How Relocalization Worked

Below the fold is a guest essay by John Michael Greer, author of The Long Descent, a book I have read and recommend. The post examines the importance and viability of relocalization from a historical perspective.

How Relocalization Worked

by John Michael Greer

(Original can be found here.)

One of the points that I’ve tried to make repeatedly in these essays is the place of history as a guide to what works. It’s a point that deserves repetition. A good many worldsaving plans now in circulation, however new the rhetoric that surrounds them, simply rehash proposals that were tried in the past and failed repeatedly; trying them yet again may thus not be the best use of our limited resources and time.

Of course there’s another side to history that’s more hopeful: something that worked well in the past can be a useful guide to what might work well in the future. I’d like to spend a little time discussing one example of this, partly because it ties into the theme of the current series of posts – the abject failure of current economic notions, and the options for replacing them with ideas that actually make sense – and partly because it addresses one of the more popular topics in the ongoing peak oil discussion, the need for economic relocalization as the age of cheap abundant energy comes to an end.

That relocalization needs to happen, and will happen, is clear. Among other things, it’s clear from history; when complex societies overshoot their resource bases and decline, one of the things that consistently happens is that centralized economic arrangements fall apart, long distance trade declines sharply, and the vast majority of what we now call consumer goods get made at home, or very close to home. Now of course that violates some of the conventional wisdom that governs economic decisions these days; centralized economic arrangements are thought to yield economies of scale that make them more profitable by definition than decentralized local arrangements.

When history conflicts with theory, though, it’s not history that’s wrong, so a second look at the conventional wisdom is in order. The economies of scale and resulting profits of centralized economic arrangements don’t happen by themselves. They depend, among other things, on transportation infrastructure. This doesn’t happen by itself, either; it happens because governments pay for it, for purposes of their own. The Roman roads that made the tightly integrated Roman economy possible, for example, and the interstate highway system that does the same thing for America, were not produced by entrepreneurs; they were created by central governments for military purposes. (The legislation that launched the interstate system in the US, for example, was pushed by the Department of Defense, which wrestled with transportation bottlenecks all through the Second World War.)

Government programs of this kind subsidize economic centralization. The same thing is true of other requirements for centralization – for example, the maintenance of public order, so that shipments of consumer goods can get from one side of the country to the other without being looted. Governments don’t establish police forces and defend their borders for the purpose of allowing businesses to ship goods safely over long distances, but businesses profit mightily from these indirect subsidies nonetheless.

When civilizations come unglued, in turn, all these indirect subsidies for economic centralization go away. Roads are no longer maintained, harbors silt up, bandits infest the countryside, migrant nations invade and carve out chunks of territory for their own, and so on. Centralization stops being profitable, because the indirect subsidies that make it profitable aren’t there any more.

Ugo Bardi has written a very readable summary of how this process unfolded in one of the best documented cases, the fall of the Roman Empire. The end of Rome was a process of radical relocalization, and the result was the Middle Ages. The Roman Empire handled defense by putting huge linear fortifications along its frontiers; the Middle Ages replaced this with fortifications around every city and baronial hall. The Roman Empire was a political unity where decisions affecting every person within its borders were made by bureaucrats in Rome. Medieval Europe was the antithesis of this, a patchwork of independent feudal kingdoms the size of a Roman province, which were internally divided into self-governing fiefs, those into still smaller fiefs, and so on, to the point that a single village with a fortified manor house could be an autonomous political unit with its own laws and the recognized right to wage war on its neighbors.

The same process of radical decentralization affected the economy as well. The Roman economy was just as centralized as the Roman polity; in major industries such as pottery, mass production at huge regional factories was the order of the day, and the products were shipped out via sea and land for anything up to a thousand miles to the end user. That came to a screeching halt when the roads weren’t repaired any more, the Mediterranean became pirate heaven, and too many of the end users were getting dispossessed, and often dismembered as well, by invading Visigoths. The economic system that evolved to fill the void left by Rome’s implosion was thus every bit as relocalized as a feudal barony, and for exactly the same reasons.

Here’s how it worked. Each city – and “city” in this context means anything down to a town of a few thousand people – was an independent economic center; it might have a few industries of more than local fame, but most of its business consisted of manufacturing and selling things to its own citizens and the surrounding countryside. The manufacturing and selling was managed by guilds, which were cooperatives of master craftsmen. To get into a guild-run profession, you had to serve an apprenticeship, usually seven years, during which you got room and board in exchange for learning the craft and working for your master; you then became a journeyman, and worked for a master for wages, until you could produce your masterpiece – yes, that’s where the word came from – which was an example of craftwork fine enough to convince the other masters to accept you as an equal. Then you became a master, with voting rights in the guild.

The guild had the legal responsibility under feudal municipal laws to establish minimum standards for the quality of goods, to regulate working hours and conditions, and to control prices. The economic theory of the time held that there was a “just price” for any good or service, usually the price that had been customary in the region since time out of mind, and the municipal authorities could be counted on to crack down on attempts to push prices above the just price unless there was some very pressing reason for it. Most forms of competition between masters were off limits; if you made your apprentices and journeymen work evenings and weekends to outproduce your competitors, for example, or sold goods below the just price, you’d get in trouble with the guild, and could be barred from doing business in the town. The only form of competition that was encouraged was to make and sell a superior product.

This was the secret weapon of the guild economy, and it helped drive an age of technical innovation. As Jean Gimpel showed conclusively in The Medieval Machine, the stereotype of the Middle Ages as a period of technological stagnation is completely off the mark. Medieval craftsmen invented the clock, the cannon, and the movable-type printing press, perfected the magnetic compass and the water wheel, and made massive improvements in everything from shipbuilding and steelmaking to architecture and windmills, just for starters. The competition between masters and guilds for market share in a legal setting that made quality and innovation the only fields of combat wasn’t the only force behind these transformations, to be sure – the medieval monastic system, which put a good fraction of intellectuals of both genders in settings where they could use their leisure for just about any purpose that could be chalked up to the greater glory of God, was also a potent factor – but it certainly played a massive role.

The guild system has nonetheless been a whipping boy for mainstream economists for a long time now. The person who started that fashion was none other than Adam Smith, whose The Wealth of Nations castigates the guilds of his time for what we’d now call antitrust violations. From within his own perspective, Smith had a point. The guilds were structured in a way that limited the total number of people who could work in any given business in any given town, and of course the just price principle kept prices from fluctuating along with supply and demand. Thus the prices paid for the goods or services produced by that business were higher, all things considered, than they would have been under the free market regime Smith advocated.

The problem with Smith’s analysis is that there are crucial issues involved that he didn’t address. He lived at a time when transportation was rapidly expanding, public order was more or less guaranteed, and the conditions for economic centralization were coming back into play. Thus the very different realities of limited, localized markets did not enter into his calculations. In the context of localized economics, a laissez-faire free market approach doesn’t produce improved access to better and cheaper goods and services, as Smith argued it should; instead, it makes it impossible to produce many kinds of goods and services at all.

Let’s take a specific example for the sake of clarity. A master blacksmith in a medieval town of 5000 people, say, was in no position to specialize in only one kind of ironwork. He might be better at fancy ironmongery than anyone else in town, for example, but most of the business that kept his shop open, his apprentices fed and clothed, and his journeymen paid was humbler stuff: nails, hinges, buckles, and the like. Most of this could be done by people with much less skill than our blacksmith; that’s why he had his apprentices make nails while he sat upstairs at the table with the local abbot and discussed the ironwork for a dizzyingly complex new cutting-edge technology, just introduced from overseas, called a clock.

The fact that most of his business could be done by relatively unskilled labor, though, left our blacksmith vulnerable to competition. His shop, with its specialized tools and its staff of apprentices and journeymen, was expensive to maintain. If somebody else who could only make nails, hinges, and buckles could open a smithy next door, and offer goods at a lower price, our blacksmith could be driven out of business, since the specialized work that only he could do wouldn’t be enough to pay his bills. The cut-rate blacksmith then becomes the only game in town – at least, until someone who limited his work to even cheaper products made at even lower costs cut into his profits. The resulting race to the bottom, in a small enough market, might end with nobody able to make a living as a blacksmith at all.

Thus in a restricted market where specialization is limited, a free market in which prices are set by supply and demand, and there are no barriers to entry, can make it impossible for many useful specialties to be economically viable at all. This is the problem that the guild system evolved to counter. By restricting the number of people who could enter any given trade, the guilds made sure that the income earned by master craftsmen was high enough to allow them to produce specialty products that were not needed in large enough quantities to provide a full time income. Since most of the money earned by a master craftsman was spent in the town and surrounding region – our blacksmith and his family would have needed bread from the baker, groceries from the grocer, meat from the butcher, and so on – the higher prices evened out; since nearly everyone in town was charging guild prices and earning guild incomes, no one was unfairly penalized.

Now of course the guild system did finally break down; by Adam Smith’s time, the economic conditions that made it the best option were a matter of distant memory, and other arrangements were arguably better suited to the new reality of easy transport and renewed economies of scale. Still, it’s interesting that in recent years, the same race to the bottom in which quality goods become unavailable and local communities suffer has taken place in nearly the same way in most of small-town America.

A torrent of cheap shoddy goods funneled through Wal-Mart and its ilk, in a close parallel to the cheap blacksmiths of the example, have driven local businesses out of existence and made the superior products and services once provided by those businesses effectively unavailable to a great many Americans. In theory, this produces a business environment that is more efficient and innovative; in practice, the efficiencies are by no means clear and the innovation seems mostly to involve the creation of ever more exotic and unstable financial instruments: not necessarily the sort of thing that our society is better off encouraging.

Advocates of relocalization in the age of peak oil may thus find it useful to keep the medieval example and its modern equivalent in mind while planning for the economics of the future. Relocalized communities must be economically viable or they will soon cease to exist, and while viable local communities will be possible in the future – just as they were in the Middle Ages – the steps that will be necessary to make them viable may require some serious rethinking of the habits that now shape our economic lives.

I enjoyed your historical description of re-localization and the importance of the guild system in the local economies of the past. Maybe, after an extended "Dark Age", humanity will revert to something similar, but not in my childrens' lifetime. Gross urbanization, loss of essential skills, absentee ownership of property, overpopulation, resource depletion, environmental degradation, familial dispersion, etc. all invoke a different paradigm. I foresee a type of "neolocalization" but it won't be as some people hope.

Maybe, after an extended "Dark Age", humanity will revert to something similar, but not in my childrens' lifetime.

Indeed. JMGreer gives us some useful understanding here (and well-presented) but seems to have a huge critical 600-800 year gap in his history books. The Western Roman Empire collapsed in the 400s, the system of guilds and apprentices developed many centuries later. In the meantime there were those centuries in which (to quote JMG above):

bandits infest the countryside, migrant nations invade and carve out chunks of territory for their own, [....]

To be a bit more explicit, the chaos of brutal anarchy reigned for a long time. A look at the archeological record in the UK shows that the Dark Ages did not warrant the "..." that Ghung put there; they were indeed very Dark and lasted Ages for anyone surviving through a small part of them.

I think this huge oversight by JMG is a symptom of a larger misapprehension he has, namely his resolute conviction that there is not going to be a sudden collapse. I tried to discuss this concept with him on his website and his response was little better than flaming. He's clearly a very informed, intelligent and perceptive person committed to studying the field, so I incline to put this peculiar blindspot down to emotional denial.
(And some people react to praise from a fan club by becoming very arrogant and impervious to any possibility that their critics might be more right than themselves; another notable example of the syndrome may have initials D.O.)

My reckoning is, yes the principles that JMG here indicates will be relevant in the future, but for as far as our own generations are concerned, we have to instead concentrate on how to survive a new Dark Ages, albeit hopefully just a few months or years this time rather than centuries. This is my reasoning on collapse:
and this is my reasoning and project on what to do:
[P.S.: I note that member JMG3W, after 18 days of not commenting, and having previously commented only four times in the last month, has started commenting by amazing coincidence on this post by an author JMG. And with a profile page that conspicuously fails to indicate whether this is the same JMG. Is he shy of being upstaged in open debate? Normally the author appears in the comments with a clear identification. What's to think?!

I have no idea who JMG3W might be; it's certainly not me. I haven't posted on TOD in the past, mostly because there are only so many hours in a day.

As for my "blind spot," if you want to use that label for the fact that I disagree with your notions about the future, that's your prerogative.

Thanks John. My theory that JMG3W=JMG has now fallen on hard times further down this page.

I can appreciate your point about only so many hours in the day but I think many here would think it valuable (for readers and writer alike) to have a knowledgeable etc person such as yourself occasionally contributing in the comments here.

Re blind spot (yours or maybe mine instead)... how about you say why you dismiss the proposed reasons (linked above) for a sudden collapse? (Some others here are inclining likewise so you'll be in suitably challenging territory!)

Robin, one of the difficulties with internet discussions is that it's difficult to cover the reasons for a point of view of any depth or complexity in the sound-bite dimensions of a blog's comment page. It took me most of The Long Descent to explain why I think claims of a sudden, total, and global collapse are unlikely to prove correct, and even then I freely admit I skimped some points. Toynbee's ten volumes are about the length that would be needed to treat the issue adequately.

On a back-of-the-envelope basis, though, my central point is that collapse tends to be self-limiting in the short run, because it frees up resources no longer needed to support the people who die, the systems that fall apart, the buildings that get burnt to the ground, etc. There are also homeostatic processes within human societies that counter sudden change. This won't prevent a collapse driven by some underlying predicament from playing out at length, but it does impose the kind of stairstep decline -- crisis, followed by partial recovery, followed by renewed crisis, rinse and repeat until you've got sheep grazing in the Forum at Rome -- that shows up so commonly in historical examples of decline and fall.

I'm not sure this counts as a "slow collapse" in the sense you seem to mean, as most of the collapsing happens in a series of pulses that can be very sudden and horrifically destructive. It also offers essentially no support to the idea that we can somehow manage the decline -- those of us who survive the first wave of crises will be too busy scrambling for raw survival to spend a lot of time on anything else. What it means is simply that we won't be landing in the Stone Age overnight. (I don't think we'll get there at all; my midrange guess is a dark age 3 to 4 centuries in length with roughly an 18th century technology, though with bits and pieces of more advanced stuff here and there.)

Can that model be picked to pieces here? Of course, because I don't have the 200+ pages to get into details, discuss sources, etc. That's one of the reasons I don't get into it with people who post critical comments on my blog, fwiw.

JMG (the real one!):

Thanks for your articles, well written and thought provoking.

When thinking about possible futures, IMHO it is helpful to visualize them as a spectrum of possible scenarios, each with a different probability. At the one extreme we have technocopian optimism, and the other extreme we have dieoff doomer pessimism. In between are more mixed and moderate "long descent" or "catabolic collapse" scenarios. I would call those mid-range scenarios (and myself, and, if the shoe fits - as I presume it does - yourself) "declinist".

A phenomenon I am observing here: To the technocopian optimists, even declinists sound too pessimistic, and technocopians seem to see little difference between declinists and doomers; on the other hand, to doomers, even declinists sound too optimistic, and doomers seem to see little difference between technocopians and declinists - we are all "in denial" to them.

I acknowledge that the doomer scenarios are real possibilities. I just don't see them as having a 100% probability - yet. I'm more inclined to see the midrange declinist scenarios as actually being the most realistic and thus having the highest range of probabilities, at least for now. None of us can actually know the future, for the simple reason that the future is contingent - it depends upon decisions that haven't yet been made and actions that have not yet been taken.

Time scale matters, too, and I think that sometimes we all talk past each other because we are focused on different time scales. I am focused on the next 25-50 years, because my own life span will not extend beyond that time frame. I do have some interest in the longer time frame up to the next century or so beyond that, mainly as a matter of intellectual curiosity. I have no idea what the future will be like 500 or 5,000 or 500,000 or 5 million years from now. It seems to me to be pretty pointless to even speculate that far into the future; that actual future will almost certainly be different than any of our speculations, and in any case it will be up to the people living then.

WNC Observer wrote:

JMG (the real one!)

Being the unreal JMG (if that is the logical inverse of being the real one), that must make me a figment of my own imagination, the ultimate in narcissic solipsism? :-)

My thoughts on the doomer-technoutopian spectrum:

If you are on either end, there is no need to prepare for the future, because you are either completely doomed or because the future will be good. If you are in between or if you believe in a spectrum of possible outcomes, then preparations are important. I am becoming increasingly pessimistic and leaning towards doom, but I also consider the possibility of total, rapid collapse, nuclear war or ecosystem collapse to not be scenarios that I can prepare for, and therefore I don't spend much time thinking about them except for the near-inevitable premature death they would entail. Descent scenarios are more interesting because they are survivable and more likely than technoutopia.

I usually just say: "Hope for the best but prepare for the worst". Its shorter.

Thanks John for further replies (and meanwhile I've been away from here a few days).
I'm sceptical of a self-limitingness of collapse preventing a sudden new "stone age" (at least in some locales) -- I suspect we have an unusually precarious house of cards now. But until I've looked further into your reasonings I can hardly make myself out to know better than you.
And I'd like to apologise for the unnecessary negative ad hom I posted as the second comment on this page; I'd hope I/we can give you a more friendly welcome on any future occasion!

No, we are not the same individual but we do have a few things in common. JMG has authored more books than I, I preceded him across the U of Washington campus in undergraduate and graduate work, and I preceded him into this - Lessons from Amateur Radio (which I, as does AD7VI, highly recommend). As to why I do or don't post, I scan TOD more regularly than I post, posting when I happen to have the time (seldom) or am procrastinating on a work project (usually). Now that I've completed building and outfitting a treadmill desk, I'll multi-task more broadly beyond completing a book every couple of weeks while keeping my blood pressure down and other aging effects at bay (yes, I have a desk job).

To be fair to JMG, he did seem to leave the subject open to discussion. As a relative newbie to the site I am not really familiar with his previous posts or you guys' history. My (mostly intuitive) feelings regarding steep decline (not that it will happen, just that it likely could) are born of personal observation. In the late '70s I traveled to Yugoslavia as a student. With all of it's faults it was a functioning society with a multiethnic population including many enlightened, educated people (the govt. not-withstanding, perhaps). Indeed, shortly after, they hosted a quite successful Winter Olympics. Just a few years later I was back, in a very different role, and I realized how quickly a population can turn on itself. I had a similar close-up view of Somalia. The thing is, this time there won't be any NATO or UN to eventually come to the rescue because this time it will be global and much more complex. Mix in feelings of entitlement, various forms of "divine right", racial and tribal tensions, justifiable fear, all of the other things that preclude any form of societal security, you have a powder keg waiting for a match. It occurs to me that we may be nearing this condition in my lifetime. There are 6.8 billion+ humans on the planet and most of them don't know jack (lucky folks). The match could be global warming, resource depletion (as in Rome, etc, ect), peak energy, environmental, political, overpopulation, famine, disease, most likely a combination of all of the above. We are in historical overshoot as all of these thing are happening on a scale never described by history, so I get a little uneasy. I'm used to describing problems in some context. Then again, I suppose humankind is always in historical overshoot.......

Methinks I'll spend the rest of my birthday curled up with my poodle and a good book on another subject.
Peace y'all!

The interesting issue here is the question of what kind of collapse is ahead. What I see is that all our present strategies are to push harder and faster toward collapse, and so the real trick is figuring out what to quit doing more than what to work at ever harder. I think even if we continue to pull out all the stops for making our present technologies outmoded and inoperable, the effect of pursuing so many deeply mistaken strategies, I think it will still take a long series of large and small tumbles to bring about what anyone would call a general collapse.

The least expensive way to delay, soften or prevent them would be to cease devoting our energies to displacing our own indisposable systems. Barring that, I think it'll still take a fair amount of time, and considerable persistence with self-defeating strategies to pull it off.

It took the Romans several hundred years to grind their system into the dust, by maintaining a culture of ever more exhaustive practices. It may go faster for us, being closer to the edge in some ways than they were, and having further to fall, maybe, but it's still going to take more than any one lifetime and a great deal of concerted effort. The main thing that natural systems demonstrate as a way to keep their growth processes from destroying their own beginnings is by quitting them.

So... I still do think people are fully capable of the great discipline and many years of devoted labor to stick with completely self-defeating strategies to the very end. They've done it many times it seems. It's very much what we're now caught up in too. You can see that in how our main societal purpose is devotion to accelerating the consumption of all available resources. It's our primary strategy for "conserving" our society. It's not necessary if you take a realistic view, though.

Yes, surely a strange society has been created when consumption seems to conserve it.

Unions are a pale imitation of the Guilds.
The Corporations' personhood must be destroyed.
People are born live and die within a decent time.
Corporations, like cancer, do not die. Like cancer they have untrammeled lethal growth.
Co-operative effort must be for the purpose of the single project at hand and then be dissolved.

In future guilds must be for the furthering of the trade.
It must nurture talent and be an enabling medium for the members of the Guild and the society in which it operates.
It's survival must never be it's objective.
Like money or any artifact of the mind it must serve humanity and not the other way round.

Several European countries have vestiges of the Guild system.

Switzerland, for example, fixes salaries of some professional groups, or categories of employees, through negotiations not between Unions and Bosses, but between professional associations, and employers. Med workers, sales workers, factory workers in X field, teachers, etc. sit down and sign a ‘convention’ with the counterparty who pays out, private business, or Gvmt, that specifies minimum salary and other working conditions.

These are not binding, as CH has ‘free’ contract law (anyone can make any contract they please) and nobody is required to sign. But they are generally respected. Violating them - in spirit or after signing - is very bad news for the entity that is cheating. (Scandal, pilloried in the press, employees quitting, etc.)

One of the last Guilds to expire was chimney sweepers, just a few years ago.

(Actually I believe this story is still ongoing and not worked out.)

Treaties signed with the EU put paid to the monopoly they had, the Guild had apprentices, and a ‘master’ etc. ladder, all of it accepted by the State. One of the arguments put forward by that Guild was that local knowledge and personal contacts are essential to applying ‘best safety’ practices. True enough. Thus accepted.

Of course, there are less and less chimneys that need service...

Corporatist (in the sense of a body of workers, a professional association, not the US ‘corporation’) interests, associations, Unions (these have become muddled over time, and France has the weakest Unions in the EU) in France, are to be understood as having the same historical roots.

Finally now that the ever expanding resource base has ceasd to exist (although millions of people still haven`t fathomed that yet) perhaps resources will be priced high, local production will come back into style, the cheaper option simply won`t be possible anymore. Already shops are limiting quantities of items they stock because they don`t want to sell them at a discount (and a loss) later. So we are in for a protracted period of shortages as this phenomenom gets more broadly into play, and the price of labor won`t make much difference, because the cost is all in the material. Even a very skillful doctor might happily do a surgery all afternoon your leg for just one nice ham or three good loaves of bread. Or a plumber will charge you a lot for a pipe (maybe a new basket or a roll of cloth) but almost nothing (a slice of bread) for his labor. Basically people will just work for staying alive. Will a guild help in this type of situation? You can`t charge less than the other person unless you can eat less, so a very tiny thin person who needs fewer calories could presumably have an advantage in the labor force!

A guild could help with training I suppose. And I`m sure that the govt will want to continue to have the privilege of issuing licenses, permits, and such to people (restaurants, doctors, hairdressers, factories, schools)---there is quite a lot of money to be made in that---inspections, examinations, certifications, etc. But can this expensive structure (in a sense it has taken over for the guilds) be maintained? If not, then what happens instead?

By the way, a great novel Cathedral of the Sea (by Ildefonso Falcones) tells the story of a man living in medieval Barcelona. Much of what this article refers to is illustrated vividly: the defense system, the feudal lord, the guilds, etc.


Every once in a great while, you read something that makes so much sense that you're left murmuring "of course" and wondering at your failure to see it before. The dependence of centralized production on easy transport and dependable law enforcement is obvious, but I don't think I ever properly connected its breakdown to the decline of Rome. Hazards of the deplorable state of education in general and the teaching of history in particular. I'm pretty educated in history compared to the average, but in all that nonsense about rulers and battles, I somehow overlooked the fact that the Roman economy involved a lot of large scale centralized production and trade.

I had also never thought of the guild system of medieval Europe as a logical respose to the breakdown of Roman rule and the need for "relocalization". It certainly makes sense though. And something rather like it may be necessary in to cope with the fundamental problem of the "race to the bottom" that infects the free market economy. Even if we manage to avoid a collapse of global order and trade, I think it will be necessary in order to deal with the problem of unemployment and excessive resource consumption. In a guild system with "just prices", you don't need advertising and stimulated consumption.

A caution, though, against taking the model too literally. Somebody said, "history does not repeat, but it rhymes." I don't think modern science and technology are going to disappear. They may freeze up for a while, but even when Rome collapsed, Roman knowledge was preserved. Something analogous to medieval monestaries will exist. The persistence of the most useful high technology at some level will make the coming age far different than a straight replay of the Middle Ages.


I don't think modern science and technology are going to disappear. They may freeze up for a while, but even when Rome collapsed, Roman knowledge was preserved. Something analogous to medieval monestaries will exist.

Some Roman knowledge was preserved. Much was lost because of the arrogant anti-intellectualism of the Christian clergy at the time of the Empire's fall. They were hostile to all "worldly" and "pagan" learning (and remember - many came from the barbarian tribes, who were ignorant of the positive aspects of Roman culture), so there was a vast amount they didn't see fit to preserve*. It was only later, and gradually, that the Church became a haven for intellectuals.

If there is a sudden collapse of the energy supply, this will maximise the amount of capital sunk in stranded assets, which will have to be written off as useless or converted to a much lower use. In these circumstances, I can definitely see the potential for much science & technology to be lost. A more gradual power-down, however, will allow for adaptation of economic life, the amortisation of sunk assets, and for the retention of a moderate degree of long-distance economic activity. This will enable most contemporary knowledge to be maintained, at least until it can be demonstrated whether it is relevant in the changed economic circumstances.

* Maybe some of the wilder US evangelicals, when they go on their anti-science rants, are channelling the 4th & 5th Century clergy. Hmmm.

Pottery production in Northern England at first halted completly with the second Saxon rebellion. When it eventualy returned it was not made to the same quality as that of Roman times.

Regarding the preservation of knowledge, I'm sure you're right that a great deal of Roman knowledge was lost due to the medieval monks views on what was and wasn't worth preserving. But an even bigger loss was in the burning of the library at Alexandria. Variously blamed, as I just discovered, on Julius Caesar in 48 BC, the Christian Patriarch Theophilus of Alexandria around 391 AD, and the Muslim Caliph Omar after taking the city in 640 AD. But regardless of "who dunnit", eveyone seems to agree that the library was huge, and that the loss was immense and tragic.

The Scientific American has taken some hits here recently for the quality of its articles, but the current issue has one that I found fascinating. It's on "decoding the Antiktheyra mechanism" (or some such title). The estimates on when it was made are around 200 BC; I find it mind boggling that the knowledge and mechanical sophistication to build such a complex analog computer could have existed back then.

I don't think modern science and technology are going to disappear. They may freeze up for a while, but even when Rome collapsed, Roman knowledge was preserved.

Some knowledge will be preserved, but without economies of scale in the production base, much will be lost. Much of the knowledge in the modern world is not rigidly codified- that is, it cannot be learned strictly from a book. 2 examples: 1. 20 years ago I worked on a factory floor making parts for large generators. A majority of the processes were almost completely undocumented. 2. Now that I am older, I have come to see why experienced people run large projects: the wisdom acquired from working on a variety of projects in a variety of rolls is required to deal with the challenges. If you do not have a large project (or high technology) infrastructure, those skills will die with the last people who know them. In the first case, it is seen as unprofitable to do the documentation; in the second, wisdom only comes from experience


I had also never thought of the guild system of medieval Europe as a logical response to the breakdown of Roman rule and the need for "relocalization".

I can't claim that as an original idea -- Ugo Bardi's essay, which I cited in mine, pointed out that the Middle Ages was in effect the necessary response to "Peak Empire."

I find it amusing how people sift through history, pick instances out of their ancient settings, bend and contort them to bear resemblance to present circumstances, and finally attempt to prognosticate the future.

How many Romans and Greeks would have concentrated their thoughts on such ideas as "relocalization", "subsidies", "mass production", "laissez-faire", "economies of scale" etc? So many of these are modern problems unfamiliar to ancient antiquity, and have only grown in importance because of the growth of wealth. The great Plato's and Aristotle's actually thought of the mercantile class of men as a lesser breed, whose affairs were not to be studied in much detail. Back then, philosopher and statesman were "gold", the soldiers were "silver" and the workers were "bronze". Today, the workers and businessmen are gold, the soldiers are bronze and true philosophers and statesmen are extinct.

History instructs us well enough to a certain extent. For the most part, we are heading into uncharted terrain. The humans of today are a far different breed from those of yester-milleniums. We are unlikely to respond in in the same stereotyped ways as our ancestors did. Many things which succeeded in history are likely to fail now. Many things which failed before will likely succeed now with the aid of the numerous innovations which lie at man's feet. Many things will happen which are unfamiliar to history as we know it.

We will remake the world and ourselves in ways which we cannot even comprehend at this juncture. There are ideas floating around on how the world should re-adjust, but many of them are fathomed by conservatives having no other aid than past experience. When the whole world begins to divert its intelligence to solving problems in the new era, we shall witness a wellspring of new ideas.

Who knows....Capitalism might disappear and a new form of intelligent socialism might emerge. Economics might cease to be our main preoccupation in life, and perhaps the natural world will come to the forefront of all affairs. It's almost certain that materialism will decline in importance, and perhaps in its place will come a renewed spiritualism.

We no longer live in ignorance and bewilderment as people did in the past, but are equipped with a wealth of knowledge and consciousness. In light of this, I believe the future is still unfathomable.

"We no longer live in ignorance and bewilderment as people did in the past, but are equipped with a wealth of knowledge and consciousness."

But we do live in ignorance and bewilderment. You're just parroting the received wisdom of the masses which is totally wrong minded. Most people are so ignorant and useless that they don't have a chance of surviving on the same resource base as our ancestors.

I admire the optimizm expressed in some of the previous posts. One can hope. I have considered that the sense of entitlement that pervades our society will alow for a more violent and chaotic decline, perhaps ruled by warlords and a warior class. The "guild class" will exist to service their needs. Can you say "Thunderdome"?


I am amazed at the ignorance of the current generation of youth. Most cannot even make change at the register if the computing process has failed or broken.

Simple math is out of the question. Algebra is not even on the horizon. First Person Shooter games(twitch games I call them) have rendered their minds into quivering jelly. I have a few second cousins with epileptic seizures and beginnings of autism as a result of total immersion in twitch gaming. Or so their father was advised as he let the games do his babysitting for him for his three sons. I know I will get some flak on this from 'grown up' players and my question is 'would you prefer the world of fantasy or the real world?'


I am amazed at the ignorance of the current generation of youth. Most cannot even make change at the register if the computing process has failed or broken.

I have a friend that was turned away from McDonald's because the change machine was broken.

....and WHICH generation is to blame for this?

IMO the ones who sit in class and doze off.

The one's who imagine themselves as near to vampire status.

Of course WE( whoever the ubiquitous *we*) are. I refuse to be guilty. My daughter is a teacher with a degree in Instructional Technology. I have been in her science classrooms for the Junior class. It was pathetic.

On the chalkboard was written(by itself)
Three feet equal one yard
or could have been 3 ft. = 1 yd. ..but that would have been far too 'technical' for the noobs.

I asked her other science teacher who was with me about this and his reply was "Yes most do not know this,sadly."

I was astounded. Later I knew it was true.As I looked out over the class it was all too obvious that almost all of them were just putting in their time and could care less about what my daughter was saying in her lesson for that period.

Airdale-Or you could blame it on the 'Right Wing Evangicals' as usual. Or those dratted 'Conseratives'.
Of which I might be one, haven't checked lately.

Airdale, I couldn't agree more. The ten or more classes that I had in HS just on history, the constitution, and the social sciences, etc. were cooked down to 2 courses by the time my kids came along. My daughter's American history teacher was "alloted" one class on the Constitution (50 freakin' minutes!) I realized that the schools now teach kids what to think, not how to think. However, regarding the current subject, we won't need a lot of rocket scientists anyway. Locallized economies run mostly on hard labor and in that area I say we're still in big trouble. Try to find a kid to mow your lawn lately?

Locallized economies run mostly on hard labor and in that area I say we're still in big trouble. Try to find a kid to mow your lawn lately?

How true. At the moment I'm earning some money cutting hedges and am being constantly asked if I'm available for other work. There just isn't anyone locally capable or willing to do hard physical work and there is an unfulfilled demand.

Until I set up my microfarm there was no opportunity for money to circulate within the village and therefore zero local economy. Money flowed into the village households (mainly from the state in pensions, benefits and state funded employment) and straight out again without circulating and without stimulating production or services. This is beginning to change as my efforts start attracting money flows for produce and labour. The problem being that there is no local produce or services for me to spend that money on.

My next effort will be to try an build from the ground up the rest of the production and services necessary to bring the village back to life and support/stimulate a local economy. I think the role of physical labour in local economies is massively underestimated, in many cases it is the only resource on which to build a resilient local economy.

Locallized economies run mostly on hard labor and in that area I say we're still in big trouble. Try to find a kid to mow your lawn lately?

Some of this is simple demographics. There are just fewer kids around so the OldFarts/Kids ratio is skewed toward the OldFarts.

Airdale, Ghung,

You guys are onto something that is obvious to everybody but almost impossible to talk about-we can't go round hurting anybody's feelings these days, and after all the everybody KNOWS that teachers are all hardworking underpaid angels and that blah blah blah.......

Been there .Done that.

Go into any public school that isn't entirely rotted out and you will generally find that thre are in effect two schools.One group of kids-the ones with average and better than average abilities are in classes run by pretty good teachers mostly.These kids parents are other teachers, lawyers, doctors , dentists, successful business people-and ordinary working people who are good parents.

Disturbances are rare, standards are up held, homework is assigned and gets done.Classes are geared mostly toward college prep.

At the opposite end of the building is the other school-homework is seldom assigned,never gets done, disturbances are frequent, the lunatics are in charge of the asylum.Kids are graduated every June that couldn't get thru the eighth grade at the other end of the building.The name of the game is mostly babysitting and pretending that a diploma is valuable, even though it signifies nothing except the Kafkaesque reality of a society on the way down and out.These kids parents generally don't have a clue.

Don't expect change to come from within-the NEA and the AFT and the rest of the political coalition is about votes at election time, salary, benefits, pensions -not kids.

I can see only one way that there might be real reform and the chances are slim to none-a real voucher program.Anyone who thinks otherwise is in my humble opinion either hopelessly ill informed in this respect, utterly niave, or a lying hypocrite.

But as Greer puts it I would need to write two hundred pages to clearly illustrate my argument.

Both my parents were teachers. They checked out just in time.

Mine also-- and ditto

The best instructors I ever had didn't have college degrees. They were civilians and petty officers in the Electronics Technician school at the Great Lakes Naval Base north of Chicago. The Navy chose instructors on how well they could do a job not on how many college credits they had. In only seven months we went through as many class room hours as three years of college and without all that liberal arts mandatory tuition wasting classes. The teaching was broken up into two week long units and if you didn't pass a unit you were sent back and if you were sent back too often you ended up in a boatswain's chair chipping paint off the side of a destroyer. They didn't waste money teaching the unteachable. Some people have a gift for teaching others and college can't turn the ungifted into good teachers. Some people can visualize what happens inside a power klystron and some can't. The same goes for a great many other skills.

Most people have something in life they can be good at but market forces don't give us time or the incentive to find out what productive activity each of us is best suited for. The number of butchers, bakers, and quantum physicists we have depends on how much profit butchers, bakers, and physicists can make for the investors in this world.

As a navy veteran I can also appreciate the no nonsense approach of the military.
However, many of the features of the training program that is obviously so effective were also common to the Soviet system.
They actually would identify children based on their parents abilities and nurture only the "best".
The danger in this type of rigid structure is drifting away from what could prove beneficial in a changing paradigm by eliminating novel thought.
There must be a happy medium somewhere.

I spent winter of '79-'80 and winter '80-'81 at Great Mistakes. (I thought I had been cold 'til the Navy sent me there). This was after 2 years in a liberal arts school. I too enjoyed the accelerated style of instruction. Probably retained more from 2 years of Navy schools than I did from 6 in college.

The coldest I have ever been was a NorPac around the Aleutians.

Airdale, in response to Subgenius' question "and who is to blame for that [low academic standards]?"

IMO the ones who sit in class and doze off.

The one's who imagine themselves as near to vampire status

I agree with you, but you also have to consider that an infant born in the 1950s is not fundamentally different than an infant born in the 1990s. Ultimately they get raised by someone and are exposed to some kind of culture or society and that has a significant influence. It is still their fault, but it is easy to understand why such a large fraction of kids today fail whereas so few succeed.

I would go so far as to say that the problem is systemic.

I was alluding to the fact that older generations were brought up in a culture of working within the family (helping around the house, etc) and generally with a single parent going out to work. Now, it seems as if there is little to help with around the house (labor saving devices, "tv-dinners", microwave, dishwasher, etc etc) and both parents are out at work (well - were out at work until the recession hit...), and children are dumped in front of a PC/game machine to get them out of the way.

I don't see how you can blame a child brought up in the culture YOU had a hand in creating for not following a work ethic which nobody ever bothered to introduce them to.

(That's a YOU as in WE - although I as yet have no kids - I am pointing at the culture in general, but it seems people commenting here blame the recipients of bad education, rather than the system responsible for it)

Ah, I misunderstood your post. I agree with you.

Well, I have to admit as much as I enjoy reading you guys, I'm uneasy with some of the observations of my old fart cohort on TOD. As a parent of teenage boys (I got started late), here are my observations:

An infant in 1950 may not be different than an infant in 1990, but the equivalence stops there. Notwithstanding the entirely different culture these kids face, there are environmental influences that didn't exist in the 1950s. We have a whole host of chemicals, toxins, hormones, and antibiotics in the food, water, and air that weren't there 50 years ago. We've got high fructose corn syrup in everything. We do, fortunately, have less lead paint and lead in the air and soil. Some improvements have been made.

Culture is much more pervasive. Back then we had TV (remember the Vast Wasteland? How quaint.) Three channels, and that was about it. These days it's TV, cable, internet, video games, IM, Facebook, cell phones, texting. As a parent, you can't shut all of this down. Too much of it is beneficial in other ways (like tracking your kid's location by cell!).

Ultimately it comes down to the kid's talents and disposition. I have a friend with a kid who got straight A's and another who's in trouble with the law. She says "I'm not taking credit for the first one, because then you'll blame me for the second one. And guess what? I didn't parent them any differently!"

I would also like to add that there was never a golden age of well-behaved kids in school. I just went to my 40th HS reunion and was reminded of what a diversity of attitudes we had. Some of the hoods have done quite well, and some of the highest achievers never went anywhere. Most did what they had to to get by as kids, and most are middling successful as adults.

Looking at my kids' HS classmates, it looks the same to me now. I just don't think a "large fraction of kids today fail". I do think they have a hell of a lot harder row to hoe than we did, because the culture has utterly failed the family.

Having grown up in the 80s, I'm very surprised to see comments about the new generations, the blame of video games and how this society is so different from previous ones.

To the first argument I would quote

"The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for
authority, they show disrespect to their elders.... They no longer
rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents,
chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their
legs, and are tyrants over their teachers."

and other ones from Plato's Republic or Hesiod. The exact source is disputed but there is agreement about the text being older than a thousand years or two. Video games are not to blame more than leaving a kid playing in a basement in the 1920 without interacting with its parents and neighbors. (And I work with highly skilled, critical and cultured people who played/play videogames for most of their life).

As for "We no longer live in ignorance and bewilderment" I recently read a book by Seneca (Roman philosopher, or Spanish if you will) "On_the_shortness_of_life". The most shocking aspect of it is the parallel to our society. Throughout the book you can recognize Goldman Sachs execs., Britney Spears, cheap talk shows, demotivated adolescents playing video-games, drunkards, fanatics, warmongers, BAU proponents, ... etc.

Their personalities, behaviors and justifications have not changed a bit. I certainly think technology and scientific method have infused our societies with momentous advances, but concerning the reactions of societies and individuals it's hard to argue that we have become an enlighted society.


I have a few second cousins with epileptic seizures and beginnings of autism as a result of total immersion in twitch gaming. Or so their father was advised as he let the games do his babysitting for him for his three sons. I know I will get some flak on this from 'grown up' players and my question is 'would you prefer the world of fantasy or the real world?'

Perhaps your comment is intended to be tongue in cheek. I'm no expert but I have some first hand experience with autism, I can assure you it is not caused by playing any sort of games. Whoever advised their father was ignorant to say the least.

As for the choice between fantasy or reality I'll admit to being human and occasionally enjoying a quick, albeit temporary sojourn, into some fantasy to escape from the somber facets of reality. That is not to say reality doesn't have a pretty good grip on me, it can be extremely hard to ignore!

I agree that the mass of people today are mindless drones, imitating and following the lead of a handful of intelligent people, and I agree that ignorance is still a serious problem. But at least those who have superior will, character and intellect now have a greater wealth of knowledge at their disposal than in the past. Antiquity is filled with examples of exceptional men who ached and hungered for the knowledge which is so lavishly offered to us through education and the internet, and which we take for granted. They were ultimately limited by the extent of intellectual and scientific advancement in their time, and so they and could do little to change their fate. They died "hungry," so to speak.

But today, for those who are eager and absorbent, who have the force of character to complete their knowledge and lead the people, there is as much knowledge available as one could hope for to navigate through difficult times.

I shall here allude to a quote by Dr M. King Hubbert:

"Our ignorance is not so vast as our failure to use what we know."

Is this not the essential diagnosis of our time?

Don't forget religious dogma and persecution as a limiting factor. Could we return to that condition?

But also don't forget religious faith as the inspiration that has underlain the founding of all the known civilisations, and also the cherishing of scholarship and learning. (Bede for one.) And even Newton, Darwin, Faraday, etc came from firmly Christian homes.

Funny how things always balance out.

Actually, Darwin came from a Unitarian background. According to 1879 he wrote that "I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God. – I think that generally ... an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind.”

Darwin's wife was a devout Christian. He attended the local church with her. He fully realized how his theory would be seen by the Christian community. But to call him a Christian is stretching the truth.

"Is this not the essential diagnosis of our time?"

Yes, it's another form of poverty amidst riches.

Though poverty is often the mother of clarity!

Thanks John, for the essay. I'm going to go watch the Mad Max Marathon..learn about our future.
Two Men Entered. One Man Leaves....................

The world will be remade, but we have something now that never existed before in history, the nukes. One cannot rule out worldwide nuclear war. In fact it seems almost inevitable. As we go down the energy slope it seems quite likely that they will be used as a last ditch effort and then all bets are off.

Actually we have something else that no other civilization had in history. We have the ability thanks to oil, coal and gas, to depopulate the ocean, reduce the rainforests, cause massive extinctions, change the atmosphere etc. The longer the crash holds off the less likely there will be much saved.

Actually we have another condition never seen before, the total use of the planet - in the past civilization could set itself up somewhere else. No more.

200,000 years humans (supposedly ignorant) lived on this planet without destroying it. Yet they knew what mushrooms were safe to eat, where to find game, how to get poison off of frogs to tip their arrows, how to make nets, flake flint, make fire without a match etc. They were far from ignorant. We are the ignorant ones here in the 1st world. By and large most of the population wouldn't have a clue how to feed themselves if there wasn't a grocery store to go to.

As the cheerleaders at high school games used to chant "the bigger they are the harder they fall". I expect that will be true of this civilization - it will fall very hard and it is even possible that humans will extinct themselves.


Well, that might all happen, but as I see it, there is no point worrying about it, let alone "preparing for it". How do you prepare for something like that - build an "extinction shelter"? Why bother? Some - maybe most - of these doomer porn scenarios are pretty much non-survivable. Those few (whether you can call them the "lucky few" is debatable) who do somehow manage to survive will do so more as a matter of luck than anything else. How do you plan to be in the right place at the right time, and to avoid being in the wrong place at the wrong time, having no idea what places and times are right and wrong?

I guess the Roman were pretty impressed by their intellectual achievements, as they wandered home from the Senate, but then, and now, the mass of people were subsisting on the output of a profit-oriented business class.

What's new also, in this wonderful inventive world are engineered diseases, nuclear weapons, mass communications of pernicious non-understandable self-serving lies by immortal corporations who buy legislatures.

While hope is a good thing, it can also blind the uncomfortable to the realities of entropy in social systems based on humans who have not adapted to this brave new world you praise so strongly...


I find it amusing how people sift through history, pick instances out of their ancient settings, bend and contort them to bear resemblance to present circumstances, and finally attempt to prognosticate the future.

You may not have meant it, but you're perilously close to one of the most arrogant and dangerous fallacies of our time. The one that goes "we invented all of the world that matters yesterday, and we'll reinvent it tomorrow. History is irrelevant, and has nothing to teach us."

As I quoted earlier, history does not repeat itself, but it rhymes. I find it quite relevant that systems of centralized production have existed before and have collapsed when the conditions that made them advantageous were removed. Likewise the fact that there have been systems that successfully countered the "race to the bottom" tendencies of unbridled competition and the push to artificially stimulate consumption. The latter is really the central problem of our time (IMO). Even more so than the depletion of fossil fuels.

The bias for time t = now takes effort to get past in one's thinking. I think the bias is baked in as opposed to arrogance; maybe we're wired that way.

History doesn't repeat itself, but people manage to do stupid and foolish things over and over again. A very few - too few - are smart and wise enough to actually study and learn from those mistakes.

I love to repeat my mistakes. I get better at it every time.

With less net energy for society, de-specialization must happen. That is, those specialists that were supported by excess energy and agricultural production must become responsible for the production of their own sustenance. They must become primary producers and will not have the same opportunity to consume the goods of the now downsized specialized producers.

It is likely that due to fossil fuels and mechanization our farmlands will never be as productive as they are currently. If less specialized peasants displace mechanization on existing productive land, total output will fall.

The fall in output will likely mean that many will starve. Moving back to the land and de-specialization will mean less food. Therefore moving back to less complexity is not politically feasible as it will consign millions of former specialists to backbreaking subsistence farming, if not starvation.

Imagine the tall skyscrapers of a city and their specialist humans within their respective cells. Now imagine this great mass of humanity melting back into the countryside onto agriculturally marginal lands and trying to coax production from them.

I think we will be going back but it will not be voluntary, it will not be percieved as an improvement by those involved, if they survive, and it will not be peaceful.

It is likely that due to fossil fuels and mechanization our farmlands will never be as productive as they are currently. If less specialized peasants displace mechanization on existing productive land, total output will fall.

Output may fall but not for the reason you cite, I believe, because small, often hand-worked farms tend to be significantly more productive than large farms.

From this article:

In the USA, data shows that the smallest two hectare farms produced $15,104 per hectare and netted about $2,902 per acre. The largest farms, averaging 15,581 hectares, yielded $249 per hectare and netted about $52 per hectare.

Now, part of the above data included growing different, higher-value items so that must be included in the thinking. But generally there is lots of data around that supports the notion that people working the fields do a better job of taking care of the soil, plant more densely, etc.

There is also a good article on TOD on the topic that might have more (Organic Agriculture Is Better Than Industrial Agriculture).

Now, part of the above data included growing different, higher-value items so that must be included in the thinking. But generally there is lots of data around that supports the notion that people working the fields do a better job of taking care of the soil, plant more densely, etc.

Be careful; those statistics are not Ceteris paribus "with all other things being the same"

While I agree with the sentiment, I'll torture an aphorism: one has to be very careful that organic oranges are being compared to conventional oranges, not to apples (or in my case, to Crotalus viridis, Artemisia tridentata Nutt. ssp. tridentata, and Bromus tectorum.

IMO, the difference is due to much, much more than crop value, size and hand work. Agriculture has a geography, often ignored in this debate, and major determinants of that geography are physical - weather, water and soils being primary. For a valid comparison, the systems pretty much have to be side by side for the other important determining factors to be approximately equal. As a consequence, experimental (preferably) or observational designs based on paired comparisons rule the day or else one is in serious danger of fooling oneself and others. If I could net $3M on my chunk of earth annually, I most surely would. Those unaware of the impact of these factors, the underlying agricultural geography and economics in particular, and making decisions base on invalid aggregate comparisons (a form of ecological fallacy) may learn a most bitter lesson upon returning to the land.

Hey, Crotalus viridis can actually be a tasty source of protein! You planning on farming them? ;-)

Sort of do already. During the warm season they busily do their evening jobs as mobile rodent traps, only occasionally scaring the crap out of errant humans. :-)

JGM I agree.

One of the most important of agriculture is the 'soil classificatin' and you rarely hear it mentioned.

Hand in hand with the classification is the permeability of that it drains. Wet muddy slow draining soil will compact and compaction is a very high inhibitor of good growth.

Yet now we have 18 wheeler tractor and trailers pulling into the field. No long the small imprint of a draft animal. Instead huge field tractors. Huge auger buggies. So on.

A good silt loam IMO being best yet it will erode rapidly and also via wind erosion...but I have seen ignorant farmers go peel off a hillside of a field in the spring or fall and watch the rains destroy the topsoil so what it left is clay particles. The silt is gone.Soon it doesn't produce as much.

Its easy then to judge a field when I pull the PCMCIA card from the combine and display a field via the GPS,Map,Moisture levels, and bushels/ac yield.

You can take that map and put it on a PDA, walk the field and see just exactly what has likely taken place for the high or low yields and precisely where the compaction has occurred.

We have great tools but many operating the combines find it beyond their brain stuff and so turn all the electronics off and drive it manually and disregard the card,program and sensors. I kid you not. In fact brag about doing so. Plain ignorance and stupidity.


That will not happen without a societal crash. People who have trained for office work are mostly not capable (after 30 years old or so) of adjusting to physical labour. I worked physically all my life but after I took 4 years out and then went back it almost killed me. And then there is the mental attitude needed to make such a lifestyle change. If you thought you were going to have the easy life of a career in an office and then you find out that dream is over would you just pick up the shovel and go? Its far easier to riot than dig.

I think it was Julius Ceasar who said it was easier to find men to go on an obvious suicide mission than face a hardship for any length of time.

With less net energy for society, de-specialization must happen.

In my opinion, de-specialization must happen, regardless of whether there is less net energy for society. Unlike most readers here, I do not take it for granted that less net energy in the future is inevitable.

However, the world system is increasingly complex and the "race to the bottom" of free market economics is making it increasingly unstable. De-specialization and re-localization are both necessary (IMO) in order to restore resiliance and allow for sustainability. We can't have a world that is dependent on perpetual growth to keep it from crashing. But that's a good description of what we currently have.

Yeah, except that it is going to have to be efficient browsers and grazers like sheep and goats that are going to have to move on to those marginal lands, along with a few people to herd them. The croplands presently going to produce E85 and Big Macs is going to have to go to grain and legume and vegetable and fruit production for direct human consumption instead.

Keep in mind, though, that in temperate climes, a lot of agricultural labor is seasonal only. Lots of people are going to have lots of time when they are not in the fields to work on crafts or something.

Regarding blacksmithing, and not try to derail the topic in any way.

I am a blacksmith. I don't practice it of late since the last farm auction seen all my 4 forges,8 anvils and 3 vises go out the door. Part of what happens when spouses visit lawyers!

But I have been restocking and now have a good anvil of very old quality(guild made) iron. And hammers and vises as well.

When I started to get into this it was via a need to shoe my horses and I took a local farriers field course on shoeing. Cold first and a tad of hot thrown in. This whetted my appetite and I expanded when I moved to Raleigh,NC and met many very good blacksmiths and worshiped at their feet so they would teach me. More as an apprentice.

So I worked with them and basically I learned that "You can only learn this skillset from the masters". You can't get it out of books at all. I have many books on blacksmithing and they will not do the job.

So yes, the guilds were very important and in the future even more important. Yet I am getting older with each passing day and will likely not have an opportunity to pass on some of those vanishing skills.

And reality is that no one really wants that or cares to indulge in that. Not around here anyway and likely never in the burbs or cities.

I have lots of iron laying around in the form of junk yet many here scavenge metal in order to sell it and get it shipped overseas...thereby depleting our ready supply of metal that blacksmiths could easily use for the future.

Lots of metal in newer equipment is not able to be forged, sadly, for it has many new elements added to it that make it very difficult to forge.

High or low carbon steel is what is needed. Old fashioned, good quality mild steel. Or tool steel is what is needed for the future.

Folks its becoming more and more rare. Too bad.

This is a great topic that TOD has put up for Campfire. One we need to dig deeply into for this is the future for our offspring but more likely their offspring, if any are left.

You can live with wooden objects but it almost always takes metal to work wood.

BTW oak trees which produced the tannin necessary to tan hides is also about gone or fast disappearing. Going back to leather might be hard to do. I have a goodly supply of fine oaktanned leather in my attic, thank God and if the mice have not destroyed it.

I intend this coming summer to start making my own charcoal out of cheap pine trees. Better than coal.



I understand your point about books not being sufficient but they do provide a starting point and they are a stable technology, providing fire, mice, water or bad paper doesn't get to them, that works in the absence of flowing electrons.

So, my question to all. What are the best books that we should we make sure are on the shelves of our electron-dependent offspring to help them in their move back to the land and self-sufficiency should they need to do so?

Growing up without ready electricity because REA hadn't yet reached that far, I saw my father and grandfather doing minor blacksmithing. The land, the anvils, the tongs, the small forge and the other tools such as the human-powered drill press are still there. My mother and grandmother raised large gardens and canned, including some wild fruits and berries. I rode kid horses before I drove tractors and I learned that before the first grade (now a scary thought but the meadows were flat and somebody had to go around and around so who better to put to that than a kid). But growing up in town my kids, as on track as they are (Eagle Scouts, high grades in hard subjects, currently engineering and science college majors), don't have those experiences and don't yet recognize their potential need for the associated skills.

So what books do we make sure our young adults have?

I have collected quite a few books on Blacksmithing over the years. Some are quite old.

Now most all are out of print. I look among the shelves and see nothing. Zero.

Yet those books did very very little for me in advancing my skills. I suggest the Abana website for help in that area.

I once attended an Abana 'hammer in' at the old Horse Park in Lexington,Ky many years ago. I was astounded that a farrier/smith could turn out a very very nice shoe in a matter of minutes. Heels turned, holes pritcheled,sized to fit, and so in. I saw a black guy who shod race horses use a small wooden hammer,cut off a tree branch with the limb as a handle, forge a racing plate shoe in fast order. Very light to not hinder the horses speed.

Amazing all the folks hammering away.

IMO a smith can make an object that cannot be reproduced by modern machinery. Except as a 'one time' made machine that could alter the alignment of the metal grain,curl the iron in just such and such a manner, nor ever hope to reproduce the hammer blows that leave the right kind of pattern on the metal. Can't be done. Yet a smith cannot make a computer. But in the coming age those won't be needed. Shoes and plows and all objects of forged metal will be required...right away they will be needed.

Yet the scrap piles are disappearing, the forges and anvils require a great skill to produce(by hand) and all that plus the skills are just about gone for good.

When I pass on nothing will have been passed on by me. It will die away. Many of the best smiths I knew in the past have now proceeded me. I would have a hard time finding another Master.


The John C. Campbell Folk School in NC (not too far from us) has a great blacksmith shop staffed by several Masters. The folk school was founded in the 1920s to preserve the skills and lore of the Southern Appalachains and is a great teaching resource. Blacksmithing, basket making, weaving, timberframing, woodturning and carving, medicinal plants, potting, storytelling and song, musical instuments, more, all are preserved and taught in the traditional way by residential and guest masters from all over. Great place! Some of the courses fill up years in advance. There are enclaves that preserve these skills if one looks. The school is one of the reasons my parents settled here 40 years ago. Many folks forget that this area consisted of mostly localized economies, separated by mountain ranges until the loggers and TVA came in and built roads and railways. I have a collection of old tools made around here, including crosscut saws and walkbehind plows. Since the 4-lane came near here (about 20 miles most of the old family farms have been developed into retirement communities and second homes over the last 20 years, changing the economy from agriculture and logging to realestate and building. That market has crashed bigtime in the last couple of years. Sort of a depression here now. Fine with me! My daughter married into one of the old mountain families and they still hold a wealth of knowledge on "gittin' by".


Yes I always thought it was in Brasstown. Always wanted to go there and check it out but IBM was working my hindend off and the free time was spent elsewhere...Down on the coast eating seafood for one.

Yes NC is a throwback once you get out of Raleigh, Greensboro and High Point and out into the countryside.

WNC lives there as well.


Brasstown is correct. We're kinda east of there. Anything west of Asheville is God's country. Lots of valleys and hollers for a people to hide in. Lots of bridges that could be blown in a crisis. Come see us sometime!


A short list of some of the better books on the subject that I own.

All of Alexander Weygers works. At least 4 I know of.
The Complete Modern Blacksmith is a compendium of this 3 previous works. The man is a artist at his work.

Donald Streeter - Professional Smithing

Percy BLandford - Blacksmithing and Metalworking

Holstrom andf Holford - American Blacksmithing

A book titled 'The Edge of the Anvil' and only remember the authors first name as Jack (I believe) but one that is highly sought after...maybe in reprint now.

I have several others but this is a very good list for a starter.

I much prefer a hank cranked forge. A good Buffalo being quite the best almost. Control is essential of the blast.

The absolute anvils are first a Hay Budden then a Peter Wright. These are old old brands but still the best. Newer made anvils are usually cast out of auto axles and may not have a separate hard surface. Cheap and worthless as is the foreign Chinese and Poland ones.

The smithy is one skill that allows the smith to 'make all his own tools'..essentially bootstrapping himself upwards.
Make a hammer. Make a hold-down. Make pritchels and punches. Eventually make your own anvil at the very top of the skillset. Making your own tongs is always easy.

Airdale-ah the smell of coal coking down is almost addictive

The smithy is one skill that allows the smith to 'make all his own tools'..essentially bootstrapping himself upwards.
Make a hammer. Make a hold-down. Make pritchels and punches. Eventually make your own anvil at the very top of the skillset. Making your own tongs is always easy.

I am not doubting your wisdom, but could you please elaborate on how one would start the procedure? Specifically, do you need an anvil to bootstrap?

Well you could use any piece of very heavy , preferrably flat on top, piece of iron or steel. But eventually you will need a good smithing anvil. Not one created for farriers.

I watched one of the gang I watched do amazing things with just bending and so forth right on the anvils face. I can't describe it verbally neither nor draw a picture.

Its one of those watch and learn since its so much a 'touch' and watching and imitating.

With an anvil,forge and any old hammer you can make various hammer types. Then start making tongs. Hold-downs. Punches and chisels. A good Hardy is easy to make. So forth.....

Learning to temper is what you need to learn though. Learning the steel temperature colors and the oxidation colors.

Airdale-again...ABANA website is recommended

I started in at smithing 30 years ago using an anvil made from a piece of heavy railway tie, a firepot made from a truck brake drum, my fuel was alder wood (Eastern Speckled Alder; the old-timers claim that you can weld with it), and I used a collection of hammers and tongs picked up from pawn shops and farm auctions.

Little by little the better equipment appears, usually as someone hears that you are working in the trade and they pull out something useful. Always watch for tongs as they are a pain to make. Some are still available new.

My biggest problem was that I did not know enough about tempering steel. The volunteer caretaker of a local rural cemetery asked me once to sharpen their picks by drawing out the blunted points, but I would have had to harden and then temper them to make them hard but tough (as opposed to hard and brittle). I knew the theory but I had no wise old smith to show me the tempering colours and to teach me how to guess at the carbon content of the steel.

I still have my equipment but the smithy has an awful lean to it. Maybe a nephew will turn up one day . . .

hi Airdale, you guys are talking about my neck of the woods!

I can do a little minor smithy type work but we went over to tractors and what real smithing was done here, all those old guys are dead now.

I learned the next generation of metal working-welding with electrical equipment, oxyacetylene work, and so forth.

You can learn the basic moves and get to the point that you can do some easy repairs by taking a class or two and reading some books.

But you are dead right about the serious skills-you get'em by putting in the hours ,hopefully alongside an older guy at least a day here and there who is a real expert.

There is just no other way-although if somebody is willing to record audio visual it would go a long way, assuming the recordings aren't lost.

I once worked alongside the last and only man in our town, or anywhere around, who could weld up cracked cast iron exhaust manifolds off of old trucks and tractors-now thats a tough job, the casting having been thru thousands of hot and cold cycles and infused with who knows what from the hot exhaust, not to mention being made as thin as possible and cheap as possible when new.

He was old and crabby and if anybody tried to watch close up he would quit work.

Nobody liked him and nobody wanted to help him and he always insisted he needed and wanted no help but whenever he had something heavy to lift or turn I just kept going and grabbing on and helping.

After a year one day when nobody else was close by he started showing me how it's done.

Every once in a while I show some young guy a trick or two but most of what I know about fixing things like you say can't be shown or taught on short notice.

I wish I knew more how to do the real old sytle metal work-if tshtf for real I won't be buying any electrodes or oxygen and acetylene.But I will have a lifetime supply of electrodes in sealed metal cans.Now if the circuit board goes out on my welder, or I can't get any gasoline.....

But I suppose I can get by for the length of time I expect to be able to work-another ten or fifteen years maybe.

Tempering metal.

Most think you get the metal hot and then dip it in water.

That is not the method at all.

First you must have some carbon in the metal(speaking of steel). Enough that it will take an edge and hold it.

You heat it to a 'cherry red' and then quench it, usually in a tub of water, known as a slack tub.
The metal is now very brittle and can chip and break easily.

You must at this point 'draw' out some of that hardness/brittleness. You do this by applying heat at a certain region. For a cold chisel this would be the end away from the tip.

A propane torch or an old gas fired pumpup torch using 'white gas'.

You have first cleaned the area with a steel brush and grinder or whatever to get a good clean surface on the metal.

You now must observe what is called the color spetrum which forms as heat is applied. You want to let that lower end absorb heat and soften that portion of the then remove the heat and watch the colors progress toward the area to be hardened..

Perhaps let the colors run til the tip/working edge is a 'straw' color. When that is so you very fast quench the whole piece. Usually again in water but if the metal calls for oil quenching you use that..or maybe a brine solution.

You now end up with a properly hardened tough working edge backed by metal that is softer and will withstand blows and the use its put to.

Various colors indicate various levels of hardness. An axe would not want an edge as hardened as a chisel and also requires a different edge,,one more rounded than a flat plane.

Basically that is it. Note that todays metals are heat treated in a highly controlled oven and are not amiable to blacksmithing.

The best steel I find is old flat leaf springs from very large trucks. One can make a knife that is indeed a work of art. And the edges gained are way way beyond the junk you find in stores.

Again Weygers books usually show the color charts on the back cover. He is the master on this for he is also a stone carver and makes all his own tools.

Yet mild steel with no carbon has many good uses. You can make all kinds of pot hangars. Horse shoes, candle holders, and the list is endless. Pokers,ash shovels, etc.

Very easy to forge. I can make a roasting fork before you could heat up your car for the drive to WalMart, when I am holding my mouth just so so and in the groove.


For anyone interested-

A small to medium sized wood stove that can be used for both space heating and stove top cooking in cold weather can be easily built in such a way that is uses far less fuel and throws off much less unwanted heat while cooking in warm weather.

I simply wrapped a small cylindrical stove made out of a section of pipe with fiberglass insulation to try out the idea the first time around.

Then I built a stove incorporating this idea as follows.

Using a fourteen inch section of steel pipe approximately one quarter inch thick two feet long I built a stove with a curved side loading door (which was cut from another piece of identical pipe and reshaped slightly ) and flat top and bottom.The stove pipe fitting is mounted on the back vertical side near the top, so that no space is lost of top of the stove, which is obviously already at a premium.Top and bottom are made out of quarter inch thick plate.Everything used except welding electrode and oxygen and acetylene was salvaged.

Thus far there is absolutely nothing out of the ordinary about this stove.

Then I took a piece of thinwall sixteen inch thick pipe the same length and using bolts and nuts fastened it in place around the stove so that the inner wall and outer wall of the stove are concentric.The gap between the inner and outer wall at the bottom is closed off with a coarse mesh screen.At the top it's left open.
(Once you are sure the stove works ther is no reason not to weld everthing up solid but a few bolts and nuts make for much easier modifications.)

Openings are cut in the outer wall for the stove pipe and access to the loading door in the inner wall of course.

This little stove is already in use in a vacation cabin and is performing satisfactorily as a heater and small cookstove adequate for making coffee , bacon and eggs, etc.

It's proud owner is also very happy that the outer wall does not get nearly as hot as a single wall stove due to the air rising between the inner and outer wall as he has a small child that might get a burn.

Once the need for heat is past in the spring he will stuff the cavity between the inner and outer walls with fiberglass insulation until autumn comes again.This will result in a much more pleasant cooking experience as the stove will not heat up the room nearly as much, in addition to saving a substantial amount of firewood.A couple of "down and dirty" experiments lead me to believe that the savings of wood might be as much as forty to fifty percent when cooking.

Putting the fiberglass in and and taking it out is a scratchy job but it only takes about five minutes and the fiberglass can be reused indefinitely.There is no need to insulate the bottom of the stove as a layer of ashes is excellent insulation.

If I build another of these (this first one was a for the fun of it unpaid fast job done as a prototype) I will take the time to make it presentable rather than just workable and post a picture.

Anyone with basic welding skills could build such a stove for well under a hundred dollars cash once he has his own tools.I spent less tan fifty dollars building this one.Once the salvaged materials were in one place it took less than a day to build it.

Building one that looks nice and is a little more elaborate with better draft controls, etc , might take from two days to a week, depending on the level of detail desired.

Funny coincidence. I was reading Greer's comments on bad cheap people driving out good, expensive people (blacksmiths, wallmart), when I leaned a little too hard on the crappy wallmart table my little laptop sits on, and true to form, it dumped the whole shebang on the floor with a crash and flash of mouselight. I cussed a little and proceeded to put the whole humpty dumpty back together once again, noticing the while that if this thing had cost maybe half a buck more than it did, it would have been able to support that light elbow load.

So I asked my wife why she had bought this one instead of a better one, and she gave the classic Greer-supporting remark " Well, I looked around, and that wallmart thing was the only one I could find anywhere close to what you asked for. I knew you wouldn't like it". We then discussed Greer's essay, and both agreed that we would love to support some local craftsman who could do things right.

So where is he (she, it).

Of course you will ask why I didn't just go out to the shop and fix the problem with a hunk of one of the many many bits of junk I have out there. Answer- too lazy, spend too much time doing things like this instead of something useful.

...not try to derail the topic in any way.

Consider it derailed. Or at least sidetracked. Really fascinating stuff, thanks for the excursion.

You make an exceedingly good point. I've been trying to find a way to say why system evolution doesn't go backward well at all. I think that's close to it.

"You can only learn this skillset from the masters". You can't get it out of books at all. I have many books on blacksmithing and they will not do the job.

Nothing ever evolves backward, only building on the working models of present, and records of the past don't provide working models of the past to learn from. Just because we fill our minds with images of the past doesn't mean we'd have the slightest idea how to do it.

Very interesting.

Has anyone thought of applying another example, that of China? While the West has basically one example of an empire that fell, namely Rome, in China this happened repeatedly. Dynasties would collapse into a period of disorder and then a few hundred years later China would reassemble itself in a different dynasty. While probably some of the same lessons applied in China as in the medieval world, I'm not sure that relocalization is a one-way trip, even with primitive technology. America was a pretty large country in the early 19th century without any oil or electricity. Just a few thoughts.


Hi Keith,

what was the cause of the constant Chinese collapses? I'm guessing it wasnt resource depletion, the same problem faced by the Maya, Nazca and Easter Islanders.

Mostly it worked like this.

China is big. When communications are slow, the way to control a big area is to appoint governors with wide authority to gather taxes, levy troops to control it, and so on.

But it's tedious for them to gather taxes, send them to the capital, then the capital takes their chunk, decides how many troops the province should raise and sends them the money for it. Much easier to just let the local governor do it all and send some money the way of the capital.

Of course the local governor then starts feathering his own nest, appointing his nephews to important positions, and so on. And the Emperor decides he doesn't really care so long as he gets lots of nice girls in his harem.

Thus, power goes from being centralised to being decentralised, and the provinces are effectively independent. At some point an Emperor comes along and decides he doesn't like this, and tries to impose his authority. And then the whole thing comes crumbling down and the place breaks up into warring provinces.

Then some foreign barbarians invade and centralise everything again.

And so it goes.

I find it helps if you think of China less as a country and more as a continent, like Europe. Then the periods of unity under a central government followed by periods of chaos and war make more sense. Except that in Europe chaos and war is the norm and unity the exception historically, and the reverse is true for China ;)

Getting from here to there is the REAL question.

This is a subject that is very close to my heart. This is exactly what I have been working on for the last year or so. Getting my hands dirty designing and implementing what all agree will be required post peak, basic goods, services, infrastructure...

With no disrespect to the author this essay is meaningless. What is written is likely to occur if we get the right future scenario for it to happen. It is logical, commonsensical, and useless.

Before we get anywhere close to a world where we may form guilds we will get (are getting) massive price wars and increased subsidizing of large, centralized business driving all the "right" business out.

To wax nostalgic about a Renaissance Fair future is as ridiculous and dangerous as the technicopian future.

Enormous pain and suffering will occur while we are waiting for either. This ugly pain and suffering period will virtually guarantee that neither future will be possible.

We all know, or at least have some idea of what a reasonable future scenario might look like but the determining factor is absolutely going to be how we get from here to there. Spending all our time discussing which future it will be, or hashing over and over the details of how it might be, does not bring us any closer to bridging the gap from now to then. Yes I understand that you need a destination to steer toward but I argue we have that in spades.

What we have in place right now is everything that makes absolutely certain that none of what is desirable for a post peak future can thrive.

I know that many will dismiss my rantings as doomer talk but I know of what I speak. Some may point here and there to a positive development in the localization movements around the world but I see them all coming under huge pressure both economically and politically, ALREADY.

If we had a generation to evolve...but then again there is zero reason for belief that we would transition from here to a better world then.

You see! It's alllllll about getting from here to there that matters. Thats what we need to focus on and implement.

I have some thoughts on this and will try to put it down (not that anyone wants to hear what a Big Ugly Tod Troll has to say).


Hey, Jef.

Not to take away anything you said about focussing on the transition (I happen to think that's going to be the sticking point, too) but it's not an either/or situation. What you are doing is worthwhile and so is what JMG is doing. He's helping draw the possible landscape so we all have a full accounting of what's possible. We then implement what we think will work in our situation. We may use everything he mentions — or none of it.

His article has definitely educated me on an area I didn't know about before. And he's also really made the point clear to me that the guilds are a sort of incubator for new talent and that restricting competition has worked before and should be investigated as part of the transition. If we break into city states or even regions, we might decide very logically that unfettered competition from outside will make it impossible for that entity to raise its standard of living and thus restrict it.

If I recall correctly, the Asian countries protected their economies very strongly for decades before opening up to worldwide competition. They knew that if they didn't do that companies from more developed countries would prevent any local industry from getting a foothold and the country would be no more than a source of cheap labor.

I happen to know what you're working on and it's very important indeed; but so is what JMG is talking about. Your work is more immediately practical, but examining how we organize the work that we do with your new tools is no less valuable.

I'm leaning strongly to your view (after spending a week Behind The Orange Curtain very leaning), but I agree with Andre-- lets leave this open for examination and experimentation if it arises (I agree, it probably won't).
Add it to the mix. The feedback loops at this point are vast.

Jef, the point of the essay isn't that we ought to hurry out there and set up a guild system -- we have a long dark age to get through before that's even an option. (This is a point I've discussed at some length in The Long Descent and The Ecotechnic Future.) It's actually part of a project focusing on economics -- I want to explore some of the ways that current economic thought has helped back us into our current predicament, and part of that exploration involves showing some of the places where a free market system becomes counterproductive.

Thank you for responding John.

I certainly can't argue with that.

I do feel strongly that it's this squeeze period that will define our future and needs to be dealt with up front.


Hey, anyone want to join my Lollypop Guild I am forming?

we have a long dark age to get through before that's even an option.

So it looks like we aren't much in disagreement (though I'm hoping for a short dark age myself! -- I am guessing that some less-corporatised lands will stay afloat and come to our rescue before long).

The operation of the law of supply and demand in a totally free market is an elegant solution to a very specific problem: the efficient allocation of scarce products sold by many more or less equal seller and bought by many more or less equal buyers, without any externalities or other market failures coming into play.

There may actually be one or two examples where these exact conditions have ever existed.

Soup wrote:

With no disrespect to the author this essay is meaningless. What is written is likely to occur if we get the right future scenario for it to happen. It is logical, commonsensical, and useless.

Gee Soup, the fact that you are here and I'm reading your ideas gives meaning to the essay. I agree getting over the hump will be the hard part. Everyone here is like Moses. None of us is likely to reach the promissed land...

See my recent comments here, on why the first big step... is quitting our mounting effort to make problems ever worse..

I've also written about it as "Economies that become part of nature" and other things. Nature's method, that everyone thinks is so inscrutable, seems really rather simple, stop forcing things when they don't comply, and rely on the need for every part to take care of itself. What I seem to consistently observe, studying what happens to systems in nature, is at the limits of growth take some time to let the parts think of something else to do. That's not our present plan... however.

check for my research or concept and comment articles

Modern science and technology will disappear as soon as the cheap energy needed to operate them disappears. They will also disappear because much of the need for them will have disappeared. Who will need the science and technology to build hundred story buildings and nuclear weapons? What good will a Super Collider do when you are hungry and cold?

As for humans being different, dream on. We have the same reptilian and mammalian brains we have always had, and the same lack of conscious information processing capacity as our ancestors. As noted above, "modern" science and technology won't improve our conditions much, because much of it will be irrelevant. What isn't will be equally useless because we won't have the cheap energy to run it.

Greg C. wrote:

Modern science and technology will disappear as soon as the cheap energy needed to operate them disappears.

Spotting Stewart Brand's new book, Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto among the bookstore's new arrivals and having enjoyed several of his Whole Earth Catalogs over the years, I went looking for quick doses of his current themes and found this:

Q2C Festival video presentation

Whole Earth Discipline

Three profound transformations are under way on Earth right now. Climate change is real and is pushing us toward managing the planet as a whole. Urbanization (half the world's population now lives in cities, and eighty percent will by midcentury) is altering humanity's land impact and wealth. And biotechnology is becoming the world's dominant engineering tool. In light of these changes, environmentalists are going to have to reverse some longheld opinions and embrace tools that they have traditionally distrusted. Only a radical rethinking of traditional green pieties will allow us to forestall the cataclysmic deterioration of the earth's resources.

Brand addresses the energy issue and proposes what he thinks are the feasible solutions to prevent that scenario.

Brand posts in the The Long Now blog, which I found from Saul Griffith, Renewistan And Energy Literacy, an early January 09 drumbeat post.

Never had a Whole Earth catalog but have quite a large collection of old Mother Earth News magazines.

Late at night one can read about how our youth at one time , "in a galaxy far far far away" yearned longingly for a Return To The Land movement.

The articles are saddening to say the least. We had it right before us and walked away and this was very early on.

They write of the destruction of nature. The same themes are being expressed currently on TOD. Amazing to me.

I drank and danced with those folks and shared their dreams and I never lost the dream to return to my birthplace in Ky. And so I am here yet those hippies and such of long long ago are no where to be found. Just some old faded photographs and a bit of Folk Music.

So I wear my hair long and wear facial hair on my face. I also miss good folk music and play my harmonica and banjo and dream of how it might have been.


Some of us are here, Airdale. And I still have my old M.E.N. mags. New ones too! I even have them on CD. Whole Earth Catalog? Still got it. Organic Gardening? 20 years worth. There are still plenty of us around, mostly keeping their heads down and their powder dry.

Yep, some of us are still here. Still dreaming. Working in cubicles these days, trying to find a way to make a living that helps to get this damned Titanic we're on turned around. You could see the path so clearly back when we were waiting in lines in gas stations in the 70s.

I grew up reading Brand via the Whole Earth Catalog, but stopped taking him seriously about the time he announced, back in the 1990s, that Herman Kahn's cornucopian tract The Next 200 Years was his idea of a realistic vision of the future. Now he's promoting nuclear power and biotechnology. Me, I agree with Greg C.; our entire technostructure depends on the sort of massive net energy surplus you get in this end of the solar system only by extracting concentrated ancient sunlight, in the form of fossil fuel. When that runs short, most of our technology will be scrap.

More sound judgement from JMG here, and meanwhile my theory (above) that JMG3W and JMG are the same person is getting a bit strained at this point!

Yes, like in ecological successions, you'll find many things disappearing, and other things growing in their shadow. People often don't notice how the continuity of succession is the real problem to solve there sometimes.

You need the old stuff to provide the environment for the new stuff, because succession is a fairly strict ladder-like progression and you need each rung. Sometimes as with technology, you mostly may also need the old technology to physically build the new technology, for example. Isn't there a value in having transitions not go so fast to prevent building of the replacement before needing to abandon what it's replacing?

Modern science and technology will disappear as soon as the cheap energy needed to operate them disappears.

No, they won't. They will simply be redirected.

Our oil infrastructure is hugely inefficient. Your average car is what? 17% efficient? As oil declines these inefficiencies will be removed. Science and technology will take us down more efficient routes. e.g. District CHP powering electric vehicles. It simply isn't economic to do so yet.

Vehicles like these:

Step back to pre-oil. We had wind, water, coal. But we now also have electricity. We're not going back to steam, or to animal power.

No, they won't. They will simply be redirected.

I don't think you have thought this through.

A small amount of science will be redirected, but in my view most science will be trapped in the heads of unemployed scientists as they are laid off. Thus, it will for our purposes essentially disappear, I'm afraid. Orlov points out that the scientists of Russia during their collapse were reduced to making and selling interesting trinkets on the streets until their economy rebounded.

That's because science is a function of an energy surplus that in turn enables a specialized society. For the mathematically inclined, you could express it like this:

New Science = Societal Specialization(Surplus Energy)

I designed the equation to recognize that it all must start with surplus energy. That permits economic specialization to occur, some portion of which will be science.

The energy surplus is about to turn into an energy deficit, which is uncovering the inherent instability of the monetary system we have set up. As the economy, which is failing as I type this, no longer has money for higher education and venture capital, the scientific age largely comes to a close. We like to complain about the failings of the current education system but really many of us science-minded folks were a product of it; I started obtaining my "significant" scientific knowledge through my training as an engineer at the University of Toronto and then continued from there.

Education is already getting more expensive (see California students hit with 32% hike in tuition) and it just gets worse from here. To see the future, look at the financial condition of the states in the worst condition:

Soon all of them will look like that.

As money gets tighter, everything above the "Financial System" block in the diagram below starts to suffocate from lack of cash. I predict that the process will accelerate as time progresses.

I even re-made the diagram below for you to include science and technology. (Perhaps a diagram will make it clearer for you.)

Another reason that science and technology won't be redirected is cost.

As CSS1971 stated..."It simply isn't economic to do so yet." However, by the time it is "economically viable" to make the technological substitution, the cost of the substitution will be unaffordable. The costs won't go down.

The idea of improving inefficiencies in Automobiles as a way of redirecting science and technology is simply throwing good money after bad. The system is fatally flawed and the technological fix would take at least a decade. By that time, high energy costs and the limited availability of high quality ores and rare earth metals might well be show-stoppers.

I just don't see how highly technical solutions can work, they are almost always energy intensive and require exotic materials that are already in short supply.


You make your case well.

Once the current generation of trained scientists is gone ....

But I think it is very likely that the knowledge itself will survive simply because there are so many copies of virtually everything these days.I can easily visualize a future version of the medevial monks copying books that they cannot understand by hand simply to preserve them.

Of course there might never be a sufficient number of scholars alive at some given point in the distant future to get a technological civilization going again.

I don't have a good idea of how many people are necessary to sustain a civilization such as ours today but it must run into many millions, given the many specialties and the necessary minimum scale of many industries and professions.

Hi, ofm. Exactly.

aangel, the process is already under-way:

PhD's In Distress and the Unsustainable Cost of Education

I feel particularly bad for the spike of new students entering a PhD program now to avoid the recession. If we will have structurally high unemployment for a decade (for which you have made a compelling case) then we will have 2 more “generations” of PhDs in an increasingly bleak situation. Even if the economy improves it would take massive growth just to get through the backlog of experienced postdocs and laid off scientists seeking positions.

High EROEI energy sources have allowed us to create a huge faux economy built around services, finance and non-productive (as in producing nothing of fundamental importance) enterprises. This has called for a lot of brain-power to erect such a massive economic folly based on imaginative whim and intellectual fantasy made possible by cheap energy. Enormous numbers of people are fully employed in this make-believe economy who are going to find themselves out of work as the EROEI slides down the backside of Hubert's curve and a more grounded economic reality takes over.

This is much the same as how even a an excellent blacksmithing book won't tell you much about the craft. It's the questions you need to do anything that are the first to be lost when you start dismantling complexity with the idea of "slimming down". What you really need are development curves that maintain continuity. That's basically:

To maintain the continuity of everyone being able to continue to learn from a living past, rather than loose the threads of the culture and have to start over...!

Its also much the same as a 'cookbook'. Thse books mostly DO NOT teach one how to cook. THey just contain recipes, which is a list of ingredients and measures.

They tell NOTHING of technique, which is the most essentail aspect of cooking and not easily written down. Some very few do but that is very very limited.

Lets say making sourdough bread. Something I have been attempting for some years. Technique is essential. Such that its really an artform and no one can teach you to be an artist with a book.

You learn by imitating the masters/ apprecnticing.


...dare I mention the other "cook book", or rather "stock list" that also seems to rely heavily on the READER and not the WRITER for determining the course of present events???

Biologist keep uncovering more and more of the complexity of what goes on within a cell, but still seem to not yet have abandoned the idea that the double helix list of the proteins locally available (with some work) is in control. I think the situation remains the same as always. We know when we look inside living things we don't see anything to makes them alive. That's still an obvious property of the distributed process of the whole. I think that is the active reader of the code, busy making use of all the little notepads scattered all over for its use....


If you use this:

New Science = Societal Specialization(Surplus Energy)
I designed the equation to recognize that it all must start with surplus energy.

to illustrate your argument, it may lead to confusion.
The equation is meaningless if nothing is said of what kind of function Societal_Specialization() is. Is it continuous? monotone? Is the derivative negative?
In fact I could read your sentence as: Societal Specialization is a decreasing function of its variable Surplus Energy, reaching the opposite conclusion of what you're aiming to convey.

For such vague concepts, I would recommend leaving equations out or else you'll have to specify more things about the math to make it meaningful. Of course it's just a suggestion and if you feel it really helps more people grasp it ... go ahead. 2cents.

An interesting view into how roads maintain the structure of the economy can be seen in the UK at the moment due to the so called 1000 year flood (severe flooding is becoming an annual event in the UK now).

Cumbria flood bridges facing safety checks

A safety review of all 1,800 bridges in Cumbria is being carried out after severe flooding caused extensive damage to homes and roads in the county...

...In addition to the six collapsed bridges, another five are closed, making travel very difficult in the west of the county...

...Guy Broster from Cockermouth is a teacher at Nelson Thomlinson School in Wigton.

His usual journey to work is 15 miles and takes 20 minutes, but as the two main bridges out of Cockermouth are closed, he now has to take an alternative route which is 40 miles.

He said: "The traffic is going to be horrendous, it could take several hours to get in."

As climate change degrades our life support systems it will test the resiliency of communities. From what I can see those affected communities above failed overnight and are now dependant upon outside relief. Of course this is only temporary at the moment, but when the whole nation goes down due to some future nationwide event it may become permanent to some degree.

I wonder whether it would change peoples view if they were aware of being just one weather event away from a future they don't expect to see in their lifetime.

The post is historically wrong, IMHO, though the idea of relocalization has much merit.

The Western Roman Empire collapsed militarily.
Its wealth drew in barbarian mercenaries and the Christianized Romans were sick of conscription with 25 year tours of duty and sick of their public duty; emperors had to force the pampered upper classes into being judges and administrators but success was punished and mediocrity was rewarded as the imperial court would either drain local governments of money or kill off the political class thru intrigues or fear of rivals.

The apocalyptic Christian religion and pagan prophecies filled people with gloom and resignation. Many people frantically entered religious orders.

Weakened, the Western Roman Empire was overrun by Germanic barbarians who had their own institutions and culture and who detested Roman civilization. Often they entered as guests but being barbarians they soon dropped the pretense and took whatever they wanted.
For the most part the Roman people were exterminated. In Gaul, the Roman/Gauls rallied for a generation--the Armoricans but were soon conquered/absorbed by the Franks.

A medieval plan to relocalize? There was no plan.
Instead there were Roman government decrees legally binding the peasants to the land which became feudalism(for the purposes of taxation). The reason for the universal grant of Roman citizenship in 215 AD to all freeman was to increase the tax rolls.

There is a certain similarily to our time. The vast weight of Roman institutions and the military could only be supported by that civilization for a certain amount of time.

The Emperor Constantine's plan was to move his government to Byzantium.
Before him Diocletian divided the Empire and moved the Western capital to Milan so the imperial court was closer to the frontier and a hundred years later Honorius transfered the western capital to the fort(naval arsenal) at Ravenna. The city of Rome was abandoned long before the end of the Western Empire.

In 400 AD there were probably a million people in Rome, by 600AD there were maybe 20000.

Majorian, your version is somewhat historically blinkered too, albiet perhaps not actually incorrect. I would point to the perspective of Arnold Toynbee A study of history, to clarify the popular confusion of empires with civilisations. According to Toynbee, empires are things that arise in the body of post-breakdown civilisations (in this case the Hellenic civilisation). Empires from their very outset represent a triumph of authoritarian force over creative inspiration. The Romans didn't even invent their own alphabet interalia (the Etruscans did).
Not sure what is JMG's view of Toynbee. Many people haven't studied him due to (1) rather long, and (2) standard traditionally negative welcome he got from professional historians entrenched in their specialismic focus-ranges.

Toynbee's a major influence on my work, along with Oswald Spengler. I've got his ten-volume set on the bookshelf about five feet from where I'm typing this, and it doesn't gather dust.

Often they entered as guests but being barbarians they soon dropped the pretense and took whatever they wanted.

But no way that could happen nowadays as we are far too clever now. (Erm, Jihadwatch, anyone?

Majorian, as mentioned above, I'm not suggesting that there is or ought to be a plan to relocalize. Ugo Bardi pointed out that the Middle Ages were, in effect, what happened when the Western Roman Empire was forced to relocalize (as in, fell to pieces). I don't believe, for what it's worth, that we have the time or resources left to manage any sort of controlled relocalization; my point was that (a) this is what relocalization looks like, and (b) this is why it doesn't work in a free market system.

the interstate highway system that does the same thing for America, were not produced by entrepreneurs; they were created by central governments for military purposes. (The legislation that launched the interstate system in the US, for example, was pushed by the Department of Defense, which wrestled with transportation bottlenecks all through the Second World War.)

I wonder about that. The Secretary of Defense was Charles "engine" Wilson, the CEO of General Motors. He might have had other motives...

Government programs of this kind subsidize economic centralization.

Wasn't the interstate system funded by user fees, in the form of gasoline taxes?

Governments don’t establish police forces and defend their borders for the purpose of allowing businesses to ship goods safely over long distances, but businesses profit mightily from these indirect subsidies nonetheless.

Preventing attacks by highwaymen and pirates on merchants is a fundamental duty of police, armies and navies.

Centralization stops being profitable, because the indirect subsidies that make it profitable aren’t there any more.

They stop being profitable because they become impossible. The cost of security is relatively very small compared to the benefits of trade.

The business idea of growing forever, on a limited planet, is broken. Now what? Prof. Tim Jackson is a top sustainability advisor to the British government. He's just released a new book, "Prosperity without Growth - Economics for a Finite Planet," on how to re-design our economy. Can we lead good lives, without using up more and more resources?
Listen to the podcast of this interview.

His approach to steady state economies, and that of many others have, have lots of good ideas, but most curiously don't address the central problem. Even in a steady state economy our financial system is designed for everyone to increase their wealth by multiplying their ownership of everyone else's wealth. Of course.. that only works for a rather small minority, and only temporary, which it the root problem we're now facing.

I've written about the puzzle of why that is neglected in the other approaches, and the deep problem you need to consider. The technical solution was discovered by JM Keynes, actually, but discarded from his contributions being called "the fallacy". It's about "peak money"... ;-)

I have three starting points for understanding my approach to the related issues: sort of general to detailed
Economies that become part of nature,
Inside Efficiencies and
Linking Economics & Natural System Physics

Anyone read this book? Any views on it?

Inquiries Into the Nature of Slow Money: Investing as If Food, Farms, and Fertility Mattered

And here for an interview with the Author:

In 2008, Tasch wrote Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money: Investing as if Food, Farms, and Fertility Mattered. Soon after, he founded the Slow Money Alliance, an NGO devoted to the principles of slowing money down, reconnecting it to the Earth, and respecting carrying capacity, the commons, sense of place, and nonviolence. Tasch calls it the transition from "Making A Killing" to "Making a Living."

The break down of economic systems that have increased in complexity to the point of failure, for multiple causes, is indeed the critical pattern of history to study. We do seem to be candidates! Salvaging something from the break down products is a tough job though.

This has been the subject of much of my work, finding scientific methods for closely watching the processes involved in the end of complexities. Our own bodies are exactly that, the products of a monstrously explosive growth process that up and quit and left us whole... you might say. I study how to identify and observe systems that begin with eruptions of energy uses and complexity, and how some manage to mature at the peak of their vitality and stability, and why. The alternative does seem to be to to reach a peak of exhaustion and internal conflict, something like where we're headed, leading the developed complexity to disintegrate.

I really like JMG's open thinking about a whole lot of things, here and in his other writing. I don't think our best solution is to accept the breakdown of complexity our whole global life support system requires, though, as he seems to be suggesting here. He also points to the importance of studying how nature manages to solve these things. Which is what I've long based my studies on.

One of the most curious features of natural system development is that they, in fact, frequently "snatch victory from the jaws of defeat", and just at this particular juncture. A seedling, at the limits of the "fossil fuel" contained in its seed, is very spindly, has two little almost useless leaves and it is highly prone to wilting and collapse. That is also it's natural time to abruptly switch from exponential to seasonal growth. It may become a tree living for hundreds of years, and some do, having experienced exponential growth for only a week or so.

You can see the same transition in many other successful growth systems, that the end of their growth is the beginning of their real lives, in fact. I noticed that thirty years ago, thought it was kind of cool.

Either path, scrapping things together after a collapse and remaking a society around adaptive reuse of the left overs, or scrapping things together to understand nature's other way, takes much the same creative "oh gosh NOW what do we do" approach.

Я тоже так думаю, тока шрифты какието кривоватые

A translation might be useful....

Antoinetta III

= "I too think so, the current fonts are somewhat crooked."
Not sure how useful that was though.

I enjoyed your thesis, and have shared it with others. I found it insightful and helpful in putting known coming events in a most likely order. Well done!
I will agree with my wife - war and disease will be the remover of human overpopulation.