The Problem of Growth

Stuart Staniford proposed a “way forward” for humanity in his article Powering Civilization to 2050. This article proposes an alternative vision: instead of trying to create continual, technological stop-gaps to the demands of growth, we must address the problem of growth head on. Infinite growth is impossible in a finite world--a great deal of economic growth may be possible without a growth in resource consumption, but eventually the notion of perpetual growth is predicated on perpetual increase in resource consumption. This growth in resource consumption causes problems: it brings civilization into direct conflict with our environmental support system. Growth is also one way of improving the standard of living for humanity by creating more economic produce, more material consumption per human. Growth, however, produces very unevenly distributed benefits, and there is little convincing evidence that the poorest, most abused 10% of humanity is actually better off today than the poorest, most abused 10% of past eras. Furthermore, if you accept my statement above that infinite growth is impossible in a finite world, then employing growth today to “solve” our immediate problems incurs the significant moral hazard of pushing the problem—perhaps the greatly exacerbated problem—of addressing growth itself on future generations.

With that in mind, my intent here is to propose one possible means for humanity to directly address the problem of growth itself. I am attempting to take what I see as an inherently pragmatic approach—one that does not rely on the universal cooperation of humanity, nor on the assumption of yet-to-be-developed technologies. My approach to the problem of growth is to stop trying to address its symptoms—overpopulation, pollution, global warming, peak oil—and attempt instead to identify and address the underlying source of the problem.

That source is the hierarchal structure of human civilization. Hierarchy demands growth. Growth is a result of dependency. The solution to the problem of growth, then, is the elimination of dependency. This essay will elaborate on each of those points, and then propose a means to effectively eliminate dependency by creating minimally self-sufficient but interconnected networks that I call Rhizome. It is my hope that this topic, while not directly involving crude oil reserves or some similar topic, will be highly relevant within the context of Peak Oil and Peak Energy. Infinite growth requires, eventually, infinite energy. Assume that we develop a perfect fusion generator, or that we cover the entire surface of the Earth with 100% efficient solar panels. None of this actually solves the problem of growth—it just shifts the burden of dealing with that problem onto our grandchildren, or perhaps even 100 generations from now. It’s easy to take the self-centered perspective that such burden-shifting is acceptable, but I find it fundamentally morally unacceptable. This essay will begin and end with that understanding of morality, and attempt to find a way forward for humanity that balances the quality of life demands of both present and future generations. This essay isn't about how to find more oil, how to recover more oil, or how to use energy in general more efficiently so that we can keep on growing. It is an opinion piece, not a data-driven scientific paper. It is about living well, now and in the future, individually and collectively, without growth.

I. Hierarchy Must Grow, and is Therefore Unsustainable

Why must hierarchy continually grow and intensify? Within the context of hierarchy in human civilization, there seem to be three separate categories of forces that force growth. I will address them in the order (roughly) that they arose in the development of human civilization:

Human Psychology Drives Growth

Humans fear uncertainty, and this uncertainty drives growth. Human population growth is partially a result of the desire to ensure enough children survive to care for aging parents. Fear also drives humans to accept trade-offs in return for security.

One of the seeds of hierarchy is the desire to join a redistribution network to help people through bad times—crop failures, drought, etc. Chaco Canyon, in New Mexico, is a prime anthropological example of this effect. Most anthropologists agree that the Chaco Canyon dwellings served as a hub for a food redistribution system among peripheral settlements. These peripheral settlements—mostly maize and bean growing villages—would cede surplus food to Chaco. Drought periodically ravaged either the region North or South of Chaco, but rarely both simultaneously. The central site would collect and store surplus, and, when necessary, distribute this to peripheral settlements experiencing crop failures as a result of drought. The result of this system was that the populations in peripheral settlements were able to grow beyond what their small, runoff-irrigated fields would reliably sustain. The periodic droughts no longer checked population due to membership in the redistributive system. The peripheral settlements paid a steep price for this security—the majority of the surplus wasn’t redistributed, but rather supported an aristocratic priest class in Chaco Canyon—but human fear and desire for security made this trade-off possible.

Still today, our fear of uncertainty and desire for stability and security create an imperative for growth. This is equally true of Indian peasants having seven children to ensure their retirement care as it is of rich Western European nations offering incentives for couples to have children in order to maintain their Ponzi-scheme retirements systems. Fear also extends to feelings of family or racial identity, as people all over the world fear being out-bred by rival or neighboring families, tribes, or ethnic groups. This phenomenon is equally present in tribal societies of Africa, where rival ethnic groups understand the need to compete on the level of population, as it is in America, where there is an undercurrent of fear among white Americans that population growth rates are higher among Hispanics Americans.

The Structure of Human Society Selects for Growth

The psychological impetus toward growth results in what I consider the greatest growth-creating mechanism in human history: the peer-polity system. This phenomenon is scale free and remains as true today as it did when hunter-gather tribes first transitioned to agricultural “big-man” groups. Anthropologically, when big-men groups are often considered the first step toward hierarchal organization. When one farmer was able to grow more than his neighbors, he would have surplus to distribute, and these gifts created social obligations. Farmers would compete to grow the greatest surplus, because this surplus equated to social standing, wives, and power. Human leisure time, quite abundant in most ethnological accountings of remnant hunter-gatherer societies, was lost in favor of laboring to produce greater surplus. The result of larger surpluses was that there was more food to support a greater population, and the labors of this greater population would, in turn, produce more surplus. The fact that surplus production equates to power, across all scales, is the single greatest driver of growth in hierarchy.

In a peer-polity system, where many separate groups interact, it was not possible to opt-out of the competition to create more surplus. Any group that did not create surplus—and therefore grow—would be out-competed by groups that did. Surplus equated to population, ability to occupy and use land, and military might. Larger, stronger groups would seize the land, population, and resources of groups that failed in the unending competition for surplus. Within the peer-polity system, there is a form of natural selection in favor of those groups that produce surplus and grow most effectively. This process selects for growth—more specifically, it selects for the institutionalization of growth. The result is the growth imperative.

The Development of Modern Economics & Finance Requires Growth

This civilizational selection for growth manifests in many ways, but most recently it resulted in the rise of the modern financial system. As political entities became more conscious of this growth imperative, and their competition with other entities, they began to consciously build institutions to enhance their ability to grow. The earliest, and least intentional example is that of economic specialization and centralization. Since before the articulation of these principles by Adam Smith, it was understood that specialization was more efficient—when measured in terms of growth—than artesian craftsmanship, and that centralized production that leveraged economy of place better facilitated growth than did distributed production. It was not enough merely to specialize “a little,” because the yardstick was not growth per se, but growth in comparison to the growth of competitors. It was necessary to specialize and centralize ever more than competing polities in order to survive. As with previous systems of growth, the agricultural and industrial revolutions were self-reinforcing as nations competed in terms of the size of the infantry armies they could field, the amount of steel for battleships and cannon they could produce, etc. It wasn’t possible to reverse course—while it may have been possible for the land area of England, for example, to support its population via either centralized or decentralized agriculture, only centralized agriculture freed a large enough portion of the population to manufacture export goods, military materiel, and to serve in the armed forces.

Similarly, the expansion of credit accelerated the rate of growth—it was no longer necessary to save first buy later when first home loans, then car loans, then consumer credit cards became ever more prevalent, all accelerating at ever-faster rates thanks to the wizardry of complex credit derivatives. This was again a self-supporting cycle: while it is theoretically possible to revert from a buy-now-pay-later system to a save-then-buy system, the transition period would require a significant period of vastly reduced spending—something that would crush today’s highly leveraged economies. Not only is it necessary to maintain our current credit structure, but it is necessary to continually expand our ability to consume now and pay later—just as in the peer polity conflicts between stone-age tribes, credit providers race to provide more consumption for less buck in an effort to compete for market share and to create shareholder return. Corporate entities, while existing at least as early as Renaissance Venice, are yet another example of structural bias toward growth: corporate finance is based on attracting investment by promising greater return for shareholder risk than competing corporations, resulting in a structural drive toward the singular goal of growth. And modern systems of quarterly reporting and 24-hour news cycles only exacerbate the already short-term risk horizons of such enterprises.

Why This is Important

This has been a whirlwind tour of the structural bias in hierarchy toward growth, but it has also, by necessity, been a superficial analysis. Books, entire libraries, could be filled with the analysis of this topic. But despite the scope of this topic, it is remarkable that such a simple concept underlies the necessity of growth: within hierarchy, surplus production equates to power, requiring competing entities across all scales to produce ever more surplus—to grow—in order to compete, survive, and prosper. This has, quite literally, Earth shaking ramifications.

We live on a finite planet, and it seems likely that we are nearing the limits of the Earth’s ability to support ongoing growth. Even if this limit is still decades or centuries away, there is serious moral hazard in the continuation of growth on a finite planet as it serves merely to push that problem on to our children or grandchildren. Growth cannot continue infinitely on a finite planet. This must seem obvious to many people, but I emphasize the point because we tend to overlook or ignore its significance: the basis of our civilization is fundamentally unsustainable. Our civilization seems to have a knack for pushing the envelope, for finding stop-gap measures to push growth beyond a sustainable level. This is also problematic because the further we are able to inflate this bubble beyond a level that is sustainable indefinitely, the farther we must ultimately fall to return to a sustainable world. This is Civilization’s sunk cost: there is serious doubt that our planet can sustain 6+ billion people over the long term, but by drawing a line in the sand, that “a solution that results in the death of millions or billions to return to a sustainable level” is fundamentally impermissible, we merely increase the number that must ultimately die off. Furthermore, while it is theoretically possible to reduce population, as well as other measures of impact on our planet, in a gradual and non-dramatic way (e.g. no die off), the window of opportunity to choose that route is closing. We don’t know how fast—but that uncertainty makes this a far more difficult risk management problem (and challenge to political will) than knowing that we have precisely 10, 100, or 1000 years.

This is our ultimate challenge: solve the problem of growth or face the consequences. Growth isn't a problem that can be solved through a new technology--all that does is postpone the inevitable reckoning with the limits of a finite world. Fusion, biofuels, super-efficient solar panels, genetic engineering, nano-tech--these cannot, by definition, solve the problem. Growth is not merely a population problem, and no perfect birth control scheme can fix it, because peer polities will only succeed in reducing population (without being eliminated by those that outbreed them) if they can continue to compete by growing overall power to consumer, produce, and control. All these "solutions" can do is delay and exacerbate the Problem of Growth. Growth isn't a possible problem--it's a guaranteed crisis, we just don't know the exact time-frame.

Is there a solution to the Problem of Growth? Can global governance lead to an agreement to abate or otherwise manage growth effectively? It's theoretically possible, but I see it about as likely as solving war by getting everyone to agree to not fight. Plus, as the constitutional validity and effective power of the Nation-State declines, even if Nation-States manage to all agree to abate growth, they will fail because they are engaged in a very real peer-polity competition with non-state groups that will only use this competitive weakness as a means to establish a more dominant position--and continue growth. Others would argue that collapse is a solution (a topic I have explored in the past), but I now define that more as a resolution. Collapse does nothing to address the causes of Growth, and only results in a set-back for the growth-system. Exhaustion of energy reserves or environmental capacity could hobble the ability of civilization to grow for long periods of time--perhaps even on a geological time scale--but we have no way of knowing for sure that a post-crash civilization will not be just as ragingly growth-oriented as today's civilization, replete with the same or greater negative effects on the environment and the human spirit. Similarly, collapse that leads to extinction is a resolution, not a solution, when viewed from a human perspective.

A solution, at least as I define it, must allow humans to control the negative effects of growth on our environment and our ability to fulfill our ontogeny. The remaining essays in this series will attempt to identify the root cause of the problem of growth, and to propose concrete and implementable solutions that satisfy that definition.

II. Hierarchy is the Result of Dependency

The first section in this essay identified the reason why hierarchal human structures must grow: surplus production equals power, and entities across all scales must compete for this power—must grow—or they will be pushed aside by those who do. But why can’t human settlements simply exist as stable, sustainable entities? Why can’t a single family or a community simply decide to opt out of this system? The answer: because they are dependent on others to meet their basic needs, and must participate in the broader, hierarchal system in order to fulfill these needs. Dependency, then, is the lifeblood of hierarchy and growth.

Dependency Requires Participation on the Market’s Terms

Take, for example, a modern American suburbanite. Her list of dependencies is virtually unending: food, fuel for heat, fuel for transport, electricity, clothing, medical care, just to name a few. She has no meaningful level of self-sufficiency—without participation in hierarchy she would not survive. This relationship is hierarchal because she is subservient to the broader economy—she may have negotiating power with regard to what job she performs at what compensation for what firm, but she does not have negotiating power on the fundamental issue of participating in the market economy on its terms. She must participate to gain access to her fundamental needs—she is dependent (consider also Robert Anton Wilson's notion of money in civilization as "bio-surival tickets").

Compare this to the fundamentally similar situation of family in Lahore, Pakistan, or a farmer in rural Colombia. While their superficial existence and set of material possessions may be strikingly different, they share this common dependency. The Colombian farmer is dependent on a seed company and on revenue from his harvest to fuel his tractor, heat his home, and buy the 90% of his family's diet that he does not grow. The family in Lahore is dependent on the sales from their clothing store to purchase food—they cannot grow it themselves as they live in an apartment in a dense urban environment. They are dependent on participation in hierarchy—they cannot participate on their own terms and select for a stable and leisurely life. The market, as a result of competition between entities at all levels, functions to minimize input costs—if corn can be grown more cheaply in America and shipped to Colombia than it can be grown in Colombia, by a sufficient margin, then that will eventually happen. This requires the Colombian farmer to compete to make his corn as cheap as possible—i.e. to work as long and as hard to maximize his harvest. While if he were participating on his own terms, he may only wish to work 20 hours per week, he may have to work 50, 60, or more hours at hard labor to make enough money off competitively priced corn to be able meet the basic needs of his family in return. He is in competition with his neighbors and competing entities around the world to minimize the input cost of his own efforts—a poor proposition, and one that is forced upon him because he participates on the market’s terms, all a result of his dependency on the market to meet his basic needs. The situation of the family of shopkeepers in Pakistan or the Suburban knowledge-worker in America is fundamentally the same, even if it may vary on the surface.

The Blurring of Needs and Wants

Why not just drop out? It isn’t that tough to survive as a hermit, gather acorns, grow potatoes on a small plot of forest, or some other means of removing oneself from this dependency on the market. To begin with, “dropping out” and becoming self-sufficient is not quite as easy as it sounds, and just as importantly, it would become nearly impossible if any significant portion of the population chose that route. But more fundamentally, humans don’t want to drop out of participation in the market because they desire the enhanced consumption that is available—or at least exists in some far-off-promised land called “America” (fantasy even in the mind of most "Americans")—only through such participation. It may be possible to eat worms and acorns and sleep in the bushes, but this would be even more unacceptable than schlepping to work 40+ hours a week. Most people cannot envision, let alone implement, a system that maintains an acceptable “standard of living” without participation in the system, and all but the very lucky or brave few can’t figure out how to participate in that system without being dependent on it.

There is certainly a blurring of “needs” and “wants” in this dependency. Humans don’t “need” very much to remain alive, but a certain amount of discretionary consumption tends to increase the effectiveness of the human machine. From the perspective of the market, this is desirable, but is also an input cost that must be minimized. This is the fundamental problem of participating in the market, the economy, the “system” on its terms: the individual becomes nothing more than an input cost to be minimized in the competition between entities at a higher organizational level. John Robb recently explored this exact issue, but from the perspective of the local community--the implications are quite similar.

In an era of globalization, increased communications connectivity, and (despite the rising costs of energy) an ever increasing global trade network, this marginalization is accelerating at breakneck speed. Is your job something that can be done online from India? How about in person by an illegal immigrant? Because there are people with doctorates willing to work for ¼ what you make if you’re in a knowledge field, and people with high tolerance for mind-numbing, back-breaking labor willing to work hard for $5/hour or less right next door (or for $2/day overseas). If this doesn’t apply to you, you’re one of the lucky few (and, if I might add, you should be working to get yourself to into just such a position). Maybe they don’t know how to outsource your function yet, but trust me, someone is working on it. Participation in the market on its terms means that the market is trying to find a way to make your function cheaper.

This dependency on participation in the hierarchal system fuels the growth of hierarchy. Even if there is a severe depression or collapse, hierarchy will survive the demand destruction because it is necessary to produce and redistribute necessities to people who don’t or can’t produce them themselves. It may be smaller or less complex, but as long as people depend on participation in an outside system—whether that is a local strong man or an international commodities exchange—to gain access to basic necessities, the organization of that system will be hierarchal. And, as a hierarchy, that system will compete with other hierarchies to gain surplus, to grow, and to minimize the cost of human input.

Dependency on a Security Provider

One of the most significant areas in which people are dependent on hierarchal systems is to provide security. This seems to be especially true in times of volatility and change. While it may be possible to set up a fairly self-sufficient farm or commune and provide for one’s basic needs, this sufficiency must still be defended. If everyone doesn’t have access to the necessities that you produce for yourself, then there is potential for conflict. This could range from people willing to use violence to access to your food or water supply to governments or local strong-men expecting your participation in their tax scheme or ideological struggle. Ultimately, dependence on hierarchy is dependence on the blanket of security it provides, no matter how coercive or disagreeable it may be, and even if this security takes the form of “participation” in exchange for protection from the security provider itself.

Why this is Important

Virtually everyone is dependent on participation in hierarchal systems to meet their basic needs, of one type or another. This dependency forces participation, and drives the perpetual growth—and therefore the ultimate unsustainability—of hierarchy. If growth is the problem, then it is necessary to identify the root cause of that problem so that we may treat the problem itself, and not merely a set of symptoms. In our analysis, we have seen in Part 1 that hierarchies must grow, and now in this installment that human dependency is what sustains these hierarchies. Dependency, then, is the root cause of the problem of growth.

III. Building an Alternative to Hierarchy: Rhizome

So far in this essay, I have argued that competition between hierarchal entities selects for those entities that most efficiently grow and intensify, resulting in a requirement for perpetual growth, and that ongoing human dependency on participation in this system is the lifeblood of this process. At the most basic level, then, an alternative to hierarchy and a solution to the problem of growth must address this issue of dependency. My proposed alternative—what I call “rhizome”—begins at exactly this point.

Achieving Minimal Self-Sufficiency

The first principle of rhizome is that individual nodes—whether that is family units or communities of varying sizes—must be minimally self-sufficient. “Minimally self-sufficient” means the ability to consistently and reliably provide for anything so important that you would be willing to subject yourself to the terms of the hierarchal system in order to get it: food, shelter, heat, medical care, entertainment, etc. It doesn’t mean zero trade, asceticism, or “isolationism,” but rather the ability to engage in trade and interaction with the broader system when, and only when, it is advantageous to do so. The corollary here is that a minimally self-sufficient system should also produce some surplus that can be exchanged—but only to the extent that is found to be advantageous. A minimally self sufficient family may produce enough of its own food to get by if need be, its own heat and shelter, and enough of some surplus—let’s say olive oil—to exchange for additional, quality-of-life-enhancing consumables as it finds advantageous. This principle of minimal self-sufficiency empowers the individual family or community, while allowing the continuation of trade, value-added exchange, and full interaction with the outside world.

It should be immediately apparent that "dependency" is the result of one's definition of "need." Total self-sufficiency in the eyes of a Zimbabwean peasant, even outright luxury, may fall far short of what the average American perceives as "needing" to survive. As a result, an "objectively" self-sufficient American may sell himself into hierarchy to acquire what is perceived as a "need." To this end, what I have called "elegant simplicity" is a critical component of the creation of "minimal self-sufficiency." This is the notion that through conscious design we can meet and exceed our "objective" needs (I define these as largely experiential, not material, and set by our genetic ontogeny, not the global consumer-marketing system) at a level of material consumption that can realistically be provided for on a self-sufficient basis. I've written about this topic on several previous occasions (1 2 3 4 5).

Leveraging “Small-Worlds” Networks

How should rhizome nodes interact? Most modern information processing is handled by large, hierarchal systems that, while capable of digesting and processing huge amounts of information, incur great inefficiencies in the process. The basic theoretical model for rhizome communication is the fair or festival. This model can be repeated locally and frequently—in the form of dinner parties, barbecues, and reading groups—and can also affect the establishment and continuation of critical weak, dynamic connections in the form of seasonal fairs, holiday festivals, etc. This is known as the “small-worlds” theory of network. It tells us that, while many very close connections may be powerful, the key to flat-topography (i.e. non-hierarchal) communications is a broad and diverse network of distant but weak connections. For example, if you know all of your neighbors well, you will be relatively isolated in the context of information awareness. However, if you also have weak contact with a student in India, a farmer across the country, and your cousin in London, you will have access to the very different set of information immediately available to those people. These weak connections greatly expands information awareness, and leverages a much more powerful information processing network—while none of your neighbors may have experienced a specific event or solved a particular problem before, there is a much greater chance that someone in your diverse and distant “weak network” has.

In high-tech terms, the blogosphere is exactly such a network. While many blogs may focus primarily on cat pictures, there is tremendous potential to use this network as a distributed and non-hierarchal problem solving, information collection, and processing system. In a low-tech, or vastly lower energy world, the periodic fair or festival performs the same function.

Building Rhizome Institutions

The final aspect of the theory of rhizome is the need to create rhizome-creating and rhizome-strengthening institutions. One of these is the ability of rhizome to defend itself. Developments in fourth generation warfare suggest that, now more than ever, it is realistic for a small group or network to effectively challenge the military forces of hierarchy. However, it is not my intent here to delve into the a plan for rhizome military defense—I have explored that topic elsewhere, and strongly recommend John Robb’s blog and book “Brave New War” for more on this topic.
One institution that I do wish to explore here is the notion of anthropological self-awareness. It is important that the every participant node in rhizome has an understanding of the theoretical foundation of rhizome, and of the general workings of anthropological systems in general. Without this knowledge, it is very likely that participants will fail to realize the pitfalls of dependency, resulting in a quick slide back to hierarchy. I like to analogize anthropological self-awareness to the characters in the movie “Scream,” who were aware of the cliché rules that govern horror movies while actually being in a horror movie. When individual participants understand the rationale behind concepts like minimal self-sufficiency and “small-worlds” network theory, they are far more likely to succeed in consistently turning theory into practice.

Additionally, it is important to recognize the cultural programming that hierarchal systems provide, and to consciously reject and replace parts of this with a myth, taboo, and morality that supports rhizome and discourages hierarchy. Rules are inherently hierarchal—they must be enforced by a superior power, and are not appropriate for governing rhizome. However, normative standards—social norms, taboos, and values—are effective means of coordinating rhizome without resorting to hierarchy. For example, within the context of anthropological self-awareness, it would be considered “wrong” or “taboo” to have slaves, to be a lord of the manor, or to “own” more property than you can reasonably put to sustainable use. This wouldn’t be encoded in a set of laws and enforced by a ruling police power, but rather exist as the normative standard, compliance with which is the prerequisite for full participation in the network.

Finally, institutions should be devolutionary rather than accrete hierarchy. One example of this is the Jubilee system—rather than allow debt or excess property beyond what an individual can use, accumulate, and pass on to following generations--a system that inevitably leads to class divisions and a de facto aristocracy--some ancient cultures would periodically absolve all debt and start fresh, or redistribute land in a one-family-one-farm manner. These specific examples may not apply well to varying circumstances, but the general principles applies: cultural institutions should reinforce decentralization, independence, and rhizome, rather than centralization, dependency, and hierarchy.

Is This Setting the Bar Too High for All?

I’ll be the first to admit that this is a tall order. While the current system—massive, interconnected, and nested hierarchies and exchange systems—is anything but simple, its success is not dependent on every participant comprehending how the system works. While rhizome doesn’t require completely omniscient knowledge by all participants, the danger of hierarchy lurks in excessive specialization in the knowledge and rationale supporting rhizome—dependency on a select few to comprehend and operate the system is just that: dependency. Is it realistic to expect people to, en masse, understand, adopt, and consistently implement these principles? Yes.

I have no delusions that this is some perfect system that can be spread by airdropped pamphlet and then, one night, a switch is flipped and “rhizome” is the order of the day. Rather, I see this as the conceptual framework for the gradual, incremental, and distributed integration of these ideas into the customized plans of individuals and communities preparing for the future. I have suggested in the past that rhizome should operate on what Antonio Negri has called the “diagonal”-- that is, in parallel but out of phase with the existing, hierarchal system. There may also be lessons to be incorporated from Hakim Bey’s notions of the Temporary Autonomous Zone and the Permanent Autonomous Zone—that flying under the radar of hierarchy may be a necessary expedient. Ultimately, this will likely never be a system that is fully adopted by society as a whole—I tend to envision this as analogous, in some ways, to the network of monasteries that retained classical knowledge through the dark in Western Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. In a low-energy future, it may be enough to have a small rhizome network operating in parallel to, but separated from, the remnants of modern civilization. Whether we experience a fast crash, a slow collapse, the rise of a neo-feudal/neo-fascist system, or something else, an extant rhizome network may act as a check on the ability of that system to exploit and marginalize the individual. If rhizome is too successful, too threatening to that system it may be imperiled, but if it is a “competitor” in the sense that it sets a floor and for how much hierarchal systems can abuse humanity, if it provides a viable alternative model, that may be enough to check hierarchy and achieve sustainability and human fulfillment. And, if this is all no more than wishful thinking, it may provide a refuge while Rome burns.

IV. Implementing Rhizome at the Personal Level

Rhizome begins at the personal level, with a conscious attempt to understand anthropological processes, to build minimal self-sufficiency, and to engage in “small-worlds” networks. This installment will outline my ideas for implementing this theory at the personal level in an incremental and practicable way. This is by no means intended to be an exhaustive list of ideas, but rather a starting point for discussion:


In the 21st Century, I think it will become clear that water is our most critical resource. We’ll move past our reliance on oil and fossil fuels—more by the necessity of resorting to dramatically lower consumption of localized energy—but we can’t move beyond our need for water. There is no substitute, so efficiency of use and efficacy of collection are our only options. In parts of the world, water is not a pressing concern. However, due to the fundamental and non-substitutable need for water everywhere, creating a consistent and resilient water supply should be a top priority everywhere. Climate change, or even just periodic extreme drought such as has recently hit the Atlanta area, may suddenly endanger water supplies that today may be considered a “sure thing.” How does the individual do this? I think that four elements are crucial: efficient use, resilient collection systems, purification, and sufficient storage.

Efficient use is the best way to maximize any available water supply, and the means to achieve this are varied: composting (no-flush) toilets, low-flow shower heads, mulching in the garden, etc. Greywater systems (also spelled "graywater," various spellings seem popular, so search on both) that reuse domestic water use in the garden are another critical way to improve efficiency.

Resilient collection systems are also critical. Rainwater harvesting is the best way to meet individual minimal self-sufficiency—dependence on a shared aquifer, on a municipal supply system, or on a riparian source makes your water supply dependent on the actions of others. Rainwater falling on your property is not (at least arguably not) dependent on others, and it can provide enough water to meet minimal needs of a house and garden in even the most parched regions with sufficient planning and storage. There are many excellent resources on rainwater harvesting, but I think Brad Lancaster’s series is the best—-buy it, read it, and implement his ideas.

While dirty water may be fine for gardens, water purification may be necessary for drinking. Even if an existing water supply doesn’t require purification, the knowledge and ability to purify enough water for personal use with a solar still or via some other method enhances resiliency in the face of unforeseen events.

Storage is also critical. Rain, fortunately, does not fall continuously—it comes in very erratic and unpredictable doses. Conventional wisdom would have said that long-term storage wasn’t necessary in the Atlanta area because rain falls so regularly all year round that storage of only a few months supply would suffice. Recent events proved this wrong. Other areas depend on short, annual monsoon seasons for the vast majority of their rain (such as Arizona). Here, storage of at least one year’s water supply is a threshold for self-sufficiency, and more is desirable. Significant droughts and erratic rainfall mean the more storage the better—if you don’t have enough storage to deal with a drought that halves rainfall for two straight years, then you are forced back to dependency in such an event at exactly the worst time, when everyone else is also facing scarcity. Where to store water? The options here are also varied—cisterns are an obvious source for drinking water, as are ponds where it is a realistic option, but storage in the ground via swales and mulch is a key part of ensuring the water supply to a garden.


If you have enough water and land, it should be possible to grow enough food to provide for minimal self-sufficiency. While many people consider this both unrealistic and extreme, I think it is neither. Even staunchly “establishment” thinkers such as the former chief of Global Strategy for Morgan Stanley advise exactly this path in light of the uncertainty facing humanity. There are several excellent approaches to creating individual food self-sufficiency: Permaculture (see Bill Mollison’s "Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual"), Masanobu Fukuoka’s “Natural Way of Farming” (see book of the same name), Hart’s “Food Forests,” and John Jeavons’ “Biointensive Method” (see "How to Grow More Vegetables"). Some combination and modification of these ideas will work in your circumstances. It is possible to grow enough calories to meet an individual’s requirements in only a few thousand square feet of raised beds—a possibility on even smaller suburban lots, and I have written about the ability to provide a culinarily satisfying diet on as little as 1/3 acre per person.

An additional consideration here is the need to make food supplies resilient in the face of unknown events. I have written about exactly this topic in “Creating Resiliency in Horticulture”, which basically advises to hedge failure of one type of food production with others that are unlikely to fail simultaneously—e.g. balance vegetable gardens with tree-crop production, mix animal production with the availability of reserve rangeland, or include a reserve of land for gathering wild foods. In Crete, after World War II, while massive starvation was wreaking Greece, the locals reverted to harvesting nutritious greens from surrounding forests to survive. The right mix to achieve food resiliency will vary everywhere—the key is to consciously consider and address the issue for your situation.

Shelter, Heating, & Cooling

Shelter should be designed to reduce or eliminate outside energy inputs for heating and cooling. This is possible even in the most extreme climates. Shelter should also be designed to eliminate reliance on building or maintenance materials that can’t be provided in a local and sustainable fashion. I realize that this is a challenge—but our architectural choices speak just as loudly about our real lifestyle as our food choices. Often, studying the architectural choices of pre-industrial people living in your region, or in a climatically similar region, provides great insight into locally appropriate architectural approaches. Passive solar heating and cooling is possible, with the right design, in virtually any climate—something that I have written about elsewhere.


I’m not going to advocate that individuals set up their own private, defensible bunker stocked with long rifles, claymore mines, and cases of ammunition. If that’s your thing, great. I do think that owning one or more guns may be a good idea for several reasons—defense being only one (hunting, good store of value, etc.). Let’s face facts: if you get to the point that you need to use, or threaten to use a lethal weapon to defend yourself, you’re A) already in serious trouble, and B) have probably made some avoidable mistakes along the way. The single best form of defense that is available to the individual is to ensure that your community is largely self-sufficient, and is composed of individuals who are largely self-sufficient. The entirety of part five of this series will address exactly that topic. Hopefully, America will never get to the point where lethal force must be used to protect your garden, but let’s face it, large parts of the world are already there. In either case, the single best defense is a community composed of connected but individually self-reliant individuals—this is rhizome. If your neighbors don’t need to raid your garden or “borrow” your possessions, then any outside threat to the community is a galvanizing force.

For now, aside from building a resilient community, there are a few things that individuals can do to defend their resiliency. First, don’t stand out. Hakim Bey’s notion of the permanent autonomous zone depends largely on staying “off the map.” How this manifests in individual circumstances will vary wildly. Second, ensure that your base of self-sufficiency is broad and minimally portable. At the risk of seeming like some wild-eyed “Mad Max” doom-monger, brigands can much more easily cart off wealth in the form of sheep or bags of cracked corn than they can in the form of almond trees, bee hives, or a well-stocked pond. Just think through how you achieve your self-sufficiency, and how vulnerable the entire system is to a single shock, a single thief, etc. You don’t have to believe that there will ever be roaming bands of brigands to consider this strategy—it applies equally well to floods, fire, drought, pestilence, climate change, hyperinflation, etc. My article “Creating Resiliency in Horticulture” also addresses this point.

Medicine, Entertainment, & Education

You don’t need to know how to remove your own appendix or perform open heart surgery. You don’t need to become a Tony-award caliber actor to perform for your neighbors. You don’t need to get a doctorate in every conceivable field for the education of your children. But if you understand basic first aid, if you can hold a conversation or tell a story, if you have a small but broad library of non-fiction and reference books, you’re a step ahead. Can you cook a good meal and entertain your friends? Look, human quality of life depends on more than just the ability to meet basic caloric and temperature requirements. The idea of rhizome is not to create a bunch of people scraping by with the bare necessities. Having enough food is great—you could probably buy enough beans right now to last you the next 10 years, but I don’t want to live that way. Most Americans depend on our economy to provide us a notion of quality of life—eating out, watching movies, buying cheap consumables. Minimal self-sufficiency means that we need the ability to provide these quality of life elements on our own. This probably sounds ridiculous to people in the third world who already do this—or to the lucky few in the “West” who have regular family meals, who enjoy quality home cooking, who can carry on enlightening and entertaining conversations for hours, who can just relax and enjoy the simplicity of sitting in the garden. It may sound silly to some, but for others this will be the single, most challenging dependency to eliminate. Again—dependency is the key. I’m not saying that you can never watch E! or go out to Applebee’s. What I am saying is that if you are so dependent on this method of achieving “quality of life” that you will enter the hierarchal system on its terms to access it, you have not achieved minimal self-sufficiency.

Production for Exchange

Finally, beyond minimal self sufficiency, the individual node should have the capability to produce some surplus for exchange because this allows access to additional quality-of-life creating products and services beyond what a single node can realistically provide entirely for itself. This is the point where minimal self-sufficiency doesn’t require isolationism. It is neither possible nor desirable for an individual or family node to provide absolutely everything desired for an optimal quality of life. While minimal self-sufficiency is essential, it is not essential to produce independently every food product, every tool, every type of entertainment, every service that you will want. Once minimal self-sufficiency is achieved, the ability to exchange a surplus product on a discretionary basis allows the individual node to access the myriad of wants—but not needs—that improve quality of life. This surplus product may be a food item—maybe you have 30 chickens and exchange the extra dozen or two eggs that you don’t consumer on a daily basis. Maybe you make wine, olive oil, baked bread, or canned vegetables. Maybe you provide a service—medicine, childcare & education, massage, who knows? The possibilities are endless, but the concept is important.

Practical Considerations in Implementing Rhizome at the Personal Level

Rhizome isn’t an all or nothing proposition—it is possible, and probably both necessary and desirable, to take incremental, consistent steps toward rhizome. Learn how to do more with less. Work to consciously integrate the principles of rhizome into every aspect of your daily life—think about your choices in consumption, then make medium and long-term plans to take bigger steps towards the full realization of rhizome.

And, perhaps most of all, rhizome does not demand, or even endorse, a “bunker mentality.” The single greatest step that an individual can take toward rhizome is to become an active participant in the creation of rhizome in the immediate, local community.

V. Implementing Rhizome at the Community Level

This final essay in this five-part series, The Problem of Growth, looks at implementing rhizome at a community level. Rhizome does not reject community structures in favor of a “bunker mentality,” but rather requires community structures that embrace and facilitate the principles of rhizome at both the personal and community level. Ultimately a rhizome community is composed of rhizome individual or family nodes—participants who do not depend on the community for their basic survival, nor participants who expect to benefit from the community without contribution. Rather, both the individual and the community choose to participate with each other as equals in a non-zero-sum fashion.

The results-based focus of the community is essentially the same as the individual, because the community consists of individuals who recognize the ability of the community to help them build resiliency and self-sufficiency in the provision of their basic needs, as well as the ability to access a broader network beyond the community.


The first thing that communities can do is to get out of the way of individuals’ attempts to create water self-sufficiency: remove zoning and ordinance hurdles that prevent people from practicing rainwater collection and storage, or that mandate people keep their front lawns watered. Communities can also address their storm water policies—many communities simply direct storm water into the ocean (see Los Angeles, for example), rather than effectively storing it in percolation ponds, or otherwise retaining it for community use. Communities can also facilitate the collection and sharing of water-collection and efficiency best practices, as well as help people to refine ideas from outside the community in a locally-appropriate manner. The possibilities are endless—as with virtually everything else here, the key is that the community recognize the issue and make a conscious effort to address it.


Again, communities should start by getting out of the way of individuals’ attempts to become food self-sufficient. This means eliminating zoning or ordinances that require lawns instead of vegetable gardens, that prevent the owning of small livestock such as chickens in suburban developments, and even (!) that mandate the planting of non-fruit bearing trees (on the theory that they’re messy if you forget to harvest them). But communities can also have a very proactive role in facilitating food self-sufficiency. Community gardens are a great place to start, especially where people live in high density housing that makes individual gardening impracticable. This has been done to great effect in urban areas in Venezuela, for instance. Communities can also foster knowledge and facilitate the sharing of best practices via lecture series, master gardener courses, local gardening extensions, community college courses, or community seek banks for locally appropriate species. Finally, communities should consider encouraging farmers markets to promote local surplus produce, to promote at least regional food self-sufficiency, and to kindle a public appreciation for the quality and value of fresh, seasonal, locally grown foods.

Shelter, Heating, & Cooling

I see the actual implementation of self-sufficient shelters as primarily an individual concern, though communities should certainly consider making communal structure, schools, etc. that conform to these standards. Most significantly, however, communities can work to get government out of the way of people who wish to do so individually. Get rid of zoning requirements that forbid solar installations, graywater, rainwater catchment, or small livestock, or that mandate set-backs and minimum numbers of parking spaces. Pass laws or ordinances that eliminate Home Owners’ Association rules prohibiting vegetable gardens, that mandate lawns, that prevent solar installations, etc. Many Colorado Home Owners' Associations (HOAs) used to ban the installation of solar panels, but Colorado recently passed a statute that prevents HOAs from banning solar—seems like a good idea to me. The Colorado law certainly isn't perfect, but it is an example of a very real step that a few people can take to work with their local or state government to help make your community more self-sufficient. If your HOA prevents you from installing solar hot water (or other solar), why not try to get the HOA to change its rules--there may be many other neighbors who want the same thing, and the more self-sufficient your immediate neighbors, the stronger your community, even if that community is "suburbia." If your HOA won't change, follow Colorado's example.


As with individual defense, I don’t advocate that a community take a bunker mentality and make preparations for a Hizb’Allah style defense of South Lebanon. I think that could work, and I’ve written about it here, but I think it is the second to worst outcome and something to be avoided if possible. In modern America, it seems obvious to me that it is fully possible for a rhizome community to operate within the umbrella of any current state government, as well as the federal government. However, there are other nations—take Colombia for example—where this is probably not possible. It seems like a very real possibility that the permissive environment America currently enjoys could look much more like Colombia at some point in the future. For that reason, this is an issue that must be taken up on a case-by-case basis by local communities. While I certainly wouldn’t advocate an armed militia patrolling the perimeter of the self-sufficiency conscious town of Willits, California (though some American communities effectively do this already), this kind of “extreme” action may well be a basic requirement for a small village in Colombia that is attempting to institute localized self-sufficiency and rhizome structure.

Medicine, Entertainment, & Education

Communities have a myriad of ways to provide for their own entertainment, without resorting to some canned cable-TV product. Also, communities can address the specialized knowledge problems—education and medicine, as well as gardening, and the theory of rhizome, by ensuring that these topics are covered in local school curriculums at all levels (public and private), by making these kinds of learning resources available via a community college, the local library, a lecture series, etc.

Exchange, Information Processing, and Interaction Beyond the Local Community

The possibilities here are numerous, and I'll just name a few possibilities for consideration: Community currency, community paper or blog, community development micro-loans, sponsoring seasonal fairs or festivals, etc. This is an area ripe for innovation and the sharing of best-practices...for additional ideas, see "Going Local" by Michael Schuman.

Practical Considerations in Implementing Rhizome at the Community Level

Just as with implementing rhizome at the individual level, rhizome is not an all-or-nothing proposition for communities. Any step that makes it easier for individuals to move toward rhizome is beneficial. Every community’s situation is different, and the number of ways to combine just the few suggestions provided here is nearly limitless. Customize, come up with new solutions, adapt or reject these ideas as you see fit, and share what works (best practices) and what doesn't with the world in an open-source manner—but more than anything else, think about how to bring your community closer to rhizome, and then act.

Addressing Free-Riders

Finally, every community must address the problem of free riders. Some people will want to benefit from the community without contributing anything at all. In most cases, normative pressures will suffice, and this is especially true of rhizome, where there isn’t a grand redistributive scheme that facilitates some people to leach indefinitely off the collected surplus. Still, the problem will arise, and there will always be a need and a place for charity, within rhizome and elsewhere. The most important factor in determining who is worthy of charity and who is a free-rider is the conscious articulation of the requirements for membership: the community gains strength by helping up its least self-sufficient members, but it should do so by helping them to fish, rather than repeatedly just giving them fish to eat. Rhizome communities need not be heartless—in fact, they shouldn’t be heartless, not just on moral grounds, but on selfish grounds of building a more resilient community—but they should exert normative pressures to demand participation roughly commensurate with capability.

VI. Conclusion

I hope that this five-part series addressing the Problem of Growth has been useful. One of the cornerstones of my personal philosophy is that growth is the greatest challenge facing humanity, and that shifting from a hierarchal to a rhizome form of social organization is our best chance to “solve” that problem. I also think that rhizome is valuable as it is a scale-free solution: I think that it can help to solve our international and national problems, but even if that fails it can certainly improve our individual situations. Ultimately, removing ourselves, one at a time, from being part of the cause of humanities problem cannot be a bad thing. As Ghandi said, “be the change that you wish to see in this world.” That seems particularly applicable to a scale-free solution!
I think that this discussion is particularly relevant within the context of Peak Oil and Peak Energy.

Infinite growth requires, eventually, infinite energy. Assume that we develop a perfect fusion generator, or that we cover the entire surface of the Earth with 100% efficient solar collectors. None of this actually solves the problem of growth—it just shifts the burden of dealing with that problem onto our grandchildren, or perhaps even 100 generations from now. It’s easy to take the self-centered perspective that such burden-shifting is acceptable, but I find it fundamentally morally unacceptable. This (rather long) essay begins with that moral assumption—if you don’t share it, then you will likely have found a preferable solution, or perhaps denied that growth even represents a problem to begin with. That’s fine by me—I am trying to present one possible solution without claiming that it is the only possible solution. I hope you have found it useful.

The original five parts of this essay can be found here.

Taking the standard run of the Limits to Growth World3 model as a starting point, it's more or less too late to begin efforts to prevent a population collapse. In the simulation per capita food and industrial production go into permanent decline after about 2012 and the population begins to collapse within a few decades after that. To address the problem of sustainability, we should have begun doing something about it in the 1970s or 1980s, at the latest.


While I think it's likely that the Earth can't support the present population at present consumption in a sustainable manner, I'm not convinced that it's too late to engineer a "soft landing" where population declines without starvation or other mass die off. However, even IF some form of die off is inevitable at this point, without addressing the problem of growth itself we'll just reset the population at some lower level, then grow again in excess of carrying capacity, and crash again, ad infinitum. The scale of these subsequent crashes may tail off in time, but I still think that even IF we accept that a crash is inevitable, it still makes sense to lay a groundwork for future sustainability today.

About the World3 simulation, to quote Monty Python "it's only a model!"

But I haven't seen any alternative scenarios either. If there is a population readjustment, what we might call a disorderly retreat from 7 billion to 1 billion or less, it will likely wipe out any groundwork in the process.


without addressing the problem of growth itself we'll just reset the population at some lower level, then grow again in excess of carrying capacity, and crash again, ad infinitum.


But I haven't seen any alternative scenarios either.

Greer's Catabolic Collapse is one alternative model, that plays out much as Jeff describes above. In his the comment section of his most recent post on his Archdruid Report blog, he discusses the idea that the current financial thrashing is an example of the model in that area.

It'd be interesting, but beyond what I have the time or knowledge to take on, to try to apply his 4-factor model to the recent credit bubble and its collapse. Anyone here have good tools and expertise in system dynamics?

Greer's an interesting person. And of course he's a winner of the prestigious Order of Bards Ovates and Druids Mount Haemus Award for Druid scholarship...

I like the piece on Catabolic collapse, but it doesn't seem to be much more than a restatement of the ideas behind the World3 system dynamics model discussed in Limits to Growth.

But I haven't seen any alternative scenarios either. If there is a population readjustment, what we might call a disorderly retreat from 7 billion to 1 billion or less, it will likely wipe out any groundwork in the process.

There isn't any solid evidence that 10 billion or more people can't be sustainably provided for, so I don't understand why so many assume that the population will implode. We have ample nuclear fuel for millions of years at 1000 times the global energy demand now and thats been demonstrated on a large scale (say all of france) without even bothering getting into the argument that renewables can also provide energy to power civilization.

I guess it depends on whether one thinks of your estimates as being able to see into the future or as hypothetical, and on whether it really is just a matter of energy as to being able to provide all of the resources and food that we we consider vital, without severely damaging our habitat, for a population of 10 billion, at moderate standards of living.

I'm sure many people disagree with both.

I'm sure many people disagree with both.

I know many do. On the later point, its based on undemonstrated assertions that there are somehow components that aren't producable by energy despite reasonable evidence to the contrary.

On the former, they're just plain wrong.


While I enjoy your writing, I'm not sure that growth is really a consequence of hierarchy. All biological systems seem to exist on a balance of anabolic (growth) and catabolic (decay) processes. Even in the human body our teeth and bones constantly balance between demineralization and remineralization. When the balance between the two processes disrupts is when the system goes off until another equilibrium is reached.

However - having said this - I do agree that growth in (human)hierarchies is strongly influenced by the desire for control/power. Unless there is a learned discipline to counter the urge for control & power I believe - based on personal experience (which hopefully is flawed) - that even (human) rhizomes will begin to seek power.

While nature tends to strike a balance between growth & decay, hierarchy and decentralization, there is still a "rebalancing" when they get out of whack. The problem is that, with humans, this "rebalancing" may come in the form of famine, plague, die off, who knows--and even more significantly, humans now exert such influence on the global environment that it is possible for the "rebalancing" of human growth to end all life, or at least all human life. As a selfish human, I'm starting from the proposition that I don't find that kind of rebalancing of nature to be acceptable. I'd rather bring about some kind of proactive rebalancing that restores balance without destroying humans, and better yet, without destroying our desire for "quality of life." That's asking a lot, I realize, but it seems that hierarchy, and especially the dependency that leads to hierarchy, is the best lever for humans to push on with that goal in mind.

I certainly agree that humans tend to seek power, and that this represents a real challenge to any kind of egalitarian "utopia." The ideas of minimal self-sufficiency and anthropological self-awareness are the best solutions to that problem that I can come up with at the moment, but they are certainly imperfect. I don't know if it's practicable to hope for such a "rhizome" structure to become ubiquitous, but I'd settle for it helping to balance out run-away hierarchy, and to balance out civilization's running away from addressing our needs as defined by our ontogeny...


I think I see your point; and from that perspective I'll agree.

I have to wonder as I now think back taking your point of view into account... of my childhood friends, a few went on to indulge in an artist's (?)wild(?) lifestyle, the majority went on to stable middle-class occupations, and a small number went off to study divinity/theology. Of them all, the one who went off into the vows of monkhood seems to have come closest to the selfless community-oriented human that puts the least burden on global resources. And oddly, from what I've seen many years ago when I last visited him, earthly matters (preparing meals, mending cloths, working on sources of income for the monastery) seems to have taken up more of his time than "other worldly" things did. Perhaps he comes closest to being the perfect rhizome?

But, to paraphrase Friedrich Nietzsche, for most people the desire to impose one's will on another human being is often stronger than even the desire for self preservation.

I guess we will see interesting times in the near future.

I, too, don't think it follows that growth is an outcome of hierarchy. I think the author is collapsing two distinct phenomena.

Also, personally I am uninterested in eliminating hierarchy. Hierarchies are very efficient ways to organize to produce results. In particular, they allow for accountability, that magical quality of something being "count-able" and thus able to be quantified. Quantification and lines of responsibility for those quantities are what make managing large endeavors possible. There is on the opposite spectrum the "open source" movement or "hive" approach to accomplishing large projects, but even in those systems often you'll find a person or persons at the top who help direct the system as a whole and frequently they have the final call for a proscribed set of decisions.

When done right (and it is done right in many places), individuals perform better when accountability is present. They are clear on their tasks and given the resources (or not, as the case may be) to accomplish them they are able to use their commitment and ingenuity and drive to accomplish them. People who are unclear on their tasks report that they are unsatisfied and frustrated with the system; anyone who has had conflicting directives from an employer will appreciate that.

It's possible to spread accountability across multiple individuals and strictly speaking accountability isn't by definition an individual phenomenon. I can be accountable for the condition of the environment — but so can anyone else and everyone else if they accept by the group the role of being accountable.

But it does take a great deal more effort to manage an endeavor when accountabilities are spread across more people simply because the communication overhead increases to make sure omissions don't occur because each accountable persons thinks that "the other person was handling that." For that reason I will always set up projects (and advise my clients to do the same) where it is quite clear who is accountable for what and for whom — in other words, a hierarchical system.


There is a difference between hierarchies of responsability and hierarchies of status and wealth. If we can figure how to create the former without creating the latter we will have gone a long way toward solving our fundamental problems.

Hi, Roger.

That may be true that there is a difference between those two hierarchies but I didn't get that distinction in reading Jeff's piece. If he follows that line of thinking, perhaps in version two of his piece he would write instead "Why must hierarchies of status and wealth continually grow and intensify?" instead of what he wrote.

Although it is common for people to view hierarchies of status and wealth as "the problem," I think that in those cases, when looked at closely, it isn't the hierarchy itself that is the problem. People see the conditions of the people "lower on the hierarchy" and blame the hierarchy for their condition. Now, I am well aware that hierarchy can be abused so that resources unduly accrue to people higher up on the hierarchy. But that is a human phenomenon in action, not a precondition of a hierarchy. It is a function of the values and discourses that are operating on the people within the hierarchy. There are worker cooperatives, for instance, in which a hierarchy is present but the values are such that the benefits of the system are spread more evenly across the members of the entire system. You can see this now with the notion of "fair trade" — greater benefits are being directed to the growers or creators of the good itself.

Hierarchies can also be set up so that they don't tell the true cost of running the hierarchy, which is what is happening with respect to our environment and that lack of "true cost" environmental accounting in business as a whole. And so on for every ill that one chooses to look at.

I personally can't think of a particular instance in which it is the hierarchy itself that caused whatever mischief is in question. People point the finger at the structure (the hierarchy) when I think that they would do better looking elsewhere.



It is not clear to me, either, that hierarchy per se is the problem. It seems to me that the empires of ancient Egypt existed for centuries without creating economic growth in the modern sense of the word. Undoubtedly increased food security lead to increased population as is inevitable without some effective from of birth control, but population growth is not the same thing as constantly increasing material standards of living. However, I think Jeff is right in pointing to the monetary institutions of private finance capitalism as creating a growth imperative. When the primary engine driving economic infrastructure development is the desire of money to make money then a hierarchy of wealth and a growth imperative are simultaneously created.

This is a good question, and I'd be interested in hearing more.

I think the basic argument is that hierarchy implies a uniform valuation system, and that within any such system the rich (by the standards of this valuation system) get richer and the poor get poorer. (While anyone can invest, the rich have more to invest whereas the poor have to spend proportionately more of their income on basics like food.) You tend to centralize wealth in the hands of a few who have an active interest in expanding their wealth further. The less neurotic capitalists who quit after their first million or so are dominated by the more neurotic capitalists who don't know when to stop. This sounds vaguely Marxist, but Mark Buchanan made this kind of argument in his recent book "The Social Atom."

In the case of ancient Egypt, we have a relatively stable form of hierarchy. But Egypt was lucky. O. K., you're absolute ruler of Egypt, and you have countless slaves, where else can you expand? Build bigger pyramids? That's limited by the supply of rocks and the number of slaves you have, which is in turn limited by the food supply which is limited by the Nile. You can expand your conquests but that's hard to do because you've got the desert on one side and the Hittites or whoever elsewhere. There's not much chance of "overshoot" of environmental resources here, so maybe the Egyptians were lucky.

If you waved your magic wand and suddenly got rid of the empires to the east and allowed Egypt to expand, then Egypt might have "overshot" its social and political abilities just like Rome and everyone else. Fossil fuels, in our context, constitute just such an Egyptian "magic wand" for the expansion of wealth. That's why disregarding the question of social organization is dangerous. We may think we've solved the problem (e. g. by continuing to "grow" but just with solar and wind) when actually we've only solved the fossil fuel problem, and will encounter the problem of growth again (and again and again) down the road.

A more difficult question to address, at least in my mind, would be this: suppose we had a society which had a steep progressive income tax, so that no one could make more than some maximum amount (say, $100,000 U. S. / per year or less)? Or, suppose we had a world market which (by treaty or whatever) increased the price on fossil fuels, non-renewables, and biodiversity or "wild" ecosystems, to prevent their depletion below a certain level? Wouldn't these still be hierarchies, but wouldn't they "constitutionally" limit growth?

I also still have trouble in visualizing what a "rhizome" organization would look like. If a country, or the world, were organized this way, what would it look like? What kind of government would you have? How would you deal with crime, threats of war, the threat of a large meteor headed towards earth, overpopulation, etc.? So I'm still exploring here.



That's why disregarding the question of social organization is dangerous.

The question of social organization is indeed central. If it is not addressed then all the clever engineering in the world will not save us from eventual social chaos. Jeff's proposal for small self sufficient economic groups is a proposal to return to neolithic technology. Not every small local group will have access to metal ores, so that self sufficiency at this level implies that rock, wood, and bone will be the building materials for tools. Depending on your point of view a return to neolithic life styles might not be a bad thing. Here for instance is a description of the system of economic production of the Iroquois which substantially resembles Jeff's rhizomes. The egalitarian, cooperative nature of this system of production as well as the close connection with nature are appealing to me. Nevertheless, I find myself unwilling to embrace neolithic technology as the complete future of the human race.

Rather than dismissing the Iroquois system as technologically primitive and appropriate only to small groups of people, my approach is to try to understand what structural features allow this economy to function as it does and then try to figure out if these features could be incorporated into a more complex economy. I perceive three essential features which allow the Iroquois economy to function as it does.

1. A social definition of economic sufficiency

2. Equitable sharing of economic output

3. Future economic security is based on community support and not on the piling up of personal wealth

We need to develop a socially agreed upon definition of a reasonable amount of personal wealth. We can then set out to produce this amount of wealth as efficiently as possible. I do not say that the definition of economic sufficiency has to be fixed for all time. It can change as population, or technology, or resource availability changes. Nevertheless, this definition should change relatively slowly . The expectation and desire for constantly increasing personal wealth on the part of every currently living individual has to be brought to and end.

Economic output should be shared equitably. Many people are horrified at this 'communistic' idea. I believe that this horror proceeds from the belief that there really is not enough wealth to go around. "If some person who works hard at some humble but necessary work like picking fruit or pounding nails earns as much as an (engineer, accountant, etc) like me, then I will become poor." Notice that these people who are horrified at the prospect of loss of wealth do not seem concerned about the poverty of hardworking people doing society's dirty work for even less money than that miserable level of income to which the richer people would sink in a system of equitable sharing. However, I do not propose equitable sharing of wealth primarily for moralistic reasons. I propose it because I do not see how social stability can be maintained otherwise in a democratic society after the end of economic growth. People accept being low in the pecking order today because they believe that in a growing economy their ship or the ships of their children may eventually come in. Without this belief a police state and/or a theocracy will probably become necessary to maintain a system of hierarchical wealth in a post growth world.

If our future economic security depends upon our piling up wealth to purchase economic services when our personal productivity has declined, then a constant desire for personal accumulation will inevitably follow. In point of fact everyone who is not working is being supported by the people who are working. It does not matter if you are a retired CEO with 9 digits of personal wealth, or a widow living on social security. In all cases working people produce economic output and give it to the people who are not working any longer. Social security, pension funds, stock funds, etc. are merely claims against the output of the community. The community which we have supported during our working life should support us in our old age without our having to purchase that support with accumulated private wealth.

The question, of course, is how to accomplish these goals without creating a social system that is impossibly bureaucratic and/or authoritarian. Jeff maintains (possibly correctly) that there is no way to accomplish these goals in a complex economy. However, I am unwilling to accept as certain the validity of the argument that if a certain kind of behavior has not appeared for a long period of time then it can never appear. After all the history of life on earth contains many contradictions to this principle; Multicellular life forms, land based life forms, higher intelligence, civilization, modern science, etc only emerged after long periods of time in which these kinds of behavior were completely absent. Thus I indulge in a fantasy that a cooperative, community based economic system and higher civilization may yet merge together. Some of my speculations on this subject can be found Here.

I think I've outlined why I see hierarchy and growth being highly interrelated--foremost, the peer-polity competition among hierarchies. If you have an explanation for why this competition does not drive growth, though, I'd be interested to hear it.

I don't dispute that hierarchies are effective in some situations, and I don't argue for their complete elimination, just bringing them back into balance. Hierarchies, however, aren't necessarily very efficient--a huge percentage of the energy in hierarchies is dedicated to information processing because there are so many tiers for that information to pass through (see my essay on the SNAFU principle).

The real issue isn't, however, that hierarchy cannot work IF done right--it's that, if history is to be any judge, it is simply impracticable to suggest that we 'just do it right.' That is like me saying "I can end all war and violence tomorrow: everyone just stop fighting." That approach is guaranteed to work, and equally guaranteed to be completely impracticable. If hierarchies gain any advantage in growing in relation to their peers (e.g. peer polity competition), or if they gain any advantage in "doing it wrong" (e.g. abusing their component humans), then history shows very convincingly that they will do just these things. That's the problem, that's why hierarchy and growth are not distinct phenomena, and that is where, I hope, my proposed solution succeeds in advancing a solution that is more practicable than merely 'doing it right.'

Hi, Jeff.

I think I've outlined why I see hierarchy and growth being highly interrelated--foremost, the peer-polity competition among hierarchies. If you have an explanation for why this competition does not drive growth, though, I'd be interested to hear it.

In my view, I can't see any of the factors that you claim are an outgrowth of hierarchy as actually being due to a hierarchy. For instance, you mentioned competition above — that is a distinct phenomenon from hierarchy.

I can take a group of 100 people, split them into two hierarchies of 50 people each, restrict an important resource and I'm fairly certain I will see a particular outcome that includes hoarding, fighting, etc.

I can take another group of 100 people, restrict the same resource, but not organize them into two hierarchies and I'm fairly certain I will see the same behavior.

The difference is that the first two groups of fifty people might be better organized at collecting the resources or fighting each other.

In every instance that you raise where you say it is the hierarchy causing the outcome, I think the most you can say is that hierarchy aided or exacerbated the outcome and that there was some other fundamental force operating on the system. (Greed, fear of scarcity, etc.)

As for hierarchies becoming unwieldy, you are correct. It takes effort to make any system work, hierarchies included. I assert that that is the humans within the hierarchy making them unwieldy and that is a function of values and discourses. There are many instances of large organizations that work quite well. For instance, why is Toyota performing better than GM? They are both very large hierarchies but Toyota is more consistent in quality and execution. Why didn't Toyota break down when they hit $500 million in sales? When they hit $1B in sales? There is something else operating in the people of Toyota missing in GM that is allowing them to manage a large hierarchy well.

For your last point, again I would point to the humans within the hierarchy for the behavior of the system, not the hierarchy itself. There are many small businesses with, say, ten employees who choose not to grow. They take the profits of the system and disburse them instead of investing into growth. Whether that small business grows is the owner(s)' choice — not a fundamental property of hierarchy.

I assert that the onus is on you to demonstrate that hierarchies will naturally grow. In my view, you haven't made the case and are confusing two distinct phenomena.


Res ipsa loquitur: history is replete with examples of hierarchies growing to the limits of their resource-constrained environment, sometimes too large to the point where they collapse. History has no examples (to my knowledge) of hierarchies voluntarily deciding not to grow. This is certainly an issue of correlation (I don't think we can ever "prove" causation), and I think that makes these phenomena non-distinct. However, I think it's important that I not protest too strongly that "I'm right, you're wrong." You could be right, and am (unfortunately) not blessed (cursed?) with the total power of persuasion--I don't necessarily know how to make my case any better than I have, and I recognize that it's imperfect. That said, for me, the correlative evidence implies causation with enough force to make me want to proceed under the (rebutable) presumption of causation. I think the precautionary principle applies here, as well: anyone who waits until there is irrefutable evidence of causation before acting seems likely to perpetually miss the boat. If the evidence simply isn't strong enough for you at this time, I think that's perfectly reasonable--there seems to be a human tendency to want to "win" an argument, but here I think it's best that I just conclude that the case is strong enough for me.

Fair enough: I too have said what I think needs to be said. Thank you for the conversation.


There are many small businesses with, say, ten employees who choose not to grow.

It is true that a small business can choose not to increase the total number of employees or increase its total capital investment. However, if they do not increase their productivity in step with competitors their profits will get squeezed. If economies of scale give their competitors an advatange with respect to productivity improvements then the growth imperative may push them out of the market. Only when the overall economy starts leveraging increased productivity to reduce the total effort dedicated to purely economic activity will an enviroment conducive to the creation and maintenance of non-growth oriented enterprises emerge.

If hierarchies gain any advantage in growing in relation to their peers (e.g. peer polity competition), or if they gain any advantage in "doing it wrong" (e.g. abusing their component humans), then history shows very convincingly that they will do just these things. That's the problem, that's why hierarchy and growth are not distinct phenomena

I've just finished reading Constant Battles: The Myth of the Peaceful, Noble Savage by Harvard archaeologist Steven LeBlanc. The evidence cited in this book sure seems to support the above proposition.

To people looking for something to read over Easter, this was a great book, packed full of interesting archaeological and historical information. If read with an open mind, it will likely change how you think about the backside of Hubbard's curve.

Quick question. I just noticed on Amazon that Leblanc has another book with a similar title, called Constant Battles: Why We Fight. Is this an updated version of the other one, or was the title just changed?

Hi --

The link to your essay on the SNAFU principle refers to this current essay. Is this the correct link? I was able to google and find some references to the attenuation of information as you add levels to the heirarchy (subordinates skew information so that their superiors hear what the subordinates think they want to hear). The loss of information in hierarchies counterbalances the increase in specialization efficiency.


The way I have dealt with this apparent paradox is to consider "situational hierarchy." When I go to the local MD for an illness, he/she is in charge. When I am working with a master carpenter, he/she is in charge. When either of these folks come to my farm I am in charge.

Hierarchy can emerge in situationally dependent ways and those are appropriate. Jeff is describing systems in which hierarchy is locked in and not based on competence, but on previous acquisition of power that can readily become dysfunctional.

Perhaps the seduction of hierarchy was the idea of having non-stop growth, with intervals of decay held off by brute, mass force. That's what an irrigation system is, for as long as it can be expanded.

Growth in human population is not a consequence of merely hierarchy. It is a consequence of:
1. hierarchy
2. systemic dependence for support
3. availability and condition of limited resources not yet under human dominion
4. knowledge of the restraining forces
5. complexity

With a human settlement, organization, or culture that experiences growth without hierarchy, problems arise with group management and cohesion when the group size gets larger than 150. After a certain amount of growth without hierarchy, an inability to manage complex intra-group support will cause the group to either collapse or split into separate groups.

When you add durable hierarchy to the system, and its inherent ability to manage and direct large amounts of capital, resources, and "the masses", problems arising from complexity can be addressed through taking in more resources from outside the system, tempered by how much knowledge we have of what is preventing further growth.

For example, until we understood what causes disease, through the development of germ theory, we could not effectively expend resources to combat how predation by bacteria and viruses kept the population from growing faster. Then we learned about heating water, using soap, cooking, refrigerating, and preserving food, antibiotics, vector management with pesticides, and isolation procedures. Now all currently supplied via fossil fuels, with oil being a major component.

The system has to attempt to keep growing because that is the solution that those at the top of the hierarchy keep implementing, as if they know nothing else: more. More technology, more law, more enforcement, more bread, more circuses, more surveillance, more resources, more employment, more profit, more research, more infrastructure, more consumption.

But you're still dependent on the hierarchy growing, whether you're a pedestrian plebeian or an exalted elite. Bill Gates, Condi Rice, and Rupert Murdoch are as dependent on growing the system they manipulate as those that are manipulated.

And each piecemeal, back-end, hierarchical solution to the problem at hand leads to problems elsewhere in the system, which accumulate to be addressed later with another solution that does not address the complex problem. Wash, rinse, repeat.

When lack of either knowledge or resources of the entropic problems leads to a failure of hierarchy, then you see things like product boycotts, strikes, demonstrations, civil unrest, and revolutions.

When a lack of both resources and knowledge leads to a failure of hierarchy, then you see things like war, famine, disease, and collapse.

While tribal populations could support themselves on a few hours of work per person per day, through fossil fuels we expend a few hundred hours of work per person per day. Each member of a tribe has an excellent understanding of the entire tribe's support system, while the overwhelming majority of civilization has no clue of how our system functions.

Our hierarchical growth the last few hundred years was the result of a smattering of knowledge of the forces at play, combined with a massive infusion of energy from fossil fuels.

Growth in human population is not a consequence of merely hierarchy. It is a consequence of:

  1. hierarchy
  2. systemic dependence for support
  3. availability and condition of limited resources not yet under human dominion
  4. knowledge of the restraining forces
  5. complexity

All of those items are hierarchy. Another way to look at that helps me at least, is thermodynamically. A more organized system - with lower entropy - is going to be more hierarchical. Hierarchy is order.

I cringe at writing it that way. 6 crops defining the bulk of our diet is more ordered and hierarchical than the entire diversity of nature. Among other things, that high degree of ordering requires higher qualities of energy. (Not all BTUs are equal.) A more diversified nature/rhizome network works with more flavors of BTUs and - to be optimal - requires more than 6 crops to make good use of the different flavors.

Rhizome and conventional markets operating in parallel I have a very difficult time envisioning. A high degree of self-awareness of the process will be required. That might ultimately become a societal meme. But until then, the rhizomes would be considered terrorists. [Check out the NYPD Report on Radicalization.]

cfm in Gray, ME

I'll agree that #1 is hierarchy, but #2 through #5 aren't. I'll break them down the next time this mutual misunderstanding arises. :)


Reality impinges on the technothon.

Don't worry, the techophiles will soon be here to tout their magical wares and pooh-pooh the hapless hippies. the planet-destroyers are hovering, marshaling their lies and impossibly screwy logic, and, of course, they will back up that battalion with their ad hominem shock troops.

It is coming, the great slap in the face of techno-society. My land is now being readied. Community is being established. No technophiles need apply, we don't have the proper facilities to handle the terminally clueless.

When the technophiles come with their weapons, what will you do then? A technophile could set up, up stream from you and simply divert all the water. Competition. End game for you. I think it is naive to think that humanity is going to give up its greed and knoweldge and become one big happy commune.

We will have to power down slowly and some of the tech-kowledgey we have gained during the fossil fuel epoch will be vital in allowing us to do that safely. Ultimately we will have to get to a lower population that can live within the Earths energy and resource budget. As the doomers helpfully point out at every opportunity, the risk is that we will anihilate ourselves and have massive die-off rather than an orderly descent down the energy slope.


I have to say I was most impressed when I first read this on your site. Perhaps, the most important was a recognition that there is a need for individual self-sufficiency. To me, this is the key to future survival.

As a doomer, one of the things I have railed at is the belief that a corporate, that is, society in toto, approach must be the starting point. My personal experience is that those who are secure in their survival are the ones most likely to pursue realistic alternatives that will help society as a whole.

Great series.



My concern with publishing this essay at TOD is that it may serve to polarize "doomers" and those who think a technological solution to our problems is possible. That isn't my intent at all (note-I'm not accusing you of this at all, just something that I want to comment on as you preface your commend with "as a doomer"...).

I don't think that "doom" or "technofix" should be taken on faith, and to the extent that people believe in one or the other, I don't think such a position is any more rational than creationism. I think that we all must begin this conversation with the recognition that we may be wrong--regardless of whether we label ourselves as "doomer" or not. I don't label myself a "doomer" or a "Roddenberry" (to use my term for those who lean toward a technofix), but one thing I do label myself is a "non-fatalist." I think that some solutions are more practicable than others, but I don't think the future is set in stone. What I hope to advance in "The Problem of Growth" is the thinking that we must identify our problem at the most fundamental problem and then address our solutions toward that problem itself. For me, building a rhizome network of minimally self-sufficient nodes seems like the "solution" that has the greatest chance of successfully addressing that core problem. I don't have anything against technology per se, but I do think that ANY technological solution (to include the technology of self-sufficient networks that I propose above) MUST be viewed in terms of its wholistic impact on humanity and our environment. A technology that requires a highly centralized and specialized hierarchy to function--a system that itself drives growth beyond the limits of sustainability--must be viewed for what it is: unsustainable. At least that's my thinking :)


I really don't disagree with your comment. However, it is my belief that it will be people of the doomer persuasion who will be at the forefront of the kinds of changes you envision. I say this because I/we(?) really don't want to see the doomer scenario actually come to pass.

I was very interested in intentional communities 30 years ago. What I saw was that 99% of them failed for a multitude of reasons. However, the end result was much like your rhizomes where individuals broke away from the group and took responsibility for their own "self-sufficiency" but remained tied into the group and community at large. It has been interesting in my rural community that as more "new people", who didn't share the vision, moved in over the years, the rhizome has died. Today, relocalizers are trying to reestablish this in my area with little success.


Does your individual self-sufficiency begin with the act of tearing yourself from your mother's teat? Do you continue to clean your own bottom when you've lost control of your aged bowels?

I want all you individually self-sufficient guys (I don't expect to find too many gals in this coterie) to wear a badge so that I know when I find you fallen from your organic mount with your neck broken, that I can continue on my way in the knowledge that you'll be taking care of yourself.

I refer to the individual "node" that achieves minimal self-sufficiency as consisting of an extended family unit. Humanity has long prospered in exactly such a structure, what Marshall Sahlins called "the original affluent society." As evidenced by our present existence, mating didn't seem to be much of a problem for them. My proposal is to build upon this proven foundation by including the benefits of non-dependent, non-zero-sum exchange within a peer-to-peer network community of such nodes.

That said, it's certainly not for everyone. I'm assuming that by far most people will want to continue on their present path under the unquestioned assumption that this path will continue to be an option. What I'm trying to advance is a model for those who think that would be unwise...

The extended family unit appears to have provided affluence to the cosa nostra. Are there other examples of your 'proven foundation'?

More questions. Does your peer-to-peer network community include teachers? If so, how do you determine the value of their work?

I'll try and not repeat myself to much but its relevant here also.

The problem is money serves to purposes to denote a debt and as a store of value. Right now borrowed money spends and is equivalent to saved money. In a fiat currency environment this prevents you from using money as a store of value and forces you to invest in growth.

Until we change our monetary systems to preserve the use of money as a store of value I don't think we can have a no growth economy. This mean unrolling most of our financial innovations over the last 400 years. Fractional banking for example makes no sense since the amount of money held as a store of value is larger than the yearly economy.

Moving to a economic system where money holds or increases in value over time has to happen before you can have a finite economy.

I think that a demurrage currency, as you suggest, may be a valuable tool in confronting the problem of growth. I don't think that fiat currencies are per se problematic, but they way they are managed today--based largely on the unspoken underlying assumption of perpetual long-term economic growth--is at the core of the problem. If that assumption is exposed as untenable and morally unacceptable, then I think fiat currencies fall apart on their own. However, I think that depending on our hierarchal governments to undo the system upon which they depend is impracticable--I think that a "diagonal" move (such as building rhizome networks of minimal self-sufficiency) that gradually renders such a system less relevant is a more practicable way to address the problem.

I don't agree because debasing of currencies is tightly intertwined with the collapse of civilizations. You cannot split the two. I think its impossible to redirect a civilization when the government moves to destructive currency policies as it tries to save the old order.

Your asking people to give up power in exchange for the common good. The reason what your saying fails is that collapsing civilizations get a lot of short term gain from policies that are a disaster long term. I mean look at the moves the Fed's have made over the last ten years and its gotten worse lately. Each move supports the short term outlook at the expense of the long.

Trying to institute long term goals in such a environment is impossible. As this continues the choice gets harder and harder to make. Your self sufficient networks are not robust agianst tax and monetary changes. How do you build when taxes are skyrocketing and currencies are devaluing ?
Its simply to easy to destroy the new as the old is dying. Sort of like the drowning person that pulls his rescuer under.

It has to be a united decision IMHO and currency change is at the heart.

I'm not really asking people to give up power for the common good, unless they are already one of the elites that has a great deal of power over other people. I'm asking people who don't have as much power over their own affairs right now to take steps that will increase that power, and to recognize that if we all create power for ourselves, in the form of minimal self-sufficiency, we will be both benefiting the common good as well as increasing our own power. I agree that skyrocketing taxes ad devaluing currency is highly problematic for those who wish to build or re-build within that financial framework--what I'm suggesting is that we build real, resilient wealth that is outside that framework. There's always the danger that government seizes your land or produce to "re-integrate" you into their tax framework, but that just seems like a metric to drive how "off the map" you need to be. Problematic, for sure, and I think that this would work best in conjunction with a direct assault on fiat currency, but if we accept (as I do) that government won't likely abandon fiat currency except concomitant to its dissolution, then this is all that is left...

I don't disagree with you.

However from my perspective you have to take a big step to make the split. One of my conclusions is that such a "new" society would have to take over the local electrical grid first. Later the road grid. This means for the most part buying up a hydroelectric plant somewhere then slowly buying out the town.

Once you own the electricity you can do electric rail. Once you have electric rail you can eliminate the cost of roads. Once the roads are gone you don't need the taxes.

But you have to take over one of the critical parts of the Iron Triangle.

Your not going to do it with individuals that refuse to act as a group.

I don't think that Jeff is suggesting that we should overthrow the current society. What he's saying is we should create minimally independent communities. To succeed this would have to occur under the radar. If you threaten the staus-quo they will shut you down.

I don't think its really a disagreement perse. But a sustainable community has to deal with its electricity, transportation, sewage, garbage, polics, fire dept, schools etc. Common infrastructure. To get off oil for real means moving to electrified transport. This is either individual PEV's with roads or locally electric trolley cars. Then of course you have to deal with efficiency of electrical use. NG usage etc. At the heart of any move of oil is the electrical supply. Above that is the transportation mode.

I simply don't believe that you can continue to support a car based society with all the roads etc and build up a electric centric one. In my opinion only a few communities are going to make the switch in time to keep/build a high standard of living.

I think Jeff is right but only at a individual level. A few are going to make the right decisions and have the money etc to invest in gardening, solar, wind, hydro etc so the can keep a higher standard of living.

The vast majority of current towns at least in the US are going to go bankrupt with the resulting deterioration in local services. My assertion is that they have to preemptively change over to a renewable/electric/rail/walkable centric community before they lose funding.

If they wait until half the little town in the US are declaring bankruptcy they will never get the funds because no one will buy the bonds and will be stuck with in some cases rapidly deteriorating infrastructure. Not to mention loss of most local banks tied to regional loans primarily in real estate that could potentially loan money to protect their customer base.

The problem is when you start addressing he shared needs of any town village etc. At that level we are in deep doodoo. A lot of towns are going to be broke and bankrupt with a few years.

How do you change under these conditions ?

Maybe someone involved in local governments could comment on the feasibility of any sort of move to sustainable/renewable living above the level of the individual home. I think most will find the concept amusing.

It will take quite a while for people to give up on the one person/one car plan. We can rant all we want about the social alienation our high tech society brings with it - the truth is we really do like it. For that reason people will fight hard to keep it going. We would have to have some major failures before we ever consider giving up driving to any large degree.

Could we convert the country to a system of trolleys and light rail (electric) for transportation and at the same time redesign our cities, changing densities and infrastructure at the same time while being a far poorer nation? That's a big order but the answer is: Yes we could. The Rural Elictrification Program was a WPA program during the Great Depression and that was on a scale of the Egyptian Pyrimids. If the consumer economic paradigm stalls there will be a lot of people out of work. The one thing the central govt. is actually good at is moving huge programs on a national scale. I realize that a lot of free market diciples will heartily disagree with that but that's too bad.

The automobile based society will fall apart pretty quick once we lose all the subsidies for the roads system.
In some places say Colorado that have extreme weather you would see a good bit of the road system degrade in a matter of years. I'm not worried about the American gentleman farm/suburban lifestyle in the sense that it does not matter what people want they cannot afford it in a zero growth society. Most people don't realize that the road system and infrastructure to support this lifestyle cost almost as much as the homes if not more in some cases.

So people will have to change and change faster than they realize. Now as far as project during the first Great Depression I'm not sure if the past represents the future. The first depression was primarily a economic collapse caused by explosive growth and speculation in many areas inflation adjusted prices have just now reached those of the 1920's. But it was at the beginning of the oil era with resources readily available at least in the US. Also the population demographics are radically different along with the skill set of people.

I just don't see WPA style revival as possible as our economy collapses.

This gets down to what is possible or what should we do. Well even here in the US the demographics make it difficult to do the right thing.

The best answer I can come up with is small villages with each houses having root for intensive small gardens with PV on the roofs. And hydroelectric/wind power for the grid. Outside of this cash flow positive functional real farms and ranches are possible.

The road and rail network would only exist inside the town and along the main routes needed for commerce. The web of county roads in the US degrade.

Water transport will probably make a revival.

You want to figure out the future you have to start with the transportation network.
Thats the problem in the first place.

What does this mean for people interested in moving away from a car lifestyle ?

You probably don't want to live 20 miles down a county road thats not a vital highway because it probably won't be drivable in fifteen years. In fact you probably don't want to live more than ten miles from a small town that has a viable agricultural base or some other vital local resource for jobs. Towns built around lumber mills are probably not a great idea.

If you really want to figure this out then go back and get maps from the 1800 and early 1900's whatever the demographics where at that point are probably the ones we go back too with the exception of cities that have grown to large to be locally sustainable ie over 150-200k.

Now within this context the next step is to look at the electric grid for the region. Hydro/Coal/Nuclear etc
are all viable. The only thing thats a red flag is Natural Gas fired power plants. A lot of the Ohio/Mississippi valley region thats otherwise in good shape has more NG fired plants then I would like.

California as always is in sorry shape by any metric including NG fired electric plants. Not to mention water which is a related but different issue.

So find the places worth saving then worry about electric rail. So I think during the next great depression it will be a game of triage we will wait too late to do anything for everyone and only some places are going to be able to convert.

On the demographic side if you figure we have a population of 300 million and 150 million are reduced to abject third world poverty living in slums surrounding the major city cores with the remaining 150 million redistributed to various viable city centers then the US would function on about 25% of its present oil consumption.

Starvation disease etc would then reduce the poor population overtime. Note that this is about the same demographics as a third world country but I'm quite generous with the number that would lead a decent lifestyle.
It could be as low as 25-50 million.

So the problem that will be solved is providing electric transport for 25-150 million people not 300 million.
And you can see that if you reduce enough people to poverty you have plenty of oil to make the transition.


You obviously aren't old enough to have watched or participated in the hippie, communitarian, alternative life-style movement of the the late 60's through the 70's. Essentially, you are pushing for BAU in the view of that generation - which includes me.

Let me give you an example of the difference. The state offered to widen and improve our gravel and dirt country road some years ago. The overwhelming response of the people who use the road was screw you, we don't want no stinking "city" road. And, in fact, that is what occurred. So, we still drive on our mostly 1 1/2 lane wide dirt, county road.

I'm the last person on the grid for the next 17 miles. Everyone else has some alternative; some PV, some microhydro, some FF fueled generators, a few have wind. They have zero interest in taking over anything. Now, I admit they would be in deep shit without FF but they simply want to be left alone.

What we are talking about is a different reality. However, people don't recognize that this is the case because they have had limited or non-existent contact with these other realities. Here's another example: I get snowed in. It may be a day or a few weeks. To me, that's life. We have friends who park their truck at a lower elevation but have to ski or snowshoe out when it's bad and some people get snowed in for months and can't get out at all.

I think it is important that people step back from what they believe is normal...and then start again.


Well first I suspect your road is gravel not dirt a big difference between the two.

A commune of scattered houses down a dirt road is not a town not even a village. My point is what your describing can't even scale to the village level. The hippie communes never developed viable business. You and your neighbors probably have deep dependencies on fossil fuels that you have not identified. To get anywhere your dependent on that paved road at the end of your dirt road.

The point is what your suggesting doesn't scale. Show me the same community that built its own roads and and its own town center etc etc.

Pave your own road first and I'll change my tune.

And sorry to be harsh but you think you have succeeded and you have failed and don't even realize it.


I REALLY have respected your posts but you don't fucking get it. And, this post proves it. Regarding my county road - No, it is mostly dirt and if you can't accept that I don't lie, then I'm questioning why I should even continue...but I'm not going to let you get away with bullshit.

My point is what your describing can't even scale to the village level.

What in the hell does "scaling" have to do with this discussion? I never mentioned scaling. What you obviously don't understand is community. Community isn't a village or city or town. My boondocks county road is a community which breaks down into smaller communities, rhizomes if you will, based upon the various private side roads.

My immediate "community" are the four families that live within a mile of my house. A month or so ago we were snowed in but my wife was scheduled to speak at a seminar. My neighbor and a friend came up is his 4x4 to get her out (a mile and a half drive from his house) since my 4x4 was in the shop. Along the way, they spent 2 hours cutting up a tree that had fallen across our road. They didn't have to do this! They could have said "too bad" and gone home - we tried. But, this is they way a rhizome works; the way community works. And, it does scale. In fact, my boondocks town just raised $30K for a gal with breast cancer. Not bad for about 3,000 people. You see that in the city?

Here's another example. I use to be the VP (unpaid) of a nonprofit food distribution company. One of our drivers lived 10 miles from me but didn't have phone, like most people around here then. If he needed to drive, I would get in my 4x4 and go to his house to let him know he needed to drive for someone else. I didn't have to do this but it was the "right thing to do." Hell, I didn't even get gas money.

And, now...

Pave your own road first and I'll change my tune.

I'm not into smart assed, punk shit like this and it is totally uncalled for. Excuse me? What in the hell does this have to do with my comments. And, further, why would I want a paved road?

Memmel, you will not be a survivor despite of your smarts.


Seriously and I'm not trying to be a punk. What about when you have to pave your road ?

Thats the whole point. And it sounds like your lifestyle is highly dependent on 4X4's.

Btw I grew up and the boondocks in Arkansas and before that Mississippi my neighbors are just as you describe as far as community spirit goes. I'm trying to make a point so bear with me I'm not being a punk on purpose.

What would you do without your 4x4's or if the county quit maintaining the main roads ?
Do you have the population density and tax base to maintain all your roads ?
How about replacement PV cells or grid electricity etc etc ?
How about a hospital ?

I suspect that your homesteads are negative EROI in the sense that the cost more to maintain then they produce.
And thus the entire community needs a constant influx of cash for external sources.

In a steady state or shrinking economy communities that are not a net positive are doomed.

I was pretty serious about paving the road go figure out the cost of paving your road. I suspect its several miles
in general the cost is between 150,000 to 500,000 a mile. How many people and how many miles of paved road do you travel to get to the main town ?

Ok don't want to pave fine. Is your community viable with 20 miles of dirt road ?
Lets say its 20 people with income over 20 miles. This means you need 150k each to build the road and probably at least 5-10k each every year to maintain plus throw in say one bridge for 1 million dollars.
Every 15-20 years you need to rebuild the road.

And what is your community going to do when the bridge washes out ?

And what about this hospital ?
Childbirth ?

Look I grew up in Arkansas as a kid I use to live in the woods. I'd run away from home for days.
Here is my delux kit for living in the woods.

1.) Fish hooks.
2.) Fishing line 20lb ( traps, fishing ) you can catch a lot of squirrels and birds with fishing line if you know how.
3.) 5 pound coffee can
4.) Good knife
5.) Magnifying glass and flint.

I still can help but pick out edible plants when I walk in the woods its second nature for me.
I'm like hey I can eat that and that and that :)

But this is besides the point. Can you really survive post peak or will your community slowly degrade.
I think if you look seriously at your community and your own situation you will realize that its not sustainable.

I'll justify this by going back to the middle ages and before that. Only hermits lived off in the woods. Everyone else lived in a small town or village. They did it for a very good reason. Mainly because you can afford to build dependable roads to service a lightly settled region.

Do the math I did and it doesn't work out.
So your back to figuring out how to make a small village work with all the water/sewage/power issues that a high density setting implies. And what most people are considering as alternatives does not scale to a real town or even a real village.

In my opinion most of these small farms are simply a extreme version of suburbia and are more unsustainable post peak than the cookie cutter suburbs.

Seriously do the math your not accomplishing what you think you are.

Nice writing.
IMHO a very important factor is the need to impress the opposite sex .
Advertising makes people believe that the only way to get a partner is to consume.
Yes you need bigger home , SUV whatever.
My program if i was a was the world dictator would be ecoads
The ads would show young sexy women with decisive man that spend less own a smaller house save save save their money buy products that last 1000 years . All other ads would be banned. About 20 30 sec such ads in an hour would be enough i presume .

Now that you’ve sown your seeds, why don’t we go work in the garden?
(picture of two post coital lovers)

On our first date he cooked dinner for me…in a solar oven! I was smitten.
(talking to her girlfriends)

He doesn’t buy me flowers. He grows them for me. That’s hot!
(beautiful woman holding gorgeous bouquet with smiling lover boy in background)

His bike gets great mileage. That’s why I let him ride it all night long.
(man and woman saddled up on same bike together)

Lovers do it best in a raised bed.
(naked gardeners prepping a bed)

Greed is so 80’s. Frugal men are big turn ons.

I thought he was cute until I saw his big ass truck. What a looser.
(picture of hot babe looking with disgust at big ass truck)

I’ll betcha he’s compensating for something. Creep.
(Woman walking by guy getting into his hummer)

Ever since we downscaled and simplified our lives we have way more time for sex…great sex!
(guy talking to his guy buddy emphatically)

If you think I am that shallow there’s no way are you penetrating.
(woman rebuffing a man offering her a diamond ring)

He returned the ring and brought back solar panels! We had amazing make up sex!
(woman talking to her girl friends)

Men who don’t take climate change seriously are in for a long drought.

Economic growth is not the same as population growth, i.e. you can have economic growth without population growth. There is no reason to grow population just for the sake of growing, but there is great reason to grow the economy. If we stop growing the economy now, then we condemn billions to endless poverty. There is no reason to stop growing the economy.

Kant showed that there are two kinds of infinity:



You seem to be fixated on the second kind, i.e. thinking that the world is addicted to it, when really there are just a lot of people trying to get out of poverty.

My concern is not population growth, but growth in material consumption as it relates to the carrying capacity of our planet. To my knowledge, there is no evidence that economic growth can continue indefinitely without accompanying growth in consumption. There are certainly isolated or hypothetical examples of economic growth based on pure advances in technique, but history does not show that long-term economic growth is possible without long-term increase in material consumption. In following my own advice, I have to admit that I may well be wrong, and infinite economic growth may be possible without infinite growth in material consumption--I just don't think this is very likely, and I am aware of no examples that suggest it will be possible in fact. Furthermore, since this seems like an unknowable to me, the precautionary principle suggests that we should address what happens IF long-term economic growth is no possible without long-term growth in material consumption. To just proceed as though this was not an issue at all seems both dangerous and unwise. It seems like a leap of faith--it's a bit like acting with willful disregard for your own life because you ASSUME that there's an afterlife that is more desirable than the current life.

On Kant's discussion of infinity, I don't disagree that there is a difference between "may" and "must" continue. My point is that hierarchy is structurally predisposed toward growth--peer polity competition between hierarchies leads to a very strong incentive to grow. To suggest that because this is a "may," not a categorical "must," we can then just ask hierarchies to voluntarily stop growing is, in my mind, akin to my previous example of ending war by just asking everyone to stop fighting. It's theoretically possible, but not practicable. So I think that suggesting that growth is purely voluntary based on some temporary surplus of poor people trying to get out of poverty is simplistic. I don't deny that it is POSSIBLE that the world suddenly stops creating more poor people, that good governance becomes the rule, that selfish wars and exploitation comes to a sudden end, and that everyone becomes satisfied with their current station in life--I just don't see those circumstances where the current structure could voluntarily stop growth of material consumption as very likely, so I'm trying to propose an alternative. My proposal is by no means perfect, but I think that the first step to improving it is recognizing that the current system is unlikely to solve itself.

The discussion of poverty on the one hand and unsustainable growth over 100 or more generations (2000 years).

What is global poverty ?
Global poverty are the billions of people who did not successfully adopt the technological and sociological and economic advances of the last few hundred years.
$450 per person PPP for Han China.

Long term growth as a sequence of exponential modes

Mode Doubling Date Began Doubles Doubles
Grows Time (DT) To Dominate of DT of WP
---------- --------- ----------- ------ -------
Brain size 34M yrs 550M B.C. ? "~16"
Hunters 230K yrs 2000K B.C. 7.2 8.7
Farmers 860 yrs 4700 B.C. 8.1 7.5
?? 58 yrs 1730 3.9 3.2
Industry 15 yrs 1903 1.9 >6.3

Everyone got up to either Hunters or Farmers by the 1st century.

The global poor are stuck as somewhat unsuccessful 1st century farmers and few hunter gatherers.

What is the difference between the US and Mexico ?
1% more annual growth for 100 years.

what is the difference between the US and part of Africa ?
1.5% growth for 170 years.

Where is there more population growth in the USA and Europe or Africa and the poorer parts of the world ?

Is it possible to generate more GDP from less resources ? Yes.

Will it be easier for Africa to solve its problems or the USA and Europe with more technology and resources to solve there's and to help Africa to solve there problems ?

In fact, advanced Americans are now dependent for their high-technology junk on Asian assembly line workers who are still amazingly poor. American assembly line workers were also very poor as long as they were forbidden to collectively bargain for better wages.

To show you how much worse a deal the new factory workers get, consider the example of the Model T Ford. In 1913 Henry Ford raised wages to $5 a day. He did this knowing that this would allow many to buy his car, which was at a base price of $290. But as he refused (violently) to negotiate with his workers, he tried to freeze wages in place for far too long.

Yet today a 3rd World assembly line worker, in a far more advanced and efficient factory, might be paid $16 a day to make a car that costs over $8000. Adjusting for inflation, the 1913 Ford worker made about $75 a day (1913 was a high-price year; that same wage at 1923 prices was worth more than $100, but that didn't last) to buy a car that costs $4500. This is why the $2500 Tata Nano is important to workers in India; they're finally getting the 1913 deal. Yet their tools and technologies are not that different than a modern American pickup truck plant.

Many of Ford's workers were illiterate or spoke English as a second language. The workers at the Tata plant are not primitive headhunters; they probably know more about what is going on in the world than the average American, and some can find Iraq on a map. Of course they will be rewarded for their intelligence, hard work and low pay by faster national growth and higher wages in the future - after decades of lucrative exploitation. Or corporations will find some new, even poorer race to exploit, and abandon these workers to the fate of Allentown.

It seems to me that those who build advanced electronics for small reward might turn to building weapons tomorrow.
Meanwhile, I'm still waiting for the market to punish Americans for 1st World-leading levels of illiteracy, innumeracy, superstition, ignorance, bigotry, Creationism, and plain stupidity. Apparently the system prizes salesmanship and addiction more than intellectual merit.

Jeffvail - Thank-you for an excellent essay that opens a conversation about society and growth. Each person that reads it will come away with a different perspective or point of view which is high art in todays canned version of news and events. People too often are willing to let other people do their thinking for them.

I have worked in hierarchacies (the U.S. federal govt)and it is a self-perptuating system that the higher you go the more dysfunctional and detached it becomes. There is a built-in mechanism in any beauracracy for growth. We don't need more anthropological studies to make that clear.

For me (and I can only clearly speak for myself) the notion of working within existing societal groups and reforming systems is an exercise in futility. The energy required to convince people or societies that are fully entrenched reminds me of the dillemma of Guy Montag, the protaganist in Ray Bradburry's classic: Fahrenheit 451, who through a personal metamorphosis comes to despise bookburning and becomes alienated from his hedonistic society. After he becomes a fugitive (he murders his superior) finally escapes to find his tribe, the book people.

I am not looking for a Utopian World(none exists now nor ever). What your essay inspires me to do is to look for my tribe. I believe that as we move into a new "dark age" the only practical thing we might do is to unconnect from large "dependent" societies to small "semi-autonomous" ones.

Again Thank-you

when really there are just a lot of people trying to get out of poverty.

That is so flipping naive as to be laughable.

What are you referring to, the "evil corporations"? People wanting to make money and raise their standard of living, as well as others? Or you just don't like the fact that humans have learned how to utilize the earths resources.

"If we stop growing the economy now, then we condemn billions to endless poverty."

If the population continues to grow, the number of people on marginal land condemned to endless poverty will grow. I'm sure when everyone was a hunter-gatherer, there was no poverty problem. If I go back and visit the planet one thousand years ago there wasn't much of a poverty problem.Too much growth created poverty.

"Kant showed that there are two kinds of infinity:



infinitely on a ball? You must know somewhere in the back of your mind how rediculous that sounds.

If I go back and visit the planet one thousand years ago there wasn't much of a poverty problem.

This is crazy. Do read some history.

If by no poverty problem you mean that people rapidly died, fine.

In percentage terms most people in most places were suffering poverty unimaginable in the modern world, even the developing world.

If we stop growing the economy now, then we condemn billions to endless poverty. There is no reason to stop growing the economy.

I wouldn't say there was no reason. Economic growth requires growing resource use. That could be a problem in a finite world.

As for endless poverty, I'd ask if you think that no-one in a developed country could be regarded as being in poverty? There are other ways of removing poverty and not all of them require continuous economic growth. Wealth redistribution is one. Land redistribution and education is another. Not that I'm advocating any particular strategy.

However, what we would like to happen and what actually will happen (due to nature's limits or human greed) are almost certainly two different things. To advocate economic growth at all costs is crazy. If we want 6.7 billion people to live at what you consider an acceptable standard of living, then we should certainly look at other ways of doing that, than economic growth, since that is unsustainable.

I support your effort and plan for minimal self sufficiency.
More for me.

Even uneconomic fusion or non-breakeven fusion that is a good neutron source [1 good neutron source for transmuting the fuel for 15 of the current fission reactors] can be used to make clean burning fission or just make high burn molten salt reactors or convert existing reactors to fuel with better coatings (recently up to 9% burn rates and targeting 14% up from about 1-5% now. Up to 180GW days per ton of fuel. Can get up to 700GW days per ton with complete burn - accelerator enhanced reactors [europe working on them expected by 2020] or various other approaches.)

China is building 50% more nuclear power by 2020 than previous plans

Finite world but still deep with resources.

I think that becoming a Kardashev level 2 civilization (using the energy of the sun, not covering the earth a Dyson shell of solar collectors surrounding the Sun at earth orbit distance) is a safer and more stable civilization then intermediate forms.
Just like some people could have stayed with minimal resource usage on a South Pacific island until a Tsunami wiped them out, a minimal resource usage on a planet wide scale means that a planet wide catastrophe wipes them out. Big tech is coming and here already, a plan to stay packed close together is a plan for hundreds of people with hand grenades and machines guns to live in a phone booth. It is a bad plan. In the old days people would line up and shoot at each other, but when we got machine guns the better strategy was to spread out so that one burst would not take out the whole group.

There are a quadrillion large rocks [from planet size on down to about 100 meters] in the solar system. The carrying capacity of the solar system is over 30,000 times the earth's With an economy of that size and already being spread out over one light year, then it would be relatively very cheap to spread to the next star systems. Will they have problems then ? Probably but they will have more capabilities to deal with it. But we all have choice there could be some Rhizome groups besides the Amish and Quakers tucked away in different spots even then.


let's see - ITER, the only fusion reactor that has had a groundbreaking and is supposed to get more energy out than put in is a minimum of 10 years away

and when it's done this is what we'll get
"ITER will be designed to produce approximately 500 MW of fusion power sustained for up to 400 seconds "

400 seconds of power! FANTASTIC! civilization is SAVED!!!

and according to some of the leading fusion researchers whom I have spoken to personally, nobody's sure how long-term the containment will be - they may have to keep replacing the materials do to instability - doesn't lead me to have much faith that they can power this thing up and let 'er rip...

I also note that Canada dropped out due to lack of funds - and lo! the good-ole USofA has budgeted a big fat ZERO for ITER in 2008 - which will make it tougher to build ontime and on budget I would think...

by the time they work the bugs out of fusion (IF they do) - oil will be gone pretty much completely - and how are we going to build such huge and expensive plants at that point?

you are relying on the Just In Time Technology Fairy to come along, wave her magic containment field and power us all to infinity and beyond - and it isn't going to happen. A major fusion phd said to me recently "It's Mad Max before we get these problems solved" - so I wouldn't count on fusion to save us.

As for all the rocks out in the solar system, when I see a moonbase, a mars base - hell, when I actually see humans even approaching a long-term ability to live in space (that little teeny problem of exposure to coronal mass projections) I'll have some faith we're getting off of the one rock we're on

- on earth our magnetic field protects our fragile bodies - long-term non-orbiting spacecraft would be subjected to serious bombardment of particles - and the only way to shield is with mass - and we're talking a lot of mass - which then has to be accelerated, at an energy cost - nobody has really figured out how to solve this problem (short of lead-lined rooms, and it's gotta be a lot of lead)

technology is neat, but putting all our eggs in a big hope for fusion to solve the problem is just going to end up with yolk on our faces.

There are several nearer term fusion projects.

IEC fusion funded ($2 million by the navy for two prototypes first one generating plasma since January, 2008. If the prototypes duplicate the WB6 success then funding for full scale system by 2012 for $200 million) which even if only larger more efficient prototypes are made (non-breakeven neutron generators, they could still transmute the fission fuel)

Tri-alpha energy has reversed field configuration colliding beam fusion (private $50 million funding). Rumored 2013-2016 timeframes.

As I noted we only need a really good neutron source for the hybrid fusion/fission system.
While the goal for a fusion only system would be to get to aneutronic (almost no neutrons generated) different fuel usage would generate neutrons. Electrostatic systems already generate millions of neutrons per second.

the bussard electrostatic fusion prototypes are 200,000 times more efficient than previous Polywell systems.

The problem with grids is that the very best you can do is 2% electron losses (the 98% limit). With those kinds of losses net power is impossible. Losses have to get below 1 part in 100,000 or less to get net power. (99.999% efficiency) [thanks to M Simon for the clarification]. Bussard system uses magnets on the outside to contain the electrons and have the electrons go around and around 100,000 times before being lost outside the magnetic field.

Previous results from the WB6 prototype. Work is ongoing on the navy funded WB7 right now.

WB-6 showed 1/10 of loss coefficient of WB-4, and ran as a deep well Polywell at 10-12 keV, producing DD fusions at 2.5E9 fus/sec [2.5 billion fusions per second]. This is 200,000 times higher than the early work of Hirsch/Farnsworth and a world’s record for such IEF devices at same conditions.
If the Bussard Neutron Generator (burning Deuterium) produced any thing like break even (fusion energy out = electrical power in) its use at the core of a fission plant could be very workable if the fission energy gain was sufficient. With a maximum theoretical gain of 100 or so (neutron energy in + other losses vs fission energy out) this should be very workable.

also, we can go direct to high burn fission systems. all faster than waiting for the ITER system which is a 5 decade international PHD factory and PHD international physics make work pork project.

The problems with living in space is when you think too small. Our current efforts have been short camping trips for 3-7 people in rickety chemical powered vehicles. this goes to the issue that coal and fossil fuels have 20,000 times less energy density than nuclear.
But what about the radiation in space.
Yes that is a problem when you are living inside an aluminum foil Apollo style ship. But if we were launching Super-Orions [from the moon for the politically correct, dropping the nuclear bombs that we know work for the last few decades down a donut shaped metal pusher plate - a few thousand tons of metal - again not new] then we would have 8 million ton ships with 3 million tons of cargo. then we pack 1 million tons of water supplies around the 100,000 passengers. Then we are at the scale where we do not have to worry about radiation because we are moving whole towns at one time.

This has been doable for the last 40 years. But people are confused about the risk. And people do not look at the engineering of a complete solution system but focus on one aspect of a bad plan. Tokomaks/ITER are a bad plan. Space shuttle and International space station are bad plans.

The other fusion approaches have broken ground. Just because you do not know about them shows your lack of knowledge of the better solutions.

Your choosing to talk to "fusion experts" around the tokomak/ITER project is like talking to government experts about social security and medicare - people co-opted and part of a broken process.

I know about Bussard's work - and none of the fusion scientists I have spoken to have any faith at all that that route will work - none - these are top phd's in the field, people with far more knowledge of fusion than I will ever have - and if they are telling me they doubt it will work, and listing reasons why, I tend to trust their opinions - I mean, their jobs are based completely on this research, if the Bussard approach was promising, I'm quite sure these folks would be attempting to get funding and go down that route...

"If the Bussard Neutron Generator (burning Deuterium) produced any thing like break even"

but it doesn't - get back to me when it does and I will have a moment of "we're saved!"

the reason I don't mention other fusion reactors is that ITER is the first that is supposed to give a sustained reaction - so the others are not really applicable to saving civilization in the way you seem to think will happen

I have no idea what you do for a living - but the people who I talk to are quite literally some of the leading researchers in this field - and if they tell me we are still 20-30 years from really powering up a working reactor - I'll take their (professional) opinion over your internet speculation any day

and as for your spaceland fantasy - sure guy, get back to me when ANY of your little "easy" solutions show up - throwing nukes at a plate - yeah, I can see people really being happy with flying hundreds of nukes out to space, remember the Challenger? besides, the gravity well of the Earth is damn unforgiving

any solution that relies on mining the moon or unproven fusion technologies is just Cargo Cult belief - Manna from heaven came before so it will come again

I'll put my faith in conservation, solar, wind, wave, geothermal and (proven) nukes thanks - and still think it will be too little too late for an awful lot of humanity in this overshoot world we are living in

but science fiction is neato - so keep writing it and maybe someday you can fly me up to your spaceship and take me out to the moons of Saturn to mine the methane seas...

well that is the great thing about science, we just have to wait for the experiments and work to be done which are not correlated with the "opinions of phd experts".

The bussard research had to fight for a few million dollars of funding for the one project. The ITER had gotten billions in funding. Funding wise ITER is far more promising.

Even if ITER works it does not look like it would be more economic than cleaner, burning and more advanced and streamlined (cheaper) fission designs.

Freeman Dyson and many others worked on External pulsed propulsion
Ted Taylor too. He had a phd.

Plenty of PHDs then and since then worked on Project Orion and the follow up projects.

follow on work continues to this day

Dr. Dana Andrews, AS&T Chief Technology Officer and Mini-Mag Orion inventor, and Roger Lenard from the Sandia National Laboratories, have published a paper describing their research into the Mini-Mag Orion concept in the Acta Astronautica – Journal of the International Academy of Astronautics

It would be an interesting world if what turned out to work was based on high you could stack the PHDs on either side of a scientific question.

Btw: got some names for these "fusion experts".

I was talking about a moon based or non-nuclear version because of the many idiots who would not allow a ground based nuclear launch.

The US already had 331 atmospheric nuclear bomb tests.But actually using nuclear explosions for a constructive purpose to get 30 container ships full of cargo into space would be something we can't do. Nuclear tests for the purpose of weapons that were only used twice in 1945 and which we do not intend to use is OK. Landing a millions tons of mining and factory equipment on the moon to setup construction facilities. No that would be too ridiculous.

History of nuclear bomb tests (exploded nuclear bombs to perfect them as weapons)

as for challenger, people died going into space on chemical rockets.

200-500 people have died from chemical rocket launches

How many people died from the nuclear bomb tests ?
None. But 50 megatons from Ivy Mike ?
So 1080 bombs of 3.00 t or less ?
The fallout for the entire launch of a 6000 short ton (5500 metric ton) Orion is only equal to a ten-megaton (40 petajoule) blast, assuming the use of pure fission weapon-type nuclear explosives. With special designs of the nuclear explosive, Ted Taylor estimated that it could be reduced tenfold, or even to zero if a pure fusion explosive could be constructed.

Nuclear bombs were tested in remote locations with careful planning.
People don't no F all about what is really risky and deadly.

Just a couple of points.

Carrying Capacity: The earth is at 100 percent of its carrying capacity for living creatures and has been since the Cambrian Era. Every species on earth, when it increases its numbers, does so at the expense of other species. Sometimes other species are driven into complete extinction because of the evolutionary success of another species.

Homo sapiens are the most successful large animal species currently on earth. (I speak of numbers and not longevity of species survival of course.) That is because we have evolved a weapon that gives us a huge advantage over all other animals, our brains. We are the first reasoning animal. Via our wits we were able to use extrasomat energy, outside the body, such as fire. Via our wits we developed agriculture. This gave us a huge advantage over other animals in our immediate vicinity.

Then just a short time ago we found and and developed fossil energy. This gave us an immense advantage over all other plants and animals in competition with us for food and territory. This enabled us to temporarily escape the Malthusian limits set by nature. And by doing so we pushed many animals into extinction and many others to the very edge of extinction. We are winning, big time, the competition for food and territory.

But in winning this never ending battle we are destroying our own habitat. We are deep into overshoot. Even if we were never to run out of fossil fuel the population would eventually collapse due to the severe stress we are putting on our environment. Water tables are falling, rivers are drying up, soil is blowing or washing away, fisheries are being depleted and a thousand other things that should be obvious to everyone that the track we are on cannot possibly continue.

But it will be the decline of fossil fuels that will trigger the collapse.

Hierarchy: All great apes, with the exception of the Orangutan, have hierarchical societies. It is our nature. We will continue to form hierarchical societies even during and after the collapse. It is innate in Homo sapiens and there is no known way to alter human nature. Growth will obviously, at some point, stop, but it will not be because we eliminate hierarchy. That will be with us forever.

Ron Patterson

Nature must, in the not far distant future, institute bankruptcy proceedings against industrial civilization, and perhaps against the standing crop of human flesh, just as nature had done many times to other detritus-consuming species following their exuberant expansion in response to the savings deposits their ecosystems had accumulated before they got the opportunity to begin the drawdown.
William Catton, Overshoot

Well said Ron, you articulated my thoughts exactly, and I would only add one further point. H.T Odum proposed that systems, both living and non-living, will self-organize to maximize energy availability, what has been termed the "Maximum Power Principle" by him and others (Lotka). This principle is so fundamental to the hierarchical organization of all systems that it has been proposed as a law of thermodynamics.

Jeff and others can sit at their drawing boards and tinker with intricate intellectual concepts to their hearts content, but astute observers know that the reality on the ground will be systems that self-organize around the maximum power principle, just as they always have.


Jerry: I would argue that any observer that claims to "know" the "reality on the ground," as opposed to thinking they can identify AN effective map to represent that territory, is not a very astute observer at all. But I could be wrong...

It seems to me that you are making a very large assumption that sentient, conscious beings cannot consciously self-organize to maximize a subjectively defined happiness, as opposed to energy availability. I don't think this assumption is valid, especially not in small groups or on the periphery, but I could be wrong... for our sake I hope I'm not!

Jerry - What you are cheering for? That society will always be "survival of the fittest".

You may find this inconsistent with your current reasoning but there have been a long and successful list of "intentional communities" that were essentially egalitarian. Simply because they didn't become the dominant "group" doesn't take anything from their legitamacy.

However, if you draw your sense of self from power within a Hierarchical group it is perhaps impossible to reform or to adapt to an egalitarian society.

You can find Jerry holding court at the water-cooler.

there have been a long and successful list of "intentional communities" that were essentially egalitarian

Can you provide some references for this? I know there's been a long list of intentional communities, but from what I've read, the successful ones have been a small minority. (For definiteness, I propose to define success as having retained the community identity for at least long enough to raise a new generation to adulthood within the community.)

I was wondering when someone would point out the systems theory of hierarchy. Growth isn't really the issue. In a closed (to material flux) system far from equilibrium and undergoing excess free energy flow-through the system will invariably self-organize to maximize dissipation of waste heat (the dual of Jerry's point). The degree of complexity emerging depends on the degrees of freedom in the system (e.g. number of kinds of components, etc.)

The earth is such a system. Humans and their cultures are a sub-system of the earth. They obey these laws but on different scales.

The point is: hierarchies arise naturally to facilitate coordination and control of complex systems. This is true in physics, chemistry, biology, and sociology. Growth is relative. The human species grows relative to other life forms, but the total material content of the earth system is conserved. Human growth is the result of evolution, not hierarchy. We are simply more successful at producing biomass from the components available. Organizational growth is a result of much the same process.

Hierarchical control systems - real-time, operational level; mid-term logistical and tactical coordination level; and long-term planning/strategic level - are a natural consequence of the evolution of greater complexity balancing against the need for energy flow and dissipation. The human brain is a hierarchical control system in which the strategic level is implemented in the frontal lobes and, in particular, the pre-frontal cortex. As life evolved and species emerged to deal with the constantly increasing info-sphere, brains with expanded coordination (limbic system in reptiles) and more advanced tactical (paleo-cortex) developed. The recent expansion of strategic control through growth of the neo-cortex and particularly the frontal lobes demonstrates that a hierarchical management architecture is how nature responds to increasing complexity.

I would assert that what we witness today with the various problems with hierarchically organized social governance systems (governments, corporations, markets, etc.) is that we are actually experiencing being in the transition of a natural emergence of hierarchical control for the benefit of managing the earth as a whole. We just haven't seen the full emergence of a functioning system. Institutions such as the UN and state triune governments, the financial markets, etc. are just the first stumbling steps toward a global coordination and strategic system (one that in my fantasies aims for reaching the stars!)

I've been blogging about these ideas at:

I agree with your discussion up to the point where you identify increasing complexity with increasing hierarchy. Nature, and human systems, display a wide variety of hierarchical and heterarchical organizations.

Even the major human hierarchies actually rely on a variety of heterarchies to survive. Having worked in business organizations large and small, I've observed the degree to which the success of an organization is dependent on creative, cross-hierarchy teams that arise almost spontaneously to get things done, sometimes having to subvert the hierarchy to accomplish them.

(Looked at from the other direction, a time-honored union tactic is called "work to rule", in which the members do exactly, and only, what their job definitions call for. It can be an effective way to cripple a business.)

The human brain is a hierarchical control system in which the strategic level is implemented in the frontal lobes and, in particular, the pre-frontal cortex.

Well, no; there's no "CEO neuron". Yes, there are multiple levels of processing, but there's control, communication, and coordination within and across all levels. Part of the ongoing processing is devoted to creating the illusion of a unitary personal identity. A good book on this topic is Cohen and Stewart's "Figments of Reality".

Another useful model to investigate is Stafford Beer's Viable Systems Model, which appears like a hierarchy, but includes the caveat that all levels must have maximum autonomy, consistent with the overall identity, and also that all components must be viable systems in themselves (minimal self-sufficiency?).

I don't know what a "CEO neuron" is. I was talking about an area of the brain that functionally coordinates other areas of the brain to produce sapience. There is a considerable body of research behind my statement, so I'm not sure what your getting at here.

I am deeply familiar with Stafford Beer's work (in my master's thesis) and understand your point. In my work I identify functional modules that actually incorporate operational, logistical, tactical and strategic controls. So, for example, an operational unit (say a shop floor production function) would have elements of these, even if somewhat limited in scope. For example, a tactical control function for an operations level unit might simply be communications with other operations level units that supply or sink with the current unit.



I think that hierarchal society is more than capable of collapse through diminishing marginal returns on investments in complexity alone, with or without a decline in fossil fuels, but I agree that the latter seems like the most likely catalyst right now.

I have to say I'm a little perplexed by your conviction that human nature must follow the example of the non-orangutan apes, rather than that of the orangutan. I disagree that there is no known way to alter human nature (if you define this by the form of society that we manifest): we did it at least once quite effectively with the rise of civilization and the associated memes that leveraged agricultural surplus, mythology/symbols, etc. And all this without any significant alteration to our genetic makeup. In fact, I think this is a very convincing argument that "human nature" no more confines us to our current hierarchal structure than it does to a small-tribe, hunter-gatherer existence (which makes me think of the phrase "past performance is not an indicator of future returns..."). It it the complex of memes that seems to define a society, and I see no fundamental reason why we can't consciously engineer this. It will be difficult, certainly, but we have a long history of doing exactly this quite effectively--these engineers just used to be called "Messiahs" or "Marketing Executives."

I have to say I'm a little perplexed by your conviction that human nature must follow the example of the non-orangutan apes, rather than that of the orangutan.

Jeff, human nature must be what it is, not what we think in could be if only.... We could no more become non-gregarious loners like the orangutan than chimps could. Animals that have evolved as gregarious and within a hierarchy cannot possibly become otherwise. Gregarious animals always form pecking orders. Hierarchy is just a fancy word for "pecking order". There has never been a time in human history when this was not the case with all human societies. No, not even once!

Small tribe hunter-gatherers of the past, and all those that still exist, after a fashion, all have a "big man". And this big man has a second in command as well as an alpha female. And, even in these societies, there were all the way down the line, some with more power and influence than others. If you observe a troupe of chimps you will see exactly the same thing. Gregarious animals always behave in this manner. The fact that they are gregarious demands it because it is the only groups can survive without constant conflict over food, females or something else. Someone must be in charge and that someone delegates lesser power to his lieutenants in return for their support in keeping him in power.

Have you ever read "Lord of the Flies". It was fiction for sure but it was based upon the psychological principles of human nature. Whenever groups of people are thrown together they always form pecking orders just like the choir boys in Lord of the Flies. They do it because millions of years of natural selection have instilled this characteristic into our very nature.

Ron Patterson

Tribes of hunter-gatherers that exist, today, as well as our best understanding of the past, do not all have "big men" or "alpha females." The "big-man group" is the anthropological term for social organization immediately above tribe and below chiefdom, and is well documented within anthropology (specifically the ethnography available on big-man groups and nascent agricultural production in South Pacific). Tribes do not have big-men, by definition, and are more often than not characterized by an active social taboo against status (such as "insulting the meat," whereby a successful hunter talks about how puny his catch was to avoid accumulation of status). This tribal structure with no big man or alpha female and an active status taboo is well documented--see, for example, "The Dobe Ju'/hoansi" by Lee. The point is not that this is "easy," but rather that there is no fundamental barrier preventing non-hierarchal organization in humans.

Interestingly, one of the rationales cited for the ability to resist the onset of hierarchy is the general self-sufficiency of the San in the Kalahari. Were a tribe to slide toward hierarchy, there was nothing preventing oppressed individuals from simply dissolving away on their own--the benefit of camaraderie and information processing of the group seemed to be enough to hold them together...

Jeff, we are going to have to agree to disagree on this. I have been reading anthropology for years and I am well aware of the dispute, among anthropologists, in this area and I do not choose to enter this debate with a few posts on this list. I will only say that many anthropologists, like Margaret Mead and Franz Boas, see what they wish to see rather than see things as they really are.

As far as the San in the Kalahari go, you are correct. They exist as family members.

Groups are made up of family members and there is no official leader or chief.

Family members no less. Families do not have a chief but they certainly have a hierarchy. He is usually the patriarch of the family, or perhaps the eldest brother.

Were a tribe to slide toward hierarchy, there was nothing preventing oppressed individuals from simply dissolving away on their own--

Yes, and that is exactly what happens. The groups consist of up to 15 people. When the family becomes too large, or one family member becomes displeased, he leaves and starts his own family group elsewhere. Some families may not have bosses but everyone I have ever been associated with did.

Ron Patterson

Tribes of hunter-gatherers that exist, today, as well as our best understanding of the past, do not all have "big men" or "alpha females."

Yeah right....
What about the Indian Chief and the medicine man?
What about the Tiwi?
The more wives you have, the greater your status.

A group with an "Indian Chief" is called a "tribe" by lay people who, but is classified as a chiefdom by anthropologists. Tiwi aboriginal cultures that survive exist along that spectrum between big man group and chiefdom, so, again, you're comparing apples to oranges. That, and the fact that listing two examples that you think (erroneously, as it turns out) support your position does nothing to disprove that there are and were groups that don't have hierarchy (as in the example I cited).

"Hierarchy: All great apes, with the exception of the Orangutan, have hierarchical societies. It is our nature. "

That is exactly what I was thinking. I was going use dogs as an example -- big dog eats first. Even chickens have a "pecking order."

But I was also going to add....

The world has been growing for thousands of years. I guess since we became farmers. The difference is that several things had to happen to allow growth to round the bend of a j-curve. Louis Pasteur. The number of babies that survive had to increase. This occurred because of clean hands and antibiotics eliminating childhood diseases.

Industrialism made a huge difference too. Natural gas aloud us to increase our ability to grow food. And planes, trains and automobiles allow us to carry those surplus long distances.

I do believe infinite growth on a ball is completely impossible indefinitely.


I don't know anything about Rhizomes or crap about hierarchies force growth and whatnot. Sounds like mumble jumble to me.

w/o reading more than u'r intro [because today is sunny & the greenhouse calls for a roof] i want to reinforce how important i think your post is.

i come to similar conclusions but from maybe different directions; certainly we have different backgrounds, mine social services/communications.

i have always thought that for groups over a 7or8 or so & with intense or intimate[feelings], communications begin significant breakdown; worsening with size. This seems wired into us. This level of communicating is necessary for us to meet intimacy needs & be basically- mentally/physically healthy. I suspect this is related to our natural biological units & hunter/gather group size[ the primary 'wiring' time period].

also i believe this relates to the tragedy of the commons & ecological carrying capacity.

anyway i look forward to digesting your post & the comments!


i think rhizome is better communicated re sustainability & energy; not hierarchy or growth. i found u'r analysis open to ron's criticism & would argue with u both that human's do change their 'nature' gradually & often unnoticed & we have done some of this re hierarchy.

the move to settled/urban life is based on using more [usually unsustainable]energy. simply put, less energy available will move us towards rhizome. more energy use & growth are almost always together but not necessarily so. i found u'r connecting growth & hierarchy very interesting but i think it confuses the issues. i also found u'r connecting rhizome as a system & analysis of al quaeda very insightful.

situational leadership models

point to how human needs are best met as people operate in groups. in my above comment i point out that i think primary human needs are best met in very small groups[? rhizomes].to be healthy & communicate & cooperate effectively [efficiently] we need small units, & u'r rhizome model fits to me. part of why the small groups work is they do not frequently require 'heavy' hierarchy.

the necessity of independence appears right on to me to operate in our current [growth ?] FF energy intensive system.

thanks for u'r work!

Thanks for these essays Jeff. Really wonderful.

In conversations with people over the past couple of years I am sensing a lot of anxiety and desire for greater self-sufficiency and knowledge of the skills to achieve it. Disillusionment with the current system is very deeply felt, but dependency on that system saps people's personal energy. We are a nation of dis-empowered, but hungry for a way out.

While a lot of old men may harp on you about these thoughts, I think they are out of touch and fear a sense of regret for a path not taken, or taken but with promises unfulfilled. Many youth, by contrast still have the flexibility to do this, and many have a sense of nothing to lose since they don't ever see themselves owning land or a home or having a steady income.

Finding opportunities to help people participate in the building of the rhizome structure while we are still tethered to the hierarchy is the challenge.

Thanks, Jason. As I commented to someone above, there seems to be a human tendency (of which I'm certainly guilty) of trying to "win" an argument on a topic like this. Here, however, I think it may be enough to advance a case, suggest that it's open for improvement, and hope that it helps some people who are already looking for a way to pursue these goals. I think that any strategy that requires complete acceptance by the public for it to succeed is doomed to failure, so I think you've drawn the line at the right place: we need to convince some people to act, and help some of those who are already convinced to act more effectively. While I think age, fear, or regret play important roles, I'm personally inspired by my father, who at 62 recently moved from suburbia to a few acres in Oregon, has a huge vegetable garden, a few hundred olive trees, and is working on rainwater harvesting as we speak. Not bad for the original baby boomer (born 9 months to the day after V-J day)... I think the key issue right now is that people don't think they can live as well under this kind of a structure. It will only take a few early adopters succeeding (as he is) in each demographic or geographic location before I think these ideas begin to spread (as I think they already are quite nicely in Willits...)


Wow. This is an impressive bit of analysis. You have obviously devoted quite a bit of thought to this whole problem.

I have several reactions which I don't necessarily expect you to address. The first is that a bunch of this is over my head. (O. K. I'll re-read it all. Promise.) The second is that I don't know how to apply what I do understand. The third is that I might have a better sense of what this was about if I understood the competing theories better (if there are any, I don't know how much of a pioneer you are).

So my first question is where can I find out more? I'm now combing through your blog. Are there books? Other people who have written about this, you or anyone else? My google search - "Rhizomes for dummies" - did not match any documents.

I am trying to digest phrases like "vertex-order attacks" and "scale-free networks" and make them intuitive, so that I can apply them to actual questions that I have, generally of the order of how we promote a network of people committed to "simple living" (roughly equal to your minimal self-sufficiency). It seems that our society's infrastructure (at least here in the U. S.) constantly rewards consumerism with gas stations everywhere and tax breaks for indebtedness. I see the suggestions on what the individual can do to promote their own minimal self-sufficiency, thank you very much, but I don't quite see how it connects to your theory. Do you have any suggestions as to how small groups could promote minimal self-sufficiency?

Here's a specific and current question I have to illustrate: a number of people in our (mostly white middle-class) church are outraged by the "rebates" recently offered in the United States in order to "stimulate" the economy. We don't want to stimulate the economy any more, thank you very much. But some of us (the ones who are renting or don't have to pay off our mortgages) are willing to pool our rebates to do something. What would rhizome theory suggest? Buy some land and start a community garden? Join "community supported agriculture"? Give it to the homeless? Or just sock it away in our individual savings accounts?


At the risk of self-promotion, my blog (introductory post) or my book (free, now a bit out of date) are at least places to start for "rhizome."

As for what steps a small group should take, I doubt there's any one right answer, but I'll make some recommendations: I'd start small and build on success. If you're pooling money, buy Bill Mollison's "Permaculture: A Designer's Manual," and Michael Schuman's "Going Local" and share those resources--virtually unlimited sources of inspiration. Everyone in your group could use a portion of their refund checks to plant a different fruit or nut-bearing tree appropriate for your climate and commit to caring for these trees, preserving, storing, and sharing the produce (a variety of productive trees are a great way to increase resiliency, can provide additional benefits such as shade or eventually fuel wood, and can actually go a surprisingly long ways toward food self-sufficiency). You could probably each plant 10 such trees with each refund check, and the aggregate result of that effort could be quite impressive. While I think that more conventional gardening is another great alternative, arboriculture might be more compatible with busy lives that can only periodically make time. If you don't have land for this, your Church might be a good property? Either way, while I think there are many worthwhile organizations to give the money to, I think that building your own base of sustainable self-sufficiency is the better choice. You can always give away the produce of that base to food banks, the homeless, etc., and it will just keep on providing. I don't want to get into too long of a laundry list here, this is just one suggestion of many--feel free to email me and I'd be happy to discuss specifics, and I'm sure other people will provide ideas in comments.

This is a great article. Some years ago I got interested in the idea of how one could create a low-tech form of self-sufficiency, which I called the Survival Machine.

Actually, I went about that backwards. Having lived in Houston, one-time Libertarian Party HQ, I always sensed that libertarians really, truly believe that poor people are subhuman beasts who must serve the enlightened entrepreneur in order to survive and should be grateful on top of that. I wished there was a way to settle the matter, and it occurred to me that if a machine existed that would allow an uneducated man to make enough food and water to survive without selling his labor, libertarians (and members of all other ideologies) would quickly reveal their true feelings by either supporting it or attacking it. But then it wouldn't matter what libertarians thought, because the machine would solve the real problem of poverty and freedom.

The Survival Machine must logically combine several low-energy technologies. My research centered on the tilapia-algae cycle. Between tilapia and its primary sustenance, algae, you could produce protein, ammonia, and hydrogen. However, growing algae in a closed reactor to harvest hydrogen is not proving easy. Since genetically-engineered algae would be copyrighted and violate the Survival Machine principle of autonomy, I would have needed a more complex cycle. There's been German research on using blue-green bacteria or combinations of non-modified microorganisms to produce hydrogen. There's also the possibility of algal biodiesel. On the fish side, there's advanced work on using more than one species of fish in the tank for greater efficiency, but again that's getting over my head.

Anyway, I haven't done much work on it since then. It appears that one would have to develop a range of Survival Machines, based on the various combinations of wet and dry climate and hot and temperate climate. I've seen many things that could fill one of those cells for some of the required products. For instance, a combination greenhouse/desalinization system for use in hot/dry coast areas. What is far more important is scale. It seems that there is no technology out there that is more efficient on the scale of one family than on the scale of a village or larger population. So I'm glad that others are considering the problems of self-sufficient communities, large enough to implement alternative energy and agriculture strategies with a reasonable payback.

Your Survival Machine would have to replicate as fast as the 'uneducated man' and you know where that would lead.

Great post JeffVail – I particulary applaud your getting to the core of the problem and designing a solution from there. An ambitious undertaking.

Makes me wonder if yeast analyze and critique their growth;}

As to defense. Something aangel (Andre) said the other day has really stuck with me. (paraphrasing wildly here) about when societal discussion got off meme it would be attacked like antibodies, by the propagandist who created it.

Rhizome defense would/could be like an immune system, in the hands of all, in that when it became obvious that an individual or group acts contrary to the good, i.e. hierarchal propaganda, hoarding, freeloading, usury, etc. individuals and the community as a whole would act as antibodies and actively call Bull$hit thus creating disincentive to act in that way.

Indeed it would have to act in this fashon.

Just a quick thought

Thanks for your work.

THIS, my friends, is great light cast before us!!

We owe Jeff our deepest gratitude.

I've been thinking a lot recently about the specific problems of "productivity growth". To a considerable extent, "productivity growth" has comprised fewer and fewer man-hours of labor per unit of material production. Yes, a considerable and increasing portion of our labor force falls outside of this definition (mostly associated with entirely new vocations associated with high technology and computers), but very much remains (like farming, auto manufacturing, and homebuilding).

By substituting fossil fuels, mechanization, automation, and outsourcing for domestic employment, our economy has severed most of our workforce from jobs which meet essential material needs - enough food to eat, sturdy clothing, and a modest roof to protect us from inclement weather. Our economy has struggled mightily to maintain employment in the face of this trend; the most consistent "solution" has been to pump more energy and resources through the system while pumping up discretionary consumption; but nonetheless we are loosing. Obviously this trend is totally incompatible with a transition to a sustainable, resource-frugal society.

This all highlights an crucial fact: Amerkans are terrified of loosing jobs FOR GOOD REASON.

What to do about it? Hell, I don't claim to have all the answers, but we are blessed to have many localization/permaculture/sustainability thinkers out there who are layiing a good foundation.

Meanwhile I know this much is true: until we-the-people INTENTIONALLY choose to need each other more than we "need" the lowest prices and the highest interest rates and the most stuff, we're not gonna get anywhere!

Hans Noeldner

The critical bit would seem to be WHEN growth stops.

It is a very different matter if it stops in conditions of plenty to poverty.

Historically in England in the very early days of the industrial revolution it was very difficult for the budding industrialists to get their workforce to turn up every day - they would work two or three days, then had enough money to pay for the limited goods on offer and would return to work on their smallholdings.

A few things changed about this, for a start the financial and legal situation was manipulated by the powerful to seize and enclose common land - parallels with the derivatives industry are too obvious to belabour.

Secondly though the people did not have deep enough financial resources to cope with an adverse harvest or any of the many chances of life.

Thirdly the goods and services on offer became more prevalent and desirable.

If you contrast that to the situation of many in the West who currently go for a more alternative lifestyle then they often have work such as programming to offer them some security, rather as the miners in the industrial revolution had their tin mines.

I would suggest that some form of co-operative insurance would be vital to the situation you seek to bring about.

What may or may not be desirable in an industrial society though would seem to me to have very little to do with the circumstances of those in poor areas of the world.

They are in equal poverty and just as much exposed to adverse circumstances as the people in early industrial Britain, and any attempt at the resolution you suggest would seem to me doomed for the same reasons,just as Ghandi's efforts to cry halt to industrialisation did no permanent good but certainly held back the people of India's endeavours to rise from destitution.

For instance, the slow-down and now fall in the rate of population increase has occurred quite naturally in the industrialised world, but in some of the few cases where that has happened at an early stage has relied on substantial coercion as in China.

In short, it seems to this observer at least that whilst it may be appropriate in the West to try to set up suitable institutions including mutual insurance so that those who wish to might find it easier to be rather more self-sufficient, in the developing world this path would be not only totally inappropriate but is unlikely to attract the populations of those countries - they want what we have, and aren't about to be foisted off with substitutes.

On you other points about water etc., if we have power then they are manageable.

There is also no technical reason why we should not have power, just institutional and mental blocks to getting on and providing it.


Thank you for the time, effort and thought that you have put into this (and other) essays. I want to encourage you to keep working at these ideas, in part because I believe you are going in the right direction, but also in part, because you are not yet at a coherent whole. Much of your essay reads as disconnected streams of thought that you've seen a connection between, but haven't quite worked out what that connection is. This sometimes leads your to quite silly "solutions" like promoting composting toilets as a means of self sufficiency. In other places it causes you to fall into the normative trap of making pronouncements like communities should do this or that. But these things can be worked out as long as you are open to doing so.

I would like to look a little closer at your arguments for why growth is so prominent. This is, of course, critical to your argument and essential to get right. To put yourself in the position of critiquing growth, but also being able to propose a possible alternative, you must show both the compelling aspect of growth, but also leave yourself some room to suggest that growth is not a necessary aspect of our existence. So let me look at your three "sources" of growth.

- Psychology - this is really a throw away argument that leads nowhere. First you have to hypothesize some universal response to some human circumstance. This puts you in the position of suggesting that you know how people thought in some remote historical time and place, people with whom you share little in common. Simply put, not everyone is afraid that they will wind up old with no children to support them. Not everyone responds to fear by seeking security. In short, the psychology you have identified is more appropriate to a specific place and time, is not universal. But this matters little, as you pretty much abandon this reason for growth in the rest of your article.

- Structure of Human Society - what you present is essentially the Elmer Service hypothesis on the rise of the state. While his argument for the development of the Big Man as the source/motivation for the development of agriculture and thus of the state has been generally accepted without question among those who are not familiar with the archaeological and anthropological record, it suffers from a significant logical deficiency. In essence, he is caught in a chicken or egg type conundrum. The problem is that neolithic cultures are Big Man free. While leadership is needed and does occur, it is situational. Who is "in charge" can change depending on the circumstances, the biggest "warrior" in one case, the shaman in the next, the eldest female in another. Remember that these are relatively small communities and the specialization of permanent hierarchy would be counter productive.

So, what the Big Man theory misses is that under such circumstances it is irrational to think that a Big Man could arise who could force the community into the centralized agriculture move. A strong man can force a handful of people at a time, but the others can run away. A sorcerer might frighten a handful into carrying out his bidding, but s/he better not go to sleep. What is much more likely and supportable is that the Big Man arises after the move to centralized agriculture. This leaves the actual mechanism that gets those first three (and maybe others) communities that make this transition some what open.

This dependence on the Big Man theory for emergence of civilization leads you to the next problematic conclusion - that competition between communities requires growth. You may or may not be correct about this. And certainly others have already critiqued you for "blaming" hierarchy (most of those critiques suffer from an uncritical acceptance of contemporary growth values, so I'm not too concerned with them). But you don't need to make the sweeping generalization about the structure of human society to still get to where you want to go. Consider that the remaining significant civilizations are all growth-oriented to some degree or other. It does not necessarily follow that all human communities in a post agricultural revolution world are competitive and growth-oriented. It would make more sense to assume that those that exist now have either destroyed, incorporated or converted any that were less competitive and growth-oriented. This does not mean that growth-orientation is the only possibility, only that the growth-oriented communities took over the playing field. (There are those who would argue that this makes them "better" because they survived, but that is like saying football is better than tennis because the football players crushed the tennis players when they sought to play simultaneously on the same field.) In fact, though, not all other types of communities have been eliminated. They live in the cracks where the civilizations don't hold complete sway, they hide within civilizations, they adapt to and adopt in part to the civilizations that envelope them.

- Development of Modern Economics - I don't disagree with this section, though I find it rather sketchy. There are a lot of different discussions about the rise of the modern economy, why it happened in Northwest Europe and not elsewhere, if this is even a fair assessment, thlesse relationship between capital centers and developed areas, etc. But I'm not convinced that any of it supports or detracts from your later argument except as it relates to the totalization of the global capitalist system. It is not important that people 600 or 800 years ago sought to enhance efficiency. What is important is why they thought efficiency was something that should be enhanced. Not everyone did.

I've gone on far too long already, so I'll bring this to a close with one more observation. You have made the first two steps in presenting a normative vision. You have made the diagnosis/prognosis, you have presented your solution. What is missing is the transition. You've poked around at it a little bit, but essentially you seem to be suggesting that people should just go out and do it. The problem with this as a transition is that you spent the first 20% of your essay telling us why they aren't (and can't) do it. You even recognize at one point that you just can't airdrop pamphlets and expect people to adopt your rhizomes. But that seems to be what you expect, nonetheless. Or at least, you supply no mechanism by which this change might come about.

Best of luck to you in fleshing this out. I understand what a large undertaking it is. I've written my own version in whole a couple of times and in parts many times. And the refinement process still goes on.


You might want to check out Dawkins' "The Selfish Gene". Evolution isn't so much about survival of the fittest individual as it is about survival of the most successful genes. That adds biology to the list before psychology. Interesting to me, Dawkins suggests that evolution's next step might well be to the "meme". Over and over again I hear people compare what we are doing on this planet to that last mass extinctions.

A friend asked "what kind of game are we playing".

"Evolution," I replied.

cfm in Gray, ME

Thanks for the reference Dryki. I did start Dawkins book several years ago, but I didn't get very far. He struck me as excessively reductionist and unaware of his own point of view. It is the single greatest failure of a scientist to forget that science, too, is an explanation, a map, and not the thing itself.

Evolution is a superb tool for examining a wide array of physical phenomena. It becomes less convincing when we begin to apply it to things like societies, but it can remain very suggestive when examining the past. But when some sort of telos is implied (e.g., such and such trait arose in order to do something) then you have left behind the science of evolution and have entered into the religion of evolution.

Now, I did not read far enough into the book to get to the "meme" portion, but I've certainly seen it used elseshere and I get the same impression that I'm getting from you - that evolution is headed for the meme. Such attribution of purpose is just the sort of anthropomorphism that can ruin an other wise good explanatory model.

very good article, I too believe that what is necessary to adapt to what is beginning to happen is not techno fixes. But instead the challenge is going to be coming up with new patterns of behavior. The role of hierarchy at this stage is to stifle change, the only way to make the necessary changes is to ignore existing institutions. I don't believe that we will be able to just make minor corrections to the system and continue on. Has anyone read "Fields, Factories, and Workshops" It's by Kropotkin, would link to it, but don't know how. Anyway it discusses much of these kind of things, but from a perspective of the time when our ancestors had just began to move from peasants tied to the land to workers in the industrial revolution. Now that we're going to have to make the move back, you will find him interesting. It's a little long but that was when the developed an idea. I read it the first time in the '70's, was blown away at how good his ideas were. Went back lately and reread it, and was still impressed. Thanks for all the thought that goes into your work.

That source is the hierarchal structure of human civilization.

Hmm, I stopped reading about there. Fundamentally flawed assumption.

I think you have it exactly the wrong way round. Growth occurs because people like growth. Left to their own preferences, people will seek as much growth as possible.

In fact, having a rigid hierarchy is probably the only way to prevent growth in a large society.

It's notable that when western democracies gave freedom to the people, they took that as freedom to consume. The supreme example being the USA of course.

"Growth occurs because people like growth." I guess I disagree. People like happiness, which can be variously defined as endorphins, fulfillment, non-starvation, level and continuity of dopamine release, etc. To the extent that they (I think highly erroneously) believe that growth is the best way to maximize this happiness, they may support growth either consciously or unconsciously. Evolving, dynamic structures, on the other hand, select for growth among competing polities. I think confusing these two is quite a common fallacy.

I think growth is due to the human brain not having evolved enough to do otherwise. It's also due to reproduction in case no body's noticed.

We will have growth as long as there is change. When things change something grows and something else diminishes.

If the sum of everyting that is counted grows we get a situation that strains society less since people can share and compete for a growing pie instead a constant or shrinking one.

Locally I wish for lots of change and growth and that would be good for the global situation since we could do lots more in a sustainable way in Sweden and neighbouring countries. But I hope an increasing portion of the growth will be in infrastructure and knowledge rather then immediate consumption since that would give the next generation a better situation.

For the anarcho-primitivist readers of the Oil Drum, I've got some bad news...

Have at it, go build yourself one. In fact, you can model it on... oops, that's right, there is no commerically operational Breeder, is there?

Actually the Russians have a commercial fast breeder.

The Russians have a functioning FBR of 560 MW. Beloyarsk 3. Operating for decades, since 1981.

Beloyarsk 4, BN-800 FBR, Const 2012

Japan will be a likely customer of the russian BN-800.

India and China are working on them

Other fast neutron reactors

Also cheap and improved thermoelectrics are going to have impact starting in months.

Improving the thermal efficiency of a wide range of products (including cars)

Other articles on thermoelectrics, Some with ZT of up to 4.5 (quantum wells) which could capture 18% of the waste heat.

Clearly, you didn't read the articles on breeders very closely or you wouldn't be so enthusiastic in your response. Did you even notice that the Russian reactor on the un-sourced blog isn't even on the WNA list?

As for thermoelectrics, who cares. Someone questions your first try at a silver bullet so you throw up another? And if I question that, will you add yet another, and another?

Save yourself the time as I'm working on a magic wand that will solve all our problems with a simple wave.

I disagree strongly with the assumption that continuous growth is not possible on a finite planet.
While it is true that there are limitations on energy available from terrestrial sources, there are vast extraterrestrial flows of power which can be redirected to near earth locations using quite simple technologies like space mirrors. Of course this is not going to happen tomorrow, but there is no reason to dismiss the long-term possibility as an article faith, as you do.

As Al Gore once commented, space mirrors are a great idea but you really wouldn't want Homer Simpson in charge of one.


Energy is but one of the things we would need more of to fuel growth forever. Your space mirrors, if they ever get off the ground, would not provide infinite resources but may allow us to run down resources even faster.

I'd like to do a summary of this interesting article in Italian. How could I translate the word "Rizhom" with a simple italian word?

a Rhizome is the underground part of some plants, not the roots, but more like a branch or stem - for example, the part of the Ginger that we eat.

Non so como parla "rhizome" in italiano, pero la parola "funghi" a molto similarita--il libro da Paul Stammets, "Mycelium Running," utilisa questa parola "mycelium"--la porziona di funghi sotto la terra--in una funziona molto simile da "rhizome." Sfortunatamente la mia italiano non e buona!

Sfortunatamente la mia italiano non e buona!

È abbastanza buono.

Ma "rizoma" è una vera parola italiana. Potete usare quello.


Thanks, I've understood the concept, but i'd like to find a word that have a more immediate impact. However "micelio" can give quite well the idea.

"Infinite growth is impossible in a finite world--a great deal of economic growth may be possible without a growth in resource consumption, but eventually the notion of perpetual growth is predicated on perpetual increase in resource consumption."

That's a huge, huge statement. I don't think I agree with it. I think a large number of economists would disagree with that statement too. Yes, we don't have a lot of examples of perpetual economic growth without an increase in resource consumption, but that's not surprising because we really haven't hit any resource consumption limits very often until very recently.

You can get infinite growth by a perpetual increase in knowledge, for example. A perpetual increase in knowledge doesn't sound terribly unsustainable to me, nor does it sound unachievable. I can't see why that would require increasing resource consumption in order to sustain it either.

In fact, you're right. Scientific progress is slowing down and new discoveries less frequent. Things are getting harder to prove and more speculative.

The world is getting old.


I don't think many people would dispute that growth in knowledge is for practical purposes infinite while there are entities like us to gather and collate it.

But I also don't think that's the kind of infinite growth people are generally talking about on The Oil Drum.

As for the economists, some of them get it, others don't.

Here are some economists who get it:


A perpetual increase in knowledge doesn't sound terribly unsustainable to me, nor does it sound unachievable.

Dear Swelled Head (a.k.a. MegaNerd),

I'm not sure what you mean by "knowledge", but let's assume that "information", or more rightly "data" is a part of knowledge.

So as we have this perpetual motion increase in "knowledge", we must have a perpetual increase in stored data.

However, here's the problem (and please add this to your knowledge base), the human brain is of finite volume. Also as you get older, brain cells die off and rate of data acquisition slows down.

All that points to an inevitable peaking of knowledge.

And we haven't even started in on differentiating between false knowledge and truthful knowledge. A truly knowledgeable person must of course be aware of both and must store it all in his head. At some point the concept of perpetually increasing knowledge has to meet up against the concept of a bursting balloon. :-)

Sorry, we're not what we think we are.

You can get infinite growth by a perpetual increase in knowledge, for example.

You can't get infinite growth in anything. You may believe that there is an infinite amount of knowledge but you don't know that. However, if you mean that economies can grow through knowledge, this is an opinion I've seen put forward by others. I wonder what that really means?

Let's say I acquire more knowledge. How did I go about doing that? Did I just sit and think? No, I would have had to do research, which takes energy and resources. Now, having that extra knowledge, what do I do with it? I could just disseminate it but that takes energy and resources. And what do the people who bought that new knowledge do with it? Just sit and think? They could sell it on, of course, and pay me some royalty, but that doesn't really answer the question. If they want to use that knowledge in any way, to "improve" their lives or others' lives, they have to apply that knowledge, which takes energy and resources.

No, I just can't see that economic growth can continue indefinitely without increasing the use of resources (and probably damage to the environment). However, it is so ingrained a desire, now, that apparently sane people can actually cling to a belief that somehow growth can go on forever.

Very thought provoking post Jeff and your rhizome collectives sound wonderfully utopic. It all sounds rather communist to me and I think if there is one lesson we can take from teh twentieth century, it is that communism basically doesn't work as a self organising system. It can only work by a dictatorship of the people. While I can see that your model may work for a while, people inevitably get greedy and want more. So they will specialize, trade, grow and collapse in perpetuity. The difference between the coming collaps an the one after it, is that we have the benefit or curse of collective knowledge to actually see it coming adn knowing we can o nothinhg to stop it.

While I can see that your model may work for a while, people inevitably get greedy and want more. So they will specialize, trade, grow and collapse in perpetuity.

You are universalizing from only a small portion of human history. The sort of growth and collapse model you are looking at is of recent origin (perhaps 6000 years) and of limited geographic scope until recently. On the other hand, sustainable models of human social organization have existed for perhaps 100,000 years and have been pretty much everywhere, except where the growth/collapse model replaced it.

Western people get greedy.

Without good motives growth will be limited by inefficiency more than lack of resources.

Decisions by the United States to force use of ethanol as a renewable fuel were based on emotion rather than mathematics.

Using the entire corn and wheat harvests (14 billion bushels) to make ethanol would yield about 38 billion gallons of ethanol (2.7 gallons per bushel). The United States used more than 20 million barrels of oil per day. One barrel = 42 gallons. U.S. oil usage was more than 840 million gallons of oil per day; that is about 307 billion gallons of oil per year. Using all the grain in the country each year to make ethanol might satisfy 12 percent of our oil needs but would create a hell of a food shortage. As if food and gas prices were not bad enough they might easily get worse unless some sort of change is wrought.

Hi Jeffvail,

I suspect you may not understand humanity anymore than I do.

I need to mention in passing some of your ideas I find incongruent.. You start with the ideal of “Rhizome groups” working together with “Morality’ as their base. All intellectuals learn at an early stage that ‘Morality” is a very. very arbitrary concept. Abrahamic-God people try to use a Biblical moral code. It too is not congruent.

Hierarchy Must Grow, and is Therefore Unsustainable.

--- Human psychology has nothing to do with this.. Have you never noticed that all the species of everything on this planet are procreating like crazy? Bacteria divide and grow by the second. Trees put out hundreds of thousands of seeds every season. There is no psychology in this, it is just an ALL SPECIES trait.

The Structure of Human Society Selects for Growth.

--–All species select for growth. Usually called “Survival of the fittest”, or evolution.

The Development of Modern Economics & Finance Requires Growth. ---Have you considered the possibility that Growth requires modern Economics and Finance? In a tribe of 50 nomads this may not be a compelling issue.

I will concede that once any society starts Pyramiding it has to grow or collapse.

The rest of your Paper is so tenuous I will not address more of it. However in your first paragraph you say:

overpopulation, pollution, global warming, peak oil, are not the “Problem” -----but rather just the symptoms,—and we must attempt to instead, identify and address the underlying sources of the problems.

You may be in error unless we define the real problems:
----Namely: Modern Medicine, anti-biotics, vaccinations, and high-tech hospitals, coupled with high-tech food production are the real problem. For 70,000 years the population remained fairly static without stressing the planet or themselves.
----For each ten babies born, only one or two survived, roughly equal to replacement value. Just so with the thousands of fruits that fall off a tree, only very few become other trees until the original one dies off.

I question your grasp of Real-Politics, contemporary financial structures, and specifically human nature and behaviour.

We are an opportunistic species, locked in a battle with all other species to dominate Planetary resources. We cannot tell plants to stop absorbing nutrients when they have enough, or the squirrel to stop gathering nuts when his cache has enough. Just so Warren Buffet, Bill Gates and etc., do not stop when their piggy bank is full.

We, as a species will do what we do, until a greater force stops us. Morality and Faith or Psychology are not very strong deterrents.

I commend your searching for alternatives, but find no merit in your argument.

Perhaps though it is possible to 'fool the system' by providing false signals to biological imperatives?

The critical point is that it is not a designed system, it merely responds in certain ways to the inputs it is used to - ie. it is not intelligent, neither does it have an 'aim' as such.

So for instance, in conditions of stress such as warfare, people will try to breed up to the maximum possible, even though humanists might find this a mistaken response as it leads to more suffering - but of course humanity would not have survived if they cut back on births in stress situations.

What gives perhaps a glimmer of hope is the fall in birth rates to below replacement levels in the developed world.

How could this occur in the light of biological imperatives?

The answer seems to lie in the reverse of the war response - the situation is far more unstressed than it ever is in nature, women at least are relatively confident of passing on their genes even with only one offspring as death rates are so low, and the cost of children is very high.

A better understanding of the underlying system might enable it to be played by means of deliberate false signals, leading to the ability for humanity to live within it's means.

It seems to me though that these conditions are far more likely if we can bring the developing world up to around the living standards of the developed, although areas like Karela in India with it's very low birth rate perhaps indicate that the challenge is not quite that great.

Other work on fooling the system has also been done by the use of 'super stimuli' such as exaggerating the physical sexual symbols in birds, a super-large crest and so on. Manga and computer graphics perhaps spring to mind in the human context in this regard.

IOW, the biological system seems to have been fooled by stimuli to which it is rarely if ever exposed in nature.

Can we engineer solutions?

The meme of growth is at the heart of New Age spirituality. They claim our only choice is to grow or die. Just being is not an option. Somehow we are meant to grow into a more spiritual being than we are today and this continual growth extends into the afterlife. For those who believe in reincarnation the afterlife means coming back to Earth again and again and again until by chance we discover the key to Nirvana. Mormons believe we are called to grow into gods who in the next life become rulers of our own planet and need as many wives as possible to populate this planet.
Perhaps what the world needs is a new spiritual meme of good enough. Perfection is impossible and we need to forgive one another and not demand we become something else. Somehow the growth commandments of Wall St and Madison Ave need to be challenged. There is an alternative to the divine right of property and that is the meme of stewardship. Wall St and Madison Ave command us to accumulate stuff to the extent that renting of storage space is a growing industry. We are forbidden to say "I have enough. Let those without enough have the rest".

Surprisingly, no one has mentioned "growth" as an inherent part of childhood.

Growth is ingrained into our psyche as synonymous with getting stronger, gaining more control over our environment, being treated with more respect because we are approaching "adulthood" and so on.

Parents and relatives would always proclaim, "My Lord, look how big you've gotten!"

So naturally, the word "growth" is associated with positive things.

You wouldn't want to invest in a zero growth, sustainable investment fund, would you?

You wouldn't want to invest in a zero growth, sustainable investment fund, would you?

Investment funds can't be sustainable because they exist to provide a return for their investors. Such funds would not exist in a sustainable society.

Jeff, I was with you until you said this:

The corollary here is that a minimally self-sufficient system should also produce some surplus that can be exchanged—but only to the extent that is found to be advantageous.

On the surface, it seems reasonable, but how does one control that?

If you are of a mind to gain something from your surplus, it probably means that you're not satisfied with your lot. How do you stop that from running away into what you described earlier about trying to produce ever more, in order to be able to trade more, for more advantage?

That quote stunned me because I then realised that a sustainable society is all but impossible. Especially starting from where we are now, there will always be that underlying desire to "improve" one's standard of living. Or, at least, there will always be enough people with such a mindset that a stable, sustainable, society will never last long.

What a depressing thought.

It definitely seems like a slippery slope... I think it can be done "sustainably," but I don't have great confidence that most people will actually *do* it within bounds that keep a society "sustainable." The bottom line is that specialization does provide economic benefit, but that this benefit must be continually and consciously weighed against its costs. A concrete example: it seems quite possible for an individual to grow all the foods *needed* for physiological maintenance, for himself and his family, in a sustainable manner. Is it possible to provide the full range of culinary delights that are to be found at your neighborhood Dean & Deluca (sarcasm)? Probably not. Once a minimal level of self sufficiency has been reached (requisite calories and nutritional needs), is it sustainable to devote some fixed period of labor--say 5 hours per week--to developing some culinary treat in surplus, so that you can enjoy that taste, and exchange it with 10 other people who are producing similar, yet different, surpluses? I think it is. This is all getting highly hypothetical--the key (in my mind) is that it IS possible to leverage specialization while remaining functionally self-sufficient (you could do without the capers if need be), but it requires a high degree of anthropological self-awareness, the awareness that making sacrifices to maintain the continued supply of these specialities may defeat your self-sufficiency.

It's this high degree of consicous self-awareness that troubles me about my own theory--I don't have much confidence that humanity in general will suddenly become quite so reflective. I do think that this is both possible AND practicable in a peripheral society (something like the monasteries that carried classical knowledge through the dark ages in western Europe, or the Assassins or Sufis that carried wholistic mysticism through the various Islamic empires)... maybe that will have to be enough? I think that could still serve as an important check against total catabolic collapse, and a repository for knowledge, as it has in the past, but I don't know if more than that (e.g. an Earth-wide "rhizome" sustainable society) is really any more practicable than other visions of Utopia. Small is beautiful, says Schumcher, so maybe it's best to aim for solutions that only aim to carve out a small solution space (in the geographical, not notional sense)? That, in itself, doesn't seem highly moral, but is a practical but less moral "partial solution" better than a fully moral but impractical one?

Bottom line: I share your more depressing fears, but I'm not willing to give in to them, and I'm guessing you're not either? You asked "but how does one control that"? Maybe we just don't--let it fail 99% of the times it is tried (as if we have a choice), and see if the 1% that succeeds is enough, maybe even enough to develop a means of control to spread more widely?

I'm not sure why you think geographically small solutions are not fully moral. Morality is a highly personal subjective thing, not objective. If sustainability means societies must be highly localised and insular then I see nothing wrong with that.

Maybe the tendency can be controlled through education. If we are taught that minimal self-sufficiency is good enough and we can enjoy the leisure time that results, then maybe there would be less people thinking that more would make them happier. I think cultural/knowledge exchanges would be good, but it need not be a trading exchange, except where such trade is a necessity (e.g. to import needed trace elements). However, the tendency to gain more than others would still be strong; isn't it said that knowledge is power?

I think lack of dependency is crucial. If we each (where "each" means individuals or small, possibly family, groups) were not dependent on others for survival (food, water and shelter), and for as many other quality of life aspects as possible, then that reduces the possibility of others gaining some kind of power over us.

Most of the compulsion for eternal growth in our society comes from the workings of the capitalist system. The very essence of capitalism is that it produces capital, not just goods and services. Goods and services produce profits, which are turned into capital, which is then invested in production to produce more capital. Ad infinitum.
I remember after the Second World War, there was a short-lived debate about whether the economy should work toward reduced working hours and more leisure time, or whether it should simply produce as many goods as possible, and use advertising and other methods (such as eliminating public transport) to get people to buy them. After the war, when I bought my first house under the GI Bill, I wanted to live in the city, but the law was set up so I could only afford a house in the suburbs (much higher down payment was required in the city, even under the GI Bill). The capitalists won the argument about what to produce, just like they keep the Iraq War going, even though the great majority of the people oppose it.
Capitalists will produce whatever produces the most profits(capital). They must do this as long as there is competition, or else their competitors will run them out of business. Growth of population produces competition also, so this is also a factor. But medical science and a realization of the problem make it quite feasible to stop and reverse population growth, if the political will is there. The political will may have to come from above; not some small group imposing its ideology on the masses, but a group persuading the masses to follow them. Am I proposing a socialist world state? Yes. Is it possible? I think it's absolutely necessary, if civilization is not going to crash to the level of Afghanistan or worse.
The essay contains a lot of disjointed ideas, some very good and some nonsensical, but no real plan. Just like in fighting a war, you must have an overall plan, even though you can't spell out all the details. If you have ever worked on a major scientific or engineering project, or in military tactics you'll know what I mean.

"If you have ever worked on a major scientific or engineering project, or in military tactics you'll know what I mean."

I've worked on both, and I think this illustrates the paradigm shift necessary to implement what I'm saying. Right now we're implementing military operations (an area where I have experience planning several significant joint/combined operations during the invasion of Iraq) to fight an enemy that does not a "top-down" plan, nor a "top-down" structure. They're doing pretty well. I'm currently employed to interdict just these kinds of emergent operations on many fronts, and this experience has been part of my ongoing inspiration to think that the LAST thing that we need is a top-down plan. While fully recognizing that I may be dead wrong, and you may be 100% right, I think that any plan that calls for a "world state" is doing nothing but guaranteeing failure. As is any plan that starts off with "if we can just get good governance" or "if only everyone would just get along." The last place that I want to live is in the kind of dystopian world that seems to result from such planning. For that reason, I think it is very important to advance a "disjointed" set of principles that can be implemented in a scale-free manner from the bottom up. Insurgencies and "terrorists" are already demonstrating how these ideas can be integrated into existing tribal, organizational, or hierarchal structures to great effect. No reason why that can't happen toward a peaceful goal, as well?

I hope for competition about being productive in a environmentally friendly way wich is what future generations need. If we locally become good at this and other states and regions try to do better we will get a better world and we wont need a world governmnet to do it.

My worst case scenarion is resource wars burning thru resources and opportunities for cooperation.

Hierarchy occurs because it usually provides a survival advantage. Growth occurs because it usually provides a survival advantage. Hierarchical societies that grow conquer those that are not hierarchical or do not grow.

Read Diamond. Read Tainter. Complexity arises as a problem solution. Further, consider that homo sapiens is too successful to return to hunter-gatherer lifestyles. We moved from hunter-gatherer to agrarian lifestyles 10,000 years ago precisely because we were too successful and our population grew to critical levels that could no longer be sustained by the hunter-gatherer way of life.

Homo sapiens will constantly select organizational modes that they believe will maximize their survival chances. You have not demonstrated why "rhizome" maximizes those chances. In fact, your entire essay skirts around organizational problems. A group of "networked" families that lack some greater structure will fall to a concerted attack by a larger organizational structure.

Finally, your chosen organizational structure appears intended to solve long term survival issues but homo sapiens focus is short term and that's a direct outgrowth of natural selection. The creature that fails to place higher priority on today than tomorrow is often culled.

While you have spent a great deal of time on this essay, it appears very weak to me. You are making a fairly radical claim, that humans can successfully organize in something other than hierarchical societies and that such a society can survive against competing societies that organize hierarchically. Such a claim should receive far more rigorous support than what you've demonstrated here so far.

not so sure the move to agrarian was 'successful' given our status & our limited 'success' length of time wise [diamond - ag & settled life our greatest mistake]. however we do absorb or overtake those few hunter-gather groups left. until we take the longer view pop & eco wise we will not fit 'successful'. i agree hierarchy & growth[un-sustainability] are primary short term, so ???

While I agree with the theoretical points made,

I have to agree with several comments even more.

The first comment was that it might be too late.

Another comment, which I regard as preeminent, is

our monetary system is a deliberate debt engine!!!

"History records that money changers have used
every form of abuse, intrigue, deceit, and
violent means possible to maintain
their control over governments
by controlling the money
and its issuance."

-- James Madison (1751-1836),
Author, Bill of Rights,
4th US President

The social pyramid exists because
the pyramidion people were best at
being dishonesty, and backing that
up with violence, and those lies &
coercion served their systems of
organized fraud and robbery ...

Any attempt to change the social pyramid
directly runs into a continuing problem
that the system has already been built,
and is defended by deliberate ignorance
and dishonesty and violence and so on.

International bankers are the biggest gangsters.

The banksters already bought control of the
mass media, and have funded the politicians,
to create an almost inconceivably crazy and
corrupt financial accounting system, which
demands ever increasing debt to keep going.

There is no doubt that there are plenty
of creative alternatives, that possibly
could enable sustainable civilizations.

BUT, what we are surrounded by NOW
is the triumph of lies and coercions
running systems of fraud & robbery.

Instead of facing the facts,
and allowing change, there
is deliberate ignorance,
backed up with forces.

The debt engines that drive our political economy
were made & are maintained by the death engines.

Any attempt to change the monetary systems
immediately runs into the problem of how
to fund the political process to do it,
when the power is already concentrated
in the hands of the pyramidion people.

They got to the top of their social pyramid
by being the best at dishonesty & violence.

They already are there, and have
every advantage and intention of
continuing to remain there too.

As the first commenter posted,
we should have changed before.

Every day we wait, the worse it gets.

However, we could not change back then
for the same reason we can not now ...

The monetary system is the result
of the triumph of death controls.

Every politician that attempted
to change $ systems was killed,
except for Andrew Jackson, and
he had to survive attempted
assassinations to do that.

At the present time, no politician
can get remotely close to being
elected unless they are chosen
by the fascist plutocracy, &
the mass media that are now
controlled by those powers.

If any politician could do so,
they would have to survive a
series of assassination risks.

The worst of the worst people,
who were the best at lying &
backing up lies with force,
are already in power now.

They built the real social pyramid system.

And so, I totally agree with the theory
that the social pyramid system is the
problem, and the abstract notions of
what social structures "should" be.

However, in practise, human society
goes down paths of least resistance,
which are paths of least moralities.

The real world is controlled by lies & coercions.

That is why there is more and more
social polarization, as well as
more destruction of nature.

We are trying to organize resistance to
change the path of least resistance ...

BUT, we have been failing to do that
since we had no practical short-term
way to stop the people who were the
best at being dishonest and violent
from becoming the most wealthy and
powerful, and thus able to build
& maintain their social systems.

The global fascist plutocracy
IS planning for the future ...

Their plans are to keep doing more and more
of what they have always enjoyed doing ...

They intend to grow more fascist plutocracy
and to grow more fascist police state power.

They deliberately ignore the long-term results.

No evidence or logical arguments
about truth or justice matter to
the people who control the world.

They are the most immaculate hypocrites.

And so, it already seems way too late ...

IF we were going to be able to implement
some better human & industrial ecologies,
which also sustained the natural ecologies,
then we should change the decisions made
by the monetary systems to truly do that.

More than anything else, all of the other
creative alternatives would require some
radical changes in the debt engines, BUT
the real debt engines exist now because
of the death engines running before ...

We now have money that is coded electricity
that is backed up with threats from weapons
using atomic energy, and those are the ways
we decide how to develop our industry, like
burn more and more fossil fuels, as fast as
we possibly can, until there are too little
left, and everything collapses into chaos.

The problem is that changing anything now
is really attempting to change the best
organized crime gangs running the world.

Unless we could change the monetary systems
in radical enough ways, nothing else can be
done that would be sufficient to employ the
creative alternatives we need to be using.

However, changing the debt controls
actually depends on changing the
death controls, which means

dealing with real lies and coercions,

and the people who have descended from

those who were best at being dishonest,

and backing up their lies with violence,

who are NOW the pryamidion people, which

intend to stay there and make a pyramid

grow even bigger and steeper,

no matter how insane that is.

So all the theoretical analysis
of the problem in this article
I agreed with, however, the
comments were correct ...

The real future likely looks like the real past.

There will be senseless wars
that make things be worse ...

because there are no practical ways
to stop people who are willing and
able to be dishonest and violent,
to benefit themselves through
frauds and robberies, from
doing that, since they

already control our governments,

and all the biggest corporations,

and indeed, most churches as well.

We became addicted to oil because
of oil's crucial role in history
as being able to deliver maximum
power in the serious contexts
of military conflicts, and it
was that militarism which was
the reason the civilians were
organized to live as they do.

The world is being controlled
by lies, backed up with force.

But, the force cannot make the lies become true.

Therefore, the system is spinning out of control.

However, in the short-term,
the triumphant huge lies
already control things.

The debt controls depend on the death controls.

All of the systems of creative alternatives
are going to have to work through that main
fact that the death controls are going to
be central to anything that happens ...

Our governments are already
the biggest crime gangs
and biggest terrorists.

Our governments already work for
the fascist plutocracy, and that
system already controls most of
our education and mass media.

Thus, while I agreed with the article above,
I agreed with some of the comment much more.

It seems already too late.

If we were going to really do something,
we first have to change monetary systems.

But, changing those monetary systems
is fighting the banksters, who are
already the biggest and best of
all the organized crime gangs.

We are already committed to some degree
of collapse into chaos, and any changes
will be unplanned, and unpredictable,
in the context of irrational conflict
between different systems of lies
and coercions, which are almost
inconceivably crazy & corrupt.

As soon as one starts to think through
what would be necessary to implement
systems of creative alternatives,
one goes through debt controls
to end up at the death control.

The actual future is going to be
the result of real death control.

More than in any other way,
"The Problem of Growth" is
the problem of the growth
of death control powers.

Hello, names are meaningless, also unchangeable.

Why do we need/want Growth?

With Economic Growth,
we assume Growth in Money Supply is required,
otherwise, how can we buy the extra produced goods?

Not too obvious, but there seems to be a problem
with Money, or that nasty Money-Rot thing,
Inflation, causing troubles.

Inflation neccesitates Growth, no?

When your money is rotting away, best to make some more.

The Act of Money Creation always consumes energy and resources, which must be purchased with Money.

The Money, having just been created, is partially destroyed, secretly rotting and festering, already creating nasty Debt.

The Act of Money creation then always creates some Debt,
somehow, hidden right there inside the Money.

But now we must spend the Money, so as to Consume.

The Act of Consumption also Always Consumes Energy and Resources,
which must be purchased with More Money, not the same money, Creating More Debt, or the neccesity of making a Profit,
and horrible Inflation.

The Use of Money always creates Inflation, when all goes well,

Every single Economic Transaction in the Universe
Always Consumes both Energy and Resources,
which both must be bought with Money.

This effect, perhaps,
is a very essential Inflationary Destructive Power

Without Growth in the money supply,
and without More Growth in Energy input,
Inflation would at some point become Infinite

This Inflation force would however
make a Steady-State Economy impossible,
if it uses Money, there is the Neccesity of Growth,
in money and energy supply, for ever.

We could/should never go back/forward to a money-less Economy,
causing the maximization of minimal efficiency
in every possible economic transaction.

The aim of all Capitalist Market Players is
to Maximize individual Profit in every transaction,
so they can repay their Debt,
and the accumulated interest on their Debt,
so they can have More Capital to make More Profit.

All Capitalist Market Players start with Capital and Debt,
you know, so Profit Must be Made, it is Required of us.

The Aim of Economic Growth is to create wealth and Prosperity, it seems then that More Money is required, and a lot more energy,
so that everyone may become wealthy, maybe,

It would then follow that...

The Purpose of Life is To Make Profit

I love Capitalism

Unfortunately, as a species, we have somehow confused
two very different things.

The thing Money,
which is a very strange multi-dimensional object,
partially bound to Gravity in more than one way,
and which constantly requires replenishment,
has been confused with the actual goal,
the universally desired Wealth and Prosperity

The thing Money also seems to have the properties
of a Memetic Virus, an idea-form
that requires ever increasing inputs of energy and resources
from its host to replicate itself in our realm.

Also, Money is a Tool.

The Use of a Tool will Partially Destroy the Tool

Exept maybe the Brain, but then, Entropy

Is Inflation a form of Entropy?