Wednesday, October 02, 2013

The Flight to the Ephemeral

I'd meant to devote this week’s post to exploring the way that new religious movements so often give shape to emerging ideas and social forms during the decline of civilizations, and to sketch out some of the possibilities for action along those lines as industrial society moves further along its own curve of decline and fall. Still, these essays are part of a broader conversation about the future of today’s world, and now and then some other part of that conversation brings up points relevant to the discussion here.
That’s as much excuse as there is for this week’s detour. A few weeks ago, the P2P Foundation website hosted a piece by Kevin Carson titled When Ephemeralization is Hard to Tell from Catabolic Collapse. Carson’s piece got some attention recently in the peak oil blogosphere, not to mention some pointed and by no means unjustified criticism. It seems to me, though, that there’s a valid point tucked away in Carson’s essay; he’s got it by the wrong end, and it doesn’t imply what he thinks it does, but the point is nonetheless there, and important.

Getting to it, though, requires a certain tolerance for intellectual sloppiness of a kind embarrassingly common in today’s culture. When Carson talks about “the Jared Diamond/John Michael Greer/William Kunstler theory of ‘catabolic collapse,’” for example, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that he simply hasn’t taken the time to learn much about his subject. “Catabolic collapse,” after all, isn’t a generic label for collapse in general; it’s the name for a specific theory about how civilizations fall—those who are interested can download a PDF here—which I developed between 2001 and 2004 and published online in a 2005 essay, and the other two names he cited had nothing to do with it.

Mind you, I would be delighted to hear that Jared Diamond supports the theory of catabolic collapse, but as far as I know, he’s never mentioned it in print, and the modes of collapse he discusses in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed differ significantly from my model. As for the third author, presumably Carson means James Howard Kunstler, the author of The Long Emergency and Too Much Magic—very solid books about the approaching end of the industrial age, though once again based on a different theory of collapse—rather than William Kunstler, the late civil rights lawyer who defended the Chicago Seven back in 1969, and who to the best of my knowledge never discussed the collapse of civilizations at all.

This same somewhat casual relationship to matters of fact pops up elsewhere in Carson’s essay, and leaves his argument rather the worse for wear.  Carson’s claim is that the accelerating breakdown of the existing infrastructure of industrial society isn’t a problem, because that infrastructure either is being replaced, or is sure to be replaced (he is somewhat vague on this distinction), by newer, better and cheaper high-tech systems. What Buckminster Fuller used to call ephemeralization—defined, with Bucky’s usual vagueness, as “doing more with less”—is, in Carson’s view, “one of the most central distinguishing characteristics of our technology,” and guarantees that new infrastructures will be so much less capital-intensive than the old ones that replacing the latter won’t be a problem.

That’s a claim worth considering. The difficulty, though, is that the example he offers—also borrowed from Fuller—actually makes the opposite case.  Replacing a global network of oceanic cables weighing some very large amount with a few dozen communications satellites weighing a few tons each does look, at first glance, like a dramatic step toward ephemeralization, but that impression remains only as long as it takes to ask whether the satellites are replacing those cables all by themselves. Of course they’re not; putting those satellites up, keeping them in orbit, and replacing them requires an entire space program, with all its subsidiary infrastructure; getting signals to and from the satellites requires a great deal more infrastructure. Pile all those launch gantries, mission control centers, satellite dishes, and other pieces of hardware onto the satellite side, and the total weight on that end of the balance starts looking considerably less ephemeral than it did.  Even if you add a couple of old-fashioned freighters on the cable side—that’s the modest technology needed to lay and maintain cables—it’s far from clear that replacing cables with satellites involves any reduction in capital intensity at all.

All this displays one of the more troubling failures of contemporary intellectual culture, an almost physiological inability to think in terms of whole systems. I’ve long since lost count of the number of times I’ve watched card-carrying members of the geekoisie fail to grasp that their monthly charge for internet service isn’t a good measure of the whole cost of the internet, or skid right past the hard economic fact that the long term survival of the internet depends on its ability to pay for itself.  This blindness to whole systems is all the more startling in that the computer revolution itself was made possible by the creation of systems theory and cybernetics in the 1940s and 1950s, and whole-systems analysis is a central feature of both these disciplines.

To watch the current blindness to whole systems in full gaudy flower, glance over any collection of recent chatter about “cloud computing.” What is this thing we’re calling “the cloud?”  Descend from the airy realms of cyber-abstractions into the grubby underworld of hardware, and it’s an archipelago of huge server farms, each of which uses as much electricity as a small city, each of which has a ravenous hunger for spare parts, skilled labor, and many other inputs, and each of which must be connected to all the others by a physical network of linkages that have their own inescapable resource demands. As with Fuller’s satellite analogy, the ephemeralization of one part of the whole system is accomplished at the cost of massive capital outlays and drastic increases in complexity elsewhere in the system.

All this needs to be understood in order to put ephemeralization into its proper context. Still, Carson’s correct to point out that information technologies have allowed the replacement of relatively inefficient infrastructure, in some contexts, with arrangements that are much more efficient. The best known example is the replacement of old-fashioned systems of distribution, with their warehouses, local jobbers, and the rest, with just-in-time ordering systems that allow products, parts, and raw materials to be delivered as they’re needed, where they’re needed. Since this approach eliminates the need to keep warehouses full of spare parts and the like, it’s certainly a way of doing more with less—but the consequences of doing so are considerably less straightforward than they appear at first glance.

To understand how this works, it’s going to be necessary to spend a little time talking about catabolic collapse, the theory referenced earlier. The basis of that theory is the uncontroversial fact that human societies routinely build more infrastructure than they can afford to maintain. During periods of prosperity, societies invest available resources in major projects—temples, fortifications, canal or road systems, space programs, or whatever else happens to appeal to the collective imagination of the age. As infrastructure increases in scale and complexity, the costs of maintenance rise to equal and exceed the available economic surplus; the period of prosperity ends in political and economic failure, and infrastructure falls into ruin as its maintenance costs are no longer paid.

This last stage in the process is catabolic collapse. Since the mismatch between maintenance costs and economic capacity is the driving force behind the cycle, the collapse of excess infrastructure has a silver lining—in fact, two such linings. First, since ruins require minimal maintenance, the economic output formerly used to maintain infrastructure can be redirected to other uses; second, in many cases, the defunct infrastructure can be torn apart and used as raw materials for something more immediately useful, at a cost considerably lower than fresh production of the same raw materials would require. Thus post-Roman cities in Europe’s most recent round of dark ages could salvage stone from  temples, forums, and coliseums to raise walls against barbarian raiders, just as survivors of the collapse of industrial society will likely thank whatever deities they happen to worship that we dug so much metal out of the belly of the earth and piled it up on the surface in easily accessible ruins.

Given a stable resource base, the long-term economic benefits of catabolic collapse are significant enough that a new period of prosperity normally follows the collapse, resulting in another round of infrastructure buildup and a repetition of the same cycle.  The pulse of anabolic expansion and catabolic collapse thus defines, for example, the history of imperial China. The extraordinary stability of China’s traditional system of village agriculture and local-scale manufacturing put a floor under the process, so that each collapse bottomed out at roughly the same level as the last, and after a century or two another anabolic pulse would get under way. In some places along the Great Wall, it’s possible to see the high-water marks of each anabolic phase practically side by side, as each successful dynasty’s repairs and improvements were added onto the original fabric.

Matters are considerably more troublesome if the resource base lacks the permanence of traditional Chinese rice fields and workshops. A society that bases its economy on nonrenewable resources, in particular, has set itself up for a far more devastating collapse. Nonrenewable resource extraction is always subject to the law of diminishing returns; while one resource can usually be substituted by another, that simply means a faster drawdown of still other resources—the replacement of more concentrated metal ores with ever less concentrated substitutes, the usual example cited these days for resource substitution, required exponential increases in energy inputs per ton of metal produced, and thus hastened the depletion of concentrated fossil fuel reserves.

As the usual costs of infrastructure maintenance mount up, as a result, a society that runs its economy on nonrenewable resources also faces rising costs for resource extraction. Eventually those bills can no longer be paid in full, and the usual pattern of political and economic failure ensues. It’s at this point that the real downside of dependence on nonrenewable resources cuts in; the abandonment of excess infrastructure decreases one set of costs, and frees up some resources, but the ongoing depletion of the  nonrenewable resource base continues implacably, so resource costs keep rising. Instead of bottoming out and setting the stage for renewed prosperity, the aftermath of crisis allows only a temporary breathing space, followed by another round of political and economic failure as resource costs continue to climb. This is what drives the stairstep process of crisis, partial recovery, and renewed crisis, ending eventually in total collapse, that appears so often in the annals of dead civilizations.

Though he’s far from clear about it, I suspect that this is what Carson meant to challenge by claiming that the increased efficiencies and reduced capital intensity of ephemeralized technology make worries about catabolic collapse misplaced. He’s quite correct that increased efficiency, “doing more with less,” is a response to the rising spiral of infrastructure maintenance costs that drive catabolic collapse; in fact, it’s quite a common response, historically speaking. There are at least two difficulties with his claim, though. The first is that efficiency is notoriously subject to the law of diminishing returns; the low hanging fruit of efficiency improvement may be easily harvested, but proceeding beyond that involves steadily increasing difficulty and expense, because in the real world—as distinct from science fiction—you can only do so much more with less and less. That much is widely recognized.  Less often remembered  is that increased efficiency has an inescapable correlate that Carson doesn’t mention: reduced resilience.

It’s only fair to point out that Carson comes by his inattention to this detail honestly. It was among the central themes of the career of Buckminster Fuller, whose ideas give Carson’s essay its basic frame. Fuller had a well-earned reputation in the engineering field of his time as “failure-prone,” and a consistent habit of pursuing efficiency at the expense of resilience was arguably the most important reason why. 

The fiasco surrounding Fuller’s 1933 Dymaxion car is a case in point.  One of the car’s many novel features was a center of mass that was extremely high compared to other cars, which combined with an innovative suspension system to give the car an extremely smooth ride. Unfortunately this same feature turned into a lethal liability when a Dymaxion prototype was sideswiped by another vehicle. Then as now, cars on Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive bump into one another quite often, but few of them flip and roll, killing the driver and seriously injuring everyone else on board. That’s what happened in this case, and Chrysler—which had been considering mass production of the Dymaxion car—withdrew from the project at once, having decided that the car wasn’t safe to drive.

The rise and fall of Fuller’s geodesic dome architecture traces the same story in a less grim manner. Those of my readers who were around in the 1960s will recall the way geodesic domes sprang up like mushrooms in those days. By the early 1970s, they were on their way out, for a telling reason. Fuller’s design was extremely efficient in its use of materials, but unless perfectly caulked—and in the real world, there is no such thing as perfect caulking—geodesic domes consistently leaked in the rain. Famed vernacular architect Lloyd Kahn, author of Domebooks 1 and 2, the bibles of the geodesic-dome fad, marked the end of the road with his 1973 sourcebook Shelter, which subjected the flaws of the geodesic dome to unsparing analysis and helped refocus the attention of the nascent appropriate technology scene onto the less efficient but far more resilient technology of shingled roofs. Nowadays geodesic domes are only used in those few applications where their efficiency is more important than their many practical problems.

The unavoidable tradeoff between efficiency and resilience can be understood easily enough by considering an ordinary bridge. All bridges these days have vastly more structural strength than they need in order to support their ordinary load of traffic. This is inefficient, to be sure, but it makes the bridges resilient; they can withstand high winds, unusually heavy loads, deferred maintenance, and other challenges without collapsing. Since the cost of decreased resilience (a collapsed bridge and potential loss of life) is considerably more serious than the cost of decreased efficiency (more tax revenues spent on construction), inefficiency is accepted—and rightly so.

It’s one of the persistent delusions of contemporary computer culture to claim that this equation doesn’t apply once modern information technology enters into the picture. Nassim Taleb’s widely read The Black Swan is chockfull of counterexamples. As he shows, information networks have proven to be as effective at multiplying vulnerabilities as they are at countering them, and can be blindsided by unexpected challenges just as thoroughly as any other system. The 1998 failure of Long Term Capital Management (LTCM), whose publicists insisted that its computer models could not fail during the lifetime of the universe and several more like it, is just one of many cases in point.

The history of any number of failed civilizations offers its own mocking commentary on the insistence that efficiency is always a good thing. In its final years, for instance, the Roman Empire pursued “doing more with less” to a nearly Fulleresque degree, by allowing the manpower of legionary units along the Rhine and Danube frontiers to decline to a fraction of their paper strength. In peace, this saved tax revenues for critical needs elsewhere; when the barbarian invasions began, though, defenses that had held firm for centuries crumpled, and the collapse of the imperial system duly followed.

In this context, there’s a tremendous irony in the label Fuller used for the pursuit of efficiency.  The word “ephemeral,” after all, has a meaning of its own, unrelated to the one Fuller slapped onto it; it derives from the Greek word ephemeron, “that which lasts for only one day,” and its usual synonyms include “temporary,” “transitory,” and “fragile.”  A society dependent on vulnerable satellite networks in place of the robust reliability of oceanic cables, cloud computing in place of the dispersed security of programs and data spread across millions of separate hard drives, just-in-time ordering in place of warehouses ready to fill in any disruptions in the supply chain, and so on, is indeed more ephemeral—that is to say, considerably more fragile than it would otherwise be. 

In a world facing increasingly serious challenges driven by resource depletion, environmental disruption, and all the other unwelcome consequences of attempting limitless growth on a relentlessly finite planet, increasing the fragility of industrial society is also a good way to see to it that it turns out to be temporary and transitory. In that sense, and only in that sense, Carson’s right; ephemeralization is the wave of the future, and it’s even harder to tell it apart from catabolic collapse than he thinks, because ephemeralization is part of the normal process of collapse, not a way to prevent it.

There’s an equal irony to be observed in the way that Carson presents this preparation for collapse as yet another great leap forward on the allegedly endless march of progress. As discussed earlier in this series of posts, the concept of progress has no content of its own; it’s simply the faith-based assumption that the future will be, or must be, or at least ought to be, better than the present; and today’s passionate popular faith in the inevitability and beneficence of progress makes it embarrassingly easy for believers to convince themselves that any change you care to name, however destructive it turns out to be, must be for the best.  As we continue down the familiar trajectory of decline and fall, we can thus expect any number of people to cheer heartily at the progress, so to speak, that we’re making toward the endpoint of that curve.

Not all such cheering will be branded so obviously by another rehash of the weary 20th-century technofantasy of “a world without want,” or that infallible touchstone of the absurd, the insertion of some scrap of Star Trek’s fictional technology in what purports to be a discussion of a future we might actually inhabit. There will no doubt be any number of attempts in the years ahead to insist that our decline is actually an ascent, or the birth pangs of a new and better world, or what have you, and it may well take an unusual degree of clarity to see past the chorus of reassurances, come to terms with the hard realities of our time, and do something constructive about them.


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Tom Bannister said...

Once again a masterful thoroughly well thought out essay by JMG! When this much consideration and thought needs to be put into good decision making it really does make me fear for the future of people living in industrial societies. (then again, thinking things through carefully is what everyone out side a resource rich society needs to do just to survive (in the long run anyway). Indeed isn't the ability to think things through carefully why humans have lasted so long?). anyway, cheers.

James M. Jensen II (badocelot/shiningwhiffle) said...

I figured you'd take a detour tonight, but I honestly thought it'd be about the US government shutdown as a milestone in the process of anacyclosis — probably not the final gridlock that leads to tyranny, though it could be if it drags out long enough.

At any rate, my own thoughts when I first read Carson's article a couple of days ago were that he was confusing what is merely the next sere in the transition from an r-selected technological base to K-selected one with the climax community of that transition. In other words, it's difficult to tell the difference between catabolic collapse and ephemeralization because ephemeralization is just a catabolic collapse that managed to stop short.

The problem is that the only examples of that in history involved tossing huge amounts of infrastructure into the wind and leaving those who depended on it to the wolves.

Which is more-or-less what you just said, except I said it with efficient jargon instead of resilient plain English.

John Michael Greer said...

Tom, nah, our thinking capacities are overrated. We've lasted so long because we evolved in a very tough environment -- ask any baboon -- and underwent hard Darwinian selection for the capacity to beat the stuffing out of most potential threats.

James, the shutdown is more apparent than real -- as usual, the government shut down everything that benefits citizens, while maintaining funding for everything necessary to its own survival. Thus, as I see it, it's simply an exaggeration of an ongoing trend, and will get a footnote or two in the eventual history of America's decline and fall.

Steve Morgan said...

Since encountering your writings about catabolic collapse, I've looked on technologies with an eye toward repurposing the materials. In that sense, much of the "ephemeralization" that's taken place in recent decades has rendered manufactured goods useless (or worse, in many cases intentionally toxic or dangerous) to those who will want to repurpose them.

Take Carson's satellites, for example. Once the uplinks break down and technicians who can actually contact and program them to make them useful die or become otherwise occupied, the satellites become totally useless until they either burn up on re-entry or perhaps cause plenty of harm when what's left of them crash to the surface. Undersea cables, on the other hand, could be used for telegraphy for quite some time and then the parts in shallow waters salvaged for scrap.

It seems like there's a third point to the systems balance of "efficiency vs. resilience" that's implied by your example of post-roman walls, and that's something like "repurposability." In line with "ease of repair" it could be part of design considerations. For example, bridges are overbuilt for structural stability, but the materials are not combined in such a way as to render them easily reusable for the same or other purposes, as anyone who's watched a road bridge be demolished could see.

Anyhow, I appreciate the way that you pointed out the way that this essay was trying to dress up catabolic collapse as progress. It reminds me of how fracking and tar sands are reframed as technological revolutions instead of scraping the bottom of the barrel.

Tom Hanson said...

I traded emails with Carson earlier this summer trying to have him shine light on how technological innovation would bring about the end of scarcity in the context of peak oil. I walked away with the sense that the maintenance of infrastructure is the weak link in his arguments.

Carson proposes that we will have cheap CNC machine tools, internet, and teleconferencing, and that production will tend toward a small shops serving local markets. He suggests the energy needed to maintain and run the infrastructure for this widely-distributed technology will come from energy savings using the strategies along the lines proposed by Lovins & Hawkens in Natural Capitalism.

The interdependencies of infrastructures and industries is remarkable. As Leonard Read pointed out in I, Pencil, the industries with inputs into the lead pencil number in the dozens. Can anyone map the web connecting the companies needed to build a new CNC milling machine or 3D printer?

Thijs Goverde said...

'coliseums'? Surely there is only one Colloseum (oh alright, coliseum, if you want to get all vulgar about it)? I suppose you mean 'amphitheatres'. Still, that's the main nit I could fnd to pick - not on a par with Carson's many gaffes.

I was rather surprised that you followed his 'cables weigh more than satellites' argument. Your objection (the weight of launch pads etc.) is entirely valid, of course, but I was thinking you'd go for the fact that you can consturct any length of cable from, I don't know, three different types of material? Five? Seven?
Try building a communications sattelite of nothing but copper, or even optic fiber, and some plastic casing! Those things are pretty complicated and I suspect they eat up a fair amount of rare earth metals.

...and when catabolic collapse happens, good luck mining a frigging satellite for resources!

Compound F said...

I can't thank Ian Welsh enough for putting you on his blogroll. I'm halfway through The Ecotechnic Future, and it's exactly the book I want to be reading right now. You're writing style on "very serious existential matters" is utterly engaging and plain and informative and level-headed. I've read Not the Future We Ordered, which was focused and brilliant, and I can't wait to get to The Wealth of Nature, which I picked up at City Lights a couple weeks ago. Your clarity is such a welcomed contribution, I think, "Yes, there is hope. Something useful can be done." We'll see whether that's true, but I do thank you for outlining it may be true, even after abandoning cherished beliefs.

Also, if there is a way to buy your books without the middlemen stepping into the revenue stream, lemme know. Not that I have anything against City Lights. They're actually middlemen I like.

Christophe said...

I, for one, want to heartily cheer the progress occurring right here at The Archdruid Reoprt -- no font change in the final paragraph of this post or in any of the archived posts! My thanks go out to you.

While it may have no impact on the ultimate trajectory of this blog or the internet in general, it makes the bumpy ride down Hubbert's Peak that much more enjoyable, to read about it in a consistent font. Appreciating life's small pleasures is an endlessly renewable resource to be treasured amidst the now familiar resource depletion and collapse of our times.

John Michael Greer said...

Steve, your concept of "repurposability" is fascinating, and deserves attention. Mind you, it may be another few centuries before it gets the attention it should, but here's hoping.

Tom, fascinating. Has he actually run the numbers to see if his model would actually save energy and resources, given that more centralized approaches involve huge economies of scale? All those local shops, their high-tech tools, and the immense supply chains needed to keep the shops stocked with raw materials, spare parts, etc. will require gargantuan capital inputs, after all.

Thijs, I wanted to tackle his (and Fuller's) argument on its own terms, thus the comparison by weight. Of course you're quite right; in terms of complexity -- whether you want to measure that in the number and range of materials, the complexity of the manufacturing process, the scale of the supply chains, or what have you, the satellites are ephemeral only in the old sense of the word. As for their fate in a post-catabolic collapse world, having them sit up there in orbit is the least of our worries...

August Johnson said...

JMG - Kessler syndrome! Ha! I remember reading a science fiction story many years ago. The Earth had lost the ability for Space Flight because of too much Space Junk in orbit, any attempt to get through it resulted in a collision. Then some Aliens come along and, for a price, offer to clean up the mess so we can resume our flights. That's all I remember about it.

Ray Wharton said...

It's nice to see you outline the theory of catabolic collapse in a slightly different light. Most things are good to see in multiple lights, given a good chance.

The hollowing of of the Roman military came from at least two directions. One, the diminishing hard resources Rome had to contribute to maintaining the Legions; keeping that many soldiers supplied, equipped, trained, and paid was no small bill, no matter how ephemeral the costs could be made through cost saving strategies (like hiring local Allies to fill in for legions in place of actual Roman soldiers) they must have remained a significant cost to an economy still limited to harvesting resources which, all of them, had to be backed by basic muscle and photosynthesis. Two: The dominance of Roman tactics (a military resource itself) was in decline because of adaptations developing in opposing forces. Even if Roman economic support for the Legions could have held steady, the tactical decline would have continued to push costs higher. The reason for this decline has to do with rates of learning, or experimentation. The Roman Military, had many standardizations across the board, and all of those standard features could be confronted and tested in any battle, and any useful lesson won could be disseminated widely. There were many opportunities for Rome's opponents to learn widely generalizable lessons about Rome's weaknesses. The Roman military, had many encounters to confront and test its foes as well, and therefore many opportunities to acquire useful lessons about its foes; however, the Roman military's lessons were less generalizable, because they faced many foes who were not standardized; and it was harder to test responses to those lessons and spread those responses through such a structured system. Big rigid things adapt more slowly than small indefinite things.

team10tim said...

Dear Mr. Archdruid Sir,

That was very well done.


Bill Pulliam said...

I've participated in the "Just In Time" shipping process at the nitty gritty as the driver of some of those "rolling warehouses" (i.e. the millions of mostly-empty big rigs clogging your highways). Among other gigs, we drove an empty tractor-trailer from Tennessee to Canada three times a week, and returned to Tennessee with a mostly empty rig three times a week (this was part of an automotive assembly supply chain). And this is somehow more efficient...?

To use an expression my co-driver favored, the whole scheme has "too many moving parts." More moving parts, more chances for one of these parts to stop moving, or move the wrong way, or just snap and shatter to pieces that bring down the whole machine.

But it is better. The accountants and tax lawyers assure us of this. And hey, it's the Full Employment Act for truckers, that's fer shure! Until we have autonomous 18-wheelers (oh, heck, 6 wheels are plenty, get rid of all that reduncancy).

Øyvind Holmstad said...

@Thijs, copper is soon to be sidelined with rare earth metals:

Robert Martini said...

John Michael Greer,

After reading Carson's post the only thing that came to mind is that I wished he had read the introduction to systems thinking in Green Wizardry. Perhaps he should try one of those exercises where he has to track the flow of information, energy and matter for a household object.

It is astounding how many times people create visionary solutions that only make logical sense due to the ridiculous system boundaries they have placed in their mind. Carson prefers to ignore that his solar panels are created in a large factory dependent upon exotic materials mined and purified from ore extracted with GIGANTIC trucks powered by ridiculous amounts of diesel, not to mention the massive nickel/lead acid battery stacks for each household. The proponents of the "3D printing revolution" choose to ignore how much their fantasy is dependent upon UPS/Fed Ex and small companies specialized in shipping a ridiculous amount of small orders of ABS plastic pellets to some home enthusiast so they can pretend they are revolutionaries of economics. In fact, the reason Carson's vision of a decentralized manufacturing future that can enable middle class American lifestyles and a route to escaping the human condition is flawed stems from the UPS/Fed Ex problem. We know UPS trucks are less fuel efficient than long-haul freight and trains. Therefore Carson's increased complexity would require increased energy and and an increase in information as distribution facilities will need to sort the increased flow. You and I both know that isn't going to happen.

I used to think I took issue with the substitution effect in economic theory, but after understanding the religion of progress I just take issues with the view of the specific substitutes. There will always be a substitute energy source or product source, the controversial part is implying that it may be muscle power and ambient heat/UV radiation as oppose to some alternative that follows the ritual theater of progress.
What we do know is that complex systems are organized by the flow of energy available. For example one million years ago, It was the massive energy surplus that the control of fire gave us, that allowed our species to organize larger more complex brains. In every example of civilizations confronted with reduced energy a reduction of complexity followed. The same is true in the biological world, A body when confronted with starvation will consume fat stores, muscles and eventually organs before it ceases to be a flow/store of information.

Great post this week.

Marc L Bernstein said...

I had never seen such an accurate and critical appraisal of Buckminster Fuller's work before. I remember listening to him interviewed back in the mid to late 1960s on KPFK radio in Los Angeles. Fuller's speech was halting and strained but like many others of that time, we were enthralled. It should be remembered that the 1960s were characterized by many things but not by restraint, a sense of limits or the sense of a need for an understanding of resiliency. Peak Oil had yet to occur within the USA, and "The Limits to Growth" had yet to be written. Chalmers Johnson was still an anti-communist and a hawk and it wasn't until 1968 that the paper "The Tragedy of the Commons" was written by Garret Hardin.

KL Cooke said...

"The best known example is the replacement of old-fashioned systems of distribution, with their warehouses, local jobbers, and the rest, with just-in-time ordering systems that allow products, parts, and raw materials to be delivered as they’re needed, where they’re needed."

As a former long time purchasing agent for a variety of hi-tech industries, I'm quite familiar with the JIT "philosophy." Back in the Eighties it became quite a fad in manufacturing. It was always a myth.

You can't really manufacture components on a JIT basis, because the economies of scale demanded by industry won't permit it. Consider manufacturing an integrated circuit for example. The key there is yields per wafer, and it's a very tweaky business. Once you get the line running properly, you run the hell out of it.

JIT was actually an attempt to push the inventory burden back down the supply chain, while trying to ignore the fact that it must come back in the cost of goods, if one expects to have an unbroken supply chain. An out-of-business supplier can't supply you, which seems elementary, but you'd be surprised how easily that was ignored.

In the real world of manufacturing, there is no real JIT. You have to anticipate need, i.e., a marketing forecast, and that's always a guess and always wrong. So, you still end up with dead inventory and line stopping shortages.

Further, JIT is an excellent example of efficiency equals fragility, because somebody is always dropping the ball.

flute said...

@Steve Morgan:
The satellites themselves cannot be salvaged for other uses, but as Mr Greer pointed out the lion's share of their infrastructure resides on the ground and can be reused.

YJV said...

I was trying to prove this argument exactly to a bunch of peers - on how the so called 'mining' of natural resources in other planets is another one of those absurd ideas that is absolutely economically idiotic amongst many other things. While I was at it though I also dropped in the whole bit about progress ending, y'know.

It was the replies that amused me the most. I got called "the pope in 1500 AD" (i.e. the epitome of the superstitious role in the mythic folk narrative), along with something similar to "so we're stuck on this rock for the rest of our existence?". Forget that I wasn't sticking to the script, but as you've already mentioned people tend to twist narratives into something they're familiar with.

I've realised that part of proving any proper argument is trying to make a progress-doctrinated individual understand that we live on a finite planet.

Before that, all you can expect to hear is "yeah, but they'll think of something!"


Ursachi Alexandru said...

Shingled roofs - they're pretty much a normal part of the landscape in many parts of this country.

As for computers, and in deed many modern technologies, one thing that I really hate about them is exactly their ephemeral nature. You can have a TV set that lasts for decades and still use it, but try doing that with a computer. Even if it lasts, it will be worthless because it will be "out-dated". I use a 5-6 year old computer and it's an "oldie" by "today's" standards.

Yupped said...

Since I'm in the process of retiring from the computer business after 30 years, this week's post further stirred up memories that are already a-swhirl and have some relevance. In short, non-experts have a strange habit of mistaking "smaller" for "less-complicated" when it comes to technology and infrastructure. When I first started as a programmer in the very early 80's computing was performed on mainframes - great big chundering water-cooled machines that sat in the back room and didn't do very much really, but looked awfully large and complicated: great lines of huge and noisy boxes, tape reels and printers sitting in a massive control room giving off a general air of technical awesomeness. To anyone in the computer business, they were actually pretty straightforward. In those days, straight out of college, it took me a few months to learn how to program, change tapes, run the control centers and operate the equipment. An IT generalist could learn to do most things, with a few super-geeks thrown in for some of the more complicated stuff (“the Beards” I believed we called them). But, to the executives walking by the control room all this technology looked really mysterious and complicated.

Flash forward about ten years and those same executives now had kids who were messing around with "personal computers" in their bedrooms. To these executives these small machines seemed so easy to use. "Why is everything so complicated in the IT world?" I would hear regularly, "my kids can make this stuff work, why can't you all get things done more quickly?"

OK, so we all got down to putting these PCs on the desks, and then we networked them, and then the Internet came along and we hooked them all up to that (which some marketeer re-branded as the “cloud” about ten years later). And then along came Blackberries and then smart phones and no doubt we're only a couple of years away from X-ray vision glasses and retina chips or whatever else comes next. And still, I'm sure, most of the non-expert users of this all technology assume that because what they see is so small and easy to use that it must also be easy to manage and maintain.

Thing is, if you take a look under the covers of a typical IT management operation, it is vastly more complicated and challenging than it ever was: great herds of specialist employees, sub-contractors and vendors of different sorts, many of whom live in India or the Ukraine or somewhere to help off-set (perhaps temporarily) the costs of all this stuff. Layers and layers of very complicated, expensive and vulnerable infrastructure, each needing a tender-loving specialist to keep it up and running. The IT industry has done a wonderful job of standardizing many of the interfaces between these layers, so they can talk to each other, but that has then enabled more layers to be added, and so it goes on.

So, yes, everything got smaller and easier to use. But it also got vastly more complicated to maintain. Which is probably why every other low income country these days seems to be able to make a living keep parts of the IT world up and running. I’m sure that will end well.

Richard Larson said...

Well, I won't need to spend any more precious time reading Carson!

I think "Facebook" is another one of those energy hogs that produces nothing. But Facebook, because of the name, the wide audience, the faster than a launching spaceship rising points per share, has the best chance to become a metphor for something silly once it too suffers catabolic collapse.

Future mother to her teenage daughter: "Stop behaving like a facebook"!

John Michael Greer said...

Compound F, thank you! Please do support your local bookstore with your purchases, though -- having books widely distributed in brick-and-mortar stores is exactly the kind of old-fashioned resilience I like to cultivate.

Christophe, I have no control over that; nice to see that Blogger has, however temporarily, fixed that, er, feature.

August, there's apparently a movie due out this month that takes a Kessler syndrome catastrophe as its basis. It's a real issue, though -- as the amount of space junk just keeps on rising, the risk of a collisional cascade that could close Earth orbit to any further spacecraft for generations is increasingly serious.

Ray, true enough. I had to compress a lot of history into one paragraph.

Tim, thank you.

Bill, exactly! As another reader pointed out a little while back, "efficient" always presupposes "efficient for whom?" and "efficient at what?" During the last blowoff of the age of cheap oil, the rolling warehouse was efficient, for big box retailers, at making a slightly bigger profit, and that's all.

Robert, it's exactly the blindness to whole systems I tried to skewer in this post that's at issue here. The computer-geek scene is stunningly bad at whole systems thinking, but that failing pervades contemporary society. I'm mulling over the prospect of putting about three months, down the road a bit, into posts that will be a first draft of a really basic primer of whole systems, get reader feedback, and place it with a publisher -- not that that'll solve the problem, but it might help.

Marc, thank you! I find Fuller fascinating, and well worth reading; he had some brilliant ideas, and even his mistakes were far more creative than many other people's successes. Still, he had a lot of failures, and his consistent blindness to the need for resilience was a major source of those.

KL, fascinating. Many thanks for the information!

YJV, and you can't get them to realize that we live on a finite planet, because their religious devotion to faith in progress requires them to chant "They'll think of something" to drive away the evil spirits of ecological literacy and physical reality, and before long they're too busy chanting to think.

John Michael Greer said...

Ursachi, no argument there! I use old computers by choice -- that's one of the ways I cut down on my ecological footprint, since no new computers have to be manufactured to meet my needs, and a few old ones stay out of the waste stream for a while -- and though they do everything I need (word processing and basic internet access), the latest bells and whistles don't work on any machine I have.

Yupped, exactly. Decrease in physical mass per unit, especially when you ignore the behind-the-scenes infrastructure, does not mean decrease in whole system complexity and fragility!

Richard, funny! Do read Carson, though -- it's crucial that people who get it keep reminding themselves of what's going on in the heads of all those who don't.

Emmanuel Goldstein said...

JMG, this one got me thinking, "What are the most resilient forms of currently-used technologies?"-- For example, Global Communications Network-- Most resilient = Breadboard tube-based ham radio of the 1930's. It's at least possible to blow glass tubes and assemble the heating element and foils inside them, locally. Try making your own transistors though! Some of the hams of that time made their own resistors and capacitors.

Or, considering the pencil again, it's possible to make pencils yourself. For example;

Maybe the pencil is the most resilient messaging system--so long as we do not include erasers..

LL Pete said...

JMG, your comments about the hollowing out of the Roman military reminded me of the argument that the US should focus on small tactical units like the brave Seal Team Six that helicoptered in and took out Bin Laden and a couple of his bodyguards. Lean and mean, highly skilled; get in, do the job and get out. No vast standing army required. Huge savings.
I am all in favor of that. In fact we should rely exclusively on drones piloted from a secure bunker in Nevada. None of our brave fighting men and women need to be in harm's way except for the ordinary hazards of their daily commute. We should strongly encourage this.

onething said...

Hmm, I find Carson's essay a bit too abstract and short on explanatory detail. Perhaps I am not his target audience.
For example, this sentence:

The very fact that supply-push distribution decouples production from immediate demand means enormous costs of warehousing inventory for which there is no immediate demand, shipping stuff thousands of miles, and high-pressure marketing.

My understanding is that most businesses now operate on just-in-time delivery mode so who is warehousing? Perhaps the actual manufacturer? OK, good, but I don't quite see his solution. It looks to me like he is using just one or two examples to make a very vague claim, but in order to become hopeful that things aren't so bad, I would need to see at least ten systems parsed as to their ability to be ephemeralized. Two orders of magnitude cheaper! That's a big claim.
How are we to manufacture solar panels without supply-push? Wait for the orders to come in? And what has that to do with eliminating the need to ship things thousands of miles?

Europeans apparently drive about 1/3 as much as Americans do, yet they seem to need about the same highway infrastructure.
Some of his ideas are good, such as completely changing the setup of communities to eliminate sprawl and driving, but that is not ephemeralization. I'd like to know how he expects to do away with the interstate highway system and civil aviation. He mentions them, but then moves on to talk about solar panels and wireless.
I think he's mixing up a few ideas. One, excessive greed and making as much money as possible as an end in itself and including the corrupt laws this generates, two, the need to go local (food actually being the primary one here) and finally the possibility that some of our products can be ephemeralized.

But the geekoisi - I got a kick out of that.

Rhisiart Gwilym said...

John Michael, I can't go on saying, week after week: "This must be one of the very best things you've published to date! Respect!" So I take the old Cymraeg nonsense word 'blerwm' (you'll know the legend of Taliesin and the barddoniaeth contest in Maelgwn's court, I dare say), and cross-fertilise it with 'da' - thus, 'Blerwmdda!' - to make a new word which means: 'Superlative, Archdruid! Druidic wisdom and magic getting better and better! Keep going!'

So here it is on its first outing:

Blerwmdda, JM! :-)

Unknown said...

This link gives an interesting look at the size and energy consumption of modern data storage.

Twilight said...

In a very broad sense, the thing being proposed is similar to the idea from the computer science/IT world that information can replace physical infrastructure. To extend that a bit, it's the idea that flows of energy (to run server farms, maintain the cloud, to broadcast radio signals, etc.) can replace physical infrastructure that is made up of masses of physical materials. This eventually must run into the problem that energy flows are one time, while matter is persistent. When the energy flow stops the information encoded within that flow disappears. If it was truly ephemeral and had little associated physical infrastructure, then nothing is left – it is all transient. And of course information and data cannot really provide the necessities of life, as for example one cannot eat it. So the appeal of this approach is limited to those who are already comfortable and have those necessities of life covered.

Beyond that, as an engineer who designs analog circuitry and hardware, and works in a facility that manufactures, I tend to resent the attitudes of some in the programmer/IT crowd. There is a tendency for those who do not understand the details of a field to assume there is nothing to it, and I have found this to be true of the Internet/IT/computer crowd. In fact there is a vast and complex physical infrastructure required to manufacture, support, manage and power the systems behind the apparently clean and simple (ephemeral?) world they believe they inhabit. This equipment is highly specialized and complex, and difficult to repurpose. It is only an illusion.

I see this also in regard to the electric power grid and the hand waving assumptions about how it will work with distributed, renewable generation. There is little recognition of the real, practical issues of the changes that will be required to the design of the grid and the investment that will entail. Grid tied solar power is essentially storing locally generated power in the power “cloud”.

Finally, as you have often pointed out, society must be capable of making the investment to build the systems envisioned, and willing to do so.

John Beckett said...

As an engineer working in supply chain, I was happy to see your citation of just-in-time inventories as an example of efficiency over resilience. The company I work for has followed the trend of low cost manufacturing, moving from the union North to the right to work South, then from the South to Mexico. That trend stopped when they looked at moving from Mexico to China.

There are some fairly robust statistical calculations to determine how much inventory is required to cover variation over lead time for a desired order fill rate. The additional working capital plus the added transportation costs outweighed the labor savings. Small components can be air shipped in an emergency - that's expensive but still profitable (for now, anyway). Large durable goods cannot.

Systems must be optimized in total or the promised improvements will never materialize... something I find myself constantly reminding our global sourcing group.

Unknown said...

My favorite diversions are art and photography which are inter-related. Ken Rockwell points out on his website that film is an enduring technology: large format cameras still out-perform digital in terms of resolution, the lenses and shutters made 50-100 years ago still work surprisingly well, prints and negatives still work without operating system changes, etc. I'm restoring a 100+ yr old view camera (using hide it could be re-done some day if need be, plus it allows me to work really slowly and easily clean up the drips and runs with clear water and a rag) and trying to learn about more local technologies. The amount of pre-work required to do some of the "alternative" processes is daunting. But, try finding film at a local photo store, I know I can get it on the internet, but each emulsion is different and I have no control over whether Fuji or Illford will keep making it.

BTW, it is possible to develop typical film and prints in strong coffee (at room temp). do a search on "caffenol bible." You'll still need some other chemicals incl. fixer, but this does sound less toxic. I look forward to playing with it myself.

This has me seriously contemplating going back to 1851 to 1900 technology to maintain some control over the process, but even that assumes I can buy basic chemicals (i.e. Silver Nitrate, metal halides, various iron compounds, nitrocellulose, ethyl alchol and diethyl ether, etc). If I had to make those first, I'd give up, sadly.

Similarly, my beloved oil painting: If I had to make walnut oil from walnuts, I could, I suppose. Likewise, I could probably find different colored clays and chalks and powder charcoal, and grind/mull/mix my own very limited colors. But, colors like what "powered" the impressionists in the 1800's (minerals based like the broad range of Cadmium colors reds, yellows, oranges, the synthetic replacement for precious stones like lapis for blue, along with the Tin compound that leads to cerulean blue, Cobalt violet, ZnO white, etc) are very dear to me. As are some of the modern even higher intensity colors like the Quinacridones (red/magentas), Anthroquinones (red to blue), Dioxazine purple, Azo yellos, phthalocyanine blues and greens, Titanium dioxide white. This sort of pigment (not dyes) just aren't possible without a chemical industry. The colors will be vibrant for 100's ?1000? years with proper care out of the weather, but...then there are brushes, really nice ones are amazing technology. I tend to paint on masonite, but copper sheet is reputed to be nice and regular wood works great too for the sizes I like. Canvas is too springy for me.

I should be morose about the decline in effectiveness of antibiotics, emerging zoonotic diseases, the food chain's reliance on diesel fuel, government run amok, how heating in the US mainly depends on electricity...the food, shelter, clothing and spiritual stuff endangered by human folly, but I weep for the future of visual art. Crazy, I know.

I take some comfort from the fact that charcoal is easy to make, visually powerfully expressive, has an immense tonal range (black black to as white as the surface drawn on). Paper is easy to make. And, if you have a rough surface, all that "useless" copper, brass, aluminum (silver, gold, too) can be used to make drawings. I believe that basic inks aren't too hard to come by...

Kyoto Motors said...

Just checking in now... boy this looks like a juicy one! Looking forward to the read & discussion. Hope to find the time for both. In the meantime,
Best regards to the Archdruidreport gang!

Joseph Nemeth said...

@JMG -- well done.

Mark Luterra said...

"There will no doubt be any number of attempts in the years ahead to insist that our decline is actually an ascent, or the birth pangs of a new and better world, or what have you, and it may well take an unusual degree of clarity to see past the chorus of reassurances, come to terms with the hard realities of our time, and do something constructive about them."

This statement bothers me. I don't believe that an objective assessment of the state of the world (i.e. in catabolic collapse) presupposes or requires the acceptance of a trajectory (progress, decline, etc.). Which is to say that I don't see a problem with interpreting painful events as the birth pangs of a new and better world. It may well get worse before it gets better, and I may not live long enough to see the better days, but I feel that the "doing something constructive" that you suggest is better motivated by a sense of optimism and hope than by a grim acceptance of decline.

thrig said...

"Tom, nah, our thinking capacities are overrated."

In related news, the Windows admin just discovered that some Electrical Engineering student had pushed a bit of paper into a network switch fan, as apparently noise from that failing fan was too disturbing. Time to order a whole new switch from China...

Ursachi Alexandru said...

JMG, I use them more or less by choice. My PC is not good enough for even the most basic video editing software which is something I need once in a while, but I manage that by borrowing someone else's tech. And even if I could afford a new one, I'm so skeptical of its durability that I'd probably save the money for something more immedialely useful.

The fact is that I have personally reduced my ecological footprint, as you call it, because I had no choice. For a few years now, the appartment in which I live hasn't had warm running water, or central heating during the winter. And while it can be quite a nuisance especially in the winter months, my bills are noticeably more bearable than what other people have to pay here. Of course, things can get ugly if the gas bill goes up...

Ursachi Alexandru said...

When I said gas, I meant cooking gas. (couldn't edit my other comment, you don't have to approve this one as well)

latheChuck said...

Several comments on communications technology...
Most communication satellites are in geostationary orbit, so far from the Earth that they'll never burn up, or collide. When they're too old to use, they're pushed UP into a "graveyard orbit".
On tubes vs. transistors, I'll argue that the level of transistor technology needed for HF transcievers is not so exotic as you might think, that thoriated tungsten cathodes and barium film "getters" (which maintain the vacuum) are more exotic than you might think, that transistors can last a very long time in operation (so a low rate of producing high-cost devices would be sufficient), and that as electricity becomes expensive, the energy cost of operating vacuum-tube equipment would dominate the manufacturing cost of the active devices.
Having spent some time now copying Morse Code training programs from W1AW, I have new respect for the "bandwidth" of a courier's wagon full of printed media. For example, this week's essay would take over three hours to transmit with 15 wpm Morse Code (19642 bytes / 6 bytes per "word" / 15 words per minute). That's just about the same time it would take for me to drive up to John's house to fetch my personal copy! (Your mileage my vary...)

Nano said...

Whole systems is something that we have started "teaching" our children recently. Nothing too crazy of course, just seeding the ideas of the interdependence and connection of things.

justjohn said...

I don't think Fuller's example of satellites replacing metal cables is the whole story. Isn't the actual replacement fiber cables?

Sitting here in Michigan, pinging the Netherlands goes thru in 120ms. That certainly isn't touching a satellite, since a round trip takes at least 500ms

James M. Jensen II (badocelot/shiningwhiffle) said...

Off-topic, but I thought you'd find it interesting that the pricing-bots on Amazon have glitched again and your World Full of Gods is going for over $4000 used.

I know I'd be very interested in a second edition of that one, especially in light of the current topic.

Kevin Anderson K9IUA said...

@Tom Hanson,
You summarized Carson in part by saying Carson proposes that we will have cheap CNC machine tools, internet, and teleconferencing, and that production will tend toward a small shops serving local markets.

Carson is right that we will have local small shops, but he is totally wrong in what will be in those shops. Think low-tech -- what can be done with simple hand tools, treadle-powered lathes, forges, looms, etc.

I can imagine a woodworking shop, for instance, that for part of each year might make bed frames, dressers, chairs, etc., until the local market's demand is met, then switches over to home repair projects, home demolition/salvage, then maybe makes buckets, wheel barrows, and so on. A multipurpose shop meeting all the wood working needs of a local area. Similar for blacksmiths, and so on. A person(s) and their hands will be the CNC.

Kathleen Quinn said...

I chuckled to myself at your descriptive “current blindness to whole systems in full gaudy flower”—and thought about just how right you are about our dependence on materials, skilled labor and lots of other inputs for the most so-called efficient things we do. Happily, I can’t really relate to your example of cloud computing, since I haven’t the foggiest about it, but such thinking is in evidence all around me. All and sundry seem to read the same short photo-laden magazine articles which tout growing a garden and keeping chickens as the antidote to dependence on an industrial food system with a 1500 mile long supply chain, and race right out to get their plants from Big Box Store and their chickens in the mail from a hatchery halfway across the country.

Mostly, I think it’s great. I think everyone should give it a try, and learn firsthand just how hard it is to produce food. And I love keeping chickens, and the other critters we have about the place. But I know enough of whole systems to understand that even though I no longer depend on the conventional food system for eggs, milk, and meat that have traveled to upstate NY from a thousand miles away, I still very much depend on commercially prepared grain to feed my animals, grain more often than not way better traveled than I am. So, I have gained some skills, and I am doing work I enjoy, but I understand that have replaced one vulnerability for another. Working on that, but it’s a huge challenge for me. Sharon Astyk talks a lot about this in her latest book, but I have yet to convince the kids that I need their pet rabbits to feed the barn cats. Will keep working on this too, poor dears.

And now, when people ask me what I do for a living, instead of saying "homeschooling goat farmer", I can say (with some authority) “systems analyst”. On a (not very) related note—when I informed my new neurologist that I farm for a living and also homeschool my kids, he asked me if I also ever engage in any “intellectually challenging” activities. He is now my old neurologist.

Thanks for another good one, Mr. Greer.

Ian Stewart said...

I have been a big fan of Carson's writings on mutualism and distributed production, as well as John Robb's ideas about resilient communities. In fact, they set me on the path that led me to my current employment on an organic farm, and to the Archdruid Report. But the glaring missing link in all the ideas about things like computer-controlled aquaponic systems and wireless mesh networks is the complete and total lack of localized, recyclable production of microprocessors. I certainly want to try experimenting with mesh networking once I have a ham radio license, but that technology is currently dependent upon a limited number of Linksys routers that the manufacturer deigned to equip with user-replaceable firmware.

Steve Morgan's idea of repurposibility expressed earlier lines up somewhat with Carson's ideas about general purpose capital goods, albeit with a better recognition of the scarcity and current poor recyclability of resources such as rare earth metals. I have to wonder if current research into nanoscale manufacturing might allow us to find a middle ground between Carson's techno-peasantry and "Star's Reach's" scavenger society, but if I go too deep into that speculation, I will find myself on the same shaky ground that Mr. Brin did a few weeks ago. After all, the reason Steve Jobs is still considered the greatest technologist of the age is because every advance he promised was available immediately, or no more than 6 months after its announcement.

David James Peterson said...

On the subject of "repurposability". I've recently become fascinated brick masonry construction. I bought an old wood framed house, in good condition for its age, but if not maintained it will quickly become not useful for anything other than some scrap copper. Brick on the other hand is different. While watching a news report on the building bubble in China the reporters showed chinese peasants that were being displaced to build a highrise. Their home had been bulldozed, and they were using masonry hammers to remove the mortar from the joints, i.e. you can re-use brick as a structural element again and again as long as they aren't damaged in the demolition process. Old Roman bridges are probably similar, if the bridge is damaged the stone or brick work can be taken and used in the construction or repair of a new bridge. A steel and concrete bridge, on the other hand, could be re-used but not to the same degree (melted down for the steel, and busted back into small pieces for the concrete to use as aggregate), but not nearly as useful as having a square building block to work with.

LewisLucanBooks said...

I'm sure we can all come up with examples of "not looking at the whole system." Back when I was taking a few classes in Library Land, I wrote a paper on card catalogues vs online catalogues in libraries.

One of the arguments against the old card catalogues was that they took up so much space. Put together all the catalogue terminals in a branch, plus the server in the back room and the on-line catalogue took up far more space than the old card catalogues. If there are fewer places to sit in a library, obviously, something is sopping up space.

Support staff for old vs new was also brought up. As if the huge library IT departments didn't exist. Of course, my defense of the old system brought a lot of eye rolling and polite silence.

We recently had a long beloved children's / young adult librarian quit our local library. Off the record, she stated to me that the reason she is quitting is that most of her time no longer involves dealing with people and books, but now involves riding heard on technology.

Thank you for making so simple what I have not been able to simply articulate. To paraphrase "Any change, however destructive, must be for the best."

I live out in the boonies. The other day a fellow showed up at my door who had broken down on the road. He had a dead smart phone in his hand and asked if he could charge it. The charge cables he had would only work when attached to a running vehicle. Burning gas. I just let him in to use my land line. I would bet the whole system to support my land line vs the whole system to support his smart phone are very different in scale. And resiliency.

latheChuck said...

On "cloud computing"... Douglas Adams, in one of the "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" series, explains that people can respond calmly to almost any crisis or danger, if the event is cloaked in a "Somebody Else's Problem" field. (In the book, the invasion of hostile aliens comes with just such a field.) Cloud computing rounds up a variety of inconveniences: power consumption, data backup, floor space, application maintenance, facility cooling, computing and communication hardware selection, hardware maintenance, security, etc., and makes them all Somebody Else's Problem. All the customer needs to do is define the application, send data, and send money. Cloud computing is claimed to be efficient: when one customer isn't using the peak capacity they've contracted for, another customer can be using it. The economies of scale are tremendous.

Of course, it's fragile. No customer can control when their own peak demand will coincide with any (or every) other customer's peak demand. And no customer can sue for continued support when the cloud provider goes out-of-business. No customer can ensure that the ultra-geek that keeps everything going is paid in accordance with his worth. But those possibilities are Somebody Else's Problem, and letting them discourage you from taking advantage of the cloud would not enhance shareholder value.

Helix said...

Always a good read. I found the commentary on the fate of societies dependent on non-renewable resources vis-a-vis the traditional Chinese local economy model to be particularly cogent. I suspect that the US economic landscape may adopt some version of this model as time goes on, although not, I suspect, without some bitter upheaval in the meantime.

SLClaire said...

On an unrelated but perhaps current topic: are you still accepting posts for the Krampus contest and is the deadline still November 1? Thanks for your response!

Enrique said...

More evidence of problems with ephemeralization, satellite based systems and the US militaries’ over-reliance on gee-whiz technologies. There have been suggestions that one of the reasons why the Obama administration made such a humiliating retreat on Syria was because the Russians had supplied electronic warfare technologies capable of jamming GPS signals to the Syrian military, which would have severely degraded the effectiveness and accuracy of weapons like the Tomahawk cruise missile.

This would have forced the USAF and USN to rely much more on manned aircraft, and Syria has much stronger and more modern air defenses than Iraq or Libya had. No doubt, the US military could have overcome Syrian air defenses given enough airplanes, missiles and effort, but it would have been considerably more expensive and difficult, and there probably would have been more politically embarrassing collateral damage incidents due to reduced missile accuracy. The US Navy has recently acknowledged the issue, and has stated that the next generation anti-ship missile (LRASM, prototypes recently started testing) needs to be able to fly its mission without relying on satellite guidance. Looks like the US model of push-button and video game style warfare is approaching its sell-by date due to the development of effective counter-measures.

DaShui said...

Odd that u mentioned space junk this week, because there is a new movie about such a thing called ""Gravity" being released this weekend.

Jonathan Byron said...

Carson's satellite example certainly needs to include all the resources for a space program; I am not convinced that it is a good example of what ephemeralization really is ... Carson deserves some criticism for that, but so do those who think that the idea of ephermalization can be dismissed simply because Kevin had a metaphor failure.

Ephemeralization is not merely the idea of doing more with less as described by others here - it is doing so using a system of design metaphysics that often demand the systemic rethinking of what we do and how we live. For example, a device like a Mike Reynolds Earthship might be considered a much more appropriate example of ephemeralization, providing shelter/heat/cooling/lighting/water gathering/drinking/bathing/'waste' recycling/and food production in one low-impact package that is more resilient than the typical alternatives.

Regarding the history of the dymaxion car - the vehicle that crashed was a 1933 prototype with a canvas roof - the design was not inherently more dangerous than any mid-century convertible. One way to reduce the risks on collision would be to up-armor it with more weight and more wheels. Another way (more in line with Fuller's idea) would be using material science to put in a roll bar and crash cage. And the idea that fatal collisions on Lake Shore Drive have been exceeding rare over the past century is highly suspect - quick research indicates that in a recent 5 year period, there were 17 fatalities just at the S-Bend (which is being redesigned).

Yes, geodesic domes lost steam - for the caulking reason you mentioned, and also because the are best at enclosing large volumes, while most houses and greenhouses really are attempts at enclosing surface areas that have a modest volume tagging along. The caulk issue is yet another example of Fuller being ahead of his time - One might also note that the dream of human powered flight envisioned by (among others) Leonardo da Vinci had to remain on hold for a few hundred years until materials science (another good example of ephemeralization) presented the stuff with a suitable strength/weight ratio. Caulking material and assembly techniques for leak-tight domes don't seem to be huge issues that would not be solved by a modest research program and economies of scale. Even then, a dome is better for enclosing a moving radar tower or a pile of coal/salt/phosphate rock.

Finally, the discussion of 'efficiency' indicates that most of the people bandying the word about think that it is some dimensionless reality that exists apart from our frame of reference. In fact, the word only makes sense when it is expressed in terms of some concrete particular that we are interested in ... e.g., US farming is very efficient in terms of production per acre or people fed per farmer, but it is incredibly inefficient in terms of energy in versus energy out or in terms of conserving or regenerating topsoil.

Grebulocities said...

"As we continue down the familiar trajectory of decline and fall, we can thus expect any number of people to cheer heartily at the progress, so to speak, that we’re making toward the endpoint of that curve."

I've had this same thought too - many of the telltale signs of decline are seen as progress by true believers.

Here's a scenario: it's 2035 and the decline in food per capita foretold by Limits to Growth has been underway for a decade or so. Malnutrition rates have tripled in the developing world, and even the poor of the developed world are beginning to go hungry. Due to hunger, drug-resistant diseases, and low birth rates, world population peaks around 8.5 billion and begins to decline. High-quality fossil fuels are mostly depleted, and desperate plans to harvest further tar sands along with Arctic oil, methane clathrates, and even kerogen (at very low EROEI) are being hastily implemented.

My question: how are these events reported in The Economist? My best guess is that they will run an article on how world population has peaked earlier and lower than the "doomsayers" had claimed. Therefore, overpopulation isn't an issue! They will go on to note that worldwide per-capita energy use and carbon emissions have begun to decline (because scarcity caused high prices which caused demand destruction, hence "peak demand"), so there's no need to worry too much about environmental issues either. The next article then talks about the Arctic Ocean oil boom, the efforts to liquify kerogen, and gas extraction from seafloor methane clathrates, so technology has is solving the energy crisis too! Finally, the last article mentions the food crisis by discussing new genetically modified crops with record yields, given enough (now quite scarce) fertilizer, and ends with a couple of paragraphs lionizing the billionaires who have deigned to contribute some money towards famine relief.

I think the cult of progress will manage to keep itself going for quite some time this way. In a sense, "progress" is defined as whatever happens in the future, with some rosy-sounding rhetoric to make it sound as though that future is better than the past.

Moshe Braner said...

@Enrique: somehow whatever the Syrians have in defensive hardware doesn't seem to stop the Israelis from periodically bombing exactly what they want to within Syria? Also, inertial navigation was built into American ICBMs long before GPS. Couple that with optical recognition now possible, for the last mile, and the accuracy can beat GPS.

But, of course, at a steep price, and it's still gee-whiz and fragile. I agree that the US military has gone out on a dangerous limb of over-reliance on high-tech.

I think it was may have been on this blog (or TOD?) some time ago that somebody posted a story about US soldiers in Iraq that had their vehicle blown up but managed to jump out. When offered a ride back to their base by somebody who happened by, they said they don't know how to get there, without their GPS equipment which was blown up.

Dwig said...

A thought: the Kessler Syndrome may have a silver lining. I've been wondering why I haven't heard much about the militarization of space and space warfare in general recently. I wonder if maybe a factor is the likelihood that any space battle may make near-earth space "uninhabitable", either for military or civilian use.

One more comment on Fuller: like you, I've been fascinated by his creativity, and entertained by how he didn't just get some things wrong, but did so on a truly grand scale!

On the whole systems primer idea: there are already a few out there; my favorite is Donella Meadows' "Thinking in Systems". I've seen “Seeing Systems” by Barry Oshry recommended. Peter Senge's "Fifth Discipline" books feature a simplified version of system dynamics. I vaguely remember a recommended list of beginning books on the subject, but I can't find it now.

However, there might be an opening for a primer addressed to, say, grades 8-12. (In fact, I'd like to see a whole curriculum, spanning these grades, addressing whole systems, with ecological, economic, and social system examples, as well as examples like

Kyoto Motors said...

Now that I’ve found the time at last to read my weekly dose of Archdruid (favourite pale ale in hand) I do declare, another fine work: thank you for the solid essay. I will be sure to share this one. It’s is the kind of stuff that I think can actually be aired out in the mainstream and be taken seriously, unlike some of the more (dare I say) esoteric material discussed here. I’m wondering if we’ll hear from Carson himself in this comments forum? The ironies you build up to here are indeed juicy, it would be interesting to hear the man respond…
As for the implications of the collapse at hand I am particularly interested in the “abandonment of excess” as a sort of forced, collective vow of poverty, if you will. Of course, once whole branches of industry, or sub-sets of systems fail to retain viability, lots of people will simply be out of work, and without services they previously considered normal/ permanent. No doubt “making do” will be an emergent theme. But as you point out regularly, for a population that consumes well above the global average, there’s probably plenty of capacity to cushion the blows of collapse as we shed superfluous “needs” and “wants”. The challenge is at the leadership level, which must frame the shift (of letting go) as something desirable, and as a way to make the best of an otherwise losing proposition.
Of course we seem to be stuck in a phase of only considering a winning proposition… hence the feel-good re-definition of “ephemeral”. I have come to wonder why we lie to ourselves so elaborately? We do so with such sophistication in so many areas (especially advertising). Is it simply the blind faith in Progress at work here? Is it a pre-emptive strike against the cognitive dissonance we’re trying to ignore? Is there perhaps a collective trauma from the downturns of the 20th century at play (war, Depression)? Whatever may be the cause, it never ceases to amaze me how good we are at it, even if (and more likely because) we are generally slack in our capacity for critical analysis of reality…

By the way,
Did anyone ever think of putting shingles on a geodesic dome? Or is that beside the point?
; )

John Michael Greer said...

Emmanuel, pens are much easier to make than pencils, and ink is easier still. As for radio technology, LatheChuck and I have had a lively and friendly disagreement about the relative ease of building vacuum tubes vs. transistors, and I have every hope that different people will try different options and see which works best.

LL Pete, yes, and that very Roman bit of logic guarantees that down the road a bit, as soon as someone figures out how to hack drones en masse, the US will be left completely defenseless. Whether that appeals to you depends, I suppose, on whether you think being occupied by the Chinese would be an improvement.

Onething, I'm actually much less interested in seeing thing ephemeralized than I am in seeing them made more resilient...

Rhisiart, very funny! I wish some talented bard would make today's economists go "blerwm, blerwm" like their counterparts in Maelgwn Gwynedd's court -- perhaps you can find someone in the Gorsedd y Beirdd who's up to it!

Unknown, many thanks for the link.

Twilight and John, thanks for the professional feedback! I hear the same thing reliably from those who have to turn the daydreams of the IT crowd into hardware.

Unknown, inks are easy -- you can make them out of a variety of plants. Oil paints aren't that hard -- you might check out Giorgio Vasari's Vasari on Technique, which covers the ordinary working life of a Renaissance artist. Photography? There I don't know, though I'd be delighted if some fairly simple method could be preserved.

Kyoto and Joseph, thank you.

Mark, what I'm proposing is that we are already in decline, the decline is accelerating, and the last viable chance to prevent industrial civilization from going down the same drain as all those other dead civilizations was wasted more than three decades ago. The logic here is very much along the lines of deciding what to do when your ship's sinking: you can get people into lifeboats or you can fling all available efforts into trying to keep the ship afloat, but there isn't time to do both, and so a realistic assessment of the situation is essential -- and if the ship really is going down, any action that doesn't involve life jackets and lifeboats really is a waste of time.

Thrig, that's a classic. Now let's see if we can figure out who stuck a piece of paper (or, rather, millions of pieces of paper) in a failing economy...

Ursachi, good. Reducing your ecological footprint is like that; you can do it now, while you have a choice, or later, when you don't any more.

LatheChuck, this is one of the reasons the printing press is right up there with shortwave radio on my list of technologies I'd like to see preserved. A book, a magazine, or a newspaper is remarkably information-dense for something that can be made simply and cheaply with medieval technology!

John Michael Greer said...

Nano, excellent.

JustJohn, that wouldn't surprise me. Very often, when the claim is made that resource or technology X has replaced its older equivalent Y, what's actually going on is that X has been added on top of Y, and both are running at full tilt to keep up with demand. The world burns more wood and coal as fuels today than it did before the first barrel of oil was pumped, for example.

James, it's still in print, last I checked. Still, that's a feature, not a bug; a lot of online stores have taken to jacking up the price of books to absurd levels, just to see if anyone's silly enough to fall for it.

Kathleen, you're welcome! As I see it, the value of a backyard garden, rabbit hutch, etc. isn't to pursue some phantom of independence, it's to learn some skills that will become increasingly valuable and useful as we continue to skid down the slope of decline, while also adding fresh nourishing food to the increasingly pasty and unhealthy mess being served up by our food industries. Would your kids be happier eating the bunnies themselves, by the way?

Ian, if you're actually willing to get to work in a basement shop building the intermediate tech you have in mind, I won't criticize you at all -- at least you're doing something constructive. It's the people who sit on their rumps and talk all day about the wonderful technological advances that we're all sure to have someday, once someone else gets to work on them, that attract my ire.

David, excellent! My wife and I live in a brick house, and it's a source of some comfort to me that the bricks themselves may well still be useful, and used, generations from now.

Lewis, I'm increasingly convinced that somebody needs to start founding a chain of private libraries, open to those of the public willing to pay a modest subscription fee, that will store and circulate books -- not electronic gewgaws -- and do so in the most resilient, stable and sustainable ways available. If you happen to know a billionaire or two, I'd be happy to discuss the project with them!

LatheChuck, oh, granted. I do all my writing on a computer that's not hooked up to the internet at all, thus is practically trouble-free -- and my files will still be around when the statistically inevitable accident causes some chunk of the cloud to dissolve into vapor.

Helix, of course, just as soon as the coming dark age is over...

SLClaire, yes, and I'm willing to extend the deadline; this time, there have been a handful of good papers but nothing like the torrent of entries the story contest got!

Enrique, did you read my cautionary narrative of US defeat and collapse last fall? Chinese monkeywrenching of US technology was a major factor there.

DaShui, so I'm told.

John Michael Greer said...

Jonathan, I was responding to Carson's (and Fuller's) ideas as they were presented; of course it would be possible to redefine ephemeralization to mean something else, but that's hardly relevant to the discussion at this stage of the game. As for the Dymaxion car and the geodesic-dome fad, in both cases it seems to me that you're missing (or dodging) the point.

Grebulocities, excellent! That earns you tonight's gold star.

Dwig, my suspicion is that you're quite right, and the entire subject of space warfare got quietly dropped by all sides once they ran the numbers and realized that destroying even a modest number of enemy spacecraft or satellites all but guarantees that low earth orbit will end up full of chunks of metal whizzing around at 18,000 miles an hour or so, with predictable impacts (pun intended) on any attempt to use space for any purpose at all for several centuries thereafter.

Kyoto, good. Yes, you can shingle a geodesic dome, but it's a bear, because you have to fit the shingles around all those complicated angles. More generally, you get efficiency in materials use by way of a vast amount of fiddly construction challenges. Straight beams and planes are much easier in practice!

KL Cooke said...

" doubt we're only a couple of years away from X-ray vision glasses..."

You mean like they ones they used to advertise in the back of comic books, that let you see through a lady's dress? I bought a pair. Didn't work.

Moshe Braner said...

Re: vacuum tubes vs. transistors. I think the question of which can more easily be made from scratch is not going to be relevant for quite a while into the future, since salvaging components from old electronic junk would be the thing to do instead.

That said, most of the older e-trash has been buried deep in landfills, and the more recent e-junk has become less and less suitable for salvaging parts, due to incessant miniaturization. (A smartphone has, among many other things, 3 or 4 or 5 different radios built in! Cellphone, Wifi, GPS, Bluetooth...) I am sad that even the parts and assemblies I stashed away in my youth were eventually trashed (by others) as I moved away. Nevertheless, attend any ham-fest and you'll see a lot of old equipment peaking out of the woodwork.

Tom Christoffel said...

Re: geodesic domes
While caulk may have been the solution, I recall that precision was required in the making of the panels. Wood carpentry just wasn't precise enough.

Good article and good discussion. The challenge of preserving human civilization is a challenge to our collective intelligence.

Aldo Leopold used the term "community motive" in 1944. It was what should be the outcome of environmental education. The term did not catch on, but I think it captures the motive which has enabled humanity to survive and adapt.

The "profit motive," we are told, solves all important problems. Its shortcomings are ignored.

Reflecting on life, you might find that the most important things you do are not for pay at all.

Systematizing processes is great, but there's that "system of systems" problem where we run out of metaphors and mental computing power. Nature doesn't have a mind/minds that lock up.

Talk connected to those that do the walk, can, I think, generate solutions. They may not be fully implementable now, but we'd better have some ideas in the wings when failure hits, otherwise things will be rebuilt in the same old way.

Øyvind Holmstad said...

@Ursachi Alexandru, I use the old computers after my brother, as he sees it as his obligation to buy the latest in computers and mobiles etc., to boost technological advancement. Of course, he just laughs at me and think of me as a doomer, as he's fanatically devoted to the religion of progress.

In fact he was seriously concerned about the situation of our environments during the last financial crisis, as this in his mind staggered the technological development to a sustainable high tech future.

I would have preferred to have lost my brother to the witnesses of Jehovah, rather than to the religion of progress.

Mark Luterra said...

As a follow-up to my earlier comment:
There is progress, defined as improvement over time, and then there is Progress, the civil religion based on the belief that progress will (and should) continue indefinitely or at least through our lifetimes.

Similarly there is decline, a decrease in complexity over time, and I would argue there is Decline, a civil religion of sorts based on the belief that decline will accelerate and continue through our lifetimes.

You make a good case that aligning our beliefs with reality is the best way to avoid cognitive dissonance and make wise decisions, so it would follow that embracing Decline is a good idea.

The problem for me is that Decline is too depressing to be a guide for a fulfilling life. I can accept decline, and I can accept the idea that things may well get worse before they get better, but at the core I need a vision of rebirth, of joy, of hope.

For me, the answer is in the new religious sensibility you have been discussing, placing sacred meaning in the cyclical patterns and rebirth of nature and fully embracing the physical experience rather than hoping to end up "somewhere better." I too see that emerging, and I look forward to joining in community with others who share it. That, for me, is the "new and better world," and I do not think it is a statement of denial to believe that the birth of such a world could proceed concurrently with the decline of industrial civilization. Such is my hope, at least.

Damien Perrotin said...

Pencils are remarkably easy to make, but they require graphite, which is quite difficult to find if you happen not to live in Borrowdale, Cumbria, England.

Pens, on the other hand, literally fly around us (not all species will do, however, the best being swans, geese and turkeys). Metal pens were luxury items before 1822 and will probably become so again. They require great skill and high-quality metal

Ink is very easy to make with hide glue and soot, or, if you prefer the European medieval technique, with gall-nuts and iron salts. Both will last centuries, unlike modern colored inks which fade quickly when exposed to sunlight

Phil Harris said...

JMG & David
Our British agrarian society has survived to some small extent, despite population explosion and industrialisation post-1750.

Bricks were obviously expensive in pre-industrial time (firing cost, inter alia) but old brick still survives in many a wall.

Timber was also often re-used – good oak under our conditions can survive centuries. It was not uncommon for a farming family relocating to take their main house A-frame oak timber with them!

Another remarkably long-lived material has proved itself over periods of up to 800 years. Wattle (coppiced wooden split-staves woven into ‘hurdles’) does not survive for long, becoming brittle and penetrated by insects in a very few years. Even superior quality wood like chestnut has a limited life. However, slaked lime (requires firing energy of course) mixed with a matrix of fragmented grass fibres (from cow dung), effectively encased the hurdles in ‘daub’, and when butted to a long-lived oak frame can be still seen in many of our historic towns long after the original farming base disappeared. It seems to have been less expensive than brick until the advent of coal.

A modern variant – short hemp fibre with lime – can be cast as a quick-setting wall (super light-weight ‘concrete’) encasing a wooden load-bearing frame. As well as excellent heat retention and air-tightness and humidity exchange, these constructions can be expected to last centuries as long as the roof is adequate.

The utility of any long-lived legacy requiring low-ish maintenance can tip the balance between extreme poverty and sufficiency – with the added bonus, as for hemp lime, of fairly rapid payback (‘negawatts’) on energy expended in manufacture and construction.
Phil H

Cherokee Organics said...


Just read your post due to weather circumstances and work here and saw the link to the P2P Foundation blog essay.

Quote: "The difference is, the Interstate Highway System, the civil aviation infrastructure, and the old electrical grid aren’t something to mourn."

Call me old school but I understand that food has to be produced somewhere, stored, transported and distributed before consumption. This is a very unpleasant viewpoint for people who travel down the new super highway of digital access, but there you go.

Quote: "In the case of utilities, this means things like replacing high-capacity, centralized electrical grids with the distributed generation of power at the endpoints"

His call for more efficient distributed infrastructure reminds me of the current (no pun intended) electricity infrastructure here. Wherever does he think his base-load power will come from?

Don't even get me started about the cost of distributed technologies. Grid connect electricity is amazingly cheap!

The whole thing smells of just in time inventory, which outsourced inventory costs from manufacturers to suppliers. How did that work after the Kobe earthquake in Korea again?

Oh no! His quote: "World without want" was a dead giveaway for me.

I'm genuinely surprised that he didn't mention the cabal of space lizards that are stopping humanity from entering a new golden age!

Onto the rest of your essay. The sheer imagery of the P2P Foundation essay is fascinating, but it is not grounded in the real world.



Phil Knight said...

I think one way in which human biomass will be reduced as resources decline will be that people simply grow smaller - they will be shorter and thinner as their calorie intake declines, and this will moderate the rate of population decline to a certain extent.

It will be interesting to see how the apostles of progress explain away reductions in average population height. Influxes of shorter migrant groups? Information technology favouring physically puny geeks for sexual selection?

Unknown said...

is it possible that geodesic domes don't work for mass use because:

a. they are too complicated to make? (you can't get the angles from the tables printed on a carpenter's square)

b. they are visually too busy looking? and

c. space utilization inside is difficult/claustrophobic because the walls slant in?

I.e. all my furniture is built for vertical walls, I'd lose a lot of space behind it, similarly, I'm 6'4" w/o shoes. I'd smack my head on the wall/ceiling (which is it?) long before I got to the wall, for house sized geodesic domes, particularly on the second floor. I calculate that if you have a 32 foot dia. dome, and you want an 8 foot ceiling downstairs, only 75% of the floor space is useable.

Upstairs, with non-zero floor and wall thickness, there's no 8 foot ceiling even at the center, solved approximately with graph paper 'cause my math isn't that good, it looks like I smack into the ceiling less than half way to where the floor meets the wall, or there's about 25% useable floor space.

To me, a cylinder is a much better solution (think of Yurts) for conserving materials and still being human useable.

Even that though may have some psychological impediments to wide adoption: we aren't radially symmetric and you still have pockets behind normal furniture. All the sudden a rectilear building system looks attractive...

A cube with the same USEABLE floor space as the geodesic dome with 16foot radius (treat as a half sphere) has only 17% more surface area (i'm neglecting the first floor as surface like I did with the sphere), less if you don't insist on 9.5 foot high ceilings. I'd suggest not using a flat roof based on maintenance issues I've seen with such buildings, so surface area goes up some again.

Still, way more human-o-centric and buildable.

Alphonse Houner said...

I read the referenced essay prior to your post and initially had difficulty in comprehending Carson's reasoning. I was immediately struck by the combined reference of multiple writers with your theory. When it coalesced into the typical techno-rant and the predictable conclusion it was understandable that a response was necessary.

Your response was well deserved and very well done.

Nano said...

JMG - I wonder if a service like Kickstarter could be a place where your "Library of Conservation" idea could flourish.

Andy Brown said...

The claim that something is “more efficient” is just the claim that you get more x per y – and in my opinion, no one should be able to even use the word “efficient” without making it clear what x and y are, and preferably also explaining why z, p, q, and w can be disregarded and/or degraded.

But beyond this pet peeve, I’ve often noticed that people who talk about increasing efficiency almost always seem to be in the business of weakening systems overall. I think your point about resilience being a specific kind of inefficiency really helps put a finger on it.

Andy Brown said...

@ Robert Martini,

“I used to think I took issue with the substitution effect in economic theory, but after understanding the religion of progress I just take issues with the view of the specific substitutes. There will always be a substitute energy source or product source, the controversial part is implying that it may be muscle power and ambient heat/UV radiation as oppose to some alternative that follows the ritual theater of progress.”

I think that is spot on. It also helps put into perspective the cornucopian mantra that “they’ll think of something.” Of course we will – it just may be that we will be thinking up ways to live well without satellites and SUVs.

Bill Pulliam said...

Continuing on my aside comment last week about Margaret Atwood's fictional "God's Gardeners" and their bible-based animism...

I've moved on to the final book of her "Oryx and Crake" trilogy, "MaddAddam," just recently published. She introduces us to the Church of Peter-Oleum, which apparently arose during the steep part of the post-peak oil phase (the stories are set in an indefinite but not far-distant future, mostly post-petroleum). Here Peter and his rock (on which the church is built, for those who are not well-versed in New Testament imagery) are interpreted to be Petroleum, surely the liquid rock on which our civilization was built. And of course the "Oleum," meaning "Oil," is a mark of special sanctification throughout the Abrahamic scriptures. So fossil fuels comprise the sacred rock on which the church stands and that spreads its light (electricity) around the world.

Just a fictional presentation of JMG's point a couple of weeks ago about the lack of strong dependence between scripture and religious sensibility.

Bike Trog said...

Many lighthouses have been replaced by GPS, but they may be rebuilt (on new coastlines) after satellite support evaporates. The catch is what will keep them lit. Before electric light, it was some type of oil, such as whale oil. A new whaling industry could cause more extinction, if that doesn't happen anyway with pollution. I've never personally seen a lighthouse, and now the thought of them burning whales makes them less attractive.

Mel, Foxtail Farm said...

David James Peterson said...

" can re-use brick as a structural element again and again as long as they aren't damaged in the demolition process."


This is true as long as the bricks are old enough that they were put together with lime mortar, which is soft enough to scrape off the bricks without too much trouble. Portland cement based mortar is so hard that you're more likely break the bricks than cleanly remove the mortar.

I actually have taken a brick wall down by hand. It's hard work, but you do end up with a pretty good percentage of usable bricks at the end. There were a few spots where the old mortar had been patched with portland, and nearly all of the bricks affected were destroyed in the removal process.

So those of you with old brick houses, if the mortar needs re-pointing be sure that a soft, lime-based mortar is used!

Myriad said...

JMJII and JMG: Absurdly high prices on (non-rare, recent) used books is often an accidental consequence of positive feedback between online sellers' automatic pricing bots. Imagine one seller who has a copy in stock and wants expedite its sale, so he sets his price bot to keep the price "low" at 90% of the average price posted by other sellers. Now imagine another seller who does not have a copy in inventory, but wants to offer the higher-priced convenience of a single source for all buyers' needs; he sets his price bot to keep the price at 125% of the average price posted by other sellers, to make sure he can fill the order (by buying another seller's copy) and still make a profit. For the simplest and most dramatic case, imagine further that those two are the only sellers listing that book in that marketplace. Depending on the number of update cycles that pass before a human intervenes, the prices can spiral into the millions.

That would be an example of failure at whole-systems thinking (albeit a microscopic one in an artificial domain), would it not?

Joel said...

This article got me to thinking about another synonym of "ephemeral": "evanescent".

The Hartman Effect is the way some light can tunnel out of a totally-internally-reflective medium, into a nearby medium of similar impedance:

Because this is tunneling, what photons do get through travel at greater than the speed of light. Also because it is tunneling, the chances of it occurring diminish sharply with distance.

The image that came to mind was of the Dymaxion optical data network, in which optical fibers are chopped up and tiny segments of them are placed parallel to one another, like a corduroy road on the information superhighway. Not many bits (uh...vanishingly few, unfortunately) would get through, but those that did would travel at superluminal speed! How efficient!

Warp speed ahead, and hooray for evanescentization!

Only kidding, of course.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

Which of the Three Little Pigs it's best to emulate depends on local conditions.

Walls and chimneys made of unreinforced brick or masonry do not flex. Sideways shearing causes them to crack open and fall down during earthquakes, killing anyone nearby.

During the Loma Prieta earthquake, the brick chimney of my friend's house came through the living room wall and landed in a heap next to the chair he was sitting in. The rest of the house, constructed of lath and plaster, stayed up.

Conversely, when a wildfire sweeps through a forested area, chimneys and hearths are sometimes all that remains.

In California, new construction of unreinforced masonry is illegal, and bricks are only used decoratively on facades. Roof shingles must be made of materials that do not burn.

The original indigenous people where I live constructed lodges of woven saplings tied together and covered with bark. These rode out earthquakes well and didn't kill many people when they tore apart.

Enrique said...

It’s funny that Moshe Braner should point out the story of the American soldiers who got couldn’t find their way back after their Humvee got blown up because they had lost their GPS. This seems to be a common problem, and not just in the army. There have been at least two recent incidents of American warships running aground because of over-reliance on GPS and the atrophy of traditional navigation skills, not to mention common sense. As the saying goes, common sense isn’t very common anymore.

This has been a growing problem on the civilian side as well. There have been a number of cases of American motorists and hikers getting hopelessly lost, even dying, in wilderness areas because they placed too much trust in their GPS receivers. There was a case a few years ago in the Mojave Desert that got a lot of press when a woman nearly died and lost her six year old son because she trusted her GPS too much, ignored warning signs, took a wrong turn and got stranded on a road that had been closed for safety reasons. Experts said that if she had a map and compass and had used them, this almost certainly would not have happened. But how many Americans or other Westerners even know how to use a map and compass anymore?

There was also an airport in Alaska that had several incidents of people wandering onto one of the taxiways because of a faulty iPhone app. People blindly followed the GPS instructions even though there were warning signs, barriers, airplanes using the taxiway and adjacent runway and all the rest. One wonders if over-reliance on GPS, phone apps and other techno-toys will become a major source of Darwinian selection in the near future. I suspect it will, especially in Western countries when far too many people have blind faith in the latest electronic toys combined with a dumbed down educational system, a severe dearth of common sense and a ridiculous entitlement mentality.

As for missile guidance systems, yes there are workable alternatives to GPS such as inertial guidance and optical correlation. Actually, many GPS guided weapons do use INS as a backup, but high grade inertial navigation systems like the ones used in ICBM’s are expensive, which is why missile designers turned to GPS as an alternative. The LRASM anti-ship missile I mentioned earlier will use a combination of a high grade INS for the midcourse phase and an optical guidance system for target search and terminal homing and so do many of other recent cruise missile designs such as the Norwegian NSM/JSM and the Taiwanese Hsiung Feng 2E.

Still, there are a lot of missiles, smart bombs and other weapons systems out there that rely on GPS, and they won’t all be replaced or retrofitted in the near future, which creates a major source of vulnerability if a nation like the US is attacking an enemy with decent counter-measures. The US military got too used to beating up on enemies that couldn’t fight back and assumed that would always be the case (remember all the rhetoric about “Full Spectrum Dominance”?). This is one of the reasons for such idiotic weapons systems as the F-35, which will be highly vulnerable when faced with enemy planes like the Su-35, the PAK-FA and the J-20.

trippticket said...


I told JMG I was going to disappear for a while (I was being a bit of a crybaby), but Jesus am I glad I watched that video you posted for Thijs! When I first clicked it and it registered 49:31 on the run time, I damn near turned it off, but something inside me said not to, and that something is a lot smarter than the conscious me! Thankfully!

Go back and re-describe that thing, something, call it "peak collision with a lot of pain" or "Peak everything smack-down" or something catchier than I can come with.

Dear cloud computing above, watch this video, folks. I'll repost it here for convenience:


Helix said...

@LL Pete - Sending in small commando units to take out the garbage would have been infinitely preferable to invading Afghanistan and Iraq. Although I guess "taking out the bad guys" was only part of the agenda behind those actions.

Kyoto Motors said...

The so-called efficiency debate is fascinating. Like the mis-use of the term "ephemeral", "efficiency" to an economist may not actually consist of getting more productivity out of a unit of energy. (to me, growing up, efficiency was always this - miles per gallon, for example). But as you point out, efficiency has more to do with optimising profit, and is probably a concept that will have to die once the costs of energy can no longer be dismissed as negligible...
One great loss of resilience is the disappearance of traditional skills that we may yet need again one day. One example that springs to mind is the art of plastering a wall. Drywall is a marvelous invention, but it represents a huge investment in industrial systems - transport being key... if producing drywall is lost to us, will there be craftspeople who can smooth out a wall over lathe-boards still?... There are many examples like this.

trippticket said...

@ Phil Knight:

A few years ago I read an article about epigenetics that I found pretty mind-blowing. You may know more about this topic than I do, but for anyone else who might be reading this who doesn't, in a nutshell, epigenetics studies molecular "switches" that reside in conjunction with many (all?) genes that make us specifically who we are. When times are good our metabolic genes move into a "land of milk and honey" setting, and we require more calories, get taller, stronger, etc. When times get tough the epigene throws the switch back to the "40 years in the desert" setting, and we can then live on far fewer calories, not get as big, (probably don't run for fun), etc.

I hope I have that right or close enough, it's been a while. Anyway, our tolerance to environmental conditions can be improved by throwing these epigene switches, and my wife and I decided that the first thing we were going to do for our children in this regard was live without air conditioning. We did move from the south Georgia coastal plain to the north Georgia mountains in the process! But we figured, hey, tackle the big energy hogs one at a time and make our grandchildren a lot more comfortable in the process. Weird reasoning maybe for the money-centered culture we live in, but it made sense to us!

I'm curious whether JMG has ever tackled this topic?

zedinhisbigflyinghead said...

@ Bike Trog

Re: lighthouses

There's always more than one way to skin a whale...

Cherokee Organics said...


The first computer network I saw in the late 80's comprised dumb terminals connected to a very large server. They were slow and clunky and sometimes you even experienced the orange screen of death (orange - and sometimes green - text on a black background). Everything old is new again!

I know of a few businesses now on the "cloud" and I can't help but be reminded about shopping malls.

Incidentally the "cloud" is a cheaper option presently than running the software on your own server. It is slower though.

Anyway, back to shopping malls, which weren't the main shopping experience when I was a youth.

I would imagine that initially the rents were quite low in shopping malls to entice traders and centralise the capture of consumers. My understanding now is that those rents are much higher and can represent a major drain on a retailers income. I’m just speculating on the history.

Without cheap transport, energy and products, shopping malls are toast.

Using the cloud represents a risk. My gut feel is that most digital storage doesn't have much in the way of longevity anyway.



John Michael Greer said...

KL, me too -- I was a great fan of Batman and Green Arrow back in the day. The X-ray specs got lost somewhere, though.

Moshe, some good solid information on how long different kinds of electronic components survive in salvageable condition would be well worth having.

Tom, the profit motive is going to need some discussion down the road a bit, no question. It fascinates me that Americans, who are often seen (and see themselves) as the most materialistic people on the planet, are fixated not on matter and material things but on that extraordinarily abstract will o' the fiscal wisp, profit. A real materialist would be more interested in things -- among them, community.

Mark, thank you for the clarification! Toward the end of this sequence, I plan on talking about the meaning of hope, not to mention the meaning of history and the mess in which we've landed ourselves. It'll be interesting to see what you think of my reflections at that point.

Damien, good to see you here again! Of course you're quite right, and we're fortunate here on this side of the pond to have two very common species (Canada geese and wild turkeys) that produce excellent quills. As for inks, I know people who are working on that right now, so it shouldn't be much of a problem.

Phil H., wattle and daub! I hope the permaculture people over on your side of the pond learn to make it -- it's as sustainable and resilient a construction medium as there is.

Cherokee, that comment of yours, about the inability of food to be transported via the digital highway, needs to be put on the business end of a branding iron and applied to a lot of geek backsides. That earns you tonight's gold star.

Phil K., good! I'm sure they'll come up with something, even if it's just plain old-fashioned denial.

Unknown, good. All those points and more were discussed at length in the aftermath of the dome craze, but the inevitability of a leaky roof was cited, as I recall, more often than anything else.

Alphonse, thank you.

Nano, it's going to take a lot more money, or a lot more enthusiasm, or both, than Kickstarter can provide. Still, a future post will talk about how the project might work, and we'll see what comes of it.

Andy, I'm increasingly coming to think that the role of efficiency experts in the history of civilization is pretty much the same as that of vultures, jackals, and maggots in ecological cycles: they help break down failing systems so the raw materials can be recirculated elsewhere.

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, fascinating! If Atwood's starting to reflect on the religious dimension of the contemporary cult of fossil fuels, we may get somewhere.

Bike, lighthouses are expensive to build, maintain, and light. My guess is that it'll be a good long time before anything of the sort becomes common again.

Mel, thanks for the advice!

Myriad, fascinating. Thanks for the info.

Joel, you know, if you were to present that in lavish terms as a supposedly real project, I bet you could get articles in Wired and similar geek-porn magazines slobbering all over it. That might be an amusing experiment.

Unknown Deborah, oh, granted. I prefer to live somewhere where bricks are a good choice!

Enrique, if you haven't yet, you really ought to read my series last year on the end of American empire -- most of your points were discussed then, including the self-defeating processes that have kept the F-35 from being replaced by something saner when rival nations have far better planes in production.

Kyoto, and this is why relearning practical skills that can still function without a hugely centralized and energy-hungry industrial system is so important a project right now.

Cherokee, I remember the orange screen of death! As for the cloud, well, yes -- it's going to be cheap while it still has to compete with having programs on your hard drive, but if it squeezes those out, expect prices to soar. That's the way industry works these days, after all.

Renaissance Man said...

Carson's writing and thinking really is sloppy.
Buckminster Fuller has been for a long time my guiding inspiration, but I'm apparently reinterpreting what he wrote. I always understood his main goal was the intellectually exciting challenge of finding ways for all people to live well and comfortably, within the limits of renewable energy and resources available on this planet, and to copy natural systems as the main principle for engineering.
I always understood 'ephemeralization' to be a description of the fact that to accomplish tasks at greater scales, you use less physical tools i.e., to measure a board for a box (very short distance), you use a ruler (solid and heavy); to measure beams for a house (longer distance), you use string (flexible & lighter); to survey a field (long distance), you triangulate with sight (ephemeral). I never took it to be a prescription for production, although he did spend a lot of effort exploring possibilities for building with lighter materials tried different architecture that would -- he hoped -- use less materials, take less time, require less effort and use less energy.
I have never seen any incompatibility between his dictum to "do more with less" and the appropriate-tech movement which, it seems to me, was trying to do exactly that: use less energy and produce less waste. The difference between the two, I believe, is in sensibilities:
Appropriate Tech feels to me to be about focusing on down home, hands-on, D.I.Y., almost rustic solutions to questions of energy and materials using basic materials, whereas Buckminster Fuller feels like he was about techno-triumphalism, using industrial mass production and advanced technology; in a sense, trying to bring into being the futuristic world expressed by Art Deco, the vision of Hugo Gernsback, and the expectation that all humans, everywhere, could live comfortably thanks to complex industrial technology. It is the same sensibility the drives Lovins and the Rocky Mountain Institute, that is behind "Factor Four" and I think they were not entirely wrong, once upon a time.
We could have chosen that path.
But we didn't; we chose to keep on trucking (pun intended) and so that option is now closed, or closing rapidly.
You make the good point, and one that is not at all acknowledged by his disciples, that some of his ideas were failures because Fuller basically ignored Sod's Law, viz., "Sooner or later, the worst possible set of circumstances is bound to occur." and it's corollary, "All designs must be made resilient enough to withstand the worst possible set of circumstances." Nonetheless, I think the spirit of exploration and experimentation that he wrote about and the ideas he propounded are well worth keeping. If we devoted our efforts to 'livingry' instead of 'killingry' we'd all be a sight better off!
For me, Green Wizardry is all about respecting Sod's Law, but still not different from using Fuller's goal of minimizing resource use, as well as his sense of creativity and exploration.

streamfortyseven said...

Here's a song about an aspect of catabolic collapse:

I've got my old calculator from 1976, about a year ago the "9" key stopped working but up until then it worked fine. That's a Hewlett Packard HP-25, I think. Now I'm using the one I bought in 1987, HP-28S still runs fine after 26 years, can do a lot more than the 1976 model...

And I've still got my Powerbook G3 which I got in 2000 or so. It's still eminently usable, but not for the internet at anything over slow dialup speeds (or insanely fast compared to 1200 baud...)

Audels has a fascinating set of books out about electricity, I've got one from 1920 which talks about a very primitive form of television.

Phil Harris said...

Wattle & daub
SUNSHINE, PAULA, Wattle and daub, Shire Publications (ISBN 0 7478 0652 7) (2006).

I just bought this book in UK free delivery for under 5 GBP.
The imprint has a number of titles on historic building methods.
I will share with any permaculture folk as needed.

Phil H

trippticket said...

All this talk about natural building techniques is getting me going for this early hour! I'm a big fan of the cob cottage, wattle and daub, straw bale, slaked lime, clay slip, natural plasters, stone and "urbanite" foundations, round poles, thatched roofs, recycled windows and doors, passive solar, wood heat and cooking, shall I continue? No? OK. I've actually experimented with several of these and would love to learn how to thatch. (Though I hear it takes a good long while to even get mediocre at it.)

Then this concept of "repurposability" pops up, something I've been giving some thought to for the last few years, too, and adds another dimension to that conversation. A well-built and maintained cob house can last a thousand years or more, but you aren't going to break it down into bricks and pave a road with it. Is site permanence the wave of the future? Völkerwanderung? Cob houses are anything but portable. Makes me teary just thinking about having to leave a house I put so much time and care into building.

Then you go and talk about how the amount of wood being burned on Earth has actually continued to climb, too, not being replaced by later technologies. I've always been concerned that a flight from fossil fuels could spell the end of our forests (and everything else that implies) in a wood-fired economy, but maybe there's a decent chance we can pick up some good habits along the way since it apparently won't be the big ship-jump I was thinking it might be. [We were living in a 16x20 wall tent last winter and went through 4 1/2 cords of firewood keeping it warm. Ugh.]

Anyway. What a trifecta of topics!

Might I throw 2 relevant technologies into that discussion? coppicing for firewood production and rocket mass stoves. The English commenters around here will be a lot more familiar with coppicing than most of us Yanks (driven by necessity no doubt), but, although he's originally Welsh, we have Ianto Evans on our side of the pond - the guru of efficient, build-it-yourself wood burning stoves.

Just ordered his book "Rocket Mass Heaters: Superefficient Woodstoves YOU Can Build." (We don't have a bookstore in our town I'm afraid.) Going to build one of these in the basement of the farmhouse we just moved into, and see how LITTLE wood we can burn this winter. I'll get back to the group with the details come spring.


trippticket said...

@Cherokee Organics:

You're always sending me great music clips, so here's one I found for you...

Come to Australia! You might accidentally get killed.

Top shelf;)

Atilio Baroni Filho said...

Moving to the countryside was an excellent experiment on how brittle our way of life has became. When you live in a place where temporary blackouts are common and internet connection is shaky, you get used to candles really quick and all your files are backed up offline in no time! Not just that, but suddenly you have no wish for a cordless phone (useless on a blackout), and your phone book goes back to paper as well. Little things that start to change gears in your mind...

Moshe Braner said...

JMG: "some good solid information on how long different kinds of electronic components survive in salvageable condition would be well worth having."

- that depends on the conditions it is stored in. It seems that in intact electronic devices stored in human-tolerated ambiances the first components to die (after 20-30 years) tend to be electrolytic capacitors. It would be good to have a way to replace them. Storing old ones it not the best way. Perhaps future factories will concentrate on those. It's hard to make your own - it's easy to make your own low-capacity capacitors, but the electrolytic type were invented exactly to allow large capacitances in relatively small spaces.

"the profit motive is going to need some discussion ... abstract will o' the fiscal wisp..."

- May I suggest that it is part of the religion of progress. All that matters is "growth", so a person or business that has a steady fixed income and fixed set of possessions is a "failure". I once attended a local school board meeting where in response to a suggestion that the teachers forego their typical annual salary increase that year (it was during a time of general economic slump) one teacher stood up and said: I've been here long enough to reach the top of the ladder, so no more "seniority" increases for me, so if the whole salary structure is not raised, "what do I have to look forward to"? Note this person had a secure job with a pay that was far above the median in the community. That's not enough apparently.

Re: "the inability of food to be transported via the digital highway," - waddayamean? I have an app on my smartphone that automatically figures out the local pizzerias and orders my favorite type of pizza, it then shows up right at my door! even the payment is digital. /sarc

Erich said...

JMG- this post has your usual perfect timing!

I know you don't prefer visual media, but I couldn't help thinking of this thread as I watched the film Gravity last night.

This film is important. Not just because it is going to sweep the Oscars, but because it directly addresses the myopia of our cultural fascination with space in a visceral, gorgeously rendered, emotionally unforgettable way.

Thanks, as always, for making me think, and then think again.

DeAnander said...

Just catching up here... JIT materiel management reminds me of a horrid innovation that snuck into the labs where I used to work: SOE or "Success Oriented Engineering." This was (I'm not making this up) a philosophy of project management that sought to reduce costs by, you guessed it, assuming success and skimping on fallbacks, testing, redundancy, etc. I called it Bloody Recklessness and was not popular at the time :-)

Actually "reckless" (a word we don't often stop and consider) is a *very* appropriate one for describing all these ephemeralisation/efficiency cantrips. Reck (as in reckoning, Rechnung -- counting or accounting) + less ... a failure to count or account for things. Like possible downsides. Like unintended consequences. Like natural resources. We are, truly, the Reckless Society. Our economists are autistic, as some have memorably quipped -- or at least they suffer from a cerebral deficit of some kind: they can add, but they can't subtract.

All these phenomena of Crappening, or hollowing-out, or ephemeralisation, or catabolic collapse, call it what you will... they all seem to come down to the same issue of preserving money value while degrading real value, trying to "do it on the cheap" by shortchanging the quality of the end product or the process. Cheap food that doesn't nourish, cheap clothes that don't last, cheap tools that won't hold an edge... OK, I'm sounding like an old fogey but it's true. At some point, this became the traditional song of old fogeys *for a reason*, which was because the elders really did remember a time when essential things were more plentiful and of higher quality. I've seen it in my own lifetime. Technological marvels yes, galore, very impressive, very amusing, I enjoy them. But just try finding anything halfway well-made in *any* surviving retail establishment!

Ian Stewart said...

I have a couple different thoughts to elaborate on, so I'll spread it out over two posts.

The first is that current government efforts certainly do attempt to give the appearance that we're in a phase of anabolic growth and recovery, rather than a mere upward blip on the overall trend of decline. The farm I work for burns about 40 gallons of diesel in the delivery truck a week, getting the produce to market throughout the Bay Area. And as I make deliveries at nighttime, I observe that every major freeway in the region is undergoing some sort of construction project. Most of these are simply resurfacing and roadbed reconstruction; although CA Highway 4, the last unwidened route out to eastern Contra Costa County, is finally having its last stretch expanded. Also, curiously, the easternmost extension of the BART commuter rail system is to be powered by diesel initially and electrified later. Even though these efforts represent capital goods expenditures, I can't help but think it's a bit of a Red Queen's Race. The roads are just going to need the same full-scale overhaul after another 10 or 20 years of heavy-hauler abuse...

Another amusing point along the same lines is that my hometown is the proud host of a shiny new Amazon order fulfillment center. Comedically, however, the city government is offering to refund at least half of tax revenue from this operation should Amazon meet certain sales and employment targets. They're building all sorts of new streets, and eventually a new cloverleaf freeway-onramp system, but they are willing to give up a substantial portion of the money that will maintain these streets in the future! I can't help but think that this sort of slapdash financial planning fits the catabolic collapse concept to a T.

Ian Stewart said...

The other though I wish to put forward is the struggle I'm having to obtain the skills necessary to, as you say, start working on intermediate technologies in the basement. Ever since my first stab at college, nearly 10 years ago, I can't help but see the modern American university as something of a vampiric institution. One way or another, it wants to have its hooks in you for life. If I want a deluxe engineering education, even from a public school, then I'm likely to take on mid- to high-five figures in debt, which will compel me to start working under somebody else's aegis immediately, rather than striking out on my own. If I genuinely wanted to become a permanent part of the system as a tenured professor, then I get to labor as an underpaid grad student/post-grad for years and years. I can't help but be allured by the idea that there's still something worth bringing back from the cutting edge, but I am also stuck with the near-certainty that getting out there will cause me to end up as something of a serf.

I am glad to work on a farm and establish fundamental skills while I grapple with the education conundrum. What's interesting about the place is that my boss obtained a PhD in organic chemistry in the era of DDT and Agent Orange, and gradually realized that he didn't want to be involved with synthetic chemistry after all. In fact, he gave a seminar in which he recanted reductionism almost entirely. He was describing his three great tanks of liquid, fermenting compost, but didn't really have anything to say about what species of microbes might be growing within, or any specific recipe for the most "efficient" reaction. He simply adds waste products when they're available, and when it seems that the tank has reached a stable state, he hooks it into the water system and sprays it on the seedbeds, and to hell with what an agro-scientist might think. It is a most impressive (and fairly consistently profitable) way of doing business, but I still feel I can't attempt the same recantation of scientific reductionism until I've gone as far as I can with it on my own.

Kyoto Motors said...

I have to disagree with you on materialism and profit… while profit looms large in the collective financial imagination (and is excessively revered), it seems to me that the accumulation of stuff as well and the consumption of disposable stuff is the driver of the economy. It is so easy to do so that even the homeless can and do accumulate material. I would even go so far as to say it’s doing the opposite that is truly challenging in the petro-age of abundance. Whether it’s a matter of collecting cars and real estate; shoes and furniture; or hoarding “collectible” junk, material accumulation is the order of the day. Is it because we fail to value what we have? Or because what we pay for is often overpriced crap (someone else’s profit margin), leaving us wanting? Or is it because our space that we fill is just a kind of landfill-depot/ shrine to our god Progress? My hunch is a bit of all of the above…

Grebulocities said...

Woohoo, my first gold star! I'm honored. I'd like to thank The Economist for being so easy to make fun of.

Another thing I've been thinking lately is that it seems most of the "progress" that has happened lately has been electronic in nature, taking advantage of the fact that processing power can speed up at an exponential rate for a very long time (Moore's law). Moore's law is possible thanks to the fact that it is possible to build transistors smaller and smaller and pack more of them on a chip all the way down to scales of a few nanometers, which allowed doubling of processing power every ~2 years for decades.

I think a lot of the contemporary belief in continued exponential progress stems from the changes that have occurred in electronic devices thanks to Moore's law, which is not in general true with other technologies. Energy in particular doesn't work that way - it is possible to improve renewable energy technology to some extent, but nowhere near as quickly as electronics, never mind the fact that it is competing with energy sources with incredible energy densities on the order of 10 kcal/kg.

Suppose electronic technology had hit some sort of wall around 1990. People continue to use 5.25" floppy disks and play Oregon Trail, while using their dial-up modems to have discussions on Usenet, and cell phones are large and expensive. The world moves on otherwise, but electronic technology is stuck. Do you think that the ideology of progress would be anywhere near as prevalent as it is today?

As everybody here is well aware, over the past few decades American manufacturing has collapsed, our infrastructure is crumbling, the federal government is dysfunctional, resources are running low enough that "unconventional" sources have to be tapped, education and healthcare are vastly more expensive and no better in quality, climate change is beginning to have observable effects, wealth is concentrated in fewer hands and mostly used to blow speculative bubbles while most people are experiencing economic stagnation or decline, and so on. This is an age of decline by most measures. If it weren't steady march of electronic doodads, would the general public and the academic elite still believe in progress?

Kyoto Motors said...

…Having said that, I think I know what you mean when you talk about valuing community as a materialist principle. Materialism doesn’t have to be a negative thing, after all. We can all value skills and social systems that meet our material needs, and strive for personal wealth and well-being without it being to the detriment of others. Having quality things that work well and provide resilience for your community can only be a good thing.
Perhaps consumer culture needs a measurable way to assess the resilience of their habits and the products they accumulate, like a resilience index, based on the nature of the system/ supply chain from whence it comes.

laughingbirdfarm said...


Carson's essay made me laugh, but you have put into words what were only vague thoughts.

As for the true believers in progress hailing each stage of decline as a sign of progress, I immediately pictured myself living as long as my grandmother (she's currently 92, I'm 30) and, in my extreme old age, watching telegraph wires and undersea cables come back into use amid fanfare because they are "reliable sources of long-distance communication," etc. This small fantasy included me sitting in my rocking chair howling with laughter as I read the newspaper while the younger folk around me looked at me like I had finally gone senile.

Kyoto Motors said...

On another topic,
If I may draw your attention to Tom Murphy’s “Do the Math” post again, he recently tackled the subject of peak population in the age of peak oil, and did a good job of connecting the dots when it comes to the eco-system that is industrial society, it’s principal source of energy (I don’t need to tell you what) and the historic bloom in human population. Basically Tom walks us through the “limits of Nature” from this particular angle, and spells out the challenges, and the predicament we are faced with (hear here!). What’s relevant here is what followed: coincidentally enough the New York Times published an article on population growth by Erle Ellis ( soon after Tom’s initial post, to which he added a brief rebuttal:
The NYT piece is a marvel in its determined optimism, and expression of faith in Progress, addressing limits to growth and the carrying capacity of the planet head-on; making the claim that people who worry about these things “demonstrate a profound misunderstanding of the ecology of human systems.” And that “The conditions that sustain humanity are not natural and never have been.” (!?!?) Followed later on by this nugget: “Who knows what will be possible with the technologies of the future?”
The reasoning is dressed up in historical and archaeological references, and cites Ester Boserup –supposedly the antidote to Malthus (don’t get me started), but throughout, he fails to make the key distinction about our energy situation that is glaringly necessary here.
The smug confidence with which he offers up this facile, and lacking argument, in such a prominent media outlet is simply maddening…
Anyway, it’s worth reading all three…

Agent Provocateur said...

Kathleen Quinn,

I concur with your insight that far from becoming “self reliant”, the reliance (or vulnerability) has just shifted. On the positive side, I strongly suspect that growing your own food and raising your own meat and milk is more resilient, at least in the near term even if you buy your feed. Industrial farming (organic or conventional) has some legs given outright food shortages are the fastest known route to regime change. As a consequence, I expect the current farming system to continue to be heavily subsidized until there is no larger system to do so. This is not to say food will not become more expensive. I'm just saying farmers will continue to be protected. So its a fair bet you can continue to buy animal feed for sometime even as store bought food becomes more expensive and less available. The feed will become more expensive too but a modest profit margin will still be there. If not, then everyone starves.

I recently crunched the numbers for what we would have to pay to buy what we produce ourselves for ourselves. The total value of the food (eggs, chickens, fruits & vegetables, maple syrup) and fuel (firewood and charcoal) was only about $5000 for the year. The cost for this was considerably less. Of course I did not include my labour. We could perhaps triple the total produce value at the most. To pass that point we would need to get a tractor with various attachments. Of course this would involve a big increase in external dependance (unless I go for a walking tractor?). I am very shy of debt, thus I don't see getting a tractor anytime soon. As for growing our own animal feed, even with a tractor the numbers just don't work right now.

I think the key to negotiating catabolic collapse is shifting reliance to more resilience parts of the current system. Nobody can really opt out of the system entirely. The main issue is availability and cost for items you really require. If I rely on a rototiller, a chainsaw, and some mowers, I'm banking on the parts being available and affordable for some time. As this equipment is relatively low tech, I can do the repairs myself and so further reduce the cost. If I have a tractor … not some much ($1000 to replace a large tire!). Similarly. if I rely on furnace oil and store bought food for my existence, I am reliant on a system I expect to falter. Not fail completely right away, just become too expensive and unreliably. Most likely such reliance would drive me into unmanageable debt first before the system itself fails completely. Nothing new here really for us peasants of empire: debt and food being two of the three themes of the Lord's prayer; the temptation to seek violent solutions to the first two problems being the third.

Nice to hear you got another neurologist. Speaking from personal experience, both home schooling and small scale farming are undoubtedly intellectually challenging as well a great fun.

Dave Coulter

Øyvind Holmstad said...


"Damien, good to see you here again! Of course you're quite right, and we're fortunate here on this side of the pond to have two very common species (Canada geese and wild turkeys) that produce excellent quills."

Canada geese was introduced to Norway in 1936, and is now on the blacklist as an invasive species.

Still, I think we should be happy for it, as Norway is one of the countries that has invested most of it's natural resources into the financial market, replacing stuff we could trade in the future with numbers in the international stock market computers.

Sooner or later, probably sooner, someone will for sure choose to use the energy used to run these computers for growing food, and all our fictive billions will be gone.

Then we cannot import food from all over the world anymore, and we'll have to eat canada geese, herring and potatoes.

KL Cooke said...

Agent Provocateur

"Nothing new here really for us peasants of empire: debt and food being two of the three themes of the Lord's prayer; the temptation to seek violent solutions to the first two problems being the third."

You sure said that well.

Kyoto Motors said...

I have long appreciated the appropriate tech lesson of the space race, regarding writing implements...the Soviet answer to the costly American ball-point pen that writes in space: the lowly graphite pencil! For other reasons pertaining to the downsude of plastic, I personally refuse to use ball-point pens, and opt for pencils exclusively - or high-quality metal pen&ink quills. I've never used a feather, but now am tempted... Will also look into making inks. Damien, thanks for the inspiration, do you have recipes?

John D. Wheeler said...

As regards "cloud" computing, I came of age when high-speed Internet meant 9600 baud (that's not a typo, 9.6k). A popular option at that time was "sneakernet": transferring programs and data from one computer to another by putting it on disks and physically carrying it over. I suspect that on a systems level that peaked on the tradeoff between efficiency and resiliency with DVD-ROMs, although on a local level terrabyte external hard drives definitely are convenient. While books certainly are much more resilient than DVD-ROMs, if you need to move them anywhere, the fact that you can fit the words from thousands of books on a single DVD-ROM disk might make up for it.

Under a slow enough catabolic collapse, though, I think it's possible that audiobooks might be the preferred information storage of the future -- no need to bother with literacy. And speakers are far easier to build than screens.

flute said...

Maybe slightly off topic: David Korowicz of Feasta has come out with a new report on supply chain failure, which is probably highly interesting to you:

Joseph Nemeth said...

@JMG -- regarding the current government shutdown footnote: you're probably right, of course. On the other hand, it seems that the big issue now is the deadly sin of Pride. Assuming that it overrides all sense and reason -- which it tends to do -- the deadlock could push us into a fiscal default. That puts the whole global financial system into a very non-linear region: if feedbacks work at all, I would think they'd tend to respond by cutting the US out of the financial equation, meaning a shift away from the dollar as a (paper) base for global currency. As I understand it, that's the main thing that keeps the dollar relatively stable, despite all the hanky-panky. If the dollar goes wonky, a whole lot of US stability could vanish within months, or weeks, or even days: most notably, a sharp increase in petrofuel prices. And we all know where that leads.

Might not be a footnote after all....

Jonathan Byron said...

If one finds an article with problems on ephemeralization (or peak oil, or magic), and one proceeds to tear that article to shreds, has one conclusively disproven ephemeralization (or peak oil, or magic)? No. That is a resort to the straw-man fallacy.

Also, your statements on the thinning of the Roman Legion units is not at all an example of Fuller's idea of doing more with less; it is an example of doing less with less.

Jonathan Byron said...

Re: Lighthouses

A radio beacon can be built that uses the energy of a light bulb. Ordinary light is not very good for sending signals long distances, especially in fog or a storm (which is when it is most needed).

The original lighthouses worked based on what was available, but cannot be considered elegant design solutions based on what we know today. I y'all like, we can build the radio using hand-blown vacuum tubes, and power it with a generator that is hooked up to a bicycle.

onething said...

Grebulocities said,
"If it weren't for the steady march of electronic doodads, would the general public and the academic elite still believe in progress?"

That's really a good point that I'll be thinking about.

Regarding the profit motive driving the religion of Progress, if that is so, perhaps it's a somewhat demonic religion. I've been noticing that many profit generating businesses would really be better serving society if they were simply nonprofit or co-ops. Food comes to mind. Why should some shareholders and owners make tons of money off selling food, when it could be a co-op? Medicine is obvious, not so much for a physician in private practice, but hospitals. Say a community needs some high tech machine like a cat scanner. It should buy it and charge a reasonable rate in order to pay for the machine, and after that the tests should be virtually free except perhaps a small fee for repairs. Pharmaceuticals should all be nonprofits.
Perhaps it is fun to be rich, but what ethically sensitive person wants to be rich by making life harder for others? The right to become rich is surely one of the most revered dogmas of the religion of Progress and we're supposed to accept that. But I think that lots of the ways that people become rich are not really kind, but are in fact a matter of treating your "customers" as strangers, not part of any community you care about.

Likewise all forms of insurance and the utilities. And, of course, last but not least, banking.

There would still be some ways to get rich, but not as many and probably not as rich.

All it would take is for society in general to believe that the public good is an obvious primary value, while things like profit and getting rich would be somewhat questionable.

John Michael Greer said...

Renaissance, I find Fuller worth reading -- even where he made mistakes, his ideas cast unexpected light on a dizzying range of issues and are worth having in mind. To some extent, too, he's what another iconic writer of the same era called a "worthy opponent" -- his technological triumphalism reliably challenges me to think more deeply than I otherwise would. BTW, "Sod's Law"? I'll have to look that one up; on this side of the pond, it's Murphy's Law: "Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong."

Stream, good! My slide rule is older than that, and will still be in working order a couple of centuries from now if nobody bangs it up or melts it down for the aluminum.

Phil H., excellent. Please do.

Trippticket, coppicing is among the handful of techniques I'd put at the very top of the list of things to preserve. The sooner a good many people start getting good at it, the better.

Atilio, very true! The great tradeoff in the years to come will be between convenient technologies that cost a lot and fail increasingly often, and slightly less convenient technologies that are more reliable and resilient.

Moshe, my guess is that in the future, miniaturization will be less important than it is today -- it's quite possible to handbuild capacitors of very hefty capacitance if you don't mind something the size of a hot dog, and if that's what works, it's not that difficult to design equipment around it. As for progress and profit, you may be right, but I suspect there's more to it than that -- it's something I'll need to brood over.

Erich, so I've heard! The interesting thing is that I was researching the Kessler syndrome just before I heard of the movie, in order to fill in a plot detail for Twilight's Last Gleaming -- the novel based on last year's decline-and-fall narrative.

DeAnander, that gets you today's gold star for etymology. Which is to say, you're quite correct -- and I'm somewhere between entranced and aghast at "Success Oriented Engineering." For the benefit of our British friends, perhaps we can contextualize it in a more comprehensive design philosophy, which we'll call Success Oriented Design -- Optimally Frequent Failures, or something like that.

Ian, just don't let the pursuit of scientific reductionism land you a quarter of a million dollars in debt!

Kyoto, notice how little attention people actually give to the material dimension of these supposedly "material" things. An actually materialist society would wallow in the actual physical substance and sensory qualities of their possessions; we, on the other hand, wallow in the abstract idea of having heaps of cheaply made, poorly functioning, physically repellent tokens that magically represent prosperity and abundance in our imaginations. What actual materialist could bear the simple physical hideousness of, say, naugahyde?

Grebulocities, that's a very good point. Notice how often people who insist on the invicibility of progress turn to Moore's Law as an example; it's because there are very, very few other things that support the mythology any more.

John Michael Greer said...

Kyoto, that's an excellent idea -- a resilience index in which all the calculations were public (to decrease the risk that businesses could distort the figures) would be well worth having.

Bird, no doubt! I hope you have that laugh.

Kyoto, thanks for the links. I figure the NY Times has to market that malarkey -- otherwise, people might figure out just how deep of a mess we're in.

Oyvind, Seattle had a major problem with Canada geese at one point, and it was solved in a very simple and natural way. Shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a lot of Russians emigrated to the Pacific Northwest, and every year in the week or so before Christmas and Easter respectively, you'd see elderly Russian women show up in the city parks that were most plagued by geese, equipped with a loaf of cheap bread and a sturdy sack. They were good -- I never actually saw one nab a goose, though I saw some apparently empty sacks come back full -- and the natural process of predation reduced the goose population to a sustainable level in a few years. I highly recommend letting Norwegian grannies know about the technique...

Kyoto, I don't buy ballpoints, but I get a fair number given to me for one reason or another, and using up the ink seems like a sensible bit of recycling. Still, by all means try a quill pen. You'll need that once universal tool, a pen knife.

John, I still use sneakernet all the time -- a very convenient way of getting a file from computer A to computer B. Every Archdruid Report post gets from my writing computer to my internet box via that means.

Flute, thanks for the link -- I'll check it out.

Joseph, I suppose it's possible; it'll be interesting to see what happens when push actually comes to shove.

Jonathan, by the same logic, posting a snarky and not wholly accurate criticism of such a post doesn't refute that post, you know.

Bill Pulliam said...

JMG, Tripp, re: wood fuel and coppicing...

I've been slowly starting to coppice a bit around here. There are a bunch of things I like about it, one of the biggies being this:

If you are in any sort of reasonably fit condition, you can do it with hand tools, no gasoline needed. Just grow poles that are small enough to take down and section with a bow saw. You can even transport the sections in hand-drawn carts. Pole wood also does not require as much splitting. And if you are industrious enough (I'm not, at least not yet) you might even set up a small mill running on micro-hydro or some similar source to cut the sections into stove-ready lengths.

I see the guys around here with their chain saws and power splitters, and I think, "Oh, so you heat your house with gasoline." Of course they get a lot more joules out of the firewood that they put in from the gasoline, but without that gasoline catalyst their whole fuel supply chain collapses and their wood stove goes cold.

Another way to coppice is to live near a creek and steal wood from the beavers. I do this frequently.

KL Cooke said...

Re: Ink for the post collapse.

I know a fellow on the east coast who makes a very fine ink out of walnuts.

Here's some links for those interested.

August Johnson said...

JMG, It looks like I'm going to be coming into the possession of 4-5 vintage HF transceivers, either tubes or tubes and discrete transistors. Not an IC in them, and easy to repair and find parts for. These are all good radios that were highly thought of in the 1960's. Hopefully some people will be interested in getting their ham licenses and will be able to make use of these on a Green Wizards net. I'm also getting several great Hallicrafters short wave receivers, the lightest at maybe 50 pounds, true boatanchors!

sgage said...

Ah Onething,

"All it would take is for society in general to believe that the public good is an obvious primary value, while things like profit and getting rich would be somewhat questionable. "

Is that all? :-) For my cohort, or at least the people I hung out with, that was the feeling right through the 70's. The Reagan "Revolution" put paid to that. It went like this:

1) The raw profit "no matter what" motive is wrong and possibly evil, and certainly disgusting.

2) Raw profit motive is OK - it makes the world go round. What's the matter - are you some kind of Commie?

3) Raw profit is good! More stuff! More fun! Trickle down economics!

4) You are an idiot loser if you don't do whatever it takes to enrich yourself, no matter what it costs anyone else, even friends and associates, much less "society" (what the heck is that, anyway?)

I saw this sequence play out time and again. Many of my acquaintances, and even a couple of friends, completely sold out during the 80's, and it was painful to watch. Here we are, stuck on #4 to this day.

What society? What public? What good? Onething, we have no society or public in the US - it's all about the politics division and fear and "I've got mine". IMO, it's really gotten that bad.

And that is why I weep for my country.

sealander said...

I made my own quill pens from goose feathers when I was a kid – I did find that writing with a quill is a messy process for a left hander!

Regarding geodesic domes: My home town has long had a public walk through aviary housed in a geodesic dome with wire netting panels. For that particular purpose it is a very good design, as it maximises the amount of space available to the birds, and gives them plenty of air and light. My office, on the other hand is temporarily housed in a completely circular glass tower, and it really does not work well. Regular office furniture does not fit well, and it overheats easily as there is always sunshine streaming in to some part of it at any time of the day.

As for brick houses, we’ve repeatedly found out the hard way in New Zealand that they are not a good idea in a tectonically active country. My garden beds are all edged with bricks from the house’s chimneys, salvaged from where the whole thing threw itself through the neighbour’s trailer in the last big quake. That is one way to get the mortar off, just drop them from a great height ;-)

August Johnson said...

JMG, I'm also hoping to have a design for an inexpensive but well performing receiver that can be loaned out to those who would like to listen in to a Green Wizards net to see if they'd like to get their ham license.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

I think automobiles are an exception to the generalization that manufactured goods are more shoddy than they used to be.

In the 1950s and 60s, Detroit iron was the dictionary example of planned obsolescence. People were pressed to trade their cars in for new models as frequently as with electronic gadgets today.

Americans are now keeping their cars for an average of something like ten years. That is partly because the cars are more expensive, but also because they are more reliable. Current cars require less frequent routine maintenance and the period before systems wear out and need major repair has been extended.

Today's cars also handle better, are vastly safer in collisions, and get better mileage than fifty or sixty years ago.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

Regarding dip pens and fountain pens, when did it stop being necessary to blot a letter with sand or paper after writing it? Was this strictly a requirement for quill pens or did someone invent quicker drying ink?

The desks at my elementary school had inkwells in them (generally unused).

Joseph Nemeth said...

@JMG -- on Russian grandmothers and geese: I was at a party, once, where a former employer started telling me a similar story, only he was the protagonist and did NOT know what he was doing. He thought it would be a simple matter to walk up to the goose, grab it, and snap its neck. He said it was like trying to strangle a garden hose, and it bit back and nearly beat him to death with its wings. I don't even recall if he was ultimately successful, but the picture of trying to strangle a garden hose that is fighting back has remained etched in my memory.

Dwig said...

Tripp, Oyvind: the Simon Michaux video is definitely worth watching. There's also a followup video by him, titled Developing a Sustainable Community ( It's his own take on what to do in the face of what he describes in the previous video. Sort of a Green Wizardry course in his own thoroughly analytical style.

I'd also like to recommend the most recent post at the Prosperous Way Down site ( titled "Energy, ecology, and economics revisited", where Mary Logan begins to update a 40-year old paper by H.T. Odum, covering the main points of emergy analysis. (In point #7, Odum mentions the effect of the transition from growth to steady state on religion. Also, in the comments, Logan mentions the Carson post.)

The previous post, "The transformity of personal action" is also worth a read (we'll certainly benefit by hainvg some high-quality servant leadership in the times ahead).

Renaissance Man said...

It's listed in Wikipedia as "Sod's Second Law". Hmm. Must have mis-remembered the name. (For some reason, I cannot remember names well at all.)

re: Thatching. BBC had a series of 'reality' TV shows called "Mastercrafts" a couple of years back. I found them on YouTube.
One was on thatching. Might be useful for finding contacts. I just had to have my roof re-done, it was 100 years old, and there was no insulation up there to speak of. (There is now!) I have to use shingles because of building codes, but I really, really wish I could use thatch. It lasts about 50 years and I remember it was awesome to stay in thatched buildings in Germany and Denmark.

Compound F said...

Just finished "ecotech future," and must commend you on an erudite, yet down-to-earth and very lucid account and delivery. It was both wide-ranging and deep, and like much of your writing it felt like a salve on an open wound. It's beautiful writing straight into the hole in industrial society's heart, and my own. Even though I've already begun my own personal collapse project, your insights are uniquely compelling. You've obviously given these problems a great deal of thought, for which I (and many others ought to) thank you.

I've been wrangling with related issues for only about 10 years, and incredulity is never far from my doorstep, even though I accept the arguments from a purely biological perspective.

Your tone and pitch are impeccably well done. That much I can say with ease. That we're even talking about it makes me reach for the digestivo.

The facts of limits to growth, as they nakedly appear, are jarring and nearly indigestible.

I loved the way you used the observation of ecological succession. Spot-on, I think.

There must be something about druidry, whatever that is, that is "Boethian," riding the wheel of fortune close to the hub, which using fossil fuels to the hilt decidedly wasn't.

I know there's a phrase, "I loved it to pieces," but hopefully I just loved it and left it in one piece. Great book. On to the next.

Clarence said...

Success Oriented Design -- Optimally Frequent Failures. now that is funny! and a nice riff on the brit version of murphy. although, you might want to examine the context and intent of a brit telling someone to do so.


Phil Harris said...

@ Bill Pulliam
We have a water-driven saw mill preserved for working use not far from here. Cuts lumber rather than fuel wood, but a nice little business could do both.

Even nearer and almost in living memory there was also a water-driven forge hammer for tool making. This was another business that fitted with late high-end organic farming (clover nitrogen) and heavy horses.

Re split coppice staves. See me/JMG on hurdles and wattle & daub. In my youth I saw hurdles being woven on a frame jig. Nice little business for elderly men!

Phil H

Damien Perrotin said...

Kyoto, you have a good recipe for iron-gall ink here : ( Another solution is to mix crushed arabic gum with soot then add water.

Don't use those with a fountain pen, however, as it will clog it and, for iron-gall ink, corrode it.

Damien Perrotin said...

@ unknown Deborrah, fountain pens used dyed inks, which will dry quickly (well, most of the time) and fade when exposed to sunlight. Indian inks will clog them and iron-gall ink will corrode them, those inks will tend to dry more slowly. On the other hand, they will last as long as the paper they are put on

Kyoto Motors said...

A little light went on when you pointed out the connection between the quill and the pen-knife - presumably for honing a good, fresh writing tip on the end of your feather. everyone has heard of a pen-knife though its true use is surely foreign to contemporary ears. I look forward to the experimentation.
This should be a good time of year to find turkey feathers...

trippticket said...


"My home town has long had a public walk through aviary housed in a geodesic dome with wire netting panels. For that particular purpose it is a very good design, as it maximises the amount of space available to the birds, and gives them plenty of air and light."

Perhaps this featured in some primal dream of a long-forgotten era of our evolutionary past where distant human ancestors enjoyed the pleasures of rudimentary flight or gliding. Bucky Fuller just didn't realize how poorly matched they would be for our current obligate terrestrial bauplan...

trippticket said...


Curiously, I attended labs at the H.T. Odum Center for Wetland Ecology at the University of Florida when I was a student there! I can't tell you how many thousands of gallons of iodine-preserved estuarine seawater I dumped down their special drains. I haven't spent enough time learning the ins and outs of Dr. Odum's emergy analysis yet, though, even though it features prominently in permaculture thinking.

I will certainly check out the other videos you mention. That first one was a bit of an eye-opener, even after 5 years of pretty dedicated post-peak analysis in my little world.


trippticket said...

@Bill Pulliam:

Processing firewood by hand is an impressive task. I do more of it than I have to really, but my Stihl 250 is a dynamite firewood tool, and I'll probably do everything I can to keep it moving for as long as possible. Up there with refrigeration, fans, and portable containers on my all-time great inventions list!

Coupled with a super-efficient wood stove, like the rocket mass version I mentioned, I think coppicing by hand is an extremely sustainable project. Have you read any of Ben Law's books? "The Woodland Way" is one I gleaned a lot from, and is probably due for a re-read. I'm ready to get a forest-based pork operation going, complete with micro-hydro-charged hot wire from the adjacent spring run, but want to couple the pigs' strengths with a variety of other goals for our woodland management.

The beaver robbing idea is an interesting one, and sort of reminds me of the natives trading a handful of their maize for rodent caches of ground beans. Maybe you could leave a bucket of roofing pitch for the beavers in exchange for their efforts.

Cheers, man.

Marcello said...

"Perhaps it is fun to be rich, but what ethically sensitive person wants to be rich by making life harder for others?"

Because most people are not that much "ethically sensitive", simple as that. Human beings have a mean side, that's how we got where we are; it is not just few bad capitalist apples either. And while the profit motive has been ideologically emphasized in recent times a certain amount of selfishness is a basic ingredient of human nature and can be seen throught history. "Public good" will certainly get some stuff done, yes but eventually people will ask: what's there for me?
Tight communities might get away with a more collectivist organization but at the cost of personal freedom. Trade offs as always.

"For my cohort, or at least the people I hung out with, that was the feeling right through the 70's"

And to which extent they were willing to walk the walk instead of merely parroting a fashionable ideology to fit in? I have several relatives from that ideological background and while none formally reneged their daily behaviour and attitudes are not that much different from the rest of the consumerist mass. Nor, as far as I can tell, they behaved much differently back then once you disregard the facade of political activism however much sicerely believed.

thrig said...

"Notice how often people who insist on the invicibility of progress turn to Moore's Law"

Hmmm! Here's some contemporary research to consider:

"Energy efficiency has become a leading design consideration in modern VLSI systems, ranging from ultra-low power processors for mobile applications to high-performance servers for scientific and "cloud computing" applications. Until recently, the consistent feature-scaling of semiconductor devices (Dennard scaling) enabled simultaneous improvements in performance and energy efficiency. With the breakdown of Dennard scaling however, further improvements in energy efficiency will have to be driven by advances in software, architecture, and circuit/system design."

Breakdown in Dennard scaling? What ever happened to the march of progress? With the privation of lacking an easy branch to pluck from over that orchard wall, humanity turns to other methods. What expense will it require to develop and run the (expensive!) software on all the (expensive!) compute clusters required to calculate how to create those new chips? And how complicated and how pure will the factories need to be to build said new chips? How much Carbon will they consume?

Marcello said...

"Looks like the US model of push-button and video game style warfare is approaching its sell-by date due to the development of effective counter-measures."

This model has worked and will keep working only against very weak opponents. Sending drones and cruise missiles against terrorists or whatever is no different than what the RAF was doing in the interwar period by sending planes to strafe troublemakers in the empire, minus the risk of even that stray bullet.
If the balance is just slightly less loopsided however you cannot rely on disposable missiles and drones: note that manned planes were committed in Lybia, Iraq 1&2,Serbia. In few cases the local air defense got lucky but that should not make people lose sight of the fact that it was utterly incapable of preventing the USAF from going anywhere and bombing whatever it wished. There is no reason to expect that the syrian AD, the usual collection of single digit soviet SAMs with a sprinkling of more modern systems,
will fare any better. Their actual combat record is not stellar (by accounts they were curbstomped in 1982 for example) and a civil war cannot possibly have done much good for such an organization. You have to factor in however that it does exist and and it could get lucky in a couple of cases. If that and some bombs falling on civilians is not politically acceptable then it means that you are asking for a fantasy solution and you are better not get involved in a shooting war.

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, I wonder if some future society will domesticate beavers and train them to help with coppicing. I can imagine a coppicer walking out on a bright clear cool autumn morning with a dozen eager beavers trotting alongside her.

KL, thanks for the links!

August, seriously cool. I'll be posting something on ham radio again in the near future; we'll see who shows some interest.

Sealander, if what you're saying is that geodesic domes are for the birds, I knew a lot of people back in the day who would have readily agreed with you!

Unknown Deborah, that's an interesting point. As for blotting, I honestly don't know -- might be worth some research.

Joseph, he obviously needed to take lessons from a Russian granny. I'm not sure what they did, but it seems to have been very quick.

Renaissance, many thanks -- now to find the First and Third Laws.

Compound F, many thanks! Glad you liked it.

Clarence, oh, granted -- it was an off-the-cuff comment.

Kyoto, exactly. I may just do a post on the common pocket knife one of these days; it's surprisingly relevant to the issues we're discussing.

Thrig, many thanks for the info! Improvements in efficiency are always subject to the law of diminishing returns -- a point that the geekoisie will have to grasp as we proceed.

Keith said...

JMG – a thoughtful post. I'm looking forward to hearing more of your views on resilience.

I've just read a few articles on the idea of the anthropocene in a think tank publication. One of the articles stated,

“As Vaclav Smil, the distinguished scientist at the University of Manitoba, warns, we should not rush to judge whether we are in a new man-made geological era. “Would not it be prudent,” he asks in Harvesting the Biosphere: What We Have Taken from Nature, “to wait at least another 10,000 years before we make more solidly founded judgments about the adaptability and hence longevity of human civilizations?”

Seems wise, as per the long view you laid out a few posts ago.

The articles are here:

Another article in the publication extols the benefits of synthetic biology, arguing that it opens the possibility that “Nature’s services can be synthesized”

This debate is interesting. On the one hand, recognizing our role in the fate of the planet is crucial, and perhaps helps us understand that we are part of nature. On the other, it seems also to be leading to that utopian-driven hubris called geo-engineering.

All the best. Keith

Rita said...

Anyone thinking of "harvesting" Canada geese in the United States should be aware that killing them out of season or without a license is a violation of the Migratory Wildlife Act--a federal crime. When I was at U. Nevada, Reno in the 90's a frat boy got nailed for killing one of the campus geese after luring it with a candy bar. Tried to claim it was an accident.

trippticket said...

@Renaissance Man:
Thanks for the BBC Mastercrafts lead! I'll definitely check that out. Hmmm, so thatching is as comfortable to live under as it is on the eyes, eh? I'm seriously thinking about building a little NPR (no permit required under 120 square feet) cob workshop/guest cottage completely out of earth, site-cut and recycled materials, with a rocket mass stove and a thatch roof. Maybe see if I can get a decent thatcher down to help. Is there such a thing as a decent thatcher in the U.S.?

trippticket said...

JMG, love the image of the coppicing beaver-handler out in the woods...;)

Made me chuckle.

Moshe Braner said...

re: pocket knifes, there was a relevant recent posting by David Holmgren on the subject. It's couched in the "permaculture" jargon but you'd like it anyway :-)

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

The riposte to my comment on autos is that improvements in performance and reliability have come at the price of increased complexity. That makes cars more expensive.

The first popular mass produced American car was simple enough that baling wire was referred to as "Ford parts". During most of the twentieth century, routine maintenance and most repairs could be done by a motivated amateur with hand tools.

Since microprocessors have been used for control functions, diagnostics requires specialized software and proprietary testing devices which are too expensive for the shade tree mechanic.

Improved performance and reliability, lower resilience.

sgage said...


"And to which extent they were willing to walk the walk instead of merely parroting a fashionable ideology to fit in?"

That was sort of my point. When it was fashionable, they were all over it. When it was no longer, they moved right on over to the next thing, which was pretty much the opposite.

Some of us did not, however.

Phil Harris said...

JMG / Moshe
Electrolytic capacitors
I would not know if it is relevant but back in the day, a wonderful long time ago, I could purchase a lead acid car battery that was stored dry. The electrolyte came with it, also dry. One only needed distilled water.

Robert Mathiesen said...

@ Deborah Bender:

Between 1947 and 1952 I went to a small public elementary school in Pleasantville, NY.

Each desk had a holes for an inkwell and grooves to hold pens or pencils. For the last two or three years I was there (3rd or 4th through 5th grades), there were inkwells in these holes, which were filled with black ink every day from a large bottle with a spout built into its lid. (We all wanted to be the child who got to fill the inkwells that day.) We wrote cursive with a plain steel nib fixed into a wooden handle, with a cork collar where your fingers held the handle.

We all had blotters, which our mothers made at home for us. A blotter was a half-dozen pieces of brightly colored absorbent cloth rag, each about the size of a filing card, sewn together along one of the narrow sides to make a small book. The edges were cut with pinking shears.

To write, you stuck your pen in your inkwell, tapped it as you took it out (to get rid of excess ink), wrote a few words, and repeated the process . . . over and over. You pressed the blotter down on what you had written every few lines, waiting a few seconds before you did so, so as not to pick up all the ink from the last few words.

If you pressed too hard, the pen nib would spread, which could drop all the ink on your work and make blots. In the worst case, the nib could remain permanently spread. Then you had to throw it out and get a new one from the teacher.

The teacher used the same sort of pen, but her inkwell sat on her desk and had separate wells for black and for red ink. Fs were written in red ink, to drive home the public guilt and shame you were made to feel for doing sloppy work.

No quill pens in that school, but a friend about 10 years older than me had grown up in a Polish shtettle, and there he wrote (Polish in Latin letters, and Yiddish in Hebrew letters) with a quill pen in school, which he learned at a very early age to cut and trim just so. It's not quite the same way as professional calligraphers do it now with a reed or a quill.

Hal said...

Bill, I would like to know what tree species you have been experimenting with. The native hardwoods that seem to most readily seed themselves in, grow quickly, and regrow easily from the stump around here are sycamore, pecan and water oak. Of these, sycamore grows fastest, but doesn't seem to be of much value for firewood or anything else I can come up with. Pecan deteriorates pretty quickly in the dog-hair size range. I think it has to develop heartwood before it's good for anything but beanpoles.

Water oak is good, but grows the slowest of the three. Am also watching some sawtooth oak that was planted nearby a couple of years ago, but I think it's a hybrid.

David Beckemeier said...

Very interesting editorial in the San Antonio paper relating to the religion of progress. Basically, it is written by a couple of Texas atmospheric science professors stating that global warming is beyond doubt related to human industrial activity. It goes on to say that denial is largely political, right wingers don't want to accept government intervention and the harm it would cause to the economy. It felt to me like the article was stating we need to face up to the reality of our finite planet when it then took an interesting turn. It cited how government intervened in air pollution and the ozone problem with complete success. It stated that American ingenuity would no doubt overcome the obstacles we have to face with global warming. To give an exact quote it stated "Only someone profoundly pessimistic would bet against American ingenuity."

Cherokee Organics said...


Thanks for the gold star!

I've been busy here getting the place ready for the summer. The heat building in the centre of the continent is providing a lot of energy to the winds and whilst it is still green and reasonably cool here, up north is a whole different story (hot, dry and bushfires). A good summary of what is going on here is at this link:

Australia's mercury rising, do you know why?

Yep, this year has been just weird weather wise, right from last October onwards.

The good news is though the wind hasn't knocked the blossoms off much of the fruit trees, which is some consolation. The almonds look almost ready to pick, but I'm not 100% sure when to do so as this is the first medium sized crop of them here. The other weird thing is that something is eating all of my tulips - systematically.

I joined another local food growers group recently and it is good fun making contacts in the local community and I've met some great people. The shame is that like farming in general it is mostly older people who take the time to get interested in growing food. Oh well.

Someone fed me the strangest tasting corn recently. It looked like corn, but tasted odd. They happily told me that they shop at discount supermarkets. No disrespect to them as they are lovely people, but I worry about the output from the industrial food system. Mmmm soylent green. Yum!



Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Kathleen,

I hear you about the grain and wonder about this too. My take on the matter is that importing grain is like importing soil fertility and if you sell produce off the farm, then you have to bring fertility back somehow. PS: Loved the image of having to choose whether to feed the rabbits to the barn cats. hehe!

Hi Kyoto,

There is probably no need for leadership to even consider or frame the matter of letting go. My take is that it will be a case of "shaken loose" instead, which doesn't necessitate active leadership of any sort. Dunno, though.

Hi KL Cooke,

Yeah, I remember those advertisements for x-ray glasses (although it is a dodgy premise when you think about it. hehe!). You brought back memories of ads for sea monkeys which they also used to run. What's with the sea monkeys? I never knew anyone who owned any.

Hi Deborah,

Loved the image of the three little pigs. I used that same story years ago in an article on insulation of all things and it ended being the highest earning article I ever wrote (the heady days).

You are spot on about context too. The highly reactive clay soils here suit timber framed houses as they have much more flexibility than brick and mortar construction.

Also, whilst bricks are good, when it is 45 degrees Celsius (113 F) in the shade and it has been hot leading up to that day, and will continue to be so after it, the last thing you want is thermal mass. Context is critical to liveability - a concept which most architects seem to forget!



Kyoto Motors said...

So presumably auto-makers have gotten better at making cars? While it’s true that they have perfected certain technologies that make the whole package a better, user-friendly drive, making them more accessible to all manner of driver… this may help in the auto-makers’ quest for efficiency of profit, but does little to boost the resiliency quotient of the average car, since the sheer mass/volume of the vehicle fleet is probably the biggest strike against the otherwise useful technology…
I’m not sure what I got myself into when I made that off-the-cuff remark about a resilience index, egged-on by an archdruid… Not even sure I am qualified to do such a thing, but a few thoughts have come to mind: I so far came up with four main categories of criteria for non-food items, namely 1) Durability – Is the product meant to last and will it? Is it repairable? By whom? Or is it disposable, recyclable etc.?; 2)Function –How useful, purposeful, necessary is it? Does it complexify or simplify? What systems does it support/ rely on?; 3) Manufacture – what are the socio-political implications of the product? Is it locally made or foreign? Sweat-shop, union or other? Who profits? & 4)Energy & resources – what non-renewables are required in operating?
As for cars, I actually think that after 100 years we should expect more than ten years from a vehicle, but that we should expect to use them much differently, and abandon the personal ownership model. I also suspect that as proven as the technology is, the gasoline engine is probably our best option moving forward, but only if we can manage to curtail its use dramatically through some pretty fundamental shifts in attitude and policy… only then would the resiliency quotient for cars move up from what I suspect should be a pretty low figure compared to, say, bicycles!

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi trippticket,

Very amusing ;-) Be careful, as lots of things bite and sting here - some fatally!

Thought you may like:

Midnight Oil - Bullroarer

A Bullroarer is a sacred instrument used by the Aboriginals. You can just hear it in the background of the song. The band got into a bit of trouble - despite all of the good stuff they did - by including that sound as it is an instrument used in sacred ceremonies.

Incidentally the lead singer who I think has a background in law, went on to become the Minister for education in the former federal government. I've often wondered how he reconciled his former very vocal viewpoints. It would have difficult.



Dagnarus said...

As someone who is at least theoretically a member of the geekoisie I'll make a slight quibble, increased efficiency only implies decreased resilience if you designed an optimal system to begin with. That said I agree with you, actually I realized the correlation when I found out that when NASA sends information to one of their Mars rovers they send something like 18 bits of data for every 3 bits of information they need to send to the rover. Why do they do this? Because they have to bank on a fairly large percentage of the bits being corrupted in transit.

As an aside it occurred to me while reading this that the scheduling problem which a Smart Grid would have to do is actually NP-Hard. A NP-hard problem is a problem which grows exponentially more complicated with the number of variables it has to deal with. Anyway sure enough it is. My guess is that the process of having massively decentralized energy production will be running into diminishing returns pretty soonish.

Kyoto Motors said...

@ Damien
Thanks for the ink link... here's one I found (just a page)that actually refers to appropriate technology (!):
Personally I favour the glue recipes, because i have hide glue for gesso already, and i know exactly where to get lampblack, if i don't go ahead and experiment with charred twigs first! Plus the purpose I have in mind is for drawing.

Matthew Casey Smallwood said...

The distinction between efficiency and resilience is an obvious, but brilliant, observation. Thanks for putting into words what I've felt in my bones for some time. People forget that we weathered the Great Depression in large part due to resilient safety networks - which no longer exist today on anything the same scale. The desire to make more money, at whatever cost, gave way to a wish-fulfillment system that taught people wealth could be manufactured. I expect that it will be decades, at least, before it finally dies a gruesome death on the North American continent. It's nice to see the commander in chief is busy changing names of football franchises, and shutting down fishing/sailing waters, during the current crisis. Does anyone know of a good resource to start with for learning about how to raise grain crops? The vegetable front has been well-covered, but we will need some grain, if nothing else for animal feed.

DeAnander said...

Pen-knife! of course! [brief facepalm moment] Ya know, when the *real* meaning of one of these half-forgotten words suddenly comes into focus, it's a wholly delightful sensation (for which English alas lacks a nice succinct word). As an avid sailor I've had this experience many a time with the maritime residues left here and there in common English... "taken aback" for example, or "taking off on another tack." But pen-knife... why did that particular coin never drop for me in the last 50+ years as a native English speaker??? I guess I had my own idiosyncratic folk etymology -- a folding knife, smooth, "like a pen," it fits in your pocket? Unexamined, unquestioned, and utterly irrelevant.

team10tim said...

Hey hey Enrique and Moshe Braner,

RE: overreliance

I remember a study about kids and calculators. It was some psychology study along the lines of the Milgram experiment except that there was no ethical component. Kids were given intentionally broken calculators that gave the wrong answer to math problems that they were capable of solving without calculators.

The kids overwhelmingly chose the calculator's answer over their own calculations. I don't know why but I suspect it has less to do with capability and more to do with trust. On a related note I don't have a link to the study. I know that I heard about it somewhere but I can't remember where; In much the same way that I know Paris is the capital of France but I can't say where exactly I learned that fact.

John Michael Greer said...

Keith, of course natural services can be synthesized...but at what cost? If 3/4 of all economic value is currently provided by nature for free, and that has to be replaced by human labor and investment, haven't we just suffered a 75% drop in our average standard of living?

Rita, of course, do it where it's legal and not otherwise. In Seattle, it wasn't exactly legal, but the city had been having so much trouble with the geese that the authorities basically ignored the depredations of the Russian grannies.

Trippticket, often I think that's the real image of the future -- not spaceships and ray guns, but skilled crafts and ingenious new ways to work with rather than against nature.

Moshe, thanks for the link -- I;ll try to decode the jargon. ;-)

Unknown Deborah, nicely put.

David, "American ingenuity" is the way you say "I'm sure they'll think of something" in the red states. At this point, it's a thoughtstopper and nothing else.

Cherokee, glad to hear the fruit trees are doing well. We ate our first three homegrown apples -- one of the dwarf apples we planted three years ago is already beginning to bear, and the apples were excellent. The carrots came in today, enough to keep us through the winter and then some, and we're in that blissful interval where homegrown tomatoes and fall lettuce are both available to put on hamburgers. Much tastier than soylent green!

Kyoto, sounds like a good first draft.

Dagnarus, or if your new system is no more optimal than the old one, which is fairly common. I'm interested in learning a bit more about "NP-hard" as a label for problems -- that seems like an extremely interesting concept. Any suggestions for a good place to start?

Matthew, Gene Logsdon's book Small-Scale Grain Raising has been recommended to me more than once -- might be worth a look.

DeAnander, I know the feeling! Getting blindsided by an obvious etymology is one of those experiences everyone should have. ;-) That said, there's a lot to be said about pocket knives, and a brief discussion of pen knives should probably be part of that.

KL Cooke said...


"What's with the sea monkeys? I never knew anyone who owned any."

What you got in the mail was a package of brine shrimp eggs and some salt to put with them in a glass of water. Brine shrimp eggs are very hardy and can remain viable in a dry condition for years.

After a couple of days the eggs hatched and you had a glass of little flea-like creatures swimming around. Didn't look at all like the mermonkeys in the pictures.

But hey, what do expect for a buck? It was like that stuff they used to advertise as "Instant..." Well, never mind that.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

@Cherokee Organics--Not my area of expertise (I'm not expert on anything practical), but isn't the solution to heat-radiating thermal mass even more thermal mass? Make the walls thick enough, and the inside is insulated from outside temperatures. At any rate, vernacular adobe buildings have thick walls, caves even thicker walls, and cloth tents which have very thin walls are miserable in hot weather.

@Robert Mathiesen--Thank you for that detailed reminiscence. I kept my mother's pinking shears and wooden darning egg (which she was too prosperous to employ by the time I came along), but homemade cloth blotters I knew not of. I started first grade in 1954 in Arlington, Virginia and it sounds as though we had similar desks.

It was an interesting time to be a child. The social and technological changes of the Atomic Age were well underway, but traces of older ways were around if you paid attention, and for some reason I did notice things like disused inkwells.

Cherokee Organics said...


Home grown apples are awesome and apple trees are such givers. Fruiting after only three years means that they must be in a good spot too. They are only just starting to flower now here.

My take on apples is that if they are not good for fresh eating, then they are good for cooking (including jam). If they are no good for either of those uses, then you've hit the cider jackpot! All apples are useful fruit.

It's going to be 30 degrees Celsius (86F) here tomorrow with 40+km/h winds and its only early Spring. What's going on?

A very hard work person recently reminded me of an old (err, 1982, sorry everyone!) classic which you may enjoy (it has a great story and message):

Dire Straits - Telegraph Road

Oh well, more grumbles, I guess! hehe!!!! You can’t please everyone.

Hi Joseph,

I forgot to mention. Your description of the 2 x robots in the swamp last week left me in stitches I was laughing so hard. Top work, I really enjoyed the shaking down for change bit too!



Dagnarus said...

As to the efficiency vs resilience issue. I guess you could sum up my view on this issue as it is incorrect to assume that it is impossible to come up with something better all round or (Ahriman), at the same time even if such a system did exist it is entirely possible that finding it would require more energy amount of potential energy stored in every star in our galaxy (Lucifer). This ties into the NP-hard issue.

As to the NP-Hard label. I personally learned about it at University and am faintly ashamed to say that I can't really remember any specific good books on the matter. That said I am now interested in looking into it myself and could tip you off to any I find. Apparently the book "Computers and Intractability: A Guide to the Theory of NP-Completeness" is rather good.

To give a brief overview of the subject however. A decision problem is a problem for which the answer is either yes or no. A problem is solvable in polynomial time if you can construct a computer program such that the upper bound on the running time is bounded by some polynomial expression in the size of the input. For example the time to sort of length n can be bounded by t < c*n*log(n) < c*n^2 for some constant c. NP is the set of decision problems for which if the answer is yes, then it is possible to verify that the answer is yes in polynomial time. For example if a Sudoku puzzle is possible to solve, once I have solved the Sudoku puzzle it is reasonably easy to check to whether it is a correct solution and thus whether or not the Sudoku puzzle is solvable. Note that it is in general a lot harder to find such a solution, or to prove that no such solution exists. A problem "C" is NP-Complete if it is both in NP and it is possible to convert every problem in NP into the problem "C" in polynomial time. The problem of whether or not a given logical argument is satisfiable is an example of such a problem. Because all problems in NP can be converted into an NP-complete problem in polynomial polynomial time that means that if any NP-complete problem can be solved in polynomial time that all of them can be. NP-Hard problems are basically the same as NP-Complete problems except they don't have to be in NP, that is to see the run time complexity to solve a problem which is NP-Hard is at least as bad as the worst problem in NP. An example of one of these problems is the travelling salesman problem, which asks given a set of n different cities what is the optimal route to visit each city at least once while travelling the smallest distance. Why is this at all interesting? Because as far as anyone knows the best upper bound for the run time of an NP-Complete problem is 2 to the power of n, that is to say exponential. It is of course important to point out that that is the worst case scenario some times you can solve one of these in a few seconds, even with large n, sometimes you'll have to switch of the computer after a year, or however long you want to wait.

Hopefully that wasn't to long winded.

Also if your interested in looking into this you will probably be particularly interested to know that many of the heuristics (methods of finding a decent solution in a decent amount of time) are based upon natural processes, evolution in the case of genetic algorithms, and how ants find food in the case of ant colony optimization.

Also you may wish to look into the related problem of Undecidability. These particular they are what lead me to doubt whether progress could save us from this mess. Designing a sustainable society sounds pretty NP-Hard to me.

DigitalPat said...

Interesting response to Carson's piece.

Re other academics/theorists of collapse:- it seems to me your ideas have more similarity to Joseph Tainter's than the others he mentioned? IE whereas you talk about the cost of infrastructure in catabolic collapse, Tainter's theory revolves around the slightly more abstract concept of 'complexity', where he says societies always invest more and more effort in 'complexity' (whether that be physical infrastructure, social hierarchy, etc) over time as a problem-solving response, and unless this involves side-effects of discovering new resource-extraction measures (e.g. the industrial revolution's somewhat accidental start via the symbiotic relationship between coal and the steam engine) this accelerating cost of complexity will get us in the end. See e.g.

It is an appealing theory - but similar to your views on an 'efficiency-resiliency' tradeoff, I'd quite like to see a response from an ecology perspective.

E.g. I wonder if some natural ecosystem, as a virtue of long-term evolution, show both a fairly high degree of efficiency and resilience _partly_ via applying complexity?

As I understand it this is arguably what permaculture is all about - whole systems design where the right set of components is selected that have "greater than the sum of their parts" complementary interactions. Easy to say on paper, hard to do in practice of course! And perhaps they talk a lot about redundancy in their designs too, I don't know as a non-practitioner.

Tangential point:- I've read a bit of Carson's work and you miss in your reply that he's a fairly committed Anarchist, of the big-A decentralised society with no need-for-a-state rather than the "smash-random-things-up" modern vulgarisation of the term.

So his ideal of a 'better future' is at least quite difference to a majority of people's - where he looks for / lionises techno-social change that reduces a need for state intervention in favour of decentralisation and greater self-management. Though admittedly still involving a lot of high-tech as you point out ... a government-funded space program for satellites is a bit of an inconvenient truth for die-hard anarchists from a political perspective, not just an energy-sink one!

-- DigitalPat.

Brian said...

JMG, Joseph:

The quickest, least messy, and most error-proof way I've found to kill a long-necked bird is to grab the neck, hold it steady, and swing the bird around your head so the body rotates about the neck. This severs the spinal column and kills the animal as quickly (and hopefully painlessly) as possible.

My brother raised ducks, and this was his method. When it was slaughtering time, he'd kill several ducks in a minute using this method. He now raises rabbits - I'll report back after I've seen if this works on them.

Bill Pulliam said...

Hal -- it's going to be extremely dependent on where you live. Here,Tennessee, is North America's answer to the Amazon basin, in terms of forest diversity and productivity (and also fish diversity, by the way -- as many species of freshwater fish here as in all the rest of the U.S. combined). Tulip poplar is widely used for lumber and firewood, it is a "soft hardwood" that grows very fast and makes acceptable fuel. My 130 year old farmhouse is made of it. Old growth heartwood like the structural parts of my house was very dense and durable, but of course it is also essentially non-existent in the wild anymore. Younger growth is similar to pine structurally, but a bit harder and not resinous (i.e. much better for fuel). It coppices quite well, but outside of it's native range it might not do so well. It is not a true poplar of course, being in the Magnolia family.

Black Cherry also does well here, as well as Red Maple. Poles even a few years old are dense and burn well (and can be used for finish carpentry -- trims and moldings, etc.).

One tree that seems like it might be a good choice is Black Locust. I planted some but have had no luck with it as fuel wood since the beavers like it too much, but it is reported to have good heat content and it definitely grows rapidly and resprouts from stumps readily. However, outside of its native range be careful as it can become an invasive weed species, spreading rapidly via aggressive roots.

Black Walnut here does the same as what you describe for pecan. I've tried singling them (cutting all but one shoot) to see if I can grow something useful. Definitely the early growth is very lightweight and brittle.

Sycamore is useless for anything but poles and fuel, but it is not necessarily bad for those purposes. It has a weird spiral grain and brittle structure that makes it impossible to split, however, so don't let it get too big. Its heat content is not great, but it just grows and grows so that might compensate some.

Oaks coppice pretty well, but the harvest cycle is slow. You need to limit the number of shoots per stand or you get just a bush of a dozen beanpoles that won't give you any useful wood for a couple of decades.

Again, just my experience in my bioregion. Yours will vary! Observation and experimentation is essential.

Brian said...

@KL Cooke, Cherokee:

The "sea monkeys" that you could purchase (still can, I think) in the back of magazines were actually brine shrimp. When dehydrated, they undergo cryptobiosis, which basically means they shut down until conditions are right (just add water!).

onething said...

Regarding coppicing, which I looked up, I'm not clear about how many times you can harvest the new shoots or do they run out of room to sprout themselves?


I have given up on tulips, and will never plant one again on the theory that if I put such tempting food in my garden, other, less tempting plants may get eaten too. Perhaps if you plant them in pairs with daffodils...


How do you think you might safely negotiate the interface between the thatched roof and the stovepipe?


Your question reminds me that I intended to go over to the Wizard forum about Berea Gardens, the home business of a local family here that teaches week long courses in successful gardening. I recently took that course and just can't praise it enough and the family as well. The man has some 30-40 years experience in agriculture, a very impressive resume and story of how he went from running California big ag setups to his current organic farm. He has a perspective and knowledge that is most useful and rare.


"Keith, of course natural services can be synthesized...but at what cost? If 3/4 of all economic value is currently provided by nature for free, and that has to be replaced by human labor and investment, haven't we just suffered a 75% drop in our average standard of living? "

But wouldn't many of those free services be used in a nonindustrial society as well? What are those free services? I am thinking soil fertility, rainfall, wood, metal. So maybe not a 75% drop in living standard, or maybe it is a matter of how you figure living standard. What if you have some nice things that were once electric powered and are now pedal powered?

Hal said...

It boggles my mind that Holmgren felt a need to write an apologia for carrying a dang pocketknife. What have we come to?

Kris Ballard said...

Your post about resilience (i.e. redundance) was excellent! Since I read slowly and my internet time is limited I don't finish reading all of your posts. I believe one thing that we will witness very soon is peak population. Archer- Daniel-Midlands and other companies can keep telling us how they will provide for countless billions of people in the future, but I don't believe them. It wouldn't surprise me if the population peaks at 7.5 Billion, and decreases thereafter!

Moshe Braner said...

DigitalPat wrote: "a government-funded space program for satellites is a bit of an inconvenient truth for die-hard anarchists from a political perspective ..."

- not just for anarchists, but for die-hard capitalists too. The noise made some months ago here in the USA about the first "private sector" space flights was quite amazing to perceive, and could only be explained as the sigh of relief for those politically uncomfortable with "the government" doing anything at all. The funny thing is that those private companies are doing it only because of contracts from NASA, billions of dollars worth. It's still the taxpayers money - and done by many of the same personnel that used to work for NASA. Big deal. What's covered up is that there is no commercial market for these services. (Except perhaps for a few communication satellites.)

LunarApprentice said...

Hello JMG and Dagnarius

JMG, you inquired about a good place to start learning about NP-Hard problems. I can offer a suggestion:

You first need to get up to speed on the computer science topic of "Time Complexity"; from wikipedia:

Briefly, NP-hard (and NP-complete) problems lie within the domain of computer science denoted by "Time Complexity". This refers to the amount of time an algorithm requires to process a given quantity of data (or number of search paths, say). So, for a given data set of size N, an algorithm requires X amount of time to process it. The Time Complexity of the alogorithm refers to how much the computation time X increases as a function of the increase in N. So if the data set size is increased to 2N, then how much longer would the algorithm take? X times 2N?, N squared?, N cubed?, 2 to the N?.... When the time complexity involves an exponent, especially involving N, then you get into computational intractability, where it might take weeks, years or the age of the universe for the algorithm to finish.

Sometimes, you can come up with a faster algortihm. But many computational problems seem to not to have algorthmic approaches that allow solution in any reasonable amount of time. This property has been named NP-complete (or NP-hard which is an even worse category).

In the 1980's when I was a young electrical/software engineer, Time Complexity was a germain, vital topic. The mil-spec'd (military specified) hardware I worked on then was severely de-rated in performance as a trade-off for physical robustness. So it was slow even by 1980s standards. So getting algorithms to work on time with the anticipated data loads was a big deal, and a very tough problem for the programmer.

Nowadays, you'd assume that fast harware and clock-speeds would solve the problem. NOT SO!!! I recently obtained some source code (from some hotshot software students out of the Univ of Grenoble, France) to operate a simple brainwave biofeedback device. The application was trivial, and would have been a snap for me to have programmed back in 1981 with an 8 bit, 2 megahertz microprocressor; it would have built in 3-5 minutes, max. But on my modern 1.7 Gigahertz, 32 bit system, the software build-time (compilation and linking) took 24 hours!!!!!!!!

Those programmers just stitched together of bunch of software packages to perform the build task, with no thought at all given to Time Complexity, and produced a software package that would be unusable if it needed to be run more than once.

Since programmer time is so valuable, and computer time is so cheap, I suspect no one thinks about time complexity any more. I've recently met new computer science grads who have never heard of NP-complete problems or time complexity, and I often suspect that the slowness we see on the web, and in the systems and software that we run everyday reflect neglect and even ignorance of this topic. If I'm right, this problem will only get worse.

Moshe Braner said...

@onething: "What if you have some nice things that were once electric powered and are now pedal powered?"

- this delusion is perhaps a result of said "ephemeralization". If I see one more "renewable" way (from solar hats to jiggling bras) to recharge your iGizmo I'm going to scream! :-) You can use muscle power to make the electricity (or direct mechanical power) for some low-power things (that run on small batteries) and things that shouldn't have been electrified in the first place (toothbrushes, can-openers), perhaps even sewing machines. But just try heating the house, or heating water, or cooking, or even providing decent lighting, on pedal power! Or, for that matter, try powering the manufacturing of said iGizmo.

Everybody needs to experience the demonstration I remember from my high school: a hand crank driving a generator driving a light bulb (it was an incandescent one, about 40-60 watts). Turn the crank with the bulb unscrewed: easy. Complete the electrical circtui and it is immediately HARD WORK! There are reasons why we've harnessed other energy sources.

Robert Mathiesen said...

@ Deborah Bender:

You are very welcome! I still have a wooden darning egg.

Right before I started living wholly on my own as a freshman (Fall 1960), in a little rented room in Berkeley, I got my mother to teach me elementary mending, including darning socks. It was a useful skill, as my socks did wear out at the heels and toes well before the academic year was over. I haven't darned for decades, but I still remember how to do it, it's so easy.

Ah, well, Deborah, now you've put me in an elegaic mood. I really don't want those skills to go lost, no more than I want all the (occult) magic I learned as a boy to go lost! I've passed some of all this on to my sons and former students, whatever each wanted to learn, but no matter how much I taught, it never felt as though it were enough against the rising tide of history. Of course, that's because it isn't enough, really, and can't ever be. Nothing could be.

We were all so capable back then -- so many skills are nearly lost now. I knew how to do almost any simple thing with wood, and some simple things with metal and stone. I took my full toolbox with me to college, likewise my home chemistry lab equipment and chemicals, my homemade set of lock-picks, my mechanical drawing kit, a shelf or two of reference books, and I don't remember what else right now. All the tools were hand-tools, fairly compact, easy to use, and extremely durable. I still have and use most of them now, though a very few got broken along the way. Oh, and my trusty slide-rule also (Keuffel & Esser log-log decitrig), which I still have -- and of course it still works: those babies last forever!

So that's why I like to support such places as Plimoth Plantation and Old Sturbridge Village, out here in New England, as strongly as I can afford to. They, at least, are keeping much of this knowledge alive by transmitting it to the young people who work there and "interpret" the past by living it in front of visitors.

Robert Mathiesen said...

@ Hal:

Your last comment pushed me to actually read Holmgren's essay on pocketknives:

It goes way beyond pocketknives in its implications, and I find myself in the fullest possible agreement with Holmgren on this.

Indeed, what have we come to?

Thank you!

trippticket said...


How do you think you might safely negotiate the interface between the thatched roof and the stovepipe?"

My off-the-cuff guess would be that I would do it the same way the previous millions did it. Have you ever tried to light tightly packed straw or reeds on fire? As for the immediate interface - which is probably what you're asking - not sure yet. But I did it in a canvas tent through 4.5 cords of firewood, with a fair portion of sticky pine thrown in just for fun, last winter:)

trippticket said...

@ Bill Pulliam:
Thanks for the insight into the nature of sycamore. I've never cut or burned it. The neighboring farmer told me I should feel free to cut a giant (and I mean giant) sycamore limb angling out over his pasture from a truly giant sycamore tree on the property line. It's been on my list of things to do, thinking it would make a pile of firewood for next winter. However, my experience with spiral grain pine gives me pause if this will be the same. A damned nightmare to split. Maybe bonfire logs?? My chainsaw doesn't mind spiral grain...

trippticket said...

re: killing rabbits

My tried and true method is to lay them on the ground, put a thick stick across the back of their neck, grab the hind legs, and give a quick jerk upwards. Never had one cry that way nor missed a neck break. My brother made a welded rebar contraption that he mounted to his cleaning table. You slide the head in behind the rebar until it locks in tight in the declining space, and then give a quick jerk upwards! Same method essentially, 'cept one requires a stick and one requires an arc welder and refined steel.

Hal said...

Ha! Bill, sitting in the Mississippi Delta, it's hard to take Tennessee seriously as "North America's answer to the Amazon basin!"

But thanks for the recommendations. Since I knew you were pretty close to me, I thought your findings might be useful. Are you going to Southern SAWG in January, by any chance?

trippticket said...

It's been a good coupla days here for harnessing (and laying plans to harness) Nature's fecundity. Yesterday I made (or finished making) Autumn olive jelly, strained and stirred 3 qts of raw honey into my 4 gallons of soon-to-be sumac mead, found a few decent sized parsnips in my garden that I didn't think had made it at all, and picked over a pound of lion's mane mushrooms from my experimental maple stump-totem in my forest garden. Had sage and brown butter pasta for dinner to round out the day.

Then today I built chicken tractor mark 5 from scrap material to house my laying hens before we leave for a week, which turned out awesome, ate the lion's manes with a little grass-fed beef from the neighbors and carrots from the garden, will build a goat pen tomorrow to temporarily house the dogs while we're gone, have family coming for grass-fed braised short ribs that another friend raised the next day, then a big craft show all weekend, and THEN I'm going to blow all that energy savings by driving 1/3 of the way across the country to ride horses with my folks for a week!

Dr. Liebig;)

Joseph Nemeth said...

@Moshe -- hear, hear!

What seems left out of "renewable" energy discussions is that everything we do lies on a slope of desirability, from the desperately desirable (like air) to the trivially desirable (a neon-colored plastic shell to "customize" your iPhone).

Every single thing we want balances this variable desirability against the amount of work we have to do to get it. What usually happens is that if the effort rises, we come to an epiphany in which we realize we didn't want that thing so very much after all.

My wife and I find clean dishes desirable. Washing them is work. We had a "labor saving" device that washes them for us, and since it was "free" (it came with the house, and the cost of running it was folded into a composite cost that doesn't break out this do-dad from all the other do-dads), we simply used it.

It recently developed a leak, which is highly undesirable. We have many options for addressing this, including buying a new machine. We looked at the cost of a new one -- not the cheapest possible replacement, but something that will work the way we'd like -- and that option tipped the whole concept toward the highly undesirable. The remaining solutions involve figuring out exactly where it is leaking, finding materials to repair it, fixing it two or three times because neither of us has done this before, cleaning up the leaks that result from our having done it wrong, worrying about whether the water was maybe doing more damage than we thought. Or we could hire an expert to fix it for us, but we'd still have to worry about whether he was the expert he claimed to be. The machine became so undesirable by this point that we decided to put off any decisions and just wash by hand.

For the two of us, we find that the labor cost of washing by hand is actually LESS than using the machine, because we've put in some true labor-savers, like a decent drying rack and new dish towels. Plus, we no longer run out of glasses and forks -- with the machine, we tried to use it efficiently, which meant running large loads infrequently, which in turn led to running out of dishes: we'd look for a clean cup, find the cupboard empty, open the machine, take out a dirty cup, and wash it by hand ANYWAY. Plus, the big pots wouldn't fit, and some of our items aren't dishwasher-safe. Plus, you must pre-rinse, or you end up with crud crusted into every hollow of every upside-down mug. Plus, if you reheated pizza in the microwave, the melted cheese wouldn't wash off the plates, so you still had to do them by hand, but now with petrified cheese atomically bound to the substance of the plate. Plus....

That machine was a bloody pain in the rear. It had always been a bloody pain in the rear.

Note that there was nothing "environmental" about our choice. It was purely a matter of economic good sense, and the fact that this machine simply tipped over the line from desirable into undesirable because of the maintenance and use cost -- not unaffordable, but undesirable. We don't think back with a tear in our eye about the "good old days when we used the machine."

Now, before I get pilloried for the middle-class gaucherie of this trite little story, I think it's worth pointing out that we live in a culture that aspires to exactly this middle-class gaucherie, and our global economic and environmental problems are merely mountainous piles of such triteness.

The instant we actually have to work to charge up a battery, the electronic trinket market will dry up, and no one will look back on it with any love at all.

Matthew Casey Smallwood said...

BTW, have discovered that chickens that free-range lay more eggs as winter comes on than those cooped up in close cages.

I am going to be creating a website dedicated to the medieval Quadrivium from the Christian Tradition. My first essay I wrote a while back is here:

JMG - are you familiar with Francis of Assissi's assertion that Nature is neither Slave, nor Mother, but rather "Sister"?

bagginz said...

Especially for our rural living/permaculture contingent: Coppicing, wattle, using livestock to increase soil fertility, rodent control:

Cherokee Organics said...


No need to reply.

It's only early Spring here and yet the state to the north of me:

Weather Bureau and Rural Fire Service warn of scorcher on Thursday

Isn't it only early Autumn over your way?

Thousands of cattle perish in US snow storm

Climate weirding. Earlier and more extreme. Nuff said.



Cherokee Organics said...

Hi bagginz,

Thank you.

I wasn't going to post again this week, but I wanted to express my appreciation.

I made a rat stick today, which was straight (!) with a knife screwed into the end of it.



Phil Harris said...

Mathew S & bagginz
Thanks both for these late links.

RE copse & wattle & tools
I was unaware of Jack Hargreaves because I was not watching TV (Brit or other) back in the 80s. I would like to see your link become a Permaculture learning resource.
Britain could not feed itself from 1850 onwards but its organic agriculture was just about sustainable. (Based on clover soil nitrogen, and heavy horses and blacksmithing, about 4M people in farming could just about feed 18M total.)

RE Quadrivium
I found the essay stimulating - including quotes from Dante and Kant. St Augustine’s essentially Platonic take on 'ideals' has some reality behind it. I have become increasingly interested in human mindful experience and its place in evolution. For what it is worth, I directly experienced once an 'insight' into what historically became known as a Platonic Ideal and wondered if this type of experience was the ‘ground’ on which the philosophical concept was built.

'Scholastics' got a bad press? They are favourably linked with Aristotle in a re-evaluation of monetary theory and 'usury' in Zarlenga's The Lost Science of Money: a book recently quoted by Kumhof, a lead researcher with IMF. (Not to be confused with IMF political leadership.)

Phil H

trippticket said...

It was late last night when I wrote that last post, been a long couple of days, and I was about 3 beers in at that point. I was obviously referring to Jeavons paradox when talking about saving energy in several tasks only to burn the savings in another, not Liebig's Law of the Minimum. Apologies for addled brain.

trippticket said...

Matthew Casey Smallwood said...
"BTW, have discovered that chickens that free-range lay more eggs as winter comes on than those cooped up in close cages."

I can buy that, but it's finding them in the shrubbery that can be tricky! That and beating the rat snakes to them. For my part I'm ready to find more of my girls' eggs, even if they're laying fewer...but they aren't going to like the new accommodations I'm afraid.

Moshe Braner said...

Re: muscle-generated electricity, I'm not sure where I saw it, perhaps in Paul Scheckel's book Home Energy Diet: he wrote that for many years he challenged his students by offering $10 to whomever would generate 10 cents worth of electricity on the pedal-powered contraption. Nobody ever claimed the prize. Most people, especially those complaining about high electricity bills, have no idea how cheap our grid electricity is, as compared with what it can do. And even no awareness of the relative energy needs of different devices, thus the endless fascination with new ways to recharge iGizmos, while the light bulb in the room (even if it's an LED bulb!) uses far more energy than the iGizmo. Scheckel has many jokes in his book about the clueless couple "Ken and Connie Sumer".

peacegarden said...

@Bill Pulliam:

Thanks for the info on friendly trees for coppicing, also for explaining why sycamore is so darn hard to split…spiral grain! ...but it does burn nicely!

We suffered a derecho in 2012…crazy storm! We felt the movement and heard the tortuous screams as a tree came down…it was after midnight…too dangerous to go out…so to sleep. The next morning, I went out to see the damage.

The herb garden was obliterated; several large maple and chestnut limbs were covering the entire area.

I walked around to the front of the house and burst into tears…our largest sycamore had come down. He was one of my favorites. My son had an exceedingly hard time splitting it for firewood. At least now I can tell him about the spiral thing!

We are leaving stools at a height of two feet or so, as we cull some of our trees: apple, chestnut, a few tulip poplars. We have an insert stove with a small fire box, so coppiced wood at a few inches diameter will serve us well with hand tools if necessary.

@ JMG: Another essay that “makes me go hmm”. Thank you for challenging us each week, sir!

@all commenters: Thank y’all too!



peacegarden said...

@ Joseph Nemouth: Awesome story! We too have a DW that came with the house and I am waiting for the first little leak to spout so I can get my husband John to take that sucker out; the plastic covered prongs that separate and hold the dishes may just collapse from terminal rust first!

With our old machine (close to 20 years old), we don’t ever have to rinse, it works that well! But I am eyeing that space for a nice cabinet of two deep drawers, or another shallow drawer on top, and two deep ones below.

I am going to show John your post this evening; maybe we can get rid of it without waiting for it to fail…one more thing that “makes me go hmmm”.



Hal said...

We need a word for the redneck/hippie permaculture (note the small "p") that most of us try to practice that isn't officially sanctioned by the Permaculture gurus. Maybe "muddleculture" (hat tip to Warren Johnson.)

Bill Pulliam said...

Hal -- how about "Hippiebilly" or "Greenneck?" As for the delta, it's definitely got the swampy steamy climate, and the charismatic megafauna (gators and swallow-tailed kites) but biologically it's actually a bit depauperate (species-wize) overall compared to places with just as much rain and more topography. In Tennessee the biodiversity peaks in the highland rim in the middle of the state, blending appalachian, deep south, and ohio valley influences. Not an accident that we settled here; I figured high natural biodiversity meant an environment that might be good for trying a lot of different things!

Bill Pulliam said...

Hal p.s. -- in the delta I think maples and ashes might be some of your best bets, they like delta soils. Maybe hackberries too? Tulip poplar is not fond of the silt.

peacegarden said...

@Hal: I love muddleculture!

trippticket said...

So long as we are doing it, what we call it, as David Holmgren would be quick to point out, is a secondary matter.

There's nothing wrong with practicing permaculture, capital 'P' or otherwise. It's strategies are brilliant, and quite fluid. No need to rename it.

trippticket said...

One more for the St Francis crowd this week (an oldie from the blogosphere via my own blog):


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