Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Future is a Foreign Country

I’m pleased to note that the conversation about ephemeralization and catabolic collapse launched a few weeks back by futurist Kevin Carson, and continued in several blogs since then, has taken a promising new turn. The vehicle for that sudden swerve was a  essay by Lakis Polycarpou, titled Catabolic Ephemeralization: Carson versus Greer, which set out to find common ground between Carson’s standpoint and mine. In the process, to his credit, Polycarpou touched on a crucial point that has been too often neglected in recent discussions about the future.

That’s not to say that his take on the future couldn’t use some serious second thoughts. I noted in my original response to Carson’s post the nearly visceral inability to think in terms of whole systems that pervades today’s geek culture, and that curious blindness is well represented in Polycarpou’s essay. He argues, for example, that since a small part of Somalia has cell phone service, and cell phone service is more widely available today than grid electricity or clean drinking water, cutting-edge technology ought to be viable in a postpetroleum world. “If Greer is right that modern telecommunications is full of hidden embodied energy and capital costs,” he wonders aloud, “how is this possible?”

As it happens, that’s an easy question to answer. Somalia, even in its present turbulent condition, is part of a global economy fueled by the recklessly rapid extraction of half a billion years of fossil sunlight and equally unsustainable amounts of other irreplaceable natural resources.  It speaks well of the resourcefulness of the Somalian people that they’ve been able to tap into some of those resource flows, in the teeth of a global economy that’s so heavily tilted against them; that said, it bears remembering that the cell phone towers in Somalia are not being manufactured in Somalian factories from Somalian resources using Somalian energy sources. A sprawling global industrial network of immensely complex manufacturing facilities and world-spanning supply chains forms the whole system that lies behind those towers, and without that network or some equivalent capable of mobilizing equivalent resources and maintaining comparable facilities, those towers would not exist.

It’s easy to make dubious generalizations based on cell phone service, mind you, because all that’s being measured by that metric is whether a given group of people are within range of a bit of stray microwave radiation—not whether they have access to cell phones, or whether the infrastructure could handle the traffic if they did. That’s the kind of blindness to whole systems that pervades so much contemporary thinking. A microwave signal fluttering through the air above an impoverished Somalian neighborhood does not equal a sustainable technological economy; only when you can account for every requirement of the whole system that produces that signal can you begin to talk about whether that system can be preserved in working order through a harsh era of global economic contraction and political turmoil.

Polycarpou dodges this, and several other awkward points of this nature. He insists, for example, that nobody actually knows whether the early 19th century technology needed to lay and operate undersea cables is really less complex than a space program capable of building, orbiting, and operating communications satellites. Since the technologies in question are a matter of public knowledge, and a few minutes of online research is all that’s needed to put them side by side, this is breathtakingly ingenuous. Still, I’d encourage my readers to keep reading past this bit, and also past the ad hominem handwaving about the energy costs of the internet that follows it. It’s in the last part of Polycarpou’s essay, where he begins to talk about alternatives and the broader shape of the future, that he begins to speak in a language familiar to regular readers of The Archdruid Report.

What he’s suggesting in this final part of his essay, if I’m reading it correctly, is that the infrastructure of the modern industrial world is unsustainable, and will have to be replaced by local production of essential goods and services on a scale that will seem impoverished by modern standards. With this claim I have no disagreements at all, and indeed it’s what I’ve been suggesting here on The Archdruid Report for the last seven and a half years. The points at issue between my view of the future and Polycarpou’s are what technologies will be best suited to the deindustrial world, and just how much more impoverished things are going to be by the time we finish the transition. These are questions of detail, not of substance.

Furthermore, they’re not questions that can be settled conclusively in advance. Mind you, it’s almost certainly a safe assumption that the kind of computer hardware we use today will no longer be manufactured once today’s industrial infrastructure stops being a paying proposition economically; current integrated-circuit technology requires a suite of extraordinarily complex technologies and a dizzying assortment of raw materials from the far corners of the globe, which will not be available to village-scale workshops dependent on local economies. The point that too rarely gets noticed is that the kind of information processing technology we have now isn’t necessarily the only way that the same principles can be put to work. I’ve fielded claims here several times that mechanical computers capable of tolerably complex calculations can be made of such simple materials as plywood disks; I have yet to see a working example, but I’m open to the possibility that something of the sort could be done.

Polycarpou comments, along the same lines, that people in a variety of countries these days are setting up parallel internets using rooftop wifi antennas, and he suggests that this is one direction in which a future internet might run, at least in the short term. He’s almost certainly right, provided that those last six words are kept in mind. It’s vanishingly unlikely that anybody will be able to keep manufacturing the necessary hardware for wifi systems through the twilight years of the industrial age, but while the hardware exists, it will certainly be used, and it might buy enough time for something else, something that can be locally manufactured from local resources, to be invented and deployed. My guess is that it’ll look much more like a ham radio message net than the internet as we currently know it, but that’s a question the future will have to settle.

The same point can be made—and has been made here more than once—about solar photovoltaic technology. Lose track of  whole systems and it’s easy to claim, as Polycarpou does, that because solar cells have become less expensive recently, vast acreages of solar photovoltaic cells will surely bail us out of the consequences of fossil fuel depletion. All you have to do is forget that the drop in PV cell costs has much less to do with the production and resource costs of the technology than with China’s familiar practice of undercutting its competitors to seize control of export markets, and pay no attention at all to the complex and finicky technical basis for modern PV cell manufacture or the sheer scale of the supply chains needed to keep chip plants stocked with raw materials, spare parts, solvents, and all the other requirements of the manufacturing process.

Does this mean that solar PV power is useless? Not at all. Buy and install PV panels now, while Chinese trade policy and an inflated dollar make them cheap, and you’ll still have electricity coming out of them decades from now, when they will be hugely expensive if they can be purchased at all. Anyone who’s actually lived with a homescale PV system can tell you that the trickle of electricity you can get that way is no substitute for 120 volts of grid power from big central power plants, but once expectations nurtured by the grid get replaced by a less extravagant sense of how electricity ought to be used, that trickle of electricity can be put to many good uses.

Meanwhile, in the window of opportunity opened up by those solar panels, other ways of producing modest amounts of electricity by way of sunlight, wind, and other renewable sources can be tested and deployed. My guess is that thermoelectric generators heated by parabolic mirrors will turn out to be the wave of the future, keeping the shortwave radios, refrigerators, and closed-loop solar water heaters of the ecotechnic future supplied with power; still, that’s just a guess. There are many ways to produce modest amounts of direct-current electricity with very simple technologies, and highly useful electrical and electronic equipment can readily be made with locally available materials and hand tools. The result won’t be anything you would expect to see in a high-tech geek future, granted, but it’s equally a far cry from the Middle Ages.

This last detail is the crucial point that Polycarpou grasps at the end of his essay, and his comment is important enough that it deserves quotation in full:

“Putting these and other elements together – hi-tech, distributed communications, distributed energy and manufacturing, local sustainable food systems, appropriate technology and tactical urbanism among others – sets the stage for a future that looks quite a bit different than the present one. One might describe it as a kind of postmodern pastiche that looks neither like the antiquated futurisms we once imagined nor an idyllic return to preindustrial peasant society.”

The future, in other words, is not going to be a linear extrapolation from the present—that’s the source of the “antiquated futurisms” he rightly criticizes—or a simple rehash of the past. The future is a foreign country, and things are different there.

That realization is the specter that haunts contemporary industrial society. For all our civilization’s vaunted openness to change, the only changes most people nowadays are willing to contemplate are those that take us further in the direction we’re already going. We’ve got fast transportation today, so there has to be something even faster tomorrow—that’s basically the justification Elon Musk gave for the Hyperloop, his own venture into antiquated futurism; we’ve got the internet today, so we’ve got to have some kind of uber-internet tomorrow. It’s a peculiar sort of blindness, and one that civilizations of the past don’t seem to have shared; as far as I know, for example, the designers of ancient Roman vomitoriums didn’t insist that their technology was the wave of the future, and claim that future societies would inevitably build bigger and better places to throw up after banquets. (Those of my readers who find this comparison questionable might want to take a closer look at internet content.)

The future is a foreign country, and people do things differently there. It’s hard to think of anything that flies so comprehensively in the face of today’s conventional wisdom, or contradicts so many of the unquestioned assumptions of our time; thus it’s not surprising that Polycarpou, in suggesting it, seems to think that he’s disagreeing with me. Quite the contrary; there’s a reason why my most popular peak oil book is titled The Ecotechnic Future, rather than The Idyllic Peasant Future or some such twaddle.  For that matter, I’m not at all sure that he realizes I would agree with his characterization of the near- to mid-range future as a “postmodern pastiche;” I’d suggest that the distributed communication will likely be much less high-tech than he thinks, and that hand tools and simple machinery will play a much larger role in the distributed manufacturing than 3D printers, but again, those are matters of detail.

It’s in the longer run, I suspect, that our visions of the future diverge most sharply. Technological pastiche and bricolage, the piecing together of jerry-rigged systems out of scraps of surviving equipment and lore, are common features of ages of decline; it’s as the decline nears bottom that the first steps get taken toward a new synthesis, one that inevitably rejects many of the legacy technologies of the past and begins working on its own distinct projects. Vomitoriums weren’t the only familiar  technology to land in history’s compost heap in the post-Roman dark ages; chariots dropped out of use, too, along with a great many more elements of everyday Roman life. New values and new ideologies directed collective effort toward goals no Roman would have understood, and the harsh limits on resource availability in the radically relocalized post-Roman world also left their mark.

What often gets forgotten in reviewing the dark ages of the past is that they were not lapses into the past but gropings forward into an unknown future. There was a dark age before the Roman world and a dark age after it; the two had plenty of parallels, some of them remarkably exact, but the technologies were not the same, and Greek and Roman innovations in information processing and storage—classical logic and philosophy, widespread literacy, and the use of parchment as a readily available and reusable writing medium—were preserved and transmitted in various forms, opening up possibilities in the post-Roman dark ages that were absent in the centuries that followed the fall of Mycenae.

In the same way, the deindustrial future ahead of us will not be a rehash of the past, any more than it will be a linear extrapolation of the present. I’ve suggested, for reasons I’ve covered in a good many previous posts here, that we face a Long Descent of one to three centuries followed by a dark age very broadly parallel to the ones that followed Rome, Mycenae, and so many other dead civilizations of the past. That’s the normal result when catabolic collapse hits a society dependent on nonrenewable resources, but the way the process unfolds is powerfully shaped by contextual and historical factors, and no two passes through that process are identical.

That’s common enough in the universe of human experience. For example, it’s tolerably likely that you, dear reader, will have the experience of growing old, if you haven’t done so already.  It’s likely that at least some of your grandparents did exactly the same thing—but the parallel doesn’t mean that growing old will somehow transport you back to their era, much less to their lifestyles. Nor, I trust, would you be likely to believe somebody who claimed that getting old was by definition a matter of going back in time to your grandparents’ day and trading in your hybrid car for a Model T.

Some dimensions of growing old are hardwired into the experience itself—the wrinkles, the graying hair, and the slow buildup of physical dysfunctions with their inevitable end are among them. Other dimensions are up to you. In the same way, some of what happens when a civilization tips over in decline are reliable consequences of the mechanisms of catabolic collapse, or of the way those mechanisms interact with the ordinary workings of human collective psychology. The stairstep rhythm of crisis, stabilization, partial recovery, and renewed crisis, the spiral of conflict between centralizing and decentralizing forces, which eventually ends in the latter’s triumph; the rise of warband culture in the no man’s land outside the increasingly baroque and ineffective frontier defenses—you could set your watch by these, if its hands tracked decades, centuries and millennia.

Other aspects of the process of decline and fall are far less predictable. The radical relocalization that’s standard in eras of contraction and collapse means, among other things, that dark ages aren’t evenly distributed in space or time, and the disintegration of large-scale systems means, among other things, that minor twists of fate and individual decisions very often have much more dramatic consequences in dark ages than they do when the settled habits of a mature civilization constrain the impact of single events. Furthermore, the cultural, historical, and technological legacies of the former civilization always have a massive impact—it’s entirely possible, for example, that the dark age societies of deindustrial America will have such things as radio communication, solar water heaters, offroad bicycles, and ultralight aircraft—and so do the values and belief systems that reliably emerge as a civilization crashes slowly into ruin, and those who witness each stage of the process try to understand the experience and learn the lessons of its fall.

This is why I’ve spent most of the last year exploring the civil religion of progress, the core ideology of contemporary industrial society, and sketching out some of the ways it distorts our view of history and the future. There’s a pleasant irony in the way that Polycarpou ends his essay with the standard ritual invocation of progress, insisting that even though the future will be impoverished by our standards, it will still be better according to some other measure. That sort of apologetic rhetoric will no doubt see plenty of use in the years ahead: as progress fails to happen on schedule, it’ll be tempting to keep on moving the goalposts so that the failure is a little less visible and the faithful can continue to believe.

Eventually, though, such exercises will be recognized as the charades they are. As the worship of progress loses its grip on the imagination of our age, we’ll see sweeping changes in what people value, what they want to accomplish, and thus inevitably what technologies they’ll find worth preserving or developing. The court of Charlemagne could certainly have had vomitoriums if anyone had wanted them; the technical ability was there, but the values of the age had shifted away from anything that made vomitoriums make sense. In the same way, even if our descendants have the technical ability to produce something like today’s internet, it’s entirely possible that they’ll find other uses for those technologies, or simply shake their heads, wonder why anybody would ever have wanted something like that, and put resources available to them into some completely different project.

How that unfolds is a matter for the far future, and thus nothing we need to worry about now. As I wind up this sequence of posts, I want to talk instead about the roles that religion is likely to play in the near and middle future as the next round of catabolic collapse begins to bite. We’ll discuss that next week.


Grebulocities said...

Very insightful - I had seen Polycarpou's post and was wondering if you'd respond to it. A lack of understanding of whole systems among geek culture is especially strange to me given that computer networks are complex systems, and computers are amazing tools for modeling the often counterintuitive behavior of a variety of complex systems.

For instance, even though I'm awful at programming, I could still write a program that plays the Iterated Prisoner's Dilemma with a population of "players" with initially random strategies (represented as 5 "genes" that determine their behavior in the first move and in each of 4 possible outcomes of the previous move). Each player plays all the others, and the most successful strategies have a better chance of "mating" with other strategies and continuing to a new "generation".

I saw lots of fascinating evolutionary behavior, including punctuated equilibrium (the system could settle into several hundred generations of similar strategies followed by a rapid shift in a few generations to a completely different set of strategies). It was interesting to consider that the basis for cooperative behavior could be shown by such a simple model - most strategies involved very little "backstabbing" of cooperative opponents. At the same time, the commonly-believed "best" strategy of tit-for-tat was very uncommon and rarely lasted long.

And I'm a terrible programmer - a real geek could design system models I can barely dream of. Yet there is still little understanding of how whole systems work when applied to human society and technological progress in particular. I wonder why it is so common for people who have tools to see how complex systems behave still fail to get it.

Also, one minor quibble: Roman vomitoria were passages for entering and exiting an amphitheater, not places where people vomited after a drunken feast. Or so says Wikipedia:

Justin G said...

I thought vomitoria were simply passageways opening into tiers of seats in amphitheaters, and that the existence of dedicated vomiting rooms was an urban legend.

Chris G said...

"There’s a pleasant irony in the way that Polycarpou ends his essay with the standard ritual invocation of progress, insisting that even though the future will be impoverished by our standards, it will still be better according to some other measure. That sort of apologetic rhetoric will no doubt see plenty of use in the years ahead: as progress fails to happen on schedule, it’ll be tempting to keep on moving the goalposts so that the failure is a little less visible and the faithful can continue to believe."

JMG, you might have mentioned the same thing about the theistic religions, and to some extent also the non-theistic religions, that continually employ the notion of transcending nature to justify and motivate the purposes of the present life. It is a subject you've examined before: how the belief in Progress mirrors the beliefs of many of its predecessor religions.

Does Druidry seek to transcend the notion of transcendence? or drop the belief in rising out of the grasp of nature's cycles of growth and decay?

And lastly, this is a speculation somewhat afield, but such notions of transcendence seem mostly absent from the Confucian worldview. This may be responsible for the Chinese order of society - very hierarchical, obedient, orderly - and arguably, for the sublimation of the individual to the collective, an economic strength in times of deprivation. Of course there are many factors at play, but they seem to be well-positioned for what is coming. And much less likely, on an individual level as well as collectively, to struggle against decline. And their religion, which is also a kind of science, is mostly about nature seeking balance. Not transcendence. It seems fitting that they take a pre-eminent position.

Derv said...

Good article as always, JMG, but there's a rather serious historical error in your example of the vomitoria. That's a pop-historical myth along the lines of "Columbus was the only one who knew the world was round." There were no special rooms for vomiting, the word vomitorium refers to the large entrances and exits from which the crowds would "spew forth," and while the Romans loved a good party/orgy, very few were fans of throwing up. It happened, but it happens today, too, with drunken party-goers.

I suggest you use a different example. The public bath houses come to mind, for instance. The Roman world loved them and considered them a fundamental element of social and civilized life. Had they believed in our myth of progress, they may have imagined that one day all of Rome would be one big, steamy bath house of impeccable quality. Yet the practice faded gradually out of favor, and today, when we reflect on it, the idea of communal bathing seems bizarre to most.

There are other examples of course - I suppose aqueducts or complex idol mechanisms could work too - but you definitely don't want to talk about vomitoria. It's somewhat damaging to an essay and author whose recent work deal directly with historical expertise and identifying parallels with the past.

(As an aside, I would also note that your mention in a previous essay of Christ's ascension into heaven neglected to take Acts into consideration, which was initially a part of Luke and does state specifically that Christ ascends and disappears behind the clouds. Perhaps someone mentioned it earlier, but I didn't mention it before because it seemed like nitpicking.)

Mister Roboto said...

Ancient Roman vomitoriums were actually not places for people to hurl after eating too much food for dinner.

Thijs Goverde said...

I did a big double-take when you called Polycarpou's failure to take widespread information into account ingenuous. I would have said it was disingenuous; you are a far more charitable reader than I am!

On the other hand, a quick internet search tells me that the present consensus among historians is that the kind of vomitorium you describe never actually existed, and I see no reason to assume disingenuity on your part (perhaps because the existence of vomitoria isn't really central to your argument).

I wonder, though, what the popular unpleasant misconceptions about our age will be, 2000 years hence.

John Michael Greer said...

Grebulocities, it's an interesting question why geek culture has so much trouble with whole systems. I sometimes wonder if it has to do with the mental disconnect between software and hardware -- you can do an amazing range of things in the software world and never have to grapple with the physical reality that underlies it. That's true of very few other technologies.

Justin, Derv, and Mr. R., it's clearly been too long since I read the Satyricon. Still, I don't dispute the claim that the principle of archdruidical fallibility applies to me.

Chris, good! You're ahead of the pack. I plan on discussing the whole flight-from-nature business in the very near future -- next week, most likely -- and yes, I'll be talking about theist religions in that context.

John Michael Greer said...

Thijs, I don't think Polycarpou was being deliberately deceptive -- I think it's never occurred to him just how easy it would be to find out the detail in question. As for vomitoria, so noted; I seem to have misremembered a bit of Petronius Arbiter.

Daniel Hägerby said...

Enjoyable piece, as always. I subscribe both to your writings as well as those of Gail Tveberg, Ugo Bardi and others. Though I hope for a swift decline I am forced to agree more with your logic of a long decent. But last week Dmitry Orlov wrote of "the sixth stage of collapse", especially about the decommissioning of the worlds nuclear plants, which made me rethink my hopes for the future. Perhaps a quick process is not preferable (even to the environment) after all. What is your view of how we will handle the problem of the extremely expensive deconstruction of hundreds of these power plants in an ecothecnic future of slow decline?

John Michael Greer said...

Daniel, as I've pointed out here repeatedly, we won't. We don't have the resources left to do that. At best, the high-level waste will be hauled to a handful of areas and stored in facilities that will, sooner or later, start leaking; at worst, the waste will be left where it is, and as one facility after another is abandoned, dead zones of various size will spring up in various corners of the world. A lot of people will die, some quickly, some slowly, some over the centuries to come.

That's pretty much baked in the cake at this point. Please note, though, that it doesn't justify the gaudy apocalyptic handwaving that's been based on it. There's plenty of data available on radionuclide dispersal from nuclear accidents of various kinds, and that data doesn't add up to the extermination of life on earth, the extinction of our species, or, really, much of anything else, except one more source of misery we're inflicting on our descendants. I'm more than half convinced that it's the realization that that's what we're doing that has made fantasies of imminent universal death so popular: convince yourself that we're all going to die soon anyway, and it's easier to ignore the very direct role of middle class lifestyles in poisoning people whose great-great-grandparents haven't even been born yet.

Ares Olympus said...

John, I'm glad there's worthy debate on your catabolic collapse vision which seems obvious process of adaptation, and should give comfort to see things happen fast, then slow, and we have time, and panick won't help.

I had the privledge to have Nicole Foss visit my city of Minneapolis last Friday and offer her "big picture" followed by relocalization speaker Laurence Boomert. Nicole's position felt sort of like Asimov's foundation psychohistory, with the idea you can predict a general order of crises coming, with finance as the one that can change the quickest for the worse. I'd never have bet we'd be in this QE economic twilight zone, but then wonder whether to run from it (avoid debt) or like the local food coop looking at a 3-5 million dollar expansion, and a time of cheap debt and neighborhood folks looking to divest from the larger economy have an opportunty. But I admit I'm still in panick mode - whether to recommend productive debt without ever knowing enough where to invest. And the coop has PV on the roof, a fraction of its energy usage, but perhaps will be just enough if it has to abandon refrigeration in the future? Anyway, a better bet I think than having the while city borrowing a billion dollars for PV on a 100,000 homes.

I feel sometimes optimistic seeing whether lighting, heating or transportation, I see if we scale back our expectations, we can get by with a lot less, but we'll have to exchange that with more attention to details, like my friend's dad's lecturing me 15 years ago when I fell asleep reading at the off-the-grid cabin on PV and car batteries.

I'm glad you'll be getting back to religion next week. At the moment, churches seem the only organizing center of relocationation outside of finances. Perhaps the future will contain a movement to "restore the sabbath", separating ourselves from work, and maybe even from technology for one day a week? After centuries of churches dividing under theological lines in the sand, perhaps collapse opens the need for community churches to work together.

And thinking of local currency from Laurence Boomert's talk, its really hard to see, in a world where middle class need $50k/year to survive, but hopeful perhaps existing volunteer circles can get together with an hour-currency that can be earned for local service work, and even if it represents 0.0001% of the local money flow, maybe the logistics can be worked out and can expand under emergency periods of defaults and bank freezes.

Nicole called the economic system "fragile", but I'm still trying to thing of a better vision for what we face. The future is overpromised is the only thing that is undeniable.

Alexander Carpenter said...

The future is already here; it's just not evenly distributed yet.

KL Cooke said...

Whenever I encounter the word "vomitorium," the first thing that flips into my mind are the words to an old time song.

Alas, I'll never grow up.

(And I have to add, the the robot detecting code word "duchbaf" was a killer too)

KL Cooke said...

"I wonder, though, what the popular unpleasant misconceptions about our age will be, 2000 years hence."

Probably that we were a master race of gods. There'll probably be cargo cults to try to bring us back.

Robo said...

The future is well underway. The metrics of progress are being steadily dialed back with drastically diminished social and personal expectations.

In the recent past, most young Americans dreamed of powerful automobiles and perhaps becoming an astronaut. Now they dream of their next iPhone upgrade and perhaps a paying job someday.

Our religion of progress has become a litany of nostalgia, a cargo cult, and reality cannot be examined lest the fragile illusions shatter. We clasp the sacred smartphones in our hands and pray to Siri for guidance and comfort.

Let's hope that the most essential and grounded of our ancient low tech skills and practices can be revived and retooled before they are completely forgotten in the headlong rush towards high tech existence in the virtual cloud.

Eventually, when that exciting but imaginary show ends in sudden evaporation, the startled crowd will rush for the vomitoria in panic and confusion, but they will find that the exit doors to the old days are locked. Then there will be some real vomiting.

deedl said...

Although i generally enjoy reading your blog and follow most of your argumentation i think in a few cases you are drawing to dark a picture. You are using a few implicit assumptions that have to be proved to be a base for your argument.

1st assumption, for maintaining technological Infrastructure, resources have to be mined and transported from all over the world: I think in a steady state economy, the resources can cycle. Whenever some device goes out of use, local resources and rare materials are freed to be put to use again.

2nd Assumption, modern technology cannot work without all the rare earth materials that are used currently: This argument is often used with wind power, because rare earth magnets are used to improve the efficiency of the generators. However it is possible to build wind turbines without the use of any rare earth. The current way of implementing current technologies is not the only way possible.

3rd assumption, the current way of producing and implementing technology is the only way to do it: It is true that the supply chains for solar cells are widespread and huge. But actually solar cells themselves are not a very complex technology. Much research is done currently, especially in the field of organic solar cells, which use no rare materials at all and can be produced using simple technologies as printing.

4th assumption, The efficiency of our current production systems is maxed out: If you consider how much resources today are wasted by planned obsolescence it is easy to imagine how the same standard of living can be achieved in many areas while cutting resource use dramatically. I have worked with computers that are four decades old and still work well, so there is no need to replace electronics every few years. If you use stuff that is designed to last until it breaks you can stretch the lifecycles of devices enormously. Especially electronics with no moving parts and there circuits based on ceramics are practically free from deterioration. We know that electronics can be used for many decades, but since the technology is so young, we have not reached an upper limit for properly designed technology.

5th assumption, the current use of resources to maintain the internet is necessary to use it: The efficiency gains for the economy through the use of the internet have a diminishing marginal use. The simple possibility to send text messages in realtime around the world creates huge gains for the private, public and commercial institutions. You can communicate, trade, implement e-government. Attaching pictures is nice, but the marginal gains are comparably small. Streaming videos has even smaller marginal gains. So even if we have to reduce the capabilities of the internet to a percent or a even a permille of its current capacities, the price will not be the loss of internet, but the loss of those pesky video commercials.

So i agree with you, that the current ways of implementing technology in devices and using those devices is not sustainable and will fade. And we will have to leave some enjoyable habits especially in terms of transportation of goods and people. But i think that especially renewable energy and information technology can be implemented and maintained on a dwindling resource base.

The 21st century will show three big paradigm shifts in industrial production to maintain our energetic and informational infrastructure:

I. The current way of increasing material input to maximize the use of labor will shift to maximizing the use of materials by increasing the input of labor.

II. The current way of increasing production numbers to reduce marginal cost (mass production) will shift to increasing the marginal use of a product by creating individual solutions ("mass customization").

III. Increased resource cost will destroy the economic model of being cheaper and force producers to shift to the economic model of being better. So producers will shift from mass production of products with short lifecycles to products of higher quality with longer lifecycles.

sunseekernv said...

Hi, I've got a couple of submissions for the Krampus wish list. The subjects were a bit much to do in one piece, so I split them into 3 parts, hope to get the 3rd done asap.

They're not as polished as I'd like, but content wise are pretty good.

part 1:

part 2:

part 3 will be simple electronic things.


Karim said...

Greetings all!

A lack of understanding is prevalent everywhere, not only in geek culture!I'd say that an ignorance of whole systems is really a spin off of our educational systems that have partitioned human knowledge to an absurd degree.

How can someone have an overarching view of things (hence a whole system thinking) when one is taught right from the beginning that science, art, nature, history, religion are to be learned separately and that one ought not to mix things up?

Furthermore, industrial systems do not require whole systems thinking. On the contrary, they require extreme specialisation. Hence the lack of whole system thinking everywhere!

If more citizens are to have a grasp of whole systems thinking then our educational systems will have to change in order to remain relevant to our daily needs in an age of decline. And I'd say it is something that needs quite some thinking out.

Karim said...

I have to disagree to some extent with Chris G when he writes: "JMG, you might have mentioned the same thing about the theistic religions that continually employ the notion of transcending nature to justify and motivate the purposes of the present life....And their religion, which is also a kind of science, is mostly about nature seeking balance. Not transcendence."

I cannot speak for all theist religions, of course, but I have a few things to say about at least one theist religion I know a bit of and transcendence: Islam. Although I don't pretend to be an expert in Islamic theology, my reading of Koranic Scripture is that each person must live for the here and now whilst preparing for the hereafter at the same time.

Indeed, the very basis of Islamic value system are (1) tell the truth, (2) have good relationships with your family, friends and neighbours, (3) work for social justice (always)!

Transcendence comes after you have done all that on a daily basis. And Transcendence is NOT a flight away from the human condition or even nature, it is an attempt to get closer to the Divine whilst one's feet remaining firmly on the ground.

I know that to quote Koranic scripture nowadays is a risky business, but given the level of understanding people around here display, it might be worth it!

"And walk not on the earth with conceit and arrogance"[al-Isra' 17:37]

"And turn not your face away from men with pride" [Luqmaan 31:18]

"And be moderate (or show no arrogance) in your walking, and lower your voice" [Luqmaan 31:19]

"The All-Merciful has taught the Quran
He created man and He taught him the explanation.
The sun and the moon to a reckoning,
and the stars and trees bow themselves;
and heaven - He raised it up and set the balance.
Transgress not in the balance,
and weight with justice, and skimp not in the balance.
And earth - He set it down for all beings,
therein fruits and palm trees with sheaths,
and grain in the blade, and fragrant herbs.
Of which your Lord's bounties will you and you deny? (Quran 55:1-12).

For me, those verses show how important it is to remain steadfast to core values I mentioned earlier and no flights away from the human condition there or from nature either given that Koranic Scripture enjoins us to be like a steward to the earth!

In short, my understanding of Islam is Truth and Justice + Stewardship of the Earth + Transcendence (last but not least!)

Now I apologise for the length of this post and be reminded that in NO way am I interested in proselytising.

Daniel Hägerby said...

Thank you. Great. So then I can still hope that reality trumps logic and that collapse is swift and renders a less inhospitable place than the prolonged journey downwards the path of desperate resource plundering that we are presently on. Too bad my family farm is in the vicinity of the oldest nuclear power plant in the country ...

Yupped said...

What makes it hard for people to understand whole systems, and therefore to see the challenges of viability for particular technologies, is that we have built so many layers into these systems. With the internet, for example, there are layers of hardware, layers of operating software, layers of communication software, layers of browser software, layers of application software, content services of all kinds, etc. Much of this, to users of the internet today, is impossibly boring and tedious, so who would care about it? And people who do consider themselves technology geeks are lucky if they understand one or two layers well, and that understanding only lasts for a few years before it is rendered obsolete by some new layer.

So the layers hide the complexity of the whole. Same could be said of any modern system: manufacturing, food production, road travel, medicine, etc. It's impossible to try to understand all these layers as individuals, our brains just aren't big enough. But we should be able to see easily just how much of a creaking system of wobbly dominoes we've created with all this layering. Or maybe we all understand that intuitively but just don't want to look too closely because the implications are not pretty.

Chris Balow said...


As you say, the values and goals of the post-industrial dark age will be very different from today's dominate worldview. I assume you will be discussing the rise of a new dominant religion as responsible for that shift. If so, might we be heading into the territory of the UFO phenomenon--seeing it, perhaps, as a new breed of religious experience that will coalesce into more formalized belief structures?

Phitio said...

Dear JMG,
as a matter of fact, You are not including the whole system in your reasoning. The Climate change is a fact that have to be factorized in.
The future is a foreign country, but eventually could be an alien country.
Nothing similar to the last 10.000 years at least, considering that we have recovered the Co2 levels of some million years before present, on the pathway to recover the levels some hundred million years ago.
Science is not a religion, scientism is a religion.

Science is a procedure of doing things honestly, avoid errors given by human distortions like hope and cultural biases, compare predictions with experiments, and that's all.

From science can start a philosophical attitude, not a religion.
Scientism on the other hand is a sort of engulfment of some language and results (especially one by-product, the technology) taken from science, and put into a true religious matrix.

Bottom line: Climate Change is upon us. It will have a strong signature in the medium and long term scenarios. It cannot be dismissed by a honest reasoning. Eventually, like catabolic collpse, will manifest by itself, being a manifestation of natural laws.

Thank you for your keen insights ;)

Step Back said...

As to disconnect between hardware and software being unique to the Geek IT industry, that is simply not true.

Disconnect and myopic specialization are built-in features in essentially all areas of our modern technocracy.

Economist Milton Friedman used to brag about how wonderful our "system" is because no one person knows even how to make a pencil. (And by that I assume he means a modern good pencil with consistency of wood, "lead" and eraser.)

Successful competition requires that one have certain advantages over potential market entrants, for example certain trade secrets that you hide (compartmentalize) away from the public.

As far as the market knows, for each vendor there is only an input port where an "order" for a given product (say the "lead" of a pencil) is inserted and an output port where the product magically pops out. Same applies to services.

Which is why no one person knows how to even make a pencil.

Multiply that concept by a billion times to understand why no one person knows how to make a modern computer chip or how to rebuild from scratch some complex software product.

Disconnect is everywhere and in every tiny crevice of our modern competitive market system.

trippticket said...

"There’s a pleasant irony in the way that Polycarpou ends his essay with the standard ritual invocation of progress, insisting that even though the future will be impoverished by our standards, it will still be better according to some other measure."

I haven't read Polycarpou's essay, but I can think of plenty of things that bid fair to improve in an energy descent world:

For example, I think industrial culture is a lot closer to the nadir of cooperation than its peak. The ecological record, as well as natural disaster records, demonstrate repeatedly that systems in contraction or perturbation foster increasing cooperation and novel emergent synergies.

The peak of industrial culture also marks the same low point in our respect for topsoil, clean water, healthy forests, other living creatures, our pride in the food we produce, our ability to grasp the ecological intricacies and impacts of our activity, and so forth. Aboriginal peoples are much more deft at making hard choices to ensure the success of their culture, up to and including infanticide and elder suicide.

My elderly grandfather has no qualms about spending a quarter of a million dollars to extend his life by six more months, being the true believer in inevitable progress that he is, and not realizing that he's jeopardizing the survival of his beloved grandchildren. First Nation elders have no such illusions.

Gentle and effective herbal medicine is and will be on a steady climb for a very long time to come; responsibility to and respect for our food animals is waxing; support for our neighbors' businesses is rising, even at the burden of extra cost to the people who choose to support their communities in this way, even as their real income declines. Open-source information sharing is on the rise, crowd-funding, behavioral innovation, carbon sequestration strategies, the list keeps going.

There are plenty of things destined for improvement at the hands of a contracting global economy and more or less permanent energy descent. My own blog is subtitled "the silver lining of energy descent" for a good reason.

Not that there won't be plenty of pain, suffering, and confusion to go with it...


--The revolution will be decentralized, open-sourced, behaviorally innovative, and crowd-funded.

Leo said...

Actually the metric for cell phone service isn't if people are in range, but subscriptions. The data I've heard is 70-90% of Africans actually have phones (simple ones) and use them. Their useful for a variety of things, like banking.

But that's a minor point. What's more interesting is how things will change as the decline progresses. They make cars by hand, so the basic manufacturing ability isn't beyond Africa and there's a few paths open to them.

But that just fits in with the fact that new things have appeared and going back to the past isn't going to happen. Guns, the basis of the metric system, heat engines, better sails, electricity and so on all change things in one way or another.

On another note: I should have the finished form of my submission for the Krampus contest done in a few weeks.

Also published a relevant project I did.

Tyler Martin said...


This doesn't pertain to the subject matter at hand with your blog post (I did read it!), and there probably is a better place for it. I'm sixteen, seventeen in about a month, and planning to start down a druidic path beginning with this evening.

To the point, I was wondering if you had any particular advice as to how to start, beyond what is outlined in The Druidry Handbook. I was also wondering when your interest in things such as druidry, the occult, and other things you have written about began -- I'm not asking for your life story, of course, but I'm interested.

I apologize if this is by far the wrong medium for this, I found no other contact information. If you're interested in corresponding from time to time I'd be happy to, as well!

Have an excellent Samhain/Samhuinn! - Tyler

jim said...

With regards to the future of manufacturing I think that you are probably right. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other possibilities. Eric Drexler’s work on High Throughput Atomically Precise Manufacturing is about the only prospective technology that has the potential to help us avoid the coming catabolic collapse. Now I want to emphasize that I just because I think his ideas are possible, it does not mean I think this is inevitable or the most likely outcome. Here is a link to page on which you can download a (large) PDF on HT-APM (I found it interesting)

JMG, you have convinced me that Progress makes for a monstrous Monotheism, so I have been trying to downgrade Him (“Progress”) to a dangerous but useful demi-god, while upgrading Nature, Truth, Beauty and Compassion to my personal pantheon.

Hawkcreek said...

In the past I have taken issue with some of your views on the death of progress. I have always thought that the biggest component of progress is the information that was generated by the flow of all previous progress. The knowledge of how to forge a short sword for a Roman soldier was not forgotten by the societies that came after, and I believed that the ability of producing a furnace for smelting metals is totally within my grasp, after a visit to the local junkyards.
Recent events have somewhat changed my attitudes about that. I was loading a batch of books on a friend’s E-reader, and realized that most information is already in an electronic form. I almost never read physical books or magazines anymore. Even though I know I could produce a working power source from a visit to the junkyard, most people could not do that without an internet connection.
It is not much of a stretch to believe that the majority of information that our tech society has produced could be totally lost, especially if education and research continue to head towards electronic platforms for information dissemination.
I guess my point is – I now believe a reset to a new dark age is possible. All it requires is a continuation of the type of progress we have already seen.

NorthCreekNews said...

I look forward to each post on Thursdays. I especially like your gentle herding of our minds with great historical references. It is interesting to read discussions of hypothesis for something that, as you have pointed out, we don't know the future. An interesting new design for light sources is the gravity light. I would love to see it also available as an open design so it could be crudely made locally. Thanks JMG!

GHung said...

We build in order to destroy. That may seem like an odd statement until one looks at how many of our current technologies were boosted into the mainstream by conflict. Having been to Somalia, and, later, discussed conditions there with a nephew who was there 20 years later, the availability of cell phone service was, at least initially, boosted by warring factions and their warlords who had the need to communicate and the means to bring this tech into their theater of influence. Early adopters often have questionable motives.

Another example, from Wikipedia:

"In 1795 the French military offered a cash prize of 12,000 francs for a new method to preserve food. Nicolas Appert suggested canning, and the process was first proven in 1806 in tests conducted by the French navy. Appert was awarded the prize in 1810 by Count Montelivert, a French minister of the interior."

Perhaps our most prevalent form of food preservation came into its own during the Napoleonic Wars to provide better nutrition for soldiers, to give them an edge over the enemy. I expect that this will be a primary driver as we adapt current technology to the limitations inherent in our de-industrialized future. Short-term survival trumps the long view every time.

Last year we switched our internet from the giant telecom to a local company started by a friend who has built a wide area network, placing long range wifi transceivers on our mountain tops that can be accessed, line-of-site, by most people in the county. This system has turned out to be more reliable than the wired DSL service, which was previously the only option (one that many didn't have), besides dial-up. The system can operate independent of the greater world wide web, if only for local communications and information exchange. While I won't speculate as to how long this equipment can be maintained, I can envision this line-of-site system being adapted to other forms of communications, be it simple radio repeaters, or perhaps signal lights or fires. Reminds me of the warning beacons of Gondor in Tolkien's The Two Towers.

Necessity will indeed be the mother of re-invention.

ando said...


A peaceful Samhain to you and your family.

Every week, after reading the Report, I find something new to study. (my public education appears to have been lacking)

This week...Mycenae



Wolfgang Brinck said...

yes, I read that Polycarpou essay and was disappointed.
On to my estimation why complex technology does not survive long in a low energy environment. Reason being that people are lazy at least from a high energy culture's vantage point. Ordinary people have an extremely good ability to judge value returned on energy invested. As soon as they discover that some techno gizmo takes up more time and energy to keep running than it saves them, they will discard it. This is not to say that in some cases they couldn't keep the gizmo running by ingenious means but that to keep it running wouldn't be worth the trouble. Take any portable electric device. What would derail its use? not that you couldn't get the rare earth metals to make the innards of the thing but rather, that you couldn't get those teeny weeny batteries any more. Yes, some geek could probably rig up some lead acid substitute but that would turn the mobile device into a stationary one.
Or take something as simple as running water. Running water requires electric pumps. Given an intermittent supply of electricity, you would soon be reverting to a hand pump out in the yard assuming you could get one. Sure you have to go outside in all kinds of weather or build a pump house to keep the pump from freezing, but that would be preferable to not knowing when you would have water. If you were an optimist and expected the electric supply to get better you might take temporary measures such as filling up a bathtub or plastic water bottles whenever water pressure was there. You might even build your own private reservoir out in the yard and fill that up whenever the water was running, but in the end, you would probably revert to something simpler such as a hand pump that could supply water on demand.
Going camping for a few weeks in relatively primitive environments such as campgrounds with no hookups and no campground store is a good lab for finding out how soon your technology turns worthless once the supply chain is disrupted. To charge your electro gizmos, you will have to rely on your car assuming you are car camping. If you are not car camping, you will have to carry lots of spare batteries. Same goes for your gas stove. You will have to carry extra gas canisters to keep it going. Again, extend the time line from a few weeks to a few months and you would decide that to carry months worth of stove fuel is not worth the convenience of a gas stove and that you would just as soon boil your water on a wood fire.
Think of what it would take to keep any technology running in an environment of diminished resources and what you come up with is that once you drop below the point where the technology can no longer support itself economically, it will disappear and along with it, all the other technologies that depend on it. And an economy is nothing more than a lot of people making the decision of whether something is worth the trouble of doing or keeping alive.

HalFiore said...

Polycarpou's point about cell phone service leapfrogging, in a sense, electrical service and clean water distribution is not only missing some key elements on just how the cell service is delivered, it also tells us a lot about, well, electrical service and clean water distribution.

Ekkar said...

I have been working in horticulture for over fifteen years. Ten years in landscaping. My company mission is to create whole systems, which produce useful things such as food, soil fertility, animal habitat, which besides sun, wind, water, entropy, there are small to no need of outside energy sources. As apposed to square bushes, and green lawns that you could bounce a quarter off, which require the burning of fossil fuels, spraying of chemicals, importing of fertilizers, etc. In other words systems that require huge amounts of energy giving nothing but a nod to what chemical companies and the like want your yard to be. If one were to stand and look at each system, comparing them with the most scientific of standards; no one could argue that the whole system approach is not far superior to the high energy input and diminishing return system. Right? Well I can tell you that cognitive dissonance is a strong bed fellow. I have become very aware that there are two very strong forces at work in our collective cultural mind; that of the out comes of scientific studies,or mindful observation of patterns, and that of finely tuned marketing campaigns. The problem may be that the marketing tells folks to just keep doing what they are doing, which is what folks generally want to do. The other sometimes tells folks that they need to back track and rethink, possibly, totally change their life, which most folks don't want.

SLClaire said...

First things first: here's the link to my post for the Krampus contest.

Regarding your post, I'd also read Polycarpou's essay but I found myself arguing with the same parts you criticized to the point that I missed the part where he realized the future was something that would look quite different from the present extended or past romanticized. I appreciate your taking the time to read and discuss him so thoughtfully as it sets an example for the rest of us.

What struck me the most in this post, however, was this phrase:
" ... minor twists of fate and individual decisions very often have much more dramatic consequences in dark ages than they do when the settled habits of a mature civilization constrain the impact of single events." While we aren't in a dark age yet, I have the sense that this is also so when civilization is in decline, as ours is. However, the prevailing opinion is that our individual decisions matter less now than they ever have. Not a good way to go into decline, as you have taken such pains to point out.

Amy La Gato said...

Mr. Greer:

Have you ever taken a look at post collapse Cuba? The foreign country of the near future may look a lot like Cuba of the near past.

After the fall of the USSR Cuba had a rather sudden collapse, they engaged in some interesting methods to survive.

But they also had some problems, i.e. the farmers who because of fuel shortages had to plough their fields by oxen, did so without the Oxen Collar because they had lost the knowledge of that technology, but they have been very ingenious in crafting new parts to keep their old cars in operation.

On one hand some knowledge was lost, and on another human ingenuity worked to solve problems that were presented.

Over all they have kept their society intact, because they started with a lower "standard of living" than we do in the USA, I believe this was to their advantage, vis a vis the US. For example in the US, if we had to plough by Oxen, we are less likely to have people or Oxen with even the skills and knowledge that they did in post collapse Cuba.

I do not foresee a similar crash going as well in the US.

One other question. What do you think he means by tactical urbanism?

Certain cities exist because they occupy important places, like Detroit or Cumberland, Maryland which occupy important locations on water transportation routes. I expect that one way or another they will have some kind of a settlement there.

Will they also be Tactical? The word tactical has a certain militaristic tone to it. When I think of Tactical Cities I think of walled militarized armed hamlets. Will Detroit return to being Fort Detroit? Fortified against which hostiles?

HalFiore said...

Clarification: I am not saying distributed electrical generation, or clean water production is not technologically doable. Both can be done on a community or homestead scale, and ought to be, for the purposes of resiliency. But in my experience, neither is less intensive in use of resources. My drinking water well is 850 feet deep. That's a lot of steel for one user. It was drilled in the 90s at a cost of over $10k and has started to fail. If I replace it with a rainwater system, it will still require a large amount of, in fact probably comparable, investment, but at least most of the cost will not literally be "sunk." Which means it will be repairable, and a lot more robust in general. I'm all for appropriate, small-scale, resilient technology! But what I'm talking about is technology that, for the most part, could have been implemented in the 19th century.

John Dunn said...

I've been thinking a lot about loss of technology. My first thought was that you can't uninvent the wheel, but after reconsideration, technology is easily lost. This is especially true if you consider skill sets as a form of technology.

If you were to assemble a room of the best and brightest techno geeks, how many would know how use a astrolabe? Few would know how to work a draft animal, and many would not have basic gardening skills. I know PhD's that couldn't can tomatoes.

Even basic technology can be lost in a generation or two. We are born with no skills, and a skill set is lost as each of us passes.

Andy Brown said...

Last weekend I had to make a long car trip with my 11-year old son. The radio was broken, and for 3 hours we sang in the car. (He knows about ten times the number of songs that I do.) I taught him most of Poe's Raven, and he told me jokes. In the course of the weekend a mechanic inadvertently fixed the radio (whose wires had been fried when I'd had the starter replaced in the spring). On the return trip, we sang a bit, and chatted, but mostly listened to the radio - and it's recurrent barrages of yammering commercials.

If I'm thinking the glass is half empty, I can lament how easy it is to let opportunities to live more richly slip away every time we fall for the lazy conveniences of our consumer culture. If I'm thinking the glass is half full, I can marvel at the resources that exist in every kid's brain just waiting to be needed and valued.

Mostly I follow the old physicist's observation that the glass is always full. And enjoy the music either way.

Twilight said...

I'm an EE who's been designing products for the electric utility industry for some 26 years (for the same company). I design such things as switching power supplies, analog circuits and protection systems for industrial products used in harsh electrical and physical environments. Further, we are a manufacturing facility in the same facility, and I have been heavily involved in manufacturing for all that time. I say this to establish some credibility for my opinion that a large amount of our electronic equipment will become useless much more rapidly than most imagine. There are several aspects to this.

First, the physical equipment that exists now and will be produced in the coming years. People have the misconception that electronics last forever. Many electronics goods (the stuff that does not fail right out of the box anyway) are disposed of because of technical obsolescence or changes of fashion, and so the finite life span is not observed. Nonetheless, electronic components and assemblies have specific failure modes and finite lifetimes. Electrolytic capacitors are the shortest lifetime parts, but LEDs and even internal semiconductors age. Lead free solder and associated metallurgy have created new failure modes. Environmental exposure and corrosion take their toll, along with heat and power dissipation. Add on top poor design and/or manufacturing practices and exposure to electrical faults and surges (such as when the power grid becomes less stable).

Second are the incredibly complex supply chains needed to get the parts and equipment to users. Semiconductors are made in fabs mostly on the other side of the world, with highly complex equipment made somewhere else, specialized materials from yet others, run from power systems that must provide very clean and steady power. Finished wafers go to other places, often other continents, for lead frames and encapsulation (yet more specialized materials). Then they are shipped to manufacturing facilities all over the world, with finished goods and subassemblies shipped yet again. It would only take a few shortages of materials, a little geo-political or economic disruption, or some natural disasters to break that chain.

Third, there are the institutions and organizations. We used to have large corporate research institutions, such as Western Electric's Bell Labs and RCA's Sarnoff Labs. The profits needed to support such ventures long since disappeared. We used to graduate lots of engineers with the skills to design these products, but those jobs mostly left with the manufacturing. Once these organizations are gone, they cannot be rebuilt quickly. The Chinese have them now, but it has taken them a lot of investment to get there. Although I am resourceful, I cannot do the same kinds of things at home as I can at work – there are not the people, resources and equipment there. The guys I work with are at least in their late 40's, and I don't see many younger people with the skills to do this work. It won't be too long before I'm too old to do it anymore – in truth it's losing it's interest now. That point will come much sooner if I'm distracted by crisis, such as lack of money or food or shelter. Hungry and/or homeless people don't design circuits well.

I have been entertaining myself by trying to design our latest generation of hardware to last as long as possible, to the point of resurrecting early circuit designs to eliminate all electrolytic caps. At some point the ability to make new things will end – I want to see just how long the existing stuff can be made to last. Still, it is decades at the most, not centuries.

Greg Belvedere said...

Excellent post this week. I think the following summarizes what the future holds very well. "The result won’t be anything you would expect to see in a high-tech geek future, granted, but it’s equally a far cry from the Middle Ages." I enjoy that you seem to have differentiated our trajectory from a plunge into the past. Patterns repeat, but new things get introduced as well.

In regards to geek culture not understanding whole systems (something that baffles me as well), Marshall McLuhan's concept of figure vs ground seems pertinent here. People can only see the car, they forget the roads, fuel extraction, gas stations, factories, etc. that make it possible. They also forget about all the other people trying to drive at the same time. The car commercials which so often feature someone driving on an empty road demonstrate this as well.

Matt Heins said...

I find this discussion to be highly relevant to the larger one on the new religious sensibility and the role of religion - even, or perhaps, especially, hidden religion - today and during decline. Because there is a religion in your "opponent's" arguments, a kind of machine faith. This is why they don't seem to recognize that a distributed production system utilizing open source designs without heavy infrastructure costs is just a techno-jargon description of a guild of village blacksmiths!

I think that along with the acceptance/reverence of nature will come a renewed admiration for human capability and a new understanding of the poverty of machines in so many regards. In other words, in the ecotechnic and before, it is doubtful many will desire a thing of plastic from a "3D printer" when its superior crafted by human hands (MANUfacture) and from natural materials is available.

As for the worst case scenario with our nuke plants, I hereby suggest to any future St. Benedicts that the periphery of such death zones would be excellent places for his communities - to warn travelers.

Odin's Raven said...

Peter Heather's latest book, 'The Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes and Imperial Pretenders' seems to agree with you regarding downsizing and re-use of resources. Its not limited to technology for economic purposes, it can also apply to the 'technology of ideas'. He claims that the barbarians reused the ideas of 'Romanitas' and Empire but that the medieval Papacy was the most successful re-use.

Is it permissible to fantasize that the janissaries of an American Caliphate may set out to improve the world at swordpoint?(Allah may be a substitute for the great god Democracy, but belief that 'progress' is achieved by spreading a gospel may remain.) Perhaps ingenious American artisans may sell sun-powered prayer wheels to Buddhists in China? (Any color you like, provided its Green! Islamic or Gaian.)

Ideas, like ghosts may return from the dead, changed.

Have a happy Halloween.

Restoration of Rome

John Michael Greer said...

Ares, I wish I had a ready answer to the question of how to respond to the fantastic buildup of unpayable debt we've got under way these days. Since nobody knows in advance just how it's going to come crashing down, it's a gamble whatever you do -- though staying out of debt is probably the wiser plan generally. My $.02, at least.

Alexander, if you're going to quote somebody, please cite the source!

KL, my guess is that people a millennium from now will remember us as something very close to evil incarnate, and will shiver when they think of the punishment meted out to us by whatever deities they worship.

Robo, instead of just hoping that somebody gets around to reviving and retooling those old and durable skills, why not get to work on that process?

Deedl, that is to say, you're quibbling over details. I'm fine with that; as I mentioned in my post, exactly which technologies will survive and which will prove unsustainable can't be known in advance -- and I specifically addressed your second and third points, by the way, so you may want to reread the post. What we do know is that, per White's law, the complexity of a society is a function of its per capita consumption of energy, and as access to cheap abundant fossil fuels goes away, a lot of what passes for business as usual will go away as well. Beyond that -- well, what are you personally doing to see to it that technologies you consider valuable are preserved into the future? That's where the rubber meets the road, you know.

Sunseeker, got it and thank you!

Karim, you're certainly right that a blindness to whole systems is hardwired into industrial culture. As for the Koran, I'll certainly accept your take on it -- I've read an English translation, but don't claim to have anything like an adequate knowledge of Muslim theology, particularly when it comes to issues of immanence vs. transcendence. This is one of the reasons I focus on American culture and its future, rather than trying to draw conclusions about the planet as a whole.

Daniel, is the nuclear plant near your family farm still operating, and is high level waste stored on site? If the answer to both those questions is "no," you don't have much to worry about; tribal shamans in the far future will put cow skulls on sticks to warn people away from the facility itself, since that-which-strikes-dead-from-a-distance will still be emanating from the wreckage of the reactor itself, but if you're more than a couple miles from the cow skulls you have nothing to worry about.

Yupped, an excellent point.

Chris, nah, the UFO business is a spent force -- it has about as much of a future these days as, say, Spiritualism. (Given that the whole fracas was basically manufactured by the US Air Force as camouflage for spyplanes and early surveillance satellites, as I've discussed in my book The UFO Phenomenon, it was pretty much guaranteed not to have too long of a shelf life.) It's the next wave of religious innovation that's likely to catch the wave of the rising religious sensibility, and predicting the forms that will take is a challenging task!

Phitio, you really do need to check your facts before making blanket statements like that. I've written here quite often about climate change, and incorporated it into my predictions since the early days of this blog -- if you follow up the link I gave to this 2007 summary of my views, you'll find climate change very much included. What I don't factor in, except as evidence for the popularity of apocalyptic fantasy, are the currently popular but scientifically unjustifiable claims that climate change is going to wipe us all out by 2030, or what have you; as I commented a while back, that's simply the inevitable successor to the late and unlamented 2012 delusion.

Robo said...


Relearn old skills? Sure enough. Small scale organic grain growing and processing takes up most of my attention and energy during the growing season. In the winter a little time may be left over for glass-plate photography using pre-Kodak chemistry and materials in the post-Kodak world. As a longtime radio broadcaster I've even looked into the techniques of building simple electron tubes by hand, but that looks pretty complicated. There's always crystal receivers, spark gaps and Alexanderson alternators! Perhaps I should study up on Morse code and get into low power QRP ham radio. Can't do it all though.

Renaissance Man said...

What is that saying? History doesn't repeat, but it rhymes?

As I read the phrase:
"...even though the future will be impoverished by our standards, it will still be better according to some other measure. That sort of apologetic rhetoric will no doubt see plenty of use in the years ahead: as progress fails to happen on schedule, it’ll be tempting to keep on moving the goalposts so that the failure is a little less visible and the faithful can continue to believe."

I couldn't help but flash on the rhetoric of Goebbels and the Third Reich, which moved away from the tub-thumping boastfulness of the early war years to eventual insistence that, despite the increasingly bleak outlook after a string of devastating defeats, viz., El Alamein, Stalingrad, Kursk, Liri Valley, Operation Ovelord, that miracle weapons were just coming online that would turn the tide (and almost did). But their failing was while they focused on very high-quality tanks and planes, the Soviets realized that quantity has a quality all its own and if it cost five T-34 to every Tiger, they could produce six or seven for every one the Germans could.

Likewise, as the evidence became inescapable that the Soviet Union and its copycat pseudo-communist nations were becoming ever more brutal and repressive, the true believers, even in the West, kept insisting that things were really getting better, or would one day soon (and some still do!)... until over three heady days, the Berlin Wall was torn down by mobs, and then, one evening, the entire population went outside and shouted "NO MORE!' and the politburo was chased from Hrady Castle, and one day Gorbachev uttered the phrase "former Soviet Union"... and that was pretty much it.

But to add to my previous thoughts on monasteries and surrounding lay communities, my idea is not yet clear enough in my mind that I can reduce it to a short description. Something about communities with a single primary focus that succeed in difficult times. The focus can be prayer or it could be a strong-hold under control of a local comes or jarl who provides refuge in time of danger to defend against roving bands of brigands.
Most western monasteries were not really different, being run by a head with almost absolute authority and requiring armed guards -- from the lay community -- and walls and towers for defense. They were sacked because they were wealthy because the business of selling spirituality was very profitable. Towns and manors were also attacked for much the same reasons.

As to the wherefore of celibacy for monasteries, there is, at least in the west, possibly in other cultures about which I cannot say, a strong tradition that sensual pleasures distract from and weaken focus on the spiritual. However, I am suggesting that this is not really necessary, as groups such as the Amish have managed to maintain a spiritual focus with the expectation of having large families, and I am suggesting that the manorial-based feudal system that became common across Europe after the disappearance of the Western Roman Empire existed in tandem with and was just as successful as the monastic system, without religion as its primary focus.

Myriad said...

This was a good clarifying post, making a necessary point, contra the "pick a date" method of post-contraction future prognostication. By that I mean predicting that this or that technology or social order will or won't be prevalent, because it was or wasn't in use at some particular past reference date. It's always easy to find absurdities following from that method (whale oil lamps, anyone?) but it keeps coming up, probably because it's an easy starting point that doesn't tax ones imagination too much.

A different interesting starting point came up in a thread in my "home" forum a few weeks ago. The topic was, if the earth never had fossil fuels, what would the present look like? When and how would our history have veered off of our timeline? (Keep in mind that British imperial wealth and American resource wealth would still have existed, so some degree of growth and development would have occurred anyhow. By now, though, we would be 150 years or so past Peak Wood.)

Among the revelations of the background reading I did for that discussion was the ecotechnic excellence of the early-1800s canal system in the northeastern US. I'm not convinced that railroads will ever fall into complete disuse, but if they did, canals (requiring many orders of magnitude less metal worked at a lower level of tooling) would remain viable at a moderate level of social order, even if they had to be built anew by hand shovels, as they were in the 1800s.

This is a completely plausible scenario to me: a barge heads west on the Erie Canal, which is back to its original 40 foot width and 3-4 foot depth. The barge is drawn by a mule (named Piston, not Sal) and laden with twenty bolts of denim, six rolls of mylar for solar concentrator surfacing, and the electronics for a cell phone tower.

In each instance (the mule/barge/canal versus a railroad or a horse cart, the denim versus factory-made ready-to-wear jeans or nothing because hand-loomed local homespun is used upstate instead, mylar made of costly organic compounds versus polished bronze or silvered glass, the cell tower versus telephone lines or post riders or smoke signals) the means chosen happen to be the least costly way to get the job done. That's least costly in whole-systems cost. It's not about when something was invented, nor about how complex it is. The latter is of course a large factor in the cost, but not necessarily the deciding factor.

Moshe Braner said...

Wolfgang: Generally, the answer to intermittency is storage, and it is much easier to store water than, say, electricity. When and where I grew up the water supply (via big electric pumps) was intermittent, and every apartment had a tank of water on the roof (about one cubic meter) to bridge over that intermittency.

Moshe Braner said...

Twilight: I am amazed these days as to how small and light "wall warts" (AC to DC converters) have become, having shifted from transformers to switching designs, then miniaturized. And at the same time, how "ephemeral" they are. I've had several stop working suddenly and with no apparent reason, after very little use. I suppose the rising cost of copper has spurred on this trend, and it is a good thing if we can do with less copper. But not really an improvement if the copper is recycled, while the switching circuits are discarded.

trippticket said...

@North Creek News:

You think the gravity light is cool, check this out:

There's a lot of hope in a repurposed soda bottle turned into a 50 watt light bulb. And low-tech is where it's at! (Not that that's not a cool light...)

Robert Martini said...

John Michael Greer,

I am wondering if the United States is going to suffer death by obfuscation as folks abandon one delusion only to run straight into the arms of another. By obfuscation I mean decoupling money from its basic fundamentals and tinkering with economic signals as to cause self strangulation in a web of delusional complexity? Is this a bigger threat than destabilization from energy depletion itself?

In other news, I was very outspoken today in my environmental class. I can't help but pick up on Religion of Progress dogma, watching my pathetic professor play the part of the willing opposition in the ritual theater of progress. As soon as I started bring up points, some people got very uncomfortable and quite a controversy was caused. It got me to think of a way I could perhaps undo such a curse. I was thinking It might be very enjoyable and liberating to satire the religion of progress. Preaching the fire and brimstone of progress in such a ridiculous way as to see through its falsehoods. What do you think? A lost cause?

excellent post JMG!

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

Public bathhouses continued to operate in the Byzantine Empire and were adopted and spread by the Muslim civilization that conquered it. Hammams still operate and have only declined in Muslim countries as indoor plumbing facilities become more widespread. Russia also has public bathhouses.

One needs public order, a reliable water supply and some concentration of population for a public bathhouse to be practical.

Public bathhouses were built in American cities in the nineteenth century both for recreational purposes and as a public health measure. Total immersion in hot water takes a lot of water and a lot of heating. Public bathhouses are an easier and more energy efficient way for people to get clean than bathtubs in private houses. I'm told that in England well into the postwar period, it was commonplace for an entire family to take turns bathing in the same bathwater, because of the expense of heating the water.

This is an instance of a common facility being a more resource efficient way of providing a good than the household economy.
Taking your unbaked loaves to the bakery instead of firing up an oven at home is another. In poor countries, most people can't bake leavened bread at home, because an oven takes a lot of space and fuel and it is more cost-effective to do a lot of baking at one time. People socializing in cafes instead of their unheated apartments is a third. Public libraries are a fourth. Public transport is a fifth.

Many amenities that are an extravagance in private ownership can be afforded at least occasionally at a place open to the public. On the way down to the next dark age, if that's where we are going, there might be a revival of shared community life and a reversal of some of the social trends discussed in the book Bowling Alone.

Elmo G. Nurdbahl said...

I'd like to encourage anyone thinking of getting PVs while they're cheap to also think about how they'll use them in a deindustrializing future and aim for maximum flexibility. Many new domestic systems are grid-tied (largely because subsidies increasingly require grid-tie), may have no batteries and the panels may have built-in micro-inverters. These features will complicate the use of these PVs outside the paradigm within which they were designed to operate - a supplement to grid electricity with easy access to spare parts. Older style systems and those designed to work off-grid will be more flexible in terms of accessing the DC output, mixing and matching panels and charging batteries without computer-controlled power management.

There's also an argument for ignoring this ultimately unsustainable technology. I suspect that the sight of a solar panel functions something like an invocation of Progress for most people, assuring them that the future is right on track and they don't have to change their lifestyles. I don't know how to weigh the potential of PVs as a transitional electricity source vs. any mental pablum impact, but it's something I think about.

Tyler August said...

@Wolfgang Brinck,
Your point about technologies needing to support themselves is valid, but your application to running water is flawed. You do not need a continuous supply of energy to the pump: an intermittent supply is fine. That's what water towers used to be for-- to provide water pressure without the necessity of constantly running pumps. Electricity is also not needed to run the pumps; those multi-bladed windmills that are an icon of the Great Plains were (and still are) used to pump water.

re: reviving skills,
The trouble is, of course, that we aren't having an apocalypse. If we were, the revival would be a matter of do-or-die and it would be easy to motivate the work. As is, though, we have a functioning industrial economy, and have to fit ourselves inside it. We have to make enough money to live within the cash economy, and these skills are disappearing for a reason : in the current economic milieu, you cannot make a living with them! The hobbyist/avocational motivation is a lot weaker than the professional/vocational one, I should think. Learning and maintaining knowledge of sustainable technologies is very important, but... well, we've all still got to pay the rent/mortgage/property taxes, etc. I find myself often wondering what the best way to balance the two necessities is: preparing for a foreign future, and maintaining oneself in the present. I've yet to find any sort of satisfactory answer for myself.

Chris Balow said...


Maybe I should have phrased my question a bit more specifically. In previous posts, you've talked about religions having their root in the spontaneous religious experiences of individuals--e.g., encounters with disembodied intelligences. So, forgetting all the UFO groups and cults, we still have a decades-long pattern of encounters/abductions with what are termed "alien" beings, by everyday people who have no affiliation with the U.S. military. The Mothman business in West Virginia provides a good example, but there are many.

These experiences, I conjecture, may be the seedlings of a new religion. Maybe, as Moses spoke with a bush, people in our time see strange lights in the sky and strange beings on the ground.

John Michael Greer said...

Step Back, I didn't say that a blindness to whole systems was unique to geek culture. I said that it pervades geek culture; of course it's common elsewhere in contemporary industrial societies. It's been my experience, though, that it's more common in geek culture than elsewhere -- it's only among the geekoisie, for example, that I've seen people insist that their monthly bill for internet service is a valid measure of the cost of the internet.

Trippticket, maybe so, but I'd encourage you to remember that all these things will have to be balanced against the multiple impacts of economic collapse, political chaos, disintegrating public health, mass migration with the usual side effects of warfare and looting, and all the other normal phenomena of decline and fall. Whatever silver linings may be involved, it's a very dark cloud indeed.

Leo, of course some things change with the introduction of new technologies and the loss of old ones. Down the road a bit, in an upcoming sequence of posts, we'll be discussing the difference between the things that are affected by shifts in technology and the things that generally aren't. I'll look forward to your Krampustide submission!

Tyler, please post a comment marked "Not For Posting" with your email address and I'll get back to you -- we can certainly discuss that, but this isn't the forum for that conversation.

Jim, my money is on hand tools and basement workshops, but I'll look at Drexler's work when I have the chance. As for your pantheon, that sounds like a good place to start!

Hawkcreek, good. Most of the people I know who've grasped the scale of the mess we're in have had a moment like that, when it became clear just how fragile one or another part of our knowledge base or technological infrastructure really is.

Northcreek, I'm not familiar with gravity lights -- I'll look into it as time permits.

GHung, from line-of-sight wifi to a line-of-sight (or slightly longer range) VHF packet radio system would be an easy switch, maintaining most of the same functions with a sharp decrease in system complexity. If you and your friend don't have ham radio licenses, now might be the time to get those, and start learning the technology, so that necessity can be the mother of step-by-step replacement.

Ando, there's a lively literature on the end of Mycenean culture and the dark age that followed it, well worth reading in this context. Enjoy.

Wolfgang, excellent. You get today's gold star for bringing up one of those bits of common sense that everybody knows and next to nobody wants to talk about. No special providence guarantees that people will keep on supporting high technology if they have to do it themselves, and can't rely on Third World sweatshops and boiler rooms to do it for them.

Halfiore, good. The difference between putting microwaves into the air and putting food and water on somebody's table is significant, and too rarely remembered these days.

Ekkar, that's a crucial point. People will continue to do stupid things even when those stupidities cost them dearly, if they're convinced that those things are what they're supposed to do.

SLClaire, true enough, and it's those who don't want to have to make the decisions that matter who are loudest in insisting that decisions don't matter. I'll be discussing this shortly. In the meantime, thank you for your Krampustide submission -- if the pace of these keeps picking up, we may just end up with an anthology after all.

John Michael Greer said...

Amy, anybody interested in peak oil who doesn't know about the Cuban experience has been hiding under a rock. As for "tactical urbanism," I have no idea -- it sounds like a parody of buzzwords to me, but then one of the other archdruids in the order I head likes to make jokes about "extreme tactical druidry" and the like.

Halfiore, if it could be implemented in the 19th century, it's probably safe to assume that it can be implemented in the 22nd century.

John excellent! Thank you for getting the point.

Andy, may I offer a suggestion? Cut some of those wires and damage a component or two, someday when your son isn't around, and then announce sadly that the radio's dead and the repairman says he can't get the parts. Times like the one you spent singing with your son are priceless.

Twilight, as an Extra class ham radio operator, I don't have anything like the same level of experience you do, but I've seen the same principle at work in the more restricted setting of old radio gear. It's those who never mess with the hardware who so often lose track of the fact that it's not eternal.

Greg, thank you. The figure/ground distinction is a good one, and may help some people to grasp just how great their vulnerability is.

Matt, true enough! It's precisely the myth of the machine -- more precisely, the subset of that myth that claims that whatever comes out of a machine must be better than what's made by a person -- that makes people think that shoddy plastic gewgaws are somehow an improvement on handicrafts.

Raven, thanks for the tip -- I haven't read Heather's latest, and clearly I need to.

Robo, of course not. The important thing is that you're doing something.

Renaissance, we'll be talking about manorial feudalism at some length down the road a bit. The short form is that yes, it's an extremely resilient system, which is why it's been reinvented in the wake of every civilizational collapse on record. Monasticism isn't a substitute for that system, but a parallel system that meshes well with dark age realities, and has the additional benefit of preserving knowledge much more effectively than the manorial system does.

Myriad, that's why I made canals a standard mode of transport in my fictional 25th-century North America in Star's Reach. Still, "I've got a mule, her name is Piston" is kind of hard to rhyme with...

Robert, do it! Parody and satire are underutilized tools; I'm not particularly gifted in either, which is why I haven't done much with them, but if you feel the call, get out there and satirize!

Unknown Deborah, public bathhouses also existed straight through the Middle Ages in most of Europe. In Elizabethan England they were called "stews." It took the Puritan revolution to shut them down -- the offiical excuse was the prostitution that went on around them, but I suspect the Puritans were just too frantic about the thought of naked bodies anywhere.

John Michael Greer said...

Elmo, agreed. If I ever have the funds to put up a PV system, it's going to be separate from the grid, producing 12 volts DC, and I'll put up with the inconveniences of a second electrical system.

Tyler, that's the challenge, isn't it? Still, a lot of people put a lot of time and energy into things that don't make them a living; the goal here is to do as much as possible along those lines that will be relevant to the deindustrial future.

Chris, okay, gotcha. Those events are always happening, have always happened, and presumably will always happen -- as long as there are human beings around to witness them, that is. It's true that in some contexts they become the core around which a new religious sensibility takes shape, although it's just as common for the new forms to come from other sources. More on this as we proceed!

Juhana said...

@JMG: When me and some of my closest friends made heretic assumption back in '06 or '07 that current globalist culture was facing unsolvable obstacles and was destined to fall, we also made assumption that mentioned decline will be long, as the Roman version predating it. What we missed was that future is not carbon copy of history. We had too strong vision that future shall be reverting back to former systems. Worst possible linear thinking, when you look at it in retrospect. Your books and this blog has made me and some of my friends to reassess our assumptions, and that is hard lesson for any adult person.

Still, I feel that one piece is missing from your vision about future curve of permanent economic contraction and environmental depletion. That is effect of forthcoming pervasive low-level violence and insecurity on values and choices of coming generations. You know, there was good reason why post-Roman Europe chose otherworldly religion that gave solace in the afterlife as it's unifying force. Being believer in nature is easy when you can admire it's amazing complexity from cosy position of current global middle class.

Have you seen "Law and disorder in Philadelphia", documentary by Louis Theroux..? I have this strong supposition that those inner city dwellers in your country won't find solace and bliss from any Green movement religion when central order erodes even further away. Human being who lives in awful, insecure conditions wants justice (whatever it means to that person) and some guarantee that one day heavy burden shall be lifted from one's shoulders, and invitation to table so full of food that it's sagging is already sent to that person. That is core content of religiosity for truly poor people, if I have interpreted their message right.

For example, Lutherans in Liberia and members of different ethnic splinter groups in Near East, modernly called Balkans, have more tangible need to believe in some sort of divine justice than among those representing arm-chair generals of Western middle class. And oh boy imagery of retribution is truly lively and elaborate.

So I believe that near-to middle future forecasts have much more religious fundamentalism to offer, with deviants hanging from Catherine wheels or necklaced like they do in South Africa already, with plaques like "eater of human flesh", "rapist", "sodomite" and "banker" showing hapless sinner's original crime. Justice has quite straightforward face in environment where poor is stealing from poor, and one stolen, sturdy meal can tip delicate balance between chronic but survivable malnutrition and starvation and disease.

Human nature just is like that, when things turn truly claustrophobic stern attitude crawls in... We are three warm meals away from barbarism. This cultural bias towards grotesque sentimentality plaguing current Western society, wonderfully pictured in his books by Theodore Dalrymple, has already ensured that Western dark ages shall take quite sinister turn. Nations with more realistic and healthy attitude towards basic nature of mankind, like Russia, probably survive with less chaos and useless bloodshed.

So have you taken into account effects of forthcoming billow of low-level insecurity, violence, and drug abuse that shall swallow also those who try to stay out of it, as easy prey for dominant predator gangs? I suggest this kind of zeitgeist probably shall have impact on spiritual landscape of next generations also.

Kris Ballard said...

While I was reading this article, I happened to notice the cover of Baron's. The headline was complaining that in the future, the American Economy would only grow at two percent instead of three percent. I certainly have no idea how fast America's Economy will decline in the future. What I am more certain of is that the world is quickly approaching Peak Population!

Ian Stewart said...

It pleases me that Carson and co. have seen fit to engage you in dialogue, JMG. I think a potent synthesis is attainable here, and the two philosophies are not quite so far apart as they may seem. Our accustomed mode of dialogue in the US usually involves shouting the other side down and considering them anathema, so if both sides can get past that, perhaps these discussions will be more fruitful than most Internet banter.

I seem to remember that you commented a couple weeks ago about a ham radio post in the near future, and I would be interested to read that. Another well-known commentator I would like to see you dialogue with is Bruce Perens, who evidently spearheaded the effort to remove the CW Morse-code requirement from amateur license exams, and is currently promoting digital voice modes for the ham bands. Being a child of the tech boom, I find these technologies very interesting, but they are utterly dependent on those pesky semiconductors. But I find the idea of using my accustomed QWERTY keyboard with PSK modes to reach somebody on the other side of the continent or world to be highly appealing.

I will likely go for my ham ticket in December or January, once farm life calms down a bit. It seems that digital radio modes tend to require two separate sound cards, one for transmission and one for reception... but if I can jerry-rig an external sound device of some sort, I think I will find great pleasure in repurposing throwaway tablet computers into low-infrastructure long-range communicators. Perhaps I can jumpstart a ruinmen's guild for the gadget age?

MawKernewek said...

Many in the peak oil community see an improvement in that goods will be locally handmade and community life will revive.

However the years of austerity and scarcity industrialism are in many ways taking society the other way - the downgrading or privatisation of public services including public libraries etc., and the way in which scarcity industrialism will drive goods to be produced even more cheaply than they are now, and with poorer quality materials.

KL Cooke said...

"The topic was, if the earth never had fossil fuels, what would the present look like?"

For openers there'd be a lot more English sparrows.

k-dog said...

Better faster cheaper is also a pernicious thought virus in our modern overly bifurcated mind. In the foreign future slower simpler and more reliable will be a more appropriate catchphrase. Worship of the religion of competition and money gives rise to the first catchphrase in our runaway market driven economy and it prevents adoption of solutions until 'technology catches up'; a side effect of the stupidity of the market.

An example is we can't have electric cars until we have cheap lithium ion batteries even though existing technology will make an electric car that meets basic needs now. The fear of competition from new technology prevents it. Adoption of the better faster cheaper mantra might be inevitable in a runaway market driven economy but it also means that because good enough is never enough we will soon wind up not enough. And no cars at all.

morenewyorknews said...

My guess is that thermoelectric generators heated by parabolic mirrors will turn out to be the wave of the future, keeping the shortwave radios, refrigerators, and closed-loop solar water heaters of the ecotechnic future supplied with power; still, that’s just a guess.

It is the exact system my students have designed.The problem is TEG don't produce enough electricity.The voltages produced by seeback effect are too small.So we are thinking of ditching Thermo electric generators and use stirling engine or totally redesign project by using fresnel mirrors.Fresnel mirrors can produce temp upto 1000 deg C and can be used to generate steam for a short time and run generator.Or fresnel mirrors solar stove can totally replace propane butane gas stoves.The problem here is how to use concentrated solar beam to cook food inside house.Once we solve the problem,we will commercialize the technology.My area gets sunlight for 300 days a year,so fresnel stoves or generators can be easily used in rural/semi rural areas.

dltrammel said...

In last week's post Hal said:

"Iuval, I had meant to follow up on your questions about relocating to a land-based home on the GW forum, but lost track of when it went back up, and so far am unable to post there or respond to your post about a land share. Don't think I forgot about it!"


Hal if you are having problems posting to the GW forum due to password or account problems, please email me at random surf er200 (at) yahoo (dot) net. I can fix that very easily.

David (one of the moderators there)

John Luciw said...

I am new to this blog and find both the essays and dialogue extremely thoughtful.

I notice that when anticipating the post-collapse world, ancient civilizations such as Rome are the model referenced.

Generally past collapses, at least on a macro level, have not been catastrophic or completely dystopian.

However I would suggest that looking backwards is not likely to be relevant when discussing the outcome of the current collapse.

The big difference is that because of fossil fuels we now have 7 billion people on the planet.

Take away petroleum based fertilizers and pesticides and we could feed a fraction of those people (keep in mind it would take some years to get burned out soil to grow anything once the artificial products are replaced by organic substitutes)

I was in Cairo over the summer filming the riots there and I witnessed what desperately poor people will do when they hit rock bottom.

And I can imagine how literally billions of people will react when they have no jobs - no means of feeding themselves and their families.

I do not see this collapse resembling those of the past at all - rather I see an epic die-off of the population.

I see people scavenging for every last scrap of wood trying to keep warm - every last animal and plant being consumed by the ravenous, starving billions.

I see extreme levels of violence as these starving billions murder and steal from the remaining haves.

When I see this story I wonder if the US government (and others) are not already preparing for this dreadful outcome:

Try as I may, unfortunately I cannot agree that what is coming is anything but a complete nightmare

Phitio said...

Dear JMG,
It seems that concerning climate change out visions differ , most notably about the time frame and extension of changes. I know that "natural" variability takes from 1000 to 100.000 to unfold, but mind that such changes were forced by natural drivers (mostly volcanic activity) which had similar timeframe. Human activity can be compared to an abrupt massive eruption of a voulcanic district compressed in less than 200 years. Recent studies have found strict relatonships between massive voulcanic activities in the past and big extinction events. The unknown in present situation is the inertial response of the earth system to such an impulsive forcing. Being a really complex system, the velocity of response can change abruptly. Don't be linear in considering this. For sure, the co2 is at levels never esperienced in 4 million years. This is a fact. To better understand the point, maybe the Tim Flannery's book "The Weather Makers" could be useful, where the concept of "magic doors" in climate shifts is evidenced.

Sorry if I was too abrupt in my previous post

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

Hi deedl,

Dude, you be smoking...

Quote: "Whenever some device goes out of use, local resources and rare materials are freed to be put to use again."

Today, I used a gas torch (I had the option to use the arc welder powered by solar with a very gentle hand on a very low current) with a soldering rod to repair a galvanised steel watering can. Entropy and rust are your enemies. Complexity is also at odds with your statement. I challenge you to dismantle something and re-purpose it! Let us know how you go?

Quote: "rare earth magnets are used to improve the efficiency of the generators".

Yeah, and that is exactly why they use them. Seriously, I tried a wind turbine here - with rare earth magnets too - and it produced about as much energy over two months during winter as a mouse fart! Without the rare earth magnets, it would be even worse.

Quote: "especially in the field of organic solar cells, which use no rare materials at all and can be produced using simple technologies as printing."

I'd dance for sheer joy if that was the case. It is just without all of that high tech manufacturing, solar PV relies on low or below cost Chinese manufacturing. I live with this stuff off the grid and it is good, but it does not produce enough energy to meet the average persons expectations. Organic printed solar cells have to be economically competitive to survive and therein lies the problem.

Quote: "Especially electronics with no moving parts and there circuits based on ceramics are practically free from deterioration."

Again wrong. Look, I speak with a lot of people who are off the grid and they are unnaturally attracted to the latest and most efficient technologies (unlike myself who is something of a black sheep in that community). These new technologies have toroidal transformers and fans to cool them. My lot has simple aluminium heat-sinks and is rated to far higher operating temperatures.

It would be nice if people actually pursued the pathways that you suggest, but in practice they don't.

How are you going with those?



Cherokee Organics said...


I've barely started reading the comments to this week’s essay.

Time and time again, it comes back to me that few people indeed are interested in nature. So secure are we in our dominance of nature that we ignore her cries for help.

The warning flags raised by nature for our consideration are dismissed to our peril.

It is only when nature no longer functions for us - as we expect it to - that we have to spend our time and energies ameliorating her. This is the great unlearned lesson of Industrial culture.

I've said it before, but we are trained in an Industrial first world culture not to appreciate things that we get for free. Nature is just another in a long list of examples.

Am I ranting? The above sounds like a rant. Ooops!

Meanwhile in the real world in the north west of the continent:

Fitzroy Crossing sweats through hottest October

Your points about 12v DC solar off grid are really good. I have a small 12v DC solar system here which powers a water pump, air compressor and some LED lights and it is a little ripper.

At a pinch you could even make a 12v battery using urine, lemon juice and some iron. It is just sad that few people understand such things nowadays.

The built infrastructure these days is just so good, that it is taken for granted, whined about and as some sort of human right. Rights cannot exist in a vacuum though and you have to pay to keep them.



Bike Trog said...

One example of Europeans' higher living standards: restuffable wool mattresses. The American standard is synthetic toxic foam that is crushed or torn in 2-3 years and becomes landfill. One stage of collapse will include relearning how to stuff a mattress, or weave a hammock, or sleeping on the floor.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Step Back,


That's why manufacturing is shipped off to China. Yes, they'd never understand it would they? Honestly.

I was contacted by some dude that wanted to outsource my part time business to a group in India - whilst I collected a return on the fees for doing nothing. He asked me whether I wanted to grow my business and seemed genuinely surprised at my response. Yes, they'd never know how to do my job as well as I could? Yikes. I told him that I was mildly disturbed by both him and the phone call and could see where the future may end up. It is already happening...

Specialisation is a weakness, it is just that we are not conditioned to see it that way.



Cherokee Organics said...

Hi trippticket,

Quote: "Aboriginal peoples are much more deft at making hard choices to ensure the success of their culture, up to and including infanticide and elder suicide."

You know, that sentiment rolled off your response, but have you considered the practical aspects of implementing such a policy?

If the rooster needs a quick necking then I'll put my hand up to do that job, knowing that it is the way of things and respecting the life that was lived. But few people have that experience and then have to live with the outcomes of that action.

Before speaking of such matters, ask yourself, could you do such a thing and live in the community afterwards? It is possibly not quite as simple as it sounds.

Could you do that to your own progeny or blood relations?

There is a reason why such things do not go on.



August Johnson said...

@Ian Stewart - Only one sound card needed for digital modes on Ham Radio. It's amazingly easy to download a program and start receiving most of the digital modes by just setting your computer microphone near a receiver's speaker.

I'm working on setting up a Green Wizards Radio web site to help explain how to get on the air simply and inexpensively, I'll post a link on the Communications Forum on the site soon. I'm looking for ideas for content to put on the site so I'd be interested in whatever questions people have. Post any ideas on the Green Wizards site and I'll see them.

August Johnson KG7BZ

Step Back said...

What Twilight said.

(I used to be an EE in a former life)

In a bizarre way, it's too bad that lay people don't use vacuum tube electronics with quickly burning out cathode filaments because then they would appreciate the finite lifetime of electronic components (capacitors, semiconductors, solder points, etc.).

It "feels" like our modern electronic gizmos will last forever, but they won't. Figure around 10 years and then poof, some component fails and cannot be replaced.

The techno-economic system that produces our modern gizmos (iPhones, iPads, auto engine electronics, ...) is extremely complex, extremely energy and transport dependent. Lay people don't have even close to a clue.

Step Back said...

Re extreme disconnect of software-focused techno geeks.

Totally agree with you.

I'm a boomer ex-engineer who hails back to the days when we rolled our own hardware (HW)as well as software (SW). So had an intimate contact with both SW and HW and how the two are inextricably interconnected.

When I run into new-age software geeks, I'm shocked as to how disconnected they are from the hardware infrastructure that makes it (the SW) all possible. As if software lives in a higher and ephemeral, mathematical plane. Ha!

I suspect it's the fault of our modern school systems and the rise of uber-specialization. Have you seen George Mobus's (Question Everything) recent piece on depth and breadth of knowledge? What he says. What Twilight says above. Dead on target for both. Ephemerability lives only in the minds of those with ephemeral knowledge bases.

August Johnson said...

@Ian Stewart (or any others interested in Ham Radio) If you want to contact me, just email me at where callsign=kg7bz

AUgust Johnson KG7BZ

Step Back said...


When you heat something (ie, TEG heterojunction) you accelerate the chemistries of decay and re-oxidation (ie, "rusting" of metals)

People who are pro-nuke have no idea of how often metal pipes have to be replaced due to accelerated decay mechanisms. Getting bombarded by neutrons and exposed to extreme temperatures is not a life-extending experience for metals.

As to Sterlings, for some reason these things have not taken off. The devil must be in the details. Not my area of in depth knowledge.

Lakis Polycarpou said...

Hi John,

Thanks for your thoughtful response to my post. I do agree that our disagreements are probably primarily questions of detail, not of substance--though details do matter.

I am chastened by your assertion that I am not a whole-systems thinker (I certainly think of myself as such--inasumch as it’s possible); I guess I need to be more clear in both my thought and writing.

In retrospect I should probably have clarified my perspective. Given the wide range of possible futures, I believe in taking a scenarios approach, as David Holmgren and Rob Hopkins do. My point here is only that scenarios like those that Carson promotes in the body of his work that I am familiar with (which may not have been clear from his recent post) fall well within the range of “reasonable” scenarios Holmgren outlines (ie not “technoexplosion”), and are not difficult to imagine as nested within those scenarios at given points in time.

Part of the confusion between your views and Carson’s may rest in significantly different views of history. Not to speak for him, but from my understanding of his work, Carson believes that the industrial model of the 20th century was actually a tragic detour from the technological and social innovation that could have arisen from the human disaster of the so-called industrial revolution -- Lewis Mumford’s “neotechnic” path. This detour happened because of a continuous and long-standing collusion between corporate interests and governments to subsidize and reward economies of scale that empowered big, hideously wasteful enterprise and quashed more efficient and humane home scale production.

According to Carson, the unfolding collapse we are now experiencing is an opportunity to return to that former trajectory, using the new technological and social innovations of peer-to-peer networks and distributed manufacturing. This is still “progress” but I think a more nuanced view than the quasi-religious one you caricature.

Of course, this vision doesn’t work as well in our present world without the Internet or some form of modern communications (at least in the short to medium term) which is why that conversation is so important. The question of materials sourcing is also paramount.

An interesting study on a future Internet in an intermittent energy future:

Raghavan also had an interesting post in Resilience about the constraints on computing in an energy-decent world:

Regarding satellites versus undersea cables: can you reference an emergy study which compares the embodied energy between the two? This is what I was referring to. Of course having a satellite program requires tremendous complexity.

Regarding cell phones in Africa and elsewhere: of course I understand that making cell phones (at least currently) requires a global industrial network. My point is that its deep penetration into the poorest parts of the world suggests that it is a high-leverage tool. It makes sense to me that in an era of energy decent, a few centralized industries continue to produce such high-value, low-cost tools, especially as they facilitate regional and community resilience and efficiency.

Good luck to us all navigating the foreign country of the future!


Karl said...

@Amy - here is a good start for learning about Tactical Urbanism. These are from the Strong Towns blog - the author definitely gets that the future is not going to be a straight line approximation of the past.

two quotes from Charles Marohn there-

I'm clearly in the transition camp. Looking back whatever distance one cares to, it is clear that we have lived through an accelerating anomaly, a unique experience made possible by a set of transient conditions. That acceleration -- in a mathematical sense, an exponential growth pattern -- came to feel like a normal state of being for many of us. The year 1985 was crazy great, until we got to 1990, which was even better. Then came 1995 -- wow -- and then 2000 topped that. Then when it didn't seem like things could grow any faster or get any crazier, we hit 2005. The idea of going back to 1985, which was great at the time, is now really scary. The idea of going back to the development approach of 1895 is terrifying.


The fractal nature of it means that we don't need to wait for the government or for some well-funded developer to come in and transform everything. The New Urbanist city fits together like Darwin's coral reef; it grows and evolves and builds on the work of others, always filling in the gaps with something that works.

This was the approach we used when we were a much poorer country. It is an approach that allowed us to build some of the most beautiful places the United States has ever seen, places we destroyed with the heavy-handed approach we've used in the auto era. And it was a financially-resilient system, a sharp contrast to the too-big-to-fail, Ponzi scheme mess we've gotten ourselves into at every level today.

JP said...

One thing that most bothers me about the current age is that's is completely packed with ephemera, in terms of information storage.

This isn't a problem at the moment, but it will be when it comes to resurrecting some of the dead ideas of the present in the future, albeit for different purposes.

Has anyone thought carefully about the lifespan of electronically stored data?

Short and increasingly complex product cycles are wonderful if you love the bracing feel of exponential turbogrowth into the Singularity.

It's not so good for actual record keeping.

Robert Beckett said...

Samhuinn greetings to all!
This is also the deadline for submissions to Krampus'wish list.
As shelter is an essential, and space heating a necessity for much of North America in winter, may I share some articles I had published some time ago at
To fit into the Archdruid's publication criteria, Passive Solar Adaptations of Existing Houses Part 2 plus EROEI of a Phase Change Material come in at about 4600 words.
Part 1 is of course also relevant but contains 3600 words, which, if added in, would exceed the 6000 maximum.
Gist of the articles: the deployment of a modest quantity of phase change material can replace the extensive thermal mass essential in passive solar house design, or, as suggested, in retrofit design of existing conventional housing (with caveats!). This is a low-tech, modest cost option to greatly reduce fossil or wood fuels used for space heating.

With apologies to JMG, /|\

Richard Larson said...

I actually commented on his essay at, of which he responded with "amending" his ideas. He went on to question as to what is worth spending energy on. Then he flips into extreme negative thought by typing if mass transit isn't fixable, then fixing bikes won't be on the list of fixes either.

I do suspect there is a political influence (black magic) in his thought process.

No doubt he will be concentrating heavily once reading your weblog.

Anselmo said...

An example of neglect of certain inventions by changing cultural values​​, it is Japan between 1600 and 1860, which closed all contact with the West for fear of being colonized, and where fell into disuse and were forgotten the firearms.

ed boyle said...

Leibniz got the idea of a calculating machine most probably in 1670 or 1671, seeing a pedometer device. The breakthrough happened however in 1672, when he moved for several years to Paris, where he got access to the unpublished writings of the two greatest philosophers—Pascal and Descartes. Most probably in this year he became acquainted (reading Pascal's Pensees) with the calculating machine of Pascal(Pascaline), which he decided to improve in order to be possible to make not only addition and subtraction, but also multiplication and division.

Reading the history of technology from pre-roman to present I have been particularly impressed with the impact of waterpower on middle ages “industrialization” and all processes up till mid to late 19th century.

Regarding wind and especially water most of energy for industrialization until 1870 outside of England was from water power. It just got better and better developed technically using better designs with more efficiency and horsepower on watermills

Pelton wheels (invented 1870) as turbines are used in Hydro today make electricity nowadays but before all waterwheels were replaced by steam engines to run industrial applications such as milling of wheat and steel stamping and textile applications water energy was the only way (or wind) and got everything done fine for a lower population level since the middle ages. This particular type was a very improved technology over the year 1800

A history of watermills:

Now I am up to more modern tech in my readings and doubt whether it will be applicayble to a post fossil fuel future although labor saving devices using alternative mechanical energy can make life easier always.

Designs of "spinning jennys", etc. might be hot items in the future.

Anselmo said...

The problem that we have for understanding the operation of complete systems, is that ourl thought is conditioned by the Cartesian method , which consists in the decomposition of a large problem into smaller problems that are solved one after another. (2nd rule of the Cartesian method ) . That is reflected in our work organization, in our educational system designed for the production of superspecialists, our medical science , with its specialties like Cardiology , Neurology etc . , in the rest of our sciences, our sports in which are encourages the practice of an activity , rather than to encourage the practice of several complementary sports etc. .. The result is that our institutions are governed by people , very competent on a given topic , but ignorant of the rest and , which is lethal , unaware of his ignorance of all that lies outside their specialty ( The Revolt of the Masses , Ortega y Gasset ) , and we are exposed to an environment that encourages the dumbing .
The consequences are dramatic natural disasters how the desiccation of the Aral Sea , floods that affect urban areas built on flood plain (New Orleans , etc. . ) , And the nuclear disasters .

Odin's Raven said...

In the diligent search to get the most output from every input, here's an ingenious suggestion as to how Man's Best Friend could contribute to reducing the use of fossil fuels while keeping the lights on.

Park Spark,


Glenn said...

Reduced Infrastructure

I participate in a local Non Government Organization (NGO) focused on transportation. We've been tapped to roll out and get feedback from the public on the Regional Transportation Plan.

Some of the things that the Washington Department of Transportation (WashDOT) want to tell the public are revealing.

1. Due to reduced State Revenues, less Revenue Sharing from the Fed, and the fact that our roads are wearing out much faster (20 years vice 50 years) than expected due to heavier use than planned, we can't build new roads. Actually, we can't afford to maintain the roads and bridges we already have. We will have to triage and prioritize what we want to maintain, what we want to downgrade (ie. pavement to gravel) and what we will have to do without.

2. Due to demographic changes; boomers aging and driving less, and millenials tending to not even get driver's licenses, much less own cars, there is more demand for transit and a likely reduction in car use.

3. Designing transportation infrastructure strictly for cars is a waste of scarce resources.

One consequence of this is that WashDOT is no long using "level of Use" (LOS), which only measures number of cars as it's transport metric. They have switched to "Corridor Capacity", which measures freight ton miles and passenger miles instead. So, when a municipality says "we need another lane" the State is apt to ask "Are your buses running full, and can you add buses and/or routes?" Further, states will only continue funding if the projects are successful.

In one respect this may be seen as moving the goal posts, in another, it seems like a shift to a more realistic mind set on the part of at least our State planners. And I like their desire to share the information and their response to it honestly with the public.

Doing less with less (prioritizing) and being up front with the public both strike me as refreshing and historic changes.


Marrowstone Island

John Michael Greer said...

Greetings all, this is your friendly neighborhood temporary moderator piggybacking on JMG's account while he's on the road this weekend. He'll have very limited internet access for a few days, so I'll be putting through comments until he gets back.

Sunseeker and Tyler (offlist), comments can't be edited so I left yours unpublished since they contained personal contact information you didn't want made public. Copies have been emailed to JMG.

Kris Ballard said...

I was reading in the newspaper today that we may have reached Peak Wine!

Andy Brown said...

I'm always a little shocked when examples like African cell phones are used by smart people to claim that modern high-tech must be easy and resilient (else how could they have cell phones in Sudan). It's hard to see systems, but c'mon! It seems pretty clear that if the rest of the world were like Sudan, the Sudanese would not have cell phones. I think I have to agree with you and chalk that up to willful blindness.

Moshe Braner said...

Raven: before you get enthused about dog power, figure out the EROI, including the processing and transport currently employed in the making of dog food.

In reality, when times get tough (even in the USA in 2008-2009), many dogs get abandoned. Of course not all. And dogs can be kept on lower-energy local food scraps (as non-industrialized societies do/did, from eskimos to bedouins). But in that setting there is no spare dog-power to be harvested for things such as recharging i-gizmos.

sunseekernv said...

@JMG - thanks.

@deedl re organic solar cells
I covered some of the aspects of organic PV in:

I'll add - low efficiencies (12% heliateck's champion cell is for tiny cells 1.1 cm^2 vs. 17-18% for better commodity silicon and 21.5% for Sunpower's MODULE efficiency) to the low lifetime (a few years vs. 25+ for silicon PV) aspect.
Since organic PV uses excitons instead of semiconductor charge carriers, the carrier diffusion lengths are very low, so a lot of charge carriers get lost via recombination/relaxation. Did you understand that last sentence?
My point - it's easy for techno-cornucopians to wave hands without knowing some "minor technical details".

Here's an abstract I find typical and interesting of the organic PV crowd. An academic bragging that he's increased his efficiency by a whopping 80% - great news! - from 2.3 to 4.2% (i.e. not even half competitive in the real world). He uses N,N’-bis(1-naphthyl)-N,N′-diphenyl-1,1’-biphenyl-4,4’-diamine in his recipe, do you happen to have some handy?
Talk about acolytes of the religion of progress!

To your assertion that "no rare materials".
I suggest your read the wiki article:
and look at those molecular diagrams and tell me you'd synthesis those in your woodshed. Yes, carbon and hydrogen and nitrogen are all around us, but they need to be in a precise form to function as desired.

Then we come to the Transparent Conductive Oxide issue. Indium is a rare metal. While TCOs are made by the square kilometer for LCDs for computers/TVs/... today, will that happen in the future? For the inefficient organic PV, they would need to be many more square km made.

The back electrodes are another issue, one must sputter thin layers of reactive metals like calcium or magnesium and then process a cell without oxidation. Most organic PV is made inside glove boxes (like lithium batteries). Doable, but non-trivial, then a few years later, you got to do it again.

The best organic PV is made with C60 "buckyballs" in the mix, these are synthesised by an arc between carbon rods in a low pressure inert atmosphere (helium works best - BTW are you up on the news of helium shortage?). Then one separates them by chromatography. says $185/gm, $610/5 gm for 99.9% pure, only $100/gm at

Here's a great paper I found on cost of organic PV:
(note it's from 2009, silicon PV module prices are about half of what they were then).
Levelized Cost of Electricity from OPV: 49c to 85c/kWh. ouch! That's higher than Hawaii retail electricity. (silicon PV can make 10c/kWh in good sun).

trippticket said...

JMG: "Trippticket, maybe so, but I'd encourage you to remember that all these things will have to be balanced against the multiple impacts of economic collapse, political chaos, disintegrating public health, mass migration with the usual side effects of warfare and looting, and all the other normal phenomena of decline and fall. Whatever silver linings may be involved, it's a very dark cloud indeed."

This time, like all times, is a very good one if we but know what to do with it. - Emerson

And honestly, I don't share your conviction that civilization, agriculture, and literacy are automatically better than other lifeways...

trippticket said...

@Cherokee Organics:

Chris, I never said that I personally could commit infanticide, nor disrobe and walk out on the ice like an Inuit elder might. That would require a strength of character that I don't currently possess, despite the fact that I've chosen to live a more austere life than >99% of Americans.

Which basically proves my original point.


Matthew White said...

"In spite of Greer’s claim that the infrastructure of satellite communications is larger than laying transoceanic cable, we simply don’t know whether this is true or not."

This is a quote from the blog you mention early on. Anyway, I just wanted to agree with your sentiments. As an engineer myself, this statement ventures so far into the absurd I'm at a loss for words. It's hard to take the rest of this seriously.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi trippticket,

No worries. Respect for your chosen path of austerity. It puts you way ahead of the curve.

The point about austerity is absent from your original post. Upon re-reading that post, it appears as if you are writing about other people’s actions and therein lies my confusion.

Too many people expect others to do the heavy lifting which they themselves are reluctant to do. Therein lies a weakness at the core of our society and from that situation, I reckon it will be that the actions of many individuals pursuing their self-interest that will speed any decline onwards.

I don't know whether I could do those things that you mentioned either, which is why I raised it as a valid point.



Dwig said...

Here's an example of what might be called the "hysterical phase" of the military branch of the religion of progress:

U.S. military wants to create 'Iron Man suit' .

Ruben said...

Just because we have technology doesn't mean we will keep it—commenters on this post have argued both for and against this position.

In one of my favourite posts JMG explained that Britain lost the potter's wheel. I like to point out the potter's wheel has one moving part. Which should make it virtually impossible to forget how to use...

The Specialization Trap

Good pottery was so cheap and widely available that even rural farm families could afford elegant tableware, sturdy cooking pots, and watertight roof tiles.

Rome’s fall changed all this. When archeologists uncovered the grave of a sixth-century Saxon king at Sutton Hoo in eastern Britain, for example, the pottery found among the grave goods told an astonishing tale of technical collapse. Had it been made in fourth century Britain, the Sutton Hoo pottery would have been unusually crude for a peasant farmhouse; two centuries later, it sat on the table of a king. What’s more, much of it had to be imported, because so simple a tool as a potter’s wheel dropped entirely out of use in post-Roman Britain, as part of a cascading collapse that took Britain down to levels of economic and social complexity not seen there since the subsistence crises of the middle Bronze Age more than a thousand years before.

sunseekernv said...

John - re thermoelectrics

Thanks for stimulating some investigation on my part, I was wondering if you'd heard of any real advances of late, so I went looking, but found none.

Like morenewyorknews said, they're not so efficient, only 8% or so for the best. But those are high temperature differential devices, running off radioactive decay heat, like are used for deep space probes. The temperatures are: 1275 K (1,835 F) for the hot side, and 575 K (575 F) for the cold side for silicon-germanium, and 823K (1,022 F) hot side and 483 K (410 F) cold side for the telluride based systems. The tellurides used were: PbTe, PbSnTe, Bi2Te3, and Tellurides of Antimony, Germanium and Silver (TAGS).

Same abundance issue with the tellurium here as with CdTe PV. We can hope, but hand waving about undersea mountains of it will probably not pan out.

Germanium is fairly abundant in coal fly ash, up to a percent depending on the ash, but not cheap to get out. They're not as efficient as the tellurides, but work at higher temps and don't wear out as fast.

Another issue I found was the sublimation of the tellurides (especially), resulting in inefficiencies, shunting, etc., so these have a wear out mechanism as well. So the tellurides must have an inert gas atmosphere to suppress sublimation, but that cuts efficiency. SiGe is best if it has things like SiNx coating to suppress sublimation.

Hmm, "SiNx coating", "silicon", "silver", ... - silicon PV is looking easier than thermoelectrics, and higher efficiency to boot, with no tracker required.

Or solar powered Stirling or steam engines. The steam could also be pipe inside for cooking, heating.

metal-metal thermoelectrics are far less efficient.

The best wiki page I found was:
and a reference therein to a set of Materials Research Society articles (where I found the sublimation issue...):

There's a really good set of thermoelectrics pages at caltech:


Phil Harris said...

Serious engineers and all

I am not an engineer and ended up as a biological scientist. I did work though for a while in the early 1960s in a factory making the largest and longest undersea communication cables (and everything else down to cabling for your bedside lamp). We started with copper ingots and ended with massive multi-core cable strung across the factory floor being wound onto its delivery drum. Technology had advanced - e.g. insulation materials - but would have been recognisable to the Victorian engineers.

Just now I spent 5 minutes looking at ongoing undersea communication cabling. It is optical fibre these days, of course, but even so clearly competitive with satellites at today's prices.
Undersea fiber optic cables connect most of the world's people, businesses and institutions, not satellites. Lying on ocean floors, these submarine cable systems carry the vast majority of our international communications and data. Together, they form the backbone for the data centers powering the world wide web.

Phil H

Marcello said...

"I’ve fielded claims here several times that mechanical computers capable of tolerably complex calculations can be made of such simple materials as plywood disks"

I find it dubious.
That I am aware of most mechanical computing devices (Pascaline, Antikythera, Babbage, etc), regardless of the era, employed metals as construction material. Even so breakdowns and wear were not exactly unknown issues. Then while decorative examples have been around for a long time plywood was basically born with the industrial revolution and probably it is not a coincidence: whether glues and manufacturing standards would make it viable in a post industrial setting is something that cannot be taken for granted.

It is worth keeping in mind that in a pre-industrial settings items like metals, glass etc were expensive and fairly restricted in application: generally only weapons, luxury items and the most necessary items or components benefitted from them. It was for example fairly common for spades to have a wooden blade with perhaps a small reinforcing iron strip. Of course there will be plenty of recycling opportunities, at least for a long while, but still working them requires a fair bit of energy and if you need certain characteristics (tulerances etc.) appropriate tooling.

Iuval Clejan said...

Dear JMG,
Programmers certainly have to think in terms of whole systems, but usually not beyond the software system they are manipulating. It is easy to have the illusion that that is the only system that matters, and is not part of a bigger system of culture (technology, economy and religion) and the natural world.

As for archdruidic fallibility, you also don't always think well in terms of whole systems. For example when you told "Tony" that "If Tony and his countless equivalents want “a chance to really live,” in other words, nothing is holding them back". That assumes that an individual can just go ahead and homestead and live well starting with the current situation. This is just not true (and wasn't true in Roman times either), and one of the reasons people want to form groups to live better than they can alone. But the dynamics of the whole system of community (whether communal or not, a couple or a bigger group) are treacherous and beyond the control of an individual, which is where your statement falls short of whole systems thinking.

Roger said...

I've read that farm families in N. America nowadays produces food not only for themselves but 50 other families that don't produce food. A multitude of inputs, themselves the products of enormously compex systems, would account for this high productivity. What happens when these complex support systems start to degrade? What happens to farm productivity?

What will it mean in our own situation where, for reasons of scarce energy or no longer available technology, a farm family can no longer feed 50 others but maybe 30 others or 20 others. What if the change isn't gradual, giving time to adapt?

In the examples of previous civilizational collapses, the farmer, as a proportion of the total population, was far higher than nowadays. How many farm families were there as a percentage of the population in Roman times for example?

What if in Roman times or Mycenaean times the ratio was 60 or 70 farm families producing food for every 40 or 30 families that did something else for a living? I would think that this higher proportion of food producers would have given some resilience to immediate post-collapse, post-Roman or post-Mycenaean societies. Maybe an element of resilience that we don't have.

I would guess that there would have been a good deal of stress in some parts of the immediate post Roman world, for example, from barbarian incursions and the displacement of at least some of the original population from their lands. But there must have been large areas that noticed little difference because, after all, marauding tribes and their families would not have been that large a proportion of the total population.

But, even if there were new faces in the manor house, so what? After the initial wonderment and fear, I'll bet it meant little change in everyday life ie in the cycle of planting, harvesting, birth and death. In short, as the song goes, meet the new (Teuton) boss, same (in most ways) as the old (Roman) boss. The new boss must have known that his well being depended on the peasants doing what they had always done and so would have disrupted their activities as little as possible ie get the ploughing, planting, harvesting done and give me my piece.

Maybe there were instances where the boss of the manor house didn't even change, where news of the ouster of the last Roman emperor was largely a matter of indifference. At least to most people.

I'm not trying to minimize the changes felt by the post Roman world or post Mycenean world. I'm sure that for a lot of city folk it must have been dreadful. Imagine, for example, what it must have been like when the aqueducts supplying water to the city of Rome were destroyed.

But what I'm saying is that the fall to sustainabilty in our present day circumstances has the potential to be a lot more traumatic and deadly to a lot more people that it was in previous times.

Roger said...

I agree with Anselmo, we've carried specialization to extremes. We may be a half a mile deep in our skill level in our chosen occupation but we're a half inch wide in terms of knowledge outside our particular realm.

I listen to my fellow urbanites and, while they put on this pose of sophistication and knowledge with electronic devices protruding from every bodily appendage and orifice, they think that food come from store shelves. Seriously, they have exactly zero idea of what it takes to get an item of edible organic matter from farmer's field to processing plant to wholesaler warehouse to grocery retailer.

One chap, a university grad, told me that he didn't understand why it was up to city dwellers to pay tax to maintain roads in rural areas. I asked him how do you expect to get food from farms without roads? Stopped him dead. He hadn't thought of where food came from. And I said to him, besides, do you think that rural people don't work and pay tax?

I saw a well known political commentator talk about our particular urban area, where, she said, "people are educated." Taken in the context of that particular conversation she didn't mean it as a compliment. Maybe an example of a socially acceptable bigotry?

There's a multitude of food and beverage producers doing their thing out of the line of sight of people that consume those goods. And so it's all taken for granted. Nobody knows how it comes about. Consumers have no idea of the necessary level of knowledge and expertise to get it all done. And it's not just ignorance about food production.

Maybe it is a failure of the educational system. Maybe it's an overall organizational thing. Maybe it's a cultural phenomenon, where it's hip to disparage rural and small town people and their occupations and especially farmers.

Maybe it's an aspect of city culture to adopt an air of superiority, to be blinkered in our view and to casually disregard what's outside that view.

latheChuck said...

John Dunn - "can't uninvent the wheel", you said. True enough, but the wheel is only a tiny part of a larger system. A wheel is useless without a road. A road requires maintenance. Maintenance requires investment. Investment requires either 1> taxation, or 2> a toll booth (and probably "credit", too). Taxation requires a defined civil region upon which the taxes can be laid. A toll booth requires security for the toll taker (both for the daily flow of money, and for the ownership of the toll booth). Natural transportation choke points have been fought over for centuries. So... without stable civic relations, we can't maintain roads, and wheels become obsolete.

latheChuck said...

We've talked about archival data storage here on several occasions, and I suspect that ink on paper can last a hundreds of years if it's treated with respect. However, the great advantage of electronic information technology is that it moves so quickly and inexpensively from "library" to "reader". (By "library", I mean to include Wikipedia.) But if the end of cheap energy limits access to the Internet, will we have the ability to produce sufficient books? I propose that we start tabulating our own holdings of books most likely to be useful, and offer "consulting librarian services" to each other.

For example, if you wanted to know the parameters of paraffin wax as a solar thermal storage material, I could look at page 6-11 of Solar Energy Handbook (Krieder and Kreith, McGraw-Hill, 1981), and tell you that it melts at 47C (117F), has a heat of fusion of 209 kJ/kg (90 Btu/lb), weighs about 800 kg/cubic meter (50 lb/cu. ft), has a heat capacity (without state change) of about 2.7 kJ/kg-degreeC (0.65 Btu/lb-degreeF), and so on.

This is a great book, by the way, if you're interested in the topic (even including a chapter on wind energy, because (you know) the sun makes the wind blow).

Did you know, for example, that a typical cooking burner has a heating capacity of about 1 kW, bringing 2L of water to boil in about 10 min. You'll need about 2 square meters of solar power collection, with 50% efficiency, to approximate on burner. (If your solar collector is PV cells, though, you'll need a MUCH larger area to match the lower conversion efficiency.)

latheChuck said...

Regarding the Stirling engines mentioned by morenewyorknews and Step Back... as with every "heat engine", the efficiency is absolutely capped by the ratio (Th - Tc)/Th, where Th is the hottest temperature in the system, and Tc is the coldest, measured in Kelvin degrees (Celsius + 273). So if you have a solar collector creating 100 C air in a 23C environment, the efficiency is less than 77/373, or 21%. But that assumes no losses due to friction of the parts, etc. This calculation is just as valid for steam-piston engines, hot-air piston engines (Stirling), or steam turbines; it's the other (non-thermodynamic) inefficiencies that force any real system to fall short. Stirling engines have greater losses than steam engines, which Stirling knew, but he reasoned that the danger of steam explosion would overwhelm its efficiency. We might agree, if we have to live in close proximity to our engines.

Nigwil said...

JMG, thanks again for your perceptive view of the interesting times ahead.
As a long-time peak oiler - one fairly confident in the impending abrupt cessation of oil exports to countries which rely mostly on imports - I have recently come to appreciate that it is likely that some quantities of oil will be available to many nations at affordable prices if they ramp up the construction of coal to liquid capability using well-proven technology. Coal to Liquids has produced 40% of South Africa's oil for many years at less than $50 a barrel, and there are many countries with coal resources that could do the same, if they have the wit to build the plants before a spike in conventional oil production trashes the global economy and the opportunity to get coal to liquids up and running is missed.
All that, of course, merely contributes to the 'other' problem - the damage to our living habitat that ongoing emissions of carbon et al are having. McKibben of and others have pointed out that we must now leave most of the proven reserves of fossil fuel in the ground if we are to avoid utterly catastrophic climate change. Recent papers have pointed out that the climate in the tropics will move completely outside of the currently observed temperature ranges by the 2050s, with the rest of the world following suit thereafter. So we have very little time. But there does not appear to be any underlying resource limit that will conveniently reduce emissions to a sustainable level in time (sustainable for the human-sustaining biosphere, that is).
Your view of catabolic collapse is based mainly on loss of critical resources, and for sure some will expire in the next few decades, but the most critical ones - the resources that give rise to greenhouse gas emissions - will not be depleted enough to make any useful difference over the next few decades.
So the ONLY available 'solution' to the most pressing problem of a degrading climate has to be a social and hence political turnaround from our present path.
Somehow we have to find the conviction, will and capability to start living in a way that only requires emission of 'safe' levels of greenhouse gasses.
So compared to 'your' resource-driven collapse, we are instead confronted with the most urgent need to totally reconfigure all human activity in a way that allows civilisation to 'function' while giving the climate the ability to return to a more anthropo-friendly state with CO2 declining from 400 ppm back to the more comfortable -250 ppm pre-industrial state. We have to accomplish this feat in less than one generation - 20 to 30 years is the most time we have to achieve this or the opportunity will be lost and most of mankind doomed to extinction. This will entail a completely different form of 'collapse' - one where we are still comparatively resource-rich but where we are exercising the restraint we always should have by leaving virtually all of the most damaging resources in the ground while making sure that those resources we do extract are applied directly and exclusively to saving our necks.
Humanity must rise to meet this challenge (and it will be a miracle of truly religious proportions that we do!) and we could actually have a relatively nice time of it. We could arrive at a global state of harmonious existence with the largess provided on a daily basis by sun, wind and wave, while still having modest access to the technology necessary to ensure that we stay in and truly enjoy that happy state.
JMG, sir, how does that essential ‘managed descent’ fit your world-view?

Mark Rice said...

This is with regards to the idea of geek culture lacking in system thinking. Also this is motivated a bit by twilight's post.

I am also an electrical engineer-- an older electrical engineer. When I was young there was common knowledge to analyze the behavior of dynamic systems. This included the use of Laplace Transforms or the use of state space methods. But just about all EE's had some working knowledge of some of these techniques.

Now this seems to be the weird knowledge of the ancient ones. Mention Laplace Transform "poles" to young engineers-- even engineers with a PHD and I get blank stares. Could modern education be lacking in content on the interactions of dynamic systems?

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

@Roger--I'll have egg on my face if your urban area is in California or Oregon, but I suspect it isn't. Cultural trends often arise in California, spread to the cities of the northeast, and thence into the hinterlands. If your fellow urbanites haven't thought about where food comes from, they are, like, really behind the times.

The foodie movement started in Berkeley, California in the late Seventies. It was mainly a way of getting upper middle class people to spend more money in restaurants. However, Alice Waters' emphasis on quality local ingredients, simply prepared, resulted in the hipoisie paying some attention to farms.

Foodies, organic food enthusiasts and environmentalists have been directing more public attention to where our food comes from and how it is produced. Importantly, a lot of this attention is of the "we can do better" variety, which motivates people to change their behavior.

Michael Pollan's books are best sellers. This summer, the San Francisco Chronicle food section ran a series of articles about their new experimental rooftop truck garden and bee hives. Local urban and suburban elementary schools are putting in gardens as teaching tools. Gardening is getting popular again as a middle class pastime, and glossy new books on backyard chicken raising are coming out.

There is at least one farmer's market somewhere in Marin County every day of the week. Much of what's sold is specialty produce and not cheap, but it's local. The carriage trade supermarket labels fresh produce by country of origin and state of origin if from the West Coast and puts up "local origin" shelf tags for foods processed (not necessarily grown) in the local area.

Nearly all of this (except the school gardens) is the province of people with plenty of spare cash and time, but the fact that attention to food sources is trendy here suggests that a cultural shift is in progress.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Twilight,

Some excellent observations.

When I was younger, I thought nothing about assembling a pre-amplifier, high wattage RMS amplifier or wide band AM stereo (Motorola chip - a blast from the past) radio tuner from kits. The poor neighbours...

You obviously have a deep understanding about such matters, whereas I could merely follow instructions. The way that people comment that technology can be re-purposed really rings alarm bells here. It is simply not as easy as it sounds.



Cherokee Organics said...

Hi everyone,

What is the US obsession with the Amish all about?

My gut feel says that mentioning them is akin to an invocation, but I could be wrong.

Seriously, if the Amish are having large families on small farms then they are in for some serious trouble in the short to near term despite their current apparent success.



Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Deborah,

Exactly spot on. How do you reckon we survive a five month drought here with diminished water reserves? You have to weigh up the relative importance of activities and leave water for the vegetables and big reserves for fire fighting. Of course ladies before gentlemen is the general unspoken rule.

I speak with someone to the north of me that has been at this game far longer than I and is far more resourceful, and with the drought they are having up there, that household is down to 15,000 litres reserves and it isn’t even summer yet. Nervous days indeed…

As to the food, well a lot of Italian cooking is based on the utilisation of otherwise stale food products. I've just enjoyed and finished off an excellent tiramisu which was received for services rendered. I suggest a good look at the ingredients would be quite revealing! Marsala disguises a multitude of food sins!

The minestrone soup on table tonight here uses a real mixed bag of vegetables. It is all good stuff.

I'm about 35,000 litres of water ahead of this time last year as a result of infrastructure upgrades and hard lessons learned and implemented, but I always remember the needful and can wheel it out and live with it when necessary. It is a hard way to learn.



Cherokee Organics said...

Hi KL Cooke,

There are plenty of English Sparrows Down Under. No need to worry on that score. hehe!

Just a different perspective as you may have been looking for them (and Bill Oddie) in the wrong place.



Cherokee Organics said...

Hi k-dog,

As to electric cars, your quote: "The fear of competition from new technology prevents it." is possibly incorrect.

The technology is just far more expensive to produce. A tank of fuel contains a truly massive amount of energy. Lithium batteries just don't compare well in terms of energy storage to that tank of fuel. I doubt that an electric vehicle will ever be cost competitive with an internal combustion vehicle. Sorry to break the bad news.

The sort of batteries currently in use in mobile phones and small electrical devices bear only a passing resemblance to large current deep cycle batteries.



Ekkar said...

Though I am not a religious person in the common sense, I do find much wisdom in religious story's. I often think of the times we find ourselves in now and Noah's Ark. Though Noah did spend much energy trying to convince his fellow peoples of troubles to come, he did not await their understanding before he got to work. Therefore he put most his energy's into building the ark. I think it is so important for us to, of course to keep speaking our truth, but more importantly to seek out others who share our vision and get to work creating. Personally nothing eases my mind in these troubled times like planting fruit trees and nut trees, building compost piles, learning about local vegetation and actually using it, etc. We have to get out of the habit of waiting for others to come around before we start living our truths; whatever they may be.

Myriad said...

Hi Marcello,

The reference to plywood disks probably came from a comment of mine a while back, mentioning that the first working prototype of the serial bit-adder stack for the Clock of the Long Now was made of plywood. (The installed versions will be made of a high tech super-alloy, for longevity rather than precision, because they're supposed to run for 10,000 years.) The significance of the example isn't plywood or any other specific material, but the potential use of binary logic in mechanical computing.

Analog mechanisms such as Antikythera's, that use e.g. gear ratios to perform multiplication of continuously varying quantities like the angle of rotation of a shaft, can be no more accurate than their least accurate ratio. Play or slippage in the mechanism also degrade the result. So yes, high precision materials and workmanship are needed.

Pascal, Babbage, Herzstark (Curta), and others. developed decimal digital devices instead, mimicking pencil and paper arithmetic. But that approach still requires mechanisms that reliably distinguish at least ten different states of one element/digit (e.g. ten distinct rotational positions of one wheel or shaft), so again, precision mechanisms such as stepped drums and pin wheels were used.

Automated computation went electronic before it went binary, so there's been little exploration of binary mechanical calculators, the exceptions being mostly novelty one-off uses like educational museum exhibits and the aforementioned Clock of the Long Now. The potential advantages of binary include allowing much-lower-precision components (each element has only two states to distinguish), and being able to use the same kinds of elements to represent and accumulate numbers as to exert go/no-go mechanical control of the process, such as "carry or don't carry." In other words, it lends itself to logic gates and possible programmability.

I've been testing a few different designs for interconnectible mechanical logic gates, looking to optimize flexibility, reliability, and simplicity. A key issue is distribution of mechanical power to all the gates in a system without using problematic shafts, gears, or strings. (As with electronics, a powered logic gate can tolerate an imperfect input, e.g. a sliding rod that ends up in the ".87" position instead of the "1" position, and still operate correctly and output the correct signal instead of a further degraded one.) The method I have the highest hopes for harkens back to the sautoirs in Pascal's machines. I hope I don't end up needing as many prototypes as Pascal, but in any case, so far I have no fait accompli to drop into this year's Krampus stocking.

I'm also under no illusions that such contraptions could replace the ubiquitous electronic computing of the present day. To put the billion-fold speed difference into perspective, it would be like replacing automobile highway travel not with walking but with standing still and waiting for the continents to drift. Long slow mechanical computation could be worthwhile for repetitive arithmetic e.g. generating logarithm tables, but that only matters if existing logarithm tables don't survive. My idea is more to show that binary digital computing could have been invented centuries earlier (when it would have been useful) without metal parts, and that if lost, it's correspondingly likely to re-emerge in some form in future civilizations.

peak.singularity said...

Hello, have you seen this?

Is it me or the media are trying to spin this as support for the _current_ nuclear industry? How come that these scientists don't understand that this will be used as a justification for Fukushima and building even more dangerous pressurized water fission power plants?

And how come that they don't understand that it's too late anyway for new nuclear power plants designs, as that would require several decades to research, design and test before a new kind of reactor is commercially viable, whereas it would seem that we're going to have a new oil supply shock before the end of this decade after which these kinds of capital intensive investments won't be viable? So we would be better off developing decentralized renewables and "brace for impact"?
More on that here :

P.S.: Would you mind if I were to translate some of your writings in French?

latheChuck said...

Regarding electric cars vs. internal combustion engines... the fundamental problem with electric cars is that all of the chemistry used to make the car go must be stored INSIDE the battery. In our old gas-guzzlers, there's fuel in the tank, but oxidizer's in the air wherever you go, so you only need to carry part of the chemistry with you (less than 1/3). Second, the chemical components of a battery are in very close proximity (which can be a safety problem, if they are allowed to mix by accident), whereas hydrocarbon fuel can only burn as fast as fresh air gets to it.

latheChuck said...

By the way,... I forgot to mention that I imagine the role of "consulting librarian" could be performed by someone who accepted queries via low-tech amateur radio, and returned the results the same way, as long as either 1> the process is all-volunteer, with no pecuniary interest or 2> FCC regulation has become irrelevant.

C Young said...

Cruizing through a derelict town located in the peidmont region of NC, I directed the young occupants of my vehicle to note that the huge abandoned electric substations located downtown were being repurposed to serve as power supplies for server farms operating Google, facebook, and other such entities. Note that the stations used to serve the furniture and textile operations that made the region famous and economically powerful forty some years ago. I suddenly realized that in another forty years my fellow travelers will be making the same comments in the same town with a young group of travelers if history follows the linear path.

MawKernewek said...

@Cherokee - a usable small electric car for local trips only can be powered with lead acid batteries - they were made over 100 years ago in fact, but this isn't a drop-in replacement for the petrol driven automobile to fit in with current lifestyles, which is what the techno-cornucopians dream of.

deedl said...

@ Chris

Of course you can not maintain complex technological systems by yourself alone. But there have been cities with a big variety of professions before the fossil age and the same will hold true afterwards.

If you cant get a wind turbine going that simply means you cant do it, it does mean it cant be done. It is quite impudent to think that you can create by yourselve a technology that took many specialists manyears to be developed. Next step for you is to calculate your magnetic losses and adapt the geometry of your parts. If you dont know how to calculate the magnetic fields in your generator, leave it to a specialist and provide him with something you can produce, as food or whatever.

And you and your off the grid friends who use the latest and most efficient technology are prone to see it fail. Using the latest technology means to have to go through all the teething troubles. Using the most efficient technology means to lose redundancy (because it is always a tradeoff between efficiency and redundancy). And since you people are off grid, you can not rely on community redundancy.

I work in the research of new ways of electronics production. I work on stuff that will be implemented in industry in may be five years and become larger scale in probably fiteen years and can be bought by you in twenty years. So what you consider latest technology is in terms of how it is produced at least twenty yeears old. When i say electronics can simply be printed, this is not because i smoke, but because this is what i do every day.

Which brings me the most important point. Implementing technology is a job for professionals, it is nothing people can do at home by themselves. There have been specialized technicians before the fossil age (e.g. bladesmith, gunsmith, locksmith, blacksmith, coppersmith, etc.) and there will be afterwards. How many different occupations and therefore people do you need to maintain a certain technological product? what community size do you need to support those people? that are the questions you need to aks to see where the future of civilization lies.

Areas with efficient food production and enough population to maintain specialists can achieve enormous technological tasks, as building pyramids or (more recent but still pre fossil) reclaiming vast lands from the sea, as the dutch did. Small populations will fall back to the stone age.

So if you want to be part of an postfossil civilization, become a specialist in a profession that does not rely on current social or economical systems or on fossil fuels. Living alone off the grid is a symptom of anglo saxon individualist culture but not a solution to any problem. Man became the dominant species by creating communal redundancy in the group, providing help for the needy. There is no reason to leave this path.


What do i do to preserve technologies: I do not live off the grid but as many germans, i have an electricity contractor who supplies me with 100% renewable energy, so i as a paying customer provide the fincial backbone for a community shift towards a renewable grid. I still can repair and maintain many daylife items and produce food in the garden. I work as an engineer in the research of electronics production, so i know quite a bit about the odds of producing electronic devices. Since my research is about new production techniques i know first hand with how little equipement a big variety of electrical devices can be made. So I work on an individual level to become less dependend on the community but also work as part of the community to make the shift towards a post fossil civilization. Since my community Germany is dedicated to shifting towards 100% renewables i stand not alone at the doorsteps of a postfossil world.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

@Myriad--Your project got me thinking, though you have probably already considered and rejected anything I can come up with. If I understand your fifth paragraph, you are looking for the best way to physically reposition the gates, not for a mechanical controller.

I have no real idea for a purely mechanical gate shifter. There have been attempts at fluid gates. Maybe something Rube Goldberg like a clepsydra? Instead of clockwork or falling water or tiny counterweights or BBs dropping off an incline onto a teeter-totter, I would hanker for an electromechanical switch such as a solenoid or a pendulum released by an electromagnet.

If a controller is what you want, player piano rolls, the swappable discs and cylinders of music boxes and the punch cards of Jacquard looms are field tested and pretty robust.

I'm no Tesla but I had fun running animations of these devices in my head.

Crow Hill said...

Where the food comes from: My relatives who live in Geneva are members of a vegetable box scheme (Jardins de Cocagne). Part of the contract is to go and do so many days gardening a year. I accompany them when I visit. Each time we participate in some different activity, including turning over the onions for drying, picking vegetables and filling bags.

Otherwise I feel there is too much concern in the comments about how to maintain our current lifestyle in a post-peak oil future. I feel humans are very adaptable and will find new meanings and new ways when needed.

Leo said...

For the near future, this is interesting:

fairly honest and straight forward

Andrew H said...

Hi Marcello, Myriad,

Your comment is possibly reasonable for digital (either binary or decimal) but not for analogue computers. The construction of analogue computers out of Meccano from as early as 1935 is well documented.

Meccano analogue computers

They were used extensively during World War II for fairly serious computing jobs, such as designing bomb sights, designing bombs (eg those used in the 'Dambuster' raids on Germany), gun fire control systems etc. One of them was sold and taken to New Zealand where it played a major role in Hydroelectric Dam design and was even used for simulating rabbit populations.

WWII Meccano computer.

Now Meccano (usually thought of as a universal construction toy) is made out of metal, but I doubt it would be much more difficult to achieve the same functionality using plywood. Meccano was used because it was easily available and easy to use.


trippticket said...

We haven't been at this farm very long at all, just over 3 months at this point in fact, but last week we put in our 60-day notice to vacate.

This mean moving out of a 1000 s.f. farm house with a full basement on 88 acres and back into a 320 s.f. wall tent with an outhouse on 2.5 acres.

But that 2.5 acres is ours, and it's very quiet, and we don't have disrespectful gun enthusiasts (the farm owners) coming and going (and shooting) all the time with no warning, making an incredible amount of noise.

And get this, it's not me who's really pushing this move. It's my wife! Lying on the bottom bunk at the tent the other day, listening to the woods around us, she announced that she couldn't stomach the pace and high-energy environment we had stumbled into on the farm, and was totally missing the connection of living in a tent in the woods.

Funny to me to think of moving into an electrified modern farmhouse, with hot water on demand, phone, internet, wifi, cell phone coverage (none of which do we have at our place), and feeling like she'd LOST her connectivity. She was a serious technophile when I met her.

I think she's undergoing another major mental shift, and I'm all too happy to accommodate. Now, back to figuring out how to live without money...

Hanshishiro said...

You said : "Seriously, if the Amish are having large families on small farms then they are in for some serious trouble in the short to near term despite their current apparent success."
The Amish are well aware of this. That is why large groups of the Amish and Mnenonite comunities in Tennessee have migrated to places like Belize. Honestly I think that the greatest success of the Amish is in the way that they educate their children, teaching them to be hard working, polite and considerate of others. If I had children, I would want them to be like that.

sunseekernv said...

more on thermo-electric generators, I'll back off on my knocking them a bit.

Finally found some info on the old Russian kerosene lamp TEG, it's zinc-antimony and constantan (55% copper, 45% nickel). gives a couple of watts, enough to run a small tube radio. I'm surprised the 1.5 volt filament only drew 250 mA, but not a tube guy.

The ZnSb : constantan couple gives 1 - 2 percent efficiency, so it's reasonable, and not too rare of materials. metal:metal pairs conduct too much heat, so might be .1 to 1 percent.
I suppose even that's better than nothing, just make bunch more couples. The museum page has some other examples.

There are several companies making BiTe TEGs at 5 or 6%, those of you with wood stoves might want to snag some, though they're expensive $10-20/Watt for the bare modules. Also there's the biolite TEG camping stove/home stove - might be handy to have if you have access to wood, gives 2 - 4 watts @ 5 Volts.

re Gravity lite - like an old weight powered clock, but with an LED. New model allows external access to power.

Now if LEDs weren't so complicated to make (good, white ones). Replacing a 1 watt LEDs means like a 10 watt incandescent (incandescents get really inefficient at low wattages).

gregorach said...

I have an idea as to why modern geek culture is so incredibly blind to whole systems - I think it's because we work with so many layers of complexity and abstraction that you absolutely cannot afford to consider the whole system if you ever want to actually get anything done.

It's not just that we're a long way removed from the underlying hardware - most working programmers these days are a very long way removed from the operating system. My day-to-day work environment is in a managed execution framework running on a highly abstracted virtual machine running on top of an insanely complex operating system built from lower-level APIs running on a simulation of a real machine running on top of another equally complex OS running on real hardware. I have absolutely no idea what that hardware is, or even where it's physically located.

So yeah, the factory which produces the feedstock for the chip fab that supplies the parts for the modules that get used to build the underlying hardware that runs the abstraction stack I live on top of is a very long way from my thoughts, most of the time... For a lot of us, it's very easy to forget there's even a real machine involved here somewhere.

gregorach said...

@Ruben: regarding the absence of wheel-thrown pottery in post-Roman Britain, I have long suspected (but, of course, can't prove) that it was a cultural decision, rather than a direct result of economic and social collapse. The quality of Anglo-Saxon metalwork was extra-ordinary, and many of the functions which were the preserve of pottery during the Roman period were performed using turned wooden vessels, which are arguably harder to produce than wheel-thrown pottery (and sadly don't fare nearly as well in the ground, so they are much rarer in archaeological contexts). My belief is that pottery didn't go out of fashion because the skills were lost, but rather that the skills were lost simply because it went out of fashion, being associated with the old, failed Roman culture, rather than the new, exotic Germanic culture.

Iuval Clejan said...

Dear Mark Rice,
I don't think that is the issue with whole systems thinking. The Nyquist stability criterion is a useful way of encapsulating a general behavior of linear systems and perhaps it is not needed for modern engineers who can use SPICE or other software. The kind of thinking that is lacking in our culture is about connections of the system we are focusing on to other systems that interact and encapsulate it.

So for example, foodies see that food affects their health and start thinking how it can be healthier and where it comes from. But they don't go beyond that and ask where all the inputs (tools and materials) come from to the farmer and how that affects the economy and their own psychological health.

New agers focus on individual psychology and don't bother to ask whether a social, economic and cultural system has a strong feedback with individual psychology and whether some individuals are in much harsher conditions to enable them to be in less harsh conditions.

Similarly, electrical engineers may understand when their designed system becomes unstable, but they don't bother to look at where the materials for the chips, PCBs and discrete components come from and the effect on them and the people producing them to have such specialization and disconnection from nature and community.

trippticket said...

This was in my email inbox this morning with a request to post it here:

"Love your take on collapse, Tripp. Found you via JMG, after 40 yrs of DIY/self sufficiency fixation, and 66 yrs of nature/wilderness adoration, etc. My revelation came in 1967 with my first Organic Gardening magazine...and I gobbled up everything after than, including Permaculture when it arrived in late 80's...could go get the first Whole Earth catalogue right now ;)

Re: money, everyone should know that money is debt, created (and the supply is controlled) by banks. Fractional reserve banking legally allowed them to create loans out of thin air, up to an amount limited by a designated multiple of their actual reserves. The real crime is that when that 'airy' money is deposited in a bank, it is counted as that bank's RESERVES, increasing the 'airy' money it can lend out. If all loans/debts were paid back, money would no longer be in circulation. Refer to Zarlenga's 'Lost Science of Money", 2012 IMF white paper "The Chicago Plan Revisited", etc., etc. Good videos on YouTube also..

Re: NTE - Near Term (now to 30 years out) Extinction believers...I think they could be right .... or they could be wrong! (the last not allowed by their ban on anything approaching hope of any kind). Their blind faith in computer modeling is really has been proven unreliable in economics, weather, etc. etc.

Thanks again,
Nancy - maritime PNW"

I (Tripp) would ask that no one reply to this post expecting a return volley as the moderation and email reply lag time would be hard to take!

Robert Mathiesen said...

@Andrew H:

An analogue computer works without overt use of either base-2 or base-10 numbers, and a mechanical analogue computer is a rather durable beast. My father was part of the team that designed the Norden Bombsight for the US Navy during WW2. It was a mechanical anagloue computer. After it was finally declassified, we had an old one sitting out in our garage when I was in my late 'teens, and I remember how sturdy (and heavy) it was.

And thank you for the reference to Mechano, which was a truly wonderful toy, able to keep a child creatively busy for weeks on end. I had come close to forgetting that part of my own childhood.

Glenn said...

The future is also a Free Country.

Which is to say, that people are free to project all their hopes or fears onto it, because none can say what will actually come.

I appreciate the effort to assess our future in light of what is likely rather than what feeds our fantasies and phobias.


Marrowstone Island

Quos Ego said...

JMG, I'm very much out of topic, but I've been toying with the idea of grabbing a copy of Leszek Kolakowski's essays on Marxism. If you've read them, are they any good?

My reading list is growing exponentially these days, and I hope the harsh times ahead will still leave me enough time to finish reading Michelet (I have yet to read something more delightful than his prose), Saint-Simon, Thoreau, and Kantorowicz!

Since I'm on the subject of reading, do you think you could post a reading list here sometimes (maybe once a month)? Not necessarily only about Peak Oil and collapse, since these two subjects, though fascinating, cover only a tiny percentage of the human experience, but about everything you've enjoyed.

Iuval Clejan said...

Dear Hal,

Please do get back to me. Nothing yet from my land share request on the forum. I did get one bite from someone here who contacted me via email which looks promising.

Iuval Clejan said...

Dear Deedl:
" Living alone off the grid is a symptom of anglo saxon individualist culture but not a solution to any problem". A great quote, though pre-industrial anglo-saxons still needed community to survive and thrive. It is also a symptom of Emerson and the the transcendentalists' legacy, and the industrial revolution's capacity to fabricate solar cells, wind turbines, batteries, electronics, etc to enable that kind of life... But yeah, people who say they are "off the grid" are another example of inadequate whole systems thinking. They are only thinking of the electrical grid, and not of all the other industrial networks they are a part of...

Iuval Clejan said...

Sorry for posting so much this week, but after working hard moving dirt and slinging paint, I have 2 days off. I have another example of the "cussedness of whole systems" which ties in to TEGs.

When I was working at Burn Design, there was demand from some company wanting our stoves in Africa or South America (forgot which) to integrate a TEG into the stove. But the efficiency of burning wood to generate electricity that way is very small, about 1%. The main point of the stove is to reduce the use of wood and prevent deforestation (and also improve indoor air quality), but now that people want to charge their cell phones, if they have a TEG on the stove, they will burn MORE wood, the opposite effect from the intended one. We didn't take into account the cultural system that those people are part of. It would be better for them to get solar panels, perhaps, since the sunlight is free and doesn't contribute too much to deforestation, but there is still the economic and environmental cost of the panels and associated electronics.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi MawKernewek,

Yeah, lead acid battery technology has been around for a very long time. You're spot on too. We can have electric vehicles, it is just that they may need to be very light weight (think go-kart size). The batteries just don't have that much energy storage capacity for their weight especially compared to a fuel tank.

Lithium batteries are an exception too in that they can be exhausted reasonably regularly without too much damage, but I wouldn't want to do that with a lead acid or nickel metal-hydride battery. Not good and you’d get a very short life. I’m aware the Prius uses nickel metal-hydride, but I bet the controller doesn’t allow the battery to get to a zero state of charge regularly (could be wrong).

Current vehicles are just too heavy for efficient use of fuel.

What do you reckon?



Ruben said...


That is an interesting idea. Please enjoy this video of nesting wood bowls made on a foot-powered lathe.

The Craft - Robin Wood

Yupped said...

Hi Trippticket, just read your post on vacating the farm. Good luck on your return to the tent in the woods, hope it goes well. There has to be a good novel or film in there somewhere, or at least some poetry. You may have presaged western civilization's entire expansion and contraction drama over the course of a few months :-)

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

@Cherokee and Maw--A couple of years ago, I watched a documentary from Amory Lovins that featured the Rocky Mountain Institute's electric concept car. It was sharp looking and had good performance specs, better than a Prius; I wanted one.
Lovins made the same point that the problem with electrical cars is weight. Get the weight down far enough and you don't need big batteries, which reduces the weight more, which reduces the engine power required to make a vehicle that can haul cargo and handle better than a golf cart.

The RMI solution was to make the body out of carbon fiber instead of metal. Lovins said that American car companies didn't want to do this because it would require very expensive retooling.

Since then, I've been on the lookout for car manufacturers making carbon fiber body parts. It is starting to happen a little, but AFAIK no one is bringing a mostly non-metal-bodied car to market any time soon. Perhaps there are other obstacles. Tesla seems to have the financing and engineers to make radical changes in body design if they wanted to.

I figure that if anyone succeeds in making a normal looking but lightweight electric powered car priced for the mass market, all the electric cars with conventional bodies will instantly become clunkers.

Nathaniel said...

I enjoyed last week's post, although I was a bit late getting to it. One of your passages reminded me of a humorous quote, the origin of which I don't remember: "Famous words heard right before the waning of an empire, 'looks like we need new marble for the guest vomitorium.'"


Virtually Nonymous said...

I'm an avid reader of the report and of your books - working on The Blood of the Earth right now. Before my comment I'd just like to say thanks for doing all the writing you do - I really appreciate it.

I can't help but disagree with your position on the internet's continued usage in the future. I have no doubts that it will be cut down and become nowhere near as omnipresent in society as it currently is, and that for it to be preserved would require communities of people willing to live a monastic life in service of it - the monasteries and theological communities that preserved knowledge through the post-Roman dark ages.

I believe that those communities will continue to exist for some time. There are already groups of people and loose communities who live simple and monastic lives outside of their prodigious spending on technology and internet connectivity. I agree that the continued maintenance and upkeep of the internet is a an incredibly complicated and difficult task, but there are already communities willing to devote themselves to such an endeavour and are already living with the simple lifestyles required.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi deedl,

Quote: "Of course you cannot maintain complex technological systems by yourself alone"

Agreed. Self-sufficiency is an unattainable goal with our current expectations. Food is a complex beast too and I have a much longer growing season here than you do in Europe.

Quote: "there have been cities with a big variety of professions before the fossil age and the same will hold true afterwards."

Those cities historically were probably surrounded by fertile lands which could produce a surplus. This is not the case now, but top soil can always be repaired - but I'm unsure over what time period you mean.

Quote: "And you and your off the grid friends who use the latest and most efficient technology are prone to see it fail."

You completely misread my post, but overall I agree with your sentiment. Possibly lost in translation?

Quote: "Living alone off the grid is a symptom of anglo saxon individualist culture but not a solution to any problem."

Oh my! Actually, it is for purely pragmatic purposes that I'm off the grid - as are many others, so I'll try to explain.

The concentration of population is very different in Australia to Germany, so infrastructure is much more expensive per household.

It is very expensive to connect up to the electrical grid if you are anywhere outside of an urban area.

Natural disasters and extreme weather events are not uncommon here, both of which can regularly knock out the electrical grid for days at a time.

In addition to this, because of massive legal class actions following fires apparently caused by power lines, the power companies simply disconnect huge areas on days of high fire risk.

Off grid provides a level of reliability which is far greater than the grid. Even outer lying urban areas get disconnected if the fire risk is great enough.

Quote: "Implementing technology is a job for professionals, it is nothing people can do at home by themselves."

Mate, that is arrogant. You are displaying what is known as professional capture and it is simply not true and does not gel with the facts on the ground.

Quote: "Man became the dominant species by creating communal redundancy in the group, providing help for the needy."

Perhaps this is lost in translation? Co-operation is an effective tool, but help for the needy is not a given in any low energy system.

Hi luval,

Quote: "But yeah, people who say they are "off the grid" are another example of inadequate whole systems thinking."

I agree with your sentiment as self-sufficiency in our current societal context is an unattainable goal. I also acknowledge the long supply lines to this place. However, it is implicit in your quote that you are gambling - that given all of the discussions here - that your choices are the correct ones. Only time will tell.

My guess is that community will rise only when circumstances forces it to. We have enough natural disasters here that you can see that this is the case. But the question is, "do you want to have to ask for help, or do you want to be in a position to provide help?" There is a big difference between the two positions.



LunarApprentice said...

Regarding the comment by Mark Rice"... Now this seems to be the weird knowledge of the ancient ones. Mention Laplace Transform "poles" to young engineers-- even engineers with a PHD and I get blank stares. Could modern education be lacking in content on the interactions of dynamic systems?"

Well, I just sat (Oct 26, 2013) for the NCEES electrical engineering licensing exam for Washington state, and I am pleased to report that the exam, and the study guide I used to prepare for it, did cover Laplace transforms, Control Systems Theory and Root-locus analysis; basically the knowledge domain that those "poles" belong to. Admittedly, the EE candidates who take this exam need to because human safety or the public interest necessitate licensure, and so they are largely power engineers whose curriculum is more traditional.

Given that the pass rate, I understand, for this exam is over 50%, one can infer that this material is still being taught at least to power engineers.

My own electrical engineering undergrad years were from 1976 through 1981, and my old text books, and even my dad's EE texts which he collected from 1946 through the mid 60's were excellent reference material. The only topics not covered are current computer stuff such as spread-sheet calculations.

I imagine Mark, those engineers you met must have been digital/software oriented. Maybe Control System dynamics has been relegated to elective status for a minority of students who are interested in analog theory the way that Power Systems course were long ago made the preserve of those few who knew they wanted to become power engineers.

I share your sense that vast swaths of basic engineering knowledge are not being propagated. There are only so may semesters, and so many classroom hours per semester, and the students and industry all want "marketable" skills. My sense is that much of what's taught is to be how to use software tools to generate the results you need pronto, rather than any deep understanding of your discipline.

I can't help but wonder how many of the new engineering graduates could do ANY engineering without a computer and specialized software applications. I don't see how they will be able to adapt their skills to a relocalizing, lower tech future.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi deedl,

Quote: "Since my community Germany is dedicated to shifting towards 100% renewables i stand not alone at the doorsteps of a postfossil world."

Yes, your community is shifting towards 100% renewables. True. It is just not the solar, wind, hydro fantasy that you are holding onto. The 100% renewables will instead be based on an economy powered by sunlight (think plants)!

Doesn't Germany currently rely on base load power from coal and nuclear? If a 100% renewable economy was economically possible, it would be implemented right now. The Euro grid has no storage - so unlike an off grid system – it has a great many problems balancing supply and demand. This is a real problem that has not and will not be solved.

German plans to decommission nuclear power plants sometime in the future are exactly that - plans. Implementation is a completely different matter. Talk it up when it is done. Do you not realise you are spruiking the myth of progress?

The German economy is based on exports. I'd urge you to have a look into how long the supply lines are for those industries. It may surprise you.

Liebig's law applies to manufacturing as well as to the ecology.



Phil Harris said...

Thanks tripp for posting Nancy:
Refer to Zarlenga's 'Lost Science of Money", 2012 IMF white paper "The Chicago Plan Revisited"

I very much endorse reading both Zarlenga and Kumhof (IMF Research). The latter cites Zarlenga. Kumhof et al is available on-line, google Kumhof Chicago Plan but you need to scroll down a bit for the Government versus Private Control over Money Issuance page 12 of pdf

PS Hope you have a stove as well as tent. Best wishes for move back home.

Ian Stewart said...

Deborah, Porsche's Carrera GT supercar of 10 years ago is famous as an all-carbon-fiber car, and it is also extremely difficult and expensive to ensure. You pretty much need the same guys who manufacture America's Cup racing hydrofoils to effect any major repairs. There would have to be major tooling and skill investment worldwide, not just on the part of manufacturers, in order for mass-market full-CF vehicles to be insurable.

On the subject of automobiles, I am fairly well resistant to the idea of ever buying a new car. I am still tooling about in the same 1980s VW van my mom bought new, and I figure if fuel prices spike severely, I am in a very good position to rideshare with others who are becoming disenfranchised from the car culture. It is far from the most efficient vehicle out there (20mpg, however fast or slow I drive it), and it is certainly not state-of-the-art in terms of passive safety features, but it is highly space-efficient... it can carry seven passengers and about 50 cubic feet of cargo in a wheelbase not much longer than the average sedan, and it has near 50/50 weight distribution, which helps out the most important active safety system, the driver. Additionally, numerous engine swaps have been pioneered, including electric drivetrains. (There's a guy in Berkeley with a 1970s Bus called the "Voltswagen," the rear wheels of which are forced into hilariously negative camber by the weight of the batteries. It has the all important California HOV lane sticker, though!)

I would say that the automobile industry is beginning to experience diminishing returns due to technical complexity. Take, for instance, the new piezo-electric injectors for modern diesel engines. A computer switches a piezo-electric crystal back and forth between two states, many times per injection cycle. Very fancy technology that enables all sorts of outward improvements, but what about when it comes time to replace it... 25 years from now? Quite a capital cost to manufacture such things. That's why I think the automobiles most likely to stay on the road are those platforms that have been proven durable and adaptable... old air-cooled VWs, Toyota Hilux series of pickups, Mercedes diesels, to name a few. Maybe my Vanagon will someday end up running on batteries, but I certainly don't plan on trading it in for a Prius wagon any time soon.

trippticket said...

I'm going to assume that you're referring to my post about moving back "off-grid" when you reply to Deedl, though I couldn't find the related interim comment.

Just to clarify. We are planning on living in the tent without electricity for only 3-4 more months before we convert the platform to a small wood cabin (480 s.f. plus loft and 12x16 front porch, for 4 people) very simply electrified. The plan is to only install a little lighting, ceiling fans, a few outlets, and a fridge, but none of the big four users - HVAC, water heater, oven, clothes dryer. One could still do plenty of damage to fairy habitat (in my daughter's terms) with that sort of array! We've tried other solutions, like oil lamps, gas light, propane stove water heating, and hope that we've come to some better conclusions. Electric lighting, used very sparingly and coupled with good natural lighting design of course, seems to be the best answer to me. In the summer it never gets turned on. I suppose we could do without if we needed to.

We've cruised through 3 summers without A/C already, the first of those in balmy south Georgia (US), which was the main trigger for moving north to the mountains! No intention of ever using it again, and in fact told the farm house owners not to bother when we were remodeling this place. They will be adding it in after we are gone though, since apparently "no one else in the developed world can live without it." I doubt the validity of that claim obviously.

Water heat will be passive - radiator coils on roof, water tank on rocket mass heat exchanger, black eco-shower bags - done all this before, nothing new.

We probably will use a propane stove/oven, as little as possible, but it is a wonderful convenience. A solar oven and cob oven are in the short plans, and there is a brick-lined Dutch oven pit already in play. It's the icon next to my posts!

Everyone hangs laundry out to dry, so nothing new there. We do wash laundry by hand, though, as often as we can handle it. Laundry mat washer fills in when we get behind.

My focus right now is heating, using less firewood in particular, hence the rocket mass heater plan. Rumor is one can get the same heat out of less than one cord that conventional box stoves get from four. I'll bet testing that theory for myself soon enough.

We also use a fair bit of ice when we are not electrified, so there's a coal and oil impact there that is probably larger than electric refrigeration. Plus it's a pain in the balls.

And we still drive to farmers markets and craft shows (~80 miles max) to peddle our herbal products.

So yes, we are still part of the industrial system, but our trajectory is always toward wiser decisions regarding energy and natural resource use, less absolute use, and making our income more locally and in a more regenerative way. Plastic bottles from China holding our lovely herbal sprays moving toward pastured chicken fed from and sold in our own foodshed and all that. I find the whole process to be very interesting and rewarding, always look forward to the next step, and obviously there are plenty more of those to be taken.


Jessica said...

Continuing to clarify my earlier post, the important part that I left out is that our forest is at the end of a regular old neighborhood, the property owners in which all seem to be moving toward some form of self-reliance or other. It is about 7 miles from town, so not EASY access, but still, I can walk it, or more easily, bike or horseback it. Our local farmers market is small, and the season has to date been short, ending when the fall tourist season starts to get underway. There is a lively discussion about extending the calendar and presence of our market next season.

So no, we're not off by ourselves in the woods believing ourselves to be self-sufficient. We very much believe in community and village processes, particularly in an energy descent context.

John Michael Greer said...

Okay, I'm back from the latest speaking gig and more or less dug out from the immediately urgent emails et al. Thank you all for keeping up a lively and courteous discussion in my absence!

Juhana, oddly enough, we'll be talking about that at great length in an upcoming series. Dark ages of the sort we're facing are always full of violence, ranging from the sort of low-level sporadic stuff you've mentioned as far up the scale as the technology of the time will allow. Yes, it's part of my vision, and I've already discussed some ways to deal with it. More on this soon!

Kris, funny! It's occasionally amusing to imagine how they'll whine when the American economy tips into, ahem, "negative growth" for decades at a time.

Ian, I'm not too familiar with the hardware requirements for digital modes, as the only digital mode I'm deeply interested in is old-fashioned Morse code. If low-tech digital is what calls to you, though, by all means do it! That would be a useful addition to the toolkit.

MawKernewek, that's why I've been stressing the fact that we need to preserve the necessary skills for the future; odds are that very few of us will be able to make a living with them in our lifetimes, so it's going to be crucial to find ways to pass them on that don't depend on the profit motive.

KL, too funny.

K-dog, no argument there.

News, I'll be very interested to see the results. The reasons I've tended to favor thermoelectrics are, first, they've been used successfully in many low-tech settings -- I'm thinking here of the kerosene lamp generators that were standard issue in Soviet Siberia for many decades -- and second, that they are very simple to manufacture and thus may be within the reach of societies that don't have the technical chops to build a Stirling engine. Still, if there are other technologies that will do the same thing, and do it better, then those will be more likely to be adopted, of course.

John, a difference of scale is not a difference of kind. You're repeating arguments that have been discussed here literally hundreds of times, and don't stand up to analysis. I'd encourage you to read through the archives and consider the shortcomings of the logic of "but it's different this time."

Phitio, sudden forcing is far from unknown in the Earth's geological history. I'd encourage you, for example, to look at the evidence from Greenland ice cores suggesting that the temperature spike at the end of the Younger Dryas cold phase took less than a decade to boost the Earth's average temperature by more than 15 degrees F. I'd also encourage you to glance back at this post of mine from last year, which discusses (among other things) the possibility that the collapse of the Greenland ice cap due to methane releases could happen much more quickly than the IPCC et al. are forecasting.

Cherokee, simple metal-acid battery technology is another very useful little item to preserve. As for your rant, I have no problem with that!

Bike Trog, no argument there at all.

John Michael Greer said...

Step Back, thank you! May I borrow that last phrase of yours -- "ephemerality lives only in the minds of those with ephemeral knowledge bases" -- and have some friendly blacksmith put it on the business end of a branding iron? There are some backsides that badly need that reminder scorched into them. ;-)

Lakis, thank you for a reasoned and thoughtful response! I don't know of any single document presenting a detailed emergy comparison between undersea cable technology and satellite technology, but it's not at all hard to break it down into subsidiary questions -- what kinds of technology are needed to manufacture each one? What's needed to deploy each one? What's needed to operate each one? -- and compare them; in the age of Google, as I noted, that takes all of a few minutes to do, and I'd encourage you to take those minutes and do it, as I did.

You're quite right that Carson's vision of the future differs from mine, and that that's a central part of our disagreement. The reference to Mumford is apropos as well -- one of my early posts discusses Mumford's phases, and suggests that his neotechnic phase was basically a mirage or, if you will, a temporary and never quite attainable phase, followed by the hesperotechnic phase we're entering now. I'm aware that that's a wildly unpopular view, but I'd suggest that so far, at least, it's proven to be rather more accurate than the competing visions.

More broadly, though, I'd like to encourage you and others in what we might as well call the high-tech end of the sustainability scene to look at ways in which the benefits of something like the internet can be maintained without the cripping problems with materials sourcing and economic viability that the internet as currently constituted will face in a deindustrializing age. As I noted in my post, it's entirely possible that there are ways to do the thing that don't require, say, clean rooms and the capacity to lay down monomolecular films, and if something can be built and tested -- not just daydreamed -- before current computer technology starts to become less available, it's quite possible that something of the kind could become part of the ecotechnic future I've discussed. If half the effort currently being put into 3D printers could go into some such project, I'd be considerably less sceptical about the outcome.

JP, that's a huge issue, and one of the reasons I consider the old-fashioned library and printing press to be critical technologies for the future. More on this later.

Robert, thank you! I'll be in touch as time and circumstances permit.

Richard, one can hope.

Anselmo, exactly. We'll be talking about that as we proceed.

Ed, excellent! I'd encourage you to add the slide rule to your list of mechanical calculating devices, too -- the fact that it's powered by human muscles just makes it more suited to the future we're most likely to get.

Anselmo, another very good point. It's not just the geekoisie who are blind to whole systems, of course -- our entire society is pervaded by that blindness.

Raven, now factor in the energy cost of what you're feeding to the dog. Whole systems!

Glenn, that's excellent news -- I hadn't expected governments to deal with reality even on that level for a while yet.

Myriad said...

Hi Deborah Bender,

Your point about hankering for electromechanical switches is a good one. Because it was getting long, in my previous comment I left out a remark to the effect of, if you can use electricity at all, you can make relays, which can do everything my mechanical gates can do, and much faster too. (Historically, relays in digital computers were rapidly replaced by vacuum tubes, but that brief period was apparently so influential that science fiction writers many years later still wrote of the sound of "the clicking of relays" when futuristic sentient computers and robots contemplated their decisions.)

The way I'm approaching mechanical digital computing, physically repositioning gates during the operation of the machine isn't necessary, but they have to be laid out somehow and then connected together so that the output of each one can become an input for several others. With electronics, you just run wires (or lines on a printed circuit) from one to another however you wish, within certain generous limits (although laying things out so that gates are close to the gates they feed into speeds up operation). To power each one, you just run some more wires. It's harder to do that mechanically. For instance if a gate's output is to pull (or not pull) a string, you can run the string a distance to another gate, but strings can stretch, bind, fray, etc. A rigid push-rod is more reliable, but limited in where it can reach to.

Things like player piano rolls and Jacquard punch cards are the equivalent of read-only memory. That's how you store data that doesn't change often, such as (if you have a programmable machine) the most frequently used programs. Re-writable memory is a harder problem, but if you only need a little bit of it, you can make it out of basic logic gates, so that's all I'm worrying about for the time being. Developing more compact forms of mechanical memory, using more specialized mechanisms, would be a follow-up project.

Hi Andrew H,

Thanks for the links on Meccano analog computers. I'm still looking for info on how the integrators in those computers are made, because it seems like some precision in those components would be needed, whether standard Meccano parts or specialized add-on parts are used. (Meccano parts are manufactured to pretty tight tolerances, though, so it's plausible.) You can think of a mechanical integrator as a continuously variable transmission (with a full range of "reverse" as well as forward ratios) feeding into a rotation measurement (such as a clock hand, odometer wheels, or a turning threaded rod that moves a pen along an axis on a plotter). The devices wouldn't have to be inherently accurate because they can be calibrated, but they do have to be consistent in their operation (that is, they have to "hold" their calibration) from one minute of operation to the next. I could imagine most of the accessory parts made of wood, but thinking of how wooden disks and cylinders could be affected by humidity and wear makes me think that in the absence of metal, stone might be a better bet for the key integrator parts.

Hi Robert Mathiesen,

Infinite respect for your father's achievement.

When contemplating such things as the Norden bombsight and the Mark i Fire Control Computer (that video by the way describes an integrator starting at 30:52) I wonder whether the machining expertise to make them still exists in the U.S. today. (Maybe computer-controlled milling machines could now crank out those parts effortlessly, but I doubt many people could still them the way they were originally crafted.)

Marcello said...

"but I doubt it would be much more difficult to achieve the same functionality using plywood.."

Breakdowns and wear were an issue with mechanical compters. I would recon that with plywood gears delamination would occur within a short amount of time.Even copper would probably be better. This assuming you can get decent quality plywood to start with in a post industrial setting...

deedl said...

Hi Chris,

you said: "You are displaying what is known as professional capture"

No i do not. I just have to look to all the technological systems that surround me, household plumming and house electricity, the heating system, radio tv and media, internet and cellphone and other communication, laptop, smartphone and other computer technology and of course my car. It is not possible for an individuum to be able to maintain and repair all those by themselves. I have to rely on my personal network of specialists i know to exchange my help and knowledge with their help and knowledge.

If i see what time and effort it takes for me to solve a problem and how quick a specialist can do it, then there is no question that a service exchange of specialists will always be more efficient then everybody living on himself.

Since i am not a specialist in most domains of this world i do not display professional capture but the amateurs awe for the abilities professionals have.

By the way, the opposite of professionals capture is the Dunning-Kruger-Effect ;)

you said: "probably lost in translation"

Yeah probably, some stuff is better talked about with a beer instead of a keyboard :)

and finally some fun-facts about the german energiewende, try not to make the mistake to follow the spin the public debate has, which is spun by big coal and big whatever ;)

"If a 100% renewable economy was economically possible, it would be implemented right now." -> it is implemented right now. Germany is replacing 2% of its supply by renewables year by year. Currently we are at 26%, in ten years it will be over 45 and in 30 years it will be over 80, which is the governments goal for 2050. Implementing renewables is a task for generations, but we are on track.

"German plans to decommission nuclear power plants sometime in the future are exactly that - plans." -> Three years ago we had 17 reactors running, now the number is nine. We are decommissioning right now, in ten years every reactor in Germany is offline.

"it has a great many problems balancing supply and demand. This is a real problem that has not and will not be solved." -> The solutions are in development and in process of implementation. Implementing enough storage is a task for decades, so current steps seem small, for balancing demand market solution are developed (e.g. steel plants do not use their planned slice of energy but sell it at times of need to then high spot prices on the market reducing overall demand while still making money).

"Liebig's law applies to manufacturing as well as to the ecology." -> Nobody knows better then we do. Germany ran out of resources even before the industrial age started, which resulted in developing silviculture centuries ago. We are today harvesting trees that were planted three generations ago while planting the trees for the third generation after us. Resource scarcitiy is part of Germanys Mindset (a common phrase is: "our single resource is education"), which the German Justus van Liebig then applied to his plants. A scientist with an anglo saxon mindset would have looked at his not growing plants and concluded that they may need less government to grow properly ;)

And i am not a cornucopian. I insulated my apartment to reduce heating demand and i am well aware that my current car may be the last one i can afford. But the world of tomorrow (at least in central europe) will be an industrial civilization, which will be slower then the current one and less mobile and less energy intensive. Even less specalised. But we can not unopen the doors we passed during the last two centuries. Of course the hundreds of millions of self dependend farmers on this planet will never reach industrial levels.

Roger said...

WRT plywood wheels, I don't doubt that there's relatively low tech ways ways of mechanizing tedious operations or computations. This isn't an exact parallel but there's the Jacquard loom that was invented in the late 1700's or early 1800s that used punch cards for the purpose of creating patterns on textiles. Holes in the cards controlled the operation of the loom.

There's also an astonishingly accomplished piece of craftsmanship from 240 years ago. It is a mannequin of a small boy that can be programmed to write messages in amazing flowing script. The mannequin contains within it all the required mechanisms and power supply which consist of thousands of parts and wheels and gears. There is a wheel inside the mannequin that can be adjusted so as to make the device write different messages. This machine also dips the quill pen in ink and moves its "eyes". A Swiss watchmaker named Pierre Jaquet-Droz created it. You have to see this video showing it in action to believe it:

John Michael Greer said...

Kris, it's when we get to Peak Beer that I'll consider panic as a reasonable option. ;-)

Andy, I'm not at all sure how willful it is, but it's certainly blindness.

Trippticket, when did I say that they were automatically better? "Better" and words like it are always value judgments, and that means that they're inevitably some person's value judgments. In this case, they're mine: I appreciate the benefits of civilization and literacy, and those basically demand agriculture, so those are three things I'd like to see preserved. That being the case, doing something to further that goal is the next logical step.

Matthew, well, yes. That's what I meant about the visceral inability to think in terms of whole systems.

Dwig, I heard about that. I can't think of a better piece of evidence that too many people in the US military are reading comic books rather than thinking.

Ruben, thank you!

Sunseeker, thanks for the data. As I said, it's only a guess, based on the simplicity of the underlying technology compared to its rivals; efficiency is not necessarily the most important figure when you can build something inefficient while a more efficient technology is out of reach.

Phil, bingo. Nor do you need to calculate orbital trajectories and achieve escape velocity in order to put a cable across the ocean floor.

Marcello, I'd be perfectly happy with a brass computer!

Iuval, you're stretching my remarks well past their meaning. I'm curious; why the recent flurry of pot shots?

Roger, now factor in the fact that not much more than a century ago, half the American people worked on farms, and that fossil fuel production isn't going to stop overnight -- it's going to wind down over a period of decades. That is to say, it's entirely possible that a century from now, half the American people will again be working on farms, and per capita energy use will be down about where it was in 1900. Getting there will be a rough process, and what comes after is more contraction and more agriculturalization, but it's still not the end of the world. Only if you assume that the crash will be sudden and nobody will take any steps to cope with it does the current situation, with its extraordinary surpluses of energy and resources, look as dire as apocalypticists like to paint it.

John Michael Greer said...

LatheChuck, no argument there. This is why I consider the printing press to be an essential technology to preserve for the future.

Nigwil, all I can say is "don't hold your breath." Nobody, not even those who claim to be most worried about climate change, has shown any willingness to make the kind of cuts in their own lifestyles that would be required to go to a zero-carbon civilization. When you say that a social and political turnaround is the only option, I'm sorry to say that you're wrong -- the option most people have chosen, and continue to reinforce with their actions and choices each day, is to keep on going down the road we're on, and hope that they die before the bill comes due.

This is why my vision of the future includes climate chaos and the melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets; I see those as pretty much baked into the cake at this point. If you believe otherwise, that's your choice, but then I have to ask you this: what exactly do you propose to do to get seven billion people to agree with you, and do something they've shown zero willingness to do so far?

Mark, well, it goes straight over my head, but then I'm not an engineer.

Ekkar, thank you. That's an attitude we could use more of.

Peak Singularity, you may certainly translate any of my blog posts into French that you like, so long as you include a link to the English original. If you're interested in translating books, that would have to be arranged through a French publisher, as the translation rights are owned by New Society, my English language publisher.

LatheChuck, thank you! That's a very helpful way to think of the problem with batteries. I've read, by the way, that to equal the energy content of a gallon of gasoline, you'd need one ton of lead-acid car batteries -- do you happen to know if that's correct?

C Young, fascinating. The question that will shape the experience of those future travelers is whether the spare parts and other resources will be available to repurpose those substations forty years from now, or if they'll simply be stripped for scrap.

Deedl, fair enough.

Crow Hill, it's one of the most dismal habits of contemporary thought to insist that the way we presently do things is the only way we can do things. That said, I think that some of the achievements of the last three centuries or so are worth saving.

Leo, thanks for the link.

Trippticket, best of luck for your new path! It should be a learning experience, one way or another.

Sunseeker, a cheap efficient electric light -- like an LED, but easier to make in a low-tech setting -- would be a project worth pursuing.

sgage said...

@ Myriad, et al.,

When I was a young lad in the early 60's, my introduction to binary math and Boolean logic was a totally mechanical toy called the 'Digicomp I'. Rather than try to describe it, I will refer you to the Wikipedia page:

You could 'program' it to an extent, and you clocked it by pushing a plastic piece in and out. The instruction booklet that came with it was excellent, and I learned a lot about Boolean logic from it. When I was studying microprocessors 20 years later (6502, 8080), I still thought of a 'clock cycle' as pushing the thing in and out once :-)

Digicomp II wasn't as satisfying - much less programmable, and the flip-flops didn't always work smoothly, but the notion of a clock cycle as being the pulse of a marble rolling through the machine was pretty cool as well.

There would seem to be many ways of accomplishing digital logic totally mechanically.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

@Ian Stewart--I'm also driving my mother's last car, a 1990 Ford Probe. Its mpg is comparable to yours, it's been reliable, and it is a hatchback which can transport book cases and chairs with the rear seats folded down. Probes were popular so I have been able to get replacement parts up to now, but eventually I will need to replace it.

@Myriad--Wikipedia has a short article on fluid logic gates under the title Fluidics. I was a transit vehicle electronics technician for the BART light rail system starting in 1976. A great deal of the industrial control on first generation BART cars was accomplished by relays and solenoids. Later models incorporated more and more solid state which requires less on site (unionized) labor to maintain.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

Following up on my previous comment on the trendiness of locally grown food, today's SF Chronicle has a front page story about a University of California program helping very small farms hook up with wholesalers who are trying to meet increasing demand for locally grown food. According to the article, it's happening outside of California too.

growing demand for locally grown

John Michael Greer said...

Gregorach, that makes abundant sense.

Glenn, nicely put. You might also say that the future is free, until the bill comes due.

Quos Ego, I haven't read Kolakowski -- one more name for the list. As for a reading list, er, I go through between one and two dozen books a month, and I doubt you'd be interested in most of them. What exactly did you have in mind as the purpose of such a reading list?

Iuval, the problem with the TEGs in wood stoves is an offshoot of Jevon's paradox; if you increase the efficiency of any kind of energy use, that will lead to an increase in the amount of energy being used, not a decrease. The only exception is when access to energy is limited by something other than purely economic forces.

Nathaniel, most funny. Thank you.

Nonymous, yes, this is exactly the sort of thinking I was talking about when I mentioned the visceral inability to think in terms of whole systems that's endemic in today's geek culture. Your internet monastery is going to have to replace every component it has every couple of decades -- where is it going to get the equipment? Will it have a chip fabrication plant in the basement, complete with clean rooms and everything else? If so, all the equipment used to fabricate chips will also need to be replaced every couple of decades; will it also find room in the same basement for a factory to manufacture all of that equipment?

What about the raw materials needed for the components, and the machines to make them? What about the energy -- remember, a single server farm uses as much electricity as a small city, and a chip fabrication plant also uses huge amounts of power. Where are you going to get the energy? If you have your own power plant, are you going to be prepared to replace all those components every few decades, too? What's your fuel source -- will your monastery have its own coal mine, or will it have another chip fabrication plant to turn out photovoltaic cells to replace those as they wear out, or what? And, to repeat the question nobody on your side of this weary debate is ever willing to talk about, just how is your monastery going to pay for all this?

The internet is only possible because it's supported by a global economy with worldwide supply chains and millions of people working in thousands of occupational specialties to keep it going. That's the whole system of which the internet is a part, and unless you can replicate every necessary function of that whole system, you can't have an internet. It really is that simple -- and I'd encourage you to take the time, do the research, find out exactly what goes into building and, ahem, paying for all that hardware, instead of engaging in this kind of fact-free handwaving.

(I apologize for the somewhat crabby tone of the above, but I field comments of this sort every week or so, and not one of them ever even attempts to address the questions that I've been raising here, year after year, about the fantasies you're rehashing.)

trippticket said...

"That being the case, doing something to further that goal is the next logical step."

Fair enough. I'd say you're doing plenty to further the goal of preserving (and fostering in many forms) literacy, though I question the utility of "civilization," and agriculture has caused enough problems to rightly deserve more than the ol' stink eye. Book literacy is of course just one form of literacy, and I tend to think that horticultural and foraging social forms promote other types of literacy that are arguably more valuable. Or at least AS valuable; I don't want to be guilty of passing my opinions off as law!
If we're truly living life and paying attention, every experience is a learning experience. This won't be my first tour in a tent without electricity or running water, so I feel like I have a better handle on HOW to live in a tent without electricity or running water, how to make it more comfortable this time. And like I said, that arrangement is probably quite temporary. I'm not looking to be the tent-dwelling, hair shirt-wearing troglodyte at the end of the road forever! And I certainly don't want that for my children. Being increasingly useful to our extended family and friends, neighborhood, and larger community is the greater goal. Having fewer things to pay for and worry about at home is just another way to make that happen.
For the preppers and survivalists who comprise a significant and growing percentage of the population in the north Georgia mountains, I'm developing a 3-4 hour short course, taught in our forest garden and the adjacent wild land, probably offered once a month with different seasonal crop focuses, called "Turnip Bandits: Growing Invisible Crops" that will feature wild and cultivated gourmet mushrooms, roots, herbs, perennial vegetables, and random oddities of the horticultural kind, complete with lunch made from said crops. I've had great results from similar but more limited workshops in the past and surprisingly enthusiastic responses from friends I've run the idea past. What do you think?

And just for the record, I think the world of you for hanging out here week after to week in an effort to keep crazies like me nudged in the right direction...


Moshe Braner said...

Tripp: Good luck in your endeavors! Please do report on how that "rocket mass heater" works out. I assume it's something like what here in Vermont they call a "masonry stove", supposedly common in NW European countries such as Finland. The claims on their efficiency seem fantastical to me. They can't be more than 100% efficient, after all (unlike the heat pump I'm currently installing, but that's another story). A "box stove" may only be 50% efficient (and the good ones are more like 75%). So the ratio of the amounts of firewood needed shouldn't be more than 2:1, if it's the same building that's being heated. If you're planning on staying put in the house for generations they're probably worth building, and will outlast my high-tech heat pump, and perhaps even my cast-iron wood stove, by tenfold. But you'd still need to cut a bunch of firewood (hard work even with a motorized chainsaw).

Ruben said...

@JMG, regarding the demise of the internet.

I had been saying the internet is just a fad for a couple of years before I heard you say it, and I took your analysis as powerful validation.

I think my past work as an industrial designer gives me a better window into the incredible depth and interconnectedness of our industrial manufacturing system, and I think you have it just right.

I have been enjoying a quote from Carl Sagan recently, "If you want to bake an apple pie from scratch, first you must invent the entire universe." And the internet is an order of magnitude of orders of magnitude more complex than an apple pie.

Myriad said...

Hi JMG. You asked: "I've read, by the way, that to equal the energy content of a gallon of gasoline, you'd need one ton of lead-acid car batteries -- do you happen to know if that's correct?"

That's basically correct, in terms of total energy stored. About 131 Megajoules for the gallon of gasoline, and 2.1 Megajoules for a typical 50A-h car battery that weighs 35 pounds.

However, expect the efficiency of converting that energy content into motive power to be at least twice as high for electric motors as for an internal combustion engine. So you really only need half a ton of charged lead-acid batteries to drive the distance a gallon of gas would get you, Also, the needed electric motors weigh much less than the IC engine and transmission they replace, so expect to save around a quarter ton there. So your stock vehicle converted to lead-acid battery power (using, say, 30 average car batteries) only weighs a quarter ton more than it did before.

In other words, it's no great technical challenge to make an electric car (even with good performance) using lead-acid batteries, as long as you're okay with a range of "one gallon," around 25 or 30 miles, between recharges.

You can stretch that out to 50 or 60 miles by reducing weight elsewhere and adding some of that weight back in more batteries, along with other tricks like regenerative braking. But you can't simply e.g. double the range just by doubling the number of batteries because their weight and bulk increases so fast.

(All figures are rather approximate but the basic result is sound.)

Joseph Nemeth said...

@JMG -- You're not the only grumpy one. :-/

Did you know that the difference between liberals and conservatives is that conservatives are "abundance thinkers," while liberals are "scarcity thinkers?" This is because the conservatives know that wealth is created (by hard work), while liberals think wealth is simply redistributed.

I was instructed on this matter recently by a self-identified conservative.

This goes right in the bin with the many people who believe that the Affordable Care Act is much better than Obamacare. Which will never work because people can get cheaper healthcare by going to Mexico, provided they shack up with an illegal Mexican alien living in the US. Or something like that.

And Science News is this month shilling yet another new book on Thinking Machines that are going to take over the universe and give their creator-species a sound beating. Be afraid -- be very afraid.

These days, I think an old Z-80 running on half-dead batteries could give most Americans a head start and still thrash them at the finish line.

Seriously: is all this pervasive illogic really just the natural and expected result of the free-fall that occurs at the peak, as we catch air before catabolic collapse starts slamming us in earnest? Is this what the Roman collapse looked like? Or is there something uniquely narcotic (or perhaps necrotic?) in the water here in the US?

Regardless, I'd simply like to thank you, JMG, and the rest of this little community of commenters. For no other reason than your collective habit of posting thoughtful and sane essays and responses.

Thank you all.

John Michael Greer said...

Unknown Deborah, that was going on in Seattle when I lived there, before 2004, so I wouldn't be at all surprised to see it more widely distributed by now. Pleased, but not surprised.

Trippticket, remember that everything I do presupposes dissensus. I've got my view of what's important, you've got yours, and so on; if each of us advocates our views in a clear and thoughtful way, others can assess both, and all the other options as well, and decide according to their values -- and from the resulting gallimaufry of ideas and choices, Darwinian evolution sorts out which ones will last. Messy and unpredictable? Sure, like the rest of life.

Ruben, okay, that may be one for the record books -- Carl Sagan and I agree about something. ;-) You may be right that the internet is more complex than an apple pie, but the whole system necessary to make the apple pie is pretty complex, all things considered!

Myriad, thank you for the details! The gasoline/battery comparison is something I use to make people think about how much energy they waste casually, not something I'd try to use as a basis for engineering a transportation system.

Joseph, thank you for the vote of confidence. Different civilizations pursue different kinds of irrationality during the Wile E. Coyote hangtime that comes before the fall starts in earnest, but the sort of frantic self-reassurance in which your pseudoconservative acquaintance was engaged is very often part of it. Do you recall Carl Sandburg's brilliant and harrowing poem Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind? The shout of "Nothing like us ever was" echoes down a long, long avenue of ruins.

Juhana said...

@JMG: I wait with great interest what ideas you bring to the table with your upcoming writing series. I am not fixated to these darker sides of current, deepening contraction, but in my current line of work I have witnessed too regularly and too often how people behave when civic habits break down. Unfortunately well-meaning persons with lot of good ideas, who have not witnessed even one time how deeply atmosphere of actual violence or threat of it mold human beings make gargantuan underestimation how this atmosphere changes human being's thinking and opinions. In deeply insecure environment people's first and foremost opinions are shaped by their way of dealing with that violent environment.

This is reason why I believe most, maybe 95 %, of well-meaning plans considering living with later phases of current contraction and depletion curve shall unravel and fail, because they are unable to cope with environmental change from security by central government to security by personal deals and connections to local godfathers of different gangs and/or paramilitary splinter groups of former orderly security forces. This is no opinion or wish of mine, but observation based on real life experiences.

Cherokee Organics said...


Thank you for your tolerance of dissensus (and my rant!). Sometimes I read some of the comments and suffer from a bit of potty mouth (which I won't share).

I enjoyed the poem too. Hmmm, those naughty but exceptional rats. They adapt and learn far faster than I can come up with new and ingenious ways of disturbing their fun. I feel like the old Warner brothers cartoon of the sheep dog and the fox clocking in for a day in the sheep run (Hey, Ralph)!

About 2km from here last night I surprised two fox cubs at play and it was entertaining to watch their antics. A lot of the birds here too muck around a lot too.

Hope your speaking gig went well.



Moshe Braner said...

Regarding the gasoline/battery comparison, should also mention Tom "do the math" Murphy's observation that a battery the size of your little finger beats the 800 pound gorrila, in energy storage, if the gorrila is used for gravity storage by lifting it to your roof. Keep that in mind before getting excited about that "gravity light". A small LED lamp needs very little power, and is useful (I keep some hand-cranked ones around). But most essential things such as heating, cooking, pumping water, and transportation (not to mention "server farms") need much larger order of magnitudes of energy. Even just recharging your i-gizmo (the tip of the tip of the iceberg of "the internet") needs far more energy than a "gravity clock" device could deliver. And that is small relative to the more typical lighting in the room. Most people seem to have no feel for these quantitative relations.

trippticket said...

Thanks for the good wishes! Of course I'll pass along any data or blog posts about the RMH as it proceeds.

Here's the real bonus of a rocket mass heater (RMH) and why they are so much more efficient: The rocket combustion chamber actually works as a pump to push hot gases through the system, thereby avoiding the reliance on the draft necessary with a vertical stack. With this active pumping action you can then run your flue horizontally, through a thermal mass (typically rock and cob designed as a built-in bed or couch) for 20-30 feet or so, extracting a significant amount of heat from the exhaust gases. Heat that is normally required to create draft, and is therefore wasted to the atmosphere, even in a very efficient box stove. Designed correctly, the gases can be below 100F when they exit the flue, even if the rocket is raging.

The now-warmed thermal mass gives off its heat slowly overnight, over days even, where your garden-variety box stove has to be burning to stay hot, and in the case of our tent, stoked at least 4 times during the night when it's cold! What a pain!

A rocket stove is sort of like a brick oven: you fire it and then close it up. You don't want it sucking the heat out of the house at night when it's not burning, so you fire it through the evening, and then seal it up, allowing the stored heat to dissipate through the night.

We are intending to place the head of our 3 beds on the 15" high, 18" deep thermal mass and cruise through the night without having to get up to stoke a fire during the night. The whole system should weigh at least 2 tons and cost only a few hundred dollars to build - the fire brick for the combustion chamber and flue pipe being the main expenses.

We have only a short (<20') run available to us in the tent so we'll be splitting the horizontal flue into 2 parallel flues running the roughly 15' of the mass bench. That bench will become our couch, privy closet warmer, and a bed warmer for our daughter (with son above) in the reconfigured cabin.


trippticket said...

Just my take, but I'd say an apple pie is considerably more complex than the internet!

AngelusCruentus said...

Hey there, I just discovered your blog and I'm immediately arrested by the engaging writing and perspectives.

I do find myself extremely challenged by it. I come from that Phildickian Gnostic perspective, and you've done an incredible job of making obvious its cultural and narrative underpinnings. Still, even as I keep reading, I keep wondering why I can't shake off the 'material salvation' narrative of Gnosticism. I'm reminded of PKD's "How to Build a Universe that Doesn't Fall Apart." He asks the question of what would happen if God started secretly replacing the simulations of Disneyland with the real thing like a thief in the night, until we woke up one morning and the Matterhorn was suddenly a majestic snowcapped mountain, and the Jungle Cruise was really a journey through the Amazon. He said they'd have to close down.

Is this a tension that is permanent? Is some kind of synthesis possible? Are they both true in a paradoxical sort of way? Even seeing the intelligence and reason of the cyclical view you've presented here, and is presented in say the Hindu yugas, I still find myself personally drawn to the teleology of Gnostic time. Is this a moral or intellectual failing on my part? I'd love to hear if you have any ideas for synthesis between these two extremes.

John Michael Greer said...

Juhana, I agree that nearly all the plans currently being made for dealing with the future -- the lifeboat ecovillages and community building exercises of the left, the doomsteads of the right, and the keep-it-going-at-all-costs of the center -- are pretty much doomed to failure, though the collapse of public order is only one of the reasons why. (It's an important one, but it's still only one.) To get to something that might work, it's going to be necessary to remember exactly what a dark age entails...and of course that's not going to be a pleasant subject.

Cherokee, the only reason I didn't give rats a future civilization of their own in "The Next Ten Billion Years" is that it's just too obviously plausible! As for the speaking gig, well, it was a mixed bag, but it had its high points.

Angelus, I'd encourage you to start by remembering that any binary -- that is, any pair of apparently opposed ideas -- is a subset of a much more complex and nuanced continuum. Find a third option that's equidistant from both the poles of the binary, and see where that takes you.

Nigwil said...

Thanks JMG, I'm not exactly too far away from your thinking; my post was more a passing statement of hope, a way to provide some emotional balance on the increasingly bleak journey towards the darkness that seems to be in store for us. An attempt to see a brighter side, in the face of all the facts to the contrary.

My own humble blog

seeks to put its shoulder to the wheel for recognition of our predicament - and to encourage those with eyes to see to advocate for appropriate change.

But your comment on my passing moment of optimism '...all I can say is "don't hold your breath."' has drawn me back to reality, and confirms a comment I have made elsewhere:-

'I believe that the time for attempting to plug the holes in the sinking ship is now behind us, and we should devote our remaining resources and energies to building life boats to carry us in as much comfort as possible to our new future. '

Keep up the good work!

bcwoodcarver said...

" There are many ways to produce modest amounts of direct-current electricity with very simple technologies, and highly useful electrical and electronic equipment can readily be made with locally available materials and hand tools." you have resources with data showing which of these simple technologies actually work