you for the patience ;)

12/23/09, 9:32 PM

Patz said...
John, the gist of your argument about the diffusion of power seems to run counter to the fact that the last 30 or so years has seen an enormous transfer of wealth from the middle and working classes to the upper 1% of the population.

That alone seems to suggest that a very effective power group has been quite successfully been having its way with the rest of us.

Care to square that circle?

About the bomb. Pretty accurately described and it will go off, probably sooner than later.

12/23/09, 9:51 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Yes, I thought this would get some lively reactions. Shiner, I'm quite aware -- and in fact, I referred to the point in my post -- that a lot of people prefer hunting scapegoats to grappling with the much less cartoonish realities of life in a failing republic. The reason I don't spread those same popular misconceptions is that I don't find conspiracy thinking (with or without your lightly veiled anti-Semitism) either accurate or useful.

Hapibeli, nicely put.

Prizm, good. You're getting the point.

Patz, it's hardly a paradox. First, most of that money doesn't actually exist; factor out the imaginary wealth manufactured out of thin air by way of derivatives and the like, and the apparent "transfer of wealth" is vastly smaller than it seems to be. Second, it's precisely because power has become so diffuse that a range of wealthy interests have been able to cash in to the extent they have -- since their existing wealth gives them political clout, they can hold a dysfunctional system to ransom, and of course they do. Can they control the system in any more direct sense? I don't think so -- and I think we'll find the unraveling of the American political system will put most of them up against the wall, and not necessarily in any metaphorical sense, either.

12/23/09, 10:03 PM

BrightSpark said...
Another analysis that seems to be on the money, at least from my outsiders perspective (New Zealand) here on the other side of the planet, and backed my what my friends in the mid-west tell me. And, no, I don't enjoy watching the slow implosion of the US, because those same forces will hit home here too.

What I particularly wanted to congratulate you on was the Ecotechnic Future, which I recently finished. Your use of the language and science of ecology to explain the predicament we are all in gives me renewed hope as well as some easy way of explaining it to others (well, those at least that will listen).

Well done, and I look forward to the next book (The Wealth of Nature???)

12/23/09, 10:58 PM

RDatta said...
One might gather from this post that it is likely to be Business As Usual until The Stuff Hits The Fan; what follows will be The End Of The World As We Know It - or perhaps as we prefer it.

Sort of drags in the idea of an Apocalyptic Scenario, but then every "riser" (not really a riser) on the stairway of The Long Descent will be apocalyptic to some.

12/23/09, 11:40 PM

Christopher said...
Antisemitic? I don't think he was accusing the Palestinians of being Wall St ghouls... I suppose that you are right that pointing out that Jews, as a whole, are not Semites or moral paragons is not particularly useful. I have known a few Jewish individuals who among the most ethical people I have ever met.

I do agree that the multiplication of lobbying groups is a good explanation for the paralysis of government when various organizations act badly. It explains why the two parties are more similar that different in actual outcome, and why the Green Party has no chance of ever gaining ground on a national level. It is at odds with too many critical lobbying groups.

I think you have painted an accurate picture as to the future of the United States. When things start to get desperate via unemployment, food, water issues, what have you... the federal gov or some other agency will try to re-concentrate political power. However, resource limitations will cause those efforts to ultimately fail, though there maybe a rather messy interim. It is a really depressing prognosis...

It looks like the best thing to work on is to try and organize one's own local area as best as possible to weather the turmoil we are heading into.

12/24/09, 12:27 AM

Ken said...
"A century of political reforms have diffused power so broadly in American society that no one group has a monopoly on power."

So, a doubling or tripling of national debt in a couple of years, pitched as an emergency and pushed through without debate or accountability, all to protect and further enrich a few thousand wealthy people, does not constitute a monopoly? Perhaps this group does not dictate every aspect of national life, but they do control the ones they need to. And more to the point, the bail-outs could well prove more destructive than useless foreign wars

As you point out, the trough model was always doomed to fail in the long run, but the government has had the options of tapping the brakes (e.g., Volcker in the 80s) or punching the gas (Greenspan). We now appear to be in 'hurtle' mode, and for whom? To the detriment of whom? What are the relative percentages of the population who are gainers and losers?

12/24/09, 1:22 AM

das monde said...
JMG, the Afghanistan "counterexample" fits very well into the special priveleges of the defence industry. The US got quite into the habit of fighting "unwinnable" wars - still at good unquestionable profit for some. And then there is a possibility that all that chaos and quagmire is extactly what was planned.

There is some reality behind your despription of the diffuse cloud of many interests - but that part of reality, however necessary for rationalizable looks, is a managable part of reality. You play some interests, you encourage some interests, and you make some interests look inept. It is a matter of being in power to do some "natural" selection.

It is not that I think first about "hunting scapgoats" or setting any "malevolence of elites" straight. I can be comfortable with the idea that while in the past the rulling power was in the hands of kings, emperors or priests, now the real power is in the hand of some banksters and industialists. But what I see is something undecent in that power orgy. Hence some outrage, and insistence on connection (via timing) with your theme of upcoming global collapse.

12/24/09, 1:34 AM

Stephen said...
You mention two options for victory in Afghanistan but there is third: Throw away the failed doctrine of hearts and minds for total war. If they set there mind to it they could completely exterminate the populations of Iraq and Afghanistan with no more troops and equipment than have been deployed previously. Precision bombing of all wells and water treatment facilities cut of the roads and all the urban populations would soon die. Bomb the mosques with MOABs clear out the villages with VX gas and pretty soon there would hardly anyone left to resist. Create desolation and call it peace. Of course it would be just as politically undo able as your suggestions... in the current climate at least.

12/24/09, 2:47 AM

timewalker said...
I've been a regular follower of your blog for a while, always look forward to switching on my PC on Thursday mornings :)

Though it wasn't the main point of your post, I noted this (quote): "Obama’s successor in 2013... ". I take it you don't think he's going to win another term then? Sarah Palin for President! Ughh!! On the other hand if the political system is doomed anyway, and the President of the day will go down in history as the one who presided over the disaster, then although there might not be much actual policy difference between them, I would rather it was an ignorant nutcase like her who got the blame... And it would also not be good for racial harmony if the first black president ends up demonised in this way, especially in the southern states if things get nasty in the future...

Also a bit off-topic, but is the "15%" of currently energy usage referring to direct national energy use (transport, domestic, infrastructure etc), or does it also include energy used in manufacturing and importing cheap goods from faraway places, given that the energy is not actually consumed in the importing country? That will be impossible to replace with renewables. In which case the shock will be even worse, losing what is in effect a subsidy (of cheap foreign goods), having to pay the real price for things again on our already vastly reduced income.

Probably of more relevance to the spirit of your post, and also reflecting the comments of Prizm, I agree that politics is mostly useless to effect change and it's up to us to change ourselves. I've long since given up on politics. I'm in the UK and like many people saw the election of Labour in 1997 as a great "new dawn", only to be completely disillusioned - it made practically no difference as far as I can see. But possibly the kind of government it turned into was the only one the powerful vested interests would allow. And now it looks as if they will lose the next election, but not I think because of any particular policy - current prime minister lacks the personal charisma of his opponent, the people think the grass is greener etc, the vested interests don't care either way, and I find myself not caring, because I know it will probably make absolutely no difference...

12/24/09, 4:57 AM

timewalker said...
PS. Been having a think about about the policy difference issues though. If Al Gore had won in 2001, I don't think his response to 9/11 would have been to devise a "new American Century" and invade Iraq. And I don't think Obama's response to peak oil would be to say "drill baby, drill". I still don't know why Tony Blair sided with GWB on the Iraq issue, and managed to persuade his party too. A different decision could have been made with a different person at the top, what happened was not inevitable.

So although basic economic policies seem much of a muchness, there is a difference of tone and direction, which while maybe not enough to "save industrial civilisation", can still shape the turn of events significantly?

12/24/09, 5:39 AM

Isis said...
I have a quibble about your 85% income reduction discussion. For example, I currently spend close to a half of my income on rent. If my income suddenly plummeted to 15% of its current self, I'd be homeless. If everyone's income plummeted by a comparable amount, the landlords would be forced to reduce rent because otherwise they wouldn't be able to find any renters. All sorts of services (from haircuts to legal services to tutoring) would also become much cheaper, because otherwise, their providers would quickly find themselves without any customers.

Ultimately, the issue is that money and energy are not the same (as you will gladly concede, I'm sure). Most of us will have to learn to do without all sorts of energy-expensive luxuries (such as foreign vacations - or vacations, period -, high-tech medical interventions, reliable power grid, adequate heating, etc. etc.), but some things that presently eat up a huge chunk of people's income (such as a roof over one's head) will not suddenly become unaffordable as we become poorer.

But overall, thanks for another informative post.

12/24/09, 6:23 AM

Tiago said...
When looking at the USA I cannot wonder thinking if a confederate system would have been more healthy. I know that what I am saying is anathema to many liberals. But forget for once the obnoxious things that the confederates represented (slavery, racism, etc):

A confederate system makes power more localized, more connected to the local (eco)systems. Also power grabs are more difficult in confederate systems (holding the federal govt hostage would not be enough, all 50 govt states would be to be held ransom).

Of course a confederate model increases the diversity of solutions and some would be dreadful (I would imagine many thinks done in, say Oklahoma, would be dreadful) , but to compensate others would be fantastic and creative. And you would not be tied in together (which is potentially catastrophic if things go bad).

The argument made for a confederal USA could also apply to Europe (and, in some ways, the EU is much worse than the federal USA) or to the globe (think WTO, WIPO and such organizations - which IMHO are part of the problem).

Confederacy or autonomy (I will not say "independence" because that is a dreadful myth in our shared planet) increases diversity of solutions and system resilience. A good thing, if you ask me.

12/24/09, 6:42 AM

Jason said...
Many of the responses today point up Catton's dictum: "Those who do not see ecologically see antagonistically."

When even fairly smart people start talking reflexively about the 'small elite who are ruining it for everyone else' it makes it far easier to see just how democracy becomes Caesarism.

timewalker: And I don't think Obama's response to peak oil would be to say "drill baby, drill".

Not out loud.

12/24/09, 6:44 AM

Twilight said...
I think your description is very useful, but perhaps we are already a bit past that point. Is power being concentrated or dispersed? Certainly wealth (a proxy for power in our society) is being concentrated in a smaller portion of the population – even more so than during the Gilded Age. Control of media outlets is likewise more concentrated.

What I see is that power is concentrated in a smaller part of the population, but that these people are not all of one mind all the time. Politicians and parties compete for the favors of these power groups, navigating the shifting allegiances and trying to build coalitions among them, while the populace is disenfranchised. So yes, there are indeed groups of elite, and one thing that they have in common is a desire to protect their position and keep the masses out of the process.

The end effect is as you describe, where nothing can be done due to the competing and amorphous power structures, but with the disenfranchisement of the majority of the population added in. That cannot be stable, as the anger (combined with ignorance) of the masses represents a large potential power base, and someone will attempt to capitalize on that one day.

12/24/09, 6:49 AM

John Michael Greer said...
BrightSpark, thank you. Yes, it'll be The Wealth of Nature, unless the publisher retitles it.

Rdatta, the collapse of a political system isn't the end of the world -- ask Dmitry Orlov about that sometime. It's just one more roadbump on the rough road down the back end of Hubbert's peak.

Christopher, exactly. At this point I don't see any hope of getting the US political system to do anything constructive about the crisis of industrial civilization, though some other countries may be more fortunate. Here, to quote Ernest Thompson Seton, it's a matter of "do what you can, with what you have, right now."

Ken, it's not just a few thousand people who have enriched themselves in the recent trough-filling; most of the political class has gotten into the action one way or another. I sometimes wonder how many people in the upper end of government and business here in the US know that the stuff is about to hit the fan, and are pumping the country dry in order to squirrel money away in foreign bank accounts.

Das Monde, outrage is a comfortable habit, but I don't find it a useful one. Nor do certain interests need anyone's help to look inept.

Stephen, yes, genocidal fantasies are tolerably common these days. So? The US would gain nothing from such a move, other than a tolerably high guarantee that we would face identical treatment in the next war.

Timewalker, my guess is that Palin has had her fifteen minutes of fame. Her resignation as Alaska governor followed promptly on the surfacing of solid evidence that she'd accepted bribes. As for Obama, I don't know for certain that he will be a one-term wonder, but it's certainly looking that way right now -- the GOP would have to field a complete flake against him to lose. (Which they might do; it would be profitable for them to take Congress back in the 2010 elections, which they're almost guaranteed to do at this point, while leaving a vulnerable and unpopular Democrat in the White House to take the heat.)

As for the influence of personalities on policies, I don't doubt for a moment that a Gore presidency would have been less fixated on charging into the Middle East. There are always a range of policies open to an administration that fit within the consensus.

Isis, as I said, it's a very rough measure. Still, think about what your current rental space would be worth if it had no heat, no hot water, no maintenance, no security, and the electricity turned on for two hours every night, when they can get fuel for the generators, which isn't always.

12/24/09, 6:51 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Tiago, under the US constitution as originally enacted, most of what the federal government now does was explicitly left to the states, which functioned with a huge amount of autonomy. The aftermath of the Civil War and, to an even greater extent, the New Deal put paid to that, but it's still a model worth revisiting.

Jason, excellent. Yes, it's exactly the passion for finding somebody to blame for the limits to growth that will most likely hand what's left of our republic to a plausible scoundrel or two.

Twilight, speaking of the masses as "disenfranchised" is problematic, as the masses have never had power. Political power has always been in the hands of a few, whether the few in question are a circle of elders in a hunter-gatherer tribe or the present gallimaufry of political and business leaders. Nor have things changed noticeably in America in our lifetimes, beyond the fact that the financial industry has become more adept at manufacturing paper wealth -- as I pointed out to an earlier commenter, factor out the amount of "wealth transfer" that consists of the creation of fake wealth by way of derivatives and the like, and most if not all of the apparent concentration of wealth goes away. If you had the ability to print million-dollar bills at will, you'd make the distribution of paper wealth look pretty bizarre, too.

That aside, though, the model you've presented is not that far from the one I've suggested here, and the conclusions you've drawn -- that it's unstable, and could very easily provide the necessary boost to some would-be Caesar -- seem reasonable to me.

12/24/09, 7:10 AM

NorthCreekNews said...
Thanks for another interesting, smart report. Some thoughts: I especially appreciated your encouraging people to not scapegoat one group or another. Jews historically have been put in positions of money handling and then blamed for crisis while those in real power escape blame. We all prop up the "Wall St Ghouls" by our own greedy lifestyles.

I encourage all of the activists who decry the lack of results from Copenhagen to cut their own personal energy use by 75%. Without real change, it is just rhetoric on both sides.

12/24/09, 7:14 AM

Jonathan Blake said...
I'm no Obama worshiper—it's impossible for any human to live up to a messianic calling—but there is reason to believe that "China wrecked the Copenhagen deal" in order to humiliate Obama and the US. It seems that the deal would have been substantially better—but perhaps not enough—without China's intereferance.

12/24/09, 7:16 AM

Tiago said...
Regarding the ideas about "transfer of wealth" and the ongoing discussion I would like to add a small point:

While my grand-parents lived mostly in poverty, my parents enjoyed a "job for life" with enough to have a decent life. I see people a decade younger than me with job insecurity (note that this insecurity is not, until now, caused by resource scarcity - it is a political option), less purchasing power and so on than my progenitors.

The point is: I see fluctuations in wealth in the middle lower classes and "Twilight" view makes some sense to me. I think you will have no problems with a definition of wealth detached from money: while much of the income distribution gap reported by statistics has been fed by funny money which has no real value, the real distribution of wealth (where job security for all and state sponsored welfare are important parts of wealth for middle/lower classes) has become more asymmetrical post-Reagan/Thatcher.

12/24/09, 7:32 AM

Scott Martin said...
Thanks for yet another thought-provoking post, JMG. Do you have a reference for that 15% figure? I'm collecting studies to wave at upper management here, in an effort to preserve a chunk of Western cultural output for the long term. Thanks, and Happy Winter Holiday of Your Choice!

12/24/09, 7:37 AM

Matt said...
JMG, I'm just interested in where you got the figure of 15% for the amount of energy that can be produced by renewables. I've heard estimates much much higher from those pushing renewables, and even from those who would factor in nuclear. I obviously don't trust their numbers, but I would just be interested to know where you got your number as I would be know where they got theirs.

12/24/09, 8:19 AM

Justin Ritchie said...
Thanks for yet another insightful post, I'm starting on Ecotechnic Future and it has been great so far.

Obama's decision to ramp up activity in Afghanistan has likely been driven by his newfound awareness of rapidly approaching energy scarcity. The same intelligence that drove the Bush administration to make the decisions they did. However, as you mentioned, he can't deal with the situation appropriately to provide any useful solution because of the mess that is the US political system.

Living in Canada for the last few months has shown me that people in other countries aren't aware of the magnitude of the problems facing the US. I've heard so many times that, "Obama's the man for the job, he'll fix it". However, I've also been impressed by the number of people preparing for the collapse of industrial civilization... something I never saw in the Southeastern US.

12/24/09, 8:20 AM

fourpie said...
"Exemption from.. military.. was price middle class exacted for abandonment of radicalism of the 1960s"
Wow, that is some idea, if it is true. We lost the planet because we wouldn't be cannon fodder. Sounds like a rock & a hard place to me.

12/24/09, 8:37 AM

Gary Heidenreich said...

Does this blog reach all the members of the US Congress? If not, I ask permission to send it to all of them.

Gary Heidenreich
Rockford, Il

12/24/09, 8:50 AM

John Michael Greer said...
News, I've seen far too many climate activist bumper stickers on SUVs to think that you'll get much of a response, but it's a great idea.

Jonathan, there's quite the frenzy of blame-slinging going on in the wake of Copenhagen, and plenty of it is justified. The Chinese had their own agenda to push, as did everyone else, and of course it's relevant that if Obama had come back with anything like a realistic agreement, Congress would have torpedoed it. Neither the US nor any other industrial power can afford the economic impact of transitioning away from carbon fuels; thus we'll get the even worse economic impact of a global climate swinging out of control. Them's the breaks.

Tiago, granted, real income for most Americans has been contracting steadily since the 1970s, along with the American economy. The various forms of funny money and bubble-blowing are all attempts to cover up that politically unmentionable fact.

Scott and Matt, the 15% figure has been referenced multiple time in posts on The Oil Drum, where I get most of my technical data. It's at best a rough estimate -- nobody knows just how much impact the end of the energy subsidy renewables get from fossil fuels will have -- and I cited it purely as a basis for back-of-the-envelope calculations.

Justin, thank you. I've had the same experience with people outside the US failing to grasp just how drastic our problems are; in a recent speaking gig in Canada, I mentioned the possibility of civil war in the US in the next decade or two, and the audience looked at me as though I'd sprouted a second head. I wonder if people abroad had the same attitude in the years right before 1860.

Fourpie, ever wonder where the "Movement" of the Sixties went? It popped like a bubble when the US government eliminated the draft. A huge amount of middle class money and administrative skill went into the antiwar movement, and a fair amount of it spread elsewhere -- but once middle class families didn't have to worry about their sons going to Vietnam, all that dried up and blew away.

Gary, I'd be absolutely stunned if a single copy got past the staffers who screen this sort of thing. Still, the blog is here to be read, and if you think it's worth trying, by all means go for it.

12/24/09, 9:12 AM

sv koho said...
Thank you JMG for your christmas blog. I read you because you think for yourself and are well outside the envelope and as long as you stay out there, I will be a loyal reader. I was dismayed to see some of today's unfair unwarranted comments but I see you are quite capable of defending yourself against the trolls under the bridge. I trust you and your sig other are adapting to your move to the right coast and I hope you will fill in your fans some time on how that is working or not working out. Your new book from your CANADIAN publisher is on my nightstand to start in the new year.I think your point that the power centers being diffused in this country caught some readers by surprise. In many past societies, the holders of power and wealth were the same but not so much in the US. This is especially true in DC as you pointed out and as my college classmate Andrew Bacevich laid out in his book "The Limits to Power". In the Great Delamination(my term) ahead of us there will be a great scramble for power and there may be some surprising temporary winners. The wealthy are at great risk for losing their wealth whether taken by their government or by an enraged citizenry. The Uber rich know that vast disparity in wealth is personally dangerous for them and none of their security measures will be a match for a determined and resourceful opponent.
Times of great conflict and change are good times for the writing profession, lots of grist for the mill. Good luck and good writing in the next decade.

12/24/09, 11:37 AM

Don said...
John, you have articulated what I long have sensed--that our nation lacks leadership of the quality that can see us through the tough times ahead.

I've also long sensed that this lack of leadership, coupled with the polarization and partisan bickering and oneupmanship that characterizes our political discourse (if we can even dignify it with that word) are themselves symptoms of a society in decline.

Is there a Winston Churchill or Abraham Lincoln waiting in the wings who can speak the truth to the nation--in other words, unveil and confront that ticking time bomb--and give us a chance to avoid the worst elements of the coming upheavals, yet still have a chance to be elected to office?

Yesterday the Engergy Bulletin Web site posted a column by a high school English teacher named Dan Allen called "Who Then Will Lead Us?" ( Allen decries the same lack of leadership I have sensed and you have here discussed. He defines the kind of leadership we need as "the ability to align the human sphere with biophysical reality." Is such leadership even possible today? Perhaps it's a "be careful what you ask for" question as we see the current leadership void leading toward a possible authoritarian "solution." Allen finally argues that we have to become leaders ourselves to our own communities; our elected officials, no matter how they sound, are mere opportunists and will not lead us where we need to go.

One of the earlier comments here mentioned a rock and a hard place. Indeed.

12/24/09, 1:09 PM

Coyote said...
JMG, the ever expanding economy not only raised financial expectations as you pointed out, it also raised social expectations. It is especially difficult for progressives to see this phenomena. We like to think that we have made progress on racism, equal rights, the environment, etc. I wonder how much of this progress will evaporate with the mythical wealth that helped create tolerance for people who do not look like you or think like you. I fear we have avoided solving many problems because we were fat and rich, and as long as the economy was expanding we had some hope of things getting better.

12/24/09, 1:18 PM

Vic said...
"Afghanistan" the name exudes history. A place “where empires go to die” along with their sycophantic allies. The journalist Robert Fisk creates a stark image of a Kandahar night in 1980 during the Russian occupation:

"I was lying on my bed when I first heard the sound. Allahu akbar, God is great. It was a thin pitched wail. Allahu akbar, God is great. I looked at my watch. This was no fixed time for prayers. It was 9 o'clock. The curfew had just begun. Allahu Akbar. Now the chant came from the next roof, scarcely 20 metres from my room, more a yodel than an appeal to the Almighty. I opened the door to the balcony. The cry was being carried on the air. A dozen, a hundred Allahu akbars, uncoordinated, overlaying each other, building upon a foundation of identical words, high-pitched and tenor, treble and child-like, an army of voices shouting from the rooftops of Kandahar. They swelled in volume, a thousand now, ten thousand, a choir that filled the heavens that floated beneath the white moon and the stars, the music of the spheres.”

Good journalism is hard to find these days. I thought the paragraph was worth sharing. From the book, "The Great War For Civilization: The Conquest of the Middle East". Good luck All.

12/24/09, 2:24 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Koho, thank you for getting it! Especially for recognizing that money is not the same thing as power, and the ability to profiteer from a system does not equal the power to control it.

Don, I winced when I saw that Energy Bulletin article. We've placed our politicians in an impossible situation by demanding from them any number of impossible things -- a prosperous industrial economy and a healthy environment at the same time, for example -- and then, like the author of that article, throw a tantrum at them when they don't deliver. if we're not willing to make changes in our own lives, it's a waste of time demanding that the system make them for us, just as it's a waste of time to expect politicians to meet a moral standard that most Americans are unwilling to meet in their own lives.

And yes, an authoritarian "solution" is one very likely place that we could end up. I hope not, but there it is.

Coyote, you're living up to your namesake's reputation, I see. That's a can of worms of no small magnitude. Most of the liberalism of the last century and a half has been built on the idea that an expanding economy can afford to spread benefits ever more widely. This is one of the reasons that liberalism has been on the wane in the US since we hit our Hubbert peak in 1970; once the economy is no longer growing, it's easy for the right to tap into the growing (and not always inaccurate) sense that any benefit given to a disadvantaged group has to be paid for by taking something away from somebody else.

12/24/09, 2:28 PM

sgage said...
"it's easy for the right to tap into the growing (and not always inaccurate) sense that any benefit given to a disadvantaged group has to be paid for by taking something away from somebody else."

Which, of course, begs the question... who's doing (or has done) the disadvantaging?

The grievances are so spread out over space and time that it's like shooting fish in a barrel for politicians to take advantage...

12/24/09, 4:25 PM

Thardiust said...
"big stores, big farms, big government, big water, big manufacturing, big schools, big transit, big energy, …Big Everything."

hmmm... reminds me of Wall-E.

12/24/09, 5:57 PM

Ron said...
JMG, you cite TOD as your source for the claim that "The most reasonable estimates ... renewable sources can probably provide ... 15% of the energy [the USA] currently gets ..."

If a cluster of well-meaning, intelligent people all use the same assumptions, it's easy to fall into the trap of accepting their conclusions without questioning their assumptions. I have done extensive analysis and have compared mine with others who also come up with very different conclusions. If TOD authors' assumptions have to do with replacing fossil fuels with other fossil fuels, I couldn't agree more. But if the USA is wedded to preserving transport based on liquid fuels, the USA will be non-competitive in the post-carbon economy.

I'm not comfortable with quantified claims that lack quantified backup. The burden of proof rests with you, not TOD and not the reader.

12/24/09, 9:38 PM

Chad said...
My name is chad and I enjoy your blog entries, but I have to disagree on your well reasoned response that diffuse chaos in our financial and political system is status quo.

I'm just a work a day guy with a blue collar background and I've been exposed on a very regular basis to those that serve the corporate, and Wall Street masters.

Organized groups of varying degrees of power and financial prowess set agendas that are carried out regardless of common sense, or moral decency.

Currently, I work as a low level computer technician. My customers on a daily basis ask me scripted questions such as, Do I have to sign anything? Do you know the way out? Do you want anything to drink? Not once as might be expected, but multiple times by the same individual and at every location five to seven times a day.

Guess when this started to happen?

After my public questioning of the power structure in this country and the role that Jews played in that hierarchy.

Yesterday, I received for the first time a random envelope asking me to join an organization of Christians for Israel?

I'm not Christian, and I don't support the occupation of Palestine either.

May your genius not divert you from the possibility that forces of unknown origin exert their will over us common men.

Also, as a magic man and Druid you may understand when I tell you that after drinking a coffee from one such customer a year ago now every night when I layed my ear to my pillow a bellows sound would start nonstop in my left ear only throughout the night. It has subsided, but when I enter a home with a strange intense smell it will start again for a few days. I decline all drinks respectfully now.

Also, I have been interviewed on several computer repair visits who delve into my personal affairs with vigor. Always by a Jew who comments on how happy they are to meet me?

I'm not a conspiracy nut, and hold a 4 year degree from an established university.

Believe what you will, but question too much and as you already know you will be targeted. If you doubt me give it a try.


12/24/09, 10:12 PM

Kevin said...
Your assessment of the role of the draft and the deal that was cut around it in modern US history strikes me as right on target. I lived through the time and remember the heavy political charge that topic carried.

I'm not so sure about the concentration versus dispersion of power in contemporary American society and its relation to wealth. I used to think it was as others have said, that we live in a plutocracy or (as R.A. Wilson put it) a usurocracy, and still think there is considerable evidence to support that idea. But this discussion will likely color my perceptions of the matter henceforth. I may look for alternative explanations of events that I wouldn't otherwise have considered.

I'm glad you mentioned The Oil Drum as the source of your post-carbon energy guesstimate. I've attempted to discuss the post-carbon future with a few people, and am keenly aware of a need for credibly quotable scientific / statistical sources. If anyone could cite a few specifically relevant articles there I'd be obliged.

The topic hasn't been raised here, but I'd like to comment that in many peak oil discussion forums it's common to see someone say "It's already well known that the world is well on the way to a post-depletion scenario," or words to that effect. I want to point out that to the vast majority it is NOT well known at all, because it doesn't get reported on the evening news that most people watch. Hence my attempts to discuss the matter with the few people of my immediate acquaintance. I find it extraordinarily difficult to make headway against the common assumptions of our time.

About your links column: while checking out the Oil Drum and other sites I noticed that Kunstler's blog has changed its address (to, and the Museletter appears to have disappeared altogether. It comes up as something unrelated in (apparently) Chinese or Japanese. Thought you might want to know.

12/24/09, 10:57 PM

tristan said...

Are you a fan of Alan Moore?

"Yes there is a conspiracy, in fact there are a great number of conspiracies and all of them are run by paranoid fantasists and ham fisted clowns... conspiracy theorists actually believe in a conspiracy because that is more comforting. The truth of the world is that it is chaotic... the truth is far more frightening, nobody is in control. The world is rudderless."


12/24/09, 11:12 PM

Pangolin said...
An economy with 1920's per capita energy density can be perfectly comfortable as long as we rebuild the trolley network and insulate buildings very well. With the Christmas school holiday I noticed how empty the roads were and how much futile cycling is the cultural norm.

Watch the State of California. It is now in the process of choking on the greed of vested special interests. With a considerable fraction of the population living in a luxurious fantasy land there will be resistance to change until the State literally goes bankrupt. Raising taxes is a constitutional impossibility.

Food drips from the trees to rot onto private property and we have hungry citizens. There are easily two bedrooms vacant for every homeless citizen. Storefronts stand empty and we have small business failing due to inflexible rents. Everywhere infrastructure is buckling and failing and we imprison the largest percentage of the workforce in the world.

At the heart of this is the concept that individual ownership is more important than community cooperation. The wealthy have decided to take their balls and go home if the poor don't play. A bit of a mexican standoff that will break badly. The wealthy may not share but the poor have matches.

We might not be the first domino to fall, but we'll certainly place or show.

v'word: colma

12/24/09, 11:53 PM

marielar said...
JMG: Wow! You've made sense of a bunch of diffuse impressions I collected over a long time and weaved them into something coherent.

People think I am an alien when I tell them that in North America, the ecosystems are exploited not only by the rich and powerful but by everybody. I might be biased because I live in Canada, where our social safety net is generous. The rich folks get scapegoated because they are the most successful at the game. But I don’t see how politicians or bankers can affect any real changes without being hanged on the public place: nobody want to give up anything. When I worked for the government, I had the opportunity to provide scientific inputs on policies on the management of natural resources. It does not matter that a recommendation made sense for the environment or for long term sustainability. If on the short term, if it cut on somebody comfort, convenience or pocket, unless they represent an insignificant demographic group, it goes to the garbage bin. So we cover deep gashes with band aids instead of implementing the profound structural changes needed. As example, for years scientists at the department of fisheries warned that the Northern cod fishery was unsustainable. Until the cod population collapsed, no politician could take action without signing his political death. And still, years after, the fishermen were fighting for the right to go after the last one.

The middle class is the loudest at any decrease of their spending power. Don’t ask them to give up any of their gadgets and pay 5 to 10% more for their food, even if this means that this would allow a better land stewardship, support smaller farms and give decent salary to the farm labor. In NA, we've got the cheapest grocery basket in the world and the medias pontificate that we cant eat healthy because its too expensive. Yet, it’s in the grasp of most everybody to have a healthy diet, if they prioritize expenses, buy unprocessed ingredients and cook from scratch. Cheap food is killing the land and killing the small farmers who can’t get the economy of scale of the industrial farms. There is now mounting evidences that small scale, intensive organic agriculture is more efficient in term of energy while maintaining yield and I hear people all the time complaining about industrial agriculture. Still, nothing happens except in third word countries like Cuba and pockets in NA where there is a more affluent and educated population. Why? For a first, there is less than 1% of the population which is still involved in farming; demographically they have no weight to change the fundamentals of the system. Second, most family farms are in debt to the roof and can’t invest in environmental mitigation and good land stewardship: its labor intensive and/or costly.

Everybody feel entitled to all they can get, independently of the toll on the planet and of our personal contribution to real wealth, which comes from natural resources, the sun and meaningful human labor and skills. There is no hope as long as we rationalize our unethical, self-centered choices and look for somebody else backyard to shovel responsibilities. Are we all waiting to be destitute to do what needs to be done? Even if all we can hope for are lifeboats, we still need somebody to build them. Once in the water, it’s too late. IMO, if things remain the same, the few communities which are preparing for post oil peak will be overwhelmed by the flood of clueless, unskilled, unfit hordes of people who still enjoy the Oilfest. It takes years to acquire the skills and the level of fitness to live sustainably of the land. This is not the great depression era where 8 out of 10 people were farming. Farmer John can’t cope with ninety nine strangers knocking at his door willing to work for food and lodging. Anyway, who among them could put at 10 hours a day of hard labor? My educated guess is that it will be hell if the food system can’t be turned around soon enough to reverse its brittleness, and population does not crash suddenly.

12/25/09, 4:44 AM

Sid said...
Hi Arch Druid,

Of course it may be that the ‘pork barrel elite’ despite their differences may see another entirely alien group threatening their meat. Looking at the map(1) it is interesting to note where both Iraq and Afghanistan fall relative to that potential usurper: control/chaos in Iraq blocks land (pipeline access) to Saudi oil/gas, and Chaos/control in Afghanistan blocks land access to both Iranian and by default Saudi oil/gas. The other routes are all to a certain degree more problematical. Indeed in any future conflagration it would be relatively simple to shut off supplies very rapidly if one has a substantial influence in that area.
And from a purely systemic perspective (a la Gall) the privatised war machine/system itself will grow and grow until all resources are directed to solely maintaining its existence, even its purpose which has been usurped to this new end. And it started a while back too – George Orwell’s ‘1984’ is a play on numbers – rumour has it he originally intended to call it 1948! Of course certain systemic types will profit from its various teats, but the system itself will roll on to what eventual ends one can only surmise. No one publicly has any knowledge of where all those nukes are…

Happy Mithrasmas!


1 (a Peters world map that shows countries according to their surface area)

12/25/09, 5:23 AM

RAS said...
Thanks again for a good article. I know that those who put timelines on such things are asking to be proved wrong, but how long would you estimate we have until this 'bomb' goes off? I've been trying to estimate for myself and I wanted to see if your estimate matches mine.

12/25/09, 9:38 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Vic, thanks for the quote!

Sgage, in every human society this side of Utopia, the efforts by any one person to better his or her economic or political position put somebody else in a disadvantaged position. So yes, it's like shooting fish in a barrel.

Thardiust, true enough!

Ron, it's easy to play the "prove it" game in a forum like this, and come up with analyses to back any viewpoint you care to imagine. Since my background is in history and philosophy rather than, say, engineering, I get my technical data from people who do have the technical background and whose claims seem reasonable to me, most of whom post on the Oil Drum. I'm familiar with claims of the sort you've made, and I find them less convincing than the ones that have guided my work here; but if you think otherwise, then I'd encourage you to get to work and prove me wrong -- preferably by actually helping to develop and deploy a renewable energy technology.

Chad, I hope you won't take this the wrong way, but you need to talk to a therapist.

Kevin, thanks for a reasoned response! I don't disagree for a moment that there are people who have a disproportionate amount of power in modern America, just as there are in every human society; I note, though, that the country is sinking ever deeper into political gridlock, which is not what normally happens when power is concentrated in the hands of an unchecked elite.

Thanks also for raising the point that the vast majority of people in America and elsewhere have no clue about fossil fuel depletion, or any of the other hard implications of the limits to growth. One of the troubling trends in modern society is that people increasingly talk only to those who already share their viewpoints. One result is a huge number of assumptions about what "the people" think that have nothing to do with what ordinary Americans believe about the world.

Tristan, I am now! Thanks for that -- it's the best summary of our predicament I've seen in a long while.

Pangolin, I'm not sure where we are in the list of dominoes, but the sort of dysfunctions you've listed are pervasive enough that I suspect something's going to give tolerably soon.

Marielar, thank you! One of the things that makes me roll my eyes when middle class pseudoradicals insist that there's some sinister cabal on top of the world is that the North American middle class is arguably the most pampered group of human beings in the history of the world, provided with privileges and pleasures medieval emperors couldn't get, and blithely unaware that those privileges and pleasures are theirs largely because the rest of humanity is being denied three square meals a day and a decent roof over their heads. You're quite right; very few people in the middle class, or most other classes for that matter, are interested in saving the world if that means accepting a lowered standard of living. The fact that this means their standard of living is going to go down the toilet in the not too distant future just adds to the irony.

12/25/09, 12:07 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Sid, and a happy Saturnalia to you, too! Granted, geopolitics also play a massive role in all this. I should probably do a post one of these days discussing the theory of classical geopolitics, since most of the people who talk about it online don't seem to know that there's a very substantial literature on the subject, going back more than a century, which casts a great deal of light on the current mess.

RAS, the timing of something like this is totally unpredictable. It's like the French revolution; everybody knew things were going to blow sky high sooner or later -- apres moi, le deluge -- but the specific circumstances that kicked the revolution into gear were all but random. About the most I can do is to say that I'll be amazed if we get to 2020 and nothing has blown up yet. Could be a lot sooner, but I doubt it'll be any later.

12/25/09, 12:14 PM

tylerdurden said...
You bring conclusions that fail to take into account some details.
Your 15% estimate of renewal energy may be correct, but why are ignoring nuclear powerplants and gas?
Politicians faced with the kind of future that you are describing will certainly not hesitate to take the risks included in nuclear energy, and just a little research shows that there is quite a lot of gas available for a few more decades.
Petrol for "normal" cars will not be available. The change over to electrical cars will be a great improvement for everyone, and maybe someone will come up with a completely new kind of battery, for storing electrical energy...
I also miss a time frame in your otherwise sensible predictions?

Greetings, TDV

12/25/09, 5:05 PM

Apple Jack Creek said...
(I think I posted this yesterday, but maybe I forgot to hit submit... apologies if I'm double posting!)

As a Canadian, I am frequently puzzled by the bits of American culture/politics I run into: it is all so ... well, so very *loud*. Perhaps it's cultural bias (we Canucks are rumored to be terminally polite and all that) but I always assumed the shouting and rhetoric to be mostly noise. I suppose if you think actual armed conflict south of the border is likely in the forseeable future, I might need to reassess.

On a completely different note, I wonder if perhaps some of the 'failure of leadership' and the general inability for the Powers that Be to actually *change* anything is related to matters of scale. We have nations that encompass such vast areas that they also encompass many different subgroups: given how challenging it is to get 10 friends to agree where to go for lunch, it's not surprising that trying to get consensus on policies that affect everyone from the Crunchy Earth Mama in Seattle to the Hollywood Wannabe in California and the Redneck Gun Fanatic in the south is not working very well.

(As a bit of an aside, I have this pet theory that climate has more of an effect on culture than we generally realize: for one thing, if you live where there is wha t I consider "real winter", you are already predisposed to understand basic risk management and the value of preparedness ... which might explain Justin's observation about Canadians).

12/25/09, 9:00 PM

Seppo said...
Couple of ramblings...

about money and its worth - don't know how accurate this is, but in middle ages when there were different small kingdoms in Europe, one prayer in churches was that the king would not debase the money too much (to pay for armies, wars etc); sort of wondering if current financial thingies are not doing the same for current currencies...

Another about splitting a state and Rome... at end of Rome there were several would-be emperors around, and seems that one of the first things to do was to mint some money with this fellows profile on it - there are some that are known only thru some coins, having left no other trace... so if e.g. US would be split to pieces, one of the biggest issues would probably be how these parts could create reliable money to pay for their own armies, police or whatever bureaucracy they wish to erect...

And, in the 17th century, a swedish statesman Axel Oxenstierna said in a letter to his son: "Do you not know, my son, with how little wisdom the world is governed?" - and because the different diets, senates and congresses sort of represent the average of a nation and AFAIK there has not been remarkable advancement in general intelligence of humanity, it just seems that current and coming messes are just business as usual...

12/26/09, 12:23 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Tyler, I'm not "ignoring" nuclear and gas; I'm paying attention to the fact that neither of them are renewable, and both (despite recent overblown claims about gas, in particular) are well along their own depletion curves. We gain nothing by shifting from one rapidly depleting nonrenewable resource to another. As for time frames, trying to anticipate the timing of political shifts is like trying to time the stock market -- a guaranteed way to lose.

Apple, America's a noisy place, granted. What I think a lot of foreign observers miss, though, is the underlying tone of the noise, which has moved from bluster to white-hot rage in recent years, and is continuing to heat up. The noise is not always just noise -- unlike Canada, we've had one civil war already, and a great deal more in the way of smaller-scale internal violence over the last couple of centuries than you have.

Seppo, three excellent points! It's a pity, in a way, that everybody uses paper money these days; the coins minted by competing presidents during the twilight years of the US might help future historians sort things out. I've long wished that I could get a textbook of American history from 2150 or so, just to see how it all works out.

12/26/09, 11:08 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Two responses to offlist comments:

Sid, I'd be delighted to respond, but your comment didn't have an email address attached! Drop me a note by way of info (at) aoda (dot) org and I'll reply.

Giggling, nice try. If you want to ask about my views, by all means, but please do so without distorting what I've said completely out of shape in the hope of scoring points.

12/26/09, 11:16 AM

rj.king said...
JMG, This note is in response to your comments about Democrats and Republicans, and the premise that a republic is a system where people's "votes" count.

I guess none of us can really master every field of human knowledge. I have been reading the Archdruid Report regularly for over a year. I have also read The Long Descent, and I must say that your intellectual abilities, and the breadth and scope of your knowledge is very impressive.

Unfortunately, your understanding of the nature of the capitalist state and how it expresses itself politically seems to be narrow and poorly developed. The capitalist state is "corrupt" by its very nature. Go back to the beginnings and it was corrupt. Watch "Mr Smith goes to Washington" made in the late '30s or early '40s and it was corrupt then and has never really substantially changed. How can an economic and political system that is as socially and economically stratified as the present day US somehow have a healthy democratic government?

The Democratic and Republican parties aren't parties as traditionally defined. They are institutions of the state itself.
They represent the oligarchy. They reflect the interests of the industrial/military complex. This is becoming more transparent to more people every day thanks to Obama's transparent subservience to finance capital and other big corporate interests. Qualitative change can only come from outside of, and counter to Capitalism.

What about an exploration of other political theories (e.g., Kropotkin and his mutual aid societies; Marx's Kapital) and how they might apply to the future we are facing?

Thanks for your thought-provoking writing. Looking foward to more.

12/26/09, 12:50 PM

John Bray said...
Someone much smarter than I once said something along the lines of "you cannot reason someone out of a position that they haven't reasoned themselves into". In many cases, people have an opinion (for whatever reason) and then simply "rationalise" it in any way they can. I am certainly no expert in politics, econonomics or philosophy but I can grasp how this could happen.

In my earlier years I had to do a lot of problem-solving on aircraft and trains. Very often, many people had spent a lot of time on the problem before I got involved. Invariably - when I arrived on the scene - I was told that such-and-such must be the cause and that changing the engine/servo/electronics-unit etc should sort it. It just amazed me how someone cold possibly hold such an opinion when the solution had obviously been tried - and had made no difference. Maybe we should try another new engine? I s**t you not! My approach was always to approach the fault with as much neutrality as possible - what are the symptoms and what could cause them? Just because a jet-engine won't start doesn't mean it needs replacing (though it is a possibility).

The point I'm trying to make here is that, even in an engineering environment, people will hang on to an idea they have committed themselves to previously (in spite of evidence to the contrary). What hope for a politician?

12/26/09, 12:53 PM

John Michael Greer said...
R.J., I don't see a lot of point in revisiting Marx' theories, which have proved to be a total failure whenever anyone's put them into practice. (Kropotkin's anarchism, for its part, self-terminates so quickly that it's never been put into practice, and very likely never will be.) More generally, though, you might want to reread my post, and pay attention to the difference between what I'm saying and what you seem to think I'm saying.

I didn't, for example, call the US a healthy democracy, and in fact I discussed the extent to which its elections are managed by fraud, lies, and bribery. The point I'm trying to make is that it can't be characterized by such simplistic political schemes as those very popular notions these days that assume that because "the people" (whatever that hazy abstraction means) don't have power, some small and malevolent elite must have it instead, and everything wrong with the country could be fixed by liquidating the elite and replacing them with whoever claims to be the authentic voice of popular sovereignty this time around.

John, thanks for a very cogent example! Economists insisting that more market liberalization will solve all economic troubles, after a couple of decades of evidence that market liberalization causes economic troubles, are using the same sort of reasoning. Of course there's another point -- if somebody gets paid to tinker with electronics units, and their income, position, and prestige depend on your status as a servicer of electronics units, they're likely to insist that every problem is a problem with the electronics unit even when the evidence doesn't support that...

12/26/09, 1:11 PM

sgage said...
"you cannot reason someone out of a position that they haven't reasoned themselves into".

There's an old Hopi saying:

"You can't wake up someone who is pretending to sleep".

12/26/09, 1:16 PM

tylerdurden said...
"Tyler, I'm not "ignoring" nuclear and gas; I'm paying attention to the fact that neither of them are renewable, and both (despite recent overblown claims about gas, in particular) are well along their own depletion curves. We gain nothing by shifting from one rapidly depleting nonrenewable resource to another. As for time frames, trying to anticipate the timing of political shifts is like trying to time the stock market -- a guaranteed way to lose."

This is a limited planet, so naturally everything is on a depletion curve, you will know the second law of thermodynamics and its final consequence, I am sure.

Is it not a fact, that certainly you and I, and probably all of the readers of this blog, are definitely too old to encounter an impasse in energy so big, that it will have the consequences you are describing?
So there remains simply the fear, that something like this could happen?
Is it wise to live and function out of fear of something, that no one reading here will ever encounter?

Tyler Durden Volland

12/26/09, 2:40 PM

J Gav said...
I don't know where to start. So I'll begin with a quote from Marcel Proust: "Facts do not enter into the place where our beliefs dwell." (from Du côté de chez Swann; original text: "Les faits ne pénètrent pas dans le monde où vivent nos croyances.") I very much doubt that Proust was thinking of limits to growth and overshoot when he wrote that but wisdom is expandable.

That was to signal agreement with the Archdruid as to the mighty disconnect between what many people may think will bail us out and what nature has in 'mind' for us. J. Bray, commenting here, came pretty close when he wrote: " ...people will hang onto the idea they've committed themselves to previously." Who cares about the 2nd law of thermodynamics and resource depletion on a finite planet?

An aside on the question of conspiracies, New World Order, etc. which seems to come up recurrently on this blog comment page among others: Conspiracies have always existed, still do and will continue to, well beyond the lifetime of anyone reading this (see the history of the Italian Medici family for a good primer from the Renaissance). Governments do not exist without conspiracies, period! (Oh, sorry, that was an exclamation point). They may be "rudderless," as Alan Moore suggests, they do not cease to exist for all that. 'They' in fact spend great quantities of money (40% of the Defense budget in this country is 'black,' i.e. unaccounted for, according to Chalmers Johnson; that is BIG money). 'They'do indeed have considerable wealth and power, more than anyone has ever had in the history of the world in fact but 'they' do not always agree amongst themselves regarding what should be done with it. As the Archdruid points out, power-and-money-hungry factions abound. And 'They,' rather than building a NWO, seem to be stuck into a paradigm which guarantees the emergence of a NWD (New World Disorder) ... the 'best' laid plans of mice and men? 'They' should nevertheless not be underestimated as a force to be reckoned with and which may yet be capable of pulling off a coup or two to the detriment of 'lesser citizens.' To pretend they control everything and are responsible for all the world's problems is idiocy. To pretend they don't exist is a cop-out.

More importantly though, the key issues (food, water, energy) must become more regional and locally grounded starting NOW, despite all efforts on 'their' part. When people finally realize who they (not 'They') are, they will understand how well-founded was Montaigne's admonition: "Of all our maladies, the most injurious is the scorn we show for our own being."

PS Well, not sure what this is worth but, frankly, when was the last time you saw Proust and Montaigne quoted on the same page?

12/26/09, 4:18 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Sgage, good. I also like the quote from Upton Sinclair: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it."

Tyler, from my perspective you're putting things in inappropriately all-or-nothing terms. Energy shortages are already a fact of life in much of the Third World, and the additional burden of rising real costs for energy production (however covered up by government subsidies, etc.) are having a real and damaging impact on economies worldwide. That will likely get much worse in the years and decades to come. We don't have to run out of energy entirely for shortages and rising costs to shred the fabric of life in the industrial world.

Gav, of course conspiracies exist; not too long ago I filled a 250,000-word encyclopedia with info about them. Lots of conspiracies exist, and rather more often than not, they're at war with one another. The thing that most people don't get, though, is that political conspiracy is a tool of weakness, not of strength. Every successful political conspiracy, from the Sons of Liberty to the Thule-Gesellschaft, dropped the secret handshakes and the conspiratorial methods the moment it was strong enough to turn into an overt political movement. If the American political class were as riddled with conspiracies as some people think, that would be solid evidence of the essential weakness of that class.

12/26/09, 8:05 PM

Tiago said...
It is interesting that you raise the issue of anarchism, because I think it can give us some interesting departures from the typical liberal thinking:

1. Government: liberals (and communists) put much emphasis on
government and world government. Anarchists remind us that govt might
not be a good thing. Of course the idea is taken to the extreme that ANY govt is bad. But taken in moderate doses, it is an healthy antidote to the liberal fetish of a vanguard government that will steer us to paradise. I note, BTW, that (some) conservatives are also
fans of big govt, just in different way: think WTO (as a form of world
order) or the military.

2. Self-reliance. Again the anarchist extreme should be avoided: direct action is not a good idea (furthermore, it is self-defeating). But, again, it provides a nice antidote to the liberal/communist view that the "oppressed" are a bunch of weak people
in need of piety and state assistance. Anarchists stress the idea of self-education, bottom-up approaches and community. The libertarian
center was in many cases, above all, a library. Anyway, in some sense there are some connections between traditional anarchism and conservativism as both invite people to try to take responsibility for their own destiny.

3. Localism and autonomous communities. I find the idea of "one Earth,
one people therefore one single solution", particularly dangerous. While the idea that we are all in this together in the same big ecosystem is a good one, and also the idea that we all share the same basic human rights is cool, the extrapolation that therefore a
single solution fits all and that there is a vanguard that is in the
possession of that solution strikes me as particularly dangerous.

Much of the inspiration for the comments above comes, not only from
reading anarchist authors, but also from reading something more
fashionable nowadays: Taleb's Black Swan. And also Herman Daly.

A good measure of decoupling (autonomy, if you prefer) is a good thing, IMHO.

From a philosophical perspective anarchism provides a good antidote to
some dangerous underlying assumptions of the left. The practical implementations might be rubbish, but the ideas serve some purpose.

12/27/09, 4:31 AM

pasttense said...
John Michael Greer,
No you are the one making the error about energy. The 15% limit on renewable use is a limit referring to using solar energy when the sun is shining and using wind energy when the wind is blowing... In those situation then clearly you need substantial alternative energy production from other means when the wind is not blowing and when the sun is not shining and when you have only a very limited capacity to move energy around the country... But currently we have these alternatives: gas, nuclear, coal. In the future when these deplete (and I don't see breeder nuclear reactors depleting) we will have storage devices to use solar and wind energy at any time. And the amount of potential wind and solar, and other renewable energy is vastly greater than what we will want to use. So I simply do not see any long-term energy crisis. What we have is a short-term energy crisis, but this short-term period (say the next 30 years or so) is probably longer than the rest of my life. And the fact that the world is making virtually no effort to transition means that the transition will be very brutal.

12/27/09, 6:44 AM

Shiner said...
I looked it up and it seems Greer is a jewish last name. I also checked and all your publishers are jewish dominated companies.

That explains a lot.

You're just another gate keeper.
Shame on you.

12/27/09, 8:43 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Tiago, all this is quite true. Back when there was such a thing as conservatism -- we don't have that in America any more, you just two quarreling sets of Utopian true believers with different prescriptions for the perfect society -- each of the points you've raised were also things that conservatives supported and upheld. I doubt either anarchists or old-fashioned conservatives would have appreciated being compared to one another, but there it is.

Past Tense, we'll be at peak gas in twenty years and peak coal in thirty; breeder reactors have proven to be an expensive flop in every country that's tried them; and betting the future on the hope that we can come up with presently unknown technologies to store solar and and wind energy without crippling losses is not exactly a bright idea. That is, I stand by my comments.

Shiner, I'm sure my Presbyterian Scottish ancestors -- Greer is a byname of Clan MacGregor, as you would have found out if you'd actually done some research -- would have been very surprised to be told that they were Jewish. If you want to know why nobody takes people like you seriously, this sort of stupidity is why.

12/27/09, 10:37 AM

Ricardo Rolo said...
About the 15% quoted by Mr Greer: I do not know the precision of it's sources, but I can say, based on official statistics that Portugal and Luxembourg, that are developed countries with little or none usable oil, gas or coal and with no nuclear power plants as well ( thus completely dependent of imports in terms of any non-renewable source of power, making things far more easy to pinpoint ), have more than 80% of their energy usage (between electricity usage and transport needs )being filled by the burn of fossil fuels. So, I guess that his numbers are not so far off ... obviously suposing that nothing really changes: if you don't eat bananas from Martinique, you don't spend the energy needed to transport it to your home in edible conditions and that skewes direct comparisons.

I guess that most people failed to see the relevance of the comparison of today's USA with the end of the Roman republic ( that , probably not by acident, already had passed my mind several times during the last decade ). Probably the biggest diference is the lack of personal armies in the sense that Julius Caesar, Sulla, Marius, Pompey or Octavius had ( but there is little diference between Blackwater and co and the private armies that Pompey or Octavius had assembled and put at the service of Republic as long as it was useful for them )... atleast for now, that is. A thing that is a bad omen: the late Roman republic in it's agony spreaded chaos everywhere their armies could get ( my biggest concern with the US Army is exactly that: that politics get berserk and use it to try to get stuff worldwide at gunpoint while they still have bullets at a scale that makes the current operations in the Middle East child's play ) while Italy proper was dilacerated by raging poverty due to the destruction of the communities by the big owners "enclousures" and focus on meat production ( ovines, as Australians start to understand now, are only second to the caprines in terms of destroying soils due to erosion and there is wide documentation of areas in Italy like Apulia, that had been a a wheat haven, becoming a barren wasteland due to the uncontroled proliferation of big owners ovine cattle ) ... if America goes that way, it will be very bad to everyone.

To make things worse, my biggest fear seems that is coming true: that someone reads history as I did , but takes the conclusion that Augustus saved the day by unification of control. Augustus saved the Roman empire of collapsing in his days not because of unifying control in a sense that everyone would call fascist or worse today ( well, Mussolini admired Augustus ... ) but by ( mostly unwillingly ) reducing the spendings, especially on military. Rome in the later years of Augustus had a smaller military that the forces that Julius and Pompey had in hands in Pharsalia alone, just to give a idea of how bloated the military had become in those days. A similar evolution in America would need, as it happened in Rome, some decades of bitter civil wars in and out of the country to soften enough the people to acept a princeps in Octavian terms ( that is, a messianic figure, a soter, a divus ) . And ,besides that, Rome power was not based in the use of a rapidly decreasing resource as the US is ( if I had to guess I would say that , without oil , the US military power is 0 or very close of it: tanks, mechanized infantry and planes run basically on oil and the whole philosophy behind the US army is to have secure and ample logistical support ... Rome army only needed iron ore, wood , food and cannon fodder ) , so any direct comparison is hard.

Anyway, Happy Natalis Solis Invictus

12/27/09, 11:40 AM

John Bray said...
JMG: not even full-moon and yet already they seem to be coming out :o)

12/27/09, 11:42 AM

marielar said...
Actually, I think Marx work is worth revisiting and I would not write off Socialism based on USSR and China. Many leading ecologists and biologists like Richard Lewontin, Stephen J. Gould were Marxists and admitted freely that their work was influence by Marx ideas. Many countries on the left of the political spectrum achieved higher standards of life (universal healtcare, literacy etc..) on a much smaller ecological footprint (EF) than USA. For example Norway, which has an EF of about 6 ha per capita, compared to the 10 ha per capita of the US. Or even Canada, with 7 ha per capita EF.

It may surprised quite a few, but Marx had great ecological insights and was very well versed in the science of his time and Darwin's and Justus von Liebig's work influenced him .
He certainly was very insighful on the impact of capitalism on soil degradation:

"Moreover, all progress in capitalistic agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the labourer, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time, is a progress towards ruining the lasting sources of that fertility. The more a country starts its development on the foundation of modern industry, like the United States, for example, the more rapid is this process of destruction. Capitalist production, therefore, develops technology, and the combining together of various processes into a social whole, only by sapping the original sources of all wealth — the soil and the labourer."
Anyhow, here an interesting essay on the topic.

12/27/09, 12:18 PM

Doubting Thomas said...
John Michael, Your insights command attention for, among other reasons, the historical knowledge you use to show parallels between today's events and what's happened in the past. My attention in this week's post was riveted on the parenthetical "My guess?.." near the end. Coup d'etat? Civil war? There is a huge difference among the possible outcomes, in terms of suffering. What are your historically informed thoughts about what well-intentioned people can do to minimize the potential for the worst of these to occur?

12/28/09, 12:59 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Ricardo, I don't expect an exact repeat of the end of the Roman republic; as you point out, there are a lot of practical differences. You're square on target, though, when you note the vulnerability of the US military to energy shortages. Our entire military doctrine basically consists of winning by burning more fossil fuels than the other guy, and unless we retool in a hurry, the US military and those of its allies and satellite states may find themselves hugely vulnerable to armies that use less fuel and more manpower.

John, well, yes. This happens every time I cast doubt on conspiracy theories. Maybe there's a conspiracy to foster conspiracy theories! ;-) As Giza X used to sing: "Help! Help! The paranoids are coming! The paranoids are coming! They want to get me! They want to get me!"

Marielar, I think Marx is worth reading as a social critic; it's simply that his substitute for capitalism has turned out to be even worse (socialist countries have had a worse environmental record than capitalist ones, for example). There's a saying in Russia these days: "Every word Marx wrote about Communism was false, but every word he wrote about capitalism is true."

Thomas, heck of a good question. The problem with any kind of easy answer is that historical events are driven by extraordinarily complex and unpredictable patterns of cause and effect in which accident and statistical noise play huge roles; it's almost never possible to say "this action will produce this effect" and be right even a majority of the time.

One of the few consistent patterns I note, though, is that it's when people are convinced that change can only make things better that it's most likely that change will make things worse; those who expect heaven on earth are most likely to encounter the opposite. The problem, of course, is how to get people thinking about just how ghastly things could get if we don't start paying attention to the downside, and I don't have an easy answer for that, either.

12/28/09, 7:52 AM

Twilight said...
I've grown weary of the phrase "conspiracy theory". Often we're presented with official explanations of things that require one to believe an unlikely series of coincidences and logical leaps, and accept various obvious errors. The rational response is to greet this stuff with a healthy skepticism. The information vacuum naturally attracts those who believe in space lizards to jump in with their own ideas, but those who would merely say "this explanation is obvious crap" get tarred with the same "conspiracy theory" brush even if they propose no theory at all. I find it especially irritating when the term is applied to those who are explicitly rejecting an obviously flawed theory about a conspiracy.

The phrase has become a pejorative expression often used to discredit both those who espouse truly nutty ideas (like Shiner's) and those who refuse to go along with official propaganda. It now means "bad things we are not supposed think about", and it really needs to be retired. Ideas do not really need names or labels.

I can assure you that many of the ideas presented here will be greeted with howls of conspiracy theory by the public at large. Many of the things I have come to understand over the years would be too, and a few even actually are literally that - but so what. My mind is open to ideas, and I am not afraid to consider things even if others are laughing at them. That's kind of why I read here.

12/28/09, 9:12 AM

Walter said...
JMG - I like your "power is diffused through scores of competing factions" argument. It helps to assuage my fears of the feds instituting Mussolini-type fascism. I look forward to a partitioning of the former-USA into regional factions.

Your latest writing seems to indicate you are shortening the timeline of the "long descent" into a more precipitous decline. I am looking for a Black Tuesday in February myself, but if it doesn't happen, I will continue in my present fashion.

One other point. There is quite a difference between elders in hunter-gatherer tribes or even clan-based agricultural societies and the ruling elites of state-level societies. Structurally, it is the difference between resources shared by families and resources shared by class. Culturally, it is the reinforcement of traditions in two separate foci - family vs. the state. Mussolini and other dictators were quite astute to act as "fathers" to their people in order to confuse the two. In Italy today you can still hear some affection for Mussolini - "at least he made the trains run on time." Neither Obama, nor Palin, nor whoever becomes the next President can get that done (as one example), so it would be very hard to see them as a valid father/mother figure.

Finally, per the paranoiacs out there, I like this old saying. "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't out to get you."

12/28/09, 11:38 AM

John Bray said...
Marx: I've always felt that he did a pretty good job of explaining how capitalism operates. Having got such a good handle on it he should've gone in to management-consultancy. What a waste!

12/28/09, 1:31 PM

bryant said...
One of the few consistent patterns I note, though, is that it's when people are convinced that change can only make things better that it's most likely that change will make things worse

Do you suppose that the corollary may be true? I tend to think things will be awful and change from bad to worse; maybe they will get better instead!

Nah! Stuff like that never happens. Still, thanks for a brief glimpse of hope, however false it may have been.

IMHO, these last several posts have been amongst your most insightful.

12/28/09, 1:37 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Twilight, as I commented in a post a while back, my lack of enthusiasm for conspiracy theories isn't based on a conviction that the official story is always right. It's based on a recognition that the hunt for culprits very often turns into a search for scapegoats to blame for our collective mistakes and a distraction from the hard work we need to pursue right now. Those who blame a cabal around Dubya for conspiring to invade Iraq, for example, are evading the fact that everybody who bought an SUV was in effect voting for that invasion with their pocketbooks.

Walter, the collapse of the current US political system (and its replacement by another) does not equal the end of industrial society. My timeline is the same as it's been; I'm simply pointing to one of the potentially imminent crises that will play a role in the long descent. As for the difference between tribal elders and the elite groups of a civilization, it's a difference in scale rather than kind -- a great many of the current elite, you know, got where they are because of who their parents were.

John, very funny.

Bryant, hang onto that hope. Game theory shows that successful strategy starts by identifying negative outcomes, and eliminating them, starting with the worst. In the end, you win by not losing. It's by being aware of the downside that we have the best chance of forestalling it, and hanging on to as much of value as possible.

12/28/09, 3:28 PM

skintnick said...
As the political spectrum has narrowed since Reagan in the US, so it has since Thatcher in the UK. Our New Labour appears more and more like New Conservative, even with a supposed-Old Labour (left) man at the helm. But surely there remain so few 1960s ideologically-driven sympathisers on the left to make it sensible to ignore them? Surely the new left is pushing for localisation in all walks of life including politics? And if so, excempt from your indictment of pursuing self-interest except by supporting the local community.

I know this is a non-political blog so excuse the rant please! Surely the period in which we find ourselves (so elaborately described by JMG) demands a wholehearted attempt to enlighten the electorate and a third way? Or is the serious possibility of a fresh push towards the underlying intention of representative democracy just wishful thinking?

12/28/09, 4:40 PM

skintnick said...
Why can't I print off comments and read them in front of the fire instead of here in the freezing office?

12/28/09, 5:05 PM

jagged ben said...
As a Jew (who earns a living with his hands, I might add) I have to pipe up and say how disappointing it is to see so much anti-Jewish racism appear in the comments on one of my favorite blogs.

On a not entirely unrelated note...

I think those who find it difficult to believe that power in contemporary America is "difuse" may partly be unable to appreciate the scale of present day populations. If we consider that "one percent" of Americans that have been enriching themselves at everyone else's expense, that is still 3 million rich people. That's a population plenty large enough to support many different competing factions. If you doubt that, try getting any 3 million people to state their agreement with you on something.

12/28/09, 5:49 PM

guamanian said...
Hi John -- it was a pleasure meeting you on your Canadian junket!

On the discussion about ruling elite(s) and/or conspiracies, I think the Pareto principle (80% of results comes from 20% of the causes) probably applies to elite influence. From this perspective, your model of many competing players wielding political influence could be roughly quantified... about 20% of those players wield 80% of the power... if, within that 20%, about 20% of them wield 80% of the 80%, and this process repeats a few times in a nested fashion, then you would get something approximating the 'evil elite' that some of the conspiracy-minded posters have postulated.

Abstract wealth DOES work this way, with a few gazillionaires owning more 'money' than the rest of us put together, but as you have pointed out, this wealth is largely chimerical.

Politics is considerably more complex. Since pork-barreling involves control of real infrastructure and resources, and meeting obligations up and down the political food chain, I suspect that negative feedbacks prevent the 'Nested Pareto Principle' from applying for more than a couple of iterations. That would be just enough consolidation of power to make belief in conspiracies plausible, but not enough to make belief in them predictive of the behavior of the system as a whole, which strikes me as roughly the way things actually work out.

It is also worth noting that there is a fine line between a conspiracy and the existence of covert players in the system. Black operations exist, and at a large enough scale that millions of Americans have been exposed to them at various points in their lives.

As a trivial example -- I grew up partially in Southeast Asia, living for a time on a massive covert airbase run by a CIA proprietary airline that existed to support a secret war in a technically neutral country. This experience was not unusual. Literally millions of Americans have spent time living and working in the illegal 'black' world, and many have come out of this experience with a predisposition to believe that covert power trumps civil power. We have seen it demonstrated in at least one domain, so we know that it may also be the case in others.

It may be that this is even a small factor in the decline of US civil society... when too much of the population has witnessed the black world, civil society begins to seem unreal to them -- a kind of puppet theater rather than an actual exercise of power. From this position it is a small step to despairing of participation.

Of course the nature of the covert operation makes a huge difference in its subsequent blowback on civil society - many people worked on the Manhattan Project and went on as humane and constructive local and national leaders. I doubt that the same can generally be said of the Phoenix Program.

Looking ahead, decline and disintegration will tend to reduce the power of elites, 'conspiracies', covert ops, and the rest of the menagerie of centralized power, since all of these require a great deal of social complexity, wealth, and energy to exist.

I believe you are right in emphasizing that however differently we might view recent history and politics, constructive social and political engagement with each other in our communities is essential in the future.

12/29/09, 1:32 PM

rj.king said...
JMG , Kropotkin wrote a book called Mutual Aid. I thought that discussing its main premise might have dovetailed with your previous post on fraternal groups like the Elks , Odd Fellows, etc. It seemed to me that it might be useful to discuss mutual aid organizations from a more working class left-wing perspective. Back before social security and unemployment insurance many grassroots independent organizations were out there helping working people. Many were organized by Anarchists, and Socialists. Anarchist organizations in Spain during their civil war did some incredible things. Recently, the occupied factory movement in Argentina has also been interesting to study. Naomi Klein’s movie “The Take” covers the Argentinean movement well. As the world continues to degenerate we are likely to see a revival, and an improvement, of these older organizational models. I have been thinking this over for a few years now, and I have concluded that building neighborhood committees, workplace groups, rural groups, etc., that are independent, creative and self-organized are a way forward to address the hard times coming . I do not see voting, or placing any confidence in government as being a useful strategy. Emma Goldman said it best: “If voting changed anything they would make it illegal.” I must admit I still like the Wobblies’ idea of “One Big Union” and general strikes as means to fight for social change.
Marx died in the 1880’s and could not possibly have known about or been responsible for the 1917 Russian Revolution or the Stalinist states that came later on. Whether Marx would have supported Lenin and the Bolsheviks has been debated since the beginning. Many Marxists did not support what happened during that era. Marx’s original Social Democratic Parties exist to this day in Germany and other places as you are probably aware. I found it surprising that you felt like you could dispatch with Marxism in only a couple of pages in The Long Descent. It’s just another religion according to you, end of story. In your reply to me you barely give it couple of sentences. I think Marxism is far more complex than your treatment of it.
I think that Marx’s Das Kapital was a brilliant critique of capitalism and worth reviewing. Historical Materialism is also worth some thought. As you can probably guess I come from a Marxist background, but I wouldn’t really call myself a Marxist anymore. It doesn’t look much like the industrial proletariat will be making a revolution any time soon. In fact it could well disappear as an economic class as the deindustrialization process progresses But Marxism as a methodology still has its relevance.
Its you’re blog you can obviously discuss what you please. Thanks for hearing me out.

12/29/09, 5:33 PM

gardenserf said...
A question and a comment:

What is your take on China's statements on climate and population control?

I have my own opinions which I've expressed on my blog and this amounts to that climate/carbon control is a codeword for human population control which global factions haven't agreed on...yet. How's that for conspiracy theories?

As far as Afghanistan being the place where "empires go to die", sometimes those empires commit suicide there after a long bout with drug abuse.

12/30/09, 7:43 AM

Sabretache said...
Good stuff as always JMG - but like others here, I have serious issues with your use of the term 'conspiracist' - also with your somewhat sanguine view of politicians as representative of the populations they ostensibly represent. Won't bore you with elaboration here but those two subjects jarred with me sufficiently to prompt a full post on my own blog.

12/30/09, 9:04 AM

wylde otse said...
jagged ben,
It has been said 'blood is thicker than water'...but also that 'money is thicker than blood'. None of 'dem 3 millions are gonna willingly let theirs go; in fact, left to their own devices, they will take yours too :o) and given that the government, police, and army are in their control, won't rest until you are totally powerless, grovelling in abject poverty.

12/30/09, 1:30 PM

skintnick said...
@Don "Is there a Winston Churchill or Abraham Lincoln waiting in the wings who can speak the truth to the nation--in other words, unveil and confront that ticking time bomb--and give us a chance to avoid the worst elements of the coming upheavals, yet still have a chance to be elected to office?"

Exactly what I've been wondering - where is the enlightened, benign leader who has the muscle to get airtime to get this message across and the charisma to persuade the masses of an appropriate response to the predicaments we now face? Of course, s/he will not be part of the 2-party system so it will be difficult to access mainstream media.

12/31/09, 8:52 AM

Kurt said...
Take a moment to work through the consequences in your own life; if you made $50,000 in 2009, for example, imagine having to live on $7,500 in 2010.

Is this consistent with ideas you set forth in _The Long Descent_?

I think there will be a political crackup though and that Orlov has a very good hold on how it might play out. I would be interested in more illumination/speculation on what you could bring to it from a historical perspective.

12/31/09, 1:13 PM

mmm said...
I found this today: Peak Oil might be delayed?

Stuart Staniford at the Early Warning blog describes how Iraqi oil production could delay the grim impact of the Peak Oil.

If political stability can be sustained, Iraq's oil production could keep oil prices relatively low for a decade, further undermining efforts to switch to alternative sources of energy.

I've summarized his analysis at

1/7/10, 7:29 AM

Brian Gordon said...
As a Canadian, I am greatly concerned about the upcoming collapse of the U.S. Partly this is because so much of our trade is with the U.S., and partly because of the possibilities mentioned in the article. The predator morality ( is currently dominant in the U.S., and essentially is says that might makes right. Meaning, if you can get away with it, it is your right to do so and it is right to do so.

As a resource-rich nation directly north of the U.S., the thought of a military coup or other extremist response to oil shortages sends chills down my spine; I really don't want to be the next country the U.S. imposes itself upon in order to keep the oil flowing a bit longer.

On another note, a U.S. economic collapse will, I suspect, solve the U.S. immigration debate. In a shrinking economy, immigrants will be seen as a burden by a majority of constituents and serious measures will be put in place to end population growth via immigration. Of course, immigration is already reversing as people return to developing countries that now have prospects for them about as good as the U.S. offers, without the disadvantages of being despised or discriminated against, and surrounded by family.

2/3/10, 6:23 PM

Chris Balow said...

You've mentioned here, and in other posts, that you see the possibility of another civil war in America's near future. Several times, I think, you've pointed to the fact that not since the years leading up to 1860 have American politics been so vitriolic and contentious.

I have a hard time picturing this scenario, though. The difference, to me, is that today's political battles are taking place in every region, rather than between regions. There are trends, obviously (the South is generally more “conservative,” while the Northeast is generally more “liberal”), but we can plenty of exceptions to this generality. The South, for example, is dotted with cities that could hardly be considered “conservative,” (Austin, Athens, New Orleans, Charlotte, etc.) while rural areas of the Midwest and Northeast would be far more “conservative” by comparison.

Maybe there's something I'm missing from your analysis, but again, I haven't been seeing any inter-regional animosity. Rather, I'm seeing these battles played out in the mass media, which is beamed into every region, with individuals choosing sides in every region.

Your thoughts?

4/15/11, 7:16 AM