Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Alternatives to Nihilism, Part Three: Remember Your Name

A bit of retrospective may be useful at this point, as we close in on the core of the argument I’ve been developing here. The first post in this series, “A Dog Named Boo,” explored the sudden turn toward nihilism that seized America’s culture and public imagination in the wake of the Seventies; the second, “Lead Us Away From Here,” analyzed the fantasy of elite omnipotence and public powerlessness that became conventional wisdom straight across the political spectrum in the wake of that shift.

The connection between the shift and the fantasy may not be instantly obvious to all my readers, but it can be made a good deal clearer by looking more closely at what happened as the Seventies ended and our society’s thirty-year vacation from reality began. During the Seventies, a great many Americans came face to face with the hard fact that they could have the comfortable and privileged lifestyles they were used to having, or they could guarantee a livable world for their grandchildren, but they couldn’t do both. The vast majority of them – or, more precisely, of us – chose the first option and closed their eyes to the consequences. That mistake was made for understandable and profoundly human reasons, but it was still a mistake, and it haunts the American imagination to this day.

The impact of that choice is perhaps easier to trace on the conservative end of America’s social and political spectrum. Forty years ago, the Republicans had at least as good a record on environmental issues as the Democrats, and the idolatry of the unrestrained free market that pervades the American right these days was a fringe ideology widely, and rightly, considered suspect by most conservatives. For that matter, creationism and speculations about the imminence of the End Times were consigned to the fringes by most American Christians, who by and large considered them irrelevant to the task of living a life centered on the teachings of the Christian gospel.

All these things changed in a hurry at the end of the Seventies. Why? Because the attitudes that replaced them – the shrill insistence that the environment doesn’t matter, that the free market will solve every problem, that the world was created in 4004 BCE with as much oil, coal, and gas as God wants us to have, and that the world will end in our lifetimes so our grandchildren won’t have to deal with the mess we’d otherwise be leaving them – are all attempts to brush aside the ugly fact that the choices made at the end of the Seventies, and repeated by most Americans at every decision point since then, have cashed in the chance of a better future for our grandchildren, and spent the proceeds on an orgy of consumption in the present.

The squirmings of the leftward end of American culture and politics are a little subtler, since the Left by and large responded to the end of the Seventies by clinging to its historic ideals, while quietly shelving any real attempt to do anything about them. It’s discomfort with this response that leads so many people on the Left to insist angrily that they’ve done all they can reasonably be expected to do about the environment, in the midst of pursuing a lifestyle that’s difficult to distinguish, on any basis but that of sheer fashion, from that of their Republican neighbors. It also drives the frankly delusional insistence on the part of so many people on today’s Left that everyone on Earth can aspire to a middle class American lifestyle if the evil elites already discussed would simply let it happen, and the equally, if more subtly, delusional claim that some suite of technologies currently in the vaporware stage will permit the American middle class to have its planet and eat it too.

Look beyond the realm of partisan quarrels and the same deeply troubled conscience appears over and over again in American life. Consider, as one example out of many, the way that protecting children turned from a reasonable human concern to an obsessive-compulsive fixation. Raised under the frantic surveillance of helicopter moms, forbidden from playing outside or even visiting another child’s home except on the basis of a prearranged and parentally approved play date, a generation of American children were held hostage by a galaxy of parental terrors that have only the most distorted relationship to reality, but serve to distract attention from the fact that the lifestyles chosen by these same parents were condemning their children to a troubled and dangerous life in a depleted, polluted, and impoverished world.

The irony reached a dizzying intensity as tens of thousands of American parents rushed out to buy SUVs to transport their children to places every previous generation of American children proved perfectly capable of reaching by themselves on foot or on bike. It became the conventional wisdom, during the peak of the SUV craze, that the safety provided to young passengers by these massive rolling fortresses justified their purchase. No one wanted to deal with the fact that it was precisely the lifestyle exemplified by the SUV that was, and remains, the single most pressing threat to children’s long-term safety and welfare.

A great many of the flailings and posturings that have defined American culture from the Eighties to the present, in other words, unfolded from what Jean-Paul Sartre called “bad faith” – the unspoken awareness, however frantically denied or repressed, that the things that actually mattered were not things anyone was willing to talk about, and that the solutions everyone wanted to discuss were not actually aimed at their putative targets. The lie at the heart of that bad faith was the desperate attempt to avoid facing the implications of the plain and utterly unwelcome fact that there is no way to make a middle class American lifestyle sustainable.

Let’s repeat that, just for the sake of emphasis: there is no way to make a middle class American lifestyle sustainable.

That’s the elephant in the living room, the thing that most of a nation has been trying not to see, and not to say, for so many years. The middle class American lifestyle, to borrow and extend Jim Kunstler’s useful decription of suburbia, is an arrangement without a future; it’s utterly dependent on the rapid exploitation of irreplaceable resources, and the longer that it’s pursued, and the more people pursue it, the worse the consequences will be for children now living, and for a great many generations not yet born. It really is as simple as that.

Now it’s not at all hard to find books, films, websites, and speakers who say as much, but it’s intriguing to watch how universally these avoid the next logical step. What do you do if you’re pursuing a way of life that has no future? Well, apparently you read books denouncing that way of life, or heap praise on cultures conveniently distant in space or time that you think had or have or will have a different way of life, or engage in token activities intended to show that your heart really isn’t in that way of life, or vent your rage against whoever it is that you blame for your decision to keep on following that way of life, or fixate with increasing desperation on manufactured prophecies insisting that the Rapture or the Singularity or the space brothers or somebody, anybody, will bring that way of life to an end for you so that you don’t have to do it yourself.

The one thing you apparently don’t do is the one thing that actually matters, which is changing the way you live here and now.

That’s the rock on which the sustainability movement of the Seventies broke, and it’s claimed plenty of victims since then. The climate change movement is a good recent example. Now it’s true that there were plenty of reasons why the climate change movement followed the trajectory it did from apparent unstoppability a decade ago to its current dead-in-the-water status today. The ingenuousness with which climate change activists allowed their opponents to redefine the terms of the debate very nearly at will, and the movement’s repeated attempts to rest its arguments on the faltering prestige of science in an age when most Americans are well aware that scientific opinions can be purchased to order for the cost of a modest grant, did not help the cause any.

Still, I’ve come to think that the Achilles’ heel of the entire movement was the simple fact that none of its spokespersons showed any willingness to embrace the low-energy lifestyle they insisted the rest of the world had to adopt. Al Gore, with his sprawling air-conditioned mansion and his frequent jet trips, was the poster child here, but he had plenty of company. It was because climate change activists so often failed to walk their talk, I suggest, that millions of Americans decided they must be making the whole thing up, just as the obvious eagerness of the United States to push carbon limits on every other nation while refusing to accept them at home convinced China among others that the global warming crusade was simply one more gimmick to prop up the crumbling edifice of American hegemony, and brought the movement toward a worldwide carbon treaty to the standstill where it remains today.

The same blind spot continues to plague what’s left of the climate change movement. Consider former environmentalist Stewart Brand, who used to edit The Whole Earth Catalog, for heaven’s sake. Brand’s current position, retailed at length in his recent book Whole Earth Discipline, is that we have to run our economy on nuclear power because burning coal is bad for the environment. Now of course this argument is right up there with insisting that shooting yourself through the head is good for your health because it prevents you from dying of a heart attack, but there’s a deeper irrationality here. Ironically, it’s one that most people who had copies of The Whole Earth Catalog on their shelves forty years ago could have pointed out in a Sausalito minute: switching from one complex, centralized, environmentally destructive energy system based on nonrenewable and rapidly depleting resources, to another energy system that can be described in exactly the same terms, is not a useful step – especially when it would be perfectly possible to dispense with both by simply using less energy.

Now of course the concept of using less of anything is about as popular in contemporary America as garlic aioli at a convention of vampires. Nobody wants to be reminded that using less, so that our grandchildren would have enough, was the road we didn’t take at the end of the Seventies. Still, the road we did take was always destined to be a dead end, and as we move deeper into the first half of the twenty-first century, the end of that road is starting to come into sight. At this point, we’re faced with the prospect of using less energy, not because we choose to do so but because the energy that would be needed to do otherwise isn’t there any more. That’s the problem with living as though there’s no tomorrow, of course: tomorrow inevitably shows up anyway.

This late in the game, our remaining options are starkly limited, and most of the proposals you’ll hear these days are simply variations on the theme of chasing business as usual right over the nearest cliff. Whether it’s Stewart Brand’s nukes, “Drill Baby Drill,” ethanol or algal biodiesel or some other kind of energy vaporware, the subtext to every widely touted response to our predicament is that we don’t need to use less. The same thing’s just as true of most of the ideologies that claim to offer a more global response to that predicament; the one common thread that unites the neoprimitivists who claim to long for a return to the hunter-gatherer life, the conspiracy theorists who spend their days in an increasingly frantic orgy of fingerpointing, and the apocalypticists who craft ever more elaborate justifications for the claim that somebody or other will change the world for us, is that each of these ideologies, and plenty others like them, function covertly as justifications to allow believers to keep on living an ordinary American lifestyle right up to the moment that it drops away from beneath their feet.

The one option that doesn’t do this is the one next to nobody is willing to talk about, and that’s the option of using less.

Mention that option in public, and inevitably you’ll hear a dozen different reasons why it can’t help and won’t matter and isn’t practical anyway. Can it help? Of course it can; in a time when world crude oil production has been bouncing against a hard ceiling for most of a decade and most other energy sources are under growing strain, any decrease in the amount of energy being wasted on nonessentials makes it a little easier to keep essential services up and running. Will it matter? Of course it will; as we move into a future of hard energy constraints, the faster at least a few people get through the learning curve of conservation, appropriate tech, and simply making do with less, the easier it will be for the rest of society to follow their lead and learn from their experience, if only when all the other choices have been foreclosed. Is it practical? Of course it is; the average European gets by comfortably on one third the annual energy budget as the average American, and it’s been my experience that most middle class Americans can slash their energy use by a third or more in one year by a relatively simple program of home weatherizing and lifestyle changes.

I’d like to suggest, in fact, that at this point in the trajectory of industrial civilization, any proposal that doesn’t make using less energy a central strategy simply isn’t serious. It’s hard to think of any dimension of our predicament that can’t be bettered, often dramatically, by using less energy, and even harder to think of any project that will yield significant gains as long as Americans cling to a lifestyle that history is about to relegate to the compost bin. I’d also like to suggest that any proposal that does start out with using less energy should not be taken seriously until and unless the people proposing it actually do use less energy themselves, preferably by adopting the measures they urge on others.

That’s how effective movements for social change happen, after all. Individuals start them by making changes in their own lives; as the number of people making those changes grows, networks emerge to share information, resources, and encouragement; the networks become the frame of a subculture, and as momentum builds, the subculture becomes a movement. It’s indicative that the two movements that had the most impact on American culture in the second half of the twentieth century – feminism and Christian fundamentalism – both emerged this way, starting with individuals who changed their own lives, while any number of movements that tried to make change from the top down – again, the climate change movement is a good example – failed to achieve their ends.

That’s the core concept behind the “green wizardry” I’ve been discussing here on The Archdruid Report for almost a year now. It’s entirely possible for each of us to kick the process just described into motion by using less energy and fewer natural resources in our own lives. There are proven methods and mature technologies that will accomplish that. It so happens that I learned some of those back in the early 1980s, and have a couple of decades of experience applying them in my own life. That’s been the basis on which I’ve selected the tools and techniques discussed here; for reasons already explained, I don’t think it’s useful to advocate things I haven’t used myself.

The one great barrier in the path of starting a movement the right way, beginning on the individual level, is that it requires each person who takes up the challenge to break with the conventional wisdom and do things that others aren’t prepared to do. That’s a lonely journey, no question, and since this series of posts began with a bit of Seventies music, I don’t think it’s out of place to end it with the most famous desert journey from the music of that era. To borrow a turn of phrase from the song, that loneliness can be a place to remember our names or, more precisely, to recall that we have names other than "consumer" and "victim."

It’s my hope that at least some of the people who read this post will rise to that challenge. We’ve got a lot of work to do, and there may not be much time to get it started before conditions become a good deal more difficult than they are right now. I’ll be discussing that last point in more detail in the weeks ahead.


TG said...
My name is Tracy. Count me in.

4/27/11, 8:52 PM

vera said...
Makes sense, on the individual level.

How do you see the role of the Jevons Paradox in your prescription, JMG?

4/27/11, 9:03 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Tracy, welcome to the desert!

Vera, I covered that in some detail in a post from 2008 -- the short form is that the Jevons Paradox is actually a source of strength when energy supplies are contracting, because freeing up energy by greater efficiencies makes it easier to keep critical systems well supplied for as long as possible.

4/27/11, 9:32 PM

gordon said...
Excellent post JMG.

Just the other day I saw a news video clip that illustrates some of what you say. The reporter was at a gas station listening to a couple of 25 year old adolescents complaining about how much it cost to fill up their jet ski. When asked if they knew why the price was so high, they didn't. Then one of them said there is plenty of oil, all we have to do is drill more wells right here in the US. Unfortunately, these guys represent the vast majority of the American public and don't read what you have to say or much of anything else either. So they are not going to do anything until one day they join most of the rest of the country in one great collective temper tantrum. When that happens, I will be on my little farm keeping my head down.

4/27/11, 9:38 PM

Robin Datta said...
Thanks for the radical surgery: flaying off the layers of hypocrisy all the way down to the bone! Although the scalpel was wielded gently, the process is quite painful to many. For those who continue to swim in the river of Egypt (de Nile) the crocodile of reality approacheth.

4/27/11, 9:39 PM

Loveandlight said...
Once again, I will relate the topic of discussion to what I experienced of the past thirty years, this time using my experience as adult done with school and forced to deal with life "as is". The world I experienced in the 90's and the 00's was one where your personal worth was measured almost exclusively in terms of how much money you had, how pretty you were, and how socially accepted you were. If life in a society is going to be just one big party where the realities that make the party possible are ignored and denied, than of course the social reality that will assert itself will have a great deal in common with that of an American high school. I can see now how I created unnecessary further social maladjustment for myself by failing to realize that things were going to be less than I had once hoped they would be, owing to my lacking any of these three qualities in sufficient quantities to make my ego-fantasies come true. And not having the social connections one increasingly needed to gain admission into the world of middle-class jobs could certainly be called a sort of lack of social acceptance. The corruption of values and priorities spawned by this lamentable state of society certainly has had a lot to do with making the idea of simplifying one's lifestyle such an automatic non-starter.

4/27/11, 9:53 PM

Michael said...

Simply a great post - you nailed it for me with this one.

The beauty of your approach to our predicament - "simply use less energy" is that 1) it will work, and 2) it will happen to us anyway.

The problem with your approach of course is - it is too simple - and we have come to yearn for the big and complex and scientific answers to our problems. But we have not recognized that creating the big and complex is what got us into trouble.


4/27/11, 9:56 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Gordon, thank you. Yes, and the fact that the kid in question was simply spouting something he got off the media, without thinking about it or displaying any other sign of an inner life worth mentioning, is a measure of just how much work is ahead.

Robin, "the crocodile of reality" is a keeper!

Loveandlight, that strategy may be a nonstarter for the masses, but that makes it all the more crucial for individuals who are willing to take their own path. Not an easy thing, I know.

4/27/11, 9:57 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Michael, glad to hear it. Yes, one of the challenges is learning to see past our culture's fixation on adding complexity to complexity, and doing the simple things that have to be done. Of course "simple" is not the same thing as "easy," but as Joseph Tainter pointed out, one of the main dynamics of decline and fall is the result of pushing social complexity so far into the territory of negative returns that collapse actually improves things.

4/27/11, 10:00 PM

gordon said...
I just reread my comment and realized that my remark about 25 year old adolescents makes me sound like just another cranky old man. But that is not the case. I know plenty of people in their twenties who are very much adults. They are a never ending source of hope and encouragement for me. All is not lost.

4/27/11, 10:32 PM

Apple Jack Creek said...
I'm working on using less, a little at a time. Our house actually has PV and wind power capacity (though we are also grid tied) ... we've gotten careless and are using too much power, but we continue to work on ways to reduce energy consumption. One of the summer projects is to take the deep freeze that died this winter outside and setting it up as a water source for the livestock over the winter: one large insulated box, ready made - will require much less power to keep the water thawed than the open trough we've used!
I'm a spinner (and shepherd) and I'm now testing a method of wool cleaning that is supposed to dramatically reduce the hot water needed to wash wool (it's called "Fermented Suint Method" for any other wool people out there - stinky and slow, but Mother Nature does all the hard work).
There's the garden, and the livestock, and the bubble wrap on the windows ... none of it is a 'radically limited lifestyle', but the small steps we take now will make the bigger steps easier as time progresses. Living with one foot in each world is hard, but at least we have one foot firmly planted in the lower energy world we'll end up in. My hope is that we can gradually shift our weight onto the foot in the low energy world as the ground under the other foot gives way.

4/27/11, 10:36 PM

Bill Pulliam said...
All these discussions about the failures of energy conservation have just brought to mind for me a sharp contrast with that other conservation movement - the conservation of just about all other "resources." Soil conservation, forest conservation, wildlife, game, and fisheries conservation, these have actually fared much better over the last 40 years, in spite of near constant onslaught from interest groups aligned against them. They all still have large constituencies, and large well-known, high-profile organizations (private and governmental) focused on pursuing them. It seems we have had much better success at conserving our topsoil and our whooping cranes than at conserving our energy.

What is the difference here?

No obvious answer to that question comes to my mind. Is it the primordial animist within us that makes us respect the caribou more than the petroleum beneath them, even when we live in an industrial urban world?

4/27/11, 10:51 PM

Jason Heppenstall said...
A great climax to this mini-series here, JMG – thank you. Reading it, a whole host of examples sprung to mind that could illustrate your central point. But seeing as you mentioned climate change I'd like to share with you an example of left-thinking delusionism that I encountered two years ago. At the time I was heavily involved in the COP15 climate change conference here in Copenhagen, editing and producing a daily newspaper for the attendees. I worked fairly closely with the city council (a stronghold of neo-Marxists who had, in their wisdom, decided to temporarily rename their city 'Hopenhagen').

One day I had occasion to meet with the head of the environment department who told me with a straight face that if everyone in the world lived like Copenhageners 'there would be no environmental problems'.

Well, I sometimes like to poke fun at my adopted country, but it must be said that many of their environmental policies are light-years ahead of other industrialised countries. But this was a very bold claim to make – especially considering the average Dane accounts for about 9 tons of CO2 each year – nearly a hundred times more than the average Tanzanian or Nepali. I don't know of many Africans who have holiday homes in Thailand which they visit several times each year on jumbo jets (offsetting the carbon, of course).

What's more, marketers at the time came up with a new concept: 'shiny green'. This apparently refers to high-tech environmental 'solutions' such as smart electric car networks and carbon capture and storage techniques (not yet invented). One such adman told me that it was to break the monopoly that 'hair-shirt hippies' had on environmental matters and make them more acceptable to the average person.

The great irony behind this, for a Copenhagener, is that there is a perfectly good example of a sustainable society right in the city centre. Christiania was a sprawling old disused navy barracks taken over 40 years ago and transformed into a model of sustainable living. People built their own houses around an idyllic lake setting, grew their own food and, yes, sold pot. This all went quite well until about the year 2000, when public support for the place waned and was replaced by outright hostility ('How dare they not pay tax!'). Since then there have been relentless attacks on it in the media and the police regularly move in and smash everything up. Hoodies, attracted by the chance to fight the cops, now hang around there with vicious dogs and, what just a few years ago was a peaceful place where I took my kids, now has an air of menace and violence about it.

A few weeks ago the self-proclaimed 'free state' lost a high court ruling, meaning that the bulldozers could now move in and develop this prime piece of real estate. It's easy to see why the old-timers there are bitter and disillusioned – they tried to build a more sustainable and sane society but ended up being an embarrassment to a government which wanted to showcase 'shiny green' rather than 'dirty green'.

Well, I'm all for 'dirty green' – pass me the spade!

4/27/11, 11:47 PM

Vic said...
JMG, I recently listened to a radio interview with Stewart Brand and he stated that geo-engineering methods should be applied to mitigate climate change--oy. Earlier on in the interview he spoke about a roof top acid trip in San-Fransisco that enlightened him to press NASA for a substantive photo of the earth: the "why haven't we seen a photograph of the whole earth yet?" campaign. Perhaps, and I emphasize perhaps, he's due for another trip. A Merry Prankster indeed.

4/27/11, 11:57 PM

Gary said...
The advantage of leading by example is that you gradually gain the respect of those that don't initially think like you do. I'm the old guy who rides his bike to work and brings unusual home grown vegetables for lunch every day (my favorite is roast leg-o-parsnip). When the guys complain about the price of gas, I complain about how hard it is to keep the car battery charged when you never drive the car. But tonight I was talking with friends about the most practical rain gear for biking. That's how change happens.

4/27/11, 11:58 PM

Odin's Raven said...
I'm not convinced that the failure of most of the population to become hippies had or will have much effect on the course of history.

I think it was Jean Gimpel in 'The Medieval Machine'
( )
who pointed out that the American space programme was the cultural equivalent of the French Gothic cathedrals. Both mark the high point of their civilizations.Decline is inevitable and may be rapid, regardless of social agitation. Persuading a few people to wear hair shirts, beat themselves and each other, or to consume less won't have much effect, especially as America's place in the world is taken by China, India etc.

Mao lived in luxury whilst the peasants starved because of his policies. Gore and the Global Warming liars and hypocrites are fairly usual. The less the poor consume, the more is available for the rich.

You may be able to start a movement, but it would be prudent to concentrate on individuals and not expect social change. Remember that Jesus reputedly said, in addition to "follow me"; "let the dead bury their dead."

4/28/11, 2:19 AM

ward said...

Yes, simplify your life and use less is the strategy many took in the '70's and beyond. That the "General Will" of Americans went in the other direction doesn't mean "The Environmental Movement" failed.

But here is where I see a slight flaw in your otherwise strong argument; you point to a failure in the strategy and effectiveness among "The Environmentalist Elites." They failed because they tried to use a quant based argument rather than telling stories. However, those of us making precisely the choices you suggested are ignored in the equation and what ought to be long term proof of your strategy; individual responsibility in more than words and library books checked out, should have begun to bear fruit. Or has it?

I have students coming back to visit after college and there are so many of them into producing their own food, into green design, permaculture, and expressing a communitarian impulse. I think there is a movement growing. I see it in how our lives have changed over the last 20 years and I see it among smart, young kids.

Still, I am nagged by the "broad brush" you paint with. We make the changes we can. We are not all responsible for the decisions that we do not have any control over, only those we do. And, because it is a tough ask, it is difficult to expect people to be aesthetic purists when trying to get on in the everyday world. Again, people make the choices and changes that they feel they can reasonably make. And while you are correct that it all starts with the individual using less, we need to be joined by others or we are simply pissing into the wind.

Thus, nihilism.


4/28/11, 2:47 AM

x said...
I was more than a tad sceptical reading the two previous posts but this post put the thesis together, and has given me some comfort strangely - and food for thought. The local sentiments about my "doings" have gone from gentle haranguing to perceptible annoyance; especially as I planted my front garden in vegitables this year. As long as my activities were confined to turf cutting by hand, wild fruit gathering and composting in the back garden (activities largely out of sight), I was just considered a harmless eccentric. Not so much anymore. 'There's nowt so strange as folk', as our friends in Yorkshire would say.

However, if the front veggie garden is slowly destroyed as seems likely (I live in a surban house in a very rural backwater - only in Ireland), we'll have to consider moving to another, more secluded location if we can.

What I'm finding in Ireland is something akin to the saying: "tell someone something they already know and they will thank you, tell (do) them something new and yee ain't making any new friends."

I think it time for me to pause on this journey for a week or two and find out how I got here, why, and how it started. I wonder what kind of narrative I'll construct? (I can do this happily while working in the garden, turf cutting or carrying out home duties.)

[As an aside and as a Socialist, I was highly amused at the Marxist 'debate'. Surely at this point those interested in the political economy must realise the limitations of the neo-classical writers, Marx included. Althought Malthus is worth a revisit. As pointed out, far too many idealists expect others to conform to their ideas while the idealists refuse to live the life of their ideas. I have yet to meet a comrade (ahem) who walks the talk. It might just explain why I've never voted for a Socialist candidate.]

On a happy note, I'm to meet with a tiny group of giy'ers (grow it yourself) that I've just come across in the county recently, and I've located a source of whole milk to pastuerise and hopefully turn into yougart or cheese.

It's also time to think about the autumn and winter garden. The more I do, the more I realise how much I don't know.

thanks, anon-anon

4/28/11, 3:05 AM

Cherokee Organics said...

Great post, very inspiring.

I can attest personally that it's actually quite hard to go against the status quo. The peer group pressure and comments that you encounter from people all trying their best (with good intentions too, I'm sure) to normalise you to their way of thinking is quite strong. To be or do anything different from the mainstream is quite radical.

I recommend to people to spend some time thinking about their lives, why they do things, and especially what people say to them on a day to day basis. You may end up finding out that the truth is that there really is no particular reason you're doing the things that you are currently doing.

On the positive side, there's only so many arguments, comments etc. that people come up with and after a while you've heard them all before and you end up seeing straight through it... Nod sagely, look away and move on whilst forgetting what you've just heard.

On a different note (and I'll disclose that I am writing a series on living with off grid solar power at the Permaculture Research Institute of Australia website) I think I'm coming to the conclusion that people have forgotten that Oil does all of our societies heavy lifting. There is no alternative and all other energy systems renewable and otherwise make use of Oil in this capacity.

I think also that long term what is actually required is a move back to the land. However, people originally moved away from the land because it's both hard work and it also subjects you to the vagaries of the weather and seasons (ie. The elements). Perhaps people inherently fear nature?

I walk the talk. There are few people who are inspirational to me and you are definitely among them. I appreciate your writing.

Regards all and Good luck!


4/28/11, 3:11 AM

Joe said...

In your opinion, do the results of the decisions taken over the last 30 years effect how the world will look in the long term? i.e. would the world of 2200 say, look significantly different either way? Is it just the path to the same inevitable point that would have been different if we had stayed on course with conservation efforts began in the 70's or the future stretching on for a long way?

4/28/11, 3:12 AM

Andy Brown said...
That, sir, was a tour de force. I am going to print it out and keep in on my desk.

Almost never do I fully agree with an historical-cultural analysis of this scope (I had plenty of quibbles with your last two), but I think you are exactly right.

4/28/11, 3:55 AM

Andy Brown said...

A few weeks ago, at 5 a.m. in the pre-dawn I was interviewed in one of those pain-at-the-pump stories for a Los Angeles morning show. After a few leading questions, like, "what are you cutting back on (buying)?" I managed to at least get in the comment, "They've been telling us for 30 years we need to use less - maybe now's the time." It wasn't much, but I wondered if even that would make it on the air.

4/28/11, 4:28 AM

LindaM said...
I've been following along quietly for awhile now but thought I should pop in to say that you can count me in too.

4/28/11, 4:45 AM

Fleecenik Farm said...
I have memories as a child in the seventies when gas was .34 a gallon. The shock to our household when the price reached a dollar a gallon was severe. My mom was a single mother trying to get on her feet at the time. It was at this time when she would walk to work instead of use the car. Many folks gifted my mother with large paper bags of garden produce because we lived in a place where we could not have a garden. She stretched our grocery bill with visits to the surplus food store. Lowering the hems on pants and skirts was a skill my mom used to keep our clothes fitting just a little bit longer.

As an adult I have lived a financially simple lifestyle. Sometimes a little more flush than others. But when times would get tight I was able to take those lessons from my childhood to conserve and stretch what little resources I had at the time.

I think that it will be an inevitability that our collective impoverishment will force us to use less. I think it will be unfortunate that what we will be conserving will be so diminished that the investment of what gets saved will have little benefit on a large scale. But in terms of home economy may cushion the blow for some folks.

Still today I plant mangle-wurzels for winter fodder for my chickens. I scored a couple of pizza boxes to try making a couple of solar cookers for our summer kitchen. We do what we can do.

4/28/11, 5:42 AM

Brian said...
I was particularly struck by your comment that it's hard to think of any aspect of our predicament that is not improved by conservation. It reminded me of a similar sentiment that I've always agreed with, Albert Bartlett's belief that it's hard to think of any problem we face that is improved by an increase in population.

Both succinctly get to the very heart of their arguments with fundamental truths.

4/28/11, 6:13 AM

vera said...
Nice points you made with the Jevons Paradox, JMG. Nevertheless, while your prescription addresses the need for individual changes (and each such individual will gain in the long run, as will the planet), how will this play out in the larger social sense?

If my entire small community of about 1000 souls converted to the gospel of frugal use of resources, would we not just make it possible for others to be even more profligate and wasteful?

And I think it was Derrick Jensen in his Forget Shorter Showers essay who pointed out that small householder changes cannot make a societal impact beyond a tiny dent because most of the use and wastage of resources is done by industry and agriculture.

Now if we had accountable and non-evil elites (= not committed to growth any any cost) then it is obvious these problems could be addressed en masse, so to speak. But in their absence, I agree that rising from the grassroots is the only sane alternative. Only it is difficult to imagine how grassroots efforts can overcome the above two problems. Odin's Raven and Ward make similar points. Any ideas would be appreciated.

4/28/11, 6:56 AM

Edde said...
Good morning John Michael,

Excellent post.

Beltane is upon us and we plan to celebrate with neighbors, musicians, dance the may pole, potluck and such. No hair shirts here;-)

Been on this path since late '60s, cut WAY back on stuff and expectations, had a vasectomy, learned many "survival" skills like home building, energy auditing, kept politically active. My daily life is testament to what I believe.

Could we (been married for 36 years) do better? Of course. Heading for a "fair share of world's resources" lifestyle. At about 25-30% of typical USA energy use.

We frighten people, however. We are similar in appearance to most yet do with much less. We own our place, raise a small part of our groceries, keep the transportation use to a minimum (I ride, sell and maintain bicycles) and don't air condition (in NoFla). And I have time to continuously organize for environmental sanity and in opposition to USA empire.

Looks to me that it takes WAY more than personal action to make this massive social change happen. Personal action is a GREAT place to start, however.

Avoid dogmatism is MY watchword - people read Marx or, with all due respect, the Archdruid uncritically, attempting to implement verbatim. I trust my internal bio-computer, a healthy skepticism, my disgust for illegitimate authority and do the work.

Works for me.

Best regards,

4/28/11, 7:05 AM

Loveandlight said...
Once again, those mad-as-a-hatter Baby Boomers in the Tea Party provide a textbook-case of a point you've been making.

4/28/11, 7:08 AM

Thardiust said...
Just found a nice transition website that's definately worth looking at. Keep up the good posts!

4/28/11, 8:25 AM

Richard Larson said...
Excellent post word-smith.

The only character, worse in my opinion, than a tax-evading toxic emissions for profit NEOCON, is an environmentalist who only uses environmentalism as a political tool.

With over 400 rejected solar installation proposals under my belt, I can tell you directly, I'm sick of "environmentalists".

I want to tell you my white birch tree story.

There is a small stand of densely packed cedar trees on my 40 acres of heaven, up there from here, in Yooperland, the place of my father's birth. The driveway leading to the small cedar cabin cuts through the western edge of this stand, and it is really cool to slowly creep along this path, especially during those very humid sunny-hot days of August.

A few other trees had managed to weave through the choking cedar and a few of them were very old white birch trees. To think back now, I would have described them as warriors of a dozen wars.

Then a windy storm came through and knocked some of them down. The logical next step was to sectioned them up for firewood, what a waste otherwise?

But I didn't.

Fast forward 7-8 years and a neighbor, who thinks of himself as a Druid, only, because he has Scottish heritage (oh, and I have been telling him the importance to Druids of certain trees, not because I am a Druid, but because he likes to hear about such things. He even has a long beard.) was over to talk about the end of the world as we know it.

Being the type of guy who does things, he walked over to the white logs - then strung out to highlight the path to the outhouse - and gave the rotten logs a good kick. He was not expecting his foot to sink deep deep into the rotting log.

I bent down and showed him the roots from the surrounding cedar trees spider webbing through the rotten wood and I told them the cedars were feeding. I told him that white birch trees make excellent tilth for other plants and stressed they are very special trees to the forest.

Someday, maybe well past my age, some young people, maybe my grandchildren, maybe not, can have a life in my little cabin. Still there, because it is protected from the cold north wind by a stand of very healthy and stout cedar trees.

4/28/11, 9:26 AM

Kieran O'Neill said...
I don't think I, or most of your readers, need much convincing to "walk the talk", but it doesn't hurt to get the message out.

On the topic of differences between Europe and the United States, however, there was some interesting research that came out recently showing that while 30% or more of US troops suffered PTSD after deployment in Iraq or Afghanistan, only 4% of British troops did. These are troops going through similar training, and exposed to similar battlefield conditions, so there is a strong suggestion that the difference is somewhere in the culture, both that which the American soldiers take with them and that which they return to.

It's a bit of a stretch, but it does seem to fit with your idea of a deep-seated discomfort in the American psyche.

[Apologies - I couldn't find the original paper, but that Greenberg chap does seem to have done quite a bit of research into PTSD, and Dyer may be referring to an amalgam of his recent work.]

4/28/11, 9:32 AM

Robo said...
Your musical bookends here are particularly interesting to me, since I was originally lured into the radio broadcast business by the energy, vision and diversity of early 1970's pop, rock and jazz music.

Personally, I remember the Lobo tune as a slightly dopey but catchy one-hit wonder that fully reveals itself to me only in retrospect. The song exults in the careless freedoms bestowed by a "tank of gas" and joyfully relates the experiences of a memorable and companionable road trip through a rural landscape. "Me & You & A Dog Named Boo" economically captures the expansive and complex spirit of the time in just three verses, but if a similar tune were released today I imagine that most cynical moderns would laugh derisively at all that innocent naïveté and bouncy optimism.

America songwriter Dewey Bunnell drew upon his childhood memories of the desert Southwest to fill "A Horse With No Name" with dreamy and spacious images of nature and solitude. Lyrical delicacies such as these would quickly dissolve in the corrosive atmosphere of today's super-heated mass entertainment environment, soundtracked as it is by the subtle utterances of Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, Ludacris and the Cunninlynguists.

Expressive, melodic and meaningful tunes are still being written and performed, but they're largely absent in the mainstream. I expect that any widespread cultural shift in the 'ecotechnical' direction will be heralded by a corresponding change in popular music.

Of course, the ultimate shift would be a general decline of interest in mass marketed and recorded music altogether, with increased time and attention given to personal music performed together with friends, family and neighbors.

[sorry if this is a duplicate. Kept getting an error message earlier]

4/28/11, 9:45 AM

Bill Pulliam said...
A bit of a digression, sort of, but still about energy conservation in its large sense.

Events of yesterday and recent months are a reminder of one less obvious but very important thing that individual households need to do in terms of conserving energy: protect the large stock of embodied energy you have invested in your physical household and infrastructure. Right now our society is organized around a model of "build it, insure it, rebuild it." This relies on the financial economy and the ready availability of cheap (fossil-fuel dependent) building materials to replace all the embodied energy that washed away, blew away, or burned away. Societies less awash in energy tended to use two very different strategies. One was to build from readily available materials, invest a limited amount of energy in your house, etc. and just rebuild it easily after something happened to it. The other was to build in a way that either avoided or resisted the forces of destruction. My guess is that few (but probably not zero) of the people who read this blog live in yurts, palapas, and cardboard shacks, thereby following the first strategy. So folks need to think about the second. This brings up the very critical issues of retrofitting for earthquakes, tornados, and hurricanes, and planning for fire prevention and control. A while back I had commented that my last gallon of gasoline would probably go in the chainsaw; I have realized since then that in fact it will probably go in the emergency fire pump (which I have yet to buy or install...). There are other ways to cut trees, but no other way to saturate the house with water if it catches fire and the volunteer fire department is nowhere to be found or no longer exists.

If you have an existing homestead, retrofit for earthquakes (even if you live in the eastern U.S.) and windstorms, not just for solar heat. If you are building new, make these things integral to your design. In an energy-scarce world you will not be able to marshall the resources to "rebuild" when that 1-in-100 or even 1-in-1000-years event happens. And, eventually, it will happen.

Back to the topic...

4/28/11, 9:45 AM

Maria said...
I've actually been thinking a lot about how past generations have responded to crises, and have been pondering ways to bring those values into the 21st century. You put it all into much better perspective than I ever could have, though. :)

I look forward to reading the next installments!

4/28/11, 9:47 AM

Harry J. Lerwill said...
I regularly talk with old school friends back in the UK, in the old mining village where I grew up. A couple of months ago, one was bemoaning an electricity bill of around $ 333.00 (200 pounds.) I sympathized, my PG&E bill had just arrived and for that month, it was almost double that.

Then my friend pointed out one key fact: it was a quarterly energy bill, not a monthly one. Since then we’ve reduced our energy consumption by about 30%, mainly by weatherizing and paying more attention to our use. PG&E have a web-based service where I can see energy consumption by the hour, and each evening I review the prior days’ activity. By taking the time to switch off all circuits and then, one by one, switch on appliances and watch the “smart meter” we pretty much know the cost to run everything in the house. The results are scary.

PG&E have a ‘baseline’ here in California which is charged at a low rate. Then the next ‘block of power in the month’ is at 150% of baseline, then 200% and finally 300% of baseline, which is around 40 cents a KW hour.

We found that we were using the entire monthly baseline allotment in the first five days of the month. Just having the fridge and freezer running is enough to use most of the baseline up, and it’s not even hot here in Central California yet.

So we’ve set ourselves a challenge to reduce the PG&E significantly. We’re starting with simple things, like a clothes line instead of using the dryer. Electronic devices are now on half-hot circuits that allow power to be switched off at the wall so nothing gets used by ‘standby.’ The lights in the pool house are now cheap solar/LED’s that give us enough light to find something if we need it for up to four hours a night. Outside lighting for the path is being replaced by a solar motion-based floodlight.

Surprisingly, downsizing our energy usage has been a fun project. Knowing exactly how much power each appliance in the home uses gives you a sense of empowerment, if you’ll pardon the pun. It also allows you to put a dollar value in the luxuries we often take for granted. Sure, I can leave the computer on when I go to bed, that will be $ 1.40 in power costs by the morning. I can use the dryer and not bother hanging out my washing, that’s between 80 cents and two dollars, depending on the size of the load.

4/28/11, 10:24 AM

Kieran O'Neill said...
@Jason I believe the term is "bright green", rather than "shiny green:" -- perhaps a mistranslation? Bright green arose partly out of Bruce Sterling's Veridian Design Movement, and I think would best describe his, and Stewart Brand's views.

John, I know you don't sit very comfortably with the bright green set of ideas, but I think they should at least be seen as an important part of the dissensus. I also think Brand and Sterling have quite a few interesting and important insights into the coming age of scarcity industrialism (though they don't tend to project much further than that), and in that sense much of their thinking actually fits into your framework.

And I think if you look at their personal lives, as well as their other views, they aren't on the side of claiming that modern living is in any way sustainable -- they have a few sins, like flying a little too often, but neither of them live in air-conditioned mansions, or own particularly much stuff (something Sterling directly addresses in the concluding veridian design post at the link above).

I think my views lie somewhere in between. I share your (very long-term) vision of an ecotechnic future, but I have higher hopes for the level of technology it will involve. I actually have The Ecotechnic Future and Whole Earth Discipline sitting next to each other on the bookcase!

And I do not mean this in the sense that I believe we can maintain anything like the current level of resource consumption, or that any alternative energy production technology to fossil fuels can possibly equal their output, but I also think we have a fair chance of not ending up using oil lamps as our primary light source (as in the future envisioned in Star's Reach). And I also completely agree that a large part of the change has to come from individuals -- I am growing vegetables, using low-energy means of transportation (bicycle/walking/public transit), estimating and watching my carbon footprint, reusing, recycling and composting, focusing on quality over quantity in the things I own, among other measures.

I don't believe that your thinking and Stewart Brand's thinking, overall, are quite as diametrically opposed as you sometimes portray them to be (with exceptions, of course).

4/28/11, 10:41 AM

JP said...
You will be amused by this JMG.

Jeremy Grantham just rang the financial bell with respect to the cost of basic resources.

His current financial report is entitled "Time to Wake Up: Days of Abundant Resources and Falling Prices Are Over Forever."

And so, we leave the world of Permagrowth and enter the New Era of Scarcity.

You can find his report over at his firms homepage of

4/28/11, 12:39 PM

Justin said...
"The vast majority of them – or, more precisely, of us – chose the first option and closed their eyes to the consequences. That mistake was made for understandable and profoundly human reasons, but it was still a mistake, and it haunts the American imagination to this day."

There is a huge honking blindspot in your analysis. Its reductive to just say that people opted not to do this or came to a collective decision. The consumer capitalist system puts most of the decision making power in the hands of a few, who also happen to benefit the most by perpetuating an unsustainable system for as long as possible.

The effect that their propaganda in the form of advertising has on people exposes your simplifications.

I am not saying you are wrong entirely in how you describe our trajectory, but wrong because you neglect such an important part of the story.

The stuff you cite about people defending the status quo is to be expected; it is not evidence of their decision making, but evidence of what people do when faced with forces larger themselves; post hoc ergo propter hoc rationalization.

4/28/11, 12:47 PM

Emily said...
Right now I'm struggling with the idea of "needing more" to "save energy." Some key purchases - insulation, fireplace insert - were pretty clear and easy decisions. The fireplace insert let us turn the thermostat down 2 degrees *when we're NOT using it* because it seals the draft; add to that the time we're actually heating with wood, and we cut our propane use in half.

But at some point, I fear I'm going to cross into buying Stuff and justifying it because "it'll help save energy." Isn't it just like a middle-class American to solve all problems by buying something new?

And if an American middle-class lifestyle isn't sustainable, what does a sustainable life look like? Laura Ingalls? Mud hut? My living room? How do I know when I've reached sustainability?

4/28/11, 1:17 PM

Blackbird said...
I agree with you. Especially the bit about it seeming to be a lonely journey. However, what makes is perhaps a bit easier is to think of it as one step at a time. Maybe start by growing a few vegetables and stop drinking bottled water. Commit to walking or biking to work once a week (or maybe on a sunny day).

I was also struck by your comment:
"Raised under the frantic surveillance of helicopter moms, forbidden from playing outside or even visiting another child’s home except on the basis of a prearranged and parentally approved play date,"

I had the privilege of listening to Robert Bateman speak about his art but more particularly about his views on children and healthy risk taking. He spoke about how a school that was short on funds used to allow the kids at recess to go play in the woods. But, as soon as they raised enough money, they were told they couldn't go out in the woods but instead were to play on their new play structure. The teachers immediately noticed a change for the worse in behaviour when the kids came back from recess. The outdoors allowed for the kids to explore and play in an unstructured fashion (damming up a stream, building a stick fort, hiding in the woods, etc) free from direct supervision. This was replaced with fewer options (taking turns on the swing, etc.) and as a result the kids did not 'unwind' over their breaks in the day.

The healthy risk aspect of falling out of a tree, skinning a knee, falling into a stream that you are trying to cross, getting stung by a bee and getting plain dirty. This should be a right of passage for every child. Following that up should be forays into the mountains or on overnight hikes into the wilderness. Yes, you could get hurt, cold, and uncomfortable - but the vast odds are that you will survive and be stronger for it. The unhealthy risks are partying and taking drugs, driving too fast, things that adolescents are doing to fulfill their need to take risks that is probably rooted in their brains but that they don't have the proper arena to exercise.

On a completely different (but related to your blog post) note, have you read the book "The Rational Optimist" by Matt Ridley. I am about half way through it and would be interested in what you had to say about it if you have read it.


4/28/11, 1:20 PM

Andy Brown said...
it is not so much that this "bad faith" is destructive in all of our actions. On the contrary, it has been set off far to the side for the most part. But it is at its most destructive when we move (even momentarily) away from the quotidian and banal and move toward the best of what we can be. That is when the price of this willful blindness is paid. A truthful reckoning of the damage that we do, the privileges that we enjoy, the things that we take -- threatens to emerge - for example - when we reach out spiritually to embrace the Earth and its creatures in all their fullness; when we try to include all the people of the world in our empathy; when we try to picture in all truthfulness the world that we are working to create for our great-grandchildren; when we try to live without any veil of self-deception. Precisely when we are moving toward the best that we can be is when the reckoning for this bad faith comes to consciousness and it cripples us.

4/28/11, 1:20 PM

Yupped said...
Thanks again JMG, nice finale. I tried commenting earlier but messed something up with my sign-on, so apologies if this is a redundant comment.

I wanted to ask you what you think of the spiritual dimension to all of this? Not that I'm looking to go all religioney on you here, certainly not, but it strikes me that the changes required of us humans, either those not made at the end of the seventies or those that are coming now, will need us to change ourselves at a fairly deep level. I'm guessing that this is a tricky subject that you may not want to touch, but I'd be really interested in what a Druid has to say on that. And I ask as a person who isn't really sure whether I even have a God in this hunt or not.

4/28/11, 1:26 PM

Don Mason said...
We now have seven billion people on this planet, increasing by 80 million a year; and almost all of them want to live a middle class American lifestyle.

On the one hand, we have JMG and a few others who have been saying that the middle class American lifestyle is not sustainable, and cannot be made sustainable.

On the other hand, we have a mob of techno-cornucopian anti-collapsitarianists who are saying, "There are no limits! Eight billion, ten billion, tweleve billion - we can all live like gods! Soon, everyone is going to have their very own personal airplane, and the engines in the wings will be powered by... by... uh... I know! By nanoscale thorium reactors!"

This is going to be an interesting century: finite reality vs. humanity's infinite capacity to rationalize away finite reality.

4/28/11, 1:54 PM

Jay Marchetti said...

Your essay strikes close to bone - as I read it on my iPhone while waiting in the Orlando airport for a flight home from a conference on defense technologies where I, a systems engineer, presented a paper - all while misanthropically regarding the plasticine theme park revelers surrounding me. What a hypocrite!

Your sense of needing to walk the walk made me consider what items of our modern culture - energy hungry directly or indirectly - are worthwhile and needed? Then I wondered about you specifically: do you own a cell phone? A vehicle? A computer? Do you use grid power? I hold your views as wise, but still doubt that you live an Amish lifestyle - or maybe you do! Do tell: what conveniences do you yourself use & why?

Best regards,

PS - Sent from my iPhone

4/28/11, 2:15 PM

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...
An excellent conclusion to a thought-provoking series.

Unfortunately, for many people, thinking about using less leads to, "Sacrifice? Me? We finished with that during WWII, right?" Or, so many people I meet are so stretched by the requirements of the modern American life they live that they (a.) don't have time to think about the big picture and (b.) they already feel they are sacrificing and they deserve whatever comforts they get.

I think many people making that choice during the seventies pretended to themselves that there wasn't a choice to make. Or choice never entered their heads. Or they thought they were avoiding a choice. Or they believed what other people said about the choice.

If only Al Gore had not built that new house! Willingly making do with less requires a particular kind of integrity within a moral and ethical framework that considers the good of the whole biotic community to be within its compass. Not to mention a new definition of what is considered socially prestigious and admirable. Easier done within a community of some kind, which I see green wizardry to be somewhat about.

Of course there is room for wide variation in the moral/ethical department. I'm a treehugger, my husband is radically frugal. From different beginnings we come to similar conclusions and habits of life.

I get what Bill P. is saying about organizations and funding, but I also think how we're doing depends on our definitions of nature and conservation.

If one thinks of conservation as saving wilderness "over there," we are maybe doing ok, but if one thinks of conservation as including everywhere (not least industrial agriculture regions and suburban developments), we're doing terribly: look at bee decline, topsoil loss in Iowa, poor water management in the west, and so on. Look at the internal contradictions within such agencies as the USDA and EPA. I speak from long experience in urban conservation.

It's easier to give money to save polar bears than to make the real changes, either individually or societally that would actually give the polar bears, or whatever other charismatic mammal we're drawn to, a fighting chance. Perhaps that movement is more successful because it enables people to avoid radical change. Maybe it is sort of like, in the middle ages, buying indulgences so as to get to heaven easier. Chicago Wilderness gets funds from BP: so ironic in so many ways. Chaucer would have a field day.

I find myself everyday saying thanks for things like running water, central heat, terrycloth bath towels, grocery stores, music on the radio, being able to buy seeds...

4/28/11, 3:11 PM

vera said...
Loveandlight, the article you link to shows absolutely no connection to the tea party, and seems just a smear job. From what I have seen of the Tea Partiers, they refuse single-issue stands, whether it is abortion or climate. They have become the left's favorite whipping boy, and while it is fine to point out what is wrong with them, surely made up BS is not?

4/28/11, 3:18 PM

GHung said...
"....the faster at least a few people get through the learning curve of conservation, appropriate tech, and simply making do with less, the easier it will be for the rest of society to follow their lead and learn from their experience, if only when all the other choices have been foreclosed."

I don't know, Greer. At least I have some doubts. As someone who has been an early adopter of some of the appropriate tech discussed here, and as someone who has had some success powering down and reducing consumption, I have to say that "the system" (for lack of a better term) has fought us all the way. Things like building codes, regulations, even cultural mores and attitudes have made the journey difficult in many ways. I have needed to invoke my inner sociopath at times to tell myself that I really don't mind being branded an outlier. Doing the right thing has its costs. Even when seeking the company of like-minded folks, one often finds that they aren't so like-minded; not really. Further, those who aren't devoted to making meaningful changes have a limited comfort level for those who are. As you say, it can be lonely.

I don't totally agree with your take on Jevons. I know far too many people poised to exploit any 'surplus' resources when they become available. The attitude that "if I don't use it, someone else will" seems to be a powerful part of our programming, something that most see no reason to overcome. Still, there is much to be gained by preaching to the choir. Keeping the faith; setting an example.

Sorry if I seem negative today. I took a trip to the north side of Atlanta to pick up some freecycle tools I may need as things unwind. Kunstler was sooo right. I'll be ok though; I also scored a pint of my favorite ice cream, a popular national brand. The guilt will be short lived ;-)

4/28/11, 3:20 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Gordon, I know way too many overgrown toddlers in their 40s and 50s. You don't sound old -- and I'm by no means sure crankiness is a vice just now.

Apple Jack, a step at a time is the only way to do it and make it work.

Bill, it's possible to save whooping cranes without changing the American lifestyle; it's not possible to save energy and do the same thing. My guess is that that's the difference.

Jason, true enough. I'd be happy to get most Americans living a Danish lifestyle, but even so, that's a long way from sustainability.

Vic, yes, Brand's drunk the koolaid good and proper. I suppose if you're going to abandon your ideals, might as well go all the way.

Gary, I'm hearing such stories fairly often at this point. When gas hits $6 a gallon here in the US -- which it might do this summer -- we'll likely see a lot more of it.

Raven, yes, it was Gimpel -- but you've misunderstood the point of the strategy I'm discussing. Of course decline and fall are inevitable; the question is how much unnecessary misery can be avoided and how much that's useful can be saved from the wreck and handed down to the future.

Ward, of course there were people who kept on doing the right thing when everybody else bailed; I'm one of them. Nor is that approach, however solitary, wasted effort; it's for that reason that we've got things like organic gardening ready to put to use.

X, that's interesting, and disheartening – I gather that the old Irish tradition of begrudging is alive and well.

Chris, I've noticed the same thing about the arguments people come up with. I was having the usual conversation the other day, and the person who'd started by criticizing me said, almost admiringly, "You seem to have an answer for every question I ask." Yes, I did, because it's the same questions -- the more original the critics think they're being, the more stereotyped the questions generally are.

Joe, 2200 could be a lot different, though 2600 will be much the same either way. The difference? 2200 will be near the middle of the dark ages that are approaching, 2600 will be after them. What we do now may well determine just how grim things get at the bottom of the arc.

Andy, good for you. I wonder what would happen if every Archdruid Report reader were to send a letter to the editor of the local paper saying, "Look, folks, we need to use less!"

Linda, welcome to the desert! Hop on your nameless horse and we'll be on our way...

4/28/11, 3:25 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Fleecenik, my guess is that the scale of contemporary waste is so vast that even relatively simple steps in the right direction can pay off dramatically, on more than the personal scale. Still, we'll see.

Brian, thank you! Bartlett's quite right; the one reason I don't hammer on that point is that population is a dependent variable, and will begin to drop just as soon as the prosperity that's boosted our species' birth rate comes to an end. The experience of post-Soviet Russia is educational in this regard.

Vera, Jensen's essay was shallow even by neoprimitive standards -- and of course it also makes a good exhibit A for my suggestion that the point of neoprimitivism, and similar ideologies, is to justify living the middle class consumer lifestyle even when you know it's dragging the world to ruin.

The larger social sense? Industrial civilization is almost a century into its decline and fall, on the brink of a crisis on the scale of the one that hit the European heartland of that civilization between 1914 and 1954; this time we won't have abundant petroleum to help patch up the wreckage when the rubble stops bouncing, so waving goodbye to our current ideas of prosperity is probably a good idea. (I've discussed all this at quite some length in The Long Descent and elsewhere.) All the stuff I'm talking about presupposes that decline; the question is simply what to do in response to it, on the scales any of us can reasonably affect.

Edde, a lot depends on what you mean by change. I don't expect everyone to suddenly get a clue and start conserving energy; most Americans will do that when they have no other choice -- though admittedly this could quite readily happen. The point is that enough people do it that (a) those people willing to pursue that path can find information and support, (b) those people who are forced by circumstances to do it can find information and support, (c) our descendants hundreds of years from now have access to appropriate tech that could make their lives much less difficult and more ecologically balanced.

Loveandlight, it's amazing what people will make themselves believe rather than say the simple words "Well, I guess I was wrong about that." Gah.

Thardiust, thanks for the link.

Richard, that's a great story!

Kieran, that's a fascinating point, and one I hadn't encountered before. You may be right.

Robo, Lobo was far from a one-hit wonder -- he had a bunch of tunes on the charts, though you're right that his emotional tone has zero appeal in a nihilistic age.

Bill, that's far from irrelevant. Today's throwaway culture is as much a result of nihilism as it is of too much energy.

Maria, keep thinking!

Harry, you've just leaked one of the great secrets of this stuff -- it's actually fun, as well as empowering. People enjoy having the range of things they control enlarged, and one way to think of the whole green wizard toolkit is that it's about taking control of the energy sources that power your life.

4/28/11, 3:58 PM

Cherokee Organics said...
Hey Gordon,

25 year old adolescents!

Don't stress, as I'm not having a go about your comment. It's a slip of the tongue that shows a deeper truth which I've heard spoken elsewhere recently.

I'm not sure at what point society changed it's definition of a 25 year old to that of an adolescent? It's a historically very recent thing.

I have a sneaking suspicion that the parents retain the children in the home as - pets.

It also stops the parents themselves from re-entering the wider society and allows them to remain internally focused. This is to the detriment of society.

The so called adolescents are also losing their healthiest and most fertile years when they should be up to their eyeballs in both education and experiences.

Also an unspoken truth is that older parents die when you need them the most.

Please, I am not referring to the historical model of extended families living under a single roof or in close proximity but to the current situation, which is really quite wrong.

To quote a cultural reference from my generation and to show how far we've moved in such a short time, the movie "The Breakfast Club" had a dialogue which went something like this: "Of course home life is unsatisfying, if it wasn't I wouldn't leave".

Few animals allow this scenario to develop.



4/28/11, 4:08 PM

William Hunter Duncan said...

I let CenterPoint Energy cut off my gas service for the summer. The city of Minneapolis is now set to condemn my house, tomorrow, Friday, unless I restore the service. This is deemed in the interest of my "health, safety and welfare." If they do, and I don't leave the house, the police will remove me.

They are effectively saying it's a crime not to use natural gas, to use the sun to heat my water, and that I don't have the money to pay the bill. America, 2011.

4/28/11, 4:31 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Kieran, Brand's advocating nuclear power, geoengineering, and the wholesale use of genetically modified organisms. To my mind, that's not any shade of green at all -- it's standard, wearily familiar cornucopian cant in Sierra Club drag. I'm not at all familiar with Sterling's views -- cyberpunk was basically what made me stop reading new science fiction -- so I can't comment on him. Still, dissensus is dissensus; Voltaire's famous comment is relevant.

JP, I am -- but also delighted. It's about time that people started waking up after our thirty year bender.

Justin, it never fails to amaze me how eagerly people will scrape together arguments for their own supposed powerlessness. I discussed the fundamental bad faith of those arguments in the second part of this series of posts. Do you automatically buy everything you see advertised? I suspect not.

Emily, the touchstone should always be the word "less." You could even turn it into an acronym: Less Energy, Stuff, and Stimulation. (The latter's surprisingly important -- a point I'll be developing in a later post.) Buy less, spend less, use less, and you won't go wrong often. As for your question -- what does sustainability look like? -- we don't know yet; all we can do is start moving in that direction.

Blackbird, I haven't read Ridley -- I'll put his book on the list of titles to get to.

Andy, I think it goes deeper than that. Bad faith does mess up our attempts to be our best, but it creeps into every decision we make -- I've come to think that a great many Americans waste as much energy as they do, in part, because they're still trying to prove to themselves that it's okay to do so.

Yupped, that's an extremely difficult question to answer, as any meaningful response would have to start by explaining what I mean by spirituality -- which is not what most Americans, whether churchgoing or atheist, mean by that term! The one thing I think is worth saying briefly is that yes, I think there's a profound spiritual dimension to the crisis of the present time, but it's crucial not to think of spirituality as a solution, or part of a solution, to that crisis; spirituality is never a means to an end, and if it's treated as a means, what you get stops being spirituality.

Don, it'll have to be dilithium crystals. Yes, it's going to be an interesting time.

4/28/11, 4:42 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Jay, I've never owned a cell phone, a car, a microwave, a television, or most of the other conveniences so many Americans think of as essential to life. I do own a computer -- it's essential to the way I make my living -- and my compromise there is that I don't buy new computers; I take the old ones that would otherwise end up in a landfill, and keep them out of the ecosystem. I still use a very modest amount of grid power -- our power bills run in the $30-$40 a month range -- since my wife and I bought a home of our own for the first time in 2009, and we haven't yet raised the money for an off-grid system (or for several other improvements I have on the list, such as solar water heaters and composting toilets).

Some of my food comes from a backyard organic garden; much of the remainder is from the farmer's market in season; almost none is processed and packaged, though that's as much because I have a hard time choking down standard American food products as anything else. Organic wastes, almost without exception, go into the composter out back. I don't use mainstream medicine, though that's a complex issue in its own right -- I've had too many family members killed or harmed by MDs to trust my health to them, among other things.

There are plenty of other details. I can certainly use less, and step by step, my spouse and I are using less. I'll be talking about how in later posts.

Adrian, nicely put. The thing that fascinates me is precisely that so many people are stretched to the limit keeping up their lives of manic consumption; they'd actually be happier and more relaxed if they used less energy and had less stuff. Try telling them that, though!

Vera, there's a lot of confusion on the left about exactly what the Tea Party stands for, not least because it's a new and very diffuse movement. Whether or not you call the authors of the current Obamacentric conspiracy nonsense Tea Partiers or not, though, a lot of people on the American far right do seem to be embracing a lot of very absurd ideas in an attempt to prop up a cornucopian worldview that's far past its pull date.

GHung, we're not to the panic point yet. Until we get there, yes, those of us who do the right thing will be treated as oddballs. Wear it as a badge of pride.

Chris, there's a more general pattern in American culture of juvenilization -- everyone thinks they want to be 18 forever, and so adolescent behaviors and attitudes have spread into age groups that ought to grow up a bit instead.

William, sometimes it's necessary to be a bit sneaky about such things. Have the gas hooked up, and then don't use it at all. I know people who live in areas that require them to have a flush toilet, even though they've got composting toilets installed; the lone flush toilet, water turned off, makes a good stand for a potted plant. The gas will go away in good time; in the meantime, the fox is a better role model than the lion.

4/28/11, 4:52 PM

vera said...
Right you are about the Tea Partiers, JMG, and I would add that on the left, ignorant people scapegoat them, and on the right, unprincipled people use them to give their careers a shove.

I would like to go back to what GHung said... even though most folks don't have much clue about economics, they understand "if I don't use it, someone else will." If I deny myself children, someone else will have four. If I shave my energy usage to a nubbin, someone else will build a mcmansion. That is what I was referring to earlier, and since this is a powerful disincentive for people to do anything, I would love to see your thoughts on this, since you understand economics from a creative angle.

4/28/11, 6:21 PM

rcg1950 said...
Maria said...
I've actually been thinking a lot about how past generations have responded to crises,

John Michael Greer said...
Industrial civilization is almost a century into its decline and fall, on the brink of a crisis on the scale of the one that hit the European heartland of that civilization between 1914 and 1954

I’ve followed this sight for a while now and almost always come away enlightened and uplifted. By way of giving something back, for the intellectually curious I would urge you to take a look at the works of the Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset. His productive years almost exactly spanned the time period mentioned by JMG above, and his work dealt almost in it’s entirety with the profound crisis of European civilization of those years. You may want to take a look at some extensive excerpts from “Man and Crisis” which is all about “how past generations have responded to historical crises.”
Man & Crisis - Ortega y Gasset

4/28/11, 6:58 PM

AndoLaw said...
Reading the paragraph that contained this line...

Consider, as one example out of many, the way that protecting children turned from a reasonable human concern to an obsessive-compulsive fixation. I nodded in agreement I thought, "oh boy, JMG is going to take a few whacks for this one."

So far, not a word. But on reflection, the lack of response makes sense given the topic(s) at hand.

See, few of us can face the fact that you are talking to me...about any of this. Surely, you're talking about them. You know, the bad guys. From last week.

4/28/11, 7:25 PM

Mark said...
How sad is it that many of my FB friends are babbling about the NFL draft.

Perhaps the role the rich elites we learned about in your previous post is to distract the middle class with NFL, indoor sports arenas and new SUVs until its too late.


4/28/11, 7:41 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Vera, the "if I don't use it, somebody else will" idea is hopelessly misplaces, in that it assumes that "it," whatever "it" happens to be, is available to be used. The core of our current predicament is that a massive amount of "it" is going away forever. That being the case, do you want to be dependent on "it" for your survival as it goes away, or do you want to have no further need for "it" so that you can shrug and get on with your life while others are clawing each other to pieces over the last remaining drops of "it"?

RCG, Ortega y Gasset is well worth reading, and not just because he had a clear sense of the nature of the crisis of his time. His The Modern Theme had a major place in helping me make sense of the way ideas and attitudes shift from generation to generation.

Ando, I'm pleased with the way the conversation in response to this series has turned out. I expected either dead silence or all-out screaming tantrums, and instead, a fair number of readers seem to have grasped the extremely challenging points I'm trying to raise, and handled the discussion in a very civil and thoughtful manner. (A warm thank you to all who contributed to that!)

Mark, the Roman government didn't force people to take their panem et circenses; the people demanded it, and the government learned that giving in to the demand was the one sure way of keeping the populace quiet and unthreatening. We're in the same place now. It'll be interesting to see what your friends do when they lose their internet access and the NFL has been sold to a consortium of Chinese investors...

4/28/11, 8:09 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Joe (offlist), er, I would be delighted to put your post through, and respond to it, if you'd like to trim the profanity; this blog is read in schools and so has to abide by family-safe filters.

4/28/11, 8:10 PM

Bill Pulliam said...
Vera -- I don't get this logic at all:

"If I deny myself children, someone else will have four. If I shave my energy usage to a nubbin, someone else will build a mcmansion. "

That other person is going to have four kids regardless of whether I have zero or ten; that other person will build the McMansion whether I live in a shack or a replica of Buckingham Palace. The decisions are not related in any way; their choices do not absolve me of responsibility for my own to the slightest degree!

The fact that someone else has four kids and builds a McMansion can just as well be an INCENTIVE for me to have no kids and live in an efficient house. It is all in the attitude I bring to the situation. The impacts of my own choices are the same regardless of what that other person did -- that is the strength and the beauty of individual action.

4/28/11, 9:48 PM

dennis said...
If we enjoy our simple lives that will do more to help than any number of letters to the editor. It is interesting how people react to a good homemade pizza. They will think about it every time they eat a frozen one. They have to have two jobs to get by, I have two hobbies and the time to make real food. (cattle and woodworking. With some bees on the way to make three)

A few year back we had a young boy lost in the wilds of Utah. The first three days he hid every time rescuers walk by, because he was taught to stay away from strangers. Sad. I was raised in a time and place where adults talked to kids they didn't know. They kidded you about your big ears or complemented you on something. Somewhere it is was drilled out of us. Don't talk to kids. No wonder we feel so detached from the world.

4/28/11, 10:38 PM

gregblee said...
And with that, i'll turn off the computer and walk home to turn the heat down and go to bed.

4/28/11, 10:40 PM

Cherokee Organics said...
Hi JMG and all,

As Oil does all our heavy lifting, it becomes like magic to us. The problem is that being raised on this magic, it can be very difficult to accept that we as individuals have to also do heavylifting...



4/29/11, 2:57 AM

x said...
I think I should clarify my last post. I'm not meeting enmity, per say, but more like openly expressed derision here in auld Ireland as I wend my own way down a wizardy path. While begrudery is alive and thriving, the situation's more akin to the Japanese saying: 'the nail that sticks up gets hammered down.' Ireland is a very conformist society, always has been and, even as it becomes multicultural, is becoming more conformist - of the aspirtion to 'middle-class' cut-out-and-paste variety. (I'm sure there are degrees of this in every society whose main, if not only societal objective, is aspiration to wealth for wealth's sake.)

Fortunately, when based upon sound reasoning (hopefully) and experience, and taking into account the marital unit's often sceptical take on my doings, I am more than willing to go against the flow. There are small signs of change elsewhere, to be sure. Will they last once the appearance of recovery gets under way?

While reveiwing my situation (and the spousal unit is beginning to see wee, shiny glimmers in a wizardy path), I just keep drawing the same conclusion: stay the course - reduce, and reduce some more, reuse, make do and mend, and learn human energy based skills.

[It's just seems utterly futile, and I would argue unethical, to say that the resources I refuse to consume will be consumed by others - so I might as well consume them. It's a cop out, an excuse. Just because I can't control other's behaviours doesn't excuse my own behaviour. I have to take personal responsibility every day. The buck stops here. Plus, there is a subtle level of avoidance to one's and society's predicament going on in that line of reasoning. One blames others for their actions, or anticipated actions, and says to oneself that, although I don't agree with the consensus, I'm powerless so I might as well join in and get my share of the diminishing resource. One sets up a straw-man on a societal level to excuse one's own actions. In this state of mind, one cannot envision alternatives or new paths that might lead one to deal personally and rationally with a predicament. One's personal resources are wasted in a trap of one's own construction - not by somebody else or by society as a whole.] anon-anon

4/29/11, 3:10 AM

nutty professor said...
Nice that there are so many readers and so many conversations going on here. The blog is jumping! Thank you for encouraging the conversation by responding to most of the posts - I can imagine how much time that takes. I wonder if it would be possible for you to link to your "required reading FAQ" or your "essential posts" or even the "best of Greer" so that you don't have to restate some of the most consistent and profound arguments that you have made here, again and again. I also believe that your relevant books would bring most new readers up to speed, and allow for a renewed appreciation of your published materials. Thank you again, sir!

4/29/11, 4:06 AM

John Bray said...
Re: the "if I don't use it, somebody else will" idea ....
One way round this is to ask yourself: 'if I don't need to use it right now - could I save/store it?

That way you'll still be getting your share of the pie but will have some spare when everyone else has gorged on theirs ;o) You'll even have the satisfaction of knowing that you are doing your bit to help the economy in these difficult times - rather than selfishly reducing your consumption and accelerating the recession.

Of course it can't work well for everything. Electricity, for example is expensive to store. But by using less electricity you could use the money you save to buy something you could store. Maybe the odd bag of cement to repair the house in years to come? A few gallons of gas? Vegetable seeds? If you have faith in the long-term viability of the financial system you could even store whatever savings you make as money - whatever that is :)

No storage space? No problem!! Use some of your saved money to get yourself some. Unless the anxiety caused by someone else using more of "it" than you is just too much to bear . . .

4/29/11, 5:29 AM

John Bray said...
Cherokee Organics said...
"I think also that long term what is actually required is a move back to the land. However, people originally moved away from the land because it's both hard work and it also subjects you to the vagaries of the weather and seasons (ie. The elements). Perhaps people inherently fear nature?"

Since we've lived here, a number of people have said things to us along the lines of . . . wish we could grow some of our own food . . it's ok for you because you have land . . . etc.

Actually we have more land than we have time to look after - so we say to them that they can have a patch to do their own thing on. Free of charge of course, we'd be happy to see the land looking tidier. No takers so far!

4/29/11, 5:39 AM

GenghisKen said...
As we cannot conserve ourselves to more energy yet we live in a growth based economy with population thrown into the mix all the while other countries are raising their GDP(use of oil) and yet others are falling off the cliff of oil exporter to importer while their populations are rising...Can we afford the slow steps anymore? We are going to change but I have a hard time seeing slow change any longer as the world we rely on requires cheap and fast which is nearly a thing of the past at this early phase of the down scaling process it inundates everyday life already although most aren't sure of the cause yet

4/29/11, 5:39 AM

Justin said...
"my guess is that the scale of contemporary waste is so vast that even relatively simple steps in the right direction can pay off dramatically, on more than the personal scale."

That's just it isn't it. We are so far from diminishing returns of conservation that we can get a lot of mileage from simple steps. In some ways we are almost better off than a place like Europe, in that we have a lot of low hanging fruit, and conceivably could trim a great deal of fat before serious economic pain or difficult choices set it (in theory).

Case in point, more fuel is conserved per mile driven by increasing fuel efficiency from 15 to 18 mpg, than from 50 to 100.

Of course, this presupposes rational decision making, and recent history is anything but kind to any notion of collective rationality.

It seems that often difficult decisions are made by omission. For instance, I foresee a large number of people neglecting the simple weatherizing steps you outlined until even the modest budget required is unavailable. That, of course, forces the even simpler method of insulating the body, as people bundle up in their cold homes.

Not that I have a problem with that. As a renter, I find the most cost effective way to keep bills low is to keep the temperature between 50 and 63 degrees all winter. As a bonus, that is an excellent temperature range for brewing delicious ales.

-Justin G.

4/29/11, 8:35 AM

Sarenth said...
Something that was brewing as I read comments on "if we conserve more people will consume" is this: they will consume more regardless of what you do, whether you hand them an excuse to, or they find one themselves. So long as you are doing the work necessary in your little back yard, community, county, etc., then you're doing what you can.

I think that a lot of people ask too much of themselves when it comes to their impact; I know I certainly did. When I did a realistic inventory of what I could actually do given my resources, I found myself stressing a lot less and doing more. Granted, in the long range it is not that much, but it was more than I was doing yesterday, last year, ten years ago. Walking my talk as a Pagan is doing what I can where I can, caring for Jord whenever the opportunity can be reached for or presented to me.

4/29/11, 9:40 AM

Eric Thurston said...
Like poster ward, I am a bit bothered by the broad brush, since, for the most part, I count myself as in the group who managed somehow to 'keep the faith.'

Like a lot of the demographic that you are aiming at here, I'm from the Vietnam generation. Although I didn't personally attend the festivities in 'Nam, many of my friends came home burnt out and bitter. There were several millions of this generation who shared in this vast disillusionment. I can't help but think that this experience played a major role in shaping the trajectory of the 'baby boom' culture as it matured.

4/29/11, 10:05 AM

Twilight said...
The comments about bad faith and the strange mental gymnastics required to square our thirty-year vacation from reality with our other supposedly strong beliefs certainly apply to people like me. Last weekend I picked up my 1981 copy of Limits to Growth from a shelf at my parent's place – I knew or had no excuses not too. I like to think I ended that vacation sooner than others, but still I enjoyed the party too. I experienced that uncomfortable feeling many times as I contemplated how we could keep growing, keep using oil, keep destroying the natural world around us, and where it would ultimately end up. I often thought back to the Freshman Seminar I attended in college (where I got that book), but I suppose the idea of an entire society pursuing a path to its own destruction seemed impossible.

But what about the large number of people who never did bother to understand what was happening or who bought into various excuses? Do you have the problems associated with bad faith if you didn't ever have an awareness? I'm sure no one missed the gas lines or high prices, but the underlying reality may have escaped quite a few. Maybe though it doesn't matter much – there will always be a big segment of the population that is incurious, and if they glommed on to whatever pat excuses were offered then, they probably just parrot whatever is offered now too.

Using less is always beneficial. There is no threshold that one must achieve to make it worthwhile, which is another common excuse for wasting. It will not save the empire, BAU, or the American middle class, but it might save you or someone who will come after that is trying to survive in a world of much less of everything.

The name “consumer” is especially vile, and I think that some really take it as their identity, their purpose, and have as their goal to consume as much as they can in their time here. It is wrapped up in the destruction of social rules that place limits on people. To consume is to use things up, to convert resources to waste, so a consumer is simply a producer of waste. It's inevitable that we all must do that, but to have it as one's main purpose is gross.

4/29/11, 10:09 AM

homesteader said...
Use less, what are you talking about? I am an American and my standard of living is non-negotiable!

I am kidding in case folks cannot tell.

We try and lead by example, but it can be difficult to use the conservation word in public for sure, especially among friends and family especially. My SIL who we share a house believes there is nothing wrong with using/"wasting" energy if you pay for it, which infuriates me since we do not pay what we need to for it.

4/29/11, 10:09 AM

Kieran O'Neill said...
@John I'd be up for that (if I lived nearby). I've been relegated to growing my vegetables in containers in the back alley, since my landlady has the garden completely filled up with flowering perennials (which are at least good for the bees).

Small plots for growing vegetables are at an absolute premium here in Vancouver -- every communal garden has a years-long waiting list. On the other hand I know a guy who goes to his neighbours and asks if he can beautify their neglected backyard with some vegetables (and share a little of the produce). He has about 3 plots going now, and enough to supply a once-monthly restaurant night that he runs.

It's interesting to see the contrasts out here (in terms of sustainable vs traditional North American culture). On the one hand, farmers markets' are booming, bicycle use and infrastructure are growing, and many people grow their own vegetables, even in comparatively well-off neighbourhoods. On the other hand, in my neighbourhood alone, perfectly good houses are regularly being bought, knocked down, and replaced with McMansions. And as you get further and further out of town, the sprawl becomes more evident, the architecture more American (lots of concrete, big, wide roads, big blank empty spaces designed to be flashed past in a car).

But some of us are getting prepared for the changes to come.

4/29/11, 11:10 AM

vera said...
A very interesting discussion indeed. Your response, JMG, puts me in the mind of “save your bacon!”… but even if that is all we were aiming for, you’d still have to deal with the real possibility that those people fighting over the last bits of “it” will notice shortly all those households who can run without “it,” and use their guns to take over them – easier, after all, than fighting other desperate people with guns over the last of bits of “it.”

Now my impression, and my own intent, is that while saving one’s skin by preparing is a good thing, we are *also* trying to conserve the resources that we still have, right?, whether it be fossil fuel, fresh water, phosphorus, or any number of other substances. And it seems to me that the mainstream folks who quip, “if I don’t use it someone else will,” are correctly pointing to the dilemma of the commons. In other words, we cannot conserve the planet singly. Every well managed commons is an alliance, i.e. a social or collective solution. It seems to me it cannot be done individually. Am I missing something here?

Finally, this issue cannot be swept under the table by simply saying, well, it’s the right thing to do. I wrote a little essay a few years back on the dilemmas of “moral dupes” who by choosing to sacrifice to conserve a resource, enable others to act exactly the opposite.

4/29/11, 1:36 PM

Steve From Virginia said...
Thanks for writing that, JM! I hope you enjoyed writing it as much as I enjoyed reading.

Less isn't easy to deal with. It's going to take time for folks to get used to it. We are still saturated w/ 19th century tech and the habits that go with it.

On the other hand, less is easy: get rid of the car and the teevee and the energy- gobbling 'stuff'. It's amazing what happens next! Less is almost ... natural!

4/29/11, 1:43 PM

One of the Remnant said...
As is often the case, I'm very much in agreement with JMG's diagnosis, prognosis and recommended course of treatment.

I would simply suggest that, when he notes that making such changes is 'not an easy thing,' we take him quite seriously.

When I began making such changes, it cost me a committed relationship which I'd thought was a lifetime deal, as my partner freaked out, and proved to be unwilling to tread that path, and I did not manage this aspect of things skillfully, and this became a significant setback to the shift I'd undertaken.

This, I would argue, goes to the larger question, which JMG did not address directly, but only by implication. That being, the existential notion that, while individuals, we are alone with others.

We're social, familial creatures, deeply desirous of intimacy, and making such choices - necessary as they may be - can exact staggering costs in that realm if we are not careful in the ways in which we go about it.

As such, this shift is not something to enter into lightly or thoughtlessly. My recommendation is to do what I did not: give considerable thought and effort to how you will bring those important to you along with you unless you are truly willing to go it alone.

4/29/11, 4:10 PM

sofistek said...
It's interesting that the three viewpoints you rail against and the viewpoint you say is necessary are all held by one person, myself.

I do long for a return to a hunter-gatherer type of society whilst realising that it's impossible, at least at this time (and probably for centuries), and that I'd probably die in short order if I attempted it.

I do realise that our current predicament is caused by a kind of conspiracy, even if largely unintentional. It's a self-perpetuating conspiracy of consumerism that impregnates all people with an innate desire for an unsustainable way of life. But there are also barely disguised conspiracies that manifest themselves as corruption that allows the money grabbers to continue to rape our economies (though a cessation of that wouldn't, ultimately, make any difference to the unsustainable nature of our societies).

I certainly think that somebody will change the world for us, though not in a pleasant way. That somebody is all of us trying to pretend that the unsustainable is sustainable.

But I also realise that we have to power down, use less, and we have to do that ourselves.

I'm constantly amazed, though I shouldn't be, that even those who refer to themselves as Green, often think that we can't possibly do with much less energy than we have or think that we will need to expand our power generation into the future, but with renewables (or nuclear), rather than fossil fuels. They don't even consider doing with much less - public electric transport is the answer, they say, though some even harbour the dream of a slightly downsized private transport use. They also don't even consider that the harnessing of renewables might not be risk free - full environmental impact assessments aren't in their minds at all, though, thankfully, I've recently seen scientists start to talk about the risks of renewable energy systems that extract energy from the natural energy systems of the earth.

Of course, energy alone is not the only problem. We have to stop, or drastically reduce, our consumption of non-renewable resources (as well as ensuring that our consumption of renewable resources does not adversely impact our habitat). JMG says that using less will help, matters and is doable. All of that is correct but it won't allow an unsustainable society to become sustainable. I think we will ultimately have to do more than the paragraph implies. Until our mindset changes, I don't think it's possible to do more, because absolutely everything (or almost everything) will have to change.

JMG is right, the conservation path is a lonely path. It's hitting me hard right now. It's hard to go further than the little I'm doing now because there is no-one to turn to (face to face) for advice and mutual support. I think part of the problem is my children who are still firmly entrenched in "modern" society, even though at least one of the two does "understand" what is happening. Fortunately, my wife is largely supportive and helpful but even with two of us, it's a lonely existence. Friends and neighbours just don't get the message.

4/29/11, 4:57 PM

Cash Gorman said...
The big problem is there are far too many people for any amount of "Green Wizardry" to sustain even the most basic of lifestyles.

Even the small percentage of people willing to make changes in their lives are so lacking in even the most basic skills required are not likely to survive two weeks without electricity.

These changes will happen, we've no choice, but let's hope it's a "Long Emergency" or it's going to be nasty. A great many people are going to die waiting and demanding "that somebody do something", a state by state Katrina...

4/29/11, 6:08 PM

Thardiust said...
Oh yea and, here's another link. I can tell this is going to be big some day.

4/29/11, 7:46 PM

sofistek said...

"It seems to me it cannot be done individually. Am I missing something here?"

I think this is a question of mindset. To me, it (conservation, living simply) is not only the right thing to do, it's the only response to our predicament. Of course it occurs to me that others will have a bit more to work with than they otherwise would, but that doesn't matter in terms of what my response is, because it's the only sensible response.

I think we can be assured that the trickle of awareness will turn into a torrent, eventually and many more people will be trying to make the same moves, in an impoverished world (whilst others try to continue with the dream world and other others will no doubt have a very different reaction to a green wizard's). Perhaps the trickle will provide knowledge and experience for the torrent. So let's get on with it - it's not only the right response, it's the only sensible, rational response.

4/30/11, 1:42 AM

Brad K. said...

One relationship to cheap energy seems to be cash wealth. When you talk about using less, that has to include less cash flow.

And cash flow is absolutely critical to the matchstick structure our current government stands on.

I couldn't help thinking that your observation of people deliberately choosing to live for the moment even at the cost to the future, though, is overstated. I think that choice is outside the space where modern American thought is taking place.

Our government defines taxes in terms of dollars, not what we produce, if we produce carrots, except as those carrots or houses are evaluated in dollars. Ambition – dreams -- have been defined in terms of dollar amounts, in terms of retirement funds and like dollar-valued strategies. Achievement is defined in dollars.

But dollars in amounts amenable to accumulation are always based on expending cheap energy. The elevator in the office building, the lights that light acres of corporate real estate, the actual design of buildings and communities to make 30 and 50 mile commutes 'easier' -- these all exploit cheap energy.

I don't think anyone chose or chooses to live today in despite of what that choice does to their children or grandchildren. I think that politicians and schools and commercial interests all want, and to a large extent have accomplished, that Americans think of what the immediate consequences are. The inherent promise of continuity from "been in business since 1975" to filing the tax form for this year, in the full knowledge that there will be another next year, are all geared on continuity. I think that is the nihilism here, the inability to relate future consequences to present choices, and not a choice between present effects and future aftereffects.

I think the argument about what will harm our grandchildren falls on deaf ears, in large part, because the assumption of continuity – and the continued availability of cheap energy -- already provides for future need in perpetuity. America has been a nation for over 200 years now, don't you know. That means, in corporate and political rhetoric, that it will continue forever.

Crackpots and hermits, and other strange and weird people, that read history and study systems and understand about consequences that aren't part of product promotions, some folk might disagree that anything is perpetual, that countries adapt or die just as businesses and communities and people do.

I think the first, leading argument to wage is that spending money is an expenditure of energy. Lots of dollars always result in the expenditure of lots of cheap energy. A package of carrot seeds is still relatively low cost, and expends more people-labor (except for the Wonder Hoe, the Biggest Rototiller In Town, the bags of The Mulch Seen On TV, the Bug Spray to End All Life, the Biggest Freezer at the Big Box Store two states over, and the garden service to keep the weeds out) than cheap energy.

One of the reasons that America so feared and hated the Hippies, I think, was that withdrawing from mainstream definitions of energy and money meant that controls over them by corporate and political interests were also left behind.

So convincing people that valuing things other than by dollars - cheap energy - really does act against the stated interests of this government (economic stability based on profligate consumption of cheap energy). At least today, I think that this current government’s goals are not in the best interest of our nation.

I think focusing on the shortfall of energy and the connection between economics and cheap energy, and the impacts on life today, is a better place to start than vilifying a choice -- to shortchange future generations -- that most people never consciously made.

4/30/11, 8:32 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Bill, good. I'd also factor in the effect of contracting energy and resource flows; the other person may very well no longer have the option of building a McMansion -- not a lot of them being built any more, you know.

Dennis, of course! The letters to the editor would be lagniappe; living a low-footprint life is the core strategy.

Greg, sounds like a plan.

Chris, that's the understatement of the century!

X, thanks for the clarification. I'm not at all sure there's going to be the appearance of recovery, except maybe the way it's happening in America -- the news media here's as relentlessly optimistic and detached from reality as Pravda used to be, and increasingly gets the same level of respect; most Americans are aware that the economy's still in the tank, and sinking more each day.

Professor, yes, I probably ought to come up with a FAQ one of these days to deal with the standard questions.

John, I'm a little wary of attempts to store stuff, because those tend to attract thieves of one kind or another. Skills are far more useful and far less volatile.

Genghis, nobody's taking the fast steps, so the slow steps are the only alternative to doing nothing at all.

Justin, excellent! You get today's gold star for catching a crucial detail. Yes, most of the people who are insisting they don't have to weatherstrip now -- using rationalizations like Vera's, or any other excuse -- are simply setting themselves up for a future where they don't have the resources to do even that much, and will have to settle for much more drastic cuts in their standards of living.

Sarenth, exactly. The question isn't how what you're doing compares to an imaginary standard of perfection; it's how it compares to doing nothing at all, which is what fixating on an imaginary standard of perfection usually amounts to.

Eric, I'm one of the minority, too, and you don't see me exempting myself from the critique I'm leveling. It's because we're all part of the problem that changing our lives becomes part of the solution.

Twilight, the thing that makes me think most Americans did grasp the issues, and then tried to close their eyes to them, is precisely the nihilistic tone of the last few decades. People don't suffer the symptoms of a troubled conscience if they really have no idea that what they did was wrong.

Homesteader, that's a very good point. If we in America had to pay the actual cost of our energy, half the trouble would be done with.

Kieran, the urban centers are interesting places to be right now, and especially where -- as in Canada -- the real estate bubble hasn't popped yet. My guess is that Van, in particular, is in for one heck of a correction when it does.

4/30/11, 8:53 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Vera, sure, you can spend all day coming up with lurid Mad Max scenarios, or insisting that because individual action can't solve problem A it can't solve problem B either, or engaging in moral casuistry to argue that doing the right thing is actually doing the wrong thing, but at the end of the day, all you've got is a set of rationalizations for clinging to a way of life as the foundations for that way of life crumble beneath your feet. That doesn't seem particularly useful to me, or relevant to this blog.

Steve, nicely put. Less is actually the path of least resistance these days, in anything but a social sense; it takes increasing effort to keep on accumulating, or even hold onto the heaps we've got.

Remnant, I'm sorry to hear that -- but it's not the only example I've heard of. The end of the age of abundance is traumatic, in more than the obvious senses; you can try to communicate it gently, but you can't make anyone see what they can't bear to see.

Sofistek, that's interesting -- it may be specifically an American thing to use the ideologies that, in your words, I rail at as excuses to keep sucking at the fossil fuel nipple as long as possible.

Cash, I don't think you've grasped what the green wizardry program is about, then. It's exactly the basic skills that will allow people to get by after a grid failure -- or, as Sharon Astyk sensibly points out, after the more likely event of having your power cut off because you can't afford it any more -- that we're discussing.

Thardiust, thank you for that link also!

Sofistek, the bad faith in the insistence that "X can't be handled individually" is that attempts to handle it collectively aren't happening, and there's no good reason to think that they'll ever happen, so waiting for them to happen is not a useful strategy. Individual action, even when it's not going to make huge changes, is better than no action at all.

Brad, I don't think it's overstated at all. I've heard far too many people, across the political spectrum, admit privately that yes, things are going to get nasty, and they hope they're dead before it happens. Equally, there are all the signs of a troubled collective conscience I discussed in the posts. People don't get shrill and defensive, or erect elaborate self-justifying fantasies, if they're unaware that there's something very wrong with their choices.

4/30/11, 9:08 AM

One of the Remnant said...
@ Brad K

I don't think cash wealth enters into it in the way you suggest. Our 'cash - fiat currency - is based on debt - which itself is a claim on the productivity of future generations. So the very notion of 'cash' as something which has value tied to the present - which is the way you seem to be viewing it - is misguided. Cash-based-on-debt is inherently punitive to future generations because it is an obligation we impute to them without their consent.

I also disagree with the notion that modern systems have created among Americans an "inability to relate future consequences to present choices" - that's a cognitive function which has not somehow been eradicated from our brains.

Rather than *unable* as you put it, I think Americans are 'unwilling' but perfectly able - though they are most assuredly encouraged, even seduced, into actions which benefit them and disadvantage future generations. There is a vast difference between unwilling and being unable, especially in terms of personal responsibility. I'm not responsible for something that I am unable to affect - I AM responsible for something that I can affect, but choose not to.

In other words, I think your assertion that modern industrial society has rendered us unable lets us off the hook far too easily, and my takeaway from JMG's post is exactly the opposite point: that we are not only on the hook, but at some level, at least most of us know it, that this thesis has explanatory power for what's happening around us, and that, further, failure to consciously acknowledge this reality will disallow effective responses.

4/30/11, 9:11 AM

wild gypsy said...
Sofistek said... To me, it (conservation, living simply) is not only the right thing to do, it's the only response to our predicament.

I agree.

I would add that just as we cannot change other people but we can ourselves, we cannot force understanding but we can open up a space that allows for understanding to occur (if it's going to).

Examples help facilitate learning by providing models which can be especially useful to those who suddenly find change forced upon them.

When faced with hard realities that no longer fit our entrenched beliefs, it is human nature to look around for those things that do fit the new realities. In this way, existing sustainable models and systems provide anchors for social cohesion.

4/30/11, 9:24 AM

beneaththesurface said...
"The one thing you apparently don’t do is the one thing that actually matters, which is changing the way you live here and now."

Especially in the last five years I've gotten into discussions/debates with some of my activist friends concerning the importance of lifestyle change. For instance, one of my former housemates was very critical of focusing energy towards lifestyle change, at the expense of working towards larger policy change. While to a certain extent, I could grasp some of the points he was making, I do not come to the same conclusions as he did.

Some of my thoughts on all this personal vs. policy change emphasis debate:

1. First of all, the debate of which is more important...making individual lifestyle change or working to change communities and policies bothers me because it assumes the answer is one or the other. Why can't you do both simultaneously? Sure, work on implementing better laws, but that doesn't mean you therefore have to ignore living out those values in your daily life.

2. I do agree that when certain policies are implemented, they can often have a much more widespread effect than from just promoting individual voluntary lifestyle changes. One little example: I live in DC, and before the DC City Council passed a law charging extra money for plastic bags in grocery stores, very few people brought reusable bags. Devoting one's energy to get lots of people to voluntarily change their habits would achieve less than working to change local policy. Now everywhere I go, I see people carrying reusable grocery bags. True enough. ...However, this is only one policy (that took some time to be proposed and then passed) affecting only one of a zillion aspects of people's lifestyle. It would take literally forever (and be impossible) to achieve all the desirable policies that would theoretically change individual behavior for the better. So sure, certain laws would be great to pass and certainly go ahead and advocate for them, but in the meantime do what you can now. And I always say that achieving a little individual change, however miniscule it might be, is still better than never achieving some grandiose international treaty (no matter how much time good-hearted activists have put work towards that)

4/30/11, 9:29 AM

beneaththesurface said...
(previous comment continued...)

3. Sometimes people talk about making lifestyle changes as a way to "change the world." And yes, maybe in ultra-small ways, my individual lifestyle choices are at least reducing the damage being done and will make it easier for me to adapt to a post-peak world. But honestly I don't really think about myself making certain choices as a way to "change the world" in some grandiose way. Instead, as someone once said to me, I'm "not letting the world change me." I do things because they are the right thing to do. I resist consumerism and try to waste little and live a modest lifestyle not because I'm trying to achieve some abstraction such as "saving the world" but because the values of thrift, ecological connection, and appreciation of limited resources are intrinsic to who I am as a person and I would be betraying part of myself to abandon that. That's why statements like, "The world is such a mess at this point; it doesn't really matter what little lifestyle choices I make because everything is already doomed." really bother me. Forget about "saving the world," but please save one's sense of personal integrity at least!!!

4. I'm all for certain kinds of policy change. However, I have a problem with political analyses that go so far as avoiding any talk of personal responsibility and deny the role all of us individual actors play in the political stage. Even getting policy change to happen relies on a sense of personal responsibility and individual lifestyle choices--there have to be individuals dedicated to working towards those goals.

5. Another argument that I hear is that corporations like a fixation on promoting voluntary individual lifestyle changes instead of changing laws because it shifts the focus from corporate responsibility/policy change to individuals. However, I would add that sometimes the types of voluntary changes, those "10 things you can do to save the earth" that corporations advertise are the very weak kind. More profound individual lifestyle changes such as "#1: Buy significantly less stuff!" are not something the corporate world would ever promote.

In my own life, I have found my frugality to be a source of freedom. I have lived on 10,000 dollars or less annually for my adult life so far. Unfortunately, the ideology of freedom that pervades American culture has no concept of limits, particularly ecological limits. (It is also kind of ironic that in this "land of the free" there's so much feeling of powerlessness.) Instead of abandoning the idea of "freedom" I think it needs to be redefined, and acknowledged that recognition of limits can actually be a source of freedom.

4/30/11, 9:30 AM

One of the Remnant said...
@ beneaththesurface

Great comment.

In response to your notions of freedom, you might find Murray Bookchin's "The Ecology of Freedom: The Emergence and Dissolution of Hierarchy" interesting. It's available in part on google books.

Bookchin was the founder of 'social ecology' - WAY ahead of the curve on ecological matters, writing 'Our Synthetic Environment' several months prior to Carson's "Silent Spring" and following up with numerous works which prefigured other more famous environmentalists' works afterward.

Personally, I think this lack of recognition and acclaim was because he was identified with the anarchist movement (a stance he later distanced himself from in favor of libertarian municipalism - which itself prefigures many of the modern movements toward community based action and decision making - again ahead of the curve), and most environmental activists went the other way - toward bigger federal government as the "solution" for our ecological ills.

4/30/11, 10:08 AM

The carp who jumped Hukou Falls said...
I only started learning about just how imminent the post-everything crunch is about two years ago. It took me a way to pass through the fear and despondency, but I'm getting there.

I've moved back in with my parents; not, I hope, as a slacker but to pool resources and lower costs all round in a multi-generational home - reverting to a traditional pattern? I'm starting a forest garden, and getting some vegetable beds dug. I'll be buying water butts to adapt for the drier weather that seems to be the new norm in my neck of the woods.

I've been thinking about the fact that I work in an industry that depends on people flying around the world. I can't see that lasting for too long... So what to do instead? I have some ideas based around meditation, tui na, and martial arts; I guess I'm betting that such physical and mental health treatments are going to be needed once the pharmaceuticals vanish (which they will, fast - they were one of the sectors most rapidly affected when the volcanic ash from Iceland stopped flights, for example).

Small steps, but they're things I can do now, with the resources I have available...

4/30/11, 11:22 AM

The carp who jumped Hukou Falls said...
@Kieran O'Neill


During the Falklands War, the Royal Navy destroyer HMS Sheffield was struck by an Exocet missile, causing severe damage.

As the ship burned, the surviving crew stood on the deck to wait for rescue and, as they did so, sang this.

Perhaps I misjudge them, but I find it difficult to imagine US sailors and marines doing the same...

4/30/11, 11:28 AM

Brad K. said...
@ beneaththesurface,

It is interesting that you mention reusable grocery bags.

As a symbol of the appearance of either money or environment consciousness, they are certainly symbolic.

But I question the long term impacts, I mean one has to manage a space to store them, probably trivial, but many don't keep track of them for long.

Which creates a (corporate!) market for reusable bags. I mean, here in northern Oklahoma, I don't see the re-purposed jeans lingering on, serving as headgear, as shoulder bags, or as shopping bags. I see new products, most with the banner of some store -- that is, promoting corporate profits. Snyder's Grocery, a local store, doesn't have any branded bags available.

The other issue I question is public health. Hospitals rely heavily, as to grocery stores, on disposables. When you dispose of the throw-away bag, you don't worry about getting last weeks drippings from the chicken package on this week's breakfast cereal.

That is, I question whether the ability to conserve energy, or even volume of oil (plastic), by using new, purpose built by corporate interests, reusable bags.

Some years back one of the mail order computer companies in California started including large, durable, canvas totes with orders. I got four, three I can lay hand to and I think the other is around somewhere, some 25 years later. Sometimes they are organizers of a project, carry my recorders and music somewhere, get drafted for laundry or tools.

I bought one of the reusable bags at the local hardware store a couple of years ago. The lady promptly folded it and stuck it in a throwaway t-shirt bag.

The local Wal-Mart is happy to use your bag; many comment that they just forgot to bring their's.

I consider the big-noise, widely publicized campaign against Wal-Mart shopping bags to be similar to the great treehugger campaign to ban DDT and the Premarin hormone replacement therapy. All are based on bad science, and serve to further careers of 'environmentalists' and raise cash and political capital.

It happens that the DDT trial -- the only one that showed harm to bird eggs -- was rigged, deliberately, to produce precisely the shell thinning they observed. They withdrew normal dietary calcium -- required to form healthy shells and bones -- from the bird's diet. Without the tampering, there is no such effect from exposure. The touted drop in Eagle nestings was fabricated during a period that nestings were increasing, and most threats to eagles and other wildlife were destruction of habitat, something developers and corporations didn't want to volunteer.

The Premarin issue goes back to another exploitation of an isolated incident. Preparation of Premarin begins with collecting estrogen hormones from the urine of pregnant horses. The farms doing the collection, collectively referred to as pregnant mare urine or PMU farms, do and have followed humane practices. But - some 25 years ago, a couple of farms let things go, a local news story followed up, and within months the problems were resolved. Strenuous efforts on the part of the PMU industry, the PMU farmers, and authorities - kept and keep problems minor and under control. You can still see the pictures today, unlabeled as to date or location, declaiming these are the average and current condition of every one of these maltreated horses -- blatant lies to raise funds and political recognition for the attackers.

As for Wal-Mart? They carry some plastic planters, big $25 can't-get-your-arms-around-one, made in the US. My local Ace hardware store went to China-made can openers, though they did consent to order me three (minimum order) Ecko American made, manual can openers.

Why buy something that is recyclable, when durable would be much better? I have nothing against re-use. But any campaign that requires me to buy something else leaves me questioning the effectiveness and the motives.

4/30/11, 12:29 PM

Brad K. said...
@ One Of The Remnant,

I don't claim that Americans are unable to make the right choices, or to choose between immediate gratification and future security.

I claim that we as a nation and social entity have been trained to evaluate choices based on the options provided by corporate and political sources. Moreover, we are all trained to consider the values and goals that we use to make decisions based on corporate and current political paradigms.

What we are theoretically capable of is interesting. Dealing with what we as a nation are in the habit of doing -- and expect to continue doing -- has value as well. You may be making some assumptions about what options are being considered, when people are making their choices.

Please don't confuse your theory of what money is, with my assertion that the use of money is an expression of the expenditure of energy.

I contend that for every $1,000 the government - any government - spends, that money will buy an expenditure of energy. Government employees will be employed; they may or may not expend energy in transportation on the job, they will expend energy getting to and from work, even if it is just walking - and very few government offices are located within walking distance of residences. Of course, I am not talking about uniformed services here. That $1,000 will buy materials from office supplies to buildings to nuclear power plants to printed materials to be handed out. That employee's family will live - and consume - based on that employee's income from the $1,000. Some programs distribute money to others, some for services or products, others for social welfare, college grants, furthering research, etc. That money in turn supports living, and work,and procuring, and transporting -- all involving the expenditure of energy.

Spending of large amounts of money by any entity has a similar effect, to consume energy.

The closer we stay to barter and to subsistence amounts of money, the closer we stay to expending human labor instead of cheap (oil) energy.

At least, that is my view.

4/30/11, 12:54 PM

dennis said...
Today I learned a new term, "lagniappe". Thanks for the lagniappe!

4/30/11, 7:54 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Remnant, thank you for getting it.

Gypsy, good! Yes, that's part of the green wizards strategy. If there are people in your neighborhood who are doing okay when everybody else is struggling, your chance of leaning over the fence one of these days and getting into a conversation about how they're doing what they're doing goes up noticeably.

Beneath, you're on to a very important concept there in tracing a connection between freedom and the acceptance of limits. As for the limits of lifestyle change, I'm not saying that nobody should do anything but changing their own lives; I'm saying that until we change our own lives, the rest isn't going to happen, not least because every attempt to change the world will be distorted by the constant temptation to tweak things to keep our own privileges intact.

Remnant, it's been a very long time since I've read Bookchin. I was unimpressed by the politics in the book of his I read, at least at the time; clearly I need to give him a second look.

Carp, it's a rough road when you first realize that the future we've all been promised is never going to arrive, and the one that is going to arrive is not going to be welcome. Still, taking things a step at a time is, at least to my mind, the best way to handle it.

Brad, the same phenomena you describe by saying "we are all trained" could be described in many less simplistic ways. I don't think it's useful at all to impose that sort of radical and, to be frank, ideological simplification on the much more complex reality by which many different power centers and pressure groups compete to appeal to sectors of a diverse populace. But then we've already discussed that disagreement.

Dennis, you're welcome!

Vera (offlist), you've beaten that dead horse to a fine paste at this point. Please see the note above the comment window about 'repeated attempts to hammer on a point already addressed."

4/30/11, 8:32 PM

Cathy McGuire said...
Another good post! It’s taken a while to read it and the comments because I’m so busy in the garden – the western OR weather is totally messed up! Snowed yesterday morning; it got to 60ish today; there’s frost predicted for the morning, then temps up to 74! I’m being run ragged putting plastic on, taking it off, etc. But when I read the news from around the country (and world) I know I can’t complain.

the subtext to every widely touted response to our predicament is that we don’t need to use less.
Some mention “less” but very few mention “a lot less” (with the exception of those on this blog and a couple others). Aside from being a portal to real change, I have little hope for those “quick and easy things you can do to become green”…

Can it help and will it matter? I think I’m less of an optimist about how big an impact it would have in the larger sense, but I am positive that it is helping me, and it definitely matters to my life – simplifying is enriching my life, even as I struggle to do so many of the things my friends and family take for granted. And the fewer “modern conveniences” I use, the less accessories, upgrades, replacements, etc. I have to buy! But I’ll also agree it’s a lonely path – so far, even my ex-hippie friends aren’t interested in really using less energy. I just had this conversation with a good friend, who’s struggling financially but still acting like her very expensive conveniences are non-negotiable. And she got so angry as she tried to argue that because she can’t grow all the food she’d need to live, there was no point working that hard for tidbits… the illusion will be very, very hard to destroy, if the people I talk to are any indication.

there's a more general pattern in American culture of juvenilization -- everyone thinks they want to be 18 forever, and so adolescent behaviors and attitudes have spread into age groups that ought to grow up a bit instead. That comment reminded me of M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled, which starts off “life is difficult” and focuses a lot on the need for adults to grow up!

BTW, until I can finish weatherizing my old house, I’ve shifted to wearing several layers and having the house around 60 degrees this winter. I know I still have a long way to go, but every time I use a “haybox” or eat something I’ve grown from seed, I feel like I’m practicing some very important skills. I’m working on a solar cooker box now – maybe I’ll get to use it sometime around June this year!

4/30/11, 8:39 PM

Matthew Heins said...
I'm sold.

Just joined the Green Wizards Forum.

I've got a run-down 110-year old house.

I've got very little time, even less money, and practically no know-how.

It should be quite fun to see how well I do. ;)


4/30/11, 9:09 PM

sofistek said...
The carp,

It's great that you moved back in with your parents. I absolutely agree that multi-generational (more than just parents with young children) homes must return. That's the way to pass on knowledge and conserve resources.

Are your parents as aware as you, or are they just happy to have you home?


5/1/11, 2:12 AM

x said...
RE: doubtfulness of a recovery in an economy. Ireland - Old Finance Minister's pronouncements parroted by the media over the last few years.

2009 = "greenshoots of recovery"
2010 = "we've turned the corner"
2011 = (bankrupted state) - "we've hit the bottom and the only way is up".

2011 = New Party elected to run the country.

Last Monday new Finance minister said: "we've hit the bottom of the bottom". (Pythonesque stuff)

This Sunday: govt admits that already anemic growth estimates will have to halved at least and new job losses are inevitable. (New govt says it has no options but to carry out old govt's economic/financial policies.)

1984 weds Yes Minister

[Those largely unaffected by the recession are spending big again, and their favourite toy, real estate, may be in play again. The problem is the 400+k unemployed, high immigration rate, and the growing cohort of working poor don't have the readies nor the ability to get credit.] anon-anon

5/1/11, 2:58 AM

RainbowShadow said...
Greetings, and thank you for your kind response to my very first post! Here's hoping my second post will prove as productive.

Speaking of ideas that are well past their pull date, what do you think of the following:

Recently, I got into another conversation (online) with a pseudo-conservative to use your term, this one worshiping Donald Trump.

I attempted to spread some of your ideas to him, but when I tried to explain some of the more complicated concepts he called me a "book-reading geek" and told me, in no uncertain terms, that life was about endlessly competing with the other guy and "winning" lots of bucks, which is why, according to him, only Donald Trump has the "business sense" necessary to run the country.

So I attempted to point out that some humans choose to live lives where they have "community," that aren't paranoid and don't treat all of your fellow men as though they're competitors to your wealthy success, and that in-depth analysis of every domain of human life was worthwhile due to the benefits in self-knowledge, and in any case any reading of great literature and philosophy would point to greater human values than that because literature and philosophy tend to stress NOT selling your soul to gain riches.

Then, he responded by screaming at me that I was an "intellectual" (which he meant as an insult) and I was probably a "fag," too, if I enjoyed reading all the time.

That's the elephant in the room that I wished to discuss with you, the reason for my post.

I'm not sure whether you realize this or not, but greater numbers of people than you think in this country do not read at ALL.

I don't mean that they have little formal schooling (I realize that even farmers and yeomen who had little formal schooling used to have Shakespeare in their cabins), or that they read tabloids.

I mean that they don't READ. Joe Bageant wrote about this in one of his books about the working class, and Susan Jacoby had an anecdote in one of her books about a Republican senator who bragged that he only read two books in a year.

And, here's another elephant in the room: many people in this country do not simply "violate or fail to live up to" democratic ideals or the ideals of self-sacrifice, community, "using less energy," etc.

It's more like their ideals THEMSELVES, in a bizarro-world fashion, have aligned themselves with the Scrooges and Mr. Potters of the world. I'm not talking about any specific group; I see this attitude in both liberals and conservatives alike. Many people in this country actually say things like "Life is tough because whenever you walk out that door, everyone is your enemy, don't kid yourself, everyone's ultimately out to make as much money as possible in his own self-interest, so you need to be tough and aggressive to beat out everybody else."

So here's my question: How can we convince these people that doing things like learning about the collapse of previous civilizations, and applying that to the present, is a worthwhile idea, when they don't even have a sixth-grader's capacity to read anything but celebrity news, or to contemplate spiritual matters that require treating your fellow man with love instead of treating your fellow man as an enemy climber preventing your rise to the top of the pyramid?

I am very grateful to you at least for reading this.

5/1/11, 3:28 PM

Jeff Z said...
Thanks for tying helicopter parenting to the other unsustainable aspects of American life. We have been discussing just this thing recently in our Early Childhood Family Education class here (minus any references to peak resources of course). What is interesting is that a forum in which I thought overparenting (ECFE that is) would be accepted as normal is instead railing agaist overparenting and advocating letting your kids explore the forest alone! Maybe the idea of peak energy becoming a part of mainstream consciousness is next!

Of course, consciousness doesn't mean that people will necessarily change their lifestyles, but one can hope.

I have no idea what is enough- in terms of what is enough change in order to adapt to the coming shortages.

Shortages are already common in South Asia. You probably know this, but it's not common knowledge by any means. My wife's family in Nepal has 12 hours with electricity and 12 without, usually in 6-hour increments. Her sister-in-law was here to visit recently and said that they get less and less every month. They may be down to 10 hours a day soon- and this is in the most populous city in the country.

I am lucky to be married to someone coming from a region that is accustomed to scarcity. My wife (for the most part) accepts and plays a part in my energy-saving and home-farming experiments. We keep doing more every week. We're by no means off the grid- but we live in the city and will get as far off of it as is practical here. The positive tradeoffs include access to public transit which allow us to have only one small compact car for a family of four.

See what we are up to now at:

5/1/11, 4:15 PM

Houyhnhnm said...
@Brad K—

I was totally unprepared for a sudden mention of Premarin mares in this discussion, but, hey, anything about horses gets my attention. Unfortunately, you provided no detail. What “isolated incident”? “Local news story” where? Are you referring to the 1995 London Times flap about PMU mares in Manitoba? Specifics are helpful. Sweeping statements are not.

I have no particular knowledge of or interest in the PMU industry, but for anyone interested in info on the remaining PMU farms, here’s a site with some good info and links:


5/1/11, 8:27 PM

ShortTheGalaxy said...
The brightest stars have the shortest lives. Some insist on going out in a blaze of glory. But is it their fault?

In the end, we are always left with an intial concentration of a resource which is dispersed in a complex manner. The dispersal creates small pockets of concentrations which are dispersed by smaller (more complex) processes and so on and so on until there is nothing left of the great singularity that was and that we all must feed on until we die.

Those that are here now, have just as much value as those that would be here later if we were to conserve. But what is this value?

To disperse the singularity of course. The show must go on. I am just glad to have tickets to this act.

5/1/11, 9:32 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Cathy, I've noticed the same curious combination of factors. On the one hand, using much less has arguably improved my quality of life, and on the other, most people -- very much including those who claim to care about the planet, etc., etc. -- don't want to hear about it. A very strange bifurcation.

Matt, sounds to me as though you have all the ingredients in place for a journey into green wizardry!

X, it'll be interesting how long they can keep on pedaling the air before the country is forced to default on debts it didn't need to accept and can't possibly pay.

Rainbow, you can't. You can lead a horse to water, as the proverb has it, but you can't make it drink. That's why making changes in your own life is essential -- because that's the one life you can unquestionably change. As for the people who don't read, won't learn, and won't think, I suspect that a lot of them -- especially those who belong to the privileged middle classes, and have never bothered to analyze their own dependencies -- are going to find themselves yelling and screaming and pounding their fists in dark, cold houses with empty cupboards inside, empty gas tanks outside, and no options left.

Jeff, yes, I'd heard a little about the beginning of a backlash against the bizarre way children have been treated over the last few generations. I'd also heard about the Nepalese electricity problems. Coming someday to an American city near you...

Short, Robinson Jeffers said it better decades ago:

"You making haste haste on decay;
not blameworthy; life is good, be it stubbornly long or suddenly

A mortal splendor; meteors are not needed less than mountains; shine, perishing republic."

And of course if you'd rather be hit by the meteor than sit and watch from the mountain, by all means; I have other plans, but hey, that's me.

5/1/11, 9:56 PM

Hal said...
I think I'm going to have to stick up for Vera on this one. I have pared my consumption to a pretty monastic lifestyle. I am more than happy to walk the talk regarding how little one can get by on, and I am even happier than that to try to develop and spread the sorts of skills that are going to be needed in the coming decline.

What I refuse to do is hobble myself in the pursuit of a more perfect lifestyle while all about me, others are obliviously going through the last of the fossil bonanza like there's no tomorrow and driving the collective decision-making processes in a direction of lower sustainability. If I can use some of what is now cheap energy to get myself into a better position to withstand the coming difficulties, or to help modify some stupid public decision, I will certainly do so.

So, yes, I will climb in to the gas-guzzling pickup and drive to the planning meeting to let the local powers know there is at least one landowner around here who will actively oppose the new bypass they want to build. I will also crank up the tractor on a regular basis to work my plot if that's what it takes to produce a crop that will introduce some people to a quality alternative to the local big box or drive-through.

Getting my own life in order is very important to me, but really only insofar as it is the right thing for me to do. I don't really care if anyone uses me as an example or not. The vast majority of "model" communities I've participated in or been witness to over the last 40 or so years have been roundly ignored by the public, anyway.

Sorry if this is a dupe. Got the "unable to ..." message.

5/1/11, 10:24 PM

gordon said...
Some advice for those of you who are frustrated with trying to convince people of what needs to be done. Try talking to young people; from my experience, they are more willing to listen with an open mind. Also, they have more energy and enthusiasm and many decades ahead of them in which to accomplish something. I waste very little time talking to people my own age (65).

5/1/11, 10:29 PM

The carp who jumped Hukou Falls said...

There are a number of factors involved. I've just returned after many years working in Asia, so there is an element of just wanting to spend time together. I've been banging on about peak oil etc for several years and, while I'm not sure that my father is completely convinced, he's certainly happy for me to put the garden back into production! I must admit that there is also a financial element; while I contribute my share of costs, this comes to much less that renting around here (and I can't even think about buying). The money I save is what will enable me to train up and get qualifications in the fields I mentioned previously. That's an element that contributed to my initial sense of panic about the coming changes; I have quite a few letters after my name on my business card, but I realized that I really didn't know how to do anything practical. Hence the motivation to acquire skills that I can use anywhere, in a field that will always be in demand.

5/2/11, 2:30 AM

The carp who jumped Hukou Falls said...
@Cherokee Organics (comment 4/28/11 3:11 AM)

I certainly agree with much of what you say.

* I rub shoulders daily with friends and colleagues who are highly educated, and much qualified. Despite this, there seems to be a profound lack of either knowledge or curiosity about the wider world, and how things are done elsewhere. Having such knowledge and curiosity marks one out as 'weird'. I've struggle with this for many years, and have come to the conclusion that much of this comes down to the source of one's sense of identity. Is it self-generated, or is it defined by the group? Very often, even people with the best education and highest qualifications, define themselves by others' opinions. This is definitely a problem when trying to explain that things need to change. There's very little will to do the kind of self-analysis you mention, I find.

* As for going back to the land, well... I don't disagree but, having spent time in rural villages in Africa and China... I wouldn't want to live that way. They're poor, conformist, and boring. If you're OK with going to the toilet behind rocks, or in a pit open to the sky, when it's far below freezing, you might adapt to life there more easily than I did! Historically, of course, this is a major reason why people left the land! I don't think it's because they feared nature...

OTOH, I know Chinese farmers who are making a big effort to try to improve their lives, but they struggle mostly with a lack of information. I was discussing forest gardening with one, and showed him a BBC film about a farmer trying to switch to low-oil consumption. He commented that the UK had lots of rain, while they had next to none. I'm sure that there are plenty of trees and shrubs etc that he could use, but I don't know what they are. Perhaps this is something I should be researching...

Anyway, good for you for walking the talk. As learn more about gardening from my farm-bred father, and get my own forest garden into development, I'll do what I can as well.

5/2/11, 2:56 AM

Cherokee Organics said...
Hey Edde,

Top work and much respect!



5/2/11, 3:07 AM

Cherokee Organics said...
Hey John Bray,

Yeah, I'm on 22 acres here which is more than I can ever manage on an organic basis.

I reckon you're spot on though, few people seem to be interested. However, I do know that inner urban community gardens have waiting lists a few years long. I'm not seeing that here though. There's space...

Even the neighbours who see what we get up to every day, still think we've got some sort of magical soil. I keep saying to them it's the same stuff, you just need to change the way you're working with it. Oh well, one step at a time I guess.



5/2/11, 3:16 AM

Cherokee Organics said...
Hey JMG,

hehe! I was being serious, although there is a bit of tongue in cheek humor. I based the understatement on some of the crazy responses I'm getting, some people really don't understand energy at all.

If you have time, have a look at how the price of gold is going up. Also look at the US exchange rates compared to foreign currency rates, it's falling. Other countries are converting their US$ foreign exchange reserves to resources and other currencies. Pretty scary stuff.

Me thinks that your international bankers and financiers are dropping US$ like hot cakes to get this sort of movement in the markets over such a short period of time.



5/2/11, 3:26 AM

Bill Pulliam said...
Brad K -- your DDT "information" is utter nonsense. A large number of studies found (and continue to find) a wide range of toxic effects of environmental DDT to all classes of wildlife, vertebrate and invertebrate, far beyond the eggshell thinning effect. And the eggshell thinning is not the result of one dodgy lab test, it is based on many studies, experimental and observational. Your "great treehugger campaign" was based on all this information, and many hawks and eagles rebounded phenomenally in numbers after it was imposed. Given that you are spouting absolute rubbish on this topic, I would conclude that any other "facts" you might present are also highly suspect. I have also generally found that those who promote conspiracy theories are entirely immune to fact-based challenges to said theories; I expect you will respond likewise.

Funny how people who throw around the term "bad science" are usually in reality those who are attempting to discredit the whole scientific process with slander, misinformation, and outright lies (i.e. anti-global warming crusaders, anti-evolution crusaders, etc.). There is always room to question science; that is how real science is done. But this particular term seems to be mostly a mantra of those who seek to corrupt the scientific process, not aid it. I wonder if "bad science" was actually coined at one specific point in one of these debates as a formal slogan?

Also kinda funny that you chose to use "treehugger" as a pejorative on a blog run by an Archdruid...

5/2/11, 5:22 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Hal, if your neighbors owned slaves or beat their wives, would you consider that justification for doing so yourself?

Gordon, an excellent point.

Carp, you'll notice that I haven't been saying that going back to a relatively low-tech peasant existence is a wonderful thing. It's going to happen at this point, to most of the people in the industrial world -- or, rather, most of those who survive the other fun details of the Long Descent -- but that's a matter of hard necessity rather than anything else. We could have had a less impoverished future, but we flushed the resources that could have gotten us there on thirty years of SUV living. Now it's a question of what scraps can be retained.

Chris, trust me, I'm watching that. The US government has apparently decided to get out from under its debt burden by debasing the dollar; it should be a wild ride.

Bill, thank you for the info. Can you point me to some good resources re: the claims that DDT is harmless, Rachel Carson was a fraud, etc.? I field that kind of thing now and again, here and elsewhere, and would welcome some facts.

5/2/11, 5:45 AM

hapibeli said...
For the "Tertiary Economy's" analysis;

5/2/11, 6:51 AM

The carp who jumped Hukou Falls said...

I wasn't putting words in your mouth, only responding to the suggestion (not yours) that people left the farms because they were scared of nature.

I quite agree with your point; in fact, I am completely on board with the principles of the Green Wizard project. The fact that I've spent time in villages that have barely made it into the 20th century is all the persuasion I need to try to save as much knowledge as I can so as to avoid going all the way back to that as the Long Descent progresses.

I don't happen to live in a place with any empty spaces, though. All the land around here is spoken for. Since I agree with you that a sudden and catastrophic collapse is unlikely, land ownership isn't going to change much. As my garden won't be enough to sustain us, Green Wizardry and skill acquisition is an essential path to survival...

5/2/11, 7:00 AM

Brad K. said...
@ Bill,

On DDT - Apparently the University of Nebraska at Lincoln captured a page from -

I found the same information, just about, on

Also on the UNL site is a copy of the early report that DDT causes cancer in lab animals, that the 'conspiracy' theory papers point out couldn't be replicated, and that the number of tumors cited actually occurred in both control and study groups, and were traced to spoiled food containing carcinogens.

Google DDT and malaria, and note how effective DDT is with little or no known actual reports of hazard, outside of lab studies. The conspiracy reports show that hawk and eagle populations were already on the rebound as destruction of habitat in slowed, at the time DDT was most used.

As far as bought-and-paid-for science, on both sides of any public issue, I grew up during times when tobacco was proven safe and beneficial by science and government findings, for several decades, before being shown to have all been contrived.

That doesn't make all science bad. And it certainly doesn't make all protests valid.

@ Houyhnhnm,

Yep. That is the anti-premarin/PMU story. This site,

-- claims to have been involved in 'the story' since 1986. If I remember the Draft Horse Journal coverage (not dedicated to PMU issues), that is about the time when a few of the hundreds of farms were found to have problems.

I notice that most of the anti-premarin claim today boils down to two - treating horses as if they livestock raised for slaughter (they are), and confining horses and watering twice a day.

The twice-a-day watering follows what my veterinarian and horseshoer both told me is consistent with wild bands of horses -- that is, a natural cycle.

Confining the horses during collection is consistent with tie-stalls, a practice common with draft horse owners over winter, and not considered humane or inhumane, though keeping work horses in condition to work, daily, seems to make the horse's health an advantage. At least, that is my impression; the stalled horses (not on a PMU farm) that I had contact with seemed quite content. As with many practices of old, the tie-stall isn't as popular because it involves more work on the part of the keeper - keeping the stall clean, turning the horse in and out daily for exercise and water, carrying the hay to the manger, and all this aside from watching the horse for health and attitude issues (ill-behaved horses are too big to allow aggressive behavior when working with them this closely -- another problem that is more common today without the 'remedy' of horse slaughter for unsafe horses).

I couldn't find the Manitoba article in the London Times.

5/2/11, 8:05 AM

Bill Pulliam said...
JMG -- the Wikipedia article on DDT provides good reviews (with citations) of the case against DDT and the heated-but-legitimate ongoing controversy about costs vs. benefits in its continued use as an antimalarial agent in some countries.

The "DDT is good for you" campaign seems to all derive from the late J. Gordon Edwards; here is his final paper on the topic:

This paper is a classic of selective misrepresentation of the scientific literature, hyperbole, and misstatements. The abstract makes it clear that what follows will be a propaganda piece, not an actual scientific literature review. Interesting that it was published in a medical journal; I have seen other cases where papers that were pretty shabby in their non-medical aspects used the medical literature as a vehicle for publication and an appearance of legitimacy. ALWAYS beware when you see an article in a medical journal whose topic is not strictly a medical or health issue!

Edwards was a prominent and controversial figure, and made a habit of phrasing his writings in inflammatory terms, His affiliations included Lyndon LaRouche and several prominent anti-environmentalism lobbying groups. Yet he was also once a park ranger in Glacier NP, and a respected and pioneering mountain climber.

His proclamations about Rachael Carson, DDT, and most other pesticide-related issues have been generally viewed as "fringe" for many decades. I would class them in the same category as the "abiotic oil," "zero-point energy," and "electric universe" theories. Not as far afield as "hollow earth" and "space lizard" believers.

5/2/11, 8:41 AM

Hal said...
Oh, come on, John Michael, I expect better from you. A small disagreement is not a cue for a snippy one-liner. It's not even you I'm disagreeing with, after all, more the tone of hair-shirt smugness I read into some of the comments.

Moreover, I'd like to hear how you get the idea I'd advocate any behavior just because anyone else is doing it, or not doing it. I specifically pointed to situations in which I could use resources for a greater good, at least in my opinion. I've seen far too many well-intentioned people over the years content with retreating into an inner circle and thinking they've won some sort of moral battle because they've reduced their own impacts to some ill-defined minimum. Those people were irrelevant to the choices made during the decades you've been talking about, and certainly (by default) no less responsible for the results than those who voted for Reagan.

Again, to clarify, I don't think that's what you're advocating. I think I recall you talking about using remaining resources to make intelligent preparations for the future. I'm just saying I think they can also be used to try to stem some of the bigger mistakes we're likely to make as things tighten, the new bypass, petro-wars, biofuels, "cash for clunkers," etc., being a few examples.

5/2/11, 9:55 AM

Edde said...
Good afternoon John Michael,

We had a SUPER Beltane celebration Saturday evening. Over 70 friends & neighbors attended, many musicians, we danced the May Pole, visited around a bon fire and feasted. Hope your celebration was satisfactory.

Tomorrow is the 40th anniversary of MayDay, the largest anti-war civil disobedience in USA history.
13,000 arrested (not me, though my FBI file sez I was, oops;-). Here's a grateful salute to ALL anti-war veterans out there!

We would do well to learn from the activistos of those times, both good and bad. Talkin' bout STREET theater. Tunisians and Egyptians know about confronting impossible odds in the square of public opinion, too.

THANKS for all the good work YOU do!

Best regards,

5/2/11, 10:01 AM

Kevin said...
Gordon, thanks for mentioning that. I had a baffling conversational experience yesterday, with other adults all younger than myself. The general consensus was that despite loss of manufacturing capacity the USA will remain an economically powerful nation and that innovation will be important to its future, as exemplified by the "wave-disk" auto engine being developed at Michigan State University. My feeble attempts to introduce questions about the role of peak oil, conservation and the end of growth were brushed aside by the fast-talking and highly educated people present. Lacking the technical chops to rebut them, I subsided. But the outcome to my mind is that either (a) everything I've been reading here and elsewhere for the past couple of years is false, or (b) even very educated and intelligent people have some seriously delusional thinking to get over. But maybe, as you suggest, some young people may be more willing to consider ideas outside the dominant paradigm.

5/2/11, 11:12 AM

gordon said...

I have run into that same situation myself. Young people certainly are in love with their high tech gadgets. While they may be educated, it is a relatively narrow education with little practical knowledge of the world and how nature works. But when you get them away from the city without a mobile phone or GPS they begin to open their eyes. And if you truly talk to them, as in have a conversation, over time they become more receptive. Preaching doesn't work of course. All thinking people resist preaching, so I try to not do that.

5/2/11, 1:24 PM

One of the Remnant said...
@ Kevin

I don't thinks it's age related per se, Kevin, so your findings make sense to me.

My take is that the dividing line between those willing to listen - or better, to *hear* - and those who are not has more to do with how much their ego is invested in future dreams based on current schemes, or not.

Nobody likes to hear that the unexamined premises upon which they've built plans for the future were utterly flawed, and that the actual premises spell the demise of their desires. Especially when those unexamined premises were honestly derived from what society (and families) gave them to understand. There is, I think, a sense of betrayal that ensues - and to avoid feeling that, it's easier to blame the messenger. The unconscious is a powerful ally in the quest for delusion.

That said, I think it's true that older folks with children - folks who have bought into the BS - now have their kids' futures in mind. Every one of my friends with kids wants to see their kids go to or finish college, get a professional job making enough money to 'do well,' etc. Not only is the thought that this won't happen unwelcome, but the thought that they themselves pushed their kids along that path - if it turns out to be a dead end - is well nigh intolerable. So again, it's the unconscious to the rescue and blaming the messenger.

So I do think it *tends* to break down by age to some degree for those reasons, but it's more closely related to the future plans and dreams of the cohort which you are addressing. In your case, you noted you were speaking to a cohort of highly intelligent and well educated young people - exactly thy sort you would expect to have big dreams for - and demands on - the future.

Intelligence is no defense against delusion - and in fact these often go hand in hand, for reasons Michael Shermer discussed in his book 'Why People Believe Weird Things,' the final chapter of which, IIRC, was titled 'Why Smart People Believe Weird Things.' Basically, because smart people are often better at rationalizing their stupid beliefs.

5/2/11, 1:47 PM

Cherokee Organics said...

I was thinking the same thing. If you can devalue the principal in a debt arrangement then you are effectively ahead. It's a pretty sneaky gamble really.

The difficulty for the US though is that other countries, bankers and their governments aren't stupid and they'll want their funds back.

I think there may be a switch to other countries currencies in trading arrangements which tend to be very long term contracts. Saddam tried this and initially he did very well out of it, but long term it didn't work out so well for him personally. This will reduce the overall demand for US$.

As the US$ devalues too, the cost of imports will rise and as a net energy importer, it's gonna hurt. Inflation will be on the up too. All those cheapie consumer goods will cost more too unless the US can find another cheap source of manufacturing output that's also suffering.

I can't see how in a contracting economy the US will be able to invest in additional manufacturing capacity either. With a lot of big financing arrangements the source of the funds is from cashed up external economies. Why would they invest their funds knowing that they may not be repaid. This is the dilema of the PIGS countries too. They're struggling selling government bonds even at high percentages.

Interesting times...



5/2/11, 3:36 PM

RainbowShadow said...
My apologies, but I have another question.

One of the ways in which civilizations engage in self-correction is by comparing themselves to the way other people do things.

Herodotus, for example, would sometimes travel to Egypt to study their customs. Thomas Jefferson would sometimes visit Native Americans personally and document the differences between their tribes, which is described in his book, Notes on the State of Virginia.

You've commented recently that we and Europeans and everyone else might lose the ability to travel to other places in the world.

So how are we going to keep ourselves intellectually broad and deep and intellectually curious (like the child who innocently asks, "Mommy, why do plants grow? Or what's on the other side of the ocean?") if we permanently lose all access to "foreign" data?

What happens if Americans lose the idea that architecture can be organized into something more beautiful than cube farms and abandoned gas stations and endless urban sprawl, if they lose the ability to even "realize or imagine" this by studying Greek architecture or British architecture or what have you?

What happens if Americans never get past their celebrity and money worship, because they lose access to British literature such as Dickens that could remind them that they're better than that?

What happens if Americans lose the ability to do something YOU'VE done, John Michael Greer, and examine their own economic system's failings by comparing it to more balanced systems like those of Scandinavian countries, who neither completely business-run nor completely government run?

All of this is a real possibility, since you told me that I can't change any lives but my own, so I can't FORCE people to value beauty and entering into the viewpoint of people they don't like.

What I'm trying to ask here is that how do we make sure we hold on to our curiosity if we permanently lose the ability to "go abroad," as Morris Berman pointed out, and actually learn how other people do things and what other people value?

This is a question of particular importance to me, since I'm going to become a librarian in the future myself.

But if I can't lead a horse to drink, will my efforts at cultural preservation come to nothing? I'm already compiling lots of classical works, including the non-humanities scholars too such as Aristotle and Einstein. I'm already buying copies of the 2009, 2010, and the 2011 World Almanacs. Will that be enough? Or should I do more?

As always, thank you at least for reading this, whether you find my comment constructive or productive or not.

5/2/11, 3:43 PM

sofistek said...
Hal, If you're climbing into a gas-guzzling pick-up truck, I doubt that your lifestyle is monastic.

And why wouldn't you want the perfect lifestyle, just because others don't?

Sorry, I fail to see the logic is what you're writing. It shouldn't matter to you what other people are doing (at least insofar as it affects what you do), so just get on with the green wizardry.

5/2/11, 3:51 PM

Bill Pulliam said...
Brad K-

"rigged," "fabricated," "treehugger," "tampering."

Sorry dude, this is the language of conspiracy theory propaganda, not the language of scientific debate even at its most voracious. You've tagged yourself with your word choices whether you realize this or not. And you have not inspired me to investigate your position further. Been down that road many times, always leads to the same intellectual mudhole.

JMG -- astounding how your posting about getting beyond conspiracy theories has inspired so many people to fill up your comments with detailed expositions of their own pet conspiracy theories!!

5/2/11, 5:14 PM

One of the Remnant said...
@ RainbowShadow

I don't think anyone has suggested that humans are about to enter a phase where an impenetrable travel barrier descends around us all with a radius of a few miles and simultaneously all historical works abruptly vanish. As you noted, Herodotus managed to make it to Egypt (and, presumably, back) absent United Airlines, well before the Industrial Rev.

Humans have evinced abundant curiosity for at least the quarter millions or so years of the species' existence, and our intellectual curiosity is well documented going back several millennia (the library @ Alexandria springs to mind).

I am not really understanding how it is that you think that all knowledge of other cultures and human curiosity is somehow at risk of vanishing, even during an era of involuntary relocalization.

As I see it, the axiom that one cannot lead a horse to drink merely means that the horse will only drink when *it* is ready to - and not when it suits *your* purposes - it is thus often a transient condition. I think it's been remarked a few times in this comment thread that most here feel it's likely that many of the 'horses' which are not presently willing to drink will experience something of a change of heart, once conditions warrant it.

Personally, I think gathering documents you feel are important is a worthy endeavor (especially if you read them as you gather!), so kudos to you for doing that. I know that JMG has suggested gathering less esoteric materials such as 70s-era appropriate tech documentation as well, which is part of the green wizards effort, so you may wish to keep your eyes open for those as well.

I think of it this way: I very much enjoy having the wisdom of Aristotle, Thucydides, etc at my beck and call, but realize that what I may find perhaps more useful in the near term is to have a manual which can instruct me in building/using a treadle pump, or in properly insulating my home.

5/2/11, 7:51 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Hapibeli, I saw that! It's been fascinating to see recently that some fairly influential voices are starting to say what us, ahem, treehuggers have been saying all along.

Carp, thanks for the clarification!

Bill, many thanks. This will be useful.

Hal, I can certainly go into more detail if you like. What you offered in your earlier comment is the standard rationalization used since the end of the Seventies by members of the American middle class who magnify the little they're doing in an attempt to void talking about the far more important things they're not doing. You could get to those meetings just as effectively on a bicycle, and you'd learn a lot more about intensive organic gardening if you ditched the tractor and planted a much smaller acreage in deep beds tended with shovel and hoe, but that's beside the point, isn't it?

I'd point out that the logic you've offered is exactly the kind that has guided the environmental movement since the end of the Seventies -- that is, pursue as much change as you can without impacting your own lifestyle, and insist that anybody who's serious enough to change their lifestyles is irrelevant, displaying "hair-shirt smugness," etc. It's not accidental that since the environmental movement adopted that approach, it's gone from the relatively frequent successes of earlier decades to rack up an almost unbroken string of failures. That's not an accident; advocating for environmental protection while insisting on a lifestyle that includes gas-guzzling trucks is right up there with fornicating for chastity.

Edde, I had a quiet and very pleasant Belteinne, thank you!

Kevin, the very intelligent and tech-savvy people you talked to are committed to the permanence of the technostructure that gives their skills meaning; they also tend to be taught to treat all difficulties as problems in search of solutions -- not a bad thing to teach engineers, after all. Still, it rapidly becomes delusional in the presence of predicaments that have no solutions.

Chris, I don't think they're thinking as far ahead as the rebuilding of US industry. The US has spent the last thirty years backing itself into a series of disastrous corners, and at this point all that's left is a desperate attempt to cobble together short-term fixes to keep the whole shebang from falling apart all at once. The soaring debt load is the current crisis, so they'll inflate their way out of it, and gamble that somebody else later on will come up with some way to deal with the consequences of inflation. It's a fairly common habit in failing societies, and plays a very large role in helping them fail.

5/2/11, 7:59 PM

One of the Remnant said...
@ Cherokee Organics

It's pretty clear that the feds/Fed would like to inflate/debase the money supply/currency to get out of the current predicament, but that is, IMO, at this point an impossibility simply because of the sheer scale of the debt involved. Remember that, in any legit audit, net present value of unfunded liabilities would need to be included in the public debt of the US, and that's running somewhere between $100 and $200 TRILLION, depending on who's doing the calculting. Ludwig von Mises was ahead of the curve on this one when he said:

"There is no means of avoiding a final collapse of a boom brought about by credit expansion. The alternative is only whether the crisis should come sooner as a result of a voluntary abandonment of further credit expansion or later as a final and total catastrophe of the currency system involved."

So we're not headed for a managed debasement, despite the hopes (and hubris) of the political and financial classes, but an unmanaged default. In short, the financial system will need to collapse to purge the system of debt.

Perhaps I'm guilty of black-and-white thinking here, but I don't really see any other realistic way this can go, given how deep a hole has been dug for us.

Speculatively, what may trigger that, if it hasn't happened already by that time, is when the commodities markets dry up due to a global shift to the kinds of bilateral energy agreements we saw occurring in 2008, and which IIRC have been announced recently between players like China and Venezuela.

So it may not even be a question of whether the US can 'afford' to buy oil - but rather a question of how many net exporters are willing to enter into such agreements with us. Just a thought.

5/2/11, 8:06 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Rainbow, you don't need to apologize; one of the reasons I respond to comments here is precisely to field questions from readers. International travel isn't going to end when fossil fuels do; it'll become a good deal less common, to be sure, but it's worth remembering that Herodotus didn't burn a single barrel of oil to get to Egypt, and Jefferson rode a horse to visit the local First Nations. As fossil fuels deplete out of existence, also, the pressures that have tended to homogenize cultures across large geographical areas will fail; it'll take a lot less traveling, in other words, for people from one place to meet people with different cultures and ways of thinking about the world.

Finally, I'd suggest that the habit of hating knowledge and learning that's become so common in recent years is simply an offshoot of the nihilism I've been addressing, and comes from the fact that if you do learn and think, you start to realize that we're headed for a mess of trouble! I don't expect such attitudes to last long; in a more Darwinian environment, those who are clever and quick to learn tend to survive a good deal more often than those who cling to the notion that the world is obligated to conform to whatever opinion they happen to hold.

Bill, nothing attracts conspiracy theorists like a challenge to the logic behind conspiracy theory. I've got a book coming out this fall on the end of the world or, more precisely, our society's habit of wallowing in end of the world fantasies; I expect to be deluged by apocalypse bunnies as soon as it sees print.

5/2/11, 8:07 PM

sofistek said...
Rainbow, when I see comments like yours, about travel, I think that the lack of long distance travel is the norm, not the exception, for the human race, at least in the time-scale of a human lifetime.

JMG is absolutely right, though; people won't have to travel huge distances (except for those on tiny islands) to get to different cultures. The world will become a much larger place and likely far more varied. A good point that I hadn't thought of before, in quite that way.


5/2/11, 9:41 PM

Lei said...
what strikes me in these discussions is an apparent disregard for (elite) culture. I know that there are more basic things to be concerned about, but still, culture is not simply a luxurious entertainment for many, and the less for a typical European intellectual. Whole nations, including Czechs, are defined through their culture for several reasons, and these cultural traditions go back to early Middle Ages. The question is, what will happen to these? To the old traditions of literature, music? Many people are not interested in them and would say they are pointless remnants of the old world (in fact, these traditions survived many ends of the old world in the span of 800-2000 AD), but they represent crucial things in the lives of many other people, including me. I do not have a car, a TV, a big suburb house, I do not go anywhere abroad for holidays, I do not buy things I do not really need - I indeed manage with little when compared to an average Czech, but I can hardly get along without books, for example. As a student, I would rather buy a book than a lunch. Will all this perish? Will there be any symphonic orchestras? Elite literature and elite music, for which you must have time and resources, for which you must have the respective specialization? What more - to write a book was always one of my dreams, and now I am writing books and translating from Classical Chinese as a sinologist. But does it make sense now? Will it someone read in the future? You know, I have always been fond of nature, and I like manual work, working in the garden, in the forest, it is not alien to me. However, my inner as well as social life have been predominantly shaped by matters of culture. I am a bit disturbed by the fact that no-one seems to address these issues.

Another problematic issue is public health. Many permaculturists, for example, manage with saying the industrial medicine is bad, helps only to prolong suffering of naturally dying people and that eating herbs solves everything. Well, sorry, but I think this is a severly distorted view. Without modern medicine, 8/10 or how much of us would have died in their childhood and many others later beacuse of some now trivial infection. And me personally - you know, I will be 31, and without the "bad Western medicine" and without the solidary public health care I would be dead by now because of the Hodgkin's disease, instead of having a fairly good chance to live a quite normal life now and in the future. Under the circumstances of the decline, the only thing I can do is to pray for not getting it back - thus, the talk about "natural medicine" is quite unsatisfactory to me. We all know how fragile the life of pre-modern people was and that the "natural medicine" did not help much (not to mention that for a large part it was a bulk of superstitions and/or often rather harmful procedures). I wonder - will at least antibiotics be accessible? Is it possible to produce antibiotics in the conditions of a failing industrial society or in you "ecotechnic" world? Or will the average age fall back to 35? These are crucial questions, but I have not read a word e.g. about antibiotics in the post-peak world

5/3/11, 6:17 AM

Cathy McGuire said...
It’s really interesting that some of this week's discussion seems to be going fairly mainstream just now. First, a Forbes commentator:

Imagine you are a beer yeast. You’ve got a simple life. You live in a nice warm bath of sugar water. G’head. Eat all you want. When you get to feeling a little full, just relax and let go. Your poo is mostly alcohol with some other stuff. After you’ve topped off your mitochondria with energy from all that sugar, you can divide into two perfect copies of yourself. What could be more wonderful?....
…. So, you’re the “moral” beer yeast who saw doom coming, who thought, “You know, when the sugar gets scarce and the alcohol level rises to 11%, we’re done! I’m going to stop this right here. No more sugar for me!”
But all you did was drop out of the “race” and leave your share of the sugar to your cousin, who happily subdivided down unto the generations — while you shriveled up.
…. In other words, we need cooperation on a scale never achieved by humans before. Difficult. Some say impossible, but maybe not. Are you a beer yeast or are you a human?

And then George Monbiot in the Guardian:
Accommodation makes sense only if the economy is reaching a steady state. But the clearer the vision becomes, the further away it seems. A steady state economy will be politically possible only if we can be persuaded to stop grabbing. This in turn will be feasible only if we feel more secure. But the global race to the bottom and its destruction of pensions, welfare, public services and stable employment make people less secure, encouraging us to grasp as much for ourselves as we can….

And it concludes:
… All of us in the environment movement, in other words – whether we propose accommodation, radical downsizing or collapse – are lost. None of us yet has a convincing account of how humanity can get out of this mess. None of our chosen solutions break the atomising, planet-wrecking project. I hope that by laying out the problem I can encourage us to address it more logically, to abandon magical thinking and to recognise the contradictions we confront. But even that could be a tall order.

And yes, I know he’s become a nuclear enthusiast, but he is also mentioning some of the contradictions that green-energy-for-BAU has… unfortunately, neither article makes me feel any more optimistic about the general public. So I’ll just get back to my hoeing….

5/3/11, 7:23 AM

Bill Pulliam said...
JMG -- I know it's pretty late in the weekly blog cycle to be throwing out another idea in the comment thread, but some thoughts just occurred to me...

I was thinking about this discussion of nihilism and conspiracy thinking in the context of one of your other big themes, the catabolic collapse cycle. As I understand the catabolic collapse theory, the really short version is something like this: As a civilization grows and expands (its anabolic processes), the maintenance costs of its infrastructure and complexity increase disproportionately. The point is reached at which anabolic activites can no longer sustain the maintenance demands, which results in contraction and disassembly (catabolism) of the structure and complexity. Catabolism becomes self reinforcing leading to long term simplification and contraction.

So the connection that popped in to my head is that on the cusp of catabolic collapse you will be seeing the civilization at its most complex, and the difficulties of managing and maintaining it will be becoming very evident (sound familiar?). This will also be the period of "peak incomprehensibility." The complexity is far beyond what individuals can easily grasp, and the catabolic decay will seem to have no obvious cause ("we used to be able to BUILD bridges, why can't we keep them from falling down NOW?"). So... incomprehensible complexity combined with inexplicable decay - absolutely prime ground for paranoia and conspiracy thinking, it seems to me!

5/3/11, 9:00 AM

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Here is a link that reviews some of the consequences of overuse of DDT, which kills many, many living species besides mosquitoes, along with a discussion of the use of environmentalists as boogeymen by certain interest groups.

I recently spoke with a member of a local falconry association at a conservation conference, who assured me that the upswing in several backyard bird species (and of course hawks) I've noticed over the last ten years is in part due to ending use of DDT, and that it's taken this long for some of the positive effects of that ban to become evident.

Re changing your own life first: I have found that as I learn new skills and gain new knowledge while powering down, I am naturally incorporating what I'm learning into workshops, the classroom, and community-related work I do (all extremely small-scale, local involvements). I am also finding that I'm meeting all kinds of people in the unlikeliest places who know how to do things and from whom I can learn. Ripples and connections.

5/3/11, 10:03 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Sofistek, there's also the point that deepwater sailing technology doesn't need a drop of petroleum. My guess is that one of the big differences between the preindustrial and postindustrial worlds will be the survival of long-distance trade using sailing ships -- enough of the old square-rigger technology survives that we can pretty much count on future equivalents of Cutty Sark piling on the canvas to slice across the world's oceans at 20 knots or more.

Cathy, by all means keep hoeing -- I was just out in my garden before sitting down at the computer to field comments, and it's a welcome relief -- but remember that both of the articles you cited are offering rationalizations for doing nothing, using the same hopelessly false logic. I'll be responding to that, and to much more of the same, in this week's post; the short form is that they're covertly assuming that the single most significant problem with fossil fuel use isn't there.

Bill, that's a very plausible idea. Thank you! When I have the chance to write the book-length expanded edition of "How Civilizations Fall," I'll cite you.

Adrian, yes, I'd pretty much concluded that the "DDT is good for you" business was a crock of crap, precisely because of the way that bird populations dropped before it was banned and recovered afterwards. Thanks for the link!

5/3/11, 12:25 PM

The carp who jumped Hukou Falls said...
@Bill Pulliam

Re: the sources of nihilism etc.

JMG suggests it has its roots in an awareness of missed opportunities. You suggest 'peak incomrehensibility'.

I wonder if it is that this is our society's "Mr Kurtz" moment. Kurtz is a believer in the myth of his 'civilized' society; when he realizes what lies behind the veil he loses his moral core. Thanks to globalization, the intertubes, and the free flow of information, a whole lot of people are going through the same experience as Kurtz, only en masse...

5/3/11, 1:30 PM

Matthew Heins said...
For Tony and JMG,

Some more about deepwater sailcraft in the post-industrial period:

Some of the biggest problems with pre- or early-industrial sailing voyages were due to lack of technics that we now have, that are likely to survive well into the scarcity and salvage phases, and -modified- could well be on the menu in the ecotechnic.

Navigation was of course a HUGE issue. Simply preserving today's superb maps (and adjusting them for sea-level rise) will do much to make future sailing safer and faster.

Also, accurate and durable chronometers for finding longitude are currently made by the tens of thousands to be sold to sportsmen for $50. These are opaque technics and require unsustainable production-transport-consumption systems. But fully transparent (to the trained eye) and fully mechanical marine chronometers as good as we could need were still being made just a half-century ago, and could be made again.

Good charts (including underwater hazards from coast to coast) and a decent watch, who knows how many folks perished because of the lack of them? Post-industrial, we should have them. :)

Even good charts can't tell you the weather ahead, but we don't need satellites to safeguard our ships. Cheap and durable and low-tech weather gear like barometers, anemometers, etc. combined with even Morse-Code level Radios for inter-ship communication would do just fine.

Lastly, rotted food and water did in many during the pre-industrial phase of deepwater sailing -not least because they often didn't know where they were and were slowed by storms!

Water preservation can be accomplished in several different low-tech ways, the historical problem there was more the lack of germ-theory, to prompt such actions.

Food is much easier post-germ-theory too. But refrigeration at sea need not be off the list as long as refrigeration on land is possible. The same recycled alternator (or new-built equivalent) and river hydro or windmill set up for trickle-charging a chemical battery to run a fridge that JMG has described before, can be run with a trailing turbine on a tow line from a sailcraft. It would kill some speed, but if one kept the electrical requirements low, a good balance should be achievable.

Such things already exist, actually, but would need serious redesigning for a post-industrial era.


As you can see, future sailcraft transport is something I've thought about a bit. ;)

With just the conservation and adaptation of a few industrial technics added to the preserved sustainable ones from the pre-industrial era, efficient water transport, involving canal, rivers, lakes, coasts and deepwater systems, should provide reasonably safe, speedy, and inexpensive transport and travel across oceans and much of the sustainable land habitat well into the post-industrial era (period? age?).

So there ya go.


5/3/11, 1:47 PM

Bill Pulliam said...
In the 1970s and 1980s people wer eresearching high-tech sail-powered freighters, with things like self furlig sails (warapped around a giant mast) as a way to reduce fuel demands. Went the way of everything else with similar goals in the next couple of decades.

By the way, fore-aft rigging is substantially more efficient and faster than square-riggers. This was a big advance in nautical technology. I'd expect to see the revival of the schooner more than the square-rigger, especially the "coasters" that carried goods and people up and down the coastlines.

Actually, I doubt I will truly live long enough to really "see" that, which is a shame 'cause a voyage on a coasting schooner would be really grand.

5/3/11, 4:40 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Carp, that's not a bad way of describing it at all.

Matt, yes, this is also something I've researched a bit, and the points you've made are quite valid.

Bill, you might. A lot depends on how badly the US loses in the approaching struggle over what's left of the world's fossil fuel reserves; it's by no means impossible that if things go badly enough, coastal shipping may become economically viable within a few decades.

5/3/11, 7:25 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Lei, your message got stuck in the queue for a while -- not sure why. The short form? I've discussed the survival of high culture in this blog and my books extensively -- do a search for the phrase "cultural conservers" on this blog and you'll find some material. It's a massive issue, but one that isn't central to the theme of the current sequence of posts.

5/3/11, 7:28 PM

Bill Pulliam said...
Matt -- as recently as the early 1980s when I was sailing across the southern our most reliable navigation tools there were the Sun, Moon, stars, sextant, chronometer, and ephemeris. Loran was unreliable that far afield, and GPS was experimental and purely for the military. Precision sextants and mechanical chronometers were still manufactured and used at that late date. So indeed these skills and techniques are not buried very deeply and can be retrieved fairly easily.

5/3/11, 8:43 PM

sofistek said...
Long distance trade using sailing ships? Yeah, I think it will still go on but I'm not sure it will be significant, relative to the population of the world now, versus the population of the world when sailing trade ships were more prevalent.

Researching ways to do it is all well and good but it reads to me a bit like the vapourware that JMG has commented on recently. It'll be done, no doubt, but I'm not sure that it will be of much significance. I'm also not sure how it would fit into a sustainable society, other than for absolute necessities.

And the pirates will be back, too.

5/3/11, 9:34 PM

Lei said...
Thank you for accepting the post, I know I was off topic, but I did not know where else to add it, since these are the points that discomfort me very much. I am looking for an answer, and there is no-one around who would even register the issue of peak oil.

Reading the discussion about the cultural and political background here, I realize the predispositions of respective nations can play a substantial role in the future.

On a more general level, the more I read American peak-oil related webs, the more I realize that there are substantial differences between the American and European cultures and between the infrastructure. Things have changed in the past twenty years in Europe and here in the Czech Republic, but still many items which are proposed or "discovered" by American colleagues as a part of only painfully realizable conservation programme are or until recently were common here. When I read enthusiastic texts inviting to get back to dry washing simply on a string in the air, I find it somehow bitterly funny, and I say to myself, look, somewhere, prudent people are in a still worse situation. The same is true of growing vegetables (and also picking mushrooms), using public transporation or bicycle (well, automobilism has unfortunately been dramatically soaring), various homework, including patching, absence of air-conditioning etc. etc. Another thing is urbanism and scale - suburbanization is a relatively recent phenomenon, and the countries have in many cases retained the original medieval settlement structure to a large extent, which allows (or would allow) a more natural organization of life. It is moreover a norm that you either do not commute at all or only on short distance, often by local buses or trains.

As for the cultural framework: it seems to me that remnants of the traditional solidarity still survive in European societies, definitely on larger scale than in the USA, and the legacy of the French revolution and socialist movements have been embodied in the social policies that practically define the modern European state - before it is deconstrued under the pressure of global capital and neoliberal doctrines. The fact that an average European consumes 1/3 eneregy in comparison with an average American, is to a large extent related with this. The central organization and support of systems of public services has been proven many times to be much more efficient both economically and energetically than the individualist privatized chaos, not to mention the overall quality of life and social harmony. Public health is one example. It is thus pitiful to see how "socialism" is a real scare for almost all Americans, for some reasons, although this terrible "socialism" has for decades enabled European societies to keep a relatively high level of coherence, and to keep the standard of living comparatively high and evenly distributed with a remarkable efficiency. This may now come to an end, but I think that the spirit of solidarity, cooperation and the sense of egalitarism (at least in some parts of Europe) is still alive and may affect the outcome of all the crises to come. I do not know. There are many other important points: e.g. very few people here own a gun; or, there is still much esteem left for learning, and anti-intellectual attacks a matter of the extreme right.

5/4/11, 2:10 AM

One of the Remnant said...
@ lei

"Without modern medicine, 8/10 or how much of us would have died in their childhood and many others later beacuse of some now trivial infection...will the average age fall back to 35?"

In fact, I think this concern is based on one of the many myths regarding the efficacy of modern technology in various areas. Analysis has shown that the major jump in life expectancy during the 20th century came not from antibiotics and "modern medicine", but from simply public health policies derived from the discovery of germ theory (e.g. better sanitation, primarily in densely populated cities). That is, most of this jump occurred in the 1st half of the 1900s - *prior* to the advent of antibiotics, so it's pretty obvious. And in the last few decades, many of these public health policies have been systematically dismantled - see Laurie Garrett's 'Betrayal of Trust: the Collapse of Global Public Health' for a compelling and thorough treatment.

Further, I would suggest that, as in many other areas, this is not a matter of what we would wish to choose. While it may be disturbing to contemplate the loss of "modern medicine" (I include myself as my father is on numerous heart drugs without which he would likely die), fMRIs and so forth will in fact no longer be available at some point. This is simply a reality with which we will need to deal. It seems therefore the path of wisdom to look into herbal and traditional medicine for what is useful and efficacious. Even moreseo, it seems the path of wisdom to look seriously at diet and lifestyle choices (e.g. my father might well benefit from moving to a vegetarian diet, but has refused to do so - so this is more a matter of individual informed choice than it is modern medicine's responsibility to 'save him' from his decisions).

There is also the other side of the coin: "modern medicine" includes MISuse of antibiotics to the point of creating new antibiotic resistant strains of TB and other 19th century killers, so modern medicine has not necessarily made the kind of headway we would often like (and are often led) to think.

comment continued...

5/4/11, 6:45 AM

One of the Remnant said...
@ lei

For example, most people are unaware that the American Medical Association itself issued a report a few years back which found that the American health care system itself is the third leading cause of death in this country - this is due to death tolls from iatrogenic (doctor-caused) illnesses, nosocomial (hospital transmitted) infections, drug side effects and interactions, risky but highly advertised elective surgeries (e.g. stomach stapling), and simple malpractice (doctor/hospital errors). I think it's rather a difficult position to defend 'modern medicine' in light of such findings (and in fact, it may well be that it's the #2 or even #1 killer - the AMA being, if anything, biased toward minimizing the role played by modern medicine).

There is no question that modern medicine has proven able to cure numerous diseases which were formerly incurable - and yet, one has to ask what portion of these diseases are caused by modern lifestyle (including diets rich in toxic/unhealthy food compliments of the folks in the industrial agriculture and livestock sectors) and simple every day exposure to modern industrial environments, which involve a heaping helping of toxic chemicals.

And to put all of this in context, consider for a moment the health implications of 100+ (in America alone) nuclear reactors melting down - as they almost certainly will if the infrastructure to maintain their cooling systems fails at some point in the next few centuries (millennia?). After all, it seems highly unlikely that these would somehow be safely decommissioned (a process which itself takes decades) - we have not yet demonstrated this sort of effective foresight, and little reason to suspect that we will as things progress.

I would suggest that things like a lack of antibiotics will be a second order effect comparatively. What seems likely to do the most damage to humans, health-wise, is the blowback from choices already made in numerous other areas, rather than the loss of "modern medicine."

- Oz

5/4/11, 6:45 AM

Glenn said...
Fore and Aft vs Square Rig


which is more "effecient" depends on a host of factors, not all of them related to technology. I won't go into details of why; but at the end of the age of sail, large ocean going freighters were still square rig. Europe and the U.S. West coast both used square sails on otherwise fore and aft rigged schooners. The straight fore and aft rig used for fishing, cargo and passegers was primarily a U.S. East Coast rig.
The viability and nature of any kind of sea or coastal trading and fishing in a post industrial world may have more to do with politics and the suppression or not of pirates, and war than technology.

Marrowstone Island
Master of the
Sloop - Boat
and the
Scow Bay

5/4/11, 6:57 AM

Astrid said...
This link is for Lei. It's about medicine in a post-collapse world written by a doctor. I just stumbled upon it yesterday.

5/4/11, 7:51 AM

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...
Re sails and fuel, probably you, Bill and Matt know about this already, but I was recently surprised to learn that cargo companies have been cutting ship speeds to 12-14 knots to save fuel ("slow steaming"), so that current freight shipping times are approaching those of the eighteenth century.

Also, combo fossil fuel/sail "eco-ships"are now in production and "SkySails" (essentially kites) are being sold to retrofit existing freighters: Cargill is trying one out on a 30,000 ton ship. This is being discussed in terms of GHG reduction and cost savings, not peak oil, but still...

So I think we'll see this type of retrofit and also straight sailing on coastal (and great lake) shipping sooner than later. It's a good thing sailing is not one of those nearly lost skills.

Aren't these retrofit ideas in keeping with managed descent?

5/4/11, 8:45 AM

One of the Remnant said...
OT post:

Does anyone out there have pointers to any posts on this blog which specifically analyze and explain the origins of the "thirty year vacation from reality" in detail? I'm trying to educate some fence sitters who have unfavorable views of the Carter 'malaise' ...helping them to understand that Carter actually had the energy picture right would help.



5/4/11, 7:22 PM

One of the Remnant said...
@ astrid and lei

I would take the Nature Bats Last guest post with a grain of salt. As I posted in the comment section below it in response to this statement by the MD who wrote it:

“If you are dialysis dependent, or you have hepatitis C or HIV, or survive only with chemotherapy or radiation, the outlook is indeed bleak.”

10% – 20% of chronic Hep C patients will experience cirrhosis and end-stage liver disease, and 1% – 5% will experience liver cancer. So about 75% – 85% will likely never experience anything worse that intermittent fatigue, occasional nausea, and a sizable percentage not even these symptoms. Many will never even know they had the disease. Thus, asserting that the “outlook is indeed bleak” for such patients is irresponsible, and certainly not evidence-based. All other things being equal, the outlook is less sunny than for those without the disease, but not by a huge margin, as is implied in the statement above. I’m surprised an MD would make such a statement.

The good doctor appears, at least in that instance, to be engaging in what could arguably be perceived as fear mongering, which renders (in my judgment) the rest of the post a tad suspect.

Another example: he says "prior to the 20th century, other than opium, there were virtually no medical treatments which were effective with any regularity." IMO, this is sheer nonsense. Scientific research has revealed that numerous plants have various medicinal qualities and are efficacious for treatment of various afflictions, for which they have been used for centuries, if not millennia. His dismissal of this body of lore is, again, good reason to be skeptical.

That said, his suggestions all appear to have merit.

5/4/11, 7:43 PM

Lei said...
Astrid, thank you for the link. It, and especially the following discussion, where the arguments are more refined, only seems to confirm what I myself think and fear.

I do not say that herbs are useless, but it is quite clear that they can hardly substitute inoculation, antibiotics, and most a bit more complex drugs. I know we will possible have no choice, however, I sometimes see people to downplay the problem, seriously telling you "natural medicine" is much better after all.

Well, I do not believe much that the striking difference in the average age in pre-modern and modern times is just a matter of hygiene, or something of that kind. It would be much too simple.

5/5/11, 3:29 AM

One of the Remnant said...
@ lei

"the link... only seems to confirm what I myself think and fear."

This is called confirmation bias, a common source of fallacious thinking, described this way centuries ago by Sir Francis Bacon:

"The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion (either as being the received opinion or as being agreeable to itself) draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects; in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusions may remain inviolate..."

I'd suggest caution.

"I do not believe much that the striking difference in the average age in pre-modern and modern times is just a matter of hygiene, or something of that kind. It would be much too simple."

There is belief, and there are facts. The CRS Report to Congress titled 'LIfe Expectancy in the US" states, in regard to increases in life expectancy over the past century:

"Gains in longevity were fastest in the first half of the 20th century. These advances were largely attributed to “an enormous scientific breakthrough — the germ theory of disease” which led to the eradication and control of numerous infectious and parasitic diseases, especially among infants and children. The new theory led to an entirely new approach to preventative medicine, practiced both by departments of public health and by individuals. Interventions included boiling bottles and milk, washing hands, protecting food from flies, isolating sick children, ventilating rooms, and improving water supply and sewage disposal."

Basically, believe it or not, simple hygiene is in fact responsible for the greater part of increases in longevity observed since 1900. That said, I would not call germ theory "simple."

The smaller part of that increase can be explained by a combination of other factors, ONE of which is modern medical technology. Improved diagnostic capabilities, increasing availability of emergency medical services, increasing numbers of heart disease and stroke specialists as well as coronary care units (i.e. an increased FOCUS on heart disease and stroke), as well as more effective medications, all play a part.

comment continued...

5/5/11, 8:03 AM

One of the Remnant said...
Further, changes in individual behaviors play a substantial role (the result of knowledge rather than technology), including a decline in smoking, reduced consumption of saturated fat in diets, etc.

I think JMG was correct when he said:

"The mismatch between our rationalist assumptions and the myths and symbols that still shape our behavior defines a faultline running through the middle of the modern mind... We think with myths as inevitably as we see with eyes and eat with mouths."

One of the most prevalent, pernicious and evidence-free myths of modern society is the one which posits that "modern medical technology" is so vastly superior to its alternatives that they are not worth examining. This is the myth promulgated by Dr House at Nature Bats Last. I think it's important to free ourselves from that myth, and from the misconceptions that support it. The reason this is important is because, like it or not, modern medical technology is going away. We can respond with fear and anxiety and stress, and allow this to overwhelm us, or we can choose to examine realistic alternatives.

That is to say, the question is not: can we do without it, but rather how will we do without it as it diminishes?

Stockpiling meds, which is the first suggestion made by the fear-mongering Dr House in McPherson's blog, is not a sustainable long term solution, and in fact, depending on the meds in question and the reason for their need, may not even be wise in the short term.

His other suggestions are somewhat better, and yet, they do not include the one suggestion which is likely to be most efficacious in health terms for the broadest cross section of the population:

Begin now to establish a healthy lifestyle: growing your own food and eating healthful foods, exercise daily, build social support structures, engage in practices like yoga, meditation, and so on, etc.

IMO, suggestions like those from Dr House constrain us and keep us mired in fear, whereas suggestions like the one above liberate us, and help us to productively move through and past fear.

In the end, it is not external events - things that happens *to* you - which will determine quality of life so much as how you choose to relate to those events (most of which are out of your control anyway). It's better not to live in fear and anxiety.

Just one man's opinion.

5/5/11, 8:04 AM

One of the Remnant said...
Forgot to include the link to the report I cited, sorry - it can be accessed here:

- Oz

5/5/11, 8:15 AM

godozo said...
Interesting set of postings, Archdruid. Read all three parts, and had to agree with you on that.

I, however, have also thought about the seventies and how they wrecked out nation. First posted it in early 2010, have added a couple other items since then (so I now have it as "my most recent post).

Hope you enjoy it:

(and no, Disco isn't mentioned except as a side-effect of a couple of reasons)

5/10/11, 9:55 PM