Wednesday, October 08, 2008

The Power of the Nonrational

For the release of a book on the end of industrial civilization, it was certainly good timing. Over the last week or so, as my book The Long Descent: A User’s Guide to the End of the Industrial Age hit the bookstores, the wheels came off the global economy. As stock markets crashed worldwide and governments panicked, I found myself wondering if the marketing people at my publisher, New Society, had managed to pull off the great-grandmother of all publicity stunts.

Now of course the crisis now under way has been building since the early 1980s, when politicians who had forgotten the lessons of the Great Depression threw out the prudent regulatory firewalls that kept banks from speculating with other people’s money. Deregulation was the word du jour, driven by a blind faith in markets that did its level best to ignore the lessons of history, and each of the crises that followed – the 1987 stock market crash, the currency implosions of the 1990s, the dotcom bubble and bust at the turn of the millennium, and the orgy of delusional finance that drove the global real estate bubble thereafter – simply brought cries for more of the same deregulation that caused the trouble in the first place.

For a quarter century, those who recalled Charles Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds and its many successors, and pointed out that uncontrolled speculation always ends the same dismal way, were told that they ought to shut up until they learned something about economics. Sober warnings from distinguished scholars were drowned out by a chorus of cheerleading, while less prestigious voices were pushed out to the fringes of the blogosphere. What is now painfully clear is that those marginalized voices were right all along, and their warnings could have spared us a massive economic disaster if the pundits and politicians who dismissed them had listened instead.

All this raises a question that deserves more attention than it usually receives: what makes a society accept or reject any given set of warnings about the future? At the ASPO-USA peak oil conference last month, a slightly more focused version of this question was much in the air. Several of the speakers expressed their frustration at the way warnings of global climate change have been picked up by the media and turned into an international cause célèbre, while warnings of the imminence of peak oil are still being dismissed as a nonissue by most people straight across the political and cultural spectrum.

It’s a fascinating question, not least because there are at least two serious problems with the case for global extinction via climate change currently being splashed across the media. The first of these was pointed up by several of the presenters at the ASPO conference: the scenarios of drastic climate change being offered by the IPCC, the government-supported panel of scientists responsible for the most widely accepted predictions, assume that the world’s production of petroleum, coal, and natural gas can increase steadily through the year 2100.

That’s a problematic assumption, to say the least. The world’s peak production of conventional petroleum happened in 2005; massive infusions of tar sand products and biofuels have kept the numbers from falling significantly since then, but with production at most of the world’s oil fields dropping steadily, the IPCC’s assumptions of steady increase are hard to support. Natural gas worldwide is expected to hit peak production around 2030. Coal is more complex, because all coal is not created equal; the most energy-intensive coal, anthracite, is all but exhausted already, and most of what remains is low-quality “brown coal,” much of which will cost more energy to extract than it yields; by 2040 at the latest, the energy yield from coal production will have reached its limit and begun an irrevocable decline. By 2100, our total consumption of all fossil fuels put together will have fallen to a very modest fraction of today’s levels, simply because there won’t be enough left to produce.

Yet there’s another difficulty with the scenarios of global ecological collapse being offered by activists and the media just now: even if the IPCC figures for production made sense, a 6°C increase in the Earth’s temperature over a century is well within the normal range of variation for our planet. The latest Greenland ice cores show, for example, that at the end of the last ice age, the Earth’s average temperature spiked up 12°C in fifty years or less; similar jolts up and down, some of them even more extreme, have happened many other times in Earth’s long history, and for most of the last billion years, this planet has been much, much warmer than it is now. Not that many millions of years ago, it bears remembering, alligators lived on the shores of the Arctic Ocean, and tropical and subtropical forests covered most of the planet.

This doesn’t mean, mind you, that we can simply dump CO2 into the atmospere and ignore the consequences. What counts as normal variation for the Earth is far more than a fragile industrial civilization can cope with, and the prospect of drastic food shortages driven by wild climatic swings, plus a 50-foot rise in sea levels drowning every coastal city on Earth, should be reason enough for second thoughts. The point I hope to make, rather, is that extreme scenarios of planetary extinction have been widely accepted in popular culture, despite some very significant weaknesses, while the predictions of the peak oil community – which have a much more solid basis in fact – have been dismissed out of hand. Why?

That question cannot be answered without straying out of simple matters of fact into the murky territory of beliefs and cultural narratives. Many of the critics of these essays, and indeed some of the people who have praised them, have dismissed this side of the conversation I’ve tried to start as irrelevant to our predicament. The problem with this sort of thinking is that it’s only in the delusions of raving economists that human beings make decisions on the basis of a purely rational assessment of objectively known facts. In the real world, facts are never objectively known, and reasoning is the willing slave of its preconceptions; we project our beliefs onto the inkblot patterns of experience, and so understanding those beliefs is essential if we’re to understand the forces driving today’s choices – and thus making tomorrow’s hard facts.

Look at the beliefs underlying the idea of catastrophic global climate change and you’ll find, at their core, a story about human power. We have become so powerful through our technological progress, according to the narrative, that we are able to threaten our own survival and that of the Earth itself. The only limits most climate change advocates seem to be able to imagine are those they think we must place on ourselves; even if climate change leads to our extinction, we will at least have the glory of doing the deed ourselves. It’s almost a parody of the old atheist gibe: to prove our own omnipotence, we made a crisis so big not even we can lift it out of our way.

Underlying the idea of peak oil, though, lies a different and far more sobering view of things, because peak oil is not a story about human power; it’s a story about human limits. If the peak oil narrative is correct, the power we claimed as our own was never really ours; we got it by breaking into the earth’s treasure of stored carbon and burning it up in a few short centuries. Despite the clichés, we never conquered nature; instead, we borrowed her assets and blew them in a three-hundred-year orgy of lavish consumption. Now the bills are coming due, the balance left in the account won’t meet them, and the remaining question is how much of what we bought with all that carbon will still be ours when nature’s foreclosure proceedings finish with us.

These differences matter, because the basic assumption of the climate change narrative – the belief in human omnipotence – is a core article of faith in contemporary industrial societies. It’s so pervasive that its effects are rarely noticed, but it undergirds an astonishing range of popular attitudes and ideas. It’s axiomatic in the industrial world that anything unsatisfactory is a problem in need of a solution, and equally axiomatic that a solution can be found for it. The suggestion that some deeply unsatisfactory conditions may not be problems that can be solved but, rather, are predicaments that must be lived with, is at once unthinkable and offensive to a great many people these days.

Yet this is exactly what the peak oil narrative suggests. If the world’s conventional petroleum production peaked in 2005 and faces imminent declines, as all the evidence suggests; if none of the proposed replacements for petroleum can take up the slack, and many of them, especially the other fossil fuels, are themselves closing in on their own peaks and declines; if the technological revolutions and economic boom of the last three centuries were a product of extravagant use of these nonrenewable resources, not of such impressive intangibles as “the human spirit,” and will not outlast their material basis; if, in other words, human life is subject to hard ecological limits – if these things are true, the narrative of human omnipotence falls, and a popular and passionately held conception of humanity’s nature and destiny falls with it.

Now I have to confess that I find the narrative of human omnipotence, and the secular mythology that has grown up around it, utterly unconvincing. From the perspective of my own Druid faith, all that rhetoric about humanity’s conquest of nature is absurd; it’s as though a leaf were to daydream about conquering the tree that brought it into being, presently sustains it, and will let it fall in due time; the attitudes that lead us to picture ourselves as creation’s overlords strike me as nothing more than an extraordinary case of egomania. Still, the fact remains that, in an age that has abandoned the traditional forms of religion without uprooting the emotional needs that religions meet, many people rely on these beliefs as a source of meaning and hope.

In turn, the peak oil movement’s problems finding a hearing in the wider discourse of our time has nothing to do with a shortage of solid facts or compelling reasoning; it has both of these in abundance. Rather, I have come to think, those difficulties are rooted in the movement’s failure, at least so far, to address these deeper, nonrational issues. If the peak oil message is correct, then the Great God Progress is dead; however misguided the faith of his votaries may turn out to be in hindsight, it’s a deeply held faith, and those who rely on it to give their lives meaning and hope can be counted on to cling to it until and unless some convincing alternative comes their way. That their clinging may keep our civilization from finding useful responses to a crisis even more challenging than today’s financial debacle is simply one of the ironies of our present situation.


roy said...

JMG, We certainly are living in interesting times. I think you're right about "limits". For most, the worship of progress is the supposed lack of limits. We are a far way off the path of the 3mph God, which is an idea I've borrowed from some christians that were grounded in human limits. A lot of what we're dealing with may be the spiritual consequences of abandoning ancestral earth practices. Wisdom was handed down in various ways to teach restraint. Just because you can do or make something doesn't mean that you should. I like the thought about the leaf controlling the tree, and know that ultimately that's true. I do though find it discomforting to see the destruction of my home. I am somewhat pleased that I'm living to see this decline. I see hope in it.

Jan Steinman said...

I thought you were going to connect the dots between energy decline and the financial crisis.

I'm surprised that not many peak oilers have done so, since some of the more rabid ones seem willing to connect it with everything. ("911? That was because of peak oil! Stubbed my toe this morning? Must be peak oil!")

I think what we're seeing in the financial realm is the result of peak oil, however. Endless growth of financial markets couldn't take place in a vacuum; there had to be endless growth in some physical realm to support it.

85 million barrels a day, reached in May 2005, is the economy's "glass ceiling." Just as women find they can see, but not penetrate into, the corporate boardrooms, civilization "sees" nothing but endless growth, but we just bumped up against what is for most people an invisible barrier.

There will be a recession, and commodity prices are crashing, and oil will get relatively cheap again. Then growth will start up again, headed for the stars, until "BUMP" and the glass ceiling strikes again, only this time, it may only be at 82 or 80 million barrels a day, and the cycle will continue all the way down.

FARfetched said...

I think the answer is much more prosaic than a grand narrative of human omnipotence.

My guess is that "business (mostly) as usual" is the key driver in our acceptance of climate change and rejection of peak oil/energy. For example, we could conceivably continue to improve emissions of both vehicles and factories without more than a few minor inconveniences — we do much better than 50 years ago, so (in our collective thinking) why can't we continue to improve? But in the absence of a sweeping techno-fix, declining fossil fuel supplies would force us to change the way we do 'most everything.

It's all a matter of dollars and cents. For every corporation that has to install pollution controls on their smokestacks, or catalytic converters on the cars they make, there's another corporation selling the pollution controls or catalytic converters. The various corporations may have stockholders in common or even interlocking directorates, so the expense one company amortizes over 30 years appears as income on another company's. As long as the expenses are only a minor impact on profits, it's all good.

Weaning ourselves off fossil fuel, though, involves not only massive outlays for wind, solar, nuke, whatever; but also writing down the sunk costs of all the old machinery and even the pollution controls. The expense is far too large to swallow in the time needed to deploy it and continue business (mostly) as usual, so it's easier to simply ignore the problem until it's time to cash out.

Most of those investor types couldn't care less if the civilization goes kablooey, as long as it happens after they die. IMO, of course.

logic11 said...

I see two problems with this article:
1) Many people in climate change don't think that we will wipe out the planet, as one person put it "The planet will be fine, but it's going to suck to be a human being".
2) There are many possible variations, like the Hydrate Hypothesis which would allow the effects of global warming to hit at around the same time as peak oil, in other words, the disasters we get hit with will get worse just as we lose much of our ability to deal with them.
Still not the end of the world, still just a bad moment for a lot of people, I figure humanity will get through it, but if you are watching the waters destroy your home at the same time as your car won't go because there is no longer any oil... well, it will seem a lot like the end of the world to you.

jonathanb said...

Great post John, thank you.

It seems to me that there are some people who believe we can and will develop a new equivalent energy source. They are using the technological progress and human power narrative, not to discredit the peak oil message, but to ignore it and and continue business as usual.


Megan said...

This post reminds me of an analysis I once read of H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos. The commentor found the tales interesting because they address precisely the two issues you raise here. One, how do people come to believe things they would previously have found unthinkable? Two, how do people learn to live with a problem that has no solution? Unfortunately, the answer suggested by Mr. Lovecraft seems to be that rather than make either adjustment, most people go mad ... I sincerely hope that you have a more optimistic suggestion.

(I know the original comment was somewhere in here, but I can't find it again:

painfulsyntax said...

We are in a suicidal culture. We are our own executioner! Much current thinking is incredibly vain and delusional for egos sake. Recognizing peak oil is accepting our reliance on nature. Much like recognizing that food comes from the earth and not the grocery store.

Feels like the above is parrot-phrasing your post. Often times I feel a synchronicity with your posts. I have had similar thoughts regarding this strange dichotomy between PO and GW. It seems if peak oil fell into the public consciousness most would reast congruently: conserve the precious resource. Whereas people commonly take one of the following reactions when believing in global warming: a. We are the masters and must protect the earth b. We are the masters of the earth and may change it as we please.

green with a gun said...

It's true that the climate change scientists rarely account for peak fossil fuels. However, it doesn't make a big difference to the end result - it's rather like arguing whether the car is going to crash into the tree at 120km/h or 140km/h - either way the same thing will happen.

I describe it in some detail in an article here, but essentially what we find is that,

To avoid catastrophic climate change (more than 2degC increase) we need an 85% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050; that is, by 2050 to be at 15% the emissions of 2000

But only about two-thirds of greenhouse gas emissions are due to or driven by fossil fuels; one-third comes from deforestation and food-growing.

So even if fossil fuels drop to zilch by 2050, we're still twice as high in emissions as we need to be. Probably more, since absence of fossil fuels to cook food and improve the yield of land encourages deforestation - see Haiti.

Thus in ignoring peak fossil fuels, the climate scientists are not missing much. We can make our lives quite miserable without them.

That said, human omnipotence is certainly a driving myth of Western civilisation. But a partner to this idea is human impotence, that there are certain inevitable forces in history driving us to glory or doom. "You can't stop progress," "it's now the end of history" and all that. We consider ourselves all-powerful, but only all-powerful in certain directions. 10,000 nuclear reactors are possible, 10,000 wind farms are not; expanding consumption forever is possible, deliberately reducing consumption is not; and so on.

So rather than omnipotence or impotence, perhaps it's better to focus more on the myths you're always talking about, about how they shape our sense of inevitability. And really this is nothing new in history, that elites tell the people "well, things must be this way, there's nothing we can do." After all, if things can be different - however slowly and imperfectly - why not start now?

And this supposed inevitability is comforting to us. If things are inevitable, then we don't have to do anything at all. Keep on truckin'.

Jacques de Beaufort said...

awesome !

I just order your book and a few of the others you recommended for me. Congratulations !

I'm currently reading "Peak Everything" by Richard Heinberg, and as an artist, I'm particularly interested in his chapter about Post-Hydrocarbon aesthetics. He points to William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement as the appropriate paradigm for understanding how visual communication can rise to the challenge of expressing a new set of values. I think in the short term, print media, television and cinema will be more important than design and the plastic arts, but if anyone is standing in 20 years, there will be a need to craft a new cultural consensus and no better way to do this than by the articulation of images and narratives that lead a way out of industrial civilization.

I'm interested in Neo-Pagan spirituality, particularly Gnosticism and Neo-Shamanic practice. I fear however that the "corn-pone" Nazi's that Kunstler warns of will rise in the absence of a progressive influence will practice a perverse religious zealotry and bigotry that will threaten the emergence of a cthonic alternative. Although it does bring to mind Boccaccio's "Decameron" as a model for understanding how catastrophic events, in this case The Black Death, have the actual effect of calling into question the entrenched spiritual status quo.

Doubtless this spiritual battle will be one of many raging in the churning maelstrom that awaits us.

BBC said...


Let's not forget climate change's other relative seductions. It's so much easier to visualize, e.g. smog. And to putatively experience, e.g., an especially hot day.

In contrast, all that oil and coal lies buried from sight. And, when processed to fire cars or power plants, has long been concealed in its original, most concrete form from the vast majority of users.

To continue in this vein, ambient temperature is such an in-your-face and relatively concrete indicia; whereas measuring buried fossil fuels is so hideously speculative, remote, and uncertain.

This vexation reflects my belief that when one truly accepts peak oil, the lousy zero-sum choices begin in earnest. Indeed, unless and until those lousy choices become evident, one hasn't really accepted peak oil.

If you accept peak oil, you know that, we're NOT left, at least for very long, with using energy blithely and widely as an abundant bounty, spreading it around like a particularly puissant form of peanut butter; what we're left with is allocating fossil energy, and perhaps all energy, according to its increasing super-scarcity.

Put another way, deciding on the primacy of peak oil vs. climate change is merely the first unpalatable, regrettable and forlorn choice to be made in one's response to peak oil.

Perhaps, then, it's wise not to emphasize its mitigation per se. I echo JMG's sentiment that peak oil is best viewed as predicament, rather than as a problem to be solved. Coping will be as important, personally and societally, as "solving" or "fixing." Mere individual coping during energy descent, one assumes, will be crucial. Perhaps the best advice is: get used to it.


John Michael Greer said...

Roy, your comment -- "just because you can do or make something doesn't mean that you should" -- may be the best summary I've yet seen of the lesson we most need to learn. I also see hope in the unfolding situation, though there will be great loss also.

Jan, there will be more posts on the link between the financial mess and the peak oil situation -- this is just one aspect of a very complex interrelationship.

Farfetched, the costs of cutting CO2 emissions to zero -- which is ultimately what would have to happen -- are at least as high as those of replacing depleting fossil fuels; I'm also focusing here on the way global climate change has found its way into popular culture, while peak oil has not, and that has much more to do with the collective imagination than with who makes how much money off it.

Logic, of course there are people who recognize that global warming isn't the end of the world; once again, though, I'm talking about popular culture and the way the two narratives (global warming and peak oil) have been received so differently by public opinion. To my mind, that deserves attention, as it constrains what we can expect to accomplish.

Jonathan, of course you're right; the guy I talked about in last week's post, who wants to solve the peak oil with little monorails, is a good example. Equally, there are some people in the global warming scene who don't buy into the myth of human omnipotence. Any essay this short inevitably oversimplifies!

Megan, thank you -- a fascinating point, and one I'll look up. As for better alternatives than gibbering insanity, I've been trying to talk about them for two and a half years here, and there will be more to follow.

Syntax, I sometimes think that our civilization may destroy itself just to prove that it has the power to do so. Spengler's naming of the West as "Faustian culture" embodies a deep and bitter irony.

Green, 2 degrees C. is a hiccup in paleoclimatological terms -- the earth does that all by herself every few thousand years. My own guess is that we'll see 4 to 8 degrees, and the collapse of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets, but that's only a guess -- could be less than that, could be more, and natural cycles will play at least as large a role in that as anthropogenic CO2. Mind you, you're right that inevitability is as much a part of the myth as omnipotence -- if Man is omnipotent, the individual is powerless. Get rid of Man, that reified abstraction, and you open the door to individual choice and diversity -- but more on this later on.

Jacques, Richard is always about ten miles ahead of me -- The Party's Over was the book that convinced me it was worthwhile trying to write about this stuff, and Peak Everything is a brilliant work. I'm less worried about cornpone Nazis than Kunstler is, mostly because I know a lot of people from the so-called red states; the stereotypes don't fit. I recently attended a Druid event in Georgia, which was well attended and very lively; we had no trouble at all with the locals, largely because a noticeable number of the locals are Druids, Wiccans, and other Pagans. These days the Bible Belt has a pentagram on the buckle.

BBC, "get used to it" may well be the mantra of our future. Nicely put.

green with a gun said...

JMG writes, "2 degrees C. is a hiccup in paleoclimatological terms -- the earth does that all by herself every few thousand years."

To begin with, you didn't address my point: that the reason climate scientists don't consider fossil fuel depletion is that it doesn't make much difference. We can pass dangerous thresholds without fossil fuels.

But to take what you said: every several tens of millions of years a rock bigger than Everest slams into the Earth and wipes out 90% of the species on the planet... doesn't mean we should go out, find one and steer it towards us.

I realise you don't mean it that way, but something like what you said is used by many people to argue for inaction. "But it's natural! So there's nothing we can do!"

That it all happens naturally means that we have to be more careful about what we do.

Suppose that you have a family history of heart disease and diabetes, and in fact have several genes associated with it. If you got heart disease and diabetes, it’d be “natural”, right? And we gotta die of something, right? So does that mean you can happily scoff down a dozen burgers and ten litres of coke every day? Well, no - on the contrary.

If you had no natural propensity to heart disease and diabetes, then you could get away with some burgers and coke. But because you have a natural tendency to those problems, you have to be more careful.

Likewise, with the global climate. If for whatever reason unconnected to humans it’s likely to be warming, then we have to be more careful what we pump into it. Not less.

When writing about the myth of inevitability, don't get caught up in it yourself ;) The death of our civilisation is like the death of a person - it's bound to happen eventually, but it doesn't have to happen today.

JMG writes, "My own guess is that we'll see 4 to 8 degrees, and the collapse of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets, but that's only a guess -- could be less than that, could be more, and natural cycles will play at least as large a role in that as anthropogenic CO2."

I wouldn't have a clue, and no-one else does, either. All that's certain is that continuing exactly as we are will lead to very unpleasant stuff; changing to some new ways may make things - well, not good, but at least not so bad.

Stephen said...

Im a climate doomer aswell as a peakoil doomer but I dont think peak oil is going to help the climate out much because we have already put the CO2 in the atmosphere, and with new methane columns being discovered in the artic the feedback mechanisms are already kicking in. I think the IPCC predictions are conservative as there pridictions are much less rapid and dramatic than the end of the last glacial period. But I dont know who are these idiots you refer to who think that climate change will lead to human extinction or even the end of life on Earth apart from a couple of wierdos on internet discusion forums. Yes Earth and humanity have been through climate change before but civilisation has not.

You may find it hard to find potential fascists now, but ask them again after they have been hungry for a while, and a crimewave hits town. Heathens can become fascists too. The ancient iron age druids of europe practiced eugenics, and the pagan Romans thought hundreds of slaves stabbing eachover in a ampitheatre was a jolly good show and a pleasent way to spend an afternoon.

Danny said...

Hi JMG - I've been reading your excellent blog for a few months now, but this is my first comment.

I agree that the issue of limits is key, but disagree with you slightly on the idea that climate change has "entered the popular culture". Certainly it gets talked about a lot more, but crucially usually as a "future" problem that can be "solved" by technology.

In fact, climate change is, like peak oil, an issue of limits. There is a limit to how much greenhouse gas can be safely absorbed by the biosphere each year. We are exceeding that limit, and thus are heading towards some dangerous climatic "tipping points" (the melting of the permafrost, the burning of the Amazon etc.). To avoid the worst of this, we need to accept that there is a limit to the amount of fossil-fuel burning and deforestation that we can "safely" do. This runs directly counter to the same cultural progress narrative that - as you so rightly point out - is stopping us from grasping the reality of peak energy.

Climate change is also very much a current problem - according to the World Health Organisation, at least 150,000 people are already being killed each year by the effects of climate change. This is very rarely mentioned in popular discourse about climate change.

I'd argue that the "climate change" that has crept into popular culture is, so far, a sanitised version of reality that doesn't talk about uncomfortable things like limits to growth, and presents it as a future problem to be tackled by technofixes rather than an unfolding tragedy that could only realistically be ameliorated with major social and economic changes.

I think this actually supports your central thesis - we find it very hard to accept ideas that challenge our fundamental view of "how the world works" - but I'd say that climate change isn't a good example of an "accepted idea". So far, popular culture has only accepted the (often distorted) bits of the climate change story that seem the least challenging. Is it really surprising that we prefer to hear exaggerated tales of possible future apocalypse, rather than real-life stories of today's tragedies?

I'd highly recommend this blog for more thoughts along these lines:

Best wishes,


bmerson said...

The inability to accept Peak Oil seems, to me, a fundamentally American problem. As Americans, we have, through the passage of our history, arrived at a number of strongly held beliefs. Peak Oil strikes at the heart of those beliefs.

Foremost among these beliefs is the American Dream. The American Dream is complex, but, at its heart, I think it is a belief that with hard work every person can succeed. There are plenty of corollaries. "With hard work, nothing is impossible." "With hard work, we can have it better than our parents, and our children will have it better than us." And a thousand others that tell us that in America, anything is possible.

These beliefs largely guide our entire culture, political, social, religious and economic. They permeate our way of life. Climate Change allows for the possibility (however illusory) that the American Dream can continue. It allows hope, because time frames for disruption appear to be further out, that there might be sufficient time to gather our resources and beat the problem.

Peak Oil simply doesn't allow for that illusion. To accept peak oil is to accept the inevitable conclusion that sooner or later our quality of life will not improve. Sooner or later our children will not have a better life than we did. Indeed, their lives will be immeasurably more difficult. This is not the kind of pill that is easily swallowed.

For the better part of the last century, we have unabashedly exported the idea of the American Dream wherever and whenever we could. We did this, I think, not because of some fundamental desire for world domination (although I'm sure that was there at times). Instead, I think we did it because we, ourselves, truly believe in the American Dream. We believe that if we could do it, everybody could do it. And for the better part of the last 100+ years, there seemed to be a lot of evidence in support of that idea. The world watched as, time and time again, America and Americans seemed to validate the promise of the American Dream. The world saw our apparent success... economic, military, political, societal. Some admired it. Some resented it. Some wanted it. And, to an ever increasing extent, they have adopted it. They have adopted many of our values, they have copied our exponential growth economy and markets. The American Dream has, over time, become ingrained (at least partially) in countries and peoples all over the world.

Accepting Peak Oil means accepting the that some of our most fundamentally held beliefs are fatally flawed. It means accepting failure. It means accepting that the American Dream, with its infinite promise, was, in truth, just a dream. Like any dream, eventually we wake up and are left with, at most, the memory of the Dream.

Americans and many others around the world are deeply committed to the concept embodied in the American Dream. I'm afraid that, unless leaders of almost unbelievable magnetism and honesty can be found very soon, those who believe in the American Dream, whether American or not, will not be able to accept the implications of Peak Oil until the tanks run dry.

Maybe it's the American Dream in me, but I hope I'm wrong because I would really like to see what the world could do working together.

Bill Pulliam said...

Another major factor I see is that the climate change mythos, especially in the most catastrophic versions (methane hydrates boil, atmosphere spirals out of control, etc.) has a nice feel of Divine Retribution about it that fits with the standard Apocalyptic myth very well. Gaia herself will rise and slap us down for our hubris and evil ways! Peak oil just doesn't follow the script so well. Even the sudden die-off proponents are forced to envision a more cannibalistic, atheistic end of the world where we just turn on ourselves. There's no divine justice involved. In the more realistic scenarios, it's just one long plodding fizzle. What good is the End of the World if it doesn't involve Divine Vengance, after all?

Franklin Institute of North Idaho said...

between your concise writing and your excellent commentors, it is a great read again.
May I suggest an answer to the question re: what determines our collective beliefs and consequent actions/in-actions?
IMO it is the messenger more than the message. Is the message delivered by an egghead or a leader?
Being in the "silly season" now, it is our politicians that are given the opportunity to properly warn the citizenry of _____ (fill in the blank).
That neither GW or PO are discussed by most politicians is understandable. They don't want to get shot.
It was many years ago (1985 or so) that I had realized that no politician is going to stand up and say, "Ladies and gentlemen, your standard of living is going down and will continue to go down and this is my plan to ease the descent." This realization came during the "Morning in America" phase of our history, the beginning of the global economy, the beginning of the end of unionism, etc.
The messenger told us what we wanted to hear.
Whoever wants to be elected nowadays must get there through happy-talk and then maybe (if WE are lucky)they will be able to pivot towards the real work required, ala Lincoln or Roosevelt.
Lastly, I wonder how we can ever achieve that mythical long descent towards sustainability (or at least adaptation sans madness) without leadership. I have my doubts.
Regards, Jeff

sv koho said...

Thank you John for continuing as a fount of new insights. Last night as I lay in bed reading The Long Descent I was struck by the timely irony of the books publication with the current economic asteroid hit on the world economies. I also had an insight: we have been running on the wealth and credit of millions of years of fossil energy and that credit is drying up as we have gone deeply into debt.It is a metaphor for what is going on in the financial markets. It makes your book all the more timely. I think all of us who read your blog expected that our current economic system dependent as it is on cheap energy would eventually have to fold its tent and disappear but I thought that that event was a decade or two off and I still do, but for many reasons, this complex society seems now on the verge of collapse. The events of this week suggest the collapse may not be gradual but much more sudden. I suppose we can thank computers and the internet for the rapidity of this collapse. And watching the keystone cops in DC racing around crashing into each other with their solutions to a predicament without a solution has heightened the impact of your fine book. Henry Kissinger talking about the Balkans had a great comment:"Everything we do will be wrong including doing nothing."
I do have one small correction of your geologic history. Those gators were not living up near Barrow on the shores of the Arctic Ocean. The redwood forest fossils which can be found in Northern North America were growing in tropical and subtropical areas far to the south. Their skeletons and fossils were carried to the north by the migration of the plates. Regards from Wyoming.

Evan said...


As one who has advocated on climate issues, I feel that though climate change certainly gets more airplay than peak oil in mass-media and politics, the movement to mitigate climate change inducing activities have not succeeded in any real way (nor have, adaptation preparations). Though people may be more concerned about the issues, I don't see actual tangible results. I think the realities of declining fossil fuel availability will do much more to curb greenhouse gas emissions than any political movement.

For me, climate change is more a symptom of a much larger and more complex issue -- the egomania inherent in the myths of industrial
civilization that you speak of. But though humans are just as subject to natural limits as all living things, I cannot help but feel great grief over the destruction of so much by industrial civilization. The fact that humans have carried out activities that have led us to a mass extinction overwhelms me.

While I attempt to take the long view in seeing this moment in history as a disturbance in a cycle of events that have played out on this planet in the past in other extinction events, at the same time I still feel there is some great injustice going on, particularly for the countless peoples -- human and more-than-human -- that are just trying to live but, who, through no fault of their own, are having their lifeway wrecked by this short lived civilization on an oil binge.

I would be interested to hear what perspective your Druid faith takes on not just peak oil or climate change but on mass extinction and on the lives that are being, at least in my view, unjustly destroyed by this single culture.

in good heart,

marielar said...

JMG, thank you kindly for being one of the few levelheaded bloggers of the net.

About climate change, I dont think anybody can predict where it will go. Some plausible scenarios involving massive release of methane are pretty scary. In any case, we would all be the better for reducing fuel consumption as it would address both global warming and peak oil.

Richard said...

This is a really good post, I'd been wondering myself why peak oil has more trouble getting into public conscience than climate change, and this is the best explanation I've seen so far. I do however have one comment I'd like to say,

While it's true that Earth in the past has endured climate changes worse than we're likely to have, this time it's probably going to cause a worse extinction event than other times of similar magnitude because it's coming on top of other human impacts, chiefly habitat loss, and the smaller remaining populations of many species will have a harder time migrating to new favorable climates through this degraded habitat than during other changes. For example, many plant species co-evolved with large animals to spread their seeds that are now either extinct of sharply reduced in range. Certainly not the end of the world scenario, but still problematic, both humanity and natural resilience would be better off without mass extinctions.

Compounding the problem, we have many dogmatic preservationists who insist that nature the way it was in 1491 is the only way it can be, despite as you mention nature having constantly changed in the past, and the state it was in in 1491 was considerably influenced by humans too, as stated in the book "1491" by Charles C. Mann. People are trying to eradicate species such as black locust trees and bullfrogs that are thriving north of their historic range, even though that's just where it will be good for them to be in the future. Many plant species will grow right now north (and at higher elevations in mountains) of their historic range, people should consider "assisted migration", one group doing it it the torreya guardians, They are rewilding the Florida torreya, which is dying out in it's small historic range in the Florida panhandle, to the southern Appalachians where it grows better and elsewhere. I personally have recently been collecting seeds of various wild plants when I'm going to travel to a more northerly location and then scattering them there, who knows whether any of them will make it and if I had more time to devote to it I could make it more likely, but I think it's a atart.

Beast said...

"the scenarios of drastic climate change being offered by the IPCC, the government-supported panel of scientists responsible for the most widely accepted predictions, assume that the world’s production of petroleum, coal, and natural gas can increase steadily through the year 2100."

At least, the IPCC assumes a steady increase of CO2-equivalent can increase steadily through the year 2100. Coal gets you more units of CO2 emissions per unit of energy than conventional oil or natural gas. Depletion of oil & gas might lead to increased coal consumption. And because of the lower EROI more energy would be expended and therefore more CO2 would be emitted.

What I am not sure of, and is not dealt with dirctly in this post, is if in fact we would be in the fortunate position, due to low EROI, that we could not burn the stuff at the rates "required" by IPCC, no matter how hard we try.

Why won't we start burning trees again when the coal runs out?

John Michael Greer said...

Green, I got your point -- in fact, I addressed it in the original post. I think, though, that you missed mine. Of course global warming is likely to cause major disruptions to industrial civilization; so is peak oil. Why is one trumpeted on front pages around the world while the other is exiled to the blogosphere? That's the issue I'm trying to raise.

Stephen, I'm not a doomer of any sort -- more of a decliner, if I may coin a word. I'm a little startled that you haven't encountered the people who claim that global warming will end with the Earth becoming a second Venus -- you must not get emails from the same crackpots I do.

As for ancient Druids practicing eugenics, er, I'd be interested in seeing some documentation. They took part in the executions of criminals, in much the way that chaplains do today, and filled most of the functions of an intellectual class in their time, but eugenics is a 19th century concept, you know.

Danny, thanks for your input and the link. You're right that it's possible and probably more accurate to think of global warming as a matter of limits, but that's not how it's being grasped by today's popular culture; thus my point.

Bmerson, good. It's very common to respond to the failure of an ideal with the sort of cynicism that insists nobody ever really believed in it in the first place. Of course the American dream was used to cover a great many abuses, but it was also a deeply and honestly held belief that America could somehow show the way to the rest of the world, and everyone could someday live the way we do in the US. That turned out to be a false hope, but we wrong our ancestors if we claim that it was a deliberate lie all along.

Bill, exactly. One of the downsides to thinking of the Earth as Mom is that we expect to get spanked by her when we misbehave. Reality, of course, is far less comfortably anthropocentric.

Jeff, "leadership" isn't a magic quality that some people have and some don't; what makes a leader is a large enough group of people who want to follow that person's lead. A homeless street artist with no social skills, a mind full of bizarre neo-medieval fantasies, and a police record as a part-time male prostitute would hardly fit most definitions of leadership material, but that's what Adolf Hitler was before he found a place as the spokesman for the very large number of Germans who felt angry, bitter and fearful in the aftermath of war and depression. I've argued for some time now that the political, social, and religious movements that dominate the next century will be the ones that succeed in the next few years in articulating a clear response to peak oil; so far, though, this hasn't happened.

Koho, in the Paleocene and Eocene thermal maximum from 65 to 45 million years ago, the North American and Eurasian plates were about as far north as they are now, and there were crocodiles (not alligators -- my error) and tropical plants in what is now arctic Canada and northern Siberia. Climate change, rather than continental drift, accounts for that.

Evan, I don't claim to speak for Druidry as a whole; it's a very diverse faith, and when you have three Druids you have at least five mutually exclusive opinions! Still, the lore takes what you may feel is a very hard view of life in nature -- what Druids call Abred, the realm of embodied existence; we revere nature but we're not sentimental about it. Abred is characterized by forgetfulness, suffering, and death. Every living thing in Abred struggles for survival and, in the end, loses that struggle. This is as it must be; we do not outgrow Abred until we have been all things, known all things, and suffered all things.

This doesn't deny the place of compassion in our lives; it's through suffering that we learn compassion, and it's precisely because Abred is full of suffering that we are called on to mitigate it where we can. Still, all life feeds on life; species have exterminated one another since the birth of the biosphere; the egomania of our present industrial culture is no more extreme than that of many others in history, and genocide is not a modern invention. That's the nature of Abred; our task is to better it where we can, to endure it when we must, and to trust in the reality of divine purpose in it all, even -- or rather, especially -- when this can't be seen.

But this is far more than I'd ever intended to say about the spiritual teachings of Druidry on this blog, so I'll shut up now.

Marielar, absolutely! Again, as I said in the post, I'm not saying we ought to ignore the risks of dumping CO2 into the atmosphere. I'm pointing out the difference between the way global warming and peak oil have been received by our society.

tristan said...

I follow both the Global Warming and the Peak Oil blogs and sites. I think the most "doomer" on the Global Warming side I have encountered is Mark Lynas. I've also not encountered the "Earth will become like Venus" statement.

As for Peak oil being relegated to the blog ghettoes I have seen Matthew Simmons on the cable news channels numerous times.

And both "predicaments" suffer the same problems. You get one cold winter and all of the global warming deniers claim victory and the end of the argument. You get one price downturn and you get the same response from the peak oil deniers.

I think the difference is time. Peak Oil is so much closer that selling far fetched ideas is much harder. Whereas climate change is far enough away and amorphous enough that carbon trading can still be sold with a straight face.


Millicent Q Peabody said...

I believe censorship has a lot to do with the utter silence in the media concerning PO. If people are alerted to the facts behind it and see that nothing is being done, they may undertake measures to grealy reduce their reliance on petroleum products. This is actually a good thing because if we wait for gov't to start rationing home heating oil and such we'll really be doomed. Anyway, jolting people now and then with a story about huge unstoppable climate change keeps them a little frightened and ready for "leadership" in our already decimated democracy.
If the crackpots (!) are correct in the conspiracy to enact martial law, then educated people making their own choices about heating lighting and figuring out how to do without fossil fuels will be unwanted. Tyrants want helpless pliable populations.
And about the American Dream - I think it's in the Bill of Rights, the freedom to live without harrassment by government. It was only connected to gross accumulation of material goods by marketing executives.

anagnosto said...

Hello JMG.
For the last weeks I have been enjoying your posts and the corresponding answers, starting from May 2006 (I am now reading those from November 2007). Thank you for all your wisdom!

I agree with most of your deductions and models except one viewpoint at the core of all this. You see peak oil as a predicament, but I see it as a blessing, the sooner the better. For me the real problem is population overshooting, and the correspondent long term impacts on the planet, fisheries, water depletion, contamination, salinization, deforestation and finally weather change. If tomorrow, suddenly, those fantastic energy devices (Tesla radiant energy, Methernita machines, water as engine fuel...) should work, or if new huge oil deposits would be found, and because of this, world population could continue growing above 10.000millions... that would be a much worse disaster, for both earth and humankind. So peak oil is actually a problem solution.

On the other hand, at a personal level, I only realized the inmediacy of peak oil in 2004. I am not completely ready for it, and I estimate I need another couple of years to be in a good position. The current economic crisis, has been visible for over two years now, and I expect it will delay for several years now the first brunt of peak oil. I hope this will provide the time needed to finish many interesting projects (from the eleventh hour)that otherwise will be just half way (like And my own plans too, where deinflated real state is a good thing.

John Michael Greer said...

Richard, I don't see any way the current situation will spiral up to rank with the really big extinction crises -- the end-Permian extiction, say, which took out 95% of all genera, or the K-T impact at the end of the Cretaceous that took out 65%. Your comments about the Torreya guardians, though, seem spot on to me; as climate changes, that sort of human-assisted migration could help ameliorate things quite a bit.

Beast, of course we'll start burning wood, but the CO2 in today's trees is coming right out of the atmosphere -- it hasn't been out of circulation for millions of years -- so it doesn't represent an addition to the CO2 levels in the atmosphere. If some of us get to work learning coppicing and other ways of producing firewood sustainably, the transition to wood needn't even impact forest cover significantly.

Tristan, when governments around the world start paying lip service to the need to do something about peak oil I'll accept your claim. Of course nothing substantive will be done about either crisis; John Kenneth Galbraith's The Culture of Contentment explained quite some time ago why constructive change is basically impossible in modern industrial societies. Still, the difference in attitudes exists, and deserves attention.

Millicent, people very often find it convenient to blame some sinister minority out to seize power for the consequences of their own bad decisions. I'd remind you, though, of where that sort of scapegoat logic so often leads.

Anagnosto, death is also a blessing -- it keeps the cycle of life moving and prevents us, collectively and individually, from getting stuck in an eternal rut. That doesn't keep it from being a predicament, and one that can be painful and frightening to face.

dharmagaian said...

Thank you, JMG. I for one appreciate your bringing issues back to cultural narratives, beliefs and assumptions as an explanation for why Americans are in denial, blind, etc. I think that Americans are just beginning to grok 'the power of the nonrational' in our public life. Sarah Palin, as the current embodiment of the nonrational in public life, is scaring the be-jeezus out of a lot of people, causing a lot of soul searching among those who believed the nonrational had been banished, including Republicans. I also think that in the course of the long decline, industrialized humanity will get some humbling lessons as we see the power of the nonrational unleashed much further, including in ourselves if we're honest.

However, I'd like to ask a question. You say: "[T]he peak oil movement’s problems finding a hearing in the wider discourse of our time has nothing to do with a shortage of solid facts or compelling reasoning; it has both of these in abundance. Rather, I have come to think, those difficulties are rooted in the movement’s failure, at least so far, to address these deeper, nonrational issues. If the peak oil message is correct, then the Great God Progress is dead; however misguided the faith of his votaries may turn out to be in hindsight, it’s a deeply held faith, and those who rely on it to give their lives meaning and hope can be counted on to cling to it until and unless some convincing alternative comes their way."

This, I don't need to tell you, is the same problem the environmental movement has faced for decades. But how do you propose that either the PO or ecology movement address those deeper, nonrational issues? I mean, it does not seem that anything will convince the fence-sitters, or those on the other side of the fence unless those who already believe in the catabolic collapse demonstrate a convincing alternative by creating it in the midst of the unraveling that has begun. And we all know how difficult it is to create lifeboats right now. You wrote about that long ago in "Where are the Lifeboats," if I remember correctly.

So I wonder whether you have anything in mind to advise PO activists on how to address those deeper, nonrational issues???

markincolo said...

Awesome post as usual, the nail has been hit on the head.
As for why GW is seen as more of an issue than PO, off hand I’d say GW has gotten more press and better press too. But why?
IMO, its cognitive dissonance, as a culture, we have invested so much into the fossil fuel economy, much is at stake, we have built a whole world view and infrastructure around the use of this stored carbon. Furthermore there are a number of generations that have no knowledge of anything else. This puts the mind set to “we have always had it”. Plus, to play into the cultural narrative of Frankenstein’s monster, the whole world view has turned out bad in the form of GW, and GW makes a good monster. I’m not putting down M. Shelly’s masterpiece, but we do seem to fallow that cultural narrative quiet well.

Lesley said...

I am a new reader. A friend of mine sent me your way, and I am enjoying the introduction to your thought provoking ideas. I agree that with the current state of affairs, ecologically and economically there are limits to what we can do if we continued to collectively think the way we have post industrial revolution. However, great civilizations have risen with great complexity and success, only to fall ignominiously as a result of greed, over consumption, gross expansion...ect. What is often underestimated, is the level of human ingenuity. I agree that we are not omnipotent, but we do have an uncanny way of surviving, While it may take a long hard road of starvation, warfare, chaos, and resistance to new ideals, I could see the collective population adopting a new ideal, one that is based on reduction rather than growth. A society where nature, resources, environment all have a capital value, and governments reward those who do not reproduce. I disagree that we are ultimately limited. Based on the past where the earth was flat, flying was only a pipe dream, and space was unattainable, our ingenuity stepped up. It may take a hard cold wake up call before a new paradigm. on what we need and how we should live, shifts. Just as the stock market will hit a bottom, so too will society when the peaks hit, and then we re-build our way of life from the new perspective.

anagnosto said...

JMG. You are right. I should have look earlier into the meaning of predicament, and see that your choice for using it is not casual. Specially since English is not my mother-tongue.

hardhead said...

Excellent post, John.

Humans are smart - or clever - enough to be able to devise all sorts of cute little thingamabobs and doomaflotchies to do neat tricks, some of which are actually useful. But we're not nearly smart enough to really understand what we're doing or how it affects us or our world. What we think we know is largely a result of being bitten back by what we thought we already knew.

We've only just established a beachhead on the vast continent of "knowledge" - via the worldview we know as "science" - but what we see, as far as we can look, is a vast jungle of ignorance. And beyond that jungle lies pure, unadulterated "mystery."

It may be within our capabilities to clear some of that jungle of ignorance, at great cost and suffering. But we will never get into the land of mystery, because the less ignorant we become, the more mysterious it all seems. And this is part of what you aptly call our predicament, in that there's nothing, now or ever, we can do to change it.

That great enveloping sphere of mystery is the eternal root of the religious impulse. The "sacred" is a representation of that which we can never truly know or understand, and any religion worthy of the name warns us not to tamper with the sacred. In our hubris, we have repeatedly ignored that warning, always with the same result - the same one we're seeing now as 21st Century Man relearns the old lessons again.

Even though we like to think that it is, it is not given to man to know all things, or even very many things. The sooner we accept that, and all our other inherent limitations, the easier it will be for all of us.

Conchscooter said...

If you accept Peak Oil you have to do something about it. If you aknowledge that human activity affects global warming you have to do something about it. People are lazy thus it's easier to ignore the whole mess. I like the original post but I think sometimes we over think things a bit.
Can I claim the shortest comment?

Tully Reill said...

JMG wrote; I'm also focusing here on the way global climate change has found its way into popular culture, while peak oil has not, and that has much more to do with the collective imagination than with who makes how much money off it.

I do recall two attempts from the early 80's to bring the subject of peak oil into popular culture via media, the movie "The Last Chase" starring Lee Majors and the song "Red Barchetta" by the band Rush. There was also the movie "Americathon" in 1979 starring John Ritter, which depicted the USA being out of oil by 1997. Sadly, both movies were not big hits and I think most people missed the actual concept behind them. As for Rush's tune, well, it was the 80's and I think most took it for just another good tune from a hit band.

spring_tides said...

I think the biggest confusion arises from saying Peak Oil will happen very soon and Climate Change is years away, therefore we have to put dealing with Peak Oil first.
Peak Oil's effects may be, perceptually, immediate and visible, as in vast increases in gas prices, whereas Climate Change's effects are perceived to be slower and more amorphous, such as strange rainfall patterns that you can't quite quantify, except perhaps to say "it's a 100 year flood".
That doesn't mean that Climate Change isn't happening right here and right now. I have seen the effects of Climate Change with my own eyes in my travels around the world, and while it is true that the climate always does change, the current extremely rapid rate of change has been scientifically proven beyond any reasonable doubt to be anthropogenic in nature.
Yes, species have always gone extinct, but the extremely rapid rate of extinction has been shown, beyond any reasonable doubt, at least to me, with my scientific background, to be due to anthropogenic factors.
I don't believe I'm suffering from some kind of mass delusion when my eyes tell me my garden plants are growing differently, and I can grow formerly zone 6 plants in my zone 5 location.
People are always throwing out the line about how crocodiles once lived in the Arctic, some 91 million years ago, in the Cretaceous period, while neglecting to mention that the derivative food crops we currently survive on did not evolve until the Cenozoic period, 65 million years ago - i.e. some considerable time later.
The biggest issue with the perception of Climate Change, in my view, is not the flooding of coastlines 100 years from now, but the inability to reliably grow food crops, right here and right now, today - food crops which have been developed in a time of relative climate stability.
Rainfall patterns are changing right here and right now - ask anyone who deals with water management in California or the Southern states, or who has to reliably produce a food crop in the Midwest.
Many in the Peak Oil community are pushing the idea that Climate Change is far away, and therefore we shouldn't be worrying about it. I think they have entirely missed the boat on that, and, unfortunately, I believe Climate Change deniers have somehow found a willing audience in the Peak Oil community. That seems incomprehensible to me - if people can read and absorb a scientific paper on oil depletion, how come they can't read and absorb a scientific paper on Climate Change ?

RJ said...

This is a great essay, thank you.

I often wonder if our anthropocentric ways are reinforced by light pollution. That is, those of us deprived of an unobstructed view of the universe may be inclined toward harboring a somewhat fetal view of the same.

Perhaps the Hubble telescope put the mystery to rest for some, but a huge chunk of our ancestors' awe has been waylaid.

petemclean said...

Thanks JMG and all - an interesting discussion. Plenty that I could say but I will try to avoid restating ideas already covered. As for the differnce in general uptake of PO and GW ideas - firstly I think GW has taken rather a long time to reach its current level of awareness - it was already a fairly mainstream idea within the sciences back in the eighties, but it has taken this long to reach general (though ineffective and missinformed) public attention. PO is on the same tradjectory - just a little way behind - of course it will be catapulted into awareness pretty quickly once the declines begin in earnest.

Lets also look at the nature of the evidence. While those who have chosen to investigate the subject of PO in detail can see the evidence in production and discovery graphs etc etc - the actual peak in production is not yet unambiguously evident - production has (with minor ups and downs) leveled. In contrast global warming is already here and has been for decades - glacier and sea ice declines, temperature records, species range shifts, sea level rises etc etc - the evidence is plain to see (and yet denial of causes continues)

I guess the two issues are very different in nature. The problems associated with global warming are incremental and slow acting (relative to lived expierience). While it is already well underway, most people in the developed world are sufficiently shielded from the effects to ignore it so far. On the other hand PO is, well, a peak. That is, there are no palpable effects leading up to the peak - everything seems rosy - of course once serious declines in world production begins - everything changes.

Kiashu said...

"Beast, of course we'll start burning wood, but the CO2 in today's trees is coming right out of the atmosphere -- it hasn't been out of circulation for millions of years -- so it doesn't represent an addition to the CO2 levels in the atmosphere."

No. Deforestation accounts for about 17% of all greenhouse gas emissions. It's possible for logging to be carbon neutral, you just make sure you don't cut down or burn more than will grow back each year. So if an acre of forest adds a cord of wood each year, if you cut a cord or less from it, it'll balance out; if you cut more than a cord, then you're adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

On average, in the developed world we cut less than we grow in our own countries; but in the developing world more is cut than grows, some for local use, some for the developed world's use. Thus, 17% of all emissions.

There are also other issues like a cleared forest's soil holding less organic material and thus less carbon, and so on - but the general rule is that if you cut more than will grow back, you're adding greenhouse gas emissions.

John Michael Greer said...

Dharmagaian, I do have ideas, and in fact have been working along those lines for a while now. Pay attention to the symbolism and imagery I use in these posts and you may notice some patterns of interest. I'll have more to say about this down the road a bit.

Mark, "Frankenstein" is among the great mythic narratives of our age -- it's astonishing that Mary Shelley was able to catch so much of the logic (and illogic) of the emerging industrial culture so early.

Lesley, what you're saying is that you put your faith in in the religion of progress. That's your right, of course. I'll simply point out all the civilizations of the past, which had just as much human ingenuity as we do, and believed just as strongly that they could surmount any crisis they faced, and are now crumbling ruins and dimly remembered names in history books. Decline happens, and civilizations fall; it's only our collective egotism that leads us to insist that the same thing can't happen to us.

Anagnosto, no problem -- a lot of people whose native tongue is English have missed that point.

Hardhead, very well put. One of the reasons I insist on the value of history is that it shows us what happened the last time people tried whatever gimmick we're trying now -- it's one of the few solid reality checks we've got. The philosophers of an earlier time used to insist that humanity cannot know nature, because we didn't make it; we can know history, because we do make it.

Conchshooter, no, the shortest comment was unprintable and has been deleted. Still, my question remains -- why the huge media hullaballoo about the one, and the deafening silence about the other?

Tully, thanks for the references! I wasn't aware of any of those.

Spring Tides, like several other commenters, you're missing the point of the post. It's clear that climate is changing; it's likely, certainly, that anthropogenic CO2 is at least one of the factors involved; the issue is why this has become a big media issue while peak oil, which is at least as solidly based in fact, is being ignored. That's the issue I want to address here.

RJ, that's a very plausible suggestion -- I know that one of the things I found most pleasant in moving from a large city to a small town in the southern Oregon mountains is that the heavens are visible here. In Seattle, even on a clear night, you can't see the Milky Way at all.

Petemclean, hmm. An interesting point -- my one problem with it is that we in the US did have a brush with peak oil in the 1970s, and the problem was being discussed as early as the 1950s.

Kiashu, you're quite correct -- I should have been more careful. What I meant to say is that burning trees doesn't add new carbon to the biosphere -- it relocates some from biomass to the atmosphere -- while the carbon in fossil fuels has been out of circulation for up to 500 million years, and thus represents a significant increase in the carbon content of the entire system.

Mark, if you'll repost your comment without profanity I'd be delighted to put it through.

Megan said...

The mention of Frankenstein reminds me - I mentioned the myth of the Golem in an earlier post, and you said you might expand on that in a future post. Now that the subject has come up twice, might I return to politely pestering you for your thoughts on the subject? Though I realize that current events are generating several blogs worth of material, I'm sure that the story of a marvelous creation that turns to bite the hand that created it is fully applicable to some of Wall Street's exotic financial innovations.

anagnosto said...

I think the media putting its attention on the greenhouse effect is not only affecting the coverage on peak oil, but any other of the disasters we have ahead. It is like they have to had a Damocles sword above us, but more than one distracts. And the more undefined and unprecised the time schedule the better. It used to be ozone layer some years ago. It matches also with that control by fear hypothesis Michael Moore likes so much. Y2K was having a caducity date, so this one is much bettter (for whatever purposes the media and lobbies have).

Jacques de Beaufort said...


I spent all week reading "The Long Descent". Bravo, in my mind it is a work of great importance and a fresh take on the implications of Peak Oil. You manage to avoid the sometimes histrionic tone of Kunstler and the sometimes overly partisan rhetoric of Heinberg while articulating a historically concise and level headed account of the "problematique" presented by Industrial Civilization.

Your passage "Secondhand Theologies" is of particular interest to me. Specifically the "cross fertilization" of the narratives of immanence and transcendence described by, among others Terence McKenna. McKenna is often misunderstood and many of his ideas are seen as ludicrous farce by laypeople who are inexperienced with hallucinogenic mind states. I do not take his eschatology literally, I see the "Transcendental Object at the End of Time" as a linguistic lever that he uses to elicit the equivalent consciousness that one may experience while using entheogenic substances. The seemingly Gnostic idea of "the interiorization of the body and externalization of the mind" is similarly an effort to that affect, something akin to the Sophic Hydrolith or Lapis Philosiphorum, the Magnum Opus that Alchemical Magi were in search of. This is a state of being, not a literal object or event.

His insistence on the significance of the year 2012 is however somewhat less well considered, although it did provide his bardic rap with a prophetic urgency that doubtless enabled his message to reach a wide audience.

The shamanic experience is one that exists outside of time and civilization even as the animal body cannot escape these constraints. This is why it is so useful to people who may find themselves in a world that has become indecipherable, alienating and incoherent. The removal of the mask of reality enables one to see the futility of human efforts at permanence, and we realize that to cling to the inviolate pearl of that which cannot be destroyed is to take great aggravation upon ones-self. For many the annihilation of ego is horrific, for others it is the first moments of real clarity.

In a hallucinogenic consciousness it is very easy to recognize the symbols and magic runes of modern industrial civilization
as such.

On another note, I read a curious review of your book by one "Dave Johnson" who believes that all is required to mitigate the decline of civilization is for people to live low energy lifestyles like him, which apparently means living in his car and working one day week for minimum wage. If everyone could just do this, according to Dave, there would be no problem, and thus your concerns are overblown.

If you are interested, I recently wrote a catalog essay on your Ashland neighbor, Steven LaRose, who is having a show at the Thorndike Gallery at Southern Oregon University this month.

All the Best.

Michael Tobis said...

The article you reference regarding ice cores is misleading. Ice cores record local not global or hemispheric temperature. It is certainly the case that there were abrupt hemispheric climate shifts during the deglaciation period, but the very large numbers refer to Greenland only.

John Michael Greer said...

Megan, I'll keep it in mind.

Anagnosto, well put! Yes, there does seem to be an unwillingness in the media to beat more than one dead horse at a time.

Jacques, I have no objection to mystics being mystics, and insofar as McKenna was trying to communicate visionary experiences and his readers take them as such, that's fine. The problem is when people begin treating visionary experiences as sober predictions about the future.

Michael, not so; you need to do a bit more homework. The temperature calculations from the Greenland ice cores are based on oxygen isotope proportions; since water made from different oxygen isotopes evaporates at rates that vary with global temperature, this gives a good overall temperature reading for the entire planet. The temperature increase for Greenland and areas close to it was actually much higher than 22 degrees F., as you'll find if you consult the papers published by the study I've cited.

Michael Tobis said...

Well, it's sort of in between:

"Water molecules with 18O are the same as regular water in most respects except that because it is heavier, it does not evaporate as readily and condenses slightly more easily than water with 16O. Depending on the temperature of evaporation and how far the water has had to travel before it fell as snow on the summit of Greenland, the ratio of 18O to 16O will vary. This ratio, known as d18O, can be measured very accurately using a mass spectrometer. Over short time scales the change in temperature from summer to winter produces a very clear oscillation in the 18O/16O ratio. This oscillation is used to determine the age of the core at different depths, simply by counting the oscillations. Over longer time periods, this ratio indicates the average temperature of the regions between the evaporation site and the coring site."

As for 12 C shifts, this is an extraordinary claim even locally; nobody is making the claim on a hemispheric basis.

The picture is messy and complicated but not on that scale.

I refer you to the abstract of Huber et al 2006, "Isotope calibrated Greenland temperature record over marine isotope stage 3 and its relation to CH4".

The abstract says: "The strong correlation between Greenland temperatures and CH4 on millenial and submillenial time scales suggests that variations on these time scales were probably of hemispheric extent."

What this means is that there are signatures of the variability all over the place, but that the tmeperature proxy is local.

Regarding homework, I think about this stuff for a living.

Let me quote prof Andrew Weaver who said last week "People have simply no idea how serious this issue is."

I don't know that we need to argue whose crisis is bigger; in the end we are either sustainable or not. I enjoy reading what you write for the most part. But trivializing climate change is a very very very very big mistake.