Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Dark Age America: Involuntary Simplicity

The political transformations that have occupied the last four posts in this sequence can also be traced in detail in the economic sphere. A strong case could be made, in fact, that the economic dimension is the more important of the two, and the political struggles that pit the elites of a faliing civilization against the proto-warlords of the nascent dark age reflect deeper shifts in the economic sphere. Whether or not that’s the case—and in some sense, it’s simply a difference in emphasis—the economics of decline and fall need to be understood in order to make sense of the trajectory ahead of us.

One of the more useful ways of understanding that trajectory was traced out some years ago by Joseph Tainter in his book The Collapse of Complex Societies. While I’ve taken issue with some of the details of Tainter’s analysis in my own work, the general model of collapse he offers was also a core inspiration for the theory of catabolic collapse that provides the  basic structure for this series of posts, so I don’t think it’s out of place to summarize his theory briefly here.

Tainter begins with the law of diminishing returns: the rule, applicable to an astonishingly broad range of human affairs, that the more you invest—in any sense—in any one project, the smaller the additional return is on each unit of additional investment. The point at which this starts to take effect is called the point of diminishing returns. Off past that point is a far more threatening landmark, the point of zero marginal return: the point, that is, when additional investment costs as much as the benefit it yields. Beyond that lies the territory of negative returns, where further investment yields less than it costs, and the gap grows wider with each additional increment.

The attempt to achieve infinite economic growth on a finite planet makes a fine example of the law of diminishing returns in action. Given the necessary preconditions—a point we’ll discuss in more detail a bit later in this post—economic growth in its early stages produces benefits well in excess of its costs. Once the point of diminishing returns is past, though, further growth brings less and less benefit in any but a purely abstract, financial sense; broader measures of well-being fail to keep up with the expansion of the economy, and eventually the point of zero marginal return arrives and further rounds of growth actively make things worse.

Mainstream economists these days shove these increments of what John Ruskin used to call “illth”—yes, that’s the opposite of wealth—into the category of “externalities,” where they are generally ignored by everyone who doesn’t have to deal with them in person. If growth continues far enough, though, the production of illth overwhelms the production of wealth, and we end up more or less where we are today, where the benefits from continued growth are outweighed by the increasingly ghastly impact of the social, economic, and environmental “externalities” driven by growth itself. As The Limits to Growth  pointed out all those years ago, that’s the nature of our predicament: the costs of growth rise faster than the benefits and eventually force the industrial economy to its knees.

Tainter’s insight was that the same rules can be applied to social complexity. When a society begins to add layers of social complexity—for example, expanding the reach of the division of labor, setting up hierarchies to centralize decisionmaking, and so on—the initial rounds pay off substantially in terms of additional wealth and the capacity to deal with challenges from other societies and the natural world. Here again, though, there’s a point of diminishing returns, after which additional investments in social complexity yield less and less in the way of benefits, and there’s a point of zero marginal return, after which each additional increment of complexity subtracts from the wealth and resilience of the society.

There’s a mordant irony to what happens next. Societies in crisis reliably respond by doing what they know how to do. In the case of complex societies, what they know how to amounts to adding on new layers of complexity—after all, that’s what’s worked in the past. I mentioned at the beginning of this month, in an earlier post in this sequence, the way this plays out in political terms. The same thing happens in every other sphere of collective life—economic, cultural, intellectual, and so on down the list. If too much complexity is at the root of the problems besetting a society, though, what happens when its leaders keep adding even more complexity to solve those problems?

Any of my readers who have trouble coming up with the answer might find it useful to take a look out the nearest window. Whether or not Tainter’s theory provides a useful description of every complex society in trouble—for what it’s worth, it’s a significant part of the puzzle in every historical example known to me—it certainly applies to contemporary industrial society. Here in America, certainly, we’ve long since passed the point at which additional investments in complexity yield any benefit at all, but the manufacture of further complexity goes on apace, unhindered by the mere fact that it’s making a galaxy of bad problems worse. Do I need to cite the US health care system, which is currently collapsing under the sheer weight of the baroque superstructure of corporate and government bureaucracies heaped on top of what was once the simple process of paying a visit to the doctor?

We can describe this process as intermediation—the insertion of a variety of intermediate persons, professions, and institutions between the producer and the consumer of any given good or service. It’s a standard feature of social complexity, and tends to blossom in the latter years of every civilization, as part of the piling up of complexity on complexity that Tainter discussed. There’s an interesting parallel between the process of intermediation and the process of ecological succession.  Just as an ecosystem, as it moves from one sere (successional stage) to the next, tends to produce ever more elaborate food webs linking the plants whose photosynthesis starts the process with the consumers of detritus at its end, the rise of social complexity in a civilization tends to produce ever more elaborate patterns of intermediation between producers and consumers.

Contemporary industrial civilization has taken intermediation to an extreme not reached by any previous civilization, and there’s a reason for that. White’s Law, one of the fundamental rules of human ecology, states that economic development is a function of energy per capita. The jackpot of cheap concentrated energy that industrial civilization obtained from fossil fuels threw that equation into overdrive, and economic development is simply another name for complexity. The US health care system, again, is one example out of many; as the American economy expanded metastatically over the course of the 20th century, an immense army of medical administrators, laboratory staff, specialists, insurance agents, government officials, and other functionaries inserted themselves into the notional space between physician and  patient, turning what was once an ordinary face to face business transaction into a bureaucratic nightmare reminiscent of Franz Kafka’s The Castle.

In one way or another, that’s been the fate of every kind of economic activity in modern industrial society. Pick an economic sector, any economic sector, and the producers and consumers of the goods and services involved in any given transaction are hugely outnumbered by the people who earn a living from that transaction in some other way—by administering, financing, scheduling, regulating, taxing, approving, overseeing, facilitating, supplying, or in some other manner getting in there and grabbing a piece of the action. Take the natural tendency for social complexity to increase over time, and put it to work in a society that’s surfing a gargantuan tsunami of cheap energy, in which most work is done by machines powered by fossil fuels and not by human hands and minds, and that’s pretty much what you can expect to get.

That’s also a textbook example of the sort of excess complexity Joseph Tainter discussed in The Collapse of Complex Societies, but industrial civilization’s dependence on nonrenewable energy resources puts the entire situation in a different and even more troubling light. On the one hand, continuing increases in complexity in a society already burdened to the breaking point with too much complexity pretty much guarantees a rapid decrease in complexity not too far down the road—and no, that’s not likely to unfold in a nice neat orderly way, either. On the other, the ongoing depletion of energy resources and the decline in net energy that unfolds from that inescapable natural process means that energy per capita will be decreasing in the years ahead—and that, according to White’s Law, means that the ability of industrial society to sustain current levels of complexity, or anything like them, will be going away in the tolerably near future.

Add these trends together and you have a recipe for the radical simplification of the economy. The state of affairs in which most people in the work force have only an indirect connection to the production of concrete goods and services to meet human needs is, in James Howard Kunstler’s useful phrase, an arrangement without a future. The unraveling of that arrangement, and the return to a state of affairs in which most people produce goods and services with their own labor for their own, their families’, and their neighbors’ use, will be the great economic trend of the next several centuries.

That’s not to say that this unraveling will be a simple process. All those millions of people whose jobs depend on intermediation, and thus on the maintenance of current levels of economic complexity, have an understandable interest in staying employed. That interest in practice works out to an increasingly frantic quest to keep people from sidestepping the baroque corporate and bureaucratic economic machine and getting goods and services directly from producers.

That’s a great deal of what drives the ongoing crusade against alternative health care—every dollar spent on herbs from a medical herbalist or treatments from an acupuncturist is a dollar that doesn’t go into feeding the gargantuan corporations and bureaucracies that are supposed to provide health care for Americans, and sometimes even do so. The same thing is driving corporate and government attacks on local food production, since every dollar a consumer spends buying zucchini from a backyard farmer doesn’t prop up the equally huge and tottering mass of institutions that attempt to control the production and sale of food in America.

It’s not uncommon for those who object to these maneuvers to portray them as the acts of a triumphant corporate despotism on the brink of seizing total power over the planet. I’d like to suggest that they’re something quite different. While the American and global economies are both still growing in a notional sense, the measures of growth that yield that result factor in such things as the manufacture of derivatives and a great many other forms of fictive wealth.

Subtract those from the national and global balance sheet, and the result is an economy in contraction. The ongoing rise in the permanently jobless, the epidemic of malign neglect affecting even the most crucial elements of America’s infrastructure, and the ongoing decline in income and living standards among all those classes that lack access to fictive wealth, among many other things, all tell the same story. Thus it’s far from surprising that all the people whose jobs are dependent on intermediation, all the way up the corporate food chain to the corner offices, are increasingly worried about the number of people who are trying to engage in disintermediation—to buy food, health care, and other goods and services directly from the producers.

Their worries are entirely rational.  One of the results of the contraction of the real economy is that the costs of intermediation, financial and otherwise, have not merely gone through the roof but zoomed off into the stratosphere, with low earth orbit the next logical stop. Health care, again, is among the most obvious examples. In most parts of the United States, for instance, a visit to the acupuncturist for some ordinary health condition will typically set you back well under $100, while if you go to an MD for the same thing you’ll be lucky to get away for under $1000, counting lab work and other costs—and you can typically count on thirty or forty minutes of personal attention from the acupuncturist, as compared to five or ten minutes with a harried and distracted MD. It’s therefore no surprise that more and more Americans are turning their backs on the officially sanctioned health care industry and seeking out alternative health care instead.

They’d probably be just as happy to go to an ordinary MD who offered medical care on the same terms as the acupuncturist, which happen to be the same terms that were standard a century ago for every kind of health care. As matters stand, though, physicians are dependent on the system as it presently exists; their standing with their peers, and even their legal right to practice medicine, depends on their willingness to play by the rules of intermediation—and of course it’s also true that acupuncturists don’t generally make the six-figure salaries that so many physicians do in America. A hundred years ago, the average American doctor didn’t make that much more than the average American plumber; many of the changes in the US health care system since that time were quite openly intended to change that fact.

A hundred years ago, as the United States moved through the early stages of its age of imperial excess, that was something the nation could afford. Equally, all the other modes of profiteering, intermediation, and other maneuvers aimed at maximizing the take of assorted economic sectors were viable then,since a growing economy provides plenty of slack for such projects. As the economics of growth gave way to the economics of stagnation in the last quarter of the 20th century, such things became considerably more burdensome. As stagnation gives way to contraction, and the negative returns on excess complexity combine with the impact of depleting nonrenewable resources, the burden is rapidly becoming more than the US economy or the wider society can bear.

The result, in one way or another, will be disintermediation: the dissolution of the complex relations and institutions that currently come between the producer and the consumer of goods and services, and their replacement by something much less costly to maintain. “In one way or another,” though, covers a great deal of ground, and it’s far from easy to predict exactly how the current system will come unglued in the United States or, for that matter, anywhere else.

Disintermediation might happen quickly, if a major crisis shatters some central element of the US economic system—for example, the financial sector—and forces the entire economy to regroup around less abstract and more local systems of exchange. It might happen slowly, as more and more of the population can no longer afford to participate in the intermediated economy at all, and have to craft their own localized economies from the bottom up, while the narrowing circle of the well-to-do continue to make use of some equivalent of the current system for a long time to come. It might happen at different rates in different geographical areas—for example, cities and their suburbs might keep the intermediated economy going long after rural areas have abandoned it, or what have you.

Plenty of people these days like to look forward to some such transformation, and not without reason. Complexity has long since passed the point of negative returns in the US economy, as in most other aspects of American society, and the coming of disintermediation across a wide range of economic activities will arguably lead to significant improvements in many aspects of our collective life. That said, it’s not all roses and affordable health care. The extravagant rates of energy per capita that made today’s absurdly complex economy possible also made it possible for millions of Americans to make their living working in offices and other relatively comfortable settings, rather than standing hip deep in hog manure with a shovel in their hands, and it also allowed them to earn what currently passes for a normal income, rather than the bare subsistence that’s actually normal in societies that haven’t had their economies inflated to the bursting point by a temporary glut of cheap energy.

It was popular a number of years back for the urban and suburban middle classes, most of whom work in jobs that only exist due to intermediation, to go in for “voluntary simplicity”—at best a pallid half-equivalent of Thoreau’s far more challenging concept of voluntary poverty, at worst a marketing gimmick for the consumption of round after round of overpriced “simple” products. For all its more embarrassing features, the voluntary simplicity movement was at least occasionally motivated by an honest recognition of the immediate personal implications of Tainter’s fundamental point—that complexity taken past the point of diminishing returns becomes a burden rather than a benefit.

In the years ahead of us, a great many of these same people are going to experience what I suppose might best be called involuntary simplicity: the disintermediation of most aspects of economic life, the departure of lifestyles that can only be supported by the cheap abundant energy of the recent past, and a transition to the much less complex—and often, much less comfortable—lifestyles that are all that’s possible in a deindustrial world. There may be a certain entertainment value in watching what those who praised voluntary simplicity to the skies think of simple living when it’s no longer voluntary, and there’s no way back to the comforts of a bygone era.

That said, the impact of involuntary simplicity on the economic sphere won’t be limited to the lifestyles of the formerly privileged. It promises to bring an end to certain features of economic life that contemporary thought assumes are fixed in place forever: among them, the market economy itself. We’ll talk about that next week.

In other news, I'm pleased to report that Twilight's Last Gleaming, my novel of the fall of America's empire based on 2012's "How It Could Happen" series of posts, is hot off the press and available from the publisher with free shipping worldwide. The novel also has its own Facebook page for fans of social media. By all means check it out.


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heather said...

Thomas Daulton-
I think that in general you are talking about competing priorities, which is of course a universal predicament. In your music example, you want to connect to your friends and others and stimulate yourself with expanded experiences (commonalities with your FB example), but you also have other purposes for your time/money/attention. I have also at times wished I could clone myself, as one of the other commenters suggested, to have the time and energy and mental "space" to engage in my various interests. Probably anyone with an ounce of intellectual curiosity or social feeling has felt the same. The only principle for dealing with these issues that I've been able to extract for myself is to spend time and energy getting very clear with myself about what my short- and long-term priorities are. Sometimes there are time considerations (this work project is due next week; I may not get all the tomatoes that are ripe this week canned- better dehydrate- satisfying work obligations is the winning priority at this time); or more fundamentally, my kids are only going to be little for a short period; better pass on that fascinating but time-intensive work opportunity for now and hope another one comes along when they are older (relationship with kids is almost always pretty high up on the priority list, though sometimes they do get the short end of the stick, hopefully only temporarily though)... Sometimes there are basic needs issues which override other desires (can't spend money on X because taxes are due soon, and keeping the house is a high priority)... So maybe you have already done this, but meditating or writing or in some other way focusing your attention on what you need, and what you want most, is a starting point. Then accepting that balancing those things is always going to be a shifting work in progress, that you are always going to feel a twinge of regret at missed opportunities, but that you are creating your life based on your examined priorities and not simply being washed along by the infinite currents of circumstance around you- those are other steps. I think kind of struggle is absolutely germane to the larger project of this blog; understanding both our priorities and circumstances, and our resulting decisions are critically important. Thank you for being willing to expose your thinking about the examples you gave, and for being persistent in extracting the larger issues.
--Heather in CA

Raymond Duckling said...

Thomas> I hear you man, and you are right about the advise available (in general at least).

Personally, I have tried to reach a happy medium. In 2010, I decided the signal to noise ratio was too low on Facebook and I "unplugged" my account (actually, it is not 100% dead, but on torpor, which I am told prevents other entreprenureing spirits from taking over my identity). Linked in is not officially closed, as not having one while officially in the work force is weird, but I do not visit it more than once or twice per month.

By the way, you are very right to claim that The Archdruid Report, Green Wizardry forum and the like are not immune to the same effects. I have considered that myself, but at least for the moment I still consider those still on the black for my personal economics of time.

A little practical advice on how to wean out yourself:

1. From Facebook: Roll a pair of fair dice every morning. That's the number of minutes you have available today for FB activity. Keep a diary of what you spend your allotted time on, and if you find a recurring pattern of meaningful interactions, try to pursue that relationship in a closer and more unmediated way (a.k.a. out of FB). Remove one dice when no salvageable relationships remain.

2. For the concerts it is a bit more tricky, but the idea is the same. Decide upfront how many nights of entertainment you will indulge yourself per month. Reserve one of those for the absolutely-cannot-miss-it event. For the others, throw a pair of fair dice. You must get at least 5 to buy the album and at least 7 to go to the live event (and if you don't you can claim that "Jesus did not want me to do it", or whatever causes more cognitive dissonance in your friends). Move the threshold up every time you burn one slot in your "preallocated" entertainment budget. Reset at the end of the month. Reevaluate both budget (down) and thresholds (up) when appropriate.

I will leave you now with one of my wife's quotes (not really hers, but I do not recall the original author just now):

Life is like a coin. You can spend it in whatever you want, but you can spend it only once.

peacegarden said...

@ Redneck Girl

You did score a great book…we have made many of the beers and are looking to make many more.



Joel Caris said...


For God's sake man, the reason you're not getting satisfactory responses is because you're asking other people to live your life for you.

Bands. Okay. There are lots of ways you can cut it down. One can be cost--what can you afford? That can limit things in a multitude of ways. You could set a monthly budget for dollars spent on live music. But then you have a whole host of other decisions--do you stretch that out by not buying alcohol, thus increasing the number of shows you can see? Or do you enjoy a full experience with alcohol (and whatever else--CDs, merchandise, food, throwing pennies at people in the audience who annoy you) and reduce the number of shows you see? But then you still have to decide which shows to see. Do you base it on which band you most like? Which you think will put on the best show? Which ones are cheapest? If you only go to the cheaper shows, you get more music. But perhaps you'll have more fun at a more expensive show, so you go to less shows but enjoy them more.

Or what if you have more money than you know what to do with? (Granted, you've already said you don't, but let's roll with this for a moment.) Then you need a different limiting factor. Well, the law of diminishing returns spoken of here suggests that as you see more and more live music, the experience is going to become less exciting and satisfying. But where's that line? Well, heck if I know--that's something only you know. You have to pay attention to yourself, to your experiences, and infer from that what will make you most happy.

I could go on and on, but the key here is that you're the one who knows. You know why I don't go to that many live shows? It's a combination of the fact that I no longer live in the city where most of them occur, I don't have the time and funds to drive to the city for them, and that I have other priorities in my life that are more important. But then sometimes there will be someone playing who I really love to see live--Langhorne Slim is a good example--and so then I might make an exception. But it's still dependent. How much is the show (his shows have started to become more expensive.) When is it? Logistically, can I get into town that evening? If so, can I stay the night or do I have to work the next day? Would I prefer to spend that time and money elsewhere?

Again, those are personal questions with personal answers. No one can answer those questions for me because they're dependent on a whole host of variables that only I fully understand.

So those are a number of--but not all--variables. There are probably a whole lot more that I'm not even thinking of, probably because they don't apply to me. But that doesn't mean they don't apply to you! Maybe they do. Guess who knows? You! Guess who doesn't know? All of us!

Sorry, dude, but the only real answer is that you have to live your own life, make your own decisions, and do all the hard work that comes with that. I wish someone would show up and tell me all the best ways to live my life. But that doesn't typically work out. Whenever someone does do that, they're usually just telling me what they think all the best decisions would be for them, and assuming it's the same for me. Even if they are giving good advice, I still have to figure out that it's good. Again, no short cuts. You're stuck. You can get helpful advice, but you still have to sort, sift it, figure out how it fits in your own life, decide whether or not to follow it, pay attention to the ramifications of following or not following it, and then integrate that new knowledge and experience into your own, personal decision-making process.

That's just life. It's a real pain sometimes, but it's what it is.

Nestorian said...

Regarding the practice of medicine on a cash-basis, without insurance industry intermediation, two quick thoughts:

1) Karl Denninger has written about an outfit called the Oklahoma Surgery Center, which does all kinds of complicated surgery on a cash-basis at a reasonable cost.

The reason I bring them up is because they probably know about how to overcome hurdles on the regulatory side of things; might be worth checking how to do it if you are a physician who wants to cut the insurance-cords.

2) Even if you do medicine on a cash-basis at a fraction of the general cost, you can still give your patients the invoices for services rendered easily enough - which THEY can then submit to get whatever reimbursement they can.

Much of the mental health industry operates this way already. And I myself get certain drugs overseas generically for less than I would have to pay for them at a domestic pharmacy even WITH insurance - and then I can STILL submit the invoices and get reimbursed for that, if I'm willing to do the legwork myself.

onething said...

Thomas Daulton,

"one of my deepest wishes is to be able to understand every language in the world"

I knew it! I think of this as more or less a spiritual ambition, and although I joked about cloning yourself, I think there's a kernel of real truth in my joke. I remember a guy many years ago who said that as a kid he wished he could know every person's name in the world, and he attributed that as child's desire for enlightenment or universal knowledge.

So, in my opinion, this is part of what drives you. But, you mention that you spend too much money and take time away from other pursuits. So you do need to cut back. I think you might want to work on accepting that you can't have it all, know it all, experience it all. Again, this is why I mentioned that no mater how many hours you spend on facebook or how many local bands you follow, the world contains a huge amount of experiences equally good that you cannot experience all of.

For me, I had to cut back this year because of my garden. I have always struggled with cutting back on various fun and interesting activities and spending more time on things I ought to do, some of which I like more than others. Most people would not spend the amount of time cooking that I do, but I really like good food.

It's funny though, that at various times due to travel or sickness or other projects I have cut back 100% on the internet and not missed it. This spring when JMG when on his hiatus is when I put most of the time into forming my garden. I hardly logged in at all for about 8 weeks and didn't miss it.

As for music, I wonder if there are cheaper venues. Outdoor performances not so connected to alcohol, for example. I used to go contra dancing which is very cheap, has great live music, and no alcohol. Where I used to live there was a local festival twice a year that had a ticket price to get in but you get 3 days of lots and lots of wonderful music.

Consider learning to play an instrument and having jams with friends.

Kyoto Motors said...

@ Varun, Thomas Daulton, et al.
First of all, I suspect that none of us knows just what it is to be "pre-industrial" in the purest sense. Unless you're using an out-house and making EVERYTHING by hand, you're not doing it.
But as far as the music example goes, the non-industrial, or de-industrial version of daily life will never be one of pure leisure. Music and art will always be important, but the ability to pursue only that, and nothing else will eventually fade away. The artist is the specialist whom others choose to support - like any other producer of non-essential goods and services. Taken to the fantastical extreme, where we all want to be artists, who then is actually digging the coal, chopping the wood, harvesting the corn, etc.? (I actually think this is a strong illusion/meme operating in the collective consciousness right now) Just as there's a limit to one person's indulgence in art/music, there's a limit to industrial society's ability to live off of pop culture. The best way to avoid the cost of indulging in the arts, is to learn to make one's own, knowing full well that it may never be the thing that puts bread on your table.

nuku said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Thomas Daulton said...

Many thanks, Varun, Heather, Raymond, Joel, and onething again...

Thanks again for picking up my discussion. Even as you advise me that it's all up to me and the variables are my own, you advance the discussion by giving your own perspectives. That's what I wanted to hear -- I know, of course, this is my life and my decisions, but I wanted to hear some other perspectives that I might not have thought of.

I particularly enjoyed Raymond's suggestion -- rolling the dice -- as an old-skool D&D-er, I find the idea appealing. (I might roll a d20 instead of 2d6!) To trust to fortune when rationality isn't much help. And that's how it is, with me, with friends and with music -- I have a tough time weighing which entities, in either of those categories, is rationally "better" or "more desirable" or more "worth it" than another. I look into my heart and I just want it all. Rolling the dice is not a bad way to cope.

I still wouldn't mind hearing some discussion that's abstracted away from the specific examples, though. What principles do people here use to navigate complexity in general? So far we have two good ones -- "focus on the handmade" and "trust in fortune". Not a bad start.

Heather in CA, you aren't Heather H. in San Diego, are you? If so I know you from Surfrider...

wiseman said...

Facebook is good if used judiciously, don't let extreme views misguide you. I deleted my account and I miss seeing important updates from my friends about their kids, career changes etc. What I don't miss however are the stupid ads and posts.

Regarding pointers for future, history is your guide. Some industries are going to see exponential growth, like home security and surveillance, small scale (Rifles, handguns etc) weapons manufacturers, drone manufacturers, energy saving devices, entertainment industry, intoxicants and beverages (someone suggested home brewing and I completely agree), a repair shop for household articles would also be a great idea.

Shane Wilson said...

@ Thomas,
I have a somewhat convoluted relationship with the internet/social media. I've never been a "tech geek", yet I'd say that, compared with most people, I've been an early adopter since I first went online in the 90s. I've spent way more time than I care to online on Facebook, in chat rooms, on dating/hook up sites. I never could much get into Twitter. I was a psych major, and studies showing the negative effects of time online were coming out. For me, probably sometime around the time I started following this blog, I just had a deep awareness that my time online was not benefiting me, and that, on a personal level, I didn't like the effects being online was having on me and those around me. So I cancelled Facebook and other social media and started reducing my online presence. It's a gradual process, but I just remind myself that time online is time spent away from the "real" world, and that I'd rather spend time in the "real" world with the "real" people around me. So I don't have a blog, share pictures on instagram, or do much online because it detracts/takes time away from the real world, real time interactions around me. If, as JMG says, the internet is unsustainable and will cease to exist, then being offline is something I can do NOW to prepare, I can avoid online communication in favor of more resilient forms. I prefer information in hard copy rather than online as I think it's better organized for me to follow, understand, and remember. I follow this blog and some other peak oil blogs, as well as scan the headlines, less to keep informed as to see what's in the popular consciousness. People generally don't realize how bizarre forms of mass pop culture are while they're in the middle of them. For example from the 1920s through the 1970s or 80s, depending on the part of the country, smoking was universal, and the "health nut" who insisted people not smoke was stigmatized. Dirty ashtrays smelled just as bad as they do today, cigarette smoke tarred walls and drapes just the same, and car interiors were just as coated with dingy film as ever, yet smoking was perfectly acceptable. What now seems bizarre was then perfectly normal. Just because now we live in an exhibitionistic time in which all life is recorded and placed online doesn't make it any less bizarre or unhealthy, and people a few generations either side of ours will find it bizarre that we record everything we do online and live our lives online.

Leo Knight said...

Another example of intermediation: tax preparers. Recently the IRS did away with paper forms. Now, in order to pay money to the government, one must buy a program, or pay someone else. Oy.

Last night, I dreamt I walked through an almost deserted shopping mall. It had two levels with many branches. At one end were low cost services, barbers, shoe repair, tailors, daycare, etc.

The vast middle sat empty. Lights shone, fountains bubbled, Muzak played, but closed security shutters and blank storefronts greeted me as I strolled past. In the center court stood two sculptures of Jules Verne-like airships, with pea pod shaped gasbags and paddle propellers.

The far end of the mall held the exclusive section, guarded by two bouncers wearing suits and dark glasses. The well to do enjoyed exclusive restaurants and shopped to excess without being bothered by the envious stares of the less fortunate.

Laylah said...

On my news feed today, someone on Wall Street has pointed out that the emperor's economic recovery has no clothes:

"Nobody can predict how long governments can get away with fake growth, fake money, fake jobs, fake financial stability, fake inflation numbers and fake income growth. When confidence is lost, that loss can be severe, sudden and simultaneous across a number of markets and sectors."

David said...

Disintermediation is a process, to be sure. For all its fadishness (a justifiable observation by JMG), the VS "movement" as it were did facilitate awareness of these issues in my case, at least. Over these past few years, my wife and I have been reviewing various aspects of our lives, services we use and the like, and allowing things that were just "there" or otherwise being consumed mindlessly to fall away. We are by no means purists, but we live fairly modestly and much more modestly than we could. Cable gave way to a digital broadcast (though we kept the cable modem). I have plots at teh community garden and have begun learning to can, dry and pickle. I homebrew and bake fresh bread on the most weekends. And I dropped FB over three years ago, never looked back.

Emmanuel Goldstein said...

another great post, JMG-- It brought to mind Joel Salatin's book, "Everything I want to do is illegal," in which he describes many attempts to market direct from the farm to the consumer, and the regulatory barriers that most often prevent this from happening.
In pharmacy, where I work, we have gotten broad acceptance of public and other medical branches to give vaccines, often for cash on a walk-in basis. This sounds like a step towards simplification. Certainly, more people are getting vaccinated against the flu now than they were 10 years ago.

On the other hand, retail pharmacy in the US is controlled by a cartel of a few large chainstore players -- Rite Aid, Walgreens and CVS. These are so large that they cannot really avoid knowing what each other are doing. Effectively it is a monopoly, somehow ignored by the enforcers of various antitrust laws...

We will know involuntary simplicity has arrived in pharmacy when the local pharmacy starts brewing its own penicillin from rotten fruit, refining it, packing it for injection and selling it to herbalists and doctors who are glad to get it because antibiotics are generally not available at any price from anywhere else anymore. Or even easier, to pack and make 0.9% saline for injection. Recently, it was on national back order for several months. How difficult can it be to add salt to water in a sterile fashion?

Any pharmacist (at least old ones like me) already has the knowledge and training to do these things.

Moshe Braner said...

@Emmanuel Goldstein: I've been looking for saline (for handling contact lenses) for a while, it's getting harder to find, and impossible to find a version without various other chemicals added. I've learnt the hard way a long time ago to avoid getting any chemicals into my eyes - what seemed OK for years ended up developing a sensitivity. I may end up making my own saline eventually: stir salt into water and boil to sterilize, like you said, how hard can that be?

Meanwhile they've stopped making the contact lens sterilizing solution (pun intended) that I've used since I abandoned chemicals: "AOsept", which is basically 3% hydrogen peroxide in saline. It was sold at a ridiculous high price ($9 for a 12 ounce bottle), and now they only sell it as "clear care" which is the same but with cleaning chemicals mixed in - and I refuse to use it. So I make my own. But try getting additive-free hydrogen peroxide - not easy. I found that there is an obscure group of people that think that ingesting (highly-diluted) hydrogen peroxide has a health benefit, and thus it is possible to buy "food grade" hydrogen peroxide...

Generally, back on topic, I expect that many everyday products that we in the USA take for granted are going to become hard to find and/or much more expensive. Or, as I've observed in recent years, while getting somewhat more expensive, some products are also declining markedly in quality. Things like toilet paper that no longer tears on the perforation, or dental floss that breaks up between your teeth. Cereals that have less of the more expensive ingredients while still sporting the same packaging. I guess that's part of how a first world country slides into a third world ambiance.

heather said...

Thomas Daulton-
Nope, I'm in Northern CA. There seem to be a few of us Heathers hanging around this state. ;)
--Heather in CA

exiledbear said...

when the local pharmacy starts brewing its own penicillin from rotten fruit, refining it, packing it for injection and selling it to herbalists and doctors who are glad to get it because antibiotics are generally not available at any price

The easiest antibiotic to make is colloidal silver. You only need a battery, some salt water and some silver. I suspect that will be the most common antibiotic to have in a lot of places. Everything else requires much more training and/or equipment and/or hard to source precursors.

Synthesizing penicillin isn't the problem, the real problem is purifying it. I suppose if you're on death's door, you don't really care about the purity too much.

After that would be the sulfa drugs. But if you think you can get your hands on aniline, chlorosulfonic acid, ammonia, hydrochloric acid, and baking soda plus chemical equipment - during a collapse. Well, charitably, I'll call you optimistic.

Thomas Daulton said...

I am grateful for all the discussion of Internet addiction and leisure time management. Believe me, those are important issues to me.

But I am puzzled if nobody else sees these issues caused, or at least partly caused, by the basic problems of growth and complexity. Nobody has discussed them from this viewpoint.

I feel like many of my time management problems are a result of multiplication of debts and responsibilities over time. (Maybe not the exclusive result, but that's one cause out of several.) This I see as the result of having a network that gets larger and more complex as population increases, time goes on, and technology offers us more options to connect. Does anyone else see it that way? I didn't really mean to hijack this column and talk about Internet addiction. I wanted to talk about responding to complexity.

I know two different people -- who don't know each other -- they've told me separately, "I decided I only want to keep X number of friends in my life" (now keep in mind, they're saying this about REAL-life friends, not Facebook virtual "friends".) One guy said X was five, the other said a dozen friends. "If somebody wants to be friends with me instead of just casual acquaintances, they have to give me a reason that's good enough for me to abandon some other friend." Is that a natural human reaction when faced with a growing network? I'd say no, I never heard anything like that before the past few years. Is that how friendship really works? Make a rationally weighted value judgment, find a numerical formula and set a planned limit?

I feel like my discrimination and time management skills were adequate to the task for the first 30 or even 40 years of my life, but lately those skills have been overwhelmed by a profusion of worthwhile choices. I see that as a result of simple population growth.

Try to look past the specific examples of music and Facebook, and at the underlying principles. There are an infinite number of specific examples, and what I’m seeking to discuss are general principles that apply to all of them.

Another example: books. I’d bet dollars to donuts that most every reader of this column has a stack of books by his or her bed, on a shelf or whatever, which you’ve bought but haven’t read. You have authors you trust and like, you have subjects that interest you, so every once in awhile you see a book that you think is worth the cover price. Hasn’t your unread stack been growing by leaps and bounds in recent years? (Yeah, yeah, I know, there’s also the library, and I do go there. My point is about the _LIST_ of unread books, not the stack or the money.) With growing population, more people try to make a living writing books; and existing authors write more books, usually at a faster rate, as their living expenses increase and/or they compete and become more successful. The JD Salingers of the world – who write two books and then quit – are rare. I’d wager most of us have seen our list of “worthwhile” unread books mushroom beyond control in recent years, by whatever standard you judge books. There are just more and more books out there every year (same with music) while your time available to read them does not increase.

When the list of worthwhile books keeps increasing and you can’t keep up, not only do you feel like you’re falling behind, but you can actually be missing out on important new modes of thinking, or missing out on discussions that the rest of society engages in. Does anyone really deal with this rationally and numerically (“I only read books by Noam Chomsky and Stephen King, and I limit myself to 3 of their sequels per year”)?? Isn’t this at its root more a problem of a growing population, and less a problem with individual skills of discrimination and money/time management? Of course one’s personal taste in books may tend to become broader over the years, but isn’t that (first) a good thing, and (second) another problem rooted in growth?

Patricia Mathews said...

Basic product availability - for what it's worth, on the Almack's list, a discussion on a Regency heroine remaking her mother's 18th Century gowns for the simpler styles of 200 years ago rapidly morphed into complains about the unavailability of fabrics for dressmaking. And the sleazy quality of every fabric except those in the bridal shop. Many of those women had either made their own clothes or remade older ones in the 1960s but are out of luck today.

Just FYI, since the sewing machine is your friend in hard times!

Raymond Duckling said...


First, I am glad you liked my suggestion. Blogger apparently ate my previous response, so I will just say that one other concept that I saw emerge from the various responses is: "make a budget and stick to it".

Second, the subject is interesting, but perhaps here is not the place to have that discussion. Maybe if you started a topic in the Green Wizardry forum, other people would chime in.

Joel Caris said...

Hi Thomas,

Excellent! It seems to me that you're looking for the personal version of catabolic collapse. Your life has become too complex, you can't handle it all, but you don't feel you have a good strategy for paring it down.

I've had this happen to me and I've seen it in others. I don't know for sure, but my strong suspicion is that most people deal with it in a similar way as civilizations do: they simply deal with the sort of ragged decline that reduces unsupportable complexity. Frankly, that's largely how I've done it.

For example, I always have far more books than I can read and I have a hard time not acquiring new books faster than I read them. I've dealt with this in a ragged, piecemeal fashion: I've gone through my books and sold ones that I no longer feel a strong interest in, I've stashed boxes of books in a parents' basement and largely forgotten about them, I've given away books, and I've gone through periods of exclusively using the library, except for very select exceptions.

All of these methods have worked well to help shed complexity. They tend to work for short bursts of time until old habits reassert themselves, leading to a build up of new complexity and, eventually, another shedding.

Most of these methods have been precipitated more by circumstance than by calculation. The most common stress point that's created the complexity-shed is a move to a new location. That's led both to sales and to stashing as I've had to physically deal with all these books, rather than just see them on a shelf and not much think about them except when I'm deciding on something new to read.

Other times have been more pre-meditated, but still precipitated. For instance, I've had camping trips that inspired me to seek a greater personal simplicity and sell off possessions. This is a more thoughtful approach, in that I'm actually considering the impacts of complexity on my life, but it's also precipitated by a specific event.

The library usage maybe is the most thoughtful of complexity sheds for me. I can't think of precipitating events for it, but it usually is the culmination of thought and consideration. However, there have also been times when it's been inspired by money concerns.

One could, of course, follow one of these complexity-shedding paths--or a different one altogether--through personal reflection and consideration rather than a precipitating event, but I suspect that's less common. I can't give you all the reasons why, though I imagine it would relate to the stronger influence within humans of emotion and narrative rather than reason and logic, due to simple evolutionary realities.

But you can deal with it in a more premeditated manner. To do that, though, you will have to set some kind of limit for yourself. You could come to these limits through personal reflection and consideration or you could apply them arbitrarily, but limits you'll need. Otherwise, you leave yourself to the whims of unconsidered complexity-shedding. You may not know how it will happen, but you can bet it eventually will. (If nothing else, death is the ultimate complexity-shed.)

One final note, though, is that an understanding that one must set limits is essentially an understanding (conscious or not) that one cannot see, know, and experience everything the world offers. We only get a very, very tiny percentage. I could be wrong, but it seems that you're struggling with that understanding in some of your comments, or at least fighting it. I think one key for you would be to embrace that reality and then get to either figuring out which experiences you want to focus on, or committing yourself to arbitrary limits that will dictate the experiences for you, and being okay with the results. (I often opt for the arbitrary limits, due to a struggle with self-discipline, and I will say that I typically am quite satisfied with the results.)

media said...

i got to this from the casse/steadystate google or yahoo group web site in dc. i also know cumberland maryland. (alked up there from dc a few times on the C&O---i actually met william douglas, supreme court, when i was a kid, since i had read some of his books).) you'd be lucky to live there if you aren't broke. but, there are 222 comments here. how many are enough. i do have issues with music, being somewhat of a musician. how much time do i spend listening to other's music vs practicing my self. alot of more succesful bands seem to focus more on the business side, but they arent worth listening to---they are all totally generic but they get gigs, etc. but maybe music actually is less important than the image. you can also look at if you want information overload.

EntropicDoom said...

I have read the Wikipedia entry for Arming America and I retract everything. MEA CULPA! I made a mistake by relying only on the book and not the reference to its later denuncification. I apologize for believing the book's premise. I will contact a Mr. Peabody and journey to the past in the way back machine for a closer survey with dogged perseverance. Oops, bad joke. Understanding the future by looking at the past is a perilous. Especially when, instead of standing on the shoulders of giants, I tripped and fell into the mud with the author of the cited book.

I only thought I was citing a scholarly work showing how hard it was to build, maintain and equip a militia with firearms in a perilous environment. It also appears to be difficult find truth in difficult times.

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