Wednesday, February 05, 2014

The Steampunk Future

For those of us who’ve been watching the course of industrial civilization’s decline and fall, the last few weeks have been a bit of a wild ride.  To begin with, as noted in last week’s post, the specter of peak oil has once again risen from the tomb to which the mass media keeps trying to consign it, and stalks the shadows of contemporary life, scaring the bejesus out of everyone who wants to believe that infinite economic growth on a finite planet isn’t a self-defeating absurdity.

Then, of course, it started seeping out into the media that the big petroleum companies have lost a very large amount of money in recent quarters, and a significant part of those losses were due to their heavy investments in the fracking boom in the United States—you know, the fracking boom that was certain to bring us renewed prosperity and limitless cheap fuel into the foreseeable future?  That turned out to a speculative bubble, as readers of this blog were warned a year ago. The overseas investors whose misspent funds kept the whole circus going are now bailing out, and the bubble has nowhere to go but down. How far down? That's a very good question that very few people want to answer.

The fracking bubble is not, however, the only thing that's falling. What the financial press likes to call “emerging markets”—I suspect that “submerging markets” might be a better label at the moment—have had a very bad time of late, with stock markets all over the Third World racking up impressive losses, and some nasty downside action spilled over onto Wall Street, Tokyo and the big European exchanges as well. Meanwhile, the financial world has been roiled by the apparent suicides of four important bankers. If any of them left notes behind, nobody's saying what those notes might contain; speculation, in several senses of that word, abounds.

Thus it's probably worth being aware of the possibility that in the weeks and months ahead, we'll see another crash like the one that hit in 2008-2009: another milestone passed on the road down from the summits of industrial civilization to the deindustrial dark ages of the future. No doubt, if we get such a crash, it'll be accompanied by a flurry of predictions that the whole global economy will come to a sudden stop. There were plenty of predictions along those lines during the 2008-2009 crash; they were wrong then, and they'll be wrong this time, too, but it'll be few months before that becomes apparent.

In the meantime, while we wait to see whether the market crashes and another round of fast-crash predictions follows suit, I'd like to talk about something many of my readers may find whimsical, even irrelevant. It's neither, but that, too, may not become apparent for a while.

Toward the middle of last month, as regular readers will recall, I posted an essay here suggesting seven sustainable technologies that could be taken up, practiced, and passed down to the societies that will emerge out of the wreckage of ours. One of those was computer-free mathematics, using slide rules and the other tools people used to crunch numbers before they handed over that chunk of their mental capacity to machines. In the discussion that followed, one of my readers—a college professor in the green-technology end of things—commented with some amusement on the horrified response he’d likely get if he suggested to his students that they use a slide rule for their number-crunching activities.

Not at all, I replied; all he needed to do was stand in front of them, brandish the slide rule in front of their beady eyes, and say, “This, my friends, is a steampunk calculator.”

It occurs to me that those of my readers who don’t track the contemporary avant-garde may have no idea what that next to last word means;  like so many labels these days, it contains too much history to have a transparent meaning. Doubtless, though, all my readers have at least heard of punk rock.  During the 1980s, a mostly forgettable literary movement in science fiction got labeled “cyberpunk;” the first half of the moniker referenced the way it fetishized the behavioral tics of 1980s hacker culture, and the second was given it because it made a great show, as punk rockers did, of being brash and belligerent.  The phrase caught on, and during the next decade or so, every subset of science fiction that hadn’t been around since Heinleins roamed the earth got labeled fill-in-the-blankpunk by somebody or other.

Steampunk got its moniker during those years, and that’s where the “-punk” came from. The “steam” is another matter. There was an alternative-history novel, The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, set in a world in which Victorian computer pioneer Charles Babbage launched the cybernetic revolution a century in advance with steam-powered mechanical computers. There was also a roleplaying game called Space 1889—take a second look at those numbers if you think that has anything to do with the 1970s TV show about Moonbase Alpha—that had Thomas Edison devising a means of spaceflight, and putting the Victorian earth in contact with alternate versions of Mars, Venus and the Moon straight out of Edgar Rice Burroughs-era space fantasy.

Those and a few other sources of inspiration like them got artists, craftspeople, writers, and the like thinking about what an advanced technology might look like if the revolutions triggered by petroleum and electronics had never happened, and Victorian steam-powered technology had evolved along its own course.  The result is steampunk:  part esthetic pose, part artistic and literary movement, part subculture, part excuse for roleplaying and assorted dress-up games, and part—though I’m far from sure how widespread this latter dimension is, or how conscious—a collection of sweeping questions about some of the most basic presuppositions undergirding modern technology and the modern world.

It’s very nearly an article of faith in contemporary industrial society that any advanced technology—at least until it gets so advanced that it zooms off into pure fantasy—must by definition look much like ours. I’m thinking here of such otherwise impressive works of alternate history as Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt. Novels of this kind portray the scientific and industrial revolution happening somewhere other than western Europe, but inevitably it’s the same scientific and industrial revolution, producing much the same technologies and many of the same social and cultural changes. This reflects the same myopia of the imagination that insists on seeing societies that don’t use industrial technologies as “stuck in the Middle Ages” or “still in the Stone Age,” or what have you:  the insistence that all human history is a straight line of progress that leads unstoppably to us.

Steampunk challenges that on at least two fronts. First, by asking what technology would look like if the petroleum and electronics revolutions had never happened, it undercuts the common triumphalist notion that of course an advanced technology must look like ours, function like ours, and—ahem—support the same poorly concealed economic, political, and cultural agendas hardwired into the technology we currently happen to have. Despite such thoughtful works as John Ellis’ The Social History of the Machine Gun, the role of such agendas in defining what counts for progress remains a taboo subject, and the idea that shifts in historical happenstance might have given rise to wholly different “advanced technologies” rarely finds its way even into the wilder ends of speculative fiction.

If I may be permitted a personal reflection here, this is something I watched during the four years when my novel Star’s Reach was appearing as a monthly blog post. 25th-century Meriga—yes, that’s “America” after four centuries—doesn’t fit anywhere on that imaginary line of progress running from the caves to the stars; it’s got its own cultural forms, its own bricolage of old and new technologies, and its own way of understanding history in which, with some deliberate irony, I assigned today’s industrial civilization most of the same straw-man roles that we assign to the societies of the preindustrial past.

As I wrote the monthly episodes of Star’s Reach, though, I fielded any number of suggestions about what I should do with the story and the setting, and a good any of those amounted to requests that I decrease the distance separating 25th-century Meriga from the modern world, or from some corner of the known past.  Some insisted that some bit of modern technology had to find a place in Merigan society, some urged me to find room somewhere in the 25th-century world for enclaves where a modern industrial society had survived, some objected to a plot twist that required the disproof of a core element of today’s scientific worldview—well, the list is long, and I think my readers will already have gotten the point.

C.S. Lewis was once asked by a reporter whether he thought he’d influenced the writings of his friend J.R.R. Tolkien. If I recall correctly, he said, “Influence Tolkien? You might as well try to influence a bandersnatch.” While I wouldn’t dream of claiming to be Tolkien’s equal as a writer, I share with him—and with bandersnatches, for that matter—a certain resistance to external pressures, and so Meriga succeeded to some extent in keeping its distance from more familiar futures. The manuscript’s now at the publisher, and I hope to have a release date to announce before too long; what kind of reception the book will get when it’s published is another question and, at least to me, an interesting one.

Outside of the realms of imaginative fiction, though, it’s rare to see any mention of the possibility that the technology we ended up with might not be the inevitable outcome of a scientific revolution. The boldest step in that direction I’ve seen so far comes from a school of historians who pointed out that the scientific revolution depended, in a very real sense, on the weather in the English Channel during a few weeks in 1688.  It so happened that the winds in those weeks kept the English fleet stuck in port while William of Orange carried out the last successful invasion (so far) of England by a foreign army. 

As a direct result, the reign of James II gave way to that of William III, and Britain dodged the absolute monarchy, religious intolerance, and technological stasis that Louis XIV was imposing in France just then, a model which most of the rest of Europe promptly copied. Because Britain took a different path—a path defined by limited monarchy, broad religious and intellectual tolerance, and the emergence of a new class of proto-industrial magnates whose wealth was not promptly siphoned off into the existing order, but accumulated the masses of capital needed to build the world’s first industrial economy—the scientific revolution of the late 17th and early 18th century was not simply a flash in the pan. Had James II remained on the throne, it’s argued, none of those things would have happened.

It shows just how thoroughly the mythology of progress has its claws buried in our imaginations that many people respond to that suggestion in an utterly predictable way—by insisting that the scientific and industrial revolutions would surely have taken place somewhere else, and given rise to some close equivalent of today’s technology anyway. (As previously noted, that’s the underlying assumption of the Kim Stanley Robinson novel cited above, and many other works along the same lines.)  At most, those who get past this notion of industrial society’s Manifest Destiny imagine a world in which the industrial revolution never happened:  where, say, European technology peaked around 1700 with waterwheels, windmills, square-rigged ships, and muskets, and Europe went from there to follow the same sort of historical trajectory as the Roman Empire or T’ang-dynasty China.

Further extrapolations along those lines can be left to the writers of alternative history. The point being made by the writers, craftspeople, and fans of steampunk, though, cuts in a different direction. What the partly imaginary neo-Victorian tech of steampunk suggests is that another kind of advanced technology is possible: one that depends on steam and mechanics instead of petroleum and electronics, that accomplishes some of the same things our technology does by different means, and that also does different things—things that our technologies don’t do, and in some cases quite possibly can’t do.

It’s here that steampunk levels its second and arguably more serious challenge against the ideology that sees modern industrial society as the zenith, so far, of the march of progress. While it drew its original inspiration from science fiction and roleplaying games, what shaped steampunk as an esthetic and cultural movement was a sense of the difference between the elegant craftsmanship of the Victorian era and the shoddy plastic junk that fills today’s supposedly more advanced culture. It’s a sense that was already clear to social critics such as Theodore Roszak many decades ago. Here’s Roszak’s cold vision of the future awaiting industrial society, from his must-read book Where the Wasteland Ends:

“Glowing advertisements of undiminished progress will continue to rain down upon us from official quarters; there will always be well-researched predictions of light at the end of every tunnel. There will be dazzling forecasts of limitless affluence; there will even be much real affluence. But nothing will ever quite work the way the salesmen promised; the abundance will be mired in organizational confusion and bureaucratic malaise, constant environmental emergency, off-schedule policy, a chaos of crossed circuits, clogged pipelines, breakdowns in communication, overburdened social services. The data banks will become a jungle of misinformation, the computers will suffer from chronic electropsychosis. The scene will be indefinably sad and shoddy despite the veneer of orthodox optimism. It will be rather like a world’s fair in its final days, when things start to sag and disintegrate behind the futuristic façades, when the rubble begins to accumulate in the corners, the chromium to grow tarnished, the neon lights to burn out, all the switches and buttons to stop working. Everything will take on that vile tackiness which only plastic can assume, the look of things decaying that were never supposed to grow old, or stop gleaming, never to cease being gay and sleek and perfect.”

As prophecies go, you must admit, this one was square on the mark.  Roszak’s nightmare vision has duly become the advanced, progressive, cutting-edge modern society in which we live today.  That’s what the steampunk movement is rejecting in its own way, by pointing out the difference between the handcrafted gorgeousness of an older generation of technology and the “vile tackiness which only plastic can assume” that dominates contemporary products and, indeed, contemporary life. It’s an increasingly widespread recognition, and helps explain why so many people these days are into some form of reenactment.

Whether it’s the new Middle Ages of the Society for Creative Anachronism, the frontier culture of buckskinners and the rendezvous scene, the military-reenactment groups recreating the technologies and ambience of any number of of long-ago wars, the primitive-technology enthusiasts getting together to make flint arrowheads and compete at throwing spears with atlatls, or what have you:  has any other society seen so many people turn their backs on the latest modern conveniences to take pleasure in the technologies and habits of earlier times? Behind this interest in bygone technologies, I suggest, lies a concept that’s even more unmentionable in polite company than the one I discussed above: the recognition that most of the time, these days, progress no longer means improvement.

By and large, the latest new, advanced, cutting-edge products of modern industrial society are shoddier, flimsier, and more thickly frosted with bugs, problems, and unwanted side effects than whatever they replaced. It’s becoming painfully clear that we’re no longer progressing toward some shiny Jetsons future, if we ever were, nor are we progressing over a cliff into a bigger and brighter apocalypse than anyone ever had before. Instead, we’re progressing steadily along the downward curve of Roszak’s dystopia of slow failure, into a crumbling and dilapidated world of spiraling dysfunctions hurriedly patched over, of systems that don’t really work any more but are never quite allowed to fail, in which more and more people every year find themselves shut out of a narrowing circle of paper prosperity but in which no public figure ever has the courage to mention that fact.

Set beside that bleak prospect, it’s not surprising that the gritty but honest hands-on technologies and lifeways of earlier times have a significant appeal.  There’s also a distinct sense of security that comes from the discovery that one can actually get by, and even manage some degree of comfort, without having a gargantuan fossil-fueled technostructure on hand to meet one’s every need. What intrigues me about the steampunk movement, though, is that it’s gone beyond that kind of retro-tech to think about a different way in which technology could have developed—and in the process, it’s thrown open the door to a reevaluation of the technologies we’ve got, and thus to the political, economic, and cultural agendas which the technologies we’ve got embody, and thus inevitably further.

Well, that’s part of my interest, at any rate. Another part is based on the recognition that Victorian technology functioned quite effectively on a very small fraction of the energy that today’s industrial societies consume. Estimates vary, but even the most industrialized countries in the world in 1860 got by on something like ten per cent of the energy per capita that’s thrown around in industrial nations today.  The possibility therefore exists that something like a Victorian technology, or even something like the neo-Victorian extrapolations of the steampunk scene, might be viable in a future on the far side of peak oil, when the much more diffuse, intermittent, and limited energy available from renewable sources will be what we have left to work with for the rest of our species’ time on this planet.

For the time being, I want to let that suggestion percolate through the crawlspaces of my readers’ imaginations.  Those who want to pick up a steampunk calculator and start learning how to crunch numbers with it—hint:  it’s easy to learn, useful in practice, and slide rules come cheap these days—may just have a head start on the future, but that’s a theme for a later series of posts. Well before we get to that, it’s important to consider a far less pleasant kind of blast from the past, one that bids fair to play a significant role in the future immediately ahead.

That is to say, it’s time to talk about the role of fascism in the deindustrial future. We’ll begin that discussion next week.


One innovation that I have included in my "advanced" 2400 society is the production of wootz steel in roughly 2 kg ignots. Done mostly during the winter.

I do postulate social and governmental stability. But autarky for a few million people has strict limits. One technology after another is given up (while preserving the knowledge of how to recreate it) for two centuries (I set peak technology in 2041) and then slow recreation of technology, deliberately chosing which ones were worth the effort.

One effort at original technology in the 25th Century is zeppelins. Lift from an inner balloon of hydrogen surrounded by hot nitrogen. Drive is two central electrical generators (source of heat for nitrogen) driving five electric motors (two on wing tips, three underneath around gondola).

I do see an understanding of electricity & magnetism as being inevitable. Also improved metallurgy (Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Steel & Aluminum Age).

2/5/14, 8:05 PM

Bruin Silverbear said...
I can think of more than one friend who will be rather excited about thi particular post. I had never really considered Steampunk in this way but as usual, what you have extrapolated here makes sense.

More than one person looks at me like I am crazy when they see that I own spears and a few swords. While it will take some time for swords to come back into "fashion" I suspect, a good spear can go a long way (no pun intended) towards ensuring a meal when used properly. On the flipside though, one thing that I consistently tell people is that as decline moves further along, you will see many more people in the woods with firearms trying to put dinner on the table. There is a very real risk that our furry forest friends could be hunted out rather quickly under the right circumstances, further pushing the environment out of balance. It's not the imbalance that will be hard, it's the springback...another thing most folks tend to avoid considering.

2/5/14, 8:09 PM

Ruben said...
When you look at the basics of our lives, most of it would recognizable to Victorians. We still sit at wooden tables on wooden chairs, eating food of plates while wearing cotton or wool. We cook on a stove in pots and pans, with a sink.

Most of the materials of life are still made of wood, plaster, steel, leather, and fabric. In modern times we have added lots of aluminum and plastic, but I think the cornucopians overestimate the novelty of our life.

Cars, refrigerators and hot running water would be quite a surprise. As would our "jobs".

But, our energy use would easily plummet, if only we were happy with cold houses; local, seasonal food; very few possessions and very little travel. I imagine most of us will get to enjoy those bracing Victorian conditions.

2/5/14, 8:12 PM

Richard Larson said...
The fascism topic is interesting, hopefully the internet will still be working by then!

I have been accumulating slide rules offered at the thrift shops since your last post highlighting them. Even worked the numbers a little, thanks for that advice back then. The steam power is also an interesting idea, so I'll start working on that one too.

2/5/14, 8:29 PM

Enrique said...
John Michael,

I came across “Where the Wasteland Ends” when I was looking for a copy of Lewis Mumford’s “The Pentagon of Power” at the local library. A great happenstance, since the two books complement one another quite nicely. I would recommend both highly and they both had a significant effect on my view of history and industrial civilization.

I had a university professor who was a huge fan of Mumford and had actually worked with him back when my professor was a graduate student. So in looking for some of Mumford’s works, I came across “Where the Wasteland Ends” as well. One thing that struck me about “The Pentagon of Power” was how prescient his comments about the World Trade Center were, and this was back when it was no more than an architect’s model and a set of blueprints. I remember reading “The Pentagon of Power” a few years before September 11, 2001, and thinking of Mumford’s observations as I watched the twin towers fall live on TV at my parent’s house.

Incidentally, I am a science fiction and fantasy buff and have been since I was a little boy, but I am into steampunk as a genre and am involved with a live-action roleplaying group. One of my best friends is an artist who does a lot of artwork with a steampunk theme and I am a huge fan of Hayao Miyazaki’s films. Miyazaki incorporates a lot of steampunk themes and aesthetics in his films, and I find steampunk aesthetics and the underlying philosophy to be far superior to the plastic crap and the mentality of the plastic, suburbanized two legged herd animals that prevails today.

There are a couple of novels that I can think of right now that did a pretty good job of trying to imagine what an advanced steampunk society might look like, complete with advanced technology bases that went in radically different directions than our own. One is “Fitzpatrick’s War” by Theodore Judson, the other is “The Peshawar Lancers” by S.M. Stirling, who is one of my favorite sci-fi authors. Look forward to reading your upcoming series about the other F word!

2/5/14, 8:32 PM

Villager said...
There's a real upside to using a slide rule - it only gives the mantissa of a floating point answer. It's up to the user to figure out the exponent. That makes the user much more aware order of magnitude errors. People who use a slide rule have to develop an intuitive feel for the magnitudes of their answers.

Another upside is that a slide rule is intrinsically analog and that, in my mind, is far preferable to the brutally digital and discontinous machinations of our monster machines.

Because the pace of slide rule calculation is almost infinitely slower than that of a digital computer, the incentive to develop simple, elegant and humanly comprehensible models based on the traditional calculus is tremendous. We will have bridges built against models that don't reside in some proprietary software library.

2/5/14, 8:36 PM

Kutamun said...
It is  the Devas   art , this silky presence without whom i cannot live , she glides  by my heart , silkily , i am complete , in the dark , she is not destitution , or troubled , she is the finest work of which man may conceive, i know it. 
The Uranian , Uriel is complete in every sense, his forward thinking ideas are implanted into my brain, like a world without oil, with all its machines ground to a halt, now   do you  
believe. ?  
A sea that has gone into dull retreat, leaving only the bones of ancient monsters lying undisturbed under the lawn tennis court or garden of some well heeled country gent; if only he knew  ! , the ancient terror that lurked beneath his feet, what would he do. ?

2/5/14, 8:38 PM

Andrew H said...
Yet another nail hit squarely on the head.

So while at present I am programming computers during the day, I am spending my evening making a hand-router (and I don't mean one with an electric motor) to cut the dadoes for a large bookshelf to accommodate at least part of our ever mounting pile of books. We just can't bring ourselves to get rid of any of the latter and they do need a home.

Meanwhile someone did give us a Kindle a few years ago but it has only got half a dozen books in it and the battery is probably flat now anyway.



2/5/14, 8:54 PM

Ventriloquist said...

Pardon me if I'm mistaken, but isn't there a part of Star's Reach where the main characters are working on computers that, apparently, are a couple hundred years old?

That definitely seems to me an example of current technology that has been preserved for the future.

But this begs a larger question -- which is, what role do you see electricity playing in the decades and centuries to come? Many people pin hopes on photovoltaics being a source that can last, but most current technologies seem to have a lifespan of, at maximum, 30-40 years.

Are mini-hydro generators the answer, or do you envision some other low-tech solution with longevity as a real attribute?

2/5/14, 8:58 PM

Thijs Goverde said...
Aw, this post seems deliberately written to tickle me!
William 'n' Mary and their glorious revolution - yay the Dutch!
And that LARP-event Ive been talking about - well, gues what flavour I've given that?

On a less positive note, I've read a little too much Dickens to be really enthusiastic about 1860's industrialised societies. The squalour of London's poor masses and the poisonous fog could give the vile tackiness of plastic a run for its money any day, methinks.

2/5/14, 9:07 PM

Jo said...
I was reading not long ago about a couple of engineers who have developed a very simple oxygen machine that can be used in health clinics in the developing world where there is no reliable electricity. It is powered by a tiny hydro-electric setup, and can be situated anywhere within about a kilometre of running water. This machine has saved a number of lives already, especially children with pneumonia who need immediate oxygen treatment. This is the kind of small and beautiful thinking that gives me a little hope for the future.

2/5/14, 9:21 PM

onething said...
When I contemplate this future you speak of, the only real negative is a certain amount of anxiety and fear, that I or my family may get caught in some of those bumps and jerks that will be unevenly or chaotically distributed.
Aside from that, a simpler way of life holds much appeal. I find people so spoiled that they seem out of touch. People don't play with their imaginations anymore. How true that glitzy, plastic stuff has a presentable veneer only when new, aging into ghastliness. Everyone is so disconnected - from nature, from family, from a life in which their own efforts have real meaning. It's like everyone is addicted. There was a hurricane in North Carolina in about 96. On a late summer evening, people were outside having barbecue by candlelight, the sound of conversation and laughter wafted my way as I walked my dog and could see the milky way. Then, the electricity came back on and the people disappeared, replaced by the ubiquitous hums of air conditioners.

Everyone was sadder, but all obeyed its call.

2/5/14, 9:23 PM

Crews said...
John Michael Greer,

Excellent post, the victorian era captures my imagination the more and more I learn about it. Also, I have set up my first blog post at

My fiancees family gave us the opportunity to go to Disney's Epcot this past January. Epcot was built upon the "everything is chrome" vision of the future. future world has a ton of space rides, along with a world showcase displaying world harmony. The first post is picking out the elements of the religion of progress reflected in this Disney Themepark. Thought you might be interested!

In Chinese politics today we had a discussion of the Han clothing movement. The Han are the largest ethnic group in China with about 1 billion people worldwide. They invented this movement which is in my understanding, an abandoning of the myth of progress, to take refuge in a imagined ideal Ming dynasty past. They have meetings that are a cross between civil war reenactments and medieval fairs in tone. They have some controversial views and are gaining serious traction, and in my opinion are the beginnings of a fascist movement based upon ethnic lines. Reminded me of the Golden Dawn in Greece actually.

My guess is that in an era where the total energy/resource pie is shrinking, cooperation no longer makes as much sense to different groups. Therefore acquisition of the energy/resources of others is the only way to maintain a semblance of normalcy. Fascism is the mechanism by which those with power start to justify resource grabs. The easiest way to do that is develop a scapegoat like an ethnic group and assert dominance and a kleptocracy for that group.
The more and more I think about it a steampunk style Victorian revival would be a great way to add a bit of style to alternative tech. A little aesthetic appeal might push the on the fence demo graph over the edge. In my experience many people are willing to make drastic changes but the idea of setting themselves too far apart socially holds them back. A fun Victorian era steampunk social identity type movement might be just the pre-text for people to make these changes towards learning useful knowledge and skills. It's much more socially acceptable than the head for the hills and learn to grow potatoes or die type vibe "peak oilers/doomers" tend to give off.

-Crews or Robert Martini, whichever you prefer

2/5/14, 9:31 PM

Compound F said...
Chock-a-block reading. Breadth, depth, and dialed-in.

It makes me think of some of my own thoughts:

2/5/14, 9:37 PM

1ab9a86a-8991-11e3-899b-000bcdcb8a73 said...
JMG - "bug frosting" could be a term that takes off! It certainly describes most "upgrades" to anything computer related.

It seems that the public has woken up to this, since the latest Windows iteration (Windows 8) has been mostly ignored. People seem to have figured out that paying money for "upgrades" that ruin a computer doesn't make much sense. Especially if it took years of tweaking to finally overcome all the bugs from the last "upgrade" and they finally have a machine that quasi-almost-works.

2/5/14, 9:39 PM

enonzey said...
This post reminds me of Stephen Jay Gould's argument that evolution, being an historical process, is highly contingent. Run the tape again and it's highly improbable that anything like us, much less us, would evolve.

The Whiggish view of history is always with us.

2/5/14, 9:45 PM

Pinku-Sensei said...
“[O]ne of my readers—a college professor in the green-technology end of things—commented with some amusement on the horrified response he’d likely get if he suggested to his students that they use a slide rule for their number-crunching activities.
Not at all, I replied; all he needed to do was stand in front of them, brandish the slide rule in front of their beady eyes, and say, 'This, my friends, is a steampunk calculator.'”

I'm flattered to have inspired you to write about the retro future. Thank you for following through on your promise. On my blog, I've written that interacting with you has been good for my writing. I'm glad to see that the reverse has been true for you, too.

As for "the recognition that most of the time, these days, progress no longer means improvement," I've had to turn to German for a word that expresses that concept--Schlimmbesserung, an intended improvement that actually makes things worse. A lot of changes in software come off this way these days, which is how I came across this word. I guess it's not just software that the concept applies to.

2/5/14, 9:57 PM

Robert Magill said...
Entry: Post Peak Contest

The Maui Cargo Cult

...The clan had been well aware of the possibility of needing to leave North America before it all went critical. They, as had countless others, watched sadly as the disasters began piling one upon another.

The Gulf fishery loss from the final, devastating oil gusher; the precipitous dropping of the Ogallala Aquifer level supporting dry land grain harvest in the American West were duly noticed but the failure of Salmon runs in the Pacific Northwest in particular, struck home for the locals. Chesapeake Bay and North Atlantic dwindling seafood harvest added to this but what proved to be the real crisis maker was the complete failure of the food delivery system. Unfortunately, Piggly Wiggly, Safeway or Gristides’ fully stocked grocery shelves were treated as a given and the effect of collapse of the internet was hidden from the public until it was too late. Local suppliers, long neglected, could not begin to fill the need. There was hunger. ...

2/5/14, 10:02 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Alan, if you don't have abundant electricity aluminum is hard to come by. Wootz is probably a better bet.

Bruin, by all means forward this to your friends! For what it's worth, I also have modest collection of old-fashioned offensive and defensive hardware, but that's what you get with an interest in the martial arts.

Ruben, exactly -- and if there are ways to get used to them in advance, all the better.

Richard, excellent. Glad to hear it.

Enrique, see if you can interest your fellow steampunk aficionados in slide rules. They might as well learn some practical skills while having fun -- and who's going to do fast field repairs on the gasogene when your dirigible is stranded somewhere south of Laputa, if nobody has the number-crunching skills to make it work? ;-)

Villager, no argument there. Interestingly, though, when I took my ham radio tests a few years back and used my Pickett 990-ES slide rule to crunch the math, I noticed that I was getting answers in less time than it seemed to take the people with pocket calculators to finish punching in the numbers!

Kutamun, if you truly wish to know what the ancient monster would do, ask him. He will answer in bones.

Andrew, excellent! A hand router's a very useful tool, and the skills you'll pick up making and using it are more useful still.

Ventriloquist, there is indeed. Part of the backstory is that in the early to mid-21st century, the US government established a program to manufacture very durable equipment for critical facilities; the program was called IOC, "interruption of continuity," and that's where the computers at the Star's Reach facility and a few other places came from. Until and unless that happens, most computer equipment is likely to be junk in the not too distant future.

As for electricity, though, I've discussed that at length in many posts here. The very short form is that it's quite easy to generate a little electricity for local use, and there are good uses for it -- lighting, pumps, and long-distance communication via radio are some of them. Keeping a continent-wide grid powered won't be an option, but so long as enough people preserve the knowledge and technology to generate and use it, electricity as such should be a long-term possibility.

2/5/14, 10:08 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Thijs, I certainly wouldn't claim that Victorian society is a candidate for Utopia. My point is simply that something along those lines, on a technological basis, might be possible -- of course the poisonous fog won't be there, since we're closing in on peak coal.

Jo, can it be made in a workshop in Third World conditions? That's the crucial issue for our future, since there won't be an industrial world for stuff to be manufactured in any more.

Onething, I won't argue. There's a reason I won't have a TV in my house.

Crews -- I always use people's online handles, so readers can find the comments to which I'm responding -- I liked the post! Lively stuff, and to my mind, spot on; the only point I could imagine to visiting Disneygulag would be as you did, as an anthropologist, examining the bizarre beliefs of the builders as expressed in their art and architecture...

Compound F, that's a gorgeous scope. Do you happen to know if your grandfather ground the mirror by hand? A lot of amateur astronomers used to do that, back in the day; it's slow, but not difficult.

1ab, by all means spread it around. So to speak...

Enonzey, excellent! You get tonight's gold star, first for being aware of Whig history, and second for recognizing it in the contemporary myth of progress.

Pinku-Sensei, what is it about the German language? I had occasion recently to reference the word "salonfähig," and found that it takes most of an English sentence -- "suitable for bringing into the living room" -- to get even some of the meaning.

Robert, got it. If you can drop me a not-for-posting comment with your email address attached, I'll get that on file so that if your story gets selected, I can get in touch with you.

2/5/14, 10:27 PM

Stuart Jeffery said...
Dear JMG,

You forgot to mention the most important aspect of Steampunk: the wearing of a top hat with aviator goggles strapped to them - a particularly fetching look!

In seriousness, you are right to allude to the aethetic aspect of Steampunk as while it is probably the most important aspect of its followers, it also helps underpin the robustness and longevity of the clothing and machines that are typified by it.

At that basic level, my Victorian top hat is in better shape that my bush hat bought 3 years ago.

There is a lot to be learned from the cultural movement and the time it idolises.

2/5/14, 10:33 PM

Pinku-Sensei said...
"What is it about the German language?"

As someone who studied German, part of it is because of the agglutinative nature of its nouns. German uses a lot of compounds to make words that would otherwise require an entire sentence. Also, one has to credit the Germans themselves. They have to think that the concept itself is so worth noting that it deserves its own word. That they have a language that accommodates that desire just helps it along.

Also, kudos to you for using a word other than "Schadenfreude" as an example of this particular ability of German to express complex concepts.

Back to Steampunk. The movement doesn't just express an interest in more elegant technology, but in more elegant people. I detect an interest in a world that hasn't lost its manners or its enthusiasm. Our current culture seems to be losing both.

2/5/14, 10:46 PM

Dagnarus said...
Another recent development is that the head of the Investment Committee at the German Wind Energy Association recently published a report showing that roughly half of German wind parks are unlikely to ever payback their investors principle investment, even with the generous feed in tariffs.

2/5/14, 10:50 PM

Ruben said...

re: the retro future--the best term I have seen is Neostalgia.

Sadly, the url is already taken.

2/5/14, 11:16 PM

Tom Bannister said...
In a parallel development to oil companies losing a lot of money on fracking, our government here in New Zealand has just wasted a large amount of money sponsoring deep sea oil drilling exploration

They'll be back though. Got no doubt about that! still it gives us more time to prepare before we have to deal with a big oil spill...

And yes I too have been wondering recently what technology of the present moment might look like had oil never been discovered, or for that matter, had coal never been discovered. There's a roman machines exhibit on at the local museum at the moment. maybe that'll give some clues (as well as the sources you've mentioned).

Anyway cheers


2/5/14, 11:20 PM

Bernd Ohm said...
Agree with Thijs here. The superior craftsmanship of the Victorians was for a select few, not for the huddling masses in the factories or the large number number of people that that still lived in rural villages and eked out a living as - what do you call it today? - "homesteaders". Similarly, most people in the Middle Ages were not knights in shiny armour or flashy bandits or what have you, so all these LARP fantasies will remain just that, fantasies. As for your chances of running steam engines on something else than coal - well, Central Europa was pretty much deforestated by the 14th century without the additional burden of having to support steam technology with charcoal, so I wouldn't bet on this either. As you wrote yourself some time ago, the Greeks already knew the principle of steam power, but didn't do much with it because they lacked access to the huge amount of combustible ressources that is needed. Expect some sophisticated windmills and maybe some electricity, but whatever other technology the future has in store will have to be rely on very modest amounts of energy.

Can't wait to see what you have to say about future fascism though...

2/6/14, 12:07 AM

Bernd Ohm said...
Pinku-Sensei, it's really "Verschlimmbesserung", for some reason the "Ver" disappeared somewhere over the Atlantic when the word was borrowed... And "salonfähig"? My God, that really means "suitable for bringing into the company of good and well-educated people who will be found gathered in the parlour of an upper middle-class household that is run by a distinguished family with refined and exquisite tastes", if you get the picture. On the other hand, Germans do need more than one sentence to translate "streetsmart".

2/6/14, 12:19 AM

Compound F said...
...that's a gorgeous scope. Do you happen to know if your grandfather ground the mirror by hand? A lot of amateur astronomers used to do that, back in the day; it's slow, but not difficult.

Thank you, on GG's behalf. I do not know how he ground or silvered the mirror. Too many facts have been lost. His son gold-leafed the Statehouse in Boston, so it wouldn't surprise me if the mirror itself were silver-leafed, insofar as the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.

The grinding of the mirror, and other optics, is beyond my ken. Sadly, I know little more than what I said.

2/6/14, 12:32 AM

flute said...
As you say, improved "simple" technologies definitely have a place in the future. One example I can see already in use are improved wood burning stoves, which have become more and more popular for heating here in Sweden.

As for unexpected consequences and bugs from modern technology, I came across a funny exemple yesterday - the woman whose newly installed induction stove caused her iPhone to malfunction. You can read about it here in a buggy Google translation:

Pinku-Sensei already remarked on the reason why the German language can produce such succinct words as "salonfähig". Swedish works the same way and we have the word "salongsfähig" with the same connotations. I've done a fair amount of translation work and I always found that the English translation of a text is quite a bit longer than the original Swedish text. On the other hand there are many English words which you cannot translate into Swedish or German without using half a sentence - someone came up with the example "streetsmart".

2/6/14, 1:40 AM

Robert Magill said...
Actually the true Industrial Revolution can be dated to a certainty to 1905..and the place, China. Prior to that auspicious date, industrial novelties were a side show to the main event. For 1905, as near to our own era as yesterday, marked the last vestige of that universal, historical, pre-industrial "technology", come on readers, historians, philosophers, help me shout it out...Legal, human chattel slavery. Thanks, folks. The ancient way of life died in China that year. R.I.P

So we are now into the one hundred ninth year of our proud, stand-alone, one hundred percent pure, industrial era. Unfortunately, because of a near universal lack of foresight and a century plus planetary binge we can, from our lofty perch, see it slipping back into what nice folks historically regarded as a own someone else to do the work for them.

2/6/14, 3:46 AM

Phil Harris said...
JMG and all
Friedrich Engels in Manchester was interesting about Victorian Britain: e.g. Manchester businessman to Fred: “A lot of money is being made in Manchester, Mr Engels. Good afternoon.”

Think of our megacities then as 3rd World with large slums in a cold climate, and in the early-to-peak growth phase with insufficient public health knowledge.

Which encouraged the rapid innovation of civic financing and civic water and coal gas (pre-electricity) utilities; and resources flowed to the invention of medical science, among other things.

Surplus labour in the countryside had forced migration into cities during the x3 population explosion before 1850 enabled by the ongoing Agricultural Revolution (mostly to do with raised biological soil fertility, which enabled true commercial farming, and had almost nothing to do with coal per se).

By the time my father was born near London in 1901, however, it was really rather modern, except for farming and the rural areas. We were by then of course almost completely urban, and relied on imported food. The numbers suggest that it is a myth that per capita energy use (coal) was low in Edwardian urban Britain: it had reached a very high plateau. Energy use did not rise much again until my teens in the 1950s when we moved increasingly into the petroleum age – and of course, incidentally, into plastics.

Phil H
PS captcha was all numbers

2/6/14, 3:50 AM

Bill Blondeau said...
Thanks, JMG, for introducing this topic.

It was actually another reader of yours, Kurt Cagle, who (in discussions of a future steampunk story he had written) first raised my awareness of steampunk's likely status as a motif of descent, rather than an esthetic alternate-world fantasy of ascent. Very different concepts.

For whatever it's worth, a while back I posted a reasonably short article about analog computing, the native information-processing technology of any self-respecting steampunk society.

2/6/14, 4:37 AM

Andy Brown said...
Last week I was repairing an ancient bureau of mine. God knows how old it is - it already was ancient when it was in my grandmother's den. It's not pretty, being painted a blackish green, darkened in a house fire in 1968. But two of the pieces of wood that support the drawers had come out and one had broken. I resorted to some glue, though as far as I can tell the thing is assembled as a puzzle without glue and few if any nails.

As I sanded down a piece of scavenged hardwood to the proper micrometer that would fit and lock into the slot for it - I was amazed at the care and attention and obsession that had to go into creating an assembly like this. A piece of furniture that would last for a century or two. I'm sure it wasn't made in a day - it took a good amount of skilled human labor. But here's a mental image: imagine the little pile of lumber that went into this. Now compare it to the great stack of firewood and scrap metal that would constitute the series of IKEA bureaus across 150 years of use. That's a contrast in how you manage resources.

2/6/14, 5:28 AM

AlanfromBigEasy said...
Norway has 1,100 hydroelectric power plants and, even with high per capita consumption, is a major electricity exporter. And Norway produces aluminum.

Iceland's #2 export is aluminum. Power is about 75% hydro, 25% geothermal. Sweden is 55% hydro, some in Finland too.

Denmark is a major wind turbine manufacturer. Greenland has plans for 300 MW of hydro to make aluminum with

In the USA, our side has thirteen identical 200 MW hydroelectric generators at Niagara Falls. A bigger hodge podge on the Canadian side, but lots of hydropower. Absent social collapse, there will be lots of hydroelectric power at Niagara Falls and elsewhere for centuries.

2/6/14, 5:31 AM

Karl Dehrmann said...
To Silverbear's point about the demise of woodland animals, this is a near certainty. During the lean days of the great depression, the eastern woodlands were basically extirpated of large mammals (deer, bear,etc.) with a human population 1/3 of what it is today. These animals will survive the coming petroleum depletion in the far northern part of their range, if at all. For those without access to domesticated sources of protein, I suspect the hunting will be limited to long pig (I kid!, I kid!...hopefully.)

More on point, I think the development and perfection of steam powered technologies (perhaps with improved boilers that have a secondary burning of gases given off by primary combustion of wood) would go a long way in ensuring the corn gets milled and lumber cut in places without access to water mills. Of no small importance when one considers the energy requirements of moving heavy commodities around without the benefits of petroleum.

2/6/14, 5:39 AM

Justin Patrick Moore said...
I always thought Wilhelm Reich's "The Mass Psychology of Fascism" to be essential reading material. Especially his theory of Character Armor (a type of psychological & biological rigidity) in individuals & groups in society being a precursor to what allows a fascist to take power.

2/6/14, 6:11 AM

Jasmine said...
Dear Mr Greer

One Victorian technology that will be useful in the future will be trains. They will probably be diesel electric rather than steam, but trains are an incredibly efficient form of transport. Over here in the UK we still have a fairly extensive network, even though we lost many lines in the 1960’s. There has been something of a revival in railways recently and passenger numbers have increased to levels last seen in the 1940’s. Thanks to a botched rail privatizations the management of the railways is still pretty awful, but for the first time in age’s government is at last investing in railways. The government has recognized the need for new capacity between London and the North and is starting work in 2016 on a new high speed line between London and Birmingham. This line will be incredibly expensive and take 10 years to build. Latest estimates are about 44 billion pounds. The expense of this line is unpopular. There was recently a proposal by some in the Labour (The Opposition party) to reopen the old Great Central Line which runs between London and Leeds. This story appeared in the Daily Telegraph. This would not be a high speed line, but would only cost 10 to 15 billion pounds. The article also indicated that the carrying capacity of this line would be much greater because the trains would be slower. Therefore you would not need so much space between trains and could run more of them and they would be able to stop at more station. A great example of how older technologies and be more efficient than the newer ones. Another financial crisis may turn this into the preferred option

2/6/14, 6:13 AM

Jasmine said...
There has even been a lot of talk of opening up other lines that were closed in the 1960’s. They are actually opening up one old line south of Edinburgh and another line between Plymouth and Tavistock. One fact that will make this doable project even more doable is that the UK has more preserved Railways than any other country in the world. There are loads of them all over the place that are run by steam enthusiasts. Because of health and safety standards these lines are up to standard and could be used by modern diesel electrics. If I remember correctly there are over 560 miles of preserved lines and some of the preserved railways are laying new tracks. The fact that parts of the lines that were lost in the 1960 have been preserved will make it a lot easier to rebuild them and bring them into the existing network.

These preserved railways have also done a great cultural service. They have helped to instill a love of the railways into British culture. Many of us have lovely memories of going for trips on these preserved railways when we were children. A lot of this is sentimental nostalgia for the past. However it has helped to ensure that the railways have a position in the British imagination, which is similar to the place held by the car in the American imagination. Such a love of railways could be a great advantage in an age of declining oil supply. In an age of resource restraint it will not be enough for the project of rebuilding lost railways to be economically feasible. It will also be necessary to have a population that is willing to spend precious resources on such a project. The fact that there is such a cultural attachment to these lost railways could be the most important factor in bringing them back into existence

2/6/14, 6:15 AM

My donkey said...
"...and I think my readers will already have gotten the point."

Which reminds me: I recall reading several replies to your fictional end-of-the-USA-empire scenario, in which the writers insisted that this or that action could never happen, or that some particular response MUST follow a specific event, etc.

It was hilarious. They, of course, knew more about your imaginary world than you did, and they were compelled to inform you precisely which imaginings you were allowed -- and not allowed -- to make.

Apparently, control freaks come in all shapes and flavors.

2/6/14, 6:26 AM

Luckymortal said...
On the off chance that you're unaware of these, the BBC has a wonderful set of historic farm documentaries, including Victorian Farm. These are available to us Merigans here:

And Victorian Pharmacy:

It appears the Brits are very aware of the future and they're using the convenient institution of socialized media to prepare their countrymen. The BBC is now filled with shows on low-tech and appropriate tech. And these shows are hits! Of course, the other side of it is that the BBC is using its evil socialism to idealize intelligence. Shows like Doctor Who and Sherlock make smart look cool.

This all seems a very deliberate and wise use of the nation's bandwidth and airwaves.

2/6/14, 6:35 AM

Maria said...
Funny you mention this, JMG. This is my first winter in north-western RI, where we get a lot more snow than the area where I used to live. After back-to-back storms this week dropping heavy, wet snow, my body is a shattered wreck of its former self. As I shoveled for two hours yesterday (muttering crankily all the while) I was trying to figure out how to make it easier without buying a snow blower: put up driveway-covering structures like they do in Vermont? Get a one-horse open sleigh? Lay in a big stock of food in November and refuse to emerge from the house until Spring? How did people manage this before gasoline-powered plows? Is there a way to replicate whatever it might have been and why do I not even know what people did not all that long ago?

Alas, the only answer I could come up with was to get myself into better shape so it's not such a hardship -- although it's not a bad idea for any number of reasons.

In other news, the phrase "since Heinleins roamed the earth" made me laugh out loud. I plan to use variations on that whenever possible from now on. I may even give you credit. :)

2/6/14, 6:40 AM

Mister Roboto said...
As a preamble to next week discussion, I think it's important to point out that there are two different varieties of fascism: The classic variety is the socialistic fascism of Hitler and Mussolini, and the other is the nakedly plutocratic fascism of Chile's Pinochet. I'm guessing it's possible that the new fascism of the deindustrial future might present an entirely new sort of fascism.

2/6/14, 6:42 AM

BruceH said...
Last year our family went to see the DaVinci Machines Exhibit in Appleton, Wisconsin (it's now showing in Bradenton, Florida until April 24th –

“The DaVinci Machines Exhibition, on loan from the Museum of Leonardo DaVinci in Florence, Italy, and is one of just three such exhibits traveling the world.  It contains over 60 hand-crafted inventions built from Leonardo’s 500 – year old designs and is the life work of three generations of Florentine artisans.  They have painstakingly brought to life the creations and concepts devised by the brilliant scientist, inventor and artist Leonardo DaVinci. With over 60 machines on display, many of which are interactive, the collection features replicas of the major and most striking inventions of the original Renaissance Man.”

The machines were all pretty much made from wood, rope and a few metal fittings. We were fascinated, especially my wife, the engineer.

If “Steam Punk” is a celebration of the possibilities and aesthetics of the Victorian era, what would you call what these craftsmen in Florence have created? Could it be the start of some kind of Renaissance/Punk movement as well?

2/6/14, 6:50 AM

Mark Boenish said...
This post made me think of an emotional argument I recently had on another internet forum. A photography forum.

Someone there was trumpeting the virtues of software corrected lenses. The finally crafted masterpieces of optical and mechanical engineering, from famous makers like Zeiss and Leica, are now passe. Progressive types can take advantage of a new generation of small, light and inexpensive lenses, mass produced and made largely from plastic. The common optical imperfections, such as chromatic aberrations and geometric distortions are exorcised automatically by software before the images are even viewed. Swept under the rug, as it were.

Purists were advised not to stand in the way of progress as the new technology promises to liberate the proletariat from the tyranny of over weight and over priced lenses. My reaction to all this, once my heart rate had stabilized, was to rent a Zeiss Distagon wide angle lens for an upcoming vacation to Duluth. All 'brass and glass' with buttery smooth manual focus. We also booked a stay in a restored 19th century mansion where our room will have a wood fireplace and an oversized claw foot bath tub. Ahh, a vacation from the tawdry modern plastic world!

2/6/14, 6:57 AM

thecrowandsheep said...

Many thanks for the Royal Society link last week. The introduction to that volume mentioned in passing that global oil generation is about 2 million barrels per year. Let us neglect all technical challenges and imagine that a world agreement is formed to limit oil consumption to this very amount so that we can maintain an indefinite oil supply into the eons. The question is then for what purpose are those 2 million barrels per year to be deployed, world wide?

I imagine a survey of the world's population will yield at least 2 million different suggested deployments based on whatever people think is most critical. Any further agreement would seem to be hopeless. But I'll tell you what we need John, is a Good Strong Leader to make that decision. How do you deploy those 2 million barrels John?

2/6/14, 7:15 AM said...
Doing my part for the ecotechnic future! Slide rule ordered, some metal type acquired through eBay for a song, and — bonus of bonuses — contact made with TRIO of letter-press machine owners, treadle-presses all: about learning the craft, acquiring the presses, and equipment. And finally, got a current art student who's interested in printing to read your article — who is now thinking about short-term and medium-term business plans that will help him make a living if we can get a press into his garage...

These things take time, but it's clear that it's possible to save the tech we want to save, at least in the short term.

2/6/14, 7:39 AM

Chris Farmer said...
Another beautifully written and articulated post.
I fully agree with your overall point, but we may not need to return to the Victorian era to take the missed fork in the road, although the Steampunk metaphor is perfect. Remember, most steam engines were powered by coal, and the engines themselves were sadly inefficient. They have their advantages surely, but their disadvantages cannot be overlooked.
I would argue that we may only have to go back ~80 years to the Chemurgic movement - who unfortunately failed at convincing society to develop and base industry upon agricultural and natural materials.
I would never claim that we can run our coast to coast strip-mall, suburb and theme-park with the Chemurgic strategy. But we can surely live pretty well if we are intelligent and conservation minded.
There are an incredible amount of internal combustion engines and generator heads strewn across our modern landscape, with numerous people tooled and skilled enough to fix and maintain them.
Internal combustion engines did not begin their history running on fossil fuels. And they may not continue their history running on fossil fuels either. In their early days, spark ignition engines were often run on producer gas.
Personally, if I were looking for a Victorian-era engine, I would re-investigate external combustion engines such as Stirling- and Ericsson- Cycle Engines which died early in their history because they are notoriously hard to scale-up, since they depend on their ability to maintain a large temperature differential at close-proximity. But in a smaller-scaled world, they might just make much more sense.
And although you are completely right - that a different fork in the road in our past may have lead to a completely different outcome with no direct analogs to our society's technologies, we can also choose to keep some existing useful technologies as well. The Chemurgic movement, if it had been successful, might not have led to MIG welders, but my goodness, we're in a place where we can choose both, and why wouldn't we?
If MIG welding wire production can't be sustained by our future economy, my bet is that it will one of the last industrial products to wave goodbye because of how useful it is. I've lived off-grid for over 15 years and I can MIG weld during stretches of sunny days without any generator backup, and I share a small 2.4 kW solar system with both my neighbor and a small farm.
What more could be done with engines, generator heads, and producer gas? Check out
Thanks again for your clarity JMG.

2/6/14, 7:46 AM

Friar Puck said...
"The possibility therefore exists that something like a Victorian technology, or even something like the neo-Victorian extrapolations of the steampunk scene, might be viable in a future on the far side of peak oil, when the much more diffuse, intermittent, and limited energy available from renewable sources will be what we have left to work with for the rest of our species’ time on this planet."

I hope that doesn't mean we have children running industrial treadmills again. That thought troubles me.

2/6/14, 8:02 AM

Steve Maxson said...
There are serious economists who have studied the interconnectedness of the global financial system, and they predict that the failure of one of the megabanks we allow today could result in a total collapse of the global banking system in as little as a week, or perhaps stretching out over 6 months. You can read pages of details of the mechanisms for contagion of the collapse if you search the literature. Other experts have studied a British nationwide transit strike in the early oughts (sorry, I am working from memory and don't have precise details, only the punch lines) which lasted 3 weeks before the government put an end to it. Looking back on it in retrospect, the consensus is that if it had gone on for much more than another week, the British economy would have been in total collapse (no goods on the store shelves, so no cash register receipts deposited in the bank, etc.). Once the employee furloughs turn into terminations you cannot rebuild the self assembled system of an economy by any central planning means. Once folks have missed about 20 consecutive meals things start to get really ugly. My point is that our elected officials have allowed us to live in a world where an apocalyptic type collapse is actually a concrete possibility--it doesn't have to be that way. I have also read the book Scarcity by Christopher Clugston who does a little value adding to US government figures to show that the majority of materials needed for advanced "civilization" will exhaust their large deposits within the next 40 years and just about everything but silicon and bauxite will go the way of oil--leading to your decent scenario. I prefer the gradual descent scenario, given the choices, but you have to be aware that "serious people" view the rapid collapse scenario as presently possible as a result of government policies around the "advanced" world. Rapid collapse deserves a bit more than a casual dismissal given the realities of our world today.

As a final comment, the Victorian era energy use of 10% of our use today would not even run the internet as we have it today. That uses about 17% of the power generated in the US counting the server farms, etc., that make up the whole structure.

2/6/14, 8:13 AM

Andy Brown said...
A couple of commenters have already made the obvious point that the kind of gears-of-brass constructions favored by steampunk really echo machines that only the elites were ever going to have, rather than the masses. I think that misses the point. When I look at the lower energy past, I see a good deal of stuff that was built sturdily to last forever - but always complemented by DIY ephemera like hand-woven baskets (the work of an offhand moment to a skilled hand) or a shopping bag quickly sewn from a flour sack. Well, it's a given that our descendants will know how to make a basket - but if we can preserve innovative mechanical engineering - well there are advantages to heaving your water from the well with a hand pump rather than a bucket. And a windmill? even better.

2/6/14, 8:24 AM

SC said...
As much as Steampunk captures the imagination, please do not forget that steam engines rely on a supply water and boilers which have external, not internal combustion. The boilers are usually under pressure. These engines are not made of plastic, but rather, cast iron. Cast iron requires foundries, molders, and founders. Once the iron casting is made, and after it has cured, it must be machined to tolerance in order to be useful as an engine. Once the engine has been machined, and hooked up to a boiler, and the needed pressure obtained to do some useful work, it must be lubricated, or it not work very well for very long. Yeah, lubrication. The whole industrial Steampunk world relies on lubrication... and foundries... and machine shops... and the skilled workers who know how to make things that are not just props in a role playing game. Just saying.

2/6/14, 8:29 AM

Goldmund said...
Another excellent post John. I've always felt that much of the nostalgia we moderns have for the past is a longing for a lost sense of beauty. What makes so many people cynical about the modern notion of "progress" is witnessing the destruction of things that were perfectly fine and beautiful and replacing them with something ugly, whether it was a grand old 19th century building, torn down and replaced with one that looks like a block of Styrofoam, or the clear cutting of a forest teaming with wildlife to make way for an asphalt parking lot. What I long for, what I'm working towards in my own life is not just creating a world that I can survive in but one that is actually worth living in.

2/6/14, 8:33 AM

Unknown said...
To clarify...the impression I got from your article today was that the value of the Steampunk movement was in its return to valuing aesthetics and craftsmanship in it technological vision, its mind stretching function as an example of a technological and historical pattern that is at least somewhat different from the path of technology actually taken, and in the way it encourages its aficionados to make things for themselves rather than just buying whatever's on the shelf.

Some commenters seem to be suggesting that you were advocating or predicting an actual return to steam power on the large scale or suggesting that the steampunk technologies specifically are a likely future track. While concentrating solar might be a viable source for steam in some places, I would agree that actual steampunk technology is itself problematic. But as an example... some readers may wish to search for a couple of offshoots of steampunk which have attempted to do the same sort of reimagining technological and social development starting at different periods of history--look up Sandalpunk (hearkens back to the Greek or Roman eras--sometimes with a provably Aristotelian cosmology complete with crystal spheres) and Stonepunk (exactly what it says on the tin).

2/6/14, 8:51 AM

Enrique said...
Tom Bannister said: “There's a roman machines exhibit on at the local museum at the moment. Maybe that'll give some clues.”

There were some really bad floods in France a while back. A lot of modern steel and concrete bridges, some less than a decade old, were washed out or suffered major structural damage requiring expensive repairs. Meanwhile, you had Roman bridges, some more than 2000 years old, all which survived with barely a scratch. There are also Roman buildings like the Pantheon show that it is possible to build concrete structures that are very durable, have great aesthetics and can last millennia. One thing that both the Romans and the Victorians showed is that it is possible to build things that are elegant and beautiful but very durable and designed to work for long periods of time. This is a much better approach than the cheap, tacky plastic junk and planned obsolescence that we take for granted today, delivering much better quality products while being far less wasteful.

Speaking of old-fashioned technology, Low Tech Magazine has some great articles on some of the amazing things that ancient, medieval, early modern and 19th century engineers were able to achieve with renewable energy sources, clever engineering and lots of manpower. I believe steampunk is the wave of the future.

2/6/14, 8:53 AM

Robo said...
The Victorian era was powered largely by coal, the prototypical dirty fossil fuel. A Steampunk future would have to rely on a broad range of alternate energy sources to make things go. No doubt the most common source of power would be human and animal muscles, with the solar, wind, hydro, fossil and bio-fueled machinery reserved for the most critical and specialized applications.

2/6/14, 9:06 AM

zaphod42 said...
I like Alan's idea of electrically powered zeppelins. It creates a vision in my mind that is pleasant.

I have no trouble, JM, seeing a future that includes selected technologies, whether those are retained on the way down, or deliberately chosen as Alan described. He is amazingly knowledgeable (and here I thought he was just in to rail transport!) and astute in these matters.

No one seems to be considering the path down - as fewer and fewer are included in productive society, those who are excluded will want to survive as well. That is the gravest danger I can foresee, as a fractious society attempts to deal with renegade gangs (perhaps mobs earlier in the descent). Do you have any thoughts? (As if you wouldn't!)


2/6/14, 9:59 AM

SLClaire said...
A thoughtful post with much in it for me to chew on. As long is one is imagining, one could certainly imagine a future in which only a very small amount of today's knowledge and technology is practiced, or for that matter is even remembered. Something different from your Meriga, but also plausible. We'll see how it unfolds itself.

On slide rules, we now have four slide rules in this two adult household. One is wooden, given to us by a friend after her father died (it was his). One, plastic, bought new before the other three came to us. One, a K&E Deci-Lon a friend purchased for us at an auction. This one is my favorite, perhaps because it reminds me of my father. I borrowed his K&E slide rule for use on exams in high school (no calculators allowed back then) but by the time I got to college calculators were cheap enough that the profs let us use them on exams. I would have liked to receive my dad's slide rule when he died, but apparently my parents sold or got rid of it. (I did get his drafting set, however). Finally, my husband's favorite, an aluminum Pickett, bought a few months back for $5 at a yard sale or a thrift store, I forget which. It's the same model he used in technical school years ago. He'd kept his slide rule till I came into his life and always regretted shedding it when we put our households together. We also bought the book Delights of the Slide Rule since neither of us remembered how to use a slide rule. Now to set myself to relearning how to work that Deci-Lon ... another addition to my list of goals for the year.

2/6/14, 10:33 AM

Justin Patrick Moore said...
Music will always be around. But recorded music? Outside of written notated instructions for playing music? This is a question I have grappled with since my initiation into the mysteries of the long descent. Vinyl records are popular again like never before -often in exquisite editions comparable to any talismanic book. I think the phonograph would be a good thing to keep around in a steampunk future. I have written about this and some other things here, for those who are interested in a longer discussion.

Thanks John!

2/6/14, 10:53 AM

squizzler said...
Jolly good post good sir! Capital observations as always! (as a steampunk might say)

Regarding alternative technology, and steam age technology, I would like to suggest that the steam railway enthusiast scene (particularly here in the UK) makes an excellent case study, with typical Steampunk developments of Victorian technology beyond their supposed period of usefulness, the role playing and re-enactment, and potential use to a less sophisticated world of the future.

Steam railways are something of a watershed technology linking the rational modern world to a more superstitious past. When the West coast mainline was built through Rugby, the local Public School headmaster proclaimed that "Feudalism had gone forever" - railways impose timetabled order. Yet there is something very primally engaging about a steam loco, even simmering at the station you can sense the heat, the smell of oil and fiery breath, that sense of contained power, like a sleeping dragon.

The Steampunk-esque development of Victorian steam technology to the point where it may yet again be competitive with diesel technology can largely be attributed to a string of great engineers, Andre Chapleon whose "internally streamlined" steam locomotives were competitive with electric power of the time, never mind diesel, then Livio Dante Porta, an Argentinean engineer who improved on Chapleon's ideas further and invented further improvements to water treatment, ejectors, etc, and then Wardale who remains active to the modern age. The latest projects by engineers to make competitive steam trains are the 5AT project in UK and the Coalition for Sustainable Rail in the states. The latter organisation have got hold of a steam locomotive they hope to modify to run at 130mph. Powered by (kiln dried) wood - the fuel of the future according to your recent article. The people driving these projects include trained engineers who apply the latest practices in their art: no doubt we owe their improvements to such things as computational fluid dynamic models that their forebears could not manage on their slide rules!

Of course a preserved steam railway is one of the best examples or re-enactment to be found, all the more so when it is considered that the re-enactment happens daily during the tourist season. It is certainly the re-enactment with the best hardware. Of course the retro technology is not limited to the locos - old structures, communications and signalling systems also have to be kept running. Here in Wales we are known for our narrow gauge railways and the Ffestiniog / Welsh Highland has about 40 miles of track - well worth a visit.

I hope that the existence of these volunteer railways mean that in the future we can still organise on the scale needed to run a railway!

2/6/14, 10:54 AM

Varun Bhaskar said...
Hey JMG and everyone else,

You know as doomy and gloomy as your posts are I've actually started to look forward to them more than dealing with the people around me. It's only Thursday and I'm really tired. Not the kind of sleepy tired but the soul-deep tiredness that comes right before someone sinks into a malaise. Let me tell you my tale, because I really need to vent.

Over the past several weeks I've been trying to convince my friends and family that something is drastically wrong in the global economy. Everyone single one of them agrees that something is wrong but not one of them will even look at the energy issues. The whole spread of stories, from the apocalyptic to the utopian, that you talked about in your book “The Long Descent” are available in my group of friends. It's bloody disturbing and I decided to try and combat it because I'm clearly not that bright. Well needless to say I've been failing but at least I'm getting people to recognize the importance of community and skill building. Hopefully these people will all be ready to take care of themselves when I high-tail it the hell out of the US. Yeah, I'm giving it another year but I'm pretty sure I don't want to be anywhere near the US once the imperial decline really gets going. I love this country but people are too nutty and, even worse, too lazy. Like I said every single one of my friends get that something horrible is headed our way but not one of them wants to put plans in place to soften the blow. I've tried telling them the story of the Ants and the Grasshopper to no avail. As of the end of 2014, barring some drastic change in my friends, I'm headed back to India.

In the interim I'm finding refuge in my project View on the Ground ( I truly hope it'll be some help to all of you and if anyone wishes to contribute please feel free to sign up with the site. The website is basically a place to consolidate and analyse all the news stories about the cracks that are appearing in society or, more accurately, the negative and positive cyclicals that drive society. Right now there are only two of us working on the site, which is why there's extensive coverage of Wisconsin and California, but hopefully as more people join we'll get more eyes and ears everywhere. Always to have a lookout during troubled times, right?

Anyway, if you don't want to sign up just send any local, state, national, or international articles that you find to ViewontheGround at


Varun Bhaskar
Chief Administrator
View on the Ground

2/6/14, 11:16 AM

Bogatyr said...
I don't want to get into a shouting match about this, not by any means, but I do think you're over-harsh on cyberpunk!

I don't know what you read that so put you off the genre, but William Gibson's work - the Sprawl trilogy (especially Count Zero), and the Bridge trilogy - as well as Neal Stephenson's early stuff (Snow Crash) were what shaped my thinking at an impressionable age to accept a near-future world where high-tech continues to be developed even as society in general goes into collapse. Both of them (IMHO of course) were prescient not in the details, but on the trends...

2/6/14, 11:16 AM

Rita said...
@Bernd Olm - the Victorian countryside in England was owned by the gentry (circular definition in that land ownership made you part of the gentry) Some were nobles, who might own hundreds of acres in different parts of the island, some by individual farmers who worked and managed their land. Most land was worked by tenant farmers, who in England, had secure leases. Agricultural laborers lived in cottages that might belong to them or might be rented. They usually had enough land for a garden, sometimes enough to fatten a pig, chickens, etc. Some villages still had common land in which working class could gather firewood, edible plants, pasture a cow, etc. Game laws prevented the laboring classes from hunting any game valued for food or sport by the upper classes. By Victorian times the majority of the medieval commons had been enclosed into private fields and the resulting hardship helped channel the population into the jobs in the new factories. Enclosure had some advantages for the population overall as it permitted educated landowners to experiment with more productive farming methods. But it reduced the ability of the farm laborers to support themselves.

2/6/14, 11:32 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Stuart, the revival of hats generally is a surprisingly important point, with or without aviator goggles. People wore hats most of the time in earlier eras because -- surprise -- when you're not flinging around vast amounts of fossil fuel energy, it's a good idea to keep your head warm! I may just do a post on this...

Pinku-Sensei, that last is a good point. So much of modern culture consists of the pursuit of ugliness and rudeness for its own sake; an alternative is worth pursuing.

Dagnarus, good gods. They won't pay back even with government subsidies? Thanks for the tip; that'll be going into the next round of forecasts.

Tom, the Romans had taxis with odometers, flush toilets, and hydraulic organs for playing the music at theatrical performances. It's worth remembering just how much technology can be done with wood, cordage, and handforged metal parts!

Bernd, okay, now notice how you immediately jumped from "Victorian or neo-Victorian technology" to "Victorian social system." Do you recall what I said in the post about the insistence that if the future isn't just like the present, it must be just like some corner of the past? That's what I was talking about.

As for salonfähig, oh, granted -- I'm trying to explain it to a mostly American audience, remember, for whom "salon" means a place women go to get their hair styled. I figured the common American suburban distinction between living room and family room, which covers some of the same ground, would transfer at least some sense of the meaning. Translation is a dog's momma, no question; I sometimes think that scholars who lead sufficiently wicked lives are condemned to spend all eternity translating À la recherche du temps perdu into classical Mayan.

Compound F, okay, that does it -- I'm going to have to do a post on how amateur astronomy used to be done, back in the day. I should probably don my wizard's robe and conjure up the ghost of Sir Patrick Moore for assistance!

Flute, that's a great story -- and rather reminiscent of Arthur C. Clarke's classic SF piece "Superiority." Thanks for the data on Swedish, also -- so many languages, so little time...

Robert, it fascinates me that despite the extremely complex history of slavery, and the fact that it's been abolished many times, so many people instantly default to the notion that once industrialism goes away, poof! Slavery will come back. It's an interesting obsession, and deserves study.

Phil, the fascinating thing is that the figures on per capita energy use in Britain in the Edwardian era are based on the hard numbers of how much coal was mined and imported. It's sometimes hard to realize just how much of the energy we use, we never see!

Bill, thanks for the link to your blog post! No argument there at all -- analog computers may well be the wave of the deindustrial future, if enough people can remember how to design one.

Andy, a nice crisp image. Thank you.

2/6/14, 11:41 AM

Pantagruel7 said...
Roszak was on the faculty at Cal State Hayward when I was getting my undergrad degree there and I intended to take one of his classes before I graduated. But I graduated before I got around to it. Don't know why I want to Mention Wm. Gaddis, but his novel "JR" came to mind while reading your post today. Gaddis was fascinated by player pianos, and was a fierce critic of everything shoddy, which includes nearly everything being produced today. The novel, among other things, revolves around the fortunes of a family that made its fortune manufacturing piano rolls.

2/6/14, 11:42 AM

Eddie Tennison said...
Those of us who are actively studying steam as a small-scale means of power generation are frustrated by the cost of buying or building these mechanical devices in a time when labor is the most expensive part of doing it.

Steam is simple, but requires good engineering and building and sensible behavior on the part of folks playing with it.

Good steam engines and boilers, either old ones (best we have) or new ones (from China) are quite expensive. And steam is dangerous, at least potentially so.

I love the kind of solar steam engines I'm seeing tested by innovative amateurs these days. The only thing keeping me from going there now is the cost.

I've thought for a few years that steam is in our future.

2/6/14, 11:52 AM

Jess G. Totten said...
I beg to differ, your Archdruidness, about the cost and availability of slide rules. Amazon doesn't sell them, the ones on eBay are 50 bucks and up, and the thrift stores I've been in so far don't have any. If you or your readers could offer suggestions about finding one, I would be most grateful.

2/6/14, 12:09 PM

Keith said...
Wonderful post. I had not thought much about steampunk, other than it looks like fun, and you've articulated a broader meaning. I would add movements such as the maker's fairs and the fix-it guy to that mix.

As for "improvements" - where to start. Made me think of GMO foods, which propopents promise will feed the world, while those suspicious consumers are deemed irrational and scientifically illiterates.

I restore vintage bikes once in a while. Stuff from 30 years ago or more still hums along. I'm not so sure carbon fibre toys with electronic shifting are such an improvement.

I'm looking forward to your post next. Creeping fascism is evident in my neck of the woods.


2/6/14, 12:11 PM

artinnature said...
Fascinating post JMG.

I live in Edmonds, the core (bowl) of which is a rather upscale locale north of Seattle. You may be familiar being from the area.

"The Bowl" is mostly filled with wealthy retirees living in condos, and increasingly, wealthy people buying and knocking down wonderful old houses and building massive mansions. The downtown business district consists of mostly upscale restaurants, bars, art galleries, investment houses, coffee shops, hair get the picture.

Well, last year a new shop opened up called "Otherworlds" "a small store devoted to fantasy, steampunk, sci-fi, and vintage horror".

Their website has a nifty animated "steam-crank" but not a lot of other content:

I didn't know much about steampunk until you mentioned it on this blog several year ago, I think in reference to how science fiction had degenerated into steampunk and left you cold?

I was therefore fascinated and I have to admit delighted to see such a shop open in my town. You should see the attire of the purveyors, an indescribable combination of Victorian dresses and other flourishes combined with leather...umm, accessories? worn on the outside. Very cool.

Off topic: This is from my lovely wife who is a big fan of American football: GO SEAHAWKS!

Cheers from Cascadia, where the low temperature overnight was 14.2 F, that's cold for this neck of the woods. Its also been dry-dry-dry. Hope you's in California and Australia get some rain soon!

2/6/14, 12:33 PM

Jason Heppenstall said...
I must admit a certain fondness for steampunk. Perhaps it was the early interest in H.P.Lovecraft that did it, or the fervid imagination of H.G.Wells.

Perhaps that's why I find myself living in what could be a steampunk house. Build in the late 19th century and with immense granite walls, this house was probably the home of some Victorian industrialist who made money shipping broccoli or cut-flowers to London on the newly-opened Penzance-London line.

The interior plasterwork is still in fine shape and the only ugly features of the house are those that have been added in the last 30 years (such as the replacement of all the wooden window and door frames with upvc). Virtually all of the furnishings are 100+ years old and have been quality crafted to last - a benefit of being married to someone who restores antique furniture.

Still, there's a large open fireplace in each room and a capacious coal storage alcove in the basement so I do wonder whether they would have used more energy to heat this particular house than we could ever afford today.

Incidentally, as of yesterday, that train journey is no longer possible due to the track being wiped out by the massive waves pounding the coast here. Did I say massive? One of the waves in the bay was recorded to be 75 feet in height. All of a sudden climate change just got a whole lot more real for a number of people. They say an even bigger storm is due on Saturday.

2/6/14, 12:45 PM

ganv said...
It is fascinating to consider what parts of technological evolution are random and which parts are more inevitable. Biological evolution may be a good example here. The process is fundamentally unpredictable, but constrained by the environment and natural selection in such a way that many evolutionary processes repeat themselves in convergent evolution. For example, octopuses and mammals both evolved camera eyes. I agree that technological evolution is much much less inevitable than the standard progress myths imply.

Information processing is a highly valuable capability as evidenced by the metabolic cost that many vertebrates expend on brain function. I suspect that efficient information processing is a nearly unavoidable outcome of any technological evolution that gets to the point of understanding the basics of how things work...i.e. basic physics. Knowing what we know about materials, it seems almost inevitable that electromagnetic information processing is a convergent technology in the convergent evolution sense. Now that doesn't mean familiar electronics. The first electromagnetic information processors we know of were biological brains which use complex electrical and chemical pathways (chemical bonding is the quantum mechanics of electromagnetic interactions). Humans then developed mechanical and later electronic information processors. It could have been different. We could have developed quantum electrodynamics first and used arrays of trapped atoms with laser readout for quantum computations. Or many things I can't imagine. But that is still electromagnetic. In the future which we can only guess at, our version of electronic computing will be replaced by something else, but whether that will look like evolutionary refinement or whether it will be an extinction is impossible to know.

I have commented before that I think you overestimate how dependent electronics is on oil and our complex economic system. For example, our electronics are much much more energy efficient than any biological or mechanical device for doing numeric calculations. Any competent group of a dozen physicists and/or electrical engineers could build a 2 micron feature size lithography system capable of supporting microprocessors running around a Megahertz in a few years. If they have to melt sand to grind lenses and to purify silicon wafers, and if they have to build the wind turbine to power their setup, it may take a few more years. If they can't pay others for the copper, iron, and coal/biomass they need, it will take yet a few more years. But there is nothing fundamentally complicated about fabricating electronic circuits. It is fundamentally much simpler than cooking or gardening. Because electronics are a focus of modern fantasies of progress, we build them in $10 billion dollar fabs, but you don't need anything like that to ensure that slide rules remain obsolete. The human brain, even using a slide rule, is astoundingly poor at doing arithmetic. Evolution just didn't optimize very well for that function.

2/6/14, 12:55 PM

Juhana said...
In the Finland there is this house that generates it's own electricity with the steam engine, build by house's owner. The house is eco-friendly and very low-energy in other ways too, and off the grid. Interesting example how steam power can be applied unconventional ways. There are translations describing the house in English also.

2/6/14, 1:01 PM

Luckymortal said...
Oh, and quick request. Could you please, pretty please avoid using the word "fascism?"

It does not matter what that word once meant. Unfortunately, the only appropriate definition now is "a form of government lead by a supervillan with a mustache with the policy goal of murdering 6 million jews."

That's it. That's (almost) the only thing that word can mean.

99.9% of the time, I can just replace the word "fascism" with the word "Oogyboogymanism" when I'm reading, without any loss of meaning.

2/6/14, 1:20 PM

Cherokee Organics said...

Steampunk. Like it. The aesthetics of steampunk are a consideration that is often overlooked. Why does so much of our built environment and technology have to look so ugly.

I try very hard to build long lasting and resilient infrastructure here that incorporates the beauty of nature - even in these extreme conditions. It is always interesting when people visit to see what they comment on. It is very telling.

As a shameless plug, if anyone is interested, there is an article explaining some of that infrastructure here. There are more photos too - one with me happily digging a trench in 35 degree weather - trying to get the infrastructure in before the next heatwave rolls in.

Farm update

By the way, it is going to be 40C here tomorrow again. I think that one makes it an official broken weather record.

On a positive note this should provide some time to post the lemon cider recipe to the Green Wizards website. Finding time has been complex - yesterday the shed pump required replacing as the fire sprinkler stopped working. All fixed now (thankfully).



2/6/14, 1:38 PM

AlanfromBigEasy said...

I am a bit of a polymath. I chose to make my persona known through rail for a variety of reasons (I have researched rail use in Cambodia, Liberia and Switzerland during their 7 year 100% oil embargo). Some are obvious, some more subtle.

Yes, I am known for rail - but that is a strategic move on my part. I think in terms of systems and dynamics and error bars.

And like everyone else, I like a little recreation and imagination on occasion :-)

2/6/14, 1:41 PM

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...
Your translation of "salonfähig" made me laugh out loud, since it's basically the way my mother was just today describing the type of young man she'd like to see my daughter bring home to meet the family. :)

2/6/14, 1:43 PM

AlanfromBigEasy said...
Btw, my 25th Century zeppelins would have bio-diesel generators with aluminum air disposable batteries for emergency power. I am considering a giant suction hose to aid landing.

2/6/14, 1:44 PM

Brian said...
I have been contemplating these notions as well; in fact, just a few days ago I wrote about the re-enacters and anachronists who flourish today - as I practiced with my dip pen, a tool I've gone to because the fountain-pen hobby is too expensive. Why bother with the hi-tech fountain pen when there's a simpler technology available? I also use typewriters, which are technologically incredibly advanced (and really require an industrial infrastructure to produce, but at least they're not ever-obsolete computers.

But remember, all the re-enacters and anachronists go home after their games to their electrically powered computers to document their lo-tech activities. I don't discount the importance of play in preparing for our strange futures, but I wonder just how prepared any of us really are. Even those of us who think deeply about what may come.

Meanwhile, those of us in the lower-middle working class have been dealing with the long decline for some time now. I haven't expected much from my future but more work and less money. So we learn to plant gardens, to get by on less. But the best prep I can think of is simply learning to lower our expectations.

2/6/14, 1:45 PM

Thomas Daulton said...
Talking about hearkening back to previous cultures, I was surprised to read this article a couple of days ago: "Mexican Hipsters Rediscover Pulque"

Pulque was basically the original meso-American precursor to Tequila, fermented literally inside the bases of agave plant stems, millennia before refining technology was ever brought to the New World. It's still made in the back country of Mexico, like moonshine is made in America today, and apparently enjoying a similar comeback, gaining "respectability". 99% of Americans seem to find Pulque disgusting. I happen to like it, but it is an "acquired taste" at best. Call it a fashion statement if you must, but this is definitely an example of intentionally choosing history and lineage over modern ease and convenience.

2/6/14, 1:58 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Alan, and all that electrical power is going to go into aluminum smelting, when there are so many other uses for it? Hmm.

Karl, I suspect a certain amount of long pig will be on the menu in at least a few places as things get harsh. I hope it doesn't become too widespread, but there it is.

Justin, I find Reich interesting in other contexts, but that one didn't impress me at all -- as usual, it takes the label "fascism" and subjects it to as much Procrustean treatment as necessary to make it fit his thesis.

Jasmine, of course! We have a steam railway here in Cumberland, MD, running a very fine old steam locomotive up through the mountains to Frostburg and back. For that matter, the local Shriners have their own private railroad, with a retired mine engine and handmade rolling stock. (You can tell that Cumberland used to be a major rail town.) The challenge with rail, of course, is adequate fuel; I'm by no means sure that'll be an option, at least on any scale. But we'll see.

Donkey, thank you! I'm not sure it's just control freakery, though -- my scenario, like Star's Reach, was meant to conflict with the narratives hardwired into people's heads, and the resulting cognitive dissonance drove a lot of the demands that I give people a future they expect rather than one they might actually get.

Mortal, that's very encouraging indeed. Maybe some of that sentiment will catch on over here one of these days.

Maria, getting into better shape is always a good idea. As for the old-fashioned way of doing things, well, here in Cumberland young men from the poorer part of town shoulder snow shovels and do the rounds -- $20 gets your walk and driveway shoveled. Some of them have got to make $500 on a good day. If you've got those in your area, a $20 bill might not be a bad investment!

Roboto, now ask yourself why you want to use the official name of Mussolini's regime to apply to all these other, arguably unrelated social forms.

Bruce, okay, that's good. How about RenPunk? Ren-Faire culture meets neo-retro technology -- it could be a lot of fun.

Mark, good for you. May you take stunningly good photos with that classic lens. By the way, have you gotten into old-fashioned brew-your-own darkroom techniques? If photography's going to make it, that's probably how.

Crowandsheep, since no one person will ever have the opportunity to decide how those two million barrels will be deployed, I'm not particularly interested in the question.

Andrew, excellent! I'm delighted to hear it.

2/6/14, 2:01 PM

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...
Greetings to JMG and all,

Most interesting post, especially since during my recent re-functionalizing-the-kitchen project I was reading, among other sources, kitchen design books from the late 19th/early 20th centuries.

Also helpful to my project, as well as germane to this topic and your seven technologies, are Christopher Alexander's books about architecture, "The Timeless Way of Building" and "A Pattern Language" and others. These I also found very helpful, since they refocus building design toward human needs and away from modern technologies (and plastic). They agree in spirit and philosophy with Theodore Roszak--and offer a practical way to think forward in one realm.

One reason so many of us appreciate the Victorian aesthetic, I believe, is that the Arts and Crafts folks (W. Morris et alia) were so determinedly pushing back against the industrial revolution onslaught--creating their own contemporaneous version of steampunk, as it were. They did have an enormous influence.

2/6/14, 2:14 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Chris, fascinating. That's a movement of which I was completely unaware. More research needed!

Friar P., again, are you equating a technology with a specific set of social forms, and if so, why?

Steve, I'll take your last point first. Of course Victorian levels of energy won't keep the internet running. Neither will anything else. The internet isn't going to be around indefinitely; as we finish burning through the last cheap fossil fuels and have to deal with much less energy, it's going to go away. Deal.

As for economic fast-crash scenarios, I've dealt with them repeatedly here. They make perfect sense as long as you ignore all the evidence of history and pretend that the only thing governments and people will do during an economic crisis is sit on their hands saying "Oh, whatever shall we do?" Lacking those dubious assumptions, what we face instead is a series of brutal economic crises, each of which is followed by the impoverishment of a lot of people, a partial recovery that only reaches some people, and a transition toward the next crisis.

In 2008, a whole flurry of people were making the same fast-crash claims, and they were wrong. I made the claim I've just repeated, and I was right. I'll be right again this time, too, because the situation's the same. If you want to disagree, fine -- let's talk about it again in 2016, shall we?

Andy, excellent. Notice also the knee-jerk habit of conflating Victorian technology with Victorian society -- again, a reflection of the widespread inability to imagine a future that isn't either a continuation of the present or a carbon copy of the past.

SC, why do you think I'm trying to get steampunk aficionados interested in slide rules? Actual steam engines are next. Shhh -- don't tell 'em. ;-)

Goldmund, nicely put. The raw ugliness of modern life is, to my mind, one of the most obvious symptoms that something has gone very, very wrong with the Enlightenment dream of limitless progress as a way to human betterment.

Unknown, those were new to me. As for steam, though, I'm going to whisper a phrase here, in the hope that it stirs some imaginations: "Augustin Mouchot's solar steam engines..."

Enrique, Low Tech is always worth reading. As for tacky junk and planned obsolescence, good -- another reason why Victorian technology might be a workable model is that so much of it was made to endure, rather than to be thrown out in a few years and replaced.

Robo, exactly. Again, not an exact replay, but an extrapolation in new directions from that starting point. ("Augustin Mouchot's solar steam engines...")

Zaphod, we'll be getting to that in the series of posts on the coming dark age. All in good time!

2/6/14, 2:17 PM

August Johnson said...
JMG - In addition to Sir Patrick Moore, the great three volume set published by Scientific American in 1935 - Amateur Telescope Making

Jean Texereau 1951 - How to Make a Telescope

2/6/14, 3:33 PM

AlanfromBigEasy said...
"Alan, and all that electrical power is going to go into aluminum smelting, when there are so many other uses for it? Hmm. "

The Icelandic hydroelectric project I worked on powers an Alcoa smelter. From memory a constant 540 MW for 940 metric tonnes of aluminum per day.

This is one of the most efficient smelters in the world and uses prime ore. None-the-less, 940,000 kg of aluminum per day could supply a significant amount of metal for a civilization of, say, 10 million people. Recycling aluminum takes even less power. Using local ore would reduce production, perhaps by a quarter.

That amount of hydropower would not be missed from the Scandinavian hydropower or the Pacific Northwest/British Columbia or Quebec or even Manitoba.

So I see a role for hydropower and aluminum production in some places barring social collapse.

2/6/14, 3:34 PM

Martin said...
Re: Victorian era energy technology. The one thing most folks seemingly disregard when talking/writing about this is true horse-power and, to some extent, ox-power.

2/6/14, 3:35 PM

John Michael Greer said...
SLClaire, a Deci-Lon and a Pickett between them put your household way up there in terms of the status symbols old-fashioned hairy-eared engineers used to respect. And Clason's book! You'd have to have an original copy of Asimov's slide rule manual to outdo that. ;-)

Justin, good. Here's my question: are there other ways to make analog recordings of sound that would stand up to age better than vinyl? If anyone's looking for a fascinating challenge, that might be worth the time...

Squizzler, glad to hear of your local narrow-gauge railway; the only Welsh railway I've ever ridden was the funicular up to the top of Yr Wyddfa, but if I ever get back that way I'll have to correct that.

Varun, congrats on the new project -- I hope it goes well.

Bogatyr, maybe it's just that I was living in Seattle at the time, surrounded by the hacker-and-slacker culture on which so much early cyberpunk was based; I found it stunningly dreary. Still, de gustibus non disputandum est!

Pantagruel, I'll add that to the read-this list.

Eddie, see if you can find someone else who's working in that field and volunteer your time; you can also go looking for old textbooks on steam engineering -- for example, you can get some here -- or arrange to take a summer course in steam locomotive handling or the like from one of the many steam railways that have them. There are many ways to do the thing!

Jess, try here. You're going to pay a few bucks for one, but remember, it's never going to need batteries... ;-)

Keith, it fascinates me to see how often "improvements" these days consist of things that work better for a short time and then break.

Artinnature, yes, I know Edmonds tolerably well -- my father-in-law used to live there. As for the Seahawks, well, to each their own.

Jason, it's quite probable that each of those fireplaces ended up hosting a Franklin stove or something like one, you know. As for the waves, whew! That's pretty impressive.

Ganv, I would love to see someone make the experiment of getting a dozen physicists together and having them actually build some such device out of scrap and raw materials. I'm far from sure you're right that they could do it -- and let's not even talk about the issue of who would feed them and take care of their other needs while all this work was going on.

2/6/14, 3:55 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Juhana, most fascinating! Many thanks for the link.

Mortal, no, the word actually means "a third-rate southern European dictatorship led by a portly guy who liked snazzy uniforms." How exactly it got distorted into its present meaning is a very interesting issue, which I'm going to address over the next couple of weeks. On the other hand, "OOgyboogymanism" is a keeper.

Cherokee, ouch. You almost make me relish last night's ice storm.

Alan, why not just use the biodiesel engines directly for emergency power? That way you don't lose 2/3 of the total energy converting mechanical power to electrical power and back again.

Brian, if the power of play can help get people started thinking about a different future than the one the media is selling us, I'm all for it.

Thomas, that doesn't surprise me at all. Some of the things coming out of the microbrew beer revolution are acquired tastes at best!

Adrian, excellent! Arts and Crafts deserves a revival, for that matter. How many people even remember who Elbert Hubbard was any more?

2/6/14, 4:03 PM

John Michael Greer said...
August, true enough. Thanks for the reminder!

Alan, social collapse on the one hand, pressures from less richly endowed but more heavily populated regions on the other -- it would take some remarkable historical events for the people in those small areas to be able to enjoy unrestricted use of their own electrical resources while millions of others not so far away have to do without. You'll want to figure out how your future society defends itself from its neighbors, in other words.

Martin, true enough. Be sure to add in mule power -- the town where I live was once at the upper end of a major canal, and the motive power that hauled coal and timber down from the mountains to Washington DC and Chesapeake Bay, and all manner of other goods back up into the mountains, was provided by the slow steady plodding of mules.

2/6/14, 4:08 PM

KL Cooke said...
"There is a very real risk that our furry forest friends could be hunted out rather quickly under the right circumstances, further pushing the environment out of balance."

Possibly poaching will once again be a capital crime.

2/6/14, 4:32 PM

AlanfromBigEasy said...
The 2/3rds losses are mainly in the fuel > crankshaft area. Crankshaft to generator losses (using current tech for, say, 300 kW) are about 13%.

Two reasons to take that 13% loss. "Waste" heat to heat the nitrogen gas and flexibility.

Power can go the propellers on the ends of the two stubby wings or to the trio of motors & propellers surrounding the gondola on the bottom. All electric motors can pivot on their mounts (say +30 to -22 degrees on wingtips). Not easy with diesel engines. I wanted a very maneuverable zeppelin and electric motors give greater control.

Plus the gondola crew can tend to the generators easily, fuel management is easier, etc.

On the "2 micron chip", I have the 24xx Union of Scandinavia and Antarctica producing 8086 chips. These were produced in 1.5 and 3 micron versions (including a Soviet knock-off) in the 1980s. In the future, 8086s are produced in fairly small volumes.

I am glad that someone else endorses the feasibility of low end computers with some, but limited resources.

Plus Sweden and Denmark bought and stored a number of higher end, long life microprocessors in 2045-47 as things began to fail apart. Almost 400 years later, 14% are left in storage and are carefully allocated.

2/6/14, 4:33 PM

Babylon Falls - Tasmania. said...
Time After Time is an old movie I watched as a kid about H G Wells using a time machine to track Jack the Ripper into the 20th century. Imagine past centuries British folk ending up in modern America. Wells at one point works out that he can get food from a MacDonald's. Sitting at a table with a red plastic/laminate top, he knocks it and turns to another customer and said that he has never seen wood like that before.

When I first got interested in Steam punk, it was out of an attraction for the artistic merit, other interests covering the areas more pertinent to the subjects raised in ADR. But it was the likes of Margaret Killjoy's online Steam punk Zone that made me aware that the 'punk' aspect is a DIY 'create ones own culture' reaction to the modern off the rack banality.

Some do it for the music and clothes, but others do work on the tech. Some of those in it for the clothes relearn Victorian tailoring skills etc.

This movement has a lot of potential for reskilling folk that might not enter via Green Wizard doors.

2/6/14, 4:43 PM

AlanfromBigEasy said...
Scandinavia becomes an island fairly early as the ice sheets melt. The Kiel and White-Baltic canals being the dividing lines.

In warfare a modest advantage in technology is an immense force multiplier. Add to this the advantage of a narrow peninsula that becomes an island and a population that can fight fiercely when needed.

By 2410, their copy of the German (Krupp ?) 88 mm cannon was their main weapon, while production of the 105 mm version has just started. 32 mm, 40 mm and 54 mm Bofors rapid fire guns are their main secondary weapon.

No other nation is producing breech loaded, rifled artillery with fused shells.

A more detailed history at

2/6/14, 5:01 PM

John Dunn said...
Excellent tutorials and the ability to tell the time and place where instruments were made.
Hints for newbees: use pencil and paper on the side, break your work into smaller bites, watch your decimal points. Your speed will increase and accuracy is surprisingly good. We went to the moon on slide rules.

2/6/14, 5:02 PM

sunseekernv said...
@Steve Maxson re: internet power use

Got a reference for 17% of US power?

These guys from UC Berkeley say 1.1 to 1.9% of world electricity for the world internet, including end user devices.
They also estimate the emergy in all the parts.

These folks say 4.5% of world electricity, but include all telecom too.

The 10 or 17% estimates seem to come from the coal industry - hmmm, wonder what their angle is?
Or from Greenpeace's 623 Billion kWh estimate for worldwide (which is about 4% worldwide), which is compared to 16% of US generation (as is done in "The Cloud Begins with Coal") - apples and oranges.

It will be interesting indeed to see how far/how fast the internet declines in the future, how the tradeoff of moving information vs. moving things plays out when the liquid fuels for transportation of things problem hits.

Given its usefulness and ability to substitute for physical resources, I think the internet has a good chance of lasting a while = 50+ years?. Though having radios isn't a bad idea for "plan B".

2/6/14, 5:09 PM

Joseph Nemeth said...
@ganv -- when I was in graduate school, surrounded by top physicists (though I think they had only one Nobel on faculty at the time, and he was never there), we had a little bit of theatre that took place every Tuesday at 4:00 pm, as the warm-up act for the "Graduate Colloquium."

The department would file into the auditorium, and by custom, the theorists would move all the way down to the front and scatter themselves about, while the experimentalists would scatter themselves across the back. I'm sure this had something to do with being seen versus getting caught sleeping, but I can't prove that.

Someone would introduce the speaker, and then would sit down. The speaker would turn on the overhead projector, and the stage lights would be too bright, so they would ask if someone could turn them down. Invariably, one of the theorists -- never the same one -- sitting near the stage would stand, walk to the podium, and begin fiddling with the switches for the lights. Lights would go on and off, but not the main stage lights.

After a ritual period of about thirty seconds, and many flashing lights all over the auditorium, one of the experimentalists would sigh, loudly, then march all the way down from the back, flip two switches (which got the lights working properly) and return to his seat.

Every. Single. Tuesday.

"Any competent group of physicists could…" Dangerous way to introduce a concept, in my opinion. :-)

2/6/14, 5:19 PM

Ruben said...
Regarding German words, please enjoy this video: Rhabarberbarbara.

Alan, the future of aluminum smelting reminds me of something I often heard in my work in garbage and recycling.

Given that most cities officially acknowledge Peak Oil, I would ask how they planned to keep their might fleet of garbage trucks running. Invariably, they would wax rhapsodic about how they are or will be capturing landfill gas and using that to run the trucks.

Which is great. But it seems much more likely that society will value things like ambulances and firetrucks over garbage trucks. Or that the police will simply seize the fuel supply from the municipal dump.

Similarly, I have a hard time imagining an aluminum smelter happily burbling along when the nearby hospital is in the dark, and needs power for ventilators and incubators.

2/6/14, 5:23 PM

Unknown said...
(Deborah Bender)

@Jess G. Totten--I inherited a slide rule and bought another at the estate sale of an architect.

Captcha advice blsonia

2/6/14, 6:10 PM

sunseekernv said...
John and Alan re: the biodiesel generators and the zeppelin thing.

Yes, large concentrated electrical sources will be quite valuable, so JMG has a point there about defending them. And I used to live in Mountain View, CA - home of Moffet Field, and 3 very large hangers - for Lighter Than Air vehicles. I'm not so hopeful about airships, the Akron had 4 accidents and was lost, along with a search blimp. Before that, the Shenandoah. Back to California, the loss of the USS Macon is local history.

Anyway, JMG - re: "… lose 2/3 of the total energy converting mechanical power to electrical power and back again". I too wonder about the need for aluminum-air batteries for emergency use, though on a weight limits of LTA vehicle basis.

But are you implying that going from diesel engine to generator to motor to propeller will loose 2/3 of the output of the diesel?
n.b. aluminum-air batteries are primary cells, not rechargeable except by replacing the cathode.–air_battery

Actually, such a hybrid arrangement is the only (IMO) sensible thing about Alan's proposal. The heavy diesels would be (hopefully) along the centerline for balance, and easy to access for repairs. Some light wires would carry power to the motors, which would be easily controllable and (nearly) instantly reversible without all kinds of crazy mechanical linkages.

The efficiency of medium to largish motors and generators is in the 90% range. Due to energy codes around the world, a lot of motors are now/soon required to be "Premium Efficiency", where any motor above 7.5 kW (10 hp) must be > 90% efficient, and larger motors are required to be 95%.

I might doubt that Alan's future airship's motors would be that efficient, but they wouldn't be far off.
Note that virtually all "diesel" locomotives are such hybrids - diesel prime mover running generator, which powers an electric air compressor and the motors in the trucks. So much easier, efficient and more reliable than mechanical transmissions.

High efficiency brushless DC motors exceed 96.5%, though those require electronics.
(Simple brushed DC motors are typically 75-80% efficient.)

That's one reason why electric vehicles are a win, most of the energy goes to the wheels, typically around 80% efficient from plug to wheels, helped along by regenerative braking and no idle losses. An Internal combustion engine is about 25%, but when accounting for idling and parasitic loads, ICE vehicles are more like 20% efficient.
While the grid from fossil fuels in boilers is only 35-40% efficient, combined cycle is pushing 60%, and renewables are effectively 100% (free fuel). But oil production is 95% efficient (EROEI 20:1), refining is 87-90% efficient, and transportation of oil/gasoline cuts into that too. So gasoline is only like 17% efficient "well to wheels", but an EV is 25% or much more efficient "well to wheels", even starting from 35% boilers.
refinery efficiency:
EV efficiency:

Of course if one has distributed PV or wind or small hydro, one can recharge an EV on one's own.
(particularly if it's an electric bike or trike sort of thing).

One could grow/process biofuels locally, but what will the cost of that be, once the fossil fuel subsidy goes away? I think prohibitive for most folks.

2/6/14, 6:16 PM

C.L. Kelley said...
On the questions both of mule power and the usefulness of rail without coal/oil to power a locomotive, I believe it was SM Stirling in one of his postapocalyptic Arthurian romps who noted that one horsepower can move 8 times as much weight by rail as road over the same terrain. In an era with abundant metal salvage, horsepowered rail may well be the new canal. Add in that the rails can be softer metal, or even wood with metal strips on, when you're moving at the speed of a walking horse instead of a diesel engine. Same author also had some interesting ideas about combining bicycle power with rail for high-speed passenger transport.

2/6/14, 6:17 PM

Robert Mathiesen said...
ganv wrote:

"The human brain, even using a slide rule, is astoundingly poor at doing arithmetic. Evolution just didn't optimize very well for that function."

Actually no; the human brain is surprisingly adaptable, and it can learn to do quite complex arithmetic without even the use of pencil and paper. But our culture(s) hugely downplay the mental skills and habits that one must cultivate before one can do these things: long periods of solitude and silence, and the ability to think using patterns and relationships only, without any words.

I used to take square roots in my head when I was in my teens. To do so, first I went off by myself somewhere where I wouldn't hear or see any noise, or have any compelling distractions. Then I set up several retentive "blackboards" in my mind. I used one to write out the original number (framing it in pairs of digits to the left and right of the decimal point), a second to write out the square root as I slowly worked it out, and a third as scratch paper while I calculated each digit of the square root, one after the other. When I had done this, I just started calculating wordlessly, in utter silence, moving from left to right, using symbols and patterns, but never a single word. (Every number has its own unique set of properties, as distinctive as the faces of individual human beings, which can serve to identify it without needing to use its ordinary name.) Eventually I would have the complete answer on the second board, and then I could read it off digit by digit, or copy it down on paper. It might take a half-hour or more to finish the work, if the original number was a long one.

I am sure than anyone could train him/herself to do the same, if that person could first get good at doing two things that happened to come to me naturally. It would be harder, of course, for many people to do these things than it was for me. I had two natural advantages that most of my peers did not.

First, I didn't (and don't) naturally think in words or pictures at all, but only in abstractions of pattern and interrelationship. (I have to translate these inward things into some every-day human language in order to communicate any of my thoughts to other people.) Words have always annoyed me: they are useful tools, but extremely clumsy ones, and they really get in the way of just many things that I enjoy doing.

And second, I'm solitary by nature, and I really enjoy spending quite long periods of time without any human verbal contact. People are always talking, after all, and I have a sort of allergy to the endless river of words in which so many people swim every hour of their lives.

In short, no, one doesn't need calculators or computers, or even pencil and paper. One just needs people who have, or have developed, this set of skills. It's generally easier to train oneself or another willing person than to build some gadget.

2/6/14, 6:17 PM

ganv said...
That would be a fun project: See which team could build the best computational device out of a collection of raw materials. Unfortunately, it would take a few years of dedicated work by people who could otherwise get paid very well for their talents, so it probably won't happen unless it is necessary for economic reasons.

About your objection about how their basic needs would be met: some of the earliest uses of computation were for military applications in ballistics calculations and code breaking. Other early proposals that have become revolutionary include weather prediction. For at least the next few centuries, it seems nearly certain that there will be people who will provide sustenance to a group of scientists and engineers that repay them with the military and economic superiority provided by efficient computation.

2/6/14, 6:22 PM

Ruben said...
I thought somebody had mentioned a significant modern upgrade to a good old technology, but now I can't see it when I scan the comments.

I would like to nominate Fido Jar Fermentation as Ecotechnic. I think it is no less than a revolution in fermented food.

This method makes delicious ferments, such as sauerkraut, with none of the hassle. No weights, no mould, no scum, no skimming. Put your veg in a jar, put the jar in a cupboard, and come back in a month.

You can buy the jars at a hardware store. There are no moving parts or fancy doodads.

I have a lot of homesteady-type projects on the go at any one time, and it makes my brain hurt as I try to keep track of all the little details I need to do each day--everything needs a little time at the right time. So, this method is a huge relief.

2/6/14, 6:40 PM

Unknown said...
(Deborah Bender)

@JMG--The Arts and Crafts movement has had one significant revival in the United States. It started with museum shows and catalogs in the 1980s, followed by many books on the architectural and decorative style and an annual conference for collectors and dealers in Asheville, North Carolina.

There were two principal magazines, Style 1900, which suspended publication a little over a year ago, and American Bungalow, which is going strong. The Arts and Crafts revival has generated successful local movements to establish historical preservation districts in town and city neighborhoods that were built up between 1900 and 1940. Many of these neighborhoods are trolley-car suburbs, walkable neighborhoods beloved by the advocates of the New Urbanism.

American Bungalow pays attention to the underlying philosophy of the A&C movement, rather than treating it just as a consumer fad, and anyone who reads the magazine for a while would know who Elbert Hubbard was. Although every issue includes a piece about a high-end house full of antiques, the magazine has regular features on DIY restoration of old bungalows and on community organizing to prevent good old houses from being torn down and replaced by McMansions.

While it was trendy, demand for furniture and decorative objects in the Craftsman style led both to mass-produced knockoffs and to furniture, paintings, pottery, needlework kits etc. of excellent quality from artisans and small shops. Some continue to have customers.

The trend peaked and has been replaced by a revival of Mid Century Modernism. The latter is partly fueled by the natural fascination of the young for the Space Age and New Frontier that happened before they were born, and by the availability of relics from that period. However, the disconnect between Modernism and what our times require is too great for this fashion to last, IMO.

2/6/14, 7:33 PM

John Roth said...

“There’s many a slip between the cup and the lip.” As far as being able to salvage micro-chip technology able to make something similar to an Intel 8008 (which used 10 um technology, lots larger than your specified 2 micrometer technology,) I’d like to see someone actually do it.

I’m not being ironic or cynical here. I’d like to see it happen, but unless someone with a few million dollars to invest gets on the stick and works out the process in a form that can be used with relatively modest amounts of electricity and without the world-wide supply chains of either rare elements or hard-to-make components, it isn’t going to happen, because there won’t be the lead time once the situation deteriorates to where the current technologies start to fail and can’t be replaced.

Just for starters, manufacturing semiconductor quality silicon requires very high temperatures and very precise quality control; these temperatures are, I think, high enough to make large blocks of gem quality sapphire, which has its own uses. Just working out how to do this one piece of the process in a future technology without the world-wide supply chains and expertise that requires hundreds of subspecialties is going to take a lot of work. Then there’s the rest of the process.

Just to get some realism here, it might be interesting to go and look at the automated data processing equipment of the 1950s and 60s. Some of the manuals are still freely available. The first really wide-spread computer, the IBM 1401, used discrete transistors, coincident-core memory and punched cards. By the mid 60s, it accounted for the majority of computers in the world (about 10,000.) Push back a generation to punched card equipment - this stuff didn’t use transistors at all, and some of it didn’t use vacuum tubes except possibly in the power supply. I’d say the IBM 305 was Rube Goldberg’s finest creation, except that there were hundreds installed.

You don’t have to go quite all the way back to Bob Cratchet and Ebineezer Scrooge for manual accounting methods.

2/6/14, 8:15 PM

xhmko said...
Hey JMG,

We are actually running with the SteamPhunk agenda these days. More George Clinton than Johnny Rotten.

On the matter of petroleum companies losing money, Shell is selling up big in Australia at the moment. Selling shares in subsidiaries and trying to offload their actual petrol stations too. Selling energy is becoming a mug's game. If you say a crash is coming in the next few months, I'm seeing this as one of the first rushes to the exit sign.

Out of curiosity, have you read Starhawk's "Fifth Sacred Thing" and what were your thoughts.

2/6/14, 8:17 PM

Mark Rice said...
There is a lot of discussion of the well made things of the past. There is a simple reason why most of the stuff from the distant past is well made. The stuff from the distant past that was not well made did not last.

2/6/14, 9:16 PM

Bogatyr said...
@Jason - I wonder if you're right that these storms will raise awareness of climate change. I lived for many years in Aberystwyth, where the Victorian promenade and bandstand collapsed into the sea during some of the recent storms (not long after repairs needed after earlier storms had been completed). Although pictures made lots of national papers, I haven't seen any evidence that it's led to further belief that climate change is real. Still, the washing away of the railway in Cornwall is much more significant than the loss of a bandstand. I wonder whether it'll change the perception of Cornwall as a nice place for affluent south-easterners to buy up holiday properties - and whether that will drive relocalisation?

@squizzler - one of my colleagues in Aberystwyth was a volunteer on the Tal-y-llyn railway, and I enjoyed some trips on Cadair Idris... I've also used the Welsh Highland Railway between Porthmadoc and Caernarfon on occasion! There's plenty of knowledge and experience to be drawn on there.

JMG and others who mentioned the affection Brits have for steam railways: I can do no better than direct you to Ivor the Engine on Youtube...

Bruin and JMG: there seem to be a number of us who are fans of sword and spear. It's worth accumulating what we can during these times of plenty, because well-made weapons will be scarcer than hens' teeth before too long. The UK government has already started clamping down on swords.

Finally, fascism - in its original context, I believe it referred to the corporatist state, where the interests of the state were the interests of big business, and vice versa. By the way, hi from Russia!

2/6/14, 9:58 PM

dragonfly said...
JMG, be careful what you wish for ! This seems an appropriate point to mention:
Kinetic Steam Works, wherein the good folks at KSW are intent on powering an offset press via steam, and have apparently also undertaken construction of the aforementioned Mouchot and Pifre solar steam generator.

Steam is hip, trendy, and hot !

2/6/14, 10:17 PM

John Michael Greer said...
KL, quite possibly.

Alan, well, by all means pursue your vision, as I said.

Babylon, that would be very welcome!

John, exactly. If it's good enough to put bootprints on lunar regolith, it's good enough for most other purposes.

Sunseeker, of course you're right -- I was thinking of fuel-to-power conversion, and getting the number jumbled.

C.L., if you've got plenty of spare metal, sure. The reason I didn't put trains into my novel Star's Reach was that by that time, the salvage from ruins was starting to run short, and that much metal would be prohibitively expensive.

Ganv, I'd definitely like to see somebody actually make the attempt. Based on what I know of the resource and energy inputs involved, my guess is that other uses for the same scarce energy and resource supplies would come well ahead of digital computing.

Ruben, fascinating. I'll look into it.

Unknown Deborah, thanks for the info! It's hard for one archdruid to stay on top of all these things...

Xhmko, I haven't read it. I'm not a great fan of Starhawk's work, and the friends who read it described it as a heavyhanded allegory of the ongoing rivalry between the Bay area and Los Angeles, and not much more, so I didn't pursue it.

Mark, all the more reason to study those things that survived, to find out what made them survive!

Bogatyr, that's a common misconception. "Corporation" had a much broader range of meanings before midcentury or so -- it was the common term for medieval guilds in some European languages, for example -- and "corporatist" in the Italian Fascist sense referred to the state-syndicalist element of Mussolini's ideology, the formation of guild structures in which employers and labor were expected to sit down and work out their differences under the watchful eyes of Fascist Party officials. I encourage you to find a good history of Italian Fascism and see for yourself.

2/6/14, 10:26 PM

Cherokee Organics said...

Hats are popular here too, but for opposite reasons. They keep the sun off your head. Sunburn and skin cancer is a serious problem here.

I'm never out in the sun without a hat at this time of the year. My favourite by the way is a rather dapper Fedora hat. I feel very old school detective (or possibly Arthur Daley from the Minder TV series of my misspent youth! The hat was locally made too.

When I was a youth, older men used to actually wear those English flat hats of the sort you'd possibly see on a farm in some cold, rainy, windy and treeless farm in the UK - possibly with a few and wet miserable looking sheep in the background for good measure. The farmer would possibly mumble from beneath the brim of the hat, something like, "Evenin, govenur".

Just for people’s interest, it hasn't rained here for a bit, so yeah, I am jealous of moister locations than here.

The hats are for sale at the market, but when I mentioned my ambitions in this direction, someone pointed out to me that Brad Pitt had taken up wearing them. I didn't want to look too much like a poseur so had to give up the idea.

Back in the very late 80’s I grew a goatee thinking that was very cool and then after a while every guy that worked in IT started sprouting a goatee. How did that happen? At that point, I then switched to a beard and now the hipsters have reclaimed the beard. How is that there are now so many emasculated Ned Kelly wannabies wondering the streets of inner Melbourne? Ned Kelly incidentally, was a blood thirsty bush ranger who had a penchant for shooting people, particularly those that worked in law enforcement. He was pretty handy with steel too as he's famous for having constructed an armour suit. It is possibly a fair comment to say that he was a touch reactionary.

One thing is for sure, any economic downturn should produce more facial hair. That’s my prediction for the day.

Who would have thought that the mention of hats here could spark so many different trains of thought!

Hi Karl Dehrmann,

I disagree with your assertion about long pig. The reason for this is that there are plenty of recent and current food shortages about the planet and people by and large don’t resort to long pig. I remember reading about Pol Pot’s regime in Cambodia where they basically shipped off all of the urban population to rural areas and whilst millions of people died (many shot and many starved), I don’t recall reading accounts of people consuming long pig. I wouldn’t worry too much as most people in industrial countries wouldn't have a clue where food comes from anyway.

It takes a special sort of person to do eat long pig, like the Tasmanian convict Alexander Pearce. He developed quite the taste for it, but was eventually hanged. You wouldn't have wanted to drift off to sleep when he was about and a bit peckish.



2/6/14, 10:26 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Dragonfly, I'm always careful what I wish for -- most mages are! If they succeed in duplicating Mouchot's feat, and running a printing press off a solar steam system, I'll be utterly delighted.

2/6/14, 10:27 PM

Helix said...
I used slide rules for years. At university before major exams, one could see engineering students running pencils down the ridge of the slide on aluminum rules and along the top and bottom where the cursor rides to minimize binding. (Don't use oil -- graphite works much better!) I personally prefer bamboo slide rules. They operate more smoothly, hold up better over time, and the craftsmanship is marvelous.

I'm in complete agreement with Villager's comment. Using a slide rule requires you to develop skill in estimating the answer to a calculation -- seemingly a lost art in today's world. I also agree with JMGs comment that his speed compared favorably with electronic calculators.

The one place I do think calculators are superior is the range of operations they can perform. Slide rules generally don't have scales for addition and subtraction for example, and so even the four basic functions are not necessarily supported. So maybe we'll need to add a sorobon or abacus to our list of calculating aids. Moving numbers back and forth can be a problem!

Added to that are the myriad trig, statistical, exponential, reciprocal, inverse, and many other specialized functions performed by modern electronic calculators. They are indeed wondrous devices. The downside is that they do not encourage the kind of thinking mentioned by Villager -- an intuitive feel for the result of a calculation that serves as a reality check before one acts on the answer provided by the calculator.

2/6/14, 10:35 PM

Helix said...
@Robert Mathiesen -- I am also fairly adept at doing such calculations in my head. I imagine that John Napier (inventor of logarithms, on which slide rules are based) was also. Nevertheless, the fact that such devices were invented in the first place and almost universally used in engineering work up until the 1970s testifies to their usefulness. True, we can do the calculations without them, but they were nevertheless a great advance in engineering practice.

2/6/14, 10:44 PM

Cherokee Organics said...

Sorry to hear about your ice storm. Sounds cold and unpleasant.

I was thinking about the dialogue last week with Calm Center of Tranquillity and the question of values.

I agree with you in that values can mean pretty much whatever you want them to mean and that there is often no bridge between differences of values and opinion when they are used as a motivator.

However, taking the example used by Trish, I could see that her values were framed around a human perspective and perhaps she was reflecting her own status by displaying those values? I'm not judging this, but merely pointing this out.

The weakness (from my perspective anyway) in utilising the human perspective to form values is that it can unfortunately disregard the ecosystem completely. It is as if those values exist in a vacuum or a system that is bent towards providing for those values.

I've recently been coming around to the conclusion that this is a major weakness and fault-line in Western culture. The reason for this statement is that in disregarding the ecosystem and only taking into account the human perspective, we all end up doing whatever we want and in so doing end up trashing the environment. It is a self-defeating outlook and dare I say it, an immature outlook.

I've been recently reading about the Aboriginals here who maintained a relatively stable and coherent society and culture for somewhere between 40 and 60 millennia and they had a completely different outlook. It is worth mentioning that outlook for the readers here.

The Aboriginals considered that every animal, plant and all of the landscape (even the rocks) were part of their family. Members of a tribe were allocated totems which made that particular person responsible for a particular animal, plant and/or area. The resources were then managed in such a way that in a boom and bust environment such as Australia resources were made to be as abundant as possible and that the human population (as well as all of the other animal and plant populations) was kept at a level that the frequent environmental shocks were not a consideration for those people. It is also very telling that this culture which was the Dreamtime also spanned the entire continent as well as Tasmania.

2/6/14, 11:24 PM

Cherokee Organics said...

The Aboriginals were quite astute in that they consistently described European cultures as a plunderer culture. They believed that should they not act in accordance with the Dreamtime that their very souls and lives were in peril – as perhaps they may have literally been given the fragile nature of the environment here.

Since coming to grips with this understanding, I've been looking at the wildlife and plants here a bit differently. I've always kept space for them and managed the place so that it is a place they'd like to be without them also in turn trashing the farm, but never quite formulated why I was doing this. People are quite happy pointing out to me that this is a loopy thing to do (co-operation versus seeing them as competition).

There are however, frequent surprising outcomes too, as for example the local owl is helping decimate the rat population quite effectively. Old man roo is a new frequent visitor here too. He has a clipped ear and is a loner (whilst being well over 6 foot – he’s big) and obviously been usurped by a young buck, but happily chows down on the herbage whilst drinking the bees water minding his own business. However, from time to time he effectively clears off Stumpy the wallaby who is the arch nemesis of all fruit trees, so he is giving the trees an occasional break from predation.

The problem is understanding all of their stories takes a massive amount of time and effort and is probably a bit beyond any one lifetime. I'm slowly starting to get a handle on their interactions though.

My gut feeling tells me that such a religious and societal response is one possible outcome for a second religiosity, especially if the environment deteriorates significantly and we find that we have to actively manage it and not just take the ecosystem services for granted.



2/6/14, 11:24 PM

Seb Ze Frog said...
Good Morning.

I just bumped into a historical fact (probably known by lots if not all of you) that I found fascinating, in a way that is very relevant to this post, I think.

Incas new about the wheel, they used it in toys.

I find it fascinating to watch the reflexions of this fact stuck between two mirrors.

As for slide rules vs calculators...
When the tenth digit is cheap, you can more easily forget that a number is not an answer. With a slide rule, it is harder to have this, hum, "luxury".


2/7/14, 12:08 AM

hadashi said...
JMG, I must give steampunk a look, based on your recommendation. BTW, the theme of your post spurs me to cast a "blast from the past" back at you. I'm reminded of the three-wheeler recumbent that I once owned, then sold off prior to relocating to Japan. The new owner did a steampunk conversion on it. It is viewable at
(The writer seems to have done a steampunk on the spelling of the word 'recumbent'.)

2/7/14, 12:54 AM

Compound F said...
...I'm going to have to do a post on how amateur astronomy used to be done, back in the day. I should probably don my wizard's robe and conjure up the ghost of Sir Patrick Moore for assistance!

I'm sure it will be an instructive history.

2/7/14, 2:08 AM

AlanfromBigEasy said...
Sun seeker re: Zeppelins. By 2420, the theoretical work is being done. In fact, Arni Benediktsson won the Nobel Prize for Physics and Engineering for his analysis (the Sultan of Turkey won the Peace prize for shipping food to the Southern Rus after bad harvests, which forestalled raids for food).

Yes, cultural continuity.

They are debating whether to build a prototype or two.

My analysis of previous accidents is why I wanted a highly maneveurable zeppelin with emergency power available from emergency disposable batteries. And emergency lift by either heating the gas more or dropping excess weight (like the Al air batteries).

Nitrogen surrounding hydrogen seemed to be safest way to control flammability.

The 13% loss may have been high. It includes motor, generator and line losses.

2/7/14, 3:15 AM

Tyler August said...
Oddly enough, my own attempt at the latest story contest features a an electric hybrid airship as well. Except this one takes place on the downslope, and so the technology is not painted in a flattering light.

I may need to go back to the drawing board,if Alan has claimed dibs on the idea. It wouldn't be very gentlemanly to continue in that case.

Closer to the topic at hand -- while McAndrew's Hymn is one of the few pieces of poetry my lazy modern mind can quote from, I see a brighter future for hot-air engines. The material requirements are often less, and if you don't meet them, the consequences seem much less dire than a boiler explosion. (Whose worst effect is more from the live steam than just the kaboom. Reading a couple accounts of such accidents wore off some of the romance, for me. )

2/7/14, 3:56 AM

Joseph Nemeth said...
@JMG -- Given that it keeps coming up, a treatment of slavery might be useful.

My take:

If humans represent a significant source of energy, people will work out a way to "own" other humans.

Our current system of slavery -- called "economics" -- relies upon what a physicist would call "long-range order", or a complex set of interlocking laws, customs, and enforcement options. Overt slavery in our current world would need a similar kind of long-range order to keep slaves from just walking away.

My understanding is that this is exactly what African slaves in South America did in the 16th-17th centuries. They walked away and founded their own villages, and were called "Maroons." They often raided and made war against their former masters. Marta tells me there are significant areas of Colombia occupied by the descendants of these "Maroons."

African slaves in the antebellum Southern US faced the problem of long-range order: Northern states that did not themselves permit slavery would usually recognize the Southern rights to their slave "property," and would cooperate in recapturing and extraditing escaped slaves. Otherwise, the South would have "bled out" a long time before the Civil War.

If things break down to the tribal level, short-range order can also do the trick: for instance, if running away is a self-imposed exile into a wilderness spotted with other (hostile) tribes, and escape is (or is believed to be) worse than slavery.

In the in-between, such as the long descent, outright slavery would likely result in slaves just walking away, and there would be little the slaveowner could do about it.

2/7/14, 7:11 AM

Bill Pulliam said...
The thing that jumps out at me most here...

"Steampunk" is not just a technological concept, it also is a strong aesthetic sensibility. And I fear a future where aesthetics are abandoned for utilitarianism. I have seen some wonderfully whimsical creations on the "green" front. But I have also seen a whole lot of ugly drab utilitarian creations being built in the name of "green" and "permaculture." Technology without art is death.

No Victorian craftsman worth his salt would have ever dreamed of making anything, even a hammer, without making it beautiful. If steampunk can project this value into the future, more power to it.

2/7/14, 7:22 AM

LewisLucanBooks said...
@ Lucky Mortal - Yup. I mentioned that series a couple of weeks ago. There's also "Edwardian Farm", "Tudor Monastery Farm" and "Wartime Farm" (WWII).
All are available on YouTube.

I always pick up little thrifty tips and tricks from the past. Such as, capturing wild yeast. There are other things such as refining lead from raw ore or making rope (rope walks.) Not anything I want to tackle, but still feel ... better informed as to how it was done in the past.

2/7/14, 8:14 AM

Ekkar said...
I have also thought much over the years about what the world would have been like, had fossil fuels never came onto the scene. As for steam power; was not that powered by coal, and trees. I also have a feeling that the oceans might be devoid of whales and seals, since as I understand it that was the pre-oil oil.
Not to sound to cynical, but people are people. Half angel and half maurauding ape.
Of course the world would be vastley different without fossil fuels. As for humans...? As the song goes, "Same as it ever was. Same as it ever was. Same as it ever was..." Then after all the hoopla is finished at the end of the day, we are left alone with the only true nemesis any of us have ever had.

2/7/14, 8:27 AM

Eric S. said...
I remember a conversation a few years ago in which I was discussing the implications and possibilities of a post-peak world with a close friend. After a few minutes talking about what the technologies of the distant future might look like, we both looked at each other and in unison said "great gods, the future we're talking about looks like something out of the steampunk genre doesn't it?"

That moment of realization left me with a newfound respect for the movement. I've noticed that often drawing comparisons to steampunk in conversations about the future with someone who insists that any future that conflicts with Asimov or Roddenberry must be a bleak and meaningless place causes them to almost instantly light up and begin imagining and telling stories about a future they see as filled with possibilities again.

I also remember a year or two ago, the Druid blogosphere lit up with conversations about weaving the best of the ethic and aesthetic of the Steampunk movement into Druidry in articles like this one (

You've often talked about the potential the subcultures and counter-culture movements of today have the potential to feed into the major myths and cultural endeavors of tomorrow. I wonder if the steampunk movement could wind up becoming one of these?

2/7/14, 9:39 AM

sunseekernv said...
@John Roth -

Umm, your estimate of melting temperatures for sapphire vs. silicon are way off.
Sapphire melts around 2030-2050 deg. C
There are very few things that are structurally stable at such temperatures, and fewer that don't react "too much" at such temps. Melting oxides is tricky - the temperature give enough activation energy to oxidize most things, so one often needs an inert, reducing or no (vacuum) atmosphere, and even then one will be bedeviled by sublimation/decomposition/reactions with furnace parts/etc.

Silicon melts at "only" 1410-1414 deg. C, 600 deg. C lower than sapphire.
(Silicon is about where steel is - 1420 - 1540 for carbon steels)
Silica (quartz) is 1670-1713 deg. C depending on crystal form.

Thus one can melt silicon in a silica crucible (often coated with silicon nitride), but sapphire requires tungsten or molybdenum or rhenium crucibles.

It is indeed an open question about semi-conductor based electronics.

I was wondering about punched cards and the quality (and quantity) of the paper stock, but I see by the wiki that they were first made in 1725, and of course improved by Jacquard in 1801. I suppose one could use kanaf or bamboo, etc., and avoid the wrath of the priestesses.

Have you seen this?
One of the sub-pages has info on the paper stock specs required.

I have some thoughts on silicon for simple semiconductors and PV at:

2/7/14, 10:14 AM

rj8957 said...

Great post. I've always been drawn to the beauty of technology from the Victorisn Era;the social system, not so much. In the interest of next week's discussion I thought that I'd include the latest example of Godwin's Law: . Also, now the Right is stealing the Left's thunder by callling opponents , Fascists:

2/7/14, 10:38 AM

ganv said...
@Joseph Nemeth...your description of physics colloquium sounds familiar. I didn't want to put anyone down, but 'competent' in the context of fabricating electronics would indeed rule out most of the theorists. :)

@Robert Mathiesen...By any metric you choose to identify, humans are bad at arithmetic compared with simple electronics. In the time you can do a square root in your head, a 1980 vintage computer could do at least thousands of them. Humans are indeed very adaptable. In fact, we are doing arithmetic with neural circuitry designed by evolution for very different purposes. A CPU turns out to be pretty adaptable as well. We'll see how they evolve over centuries. I am not saying I know what will happen...just that the claim that construction of electronics will not survive the end of oil seems somewhat more likely to be false than true.

@JMG...the material resources required for electronics fabrication is really not the barrier. There is some degree of infrastructure and components without which the process is much harder...things like electric motors to run fans for clean rooms and automation etc., basic machine tools, etc. You can build these things, it just takes time and people. In the 19th century, establishing a science laboratory was essentially a task of manually constructing all these things you need and it took quite a few years. The main cost is the one you identified is the effort of the talented people who could be doing something else. If society breaks down to the point that there is nowhere a functioning regional government capable of allocating resources to strategic goals, then electronics may indeed be lost.

2/7/14, 10:48 AM

Kevin said...
This post inspires in several ways. I foresee a return to obsession with parabolic reflectors coming to my studio quite soon. They will resemble the hearts of sunflowers. Also, as mentioned above, one can imagine a wide range of variations on the theme of retro-tech: the Antikythera device, Hiero of Alexandria's steam engine, Leonardo's machines, the medieval invention of the clock, and no doubt many others that bear further looking into. Archimedes, the original parabolic mirror guy, also designed and built a celestial model, later described by Cicero, that accurately predicted eclipses(?!). It seems to me that all of these could easily be imported into a steampunk context.

My personal favorite for historical anachronisms is one dreamed up by Terence Mckenna, who imagined an alternative history in which the Roman Empire survives to make contact with Meso America, establishing a Greco-Mayan civilization. Imagine the aesthetics of that one.

I've read up lately about rogue waves, which unfortunately are quite real, so Jason's remarks about a giant wave in the local bay strike a scary note for those of us interested in sailing. For those still intrepid enough to take to the high seas, here is a steampunk outrigger, also called the Baltic Proa:

Notice the handsome teak exterior and the tastefully steel-rimmed portholes. I trust Jules Verne would have approved.

2/7/14, 12:12 PM

Robert Mathiesen said...

I don't doubt that simple electronic calculators can do arithmetic faster than most humans, even humans who have trained themselves as I suggested.

But that isn't quite the same thing as your earlier claim about evolution, that it didn't optimize very well for that function. (I took this as referring to biological evolution.)

The reason that most people do arithmetic so poorly in their heads is not, I assert, a feature of our biological evolution, but a huge and damaging bug built into our own [modern] cultures, which place such a high value on the skillful use of words and on sociability.

There were (and are) evolutionary advantages in valuing those things so highly. But *every* advantage has its contingent disadvantages, which should not be confused with necessity.

As for whether electronics will survive the end of oil, I neither know nor care overmuch. Electronics played a relatively small role in my own childhood back in the 1940s. I could easily live without even radios and telephones. I regard that as an advantage, not a disadvantage.

2/7/14, 1:09 PM

Bill Pulliam said...
I think you folks way over-fetishize those German compound nouns. They get their subtlety and depth not from anything structural about the German language, but from German culture and philosophy. There is no difference linguistically between "Zeitgeist" and "spirit of the times" except that the former uses germanic roots and construction while the latter uses latin roots and construction. And to someone who is familiar with the concept of a "Salon" (other than a place to get your hair styled), "salonfähig" and "salon-ready" mean the exact same thing. Neither of these words are denser in connotation and complexity than "free spirit" and "streetsmarts." Just leaving out the spaces and hyphens doesn't make the terms magically more profound! The culture in which it is embedded does that.

English has its own means to expressive depth that can be challenging in other languages. For example, the fact that our nouns, verbs, and adjectives are entirely interchangeable opens up whole levels of expressive richness, whether you are talking about slang or high poetry. And we often have both a latin (french) root and a teutonic root that have been differentiated with subtlety of meaning. This is a great asset; the old spirit/ghost pair is the classic here.

And so far as I understand it, the standard term in use in Germany for stop-and-go traffic is "Stopundgo"

2/7/14, 2:17 PM

Ruben said...
Bill, why you gotta be such a bleiben im Schlamm?

2/7/14, 2:41 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Cherokee, I don't know what the fashion is now, but when I last lived someplace where there was a surplus of tragically hip computer geeks, the facial hair du jour was the little mustache-becomes-a-beard ring around the mouth. Most of the women I knew referred to that as "chin pubes." It was not an affectionate label. As for hats, oh, granted -- the stereotypical American cowboy hat was worn for good reason.

Helix, there were actually a wide range of specialized slide rules for functions like that: business slide rules could do discounts and markups, simple and compound interest, and an assortment of other things of the same kind. I've long coveted one of the old electronics slide rules, which would calculate reactance and other useful figures.

Cherokee, and that's why arguments based on values mean nothing unless the values are shared. The Aboriginals could talk all day about the importance of treating all living things as family -- my Lakota ancestors used to say mitakuye oyasin, very roughly "all things are related" -- and the white settlers shrugged and ignored them, because they didn't share the values.

Seb, two excellent points. I've seen arguments that the Mesoamericans didn't do anything else with the wheel because they didn't have suitable draft animals, for whatever that's worth.

Hadashi, now if the steam engine were only operational...

Tyler, the idea was old before Alan was born; he's just doing the sensible thing and reviving it. By all means use it if you wish; there were stories with shared themes in the last anthology, too. (Also one with airships!)

Joseph, I'll consider it. My take is that slavery is only economically viable when there's a shortage of labor. On the downside of the Long Descent, it'll be easy to get as big a labor force as you want by offering enough food to stave off starvation, and maybe a warm place to sleep; under those conditions, why go to the trouble and expense of slavery?

Bill, exactly.

Ekkar, no argument at all. This is why I get irritable when people say, "but there will be injustices! And, like, people will get hurt!" As though they don't now.

Eric, it depends on how much steampunk gets out of the dress-up games and make-believe, and starts building things that actually work. It's the interface between steampunk and the Maker faires where the future might just be born.

RJ, well, everybody just rolls their eyes when the right screams about Marxists these days, so why not go for another scare word?

Ganv, and here again, I think you're not paying adequate attention to the economic requirements of those materials and energy inputs, whether they could be spared from more pressing needs, and -- crucially -- whether the payoff would be worth diverting those from other, and potentially more profitable, uses. Still, we've been around this particular argument several times already, and I see no point in rehashing it again.

2/7/14, 2:46 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Kevin, now that is gorgeous. Thank you.

Bill, did I say that English lacked marvelous words? Of course not. I simply admire the German language's facility for crafting composite nouns in very concrete terms for intricate concepts. (And I'm thinking of the several Native American languages in which "I go wherever there is dancing" is a single word...)

2/7/14, 2:57 PM

bicosse said...
It is only fair to point out that the Victorian age had its own social critics lamenting the tide of ugly, shoddy machine-made goods which demeaned the workers who produced them - think of John Ruskin and William Morris.

As Mark Rice points out, the shoddy goods have long since perished, giving us an over-rosy view of Victorian craftsmanship. British cities are full of handsome, well-made Victorian public buildings and town houses, while the Victorian jerry-built back-to-back slums have been cleared away, mostly during the Marshall-Aid, petroleum-boom years of the 1950s and 60s.

And how cold those Victorian houses are, with their high ceilings, thin walls, rattly sliding-sash windows and (where not yet replaced) coal fires that send most of their heat up the chimney. I suspect that the relatively low energy-use per capita of C19 industrial society reflected mass poverty rather than energy-efficiency.

Still, I don't doubt there are many aspects of Victorian technology and problem-solving we can learn from, without adopting their coal-based economy and hierarchies of birth and title. Morris was converted to socialism by visiting Iceland, and discovering a society where everyone was poor and there was no aristocracy or gentry or urban elite.

2/7/14, 3:01 PM

AlanfromBigEasy said...

My first story (perhaps my only) involves the genocide of the Tasmanian aboriginals (white this time) by Civilized settlers.

The Civilized Union of Scandinavia & Antarctica decided to expand to Tasmania and repair the ecology destroyed by the Ozies, No need to keep any Ozies around,

No mention of zeppelins (they have them, but establishing a mooring tower and hydrogen & nitrogen refueling is not a priority in the new colony),

Just dehumanizing "logic", prejudice and rationalization. Something familiar already to Tasmania.

2/7/14, 3:21 PM

Robert Magill said...
Assuming that capitalism is still viable after the fall, consider these operative words in any discussion of slavery. For Legal, today and most likely then, read, at the point of a gun. And for chattel...your person purchase comes with a bill of sale, notarized and registered. He or she is now a commodity and will have significant value when few other portable energy sources exist. Draft animals and experienced hostlers are in short supply now and will likely remain that way for a generation or so. Lots of human muscle available for a ready marketplace, no?

2/7/14, 3:30 PM

Marinhomelander said...

I think that we're in for a wave of NeoVictorianism in manners, behavior and dress as well.

Having watched the 1960s and on from my perch in San Francisco, I detect a shift in the interests back to more conservative mores.

Cotillion is back for kids as are classes for table manners.

Think about the 1980s and women jumping into bed with guys they met that night in a bar. Now there's AIDS and the internet and instant porn available. Are people continuing the trend toward sexual license of the 1980s? Just the opposite. Everybody is trying to legitimize their "marriage" and to codify their relationships for various reasons.

As to fashion, which is cyclical, expect a return to the Maxiskirt. Look at the popularity of Downton Abbey on TV.

I've got my beaver hat all ready to wear.

2/7/14, 6:41 PM

Diane said...
I was reading an article recently where some bloke, rich, from gains made in the venture capital market, was compaining about the Occupy Movement targetting the 1%. When I picked myself off the floor and stopped laughing, it actually got me thinking.In the short term, at least, it won't be people like me who have already adopted a minimalist life style who will be affected but those who have built their fortunes on speculative castles so to speak, and human nature being what it is, I think and I should care?
It also got me speculatinng as to whose mega wealth would start to erode f:rst? Waltons or Gates, relail or computing? I have just read two. related articles that sparked this line of thought I) the cutting back on food stamps is impacting on Walmarts profits, and ii) Windows 8 is tanking in the marketplace
On another related but rather different line of thought, triggered by a comment here on british railways and a film I recently saw The Railway Man. It seems to me, that America is the only country in the world which has built its existing economy around the motor car as the major form of public transport. I don't think this has happened anywhere else in the world. Now I know that large cities have adequate public transport systems but not so in places like parts of California and the great urban sprawl. And of course there is the problem of poorly maintained infrastructure caused I would imagine by the reluctance of many americans to paying taxes. In Europe and scandinavia with a relative high tax base, most of the infrastructure is well maintained a plus I would think in the long descent.Of course public transport systems can be built, and obviously were in the age abundance, when high cost systems such as slavery were viable, I am not sure of how this will go in a time increasing scarcity.

2/7/14, 6:42 PM

Doctor Westchester said...
Since you are starting posts on the possibility of (real) Fascism in the future, I would like you consider doing one topic that I hoped you would tackle – a clarifying post on Communism and Socialism. I find the understanding of both suffer from extremely muddied (as well as bloodied) waters. I feel that communism in particular has been subjected to intellectual over-reach by its supposed practitioners. One possibly over-the-top example might be what was practiced in Cambodia, which was (I was told) Communism without industrialism (huh?). This post may be very useful since you expect our Right’s promotional efforts may eventually pay off in a return of Communism to respectability in this country.

I would like to close with a thought that stirring in head awhile about one of possibly central problems with Communism when it’s been tried in the real world. Besides the issues with promised utopias, there is a very real problem with the concept with the idea of ownership of the means of production by workers. Here I talking about actual ownership, not the various dodges perpetrated by probably all Communist countries. The concept of Communism has primarily been used to industrialize non-industrial counties like Russia and China. If the Communist system ever did flip over into actual ownership of the means of production by workers, then the ability to actually have an industrial system would be lost (as per Alf Hornborg’s work). This form of ownership would destroy the concentration of wealth required for the industrial system in the first place. If it wasn’t for Communism’s other problems, this might not be a bad thing in a de-industrializing future. But since all the countries that did the Hammer and Sickle thing were trying to industrialize, well…

2/7/14, 6:44 PM

KL Cooke said...
"Once folks have missed about 20 consecutive meals things start to get really ugly."

Other sources put it closer to nine.

2/7/14, 6:54 PM

Renaissance Man said...
We do have a word that is exactly equivalent to "Schlimmbesserung" in English: "upgrade". ;)

2/7/14, 7:24 PM

KL Cooke said...
"I sometimes think that scholars who lead sufficiently wicked lives are condemned to spend all eternity translating À la recherche du temps perdu into classical Mayan."

Make it Finnegan's Wake, and it'll take more than eternity.

2/7/14, 7:28 PM

latheChuck said...
In the far future, will we keep and use our slide-rules in "clean rooms", to avoid abrasive dust which will eventually erase the markings?

And what is the technology base for manufacturing new slide rules? Plastic bodies? Aluminum? How do we generate the scales with 4-digit accuracy?

By the way, there's nothing particularly special about an slide rule that can calculate reactances... that's just a nomograph on the back of one of the Sami circular rules. It could just as well be an 8 1/2x11 inch chart on posterboard.

I have recently acquired a small paperback book: Instruments of Amplification, by H. P. Friedrichs. He describes various ways to amplify electrical signals, such as might come from a crystal radio set, using low-tech components (such as lead-sulfide crystals, zinc-oxide, copper-oxide, vacuum tubes made with salvaged 12V light bulbs). You can get a good taste of the field, though, by visiting the "" web site.

2/7/14, 7:36 PM

KL Cooke said...
" fascinates me that despite the extremely complex history of slavery, and the fact that it's been abolished many times, so many people instantly default to the notion that once industrialism goes away, poof! Slavery will come back."

If it's been abolished many times, has it not also come back many times?

2/7/14, 7:38 PM

Joseph Nemeth said...
@JMG -- I'd love to see that pos, then, because I'm not sure I agree. But it raises the question of, "What is 'slavery'?" That gets slippery.

Is there such a thing as a "wage slave" or a "contract slave?" What about serfs in a feudal economy? Untouchables in a caste system? A prisoner convicted of a crime? A military conscript? Eunuchs bound to the service of the Emperor of China?

In his book, 1493, Charles Mann points out the well-known trope that many of the African slaves sold by Portuguese and Dutch slavers were bought, as slaves, from African owners. But he then goes on to explain that African slavery was quite a different beast. It was generally temporary, and the result of being on the losing side in a war, or having debts. When the European slavers sold them to the owners in the Americas for plantation work under brutal (nd lifelong) conditions, those owners found out the hard way that they'd bought themselves a military general and sent him out to work the fields under a lash. Things very often went badly from there.

So clearly, there's slavery, and then there's slavery.

I'm guessing that each type of slavery fits a certain economic pattern.

2/7/14, 7:40 PM

Esther said...
"Fascism is the mechanism by which those with power start to justify resource grabs. The easiest way to do that is develop a scapegoat like an ethnic group and assert dominance and a kleptocracy for that group. "
Fascism has been so demonized that it is bound to appeal to people in the post-crash era; thanks a lot, liberalism, for never bothering to understand your enemy. And thanks a lot, conservatives, for making sure communism will be equally appealing. Maybe we can get the worst of both right here in America! Fascism or communism are both emergency measures by states to conserve frayed social fabric that has been damaged by industrial evolution; the irony is that multiculturalism and modern liberalism is actually helping to fray the social fabric and make their enemy's job easier in the future. Kind of like spending all your energy hating something: you end up a lot like them.
Right on the money, Sir Greer, about SCA and re-enactors. Who knows, maybe a chivalric, steam-punk reaction will give us a traditional monarchy, instead? One can have to read the Pastel City...

2/7/14, 7:54 PM

Bill Pulliam said...
JMG -- the "hipster beard" is a big bushy thing now. For a while it was "ironic" whatever that means, but now it seems to be actual fashion. They are even seen on runway fashion models. I've been told that I could get work as a model in the NY fashion world now (by someone who does work there).

2/7/14, 9:04 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Bicosse, exactly. A technological sensibility isn't a technology, much less a social system.

Robert, again, slavery only makes economic sense when there's a labor shortage. In the Long Descent, will there be a labor shortage? Not with six billion more people than the planet can reasonably hold.

Marin, good. I have occasion to wear a silk top hat now and again, as the presiding officer of a Masonic body, and it's a fine and comfortable item. As for Victorian manners, well, a case could be made...

Diane, you get tonight's gold star. Exactly; it's the very rich, whose wealth, influence, and (ultimately) survival are most dependent on the hypercomplex system we've got, who have the most to lose, and will lose it. I have no idea which sector of the obscenely wealthy will go up against the wall first, but sooner or later, they all will, to be replaced by those who can exercise power in simpler and more hands-on ways.

Doctor W., I'll consider it. I don't know that it would do much good, but I'll consider it.

Renaissance, well, yes. ;-)

KL, I'd be happy if somebody would take the time to translate Finnegan's Wake into English.

LatheChuck, some of the best slide rules were made of bamboo, with the scales printed using lithography; there were also mechanical devices worked out in Victorian times to space logarithmic scales accurately. If you've got the math to generate log tables, you can make a slide rule -- the very first proto-rule, for that matter, was a sheet of paper on which distances were measured by dividers, was made in 1620.

KL, yes, whenever there's a labor shortage, slavery's a common human practice, and when there's a labor shortage combined with plantation agriculture for export markets -- as in ancient Greece and Rome, say, or the 19th century American south -- it's all but inevitable. It'll be some centuries before we have anything approaching a labor shortage, and large-scale export of agricultural crops isn't a viable business model in a dark age, so it's not a relevant concern for the future we have to worry about.

Joseph, and that's another point, of course. Most human relationships are unequal in one way or another; where do you draw the line defining such a relationship as slavery? On that decision depends a lot of the conversation.

Esther, in America, there's no such thing as a traditional monarchy; our tradition -- one might almost say our Tradition -- is representative democracy, with all the good and bad that entails. If we get monarchies here, it'll be after a long process of historical evolution. Still, by all means enjoy The Pastel City!

Bill, too funny. Still, I won't miss the epidemic of chin pubes.

2/7/14, 11:26 PM

Cherokee Organics said...

With it being 40C+ (104F+) in the shade here today a hat is "de rigueur" to quote the French.

The weird thing is that when you are outside here right now at about 6pm even though it is about 40C in the shade (and I worked outside in the orchard until about 1pm - when I couldn't take it anymore) is that it feels cool compared to the full sun.

You really didn't take to the hacker / slacker culture did you? I ignored it completely as it wasn't based in reality, but at the same time was annoyed that they'd adopted my style somehow (obviously not having anything at all to do with them whatsoever)... Liked the pubic reference joke though. Hehe!

On a serious note, as a youth I had the unfortunate pleasure of managing people that were far older and far more experienced than myself, which was the primary reason for growing the facial hair. Magic I guess, it just made me feel older somehow. As an interesting side note the activity of interacting with people many decades older than myself tempered the worst of my early arrogance.

I reckon any reduction in the availability of sun screen and/or ready access to skin cancer treatments will lead to an increase in the wearing of hats Down Under.

Like the Lakota people, he Aboriginals fought back too, unfortunately the European diseases wiped out 90% of the population. Even so and despite this, they continued to attempt to manage the landscape with far less people using the systems that they'd inherited until they were simply and promptly rounded up and moved along to reserves and forced to comply with the Europeans.

European culture does not take kindly to other cultures that are mobile and/or transient. It is a great advantage for a people to be mobile and I suspect that a lot of European technology was developed to resist this (food storage technology as an example).

Thanks for mentioning your Lakota heritage. You are correct of course in that the dominant cultural narrative sets the tone of humans relationships with nature and the European culture was again dominant in that arena too. Sacred hills are sacred for a very good reason, even if it cannot be readily explained or even understood in an alien language.

Of course the dominant cultural narrative nowadays is wrong, but probably few will concede that important point until it can no longer be denied because it requires them to change utterly. But at what price is that resistance of change?

I feel a great and deep sadness about this issue because it simply doesn't have to be that way and I can feel and see firsthand (especially with global warming here) where it is going and also decline is escalating as new real wealth to plunder is exhausted.

I also feel a bit sad today on a completely different note because my trusty Pentax digital SLR camera which has travelled with me on this journey for far more than decade packed it in and is now beyond economical repair. I've organised a second hand replacement but I'm really concerned that we've somehow gotten to a point in our culture whereby everyday items are simply not repairable.

By the way extreme fire conditions grip Victoria and South Australia.

Not good. A little bit of an ice storm would be nice around these parts.



2/8/14, 12:01 AM

Unknown said...
(Deborah Bender)

"Estimates vary, but even the most industrialized countries in the world in 1860 got by on something like ten per cent of the energy per capita that’s thrown around in industrial nations today."

Does that figure take into account the subsidies industrialized countries were receiving from their colonies? Ireland exported grain to England during the Potato Famine. During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, India suffered repeated famines while exporting grain and cotton to Britain.

All the colonial powers converted agricultural land in their colonies to crops for export and destroyed the prosperity of those colonies. I haven't read Late Victorian Holocausts, but the Wikipedia article about the book is instructive.

This political/economic arrangement still operates in Central America, the so-called Banana Republics where agriculture is dominated by commodities for export and the United States decides what kinds of national governments these countries are allowed to have.

2/8/14, 12:18 AM

Seb Ze Frog said...
@John Michael: the explanation of mesoamericans not knowing the wheel because of their lack of suitable animals always struck me as having the same unsatisfactory taste as claiming that white bears are white because they live on snow.

I think that there is more to it, and maybe some of the puzzle piece are laying here:

Since I am by profession a candidate to being dumped in the room with 11 other physicists, let me suggest a scenario of what would happen.

You would have 9 excited physicist discussing about how to make the thing, and make it right this time. Probably three dozen of alternate proposals will see light and be shot down in little time. You will also of course have to face a flurry of objections, starting with "why do you want this in the first place ?".

If you manage to get through this phase without eating your hat ("oh, this problem is interesting, but why don't you use [different unrelated technique] instead ? It would work much better."), you'll end up with 4 or 5 groups, each one researching a branch of the fascinating questions that building your device raised.

Meanwhile, the 3 remaining physicist would show up for tea and coffee and argue against anything that is proposed with ideas ranging from brilliant to completely out of the point. They will, on the other hand, continue working on what they were working on before, considering that your project is an utter loss of time compared to say the topological study of the reversal of the sphere in 12 dimensions. (If you are lucky, you might even end up with one being able to do it in his head. Don't ask him how, the answer is trivial. He solves the problem in N dimensions and then simply takes N=12.)

So, maybe in the end the answer is that Incas did know about the wheel, but for a reason that escapes me but that I find fascinating,considered it as only being worth to be a toy.

What do we have in our toys that later civilizations will watch in astonishment, wondering why we didn't use it "properly" ?


2/8/14, 1:50 AM

Robert Magill said...
Again, we had slavery in this hemisphere for 400 of the 500 years of European presence up until labor saving devices became commonplace. A labor shortage only occurred in the Caribbean and elsewhere after the enslaved indigenous people had been worked to death and not after the Middle Passage had become operational.
Much of this slave usage never had anything to do with large- scale export of agricultural crops
but was focused on mining, forestry, canal digging... the grunt work.

Should we not regard what's happening in the current era to be dress rehearsal for the final descent. If we on the fringe are anticipating a bleak future; couldn't our masters with all their resources be privy to inside information and be acting on it?

Perhaps, the frenzy to privatize and make a commodity of incarceration, our schools and the armed forces and to equip local law enforcement with military hardware is a practice run for the future. Allowing the chief executive legal use of assassination at home and abroad insures a dandy control mechanism for future rule as does the possibility of legal slavery.

If our very best, our noble founders, Washington, Jefferson, Ben Franklin et al. were slavers, how and why would we be any different if the need arose?

2/8/14, 1:57 AM

DaShui said...
I'm delighted that the topic has turned to fashion.
I have my own theory about why Americans are slobs.
In Communist countries there was a rigorous dress code, Mao suits, or blue of black western suits. If one dressed well one was immediately suspect as harboring reactionary beliefs., so downscale conformity rules.
In democratic America, no one is supposed to be better than anyone else, so the pressure is to dress as low as one can go, either like a criminal, or as working class.
I saw some old photos of my city 100 years ago when everybody was a farmer, everybody was dressed much better than today.

2/8/14, 7:05 AM

Mark Boenish said...
JMG wrote:

"Mark, good for you. May you take stunningly good photos with that classic lens. By the way, have you gotten into old-fashioned brew-your-own darkroom techniques? If photography's going to make it, that's probably how."

No, unfortunately, I have not. I have a keen interest in film and traditional darkroom technique, but I do not own a film camera. I do intend to give film a try and I understand there are plenty of bargains to be found in used darkroom equipment. I wish I could find a mentor to help me get set up and running.

In the meantime I send my digital files to Digital Silver Imaging in MA. They do a great job of converting digital files to classic B&W prints and also do authentic hand toned sepia and selenium prints on fiber base paper.

2/8/14, 7:16 AM

Eric said...
Here's a steampunk article for you:

Wood Cars burning Wood for fuel!

Great Article this week!

2/8/14, 7:34 AM

Eric said...
Another thought for your professor to promote slide rule use. For the exam just allow students to use slide rules, but no calculators.

That would take care of that.

2/8/14, 7:39 AM

Joseph Nemeth said...
@Doctor Westchester -- we have a fully socialist or communist enterprise running right here in our little cowtown of Fort Collins, and you may have heard of it: New Belgium Brewery.

I don't know the details of its organization, and it obviously has rankings of ownership, but every employee has (as I understand it) a full ownership interest in the company. They have some kind of democratic process for making major decisions. One of those decisions was to become "waste neutral," and they've done a lot to promote that. They are powered by a wind farm up near the Wyoming border, which they had built. They use local grains and hops, and their organic waste is mulched, composted, and used to fertilize future crops of grain. Boilers have been redesigned for maximum heat transfer to the wort, and the unavoidable waste heat is used to heat the buildings.

For a communist enterprise, it's a pretty darn cheerful place.

2/8/14, 7:40 AM

Somewhatstunned said...
Re: Steampunk etc

Can't tell you how brilliant I find it that that Waistcoats and Big Whiskers are in fashion.

(And having seen that picture of you in your work clothes, JMG, I know that you know all about the magical properties of costume ...)

2/8/14, 7:44 AM

wvjohn said...
Thanks for the reminder about steam. A couple of years ago I was wandering the docks in Boca Raton, FL and noticed an interesting looking old boat on the other side of the harbor. As I got closer it looked strangely familiar. It was the original African Queen from the Bogart movie. A bit raggedy, but nonetheless out of the water and under a shelter and apparently available for excursions (using an outboard motor). Since then I have considered getting the machinists up at Four Quarters interested in a replica (as soon as I win a modest portion of one of the lotteries). A fellow with a boat like that above the Great Falls of the Potomac could have an interesting life after the oil disappears.

2/8/14, 7:52 AM

Brad K. said...

"has any other society seen so many people turn their backs on the latest modern conveniences to take pleasure in the technologies and habits of earlier times?"

At least partly, this must have to do with artificially expanded recreational time, and access to affluence.

While people have been dropping out of the rat race since about, well, forever (the Jeremiah Johnson movie depicted a drop-out Civil War veteran, and others from the times of the colonies that wanted to live away from "society") -- most of the organized retro activities require participants to divert work time and money for their choice of entertainment.

Here in northern Oklahoma, many hunters take pride in the deer, ducks, and geese they put on their table -- and surprisingly many of them find themselves angry at Walmart for not stocking enough of their preferred feeding traps, ammunition, face paint, assorted camouflage gear, scent removal soaps, artificial doe urine, etc. (How self-reliant can you be, depending on Walmart for your adventure's success? Gack.)

One of my favorite alternate futures was "China Mountain Zhang" by Maureen F. McHugh. China takes over financial control of the United States, imposing Communist Chinese law, and (Chinese mainland born) racial purity strictures on social mobility. Her "organic architecture" sounds very appealing.

2/8/14, 9:40 AM

John Franklin said...
I notice some people writing as if Fascism is the opposite of "the left", and at least implying it rose out of "the right". Perhaps I misread. If not, I find that fascinating.

Excellent weblog entry this week (and most others). I'm reminded of some of Thomas Kuhn's work.

2/8/14, 10:04 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Cherokee, I'd send you one if I could find a shipping firm that would take it. We've got more snow scheduled this weekend.

Unknown Deborah, that's an interesting question, the answer to which I don't yet know. Thanks, though, for several additional examples of what I've called the imperial wealth pump -- the process, that is, by which empires extract wealth from the subject periphery and concentrate it in the imperial center.

Seb, it's an interesting question. On the one hand, even so simple a technology as a wheel has certain requirements beyond what's needed for its manufacture, and a source of motive power suitable to pull wheeled vehicles is one of them; on the other hand, you may be right that there's something broader involved here.

Robert, labor shortages were pervasive in the New World until relatively recently, which is why such immense efforts were made to attract immigration from everywhere else once slavery stopped being an option. As for "our masters," sure, if you want to impose that simplistic a model on the complexities of power in the industrial world, you can count on stereotyped answers...

DaShui, that's plausible.

Mark, I'd encoruage you to look into it. A good used bookstore that doesn't rotate its stock very often will likely have old books on darkroom technique and how to build your own equipment -- I have a handyman's encyclopedia from the early 1960s that includes a wealth of lore for the home darkroom enthusiast, for example -- and again, if that's going to survive, someone's going to have to do it.

Eric, thank you. Thanks for the link!

Joseph (if I may horn in), no, it's not a communist enterprise, it's a syndicalist enterprise. It astonishes me how many people have forgotten what used to be common concepts in political economy!

Stunned, for what it's worth, I'm a fan of waistcoats as well.

WVJohn, an excellent idea. What steps can you take in that direction before winning the lottery?

Brad, yes, I'm familiar with the kind of hunter who can't hunt without 150 pounds of assorted junk from Mall*Wart. Gah.

John, excellent. Yes, that's a very common misconception, and I'll be talking about it shortly.

2/8/14, 11:08 AM

John Naylor said...
JMG wrote: "...and part—though I’m far from sure how widespread this latter dimension is, or how conscious—a collection of sweeping questions about some of the most basic presuppositions undergirding modern technology and the modern world."

I was curious myself, and I've found that Bruce Sterling, at least, is quite conscious:

"Steampunk's key lessons are not about the past. They are about the instability and obsolescence of our own times. A host of objects and services that we see each day all around us are not sustainable. They will surely vanish, just as "Gone With the Wind" like Scarlett O'Hara's evil slave-based economy. Once they're gone, they'll seem every bit as weird and archaic as top hats, crinolines, magic lanterns, clockwork automatons, absinthe, walking-sticks and paper-scrolled player pianos.

We are a technological society. When we trifle, in our sly, Gothic, grave-robbing fashion, with archaic and eclipsed technologies, we are secretly preparing ourselves for the death of our own tech. Steampunk is popular now because people are unconsciously realizing that the way that we live has already died. We are sleepwalking. We are ruled by rapacious, dogmatic, heavily-armed fossil-moguls who rob us and force us to live like corpses. Steampunk is a pretty way of coping with this truth."

2/8/14, 11:36 AM

Andy Brown said...
The question about why Meso-Americans were indifferent to "the wheel" reminded me of an article I read many years ago. Archaeologists were looking at some old pre-Columbian aqueducts (pre-Incan, I think). The channel consisted of cuts through the ridges, complemented with raised earthen sections across low spots. The degree of pitch that they maintained was impressive enough, but the scientists noticed that as the channel neared the earthen-work sections the engineers had sometimes narrowed and then bulged out the banks. They didn't understand why until some hydrologists reproduced it in the lab. What happens is that when water flow is normal, the strange shape is irrelevant. But when there is a flood, the narrowing and then expanding would create whirlpools that would cause the water to spill out at that spot (rather than spilling out on the earth works where it would do damage to a very labor-intensive part of the works).

This always struck me as a much more elegant solution than the Army Corps of Engineers would have managed with a massive dam and floodgates. It's entirely possible that these people had no particular need for wheels. The fact that we're so mystified by it is just further evidence for the thesis of your post.

2/8/14, 12:10 PM

Marcello said...
"Thus it's probably worth being aware of the possibility that in the weeks and months ahead, we'll see another crash like the one that hit in 2008-2009"

Frankly that reinforces my thought that the russian recovery of the 2000's was a luxury most others countries won't enjoy.The western core states may enjoy a bit of mostly nominal growth between one crisis and the other but elsewhere all that you can hope for is that things stop falling apart for a brief while.In places like southern europe not even that. Maybe China can keep growing for a but longer but it is getting closer to a zero sum game, very troubling development...

"Novels of this kind portray the scientific and industrial revolution happening somewhere other than western Europe,
but inevitably it’s the same scientific and industrial revolution, producing much the same technologies and many of the same social and cultural changes."

Well, since it has already happened that way we know it is possible, while on the other hand we have no historical example
of alternatives paths, unlike for agrarian civilizations.In part I also suspect a certain unwillingness to let background get in the way of a good story, particularly one meant to sell.
There is no shortage of SF with interstellar travel that does not deal (if only to explain why they are not used) with advanced robotics and others technologies that would become available much before a FTL drive.

"Steampunk challenges that on at least two fronts. First, by asking what technology would look like if the petroleum and electronics revolutions had never happened"

Run of the mill steampunk seem to emphasize aesthetics rather than asking:is that feasible? That aside I woud stress that the technology we have now has withstood the test of arms and/or profitability and as such they are not entirely a matter of whim.
For example every now and then the attempt is made to resurrect large airships for cargo carrying. They always fail and for good reasons.
Many inventions were being developed in parallel by several people in several places.
Mechanical computers had very real drawbacks (weight, wear etc.)
which limited potential uses.
Of course some doors could have been opened or closed here and there, ballistic missiles might have been considerably delayed (perhaps to the point of being marginal given how fast the resource crunch is approaching) with some different decisions and political circumstances.
But more often than not there are good reasons why something was built/invented that would remain valid in many circumstances.

"As a direct result, the reign of James II gave way to that of William III, and Britain dodged the absolute monarchy, religious intolerance, and technological stasis that Louis XIV was imposing in France just then,a model which most of the rest of Europe promptly copied."

One il left to wonder how the Enlightenment or the french revolution happened with Louis XIV repressing everyone from his grave...

Also I would not overstate the role played by formal science in the early industrial revolution. People did not wait for Carnot works to be published before building workable steam engines.

"has any other society seen so many people turn their backs on the latest modern conveniences to take pleasure in the technologies and habits of earlier times?"

As far as I am aware the average reenactor usually (some do some hard stuff but they are a minority AFAIK) does not partake in such joys as marching barefoot under cold rain and others pleasantries that soldiering entailed back in the days. It easy to like the past when you can pick and choose the most convenient parts.

2/8/14, 12:33 PM

Robert Mathiesen said...
@ Seb and JMG re: Inca wheels

Prescott, somewhere in his Conquest of Peru, retells a bit of historical lore from one of the early Spanish chroniclers: someone, back in the centuries before 1492, came up with a way of writing Quechua. This was brought to the attention of the Inca, who had the man brought to him to demonstrate his invention. When he saw what it could do, the Inca had the inventor immediately put to death and all specimens of his invention destroyed.

That story itself may well be apocryphal, but that attitude toward novelty can easily have been real. If so, it goes a long way to explaining why the wheel remained just a child's toy in the realm of the Inca.

2/8/14, 12:59 PM

RogerCO said...
Try "The Alteration" by Kinsley Amis (1977) for an alternate history where the reformation did not take place and the internal combustion engine does not (in 1976) exist - although in fact the author veers back to the inevitability of 'rightness' of our current scientifick world in the end of the book.

2/8/14, 3:05 PM

Ray Wharton said...
My household has cut the Internet cord. Now I go down to the digital watering hole a couple times a week, and that does for my Internet communication. I say this to note that during this water-break I haven't had time to read comments.

The sensation of another down bump is thick in the air of all the social groups I frequent in Fort Collins, that is a biased sample, but the mood fits the opening paragraphs sense.

As far as computation goes, thank you JMG for the links on Sacred Geometry. Lawlor and Hambidge are especially useful to my current work, and I have started using some proofs based on their works to compose cellular automata programs, at the same time phi based divination is starting to have an effect on my thinking.

Cyberpunk table top games were a big part of my high school experience, and steam punk fiction has a hold on me as well. Alot of my programs are for playing a game I am designing set in a steam punk inspired future. Though steam is mostly replaced by amazing feats of mycology and sericulture fungal-punk, silk-punk. My friends and I are starting game testing, and it is a scene to imagine what makes narrative sense with out oil. Hopefully a couple more entries in the fiction contest will mature from this.

Anyway, its about time to walk home and get some more seeds started for the gardens. This year I am going to start some herb gardens, methinks they could be a good side income once the rubble stops bouncing from the current healthcare catabolis.

I was thinking about how a victorian craftsman would be so excited by our great wealth. The materials and information needed to do some pretty impressive 18th century style science and laboratory work are very nearly lying in the gutter. I am building up a lab that any 15-18th century Natural Philosopher would love to use. Mostly from yard sales, junk yards, and surplus shops. Taking suggestions for especially choice finds for the mad scientists at Catabolis-Punk labs.

2/8/14, 3:12 PM

onething said...
Well, Cherokee, our aboriginals also saw whites that way, and their private name for us was "the greedy ones." They, too, had a very similar sense of the value of all life and all things. One of them said "Every pine needle is holy and every step is a prayer." And certainly those in South America saw the "personhood" in all the animals. I believe I understand what they meant by that. I have tried very hard to get "into" the psyche of various animals, and once I did get in, to a tired and much used horse. He saw me and I saw him, and he knew it, and was surprised. But I am not above trying with insects. I wonder if the Aboriginal's philosophy was a natural outgrowth of a people close to nature and their own intuitions who simply came to a natural conclusion of the world, or whether they might have learned some hard lesson in the past, and incorporated it so as not to make the same mistakes again. And I say this because I hope that is what will occur with us, but at the same time I think there is a kind of natural human philosophy and spirituality that arises in people if they are not blocked by stronger belief systems.

Now I happen to be a remarkably unobservant person with a strong new interest that will put my powers of observation to the test, i.e., I have been bitten and smitten by the idea of gathering wild foods and learning to prepare them. I know it was something someone said here that got me started, but I looked up some books and found such a gem, that I ought to mention it here.

That book is "Nature's Garden" by Samuel Thayer. It is apparently a sequel. This 500-page book is heavy due to slick pages filled with excellent photos. He spends 50 pages on the acorn, discussing varieties, harvesting, how to spot the bad ones, the history of human and animal acorn eating, methods of drying and preparing. This is the kind of detail needed to really learn from a book. You can't just have a simple sketch with a paragraph. He chooses to focus on only 40 plants, due to the need for that detail but knows perhaps hundreds. Most of these plants grow in most of the states. 100% in Appalachia, although he lives in the mid west. Furthermore his writing style is superb. I've had a festering interest in wild food for some time, but I had no idea really that there were so many edible plants around. Some of the myths he busts are surprising. He considers the "don't touch anything natural, all you will do is damage" liberal tendency as the opposite side of the coin to the ones who think nature is something to be exploited and not seen. Both reflect alienation from the environment, an environment which all things alter by their presence and in which we also belong.

"We need a new paradigm - one of attachment and participation. We don't need more concerned intellectuals pondering the importance of Nature from 3rd floor offices; we need people who know the land because they live and work there, who love the woods because it nourishes them."
Starting in a few weeks, I will begin a new phase in my life, a vegetable garden, raising chickens, and foraging.

2/8/14, 3:37 PM

Candace said...
I think this article also shows why a lack of draft animals doesn't explain why the wheel was not extensively used in earlier American eras.

2/8/14, 5:57 PM

latheChuck said...
Re: slide-rule construction. In one hand, I have a Post Versalog 1460, with 11 scales on one side, 12 on the other, and its core is made of bamboo. In the other hand, I have a 16" length of dry, seasoned bamboo stalk about 2" diameter, 1/4" wall thickness. It's not obvious how I work the latter into the former. The slide rule has white celluloid on the scales, the indicator is clear plastic in a metal frame, so bamboo alone won't be quite enough.

As for marking out the scales, I probably have an advantage over most people, since I still have the CRC book of math tables, and my lathe allows precisely controlled manual movement (calibrated in 0.001" increments) of a scribing tool. I could use the lathe to machine a special milling cutter to shape the edges of the slide-rule parts, and build a line-shaft powered mill just for shaping slide-rule parts. But it would be a lot of work (even with modern materials available to order). I'm at a loss to imagine developing a printing process, though, or how to prepare and laminate celluloid.

By the way, I see that the US National Museum of American History has a lot of web resources on slide rules.

captch: earFing much (I think there should be a question mark)

2/8/14, 7:03 PM

Bogatyr said...
JMG: thanks for the reminder of fascism's origins. Mussolini was, of course, a socialist to begin with. I still remember an essay title from a first-year International History module in my undergraduate days, though: "Fascism is extremism of the centre. Discuss"...

I'll look forward to the coming cycle of posts on the topic. The evidence seems to be conclusive, from contemporary societies that are more stressed than the US, UK etc,that a move to greater authoritarianism is on the cards. The question of how to establish Temporary Autonomous Zones is much on my mind.

Also on my mind is violence. I understand your reasons for not wanting to cover it here. Still, there's a prominent article in today's Observer (a British Sunday newspaper): Why global water shortages pose threat of terror and war. It's not anything that will surprise readers of this blog, but it seems that just as we saw a realization of what Peak Oil means seep into some mainstream media in recent times, a similar awareness of other resource-based issues is also now appearing. The article doesn't follow through the logical consequences (food production collapse and major economic disruption in the US, mass migration in the Middle East, etc), but we here know they're coming.

This means that topics which have appeared in the comments here so far really will become pressing. Slavery, for example: you think it won't happen because there'll be surplus labour. I'm not so sure: many places won't have the carrying capacity any more. I'm reminded of a book (author & title forgotten) I read some years back by an American who lived with Bedouin in the middle east during the 20s. The Bedu, rich or poor, high- or low-status, were all warriors, who wouldn't soil their hands with work. They despised the peasants who laboured in the fields - and they had many slaves, often Sudanese Africans, who themselves owned property and other slaves. The author noted that many of these slaves had no desire for "freedom" - in terms of wealth and power, it would only be a step down. As you noted, slavery has many degrees, and some of them are not as unlikely as you think. Let's not take for granted that a feudal elite is an inevitable path - the return to a tribal structure is also conceivable.

Faced with collapse and the need to defend territory and culture against refugees and migrants, how will cultures of the remaining rainlands respond? Here is one possibility from Russia (links to YouTube). I often think that Juhana may be on the money.

Perhaps on a more positive (and steampunk) note: some of the comments here regarding slide rules and computational ability suddenly put me in mind of the Mentats from Frank Herbert's Dune. Perhaps someone might consider founding a Mentat Academy? It would sit comfortably alongside the religious, knowledge-preserving communities much-mentioned by JMG - and I could easily conceive of some being like the Bene Gesserit! David Lynch's version of Dune was of course a fantastically steampunk version of the story...

2/8/14, 9:51 PM

John Michael Greer said...
John, that's very encouraging to hear! If Sterling's gotten that far, there may be some hope that science fiction generally may succeed in popping itself out of its fixation on futures that are never going to happen, and help come up with stories that can make sense of what's ahead of us.

Andy, fascinating. That's reminiscent of some of Viktor Schauberger's work.

Marcello, good heavens, didn't you know that all the French philosophes were passionate Anglophiles? The example of England was a massive force for change in the rest of Europe; had that example not been there, things might have been very different.

Robert, and of course that would explain it too.

Roger, as it happens, I've read it -- an interesting piece, one that to my knowledge didn't get anything like the attention it might have.

Ray, excellent! We need mad scientists -- seriously. I'd like to see them come up with solar-powered life rays rather than nuclear-powered death rays, mind you, but mad scientists are a resource that green wizardry can't do without.

Candace, also an interesting point.

LatheChuck, well, that's true of a lot of far simpler technologies -- take a piece of fine glazed pottery sometime and imagine yourself trying to work out on first principles how somebody made that out of mud. I don't happen to know how slide rules are made from bamboo, but clearly it can be done -- and there were also a lot of plain wood slide rules. I have a nice little wooden Mannheim model, for example, picked up at a local junk shop cheap, made by Lawrence Engineering Service in Peru, Indiana; the scales appear to be paper, glued onto the wood. It works just fine.

2/8/14, 10:04 PM

Cherokee Organics said...
Hi JMG and everyone,

Not good here. Sunbury through to Riddells Creek at the bottom of the mountain range is going off like a frog in a sock. Had to evacuate. Smoke is blowing strongly.


2/8/14, 11:27 PM

MawKernewek said...
Luckymortal: I don't think the BBC is that clued up to be honest. If you want to see this look at the property shows, like "Homes Under the Hammer" where the idea that you can make a killing by buying at auction, doing it up, and renting out or selling again is promoted. I always note that even if they end up spending double their budget and taking twice as long as they hoped, they always seem to land on their feet.

"Escape to the Country" has a load of well-to-do people (almost always white, English and upper middle-class) decide to move out to the country, somehow needing to have a job is not a problem for them, or else they can manage this by a long commute. One program I watched recently wanted to move to west Wales, and be 'self-sufficient'. I suspect they didn't have the idea of working dawn to dusk with no holidays like real small farmers did there 100 years ago in mind.

At times, it seems that these programs are there deliberately to try to re-inflate the property bubble some more.

A detail, the destroyed section of train line is actually at Dawlish in Devon. I'm not all that optimistic about whether things like this wake people up to global warming, because you hear the cry that we should have flights available more often than say, to reverse many of the Beeching cuts of the 1960s to the rail network.

2/9/14, 2:50 AM

cracked pot said...
This seems to me to be wishful thinking of people who are fed up with modern ugliness and tackiness, and who wish it would all go away and be replaced by some renaissance\Victorian fair.

Do they also wish to return to the smog of 18th century London, the social stratification and the squalor of Victorian era tenements? I assume the only way we could all live like 18th century gentlemen would be if our quaint "retro" technologies were produced en masse by Chinese powered coal plants. As long as the USA goes back to some idealized version of Europe, the rest of the world can choke in its own industrial fumes.

So far all your posts seem very US-centric. They're based on the assumption that people live in an area with abundant rainfall, have rather large suburban backyards to garden in, or at most can "run for the hills" and live off the land.
Hardly relevant for the millions in concrete apartment blocks in Cairo, Hong-Kong, Mumbai etc.

What seems likely is that the American wilderness will be filled with gangs, refugees and illegal migrants (most of them having overstayed their visas and attempting to evade the state). The trees will be cut down for makeshift shelters and fires, and the animals will be hunted illegally to the brink of extinction. The woods will be a cutthroat anarchy that no "decent white people" will dare to enter without an armed escort.

2/9/14, 4:10 AM

cracked pot said...
Regarding slide rules - if it ever comes to that, calculations will probably be one of the lowest-paying jobs on the market (similar to telemarketing), and will likely be outsourced to whatever country has the lowest wages and grants its workers the fewest rights.

2/9/14, 4:24 AM

Quos Ego said...
Dear JMG,

It seems your theory of the long descent will be put to the test this year, hard.

If you are right, expect the viewership of this blog to soar. If you are wrong, well, it won't matter, we will be too busy killing each other.

2/9/14, 5:24 AM

Joseph Nemeth said...
@JMG -- Syndicalist? Neva hoid o' such a t'ing.

2/9/14, 6:17 AM

Shane Wilson said...
I know fascism is next weeks topic, but I wouldn't dismiss German-style Nazism/Fascism out of hand, particularly in the US. Right now, there's an underlying nastiness, ugliness, and disorganized violence in the US that is palpable everywhere in the US, blue/red, coast to coast, and border to border. Indeed, it seems to be the one unifying characteristic of modern day America. A charismatic, powerful leader who could tap in to that disorganized force and organize it would be very powerful. An economic crisis/contraction equal to, if not worse than anything experienced by post WW I Germany is certainly on the horizon in the US. The recent/near term weak presidents and there incompetence and lack of power call out for a strong powerful leader who could cut through the bureaucratic stasis of modern US politics. The implosion of the American empire demands scapegoats to blame for the fall, and a charismatic leader who claims a return to glory and pride if only certain scapegoated groups were eliminated/exterminated, as well as weak and ineffective opposition to any proposed holocaust, seems very plausible. An underlying death wish animating and driving it all seems all within the realm of the possible. Rights of minorities quickly abolished in an emergency seems very plausible. The notion of American exceptionalism coupled with American disregard/ignorance of history would blind the US to the German experience. All it takes to imagine such an American Nazi scenario complete with a powerful, charismatic Hitler-style leader is to extrapolate current existing, powerful trends in the US out to their logical conclusion.
The question then becomes who intervenes to stop and stabilize the situation, and this is where history might diverge from the past. Both the US and the Soviet Union had vested interests in the stability of Europe, and wanted to establish client states there, and saw Europe as vital to their power. I'm not sure the same could be said of the US. The only thing that might prompt an international intervention is if the US death wish was strong enough that it targeted a group with a particularly powerful enough backing for extermination. If the US targeted, say, ethnic Chinese, or even ethnic Mexicans, for extermination, then those countries and their allies would be brought in to intervene as a matter of national/ethnic pride.
History never repeats itself exactly, but I don't think that you could dismiss German-style fascism out of hand, particularly in the US.

2/9/14, 7:46 AM

LewisLucanBooks said...
Books to watch out for - I'm helping a neighbor clean out an estate and ran across a book catalog from a company I'd never heard of (and, I was in the book biz for many years. Lindsay Publications Inc. A 103 page catalog of technical books on just about everything that's been touched on in this post and more.

"Photographic Cameras and Accessories", "How to Make Mirrors", "Making and Enjoying Telescopes", "Build Your Own Metalworking Shop from Scrap", "Impoverished Radio Experimenter", "Crystal Set Building and More", "Modern Locomotive Construction" (1892 handbook with over 1,000 drawings), "Making Rope with a Hand Operated Rope Machine", Optics and Optical Instruments", etc. etc.

I checked the internet to discover that the owner of the company retired and closed in 2012. BUT, the site is still up with links to used book dealers who have large selections of Lindsay Publications.

The information is out there ...

2/9/14, 9:15 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Bogatyr, of course there will be tyranny, war, and less formal violence. Those are all normal concomitants of the decline and fall of a civilization. Feudalism, too -- that's the absolute bog-standard social response to civilizational collapse, for good reasons I'll be covering in an upcoming series of posts. I'd consider the Bedu and their Sudanese serfs, by the way, an example of feudalism rather than slavery -- note the very common practice of subinfeudation, in which vassals have vassals of their own. The difference is that vassals have legal or customary rights that can be enforced, while slaves have none. As for Mentats, good! I've been talking about that on and off since the first months of this blog; yes, a Mentat academy would be a very good thing to think about. "It is by will alone that the slide rule moves..."

Pot, of course my posts are US-centric. As I've discussed here repeatedly, I've never lived anywhere else, and the last thing the rest of the world needs is one more clueless American telling it what to do; there are any number of good blogs discussing the peak oil situation from other parts of the world, and I encourage you to read those if you're interested in a more global perspective. As for slide rules, no, if it comes to that, the global economy won't exist either, and engineers will have to crunch their own numbers rather than offshoring them to anybody at all.

Quos Ego, we'll see!

Joseph, I bet. We'll be talking about the reasons for that, and not incidentally what syndicalism is, next week.

Shane, I don't dismiss it at all; quite the contrary. To my mind, as it happens, the fact that so many people have so wildly distorted an idea of what the word "fascism" means -- to the extent that it's not just a verbal noise meaning "I hate you" -- that a full-blown fascist movement could show up on the American scene without more than a tiny fraction of Americans recognizing it for what it is, and millions of people who insist they hate fascism would march cheerfully behind its banners. More on this over the next three weeks.

Lewis, Your Old Time Bookstore carries all of the former Lindsay books, if I recall correctly. Yes, that's a major resource for what we're discussing.

2/9/14, 11:00 AM

Shane Wilson said...
I probably should have referenced Luckymortal & others in my post regarding the likelihood of a German, nazi style fascism arising on American shores...

2/9/14, 11:57 AM

Jim R said...
JMG and Alan, it has been interesting to watch your exchange this week.

I think it is worth noting that, from a thermodynamic perspective, much of the ancient technology of metal smelting is hideously inefficient. I recall reading an article about a Roman effort to extract silver from a mountain in one of their far flung vassal states, mowing down an entire forest for wood to construct mine tunnels and smelt the ore. They managed to dismantle most of a mountain peak (West Virginia coal companies were not the first ones to do this), but at the end of it came "peak wood". Nevermind all the possibilities of coppicing or other renewable fluffery.

And I know you favor the Seebeck effect as a source of electric power, JMG. But that, too, is hideously inefficent. You can twist together a copper and a tin wire, for example (extracted at the price outlined in the previous paragraph), and by heating one end and cooling the other, produce enough current to swing a galvanometer. Meanwhile, we are currently capable of converting about 15% of infalling sunlight directly to electric power, and have several ways (not just lead-acid) to save that power for a gloomy day. Furthermore, we have some older methods of extracting silicon to which do not involve the rigors of nine-nines refining employed for microelectronics. If you can make a poor diode from a galena crystal and a steel needle, you could reasonably expect to make crude solar cells with only slightly more effort.

But after reading these essays for several years, and watching the beginnings of the first catabolic step unfold, it has ocurred to me that the biggest impediment to keeping the knowledge alive will not be physical or thermodynamic. It will be cultural. Quite a lot of technological knowledge may be lost as the civil religion of Progress is abandoned. The Canadian government burning all its environmental records comes to mind.

As Alan has pointed out, there are a few places in the world where abundant electric power is simply a matter of running the turbines in the dam, or using the steam which gushes out of the ground. New Zealand, Iceland, the Yellowstone area come to mind, as does the big dam in northern Quebec.

But we are also now seeing the end result of imbuing silicon with an insect-like intelligence, and there are certainly already some folks (e.g. in the Hindu Kush) questioning the wisdom of this idea. A handful of locations on the planet can produce aluminium and silicon for the modern equivalent of the Roman Legions. But is it not likely that these areas will also be targeted for destruction by those on the receiving end of said legions? And that as the financial collapse progresses, the ranks of said legions will thin? The rest of the story is a matter of extrapolation at this point.

2/9/14, 1:18 PM

Jim R said...
... another thought to add to the energy discussion ...

The 'steam' to which 'steampunk' refers, is Victorian-era steam power. And of course, this was a time in which coal was burned at profligate rates. Metals like brass and steel were so readily available to make baroque automobile riding goggles, precisely because the industrial world was burning coal.

Though there is some coal left out there, it is subject to the mathematics of depletion, a process which started much earlier for coal than for oil.

2/9/14, 3:37 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Cherokee, sorry to hear it! Please stay safe.

Shane, fair enough. That said, I'll be discussing that possibility at some length in the weeks ahead.

Jim, whenever you use the word "efficient" you need to specify "efficient at what." Sure, the Seebeck effect is inefficient at turning sunlight into electricity, as compared to photoelectrics; so? That's not the only efficiency that matters. Liebig's law -- the principle that the resource in shortest supply is the one that limits the whole system -- applies to technologies as well as other complex systems. Thermoelectric generators can be made from scrap metal using Bronze Age technologies, while PV cells can't; if you've got plenty of scrap metal and hand tools, and a severe shortage of what you'd need to make PV cells, thermoelectric generators are more efficient in terms of the resources that matter. I'd encourage you, by the way, to try making a PV cell by hand and see what kind of light-to-current efficiencies you get!

That said, your broader point -- that social factors are also crucial -- is unquestionably relevant as well. Technical feasibility, economic viability, and social desirability all have to be factored into the question of whether a given technology will be likely to survive into the deindustrial future.

As for coal shortages: "Augustin Mouchot's solar steam engines..."

2/9/14, 5:22 PM

Five8Charlie said...

The slide rules is not dead nor doth it sleep. Google "E6B" and what will come up is a slide rule for aviation that, I believe, most pilots still carry with them, even if they have forgotten how to use it. I have an aluminum one from my student pilot days forty years ago that still works fine. Does all kinds of neat tricks like density altitude, crosswind components, etc.

On the lack of a wheel in Mesoamerica: For a wheel to be useful on any scale other than a toy (i.e. for transportation) that civilization requires fairly smooth roads. Think of the movie cliché where the wagon wheel breaks due to the rutted trail the wagon train is following. Maintaining those fairly smooth roads for a large civilization may not be a trivial task - as we are seeing with paved roads in some parts of the U.S. reverting to gravel.

2/9/14, 6:57 PM

Jim R said...
JMG, those solar steam engines will only run on sunny days, in the absence of fancy high-tech heat storage gear.

Of course, as long as the salvage business holds out, I'd expect to see automotive alternators pressed into the service of windpower, much like some of the rural hippies did in the '70s. It isn't long-term sustainable, but it will do.

And as for those magic places where large industry would be theoretically possible, I think their survival hinges on whether they devolve into manufacturing war equipment. If they do that, they will become targets. But if they can refrain from it, they could manufacture PV gear. Even if the ROI is only 1.0, a PV system can effectively transport the energy from the manufacturing center to widespread locations, to power far away households in the absence of a grid.

2/9/14, 7:33 PM

jrecoi said...

Krampus may be delivering a bit early with a current contemporary to Mouchot's (actually Pifre considering the parabolic relector) solar boiler:

This is a proper engineering thesis with temperatures, efficiency figures, best operating practices, and suggestions for improvement.

Personally, I think the alt-azimuth mount is better replaced with either an equatorial yoke or a split ring mount, both derived from large telescope mounts in order to simplify tracking to one motor and manual adjustment for changes in solar declination.

2/9/14, 8:21 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Five8Charlie, fascinating. No, I'd never heard of that.

Jim, so? The insistence that power ought always to be available whenever we happen to want it is simply a prejudice of the age of cheap energy. In a solar-steam future, factories would locate themselves in areas that tend to get a lot of sun -- the Mediterranean coast, the Sun Belt, etc. -- and make steam while the sun shines. As for auto alternators, I helped build one of those wind turbines back in the day, so yes, it's an option; when it stops being an option, generators with handwound coils will be the logical replacement. Intermittency is only a problem if you expect something else.

Jrecoi, thanks for the link! Yes, that's the sort of thing I have in mind -- and you're right about the mounting; I'd go for an equatorial mount, but that's because I've used them with telescopes.

2/9/14, 8:59 PM

Stephen Heyer said...
John Michael Greer: “Jim, so? The insistence that power ought always to be available whenever we happen to want it is simply a prejudice of the age of cheap energy. In a solar-steam future, factories would locate themselves in areas that tend to get a lot of sun -- the Mediterranean coast, the Sun Belt, etc. -- and make steam while the sun shines.”

Exactly! I wondered why this is not factored in more often: You can run a perfectly good, in fact pleasantly relaxed, mid level industrial system when the wind blows, the sun shines, the creek is flowing, there is flammable waste from the harvest to burn.

And as Alan pointed out, there are some places on earth with a natural source of energy of one sort or another, lots of sun, lots of wind, lots of mountains and water, lots of geothermal and while requiring more work, lots of Hot Rocks, which parts of Australia are blessed with. My guess is that industry could be based in those fortunate areas for a very long time.

I suspect that this kind of arrangement would lead to some interesting new trade patterns. For example, it occurs to me that PV cells would be manufactured in such energy rich areas and exported.

It would not really matter if EROEI was not all that flash as for practical/economic purposes the PV Cells could be regarded as an enormously compact store of electricity.

In effect, it would be exporting electricity from an energy rich to an energy poor area.

Incidentally, many decades ago when we were discussing post-nuclear war society, people who supposedly knew about such things (some had been involved in developing them) claimed that perfectly good transistors and even simple ICs could be manufactured in a fairly modest factory. In fact, the sort of factory a small city or large monastery could build and operate.

I don’t know enough about such things to know if that is true. Does anyone else know enough to hazard an opinion? I guess the best people to ask would be those who developed the technology in the first place, but I guess most of them are no longer with us.

The answer would tell us a lot about the future societies we are discussing.

2/9/14, 10:15 PM

Ursachi Alexandru said...
Mark and JMG,

As a photograpy student, this touches close to my heart. The whole "progress" thing is going to the point where the SLR photo camera itself is being shunned by smartphones and pocket-size consumer cameras. I admire you Mark if you are trying to preserve older, more durable photographic techniques. I have a collegue that mostly shoots on film instead of digital, and for that he is viewed as eccentric, but mostly in a good way.

As for me, I am working with a 2005 Nikon D50 equipped with a Soviet-era "Helios" lens, and I am in the process of taking up a film camera myself. Well, and I've been borrowing my collegues' cameras sometimes. I think that modern digital technology has its advantages, but with its over-dependance on the whole global fossil-fueled economy, putting all our eggs in a digital basket is a risky proposition in the long term. I would rather advocate that newer and older technologies should complement each other where possible, and that older ones should be kept alive at least as backups.

Anyway, I would like to invite anyone who is interested to check out my new documentary-photography blog thingy - the first article being about a modest village at the edge of "Europe":

2/10/14, 12:44 AM

Thijs Goverde said...
John Michael, you wrote:
"...a full-blown fascist movement could show up on the American scene without more than a tiny fraction of Americans recognizing it for what it is..."

I'm suddenly reminded of the movie Starship Troopers, which was vilified by American critics for glorifying fascism.
It was, however, hailed by European critics as a scathing criticism of contemporary US culture, because of the ingenious way it likened said culture to fascism.
...well I thought it was funny.

2/10/14, 2:20 AM

AlanfromBigEasy said...
Regarding smooth roads. Let me describe the USA in 1916, just before we entered WW I.

Large cities had paved (often with cobblestones) main streets and some minor streets.

Towns of 5,000 would have a few blocks around the courthouse paved.

Farmers brought their crops to the nearest railhead by horse and mules over dirt and gravel roads - although trucks were beginning to appear.

The "smooth roads" were almost 200,000 miles of railroads and interurbans plus streetcar lines in over 500 cities, towns and villages. Plus subways and elevated in large cities.

2/10/14, 4:51 AM

William Church said...
JMG wrote: "Brad, yes, I'm familiar with the kind of hunter who can't hunt without 150 pounds of assorted junk from Mall*Wart. Gah."

Ahaha. Yep I've seen those guys too. There is something in my soul that balked at the injection of what I, at least, consider rampant consumerism into my outdoors pursuits.

Years back I went old school (although not primitive) in my hunting and fishing and haven't looked back. All that gadgety was robbing me of the fun of running the mountains and chasing game. All of these tricks and gadgets and Rube Goldberg looking stuff is ridiculous. We're hunting them not declaring war on them!

I guess it is just a product of a man's personality. I still have great equipment and gear. But unless something breaks or gets worn out it doesn't get replaced. But as good as you can afford, take good care of it, and use it until it is used up.

Example: I just had my boots completely overhauled this past summer after 13 hard seasons of hunting on them and they were old stock that had sit in a store room for years before I bought them. They were my first real insulated boots and I bought them right after landing my first real job after college. The cobbler joked that they were so old he didn't even remember what kind of sole they had back then. :p

I like having good memories and some history with the gear I carry and wear into the woods.


2/10/14, 6:56 AM

Joseph Nemeth said...
@Stephen -- it all comes down to what you want it for.

How many dirt-farmers need a transistor? Given that they were plying their profession before there were even taxes (though clearly after there was dirt), the answer is, "none." If they aren't running a plasma-screen television, a web server, and an X-box, how much electricity do they really need?

Electronic technology is not just a matter of tool chains and energy. It is also a matter of culture. We live in ways that make electronics seem very valuable. But you should realize that a lot more money and effort has gone into selling the utility of electronic gadgets than ever went into developing them. Change the culture, or merely stop pushing products so aggressively, and 99% of all current technology could become completely worthless in a matter of years. It isn't that we can't make it, or that it costs a lot: it's that no one values it.

The moral outrage against modern society is not that we need to use as much energy as we do to survive, nor even to live well. It is that we throw away so much energy on stuff that, in the backsight of history, will make us look like one of the most foolish civilizations to ever rise on the earth. "They burned all the reachable coal and oil and natural gas on the planet for WHAT?!?!??"

Steampunk evokes the Victorian age, when kerosene was just finding its footing as a clean replacement for coal, and electricity was a parlor trick. It isn't so much about finding brass and steam implementations of the computer and the automobile. It is about rethinking civilization in terms that don't value either technology, but instead focus on the more perennial human needs of forecasting, communication, and transportation, and how those needs might be met.

2/10/14, 8:30 AM

JustARandomPanda said...
Wanted to point to an interesting post on YouTube of the speed calculation of Japanese students using a soroban abacus.

Search for a video on Youtube titled Daniel Tammet - The Boy with an Incredible Brain [4/5].

Then fast forward to approximately 3:26.

Of course the entire 5 part video is a fascinating watch in itself about the abilities of "human calculators" but the part about the speed-calculation skills of ordinary Japanese is a good reminder of what humans can do if we don't completely turn over all of our thinking to machines - which alas I've been guilty of and am now trying to use a soroban and slide rule to re-claim that ability.

2/10/14, 10:56 AM

sunseekernv said...
@Stephen Heyer "Does anyone else know enough to hazard an opinion? "

That's what I did for my Krampus challenge entries; starting with silicon, then PV then simple electronics.
For silicon (the other two should be easy to find):

One needs to be able to make argon as a shield gas when melting purified silicon, so compressors and heat exchangers - e.g. good steam engine technology.

One needs reliable power for the duration of an arc furnace run (if one is going the route of metallurgical grade silicon) - a day for small batches. And for a diffusion - a few hours for PV, up to 8 hours for some semiconductors.

If one was going to be a solar powered PV production plant, in a place with reliable Direct Normal Insolation, one might consider solar thermal diffusion furnaces. It might tip the balance in some places in favor of ion implant, which buys one skipping the edge isolation step and better process control, and one could use a Rapid Thermal Processing step with a line focused solar furnace (a few seconds) to activate the implanted dopants.

So I think you and JMG are correct - people will use the energy where and when it's available. And when not, they'll do the manual labor needed, or talk story and generally be human. One hopes that living by nature's cycles will cut biophobia a lot.

The computer history museum has a few pics of early semiconductor technology, such as these on zone refining:
Not what I'd call high tech.

2/10/14, 11:45 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Stephen, an interesting possibility. It's far from uncommon in historical examples for relatively complex products to be manufactured in a few locations where conditions are optimal, and sold from there -- you can go all the way back to the Neolithic for examples, as the kind of stone that makes really good axes can be found only in a few places, and was traded across near-continental distances. The question in the present case is whether the technology gets preserved through the transition -- making a transistor is a good deal more complicated than making a stone ax!

Ursachi, many thanks for posting this. The thing that struck me most, in reading your photoessay, is that scenes almost identical to the ones you photographed can be found within a few miles of where I live in the north central Appalachians.

Thijs, no surprises there. I think it was Swami Beyondananda who pointed out that most Americans suffer from an acute irony deficiency.

Alan, and the smooth roads that existed were mostly there because the bicycle lobby -- the League of American Wheelmen -- was pushing hard for them.

William, good for you! I know a fair number of hunters locally, and that's pretty much the way they go out in deer season, too.

Panda, no argument there. I'll have to include that in an upcoming post on low-tech high tech. Stay tuned!

2/10/14, 12:36 PM

Robert Mathiesen said...
@Five8Charlie re the Mesoamerican non-use of the wheel:

Actually, the Inca maintained a system of very good roads. Not using the wheel (except as a toy), their roads included steps where the going got steep. I suspect that this was a feature, not a bug, to keep the wheel off those excellent roads.

2/10/14, 12:57 PM

Robert Mathiesen said...
@Thijs Gioverde:

Actually, fascism (especially in its German form) was wildly popular in the USA prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor. My father told me that he had estimated about one-third of the people he knew wanted -- before Pearl Harbor, of course -- to enter WW2 on the German side. (Had we done so, we might all be living in a Nazi-ruled world now.)

2/10/14, 1:00 PM

Cherokee Organics said...

Thanks for your thoughts and prayers.

It was a close thing here and I must confess that I've been left feeling a bit frazzled.

It took 4 water bombing helicopters and apparently (I have this only verbally) 120 fire trucks to stop the fire dead in it's tracks before it hit the township and forest.

I shot some footage from Mt Gisborne looking across to the fire and the ranges.

Gisborne + Riddells Creek fires

The fire got away to the east and headed up north with the wind and you can see in the night video just how big these things get.

The majority of my winter activities involves managing the forests here. Seems like time well spent to me.



2/10/14, 1:03 PM

Cherokee Organics said...
This comment has been removed by the author.

2/10/14, 1:14 PM

Cherokee Organics said...
This comment has been removed by the author.

2/10/14, 1:32 PM

Redneck Girl said...
Cracked pot said: ---"So far all your posts seem very US-centric. They're based on the assumption that people live in an area with abundant rainfall, have rather large suburban backyards to garden in, or at most can "run for the hills" and live off the land.
Hardly relevant for the millions in concrete apartment blocks in Cairo, Hong-Kong, Mumbai etc.

What seems likely is that the American wilderness will be filled with gangs, refugees and illegal migrants (most of them having overstayed their visas and attempting to evade the state). The trees will be cut down for makeshift shelters and fires, and the animals will be hunted illegally to the brink of extinction. The woods will be a cutthroat anarchy that no "decent white people" will dare to enter without an armed escort."

As JMG has said he isn't going to tell people of other cultures or nations exactly how they're going to under go / handle their collapse. And it is equally clear you aren't aware of how big the USA really is.

Much of the western US has a very low population density, most small 'cow /farm towns' have become ghost towns, unless they're on a main road between one large city and another. Here in the pacific states it gets more populated the closer you get to the coast, however much of the land is very rugged. The county I grew up in has a very low population density to this day. Flat land there is at a premium and the soils are clay with a heavy mixture of brittle shale. It's easy to get lost there on the logging roads away from the main roads. The county is large enough that the year I moved out of that state a fire got up in the back country during an exceptionally dry year and intense fire season, when it hit 100,000 acres, with the state's resources over stressed, they just let it burn until the winter rains put it out.

The state in which I now live a boy on his quarter pony got separated from his folks while they were moving cattle on horse back through old lava flows. The pony came home by itself and they didn't find the boy's body until the following year.

I currently live a few miles north of JMG's former home and in a violent societal collapse this valley is one of the safest places to be. There's very rugged country between here and the coast, some dry country and two mountain ranges to climb from the south, three to cross from the north and a lot of dry, volcanic terrain to the east. I don't see us as being flooded by starving refugees even though it was / is principally a farming area. And frankly most urban dwellers don't know their rear end from a hole in the ground when it comes to wilderness survival. Hunting, as most outdoor activity, has taken a hit from modern electronics and most people these days know nothing about subsistence hunting and fishing. And if it comes to identifying edible wild plants, well I think a lot of urban people will end up poisoning themselves.

We have more problems with illegal back country pot plantations right now from their booby traps to guard their crops than anything else. And that's a better reason to go armed in the woods than the mountain lions. I'd take a dim view of having my favorite horse crippled by their traps and I don't give a tinker's whoopity doo about their profits! The attitude comes from my partial ethnic background which is eastern swamp Indian by way of Oklahoma. (That means I'm a light shade of brown.)


2/10/14, 3:50 PM

Joel Caris said...
I quite enjoyed this post, JMG. I can't say I've gotten into the steampunk movement, though I certainly have heard of it, but I suppose I'm into my own anachronism: that of homesteading.

In fact, I just reinvigorated that bit of my life with a move two miles down the road. (I'm hopeful and expectant that this will be my last move in a good while, though I'm renting and don't own the place. Still, I work for and am on good terms with the owners and, by all accounts, I should be able to stay a good long while if desired.)

The new house is an old 1917 farm house. It's heated by wood (the bank demanded electric baseboard heaters installed in the upstairs bedrooms, but those will be turned off at the breaker.) One of my first acts upon moving in was to hang much of my cast iron collection on a (well-secured) bit of perforated hardboard that had previously held a collection of mugs. I added a new pan to the collection after salvaging it--rusty and long-neglected--from the garage. A scrubbing and reseasoning and, guess what, it's of far better quality than all my newer cast iron.

I'll be cleaning and salvaging multiple boxes of old canning jars, as well, and I managed to pluck some ax heads and old hand tools from the assortment of junk that came out of the barn and garage during our work party cleaning. Let me tell you, such old farm buildings contain the ores of our salvage economy. I couldn't believe how much old metal came out of there, much of it rusted but still in workable condition.

The house is sturdy. It needs some more weatherstripping and insulation, which is on my list of things to do--I'll be using Green Wizardry as a guide for what steps I want to take--but this is far sturdier than any house built in the last few decades. It's amazing what some old growth wood will do for a structure.

The house is a weird mishmash of disparate elements. Upstairs, decades-old linoleum is peeling up, torn apart, stained, and in a general state of disrepair. The real question, though, is why it was ever there in the first place. Beneath it is tight-grained, old growth fir hardwood floors. Eventually I hope to take up the linoleum and sand and stain the original floors. Downstairs, meanwhile, the living and dining rooms have been covered in Pergo. I can't say I comprehend why original hardwood floors were covered with faux-hardwood laminate. No doubt the hardwood floors below are still sturdy and intact while the Pergo has started to crack and peel in a few places. Meanwhile, vinyl baseboarding runs along the real baseboards. Every time I look at it, I wonder why? The real baseboards still look good and are solid. The tacked-on vinyl baseboarding just looks, well, tacky.

The prize of the house, in my mind? A huge, sturdy, floor to ceiling bookshelf in the living room. It has a good chunk of my book collection on it, and I can't help but admire it. An old Royal typewriter also came with the house and--while missing its 'z' and '1' for some reason--I typed a letter for a friend on it. Its heft and sturdiness, and the sharp clack of the keys, delight me.

And so, I'll seek to reclaim this house over time and return it to something of its original glory, though with some appropriate-tech modifications. I've been watching my electricity usage and putting into place practices to reduce it (the wood stove is supplying most of my cooking and hot water, since it's running anyway this time of year.) I hope to build a fairly cheap solar water batch heater and plump it into the electric water heater later this year. I already have a variety of good salvaged windows to work with, and friends who have built their own and will provide me with plans.

So not so much the steampunk for me as the homesteading and farming realm. But I'll be happy to cherry pick good ideas out of that movement, as well--and I really do need to get myself a slide rule one of these days soon.

2/10/14, 4:10 PM

August Johnson said...
@Joel Caris - I suspect that your typewriter isn't missing a number 1. Here's a hint I found about typewriters:

"Most manual typewriters did without the numeral 1; you were expected to type a lowercase L instead. Often for a zero you would type an uppercase letter O; for an exclamation mark, you would type period-backspace-apostrophe, or hold down the shift key and spacebar while typing the period and apostrophe (usually you can superimpose characters if you hold down the spacebar)."

2/10/14, 4:55 PM

Gaianne said...
On the subject of old styles of calculating: The Babylonians got along fine without logarithm tables. What did they do? The used tables of squares.

The idea comes from this:
(a+b)sq = a sq + b sq + 2ab
(a-b)sq = a sq + b sq - 2ab
(a+b)sq - (a-b)sq = 4ab
ab = ((a+b)sq - (a-b)sq)/4

To multiply a times b you subtract the square of their difference from the square of their sum, and divide the whole thing by four.

If you don't like dividing by four, create a table of quarter squares instead of squares and automatically save a step.

Your mnemonic is a small square centered inside a large square with four rectangles in a pinwheel between the inner and outer.

The main drawback is it won't do exponents.

As I understand it this technique got lost, and in the West before logarithms (Napier) they were using angle addition formulas of trig functions, which strikes me as much more messy.


2/10/14, 8:43 PM

KL Cooke said...
This just in:

From Associated Press
February 10, 2014 11:57 AM EST

MOUNT PLEASANT, Mich. (AP) — Some Central Michigan University students are getting schooled in the undead this semester, thanks to a religion course that's exploring apocalyptic themes in biblical texts, literature and pop culture.

Philosophy and religion faculty member Kelly Murphy says she always wanted to teach a course on apocalyptic literature, and she is a fan of AMC's TV show "The Walking Dead." The result is Murphy's class, which is called "From Revelation to 'The Walking Dead.'"

"Thinking about the end and imagining life in a different way is something that humans have always done," Murphy said in a university release.

Murphy's class will discuss biblical texts, review popular novels and watch clips from movies such as "Shaun of the Dead" and "28 Days Later." Students also will discuss hypothetical ethical and theological problems that people could encounter in a post-apocalyptic world.

"The prevalence of apocalyptic stories in various media gives us a window into what people are worrying about, what they hope for and how they imagine they would react in the face of a cataclysmic event," Murphy said. "In the same way, we can read the Book of Revelation ... and learn what ancient Jewish and Christian groups were concerned about."

Kevin White, a senior from the Detroit suburb of St. Clair Shores majoring in political science and religion, said it is important to incorporate popular culture into classroom settings because it helps to give students a way to connect with subjects of study.

"Studying ancient biblical texts isn't most people's cup of tea," he said. "But, when you add zombies, it instantly becomes everyone's cup of tea."

2/10/14, 8:43 PM

sunseekernv said...
@Joseph Nemeth "How many dirt-farmers need a transistor?"

(or vacuum tube?)

Consider a radio receiver via which the farmer receives news of dangerous (to crops/livestock) weather - they could rush harvest, delay planting, optimize preparations to "smudge" orchards, etc. That very well could be the difference between success and partial/total failure.

When they get timely crop prices and other economically relevant information - they can get better prices for their crops, which can make the difference between going broke and solvency.

Consider radio transceivers which would allow:
* summoning of emergency aid far faster than a messenger on foot or horseback. An untended/ill-tended accident or illness of human/livestock might mean the end of a farm.
* planning of mutual work assistance more efficiently, where that efficiency means the difference between survival and insolvency.
* ordering of repair parts for farm gear - shortening downtime, perhaps meaning the difference between a harvest brought in vs. a harvest left to rot in the fields.
* buy/sell orders transmitted without costly travel or stays in market towns, perhaps meaning enough margin to survive until next year.

So, in some cases dirt-farmers do "need" electronics to survive, though I will grant these may be rare compared to cases where it "merely" makes their lives easier, wealthier, and healthier if they had them.

And if the farmers had more "money", they could buy more/more sophisticated goods and services, and other people (including governments) would have more money, and there would be a higher level of culture, like more effective medicine, more education, law enforcement, etc.

"How much electricity do [farmers] really need?"

Depends on a given biome/ecological niche. It may be that farming doesn't work very well or at all there without electricity (or some other non-human power source).

Having a refrigerator/freezer (in a warming world!) adds to the toolbox of food preservation techniques, not just for the farmer's family's health, but also to avoid food spoilage of certain crops, which is inefficient for the farmer who worked (hard) to grow and harvest some produce.

Think about water pumps for irrigation (survival during drought?) and charging solar hot water systems (e.g. sanitation) and running solar hot water heating systems (e.g. lessening the stress->disease on the farm household).

What about fans to circulate drying air, so grains/dried legumes/etc. can be dried even if prematurely harvested (untimely rain, etc.). If one wants to avoid going broke farming in a place/time where drying means the difference between success or failure, then one "needs" fans (probably electrical). Maybe the humidity is too high, so one needs a (likely electrically powered - but could be solar steam engine powered) heat-pump to dry the air before one can use it to dry crops.

2/10/14, 9:42 PM

Joel Caris said...

Thank you! I had a feeling the '1' wasn't really missing. There's a key for 'z', but the bar to actually type it (I don't know what that's called) isn't there. There just isn't a key for 1--now I know why. (Incidentally, using a lower case l was what I ended up doing in the letter I wrote.) This typewriter has a 0, but no exclamation point, which I found myself missing. Now I know why for that, too. I just tried out the period-backspace-apostrophe and it worked grand.

Love the commenters here. Thanks again for the info.

2/10/14, 10:36 PM

steve pearson said...
Glad you are OK, mate. You had me worried for awhile there.
Regards, Steve

2/10/14, 11:12 PM

AlanfromBigEasy said...
I am not too sure of the relevancy, but I am typing this from the old half of my father' house. On the national register.

But in the 1780's in Georgetown Kentucky (a mile away and a decade later a Baptist preacher invited Bourbon history).

I am typing from the bedroom of Barton Stone, when he helped found the Church of Christ.

The house has squared white ash (baseball bats) walls 20" at the base and 17" two stories up. Walls are black walnut. The widest plank is 29" wide. All old growth.

Below the house is a nearly unique dry stack stone (no mortar) spring house. The city has grown around
the old farmstead.

An old barn and a new one built by my grandfather in the late 1930s.

Quite remarkable homestead. And this is in the Kentucky Bluegrass area.

2/11/14, 12:25 AM

Cherokee Organics said...

Just in case anyone was in any doubt about the weather down here:

Adelaide sets summer record for extreme heat

Whilst slightly less extreme here, it has still been 8.1C degrees above the long term average here for February (as of today).



2/11/14, 2:34 AM

Ursachi Alexandru said...
JMG, I appreciate that you've checked it out! I have three former collegues that are now living in the US after hopping on the "Work and Travel" express, and I am really curious how it will work out for them, especially after reading your posts on the future of the US. The whole hyper-consumerist and overworked lifestyle - not to mention the difficulty in getting an entry visa - pretty much guarantee that I won't consider following in their path anytime soon; but if I would ever have the opportunity to visit your country, it's the rural, small town "old" parts like your current hometown that I would love to check out.

Also, I am happy to say that I am now the proud owner of a Soviet-era "Zenit" photo camera. Time to learn how to work with this baby.

2/11/14, 3:01 AM

Bill Pulliam said...
Redneck Girl -- I live in an area culturally similar to yours (other than the accent). I used to worry about that scenario also. But after most of a lifetime in the south, and over a decade in this particular spot, a fundamental thing has become clear to me. Hardly any of those "redneck boys" know how to do anything anymore if there is not a Tractor Supply, Mall*Wart and gas station just down the road. They have never felled a tree by hand (even if they had the tools, which they don't), they have never killed a squirrel without a .22 and ammo manufactured across the ocean somewhere.

In a fast collapse scenario, I think you would see that sort of thing in the short run, until most of them had gotten themselves killed or had abandoned the wilderness to scrounge in the cities where the density of salvageable resources is greater. Few of these "redneck boys" care to actually learn how to do these things with pure muscle power. In a long decline, I think you will find the rural areas depopulating, not filling up with roving gangs and well-armed compounds. Hasn't the Russian countryside effectively emptied out in the wake of the Soviet collapse?

Listen to the lyrics of that redneck survivalist anthem, "A Country Boy Can Survive." The only thing he seems to know how to do is shoot a gun, grow smokables, and make booze. Probably all using store-bought materials. Sorry, but that particular country boy won't survive very long with that limited skill set.

As for drug wars, those are fueled by money coming in from outside, or by addiction to drugs that cannot be locally manufactured (meth cooking requires pharmaceutical and industrial raw materials). It's down to pot and opium, really, and with no large external market there's no reason to shoot your neighbor to protect your home-grown patch. You're probably inviting him over to share the harvest anyway. Crash the global economy, and the global drug production and distribution system goes down really fast, too -- legal and illegal.

I am assuming the type of financial crash JMG mentioned that he suspects might be coming in the near future is just another step down, not The End of The Global Economy. It's 2008 all over again, winding up a bit deeper than last time.

2/11/14, 6:41 AM

thrig said...
Well, anecdotally, my slide rule was received with "what is that?" and "I'll use a calculator" from some EE undergraduates bent over their computers, wherein they are tied for their Integrated Circuits to very specific commercial software applications, mostly due to hardware and testing related lock-ins (hobbyists will have greater freedom to pick other software, or to do without—that's the SPICE of life). The commercial software is hilariously expensive and crashes, a lot. Granted, the students are learning how to build new things, an activity diametric to, say, a guild that would try to crank out the exact same IC designs over a century or three. That we lost analog computing after a previous fall may not bode well for any future crunch: it is likely not economic to step down the ladder in advance, especially for complicated geegaws. Perhaps if there is some rich investor who builds the necessary infrastructure and sets up an inheritance--and even then things may well turn out poorly. Where would all the pollution go?

2/11/14, 7:54 AM

Bill Pulliam said...
Couple of notes on somewhat side topics...

Beard fashion -- do an image search on "Ricki Hall" (no "y" in "Ricki"). He is a supermodel now, appeared in a Super Bowl TV ad this year. Beard like a rhododendron bush.

Calculating in your head -- two tricks I learned:

Squares of two-digit numbers:

a^2 = (a+b)*(a-b)+b^2

The value for b is whatever single digit that will make either a+b or a-b into an even multiple of 10. So, if you want to do 27,

27^2 = 30*24+3^2 = 720 + 3 = 729

Likewise, 93,

93^2 = 96*90 + 3^2 = 8640 +9 = 8649

To multiply longer numbers in your head, you just do every pair of digits individually and do a running sum. An example:

153*397 = 100*300+100*90+100*7+50*300+... etc.

It takes a bit of practice, but the only real tricks are keeping track of the number of zeros and not forgetting your running sum. You have to be able to look at the pairs of numbers with single-digit mantissae and just know the product without working it out; when you see 100 and 300 you think 30000. So the thoughts in your head just go like "that's 30000, 39000, 39700, 54700, 55150, etc." until you wind up with 60741.

Even as an adult you can get fairly adept at these things. If you teach them to children and they practice them all their lives, I expect many could get to the point where they could just look at pairs of three digit numbers and write the products out after very brief contemplation.

It's not a question of whether these things are "better" or "faster" than calculators. It's that they require nothing but a brain, which is renewable and biofueled.

2/11/14, 8:29 AM

Joseph Nemeth said...
@sunseekemv -- You missed my point entirely.

My job needs computers: I write software for them. The day the Internet goes dark, I lose my job (I work remotely). The day LSI chip fabrication goes under, my profession becomes permanently obsolete.

It is really hard to credit any idea that says something that didn't exist a century ago, and won't exist a century (or two) from now, is somehow "needful" for human survival at any level.

Yes, life without technology will be, in many ways, harder than life with it. I remember a documentary years back on certain tribes in Africa that periodically suffer from long regional droughts, and when this happens, they are reduced to living on a hardy legume that is plentiful and drought-resistant. But the peas contain a neurotoxin, and when people subsist on it over long periods, it builds up in their bodies and they can permanently lose the use of their legs and sometimes other limbs. Long droughts could and did periodically cripple a significant fraction of entire generations. This has been going on for a long, long time. It is part of their expectation of life.

Just as, even a century ago, people expected to lose children to measles and trenchmouth, wives to childbirth, the middle-aged to tuberculosis, the old to pneumonia, and entire populations to influenza and dysentery. None of this made life unworthy of living to our ancestors.

So yes, a dirt farmer foolish (or desperate) enough to expect to run a profitable farm out here in what used to be high-plains desert, is going to be in a world of hurt in the near future: you could even say he "needs" the technology, but that is only because of the expectation that dirt farmers should be able to make the desert bloom just because they happen to possess a piece of paper that says they "own" the land. Without the technology, the sensible thing to do is to abandon desert farms and the pieces of paper, and move elsewhere.

Yes, there are already people living "elsewhere." Sounds a bit like the Voelkerwanderungen JMG has been talking about, and the concomitant troubles they bring.

Unlike a computer software developer, the dirt farmer does not "need" a transistor, or electricity. There were dirt farmers a thousand years ago. There will be dirt farmers a thousand years from now. There were not, and will not be, any computer programmers.

2/11/14, 10:26 AM

August Johnson said...
On Analog Computers - In 1959 my father built an analog computer to speed up data reduction on 1000's of astronomical observations. He was at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, AZ and the nearest digital computer was located in Phoenix, AZ.

Here is the paper he wrote about it:

Analog Computer

Notice the book he references for the design of the analog computing elements:

Analog Methods

He scavanged the servo motors and drive electronics from Honeywell Brown "Electronik" chart recorders. I have seen the entire system is still stored in the attic of the Slipher building at Lowell Observatory.

@Bill Pulliam - I've always broken down bigger operations in my head into smaller ones. I don't know when I started doing this but I've always been able to come up with either exact or close approximations faster than someone else can punch it into a calculator.

2/11/14, 12:00 PM

Unknown said...
(Deborah Bender)

I never took up the use of calculators. I'm accustomed to doing everyday arithmetic like calculating percentages by approximation in my head and anything more complex on paper.

I am just a little too young to have been taught any tricks and shortcuts, but I figured out on my own that summing a large group of single or two digit numbers is faster when you group subsets of them.

E. g., to find the sum of an even number of integers when each number is higher by one than the previous, add the first and last number together; multiply it by half the number of integers.

2/11/14, 1:24 PM

William Church said...
@ Bill Pullman - A very interesting take on things down your way. I hadn't given a thought to the way the illicit drug industry would be under stress in a long descent scenario. But your ideas sound pretty plausible. It is a shame but the drug industry has taken root hard in the area I still consider home. It is a large money maker in an area where gainful employment is far too rare.

As to whether they would run to the cities in a long emergency? Hard to say from my experience. I have seen way too much of the type of thing you mention to shrug it off. It is common enough.

But at the same time I know quite a few guys back there who just know how to make do. They repair generators or lawn mowers with no problem. Home plumbing, wiring? Same thing. Auto repairs as long as it isn't electronic are old hat. Electronics are tougher for some of them. A lot have been gardening since childhood though weening them off of hybrids and fertilizer would cause some discomfort for sure. But doable.

I'll have to give your post some more thought. I'm still not sure what my opinion is but it was a very interesting read.


2/11/14, 1:56 PM

Bill Pulliam said...
About return of things Victorian...

The TV comedy sketch show "Portlandia" openned its first season with a music video, "The Dream of the 90s is Alive in Portland"

The tattoo ink never runs dry!

In their second season they updated this bit with "The Dream of the 1890s is Alive in Portland"

2/11/14, 3:55 PM

Redneck Girl said...
Thank you Bill, I gave a violent societal collapse as a worst case scenario.

One thing I learned about myself last October is, like JMG, I'm also on the autism spectrum, I'm ADD. I have ALWAYS been interested in wilderness survival even as a child in the lumber camp I grew up in and luckily I have a memory that retains such things. If I'm going to subsistence hunt for squirrels, I'll use a blowgun, like my Cherokee ancestors, the only N. American tribe that did and yes, there will be a learning curve. If I want to plow or haul something heavy without a gas powered engine I'll get some yearling steers and hit or miss, carve some yokes and use oxen as my great grandfather did. (I'll figure that out too!) He liked oxen and resented that the logging company he worked for went to mules. (I have a copy of a photo of him with his three span and the big wheels they used in the woods, complete with mule ear boots, overalls, high crowned, flat brimmed hat and his bull whip coiled on his shoulder.)

If I can't get direct instruction in something I'll get a book and I generally do pretty well at learning things that way. I need to get back into practice but I can braid rope and weave knots and rawhide makes some very durable equipment for horse handling plus I like the natural horsemanship practiced by the old Californios, I'll just do without the spade bits.

My big drawback is my age, I'm in my early sixties although I'm still pretty agile. (You should see a couple of the horses I ride, cutter types, quick little boogers!)

My point is that there are ways of recovering old skills. For me it's more like pleasure then a chore to garden, milk my goat, keep chickens and have a heck of a lot fun learning mounted archery. If life isn't fun why bother?


2/11/14, 7:55 PM

Stephen Heyer said...
Sunseekernv: “That's what I did for my Krampus challenge entries; starting with silicon, then PV then simple electronics.
For silicon (the other two should be easy to find):”

I’ve just had a look at it – impressive.

It occurs to me that a larger project along the same lines, giving an idea of what was involved in doing desirable technologies or services and perhaps allowing the reader to drill down to more specific information would be a very useful thing, an insurance policy in case things go badly wrong. Mind you, to do it for all of the wonderful things this civilization has learned to do would be a project on the scale of Wikipedia.

While I guess it would have to be designed and written on line, it would also have to be compact enough to fit on a normal computer (not that this is much of an ask, given the huge storage they have now). Further, it would have to be designed so that each section could be easily printed as books if computers show signs of “going away”.

I’m fairly sure that barring an EMP from a nearby supernova or something, it would take decades or longer for computers to be finally lost, so there would be time to print the most essential sections as books. The rest would have to be carefully stored in the hope of an ending of the Dark Ages.

Incidentally, CD/DVD type media can be built that are capable of safely storing data for thousands of years. But, of course, to read them in that distant future requires building the machines to do so.

Anyway, my guess is that even in Dark Age conditions some computers are going to continue to be available, especially to governments and in the great libraries.

2/12/14, 3:05 AM

talus wood said...
I think water power will see a huge resurgence as in direct mechanical power as well as some electrical usage. Interesting to read that there were corporations who/which sprang up around the large scale use of water power in France many years ago. Sasme old story.
"Stronger than a Hundred Men: A History of the Vertical Water Wheel" - Highly recommended as a primer for the future maybe?

2/12/14, 6:19 AM

Bill Pulliam said...
I missed way back there in page one, Ruben's joking response to my little essay about German idioms, where he called me a "bleiben im Schlamm." This was an autotranslation of "stick in the mud," it seems. But I know enough German to know that he had called me a verb, not a noun, and that bleiben means to remain, stay, etc. (i.e. not move). It's not any part of a tree; though admittedly trees are very good at manifesting the concept embodied in "bleiben." So what he got from the autotranslator was "to remain in the mud." I guess a good idiomatic translation of this might be "to be bogged down."

No point here, just translation chuckles. It's the coming-to-life of something I read as a child, probably written by one of the great mid-20th-century science fiction authors. A universal translator was being demonstrated; the dignitary was asked to give an English expression to be translated into Chinese. He suggested "Out of sight, out of mind." Some Chinese characters appeared. Those were fed back to the machine to be translated into English. The resulting text read "Invisible lunatic."

2/12/14, 9:26 AM

sgage said...

" It's the coming-to-life of something I read as a child, probably written by one of the great mid-20th-century science fiction authors. A universal translator was being demonstrated;..."

I heard a similar story, slightly different. They were going to demonstrate the universal translator computer, English to Russian and back.

The test phrase was "The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak". The lights blinked (the way they did back then), and the printout came:

"The vodka is good, but the meat is rotten".

I just tried this using Google Translate, and it came around perfectly. So did your Chinese version. So... PROGRESS! ;-)

2/12/14, 12:19 PM

Unknown said...
(Deborah Bender)

Stephen Heyer writes, "Incidentally, CD/DVD type media can be built that are capable of safely storing data for thousands of years. But, of course, to read them in that distant future requires building the machines to do so."

Is there too much data involved to go the Compact Oxford English Dictionary route? Print it in very small type on acid free paper and include a magnifying glass to read it with.

That would require no more than printing multiple copies, storing them in clay jars in desert caves or salt mines, and adding a bilingual dictionary for when English fades out of use.

captcha saidti each

2/12/14, 12:22 PM

Unknown said...
(Deborah Bender)

The dictionary included with these data libraries should be English/Chinese. Chinese is most likely to survive since it's spoken by a billion people, and the written form of it is very stable.

2/12/14, 12:30 PM

Ruben said...
Glad you enjoyed the chuckles Bill. Imagine what the autotranslate of Party Pooper would have been.

2/12/14, 12:36 PM

Cathy McGuire said...
Okay - here's my story entry for the contest! 7,500 words exactly! It's so hard to write short!! ;-)

Great post this week BTW. I haven't commented 'cause I was busy on the story, and because we had power out around here for about 20 hours over the weekend.

2/12/14, 1:25 PM

Dennis D said...
A small note, I read that the trade in grain was effectivly the trade in water required to grow that grain, and distilling alchol allowed the effective transport of other crops. If someplace has a surplus of Hydro power, that is otherwise wasted if not used, then smelting Alumunum is effectivly transporting electricity from where there is a surplus.

2/12/14, 3:59 PM

Brian said...
For a fascinating study of why the Industrial Revolution started where it did and not in China, check out Kenneth Pomeranz's 'The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy'.

Excellent post - I too find the steampunk phenomena fascinating.

Now to drive home from the library in my Prius and fire up the charcoal kiln...

2/12/14, 4:10 PM

Rylin Mariel said...
Perchance there is the germ of a convergence of conceptual directions here - thusly:

2/14/14, 2:55 PM

Justin Wade said...
I am resubmitting Apocalypse Mom. Apologies as it is about 50,000 words over the contest limit, but I still think twice it is good enough to get rejected again.

2/16/14, 9:18 PM

GreenEngineer said...
Not sure if it's worth posting two weeks after the most recent post, but what the heck...

It's true that people have a completely unfounded tendency to assume that the current state of affairs is somehow inevitable, and technology is no exception to that rule.

That said, while the precise details of our technology are in no way inevitable, there is some reason to believe that the general thrust of modern technology, towards harnessing and directing increasingly intense flows of energy, is to be expected.

Ecologist Howard Odum talks about the Maximum Power Principle, which basically states that species prosper in proportion to their ability to usefully harness and direct energy. This is intuitively obvious in the relationship e.g. between animal reproduction and food supply, but the idea also explains a lot of the arc of our technological development. Given that we could exploit these resources (due to accidents of geography, history and culture) it's inevitable that we would choose to do so, and do so in the extreme.

3/3/14, 1:53 PM

William McCracken said...
As coal reserves depleted, governments, industrial firms, and serious men of affairs doubtless would have become ever more fixated on seizing control of untapped coal mines wherever they could be found, and the twentieth century in this alternate world would likely have been ravaged by wars as destructive as the ones in our world.

Unfortunately, I think you are right. Even without any significant geologic oil the world would still have had WWI for the same reasons and I’m guessing the outcome probably would have been nearly the same as well. The technology of machine guns, artillery, railroads and landing craft were developed during the coal powered American Civil war after all! However, a fuel poor World War II would have been more interesting. Thanks to World War I, the seeds of WWII were planted. At the same time, Germany had made strides in practical chemical processing methods that allowed it to substitute coal for liquid fuels. Those fuels were vital for it’s new Blitzkrieg tactics. Even without those tactics, it would only take a few incidents of vintage wood and cloth alcohol fueled planes sinking expensive coal powered (or wood powered) warships to demonstrate expensive planes were cost effective weapons. Tanks would have been built and provisioned with expensive liquid fuel for similar reasons.
With Allied powers starved of oil, I’m guessing the outcome in Europe may have been very different. If the Allies did manage to get a foothold in Europe, they would not have been able to move as fast. So, World War II might have turned into a repeat of WWI trench warfare. What would have been interesting (or tragic) is the role that nuclear weapons would have played as a game changer to break the stalemate. I think the nuclear bomb still would have happened. After all, many of the scientists working on it were born close to the horse and buggy era!
Hopefully, we’ll figure out the resource challenges and not need to fight a second nuclear war (WWII being the first one). As the saying goes, “Whenever I see an adult on a bicycle, I have hope for the human race.”

3/6/14, 4:03 PM

ChemEng said...
Regarding the potential for fusing technical and humane learning may I suggest that the challenge lies more with those who have a liberal arts background than technical types. For example,

1. The much maligned oil industry must be one of the most international businesses that exist — you will find people from all over the world working in the design office of a major offshore contractor for example. (Kenneth Clark made the point many years ago that those issues which are critically important to us are always international. He used the example of the Archbishop of Canterbury in the Middle Ages: the appointees came from all over the world — now they are always English.) Many international oil workers come from India and other countries which do not follow the Judaeo—Christian tradition; they instinctively pick up on a birth/death/rebirth model rather than one of linear progress to a destination.
2. Most engineering types could care less about literature and its relationship to technical work — but some do.
3. However liberal arts people are horrified if they are expected to understand the basics of thermodynamics or calculus - their lack of effort seems to require no justification. Recently I chatted to someone who was thinking of preparing a talk on the life of Ismbard Kingdom Brunel — one of the world’s greatest engineers. I noted that, in order to really understand his character you don’t need to know about his personal life but you do need to understand why he decided that piston speeds should not exceed 280 ft/min at 30 mph whereas his competitors allowed values of 500 ft/min. I did not make my point.

Which is why I see a weakness in Hesse’s Glass Bead Game. He was writing at a time when German industry and science were world leaders, and the book is very Germano-centric. Yet he does not incorporate chemistry or theromodynamics into the Game.

3/6/14, 4:37 PM

Prairie Philosopher said...
Wonderful article & commentary. I am an academic philosopher currently working on a paper for conference on "Steampunk as an Indicator of Paradigmatic Shift." I found your post very thoughtful & helpful.10

5/25/14, 7:44 PM