Wednesday, March 05, 2014

The Steampunk Future Revisited

One of the things I’ve noticed repeatedly, over the nearly eight years I’ve been writing this blog, is that I’m the last person to ask which of these weekly essays is most likely to find an audience or hit a nerve. Posts I think will be met with a shrug of the shoulders stir up a storm of protest, while those I expect to be controversial get calm approval instead. Nor do I find it any easier to guess which posts will have readers once the next week rolls around and a new essay goes up.

My favorite example just now, not least because it’s so close to the far end of the improbability curve, is a post that appeared here back in 2011, discussing Hermann Hesse's novel The Glass Bead Game as a work of deindustrial science fiction. If ever a post of mine seemed destined for oblivion, that was it; next to nobody reads Hesse nowadays, and even in the days when every other college student had a battered paperback copy of Siddhartha or Steppenwolf on hand, not that many people wrestled with the ironic ambiguities of Hesse's last and longest novel. More than three years after that post appeared, though, the site stats here at Blogger show me that there are still people reading it most evenings. Has it gotten onto the recommended-reading list of the League of Journeyers to the East, the mysterious fellowship that features in several Hesse stories? If so, nobody's yet given me the secret handshake.

There are other posts of mine that have gone on to have that sort of persistent afterlife. What interests me just now, though, is that one of my recent posts appears to be doing the same: the essay I posted just a month ago proposing the steampunk subculture as a potential model for future technology on the far side of the Long Descent. While steampunk isn't anything like as obscure as The Glass Bead Game, it's not exactly a massive cultural presence, either, and it interests me that a month after the post appeared, it's still getting read and discussed.

Courtesy of one of my regular readers, it's also appeared in an Australian newsletter for fans of penny farthing bicycles. Those of my readers who don't speak bicyclese may want to know that those are the old-fashioned cycles with a big wheel in front and a small one in back; the old British penny was about the size of a US quarter, the farthing about the size of a US dime, and if you put the two coins side by side you have a pretty fair image of the bicycle in question. I wasn't aware that anyone had revived the penny farthing cycle, and I was glad to hear it: they're much simpler than today's bicycles, requiring neither gears nor chains, and many penny farthing riders these days simply build their own cycles—a capacity well worth learning and preserving.

Mind you, there were plenty of people who took issue with the post, and I want to talk about some of those objections here, because they cast a useful light on the blind spots of the imagination I've been exploring in recent posts. My favorite example is the commenter who insisted with some heat that an advanced technology couldn't be based on the mechanical and pneumatic systems of the Victorian era. As an example, he pointed out that without electronics, there was no way to build a FMRI machine—that's "functional magnetic resonance imaging" for those of my readers who don't speak medicalese, one of the latest pieces of high-priced medical hardware currently bankrupting patients and their families across America.

He's quite correct, of course, but his choice of an example says much more about the limitations of his thinking than it does about anything else. Of course a steampunk-style technology wouldn't produce FMRI machines, or for that matter most of the electronic gimmickry that fills contemporary life in the industrial world, from video games to weather radar.  It would take advantage of the very different possibilities inherent in mechanical and pneumatic technology to do different things. It's only from within the tunnel vision of contemporary culture that the only conceivable kind of advanced technology is the kind that happens to produce FMRI machines, video games and weather radars.  An inhabitant of some alternate world where the petroleum and electronics revolutions never got around to happening, and something like steampunk technology became standard, could insist with equal force that a technology couldn't possibly be called advanced unless it featured funicular-morphoteny machines and photodyne nebulometers. 

The same sort of thinking expressed in a slightly different way drove the claim, which appeared repeatedly in the comments page here as well as elsewhere, that a neo-Victorian technology by definition meant Victorian customs such as child labor.  A very large number of people in the contemporary industrial world, that is, can't imagine a future that isn't either just like the present or just like some corner of the past. It should be obvious that a technology using mechanical, hydraulic and pneumatic power transfer can be applied to the needs of many different cultural forms, not merely those that were common in one corner of the late 19th century world. That this is far from obvious shows just how rigidly limited our imagination of the future has become.

That would be a serious difficulty even if we weren't picking up speed down the bumpy slope that leads toward the deindustrial dark ages of the not so distant future.  Given that that's where we are just now, it could very well turn into a fruitful source of disasters.  The economic arrangements that make it possible to build, maintain, and use FMRI machines in American hospitals are already coming apart around us; so are the equivalent arrangements that prop up most other advanced technological systems in today's industrial world.  In the absence of those arrangements, a good many simpler technological systems could be put in their places and used to take up some of the slack.  If enough of us are convinced that without FMRI machines we might as well just bring on the blood-sucking leeches, though, those steps will not be taken.

With this in mind, I want to circle back around to the neo-Victorian technology imagined by steampunk aficionados, and look at it from another angle.

It's not often remembered that paved roads of the modern type were not originally put there for automobiles.  In America, and I believe in other countries as well, the first generation of what were called "Macadamized" roads—the kind with a smooth surface rather than bare bricks or cobblestones—were built in response to lobbying by bicyclists. Here in the United States, the lobbying organization was the League of American Wheelmen. (There were plenty of wheelwomen as well, but the masculine gender still had collective force in the English of that time.) Their advocacy had a recreational side, but there was more to it than that.  A few people—among them the redoubtable Sir James Jeavons—were already pointing out in the 19th century that exponential growth in coal consumption could not be maintained forever; a great many more had begun to work out the practical implications of the soaring population of big cities in America and elsewhere, in terms of such homely but real problems as the disposal of horse manure, and these concerns fed into the emergence of the bicycle as the hot new personal transport technology of the age.

Similar concerns guided the career of a figure who has appeared in these essays more than once already, the brilliant French inventor Augustin Mouchot.  Noting that his native country had very limited coal reserves, and colonial possessions in North Africa with vast amounts of sunlight on offer, Mouchot devoted two decades of pioneering work to harnessing solar energy. His initial efforts focused on solar cookers, stills and water pumps, and his success at these challenges encouraged him to tackle a challenge no previous inventor had managed: a working solar steam engine. His first successful model was tested in 1866, and the Paris Exhibition of 1878 featured his masterpiece, a huge engine with a sun-tracking conical reflector focusing sunlight on tubes of blackened copper; the solar engine pumped water, cooked food, distilled first-rate brandy, and ran a refrigerator. A similar model exhibited in Paris in 1880 ran a steam-driven printing press, which obligingly turned out 500 copies of Le Journal Solaire.

Two other technologies I've discussed repeatedly in these essays came out of the same era. The first commercial solar water heater hit the market in 1891 and very quickly became a common sight over much of the United States; the colder regions used them in the summertime, the Sun Belt year round, in either case with very substantial savings in energy costs.  The fireless cooker or haybox was another successful and widely adopted technology of the age:  a box full of insulation with a well in the center for a cooking pot, it was the slow cooker of its time, but without the electrical cord.  Bring food to a boil on the stove and then pop the pot into the fireless cooker, and it finishes cooking by residual heat, again with substantial energy savings.

Such projects were on many minds in the last decades of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th. There was good reason for that; the technology and prosperity of the Victorian era were alike utterly dependent on the extraction and consumption of nonrenewable resources, and for those who had eyes to see, the limits to growth were coming into sight. That’s the thinking that lay behind sociologist Max Weber’s eerie 1905 prediction of the future of the industrial economy: “This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which today determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisiton, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt.”

It so happened that a temporary event pushed those limits back out of sight for three quarters of a century. The invention of the internal combustion engine, which turned gasoline from a waste product of lamp fuel refining to one of the most eagerly sought products of the age, allowed the industrial societies of that time to put off the day of reckoning for a while. It wasn't just that petroleum replaced coal in many applications, though of course this happened; coal production was also propped up by an energy subsidy from petroleum—the machines that mined coal and the trains that shipped it were converted to petroleum, so that energy-rich petroleum could subsidize the extraction of low-grade coal reserves. If the petroleum revolution had not been an option, the 20th century would have witnessed the sort of scenes we're seeing now: rising energy costs and economic contraction leading to decreasing energy use per capita in leading industrial nations, as an earlier and more gradual Long Descent got under way.

Those of my readers who have been following this blog for a while may be feeling a bit of deja vu at this point, and they're not wrong to do so. We’ve talked here many times about the appropriate-tech movement of the 1970s, which made so many promising first steps toward sustainability before it was crushed by the Reagan-Thatcher counterrevolution and the reckless drawdown of the North Slope and North Sea oil fields. What I'd like to suggest, though, is that the conservation and ecology movement of the 1970s wasn’t the first attempt to face the limits of growth in modern times; it was the second. The first such attempt was in the late 19th century, and Augustin Mouchot, as well as the dozens of other solar and wind pioneers of that time—not to mention bicylists on penny farthing cycles!—were the original green wizards, the first wave of sustainability pioneers, whose work deserves to be revived as much as that of the 1970s does. 

Their work was made temporarily obsolete by the torrent of cheap petroleum energy that arrived around the beginning of the 20th century. One interesting consequence of taking their existence into account is that it’s easy to watch the law of diminishing returns at work in the can-kicking exercises made possible by petroleum. The first wave of petroleum energy pushed back the limits to growth for just over seventy years, from 1900 or so to 1972.  The second did the same trick for around twenty-five years, from 1980 to 2005. The third—well, we're still in it, but it started in 2010 or so and isn’t holding up very well just now.  A few more cycles of the same kind, and the latest loudly ballyhooed new petroleum bonanza that disproves peak oil might keep the media distracted for a week.

As a thought experiment, though, I encourage my readers to imagine what might have followed if that first great distraction never happened—if, let's say, due to some chance mutation among plankton back in the Cambrian period, carbon compounds stashed away in deepwater sediments turned into a waxy, chemically inert goo rather than into petroleum.  The internal combustion engine would still have been invented, but without some immensely abundant source of liquid fuel to burn, it would have become, like the Stirling engine, an elegant curiosity useful only for a few specialized purposes. 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.

At the same time, the pioneering work of Mouchot and his many peers would have become increasingly hard to ignore. Solar power was unquestionably less economical than coal, while there was coal, but as coal reserves dwindled—remember, there would be no huge diesel machines burning oceans of cheap petroleum, so no mountaintop removal mining, nor any of the other extreme coal-extraction methods so common today—pointing a conical mirror toward the Sun would rapidly become the better bet.  As wars and power shifts deprived entire nations of access to what was left of the world's dwindling coal production, the same principle would have applied with even more force.  Solar cookers and stills, solar pumps and engines, wind turbines and other renewable-energy technologies would have been the only viable options.

This alternate world would have had advantages that ours doesn't share. To begin with, energy use per capita in 1900 was a small fraction of current levels even in the most heavily industrialized nations, and whole categories of work currently done directly or indirectly by fossil fuels were still being done by human beings. Agriculture hadn't been mechanized, so the food supply wouldn't have been at risk; square-rigged sailing vessels were still hauling cargoes on the seas, so as the price of coal soared and steamboats stopped being economical, maritime trade and travel could readily downshift to familiar sail technology.  As the new renewable-energy technologies became more widely distributed and more efficient, getting by with the energy supplied by sun and wind would have become second nature to everybody.

Perhaps, dear reader, you can imagine yourself sitting comfortably this afternoon in a café in this alternate world, about to read my weekly essay. No, it isn’t on a glowing screen; it’s in the pages of a weekly newspaper printed, as of course everything is printed these days, by a solar-powered press. Before you get to my latest piece, you read with some interest that a Brazilian inventor has been awarded the prestigious Mouchot Prize for a solar steam engine that’s far better suited to provide auxiliary power to sailing ships than existing models. You skim over the latest news from the war between Austria and Italy, in which bicycle-mounted Italian troops have broken the siege of Gemona del Friuli, and a report from Iceland, which is rapidly parlaying its abundant supply of volcanic steam into a place as one of the 21st century’s industrial powerhouses.

It’s a cool, clear, perfectly seasonable day—remember, most of the gigatons of carbon we spent the 20th century dumping into the atmosphere stayed buried in this alternate world—and the proprietor of the café is beaming as he watches sunlight streaming through the windows. He knows that every hour of sunlight falling on the solar collectors on the roof is saving him plenty of money in expensive fuel the kitchen won’t have to burn. Outside the café, the sun gleams on a row of bicycles, yours among them: they’re the normal personal transport of the 21st century, after all.  Solar water heaters gleam on every roof, and great conical collectors track the sun atop the factory down the road.  High overhead, a dirigible soars silently past; we’ll assume, for the sake of today’s steampunk sensibility, that lacking the extravagant fuel supplies needed to make airplanes more than an exotic fad, the bugs got worked out of dirigible technology instead.

Back in the cafe, you begin to read the latest Archdruid Report—and my imagination fails me at this point, because that essay wouldn’t be about the subjects that have filled these posts for most of eight years now. A society of the kind I’ve very roughly sketched out wouldn’t be in the early stages of a long ragged slide into ecological failure, political disintegration, economic breakdown, and population collapse.  It would have made the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy when its energy consumption per capita was an order of magnitude smaller than ours, and thus would have had a much easier time of it.  Of course a more or less stable planetary climate, and an environment littered with far fewer of the ugly end products of human chemical and nuclear tinkering, would be important advantages as well.

It’s far from impossible that our descendants, some centuries from now, could have a society and a technology something like the one I’ve outlined here, though we have a long rough road to travel before that becomes possible. In the alternate world I’ve sketched, though, that would be no concern of mine. Since ecology would be simple common sense and the unwelcome future waiting for us in this world would have gone wherever might-have-beens spend their time, I’d have many fewer worries about the future, and would probably have to talk about Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game instead. Maybe then the League of Journeyers to the East would show up to give me the secret handshake!


Ruben said...
"It should be obvious that a technology using mechanical, hydraulic and pneumatic power transfer..."

LOW-TECH MAGAZINE: The Mechanical Transmission of Power: Part One, Stangenkunst

3/5/14, 7:44 PM

Cherokee Organics said...

Very nice. The funny thing is that I don't have to imagine that future very hard as it is here with off grid solar electric and solar hot water! Mind you, all of those have a massive fossil fuel subsidy behind them. In the long run, they'll generate more energy than they took to produce but it is nothing like the returns from fossil fuels.

One thing that worries me about our current society that perhaps the steampunk fictional future could address is that we spend so much fossil fuel energy mining and transporting nutrients around the planet only to then dump them as manures into our oceans. It isn't a really smart move and is a wasted (pun intended) opportunity to build top soils.

Even thinking of our own manures as a waste product is just weird.

As a disclaimer, my own manure is recycled back into the soil via an ingenious worm farm which uses very little energy (it only uses gravity and a small wind driven turbine to move air into the chamber).

Historically, the Chinese used to use recyclable clay pots and there was quite the trade in human manure which was composted into soil fertilisers. Very clever and elegant.

On a positive note regarding global warming. I'm now experimenting again with coffee plants and babaco. I had to spend a couple of hours this morning though putting some water down (solar powered of course) in the orchard as there is another short spell of heat coming up this weekend. The trees look tired.

Perhaps the steampunk people would have elegant cast iron framed glass houses to grow their fruits and vegetables in out of season. Some of the old Victorian era hill stations around these parts have these and they are truly a work of beautiful engineering. Much more attractive, repairable and longer lasting than the average hoop house.

That coffee in the cafe had to come from somewhere. Although I read that in the Victorian era here, they used to cut real coffee with roasted chicory roots.

Did you ever get a tea camellia? Mine died here again in the extreme heat, so I'm thinking of growing it in future in the complete shade.

PS: I was thinking that one benefit of this essay ever moving to a print format is that it will pretty much eliminate the haters in one swoop! Just sayin… It would be a more civil discourse than at present because of the slower pace.

Seriously, I can’t for the life of me understand why your blog would attract haters. Do they not understand that you are sounding the alarm because of the love of your country, history and society? It reflects very poorly on those people. Shame on them.



3/5/14, 7:45 PM

Geoff said...
About a month ago, as we were driving along the highway here in Tasmania we saw an elderly gentleman with a long flowing beard powering along in the opposite direction on a penny farthing. It was an amazing sight to behold! It seems the technology is alive and well, at least in pockets, here in the island state of Australia.

3/5/14, 7:50 PM

Kutamun said...
Assuming we are all part of the planetary consciousness , and collectively we appear to be speeding toward our own ruin , wouldnt this then indicate that the situation is well in hand ? As you and many others point out , financial ruin is imminent , and with it, the myth of progress. Job done , then , we have successfully navigated , after a fashion , the dangers of learning to harness highly concentrated energy as part of our evolutionary path .

Of course we could have done better , and perhaps set ourselves up for the next stage , whatever that might entail , instead we have opted for indefinite hiatus , with whatever that might entail , or perhaps , as Morpheus points out " what happened , happened and could have happened no other way " , though i tend to think this applies only to those who are making conscious choices , rather than being swept along by unrecognised compulsive unconscious currents, as Mr Jung would have it ..

I fancy mankind is simply incapable of leaving this place ; a squishy thing , mainly water , evolving over billions of years under a certain set of gravitational and other cosmic stresses , witness the moon sucking the entire ocean up so many metres, imagine what its effect on us is, without us even noticing ... Astronaut programs have already discovered the degenerative effects time in orbit has on the human body , as a simple google search " effects of space travel on the body " will reveal. With their much more limited comprehension of the psyche , boffins no doubt  vastly underestimate the  complete psychological disintegration that must inevitably accompany such offworld excursions ..( " event horizon" style ) . Indeed , if there are " demons " they are to be encountered in the vacuum or abyss, as the ancients have suggested , ( to a far greater extent than here )ask Dr Ryan Stone , of  "Gravity "fame ..
So as ever , the way lies within ...

We may simply need a couple of flat spirals to rest , as it were , on the double helix ( thanks, Da Vinci ) , then i am sure when the time is right , the child will have another try at riding the bike . ( after our grazes have healed )
As Neo said , " where we go from here is a choice i leave to you "

Cheers Mate
Kuta '

3/5/14, 8:04 PM

Ruben said...
This post touches on many of your past notions, JMG, and one of my favourites was the "Learn one thing, Save one thing, Give up one thing."

But it also touches on my uneasy relationship with this corner of the internet we are in--the corner I like to call "Realistic" and other people may call doomer.

As you say, when people accept the truth of it all, they get apocalyptic quite quickly, and before you know it they are studying basketweaving, blacksmithing, or as in my town, trying to grow flax and make linen.

All of these things fascinate me, and I would love to be involved. But if the salvage economy is our next economy, there are enough hinges and doorknobs lying around to keep smithing from being profitable for a while. Similarly, I bet we will be getting container loads of baskets from China being hawked on the docks for decades to come.

And the smithing of gates and other foofraws such as you might find at a craft fair or farmer's market will likely go the way of artisinal bread--the decline of cheap energy means we will all have a lot less money to spend, and I bet one of the first things we will cut back on are the $7 loaves of bread and the wrought iron candlesticks--in fact, probably pretty much everything you can find in today's farmer's market. We just won't have the money.

So, something that keeps me awake at night is thinking about the transition economy. What will be good work as we contract, but while the social narrative is still one of recovery being just around the corner.

Anyhow, this is long-winded, but I think I am getting to my personal fMRI example.

I thought that a steampunk culture lab might be a good idea, all the various critters you need for yogourt, cheese, salami, beer yeasts of many kinds, wine yeasts, mushroom spores, etc.

But, maybe trying to maintain all the cultures to allow us to indulge all our hobbies is like assuming the future will always include MRSs.

Maybe all these cultures will be maintained with the time-tested old method of...regionalism.

Perhaps we should just start identifying good cheese caves--one in each separate valley.

3/5/14, 8:07 PM

Ventriloquist said...
Putin is the Steampunk revival of the old-timey banana-republic dictators.

He's got it all . . .

the grim visage, the strict cadence to his voice, the KGB background,

The reputed $70 Billion in personal wealth, well . . .

What's not to like about dear Vlad?

He's the 21st-century's answer to dear Joseph Stalin, with the panache of Ronald Reagan, minus the doddering avuncular vacuity.

Face it, Vlad has had dear President Obama by the short-and-curlies this time, and he's riding the surf wave now for what it's worth.

Give him at least a small bit of credit in showing the fact that the smug USA politicians need a huge dose of hydrogen peroxide on their inflamed hubris.

3/5/14, 8:32 PM

Robert Magill said...
Entry: Post Peak Contest

NYT June 4, 2027
"Fracking in 2007 Let Loose Unforeseeable Power"

...At first this phenomenon was limited to young women; the 'twenty- somethings'. It spread to countless others rapidly. What resulted was the direct opposite of Lysistrata. The housewife who, rather than cut off hubby to prove a point, began to offer her amatory largesse to the neighborhood. Very quickly that became extremely threatening in Wall Street, Foggy Bottom and Pennsylvania Ave. But much more so in Riyadh, Tel Aviv and Vatican City.

What then was behind this gush of feminine libido? Were these unorganized, random, anonymous young persons reacting to something those senior to them failed to notice or acknowledge? Since the nineteen fifties geologists and knowledgeable observers had warned of the danger of extracting unlimited resources from a resource limited planet. With barely an exception, no one in power cared to act upon the information coming forth until things were fast heading somewhere past critical....

3/5/14, 8:33 PM

Pinku-Sensei said...
"The economic arrangements that make it possible to build, maintain, and use FMRI machines in American hospitals are already coming apart around us; so are the equivalent arrangements that prop up most other advanced technological systems in today's industrial world. In the absence of those arrangements, a good many simpler technological systems could be put in their places and used to take up some of the slack."

At least one team of researchers in the University of Michigan's School of Business are already proposing what they call "reverse innovation," which involves developing simpler technologies for developing markets and then importing them into advanced economies like ours. One of the areas they think is ripe for this is health care. As an example, they cite a cheap electrocardiogram devised for "Third World" hospitals but is now used by first responders around the world.

Another area they think this will work is in urban transportation. Here's what the authors of the study say about it.

For new mobility, companies and cities in developed countries should look at how entrepreneurs in emerging markets work around the lack of infrastructure, congested roads, lack of subsidies, and the varying types of mobile devices people use.

"Budgets are being pushed to the maximum here in the West, and without subsidies the scale of adoption for most new mobility ideas or mass transit isn't going to happen. It won't cross the chasm," Adriaens said. "That's why more and more global corporations are looking to entrepreneurs in developing economies to see what kind of product or service could or would work here."

I have links and quotes to that research as well as to a press release about an electricity-free portable milk cooler that uses evaporative cooling developed by the University of Georgia at Crazy Eddie's Motie News.

A few months ago, you mentioned that the press releases from the front lines of progress would proclaim glorious victories in already conquered territories that are in danger of being lost. These might be examples of them.

Speaking of reverse innovation, I recall a historical example. When the USSR collapsed, causing Cuba to lose its subsidies for oil imports, the Cuban government imported a million bicycles from China. The results of that experiment are detailed at Culture Change.

The island also resumed growing more of its own food. If anyone wants to see what the Long Descent looks like, it's right offshore and has been going on for more than two decades.

3/5/14, 8:46 PM

M said...
As an avid bicyclist, it's nice to see you giving bicycles some love--I know it's never really been your thing. There are plenty of bicycles to go around, but in the real, not what-might-have-been world, I suppose in the long run, the main weak link for bikes is rubber for inner tubes and tires--frames can be made mostly from bamboo, and the other metal bits are relatively negligible, especially compared with cars. In any event, bicycles make a handy transitional technology (and were a favorite example of one of my favorite thinkers, Ivan Illich.) Ride on, Archdruid.

3/5/14, 8:48 PM

onething said...
Never mind leaches, but they actually HAVE brought back maggots. Works very well.
As for the Glass Bead Game, I left my copy in Ukraine for summer reading that I didn't get to; I think I'll try to get it from the library.

3/5/14, 8:59 PM

onething said...
@ Rubin-
Actually, small local markets are part of most cultures and will be again.

I tire of the endless knee jerk criticism of Putin. He puts our leaders to shame. He speaks in an open and earnest manner and always mentions the rule of law, the rights to self determination, and general decency. Today I watched his press conference and he said "We don't think of Ukrainians as our nearest neighbors - they are our brothers."

As to things medical, how I would welcome a realistic stepping down of the expensive excesses, but so far it is endlessly increasing. Where I work, the conversations are becoming almost a daily thing, in which we shake our heads in disbelief at the latest time-consuming (therefore financially wasteful) new obligations that are all fluff and nonsense, and which are making our lives so difficult.

3/5/14, 9:20 PM

Glenn said...
FWIW, the Pennyfarthing was also known as the Standard or Ordinary. The type we have now was known as the Safety Bicycle, and was an instant hit when it was introduced. Nail the brake on a Pennyfarthing and you'll know why, as you do an immediate face-plant. It was the Safety Bicycle that moved wheels from the realm of playthings for fearless, young, well off men to practical transportation for women and the masses.

Current thinking has them most usefull in an Urban context. A well designed city or town does perfectly well serving people on foot, and has done so for over 5,000 years. A lesser known aspect of bicycles was how they liberated country dwelling labourers. Not only as a commuting and shopping vehicle, but to widen the potential gene pool as well. I see that as a very usefull role in the future. We live in a rural area; my post automotive plans include our bicycles as well as a donkey or ox cart.


in the Bramblepatch
Marrowstone Island
Salish Sea

3/5/14, 9:21 PM

Kutamun said...
Looking at my comment, that came out rather badly , with regards to Morpheus ....of course he is the god of dream , the sleepers, and believed everything to be pre ordained fate , so in that sense , his is exactly the path we unconscious sleepers have followed, and there could have been no other outcome than what has occurred already here on earth . A different , more useful and evolutionary outcome would require consciousness and its accompanying power of choice , for us all to embody " The One " ....Neo

3/5/14, 9:24 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Ruben, good. Low Tech Magazine is pretty much required reading for aspiring green wizards.

Cherokee, I didn't plant a tea camellia, no -- the space went for a couple of dwarf apple trees and a quince bush instead. As for the trolls, remember that I'm telling them that they don't get to have the bright shiny future that Santa's supposed to bring them for Christmas; of course they're going to be upset! Letters to the Editor columns, back in the day, used to be just as full of diatribes as any blog comments page is today.

Geoff, glad to hear it!

Kutamun, of course we're not leaving this planet. Does a plant achieve anything by pulling itself up by the roots? Would your fingers be happier if you chopped them off and threw them out the window? One of the crucial mental tasks of the present age is coming to terms with the realization that humanity is part of Earth's biosphere, as integral a part of nature as trees and winds and stones -- and to take the myths that insist that we don't belong here and chuck 'em in the compost.

Ruben, that's why I've talked at such length of the necessity for religious structures as a way to maintain essential technologies during the Long Descent. In a contracting economy, the invisible hand of the market is guaranteed to give you the finger; making decisions on the basis of short term profitability is a guarantee of long term suicide. The skills that survive will be those that are preserved for reasons other than the purely pragmatic -- and religion provides those more reliably than any other human institution.

Ventriloquist, you mean the guy that makes Chuck Norris look second rate? ;-)

Robert, got it.

Pinku-sensei, "reverse innovation" may be the funniest phrase I've heard in weeks. It reminds me forcefully of radio broadcasts from Berlin in 1944 and 1945, announcing that the Wehrmacht was advancing against the enemy from Moscow, to Minsk, to Warsaw, to... That said, many thanks for the tip -- the fact that anybody's thinking in those terms is very promising indeed.

M, a lot depends on whether people -- as in, individuals like you, not some notional person somewhere else -- figure out how to build their own bicycles from locally available scrap and raw materials. If that happens, and the penny farthing brigade gives me some hope that it might, there may well be bicycles all through the Long Descent; if not, well, you know the song as well as I do. If enough people get to work trying to find a viable alternative to rubber tires...

Onething, true -- I think the blood-sucking leeches have all been put to work in medical billing, so are not available on the clinical side of things. ;-)

3/5/14, 9:31 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Glenn, interesting. It wouldn't be too hard, it seems to me, to rig a penny farthing with a cable brake that stops the back wheel instead of the front, and thus prevents that little problem; still, I'd say let's see many different kinds of bicycles, and let Darwinian evolution sort 'em out.

Kutamun, good. There's a lot to be said about moving from the kind of biological automatism I've called "baboonery" and the fragile but real human capacity for conscious choice; I said some of it back in the fall of 2011, in my sequence of posts on magic and peak oil, but I'll want to address it again as we proceed.

3/5/14, 9:39 PM

Kutamun said...
Another curious astronaut episode was the incredibly highly educated and intelligent , rational and hitherto married female astronaut who drove across America wearing diapers ( so she wouldnt have to stop for rest breaks ) to throw herself at the feet of married scoundrel shuttle mission commander .... I found this astonishing , but my intuition told me more than a coincidence , these poor souls being torn apart by the hounds of their own unintegrated psyche . Of course it is possible that it is just fairly standard anglo saxon social shenanigans

I also note your thoughts that when the earth has finished repairing itself , it may create another type of child to put back on the evolutionary bike as its leading edge .....though i hope not; , then again , perhaps those sentient beings who have taken the time and effort and stress and pain to cultivate some degree of consciousness in themselves will make quite fetching flying bipeds ......???

3/5/14, 10:01 PM

Glenn said...
John Michael Greer said...
Glenn, interesting. It wouldn't be too hard, it seems to me, to rig a penny farthing with a cable brake that stops the back wheel instead of the front, and thus prevents that little problem; still, I'd say let's see many different kinds of bicycles, and let Darwinian evolution sort 'em out.

JMG, we've spent a hundred years doing just that, (evolving bicycles) and that's why you don't see thousands of Pennyfarthings on the road. Even with your arrangement, the fact that the Center of Gravity of the rider is practically on top of the big wheel, and quite high up is what caused all the face plants. The rider can't be any farther back or lower because of where the steering has to be. The addition of the chain and sprockets is obviously not a deal breaker; as I said the Safety Bicycle was an rapid success in the 1880's (from introduction in 1879 to dominance in 1890). There are other advantages, such as having wheels the same size with interchangable spares, and simpler ways to carry cargo and baggage which also make the Safety configuration more utilitarian.

There are lots of ways in which fossil fuel technology has changed bicycles, but the basic form was worked out quite well a century ago by our Victorian forebears. I do agree with "M" that rubber for tires and tubes is critical.

3/5/14, 10:06 PM

deedl said...
I think your alternative Future will still be electrified. The scientfic breakthroughs of the nineteenth centruy where not only in mechanical areas, but also in electrical ones. Most basics for electric applications throughout the 20th century, as generators/motors, batteries and lightsources where ready available at the turn of the century. The idea that electromagnetic waves are reflected by items (radar) was already two decades old.

If you look at the last years of the 19th century, you will find already the third generation of generators used in power plants driven by water or steam, while wind mills where still around. The dwindling resource of whale fat, that once powered lanterns enforces the well under way shift to electric light. Intercontinental communication is electric using the telegraph network and mechanical wind mills are still a common sight all over the world. So a shift towards a wind powered electric grid is not a big step, but combines proven technology.

Besides that in the early era of the automobile electric and gasoline vehicles where equal competitors in the early market. A major breakthrough for usability and convenience of the gasoline car was the electric startermotor.

Any alternative history based on the industrial age will always use electric technology due to its availability. And once you apply electric systems, it is just a question of time to get to electronics. By the way, the first computers where based on either relays (invented in 1830s) or cathode ray tubes (invented 1890s).

3/5/14, 11:16 PM

Sackerson said...
Most people didn't need bikes in the Middle Ages. Above "re-use" and "re-cycle" comes "don't-use".

3/5/14, 11:26 PM

Grebulocities said...
This is an amazing post, JMG. That's a possible alternate future I could imagine, and I didn't know that so much was known about how to harness renewable energy back in the late 19th century. There might be much more potential in steampunk technology than I imagined.

Now, for anyone who wants some comic relief related to fracking and the US response to Putin, here's an unintentionally Onionesque article from the NYT about how the US is going to undermine Russia by exporting its near-infinite supply of fracked natural gas to Europe. That'll show Putin!

3/5/14, 11:36 PM

dave1941 said...
One topic you haven't said much about is hydropower. Charles Galton Darwin wrote in 1950 that in the deep future we'll either enjoy limitless fusion energy from seawater, or if that doesn't work, nations will fight for dammable rivers as they now fight over oil fields.

There will always be liquid biofuels for the wealthy to flit about in cars and airplanes, but most travel and trade will be on sailing ships, electric trains, and maybe horses. Instead of making everything in China, there will be about a dozen separate trade zones, each possessing an industrial core on the rainy side of a mountain range. As innovation slows down, one might find two nearly identical solar-powered tablet computers manufactured a thousand years apart!

The abacus and slide rule will NOT replace the one-dollar solar calculator, ever.

With ore supplies used up, people will be very careful what they throw away. All scrap metals will be collected, sorted, and shipped back to the mountains for recycling.

3/5/14, 11:55 PM

Ursachi Alexandru said...
Well, the replacement of the penny farthing was't called the "safety bicycle" for nothing. Nor do I see modern type bicycles as unsustainable in a deindustrial future. In rural Eastern Europe a lot of people use bicycles, most of them old and jerry-rigged with replaced parts, and ride them on not exactly the smoothest roads. I would agree with Glenn on this issue about the Darwinian approach.

3/6/14, 12:26 AM

Spanish fly said...
You skim over the latest news from 'the war between Austria and Italy, in which bicycle-mounted Italian troops have broken the siege of Gemona del Friuli,'

OK, it's not a druids joke. I've found this...Bersaglieri ciclisti, ma che cosa!

What a funny hat, ha ha ha...

3/6/14, 12:44 AM

streamfortyseven said...
Hmm. Bicycle tires and tubes don't *have* to be made out of latex from the rubber plant, latex from dandelions - that milky white sap - does the trick just as well. Mix in a bit of lampblack and sulfur and heat-treat them, and you've got vulcanized rubber.

3/6/14, 1:16 AM

ChemEng said...
Mr. Greer:
Based on your earlier post I purchased and read The Glass Bead Game. And, by chance, I happened to be re-reading it this week.

I view it as a classic book, by which I mean it will be read many times (at least by myself), and each reading will reveal something new. This time around I am struck by the revival of monasticism following the collapse of the Age of Feuilleton. I also note how rigorous their monasticism was. For example, when Knecht visits a Benedictine monastery he refuses the abbot’s offers of a glass of red wine. And the repugnance that his friend Tegularius feels about the monastery seems to do with it worldly nature.

I write a blog for process safety professionals (those who work in the oil, chemical and refining businesses). One of my themes is that our discipline, which is already quite eclectic, needs to become more so. For example, my latest post — How to Read and Why based on Harold Bloom’s work — drew a reasonably strong response given the background of the audience that I am addressing. There is an opportunity and maybe a need to better integrate the liberal and technical professions. And it is the integration of different disciplines is largely what the Glass Bead Game is about (although they do not incorporate technology or scientific concepts such as the Laws of Thermodynamics — a major weakness of the Game structure in my judgment).

Regarding Penny-Farthings, I recently went on a group bicycle ride around town. One person was riding one of these contraptions. I asked him how he stops at Stop Signs. His response was that he doesn’t. And, based on the tension in his face, I don’t think that he was enjoying the ride all that much.

3/6/14, 1:36 AM

Phil Harris said...
Great to see the Pennyfarthing. I had the luck once to join a gang of Ordinary riders. The neatest was a girl child of 11, but the Dads did OK. Going steep downhill demanded technique and faith in equal measure - not for me - and one understands why the safety bicycle was an instant marketing success.
PS My dad, b.1901, England, did a lot of miles on a (safety) 'boneshaker' on solid rubber tyres on rolled-stone roads. (Steam-roller on the London to Brighton?)
PPS Thailand - successful cervical cancer screening via vinegar - the drying action instantly reveals tiny white cancer centres. Papillomas taken off using solid CO2 probe: CO2 courtesy local coca-cola factory. Nothing very fancy. Anecdotally, actinic keratoses also shows white centres.

3/6/14, 1:47 AM

Kevin said...
This post, like its steampunk predecessor, elicits my response because it suggests ideas I think I might be able to do something about. I've designed and built some small parabolic reflectors, and believe I could make much larger and more powerful ones, given sufficiently robust materials. There's a great deal that could be done using Mouchot's ideas as a starting point, and those of Frank Shuman and others.

But my training is that of an artist, not a mechanic or machinist. I don't have the skills to assemble steam engines or plumbing or chain drives. I'd have to collaborate with someone who does. If anyone's interested in teaming up, I'd be glad to hear of it. Maybe I should check into the local Burning Man community..? Some of those folks seem to have mechanical skills.

Clearly to develop and sustain this technology for the long term it will be essential to maintain the craft of mirror-making, or of making highly reflective metallic surfaces. For the time being scavenged materials may serve. I think it may be possible to make quite a powerful reflector using the humblest of materials, such as paperboard and the silvered interiors of plastic food wrappers. It might not hold up long, but it would work for a while.

I'd like to have a look at Mouchot's design for a solar water pump. I gather there's more than one way to recuperate the energy of water stored in a water tower. I wonder if anyone still makes water motors like those featured in Low Tech Magazine?

3/6/14, 2:48 AM

Robo said...
The steampunk future or alternate present sounds like a lot of fun for a mechanically minded person like myself. It's very empowering to be able to see the totality of how a mechanism works. Current micro electronics are too much like magic ... just wave your fingers and wonderful things happen on a smooth glass screen. The cumulative effect of so many iGadgets is to make us feel utterly powerless or stupid whenever they malfunction or are misplaced.

Of course, the bicycle paths of the future will be much less crowded than we might expect because there will be so many fewer humans around to enjoy them.

3/6/14, 3:06 AM

Doug W. said...
Perhaps thirty five years ago I was at a Natural Organic Farmers Association Conference somewhere in Vt or NH attending workshop on solar energy. I remember only one thing from that event. The presenter said, "we don't need a solar technology, but rather a solar culture."

3/6/14, 3:22 AM

Zack Lehtinen said...
Enjoyable essay, JMG. Before you mentioned the déjà vu, I was seeing the close 1970's parallels in the late-Victorian innovations you were describing.

I hadn't known about that. Fascinating.

3/6/14, 4:40 AM

Richard Larson said...
I attended the first trade show as a "hawker of solar devices" since 2010, a few weeks ago. You, my dear Archdruid, would love to hear the responses from the cross section of Mid-America, to my "hawks". One such more benign conversations came from a young lady who was working a booth for a local college.

I had noticed she was interested in my aggrssive style, working in front of my booth, as all it took was a look from a passer-by to have a business card flashed, with a short dissertation of what our business installs, pointing out we have a website. Found here:

Anyway, towards the end of the show, as the foot traffic lessoned, this person came across the isle and asked a few questions about the products we installed. Curiously, she asked what devices are people more interested in. As we have installed different disciplines of solar capture, all the way to sophisticated wood burning gasification units.

I told her there was no comparison, people are more interested in solar electricty than any of the others, by a long shot. Obviously she asked why, and I told here people are more interested in turning on their computer than staying warm. She nodded her head with understanding, but I suspect she is still trying to work that one out!

Here is a recent chart of natural gas in storge:

Here is a solar air heater on my house:

After my garden and "food forest" are finished being planted, I'll get to work on the solar steam generator. Excellent topic, this topic will be "hot" as natural gas in storage gets closer to zero. Ha!

3/6/14, 4:52 AM

thecrowandsheep said...
"The first wave of petroleum energy pushed back the limits to growth for just over seventy years, from 1900 or so to 1972. The second did the same trick for around twenty-five years, from 1980 to 2005. The third—well, we're still in it, but it started in 2010 or so and isn’t holding up very well just now. A few more cycles of the same kind, and the latest loudly ballyhooed new petroleum bonanza that disproves peak oil might keep the media distracted for a week"

Oh goodie! This looks like a scaling law :-))))

1. First wave petroleum: 75 years
2. Second wave petroleum: 25 years
3. First wave fracking: 8 years
4. Second wave fracking: 2.5 years
10. Elliptic Jazz funk / frenetic armpit farting: 1 day

The time between events, the "what-the-frack-we-gonna-do-now-Rog-time-scale?" may also follow

1. Between petroleum: 10 years
2. petro-frack changeover: 5 years
3. frack-to-frack: ?

3/6/14, 5:19 AM

Odin's Raven said...
Since Putin and recent events in Ukraine have already been mentioned, it may be of interest that here is a blog by a very well informed Russian in America, which provides a counterpoise to the nonsense in the western media.

Vineyard of the Saker

3/6/14, 5:20 AM

jld said...
I don't think you are correctly estimating the "distance" between our current life commodities and any Victorian or steampunk revived technologies.
It's not only the technical or energy resource parts, the skills and ENDURANCE needed to run these ancient technologies are long lost and it will be very painful and really, really ugly.
The very minor fringes who would rise to the challenge will be robbed and overwhelmed by crowds of marauders, think the demise of post Roman britain in the 3rd century.

3/6/14, 5:27 AM

googledotcom said...
Hi. I read your post that mentioned the Glass Bead Game. I walk to work, so I bought it as an audio book. I greatly enjoyed it. Thank you!

3/6/14, 5:40 AM

RPC said...
Regarding rubber for tires and tubes, this from Wikipedia: "Chemurgy demonstrated its worth during World War II, particularly in alleviating the rubber shortage caused when Japan cut off most of America's supply."

3/6/14, 5:45 AM

wall0159 said...
Hi John-Michael,

I've been thinking more about your posts on fascism and it seems to me that, as long as the constitution and checks & balances are maintained, there's no problem. The problem cannot be identified as the up-and-coming leader being strident, passionate or a good speaker. The problem is that the public allows that leader to dismantle the ordinary process that would, in time, end their leadership.

I wonder when Hitler decided that he'd try to become dictator. I wonder when Halliot did (in your narrative). Perhaps, if their respective society had had more discipline, they would have been more like FDR in their effects.

3/6/14, 5:59 AM

BruceH said...
I did a presentation last winter about cargo bikes for our local Green group. I discovered that EU governments are actually promoting and providing cargo bikes to cut down on traffic and pollution in large cities. The European Cycle Logistics ( ) project has found that in urban areas, half of all light goods could be moved by bicycle, and a quarter of all goods. It turns out that a cargo bike can handle loads of up 250 kg at an average speed of 14km/hr versus the average speed of motorized traffic in cities of 18km/hr. (

My favorite site is one for Cargo Bike Fans Berlin on Facebook ( . Some of their homemade bikes definitely qualify in the Steam Punk category.

And I got to look into getting a FlyKly Smart Wheel (

3/6/14, 6:08 AM

magicalthyme said...
Going back a couple posts to your thought experiment, I learned about a charismatic religious leader who rose from the collapse of the USSR. He believes he is the reincarnation of Jesus, as the Word of God. His 5,000 or so followers are living close to where my imagination tends to lead me, other than the patriarchy. The location, northward to where the climate and geography are sufficiently extreme to ward off roving bands of marauders ;) (and the uncommitted). Life is demanding yet simple, full and fulfilling. And they've brought along some technology to improve the quality of life (eg solar panels). Here is the English version of his official website. Enjoy!

3/6/14, 6:21 AM

econojames said...
I'm pleased to see Ruben's first comment linking to Low-Tech Magazine: it was the same article that got me ruminating on using rope and pulleys as a Steampunk transmission system for bicycles if (when?) the chains and cogs disappeared.
Also, I seem to recall hearing of ropes being used as makeshift tires in poor countries, such as ours will be. Whether I really have heard of it or not, it could be viable for slow transportation.
And at the risk of being labeled a hipster, I'd say let's not forget the fixed-gear bicycle transmission, in which the rider's legs provide the braking action. No cables or brake pads to replace (after there are no more of either), and easier to rig this type of transmission with rope and pulleys.

JMG, you are one of the clearest thinkers and communicators I have ever run across. It is a pleasure to read and learn from you and your commenters every week. Thank you. I am slowly stocking the shelves of my local library with your books.

3/6/14, 6:23 AM

team10tim said...
Hey hey JMG,

I haven't finished reading this week's post, but do you mean William Stanley Jeavons? From The Coal Question 1865?


3/6/14, 6:30 AM

magicalthyme said...
Just wanted to add this video link that shows how they live.


3/6/14, 6:40 AM

Unknown said...

We're also using leeches now, mostly in the treatment of vascular problems (especially after limb reattachment surgeries or in treating severe injuries that damage veins and produce severe swelling in an extremity.)

And some dogs can diagnose cancer by smell. Dogs are a 70,000 year old coevolved resource we have not even begun to properly tap.

And as to what the salvage economy looks like, watch some Red Green.

3/6/14, 6:41 AM

M said...
JMG wrote:
"a lot depends on whether people -- as in, individuals like you, not some notional person somewhere else -- figure out how to build their own bicycles from locally available scrap and raw materials."

Ah, but that's the beauty of the bicycle, and why it was Illich's favorite example of a convivial tool. As Glenn notes, it's been perfected over 100 years. It's a simple machine that makes the most efficient use of energy possible for transport.

The barrier to making a bicycle is low (though craftsmanship is another thing). And despite the current hi-end trends in carbon and electronic shifting, millions of more practical bikes still get produced every year, and millions more from the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, are still fully operational.

In terms of rubber scarcity, the bulk of a bicycle tire is casing, which can be made from fabric such as cotton or silk (and in the future, hemp?). It's only the contact patch with the ground, ie the tread, that is rubber. I think someone in Florida should start a rubber tree grove (sorry, I am not a candidate for relocation!)

While traditional rubber recycling is energy intensive and would not produce a product suitable for tire tread, maybe a more direct re-sue, such as skinning old car tires, will be developed in the age of salvage.

I have been involved with promoting, repairing, and building the bicycle in my community for many years, and I'm now working with others to use bikes around town for tasks like hauling compost and bringing food to the farmers market.

3/6/14, 6:45 AM

lw said...
I'm still not sure how SteamPunk claims to produce the steam, can you clear that up?

In a way, aren't we still in a steampunk age since the vast majority of our electricity is generated by steam?

I thought it a bit flip to dismiss FMRI and RADAR as "gimmickry".

3/6/14, 6:52 AM

Michelle said...
Chris/Cherokee Organics - "we spend so much fossil fuel energy mining and transporting nutrients around the planet only to then dump them as manures into our oceans. It isn't a really smart move and is a wasted (pun intended) opportunity to build top soils."

It gets worse - ref:,0,1088828,full.story#axzz2v5sPh6jq

"Now, farmers are discovering that the FDA's proposed rules would curtail many techniques that are common among organic growers, including spreading house-made fertilizers, tilling cropland with grazing animals, and irrigating from open creeks."

"Redmond says she is bewildered by proposed restrictions on compost that could make it impossible to use on some crops.

"We think they should be encouraging people to use compost," she said. "To consider it dangerous or potentially harboring pathogens is the wrong message to be sending."

3/6/14, 7:13 AM

escapefromwisconsin said...
The use of FMRI machines is a particularly ironic example, as a short time ago, two physicians made the claim that unnecessary FMRI scans are driving up U.S. cancer rates:

“We are silently irradiating ourselves to death.”

That’s the conclusion — and warning — that cardiologist Dr. Rita F. Redberg and radiologist Dr. Rebecca Smith-Bindman, both of the University of California, San Francisco, make in a commentary article published last Friday in the New York Times. Technology bites back.

Not to mention that without the carcinogens put into the environment from widespread fossil fuel use, cancer rates would proably be a tiny fraction of what they are now; we don't really know for certain. It is accepted that 90 percent of cancer causes are environmental.

I imagine the steampunk world in Europe would look much like China in the 19th-early 20th centuries - plentiful coolie labor, intensively farmed garden plots, bicycles coasting through the narrow streets of hutongs, barges plying the Grand Canal. Very Malthusian, though, unless mortality rates drove up the living standards. Edo Period Japan is also a good example surviving up until the 1860's - see the work of Azby Brown.

3/6/14, 7:29 AM

Kyoto Motors said...
Further to (and reiterating somewhat) Glenn’s input:
As an avid year-round cyclist in Canada I am fluent in bicyclese,. I very much appreciate the principles of simplicity, but must caution against over-glorifying the penny-farthing. The advantages achieved by introducing the chain and free wheel were considerable, making the bicycle much more accessible to the less than extremely athletic public. The penny-farthing is a fascinating curiosity, but fraught with the inherent danger of flipping forward. It was known to seriously injure and kill some very athletic young men by the simple act of stopping. In point of fact, it was the safety bicycle that those early advocates of smooth roads were riding.
If it's simplicity you're after, I recommend the fixed-gear one-speed--historically the penny -farthing 's immediate successor. In the big picture, the chain, for all its intricacy, is still pretty simple. The benefits of having the gear ratio offered, as well as the improved centre of balance far outweigh the drawbacks. If the fixed gear is too demanding (it tends to stress the knees), the freewheel is another simple addition, which then necessitates additional breaking mechanisms not necessarily necessary on the “fixie” although at least one “fail safe” break is recommended…
Lastly, when you say:
“I'd say let's see many different kinds of bicycles, and let Darwinian evolution sort 'em out. “
I must object, in the sense that, well, that is exactly what history has done. The perfectly adapted bike (and there are many, for every conceivable need) exists. Are there a plethora of ridiculous, overly-complex bikes out there? Of course. But the happy medium exists…and In almost no instance can I imagine that the penny-farthing is that bicycle. Sorry.

3/6/14, 7:33 AM

Kyoto Motors said...
@ Cherokee
The “café” in the scenario imagined had me thinking along those lines too… to the point where I wondered if perhaps the word “café” might end up being a carry-over, in reference to the type of establishment, and not to any particular beverage sold on site… Lord knows there are plenty of places today called “cafés” that could use a lesson in what coffee really is!

3/6/14, 7:40 AM

peacegarden said...
Bravo, sir!

My husband is reading The Glass Bead Game and I am about to start. More importantly, we are going to "do" the assignments from each chapter of Green Wizardry...can't wait to get my "hay box" ready for all those soups and stews!

Green blessings,


3/6/14, 7:45 AM

Thomas Daulton said...
It was worth the price of admission just to be introduced to the phrase, "funicular-morphoteny machines and photodyne nebulometers". If you don't trademark that right away, I am soooooooooo stealing that for my own fiction. (But I promise never to explain to the audience precisely what these things look like or what they do.)

I listen to a lot of podcasts, many of them fiction, and one of my favorite fantasy podcasts says they enjoy publishing Steampunk fantasy/fiction which is set in other cultures than Victorian England. Not much of it has really been written, but I think that's a good example of what you're saying. It's a useful talent to be able to imagine that other cultures and other technologies would actually have a future, a timeline, and some form of progress and refinement -- rather than staying trapped in amber forever as a stereotype and nothing more.

An example of a Steampunk story set in another culture besides Victorian England is this one, published in audio podcast (MP3) form as I mentioned. This one is set in the Near East, (Damascus), but I think Podcastle also published a Steampunk story with a Far Eastern/Chinese viewpoint, which I can't presently find.

3/6/14, 7:58 AM

thrig said...
A handy use for a slide rule is in cooking—baking in particular, or anywhere the ratios require more precision than "that looks about right." The slide rule makes ratio scaling trivial: set the ratio, then look up or down the rule to figure out larger or smaller amounts. In my case, I am inevitably scaling the recipes down, a lot, so something that calls for 2-1/2 cups of X to 1-1/3 of Y and I want 1 cup of X so set 2.5 against 1.33 and 1 of X lines up with a bit over 5.3 or so a slightly heaping 1/2 cup of Y, or for 1/2 cup of X, just over 1/4 cup of Y. Double-checking on the computer (Floating-Point Arithmetic by David Goldberg details where the wacky zeros come from):

% echo $((1.33/2.5))
% echo $(((1.33*0.5)/2.5))

Also, significant figures and scientific notation now make much more sense. I recall that a TA back in Chemistry 10something could not offer a good defense when we were all just plugging numbers into calculators. There is a resolution limit that you can see on the rule, and square or cube roots will go terribly wrong if you use the wrong section for the number of digits involved (there is much need for "wait, does this answer make sense?" and other such tests).

3/6/14, 8:12 AM

William Church said...
Low Tech Magazine? Sweet! Thanks for the heads up Ruben. You folks around here have the coolest links.

As a mechanical engineer my heart hums when you start getting into the old tech. A lot of it is very elegant. For some reason high tech stuff doesn't resonate with me in the same way. There is something to be said about beauty in design.

As far as steampunk goes I have to wonder if a movement toward miniturization would have occurred under your scenario John. And portable energy.... kind of a steam powered battery kind of deal.

Lots of intriguing options.


3/6/14, 8:19 AM

Zack Lehtinen said...
Sad to see in "our" nature, that as soon as we find a "new" source of energy to exploit, regardless of awareness of pollution and other detrimental "side effects," we (homo colossus) dive right in rather than even entertain the alternatives necessity had invited us to consider. Gas "replaces" coal rather than solar and wind technology being developed; now, tar sands and fracking must be exploited to the bone rather than even acknowledge either peak oil or climate chaos caused by our culture's gluttonous ways.

Shameful, sad.... Frightening?

Yes, that too.

3/6/14, 8:23 AM

ando said...

The blind spots are less scary. With my archdruid cultivated awareness, I tend to notice the empty buildings and decaying infrastructure that announce the beginning of the slide. I can understand, but not condone, why folks would choose not to notice that. I still appreciate the awareness. Thank you.


3/6/14, 8:33 AM

Nastarana said...
Maybe in a warming world, local govts. in hot climates may require everyone to grow a rubber tree, just as Americans in the first 13 states were required to grow hemp for sails and cordage for the navy. That is supposing the fungus which is attacking rubber trees around the world could be dealt with; in mixed planting it likely could be.

3/6/14, 8:40 AM

refarmer said...
Going way back, the TV series,"Brother Cadfael, chronicled a Medieval friar of that name as a practitioner of herbal healing in a Monastery, whose forte' was as a detective solving murders. Useful detail was featured in his decantations of pain reducers and cureitive elixirs.

3/6/14, 8:49 AM

Kyoto Motors said...
As far as expecting bicycles to be viable in the post-industrial, low-carbon future you’d have to be able to count upon a number of things: a supply of steel; the energy and know-how to machine the steel into parts; and a supply of rubber for tires – hopefully of the inflatable sort! Of less concern are things like lubricants and materials for accessories, as these things can be improvised with animal by-products (fat, leather, etc.).
The supply of steel should be no problem as scavenging will surely become a serious industry, by-passing the need for mining scarce resources. Maintaining the hands-on knowledge of processing that steel is conceivable, though certainly a challenge not to be taken lightly (producing strong cable for brakes and gears, machining all kinds of parts, including chains and bearings especially – more on that below). All of this requires significant energy input, to be sure (at some point you have to melt the stuff, right?) Similarly, welding the parts together is not only dependent on specific materials, and energy, but also considerable skill.
Rubber is a bit outside of my knowledge. The stuff we use today is a petroleum product, and to whatever extent it is recyclable, we may have an extraordinary supply in the form of used car tires. But I suspect it is not, otherwise we’d be recycling them already. (Perhaps someone can shed some light on this question?) Plant-based rubber may have to suffice, which introduces its own set of challenges regarding international trade…
All that to say, whether you’re making penny-farthings or “safety bicycles” (thanks Glenn, I had forgotten that) you’ll be relying on some form of residual industrial know-how, and at least some fossil fuel input.
As for bearings, of all the technological requirements, it may be our ability to produce quality bearings that is the lynchpin of the whole system. (At least according to my machinist friend they represent the keystone of industrial mechanisation.) And if you can produce quality bearings needed to make a penny-farthing, you’ll surely be capable of producing a bicycle chain, so you may as well produce the bicycle instead. ;-)

3/6/14, 9:21 AM

Justin Wade said...
I have my submission for the contest.

To be specific, and keep under the word count, I am only submitting the short story part from table of contents (No Direction Home.)

Love this post, I have five notes.

3/6/14, 9:40 AM

Neo Tuxedo said...
As you say, when people accept the truth of it all, they get apocalyptic quite quickly

In my case, it's because so many of the relevant decisions seem to have been taken before I was old enough to have any say in them:
* the decision you outline in this post, to embrace oil as an alternative to coal.
* the decision to build the Space Shuttle rather than a space station, which might have facilitated the use of off-world resources. The infamous Brad Hicks, whom you may remember if you had any connections to the neo-pagan scene in the mid-80s, maintains that we could've had space migration and other futurist dreams if we'd gone for a space station. This is the sort of statement about which Thom Hartmann says "I don't disagree." All I, or anyone else in this timeline, can know for sure is that we didn't even try; as long as we're discussing counterfactuals, I thought his theory was worth bringing up for the throwing of bouquets, brickbats and the odd sixteen-ton weight.
* the decision to ignore the coming of peak oil, mainly because we had a Cold War to win. I'll elaborate on that in a follow-up comment, as this one is getting steadily less concise. (I hope it's still courteous enough to get through, and that I'm not hammering on a point you've already addressed elsewhere.)

3/6/14, 10:14 AM

Lee Roy said...
I'd just like to report an irony that I spotted the very day you published The Steampunk Future, mentioning slide rules...

I was walking down the street past a bank and spotted this ad:

It's in Romanian and it says: Why use complicated options?... ... instead of enjoy simple solutions

3/6/14, 10:20 AM

Justin Patrick Moore said...
I used to work in a Steampunk library. They had pneumatic tubes that went to the stacks when somebody wanted to request a book not on the public floor. The system was in place when I started, but now the same thing is done on the intranet with email. It's not quite as fun as the other way. The tubes and system have been turned off, but hopefully will be able to be rebooted when the computers won't.

3/6/14, 10:21 AM

Mister Roboto said...
Forgive me if someone has asked this question already, but would elementary radio broadcasting be possible in your "steampunk" technology regime as outlined in this post?

3/6/14, 10:41 AM

Brian Cady said...
Steampunk could have electricity from PV and wind- and hydro-generators, without using fossil fuel. Perhaps the high point of a steampunk future/present would be open-cycle OTEC plants, like at
I've read that OTEC can bring so much fertile deep water to the sunlit surface that the resulting mariculture can be worth 60 times the power generated.
PS Sorry to have to use my inactive google account to log in here. I can be reached at briancady413yahoocom.

3/6/14, 11:00 AM

ganv said...
Hmm. I was one of the ones pointing out that electronics are likely to stay with us for quite a while. Steam clearly will too. Maybe not superconducting MRI. (Although you can do MRI even with the earth's magnetic field, at much lower cost and at much lower resolution).

It seems that because we figured out basic steam technology in the 18th and early 19th century and electronic technology in the mid to late 19th century, JMG thinks steam is more likely to be dominant in a deindustrial future. It takes fairly advanced materials processing to build boilers strong enough to make efficient steam engines. Solar thermal (steam) is a useful technology that will stay with us, particularly for providing heat. For providing power, it is not clear whether electric power or steam power will be more important. The problem with steampunk is that modest scale electric power generation, electric motors, and electronics are not all that resource intensive. They required more complex theoretical comprehension to build so they came a little later in the scientific/industrial revolution, but in a resource starved future, my bet for small technology is that electric power and information processing (maybe much simpler than current technology) will stay with us at least as long as steam power technology stays with us. It is very hard to imagine how scientifically literate societies will cope with resource shortages. JMG is consistently right both that they will not repeat the past and that the best hope we have of imagining the future is to understand the past. But here he seems to be missing some of the more likely possible evolutionary paths of modern electric power and electronic gadgets.

3/6/14, 11:15 AM

latefall said...
I am sorry, did I miss something? Rubber grows in trees. Sure, it'll run into the general scarcity problem like everything else as the world becomes big and bleak.

But the "relative value" of it seems pretty high as long as there are bike paths.
Sure you may want to stretch out its life a lot by UV shielding, adding more carbon black or silica (will come at the cost of some wet grip).

Alternatively you can use EVA. The price hike will be considerably more on it but you could recycle it. Also IIRC hydrolysis should be much less of an issue for the stuff. Its "relative value" should be very high though - it lends itself very well to decentralized tinkering (anything from hot melt adhesive, over wire and electronics (PV cells) encapsulation, drug release, implants, sleeping pads, and rubber boots). It's just really nice stuff to work with. I'd miss it.

If we all get desperate enough one can try sticky pine resin/leather as damping material.

What I'd really like to see is that (especially consumer) products shift to more long lasting designs. My guess is that on most everyday stuff a factor of 2 (last 4 times as long - cost 2 times the money) is not difficult. The curve will look quite different for different products, and upfront cost is an issue of course. Unfortunately I'd assume most established and important things are already close to optimum - with electronics as a big exception.
If you make them maintenance friendly and modular that can get much more value for the money (especially if IT-tech plateaus). I'd assume the technologically really tricky bits can last well over 60 years rather than 3-5 today. There's an old army field manual that has some (old) statistics on this. If your notebook keyboard, or a bunch of capacitors die - you could hook up another keyboard, or pull out a separate circuit board with all the "perishable" elements on it.
Also technical support and repair could be taken seriously. In Germany there's laws for designing stuff so you can change the battery I was told. The problem is the attitude (or system that rewards such attitudes).
Once we well and truly go past the point where people start to assume "new" means "worse" the marketing and design should start to adapt to this- though I am not saying I want to wait for that.

3/6/14, 11:36 AM

rabtter said...
I wonder if the Penny-Farthing would be more practical if arranged like a recumbent, large wheel in the back and driven with pushrods that connect to the pedals.

3/6/14, 11:38 AM

latefall said...
On the wheelmen I have an anecdote. I visited an acquaintance in Florida and noted people riding bikes relatively often (for an outside of town area, especially in the US) and commented this. My acquaintance then said they are dumb to do it and he'd never consider such a thing, as it is far too dangerous. They often get into accidents with cars and lose limbs. I thought he might have lopsided view on this as he used to be in law enforcement. Turns out he has a point.

Activities that increase chance of premature death by 1 in a million:
travel 10 miles by bicycle (accident)
travel 300 miles car (accident)
(running out of cheap oil and spending time in a coal mine to get fuel from there: 3h)

The thing is, if for whatever reason my acquaintance would be forced to ride a bike, I am sure this would change very quickly. He would not go into traffic unarmed, and if someone does not hold adequate safety distance - that person would know real fast and not forget it for a long time.
Without knowing the details of the wheelmen case, I could imagine that their lobbying had a different tone and impact then what we see today.

3/6/14, 11:38 AM

Karl said...
Among the other things that will make a come-back I believe would be (small) on-site generation of electric power from wind. Here is one write up about how grid power (rural electrification) displaced dispersed power generation

Hybrid systems, combining wind turbines with gas generators, were rapidly developing as the most popular system for farmers. Many of the companies selling generators sold complete power systems including lower-energy versions of the appliances that were becoming popular in urban markets. Through free-market innovation, affordable, sustainable electricity was coming to the countryside. The Rural Electrification Act stopped all of that, and killed off the alternative energy industry.

3/6/14, 11:42 AM

Neo Tuxedo said...
deedl skrev:

I think your alternative Future will still be electrified. The scient[i]fic breakthroughs of the nineteenth cent[ur]y where not only in mechanical areas, but also in electrical ones.

Exactly; I was going to cover this in the promised follow-up comment even if you hadn't provided such a beautiful lead-in. Again, I think it was from the infamous Brad that I first heard this, and I'm quite likely remembering it wrong, but apparently you can run a perfectly good civilization, at least by 1970s standards, on renewable energy. You just can't run a modern standing army and the attendant military-industrial complex on anything but fossil fuel (it's a heck of a drug), and our leadership caste at the time felt that they needed such an army; that's part of what I meant by "we had a Cold War to win." Another part is what our host has been saying in some of his recent posts, about how any alternative to the capitalist-industrialist system was presented as objectively pro-Communist and thus good only for making the Baby Jesus cry.

And once you apply electric systems, it is just a question of time to get to electronics.

And once you invent electronics, there's a significant risk that you'll invent television, the other drug that's killing us all. (In Star's Reach, I noticed that radio has been preserved, and there are still people trained in the arcana of computers, but televisions that you just sit and watch aren't even a thought. After that realization, it occurred to me frequently that, if someone explained television and its prevalence to Trey, he'd no longer be so puzzled at how the old world could ignore reality as long as it did.)

3/6/14, 11:51 AM

HalFiore said...
I imagine a penny-farthing bicycle with direct 1:1 drive would be pretty awful climbing a steep grade.

I imagine that would be fun compared to going down grade.

Ha! Capta is uppse not. Of course I always type in gibberish for the more readable text.

3/6/14, 11:56 AM

DaShui said...
Wasnt a penny farthing the symbol of the dystopian survellance society on "The Prisoner"?
Good thing that's only a tv show...

3/6/14, 12:07 PM

latefall said...
I'll try to throw in two concrete things that are possibly helpful and a little steamy as well:

1. Imagine a shower that spouts foam and not water. Now forget all but the shower curtain. Now imagine a hose that feeds really hot soapy water onto a piece of cloth installed in an air-blower kind of thing. The blower makes warm (and insulating) foam that gets pushed through a large diameter tube and falls on your head. Next to you is your buddy working up a sweat while impatiently powering the blower with a bicycle. You look down the shower curtain tube that is pulled tight around your ankles and say: "Cmon, 5 more minutes - we're aren't even in the third liter!"

2. You're out in the bushes. Again. Picking berries, like every day the last three weeks. The only thing that keeps you going really is that you get to listen to the lectures on your in-ear, talking about cool stuff like glass fiber making and on the clean room way of life. You feel immensely fortunate that you have the chance to take the theoretical pre-test (when the atmosphere is willing and the trader's radio works) after next year's harvest. Afterwards you'll get instructions to build a set of tools and train the motions. The one thing nagging you is that the rumor is you won't be able to get around reading and maths much longer if you do go to Iceland. Someone even said it is compulsory in such high energy density places. Crazy world.

The lectures have pretty high potential I'd say, especially in a transition time. Losing one ear isn't a big issue for doing the menial tasks waiting for us. Also an mp3-player uses very little energy, runs at night, doesn't need lengthy preliminary education, and can hold enough material for 10 professions. Also, if you can make a mic, you can make an in-ear.

Glass fibers is another thing that is pretty versatile (composites, insulation, optical fibers/lasers). If you want really, really long lasting (and light) materials you really won't get around them easily. Also they are far more theft proof than copper for communication. Carbon fibers are nice but I'd say too expensive and less versatile. They could survive in transportation and some niches, but even today they are really energy intensive.
By the way - the ground work for this is being laid you could argue:

The "musical chairs or future energy density" is well underway...

3/6/14, 12:49 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Kutamun, evolution doesn't have a leading edge; it's just adaptation to changing conditions, remember? Don't fall into the trap of hearing "evolution" and thinking "progress."

Glenn, Ursachi et al., I'll let you and the penny farthing fans hash that one out; I really don't have a dog in that particular fight, as my preferred means of transport over anything less than railroad distance is a good sturdy pair of shoes.

Deedl, Dave, et al., er, did the brief glimpse of a steampunk future I offered in this post somehow erase everything else I've ever written from your memories? Of course a wide range of other technologies might be involved. I was trying to make a specific point, not trying to sketch out all the possible technological wrinkles available to a future ecotechnic society, you know.

Sackerson, a lot of them needed horses, and if bikes can be provided instead, that could free up a lot of arable ground for uses other than pasturage and horse fodder.

Grebulocities, it's a heartbreaking challenge to try to write satire in today's society -- what shows up in the media is sillier than any comedy routine. The article you linked to reminds me forcefully of a certain discussion about whether Hy Brasil is sinking...

Fly, not a joke at all. Before petroleum warfare became standard, a number of nations experimented, with quite some success, with bicycle-mounted troops; I knew about the Italian example, thus the choice of war. Many thanks for the link!

Stream, well, there you go. Our steampunk future can have bicycles -- if, that is, enough people get experience making rubber from dandelion latex that the trick doesn't get lost.

ChemEng, excellent, and I'm delighted to hear that you're finding some interest in a fusion of technical and humane learning, if I may use some very old terms.

Kevin, I'd also suggest checking out your local Maker Faire, if there is such a beast near you, and you might even consider picking up some technical skills...

Robo, granted. If we'd taken the alternative path I've sketched out, human population probably would have peaked around 1 billion, and then declined gradually from there. As it is, there are going to be some very ugly scenes in the future.

Doug, more people had a clue in those days. He was quite right, of course.

Zach, excellent. I'd been reading a book that discussed Mouchot's work, and suddenly slapped my head as the pieces came together -- one of those "how silly not to have noticed that earlier" moments.

3/6/14, 1:11 PM

Enrique said...
John Michael,

It would seem that another idea that you've been trying to promote, the concept of an eco-technic civilization, has been gaining some traction as well.

This guy's vision is somewhat different than yours, but that's the beauty of dissensus. Perhaps if we can get enough people thinking along these lines, coming up with new ideas (or simply reviving traditional solutions that worked well in a pre-petroleum world) and taking action to make these dreams a reality, then perhaps we can lay the foundations for a saner world in the future.

His other posts on urbanism and bringing back traditional city design are well worth reading. Definitely appeals to the neo-Victorian steampunk in me...

3/6/14, 1:21 PM

K & C said...
It is true that child labor is not a requirement for Victorian era technology.

It is also true that child labor is not a relic of the Victorian past. Much of our modern industrial manufacturing - from the coltan mines in the Congo that make our cell phones possible, to the sweatshops in Bangladesh, to the cheap chocolate in our candy bars - rests on the backs of exploited labor including children.

The chief difference is that is is no longer common place to see children labor in the "developed" world, although this still does occur.

3/6/14, 2:02 PM

Enrique said...
@ Odin’s Raven:

I discovered Saker’s blog recently and I must say that the quality of analysis and reporting leaves the so-called “mainstream media” (or as one American politician aptly put it, the “lamestream media”) in the dust. One thing that has become abundantly clear during the latest crisis in Ukraine is the degree to which the mainstream media in both North America and Europe has become a propaganda tool for an increasingly corrupt and incompetent establishment.

It’s like these people live in an echo chamber, which is doubtless one of the major reasons why both the US and EU are so screwed up these days. The Vineyard of the Saker has become the blog that I usually check first for news on Russia and current events in the Ukraine, and ranks up there with The Archdruid Report, Low Tech Magazine and Kunstler’s blog as one of my favorites.

3/6/14, 2:19 PM

Cathy McGuire said...
Very intriguing post - I didn't know that about all the solar power in the Victorian era! I am re-inspired to see about at least a solar cooker this summer! (Got some fresnel lenses; now have to put it together).

BTW, for anyone trying the Green Wizards forum - spammers crashed it and the administrator is working to clear that and get it running again. Your patience is appreciated!

3/6/14, 2:50 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Richard, I've wondered about that one myself. I'm fond of electricity, no question; it has many advantages, but you know, a warm house in winter, hot meals, hot water, and a solar greenhouse full of ripe vegetables, but no laptop, beats a laptop and none of these other things three falls out of three.

Crowandsheep, thank you! I figured somebody would work out the mathematics. I'm rather fond of the idea that the tenth iteration of "no, no, we have plenty of energy!" will rely on armpit farting, too -- it makes at least as much sense as the current round of giddy nonsense coming out of the mainstream media.

Raven, have you checked out Dmitry Orlov's blog? He also has some very cogent remarks on the situation in the Ukraine.

Jld, I was wondering when the roving hordes of zombie marauders were going to show up. Inevitably, whenever I mention things that individuals might, ahem, do to make the future a better place, somebody brings up the roving hordes as an excuse for inaction. I'll be discussing that copout in the upcoming series of posts about the postpetroleum dark ages.

Goog, you're welcome.

RPC, now check how much of the feedstock came from fossil fuels.

Wall, excellent! You get today's gold star for cutting straight to the point. That's why I consider a revival of the basic skills of democratic process so essential just now.

Bruce, good. That's all worth knowing.

Thyme, I expect to see quite a few things like that as the Long Descent picks up speed. Do you recall my post a while back about religious communities?

James, thank you!

Tim, yes, and thanks for catching the mistake.

M, if you're actually doing the work, I have no further questions. It's simply that rather more than half the time, when somebody on this blog's comments page starts claiming that a given technology will surely be viable in the deindustrial world, the person who makes that claim is doing nothing to see to it that anything of the sort happens.

Lw, okay, now go back and read the post, and notice all the references to solar steam engines. Does that suggest an answer to your question?

3/6/14, 2:56 PM

Autumn Star-Arrow said...

With regard to the lack of imagination and coupling of social mores with technology, I've been wondering if that's an implication of the values of the religion of progress. Since our current technology and social system is considered the best ever at any point in time, perhaps people look back at the technology of the past and assume that the social mores at the point that technology was prevalent were the best that could be achieved under those circumstances.

I don't know for sure if adherents to progress reverse that line of thinking -- do particular social mores imply the existence of certain technologies? My guess is they probably don't, but I've deprogrammed myself enough from the cult to no longer trust my instincts on that. Assuming they don't, that'd imply to me an underlying belief that scientific/technical achievement is the driver of social change. Or to put it another way, we build all gadgets/gizmos possible, then our society changes in a way that we will define as better. What do you think?

3/6/14, 2:59 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Escape, I didn't know that -- thanks for the heads up.

Peacegarden, excellent. I'm delighted to hear both those bits of news!

Thomas, no, I don't have them trademarked, so by all means. I do have a definite idea of what each one is, looks like, and does, and close attention to the terminology ought to point you to some of that if you're interested.

Thrig, good heavens -- of course you're quite correct, but the thought of baking by slide rule hadn't crossed my mind. If slide rules were still being made, I can easily see Pickett (which used to have all kinds of specialty slide rules) coming out with a cooking and baking rule, with all kinds of specialized scales on it!

Will, heck of a good question. I doubt miniaturization would have gone anything like so far, but it would have been interesting to have seen what fine clockwork could have done...

Zach, "embarrassing" is the word that comes to my mind. For a species that claims to be sentient, we're doing a very poor job of following through on the claim.

Mac, you're most welcome.

Nastarana, the fungus is the reason I'm not simply advocating turning the southern states over to rubber plantations -- not that many years from now, the climate may be right. If the problems with the fungus can be overcome, natural rubber would be a good cash crop in warm damp regions.

Refarmer, the novels by Ellis Peters on which the TV show was based are also very good -- and the old medieval herbal lore is still quite readily accessible, by the way.

Kyoto, neither steel nor fine machining requires fossil fuels -- you might have a look at Japanese sword blades, for example, which are traditionally made using wood-derived charcoal as the heat source, and the very fine metalwork that was common before industrial machining came in. Bearings are an interesting issue, which I haven't researched and probably should -- I wonder if an old-fashioned shot tower could be used to make them.

Justin, I couldn't find the short story -- could you give me a clue or two? Thanks.

Neo, but why fall into the apocalyptic fallacy of assuming that everything's got to end with a bang? Decline and fall is just as much out of your personal control as any overnight Hollywood cataclysm, you know.

3/6/14, 3:11 PM

latefall said...
I'm already loving that link you gave!

If things pan out close to optimal I can see much of this happening.

On efficient inner city transport:
The one thing I could not yet beat is a skateboard with large soft (still without air) rolls. The flexibility of intermodal transport beats everything else. Speed is only a tad under bike on good surface.
I've used it routinely in all weather (except heavy ice, snow), and the only thing that really wears off are the bearings (especially when there's salt on the street in winter).
It is dead simple, doesn't break, and if you keep your late night drunk driving down you don't break either. I love it. It doesn't mix well with infants though :(.

3/6/14, 3:13 PM

daelach said...
A few comments on the article:

I read every article, every week. It has become a thursday (time zones plus work) evening highlight for me. Except when I know the article of the week before will be continued, it usually comes as a surprise what the current one will contain - as if the Archdruid wanted to reciproke his own surprise factor mentioned in the first paragraph of the article.

I like some articles more than others, but I read each from beginning to end because there are always interesting ideas in them.

Concerning the bicycles, an interesting point: The first proto-bicycle (the walking-bicycle, dandy horse) was invented by Karl Drais in 1818 because the 1815 vulcano eruption in the south sea brought a year without summer (1816). The result were misharvests and thus lack of resources to feed all the horses in Europe with its relatively high population density (compared to the US of that era).

Given that our current world population cannot be sustained after the oil age anyway, the incentive for using bicycles will be the same in the future as it was in Europe in the early 19th century.

As for the war side, even right in the petroleum age, huge amounts of supply, ammo and weapons were transported by bicycle along the Ho-Chi-Minh path during the Vietnam war. The Suiss had bicycle troops until 2003. The reason why they were abanoned was not only that motorised troups are faster and can carry more stuff, but also the lousy protection against shrapnels when moving.

@ dave1941:

The wealthy may use aircrafts, albeit just small ones like Cessnas - without mass sales of journey by aircraft, there will be no industry producing A380s nor big airports. Cars need roads built for cars, and if next to nobody has a car, there will be no highways to drive on.

As for the solar calculator: The point is how long the industrial infrastructure plus its supply chain needed to produce solar calculators will be around. As long as the existing calculators last, they will be used, of course. But no product lasts forever. You don't seriously believe that a calculator produced today will last for a 100 years?

@ Kevin: Things like solar parabol mirrors made of cardboard and tinfoil (for cooking) already exist, they are used in the 3rd World.

3/6/14, 3:19 PM

latefall said...
On the bearings front I am fairly confident SKL will not fail us.

If things go bad it might turn into NKL.

If Scandinavia gets hit by a meteor I'm sure this'll be one of the first things another educated community with concentrated energy will pick up.

3/6/14, 3:23 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Lee Roy, nice. Thanks for posting this!

Justin, most of the older banks here in Cumberland still have that system in place. It might take a bit of tinkering to get the air pump working again, but other than that, it's a very sturdy method.

Latefall, the problem just now is that there's a fungus attacking rubber trees, with no known cure, and the possibility that the species may go extinct has been bruited about of late. Thus my concern with other sources...

Rabtter, good question.

Latefall, of course that's true -- but as gas prices head toward the stratosphere, and cars become scarce, the major hazard to bicyclists goes away.

Enrique, interesting. The idea's been out there for a long time -- it's not original to me, I picked it up in appropriate tech circles in the late 1970s -- but it's good to see it getting more attention.

K&C, true enough. As usual, we claim we've eliminated something and we've just offshored it.

Cathy, a good fresnel lens won't give you a cooker, it'll give you an incinerator -- I plan on doing some experiments with one for spagyric herbalism this summer, time permitting. As for the forum, sorry to hear that.

Autumn, exactly. Faith in progress used to be based on a whole series of things that were supposedly getting better; nowadays, when life for most people even in the industrial world is getting measurably worse with each passing year, technological progress is the only thing left for believers to point to, and they simply accept on faith that everything must be better now because, well, because we've progressed. That we might be progressing down a steepening slope into a very grim future is not something they can even imagine.

3/6/14, 3:24 PM

latefall said...
erratum: SKF

3/6/14, 3:39 PM

Renaissance Man said...
Sure wish I had some space and means to re-create those ideas. Maybe someday.
Another neat solar-power idea you can add to the list is Buckminster Fuller's self-cooled half-dome. A metal half-dome, with a vent at the apex and openings around the bottom uses the Bernoulli effect to cool itself in hot climates and on hot days. The dome heats up, causes air to rise. This causes a low-pressure area around the structure, which draws air inside the structure out the lower vents. That, in turn, draws air down into the structure through the opening at the apex. This air must expand to fill the larger void, which results in cooling.
So many interesting low-tech, low-energy means of accomplishing the same things we do with "High" technology... direct-power via ropes and overhead drive-shafts, belts and gears from water and wind mills to run machine shops... I read about a metal shop in Germany that was built in the 12th century and powered by water.
I personally, wish for a mind-set that uses all the labour-saving knowledge we have acquired, but without the need to continually increase production of goods, instead merely replacing parts as they wear out. I call it the "10,000 hour economy", because it takes about 10,000 hours to become really good at something and produce quality work.

3/6/14, 3:55 PM

Neo Tuxedo said...
I fall into it, when I do, for the reasons diagnosed by good ol' Anton Pavlovich: "Any idiot can face a crisis; it's this day-to-day living that wears you out." I'm not in it all the time; sometimes it looks like it's going to end with a bang, other times with a whimper. Either way, it is going to end; the people at the wheel decided long ago that they'd rather drive this thing into the maelstrom than relinquish the helm, and all we can do now is learn to swim and/or grow gills.

"The pump don't work 'cause the vandals took the handles." -- Robert Zimmerman

"Ol' Charley stole the handle, and the train just keeps on goin', no way to slow down." -- Ian Anderson

3/6/14, 4:00 PM

. josé . said...
"If slide rules were still being made, I can easily see Pickett (which used to have all kinds of specialty slide rules) coming out with a cooking and baking rule, with all kinds of specialized scales on it!"

Hey, I did that! No, really. It was the autumn of 1973, and I was living in a coop student house, and we had a chore wheel on the fridge. Taking inspiration from that, I created a circular slide rule to use as a recipe multiplier. (No one ever writes recipes for eight hungry college students.)

You don't need high precision for cooking, so pencil marks on cardboard are good enough. The inner wheel rotates, the outer wheel is fixed. One logarithmic circular scale on an old slide rule is all you need to start.

3/6/14, 4:09 PM

DeAnander said...
Well, time to mention one of my favourite post-peak sf authors again: Bacigalupi definitely worked hard on his neoVictorian tech, including immensely powerful springs which could be slowly wound by teams of oxen (or coolies) and then connected to various clockwork mechanisms (think "battery" but storing kinetic energy directly rather than electricity). Also dirigibles :-) There's a strain in Japanese animeigo that's strongly steampunk, too, as reflected in, oh, Laputa just to name one film. Steam engines and dirigibles abound.

Solar Stirling is a current technology (you can google it and find plenty of articles -- and pictures too). Here's one mention:
There are claims of 31% efficiency, which (today) beats the, er, doublets and hose off PV.

And speaking of bicycle lore, it turns out that if you factor in general physical health, it may be that in most of N Am -- despite car danger -- riding your bike regularly may *lengthen* your life expectancy!

I suspect this may vary depending on where you live. In the bike-friendly NL the advantage is strongest, but even in the car-crazy wannabe-US UK, there's still a measurable benefit. I do wish people would stop describing cycling as "terribly dangerous" (i.e. exposes you to danger from cars) and start describing automobile driving as "terribly dangerous" (inflicts danger on all other road users)...

Lastly I have to post a link for my favourite exotic bike: the Dursley-Pedersen.

I always wanted to own one of these tensegrity-toy beauties, but it was never w/in my budget. I see it as a kind of evolutionary rarity and delight like the bowerbird or the mantis shrimp -- so much more beauty than seems really required for function!

3/6/14, 4:53 PM

Steve Carrow said...
Man the toolmaker:
all our technologies, be they fermented foods, flint knapping, or fMRI, are all derived from man's inclination and successful ( so far anyway....time will tell!) adaptation to combine ingenuity, observation, and the materials at hand to make life a bit easier. Call it cleverness on the level of some birds or primates on one end of the scale, and engineering at the other end as practiced by us bipeds. Where exactly on this spectrum it turns in to engineering is probably just a matter of opinion.

Last fall, I worked up a submittal for John Michael's Krampus challenge for engineers to come up with some "descent engineering" solutions. I did not quite finish mine by the deadline, but since the topic of solar concentration has come up, with speculations and questions, I thought some of you might be interested in the information I had assembled. My blog entry from October 26, 2013 has the relevent links and info.

A couple observations relevant to the current discussion: I came to realize that even at the large scale solar technology I was exploring, the limitations of the diurnal cycle necessarily forces one to observe a batch process, as opposed to the continuous processes most modern fossil fueled technology uses. This will definitely alter the directions that technology might go. Another observation was that in many cases, practice and trial and error can replace high tech methods. Think Wootz steel or damascus steel.

Regarding steam, I learned that the collector is the easy part. A heat transfer receiver ( boiler), the condenser section, the actual turbine or piston engine will be the hard parts as they require some pretty exacting metallurgy and machining. Not to tough during the early part of the scavange economy phase, but future engineers will need to figure out alternative methods or designs if we still want to make artifacts that are more sophisticated than blacksmith wrought hinges.

3/6/14, 5:21 PM

Mark from Colorado said...
This has got to be one of your better posts in some time, ether that or it fits well in my imagination, and musings of “what if's”. Well, it certainly was enjoyable to read. Thank you.

3/6/14, 5:50 PM

Kevin said...
Hi daelach. Yes, I'm not surprised they've been using parabolic cookers in the 3rd world. I've seen some of the vids on youtube. I'd like to improve on existing designs for cookers if I can. As JMG has often pointed out, the type of country that we're accustomed to calling "3rd world" is just the sort that the United States is well on its way to becoming.

Also, there are other potential uses. For instance, it has often been argued on this blog that photovoltaic panels are likely to eventually become unavailable, due to resource supply issues and other variables associated with collapse. When that time comes, it might be very useful to have a solar steam-driven (or stirling-driven) generator, especially in places with more sun than wind or hydro. Electrical power may not be the most efficient way to use a solar concentrator - direct mechanical transference of energy would probably be much more so - but it sure comes in handy for things like lighting and refrigeration.

3/6/14, 6:08 PM

Steve Carrow said...
ummm, forgot to say the location of my blog.

3/6/14, 6:18 PM

Robert Mathiesen said...
Medieval herbal lore was one of the first things to be put into print during the first hundred years after Gutenberg. More than a half-dozen massive encyclopedias devoted to the identification and uses of herbs were published in Latin, German and French, and many of them can be downloaded for free from a number of rare book libraries in Europe. Note especially the huge volume called "Hortus Sanitatis" (Mainz, 1491).

There is a good popular summary of these encyclopedias by Frank Anderson, _An Illustrated History of the Herbals_, which is easy to find and cheap as a used book.

Of course, you'll have to be able to read the languages used.

You'll also have to get used to the conventions of Medieval printing, which has rather more characters in its alphabet than our familiar 26 or so letters, but this becomes easy with practice.

That said, my two favorite sites are the following:

The Bavarian State Library in Munich:

The Herzog August Library in Wolfenbüttel:

Both are wonderful resources for early editions of all sorts of Medieval science and technology, not just herbalism.

3/6/14, 7:11 PM

Bob Smith said...

"why fall into the apocalyptic fallacy"

JMG, I beg to differ with you on this. If 150+ million people suddenly find their smart phones and laptops useless, its going to be a very loud bang. Personally, I'm hoping a solar flare ENDS the zombie apocalypse since its already happened...more commonly known by its other name "texting".

"millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror, and were suddenly silenced" Obi Wan

BTW, I agree with you on the warm house etc, my vacation time is spent strictly strictly off the grid, with the exception of a SW radio.

Nice column, I see a lot of auto parts being converted into machine tools in the future. Anyone know if asphalt will burn hot enough for blacksmithing/steel forging? I guess the good news for the next civilization is that at least they won't have to dig things up.

Are you willing to take a guess on how long until we start to see major supply chain disruptions? Of course, if WWIII starts next week, all bets are off but I'm curious on your anticipated timeline.

Another question for you, have you read One Second After? If so, would this fit your description of a slow collapse or a fast one since it took place only in the US.

For those who are interested in the news after "whatever", ham radio is fairly cheap and very worthwhile hobby. The knowledge is priceless and there are plenty of old "boat anchors" floating around that will last a lifetime (or 2) with proper care.

3/6/14, 7:24 PM

Robert Mathiesen said...
I looked at The Vineyard of the Saker, and was not particularly impressed. The level of contempt the blogger displays for Ukrainians ("Ukies") is a huge red flag (and, alas, not rare among Russians). His understanding of the historically based, centuries-old linguistic, cultural and religious divisions within the populace on the territory of Ukraine is puerile. And he seems to reduce these ancient divisions to an opposition between "Fascists" and "anti-Fascists" -- partisan snarling instead of deeper analysis.

The blog does have considerable value as an expression of Russian points of view and assumptions, and it is worth the time of most readers in the USA, who seem oddly surprised that Putin is a highly competent head of state and one who also looks out for Russia's own interests in the whole mess.

And anything is worth reading that disabuses Americans of the laughable notion that the President of the US is now in any sense the rightful and capable leader of the world.

3/6/14, 7:31 PM

Joseph Nemeth said...
@JMG -- I think one reason that the Steampunk meme is so popular is that it's a lower-energy alternative to our culture that isn't goat-herding. In fact, it looks a lot like our current society, done more sanely.

I wonder if it's just another Utopian exercise.

One of the things never fully discussed is the role of money, capital, and models of ownership. The technology isn't ultimately very important. What is important are the factors that drive large numbers of people to stampede in certain directions, as opposed to others. In our culture, that comes down to our rather peculiar notions of ownership, and how that propagates through the use of money.

The Koch brothers may be evil, or they may be good, or they may be something in-between. Assuming they are evil incarnate, between the two of them, they could probably make a permanent mess of my backyard, and -- with what's left of their lives -- a few of my neighbors'. They'd accomplish no more than that: they're a couple of geezers. If they wandered into my backyard with shovels and axes, I think my neighbors and I could neutralize them both without any serious bloodshed.

What makes them dangerous is all the people who follow their directives. All the people who make things to enable the people who follow them. All the people who smooth the path for the people who make things for the people who follow them. All the people willing to use deadly force to protect the brothers' "rights," specifically, their "property rights."

We didn't bypass Mouchot's solar steam engines by accident. We didn't create a consumer society, suburbs, outsourcing, and financialization by accident. There was no person you could have gone back in time and killed as an infant, whose early demise would have prevented the Age of Oil.

We bypassed Steampunk because it did not serve well our model of ownership. We bypassed appropriate tech in the 1970's because of our model of ownership. We're going blind into economic chaos, peak oil, global warming, and political collapse because of our model of ownership.

3/6/14, 7:34 PM

Bob Smith said...

Regarding Ukraine, thought I would pass this along. Might want to get your BOBs ready just in case.

Everyone be safe and hopefully this is someone's over active imagination.

3/6/14, 8:06 PM

Ruben said...

As this weeks dose of "Such and such is so wonderful, surely we will have it forever" rolls through the comments section, I would like to refer newer readers to an early post, where you detail how Britain lost the Potter's Wheel. For myself, I like to remind people the potter's wheel has One. Moving. Part. It is hard to imagine how we could lose the skill of using a tool with one moving part.

The Archdruid Report: The Specialization Trap

Anyhow, I suddenly realized that Michael Pollan may have come up with a new rule of thumb that applies to here.

His latest meme is Eat anything you want, just cook it yourself.

So, you can have any laptop you want, as long as you make it yourself. You can use all the electricity you want, as long as you make it yourself.

(caveat, caveat, et c. -- but still...)


Slide rule conversion would be wonderful for recipes that use Baker's Percentages. In this method, the weight of flour is 100%, and everything else is percentage of that to make scaling easy, whether you want 10 croissants or 95. So my whole wheat sourdough recipe is:

1000 grams flour 100%
800 grams water 80%
75 grams starter 7.5%
10 grams salt 1%

3/6/14, 8:12 PM

Justin said...
I apologize for the confusion, I realized how poor my link was.

This is a direct link to what I intended to submit for your contest.
In June (I turn fifty)

Thank you for patience.

3/6/14, 9:02 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Daelach, sometimes what I write about is a surprise to me! Glad you find these posts interesting.

Latefall, it's certainly true that bearings are compact and easy to ship by water, so a couple of countries that retain the knowledge base and technology might be able to keep producing them.

Renaissance, I've long suspected that your 10,000-hour economy will be standard in mature human civilizations, when we finally get to those.

Neo, of course it's going to end. In fact, it's already ending -- read any good history of the decline and fall of a civilization and then look out the window and tell me what you see...

Jose, I'm glad to hear it. I hope others are taking notes...

DeAnander, I could see 31% efficiency from heat to motion with a solar stirling engine -- of course you'd lose 2/3 of that or so if you then convert the motion to electricity, but since there's no fuel cost, that might well still be workable.

Steve, one of these days go to a museum that has a good collection of medieval armor, and take a look at the quality of metalwork that can be done with hand tools. It beats the cuisses and greaves off crudely forged hinges!

Mark, thank you!

Robert, and for those who don't read anything but English, there are quite a few things in the Wing Collection of Early English Printed Books, too.

Bob, 150+ million people aren't suddenly going to have their cell phones and laptops go dead; that's exactly the sort of apocalyptic fantasy I'm talking about. What's happening instead -- and it's already happening, of course -- is that a few at a time, they're losing the ability to pay for cell phone and internet service. That's how decline and fall happens in the real world: the systems shred from the edges inward, and most people don't notice the scope of what's happening, just a rising tide of local crises and personal troubles which most of them ultimately won't survive.

Equally, instead of the major supply chain disruptions you're expecting, the scenario I expect is exactly the sort of minor supply chain disruptions that are already happening -- just more of them, coupled with rising prices and a decaying economy, until very few people are getting anything at all from the global economy and most of the others are living hand to mouth in a variety of informal, local economies, some of which will keep them alive and some of which won't. That process is already under way, as you'll have noticed. That is to say, we're already collapsing; this is what a real collapse, in the real world, looks like from ground level.

3/6/14, 9:28 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Joseph, I see the models of ownership as one part of a much broader picture, and that broader picture roots at least as deeply into the crawlspaces of our collective psyche as into anything else. "Ownership" is simply our current way of deciding who has the right to tell other people what to do -- and as with the end of the Eastern Bloc regimes, that can change with surprising suddenness. More on this as we proceed.

Bob, now look again at those drone photos, and see if you can spot the shadows that those nuclear bombers would be casting on the tarmac, if they were actually sitting there.

Ruben, good. This is why I keep on harping on the question of whether any of my readers are actually going to go out, themselves, and learn how to build whatever the technology under discussion is, from locally available raw materials and scrap. If nobody does so, it doesn't matter how easy the technology might be to preserve in some abstract sense.

Justin, got it. Are the images essential to the story?

3/6/14, 9:33 PM

steve pearson said...
@DeAnander, It was elephants.
@ all,The penny farthing is something for the society for creative anachronism. I have done a lot of bike riding, including a 2,500 mile mtn. bike trip. I think the safety bike is the result of over 100 years evolution. You would have to pay me a lot to get me on a penny farthing. A lot of the modern hi tech features on the safety bike might have to go, but the basic design is as good as it gets. Recumbents have their fans, but are not much use on bad roads.
I think the future for bikes in a long descent are the 'coffee bikes" being made for use in Rwanda. They are very sturdy & designed to carry heavy loads. The designers are focusing on sturdy, low maintenance design that can be maintained in third world conditions.some of the bikes they are replacing were made of wood.I have some close friends who are very involved with this movement.
The synthetic rubber that was used in WWII was fine for most things except landing large planes.I would assume the capability of manufacturing bicycle gears, chains,etc. would be available quite a ways down the decline curve. If not, the best preparation might involve developing the yogic flexibility to kiss one's posterior goodby because we will be on a very steep slope.
I love bikes, so maybe I should recuse myself, but unless we are supposing a much more rapid descent then is the general assumption on this site, I think they will serve us well quite far down the slope, perhaps a long time if we pull our heads out.
Boy oh boy,With my bad foot, they sure give me a range of freedom that I would not otherwise have as I go down the slope of my own long descent.
Regards, Steve

3/7/14, 12:02 AM

Crow Hill said...
Hello JMG: Thank you for your post, The Steampunk Future Revisited.

Some comments: even with alternative technology, Humanity could remain self-centred with a focus on consumerism, uninterested in the non-human, on track to complete the Sixth Great Extinction. For me, a change in belief systems comes first. Would thinking about alternative technologies go in that direction?

3/7/14, 12:13 AM

Cherokee Organics said...

Yeah, fair enough.

Well quince and apples are well worth the garden space (especially quince). Did I mention that it is almost quince season here? YUM! Poached quinces... YUM! You brought the subject up! hehe!

I spent all day continuing to prepare the blackberry and strawberry bed expansion for next summer. The council has been up to its old trick of spraying the blackberry canes. All that happens after spraying is that the canes die, they then dry off and form outstanding kindling and then new canes form the next season. It is a complete waste of rate payers funds.

One year they tried something new and grubbed the canes and new canes simply formed the following season. Meanwhile, they are tooling with part of my jam supply so I have to become independent of the councils failure to observe natures response to their actions. The fancy description for my actions is vertical integration.

Oh well.

Hi Michelle,

Thanks for the link. I had to check several times just to make sure that I wasn't reading an article on the Onion. Surely that proposal isn't serious? That was a really wacky proposal. Whoever wrote that legislation possibly spent at least a minute contemplating the realities of an organic farm and then went, "nooo, too dirty, they're not quite applying the right amount of antibiotics and fungicides to the soil. There certainly shouldn't be anything alive in it". hehe!

Please let me know if the FDA are coming my way to inspect the farm as I think I just spotted Stumpy the wallaby taking a dump in the orchard. I'll have to clean it up before the inspector arrives. hehe!

Hi Kyoto,

Yeah, I wonder about coffee too. There's a massive coffee culture in Melbourne so places that don't serve a decent cappuccino don't tend to last. The culture was a gift from the Italian migrants from the 1950's onwards.

You're spot on too as there are a lot of substitutes for coffee.

In the CBD there are some buildings called Banana Alley which was built in the late 1800's alongside the Yarra River to store and ripen imported green bananas. Think about the sailing ships that would have discharged their cargoes on the wharf adjacent to the buildings. Pretty low tech stuff, so I don't worry too much about availability of bananas and coffee which are all produced up North.

Still, it would be nice to develop some cold adapted varieties here too just to hedge my bets.

PS: Years ago I saw a truck up north transporting bananas that had caught fire somehow. I suspect the bananas were off gassing somehow? I dunno. I wonder how that would go on a wooden sailing ship?



3/7/14, 12:16 AM

Lei said...
Pleasant dreaming of what would be if - to take a breath after the depressing series on fascism, which has been on rise around us for several years.

Here I join all the enthusiastic cyclists - as a year-round cylist in Central Europe, I use virtually only my bike in the city; outside, I go by train. My family does not own a car.

Much has been said about the prospects of the bike in the future. In my view, it is an absolutely viable and ideal option as long as a decent industrial output continues. On the other hand, even though I am really fond of bikes, I don't believe much it can be produced and repaired locally and non-industrially.

I have done quite complex calculations lately, and they in fact confirm that the bike may be even under current conditions 20 times cheaper than the car. The calculations also indicate that this ratio would get even better for the bike in times of crisis. Given the fact that it takes about only 5% of the material and energy needed to produce a car to make a bike, and moreover the technology is ridiculously simple *in comparison with the car*, it seems to be clear that the bike will be all right unless the system collapses as a whole. And I would add that the road does not seem to be a problem - the bike does not need much.

On the other hand, it may be that I am too unexperienced and have too little technical fantasy, but I don't think you can make a usable bike "at home". Those who talk about bamboo should explain how they grow bamboo in North America or Europe (maybe climate change will help?) - and it cannot be any kind of bamboo. It must be robust and firm enough. I haven't seen any bamboo grooves in Prague recently. The same is true of rubber trees. And well, there seem to be a really long way from a dandelion to a tyre (ideally inflatable, with all the stuff in the rubber, including the steel wires). But also, I don't believe that a blacksmith would be able to make quality bearings - the key part of the whole thing. And the chain may be better, it is still not trivial - the distance between the links should be pretty precise etc.

3/7/14, 1:04 AM

Joseph Nemeth said...
@Steve: synthetic rubber is made from petroleum. I can't guess how the economics of that will work out as oil-for-fuel runs down: it might become super-cheap for a while as producers turn excess production from fuel (which will be too expensive to burn, and for which there will thus be too little demand) to making rubber (the demand for which will rise as natural rubber-tree latex becomes prohibitively expensive for any of a number of reasons). If so, that's a temporary situation -- in the long run, synthetic rubber from petroleum will not be affordable.

Dandelions, we've got plenty of (@streamfortyseven commented above that they produce a latex that could become rubber).

I'm also a bicycler, and we have a great trail system here in Fort Collins, so the car danger is relatively low even now, and will be less so in the future. The one real down side here is ice in the winter, and as cars fade out, I think tricycles may see a bloom, or bicycles with outriggers (training wheels, or sidecarts). I've seen a few trikes around town, and I'm curious how they handle.

But what works even better in the long run is, as JMG prefers, a good pair of shoes and a redesign of the community space. We're fairly well-off here in that respect: I don't think there are many places in town more than a mile from an existing marketplace, and it takes very little to retask any open space into an open market.

When I was in college, we'd do laundry once a week, and it was about six blocks to the nearest laundromat, and we didn't own a car. I'd usually balance it on my head. At my age, I'd buy (or cobble up) some kind of hand-pushed cart, and that would work well for groceries, too.

Large loads will inevitably go back to draft-animal-drawn carts, and the profession of "carter" will return.

I think the long-term place of bicycles will be as moderate-range, moderate-speed, low-cost transport. When he was young -- 1920's -- my late father biked 300 miles from Manhattan to upstate New York for a summer job on a farm. No trains to get him there, and while he could probably have hitched rides on farm carts, it's very slow. Any other alternative would have been very expensive. Where we used to live, I'd bike about six miles to downtown, and it took about 40 minutes: say ten MPH, and that was an easy jaunt I'd do just to get a hand-crafted heer. So even I could do 300 miles in a week and not complain too much about it, and for someone in better shape, it could be done in three days.

3/7/14, 1:12 AM

jld said...
"somebody brings up the roving hordes as an excuse for inaction."

This is the *opposite* of my point, I am saying that there will be TOO MANY inactive/incapable people overall to make up for any kind of society.
As for the "marauders" there are 7 pages on your blog where the word appears but nowhere do you argue against the plausibility of this threat not even to summarily dismiss it as you've done there.

3/7/14, 1:19 AM

Cherokee Organics said...
Hi Richard,

Thanks for the graph. It tells a tale of decline.

The wood gasification unit would be interesting. I'd read somewhere that vehicles in WWII used such a device to get around petrol rationing.



3/7/14, 1:20 AM

Joseph Nemeth said...
@JMG -- I think the shadows are there. All of the planes are facing directly toward the sun, so you only see shadows directly behind the wings. When they put that circle around the "point of interest", note that they lightened the background, as you can see from the bare ground inside the circle, compared to outside the circle. So everything inside the circle is very pale. But if you look directly behind the wings, it looks like there's a shadow. It's just been paled-out like everything else inside the circle.

For what it's worth.

3/7/14, 1:22 AM

latefall said...
@Renaissance Man
I like the 10 kh approach. My reasoning is similar but I would break down on a general product basis, which is the thing I ultimately care about. Note that these products don't need to be material.
Then there's one more thing that is rather important: The work specific budgets break down into: communicate, think, and do. Powertools can scale work somewhat but need significant upfront, thinking can be scaled somewhat by schooling, slide rules etc., and experience (possibly most important), communication can be scaled immensely through a post system, printing, and modern + user friendly electronics (I think the last point has the potential to dwarf most of the rest). Yet we are only barely scratching the surface, which may be good as the direction we're pushing is really, really scary. And this comes from someone who had been sucked into working close to the pointy end of our current batch of people herding machines.

I would very much want to second what Joseph is saying but ownership is only an important part of it, as JMG says. These things generally do not happen by accident (no, that does not mean things HAVE to be pre-meditated by an "in-group"). Think of a political movement ecosystem (or Mount Olympus) that feeds of the decisions of the masses. Some have gone sedentary with intensive farming of a two party crop rotation. Of course this also requires you to get the right mores into the soil, and now and then the use of pest control. If google translate serves you'll get the picture ("Federal Delete Days"), though it is really only one more variation on a theme: I have an ugly feeling that many of us may be in for a thorough reset of trust especially in regard to false flag operations. There's a nice long lecture of van Creveld (you don't have to like him) on war games online. Go on, think down that road a little.
When you really believe in full throttle competitive capitalism your are certainly aware of the fact that TINSTAAFL, or "if you think you get something for free - you don't understand the price". If hear such a person say: "They'll think of something." I have to think: "Be careful what you wish for. Being a little more specific would not be a bad idea."

Ever wondered why the aircraft stuffed with hyperspectral imaging (paid for by you) never told you where your roof was leaking heat?

Oh and on the bike/risk thing - check out the drag of being overweight in the link.

3/7/14, 1:23 AM

Joseph Nemeth said...
@All -- I'd like to put in a mild complaint about all the acronyms that have started flying about. There was a long sequence in the last set of comments about AA's and WM's and it took me a long time to figure out that this (probably) meant African Americans and White Males, respectively. Though I'm not sure: could have been American Alcoholics and Women Minorities.

IITHTSIO. (It Isn't That Hard To Spell It Out).

3/7/14, 1:27 AM

Joseph Nemeth said...
@Cherokee -- re: haters.

I've noticed three different behavior patterns in people when their cherished beliefs are challenged.

The most common (in my experience) is to close ranks and try to convert, abuse, or silence the challenger(s).

The second is to switch teams and then attempt to convert, abuse, or silence their former fellows.

The third, and by far the least common, is to listen, think, consider, discuss, debate, and come to peace with both themselves and their challenger(s), maybe agreeing, maybe not.

JMG has managed to develop a collection of readers and commenters unusually rich in people who take the third approach. I've gathered that he achieves this by relentlessly weeding out the most aggressive of the first two categories.

Go to any of the mainstream media websites that still allow comments (many have shut them off in recent months) and skim the comments for a nice view of people reflecting poorly on themselves. It's appalling.

3/7/14, 1:43 AM

Joseph Nemeth said...
@JMG -- looking forward to your treatment of that deeper issue (underlying mass behavior).

3/7/14, 1:44 AM

Cherokee Organics said...
Hi Neo Tuxedo,

The US did indeed have a space station at one time. It was called Skylab and it eventually fell out of low earth orbit and landed in bits and pieces all over the south western corner of Western Australia (oops). Fortunately no one was killed.

There is a museum in Albany (from memory) that displays all of the chunks collected by the locals.

In fact the cheeky wags at the local council there issued the NASA people with a parking infringement notice (as a joke) when they turned up to have a look at what was left of the space station.

How could you forget skylab?



3/7/14, 1:47 AM

Cherokee Organics said...
Hi latefall,

"Picking berries". Are you spying on me? hehe! It is berry season here after all and I recently discovered a patch that has not been destroyed by the heat or sprayed by the council. Let the good times roll!

On a serious note, why wouldn't the people in your thought experiment just have a bath instead of that complex shower arrangement?

I actually know of someone who has rigged up a steel bath outdoors - this is possible in a climate like Down Under - and fills it with water and then just lights a fire underneath it to heat it. The water then rolls by gravity out into an orchard. 100% too easy.



3/7/14, 2:04 AM

latefall said...
@Steve Pearson
I partly agree with the anachronism.
But as for the safety bike evolution - your argument is valid, but my conclusion is the opposite. 100 years? Cmon. And only now really spreading outside the "1st world". Fortunately there's been some progress on materials science (that also extends into a scarce world). And then there are these ridiculously simplified and inefficient design rules used for many items (inclined gangways (>2°-3° IIRC) on airliners may have an acceptance problem - EOS). On the far end, at some point we'll have to start valuing human life differently. Especially before we're getting into the steeper slopes. And again, yes, they WILL think of something.

On the note of impaired locomotion - I have an acquainted couple who should be just shy of 70. There's a valley some 1900 km away from them that she really likes. But he can't walk fast or far anymore, so she didn't say for a long time. When the topic did come up, he just said - no problem I'll use an electric assist bike. I had a talk and gave them some pointers to "transitional tech" they might want to use.
The funny thing is, even though they have little clue as to the extent of the predicament facing us (and their kids - who fortunately at least have some clue) they would barely feel a hitch, as long as the armed forces didn't park in their yard. They built their house, grow and conserve their food, teach and barter, and a couple of times a year go to a protest (against nukes), though not anymore I think. I plan to have him conserve his thoughts on a mp3 recorder while he's pedaling along or waiting for his wife to catch up.
If you guys have a few good thought nuggets (especially the young ones) to chew on for a month or so I can pass them along. They shouldn't be relying on (but may carefully hint at) super-depressing assumptions though, please.

3/7/14, 2:14 AM

AlanfromBigEasy said...
Two points.

Pneumatic controls competed with electric controls till about 1980. My computer less (except radio) 1982 Mercedes Benz 240D (manual transmission) has pneumatic controls, as did the HVAC system in a 5 story office building I renovated.

Two, electricity would have played as great a role absent oil & natural gas. Hydroelectric, then coal, then wind and geothermal and finally solar.

The as yet unbuilt Grand Inga hydropower plant (40,000 MW steady power for 50 weeks/year on the mouth of the Conga River) might be the Great Prize In another world.

Most coal mining equipment is electrically powered, and conveyor belts can replace dump trucks. So I am afraid that extreme coal mining might have been only just a bit less extreme.

3/7/14, 3:23 AM

Tyler August said...
Re: rubber, why restrict yourself to plant products? Gut and bladders hold air nicely-- remember that the gasbags of the old dirigibles were all calfgut-- so could conceivably serve as inner tubes and thicker hide could provide a rolling surface for the tyre.
For that matter, there is a fad for belt-driven bicycles; I see no reason why leather should not serve here, too.

3/7/14, 4:57 AM

latefall said...
One more bit on doing things and choosing your struggles.
Joicho Ito calls it doing the "adjacent possible". You can switch that to "the adjacent necessary". Of course genius does not solve problems - it avoids problems. So that means you try to foresee what is going to happen anyway in a few decades - and then when society comes to a crossroads, you're already there sweating and bruised from trying to make the subjectively best path also the (al)most desirable. Of course what you get for that, in most cases is the yelling, shoving and dust that "venture capitalists" kick up as they lead a stampeding society ever onwards.

On this note there's a couple of points I like to add to this video. I think you can tell that it is live - the matrix glitches more than a few times on this.
Oh and it gets a bit on topic past 27 minutes.
@8:41 This makes me think other things really. More like worker ants and soldier ants.
@9:08 ...then they laugh at you, then you... @JMG another German word you might like is: "Technikfolgenabschätzung".
@10:45 pp. Wham. It is on!
@17:12 and this is where I believe most of us would differ. Of course no one knows for sure. But judging by the title mentioned there might as well have been an Archdruid on the right chair, except for the fact that he isn't vetted by their gods. If the archdruid is on the left chair I might be tempted to through another party.
@21:50 Catabolic collapse anyone?
@22:57 If that sounds somehow funny to you, remember that we could've decided on JMG's steampunk. Every day. Of every week.
@23:42 IIRC that's about 0.9 M$. Good thing we have such an efficient and humane system.
@24:06 A heterophilic connection. But also think of all the beautiful ways this could backfire. I couldn't help but look at the left chair.
@25:02 Kind of like a hotline? Huh. Now I wonder why people don't all do this. Hmmm, maybe because as a company you don't want to paint yourself into a corner?
@26:30 NOOOO. Of course not.

Get ready for an experiment: STOP at 31:00!

Stop laughing or crying, and think of something to say.
If I had the balls I'd have said: "Reflect." (As in stand in the corner till you can behave)
I'd hope that they'd then empathize with the animal they are hunting. (I really shouldn't say that because I'd hope they come to the conclusion by themselves)
Then reflect some more on what was going on before, and why.

I am about to run out of "wisdom" but I'd like to throw in 3 thoughts. And by all means please pull them apart before too many fish "end up on the tree".

1. Try to mix and specialize. On every level. The idea is that heterogeneous systems can better adapt to problems.

2. Build a holistic economy that allows uncertainty, think ecosystem.
There's lots of commensuralism and mutualism going on in the real world. If your economy pretends to be blind to anything but competition, you'll be in trouble.
Foster commensuralism (yes, with taxes), negotiate competition. Bring representatives of the losers to the table and empower them (give them a comfy salary, let them access information till it hurts), then give them a premium (e.g. double the salary) to negotiate a realistic way to adapt over time (let them die in relative peace but have the kids do something else)
Be realistic, you won't have tech where everyone wins always - even if that is the intention.

3. Whenever money moves (maybe above a certain threshold) you only keep 1/5 and give 1/5 at least to 4 different persons who helped you. They do the same. No one gets hurt.
This has implications for bribing people, decision making (decentralized - for better or worse), gives an incentive to make those hotlines work.

3/7/14, 5:21 AM

RPC said...
"RPC, now check how much of the feedstock came from fossil fuels" Umm...none? (Okay, that's an overstatement.) Chemurgy got mentioned here a few weeks back; it's the use of agricultural products as industrial feedstock. The movement ran afoul of the petro lobby in the 30s when they tried to market an ethanol-gasoline blend ("Agrol"), but got tapped during WWII to supply products that were suddenly unavailable from "traditional" (typically tropical) sources. Chemurgy died the death of a thousand cuts after WWII as petrochemicals became cheaper for most applications; the last vestiges finally vanished in the 1970s. (As an aside, there's a fascinating history of the suppression of ethanol as a motor fuel and how that played into Rockefeller bankrolling the Prohibition movement.)

3/7/14, 5:45 AM

onething said...
Oops, got that wrong. It's leaches they have brought back to medicine. Not to bleed people, but to bring blood supply to certain wounds that otherwise won't heal. Not sure about maggots, but I did see it work well once by accident in a small country hospital that actually had windows that open…in the summer, and the smelly wound was always smelly despite our nostrums, until one day maggots appeared and although we cleaned them out, it took two or three days to get rid of them all, by which time his wound was clean and without odor.

3/7/14, 5:52 AM

latefall said...
Oh, and on the snooping around on the internet:
Do these people of whom their voice, face, location, and at best lack of critical thinking, at critical places, in critical times in history really seriously believe they'll keep their spy software for themselves, forever? And remain safe, in an oh so advanced world that does not forget? If you keep making swords like crazy, some will eventually come back to you. The Romans knew this when they made their throwing spears.
Not to degrade him, but maybe that is what Snowden smelled.
Following a similar kind of thinking these pictures ( might actually become valuable as part of a short series.

3/7/14, 6:04 AM

Nastarana said...
I help the grandbabies with homework. I am now, after reading about the homemade slide rules in the kitchen, deciding I need to emphasize the ability to do math in one's own head. BTW, board games can be a lot of help in teaching simple math.

I, my mother, my grandmothers, and other cooks and bakers "from scratch" have been reducing and increasing amounts, including for fancy baking, in our heads as a matter of course since practically forever. The milk might scald and boil over while the cook is fooling with that dratted slide rule. The trick is to forget about the fractions, halves and thirds, and mentally convert everything to parts, as in, to cook rice by the absorption method, use four parts white rice to one part water. Eventually, after the 10,000 hours of cooking with close attention, you learn how pie crust or bread dough needs to look and feel for best, edible, results. For building the Brooklyn Bridge, you need engineers with slide rules. In the kitchen, you should be able to use your head.

Rennaisance Man, thnk you , thnk you for the 10,000 hours remark. This society needs to get over its' obsession with speed. IMO, the quality of 'efficiency' is like perfectionism, a vice masquerading as a virtue. It has been my observation over decades that the faster people work, the more waste they create.

3/7/14, 6:53 AM

Barbara Terry said...
This comment has been removed by the author.

3/7/14, 6:59 AM

August Johnson said...
JMG - In addition to the Low Tech Magazine, I like the No Tech Magazine:

Cathy - I have many panes of glass, both regular and tempered that I'll be able to share with you soon. Many plans to make Solar Cookers and Solar Dehydrators with them.

3/7/14, 7:19 AM

Howard Hawhee said...
I haven't read all these comments in detail (though the ones I have paid attention to are all fascinatingly worthwhile), so apologies if I repeat someone else:

On youtube, look for "solar powered steam engine" to see real steam-punk third (and developed) world practical solutions happening right now, a lot of them having to do with water pumping.

Also on youtube, look for "Gingery foundry" and "Gingery lathe" to see how people are trying to build machine tools from the ground up, starting with making a crude foundry for working metals with relatively low melting points (aluminum, zinc). Still not completely independent of the current industrial base (uses old vacuum cleaners or hair dryers for forced air to the foundry and one or two power hand tools to assemble some parts) but this could be worked on. The late "Uncle" Dave Gingery was a tinkerer who published a set of seven small books that can walk just about anyone through this process. Google it if you'd like to pick up his books, which are still available.

Also, what do folks here make of the factor eFarm/OpensourceEcology organization

This is an attempt to figure out a way to sustainably (if you have a supply of scrap metal, earth, air, water, and organic matter) make a base "autocatalytic" toolset for maintaining an industrial base on a local level. There is of course initial "bootstrapping" where one needs to use products of the current unsustainable industrial base to get the first set of 50 tools and machines ready -- but from that point the idea is that they should be self-reproducing from other tools within the set.

3/7/14, 7:55 AM

Anselmo said...
When imagining an alternative world where oil never have been existed , we would have to imagine :
1 ) Many of us would not even exist , because the world population would be much lower than today.

2nd) We would be worse fed, but our bodies would be more clean of contaminants and with less cholesterol. Our life expectancy would be lower because the medicine would be less developed. Many of the over fiftyyears old would have died .

3rd) Most of us only would have gone to elementary school.

4th) Few of us of us would be considered " middle class."

5th) Most of us would be farmers.

6 ) Our standard of living would be much lower than we have.

7 ) Few of us would had seen other countries, because tourist trips would be limited to the upper classes .

8 ) If the hypothesis that the abundance of energy accelerates cultural evolution is accepted , we would be more machist , more racist , more chauvinistic and more colonialist . But also more religious.

9 ) We would had been less, or nothing, exposed to TV . And we would read more and we would be less brutalized .

10th)We would lack the experience of freedom for access to information and communication capabilities that provides web .
11th) We would not have known the” consumer society” .

3/7/14, 8:30 AM

Quos Ego said...
Dear JMG,

fascinating piece!
I have a couple questions:

1. Do you know any good book about such technologies, detailing their mechanisms and explaining how they can be built? I am terribly clumsy, but building Mr. Mouchot's device could be a great project to start with friends.

2. What do you think of Gail Tverberg's recent posts on the link between collapse and financial meltdown, and her conclusion that lack of credit will necessarily break the supply chain, thus leading to a fast collapse scenario?

3. Related to question 2, are you planning to write something about finance one of these days, and how project funding would take place in a deindustrial future?

3/7/14, 8:57 AM

latefall said...
illOne more catabolic bad idea: mortars to pressure cookers! The new 60 mm model would sure work (careful with charge residue also not sure about 625 alloy).
All you need is a really sturdy clamp on (or in) cap. E.g. a slightly modified dud. Admittedly if you wan extra chunky you'll have to lug around a 81/82 mm one.
I've been thinking about cylindrical pressure cookers in general recently. You could mount them on a linear solar condenser - so much easier to make than a double curvature. You could dangle them in a rocket stove for a few minutes - the heat transfer is much faster due to the larger surface area. If you leave a bit of sand/gravel in the hottest part it could make sure(?) you don't burn any solids. Then it goes into fireless cooking mode in a bunch of sheepskins (in your back-rest, or bed) or lying (propped up) in a ditch filled with loose ash.
End hey presto you have mortar crew stew (anticipating the Dark Age Post a little here).

Then there's this one thing with "swords to ploughshares" - it probably doesn't make conflict shorter, or more enjoyablec- but hopefully a little less likely.

3/7/14, 8:58 AM

Dustin Hamman said...
JMG, this whole post tickled my low-tech fancy and stirred up all sorts of ideas to work on. That solar steam engine circa 1878 is nothing short of amazing. Glad to see you bring it up a second time. (I recently had a conversation about wanting to try out an antique penny farthing bike hanging on the wall of a local bike shop as well, though it mostly centered on the chance of injury that would result.)

Concerning all of the solar gizmos… as every bill a family faces continues to increase and their pocketbook gets squeezed tighter and tighter (my wife and I call it “the big squeeze” and it shows no signs of stopping), solar may well help ease the transition for the do-it-yourselfer. There are upfront costs and site specific problems to solve, but with a little forward planning and elbow grease, increasing your home’s resiliency by adding solar now could provide some welcome relief to the monthly bills when you really need it at some point in the future. (Though, for most people, banishing the Myth of Progress from their minds and accepting the new reality might be their first big challenge.) I am in the process of adding solar photovoltaic, solar water heat, and possibly solar air heat to our home. The design problems are mostly sorted out, I have inverters selected, and I actually have a pallet of photovoltaic panels on hand. Tackling these projects DIY style cuts their cost by at least half, if not more, which makes them economically viable on a more attractive timescale. (Keep in mind though, that all decisions should not be made purely financially and the projects, while not rocket science, do take some technical knowledge to implement properly on your own.) Through my own calculations, I estimate my break-even points as follows: Photovoltaic, approx. 6 years. Solar Water Heat, approx. 3.5 years. Solar Air Heat, approx. 5 years. Not bad at all, considering the fossil fueled competition. (…and our area’s relatively cheap energy prices.) Better yet, the life spans on all of these DIY projects are 25+ years. The solar water heater and solar air heaters can be built mostly with parts from the local hardware store. Solar photovoltaic is more high tech, and yes, it probably won’t be able to last the long haul… but it can sure help to ease the pain on the way. (Trees are great solar collectors for the long haul by the way. Whether masses of people are capable of harvesting them sustainably in the absence of fossil fuels remains to be seen.)

It is also important to remember that conservation comes first. If you skip that step, you can waste a lot of money buying extra panels and bigger inverters in an attempt to replace your extravagant energy usage. It frustrates me when I talk to friends/coworkers who are building new houses and give absolutely zero consideration to solar gain (among a multitude of other things). Simply orienting a home correctly, proper window placement, and roof overhangs can drastically reduce heating costs in the winter and cooling costs in the summer, while adding almost nothing to the cost of a cookie-cutter home. “But it must face the road!” they say.

For anyone interested in DIY solar info, I’ve found extremely useful. Just about anyone could put together a solar water heater on his or her own. (Note: Many folks living in cities may have a harder time with DIY solar projects due to permits, licenses, etc. than I do living in a rural area. That’s a whole separate topic for discussion.)

3/7/14, 9:54 AM

Tony f. whelKs said...
Glad to see the penny-farthings are holding on around the world. There's a retro-cyclists club in my village and I see them frequently on the roads, along with bone-shakers, and some odd things with unconventional numbers of wheels whose names I cannot even guess. Of course, all ridden in period dress. A sighting of a penny-farthing on the road does lift the spirits in a somewhat 'rather you than me' way though. I prefer my bicycle with slightly more safety.

@Bob Smith: "Everyone be safe and hopefully this is someone's over active imagination. "

Yes, indeed - turnerradionetwork is neither credible nor salonfahlig. Came to notice a couple of months ago with fake claims that Fukushima had just gone critical.... Google 'Hal Turner' then wash your hands.

3/7/14, 10:31 AM

irishwildeye said...
Is this story from rural India an example of the steampunk future already happening. What I find most interesting about the story is that bicycles are replacing draught animals.

3/7/14, 10:40 AM

thrig said...
latefall: Ah, Florida. Bicycling once in downtown Seattle, by the Old Spaghetti Factory, I met someone else on bicycle who was smiling as happy as a clam. It turned out that he was from Florida, and he in particular mentioned enjoying the fact that the humans in cars were not deliberately trying to harm him. Otherwise, though the streets on average in Seattle are safer than those of Islamabad, I've had vastly more dangerous encounters with humans in cars in America--a forced lane change into opposing traffic, an illegal left turn by delivery van in front of me, and twice someone speeding past me on a curve, swerving in front of me, and then slamming on their brakes--then I ever did bicycling or otherwise over the course of twelve years in Pakistan.

As for the accident stats, cars remain a leading cause of death, both short term (trauma) and long term (toxic exhaust, lost opportunity to exercise).

3/7/14, 11:26 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Steve, here again, I'll let you debate that with the penny farthing fans, who apparently don't have to be paid at all to get on one.

Crow, well, I spent most of last year talking about changes in belief systems, so I'd refer you to those posts.

Cherokee, no argument about the quinces! I'm particularly fond of quince-raisin pie; we're still a few years from a crop of any size, but all in good time!

Lei, bamboo grows well in many parts of the US -- it's a common landscaping plant in the Pacific Northwest, for example, and I believe can also be grown very well in the south.

JLD, as I said, I'll be discussing it in an upcoming post. You might try doing a search with the word "hordes" and see what you get.

Joseph, hmm. Well, I'll take a second look -- but it looks photoshopped to me.

Alan, you're neglecting the issue of net energy. What makes extreme coal mining economically viable, rather than just technically possible, is that plenty of cheap concentrated energy from petroleum can be fed into the mix -- the machines that are tearing the tops off mountains aren't electric! I'll be discussing the distinction between what's technically possible and what's economically viable in an upcoming post.

Tyler, an interesting point. I'd encourage you or somebody to make the experiment, though.

RPC, okay, my mistake. I'll want to look into that.

Onething, maggot therapy is also in use, so you were right -- but it's good that the blood-sucking leeches get out of the billing department now and then!

Nastarana, well, whatever works for you -- but in my experience slide rules are very fast.

Barbara, this is the first comment by you that's appeared in my blog comment queue. I'm not sure what happened to the others, but I didn't see them -- Blogger does eat comments now and then. If you want to try to put 'em through again, so long as they don't violate the comments policy, they'll go through -- and if they do violate the comments policy, I'll post a comment noting that fact.

3/7/14, 12:10 PM

MawKernewek said...
I expect without commercially significant amounts of extractable petroleum, we would have still found ways to extract enough coal to cause climate change.

If we couldn't manage the great opencast mines of modern times, it would have been done by men with picks and shovels underground, with an accident rate similar to what prevailed in the 19th century. There would come a point when seams became so narrow that it wouldn't be worth it for the labour invested, but if the lives of the miners were cheap enough, that wouldn't be reached for a while.

Cargo bikes are a great idea, although in an area that isn't flat they may not be an optimal solution without power assistance. However, there are plenty of places where they are ideally suited.

3/7/14, 12:43 PM

thrig said...
Oh! Car drivers also suffer psychological damage--"children are reared in a car culture that condones irate expressions as part of the normal wear and tear of driving" (Dr. Leon James)--so add 'lost opportunity to socialize' to the list of long-term ills. These costs can all be minimized by minimizing car usage, and various metrics look very promising in this regard. At least transportation departments have mostly stopped churning out their up-and-to-the-right and oh so wrong predictions, and now more properly state "umm, well it's flat, dunno".

I also suspect that noise pollution from vehicles causes various ill effects, though that's fairly anecdotal evidence gleaned from living near I-5 and walking under it twice per day. One might also find "Inaudible High-Frequency Sounds Affect Brain Activity" by Tsutomu Oohashi et al. to be interesting reading.

3/7/14, 12:48 PM

latefall said...
The last bath they had was in the refugee camp before they were shipped back to North Africa where their original culture was nomadic. So: not much water, not much fuel, not much kit. Or the poor fellas are from Mongolia - add frickin cold to the list.
Regarding the berries - being a city kid - I wonder if there is a "good practice of picking berries" which is applicable worldwide. It is probably somewhere on the net already... but I feel it would make sense to translate it into a bunch of "berry latitude" languages and put on mp3 players.

- good hunting!

@ the topic of maggots:
There's another project that stole my thunder (black soldier fly rearing in Austria). I also spent some time thinking what potential maggots have:
Crazy mass increase per day, really efficient in converting random junk to yummy protein, don't live long enough to get really sick (no antibiotics), and snack sized/perfect for large scale factory food (get serious Cargill type investment).
You should be able to dry them pretty nicely as well, no?

Something to go with the berries? I read there's lots of flies in many parts of Australia.

3/7/14, 1:07 PM

Michelle said...
In interestingly apt timing, we have this exhibit:

Steampunk exhibit at Springfield (Massachusetts) Museums to re-imagine the city

3/7/14, 1:12 PM

Varun Bhaskar said...
Hey JMG,

Just a quick question. If I wanted to start learning about thaumaturgy, what book would you recommend?

3/7/14, 1:12 PM

Nastarana said...
Oh no! Apologies to all for sloppy proofreading, it is THREE parts white rice to 4 of water. Bring to a boil, turn off the fire or burner, put a lid on the pot, and wait for about 1/2 hour. My kids don't like to wait that long, so an alternative is simmer for about 7 min,. turn off, put a lid on, and steam for 12 min. For basic, commercial brown rice, the proportions are two parts rice to 3 parts water, and the simmer and steam times are a few minutes longer.

3/7/14, 1:20 PM

latefall said...

When I was young, dumb, and reckless I rode my bike fast and hard but stuck to the rules (typical German style traffic). I then liked to count the km it took to have a near miss (counting instances was too much work) with a car that would've taken me to hospital if I had not reacted. Often it was as little as 10 km, more common it was around 16 km. Fortunately I never had a really serious crash involving a car (did kick off a pedal once - at full speed of course).
You can tell if drivers are used to cyclists after a few minutes in a city. Where I am now they did a very smart thing - they put the police on bikes, whom of course ride 3 abreast through shopping streets and (from a bike vet perspective) seem completely oblivious to the world around them - yet they don't get hit. I think that is a very nice way of enforcing some bike awareness. The guardian had a bit on risk distribution in mixed traffic, the comments were nice.
As for Pakistan (and similar countries) - my experience in India was similar. The most important part of the car were the brakes. Not surprising if you consider population density, potholes, and all the critters just waiting to catch your bumper (with all the implications for your next round).

3/7/14, 1:27 PM

RAnderson said...
While the scenario of solar development, absent oil, is interesting to speculate about, all the coal we'd ever need would have been accessible by coal boiler steam powered shovels, which would have continued in refinement and been perfectly capable of mountaintop removal, giving access to enough supply to have carried through to the 21st century, at least. And that ignores the coal gasification techniques developed by the Germans in WWII. These techniques would have been considerably more thermodynamically efficient than solar, hence they would have delayed it's development, just as natural gas fracking is, unfortunately, doing today in hindering a move to alternative energy.

3/7/14, 1:42 PM

Jim R said...

I'll see your twisty copper tin wire thermoelectric pile and raise you a rusty corroded copper shingle with a collector grid on it. At the limit, it may be hard to tell thermoelectric from photovoltaic with such a thing, but it just might be enough to power a 1 transistor radio.

As for the darwin-selection thingy on bicycles, I think the penny farthing has already been relegated to the thylacine heap. Only a few enthusiasts don't know it.

I expect similar-size-wheel bicycles to prevail quite handily, whether they are made mostly of steel or mostly of bamboo.

3/7/14, 1:45 PM

RAnderson said...
Mountaintop removal would have undoubtedly been achievable using coal powered steam shovels and drills. Coal gasification ala WWII Germany would also have hindered advanced solar development. Both are thermodynamically more efficient.

3/7/14, 1:48 PM

DeAnander said...
Re: insane "food safety" regulation interfering with organic/susti farmers in the US...

sigh, facepalm. musing: I think this is another indicator of a split between the notional economy (what we call the "real" or "money" economy) and the real, physical (what we call "shadow") economy. The notional economy benefits fewer and fewer of us, excludes more and more of us, and its prime beneficiaries use their money power to influence law to exclude even more of us, and so on.

Projection: in order to evade prosecution (persecution?) under increasingly draconian laws designed to put the small and/or non-agrichemical producer out of business, growers have to leave no paper or money trail at all. Eaters and growers do business in cash or by barter, quietly, perhaps even clandestinely, keeping no records. Farmers insist officially that everything they grow is for personal consumption; crop areas are broken up and hidden in forest clearings, etc.

You see where I'm heading of course: att the logical conclusion of the crazy legislative trend, artisanal food becomes a forbidden agronomy, like marijuana cultivation -- and like marijuana cultivation, stubbornly continues to provide a living for many thousands and serve many hundreds of thousands... while official law enforcement fails, despite much bullying and threatening and enormous expense, to make much of a dent in it. Because the rulers and lawmakers are so far out of touch with the desires and priorities of the average person, that their enforcement agents fill the role of agents of an alien occupying power, not defenders of the community; and resistance is ingenious and determined.

The end result of a really dysfunctional economic regulation/management climate, I suppose, is that the shadow economy eventually challenges the "real" or legally sanctioned economy in size and power (as has already happened in many 3rd world countries). I wonder at what point the official economy/govt becomes irrelevant? (Neal Stephenson goes there, bigtime, in _Snow Crash_, imagining the Fed as an ever-shrinking cultural enclave pretending that it still runs a country that has completely Balkanised on the franchise model of ownership); US currency in his future world is a bit of a joke, a quaint anachronism.

BTW, iirc J Brunner far earlier foresaw the demonising of "health food" and fresh veggies, in The Sheep Look Up... in which healthy eating was seen by Authority as a subversive tendency :-) oh dear, it seemed like comedy at the time. There was another more recent scifi author -- I think it was N Griffith in _Ammonite_ -- who predicted the criminalisation of growing one's own food plants because *all* edible cultivars had been fully patented and Enclosed. Personally, I predict that collapse, Balkanisation, and breakdown of federal authority will probably happen well before that level of microcontrol. Here's hoping anyway.

What do you call a culture which, on the verge of collapse, wilfully attempts to extirpate the skills and practises most likely to enable its members to survive that collapse?

Funny old world, when societal collapse seems in some ways preferable to staying on our present course!

3/7/14, 2:03 PM

Enrique said...
JMG and Bob:

The planes in the link sent by Bob are Su-24's, Soviet era light bombers from the late Cold War period. They have both a nuclear and conventional role and have been widely used for conventional strike missions in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Georgia.

They have a fairly limited range, so would have to be deployed from forward bases for nuclear strikes against the European mainland. They could attack targets in the Ukraine from the base in question (I looked up the map reference in Google Maps), but would not have the range to hit targets deeper inside Europe. If they were being loaded with nukes and staged from forward bases, NATO would know right away and be able to take appropriate countermeasures.

I agree with the Archdruid, those pictures look photoshopped to me as well. Doubtless this is part of the media smear and fear-mongering campaign being waged against Russia by the US establishment and the EU.

3/7/14, 2:07 PM

Joseph Nemeth said...
@Cherokee -- "wood gassification" is the traditional process for making both charcoal and methanol ("wood alcohol").

3/7/14, 3:08 PM

Neo Tuxedo said...
@Cherokee, I didn't so much "forget" Skylab as "not think of" it. It came down when I was 9, and its replacement (the ISS) was set back years if not decades by the Challenger disaster.

As long as I'm getting caught up, Bob Smith made a similar point to mine when he said, " If 150+ million people suddenly find their smart phones and laptops useless, it[']s going to be a very loud bang." Even without that, the people on top often give me the impression that they want to go out with a bang, that (to paraphrase one of my favorite authors, and at the risk of repeating myself) they'd rather let "the whole [...] house go[] up in chunks" than not be in charge.

3/7/14, 3:33 PM

AlanfromBigEasy said...
Unfortunately, most mountaintop removal equipment is electrically driven - and all of it could be.

A power shovel (also stripping shovel or front shovel or electric mining shovel) is a bucket-equipped machine, usually electrically powered, used for digging and loading earth or fragmented rock and for mineral extraction

A dragline bucket system consists of a large bucket which is suspended from a boom (a large truss-like structure) with wire ropes. The bucket is manoeuvered by means of a number of ropes and chains. The hoist rope, powered by large diesel or electric motors, supports the bucket and hoist-coupler assembly from the boom

As noted before, conveyor belts often replace dump trucks. Each large earth moving job considers this choice.

3/7/14, 4:20 PM

Ray Wharton said...
I have always wondered how things are made, in 6th grade a common fantasy of mine was to imagine building up technological villages from natural materials in some lush imaginary setting with my friends. The earliest riddle I remember being confounded by was magnets. I knew a magnet could magnetize a piece of iron, but how to get the first magnet if you can't find a natural one? An electro-magnet? But every way of getting an electro-magnet I could think of at the time had a regular magnet as a prerequisite. Eventually this knot was solved by a chemical battery... only to leave a half dozen new tangles.

In retrospect this was likely a better way to spend 6th grade literature than the other options I had, because there are some hundreds of simple little technologies where I looked up their material prerequisites both to make the technology and to make the tools to make the technology. Skill and social prerequisites were far over my head at the time, but it was a good start.

Still when I have free time I am likely to be figuring out what salvage I need to make different products, and figuring out what products are likely to have demand. Just today I found in my chemistry book that gypsum becomes plaster of Paris if baked slightly warmer boiling point. Testing the claim is on the docket for this week. Figuring out how to filter pollutants out of the drywall will likely be a knot I don't count on untying before garden season overwhelms my craft season. With luck though, I can keep myself supplied with a valuable material for crafts using a scrap material.

Thinking about what crafts are worth trying to preserve I have three tests so I don't follow an obvious dead end.

The first test is mass production. Any technology which only makes sense in a context of mass production, only makes sense in the past. There are countless technologies of our time which as they are used can't be sustained, but which make perfect sense in limited runs filling 'key stone niches'. Even very energy intensive things might be justified, so long as what they do is sufficiently useful. But if the technology relies on mass production to make sense it don't jive. Computers (as we now know them) are a perfect example of this, the complexity of setting up a manufacture process is so great that a mass number is required to justify it is huge, and there is the rub. Could there be a kind of computer that makes sense in the catabolis-punk era? Maybe, but it would be very different from my laptop, likely more recognizable to Babbage than Jobs, and it would be doing very serious work that powerful people would bend over backwards to have access to. Ballistics or battlefield logistics come to mind more so than music videos and pictures of funny cats. Mass production is the most distinctive technique of our Civilization, and its prospects are bleak in the extreme.

The second test is a little bit rougher, but I look up when some technology I might be interested in using was developed to a usable point. The 18th or 19th century is filled with amazing inventions of great power, which were often based on little more than technical skill, but often not put to use for a long time for non technical reasons. In the 18th century innovations in bearing manufacture, chemistry, kiln design, and metallurgy came about much of which are with in reach to a single craftsman with part time enthusiasm and raw materials that can be dug out of a landfill. Thous who can make useful things from such scrap on a cottage scale will have a good shot at keeping beans and mushrooms on the table for most of the winter.

The third test is a simple material prerequisite check, that either natural elements or a salvage source, can be found in a sensible geographic area. Otherwise I would be wary of presu

3/7/14, 5:09 PM

AlanfromBigEasy said...
I can very easily find a coffee & chicory blend here in New Orleans - and I often drink it myself.
However "double chicory" is a bit too much for my non-native
palate and stomach.

3/7/14, 6:11 PM

AlanfromBigEasy said...
At an exhibit of French paintings of women, one that struck me was of a free and independent girl with her bicycle (safety). Painted by her father in the early 1910s from memory.

The description noted the liberating aspect of bicycles for woman and girls, especially in small towns and villages. And one could see this in her face.

3/7/14, 6:25 PM

Kyoto Motors said...
One last word on the penny-farthing.(if you'll indulge me!)
I know one person who advocates the unicycle as a preferred mode of active transport, and I have to admit, as far as simplicity goes, the unicycle kicks butt. But for some reason, the darn thing has just never been all that popular, mainly because it’s so damned hard (and painful) to learn to ride (I know, I tried, and I failed - :-P )
I suspect the penny farthing is only moderately easier to master, since the contraption is basically a unicycle with a training wheel, modified to add speed (bigger wheel). Not sure if that makes it safer or more dangerous…Meanwhile, many, if not most four-year-olds can ride a bike. As can your average 65-year-old.

3/7/14, 6:46 PM

Kyoto Motors said...
As far as posts of yours that enjoy an “afterlife” of readership, I would suspect and hope that your wonderful “An Elegy for the Age of Space” sits in that category as well.
I have shared the link on a number of occasions, along with Tom Murphy’s “Why Not Space?” (where your “Elegy” is cited as well…). A book on the subject (at least a collection of essays?) is in order I believe.
I have been struggling with fiction, as much as I “think” I have an idea for a short story (or epic novel?!?). But I certainly have essays piling up on my hard-drive…
Perhaps I will dust off the one called “Zero Gravity” and post it in the near future…

3/7/14, 7:02 PM

AlanfromBigEasy said...
My thoughts on a world without oil - I look at the trends that stalled around 1916, when cars, trucks and powered farm equipment really began to have an impact.

500+ American cities, towns & villages had streetcar lines. The largest cities had subways and/or elevated rapid rail.

Bicycles were assuming a competing role, electric delivery vans were appearing.

Several states had very dense networks of electric interurbans (like railroads but lighter axle loads and steeper grades).

I think that mobility would have gone electric instead of oil - heavily supplemented by bicycles. Farming would likely have mechanized with ethanol & methanol (oil consumption by agriculture today is balanced by ethanol produced).

No interstate highway system, no "drive everywhere to everything lifestyles". A bigger focus on hydroelectric generation. A much greater emphasis on energy efficiency, and less emphasis on convenience.

But electronics and likely intergrated circuit chips - perhaps a generation or two later.

3/7/14, 7:21 PM

latheChuck said...
The MCGraw-Hill Solar Energy Handbook (Kreider and Kreith) has a nice discussion of solar residential water heating. They were sold by the thousands in California and Florida until about 1941. By 1941, electricity and natural gas became cheap and copper became scarce (needed for armaments). Maybe the biggest problem, though, was that the first generation of solar water heaters began to wear out! The combination of steel tanks and copper fittings promoted corrosion, and leaks in the attic caused major damage. (In my home, the gas-fired water heater is at the lowest point, near a drain, for just this reason.) It's one thing to build a proof-of-concept system beloved by its builder; it's an entirely different thing to sell a house that depends on hiring a skilled tradesman from time to time to prevent failures. Modern expectations of out-of-sight, out-of-mind domestic systems will have to be scaled back.

In 1912, Frank Shuman supervised construction of a solar-steam plant in Egypt, with about 1 acre of mirror area, driving a 50 bhp (37 kW) steam engine. It was expected to pay for itself (relative to coal-fired steam) in four years. Here, I quote the dry language of the handbook: "Just 1 yr after the plant had been constructed in Egypt, World War I broke out. Everyone involved in the project returned home to aid in the war effort.... Shuman died before the war ended. In his absence, and with the growing availability of fuel oils, interest in solar power plants waned...

3/7/14, 7:22 PM

Enrique said...
@ JMG and Barbara:

Blogger seems unusually "hungry" today. I've made three separate attempts to post comments today, all of which vanished into cyberspace. Be curious to see if this one vanishes too...

3/7/14, 8:35 PM

Merle Langlois said...
The post itself was really powerful for me personally and the use of an alternate scenario to current reality helped to flesh out your previous claim about technology and social systems not being tied together in any simple one to one way.

On the other hand, I think I'm coming to the conclusion that as far as comments go, in depth posts about technology are boring enough to me to be skipped from now on. Most repulsive are the Internet-People and the Electricity-People, but even the more Green Wizardly types rambling on about solar this and that bore me to tears.

That being said, I'm waiting with bated breath for your next series of posts dealing with social forms to come on the Long Descent. I guess in a way this blog has something for everyone.

3/7/14, 11:49 PM

Cherokee Organics said...

May you enjoy your quinces when their time is right. My trees here although well past 3m are still too young to bear fruit too. A full grown quince weighs quite a bit on the tree!

A strong quince tree will produce fruit for well over a century though and then some. Thanks for the suggestion about quince pie, I'd have never thought about that. YUM!

The heat over the centre of the continent is pushing south east again over the next few days. Meanwhile, up north 80% of the state of Queensland has been declared a drought zone, which is bigger than ever before.

Things are coming slightly unstuck here... I always said that we were the canary in the coal mine, what with poor (read old) soils and an unpredictable climate. Plus being the driest inhabited continent on the planet...

PS: All of those people living in California will know what I mean. I've been watching your weather patterns as they are replicating here. Sorry people, but the results are in and they aren't good.

PPS: I shouldn't be so excited, but I've reached "peak rocks" and am going to avoid this situation in the short term by purchasing an electric jack hammer (solar powered of course). Yup, with a bit of human ingenuity, peak rocks can be avoided until I've broken all of the big rocks up. Who would have thought that rocks could be so useful? I should have realised that fact when I was reading about the canny Italian peasants using them as retaining walls on their hilly gardens.

Plus rock walls just work here. It should have been obvious to me when I spotted all of the rock walls in the old hill station gardens. Why reinvent the wheel?

PPPS: I read a long time ago about an adventurous lad who bicycled from Perth to Melbourne during the great recession. Not a bad effort and a smart move because of the prevailing tail winds (good luck going the other way).

Anyway, the point of this is that along the way he had a few flat tires and simply replaced the inner tube with compacted grass.

I sometimes think that people overlook the perfectly acceptable answer whilst waiting for a perfect answer that may or may not ever turn up.

Sow thistle produces more latex than dandelion and it also is reputed to be effective in treating skin cancers (being of the Brassica tribe). Just sayin...

Hi latefall,

Yeah, there are plenty of flies in Australia. The only one that really annoys me is the March fly which takes a chunk out of your skin and leaves a sore like a mosquito. Under an electron microscope, I reckon it inspired the Alien film franchise. Fortunately they only eat you in the full sun and avoid the shade. By the way I picked up 2kg of freebie blackberries today and another 10kg of apples. Jam and cider ahoy!

Hi Joseph,

Right. So they must have used the methanol as the fuel. It is obvious from hindsight. Thanks for the tip. Do you know of any simple designs for a gasification unit?

Hi Neo Tuxedo,

Of course, we are about the same age, but when a space station is expected to land in your back yard it is quite an event! The newspapers here (which I home delivered being a child labourer – honestly you lot get a grip) were full of the story at the time. As a thought provoking question, was it the Challenger disaster or the lack of funds that delayed the ISS?



3/8/14, 12:50 AM

Andrew H said...
Actually maggots have made a comeback. They are very good at telling the difference between living and dead tissue and go for the latter. Look up "maggot debridement therapy" on Wikipedia. They don't suffer the same problems as antibiotics when dealing with MRSA for example.

According to Wikipedia "In January 2004, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted permission to produce and market maggots for use in humans or animals as a prescription-only medical device for the following indications:[16][17] "For debriding non-healing necrotic skin and soft tissue wounds, including pressure ulcers, venous stasis ulcers, neuropathic foot ulcers, and non-healing traumatic or post-surgical wounds." In February 2004, the British National Health Service (NHS) permitted its doctors to prescribe maggot therapy. In the European Union, Canada and Japan maggots are classified as medicinal drugs, needing a full market licence. In the U.S., maggots for medicinal use are classified as a device."


3/8/14, 1:36 AM

Cherokee Organics said...

One bit of craziness that I'd like to address is the recurring theme that children should not work.

What do people think they are, pets?

From a very young age I worked newspaper delivery rounds, chemist delivery rounds, retail etc.

I never felt that I was being exploited at any stage and it never affected my marks at school, it was just the done thing if I wanted any spare cash. How else did I spend – by choice - my misbegotten youth on Donkey Kong and Space Invaders?

Sure, Dickensian child labour conditions were extreme, but why go from one extreme to the other, where they do nothing? It is unrealistic and historically unprecedented.

A couple of spare tikes would have easily doubled the yields today on the gleaned fruit.

Just sayin... Are they pets or should they contribute?



3/8/14, 1:50 AM

Cherokee Organics said...
Hi Joseph,

Thanks. Acceptance is a good path. I felt last week that some people took it to 11 and it needed addressing.



3/8/14, 2:24 AM

C.L. Kelley said...
For those discussing rubber trees - there is a good reason that in their natural habitat, they do not grow in groves, or in fact any closer together than about a kilometer. The rubber fungus has so closely co-evolved with the trees that it will be nearly impossible to eradicate. The vast plantations in the Philippines and southeast Asia are all the product of clean clones of highly productive trees - unfortunately, high production goes hand in hand with increased susceptibilities to the fungus. Petro-rubber is used in some applications, but even today no one wants to be in a plane trying to land on synthetic tires, or dependent on a delivery via semi-truck on same.
The Harvard ethnobotanist, Dr Wade Davis, has done extensive research into the rubber fungus, and an excellent (if somewhat dated) essay on the subject can be found in his book "Shadows in the Sun" I highly recommend it...
Sticking an infected leaf in my luggage near Sao Paolo, and tossing it out of a bus somewhere in Vietnam, has been something of a pet apocalyptic fantasy of mine since I was a child reading those essays on a bus trip through Thailand with my was one of the first things that truly brought home the extreme fragility of our global economy.

3/8/14, 5:28 AM

magicalthyme said...
JMG, although I don't comment often, I've read all your posts for several years and look forward to them. The reason I posted the links to Yassarian is because they strike me as a living example of what you write about. I think it useful to see it in action, and a pretty successful looking example, at least looking from the outside. So it gives me some hope, and may do for others as well. If such a community were to turn up anywhere near my neck of the woods, I'd be there.


3/8/14, 7:36 AM

Five8Charlie said...

A reader mentioned pneumatics in control systems. I think it's important to point out that logic devices don't require electricity - google 'Fluidics' and you'll find that the building blocks of a computing device can be built from an air source - so a steampunk civilization could certainly have computers than aren't based on electrical circuits.

I also thank you for writing about 'The Glass Bead Game'. Highly recommended to those of your readers who haven't read it yet.

Finally - in the 'put up or shut up' category: I've been a homebrewer for years, but am now building a still. The plan is a reflux still that will produce fuel-grade alcohol. The first version will use electric heat (don't want to blow myself up with version one). The next version will be solar powered.

Thank you for your inspiration. You do a great service.

3/8/14, 10:50 AM

Robert Mathiesen said...
Chris @ Cherokee wrote:

"One bit of craziness that I'd like to address is the recurring theme that children should not work. What do people think they are, pets?"

This bothered me since I was old enough to want money of my own. In California, if you were under 18, you could only work if you had first gotten a"work permit" from the state. And that wasn't easy. I thought at the time (in the '50s) it had a lot to do with keeping children from competing with adults in the labor market. The jobs-to-people ratio was already becoming a social problem even then . . . Now it is an acute problem.

However -- here in the USA, there has been an ever-increasing tendency to keep children from having any interactions with adults outside of their immediate family, except in highly supervised or unavoidable situations like school. By now it is so strong that almost all of the college students I taught in the '00s thought it highly "sketchy" for a student to become at all friendly with anyone more than a few years difference in age from them. The half-articulated basis for this is that everyone not rendered harmless by the incest taboo is a sexual predator, or would be if there were no consequences for being one.

What a dismal world-view! It's really going to come back to bite the USA where it hurts once life gets harder and only the elderly remember many old skills for survival. I think (hope?) other countries have avoided this level of paranoia.

3/8/14, 11:22 AM

Matt Heins said...
I wonder if everyone is familiar with this shrine in India:,000_-_CNN.flv

That's right, an average 100,000 solar-cooked meals a day!

Some modifications and the system that does that could be applied to industrial work on a serious commercial scale as in the Archdruid's solar factory.

What's most exciting to me about "direct" solar heat power is the profound, and, to my mind, beneficial, social impacts it would bring. Think of it. Not only could work be reconnected to the day/night cycle, but the tropical regions would become the industrial powerhouses of the world. Perhaps after reading my weekly dose of happy-future writer John Michael Greer, I would flip to the business section and skim yet another article on the ongoing challenge by the African Union Economic Alliance countries to India's long ownership of the title "factory to the world". :)

3/8/14, 12:03 PM

MawKernewek said...
Compressed air was (and I believe still is) used in underground mining, which can be compressed up on the surface if necessary, and used to power pneumatic drills etc underground.

This could have a good deal of potential applications to the steampunk technology enthusiast.

3/8/14, 4:52 PM

Iuval Clejan said...
OK, my corncucopian friend is challenging me to figure out why this latest "breakthrough, disruptive technology" is not all it's hyped up to be: focusing sunlight onto PV cells and using the heat to heat water--cogeneration of electricity and hot water with solar Have "they" actually thought of something that could go on after peak oil, or is the manufacturing cost of PV cells going to be the fly in the ointment, despite it going down lately? I suspect also the pipes and pumps and solar trackers are going to go up in price as oil goes up in price. Cogenra claims 50 cents per watt maufacturing cost, but I wonder if that includes everything, or just solar panels. If everything, it is more than 4 times cheaper than coal powered electricity to manufacture. My friend is convinced this is the savior sent to us by the God of Progress. What do you think?

3/8/14, 8:43 PM

Marlow Charles said...
Have just started reading the Glass Bead Game (thanks to you suggestion).

Had just read the following passage before opening your new post: "
Oh, if only it were possible to find an understanding. If only there were dogma to believe in. Everything is contradictory,everything tangential; there are no certainties anywhere. Everything can be interpreted one way and then again interpreted in the opposite sense. The whole of world history can be explained as development and progress and can also be seen as nothing but decadence and meaninglessness. Isn't there any truth? Is there no real and valid doctrine?"


3/8/14, 8:54 PM

John Michael Greer said...
August, it's another keeper, no question.

Howard, the first two are very promising. The third? I'm still waiting to see how far it gets.

Anselmo, true enough -- and I appreciate your willingness to think through the good as well as the bad.

Quos Ego, I got my info about solar steam engines from the classic book A Golden Thread, which you ought to be able to find. As for the others, er, I've discussed the whole financial fast crash theory repeatedly here. The short form is that too many people have forgotten that credit and money are simply systems of tokens, and when they break, they're fairly easy to replace with something else. I'd encourage you to read something on the collapse of the global economy in 1930-1932 one of these days, and notice the makeshifts that can be made to work when everyone has an incentive to make them work.

Latefall, er, there are a lot of other ways to cook a stew...

Dustin, exactly! You get tonight's gold star. One of the great values of homescale solar, as with most of the old appropriate tech, is that they can do a lot to cushion falling standards of living.

Tony, no argument -- but then I feel the same way about bicycles generally. I much prefer something about the speed of my two feet.

Irish, thanks for the link!

MawKernewek, again, technical feasibility is not economic viability; the fact that it might be technologically possible to extract that coal doesn't make it a paying proposition. It fascinates me that even in an audience as intelligent as this one, that point is so hard to grasp!

Thrig, seems plausible to me.

Michelle, synchronicity strikes again. Thanks for the link!

Varun, my book The Blood of the Earth, of course!

3/8/14, 9:04 PM

John Michael Greer said...
RAnderson, cough, cough, technical feasibility does not equal economic viability, cough, cough. Also, those coal-to-liquids methods used by Germany during the war failed to keep the Wehrmacht from running out of fuel, because technical feasibility, etc. More on this next week.

Jim, we'll see. Once that corroded PV chip stops working, the simple bimetallic thermoelectric generator starts looking like a really good option.

DeAnander, I see the torrent of food regulation -- like the parallel attempts in the US to keep anyone but an MD from healing people, while MDs have by and large given up doing so -- as the last gasp of a failing system. When saturation advertising no longer keeps people in line, and you have to resort to force, the fracture point is near.

Enrique, possibly that, and possibly just the mass production of fear as a means of entertainment by the subculture of apocalypse fandom.

Alan, fair enough. I was misinformed.

Ray, nicely worked out. Those three tests would be worth talking about at more length.

Alan, I'll do a post on turn of the last century windjammers one of these days. The takeaway point is that bulk crops like coffee can be hauled around the planet quite readily without any significant fossil fuel use -- how do you think the coffeeshops of 18th century Britain kept themselves in stock? As long as New Orleans remains above water, you should have no trouble getting coffee in by ship.

Kyoto, I'll let you debate bicycles with the penny farthing fans. As for An Elegy for the Age of Space, it's one of my ten most read posts; I'm not at all sure how it could be turned into a book, though.

Alan, it's an interesting question just how far electronics and other high-end technologies would have gotten once energy per capita started to contract.

LatheChuck, as soon as solar water heater manufacturers figured out that the mix of metals produced electrochemical corrosion, fixes were quickly found -- and have been standard ever since.

Enrique, obviously not! Remember, though, that I can't always get comments put through right away.

Merle, I try to keep a fair mix of topics, so that everyone has something to get offended by. ;-)

3/8/14, 9:20 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Cherokee, enjoy those quince pies. They're really good. As for peak rocks, well, now there's something I never thought I'd have to consider! And of course children ought to have the opportunity to work, within the limits of their ages and needs -- I had jobs of various kinds in my misspent youth, and it didn't harm me any.

C.L., thanks for the info! I'll definitely check out Davis' book -- I've read some of his other work.

Magicalthyme, why not start one, rather than waiting for someone else to do so?

Charlie, excellent. If you're doing the work, you get no argument from me.

Matt, hmm! No, I wasn't familiar with it at all. Thanks for the heads up.

MawKernewek, pneumatic and hydraulic power transfer are both very workable methods, applicable to a wide range of technologies. Of course they could play a role in a steampunk (or other ecotechnic) future -- provided, of course, that somebody gets off the sofa and recovers the knowledge of how to use them while there's still time.

Iuval, and if you come up with an answer to that one, he'll find another. It's a waste of time; any such technology that is, ahem, economically viable as well as technically feasible will be on its way to market shortly, and then we can see how well it works. Otherwise? Next week I'll be suggesting a distinctive name for technologies of that kind.

3/8/14, 9:42 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Charles, uncanny indeed. Still, where do you think I got the ideas that furnish the inside of my head, and thus appear in this blog? Hesse wasn't responsible for all of them, not by a long shot, but he's a major contributor.

3/8/14, 9:43 PM

DeAnander said...
...maggots are officially classified as a "device"...

you can't make this stuff up you know! :-)

there in a nutshell is the relentless, literal-minded logic of a perfectly rational and perfectly insane worldview.

3/8/14, 10:23 PM

Joseph Nemeth said...
@Cherokee -- only what I've read. You burn the wood under anoxic conditions, so basically, you put dry wood in a closed 50-gallon drum with a long coil of copper pipe out the top, and then heat the living frack out of the drum. The methanol escapes in gaseous form via the copper pipe, cools, and turns into liquid methanol, which you draw off at the appropriate point on the pipe. The wood turns into charcoal. I've read that if the wood is wet, it turns into a nasty tar instead of charcoal.

I think you can also get turpentine out of this, and other higher fractions.

I've seen pretty clear warnings that if you don't know what you're doing, and aren't careful, it's a good way to blow yourself up.

Lots of heat applied to closed containers full of wildly flammable, toxic gasses, you get the picture.

EROEI way under 1.0, of course. You don't do this to produce energy. You use your energy (typically burning wood) to produce otherwise useful substances like methanol and turpentine and charcoal.

One of the reasons I went with ethanol in my story submission is that it's a lot easier to make, though I believe its useful energy content is slightly lower than methanol, and you can drink your mistakes without going blind. :-)

I believe there are some fungal and bacterial methods of producing methanol from wood. I know next to nothing about those.

3/8/14, 11:23 PM

Cherokee Organics said...

You'll never think of rocks the same way again!

As to working children, I share your experience, in that it did me no harm despite being occasionally chased by the odd aggressive dog. Cold, wet, dark mornings were a bit of a bummer too, now that I think about it. There obviously is a middle ground between the two extremes of experience that people constantly bang on about.

By the way, I wasn't going to mention this but I received my favourite hippy magazine in the mail recently and noted that they'd changed their format and the price had gone up considerably.

I'm not having a go at them, but it is a well known business practice that it is always easier to extract more from your existing clients than obtain new clients.

That strategy I do not follow as it is very risky. I follow a low overhead and good value for money strategy instead and simply try to undercut the competition.

However, I have noted that that particular strategy of obtaining more revenue from existing clients is being employed right across society only very recently. I see it in practice constantly and it is a sure sign of decline. The product and services remain the same but the costs go up squeezing margins and making returns for businesses that much lower. Interesting times.

By the way, with the declining exchange rate, I recently spotted petrol at AU$1.65/litre (3.8 litres to the US gallon). There are many articles stating that petrol here will soon hit AU$1.70/litre and possibly as high as AU$2.00/litre. I don't doubt it.

Hi Robert,

Thanks for your thoughts. It is a similar situation here. Newspaper home deliveries are nowadays wrapped in plastic and thrown from vehicles which is a real shame.

It is really weird because in the community groups I'm involved in, I'm often the youngest person and the people are both very civil/polite, well endowed with local knowledge and quite lovely.



3/9/14, 12:23 AM

Mark Rice said...
A couple of comments:
Not too long ago I was walking though an airport with a display of sowing machines. This was in the part of the airport between the landside and airside of the airport. They had a lot of sewing machines over a century old. These were beautiful well made and solid. As I "progressed" towards the airside where we board aircraft, the sowing machines were newer and newer. After around WWII the machines were styled to look "modern" at the time of manufacture, but they really looked cheesy. I saw more and more plastic. Maybe these newer units had more features, but I found them unimpressive after seeing the older machines.

On another topic, someone mentioned the steampunk future in the fiction of Paolo Bacigalupi. I read his novel The Windup Girl . This was a very vividly rendered future. This was one of the best novels that I had read in a long time. But it was also very dark. His short stories are even darker.

3/9/14, 10:56 AM

dragonfly said...
On the semi-tangential topic of coal mining machinery -
While many of the larger excavators, drag-line shovels, etc... are indeed electrically powered, that does not mean that they don't use a lot of energy.
One modestly sized rope-shovel from Caterpillar uses on average 645KW, peaking at 2.2MW. For comparison, that (average) power is roughly the same as needed to power just over 500 average US households.

That electricity has to come from somewhere.

(My understanding is that electricity is used as the prime mover in such large machinery because the control systems are simpler and the drive systems more robust than either hydraulic or mechanical power transmission methods. The operating cost-per-watt of electric versus diesel may also be a factor.)

For what it's worth.

3/9/14, 11:21 AM

rj8957 said...

I think this guy has an interesting project about Far-Right influence in sci-fi. It's not directly related to this week's post, but I believe it to be germane to your larger effort in delineating the narratives we use. Here it is:

3/9/14, 1:25 PM

Unknown said...
(Deborah Bender)

Thank you, Nastarana, for the steamed rice directions. My junior high school home economics class taught the same method for hard boiled eggs--bring the eggs and water to a low boil, turn off heat, put a lid on the pot and leave it for fifteen minutes.

My 1940s era Settlement Cookbook mentions fireless cookers. I make a lot of soups and stews. Have had no success finding a new one for sale, and the antiques I've turned up were too large and heavy or in poor condition.

Being no carpenter, I wonder whether I could make a fireless cooker by stuffing an old blanket or other insulation inside a cheap plastic cooler, with an aluminum foil liner to protect the insulation from the hot pot. Has anyone tried this?

3/9/14, 5:59 PM

Unknown said...
(Deborah Bender)

Various brief comments.

@Cherokee Organics--In northern California, landowners lease goats and a goatherd to clear brush. I think goats will eat blackberry canes.

Bananas do outgas something, I believe ethylene, and one way to ripen other fruit quickly is to put it in an airtight container with a banana for a couple of days.

@Lei--some varieties of bamboo grow very rapidly during warm weather in California. They aren't killed by a light frost. Bamboo is planted for ornament or privacy, requires no care other than some water and is very invasive, spreading by thick tough runners just under the surface. AFAIK, no one is growing bamboo in California for harvest.

@JMG and others--I asked about ball bearing manufacture in comments a year or two ago, and someone posted a link to a fairly simple mechanical method of rounding them that did not involve a shot tower. I don't have the link or the essay title, unfortunately.

3/9/14, 6:12 PM

sunseekernv said...
@escapefromwisconsin re: fMRI

Did you mis-type or are you unaware-of/confused-about the difference between MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) and CT ((X-ray) Computed Tomography)? You said: "… two physicians made the claim that unnecessary FMRI scans are driving up U.S. cancer rates:".

Actually, upon reading the article, I see they were talking about CT scans.

In fact the article says (my bold), down in "Questions to ask" [before getting a CT scan], 3rd bullet:
"* Are there alternative imaging tests that don't involve radiation, such as ultrasound or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)?"

I don't want people getting hysterical over the wrong things.

The doctors in question rightfully question the use of high X-ray exposures unless there is a clear benefit, as the X-ray exposure during a CT scan is rather high, a substantial fraction of the occupation dose annual limit.

MRI uses radio waves in a magnetic field gradient, and is generally regarded as safer than X-rays. Note I did NOT say "absolutely safe".

You might want to read about the difference between the two techniques, and further, might want to explore the difference between normal MRI and functional MRI (fMRI is basically a research tool with limited clinical use in some brain applications, where normal MRI images are useful for all parts of the body).

Both techniques, however, rely upon computers to render the images, so if we don't have (fast enough) computers, neither work. Actually I can image a simple MRI machine recording voxels on a magnetic disk synchronized to the field sweep, with playback on a simple CRT, all using tube-type electronics, but resolution might be limited.

3/9/14, 7:10 PM

DeAnander said...
'nother reason to use electricity (generated by diesel power) for large engines is that the genset can run at its optimal power rating continually, while the electric motor handles the ever-changing load, sudden demands, etc. this is why so many locomotives are diesel-electric.

it's simpler to just let the diesel engine run as a generator; as pointed out above, controls are easier and cheaper for electric motors and in many cases the designer can eliminate a gearbox (because the electric motor can run at widely variable speeds and can reverse on demand w/o a mechanical reverse gear).

3/9/14, 8:48 PM

sunseekernv said...
@Iuval - re Cogenra

JMG has one aspect of cornucopians pegged - there's always another idea to play with.

I will add two things:
First, there is a great lack of (technical) competence these days. Lack of understanding leads to gullibility - either way (denial or acceptance). These guys have a good paper if you can find a free copy: "Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments".–Kruger_effect

Secondly, about concentrating solar in general, and combined PV (PhotoVoltaics) and solar hot water systems specifically:

(a) Any concentrating solar system, thermal or photovoltaic, depends on DNI (Direct Normal Insolation - light coming directly from the sun, "normal" meaning perpendicular to the path to the sun). While some optical systems will grab some of the diffuse light close to the main optical path, the higher the concentration, the more total the dependance on DNI.

This can be a significant fraction of the total insolation, but often suffers from aerosols, clouds and airborne dust which scatter DNI, in some cases greatly, while often not cutting diffuse radiation much (e.g. DNI is turned into diffuse light).

This varies greatly depending on the climate at the location. An example on this page at the top:

You can grab maps of DNI and Global Horizontal (total light falling on a flat plane) here:
Unfortunately the scale colors are not the same, but one can see, for example, that South West Saudi Arabia has massive global sun, but not so much DNI (dust in the air).

This is why Mouchot's solar steam generator works well in North Africa and summertime Paris.
But it is not a general solution everywhere.

(b) Because concentrating systems ignore the diffuse light, they start with a deficit of input power, therefore they must have a larger aperture area than an equivalent flat plate system. (bigger = more expense).

© Concentrator systems are more affected by dust. Consider a flat plate solar hot water panel or PV panel with a small dust particle on it. If a photon glances off within a rather large angle, it's still collected. For concentrators, a tiny divergence from its path means a photon is lost. So there's a maintenance issue (again climatically dependent) of keeping the dust down enough.

(d) Concentrator systems are dependent on at least 1-axis tracking. This means more expense/maintenance, and also more loss due to off-tracking and/or over-build to compensate for off-tracking.

Combined solar hot water and PV systems go back several decades, but Cogenra will be the 1st successful company - assuming they're successful.

(e) A standard combined module will be tuned to a given fraction of heat vs electrical output, which will vary depending on season and time of day. There will be mis-match between thermal and electrical loads, resulting in waste -> high cost, depending on the load characteristics. They note one can dump the heat via their "simple and low cost" system, but a commodity flat PV module has a no cost heat dissipation system.

(f) hot water wants to corrode things and leak. Leaking water is incompatible with electrical things.

(g) They have to pump the fluid - pumps wear out, are a parasitic load.

(h) PV output degrades with increasing temperature, but thermal efficiency for hot water increases with increasing temperature. The PV is going to suffer mightily at 120 deg. C. From a Kyocera data sheet, -0.45% power decline per deg. C increase, based on 20 deg. C ambient. So the PV will be down 45% in output sitting on a 120 deg. C water pipe. Meaning to get X electricity, the PV part must by over-built significantly vs. a standalone, standard PV module.

(i) The combined units will never scale to the manufacturing volumes of standard, separate PV and solar hot water modules, so costs will be higher.

3/9/14, 9:08 PM

Andrew H said...
Just to note that hydraulic power transmission is not only eminently feasible but has been put to broad use previously. In particular the London Hydraulic Power Company ran for more than 20 years in late 19th- early 20th centrury. At its peak it was distributing over 5 MW of power over a network of around 180 km of pipes. The power was used in lots of different industrial applications.


3/9/14, 9:54 PM

Ruben said...

Fireless or thermal cookers were called hayboxes when they were a box stuffed with hay.

I like your cooler idea for extra insulation. Just stuff it with straw to keep the hot pot from melting the plastic.

According to this site, the Ignition temperature of both straw and hay are upwards of 480ºF, so I don't think you will need any tinfoil in there.

When I am doing things that I am concerned about maintaining a steady temperature, like culturing yogourt, I always prewarm my thermal cooker with some hot water--let it soak up some heat, so it doesn't drop the milk temperature too fast. Probably not an issue if you are making soup.

3/10/14, 1:36 AM

Ursachi Alexandru said...
JMG, I am a supporter and practitioner of using my own two feet as a favorite means of transportation.

As for Dmitriy Orlov's take on Ukraine, I must admit, it was hard for me to read his blog posts. Maybe I am being too emotional about this. Like I said in a previous comment that did not get approved (perhaps it was past that blog post's comments approval lifetime) Russia is for us in Eastern Europe what the US is to Latin America, only worse. And it doesn't help us that many people in your country have such a low knowledge of geography and politics that for them Eastern Europe is synonimous with Russia itself. Yes, Russia is defending its co-nationals in Crimea. But who is defending te Chechens, the Dagestanis, and countless other nations that have been swallowed up by their empire? Here in Moldova were I am studying, it's only a matter of time when a military conflict will happen, since two Russian-supported separatist regions are doing everything they can to deny this country's linguistic, historical and cultural ties to Romania. Like I said, maybe I am being too emotional about this. But I think the world is past the cold war mentality and should take into account other people's opinions as well, not just the West versus East cliche, which boils down to Russia versus America, and the rest being the Thirld World and who cares wat they think.

3/10/14, 5:10 AM

Robert Mathiesen said...
Well said, Ursachi. I, too, found Orlov's posts useful as windows into one Russian view of the Ukrainian situation, but absolutely appalling in their ignorance of Ukrainian history and unconscious assumption of something that here would be called out as "Russian privilege."

3/10/14, 10:54 AM

Robert Mathiesen said...
One of the foremost problems almost everyone (including even some Ukrainians) faces in understanding what is going on in Ukraine is that nearly everyone thinks Ukraine was always one nation with one common history. In fact, it was never that simple.

The present boundaries between Russia, Ukraine and Belarus do not align with old, old divisions of this Slavic territory as indicated by boundaries between various Slavic dialects. Rather, they reflect wars and other political developments of the 14th-17th centuries, which imposed new boundaries that cut across very, very old territorial divisions.

Insofar as a unified identity developed in this region at all, it developed around the organization and hierarchy of the Orthodox Church within those territories. At the head of this hierarchy, in theory, stood a bishop with the title Metropolitan of Kiev and all Rus. Originally, this Church was in communion with the Oecumenical Patriarch at Constantinople, and the first several Metropolitans of Kiev were Greeks. This arrangement lasted no more than a couple of centuries.

After that, there came to be two competing, canonically legitimate Metropolitans who claimed this title, and neither of them was actually in Kiev. One of them lived in Muscovite Russia; the other, in Lithuanian Russia. Each of them controlled about half of the territory of the original Metropolitanate. And the line between the two jurisdictions cut right through the present territory of Ukraine

In the late 1500s things began to get even more complicated. Each Metropolitanate had originally been aligned with the Orthodox Church, and had been in communion with the Patriarch of Constantinople. In the 1590s, however, the western Metropolitanate abandoned its old alignment and communion. Instead, it aligned itself with the Catholic Church and entered into communion with the Pope of Rome -- while continuing to conduct all its rituals and liturgy according to the Byzantine Rite.

Great hostility ensued, to put it mildly.

Eventually, after WW2, Ukraine was annexed by the USSR, and the Byzantine Rite Catholics were compelled (by fiat from Moscow) to realign themselves with Moscow and Constantinople and return to communion with the Orthodox Church in Moscow. This only increased the internal tension within Ukraine.

Since this time, official Soviet Russian and Ukrainian historians and history textbooks have stressed the essential unity of Ukraine and its people from early times, for political reasons, and insisted that Ukraine's closest historical ties have always been with Russia. It is a myth, but it is still very useful politically. However, the old historical memories die hard, and even now they are not entirely dead.

As for Crimea, it became part of Ukraine only in 1954. For a century and a half before that, it had been a part of Russia. And before that time, it had been a Muslim land for many centuries, home of the Crimean Tatars, under the protection of the Ottoman Empire.

3/10/14, 11:16 AM

Nastarana said...
Deborah, I have done overnight oatmeal, the long cook kind, not the three minute Quacker parboiled flakes, with just a towel wrapped around the pan after bringing it to boil.

2nd hand stores sometimes sell the innards of crock pots, those nice clay liners. Add a glass lid than fits, and set inside straw, or I think flannel scraps might work.

Ursachi Alexandru, join the club. Orlov isn't printing my comments either, not after I had the effrontery to respond to his "American exceptionalism" screed by pointing out that the first official use of the term 'United states of America' occurred in 1777, by the Continental Congress, at a time when most of the rest of North and South America were still under colonial rule, and that North and South America are two separate and distinct continents. In fact they are also geologically distinct.

I think the Orlov blog needs to be read with a good deal of skepticism lately.

3/10/14, 11:17 AM

Joseph Nemeth said...
Re: CAT, MRI, and fMRI.

Without getting into the physics, here's the skinny:

1) CAT is an X-Ray, and sees primarily hard stuff (like bones, mineral deposits).

2) MRI is a magnetic image, and sees primarily soft stuff (certain light elements, usually with the help of doping or contrast chemicals).

3) fMRI is the same as an MRI, but fast enough, and tuned for certain compounds, to allow "functional" imaging, i.e. a dynamic MRI that shows changes as they occur.

With CAT, you're going to take a dose of X-Rays. Too many of those will kill you. But we are also constantly bombarded by X-Rays from solar and high-atmosphere sources, and we're built to take a certain amount of it. If we weren't, we'd all be dead.

With MRI, you're going to get exposed to intense magnetic fields. Many claims, little hard evidence of potential harm. Of more concern are the dopants and contrasts they give you, usually by injection. A common one is gadolinium (element 64), which is a rare-earth metal; some people have allergic reactions to it. They also use various radioactive isotopes, e.g. tritiated glucose, not because they are radioactive, but because the tritium (heavy hydrogen) in the glucose resonates at a different frequency than ordinary hydrogen, so they can tune the MRI and see the injection move through your body without seeing all the other glucose that's already everywhere. An MRI without contrast isn't very useful. Again, we're built to take a certain amount of chemical and radiation poisoning, else we'd all be dead.

Computers are not necessary for tomography. There are photographic ways to do it, though it's more mechanically complex, and you have to develop an eye for screening out "artifacts" -- that is, ghost images created by the process itself, not by things being observed. For very low-resolution images, you can even use readings you write down in a lab book, then do some math with a pencil.

3/10/14, 12:06 PM

Enrique said...
A post on windjammers would be way cool, since that’s one of my favorite steampunk technologies. I have a long standing interest in naval and maritime history, ships and the sea. When I was a child, I had several books about the Age of Sail, including a book about windjammers. I thought they were some of the coolest ships ever to sail the seven seas!

The neat thing about windjammers is that since their hulls, masts and much of their rigging was made out of steel, they could be much larger than earlier sailing ships and could carry huge amounts of cargo. They were built for cargo capacity rather than raw speed, but their long, lean hulls, tall masts and huge sail areas made them some of the fastest sailing ships ever built. Some could hit 20 knots or better with a good, stiff wind. Some also had diesel engines that could be used for maneuvering in tight areas like a crowded harbor or providing propulsion when there was no wind (being stuck in the Doldrums for weeks on end is no fun). This would be an excellent technology to revive.

The fact they were built out of steel means this is a technology that could be revived by a scarcity industrial, salvage or eco-technic society in the near to mid term future. Timber suitable for the construction of large ships is in short supply these days and will be for a long time until the old growth forests have had to time to grow back, but there will be lots of scrap steel and iron available for salvage and recycling for a very long time to come. I could easily see some of the coastal cities of today (or perhaps the ones further inland if the present day coastal cities end up under water) becoming major shipbuilding centers of the eco-technic age as the ruins are dismantled for their steel beams, rebar and junked out cars, providing plenty of work for ruinmen, steel workers and shipbuilders alike.

3/10/14, 1:52 PM

Renaissance Man said...
@CL Cooke & JMG
Books by Wade Davis are always a good read. If I'd had a teacher like him, I might have studied biology.
I believe he wrote in "One River" about the work of Richard Evans Shultes who developed a strain of blight-resistant rubber trees that were discarded for political reasons.

3/10/14, 5:36 PM

Rita said...
For a different take on steam punk one might visit "Good Vibrations" in San Francisco. They have a museum of antique vibrators--including some hand-cranked versions. Pretty interesting, actually. Fear not--sexual liberation need not be left behind in the coming Dark Ages. I thought regular readers of the AD Report might get a kick out of this.

3/11/14, 10:13 AM

Matt Heins said...
@ Enrique,

I agree windjammers are cool.

But my question is, if I can have a steel ship with mast, rigging, and combustion engine running on biofuel as back up, why don't I just skip the mast and rigging, enlarge the engine and carry more fuel, and use that for propulsion?

There would be a myriad of advantages. And if I have the technical means for an engine with X horsepower, why can I not have 50X horsepower, and if I can have Y liters of fuel, why can I not have 500Y liters?

Obviously there are costs involved, both real and economic, but are these not outweighed by the benefits? It looks that way to me.

3/11/14, 11:49 AM

Atilio Baroni Filho said...
Dear JMG,

I know it's slightly off-topic and a bit late, but I ran across this article and immediately thought of your recent posts on Fascism and one of the axis of your way of thinking and writing:

The Dangers of Certainty

"Errors are inextricably bound up with pursuit of human knowledge, which requires not just mathematical calculation but insight, interpretation and a personal act of judgement for which we are responsible."

“Human knowledge is personal and responsible, an unending adventure at the edge of uncertainty.”

Very much worth reading!



3/11/14, 5:18 PM

Shane Wilson said...
Wasn't the Soviet Union officially atheist during that time and persecuting all religions, seems unlikely they would change patriarchs since the whole country was officially atheist and churches were being destroyed and repurposed. Also, quite a bit of arbitrary line drawing took place between Stalin, Churchill, & Roosevelt in Crimea when area that had been German for ages was annexed to Poland, while oil rich areas near Lwow in eastern Poland were annexed to then Soviet Ukraine. They're talking today about western Ukraine as "eastern Poland" in the current dispute.

3/11/14, 6:25 PM

Robert Mathiesen said...

Yes, the Soviet Union was officially atheist. That hardly means that they persecuted all religions equally: religions viewed as alien or foreign, including Roman Catholicism, were hit much. much harder than religions (like the Orthodox Church) viewed as part of the country's own past. Throughout the entire Soviet Period there was a succession of official heads of the Russian Orthodox Church (Patriarchs), who worked pretty much hand-in-glove with the Soviet state and supported its aims. As for the current Patriarch Kiril, rumor has it that he, like Putin, was a former KGB man, and one of Putin's good buddies.

In Eastern Europe hardly anything is done the way a Westerner would do it. Officially atheist Bulgaria, during its Communist period, had an official State Christian Church. Go figure . . .

3/11/14, 7:01 PM

Enrique said...
@ Matt Heins:

Depends on how expensive and readily available biofuels will be. Remember that we will only be able to produce a tiny fraction of the liquid fuels that we produce now in the future once the cheap energy bubble ends, something the Archdruid has been pointing out all along. Much of the biofuels production right now is made possible by the large scale use of fossil fuels. Biofuels production in the future will be on a much smaller scale and will be much more expensive than the cheap diesel and gas we have become accustomed to.

I think a lot of people are not really taking in account just how much the end of cheap oil will affect the world and that a lot of things we take for granted today will either come to an end or be restricted to a very small group of people. How many civilian ship owners will be able to afford the sort of extravagant use of energy we take for granted today, especially when the shipping industry tends to be a low profit margin kind of business to begin with? An engine 50 times bigger with 500 times more fuel? Only if the ship owners can find that much fuel at a price they can afford in a post peak world. As it is, ship owners are already looking for ways to reduce their fuel costs, by ordering captains to cut back cruising speeds and even experimenting with auxiliary sails for diesel powered merchant ships. Sails and muscle power will be much cheaper then biodiesel in a post industrial/post peak world.

So what happens when the cheap oil runs out? Much, perhaps all, of the present system of industrialized agriculture will go away, and this will reduce the production of both food crops and biofuels greatly. There is also the question of how much land and crops can be diverted to biofuels production before the reduction in food production becomes too severe and food riots and revolutions start breaking out. Tahrir Square or the Bastille, anyone? There will no doubt be some biofuels available, but not enough to run all of the ocean going ships that will be needed. I think we will probably go back to a system of trade in which sailing ships are the main means of international and long distance trade, and the use of biofuels will be largely restricted to those who can afford them and to situations where they are actually needed, especially since the world's navies will probably take up a sizeable fraction of the biodiesel that is produced.

3/11/14, 7:25 PM

Glenn said...
Matt Heins said...

"if I can have a steel ship with mast, rigging, and combustion engine running on biofuel as back up, why don't I just skip the mast and rigging, enlarge the engine and carry more fuel, and use that for propulsion?

There would be a myriad of advantages. And if I have the technical means for an engine with X horsepower, why can I not have 50X horsepower, and if I can have Y liters of fuel, why can I not have 500Y liters?"

The short answer is limits. The argument you used is exactly why steamships replaces sailing ships. A 9 knot steamer with 25 man crew was more reliable and cheaper to run than a sailing ship of the same cargo capacity with a 55 man crew and a speed that varied from zero to 22 knots. Throwing in the odd calm, the big square riggers were lucky to average 7 or 8 knots over their working life.

The longer answer is if you're using biofuel, there's a limit to how much acreage you can devote to growing fuel vs. food. There's only so much arable land, and only so much human and animal muscle, or biofuel to run tractors before you starve the people who work the farm. You could kill whales again, but even for just lamp oil we did that at an unsustainable rate over a century ago.

My suggestion would be to use tugs in port, as was usual as soon as steam tugs were developed. An electric auxiliary and enough battery capacity to get through the doldrums would improve schedule reliability. Some recharging could be done using the propellor as the generator input on any downwind courses with a stiff enough wind to maintain speed as well.


in the Bramblepatch
Marrowstone Island
Salish Sea

3/11/14, 7:29 PM

Greg Belvedere said...
I'm curious if anybody knows of an established way to convert the mechanical energy of a bicycle into heat for the purpose of boiling water, or simmering a stew before placing it in a hay box. I kind of bike powered stove.

It seems feasible that you could rig a bike to create heat from friction, but I don't know the specifics of how you would do this and if the materials would wear out quickly from the abrasion.

If it worked it would be a good alternative to burning fuel.

3/12/14, 6:18 AM

AlanfromBigEasy said...
For ships with the same hull shape, bigger is better.

The surface area increases with the square of any one dimension, while the volume increases with the cube.

Taken to extremes (which they do) this makes for some very efficient ships. In addition, large ships can carry very large, very efficient engines that can almost anything burnable.

The other major way to increase fuel efficiency is by going slow. From memory, fuel consumption is the square of the speed. But going slow takes longer, so fuel consumption for a given voyage is proportional to the speed (not counting "hotel load" (lights, cooking, etc that time are dependent)).

The largest container ships (Maersk) steaming slowly will be extremely efficient, as will the new, slightly smaller, Panamax class container ships.

Add so wind supplements to these ships and they will beat windjammer on the busiest shipping lanes.

3/12/14, 9:34 AM

AlanfromBigEasy said...
I was thinking of trees as the source of bio-fuels for shipping. Perhaps a mix of methanol, turpentine and evaporated sap from some species.

The half meter diameter pistons moving slowly can be feed a much more diverse diet than smaller diesels.

I could see just one large container ship serving, say Chile and New Orleans via the new Panama Canal locks in half the trips and the other half between Brazil and Newport News VA. Argentina produce could be railed to either port (to Chile via a new Trans-Andes tunnel they have agreed on but not started).

When the container ship approached or exited the Panama Canal, perhaps some containers could be offloaded and others put on for both world-wide distribution and to serve Central America via rail.

Similar trans-shipping depots could be set up in Singapore and Suez.

Smaller banana boats could use wind & auxiliary power. Those two ship types could handle reduced trade volume between North & South America.

3/12/14, 11:17 AM

sgage said...
To all the people glibly talking about the possibilites of "biofuel", a free clue. "Biofuel" means solar. We're talking about moving from living large by squandering a huge inheritance of some million years in the making, to living off of current revenue. Not "if we can make Y amount of fuel we can surely make 500(Y)" as someone wrote. No, we can't. What an absurd statement.

We don't even get to smarten up and live off the interest on the trust fund - we ate the principal! It's back to the menial job at the convenience store, and living paycheck-to-paycheck, I'm afraid.

Oh well, it was fun while it lasted.

3/12/14, 4:23 PM

latheChuck said...
RE: Bicycle-generated cooking heat. As a rough rule of thumb, count on getting about 100W mechanical energy from a bike. (I've sat on bike generators at engineering fairs, and it's heavy work to light a 100W lamp.) Now, think about cooking your meal over a 100W light bulb. It's going to take a lot of pumping, even with some efficiency improvements (like trapping the air around the heating element to prevent convective losses), to make soup. You'll be hungry when it's ready.

3/12/14, 7:18 PM

Candace said...
Here's your 100 watt cooking appliance ;)
Ages 8 and up.

Bake up sweet and tasty treats with the EASY BAKE Ultimate Oven. No more light bulbs needed! Use the included mixes, pans and other goodies to whip up cake and cookie batter. Follow the directions to bake them inside the oven.

Oven comes with baking pan, cupcake pan, pan pusher, chocolate chip cookie mix, red velvet cake mix, pink frosting mix, rainbow sugar crystals package, paper cupcake wraps and instructions/recipe booklet.

Adult supervision required.
CAUTION - ELECTRIC TOY Not recommended for children under 8 years of age. As with all electric products, precautions should be observed during handling and use to prevent electric shock. Input: 120V AC, 60Hz, 100W, UL Listed

3/13/14, 1:46 AM

Greg Belvedere said...
latheChuck, yes I agree. But if there was a way to go directly from mechanical energy to heat, skipping the conversion to and from electrical energy, it might be worth it. Though, I admit I don't know the specifics which is why I put the question out there. If anyone has any resources, or places I might look, I would appreciate it.

3/13/14, 5:06 AM

Carol said...
Dear John Michael Greer,
I stumbled upon your blog while looking for reviews of Stewart Brand's book “Whole Earth Discipline” way back in 2010. I was re-considering so many of my perceptions and beliefs about how to 'save the world', and wanted to see what other people were thinking. Your analysis of Stewart's book seemed the most perceptive about the big issues, and I have enjoyed catching up and following your blog since then. This is my first post, and I thought it time to join the discussion, rather than just observing.

I am sure I am not the only reader to think it is that ironic I can spend a whole evening, online, following the leads and links from your blog and the thoughtful comments, rather than popping in a DVD for a current movie that often seems just fluff compared to the real issues on the table. Tonight I read about Stangenkunst, latex from Russian dandelions, and about Herman Hesse, which prompted me to pull up the quote from the movie ‘Dr. Zhivago’ that seems relevant to your points about revolutions and tyrannies:
Yuri: You lay life on a table and you cut out all the tumours of injustice. Marvellous.
Yevgraf: "I told him if he felt like that he should join the party."
Yuri: Ah, but cutting out the tumours of injustice - that's a deep operation. Someone must keep life alive while you do it. By living. Isn't that right?

Boris Pasternak was a thoughtful observer of his times. His quote below parallels your cautions about the relative ease of transition to a newer, and falsely appearing shinier new order, from your recent blogs about fascism.
“No single man makes history. History cannot be seen, just as one cannot see grass growing. Wars and revolutions, kings and Robespierres, are history's organic agents, its yeast. But revolutions are made by fanatical men of action with one-track mind, geniuses in their ability to confine themselves to a limited field. They overturn the old order in a few hours or days, the whole upheaval takes a few weeks or at most years, but the fanatical spirit that inspired the upheavals is worshiped for decades thereafter, for centuries. ”
― Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago

My sons are in their early 20’s, and I have given them both your Green Wizardry book. They are apt pupils, and yet I know it takes time to transition to seeing current events in light of the issues you so clearly describe. I have read many of the books inspired by your blog, and the list continues. I take some comfort in the gradual contraction scenario, which gives me time to re-read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall (of the Roman Empire), while studying Bill Mollison’s Permaculture, and trying to take Permaculture Design classes, and planting seeds.

3/13/14, 11:41 PM

Stephen Heyer said...
Matt Heins: “But my question is, if I can have a steel ship with mast, rigging, and combustion engine running on biofuel as back up, why don't I just skip the mast and rigging, enlarge the engine and carry more fuel, and use that for propulsion?”

It all depends on the cost of the biofuel. Current experience suggests that after readily available fossil fuels are used (they currently subsidise the production of biofuels) biofuels will be too expensive for normal shipping, though not for auxiliary or military use.

3/14/14, 12:03 AM

Nature Creek Farm said...
Internet geeks tend to get sidetracked with the details of technology. I think one of the key directions to focus on is the need/benefit of a particular technology, and not the widespread distribution of it. As a good example, you mention fMRI, something dear to my concussed head. We don't need everyone to get an fMRI in order to benefit from it. The research being done provides information that can be applied immediately to people when basic triage tells the doctor they MAY have been injured, without having to scan them at all. Most treatments wouldn't harm a person who didn't have a brain injury, but would tremendously help those who do. A steampunk society could support a contingent of research. The same applies to fossil fuels. A steampunk/solar society could easily support asteroid defense on a fraction of the cost of our present military budgets, which are mostly justified by our unfettered rapacity for resources. The opposite of consumer-capitalism isn't frugality: it's a sales tax. The biggest problem with the current democracy (one dollar, one vote-counted at the cash registers) is that the decision point is blind to the real costs of the purchase. If people really saw the true cost of a prepackaged candy bar or entertainment device, they would be influenced to make their own (steampunk and local foods).
You're doing good work, JMG. Thanks.

3/17/14, 7:01 AM

GreenEngineer said...
On the subject of post-modern computing, this article is pretty amazing.

Of course, these analog computers relied on the industrial technology of high precision machining. But that's a technology with a much lower fabricatory depth than digital computers, so we might see a re-emergence someday. It depends on just how post-industrial things get.

4/3/14, 5:44 PM