Wednesday, February 01, 2012

The Recovery of the Human

The myth of the machine, the theme of last week’s Archdruid Report post, has implications that go well beyond the usual terms of discussion in the peak oil scene. One of those implications, which I mentioned briefly last week, unfolds from the way that so many people who are concerned about peak oil fixate obsessively on the hope that some kind of machine will solve the problem.

There are at least three ways in which this fixation gets in the way of any meaningful response to the end of the age of cheap abundant energy. The first, of course, is that peak oil isn’t a problem, because by definition a problem at least potentially has a solution. Peak oil has no solution. That’s true in the narrow sense of the term—no possible turn of events will allow industrial civilization to extract a limitless supply of crude oil from a finite planet—and it’s becoming increasingly clear that it’s just as true in the broad sense—no other energy source can provide anything close to the torrent of cheap, highly concentrated energy that petroleum provided to industrial society during the last century.

Peak oil is thus a predicament rather than a problem, since nothing we or anyone else can do will make it go away. Instead, we and our descendants down through the millennia to come will have to live with the reality of a world much less lavishly stocked with concentrated energy sources than the one our ancestors inherited a few short centuries ago. The task awaiting us and our descendants is that of finding creative and humane responses to that implacable reality. To that challenging and rewarding task, in turn, the current obsession with fantasies of salvation via machine offers no help at all. Quite the contrary, by distracting attention from the adjustments that will have to be made, the obsession makes the work ahead of us more difficult than it has to be.

The second sense in which the obsession with machines gets in the way of a useful response to the predicament of peak oil is that it pushes responsibility for doing something onto someone else. I sincerely doubt that any of my readers have any influence worth noting over the decisions involved in building giant wind turbines, say, or developing thorium reactors, or turning some substantial fraction of Nevada into one giant algal biodiesel farm. This makes it easy to insist that steps like these are the appropriate response to the coming of peak oil, since the people doing the insisting don’t have to follow through on the insistence; it’s all somebody else’s job.

No doubt the sheer convenience involved in this approach has much to do with its popularity, but there’s another factor involved. An enormous amount of rhetoric about the future these days starts from the assumption that the lifestyles of the middle classes in today’s industrial societies are normal, and ought to be available indefinitely—at least to those same middle classes. Now in fact there’s nothing normal at all about the pampered and privileged lives of today’s middle classes; from strawberries in midwinter to vacations in the tropics, those lives are full of the most absurd sort of extravagance, and only a civilization surfing the tsunami of cheap energy that ours gets from fossil fuels could convince itself that such habits are anything else. Still, those who have access to such things are predictably unwilling to let go of them, and insisting that it’s someone else’s job to come up with a way to keep them around is one way to express that unwillingness—at least for the moment.

The downside of depending on someone else to do that or any other job, of course, is that dependence always has a political cost. Frank Herbert’s classic SF novel Dune has one character explain this to another with commendable precision: "Once men turned their thinking over to machines in the hope that this would set them free. But that only permitted other men with machines to enslave them." The same dynamic is present whenever people allow themselves to become dependent on machines, for reasons that follow from the points made last week.

Power exerted through a machine is defined purely by I-It relationships; the only way to relate to a machine is to compel and control it, and (not, please note, "or") to be compelled and controlled by it.. That defines the direct relation of person to machine, but it also tends to define the indirect relation of person to person when a machine is the medium. The logic here is straightforward: a machine can only transmit those aspects of relationship that require no inner life to communicate, since a machine has none. The more thoroughly an interaction between people is reshaped for machine processing, therefore, the more completely any potential for I-Thou relationship is filtered out of the interaction.

It’s possible for a relationship between people that passes through a machine to avoid being flattened out into a relationship of compulsion and control, but it takes work, and tends to be most successful when the people in question also have interactions that aren’t dependent on machines. The more that human life and human interactions are defined by machines, the more difficult this tends to become—and of course it’s not incidental that people who want to compel and control, or to be compelled and controlled, can do that easily enough without going to the trouble that’s involved in sustaining an I-Thou relationship in a world of machines. Carry this logic out to its natural endpoint and you get the total erasure of all human values that Jacques Ellul anatomized in The Technological Society, a system in which every relationship is forced into the Procrustean bed of mechanism because anything else would be inefficient.

Ellul assumed that this trend was inescapable, but then he was a man of his own time, and the first faint shockwaves of the end of the age of abundance apparently slipped past him unnoticed. Other social critics who commented on the same thing—Lewis Mumford and C.S. Lewis are among those I’ve mentioned in earlier posts—assumed, along the same lines, that only a sustained effort to oppose the rule of mechanism could halt the march of society toward a future of inhuman efficiency. What very few thinkers of their generation grasped was the extent to which the myth of the machine misstated the source of the power that machines had during the twentieth century. What made industrial society so powerful in their day wasn’t any particular strength or virtue in the cult of mechanism itself, or in the habits of thinking that an obsession with mechanism made popular for a time; it was simply that during a relatively brief window of historic time, the amount that could be done by machines powered by fossil fuels, and following the internal logic of machinery, was vastly greater than the amount that could be done by humans powered by human energy sources, and following their own internal logic.

That window of time is coming to an end around us right now, and the third sense in which an obsession with machines gets in the way of a useful response to the predicament of peak oil unfolds from that fact. Those people who are rushing around trying to find a mechanical answer to peak oil are jumping aboard a bandwagon when the horse pulling it has just fallen over dead. Lacking the cheap, abundant, highly concentrated energy that only fossil fuels can provide, complex machines are by and large much less efficient than human beings, and the obsession with machines is therefore a habit of thought that’s well past its pull date.

It’s hard to think of anything that flies in the face of contemporary attitudes more comprehensively than the suggestion that human beings are more efficient than machines under any circumstances at all. Still, if you consider the whole system upon which each of the two depends, the superiority of the human is easy to see. Behind the machine—almost any machine in the modern industrial world—stands a sprawling infrastructure that depends on constant inputs of energy: not just energy in general, either, but very large quantities of cheap, concentrated energy fitting precise specifications. That energy powers the machine, to be sure, but it also manufactures it, keeps spare parts in stock, and powers and supplies the huge networks that make it possible for the machine to do what it does. A laptop computer all by itself is an oddly shaped paperweight; to make it function at all, you have to add electricity, and thus the entire system that produces the electricity and keeps it flowing; to make it more than a toy, you need the internet, and thus a far more complex system, which among other things uses a vast amount of additional energy; and of course to produce the laptop, the electrical grid, and the internet in the first place, counting all the products and services needed by all the economic sectors that contribute to their manufacture and functioning, you need a fairly large proportion of the entire industrial economy of the modern world.

Human beings do not suffer from the same limitations. A human being all by herself is capable of meeting her essential operating needs in a pinch, using only the very diffuse energy sources and raw materials available in a natural environment; a few dozen human beings, given suitable knowledge and skills, can support themselves comfortably over the long term on a tribal-village level, using the same diffuse energy sources; a few thousand human beings subject to all these limits can create a civilization. In a world without vast amounts of cheap energy, human flexibility and creativity consistently beats mindless mechanical rigidity. That’s why, for example, the ancient Greek inventors who created the steam turbine and crafted highly efficient gearing systems didn’t launch the industrial revolution two thousand years early; the recognition that fossil fuels existed in enough quantity to power steam engines, drive gear trains and replace human labor with mechanical force was missing, and without that, Hero of Alexandria’s steam turbine and the Antikythera device’s clockwork mechanism could never be anything more than clever toys.

A society used to turning as much of its work as possible to machines faces a similar failure of understanding when the fuel for the machines runs short. The missing piece in the present case, though, is the extraordinary potential for productive and creative work that exists within human beings. Machines fill so potent a role in our emotional lives that most people in the modern industrial world shy away from the thought of doing much of anything without them. Even if we could count on a limitless supply of cheap energy, this would be an embarrassing dependency—a shiny high-tech crutch is still a crutch, after all. A limitless supply of cheap energy, though, is exactly what we can’t count on, and so what would otherwise be merely an embarrassment is shaping up to be a lethal liability.

Thus one of the greatest challenges ahead of us as the age of abundance ends is nothing less than the rediscovery of the possibilities of our own humanity. The work that needs to be done—and in an epoch of decline, there will be plenty of that—will have to be done with the capacities woven into the human body and mind, along with those additional capacities that can be developed in both by training and practice. The effort that nowadays gets poured into teaching people how to manipulate machines will need to be redirected into teaching them how to bring out the creative and productive capacities in themselves. That can’t be done effectively, please note, by trying to manipulate them like so many machines, or by teaching them to manipulate themselves in the same manner; I-It relationships do very poorly at directing human productive and creative powers. It will require instead the ability to understand human beings as human beings rather than inconveniently squishy bipedal machines, and the capacity to enter into I-Thou relationships, that has always defined good teachers and good leaders.

Less than a hundred years ago, the sort of awareness I’m suggesting here was a common response of people across the industrial world to the mechanization of everyday life, and less than forty years ago a revival of that same approach—the human potential movement of the Seventies—achieved a not inconsiderable success before it was stomped by the same backlash that flattened the industrial world’s last real attempt to turn aside from the mess it’s made for itself. The recognition that the potential within the individual human being is the industrial world’s most thoroughly wasted and neglected resource has surfaced at intervals straight through the history of industrialism, and been hurriedly swept back under the rug time and again. Go back to the origins of contemporary industrial society in the scientific revolution, in fact, and you can trace the same opposition in the tangled conflicts by which the first versions of modern science seized the cultural conversation of their time from the remnants of Renaissance humanism and set our civilization on the path to its current predicament.

There are immense issues involved in a recovery of the human, a refocusing of attention toward what human beings can do with their own innate possibilities and potentials for learning and away from the quest to replace as many human functions as possible by this season’s crop of computerized gimmickry. I’ve touched on a few of those issues in the sequence of posts on magic that appeared here in the last months of 2011, and plan on bringing up others here and there in the months to come. For now, what I hope to get across is the core idea that the most important resources we have left at this point, the most promising potentials for a response to the end of the age of cheap abundant energy, are not machines, or potential sources of fuel, or anything else outside the individual human being.

Even considering that thought, as I’ve suggested, flies in the face of deeply rooted prejudices. Point out, for example that a human mind with appropriate training can remember impressive amounts of data—there was once an entire system of mind training, the Art of Memory, designed to make this possible—and most people will come up with any number of reasons why some kind of remembering machine is a better idea. In a world with drastically limited supplies of concentrated energy and far too many urgent uses for those supplies, a system of training that can take care of the need to remember data without adding to the demand for electricity, spare parts, or the like is pretty clearly the better idea, but that recognition can only happen once people step outside the myth of the machine.

There are any number of other examples of things that human beings can do, or can learn to do, that will fill essential needs in a deindustrializing or fully deindustrialized world, when permanent shortages of concentrated energy suitable for powering machines makes the vast majority of today’s technology useless except as scrap. A significant number of them are still being practiced, or—like the Art of Memory—can be revived with relative ease from written sources dating from the Renaissance or, in some cases, more recently still. A great many more will need to be invented, or reinvented, in the years ahead. The supposedly serious thinkers of our time are unlikely to contribute anything to that task; in contemporary industrial civilization, as in every other human culture, the basic qualification that makes thinkers respectable is an unthinking acceptance of the basic myths of their era. Nowadays, the myth of progress is one of those basic myths, and the myth of the machine stands right beside it.

The myth of progress is coming to pieces around us as I write this. The myth of the machine will follow it in due time. In the interval before they dissolve and are replaced by narratives better suited to the needs and possibilities of the deindustrial age, there is a great deal that can be done to begin the rediscovery of the human, to preserve those teachings from the past that can fill critical needs in the future, and to sketch out the first rough drafts of new disciplines that will apply the creative and productive possibilities of the individual to the challenges ahead. How that might be done—well, I hope to talk about that, among other things, in posts to come.

End of the World of the Week #7

Picking the Antichrist has been a popular sport for close to twenty centuries now, since the Book of Revelation made its way into the assortment of sacred books that became today’s Bible and provided generations of believers with a set of potent metaphors for the experience of immanent evil. There have always been those who took the visionary narratives of John of Patmos as a symbolic description of eternal spiritual realities, to be sure, and there’s also a long and by no means implausible tradition of interpreting the Book of Revelation as a whole as a prophecy of the fall of the Roman Empire; still, a great many Christians over the centuries have taken the whole thing more or less literally as a factual description of events that would come to pass someday. To a significant minority of them, in turn, that "someday" was expected very soon.

Well before the tenth century, when Adso of Melk published the most popular medieval biography-in-advance of the Antichrist, a good many attempts to predict the End Times came to focus on the sinister figure of history’s ultimate bad guy, and that habit remained firmly in place as the centuries rolled past. During the American Revolution, for example, some wag figured out that the words "Royal Supremacy in Britain," when translated into Hebrew, added up to the dreaded number 666, while Tolstoy’s sprawling novel War and Peace includes a scene in which Pierre, one of the main characters, adds up the letters of "l’Empereur Napoleon" and gets the same inevitable sum. During the Second World War, with equal facility, British Christians announced with some enthusiam that if the letters in the alphabet are all given numbers starting with 101, so that A=101, B=102, and so on—well, try the name "Hitler" and see what sum you get.

Still, a little before this latter bit of ingenuity went into circulation, a great many people in the Western world were convinced that the Antichrist had clearly revealed himself at last: Benito Mussolini! As candidates go, at least in the years before the Second World War, he certainly looked impressive; his warmongering and his claim to rule a revived Roman Empire certainly helped, as did his status as Europe’s most colorful demagogue—it’s not often remembered these days that until 1940, when the Blitzkrieg abruptly tipped the scales, most people thought of Hitler as that funny little man in Germany who was trying to imitate Mussolini. There was accordingly quite a bit of prewar literature insisting that Mussolini, as the Antichrist, would shortly seize control of the world and usher in the Tribulation.

Somehow things didn’t work out that way. The funny little man in Germany turned out to be one of history’s most hideously talented megalomaniacs, while il Duce, for all his natty uniforms and blustering speeches, proved hopelessly incompetent at doing much of anything but posturing. Well before he met his end dangling from piano wire, those who had been loudly proclaiming his status as Antichrist apparent quietly pulped their books of prophecy and went looking for other candidates.

—story from Apocalypse Not


barath said...
The idea of avoiding I-It relationships reminds me of something from an odd source, considering the topic---an old hacker koan:

A student was playing a handheld video game during a class. The teacher called on the student and asked him what he was doing. The student replied that he was trying to master the game.

The teacher said, "There exists a state in which you will not attempt to master the game, and the game will not attempt to master you." The student asked, "What is this state?" The teacher said, "Give me your video game, and I will show you."

The student gave him the game, and the teacher threw it to the ground, breaking it into pieces. The student was enlightened.

2/1/12, 10:30 PM

Jeffrey Kotyk said...
"Point out, for example that a human mind with appropriate training can remember impressive amounts of data..."

I know one Tibetan Lama who can recollect from memory countless scriptures word for word. Often when you ask a question he'll recite a verse or two and extract what he needs from it.

This is, at least was, common amongst Buddhist monks regardless the country, meaning anyone (not just geniuses) could memorize vast amounts of literature.

Curiously in esoteric Buddhism there are rites that can be conducted which enable one to be able to freely memorize anything.

It isn't just in religions. Historically in China any literate person was expected to memorize most of the Confucian canon.

If industrial paper mills cease to operate and paper becomes expensive as it historically was, it would be good for people to rediscover the powers of memory and mind.

2/1/12, 10:56 PM

Joel Caris said...
This is an interesting topic for you to tackle this week. Yesterday, finding myself on a long drive through the Southern California and Arizona deserts, I was thinking about the idea that part of what we'll be doing over the next couple decades is shedding the use of machines in favor of the use of human beings. We'll be reestablishing humans as the basis of our experiences, rather than machines and high technology. This seems quite a good thing to me, even though it will undoubtedly create problems.

One way in which I was thinking about this is through a memory of a summer evening on the farm last year, sitting around a fire outside with a group of people, a few of which were playing instruments and singing. It was a highly enjoyable experience of music and was no doubt one of the most common experiences of music throughout human history. Today, however, I would imagine listening to one's ipod--at least in industrialized nations--is a far more common experience. And how degenerate an experience is that in comparison to hearing people sing and play instruments live, in a setting of conviviality?

I don't think it will be bad at all for us to lose the ipods and other electronic music players in favor of live music. And I know of few people who don't find that experience much more emotionally satisfying and evocative than the electronic reproduction of music.

As we've replaced humans with machines over time, so we'll walk back that process over the coming decades and centuries. I look forward to the more human results, as trying as the transition may be.

Of The Hands

2/1/12, 11:10 PM

Jordy said...
Great post John, I've been thinking a lot about the differences between the meanings of the words "machine" and "technology" lately and the relevance of that difference to our predicament, And this ties in nicely with that.

Going a bit off topic, I find contemporary economics quite interesting, and haven't been able to help but notice all the talk about gold. I just wanted to say I would be very interested in reading your perspective on the history of gold and its relevance, and potential relevance, to human society.

For the record, this is NOT because I am curious about whether you think gold is a good investment or not. Personally, I think your average goldbug is either insane or betting that everybody else is, and honestly feel what I can only describe as a moral obligation to not "buy in" to the myth of gold.

2/1/12, 11:25 PM

Ruben said...
It seems likely there will be an army of people shrilly screaming "Luddite!!".

Kirkpatrick Sale wrote a history of Luddism called Rebels Against the Future. He argues the Luddites did not hate machines, just the machines that made their lives worse.

2/1/12, 11:43 PM

magifungi said...
You always get to the root, tapping the essential way forward. I thank you! I am up to 2009 in your blog archive, looking forward to the green wizardry material.

2/1/12, 11:52 PM

Trimorph said...
I get 672 for Hitler, with or without the aid of my machine. "Benito" nearly works, though, with 665. I suspect those British Christians might have meant you to start with A=100, not 101.

Yes, I know, I'm a pedant (660).

2/1/12, 11:55 PM

Alexander Carpenter said...
At the risk of seeming stubbornly insistent (while in reality I am being broad-minded with the notion of "the machine" in its metaphorical senses), I suggest that we go back and re-read this entry and as a thought experiment substitute "the State" wherever "the machine" appears. It plays, and mostly in the same sense that JMG is intending to convey — that for the most part the State suffers from the same expectations as technology, and is burdened by the same projections. The Nanny State is not much more than the sum of all those (literal) machines we believe we need to maintain our cultural, social, and personal identity-myths (and their attendant life-styles). Even the Frank Herbert/Dune quotation works in this transformation; and the I-It relationship is inverted, since the all-consuming State (in a delicious and annoying irony) regards its citizens/consumers as machines to be controlled on the Procrustean rack.

What we can expect in the social level is for States to forget that there ever were human values, and sacrifice humanity for leverage (another mechanical metaphor) to maintain its myths and powers (for its owners). We see this happening right now before our very eyes.

So this essay is right on: myths, like arts, are ephemeral. We are fortunate to live in these most interesting times, to participate in the Greatest Show on Earth, and with utmost integrity demolish one greatness in favor of another.

2/2/12, 12:30 AM

jusbuc said...
Some people are 'better' at dealing with I-It relationships then I-Thou - those, like perhaps myself, who have social anxiety find it easier to retreat to machines like the internet or television than to deal with people. Or people who prefer to work with machines (mechanics, programmers, engineers, etc).

I would guess this is a self-reinforcing dependency, the availability of machines like the internet and television means it's easier to make this retreat. Is social anxiety a as a widespread condition only made possible by these machines being so available?

In any case looks like I'll do a bit of reading about Buber and I-It and I-Thou relationships.

2/2/12, 1:01 AM

John Wheeler said...
I find it ironic that the relationship we readers have with you is completely (at least in my case) through a machine.

I recently came upon another irony. In a number of places I have seen reported that ethanol from Brazilian sugar cane has a respectable EROEI around 7 to 8. What someone pointed out was that a large part of that is due to the fact that the sugar cane is cultivated completely by hand. If you used machines for that, the EROEI would be cut drastically.

I think the rule of thumb is that whatever humans can do, they can do more efficiently (energy-wise) than a machine can do by itself. Some things people simply can't do, like fly. Flying may not be necessary, but I did see an interesting story of a rancher who bought an ultralight plane. With it he could search a canyon for lost cattle in 30 minutes. Without it the search took half a dozen men half a day. (Of course, I wonder what they could accomplish with a trained falcon and a webcam.)

Coming back to the irony of this blog, the answer lies in the fact that humans can't communicate vast distances instantly (telepaths not included). We would have to be physically much closer to have a decent conversation. You still could write your blog as a print newsletter after the Internet goes down, but commenting back and forth would be limited.

By all means, we should develop human potential as much as possible, and humans should do as much as they can without machines. This will help save resources to have machines to do the things humans can't.

2/2/12, 1:07 AM

Luciddreams said...
I'm reading a book right not titled "Alone Together," by Sherry Turkle of MIT. The book is fascinating and very relevant to this blog. Turkle is a psychologist trained in psychotherapy who has been studying the machine and it's effect on the human psyche for the last 30 years. The book reaches back that far into her experiences studying these things. The first half looks at what robots do to our psyche and the second part looks at what the internet does. I'm half way through the book now.

What I find interesting is that she has essentially been studying the generation of humans who came up along side the robot. Robots, specifically social robots, like the Tamagochi and Furby and now more sophisticated robots like AIBO, PERO (A robot seal designed to "take care" of the elderly's emotional needs)and My Real Baby. This generation of children who came of age in the 90s, are more than willing to accept robots to do the social work of humans because they are efficient and unbiased. In many cases they find it easier and more comfortable to talk to a robot rather than a human. They are willing to fill in the inner life of the robot.

I can't help but think that these people have been sculpted by this machine society to be sort of deselected for the future. When the machine dies they will die having no idea what human life is about. Having no idea how to meet their human needs. I suppose the problems they present will take care of themselves in due course.

2/2/12, 1:37 AM

Leo said...
just two questions.
do you have any contingences in place for your international readers (melbourne, australia in my case) for when the internet shuts down or becomes restricted. i could easily get access to a letterpress and i have a cousin whos made her own paper so i can help for the newsletter approach if needed.
and what myths should we start to replace the myth of progress and the machine with, seeing as how thats part of how humans see the world and react to it.

2/2/12, 2:36 AM

Thijs Goverde said...
No doubt the sheer convenience involved in this approach has much to do with its popularity

Haaa! I love the smell of cynicism in the morning. It is the smell of sanity!

It will be interesting to see what forms of human potential you will point out as ready-to-be-unleashed. Art of Memory, yup, saw that one coming... I fail already! I am a lazy man and will stick to my memory machines (pen and paper).

Thank you for another good post!

2/2/12, 2:43 AM

tubaplayer said...
Ah, thank you for this weeks piece JMG.

Your writings help me maintain the course that I have set or myself and this week particularly reinforces my choices.

My tools of choice are axe, spade, scythe and handsaw. My answer to having several hundred square metres of out of control weeds is goats - not a man with a tractor to plough the lot up. The answer of my good friend here is always the same. Get a machine in. He simply cannot understand why I don't.

2/2/12, 3:22 AM

Brent Ragsdale said...
Seems like the I-it relationship, and its effect on the human spirit, is at the heart of the problems at Apple's infamous Foxconn factory. Perhaps it also explains a lot about post-traumatic stress disorder as well. Thank you for a thought provoking post.

2/2/12, 4:17 AM

ando said...

Looks like i picked the right time to start reading Fritz Schmacher's
"Good Work."

Another splendid essay, as usual.



2/2/12, 4:20 AM

gregorach said...
A minor point of historical disagreement... The Greeks didn't start the Industrial Revolution for two additional reasons you don't mention: firstly, the Hero Engine, whilst capable of producing quite high RPMs on suitable bearings, cannot develop any torque worth mentioning, and thus is completely unsuitable for running machinery of any kind, no matter how clever you are about gearing. (To produce an actual steam turbine requires precision engineering and materials science far in advance of anything they had, or indeed anything the Victorians had.) Secondly (and in my view rather more importantly), they were quite happy with slavery. I don't think it's entirely co-incidental that the Industrial Revolution and the Abolition movement both took off around the same time and in the same place. Which lead and which followed isn't something I'd care to speculate on, but the two are definitely linked.

2/2/12, 4:55 AM

Mister Roboto said...
The obvious proof of what you discuss in the post is seen in comparing people in the Europe and North America of 150 years ago to similar people today. When my great grandfather stowed away on a boat to the USA from potato-famine-ravaged Ireland, people had the skills and capacity to support their lives with their own labor and the resources at hand. As demonstration of this, the population of Ireland immediately prior to the famine approached eight million, and this was achieved with a simple, agragrian, locally-based mode of living. (The fatal flaw was becoming too dependent on the potato, a new-world crop that proved surprisingly well-suited to even chilly, boggy environments such as one finds in Ireland.) Ever since the famine, the population of that country has never been any higher than the current five million.

When you compare people in North America and Europe today to people of that previous era, you see that the moderns are as dependent on technological systems and the money economy as a newborn baby is on its parents. If some leprechaun were to grant me the ability to journey through time and meet my maternal great grandfather, my recent ancestor would undoubtedly find the relative uselessness and dependency his progeny would experience very dismaying.

2/2/12, 5:23 AM

Don Stewart said...
Are we allowed to have toys if we can prove we are as smart as crows?

Don Stewart

2/2/12, 5:34 AM

Jason said...
This week's post reminds me of a conversation I've just been having on my own blog with someone who told me spiritual training is 'not about effort'. :) I disagreed and got this response:

But how much effort does it require to be yourself? It should require no effort. I think we only need to stop leaks of energy into illusion. That’s in an ideal world. But since society is so busy creating the illusion, I think we need to change society.

Uh-oh. :) Apparently the idea is that any 'work on oneself' is only spoiling the natural you... as Wilde put it: "Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone."

Perhaps I should have left it but I responded with thoughts on following methods passed down through generations, to attain selves and worldviews which aren't otherwise possible, trying for the best of what one's heritage can yield up. What response I'll get I don't know...

The exchange is at the bottom of this page:

Whose Empowerment?

... and the post itself will interest somehere since part of it demonstrates the use of the psychology of 'cults' to parse TV's 'thaumaturgical' techniques, and what to do about it etc.

2/2/12, 5:40 AM

DaShui said...
Greetings and salutations Archdruid Greer!

Isn't the idea of corporate organization really a type of machine? One using procedure, rules guidelines with minimal human (bureaucratic) autonomy. Not only business organizations but also modern government itself?

2/2/12, 6:21 AM

Stu from Rutherford said...
This makes it easy to insist that steps like these are the appropriate response to the coming of peak oil, since the people doing the insisting don’t have to follow through on the insistence; it’s all somebody else’s job.

It took me so long to see this in my own life - years and years, and enormous energy expended.

Oddly enough, I do not remember any author hammering at this in those days (pre-2006). This observation of yours by itself makes your entire oeuvre worth reading.

2/2/12, 6:27 AM

Yupped said...
Lovely theme, thanks. These days I’m spending about half my time working manually in the home, and the other half working as a contractor on various IT projects in the healthcare industry. It is giving me good perspective on the amount of wasted effort that goes into playing around with machines. I’ve just finished the morning chores: feeding the chickens, fetching stove wood, spreading ashes and compost on the garden beds and generally getting ready for spring. No machines, all muscle. Relaxing for my mind (not much thinking required), good for my health and creative in various ways. Plus I’m hungry and deserving of breakfast, which is always good. What’s not to like?

Later I’ll head off into an office somewhere and try to nudge a computer project forward. I’ll sit in meetings, write documents, draw fantastic pictures on whiteboards and fiddle around with my phone. In about six months some sort of counting system will be produced and we’ll all move on to the next assignment. It’s supposed to be an efficient and progressive way to spend my time, but it feels hopelessly inefficient, conceptual and unproductive. The whole office is one big machine, and I feel a sort of captive in it. My main challenge is keeping a straight face and pretending to take it all seriously.

So give me manual work any day. This double life will need to continue, though, as long as we continue to need cash. But a large amount of the earned cash is then used to feed the machines that remain in our lives. Hmmm.

2/2/12, 6:51 AM

Urban Roman said...
Further strengthening the faith in machines (and thereby prolonging the agony), the world of electronics has continued to follow Moore's Law, and get smaller, more complex, and more energy efficient, for about four decades now.

There's this popular notion that, because there are iGadgets, we can invent something that will create food, water, and energy. Indeed, a belief in magic.

2/2/12, 7:26 AM

DW said...
@ Barath: brilliant!

Try this one on...

A student came to his Master after many frustrating years in the world spent trying to perfect his meditative states.

Student: Master, how do I quiet my mind?

Master: Bring it to me, and I'll show you.

The student woke up.



My poetry --


2/2/12, 8:11 AM

nick the gardener said...
As ever a great essay. Good to stress the difference between I-it and I-thou relationships. But before machines came into the world, we had slavery and feudal systems, and I-it relationships were very common between the powerful and the masses. And machines have to some extent allowed more I-thou relationships. The question is whether as the machine age passes with the decline of fossil fuels, whether we return to slavery and feudal systems or other rigid hierarchies, or progress to a new state of I-thou relationships.

2/2/12, 8:28 AM

escapefromwisconsin said...
I'm sure many readers here might be familiar with the article that appeared in The New York Times a while back that profiled a Waldorf school in the heart of Silicon Valley where many children of the priviliged high-tech caste went. The school forbids the use of computers:

LOS ALTOS, Calif. — The chief technology officer of eBay sends his children to a nine-classroom school here. So do employees of Silicon Valley giants like Google, Apple, Yahoo and Hewlett-Packard.

But the school’s chief teaching tools are anything but high-tech: pens and paper, knitting needles and, occasionally, mud. Not a computer to be found. No screens at all. They are not allowed in the classroom, and the school even frowns on their use at home.

Schools nationwide have rushed to supply their classrooms with computers, and many policy makers say it is foolish to do otherwise. But the contrarian point of view can be found at the epicenter of the tech economy, where some parents and educators have a message: computers and schools don’t mix.

A Silicon Valley School That Doesn’t Compute

In other words, Silicon Valley is peddling computers in every classroom as a miracle cure for the world's educational system, but when it comes to their own kids, computers are banned in favor of developing their own potential. Quite telling, isn't it? Is the push for computers really about improving education or opening new markets? I'm reminded of Thomas Friedman's columns that assert that a cure to poverty is to get a laptop into the hands of even the poorest Indian villager:

In a country where 75 percent of the people live on less than $2 a day, that’s a big question. It is why, one year ago, India’s Human Resources Development Ministry put out a very specific proposal that Kalra and his technology institute decided to take up, when no one else would: Could someone design and make a stripped-down iPad-like, Internet-enabled, wirelessly connected tablet that the poorest Indian family, saving about $2.50 a month for a year, could afford if the government subsidized the rest? Specifically, could they make a simple tablet usable for distance learning, teaching English and math or just tracking commodity prices for under $50, including the manufacturer’s profit?

Forget sanitation, running water and organic agriculture, hand them all an iPad. This column is a useful corrective to this type of thinking, so common among elites today.

Am I also reading in this a subtle condemnation of Facebook and similar "social networking" tools? With all the news of Facebook's IPO today, get ready for a bubble that will make the shale gas bubble pale in comparison.

P.S. Last year, a popular book on the art of memory was published: Moonwalking With Einstein.

2/2/12, 8:38 AM

Repent said...
Excellent post today, one of your very best!

I bought your book Apocalypse not today, as I have bought all your books. I think what I really need though is a book for farming techniques. Yes, I carefully read all the green wizardry articles, but a physical book to refer to will be important again once computers and the internet have gone the way of the dinosaurs.

As I've mentioned in previous replies on your site, I'm 3 generations removed from farming myself. I work in trucking; my father was a warehouseman, my grandfather a salesperson and a milkman. I have no idea how to farm!

Some distant descendent of mine might end up using humanmanure to fertilize his crops, but this is too over the top for my lifetime. I have two brown thumbs and I don't have a clue where to start with gardening.

A gardening book as your next publication would be nice.

2/2/12, 9:25 AM

Jason Heppenstall said...
Power exerted through a machine is defined purely by I-It relationships ... but it also tends to define the indirect relation of person to person when a machine is the medium.

I often think this when it seems that people in powerful cars, such as BMWs, Audis etc, seem to want to kill me when I'm cycling on the same bit of road as them. As a matter of fact I tend to steer clear of these cars whenever possible. I sometimes wonder whether having several hundred horsepower underneath your right foot might make you act in a psychotic manner when confronted with something that is relatively powerless (i.e. a cyclist).

In fact, JMG, I'd love to hear your take on something. It seems to me that there is a kind of pulsating anger in young, and not so young, men - expressed through everything from aggressive driving with loud hip hop blaring out of the windows to confrontational attitudes and violent looking dogs and tattoos.

Is this just an expression of frustrated powerlessness or something more sinister? I reckon it has been building throughout my entire life (I'm 40).

2/2/12, 9:31 AM

Kieran O'Neill said...
Thank-you! An excellent post, as always, and echoing some thoughts I have been having on human physical potential while starting wushu classes over the past month.

As for mental memorisation and computational systems; I think they would be extremely useful, but eventually they do bump up against certain limits of human cognition (e.g. the ability to hold more than 7+-2 items in short-term memory at once). Some simple low-tech augmentations (pen, paper, nomograms, etc) are still likely to be useful to essential for certain tasks.

But the other day, while browsing some old folk tales, it occurred to me that another class of human has need of a strong memorisation system -- the storyteller (or bard). Stories travel far more compactly in the mind than in books (although I wonder whether some salvaged ultra-low energy, low-end digital tech might not be useful in that situation).

2/2/12, 9:38 AM

Robo said...
Many modern machines encourage the illusion of an I-Thou relationship with the user through the integration of microcomputers into their operation. Whether it’s an internet-connected washing machine, the talking GPS in the car or faux conversations with Siri on the smart phone, we are encouraged to think of these devices as intelligent entities.

Nothing new here. We’ve been addressing ships as ‘she’ for thousands of years. There must be some innate human need to personify our stuff. Modern computers can be so convincing that it’s easier than ever to forget about the underlying machinery.

Our attachment to these ‘smart’ objects is surprisingly tenuous because it is the devices themselves that do most of the work. The energy invested in the human-machine relationship comes mostly from hidden external sources rather than from deep within us. When the outside energy goes away or the device breaks down, we are left holding an empty shell with no intrinsic value.

In the future we’ll still be assigning personality traits to our favorite tools, polished by intimate contact with our bodies though the long work days. The hand-worn scythe or hammer is lovingly passed from generation to generation, while the well-thumbed iPhone is thoughtlessly discarded within a year or two.

2/2/12, 10:10 AM

Rich_P said...
This column is a useful corrective to this type of thinking, so common among elites today.

Exactly, escapefromwisconsin, and if only everyone in the U.S. had a college degree, we'd all have middle class lifestyles! Now where's my column in the NYT? :)

And since you brought up the Facebook IPO: though I'm no financier, it seems that social media companies are part of the latest bubble being blown by the Eastern banks, chief beneficiaries of the Fed's "easy money" programs, which give them significant leeway to speculate in pixie dust and fairy fart ventures like Facebook. Bubble or not, shale gas can at least be burned to perform useful work or create N fertilizer. Genuinely useful stuff, that.


RE the numerous dependencies that underpin industrial civilization: a major in the Australian Army wrote a paper that examines the costs and benefits of complex weaponry. Though extremely powerful, modern weapons require a complex supply chain to remain operational; should it fail, the weapon is useless, along with any military doctrine that depends on it functioning. To illustrate this point, the major compares the prereqs of a spear and a modern assault rifle.

2/2/12, 10:12 AM

Twilight said...
First, I loved “inconveniently squishy bipedal machines”!

The concept that the power of machines over man would be absolute and final closely parallels that of “Big Brother” type political regimes that Orwell and others wrote about. Indeed these were based on using machines as instruments of power, and organizing people as they were parts of machines. The error in those narratives is failing to understand that the power of resource limitations trumps that of machines, and of political systems.

Similarly there are many political writers and thinkers who I have a great respect for and who have brought to light many excellent insights, but rarely do they recognize resource limitations and the role they will play in providing hard limits to power. Ultimately this make their analysis rather one-sided and flawed. Further, I've noticed that some of that group is apparently becoming depressed and/or panicked at the state of affairs in our world today – without understanding resource limitations they wrongly assume we're entering the end game where the authoritarian “machine” will assume final permanent control, when the opposite is really happening. Instead it's the beginning of the end of it as the energy and materials required to support it fail.

Unfortunately, rather than this being a moment of glory, there are far too many humans than can be supported without the machines and energy that drives them, and with far too few skills in surviving without them. Which is of course part of what this blog is about.

2/2/12, 10:25 AM

Blackbird said...
Your post is timely. Today, I was talking to a colleague who mentioned that he was lost without his iPhone. He keeps an online calendar that has all his appointments in it. He confessed that he no longer bothers to try and remember appointments as he now has a machine for that.

The whole conversation gave me pause. I do not have a cell phone, let alone an iPhone. I have little difficulty in remembering my appointments and I still know all the phone numbers I need to know by memory. Those that I don't remember (people I don't contact very often), I can refer to my address book. Oh, and I don't think I am anything special in that.

It seems that we, as a society, are moving away from exercising certain parts of our mind.


2/2/12, 11:50 AM

DW said...
@ Ruben:

Here's a link to the Kirkpatrick Sale "Rebels Against the Future" book/review on CultureChange-

Seems to line up very well with today's ADR.


2/2/12, 12:29 PM

Karen said...
I was just listening to "Talk of the Nation" on National Puplic Radio and they were discussing the loss of manufacturing jobs in the U.S. The expert guests were discussing how dependent on technology manufacturing had become, and how even if we produced things in the U.S. again, many of the old jobs would be replaced by machines. Therefore, not nearly as many jobs would be created as we would hope, and those jobs would require advanced technical training. But hey, the machines will increase production and that is what keeps us all from being miserable subsistence farmers. So all will be well. Then, a most telling moment came when a listener called in saying he worked with metal as a blacksmith, and had more business than he could handle and maybe that was a good type of work/training for the future. Disappointingly, the commenters were condescendinly dismissive. And so it goes. Sigh.

2/2/12, 1:13 PM

Playful Librarian said...
Sorry to beat the McLuhan drum again, JMG, but your comment, “the only way to relate to a machine is to compel and control it, and (not, please note, "or") to be compelled and controlled by it”, immediately recalls his statement, “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us”.

If we extend the metaphor McLuhan lays down elsewhere in the same book, Understanding Media—"Man becomes, as it were, the sex organs of the machine world, as the bee of the plant world, enabling it to fecundate and to evolve ever new forms. The machine world reciprocates man's love by expediting his wishes and desires, namely, in providing him with wealth"—then peak oil would be our hive collapse.

Your observation that resonates most for me from this post, however, is, “The more thoroughly an interaction between people is reshaped for machine processing, therefore, the more completely any potential for I-Thou relationship is filtered out of the interaction”. This is highlighted quite well by the medium you use to disseminate these thoughts, the Internet.

The Web can be a wonderful means of communication and distribution, depending on how it’s used. However, too many authors on the Web don’t write with a human audience in mind. Rather, they write to optimize how well a search engine picks up their scribblings—so much so that there is now an industrial field of study and experts who are paid to train others in this “art”.

Your post, for example, would fail their tests miserably. It is long. It is larded with metaphor and complex sentence structures. And its title would likely be mistaken by a search engine as being a story about the Costa Concordia wreck. But it is written for humans, and it is a delight to read. So, thanks for that.

2/2/12, 1:45 PM

juli said...
I am minded by this post of the short story by E.M. Forster, The Machine Stops.

I looked it up and was surprised (more than a bit!) to find it was published in 1909.

Prophetic, indeed??

Thanks to all who respond here and to JMG, the Archdruid himself. This is one of my favorite reads...there's no sanity like show(ing) sanity.

2/2/12, 2:59 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Barath, I hadn't encountered hacker koans before. Still, that's a very good koan.

Jeffrey, I've read that many Muslims in the Arab world have the Quran memorized, word for word. It's not actually that hard; it's simply that in the industrial world, we're terrified of using our own capacities.

Joel, no argument there. That's also something people can do right now, of course.

Jordy, that's a complex issue, but only because the current obsession with gold is part and parcel of a much broader field of dysfunction in which possessing (and being possessed by) symbols of material wealth has metastasized while most other realms of human experience have shriveled. I may post about that one of these days.

Ruben, let 'em scream. I found Sale's book well worth reading, for what it's worth.

Magifungi, I hope you enjoy them!

Trimorph, you're quite right, of course; I'll correct the post as time permits.

Alexander, that's basically the point that Mumford made in The Myth of the Machine. Still, I think it's more important just at this moment to notice the way that our technology flattens out our relationships to fit the I-It model, since so many people think of technology in such a wildly uncritical and sentimental way.

Jusbuc, nah, social anxiety can be found in eras where the sort of technologies we have now weren't even imagined yet. It's simply that we've got technologies that cater to social anxiety now.

John, don't think that I haven't noted, and savored, the same irony! I wonder why that rancher didn't consider a bloodhound...

Lucid, I've had very similar concerns. It seems to me that for a lot of reasons, the children of the privileged classes in the US and other industrial nations -- and yes, that includes the middle class -- are being raised, trained, and conditioned to flail helplessly and die in the world that their parents' actions are busy creating for them.

2/2/12, 3:16 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Leo, my sense is that the failure of the internet will take place via price rationing and slow creep -- that is to say, costs of access will go up, quality of service for the masses will go down, emails will become a little less reliable every year, until finally people start to bail out in a big way. Once that process begins in earnest, I'll be assessing the possibilities for a print newsletter or a column in a larger magazine, and yes, arrangements will be made to get it to overseas readers. As for myths -- well, myths are born, not made; what stories, right now, make most sense to you?

Thijs, pen and paper are a good deal less dysfunctional than their current high-tech equivalents, and require more human capacity to use -- as I'm sure you noted as you wrote your comment. The irony is that the Art of Memory is remarkably easy to use; a little daily practice, and it quickly becomes second nature.

Tuba, you can always smile and point out that a machine doesn't give milk, as goats do, or keep your body fit and healthy, as a nice couple of hours of work with a shovel surely will. I lift weights in the winter just to get the bursts of intensive exercise that gardening gives in spring and fall.

Brent, bingo. The entire social structure of industrial employment is defined by the I-It relationship, and predicated on reducing the employee to a machine.

Ando, it's always a good time to read Schumacher!

Gregorach, of course Hero's aeolipile wasn't a practical steam engine; the principles it demonstrates, though, could easily enough have been worked up into economically viable technologies given an interest in doing so. As for slavery, that existed in Britain and the US at the time of the industrial revolution; as I see it, it's because fossil fuels produce so much more of an energy return on investment than slaves do that the one triumphed over the other.

Mister R., exactly. I've been doing a lot of reading on the American Civil War in recent months -- given that the last time the US was so bitterly polarized was in the years right before Fort Sumter, it seemed like a useful thing to do -- and the physical resilience and the range of practical skills possessed by your average infantryman of either side make today's young men look remarkably weak and clueless.

Don, that's not a challenge I'd risk. Crows are mighty smart; I'd give even odds that their descendants will be the intelligent species that replaces us. (It's them or raccoons, take your pick.)

Jason, as I see it, spirituality isn't about "being yourself", especially when "yourself" usually consists of a mishmash of mental automatisms and assorted scrap picked up all anyhow from popular culture and stuck together at random into some semblance of a personality. Spirituality is a relationship, and thus -- like all relationships worth having -- hard work. Still, your friend's in the majority, not least in insisting that society has to change so that he doesn't have to.

2/2/12, 3:39 PM

Jamie McMillin said...
One concern I have about losing machines and returning to human labor is the inevitable rise of slavery. Of course, we have slavery now, but it will get even worse as the most powerful run out of machines to do their work. I'm no historian, but it seems as if an awful lot of our ancient agrarian ancestors, from every culture, practiced slavery.

2/2/12, 3:45 PM

Andy Brown said...
A tool is meant to extend our capabilities. That is a very human thing. The machine as you describe it replaces human capabilities. That can a de-humanizing thing, especially when we become submersed in such a world.

2/2/12, 3:55 PM

mistah charley, ph.d. said...
Even as I speak, in several European countries approximately half of the young people aged 18-24 are unemployed. This unemployed human energy could be turned to mischief - OR to something constructive and developmental. But it probably should be something you don't need an iPhone to do.

2/2/12, 4:00 PM

John Michael Greer said...
DaShui, again, that's Mumford's point -- you might find The Myth of the Machine worth a read.

Stu, I don't recall seeing anybody hammering on this, either, but it badly needs to be hammered. "These are the demonstrations of Los, & the blows of my mighty hammer!"

Yupped, that's a good point and a fascinating one. Just how efficient is the industrial system these days, really? It occurs to me that its massive inefficiencies may have been covered over by immense wastage of energy.

Urban, my understanding is that Moore's Law is breaking down, and that Moore himself has said that it no longer applies.

Nick, an I-Thou relationship can still be unequal, even abusive, and an I-It relationship can be constructive. Feudalism is based on unequal I-Thou relationships; it's one of the blind spots of the contemporary left that it insists on mapping today's I-It human relationships back onto the past. More on this later.

Escape, I certainly saw that, and a blistering little piece in Asia Times Online along the same lines. Remember that the cult of progress is a missionary religion, and the delusion of giving iPads to the global poor makes more sense -- it's exactly the same logic as giving Bibles to people who are starving to death.

Repent, there are dozens of good books on organic gardening; as a complete beginner, you might find Mel Bartholomew's Square Foot Gardening especially well suited to your needs. No need to wait for me to get around to a book on the subject!

Jason, yes, there's a lot of anger in young men these days, and -- at least to my mind -- a lot of forces driving it. I'll have to mull that one over.

Kieran, the art of memory uses the visual memory to break through the 7 +/- 2 barrier using a variety of simple coding systems. Still, of course there are tools that can be added to a trained mind to make a lot of practical tasks easier -- the slide rule comes to mind.

Robo, excellent. The point I'd make is that machines that fake an I-Thou relationship still have no inner lives of their own -- their appearance of an inner life is either projected by the user, or faked by the builders -- and so there's no "Thou" there. That's why they're so seductive -- you can make the imaginary "Thou" into whatever you want it to be.

Rich, yes, I've read it. We'll be talking about that, and a lot more of the same kind, when the upcoming sequence on the decline and fall of the American empire strays, as it has to, into the military dimension, and the prospects for war in the post-American era.

2/2/12, 4:03 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Twilight, excellent; you get tonight's gold star for keeping an eye on the essentials. Nobody, but nobody, wants to talk about limits. Barath, one of the regular commenters here, has a very solid blog post on the prospects for computer technology in the deindustrial age, and mentions in that post that computer scientists seem incapable of fitting the concept of limits into their mental frameworks. They need to figure out how to do that, and soon.

Blackbird, bingo. We've actually gotten to the point that having a mind that doesn't do much is very nearly a badge of pride in industrial society.

Karen, that sounds like National Public Radio, all right. Middle class values have no place for the blacksmith -- he doesn't provide the middle class with a torrent of cheap consumer goods, so who cares about him? Gah.

Librarian, that's quite true. The fascinating thing, to me, is that a blog that consistently flouts every one of the rules for how you're supposed to attract attention has become one of the most widely read blogs on the peak oil internet, and is rapidly getting readers beyond it. I'd suggest that a blog optimized for search engines isn't optimized for human beings, and it's the latter who are my target audience!

Juli, "The Machine Stops" is one of my favorite SF stories, not least because Forster nailed nearly all the problems with internet culture most of a century before the internet. I'd encourage everybody who reads this to post a link to that story someplace very prominent, and enjoy the donnybrook that follows. ;-)

Jamie, slavery on any kind of large scale is primarily a function of societies with certain kinds of agricultural export economy. (That's why it was economically successful in the American South, and a total failure in the American North and Midwest.) I don't think it's anything close to inevitable, on any scale larger than we've got it today. More on this in a future post.

Andy, good. A nice clear distinction.

Mistah C., the current European leadership is busy making exactly the same mistakes that made fascism inevitable in Europe between the wars, and the immense unemployment of young people is a crucial part of that. Those who do not remember their history are condemned to be herded into camps by it...

2/2/12, 4:17 PM

aiki said...
One aspect of our mechanized societies that is vastly overlooked is the access and preservation of information and knowledge. As a professional librarian, I have tried to bring up this issue for the past seven years, but most librarians are simply incapable of understanding the implications of a post-peak oil world for libraries and information systems.

We face a tremendous crisis in the access to and preservation of knowledge once the computers are deprived their hydrocarbon blood.

See my working paper:

"Externalities of the Digital Library"

2/2/12, 5:00 PM

Urban Roman said...

What I was saying about Moore is that his law has worked for an astonishing four decades, and that we can now carry in a pocket enough computing power to have an inane conversation with an insect-like intelligence that is internet-connected.

I agree that we are probably at "peak Moore", along with a lot of other peaks. It's interesting how the peaks are somewhat synchronized.

But the point I was trying to make is that this electronic capability gives much stronger support to the notion of "progress" than for example, in automotive technology, where progress is barely noticeable over the same time period.

2/2/12, 5:26 PM

Justin said...
Here is a thought about anger.

People frequently talk about their emotions as though other people or things make them feel something. I-it.

Emotions are entirely self contained within the individual and are a choice in our cognitive response. We make ourselves feel or not feel emotion as part of our cognitive interpretation of the environment.

People do not say, "I am making myself angry." They project the source of their emotional response to something external as the cause of their anger. Something is said to make them angry. I-it.

To believe that it is only ourselves who can make our selfs' angry and also believe that external stimuli can make us angry is only possible if we believe we are interconnected at a very intimate level, the emotional response.

Whether one or the other or both are true, that things make us angry or we make ourselves angry, the implication is the same. Whenever we get angry, we are also angry at ourselves.

That takes us into projections.

2/2/12, 5:41 PM

Larry said...
Enjoyed your post as usual. There was an interesting factoid buried in an article on Page B1 of Tuesdays Wall Street Journal.

"Shares of Exxon fell.... largely in reaction to lower than expected global production figures. Quarterly output fell 9% to 4.53 million barrels of oil equvalent per day mainly because of declining oil field productivity."

My own thought is that cars will start disappearing earlier than other items, given the significant annual cost of around $7,000 per vehicle. The internet, at say $1,000 per year (for broadband service, electricity and a portion of a computer cost)will be around longer. Medical, which I believe is running $8,000 per capita, would be reduced more gradually, as medical covers many different items. For example, this year's budget cuts in Chicago ($700 million) derives significantly from closing medical clinics which are mostly (I believe) mental health centers.

2/2/12, 5:54 PM

Jennifer D Riley said...
Peak Oil reminds me I'd like to see a geologic survey of the US (maybe an old atlas) and see what geology oil surveys are, ones that aren't tainted by Big Oil and their lobbyists. Comes to mind because I have an acquaintance who's a geologist who thinks there is more oil underground in shale.

Next, I'd like to see an audit of the US and what non2012 non corporate, nonlobbyist-influenced resources we have.

Finally, I'm reminded I need to get outside and camp in a tent, just to do it and experience it. The organic farm course is going well; last night the instructor commented he doesn't think rhubarb will grow well because the summer is too hot. Info filed away. We discussed soils briefly. Georgeson B is supposed to be wonderful for farming, as are all Bs.

2/2/12, 6:02 PM

My donkey said...
The way things are going, I doubt that Western society will pay serious attention to anything but a crisis or a catastrophe. One way to simulate such an event is to implement regional rolling blackouts like the ones that occur daily in various countries around the world. Naturally, Joe Citizen will complain and protest, so the trick is to present it as a sort of beneficial inoculation -- a powerful vaccine that will build your "survivor skills" and better prepare you to meet the challenges of a post-carbon future.

Repeated blackouts of a few hours duration would help to get the populace thinking about energy conservation and self-sufficiency. However, the most instructive power outages would be those that lasted beyond the time your local supermarket shelves emptied and your local gas/diesel supplies ran out (2 or 3 days). When there's no electricity to run lights, appliances, and motors for your furnace & water pump, and there's no more fuel for emergency generators, and no trucks are bringing food & water and other necessities... what happens then?

I almost learned the answer to that question accidentally during the Northeast Blackout of August 2003, but luckily our village had its power restored on the third day. If lengthy rolling blackouts were implemented as part of government policy, bookstores would soon be awash with titles such as "How to Survive a Permanent Blackout!", and talk show hosts would be promoting them as something useful to read by candlelight on cold winter nights.

2/2/12, 6:30 PM

latheChuck said...
In the post-Internet future, The Archdruid .-. . .--. --- .-. - will be -.. .. ... - .-. .. -... ..- - . -.. by -- --- .-. ... . code on short-wave .-. .- .-- .. --- .

The posts will probably be shorter.

2/2/12, 6:32 PM

Richard Larson said...
Some time ago I came to the conclusion the very descriptive writings in Revelations did refer to a repeated event.

Humans found - or were lead to if you prefer - the land of milk and honey. Because of what seemed like an unlimited amount of resources, human populations grew beyond the carrying capacity of the land. Of course, at the same time, milk and honey became in short supply.

Shortly thereafter all manner of pestilence arrived including The Four Horsemen!

Amd here we go again...

2/2/12, 6:55 PM

John Wheeler said...
@Jordy If you want to do some real peak-oil arbitrage, invest in aluminum and stainless steel. Granted, it might take a few generations to pay off, but in the pre-industrial age, they were rarer than gold.

2/2/12, 8:11 PM

Brian said...
I wonder if Brad Pitt reads your blog. :)

2/2/12, 8:31 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Aiki, excellent. Yes, this is an issue that I a few other people have also been trying to raise for a while now, and getting almost no response. Many thanks for the paper -- that's a useful resource.

Urban, fair enough. Thanks for the clarification.

Justin, good! Jung used to say that the best way to figure out what one's own worst habits are is to notice the things that one can't stand in others.

Larry, is your figure for the internet factoring in the cost to maintain a share in all those server farms, and the rest of the internet's infrastructure?

Jennifer, of course there's oil in shale. It's just that it takes a great deal of energy to extract it -- enough that you can only get a very modest amount and still have a positive figure for net energy. By all means do some tent camping, BTW -- it's a useful way to learn just how little shelter you actually need.

Donkey, okay, but how do you propose to make that happen?

Chuck, I was figuring on packet radio instead -- much faster, and easier to turn into a print version. One of the things I want to do when I have the time and resources to set up a station is to experiment with HF packet radio over continental distances.

Richard, hmm! An intriguing interpretation. I'm reminded of Sallust's useful definition: "Myths are things that never happened and always are."

Brian, er, I don't suppose it will surprise you if I say I have no idea who Brad Pitt is. I gather he's some sort of media figure.

2/2/12, 8:47 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Also, I'd like again to thank everyone who's put tips in the tip jar -- I'm not sure if you're contributing to the delinquency of an archdruid, or simply to the future solar greenhouse thereof, but it's much appreciated!

In other news, I should have an announcement in the fairly near future about the short story anthology -- yes, that's still in the works -- and another about a book on magic and peak oil. Stand by for good news...

2/2/12, 8:49 PM

Morrigan said...
I've read "Square Foot Gardening" and the premise is that row-type farming was set up for being worked by tractors and other machines that didn't "corner" too well. SFG is set up for he who farms by hand though not necessarily a small plot. The author also talks about watering from a bucket with a dipper when the seedlings are still small so you can just dribble a little on them as needed, as opposed to wastefully soaking the ground around them.

I had occasion today to consider buying a new farm that's within walking distance of huge amounts of shopping. If I end up there, I will miss seeing the stars at night with all the light pollution, and so, I grieve. I hoped and expected to live out in the country, and letting go of that dream raises all kinds of things I'd rather not contemplate tonight.

But on the plus side, living so close to neighbors and shopping will enable me to stay there longer and more securely into my old say nothing of a deer dearth, and plenty of organic veg customers right across the road in that subdivision.

I have to separate my ego ("this farm doesn't fit my image of myself") and my heart's desire ("I draw humility and peace from the brilliant starlit sky 40 miles from the city."). It's a wrenching process. I've always been known to be brave when it's time to pick up the sword and shield; the question is whether I'm strong enough to stop fighting, lay them down, and surrender Peacefully.

2/2/12, 9:38 PM

John Graham said...
JMG, congratulations on not knowing who Brad Pitt is. My goodness, no wonder you can think so well if you're that far out of touch :)

I like an interpretation of 666 I got via Emil Bock's book on 'The Apocalypse' written in, I think, the 1950's.
If you think in base 7, then 666 is the number just before the clock ticks over to 1000... and 1000 is the end. 666 is the rush, panic, pressure of everything having to be attended to right now because the world is at stake. It can be seen today in the pace of the digital age as well as, ironically, the millenial end-of-the-world fever.

666 is the opposite of patience. And then here we are back in 1 Corinthians 13: Love is patient.

Hmmm I wonder if you have any thoughts on patience vs passivity?

2/3/12, 12:32 AM

Leo said...
the stories that most make sense are the old scandinavian ones and their modern derivatives + the descendants of pulp fiction alive today. the ones that deal with the religification and eventual collapse of technology especially.
But i was wondering if you had any other sources of myths and stories to form the foundation of those of tommorow such as old folk tales.
also what is meant poverty in the voluntary poverty phrase, i always thought poveerty was being without adequate Heating/cooling or lack of basic services like food, but with involuntary poverty it sounds like you can have quite a high standard of living in respect to adequate food, a comfortable house and live in relative comfort compared to what i always thought of poverty.

2/3/12, 2:45 AM

phil harris said...
There is a lot to digest this week; your post plus comments and links. The future fate of knowledge consigned to the digital age? Ouch! (Thanks Librarian for the link.)
In the meantime, we have discredited knowledge (e.g. climate change denial) and I dread to think what happens when the tools to do much scientific enquiry (e.g. 'look-down' satellites for atmospheric science) become too expensive or are prioritized entirely for the military. Without the tools to repeat and understand scientific work, what passes as 'knowledge' will become even more the currency of convenience or dogma? It is still interesting though to examine counter-factual dogmas that propagate even now when we still have both the tools and knowledge to correct them. Is this the big myth being born? A version of 'Burn the Books' anticipated back in the better days of SF? Is privileged modern life so contradictory and intolerable that already it is spawning a counter revolutionary attack on the notion of sharable enquiry? Or, as I think you JMG suggest, this is a privileged but unequal society who that cannot look at what the numbers suggest is staring them in the face? Unemployed 'educated' youth in 'advanced countries' (what a contradiction)!
Oh dear; it looks to me that die-hard 'educated' discussion concluded (US public radio discussion as reported above) that a blacksmith cannot be middle-class and so cannot possibly be recommended for the future.
Back in the day in industrializing England, artisan clubs, and their shared newsletters and libraries, were proud carriers of learning and knowledge-based debate and could build the tools of enquiry.

2/3/12, 4:28 AM

phil harris said...
PS to my recent comment:
It was "Aiki" who provided the link to his paper on libraries / digital age / post peak oil.


2/3/12, 5:13 AM

Lance Michael Foster said...

"A machine is therefore defined as an arrangement that enables us to do work more easily. It is a device that enables us to save our energy and do work which ordinarily we could not do. The purpose of using a machine is to do work more conveniently. ...So what is the difference between a tool and a machine. Is a knife a tool or a machine? The teacher should now try to explain. A tool is also a device which enables us to do certain kinds of jobs more easily. To remove a nail from a piece of wood, we can use a claw hammer. Scientifically, both tools and machines enable us to do work more easily so we could then say that a tool is also a machine. Indeed, it is the principle on which a device operates that makes it a machine. Here the teacher will introduce the term mechanical advantage. This term shows the relationship between a load and the force applied.
...[see site for diagram here]. It is the practice that whenever we use a machine, the effort/force applied is usually less than the load. The implication of that is that the force ratio above should always be greater than 1 in a good machine. Then it is said that there is mechanical advantage in using the device. ...The general definition of a machine as energy saving device should be adopted and applied."

"The general definition of a machine as energy saving device should be adopted and applied. The definition of technology as the response to a need to do our work more conveniently and more efficiently should be underscored."

Sensu stricto: A bicycle is a machine. A hammer is a tool. Both are technological devices.

2/3/12, 5:56 AM

Maria said...
It occurs to me that a hallmark of certain personality disorders is the inability to recognize that other human beings have an inner life -- or at least, any that the disordered person need concern himself with. Any reminder that another person has an inner life and needs of his own is met with anger and frustration at best and abuse at worst.

Reading your essay this week, I am feeling more confident in my choice to make my living as a creative person rather than a "species of office fauna." It seems to me that as things keep changing throughout my life, strong "creative muscles" will serve me well in making the choices I'll need to make.

I've sold a few pieces of my jewelry made from reclaimed and repurposed parts. My percentage of reclaimed material to new material isn't as high as I'd like yet(it's a work in progress)and the tens of dollars I've made have gone straight back into the business, but it's a start.

2/3/12, 6:30 AM

August Johnson said...
JMG – As someone who was heavily into Packet Radio back in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, I wouldn't recommend packet for HF communications unless you require packet for some specific reason. Packet works great for short range VHF/UHF communications, but has problems dealing with the kinds of interference present on a noisy HF signal.

There are many modes that are more suitable for HF digital communication nowadays, and almost all have programs available for free. All you need is a simple interface between your computer sound card and an SSB transceiver. Most will run on quite old computers, too.

I should put a write-up on this on the Green Wizards site and provide a link. I’ll be happy to answer any questions that anybody writes with. In the next year it turns out I’ll be re-locating (for family reasons) from Auburn, AL to a small town on a rail line in Northern CA and will be able to get back on HF full-time. Then I’ll be able to offer on-air assistance to those who want to try their hand at HF communications.

73 de KG7BZ

2/3/12, 6:34 AM

Source_Dweller said...
Greetings Archdruid and fellow readers,
As ever the ADR and commentary is always anticipated and appreciatively read and studied here in my tiny studio north of the border. These last two posts dive into the centre of the current Western world predicament, and reward the reader with a broad, deep and sublime river of thoughts, a veritable St. Lawrence of ideas, and via the internet!
Ironically (or is it an example of Godell's theorem at work)ADR is the rare exception to the rule it describes. Still, the "flattening" of communication persists somewhat, though perhaps no more than if the essay were read from paper.
It is not any particular machine or technology per se that is at fault in our present predicament, it is the social paradigm surrounding the use...the ingrained and unconscious and mistaken attitudes too many of still carry, and live with.
Some comments have noted how the machine paradigm extends to the contemporary organization where an individual may come to feel as no more than a replaceable cog in a wheel. JMG, you assure us that this too will pass.
On a related note, your recent comment noted the progress of the science fiction anthology, response to last fall's challenge here on the ADR.
I have to laugh at my own folly in titling my story "The Wonderful Machine"! I trust that the editors are not too overworked and can get past the title to the sketch of a future society reverent of nature and humanity. This seems to be the only possible direction our species can go from here. And they do have some machines in the future, but not many.

Fond regards, Robert

2/3/12, 7:09 AM

Glenn said...
Brad Pitt,

JMG, unless you're pulling our collective leg, as you did with the Kardashians (I had to look the Kardashians up myself), he's a current Hollywood movie actor with purported good looks.

As far as I can tell his claim to fame was marrying Angelina Jolie.

Her claim to fame seems to be playing the part of Lara Croft; casting seeming to be based on her physical resemblence in face and figure (Mammalian secondary sexual characteristics) to aforementioned Lara.

Lara Croft is a CGI animated figure in some kind of violent computer game (she carries what appears to be a pair of .45 automatic pistols {see previous paren for obvious source of bad jokes}) clearly drawn with the tastes of adolescent North American males in mind. I attribute it to weaning them too early and excessive marketing...

Marrowstone Island

2/3/12, 7:22 AM

escapefromwisconsin said...
Serendipity. In today's New York Times most emailed list - Is GPS All in Our Heads?:

IT’S a question that probably every driver with a Garmin navigation device on her dashboard has asked herself at least once: What did we ever do before GPS? How did people find their way around, especially in places they’d never been before?

Like most questions asked in our tech-dependent era, these underestimate the power of the human mind. It is surprisingly good at developing “mental maps” of an area, a skill new research shows can grow stronger with use. The question is, with disuse — say, by relying on a GPS device — can we lose the skill, too?


If maps help us, what is the problem with GPS? A lot: in my opinion, it is likely that the more we rely on technology to find our way, the less we build up our cognitive maps. Unlike a city map, a GPS device normally provides bare-bones route information, without the spatial context of the whole area. We see the way from A to Z, but we don’t see the landmarks along the way. Developing a cognitive map from this reduced information is a bit like trying to get an entire musical piece from a few notes.

Our brains act economically: they try to decrease the amount of information to be stored (e.g., by relating new thoughts to already known content) and avoid storing unnecessary information. That may be the unconscious appeal of a GPS, but it means we’re not pushing our brains to work harder.

And a GPS device may even contradict your mental map by telling you to go left (e.g., for a faster highway) while your target is actually to the right. All of this leads us to use our mental maps even less.

Regarding Europe - no less a 'conventional' authority than Paul Krugman has made the exact same argument. It appears that Hungary has already started down the Fascism road.

P.S. Species that replaces us - my bet is on squirrels.

2/3/12, 7:58 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Morrigan, Square Foot Gardening has considerably more to say than that -- it's aimed at the beginning organic gardener and offers a useful way around most of the common pitfalls. As for your decision, may you make the right choice, whatever that turns out to be.

John, that's fascinating! I'll have to read Bock. As for patience vs. passivity, the Latin verb patior means "to suffer" and also "to allow": for example, "suffer the little children to come unto me." The practice of patience requires a strong and well-disciplined will, which can choose to suffer and to allow for good reason, where passivity is the absence of will.

Leo, poverty is a relative term, and what counts for stark poverty in the US would be a decent standard of living in much of the global South. Read it as "you're going to be getting by on much less than you think you need." As for myths, the source I have in mind is within.

Phil, we need equivalents of those artisan clubs again, precisely to get past the inability of a privileged, unequal society to allow itself to notice what's staring it in the face.

Maria, that's quite true. It would be interesting to explore what kinds of personality disorders are fostered and rewarded by different societies.

August, you should indeed! Remember that my actual ham radio experience dates from the 1970s, when I got my license as part of a Boy Scout club; while I went out and got relicensed again a couple of years ago, I'm still putting together the money (and the spare time!) to assemble a station and get back on the air, so a lot of my knowledge is theoretical only.

Dweller, I've always appreciated the version of Godel's theorem I found on a philosophy humor website a while back: "In every logical system there is at least one theorem that will be misunderstood by popularizers." ;-)

Glenn, thanks for the clarification! With any luck I'll never need any of that information again.

Escape, I see squirrels as the evolutionary forebears of the neoprimates who will spread across the jungles of North America and Eurasia in the far future, and give rise eventually to the intelligent species that'll replace the descendants of raccoons and/or crows. Deep time gives plenty of opportunity for many evolutionary lines to have a shot at sentience, literacy, urbanization, and, er, Brad Pitt.

2/3/12, 8:22 AM

DW said...

I found that GPS article too.

Being one who still watches some sports on TV (gotta have something to talk about at the water-cooler), I couldn't help but think of the AllState commercial where "mayhem" shows up in the form of a mal-functioning GPS unit. I'm sure AllState was focused on the message of "use us, so you can crash your car and everything's fine"...but the other side is there too and it makes a nice metaphor: watch out for the mayhem that comes from following a machine instead of your own senses...if you have any left.

It's like the old lawyer joke. Who are you going to believe? Me? Or your own damn lying eyes?

The commercial --


2/3/12, 8:57 AM

DW said...
@ Larry: I tend to agree that cars will continue to disappear long before iPhones and the Interwebs. I think you are already seeing this wherever its possible or necessary to get by without one. Given a set amount of income, the 20-30 somethings I see are choosing to trade-up in terms of food/booze and gadgets/web-devices, and down in terms of clothes, living situations, and autos. When you cut out a car and live 4 people to a one-bedroom apartment, even on close to min. wage there's still money for iPhones, boozing, and a bit of least in Portland. Not saying this lasts forever, just that the fallout may be lumpy and the distribution uneven among the masses.

@JMG on slavery: would you see the factory slavery in SE Asia and China as a representation of agricultural-type exporting? It seems humans are used more for those labor-intensive jobs machines can't do (even with artificially cheap energy); and that now takes the form of polishing iPad cases moreso than picking cotton. Some may even argue that being a slave in the 1800s is a better existence than what a factory-worker gets in India/China. Not sure where I come out there...both are reprehensible...yet endemic to the cancerous societies of the times.

2/3/12, 9:11 AM

EchosRevenge said...
Great post! My partner just wrote on similar subject matter - "technology vs. human ingenuity" at I spend a lot of time struggling with the second instance of impediment every time I talk to certain people who are otherwise really intelligent and on tip for climate change, etc - there's just a block there when it comes to conceptualizing limits. I've noticed that the more someone's livelihood depends on high technology, the less able to conceive of limits and an "end to technology" they are.

@Brian - did you catch Brad Pitt on the Daily Show a few nights ago? (JMG, he's been well explained by others - I'd add that he gets a good deal of greenwashing street-cred for single-handedly propping up the economy of New Orleans through a misguided but good-natured sense of social justice.) I saw a bit of it by chance and managed to catch the very, very obvious topic-swerve he did. The interviewer asked him a question about the Oscars or something, and instead of answering he did a very obvious "hey, we're gonna talk about the environment now" and launched into a three-minute diatribe on the stupidity of cars and the inanity of fossil fuel gobbling in general. It was one of the more heartening things I've seen from a celebrity in years.

@Leo - check out SM Stirling's book "Dies the Fire" for someone's very...interesting take on what happens to popular mythology/culture when the electronics stop working and Finnish sagas start to get conflated with The Lord of The Rings after a few generations of being recited side-by-side round the dinner fire. One of the bits of bookshelf I'd be most loath to part with is the several high-quality, bound-to-last collections of folk tales and myths from around the world. If you can find it, W.B. Yeats' "Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry" is one of my favorites in print, and the recordings of folk tales from around the world done by Jim Weiss are absolutely phenomenal - anyone who ever expects to read or tell a bedtime story should learn from his tale-weaving skills, he's truly gifted.

- Echo
September's Virtue: Realism for a World of Consequences

2/3/12, 11:19 AM

Parl said...
I'm a little confused why you think that we are nearing exhausting the earth's supply of abundant cheap energy.

I believe there's enough uranium in current nuclear waste piles to supply abundant cheap energy for hundreds of years at least, if used as fuel for fast reactors.

Do you think this is not true, or do you think it is true but have some reason to think it won't be used?

2/3/12, 11:35 AM

My donkey said...
"Donkey, okay, but how do you propose to make that happen?"

By making it government policy, perhaps in the same way that seat belt legislation was introduced.

2/3/12, 12:22 PM

Ozark Chinquapin said...
Rhubarb likes cool summers, but I grow it here in the hot, humid summers of Southern Missouri in a spot that gets afternoon shade. There's an elm tree to the west that overhangs the patch, so it's in the shade before noon in the summer. The rhubarb comes up before the elm leafs out, so it gets close to full sun in the early spring when it's still cooler. I also make sure to keep them watered enough in the heat. The plants never look as good as they do up north, and some summers I've lost a plant or two in the heat, but they still are well worth growing here, if you like rhubarb. Last summer was one of the hottest on record, with one day getting to 112 degrees, but I didn't lose any rhubarb plants.

I don't know your location so can't say if it would work for you, but many plants that grow best in the full sun in cooler climates will do better with some afternoon shade in hotter ones.

I just wish that seed catalogs, nurseries, and such would pay even half as much attention to heat tolerance in plants as they do to cold tolerance. Heat stress manifests very differently than cold damage, but it's just as important to those of us dealing with hot summers. There is actually a heat zone map, which like the winter hardiness zones is far from perfect, but it would at least be a start if it were used more. Especially with climate change happening, more of us will need to pay more attention to heat resistance. Even most of the "heat loving" garden plants lose vigor and have more problems in the kind of heat we had last summer.

2/3/12, 3:05 PM

DW said...
In the realm of Office Fauna happenings - just received this message:

In an effort to conserve energy, ----- has disabled the compressor that chills the water in the drinking fountains on each floor of the ---- buildings. The fountains continue to work, but the water is no longer cold.

No mention of if/when they'll actually require folks to turn off computers and workstation lights each night...or carpool...but hey, it's a start ;) !!

First bump of the Long Descent...

2/3/12, 3:24 PM

Morrigan said...
JMG and Repent, yes, I knew Square Foot Gardening has a great deal more to it that I mentioned. I received a copy as a gift years ago and immediately got it dirty. It's been in a moving box for four years as the deer here eat everything we dare to grow. I shouldn't have attempted to cite it when I was more engaged on the farm decision.

Thanks for the good wishes about the farm.

2/3/12, 4:18 PM

latheChuck said...
Regarding "what's the best way to distribute ADR without the Internet", I agree with August that there are now better schemes than packet radio, as long as you have even an old PC to send and receive with. But that's the rub. With manually generated Morse code, we'd have minimal reliance on fragile technology: LCD screens, rotating disk memory, and so on. The transistor-based electronics of radio equipment should last "forever" (unless struck by lightning), especially if designed for survival (vs. size, weight, ease of operation, and cost). On the other hand, modern modulation modes can get a message across with much less transmitted power. Stealing a few watts from the transmitter to run a netbook computer is a worthwhile tradeoff... as long as it keeps working.

Not only that, but using the Internet to send ascii-representations of Morse Code symbols is just my way of being *** ** *-** *-** -*--

--*** ***-- -** *- -*** ***-- -* *-

2/3/12, 5:02 PM

JacGolf said...
Gregorarch, I think you have exposed one of the dirty secrets of the crisis we face. While we do indeed rely/depend on machines to do our work, the obvious drop in slavery (in the western world) with the rise of the machine is no coincidence. There will always be those who look to have others or machines do their bidding. It will be interesting as the machine begins to die off and the only energy source we are left with (humans) goes back to becoming a commodity. Though I can see the argument that the average worker who gets up early, leaves his or her family behind, goes to 'the job' and spends in excess of 40% of her time (65-80% of the awake hours) 'working for a paycheck' which is then spent on basic necessities has been doing this since the beginning of the IR.

One other comment I have often wondered, but been unable to formulate until now, who made and created the machines? Man (woman). Then how is it that we, who have created these as tools to help, feel that they are our savior and that humans are fallible? If we are fallible, then anything we create should be MORE fallible. I believe, after reading this blog for the past year, that religion and 'ism's' have done a wee bit of magic on us and forced us to believe this. As with the slave, it is their job to make the human feel less than human. Scary.

Thank you to the community for helping us think.

2/3/12, 5:40 PM

Brian said...
I am slightly surprised since he is probably one of the most famous actors in the world, but I suppose you probably don't make it to the theater very often.

Anyway, I'm sure he doesn't read your blog, and I'm sure he doesn't have the same views, but I did find it interesting that he feels that way about the automobile. Is this the sign that peak oil is going mainstream? I mentioned it in class a few times this week when I was disagreeing with instructors and actually had a few youngsters chime in with me. I was pleasantly surprised.

2/3/12, 6:03 PM

Ceworthe said...
I think that as well as the recovery of the ability to memorize (i.e. exercising the brain) we will also (myself included) need to exercise our bodies in order to be able to do the manual work required to use human powered machines/tools. Else we may be deselected that way.

2/3/12, 7:32 PM

Diane said...
the website Dissident Voice has this article today Saturday 4 2

Will Peak Oil Spell the End of Capitalism?
by Stuart Jeanne Bramhall / February 3rd, 2012

It is a review of a book of essays Fleeing Vesuvius, has anyone read it. I was thinking of buying it, but just wanted to know whether it was worth it

2/3/12, 7:41 PM

The Croatoan 117 said...
"the physical resilience and the range of practical skills possessed by your average infantryman of either side make today's young men look remarkably weak and clueless."
I think the overall toughness of earlier generations extened even beyond the average infantryman of the time. One of my favorite generals was Williams Carter Wickham. He was a member of the Virginia aristocracy and very much a member of the 1 percenters of his day. When the War of Northern Agression;)(I'm giving away my regional heritage here)began he joined the Virginia Cavalry and rose to the rank of Brigadier General (granted social status had a lot to do with attaining rank at that time.) He fought in almost every major campaign of the eastern theater and was wounded twice. One wound was a severe saber wound. You don't get wounded by an enemy sword if you are directing the battle from some hill top looking through binoculars. While the cause for which he was defending was not the just cause, he did have the conviction to defend it with his life. I find that highly respectable. I may have missed it but I don't recall seeing any news stories about the CEO of Shell Oil kicking in doors in Falluja in'04. It seems that the status quo of previous eras had a far greater sense of honor and duty than what we see today. I'm not saying they were always right but at least they had the conviction to stand for what they believed.

2/3/12, 7:51 PM

Cherokee Organics said...
Hi John,

I hear you man! Sigh, I've come across people who have a sort of perverted pride in not knowing how to dig a hole or cook from scratch.

It's all old school here, and you've inspired me to include an article down the track in my continuing series on food forests about how to go about doing things with basic tools. Still, the people who should read it probably aren't going to be the ones that actually do read it. Oh well.

It's amazing how few tools you need to actually achieve big things. People have been fooled into accepting too much intensity, speed and low quality. It's like the old engineers saying: Fast, good, cheap - pick any two. You see this problem right across the board - even right through our food chain too. It is one of the main reasons I spend time producing (and learning how to produce) my own food.

As an interesting side note, on Christmas day, we copped the edge of a tornado which ripped through the area. 60mm (2.36 inches) of rain in about half an hour. There was a lot of lightning and one strike was very close to the house. I think the internet yagi antenna picked up a bit of the charge by induction which went straight down into my 3G modem.

It was sort of like a dry run of what an intermittent and slow Internet could potentially be like for the past month. Took me straight back to the old days of bulletin boards and 28k modems... Now sorted though, but I had to purchase a new modem which leads me to:

Interestingly too, having no services here (think water, sewerage, garbage, gas, landline, electricity) and having to provide them all myself, you quickly begin to realise how vulnerable you can be to just one aspect of a break down in any one single service. I wonder about this with the broader society. The veneer of long supply lines and infrastructure is a thin one indeed.

PS: Hope you enjoyed your travels. I looked up the definition of the word delinquent (just to be sure) and settled on the following definition, "conduct that is out of accord with accepted behaviour or the law". I'll settle on that if it's not being too cheeky! hehe!

PPS: Brad Pitt acted in the film "Fight Club" in the role of provocateur. There have been a few references to the book from time to time in this blog, but the film is also well worth taking the time to watch. Truly, the likes of it would not be filmed now in the US.

PPPS: The wwoofer shed is coming along very well except the afternoons here are too hot. Still, lots of strawberries are being produced now although they are a thirsty crop - about the same as tomatoes (there are about 50 plants of heritage varieties growing here) no ripe fruit yet though.



2/3/12, 11:31 PM

Cherokee Organics said...
Hi Morrigan,

Row type farming is actually pretty old school. You farm vegetables in rows so that when you are walking up and down the paths adjacent to the rows you don't compact the soil. I find the denser, compost based soil in vegetable beds is far more prone to compaction than the more mulch based soil in the orchard.

Where it has gone really wrong in agriculture is when the rows are mono cultures (or close to) and people think this is normal. If for example, you were a cabbage moth and you just happened to fly down into a row of cabbages (or other brassica plants) then it would be party time. If that row had been a diverse poly culture then the moth would have had difficulties obtaining the same amount of food.

In addition to this, different plants have different requirements from the soil and a mono culture will quickly strip mine soil of that plants particular requirements. Think more in terms like a hedge row.

Hi Jennifer,

Good luck with your course. I hope they spend some time on soil as it is the single most important thing in organic agriculture, next to diversity of course.

Hi Ozark,

My two rhubarb plants died this year over the summer heat. I love rhubarb too. On an interesting side note, I once had a Jack Russell dog who ate an entire rhubarb plant - leaves and all - and didn't skip a beat. Seriously, I thought that would be it for him.



2/4/12, 12:09 AM

Cherokee Organics said...
Hi August,

Most people up this way tend to support UHF CB's which are line of sight unless there is a repeater about.

Yet, in my younger days I used to run an AM CB (27MHz) with SSB (upper and lower side band) and remember that when conditions were just right, SSB could skip a signal right off the ionosphere to all sorts of wierd and wonderful locations.

I wanted your professional opinion, because I came across an signal amplifier for AM SSB to take a 10 to 12 watt signal to around 200 watts and thought that this might be an interesting bit of kit. I understand that there may be regulatory issues around the amplifier because of it's power output, but theoretically speaking would it be as good as a ham radio? It also has a pre-amp for the receiving side too.



2/4/12, 12:17 AM

Cherokee Organics said...
Hi John,

This weeks topic was explored (pulp fiction style) at length in the book by Jack Vance - Wyst:Alastor 1716.

I hope you someday get the chance to read this outstanding piece of fiction. He did cover a lot of ground.



2/4/12, 12:41 AM

Matt said...

Fleeing Vesuvius is available online almost in its entirety, at I believe the publishers have been progressively adding chapters to the site since the book was published. The book covers a LOT of ground, from a diverse array of authors.

2/4/12, 3:01 AM

Unknown said...
Antichrist - it's not any particular person - Christ's life is detailed in the bible, an antichrist is somebody who is the opposite of Jesus - doesn't perform miracles, isn't extroverted, and doesn't give of himself (doesn't help), i.e, is selfish. I agree with the interpretation of revelation as the fall of the roman empire - with feuding groups attacking each other instead of helping each other.

2/4/12, 4:13 AM

hadashi said...
regarding the book Fleeing Vesuvius, I see that Dmitry Orlov wrote a couple of chapters for it. He describes it at his site in the post
I have also heard the editor interviewed in a podcast somewhere.

2/4/12, 5:05 AM

Joshua said...
Have you considered offering "10 Principles for the Age of Decline" or something similar to help people navigate this period?

2/4/12, 6:14 AM

August Johnson said...
latheChuck - I absolutely agree that the method of communication that will last the longest is Morse Code. We'll end up there, but we might as well make use of whatever we can on the way down. There will be lots of computers that will be sitting around that will be useful to assist communications on the way.

I'm going to try to put together a summary of different mode of communication used on HAM Radio, starting with CW, all the way to those like PSK31 and the like. I'll avoid the more complex digital modes that don't really have much advantage for basic communication but will probably include some of the simpler types of picture transmission.

Simple software running on what will eventually be an old netbook will sure help maintain communication as we (and our descendents) work our ways back to a network of CW stations. There was once a very good network of such stations for delivering messages worldwide, there are still some that are keeping this tradition alive. It would be to our advantage to learn from those who are still living! When I get back on HF in the next year, I intend to learn about CW traffic handling.

Anybody remember the column called "New Directions Radio" in The Mother Earth News in the 1970's and 1980's? It was written by Copthorne Macdonald, the inventor of the SSTV mode (Slow Scan TV). The first decent form of picture transmission for HAM Radio.

--... ...--
-.. .. -.- --. --... -... --..

2/4/12, 6:34 AM

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...
Hi JMG and greetings to all,

Late to the party as usual, but it does give me a chance to read all of these most interesting comments--

Last week, coincidentally--or not--I found a copy of Buber's I and Thou at the bottom of a large paper sack of books someone had bequeathed me. So I'm now reading it as supplementary material.

Re "The Machine Stops" and no computers in the classroom--when I first read it as a child who spent much of her time out of doors, I felt so sorry for those people tethered to their machines and imagining they were living. It has long been a touchstone.

Next week I'm holding a workshop where schoolteachers can meet local naturalists and hear about the immeasurably great value for children of spending time in nature--I think you really have to know where you live (in an ecosystem sense) before you can live there with fewer machines, so this is part of my effort to help my community move into that future.

2/4/12, 9:14 AM

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...
@Cherokee Organics

Hi Chris, can you please re-post the link to your food forest series?

Also, here in Illinois, the snow drops are up and blooming a month early! Our days are getting longer--are yours getting shorter? I'm trying to grasp this whole opposite hemisphere thing on a visceral rather than abstract level.


2/4/12, 9:21 AM

Nathan said...

Just curious what book(s) you are referring to that discuss the "physical resilience and the range of practical skills possessed by your average infantryman of"? I remember reading about Washington's infantry in the Revolutionary War and how they were marching throughout winter without proper shoes, coats or rations yet still had the courage to cross a freezing cold Delaware in the middle of night and win the biggest upset of the War. Amazing stuff that gives you glimpses of what the average person in the future will consider within reach...

2/4/12, 9:24 AM

Don Stewart said...
Some of you might enjoy the 'homesteading' article in the current Mother Earth News. They interview some prominent homesteaders and ask them some very good questions. Many of which are applicable to anyone--not just homesteaders.

For example:
Q. What has been the most rewarding part of self-sufficient living?
A. We live in a technological age and have the notion that every problem has a technological solution. In the process, we've lost the experience of magic in our daily lives. Self-sufficient living allows us to experience magic daily, and it's wonderful: the magic of germination, decomposition, the cycling year, the relationship between soil and plants, the diversity of birds and insects and how they do this great wheeling, complex dance. Natural processes transform in magical ways.

Don Stewart

2/4/12, 11:57 AM

DeAnander said...
I have an uneasy feeling that some kind of dialogue about slavery should be part of the peak oil conversation; as was pointed out here, the main historical reason that slavery became obsolete (aside from moral objections) was that the EROEI (or "arbitrage," thank you JMG for that earlier article which I'm still ruminating) for fossil fuels and machines was so much more advantageous. I think the morality-based campaigns were relevant -- and heroic -- and influenced the timetable; but I suspect that they would not have succeeded if the result had been a guaranteed decline in standard of living for the comfortable middle class.

Given a culture-wide energy shortfall, and a fairly large privileged class deeply attached to a lifestyle of excess and luxury, what could be more obvious than re-instituting slavery?

Now, call me paranoid/cynical, but are there not some straws in that wind blowing by us even now? the enactment and enforcement by neolib/neocon governments of ever-more-draconian laws criminalising more and more citizens (and depriving them of full citizenship); the relentless nibbling away at constitutional protections, habeas corpus, posse comitatus and the like... ever-expanding definitions of "terrorist" and "security" and "enemy of the state" -- are we really all that far from modest proposals to use the absurdly large population of prison labour as a substitute for expensive fossil fuel? [Already one lawmaker in California has proposed that prisoners be charged per diem for their "accommodations." The proposal failed, but it shows which way certain people's thoughts are heading.]

And will the moral outrage of the liberal class (the "conscience of society" as it likes to think of itself) be any more effective against the re-institutionalisation of slave labour than it has been against the stripmining of the biosphere, immiseration of peasants worldwide, ubiquitisation of toxicity, etc? If the deployment of slave labour in China doesn't dissuade people from buying iPads, would the deployment of slave labour w/in N America dissuade people from, say, driving on roads maintained by chain gangs?

We (most of us) don't mind buying veg and fruit that are tended and harvested by wage-slave labourers exposed to all kinds of nasty chemicals; would it trouble us (most of us) that much more if they were literal slaves? And suppose they were prisoners, wouldn't a lot of people feel better about it knowing that Those Bad People "deserved" to be punished anyway?

This seems to me the disturbing shadow side to the argument that the sunset of cheap fossil fuel means a return to realising the value of human energy and potential; we can "realise" that potential in the sense of becoming aware of, and able to use, the full range of our own skill, strength, and power -- or we can "realise" it in the market/commerce sense, as in arbitrage and exploitation based on the energy and potential of other human beings redirected to serve ourselves.

I do worry about this. I would be interested (and reassured) if someone could offer a convincing reason why history would not "rewind" as fossil energy gets more expensive, at the point where the EROEI of slaves starts to look 'better' to the beancounters than that of oil. Please, tell me that corvee labour, chain gangs, debt-slavery, debtors' prison, the workhouse, etc. are not in our future as other sources of energy get more and more expensive and our most abundant energy resource is humans. As I quipped (in Grook mode) during the runup to Iraq II

world oil reserves are running dry,
but of foolish young men we have ample supply;
therefore we conclude it is no great matter,
in securing the former, to squander the latter.

2/4/12, 12:11 PM

August Johnson said...
Chris – Yes, 11Meters (CB) and the 10 Meter Ham band are really wonderful during the peak of the sunspot cycle! I remember the craze during the 1980’s peak to convert 27Mhz CBs to 10 Meters by swapping a few crystals. You could talk all over the world on a few watts.

Those amplifiers meant for CB also work on the 10 Meter HAM band. Here in the US, it’s now illegal to sell commercial amplifiers for the 10 Meter band as they were also being used illegally on CB, however it’s fine to build your own. I’m always suspicious of the ones “sold” for CB as they seem to be thrown together by someone who just doesn’t have that much electronics knowledge. I’ve seen some that look like they were built by a monkey with only one arm and work as well, too. If it’s well built, it should work fine.

I think those of us who are interested in HAM radio should start talking on greenwizards, maybe we’d bring more people out of the woodwork.

2/4/12, 1:18 PM

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...
Jennifer, Ozark and Cherokee---

My two cents on rhubarb, which I grow, too:

In my experience, it likes a deep, rich soil, as in when planting new roots, dig down two feet and lay in some composted manure. Then add in a compost/soil mix until you can plant the crowns at the right level (two inches below the surface). Then cover with more soil/compost mix. It should be top dressed with composted manure in fall and let to grow three years before you harvest it to eat. And here in Illinois, I agree that some afternoon shade is beneficial.

Rich soil and afternoon shade definitely helps it survive heat.

Where were we? Oh, yes, discussing learning to reduce our reliance on fossil-fuel-powered machines... :-)

2/4/12, 2:49 PM

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...
Thanks, JMG and August and LatheChuck and all who have an interest in ham radio, for your discussion.

We seem agreed that radiotelegraphy (CW) is the technology of the long-term future, when it becomes necessary to home-brew all rigs, and when not only the Internet but computer repair shops and computer spare-parts retailers are gone.

For the short and medium term (the next couple of decades), I for my part feel that we hams do well to cultivate both CW and the computer-intensive radio modes. My guess is that over that period, some kind of computer retailing will continue, at least at the junk-and-salvage level.

Taking some advice from Ontario nuclear-catastrophes-survivalist Bruce Beach (;
VE3UAL), I have checked out the computer mode PSK31. It turns out that Bruce gets a pretty clean 80-metres PSK31 signal into the ICOM 756-PRO II which we have at the University of Toronto, even though he uses a mere "Warbler" radiating something like 5 watts, and costing a mere one or two hundred dollars.

It would be interesting to see how the ever-so-easily-used PSK31 stacks up against packet ham radio, in which I have no experience. Perhaps packet will still work intercontinentally on, say, 30 metres or 20 metres, just as PSK31 does, provided one is patient? Packet, unlike PSK31, does incorporate sophisticated error-correction, with the receiver supposed to do something like send an "ACK" packet back to the transmitter. This may help overcome the corruption-miseries inherent in intercontinental shortwave.

Anyone wanting to experiment on PSK31, in which thanks to Bruce and others I now have some modest relevant experience, or on packet (for which I have access to hardware but lack experience), might want to contact me as
Toomas dot Karmo at gmail dot com.

Anyone needing to ponder ham radio generally could ask me via that same e-mail address for a copy of my general capabilities-and-plans ham-radio writeup (an essay of around 1500 or 2000 words, formatted in plain text, i.e., in "flat ASCII").


Toomas (Tom) Karmo
www dot metascientia dot com

73 de VA3KMZ
(i.e., in CW:

2/4/12, 3:12 PM

Glenn said...

There were a great many periods and countries in the European Middle Ages with _relative_ freedom. That is to say, the peasants were free, owned their own land, and paid taxes in kind and in service to their lord. There were also periods and places where peasants were serfs; slaves attached to the land and owned outright (land and people) by the lords.

France was pretty bad (by our standards) and England, by contrast, pretty good in this respect.

My point is, that in pre-industrial societies, actual slavery is optional. In any case, as described by JMG, most people in pre-industrial cultures work with their hands for a living; he has described both Edo Japan, and Renaissance Italy in these regards. I.E. 80% involved in food production/processing, 10% in artisans and crafts and the remaining 10% Military, aristocracy and church (of whatever stripe). As a note, in classical Greece 90% of the population were slaves or equivalant, and of the remaining 10%, women had zero value except for breeding.

Marrowstone Island

2/4/12, 3:37 PM

siddrudge said...
It's interesting that some commenters here have brought up Fleeing Vesuvius. While I haven't read the book yet, I have to confess that I've often thought of JMG as a modern day Pliny The Elder making careful observations of our collapsing society.

Of course if I remember my history correctly, Pliny, while trying to rescue some Pompeians, ended up perishing in the disaster.

But I apologize JMG-- you probably wouldn't appreciate being compared to Pliny. After all, he dropped a dime on the Druids didn't he?


2/4/12, 6:20 PM

das monde said...
JMG, your last few essays are a calm pleasure to read. People will have the worst of both world for some time: breaking machines and distorted human skills. Is the set of social rules a machinery as well? My street walking experience got more frustrating recently: is it because people don't learn basic crowd walking aptitude, or because I moved to a bigger city?

I wonder though about the social-economic shift in the 80s, basically in the middle of this cheap energy orgy. Since the 1930s we had, some say one way or the other, some state-build social machineries to keep the economic and social classes running, both in the West and the "Commie lands" and almost anywhere else. By now those social machineries are quite dismantles, though ironically, it took more time and funnier political moves in the West. What happened? Are the social machineries being dismantled and catabolized preemptively, or were they replaced by even more effective free market machineries?

The memorization art is not quite lost in this civilization. There is a brand of memory competitions were card decks, binary sequences and what not are memorized, record of pi digit recollection are beaten. MY cousin is taking part there, and there is more than one book written.

2/4/12, 6:26 PM

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...
I offer a slab of sci-fi:

In this enlightened era, in the Year of Grace 2184, machines are less trusted than scrutinized. The railway, like much other still-unavoidable machinery, is now tamed by technician guilds.

Guildpersons formally forswear competition. They formally forswear financial influence from outside capitalists, even as the old Debian GNU/Linux programmers forswore it back in the Year of Grace 2012. And they make it a point of honour to master, as far as in them lies, their science.

It is a dull February afternoon in 2184 when young Malcolm McTavish boards the Ocean Limited at Truro, Nova Scotia.

The Ocean Limited of 2184! - a solid four-carriage affair, pulled from the Halifax Ocean Terminal through Truro, Moncton, Campbellton, Miramichi, Riviere-du-Loup, and Charny to Montreal's ancient Gare Centrale in 36 hours, at speeds sometimes attaining 40 km/h, by Sterling engines harbouring hot blue biomass-evaporate jets.

The Ocean Limited of 2184! - a machine keeping no secret from its guild designers-owners-engineers, from those thirty free Nova Scotian men and women who calculated its specs with their own slide rules, who drew its every part with their own nibs.

Those Nova Scotian engineers had, admittedly, handed their formal shop drawings off to a cooperative of (similarly free) metallurgists near Boston. And those metallurgists had, admittedly, sailed their parts to a Halifax millwright-and-fitter guild under contract with a cooperative of (similarly free) Gloucester schoonermasters.

Malcolm, Truro's sole boarding passenger, is as serious as any young physicist. He aspires to membership in the newly formed Canada Guild of Radio. He cannot hope to build, or even to service, CW transceivers under guild supervision until he is certified in the Maxwell equations and in appropriate ancillary mathematics - in ODEs, in multivariate calculus up to Gauss-Green-Stokes, in tensor methods sufficient for 1905 Special Relativity.

Small wonder, then, that Malcolm's railway carpetbag is now well stuffed with papers for five days of McGill University examinations in downtown Montreal.

The strangest of the old Fossil Fuel Era machines was the university, operated as a business corporation, warehousing the young with useless programmes in things like "Media Studies". And - this was the greatest evil of all - the Fossil Fuel university destroyed the natural relation of affectionate trust, the relation meant from all Eternity to bind student and teacher, by perversely decreeing that students would be examined (would get "marked", like lumber) at the hands of the very people entrusted with teaching them.

Now, with the Fossil Fuel Era over, it is understood that, so far as undergraduate work is concerned, universities are mere undergraduate examining boards.

The real work of teaching has in Malcolm's case been done with a private mathematical coach in Truro and three laboratory-renting Halifax physics consultants. These specialists have staked a part of their joint pedagogical reputation on Malcolm's impending performance at the celebrated new McGill Radio Physics Examining-Certifying Board, and Malcolm has reason to believe his own preparations solid.

Now, finally, the Ocean Limited flexes all muscles. With Belmont, Debert, Londonderry Station now past, the tough little train opens its throttles, widens its hot-cold reservoir-temperatures gap, revs its generator armatures, strains its DC-motor shafts to their maximum safe torque, and charges the harsh ascending grade of Wentworth Mountain that divides Truro from Moncton.

Under the rail-gripping flanges that apply the final traction lies, now as always, Sir Stanford Fleming's 1872 Intercolonial railbed.

With the daylight fading, Malcolm knows himself at one with New Scotland's brooding slopes; at one with the throbbing transport machinery; at one with currents, potentials, and free-space radiating dipoles; at one with Reality.

2/4/12, 7:35 PM

Cherokee Organics said...
Hi Adrian,

Hope your forest is growing well. It's been a dry, warm January here, although it looks as though the season has turned towards Autumn in the past week with cooler days. Growers around here are saying that the seasons have come early this year (about 2 weeks, I reckon). One of the earliest ever seasons.

The article can be found here:

Food Forests, Part 2: Looking for clues

Hope you enjoy the photos too, they tell an interesting story! I'm at location 1.

Hi August,

I remember the crystals. Really early on I had a 5 channel 27MHz AM CB and you had to choose which frequency you wanted to use by inserting the appropriate crystal. You had to buy them separately too! What band are you thinking of using when you get back on the HF?



2/4/12, 7:52 PM

Cherokee Organics said...
Hi all,

After a few years of reading this blog, you start to see recurring themes with comments. One of them is slavery, it raises it's head every couple of months.

Firstly, about slavery, it is alive and well and probably happening not too far from where you all live. We just happen to turn a blind eye to it. Think nail salons, brothels, fruit/vegetable picking, construction sites - and yes, I even read a couple of weeks ago that the powers that be in mining industry want to bring in labour from overseas on cheaper rates than the locals (I could be wrong on this). These were the same people opposing the mining super profit tax and who also toppled a Prime Minister (again, I could be wrong on this). Well done.

Secondly, slavery is really an extension of the myth of the machine. Someone, somewhere else can do the work and you won't have to worry about how it gets done.

Thirdly, slavery is not possible from an ecological perspective unless a society has unexploited reserves of top soil. Slave societies have generally arisen in areas that can support them. Presently, this is not the case as collectively our top soils are not in a good state of health and couldn't feed all of those mouths.

I really enjoyed George R R Martins most recent installment in his Ice and Fire series, but ecologically, he is way off the mark. It drove me bananas all those armies, all those slaves. How could you possibly feed them all? Still a ripping yarn.

Relax, stop worrying about being made a slave, as you'll probably starve first. Three weeks without food is probably about as much as you could take.



2/4/12, 8:06 PM

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...
JMG: oh yikes, sorry: I should have typed "Sir Sandford Fleming" earlier this evening, not "Sir Stanford Fleming". Very sorry. Railway writing is supposed to be accurate. You may or may not be able to take some kind of corrective action!


2/4/12, 8:45 PM

phil harris said...
Diane asked:
"It is a review of a book of essays Fleeing Vesuvius, has anyone read it. I was thinking of buying it, but just wanted to know whether it was worth it."

I have it in front of me, but its hard to say for someone else, having regard for money and priorities for study. A mixed bag: a lot of personal and idiosyncratic views, but Chris Vernon is good explaining the math of the "energy cliff" and "energy return on energy invested". David Korowicz does an excellent job on modern systems: "Maintaining and operating this global system requires a lot of energy and, because the fixed costs of operating it are high, it is only cost effective if it is operating at near full capacity." No doubt about their conviction we are living in the shadow of Vesuvius.


2/5/12, 3:02 AM

Urban Roman said...
It's interesting to go over to the ARRL web site and look y'all up. Chuck's callsign from Maryland, and August from Alabama.

If I get a license, I'll take may late Dad's old callsign, W9MKZ. Then I suppose there won't be any point in the silly nom-du-net.

2/5/12, 6:07 AM

Numenius said...
August -- that's a great idea to start a conversation about ham radio over at greenwizards. Who knows, maybe enough folks will emerge that it will be feasible to start a green wizards net over HF digital? Now's the time to start building up such communication networks to last into the post-internet era...

2/5/12, 8:46 AM

Jennifer D Riley said...
@JMG: thanks, tent camping, check. @Cherokee. Soil's importance noted in the course. Couple resources: or for low-bandwidth. Building Better Soils for Better Crops, available free on the website, obviously free updates.

College textbook: The Nature of Soils by Nyle Brady. Instructor states our farm incubator has Georgian B, and any soil surveyed and designated B in the name is excellent. GPS mapping and soil surveys are linked by now, and every state has a "Soil Systems in [insert state name]" Soil aside, one instructor stated "you can have soil, crops, market, but if you don't have water, you're finished." Water is essential. In the course, drip irrigation used extensively by large scale organic farmers with fish emulsion mixed in when needed. Small scale, I've made two pinholes in empty soda bottles and milk jugs, buried them under the straw mulch, near plants, and voila, instant drip irrigation. You can bury them right in the ground, but ground shifts and they might be squeezed. If you do bury, you can refill them with a long-necked funnel and your choice: garden hose, another larger container. Reduces water lost evaporation.

2/5/12, 8:57 AM

Iuval Clejan said...
Thanks for an excellent post elucidating the Luddite point of view, which I share. What do people think about a project that would bring together historians of technology, craftspeople (but not just artsy ones, ones that make basic necessities--e.g. blacksmiths, barrel-wrights, glassmakers, framing carpenters, shoemakers, etc), engineers, priests/magicians (people who engineer cultural events that edify and enhance I-thou relationships) and system theorists, in order to plan a village technology and economy for food, water, clothes, shelter, healthcare. The constraints would be locality of energy and materials (hence no fossil fuels or electricity in most places), edifying work for all, and time for developing self and I-thou relationships. It would be OK to use fossil fuels and high tech in order to achieve this goal, but once achieved it must be sustainable without these. Some might say that this is not something that can be planned, that it has to evolve. Evolution can take a very long time though.

Think of this as a Manhattan project with the goal of preserving our species and all that is good about our civilization, instead of building an atom bomb. The motivation for the project is not just peak oil--it is to preserve our humanity also.

Some might not see the point because they think all you need to do is garden and have some energy conservation measures in your house. But gardening (and field farming and animal husbandry) require tools, and houses require tools and materials which currently are subsidized by petroleum and also encourage I-it relationships.
I wrote a rough draft proposal (and I hope to get funding for it) that I will post on my blog, and people could tell me if they would like to participate there.

2/5/12, 9:26 AM

Cathy McGuire said...
I’ve been so busy at greenwizardry tasks (new rabbits, rabbit hutch, obtaining the abandoned property next to me) that although I’ve been reading, didn’t have time to comment. However, this bit of reading I did last night pushed me to share.

Marie-Louis Von Franz, in her book, “C.G. Jung: His Myth in Our Time”, says that Arnold Toynbee (whom I haven’t read) described cultures along the same lines as Jung described individuation phases. I found her description of what he said amazingly appropriate for this discussion (whether it’s more her take or his take, I don’t know): “A majority of the cultures we know anything about today stand in the relation of a child to an earlier culture, in that the new culture successfully carries out or deals with a task or problem on which the earlier one came to grief…. The solution of the new problems is always first achieved by individuals and is then imitated by others. In this very fact lies the seed of the later downfall, because imitation always brings with it standardization and mechanization. An overvaluation of one’s own accomplishments and institutions begins to take place and this is accompanied by a mood of presumption or arrogance….In the stage of decline, division occurs, a cleave, as it were, in society and in the soul of the individual. Those in power are no longer creative and come to rely only on their power; the masses become an “inner proletariat”, that is a group of men and women who feel they have been denied their rightful place in society.

Her bio of Jung is drier than Barbara Hannah’s, but lots of good stuff in it. Anyway, thanks for the post and all the interesting comments!

2/5/12, 9:57 AM

Jennifer D Riley said...
Search Google on Web Soil Survey. I found my farm incubator by using tool bar at left. Under Soil Map, shows Chewada loam and then Georgeville silt loam. URL:

2/5/12, 10:00 AM

Cathy McGuire said...
@Cherokee Organics: Someone, somewhere else can do the work and you won't have to worry about how it gets done.

Excellently put! That is what I try to get across to friends, but they don’t want to hear it (because they know in their heart that it’s true). Also, your permaculture “tour” of sites around you, on your blog, was wonderful – I didn’t get a chance to comment earlier. But, for an American, can you explain what “shonky” means? :-)

2/5/12, 10:01 AM

August Johnson said...
Chris, Toomas, Lathechuck et al – I’ll make one last reply on this blog and then shift my Amateur Radio writing to greenwizards. Hopefully others will join in!

It was even easier to convert a CB to 10 Meters when the first generation of Crystal Synthesized CBs came out. Just swap the right crystals around, retune, and the rig was now on 10. No new parts needed. The later synthesized ones with a synthesizer chip usually could be modified by changing some jumpers and re-tuning.

Packet on HF is one of those things that sounds great in principle, but actually works quite poorly in practice. First, packet does not have any error-correction, it has error detection only. I’ll explain more in my writeup on the different digital modes. Suffice it to say, that on any channel with less than wire-line clean signals and lack of interference, throughput almost always drops to near zero. Packet works excellently on VHF or UHF FM radios for that reason. PSK31 may not have any error correction but it will almost always beat HF packet by a wide margin, and you can always switch to the QPSK variant and the forward error-correction will more than make up for the slower transmission speed. Slower but more robust, where have we heard that before?

Once I get re-located in far northern CA later this year I’ll be back on HF. I’ll be on bands from 80 Meters through 10 Meters. I’ll have a very simple long dipole antenna few with ladder line to a balanced tuner. It’ll work great on all the HF bands.

Anyone interested in Amateur Radio is always welcome to email me at augjohnson at

73 de KG7BZ
--… …--
-.. .
-.- --. --… -… --..

Yes, dah and dit sounds more like it but it’s easier to type -.

American Radio Relay League (ARRL)
Worldwide callsign lookup

2/5/12, 10:39 AM

Urban Roman said...
Dang it, I tried to embed a link to the ARRL website in that last message. Just ended up an empty link. Let's try this:, and
And then KG7BZ's links were bloggerized, maybe this time it will work.

Thanks for that qrz link, August, the ARRL site couldn't find the Canuckistanis.

Cathy, as long as there's the Internet, I look up slang words with the Urban Dictionary.

2/5/12, 1:23 PM

John Michael Greer said...
DW, an interesting point. I wonder if it's export-driven economics rather than plantation agriculture as such that makes slavery economical; in most other economies, it's not.

Echo, the stark inability to grasp the reality of limits is something that needs to be addressed. I may say something about it in this week's post.

Parl, and which "fast reactors" would those be? The ones nobody has gotten around to designing and building yet? Relying on vaporware to bail us out of a crisis that's already here is not exactly a useful approach, you know.

Donkey, then I suggest you get working on it. Yes, you personally, because nobody else is doing so...

DW, I'm reminded of the first little ripples of trouble in Forster's story "The Machine Stops."

Morrigan, it's an interesting question how soon the fact that deer are highly edible begins to suggest itself to families on budgets.

Chuck, as with so many issues surrounding technology, it's a matter of a staged retreat from unsustainable technology. There ought to be ways to keep some level of computer tech going for a while, if only by buying up obsolete PCs and stashing them in watertight bags in a dry basement; there were also mechanical ways to do some digital modes -- I'm thinking RTTY and Hellschreiber, though there are doubtless others -- which might be easier to maintain once the chip fab plants start shutting down; and of course CW is the fallback technology, the mode that you can use if all you've got is handmade gear pounded together out of parts from a junkyard.

Brian, I don't do a lot of visual media, no. Just not my thing, basically.

Ceworthe, no argument there. The exercise regimen of your choice is a good place to start.

Diane, haven't read it yet.

Croatoan, oh, no question. I'd simply been reading Bruce Catton's excellent history of Grant's campaigns in the Mississippi Valley, and noting just how much your ordinary Federal infantry private was expected to do, and to put up with, as a matter of course. Build a road by hand through umpty-dozen miles of semitropical snake-infested swamp, under fire from Confederate snipers the whole way, with only the occasional bowl of bean soup to keep you going and no place dry enough to lie down to sleep? No problem.

2/5/12, 3:30 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Cherokee, thanks for asking! I had a good time -- train travel is always a pleasure, and the workshop I taught went well. Good to hear you dodged that tornado. I'll definitely check out the Vance book!

Unknown, that seems reasonable enough. Still, I'm sure you've noticed how many people through history have tried to pin the Antichrist label on some specific person they didn't like.

Joshua, hmm. My immmediate thought is that something of that kind would be too abstract to be of any real use. Still, I'll consider it.

Adrian, that sounds like an excellent program! I hope the teachers aren't too fixated on teaching to the standardized tests to hear you.

Nathan, Grant Moves South by Bruce Catton was the book in question; Sherman's March by Burke Davis also has some great material. Mind you, the Confederate armies put up with even worse conditions, but I'm studying the war one army at a time -- the Army of the Tennessee being first on the list -- and haven't gotten to the Army of Northern Virginia, Lee's army, which accomplished military miracles with next to nothing in the way of supplies.

Don, thanks for the reference!

DeAnander, slavery is one of those enduring bugaboos that gets brought up every few months or so. Historically speaking, it exists on any sort of scale only when there's a large export market that can be supplied by unskilled and unwilling labor -- the American south before the Civil War, with its cotton monoculture, and the Roman latifundia producing grain for export, are classic examples. (Ancient Greece was the same way -- the export crops there were wine and olive oil.) In the deindustrial age, once transport breaks down due to cost and safety issues, slavery won't support itself any more than it did in the last set of dark ages. A thousand years from now, as global trade picks up again, things may be different, but I don't propose to worry about that too much right at the moment.

Tom, thanks for the details! This is a conversation I'd like to see continued -- yes, the green wizards forum might be a good place for that.

Glenn, nicely put. It interests me that slavery has such an obsessive quality to so many people these days; I wonder if that has any connection to the popularity of sadomasochism, with its tendency to roleplay slave-master relationships, on the American left these days.

Sidd, I've long suspected that the Gaulish Druids who told Pliny that tall tale about harvesting mistletoe with a golden sickle giggled about it for years afterwards. Mistletoe stems are tough as wire, and gold is a very soft metal that doesn't hold any kind of an edge -- the mistletoe would have been more likely to cut the gold!

2/5/12, 3:54 PM

Apple Jack Creek said...
Late to the board this week, but I just had to share this Calvin & Hobbes cartoon, which seems totally appropriate to the post:


2/5/12, 5:18 PM

Ozark Chinquapin said...
How long to wait before harvesting rhubarb? That's an interesting question that seem to have many different answers depending on who you ask. I did not plant the patch I have now, I inherited it and kept it going these past four years, but have no idea how old it is. However, I still remember the first rhubarb plants I started, when I was a child, in Minnesota, a pretty ideal climate for rhubarb. I started two plants from seed in pots indoors and transplanted them out to the small garden that I had, nothing added to the soil, just the lawn grasses that had been turned under. However, the soil was rich to start out. By that fall, the plants were as big as any of the neighbors' mature plants. The next spring, they were quite vigorous and I decided to harvest from them even though all the books said to wait st least another year, because the plants looked just like mature ones. The plants took it quite well and remained healthy. My personal opinion is that the overall size and vigor of the plants are more important indicators of when it's appropriate to start harvesting than age, some rhubarb plants in some conditions reach it a lot sooner than others.

2/5/12, 7:15 PM

Glenn said...
JMG said;

It interests me that slavery has such an obsessive quality to so many people these days;

I suspect it's a way to avoid discussing peak oil issues. My logic is roughly thus: "Slavery is bad." "If we don't have machines fueled by cheap energy, we will have to substitute slaves." "I don't want to consider bringing back the evils of slavery."

By this particular combination of dualistic logic and the straw man of slavery, the person can now avoid any serious discussion of how to live without cheap energy. The fact that we will all have to do so (live without cheap energy), is irrelevant so long as one can avoid discussing losing one's 20th or 21st century developed world middle class comforts and conveniences.

Marrowstone Island

2/5/12, 8:12 PM

Rita said...
In case anyone thinks that JMG is exagerating the energy needs of the internet I will refer to an article in the Sacramento Business Journal of 2/3/12. It reports that Sacramento is host to at least 10 server farms. The city is attractive to these enterprises because of proximity to the Bay Area, but with less threat from earthquakes, and cheap electricity. The article was primarily about the safeguards server farms use to prevent any interruption in their customers' services. These safeguards include diesel powered generators and banks of batteries. One of these farms was described as using as much electricity as a city of 40,000. The local AT&T facility keeps 96 hours worth of fuel on site for their generators. The article did not mention how much power the AT&T building used, but it is only one of many facilities in California alone. Since this part of California is not subject to hurricanes, blizzards, ice storms or other weather likely to cause power interruptions of more that four days AT&T is probably safe in their fule stockpiling, at least for now.

I have been thinking about different definitions of poverty. I suppose the absolute extreme would be to not know from one day to the next whether one would have enough food to maintain strength and health. In other words, if you start each day needing to earn. or beg enough to buy that day's food, or procure it in some other fashion such as dumpster diving, hunting or gathering. Additionally, to not know where one would be sleeping at the end of the day. Adam Smith spoke of not having the "decencies" expected in one's culture. For an English peasant in his time those included shirt and shoes. For a Scottish peasant, he noted shoes were necessary decencies for men but not for women. He added that if one does not have these decencies others will assume that bad character has contributed to one's situation. There is obviously a lot of distance between these extremes and the normal middle class lifestlye in America.

2/5/12, 9:08 PM

Diane said...
Thanks Phil and others.
I found an article by Nate Hagens one of the contributors, on the Oil Drum. Will have to think about it, I have a subjective bias to solutions based on evolutionary psychology. My bad perhaps

2/5/12, 9:38 PM

SophieGale said...
Slavery may be more pervasive now than in the age of the Victorian abolitionists. As many as 27 million people around the world may currently employed in forced labor. Chances are, you own things made with slave labor.

And yes, there is a modern abolitionist movement; it's online, it's spreading across college campus, and yes, you can download an ap to check the supply chain of everyday items you use.

2/5/12, 11:23 PM

Cathy McGuire said...
@Cherokee Organics: thanks for the link! That's a handy dictionary!!

There's a really interesting discussion that kicked up in the comments on a how-to for creating the old "California Cooler" ie: a partial replacement for refrigeration that's possible in some climates:

It totally brings up the gap between those who won't risk living outside the modern sterile, temperature-secured environment and those who will or do!

2/6/12, 6:15 AM

DaShui said...
FYI, I'm writing a screenplay called "Peak Oil Prophet" and Brad Pitt has expressed an interest in playing the Archdruid. However his beard is not as nice.

2/6/12, 11:34 AM

Ozark Chinquapin said...
I've heard that Sacramento could be hit by a Katrina-like flooding disaster, If a lot of warm rain fell on a heavy mountain snowpack the rivers could breach the levees that protect the city since the terrain is so flat and actually much of it is below the river levels. The fact that so many server farms are there makes me wonder what a disaster like that would do to the internet as a whole.

2/6/12, 5:31 PM

Ceworthe said...
Love the Calvin and Hobbes cartoon-exactly! Word verification duckfogy-an old duck?

2/6/12, 6:59 PM

Rich_P said...
@Ozark: Sacramento is built on a floodplain near the confluence of two rivers: the Sacramento and the American. The American is dammed at Folsom Dam just east of Sacramento. (There is also a smaller dam located downstream from Folsom to help regulate stream flow.) I was told by a hydrogeologist that the discharge data used to determine the dam's specifications are not representative of the flows on the American, i.e., the dam is underbuilt.

There are various functions used to calculate the probability of a given flow occurring during a given year ("100-year flood"), but all of them need a representative, long-term set of discharge data to produce meaningful probabilities. In the American West, you can sometimes get discharge data dating back to the late 1800's if you’re lucky. As you can imagine, using non-representative discharge values as the basis for water infrastructure design can be problematic. (An extreme example: using stream discharge data collected during a protracted drought to design a dam.) Urbanization generally leads to increased runoff during storms, and when Folsom Dam was built in the late 1940s/early 1950s, the Sacramento area had not yet succumbed to extensive suburban sprawl. Folsom Dam and the levees around Sacramento are, however, being upgraded.

I've seen simulations prepared by an engineering firm showing what might happen if a levy were to break near the city, and it's not pretty. Many of the server farms are actually located in suburbs outside of Sacramento proper, so they're not in the highest-risk areas.

2/7/12, 12:00 AM

phil harris said...
Re: evolutionary psychology, let alone solutions. 'We' – AKA in this instance ‘science’ - do not have much knowledge of human evolution and only glimmerings about growing brains in different cultures.
Humans differ profoundly from other primates while retaining obvious continuities. Humans live longer, are born more infantile and have longer childhoods and exhibit less sexual dimorphism. Our behavior (not least from evidence from remnant original, or in some cases secondary, hunter gatherer bands) suggests a human default mating strategy technically described as "colonial monogamy"; - think certain birds with long-lived mating bonds but living in breeding colonies. A very rare strategy in mammals I am told. We are also apparently uniquely able to develop different ‘cultures’ that ‘culturally evolve’ (not necessarily voluntarily) a mix of both primate-type social hierarchy and a different non-hierarchical collective action. HG bands look as though they must work hard at diminishing potential for social dominance and hierarchy, aggressive sub-groups etc. and to cope with colonial monogamy in small bands of mixed relatives, non-relatives etc. Hard work being modern human, but until the last 10K years pretty successful during the first 100 - 200K years after we got our modern genetic inheritance!
Agricultural cultures seem to have a very strong propensity for, among other characteristics, generating aggressive sub-groups and large scale collective hierarchies. I have no predictions of what happens to future cultures urban post-industrial, whatever. Nate Hagens grew his brain in America and schools etc and made his way among aggressive/co-operative 'financial' subgroups dominated by billionaires. The boy has done well to take a different tack.

2/7/12, 2:29 AM

hawlkeye said...
The State Capital of the fourth largest industrial economy in the world, Sacramento California, is indeed vulnerable to flooding from the swollen Sierra Nevada mountains to the east.

However, to my mind an equal threat awaits to the west; if the great Pacific Ocean decides to send a tsunami under San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge, it'll roll right through the east Bay (swallowing Foster City and a few in-fill developments around the airport), and lump right up and over those paltry levees as it spreads all throughout the San Joaquin.

The City of Sacramento is TEN feet below sea level, which is the reason for all the levees. We could not have planned a more perfect nest for a Black Swan...

2/7/12, 4:25 AM

Cherokee Organics said...
Hi John,

Has anyone noticed over your way that the US Congress voted through another US$1.2 trillion hike in the debt ceiling and borrowings rose by US$120 billion to US$17.5 trillion in just one week?

Our papers are saying here that it may go down to the wire as to whether another hike will become necessary before November.

There was very little reporting of this event though, it was treated as a minor issue... Looks like it is accelerating to me.

Perhaps those printing presses must be getting some serious workout!



2/7/12, 10:01 PM

Cathy McGuire said...
Some data in support of recovering the human:

U.S. Counties With Thriving Small Businesses Have Healthier Residents

ScienceDaily (Feb. 2, 2012) — Counties and parishes with a greater concentration of small, locally-owned businesses have healthier populations -- with lower rates of mortality, obesity and diabetes -- than do those that rely on large companies with "absentee" owners, according to a national study by sociologists at LSU and Baylor University.
[more at link]

2/8/12, 7:39 AM

Morrigan said...
Oh, I have noticed long before becoming unemployed that deer meat is tasty indeed! So is elk! But I don't hunt, nor do my trusted neighbors. Even if I had a lot sufficiently sized to allow others to hunt, I don't want people to know there's a single, middle-aged woman living alone in the middle of a rural area with no protection.

So I watch them munch, and curse them.

2/8/12, 5:14 PM

Parl said...
John -

I am not particularly well informed about fast reactors. However a cursory google appears to suggest that it is only in the West that fast reactor projects are all being canned: both India and China appear to have live and upcoming plants, eg the PFBR at Kalpakkam and the CEFR in Beijing.

This may not help Westerners much, but tends to suggest that fast reactors are more than just 'vapourware'.

2/10/12, 1:29 PM

ganv said...
It seems to me that you might be making too much of human superiority to machines. Both of them depend on vast networks to keep working...humans on an ecosystem tenuous enough that we almost didn't make it through the last 500k years...and machines on an ecosystem of energy and human maintainers. Each has their strengths and weaknesses. A computer is greatly superior for numerical calculations needed for predicting the weather or the load bearing capacity of a building. A human is greatly superior in some of the ways you mentioned. Which one is more energy efficient depends on the task...a room full of human computers is much less energy efficient than a laptop for numerical calculations. It seems inevitable to me that machines will evolve with the constraints humans face. For example, I don't see any reason to expect that humans will forget how to make basic silicon microchips or solar panels to power them. Just because many of the excesses of the petroleum age involved irrational human belief in the power of machines does not mean that we will not use our knowledge of physics and engineering to make useful tools in the age after petroleum.

2/14/12, 7:15 PM

Luciddreams said...
ganv said:

"Just because many of the excesses of the petroleum age involved irrational human belief in the power of machines does not mean that we will not use our knowledge of physics and engineering to make useful tools in the age after petroleum."

sounds like Atlantis now doesn't it?

Post-Petroleum Atlantis?

On a world populated by the human tribe.

2/14/12, 8:34 PM

John said...
One of these days, a few hundred years from now, people will look upon the ruins of the skyscrapers in New York, LA or Phoenix and they will wonder what possesed people to build such wasteful monuments to power and greed.
We live in a culture of fantasy, one that has become disconnected with reality. I have always felt that our culture was one that has insulated itself from reality and that we are in for a rude awakening.
In many ways I think that the "Enlightement" and the religion of "progress" has eaten away our souls until all that is left is a simple husk of what a human being should be.
Your blog and your books have really opened my eyes about some things.

9/1/12, 7:02 AM