Wednesday, July 18, 2012

On the Far Side of Denial

Any readers of The Archdruid Report who grew up, as I did, watching old black and white science fiction serials repackaged for the afternoon TV market may be forgiven for an overload of déjà vu just now.  Somewhere near the end of any given serial, there’s inevitably a moment when the evil overlord says, “No! This cannot be! I am invincible!” It’s usually a close-up shot on the evil overlord’s sinister face, and it’s followed within fifteen seconds or so by a cataclysmic explosion that vaporizes the evil overlord, his death ray, his fortress of doom, his legions of terror, and everything else within a couple of planetary diameters or so, except the hero and any other characters who are sympathetic enough to be allowed by the scriptwriters to get to safety behind the zarkonite shield.

Well, it’s been said. Get ready for the explosion.

The example I’m thinking of right now is Lord Browne, formerly the chairman of British Petroleum and now a major player in the fracking industry. A few days ago, in a public appearance, he insisted that the United States would be able to stop importing foreign oil by 2030, because the supply of shale gas that would be made available to the US by fracking technology was, and I quote, effectively infinite.


I found myself wondering if Lord Browne might possibly have been one of the contestants in the Monty Python Upper Class Twit Of The Year Contest skit which, in a nice bit of synchronicity, a reader forwarded to me right about the time that his lordship was making a very public fool of himself. Browne has been employed for some time in the oil industry, and therefore has had every opportunity to find out that the word "infinite" does not belong in any meaningful statement about fossil fuels. Now of course he may simply have been engaged in the same sort of puffery that we saw not too long ago from mortgage brokers and real estate agents, who had pressing financial reasons to spend much of their time expressing equally expansive and equally inaccurate notions of where their market was headed. Still, I suspect there’s more going on than this.

Over the last six months or so an extraordinary torrent of nonsense about limitless gas and oil supplies has been sloshing through the media, spouting out from an equally extraordinary assortment of people who ought to know better. We’ve seen pundits loudly claiming that the United States had become a net petroleum exporter, when what was going on was that modest amounts of gasoline and other refined petroleum products that Americans are too poor to afford nowadays are being sold to more prosperous countries abroad. We’ve seen fracking technology, which the oil industry has been using for decades, waved around as a brand new technological breakthrough; we’ve seen the Bakken shale, which has been known since the 1970s and doesn’t actually have that much accessible oil in it, ballyhooed as a brand new game-changing discovery; we’ve seen the most blatant falsehoods proclaimed as fact—I’m thinking here of the pundit I critiqued in a previous post, who insisted that kerogen shales are exactly the same as what’s being drilled in the Bakken, and that the US therefore has some absurd amount of shale oil ready for pumping.

Over the last few weeks, a number of my fellow peak oil writers have expressed worries about this outpouring of counterfactual drivel. Myself, I find it a very hopeful sign. What we are seeing is the shattering of the consensus that has excluded any discussion of peak oil from the collective conversation of our time. Plenty of pundits who refused to talk about peak oil at all are now talking about it incessantly.  Even though they’re screeching at the top of their lungs that it can’t happen, and scrabbling around for any argument, however feeble or blatantly false, they can use to back up that proposition, they’re still talking about it.

That is to say, industrial society is collectively entering the stage of denial.

The application of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ five stages of grief to the process of dealing with peak oil has become common enough in the peak oil scene that an offhand reference to one stage or another in a talk or blog post on the subject rarely needs an explanation.  It’s not just peak oil: the sequence of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance has become part of the common currency of thought in the modern world. For all its drawbacks and critics—and it has plenty of both—the five stages do a tolerably good job of modeling the way many people go through the grieving process in most contexts, which is after all as much as any theoretical structure can be expected to do.

Whatever its more general applicability, furthermore, it very often fits the experience that people have when they start to wrestle with peak oil and everything that it implies. Those of us who have been in the peak oil scene for a while now have watched plenty of people stumble their way through it one step at a time. There’s the denial stage—no, that can’t possibly happen, I’m sure they’ll come up with something, there must be plenty of oil around here somewhere.  There’s the anger stage—it’s all the fault of the politicians, the bankers, the oil companies, David Icke’s evil space lizards, or somebody, and if we just denounce them loudly enough on our favorite blogs, we’ll be fine.  There’s the bargaining stage—okay, the age of abundance is over, but if we build lots of wind turbines or buy organic coffee or go to one more round of meetings where we all come to a consensus about the nice cozy future we think we want, it’ll all work out, right?  There’s the depression phase—we’ve failed as a species, humanity is irremediably awful, it would be better for the whole cosmos if Gaia just got it over with and chucked us into extinction’s compost heap, and so on. Then, finally, comes acceptance, when you’ve finished dealing with your emotional issues about the end of the petroleum age and can get to work at last on the practical stuff.

Now of course some people go through the stages in a different order, some people skip one or more of them, and some people get stuck in one or another of them. (Kubler-Ross recognized that the same thing happens in the kinds of grieving she studied, a point her critics don’t often remember.)  Still, the model stays in use in the peak oil scene because something roughly comparable to the five stage process can be traced in the experiences of a lot of people who go through a peak oil awakening. That much is a fairly common realization  in the peak oil scene; what I don’t think many of us anticipated, though, is that the same process might happen on a collective level as well. I suggest that this is what’s been happening in recent months, and that it’s what has driven the tirades against peak oil that we’ve all seen splashed over the media.

With that in mind, I’d like to glance over at a considerably more useful artifact of the current stage of the peak oil debate. Feasta has just released a study by David Korowicz on the ways that a financial crash could kickstart a more general economic implosion by gutting the fiscal gimmickry that keeps international trade running. (You can download a PDF here.)  It’s a thoughtful analysis, and it takes the time to make its assumptions explicit, which is useful; in the very few places where it runs off the rails, it’s fairly easy to glance back to the presuppositions governing the study and figure out where the problem lies.

Korowicz argues, if I may oversimplify his careful prose, that the current global financial system is a tottering mess that could come apart at the seams in no time flat, and it’s under stress already from a variety of factors, including peak oil.  If and when it comes apart,  he suggests, the entire structure of letters of credit and currency flows that supports global trade in little luxuries like enough food to eat could quite readily come apart also, producing a fiscal cardiac arrest that could shatter supply chains and bring most nations’ economies to a screeching halt in a matter of days or weeks.

Is this a plausible scenario? It’s considerably more than that, for a close equivalent happened in late 1932 and early 1933 in the United States.  A banking system that had been fatally wounded by the 1929 stock market crash and its aftermath had been propped up temporarily by federal money—they called it the Reconstruction Finance Corporation then; that’s spelled "TARP" this time around—but was still loaded to the breaking point with huge amounts of worthless debt and unprepared for ongoing economic contraction.  Then a new round of economic crisis triggered by events in Europe—no, I’m not making up any of this; look it up—pushed the US banking system over the edge; as banks folded one after another, the basic trust that makes a credit-based economy function evaporated; nobody could be sure if the bank that received their deposits or their loans would still be there the next day, bank runs followed, and the whole economy shuddered to a halt. Paychecks could not be cashed, businesses could not pay their suppliers or get paid for their products, and many of the negative consequences Korowicz sketches out duly happened.

Could that happen again, on a global scale? You bet. It’s the sequel, though, that didn’t get into Korowicz’ analysis. Faced with the imminent reality of national collapse, the US government did not sit on its hands, which is what those with the capacity to do something are always required to do in fast collapse theories. Instead, it temporarily nationalized the entire American banking system, declared that all assets held by the banks were owned by the government until further notice, made private ownership of gold by US citizens illegal, and ordered every scrap of gold in the country much bigger than a wedding ring sold to the government at a fixed, below-market price, with stiff legal penalties for anybody who tried to hang onto their gold stash. (I’m not making up any of this, either.  Look it up.) Flush with seized bank assets and confiscated gold, the government poured money into the nationalized banks, which could then meet every demand for funds, stopping the panic in its tracks. Once stability returned, the banks returned to private ownership and got their assets back, though gold remained a government monopoly for decades longer.

This sort of drastic measure is far from rare in economic history. Germany in the 1920s put paid to its era of hyperinflation by issuing a new currency, the rentenmark, which was backed by taking out one big mortgage on every single piece of real property in the country. Other countries have done things even more extreme.  A nation facing collapse, it bears remembering, has plenty of options, and it also has the means, motive, and opportunity to use them. 

It’s only fair to point out that this sort of drastic response is something that the Feasta study specifically excludes. One of Korowicz’ basic assumptions, stated as such in his study, is that governments will respond to the crisis by choosing the minimal option they think will solve the immediate problem. It’s a reasonable assumption, right up to the point that national survival is at stake, but at that point history shows in no uncertain terms that the assumption goes right out the window.  Nation-states are good at surviving—that’s why they’ve become the standard form of human political organization in the viciously Darwinian environment of modern history—and it’s hard to think of anything a nation-state won’t do if it thinks its survival is threatened.

That said, Korowicz’ study points to one very plausible way that the next major round of crisis could slam into the industrial world. The fact that the nations affected by it could kluge together responses to it, slap the equivalent of defibrillator paddles onto their prostrate economies, and get a heartbeat again for the time being doesn’t change the fact that a financial collapse followed by even a partial supply chain breakdown would be a massive crisis, the sort of thing that could well plunge hundreds of millions of people into permanent poverty and push the global economy further down a long ragged decline that will be much less amenable to drastic responses.  We’re in agreement, in effect, that the patient is terminally ill; the question is simply whether first aid measures available to the paramedics on site can get his heart beating again, so he can drag out the dying process for a while longer.

Of course this is not the way the Feasta study is being discussed over much of the peak oil blogosphere. The fascination with sudden collapse—call it the Seneca cliff if you must, though it’s only fair to note that Seneca was talking about morality rather than the survival of civilization, and the civilization to which he himself belonged took centuries to decline and fall—is to the peak oil scene exactly what the fixation on Bakken shale oil and "effectively infinite" natural gas is to the collective imagination of industrial society as a whole: a means of denial.  It’s just one more way of pretending that we and our grandchildren’s grandchildren don’t have to endure the long bitter centuries of decline and fall that are waiting for us—a future that, let’s face it, is considerably more frightening than a sudden collapse. Claiming that it’ll all be over in a flash is not that much different, all things considered, from claiming that it won’t happen at all.

Wry reflections about evil overlords aside, I suspect we’ve got a ways still to go before the various modes of denial finish working their way through the collective imagination of our time.  The pundits and corporate flacks who have, for all practical purposes, gone barking mad about the world’s energy supply—I really don’t think any less forceful phrasing reflects the nature of these strident claims that scraping the bottom of the barrel, via fracking or otherwise, ought to be treated as proof that the barrel’s still full—are by and large associated with the two economic sectors, finance and petroleum, that are going to be clobbered first and hardest as the reality of peak oil sets in. The elephant’s in their living rooms; that’s why their shrill denials that elephants exist can be heard so clearly all through the neighborhood.  As the elephant roams a little more widely, I suspect that the same frantic tone will travel with it, until finally we find ourselves on the far side of denial and the next phase starts.

That phase, for those who haven’t kept track, is anger. It’s once that stage arrives in force that the explosion will follow.

End of the World of the Week #31

There are times, when the small hours of the morning arrive and I’m still awake and pondering, when I wonder about some of the great and insoluble questions of our time. One of these is why people listen when academics predict the future. It’s a common habit of professional scholars to do so, and the media and the public both lap it up, despite the awkward fact that almost all of those predictions turn out to be embarrassingly wrong.

One of the classic examples was the prophecy, widely made in the middle decades of the twentieth century and even more widely believed, that the great social crisis of the decades immediately ahead was going to be the end of work. Serious articles in serious periodicals and cocktail-party chitchat alike insisted that as automation took over, robot labor would inevitably replace human beings, first on the assembly line, then across the spectrum of employment, until the vast majority of people across the industrial world would no longer be needed in the labor force.

The mainstream liberal approach (in those days, remember, liberals were the mainstream) was to speculate about the promise and peril of a new age of limitless leisure, in which most people lived on a nationally guaranteed income and only artists, intellectuals, and executives had anything even close to a job. There was a great deal of very earnest talk about helping the poor, who allegedly couldn’t figure out what to do with spare time on their own, to fill their hours with suitably improving leisure activities. Meanwhile radicals insisted that once the new automated factories were in place, the ruling elite would simply exterminate the unnecessary population en masse. For many people in the 1960s radical scene, that was the most likely way the world—or at least their world—was supposed to end.

It’s indicative of the time that nobody questioned the assumption that the fantastic amount of energy needed for all those robot factories would be forthcoming, and nobody questioned that within a few years there would be, say, robots sophisticated enough to make your bed and cook your dinner. Both of those assumptions, and a great many more of the common beliefs of that time, turned out to be hopelessly wrong—and so, in turn, will plenty of the unquestioned presuppositions of our own time.

—for more failed end time prophecies, see my book Apocalypse Not


Nathan said...

Speaking of predictions - the science fiction book 'Feed' by M.T Anderson was written in 2002 before smartphones, Facebook and Twitter, but is eerily prescient about all three.

Collective bargaining hmmm? That's the stage that seems most interesting to me right now. Channeled the right way it might actually do some long-term good. We will go through one hell of a collective grieving process though.

John D. Wheeler said...

Thanks for explaining about the other side of denial. Coming upon Hubbert's work as early as I did, just after the oil crisis of the late 1970s, I don't think I ever thought it couldn't happen. At that point I did certainly think that we would do more to avert the crisis. But I was actually anticipating a quick collapse with the Y2K bug, and other quick collapse scenarios still sort of appeal to me as a way to avoid the horror of a slow decline. I'm not entirely convinced we won't see a fast collapse, but the economic events of the fall of 2008 convinced me that I can't count on it.

Since then I have definitely been bouncing back and forth between anger, depression, and bargaining.

John Michael Greer said...

Nathan, I also have hopes for the bargaining phase; if we're lucky, it could be something like the Seventies, but with even more government support. It's the depression phase that's going to take all the inner discipline and compassion we've got.

John, understood. I went through the process in my own messy way back in the early 1980s, when it became painfully clear to me that Reagan was fiddling while our last shot at a smooth transition burned. I recommend reading history; it's good to remember how many people have had creative, interesting lives in times of technological regression and collective decline.

Mean Mr Mustard said...


I’d agree that the Korowitz paper is a very good piece of work, especially since the silly typos were edited out. Silly misspellings do have an unfortunate effect of undermining a sound message. Coming from a background of business continuity myself, it’s clear that he understands the nature of dependencies, often unappreciated until something suddenly gives. Trying to guess precisely what that failure point will be, rather than mitigating against broad impacts is where many go wrong – effectively trying to predict the future.

The continuing series of sudden corporate reputational failures in the UK, all generated by greed and denial, are quite instructive. Chasing short term profits has led to massive failure of accounting systems in three major related banks - root cause being outsourcing of IT and sacking of the expert workforce. LIBOR fixing – a governance / compliance failure – in which literally lots of money was at stake for minimum effort, ditto HSBC indulging in money laundering. And our latest debacle – the Olympic security contractor failing to properly estimate and recruit and motivate ten thousand or more desperate people on minimum wage for a short term job, one hardly worth getting out of bed for. The hapless CEO first ignored then went into denial over the mounting problems, and ended up destroying the already dubious company reputation when he claimed they were only in it for the prestige, but had the brass neck to suggest he still deserved the huge ‘management’ fee. Such glittering prizes blind the judgement of the greedy – optimism, then denial – until the reality dawns that they overstepped – a monkey trap, you might say.

One curious thing I noticed on a recent trip to the US was a huge SUV called a Denali. I suppose it’s too much to expect a motor manufacturer to be able to spell it out properly.



Robert said...

Schadenfreude is not the appropriate response given the immense suffering ahead but I do get a certain satisfaction at the thought of the Wall Street corporate overlords meeting with Nemesis.

medved said...

Dear John Michael,

I do enjoy reading the blog as it formulates the topic(s) very precisely. Here, as an European (in EU, outside of Eurozone) I feel I should defend David Korowicz. So far, some important ingredients for the American recipe are missing: central authority (informal like FDR and formal like SEC). Also, US economy was a large exporter of all basic needs and industrial products in 1930's. The European Union is not in this position, not even collectively. So to mirror the US solution either "Brussels" would need to produce the trick (highly unlikely) or the major economics (Germany, France, Italy) would need to do it simultaneously and align the result (miracle). I feel that the dissolution of the Soviet block (that I did live through) is the more likely parable. Still not end of the world, but very stressful for almost all involved.

John Michael Greer said...

Mustard, very much a monkey trap. I expect to see a lot of people caught by that in the years ahead.

Robert, I forget who it was that coined the term "Trumpenfreude" for the pleasure taken in watching an obscenely rich person lose a lot of money...

Medved, the Eurozone is a clumsy monster with a couple of dozen bodies and no head; its chances of surviving its first major crisis are not good. Any form of effective crisis management will have to be done by individual nation-states, as I suggested in the post. You're right that it will be stressful, though; 1932 and 1933 were profoundly stressful here in the US -- a lot of people were convinced the republic would not survive -- and in the present situation, the political collapse of the Eurozone, or of the US, is by no means out of the question. More on this soon.

Lucretia Heart said...

I'm noticing pronounced generational differences in the grieving process.

My 20-something friends, who have more quickly grasped that the future is NOT going to be more of the present only better, are either in anger (I'm watching the rolls of radical anti-authoritarians swell rapidly) or acceptance-- already changing how they do everything in comparison to older generations. The whole "re-skilling" concept is catching on big. Every younger person I know is into sewing, wood or leather work, knitting, gardening, repair, etc.

When I compare that to my friends and acquaintances of my own Generation X, the differences are stark. I see mostly bargaining and depression. Lots of pouting and foot-stomping. Not all of us, obviously, but though I have few peers who deny the future is bleak, the approach is either to insist we fix it easily or forget it and get ready to die.

Among the Boomers, I have found few who have entered the process past denial.

There are plenty of exceptions in all categories, of course! Readers of your blog are in all stages of life I know. I merely make a note that it seems the longer the future looming before you, the less chance of talking yourself out of facing more likely realities.

I'm curious if I'm the only one to notice this trend.

LunarApprentice said...

You state "...the political collapse of the Eurozone, or of the US, is by no means out of the question...". If such actually happens, what becomes of all the nuclear power plants and their spent fuel storage pools? Do they get orphaned? Is the nuclear ruin something we can plan for?
Do you feel comfortable giving odds on a time interval in which this collapse might happen?

Am I just imagining urgency in your writing?

Leo said...

when i first saw the senaca cliff model interpreted it correct when you average out the entire world and your catabolic collapse theory as correct on the details, similar to how Hubberts curve is the average of a lot of oil fields and i assumes the timeline was still over 1-2 centuries. i assume thats a viable way to look at it.

wyndtunnel said...

Great Depression 2: Frack to the Future. Bigger budget, more characters, more expensive SFX, confused and recycled script, unsatisfactory ending, more sequels.

phil harris said...

The idea of oodles of oil won't go away even here in the UK, especially if there is another large crash in the price. (It is still popular here to think there are masses of coal beneath Britain to go back to if push comes to shove. But technology will save us.)

The problem experienced coping with the idea of inevitable climate change perhaps already illustrates the point. Apart from German middle class putting nice little subsidy earners on their not very suitable roofs, it has been realised world-wide that there is no way (despite claims otherwise) that we can 'de-carbonize' our economies and still lead the lives many of us expect. So the world not just us in US, EU, etc has done sweet nothing to meet the climate challenge. Only 3 or 4 years ago a leading British climate scientist on his organisation's web site chided his fellow scientists for being 'alarmist' and thereby misleading the public. A few pages further on was a study by his colleagues that calculated that Britain, to meet its continuing carbon reduction targets, could only do so if the airline industry and our flying, as a convenient example of the size of the reduction needed, went to zero after 2050.
Ah well.
On the ‘interactive global economy’, David Korowicz does have a point or two: something is going to have to give. It seems unlikely though that Lord Browne will end up in a retirement home near me. America really should learn not to trust people whose title is 'Lord', not just a cute Christian name.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

The process I went through began in 1992 when my employer stuck it to me in the neck during the height of the recession. It was a sobering experience and set me on the course I'm on today. With 10% unemployment at the time and my youth to count against me + rent to pay, I had to work for the next 4 years in debt collection. On the whole I learnt a lot about myself and about people too, it was both interesting and enlightening.

It is hard to be able to respond to this essay without displaying your values which a lot of people do on the Internet.

I never really went through much grief about the whole peak oil thing because I came at the peak resources issues whilst dabbling in agriculture.

One thing led to another and here I am today on my way to producing a huge portion of the food that I eat and building the top soil here at the same time. Unfortunately the journey has produced a bit of profound disquiet in me. Peak oil seemed like a logical extension to the problems of agriculture. They were inseparable.

Food is an explosive issue and an unmentionable subject in the Industrial world (without major flare ups), I just had no idea before my own enlightenment what that meant.

The acceptance stage is where you decide to do something about it. The greater the number of people doing something about it, the more resilient will be the overall response.

PS: I've started experimenting with hugelkultur and will see how it goes. As someone with tens of thousands of trees under my stewardship, it seemed like a fair enough experiment.

PPS: I've started reading the Druidry Handbook. I can see that dominion over the Earth is a foreign concept to Druids, but is acceptable to the population at large. It is a convenient excuse for most people though. I don't understand how people can think in terms of the infinite on a finite planet, the concept is alien to me.

PPPS: The adolescent kangaroo which is part of the mob here now has a joey herself. I now have four generations of kangaroos grazing and munching away happily (and providing mowing and scat services too) most nights.



Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Adrian,

Sorry, but the link works for me.

If you go to the link:
You'll see a button in the top left hand corner with a link to the video, "Watch it here! Greening the Desert II"

The techniques are readily applicable in any area that suffers from prolonged or occasional droughts.

Hope your hedgerow bounces back.



Odin's Raven said...

A few years ago, when Brown was caught in some scandal it emerged that the oil companies figures for reserves are just fantasies adjusted periodically to suit their executives' financial requirements. Presumably they are trying to boost their share prices, perhaps to sell out profitably leaving the dummies who bought to suffer the eventual losses.

Presumably the stages of grief model assumes that the grieving entity itself survives. What if it becomes an intimation of it's own mortality? What if it's not just oil and recent social arrangements that are vanishing, but the whole entity 'America' or the 'West' that is passing and the oil fixation is just a proxy or symptom?

Perhaps in a relatively short historical time whatever savages replace 'us' will have no interest in oil nor any understanding of the past when it was of concern. They may simply regard the ruins of this period as the work of giants or evil spirits.

tubaplayer said...


How strange! I read your comment and although it was not mentioned the comment absolutely shouted at me "He is in Hungary". A quick look at your profile confirmed at least that you are Magyar.

I am a Brit ex-pat living by choice in an out of the way kisfalu where I consider the probability of surviving the coming storms are as great as anywhere I could have chosen.

István az Angol

gaias daughter said...

JMG -- in reference to your 'end of the world' commentary -- back in the 1990's I got interested in predictions of the future -- not the current ones, but the ones that had been made in the recent past. Our library had a fairly good selection of books written in the 70's predicting what life would be like in 10, 15, 20 years. One particular book (sorry I don't know the title) had been written by experts in various fields predicting what was about to occur in their own fields. What struck me was that NONE of them got it right. Not even with the short-term forecasts. I remember that we were supposed to have a vaccine against tooth decay within the decade and that star athletes would be earning as much as 100k by the year 1990. What also struck me was that none of them foresaw the big events that did happen -- such as the fall of the Soviet Union, or the AIDS epidemic. It seems that there are always a few jokers in the deck . . .

Yupped said...

In my personal experience, in response to unwelcome change, the denial/anger/bargaining phases are experienced somewhat in parallel, in a mixed-up grief-stew kind of way. You need to hit the bottom hard (depression) until you can see things clearly and move forward in a new way without looking back (acceptance). And even then, there’s the nostalgia phase that keeps buzzing around.

The “expensive oil is the new cheap oil” argument seems to contain a good amount of denial with undertones of anger and quite a lot of bargaining – the sort of bargaining that will probably buy a good-sized depression on a personal and economic level at some point. So what will happen along the way with all of the anger that is welling-up now across the world? I’m looking forward to this thread, even though your posts seem to be darkening in tone.

So will individuals and communities all work through their own grief cycles – in a messy but non-explosive kind of way? Or does the anger coalesce into something more powerful, like Germany in the 1930s? I would expect there will be some of both, all mixed up and shaken, for a long time to come. One thing I think I’ve come to an acceptance of is that there really is nowhere to run or hide to. Nothing will stop me learning my skills, growing my food and brewing my beer - I even caught my first bee swarm last week! But history is going to come calling, one way or the other.

Robert said...

I think the collapse of the Eurozone is far more likely than that of the US. In the very long run your republic may break apart when transport based on oil breaks down but then again in the nineteenth century it spanned the continent when the main means of transport was by horse.

Very sad about Euroep because politically I always felt European union was a progressive idea but the way the single currency is structured is a disaster and this was pointed out way back in the nineties when our Eurosceptics were desperately resisiting the Maastricht Treaty.

dltrammel said...

I know many of us also read Kunstler, so here's an interview he gave recently on Rolling Stone about his new book.

James Howard Kunstler on Why Technology Won't Save Us

RPC said...

Interesting - I thought your introductory paragraphs were leading not to Kubler-Ross' five stages of grief, but Schopenhaur's three stages of truth. "First it is ignored, then it is violently opposed, then it is accepted as self-evident." I suppose there's no reason both processes can't take place at once!

Alex Boland said...


I interpret the idea of "bargaining" as different than the way you and Chris Martenson (who also uses this) put it. You guys put it as "if I just drive a Prius, everything will be fine." To me, that's clearly denial, not bargaining.

I think of bargaining as being picturing a scenario that's bad, but not nearly as bad as it could be, such as "maybe we'll have a global depression and not be able to live as lavishly, but still have the support systems that we take for granted." After all, with death, bargaining is "Lord, if this plane lands safely, I promise I'll never read Harry Potter again!

Yuri Kuzyk said...


Grief is an interesting topic and I can provide some side notes for folks. In my Taoist lineage teachings grief is associated with the lungs.

For many years now in the classes that I have taught invariably once the student begins to move qi during meditation the flow immediately moves to work on his/her lungs.

Even those with serious illnesses have this effect and, since we interfere with the flow, the conclusion is that each person is getting ready for "future illness". That is, the qi is readying and strengthening the lungs. Of course, as part of this process, each student gets to intimate with grief, both internal and external, since energy, emotion (spirit) and physical all participate in the healing process.

I suspect that we will be dealing with the various (industrially) strengthened lung-related diseases such as new drug-resistant TB and/or the global atmospheric changes (google "climate change reduction in oxygen concentration") armed only with what we naturally have in our immune systems.

Of course this is how it should be, just as there are only natural processes to work through grief...

Moon Lynx said...

The elephant in the room for most people seems to be climate change. There is not as great an awareness or reaction to peak oil on the part of the average struggling worker (or farmer). There has been extensive media coverage of the drought and it's implications in rural Ontario but NO mention of global warming. Peak oil is also ignored in the media and has the disinformation industry going strong. However there is no hiding the worst drought in 50 years. The comment I have often heard is "I don't believe in climate change" and it has bewildered me. Putting this strange statement in the context of the stages of grief has me looking down the road for the next stage with some hope. Thank you

Sunny said...

The system is fragile but I'd have to argue the single most irresponsible course of action one could take in this context is trying to start a survival camp in the middle of nowhere, a safe little spot from which he or she can watch with glee as the rest of the world falls apart (well, that's how one's fantasy goes anyway.) The drought sweeping our nation (and food supply) right now proves that trying to isolate yourself with a few other noble souls is more likely to be a recipe for starvation and death than the utopia you imagine it'd be. The fact is that actually being 100% independent is not a realistic goal. I'd be curious, in fact, to know just how the various ecovillages started in the drought's "disaster regions" are doing right about now.

More importantly, however, I think that if you are desiring to isolate yourself from society in the first place that is a red flag indicating some deeper unconscious issue, an underyling problem which will no doubt disrupt your utopian survival camp just as much as it disrupted your functioning in society in the first place. Perhaps that is why communes have consistently failed and cults have left a legacy of psychological damage, exploitation, and abuse of its members, not to mention death in a shockingly high number of cases.

In fact, most of the reasoning behind starting a survival camp stems from arguing that somehow all the problems of our era of history are something new or unique when in fact they are not. If I may apply some psychoanalytic theory, the argument that today's society is a uniquely evil entity that must be destroyed by the apocalypse is merely the positivization of a personal rupture with relation to the world, merely the projection of an internal lack or inability.

Gary Rowe said...

I've been a long time reader of your work and I always look forward to reading your next piece. Keep up the great work!

You made an interesting point about the collapse of international trade due to the absence of trust required to support letters of credit. This is a subject that appeals to me since there is already a solution to this problem in place: Bitcoin.

I would be most interested to hear your opinions of this very unusual technology and how it might benefit people in the long decline that we face.

For those unaware of it, there is much information (and FUD) to draw on, but the Bitcoin Myths wiki article is a good starting point for first research:

Before dismissing it as inferior to gold, do bear in mind that Bitcoin can also operate in the absence of electricity. See

JP said...

Then a new round of economic crisis triggered by events in Europe—no, I’m not making up any of this; look it up—pushed the US banking system over the edge;"

Which is precisely why people are trying to figure out whether there is going to be a CreditAnstalt this go-round.

I was able to go through the entire "stages of grief" with respect to the "modern financial hypereconomy" because I was an observer to the bright days of the dot-com boom when massive amounts of was randomly allocated.

It quickly became apparent that the projections were insane.

What is happening? How can this go on?

Then I dug into economic history and found myself noticing the distinct pattern of manias, panics, and crashes.

My problem with trying to read and incorporate the information from The Oil Drum into an internal intuitive system is caused by my inability to separate the wheat from the chaff.

I didn't have this problem with economic history. I have this problem with universal history and the current energy flows.

I literally can't see more than a couple of years into the future. Financial projections are *much* easier. Once you have the groundwork done, the rest of it falls into place.

I am much more frustrated with peak oil and environmental issues, generally. There's too much information and I can't filter it properly.

Iodhan Silverbear said...

It seems like most people know we are teetering over the cliff but still grasping at the few rotting tendrils of root that are poking out of the eroded face when we should really all be tucking ourself into a dive so that we can survive the trip into the cold water below.

If we all started practicing personal conservation now (and that means EVERYONE) then we could certainly extend the amount of time that fall would take.

Would something like Nash Equilibrium make any sense here? My understanding of it is limited to the film version.

Twilight said...

As it happens I read the Korowicz piece while re-reading some of Ward-Perkins' The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization, and the two are an interesting combination. I do believe some kind of supply chain collapse will happen – I've worked in electronics manufacturing for 25 years and I've been expecting it. I'd go so far as to say that at this point is cannot be prevented.

But as always, the real question is: “When?”

The effects of 3/11 did not destroy the automobile manufacturing industry, though Japan may not recover, and indeed we're making more of the damn things than ever and most don't know there was an issue at all. Those disruptions were still within the capability of the industry to adapt, which is only easier as there is overall a lot of excess manufacturing capacity due to the economic downturn. It will take something more wide spread, which is what Korowicz was describing too. The interconnected economic system seems to be a likely candidate, although war (the Anger phase?) may do it too.

So I'd have to repeat that we're not - quite - there yet, as both nations and corporations (i.e. people) will fight hard to survive, and the methods used will be surprising. Who would have thought that we'd replace hard to get and expensive oil by taking it from southern Europe? I never saw that coming. Nor will the process be homogeneous in time and place. The collapse of the Roman empire was much earlier and faster in Britain than it was in the Mediterranean region, and our collapse is already more evident in Athens Greece than it is in Athens GA. Rather, this will play out as you have long described, and collapse will come to different people in different places at different times, and with varying levels of severity and consequences.

William Hunter Duncan said...

"it's good to remember how many people have had creative, interesting lives in times of technological regression and collective decline."

You said this to JDW. I tend to get stuck in the depression, not at all certain humanity is going to get out of this alive. I also sometimes think that when TSHTF, I'll be one of the few who is grounded in a very real way, and as ready, certainly, as anyone I know. A kind of evolutionary advantage, collapsing before the fall. Here's hoping the anger phase (faze) for the American people isn't too prolonged.

As to the last six months, the calls that there was nothing wrong with the housing market were loudest just before the fall.

adrianskilling said...

Its taken a while but mostly I'm in the acceptance stage now. I think the denial is probably a positive sign too, people are beginning to wake up.

Very interesting program for UK listeners on the Radio 4's the long view. Taking a parallel between the LIBOR fixing scandal now and a very similar one in the 13th Century. The parallels in this history and uncanny just as in this weeks essay.

Listen again here:

"Jonathan Freedland takes the long view of LIBOR and rate fixing by comparing recent events at Barclays to the 13th century scandal of financier Richard Lyons. Like Bob Diamond, Lyons was hauled before parliament to explain the dubious financial practices he'd used to get around the prohibition of Usury. All against a back drop of economic crisis and rising suspicion of high finance and its influence on politics."

It ends up with Lyons send to prison, released, carry on his fraud and eventually getting executed.

The distant Sounds of Tumbrils anyone?

I'm surprised we haven't yet seen direct and violent attacks on the Ultra rich - especially in the US where guns are more common.

Ian said...

I came away with a similar feeling from the Korowicz piece--when it gets that bad, I'm betting overreaction will be a greater danger than inaction. People in power tends to get there by being active souls, chopping at the Gordion knot when all else fails.

Still, even as I comfortably bracketed the threat of total collapse, it's a bracing read. I get the sense it was intended to be just that, to draw a stark baseline to motivate more clear-headed action (what with all the talk of risk analysis and planning), but I do wish he had made that more clear. Thanks for doing that here!

Sigh. I'm sort of stage 4.5--I'm casting sidelong glances at the abyss of acceptance, gritting my teeth, letting go of somethings, starting to lay hands on other things...sigh. I chatter; I'm working on it.

Somewhere in the verses of Ifa there is a saying that goes something like 'I have been initiated, now I must initiate myself.' That work you have to after the initiation is where it's always at.

GHung said...

I decided early on that a voluntary collapse, powering down financially and literally, was the most sensible way to "avoid the rush", as you say. Get thee through as many stages as possible while the environment is still somewhat forgiving. Those close to me have (rightly, in a sense) commented that I have been at times angry, depressed, and, more recently, somewhat content... not that one doesn't backslide into an intermingling of previous stages. An awareness develops that permits one to do the work of moving on. If one can jump forward to the acceptance stage on a certain level, one can begin to inoculate one's self to the inevitable. At least that's the theory; to avoid getting stuck, especially when the time comes to act.

Putting one's house in order before the inevitable certainly enables clarity to some extent; time to process these things. The point is to not be panicking. Blogs like this one, and others, are something of a flight simulator, rehearsals for what to do when things go wrong. While one can't be fully prepared for the real thing, it certainly beats being emotionally blindsided along with the majority.

I've seen what happens when folks are forced through 'the stages' with little time to process their part in things. As Orlov recently noted, a form of psychopathy develops as unresolvable denial begets delusion (Nazi Germany comes to mind). I'm not sure how we handle this aspect of social breakdown, and hope it can be discussed here in the future.

Diotima said...

John, another elephant in the room is our food supply, which is under considerable pressure -- not only from climate change, over-fishing and erosion, but because every bite we eat -- unless you grow your own with no imported fertilizers or pest control -- is soaked in petroleum. We are rapidly losing any resilience we had in the food supply, and are in for some big surprises.

Maybe it's just because of my own background in Agronomy, but it seems to me that the imminent threat to the food supply, while getting a tip of the hat from some peak oil theorists, is generally ignored by economists, government entities, think tanks, and most other folks who are supposed to have a clue about our economic and social structures. You can't eat gold, and the supply chain ain't worth a damn if there's nothing to supply. I realize some will feel this is alarmist, but I do not think global famine is out of the question -- not by a long shot. There is a level on which most people simply do not get our connection with the Web of Life on this planet, and how badly we are shredding it. And when they do, we will see a lot of really angry people.

Larry said...

An excellent Blog-spot as usual.
Thursday morning and your blog is one of the highlights of my week!

One of my favorite novels is the Studs Lonigan trilogy by James Farrell with the last section published in 1934/1935. This novel, set in Chicago, does a great job showing how the hard times of the era "crept in" to peoples lives as well as describing cultural phenomenon of the era. From what I know of history, it seems that a lot of the anger of the time was turned inward.

russell1200 said...

I agree that there are many "solutions" that have not yet been put into play. To butcher-paraphrase John Paul Jones "We have not yet begun to panic!" If you look at Adam Tooze's book "Wages of Destruction", you get some interesting details on how far you can push even a relatively mid-weight European economy (Nazi Germany) in times of duress. It may not have been "sustainable" but the Nazi's managed to all this without reigniting inflation until almost the bitter end (1944).

I agree with you on the problems of the "quick collapse" scenarios, and would probably add the complete economic, sociological and historical illiteracy, of many of their proponents. Throw in some occasional elements of wishful thinking toward reinventing a better society (see Barjavel's "Ravage" a.k.a. "Ashes, Ashes" for intention Nazi-side propaganda as exhibit one) and you have a fine mix.

What does worry me though is that many "disasters" that we call "slow" are recast after the fact. Pearl Harbor can be seen as a logical progression over many years, as can 911 for that matter. Our current downturn was not acknowledged until deep into 2008 and even then they set it back to the beginning of that year - ignoring that housing - the supposed casus belli - had peaked in the summer of 2005. Historians from the Andromeda Galaxy showing up to survey the wreckage might put the start at Oil Embargo of 1974, or they might put it at the invention of the steam engine, at the first use of coal by England as a wood-fuel substitute, or even (depending on how it all plays out) the cycle of world wars that started in a small way in the Wars of Spanish Succession (Queen Anne's War) that started in 1701.

An awful lot of the causality timeline depends on and end game that we cannot know, and we won't be the ones who get to set the historical dialog. A the worms-eye view, a lot of disasters come very quickly.

El Gaucho said...

Great column. I’ve read your blog postings for some time after coming upon the peak oil idea several years ago. After reading various books on the subject as well as other Peak Oil bloggers, I’ve come to accept the inevitability of the situation, but I do have one nagging question I’d like to throw out to you and your readers.

Since I do not have (and do not intend to have) children, I have no future obligation to grand children or great grandchildren. I still have obvious moral and ethical obligation that I should leave the world a better place for others, and using the line of reasoning that since I have no progeny that I have free license to trash the world is obviously the height of selfish thinking. But aside from those moral/ethical arguments and the “you shouldn’t be so selfish” rationale, what would motivate/encourage childless people, or those with no concrete links to the future, other than being members of humankind, to act upon the Peak Oil problem? If I behaved as a rational person, why would I sacrifice my hedonistic pleasures (driving a big SUV, keeping the A/C at 64 degrees , and eating winter strawberries grown in Chile – please note that I don’t actually do these things, I’m just throwing out examples) so that the neighbors little brat kids, who throw rocks at my house and pull the apples off my trees, can have a nicer world to live in after I’m dead?

I’m not trying to be snarky or sarcastic, and I’m very much a believer and practitioner of self-sufficiency, raising my own food and attempting to disengage from the money economy as much as possible. But what prevents someone in my situation from simply sticking their head in the sand and ignoring the problem, knowing full well that in 40-50 years when my life is over, that’s it, problem solved…sort of.

Matthew Sweet said...

I've been enjoying the blog for a couple of years now. I recently read a post on Post Carbon Institute which provided a laundry list of websites devoted to Community Resilience. I find the concept quite appealing and am drawn more and more to local economies. Upon reading this week's post I wonder if this is not a prime case of the bargaining phase, or if such approaches are rooted more in an acceptance of peak oil and efforts at realistic solutions and strategies. I wonder if you might comment on the community resilience movement and what value you find in it.
On the other hand, my education is in transportation engineering, and previously sociology (not so disparate as they might seem on first glance), and I work in my city on education and advocacy programs for "active and sustainable" transportation (bikes and buses versus cars and trucks). Strategies such as these do seem insufficient in the face of the problem at hand, and rather than strongly push for fewer vehicles, less dependence on fossil fuels etc, we more often present our arguments in as non-threatening a tone as possible, ie you can keep your car but try riding your bike to work once a week, lest our audiences reject us outright.

JP said...

In case anyone wants to read a newsish site that is busily predicting impending economic collapse, you can take a look at John Xenakis's website at

His thesis is not one to which I personally ascribe, I think history is less deterministic and much more fluid, even if I agree with some of the general principles underlying some versions of generational theory, but I think it's good if read as an illustration of the inane blather and sheer ignorance of reality that's coming out of the mainstream media. He updates his site daily.

He mechanically applies (his own particular) generational theory to events and shoehorns them into his theory.

He's got a ton of posts on the financial mess and he also posts on current military conflicts.

Jim R said...

In my own case, and as I recall some other commenter on TOD remarked, I went straight to the depression phase. Having been briefed on the facts several decades ago, and reminded of them in the wake of Katrina/Rita, there is nothing to deny, nothing to argue with, and nothing to be angry at.

That went on for four or five years, and I'm just now recovering from it, really.

But when I attempt to lay out the facts to people around me, all I get is denial. Mostly in the form of various mantras from the Religion of Progress. We have the iPad now, right?

Don Stewart said...

Dear JMG

A thoughtful post, as always. I have recently had a little disagreement with a person I respect a lot, but who happens to be quite a Doomer. I keep suggesting ways to cope, while my friend keeps saying it is all hopeless.

The way I look at it, when the survival of the State is at stake, they are likely to do desperate things--as the US Government did in 32 and 33. When the Big Guys do desperate things, then a lot of collateral damage is done to the Little People. Best to just acknowledge that and get on with doing the best you can.

I wonder if you have looked at Garden Farming for Town and Country by Peter Bane? He has, of course, a great deal of experience with Permaculture and Intentional Communities (the good and the ugly), but much of the book tells the story of the last six years turning a typical 1950s ranch style home on the outskirts of Bloomington, IN into a reasonably self-sufficient homestead.

One of the things that strikes me is that, if one starts with a vision of where one wants to end up, then making gradual progress toward the goal is rewarding. Peter and his partner have made steady progress with things like water, food, electricity, and fuel supply and have increased their interaction with their immediate neighbors and have achieved a measure of economic independence. If one expects continual contraction over the next decades--but not catastrophic collapse--then the deliberate steps taken by Bane and his partner make a lot of sense to me.

They have no guarantee that the Government won't do something stupid or that gangs of thugs won't destroy what they have--but their strategy seems a lot better than doing nothing.

Don Stewart

Ceworthe said...

Josh Fox's documentary, "The Sky is Pink" has a section in it(~ minute 5) where he talks about the fact that the ad agency for fracking (Hill and Knowlton) is the same one for the tobacco industry in the 50's. Still keeping up their business for 60+ years

Thomas Daulton said...

Here are some early snapshots of the depression stage:

The young people are always on the cutting edge... if they're in depression now, they're three stages ahead of their parents who are still denying.

I have the hopeful idea in my mind that having large masses of people still in the Depression stage will blunt the explosion when the Boomers hit the Anger stage. What if the aging Baby Boomers threw a resource war and nobody came?

From my own experience with younger people... (I'm 45 so I'm at the elderly edge of Gen X)... I think a lot of them are depressed, but to me it seems in many cases to be a pragmatic, useful depression. I get the impression a lot of younger people are understanding the depressing future and taking that opportunity to spit in the eye of an uncaring universe -- I mean that in a good way, assert themselves and assert their sense of self and individuality... "My place in this disintegrating, uncaring world may be small but nobody can take it away from me." I like to think I'm observing in young people the particular kind of depression that leads forward, to steely resolve rather than inaction, to acceptance that we're hitting bottom as a culture, and from there even further to adaptation. Just my rapidly deflating 2-cents worth of opinion.

Bill Pulliam said...

Couple of things come to mind...

For those of us who were ahead of this game and have been in the acceptance stage for a while, I find one aspect of this is not often mentioned: fear. It's not irrational fear; it's the kind of motivating fear based on understanding of a real peril. It is like the fear of tornados based on having seen their effects on your neighbors; not based on the hype on the weather channel. It is often what it takes to get you to really invest time and resources into preparation and precaution, even when that means taking time and resources away from other important activities as well. One of my first major doses of this fear came with the first big $100+/barrel spike in oil prices, and really facing directly what huge challenges to daily life will be created by energy being persistently scarce and/or unaffordable. When you really begin to look at your vulnerabilities, especially the compounding ones based on your connections to society as a whole, well, it is scary!

About history.. I think most people think that the switch from the roaring 20s to the depths of the depression happened overnight in October 1929. I don't think they understand that it was a complicated, bumpy, multifaceted unravelling that took the large part of a decade before it reach its most profound depths. Hence, I think they believe that the fact that we did not descend into bread lines overnight in 2008 means we dodged the bullet this time and are off the hook. Or they are still waiting for the big crash. What hardly anyone seems to realize is that this is what the "collapse" looks like. We are in the middle of it. This "great recession" is our actual economy minus a large portion of the bubbles that were keeping it aloft. As the bubbles gradually continue popping we will settle farther down into the reality of our overshoot and away from our imaginary affluence.

escapefromwisconsin said...

I’ve often said that the best thing that could possibly happen is a crash. Then the problems are obvious to everyone, and there would be an impetus to “do something.” A slow deflation, like air whistling out of a tiny balloon leak, allows the illusion of normalcy to continue and the media and politicians to consistently proclaim that things will soon be “back to normal” year after year, just as soon as ‘X’ happens, even as the years stretch into decades ( note the “crisis” started in 2008 – long emergency indeed). Those lucky enough not affected (for it is mostly luck) can afford to be complacent and blame the losers for their own predicament, even as employment turns into a game of musical chairs and society crumbles around them. Indeed, this has been the situation since 2008: No matter how many Euro crises or power outages or municipal bankruptcies keep occurring, as long as people can pay the mortgage and put gas in the SUV, they don’t care, and probably won’t until they can't. The frog in boiling water analogy, though not entirely accurate, is apt, as is the ostrich mentality (another inaccurate animal metaphor).

There are a few differences worth noting: the gold standard is no longer in effect, the entire world is dependent on inexpensive wages caused by deracinated Asian peasant labor, and Peak Oil was not yet in effect in the 1930’s (at least not in the US). In fact, the U.S. was the Saudi Arabia of its day yet still faced 25 percent unemployment at the depth (Peak?) of the Depression. Reinhardt and Rogoff’s book This Time It’s Different pretty much documents that the financial system has been consistently crashing for 800 years (longer even, but that’s how far back they go). Now, however, the whole world is dependant upon this system since the doctrine of "comparative advantage" has become an article of faith in the medieval scholasticism known as modern economics.

Last week’s post took us on a tour of Ancien Régime France, and I think a tour of Weimar Germany may be appropriate soon.

Lagniappe link: America's fascination with the apocalypse (BBC)

jollyreaper said...

I think you might be discounting the potential for technological unemployment a bit too easily.

The way I see it at this point, we have a couple of pretty solid facts:

1. Fossil fuels are a bad idea.
2. Infinite growth on a finite planet is a bad idea.
3. Fossil fuel-derived cheap energy is over.
4. If we invented an endless supply of clean energy tomorrow and continued with business as normal, we'd choke the planet out with our waste heat.
5. We are already witnessing technological unemployment, even if people deny the evidence, same as with climate change.

The big supposition is this:
1. No replacement or combination of replacements or reduction in energy waste will allow anything resembling our current lifestyles. (For us in the states, 75% per capita usage reduction?) The cheap energy era is over.

I'm inclined to believe serious and involuntary use reduction will happen but there's always a chance for the unforeseen.

The primary argument against technological unemployment from the peak oil side is that we won't have the capital and energy resources to make it happen. Kunstler likes to say "We aren't running the photovoltaic factories with photovoltaic power." Labor could remain expensive in this scenario but automation is priced right out of the equation. And the surplus of hungry mouths should lead to a surplus of hungry hands and a drop in the value of labor. This is one of the arguments trotted out as to why the Romans never invented the steam engine. Aside from those who argue about whether they actually had the scientific and technical wherewithal to build such a thing, the deciding factor is said to be that they didn't have an economic motive. Slaves are cheap, steam engines are expensive and require a proper fuel supply.

If you haven't seen the state of the art with industrial automation, it's something to look into. These robots are equipped with vision and touch-feedback systems and are capable of scary, sophisticated actions.

My fear is that the end of cheap energy and the increase in automation aren't conflicting threats but complimentary threats, one feeding the other.

jollyreaper said...

Schadenfreude is not the appropriate response given the immense suffering ahead but I do get a certain satisfaction at the thought of the Wall Street corporate overlords meeting with Nemesis.

This is only rarely ever seen. The most recent example was the millionaire Michael Marin facing down 15 years for insurance fraud in the arson of his mansion. Swallowed cyanide in court. But really, only a millionaire? That's chump change in this world, boyo.

It's rare to ever see things go as far as the tumbrils. As a fine example, Nazi war criminal Herr Alfried Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach, CEO of Friedrich Krupp AG Hoesch-Krupp, armorer to the stars.

"After the war, the Allied Military Government investigated Krupp's employment of slave laborers. He was convicted of crimes against humanity and sentenced to 12 years imprisonment and the forfeiture of all property. However, after three years, New York banker John J. McCloy, serving as American High Commissioner for Germany arranged for Krupp to be pardoned and the forfeiture of property was reversed."

Look at IG Farben, the people who brought Zyklon B to the world. The head of construction at Auschwitz was only sentenced to 8 years! The CEO only did 4 years.

Don't hold your breath waiting for your opportunity for schadenfreude.

Ivan Lukic said...

How interesting! I mean Lord Browne’s statement. Let’s consider an example. Serbia has considerable shale deposits that contain between 12 and 30 percent of carbohydrates, considered rich in usable stuff and are theoretically suitable for oil production. I did some math. Current price of car gasoline in Serbia (at gas station) is 7 US dollars per gallon. If Serbian shale was good for oil production nobody sane would consider importing oil at 80-90 US dollars. I have a BA degree in art history, therefore I am not able to compare Serbian shale with Bakken or kerogen shale. But nobody ever considered using Serbian shale for oil production, though some politicians mentioned it during UN (meaning US) economic sanctions, more theoretically than as real possibility. And I believe that Serbian engineers know what fracking is.

It seems that Milankovich’s text about peak oil is not published at all. It seems that it exist only as manuscript. I heard about it on the radio from the person who had access to Milankovich’s manuscripts. I do not even know if it is in Serbian or in German.

sgage said...


I see a different scenario from what you do, though I don't know that I'd call it a pattern, since all of our situations and circles of acquaintances are so different that it becomes anecdotal.

What I see is that the 20-somethings, although vaguely aware that something ain't quite right, are not in any way interested in learning actual physical skills - they are completely immersed in the virtual. Facebook, Twitter, and on and on.

Most of the people that I know who seem to have a clear view of things, and are preparing themselves at least psychologically, are in their 40's.

I myself am in my latter 50's, and have considered the entire time from the Reagan Revolution ("Morning in America") until present as a period of total national denial - I've been slowly detaching myself from the culture since the 70's.

I still dip into depression now and again.

oneotaBill said...

I don't disagree at all. I am struck by the hint of hysteria in Lord Browne's "effectively infinite." He can't believe that. If he had said, "Decades worth" or even a "century" his comments would have fallen between implausible and preposterous, but he went for the gold medal in absurdity.

I understand he also "reassured us" that we need not worry about climate change. Well, climate change is causing wide spread drought, fires, floods, wind damage, and generally raising havoc with and the prices of food supplies. I am in northern Iowa where food production is really suffering this year for the first time from climate change.

JMG, why does climate change seldom appear in your essays? Of course, if one has a lot of organic matter in your soil, and if one plants deep rooted species, one is less sensitive to drought, but I don't know of any way to be safe from its damage.

Keep up the great columns.

Ricardo Rolo said...

Oh well, how hard is to realize that even having infinite resources will not do any good if you can grab them ? It looks like a certain Lord is thinking in the same way than that German chemist in the 20's of the last century when he proposed to extract gold out of the sea water ... just because it is there it doesn't mean that you can gain anything by extracting it.

Anyway, on the Korowicz study, I already seen some supply chain break symptoms here in Europe this year ( coupled with some black market reselling as it always happens in times like this ), especially in the pharmaceuticals sector ( that, most likely unknown to most, is heavily dependent on the petrochemical sector ), so a big breakdown IMHO is a matter of "how much time left?", regardless of the big breakdown being a bang or a collection of small leaks piling up. In fact, the current Eurozone long descent ( ;)) to nothingness ( the current entity is as good as dead ... the only doubt is what will come from its carcass ) fits quite well in the small crisis piling up scenario, starting in the edge countries that had some decades into a Germany&France funded production destruction policy, hence very sensible to any kind of strain in the conveyor belt from the Rhine valley powerhouse ( if this "crisis" had anything to do with bad management, the first to fall would had been UK, Belgium and Italy ( that have ludriciously bad balance sheets ) ... ).

Well, to end, 2 topics:

- About the society reaction to all of this, I have the serious impression that the youth are far more aware of the smell of rot and decay than the people older than me ( even in my country ( Portugal ) that was never exactly affluent in the last centuries and where until 2 generations ago, most of the people lived tied to agriculture ), in spite of the exact opposite applying to having the tools needed to cope with it ( youngsters want to know how to farm, but don't have who want to teach them, for a live example near me ). That says a lot of how putrid things are ...

- ( Somewhat Off-Topic ) I find that the people that care about this issues end always beating in the same historical time for reference. Fall of the Roman Empire, Great Depression ... when , to be honest neither of them fits well a time like this ( IMHO any of the Chinese end of dynasty periods or even the horrible European XIV century ( where a combination of changing climate, a hit on the the time technology upper support capacity of Europe ( no more forests to take down that were worth it + overexploring in soem critical areas just for starters ), a polycentrical web of power and legitimacy that was under heavy pressure ( the feudal "international community" was being eaten by the rise of the burghers ( and that damned cash , like one noble of the time said :p ) and the dwindling return of the feudal economical model of a castle with serfs attached when you have too much nobles with castles and too little serfs ) and a group of nasty contagious diseases running wild all concurred to destroy a civiliztion ... ) are better models for our current world, atleast at parts ). Just for a example, I wonder if a lot of "we should do X" ( with the "we" being some kind of metaphisical omni-human entity ) comes from the unbalanced focus in modeling our situation on top of periods where there was still one big political entity running the whole show up to the end or close ... when our time is definitely far more like the Chinese warring states or the Feudal Europe in terms of political unity and legitimacy nets ( oh, and also because some think , consciously or not, that if "we" do something "I" do not have to ;) )

GreenEngineer said...

The fascination with sudden collapse is ... a means of denial. It’s just one more way of pretending that we and our grandchildren’s grandchildren don’t have to endure the long bitter centuries of decline and fall that are waiting for us ... Claiming that it’ll all be over in a flash is not that much different, all things considered, from claiming that it won’t happen at all.

One of the things I'm trying to figure out is what you consider "sudden". I don't believe that an overnight collapse is at all likely, but a pretty complete breakdown (to an agricultural/salvage-tech survival economy) on a timescale of 10-50 years seems entirely plausible. Does that count as "sudden" to you? It's drawn out relative to a human lifetime, but it's sudden relative to human history.

Related, conversely: In another thread, I once suggested that a likely scenario was a descent into industrial feudalism, an outcome which you dismissed. I probably should have clarified that I believe this scenario would involve a steady transition from fossil fuel energy to human/animal energy (though I think we will have, and continue to use, some fossil energy for a long time; it's not like fossil energy sources run out abruptly). The feature which make it "industrial" is the imposition of readily managed uniformity and (continued) centralization of production, partly for efficiency but largely for maintaining control over an increasingly impoverished workforce.

You talk about a centuries-long collapse. It's hard for me to imagine how the collapse can be that long and drawn out without industrial feudalism or some other organizing mechanism to maintain infrastructure and energy systems operating at a minimum (and declining) level, because if those systems break down entirely, that puts us pretty quickly on the fast collapse path.

To be clear, I'm talking about two distinct possibilities here: fast collapse (timescale of decades) or slow decay (centuries) with a deteriorating standard of living for everyone except the elite as we squeeze out the last of the toothpaste in the tube. I don't have a strong opinion about which is more likely (though if I had to bet, I lean towards the slow decay scenario). But I don't see how you get a long, slow decay without the persistence (in decline) of much of our modern infrastructure.

You seem to favor the slow decay scenario, but you seem to expect the majority of the modern infrastructure to fail and go away fairly quickly. I'm having trouble squaring those two features into the same scenario.

Unknown said...


I appreciate your theory of catabolic collapse. I also appreciate your assertion, based on history, that our collapse will be gradual.

That said, what do you make of the pronouncements of those like Guy McPherson (another blogger on these topics whose work I respect) who anticipates human extinction within, not a century or millennium, but a single generation (this one!) Do Anthropocene extinctions factor into your model of catabolic collapse, and if so, how? Thanks as always for your thoughts!

sgage said...


I must say, it's been a while since I've seen the fair visage of my main man Ming the Merciless (how's that for alliteration!). As someone who grew up on black and white TV, I darn near snorted this morning's coffee out of my nose when I brought up today's ADR.

The denial is indeed getting more and more shrill - I see it everywhere. I have taken to just keeping my mouth shut = things are that brittle. People are beginning to hurt seriously, and are already casting about for scapegoats.

I have been saying for decades (literally) that how we make it through what I've always called "the rapids" will depend upon the degree to which everyone keeps cool.

I used to have some hope that somehow, we would keep cool and help each other through. Now I'm really not so sure.

Things seem so broken now. I do dip into depression now and again... but I keep cool to the best of my ability.

George Keller Hart said...

Fascinating, as always. Thank you.

I just keep wondering, how does it play out? How can we look ahead to see how something ends?

Remember the 'rolling recessions' of a few years ago? It was used to explain how one state could boom while another was in recession.

Perhaps we will see a 'rolling' weakening, and a rolling loss of cohesion, of structure, as complex systems absorb--and are shaped by--change caused by energy and climate stresses.

It is hard to picture, or imagine. How does a civilization wind down? A species?

John Michael Greer said...

Lucretia, that's very encouraging -- if a significant number of 20-somethings have already grasped what we're facing, and are learning practical skills, this could work out better than I'd feared.

Apprentice, the collapse of one political system is usually the birth pangs of another; in the case of the Eurozone, the system is already in place, in the form of the nation-states so clumsily stitched together in recent years. The abandonment of nuclear fuel storage sites is some distance further down the road.

Leo, depending on how you measure it, it took 2-3 centuries for industrial civilization to emerge, and my best guess is that it'll take 1-3 centuries for it to decline and fall -- mind you, those 1-3 centuries are going to be a patchwork of crises, collapses, partial recoveries, etc. Still, not much of a cliff!

Tunnel, funny!

Phil, oh, the global economy is toast; that's a given. We had one before, in the second half of the 19th century, and its explosive unraveling in the wake of the First World War did a lot to set the stage for the Great Depression.

Cherokee, glad to hear about the roo! I don't suppose it would do any good to buy her a Mother's Day card...

Raven, no, the model does not presume that. It was originally created to outline how people deal with finding out that they are about to die from an incurable illness. That's one of the reasons I find the model useful here.

Daughter, I'd noticed the same thing! Read any respectable pundit's predictions of the future, and be prepared to laugh. It's only those of us on the fringe who, now and again, get something right.

Yupped, good. It really is anyone's guess how things are going to work out, but all jumbled together is probably a good first approximation.

Robert, the Eurozone will probably break up first, but the US is much more fragile than many people think. More on this in future posts.

John Michael Greer said...

Dltrammel, thanks for the link!

RPC, I'd forgotten about that bit of Schopenhauer! It's quite possible that Kubler-Ross was thinking about that when she formulated her theory of stages.

Alex, that's an interesting point. I'd describe denial as "there's nothing wrong, it can't happen, they'll come up with something," and bargaining as "I'll do X and then it won't happen." Still, there's a gray area between the two, just as there are between some of the others.

Yuri, fascinating! Do you know if other qigong teachers are seeing the same thing?

Lynx, they're saying that because it's sinking in that this is what climate change looks like, and they're trying to pretend to themselves that this isn't the new normal. The more shrill and angry their voices are, the more certain you can be that they're being shaken awake.

Sunny, I trust you realize that I've been advising against the "hole up in the wilderness" strategy since this blog got started. It's not a viable option, for reasons I've covered at great length here and elsewhere. For most people, either adapting in place, or moving to a small city or large town in farm country, are far more useful approaches.

Gary, I'll take a look at it when I have some spare time.

JP, your best bet for getting a clearer view is to study the history of civilizations, and learn to track their rise and fall the way you learned to track the rise and fall of speculative bubbles. Once you do that, you'll find it a lot easier to sift through the data and get to the information.

Iodhan, no doubt. And how are you going to get everyone to start practicing personal conservation?

Twilight, exactly! Collapse has a fractal structure in space as well as in time; it's not a single event, it's a long ragged process that moves at different speeds in different places and decades.

John Michael Greer said...

William, good. Very good. You'll notice generally that when the media starts yelling "X can't happen," it's a safe bet that X is about to happen. That is to say, the media is our modern Ming the Merciless.

Adrian, ordinary Americans won't start shooting at the rich until ordinary Americans lose any hope of becoming rich. When that happens, it could get very ugly very fast.

Ian, it's hard to find better advice than the Ifa!

Ghung, it's a matter of having a narrative that makes sense of experience. When the only narratives people have are dysfunctional ones, they tend to wig out and try to force reality to fit the narrative. The job of this blog, and many others like it, is to get another set of narratives out there, so that people have a way to make sense of the future as it arrives.

Dio, this is why I keep on saying that it's critical for any reader of this blog who can do so to get out there and learn to grow at least a little of their own food, using intensive organic methods. Partly that's because the skills involves are literally lifesavers; partly it's because people who know how gardens grow, or don't grow, are far less casual about the complexities that get food to the table.

Larry, I haven't read those -- have to add 'em to the list.

Russell, my model assumes that there are going to be sudden crises and disasters -- those are the steep bits on that stairstep model of collapse I'm always talking about. Slow collapse doesn't mean gradual -- it means a ragged mess of local disasters, massive crises, brief and not so brief respites, localized recoveries, and all the other complexities that are common in history but neglected in simplistic models of collapse.

El Gaucho, there's a whole post in that question, on the difference between fact and value, and the impossibility of arguing ethics to those who simply don't care. The short form? If somebody wants to make that choice, there's no way to argue them out of it -- but they'd better hope that they never need anybody else's help during those 40 or 50 years, because if that's the attitude with which they approach life, they're going to be left twisting in the wind.

GS said...

America is a country with alot of skeletons in the closet. And we're so rich, we never really dealt with them.

I think everybody can admit the following:
-When times are good, America works wonderfully
-When times are temporarily bad, America gets its act together and saves itself and moves on to bigger things

This country has never known long decline. Never, and it's not prepared for it.

I weep for America, I really do.

Richard Larson said...

Entertaining post! A collective five steps movement concerning the effects of peak everything is not something I had considered. For the record, I went right to the build solar and wind devices phase. :-)

I thought you were leading up to a point predicting the collapse was going to happen quite soon. Then you pulled the rug right out of that one.

So. Is it right you have made the prediction it will happen during the anger phase? An explosion?? You mean like an inverse collapse of something? Yeahyeah, I know, you will get to it in forthcoming blogs!

I suppose knowing when the anger phase will start is now the question.

John Michael Greer said...

Matthew, the community resilience approach is one strategy, and it's probably worth pursuing. The crucial point I've been making here is that, since we don't know whether it will work or not, it's insane -- in the most literal sense of that word -- to insist that it's the only option, or the best option, or that every other approach needs to be subordinated to it. (And, yes, I've heard all those claims, from people involved in community resilence work.)

JP, thanks for the link.

Jim, it's an awkward space to be in, no question.

Don, I haven't read Bane's book yet -- thanks for the reminder.

Ceworthe, that sounds about right.

Thomas, thanks for the link! Most fascinating.

Bill, exactly! This is what collapse looks like. This is why I keep on encouraging people to go read history, not the broad vague overviews but close-up accounts of specific periods and specific events in the past. That's the best possible cure for the delusion that big changes happen suddenly.

Escape, of course the details are different this time; they always are. That's one of the reasons people can fool themselves into thinking that nothing's changed.

Reaper, then why is it that industrial production is moving out of countries that can afford those clever robots, toward countries that use human labor? That happens because, in a world of costly energy, human labor is more economical. That's the thing the techies never grasp: it doesn't matter how clever your machine is, if it can't compete economically with other ways of doing things, it's a toy.

Ivan, excellent. A good crisp logical analysis. I'm sorry to hear about the Milankovich prediction -- if it turns out that it's in German, I can pick my way through that, though Serbian's not a language I know.

x said...

Thanks for the timely topic. It seems many people are beginning to see patterns emerging out of our times and circumstances, myself included. While history gives us some very broad hints from previous mosaics, we can probably assume that emerging patterns this time around will play out in a seemingly different manner; given that the energy dynamics are different in our era than in previous eras. I tend to think that changes will happen far quicker and more often in some locations, even cascading catastrophically in some.

From my perspective the introduction of fiat or funny money into the equation is probably the joker in the pack. It is nothing new in history and has its corollaries during Rome and other times when coin was diluted, defrauded and debased. The present corollary of debasement, in the UK anyway, is done under the guise of Monetary policies. All the QE policies and such are nothing more than a redistribution of any remaining wealth. This has been pursued by both major parties, Tories and Labour, which leads me to believe that they are quite aware of the effects of diminishing North Sea oil and other resource constraints.

The weather, being wet and morose, coupled with a royal party and the Olympics have served as distractions this year, but they will likely be the last in a passing era of ostentatious pomp and circuses. A few more cold winters along with a hot summer or two should prove to be an interesting crucible in the coming years. Watch the UK - there is very little society left and the corporate moniker of daily self deception imposed in the place of civility should be a potent combination when mixed with diminishing resources. All the funny money won’t seem so funny then.

Repent said...

I read the full 78 page essay this week, and I also thought it was very well written and thought out, although I disagree with his conclusion.

Yes, collapse can come fast; even within 3 weeks as he suggests- but then what? People who have hoarded food, weapons, gasoline can continue on for some period of time. People who have real things to barter with; farmers, ect might do quite well as black market suppliers. Also your point about national governments acting in their own self-interest when threatened; this brings to mind martial law. Military troops in the streets and forced rationing. (I believe they will also take down the internet to control who discusses what and control what people are allowed to think or talk about).

After the collapse, some type of recovery will eventully take place. Likely, as I've said above, in a tightly controled, centrally planned police state where dissent is prohibited. (Think FEMA death camps each stocked with hundreds of thousands of three person stackable coffins and each complete with its own crematorium):

We all know from the collapse of the USSR how well, or how long central planning will last; before it shutters and collapses again. But by that time many will have adjusted to the 'go it alone' self preservation and sustainable local living anyways, this will set the stage for long term realities of scarcities and reduced expectations.

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, I've discussed climate change now and again. I'm a historian and an archdruid, though, not a climatologist, so I leave the job of discussing climate change mostly to those who know more about it.

Ricardo, that's a fascinating point -- you're certainly right that the choice of models has a powerful influence on how we envision the future. Though I've discussed the fall of Rome a great deal here, that's mostly because most people know at least a little about it; the collapse of Mayan civilization is actually a model more central to my analysis, for whatever that's worth. The end of the Middle Ages? Hmm -- that's a possibility worth considering.

GreenEngineer, I think the point you're missing is that the collapse of a civilization needs to be understood from within a systems model, where the efforts of the system (and of its component subsystems) to respond to drastic change have to be factored in at every point. If the structures of modern industrial society come apart in the next decade or so, that doesn't mean we drop straight back to the iron age, because social organizations at every level will attempt to rebuild some equivalent of the existing order; they won't succeed in any real sense, but the structures they build will have histories and trajectories of their own, producing the complex, stairstep model of decline that I've been discussing all along.

The great flaw of fast collapse models, as I've pointed out repeatedly, is that they require everyone to sit on their hands as the world falls apart. History shows us that that doesn't happen in the real world. Instead, crisis is accompanied by response, decline by stabilization and (often) partial recovery, the disintegration of one system by the jerry-rigging of a new one, which may develop considerable institutional endurance on its own. Human society is a dynamic system composed of other dynamic systems, and simplistic models of collapse simply don't work when applied to it.

Unknown, I wrote a book on the kind of pronouncements you'll hear from Guy McPherson; you'll find it here. Yelling that we're all going to die sometime soon is a reliable way of getting attention, and there will always be people putting it to use.

Sgage, I think there's still reason to hope. I'll be discussing that in more detail down the road a bit.

George, a lot of civilizations have wound down before now. Why not read some history and learn how it happens?

GS, when times are good, America tends to get corrupt and lazy. It's when things get bad that the more positive side of our national character belatedly puts in an appearance. As Churchill said, Americans can always be counted upon to do the right thing, after they have exhausted all other possibilities.

Richard, like the explosive disintegration of the current American political system, along the lines of what happened to the Soviet Union. That's just one possibility, but it seems to me that it's toward the likely end of the spectrum.

X, of course there will be catastrophes; there usually are in the decline and fall of a civilization. (I wouldn't recommend being caught in Roman territory when the Huns came through, for example.) Again, collapse has a fractal structure, and one of the things that means is that some areas are going to get clobbered and some times are going to be very, very rough.

John Michael Greer said...

Repent, fully functioning police states are hugely expensive to set up and operate. I think that's probably the least likely outcome of the crisis ahead of us. The sort of Third World pseudo-autocracy in which the president-for-life and his troops control the capital city and a few crucial points in the hinterlands, and work out a modus vivendi with other power centers elsewhere in the country? That's a good deal more likely, and so is the "failed state" model in which government goes missing for an extended period and informal power centers emerge to contend with one another. There are also more hopeful possibilities; I'll be discussing those later.

Candace said...


This was a link in one of the posts at TAE which I think fits in with describing this is what collapse looks like...

Oh Cr@p:  A Whole Bunch Of Cities And Counties Are Now Seeing Their Finances Collapse. (I modified the second word to try and make it adhere to yourcomment rules.)

I think some places will "fall off a cliff", Detroit certainly seems to be getting there. The place I live in Minnesota is actually fairing OK by comparison to the rest of the state. We are just getting more. people moving here in search of jobs. So our breakdown might be more of a slow grind for now. We'll collapse when there aren't enough rich people willing to pay through the nose to live longer at the very large medical clinic here.

papabear said...

Matthew Sweet, could you please post a link to that EB list? Thanks!

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

Ha! I shall send her your best wishes and blessings, although the joey is actually off to a good start (in a good paddock as they say here).

You know, over the years I've come across several people who have gone through the process of studying and completing a PhD and then walked away from it and did something else with their lives. I think they never understood that it was an initiation and hence it was only a beginning and the realisation of this must have become too burdensome for them. I think the hard work comes after the initiation, but people don't seem to get this.

I see this in commenters responses when they speak of events such as a "collapse". They tend to think of this as an end point, when in fact it is merely a beginning too.

Sure the crash of 1929 kicked off the Great Depression ending up in WWII, but the seeds were sown for these events for years before hand. Also it may come as a surprise to most of the commenters here, that whilst a lot of people died, most survived albeit in conditions of poverty.

I also see this response in peoples fantasies of hiding out somewhere. This too is just a beginning and if you don't have the practiced skills, resources and networks to survive in such a place, the first mistake in your hiding out place could also possibly be fatal.

To everyone,

Poverty isn't a death sentence, it just means that you don't have access to the level of resources that you have now. Plenty of people survive and prosper in the Third World without the things that you consider necessities today eg. air conditioning.



Yuri Kuzyk said...

First, a short story…Beginning around 1989 a very strong ‘message’ was received by a number of qigong masters in China. Masters from a number of different schools experienced very strong images of massive changes to the world would be imminent and received very strong imperative that for survival, their practices needed to be spread. These masters had kept a very low profile in China for quite a while (most had been persecuted during the cultural revolution for “religious beliefs”) but the urgency, emotions and frequency of repetition of the message caused a number of them to meet.
Although they could not all agree on the exact contents and guidance of some parts of the message they did agree that a common point was the need to spread their practices. For most lineages (mine is almost 800 years of history) they had always had a master and only very few students; the fact that they were receiving such a message was a shock to many.
Many went into seclusion for a while but either events or the increasing urgency of the message finally convinced them that they needed to act. Hence, starting around the early 1990’s there were suddenly a number of masters from many different schools openly teaching practices in many interesting places such as New Jersey and Palm Beach. Most of these practices had been very closely guarded secrets for hundreds of years prior to this point.
In present times I have met a number of teachers who have acknowledged both the messages and effects of qi on students’ lungs. I also have met with a number of First Nations elders who talked about the messages they have been receiving and even used the example of the spread of tobacco (affects the lungs to open communication to spirit realms) as one sign that is very strong…
The debate of ‘fast versus slow’ seems like an avoidance tactic at best or even academic penis-fencing at worst. I also agree that neither history nor common sense favour the lone survivalist solution path so that ‘debate’ seems pointless waste of time. Guidance and teachings for people to start on the journey to gain proper context for decision-making in the tough times ahead is important. So is passing on knowledge for enabling internal change and growth; knowledge that has a history, scope and effects that match anything modern science has produced. We need communities composed of people who are determined to balance the best that we have learned in modern times with the practicality and depth of the ancient teachings…

Alex Boland said...


I don't want to spoil anything, but see the new Batman movie. I felt like the movie, along with its predecessor, have captured the anxieties of our time to a shocking degree. I'd go into further depth to justify my recommendation, but I don't want to spoil things for people.

phil harris said...

I expect you and the other readers of this blog have seen this.
For those who have not yet seen the photo gallery, the visual impact can be profound. (It hit me just now, and I saw stuff in the Eastern bloc after the fall.)

A pity there is not a photo record of Britain after the legions left. My ancestors had no use for stone buildings, so such structures would have haunted the landscape for a good while.

Jetfire said...

As a 20something myself, I'll confess I haven't been "re-skilling" in the way Lucretia's friends have been. My trade is writing, which I believe will be useful in any age, but I could do with learning how to farm as well. I'd also like to learn to ride a horse; I feel that's going to be a useful skill again some day, though perhaps when I'm much older.

Quite frankly, I'd never wish for a quick collapse. I've never understood those who desired the 'clathrate gun' of climate change, or the zombie apocalypse, or other immediate end-of-the-world scenarios. Perhaps they seek as rapid a release as possible from the horror of modern American life. But it's not for me. I prefer the slow collapse you predict, JMG, because it means we have time to adjust. We have time to mitigate, and make things as good as they can be. Who knows, maybe science will save us after all- wishful thinking, true, and unlikely, but totally impossible in a fast collapse. So no thank you.

I'd like to express how much I enjoy this blog, JMG. I've only started reading it in the past month, but it's refreshing to find a place that confronts the future realistically, in both a positive and a negative sense. For someone unused to reading about peak resources, I'd imagine your posts are quite horrific. I've been exposed to it for quite a while, though, so it's very nice to find someone who's upfront about the end of the petroleum age and also points out that we're not going to go screaming back into the darkness, or at least that we don't have to.

Twilight said...

I was first introduced to resource limits, including oil, in a freshman seminar course I took in 1981. I still have the LTG and World Dynamics texts from that course. When it was done I was quite convinced in the validity of what I had learned, but the problem was that I could not relate the information to anything I saw around me. It was simply orthogonal data to any of my past experiences, present activities, future plans or any of the societal narratives that I knew. And I was a kid with a lot of more fun and interesting things to do, there seemed to be a lot of time before any problems would occur, and so I just shrugged and ignored it. Not so much denial as shoving it aside.

However, the professor had succeeded to some extent, as the ideas never left me. Even when nobody cared about fuel economy any more I always knew that it would come back. As I matured I understood that the issue was still out there and that as a society we were just ignoring it. When I re-discovered the concepts over 20 years later thanks to The Oil Drum and now framed in terms of peak oil, I was receptive, not angry. I did some bargaining, thinking about all the ways we could adapt, until I realized those were too little and too late, and “we” were not going to do them anyway.

I've long since grown a bit bored with charts and plots of the data, as I get it and have accepted that it is my fate to have this issue to deal with. But then I had over 20 years to assimilate this knowledge in the background, while living the high life through the peak of human material comfort. I've learned that people simply do not assimilate new information that conflicts with their world view rapidly, and this is going to be a hell of a conflict without enough time.

So the result on a societal level will be, must be, heavy on the denial, anger, bargaining and depression, with all the resulting problems this will cause – the main one being that it precludes much of any proactive steps. Where those appear I will cheer them on, but I'm not counting on much.

@Bill Pulliam – there's a good book available on line called Since Yesterday: The 1930's in America, September 3, 1929 to September 3, 1939 by Frederick L. Allen, which gives a good feel for how things unfolded, and what it was like to experience it.

xhmko said...

The thing to remember about history is, you are it. Just look around you at how different people respond to the world around you in general and realise, that that is how it has always been and always will be. Modern people only differ in degree from every other sentient beings on the planet. Think how little we differ from all humans before us. Everybody skipping back and forth between different stages and different phases in their lives. Some with great things to offer the times they live in, some with stuff that won't be useful for hundreds of years, some that's best left behind. There is seriously no way around the fact that how you respond to the information and situations you immerse yourself in, and unwittingly find yourself in, will dictate how you are able to live in the future, and thereby dictate what wil be left to posterity. But the future is unpredictable, so while I hone my subsistence gardening skills, and constantly seek to better my abilities to manipulate found objects into new versions of themselves that suit my immediate needs, and circulate and receive this kind of information with alomst everyone I meet in some way, I realise that I may just luck out and be the first to get hit by fan forced manure. But hey, living the way I do is fun. I'm no saint, but I'm quite responsible with regards to our biological parent the Earth, and what I do is a source of inspiration to many people I know. That is not bragging either, I've found a overwhelmingly rich and deeply personal life through participating actively in the fields of DIY, lateral thinking, and ecological apprecition and I don't mind saying so. I am so inspired by people animals and the processes of life, and I owe it to great anonymous wealth of searching humanity out there to pass that inspiration on. The future of our species depends on such deeds, so get cracking.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...


Hi Chris,
I've now viewed the greening the desert film at

It is extremely interesting (and wonderful) to see the good work--and that it does work! Naturally, as I watched, I imagined what could be done here in Illinois, where I've read studies showing how our soil fertility is in decline owing to industrial ag practices. (I even wonder if our drought is worse because of our practices--rationale too long to go into here.)

I do some things in my back yard, as mentioned, but see that I could do more, even though, hooked up to Lake Michigan as I am, I can keep my tomatoes watered. Still, why waste water when you don't have to?

I'll be sharing the link with other people.


Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Greetings to JMG and all,

Interesting thoughts on the stages of grief. Since I've been in the acceptance mode for quite awhile now I'd like to offer a few thoughts:

1. I agree with Bill P. that fear and urgency are definite factors, and that one's goals and aspirations do change. Rational fear can give one clues about where to put one's adaptation energy. For example, since we fear losing power in January, weatherization has been big for us.

2. Acceptance is its own complex state, in terms of how one perceives the world and the resulting assumptions underlying one's actions. One is living in the world provisionally, as it were, acutely aware that large patterns of life are shifting, and understanding that much of what appears most "solid," really is appearance only. One's ideas about what constitutes the good life do shift--in our case to a simpler, less embellished level.

This, of course, aligns nicely with what various spiritual traditions have to say. I'll only say that living and practicing these things, and feeling content in that practice, are very different from reading about, or fantasizing, or resolving to begin to change soon (after x, y or z has happened).

As we've adapted in place in our urban neighborhood, we've reexamined and changed (and continue to do) so much both in habits of thought and actual lifestyle. Yet the casual observer might not notice much really different other than the garden in the backyard or the laundry, hung out on the line. We go to work, do chores, visit family, etc, knowing that the moment-to-moment feelings and activities of everydayness can change at any time.

The image of collapse as a fractal process seems so apt to me. But also, since I keep encountering people and organizations that are even now working on adaptive ways of living and functioning--and many in acceptance, not bargaining mode, either--I have to think that patterns of coping are and will be fractal as well.

John Michael Greer said...

Candace, that's one of the classic ways that civilizations collapse -- the more economically marginal concentrations of built capital get catabolized first. Detroit is a good example; it's well on its way to evolving a deindustrial salvage economy, at a time when many other parts of America are still in the late stages of abundance industrialism.

Cherokee, that's an excellent point. Every end is a beginning, and the end of American empire will be the beginning of new political forms.

Yuri, I'm glad to hear that! The Western esoteric traditions also got that memo, which is one of the reasons that a lot of our formerly secret traditions have seen print in recent years. It's a risky expedient, but a necessary one. Best of luck getting your teachings into the appropriate hands!

Alex, given current news headlines, your comment makes even more sense than you intended...

Phil, thank you for the link! I'd like to take a good photographer along the route from Cumberland west to Pittsburgh; there are all kinds of ruined brick factories rising up out of the forest, for all the world like Mayan ruins in the jungle. The Soviet empire isn't the only one that's left contemporary ruins...

Jetfire, writing's definitely useful, but you'd be well advised to learn some hands-on skill or craft -- if I may speak from experience, it's a welcome change from long hours at the keyboard to step out into the garden, or go down to the basement workshop, and spend some time using different parts of your brain. Over and above the other advantages!

Twilight, good to hear that someone else never got around to drinking the koolaid!

Xhmko, that last sentence is another one that should be put on the business end of a branding iron and burnt into some backsides.

Adrian, that's a very good point: coping is as fractal as collapse. That's a source of significant strength, since all over the world there will be people and communities that have taken at least some of the necessary steps, and as things tighten, may well take more of them.

jollyreaper said...

Concerning technological unemployment or tech collapse, I proffer no prognostication. The more I learn the less I know is cliche but true. The feeling I have about the future is a visceral uncertainty, that the least likely course available is the status quo, all else is possible. Every scenario with me seems fraught with possibility and the only common theme is an ever present pessimism. But part of my uncertainty is doubting even the accuracy of that perception. I just don't know.

All I can do is ask "what are they selling and is there an ulterior motive other than spreading the truth as best the speaker understands it to be?"

Bill Pulliam said...

Re: 20-somethings, I've noticed something of a response against the mainstream mass corporate electronic culture in this cohort (continuing on down into teenagers) on many fronts. It's a minority, to be sure, but it is a substantial minority. This is not only manifest in areas like "survival skills" (which I don't think they really view them as such). It is in arts, literature, music, etc. too. I mentioned before when we went to Jeff Poppin a.k.a. the Barefoot Farmer's summer solstice festival last year, it was heartening to see all the young scruffy shirtless 20-somethings picking and fiddling away on traditional acoustic instruments in traditional appalachian styles. My 18-year old nephew wants to spend the next year touring Nepal then working on organic farms in Thailand, to the horror of his mainstream yuppie parents. And I rarely saw him touch his cell phone when he visited here earlier this summer. I think there is a hunger for authenticity among many who have had this horrendously inauthentic and manufactured mass "youth culture" forced upon them, and they are finding many real-world, hands-on, down-and-dirty ways to satisfy this hunger.

It may be a bit like what happened in response to the 1950s by an earlier generation, many of whom are now the GRAND-parents, not just parents, of this new emerging cadre of young adults. Then too there was the odor of looming calamity, with the escalating nuclear threat and awakening to ongoing environmental calamities.

jeffinwa said...

Thanks again.
I'm beginning to think that blacksmithing branding irons for backside imprinting might be a viable trade ;)
Balancing gardening and living in a rental unit is interesting; at least if/when we move on someone else will have a head start. Going to put in a couple of fruit trees, apricots and plums this fall. We must have harvested a few hundred pounds of walnuts from the one tree across the drive.

GreenEngineer said...


I agree. Human societies seem to be far more resilient than most people give them credit for (including myself, when I started thinking about these issues). So I try to make allowances for that in my mental model.

The great flaw of fast collapse models, as I've pointed out repeatedly, is that they require everyone to sit on their hands as the world falls apart. History shows us that that doesn't happen in the real world.

The one issue that I have with this reasoning is that I'm not sure how much historical precedent can be safely applied to our current situation. You are indubitably right to at least some extent, but I see several closely related factors that might lead to a faster or harder collapse than history would otherwise suggest:

1. Degree of overshoot: Human populations have gone into ecological overshoot before, but as far as I know we have never been nearly as far into overshoot as we are now. You can push the boundaries of the ecological envelope much further using fossil fuels than you can with merely wood and muscle power. If the infrastructure decays gracefully, then it won't matter much. But if its function breaks down abruptly, we may suddenly discover that the ground is further away than we thought.

2. Degree of gobalization and specialization: Historically, societies were less interdepedent, and each community was less specialized in terms of what it produced. This was a natural function of the limitations of lower technology, but it leaves us more vulnerable than history suggests.

3. Focus on efficiency and optimization: Similar to my previous point, but occurring within systems rather than between them. Modern capitalist societies are obsessed with (capital) efficiency, which means (among other things) squeezing out as much redundancy and as much slack as possible. This gets you a better short-term return, but makes your culture less resilient.

4. High fabricatory depth of modern technology: This is another interdependence function - simply the fact that to make anything using modern technology, you need upteen precursor technologies to be available to you: simple stuff like steel for knives to complex stuff like needing a cleanroom to manufacture solid state tech. As catabolic collapse starts to bite, the loss of a critical technology could chop entire sections off our tech tree very abruptly.

None of these issues are news to you, I know. And all of them are things that could in theory be managed as part of a graceful catabolic collapse scenario, if the cultures involved adopt the right priorities and make the right choices. However, the evidence so far indicates that most developed nations, and particularly the USA, will react to the coming pinch exactly backwards of what is sensible: we ignore our bridges and power infrastructure, and buy ipads instead.

If we persist with this bass-ackward set of priorities, I think it is certainly possible that we could wake up and find ourselves in the early iron age (plus salvage tech, of which there will be a lot initially) very quickly. It would require a heroic level of denial and delusion, but what I've seen so far indicates that we may be up to the challenge.

GreenEngineer said...

Finishing my previous post (a bit too long, I guess):

I have not been able to convince myself that any democratic or pseudo-democratic system is likely to reprioritize quickly enough or radically enough to avoid these pitfalls - executive power is too diffuse. This is where my comments about industrial feudalism come into play: if some subset of the elites are savvy enough to see what's coming and able to position themselves as autocrats - sweeping away the diffuse power structure - then this reprioritization might happen quickly enough to avoid a free-fall situation and instead engage a slow, incremental collapse that plays out over several (increasingly brutal) centuries. Not that this is an improvement - quite the contrary, it is the worst of the probable scenarios since it maximizes the misery for the vast majority and maintains autocratic power structures for far longer than might otherwise be possible.

My donkey said...

The robots that you say have failed to materialize are actually here with us today, except they're human robots rather than mechanical ones.

Most North Americans have much more leisure time than they know what to do with, so they play computer games or waste time on Facebook or just sit and vegetate alone or with friends. And yes, it's a problem, because the majority of these folks have no skills and virtually no knowledge of the natural world, coupled with no curiosity to learn and no initiative to be constructive. If you take these individuals to a local woodlot or conservation area, they will soon become bored -- BORED! -- while surrounded by hundreds of living species of flowers, trees, birds, insects and other organisms whose identity they don't know and whose function or ecological role they've never contemplated.

However, you can't do away with these robots because they consume stuff (electronic gadgets, food, drugs, entertainment etc.) and any society whose economy is 70 percent based on consumption would collapse if you offed the consumers.

It may seem cruel or insensitive to say this but if "robot" is re-defined to include "an easily controlled entity that carries out tasks automatically while consuming goods profitable to companies", most of us would fit that description. That we're also self-maintaining and self-replicating is just a bonus.

Creighton said...

This essay hit an embarrassing nerve for me with the idea of hoping for a fast collapse.

There is a girl I love who doesn't see the future the way I do. She understands my point of view in theory, but then I've found that this awakening is tied to something other than logic--that was certainly the case for my own wrenching discoveries.

She's off traveling and seeing the world and looking to move in a very different direction than I am now, and I catch myself hoping for a faster collapse so that she will all at once be forced to return and see that I was on to something. Then, of course, we'd really be able to start a life together in the ruins or something. Pure ego, really--and not a loving sentiment in the least, either.

It is fascinating to me that the largest, most overwhelming impending crises can be so quickly overshadowed by the little details of our lives. Those are of course essential and worth living for as much or more than the big ideas, but collapse isn't happening to deliver things to me the way I want them, and noticing that thought pattern is a big red flag begging me to question ideas of fast collapse.

dltrammel said...

As for climate change, I came across this article on tipping points.

NY Times

Which is a bit better than your run of the mill main stream article.

It also considers climate in a systems model way too.

Chris said...

Cherokee Organics, we have joey's bounding around here too. We saw one today, doing laps around a small mound. It was, "now you see me mum," hop-hop-hop, "now you don't!"

Blessed little thing was all legs and feet though!

Compared to the enginuity of nature, our advances as a species seem positively primitive. We still haven't figured out, ripping out trees for housing developments and highways, means we lose the means of controlling the climate and food supply. ;)

Chris said...

In response to the post though JMG, for all the talk about peak oil (players accepting/denying whether it's all real or not) is there something to be said for nature's hand in all this?

If we look as long as history spans, not just mankind's blip on the radar, nature is what trumps dominating species every time.

Will we even get to see the nasty side of peak oil, before nature plays it's unnegotiable, irrevocable hand? It happened on Easter Island and some parts of South America - not to mention other civilisations which got wiped out of existence, which we haven't found the remnants of yet.

It seems the Global economy dominated by cheap supplies of energy, has a legacy of displacing nature so that it's not just a Global economy we have to worry about, but a global displacement of nature.

Unlike Easter Island, which was a regional destruction of civilisation because of a regional displacement of nature - we have global networks of nature being displaced by limitless machine power.

We've polluted eco-systems drilling for oil, we've removed eco-systems to build non-essential luxuries in life, and it would seem a continued course down this path with alternative energy technologies. It all has a cost of displacing nature and speaking from a historical point of view, that rarely ends well for civilisations.

For all our talk about what the future will hold, once nature plays it's hand our choices will be limited to just survival. Talk about limitless fracking opportunities says to me, empty belly without food, ready to consume itself.

Because that's what it will be reduced to when nature plays it's wild card. It trumps the punters every time.

John Michael Greer said...

Reaper, "all else is possible" isn't quite true -- if it violates basic physical laws such as the laws of thermodynamics, it's not possible -- and "possible" also isn't the same thing as having a snowball's chance in Beelzebub's back yard. All bets are emphatically not equal...

Bill, one can hope.

Jeff, anything that keeps you nimble and ready to revise your decisions at a moment's notice is a useful thing just now.

Engineer, I'd point out that the patterns of collapse I've been discussing have worked out in essentially the same way in societies ranging from local Neolithic chiefdoms to relatively complex and technologically sophisticated continental empires with credit economies and extensive division of labor. While the present case is off one end of that scale, it's not as far from the upper end as the upper end is from the lower. I'd also suggest that the production of iPads may be far more vulnerable to sudden shifts than you or most other people tend to think!

Donkey, doesn't "robot" come from a Czech word meaning "laborer"?

Creighton, you get this morning's gold star for recognizing your own motives -- a difficult but necessary task in this business. Most visions of the future are just as dependent on personal desires as your longing for a fast collapse.

Dltrammel, thank you for the link -- definitely better than the average.

Ivan Lukic said...

Yuri Kuzyk,

Unfortunately I will not be in position to meet any Tao teachers because there are none in Serbia. But reading Chuang-Tzu story about ”Man who hated machine” was one of the mind opening experiences of my life. I do not know when and where it is published in US but I recommend to all readers of this blog to find it and read it if they can.

Ron Broberg said...

Playing on the fractal theme ... If we were all responding in the exact same way, the information available in this uniform response would be low. If we were all responding in entirely unique ways, there would be many successful responses but they would be lost in the noise of the many more unsuccessful responses. You are looking for a clustering of different responses, movements that are big enough to rise above the noise, but different enough to provide a robust range of adaptations to an unknown future. A fractal dimension in which there are distinguishable patterns that can be replicated on a variety of social scales.

As an example of "variety of social scales", "Buy local" could scale differently on the individual, the city, the county, the state, and the national levels. Same concept; different instantiations.

As an example of different responses, "buy local" is only one buying strategy among others such as "buy cheap", "buy durable", "buy fair market."

I sometimes get a bit frustrated with those who seem to be annoyed that others aren't adapting with the same strategies as themselves. We need a variety of strategies because 1) the future will unfold in ways that surprise us and 2) there is no one-size-fits-all adaptation for an unknown future.

Let a thousand flowers bloom.

My donkey said...

Regarding the "end of work", we strive for decades to replace human labor with machines, and then when it happens we complain of unemployment! How sapient is that?

In pioneer times, road construction/maintenance, farming, forestry and various other labor-intensive activities provided employment for the majority of the population. Today, one person can do all the required work on a 200-acre corn/soybeans/wheat farm, with occasional assistance from a second person. This is accomplished by sitting inside an air-conditioned combine or tractor and pressing a few buttons and levers while listening to your favorite music and having a beer.

That's just one of many examples, but the fact is, there isn't enough non-automatable work available to keep everyone busy at a full-time job nowadays, and this situation won't change until we run short of fuel to power the machines that do our work.

With that in mind, I don't understand our society's obsession with employment. If machines were able to do the work of half the population, wouldn't that be a GOOD thing? And if machines could reduce human employment to just 10 percent, wouldn't that be even BETTER? Imagine: 90 percent of the population being effectively "retired" (i.e. allowed to spend their time in any way they choose). I actually think this could be possible today, but the populace has been conditioned to believe that employment is necessary to keep people "out of trouble" or simply busy -- the implication being that free time is bad or negative in some way, perhaps because it might threaten those in control.

Financial support for the unemployed 50 percent (or 90 percent) would only be a matter of logistics in re-distributing money, as there is more than enough total money sloshing around in our society to ensure everyone's basic subsistence. The question then becomes: can humans handle unlimited free time?

Sigh; I suppose the question won't matter in another 10 years as we descend the far side of the peak oil curve and gradually return to the intensive labor of pioneer times. said...


I haven't been commenting much of late due to being busy with gardening and my farm hand work--it's that time of year--but I've still been reading and enjoying, as always. Nice work of late.

In terms of fast vs. slow collapse, I still agree that slow decline is the order of the day, due to personal experiences. I started farming in 2009 and in just a few years I live a vastly different, less intensive, happier, and more independent life than I did before. Whereas before I was very tied to industrial supply chains and technological distraction, now I'm much less so. I'm not anywhere near to free of them, granted, but I've significantly decreased their influence and role in my life in a short time.

Similarly, I recently visited the farm I first interned on up on Whidbey Island in the Puget Sound. Since I left three years ago, there are multiple new young people living and farming up there, or attempting to live off the grid or much more simplistically. There's more local, organic food production happening. There's an internship program on the island that is teaching people farming and the nascent community that was there a few years ago has already evolved quite a bit. I've seen similar community-building happening in the area I'm now at on the Oregon coast and have watched tons of WWOOFers come through some of the farms around here and have their eyes opened a bit as to how to live differently, what it's like to grow your own food, and what it's like to work outside and with your hands. Some of them have gone back to their old lives; a good number have made changes, ranging from small to big.

If we were somehow able to peruse a list of how everyone in this country since 2008 has changed their lives, learned to live with less, and started functioning more outside the formal money economy, I imagine it would be both fascinating and long. The problem is, we know very little about the broad scope of that. The media mostly isn't reporting on it, politicians talk only of getting things back to "normal" and we see only the changes in our own community--and even don't see most of those, as people often don't talk about what their doing different. Yet, I have little doubt it's happening--I've seen enough and talked to enough people about this subject to know it is. And that's where I come back to your slow decline model. It's impossible to look at the entire system and actually map out how it can all change within a few years if it had to, but that inability to imagine the exact framework of it doesn't mean it can't happen. It means it's too complex for any one person to figure out. Yet the change isn't going to be done by one person, or even by the people ostensibly in power. It's going to be done by everyone, in small but significant ways, and the vast majority of it will be invisible to most all of us because we're incapable of monitoring the whole landscape.

(continued below . . .) said...

(. . . continued from previous comment)

Even considering GreenEngineer's excellent points about our particular system, I still think much of that fits into slow collapse. Sure, we have extremely efficient systems in place that lack resiliency, but the majority of those systems provide unnecessary goods and services to people. Their collapse doesn't mean the collapse of society, it just means a less luxurious and complex way of living. But that doesn't inherently mean a bad life. Most of that stuff serves as distraction and manufactured alienation, not happiness. Yes, we have a massive amount of globalization and interdependency, but much of that can be sloughed off without destroying our ability to feed, clothe and shelter ourselves. We'll just lose what's unneeded (a vast percentage of it) and then relocalize as best we can what is needed (or be provided it in much simpler, more stripped down non-local infrastructure, at least temporarily.)

I think food production could be localized on a shockingly fast timescale. Make it a necessity and that will happen; we need focus and willing labor as much as anything. The knowledge is out there, though the more people who learn it before we're forced into a fast relocalization, the easier that transition will be. Not, granted, that this transition is likely to be easy, but I think it could happen without mass starvation or death. Especially since whoever happens to still be holding onto power is going to be mighty interested in focusing resources on getting basic provisions to the population if it's hungry and restless.

As for our tech tree, it could use a serious pruning, anyway. We are going to need a large amount of high quality hand tools, but I imagine between individual decisions, demand, salvageable materials and the focus brought on by necessity, we'll manage to get that covered. And once that necessity starts really muscling its way into the lives of all of us, these things will organize themselves. When the old systems no longer are supporting people, most are going to figure out real quick how to work with new systems that do. It's really as straightforward as that. Not that it's going to be anywhere near as easy as that sentence suggests, but it will happen.

I agree that we're in some serious overshoot, and I think that could play out via some very bad scenarios. But I think it's quite possible that our population decline will happen via more natural means such as has been seen in the Soviet Union's collapse rather than in mass deaths. However, failing public health and compromised immune systems do seem to me to offer some more dramatically awful scenarios in this regard. I could see some seriouis plagues take their toll. I would think that more likely than mass starvation, though. Hopefully, we'll be lucky enough to avoid both.

What saddens me a bit is that I can't imagine creating any sort of coherent collective narrative documenting these changes with anything close to accuracy within my lifetime. A few centuries down the road, if we haven't gone through too detrimental a dark age? Perhaps we'll be able to piece together the history and get a better idea, but it's not going to happen over the next fifty years. It would be fascinating to read that eventual history. I suppose I'll just have to make do with experiencing my own tiny role in the grand tapestry. It's been pretty good, if challenging, so far; I'll just hope that holds for the future.


Rocco said...

My thanks to Creighton for his insightful comment that articulates feelings I have about the large topic that is the subject of this blog. I am in my mid sixties now and have always had a smaller "carbon footprint" than most, but still I am very much a member of the civilization that for most of my years I took for granted. More troubling is the fact that no one, and I mean no one, I know seems concerned about what I have come to believe about our way of life: that it is not only in jeopardy but that it is the very way of life that is responsible for the comeuppance we face in a generation or two, at least, and possibly much sooner. Warnings are sounded of course and anyone who looks can find them and even discuss them, but around me I see business as usual, from using the automobile industry and the petroleum industry for personal transportation, and using supermarkets (and all the Big Agriculture behind them that supermarkets suggest), and of course much more. I am reminded of the story of Noah (and I speak of the part of the story that takes place before the rains begin) when I think of really radically changing my way of life ("collapse now") and what it really means. This is, I think, something of what Creighton was expressing. My thanks to you JMG for acknowledging his (and my) problem in coming to grips with things. Creighton has put his finger squarely on a central issue.

Leo said...

since we're using the Kubler-Rose model for societal thinking changes, what would be the effect of generational turnover?

from my own experiences the two people i made aware of this just accepted this (all three of us are in our last year of highschool. one i just straight out told while the other i brought it into disscussions we had (he was asking about utopias and their potential, i used reasonings a bit, thanks) and then explained it fully. both didn't have any greiving stages.

John Michael Greer said...

Chris, Nature's already playing her hand, and has an unlimited supply of cards, most of them very subtle. It's an odd and very human notion that the only way Nature can intervene is by some vast apocalyptic event; here in the US, for example, our farm belt is being baked to a crispy crunch by drought and high temperatures, which is not a world-ending event but a crisis to all those who depend on cheap food and ethanol fuel. That, not the fantasy of sudden cataclysm, is the thing to look for -- and, like catabolic collapse, it's happening right now.

We no longer have to wonder what our collapse will look like, in other words. Here it is. We're in it. That being the case, maybe it's time to move on to the next questions.

Ron, that's why I argue in favor of dissensus -- the deliberate encouragement of diverse and even contradictory strategies, which comes from knowing that nobody knows exactly what will work.

Donkey, of course you're quite right -- for about half a century, we had that option. At this point we arguably don't any more, and the only thing that's delaying a return to full employment at physical labor is an economic system that's no longer geared to that. It's not as though there's a shortage of work to be done!

Joel, do you have the least interest in writing a book? If so, I can think of several publishers who might be very interested in a collection of narratives and case studies of people making the changes you're describing. There might even be a quarterly magazine in it, for that matter.

Rocco, Noah's a useful role model just now, if you happen to live among people who don't get it. Keep working on your personal ark!

Leo, you're young enough not to be emotionally and financially invested in the existing order of things, and also young enough to recognize that, for all the massive challenges the end of the industrial age is pitching at you, it also has the potential to be an exhilarating adventure of survival and discovery. Keep spreading the word among people in your generation; you're the ones who have the best hope of responding to this creatively.

jollyreaper said...

The problem with tech unemployment is if you don't work, you don't eat. We need jobs because we won't be paid to sit around and enjoy life. I don't think the owners of the means of production care what happens to those they lay off, there is no sense of responsibility.

I try not to prognosticate but I've stated my fears. Time will tell which fears were right.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

To quote you, "I trust you realize that I've been advising against the "hole up in the wilderness" strategy since this blog got started."

I can't really speak for the US experience, but over here, there have always been a few hardy souls lurking about up in the bush here. Even before and during the interwar years, there were isolated family farms. It is certainly not the preferred life for the majority, but neither should it be dismissed out of hand.

Over here it was actually after WWII that the population in the area that I live in was depleted.

As an interesting side note, during this period after WWII for about a decade or so, I'm aware that the population this side of the range fell to just one bloke who used to actively set fire to the forest every year because of an irrational fear of snakes. We do have brown snakes up here which are the second deadliest in the world. However, I've seen one in 7 years, so they are not particularly prolific and are more scared of us than we are of them. Most snake bites are not venomous and the Aboriginals when bitten, used to sit down on their hands, leaning against a tree and try and keep very still for two days. A very clever strategy too, as it allows your body to process any venom at a far slower rate and increases the overall chance of survival.

I'm getting side tracked! As another interesting historical note, there were bush rangers (ie. armed criminals) operating within this mountain range during the 1850's to 1890's because of the ability to view traffic (ie. Gold) in the valley below, but generally they didn't hassle the homesteaders here. I think the explanation may be that like Dimitry Orlov's essays about post collapse Russia, sometimes you have to make unusual friends in such circumstances.

In my life I have moved around a lot (a different house every two years on average) although much more so as a child because of the difficult domestic circumstances. However, when I moved to the house that I had built myself up in the forest surrounded by the rawness of nature I'd realised I'd come home.

A hole up in the wilderness is not for most, but it works well for some.



Jennifer D Riley said...

Took an organic agriculture course last January-March. Instructor sends updates. Friday's included a spreadsheet of temperature readings for the past 50 years taken at RDU Airport--shows temperature is rising.

Mentioned it to a devoted climate change sceptic who said, "Oh, it's urband heat index. How much more concrete has been poured around here in the past 50 years?"

I said "Wouldn't that mean Russian cities would be ice free?" "Oh, no, Russia is much larger and much colder than the US."

I didn't say "But from the point of view of the plants, the agriculture, and the drought in the US midwest, the temperature is rising." Will try to post the spreadsheet online.

Jim R said...

You wrote "I'd like to take a good photographer along the route from Cumberland west to Pittsburgh; there are all kinds of ruined brick factories rising up out of the forest, for all the world like Mayan ruins in the jungle."

It isn't the work of a good photographer, but you may be able to show some interesting images from the Google Panopticon and post links like this:

It's also interesting to zoom out to satellite view. You can clearly see the scars on the landscape from a couple centuries of "civilization". If you have a high speed internet connection, it's a wonderful time waster.

John Michael Greer said...

Reaper, a valid point that was being made in the Sixties, when mass technological unemployment was being seriously discussed, is that a country full of millions of people who have nothing to lose is a very dangerous place to be rich and powerful. It's only because the masses think that on the whole, they have more to gain by going along with the system than they do by grabbing weapons and heading out into the streets, that the current US government doesn't go the way of the USSR. That being said, since we no longer have the spare energy and raw materials to support a robot economy, it's water under the bridge.

Cherokee, oh, granted! It's simply that here in the US, the daydream of running off to the Territories has been hardwired into the national psyche since the days of Huckleberry Finn, and the fact that most people can't afford to do it makes it a very convenient excuse for people looking for a reason not to do anything: "I don't have the money to buy a place in the country, so what can I do?"

Jennifer, that sort of ad hoc rationalization is a flashing light warning of denial. If you'd kept pressing the issue, he'd have kept coming up with dodges.

Jim, the funny thing is that that building's still in use! (I walk past it tolerably often.) The problem with Google is that the best examples aren't next to well traveled roads, even in the Cumberland area -- much less in the very rural and largely depopulated Allegheny mountains to the west of us.

GreenEngineer said...

To be clear, I agree with the basic outline of the "stairstep" collapse model you describe. I think the point where we differ, at least somewhat, is whether some of those steps may be a lot more like cliffs: a rapid loss of system functionality that largely exceeds our ability to adapt, with significant and abrupt loss of life and complexity.

the patterns of collapse I've been discussing have worked out in essentially the same way in societies ranging from local Neolithic chiefdoms to relatively complex and technologically sophisticated continental empires with credit economies and extensive division of labor. While the present case is off one end of that scale, it's not as far from the upper end as the upper end is from the lower.

One reason that I hold the position that I do, is that I believe the bolded statement above to quite false. At least in terms of energy intensity, post-industrial revolution civilization is orders of magnitude beyond anything that came before (almost two orders of magnitude globally just between 1800 and 2000). And that increase in intensity has not been uniformly distributed, so within the developed world, the change is even more extreme.

Consider that 1 kWh is, roughly, one energy-slave day (i.e. the productive output of a single human working at capacity). In 2008, we used some 142 billion of them worldwide - a feat that not be remotely possible before the advent of fossil fuels.

I'm less certain that this is true in terms of things like complexity of economic systems, but with regard to energy, at least, the difference between 10,000 BC and 1000 AD is less than the difference between then and now. And, as you know, all our modern life support systems are entirely dependent on the availability of that energy.

Incidentally, have you read Something New Under the Sun by J.R. McNeill? It's a scholarly history of resource use.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

All is now explained. There is no need to fear that romantic notions will become greater than the day to day practicalities of living up here.

Frontier cultures always tend to believe that there is a greener field just around the bend. Patently not true, but thanks for explaining because I never quite understood the romanticism of running to the hills in US culture. Over here urban people fear the forest and rightly so, it is dangerous.

Today witnessed some community spirit here after a minor disaster involving trees and power lines and myself. I must say that everyone was very good natured about the incident and sometimes I wonder whether a bit of winding back of peoples expectations and a bit of hardship can produce a more cohesive community. I have seen this before after natural disasters and it can really make or break a community. People tend to think that it is every man for themselves - and this may be so on a sinking ship - but on land communities tend to pull together after a disaster.



ando said...

JMG wrote:

"our farm belt is being baked to a crispy crunch by drought and high temperatures, which is not a world-ending event but a crisis to all those who depend on cheap food and ethanol fuel. That, not the fantasy of sudden cataclysm, is the thing to look for -- and, like catabolic collapse, it's happening right now."

Looks like a high roll on that 10 sided die this year, eh Archdruid?"



jollyreaper said...

"a country full of millions of people who have nothing to lose is a very dangerous place to be rich and powerful."

And this goes right back to your tumbril post. It does seem insane that they would do such a thing. I'm frankly surprised that there haven't been more murder-suicides by workers who have had everything taken from them. In India, factory owners have been burned to death by displaced workers.

The best metaphor I can come up with is "We're all in the same boat." When captain and cabin boy alike share the same fate, you know the captain will do his utmost to keep the ship afloat. When the captain is no longer in the same boat, his fate and yours are no longer linked.

The question then is whether the perfidious captain has a proper handle on the situation. If the ship's going down in the storm, will his escape vessel be sufficient? He may have misjudged and will simply be drowning in a different boat.

Renaissance Man said...

I think the whole "Seneca Cliff" discussion is at cross-purposes.
I suspect people have mental images of "cliffs" as the buttes of Arizona (or a Road-Runner/Wile E Coyote cartoon) or the North Face of the Eiger, or Half-Dome at Yosemite.
But cliffs are typically short, sharp drops of only a few metres that punctuate the descent from the peaks of, say, the Adirondacks or the Appalachians down to the valleys below.
Seneca was right: when things fall apart, they do faster than it took to organize.
But he wasn't talking about the entire and complete collapse of a civilization, Seneca was describing the experience of one human lifetime, which is exactly what YOU are describing as catabolic collapse: a series of "Seneca Cliffs" dropping 'down' to simpler, less centrally-organized states.
I do not perceive any incompatibility between the two descriptions.
Yours is a long view, his is a short view.
Thus the Soviet Union experienced a 'Seneca Cliff', which was but one step down the long stairwell of de-industrialization.

Chris said...

Hi again JMG and thanks for expanding on your thoughts on natures' hand. For the most part, I agree with your sentiments. 100% of the time, nature won't end in apocalypse - as in, the whole shebang!

To quote what you wrote though:

"our farm belt is being baked to a crispy crunch by drought and high temperatures, which is not a world-ending event but a crisis to all those who depend on cheap food and ethanol fuel. That, not the fantasy of sudden cataclysm, is the thing to look for -- and, like catabolic collapse, it's happening right now."

As a singular event, it's true when you say it's won't end the world. What hasn't happened in history before however, when we look at the few occasions Nature has wiped out both civilisations and large proportions of land (Easter Island, Aztec in South America and even Krakatoa) it's fair to say, the rest of the world was humming along nicely.

What we are seeing in our lifetimes however, is an increase in natural disasters, spanning across many different continents within close time frames.

What regulates nature is nature. When we take the lynch pin out, every time we displace nature for a technological need (whether that be for mining, tourism or agricultural) nature becomes less able to regulate destruction in small localised pockets of the whole.

I'm not about to suggest an end of the world prophecy, on a particular date: but as a quiet observer over my lifetime (especially in the last decade) the rest of the world hasn't been humming along as nicely as when Krakatoa exploded and destroyed 2/3rds of the island.

That's not 2/3rds of the population, that's what the explosion from Krakatoa destroyed of the whole island.

If the rest of the world's land masses are having large tracks of land being de-vegetated for expanding mining, tourism, agriculture AND by natural disasters such as flooding, tsunami's, cyclones and tornadoes- one can only surmise nature will not be so subtle with destruction, as there is very little left of nature to regulate itself with.

The elemental forces which make a planet like ours livable, is regulated by such large land masses as evolution has produced - we are cutting into the life life and pulling the lynch pin. Nature cannot be as subtle as in the past with only localised destruction. It's already starting to spread.

I do agree though, the question becomes what can we do now? I can certainly look after as much land as I am responsible for, and donate to organisations which work to prevent corporations destroying natural habitat. Unless something rather large happens to stop global hunger taking control over natural resources, we can only presume the trend of extremes in both drought and floods will escalate.

Maybe that "large" obstacle will be peak oil? That would be the friendlier version of nature taking matters into her own (give me back my global resources) hands. ;)

hapibeli said...

It's the little news stories that catch my eye. Such as these two on rising transportation costs and the loss of the Ogalalla Aquifer;


"To be sure, labor-intensive industries like clothing and electronics, which are heavily dependent on hand assembly, are seen as unlikely to come back to the United States in a major way. And the trickle of returning jobs is far from a flood.

But higher transportation costs and wage inflation in China could drive more production back to the United States.

Prime candidates for return are bulky, heavy items. GE has shifted production of appliances from Mexico and China to Louisville, Kentucky, partly due to rising shipping costs. The new plant that Caterpillar is building near Athens, Georgia, will employ about 1,400 and make small bulldozers and excavators."

Raymond Duckling said...

Ivan Lukic>

Not necessarily in your town, but I have a sense that there must be some teachers closer than you think. I would try to approach your local martial arts schools and see where it leads from there.

Case in point, I have a Shaolin community within walking distance from home. You do not see them announced in the newspapers, only a placard in the second floor of a retail shop, not different from your garden variety dojo. Oddly enough, once you know where they are it is easy enough to find them in the web:

I have been having a recurrent dream about Qigong for about a week. It started after a talk with one of my teachers, about an 85 year old master he met back in China... and now this. I guess it all falls in due time.

Edward said...

Hmmmmmm The juxtaposition of the picture of Lord Browne next to the picture of the evil overlord says a lot right there.

If you change the hairstyles you couldn't tell them apart.

el emer said...

JMG, about your comment to Joel on your knowing several publishers...interested in collection of narratives & case studies:

If Joel isn't interested, I very much am. My wacky writings with lack of zzz aside, I've had a working title of GREEN HIGHWAYS for years. Thought I'd take to the road to get those stories, like Wm Least Heat Moon did, except these 'green highways' didn't show up on any map...until narratives & case studies created one.

I no longer want to travel as much as I want to let people's chanes speak for themselves to others who may also be looking to volunteer/barter/share space & work.

Anyone who wants to protect their privacy/location would, of course, not be identified in the published work.

I also think a quarterly is a fine idea; maybe connected to a blog? The latter is also something on my mind for a while--in handwritten form; working title: SACRED COWS (India worships them; we slaughter & fast-food 'em.)

What struck me about Joel's post here was that, since fractals are the image, and 'tapestry.' we've no need to struggle with a massively inclusive linear history now. That's what's been impeding my writing, as well.

Would commenters here be willing to share their stories fo publication? Then others, elsewhere.

--el emer, SIB-ling

el emer said...


I also picture a map showing some of those small cities & walkable towns in farm areas; with folfs who need volunteers/partners/have land to share noted & cross-rerenced if their narrative is also included; a way to contact them if not in the book.

Again, privacy will be respected.

Another model in addition to Noah & our indiv. arks, for me: the underground rr--let's free (us) slaves...

Maybe subtitle of the book is something that alludes to wage-slave narratives/fleeing into freedom one has to create away from corporate 'masters' house?

el emer SIB-ling

Jennifer D Riley said...

Yes, I'm well aware of denials. "Oh, the temperature readings at RDU airport have known problems...they've poured more concrete. It's painted white. The Urban Heat Index." I am quite well aware of our local North Carolina oil magnate, who shall remain nameless here.

I thought about the concrete part and said, "if it's a matter of concrete raising the temperature, wouldn't all Russian cities be ice and snow-free? My sceptic said "oooh, the Soviet Union is big and some cities are -50F below zero.

My response: "50'F below zero? what do they for water and seware? Water in Russia freezes at 32'F." The denier had nothing else to say, at that point.

Alex Boland said...


It's starting to seem to me that nobody is immune from the strait-jacket of denial.

I was reading something or another by Kunstler and (this is not a criticism of him by the way, his self-honesty about this whole situation is remarkably brave) he hasn't even started raising chickens yet.

He's been barking up this tree for something like a decade now if I'm correct, he surely must have had the time to do more than he has.

Once again, it's no criticism, but even the most vocal post-peak advocates seem to have gigantic psychological barriers.

It's convinced me that the way to handle this predicament is to appreciate the path-dependence of history. The odd thing is that I think my greatest fear is not one of losing comfort (though I do have some health conditions to address if I hope to be safe), but one of losing my dreams.

The precariousness of this situation has made me determined to work even harder at making sure I've implemented my vision within the next few years. I also wonder whether some linear combination of survivalism and entrepreneurship is the best way to go, especially since a lowered cost basis would give me the freedom to not rely on 9-5 work.

This leads me to a very ambitious conclusion: consensus is not an option. The only way to deal with this incredible cognitive dissonance is to integrate it into a life-narrative that feels sane. Pure survivalism is not just an apocalyptic fantasy, but a narrative that is (for the vast majority of us) utterly alien to our sense of self.

How did you reconcile collapse into your life's narrative? I found Chris Martenson's story to be particularly inspiring--he seems so happy.

Alex Boland said...

Btw, anyone notice that at the top of the board it says "Collapse comments"?

Brad K. said...


In your Week #31 comments you mention how the speculation on the end of work ignored the limits of energy.

I would have thought that the widely acknowledged position that the Battle of the Bulge was lost by Germany primarily because they ran out of fuel -- and that would have been a dire warning to all war participants and peacetime entities and governments that anyone could, and likely would, run out of oil (energy) at some point.

Unless the "lesson learned" was that being in the right meant that the earth, or Karma, or some deity, would "provide" what was needed to prevail. That is, the realm of energy was layered onto the concept of Manifest Destiny.