The Zero Growth Mind

Ancient peasants lived, mostly, in a "zero growth" world and, perhaps, in the future we'll return to a condition in which the finiteness of resources is an obvious fact of life. We see in this painting a group of 19th century Dutch peasants as painted by Vincent Van Gogh, who had an uncanny capability of showing not just the exterior aspect of things but also their inner reality ("The potato eaters", 1885, the Van Gogh museum, Amsterdam)

We often think that we have a problem of scarcity of resources. It is not so: scarcity is not absolute. Whether we have enough of something or not depends on our perception of what we need. And, because we seem to think that we never have enough, we tend to use what we have faster than it can be replaced. It is the phenomenon called "overexploitation" or "overshoot". It is the main problem that we are facing and it is all because of the way the human mind works. Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, overexploitation is all in the brain of the exploiter.

Nate Hagens has argued several times in "The Oil Drum" that the human mind is geared for growth (see, for instance here ). Apparently, we act on the basis of a series of neurotransmitters (e.g. dopamine) that make us search for continuously renewed stimulation. This way of functioning of the human mind is what generates our tendency of "discounting the future", that is of giving a lower value to the future than to the present. This rapidly declining discount function is the key of the mechanism of overexploitation.

This view of human behavior is based on experimental evidence which, however, is mostly limited to humans living in the modern, fast growing countries of the Western world. But present day humans may be just a short lived phenomenon. Growth cannot continue forever and sooner or later we'll have to settle in a condition of zero growth; very likely after a phase of decline. Zero growth has been the normal condition of human life for the past few millennia of agricultural civilizations. Surely the world changed even in ancient times, but the perception of this change was denied to people constrained to their fields, their family, their village, and little more. It was the world of peasants.

Peasants, by now, have disappeared in the Western world, replaced by farm workers specialized in operating agricultural machinery. Yet, this is a recent development and the peasant world is still alive in poor countries and a living memory in rich ones. So, we still have a chance to have a glimpse of a zero growth world and of the mind of the people living in it. How did they see the world around them? How did they see their future? How did they plan ahead for good and bad times?

There seem to be few psychological studies of the mind of the peasants: office workers are much easier to find and study, nowadays. But anthropologists have studied peasant civilizations in depth. One of these studies is in the book of Peter Farb "Humankind" published in 1978. Farb was an American anthropologist who had studied mainly native Americans, but who had a broad interest in human behavior in general. "Humankind" was a condensate of his thought (he died in 1980). After more than 30 years, the book is dated in many respects, but it is still well worth a look even today. I remember having read it for the first time in the early 1980s and, rereading it now, I see how much it has shaped my vision of the world.

Here are some excerpts of Peter Farb's description of the way of thinking of peasants as it appears in the chapter titled "The Perennial Peasants". The pattern that emerges doesn't agree with the idyllic view of a zero growth world made of small, self-sufficient units as it is often presented today. It shows that the limitation of material resources affects also the perception of all (as termed by Farb) "the good things in life", such as friendship, manhood, honor and sex. We don't know the shape of the discount function in the mind of peasants but, from this description, they seem to be even less worried about the future than we are. That is, perhaps, a logic consequence of the fact that in a zero growth world the future is just the same as the present.

People living in a future zero growth world will not necessarily live and think as ancient peasants, but surely there is a lot of food for thought here.

From Peter Farb's "Humankind", Triad Press, 1978. Excerpts from Chapter 7 "The Perennial Peasants"

Although peasants are widely scattered throughout the world, owe allegiance to many nations, speak a variety of languages, and display dissimilar customs, they nevertheless share certain fundamental traits. For this reason they often give the impression of being - as Karl Marx once declared with some exaggeration - as alike as the potatoes in a sack. <..>

Almost anywhere that peasants are encountered, they are likely to give the same impression of being conservative, individualistic, prone to suspicion, jealous, violent, superstitious and unthrifty. <..> To the peasant, the farm is a household rather than a business enterprise designed to turn a profit, as are most farms in North America and Western Europe today. The household farm barely provides subsistence for the family after the obligations due to the owners of the land and the wielders of political power are met. Peasants are unlike modern farmers also in that they do not rely on machinery, modern techniques of plant science, or hired labor. The extreme inefficiency of their methods can only be compensated for only by long hours of backbreaking labor. <..> Such has been the lot of peasants in almost all societies, since complex civilizations arose about 6000 years ago.

<..> Peasants at all times and in all places, almost without exception, have had an inferior status - legally, politically, socially, and economically. <..> This subservient position of peasants in society has produced behavior that often appears irrational, uneconomical and ultimately self defeating. <..> Peasants frustrate all attempts by national governments to get them to increase agricultural production through the use of modern technology. And while seemingly making no attempt to lift themselves out of inherited poverty, they even worsen the situation by rejecting birth-control measures. <..> Many of the ills besetting them could obviously be cured by cooperation and by the exercise of local leadership, but the peasants remain tenaciously individualistic.Well intentioned outsiders, such as Peace Corps or United Nations workers who come to the village and attempt to provide such leadership are viewed as potentially dangerous, criticized and gossiped about, and sometimes assaulted. A widespread peasant strategy in contact with outsiders is to play dumb, preferring this to being swindled by a representative of the external powers. Or an outsider will be replied to in words that mean "Yes, I'll do it tomorrow"; with Spanish-speaking peasants it is manana , with Italian ones domani , with German ones morgen, and the Amhara of Ethiopia say eshi naga. As if all this were not irrational enough, one further thing bewilders outsiders. As soon as peasants have acquired a small surplus through hard work or good fortune, they spend the entire amount pro­fligately on one grand fiesta or ceremonial.

Why is it, we may wonder, that the peasants do nothing to better themselves? Some scholars have concluded that they are too desperately poor to have time for social cooperation or for political agitation. Others have attributed the inaction to their being as impassive as their donkeys and oxen. Still others explain that the peasants have been exploited for so long by the upper classes that they would never join their social su­periors in any venture, for fear of being cheated. Each of these statements is true to some extent, but none by itself can account for the peasants' disregard of their own welfare. 'The peasants may be poor, but each could afford a day or so of voluntary labor for such community projects as repairing a schoolhouse. Impassive they may be also, but they are far less so than is usually thought. Scarcely a peasant can be found who in private conversation is not articulate about the ills of this world and about what steps might be taken to correct them. And if the peasants so mistrust the upper classes, why then do they not band together? Obviously, none of the above explanations entirely accounts for their acting as they do.

Their behavior is not irrational at all, given the realities of their existence. In fact, the attitude of peasants is probably the only one possible for them. A modern observer of peasant life has defined their adaptation in terms of "the image of limited good." In other words, peasants view their total environment as one in which all the good things of life-land, wealth, power, friendship, sex, health, and honor-exist in only lim­ited quantities. As they see it, the limitation exists for two reasons: 'There are more of themselves than there are of good things, and they consider themselves powerless to increase the quantities available. Peasants have unconsciously extended a truth about the limited nature of their arable land to include all aspects of life. Like the land itself, good things can be divided and their ownership changed-but they cannot be increased.

Because not enough good exists to go around, a peasant family can improve its position only at the expense of other families in the community. A family that actively works to improve its lot thus represents a threat; whatever extra good it obtains must inevitably be taken from someone else. Peasants consequently regard modern farming techniques as ways to deprive others of their rightful share of wealth rather than as ways to increase productivity and thus to create new wealth. Even enlightened peasants realize that they cannot modernize, although they understand the advantages in doing so, simply because the other villagers would see it as taking unfair ad­vantage if they were to augment their share of the limited good. 'The peasant belief that everything desirable is limited lies behind the social behavior that to outsiders often appears ludicrous, pathetic, or maddening.

True friendship is included among the scarce goods, and to ensure at least a minimum of it peasants try to form a long­lasting relationship with a close friend. Similarly, honor and manliness (the well-known machismo of Latin American peasants and the philotimo of Greek peasants) exist mainly in limited quantities. Constant vigilance is therefore required to prevent loss of any amount of manliness - which explains the male peasant's sensitivity to insults and his violent reaction to real or imagined affronts to his honor. The list of goods that are considered scarce is a long one, and it even includes health. The supply of blood itself is thought to be limited, and thus to give a transfusion would mean that the donor had parted with a non-renewable good.

No wonder, then, that peasant behavior is characterized by extreme individualism and the absence of cooperation. To cooperate, peasants would have to delegate authority - but no one wishes to assume leadership lest gossiping neighbors com­plain that their own share of authority is being taken away from them. In thus shirking community responsibilities that might thrust them into prominence, peasants deprive their own community of the leadership essential for breaking the cycle of poverty. They pay no immediate penalty for their lack of cooperation, as do hunter-gatherers (whose very sur­vival may depend upon it) or people living in modern socie­ties (whose complex political, social, and economic systems could not function without it). The peasant family can man­age very well without cooperation because it is a nearly self­-sufficient unit. It produces almost all of its own food, uses only family members for labor on the farm, makes its own clothes and most household utensils, and carries its own pro­duce to market. Most families feel that rather than waste time on cooperation they should spend it in vigilance to make sure that they obtain exactly their share of the scarce good things. The family must not fall behind, but it must also not appear to improve its relative position lest that arouse suspicion and jealousy. Outsiders who visit a peasant village are usually struck by what appears to be uniformity of housing and attire (such as the plain black dresses of Spanish, Italian, and Greek peasant women and the trousers and shirts of white cotton twill worn by Latin American men).

Peasant families make a desperate effort to guarantee for themselves their proportionate share of the limited good through the sheer number of children they produce. From the standpoint of the peasant, it makes eminent good sense to have many children. In fact, almost everything in their experience goes against the opinion that small families are advan­tageous. Because the mortality of peasant children has tradi­tionally been high, large numbers of them are a form of insurance that at least some will survive. Even young chil­dren can do chores both inside and outside the house. As the younger children grow up, some of the older ones can be spared from the land to take up employment elsewhere and contribute their wages to the family's well-being (as do the braceros who annually cross into the United States from Mex­ico). The peasant couple realize that the more sons they pro­duce, the greater the chance that a few will survive to care for them in sickness and old age. In the process of producing many sons, of course, many daughters might also be brought into the world. But daughters will eventually marry and pro­vide a wide network of sons-in-law, who with their kin can be called upon for support in time of need. From almost every point of view, the peasant's logic is unassailable: The rich agriculturist can invest in farm machinery but the poor peas­ant can invest only in children.

Very interesting. As a side note, Inglehart's work on the World Values Surveys captures this cultural dynamic very well - and shows fairly well that changing (or unchanging in this case) material conditions definitely impact cultural values.

What's interesting here is what will happen in 'the West' if/as material conditions decline as resource scarcity, over population, and ecological damage really set in. Will we 'devolve' back into the cultures typified by these peasant societies, will we keep some of the progressive egalitarianism that we have in our cultures today?

Many of us expect we will see devolution, but it will not be a linear process.

That's probably what Inglehart would suspect.

By what measure do "we" have more "progressive egalitarianism" than "these peasant societies"?

I suggest you read Inglehart's work on the subject.

But, to be brief, Western societies tend to be more inclusive, open, and liberal. How many technologically backwards and resource constrained peasant societies had enfranchised ethnic/racial minorities, female empowerment, or much in the way of freedom of thought/belief, speech, etc.? Or lifespans to which we're come to take for granted? Materialism, despite its flaws, has been very important in liberating the individual from the oppression of social conformity that hand-to-mouth survivalism fosters. I don't have to go to church in part because I don't need the collective resources churches provide to their members. Similarly, my wife is free to pursue a career and her own life... and is not reduced to the level of chattel breedstock as they are in other societies. And, most important, I'll have may an extra 25-30 years of life as opposed to those poor peasant bastards.

I consider these good things (for me at least). I would be willing to accept the the deaths of billions of people (who I don't know personally and who are really just abstractions) in other countries in order to preserve this way of life for me and mine. Of course, I'm willing to cooperate peacefully if possible - but, if not, hail and preserve the empire, citizen!

Ingelhart is a political scientist and his data is contemporary. What could he have to say about times long past?

You probably have a good bit more than 25-30 extra years of life expectancy than most of the "peasants" before the 20th century.
But having a long life expectancy is not the same thing as having a "progressive egalitarian" culture. Maybe there is a link but it's not obvious to me. Sure, we've got women's lib but that alone is does not make a "progressive egalitarian" culture. So, again, what's your measure and do you have any evidence?

Fortunately, you will most likely never be in a position to sacrifice so many people for your ideas.

Yes, the irony is that we supposedly have an egalitarian culture, but we also have the widest difference between the richest and the poorest in history.

This is a straw man. Every society has its high, middle, and low. The key is to understand how 'the low' compares across societies. Given the chance, would your average 'low' person in the West today trade places with a 'low' person in the past or in another society or vice versa?

Which societies experience immigration and which do not? That's called voting with one's feet.

Many people in the countryside in my region are addicted to meth, and more are getting addicted than are kicking the habit. So by your logic, meth addiction is the way to go and we should all jump on board.

I'm not sure how it is a straw man to point up the irony that the society based on the premise that all men are created equal has the greatest difference between richest and poorest in history. Do you think this is a healthy situation for a society to be in?

Every society has its high, middle, and low. The key is to understand how 'the low' compares across societies.

No, the key is the difference between hi and low WITHIN a given society. Among western industrialized countries, we have the greatest inequality between rich and poor. In his book, The Politics of Rich and Poor, Kevin Phillips noted that some degree of inequality exists in all societies. But went on to argue that when the gap is too great, the society becomes less democratic.


Really? You're REALLY saying there is no difference between the liberties and welfare the average person in the West enjoys today with what his or her ancestors in the 18th century or in those residing in backwoods of Afghanistan or Sub-Saharan Africa today?


Sure, we've got women's lib but that alone is does not make a "progressive egalitarian" culture.

I'm sure the millions of poor, uneducated women in the developing world or 18th century Europe would beg to disagree. But, hey, right to vote, control over one's reproductive destiny and so on isn't really much of an accomplishment. Or the fact that all social indicators show that when the rights and status of women improve ALL the trends we worry about tend to get better.

Show me you Noble Savage, and I'll show you a society based inevitably on exploitation, oppression, and violence. This is true of all societies. The question is one of degrees, not of kind.

It's useful to articulate this in order to get a good look at it. I have myself thought frequently that I do not honestly feel a deep level of horror at the death of a billion abstract humans, which I think I should feel.

However, here it is:
You would be willing to trade the deaths of billions of people you don't know, for the sake of liberating you and the people you know from social conformity, and having freedom of though/belief/speech.

That is, you believe, "the end justifies the means".

I believe "the means are the end". You cannot escape your life being determined by the actions you take (or fail to take).

Others have said: "None can be free, until all are free"

Billions of people will surely die prematurely in the coming decades. BAU would not prevent that.
So I don't think you should be horrified by abstract deaths. But if you're talking about bringing about the death of a billion people, you need a way to do that. I think it's the concrete genocidal plan which should provoke horror.
Biological warfare seems a good deal less horrific to me than something like the Rwandan genocide on a global scale for instance.

Some of the very worst of us are capable of some of the most penetrating insights sometimes.

Stalin said that the death of one man is a tragedy but the death of a million(?) is only a statistic.

I have never been able to find the exact words to describe why this resonates so strongly (to me at least) but the first time I saw it I knew it for the truth in respect to the way our minds work within the us/them paradigm.

Most of us would not think twice about sacrificing a thousand strangers to sav our own kids or our own mangy hides.Most of us would probably sacrifice a thousand nieghbors almost as fast but at least most of us would feel some guilt about the nieghbors.

Somebody else said a long time ago that a boil on a man's own neck is more important to him than all the starving people in China.

Most of us would not think twice about sacrificing a thousand strangers to sav our own kids or our own mangy hides.Most of us would probably sacrifice a thousand nieghbors almost as fast but at least most of us would feel some guilt about the nieghbors.

See Machiavell's opinion on whether it is better to be feared or loved.... Or Col. Kurtz's speech in Apocalypse Now on the need to embrace 'Horror and Moral Terror' - it's deeply depressing. But, history is not fun reading. Our achievements have been built on backs of the most horrible, immoral acts conceivable. If we wish to preserve them (which some may disagree with), I see no alternative to it.

That is, you believe, "the end justifies the means".

I believe "the means are the end". You cannot escape your life being determined by the actions you take (or fail to take).

I'm a realist I guess. I appreciate your message, and this is the position I articulate in my classes, but deep down, I'm deeply pessimistic on human nature.

What's interesting here is what will happen in 'the West' if/as material conditions decline as resource scarcity, over population, and ecological damage really set in. Will we 'devolve' back into the cultures typified by these peasant societies, will we keep some of the progressive egalitarianism that we have in our cultures today?

If we're going to talk about cultural devolution, it's worth remembering that peasant cultures do not (we believe) represent the baseline for human cultures in our deep history. They are a comparatively recent and probably unnatural development, dating from the advent of agriculture and the rise of "water dynasties". They're quite different than the tribal hunter-gatherer cultures in which humans are thought to have lived throughout their early evolution. Those were probably much more egalitarian and much more cooperative.

Which is not to say that that's necessarily what we'd revert to. Peasant cultures are what you get under the rule of warlords in low-tech societies still dependent on agriculture. There must be some sort of weapons technology that the warlord class can monopolize to enforce its rule, but that only requires primitive metalworking. We'll be haning on to the ability to fashion knives, swords, and axes long after all other niceties of civilization are long gone.

Exactly - agriculture isn't going anywhere. Modern agriculture may or may not be on the skids, but hunter-gatherer societies aren't coming back. Agriculture is just to useful a cultural development for it to be abandoned.

There's a lot to think about here.

My guess is that the tendency to immediatley have a feast and devour any surplus is rooted in two probable truths.

One is that any surplus will either be confiscated or lost in some other fashion as there is no obvious way to convert it to a desirable durable good.

The other is that it sure feels good to be rich ,even if only for a day.Do we not continue to function even when we are rich(relatively speaking) by escaping whenever we can to the mall or golf course or the beach or into some dreamland tv show or novel?

In a peasant society, any "surplus" would probably mean a bountiful harvest at a particular time. Especially in the pre-refrigeration era, a use-it-or-lose-it dynamic would set in. Have a village bash, party down and feast, because if you don't, most of the surplus would just end up becoming spoiled. Failing to devour it relatively quickly would be akin to throwing it away.

Antoinetta III

Thanks for this Ugo - I've no doubt that I'll be thinking about it for some time to come.

I think a lot of the ideas about peasants expressed here are mainly stereotypes by people who do not have a very good understanding about the particular peasant group they are writing about. All people are constrained in their activities by cultural norms, peasants, past or present, not more than anyone else.

Peasants can and do accumulate wealth, but clearly if they want to retain their cultural identity, they must do so in a subtle way and in a way which is consistent with maintaining good relations with their friends and family. To the extent that their cultural identity is more important to them than wealth, they will choose the former over the latter. Peasants buy tractors, cars, etc, when it makes sense for them to do so.

The peasants I have known are also not particularly individualistic. Most peasant communities are small groups with a lot of kinship relationships amongst themselves and have the strongly interdependent relationships needed to thrive in their environment. Many peasants often have a "dress code", but go to the business district of a big city if you really want to see people doing their best to look like they belong to the same flock.

Wealth and wellbeing are consistent with zero growth for peasants and everyone else, it is a matter of using the resources you have in better ways. Peasants are probably better at this than other groups.

could not agree more with what you said. i would have paid more attention to the articles if poster said "when i was young and living on a farm" rather than quoting somebody else.

Because not enough good exists to go around, a peasant family can improve its position only at the expense of other families in the community. A family that actively works to improve its lot thus represents a threat; whatever extra good it obtains must inevitably be taken from someone else.

this is totally and utter bullshit. there are many levels of wealth within a village, and everybody who's spent more than a week in a country village knows this. there's the family with the nice house, there's the family with five cows, the family with more land, the family whose children went to the big city and send nice clothes once in a while, and last but not least, the family with the color tv :P ( this is a particular example from communist romania)

"modern" wealth is not accumulated in peasant villages because of the simple way of life, and the "if it's not broke, don't fix it" mentality. wealth is something that will help you live a better life, not show off (a bigger better horse instead of the latest mobile phone)

article is mostly guessing and random facts from the slavery age, imho

Please note that the reference was to early 19th century early to pre-industrial peasant village with no access to other fuel sources than biomass and some rudimentary hydro/wind/passive solar.

As such, your comment about "anybody who has ever spent a week in a country village" probably does not apply here, unless you are 200 years old and have a very good long-term memory.

Still, I tend to agree with the skepticism, even if on different grounds.

My first argument is that where is the proof?

The arguments outlined from the book(s) do not appear to be based on quantitative analyses, game-theoretical observations or even basic economic incentive models.

In fact, evidence for the opposite kind of development seems to exist in a historical example that is more meaningful for our predicament.

The arguments from the book(s) appear to have a backing that is purely historical correlation - with not direction causation attempted.

They reek of historicism : because it was so, it will be so, because it will be like it was.

Well I say, NOT so! Historicism is intellectual laziness. It reveals the poverty of social imagination. History does rhyme, but not necessarily repeat in verbatim.

I'm more inclined to agree with Dennis L Meadows, who in his Japan Prize commemorative prize lecture concluded that we'll more than likely have more people and more industrialization in 2100 than we had in 1900s. BTW, I recommend watching it. All 48mins of it, unless one is really familiar with D.L. Meadows' thinking.

The question is, what happens during the (probable/assumed) transition before 2100.

That's the problem, isn't it?

And the answer depends completely on how much shortfall (probability, severity, duration) of resources in regards to various needs (physical, psychological, socio-economical) do we face AND how do we deal with those shortfalls (coordination, cooperation, isolation, wars, sharing, powerdown, offshoot, etc).

There are various imaginative - although theoretical - steady state models one can imagine alongside 19th century peasant village life (along with the surrounding city/state structures). Are we capable of achieving those - well that's a different question altogether.

And nobody has a crystal ball on that - regardless of what they believe.

Yet, having written all that, I believe we must consider the possibility of a roll-back to the 19th century peasant age or something structurally similar, even if not identical. In the words of Herman Kahn :

"We must appreciate these possibilities. We cannot wish them away. Nor should we overestimate and assume the worst is inevitable. This leads only to defeatism, inadequate preparations (because they seem useless), and pressures toward either preventive war or undue accommodation." - Herman Kahn, 'Thinking about the Unthinkable'

I want to thank Mr Bardi for raising this discussion, as this will surely be one of those themes we'll be revisiting over and over again in years to come.

Many late 20th century Western European peasant societies operated with little external energy input, so you don't need to be over ~40 to have seen it work.

Not that I don't believe you, but can you name one?

Just name of village, name of country and year.

Visit here someday, its a nice area. You can ask someone when they got their first tractor.

Not Europe but Sao Paulo State, Brazil City of 15,000, Angatuba. I spent a 6 week tour there last fall documenting small business enterprise. True it is a mosaic but in general people live and thrive with their own resources. I envy their biomass energy potential from both cane and timber plantations. Their business ventures are clean and home built. Try these blog entries here and here.
Also here is a video documentary of a small family operated sawmill that when combined with farming activities supports an extended family.

and a pottery plant

all local materials, essentially a closed system

Most anywhere in the countryside of Greece, for example. In my own ancestral home, the first flush toilet ~1963, paved road ~1966, electricity ~1967.. Modern farming? never happened. the land ranges from hilly to mountainous,
and ownership is fragmented into dozens of small plots in each family. Tractors and other machinery never saw use,
farming eventually died out when my parents generation moved to the cities in large enough quantities and the folks who stayed back turned more to grazing animals for a living. The village has been on that hill since, very literally, the stone age.

That's on the mainland, less than 40 miles from a city of ~quarter million. On many islands, telephones and
electricity weren't connected until the mid-1980s.

Most villages in Europe (and Asia and Africa) go way back, one thousand, two thousand years or far more, and many have been continuously inhabited and farmed for that period. Much of the basic village infrastructure such as bridges and churches also go way back and it is common in Southern Europe to see structures built by the Romans still in daily use (roads, walls, bridges...). You may imagine that the villagers, having worked out a way to make a good living with few resources are not going to change their ways overnight.

i would have paid more attention to the articles if poster said "when i was young and living on a farm" rather than quoting somebody else.

Nonsense! "Peasant", in the context discussed here, most definitely is not a synonym for "farmer", and "peasant culture" does not mean "village culture" Both Ugo and the author of the piece he quoted made it clear that they were talking about individuals living in "steady state" cultures, where the very possibility of change and betterment was foreign and not to be trusted.

What they're trying to explore is the question of what else follows from that mindset? Probably a lot more than most of us realize, given that we're so immersed in the notions of change and progress that we're unaware of how they shape our thoughts and values.

Wealth and wellbeing are consistent with zero growth for peasants and everyone else, it is a matter of using the resources you have in better ways. Peasants are probably better at this than other groups.

Sorry but this is simply not correct. You left out one very important point, population growth, or more correctly, the forces of nature that prevent the population from growing in peasant societies.

All species, including homo sapiens, breed far more offspring than their habitat can support. Most of the peasant societies in the world today are not under the same constraints that peasant societies of the past suffered. Today peasants can migrate to the city when the population reaches the maximum that the land can support. And that is exactly what is happening around the world, shanty towns are growing up around every major metropolis in the third world.

To see what live will be like about one hundred years after the collapse, when the population has reverted back to what the world can support without the aid of fossil fuel, we need only to look to history. After the Black Death: A Social History of Early Modern Europe

"Sennely is a typical self-sufficient village near the French City of Orleans. It consists of subsistence farmers whose needs are supplied locally: rye grain for bread, cattle, pigs, apples, pears, plums, chestnuts, garden vegetables, fish in the ponds, and bees for honey and wax.

Population and resources are more-or-less in balance because of the poor health of the residents: they tended to be stunted, bent over, and of a yellowish complexion. By the time children were ten or twelve, they assumed the generally unpleasant appearance of their elders: they moved slowly, had poor teeth, and distended bellies. Girls reached the age of 18 before first ministration.

Malnutrition was the norm. One third of the babies died in the first year and only one third reached adulthood. Most couples had only one or two children before their marriage was broken by the death of one parent. 'Yet, for all that, Sennely was not badly off when compared to other villages."

George Huppert, “After the Black Death” [p. 3]

What was happening in Sennely, and every other peasant village throughout the world, was nothing more than Malthusian principles keeping the population in check.

Ron P.

I don't think my comment was incorrect, but clearly if population grows and resources do not, you will have serious problems regardless of what you do. Peasants have more obvious resource constraints--the area of land in a village stays constant-- than most other groups, so obviously they are familiar with the problem and have solved it in the past by exporting people to keep the population more or less constant.

The birth rate in Europe is sub-replacement, presumably also in villages, so perhaps there is hope for a non-apocalyptic end.

Biophiliac, you are still looking at peasant villages, and the world as a whole, as it appears today! When fossil fuels are gone the world will in no way even remotely resemble that world.

There is a very good reason that the birth rate in Europe is below replacement level. Education, wealth and guarantee that the state will not let you starve when you are too old to work are but three of the things that keep the population in such a low stage of growth. For the vast majority of the population all those things will disappear with the fossil fuel age.

Peasants have more obvious resource constraints--the area of land in a village stays constant-- than most other groups, so obviously they are familiar with the problem and have solved it in the past by exporting people to keep the population more or less constant.

Where did you get that idea? From "After the Black Death":

One third of the babies born died in their first year. Only a third of the children born in Sennely reached adulthood. Most couples had only one or two children before their marriage was broken up by the death of one parent. Women married late, at about age 23, on the average. Any given 100 women in Sennely would bear about 350 children in the course of their lives. Of these, only 145 would reach adulthood and marry in turn, 75 of them female. Allowing for 5 girls who would not marry, only 70 adult women were available to replace the 100 women of the preceding generation. Yet the population remained more of less constant. The villagers probably made up the deficit by marrying the daughters of transient artisans and laborers.

Ron P.

I don't disagree with you, Ron, I'm just pointing out some inaccuracies about peasant culture. But (European) peasants in the recent past have had access to penicillin and have enjoyed low mortality. They have exported their excess population to the cities because you can only subdivide your land so often.

Yet you wrote above:

Many late 20th century Western European peasant societies operated with little external energy input, so you don't need to be over ~40 to have seen it work.

Late 20th century Western European peasants have, as you said, access to penicillin. They also had access free, or near free, medical care in Western Europe's socialists countries. Few women die in childbirth anymore. Few children die of diseases that took them just 200 years ago.

They have access to fossil fuels such as coal to heat their homes. Many have tractors and cars. Even the Amish, who shun such things, still use modern day horse drawn farm equipment. And their grain is thrashed and ground in a mill. Harvesting grain the way peasants did it prior to the industrial age is a thing of the past.

My point is that modern day peasants villages, and life in those villages, do not remotely resemble life in such villages 200 years ago. Yes, you need to be at least 200 years old and older if you are going to use your personal experiences to tell you what life was like in those days. Thousands of history books have been written on the subject. They are all based on historical records and they all tell virtually the same story as I have outlined above.

Ron P.

In "my" village, in the 1970's, wheat was reaped by scythe and rake, and threshed with a wooden sled with rocks embedded on the underside, pulled by donkeys. Straw and hay were hauled with handmade wooden carts drawn by oxen. Heating was 100% wood. 99% of the transportation was by foot or bicycle. There were some modern aspects: a few people had phones, a majority had electric lights. Much of rural Europe was like this at the time. The current generation of peasants, people in their 40's 50's... remember this from their childhood and youth and probably have a lot of the old equipment lying around even if they now harvest mechanically.
Sure, if you go back another 200 years, you need to replace the light bulb with a candle and the phone goes away, but we are not talking fundamental changes in lifestyle or culture.

Maybe this is nitpicking on my part but what you describe is extreme rather than the norm. It's not really a force that prevents growth but rather collapse. Such a collapse in turn sets up the conditions favourable for strong growth...

In any case, there was a lot more than malthusian principles at work.

Maybe this is nitpicking on my part but what you describe is extreme rather than the norm.

Wrong! What Sennely represented was the absolute norm, for peasant villages, throughout Europe during the 15th thru the 18th centuries. From my link above:

Yet, for all that, Sennely was not badly off when compared to other villages.

You wrote:

It's not really a force that prevents growth but rather collapse.

What's not really a force that prevents growth but (prevents?) collapse? Growth was almost non existent during most of the Black Death. There was some growth after the black death because such a large percentage of the population died during that time. Then when industrial age began with the aid of coal, growth began again. There was no collapse except during the Black Death and regional collapse due to famine in some areas.

Ron P.

Darwinian - you ever read 'The Great Wave: Price Revolutions and the Rhythm of History'? Looks at the macroeconomics of just these types of Malthusian cycles over the very long run. You might find it interesting.

I haven't read the work but the era immediately "after the black death" (most of the 14th century and a bit if the 15th) differed markedly from the following decades as well as from the 13th century (for instance).
You can say "wrong!" as much as you like but that doesn't change the historical record. I've posted actual historical data highlighting the change in demographic regimes in the 15th century lower.

What is not really a force that prevents growth is the dreary collapse that happened "after the black death" and which you described. These were exceptional circumstances brought about by excessive growth and followed by growth. Human population was manifestly on a very long-term growth trend before the gross waste of fossil fuels started.

Sorry HFat, I should have been more specific with my dates. The book deals with the centuries following the Black Death, not the one century. Let me quote the first paragraph from that book, Chapter 1, “The Eternal Village”. (Bold mine):

Let us begin by looking at an ordinary European village in the seventeenth century. This village, Sennely, which has been carefully studied by Professor Bouchard, has a claim to being considered typical. A population of some 500 to 700 person is typical enough. The village's reliance on grain for bread-making as its chief crop is more than typical--it is universal. The thatch-roofed, windowless farmhouses, with their two rooms, attic, barn, and cowshed, are certainly normal.

You wrote:

You can say "wrong!" as much as you like but that doesn't change the historical record.

The reason you are wrong HFat, is that you obviously have not studied the historical record.

Ron P.

Are you positing some kind of stable demographic regime for centuries "after the black death"?
Kinda preposterous but my opinion is irrelevant. What's your data?

This book, among many I have read on the subject, gives several hundred references for its data. The first chapter, on a typical village of that period, came from a French history professor who did extensive study of that period. From the index:

Bouchard, Gerard: study of Sennely, 1; Le Village immobile, 10

I would love to read that book myself except that I don't know a word of French.

But this book is one of the very best I have ever read on the subject. Every aspect of life of that area is examined, from the small village, to the small town, to larger towns and finally the large cities such as Paris. The author, George Huppert, gives the source for every bit of data he presents. Much of it comes from the records kept by town and city officials. They kept tax rolls, crime data, marriage data, birth and death data, trade data, data concerning real estate transactions and even data concerning people's trade or occupations.

No stone was left unturned in this book. No other history book that I have ever read came from data so well documented.

But to answer your question above, there was very little change, especially in peasant life from after the black death until fossil fuel, coal, came on the scene. There were, of course, changes in art, literature and religion. However for the peasant very little changed.

Ron P.

As it happens I can read French. But, as you highlighted, Bouchard's thesis has nothing to do with the period "after the black death" (a mere 250 years separates them). In any case, it is concerned with what seems to have been an exception.

It would be helpful if you posted your data, not only the title of the book in which it was cited. I for one am not interested in checking references for mystery data.

Here's something in English for you: J.C. Russel, British Medieval Population. It has life expectancy bottoming at 21 years in the last quarter of the 14th century and back at 29 years in the first quarter of the 15th, 150 years after it started declining. For reference the price of wheat peaked around 1325 in England in that period. Think about what these 8 years would mean in human terms...

It would be helpful if you posted your data, not only the title of the book in which it was cited. I for one am not interested in checking references for mystery data.

HFat, you are giving several other people on this thread the same cock and bull story. You have no data, no references, just data without a source. A name is not a source, what is the title of the work?

History books are my data! Do you think I went to France and checked the records of each city myself. The experts who wrote of those time, and some even wrote during those times, are the only references any of us are going to get.

But you, you are just running your mouth with no references of your own whatsoever. I will not debate such a blowhard any longer.

Ron P.


you're out of line here. Please cease and desist from name-calling and from using inflammatory adjectives. It does your credibility no good at all.

"What is not really a force that prevents growth is the dreary collapse that happened "after the black death" and which you described. These were exceptional circumstances brought about by excessive growth and followed by growth. Human population was manifestly on a very long-term growth trend before the gross waste of fossil fuels started." Posted by HFat

The Black Death (1348-1352) was a massive event, an outlier that wiped out somewhere between a quarter and a third of the entire European population. But let's go back a few centuries before the Black Death, say from 500 to 1200. The Plague was itself nothing new, there had always been plagues (and famines). At any given time, there were always some instances of plague, but the outbreaks were generally quite localized. On one side, there was always an inbuilt inclination for population growth, but this was generally kept in check by these localized plagues and famines. So there was no dramatic collapse, but rather an ongoing series of what could be considered localized "mini-collapses" that offset the growth inclination and kept the population relatively stable.

Antoinetta III

Sure, there are deniers but a naive approach to the little data that we have yields a dramatic collapse in the 14th century (broadly speaking).
The severe "black death" was in that sense only a symptom of the ongoing collapse. In general, things seem to have gone from bad to worse in the fifty years or so after the "black death", though there are of course stark regional differences. In some cases, the population bottomed around 25% of its peak.

If you have evidence for well-distributed mini-collapses and the attending relatively stable population, please post it.
So far, I'm the only one who posted any demographic data.

Doesn't this suggest that the devastating 1450 plague may have been caused by the high density of the urban populations and the unhealthy conditions that prior growth had produced in Europe, and not by the fleas?? The break-up of the feudal system it resulted in then empowered free market growth expectations that that feudal system had suppressed, perhaps, releasing a growth of a different kind. That consequence does seem to be why that particular plague made such a great change in history and others did not. What leads me to wonder about this way to connect the loose ends is that I noticed in Maddison's data (curve A) on world economic development that the numbers imply that modern steady exponential economic growth actually began in about 1000AD, with 600 years of something like .2%/yr, which only greatly accelerated about 1800 to 3 1/2% with science being the spark for igniting all the fossil fuels... to burn to replace labor as fast as we could figure out how.

It's 1350.

These notions according to which there was a steady-state before the industrial revolution and that "the feudal system had suppressed" "free market growth expectations" are based on ideology, not on evidence.
Not only are "growth expectations" subjective but there is no such thing as the "free market". As to the "feudal system", it was a lot more diverse than many posters seem to believe. What is clear is that asset bubbles and such happened back in the day as well.

Going by the evidence, it looks like exponential growth has been the norm since at least the neolithic if you take a long-term view and average out the retrenchments and the local collapses.

In Europe specifically, the feudal system changed substantially around 1000AD and that seems to have started a growth trend as well as the development of renewable energy, trade, finance and so on.
The huge setback of the 14th century (broadly) meant that such a "economic level" would only be reached again after Europe had started exporting people and importing a substantial amount of energy (and other commodities) at which point it makes little sense to look at Europe in isolation.
Obviously, this "Europe" notion is problematic and you've got a lot of regional differences, special cases and so on.

As to Madison's graphs, I wouldn't use them to examine what happened around 1800. You'd need something a lot more fine-grained and anchored on actual data. But you might not find such a sudden change fueled by fossil energy...

EDIT: I'm repeating myself but it's not that a particular plague was such a big deal... it's that this plague symbolizes a protracted decline that took place over a century or thereabouts. The trouble started before the famous plague.

Yes of course about the date. I was just speculating that people being congested with ample rat populations seemed implied. That suggests that the natural functional limits of the economic system were being exceeded is all. The form of the economy was quite different before and after wasn't it?

Your information on agrarian growth beginning in about 1000 is supported by Maddison's data. Maybe you're not taking into account that growth is a systematic process of adding to its own process. It naturally has momentum as a process which seems observable in economic growth systems generally, whether anyone is aware of it or not. Wo yes, I might have spoken more generally about what I meant using a term other than "expectations", say "momentum".

You can look at the curve of the Maddison's data and determine for yourself when the agrarian growth period transitioned into industrial growth. What it seems to show is two straight lines with a rater unambiguous change in direction around 1800.

I wouldn't put much weight on folkloric stories about rats and such. There were a lot of pathogens around such as smallpox which killed a great many people. Some bouts of "plague" were reported by observers as specific diseases other than bubonic. The bottom-line is that people were weak from malnutrition or outright starvation.
Since the message apparently isn't getting through and since you seem to be concerned with city dwellers, here's another factoid: in the 8 years that preceded the "black death", it is thought that an unskilled worker in Firenze (Italy) with a wife and two children could heave earned on average 28% of his household's normal expenses. Of course, most of the money was needed for food...

Yeah the economy was quite different before and after the collapse. But, inasmuch as I understand it (which is not very much), it was more of an extreme cyclical change than something fundamental. There were long-lasting differences of course but it doesn't compare to the changes around 1000AD, the emergence of the Atlantic trade and so on.

You misunderstand the graph you linked to. It doesn't show data but fairly arbitrary trends. What you conclude from the graph is actually the premise from which it was drawn (circular reasoning).
While I have issues with Maddison, his work certainly has some value. But it's not represented on that graph because he has the world economy making no headway for 1000 years or so for instance. The Wikipedia is probably a decent first stop to learn about this topic. In any case his figures are just estimates... and the further you go in the past the more fanciful they are. Still, it's better to have some figures than nothing.

Various diseases were a common cause of death. From the Science Timeline:

In 1662, John Graunt, in Observations upon the Bills of Mortality, using London population data, noted that life expectancy is 27 years, with nearly two/thirds dying before 16 years.

Water borne diseases killed people in all over the world in great numbers before chlorinated water, which was introduced around 1908(chlorine had to be discovered and cheaply manufactured first).

Well water is generally sterile or contains no harmful organisms if the well casing is properly grouted, the top capped and the well located safely away from septic tanks and other possible sources of contamination. These safeguards were implemented after scientific investigations such as:

In 1855, John Snow, investigating London's piped water supply, showed graphically that cholera could be transmitted by water from a particular pump. (ibid.)


Thanks for that link.

Every body is jumpimg to a dufferent page so fast the discussion loses coherence-surely peasants did and still do live under circumstances that foreclosed any possibility of becoming waelthier,which is the context of my first remark ,fillowing Ugo's general context.

Certainly at other times (and places also)other peasants have achieved a certain measure of material wealth-sometimes substantial wealth.

We must use such historical data and literary data as we have to do the best we can in reconstructing vanished or vanishing economies.Dismissing the data because it was not gathered in ways consistent with modern business practices and /or research methods is foolish-we must use what we have while recognizing the inherent limitations of this path of course.

Your remarks concerning Malthusian principles needs to be mandated as a "write it on the blackboard one thousand times assignment" for every cornucopian economist /cheerleader.

It is by far and away the best explaination for many historical problems but apparently most economists and historians are so lacking in understanding of the basic sciences that they have not yet heard of Occam's razor.

First, I don't see why we should look to the Black Plague era as a model for post FF-peak. Why? Because it was really bad? At what point on the Hubbert curve does Bubonic 2.0 set in?

Second, those farms of 200 years ago didn't have access to renewable energy, nuclear power, hydroelectric dams, modern organic farming & botany, electric grids (this ain't going away), an entrenched democratic and liberal culture, etc...

I don't see why you are always trying to distort the problem into something worse than it is. It's bad enough that our current primary fuel source ... let's not put horns on its head just for dramatic effect.

Those were the farms of 400 years ago actually... and "bubonic 1.0" happened 650 years ago.

The relevance of the "black plague era" is that it's arguably the best-documented collapse we've got and that it illustrates how destructive positive feedbacks can lead to undershoot.
Once the population had decreased to a level at which it could easily have been fed with the technology and the culture of the time, the collapse didn't stop.
If there's any lesson it's that, once the wind turns, you don't know how bad it could get before the situation stabilizes on its own. Better manage that overshoot decline carefully...

Woah, hold on there!! That sounds like some revisionist history.

What does the Black Death have to do with food production? Of course the problems didn't stop because the population could feed itself... that was never the problem. It was (one of many) incidental outbreaks of the plague.

I'm not going to argue that 50% sudden die off doesn't wreck economy... it does... but it doesn't follow that the plague was because of overshoot. To imply that the plague was some kind of population correction is just revisonist history (and this comes from someone who thinks we are now in overshoot if measured by pre-industrial carrying capacity).

EDIT (P.S. I know when the plague was... the 200 year reference was to the claims above about how the farms would soon go back to 19th century technology. I don't see any connection between the plague and agriculture... I wasn't trying to connect them.)

Hurray for moderation and accuracy! Thanks, Andrew.

But you forgot to mention the most important thing about the villages of 300 years ago. Villages didn't have the microbe theory of disease, or the accompanying idea of reasoning from effect to cause using observed phenomena. They had 'influenzas' (influences of the stars) and miracles.

I don't think the theories matter much when you have X amount of people and Y amount of waste handling capacity. And one can imagine that the ability to manage wastes and stay clean and esp clean drinking water would break down fairly quickly. From my own time living in Vietnam and trying to avoid the rats who are not afraid of people I'd guess you would have less than six months from the time social order broke down to when serious disease outbreaks would start.

If for some reason a heavily populated region is unable to control the spread of disease one can imagine that it would act as a incubator and attempts to control the influx of fleeing refugees would simply inflame the problem.

Certainly it takes a fairly well defined set up steps before the problems would spiral out of control but we have no more control past a certain point than they had at any point in history.

I do know that with our dense animal rearing operations that the only solution is often extermination to stop the spread of disease the densities are simply to high. One has to figure that if events reached the point of systematic collapse that we probably would be forced to choose lowering the density of the population in effected regions to slow the spread of disease.

Again it takes a series of fairly serious events to overwhelm our ability to stop epidemics but these steps are not far fetched and once your past a certain threshold I don't see conventional solutions as effective.

Well-reasoned points. But (assuming you were responding to my post) my point was that there is no reason to just assume collapse of the social order given all the other things I mentioned... there's no reason to believe that the post-FF era will have to be as energy constrained as the pre-FF era.

Sorry if that seems obvious, but sometimes I feel like SOMEONE needs to dissent a little when things start going down a slipperyslope of always taking the worst case scenario and then following that up with the next worst case scenario... "if this happens then that could happen then this could happen then we all die" sort of thing. Often, hyper-focused discussions lock out relevant matters as "outside the scope" of the discussion... we can forget that the whole chain of events could be prevented if we avoided the first step.

The posting order is messed up looks like. As far as worst case scenarios are not the problem is that if you look at modern society what you see is a system that has thresholds as these thresholds are crossed positive feedback loops start to become problematic.

In addition crossed loops become a problem say a epidemic breaks out in a region short of fuel for example or food etc. Thus any one problem might not cause the system to cross a threshold by we start seeing multiple problems happen at the same time that cause crossed positive feedback loops.

Modern society seems to be robust to a point but also seems to shatter as its pressured past a certain level.

The problem is of course worse case scenarios don't seem to take a lot of additional assumption to become very big problems.

What happens if Africa or India if the US falls into disorder ?

That does not mean the future is going to fall into chaos however as you consider scenarios where the situation is made more tenuous and then consider crosses of them its really really hard to see a route out that not chaos.
There may well be one but it seems that if we manage to make it through the next ten years without a major global war it will be luck.

Now with all that said I've come to the conclusion that we will pretty much have to wait and see it all depends on how we react we can adopt methods that result in the easing of tensions probably reducing global trade to items that it makes sense to trade i.e goods that are not easily produced locally.
As unemployment rises and energy costs rise I suspect we will finally see a leveling of salaries and other expenses at a global scale and also of course people will simply have less to spend thus we could potentially see a natural relocalization process start which will actually ease tensions.

Sure we will see some trade wars but as producers are locked out of global markets then they will have no choice but to look inward. For peak oil at least disruption of global trade is not a bad thing as it also localizes resource usage and make managing resources and energy a rather easy accounting problem.

So sure the end of the world is not certain but on the same hand avoiding it seems even less certain. As always we won't really know until afterwards whats going to happen but its hard to see us dodge the bullet on this one.

I don't really see a shattering yet. Even if you think this recession was caused by peak oil (I do), it's hardly a shattering. Anything less than a meltdown won't change people's behaviors enough to adapt.

If by global war, you mean a WWIII event... I doubt it. Possible, but there is just so much to lose. Such a war, if not brief (and thus no big deal), would probably go nuclear. No one wants that. Washington D.C. is not immune to nukes. I see many ways out of that. And ten years? I REALLY doubt that.

Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error is another book worth reading, although it takes place just before the Black Death and around or after the Great Famine of 1315-17.

This is the one of the only known ancient accounts of peasants told in their own words.

From almost every point of view, the peasant's logic is unassailable: The rich agriculturist can invest in farm machinery but the poor peas­ant can invest only in children.

Theres the rub - we don't have enough resources for everyone to attain rich agriculturalist status, but we also don't have enough resources for the peasants to invest in children as was case in centuries past. At least standing at 7 billion.

A zero growth mind would only be possible when the perceived costs of reaching for growth outweighed the benefits, to individuals not to society. There are many aspects of growth that correlate with basic needs: energy, food, water, shelter, options, status, etc. So the negatives of overconsumption, illness, mental stress, environmental damage (locally), etc. would have to outweigh the natural benefits of 'more' to a mind that never really had 'more' in its development. A far more likely scenario is a population/system correction and a new boom/bust cycle with different resources and values.

I saw no mention of the lack of sufficient education and rural separation as factors that prevented peasants from banding together for change. Much of such change comes from intelligentsia that had acquired advanced education and were able to pass it on in higher density worker groups (such as factories).

This is of course the marxist/bolshevik model that evolved out of the French revolutions.
But what is the evidence for the general applicability of this somewhat counterintuitive theory?

It seems to me that a more obvious general theory of change is that whoever can organize a military force capable of overwhelming the opposition is going to be in a position to change things. This is where higher density groups come in handy but these people don't have to be workers.

This is of course the marxist/bolshevik model that evolved out of the French revolutions.

Or the American Revolution, where the groundwork for change began in cities (e.g., Boston, Williamsburg). Jefferson, Adams, Madison, etc were all afforded educations that exposed them to the gamut of political thinking. And Jefferson was a proponent of the Yeoman farmer, an educated person who had also learned efficient ways to produce crops/livestock.

whoever can organize a military force capable of overwhelming the opposition is going to be in a position to change things.

Gandhi was one who made wide-sweeping changes without one soldier.

I have briefly studied the history of India and Pakistan and I have reached a different conclusion. Did you study it yourself? More importantly perhaps, do you think that South Asia resembles Gandhi's vision?

So you conclude that Gandhi DID have a superior army? Please explain such a different conclusion.

I simply conclude that Gandhi failed and that he was at various points aligned with various more successful parties, one of which appropriated his memory.
There are parallels with ML King. You are perhaps more familiar with the way that guy's name has been used to glorify what he didn't stand for.

You are describing a vastly different context than is captured in the historical record. I choose not to be a part of this subthread any longer.

What was the true British presence in India when Gahndi led the people to overthrow them?
I don't have any understanding of that history other than the standard taught version but I seem to remember that Britain was just about finished and rotted out. In other words it was an easy win for the Indians.

While they were at war with Germany and Japan, the British crushed Gandhi and his followers.
Then they decided to hand over the state to the locals of their own accord. The changing circumstances including the mutinies the Indian military faced after WWII had a lot to do with this decision. There was a military plan to maintain control of India but it involved the deployment of a handful of white divisions.

So basically the Brits decided it wasn't worth it anymore and just gave up?

That's what it looks like. Though the British position was becoming untenable, they had just demonstrated their ability to face worse odds during WWII. So you might say that they valued defeating Germany and Japan more than the color of the flag flying over Delhi. But they still made sure that South Asia would not become anything like China.

Yes, in many ways Britain's cultural legacy is much like ancient Greece.
What's the quote?
Something like this.
"Greece took her captors captive."

The British influence on India and many other colonies endures to this day.

Their education system alone provided the platform for great strides.

But don't get me wrong......I think they were racist and supremacists but such were the times back then.

India won independence after WWII. One example of how India broke the back of the British domination was Britain initial forcing India to send its raw wool to Britain where it was turned into finished fiber and goods, then sold back to India. Gandhi spearheaded the move to equip as many homes as possible with spinning wheels to keep the 'value-added' work in India, bettering working opportunities and overall prosperity in India. Gandhi spent many hours at his spinning wheel.

porge -

As best I can tell, during the post- WW II era all the former colonial powers sooner or later came to the grudging conclusion that maintaining colonies was far more trouble than it was worth.

One of the reasons that is that those supposedly backward colonized peoples started to get more and more savvy in the ways of resistance and insurgency and began to make life increasingly difficult for the colonizing powers. (India was bad enough for the Brits, but the French really had a terrible time of it with both Algeria and Vietnam.)

Another reason is that far-flung colonies need to be militarily protected from the predations of rival states, and that requires a substantial navy and colonial army, both of which are very costly. When Britania ruled the waves, they could afford such, but by the end of WW II they were economically a second-rate power.

You could almost see it as simply the oppressed learn from the oppressors.
Like a thermodynamic process. Everything tries to equal out over time.

At the end of the second world war the Yanks came out on top.
Their biggest threat were the Soviets.
There were too many bit players in Europe.

The yanks said, "Create one Europe."

The French said "The Poms cannot join while they have an Empire."

The Poms said "The empire is no longer a prestige item, and it costs too much. We will abandon it."

The Chinese and the Indians said "We will have that if you are finished with it, thank you very much."


At the time they were flat broke and could not afford to maintain the empire infrastructure thru the aftermath of the war.If they had been in a stronger position things may have been different but they could get most of what they wanted from India at much lower cost at the time without the very large bother and expense.Traditional colonialism was on it's way out for economic reasons anyway.

They could barely maintain a small force in the middle east to help protect thier access to the oil that had become a far more critical input.At one point some of the local shieks were actually willing to pay them to stay-now doesn't that sound STRANGE today,just six decades or so later?

(The folks who get thier cookies bashing the US and England have thier heads up thier butts insofar as the realities of the early cold war days are concerned.Jump forward a few decades.

Kinda like OBama and the last election and bringing home the troops.Half the idiots who voted for him were convinced he would actually do it.Not a prayer-unless the original Bush plan of putting a friendly stable regime in power finally is accomplshed.As far as I can see they still have thier heads up thier butts.)

I can hunt up the quote from The Prize if anybody really doubts this.

Right now if the tptb meaning the ruling classes in the OPEC coyntries were to be convinced that we were actually pulling out they would charter every plane in the world in thier haste to begone.

It would actually be sorta comical to see them trying to find places to live-njuxtaposition to the history of the Jews.The irony of it all!

Please don't interpret these remarks as indicating my personal approval of any of this stuff-I'm just trying to point out reality as I see it within the historical context.

We gotta play the hand we hold.Every generation.Every election.

Nobody in the early days could have foreseen the way the game would play out.History isn'that predictable.

But I will predict that we are on an unsustainable foreign policy/energy path and that we will reach the effective end of it within the lifetime of most of us here today.

I disagree that no one could see how things would play out.
All empires seem to be born, live a life and die in the same pattern.

Pax Romana
Pax Britannia
Pax Americana

The only ? is what is next?

Pax Asiana?

Obviously you are correct over the long term-just as obviously I an correct over the short term to medium term.It is not impossible that Pax Americana could last for centuries although I seriously doubt it .

The job of a president or a general is to do as well as he can with what he has given the situation he finds himself in and maintain the strength and security of his country during his time in power.

Maybe the decisions made are good ones.All we can be sure of is that if such decisions are bad enough then we will be saluting a different flag-if we live over the transition.

Personally I think if I were the President I would have spent as little as possible on bailing out Detroit and as much as possible on renewable energy,conservation,and energy efficiency for instance.

I suspect that it will be Pax Nobody. As we slide down the backside of Hubbert's Curve, globalization will start to unwind, and we we will see more regional powers. The days of one or two global superpowers will soon be over. And as time goes on, the larger nation-states will break up into smaller pieces; this I suspect is a process that will take several centuries. At the end of the day, the world's political map will consist primarily of a large number of small, regional principalities; think Germany before the 1871 unification.

Antoinetta III

I can go with that.


Your scenario is probably as likely as any but let us not forget Black Swans.My wag is that past forty or fifty years all predictions are no more than wags.Maybe beyond even twenty years.

Issac Asimov said that the size of an empire is predicated on the speed of communication. Therefore the size of the Roman Empire, for example, was constrained by the speed of the horse, which was their main means of issuing orders from Rome.

We now have instantaneous communications. Therefore the next civilisation will be global. It will probably not be localised, but live on the net. It will be defined not by ethnicity but by common values.

But first the war.

But first the war.

Indeed. We may be seeing the first moves or, at the least, a prelude.

not just communication. That is definitely a limiting factor, but not a sufficient enabling factor on its own.
Communication without the means of moving correspondingly important masses of men and materiel about an empire
does not make. Empires are the concentration of more {people, resources, territory, power} into a single organism.
The ability to move those resources meaningfully between different parts of the empire is critically necessary.
Concentration of men and materials is the most basic and raw form of concentration of power.
Greece had the same communication technologies as Rome, but her geography made it impossible for the villages of
one valley to consistently move enough men and maertials back and forth to the next valley over. Men could walk
over the passes or sail around the mountain and visit, trade, exchange ideas and occasionally a bride or groom,
but transport was difficult enough that there was no positive return for trying to conquer (with very few exceptions,
all of them made possible by unique geographic features). Thus, greece for thousands of years was a patchwork of
dozens or even hundreds of politically independent but culturally interdependent polities.
Even under the roman occupation, rome dealt with scores of greek cities individually, for centuries, until the
cultural concept of empire was so widely accepted that the greek cities all felt like part of the empire (and indeed
they kept the byzantine empire going for a lot longer than rome herself!)

Communication is the nervous system, but cost-effective transport is the digestion and circulation systems.

Yes, over land transportation was extermely difficult, except on the few Roman roads.

It is said that it cost as much to transport goods by dirt road in the US in 1816 as it did to transport them across the Atlantic, and in 1900 it was cheaper to transport goods from the west coast back East by railroad than 15 miles by wagon.

I welcome our new Bollywood overlords. May their song and dance routine rule our lives and crush our souls.

Well, that was the indians' objective, wasn't it?

Gandhi was one who made wide-sweeping changes without one soldier.

Because the British, despite their racism and imperialism, were by then basically incapable of slaughtering people espousing values they themselves held. Rewind to the great mutiny - the Brits were quite capable of slaughter on a mass scale.

A far more likely scenario is a population/system correction and a new boom/bust cycle with different resources and values.

Nate - changing resources and values are not like changing a fashion. Change in this case will be painful, costly and for the most part destructive. A more relevant precedent would be the reeducation camps in South Vietnam after 1975:

Reeducation as it was implemented in Vietnam was both a means of revenge and a sophisticated technique of repression and indoctrination which developed for several years in the North and was extended to the South following the 1975 North Vietnam takeover.

What kind of reaction would you expect from Americans who are adapted to our "current lifestyle" when they discover what "change you can believe in" really means?


A far more likely scenario is a population/system correction and a new boom/bust cycle with different resources and values.

No. A far more likely scenario is population collapse to extinction, or near enough to extinction that a greatly reduced population oscillates for a few generations until Allee effects pulls it down to extinction. There will be no "new boom/bust cycle(s)." Not for humans anyway.

Extinction is 'far more likely' than lower amplitude waves of boom/bust? By what heuristic? I grant it is certainly possible, maybe even double digit %, but 'far more likely' makes it seem binary, when I think there are dozens of possible futures, granted very few of which will ever reach this amount of resource consumption per capita or number of capita. I'm not an expert but Has the Allee effect has ever been modeled on future of humanity? If so I'd like to see the output - we were at 3% of current population 2000 years ago and had plenty of opportunities to expand.

I would wager that 100 years from now, even the best and brightest on TOD can't imagine what humans on this earth will actually be doing - (other than eating and procreating).

Cite a single example of a large vertebrate having exceeded the carrying capacity (K) of its environment by at least an order and a half of magnitude whose population didn't collapse to or near to extinction. You can't even cite an example of a large vertebrate whose population exceeded K by such an order, let alone of one that didn't collapse. It's never happened before. Human population is the first - and last - example of such excess and the only reason we haven't experienced population collapse yet is due to fossil fuel exploitation supporting such a grossly inflated census number. As fossil fuel exploitation peaks, population collapse looms as the virtually inevitable outcome. This is the reality of the situation and no amount of "imagination" to the contrary alters this reality.

Humans are a 'no analog' in the biological world - first and only to do lots of things. It simply doesn't follow, other than being a possibility, that fast extinction is the most likely path. We are nasty and brutish, kind and clever. Even now at 7 billion we use 30-40% of NPP -extinction doesnt necessarily follow the removal of fossil fuels to such an adaptive creature. This is the reality of the situation and no amount of 'wanting' to the contrary alters this reality.

Humans are a 'no analog' in the biological world -

Pure unadulterated anthropocentric hubristic rubbish. Sure, humans are "special." So is every other species. Being human in no way frees us from the realities of our biology.

lol - the irony is that I am probably closer to your view of big picture than 95% of readers on TOD and 99% of readers in general, and here we are arguing... When I say no analog, I don't mean immune to laws of nature, or that we are better, only that no other animal uses so much exosomatic energy, has been adaptively flexible in many environments, and has the ability to expropriate resources from others when necessary. You might be right, but you might be wrong. Had you said - "we are part of nature, and studies of animal carrying capacity/overshoot suggest that extinction is at least as likely in the future as a lower amplitude boom/bust scenario", I wouldn't have replied - but 'far more likely' can only be an opinion, and I doubt a very changeable one at that. However based on your comment, my probabilistic view of future now puts extinction by 2100 at 10.5% - yesterday it was around 10%...;-)

You might be right, but you might be wrong. Had you said - we are part of nature, and studies of animal carrying capacity overshoots suggest that extinction is at least as likely in the future as a lower amplitude boom/bust scenario, I wouldn't have replied - but 'far more likely' can only be an opinion.

Okay Nate, fair enough. But remember that it was you who first used the term "far more likely." So if my position "can only be an opinion" the same must be said of yours. At least my opinion is informed by population biology. What, besides wishful thinking, is yours premised on?

It is near certainty that the species will not carry on forever. None are around from three or four billion years ago and several tens of millions of years is more than mammal species survive. Extinction does appear inevitable on this planet, but the lineage may maintain in a new 'more perfected' form (Charles words not mine). Time of course will tell.

The odds against homo sapiens still being around in say a mere 20 million years are astronomical, I don't think Nate wouldn argue that point. I'm guessing, darwinsdog, that you are arguing that we will be out or here no heirs in mere centuries or decades, but is that route of generalists like ourselves, or do they more often morph to fill the new available niches? My bet is that we don't have near enough info to know how it usually has gone down.

But then the really big die offs take out the big animals in a big way and we are pretty big animals. Too many specialized parts in the big guys to adapt to rapidly changing conditions? Or is it usually too specialized a diet that does them in. Or just the inability to hide from harsh conditions. We can build hiding places better than most any big animal that came before us and we seem to be able to eat about anything (with proper preparation). We do have an awful lot of parts and pieces that kind of like the world they grew in though. Of course a likely situation if things really go south fast in a big way is that the conditions just get too favorable for the little critters that will be most happy to dine on us in one way or another we and all the other big guys just get devoured.

Give it up Nate.

Dd is as obstinate in his belief that we are headed for a no ifs,ands,or buts extinction in the near term as any backwoods Baptist preacher is obstinate in regards to the literal truth of the KJB.

He obviously knows far more biology than I do but he either cannot or will not simply post the route thru the principles of biology in general or population biology in particular that lead to a certain near term human extinction.

Personally I do not doubt that such is possible but I have not seen any proof that it is INEVITABLE.

I am aware of a great deal of evidence indicating that we might survive for quite a long while yet.

For those who might question my speaking so disparagingly of backwoods Baptists I hold that it is the privilege of blacks to use the n word and Baptists to badmouth Baptists but uncouth on the perty of others.;)Not to mention politically counterproductive since there are so many of us.

OFM is a double agent and reports to bith sides.

but he either cannot or will not simply post the route thru the principles of biology in general or population biology in particular that lead to a certain near term human extinction.

Mac, I have asked DD this same question in a past thread. Of course I got no answer. Humans occupy and thrive in every environment in the world except the Antarctic. They live in the deserts and in remote villages in the Amazon. Humans are everywhere, absolutely everywhere. There is nothing that could wipe out every human on earth and still leave life on earth. Anything that kills all humans would have to kill everything else except possibly bacteria.

I agree with you, this is simply an ideology on DDs part, a belief, not anything backed by any science.

Ron P.

That is a very, very good point.
The dispersion of humans alone is the best argument for the continued survival.

On the contrary, the fact that humans have invaded and disrupted virtually every terrestrial habitat on the planet offers evidence for the completeness with which we have laid waste to ecosystems worldwide. The ubiquity of human impact argues for the extinction of insular or otherwise isolated populations that might otherwise survive population collapse on continents or other major population centers.

So in your opinion we are too smart for our own good and you are smarter than me.
No man is bigger than the game itself.

In my opinion humans in general are too "smart," or "clever" I think is a better descriptor, for our own good. We have "out smarted" the very things that kept our population in check, allowing us to inflate our population to the point where we have exhausted our resource base. By doing so we have "out smarted" ourselves and now we must suffer the consequence, which is population collapse commensurate with the degree to which we have exceeded & compromised the carrying capacity of the biosphere. Since we have exceeded & compromised K so profoundly, commensurate collapse will be extreme. This position is in accord with all we know about population biology and is just common sense. Apparently, the reason it is so adamantly resisted by those who should know better is just plain ole denial of an unpleasant reality on the part of people who are terrified of the virtually certain outcome.

I am in my 40s and I have no choice but to try to be optimistic.
Get it?

I posted a long & detailed account of how human extinction might conceivably come to pass within a matter of decades only a week or two ago. It isn't my fault if you missed it.

As for your assertion that "Anything that kills all humans would have to kill everything else except possibly bacteria" that's simply preposterous. The one thing that each of the past five first order mass extinction events have had in common is that organisms of large body size were disproportionally eliminated. I've said repeatedly that I expect essentially all vertebrates larger than about the size of a bullhead catfish, a starling, or a rat, to become extinct in this Anthropogenic Mass Extinction event. I said nothing about small vertebrates, arthropods, microorganisms, et al., with the exception of specific parasites of large vertebrates, which will go extinct along with their hosts.

Those of you who disagree with my position demonstrate the symptoms of profound denial. You don't have the basic principles of population biology or the fossil record of previous mass extinction events on your side. All you have is wishful thinking and some vague sense that humans are somehow "special" to back your position that we can avoid the consequences of enormous overshoot of carrying capacity as no other species in Phanerozoic history ever has done.

DD Just when did you post this ? I most certainly intend to read it.I notice you use the word might too.

Now I don't think I would actually want to live only on rats starlings and grasses but in my younger days given a knowledge of nets traps, and sicles I probably could have done it,especially if in a place not too cold.

After all there would be very little competition from other highly adaptable species.

I have scooped enough minnows out of a small stream catching bait to go fishing to believe that in an area with many such streams I could live mostly on minnows assuming other people are scarce.i have also eaten many a bullheaded catfish that was only as long as my hand-but only because I didn't catch anything else some nights to go with the stuff I brought along on my overnight fishing trips.

I can eat many different foods-more probably than just about any animal ,because I can use fire to prepare some and repeated washings of water to prepare others.

I can store more kinds of food more effectively than a squirrel too.

Or at least I could do these things if I were young and tough.

There will be many many very fine ready made fine tools around for many centuries(long enough for some semblence of local manufacture of essential goods to resume) such as fine stainless steel hunting knives.

There will be enough salvageable corrosion resistant metal such as aluminum to last for millenia.

Thousands of miles of copper wire for the taking.

An ordinary magnifying glass will last almost forever and can be used to start fires very easily.

Glass and stainless steel containers to use to store food and water.

Plenty of manmade caves such as concrete highway overpasses.

We don't have to start from scratch.

Somebody should write an article about how the post peak world might be salvaged. It would be very interesting to talk about what might become of the vast structures man has built (highways, skyscrapers, cities in general). I mean, corrosion and rust is a huge factor, but this stuff isn't going to vanish. And once people start to come out of the woodwork, these structures might be used in some way. A temple on the top of the Burj Dubai, perhaps? That would be a climb! Anyway I think its interesting to think about how tomorrow we might use what is still around from today in new ways.

If there is significant interest in such an article I will give it a try.

I'd love to read it!

The first commitment of science is fidelity to evidence, dd. You seem incapable of that. Humans, as Nate says, are absolutely special, in exactly the way Nate describes. If you can't admit that, then the "wishful thinking" problem is yours.

None of that guarantees that we won't fit the patterns you think are unbreakable. But the question of whether we can evade them is based on our real capacities. Our unique ability to comprehend our own doings and situation greatly changes the odds, even if they're still very long.

Grow up.

I think the Cockroach Theory applies. Humans are too scattered everywhere on the planet. Can't kill them all short of some disaster like a comet impact that destroys everything.

Antoinetta III

Don't sleep too tight.

China, the largest nation on earth, was ruled for centuries by the Manchus. So the Manchus were everywhere the Chinese were, and they were ruling the Chinese. Today there are only a handful of speakers of Manchu and the language will likely be dead in a very few years. Overwhelming and ubiquitous power is no guarantee of longevity.

As dd has said rightly many times, populations that grow beyond their limits crash below what would otherwise be sustainable.

Today, human flesh is the largest uniform food source on earth.

Nature abhors and unexploited massive food source. Something, probably microbial, will figure out how to exploit it. It is the classic problem of monocultures.

Humans in the end are just one species. Species are going extinct at something like 10,000-1,000,000 a year (the background rate is about 1 extinction per year). Can we really be sure that the human species could not possibly be one of those 10,000-1,000,000 one year?

Humans are incredibly resourceful and also incredibly fragile--no hide, not very sharp teeth...and modern humans are much more fragile than their predecessors.

We can't know for sure that humans will go extinct any time soon, but we certainly can't know for sure that they won't.

The fact near no one speaks Manchu has little bearing on the dispersal of their genes in the current population, which I believe is the relevant item when talking extinction.

Nature abhors and unexploited massive food source. Something, probably microbial, will figure out how to exploit it.

Beautifully put, I wouldn't have made the same point so clumsily in my yesterday's post if I had made it this far through this mass of comments.

And I know this discussion is days and old probably dead but anyone please correct me if I am wrong here. Don't even the greatest of mass extinctions occur over at least tens of thousands of years (as best as we can interpret from the record)? Individual species go quicker that we have seen but even the sudden mass events are long and drawn out relative human and even civilization lifespans.

Those of you who disagree with my position demonstrate the symptoms of profound denial.

That'd look good on a T-shirt. I'd buy one, but I'd wear it self-ironically.

DD, you're probably one of the smartest people who posts here, but some of your positions come out more dogma than dog.

All mass extinctions aren't created equal. You clearly are smart enough to realize this. And yup, large critters are more likely to go extinct, but in this case it's overshoot of the big critters themselves that's causing the problem, which is perhaps a nontrivial fact.

I think human extinction is reasonably likely in the short term, but it's certainly not inevitable based on the data in hand.

Your often-erudite comments, which can add a lot to the discussion, seem to short-circuit when they slap up against your inner nihilism. You state with utter certainty that nothing can be done, or should be tried (past posts), and as today say that it's 'game over' for the misnamed homo sap.

You don't do your other logical arguments any favor thereby. Take this as constructive criticism from someone who admires your sane stuff.

That'd look good on a T-shirt. I'd buy one, but I'd wear it self-ironically.

This gave me a visual of you trying to iron it while wearing it. Now back to our program...

It is bad enough that there is extinctions of other stuff.

Gas flares in the pitch- dark Ecuadorian Amazon have exterminated countless trillions of insects, leaving unknown numbers of plant species without pollinators. Bird species are gone because of habitat destruction. Little fishes are swept up in trawls meant for larger fishes. Too bad, I liked all of them, they were my friends.

Will humans fall extinct? Inevitably. We get too sick, are too physically weak, have too many delusions, do not cooperate well with other humans, are too distracted and undisciplined, are too violent and too irrational. This points toward a 'sooner rather than later' extinction outcome. We also have thermonuclear weapons. These could wipe out the entire human race in a few months.

That a large part of our 'productive' enterprise is directed toward perfecting this nuclear business is sufficient reason to consider the human experiment a failure.

That the humans have not used these weapons other than once, despite having them all is sufficient reason to consider the human experiment a success. Unlike goats or elephants, humans toy with the idea of self- immolation. It's in our nature, we gain the sense of power from this. Seeing how the humans manage their nuclear toys and have done so for so long makes it seem reasonable that the humans can also at some point manage their energy and climate dilemmas ... and the populations dilemma as well.

As for extinctions, these happen all the time, what of it (them)? There was an ice age a few ten- thousand years ago (an extinction event) and another and another and the Yellowstone caldera blowing up and doing so again and again and warmings and coolings and meteorites and comets and various plagues. Death is part of living, it's ubiquitous and relatively unimportant. We all go extinct individually, fact.

At the same time, life is ubiquitous. I admit to the greatest ignorance of the universe but I think that it is far more complex than anyone can imagine and that any imaginable form of life including that which WAS found here is pretty much everywhere in the rest of the universe ... all waiting patiently for us to get our shit together and come and exploit them.

Nate is right, just like some wag @ Zero Hedge was right about the stock market. This isn't a real market, it is figment of the Federal Reserve's imagination. Humans aren't ordinary species like Lepanthes or Orca. We have our own set of rules, that we have been able to make up as we go along. Humans can organize/communicate and are able to calculate. For good or ill, modernism has given the humans the tool of ironic abstraction. Believe me, when the bulk of the human experience slooshes down the toilet there will be some who will profit from it and laugh. We create marketplaces of ideas; there was one, what is it worth?

We humans create higher- level marketplaces ... like the Oil Drum, which allow prices to be fixed on ... human extinction, among other things. No wildebeest or passenger pigeon or brontosaur or fern or trilobite could ever do that; the pigeons had no idea that extinction was on their particular dance card. Not any of them, not one of the trillions ...

This is a dangerous game, we have discovered 'hyper- wicked problems' that go beyond having solutions that are themselves problems but are problems that aren't discovered until it is too late to do anything to solve them. I put Peak Oil in this category because the marketplace priced peak oil back in 1998. Who knew!? What re the choices?

The marketplace here will price various solutions. That's what markets do. Right now the process is underway and the outlook is uncertain. But, unless the Fed or Goldman Sachs buys the Oil Drum or some of the other energy- related companies, organizations, blogs or intellectuals, some sort of price will be discovered. Same with climate change.

There is too much profit in these transactions. Civilization is in the balance because of climate change? How much would you pay for civilization? A whole lot more than what the deniers would want to pay, so they are out of the marketplace.

See how it works?

It's almost impossible for people to remember what they had for breakfast a week ago and it is impossible to predict the future. There are too many variables. Peter Grant (Grant's Interest Rate Observer) has been predicting a tremendous economic collapse for over twenty years. I guess he's going to be right some day but certainly not tomorrow. And that is how the extinction business (or marketplace) will work out, certainly not tomorrow.

This gives us some time to work on the delusions, distractions and undisciplined business.

As a side note, I think it is interesting to consider the outcome of the crew of the HMS Bounty which was affected by the famous mutiny in 1789. Rebelling against Capt. William Bligh's autocratic command, he and eighteen of his crew were put into in a small boat and set adrift while the rest of the crew returned to Tahiti (the ship was to carry Breadfruit trees from Tahiti to the West Indies). Some remained in Tahiti:

Fletcher Christian, along with eight others, their women, and a handful of Tahitian men then scoured the South Pacific for a safe haven, eventually settling on Pitcairn on January 23, 1790.

An isolated volcanic island 1,350 miles southeast of Tahiti, it was named after British midshipman Robert Pitcairn, who first sighted the island on July 2, 1767. Its location had been incorrectly charted by the explorer Carteret, who missed the mark by 200 miles, and was therefore the ideal refuge for the mutineers.

Although a British ship spent three months searching for them, the mutineers eluded detection.

By 1856, the population had expanded to 194, these relocated to Norfolk Island. Some returned to Pitcairn - there are currently (2008) 50 Bounty descendents on that island, over 1,000 on Norfolk Island and several thousand more worldwide.

Gimee a couple of hot chicks and the whole wide world (empty) and I will personally repopulate it all by myself!


That was a good read Steve - thanks for your comment.

loL over and over.

Ball's rule.

darwinsdog-I agree with you. Do you consider the grotesque blooming of population in the past 12,000 years or so an inevitable result of speciation? (Not that it matters now, but might as well talk about something while Rome burns).

Do you consider the grotesque blooming of population in the past 12,000 years or so an inevitable result of speciation?

No. Before reproductive isolation becomes absolute, incipient species are usually re-assimilated when gene flow resumes between the isolate and larger population. It was sheer happenstance that incipient Homo sapiens wasn't swamped by renewed sympatry and introgression from the larger H. erectus (ergaster) population it arose from. Furthermore, at or shortly after speciation, H. sapiens went thru such a severe demographic & genetic bottleneck that the most likely a priori outcome was extinction. That our species managed to survive this population crisis is attributable to pure dumb luck. Rather than being inevitable, human population overshoot of carrying capacity was remarkably unlikely - until it happened, that is, at which time the probability achieved unity.

darwinsdog- But wasn't H. Sapiens disrupting every ecosystem it encountered long before population overshoot began - extinction of megafauna, etc? Were we locked into overshoot before agriculture, before ffuels?

The extinction pulse initiated by H. sapiens in Africa was mild, presumably because the African fauna coevolved with hominids. A few species of hyaenids went extinct presumably due to scavenging competition with humans. It wasn't until the diaspora out of Africa placed naive faunal assemblages in harms way that AME begin to pick up steam. Had humans remained limited in range to Africa, as population grew & technological prowess progressed, I expect that the African fauna would have been more heavily impacted, but not to the extent that has been the case in the rest of the world where humans devastated biotic communities that had not evolved alongside biped apes.

Deleted. Redundant.

DD, your arguments are strong - yet other than our own mortality the future cannot be known with 100% certainty. You are but one man and may have missed something in your analysis. Or not. Beyond that, the idea that we face rapid extinction and that pockets of humans will not be able to survive in our much degraded environment is not useful information. It may turn out like that, but there is not much you can do with it.

You... may have missed something in your analysis.

1. All species eventually become extinct.

2. Populations that exceed the carrying capacity of their environment crash.

3. The more populations exceed the carrying capacity the harder they crash, i.e., the more likely they are to crash all the way to extinction.

4. Human population exceeds the carrying capacity of the biosphere by an order unprecedented by any vertebrate in the history of life.

5. When carrying capacity is exceeded carrying capacity becomes degraded, so that following population collapse the degraded environment is incapable of supporting as large a population as it was before the crash. The more carrying capacity is exceeded the more it is degraded.

6. The Ocean Planet is in the midst of the sixth great (1st order) mass extinction episode of the Phanerozoic. This current mass extinction pulse is wholly anthropogenic in etiology.

7. During mass extinction episodes one of the few invariant predictors of species extinction is large body size.

8. Humans are large mammals.

Based on the above I conclude that human beings are in imminent danger of extinction.

What have I missed?

You have missed the evolution of the extended phenotype Lamarckian /techno human-once we got the binocular vision,the up right posture,the flex fuel digestive system, speech, the opposable thumb, and the hypertrophied neocotex we in many respects escaped from the previous bounds of our survivable ecological niche.

These things make it possible for us to build better than beavers,fish as well as seals,stay warm as well as a bison by stealing its fur coat,climb well enough if not as well a monkey,and rip and tear and bite as well as a lion by using a stout stick and a chipped stone.

When I was young and tough I really do believe I could have killed a mountian lion or a wolf with a stone headed club if either one approached me out in the open where I would have had good footing and room to swing.No spear necessary.

But I have no argument with you_ I will agree with you- if you leave out just one word in your argument-imminent.Asa matter of fact that might mean anything from tomorrow to a million years or more in evolutionary terms.Just what do you mean by it?A century? A millenium?

So, in summary from your's and DD's posts one can conclude we are one of two things from Mother Nature's viewpoint,

1. Her crowning achievement


2. A failed experiment

Shall we start a pool?

-imminent... Just what do you mean by it? A century? A millenium?

I mean on the order of decades to a few (<5) centuries. Within the lifetimes of those already born to several generations hence. I don't think there's any chance of humans being extant 1K yrs from now.

I don't disagree with any of your points, and I have no idea what you might have missed, if anything. If I had, I would have said so before, and then you would not have missed it - which is kind of the point.

Environmental Science texts often tell the story of the response by the deer population in Arizona (about 1900's) to the elimination of the wolf as predator. The deer population exploded and the environment was decimated by all the deer to the extent that the population of the deer after recovering was lower than the population when the wolves were present. During that time the behavior of the deer was altered as well. I can't find my reference for this event, but in "Elements of Ecology" by R. L. and T. M. Smith Addison Wesley 1998 page 158 describes the introduction of reindeer on St. Paul Island in 1910 that ate their way out of resources and died back to a small number of animals after having reached a population of 2000. Another good source is any text written by G. Tyler Miller, Jr. He has written on environmental science since 1972 and has considered most of the ideas that have been discussed here. It is encouraging that these kinds of discussions are starting to occur.

One point of interest, is that Dr. Miller has produced about three or four detailed plans since the 1970's that needed to be enacted to avoid what is now occurring in terms of our energy problems. His foresight was very good. Garret Hardin's work also applies as does that of Barry Commoner's.

If you build a strong enough fence and turn too many cows into the pasture thus created they will live until winter-if the population overload is high and the winter is long it is reasonable to expect every single cow to die.

But some may live if they are really strong dominant cows,meaning they eat well when grasas first becomes scarce and thus can hang on until spring due to larger than average fat reserves..

In such a situation I have no doubt that we would start killing each other off pdq ,relieving pressure on the food supply.Some of us would BECOME part of the food supply.

We aren't cows and we aren't all confined to a single pasture either.Barring some sort of disaster such as volcanism on such a scale that the air becomes literally unbreatheable all over the planet,there is no reason to think that EVERYBODY will die.

Even then a few of us might survive if the poisons settle out within a few decades.That depends on how good and how well stocked the best of the military and the billionaires bunkers are I suppose.

The difference between the case of mule deer on the Kaibab Plateau and that of reindeer on St. Matthews Island is that in the former case, recruitment from outside the effected range was possible whereas on the island, it wasn't. Hence, the reindeer went completely extinct. Think of the Ocean Planet as an island, since there can be no recruitment from elsewhere.

One needs somehow a more historical perspective. From their own perspective, these peasants did not live in the world shaped by the 'growth' or 'zero growth' mindset at all (perhaps by 'cultivation' mindset), so speaking about that is a bit of presentism, applying modern concepts to the world without them. That will be also a problem for us - we know the world of growth, so the peasants' ancient way of life for us will always be Ersatz, something not natural, all that because of our hindisght...Therefore I don't bet on return to the ancient times of balanced stabilization...

The Potato Eaters needs to be seen in person to be appreciated fully.
One of my favorites.

Yes, hightrekker, I think you should know that a couple of weeks ago I was in Amsterdam. I met Rembrandt Koppelaar but I also had some free time, so........

Superb post -- thank you to Ugo Bardi!

I do think that many of us have trouble confusing "peasant" with the more modern "farmer" or even "self-sufficient simple living" movement.

This may be part of the confusion about "limited resources" and all.

What a huge change when Europeans moved to North America where there seemed to be boundless land and resources. Because of technology as well as culture it was still a good idea to have a big family to get more work done. (Besides, the birth-control technology was maybe not that advanced?)

I wonder if a basic need to become materially comfortable and secured morphs into a kind of need to dominate everyone and everything in our environment. The Europeans in general were quite violent in expanding throughout what is now the USA -- I am less familiar with Canadian history in this regard.

It seems to me that peasants need a great deal of cooperation as well as individual strength. Those who could make greater contributions were perhaps well-respected. Even so, each family was, if I recall my history correctly, a kind of tiny household economy with some unique characteristics and much in common with peasants in the area.

A key point: humans are like other animals. We fight to dominate the food chain where we are. As we become more powerful and more dependent on exo-somatic energy, our territory must increase as we harvest more energy from more places.

If we humans are part of a "tribe/nation" living in the same place as another "tribe" needing the same resource base, we fight.

"Lebensraum" -- living space, elbow room -- is also control of the resources we value. Peasants had very limited territory and very limited means to expand that territory, as I recall. It took a great deal of motivation to find a way out of that circumstance.

Today we humans have the unfortunate circumstance that we all live in the same area, or rather, have expanded to fill the earth to the point that we compete now for diminishing resources.

So we have the same primitive urges, the same dominant tendency to fight for resources, and multiple terrible weapons to use which will easily remove our species from the planet.

Will "Mutually Assured Destruction" re-enter our vocabulary as a poor substitute for peace? Will the wretched "peace through strength" mantra be chanted when the only real strength comes through peace?

Inquiring minds want to know....

Once again, a TOD post which attempts to naturalize cultural norms is marred by generalities.
The notion of a "peasant" is problematic and was not defined in the post. If "ownership" of a substantial amount of land is required to be a "peasant" then you'll have to define "ownership", which is not trivial if you want to consider feudal or even ancient times.
In any case, births have often been regulated by preventing marriages. When and where "ownership" of a substantial amount of land was required to marry, exponential demographic growth would be prevented by a shortage of land. The number of children that people fortunate enough to "own" land had is irrelevant.

The 19th century was a time of very strong growth, especially in Europe. If you want a peek at zero-growth societies, you'll have to look farther back.
And if you want to talk about ancient anything or even about the 19th century, anthropologists shouldn't be your first source.
The post concludes by stating that children are the poor man's investment. But this assumes that the poor can afford to feed children during the good as well as the bad years. This may not seem such a far-fetched assumption in the age of fossil fuels but, when grain was less plentiful and societies were technologically and organizationally less developed, the children of the poor very often died. And because the lack of advanced medicine meant that better-nourished children and even adults were also vulnerable to epidemics, everyone died actually. In this way, demographics of entire societies were controlled by the prevalence of poverty.

Here's some actual information about the way demographic pressures were handled in the past: between 1350 and 1410 in the countryside around Lyon (France), the average number of surviving children per household was about 1 (yes, one). That is in spite of a predominantly early wedding age and fairly frequent births. The cause must have been very high mortality due to malnutrition, epidemics and so on. Once the demographic adjustment was complete and food became cheap again, growth could resume. By 1480, the average number of children in the same area peaked around 5. The data is from wills and may therefore be biased.
Of course this shouldn't be recklessly generalized to other times and places.

Thanks to Ugo for raising some very important issues about the nature and relevance of peasant modes of thinking. Having worked with peasants in several areas of Peru and to some extent Ecuador, I’d offer some observations.

Anthropologist George Foster became the main name associated with the “image of limited good” model, based on his work with peasants primarily in highland Mexico. An interesting debate erupted back in the 1970s over whether the constraints on peasants were primarily cultural or cognitive rather than economic; in other words, were they held back from taking advantage of opportunities, such as those Ugo describes, by an image of limited good or, rather, by having limited goods?

Well, in a broad sense, it’s both, as Farb suggests. But that question – limited good or limited goods? - gets us directly into a huge literature and set of fundamental issues on the nature of culture and its effects on human behavior. This is a great topic and I’m delighted that Nate (and Ugo) keeps this in the TOD mix.

As to peasant conservatism and zero growth mentality, for starters, Eric Wolf observed that in Latin America, peasants with such ideas about the zero-sum nature of the world lived primarily in what he called “open peasant communities” – those with no locally-controlled institutions in which they could invest and take shelter, as it were, from the depredations of more powerful interests in the larger societies of which they were a part. Peasants in “closed corporate communities”, on the other hand, while not different in kind, were less distrustful of each other and not so strictly oriented toward the extended family household.

The most “traditional” peasants in Latin America turn out to be those living in the areas of primary Spanish colonial impact – the areas of pre-conquest high civilization in the central Andes and central Mesoamerica. Peasants in these areas are more or less subsistence-oriented people very used to living as inferiors in large-scale state-organized societies, whether indigenous or Spanish. In one of the supreme ironies of Latin American social history, it was the Spanish colonial state which, by having imposed an apartheid-like system of institutions pivoting on labor control, created the institutional conditions of Wolf’s “closed corporate communities” which enabled peasants there to carry forward long-established culture and language traditions. As one result, Quechua (runa simi) is widely spoken in the central Andes (more people speak Quechua than speak Greek).

While peasants tend to be very conservative, preferring not to risk what little they have, there are many examples of peasants taking action politically, economically and even culturally. (That would be a long post.) Knowing about peasant conservatism, we should take notice when peasants finally do rise up, since they’re typically overcoming a lot of understandable aversion to risk-taking. Michael Foley (“greenuprising” on TOD) would provide some useful insights on this.

So, as we might suspect, while peasants around the world share broad similarities, as Farb indicates, we need to navigate very carefully on the question of how durable or intractable cultural conservatism is in any particular case. This cultural “drag” is real, however.

In that light, I have been wanting to share with TODers at some point work a colleague and I have been doing with several students in northern Peru. There, a robust NGO is cobbling together public and private funds to establish rural electrification projects with local peasant communities using renewables. We’re working on a paper from this summer’s research exploring factors affecting peasants’ choices about what to use the new electricity for. Initially, in line with themes explored in Ugo’s post, we are seeing that many seem to not think about electrifying aspects of field or hearth – the base of the household economy (e.g., wanting a small hotplate vs. continuing to cook over expensive wood fires); rather they see electricity as pertaining to the modern/outside sector (TVs, charging cell phones (yes, they have cell phones in the area we’re working), etc.). Image of limited good or limited goods?

I think this is the best comment so far because it brings in perspective and practical experience (the "examined life").

I did suspect, after reading Ugo Bardi's post (fascinating topic), that George Foster would have a reputation for having a very specific viewpoint. Unfortunately, it's not that easy to Google.

The fact is, from my experience of people who have a tradition of living off the land (much more limited experience than that of LoveOregon), I can cite examples that support Foster, or that appear to contradict him.

For example, Greek peasants, whom I have spent time with personally, do have conservative values, but also a breathtaking generosity and creativity. We frequently hear of stories about the mindset of people who have very little, that they feel almost obligated to share it, even with strangers, knowing that it may be they in need next time.

On the other hand, experiences in Tanzania, where death and scarcity was much more present, was very much like that the author describes. I visited during August, while everyone was waiting for the harvest (I was told) and saw many people completely idle. There seemed to be no drive to obtain more than a certain minimum, maybe build a chair, or make a toy for a kid, while you waited for the harvest. I was told that "freedom from colonialism" was interpreted by many as "freedom from work".

In contrast, the two "rural health aides" in the village I stayed in (a week, as part of a 8 week rural medicine rotation with the local medical students) were the only people I ever saw doing anything during their "free time". One was a woman, and she wove baskets when she wasn't seeing patients. The other was a man, and it was rumored that he grew more corn than his family strictly needed for themselves, and that the other villagers resented him for this. I also saw a stunning display of scarcity mentality, when a bus came to take University students to an outing, and as soon as it stopped, students rushed in through the windows in order to get a seat for the hour long drive.

In my mind, there is a difference between "zero growth" and "zero sum" mentality. The former assumes one believes that the Earth is finite, and we need to leave no lasting impact. We need to take only what is consistent with the thing keeping going. The latter is the thought that whatever you have takes away from what I could get, and so I will focus on always getting as much as I possibly can. I would say zero sum mentality (or scarcity mentality, as opposed to abundance mentality) actually leads to obsession with growth.

Actually, even if I am oriented towards scarcity, I do have to stop myself from taking all you have because, contrary to what the author states, each peasant family is NOT self-sufficient, and there has to be much borrowing of tools, exchange of labor, and of foods such as fruit and nuts. Also, the women typically get together to can, quilt, felt wool, whatever.

Wendell Berry points out that in order for any farmer to "get big, or get out", many neighbors of this farmer had to go bankrupt. Once the trend is established, the first who were willing to see their neighbors fail so they could do better then ended up at greater risk of failing themselves. Lack of foresight, to be sure, and perhaps one of those reasons why "peasants" are well advised to resist any changes to any status quo that so far has allowed them to survive.

One of my favorite books on this topic (well, actually one of the few I've read) is John Gowdy's, Limited Wants, Unlimited Means: A Reader On Hunter-Gatherer Economics And The Environment

It is a collection of essays compiled by Gowdy - one on the Hadza is a good comparison between immediate return and delayed return societies, relevant to Ugos piece.


Would you please post any book titles that you find especially relevant to tis discussion?

I am not suprised that the people yoy are working with are more interested in televisions than hot plates.

Having lived among some very poor people ,as poor goes in the southern mountians ,it is easy for me to understand that (when you have next to nothing in the line of hope and very little in the line of worldly goods) a television is a marvelous way to escape into another world.

Unfortunately my travels have been rather limited,except in the sense that Thoreau traveled.I had hoped to spend some of my later years as an assistant on a research project of some sort in a place such as the ones you write about.I have no academic qualifications but I AM a world class jack of all trades.Maybe I will get my chance yet.

Hi OFM: a great, nuanced examination of these issues, with interesting ties to the Physiocrats/economic history, is Gudeman, Stephen & Alberto Rivera 1990 Conversations in Colombia : the domestic economy in life and text. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.

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I compare the section up top to the rural area in which I live. And, to be clear, this isn't a village where we live next to each other and see each other's "stuff" ever day. There are wide disparities in standards of living here. Yet, it is really quite egalitarian. While those with less might not be buddies with those who have far more, I've never seen anyone excluded from community activities or friendships based upon how they lived and what the owned.

Nor, in 35 years here, have I heard anyone bitch about those who had more. In other words, I have never encountered envy although I'm sure it exists in some people.

What I am trying to get at is that, at least from my perspective, what is posited above isn't a universal law.


Were peasant populations stable due to a low birth rate or a high death rate (including infant mortality)?

"A finite world can support only a finite population; therefore, population growth must eventually equal zero. (The case of perpetual wide fluctuations above and below zero is a trivial variant that need not be discussed.)"
Garrett Hardin

The high birth rate was a consequence of the high death rate. People had to breed as much as possible because the expectation was your lifespan was limited and the chances of infant/child death was very high - his made for extreme fecundity in the prime reproductive years to try to bridge this gap.

There was often nothing worse than to grow old and have no one to care for you in very poor societies.

Is it possible that high birth rates were actually due to sexual urges and a lack of effective contraception?

Or lack of other things to occupy one's time during winter...

Television has been correlated to reduced birth rates.

I've wondered that myself. As well I often wonder about the "choosing to have more children" meme.


No couple or woman in good health has to make a conscoius decision to have more children.The conscoius decision is to have less.

During the 50's at Baylor Med one pre-pc OB/Gyn lecturer joked?? that menstruation is abnormal. Normal female conditions are pre-menopausal, pregnant, lactating and post-menopausal. I doubt that one would hear such an outrageous statement today. I also vaguely recall a statistical claim that average 19th Century female parity was about nine.

Is it possible that high birth rates were actually due to sexual urges and a lack of effective contraception?

Infanticide and abortifacients were not unknown in past centuries in many societies.


The Greeks used to throw the ones they didn't want off a cliff.

Infanticide yes, but I am skeptical about the overall efficacy of primitive abortifacients, especially those likely to spare the life of the mother-to-be.

The Vikings lived in constrained environments at the head of Fjords.
There was inbreeding.
Recessive genes were expressed. Benign recessive genes were tolerated. (eg blue eyes).
Lethal or sub-lethal recessive genes were an excuse for infanticide. The infants were inspected and if they were defective they were placed in the snow with a piece of fat in their mouths to stop the noise.
Healthy infants were also dispatched if there was not enough to feed them.

The result was the expression and elimination of all lethal recessive genes.

The consequence of that was the explosion of the Norseman who took over the world, using the natives as he found them. For instance he use the aggressive nature of the Celt as his fighting

Eugenetics is not new. The Zulus and the Japanese also used it, but that is another story.

Which is the default position 'mother nature' left us with. That's the adaptive response to high death rates.

To the peasant, the farm is a household rather than a business enterprise designed to turn a profit, as are most farms in North America and Western Europe today. The household farm barely provides subsistence for the family after the obligations due to the owners of the land and the wielders of political power are met.

The phrase I have highlighted is the crux of the matter. It is the non-ownership of the land upon which one depends for one's family's subsistence that defines what it means to be a "peasant". In the US, we called them "tennant farmers" or "sharecroppers", but even though we didn't call them "peasants" that is exactly what they were.

Small farmers who owned their land and provided their own subsistence plus a little surplus for trade or sale were known as "yeoman farmers" in the old country (Britain), and even over here for quite a while; "freeholder" is another term.

There is a very, very big difference between societies that are characterized by lots of peasants and a few big landholders on the one hand, and societies that are characterized by a lot of freeholders or yeoman farmers on the other. Anyone who is at all familiar with the political history of the US and other countries will immediately understand what I mean.

There is no inherent reason why the mostly freehold economy must be any more or less wealthy than the mostly peasant economy, on a material basis. Even if it is no more or even less wealthy than a peasant economy, however, I am inclined to think that the freehold economy is much better off. At any rate, given a choice I would certainly prefer to live in the freehold economy rather than the peasant one.

My understanding is that, post Roman Empire, the population of Italy dropped sharply and stayed low for quite a while. This was before the era of the great plagues. Question is whether it was low birthrate or high deathrate.

The depopulation was caused by the Lombards(600-800AD)
who were originally from North Germany. They didn't like the Pope much.

They were beaten by Charlemagne(~800AD) but turned Italy into a thousand little fortress/kingdoms.

They were overturned in the south(1070AD) by the Normans (of the generation of William the Conqueror).

North Italy was turned over to supporters of the Holy Roman(German) Empire(also enemy of the Papacy)called the Ghibellines.

The peasant/slaves weren't making the decisions, it was the landowners and their motivation was more important.
In the Middle Ages, the cause of a lot of trouble was institution of primogeniture(inheritence by the first born male) with the other males having to go into military service.

A population explosion due to good weather, etc. in the eleventh century was solved by sending generations of second sons off to the Holy Lands as an 'export of violence'.

Let those who for a long time, have been robbers, now become knights. Let those who have been fighting against their brothers and relatives now fight in a proper way against the barbarians. Let those who have been serving as mercenaries for small pay now obtain the eternal reward. Let those who have been wearing themselves out in both body and soul now work for a double honor. Behold! on this side will be the sorrowful and poor, on that, the rich; on this side, the enemies of the Lord, on that, his friends. Let those who go not put off the journey, but rent their lands and collect money for their expenses; and as soon as winter is over and spring comes, let hem eagerly set out on the way with God as their guide."--Urban II (Council of Clermont 1095)

The advantage of primogeniture was that it prevented the dilution of estates among the decendants. The peasants were property tied to the estate and had no rights above Roman slaves.
(Roman masters could legally gouge out the eyes of slaves for no reason.)

Medieval peasants weren't slaves tied to the land. Their status has been the subject of much debate and it was clearly different depending on the locale. But I think it's fair to say that you are mistaken.

The population explosion wasn't due to "good weather, etc." any more than the collapse that followed was due to bad weather.

Demographic and economic dynamics are difficult enough to understand when data is plentiful. So let's tread carefully on the medieval and ancient stuff, alright?

Thanks for warning, HFat.

I should even more carefully document my comments even though you never do.

Peasants were either freedmen(up to 10% of the population) or vilains who were serfs(the word serf is derived from latin 'servi', slave) who were part of feudal real estate and were inherited. It did very in location but that's the theory.
They generally had no rights in court or to government protection.
They could own and inherit property and buy their way into being freemen.
The main difference with slavery(chattle) is that serfs were part of the real estate.

"The High Middle Ages saw an explosion in population. This population flowed into towns, sought conquests abroad, or cleared land for cultivation. The cities of antiquity had been clustered around the Mediterranean. By 1200, the growing urban centres were in the centre of the continent, connected by roads or rivers. By the end of this period, Paris might have had as many as 200,000 inhabitants."

"The weather in France and Europe in the Middle Ages was significantly milder than during the periods preceding or following it. Historians refer to this as the "Medieval Warm Period", lasting from about the 10th century to about the 14th century. Part of the French population growth in this period (see below) is directly linked to this temperate weather and its effect on crops and livestock."

Good point Hfat - one question, was there a relationship between ease of leaving the land and the degree to which peasant life/serfdom approached that of slavery?

We face negative growth, retrenchment. It would be far better were we to face it, first face it at all, but second face it somewhat scientifically and plan for it. But so far, not.

I don't think it (attitude toward growth) has much if anything to do with the structure of our brains (pace Nate), but with our economic system (capitalism) and the culture that has grown up around it.

The reason we'll need science in retrenching is that we are not returning to the abundant natural ecology that existed prior to the industrial revolution, but to one radically depleted. And of course there are many more of us.

Without getting into the population debate, I would say our only hope is to become scientific peasants that put a lot of effort into re-integrating ourselves into the surface ecology, restoring what can be restored, and learning how to manage the surface ecology in intelligent (i.e. sustainable) ways. Garden earth, something like that. A simple return to nature (whatever that is) is out of the question.

We can't avoid becoming peasants again. Can we become scientific ones, and retain what we learned during the industrial era (and before)?

The fall of Rome, at least the Western Empire, has attracted a lot of attention. But the era following the fall is also of relevance, especially in the hinterlands where trade collapsed.

We can't avoid becoming peasants again. Can we become scientific ones, and retain what we learned during the industrial era (and before)?

No. To even think scientifically, let alone to do science, depends on education and apparatus which will be prohibitively expensive and therefore unobtainable in the post FF future. As those who even remember science die off the young will revert to the default way of thinking which is superstitious. There will be so little left of an intact "surface ecology," as you put it, that the reintegration you speak of into "it" will be impossible. Why expect destitute survivors to accomplish what we couldn't pull off when flush; when education, equipment and cheap energy was available?

Cuba -- whatever you think of it. Science has not died there. And they do it with a much, much smaller budget than we do. They are very literate, much more so than we, even though they are sometimes are short on toilet paper and other "essentials". They are applying science to survival. They are using oxen lacking tractors and have put a lot of emphasis on doing a lot with a little.

Science isn't just or even mostly particle accelerators and space telescopes. It's a methodology.

You assert there's no hope, but assertion isn't proof. Until you come up with proof, I recommend we continue trying to survive.

I disagree. Science, insofar as knowledge about the material world leads to the ability to manipulate it, likely leads to more productive, more powerful societies compared to those who don't have it.

I think Science! is too much of a competitive advantage for a society to give it up lightly. Arms race dynamics ensure that in a competitive post-peak world it will not go away.

Whatever happens, we have the maxim gun and they have not.

A statement as relevant today as at the turn of the 19th century.

"To even think scientifically, let alone to do science, depends on education and apparatus". Not to mention spare time and an intelligence unravaged by methylmercury.

Did you read the artical linked above about Sennely the medieval French village? The real landowners in the village prefered to live in Orleans for a reason I think. Sustainability for Sennely was a high deathrate due to malnutrition and disease.

This reminds me of a few years back when I did some geneological research. My family, for living memory, lived in or near the Eastend of London. I traced my family back on my fathers side to Thomas Grout who at the time of the birth of his son George was a porter, probably at the docks or maybe a market. But I found that he was himself born in a village in Kent near the south coast of England. I had to ask myself why he moved from that village to take a low paid job living in what at the time was the biggest slum in the world unless it was better than what he had previously?

A lot of interesting comments, thanks everybody. I thought this was a fascinating topic, so I was curious to see the reaction. In this field I tend to agree with Nate Hagens: all what happens is the result of the way the human mind works, but also the human mind adapts to the external conditions. So, our way of thinking depends on some built in mechanisms but also on our environment. The environment of a peasant world is completely different than our environment, so no wonder that peasants would think in very different ways.

A good point that has been raised is on what grounds does Farb propose this picture of the peasant world. Correct, there are very few quantitative studies on this point and I can understand that there may be different viewpoints.

On this point, I can only report my own experience. In Italy, you can still find old people whom you can only describe as retired peasants. And, when I was in my teens, some 40 years ago, peasant were still around and working in the field. My feeling is that Farb's description perfectly fits the world of peasants as I could understand it. In later times, I have had some experience with Moroccan peasants and that, too, reinforces the feeling.

Recently, I have been interacting with gypsies in Italy (more correctly, Roma) for a research project on waste recycling (I will describe that in a future post). The gypsies are not peasants, but share several elements of the peasant's life: poverty, hard life, close family units, many children, scarce protection against external influences. And I can tell you that a gypsy camp can fit very well with Farb's description.

Incidentally, to comment on some comments, Farb didn't mean with his description to say that peasants cannot be nice people. It is not so. For example, the gypsies I came to know are wonderful people: generous, friendly and hospitable. But they think different - if you don't understand that, you'll have a hard time dealing with them.

I hardly recognice anything about this peasant life style and my grand parents talked about manny things but never anything like this. And Sweden were even one of the last european countries to industrialize.

Perhaps it might be due to the "skifte" in 1807 and 1827? During that period were almost all of the farming villages broken up and rearranged into rational farming units and the houses moved to the center of each farm to save transportation work. The old maps and protocols from this are fashinating documents. They even counted the small piles of night soil when swapping resources to essentially de-fragment manny generations of inheritence splits.

I have never before thought about this rearrangement of almost all of our society to make it more resource efficent as something odd. It were kind of like when my grandparents got telephone and electricity, it were an obvious thing to do and then everybody did it and the governmnet supported it.

I think I live in an old consensus culture that has been extremely homogenous but I dont recognice that everybody should be the same in this kind of rigid "peasant" way. There has allways been a circulation between the classes and prosperity levels. If you could make or buy a pretty wagon or sled for the sunday travel to church you got it. It were suspect if poor peole could flaunt wealth but that were becouse it could indicate thivery. The undermanned military and government added career opportunities for manny hundres of years. And we have allways had a strong self owned farmer class mixed with very poor farmers and some very rich but everybody agreed on property rights, laws, shared the same church, etc.

This might be one of the sources for my optimism, optimism with ToD as the scale. If you got resource problems that can be described with obvious calculations you got to solve them. If they can be solved by rearranging the physical society you do it with guidance from your benevolent government. This cultural trait has been diluted and things are mind boggling complex making these decisions harder. When people found socialism to be good idea that fit perfectly with this it realy hurt us. :-(

I expect that the worst case scenario for the post peak oil era would be to fall back to a 1950:s society but with better communications, medicine and houses. But even if it would be far worse I would not expect significant cultural changes in what I concider to be the core values.

And no I do not expect us to leave the growth paradigm. Why should we do that when there is room to grow withouth destroying our local environment and it allows us to prepair in a better way for the next winter? We have allways prepaired for the next winter, work or die freezing. We only have to refocus for fewer short term toys and more long term safety.

The folks who could be described as real modern day peasants-the share croppers and the subsistence farmers are all gone now in my part of the world but I knew many personally when I was a youth and heard many tales from the old folks.

Most of them in my opinion were locked into thier way of life by two factors that have not been much discussed.One is the fact that families were started young and on the average there was simply no other way to earn a living-such opportunities as existed were mostly closed to functionally illiterate young men with dependents.Once you had a few mouths to feed there was no choice left.

Another was the influence of the church.It really burns me up when other people get a little free with the criticism but there can be no doubt that the teachings of the average preacher in the early twentieth century in the south were both very good and very bad for his flock in terms of survival and success.

These teachings helped create a tight knit community well able to look after itself in the short term.But these teachings also tended(still do) to create a world view at odds with modern society and such opportunities as then existed.They still stand in the way of many capable young people taking advantage of thier abilities,but the influence of religion in America today is overestimated.
The pope may rail against birth control but of all the so called Catholics I know only a very small percentage have large families.

The young girls and boys who are enjoying a little sex and making a few thousands of unplanned babies every day are Christians mostly in name only,although they may identify thenselves as such.

I don't have time right now to organize my thoughts along these lines properly but maybe this subject will come up again.I have lived right in the middle of a society making the transition although I am not old enough to have seen anything but the tail end of the mule,so to speak.

The discussion is lacking in depth although the pionts being made are all highly pertinent and frame the issue nicely.

This confirms the simple but powerful observation by Marx that humanity has yet to enter upon its adulthood, to start its conscious history. We are drunken teenagers now, having once been children...but we've never had this thing figured out.

Marvin Harris agreed.

This has been a most interesting topic.

While it does not appear that the term 'peasant' has been too rigorously defined here, I think the general connotation is that of a poor subsistence farmer whose family has been tied to the land in one way or another for generations and whose family is almost permanently fixed at the lower end of the socioeconomic hierarchy.

So, with that definition in mind, does the US really have peasants? Depending on how you look at it; maybe, maybe not. In my opinion, the US certainly still has a large number of very poor rural white people whose families have been that way ever since the country was settled. Maybe not true peasants in the feudal sense of the word, but probably not too far off the general concept of peasant either.

I also think that we should not downplay the importance of mindset and value systems. Many dirt poor immigrants (many of whom were quite literally peasants in their former homeland) who came to the US in the early part of the 20th Century were, after several generations of struggle, able to firmly establish their families into the successful middle class. One sees outstanding examples of this among the Jews, Italians, poles, and much later the Chinese and Indians. Yet, many of the aforementioned poor rural whites, whose families have lived in this supposed 'land of opportunity' for over nine generations have not made a stitch of economic progress and in some ways have even gotten worse.

I have always been puzzled as to why this should be. I don't think it can be explained by lack of opportunity or oppression, because the immigrants faced plenty of that. I suppose it could be that the more ambitious and desperate were the ones that emigrated to the US while the less so stayed behind. Sort of a self-selection process. I myself have concluded that it has more to do with mindset and attitudes but I can't quite put my finger on exactly what it is.

There seems to be plenty of TODers far more knowledgeable on this subject than I, and I'd be interested in hearing some opinions on this question regarding US 'peasants'.

In the US South, there were sharecroppers(farm hands) as well as slaves.

In the late 19th century sharecropping created a stable, low-cost work force that replaced slave labor; it was the bottom rung in the southern tenancy ladder. Sharecropping, along with tenant farming, was a dominant form in the cotton South from the 1870s to the 1950s, among both blacks and whites, but it has largely disappeared.

(This is within living memory but for some reason these 'American peasants' seems unlikely.)

Most were white but if they got uppity there was always the Ku Klux Klan to keep'em in line.

The situation of landless farmers who challenged the system in the rural south as late as 1941 has been described thus: "he is at once a target subject of ridicule and vitriolic denunciation; he may even be waylaid by hooded or unhooded leaders of the community, some of whom may be public officials. If a white man persists in 'causing trouble', the night riders may pay him a visit, or the officials may haul him into court; if he is a Negro, a mob may hunt him down." [12]

Interesting being from the south I was thinking about this. The traditional peasant class is not gone completely it has simply shrunk.

One has to wonder what happened to them ?

For one the peasant despite his/her trials and tribulations had what they could create be it food children or what ever if they made it it was theirs. And they did have the right to farm the land for at least a portion of the crop.

Its not a lot of wealth but it is wealth and of course the population problem is blatant and obvious however no matter how meager you have to admit that had something.

If you include the social network and its communistic nature the overall wealth was actually substantial yet hidden. The collective wealth was kept in a sense hidden to ensure it was not confiscated. No fancy houses or schools children who wanted education had to fight for it etc. But if a calamity arose in general the community was swift to respond and provided a vital safety net.

Now that the peasant class has shrunk what has really happened ?

I think they have become the drunkards and drug addicts and welfare moms and working poor and for many they live a life not of no growth but and endless downward spiral. In a real sense they have been stripped of what little wealth they had and exchanged a steady life for one often certain to end in ruin.

The peasant class has not actually gone away what we have done is taken all of its wealth and ability to survive in exchange for nothing in the end.

We have managed to steal everything from them to the point that the peasant class is shattered and triumph it as progress. They did not become the small independent farmer owning their own land or guild member. They did not move up at all most moved downward and continue their descent.

One can't help but think that in doing this eventually we will pay for our actions.

memmel -

If I read you correctly, I think what you are saying is that the white peasant class (i.e., poor rural white farmers) up until fairly recently were able to at least eek out a living, albeit a meager one, as long as they were able to stay on their land and be part of a community of like people. Then when that environment, for one reason or another became untenable, they just became part of the permanent American underclass, with all of the social pathologies that implies. Am I close?

As a parenthetic comment: I am not unaware of the existence of the rural poor blacks in the south or the Hispanic migrants, etc. I have deliberately concentrated on the poor rural whites solely to exclude the very thorny issue of race from the discussion. In other words, I wanted to compared apples with apples, or more specifically, whites with whites.

Also, to you Southerners out there, I am not deliberately picking on the South, as there are rural poverty pockets in rural New England and upstate New York that could give even the worst of the South a good run for its money.

Still, the question remains: Why have so many dirt-poor European immigrant families done remarkably well in but a few short generations when a large chunk of poor rural whites who have lived in the US since colonial times continue a downward slide on the socioeconomic ladder? What is it?

Perhaps the advantage of the immigrants was that they were totally starting from scratch, while the rural poor whites had many generations of social baggage and ossified thinking to keep them where they were. Again, I really don't know.

By the way, there are two good books on this subject, but neither really satisfactorily answers my basic question:

i) 'Redneck Manifesto', Jim Goad

ii) 'Deer Hunting with Jesus', Joe Baegent

I sometimes wonder whether H.G. Wells' 'The Time Machine' is prophetic and whether we are starting to evolve into separate species like the Eloi and Morlocks.

Starting to evolve?
I think that it has always been Elios and Morlocks.
That's what Wells was trying to tell us.


One of the best friends I ever had -a science teacher-eventally came to see Darwinan reality a "little too clearly" as he put it.Like me he was a man who spent every frre minute reading,and we both MADE lots of free minutes.He was a Hemingway nut.

The most memorable thing he ever said to me was"Mac the thing I like about you is that you understand that it's ALL sharks and minnows."

He moved into the woods and went back to living as closely as possible to the way a foot loose frontiersman might have lived in the nineteenth century.

Eventually he died from an acute alcohol overdose partying with some swamp dwellers deep in the heart of old Dixie-black folks living as close to the edge but also as close as anyone gets to nature in the states anymore.

I have never been sure that he was not courting death as sometimes he seemed to believe that a man shoould live only for so long as he is feeling young.

So I hope you feel young.
I do.

I still want to live but no there is something about me that is different from most people.

Somehow I have not been young inside my head since I was only a sprout.I suppose this must have something to do with being indoctrinated_I almost want to use the word imprinted-with a set of values contrary to what my neocortex insists is reality.

I guess I should have not read the World Book Encyclopedia thru at a young age while still attending Sunday School and living in a world where every body believes in the Holy Trinity, the Devil,Heaven ,Hell,and the end of the world -any day,perhaps even before supper.

One things for sure -my folks would never have bought that set of encyclopedias if they had had ANY IDEA of what was in it!

So I have spent a huge amount of time wondering what it's all about and came early on to some conclusions that it's not at all about anything cosmically important.

These conclusions are not original of course but they do seem to be inescapable.

Caption from a New Yorker cartoon(Mom talking to shrink about kid)Ever since he found out that the sun is going to expand and burn up the earth in five billion years he has refused to do his homeworkjust sits in a corner-says there is no point in doing it.From the KJB,Vanity vanity all is vanity (paraphrased)

One of them is that if your neocortex is not willing to eat the cognitive dissonance chocolate (drink the cognitive dissonance kool aid) then you are destined to spend your life hung on the horns of a dilemma-yu want to live but you have a very hard time deciding what you want to live FOR.

So I have no real niche.

I'm always on the outside looking in ,so to speak-I have no peer group with which I am really and truly comfortable because I always have to be pretending to believe THIS or that I respect THAT.

But I am pretty good at dissembling and can fit in almost anywhere after studying the ground rules for a few days.I have also found that I can make "friends"(both real ones and allies) with almost anybody as a result and have gotten to know quite a few rather interesting characters rather well over the years.

There are lots of interesting characters HERE.

Joule, have you seen Stephen Steinberg's The Ethnic Myth? Steinberg argues that it's the timing and terms of arrival that explains a group's economic fate. That's also got to be true regarding internal migrations.

You can't be flirting with racial explanations, can you?

Joule, Michael:

There is also David Hackett Fischer's thesis in Albion's Seed that there are 4 basic regional cultures in the US, and that these have their roots in the regional cultures of Britain from where the first four waves of immigrants came.

How I've seen it is that immigrants need a certain amount of "work ethic" and mental health, to have the initiative and organizational skills necessary to move to a foreign country. So you get a selected slice of whatever nationality or "race".

On the other hand, racism and xenophobia being what it is, among the folks in the US who are white but still very poor, there could be a larger proportion of people with multigenerational dysfunction (or social baggage and ossified thinking).

In my case, I had the chance to get to know the inhabitants of Lawrence MA (1990-92). At that time roughly 50% of Lawrence was Latino (from Puerto Rico and Santo Domingo), and mostly recently arrived in the US.

Lawrence had a good economy until the 1950s when the textile industry collapsed. Two thirds of the 80,000 inhabitants (1950 census) left over the years, resulting in a population of 72,000 at present, two thirds of which are non-white.

My very small minority of white patients in the community health center (15%) definitely included the heroin users, valium addicts, and two families with multigenerational violence - in one case, a 2 year old died of head injuries, in another, several children were taken away for deep neglect. These are people who need a tremendous amount of help to emerge from this sort of family "tradition". There were "problem" Latino families, to be sure, but it seemed curiously out of proportion.

I am also familiar with Greek "economic" migrants (our family were "political" migrants - after the 1967 military dictatorship). Among them, only two careers were acceptable for the kids: doctor or lawyer. The insistence on excellence in education was unlike anything else I have ever experienced. The parents would work menial jobs, and the kids would be required to pursue higher education. My mother tells me that Montreal is different as a result, within a single generation, with the Greek "ghetto" transformed.

majorian -

I am quite aware of the sharecropper situation in South. We still have many tenant farmers in the US, but it's not quite the same thing.

One thing that the white power structure in the South was very fearful of was the possibility of poor whites and blacks coming together to fight the system. As a result, they did everything they could to encourage the already existing hostility between whites and blacks and to play the two groups off against each other. It was pretty successful, as the ranks of the KKK, or at least their sympathizers, included a lot of poor white people.

However, this still doesn't answer my basic question: Why have many immigrant families become quite successful after but a few generations whereas many rural poor whites seem to be stuck in place even after their families having been in the US since colonial times?

Why have many immigrant families become quite successful after but a few generations whereas many rural poor whites seem to be stuck in place even after their families having been in the US since colonial times?

Joule, I think I know the answer but I would rather not.

I know a lot about sharecroppers, I was one. Well, my dad was one. Mom and Dad were married in 1927 and he sharecropped until 1945 when he managed to save and borrow enough money to buy his own 45 acre farm. I was 7 years old in 1945.

A lot of sharecroppers descendents have been quite successful, but only by leaving the farm. Usually however that was two generations later or more. At any rate those days are gone. There are no more sharecroppers that I know of. Even the small farms in my area of North Alabama are gone. The large farmers who farm hundreds of acres either own the land or rent it for dollars per acre, not a percentage of the crop.

It is not just the sahrecropper that has disappeared but the small farmer has disappeared as well. Oh I know, you may name a few but there was a time in the 20th century when the small farmer, including sharecroppers, were well over half the population of the US. I would bet that if there are any left they are less than 1% of the total population.

Darwinian -

Please don't keep me hanging ..... what IS the answer?!

Hell, my Hungarian grandmother was once quite literally a peasant and a subject (as opposed to being a citizen) of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. I recall hearing that when the lord of the manor would ride by, all the peasants would have to bow their heads and doff their hats. Now THIS is oppression! Yet, after two generation in the US many of her grandchildren (including me) have not done too badly for themselves, and some very well as a matter of fact.

At the other end of things, when we lived in Massachusetts, there was a trashy family in town who were directly descended from one of the prominent patriots who fought the British at Concord in 1775. One was more of a loser than the next. You can't say these people didn't have both time and opportunity. So the question is: WHY?

Is there something Darwinian taking place here?

..a trashy family in town.. Is there something Darwinian taking place here?

Did this "trashy family" have a lot of kids? If so, there's something quintessentially Darwinian going on indeed. Differential reproductive success is the only currency selection trades in.

Please don't keep me hanging ..... what IS the answer?!

Well, against my better judgment I will give it a try. And remember that my dad was a sharecropper for half his life.

To get ahead in this dog eat dog world you have to be ambitious, industrious, scholarly, and willing to make many sacrifices to get ahead. Immigrants, just by getting on the boat and leaving looking back at their homeland and realizing that they are probably looking at it and their loved ones for the very last time, demonstrate that they probably have what it takes. That is their ambition overrides their love for homeland and extended family. Making such a sacrifice probably means they will make any other sacrifices necessary to get ahead.

People whose ancestors have been small farmers and/or sharecroppers for over one hundred years do not, in general, have these qualities else they would not still be small farmers and croppers.

I am truly sorry if the PC police think I am crude for saying that, but as a former cropper myself I think I have the authority to say it.

Ron P.

Whybrow wrote all about such 'migrant spirit' in American Mania and suggested some neural bases (speculative like DRD4-7r dopamine allele) for it.

DRD4-7 gene good for nomads but causes malnourishment in settled populations As one example.

You are too hung up on genes.
You and George Mobus from Washington State.
I am not trying to say that you are wrong, just that maybe you are giving too much weight to one side of the scale.
The circumstance has way more play than most believe or understand.
I know.I have done things that bring out the best in humans.

In this case its not my own speculation -there are many papers on dopamine alleles. There is rarely one gene for a particular behavior, or even a suite of genes - as you say environment looms large - but within macro populations the impact of certain genes can be seen in certain behaviors. Here is one of the original papers on this topic - Population Migration and the Variation of Dopamine D4 Receptor. As I said all this L-dopa allele stuff is still speculative.

We are adaptation executors - genes will never describe everything, but we possess a certain hardware that has genetic leashes - both long and short. Temperament and character are the 2 key components that comprise individual personality. Their distinction is inherent when we separate instinct and inborn habits from free will and what we learn. 'Character’ emerges over time through self-awareness - it is learned behavior shaped largely by the family and the culture we grow up in. "Temperament' on the other hand, is an inborn pattern of emotional style that starts to unfold in childhood and persists into adult life. Temperament is strongly heritable, accounting for approximately 40% of behavioral variance in twin studies. Are you 100% sure that you're conscious of all your 'circumstances'?

Are you?
You read papers.
I have been there.
No doubt that a predispostion exists.
But, i think it exists more commonly than convention talks about.
I have seen kids rise to the occasion.
Not in the heroic sense but in the necessary sense.
It is in us.

So i guess i made your point.

Darwinian -

Your answer sounds as good as any I've heard or considered myself. I do think you've pretty much nailed it.

I would like to add that part of the impetus to emigrate to a new and totally foreign land was not necessarily the result of courage and ambition, but rather desperation. Desperate people do desperate things, and many of these people were quite desperate. And among the more optimistic, there was hope and the vision of possibilities.

Among rural poor whites in the US there seems to be little vision of a better life and a fatalistic resignation that this is how they are and this is how they're always going to be. They just don't seem to have much imagination or curiosity about anything. Perhaps they've just been in a rut for nine generations.

I came from a declining, working-class town in the upper Midwest that exhibited just this sort of attitude.

Your recognition of the immigrant as having something special is what I have always called the "give a shit gene."
How funny indeed.
It is true you are correct.

Yet whats funny is in a sense the solution often advocated on the oildrum requires this sort of mentality thats treated right now as a bad thing. Maybe its really the case that because oil offered and easy rode to riches for many that resulted in sifting the less ambitious towards the bottom.

When I lived in Vietnam many of the poor people where well educated smart and energetic simple lack of opportunity kept them relatively poor even though you certainly had the same sort of sifting. You could walk through the slummier areas and see houses that where clean and tidy and well cared for if patched with interesting pieces and also your typical slum house.

Also the chinese have the concept of the prodigal son in the sense that a family rises in fortune for three generations then the children become idle and blow the money sending the family into poverty to rise again.

So you also have this sort of generational rise and fall that seems very true esp if coupled with the normal rise and fall of the political establishment.

Obviously the chance of bettering oneself if you take risks or work harder tends to act to sift people and at the minimum the spirit of trying is passed on to ones children socially genetics or not.

But then I think you have to take a hard look at the opportunity side this human spirit if you will can only succeed if you have the energy/resource gradient to create the wealth. Without it it seems you end up with oppression. The only ones who succeed in a stagnant world are those better at taking not creating.

The problem is realistically we have really had this energy gradient throughout the history of civilization from the steady refertilization of the soils in the early river valley civilization on towards wealth by expansion.

Certainly there wealth has risen and fallen but I'd argue that only now have we really reached the point that this gradient that allows the sifting of the ambitious from the less ambitious started to fail in general. Obviously this will lead to oppression but less obvious is that oppression does not last forever.
Historically oppressive rule often does not even last a generation and at most a few generations. This is not to say you don't get years even centuries of crappy rulers but generally you quickly developed a endemic insurrection in oppressive countries its just a matter of how events on fold that determines when the oppressors are finally overthrown.

And last but not least these immigrants which often do well almost always come from oppressive countries so the oppression itself tends to force the best and brightest to leave. So this bigger cycle actually tends to have a dramatic impact all the way down to the local level as less ambitious folk are forced to compete with those fleeing oppressive regimes. Creating the social sifting forces which sets up the eventual groundwork for those who taje wealth through oppresion to rule the new land as the idle generations of the poor immigrants fleeing oppression become the oppressors.

So it seems to me that if you dig the natural tenedency of human communities to resort to oppression to concentrate wealth when natural growth fails is the open sore that has been driving civilization for thousands of years literally only now has this finally reached its limits.

It seems reasonable to assume that the natural outcome will be effectively global oppression at least for a few generations but one wonders whats next as there is no place to flee and the cycle is finally broken.

This time around it looks like the best and brightest will have no choice but to eventually stand and fight.

This time around it looks like the best and brightest will have no choice but to eventually stand and fight.

Adequate observation Master memmel.

My impression of the divide between the upwardly mobile and the stuck in place families during the twentieth century in the south is that simple arithmetic combined with circumstances explains everything fairly well.

Some of the down and out escape the trap every generation.I know several older guys who having learned the rudiments of the mechanics trade by necessity on theone horse farm moved on and became auto mechanics.Some own thier own businesses now and thier children have mostly moved into at least the lower ranks of the migddle class trades and professions,with some becoming professionals such as programmers,lawyers,etc.

Others -the brothers of the guys who moved up-either lacked the brains or just never caught the right break.I cannot think of a family that has not had several members over the last three generations or so move up in the world,even though most of the family might remain more or less impoverished.

Once the cycle of poverty is broken it has generally been broken for good among the people and families I have known.If I had personally not grown up in a culture that regards most business activity as the work of the devil( there is a dissonance here of course-MY FAMILY TOOK THE CHURCH VERY SERIOUSLY-many others less so) and entry into most of the more respectable professions such as medicine an impossibility not to be even considered I might today be a satisfied small town lawyer drawing wills,contesting divorces,and a wheel in local politics. The children of such lawyers are virtually certain to get good advice about education and career choices from parents who understand the game and know the score.

The collapse of the textile industry mentioned by Paranoid up north was in large part brought about by the rise of that industry here.Sweat shop jobs doing production work put enough cash money in the pockets of the formerly down and no hope of rising types to enable lots of them to start the multigenerational process of moving up.Plenty of the men and not a few of the men moved along to better jobs ,from machine operator to mechanics helper to mechanic to supervisor to maintainence manager ,etc.In the larhge magorit of cases the move up has continued in the next generation.

Insofar as the immigrants moving up fast is concerned I will point out that this discussion so far has totally ignored Hasib's "silent evidence"-we have heard only about the immigrants HAVE moved up.

I strongly suspect that there IS something BOTH Darwinian and cultural at work that might explain thier success.Firstly the people (the subset of immigrants under discussion)who actually emigrated were almost certainly highly intelligent risk takers who saw the xxxx heading for the fan in thier old homes and got out while the getting was still good.

It seems to me that seeing it coming and possessing the cultural awareness and understanding of the opportunities of the new land all go hand in glove together.Couple that with strong family bonds and a work ethic and I don't see any reason to wonder why some immigrants move up so fast.

Other immigrants who come lacking the necessary basic cultural values such as putting a very high value on education might not get ahead and might indeed form the basis of a new underclass.

Over the last few decades I have known immigrants willing to double and triple up in order to save money and establish businnesses and but property.One Mexican guy my Daddy admires above almost every body except Jesus and HIS Daddy is a Mexican guy who worked with him for many years for forty hours every week-this first forty being MY Daddy's part time job-he put in another forty on the farm .The Mexican found another job in another manufacturing plant nearby that happened to change shifts a half hour later and he put in his second forty hours at the other plant-for over twenty years.

But I also know others who are quite content to collect rent subsisies,food stamps,free scholol lunches,get thier medical care at the ermergency room,do a little wprk for cash or find a job that allows them to work seasonally and collect unemployment all winter,etc.

Stereotypes just will not explain these issues-neither will race and racism in and of themselves.

Why shouldn't they do this-other than that playing this way is not "playing by the rules"? They are living better than they ever lived below the border and are quite happy-always ready and willing to share a beer or a joint,spending lots of time visiting-actually ENJOYING thier little kids rather than being so tired they can only LOOK AFTER the kids-a circumstance many middle class people must deal with and bitterly regret- "remember a plane to catch and bills to pay ...we'll get together then son"

(Mostly I find popular music to be such a dreary wasteland that I cannot listen to it but sometimes musicians do manage to say something useful.)

Unsure whether this thread is still alive, but in response to OFM, I have met, and spent hours with, both immigrants who made it, were going to make it, and those who did not make it, or surely were not going to.

Some interesting medical statistics involve the preterm birth rate. As you may know, African Americans have the highest rate of premature births. New Latino immigrants have better statistics than the average American white person. "Acculturated" Latinos (sometimes measured simply by whether they have learned English yet) have preterm birth rates approaching those of African Americans.

My understanding of it is that immigrants come to this country from a fairly cohesive, if failing, area. They have great hopes, and some make it. Their stress levels, ability to be present and loving towards their children, and build a positive network of friends is not bad. If they don't make it, however, their children grow up with the bitterness and obvious racism they find themselves embedded in. Stress levels rise, as well as resulting unhealthy behaviors, and the preterm rate skyrockets.

In my experience, people on welfare live with a sense of shame and failure, not to mention extreme frustration at a dysfunctional system that cuts them off randomly. They may express entitlement and an attitude of "I don't care", but IME that breaks down pretty fast when you sit down for a chat.

Is there something Darwinian taking place here?

Only in the economic sense of 'survival of the fittest'.

The tendency is for farms to get larger as technology reduces the need for labor therefore fewer 'peasants' and technology raises the value of land.

Farming is a business plain and simple, not a 'way of life'.

The farmers moved to town (or California in Grapes of Wrath) and became proletarian 'wage-slaves'.

The success of European immigrants was in cities due to their willingness to be exploited by capitalists who hired them to keep the prevailing wages low.

Genetics has nothing to do with it.
It is the result of an economic system which rewards only success.

Former President Jimmy Carter gives a good description of the sharecropping system in his autobiography:

An Hour Before Daylight : Memoirs of a Rural Boyhood

I find TOD has an academic bent.
Nothing wrong with professors and universities.
This article is a good example.
I'm not sure how this discussion adds anything.
When you look at peasants, its not "us" and "them"

we are all peasants, as Lennon said (or was it Lenin?)

Keep you doped with religion and sex and TV,
And you think you're so clever and classless and free,
But you're still fucking peasants as far as I can see,
A working class hero is something to be,
A working class hero is something to be.

Another great post by Ugo, thanks; I tend to line up with him and Nate on this one, though that's not worth posting about.

The reason I'm posting is to note that I've run into some aspects of the described mindset in contemporary society, indeed in personal life. For instance, my wife and I are extremely frugal where my brothers are not; this has meant that although our income has been far below theirs, we keep a fiscal "buffer" to prevent bounced checks and other such time-sink distractions. Our having a "buffer" causes resentment and disapproval even though they have each spent through 4-6 times the per capita income in any given year.

Likewise, my wife and I built a house with our own hands while they rented, again with higher income and expenditures (and less effort expended) than us, and they resented our home ownership once it came to exist. As though there was a finite amount of "security" to be possessed within the family and we had diminished their share by breaking some core rule. I was surprised at this illogic, but perhaps I shouldn't have been.

I've run into a somewhat reminiscent dynamic in spontaneously-accreting volunteer organizations, as though there were a fixed-sum amount of some abstract "karma" to be distributed or contended for. Often, this causes such a group to gravitate towards a minority doing useful work toward the putative group goal, and a majority keeping track of the imaginary internal "fairness" dynamic while not doing much of anything else.

Just an off-the-cuff mention on an insomniac morning.

Breaking my NO POST rule for once.

I promised to not post anymore on TOD but I do, time permitting, occasionally cruise for new informaion, and finding little move on.

However this topic rings a bell.

I have lived exactly as the referenced author states. Most here are not old enough to have lived on a farm and at the end of the great depression and without electricity, mules for draft and in a very very large family.Especially on a 100 acre sharecropped farm.

What the author states of the life of a peasant is precisely how I lived with my grandparents during those times.

They raised 14 children and also me and my brother lived with them. We lived exactly as the above describes.

Besides that my grandfather was 1/2 Cherokee and had the same attitude about life as most Native Americans I read of. Especially the Cherokees.

He never cared a whit about climbing any social ladder. We never went to town since peddlers, carrying back packs or a wagon , came to the farm. He made everything with his hands and he ruled with an iron hand. He once whipped my aunt til the blood ran into the washtub she was forced to stand in for disobeying him and running around with a man my grandfather did not approve of.

But we lived very very well in terms of sustenance and ease of live most times yet when there was work NO ONE dared shirk or tried to. It was hard work but with many offspring my grandmother just had to cook mostly since the girls (7 of them) did the rest at her command.

We raised a big garden and ate some wild game, slaughtered hogs and milked cows. He died a poor sharecropper and my grandmother lasted only 1 year past him. He was laid out in the parlor and due to lack of space I slept on a pallet right next to the table he was laid out on.

I thought nothing of the work but enjoyed it in full measure. We heated with wood and cooked with it. We sawed the trees down with a two man crosscut saw and hauled the logs to the farm with mules then blocked each log with same saw and split it all into about 7 cords of wood. This was worked I helped in and also milked and feed the stock.We drew water out of a cistern that caught water off the tin roof. Electricity was a long long time away. I studied and read by a kerosene lantern. Only went to school when work or life allowed.

I grew up very strong and to this day have never taken any prescribed drugs or medications and only been operated on one time recently and at 70 am still as strong and active as ever.

'Peasant' life to me strengthened my body and my mind for the upcoming future. It bred in me a toughness that many of my peers cannot understand and I follow a code of conduct to this day almost the same as imparted to me by my grandfather.

I am 1/8 Native American and proud of it and my ancestry.

Most here debate endlessly the pros and cons of every topic. I find that many are sadly lacking in what will be needed to survive in the future. Talking about brain chemistry to me is just a 'work around' and rather meaningless at that.

Good to debate but IMO just rubbish. You are what you grew up in. Most grew up nowhere near like I did so I do not relate therefore.

I worked in Rocket Guidance systems, flew Surveillance aircraft as an Electronics Technician, worked as a Mainframe field engineer and later a Staff programmer. These days I work on the latest computer controlled GPS guided (autosteer) combines that cost close to $500,000 and still live on a farm and still do a lot of what I did back in my youth.

I heat with wood and I can cook with wood. I have 4 wood burners. I can survive. I can go back. I have been there. I can return to it.
I most likely will and will not miss a lick.

Ok,,back to the useless twaddle that seems to be the norm around here. I just wanted to state the above.

I will now kill the cookies I inherited and clean my back trails. I have installed MVPS Hosts so most of those 'click thru' tracking sites never get to my browser. I try to cruise with as few tracks as possible. Seems TOD is now loaded with them. I try to leave my networking as I try to leave the earth.As few footprints as possible.

Airdale-think about it,it was not always as it now is, people once lived far more peaceful and simple lives. I was there. Believe what you want. Pardon for stepping on toes. Just my style I guess.

Hiya Airdale - nice to see you again

I like how your comments reinforce the strengths and wisdom/knowledge of folks living the rural life when you grew up, and the richness of the social environment. That seems to be missing from a lot of the discussion here.

This posting and it's associated discussion is kind of odd to me when I compare it to some of the 'strategies for coping' I see posted elsewhere.

In the posting these people are defined as having lived tied to their land for generations (?sustainably,?knowledge of the land) and as being socially interconnected and having some 'wealth' homogeneity. In other postings regarding post FF lifestyles these characteristics are what we are led to believe will be necessary for successful transition. And yet, few of the posters speak approvingly re the peasant experience.

It sure is evident that we don't want to be peasants; could we adapt to the same lifestyle if we call ourselves freeholders? Was there much essential difference between the two?

Regards, Al

Thank you airdale. You and Darwinian make me feel such a youngster. (I'm 66)
For me, it's the posters that make this site. I have my view of the future and have put together my response, a small bachelor's garden high and isolated in the Ozarks with good neighbors. The regular posters have plenty of thoughts from their viewpoint and it's my entertainment. Something to do, waiting for the end.

It is cruel to deny us your stories airdale, the wisdom of the elders is a valuable tribal asset. Your broken promises ARE assets; if only we could say that of politicians.

I love the Van Gogh.
I am a Rhodesian. All that was written about the Peasants is true.
There are a lot of anecdotes that I could clutter up the air waves with to reinforce the view of peasants.

I patrolled the Zambesi valley. We met the real deal.
I have met women whose whole world was 10 kms in diameter and had a 5 year time horizon. They lived in a bubble in the Void.

But those were the good old days, when the population was about half what it is now. (1972)

Interesting read: The Hypomanic Edge: The Link Between (A Little) Craziness and (A Lot of) Success in America by John Gartner; examines evidence which suggests that many immigrants possess a tendency towards a bi-polar state which nonetheless gives them an energetic boost towards success.

I'd like to comment on the painting, "The Potato Eaters," that opens this post. In this painting, five people are gathered around a small table eating potatoes and drinking some kind of hot drink poured from a kettle. In other words, they are ingesting food calories and heat. My knowledge of history of every day life is not that good, but as far as I know, this type of scene, a household gathering in a group to consume food calories, goes back as far known human history. It looks to me that the current generation of teenagers is rejecting this model. My own teenaged daughters are not that interested in family dinners, participating mainly to humor me, often preferring to assemble their own bowl of soup or whatever. One of my daughter's friends expressed amazement that in our household someone was actually cooking an evening meal that we would eat together; apparently that never happens at her house. Thinking about this in TOD context, I wonder if one function of the traditional household shared meal was to ration food calories: the cook served as the gatekeeper to the calorie supply, and watching each other eat was a way to ensure that no one was gobbling down more than his or her fair share. Look at how carefully the woman in the painting is pouring out the beverage, and how exactly equal the servings in the cups are. Only in a culture with a superabundance of energy could adolescents be allowed to wander into the food supply room and eat to their hearts' content at any time of the day or night.

Very interesting comment, thanks kim. I'had also noticed this typical trait of the American culture: families don't eat together any more (except in the Simpsons' series). Even in Europe, it is going that way, although the tradition has not disappeared yet. And it is fantastic how Van Gogh manages to say so much in just a single image

Why do we call the world of the 'peasant' a 'zero-growth' world?

Our idea of 'growth' is based on mathematical models and charts. Marketing and politics. Money and wealth. Inventions and conventions of the human mind that shape an imaginary world. 'Up' and 'More' are good. 'Down' and 'Less' are bad.

The natural world, the real world, does not work that way. Look around you during the course of any year in any habitable climate and you will not see 'zero-growth'. You will observe a balanced cycle that repeats endlessly in infinite variety, where Growth and Life are companions of Decay and Death, rather than competitors.

Since the natural world is sure to survive our unnatural one, we might as well relax and start to let go of our rigid ideas of growth and wealth. Our future lives and deaths would be far more enjoyable and endurable if we did.

Just to start by nit picking a bit, though the "peasant phenomenon" described seems to be a real thing, the temptation to reduce it to a universal theory to explain why they are "failing to be like us" should still be resisted. As in:

Their behavior is not irrational at all, given the realities of their existence. In fact, the attitude of peasants is probably the only one possible for them. A modern observer of peasant life has defined their adaptation in terms of "the image of limited good." In other words, peasants view their total environment as one in which all the good things of life-land, wealth, power, friendship, sex, health, and honor-exist in only lim­ited quantities. As they see it, the limitation exists for two reasons: 'There are more of themselves than there are of good things, and they consider themselves powerless to increase the quantities available.

It's our universal theories, like the quote, needing nothing but to reaffirm stereotypes basically, that quite often lead us astray. Peasant culture is surely a curiosity though, but I expect in so far as it's a trap, it's one resulting from being like us, believing that reality is what they imagine it to be. Their inability to see what could be, and our inability to see what can't, seem much the same.

You and me need to talk.

I'm short of time to read all the comments in what is probably an excellent discussion, but while I'm happy to see a conversation beginning about peasant life and peasant culture, given its potential relevance to our future, I think it would be wiser to consider multiple sources, rather than just one. The picture Bardi paints is certainly true for some variants on peasant culture, and also largel untrue for other variants on that same culture. For example, there have been intensely politically active peasant cultures, ranging from the modern MST and Campesino movements to peasant movements, including the one that sent back the Earl of Northumbria in 1065 in Britain to the king with something along the lines of a polite note saying "send us a decent earl or we'll send you his head next time."

There have been reasonably egalitarian peasant societies and extremely patriarchal and hierarchical ones - for example in _The Subsistence Perspective_ Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen and Maria Mies obeserve "We cannot shake off the suspicion that the modern dismissal of the peasant economy, both in theory and in practice, is largely due to the fact that wome have too much independence within it."

The same could be made of each of these contentions - they rely on a single source, uncritically explored, and a wide ranging exploration of historical and other literature pertaining to the peasant will give a different picture. It might be more useful to ask what kind of peasants we are likely to make - there are quite a few possibilities to explore. I would recommend Teodor Shanin on the Peasant Economy and Mies and Bennholdt-Thomsen on the "Subsistence Perspective" to anyone as a useful starting point.


A lot of the world lives dangerously close to the edge of food supply, even developed countries.

At a company Christmas party a few years ago I had the pleasure of meeting, Gwendolyn, the company president's wife. She was a small, charming and genteel woman with an English accent, and since I enjoyed visiting England I asked her about growing up there. I will never forget the story she told me about how difficult it was for her to get enough to eat in the years following WWII, and this lasted into the 1950's- 60's when she was in college. She mentioned having to be particularly careful to eat enough protein.

England is still dependent on imports for something like 30% of their food. Germany fared much worse during WWI when the blockade caused one million to starve and over half a million starved after WWII.

Rob Hopkins introduced the Transition Towns movement at the ASPO Cork conference, it is now firmly established around the world, even as far as Waiheke Island off Auckland. Ugo Bardi was there, so I wonder whether he thinks it is a solution to peak oil, gas, coal and uranium?

In Lavenham in Suffolk we have registered a Community Interest Company (Transition Lavenham CIC) as suitable base to invest in an energy centre, private electrical distribution system (as successfully created in Woking), in local food and fuel growing and in local services.

I think we can deploy decentralised technologies to produce a survival mechanism, such as air to air heat pumps, waste gasification and digestion for generation plus solar and wind. We have already produced vegetables for sale at the local farmers market.

Globalisation has to be replaced with localisation, so we all become potato (and other veggies) eaters from our backyards! What do TOD bloggers think? Am I the fanatic MCrab writes that I am?