Peak Oil, Sustainability and the Problem of Freedom

The following is a guest essay by Kurt Cobb exploring the concept of freedom via a resource depletion filter. Kurt speaks and writes frequently on energy and the environment and is featured on many sites including Energy Bulletin and EV World. His personal weblog is Resource Insights. Previously on TheOilDrum, Kurt wrote Peak Oil and Mass Communication.

In the film "A Beautiful Mind" the putative hero is John Nash, the Nobel prize-winning mathematician who struggles with paranoid schizophrenia and ultimately overcomes it. The same John Nash early in his career created a model of human behavior that lives on in our institutions and policies and which has significantly constricted our views of human freedom. So says a BBC documentary series entitled "The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom."

(The three episodes of the documentary are available on YouTube: Episode One: F*ck You, Buddy, Episode Two: The Lonely Robot, Episode Three: We Will Force You To Be Free.)

The documentary's thesis is that Nash's view of humans as "self-seeking, almost robotic, creatures" has been incorporated into public policy and culture both in the United States and Great Britain in a way that undermines human freedom. The issues discussed in the broadcast and in a seminal essay by philosopher Isaiah Berlin entitled "Two Concepts of Liberty" which is referenced in the program have profound implications for those concerned about peak oil, resource depletion in general or any set of issues that falls under the rubric of sustainability. The ideas of negative and positive freedom outlined by Berlin in his famous essay and the Nashian model of human behavior pose difficult challenges to those who want to put human society on what they perceive as a more sustainable path.

First, let me briefly outline Berlin's definitions of negative and positive freedom though a complete reading of his essay is necessary to comprehend all the nuances. Negative freedom is essentially the freedom to be left alone. It is freedom from coercion, but within a well-defined realm that has differed from age to age. It would now commonly include one's home life, religious life, leisure pursuits and even voluntary economic transactions (that is, those involving something other than paying taxes). It is the realm of personal choice. But it is also the realm of privacy including the right to be free from arbitrary searches and the right to confidentiality in our financial and medical affairs.

Positive freedom is more difficult to explain. It involves the amount of autonomy we have, that is, the power we are able to exert over our own lives outside the realm reserved for personal choice and privacy. For example, at work your employer has a great deal to say about what you do, where you do it and how you are compensated. If you are member of a union, then you along with your fellow employees will have a bit more to say about these issues. If you are self-employed, you may have yet more autonomy, but your customers will limit what autonomy you have through the demands they put on you. If you are independently wealthy and do not have to work, you may have yet more autonomy though your autonomy will never be absolute.

If you live under a dictatorship, even if the dictator is very benevolent and gives you a great deal of negative freedom, you will still have very little autonomy in the political sphere. If you have a say in who governs you, then your positive freedom will increase. But it does not necessarily follow that your negative freedom will also increase. Berlin takes pains to point out that democracy does not always coincide with greater negative freedom. Democratically elected governments can decide to curtail severely the realm of personal choice and privacy. Witness the increasingly intrusive security measures enacted in the wake of the September 11th attacks on the United States.

Perhaps most important of all, each type of freedom is subject to being turned into an absolutist doctrine that perverts and undermines the very notion of freedom.

This is a mere sketch of Berlin's two kinds of freedom. But, it will serve my purpose of showing how contemporary notions of these two views of freedom affect efforts to reform society. The social reformer is always on the side of positive freedom. As it turns out, everyone who has a child is a social reformer. Parents believe they know what's best for children, and so they constantly correct their behavior. They try to set them on a course that will allow them to prosper emotionally, physically and mentally, a course that will prepare them for adult life.

Certainly, parents normally allow a realm of play and free expression for their children that can be seen as a type of negative freedom. But when it comes to brushing their teeth, eating their vegetables, and taking their vitamins, most parents take the view that an unhealthy child with rotting teeth and stunted growth will not be truly free to pursue his or her talents to the greatest degree possible.

This is where positive freedom comes in. Without the ability to act autonomously either due to poor health, imprisonment or impoverishment, all the negative freedom in the world is useless. A hungry person has little use for negative freedom and far more use for food. True, a hungry person with wide latitude to act in the marketplace to obtain the food he or she needs may have advantages. But lack of food may prohibit him or her from taking full advantage of that freedom in the first place.

In addition, parents also generally insist on education for their children. Again, without any skills or social training, all the negative freedom in the world is meaningless.

Governments often act like parents with respect to their citizens. They may insist on compulsory education for the young. They may insist on vaccinations as a public health measure. They may make laws to ensure the safety of food and automobiles. This is, of course, where controversy rages. The government as social reformer is behaving as if it knows what's best for each of us in the belief that by compelling us to get an education or to follow certain procedures to produce disease-free food, it will enhance our individual and collective lives. The belief is that following these requirements will actually make us more free by increasing our chances for success and helping us to maintain our health.

How far should the government go in trying to get us to do what is supposedly "best" for us? And, should it compel us to help other people obtain an education or basic nutrition or essential health care through taxation? In other words, is our freedom enhanced when the positive freedom of others who live around is also enhanced?

Berlin isn't opposed to positive freedom, but fears its unrestrained trajectory. The 20th century is replete with figures who were certain they knew what would allow humans to discover their true nature and become their highest and best selves. The trouble with this sort of absolutist thinking is that it can end up justifying imprisoning, torturing and/or killing all who stand in the way of perfecting humanity. The examples of the Stalinist purges of the 1930s and the so-called Cultural Revolution in China in the late 1960s and early 1970s are just two among many.

On the other hand, we celebrate figures such as Rachel Carson, who helped to spawn the modern environmental movement which has been in part focused on preventing the uncontrolled poisoning of the environment by human activities, especially the indiscriminate use of pesticides. This has been done primarily through government regulation. And, while in some circles controversy still swirls around the mandatory vaccination of children, Jonas Salk, inventor of the polio vaccine, is hailed by most as a hero for creating a vaccine which every child is now essentially forced to receive.

(Berlin might have been perplexed by the perversions of negative freedom as well. At least one of the justifications for the war in Iraq was to bring freedom and democracy to the Middle East. But the two words are not necessarily interchangeable as explained above. The result has been to bring the tradition of negative freedom as we know it to Iraq, particularly in the functioning of the economy where the previous socialist system of government control was dismantled almost overnight. Bringing our type of negative freedom to a country at the point of a gun hasn't worked out as well as planned.)

So, what is the state of interplay of these two notions of freedom today? The answer in the United States and Great Britain is that we are as cultures one-sidedly wedded to the idea of negative liberty. But even that idea has been further constricted by the widespread application of the Nashian model of human behavior in public policy. Nash's model was designed to describe a two-player game, namely The Cold War, in which the best posture was constant suspicion, and the most fruitful tactic betrayal. Nash's model is based on game theory and is related to the situation hypothesized in the now famous prisoner's dilemma problem. Each player plays to maximize his or her own gains without concern for the other. This has become what the documentary "The Trap" refers to as the maximizing information processor model of human beings with particular but not exclusive reference to their economic transactions.

If humans are atomized self-maximizers, scheming and calculating for their own advantage at all times, then any policy that treats them otherwise is foolishly misguided. Now, here is the crux of the problem for anybody who wants to reform society, that is, help others achieve more positive freedom. If this model of humans is correct, then leaders in every part of society including government are only out to enhance their own well-being and power to the exclusion of everyone else.

American economist James M. Buchanan (covered in the BBC documentary mentioned above) even posited that there is no such thing at "the public interest." There is only the competing self-interest of government officials and politicians trying to maximize their own gains, i.e. more pay, more power, more promotions, more election wins, etc. Therefore, the only way government could be made to serve the populace would be to provide incentives that make it in government employees' self-interest to serve the self-interest of members of the public. (There appears to be a bit of a contradiction here since citizens all working for their self-interest seems to be Buchanan's definition of what's best for society as a whole, i.e. the public interest. But let's leave this problem aside.)

Creating government services and protections for the public is problematic from the beginning, Buchanan and his fellow theorists explain. It is better to leave everything one can to the marketplace. That is where individuals can truly operate to satisfy their own interests most effectively and efficiently.

Buchanan was a consultant to the governments of both British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her successor, John Major. It is Thatcher who once said: "Who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families." If you read the entire passage, you'll see that she didn't quite embrace anarchy though her ideas reflect the libertarian notions evinced by Buchanan. But the effect of Buchanan's ideas can be seen even in the efforts of so-called left-of-center governments such as we find in a Clinton-era program referred to as "Reinventing Government." It is not the attempts to make government more effective at delivering services that should concern us here. It is the notion that there is no such thing as the public interest. If this is true, then there can be no meaningful program for improving society as a whole, only attempts by individuals to pursue their own improvement (or not) as they see fit.

In the context of resource depletion and sustainability such a view can only mean that the marketplace will determine all. No government intervention can take place save to enhance the interests of particular groups at the expense of others. That is the sole meaning of "government program." In Buchanan's view it cannot be construed otherwise.

The problem for those who seek widespread sustainability preparations is that this view has come to be widely accepted by the public and even by politicians. And, its corollary--that humans are all independent information processors that aim to maximize their personal gains at all times--has also achieved a broad purchase on the public mind.

What strategy, then, might one pursue to counteract this view which is now so prevalent? I no longer concern myself with the diehard cornucopians and techno-optimists who will never be convinced that anything truly catastrophic could ever happen to us or the natural systems that support us. The way to win any battle for the public mind is to focus on the so-called "persuadables." These are the people who haven't really made up their minds about an issue, and they tend to be the largest segment of any population. On this count my worry grows exponentially. As Robert Rapier has explained on this site previously in a piece entitled "We Won't Stop Global Warming," most people say they want to do something about global warming. But when one places a price on actually doing something, say, raising the cost of gasoline $1 a gallon through taxes, support for action drops precipitously. People see themselves as maximizing consumers first, and citizens with duties to a greater society second.

Therein lies the conundrum. Any public-spirited sacrifice--even for people who believe there is a problem--seems out of a question in societies whose entire politics and culture are dominated by the idea that personal wants are the equivalent of the public good. In the longer run the question of human freedom becomes even more nettlesome in my view because a sustainable industrial society implies two things: a steady-state economy and a stable population. And, that implies considerable regimentation of daily life, the likes of which people in Western-style democracies have never experienced.

It is conceivable to me that the privations of a post-peak oil world or, say, a food and water crisis brought on by the collapse of one or more key natural systems could alter the current paradigm of humans as selfish maximizers. But, by then it will be too late to prepare; we will only be coping.

I wonder whether anything can be done to change the way people think about freedom now, while there is still some time to do something that might be labeled as preparation. Certainly, the negative freedom we enjoy today in places such as Britain, the United States and Canada, allows individuals to make their own preparations. But that can only go so far. It seems to me that collective action in many areas will be required to avoid the worst consequences of resource depletion and to forestall ecosystem collapse. For that we need an entirely revised understanding of human freedom. But, if that's desirable, is it even possible?

Freedom is related to control. And it could be argued that how much individual 'control' we have overall is a function of resources per capita. It would stand to reason that as resources per capita decline there will be fewer individual freedoms. However..

Like everything, I think freedom (to act, think, express, etc.) is related to the 'feelings' it engenders in our brains. A seminal experiment on 'control' was by Lundberg and Frankenhaeuser (1980) "Pituitary-adrenal and sympathetic-adrenal correlates of distress and effort" Journal of Psychosomatic Research volume 24, pages 125-130. To paraphrase, the researchers had subjects hit colored buttons that matched colored lights that would flash with increasing speed during the experiment and flashing about as fast as the subjects could follow near the end. Then a similar test was undertaken where the same subjects would match the same colored buttons to the flashing lights - the only difference being they had control of a dial that would increase the speed of the flashing lights. In this second experiment (controlled individually not by the experimenter), the speed of the flashing lights was as fast or faster than the first experiment.

Before and after blood tests and interviews of the subjects were taken for both experiments. The typical response after the first test was 'that was one of the hardest things I've ever done', and indeed the ratio of cortisol (a stress hormone) to norepinephrine in the blood was high. In the test where subjects had individual control, a typical response was 'that was fun! I enjoyed the challenge!' etc. Blood tests showed the inverse as well - cortisol was much less pronounced. There are similar and follow up tests in the physiological literature**, but the inference is that in IDENTICAL tasks, the difference in our brains response (with pleasurable or stressful sensations) depended on our ability to exert individual control over our circumstances.

To me this is an important finding, and one instructive in structuring post peak institutions and behaviors. As long as people feel they have control of their circumstances, I think they (we) could endure a great deal more hardships than if we feel control is out of our hands. Irrespective of declines in resources/capita, assuming basic needs are met, we might be able to 'trick' our wiring into responses that are less stressful as long as we feel ownership in what's happening. Food for thought.

Thanks for the essay Kurt.

**Here is another reference: "Biological Basis of the Stress Response" by James P. Henry, Integrative Physiological and Behavioral Science, January-March, 1992, volume 27, Number 1, pages 66-83.

p.s. John Nash has admitted in interviews that he was crazy when he formulated game theory /Nash equilibriums....nice to know such equilibriums underpin much of modern economics... Neither humans (nor animals) use math to 'decide', we use heuristics (Gigerenzer)

Great essay and addresses the center of the to move society. We will not survive as a civilization or perhaps even as a species if we don't submit to controls on our consumption and population. As you point out Nate society may submit to controls and legislation if people feel they still have control of the situation. Maybe it is a question of what needs to happen that submitting to controls is exactly the best option for people to feel they are still maximizing their control of the situation. Today we cannot imagine society making concessions on their freedoms because we are still being held in the current paradigm. But the day will come when our economic and environmental integrity will suffer the consequences which will shift societies concept of freedom and what they will see as the best option to maintain control. At some point this will mean giving up on freedoms for the greater good in regards to consumption and reproduction. But we need the catalyst of consequences to allow this shift in society to occur. We are in the paradoxical position of requiring destabilizing events to bring about a cultural change which will stabilize our long term survivability.

Very interesting. Makes sense, and (to me) seems to argue for a movement towards localism, and away from so much state intervention in our lives. We may have to work harder, but may see our efforts more directly rewarded, and therefore have the satisfaction of greater control.

When you say Nash admitted he was crazy, you're not saying he now repudiates that work?

It seems intuitive that with only incomplete information, we necessarily use heuristics, but some people surely view their information as sufficiently complete to employ mathematical methods (unconscious or not and valid or not).

Thanks Nate. I find your contributions going to the source of our being and 'who we are and what we could be'

andbytes wrote:

"We may have to work harder, but may see our efforts more directly rewarded, and therefore have the satisfaction of greater control."

All my life I have endeavoured to have creative control in my work life. In fact, my work has been an extension of my heart. This has given me (and still gives me) a rich, satisfying life. I have worked hard, but when I sit and reflect, or sleep, it is with peace. What else is more important in life????

The statement that "we tried rational self-interest and it didn't work" isn't correct. The social-economic system set up centuries ago is so full of positive feedbacks, caused by fractional-reserve banking, that it is bound to oscillate and produce inequality. A free and fair society must minimize time delays between cause and effect, a point was made by the 'Limits to Growth' authors.

I propose:

  • All credit and currency be replaced by energy certificates, denominated in Joules.
  • The ability to 'make money' by owning windmills, solar panels, etc.. , manufacturing fuel, and exchanging the fuel for legal tender certificates, be made a universal right
  • Lending and granting credit be banned. Those with savings may invest their money (energy) in partnerships with others, and assume the usual rights and responsibilities. Inclusion of buy in/out options in partnerships is encouraged.
  • Parents are encouraged to have children only after they have saved enough to pay for the entire upbringing of the child, without state support. This needn't involve coersion, if society reinforces the idea that saving for a child's future is caring and responsible behaviour.
  • Central bank monetary policy be replaced by limits on the area of geographical human footprint, which in turn places limits on the amount of solar and wind energy society can consume. This can be enforced with perfect accuracy, as it is impossible to hide a solar panel or windmill from a satellite. Almost all current economic instability can be traced to credit and the fractional reserve system. In a 'cash in advance only' system, stabiity is intrinsic and requires no intervention
  • The real freedom would come when such a system is given a real chance.

Do we have a dilemma here? On the one hand if we use humankind's innate heuristics we will flounder in the Nash equilibrium, consuming all available resources according to the greedy algorithm(*)
Alternatively, we can actually try to understand the math and potentially get us out of our predicament? But you say that we don't use math, so we are doomed.

A better way to think about this is the totality of he masses will always use heuristics, but a group of policy-makers applying an understanding to the problem at hand will at least give us a chance to analyze our way out of the problem. As long as they are unbiased and remain objective as to what is the best plan forward.

(*) greedy algorithm -- the name of a CompSci meta-heuristic used to solve computational problems more efficiently. It basically grabs the maximum allowable amount at each iteration.

I have what might be a some what unique situation within this TOD tribe/community.

I have a regular group of a dozen or so high school aged people hanging around the house on a regular basis, (they actually like hearing me spout off). Then I have a steady stream of 10 – 13 year olds plugged into the mix and many of them are holding their own on these topics but are understandably flighty. On top of that we include a group of 75 to 95 (yes 95) year olds in our gatherings as support for our neighborhood. They have some interesting in put too..

There is no common ground. The common ground is “you can’t possibly understand”.

I am ripped apart trying to mediate these cross gatherings when I attempt to inject real issues like resource constraints, American Imperialization, or Climate change. I am considered a total whack job and inevitably become the focal point of everyone denialist rhetoric.

You might be thinking WTF just quit.

I actually like this position.

The power is intoxicating.

I am the only “sane” one in the room, what ever that means.

If only I could take the next step and CA$H in on this dynamic.

Then I would truly become an AMERICAN.

Tell the youngsters that this is just like the TV show "Numb3rs".
We are all working on a whodunnit ... just that the stakes are higher.
After awhile it will turn into the show "CSI", and we will be doing forensics and an autopsy.
That's really the american way.

ah well, democracy as we know it hasn't been around long , doubt it will survive the oil crunch / credit peak ;)

Athenian democracy I believe did not survive after its silver mines ran out or indeed block by Sparta , if I remember my history rightly.

so when the people cry out for the want of bread and circuses -beware the man that has the Answer (for he will be there)....

after all "thing will be different" when I 'm in charge.........


And somewhere in the above observation + the observation of the US expansion to the Pacific, then the US oil production is a PHD thesis paper.

Great essay Kurt. I usually learn a lot from reading your stuff.

My recent thoughts about the subject of effective outreach and promotion of social change ties into the current economic decline (relevance), and responses that improve both individual lives and the wider problems we face (effectiveness).

I think my message works best for people who are upset by lack of freedom in areas such as work or the debt trap they are in. Part of their anxiety has to do also with lack of competence in tasks outside of their specialty so that they need both professional services of others AND money to survive. The economic decline reveals their vulnerability.

By contrast, those who have cut back on unnecessary consumption, increased practical skills, and have spent time cultivating an informal economy are much better off and resilient right now. By the way...doing this aligns with necessary ecological debt repayment.

I will post something about it soon.

"By contrast, those who have cut back on unnecessary consumption, increased practical skills, and have spent time cultivating an informal economy are much better off and resilient right now."


This is a much better description of what I might call genuine autonomy keeping in mind that autonomy doesn't mean being isolated and alone, but rather "self-governing," that is, having a large say in how your life will be structured. This is a far cry from what I call the illusion of autonomy from which so many suffer. Fossil fuels have made us feel powerful and omnipotent, but do they really make us more autonomous? That is, do they under our current system actually give us more power over our own lives or do they simply give others more power to shape how we live? I started to explore some of this in a piece I wrote two years ago entitled "The Illusion of Autonomy in the Fossil Fuel Age."

Thanks for the essay, Kurt.

The cartoon image of 'self-governance' that I've long wanted to put onto a t-shirt was a scene I saw in NYC, where a dog and owner walking down the street together were obeying the NYC leash law, but the dog trotted along, both wearing the leash on his neck AND holding its end in its mouth.

It might sound like an attempt to be cute and ironic, but the image was really a positive one to me. There is always a greater force (the 'owner') that is nearby and ready to impel us in directions we can't control.. we are left with the option to control ourselves, and keep our eyes open on the world..

It's the serenity prayer again.. 'Grant me the strength to change (control?) what I can, the patience to accept what I cannot change, and the wisdom to know the difference'


There is no coherent civilization that does not demand the exchange of personal freedom for community. In *that* sense, I find this essay another example of a lot of intellectualizing to make the simple complex. I'm left thinking, "And?" How far beyond living with other people requires compromise and living in society involves compromise do we need to go?

I say this not in terms of the value of scholarship in, and of, itself, but in terms of the audience: I wonder what much of this intellectualizing does to help reach people who are not either academics or intrinsically motivated wrt these issues?

To address the question:

The above said, I think the ecovillage (intentional communities), transition movements and relocalization-type movements are examples of possible future directions for balancing autonomies - at least for the people within that group, and as a group.

The ecovillage (or any intentional community) as community is a strange animal in that personal freedom is high but very strong conditions are imposed for group membership. In that sense, no different than typical modern societies, except that it can be strangely more so. One cannot be voted out of one's town, but might be voted out of an intentional community, e.g. However, that there is a focus on the commons at the organizing principle may overcome some of the fear of loss of autonomy. Safety for freedom.

Transition and relocation movements might be better examples as they tend to not demand such high degrees of adherence to the group communication/personal behavior ethos while still being centered around an ethical structure that puts a premium on the commons.

Further, they include gov't participation, but emphasize individual action in a cooperative framework. This might ultimately return to the people some of the autonomy we have voted ourselves out of over time.

Or whatever.


People see themselves as maximizing consumers first, and citizens with duties to a greater society second.

My recent thoughts about the subject of effective outreach and promotion of social change ties into the current economic decline (relevance), and responses that improve both individual lives and the wider problems we face (effectiveness).

I'm not entirely convinced that people do see their role first as consumers and then as citizens. There is so little they can do as citizens, after all: select which of the candidates will help them consume more? Vote with their dollars in the marketplace? Time and time again I find people upset, wanting to do more, but forced by the economic strictures to spend time at work - working to make things worse. And they are often more than a little aware of that.

Much of this, I feel, is tied to the destruction of the commons. We privatize the commons to create profit, people then must work in the profit based economy, but the profit based economy must continue to privatize and destroy the commonwealth. So we destroy more and more. There is no more "head west, young man", no more frontier. Via TAE, "Someday son, none of this will be yours.".

That economic freedom is intimately tied to our political and spiritual freedom. There will be no women's rights, no gay rights, no human rights, no rights of any kind (and fugedabout rights of the environment) unless we humans have economic rights.

Most people haven't had much in the way of economic rights ever, but there was the frontier and there was growth - the rising tide floats lifts all boats. Now that both of those are no longer available, we are engaged in a negative sum economic picture - where profits can only be maintained for the few at the top by stripping what little is left of the commonwealth for the rest of us. I keep harping on the proposed salt-water fishing licenses here in Maine as a good example. The factory boats will vacuum the sea, but the guy on the dock will have to get a license to pull out a few blues.

That ties together the political and economic spheres. If you don't have "legal presence" in Maine - meaning proof-of-innocence and proof-of-citizenship - you don't get driver's license. Means no car, no insurance. It's soon to mean no bank account, no health care, no student loans (probably no go-to-school-at-all), so forth and so on. Ultimately, one will not be able to buy a little milk and day old bread without being swiped for "legal presence". So, ultimately, one's role as a consumer and a citizen are knitted together. No more Thoreaus - only Alpha, Beta, Gammas and Deltas. It's all more efficient, of course. And safer, because those unseen watchers will watch out for you. It moves politics from liberalism into authoritarianism and totalitarianism.

The Somali pirates may have the right answer - the necessary answer - to those vacuum cleaners and the dumpers of industrial toxics. It seems to me it has to get violent. Sorry. The alternative is to shut our eyes and tell ourselves this gas chamber really is a nice bathroom. What would Jefferson say?

Consider health care "reform". Mandated health care will mean no health care for those not "in system". And because it is mandated, unless you are "in system" you are illegal. Which brings us back to legal presence again. Resource depletion and the hierarchical controls (REAL ID) that society imposes will force the typical citizen/consumer to play a game she can only lose. In US that will function much as typical IMF and "free trade" agenda does in less developed country.

I wonder if this is not precisely what is playing out now. We have systematic looting and asset stripping at the top. Everyone else being set up to take the fall. Sure, there has always been corruption, but never at such a qualitative scale.

It still doesn't work, however, on a limited planet with a limited resource base. But it will work a little longer and esp for those in power, that is a good thing.

In this game of musical chairs, those in the chairs are shooting at those losing chairs. They might lend a chair to some poor slob at Blackwater (or whatever the new name is) as long as he helps. house slaves vs "terrorists".

Freedom is not a state. It is only for those who take it and the price will get increasingly high as there will be no place to stand apart - certainly not in one's own garden.

One last point now, the laws are not going to help. Rachel Carson's work did lead to more regulation and that worked in some places for a limited time. Anyone who thinks regulation works now is deluded. Every one of the regulatory agencies is now a licensing agency; they enable and do not prohibit. Law as an impartial rule is a function of liberalism; law is only a fig leaf in authoritarianism or totalitarian structures. Bush pointed out how the Constitution was only a piece of paper, Gonzales that it was "quaint", and now we have a self-proclaimed constitutional lawyer in the White House who continues the policies of the DOJ to subvert those laws. The rule of law - trust - has largely evaporated now that the only way to make money is the old-fashioned way, to steal it.

cfm, in his garden


Consider health care "reform". Mandated health care will mean no health care for those not "in system". And because it is mandated, unless you are "in system" you are illegal

Not necessarily. In most of Europe, you walk into an emergency room, get first class treatment and walk out. All of it is anonymous, you can say I'm John Dough and it won't matter and won't cost you a penny (obviously tax paid, etc ..). More broadly, you can have a state with large institutions and yet no ID and a universal healthcare. (of course the "system" has other tools to make you belong: debt, housing, consumerism, jobs, taxes, possible IDs, etc).

That is not a "mandated" system (as in Massachusetts and most likely in the Obama plan). What you describe is a universal system: one exists, one gets health care. But the path the US is going down is mandates. One will have to have "legal presence" to use it and if one doesn't have enough money, she will have to cough up a lien on everything she owns. And if unconscious or dead, some judge will do it. ID will be required; checkpoint society.

The ID adds a whole lot of complexity and police costs (as Peter Drucker would write) but in the big picture that is a feature, not a bug.


In the UK, the position is beginning to change.

If you are a non-UK national (or appear to be) you are likely to be asked to prove your entitlement to non-emergency treatment. If you are European, no trouble. If you are from the developing or third world, you may be asked to prove the ability to pay first.

In any system, there are grey areas, and they can spread. That is why the public in the UK are nervous of ID cards. They are too often used as a means of excluding those who were previously included. In the UK, it is becoming increasingly illegal to protest about anything. Carson would be thrown in goal if she was in the UK today.

Dryki: IF your analysis is correct, you ought to be able to look around the world a bit at countries where the process you fear is more advanced than in yours, and observe more progressed situations than your own. Do you see any? Do people need passports to purchase bread in Sweden? Is Canada imposing a new ID requirement on cross-border visits, or the US?

I think your analysis is too US-centric, and off the mark. And BTW, US citizens should just get over the stupidity of worrying about universal government health insurance. Its the only system which works if you have ANY social consience. Period.

My comments are US centric, yes. You and several others have mistaken what I wrote as being against universal health care. I must have written that badly, because it's not what I was arguing. The point I'm making has to do with freedom and control - that our entire economic lives [US centric] is coming under control.

Our financial transactions are being checked against various "terrorist" databases. We have federal Homeland Security Directors and state Commissioner of Public Safety boasting that no one will be able to get federal or state services, health care, educational assistance, etc... without legal presence. Nor mortgages, bank accounts, jobs. With the toggle of a few bytes they want to be able to exclude whatever groups they want administratively. Here in Maine they are setting up a system to track people from pre-K through job history to monitor results.

I'm not arguing against universal health care; I'm arguing against a system that will parcel it out according to your "results". Think about how that standard will be set and applied. That's what I see as one way freedom and resource depletion may play out; not enough to go around.

And as of Jun 1, aren't passports now required for US citizens to visit Mexico and Canada? One gets run through the databases on way out now. But nothing to worry about, "It Can't Happen Here".

"US citizens should just get over the stupidity of worrying about universal government health insurance. Its the only system which works if you have ANY social consience. Period."

Amen (and I don't think you have to be in the medical field to make such a claim ;-)

The Post-Peak world will be fine if the government can restrain itself from intervening in what should obviously be a free market economy.

Which continents have the most ag resources? Africa and South America. Ukraine/Romania are also prime examples. What is ag production in these garden spots?? A WRECK. A total WRECK.

Governmentss in Africa/Latin America/Eastern Europe have this crazy notion that wealth redistribution via gooberment fiat works. The obvious result is low food production.

High oil prices = high grain prices = sky high grain production. Life on the farm was never better that when oil was $147 with hopes of $200. Those times are sorely missed. Every acre was manicured for extreme production.

When I read TOD, I realize this country has a lot of do-gooders who will create socialist policies in North America, and farmers here will do what they did after Zimbabwe was flushed down the toilet. They will work on golf swing instead of produce.

People starve for political reasons and political reasons only. Socialism is always the root cause.

Nothing like completely missing the point. Good job. Not.

The United States ag industry is soaked with subsidies. Just try to get rid of those and see how hard one gets stomped by the Congressfolks from Iowa, North Dakota, etc.

I guess it is not socialism from the farmers point of view as long as the government money keeps rolling in like the waves at high tide. These tides of money flow right into ConAgra and Archer Daniels Midland to factory produce swaths of monoculture crops to produce tank car trains full of high fructose corn syrup, bleached white flour, and other yummy foodstuffs. Inhumane, unhealthy bio-reactors factory pig and chicken farms puke their stench and fetid liquid lakes of waste into the environment.

Your second sentence calls out South America as being one of the regions of the world which is a 'garden spot' but where ag production is 'A WRECK. A total WRECK.' Funny, Brazil, Argentina, and other SouthAm countries such as Paraguay look pretty good in food production as charted by and Wolfram Alpha. In your next sentence you switch to calling out Africa/Latin America/Eastern Europe as low food production government redistributionist fiascoes. Are you confusing 'Latin America' (~Central America), with South America? Again, South America looks pretty darn good in ag production...

I'm sure life on the farm was great at high oil prices...especially if one farmed corn and was conniving with Congress to pass egregious ethanol subsidies.

What exactly is great and to be sorely missed about manicuring every acre for extreme production? Is this demand driven or ethanol-driven? If it was demand driven, where is the starvation and hardship from greatly inflated food process now (that doesn't exist)? This exquisite grooming of the land for maximum extreme production involves maximally sustainable ag practices, I'm sure. I imagine that soil conservation, fertilizer and pesticide runoff minimization, and dead zones in the GOM were of highest priority during these heady times that are sorely missed.

Obviously state ownership and management of food production has been a disaster (Russia, others), but corporate ownership combined with extreme taxpayer-provided subsidies has many problems as well.

I'll throw my hat in with the localized, family farmer, basic foodstuffs production advocated by many here. I support my local farmers markets and encourage others to do the same.

Argentina is a perfect example. Export tariffs, and taxation have wrecked havoc on production ag there.

South African production in ag fell since their economy moved from mostly free mareket to mostly socialist.

Zimbabwe used to export 50% of the food it produced. Then came wealth redistribution and land reform, now most of the people starve.

I get zero subsidies. The pittance from USDA isn't worth doing the paperwork for. The food stamp programs, WIC, etc all are pasrt of the bloated farm bill.

Government intervention in economy = bad.

Free market enterprise system = Good.

All you need to know either pre-peak or post-peak.

"I get zero subsidies."

Great to hear it.

So I guess you don't use any government subsidized roads?

And you don't use any gas, diesel, plastics or other oil products that the government spends trillions of dollars on wars to keep cheap...

And no doctors you use for yourself or your family ever got gov loans to help them through college...


You seem to be the very poster child for what this post is talking about--people who think of themselves as rugged individualists, but are really massively subsidized in thousands of different ways. I can tell that you are not going to wake up from this adolescent fantasy you are living in, and it wouldn't really matter if it was just you or a few others. But it is a huge swath of the American population that is living this blinkered non-reality, and they are influencing policy in disastrous ways.

Best wishes for a gentle awakening.

Government intervention in economy = bad.

Free market enterprise system = Good.

Simple thinking works for simple minds, if only reality would go along...

"Don't feed the deer, it leads to starvation". Reads many a sign near National Parks. Obviously the humanimal is no smarter than a deer.

Socialism (free food) is obviously a headwind for the overall economy. Such a bad policy can be overcome however with the addition of nearly free energy.

Socialism/mercantilism/fascism etc lead to poverty even WITH cheap energy, take away cheap energy and they become impossible.

The only way to deal with the headwind of PO is to go all-out Lassaiz-Faire.

Feeding Deer = Indian Reservation poverty = lottery winner bankruptcy.

Simple as pie. All we need to do to become successfull is reduce regulation on commerce and allow markets to dictate people's choices.

Hello HighPlainsFarmer,

Glad to see you use the term 'humanimal' as I used it extensively in many of my earlier postings--Kudos! Of course, I am a humanimal gnat in the grand span of human-biota. :(

Lassaiz-Faire is actually spelled "laissez-faire", literally "let do". I also never knew "Socialism" meant "free food", but anyway.
You may like to know that the US spends over $600 billion in the military, making it the number one "socialist" country (Or you think the free market should take care of that too?).

Lets go "Lassaiz-Faire"?

China has had the 'do what thou will' model in food - thus melimine additions to show a higher protein content.

The USA had that 'back in the day'. Upton Sinclair wrote about it in The Jungle and thus the FDA was born.

History shows "Lassaiz-Faire" as a failure.

For 'Lassaiz-Faire' to work - one needs transparency, open courts, and an ability to extract the ill-gotten gains. Exactly how can the harmed party take back the money from the owners/shareholders in the present system? What's the plan highplainsfarmer-man to get open courts? (How about courts that do not close - some counties are closing their courtrooms in the budget crunch) Business transparency?

Lassaiz faire breeds corruption. I live in the free for all of Thailand.

The political parties here, who don't know what parliamentary democracy is, have hacw just recognised that there is an economic problem.

The traffic cops pull you over to extort you. Those who know better pretend not to see them.

There is an unofficial two tiered pricing system-one for foreigners and one for Thais.

You can assassinate someone for $200 USD. The police will help you arrange it for a fee.


You're not making any sense:

"Don't feed the deer, it leads to starvation". Reads many a sign near National Parks. Obviously the humanimal is no smarter than a deer.

Good signs, but I don't see how the existence of them proves your claim about the smartness of humans.

Socialism (free food) is obviously a headwind for the overall economy. Such a bad policy can be overcome however with the addition of nearly free energy.

Not obvious to me, why does free food damage the economy? Is food a special case or does free anything damage the economy?

Socialism implies a planned, controlled economy; it doesn't imply that anything is free, or necessarily even subsidised from taxes. It can be that the planners elect to charge extra for alcohol, using that money to lower the price of carrots. Note that private companies already do this to maximise profits.

Can you cite an example of a nation that has ever fed its population for free?

Socialism/mercantilism/fascism etc lead to poverty even WITH cheap energy, take away cheap energy and they become impossible.

Any social system includes poverty, I'm not sure what you mean by 'leads to'. I don't understand why any of these (especially mercantilism) is impossible without cheap energy, since such systems all existed before 1700. Are you counting timber or slaves as cheap energy?

The only way to deal with the headwind of PO is to go all-out Lassaiz-Faire.

In such a society, wealth concentrates in the hands of the few, there's nobody who really argues against this. The idea, as I understand it, is that the concentration in turn allows greater more complex technologies and a faster rate of resource throughput in the economy ("A rising tide lifts all boats").

It doesn't do anything to prevent or minimise poverty, all it does is lower the cost of highly processed food enough to prevent riots. Lassez-faire without cheap energy is what resulted in the French Revolution, which inspired the Amercian revolution, which was why you got the statue of Liberty from the French.

Feeding Deer = Indian Reservation poverty = lottery winner bankruptcy.

I don't see how a deer overshoot in National Parks leads to poverty in Indian Reservations, or how lottery winners are affected. Even if I did, none of it has anything to do with maintaining a coherent peaceful society, which I assume to be a preferred outcome for any TOD participant.

Simple as pie. All we need to do to become successfull is reduce regulation on commerce and allow markets to dictate people's choices.

This depends what you mean by successful. If you mean "More powerful than other nations", then maybe, but if you mean sustainable, happy and educated, then I strongly disagree.

If you are serious about your claims, do you support the entirely unregulated sale of rifles, heroin and child pornography?

Do you support the existence of a police force to enforce any laws other than those pertaining to property?

Do you maintain that it be legal to trade in people as possessions?

Perhaps "all-out" for you doesn't really mean "all-out".

Welcome aboard,I don't believe I have seen your comments here before.

Your description of the problems that bad government can have on food production is accurate and timely.

Many of the regulars here believe that the same general problem-incompetent,desperate,short sighted,or outright crooked government-is affecting oil supplies the same way,and that this is likely to get worse.

Nearly everyone here,however,is concerned with a much ,much,much more important problem -not that starvation on a wide scale is not important.It's just that starvation on an even larger scale is MORE important.

We are fast coming to a time when starvation on a world wide scale is a very real possibility,as a result of running out of non replaceable one shot resources such as oil and phosphorus.

If you are a real farmer it is very likely that you know that even American farmers are already butting up against some pretty tough resource problems.Some of us are spending big money to bore new irrigation wells that have to be made deeper every few years,others have had thier irrigation water cut off.

Fertilizer and diesel prices did not shoot thru the roof in the last couple of years because a late frost destroyed the fertilizer crops,as it did my peaches this year.Production costs of these inputsare getting higher and higher as the producers go to less and less desirable places to get them out of the ground.It is a very hard idea to get used to,but you are going to have to get used to the idea that unless you are already pretty old or very sick, you are going to live to see the Mexicans, the Venezuleans, the Norwegians and maybe even some of the Persian gulf countries cut off our oil imports-because they aren't going to have any to sell,and not even enough for thier own use.

Mexican oil is only one of the many sharks swimming circles around us,and we have been in the lifeboats as far as oil is concerned-burning other peoples- for my entire adult life.

Now I don't doubt that you and X (another guy who comments here) are very competent business men,but both of you are kind of in the position of a cook deep in the bowels of a ship,getting dinner ready for the crew.Every thing is hunky dory down in the kitchen,but the most of us commenting here are up on deck checking out where we are going,and we see icebergs,reefs,and barely submerged rocks directly ahead-and we may already be too close and going too fast to stop.

A lot of folks better informed than yours truly are dead certain that the ship wreck is already a foregone conclusion.

Now excuse me for being blunt,but unless you are dumber than a fence post,you simply HAVE to know that the free market in the USA wants nothing at all to do with corn ethanol,except maybe an ounce at a time followed by a slug of beer,and that the recent midwest farm boom was almost SOLELY DUE TO THE ETHANOL SUBSIDY that I help pay for with my taxes every time I fillup with 10 percent ethanol.

You may post comments similar to the ones you have made here on other forums and find an audience ready and willing to get baptized in the free market church of unbridled capitalism,but you will find no converts here.Been there,and done that,and got older and wiser- a long time ago.

And while this may also be hard to understand,I am not a democrat,a socialist,or a communist.I believe in free markets and self reliance,but that does not mean that I think free markets and self reliance can solve our current problems w/o some heavy duty assistance.

Now if you really believe in free markets,just why do you think our trops(for whom I have the deepest respect and gratitude) are in Iraq?We could just bring'em home and count on the free market to make sure the Iraqie's become reliable cheap suppliers of crude.

I am not an especially big fan of some of Obama's bail out policies,but you will notice that he is pretty much staying the course in the middle east no matter what it costs, because he has no choice but to bail out ALL of our xxxl butts as far as crude is concerned,and the army overseas IS oil bailout.

If you don't understand what I am trying to tell you,please just spend a few months reading up on peak oil,peak phosphorus,overpopulation,fossil water,etc.

You are shooting the free market philosophy in the foot every time you open your mouth.This is extremely unfortunate,as the free market is an essential element of prosperity,and it deserves better spokesmen.

Excellent. My positions exactly.

Lets see - I have 'high plain farmer' making a claim about garden production in someplace else being a WRECK.

And his claim is counter to:
Dimetry Orlof's claims
WWII victory garden claims in the US of A and England
Various gardening books pointing out the highly managed gardens have far higher yields per acre than "big ag"

Hrmmmm. Who should be believed?

A couple hundred years of democracy, freedom and “free markets” have brought us to our current predicament. It should be clear that a laissez-faire approach to managing human behavior has placed us in a precarious position. If it is true that no problem can be solved from the mindset that created it, then we need to rethink our beliefs in freedom and democracy.

There is a large body of research that seriously undermines our notion of conscious will, or free will, as people of faith call it. If this concept is alien, I recommend Daniel Wegner’s The Illusion of Conscious Will; Tor Norretranders’ The User Illusion; or Timothy Wilson’s Strangers to Ourselves. Research findings are so strong that many researchers and philosophers have given up trying to disprove the findings.

The literature is extensive and sometimes technical; however, it essentially states that almost all of our thinking; and not just the walking and chewing gum variety, is initiated by the sub-conscious part of our brain. Our belief that we are consciously making decisions is largely an illusion. You can argue all you want that your brain doesn’t work this way, but before you go too far out on a limb, I would review one or more of these books before making any hasty judgments.

The significance of this research is that we behave largely the way our “animal” instincts; for lack of a better term, allow us to behave. Do we occasionally make conscious decisions? We probably do, but not as often as we like to think. This disconcerting research has implications for how we should structure society, and for evaluating the wisdom and desirability of high levels of freedom.
It might be that our survival prospects are inversely related to our degree of “freedom” and democracy.

It might be that our survival prospects are inversely related to our degree of “freedom” and democracy.

Profound, frightening, and probably true..

(I've read Wegner and am ordering the other 2 - thx)

Greg: This has been known for centuries-IMHO your disparaging comment on "people of faith" shows an amusing combo of ignorance and arrogance. The dominance of the human subconscious in no way makes humans more "animalistic"-IMHO you don't understand this subject at all. Your longing for a benign dictatorship appears to be driven by your personal subconscious desires IMO.

Ah, the good ol' gratutitous ad hominem.

Make an effort, Brian. Educate us.

What do you want to know? Are you the only person on the planet that does not realize that the power of prayer results from the power of the subconscious mind? I just thought it was amusing for someone that needs research scientists to tell them if it is raining outside taking a cheap shot at bible thumpers.

Prayer changes people,and it also welds them together in formidably powerful coalitions.
People,especially organized people, change things- or else they make sure things don't change.
It doesn't really matter,within this context, if there is or is not an Old Guy with a long beard on a throne.

The term "free will" is an oxymoron and that's why routinely philosophy stumbles over it. If there is a will, you're not free (but obeying your will) and if you're truly free, you have no will to tell you what to do.

One problem with talking about issues like this is that even independent thinkers like Kurt operate within mental frameworks that are culturally bound.

For example, I don't really think it makes much sense to talk about abstract concepts like negative and positive freedom. The idea of freedom should always be rooted in a historical setting. What do these concepts mean in a hunter-gatherer society, in which humans have spent most of their existence? What do they mean in 19th century England, when the vast majority of society was poor and unable to vote?

What's more, the discussion very much depends on whose point of view you adopt.

For example, pointing to Ancient Athens as an example of freedom implies that one identifies with the small number of freeborn males. Women, slaves and foreigners were excluded - the majority of the population. Ancient Rome, which serves as a model for most modern states, was economically dependent on imperialistic wars and slavery.

In modern America, the concepts of freedom are more battle flags than useful ideas. Economic freedom - the Marketplace - has no more reality than the tooth fairy. Economics is ALWAYS entangled with power relationships, family ties, corruption. It is ALWAYS mediated by governments and social attitudes.

In America, we are not able to talk about government regulation in a sane fashion. Many earlier conservatives (especially Europeans) actually knew what socialism was and could talk about it intelligently. We lack their background in history.

In American discourse, to paraphrase Dorothy Parker, we cover the spectrum of political options from A to B.

The jump is quickly made from raising the income tax on the wealthy (to where it was in the Reagan era) to Stalinism and the Cultural Revolution. This is not so much thinking as a conditioned reflex. In fact, socialism is an extraordinarily diverse movement, with a long history, multiple interpretations.

I think the American electorate is shifting to the left, as it becomes younger and less white. Because of our multiple dysfunctions, we will begin to look at other models, and especially the social democratic governments in Europe. They aren't perfect, but they are much more suited to an industrial society than the current government in the US.


I think Bart is quite right that ideas of freedom are culturally bound and to his credit Berlin recognizes this in his essay though I didn't mention it in my piece. What I'm trying to do with this piece is describe our idea of freedom, which I believe is currently mostly defined as Berlin's negative freedom, and discuss whether that version of freedom is consistent with the tasks ahead. Clearly, I don't think it is.

But, then what is? Is it Berlin's idea of positive freedom? Is it some combination? Is it some very much restricted view of freedom that I alluded to at the end of my piece, a kind of regimentation that might be necessary to control both consumption and population in a steady-state economy? Our ideas must and will evolve with circumstances. But I still think ideas matter (or I'd just stop writing altogether). How we think about something, not just objective material and social circumstances, will very much influence the scope and nature of our choices. That's why abstract ideas can be useful--precisely because they can leap across cultural and historical boundaries...though we must take care not to overemphasize the abstract in the face of the concrete.

You're both correct of course. I've always hoped that the norm structure that surrounds the problems we face was the key to change through education and wise decision making. Nate has, over the years, convinced me that we just aren't wired that way, but I continue to hope in my heart of hearts that it is possible that we become conscious enough to make the world better.

One of the things I used to bang the drum about back in the beginning of TOD is that the energy situation would lead to issues of governing common resources, which is a branch off from Hardin's Tragedy of the Commons. The seminal work re: commons governance was written by Elinor Ostrom called Governing the Commons, the arguments/findings of which, if I were to sum it up in one sentence, would be this:

The only way to govern the commons is to either a) change the overall set of norms at the local/tribal level to one of good sharing OR b) collectivize the common resource pool.

The implications of those statements, the loss or change in freedoms, are a crucial part of this, as viewed from the American subtext as both Bart and Kurt point out--but they are still where we are currently in our norm set in the West. As I said above, one of my goals, back when I was more hopeful about things, was that with educated/informed conversations and discourse, society could change these norms (which are glacial in their dynamics, save during a critical/crisis point) through education, or we could encourage wise centralized control.

I have to say, personally I cannot say I that envisioned back then that all of this would start with the centralization of the economy prior to the centralization of energy as we are seeing now. However, in retrospect, it makes sense, because the centralization of the economy provides the access of the public sector into every other sector through capital controls. I would imagine we will see a whole bunch more NOCs, NNGCs, and the like in the near future, even if they are private entities in name only, they will act in concert with national governance institutions--which is more likely to be corporate fascism as opposed to socialism, but it's still centralization either way.

After that, it's a question of ideology and civil liberties; and as was pointed out astutely up above, the amount of freedom we have may be inversely proportional to our survival as a species on the macro-scale. Freedom must be used wisely, and earned every day. I am not sure we can say we have done well with the freedoms bestowed upon us--but I continue to hope that we can learn: it is important to remember that we can reduce that freedom either by the force of government or institutions, or we can allow people the education to reduce their choice set through consciousness and wisdom, leaving them the freedom to make wise choices about sustainability and resources. I have always hoped that the latter would work and that the former would not be necessary...but alas, times they are a'changin. *sigh*

BTW, here's a good summary of Ostrom's work:

* People are trapped by the Prisoner's Dilemma only if they treat themselves as prisoners by passively accepting the suboptimum strategy the dilemma locks them into, but if they try to work out a contract with the other players, or find the ones most likely to cooperate, or agree on rules for punishing cheaters, or artificially change the incentive ratios - they can create an institution for collective action that benefits them all. This resonates with Peter Kollock's taxonomy of strategies for dealing with social dilemmas - one strategy is to change the rules of the game.

* Changing the rules of the game to turn zero-sum games into non-zero-sum games may be one way to describe the arc of civilization for the past 8000 years: using symbolic media and social inventions, people have created institutions for collective action since the emergence of agriculture spurred the invention of writing. But for the most part, we've overcome obstacles and built these institutions blindly, without any systematic knowledge about how the game works. Ostrom takes an empirical approach: By examining legal records and other public documents, is it possible to determine whether every population overconsumes and under-provisions all common pool resource? She found that in many different cultures all over the world, some groups would find ways to overcome the obstacles that defeated others - by creating contracts, agreements, incentives, constitutions, signals, media to enable cooperation for mutual benefit.

* Social dilemmas of multiple dimensions are obstacles on the path to creating institutions for collective action; these dilemmas must be overcome if institutions are to succeed or exist at all. Lack of information about the system can be an obstacle to agreement among the individuals who make up the system.Systemic information about salinization of wells was an obstacle to water-sharing agreements in California; individual water-users knew whether their wells were pumping salt, but none of them had compiled the information to see the overall pattern in the watershed, and no individual was willing to pay the price of gathering it. In this case, the US Geographic Survey had the data, thus overcoming this obstacle. Another obstacle, free-riding, creates the second order social dilemma concerning who will bear the cost of policing the rules once they are agreed upon. So although the overall formula is simple - social dilemmas can be solved through institutions for collective action that are built by overcoming known obstacles - in practice, each group that struggles to build an institution works under the handicap of being largely unaware of knowledge about how such institutions succeed and fail.

* In comparing the communities, Ostrom found that groups that are able to organize and govern their behavior successfully are marked by the some basic design principles:
o Group boundaries are clearly defined.
o Rules governing the use of collective goods are well matched to local needs and conditions.
o Most individuals affected by these rules can participate in modifying the rules.
o The rights of community members to devise their own rules is respected by external authorities.
o A system for monitoring member's behavior exists; the community members themselves undertake this monitoring.
o A graduated system of sanctions is used.
o Community members have access to low-cost conflict resolution mechanisms.
o For CPRs that are parts of larger systems: appropriation, provision, monitoring, enforcement, conflict resolution, and governance activities are organized in multiple layers of nested enterprises.


The commons is a general term for shared resources in which each stakeholder has an equal interest. Studies on the commons include the information commons with issues about public knowledge, the public domain, open science, and the free exchange of ideas -- all issues at the core of a direct democracy.

Common-pool resources (CPRs) are natural or human-made resources where one person's use subtracts from another's use and where it is often necessary, but difficult and costly, to exclude other users outside the group from using the resource.. The majority of the CPR research to date has been in the areas of fisheries, forests, grazing systems, wildlife, water resources, irrigation systems, agriculture, land tenure and use, social organization, theory (social dilemmas, game theory, experimental economics, etc.), and global commons (climate change, air pollution, transboundary disputes, etc.), but CPR's can also include the broadcast spectrum.

Very thoughtful essay, Kurt, and great stuff PG!

The only way to govern the commons is to either a) change the overall set of norms at the local/tribal level to one of good sharing OR b) collectivize the common resource pool.

I suspect there is an important question of scale as well. Is "the commons" local, county- or state-sized, national? Various spots on the West Coast now sport new(-ish) types of tribes, living with their own sustainability in mind and minimal contact with the outside world, and they run the gamut from control-heavy religious cults to semi-cultish hippy tribes with decentralized control--the latter being fine examples of your a) above. A new form of self-government and orientation to the common good actually seems to be working for them, more or less (some are cash-positive and growing in farming and producing for their local areas). However it would never work beyond a certain scale, within which near-total agreement on communal principles and goals is possible.

In other words, in the same way that "all politics is local," our solutions going forward are likewise local. It may be futile, given the evidence cited above, to try to change values and policy and control mechanisms at a national scale. Highly conformist (that is, coherent) small tribes working cooperatively within a more autonomous framework of regional agreements and control seems a far more likely destiny for a failed empire than any successful, persistent, authoritarian regime in a future of constantly shrinking resources, or, for that matter, than any persistent "collapse" scenario in which nothing works. Even in an American worst-case scenario, in which states secede from the union and the currency is valueless and infrastructure fails, the most essential values of a true republic might survive, perhaps even to approximate more closely what the Founders intended. But now I'm rambling and way out on a limb so I'll stop.

Thanks for the comments, PG and Kurt.

Part of the problem is with the ideas presented in Adam Curtis's documentaries -- not just the positive and negative freedom in "The Trap" but the ideas in his other documentaries as well. As other posters have mentioned, "The Century of the Self" is probably even better - on the web at and elsewhere.

The documentaries are great to watch, and are wonderful springboards for intellectual discussions such as this one. But the analysis is not too rigorous - pop sociology.

These are complicated problems, beyond what any one person or documentary can tackle. I think it really requires a school of thought, a political/cultural movement. Something like Christianity, Islam, socialism, science or liberalism.

In the 60s/70s, the big idea was to develop a Counter Culture that would replace the mainstream culture. Gramsci and the Italian Communist Party had a similar idea, about developing a workers' culture in the midst of the existing capitalist culture. Until recently, American conservatives had been successful because they created an alternative culture, with their own institutions, news sources and interpretations of the world.

To respond to peak oil, etc., I think we need a similar cultural movement. In fact, we are in the midst of building one, cobbling it together from sources as diverse as Libertarianism, communitarian anarchism, Greens, unorthodox versions of socialism, anti-consumerism, science, environmentally aware religions, traditional cultures and permaculture.

In TOD and other forums, we seem to be hammering out the ideas. Kurt, as he knows, is one of my Main Men when it comes to articulating the vision.

// One counter-intuitive thought is that in some areas, regulation will decrease in a society with less wealth and fewer resources. For example, are we really going to continue the expensive Drug Wars as budgets decrease? Will we be able to afford the expansion of the surveillance society (CCTVs, monitoring, etc.). Prisons are very expensive - perhaps a plaything of rich societies like the US? Prison populations in most of the rest of the world are much smaller. And zoning - doesn't it take a rich community to enforce strict zoning regulations?

Bart / EB

In all the discussions of "diminishing freedoms", "freedom back in grandpa's day", I hope everyone is keeping in mind that freedom needs to be considered in light of every person, not just the opressing majority. How does a native American view things? A black American?

* In comparing the communities, Ostrom found that groups that are able to organize and govern their behavior successfully are marked by the some basic design principles:
o Group boundaries are clearly defined.
o Rules governing the use of collective goods are well matched to local needs and conditions.
o Most individuals affected by these rules can participate in modifying the rules.
o The rights of community members to devise their own rules is respected by external authorities.
o A system for monitoring member's behavior exists; the community members themselves undertake this monitoring.
o A graduated system of sanctions is used.
o Community members have access to low-cost conflict resolution mechanisms.
o For CPRs that are parts of larger systems: appropriation, provision, monitoring, enforcement, conflict resolution, and governance activities are organized in multiple layers of nested enterprises.

Interestingly, these describe very well the various ecovillages I've researched, at least as they self-describe themselves. Yet, historically, 90% or better fail.

Maybe that indicates it's not an issue of freedoms, but some other dynamic at work?


Your ideas about freedom are underpinned by a bunch of unexamined assumptions.
Consumption and population are already controlled through poverty and other forms of violence. Anything that improves on that is welcome as far as I'm concerned.
You apparently consider reproduction from the point of view of women or couples. Surely you know that other consider the rights ("negative freedoms" in your lingo) of the child. Similarly, what about my neighbour's kids? Am I not free to sleep in peace? Should I be free to dispose of them if they make too much noise? Should parents be free to live how and where they choose?
Because we live close to each other and share the same resources, pretty much everything we do or don't is going to affect someone else. Asserting absolute freedoms is implicitly giving short shrift to someone else's.
Procreation is not about individual freedoms but about the necessary compromises for living in harmony with society and the environment. My harmony you apparently call regimentation... but what difference does it make really?

Off-topic: how can ideas leap across cultural boundaries if not because they are derived from something objective which can be experienced on both sides?
Do you figure ideas exist objectively or that they can be transmitted in some non-objective, non-cultural way?
How's that for abstraction? ;-)

Well said. The article was too abstract.

Let's hope that "American" youths will not only look at other models but talk with each other and dream up their own.

Positive and Negative freedom?

I had always defined freedom as the ability to do whatever you wanted (negative freedom). I'm not sure I understand completely your definition of "positive" freedom.

It involves the amount of autonomy we have, that is, the power we are able to exert over our own lives outside the realm reserved for personal choice and privacy.

Freedom should be defined as the power you are able to exert over your own life, period. What is personal choice other than you choosing to have something one way or another?

If you are member of a union, then you along with your fellow employees will have a bit more to say about these issues.

I don't think that is a freedom, but rather a result of the bargaining power larger groups have over smaller. The same could be said for large political organizations. You either have freedom, or your freedom is restricted. Clearly in many cases restricting some individual freedoms for the sake of "greater" freedoms is necessary for a functioning society (murder, theft, pollution) and even more vague but possibly infinitely more important for the function of the planet (affecting the freedoms of future individuals).

My questions would be: how much should we restrict freedoms in the name of saving others knowing that the enforcers of the restrictions (our large governments) are inherently bad at designating what should and should not be restricted. In the future if we are forced to localize and forced to interact on less of a national level (millions of people) and more on a town/city/county level(thousands), there is opportunity for better governance of those freedoms.

Re: I'm not sure I understand completely your definition of "positive" freedom.

High negative freedom and low positive freedom is being stranded on a small desert island. You can behave absolutely anyway you like, every physical object is yours to do with as you please (negative freedom), but you can't become an astronaut or historian or world leader(positive freedom).

Low negative freedom and high positive freedom is living in New York. You can't run around naked screaming and smashing everything to bits with a club like you did on the small desert island, but you can study to be anything you want a numerous institutions.

Negative freedoms are freedoms from limits that are imposed by society: Americans aren't allowed to hop on a jet to Cuba.

Positive freedoms are freedoms that are enabled by society: You can hop on a jet even though you could never build a jet by yourself. (mining and smelting the aluminum, designing the wings, building the engines is beyond the scope of a single person)

As a general rule positive and negative freedoms are inversely proportional to each other. Large and diverse communities that support the specialization that enables positive freedoms require rules and restrictions of individuals. Again air travel is a great example. Fast and reliable transport between remote locations (positive freedom) only comes with metal detectors, passports, security checks, taking your shoes off and losing forever the tiny swiss army knife you forgot to take off your key chain. It seems draconian and ridiculous and it is, but all of these restrictions to negative freedoms evolved from individuals taking actions that damaged the system providing the positive freedoms.

The Trap is mediocre compared to the other Curtis flicks IMO. If you liked it, by all means check the others. The Century of the Self covers much of the same ground IIRC.

As to the article, I find it mired in ideological false problems.
How to change people's views on freedom? Give them some if you can or band with them to take some... much like Jason Bradford is doing apparently (see the post above). This is how preconceived ideas are dispelled: by a taste of the stuff.
Not that any of these (often contradictory) niceties about freedom and government are much relevant to the issues of resource depletion, climate change and such. If these problems had workable solutions within the frame of the actually existing social system, they would be in the process of being implemented. None of these ideological problems stopped action on the ozone layer and on countless other issues (such as vaccination) pertaining to which regulations for the public good have been implemented without much fuss. The real stumbling block is the lack of workable solutions to the hard problems we face.
Most likely, as the author says, we will only be coping. But skills, tools, attitudes and so on are essential for coping.

So. Do you rcommend we "take" the freedom to board jets with loaded weapons? Throw shoes at political leaders? No limits?

It would be a strange kind of freedom if they were limits imposed from on high, isn't it?

But no: I would not recommend doing pointless things that are likely to get you tortured or killed. Better do something that you think is likely to have a desirable outcome.

Like most everybody, I'm not so crazy about this freedom business when it comes to people who do things I disapprove of... but most people wouldn't care about my opinion of their plans. Why should they?

Tortured or killed by whom? If "freedoms", then "no-one would exist to torture", right? (People should think also of the converse of that statement).

Whoever is in charge of anti-terrorism at this hypothetical airport I guess.

Freedom isn't everybody else indulging you... not in my book anyway.
But it certainly is about doing something else than what you've been told to do. Hopefully this is not limited to enacting Counterstrike (or whatever that computer game is called).

Whoever is in charge of anti-terrorism at this hypothetical airport I guess.

How long before that "anti-terrorist" decides he wants your daughter or to extort a few hundred dollars for "safe passage"? Now that we've accepted torture and indefinite detention for unspecified or no reason at all, where does it end?

Individual Freedom and Population are inversely proportional.
With one person per sq mile you can do just about anything you wish without interfering with the "rights" of another.
Go to 100 per sq mile and then 10,000 per sq mile and ever increasing limits on individual freedom are necessary to "keep the Peace"
The only way we have any real hope to regain our lost Freedoms in the USA are if we can drastically reduce the population to well below 100 million citizens.
Whether we will make the rational choices to selectively reduce the population for the long term improvement of our species or whether we will let Nature make the choices for us is one of the big questions in my mind. (I am guessing Nature will get it's way)

While I don't agree with your suggestion, I think what you're saying deserves some attention.

It is my belief that complexity in human civilizations is subject to diminishing returns. The Trap spends a lot of time discussing bureaucracy, and how best to motivate bureaucrats. In framing the issue this way, the problem of increasing complexity is ignored.

There is a very good article on the subject at

It was observed that adding more workers to a field would increase productivity. However, when this was pursued far enough, it became evident that the added productivity of any given worker was not strictly additive. Two workers could double the yield of just one, but eventually a point was reached where each additional worker meant less of an increase over the previous one.

Thus, while hierarchy provides the only readily available alternative to simply working inside the limit of Dunbar’s number imposed by human neurology, it has a set of limits all its own. To expand this hierarchy beyond those limits means either overwhelming each hierarch beyond the span of control, and/or creating a hierarchy too deep, such that signal degradation becomes an overwhelming concern. This seriously limits the effectiveness of each new investment to expand such a hierarchy, necessitating the use of a new class of specialists dedicated simply to information processing. This increases the cost of expanding a hierarchical information processing structure–costs which yield increasingly little benefit as signal degradation sets in.

Individual Freedom and Population are inversely proportional.
With one person per sq mile you can do just about anything you wish without interfering with the "rights" of another.

The above quote is the "freedom" of a misanthrope. Most people cannot "do just about anything you wish" at one person per sq mile, because a normal human being wants to interact with other human beings at a closer distance than one mile (hard for the species to continue if human density doesn't get at least a little higher once in a while).
But seriously, for most mentally healthy people "freedom" includes the benefits of civilization (art, music, health care, community,etc.) and those freedoms are much more available in the density of NYC, London, or Paris than in a hermit life in an empty desert. Why does a square foot in Manhattan cost 1000 times the cost of a square foot of the Mojave desert? Millions of people are "freely" choosing to live in the environment you consider "unfree".

The general consensus here seems to be that a free-wheeling, laissez-faire social/economic system has brought us to our current perilous state because such a system encourages excess undisciplined consumption. Likely true. There also seems to be many in agreement that more regimentation, restrictions, and central planning by a 'higher power', i.e, some form of the state, will be necessary to put us back on the right tract to a sustainable society. In other words, a benign totalitarian state, i.e., Hitler, but with a happy face.

The fundamental problem here is that a totalitarian state may start out with benign motives but won't stay that way for very long. (Are there any examples in history to the contrary?)

So, we will not end up with a wise, fair group of rulers setting up rational structures to husband our dwindling resources and distributing them in a equitable way. Rather, what we will get instead is a hard core of sociopathic control freaks who will carve out the goodies for a small group of privileged elites and let the masses scramble for the remaining crumbs as best they can. They will ruthlessly maintain their position of near total power by means of a brutal all-pervasive police state. (Some places are already at that point, or at least getting closer.)

That is where we are likely headed as the game of resource musical chairs gets uglier and uglier. As such, I find it almost impossible to envision even modest personal liberties surviving in an increasingly resource-constrained world.

It's going to be like being on a lifeboat: someone will have to decide how much water each person gets to drink. how much food each person can eat, and where and when each person can relieve himself. Since not everyone on the lifeboat is with the program, the 'ruler' of the lifeboat enforces these restrictions with a gun that he just happened to bring with him when the ship went down. (Since he controls the water cask, he also might sneak an extra drink of water when no one is looking.)

Totalitarian regimes arise not out of some kind of liberal benign intent (the mind boggles!) but out of the military imperatives of some kind of war. Peace tends to undermine totalitarian regimes (which is why fake wars are sometimes contrived).
There are of course examples of totalitarian states improving after choosing peace. Look no further than China. If you think the PRC is oppressive now, check out its recent history!

Hfat -

Well, I believe I said ' ... may start out with benign motives....' , not 'always start out with benign motives'.

Arguably, the French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions, were at least at the beginning populated by large numbers of idealistic and fanatical revolutionaries with visions of building a better world (for themselves, of course, not for the entrenched power structures they were overthrowing). The French Revolution ended in the Reign of Terror followed by Napoleonic imperialism; the Russian Revolution soon gave the Russian people Stalin; and the Chinese Revolution eventually resulted in the horrors of the Cultural Revolution. So, I would contend that history does not show very good odds of revolutions leading to 'nice' results, at least after the first iteration.

Yes, I would agree that peace does tend to undermine totalitarian regimes, which is probably why we have so little of it. And some would argue that that's one of the reasons why the US has become engaged in perpetual low-level military conflict, largely in the form of The War on Terror.

You see, it's not liberal intent per se that directly causes totalitarian states, but rather the desire to control all aspects of a society, even if it is for the common good, that inevitably leads to corruption and the concentration of power in the hands of an unaccountable elite.

I believe this is one of the US founding fathers' motivations in limiting democracy to landowners: they felt that a voter needed an indepth knowlege of the issues, most likely in a person who is literate and has the free time to debate the issues with other literate persons. Similarly, the Athenian Senate was a debate society of men who had the free time to sit around and debate.

Presently, American voters have been systematically fed circus distractions, sophisticated 'demand creation' advertising, and outright disinformation; they don't have the facts necessary to make an informed choice. For example, I can recall a massive corporate-sponsored disinformation campaign following the release of the Club of Rome's 'Limits to Growth'.

I'm suggesting that the average American doesn't have enough information to make informed choices; I therefore don't expect any political response to PO that is truly in the public interest. My advice is to build a lifeboat for your family, and try to stay under the radar in anticipation of the time when your preparations will be 'required' to be added to the 'commons'.

notindenial -

I largely agree.

One thing I find particularly sinister (in the US at least) is the increasing blurring of the government, business, finance, and the media. Nothing drives this home more than the way the recent bailout was handled.

Sure, the media tries hard to give the illusion of independence, and just to prove it, they love to occasionally work over a politician or two who gets caught in some inane scandal. But when you get right down to it, the media is not going to do anything that attacks the existing power structure in any really threatening way. For example, how often has the mainstream media even mentioned anything about the legitimacy of the Federal Reserve or the fact that the President now largely ignores Congress and the Constitution when bring the country to war?

And the subtle thing is that the media doesn't even have to engage in outright lies. It's all about content and emphasis. Subjects come into and then go out of existence simply by whether they are treated once and then ignored or repeated over and over again till many people subconsciously feel that the subject at hand is the most important thing going on in the world. I believe Noam Chomsky has dealt quite a bit on this sort of content analysis of media reporting.

The thing that the average American is in almost total denial about is that while he can vote for whomever he wants and write all the nasty letters to his congressperson that he wants, he essentially has no say in how the really big decisions (usually ones that adversely affect his life) are made.

Resource scarcity will inevitably lead to more and more intrusive control of people's day-to-day lives, and to make that happen, dissent must be neutralized. Media plays the role of 'manufacturing consent', to use Chomsky's term.Those who are not with the program will first be co-opted, and if that doesn't work, then brutally suppressed.

A genuine democracy, one where the representatives are booted and individual citizens get to vote on every item of legislation (or to choose to assign their vote for arbitrary times on various subjects to persons the believe think alike. Minor's votes get assigned to parents (gives a proper weighting to thoughts for future). I'd assign my votes on mineral resource items of legislation to Nate, on economics to Gale) via a government-civil-service-operated communications media with transcribers, translaters and facilitators (elements of the judicial system, supervised by same) to make records and precis of all debate inputs etc. Agreed, very little would get done in legislation after simplification of the tax codes, but that's actually a good thing.

Your idealistic and fanatical revolutionaries were just regular people living in "interesting times".
The first terror in France was a direct result of invasion and terroristic threats by a foreign military. The second happened after military defeats and a domestic insurgency.
The Russian revolutions didn't put the bolsheviks in power but their leaders emerged from the wars as de facto dictators of the former Russian Empire. By the way, terror was used by the counter-revolutionaries as well during the war.
The Chinese revolution was really a war for national liberation combined with a civil war.

The whole point of total control is military escalation culminating in total war. The link between revolutions and totalitarianism can be explained by the link between revolutions and wars.
Outside of a military context, social control is called policing or some such and is not generally characterized as totalitarianism. Similarly, corruption and lack of accountability are common features of government and social hierarchy. It doesn't feel any better for the individual to be stomped by a cop serving a liberal regime but, at the social level, the picture looks quite different.
Let's not cheapen totalitarianism with bogus slippery slope arguments, alright? Since you reference Stalin, please recall that he too characterized liberal regimes he didn't like as totalitarian.

The winner gets to write the history.

China is still dealing with it's feudal history (China was a official feudal state until the 1930's), and a culture immersed in Confuciusm (the Cultural Revolution would of not been possible without the Confusion family/guilt relation).
China is now a feudal/capitalist hybrid, with the Byzantine feudal hierarchy making rational decision, combined with losing face, a logistic nightmare.
It is probably the last great industrialist state, with it's immense environmental problems, and biologically illiterate populace sealing a disastrous future.

Mao endeavored for 25 years to rid Chinese society of Confuciusm, and this paved the way for having people turn against family members during the Cultural Revolution.

biologically illiterate populace

What does that mean?

That is my point-- the forces he tried to "rid" were feedbacks of thousands of years of conditioning, and in the end, ended up being controlled by the same feudal/confusian world he was trapped in.
Biologically illiterate?
Have you any real experience with Chinese main landers, and their basic relation to nature, or ecology?
They are trapped in a industrial world, with little knowledge, or possible exposure to a sensually embedded intact ecosystem.

Have you any real experience with Chinese main landers, and their basic relation to nature, or ecology?

Some, both recently and 20 years ago. But I'm not sure I can generalize these interactions to 1.3 billion people. And I know quite a few westerners who warrant this description:

They are trapped in a industrial world, with little knowledge, or possible exposure to a sensually embedded intact ecosystem.

But now my head is spinning from an overdose of adjectives.

I won't lay claim to understanding China. I'm not sure anybody can. Complexity squared.

Not trying to diminish the complexity of 1.3 billion people in a culture thousands of years old.
What I am pointing out, they live in a devastated landscape (my brother just returned from Shanghai, and the sky was green during his stay)), and a populace that has no opportunity to interact with intact, healthy ecosystems.
1.3 million people is a huge biomass, (all created by ancient sunlight), with the obvious consequences arising on the horizon.
China is toast---
Disclaimer: I have a Chinese side of my family, and my niece from China just spent a year with us in Marin.

I've little doubt that in China can be found examples to reinforce any chosen position. I would guess however, that given the much lower level of industrialization of agriculture, transport, etc., you're going to find the average person more intimate with the natural world.

You will not find that from my Chinese relatives.
Very good at business, video games, etc, but would have a slim chance of survival put to their wits in a natural setting.

Thank you for the good essay. I saw The Trap a while ago, and I liked it along with the other Adam Curtis works that I have seen.

However, I would dispute the idea that positive freedom is not part of the US/British notion of freedom. For the United States, the strongest propaganda point still is, and has been for a long time, the idea of a "Land of Opportunity". That is, Americans have both the political rights (negative freedom) and the economic prosperity (positive freedom) to pursue the careers of their choice, to start businesses, to become active in politics, and to write essays about positive and negative freedom. Despite growing inequality over the past several decades and the current economic difficulties, it is still the case that a typical American has much more autonomy over his or her life than a typical human throughout civilization's history, and Americans value that autonomy highly. I certainly do, presently being at a crossroads in my life with regard to my career. I hope I understand the concepts correctly when I say that the "Land of Opportunity" notion refers to positive freedom.

My greatest fear is that, regardless of what policy choices are made or what kind government is set up, those of us living in wealthy industrial societies will see our autonomy greatly curtailed. Generally speaking, people who are in a state of financial distress--and we are likely to see a lot more of that--are forced to devote their energy and resources into immediate financial needs and have little left over for developing new skills, expanding their minds, exploring new careers, etc.

Also, the dirty secret of the autonomy that Americans enjoy is that it relies heavily on debt financing, which is at the core of the current unsustainable economic paradigm. Debt financing will be reduced regardless of policy choices; either we will voluntarily restrict lending, or we will find the credit system becoming too dysfunctional to use. That will make it harder to buy property, pursue higher education, or start a business, and Americans consider all three of these things to be hallmarks of autonomy. I have thought about this problem quite a bit, and it is hard for me to avoid the conclusion that we are moving into an era of restricted autonomy.

I would like to conclude with a point about the citizen's role as consumer. If you have seen Century of the Self, another outstanding Adam Curtis documentary, you will find that marketers have had a great influence on the development of consumerism. I think that there are some important limitations on that control which are not explicitly discussed in the film, but that an astute viewer will observe. I hope that in the coming years we will move away from a mass marketing culture, and in doing so find that without the constant presence of marketing, humans put far less emphasis on acquisition of material goods.


Well said.
(And Kurt Cobb, and Nate, thanks for bringing up a proactive topic as always.)

I see the "positive" freedoms as degrees of freedom in choosing one's outputs (i.e. your choice of possible careers) and the "negative" freedoms as degrees of freedom in choosing one's inputs (i.e. what web content you choose to read and believe in).

Certainly, having some leisure time for thinking and exploring is necessary in order to have the "positive" freedoms and the "negative" ones. If all your daily activities (outputs) are subsumed by merely trying to exist at a bare subsistence level, then you have no "positive" freedoms or opportunities.

Freedom is a slippery concept. In Australia voting is compulsory (reflecting the fact that we see it as a duty, not a right). If you have the freedom to not vote, then that also increases the freedom of people who want to organize things so that it is difficult for you to vote.

We also have preferential voting, which gives us the freedom to vote for a minor party without losing the freedom to vote our preference between the likely winners. This is important for communities, like those concerned about Peak Oil, that believe their minority views should be offered to the whole electorate.

No I'm not claiming that compulsory preferential voting is perfect. Indeed this is an area where perfection is impossible.

It's not compulsory to vote, just to make an appearance at the voting booth, or pay a fine for not bothering to show.

You are getting carried away with the prospect of a post-peak oil world. If severe gasoline rationing is required is that really a massive reduction in freedom? Many cities in Australia have restrictions in water use on gardens, I don't know of anyone who thinks this has reduced their freedom. Does anyone think that WWII rationing of all resources was a reduction in freedom?

You make the assertion:

In the longer run the question of human freedom becomes even more nettlesome in my view because a sustainable industrial society implies two things: a steady-state economy and a stable population.

Most OEDC countries populations have fertility close to or actually below replacement without any coercion( if fact despite some economic incentives to have a higher fertility).
Sustainable society implies use of renewable resources or resources that are going to out-last society. Only FF seem likely to be exhausted in the next 1000 years.

I would rephrase your statement; Sustainable industrial society implies a high standard of living(and associated low fertility) and the use of renewable or nuclear energy rather than non-renewable FF's.


Many people would consider gasoline rationing a reduction in their freedom since it would curtail their ability to travel or commute. Now, such a reduction might make the whole of society better off by making it more resilient. And, that might confer more autonomy to the whole of society (less dependence on outside sources of energy) and even for individuals as they adapt to a lower energy environment by choosing, say, to bicycle or use a motorbike instead of a car. Using the definitions in my piece, these paths represent two different types of freedom.

You in Australia more readily recognize these two types of freedom and accept that to get one, you might have to give up some of the other. But here in the United States, people do not so readily accept making such sacrifices for they have a harder time seeing that the common good is also their good. I'm not saying there are no Americans who can understand actions compelled by the need to serve the common good; but as a percentage of the population, I believe it is far smaller than in Australia.

As for the longer term, I think you are underestimating the coercion that will be needed to restrict growth in consumption and to govern fertility. And, one cannot just focus on OECD countries. For example, a stable population implies some kind of system that restricts people's ability to have children at will. In a steady-state economy, birth rates would have to be controlled so as not to either cause decline or increase. Think of the intrusiveness of any regime that would accomplish this. It would violate all our precepts of reproductive freedom. I'm not recommending such a regime. I'm only pointing out that we need to think very carefully about how we might structure a sustainable industrial society should we even get there.

No doubt some people would see such restrictions on reproduction as no burden at all. They might even regard their compliance as a virtue. But, they're not the ones you need to worry about. It is those who do not agree that it is a virtue to restrict the size of one's family, and there are plenty of examples, religious and cultural, out there.

Only a few activities are unsustainable, no country can continue to use 25% of the worlds limited supply of oil, either by price or direct rationing people in the US are going to have a lot less oil available.It won't be a choice. That doesn't mean the end of personnel transport, or suburbia or high living standards, it means the end of low mpg ICE cars, eventually the end of all ICE vehicles.
We are fortunate that we do have technologies to use nuclear energy wind and solar energy, for costs not much higher than the costs of developing the remaining existing FF energy. I see no reason to need coercion to restrict growth, just laws to protect the environment to insure we stop burning coal protect the environment form pollution, growth is not the problem its depleting limited resources such as oil.
We have so many essentially non-limited resources that can support growth in living standards for 7 or 8 or 9Billion way above the living standards of the US, not for an infinite time or for an infinite population, but as long as seems sensible to consider(1000 years?). It's just that this will not include the traditional SUV in every driveway( how long has that been part of a high living standard anyway?) If we can't work out how to harness fusion energy by then we should leave the rest of the Universe to other intelligent life.

"And, one cannot just focus on OECD countries. For example, a stable population implies some kind of system that restricts people's ability to have children at will."
If the OEDC countries have a low fertility rate, why do you think other countries can not also have a low fertility rates? It's a matter of women having economic power not coercion.

Sheesh, have any of you even heard about anarchism? I do not mean chaos or the kiddie punk crap, I am talking about the political theory. It is also called libertarian socialism . That might scare the few of you who posted the comments on how socialism can make beer sour if it is breathed over your glass, but what you are usually referring to is state socialism. And that is libertarian, not Libertarian. The Libertarians still has a love affair with capitalism and the free market delusion.

I am asking whoever attempts to respond to this to read this fully:
..or at least most of it.

All we have to do is get rid of money. How f*&^king hard is that?

I'm glad you pointed this out. Few have read Bakunin, Goldman, Bookchin, let alone know about Nestor Mackno, Kropotkin, etc.
We live in a intellectually impoverished world, with simpletons explaining history and economics.
Few realize that many deep contemporary thinkers are syndicalist or anarchists,

Are there any current examples of this type of societal construct?

Any past examples?

I have skimmed about 5% of the material at both web sites.

Any past examples?
The two historical examples that functioned in a large population base are Spain (Barcelona area) during the Spanish Civil War, and the Ukraine during the Russian Revolution. Both of these situations were terminated by being taken over militarily (Franco in Spain, the Bolsheviks in Ukraine).
Anarchism is a threat to the institutional right and left (especially the Marxist left), and is suppressed and feared. Most contemporary anarchist communities are small and intentional.

Communism is an utopia so there are no actual examples.
There is no way to get from here to there without some kind of war, which is not conducive to the project. People have at times tried to move in that direction but the large scale experiments that are sometimes touted are of necessity basket cases. Be wary of labels as they are often misleading (the CNT did not function as an anarchist organization during the Spanish civil war for instance). In addition to the stuff referenced above (look at Aragon rather then Catalonia though), I think it's worth mentioning the EZLN because it is well-known and contemporary.

These ideas are however part of a tradition which has influenced the politics and institutions in many areas of the world. I'm thinking about stuff like the sovereignty of the general assembly or the name "soviet" (again, it was only a label in the USSR).

Anarchism has historically gained more support and influence in Spain than anywhere else, especially before Francisco Franco's victory in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939.
There were several variants of anarchism in Spain: the peasant anarchism in the countryside of Andalusia; urban anarcho-syndicalism in Catalonia, particularly its capital Barcelona; and what is sometimes called "pure" anarchism in other cities such as Zaragoza.

Anyone interested can fully research this. The Ukraine is in many ways even more interesting.

This is getting more off-topic by the minute but I'm curious...

What are the decent sources one could use to research the "Makhnov thing" beyond what he or Trotsky had to say about it? More to the point perhaps: what's available in non-slavic languages?
There's plenty of material on Spain from newspapers to accounts by ordinary people. Even if you can't read Spanish, there were many witnesses hailing from other parts of Europe or the Americas.

Actually French would be a more valuable language, as what was left of the Russian Anarchism ended up in Paris.
Part of my thesis analyzed the anarchist roll in the Russian Revolution.
I would suggest the works of James Joll or Daniel Guérin, if you need something in English.
Noam Chomsky (our most famous living American anarchist) is also a good source.

French is fine.
I was thinking about actual sources like contemporary documents or memoirs. I guess there are no audio/visual material as with Spain. Not that I want to write a thesis but taking a look at this stuff is invaluable, especially when you have nothing but a handful of very biased accounts to draw on.
A quick Google yielded little of substance. Of course I could easily have missed something big or the material might not have made its way to the web. It might not even have been published in print for all I know.

Volin, writing in 47, said that he was drawing only on Arshinov, Makhno and his own memory. What did Guerin and the others have to work with then?
Volin talks about hundreds of pages of documents he apparently didn't have access to though.

What do you mean with "all we have to do is get rid of money"?

Your entire comment is somewhat inscrutable.

Intellectualizing the need for containing freedom is great, but once the population of the world is 6.5 billion its too late. In Catton's book 'Overshoot', he refers to nature's way of restricting further growth which is 'die off'. We overshot the carrying capacity of the Earth, as evidenced by a multitude of examples we are all to familiar with, ad infinitum, and it will now be resource depletion in one form or another that causes the die off. I think we all know that on some level. All you can do now is be part of the 2 billion that remain, and once that has occurred, it would be great if we established limits to growth, limits to population, limits to damaging the forests, etc. Please, I'd love to think this type of discussion will take place after the dust settles.

slater --Here's another slant on the die off concept I was discussing with Nate elsewhere. What's your take on the view: the "die off" began long ago and continues today. Just a redefinition of the term. So much of the planet's population already lives outside of the "consumption circle" (or any other term that makes sense). Does it make any difference to the discussion (ignoring morality for the moment) if they are still breathing or not as long as they are not competing with the major energy consumers of our planet? I'll again an offer a simple but existing example. The west African country of Equatorial Guinea exports its oil to the EU making it one of the richest countries per capital in the world. Yet the very great majority of the population lives in absolute poverty at near starvation levels. The far from benevolent dictator does not share the wealth. In fact he intentionally reintroduced malaria to the island country to keep the locals docile. In the eyes of the EU these folks have already died off.

Now expand that view to the rest of the global population and you might get my point. The die off began many decades ago when the industrialized nations began removing resources from those who could not control them. Here's where that one aspect of "freedom" kicks in: self determination. If you accept this philosophical view of die off then the future is just a continuation of the ongoing process we see today. Those capable of controlling the remaining resources will sustain themselves (true “freedom”). Those who cannot will continue to die off regardless of whether they may still be drawing a breath or not. Do we expect those in the consumer circle to change this course? When was the last time you heard anyone in the EU (those self proclaimed great socialists and humanitarians) denounce the barbaric gov’t of EG and refuse to buy their oil? If the EU doesn’t have a problem kicking the EG citizens into a mental mass grave how might we expect the US and China to behave as we go forward?

Good point. That's a lot of what the "freedom" we are taught is about...freedom to live high while ignoring the needs of those around us ... a very third-world attitude when you think about it.

"...societies whose entire politics and culture are dominated by the idea that personal wants are the equivalent of the public good"

Seems to me that this idea can only be taken seriously at all in societies such as modern USAmerica (and its abject acolyte Britain) which are labouring in a quite unsustainable, historical moment of extreme, aberrant individualism.

In my country, and probably in the US too, there are plenty of survivors of my generation (just short of the biblical "threescore and ten") who actually remember live communities where such an idea would be regarded -- rightly in my view -- as pathological. We would -- and many of us do still -- take it without much pause for thought that this idea, proposed by such as Buchanan and taken up into dirty practical politics by emotionally-crippled intellectual mediocrities such as Margaret Thatcher, is simply mad: Of course there is much more innate philanthropy hard-wired into human psychology than that. For plenty of persuasive evidence, merely look around you on the street where you live. And if you see none, ever, find somewhere more psychically health to live, sharpish!

I suggest that this extreme self-obsession -- proposed as an innate basis of human psychology by one who was himself struggling with psychopathology -- has only been possible amongst the Pampered Twenty Percent of the global populace, briefly in the latter half of the 20th Century, because of the brief orgasm of gross overprosperity indulged by the PTP (at the enforced expense of the Abused and Deprived Eighty Percent) as we surfed the crest of the energy splurge, now thankfully a thing of the past.

If John Michael Greer and others are right, and we are now entering into a new era of inexorable deindustrialisation, inexorable falling per-capita energy availability, and inexorable population reduction (whether we choose to cooperate with that or not), I expect the narcissistic dreamworld of the PTP to fall apart so comprehensively that such mad doctrines as the complete identity of private wants and public good will now roar out of fashion like crashing rockets. Communalism and mutual aid are the big new/old things, perforce.

But then, such deep-set impulses of human psychology never went away amongst the ADEP. It's just that we of the PTP have always insisted on regarding them, our involuntary ADEP subsidisers at the me,me,me-trough, as largely invisible. Guilty consciences, I suppose.

Some valid points RG. As my post just above describes I don't have a very good opinion of the manner in which the powerful have dealt with the weakest amongst the world’s societies. But for the sake of full disclosure are you in the EU? You seem to cast most of blame towards the US and Briton. Not with out some basis for sure. But as my little tale of Equatorial Guinea above shows, the EU is hardly in a position to cast too many stones. Just curious if your condemnation includes all those gov’t in the EU who seem to have no problem exploiting the resources of those with no power to stop them.

A side note to the plight in EG since you brought Thatcher's name into the conversation. About 7 years ago her son organized a mercenary force to invade EG and dispose of its dictator. The effort failed before it even began with most captured and a few tortured to death. His motives? To free the people or just become the new dictator? We'll never know for sure. But even if the primary motivation was financial I would bet the citizens of EG would have faired better under the rule of the current leader.


I don't know anything about Thatcher's son and EG,but it in general the former English colonies as a group seem to be much more civilized places than the average.This is not to say that the English were engaged in anything other than an attempt to enrich themselves,but neverthe less Australia,Canada,the US,and India are free democratic countries today in large part because of English colonialism.

If the Empire had lasted longer,maybe some of the other former English colonies would be better places.The rule of law and democracy are institutions that are slow to take root.

I gather that you are well traveled.What do you think?

I agree Mac. As you say, motives aside, there were positives. But a difficult thought line to follow without sounding patronizing. Accepting that western philosophies are the best then colonization brought benefits. But at a price of course. I figure it comes down to a choice between self governing (even if it’s done very poorly) vs. foreign control which delivers a better life (in some aspects only). Being a TBC (Texan By Choice) for over 30 years I personally follow the philosophy that if an outsider tries to interfere with me and mine (for even a good cause) without an invitation then they’ll be met with significant resistance. How many times do you remember being made to do something for “your own good” and still don’t buy it today?

But it’s easy to sit back and watch the horrors in Africa and wonder how life would be if the rule of law had taken hold long ago during colonization. One aspect I’ll offer (a natural one being a Texan) is that despite the general perception, Africa is one of the least armed regions in the world. Lot of thugs with weapons for sure. But the general population is defenseless. It’s a harsh but true reality: without weapons a society is subject to absolute control by those who are armed… it criminals or governments.

FYI -- Equatorial Guinea was actually a Spanish colony until the late 20th century. Not sure if that made the situation worse or not. A little strange getting off the plane and chatting with the locals in Spanish. And if you’re a movie buff like me check out an old film, “Dogs of War” with Christopher Walkin. Made before EG became independent but spooky how it tells the story of the country (including Thatcher’s ploy) before it even happened.

without weapons a society is subject to absolute control by those who are armed… it criminals or governments.

I know it is like arguing religion with you, but still, can't let that go. When was the last time anyone in Texas "took arms against a government" and lived to tell? That whole attitude you guys make up as a substitute for maturity needs re-eval.

Here in Canada, we find it more effective to keep a well-controled government with sufficient arms and staff to overwhelm any criminals, then restrict the population from owning weapons intended only for killing humans, though we have higher rates of hunting weapons ownership than the USA. Seems to work, eg. the county where I live, Peel, population >1,000,000 bordering directly on Toronto, has just had its 8th murder of the year (over 5 months) last week, big news.

lengould -- You missed the point but I do understand your passion towards gun ownership. Almost all the citizens of EG live in absolute poverty despite being one of the richest economies on the planet. Do you believe this wouldn't be the case if it weren't for the EG gov't being the only owner of weapons. Comparing Canadian society to that of EG is a non-starter IMO.

Or let me put it another way: if you lived in EG and watched your children wither away daily would you not take up arms against TPTB? Perhaps not...maybe you would prefer a slow peaceful death for your family over gun violence. Your choice of course.

That explains why Somalia is such a great place to live, everyone seems to be well armed, no one group of warlords takes more than their fair share, great model for a free society.

Proves my point Neil. The only folk with weapons in Somalia are the gov't (I count the warlords as gov't BTW). The general population is weaponless. A better example might be Afghanistan. They make Texans look like Quakers when is comes to guns. As a result no gov’t can rule those folks without their permission. Granted they are an unruly and violent group of folks but my point wasn’t about producing a peaceful society but one that can defend themselves from outside exploitation. Internal strife is another matter all together and wasn’t the issue being discussed. Not that it’s not an important issue itself but that wasn’t the conversation. The US won it’s freedom from the crown by violent force. But it was still a slave owning culture afterwards. Armed civilians can protect themselves from external influences but that doesn’t necessarily mean it becomes an admirable construct.

I generally agre with you posts here,but on the issue of firearms your position whwn followed to the logical conclusion is that you are willing to take a chance on the really big risks of violence-the rise of a police state,civil war,ordinary war arriving w/o the means on hand to offer at least a basic defense- in order to reduce the risk of a little occasional mayhem here and now.

The jews would have been a lot harder to round up if each and every one of them had owned a pistol.
I gather that you are an Englishman.
The reason gun rights are so firmly embedded in the American psyche and law is that we as citizen soldiers fought a war to with England to win our freedom.

It is accepted as a basic tenent of some field or another that you cannot improve your condition by depriving yourself of options.
We will not willingly give up our rights,as they may be our salvation again someday.

I disagree with the notion that peopletry to maximize personal gain. From the perspective of the Rawlsian original position, people intend to minimize maximum loss. Also, I think the reverse dominance hierarchies are an example of people trying to minimize maximum loss and are prevalent in modern societies. For example, the European welfare state isn't specifically designed to maximize economic growth, but to minimize potential losses one might experience in a laissez-faire regime. Also, the high taxes function as reverse dominance hierarchy since it prevents people from accumulating economic power (in the form of wealth) by taxing it away. This serves to reduce the gini coefficient (it reduces inequality by taxing and redistribution.)