Wednesday, December 07, 2011

What Peak Oil Looks Like

There are times when the unraveling of a civilization stands out in sharp relief, but more often that process makes itself seen only in the sort of scattered facts and figures that take a sharp eye to notice and assemble into a meaningful picture. How often, I wonder, did the prefects of imperial Rome look up from the daily business of mustering legions and collecting tribute to notice the crumbling of the foundations on which their whole society rested?

Nowadays, certainly, that broader vision is hard to find. It’s symptomatic that in the last few weeks I’ve fielded a fair number of emails insisting that the peak oil theory—of course it’s not a theory at all; it’s a hard fact that the extraction of a finite oil supply in the ground will sooner or later reach a peak and begin to decline—has been rendered obsolete by the latest flurry of enthusiastic claims about shale oil and the like. Enthusiastic claims about the latest hot new oil prospect are hardly new, and indeed they’ve been central to cornucopian rhetoric since M. King Hubbert’s time. A decade ago, it was the Caspian Sea oilfields that were being invoked as supposedly conclusive evidence that a peak in global conventional petroleum production wouldn’t arrive in our lifetimes. Compare the grand claims made for the Caspian fields back then, and the trickle of production that actually resulted from those fields, and you get a useful reality check on the equally sweeping claims now being made for the Bakken shale, but that’s not a comparison many people want to make just now.

On the other side of the energy spectrum, those who insist that we can power some equivalent of our present industrial system on sun, wind, and other diffuse renewable sources have been equally vocal, and those of us who raise reasonable doubts about that insistence can count on being castigated as “doomers.” It’s probably not accidental that this particular chorus seems to go up in volume with every ethanol refinery or solar panel manufacturer that goes broke and every study showing that the numbers put forth to back some renewable energy scheme simply don’t add up. It’s no more likely to be accidental that the rhetoric surrounding the latest fashionable fossil fuel play heats up steadily as production at the world’s supergiant fields slides remorselessly down the curve of depletion. The point of such rhetoric, as I suggested in a post a while back, isn’t to deal with the realities of our situation; it’s to pretend that those realities don’t exist, so that the party can go on and the hard choices can be postponed just a little longer.

Thus our civilization has entered what John Kenneth Galbraith called “the twilight of illusion,” the point at which the end of a historical process would be clearly visible if everybody wasn’t so busy finding reasons to look somewhere else. A decade ago, those few of us who were paying attention to peak oil were pointing out that if the peak of global conventional petroleum production arrived before any meaningful steps were taken, the price of oil would rise to previously unimagined heights, crippling the global economy and pushing political systems across the industrial world into a rising spiral of dysfunction and internal conflict. With most grades of oil above $100 a barrel, economies around the world mired in a paper “recovery” worse than most recessions, and the United States and European Union both frozen in political stalemates between regional and cultural blocs with radically irreconcilable agendas, that prophecy has turned out to be pretty much square on the money, but you won’t hear many people mention that these days.

The point that has to be grasped just now, it seems to me, is that this is what peak oil looks like. Get past the fantasies of sudden collapse on the one hand, and the fantasies of limitless progress on the other, and what you get is what we’re getting—a long ragged slope of rising energy prices, economic contraction, and political failure, punctuated with a crisis here, a local or regional catastrophe there, a war somewhere else—all against a backdrop of disintegrating infrastructure, declining living standards, decreasing access to health care and similar services, and the like, which of course has been happening here in the United States for some years already. A detached observer with an Olympian view of the country would be able to watch things unravel, as such an observer could have done up to now, but none of us have been or will be detached observers; at each point on the downward trajectory, those of us who still have jobs will be struggling to hang onto them, those who have lost their jobs will be struggling to stay fed and clothed and housed, and those crises and catastrophes and wars, not to mention the human cost of the broader background of decline, will throw enough smoke in the air to make a clear view of the situation uncommonly difficult to obtain.

Meanwhile those who do have the opportunity to get something approaching a clear view of the situation will by and large have every reason not to say a word about what they see. Politicians and the talking heads of the media will have nothing to gain from admitting the reality and pace of our national decline, and there will be a certain wry amusement to be had in watching them scramble for reasons to insist that things are actually getting better and a little patience or a change of government will bring good times back again. There will doubtless be plenty of of the sort of overt statistical dishonesty that insists, for example, that people who no longer get unemployment benefits are no longer unemployed—that’s been standard practice in the United States for decades now, you know. It’s standard for governments that can no longer shape the course of events to fixate on appearances, and try to prop up the imagery of the power and prosperity they once had, long after the substance has slipped away.

It’s no longer necessary to speculate, then, about what kind of future the end of the age of cheap abundant energy will bring to the industrial world. That package has already been delivered, and the economic rigor mortis and political gridlock that have tightened its grip on this and so many other countries in the industrial world are, depending on your choice of metaphor, either part of the package or part of the packing material, scattered across the landscape like so much bubble wrap. Now that the future is here, abstract considerations and daydreaming about might-have-beens need to take a back seat to the quest to understand what’s happening, and work out coping strategies to deal with the Long Descent now that it’s upon us.

Here again, those scattered facts and figures I mentioned back at the beginning of this week’s post are a better guide than any number of comforting assurances, and the facts I have in mind just at the moment were brought into focus by an intriguing essay by ecological economist Herman Daly.

In the murky firmament of today’s economics, Daly is one of the few genuinely bright stars. A former World Bank official as well as a tenured academic, Daly has earned a reputation as one of the very few economic thinkers to challenge the dogma of perpetual growth, arguing forcefully for a steady state economic system as the only kind capable of functioning sustainably on a finite planet. The essay of his that I cited above, which I understand is scheduled to be published in an expanded form in the journal Ecological Economics, covers quite a bit of ground, but the detail I want to use here as the starting point for an unwelcome glimpse at the constraints bearing down on our future appears in the first few paragraphs.

In his training as an economist, Daly was taught, as most budding economists are still taught today, that inadequate capital is the most common barrier to the development of the so-called "developing" (that is, nonindustrial, and never-going-to-develop) nations. His experience in the World Bank, though, taught him that this was almost universally incorrect. The World Bank had plenty of capital to lend; the problem was a shortage of "bankable projects"—that is, projects that, when funded by a World Bank loan, would produce the returns of ten per cent a year or so that would be needed to pay off the loan and and also contribute to the accumulation of capital within the country.

It takes a familiarity with the last half dozen decades of economic literature to grasp just how sharply Daly’s experience flies in the face of the conventional thinking of our time. Theories of economic development by and large assume that every nonindustrial nation will naturally follow the same trajectory of development as today’s industrial nations did in the past, building the factories, hiring the workers, providing the services, and in the process generating the same ample profits that made the industrialization of Britain, America, and other nations a self-sustaining process. Now of course Britain, America, and other nations that succeeded in industrializing each did so behind a wall of protective tariffs and predatory trade policies that sheltered industries at home against competition, a detail that gets discussed next to nowhere in the literature on development and was ignored in the World Bank’s purblind enthusiasm for free trade. Still, there’s more going on here.

In The Power of the Machine, Alf Hornborg has pointed out trenchantly that the industrial economy is at least as much a means of wealth concentration as it is one of wealth production. In the early days of the Industrial Revolution, when the hundreds of thousands of independent spinners and weavers who had been the backbone of Britain’s textile industry were driven out of business by the mills of the English Midlands, the income that used to be spread among the latter went to a few mill owners and investors instead, with a tiny fraction reserved for the mill workers who tended the new machines at starvation wages. That same pattern expanded past a continental scale as spinners and weavers across much of the world were forced out of work by Britain’s immense cloth export industry, and money that might have stayed in circulation in countries around the globe went instead into the pockets of English magnates.

Throughout the history of the industrial age, that was the pattern that drove industrialism: from 18th century Britain to post-World War II Japan, a body of wealthy men in a country with a technological edge and ample supplies of cheap labor could build factories, export products, tilt the world’s economy in their favor, and make immense profits. In the language of Daly’s essay, industrial development in such a context was a bankable project, capable of producing much more than ten per cent returns. What has tended to be misplaced in current thinking about industrial development, though, is that at least two conditions had to be met for that to happen. The first of them, as already mentioned, is exactly the sort of protective trade policies that the World Bank and the current economic consensus generally are unwilling to contemplate, or even to mention.

The second, however, cuts far closer to the heart of our current predicament. The industrial economy as it evolved from the 18th century onward depended utterly on the ability to replace relatively expensive human labor with cheap fossil fuel energy. The mills of the English Midlands mentioned above were able to destroy the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of independent spinners and weavers because, all things considered, it was far cheaper to build a spinning jenny or a power loom and fuel it with coal than it was to pay for the skilled craftsmen and craftswomen who did the same work in an earlier day. In economic terms, in other words, industrialism is a system of arbitrage.

Those of my readers who aren’t fluent in economic jargon deserve a quick definition of that last term. Arbitrage is the fine art of profiting off the difference in price between the same good in two or more markets. The carry trade, one of the foundations of the global economic system that came apart at the seams in 2008, was a classic example of arbitrage. In the carry trade, financiers borrowed money in Japan, where they could get it at an interest rate of one or two per cent per year, and then lent it at some higher interest rate elsewhere in the world. The difference between interest paid and interest received was pure profit.

What sets industrialism apart from other arbitrage schemes was that it arbitraged the price difference between different forms of energy. Concentrated heat energy, in the form of burning fossil fuel, was cheap; mechanical energy, in the form of complex movements performed by the hands of spinners and weavers, was expensive. The steam engine and the machines it powered, such as the spinning jenny and power loom, turned concentrated heat into mechanical energy, and opened the door to what must have been the most profitable arbitrage operation of all time. The gargantuan profits yielded by this scheme provided the startup capital for further rounds of industrialization and thus made possible the immense economic transformations of the industrial age.

That arbitrage, however, depended—as all arbitrage schemes do—on the price difference between the markets in question. In the case of industrialism, the difference was always fated to be temporary, because the low price of concentrated heat was purely a function of the existence of vast, unexploited reserves of fossil fuels that could easily be accessed by human beings. For obvious reasons, the most readily accessible reserves were mined or drilled first, and so as time passed, production costs for fossil fuels—not to mention the many other natural materials needed for industrial projects, and thus necessary for the arbitrage operation to continue—went up, slowly at first, and more dramatically in the last decade or so.

I suspect that the shortage of bankable projects in the nonindustrial world that Herman Daly noted was an early symptom of that last process. Since nonindustrial nations in the 1990s were held (where necessary, at gunpoint) to the free trade dogma fashionable just then, the first condition for successful industrialization—a protected domestic market in which new industries could be sheltered from competition—was nowhere to be seen. At the same time, the systemic imbalances between rich and poor countries—themselves partly a function of industrial systems in the rich countries, which pumped wealth out of the poor countries and into corner offices in Wall Street and elsewhere—meant that human labor simply wasn’t that much more expensive than fossil fuel energy.

That was what drove the "globalization" fad of the 1990s, after all: another round of arbitrage, in which huge profits were reaped off the difference between labor costs in industrial and nonindustrial countries. Very few people seem to have noticed that globalization involved a radical reversal of the movement toward greater automation—that is, the use of fossil fuel energy to replace human labor. When the cost of hiring a sweatshop laborer became less than the cost of paying for an equivalent amount of productive capacity in mechanical form, the arbitrage shifted into reverse; only the steep differentials in wage costs between the Third World and the industrial nations, and a vast amount of very cheap transport fuel, made it possible for the arbitrage to continue.

Still, at this point the same lack of bankable projects has come home to roost. A series of lavish Fed money printing operations (the euphemism du jour is "quantitative easing") flooded the banking system in the United States with immense amounts of cheap cash, in an attempt to make up for the equally immense losses the banking system suffered in the aftermath of the 2005-2008 real estate bubble. Pundits insisted, at least at first, that the result would be a flood of new loans to buoy the economy out of its doldrums, but nothing of the kind happened. There are plenty of reasons why it didn’t happen, but a core reason was simply that there aren’t that many business propositions in the industrial world just now that are in a position to earn enough money to pay back loans.

Among the few businesses that do promise a decent return on investment are the ones involved in fossil fuel extraction, and so companies drilling for oil and natural gas in shale deposits—the latest fad in the fossil fuel field—have more capital than they know what to do with. The oil boomtowns in North Dakota and the fracking projects stirring up controversy in various corners of the Northeast are among the results. Elsewhere in the American economy, however, good investments are increasingly scarce. For decades now, profits from the financial industry and speculation have eclipsed profits from the manufacture of goods—before the 2008 crash, it bears remembering, General Motors made far more profit from its financing arm than it did from building cars—and that reshaping of the economy seems to be approaching its logical endpoint, the point at which it’s no longer profitable for the industrial economy to manufacture anything at all.

I have begun to suspect that this will turn out to be one of the most crucial downsides of the arrival of peak oil. If the industrial economy, as I’ve suggested, was basically an arbitrage scheme profiting off the difference in cost between energy from fossil fuels and energy from human laborers, the rising cost of fossil fuels and other inputs needed to run an industrial economy will sooner or later collide with the declining cost of labor in an impoverished and overcrowded society. As we get closer to that point, it seems to me that we may begin to see the entire industrial project unravel, as the profits needed to make industrialism make sense dry up. If that’s the unspoken subtext behind the widening spiral of economic dysfunction that seems to be gripping so much of the industrial world today, then what we’ve seen so far of what peak oil looks like may be a prologue to a series of wrenching economic transformations that will leave few lives untouched.


Adam Streed said...
Hi JMG -

If this is correct, then why isn't it good news all around? The unraveling of "the entire industrial project" would appear to halt the exploitation of fossil fuels, hence reducing greenhouse emissions. And if it's no longer profitable to employ industrial machinery over human labor, then presumably human labor becomes the way to go, yielding more jobs, less alienating work, etc. I don't quite see what's bad about any of this—what do you think I'm missing?

12/7/11, 11:08 PM

Kevin said...
Well you're very comforting to be sure! I wonder what would be a convincing indication that a "developed" society is ready for domestic post-industrial manufacturing, and could support handmade products such as those made by British weavers in centuries past? Especially when everyone's presumably too broke to buy things even though they desperately need them.

12/8/11, 12:10 AM

markbc said...
Very interesting perspective. Now we are hearing the election promises coming out for jobs extracting every last drop of oil out of the ground in America – “Good Jobs”, we’re told. The irony is incredible but missed by virtually everyone.

So we are to believe that starving an economy of the fundamental juice that powers it is a GOOD thing because when everyone has to go out and scrape around under the last rocks for the last bits of ooze to burn, this creates employment?? Isn’t that simply an admission that unemployment problems in good times are actually a result of wealth concentration out of the hands of the average person? And that’s why our economies need to continually grow, to offset the wealth concentration? To provide jobs for those people displaced by industrial spinners? I guess the reverse trend may be one thing to look forward to in the coming de-industrialization.

Up here in Canada we have a “great” economy – no unemployment problems – it’s absolutely raging. I’m fully employed, worked to the bone, and making good money. Why? Because we sit on 180 billion barrels of oil sand.

It’s going to save us all, we’re told. It’ll last hundreds of years. At current rates, maybe. But it represents about 15-20% of global oil reserves, which we are currently running out of very quickly. So therefore to maintain Peak Oil globally, Alberta will have to extract MUCH more oil in the near future. If Alberta had to supply the whole world with oil, it would last 6 years!

Then what will Canadians do for jobs?

BTW, I have one disagreement with your post. You seem to disagree that “we can power some equivalent of our present industrial system on sun, wind, and other diffuse renewable sources” and that “the numbers put forth to back some renewable energy scheme simply don’t add up.”

But they DO add up… We could easily power our entire economy and more on solar energy IF we had built out a renewable infrastructure back in the 70’s through 90’s. We’d be basking in virtually limitless energy forever. With that electricity we could do a Fischer Tropsch synthesis to produce hydrocarbons and make new solar panels or whatever else we want.

That’s what’s so bitter about Peak Oil. We COULD have had it. With solar panels getting an EROEI of above 10, that’s better than most oil sources today. The catch is, of course, that we need oil, and time, to manufacture and install that renewable infrastructure, and we all know that story.

Wind? Somewhat less potential, but still worthy.
Biofuels? Complete waste of time.
Geothermal? Maybe.
Nuclear? Maybe, but not enough time and maybe not enough fuel to be had.
Fusion? Get real.
Solar? TONS of potential; it will be our saviour if there is one.

12/8/11, 12:11 AM said...
As someone who has been quite drawn to the fantasy of sudden and catastrophic collapse, I'm slowly learning to get away from that idea and into something more realistic. I like this notion that we are already into the effects of peak oil and the utter worldwide dysfunction amongst industrial nations is part of it. I've been feeling that way myself and it's a bit of a shock, in some ways, to realize that we may be--almost certainly are--already there. It's not quite as dramatic as I imagined it. And yet, if you step back and look at all that is happening, it IS dramatic. It's really quite stunning the full extent of the dysfunction out there at the moment.

This idea reminds me of a novel I really loved: Into the Forest, by Jean Hegland. The collapse of society is a major component of the story, though the actual plot is a much more personal affair. One of the many things I liked about that book is that what little detail it provided about the collapse indicated that it was not something dramatic so much as the slow disintegration of society's infrastructure. The power starts to go off occasionally and before long is off more often than it's on. Governments are defunded and social services stop. Garbage is no longer picked up. The unemployment rate steadily rises. It all just falls apart, bit by bit. We seem now to be at the beginning of such a process.

I'm reading The Ecotechnic Future right now and this post also makes me think of chapter three in that book, in which you write about what the French Revolution must have been like for a young Parisienne girl. We're living in a very dramatic and consequential moment of history, and yet day to day life continues on. One of these days soon, I suspect I'm going to go work the farmer's market or help feed some of the sheep at the farm down the road, and while I work the EU will unravel.

Speaking of The Ecotechnic Future, I already have written one blog post inspired by a line in it (incidentally, also from chapter three) and I have ideas for other posts due in part to your book. So thank you for that--I'm finding it very inspiring and provocative. As such, I'm excited to see where this new series of posts on the collapse of the American empire goes, in what ways it cycles back to themes I'm reading in The Ecotechnic Future, and what new observations or ideas you'll layer on top of all that.


12/8/11, 12:19 AM

Raymond Wharton said...
I was thinking about one of my favorite by products of industrialization this week, the computer.

Many of the billionaires and super millionaires of recent decades come out of that industry. Like the 19th century auto-looms that prefigured the computer (punch-cards) in creating great capital massive amounts of skilled labor was displaced. My philosophy teacher in college told anecdotes of how the old filing rooms for school records were run, hallways of cards, indexes of indexes of references, single requests requiring accessing data stored furlongs apart, and I sat in class amazed by what a hugely expensive system it was relative to a few desktops with minimum wage student aids. The receptionists, clerks, and secretaries were each doing the work we today employ small bursts of electrons to do. Electrons work for so very cheap, when a 20 watt tablet can sort more files then a library of babel worth of people could you could hire a kid to sit there rubbing wool socks on a jar.

But of course this could have only happened given two different types of arbitrage. One was on the hardware side, where a very complex and immensely scaled infrastructure spanning continents must to exist to make possible a masterpiece of perfected silicon the size of a fingernail. On the other hand software, where a gaggle of motivated nerds supported by odd jobs, and caffeinated beverages could make products very ofter advantageous over the best work of multi-billion dollar businesses. Thanks to the occult art of patent law and the completely dark art of mass marketing the business made software controlled the majority of market share, but comparatively you can't find many competitive home made Integrated Circuits. Because the the huge advantage computer labor (little logic spirits) over humans (who have the distinct disadvantage of having mass) the profits for all were huge.

I wonder, who would bother with an autoloom in an ecotechnic world? Perhaps some would justify a water wheel loom, perhaps not.

And computers, after a short era of successful scavenging, what would computers be to those people living on an Earth, hopefully, healing from the wounds of collapse? A very interesting story about the magnificent powers of earlier ages! Perhaps something you could sail in to Sacramento to see the last example of? a BSoD activated every year at new years as a marvel!

But who would/could make computers in the future? To any surviving bibliophiles of the future even a crude computer running UTS mainframe unix would be worth a great amount.

I have been trying your 'future fiction' approach to this thought. Trying to imagine a society that could make a computer (Something in the mid-megaFlOP range maybe) after oil.

12/8/11, 12:34 AM

woodgasser said...
JMG, thank you for the Archdruid Report, always a calm oasis of thought in a chaotic blogosphere. As someone who has been practising living toward a less energy intense lifestyle since planting a forest of solar batteries 25 yrs ago, the 2 most difficult challenges for me seem to distil down to avoiding the use of petroleum based conveniences, (cars,chainsaws, etc) and avoiding being seen as a negative doomer in conversations with other folk whilst trying to make them aware of all the challenges/opportunities that are coming. Cheers, Norm.

12/8/11, 12:35 AM

Mean Mr Mustard said...

It's 'Quantative Easing', not qualitative - more's the pity. Instead we have 'Never mind the quality, feel the width'...

12/8/11, 12:49 AM

Cherokee Organics said...

Hear hear! Perpetual growth is an impossible idea. I don't fear a steady state economy as it has to happen sooner or later.

Actually, I've been thinking for a while now that our economics metrics are wrong. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) should be adjusted for either cost of borrowings or actual borrowings. That would set the cat amongst the pigeons!

I live in one of the worlds most unprotected economies. Free trade has been a mantra here since the late 1990's. All that has been achieved by this is that local manufacturing has been gutted. Still, it probably wasn't sustainable in the first place and the importation of a large percentage of the manufactured goods into this country merely delays the inevitable.

Arbitrage occurs even here because of the difference between local interest rates and say, US interest rates. Easy money to be made. It is hardly surprising that the Australian dollar is trading so strongly against the US dollar.

Still as the US devalues its currency, so to must it eventually pay more for its imported energy supplies in the long term. It's a little spoken about fact that Saddam Hussein cleaned up in the financial markets because he forced the US to purchase Iraq oil in euro's rather than US dollars. Food for thought.

Thanks for the link.



12/8/11, 1:11 AM

jean-vivien said...
Wow some scary stuff for today's post !

What about social welfare, organized government, public services ?

It seems to me that the idea of peak oil is of the same structure as the justifications repeatedly given by the people who would like to destroy all that.

I would like to know how these two "magical planes" - the structure of the state and the physical geology - would interact with each other, if you see what I mean.

12/8/11, 1:25 AM

Lizzy said...
Thanks, JMG. As always, a very insightful, interesting post. Do you know the story (myth) of King Canute holding back the waves? When I read what the politicians are doing and saying, and the sense of desperation, that's what I think of. The current one of course, is the 'battle' to save the €. I don't like to be too gloomy, but... look around. I want to move to the country and start farming. I grew up on a farm and I think I have that, and gardening, in my blood. Instead, I have to work in an office to earn money to pay a HUGE mortgage that will never be paid off.

12/8/11, 1:33 AM

Andrew said...
I am very sorry that I have to correct you there, Archdruid. A scientist uses a definition of 'theory' like 'A set of statements or principles devised to explain a group of facts or phenomena, especially one that has been repeatedly tested or is widely accepted and can be used to make predictions about natural phenomena.' (1). So there is a theory of gravity to explain the fact that my pen just dropped, and there is a theory of peakoil to explain the fact of a certain amound of oil produced. And of course, a theory can be used to make reliable predictions about the future, which are, however well the theory is constructed, still predictions. I am well aware that many people use the word 'theory' when they mean 'random idea of that can be argued with' but I have noticed that you are quite careful your choice of words and their meaning. (And please note that I am not trying to refute peakoil here, just as I am not trying to refute gravity)

12/8/11, 1:37 AM

Thijs Goverde said...
Very interesting, this idea of arbitrage. If I understand you correctly, this mechanism seems to be the main reason why we're looking at a long descent instead of a fast collapse.
If the balance tilts some more, and manual labour becomes cheaper than fossil energy even in the Global North, arbitrage will start working the other way, favouring investments in manual labour and thus diminshing the demand for fossil fuel.
Which in turn means the supplies will last longer.

Of course, there is a use for fossil fuels that is not directly tied to industralism, and that is heating your house and cooking your food. I guess that means the demand for fossil fuels won't go down so far as to allow for a few more tilts of the balance.
Unfortunately, it also means that we will keep burning the stuff, consigning our kids to a very warm planet containing more hurricanes than is striclty necessary.
Nasty bit of business, that.

12/8/11, 1:59 AM

russell1200 said...
This quote from the twilight of illusion chapter I think is on point:

"Indeed the temporary breaks in the market which preceded the crash were a serious trial for those who had declined fantasy. Early in 1928, in June, in December, and in Februrary and March of 1929 it seemed that the end had come. On various of these occasions the [New York] Times happily reported the return to reality. And then the market took flight again. Only a durable sense of doom could survive such discouragement. The time was coming when the optimists would reap a rich harvest of discredit. But is has long since been forgotten that for many months those who resisted reassurance were similarly, if less permantently discredited".

Shale oil is our 1928.

12/8/11, 3:01 AM

Doug W. said...

Today's post made we think of historian Walter Prescott Webb's 1951 book THE GREAT FRONTIER. According to Webb Europe in 1500 had reached a subsistence balance with its population, resources and land.
The Age of Discovery with the opening of new lands and resources upset this balance, and created the ultimate bubble. The implications of Webb's work is that we are now reaching the point where are reaching that subsistence balance between land, people and resources on a global scale. We would have to swing a planet or two into earth orbit and go colonize and exploit the resources to keep the party going.
I agree that peak oil is already here. Up until now it has mostly been the nation's poor that have felt its effects. I increasingly look at events through the prism of peak oil. Last evening I slipped into a pew for the annual candlelight service at a local college. The building is a traditional chapel with high ceilings. Candles were everywhere including at the end of each row of pews. It had a very post-carbon feel to it, except that the building was warmer than it might be in a few short years....

12/8/11, 3:34 AM

Russ said...
John - thank you for your command of the facts and incisive reasoning. I've read your trilogy about our decaying civilization and recently just happened onto your blog. Keep up the good work. Russ

12/8/11, 3:41 AM

Karim said...
Greetings all!

Very insightful essay we have today. The see-saw effect of fossil energy costs versus human labour costs is an interesting way of understanding modern economic history.

As human labour costs continue to drop related to energy costs, not only will globalisation reverse, as we are seeing to some extent, but automated production processes will also decline in use whilst the highly skilled artisan should once more become a vital element in the production process. An idea JMG has already proposed a few years back.

We can venture to say that in an ecotechnic civilisation, most manufactured goods will be produced via skilled artisans hopefully using machines or tools operated by locally produced renewable electricity!

Perhaps with some luck in such civilisations, we may witness less extreme wealth concentrations that modern industrialism has generated.

Who knows, artisanship + renewable power + democracy + education might equal a very livable civilisation!

12/8/11, 3:53 AM

S. Starwind said...
Regardless of however unpleasant the next few decades may be, in part regards to last week's post, it is still certainly a most interesting and exciting time to be alive. Just think of all the paradigm-jarring events that are to unfold in our lifetimes (or at least my own, I making the assumption of being among the youngest of your serious readers)! Truly fascinating.

Your post a while back about our not being able to live out our sci-fi fantasies of interstellar space travel and exploration and whatnot is something that's been nagging me in the back of my head. I've come to consider that, instead of running out of resources and being bound to our Mother until we die off and the next race of intelligent beings takes over after Earth has had time to fully recover, maybe this downward spiral and collapse of such a widespread society is a maturing process that would teach our race how NOT to ruin a planet and destroy ourselves. I feel as if dying off on this planet alone is, although the most natural of things, rather....boring, to be honest. Personally, I would hope that, for an adequate amount of time to rebuild, we will remember the lessons we are sure to learn about the evils of greed, and the destructive properties of such global corruption, in order to take it upon ourselves to live in sacrifice of a greater cause. Or, more simply, that we should give up that fancy TV, cell phone, and automobile in order to explore Mars, or some other planet, to attain a greater and more cosmic knowledge and understanding of our world, our universe, and ourselves.

We're like the teenager that took a taste of too dangerous a drug and is about to hit rock bottom. That is where the choice must be made to either expire from an overdose or find a way to recover and make something great of ourselves.

I would rather see the latter, personally, because, honestly, how cool would it be to have your favorite novel(s) become a history book (whether that novel be Ender's Game, War of the Ancients, or The Yearling)?
No matter what the future holds, it will not be easy but it will certainly be interesting.


12/8/11, 3:55 AM

hapibeli said...
ugh! Or rather, uuuuuuglyyyyy!

12/8/11, 3:57 AM

Texas_Engineer said...
A great post JMG.

You have captured a strong feeling I have had that "we are living in the peak". It seems so obvious in reading about what is happening around the world - but it is a broad collection of happenings that is easy to dismiss if you would rather not think about it.

Too many in the peak oil movement are focused on the latest months extraction data as if that will convince everyone. But this is not a logical data driven issue. It is a long term survival issue - and therefore in the realm of the emotions - not the realm of logic. My take is that I am observing the fabric of civilization slowly unraveling. It will probably remain a slow process - but in only one direction.

12/8/11, 4:16 AM

Kelly said...
Wow! A very astute series of observations. . .delivered on my birthday. While it makes for somewhat morose birthday thoughts, I am impressed with the clarity and depth with which you explore these issues. I have been reading your post regularly for some time now and just wanted to take a minute to say thanks, and keep up the good work.

12/8/11, 4:32 AM

JP said...
Well, 1982-2007ish was an "unraveling period" k-cycle autumn, so you would expect things to unravel, so to speak.

The best way to tell what is going on now might be to compare the energy trends of the 1930s to what we are experiencing now.

We are in a post-unraveling period of the Crisis era/k-cycle winter now, where things are going to feel like a mess until they are resolved, for good or for ill, *regardless* of the energy trends. It's social mood vs. physical reality. Even if the physical reality was fine, social mood would still be sour and angry.

What will be really fun will be comparing 1945-1968 to what we get from 2025-2045.

12/8/11, 4:55 AM

Don Stewart said...
When things go wrong, in the world economy or in a divorce, there are always far more explanations than there are concise reasons. And perhaps there are only messy, theoretically ugly, reasons.

I find it hard to reconcile Daly's cost of machine energy versus cost of human energy thesis with the oft stated fact that each of us Americans has 200 virtual slaves in the form of fossil fuels (

Therefore, it seems to me that, in order to shift that number back to zero (as Peak Oil ultimately requires), we have to speak in terms of a loss of all of our 200 virtual slaves to be replaced by our own labor.

It is perhaps true that the productivity of the virtual slaves is not equal to the productivity of our own labor. There ARE people living in the world today, in good health and good spirits, who subsist by and large on their own energy. So one MIGHT subscribe to the notion that the output of the industrial machine is mostly smoke and mirrors, or alternatively that the industrial machine throws off a lot of undesirable by-products in the form of friction and pollution.

The examples we have (that I am familiar with) of peoples living long and happy lives involve low population densities in naturally fertile places supporting themselves with hunting and gathering and light gardening of the natural world.

I don't know anyone who can spin a believable tale about getting back to that--except as survivors on the other side of the collapse.

In short, I can't square Daly's arbitrage explanation with the numbers. Tractors are still going to beat spading by hand in economic terms--unless you read closely some of Gene Logsdon's recent posts:

Also look for his picture of the behemoth tractor up to its axles in mud and his sad reflections about what their use is doing to the soil. Perhaps our economic measures which lead us to count 200 virtual slaves are the problem. Perhaps the marginal value of those slaves is not what we think it is.

Don Stewart

Don Stewart

12/8/11, 5:03 AM

babystrangeloop said...
"This is what peak oil looks like" -- you left out the part about the increased number of infrastructure explosions. I search for them ever day and I find it amusing that the news I see reports explosions in the Middle East in dramatic tones and the explosions in North America in hushed tones.

12/8/11, 5:06 AM

Blue Peter said...
Very nice article, which I suspect sums things up well.

FWIW, I'm not sure that 'arbitrage' is the correct term to use, since I think that technically, 'arbitrage' means locking in profits by a series of actions which you do now. Essentially, you perform a series of purchases/sales and borrowings/lendings which brings you back to where you were at the start. But "imperfections" in the markets mean that you come out with a profit.

This doesn't really apply with the difference between manual and fossil-fueled processes.

It's probably not important, but it might give certain people a reason to ignore the basic message,


12/8/11, 5:09 AM

phil harris said...
By golly JMG!
I will have to state caveat - for what it is worth you are too close to my own thinking - but what to say? All true enough! ;)

Thanks for explanation of arbitrage. Glad also to see mention of Alf Hornborg. Incidentally I have a book of essays edited by H'borg et al; Rethinking Environmental History; many gems but am struck by Janken Myrdal's essay on the 17thC Swedish Empire when use of biomass in northern forests to fuel early mass-production of iron and weapons proved a catastrophic no-no.

Relevant perhaps to your main theme: I note that ROCKMAN on TOD who invests big private money (source apparently one billionnaire) in relatively small conventional 'oil-plays' in the USA, has more capital just now than he can find secure 'plays' to buy into.

12/8/11, 5:09 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Adam, it's good news only if you neglect the fact that industrialism is also a means of wealth creation; there's no way to sustain seven billion human lives on this planet without it, which means we're in for a very rough period of population contraction, impoverishment, and turmoil.

Kevin, your last sentence is exactly the problem, of course. In a nonindustrial society, most people are very, very poor.

Mark, no, they don't add up. I've discussed this in previous posts; solar energy is very diffuse and it's intermittent, and current solar technologies all depend on an energy subsidy from fossil fuels that make them look much more efficient than they are. It may well be possible down the road to support a society with some degree of advanced technology on renewables -- that's the promise of the ecotechnic future -- but today's levels of energy use depend on having highly concentrated energy sources in great abundance, and as fossil fuels sunset out, that's no longer an option.

Joel, I haven't read that novel -- thanks for the recommendation! Yes, this is exactly what I was talking about -- history sneaks up on you, so to speak, when you're not looking.

Raymond, good. My guess is that computer technology will be lost, and will have to be rediscovered after the deindustrial dark ages, but we'll see.

Woodgasser, yes, those are challenging!

Mr. Mustard, thank you -- that's been corrected. I had to finish the post at 1 am after a two hour radio interview, and was a bit groggy.

Cherokee, that's a great idea -- subtract the total annual borrowing from the GDP and see wht's left. I don't think it would be popular, no.

Jean-Vivien, a heck of a good question. In France, of all places, you'd think that would-be aristocrats would remember what happens when phrases like "let them eat cake" become too large a part of their vocabulary.

Lizzy, do you have a back garden? If so, that's a place to start; I know too many people who have put off growing a garden until they get a place in the country, and it's far too late in the game for that delay to be worth risking.

Andrew, I'd say, rather, that the fact that any finite reserve of oil will eventually hit peak production and decline is exactly that, a fact, and the theory consists in the models and interpretations used to explain how that happens and make specific predictions about when and how much. "Oil production peaks" is like "things fall when dropped" -- a statement of fact, not a theory.

Thijs, that's certainly one reason why collapse won't be fast; there are a lot of coping mechanisms and patches that can be used to keep decline from snowballing into complete disintegration in the short term, though many of them have ghastly long term costs.

Russell, excellent! You get today's gold star for a good crisp metaphor.

12/8/11, 5:34 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Doug, thanks for the reference! I haven't encountered Webb -- will have to check him out.

Russ, thank you!

Karim, that's the hope. I don't think it's out of reach, though democracy is hard work; our descendants will have to be willing to put that work into their societies to get it, and even more so, to keep it.

Shark, one of the unfortunate effects of science fiction is that it makes life on this fascinating planet seem dull in comparison to zipping through space. I think our species has plenty of history and creativity ahead of it, even without the unlikely option of starflight.

Hapibeli, yep. Stay tuned, it'll get uglier.

Engineer, exactly.

Kelly, happy birthday!

JP, I'd be a bit more careful about mapping the future too closely onto any particular theory of cycles; those have a habit of coming to grief when applied too literally.

Don, on a per capita basis, each of us has 200 energy slaves...but how many of them have to work to provide the energy? And the other resources? That's the issue; if you go from having, say, ten energy slaves providing all the energy for the rest, to a hundred having to be employed in energy extraction, the amount of energy you have available for all other purposes goes down in a big way. When the costs of system maintenance exceed the output of the system, the system stops working, and long before that point is reached, it begins to malfunction.

Baby SL, that's one of many things I left out -- stay tuned for further discussion.

Blue Peter, I used the definition of arbitrage that's found in standard references, such as Wikipedia -- have a look.

Phil, this seems to be my day to get pointers to new sources! I'll have to find the Hornborg anthology. As for Rockman's experience, bingo -- all the capital in the world won't make up for a lack of good places to drill.

12/8/11, 5:47 AM

Dave Lee said...
Excellent post, it has seemed to me for a couple of years that we are indeed amidst this slow collapse.
Looking at political effects, is it too far a stretch to relate the recent passing of a bill by the US which basically declares martial law, in that any citizen, on the flimsiest of pretexts, can be arrested and tortured?
After all, that can't be about current levels of 'terrorism', which are almost zero, by any sensible definition, so what is it that causes the passing of such an evil bill by 93 votes to 7?

12/8/11, 5:56 AM

Twilight said...
That's a fascinating insight – globalization is the reversal of mechanization and automation, the main point of industrialization. To follow that trend a little bit, it would seem that the costs of energy will continue to rise in real terms, while the costs of labor will continue to fall. There are still a couple of large overheads associated with employment in the US, namely benefits such as health care and retirement funds, but these can be expected to disappear thanks to coming “austerity measures”. Add in the increasing cost of shipping plus likely international conflicts, and the forces driving the shift towards foreign labor should abate – cheap local manual labor will make more sense.

However, that is where the picture starts to fall apart. What would that labor be doing – working in industrial sweat shops? Probably, at least for a time. Without the fossil fuel energy inputs, does the whole industrialization driving concentration of wealth stop (i.e. “no return on investment “ as you discuss). If so, then what? Does this help those who would produce things interdependently, such as the previous independent spinners and weavers English Midlands?

The obvious issue is that there are not enough people with the appropriate skills at this time to make that transition, just like the lack of potters in Briton after Roman rule failed. Which is of course the reason for the Green Wizards program. And as always we don't know what the time scale of this is – many more things are possible if things change more slowly. And if the transition is slow enough, then we won't be the ones using those skills at local production, rather that would fall to future generations.

So it will take some more contemplation about the implications of this reversal of industrial mechanization, but it seems to me to be an accurate model of what's happening.

12/8/11, 6:36 AM

Blue Peter said...
"Blue Peter, I used the definition of arbitrage that's found in standard references, such as Wikipedia -- have a look."

The wiki definition starts as you do:

"arbitrage is the practice of taking advantage of a price difference between two or more markets: "

But then adds:

"striking a combination of matching deals that capitalize upon the imbalance"

That is you, say, buy a good in one market and sell it in another. It's the matching deals that make it arbitrage rather than just going for the lower cost.

Though, I will grant that further in the article wiki says:

'Economists use the term "global labor arbitrage" to refer to the tendency of manufacturing jobs to flow towards whichever country has the lowest wages per unit output '


12/8/11, 6:59 AM

Bill Pulliam said...
Amusing how people want peak oil to be "good" or "bad." It just is, it's not an option, it doesn't matter whether we think it will be good, it happens nonetheless just like winter.

I have this impression that the whole idea of having a "job" is rather an historical anomaly related to the industrial/energy spike. Or perhaps it is a feature of empire. My sense is that through most of history (and prehistory) people did not have "jobs," i.e. positions with an employer offering set financial remuneration that exist independent of you, you fill one until you leave or are given the boot, and then someone else fills it. People had skills or trades rather than jobs. Is this impression actually accurate? "Farmer" is not a job. "Carpenter" is not a job. A carpenter might take a job, but but s/he has a skill set that exists independently of the employer-employee relationship and can be used for pay, for trade, or for his/her own household and family.

"This Is What Peak Oil Looks LIke," I don't hear *that* one being chanted in street protests.

Over the last few decades, I have been amazed at the lengths that society has gone through to prop up an unsustainable status quo. I expect no change in this. The freakish theories and practices that are concocted to beat reality down and prop the facade up are astounding.

12/8/11, 7:33 AM

blue sun said...
Very good point you make--few people have noticed that globalization involves reversing the movement toward greater automation. And yet there is an apparent contradiction here for which I do not see an adequate explanation.

Perhaps you could clarify further: If the cost of energy to power automated manufacturing machines rose to the point that Third World human labor became cheaper that robotic labor, then why didn't the cost of transport fuel also rise correspondingly to the point that it became cheaper to produce locally (& save on shipping) than to ship across the oceans (& save on production)? It seems to me that the effects would have cancelled each other out to some degree, would they not?

Is it that automation is more energy-consumptive than transporting across thousands of miles of ocean? I would think it would be less. Or do automation and transportation use different fuel types? Or are we not really as automated as we pretend to be, and a lot of human labor is actually needed despite all the robotic help?

I haven't read up enough on the technical aspects to be able to answer these questions, but on the face of it, there appears to be a contradition here.

12/8/11, 7:34 AM

ChemEng said...
I have been thinking about the computerization of work recently, and wondering whether we can return to the “good old days” (which weren’t all that good really) — in other words, making your concept of arbitrage reversible.

I recall that my grandfather (in northern England) had a job as head bookkeeper at a bread factory. Each day a fleet of vans would go out to deliver bread to the local shops. At the end of the day the vans would return to the factory and each driver would turn in the cash that he had been paid by the shopkeepers. Sorting out the money was labor intensive so my grandfather had a team of about twenty clerks working for him. Some years after he retired (the early 1970s as I recall) he went back to the factory for a visit. In his old work area there were just two people: his replacement and one clerk; almost all the bookkeeping work had been computerized.

At first glance it would sound promising to go back to those times and put those twenty people back to work. But I am not sure that we can. Even though my grandfather retired less than fifty years ago he lived in a world that was so different from ours. For example, ordinary people did not have credit cards, supermarkets were uncommon, and people walked to the corner store to buy their bread (cars were out of the financial reach of many people, but public transport was good). To go back to that world would require massive physical and social changes that I don’t think we could manage. Just as you cannot step in the same river twice, we cannot go back to where we were. It’s actually yet another expression of the Second Law (which among other things gives a direction to time’s arrow).

On a related note, I run a (very) small home business. I use Quickbooks to manage the finances. I have toyed with the idea of transferring my bookkeeping to a paper-based system to be ready for a time when the computerized infrastructure is either unavailable or very expensive. However, since the business is web-based and involves selling ebooks, any long-term failure in the infrastructure would put paid to the business anyway, so I don’t suppose that I will bother.

12/8/11, 7:42 AM

Mister Roboto said...
Here's what you appear to be saying about what brought about globalism: Energy prices for first-world industrialism went up in the late 20th Century so there were less profits to be had, but these energy prices still remained cheap enough to allow the first-world owning class to profit from the arbitrage between first-world labor and third-world labor. IOW, the cost of bringing third-world manufactured goods to the industrially developed world remained cheap enough to allow the owning class to still profit from the much cheaper labor. Is that correct?

12/8/11, 7:45 AM

Robo said...

Since all current economic methods and expectations have been formed by centuries of industrial growth, the convergence of the fossil energy and human energy cost curves is throwing business-as-usual arbitrage into temporary confusion.

Once these two curves have undeniably settled into a reversed relationship, should we not expect the full emergence of a new paradigm of arbitrage that attempts to profit from shrinkage? All those white-shoe guys aren't suddenly going to take up farming. They are an inventive breed. Don't forget that they even tried to monetize carbon dioxide!

Of course, I'm talking about the imaginary world of finance and money. Out in the actual world, natural laws have always applied.

After a lifetime of living and working within the microscopically focussed world of mass media and technology, your telescopic viewpoint has been a real revelation. It is greatly appreciated.

12/8/11, 7:47 AM

Steve said...
This post reminded me of an interesting set of headlines I recall seeing several weeks back:
Banks Flooded with Cash They Can't Use

On first reading, my reaction was that of course there are no productive investments; the economy is contracting and the decline of wages and credit has crushed demand. In the larger context you brought up in this post, it becomes another obvious symptom of exactly the kind of economic dysfunction that PO creates.

People with savings (or banks with windfall QE cash) need somewhere to park it. With the collapse of interest rates across the board, we've seen capital applied to ever-riskier bets that are paying ever-smaller returns. Banks are then awash with cash with no useful investments available, and they start charging fees to keep up their margins, while people who save continue to lose purchasing power due to rising food and energy prices.

It seems like the credit crunch phenomena of the past several years are also symptomatic - in the absence of profitable real investments and the loss of confidence in financial "innovation" in the tertiary economy, there is no reason whatsoever to loan money to any operator in the secondary economy. The only people with access to capital become those who convert the ecosystem to energy and food.

It is certainly becoming clear just how late in the game we find ourselves. There are many outstanding questions, but one you've brought up a few times comes to the fore: just how will the debts that won't be repaid not be repaid? Time will tell, I'm sure, but despite the impact I know it will have on me, I feel a "certain wry amusement" imagining the ways that this will happen.

Thanks for another great post.

12/8/11, 7:54 AM

Michael said...
An hour after I read this, I heard a brief interview on the local news radio station (WTOP) with a consultant talking about how shale oil and natural gas will be our energy salvation. The host went right along, obviously having no clue how to challenge the assertion or even that it should be challenged. I wonder if an organization such as ASPO has or should have a 'rapid response' communications team to try to alert journalists, bloggers, podcasters etc. to the other side of the cheerfulness.

12/8/11, 7:59 AM

Larry said...
The post provides an excellent lens for looking at one item currently on the Congressional agenda -- the continuation of the 2% social security tax, tax break (around $125 billion per year) and the continued payment of "extended" unemployment benefits, a similar cost to the Treasury. In total, the two items cost about $250 billion which the Gov'ment doesn't have.

This money would continue to allow a significant number of people to maintain their existing way of living at a bare bones level, while probably inflating the currency to some degree.

One could, in theory, spend this money (that the Gov'ment doesn't have) on bike paths, or solar panels, or electrifying railroads, or gardening classes with free tools, which could degree change the way people live and most likely better prepare them for the future.

On a related matter, a local initiative for segregated "bike lanes" on Chicago's streets may be instructive. As there is only so much Chicago street right of way --your stable state economy -- putting in the bike lane would mean either removing a traffic lane or parking, the thought of either which generates a strong negative emotional response from most motorists or people who perceive themselves as future drivers. Until a critical mass of individuals feel that motoring is neither in their present or future, the bike path initiative is unlikely to be successful, despite plans by the City to try to make it so.

12/8/11, 9:15 AM

Antonio Dias said...
Another great post! You've laid out the space between our expectations and our reality with such clarity.

I've also been writing about the illusions of wealth creation. My latest, which also refers back to your post here is at:

Looking forward to your next installment as always!

12/8/11, 9:24 AM

Brother Kornhoer said...
Mr. Greer,

Are you familiar with the book "Confessions of an Economic Hitman" by John Perkins? He claims that the loans made to third-world countries weren't ever even intended to allow those countries to develop - they were designed to put them into unrepayable debt, so that they'd be forced to pay the rich nations perpetually in cheap natural resources. A different take on the World Bank's role than Mr. Daly's, perhaps, although I'm guessing you and Mr. Perkins are not that far apart in views.

I agree wholeheartedly about the lack of profitable investment opportunities. I hammer my conservative friends (in a nice way) with the idea that it's not regulations or taxes that have stopped businesses from hiring - it's lack of customers - if the businesses had customers, they'd quickly move to comply with whatever regulations and taxes were imposed upon them.

Regarding the arbitrage of using fossil fuels, I've noticed that the prices of organic produce and industrial agriculture produce are converging, at least in my area. It seems that the use of formerly cheap inputs like pesticides and beaucoup fertilizer is finally catching up to industrial ag, even not counting the externalized costs.

A couple of book notes - I was looking through our local library in Tallahassee, Florida, and I saw & checked out a book entitled Women of the Golden Dawn" by one Mary Greer - any relation? Also, I noticed that someone has The Glass Bead Game checked out. Is there another Archdruid reader in the area?

Thanks -

12/8/11, 9:26 AM

Brother Kornhoer said...
PS - Regarding the enthusiastic claims about shale oil made by oil industry executives such as Jim Mulva of Conoco-Phillips, I liked this comment from "ROCKMAN," a petroleum geologist who comments at The Oil Drum blog:

"What I find most interesting is his [Mulva's] assesment that "$100 oil" has abated the world's concern that oil was getting in short supply. Thank goodness we have so much oil that they are damn near giving it $100/bbl."

12/8/11, 9:37 AM

Lynford1933 said...
I notice that the price for regular at the filling station has gone down to $3.39. the reason it has gone down is the lack of driving by a percentage of the population. The price of crude oil is still in the $100 range. This puts the squeeze on the fuel producer and transportaion. Sign of the times that this squeeze can continue for a while but sooner or later, the producer and transporter will go out of business.

12/8/11, 9:41 AM

Don Stewart said...
My issue is NOT with declining Net Energy. It is the possibility that the whole Virtual Slaves project was a big mistake. I just turned to Albert Bates blog today, and I find that he has said things better than I can--not to my great surprise. These people have few energy slaves, and live good lives.

This week finds us back in the Yucatec Mayan world...Food has not yet been locked up, nor, by and large, is it stored. People live simply, quite by intention. They do not preserve, neither do they hoard. Three to five generations live together in compounds of thatched houses with dirt floors. Their roofs last 5 to 10 years, depending on tropical storm intensity in those years. The softwood walls last perhaps 20, and if there are doors and windows, they are typically from tropical hardwoods, maybe centuries old already, and will be reused whenever the rest of the building is renewed.

Most families have neither refrigerators nor root cellars. A ham or a rack of fish may hang, slowly smoking, in the rafters, but that day’s chicken or turkey is pecking the ground just outside, next month’s pig is rooting in a nearby mud wallow, and some chocolate is in the cacao nib stage, drying on some pieces of tin in the sun, probably next to some corn that will become masa flour. Less than an hour’s time spent in the forest or on the river yields a rich meal for the whole family for that day. When evening falls, they will climb into their hammocks and sleep while the smoke from the fire keeps mosquitoes at bay.

I will comment on one thing Albert doesn't mention. Some of the healthiest people lived in the Georgia Bight thousands of years ago (the area where Cumberland Island is). The area was rich with fish and game and there was plenty of plants to be foraged. Shelter was easy to build from gathered materials. The people were very tall and their bones and teeth were excellent and, if they survived infancy, they lived 7 healthy decades (more than we do). They had no doctors or hospitals.

Then things went wrong. Population increased and it became harder to eke out a living as pressure on resources grew. Health indicators declined. Then the Spaniards came and lots of bad things happened. The Spaniards brought corn from Central America and corn has a lot of sugar in it and their teeth went bad and when teeth go bad health goes bad. Furthermore, the Spaniards forced them to move into villages where sanitation became a problem and disease spread easily and they had to work hard and health indicators declined precipitously. Eventually, most of them died.

The Mayans have had corn for thousands of years. The people in the Georgia Bight did not. The Mayans still suffer from some of the problems resulting from sugar consumption. See David Lustig's You Tube talk The Bitter Truth.
(Warning. It is over an hour, but more than a million people have seen it.)

In conclusion. If we have a lot of energy slaves, it is much easier to make very foolish choices. Living closer to the way the Yucatec Mayans live today, or, ideally, the way the people in the Georgia Bight lived, is a lot safer and saner.

Don Stewart

12/8/11, 9:42 AM

Eric said...
Excellent post as usual. When I read the cornucopian news stories about shale and fracking and the rest, I think of this brilliant disturbing story by Paolo Bacigalupi, which shows what this all devouring approach might do to the world, and to us. Don't want to give away any spoilers, so just read it yourselves online.

12/8/11, 9:46 AM

Brian Gordon said...
Fascinating post, though not sure I entirely agree that industrialism will die because it's not bankable. The Soviet Union industrialized without loans from bankers, for example. It is possible for governments to step in and 'assign resources' to a project and thus make it happen. FDR did this with the WPA during the Great Depression.

I do suspect that the banks will soon be found to not be bankable. That is, as house prices decline the banks will get more foreclosed houses that must be sold at a significant loss, if they can be sold at all in some cases. In addition, their ratios of assets to liabilities will increase as more of their loans are underwater.

In some countries the government will step in and organize things; in other countries there will be riots.

12/8/11, 10:36 AM

Kevin Anderson K9IUA said...
While you are probably right about the changes coming more as a slow grind and increasing dysfunction (as opposed to an outright collapse), I do keep catching myself wishing it would be a little more obvious. If anything, so my own children (20-somethings in age) might see the changes to realize that times will be different, and to understand the suggestions I keep giving them to do or expect things differently. External justification that is a bit more obvious would be desirable. But, alas, you are probably right, and I only wishing for an easy out to save myself from the time and energy of needing to teach others what is happening, to open their eyes to the changes and clues all around them.

12/8/11, 10:40 AM

Stu from Rutherford said...
Very good essay.
Rather than discuss the essay, however, I'd like to thank you for bringing up the Caspian Sea myth. When I first started reading about peak oil 10 years ago it was the latest white elephant. The forecasts for that basin were truly ridiculous and need to be thrown in the faces of the cornucopians once again.

12/8/11, 10:56 AM

Pic Pic said...
Thank you for this insightful post. I belong to the Transition movement in Quebec, and I think it would be important to translate this post.
Are you already in contact with folks who do this translation for you? I would be happy to do it, so that the people in Quebec and France could benefit from this analysis.

Thank you for your work!
Transition Network Quebec

12/8/11, 10:57 AM

Glenn said...
"This is what Peak Oil looks like"

The Army Corps of Engineers just shut down the locks on the Willamete River at Oregon Falls due to lack of funding for maintenance. The locks were built in 1873, and enabled steamboats to run as far upriver as Eugene, Oregon.

I suspect in less than 50 years the good citizens of Eugene will want the locks to function again. Perhaps the good citizens of Portland as well, to reduce the cost of transporting grain from the Willamette Valley to the Metropolis. I wonder what the realities of paying for it will allow? Will there be enough people with the time to spare from scraping a living from the land to re-build an investment in the future that will save work in the long run?

And this process is being repeated all over the United States...

Marrowstone Island

12/8/11, 11:14 AM

Andy Brown said...
I like your point about the difficulty of perceiving the scope of a cultural trauma from within. When I lived in the former USSR in the mid-1990s only a few years into an economic collapse - there were between 1 and 2 million more deaths than births in the region. This was a dry run on how population overshoot retracts. The old and sick were dying quicker, women were reluctant to bring new children into unfamiliar poverty, men were offing themselves with inexpensive vodka, cars and cigarettes. Yet things would have had to get much much worse before there were riots, much less famine, cannibalism and Mad Max scenarios. Most people were leading lives with a bearable mix of trouble and joy.

And, well, I guess that's the future I'm trying to prepare for. Life goes on even if the "American way of life" does not.

12/8/11, 11:45 AM

andrewbwatt said...
One of Galbraith's other contributions to discussions about peak anything, as my father once explained to me after reading his copy The Great Depression, was the concept of the Beezel (spelling?), that phase of an economic or financial collapse where all of the various frauds are exposed.

Enron was one of our first corporate giants to reveal itself as the Beezel of our current economic downturn took hold. Bernie Madoff and his alleged wonder-worker firm was another.

I'm working on other things besides Peak Oil (why should I watch oil markets and when there's so much to do, to get ready to do without it?), but I do wonder from time to time if the Beezel phase has really begun in the oil world? Who are the fraudsters, and what are the frauds being perpetrated?

Besides the obvious ones of course, like inflating 'proven reserve' numbers?

12/8/11, 11:58 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Dave, the US government is pretty clearly preparing to fight against an insurgency here at home, and has been making those preparations, under various pretexts, for more than a decade. I think they're going to get one, too, though the timing is still up in the air.

Twilight, I see your crystal ball is working well! Yes, I'll be discussing many of the points you've just raised in upcoming posts.

Blue Peter, the matching deals in this case are "buy sources of heat" and "sell products formerly made by hand."

Bill, precisely. "Having a job" is a specific, and historically unusual, way of handling the business of turning labor into subsistence. It's only viable in the context of certain kinds of social organization, above certain minimum levels of complexity. More on this down the road a bit.

Blue Sun, it's not a contradiction, because the energy cost of transport by ship rose much more slowly than the energy cost of automated manufacturing. Container shipping is a mature and relatively simple technology, and it's very energy-efficient -- a modest cargo of bunker oil will take a spectacular amount of freight from Shanghai to Los Angeles. An automated factory requires not just the energy to power the machines, but the energy to build and maintain them, plus labor costs, overhead, taxes, etc. Thus overseas labor costs plus shipping costs were still dramatically less than manufacturing costs in the industrial world. As usual in this business, it's crucial to attend to the details.

ChemEng, good. No, we won't simply go back to a previous economy, any more than post-imperial Rome went back to its pre-imperial economy; we'll go to a different economy, one that I plan on sketching out in advance in future posts. As for your business, the first requirement is to make sure you can sell products that don't depend on internet technology. Have you considered getting an old printing press and learning how to use it?

Mister R, that's basically correct.

Robo, of course people are going to try to find ways to game the system in decline, the way they gamed it on the way up! Still, there are some interesting limits to projects of that sort, which I'll be discussing in an upcoming post.

Steve, excellent! A little further down the curve, in turn, the only capital that matters is access to labor, which can then be used to produce food and other resources. The tertiary economy is essentially parasitic at this point, and we're approaching the point at which the best option is to work entirely outside it.

Michael, you might contact ASPO and suggest that!

Larry, bingo. Attempts to maintain business as usual by spinning the printing presses, so that people can continue to make payments on debt, are going to be a major factor in the years to come.

Antonio, thanks for the link!

12/8/11, 12:06 PM

nutty professor said...
Dear Archdruid,
this post brought me back to the day I read the Long Descent in one sitting - how long ago was that? You are a prophet sir! Why is are your posts so thrilling, and not utterly depressing, to read?

Can you comment on the future of nano/bio technology, human-machine simultaneity, neurochips and the idea that the "saviour" of the human race will be the intelligent destiny offered by computer technology? For example, wouldn't the ultimate cyborg-human have all the brain electricity and "energy" that one could possibly need? This is no longer fantasy, by the way. I wonder what the marriage of the human and non biological being looks like to you in the future, and whether it shapes this argument in any way.

12/8/11, 12:15 PM

technogeek said...
Loved your insightful expose on big oil. Nice to know there are still some influential people out there with brains. I just had one question regarding the impact of technology (the rise of the machines). I attended a conference on automation last year and the range and depth of manufacturing robots is truly impressive. Robots will no doubt continue to improve doing a wide array of what used to be human jobs. The rapid pace of technological advances will no doubt continue so what are we going to do with a population when the unemployment rate reaches 50 or 60%?.

12/8/11, 12:16 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Brother K., I'm familiar with the book, but have mixed feelings about it -- you never know with a tell-all book like that what the motives of the author might be, and how it relates to the facts on the ground. Certainly, though, the World Bank and its peer organizations have been a major factor in the rise and fall of America's overseas empire. As for Mary, no direct relation, other than that she's a friend, and we've adopted each other as honorary cousins!

Lynford, US refineries are starting to export gasoline and other fuels to countries where they can get more money for them, since the market here has been clobbered by economic contraction. Expect this to accelerate as the US continues its transformation into a Third World nation.

Don, over the long term, no question -- the attempt to replace human labor with energy slaves was self-defeating. My point was simply that equating 200 energy slaves per capita with each of us having free use of those 200 energy slaves, with no other commitments on their time and labor, misses a core dimension of our predicament. Those 200 energy slaves are all busy as heck bailing water out of a leaky boat!

Eric, thanks for the link.

Brian, I'll be getting to that. There are two factors here; the first is whether it's possible to make a profit from an industrial economy, the second is whether an industrial economy is possible at all. Those mark paired breakpoints in the economic trajectory ahead of us. More on this later on.

Kevin, I know the feeling. The irony is that when a major crisis does arrive, a lot of people will miss the underlying dynamic that drives it, and treat it as an intrusion out of left field. One of the points to this blog is getting a broader view into circulation.

Stu, you're welcome! The whole Caspian Sea nonsense deserves to be given at least as much air time as, say, Daniel Yergin's prediction that the price of oil would plateau permanently at $38 a barrel; being acutely aware of the failures of past predictions is a good way to learn caution about present and future examples.

Sylvie, a couple of people have translated posts of mine into French, but there's no reason not to do the same thing with posts you find worthwhile. There's a link to some translated posts of mine here.

Glenn, I hadn't heard about the Willamette locks being closed. Yes, they'll have to be reopened down the road, at great cost.

Andy, that's also what peak oil looks like. I've seen suggestions that the US population is already beginning to contract along the same sort of curve.

Andrew, that's the "bezzle" -- Galbraith's term for the sum total of money that's been embezzled, which tends to be hidden during times of economic expansion and revealed when the economy goes south. Yes, we're likely to see a lot of it; I forget who it was that pointed out that when the tide goes out, you get to see who's uncovered...

12/8/11, 12:27 PM

Bill Pulliam said...
Some numbers to fend off the cornucopian fantasies:

Current global oil consumption is about 31 billion barrels (BBL) per year.

Using optimistic industry estimates, the total recoverable reserves in some of the great new "super giant" discoveries, and how long they could delay the inevitable at current consumption:

Marcellus (Appalachia): 86 BBL (natural gas equivalent), 2.7 years
Bakken (Great plains): 24 BBL, 9 months
Deepwater Brazil: 80 BBL, 2.5 years

Each of these finds comes at a huge social and environmental cost; all together they buy about 6 years more time (if you believe industry estimates). This is hardly a game changer; at best it is a brief time-out in the same old game headed to the same unavoidable outcome.

But you say the Marcellus and Bakken could satisfy U.S. demand for umpteen years? Fossil fuels are a global market. Resources produced here will not necessarily be consumed here; they will be sold to whomever is willing to pay for them, as likely China or India as the U.S.

Some facts to keep handy...

12/8/11, 1:58 PM

LewisLucanBooks said...
I like a couple of pieces of candied ginger, every day. Went to the store yesterday and it had jumped from $4.55 a pound to 6.99 per pound.

Glad I'm going to have a place to "grow my own" next year. And, other things I buy like lettuce and garlic. Being on my own, I don't need much for my own use. But I want to grow enough extra to gift my neighbors.

12/8/11, 3:07 PM

Mean Mr Mustard said...

“There are times when the unraveling of a civilization stands out in sharp relief, but more often that process makes itself seen only in the sort of scattered facts and figures that take a sharp eye to notice and assemble into a meaningful picture.”

Indeed... Here’s an interesting quote which AR readers may identify with...

"There is nothing new in the story. It is as old as the Sibylline Books. It falls into that long, dismal catalogue of the fruitlessness of experience and the confirmed unteachability of mankind. Want of foresight, unwillingness to act when action would be simple and effective, lack of clear thinking, confusion of counsel until the emergency comes, until self-preservation strikes its jarring gong - these are the features which constitute the endless repetition of history."

[....] On all these occasions the most serious warnings were given by private Members who spoke on this subject, of whom I was one. The alarm bells were set ringing, and even jangling, in good time - if only they had been listened to."

Winston Churchill, House of Commons, May 1935.

A then powerless politician warning of a looming threat, with all manner of inconvenient political difficulties attached - in this case, expansion of Hitler’s Luftwaffe.

Air Parity Lost

12/8/11, 3:18 PM

Hidden Author said...
Interesting material. However I have heard the argument that we can't really know that we're running out of oil because there are certain locations (national parks, oceanfront views owned by powerful multimillionaires, etc.) in which oil may exist but in which no one is looking for oil because of regulations that make extraction automatically illegal. What would your response to such an argument be?

12/8/11, 3:49 PM

dltrammel said...
Twilight said: "However, that is where the picture starts to fall apart. What would that labor be doing – working in industrial sweat shops? Probably, at least for a time. Without the fossil fuel energy inputs, does the whole industrialization driving concentration of wealth stop (i.e. “no return on investment “ as you discuss). If so, then what? Does this help those who would produce things interdependently, such as the previous independent spinners and weavers English Midlands?"

I would guess that as things slow down and contract you will see people start buying based on quality and less and less on pure cheap price.

A good example are my work boots. I work in a industrial setting. I'm on my feet for 12 hours a day on concrete so I learned long ago to take care of my feet.

The pair of Redwing shoes (one of the higher end work shoe companies) that I bought in 2006, finally ripped a sole out and I had to replace them. Luckily the store I bought from was still in business. My new pair set me back almost US$150.

I had a short discussion with the owner. His store sits across the street from our local Wal-Mart. He had an interesting observation in that, people (usually young) going into industry for the first time, will buy their work shoes from Wal-Mart for $40-50.

After a few months as those shoes start falling apart, and that young worker gets a few paycheck into their wallet, invertiably they will show up at his store to buy a well made pair. That in my case lasted over 5 years.

So when cheap things from over seas start going up, I hope that the public will begin to think long term.

Some of that I believe is shown at the number of people at every week's local Farmer's Market here in town.

12/8/11, 4:32 PM

escapefromwisconsin said...
Regarding your first paragraph, readers might be amused to read this little anecdote. The Reverend Dionysus Lardner published a book on steam engines in 1827. Based on some very serious calculations, he assured his readers that Britain alone produced enough coal to power its steam engines for at least 2,000 years:

In Hubbert’s day, a peak oil scenario might include legions of unemployed people, folks begging on street corners, houses falling apart, factories closed and rusting in the rain, and Detroit lying in ruins. Well, those of us in the Midwest already live with all that stuff. So you’ve expressed something I’ve felt for a long time – we’re already living through the collapse, and waiting for some singular ‘event’ to signal it is as vain as picking the exact date Rome ceased to exist (258? 313?, 410?, 476?, 1453?). Of course, much of that devastation is due to what you so correctly pointed out is labor arbitrage enabled by (relatively) cheap energy, which our political class has managed to convince most of us is “free trade.” That surely has to rank as one of the greatest pieces of, is it thaumaturgy?, in history. But to document the continuing collapse, we need not turn to dystopian sci-fi authors, we can simply turn to the Grey Lady:

“…According to the study, to be released Friday by the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers, just 7 percent of those who lost jobs after the financial crisis have returned to or exceeded their previous financial position and maintained their lifestyles. The vast majority say they have diminished lifestyles, and about 15 percent say the reduction in their incomes has been drastic and will probably be permanent.” (emphasis mine).

Few Workers Have Fully Recovered, Study Says (New York Times). Or this :

“…Even before the recession began, young people were leaving home later; now the bad economy has tethered them there indefinitely. Last year, just 950,000 new households were created. By comparison, about 1.3 million new households were formed in 2007, the year the recession began, according to Mr. Zandi. Ms. Romanelli, who lives in the room where she grew up in Branford, Conn., said, ‘I don’t really have much of a choice,’ adding, ‘I don’t have the means to move out.’”

As Graduates Move Back Home, Economy Feels The Pain (New York Times).

The Times also published a much-discussed article implicating the housing collapse on the lack of demand for suburban homes. And listening to the BBC recently, they pointed out that no less a historian than Fernand Braudel pointed out that the endgame of every empire in modern history was the financialization of the economy (Spain, the Dutch, Britain, etc.).

Some people think things will eventually ‘get back to normal. But if you take the long view of history, the period we’ve been in since the Second World War is the anomaly. So we are getting back to normal; it’s just not the normal we expected.

12/8/11, 5:03 PM said...
Bill, I like "This is what peak oil looks like" as a protest chant. Maybe I'll try that when the democracy one comes up if I go to the port shutdown. I imagine it'll confuse some people.

I had that dawning realization a couple years ago of the difference between having a job and having a skill or craft, or even just making a living. It's incredible, when you think of it, that it's so common for people not to see the difference, despite the fact that so many people hate their jobs. The fact that it's not assumed that, in general, you should and will gain satisfaction from your work is not only some kind of special insanity, but it speaks very deeply, I believe, to the ennui that seems so widespread in our society.

In the last few years, I've been making a living mostly by farming (or doing farm internships, specifically.) This year, that's expanded to working for two farms, with one of them providing me room and board in trade and another one paying me a small amount on an hourly basis. With any luck, I may even pick up a bit more work at a third farm. This is all very casual, and has been the result simply of chatting with neighbors--a process that felt very natural and appealing, as opposed to the fairly repellant process of applying for jobs that sound somewhat non-soul crushing and then never even receiving a call back.

I'm building skills, I'm integrating into society, and I'm getting by. I'm not making tons of money, I'm not in a perfectly secure financial situation, but I'm lucky enough to feel stable and not at any risk of being homeless or hungry. I'm making a living, in other words--very literally. And you know what? I really, really like it. I like it far more than when I was employed in the electronics department of a general retailer, making plenty (though not tons of) money and spending much of it on eating out and drinking and buying stuff I didn't need.

It's amazing, though, how unthinkable this is to other people. (Though I should note, I'm supporting only myself and in good physical condition. I don't have a family or many obligations, so I have a greater flexibility to do this than many people.) It's a bit amazing, too, to see the reactions of some of my friends and family (family, mostly) who can hardly conceive of me not having a "job"--and who think that that's a far greater ticket to current and future security than muddling through and making a living while learning how to grow food, raise animals, live comfortably with little money, and set up alternative energy systems.

Granted, I may not have a retirement plan, but I personally think I'm building something that will be far more valuable in the future. We'll see.

12/8/11, 6:04 PM

GuRan said...
"As we get closer to that point, it seems to me that we may begin to see the entire industrial project unravel, as the profits needed to make industrialism make sense dry up."

That gels exactly with what this report (pdf) has to say about the relative cost of mechanisation vs labour as a function of energy cost. Increased energy cost = economic incentive to decreased mechanisation.


12/8/11, 7:37 PM

shiningwhiffle said...
As a computer scientist, it's hard for me sometimes to take all this in. I suspect you're right that in the short term the field will sink in the muck of this century's breakdowns and have to be rediscovered.

The way I figure it, computers will likely go back to being something only very wealthy individuals, governments, and universities can afford to build and operate, the way things were in the early days of electronic computers. Microchips and microcomputers will be out, but multi-user, silicon transistor minicomputers like the ones UNIX was born on might still be doable.

Fortunately, I'm not that many classes away from a Math degree if my field starts to go under. I figure Math will stay important even in the free-fall.

12/8/11, 7:51 PM

Diane said...
I have been lurking for some little while.
One of the things that has distressed me most about the finite energy debate, is the almost total lack of concern for those who will come after us. As I am of a spiritual bent, I sometimes think that Nature gave us an opportunity to create a civilisation, 'where want is but a stranger, and misery unknown' (Henry Lawson, Faces in the Street) and frankly we blew it. It does not appear likely, to me anyway, that future civilisations will ever get an opportunity like the one we have just about wrecked.
Back in the 1970's/80's I was part of a rank and file trade union movement, and as the 80's progressed one by one my comrades, traded their jeans for suits and, set about selling our the rank file they professed to represent. It was impossible to swim against the tide, so I left and retired to the moutains outside Sydney, where a small alternative community and been slowly establishing itself. 15 years on, I am still here, minimalist as ever, but the community it slowly being broken down as the city expands outwards and upwards.
The comment I want to make is about the power of illusion, I will give 3 examples of people I am close to, and who are left liberals and or spiritual alternative, and pretty well up on world current affairs.
1. New technologies are evolving all the time, science will come up with a solution
2. New energies will be developed, science will mine the Moon and Mars.
3. There is all this free energy (Tesla) out there, THEY are stopping it becoming readily available.

I have had numerous discussions with the 3 people involved, and I cannot crack the illusion, the reality is just too dreadful to contemplate, and here in Australia, like Scandanavia, we have a pretty good life.


12/8/11, 7:56 PM

hadashi said...
Yes, this is what Peak Oil looks like. The notion what we see around us in real time is what a crash looks like as it is actually happening had a huge impact on me when I first came across it on Ran Prieur's website. From his 2007 Nov-Dec archives:

"The crash is not close -- we are in the crash. This is what the crash looks like -- not roving gangs storming your house to steal canned food, but gasoline and milk prices rising twenty cents, and another vacant house on your street, and your credit card sending you a few pages of fine print about some new ways they can charge you 29%. The crash looks like trains breaking down and roofs leaking and unemployed people moving in with family and employed people cynically going through the motions. Every day will look almost exactly like the day before, but in a few years you will find yourself eating dandelions and sorting out your pre-1982 pennies to sell the copper. We fantasize about the Road Warrior crash scenario because it would make life simple and raw -- the winners would have a fun time and the losers would not have to suffer long. In the real crash, you'll still have to go to your job and pay bills and get stuck in traffic, but everything will be a little crummier, a little less predictable. You will see more depressed people and rambling crazies and potholes and buses that never come and long lines and important phone numbers where nobody answers. Your whole city will not be wiped out by a biowar super-plague, but here and there someone you know will die of cancer or MRSA. Even when oil is $200 a barrel, I predict that more people will die of car crashes than starvation."

12/8/11, 8:07 PM

Mark Angelini said...
JMG -- you never cease to shine light on the darkest shadow trying to play itself off as the light of salvation.

A few years back myself and some friends realized we were literally living on and around a goldmine of highly productive "Wild" apple trees. We harvested them and stored them the past two years in many forms. Then this year I realized the most efficient way for us to reap the rewards of such a bounty, and blessing, was to build a cider press. I did just that and we are still pressing now with stored apples. We've put away a total of 50+ gallons of hard cider and an estimated 100+ gallons of fresh we've drank and passed around.

12/8/11, 8:09 PM

Unknown said...
JMG - After I read your old post "Christmas 2050" a while ago - I just cannot get the last line out of my head,with every word of yours I read

Why did we have to waste so much?

12/8/11, 8:14 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Professor, pick a technology, any technology, and somebody is going to insist that it will solve the world's problems. I recall enthusiasts from the late 19th century who insisted that air travel would make war obsolete, since it would make everyone aware of how little national borders meant. Many of the readers of those books lived to experience the bombing of London, Pearl Harbor, and Hiroshima.

There's a more detailed answer to your question, but it's going to take a deeper discussion of the economic foundations of our society and how peak oil is shredding them. Stay tuned for more discussion later.

Technogeek, did you actually read my post, or are you just looking for a place to ramble on about your favorite science fiction daydreams? This isn't it, in case you were wondering. The point of my post, which I gather went right past you, is that the cost of automation is rising while the cost of labor is falling, so it doesn't matter what robots can do; if it's cheaper to hire humans, then humans will be hired and all those clever robots will stay on the drawing boards. Please do pay attention next time.

Bill, thank you. Nicely summarized!

Lewis, bingo. Rising prices are another part of what peak oil is like.

Mr. Mustard, Churchill's always good for a quote -- especially about the collision between hard realities and cheery ignorance.

Hidden, that the people making that argument are clutching at straws. the US has been more thoroughly explored for oil than any other piece of real estate on Earth, and potential oil basins are readily identified from geological cues -- which national parks have some oil under them is no secret, for example. Thing is, people will clutch at straws, because the alternative is admitting that they've built their lives on a foundation of sand, and the tide is coming in.

Escape, exactly. We are returning to normal -- normal, in this case, being more or less what existed before the industrial revolution broke into the Earth's carbon stash.

GuRan, many thanks for the link! That's definitely fodder for the ideas I'm developing right now.

Whiffle, how's your skill set when it comes to computer hardware repair and salvage? I'd recommend that as a first backup for your career -- you're quite right that there will be a market for computers for quite a while to come, and there's a lot of hardware that could be patched together by somebody enterprising and kept running by hook and crook. As we rattle down the slope of the Long Descent, that might be a lucrative gig.

12/8/11, 8:48 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Diane, I'm very sorry to say that I've seen a lot of the same thing you've described. The liberal ideal has always been one of raising up the poor and underprivileged to some level of prosperity and empowerment; the fact that, instead, we're all headed into a world of impoverishment and very harshly limited choices is all but impossible for a lot of good people to accept -- thus the fantasies that you describe. Ultimately, all you can do is make your own choices.

Hadashi, that's a great quote from Ran, and yes, that's what we're moving into, as I see it.

Mark, excellent! Raise a glass for me sometime.

Unknown, I wish I had an answer, but I'm left feeling very much the way Jane in the story did.

12/8/11, 8:49 PM

Morrigan said...
Hi all, been reading for a couple of weeks now.

I do have a place in the country and have wanted to farm for most of my life, but was stuck in an office programming computers to pay off the mortgage. As luck would have it, I lost my job six months ago so have had plenty of time to plan.

I read or infer from people's comments that they think they need a few acres to garden, and want to point something out. You may not have the acreage but you also don't have the deer. The deer where I live eat or destroy the entire crop. I'm exploring the possibility of hoop houses as I'm hesitant to invest in deer fencing. If that doesn't work I'm moving back closer to the city on a smaller lot.

So don't despair. There's an advantage to either lifestyle. And the cultural and social isolation in the country exact a toll as well.

12/8/11, 9:19 PM

Susan said...
I work in the financial industry, and I can assure you that the game (and that is all it really is) is rigged. To paraphrase the three laws of thermodynamics: 1. you can't win. 2. You can't even break even. 3. There is no way to get out of the game.

On this 70th anniversary of the day that will live in infamy, we should remember that unexpected events can hit us at any time, and change everything (I'm still holding out hope for a limited nuclear war or a revolution that will result in Jon Corzine going to the guillotine in Zucotti Park, just to liven things up a little). But, with our luck, we'll probably just have to muddle through with our lives of quiet desperation.

I look forward to the day when I can leave my job (or it leaves me) and become full time Farmer Sue instead of Bob Cratchit with a computer.

Cherokee: last week you suggested that we compost and mulch and build a poly tunnel to increase our growing season. We've already done that (well, actually, my hubby did it under my careful supervision...). We now have two compost piles cooking: one is just about "done" while the second is our current work in progress, with lots of nice worms to help. We have two hoop tunnels covered with an agricultural fabric called Agribon, which house our winter crop of lettuces, chard, green onions, parsley, etc. This last weekend we got a heavy snowfall which flattened both tunnels, but the plants all still seem to be okay underneath. What we really need are some fresh stawberries from down under...

It's bad enough when the government can no longer afford infrastructure projects, which means a few less construction jobs, but what's going to happen when they can no longer afford to pay for pensions, welfare, rent subsidies, or food assistance, and people who depend on such things start going hungry? That's when the slow decline abruptly turns into something much nastier.

I think 2012 is going to be just as interesting as 1968...

12/8/11, 10:07 PM

SophieGale said...
Alternative energy sources: Here's a picture to give one pause. Gale force winds in Scotland set a giant wind turbine on fire...

12/8/11, 11:02 PM

Cherokee Organics said...

Thanks! I came to understand the GDP / debt issue when I wrote the article Ronald Reagans Day Off. If you compare US national debt, US oil production peaks (particularly the Alaskan north slope), you'll notice the correlation immediately. One takes off (debt), whilst the other declines (oil production). It's uncanny and I can't have been the only person to have noticed this.

Also with GDP, any bozo can increase spending, it's not hard. The numbers are fudged. I see this in businesses all the time. The number of times I've had a conversation with someone that goes like this, "you need to either cut your expenditure or increase your income to improve your cash flow"... Grrr... Invariably, they often take the third option - debt. I often suspect that some people have no intention of paying it back either, they're just hoping for another days partying. It always catches up with them eventually, it's sort of like the macro problems writ in miniature. Oh well.

I've read serious discussions in business circles about outsourcing service jobs overseas. Food for thought. It is being seriously considered.

It might also be worthwhile mentioning again to commenters how much oil is involved in agriculture. One of the benefits that oil provides for people in developed countries is that you don't have to get your hands dirty. Producing a large percentage of your food is really hard and a very uncertain enterprise. You really are at the whim of nature and she can be pretty sweet but shift to mean without notice. Diffuse energy is so different from flicking a switch.



12/8/11, 11:41 PM

Cherokee Organics said...

It might also be worth mentioning that other "costs" are also externalised in other countries (ie. somewhere else). By externalised costs - think pollution. Has no one here read about China's river systems and air pollution?



12/9/11, 12:01 AM

russell1200 said...
To add to my earlier comment on Galbraith's quote.

I thought you would like this piece. Of course it is doubly ironic that a piece that discusses how little they saw of the upcoming (!) economic crises in Europe in 1931 (!) was posted two days ago on Pearl Harbor.

So to ammend my previous comment. Should we hope it is 1931, rather than December of 1941?

12/9/11, 6:23 AM

Susan said...
My husband's grandfather and his great grandfather before him managed a copper mining company in the "Copper Country" in the UP, until the easily mined copper ran out, and the mines closed. The Indians used to find chunks of pure metallic copper in the ground and used it for making tools and trading. Later, when the white men came they used the latest technologies to dig hundreds of miles of mining tunnels. Calumet at one time was the second largest city in Michigan, with an opera house, etc. This was America's main source of copper from the Civil War until World War II, and helped create the electrical and telephone industries that revolutionized our society.

There was a strike in 1969, and the company decided to shut down rather than pay the higher wages that the miners wanted, because it just wasn't profitable to keep digging when copper from new open pit mines in Chile and Africa was cheaper. Thus, locally at least, the UP experienced "peak copper."

This was a typical boom town experience, replicated many times in mining and timber towns in the west. Now, Calumet is not a ghost town like some of the old mining towns in Arizona or Colorado, but it came close. The whole area became impoverished, like the worst parts of Appalachia, and lots of previously middle class folks ended up on welfare, or moving away. It's still a nice place to have a summer cottage, but it gives us a foretaste of what our whole civilization may look like in a few decades. Won't that be fun?

12/9/11, 6:24 AM

Matt and Jess said...
Great post. The signs of peak oil are in abundance around our parts. My dad was just able to find a job after 10 months out of work at a 40% pay cut; he's thankful he's got one at all as a friend's been out of luck for much longer and is losing his home, car and everything else. I've been looking for work for 5 or so months with no luck. My family of four is still stuck living with my parents in way cramped conditions until we can pay off our credit card bill. Things suck but we've got a plan and all we can do is move forward as we can. Thank goodness for the GI Bill.

My dad, as it happens, is a complete genius with computer repair and I'm trying to convince him to start his own business. He can't quite see the reasons for it, reasons that you pointed out in a comment to another reader, but I can. Repair businesses around here are out of business quickly, sadly, but if he can start from home and have super low expenses at first he may be ahead later. We'll see.

12/9/11, 7:25 AM

blue sun said...
Ah, so the difference in labor costs is simply so great that it offsets any increase in energy costs. Thus the arbitrage was made possible only indirectly by energy costs. The direct cause was labor cost imbalances.

In other words, although global shipping is more expensive than local shipping , because local labor (due to wages, benefits, pensions, taxes, regulations, standard-of-living expectations, etc.) is EVEN MORE expensive than foreign labor to such a great degree, it more than makes up for it.

So then in the near future, as local labor costs trend down while foreign labor costs trend up (Thomas Friedman's "flat" earth), and naturally local shipping costs trend up while foreign shipping costs trend WAY up......wait a second, do you think its possible that as oil prices increase, local shipping costs could increase faster than container shipping costs??! That could be a possibility because the USA isn't getting its act together to promote regional rail or water transport (and as you noted, container shipping is very efficient). If that happens, it would REALLY screw us--by keeping foreign goods artificially cheap and further delaying the financial incentive to rebuild our local manufacturing base.

Of course this potential trouble could be offset by tariffs (unlikely) or a strong social pressure to buy locally produced products (very likely).

So then, that may be one possiblity for near-term trouble. But, ultimately, in the long term, the difference in labor costs will fall and the difference in shipping costs will rise, making the current local/foreign arbitrage unprofitable. The point where those trend lines cross will be the point when local production finally becomes more profitable than global arbitrage.

Maybe we should call that point "peak globalization"! Or is it merely "Aftershock Number 1" (or 2 or 3....) of peak oil? Well, peak oil itself is merely a component of global overshoot. Boy, global overshoot is some complicated stuff! We don't know for sure what will happen next.

12/9/11, 7:35 AM

RainbowShadow said...
"Unknown, I wish I had an answer, but I'm left feeling very much the way Jane in the story did."

Hey, I remember that story! That was the Christmas celebration story, right? ^_^

I actually have an answer for Jane. We closed down "discussion," and we demonized the necessary act of "pointing out a very obvious problem, and pointing out that problem as loudly as possible to pry people's eyes open to what they refuse to see." Anybody who tried to point out a problem was then accused either of being a "whiner" (if the accuser was from the positive thinking school of thought) or of being a "stooge" (if the accuser was from the apocalyptic school of thought) as a way of making him shut up so no one would have to listen to him. We shouted down and punished the warnings of our prophets instead of listening.

The cultural historian Morris Berman once, on his blog, quoted a Czechoslovakia citizen he met who pointed out, to paraphrase, in the bad old days of the Soviet Union, if you said certain things they'd lock you up and torture you and censor what you said, but if it somehow got out anyway (and that itself was insanely difficult to accomplish in that society), it would electrify the populace. In the United States, by contrast, you can say anything you want, but it won't make the slightest bit of difference or impact on the population's opinion.

Thomas Jefferson said that a difference of opinion was not always a difference in character.

We modern Americans, by contrast, came up with the idea that opinion and character are exactly the same.

Here's the answer, Jane: "There were those of us who protested, who fought to tell Americans not to waste resources and sell out your future. We didn't listen to them, and we created an entire culture BASED ON not listening to a word anybody's really saying."

And even when we tried to be fair, any attempts at understanding other people in the end just turned into us "lying to ourselves" because our culture of "not listening" was just that entrenched, like for example Conrad Black who has just posted an article on the Huffington Post pleading for bipartisanship and civility...which he uses as an excuse to go on a scapegoating rant about the evil liberal media "executioners" and how wonderful Republican Herman Cain is and what a great President Cain would make and how much better the Republican party would be for America if only those nasty, evil Democrats would just get out of the way, because it's all the Democrats' fault we can't be bipartisan.

12/9/11, 8:08 AM

Hal said...
This post has got me meditating hard on the subject of industrialism. There is a sense of the word that is, as you use it, related to the use of external energy to power technologies and has all of the effects you describe. It is what we mean when we talk about the "Industrial Revolution."

But it seems to me that the heart of industrialism doesn't require any kind of fuel. Agriculture has been industrialized since at least the Bronze Age. What I mean by that is it was done mostly by people who had a "job", slave or peasant, and the product of their labor was put into external markets , and was organized and controlled by kings, emperors, mercantilists, and other people of power. The Agricultural Revolution, was in many ways the original Industrial Revolution, and, I would argue that the word "agriculture" refers to industrialism applied to the growing of food and fiber.

Another example of industrialism from the pre-fossil fuel age is the military. Think the Romans, but it's been a process since some leader decided it would work better to have the troops line up and advance together.

I'm not just writing this to be nit-picky over definitions: I think it's something that needs to be explored. Fossil energy might have changed a lot of the specifics and impacts of industrialism, but humans were perfectly capable of thinking and working in that way long before.

If fossil energy took industrialism first from more diffuse patterns and concentrated them through mechanization, and later dispersed them to offshore locations through cheap transport fuels, we can all speculate on the effects that shortages of the energy sources might have, the order in which the influences might be reversed, and how they will play out against each other. I can imagine at some point during the transition, one company may decide that outsourcing a manufacturing process makes perfect sense, while at the same time, a different company is deciding to bring it back closer to the market, and yet a third is deciding to work with more artisanal sources. All of that will be sorted out in the markets, I suppose.

But what I keep coming back to is, What are the implications for the kind of society we will be living in? Will it be a simple recrudesence to a labor system based on peonage and class division? Or is it possible that the progress made during the latter phases of the industrial era can somehow be sustained?

I'm beginning to think that is perhaps the most important work that needs to be done by those of us who can see the changes coming, and who don't want to live in a very unegalitarian society. (I started to use the term, "feudal" but decided not to open that can of worms.) A society that, I suspect, would not be very hospitable to ethnic differences, religious minorities, free-thinkers, Druids and assorted types.

In my area, for instance, I believe there are a lot of people who would be more than happy to see the plantation system reborn. In fact, I would be a winner in that scenario. But there is a large population here, a majority in fact, who are descendants of the older labor force in that system. They have not been well-served, individually or as a community, by the industrial era, or by the industrial welfare systems of the industrial era, but I'm pretty sure there's going to be some resistance to going back to the old ways.

Finally, I apologize for the length, ramblings and redundancy of this message. I'm fighting a bit of a fever.

12/9/11, 8:40 AM

William van Nostrand said...
This is a very interesting post. I was recently blogging about this very topic, and I came to the conclusion that even if Peak Oil is inclined, at worst, to bring a new Dark Age (the misuse of that term notwithstanding), it would not be as bad as everyone thinks. Of course it will be different, and those who live at the time of the techno-industrial system's decline will not have it easy. But as things are, equilbrium will soon re-establish itself. I envision that a new "dark age" as having the potential to resurrect a sort of Ghibelline ideology based on stability, order, and hierarchy. after an initial period of unrest, the world will need to come to a new equilibrium. That equilibrium, though will be determined by way things play out in the coming few decades.

My article, by the way is here:

12/9/11, 8:47 AM

John Millen said...
Thank you for your insights into our very interesting times.
The characterization of the Industrial Revolution as based entirely on conversions from human labour to fossil fuel is a simplification that makes a good point but unfortunately denigrates our Green Wizard project. Much of our technology has been advanced in ways that are not aimed at exploiting cheap fossil fuels nor are essentially dependent on them.
Before you stop reading I assure you that I have no illusions about our civilization being able to carry on business as usual in the face of Peak Oil. I want to reinforce the value of the Green Wizard Project.
In mid twentieth century the cultural niche of timekeeping was almost entirely occupied by a hand-powered device called a clock. The energy source was a coiled spring that was hand wound periodically. Some large clocks were powered by falling weights, raised periodically by hand. For 25 years I wore on my wrist an exquisite piece of Swiss machinery that kept excellent time and was powered by random movements of my arm. A timekeeping device that needed an external energy source was likely called an ‘electric clock’. I could go on about alarm clocks and the analogue representation of time but I think I have made my point.
I have another story, also mid-century, of a hand powered Gestetner duplicating device. Pre Xerox, this printer functioned on the same principles as a silk screen, but screened ink through a stencil of waxed paper. Typeface could be cut into the stencil with a typewriter (with the ribbon removed). I and a couple of other ink-stained gnomes managed to turn our university world upside down by printing a hundred or so scurrilous magazines one night on this machine. Fortunately for me the stalwart Student Council shielded me from the overwhelming wrath of the Campus Administration. The point of this story is ‘hand powered’.

12/9/11, 9:46 AM

Ruben said...
As I was reading I thought "This is What Peak Oil Looks Like" really needs an infographic--a chart that could graph peak oil along with other data sets:
-wage in real dollars,
-miles of paved road,
-miles of gravel road (many cities are converting back to gravel),
-miles of transit system,
-number of potholes
-number of operating canal locks
-number of firefighters
-incidence of basic diseases


@Bill P.

Your articulation that farmer and carpenter are not jobs, but skill sets, seems very important to me.

I live in a older urban neighbourhood, and saw four deer a block from my house just a few weeks ago. There are dozens or hundreds of deer living in the city which regularly eat my neighbours gardens. So far not mine....

(there are also coyotes, btw...)

12/9/11, 10:19 AM

Kieran O'Neill said...
@Cherokee: China's a real oddball environmentally. On the one hand there is massive pollution, as well as the widespread construction of deeply unsustainable American-model mega-suburbs (6-lane roads, minimal nearby commercial infrastructure, minimal consideration given to pedestrians, cycling or public transit).

On the other hand, they're in the middle of the biggest reforestation project in the history of the human species -- something I imagine you would be quite interested in, especially since, as I understand it, a portion of that involves the creation of something like your food forests.

But I do agree -- at least some of the pollution comes as a result of the graft that goes along with funnelling huge amounts of cash into the country's industries, apart from the sheer scale of those industries themselves.

(Also something which developed world nations tend to forget when negotiating climate treaties with the developing world -- a good portion of the CO2 emissions of countries like China comes from producing goods for the developed world.)

12/9/11, 10:23 AM

Bill Pulliam said...
Lewis -- one of the most difficult things to "grow your own" of is sugar. Sure there are many sources of concentrated sweetness (honey, sorghum, sugar beets, sugar cane, maples, etc.) but all are quite labor intensive. None come out of the ground, tree, bee butt, etc., ready to use, not by a long shot. In the do-it-yourself world, "labor intensive" is the equivalent of "expensive." The raw ginger will likely be quite cheap by comparison to whatever you choose to candy it with!

12/9/11, 10:36 AM

Philip Steiner said...

I had a moment of sadness on realizing that the end of reliable, cheap power means the end of reliable, cheap network communications, which leads inevitably to the loss of the insights and discussions on this blog :(. I can't imagine how a distributed, global forum of this sort can exist in a post-industrial world. Multiply the loss by the billions of online discussions and exchanges of information taking place, and we are truly cast into an age of darkness.

12/9/11, 11:21 AM

shiningwhiffle said...
Agh. Just looked it up and realized I said something stupid: of course the minicomputers used microchips.

My point, though, is that there are a ways to manufacture computers that don't require the lasers and clean-rooms used to make the 0.5-0.7 nanometer circuits used in modern computers. Even the early integrated circuits did not require that.

12/9/11, 3:34 PM

Ash said...

First off, I have been reading your blog for quite some time and would like to thank you for the consistently informative and insightful posts.

I agree that those looking for a sudden collapse into utter chaos or for a prolonged "muddle-through" period followed by a return to "normal" economic growth/activity will both be disappointed. At the same time, it does seem that the effects of systemic deterioration compound over time and lead to increasingly large cascades within shorter and shorter time frames.

This is most evident within the financial system, but, with a a bit more digging underneath the surface, we can find the same dynamic within our energy/ecological systems, and I imagine the trend will continue. For many people, I think it ends up boiling down to the question of when our perspectives as individuals with daily experiences/routines will "meet" our perspectives as abstract thinkers, if ever. I'm sure it has already for many of us in some spheres of our lives, depending on where we are and what we do, but perhaps not for the majority of financial/energy consumers in the developed world.

Also, I'm curious as to your (and others') opinion on what extent our predicaments of over-population and over-consumption of energy/resources is a symptom of our industrial capitalist economic system. I include "capitalist" because I mean to distinguish this market system from other potential industrial systems that may have (or perhaps still could) evolved that did not involve as much built-in waste and as many misaligned incentives for those existing in within it. That, of course, was and is a significant fault line between the Marxian and Malthusian (or neo-Malthusian) schools of thought. Perhaps it is more a function of a systems' complexity (gross economic activity), more than its specific form of socioeconomic organization.

Again, thank you!

12/9/11, 4:02 PM

Fineen said...
Great article. Unfortunately it is very dificult to get out a message that is unwanted.Good on you for your persaverence.Overall the transparent lack of viability of world economic systems past and present is and has allways been there to see for those who wished to do so. However human nature sees this as just another means to exploit their fellow human beings. More importantly however in relation to energy reserves is something I am sure you are very aware of, and that is simply that this will not just be a reorganizing of economies and a change from fossil fuels back to cheap manual labour. In a word (Population) we can not support our current population without cheap fossil fuels. Cheap as in energy efficient recovery. As a farmer I know that without fossil fuels for both labour (Irrigation being a major point)and fertilizers the food productuion from farming would decrease significantly. That of course is only the tip of the iceburg and by no means suggests that we need to sustain our current way of living. (energy dependent) I simply point out that we have borrowed our lifestyle against fossil fuels and now the debt is due. The cost will be in human lives. How will we handle it. I don't know but looking back on history gives us some ideas. Just remeber that history progressed slowly through expansion and progress. The future may well be one of decline and reduction.

12/9/11, 4:42 PM

ganv said...
Maybe, but you are painting with pretty broad brush strokes. In other places you have been more careful in identifying that many parts of modernity are not going away. I would agree that many aspects of modern industrialism are unsustainable, but it is going to change into something completely new which 'unraveling of the industrial project' doesn't really capture. To me, it seems pretty unlikely that humans will return to large scale weaving cloth or performing numerical calculations by hand. Someone is going to remember how to build a spinning mule and a power loom, power it with hydro, and make cloth at a rate that manual weaving can't compete with. And someone is going to remember how to build an integrated circuit and power it with a small solar panel and perform the calculations needed for weather prediction at a cost that is untouchable by human calculators. When it comes to primary energy, it is hard to believe that someone is not going to find a way to build solar panels when 1 panel produces pretty much the same useful energy as 1 human (200 watts for 8 hours is a pretty good day for either one). The solar panel lasts for 30 years and doesn't need to be fed (once you build it). In the future we may be very far from producing current power usage, but we are not returning to a human powered society.

12/9/11, 4:47 PM

Apple Jack Creek said...
@Morrigan: We have deer here, too – if you are able to get some tall fence posts in, you don’t necessarily need deer fencing to keep them out. Our neighbours used the taller posts around the garden (so they are still 6’ out of the ground or so when well-set) and have 4’ woven wire then a strand of barbed across the top. Woven is expensive for a large area, I would think multiple strands of barbed wire would work as well, so long as the top one is high enough. Another option is something like a chicken moat: two fences fairly close together so the deer can’t get over both and don’t have enough landing space between. Gives you a place to put chooks around the garden too, which has benefits. The fencing has to be tight stuff though to keep the chickens in, so that’s potentially too costly, though if the chickens are a money making venture, maybe it’s worth it!

@CherokeeOranics: When we had that brief diesel shortage here, my friends who are cattle farmers were most distressed. “We have cows that have to be brought home (from another field)! All our tractors run on diesel, how will we feed the cattle if we can’t run the tractors?” (bales are moved every day to feed them) And this was after the harvest – imagine the utter impossibility of getting the harvest in (even just hay, never mind grain) without the fuel to run the tractors and combines. When you live where there’s deep snow cover in winter, you do have to have some way of putting up the hay – there are some tricks to keeping it out in the field, but it doesn’t work for every animal nor will it work the whole winter, so it’s something we are gonna have to think through. I have hayfields within walking distance, I have a scythe … I guess I need to train an ox to pull a wagon. Bring yer own feed home, girl! :)

12/9/11, 5:55 PM

Larry said...
Here is the quote you were looking for(from Warren Buffet).


Here's the link to this and some of his other pithy sayings.

12/9/11, 7:09 PM

The Peak Oil Poet said...
What you leave unsaid is the most likely consequence of the impact of the change you posit.

Slavery and war.

There will always be those who will exploit whatever is available to achieve their goals. That will deliver to us a world of slavery. From there to war is but a step.

Let's all hope that we are wrong and that the exponential curves that need to stay exponential do so.

The alternatives are too worrisome to contemplate.


12/9/11, 7:29 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Morrigan, if you've got serious deer trouble, it's deer fencing or a move back to the city. As things wind further down, that's a problem that will solve itself -- venison is tasty, and at the cost of one or two rifle rounds for upwards of a hundred pounds of meat, very cheap -- but in the meantime, they're the worst animal pest a gardener can have, and good fencing's the only thing that stops them.

Susan, while you're waiting, I hope you've got a backyard garden and are working on your organic farming skills!

Sophie, I saw that! Quite an image.

Cherokee, all very good points. Diffuse energy is great stuff if you're used to it, and don't have expectations of the kind that highly concentrated energy alone can fill.

Russell, nice. Maybe 1931, maybe 400 AD...

Susan, now you know another reason why my wife and I moved to a small city in the Appalachian end of the rust belt. What's already fallen (or been pushed) off the narrowing plateau of relative prosperity has less far to fall in the future, you know.

Jess, have you considered asking him to teach you how to repair computers? There may be more than one way to get the local computer repair business you have in mind...

Blue Sun, excellent! You get tonight's gold star. Yes, all those are issues -- and there are areas where local land transport will be more expensive than long distance sail transport; that was true in quite a few corners of the world before fossil fuels cut in.

Shadow, true enough. It's a sign of the times when even somebody who claims to be talking about civility uses it as an excuse to bash the people he doesn't like.

Hal, well, if you want to redefine the word "industrialism" to mean any economic activity involving teams of humam beings working together in a closely ordered fashion, it's as old as mammoth hunting. The problem with that redefinition is that it makes it impossible to talk about what's distinctive about our kind of industrialism, that is, that it's dependent on fossil fuels. I prefer to keep the word's present meaning, thank you.

12/9/11, 10:18 PM

Kevin said...
I think Peak Oil Poet is right and that sooner or later slavery will make a comeback: not everywhere perhaps, but it has never left some parts of the world, and may creep back in other places as well. I find this prospect detestable.

As to war, I only hope it doesn't start in Europe or the USA any time soon.

I think I'd rather think about the attributes of an ecotechnic society and how to develop them. John Millen's Gestetner printer and hand-powered time pieces sound like a promising start.

12/9/11, 10:40 PM

John Michael Greer said...
William, that sort of society is what comes after a dark age some centuries long, not what takes shape during it. You'll notice that the original Ghibelline ideology was a product of the high Middle Ages, not of the Voelkerwanderung -- and where you have Ghibellines, you also inevitably have Guelphs.

John, and what was the power source used to manufacture those goods, mine and process the raw materials that went into them, etc., etc.? Handmade requires more than just hand powered.

Ruben, nice! I don't have the spare time to create and maintain such an infographic, but it would be worth seeing.

Philip, if you'd like to cheer yourself up a bit, go to a library with a good collection of old weeklies on microfilm and savor the lively debates and conversations that used to go on in the letters to the editor pages. That's the fallback plan as the internet sunsets out: the Archdruid Report can either start appearing in a print publication, or become a print publication in its own right.

Whiffle, your mission, if you should choose to accept it, is to get out there and do the necessary research. What kind of computer can actually be built using, say, transistors but no integrated circuits? Or readily available salvaged ICs? That I know of, nobody else is doing that research, and if your idea is going to happen, somebody has to...

Ash, I think it's more a function of system complexity than anything else; Marxist societies are just as brittle in practice as capitalist ones.

Fineen, I've talked about this at length in previous posts, over the last five years and more: the human population of the planet is going to decline over the next century or two, to a fraction of its current total. That can't be helped. If we're lucky it'll happen by the ordinary process of rising death rates and falling birth rates, the sort of thing that's got the former Soviet Union on track to halve its population before 2100. If we're not lucky -- well, let's not go there unless we have to.

Ganv, oh, sure. And the transport and economic arrangements that will make a spinning mule pay for itself and its labor force, and the raw materials and industrial facilities needed to make solar cells, will conjure themselves out of thin air, without placing any additional economic burden on a fractured and disintegrating society, I suppose. By that logic the Middle Ages should have been powered by Hero of Alexandria's steam engine!

Larry, many thanks.

Poet, war is certain, slavery isn't. If you look at the history of slavery, it only really takes off under certain very specific economic conditions, and we're not too likely to see those often, or for long, for a very long time to come. Warfare, though, has been a constant of human history all along; there have been very few years since records have been kept that there wasn't a war going on somewhere. The big difference is that we've been exporting all our wars overseas, and yes, that's almost certainly going to come to an end fairly soon.

12/9/11, 11:02 PM

Cherokee Organics said...

There's a thunderstorm going on to the SW of the mountain range I'm up in. Lots of lightning and then the delayed thunder. It completely missed the mountain range I'm up in though. I feel like a spectator which is a good metaphor to describe how I occasionally feel about decline.

Still, just recently I've taken the first steps towards distributing - unknowingly to the receivers - some of the excess heritage seedlings I've got growing here.

Plus, today I bottled (I think you call it canning) my first batch of nectarines. Second hand preserving equipment (Fowlers Vacola is the leading supplier in Australia) is obscenely cheap. Good for me, but people are virtually throwing the stuff out. Sad.

Just a quick question for you though, at what point do we stop calling first world countries - the industrialised economies. The moniker seems to be a bit of a joke to me - a reminder of past glories perhaps?

Hi Susan,

Top work, you are well on your way. I have a mental image of your poly tunnels loaded down with the snow! I'm aware that some people use the heat generated by compost bacteria to keep their greenhouses warm over winter in really cold climates. Dunno, I'm thinking of building a solid greenhouse out of recycled building materials here.

Hi Kieran,

I saw the documentary on the Loess plateau and the before and after shots were amazing. I dunno though, I reckon it's one step forward, two back. They are however, accumulating massive resources, so they may surprise us all before too long.

Hey Applejack,

Your image of the distressed farmers was a good one - and too true. The other day I was travelling about a bit west of here (Trentham) and saw three farmers herding a mob of several hundred sheep up the road with only them and a few cattle dogs. Cattle have right of way on the roads here so, they put on a good show. The dogs however, were the real workers and they would have earned their feed that day.

Hi Morrigan,

Someone in the valley down below used to operate a deer farm. When it closed down, I suspect they let them all loose as they now roam the mountain range freely. With no predators - other than people - they seem to be doing OK for themselves and they do turn up in odd places. Mmmm bush meat.

Still I'd swap deer any day for the black tail wallabies we get (see the photo - that's stumpy the house wallaby). All of the fruit trees are fenced individually with heavy duty chicken wire 1,800mm high and 1.4 gauge heavy duty galvanised wire. Anything less and the place is a supermarket for them.

Two words - good luck! Most problems on that front can be worked around. I'm making the place more welcoming to the kangaroo's which clear off the wallabies. The roo's only graze on the herbage so the fruit trees are relatively safe.



12/10/11, 2:51 AM

JP said...
With respect to the Soviet Union, I don't think we can get a good idea of what Russia is going to end up looking like for a couple of generations.

Given that Russia may be a fully developing High Culture, looking toward the infinite horizon, as opposed to reaching into infinite space, we will have to see. Probably until the 22nd century.

It's been a long time since an Awakening era in Russia. And the next awakening will not be communist. It will be Russian.

And while the Russian outlying areas are losing population, isn;t the core of Russia gaining population?

12/10/11, 9:12 AM

Hal said...
Well, you missed my point, but it's nobody's fault but mine. Once again, let me apologize for the length and incoherence of that post. It even surprised me when I saw how long it was. Your ability to at least scan and come up with any kind of a response on all of the responses you receive every week is astonishing.

I wasn't trying to redefine the word, but to point the discussion closer to the root word, "industry," which, in the definitions I'm familiar with, doesn't necessarily depend on mechanization. That would indicate a difference between simple organization of effort a la your mammoth hunters and effort that is organized by a hierarchy of control and activity, and which serves an expanded market.

My point was that a lack of fossil energy won't decrease human ability to organize in such manner, and to seek your thoughts on what the social implications might be. You partially answered with your response to Peak Oil Poet, but there is some space between slavery and the suite of human rights that have developed since the 18th century (along with the industrial revolution.)

It's hidden in there somewhere, but I certainly don't blame you if you don't want to go back and sort through it.

12/10/11, 9:38 AM

Mary said...
To me, at this point, it boils down to do what you can, while you can.

To that end, I finally was able to follow up on an educational seminar I attended this past spring and just completed making my 1st two "interior storm windows" for my attic windows that allow gale force winds into the house during nor'easters.

Once I'm finished my house (where all the south facing windows have storm windows, and very few of those on the north, east and west sides do. go figure) I've already lined up one potential customer with no storm windows in her house, and plan to advertise for more.

By next spring, I hope to be helping out my neighbors part-time with appropriate technology: making and installing "interior storm windows" and demonstrating and re-selling solar ovens.

Onward and upward. Until now, every dollar I saved on my own energy savings has been invested into the next one. Hopefully soon I'll be earning extra money helping other people, to spend on the bigger investments -- more insulation,then wood stove, wind and solar.

I'm also spending a little time this winter investigating local, green materials to make solar ovens here instead of having to re-sell. Cut the transportation costs, the transportation energy and keep the money circulating in our own community. Even if this all requires energy-spending high tech, if the ovens are durable they will be available to our descendants.

I feel like I'm in a race against time, lol...

12/10/11, 9:57 AM

Repent said...
I'm the head of a middle class, two income family with no debt. However, several years back we went through a bankrupcy. Now even with good jobs, no debt, and a capital downpayment in hand, no one will give us a car loan. No one- not even the loan sharks!

This has got me scratching my head. They don't want to earn usury by charging me a huge interest rate premium because of our bad credit history??

If car companies are going to wait until buyers have sufficient cash-in-hand to buy cars outright, there going to be waiting a very long time with existing car prices in the 10s of thousands of dollars each price range.

They must be aware as more and more families are dragged through the mud of job loss, income loss, and default. There will be fewer and fewer people who have good enough credit to qualify for car loans. Which of itself suggests decline and the end of growth.

They will either have to accept more credit risky buyers, drasitically lower prices to what people can actually afford, or give up on the expectation that people will buy new cars ever again!

Looks like we as a family will have to endure self-imposed austerity for a year or more, just to save to buy, I shudder to say it, a USED CAR!

12/10/11, 10:51 AM

LewisLucanBooks said...
@ Bill Pulliam - Yes, Bill, I realize that. But then, I'm 62. I had the sudden realization yesterday that in 8 short years I'll be 70! The availability of good cane sugar in my lifetime may not be a problem. But if it is...

One of my new neighbors, Brother Bob the Bachelor Farmer may have hives. He seems to have everything else. I'll find out when I move. I may experiment with tree sap, just to test out the possibilities. I figure candied ginger will become a special occasion type of thing or for gifting. Even if cane sugar is still available, but really expensive, that will be the case. There's so much I can do with the raw ginger, as far as cooking.

It was good of you to restore your porch. Carpenter gothic? Some of those were really extravagant, but I suppose Country Carpenter Gothic wasn't so over the top. I have an old wood English chair I really like. Empire, but Country Empire. Clean simple lines.

12/10/11, 11:24 AM

Cherokee Organics said...

I've been reading George RR Martin's latest installment, "A Dance with Dragons". It is a ripper yarn, but at the same time I keep asking myself two questions:

How are they feeding all these armies cruising around the countryside?

How are they provisioning them with weapons, armour, transport etc.?

No disrespect to George, but sometimes I wonder whether stories like these are impacting the collective conscience because you see the same images repeated even here?



12/10/11, 2:42 PM

Myriad said...
JMG wrote: What kind of computer can actually be built using, say, transistors but no integrated circuits? Or readily available salvaged ICs?

The first question is much like asking, what kind of texts could be written using stacks of alphabet blocks but no paper? If you have enough of them and enough room, any kind. Most integrated circuits are made up of interconnected transistors, very small and close together. An equivalent circuit made out of separate transistors will be larger, slower, and power hungry compared to an IC (because the smaller and closer together the transistors are, the faster they can operate), but otherwise can do anything an IC can do. And even a slow computer can perform the calculations to run a bank or business that would otherwise require office floors full of clerks; that's why businesses paid millions of dollars each, from the 50s through the 70s, for computers with processors less powerful than the controller chip in a kitchen appliance today.

User input and output devices need more than just transistors, but basic capabilities should still be manageable. Keyboard inputs are technically simple. As for outputs, graphic displays are complex and printers require lots of moving parts with a fairly high level of precision (basically the same as typewriters), but there are alternatives. My aborted story for the story contest was about people trained to read streams of electronic text and numbers (the standard ASCII code) at about the speed of speech, by the sounds resulting from connecting each bit of output to different tones of different percussive sounds. In my story, this allowed a library of several tens of thousands of books, stored in a tiny permanent memory chip (widely distributed during the contraction, in Encyclopedia Galactica fashion), to be "read" using a machine that could be made by hand.

The real challenge for a homemade postindustrial digital computer is data storage (the functions handled by disks, tape, or punched cards). [Author redacted a more detailed discussion of this for length.] But even a computer requiring hand transcription of all input and output data, at runtime, from and to paper and ink would be adequate for some purposes -- perhaps not most routine business data processing, but fine for applications like engineering calculations, encryption/decryption, navigation, and gunnery.

For the foreseeable future, all that is moot, as salvage would rule, and home-brewing a processor or disk controller out of discrete transistors would be folly. The best present-day preparation I can think of would be collecting hardcopy technical documentation on microcontroller chips most frequently used in cars and appliances, along with the most used microprocessor, RAM, and communication chips. Many engineers will already have something like this on their shelves.

On the flip side, in the very long term, the power of the concept of digital technology might easily overshadow any specific technical embodiment. Like magnetic compasses and sanitary hand-washing, computers are a technology that could have been realized centuries earlier than they were, if the necessary knowledge of the principles (in this case, binary math/logic, and dynamic programmability) had existed. Consider, for example, the design of the Clock of the Long Now, a purely mechanical device employing binary addition that out-performs the intricate clocks and orreries of the Renaissance, and yet the first working prototype was built of plywood. A general-purpose computer could be built literally out of Tinkertoys (as some special-purpose computers have been) or other wooden components with comparably loose tolerances. It would be slow, of course, but Leonardo could still have put one to good use.

They're not going away, though they might not remain a common household item, any more than they were prior to about 30 years ago.

12/10/11, 3:06 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Kevin, slavery is fairly common now; it's likely to be less common in a deindustrial society, for reasons I'll be discussing in an upcoming post. War is also very common now; it's just been conveniently (for us) pushed off on the rest of the world. The point of pursuing an ecotechnic future isn't to ignore those realities, but to bring some positive potentials to weigh in the balance against them.

Cherokee, excellent! Yes, we say "canning" even when it's in glass jars. Canned nectarines are a treat for the gods -- enjoy them. As for your question, the industrial economies still get to keep the name until most of the people in them no longer have access to products made in factories. I give that ten to fifty years...

JP, I'm by no means certain that Spengler was correct in his assessment of what the future Russian high culture would be like; it's worth remembering that they're still in the manned spaceflight business, while we aren't. Still, you're quite correct that it'll most likely be a few centuries at least before the new cultural forms begin to gel there, and Communism, that least convincing of Christian heresies, will have nothing to do with it.

Hal, fair enough. The point I'd make, though, is that the kind of complex economic organization you're calling "industrialism" presupposes a great many social goods that are, or will be, in very short supply -- everything from a work ethic to effective policing of transportation corridors. My guess is that it's going to be a long time before those will again be available; I'll be talking about the reasons for that in an upcoming post.

Mary, that's more than excellent. In fact, you've just earned a Tall Pointy Green Hat award for green wizardry in action -- this is exactly the approach I've wanted to see people take, from working out solutions to their own needs, to sharing those solutions profitably with neighbors. That way lies the sustainable economics of the deindustrial future.

Repent, the thing you may not know is that credit is running short all over the place. It's not just you -- getting a loan for anything is a difficult proposition, because so much of the available credit is being sucked up in an attempt to stave off the collapse of the banking system. I'd start saving for that used car -- or better still, a couple of sturdy used bicycles and some good walking shoes.

Cherokee, that's an excellent point. I've just finished rereading Bruce Catton's excellent 3-volume history of the American Civil War, and one of the central points Catton made was the importance of logistics in fighting that war -- the single most important reason for the Northern victory was that the South lost the ability to supply and feed its armies. A lot of SF authors seem to miss that point.

Myriad, thank you! I'm anything but a computer geek, and so have to rely on those who are for details like this, just as I rely on petroleum geologists for my facts and figures concerning oil production. What you're saying, then, is that the situation with computers is more or less parallel to the situation with radios -- there are simple versions that could be built with medieval technology, and the only reason they weren't is that nobody knew the tricks involved. (Any halfway competent medieval alchemist could have built a radio transmitter and receiver, complete with chemical batteries to power them, given the knowledge involved -- and I wouldn't put it entirely past a more than usually clever ancient Egyptian temple craftsman.)

I'd encourage you or someone to get busy on some prototype plywood computers, though, so the idea gets out there; most of the people I've heard discussing the issue seem to think that computer technology = semiconductor ICs. Perhaps you could post some references to the Green Wizard forum, if you're feeling generous...

12/10/11, 5:54 PM

Red Neck Girl said...
I have a few comments on some of the topics of other posters. Although I'll start by saying I don't see this as a tragedy, Same Old Stuff Different Civilization, only we'll be going back into balance with the world around us. What's not to like? And while I don't think it will happen in the next two or three generations we'll fall back into a colonial era of technology. If I'm making the rounds again by that time I'll go find out what the back country is like!

Jane in JMG's story to me was a bit of a whiner feeling sorry for herself that 'our generations' *wasted* oil. I'm a very unhappy camper with all the species on the face of this beautiful earth that are extinct or driven to near extinction. There's nothing I can do about that either way. I can try to be a little more parsimonious in energy use now but it won't bring back the extinct plants and animals that made for a balanced ecology. I'm sure someone in the future will feel entitled to be angry at the wasted energy anyway.

@ Apple Jack Creek
I'm past the half century mark with this decade almost finished. I remember about fifty years ago on a trip down the mountain to town with the folks when we happened upon a local rancher moving his herd of cows down the road to another pasture. Like all country people we waited patiently and I watched as several people of varying ages and sexes moved those cows on horseback with the help of a couple of dogs.

Good thing they weren't working with cattle off the open range. You need a .22 pistol to discourage the range bulls and keep them respectful of you and your horse. They go feral REALLY fast!

20 years ago they were still using horses and riders to gather open range cows out of the back country in the National forests. On foot or a motor bike is kind of stupid since the bulls when harassed can get mean and cows are smart enough to try to avoid noisy motor bikes. Besides, a motor bike doesn't have enough mass to impress the mind of a feral bull, horses stand a better chance and are more agile.

Horses worked for thousands of years and I see no problem with them coming back into use in the future whether it's gathering and herding cows to a shipping point or pulling a feed wagon with a ton or so of hay to feed the stock close to the main house.

There are some things that machines aren't particularly good at or for and never have been.

Deer and gardens, aggravation looking for a place to happen. If your garden is inside your perimeter fence a good outdoor dog or two is great for the eventual confrontation.

Also, do a little research as to what the deer in your area like to eat. In N. California / S. Oregon they like glacier lilies. (They eat the tender rosettes out of the centers.) To avoid a hassle with the Forest Service ask for a permit to collect some wild plants they find tasty in your area and transplant a trail of food they like away from your garden. Preferably before they get to it! You could even try a 'No-No' and stash a mineral salt lick in an area that will draw them away from your garden.

The area I grew up in, N. California was extremely rugged and a lot of it was open range. Plus my folks were from Texas / Oklahoma and I was a child of television westerns. I believe girls who are horse crazy these days have a leg up, ;D, on kids today raised with go fast technology. We're tougher and more realistic in a lot of ways then American Idol, Kardashian fans with face book friends. Shoveling manure tends to do that for you.

Wadulisi Tsalagi

12/10/11, 9:36 PM

barath said...
JMG and Myriad -

When it comes to computing, the question in my mind is this: can something like the Internet last in perpetuity? Mechanical computers are no problem (ala Babbage) and simple radios can be built as well, but what defines the Internet?
From my perspective, it's the ability to automatically process and store transmitted information communicated over long distances in near real time, so the question is whether we can build appropriate-tech computers and radios that can work together to achieve this.

We might try two parallel approaches: a) taking the IC processes we have today and simplifying them and b) taking the simplest approaches (mechanical computers, DIY radios, etc.) and adding functionality to enable building something like a statistically multiplexed network backbone on top. I'm not sure these approaches will meet in the middle, but they're both the lowest hanging fruit...

12/10/11, 11:27 PM

frijolitofarmer said...
The increasing use of prison labor, coupled with both the growing number of incarcerated people and the trend toward privatized prisons, may drag things out a bit longer. It allows domestic manufacturers to pay third-world wages, thereby drastically reducing shipping costs. Furthermore, human resources costs are largely externalized to the state.

In the short term, this is self-accelerating. As expanding prison industries take jobs away from free people and push wages down, they increase poverty, thereby pushing more people into crimes for which they're likely to be imprisoned. This increases the number of prisoners competing for 20-cents/hr. jobs, driving wages and working conditions down even further.

12/10/11, 11:35 PM

Dr. Simon A. Shakespeare said...
Myriad and John,

I have been having similar thoughts on future ecotechnic calculators and computers as well.
There were some great solutions and approaches in the past. Reading through a history of computing is a few hours very well spent.

At the risk of discussing 'Appropriate Electronics' in the wrong place and annoying our host...

Firstly, check out Nyle Steiner's fascinating web site and most of the links at:

You should see that you can make some very interesting electronics at home, including;

- Electronic memory elements--memristors--as Random Access Memory.
- Alcohol flame thermionic diode and triodes (no glass blowing needed), that demonstrate gain.
- High voltage corona diode/triodes, which demonstrate gain.
- Rectifiers (borax solution and two plates).
- Magnetic amplifiers (and reactive core amplifiers) that demonstrate high gain (completely free of semiconductors).
- Copper oxide photocell - light detecting electronics.
- Homemade semiconductors for oscillators, radio transmitters and receivers.
- Thermocouples--both traditional iron/copper as well as home made copper-oxide semiconductor thermocouples. Thermocouples were discussed on the Archdruid report in June, but its possible that copper-oxide semiconductor thermocouples would be useful, as they are high voltage, low current, unlike low voltage, high current iron/copper types. JMG discussed thermocouples at:

Computing, calculating and archiving ideas we need to explore:-

Storage and copying of data. This includes methods for archiving data (books particularly). I am currently thinking of etching glass plates or possibly tiles, to avoid some of paper's limitations, and allow for easy read-back. I'm happy to discuss some of these ideas further, perhaps in the green wizard forum, if anyone's interested.

Mechanical data storage could use punched cards or paper tape as the Jacquard loom did in 1740. I particularly like the idea of building a Jacquard controlled 'CNC' mill that can drill/punch the holes in a new punch card from an old one.

Some mechanical computing could use analogue techniques (as used for tidal prediction until quite recently), if accuracy isn't too important. These can be as simple as ones made by mechano and pieces of string, to high tolerance machines performing differential calculus for steering ordnance shells.

Digital mechanical computing could use ideas by the ever-inventive Charles Babbage, although I believe what he proposed was too complex as it stands, and requires more thought. I think wood is definitely a part of future mechanical computing.

Electromechanical computing could use homemade relays and stepper motors, or a combination of homemade electronics. These require only an access to copper wire, steel for magnetic cores and a few other homemade electronics.

Homemade thermionic triodes and thermionic diodes are not limited to complex glass blowing skills, if Steiner's flame or corona thermionic diodes are used.

In Conclusion.

Semiconductor integrated circuits are not the only solution, of course, to future electronic computers. Many homemade electronic and mechanical solutions exist--as long as you limit your expectations a little and don't expect a billion transistors on a thumbnail piece of silicon. Homemade electronics, as described above, will give us a new and exciting toolbox of techniques to make our own calculating and computing solutions.

Engineers have become too spoilt with resources; resource limitation forces us to be creative. Personally, I think that's much more fun!

If you want to open a discussion on the green wizards forum, I'll join you there. I'm going to be exploring some of these ideas some more and would appreciate some sane voices.

Simon (eexsas - on green wizards)

12/11/11, 3:33 AM

Maria said...
Another terrific essay! Honestly, I'm sitting in the remedial section of the class, still thinking about "what you contemplate, you imitate," and how that truth has panned out in my life.

Otherwise, I'm a bit overwhelmed by everything ahead of all of us. But I just made my first sale of a vintage Christmas ornament I rescued from the landfill. So that's something.

12/11/11, 7:02 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Girl, what's not to like? Well, for the people who get to watch their children starve to death in the years to come, that won't be too hard a question to answer. However necessary the Long Descent is in the abstract, the human cost is going to be pretty ghastly.

Barath, down the road a bit I want to talk a bit about that word "automatically." Maybe it's time to consider the possibility that human beings are viable components in such a system...

Farmer, it'll be interesting to see how long that lasts. My guess is that it's already nearing its pull date, as the ability of states to absorb the costs while corporations absorb the profits is very nearly at an end, and once the subsidy goes, the whole thing stops being profitable very fast.

Dr. Simon, I love Steiner's site! One of the things that's becoming increasingly clear to me is that electronics grew up too fast, without having time to explore the dizzying range of alternative methods for getting the effects you need to get to run a radio or what have you. The pressures of progress forced standardization, first with thermionic tubes, then with semiconductors. This is one of the fields in which bona fide mad scientists in basement laboratories could quite literally invent the technologies of the future.

Maria, nah, I've had to dump a huge amount of information on people in a hurry; the only people who think they're keeping up with it are those who aren't doing anything with the material we've covered over the last year and a half. If you've started making money in the salvage economy, even if it's only a little, you're still ahead of most of my readers -- and if you're also seriously thinking about magic, you're way ahead of the game.

12/11/11, 8:21 AM said...
I haven't read all of the comments yet, so I apologize if this has already been addressed. I am a spinner and a weaver; I have two floor looms and a small portable loom as well as two spinning wheels.

I can say with certainty that what the world gained in mass production it most definitely lost in quality. A hand made dish towel in today's American market may well cost you as much as $20. However, this towel will still be in your kitchen drying your dishes and hands, and mopping up spills, 20 years from now. Think about it - a dollar a year or less for that towel versus ones bought at even 'quality' department stores, whose life will be significantly less than this. This plays into your previous post, I believe, regarding instant satisfaction. Why spend $20 on one when you can buy 15 for the same amount? Even if the 15 are of inferior quality and you will buy them again and again.

The same can be said of clothing; not only have we devalued it due to the sheer amount of clothes available now, but the quality of that clothing is significantly inferior to that produced before mass production. A power loom goes so quickly that human eyes can't see the quality issues that may arise in the weaving process. Sewing on a mass scale to a pattern that actually fits almost no one means that most of the world walks around in ill fitting clothing - which is something all but the poorest were able to fix thanks to needle and thread not so very long ago. Very few even know how to sew now, let alone do alterations.

As far as spinning goes, it was several hundred years before the quality of machine aided spinning equaled the quality produced by a drop spindle, at least for warp threads. And today, the quality of my 'modern' wheel is crap, even though I spent nearly $700 for it, compared to my antique wheel I purchased for $80. Yes, the new one was ready to spin right out the door while I had to do some restoration work on the antique, but I have had problem after problem with the new one and it’s presently in need of major repair I have no money or plans for. Instead, my wheel that was made sometime between 1860 and 1880 is my every day workhorse. It's a little fiddly sometimes, but the quality of the manufacture is such that it still spins a production amount of wool nearly every day, and I anticipate I will end up willing it to my granddaughter because it will still be spinning long after I am gone. It may come as a surprise to people, but hand spun yarn isn’t really any more expensive than a good quality machine spun – I’ve done the research and it’s true.
What makes home production viable is the fact that it can be done amongst all one’s other chores and daily activities. There is almost never a day that goes by that I am not knitting, or spinning, or weaving. Something gets done every day, often more than one. It is slow, to be sure, but it’s high quality and will last for decades if cared for properly. This is a truth that we knew in former times, and it’s a truth we will have to become acquainted with in the not so distant future.

12/11/11, 10:16 AM

Kevin said...
What you say concering the conditions required for slavery sounds comparatively reassuring, JMG. Your remark about not ignoring the unpleasant realities we face also makes perfect sense. However I find contemplating the future that we're anticipating here to be very depressing, and urgently need something positive to focus on.

I'll be happy to take any tips from Maria or anyone else about how to thrive in the salvage economy. I now often see pickup trucks - often new and shiny ones - in my neighborhood that are stacked full of discarded materials that the owners have collected from kerb sides, and have begun to wonder how they're turning the stuff into profit.

Keeping up with the wealth of information you've provided is indeed a challenge, and I'll feel I'm doing fairly well if I can apply just a fraction of it.

12/11/11, 10:29 AM

Steve said...
JMG wrote: "Maria, nah, I've had to dump a huge amount of information on people in a hurry; the only people who think they're keeping up with it are those who aren't doing anything with the material we've covered over the last year and a half."


I just put in some insulating window coverings last week, and boy did they make a difference! The project calendar is booked up for the next six months, from insulating the attic and pipes to expanding the garden to planting a berry patch and turning an old fence into a trellis for hops and grapes. Since last winter solstice I've brewed my first seven batches of beer, and they've all been good enough to be encouraging. I've been helping friends weatherize this fall, and at some point I'll figure out how to cobble together the used solar hot water equipment I've scrounged. This is on top of last season's record-setting garden (for me), insulating the walls and half the foundation, and reducing our energy consumption to 1/3 of the state average. You weren't kidding when you wrote that the appropriate tech literature contained more than enough projects to keep one busy for a lifetime!

Then, just last week, I stumbled upon a used copy of Learning Ritual Magic at the local bookstore. Had I not been primed with the last posts of the GW series, I wouldn't have even been in that part of the store. It wasn't until reading the first two chapters of that book that the magic series of posts really hit home. Now, it seems, is when the real work begins. Many thanks, Archdruid.

12/11/11, 11:10 AM

August Johnson said...
Barath - As far as "communications" goes, once we had a very interconnected telegraph system that covered the country. There's even a system that has been in continouous existance for nearly a century now that's called the ARRL (American Radio Relay League) NTS (National Traffic System). This is a formal network of Amateur Radio ooperators that have a formal system for delivering messages from anywhere to anywhere. It's interconnected with similar organizations around the world to provide communications world-wide. Pretty much only "Hams" are aware that this system is still in existance and even still sometimes uses Morse Code to transfer messages.

JMG is right in asserting that human beings are going to be a vital part of such systems.

Dr. Simon - That site by Nyle Steiner is great! More things to archive for future experimenting.

12/11/11, 11:50 AM

Red Neck Girl said...
Girl, what's not to like? Well, for the people who get to watch their children starve to death in the years to come, that won't be too hard a question to answer. However necessary the Long Descent is in the abstract, the human cost is going to be pretty ghastly.

JMG, as I mentioned before there's a lot of things I can't do any thing about. I can't force Obama to disallow the roundup of our remaining thirty-five thousand wild horses when ranchers already have over thirty four million head of cattle on over stressed open range. I can't do much for polar bears so hungry the sows are killing and eating their own cubs, for sex trafficking around the world or child slave labor.

I'm sure you'll agree that anything that could have been done to ameliorate the causes of these things should have been done long before you or I were born.

I've no doubt I'm misanthropic from hearing many of the excuses used for doing much of the damage that's been done in the world before. It isn't like the human race hasn't been given plenty of warning about our situation but you can't warn people who don't want to hear it. I've tried on message boards I post on. We've been drunk on power, oil, military might and our own arrogance. The innocent will pay for 'our' binge, both human and animal, they always have, there's never been a question about that in my mind.

Wadulisi Tsalagi

12/11/11, 11:53 AM

LewisLucanBooks said...
A couple of sci-fi books came to mind in relation to some of the topics discussed this week.

Computers: Sean McMullen's "Voices in the Light." Australian. Human powered computers and government by librarians. On interesting aspect I remember is that librarians had to fight ... to the death for their programs.

Slavery: Octavia Butler's "Parable of the Talents." Several different permutations of future slavery are explored.

12/11/11, 12:23 PM

Jason Heppenstall said...
All this talk of arbitrage reminds me of my old job in my 'previous life'. As a gas trader it was my task to arbitrage between gas and electricity i.e. if the price of gas was high I was to reduce a few power stations to minimum stable generation and sell the gas they saved on the spot market - and vice versa.

The system was supposedly set up to make the market more competitive but I had ample time on my long solitary night shifts to ponder what the end result would be. It seemed to me that the system was there to be gamed by the big energy firms, like the one I worked for, at the expense of the less powerful players i.e. the users.

Furthermore, it occurred to me that it made little sense to arbitrage between gas and electricity, as one was an energy source and the other was not. In a closed system there would always be an imbalance - and the cost was picked up by the likes of hospitals and large factories who had to switch to backup (oil fired) generation whenever they got a call at 3am (often from me) telling them stop using gas.

This is of course different to the kind of arbitrage you are talking about but the two do at least share the similarity that they are ostensibly all about public good bur rarely lead to anything other than public bad. Money seems to know its own way around.

12/11/11, 1:21 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Tinfoil, it hasn't been addressed in this comment thread, but it's been discussed at some length a while ago in discussions of the household economy. Of course you're quite right; one of the side effects of mass production is that cheapening the product is almost inevitable, for reasons I'll be getting into in an upcoming post.

Steve, excellent. You're quite right, of course, that what I've discussed here concerning magic is what comes before beginning the work.

Girl, understood, and I'm not asking you to do anything about all that -- just to remember that this is going to be a very rough road for nearly everybody, including the vast majority of those reading this blog. Even when somebody's dying of his own stupidity, it's a sensible courtesy to observe a moment of silence at the deathbed.

Lewis, thanks for the references!

Jason, arbitrage is pretty much always a way of pushing costs onto somebody else, so your example is entirely relevant.

12/11/11, 4:21 PM

Tom said...
Thanks to JMG and to all those commentators who pitched in with good thought.
This is going to be a very bad time to be disabled, chronically ill, mentally ill, with dementia, or to have any other shortcoming, including having small children. It would not necessarily have to be that way in a no-growth or negative growth economy. Orlov reports that for some in Russia during the collapse life was decent enough in that they had more time for each other. However, the elites in the West are not acting as though they are going to give anyone any humane breathing room. I believe that it might be possible to provide a better quality of life for the majority of Americans at a much lower standard of consumption while working less than they do now, provided that work is directed at things that really need doing. The Austrian farmer, Sepp Holzer (see You Tube videos), is one of the finest examples of mind applied to labor.

12/11/11, 5:06 PM

barath said...
August -

Ham radio and other similar radio technologies are definitely useful, but I guess what I'm trying to capture is the difference between a radio network and the Internet. Ham radio is an example of a sustainable radio network and there are a variety of low-resource computer designs we can imagine. Is it as simple as putting the two together? Probably not - so the question is what else we need to create something that's sustainable and Internet-like.

12/11/11, 6:02 PM

Cherokee Organics said...

Not to worry you but I noticed that last week the People's Bank of China reduced the reserve requirement ratios for domestic banks. The effect of this was to release US$55bn into the financial system. Me thinks it's for domestic loans that will never be repaid?

Falling production and an oversupply of development properties can make even Chinese politicians fearful of unemployment!

PS: I quite enjoyed Red Neck Girl's verbal image of people shovelling manure and how it is hard to divorce yourself from reality/nature if you have to do so. I have to.

Which brings me to: over in Permaculture land they are having a discussion about whether spirituality has any place in permaculture design courses. It's a tough school because they want to expand their reach from the fringe to reach more of the mainstream agriculture. Fascinating stuff and a bit of a water shed.

Permaculture and Metaphysics

PPS: Does the AODA need any help locally?



12/12/11, 1:26 AM

Les said...
Bill Pulliam typed: “having a "job" is rather an historical anomaly related to the industrial/energy spike.”

Interesting you should mention this. Just last week I was down at the Landcare office in my new town chatting to one of my new farmer mates. The subject of WWOOFers came up and the sub-subject of getting city people to understand that working on a farm does not involve set hours, set practices and set outcomes. The idea that the weather can actually interfere with “work” and that you then have to wait for the weather to clear before you can finish a job seems to be difficult for many people to get their heads around.

Just another way so many of us have lost touch with the natural world, but not one I’d really thought about before…


12/12/11, 3:12 AM

Les said...
Red Neck Girl said: “ranchers already have over thirty four million head of cattle on over stressed open range”

Hi Girl,

It sounds like you are putting all ranchers in the “bad for the planet” pigeonhole. Before you do that, go and have a look at Allan Savory’s Holistic Management ( for a way to use those cattle to increase biodiversity and improve the soil, rather than stuff it.

As usual, it’s not the animals that are the problem (horses or cattle), it’s the management of the resource.


12/12/11, 3:30 AM

An Eaarthly Planner said...
You might justifiably call me a pedant for saying this, but I don't see the need to assert "peak oil is not a theory, it's a fact." Don't let the theory-bashers win the semantic war! A theory is, according to The Free Dictionary, "A set of statements or principles devised to explain a group of facts or phenomena, especially one that has been repeatedly tested or is widely accepted and can be used to make predictions about natural phenomena."

When someone says "that's just a theory!" they're exposing their ignorance. What they mean to say is "that's just an untested hypothesis!" although, of course, if they did say that, they'd be wrong 99% of the time.

Remember: gravity is a theory, and so is thermodynamics. They're also facts.

12/12/11, 6:44 AM

An Eaarthly Planner said...
Interesting side note: I was recently in attendance at a talk delivered by the head of the EPA's Chesapeake Bay Program, Nicholas DiPasquale. At one point in the talk, which was much about nutrient pollution of the Bay, he said "you've heard about peak oil? Well, this is peak phosphorous."

Maybe I'm just so used to the idea of government officials being in denial, but this was yet another confirmation that they certainly know something, at least, of what's going on, but just prefer not to talk about it. I guess this guy didn't feel the same constraint.

12/12/11, 7:01 AM

Bill Pulliam said...
Les -- I think it is perfectly valid to lump all ranchers together when you are talking about the collective impact of cattle ranging on the totality of the western range. It's the same as saying that "cars contribute X kajillion tons of CO2 to the atmosphere every year." Some cars might contribute more than others, but that is a perfectly fair portrayal of the total impact. Now of course individual ranchers will contribute vastly different amounts to this total impact, just as different cars and drivers have greatly different contributions to total CO2 emissions. But if you are talking about prioritizing the mitigation of impacts (as Red Neck Girl was), then the big aggregated picture is indeed a good starting point.

Cherokee -- if the permaculture people want to think about adding a spiritual component, maybe they first oughta think about getting rid of the commercial, proprietary trademark aspects! Spirituality and money are generally a bad mix.

12/12/11, 9:37 AM

ando said...

When I read Ran Prieur's passage that Hadashi submitted, I had to chuckle. Certain economists and money men have published a book called "Aftershock." (aftershock from 2008). They describe the coming decade and how to profit from it. Their description of the next decade sounds just like Ran's. They do not use the term Peak Oil, but they do address energy shortages.



12/12/11, 10:27 AM

August Johnson said...
JMG - I know you reply to those who keep insisting we'll keep some form of the Internet virtually forever, but I just had to get this off my chest. I've been familiar and working with computers since I was a kid in the 1960's and I keep being surprised at how people have no clue just how complex these systems are. If my response is too long, feel free to not post it. I'm not the world's best writer, but I just had to write something in response! I'll post it as a separate response as it's long.

12/12/11, 10:29 AM

August Johnson said...
Part 1

barath - The reason I also mentioned the telegraph network that once existed is that it was also a network that used humans as the "routing hardware", just like the radio network. I don't think many people appreciate just how complex a system the Internet is, let alone the hardware needed or the systems needed to make that hardware. I've been a "tech geek" since I was a young kid.

The simplest "router" today uses a computer orders of magnitude more complex than the mini-computers of the early 1970's such as the Data General Nova or the DEC PDP-8. The internet didn't really come into being until systems like the DG Eclipse or the DEC PDP 11/70 came about in the mid 1970's. I remember doing repairs on the DG Nova computers, just the CPU was built out of >200 SSI and MSI scale IC's. Then they had real "Core Memory" because the technology for solid state memory hadn't developed yet. A moderate sized system cost $100,000.

The technology for making computer hardware has developed way past this now, however you have to remember that it's so exceedingly complex and expensive that it's only possible if millions and millions of parts are made. Also, there's nobody who knows the entire process themselves. It takes 100's of different specialties to just run one plant to make these things.

12/12/11, 10:32 AM

August Johnson said...
Part 2

Now let's say you want to build a computer out of salvaged IC's, Is the documentation for these old/obsolete IC's/microprocessors still available? Do you have any way of testing them to make sure they even work before you make something out of them? How do you write software to run on them? These days, most of the compilers/assemblers only run on fairly powerful systems. How are you going to make a compiler for any system built from scrounged parts that isn't identical to one that you have existing software for? And, nobody is going to scrape together anything built from parts from any boards only filled with monster chips with 200-400 leads and no documentation. What we have is a system today that's built on the foundation of what was built in the past without preserving any of that foundation/knowledge. Nobody is going to scrounge together the stuff to make even a chip fab facility for those earlier chips, let alone even an 8085 microprocessor.

I won't even go into how few even understand the complexity of the software that ran on those older systems, let alone the stupifyingly monstorous and complex stuff of today.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that if we want any kind of "Internet-like" thing anywhere beyond the near downside of this highly technical time we live in, it's going to have to incorporate a human "router". We see small boxes doing Internet functions, but we don't appreciate just how complex they themselves are or how complex the system is that built them. In the 1980's I was involved with Packet Radio networks using IP over ham radio. Yes the computers (8085 based) doing it were considered simple (primitve today), but in reality they are actually a quite complex end product of an extremely complex system.

An interconnected system of primitive telegraph/low tech telephone/low tech radio is something that can be set up and operated by just about anybody, it's not necessary to have the 100's of specialties to manufacture the complex things. It's not all that hard to build almost from scratch a simple telegraph or telephone. Even primitve radios don't actually take much "high tech". All the complexity needed is already in the human mind.

As an aside, I recommend reading this book "When Computers Were Human"

12/12/11, 10:33 AM

Les said...
Hi Bill,

I’m sorry, I’ll have to disagree with you on the rangelands issue. When you consider that “resting” pasture in brittle environments (such as your western rangelands and almost all our pasture) results in desertification, not recovery and that properly managing those same pastures (and HM is only one of several ways to do it) results in increased biodiversity, increased soil carbon, better water holding, increased drought resistance and need I go on?

The rangelands are cactus because of our removal of megafauna and fence building. The only megafauna we have left that we can use to rebuild those lands are the cattle and such that are currently being badly managed in most places. We just don’t have the bison, elk and mastadons available to let loose on the land, let alone the predators to manage them that would allow the land to recover.

Your car analogy would only work if the "good" car in your comparison was one that removed CO2 from the air, put carbon back in the soil and was self repairing and used renewable sources of energy (without the fossil fuel subsidy). If cars like that were available, I think I'd be wanting one...

Once again, the management is the problem, not the animals. We need to get most pastoralists (ranchers) to change the way they operate, not remove them altogether.


12/12/11, 2:30 PM

Cherokee Organics said...
Hi Bill,

Ooops! I meant it the other way around. They are concerned that permaculture is being promoted by some individuals in a spiritual context and that this may be muddying the waters. I don't think they are in denial about the financial side of permaculture, they are trying to sell a design service and guidance after all.

Got any thoughts on the matter?



12/12/11, 2:30 PM

Bill Pulliam said...
JMG -- "just to remember that this is going to be a very rough road for nearly everybody, including the vast majority of those reading this blog. "

Darn tootin', Brother. Intellectually I look at the peak oil process as the thing that will eventually shrink the human footprint on the biosphere and stop the tinkering with atmospheric chemistry and climate. But personally, it scares the heck out of me. Economic disruption, social upheaval, infrastructure decay, and food insecurity are not fun for anyone, even if you are prepared to survive them -- and how can you really be 100% sure that you are?. There is only so much one can insulate oneself from all of this or mitigate it at a household level. Even the best case scenarios are very challenging; some of the worst case scenarios are too disturbing to contemplate. This ain't the dawning of the age of eco-enlightenment and global harmony. If those are even coming, they are much farther down a very rough and uncertain road that none of us will live to see the end of.

12/12/11, 2:54 PM

Mark Angelini said...
JMG -- came across a very special example of a business in the US that has mitigated the effects of economic arbitrage.

After searching for quality fit leather boots (I have a larger foot) and not finding anything that seemed worth the money I am ordering a custom made pair from these folks. & They're so busy they have a 20 week wait! I assume their costs reflect the future costs of much of what we now pay the price to be "cheap".

I will surely tip a glass for you. Cheers!

12/12/11, 4:21 PM

Myriad said...
John, Simon, and barath – My comments about wooden mechanical computers was not intended as a prediction, but to illustrate how general and flexible the idea of computation can be. If a non-electronic computing technology is ever developed for widespread use, it’s more likely to take a form that would seem alien today. Imagine, for instance, making patterned marks on a sheet of paper to set up your problem, and then bathing the paper in a sequence of chemicals or biological agents (like developing photographs, but iterated for numerous cycles) until the result appears. Or computing by a team of people each with different savant-like mental abilities (but attained through training), interacting in a way that might look to bystanders like they were playing a game.

Actual general-purpose (programmable) mechanical digital computing is possible, but its usefulness would be limited by its slowness. Here is a video of (a small portion of) one mechanical computer in operation. It is not a very practical design; that entire plastic-meets-steampunk nightmare performs the function of only about 50 transistors, and takes several minutes to work, instead of a fraction of a billionth of a second. Digital computing can be slowed way down from present-day speeds and still be useful, but it can’t be slowed down that much without going past the point where it would be faster to do it by hand with a pencil and paper.

(I’m thinking about better, more readily expandable designs suitable for making out of wood, as requested. Something closer to this in elegance--note that it performs a function about as complex as the K’Nex machine's adder, with vastly fewer parts. But the concept I’m contemplating wouldn’t use rolling balls either.)

Lower-technology computers dedicated to a specific purpose are more plausible in many circumstances than low-tech programmable computers. The all-mechanical fire-control computers of mid 20tth century battleships are an impressive analog example. The series of videos starting here explains some aspects of how they work. (At about 1:50 in the first segment is where you get to take a brief peek inside.) For an entirely different kind of example, here’s a machine that turns the sun angle into a numeric display of local time. It has no electronic or moving parts, though a digital computer was used to design it.

Barath, your question about applicability of computing to communications is a rather deep one. Computers today are primarily communication devices. But that wasn't always true, and it depends on the computer making more efficient use of the communication channel than the obvious alternatives. If a human telegrapher can use the channel to send and receive more information over the course of a work shift, then the human will get the job. Wooden computers probably couldn’t compete.

As for the Internet, what is needed are some computers in different places with communications links between them. The essence of the Internet is interconnected computers being able to handle a certain protocol for sending messages to one another. The Internet existed before home computers, and long before Google, YouTube, or Facebook. Companies like Google exploit (and burden) the Internet, just as bus lines and trucking companies exploit and burden the highway system. The Internet itself can exist just fine without them (though users would then be missing the specific uses associated with those sites, that we tend to think of as part of “using the Internet” today.) Any region that can manufacture (or salvage) transistors and maintain telegraph wires can have an Internet, but its uses and accessibility would likely be much more limited than today.

12/12/11, 7:27 PM

Red Neck Girl said...
Red Neck Girl said: “ranchers already have over thirty four million head of cattle on over stressed open range”

Hi Girl,

"It sounds like you are putting all ranchers in the “bad for the planet” pigeonhole. Before you do that, go and have a look at Allan Savory’s Holistic Management ( for a way to use those cattle to increase biodiversity and improve the soil, rather than stuff it."

"As usual, it’s not the animals that are the problem (horses or cattle), it’s the management of the resource."


Not completely Les, but ranchers in general are 'traditional' in that if it takes less time and makes more money for them they'll worry about the other stuff later. I realize it is an ART to farm or ranch a piece of property. One size does not fit all! The same approach doesn't work as well or at all on all properties.

The sheep rancher that just lost his entire flock of rams from his forty year breeding program isn't feeling too warm and fuzzy about the wolves that did the dirty deed regardless of how much good the wolves do for elk and deer populations. In fact the elk and deer may be competing with his sheep for the forage available so any failure in their health and fertility is 'a good thing' for him.

Having said that as far back as thirty plus years ago one rancher found out that flexibility and innovation in his methods was good for the ancestral ranch when the government forced him to make accommodation for the black footed ferrets on the ranch that were thought to be extinct. He was so taken with the increase in production weight of cattle that had been suggested for his use, with less stress on the land as well as fewer head of cattle, that he went out proselytizing for more ecologically sensible ranching.

The problem is with corporate advertising and the thin margin for ranchers to make a living these days a rancher is desperate to try anything to boost his bottom line. Currently they have some very well paid lobbyists working to clear the range of 'equine vermin' and Obama as a financial beneficiary of Lobbyists/Corporate interests is more than willing to listen.

It's just that currently we as a nation, aren't any better than a farmer in S. America dousing his land till it's sterile with herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers to grow Monsanto's designer crops and nothing else, in pursuit of the bottom line!

Wadulisi Tsalagi

12/12/11, 7:53 PM

DomK said...
Here is a (basic) French translation by myself, plus another translation on the post on catabolic collapse.

12/13/11, 2:40 AM

Fran said...
Hi John,

I think this article on the "dark life" (recycled, couterfeit and so on) of electronic components is germane to the discussion. It's also rather interesting :-)


12/13/11, 5:16 AM

Bill Pulliam said...
Les -- you aren't disagreeing with me, you are arguing an (almost) unrelated point. Red Neck Girl was talking about grazing on western rangelands, so was I. You aren't.

Cherokee -- I'm not a big fan of permaculture (tm) in general. It has a pyramid scheme odor about it to me -- paying for training classes to certify people to charge for training classes. The basic concepts are fine, but the implementation is a commercialized repackaging of (mostly) long-established ideas under a copyrighted brand as though they were original and the one true way to save the world. I could go on for pages, but I will refrain myself.

12/13/11, 5:46 AM

Kieran O'Neill said...
@JMG: Here's a quote for you.

Yesterday, the Governor of the Bank of Canada, in a press release about the coming decades of "deleveraging" the developed world economies are facing, was quoted as saying:

“The direction may be clear, but the magnitude and abruptness of the process are not. It could be long and orderly or it could be sharp and chaotic.”

12/13/11, 12:50 PM

Cherokee Organics said...

A dominant cultural meme that I keep noticing repeatedly is that people are separate from nature. I understand where it came from and why it's promoted, but it has the effect of letting people pretend that they are somehow insulated from nature. Close the door and all that yucky nature stuff can be shut out. It leads to fear though.

I'm writing this comment late in the week because I read a lot of fear in peoples comments. People rarely openly admit to fear (respect to those that do) but the comments smell of it. I don't think that now is a time to fear the future though, because it's actually a time to remember. What should we be trying to remember?

Lost opportunities

Lost time

Wasted resources

How privileged our lives are still

How people live in developing countries and still get by

Historical accounts of the Great Depression and how people got by

What we are potentially facing with peak oil is not mass die off - or the zombie apocalypse for that matter - but mass poverty. Mass poverty does not equate to a mass die off, it equates to shortened life spans. We are a part of nature and subject to the same rules that apply to all the other life forms.

In my mind and I could be wrong, but I also think that the fear comes about from a loss of perquisites. For example, the Internet is one such perquisite which we all enjoy - but switch the power off and it instantly evaporates. It is what I call an intangible perquisite. Too often we focus on these because they provide us with entertainment instead of nourishment / shelter and deep down we all know it.

If I operated a ham radio, the last thing I would use it for is to send IP packets as it would be far easier to get on the mike or just send morse code.

Hi Bill,

Thanks for your thoughts and also your restraint! You have some good points, but I also think at this stage people are so divorced from nature that any positive assistance nudging them back towards understanding nature is a good thing.



12/13/11, 4:25 PM

Kieran O'Neill said...
@JMG and Whiffle, regarding computers in the salvage era: it might be worth looking at the modern wave of microcontrollers (e.g. the Atmel AT series that power the Arduino). Those things use incredibly little power (typically <50 milliamps), have roughly the same processing power as the home computers of the early 80s (8 bit, ~16MHz), and cost as little as $4 for the very low-end chips.

I don't know about how viable it will be to continue manufacturing them in the future, but they might make a good option for stockpiling and salvage. You could do an awful lot with those that you cannot do easily by hand.

12/14/11, 9:40 AM

Tyler August said...

I know you'll probably be putting up a new post tonight, but I stumbled across this and wanted to share:
Thermoelectric properties for the 2500+ compounds. Not all tested, but great feeding ground for those basement researchers. It's even in an open-access journal, if you can fathom the luck!

12/14/11, 3:44 PM

Jennifer D Riley said...
I remember reading in the Harvard Business Review several years ago that in South Africa, it's cheaper to build a Mercedes Benz by hand than it is to turn on the electricity. Another great study was the casinos in some state: the best patrons weren't the tourists, they were the locals who stopped by on their way home from work. Wired magazine stated the best use for the state of Texas is a giant solar farm; it could supply the southwest. The best use for Mexico is to farm vegetables and flowers. There would be enough income so no Mexicans would have to enter the US. What's standing in the way? You'll have to answer.

Leading up to my point I think we need an independent audit of our resources, similar to Harvard but with the Harvard taken out of it.

12/14/11, 3:45 PM

GHung said...
I'm just checking in this week; great post and comments as usual. Not much to add, and less time. I've been using this nice, late fall weather to get some things done. I transplanted 30 heirloom raspberries today - three rows of ten. Noted that the small tractor made a big job go much faster. Use 'em while you have 'em. One day's work utilizing an industrial era energy slave may provide berries for several generations on this land; that is my hope.

Dinner last night was venison loin ( nice young buck, harvested the last day of our deer season about 200 yards from the house, roasted over my homemade charcoal), green beans and sweet potatoes from our garden, and greens from the cold frames. It's nice when an entire meal has been sourced within a few feet of our door, something we're getting better at. I'm not getting smug, mind you, just a bit more practice.

Other chores this week: Insulated two friends' attics to R-50+, worked on plans for a small green house, put up another cord of nice oak. So far, so good.

12/14/11, 3:49 PM

Seani said...

A physist has come up with a very similar explanation:

1/17/12, 8:04 AM

John said...
I have just read your excellent book The Long Descent and recommended it to my friends and family. The decline and fall of modern industrial civilization is something that I have thought about for a while now, and you have really put a lot more thought into it than I have. Great book, and a great blog. Great advice, some of which I have shared with friends before I read this book, now I will endevour to get them a copy to read.
One thing that I wonder about, what about the possibility of using Nuclear energy to maintain industrial society? NOT that I am in favor of such a strategy, but as things become more lean and desperate I am sure that it will be tried.

8/31/12, 8:17 AM

Unknown said...
you're missing a lot of details that weren't mentioned. our entire global food system requires 10 calories of fossil fuel to produce 1 calorie of food. food costs will skyrocket, exacerbated by climate change and inflation, causing massive starvation. there r 7 billion people on the planet right now. the most important question now is how many people can our planet sustain without fossil fuels, and that question depends on how far our technology backslides. if we can return to historic agricultural practices, we might support a billion or 2. if we return to hunter gatherer society, its closer to a million. not a billion, a million. no matter how u crunch the numbers, a lot of people are going to die.

10/17/12, 4:24 PM