Energy Flow, Emergent Complexity, and Collapse

This is a guest post by George Mobus, who is an Associate Professor of Computing and Software Systems at the University of Washington Tacoma.

Civilizations grow in complexity given the right circumstances. And all too often they end up collapsing. History is replete with examples. Joseph Tainter, among others, has examined collapse from the standpoint of decreasing marginal return on investment in increasing complexity, which he posits is the most common factor in collapsed societies. The key question one must ask is: What critical circumstance (if there is one factor above all others) enables a society to grow in complexity in the first place? If we find an answer to that question we may also find what causes the decrease in marginal returns as complexity increases. This is certainly a growing concern for our modern civilizations. I advance a systems theoretical and principled thesis, below, that puts the increased flow of energy as the key enabler of increases in complexity. And I examine what we might expect from declines in that flow rate when sources are depleted.

Joseph A. Tainter's The Collapse of Complex Societies

If you haven't read Tainter's 1988 (some would say prescient) book, The Collapse of Complex Societies (Cambridge University Press), or if you haven't read it recently, you would do well to do so at your earliest convenience. [Also see a speech he gave the 94th Annual Meeting of Ecological Society of America, posted on The Oil Drum, here.]

I had the great good fortune to meet Joe at the Second Annual Biophysical Economics Meeting in Syracuse, NY this last October. He came to give the plenary talk in which he connected energy return on energy investment with his theory of how evolving complexity in societies figures into collapses, when they occur. I then stopped over in Logan Utah on my way home to Washington state and spent some quality time talking with him that evening over a single malt scotch (a label I had never heard of before - very smokey!)

So I thought I'd dig out my copy of Collapse when I got home and re-read it. I remembered not being quite as interested in the details of Roman and Mayan societies in the way an archeologist would be (Joe's credentials) and had probably skimmed too much. His lecture at Syracuse piqued my interest now that I know a bit more about what seems to be going on in our modern societies in the post-peak oil world. Much to my chagrin I couldn't find my copy. Actually I vaguely remembered having borrowed it from the library (I wasn't rich enough in 1988 to have much of a personal library), so I quickly got it from Amazon, along with a few other classics on the topic, and read it again. This time with more informed, if not fresher eyes.

Joe's thesis boils down to this: Societies evolve greater organizational and technical complexity to solve social problems that arise due to external forces or population pressures or overuse of natural resources, etc., and at some point, the marginal beneficial returns (problems solved) begin to decline leading to lowered margins of error for dealing with possible catastrophic impacts. Societies collapse when increasing complexity no longer has a payoff and something else bad happens.

As I read this anew I thought about other areas that I have been developing some expertise in, namely the evolution of complexity in dynamical systems (from general systems science) under the influence of the flow of high potential energy. I felt inspired to write more about that since I think there are some general principles that we could use to decipher what is going on in the world today and have some sense of what to expect from tomorrow.

Energy Flow and the Evolution of Internal Complexity

The term complexity has become somewhat problematic over the last several decades because of the difficulty researchers and authors have had in coming to some kind of consensus on its meaning. Of course it is like pornography, right? We know it when we see it. I have attempted to provide a more concrete treatment of the subjects of complexity and its evolution elsewhere, so I won't go into that in detail here. Readers who want a more precise definition should take a look at those works. For our purposes a brief summary follows.

There are really two kinds of complexity, potential and realized. Potential complexity comes from the a priori existence in a semi-closed system of myriad raw components, both in absolute numbers and in types. Types, here, refers to components that have different personalities or interaction potentials with other component types. The more different types and interaction potentials there are, the more realized complexity might obtain within the boundaries of the system.

Realized complexity is what most of us think about when we come across something that already has organization and appears to be functioning through myriad actual interactions among the components. When we see multiple kinds of arrangements of components that appear to be regular and strongly interacting, we apprehend the system as complex. We can view a system from outside, say when we run into a complex piece of machinery (perhaps looking inside to see the workings), or from the inside, as when we try to grasp the complex nature of our own society. Either way, realized complexity is characterized by organization, stability of interactions, many kinds of interactions and often recognizable subsystems, which may be, themselves, complex. A good example of a complex system with complex subsystems is a living cell, especially a protist such as a Paramecium.

A central question of the evolution of organization asks: How does an unorganized collection of components (potential complexity) actually develop over time into an organized, functioning (realized complexity) system?

This question lies at the heart of the still somewhat mysterious (though not mystical) issue of the origin of life on Earth. Life emerged from non-living components perhaps some 2 to 3 billion years ago. And once the basic formula of complex metabolism in cells developed, life proceeded to evolve further, eventually producing simple multi-cellular organisms, and then, in a much shorter time frame, to us.

Harold Morowitz (Energy Flow in Biology, 1968, Academic Press), following closely on the heels of Erwin Schrödinger, who famously asked the seminal question, "What is life?", provided an important insight into the nature of evolution of organization in semi-closed systems. He demonstrated that when energy of the right kind flows from a source of high potential, through the system, and exits at a lower potential (heat), that work is accomplished within the component milieu and structures obtain. He coined the phrase made famous by Stuart Brand on the back cover of the Last Whole Earth Catalog, below the famous picture of the Earth taken from the moon: "The flow of energy through a system acts to organize that system."

Morowitz was working on molecular organization in an attempt to be more precise about the origin of that organization in natural processes. He detailed quite nicely the way in which photons of the right frequency could enter at one point in a semi-closed system (being closed to material inputs or outputs), be absorbed by simple molecular or atomic components in which electrons were thus excited and new bonding arrangements could occur. Energy that ended up in thermal modes would tend to excite molecules at the entry end of the system and cause material cycling (convection) to organize the molecules dynamically. Thus both structure and motion ensue from the influx of the right photons. He went on to analyze things like the information flow due to changes in structure and function, important to our understanding of life.

As any good disciplinarian scientist, he felt uncomfortable with too much generalization from his basic insights (personal communication). But I am not constrained by good disciplinarian constraints since I like to find generalizations that do seem to apply across disciplinary boundaries. In this case I argue that the energy flow principle is, indeed, quite general and a good explanation for the evolution of organization and complexity in all systems, not just molecular in nature.

When Morowitz says "acts to organize a system" I would amend this to "enables the organization of a system to emerge". The energy flow doesn't so much cause a specific organization to evolve as it is simply a necessary condition for any organization to emerge. In fact any given system of some nominal potential complexity might evolve in any number of ways toward higher realized complexity. The energy flow supplies the needed potential for work to be accomplished. Here, by work, I mean all manner of reconfiguration of matter as new associations and movements are enacted. Work is what energy enables, but exactly what work depends on what materials are in the neighborhood at the same time the energy is available.

For that we have to rely on something that resembles chance but in fact is itself inherently organized, and that is chaos. Ilya Prigogine, at about the same time that Morowitz was wrestling with the internal mechanics of organization evolution, had an equally useful insight into the nature of systems in which there was no apparent organization of components, but tended to evolve organization over time. He called these (what I have labelled potentially complex) systems as chaotic. On close examination one finds that such systems are not truly random. They actually do have some kind of structure, like a waterfall; the pathway of the falling water, in bulk, is readily predicted, or the boundaries of the waterfall are observable, but the fate of any given molecule of water as it approaches the fall is completely unpredictable. Turbulence in a stream is another example of chaotic systems. If you ever stare at a rushing stream you will see that eddies appear quite regularly at certain points due to the underlying rock formations. But you can't predict with any accuracy when an eddy will appear (or even exactly where within some general boundary).

Chaos in a semi-closed system imposes some kind of overarching organization, generally limiting the kinds of interactions that can happen. It is inherent in Morowitz's convective cycles; organization of flows and possible sorting (say by weight differences) of components lead to higher probabilities of certain interactions over just any arbitrary ones, a concept touched on by Dan Dennett in Darwin's Dangerous Idea, (1995, Simon & Schuster) which he called "forced moves". Thus, the argument that order (or I prefer organization) can emerge from chaos (the concept led Prigogine to get a Nobel Prize in Physics!)

The key, however, remains the flow of the right kinds and amounts of energy through the system. Solar influx through the Earth's atmosphere and hydrosphere power a large majority of organizing work on the surface of the planet, with contributions from geothermal and tidal forces. And the Earth went from a hot ball with poisonous gasses swirling around it to the blue green dot that graced the back of the Last Whole Earth Catalog.

Realized complexity obtains from the on-going pumping of energy flows through the system. Over a sufficiently long time, and assuming there is a steady-state flow of those energies, components tend to organize and reorganize generating increasing complexity at a given level. Evolution is the emergence of some new subsystem, at that level, followed by active selection for or against that subsystem by the rest of the whole system. After a while, the fittest subsystems come to dominate even while chaotic variations still give rise to new variants. Occasionally a new variant is 'more' fit under the general circumstances and it survives. When these subsystems are, themselves, capable of replication, as a living system is, then the newer variety will displace the older ones.

And then, at times, with the continuing flow of energy in which there are energies not completely used for work processes (they just pass through as it were), the subsystems will have a tendency to discover yet new interactions with one another that give rise to a new level of organization. This is exactly the case when single celled organisms evolved into multi-cellular ones. New econiches are just organizational gaps where new energies are made available and a new subsystem can exploit those energies to develop new structures. In one sense we see complexity at a given level go down when this happens. Individual cells in a multi-cellular organism can begin to specialize, thus not needing to maintain all of the internal metabolic mechanisms for doing everything themselves. They can get some of what they need from nearby cells that have specialized to produce that particular product. Cells became simpler while organisms became more complex. This process gives rise to hierarchies of organization. In general, the net realized complexity of the whole goes up. More energies that formerly may have escaped untransformed by work to heat are now used for new work. Some of those previously unused energies end up captured in new structures (conformational energy) as the whole system develops greater realized complexity.

Multi-cellular organisms continued to evolve up the phylogenetic tree of life and way out on one of the newest branches of that tree sits an ape that has a spectacular brain and something we call second order consciousness. They are conscious of being conscious. They have abstract communications both spoken and written. And they start to exploit all kinds of previously inaccessible energies to supplement their normal biological food. They evolve complex social interactions because they have an increasing wealth of energy from these external sources. The potential complexity for these beasts is staggering. And they proceeded to evolve as many as they could given the chaotic constraints on their clustering.

A new level of organization appeared as societies. Culture captures the degree of complexity, but look at what happens for individuals. Just as cells in multi-cellular organisms could become 'simpler' by specializing, individual humans could simplify by specializing in the work that they performed. As they did so the total realized complexity of society increased but the life of an individual tended to become less complex. At least for a while.

This brings us full circle to Joe Tainter's point. At any given flow rate of energy available to do work, a social system reaches the maximum complexity that solves problems for the system as a whole.

In Morowitz's model, we need to ask, what happens when you reduce the flow of energy through an organized system? The reason this question is crucial is that that is exactly what is happening to our human societies. The peak of oil production represents something even more pernicious to society, the peak of net energy to do useful work in our economy (see: "Economic Dynamics and the Real Danger"). What happens to Morowitz's systems when energy flow declines? The simple answer is they go back to chaos.

Tainter documents how societies that reach the limits of marginal returns on increased complexity and then something bad happens. They collapse. What about a world in which we have 'artificially' increased the flow of energy by using fossil fuels (far above real-time solar influx) so that we can evolve much higher orders of realized complexity than can be sustained once those fossil fuels start to decline? Have we not reached our point of maximum complexity where every investment in more complexity brings less actual return in benefits? And might it not be due to the fact that we have reach some kind of maximum flow of energy?

That is the problem we face as a global civilization. We are running short on oil and as a consequence we are going to find it harder to extract other energy and mineral resources. Our net energy is already in decline and that is at the root of the global economic problems we are seeing. The simple truth is that you cannot have a growing economy when the basis of all economic wealth production is in decline. You cannot make up the difference with efficiency gains (and in reality there really aren't many actual efficiency gains to be made). The scope of energy flow due to fossil sunlight is just unbelievably huge. Neither will we make up the difference with alternative, sustainable sources (like real-time solar influx) because we can't build out the scale of infrastructure that would be required in any reasonable time frame.

We can only start simplifying our societies and giving up the many discretionary expenditures of energy that we currently enjoy without much thought. We can learn to once again live on real-time solar influx via our food raising systems. And even then we are talking about an ability to support only a small fraction of the current population. Ironically the simplification of society involves the increasing complexity of individual lives. What this means in practice is that each individual must start to become more of a generalist in terms of the functions that support life. Everyone will have to become a food grower! Believe it or not that isn't simple! Knowing how to grow your own nutrients is actually quite complicated and will demand a whole new set of cognitive skills.

I suppose it will be hard to see the similarities in the dynamics of molecules, or cells, and those of human societies for many people. It is a very abstract viewpoint. It might seem inhuman! But if there really is a correspondence, a general law of complexity evolution based on energy flow then we might be wise to pay attention.

Thanks, George. I enjoyed meeting you (and Joe Tainter, among others) at the Second Annual Biophysical Economics Meeting.

I think one of the things that is scary about what appears to be a need to move back from a very complex society to a less complex society is each of our lack of generalist knowledge needed to handle all of the functions our forefathers handled. It is one thing to know of how to grow food, and preserve it, and take care of farm animals based on learning this almost as an apprentice from one's parents, and something very different trying to start over from scratch. It seems to me that is going to be one of the big stumbling blocks to moving to a simpler society.


It is one thing to know of to grow food, and preserve it, and take care of farm animals based on learning this almost as an apprentice from one's parents, and something very different trying to start over from scratch.

So true. Here I am in my 4th year of running my farm. You would think that I have all the simple things figured out by now. But yesterday a young farmer was over who grew up farming vegetables unlike myself. He looked over how I was working my dozens of trays of future transplants (yes, even here in northern Viginia we have already started seed for this year) and pointed out a very simple way to be far more efficient. It was not an obvious approach as knowing that the specific method he recommended could work without killing the plants I have never read in a book on gardening. He just knew it because he grew up in an environment where it was common knowledge. It explains partly why he is so much more competent than I am at farming. And reinforces your comment about the learning curve we newbies have to go through. There will be some things I never learn before I am too old for it to matter.


ok. nice little teaser. please summarize this simple technique for us Cretins. Efficiently and effectively growing transplants is one of the most important aspects of improving overall productivity in a small garden. Any techniques improving this area of gardening is real knowledge. i grow almost all my plants as transplants and find this the most interesting aspect of the art of gardening. the mulching, weeding and irrigation is necessary but frequently looked at as work. growing healthy transplants is pure joy. I give away more than i use. Instant gratification seems real important to first time gardeners.

Thanks for this excellent post. I agree with Eric, above or below, that reading and study Odum's basics makes some of these very nuanced subjects and threads a little more understandable. Your excellent blog, especially those posts on sapience a few months ago, are valuable references in respect to many of the comments being offered here. Why don,t you just move your stuff over here? If this post is part of interview for Nate's old position, you get my vote. (Thank god this is not a democracy. Can you imagine the Cretins having the vote.?)

I decided to quit posting comments on TOD a few weeks back when I observed that in many cases TOD was just becoming mired in many personal conflicts.

But I do visit it on occasion digging for the very good posts that some here are quite capable of.

So Gail let me be more specific. Farming and complexity and starting from scratch.

I might be one of the very few here who lived back in the times when we used NO fertilizer. We lived on a smallish farm(100 acres) with my grandfather who was 1/2 cherokee indian. Except for flour,sugar and salt we derived all of our foodstuffs from the land. We had no vehicles. We used wood solely.

I have attempted to share much of my past from back then and how we accomplished dealing with life. Our methods and how they worked.

For most of those posts they were entirely disregarded and received almost zero discussion. I did place them in context , at points where the issues of sustainability was rasied.

I eventually grew tired of this and the constant background whining and attacks and decided to NOT attmept to create any KEY POSTS on the subjects. I had several very good ones in mind but after creating some I decided it was in vain.

I had hope for the Campfire series as perhaps indicative that TOD was finally headed in the right directions , at least twice a week and interspersed with the other usual topics but to my dismay it turned out by and large to just be more of the same with only the labels changed.

A few very good ones did appear but were far far into the minority. Instead what most of it was was dealing with such areas as brain chemisty and other frivilous subjects that had very little to do with dealing with the likely upcoming huge sea change to our society and culture.

It may not be known by many but the Native Americans in the Midwest and South went thru this 'complexity' issue during the Mound Building phase. Leaders were given great powers and were worshipped. Eventually I assume that the ensuing complexity of such crashed and burned and we welcomed in the Woodlands Phase of Native Americans where leadership was not needed and humans were no longer worshipped. The simple Council was developed then. More on the order of town hall meetings where each had a voice and more personal freedom ensued.

The Native Americans evolved here on this continent over thousands of years yet finally evolved into something that worked far better,,,at least until White Newcomers with built in complexity,firearms, disease,etc, arrived and started the destruction of the native population.

Now were might need to return to those less complex times where life revolves around the weather, nature and the wildlife and soil.

Like I said. We lived and farmed 100 acres. I never saw my grandfather break a sweat. He moved easy on the land and worked closely with nature. How we did it is still in my memory and I am currently slowly evolving my land and life back to match the way we did it then. I pursue the old methods and they still work very well. I am waiting for the train wreck to finish some of my plans. If it doesn't take too awfully long. Far better for us if it happens sooner rather than later IMO.

Others will have to discover them anew for I am now turning inward and will have less and less to do with the outside world. TOD included.

Good luck then all ye fools and miscreants. Learn or perish is how it will be. And that learning will be your salvation or your death. Pray it comes quickly if the latter.

And that nonsense about Gift Economies was some of the worst silliness I have ever read. It won't work until EVERYONE is 'doing it' down in the dirt and losses all that ego and greed that currently passes for life here in the US of A. Currently I view those 'gifts' as anger, greed, stealing,murder, and the worst sort of sins mankind can commit.Giving gifts? Yeah sure.

Airdale-as the old song by Sinatra goes "I did it my way". Words I intend to inscribe on my gravestone , if I do have one. Parked in the plot right next to the first one of my namesake to come to this country right after the New Madrid earthquake. Paddling a canoe up the Mississippi river and marrying a young Indian Maiden who escaped from the Trail of Tears. The method a sitting President used to take their lands and slaughter thousands of them.
My grandfather's grandfather.

For most of those posts they were entirely disregarded and received almost zero discussion. I did place them in context , at points where the issues of sustainability was rasied.

Ron, I always stop scrolling and read your posts when I see your name. I'm sure I'm not alone in that either.

Don't be discouraged if you don't get many replies. Generally the only comments that get replies are controversial posts or when someone says something stupid.

I'd look forward to any keyposts of yours as well.

I agree with you. A factor, I think, is when we move from the general to the specific ie a specialized job, we begin to think that way too. We can't see the forest for the trees so to speak. I grew up on a, mostly, self sufficient 40 acres in northern Minnesota. I "helped" with the gardening. Later in life, started gardening again. Came time to plant I realized I didn't even know how many potatoes, or whatever, I needed to plant.

I, also, agree with you about the comments. Far too often wander off in personal, academic, detail, etc debates. Thanks for your comment.

I agree with your views about this forum, I understand and empathize with your need to pull back from it, and I thank you for your priceless first-hand contributions. Yours is a voice in the wilderness.


I agree with you assessments. Both TOD postings and the relationship to the land.

My father was raised on a similar farm to what you describe by his great Aunt and Uncle, who were born before the Civil war. No electricity, no refrigeration (except springhouse), they used horses to do all the field work, milk cows and butter was their income stream, rotation of crops and pasteur maintenance were important, and they grew or made virtually everthing right up until WWII.

My Dad spent his whole life growing organic vegetables on an acreage and being as self sufficient as possible until last year when he passed away. He had a great respect and fondness for many of the labor saving inventions of the 20th century but was puzzled and upset by the general attitude of most people since the late 60's in the pursuit of money over substance. He couldn't grasp why people wasted things and held up conspicuous consumption as a model of the good life. He lived his life almost completely opposite of that lifestyle and was happy most of the time.

I learned more from him than from any formal educator because he was consitant in applying his knowledge to real world problems. He was a machinist and craftsmen and invented many tools throughout his life, some of which I still own and use. He taught me that teamwork is to be sought after whenever possible but to rely on other people for your spiritual and physical needs is a trap that degrades society and the individual.

Airdale I agree with everything you have said. Since I grew up in a suburb with no relative to teach me anything I have had to learn the hard way. In no way have I learned enough to live as your grandfather did. However being at the far end of life that is OK. I have to go sometime, if not before the crash then after.

However I have learned something, and that is that if you don't have wisdom from an elder then let the soil and the plants teach you. If you watch and pay attention instead of coming to the land with a head full of modern ideas you can learn much.

I did it my way is a good gravestone inscription. For myself I wish to be buried in the good earth with nothing between me and the soil (more likely after the crash) or creamated and added to the soil. Soil when healthy is a beautiful thing.

We need you here for balance Airdale-nobody else really has your background experience or perspective.

If you pull out, you have left the field in the hands of -not the enemy -but those who know less than you do about whats coming and living thru it.

Persnally I find it hard to really care about what happens to a lot of people, as something happens to all of us sooner rather than later ANYWAY.

But then I think about what ifs.

What if some woman shows up at my door after the crash with a baby with a big old gummy grin and big eyes and it grabs hold of my thumb and laughs at me?I guess I would feel compelled to take in the baby at least, regardless of how precarious our own situation might be.

Any post you put up might be THE post that convinces some couple or mother to make the changes necessary to save a couple of cute little kids.

The reader does not have to go whole hog into getting ready to be better off-simply moving from Arizona where water is short to North Carolina or Tennessee where it is plentiful might make THE difference.

Airdale, if it is of any consolation to you, I can confess that your posts have inspired me to buy a Foxfire series books. Please don’t get discouraged by lack of responses to your posts. I personally always read them attentively and with a great pleasure. However, there is not much I can add to your wisdom except to enjoy and learn. I am sure I am not alone. Don’t discount hundreds and possibly thousands of lurkers!

Perhaps sometime we should run a post with a collection of some of your comments, talking about how things were done.

I would agree with some of the others making comments--It is difficult for us non-farmers to comment on what you have to say, so don't be surprised if there aren't too many comments.

I only farmed for a few years, but have gardened since I was 5- over 57 years! My grandmother had a summer farm in the Adirondacks- no electricity, an ice box and an ice house, we grew our own fruit and some veggies- cooked and heated on a wood stove, ironed with a flat iron, heated our gravity-fed water on the wood stove, etc. Cleaned the kerosene lamp glasses every morning. In the evenings sat on the porch with a couple of old coats over us and we talked and talked. A good life, and one which is not overly hard to learn or to live. Did it before, can do it again.

Spent the rest of the summer at our 'camp' on the lake- with a 'honey pot' and limited water and drainage, and a very simple life style. Fished and swam and messed with boats. Caught frogs and gardened.

In the early '60s lived in Bolivia, where there were only certain hours and days that the electricity was on in each area of the city. Not hard to get used to, and a pretty high standard of living even so. Food shopping meant going to a local outdoor market. Again, we grew food and flowers in the walled back garden.

Farmed in the 70's for a while- learned a lot, fed a lot of folks. Moved on to other adventures, always with a garden.

Now we are in Alaska, with both a heat pump and a wood stove, making our own bread, growing all our own potatoes and many of our veggies and seeds in the garden, with a freezer full of fish and venison in the basement.

My point in all this? Wood heat, growing food, little or no electricity, rudimentary plumbing- all these can still add up to a happy life, strong family, good food, etc. More work in some ways, less stress and nonsense in others. Some of the coming changes may be accepted by many with some calmness and gratitude.

Nonetheless, if you don't know how to do some of these most basic of life skills, especially growing or catching your own food, better attend to learning now.

Forgive me for saying so, but these long-winded tantrums do not become you, airdale. You seem to be fishing for "please-don't-leave-we-love-you" comments. It's unseemly.

Many people take these internet forums (fora?) far too seriously. It's a moment of electronic graffiti, here today, gone tomorrow.

I've discontinued the pretense that I can advise people about what to do in case of "collapse." I'm not even so sure it's going to happen in my lifetime. Besides, it's not my world to change.

If people are jerks, or they don't take your advice--well, screw 'em.

MikeB when you know you know something that all the people on this discussion site are gonna need to know I suspect it gets a bit frustrating to not have anyone acknowledge it. I think Airdale is right to rant a bit. I get tired of seeing all the denial on the Oil Drum myself - denial by endless charts and formulas when what we should all be doing is learning how to sharpen and axe, wield a hoe, raise a pig, and more than anything make do. The techno future is a dead end. Instead of getting huffy why don't you ask Airdale to share some knowledge with you and all of us. Knowledge and skills are invaluable and anyone willing to share some should be thanked.

MikeB when you know you know something that all the people on this discussion site are gonna need to know I suspect it gets a bit frustrating to not have anyone acknowledge it.

This is where I get off the doomer bus. I have my own misgivings about the future, but to think in such absolutist terms is just foolhardy.

I know that I don't know how peak oil is going to affect the future.

I get tired of seeing all the denial on the Oil Drum myself - denial by endless charts and formulas when what we should all be doing is learning how to sharpen and axe, wield a hoe, raise a pig, and more than anything make do. The techno future is a dead end.

I agree. It seems like most peak-oil related forums and lists end up like that. So many people want the world to continue more or less as is that we see reams of solutions to this or that problem, usually energy, even though that is just one of the many problems our civilization has resulted in. When the notion of sustainable societies is raised, everyone turns away or tries to argue that growth is possible through efficiencies or placing more value on information or acquiring resources from the stars, and that climate change can be handled with geo-engineering.

I'm not surprised airdale and oxidatedgem get frustrated. I think those that do, really, "get it" can't be anything but frustrated by our apparent headlong rush to collapse. The most recent Museletter (Richard Heinberg) and John Michael Greer are starting to get to the nub of the matter.

The Heinberg current Museletter is his best yet IMO. Do check out Dmitry Orlov's comments on this letter by Heinberg.

Anyone who hasn't read Orlov's "Reinventing Collapse" has missed the most prescient writing on collapse based on his experience watching the USSR collapse. And through it all runs a wonder strain of humor (humor he asserts is on of the characteristics that help people survive in a collapse).


Yeah I know about the unseemly part. I thought so myself but I had to say what I had to say no matter the consequences.

If you know me from the past you might know I have attempted to leave in the past and did take longish vacations from TOD in that past.

But here is the way it is for me. The Docs give me about 5 years of worthy life left. With one kidney you tend to lose more and more each year. I now have 2 years already gone so maybe 3 or 4 left. Depending.

So whats left is precious to me. I am NOT asking for sympathy either. Just that I intend to try to wean myself off forums and blogs and devote that time to doing what I wish to do and not telling others how or why.

I have put up literally hundreds, perhaps thousands of posts in the last 3 1/2 years here. I intend to go back and retrieve each of them and paste them on my website, play with them and think on them. It will be a private website that I will leave to my family as part of a remembrance of things I did. Other areas of my life as well.

TOD has been a bigger part than I wished it to be but with more and more newcomers I tend to miss many of those who left and went on about their preparations.

So you can say what you wish for though I may read it perhaps I will certainly not try to respond to them.

It wasn't 'advice' I was trying to give so much as letting others know that IT worked for us way way back in my growing up. That it can work again IF not too much destruction keeps occurring to the earth and nature.

Yes mules are gone but oxen can do the job. Shepparding the precious soil and wildlife are strickly required. That I do not see. In fact destruction seems to be happening faster and faster.

So this spring I hope to be back on my hands and knees in the dirt down in my garden. My very next project before that spring is to build a NUC hive for some bees I intend to start keeping.
I have a thousand things I want to do and have to be about that business.

Is it going to happen in our lifetimes? For sure. Its happening right now. Today my Doc showed me a paper where Medicare reimbursements are going to be cut by 30 percent. Perhaps just in Ky and not elsewhere but bad enough that Physicians and their staffs will surely not be able to carry on in such straits. Also many many programs are being shutdown or reduced. The list is getting longer. States are going bankrupt. Our nation is in dire straits.

Its going to get real bad. I have seen 'real bad', I can almost smell it on the wind.

Airdale-best to all, work hard and savor what you can of your efforts,mine happens to be some very nice Elderberry jelly and Pear/Apple preserves. Along with many jars of canned green beans and tomatoes. If you don't 'put it up' it won't be there later.

Note: No apples,peaches or pears from my trees but I did find some very very old fruit trees here and yon that were not grafted but instead were planted long long ago. They produced while the semidrawft and standards newer varieties did not bear a single fruit.

You'd probably be pleasantly surprised--and maybe even a little shocked--to see what "old fashioned" farmers we are here: hand-milking cows, cutting hay and storing it loose, hand-pumping well water.

But we began doing this twenty-five years ago, before self-anointed "subsistence farmers" on boards like this one (and others I won't name) began pretending to advise people about post-peak oil behavior, and then promptly going out on their next book tour.

The genuineness of your experiences has not been lost on me.

In Dmitry Orlov's comment on Heinberg's latest museletter he notes

"In a lengthy and detailed article he (Heinberg) argues that, just as the USA is less prepared for collapse than the USSR was, the USA is less prepared for collapse than China. This is perhaps unsurprising (few countries are less prepared than the USA). Collapse-preparedness affects how many people will be able to survive the collapse, and how bad a time they are likely to have in doing so."

I have often mentioned that the peasant farmers of the world are far better prepared for the future than we are. Those who still farm the old ways know how to feed themselves, something precious few in the US can now do. Those who used to farm the old ways before the "green revolution" will be able to return to those ways. However for many the green revolution may have made their soils less productive than they once were.

I have also often mentioned that a donkey is a solar powered vehicle that provides transport, can keep you warm at night, and in dire straits can be eaten. It is still used extensively all over the world as a testament to its usefulness. We waste a lot of time an energy finding a new solution instead of returning to time tested solutions.

Airdale I am glad you have soil to work and good things to pursue in the time left to you.

"I have often mentioned that the peasant farmers of the world are far better prepared for the future than we are. "

I'd say they have much less far to 'fall back', from 'development' and specialisation.

Airdale, completely agree with your comment. I think your sustained effort can bring about a difference in the building up of that "Gift economy" to whatever extent possible. Something is better than nothing, after all.

That said, TOD is about "Energy and our Future" (and it goes without mentioning that a majority of the stuff we discuss here focuses on the "Economy"). Being able to live a Generalist life requires skills and discussions which might be done better elsewhere. But personally, I think it still fits the "agenda" of "Energy and our future" pretty well.

Your narrative of how the Native Indian tribes moved on to a less centralised system of organisation is promising.

[...] Woodlands Phase of Native Americans where leadership was not needed and humans were no longer worshipped

Sounds interesting!

Airdale, your posts have certainly been provocative. You and oldfarmermac seem both to hold the same perspective. I have just two observations, and a few questions for both of you.

First, you both have an obvious advantage over many of the rest of us regarding working with one's hands and having the practical knowledge needed to live in a poorer age. For that I commend you both.

My question, though, has to do with the belief of both of you that the "conservative" point of view is a minority point of view that must be defended against a society with a strong liberal bias. I also have questions regarding some of the elements of your "conservative" point of view. For instance, Airdale, during the 2008 election, you made comments on this site expressing your displeasure that the United States was about to elect a black man as President. Why did that bother you?

Also, are you aligned in any way with the Tea Party movement? If so, why is it that this movement so vigorously protested against suggestions or attempts to build a safety net for the poor, yet said very little when the Federal Government was bailing out the rich? If you are aligned with the Tea Party, is it because you believe they will help America retain its strength and its privileged place in the world, or that they will somehow prevent this nation from suffering the consequences of resource decline and economic collapse?

The mainstream media (including the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and Newsweek Magazine) are all in agreement that Iran's nuclear program represents a danger to the world, and that Iran must somehow be "neutralized." Yet I have access to a news article published in late 2007 or early 2008 stating that the National Security Agency or some other intelligence office had determined that Iran did not have a nuclear weapons program. Iran does have a fair amount of oil, however. Whom do you believe? The mainstream media, including both the sources I have already mentioned, and sources like NPR and Reuters, all declare that the United States is still facing a terror threat, and they try to justify the ambitions and intentions of powerful members of the American government who want to go to foreign nations portrayed as a "threat" in order to meddle in the affairs of these nations. The funny thing is that all of these nations also have oil, or other minerals that we just happen to want. Again, whom do you believe?

Republican Scott Brown was recognized as the winner of a special election to fill the seat vacated by the death of Ted Kennedy. Yet his challenger Martha Coakley conceded defeat at least an hour before the polls closed, before any press had called the race. This fact is not emphasized in news reports about a sudden Republican "resurgence." If the media is full of liberal bias, why is Scott Brown's victory painted in such glowing terms by all the mainstream outlets?

Do you believe that the earth's climate is changing? If so, do you believe that this is caused by human activity?

What's wrong with people trying to start a "gifting" economy? I am teaching guitar lessons to some neighbor children right now - for free.

What if predatory growth capitalism - as we have known it - is really in its terminal phase, and the United States is really about to fall from its exalted position in the world - a position which was obtained in large part through injustice toward people that are not white and are not American?

Deleted double post.


I am going to cease after this thread dies so I will answer you will it still lives.

I spent a lot of time in Chicago(back in the 60's) and later and saw the amount of corruption there. In fact way way back I was babysitting a System 30 in St. Louis on election night that was tabulating early returns/votes for three states, Illinois being one of them.

I was there in case the mainframe hiccupped and needed repairs or babying.

So I spent most of my time at the 1403 printer watching as the vote counts mounted up and up.

Then suddenly I noticed something odd. A certain segment of votes instead of increasing were in fact decreasing!!! These were votes from upstate Illinois. Very odd. Then I realized something.
This was not the 'real' vote. This was the counts that are before the slower drawn out real counts BUT sometimes candidates WILL concede based on these 'early results'.

The data incoming to the system was via punched cards. Those cards were being keypunched at a different location than I was at and were transited to my location and feed into the 2540 card/punch for tabulating.

A punched card number can be made negative by adding a certain punch in a number field. I suspected some hanky panky in this area. Later I spoke to some people doing this grunt work and was told that Daley was well known to fuss with the release of counts by workers at the collection sites.

Of course this is obviously vote manipulation and knowing Chicago I realized how obvious it was with party politics. Back then it was rather common. But worse in Cook County.

I knew more about Chicago politics than that incident and hence my suspicions about a Presidential candidate from there. Then my wife was living outside Chicago and I asked her about Tony Rezko who had just been sent to jail. She told me it was common knowledge about him and Obama. His supposed house given by Rezko etc. etc.

So my reasons for being against his run for President. In the end I did not vote for either and did not vote for any candidate for President.

It seems to me that currently most who on TOD supported Obama are no longer championing him.
I think he is failing as a President. His activities so far have convinced me of that.

I am a conserative for sure but I can cross over as need be.

I looked closely at the primary vote numbers in the recent primary in Illinois. Down state is heavily conserative yet Cook County steers the boat due to Chicago. Yet in the primary numbers I saw a big change and far more voting for the Republican than what would be normal. There in fact might be a Republican elected to the Senate to fill Obama's old seat. And even if close it would be an amazing happenstance.

I traverse southern Illinois a lot and my wife is from there. I understand their views in general. The ones I spoke to were very much opposed to Obama back then right after the election.

Many southern Illinois residents drive into Ky to buy groceries, gas and medicines. We do not charge sales tax on food and prescription drugs. They have a big sales tax in Illinois yet are about bankrupt while we here have some slack still left. We are hurting but not as much as they are.

A 'Gifting Economy'? All it takes is for me to travel back to St. Louis and drive the interstates and major roadways there to once more reinforce my opinion of people in general. They are mad. They are a hazard to life. They deliberately try to cause mayhem with their driving habits and proclivities.

Twice in one day last week there I was struck from behind and driven totally off a 4 lane highway by an idiot apparently trying to TBONE me!!..

Its insane and is a good indicator of ignorant ,assine , total unconcern for civility. The people there are not the same as when I moved away in 1979. And my wife and son can attest to the simple brutality and stupidity of the folks in and near Chicago. The corruption still exists. The driving habits are unbelievable.

Can the mindset of those drivers suddenly change in an instant to being 'caring, giving , nice ' people? ???? I don't think so. What you see on the roadways of this nation is utter and almost total disregard for good attitudes.

In the shopping malls I come away with the same belief. Cawing , crawling , impolite , and uncaring people. Its rare to see courtesy anymore. I think a bit still exists in the outback and rural small towns of America. In the burbs and cities it is non-existant. It will not change IMO. Its now fairly inbred.

I have little hope for that to change. In fact I think it will definitely worsen as merchandise and services falter and fall away. I think neighbor will turn on neighbor. The criminals will kill at a whim and take what they wish. Law enforcement will no longer exist. People will 'circle' their wagons and strangers will be subject to discrimination in order to not be attacked.

Those who live in cities and suburbs are just fooling themselves if they think otherwise.

It will be a 'Darwinain' time. Survival will be what it is all about. Somewhere some vestige of honor and intergrity might remain but will have to be heavily defended. Somewhere out in the flyovers is where it will have to be for the rest will be wastelands.

The triggering events will occur I am certain. The time frame I am not so sure of.

Looking back over 71 years I remember when it was entirely different. We rode our bikes on those roads in what later became the suburbs of St. Louis. We road our motorscooters without helmets, licenses or insurance and were safe. The small villages outside of St. Louis were full of good honest caring folks. We even had Fairs and carnivals in the streets back then. And St. Louis once had 'Character'.

I watched as it all disappeared and changed for the worse. Where we once built fires in the woods and camped out is now ravaged by angry people who exist in subpar rental units. Trash , drugs and killings exist there now. You do not walk those streets alone at night.

I lived and worked in many other cities and states as my employer wished. I saw the same things occur in Los Angeles and Atlanta and other cities. My response later was to never live in close proximity to anyone. Instead I brought and lived on farms and was surrounded by farm folks and never regretted it a moment.

Face it. We have changed into something dangerous to ourselves. It will be hard to return to a kinder gentler lifestyle but it can be done, a will take a sea change in events to cause it.

My view, my opinion. I live on my ancestors land and farm currently. Know everyone and kin to many. I still have to travel to St. Louis to see my mother and part of my family. They live a lifestyle I cannot and will not.



A few decades back, my aunt lived in Paris IL, and got involved in poll watching. She has told me stories about how they would play a little game with Cook county, refusing to release their vote talleys until Cook county had first released theirs, and how they would keep getting calls all evening asking them why they hadn't released their vote totals yet.

Since Dmitry says humor is an important part of a survival tool kit I add this to the discussion of politics - humor from the onion

I think Heinberg, Orlov and Greer all now think politics is irrelevant

Since we evolved as hunter-gatherers and have had only 10,000 years to change our brain programs to living in civilization we have had to make do with changed memes. Still I think most of our brain programs are H-G and that is the state in which we are most "sane" and happiest (happiness is just a brain program to promote getting what helps the body survive and replicate). The quicker civilization has progressed to its doom the more insanity.

TH.You ask a lot of questions rapidfire that would each take a long while to answer properly-and furthermore methinks they are of a kind with the question "Do you still beat your wife?"

This technique is as old as public discourse, and I will not make the mistake of trying to answer machine gun sound bites with reasoned discourse.The attention span of the listening public is too short, and dignifying your questions with answers pegs me as guilty of being everything implied in the wording of said questions, such as being a racist.

Airdale has answered for himself.We have a lot in common,culturally, and Airdale is so much like the older (mostly dead now) folks in my family it is as if he were a next door nieghbor.He is older than Iam , and he actually LIVED THE STORY HE TELLS here.I only caught the tail end of it as a child-we had a tractor before I was old enough to plow a horse for instance, and I cannot remember when we did not have electricity, although I can remember not having running water very well indeed.

But other than in our understanding of the day to day nitty gritty of country living we do not share as much in terms of world view as one might think.

If you want to bring up JUST ONE of these many questions another day,and engage in a match of wits when I am rested(it's been a very long day today for me , I am no longer young,and furthermore it will be another long day tomorrow.) I shall enjoy it.

But we will STICK to that question until it is thrashed out-thoroughly.

Then if you think you will do better on another, I'm game.

Don't forget to bring my lunch.

Oldfarmermac, I am not trying to accuse you of "beating your wife," nor am I actually trying to debate you. I really want to know your answers to these questions. Feel free to pick just one and answer it as fully as you like. The problem is, that I saw a certain kind of people become highly visible during the 2008 election, and they scared me to death. They reappeared during the "Tea Party" protests. If they really are not as scary as they appeared in the news, I'd like to know. If they really understand and are prepared to gracefully receive the new reality descending on us all, I'd like to know that also. As a black American who grew up just after some of the hottest parts of the American civil rights struggle, and as a student of world events, I'm curious. (This is partly out of self-interest. There are things I have experienced that I will not willingly put up with again in this country.)

Hi TH,

Sorry but I am leery of so many leading questions coming so fast- It seems obvoius to me that you are a skilled debater and you very well how to elicit answers from someone in a debate that will make them look like an idiot.

Mark Twain took a letter supposedly written by some poor character once in a bind, or running a scam or something, and showed by analzying it that contrary to it's seeming simplicity and lack of guile, it was written by a mastermind.Sorry I can't remember atitle for this little piece but there are oher Twain fans here and maybe somebody will link to it.

I am going to close THIS comment now and click on your earlier oneand make a few remarks , not answering your questions, exactly, but COMMENTING in them.

I believe you will find the comments enlightening.

Please read comment posted a little earlier tonignt first for clarity..

I do not believe we are a society with a strong liberal bias.Anyone who thinks so has either not followed my comments , or lacks critical reading skills.

I do think that a very large part of what is referred to as the mainstream media has a striong liberal bias-this is a subjectiver judgement of course.A liberal would naturally believe that these same media are unbiased.But since all seems to be fair in love , war and ploitics, and the liberals on this site refer to say Fox News as faux news,etc, then I suppose there IS NO conservative media- afterall they are self serving fakers and lackeys of plutocrats, regardless of how many people watch , correct?

Incidentally I don't watch tv at all since 1980 or so and seldom listen to talk radio but my car radio is preset to NPR and I listen to BBC on the net.

I have been a member of this site for well under a year and have never made a derogatory remark about President O Bama, and have indeed stated that I believe the country is marginally better off with him in the White House than otherwise.

I have on several occasions stated that I recognize that he inherited a very tough situation and that he should not be held to an impossible standard , that there are no easy solutions to our problems.

I have said that he has spread hinmself to thin, trying for too many things at once, and is losing on that account.

I also have said several times that the democrats have now proven that they love big business just as ardently as the republicans ever have, and have proven it with thier bailouts.I have said that the stockholders of the bailed out banks should be busted(meaning losing thier investment to the last dime) and that most or all (can't remember) of O Bama's treasury should be indicted and prosecuted.

I sure would like to know where the trillion or so of missing bailout money is.Wouldn't you?

The tea party movement is something I know very little about.I don't follow the day to day details of politics.They don't speak for me.My ill informed opinion is that they are no more important than any other group of people pushing for the adoption of a tax scheme suited to thier own best interests.If thier movement achieves critical mass it will be time to worry about them-right now there are bigger players in the game, and they are holding all the cards.As far as Americ regaining her top dog spot goes,I'm wondering if she will survive-my opinion is that she will, but that we are in for some very tough going for a very long time.

I frequently RAVE about bailouts of the rich here on this forum until I am figuratively foaming at the mouth.I have even gone so far as to suggest that something along the lines of the Feench Revolution might not necessarily be a bad thing.

I support single payer health care-I bet you are suprised.But if you click on my handle you can read every comment I have ever made-but I'm warning you, THAT will take a while.

I have stated unequiovically on this site that OF COURSE the occuption of the Middle East by our armed forces is MOSTLY about the oil, alhough not EXCLUSIVELY about the oil. nO OIL-NO WAR, SIMPLE ENOUGH ?

I don't have all night to comment, I have some research due tommorrow, but I will say simply that OBama has sent MORE TROOPS , and that our current secretary of state and her husband the former president are both on record as believing in "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq.These things aren't simple and to do justice to this one issue would take a couple of thousand words at least ok?

I am not aware that Brown's victory is being painted in glowing terms by most of the media-certainly there are some conservative media that are banging his drum.Perhaps if you believe this is so, you might want to think about the implications; maybe the general public is becoming disillusioned with what it has come to percieve as overreaching on the part of the democrats over the last year.

The media are not only dogs-they are ungrateful dogs.

I do believe that the climate is changing , and that human activity is in part responsible , perhaps mostly responsible, and have so stated here many times.I am not sure that the climate models are quantitavely accurate-they might be off quite a bit in either direction, but if we keep on piling on the CO2 there can be only one result-a hothouse world.

But while that is indeed a problem that might kill us off in the longer term , say from fifty years to a few hundred years,( who really knows?) there are far more pressing and equally dangerous issues that must be dealt with immediately-and whatever is done in respect to these issues will have a favorable effect on climate change.These problems include ff and all mineral depletion, fresh water for irrigation, overpopulation, and wide scale war, to mention just a few of the biggies.

I commented very favorably on the concept of a gifting economy and see the same as a viable PART of a workable localized, downscaled economy, and participate in a fairly healthy gifting economy daily-but the gifting actually amounts to only a very small portion of our community economic activity-maybe five percent , depending on how you distinguish gifting from charity.


I am quite certain that what you very fairly describe as "predatory growth capitalism" is headed for the rocks , and that there will be big changes in not so distant future.Whether these chanhes are for the better, however is an open question-we just might be better off with the devil we know, rather than the one we don't.

Continious exponential growth within a bounded environment is a physical impossibility, and a crash is absolutely inevitable.I fear it will soon be upon us, if indeed it has not already started.The only real question is how long and how deep, and whether a recovery is even possible, given the depleted resource base.

The world is a Darwinian place, and justice is a concept foreign to nature.The hyenas and the loins eat thier prey alive, and we humans are just another species playing the same old game.

The Vikings used to land in Ireland and carry away my ancestors as slaves.A few hundred years later some of my ancestors(perhaps not in the direct line) were almost certainly involved in landing in Africa and carrying away some of your ancestors as slaves.

My little artist, my second wife, was Jewish and lost her (European branch) extended family to people even worse than slavers.The Nazis simply rounded them up and deliberately workedand starved them to death or murdered them outright.

The historical record shows that many black people were involved in the slave trade as willing participants, not as merchandise.

It's a dirty rotten place, this old world-but there is some hope that we can learn to live together as brothers and sisters.

I wish things wer better, that we as a species could do a better job living up the the nicer side of our nature.Unfortunately I'm afraid we are made in such a way that that is POSSIBLE, but not very likely in terms of the big picture and over the long haul.

It has always been " us " and or "them " and I fear it always will be.

This does not mean that you and I cannot live as brothers, as has frequently been proven.Once we become friends and establish community bonds you and I become an "us" and we can work together against whoever the "them " might be.

I am perfectly willing and ready to get bonded to work against the "them " of the multinational banks and corporations that are running the world today as it seems we both view "them " as our enemy.

Of course if I were rich I might feel differently, but I'm not rich, or even well to do,and as far as this fight is concerned, we are natural allies.

A conservative is not the same thing as a republican.I'm sure that if I were rich I would still refer to myself as a conservative, but the word would mean something else entirely.

Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. Your answers have done a great deal to put my mind at ease. One day (probably not this week), I would like to hear more about what you think of being conservative versus Republican. I apologize for misreading you. Also, keep sharing you practical knowledge about simple living. It is appreciated.

Have a good evening!

TH in OR

Just a tag to let you know how much I enjoy your posts. Like a guy above said, when I see your name, I stop scrolling and start reading.

Your posts last winter during the ice storm made their way out to an audience on another forum as well.

"You cannot make up the difference with efficiency gains (and in reality there really aren't many actual efficiency gains to be made)."

Nonsense. People and businesses waste a truly huge amount of energy, simply because it is so cheap. When energy gets more expensive they are going to start paying attention to this waste and will conserve dramatically.

I think one of the good concepts to get from the article is that there are different ways of eliminating waste and gaining efficiency. In transportation, for instance, new hybrid vehicles to replace the old gas-burners are an increase in both efficiency and complexity. According to the theory, on the large scale they will fail, as increasing complexity to solve an energy decline is in the long term a doomed strategy.

A more likely strategy is to replace the fuel-burning vehicles with bicycles, or to walk, as these both revert to basic simplicity in addition to being more efficient and reliable,

Yes, to a large extent, along with renewed use of beasts of burden, and sailing ships. However, a lot depends on how far we decline before leveling off. Steam-powered ships and railroads does not require more than 19th century technology, they are pretty simple, really. I'm not at all sure that we need to fall farter back than that. Even electric motors and generators and lead-acid batteries are late 19th century technologies and not very complicated, so some electric cars and carts and shuttle buses might not even be out of the realm of possibility to sustain.

True,Pasttense, in the smaller envelpoe and shorter term.

But you can turn off half the lights only ONCE.

Nonsense. People and businesses waste a truly huge amount of energy, simply because it is so cheap. When energy gets more expensive they are going to start paying attention to this waste and will conserve dramatically.

Of course there is a lot of energy wasted and we can do much to conserve. But have you seen the charts of depletion (individual countries or wells)? Once depletion sets in it is inexorable. Depletion of worldwide oil is estimated to be 3 % or more a year. That means that we need to conserve 3% more each and every year until we have nothing left to conserve. If we have 1 trillion barrels of net oil left to extract then at 30 billion barrels of oil a year you have 33 years left before you are out. If you conserve starting now so that you use only 1/2 that amount you have 66 years left. Looking at it from the annual decline perspective if we go at it gradually and all conserve 3%, next year we have to conserve another 3 % and the next another 3%. In 10 years we have to be conserving 30%, in 20 years 60% and in 30 years 90%. Is there that much to conserve and still have BAU?

Tainter also explains that countries can`t collapse one by one now---the global system has to collapse together. Individuals or countries can`t choose to go to a lower level of complexity because they risk being absorbed by the people or groups left who still have higher levels of complexity available.

It`s the "Prisoner`s Dilemma"---the framework that underlies our strategic thinking. We take preemptive action to avoid someone else taking it first and leaving us at a disadvantage. Even if in the long run taking that action is a mistake, in the short run we have no choice.

There is no easy answer!

We will always compete to be the ones who decide things, not the ones who supply energy-inputs. I like farming. I wish I could be a farmer (sometimes). But if I don`t do the job that I do then someone else is going to take it and if I`m a farmer I will face a lot of hardship (especially at first). I can`t compete with established industrial farmers either. Stuck between the rock (of collapse of my city life) and the hard place (of the hardship of switching to lower complexity voluntarily and facing near-certain failure) all I can do is wait it out and pray.

But I remember reading a few things here----"solvitur ambulans" (we`ll solve it as we go along")---that inspire me to wait this out gracefully and hopefully, not gloomily at least!

Mentioning the "Prisoner's Dilemma" strategy is an important point. This falls into the game theory class of problems. The current thinking is that posing most problems into a game theoretic context makes them intractably difficult to solve.

Given the Nash equilibrium’s unreliability, says Daskalakis, “there are three routes that one can go. One is to say, We know that there exist games that are hard, but maybe most of them are not hard.” In that case, Daskalakis says, “you can seek to identify classes of games that are easy, that are tractable.”

The second route, Daskalakis says, is to find mathematical models other than Nash equilibria to characterize markets — models that describe transition states on the way to equilibrium, for example, or other types of equilibria that aren’t so hard to calculate. Finally, he says, it may be that where the Nash equilibrium is hard to calculate, some approximation of it — where the players’ strategies are almost the best responses to their opponents’ strategies — might not be. In those cases, the approximate equilibrium could turn out to describe the behavior of real-world systems.

As for which of these three routes Daskalakis has chosen, “I’m pursuing all three,” he says.

I don't know the best route to take, but picking problems that remove the human psychology element from the equation is a start. Take the prediction of oil depletion as an example. The only human element that we are dealing with in this context is a general notion of "need and greed". People need oil and they will be greedy about it. The elements of "Prisoner's Dilemma" type games is minimized as everyone automatically works together to exhaust the world's supply of oil. No game player exists that "fakes" being "not needy" or "not greedy" in this straightforward game strategy. That is what makes it more tractable to solve.

The fundamental problem with assuming "need and greed drives oil depletion" is that the certain kind of need came from a certain region of the world that invented Guns, Germs and Steel. There were and still are - peoples whose 'generality' is more than the "developed" parts of the world. There is a whole section of India, called the "North East" in general (simply because nobody really knows what those people are upto - we occasionally see them on a national equivalent of the discovery channel about "tribal people"). They're pretty much hunter / gatherers who still don't grow rice/wheat or any of the carb-rich "grasses" that most of the "developed" world eats. They never needed oil, they never will - until they are given the choice of "civilization", that is.

The corollary of this post is: The "developed world" will be hurt more than the "developing" world as peak oil "sets in".

But no generalizations are right and the world IS a diverse place. We'll be back on the track of "speciation" given we've done the "diversity" bit quite well (6.8bn unique indivuals by finding every possible "highest energy return" sources)!)

So there are people that don't need oil. That's ok as this is a slow growth portion of the population and rate dispersion takes this into account. Remember that diversity=entropy and when I talk about need and greed, this applies to the average.
Generalizing in this case is ok as we use probability distributions to describe the fat tails of diversity.

"Tainter also explains that countries can`t collapse one by one now" -that's a good theory, but is it supported by data? How about the collapse of Zimbabwe? The downfall of Russia? Haiti? It seems to me that today countries are very well able to collapse by themselves. The exception may be the Euro zone, where an inflexible common currency regime eliminates much of the souvereignty the members once had and ties the countries together for better or worse.

I suspect that what Tainter said has been condensed a little too much. I agree that if we have a very interconnected system of countries, the whole system will tend to go down together. But it does seem that a single small isolated country could go down earlier on its own, at least to some extent.

I don't think the collapse of Russia was to anywhere near the level of the ultimate collapse. With every other country still around, it has helped keep the would-be collapsing countries functioning--even Haiti. So to the extent other countries are holding the would-be collapsing countries up, Tainter is correct.

These posts push my puny little ego into further spells of depression and my neo-cortex a boost for having acquired more!

[...] that inspire me to wait this out gracefully and hopefully, not gloomily at least!

After this super post, what more do I need to feel all the more insignificant? I feel no gloomy anymore - I'd like to relish my dinner.

...they risk being absorbed by the people or groups left who still have higher levels of complexity available

...when I look at the EIA's prediction that the OECD's energy demands have peaked, but that Asia and the middle east still have a long way to go, and China has played its cards so well on the world-energy stage, that's one thing I wonder about.

The developing world will have to readjust their world views. One cannot go about projecting a trend from the past into the future.

One cannot go about projecting a trend from the past into the future.

That is a refrigerator quote for sure! As an example, every day since my birth I have continued to live and grow older, therefore I will always grow older and never die.

That we can imagine solutions to the issues confronting us--over population, resource depletion, et al--means that complexity or size in and of itself does not destroy.

While arguments such as you present are interesting, they seem to lack coherence. Can an organism make choices--decide, for example, not to grow willy nilly.

The more interesting question is why do we not make intelligent, rational choices as a species.

That's simple enough Stormy.We are not designed as such, like a machine, but assembled by a blind watchmaker working at random thru a process known as evolution.He constantly tries out modifications, AT RANDOM,and the very few out of millions that improve the watch are retained or SELECTED by improved reproductive success.

We have no design features that cause us to work together in huge groups of billions, BECAUSE UP UNTIL RECENTLY, survival worked at the small group level.We have been competeing with EACH OTHER for at least forty thousand years,before that as proto humans for a million years, as much or more so as against all the other species trying to occupy our living space, from mice and weeds right on up to large predators that would as soon feed on us as on the animals we eat.

Understand that I bear you no ill will,AS AN INDIVIDUAL, but in evolutionary terms, YOU are a STRANGER , and thus a THREAT to the welfare of MY FAMILY and community.My cynical old survival instincts, honed to a razor edge by that forty thousand years of HARD AND BITTER experience, tell me to distrust you-that you are no more than a lying sneaking eggsucking dog of a rat,indeed a DEVIL, after my treasure , such as it may be, and my woman too,if it so happens that she is still young and therefore attractive.

The THINKING parts of our brain are not in charge.The boss lives lower down, at a more fundamantal level,and responds to a different set of cues and inputs.

Don't get your hopes up very high in respect to cooperation on the global level.Long experience dictates that WWIII is more likely.

This is the best comment I've read in a while - I've thought on this truth on and off for years, no clear way out - resigned to the fact that a government that half works in the interest of the people is a good one & the most that can be expected given our evelutionary heritage. A basic issue is for the most part, a person who works for the general good is working for free, those who work for personal gain at the expense of others, well that is their pay. I've met plenty of people over the years that will happily cost ten others a dollar each if they stand to gain a dime - such people are naturally attracted to positions of authority,as they benefit.
On the face there is a best answer to the Fermi Paradox.

Long experience dictates that WWIII is more likely

ahh...but the fuel that created our global bonds is on the decline. There is nothing so dependent on fuel as warfare, and if we have a WWIII I think it may well end with all sides running out of steam, the collapse of the notion of central authorities, and no choices left to but to hunker down in place, more or less. In which case regionalism and localism sets in as a response to the remnants of militarism, as it has happened before.

daxr please check out this wiki list of nuclear weapons Over 8,000 to 20,000 nuclear weapons still held in the world. WWIII isn't going to be fought with tanks. I find it hard to believe that we will go down the energy slope without someone getting the idea that the way to be Last Man Standing is to let loose with the nukes. The militaries of these countries will insure that they have enough fuel for at least setting off the nukes - otherwise wouldn't they just disarm and use the uranium to burn in nuclear power plants?

More likely to be a miscalculation than anything deliberate. One state will push another one too hard, miscalculating that they won't hit back with a nuke. The other one will miscalculate that one nuke will just be interpreted as a warning shot. Once the first one flies, things might continue to spiral until they have all been launched.

WNC that sounds like the most likely scenario

Finally it sounds like that buzzword called "Weapons of Mass Destruction" will be witnessed!

Daxr, It could play out that way but the against it are high, as the countries that START the fights have usually tried to do so while winning still seemed likely.

There may be wishful thinking involved on my part, but I still look at the US military, for example, as a cohesive effective force based on indoctrination (or whatever it might be called) into the "myth" of what they serve. While we can all talk openly about the missteps and terrible messes around the world the country has been involved in or instigated, and go to the polls every four years to vote out the last pack of bastards we elected, and look at our place in the world as steadily sliding down the ranks toward the mediocre, and generally hash over how and why our government and economy are even still functioning, there is still the basic myth of what the country stands for that lies at the core of the largest and most effective military machine ever put together.

Lose the driving force of the myth (and in reality it is pretty much in shambles - at the "emperor has no clothes" stage), and you have just a bunch of guys from various parts of the world with a lot of weapons. People need a good reason to fight, particularly far from home, and I think our reason will have long since passed when the world's resource base goes into decline. Of course there is still the question of the nukes, and no end to possible nightmare scenarios "patchwork" style even if we reduce to regional or local governments...

The THINKING parts of our brain are not in charge.The boss lives lower down, at a more fundamantal level,and responds to a different set of cues and inputs.

Very well said, oldfarmermac. And true - great post!

Thanks Harm ,

The prose is my own , but the knowledge and literary structure is the intellectaul property of Richard Dawkins.

His book The Blind Watchmaker is the definitive modern explanatory work on the theory of evolution.He is so well known that it is no longer considered necessary to mention his name, any more than it is considered necessary to mention Darwin every time evolution is mentioned.

But there are a lot of people here who are not into biology and may not have heard of Dawkins.I suppose I should have credited him in my original post.

The more interesting question is why do we not make intelligent, rational choices as a species.

"Species" don't make decisions. Individuals do.

Individuals are limited in their capacity to know the future, to put it mildly. That is why I ignore most articles about "preparations" for the future. Which future? War? Famine? Bigger Government? No government?

I particularly like this article because it clearly defines its terms and has this wonderful quote:

Societies collapse when increasing complexity no longer has a payoff and something else bad happens.

"Something else!"

I nominate the "debt crisis," the "MBS crisis," or whatever the hell you want to call it, as the "something" that revealed our energy impoverishment. Most everyone else is obsessed with it as cause when it is the mere trigger--a fly speck compared to diminishing returns of energy.

Finally--this views the problem as beyond the scope of petty blame, which so many want to pin on someone, anyone right now.

I agree with you Mike. It could very well be the debt crisis or MBS crisis that pushes things to a crisis point. Since both of these work very much better in an environment of economic growth, their collapse is actually quite closely related to the energy slowdown.

I think, too, that the trigger, at least in some countries, can be things like an earthquake (Haiti) or hurricane (New Orleans). As it becomes more and more difficult to rebuild, what would have been a fixable problem will become more and more difficult to handle.

I got the idea from reading past key posts like yours, of course, weighing them against the likes of The Automatic Earth, which is informative but one-sided (and prone to conspiracy theory, in the form of "they" crashed the "economy" intentionally because "they" knew peak oil was upon us.)

What I take from TAE and Denninger isn't that "they" crashed the economy on purpose, but that the system is so riddled with corruption and cronyism that it had to ultimately collapse under its own weight. With everybody ripping everybody else off, who's left to do any productive work?

Now, post-start-of-crash, "they" are talking up recovery and diddling the numbers to try to keep the music going for just long enough to collect one more round of bonuses. And as Tyler Durden at ZH points out, the only way to prevent runaway inflation at this point is to stampede the money out of the equity markets and back into Treasuries. Beggar-thy-neighbor monetary policies and seesawing markets, both essential ingredients of Disaster Capitalism.

Paraphrasing Lily Tomlin in her 1981 "The Incredible Shrinking Woman," the only way that 'they' could get any bigger is by making all the rest of us smaller.

essential ingredients of Disaster Capitalism

Another ingredient in the mix is exchange rates. Watch out for this one - virtual currencies are chips from different casinos but with no ability to convert back whence they came.* So the market has to bet between currencies - and they are only valued against each other by that same market, with no independent reference point. (GDP, anyone?) In other words, for someone's dollar to be worth more, someone else's euro is worth less. (And vice versa next week.) I think I could make a case for saying that speculation is the core remaining purpose of individual currencies.
*you can't go backwards in thermodynamics, you can't turn a trillion dollars of debt into anything.

the only way that 'they' could get any bigger is by making all the rest of us smaller

We are all feeling smaller because we have no significance.
And so are the "leaders".
Obama is smaller than Roosevelt, Brown a particle of Churchill, and the bankers - masters of our civilisation - they seem positively gnatlike.
None of them can prevent all our economies from using as much energy as possible - maximum entropy (see my post below).
Gaia was special because it bucked the thermodynamic trend, but humans are hot and making things hotter. The only real hope for us - yes! here's the original post subject again! - is the emergence of consciousness.
That could lead to a sharing economy. Kind of like here. Thanks George. Sorry to be so late.

Will the value of the paper we`ve been using to pay for oil not be worth enough to do the job? Or will the price of oil sink (today, on the news of the Greece-Portugal-Spain crisis in the Eurozone, oil is down to $68) to the point where it is too expensive to run the machines (and pay the people, who run the machines, who need to eat) that are needed to get it out? In the end, what is the difference? The lifeblood of the economy simply disappears, virtually overnight, in a year or two.

I used to be in the slow decline school of thought but I am starting to wonder lately if there is a faster crash in progress....

In a sense the magnitude of the modern accomplishments bespeaks a fast crash.....huge cities can`t possibly adapt and even people in rural areas of developed countries who will have food won`t have access to other things they need, like medicine or electricity.

But obviously many will survive, particularly the people who don`t use oil now, indigenous people, nomadic tribes.....the people who embraced simplicty from the beginning.

mikeb said;

"Species" don't make decisions. Individuals do.

Let's not forget herd and mob mentalities. Ants (as an example) work together like clockwork, not like individuals.

It's a good point you make.

I was addressing the "intelligent, rational" decisions the poster mentioned.

Ants are but little machines.

Maybe we are, too....

Individuals are limited in their capacity to know the future, to put it mildly. That is why I ignore most articles about "preparations" for the future. Which future? War? Famine? Bigger Government? No government?

Mike, which future is the less important question. In any case, preparation could be the road to survival.

The more interesting question is why do we not make intelligent, rational choices as a species.

Interesting indeed. I think we can... and I think we will. Those who have questioned the unquestionable have made significant impacts. I'm silly proud of Darwin and our species' invention of grammar and written language. For, how else are there so many people who, with a darwinian understanding, are able to make seemingly (and increasingly, provingly) right choices? I've learnt a whole lot on TOD. I _believe_ in education and furthering knowledge _and_ the glimpse of our nature from the ongoing historical moments of a post-peak-energy world. But... the world is more complex than what our machinery has built it to be perceived as.

Given 99.9% of all species go extinct... and given a good 6 billion years of the good old sun and 6 major mass extinction events, this is probably another chapter in this rock's unknown journey.

I'm compiling a very large volume of books compiled out of Wikipedia and allocating close to a $1000 (and a LOT by Indian rupees :) ). I think life by itself, is an amazing phenomenon - especially of interest to me is the fact that lunches are enjoyable and a water body gives us a natural "happiness". While at the same time, the beast underneath commands and controls - who knows its blind ways?

I'm seriously amazed at the crowd I get to hang out with over here - darwinians, peak oil folk, wannabe farmers. I think this answers your question pretty much.

</self-motivation mode> ;)

Excellent essay, George. I especially appreciated your clear statement of societal complexity going down while individual complexity goes up. This is something I have harped about for a long time whenever the issue of relocating to the "country" comes up. The number of skill sets (both physical and psychological) needed to be successful is really large. And, unlike many things in a complex society, can't be faked. Further, unless personal complexity comes slowly so that skills can be learned over a protracted period, my experience is that individuals become overwhelmed, give up and go back to "civilization."


I suppose it will be hard to see the similarities in the dynamics of molecules, or cells, and those of human societies for many people. It is a very abstract viewpoint. It might seem inhuman! But if there really is a correspondence, a general law of complexity evolution based on energy flow then we might be wise to pay attention.

Complexity isn't the issue, I believe understandability is the issue, especially if that is what you want to try to accomplish. Pick a particular problem and see if you can solve it using the conventional tools of probability theory, Bayes rule, the Maximum Entropy Principle, and a measure of something you are interested in. It might not explain why a society will collapse but you can certainly gain an understanding of certain dynamic aspects.

Jaynes and Gell-Mann among others have pointed out that you can use uncertainty about a system to reason how it evolves, whether it is on the atomic scale or at the geological scale. In other words, you don't have to have absolute certainty in any of the parameter set, as maximum entropy can fill that in.

I suppose one has a hard time seeing the associations given that the discussion revolves around generalities. So if I may ask: what behavior exactly are you interested in describing the evolution of?

I am not saying that this it's universal thinking, but ascribing something to complexity may be a crutch in avoiding a complete understanding. Understanding is the key to managing complexity (whatever that means). The flow of electrons in a semiconducter is the most disordered behavior imaginable, but once you understand it, voila, you have the key to how a transistor works. No one calls this behavior complex anymore because it is understood in terms of the laws of statistical mechanics.

Again many of the behaviors deemed complex are only that because no one has tried to understand them. It consistently surprises me, as I see examples of this all the time. These are the problems that I have a hankering to study. So use uncertainty like a martial artist applies judo or jujitsu, flip the uncertainty you're being confronted with against itself.

Another blog that has been studying this topic is Various Consequences.

To echo WHT's comments in less specific terms, that we are up against the maximum entropy rate. My casual observation is that maximum entropy is a function of a civilization's knowledge, or it's capacity for knowledge. This seems to reflect Bayes Rule (which I just learned about five minutes ago).

If we look over the course of civilizations, we find there is an ebb and flow in what appears to be a spiraling upwards. I think the common mistake we make is assuming past civilizations were primitive and incapable of complex ideas and systems. This is proving to be a false assumption. They just didn't have the tools we have. So it could be said the maximum rate of entropy is limited by the tools employed by the civilization, and the tools are a manifestation of knowledge capacity.

Although I can't help but vent a little frustration as I stated on TOD many months ago that we are not up against Peak Oil, Peak minerals, or Peak Everything (Heinberg), but Peak Entropy; and the reply was a deafening silence. Either its the casualty of posting from the west coast, or I spoke of things not said.

If we are looking for a fix to this predicament, I believe there are two things that need to be understood: (1) There is an ebb and flow to civilizations, and we are probably going out with the tide at this point. But the direction will change in the future (based on #2); (2) To survive as a species over the millennia, we need to evolve our consciousness. Or more specifically our capacity for knowledge (energy) and consciousness.

I think we are generally stuck in a one-sided philosophy of what constitutes knowledge and this will be our undoing.

Peak Entropy may be a property of an ergodic proces. The term ergodic is an adjective that essentially means that all possibilities within a state space have been visited. So when humans as a collective have explored all the states possible within a certain set of technologies they have reached an ergodic equilibrium, and also maximum or peak entropy.

Peak entropy and maximum entropy are essentially synonymous in this case. Peak isn't strictly used because the maximum entropy is reached and it just sits there, like a cumulative reaching an asymptote.

If a new technology is revealed, then the humans will take some time to explore that state space until it reaches a new equilibrium. Take for example the set of technologies that comprise our transportation system; which then leads to equilibrium human mobility patterns. Several research teams have mapped the usage out for the USA at least and it maps exactly to the maximum entropy prediction for an average velocity.

We have reached maximum entropy for this distribution of transportation systems and energy availability. This curve will change if our energy availability changes. This is a clear example of the connection between energy flow and diversity (i.e. another way of describing complexity) in our society.

BTW, no one, as far as I can tell, looks at the topic precisely this way.

To summarize economically, "That's the ticket!" And this ergodic model you have presented would make for a great post as a follow-on to George's essay.

The interesting part - for me anyway - would be to construct a Superset ergodic model from subsets. How far would it scale? I think there could be a fairly high degree of confidence in the Superset since the common technology that would correlate the subsets would be the internal combustion engine, or use of hydrocarbons.

Example, if we looked at Bulk Transportation, Education, and Food Production as subsets, each would have their dispersion characteristic. If the subsets were to have a common unit of Entropy to measure and the x-axis had somewhat common relationship (time scale, population, etc), could they be superimposed to determine intersects?

The intersects, of course, indicate a common point where the variables are equal by some measure. In this case, that's all you get folks in this civilization as we know it? It goes a long way to illustrate and answer the observation when people ask why does it appear everything is peaking/ending/collapsing at the same time? Finally, this may provide the real, tangible proof for the interconnection between functionaries in our civilization (money, food, shelter,...) and energy.

Thanks WHT, you've made my day!!

Other measures involve: the size of cities, the distribution of incomes, the rate of productivity, etc.

I am working on an extended post on the last topic. The explanation has a nice narrative that everyone can relate to, but I need an invitation from one of the editors to post it on TOD.

Entropy is a process. Maximum entropy is a speed. The theory is that the universe is not just heading towards an entropic state - where there is no more useful energy left to burn things with - but is doing so as quickly as it possibly can. This seems to be true of stars, and would also help explain why the British government has been unable to save any oil or gas from the North Sea for a rainy day. (More consumption,more business, more heat.) Gaia was a self-organising biophysical process for the thermodynamic control of climate which stopped us turning into toast. Amazing. But it seems that humans are more like stars. Or yeast. (love & respect to totoneila)

Maximum entropy is not a speed. Moving toward entropy is an equilibrium process.

I think you are on to something, the 2nd law of thermodynamics is certainly one of the main things going on the the background and ultimately setting the boundaries of the pathway we are following.

It used to be thought that living organisms violated the 2nd law of thermodynamics, until very careful measurements were done to prove that they does not. While living organisms don'tt violate the law of 2nd thermodynamics, however, they are very, very good at making the most of what is possible within its constraints.

Except for us - or rather, for the culture we have evolved. So, entropy is about to bite us in the behind.

It seems to me that the absolute foundation of any society that is to have even a prayer of a chance at really being "sustainable" is to systematically make the most of the available resources in an entropy-governed world. This means minimizing waste, it means striving for efficiency, it means conserving and maintaining assets. The traditional East Asian societies probably came as close to this as anyone ever has. Their problem is that they have become too much like us. Our solution is that we have to become much more like they used to be.

Except for us - or rather, for the culture we have evolved. So, entropy is about to bite us in the behind.

Entropy is about to bite us indeed as it has bitten the zillion other species before in the past :)

All living things exploit energy / resources (that they have "learnt" to exploit) for reproduction. Humans are no different.

Isn't the Long "attractive" tail of many of the Birds of Paradise nothing but a waste of energy? Well, it might be - but its a useful way of showing "If I can waste so much energy, it also means I can feed myself easily". It is a great statement of display of energy use and availability - which means, a competitor can take great cues before engaging in a fight.

The human equivalent of the "beautiful tail" is "Wealth". How are humans different here?

WNC ..

The traditional East Asian societies probably came as close to this as anyone ever has

There was a wonderful progam on Voom Network,
the Equator HD channel called "Satoyama, Japan's
Water Garden" which covered a year in the cycle of
life in this ancient place ..

Triff ..

I could never make any sense watsoever out of that life violating the second law crap-it appears to me to be of a piece with the French folk wisdom that goes something to the effect that Only a fool or an intellectual could believe such a thing".

Whovwver first said it came into this world as an infant and grew up at least to something apprioaching adulthood.No "controlled experiment is needed when the world provides ready examples continiuosly by the millions.

Ergo, the second law either does not apply, or it is not a "law" but merely a mistaken hypothesis.

Of course it takes only a cursory knowledge of biology to understand that energy flows THRU biological systems. I maintain that engineers and physicists should be compelled to enroll in at least the first year of lectures and labs that students of the life sciences-even lowly ag students- rountinely take along with chemistry.

This would broaden thier mibds more effectively than a year of French literature or the history of landscape painting or whatever token humanities class they are usually required to take in order to graduate.

Some world class astronomer made an incredible ass of himself by completely and totally failing to understand natural selection , which is half the driving force of evolution.

He worked out an elegant example of why an eye cannot exist as an evolved organ-that the likelihood of it being assembled by accident was equivalent to a tornado assembling a 747 airliner (iirc) by accident from a junk pile of parts.

This is true-except that evolution does not work by accident at the level of SELECTION by differences in survival/reproduction rates.

Accidents are involved of course-the accidents of mutations.BIG difference.Anycollege freshman biology student knows better-most reasonably bright HIGH SCHOOL biology students know better.

Once a proper experiment was set up in the lab and accurate measurements done, the truth of the matter was quickly established.

Of course, people used to believe all sorts of things that were eventually proven untrue. Not fair to just single out those who believed the old thing about life being an exception to the 2nd law of thermodynamics. We DO actually learn a few things every now and then.

"The flow of energy through a system acts to organize that system."

If as you say organisation from chaos depends on an energy throughput do you then think, concidering the amount of planets we have discovered already around other suns, that life in the Universe is endemic?

That was the very thing I thought about the very moment I read that very statement! I guess the Goldilocks Zone definition dictates the rest - about the probability of formation of life outside earth.

I guess it also answers Fermi's paradox thusly: With whatever energy that was flowing to that planet, only a maximum allowed level of complexity will be achievable. Chances are, if they were pretty much earth like, they'd have evolved Life too. :)

so what do you think about the Vatican Observatory, eh? ;)

I also have a systems question. There seems to be a degree of suboptimization going on within our society what with the financial system now being suported by tax bailouts (a higher heirachal subsystem dominating lower systems) and corporate domination of the political system.

Do you think this is connected to a lower energy throughput or is a completly seperate problem?

Why would a gradual rollback of trade in bulk products to concentrate the transportation fuel use etc on high value goods be impossible? It could be done with classical market mechanisms.

Why should it be impossible for a government to start rationalise itself like a well run corporation and dismantle the least needed parts to conserve the core functions? The largest devil in the details might be deciding what the core functions are.

My guess about the local society and government is that I in 20 years will be living in a country with lower taxes, fewer and larger municipialities, more companies and co-ops and a much smaller national government that is so integrated with its nordic neighbours by cost svaing measures that it will be hard to notice the borders between Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark. Our economy will hum with electricity, fuel will be bloody expensive, people will have to work more for less pay and the nordic bloc might be one of the more influential ones in what has become of or is left of EU.

All of that could happen by gradual changes that wont tear peoples lives to pieces. It will of course be a lot worse if the investments are made in resisting change instead of embracing constructive change.

Future Directions

Assuming the current Population, Economic & Energy (Peak Oil) paradigms continue for a while and I suspect that is exactly what the Politicians & the Establishment are trying to engineer, then it seems likely there will be a series of steps, where markets Fall, then rise again, but fail to reach their previous Peak.

It is not possible to know (in advance) what specific event may lead to each step down or what the time frames may be, between each step.

However, as I said a while ago the following Future Formula (slightly revised), will provide some overall guide -
D(+-)+ E(+-) + A(+-) + P(+-)+ I(+-) +C(+-) = EA

D = Debt
E = Energy (Oil & other Fossil Fuels)
A = Aging (Population)
P = Population (Total)

I = Innovation
C = Climate Change
EA = Economic Activity

This Formula is simply meant to be a broad indicator of likely directions, given what is happening within those broad settings.

Others may be able to give specific values, but I'm only using it for general directions, what some may call the "Market Basics".

In years gone there have been variations up & down, on these basics.

But, at present and for the foreseeable future, they all point in one direction, which is negative -
D - = All time High & Going Higher
E - = Declining Production (Oil has Peaked) & High Price
A - = Now at start of Once in History Aging
P - = Now Beyond Planets Capacity & within 20 years of Peaking

I ? = Massive over last 100 years, Future is UNKNOWN
C - = Set to Peak on warming, before next Ice Age
EA - = Almost all of the Basics line up severely in the negative column, with the only possible bright spot being Innovation?
Therefore, on the balance of probability, Economic Activity is due for an extended period of downturn, unless some magical, unknown Innovation is about to be released?

Kind of predictable that if one writes a post with non-specific points that someone else will try to fill in the vacuum with a specific "complexity function".

Too bad that this one is misguided and ultimately worthless.

D(+-)+ E(+-) + A(+-) + P(+-)+ I(+-) +C(+-) = EA

at best you would want to pose the premise that

EA = f(D,E,A,P,I,C)

where f is some function of the parameters. It is not just a linear combination of the parameters. The function f is totally unknown, and the parameters could have various degrees of importance and could depend on one another.

This is a classic example from an Econ 101 class. They will introduce the equation and let it sit there like a wet noodle, because no one knows what the function is. As I said in another comment, pick out a measure that you can deal with. Unless you can do that, you can't hope to build up a body of knowledge that will allow one to do predictions with any level of confidence.

All this is mathematical humbug -don't get me wrong, I like a good model as much as the next man, but it strikes me that humans have a habit of feeling they live at major points of inflexion in History and being a student of History I sometimes wonder whether it is not human nature to consider their part in the grand scheme of things to be more significant than their ancestors or possible descendants...

Likewise, we now consider what will define our brief moment in history, and it falls upon the concept that we have reached a turning point in our abilty to consume what Nature has supplied in Eons gone by -Surely this is THE most important inflexion of them all we cry...

I guess time will tell but from the perspective of History the vast majority of people able to read this blog are living in a fools paradise and will continue to do so throughout THEIR lives.


Yes, but there are gradations of mathematical humbug.

There is mathematical humbug that at least makes some sense, and then you get the crappy mathematical humbug that is plainly misguided.

humans have a habit of feeling they live at major points of inflexion in History

I've wondered about that myself for some time. When I was younger I was prone to the skeptical notion that it was just the conventional hubris of an ego-driven species, but now I am much more prone to think that most humans have lived at major points of inflexion in history. If you read history not as something that was predetermined and performed by actors with a script but as something that proceeded according to the deliberate acts and decisions of the individuals of the day, then its pretty apparent that other histories were possible, until the decisions and acts that set things on a trajectory toward us were done.

Every point in time is a potential history-changer, and we are faced with decisions and the need to act and judge with incomplete information in the same way that our ancestors faced decisions on a fairly regular basis, also determining the direction of the species for better or worse in the same way.

The knell of the bells at the Gion temple
Echoes the impermanence of all things.
The colour of the flowers on its double-trunked tree
Reveals the truth that to flourish is to fall.
He who is proud is not so for long,
Like a passing dream on a night in spring.
He who is brave is finally destroyed,
To be no more than dust before the wind.

-Heike Monogatari, 13th Century, Japan


I close my eyes, only for a moment, and the moment's gone
All my dreams, pass before my eyes, a curiosity
Dust in the wind, all they are is dust in the wind
Same old song, just a drop of water in an endless sea
All we do, crumbles to the ground, though we refuse to see
Dust in the wind, All we are is dust in the wind
Don't hang on, nothing lasts forever but the earth and sky
It slips away, all your money won't another minute buy
Dust in the wind, All we are is dust in the wind

-Dust in the Wind, 20th Century, USA

Paraphrased, those whom the gods would destroy, first they raise on high.

From the KJB,again paraphrased, the generations come , and the generations go , but the earth abides forver.

"All this is mathematical humbug -don't get me wrong, I like a good model as much as the next man, but it strikes me that humans have a habit of feeling they live at major points of inflexion in History"

That is what I am saying, we are living thru a defining period of Human history!

As indicated in my original post -
"This Formula is simply meant to be a broad indicator of likely directions, given what is happening within those broad settings.

Others may be able to give specific values, but I'm only using it for general directions, what some may call the "Market Basics"."

Perhaps Formula was not even the right word to use, but what I am saying is that the following are the major factors that influence Economic Activity -
D = Debt
E = Energy (Oil & other Fossil Fuels)
A = Aging (Population)
P = Population (Total)

I = Innovation
C = Climate Change
EA = Economic Activity

Almost every one is now set to be a negative on Economic Activity, for some time, with the only possible bright spot being Innovation -
D - = All time High & Going Higher
E - = Declining Production (Oil has Peaked) & High Price
A - = Now at start of Once in History Aging
P - = Now Beyond Planets Capacity & within 20 years of Peaking

I ? = Massive over last 100 years, Future is UNKNOWN
C - = Set to Peak on warming, before next Ice Age
EA - =
I have therefore concluded that, on the balance of probability, Economic Activity is due for an extended period of downturn, unless some magical, unknown Innovation is about to be released?

In fact, as Noutram alluded to, I believe we have entered a defining period of Human history!

The next 20 & indeed the next 200 years, will be nothing like the past, we shall see what the future has in store for us!

perceptions_now said: "I[nnovation] ? = Massive over last 100 years, Future is UNKNOWN"

I would go further back than 100 years. Innovation went ballistic somewhere around 1750, which is commonly considered the start of the Industrial Revolution; however I think there was, in Europe anyway, an exponential trend that starts when Europe bottoms out from the fall of the Roman Empire (and becomes very noticeable with the Renaissance).

However, Tainter argues in The Collapse..., convincingly IMO, that marginal return on investment in innovation (measured in patents per engineer/inventor/researcher) is falling, and has been falling for quite some time.

So what allows us to keep innovation up?

1) Increasing fraction of population involved in R&D
2) Increasing population
3) Better information-handling technology, increasing a) the productivity of each R&D - worker and b) the effective population density of the R&D - workers.

So how will these develop?

1) Is clearly dependent on society's ability to sustain complexity, AKA economic health. Not looking too good.

2) Ummm, I can see some problems here too.

3) This is more of a wildcard, this depends on the future development of infotech. But I will offer my (biased but informed -- my education includes quite a bit of programming/computer science) speculation:

Tainter (in The Collapse...) quotes one Hornell Hart as having

demonstrated consistent patterns of increasing and then declining rates of patenting (logistic curves) in many fields [...] including airplanes, automobiles, cotton machinery, electric meters, radios, sewing machines, spinning machinery, sulky plows, telegraphy, telephony, typewriters, and weaving machinery (Hart 1945: 338). He also noted that the same patterns are evident in the major inventions and discoveries of the Western world, and in patents sealed in Great Britain between 1751 and 1820, and between 1821 and 1938.

At least on the software side, I think "Peak IT innovation" is long in the past. The story of the last decade has been one of greater and greater saturation of IT in society, and improving integration between various systems; not one of fundamental breakthroughs. On the hardware side, the cost to keep up with Moore's law seems to be ballooning, which is not a sustainable trend.

So, barring some breakthrough out of the blue (the invention/awakening of a superhuman intelligence, for instance) I believe Peak Oil will mean Peak Innovation as well.

Thanks George, great post!

I suppose it will be hard to see the similarities in the dynamics of molecules, or cells, and those of human societies for many people. It is a very abstract viewpoint. It might seem inhuman! But if there really is a correspondence, a general law of complexity evolution based on energy flow then we might be wise to pay attention.

Albert Barabasi introduces James Gleick to Charles Darwin at a cocktail party given by Jared Diamond, while Richard Feynman plays the bongos to entertain the guests...the common thread is that they are all star dust.

I seem to remember, (although it might be hypocriful), that when the last emperor of China was finally abandoned to his fate by his servants in the face of communist revolution, his life was so simplified he could not dress himself, or open a door, let alone grow his own food.

I see a level of dependance on technology today by the generation around me that leaves me extremely fearful for when the lights go out. If it can't be cooked in a microwave oven in under five minutes, it is not food.

Perhaps we can be rehabilitated. The emperor was. However, who will support us through the transition?

Confused twaddle, IMHO, allegedly.

Do you see a threat to your income here? Support your statement.

No. My allegations are being nicely padded out by other posters.

The work of Howard Odum (eMergy) not mentioned once? There. Now he's mentioned.

Tool to model energy flows. eMergy simulator.

And something for you all to try FreeMind

Useful for rough drafting your energy flow.

Massive amounts of exploitable exosomatic energy have accelerated the competitive race that naturally occurs among humans and between humans and other species. The organization necessary to maximally harvest and convert the energy into advantage is not unlike the organizations found within the ecosystem, particularly the cells that compose all living organisms.

Even if we could evolve the tools necessary to continue expanding, the technological system is toxic to the ecological one. Eventually we will be back to living and dying without technological intervention. We will rely upon the natural ecotech of our bodies to insure our survival, as has been the case for billions of years. However, if we have depleted the soils substantially and altered the ecosystem, the total primary production of the ecosystem may be significantly less and will support many fewer top-of-the-pyramid omnivores like humans.

The technological complexity resulting from the massive amounts of fossil fuel energy has not been time tested. It has been haphazard. Over time, longer than a few lifetimes, we will find that its development and growth was as inevitable as its demise.

Corporations and their supporting infrastructure grow and die on their nutrient agar of oil, coal, natural gas, soil and minerals. New tools evolve but can only persist if their costs of development and operation are covered by their usefulness in acquiring new energy and nutrients. Eventually the cost of complex tools cannot be supported by the paltry amount of energy returned. Returning to less complex, less expensive tools does no good either as they are now incapable of reaching the fossil fuel fruit. Old tools no good. New tools no good. Collapse. Complexity fails to deliver.

Our mentally challenged leaders and the mentally challenged populations that they represent are about to be blindsided. They are completely involved with the imperatives of the present and fail to see the real danger that looms in the near future. They will still be arguing amongst themselves and with their Gods as biological and physical forces sweep them from the stage.

'''''''''Our mentally challenged leaders and the mentally challenged populations that they represent are about to be blindsided. They are completely involved with the imperatives of the present and fail to see the real danger that looms in the near future. They will still be arguing amongst themselves and with their Gods as biological and physical forces sweep them from the stage.'''''''''''

Good point... probably the 'point' here also.

The Price System does not have any strategy for survival; it does not even have the mechanism by which an effective strategy can be implemented. In the long run, the operations of the Price System are defeatist. The Price System can only mine out the resources and move on. When the resources are gone--what then? Well, that day is rushing upon us. Our technological development has given it a momentum that it never had before. This generation must face the problem and find the answer.

Technocracy has always pointed out that Technocracy's method of social operation will not be adopted because it is desirable, but because it is necessary. The choice is literally between--Technocracy and chaos.

Science applied to the social order is the only effective technique of doing this. This is the method of the Technocracy technate design. Science has never yet let the human race down; business and politics have never done otherwise. Technocracy is non-business and non-political--it is strictly scientific. It alone can meet the requirements The Ecology Of Man, Wilton Ivie

Desultory chaos and destruction in our present system or a creative alternative in a science based social design?

Completely agree.

What do you guys think will really be the impact of Natural gas? While the long term implications is that, however hard we can try, we can't win the 2nd law of thermodynamics... will NG really buy time?

Actually, Karl Marx described the reduction of complexity in the life of an individual as the means of production moved from the shop of the artisan to the factory floor. This is the mechanism that allowed for the appropriation of the surplus value that fueled societal complexity. All driven by exosomatic energy, first coal, then oil and natural gas. The complexity "burden" of the individual was encoded into the machine. Remove the exosomatic energy, Peak Oil, the machine stops. To survive, the individual must reacquire some degree of complexity embodied in the machine. This also points to a necessary reduction in overall productivity, which is antithetical to the capitalist system of the appropriation of surplus value. It also runs counter to the global monetary system of ever more productivity servicing ever increasing debt. See? Marx is still relevant!

As the Russians are fond of saying these days, "Everything Marx told us about Communism was false, and everything Marx told us about Capitalism was true!"

It's not peak oil ... it's peak demand. It's not collapse ... we like being unemployed and hungry. And walking is good for you, haven't you heard. Don't you just love the new emphasis on "peak demand" semantics.

It almost makes it look like the problem is not a problem.

...or as if we could solve it by just wanting more.

The problem with the word "collapse" as Tainter uses it is that it describes a rather broad range of phenomena, while many people when they think of "collapse" immediately think only of the most severe, catastrophic forms of collapse. It is true that a great many societies have undergone collapse, but it is not the case that they all experienced collapse the same way, or that they all had the same end result of total oblivion. There is a considerable degree of difference from the collapse experienced by the Easter Islanders and the collapse with Dmitri Orlov documented in the Soviet Union, for example.

It is certainly true that when a society hits that point of diminishing marginal returns on complexity, and especially when the energy inputs fade, that a reduction to a lower level of complexity is inevitable and unavoidable. However, there may be numerous different pathways to that lower level - and maybe different lower levels to which a society can descend, from merely impoverished "has been" status all the way down to total oblivion.

Thus, I see decline (or "catabolic collapse") as inevitable; I remain unconvinced that catastrophic collapse is yet a certainty.

As I have been saying, the 21st century is going to have to be one long exercise in giving up things. This is another way of saying the same thing that Mobus is saying:

We can only start simplifying our societies and giving up the many discretionary expenditures of energy that we currently enjoy without much thought. We can learn to once again live on real-time solar influx via our food raising systems. And even then we are talking about an ability to support only a small fraction of the current population. Ironically the simplification of society involves the increasing complexity of individual lives. What this means in practice is that each individual must start to become more of a generalist in terms of the functions that support life. Everyone will have to become a food grower! Believe it or not that isn't simple! Knowing how to grow your own nutrients is actually quite complicated and will demand a whole new set of cognitive skills.

"Giving up things" for many people will certainly involve such things as giving up the type of life where one can pretty much buy whatever types and quantities of foodstuffs, including highly processed foodstuffs, that one wants, whenever one wants. Instead, one will have to make do with basic foodstuffs grown by oneself or locally, in season or preserved by oneself. People will have to do this because they won't be able to afford to feed themselves and their families any other way. That is what happens in a declining, increasingly impoverished economy.

"Giving up things", at least here in the US, is also going to require giving up much of the superstructure of government and the things government does. We are seeing this right now. Yesterday we were talking on the DB about the announcement that the US is effectively going to have to give up manned space flight. We also talked about Greer's recent article, noting that wholesale reductions in state and local government services are happening now and more are inevitably on the way. The complete dysfunctionality of the Federal Government has been widely noted, and one cannot help but wonder if this doesn't exactly fit Tainter's thesis sumarized above:

. . .and at some point, the marginal beneficial returns (problems solved) begin to decline leading to lowered margins of error for dealing with possible catastrophic impacts. Societies collapse when increasing complexity no longer has a payoff and something else bad happens.

It is becoming increasingly evident that the US federal government has indeed reached the point where it can no longer solve any problems, and thus now has a marginal beneficial return of zero (if not negative). It thus appears to me to be highly likely that a considerable reduction in the size and power of the US federal government is unavoidable over the next few decades. Longer term, it is indeed an open question whether the US can continue to exist as a single nation; a break up into multiple sovereignties seems to me to be highly probable eventually, but maybe not in my lifetime. Some of what the FedGov is doing now will be devolved to the state and local governments, but a very great deal of it will simply be given up. A great many things that we have become accustomed to seeing the FedGov do will simply not be done any more, and we'll have to grow accustomed to doing without those things.

It is becoming increasingly evident that the US federal government has indeed reached the point where it can no longer solve any problems, and thus now has a marginal beneficial return of zero (if not negative). It thus appears to me to be highly likely that a considerable reduction in the size and power of the US federal government is unavoidable over the next few decades.

When Russian government of Eltsin’s period reached the point where it can no longer resolve any issues (continuing crushing economy, dead-end war in Chechnya, etc) it didn’t reduce itself in size or power. It rather put an authoritarian leader (Putin) in power. Unless reduction in democracy, direct appointing of local governors, tight vertical political structure, etc, are considered reduction in complexity?

First of all, Russia still had a huge amount of oil and NG, and that served as something of a safety net. They experienced a serious decline, but it was not a total catastrophic collapse, and the decline was eventually more or less halted. The US is now entering into decline, and while we have enough FFs to apply some brakes to the rate of decline, we don't have enough to totally arrest or prevent our decline.

Second, a resort to authoritarianism is usually what happens with governments when societies are in decline. It doesn't reverse the decline, or even really stop it; mainly, it just changes some of the details about what is happening, and in particular it rearranges the identities of the winners and losers. Ultimately, the authoritarian replacements prove themselves to be of no marginal benefit either, and eventually they are replaced. This is usually the point when you start seeing really huge rearrangements of the political landscape, with wholesale reductions in government size and power, and fragmentation into multiple sovereignties.

"Giving up things": this is a good way to state the problem complex societies face. There will be a lot of conflicts and negotiations involved. Why should the US government give up flying to the moon and maintain almost 1000 military bases abroad? Should cuts be made on pensions, health care, or subsidies to private industry and banks? Who will decide and how?
The way I see the near future is: in a lot of places where actors compete on saturated markets, public authorities deal with decreasing resources to be allocated, local societies need organize to become more efficient and resilient- in all those places possibilities will open up to deal with conflicts constructively and negotiate some kind of agreements; this is not to say negotiations will come about automatically, or that a win-win solution is always there, but this possibility exists and is always worth exploring and organizing.
In my town we are starting a round table among different public and private stakeholders in order to recycle building waste. It is startling to see how much efficiency can be achieved by simply increasing the quality of communication.

Good points, and by the way - last week, in the presidents new budget, "poof" - there went the moon program. China may still try to get there, but the US is done.

To make a prediction myself: the military at present is stronger than the presidency. No overseas base closures or draw-downs unless failure in Afghanistan (notably nicknamed "the graveyard of empires"), when that would cease to be the case. I think it would be a good, huge, positive thing myself, though apologies to anyone harmed in Afghanistan (and in wars generally, pointless or otherwise...).

I very much doubt that the US military really still wants to be in Afghanistan. They were eager to kick some rear ends after 9/11, but that has long ago been done. They have seen too many soldiers come home in a box or minus a leg to still have much enthusiasm for being over there.

I'm not at all sure that every single overseas base exists because the military wanteds it, either. More than a few of them were created because our politicians and their politicians saw some mutual advantage for having a base there, a mutual advantage that had very little to do with US global military priorities.

Thanks for this post, George. I think we need to continually consider the state of civilization in terms of our undertstanding of civilization as a system--and certain a complex one! "Complexity Theory" is, admittedly, a difficult concept to pigeonhole as it's inherently interdisciplinary, and various groups will try to define it in different ways.

That said, I am increasingly of the opinion that the crux of the issue is understanding emergence--both what it is, how it works, and what actions are available re: emergence. I've been writing a bit about this lately, with what very little time I've had (here and here), and the first hurdle is defining what emergence is. In short, there may be two very distinct types of phenomena labled "emergence":

1. Weak emergence: these are systemic phenomena that are theoretically reducible, but not practically reducible due to complexity. Most complexity theory (e.g. modeling, simulation, system laws, etc.) study this form of emergence without noting the differentiation with:

2. Strong emergence: these are systemic phenomena that are fundamentally not reducible, but that are ontologically distinct and can exert downward causation on the system from which they emerge. A possible example is consciousness (though the theoretical problem with strong emergence is that, until we understand *how* it works, we can't rule out that we just haven't yet learned how it is reducible--e.g. emergent properties of the periodic table now appear to be reducible to quantum mechanics). Complexity studies, for the most part, ignore strong emergence, or fail to differentiate strong vs. weak.

So what? I think there is an important interface between emergence and the collapse of complex societies as noted by Tainter. Viz., that one evolutionary strategy for managing complexity is hierarchy, this is the strategy that has dominated human history because it allows centralized control over the complexity, but it also tends to result in collapse because hierarchies are structurally driven to growth and intensification. In contrast, complexity can be managed by the system via emergence, but this removes control from the center. One function of intensification of [hierarchal] complexity is to deal with information management and coordination. However, if consciousness is a guide, this may also be possible via (strong?) emergence in a decentralized system rather than via hierarchy. Such systems could manage complexity, could optimize functioning over time, but without intensification, therefore removing the driver of collapse. Compare, for example, the information processing and coordination function of hierarchal systems with something analagous to "synchronicity" as a strongly emergent coordinating and information processing phenoemenon. The role--and more importantly potential future role--of strong emergence in human systems has been almost entirely ignored.

Long-winded way of saying that any "a general law of complexity evolution" must address emergence directly, and in my view must specifically address the distinction between weak and strong emergence.

In Detroit, in April 1960, Howard Scott was asked for “details” on how the changeover to a Technate would take place. Scott: “I suppose whoever wrote this question thinks we Technocrats are all right, and that we are going to install the Technate… Oh, no, we aren’t going to do a damn thing… We’re Consulting Engineers. We’ll draw the design — tentatively. It will not be complete in every detail — nothing as vast as this could be; but the people of this country have to do it. They’re going to do it — not the Technocrats… They can say. ‘Well, you turn left out here and then turn right, but that’s about the extent of our participation. If it gets tough enough, you’ll do it…’ No society has ever moved from foresight… It’s always been by compulsion after the roof fell in… If the public had that much sense, it would have been done long before we Technocrats went across this country trying to tell you what to do… In other words, you would have beaten us to it. The fact that you haven’t (The people of this country haven’t) proves how far out of the loop they really are.”

It seems like our current complex systems are so dependent on certain inputs (electricity; financial support; replacement parts, using materials from around the world), that the lack of one or more of these inputs is likely to cause collapse of the systems--regardless of any properties of emergence they may have. For this reason, I have a hard time understanding what difference emergence might make.

What am I missing? Can you give me an example?

'Emergence' in this instance seems more like a buzz word.
Emergence in a collapsed Price System that sticks with a price system method, could mean something similar to finding a couple of boards to float on after the ship you are on.. has sunk, and just maybe floating somewhere good, if you are really lucky, with some resources for survival.

In other words, emergence via a Kunstleruesqe type of imagining with horses doing horse power again and humans with their tiny 1/20th horse-power 33 watt contribution being the method that society runs on, and then on top of that, going back before the 'green revolution'... to a period of about 3 billion people, by force of starvation and chaos? And further reducing the population using the handicraft technology of the past?

So... what are Anarcho-Primitivists? People that think they can drink water out of a nearby stream and also live a little like pre Bronze Age cultures.
Anyone here want that, besides the Anarcho-primitivists? What about science and technology? How was it that Tainter became the god father of those people anyway, and is he happy with that or does he just ignore them?

We have a choice as a culture to adopt a biophysical economic model that takes into account resources and population.

Using the current system, chaos, is the only choice and crash test. Which is more creative and humanistic and interesting?
Sticking with an antique social system based on Adam Smith backward pre Industrial Revolution thinking (communism and socialism and capitalism come from there) and glorifying human toil or changing into an energy accounting system?

I agree that "emergence" is largely a buzz word as used today, but in my view that's because people use "emergence" without explaining whether they mean complexity that makes calculation of a theoretically reducible system impracticable with "strong emergence" that is of a fundamentally different nature. As with any term, it needs to be defined before it can carry much meaning.

That said, I think you're setting up a false dichotomy between "anarcho-primitivists" on one hand and continuation of the current system until collapse on the other. I think (and have written extensively about) a third path, and this is where I see the positive potential for emergence (see my response to Gail's question).

The idea of "emergent behavior" has been around for awhile, at least in Artificial Intelligence circles. Having done a lot of work in that field, emergent behavior usually manifests itself as you have added enough rules to the knowledge-base that you start getting surprising answers that were well beyond what you expected given your input. In this context it means that the output is greater than the sum of the parts.

I don't see much difference between gray swans and emergent behavior.

Agreed, but I think it's important to point out that this is "weak" emergence, not "strong" emergence, which may be (and presumably would be) radically different.

As long as politicians and business people control the societal template, having a good culture in a larger sense... and that means a Price System free culture, is a lost cause, and it will be a continuation of one dumbing down idea after another Technology - Technocracy

Emergence into another brand of commodity valuation system (debt tokens), just prolongs the agony of resource destruction for desultory reasons. Witness the Australian sale of coal to China. Is that pathetic or what?
The Rules of the Game always remain the same in a Price System.
Changing the Rules of the Game to this type of idea in a non monetary economics, energy accounting system is the ticket off the current merry-go-round Science Notes: Energy Accounting and Balance.
It really is that simple.

We may be talking cross-ways, but I don't think your examples (debt tokens or Australia-China coal sales) have much relation to emergence, if at all. In my mind, one possible example of emergence is actually the exact opposite of a commodity valuation system--it is the coordination and information processing engine that *could* facilitate a network of scale-free self sufficiency, which I think is fundamentally different than an economic system based on either growth or debt (flip sides of the same coin, and core aspects of our current problems).

''''''''We may be talking cross-ways, but I don't think your examples (debt tokens or Australia-China coal sales) have much relation to emergence, if at all.'''''''''

The only true emergent society that is actually alternative and high energy would be a biophysical economics system based on energy accounting in a non monetary system, in other words a technate. This is a viable idea, that keeps the idea of living at a high level of resource conversion while protecting the environment.
Systems ecology and Industrial ecology would form the basis of that without using a Price System but using 'natural capital' instead.
Does science or chaos sound better? - NewYorkTimes article on systems ecology.
I guess I will go back to the idea that fake emergence into a different version of the Price System or a nostalgic return to the stone age, is not really emergence. Whether you use wampum or sea shells it would make for another version of a price system, and yes maybe that would function as it did in the past, but is that what would be a nice alternative now?
If we want to maintain a high energy society, and the anarcho primitivists glamorize a non high energy conversion society, then swapping different money systems goes no where, except down the same path of resource destruction.

How long have you been reading TOD?

Hi Gail,

I don't think that emergence can "save" our current complex system, which I would say is fundamentally characterized by the growth demand caused by peer-polity competition between heavily-hierarchal structures. Where I do thin emergence can help produce a positive solution (in both its "weak" and "strong" variants) is in the creation of an alternative system--something that I think is already happening, and will accelerate as the collapse of our complex/hierarchal system progresses. Specifically, I think that the challenge of building a functional and vibrant society out of small, resilient, and networked components (what I've called "Rhizome," what John Robb calls "Resilient Community," etc.) is the challenge of information processing and the coordination of production (and defense). Our current system solves that problem in a way that also causes its own downfall--its complex/hierarchal structure. However, i think that emergence--both self-organization characteristic of "weak" emergence and the much greater potential (what I'll call "synchronicity" as one example/application) of "strong" emergence--has a great potential to provide the coordination/information processing that is missing in simple/flat networks of scale-free self-sufficient nodes.

Some of my writing that addresses this:

Not the most well-fleshed-out explanation at this point, but after my upcoming March trial I'm hoping to put something more polished together for TOD...

What this means in practice is that each individual must start to become more of a generalist in terms of the functions that support life. Everyone will have to become a food grower!

Agriculture is in itself a complex system and plenty of civilizations built on tapping into ancient sunlight stored in the form of soil have failed. I think what everyone needs to become is a hunter-gatherer for it is a way of human life that worked for several hundred thousand years while agriculture has only been around 10,000 years and in that time has done much to destroy the planet even before the advent of fossil fuels.

Or of course what could happen is that through our own actions - global climate change, pollution, and earth changing weapons we will simplify all life on earth by removing our own species along with many others.

I remember reading about Tainter in one of Heinberg's books. I do recall his theory of collapse resulting from diminishing returns, but I think in our case, population and depletion (overconsumption)are the roots of all evil.

I do recall [Tainter's] theory of collapse resulting from diminishing returns ...

Leduck, Tainter's argument is/was that collapse is caused by diminishing marginal returns -- i.e. at some stage the marginal cost of increased complexity begins to exceed the marginal benefits. Example from everyday life (mine, not Tainter's): additional 'functionalities' on your latest mobile phone make the gadget so unusable that you dump it and replace it by a cheaper, no-frills, basic model (as I've just done).

Ah, the pleasures of the simple life! Back to Walden Pond we go (with a Nokia 6030 just in case).

Albert Nock in “Our Enemy the State” claimed that bureaucracies are created to solve a social problem. These bureaucracies tend to cause more problems. More bureaucracies are created to solve newly created problems and so the cycle continues until collapse.

In this same book Thomas Jefferson thought the Indians had the finest form of government. The Indians would meet at council and then disband.

Complexity will never be understood until it can be described mathematically. Complexity cannot be measured. If it can’t be measured it doesn’t exist.

You probably can identify some markers and measure them. That would be a good starting point, anyway.

Some possible markers off the top of my head:

Percentage of population not engaged in agriculture or other primary extractive occupations.

Percentage of population employed in government or governance-related occupations (includes military, lawyers).

Average education level attainment in population.

Average length and number of nodes in supply chains for one or more common commodities.

Miles per person for all improved transportation corridors.

Average time to transmit a 100-word message from the national capital to the most distant inhabited settlement within the nation's contiguous territory (or to the closest or farthest other nation's capital, or some other location).

Average energy use per person, in BTUs or another standard measure.

I'm sure there are plenty of other markers, and some of the above could be refined. Even just looking at these, and working with what I intuitively know, it becomes clear that the US has an extremely high level of complexity, and we've got a long ways to fall.

Complexity will never be understood until it can be described mathematically. Complexity cannot be measured. If it can’t be measured it doesn’t exist.

You have a point there. I would only say that certain complexity metrics do exit. They usually have to do with estimating the information content within a system. So that the more information that exists within a system, the more complex it is (at least that is the basic correlation). This comes about from ideas of the Shannon entropy measure and results in a metric such as Kolmogorov complexity. Kolmogorov essentially says the complexity is related to the length of the minimal algorithm or code that can output the same sequence as that observed from the real system. Not so easy to estimate IMO, as it does require you to describe the system in mathematical or algorithmic terms. That is why entropic measures are popular, as they allow a great deal of uncertainty and you may just have to enumerate the number of states the system can be in to get at a measure of the complexity. But then that could also mean that the system is just disordered, which is often easy to explain as the field of statistical mechanics proves. See my post on some of the implications of this approach.

I agree that understanding is the key. If you don't understand the system, that means it is complex. If you have a complexity metric, that indicates that you understand it a little. The corollary to that, is that if you have a system that is unknowable, then you will be prone to emergent behavior.

Using a heuristic for oil depletion, for example, indicates that one does not understand the behavior that well, as you have deemed it too complex.

WebHubbleTelescope writes: I agree that understanding is the key. If you don't understand the system, that means it is complex. If you have a complexity metric, that indicates that you understand it a little. The corollary to that, is that if you have a system that is unknowable, then you will be prone to emergent behavior.

I sort of agree, but I don't agree on understanding. That is, I agree that understanding is a key, but I think my understanding of understanding is different from yours 8-)

To illustrate: Take Gödel's incompleteness theorem. Gödel showed that, in an axiomatization of arithmetic with axioms for addition and multiplication, something surprising happens: Even though the underlying logic is complete and sound (meaning all and only true propositions can be derived), now you can make statements that are true, but can't be proven, and also statements that are untrue but can't be disproven. Others showed that if you remove either the addition or the multiplication axiom, the theorem no longer holds.

So you clearly cross some sort of threshold of expressive power -- below it, the system is 'simple', above it, 'complex'. Now you can still make simple, provable statements in the system; so I guess what we have here, is the 'potential' complexity that George (hi, George!) talks about in the essay. I also think it's a good illustration of emergence: Suddenly, with a seemingly trivial addition, the system gains two brand-new truth values -- its very nature changes.

Despite the existence of these pesky unprovables, however, we "understand" the system as well as we will ever understand anything: We do, after all, have perfect knowledge of its internal workings, its Grand Unified Theory (GUT 8-)...

On the other hand, these true-but-unprovable Gödel statements are (in the sense of your comment above?) unknowable. That is, no meta-method exists -- can possibly exist -- that allows you to "predict" its truth value.

If I understand you correctly, this is what you mean by "understand": A meta-method exists (and you have found it) that allows you to predict the system.

Also, to be useful, this meta-method must be 'simple' -- below the Gödel threshold (or its analogue).

So to sum up, I think an important part of developing an understanding of complexity, is to develop an understanding of understanding... part of the problem here is language; there are several incompatible senses of "understand". It might be helpful if there were separate terms for them...

If I understand you correctly, this is what you mean by "understand": A meta-method exists (and you have found it) that allows you to predict the system.

That is what I am getting at. You understand it enough to develop confidence that your predictions will hold.

On the other hand, a heuristic is based on no understanding, only previous correlations, and you can only hope that your predictions will fortuitously hold.

So someone that blindly applies fractals, which can describe an intricately "complex" system, without any understanding is following the second road. If you can derive the fractal behavior from more fundamental principles, as say in the case of oil reservoir sizes, you can make better projections.

Idonto writes:

Complexity will never be understood until it can be described mathematically. Complexity cannot be measured. If it can’t be measured it doesn’t exist.

Idonto, the fact that something can't be measured does NOT mean that it doesn't exist. A couple of centuries ago the diameter of the moon could not be measured. Now it can. But the moon existed before and after its measurability.

I think it would be more realistic to say:

Complexity will never be understood perfectly until it can be described mathematically. Complexity cannot be measured precisely. If it can’t be measured precisely -- well, nothing much follows except that complexity is ... pretty complicated.

Tainter doesn't deal with complexity as an idea. Rather he deals with "complex societies" He describes select facets of these societies that become more and more complex and measures how much energy or manpower or money it takes for each step. For instance he measures how much it costs to train people in a society who can function well with just a grade school education as opposed to how much more it costs if you need your citizens to mostly have a high school education or a college degree. Since you can't get to a college degree without the previous education any society that requires a substantial number of its citizens to have college degrees has a more complex educational system that requires ever more money for each addtional amount of education. Money is merely a promise of energy, energy to feed, house and transport teachers, energy to feed children and young adults in long unproductive years.

"Complexity" as an idea cannot be measured perhaps, but societal structures can be rated as more or less complex and the cost of increasing that complexity (nature and number of courses needed in the case of schooling) can be measured.

A stick spear is a less complex weapon for a tribe than a nuclear weapon. (most of us can sharpen a stick but none of us alone can make a nuke) The number of potential interactions between people in a tribe is less than in a state. Etc.

So while you may assert that complexity doesn't exist because you assert it cannot be measured, we are living in a very complex global society that lacks resilience, and needs ever greater energy inputs to even hold even. Since I doubt that anyone can measure what our consciousness is the end of consciousness is also immeasurable and therefore does not exist. Yet if you found yourself on a sinking Titanic would you argue about whether death exists or try to get on a lifeboat.

I'm a bit surprised that, so far, there is no mention of the Sagan/Schneider book 'Into the Cool'
To me, this is a very seminal work on the relationship between energy and life. I recommend it highly.

"You cannot make up the difference with efficiency gains (and in reality there really aren't many actual efficiency gains to be made)."

Some pretty smart people think otherwise.

Electrical circuits are constructed from three basic elements-resister, inductor, and capacitor. Mechanical systems are constructed using three basic elements-mass, springs, and shock absorbers. These three elements are idealized because real resistors have some inductance and some capacitance. An inductor has some resistance. Mass has some elasticity. These basic idealized elements are used to construct a complex systems. The more elements used the greater the complexity. The basic laws that allow us to build complex systems are Kirchoff’s law for nodes and loops and ohms law. The same is true of mechanical systems-velocity law around a loop and displacements at a node.

Ohms measure how much resistance an element has. Pounds, slugs, and kilograms measure how much mass an element has.

An RLC circuit to one person may seem complex. To an electrical engineer an RLC circuit may seem elementary. Complexity varies in the eyes of the beholder. For complexity to be real, it must not change from one reference frame to another. Complexity that is being discussed does not have the basic building blocks. What are the basic building blocks of complexity? There are none. What are the basic laws from which complex systems are constructed? There are none.

Electrical circuits at the building block level demonstrate a huge amount of disorder. Electrons traveling through a circuit do a random walk that is largely unpredictable at the level of a single electron. It gets even worse for semiconductors, and the transport disorder in amorphous semiconductor -- like those used in large solar-cell panel arrays -- is extreme. Yet these things work because we can rely on the average values for mobility of the electron which models the collective impact of the electrons moving in field gradient. See my post on characterizing this "anomalous" transport ::

So one man's complexity is another man's patent application.

Sorry if OT.
I was thinking about scenarios in common science fiction litterature/movies. Where humans are living on space stations and hopping between planets and solarsystems in space ships.

I suppose that will never happen? The whole science fiction genre will have to be re-written.

Technocracy has been around a long time and I think that the movement has much merit.

What will it take before science becomes the modus of all and every human endeavor?

Well, no time like the present, and I hope it does not take the apparent chaos and crises that seems to be at the tipping point, with the present backward antique we use to format society with.
It is safe to say that the technocrats invented the concepts of biophysical economics in the form of energy accounting Man-Hours And Distribution, M. King Hubbert

It is also safe to say that their vision is glaringly creative and that society may just now be catching up to their ideas presented in 1934. Their basis was Willard Gibbs and thermodynamics, thermoeconomics.

Who is a technocrat? Wilton Ivie

No doubt from all the extreme disaster oriented posting on this interesting site, bringing attention to a possible way out of the mess we are in is a good idea. It is also secular and humanitarian by default.

I have thrown out these ideas more than a few times on this site because of the unbelievable concentration of big brains that read here.

This site has given me comfort that there are indeed enough intelligent people in the population but what is lacking is organizing them and that seems to manifest in a dire fatalism................

My thanks to everyone who posted comments (even the snarky ones!) and my apologies to those who asked me questions and I did not respond to. I ran into a bit of a timing problem with the publication and a deadline I had to make. If anyone has any unresolved issues they want to take up with me, please feel free to send an email to gmobus AT u DOT washington DOT edu and I will make every effort to respond in a timely fashion!

I was gratified to see the discussions regarding learning more about how to become more "self sufficient" regarding growing food and other handy skills. I am convinced that rugged individualism, however, is not the solution. Rather I think the solution lies in organizing small relatively self-sufficient communities. The local resilience that a number of authors refer to is probably the best preparation for whatever might be coming. And I suspect nobody knows what that might actually be!

There were a lot of authors I didn't mention just because the length and format of blogs like this do not allow extensive citing. But many of you brought those names out so I am grateful for that commentary. Some seem to have had some issues with the rigor of the piece and to them I would suggest following the pointers I gave to the authors mentioned. There really is a rich history of rigor in this area and those who feel a desire to dig deeper would do well to follow that history.


Question Everything