Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Well and Truly Fracked

The reduction of contemporary debates about the future to ritual theater, the theme of last week’s post here on The Archdruid Report, isn’t limited to the specific technological issues I discussed in that essay—the increasingly dubious quest for fusion power, on the one hand, and the prospects for the internet’s survival in an age of economic contraction and resource scarcity, on the other.  Across the landscape of contemporary (mis)understandings of the future, just about every issue you care to name has been turned into yet another modern morality play in which progress gets to act out one more symbolic triumph over its eternal enemies. 

To describe that habit as unhelpful is to understate the case considerably.  Modern industrial civilization faces serious challenges in the years immediately before us, as the paired jaws of resource depletion and environmental disruption clamp down ever more tightly on it, and the consequences of decades of bad decisions come home to roost. In order to deal with those challenges, hard questions need to be asked and realistic answers considered—and this isn’t furthered at all by the tendency on the part of so many people these days to lapse into cheerleading instead. It’s rather as though you were trying to have a serious discussion about educational policy with someone whose only response to anything you said was to shout, “Central High, Central High, rah, rah, rah!”

Any number of examples of this could be quoted, but the one I’d like to discuss here  is the way that fracking—hydrofracturing of oil and gas-bearing shales, to give it its more precise moniker—has been transformed, at least in the popular imagination, into the conclusive answer to those annoying little worries about the impossibility of extracting an infinite amount of petroleum from a finite planet. That’s worth discussing just now for at least two reasons.

The first of these is that the public debate over fracking is almost certainly about to become a good deal more heated than it’s already gotten, due to the publication of a lively and eminently readable little book on the subject—Snake Oil: How Fracking’s False Promise of Plenty Imperils Our Future by Richard Heinberg, which you can order from the publisher here. Those of my readers who have been following the peak oil story since its reemergence early in the last decade will recall Heinberg’s The Party’s Over; that and James Howard Kunstler’s memorably edgy The Long Emergency were the books that launched peak oil into the collective conversation of our time.

Snake Oil may just accomplish the same thing with the side of the fracking debate that’s getting no attention from the mainstream media. Heinberg makes four points in the book, each of which could usefully be put on the business end of a branding iron and applied to the tender backsides of pundits and politicians alike.  First, the loudly ballyhooed claims that fracking promises a new age of limitless cheap energy for Americans are pure malarkey, based on a patchwork of unjustifiable assumptions and outright fabrications that wildly overstate potential production and tacitly ignore all the downsides of a far from flawless technology. Second, in the usual fashion of today’s American economy, fracking piles up short term profits for a few by loading immense long term costs on local communities, natural systems, and future generations.

Third, a significant proportion of the hoopla over fracking is being orchestrated by those wonderful folks on Wall Street who brought you last decade’s housing bubble and bust, and the same kind of financial shenanigans that nearly capsized the global economy in 2008 and 2009 are being applied with gusto to a burgeoning bubble in shale leases and the like. Fourth, and most critically, the increasingly frantic cheerleading being devoted to the fracking industry these days is simply one more delay in the process of coming to grips with the real crisis of our time—the need to decouple as much as possible of industrial society from its current dependence on fossil fuels. As Heinberg points out, there aren’t enough economically recoverable fossil fuels left in the planet’s crust to keep the world chugging ahead on a business-as-usual track of economic growth for much longer, but there’s more than enough to finish the job of destabilizing the Earth’s climate and pitching us face first into a very difficult future.

None of these points will be news to regular readers of The Archdruid Report, but then regular readers of The Archdruid Report are not this book’s primary audience. (You won’t find any of my peak oil writings in the bibliography, either, and for very good reason—a book meant to influence policymakers and the general public does itself no favors by citing archdruids.)  Those of my regular readers who need facts and figures to argue against fracking-industry shills, or who want a short and highly readable book to press into the hands of the uninformed or undecided, will certainly want a copy, and those who have just stumbled across this blog and are still trying to figure out what all the fuss about peak oil means could do much worse than to get a copy of Snake Oil and read it—the absurd media blather about “limitless fossil fuels” and similar oxymorons gets a well-earned hiding at Heinberg’s capable hands.

The publication of Snake Oil, then, is one of the reasons why a discussion of fracking is particularly relevant at the moment. The other?  That comes from an even more unanswerable critique of fracking—this one written by the impersonal forces of geology and economics. This will come as no surprise to this blog’s regular readers, either; as I suggested in a post earlier this year, with the approach of autumn, the fracking juggernaut is running on fumes.

Consider this story from the financial media—tip of the archdruidical hat to Ron Patterson’s blog Peak Oil Barrel, one of the rising stars of the post-Oil Drum peak oil scene, for the link. Big oil names Shell and BHP Billiton are writing down the value of their shale assets by billions of dollars. Meanwhile the value of oil and gas-related transactions, among the top profit centers for Wall Street every year since 2005, has dropped like a rock and, unless something changes drastically, won’t even make the top five list this year.

Nor is this happening solely on Wall Street; out in shale country, too, the boom is grinding to a halt. The pace of drilling in the Fayetteville shale has dropped precipitously this year; in Texas, meanwhile, gas production from the Barnett Shale has dropped more than a billion cubic feet a day, to levels last seen in 2009; while in the Marcellus Shale country of Pennsylvania, insurance companies are starting to cancel homeowners insurance and home mortgages are becoming unavailable as the health and environmental toll of reckless shale development piles up.

Headlines of this sort are becoming increasingly common in the financial press as one month gives way to another. With utter predictability, so have articles and essays in the mainstream media crowing about the supposed end of peak oil, and financial-advice columns urging the general public to get out there and invest their life’s savings in shale oil and gas. Those who recall the way the housing bubble played out over its last year or two will recall this same phenomenon: as the fundamentals turned sour, the chorus of pundits praising the arrival of a new age of prosperity for all got louder and louder, until the crash of collapsing prices finally drowned it out.

Exactly how long it will take for the shale bubble to tip over into full-scale bust probably can’t be known except in hindsight. The same principle probably applies just as well to another question that may be even more explosive: just how much of Wall Street and the broader US financial industry depends on income skimmed off the shale bubble for its economic survival. It’s when the tide goes out, as Warren Buffet famously said, that you find out who’s been swimming naked; when the bubble bursts and companies with heavy exposure to the fracking industry can no longer cover their day to day costs by tapping into the money flows any speculative boom attracts, the consequences could fall anywhere along the spectrum from sharp regional recessions in shale country all the way to panic selling on global markets and a reprise of 2008’s economic turmoil.

I suppose it counts as belaboring the obvious to point out that these aren’t the consequences that were supposed to flow from the so-called shale revolution, according to the pundits and politicians and industry shills that filled the media with proclamations of good times to come. Still, the point needs to be made, because it’s a safe bet that the same promises of abundant energy and prosperity for all will be made in regard to any number of equally dubious revolutions and breakthroughs and great leaps forward in the years ahead., with equally unsatisfactory results.

The rhetoric that surrounded the fracking bubble from its inception, after all, was exactly the sort of ritual theater of progress I discussed in last week’s post. Read any discussion of fracking in the US mainstream media and you’ll find every one of the standard cliches present and accounted for: the imaginary barriers that are there solely to be overcome, the innovative new technology hot off the lab bench, the lucky discoveries that show up just in time for the new technology to exploit, the ceremonial debate in which the opponents of progress raise doleful cries about the timeless order of rural life that’s about to be destroyed while the protagonists proclaim the dawn of a new day of prosperity and abundance for all, and so on.

None of this has any relevance to the facts on the ground.  Outside the realm of ritual theater, the limits are real, the technology isn’t new and neither are the discoveries, the destruction announced by the opponents of fracking has turned out to be quite tangible, and the new day of prosperity and abundance has gone missing in action.  Still, you won’t hear that from the media, not until long after the boom has gone bust, the hardware has been sold to the Chinese for scrap, and the sole remaining legacy of the shale bubble consists of county-sized areas where the groundwater is too toxic to drink.

This is what happens when a culture’s traditions get fatally out of step with its circumstances. Not that long ago in America, the ritual theater of progress was adaptive, to borrow a bit of jargon from ecology: more often than not, those who extracted more resources, burnt more energy, built more infrastructure, and produced more goods and services prospered, and so did their communities.  Every disagreement about economic development, as I showed last week, was therefore forced into what amounts to a ceremonial pattern that guaranteed that the proponents of progress would win every round. When the limits to growth were still far off, when it was still possible to pretend that resources were infinite and the environment’s capacity to absorb pollutants was just as limitless, that was a successful strategy.

The problem with that strategy was that it was unable to adapt when the hard limits to resource reserves and the biosphere’s tolerance for pollution came within sight. In terms of our culture’s faith in progress and the ritual theater that unfolded from that faith, those limits could only be interpreted as another set of imaginary barriers to be overcome, and another set of doleful cries for the opponents of progress to utter in the ceremonial debate they were supposed to lose.  That’s why every response to the crisis of our time that gets favorable attention from the US media is framed as an overcoming of imaginary limits by way of some innovative new technology, and quickly gets its chorus of opponents of progress uttering doleful cries, so that the heroes of progress have the appropriate ritual setting against which the can sing their praises of the shining new day about to dawn. Those are our traditions and our rituals, handed down to us by our tribal elders, and it’s simply our bad luck that those traditions and rituals have left us hopelessly unprepared to deal with the real world.

In the real world, the most important task facing each of us right now is that of grasping that the absurd abundance of energy and resources that Americans enjoyed in the second half of the 20th century was anything but normal.  A cascade of fortuitous events handed the American people of that period a huge surplus of energy and resources, orders of magnitude greater than any comparable example in history. Of course we squandered most of it, and picked up habits of extravagance and waste that will have to be unlearnt painfully as the last of the surplus fades away.

To accept that task, though, is to abandon habits of thought and action that have pervaded American culture throughout living memory. The habits of thrift and self-discipline that our forebears learned in the school of hard necessity—“use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without”—drowned in the flood of mostly unearned wealth that saturated American society during this nation’s age of empire, and every detail of contemporary American culture militates against a return to those sane but unwelcome standards. At this point, as I’ve argued more than once in the past, any response to the challenge of our time that doesn’t start with using much less energy and other resources simply isn’t serious; still, our culture being what it is, unserious responses remain the order of the day.

Still, there’s at least one good reason to think that this latter may be a distinctly temporary condition.  The fracking bubble, after all, was not the first such response to the twilight of cheap abundant petroleum. In the wake of the 1970s energy crises, it bears remembering, the same sort of rhetoric currently being deployed on behalf of fracking was much in evidence, as the reckless pumping of the North Sea and Alaskan North Slope oilfields crashed the price of oil and convinced a great many people that the great god Progress was still soundly ensconced in his temple.  Then as now, an increasingly frantic effort to scrape the barrel was treated as proof that the barrel was still full, and allowed politicians, the press, and the public at large to put off necessary changes for a little while.

Notice the difference, though:  the scrape-the-barrel efforts launched by the Reagan counterrevolution of the 1980s kept oil production propped up for more than twenty years, while the equivalent efforts this time around barely managed the thing for five. The available reserves in 1980 were large enough to crash the price of oil and pay for one last spectacular era of prosperity; the reserves tapped by fracking weren’t enough to keep the price of oil from rising up into triple digits, or give the economy more than a brief and localized boost. We really are getting near the bottom of the barrel—less metaphorically, the point at which petroleum production worldwide tips over from its current unsteady plateau into the long ragged decline that marks the twilight of every resource. 

Those necessary changes still wait to be made. What remains to be seen is how many people in America and elsewhere will rise to the challenge and make them, and how many will cling to the failed beliefs of a bygone era until the night closes in.


k-dog said...

An excellent follow on to last weeks post.

I'll swallow an urge to comment myself because I have a link that makes a better contribution than what I have to say right now. Written across the pond, today. An excellent complement to an excellent post.

How Fracking Hype Disguises the Sector’s Dangerous Financial Losses to Date

Looking at the financial losses is like Toto jerking aside the curtain hiding The Wizard of OZ.-- K-Dog

Glenn said...

JMG said:

"Notice the difference, though: the scrape-the-barrel efforts launched by the Reagan counterrevolution of the 1980s kept oil production propped up for more than twenty years, while the equivalent efforts this time around barely managed the thing for five."

One wonders how short the next cycle will be. Looks like the petro economy, at least for the U.S. working class, will be over well within my lifetime (I'm 56).

And I just tuned up my truck. "Efficiency, precious, efficiency we calls it." My family's transition to rural crofting _without_ a truck will be quite a challenge. I used it to haul two loads of manure today. If I replace it with a donkey or an ox I won't have to haul manure anymore. Well, no further than from the pasture to the garden (g!)

Marrowstone Island

Cherokee Organics said...


Too true. BHP is an Australian mining company and it was in the news here way back when you posted that original essay on shale that they'd been done over completely on that deal to get into the US fracking market and were taking a big hit on their investment. I left a link to the article that week entitled: "Know when to fold em" - yep, titled after the gambler song...

As costs go up, I have noticed that with small business here that it is getting increasingly harder to make a decent profit.

What I'm seeing anecdotally is that those employees working for very large companies (banks, telco's, miners, government etc.) seem to be drawing a nice salary and doing far better than those self-employed types in small business. Dividend holders for those large companies aren't doing so well these days either (better than bank interest though which is slowly nose diving here and may soon be in line with the US).

Interesting stuff.

When you mentioned about the point at which economic activity becomes profitless, it started me wondering about food - which is an economic activity after all in our current society.

Insurance is an interesting situation too. Over here the government legislated that the insurers had to provide cover for floods. Traditionally this has not been covered for obvious reasons. They provided coverage, but at "go away" prices. I read somewhere that some policies were being sold at $35,000 per annum due to the likelihood of an insurable flood event happening. By the way, everyones policies went up because of the flood coverage. I can see a day in the future when house insurance will become unaffordable. By the way, bushfires are lower risk than normal house fires, just in case anyone was interested.

Mind you the building regulations are so extreme in the area that I live that I doubt very much whether there will be any new houses here for a while until complexity inevitably is reduced or people disregard regulations. I doubt very much whether there are any more than a handful of houses built in this country to the standard I had build to and this house is small.



John Michael Greer said...

K-dog, many thanks for the link! A good solid piece of economic analysis.

Glenn, I'm guessing the next one will work for a year or two, and after that, it'll be purely a matter of talking points and handwaving, since the resources to pursue whatever it happens to be won't be available any more. At that point, hang on to your hat.

John Michael Greer said...

Cherokee, anybody anywhere who buys an investment from an American financial firm is begging to get ripped off. When the US shale industry started unloading its assets on overseas firms, it was pretty clear that the hunt for suckers was on. From here on in, it's going to get ugly.

Tom Bannister said...

Your comment about tribal elders reminds me of a passage in a book I've recently been reading about New Zealand History (Making Peoples- James Belich). The booked talked about the reliability of Oral tradition as a source of information (As I am guessing with the indigenous Americans, the pre-european New Zealand Indigenous persons (known as Maori) did not have writing and preserved knowledge via oral tradition)

The book points out for example, that oral tradition info such as that about extinct species or failed crops, will tend to be discarded as of course, human memory is a limited storage facility and the elders will have had little immediate use for it. In a similar way, despite our abundance of more durable written records, western civilization seems to be following a similar pattern. That is we discard info useful to us in times of economic stasis/contraction, and keep info useful to us in times of massive economic growth. Of course now we need the info about economic stasis/contraction it is not so readily available to us.

Did the Romans and Maya decline in a similar fashion? The tribal elders were used to times of growth and thus discarded earlier knowledge of more basic living.

Fortunately on the other hand, the sheer scale of western civilization has exposed it to all kinds of cultures and ways of living. The information required to adapt to a contracting, and then more static economy is there (perhaps more than it was in civilizations before us?). Whether we can overcome our progress dogmas and actually make use of that info of course, remains to be seen.

wiseman said...

Do you think that the Five stages of grief theory applies to our society ?

magifungi said...

As child care providers, living without health insurance for the last 20 years, has gradually conditioned my family to look differently at the risks of life. Recently we found ourselves 'shopping' for a new house insurance policy. Our old 'provider' 'changed its rules' and we now realize our preexisting condition!... it's called 'a forest'. Having faced bodily cataclysm daily, it doesn't seem too much of a trick to add in our house to our fate as well. We face the risks more clearly, as the rest of humanity always has. So we are more careful about what we eat, and how we treat our bodies. We are as careful as we can be about fire prevention in the precious forests around us. But we have quite a way to go for homesteading resilience...

Compound F said...

Thanks to you for another fine post. I've been coming to grips in a serious way since the strange judicial coup of Bush v. Gore. Everything, including the recent ascent of punitive anti-whistleblowing aggressors, makes a lot more sense now than then, but I hardly share your level-headed-ness about it all. I spend as much time as possible time trying "to do something useful," which helps level out the bone-chatter.

Phil Harris said...

And …
more on this side of the pond: Financial Times
Your side of the pond:

Ritual Theatre UK. Our PM is a career PR man. I think our gov is cynical. This is about the next election in 2 years – nothing much of these projects will have happened by then but it takes eyes off the collapse of our bit of North Sea production. ‘Hippies’ do their ritual bit and …

Thought you all might like this from The Oil Drum before that forum says goodnight (nice example of serendipity at the end - appreciated I guess by ADR readers!):

HAcland (Brit) said is what I am on about - utter nonsense served up by a mainstream newspaper:
it says just 100 shale gas wells in the UK could HALVE the amount of gas we import. Let's do some elementary school maths:
UK currently imports approx 4 billion cubic feet per day (eye-balled from
To halve that would mean those 100 wells producing 2 billion cubic feet per day.
Is this reasonable?
from (official US government figures) gives TOTAL US shale production (average day) during 2011 was 8 billion cubic feet.
[EDIT: In my haste I misread the eia data, it is not 8 billion a day, rather 8,000 billion a year or 21 billion a day. so my figure below should be for an equivalent US total wells of 1,500 approx. Still, no where near]
So on a like for like basis I would conclude that in 2011 there most surely only have been about 400 shale gas wells IN TOTAL in the WHOLE OF THE US. I am not even going to bother to find official numbers of wells drilled. Any one has the number of actually producing wells for 2011 in the US please do let me know. I will bet both my kidneys it is a lot more than 400!
See what I mean? In the space of 5 minutes armed with only an internet connection I have totally debunked this idiotic news article - however over half a million readers, readers of a certain political persuasion and voting intention to boot - have read it and taken it as Gospel.
Good grief.
EDIT: here is a picture of the Manchester Trafford Center :
The article is trying to say that an area of land of equivalent size is all we need to use to halve our imports! In other words don't worry we can tuck it away somewhere no one will notice. Or as mentioned above the US would only need to have used 4 Trafford Centre's worth of land to provide all the shale gas they did in 2011. ARGGGGHHHH!!

Phil Harris (Brit) wrote:
Art Berman has suggested that for UK
"Based on well productivity from the Barnett Shale, it will take approximately 30,000 wells to fully develop the Bowland Shale potential reserves."

"In the afternoon they came unto a land
In which it seemed always afternoon.
All round the coast the languid air did swoon,"(Tennyson)

HAc replied:
Thanks for the link Phil.
30,000 wells in Lancashire!! Not a chance they will be able to get 300 up and running.
Incidentally, I am writing this from the Isle of Wight, and I kid you not, less than 200 yards from where Tennyson penned that poem!

billhicksmostfunny said...

After the bottom of the barrel is thoroughly scraped I think there is a good chance industry will return to slave labor. After all most 1st world nations have a lot of citizens. That is a big untapped resource when there is no more oil to burn. That concerns me, among other things......

Adam Funderburk said...


I heard a great quote: Anything is possible if you don’t know what you’re talking about.

I’ve been thinking of the implications of an age of scarcity on the mental health profession. A comment in today’s post has highlighted a key issue that I have been seeing lately: “A cascade of fortuitous events handed the American people of that period a huge surplus of energy and resources, orders of magnitude greater than any comparable example in history. Of course we squandered most of it, and picked up habits of extravagance and waste that will have to be unlearnt painfully as the last of the surplus fades away.”

I have, or have had, twenty-something to early-thirty-something clients (millennials I suppose), among my clientele since I got licensed, and almost to a person, they have felt lost. Most of them come from at least middle-class backgrounds and a decent majority of them have had their sessions paid for by parents or grandparents. As well, a majority of them were either living at home, or having “home” paid for by family. And the vast majority of them were either in college, or college-educated. Most of the “millennials” that I see have been given a great deal during their lives, and like the quote above, have come to expect it.

The advice that most of these young people have gotten all of their lives is to go to college in order to work in a fulfilling, yet lucrative career, and to invest their money. Most of the parents sending them to me seem to want me to “find out what’s hindering their motivation”, or to teach them ‘self-discipline and self-confidence so that they can realize their potential”. The thought that macro-forces are playing the greatest role in their children’s lives has not entered the picture in a meaningful way yet.

To be fair, many of the young people I see do have ingrained habits of laziness and entitlement that affect their day-to-day decisions, but I am seeing more and more how these are learned patterns of behavior, not “character flaws”. As a culture, we have taught bad habits to an entire generation that now has the misfortune to be living at the forefront of a drastically changing world. This is definitely a complicated case of macro-forces and learned personal behaviors interacting in unhelpful ways. When you’ve learned that you don’t really have to work hard to succeed, that technological innovation is both good and normal, that as long as you believe in yourself, you will succeed, and that things are only getting better, it’s normal to feel depressed, anxious, and lost when the world is not measuring up.

I truly believe that young people could embrace more helpful philosophies and habits if they were presented with the real picture, but the people teaching them are largely clueless themselves, most having grown up in a world of abundance. When I bring up some of the unwelcome realities in session, I feel that I am up against a lot of other people (family, media, government, etc…) who are offering a much more palatable picture of the world. I am hoping that the evidence of their own senses will be enough to counter the unending stream of propaganda, but most of the younger generation has not learned to use and trust their own faculties, instead living more and more in digital worlds (This is a good place to stop, as that is a subject for another post).

ChemEng said...

Mr Greer:

I have been following your posts for the last few years. In a way that I cannot explain this one is — for me at least — your best. The facts are not new — at least to those who have been paying attention, but your post seems to bring it all into focus.

And your image of someone shouting “Central High, Central High, rah, rah, rah!” was excellent.

Matthew Casey Smallwood said...

This is a long comment, but I generally don't, so bear with me. Your rhetorical skills (as in the "Trivium" of grammar/logic/rhetoric) are only getting better. This was a hilarious post, almost overkill!

BTW, I happen to know that finances for the local hospital I work for peaked around 2005: the trend has been downward since then, & all I see is stress to the panicking point on the faces of the managers. It'll be sad to see people triaged off to die, but I'm afraid it's coming: insurance companies don't just want to pay, they will eventually not be able to.

My choice is rural Arkansas or rural Idaho. The Northwest may be a little more matter-of-fact & civilized, when it does hit. The New South is on testosterone, hunting Yankee dollars. Hell, half the managers down here are from the technocratic training grounds up North. The older South hangs on, as a remnant, and we now have the challenge of assimilating millions of immigrants from Mexico, while our youth is largely oblivious and ready to prop up the Empire at any cost. There's no escaping this thing, but it seems wise to at least move somewhere off the invasion routes. I wonder when the technocratic elite will wake up & see what's been done? Probably right after the masses do.

So many mistakes - it's sad. But the country was built on cheap promises:
"The colonists arriving in America during the nearly two centuries before the creation of the United States were a different breed from the immigrants who came after 1789: the first group more settled (and settling), educated, and pious, concerned with transplanting civilization to the New World; the second rootless and rapacious, exploitive, materialist, and individualistic, interested in escaping Western civilization rather than in recreating it a hemisphere away. The colonists, being civilized people, carried civilization with them; the immigrants, less civilized, brought chaos. The colonists sought remote places in which to worship their God undisturbed; the immigrants hoped to "get ahead," "make something of themselves," exercise their precious "equality" against everyone, including especially their betters. From approximately the beginning of the nineteenth century forward, the immigrants debarking at Boston, New York, and Philadelphia consisted largely of the European peasantry and proletariat; men and women who, whether from the country or the city, had never owned or controlled land--indeed, any natural resources at all. Released into the vast American hinterland beyond the Appalachian mountains and, later, the Mississippi River, they behaved like slum kids set loose in a Mayfair confectionary shop of continental proportions. As the comparison suggests, the determining factor seems to have been class, not culture, race, or ethnicity, the late-arriving Anglo-Saxon-Celtic immigrants having acted as irresponsibly as the newer stock (or more so, Sandoz--the daughter of Swiss immigrants herself--would say)..."
As a conservative by temperament, upbringing, culture, and choice, I am deeply troubled by the failure the "Right" to free itself from the modern Age of revolution, whether in technology or politics or the economy.

You may be an archdruid, but I believe that when the history books are rewritten, people will not be afraid to accord you the right honorable title.

BTW, has anyone noticed that the extreme Left & the far Right are starting to wake up & see certain things eye to eye? I love Erik von Khuenhelt-Ledhin's old saying: "I am a liberal of the Far Right".

Bill Pulliam said...

As for the timing of the bubble... I was shocked at how long the housing bubble was kept afloat, more than a decade past what I would have thought possible. These things generate amazing pressure to create bizarre ways to keep them alive, all of which makes the popping that much worse. Since we have had essentially no meaningful changes in financial sector functioning or regulation, I'd expect the same might happen here -- astounding gyrations to prevent the chickens from coming home and to offload all their manure on everyone else.

Alphonse Houner said...

What a thoughtful piece.

I don’t know whether it rises to the level of ritual or is simple denial but a common response to the issues at hand is a zombie like repetition of the phrase, “The new normal” in response to ongoing events when there is nothing is “normal” in those events. The mental gymnastics necessary to deny the consequences of the ravaging of our planet - including environmental devastation, resource depletion, and debunking the American myth among other things - is really the “new normal.”

In previous posts I found the discussion of the decline of our civilization of interest. Though I don’t totally agree with some of the ideas expressed I have to admit I was intimidated by, and thus defer to your command of the subject and thank-you for that very thoughtful work as well.

Malcolm Green said...

Excellent post JMG (as usual). I've gained a lot by reading your writings here and in print and thank you for them.

I do have to admit though, to me they seem self-evident. Not that I'm enlightened to the point of omnipotence and am obviously aware of these things, but rather simple observation dictates. What astonishes me is how people all around me don't see it at all. It's not that they're out to trash the planet intentionally...they are just simply self-focussed.

As you have pointed out time and again (and please allow me to paraphrase) People want to help the environment as long as it doesn't involve changing the way they live. The catch there as you know, the lifestyles are what brought us to this juncture of environmental crisis.

With that in mind, I have to ask...aren't we doomed to our fate as a result? Or will the crisis precipitate the change we need to adapt accordingly?

These issues of course are still self-focussed on a species level. We tend to have a short view of life and our planet. After all, we may just ruin the place for ourselves (along with a vast number of our fellow habitants as we push along the 6th extinction) but in the end, earth abides.

Matthew Casey Smallwood said...

A lot of people are worried about "getting land", but as this goes on, it may well be like the saying: "don't worry about a rifle, there'll be one available shortly".

ando said...


Told some colleagues, this morning, that the Fracking bubble was near the busting point. I particularly enjoyed their version of "Central High, rah rah rah!"

BTW is their an honest economics (pardon the oxymoron) blog that you read?



ZZ said...

I am surprised you did not mention the clear parallel between fracking and fusion energy: the fact that fracking is not economically viable even if it is technologically. None of the big and profitable oil players (such as Exon and Shell) put much effort / resources into fracking, it is a large army of smaller companies doing it all on borrowed investor money and none of them has made any profit. Which is the main reason for the massive bubble-inflation rhetoric from Wall-street.

Lloyd E. Hargrove said...

Because we are so invested in the relatively easily produced, stored and transported energy which is derived from fossil fuels, truly replenishable alternatives have not been developed to even approach the capacity necessary to replace them. Such development is ultimately mandatory since there really is no such thing as an "endless supply of fossil fuels".

Odin's Raven said...

If there's any truth in this assertion that very deep fracking by nuclear bombs is causing earthquakes, there may be even more reason to be concerned about the practice.

Nuclear Fracking

Juhana said...

In Spain, youngsters with higher education degrees are moving back to countryside - to work as shepherds and farm hands. Long trend of urbanization is reversed.

Only problem is that farming is actually very hard work, and requires skills and knowledge totally ignored in current school systems. Industrial "green revolution" farming is probably most insane thing ever done by mankind as species... Large tracts of best pasture have been reduced to barren zombified soil, kept in their "suspended animation"-state only by petro-chemical products. This problem is temporary, but unfortunately ahead of us, not behind. Productivity of established agriculture shall not remain as high as it is now, and things it products are going to be much more expensive.

Of course, while waiting for manure/petro-products to enrich actual fields, in the North it is always possible to revert into side-business of slashing and burning some forest and sowing the ashes... Accompanied by newer slash-and-char methods. Pretty rudimentary, but what can you do? I believe life is going to be pretty basic for ordinary folks after couple of decades of sustained contraction. When cut trees are spread to form a carpet and covered with earth top with vents, and burnt with low flame, you get terra preta. Black soil.

While ashes from coniferous forests are too bitter to nourish other seeds than certain variety of rye seeds, deciduous trees are different. Thankfully life cycle of forest (from meadow to old fir forest, from childhood to seniority) is triggered by burning. After decade or two it is possible to burn-clear sweet grove of different birches, alders etc. Their ashes produce a lot. Talking about death and rebirth of life-giver, there is example from real life.

Progressive thinking has lead to tragedy when applied to food production. Bounding food production into non-renewable resources is not just stupid, it is total disregard towards wellbeing of future generations.

Wolfgang Brinck said...

I worked with some guys who used to be employed in various sectors of the moon mission industry during the sixties. Then somewhere in the 70's the money disappeared and people started getting laid off. At first just a few, then more and more, and at first there would be going away parties for the person from your group that got laid off. That turned to parties to see off groups of people and then the parties stopped because more people were getting laid off than were left to give them a party. And then the whole enterprise was disbanded. Furniture was hauled out and bulldozers dozed up the floor tiles. And that was the end of that. The question in the aftermath was whether it was better to get laid off earlier and get a head start on whatever was next or to have a job as long as possible and continue the good life based on salary based on past prosperity.
Not surprisingly, most people will want to hang on to prosperity as long as possible. To choose insecurity and lowered living standards willingly on the expectation that you will end up there anyway is hard to do. Even if you are convinced that diminished prosperity is in everyone's future, you still want to hold on to your current prosperity for as long as possible. You might even convince yourself that they, whoever they are will invent something to ward off the unpleasantness of having to do with less.
And so, our political leaders, wise people and students of human greed that they are continue to sing the song of prosperity, knowing that to stop singing that tune will lead to their own personal demise.

Ventriloquist said...

"Read any discussion of fracking [substitute-- ENERGY] in the US mainstream media and you’ll find every one of the standard cliches present and accounted for"

Here is the latest soporific blather from one of the leading MSM cheerleaders (Bloomberg News) titled

Water + Sunshine = Fuel as Lab in California Chases Dream: Cars

As in "soon we will be running the entire economy on hydrogen".

Read it and weep (or laugh):

Unknown said...

This summer I took an Amtrak trip Chicago to Whitefish MT. This took us through the heart of the shale fracking world up there. The scale of the works is impressive if only the count of the oil tank train cars carrying ?100 tons? each. People I talked to on the train getting on and off in the area report it has all the classic traits of a boom/bust town i.e. pay at McDonald's fast restaurants starts at 12.50/hr and they can't find enough people! Amazingly, the companies are mainly flaring/burning off the gas in favor of liquid fuels. One Native American complained that there are so many of these flares that there's no dark left at night any more, and from what I could see from the train, he's right.

Also, the scale of the farms is impressive out there, 1000's of acres. I can't imagine how they can be worked w/o cheap diesel fuel.

Marcello said...

"After the bottom of the barrel is thoroughly scraped I think there is a good chance industry will return to slave labor."

That presupposes that industry went throught a stage of using slave labor. While there have been instances of this, such as Nazi Germany, by and large it appears to be much more trouble than worth and has been relatively rare. Agriculture is a much more fertile ground for slavery and besides large scale industry won't survive without substantial fossil fuel inputs. Sure, some modest size industry might survive using water power, wood and maybe some coal left over but scale would be limited. The pressure on wood resources was getting unsustainable by the 17th century in many places, this should give an idea how far you can go on renewables civilization wise.

avalterra said...

JMG said:

"You won’t find any of my peak oil writings in the bibliography, either, and for very good reason—a book meant to influence policymakers and the general public does itself no favors by citing archdruids."

Really? That's too bad.


sbanbury said...

I just called my broker and doubled up on live music, love and kindness. Fossil foolishness is about to go bankrupt, and three dog nights are on the horizon. Join us at

simon.dc3 said...

JMG, am now reading your book The Blood Of The Earth twice-over (though pre-ordered and promptly received thereafter, finally have gotten to it).

Twice-over because am reading it to my high school teenage daughters as well as situation permits while settling down in the evenings. Saw its potential as a tool in their social cognition and awareness I've been introducing little by little on them ever since I went through my own cognitive dissonance on Peak Oil Awakening a few years back after feeling kind of lost off-and-on for far too long same as many of Funderburk's clients.

I started it calling it "magyck" a few years ago: that latent Potential and Intent inherent in the world around us that we attempt to turn into Purpose.
That, coupled with the ongoing talks we have on resource limits and living responsibly within bounds, both of which your book so well commingles, is making your book quite normal to them and so hopefully will prove an additional resource in their own character building and theurgy. So thank you.

FYI, looking up "magyck" in Wikipedia leads me to "magick", and reading it is starting to feel like am finally properly tuning in and is trying to tell me I haven't been far off the mark all along :-)

Nicholas Carter said...

Not having anything to add to this conversation on fracking or ritual theater, I wanted to ask you a question more relevant to my field of work: What do you think are the future challenges specifically awaiting the mentally retarded and disabled, and the professionals and family members that care for them.

Tyler August said...

@Adam Funderburk
Thank you for the work you're doing. Keep trying to open the eyes of the young; we need to know what we are up against. What looks like laziness is learned helplessness--when you've done absolutely everything "right", according to what everyone has ever told you (and continues to tell you) and gotten absolutely none of the rewards you were promised... that's a powerful teacher of helplessness, don't you think?
If you know why the system is failing you, though, that can be very empowering, psychologically. Terrifying, yes... but empowering.

The hardest part is that we don't want to believe, and would rather hide in digital worlds, as you point out. It's easier that way. Video games etc. are also much better designed at triggering the reward centres of the brain than the rudderless lives most millenials are stuck in. It is a hard, terrifying future we will have to face. While it frustrates me to no end, I cannot blame my contemporaries from turning their faces from it.

(I could likely be one of your clients: 25 years old, M.Sc, unemployed, diagnosed with depression and generalized anxiety disorder. Not much worse off than anyone else I know.)

Doctor Westchester said...

Over the last few years I've been telling a few acquaintances active in the anti-fracking portion of the environmental movement about the economic problems with fracking. As I think I might have mentioned here before, I have been both disappointed and not surprised that the environment movement has not picked on these issues.

Earlier this summer I mentioned to some of them that the fracking bubble may finally be bursting and when it does things could get ugly. In particular, there may be a hunt for the (innocent) responsible parties. Since on the Right, Wall Street or the oil industry never comes up as perpetrators, others will surely be named. Just as the responsibility for the (old) housing bubble was pin in the minds of many on the poor, I'm confident that environmentalists could named as the responsible party for the bursting of the fracking bubble.

This creates the potential for Fracking Bingo. Who will be the first to name environmentalists as being responsible? Will there be anyone else blamed? Will any reality emerge into the popular consciousness? I know, the last is a stretch.

Malcolm Green - I once had an acquaintance of that name. What country do you live in and what is (was) your occupation? From your picture, you could be the person I knew - although I would expect you would be older than the picture suggests.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

Marcello wrote, "Sure, some modest size industry might survive using water power, wood and maybe some coal left over but scale would be limited."

Also peat.


peat as energy source

peat bog wildfires in Russia and Indonesia

Ryan said...

In response to the coming changes of the kind that you discuss here in your posts, I have made major adjustments to my life. I am now living 15 kilometers from an interior city in a small South American country. I live in a thatched quincho that is comfortable 9+ months of the year. During the colder times of winter (down to 10 C.) I wear more clothing. Drinking water comes from a well, and washing water is pumped from a stream. Several of my neighbors come with 10 liter containers to get drinking water from my well. A truck delivers fruit, vegetables, and other consumables to a common area down the road once a week. Most people here walk to where they need to go, hitching a ride into town with those few of us who have vehicles, sharing the cost for fuel. Most do not have computers, some have cellphones, but most prefer to instead walk to their neighbors to have conversations or to make plans. Houses are built from local natural materials and with all local labor. Some are hooked into the grid, some have small solar panels for lighting, and some have no electricity at all. Some use flashlights, but most navigate darkness with rediscovered senses.

I have chosen to live here, and it is a lovely way to live. I feel like I am living in a manner that is both of the past and the rapidly approaching future. While the changes I have made may seem extreme to some, I have not experienced feelings of deprivation. On the contrary, I am feeling more peaceful and contented than I ever have. It is a fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable experience.

The future may not be so bad.

John Michael Greer said...

Tom, we don't know a lot about Mayan attitudes to their decline -- their surviving writings are almost all religious texts or the formal proclamations of political events -- but the Romans knew perfectly well what life was like in simpler and harsher times; their difficulty was that it wasn't just a matter of economic contraction. You might have heard of some of the other factors involved, such as Attila the Hun...

Wiseman, I've been talking about that for years -- consider this post from last year.

Magifungi, good. You're ahead of the curve.

Compound F, taking action is always a good first step. I'd encourage you to read histories and memoirs from comparable periods in the past -- that really does make it easier to deal with the emotional reactions, at least in my experience.

Phil, why am I suddenly thinking of that line from the Beatles song
"A Day in the Life" about four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire?

Bill, that would be utterly unnecessary. In the Third World America that's taking shape around us, any company able and willing to offer even the most pathetic wage in exchange for twelve-hour work days will get flooded with eager applicants. Slavery's expensive and inefficient compared to sweatshop labor in a poor country, which the US will be in the not too distant future.

Adam, that's a crucial issue, and one that's going to have to be addressed by those closest to it. May I encourage you to write down what you'd say to your clients if you could really cut loose and lay everything on the table, turn it into an essay, and get that thing in print or online? It might do a lot of good.

ChemEng, thank you!

Matthew, it would be very helpful if we had more than the smallest scattering of real conservatives -- that is, people who are actually interested in learning from the past and conserving its lessons -- rather than today's flurry of free market fundamentalists and religious zealots who are busy trying to immanentize the eschaton with just as much blind faith as the Marxists they claim to hate!

Bill, I'd think that, too, but once the big boys start bailing out and writing things off, the end is rarely far.

Alphonse, thank you. Agreed, "the new normal" is a thoughtstopper of the first order.

Malcolm, collectively, we're rushing toward our fate with open arms. Individually? There's still a lot of room for you and me and other individuals, who are willing to think and feel for themselves rather than simply bleating in tune with the rest of the herd, to make a difference for themselves, their families, and their communities. That's my take, at least.

Babylon Falls: Salvage and Curios said...

Hey Cherokee Organics, another great Aussie, Tim Flannery, in his book Weather Makers, pointed out how in the not too distant future, insurance agencies will more or less go bust due to extreme weather events, unable to pay out as it all costs too much.

House insurance will be unaffordable, as will all forms of insurance. Interestingly, he says the thing to morph out of it will be a blossoming industry of litigation against those companies and countries blamed as primary causes for the hell that we will all be in.

I imagine USA and Aust will go bust paying out for sunken island nations, etc.

Bill Pulliam said...

Odin -- considering that the site linking to that article seems to be a compilation of every conspiracy theory in existence, with lots of proclamation but little actual evidence, I'd be pretty surprised if there's anything to the nuclear fracking. Fracking is bad enough without having to make more stuff up.

Greg Reynolds @ Riverbend said...

Hey John,

I recall a post from several years ago on the High Cost of Community, but when I search for it I can't find it.

Am I imagining this ? if not , if you could point me to the post, I would most appreciate it.



You can reply here or send me an email at gregdotreynoldsatfrontierdotcom

John Michael Greer said...

Matthew, and getting land is among the least useful options for most people at this stage of the game.

Ando, I'd be delighted to find one, but I haven't yet.

ZZ, I didn't want to provoke another flurry of fusion cheerleading! Of course you're quite right.

Lloyd, er, for thermodynamic reasons there are no replenishable sources that can replace fossil fuels -- that is to say, nothing accessible to human beings will ever provide the kind of cheap, abundant, and highly concentrated energy we're used to. That's exactly the problem -- or, more precisely, the predicament -- that we face.

Raven, since there isn't any evidence that nuclear fracking is happening, and excellent reasons to think that it's not, I think we can worry about actual issues instead, don't you?

Juhana, there are options other than industrial agriculture and slash-and-burn, you know.

Wolfgang, oh, granted. It's only once a critical mass of people get dumped off the bus that there's likely to be significant change.

Ventriloquist, a classic example of the lullaby logic I've critiqued so many times here. The article's utter nonsense, but it serves its purpose, which is to keep people from getting upset.

Unknown, I haven't been out there, but the photos I've seen are stunning both in their scale and their disregard for anything but immediate profit. When the bill comes due, it's going to be a whopper.

Marcello, I tend to use Tokugawa Japan as a good model of the level of social complexity you can reach and maintain in a situation of hard resource limits. 17th century Europe hadn't yet come to terms with its limits, where 17th century Japan had.

Avalterra, I'm still surprised that this blog has the readership and gets the respect it does.

Sbanbury, probably the best investment you could make, though a little self-reliance wouldn't hurt, either.

John Michael Greer said...

Simon, delighted to hear it. I'm not a great fan of avant-garde spellings of magic, but if that works for you, great.

Nicholas, that's a huge issue, not really suited to a brief comment on an unrelated post. I'll consider a future post on it, though.

Doctor W., to an embarrassing extent, the environmental movement has accepted its socially defined role as opponent of progress, and so restricts its talking points to the doleful cries of woe assigned it in the ritual script. Of course they aren't going to start talking about economics!

Ryan, if that works for you, excellent.

John Michael Greer said...

Greg, the post you want is probably The Costs of Community, from January 2010; if not, let me know, because I've done several posts on related themes.

eskewis said...

Greetings, Archdruid, et al.

I used to work for the power company in Portland, OR. All I can say about peak energy is this: Once the power has been out for 12 hours or so and it's starting to get dark, people begin to lose their minds. They begin to think that the pole in the ground supplies the juice. I've had doctors (MD's) demand that I send someone to go turn the power on at THEIR house. They didn't have a clue how the grids works.

I had a pregnant woman tell me she had no way to heat her food until I asked her if she had a wood-burning stove. Really.

I'm not looking forward to peak energy because I know what no energy looks like. At first, people like "playing pioneer," but when it looks like it's not going to end, they freak out. The next several years should be quite interesting.

DeAnander said...


Your comment chimes with something I was thinking about recently, which is the profound absence of contentment in industrial/fossil civ. We ("we" being the Progress-oriented, technologically-obsessed and market-driven mainstream global culture, I guess) seem to make a virtue of being "driven", of yearning, of having ambition and a perpetual desire for More and Better. Our mythologies, as JMG points out, define our heroes as innovators, contrarians, people who break through previous limits and deliver More (of whatever -- power, speed, convenience, comfort, toys, military might, etc). People who are satisfied with what they already have are seen as fools (or worse, villains obstructing the magnificent march of Progress).

And our culture is therefore an uneasy one, hungry, ambitious, never satisfied, never experiencing simple contentment. I had a marvelous satori moment the other evening -- doesn't really matter where or when, long story -- when I realised that at this particular moment I had achieved my heart's desire, that the yearning and planning of 25 years had taken me to where I wanted to be, and I felt I was -- at long last -- at home in my world. And that moment made me realise how rare contentment is for those of us who dwell in the industrial cores; I felt that my life had offered very few such moments, so that this one had the fresh tang of rarity. It seems odd -- we have so much More (TM) of Everything than our ancestors, yet we are never really at peace, satisfied. Even the most fortunate among us (and I count myself as one) can spend decades never being really contented.

I have been thinking ever since about contentment, its rarity, the endless propaganda (advertising) teaching us never to be satisfied with what we have -- and reading your description of a simple life in a low-tech milieu, I thought that it sounded far more rich in contentment than the average lifeway of, say, a successful upper-middle-class urban professional somewhere in N America... this train of thought really doesn't lead anywhere, and perhaps that's all right :-)

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi magifungi,

Insurance affordability is a canary in the coal mine, well at least I reckon so. You know despite the lengths I had to go to here when building the place, I don't get a discount on my insurance...

Being in a forest you have some serious advantages. The advantages however, come with responsibilities and as we (meaning humans) have shaped our forests, so to do we have a responsibility to their future.

Is there any historical accounts as to how the indigenous peoples managed the forest in your area (for sure they did!)?



Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Adam,

Very thoughtful.

I learned this week that children are not told "NO' any more. Instead, they are told "STOP". Very interesting.

"NO" to me means boundaries are placed on your behaviour.

"STOP" indicates that there is some sense of control in the situation for the person that this is directed at and unless there is a postmortem, then boundaries / limitations have not been set.

Scary stuff.



Cherokee Organics said...


Just like gollum (err, actually Glenn, sorry mate! hehe!) I use a large part of my fossil fuel budget to bring organic matter up here. It is sort of like the bowerbird, constantly ferreting away stuff for improving / increasing the soil humus.

I'm very excited as I just bought a refractometer to measure the BRIX scale on the leaves of plants here. Very geeky, but interesting all the same.

Hi Bill,

The housing bubble is still going strong here. It will be unpleasant should it burst. I remember in the early 90's when house prices dropped 17% here within a few months... Not good.



Matthew Casey Smallwood said...

The best strategy for getting more real conservatives may actually come from the disillusioned Left (as things progress) - they are the winning party that now stands to lose in a big way (Leftism, I agree with Juhana, makes eminently more plausible sense to the discursive mind immersed in abundance of matter, less so when it is a real problem establishing legitimate interpretive ties between people pushed to the wall). Because convincing so-called "conservatives" they are actually revolutionaries (who like to clear cut old growth forests for newspaper and construction, for example, or who think that democracy can be elevated to global scales as an ideology) is utterly hopeless. Of course, I may be overlooking something obvious - I came by the traditional route, but I don't see many others doing so. Russell Kirk's entire opus ought to be required reading in every Christian school: that would be a good first start!

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Juhana,

Forests tend to have quite acidic, fungal dominated soils which are not very good for producing grains and vegetables.

Vegetables prefer more basic, bacterial dominated soils.

Grains prefer a balance somewhere between the two.

In your climate trees grow too slowly to follow slash and burn agriculture. The trees here at this location can grow 1m per year (sometimes more) depending on the water availability. It is real boom and bust growth.

With slash and burn you tend to lose top soil in the first heavy rains so it is self defeating and requires a population to move around.

I would recommend dropping the saw logs on contour so they collect top soil rather than washing down hill.

Fertility always moves down hill. It is the job of the birds and animals to bring it back up hill.

Whilst you import so much food, why not consider composting it into the soil? Especially on already cleared land as it will have remarkable benefits. Also consider spreading the ash from your wood fires onto the soil as a top dressing too. Things like cardboard have a surprising amount of boron in them which is a really useful and necessary mineral for plant growth.

There are plenty of ways to go!



Leo said...

So fracking has done exactly what everyone who has clue thought it would. Hopefully the bubble bursting will stop it appearing elsewhere.

The downsides of any scheme/ revolution/breakthroughs/etc are rarely talked about by their proponents.

Communism's susceptibility to dangerous dictators certainly isn't in the official design specs, but as Stalin and Mao show that's largely false.

I'm certain the same is with many other social, economic and technological schemes lying around.

Also found an article about how relatively speaking the world is at peace now:,0

Only 55,000 people die every year from war, down from 180,000 in the cold war.

If/when war returns to its historical norm a lot of people will be surprised by how brutal it is. The US isn't a violent empire and has effectively maintained the peace.

Joy said...

The more I read JMG's posts and the follow-up comments, the more I'm ready to pay the penalty to cash in my 401k, pay off the house, invest in energy-saving home improvements, etc. to prepare. But if I can't get home insurance, am I throwing my money away? JMG, do you own or rent? I don't think I'll move to another area of the country, as I already live in one of those mid-west rust belt towns that JMG has said would be good to hunker down in. Family, friends, and a familiar environment are the other pluses, so no Idaho or Arkansas for me (sorry, Matthew Casey Smallwood!).

William Church said...

Ando said "BTW is their an honest economics (pardon the oxymoron) blog that you read?"

I can give you a few that I read, not that I agree wholeheartedly with them on all subjects. But by and large they keep things on the real end of the spectrum and outdo almost all else I have seen.

Calculated Risk
Naked Capitalism (when Yves goes on a rant it is a thing of beauty!)
Jesse's Cafe
itulip (I've been a paying member here for years and EJ kept me safe from the housing bubble when everyone else was cheering it on)

These guys and gals are a good start. For understanding how the economy functions as opposed to how we are told it functions I give itulip two solid thumbs up. They aren't a doomer website either. The owner was the first one that I encountered who put the Peak Oil concept into economic terms.

Instead of wasting time trying to figure out if/when oil production would peak he, rightly IMvHO, figured out that the peak was irrelevant to the economics... it is too tough to figure it out with all of the pieces in play. Instead price is what matters and Peak Cheap Oil (his framing of the situation) has already occurred. The effort required to maintain the economy in terms of oil production has already risen, it will continue to do so, that has profound implications.


Cathy McGuire said...

Another good post. I’m always amazed to hear supposedly sane people voice their belief that “shale will save us”. I’m helping to teach at a local “preserve the harvest” event tomorrow – I’ve stopped arguing, and am just doing what I can to provide information to those who are interested in hearing. If this is a race (and it is: knowledge against decline/crisis), it’s one of the slowest races I’ve ever been in! LOL! But it’s happening…

This opinion piece from the NYT is more about your previous essays, but I thought you’d be interested in hearing a physicist’s POV:
Americans always expected their children to face a brighter economic future, and we scientists expected our students to inherit a world where science was embraced by an ever-larger fraction of the population. This never implied turning science into a religion or demanding slavish acceptance of this year’s hot research trends. We face many daunting challenges as a society, and they won’t all be solved with more science and math education. But what has been lost is an understanding that science’s open-ended, evidence-based processes — rather than just its results — are essential to meeting those challenges.

If he really embraces the “evidence-based processes”, it would be interesting to ask him about solutions to peak-energy…

@Wolfgang Not surprisingly, most people will want to hang on to prosperity as long as possible. To choose insecurity and lowered living standards willingly on the expectation that you will end up there anyway is hard to do. Even if you are convinced that diminished prosperity is in everyone's future, you still want to hold on to your current prosperity for as long as possible. You might even convince yourself that they, whoever they are will invent something to ward off the unpleasantness of having to do with less.
That’s exactly what my suburban friends are doing! I’ve stopped “preaching” or even mentioning my current concerns. They know where I stand and what I believe (the chickens, rabbits and hand wellpump are a give-away, I guess), and they just don’t want to hear it.

@Nicolas What do you think are the future challenges specifically awaiting the mentally retarded and disabled, and the professionals and family members that care for them.
I’ll jump in here (as a retired mental health therapist) because I’d been thinking of that, too. It might not be as dismal as one thinks: a world without all the bells and whistles will be slower and simpler, and there will be more useful tasks for the slow and disabled to do, and others who will be working alongside at a slow enough pace to keep an eye on them. That’s how it was before, and probably will be again. There will likely be a crisis-period for everyone IMO, where the new pattern isn’t set and the old one doesn’t work. Successful navigation of this “jump” will depend on local circumstances.

Richard Larson said...

I'm mkaing the changes! Slow and steady...

I helped finance Snake Oil through the crowd funding mechanism and was sent two sign by Richard Heinberg copies.

The Archdruid should seriouly consider such a publishing method - because I want a signed copy (oh yeah, I'll read the book as well)!

Someday these books and my actions based on learning about the issues, and learning how to deal with them, will give me a level of importance to a group of (younger) people that will need my expertise.

The books in possesion could have a similar affect to the blood stained doors of passover.

wvjohn said...

Great blog as always! Another interesting bit of news that is beginning to surface is that mortgage lenders are refusing to lend on residential properties involved with or near fracking sites.

John Michael Greer said...

Eskewis, I've seen that in action. I'd encourage everyone who reads this blog to do a couple of practice outages in the next year or two -- shut off the main circuit breaker for your house, and get by for the next day or two with no electricity at all. That way you'll already have some clue what to do as electricity from the grid becomes more irregular, as it will.

Cherokee, I think you've just earned a shoulder patch as a certified organic gardening geek!

Matthew, yes, that would be a good start. It was Kirk's The Conservative Mind that first showed me that I have more in common with old-fashioned conservatives, of the sort we don't have in America any more, than with today's liberals. (Mind you, I have at least as much in common with old-fashioned liberals, but we don't have those in America any more, either. What do you do in a society where the liberals have forgotten how to liberate and the conservatives have forgotten how to conserve?)

Leo, that sort of mismatch almost always happens when certain kinds of mythic thinking are applied unintelligently to the world of everyday experience. As for war, yes, we're in one of those periods where pressures are building rather than being allowed to vent in small wars. My guess is that the big wars that will follow will more than make up for it.

Joy, my wife and I bought our house when we moved to the Rust Belt in 2009; it's still entirely possible to get insurance, so long as you don't live in a rural area with frackable oil shale underneath it. (Here in western Maryland, our end of the Marcellus has dry gas with no liquids or oil, so nobody's even bothering to drill.) If you're in a good place, hunker down!

Will, thanks for the recommendations! I'll give 'em a look.

Cathy, that essay may be the most cheering thing I've read this week; thank you. Still, you're quite right -- I wonder how freely he'd apply his own logic to, say, the prospects for physics in the middle to long term.

Richard, the reasons I publish with publishing houses are, first, that they have a marketing and sales staff that can get my books much more exposure than I can manage on my own, and second, having a good editorial department can spare a manuscript a lot of embarrassment by subjecting it to critical eyes before it hits the bookshelves. If you want a signed copy of one of my books, buy it and then flag me down at a speaking gig -- I'm always happy to sign books.

Wvjohn, thanks for the link!

Tyler August said...

Probably the only reason that we aren't using atomic explosives for fracking is that when it was tried, the oil and gas which was freed up proved too radioactive for use. I'd not be shocked if someone tries to reopen that can of worms at some point, though. I really, really, hope that they don't get it open.

re: Conservatives, and the Right--

I had a rather unsettling moment not long ago when I realized the nice British chap whose platform I was nodding along happily to was the leader of the British National Party. They actually seem to know what's going on, and are preparing to ride the tide of decline into power. On the balance, I think I'm glad that there is no Canadian equivalent; it would be far too tempting to support them.

Marcello said...

"I tend to use Tokugawa Japan as a good model of the level of social complexity you can reach and maintain in a situation of hard resource limits."

I am not a specialist in japanese history but as far as I can read the shogunate enjoyed a susbtantial peace dividend (thus no large artillery parks, sizable cavalry forces, ships of the line etc.) for a couple of centuries. Few societies can enjoy such luxury. Further, despite some misgivings they did tap into coal reserves starting in the late 17th century; by the 18th there were apparently even some complaints about the effect of coal pollution on local agriculture here and there. Probably only modest amounts were extracted, but when you are hard pressed every little bit counts.

rakesprogress said...

I think insurance is essentially a pyramid scheme, in that being embedded in a larger context of growth is a precondition for its existince. It's a goner.

Going forward, probably the closest thing to insurance may be membership in some sort of traditional fraternal organization, which JMG has addressed here before. Such are not designed with this function in mind, though, and both your inputs and any outputs you get are not contractual or primarily monetary.

Active involvement in your immediate neighborhood counts, too. I jump up to help anyone who lives near my house, and that has often been remembered and reciprocated.

Joseph Nemeth said...

@JMG -- thought you all might be appalled/amused.

DeAnander said...

Regarding mythic narratives, I was thinking idly t'other evening that our culture actually has two mythic narratives in dynamic tension (ooh! a dialectic!) -- the Prometheus narrative (the heroic loner stealing fire from the gods, innovating, defying tradition, bettering the lot of humankind) and the Frankenstein narrative (the mad scientist meddling with forces beyond his control, resulting in tragedy and doom).

These two narratives are sung by opposing actors in the Progress debates: nuclear power, for example, is a beautiful example of the Frankenstein narrative (genie in a bottle, once unleashed, proves unmanageable and dangerous) *and* the Promethean narrative (promises of clean, infinite, "too cheap to meter" power for a utopian futurama, with Marie Curie as the lone, bold scientist sacrificing her life to expand human knowledge and technology, etc).

Can we consider the Frankenstein narrative as a counter-myth to the ritual theatre of Progress? It's a strong one (consider, for a start, all the B-movies relying on this form, from THEM to Jurassic Park and everything in between). Certainly it's one of the dominant themes of that perennial classic, Lord of the Rings -- "too deep we delved there, and woke the nameless fear" -- the perception that technology and its associated hubris have gone too far, crossed some line (whether divine or natural), and incurred devastating consequences. Like, umm, destabilising the climate :-)

Anyway, it just occurred to me that the Frankenstein narrative was almost as popular and powerful as the Heroic Promethean Innovator narrative, and I'm curious as to how they complement one another, or what cognitive dissonance allows the culture to foster both.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hey Babylon,

Tim Flannery is good isn't he? I found that book and "The future eaters" to be profoundly disturbing books to read as they force a re-evaluation of the current environment and our place in it. Well worth the read as he is a straight talking kind of guy and doesn't mind digging in the dirt.

The legal system is owned by the legal profession as they are essentially self regulated. I'm unsure how much justice comes out of it? Dunno, really.



Cherokee Organics said...


Thanks for the geeky patch. hehe!

I'm slowly building relationships with other like-minded people in the community here. It is amazing how much they know about growing stuff and the local conditions through sheer practical experience. They deserve a geeky patch too!

Actually, it would be nice if there was a village of people to seek advice from. There are a lot of errors to be made and lessons to be learned from trail blazing a path. Not that anything I do is original or ground-breaking, it is just the practical aspects of it all that is the difficult part (and re-doing things).

I'm not one to wait for the perfect though when there are serviceable and acceptable paths to follow.

If you are interested in some of the things growing here that I'm eating right now from the garden (including photos and amusing commentary), I'm participating in an ongoing survey which is on the web:

Perennialising plants in temperate climates

Happy reading!


mary said...

Juhana you mentioned the fertility from deciduous trees. I am trying to learn about coppicing deciduous trees and using their branches as ramial chipped wood. Does anyone here have links to someone's actual experience with these two procedures--for heat and vegetable production?

Leo said...

"In theory, practice and theory are the same, in practice, they aren't" Same with ideologies.

Considering how much violence and war deaths have fallen, there's a lot of catching up to do. A few continents flattened in a similar fashion of WWI and WWII should do it.

Been thinking about sustainability and violence. Under certain conditions it probably improves sustainability.

After-all, it diverts effort away from economic activities that could harm the enviroment and can act as a control on population. Also can provide a social release valve.

Enrique said...

John Michael,

I am one of those conservatives, and yes we are a rare breed. Still, I think there is a hunger out there for a viable, saner alternative to mainstream liberalism (which has little in common with classical liberalism), the activist Left and the pseudo-conservative Right. I have long considered myself to be a paleo-conservative or traditionalist conservative, for lack of a better term. Among the major influences on my thinking have been Edmund Burke, Thomas Jefferson, Oswald Spengler, Winston Churchill, James Burnham, Henry Kissinger and William Lind. When I took Intro to Political Theory at university, I wrote my term paper on Burke, and my mother once bought me Kissinger’s memoirs (both volumes) as a Christmas present. I still have them sitting on one of my bookshelves.

My views are definitely to the right, however much of what passes for conservatism in America and Europe these days leaves me cold. I have a pretty low opinion of both the activist Left and the pseudo-conservative Right. I do have a great deal of respect for classical liberalism, but the present day version turns my stomach. Too many of those who fancy themselves as conservatives these days forget the “conservative” and “conservation” both come from the same root, and that there is nothing conservative at all in the extremist propaganda of Ayn Rand and her acolytes or the ideologies of the neo-cons, the Rapture Right and the market fundamentalists.

Glenn said...

Cherokee Organics said...

"Just like gollum (err, actually Glenn, sorry mate! hehe!) I use a large part of my fossil fuel budget to bring organic matter up here."

You got the joke then. Many years ago a friend of mine, who is a blacksmith, gave me that. I was congratulating him on having done something fiendishly clever in the homesteading line (he and his partner are urban homesteaders in Eugene, Oregon and supreme scroungers). And that was his response; "Efficiency, precious, efficiency we calls it." It's been a running joke in our family ever since.

And yes, one of the most important thing we do, and a major "embedded energy" investment is building soil fertility.

Marrowstone Island.

Mildly On Topic: My wife canned 30 lbs. of peaches; harvested, blanched, vacuum sealed and froze 8 lbs of green beans and vacuum sealed and froze 5 lbs of huckleberries today. Peaches purchased at the orchard, beans home-grown and huckleberries picked wild. I caught, boiled, cleaned and picked 4 Dungeness Crab and washed a lot of dishes.

John Michael Greer said...

Tyler, would that be Nick Griffin? If so, yes, he has an exact knowledge of what's coming down, and has every intention of using that knowledge to put himself and his goose-stepping friends in power. It's all too likely that there will be equivalents in your country and mine before too much longer.

Marcello, the peace dividend was real but by no means unlimited -- the Tokugawa bakufu (military government) kept itself in power by maintaining a substantial military force. The resource restrictions were astonishing by the standards of most other periods -- the amount of coal used was very small, and the single largest source of energy was raw human muscle. I should do some posts on that one of these days.

Progress, exactly. The old fraternal orders are simply more structured ways of leaping up to help your neighbors.

Joseph, hang on to your hat. There's going to be a lot of that as we proceed.

DeAnander, good. The Frankenstein narrative is a very important part of the role assigned to the opponents of progress, thus it's familiar and appealing, and everyone knows it might have a point in some cases, just not in any of the ones that happen to come up for discussion. To make a good ritual drama, you've got to make the losing side at least a little sympathetic, after all.

Cherokee, most interesting! Thanks for the link.

Leo, most social mammals assign to young males the job of trying to get killed, so that natural selection has a chance to work. War is one of our standard human ways of doing that; lacking it, you get various other more or less effective ways by which young men try to remove themselves from the gene pool.

Enrique, thanks for speaking up! I haven't studied Kissinger at all, but Burke and Spengler are major influences on my thinking, as you've probably noted. With any luck, some of their good ideas can get a little more circulation in a future that will desperately need something other than the current round of nonsense.

Glenn, on topic or not, it's good to hear.

John Michael Greer said...

Communeist (offlist), I got your second comment before the first got put through, so no problem. If you'd like to post something marked "not for posting" with your email, I'll respond as soon as time permits.

Max12345 said...

I just posted my comment below to last week's post The Ritual Theater. But since readers (and you too JMG) may have moved on to this new post (and since this new post ALSO deals with ritual theater, I now will repost my same comment here below. (it is basically a plea to either distinguish between different categories of ritual theater(s) –in itself perhaps an interesting exercise -or to use the concept more sparingly...or maybe both….since too much of a good thing easily can end up making it into a bad one?)

But with respect to this week's post I do agree that there is also a ritual theater of fracking.

Here is that comment:

"Hi seems to me that the (very) good (and also useful) concept (or the reality) of "The Ritual Theater" is being expanded to cover too many things or “theaters”. Is it possible that we may be reaching a "Ritual Theater of Ritual Theater"?

And are there things (empirical realities, logical arguments, and their related phenomena whether social or biophysical) that are NOT ritual theater? (or whose ritual theaters are perhaps a bit more real and meaningful -or at least discussable and analyzable in empirical and logical and evidence based terms....than -let us just say - "run of the mill" ritual theaters?

Example: The Roman Catholic church has its own rituals and also its own ritual theater; (and so do all the other main religions) and so does atheism; (of both the Anglo-American kind and the European Continental kind) and in a different way so does experimental physics and its relationship to theoretical physics. And perhaps even Thomas Kuhn's explanation of the structure of scientific revolutions also has become a kind of ritual theater. (a sub-plot of the ritual theater of progress?)

Are all these ritual theaters equal, equivalent or are some ritual theaters perhaps "more equal than others"? Or is George Orwell too and the way we see his works and discuss him also "a ritual theater"?

I think there are not only limits to growth but also to very good concepts and ideas and some apply in "certain regimes" but not very well in others. Are we moving close to the speed of light? In which case perhaps some good relativism and warped spacetime needs to be introduced also with respect to some of the good concepts we use.

Thanks for clarifying or elaborating further.

Leo said...

On the far-right

This post mentions Nick Griffin at a ASPO conference, apparently he's goes to a lot of similar meetings.

And the energy bulletin article mentions that peak oil is normally a left wing issue. So not much resistance is likely to come from the right once it becomes a big issue.

The focus of the left is an issue, it constrains the peak oil sphere. And sometimes variety is lacking. I've never seen an article by a police officer talking about law enforcement in a post-peak age for example, maybe not even an article of it at all, even through that is a fairly important topic.

I had a look at his platform, it has the right ideas; go organic, build up renewables, reduce population growth and go against globalism.

Not a good position, and that includes anything similar in other countries. If their policies are honest and they plan to carry them out, then they could potentially cushion the descent better than anyone else. But the track record of authoritarianism isn't good and there's all the moral issues involved.

Matthew Casey Smallwood said...

I remember when, as a kid, I found out about clear-cutting, what it was, how it worked, etc. (lived in timber country). It was exactly the same feeling I had (maybe less on magnitude) when I learned about abortion. It wasn't so much the thing in itself, as just the sheer thoughtlessness of the whole affair, combined with the failure to find an alternate purpose or use for something "wanted for something else". Enrique, if you want more of the same, try Nicholas Gomez Davila, or maybe Donoso Cortes. Burke is about the best the Anglosphere has to offer. There are also the Catholic traditionalists, who raise some interesting arguments about the progress of "Revolution":
It'll be interesting to see how history is written AFTER all this happens; I would imagine there would be a great temptation for the survivors to do the "classical liberals" injustice, simply because of the association with what came after the 1848 movements, etc. Because I'm seeing more of a "feudal" and monarchic style of civilization dominating the West, rather than some advanced socialism. It's how people think in their guts and in their blood that will largely determine what comes next, & having ridiculed the Middle Ages (like a son hating his father), we are bound by karmic law to have to emulate it (we've reinforced those patterns in our mind). Hence, it will also be a danger to have cheap knock-off imitations of what people THINK the Middle Ages looked like (wenching, boozing, pillaging, etc.), rather than what it truly was.
JMG, sir, do you think there is career value in becoming expert in such things as medieval construction, herbology, symbolism, lore, etc.? I've been thinking that building a good library of resource books on such things as cabin-construction, Scottish highland folk life patterns, etc., etc., might be as important as owning land. People are going to be starved for old and new ideas, benumbed and shocked with appalled and desolate feelings - not the best ground for "ingenuity". Will we "forget"? Be so eager to get back out, that much more is lost?

Mbala said...

Your post inspired me to try to grasp somehow the reality of depleting resources. My idea was to imagine that I have a "wallet" of resources, and every year I spend so much to buy my share of what humanity "collectively owns". That way I can make huge numbers personal. Idea being that in a perfect world (???) we would all share resources more or less fairly, as we are all created equal and lazy bums who do not deserve would not exist, etc. Right?! :)))

I do not know how much oil is there total, and how much of it is economically mine-able. What I know reasonably well is how much oil do we EXTRACT, and I assume that no significant amount of new oil is being deposited at the moment.

If I am to be "optimistic", I would say the world extracts about 70 million barrels per day.

So, if there was the same amount of people as in 2000, you would be spending about 4 barrels a year, that is about 126 gallons. With a car that takes somewhat over 10 gallons to fill up, that means you can go to the gas station once a month, providing you ONLY use gas for transportation. I hope your daily commute is under about 15 minutes each way with your 30mpg car, because that's all you can afford to be fair.

Since it is 2013, it is not 4 barrels anymore, but just about 3.45 or so (more people!) So you won't be going to the gas station every month, you need to take a 1.5 month vacation once a year.

Robert said...

I don't think Griffin is too much of a threat; he's too crude and has an embarrassing Nazi past which can be used to discredit him. It's what comes after him a few decades from now when peak oil really begins to bite that I fear. The danger would be if a far right leader turned up who was charismatic, didn't have an embarrassing Nazi past, and claimed to support gay rights and liberal values against
the "threat" of reactionary Third World immigrants and Muslims. I can see quite a big market for that. Islamophobia is becoming the politically correct and acceptable form of bigotry including among those who consider themselves progressives.

realguy1010 said...

leo and JMG
this is what i have been thinking old days,heavy physical work,wars,diseases and responsibility of family kept young men fact having their own families brought sort of stability to life...
so what will happen in modern day USA and west now? in usa,50 % men stay alone...and number of young unemployed men in developed is highest ever in world history..

thrig said...

Hmm, perhaps those chanting rah, rah, rah are less sensitive, or otherwise unaware of the pains of an unrestricted Carbon excursion? A healthy stomach may not know that the limbs have gone awry, to use the society-as-a-body analogy.

onething said...

Matthew Casey Smallwood,

I followed your name to your links/blogs. They look inactive. Discussing theology with you would be a treat.

loopy floop said...

Not relevant to this particular post, but rather the general theme of patterns in history:

Matthew Casey Smallwood said...

OneThing, try the Argus&Phoenix link, I still check it, & it has my email: always interested to talk shop with good people!

Iuval Clejan said...

Dear Onething, or anyone else who is looking for a green wizard journeyman and/or might have land (or knows someone who does) to share, give, or exchange for services or just a bit of money, anywhere on our planet (though US is preferable, as long as it's not frackable)

My email is clejan.iuval(at)
Please contact me through that for details.

latefall said...

Someone here said that price - not peak production is relevant.

In a way I would agree but isn't production a major factor?
I would think however the physical quantity that is produced is less of interest than how much I can use in the end.
If I have to share it with a larger population, it bumps up the price/worsens my ERoEI.
A decade later I have to share it with even more people as they level with me in geopolitical clout. I quickly converge down to their level in consequence, and there is little I can do then.

I wonder to what extent this is factored into the price already...

The next kick may come when the depletion timeframe is perceived in the timeframe of your own kids I guess.

With regard to renewable energy there's a couple of things.
If we do not invest into capacity now, what are the chances we will do so with empty stomachs especially when upfront cost are high?
Frame it differently: Is there anything smarter we can do in this time (where we still have energy coming out of our ears) than invest it into hydro and wind?

That could also save most of our energy intensive tech investments.
Fracking is of course a total dead end to anyone with half a brain. Unless you treat it as a transition tech (to fusion?). If you want to transition to renewables - you wouldn't invest in fracking while running a low efficiency society.

Some people said potential negative consequences don't get much attention...

Large hydro is as much a weapon to anyone down stream as it is a source of energy (e.g. the Mediterranean).
That may be one reason to keep an airforce/rockets around for people downstream.
Wind is of course significantly more expensive but has very little impact. It has quite high tech requirements though if you want some efficiency.

And on the dark side - both can absorb lots of unskilled/underfed labor if you have too many prisoners/slaves on your hands or it is winter.

One last thing: does anyone else think "contraction" is a funny word to use with economy. It suggests a conservation of mass and an eventual expansion (growth?). For centuries people were happy with "increase" and "decrease" or similar, what's up with that?

Marcello said...

"It's what comes after him a few decades from now when peak oil really begins to bite that I fear. The danger would be if a far right leader turned up who was charismatic, didn't have an embarrassing Nazi past, and claimed to support gay rights and liberal values"

I doubt you could support gay rights from the far right without creating a lot of friction.
Once the hard realities of the end of economic groth and resources constraints sink in the general population things IMHO are going to get really ugly politics wise.
The left will be one of the first casualties. If it remains moderate it will wither, as its preferred current talking points aren't going to get a lot of traction in such environment. If it tries something radical it will be liquidated à la Pinochet.
Provided that the wake up of the masses to the reality of resources constraints does not happen so far in the decline that expeditionary capabilities were alredy compromised you cold see something like this being tried:

As far as I can tell quite a lot of people are convinced that if only US Army had started to pump lead into every civilian who looked at them funny the whole iraqi affair would have been a breeze. Once the scope for resources scarcity become apparent the pressure to turn such fantasy into reality might well become irresistible.
I say fantasy because quite often reality can throw monkeywrenches into such courses of action. One persistent rumor I have heard over the years is that many critical saudi oil facilities are rigged for demolition and with radioactive material being included in the charges for good measure. Whether it is true or not I have no idea (it could well be speculation repeated until it becomes fact) but it is certainly an insurance policy I would consider once the eliminationist rhetoric in the USA (and maybe elsewhere) reaches fever pitch.

Kyoto Motors said...

Every now and then, Mr. Greer, your posts come right down to earth and hit the nail right on the head. This post underscores with great clarity the relevance of the broader more abstract discussions of this blog; what’s more, the urgency and importance of peak oil and all the associated issues comes into high relief here. I wish I had found the time earlier to comment, but at this stage in the week, all I really need to say is that.
Well, Ill not leave it at that, because I was struck by one of the comments, which deserves its own praise (can comment contributors issue gold stars?)
@Adam Funderburk
I’m speaking of your comments here and I would start by echoing JMG’s reply:
“Adam, that's a crucial issue, and one that's going to have to be addressed by those closest to it. May I encourage you to write down what you'd say to your clients if you could really cut loose and lay everything on the table, turn it into an essay, and get that thing in print or online? It might do a lot of good.”
So many people I know fit the descriptions you give, whether the younger crowd of millennials, or their parents generation, who lack understanding of the macro issues. This is the subject of an entire book!
Sorry my time is short this morning... but keep the thread going!

Robert Mathiesen said...

Although most of us now know Dorothy L. Sayers only as the author of superlative detective stories, she was in her time respected for her views on Dante and the Late Middle Ages. I was recently rereading some of them, and I happened upon this trenchant passage in her essay, "Why Work?"

"It may well seem to you – as it does to some of my acquaintances – that I have a sort of obsession about this business of the right attitude to work. But I do insist upon it, because it seems to me that what becomes of civilization after this war [= World War 2] is going to depend enormously on our being able to effect this revolution in our ideas about work. Unless we do change our whole way of thought about work, I do not think we shall ever escape from the appalling squirrel cage of economic confusion in which we have been madly turning for the last three centuries or so, the cage in which we landed ourselves by acquiescing in a social system based upon Envy and Avarice. A society in which consumption has to be artificially stimulated in order to keep production going is a society founded on trash and waste, and such a society is a house built upon sand."

I particularly love her phrase "the appalling squirrel cage of economic confusion in which we have been madly turning for the last three centuries or so"!

The entire essay is worth a read. It can be found on line in several places.

Emmanuel Goldstein said...

Whatever delay we can get to post-peak-oil effects should be spent in getting situated with resources that will be economical/sustainable/make sense when oil becomes less available. My ideal location would have a small home on a patch of garden-able land, near a small town. I'd be interested to hear what resources other people would like to have in a post-peak-oil era--

@Juhana-- I second the motion from Cherokee Organics, that there are many possible ways to sustain the land. One could be the 'polyface farm' model ( ), which uses perennial plants to raise farm animals, and builds soil at the same time. It is not free of problems, but I wonder if such a farming model could work in Spain?

John Michael Greer said...

Max, I'd encourage you to read my post An Aside To My Readers from April. Ritual theater is an abstract category, not a concrete existent, and so long as it casts a useful light on the concrete existents to which it's applied, it's not out of place.

Leo, good. That's exactly why fascism was so appealing to so many people in the 1920s and 1930s; the fascist parties were willing to talk about things that nobody else was willing to discuss. We'll be discussing much more of this later on.

Matthew, yes, I think there's a great deal of upside in that kind of career, but only if you actually pick up the hands-on skills. Book learning won't be anything like as useful as the practical experience of having done the thing -- and the best advertising of all will be that you're still doing it, and thriving, when everyone else is struggling to get by.

Mbala, excellent. Now imagine that each year that passes, the amount of oil available for use goes down each year, since more and more has to be allocated for fracking and other energy-extraction costs...

Robert, I'd encourage you to remember that at several points in his pre-1933 career, Hitler was dismissed as a has-been nutcase supported only by the fringe. That said, it's always possible that a more appealing demagogue might follow in Griffin's footsteps.

Realguy, I'm sorry to say that those young men are probably going to go the way of excess young men throughout history, in the next round of major wars -- I give it a decade or two before those break out.

Thrig, I dunno. My guess is that they're all too aware, which is why they turn to cheerleading to drown out the awareness.

Loopy, thanks for the link.

Latefall, all those are factors that deserve consideration. To my mind, the crucial point is the need for surplus energy and resources to build any new energy infrastructure. What's being wasted today on fracking won't be there when it's needed to insulate homes, put solar water heaters on roofs, etc. -- and at a certain, not infinitely distant point, if no sane steps are taken, there won't be enough resources available to do anything at all. That's one of the critical issues that gets too little attention these days.

Marcello, there are already GOP politicians who are backing down on gay marriage. More generally, though, it's crucial to remember that fascism is totalitarian centrism -- historically, it borrows as heavily from the left as from the right. More, much more, on this as we proceed.

Kyoto, thank you. I'm as pleased as you are by the general quality of the comments here.

Robert, excellent! It's been too long since I've read that.

Emmanuel, peak oil is already here, and its effects are already hitting. If you want to get that land, etc., you need to get cracking -- and if you can't get it, you might consider making do with what you have, where you are, right now, to borrow my favorite Ernest Thompson Seton quote.

Glenn said...

Robert Mathiesen said...

"{snip!} ...Dorothy L. Sayers only as the author of superlative detective stories, she was in her time respected for her views on Dante and the Late Middle Ages. I was recently rereading some of them, and I happened upon this trenchant passage in her essay, "Why Work?""

Robert, I located the rest of the essay on line, read it to my family and bookmarked it. I should print it out. I'm an atheist myself, but as a woodworker, she precisely describes how I approach my work. She was awfully prescient about the post-war resumption of consumerism too. The essay's a keeper, thanks for introducing me to it.


Marrowstone Island

Kyoto Motors said...

After some more browsing through the comments thread, I thought of one additional point to make, which comes in the form of a link to Tom Murphy’s excellent blog, Do The Math. It’s an older post, but serves as a good reference to describe the nature of the predicament you have described here many times with respect to energy/ technology transitions in the face of economic (energy) contraction. Mr. Murphy does so in his own way, from the perspective of a scientist, asking:
“Will we really be willing to sacrifice additional energy in the short term—effectively steepening the decline—for a long-term energy plan?”
The piece is entitled “The Energy Trap” which I consider to be required reading for anyone who cares to clue-in to the peak oil phenomenon, and the context in which fracking has become the saviour technology du jour.
The link is:

Dagnarus said...


With regards to investing in renewable energy now. It should be kept in mind that money isn't the only thing necessary to invest, current wind technology requires rare earth minerals, and currently 97% of the worlds supply of those come from China. Thus any investment in renewable energy has a bottleneck in terms of the amount of neodymium, and dysprosium the Chinese can dig up in order to actually build the turbines.

Is an interesting article on the subject. Some particularly interesting quotes from the article are

"The Chinese Society of Rare Earths estimated that the refinement of one ton of rare earth metals results in 75 cubic meters of acidic wastewater and one ton of radioactive residue."


"Nevertheless, we are mining poorer and poorer ores all the time, and it takes more and more energy to extract the same amount of metal, according to Graedel. “I’m not worried that we’ll run out of rare earth metals, but will we have enough energy at a reasonable price to extract it?” he asked."

Which should give people who follow peak oil a sense of Déjà vu.

Not to worry though a Japanese scientist found has found huge reserves of the stuff ... under 6000m of ocean.

As well as plans to mine "easily accessible asteroids" orbiting the earth.

It kinda puts the current end times battle, being fought between the regressive fossil fuels industry with their evil global warming, and the progressive environmentalists, and their limitless clean renewable energy into perspective now does it not.

This is what happens when you can only think in terms of how much money it's going to cost, without considering the availability of raw materials.

Robert said...

Good grief, people, read some Julian Simon.

Cherokee Organics said...


Quote: "getting land is among the least useful options for most people at this stage of the game."

That is excellent advice as it literally has taken me years to understand what it means to live on this bit of land in anything resembling a sustainable way. The land still surprises me and it is hard to go even one day without learning things and correcting those errors.

I sat out in the orchard tonight in quiet reflection as dusk came on and realised that what you - and the Druids - are asking is, for people to make peace with nature. I may be wrong, but this seems to be the gist of it.

At dusk the marsupial bats start flying around chasing insects and they are silhouetted against the darkening sky. Later still the sugar gliders come out, whilst the owls hunt rodents and antechinuses. They are all fascinating to watch and I sat there observing them and taking it all in.

I harvested the first of the winter potatoes today and they are really sweet.

The last day of winter here was Friday and the weather suddenly turned to spring on Saturday. The air even smells different now as the silver wattles are in bloom and you can smell the fragrance in the air. Too bad the bees can't make use of the pollen from those trees, but they have other sources here.

Over the next few weeks I'm going to set out another brood box for the bees in the hope that some drift across. I'm going to trust in nature to get this one going and hopefully the bees then establish a new colony in the brood box.

Too often most of the advice I receive is about maximum efficiency. All I'm looking for is resiliency and understanding about how nature goes about sorting its processes.



Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Juhana,

Sorry, didn't quite explain it, but burning forests produces ash which makes forest soils more neutral / basic which is better for grains and vegetables.

As an interesting side note, rhododendrons didn't do so well up this way after the 1983 Ash Wednesday bushfires because the soil ph had changed significantly. Now, they do very well here (some even self seed).

It also kills off a lot of the seed bank in the soil depending on how hot the fire was. Some seed can sit in the ground for decades just waiting for the right conditions.

The main problem is that grains involve a lot of ploughing to reduce competition and it requires the patch to be left fallow for a few weedy years whilst it builds up fertility again.

Fallow land is a difficult proposition when there are hungry mouths to be fed.

Therein lies the bind of slash and burn agriculture.



Hal said...


"Dear Onething, or anyone else who is looking for a green wizard journeyman and/or might have land (or knows someone who does) to share, give, or exchange for services or just a bit of money, anywhere on our planet..."

Sitting as I am on 900 acres of some of the best farmland in the world, I would be in a position to, and actually have dire need for exactly what you offer. That being said, if we can get a discussion going on the GW Forum, I am going to do everything I can to try to talk you out of the whole idea.

There many reasons that the I would not recommend it to someone in your position. Both specifically, as to the many peculiarities of life in the Mississippi Delta that, well, take some getting used to if you're not from around here, but more importantly, the whole general idea that a rural, agricultural setting is the best place to weather the storms of social upheaval and resource decline.

I'm sorry I don't have the time this morning, nor have organized my thoughts enough to write the full argument that needs to be made in this regard, but I also don't think it's appropriate to throw this into one of these weekly comment threads. When the Forum gets back up, I'll work on getting it written down and that way, whenever the subject comes up around here, I can just direct people to it.

I wrote on this here in the past, but, unfortunately my name sucks for a search. On the forum, I'm green_achers.

William Church said...

Latefall and John,

I agree that supply is something that has an impact on the total system. How could it not?

But in the end there are SO many factors that have to be accounted for in any Peak Oil discussion: dollar strength, demand, production (both domestic and at large), etc. And once these have been factored in you get price. It is the ultimate arbiter.

I have some hard right leaning friends who just don't get this simple fact. They honestly believe that opening up any and all US land to fracking will result in a massive lowering of price and US energy independence. This in spite of the fact that again and again it has been shown that something on the order of the current price level is required to make enhanced oil recovery possible. How crazy is that?

One thing that I believe Peak Cheap Oil allows that Peak Oil alone does not is that it encourages one to forget about a future production peak event and take a good hard look around. PCO has already occurred. The effects are visible all around us. You can examine them and look at the interplay between price and how the economy has mutated. It allows you to catch a glimpse of the future right now.

Maybe. I may be entirely out in left field on this one, lol.


JP said...

@Kyoto Motors:

Thanks for that link.

I was trying to remember the name of his blog a couple of weeks ago when I was updating my blog list.

Roger said...

I think that if we're going to get new thinking in response to resource and energy scarcity it will have to come via generational change. The pack of villains presently pulling the strings don't have the interest or the will. Talking to duffers - my own age group - the prevailing attitude seems to be that they'll run out the clock. Meaning sit tight and hope to be safely dead and rotting in the grave before it truly hits the fan.

As for the young folk, they don't want to hear about it having troubles galore trying to make a living. But hear about it they will and if solutions are to be found they will have to come from their kind.

In the meantime, it's not like we'll do nothing. So what will we do? Well, we'll follow elite opinion and do what we've done in the past, that is, paper over the problem and try to buy some time. For one, we'll get the Fed and its central bank counterparts elsewhere to wave their magic monetary wands. That this was already tried and didn't work doesn't matter. Excuses will be made. We didn't do enough of it or we did too much of it or the timing was wrong. Self deceiving group-think is our modus operandi.

One hundred and seven dollar oil comes from diminishing supplies but also exhorbitant money printing. It hasn't escaped the notice of oil producers that the Fed is printing money like there's no tomorrow, "Easing" they call it.

And so the oil barons want more USD to compensate. In 1998 oil was around 10 USD/barrel. Since then the price has risen more than ten-fold in USD terms. In Canadian dollar terms that world price of oil had risen only about six fold. The difference is the price Americans pay for especially egregious money supply mis-management. What the Fed giveth the oil markets taketh away.

That's not to say things are hunky dory in Canada. Our present situation is merely disastrous in scale as opposed to apocalyptic as in the US or Europe. The healthier horse in the glue factory so to speak. But, like the US and elsewhere, public discourse here is intellectually hobbled and ideologically blinkered. We do a lot of posturing but that's pretty much it. As Orwell said, we spend lifetimes not seeing what's right under our nose. So, if you're looking for a hive of energetic and courageous thinking and action, don't look to this place. NOBODY is willing to look this thing square in the face. OK, maybe we'll re-cycle pop cans but only if everyone else is doing it. But give up the SUV? Not on your life. Symbolic measures is what we're about.

What of that spasm in 2008? Was it a result of incontinent money printing and asset bubbles blowing? Or was it the financial echo of 150 dollar a barrel oil?

John Michael Greer said...

Kyoto, no argument there. Murphy's blog generally is one of the best in the peak oil scene, not least because he takes the time to crunch the numbers.

Robert, thanks, but I'm not into badly written fantasies about the future based on the assumption that the laws of physics don't apply to us.

Cherokee, exactly. After four years I'm just starting to get the hang of the way local climate, soils, and ecologies interact in a little backyard garden!

Will, I see price not as the ultimate arbiter but as a convenient proxy for the actual cost in real wealth -- that is, concrete, nonfinancial goods and services. That said, the end of cheap oil is a major issue, and well worth attending to.

Roger, I've heard the "I'll be dead before it happens" line from some remarkably young people. Thus my sense that any change that's going to happen is going to have to start with individuals, and won't expand beyond that until change whacks the masses upside the head.

Iuval Clejan said...

Dear Kyoto Motors,

I looked at that link about the "energy trap". I think the references were conservative about estimating infrastructure cost (e.g. not taking into account batteries and electronics and grid balancing systems for solar, or nuclear waste storage), but there were other assumptions that are questionable. Here is what an oceanographer friend thought (btw, I don't advocate just decreased consumption, as he says, but a pre-industrial method of production, with a few modern tweaks):
My quick answer is I see a few assumptions in the piece which are important
but not that well-supported.

1. conventional energy supply is equivalent to oil supply.

The energy trap seems to apply if 100% of energy is from oil and we reach peak
oil However, peak natural gas and peak coal (God help us) is further away. The
assumption that oil production will decline by a given percentage each year is
not the same as saying that energy production will decline.

2. decline of energy usage must be painful.

a 2%/year decline is a halving period of about 34 yr. The US is so wasteful that
I believe a doubling of efficiency over that period (given enough incentive) is
possible. I don't know about the world as a whole. Europe & Japan are already
much more efficient. Other countries are probably equally inefficient but use
less energy now.

3. energy use = gdp

While worsening scarcity will make stuff more expensive, improving technology
will make stuff less expensive. Global GDP has been growing at a significant
clip. I bet (though I don't know) that GPD/energy has also been growing world wide.
If the scarcity problems start getting worse, its not clear if that will translate into
an actual decline, a flattening of growth, or simply a slowdown in growth.

4. sacrifice = disaster

I think it is possible, though not assured, that gradually increasing resource scarcity
will nudge the world towards the solution you are fighting for: low-resource-using but
satisfying lifestyle that is different from what we do now. It's true however that I dont
know if society as a whole can manage a soft landing, so I'd rather people worry about
it and do things to avert it then to read my arguments and decide complacency is

tideshift said...

thought you might be interested in this article:

the title is somewhat misleading, because the author doesn't really get into how the religion of progress contributes to difficulty recognizing and adapting to reality and society at the same time, but he brushes past the idea at least.

latefall said...

The bottlenecks are something I was factoring into the high tech requirement for high efficiency.
Of course this is a gross simplification and your comment on "availabilit for non-prohibitive price" is valid.

If you google "resourceship" you'll see the scary notions of some ppl at IEA on this matter...

@Kyoto Motors:
The physical basis of the energy trap is already pretty bad, but when we're talking big money I think the trust issues can get nasty as well.
Hoarding and speculation can easily make sure that you remain a faithful fossil customer - all they way till you have 1/10 the population.
The do the math article is pretty sound from what I can tell.

However I would try to turn argument around in a couple of places.
Don't kid yourself into thinking that just because the blip looks symmetrical that you will just be travelling back in time to some romantic and slow life with a lower eroei (<-would make a nice war cry by the way). The ratio of surplus energy per head and what you can expect to happen in the next couple of years to various investment options is politically much more important.
In large parts of the economy we've already shifted from an innovation to a cost reduction approach.
I assume the next shift will have to factor in resilience, where any tech tree with large concentrations of energy (or transport for that matter) will be seen as too large risk from an investor perspective. In a few decades you can possibly add theoretical complexity as show stopper.
That is a very different scenario than going up the curve.

In this context the "negawatt" and "death rate" come into play.
Both of them can often be achieved fairly easily. It is quite often only a matter of will.

Is housing a good investment? Is it dubious financial tools? Is it high tech for old age extension, etc.? It does not look like it.
So in absence of other good options you might as well stick your wealth into something that is more likely to last (and therefore becomes more valuable in relative terms) than the stuff that is going to wither and burn around it.
Energy production and (self) renewable tech in a wider sense (e.g. agriculture, education, etc.).
If have anecdotal evidence that this realization has made it to some of the people that actually have the wealth.
And as for many of the illusionary and minor problems we perceive as show stoppers currently (e.g. wind intermittency) - they are a product of our oil soaked mentality. In an energy starved world few people are going to complain about it more than the fact that today we can't put our wall socket into our purse so we can have all the power we need while we walk from the parking lot to the office.
Sure it is a problem on some level.
But it has also been accepted as a fact of life.

latefall said...


I've been around in tech a bit and even got "a good view of the pinnacle" at times.
I don't see tech saving us.
Maybe it has the potential, maybe not.
But my impression is that we've successfully marginalized and alienated the kind of people that really might have a shot at it.
As for Julian Simon et al. - I read some of his desciples lit even though it was hard. I get so excited and have trouble focusing on the text when I read some of the sentences in there.
I would've liked to see some of the reviewer comments on those.
Even though I am a huge fan of mankind - too much of a good thing...

Regarding the clocks: What insurance can these economists give you once that the next viral youtube video will not be a funny dance video but well presented argument of how we can fix our "glue" shortage and get some fresh pasture quick.
When one of the "duffers" talks of saving for old age I have to clench me teeth harder every day.
Robert, please do not take this personally - I am very happy you state things openly.

I'd like to put a few counter proposal out there as a straw man, but I am hesitant because law and morality have a heavy seniority bias in my experience (probably for a reason). Also I really don't want to offend people coming to this very nice thread.

Oh, one more thing I don't get: "generational change". We don't get bred in batches do we?

DeAnander said...

"I'll be dead before it happens" seems like it's a day late and a dollar short at this point. It's already happening. wildfire threatens San Francisco water supply. We could all provide our own additional headlines -- crop failures in Europe, flooding, drought, etc. -- but my point is that the impacts of climate change and the escalating costs of responding to disasters in a regime of more and more expensive fossil fuel, these things are already being felt. The old duffers are not, I think, going to get off as easily as they may wish.

And still our politicians burble happily about Jobs, Jobs, Jobs and Growth, Growth, Growth. They remind me more and more of high priests of some arcane and powerful religion which is steadily losing the "mandate of heaven" and yet strangely unable to respond, unable to retool or rethink.

I used to think of the unravelling as something that would take place after I was dead. No longer. I see it all around me. Sigh.

biffvernon said...

I wrote a short blog-piece about this topic a little while ago, pointing how one makes money from fracking (even if one doesn't sell, or even find, any gas. Investments in fracking may turn out to be as much use as a Dutch Tulip in a South-Sea bubble. It's here:

Doctor Westchester said...


I hope that your novelization of your October 2012 posts is proceeding at a good pace. It would be nice if it got published before the type of event it describes - - - occurred.

mary said...

John I am curious about the Green Wizard forum. I signed up ages ago and then not visited until I was in a position to learn and contribute. Now I cannot find the link to it when I need it. So that is why I wrote here about coppicing and ramial chipped wood as a sustainable firewood and soil fertility tool. You put Cherokee Organics through about slash and burn and in my opinion my two subjects are just as valid. Anyone who curious about these topics can Google them. I do not need to provide the link.
No need to add this comment to the current thread but a link to the fate of the Green Wizard would be appreciated by many. Thank you.

Iuval Clejan said...

As far as Adam Funderburk's comments, I wonder what to make of movements like the ManKind Project (MKP) or The Forum, which seem to be saying (my interpretation) to people to invest further in the system, play harder by the rules and stop being wimps. I agree with the personal responsibility part, but not the investing further in the system.

Dagnarus said...

As others have discussed the energy trap article, I thought I'd add my two cents.

As the author himself pointed out, he chose to keep psychology out of the mix. This was in order to do just the math. Which is useful for demonstrating the problems of the energy trap.

That said I highly doubt that it will accurately reflect what is actually going to occur. This is because the hypothetical 2% decline in oil production is unlikely to be spread evenly amongst the world's population, nor amongst it's nations.

As John has already pointed out numerous times in this blog the US with 5% of the world's population currently uses about 25% of the world's energy, and this is not because the rest of the world's population doesn't want to use it. The current method of getting oil from third world nations of printing IOUs is unlikely to remain viable in a shrinking economy, and it is unclear how long the implied/applied use of violence will be able to keep things going after the financial system goes the way of the dodo.

Thus I wouldn't be surprised if the west finds it access to oil decrease a lot faster than the Hubbert curve would suggest. Equally I wouldn't be surprised if many countries decided that the resources needed to develop alternative energy where strategic in nature and as such not to be sold on the open market.

Kyoto Motors said...

@ Iuval Clejan

Well, I’m certainly glad to see that my suggested link has actually garnered some response and thought. I wonder if we could get Mr. Murphy in on the discussion…
I will add a few thoughts that are not necessarily rebuttals, just thoughts… Refer to Iuval Clejan above for the following:
1. conventional energy supply is equivalent to oil supply.

Unlike coal, and other electricity, petroleum does the lion’s share of transport and maintenance within those industries. Try building a power grid with electric powered machinery…

2. decline of energy usage must be painful.

I comfort myself in the thought that the masses can go without their salad shooters and smart phones. They can walk and ride bikes too. They can learn to like chick peas and brown rice. But there is a certain rocky transition ahead if indeed energy shortfall leads to unemployment.

3. energy use = gdp

How much growth in GDP is merely financial sleight of hand (i.e. not real wealth)? I am utterly convinced that energy, industrial development and therefore GDP have historically been growing in unison for the simple fact that they are one and the same thing.

4. sacrifice = disaster

Of course sacrificing false needs could be emancipating. But depending on your position, education, beliefs, illusions, habits, expectation (and luck?) this may in stead be utter hardship

Kyoto Motors said...

@ latefall,

I totally agree that the blip, while symmetrical on a chart, will be nothing of the kind on the ground. I do suspect that over the long run we’ll be in “similar but different” territory – that is, after the slope levels out in a hundred years or so. Of course, just as we have been living with an unprecedentedly stupendous supply of energy for a while now, so too will the experience of living in the, er, “shadow of the blip” be historically unprecedented. Undoubtedly some of the historical particularities of the time will have to do with the remnants and echoes of technological innovation that saw its day in the sun during the petroleum heydays…

William Church said...

Kyoto Motors: That is an interesting link. I red that blog and have read it before but I enjoyed doing so again.

Let me pose a question to you and most certainly anyone else who cares to offer an opinion: "What have we already learned of civilization's response to the onset of oil resource scarcity/price increases that will probably be repeated in the future?"

JMG has made a absolutely great observation previously that as we encountered financial crisis points we (as viewed from 30k feet) sliced off another piece of the middle class and lowered their standard of living. Then we moved on.

But what about the response to oil/energy price increases?

The reason I pose the question is that the responses I have seen thus far point to a reaction that is glossed over a bit in articles like the one that was referenced. We saw miles driven lowered just a tad. We saw vehicles become a tad more efficient. We saw a little more of society's resourced directed toward procuring energy.

AND we saw more oil become recoverable. How much is a subject of hot debate. But the proof is in the numbers: we are bringing oil online that was considered uneconomical a few decades ago.

What happens as the next price increase comes into play? You have to assume the same reactions will occur until they no longer work. More oil will come available but at a higher price. I can assure you right now that there are engine designs out there right now that beat the dickens out of anything on the road now and as gas prices go up they become viable. Same thing in spades for drivetrains and vehicles.

I guess what I am saying is that I disagree not with the concept of resource scarcity, not at all. I just think that the time scale is all wrong and therefore the reaction from society in the future is all wrong. Brother John has again and again mentioned a time scale of centuries. I gotta tell you that from where I sit he is right.

I can very easily see a nation that still hasn't realized the predicament it is in 20 to 30 years from now simply because the change will be gradual.


Roger said...

JMG abandoning habits of thought and action is painful. "Inside the box" thinking is what we want. "Inside the box" solutions is what we expect.

Our central bank governor just got a promotion. He was hired by the Bank of England to run the show there. A Harvard grad he is and, not only that, but an Oxford PhD and a Goldman alumnus. Impressive, no? Surely indicates an arsenal of intellectual firepower, wouldn't you say?

But still, he's a non Brit, a child of the far north and a foreigner. So how did such a person gain such a reputation as to be even considered for the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street?

Well, consider this, he was the Governor of the Bank of Canada during the 2008 crisis and, by all accounts, applied a sure and steady hand. And under his regime we suffered no bank failures. He is celebrated in the world of the political and financial elites, in fact, it is almost impossible to find someone more respected than he. He is fearsomely intelligent and well spoken and a calm and re-assuring presence. I wrote to him a while back and do you know what? He wrote back. He addressed my questions. This from an unelected bureaucrat and one about as far up the foodchain as you could get.

An aside: know what else? I also wrote to our Federal Minister of Finance, an elected official, the number two guy in our government after the Prime Minister. And he did not write me back. Nor did anyone in his staff. Not even an automated reply saying thanks for the email but due to volume we cannot reply to each one. The elected official didn't reply. I digress.

Maybe most important, at least the way it looks to me, is that, as governor of the Bank of Canada, he followed the Greenspan/Bernanke playbook. That is, in the heat of the crisis, open the money spigots, suppress interest rates and hope for the best. All of it well "inside the box". Greenspan had applied the liquidity remedy for the 1987 crash, the Long Term Capital Management debacle, the tech/telecom crash of 2000.

You might ask, is this what a doctorate in economics gets us? And from Oxford no less. What does it cost for Harvard and Oxford degrees anyway?

How is it then? Is a promotion the reward for not shaking the tree with innovative ideas? What's the implicit message? Is it this, to attain positions of high leadership, do what everyone else is doing and do not diverge from established orthodoxy? Even if the orthodoxy has only a glancing connection to reality and, even worse, even if it requires application of the same policies that had a hand in creating the mess in the first place? But we have to be fair. The levers available to a central bank governor are limited. He might argue that he was constrained by Fed action and maybe he would be right.

Also, a great many of us, at least in my age group, are unshake-ably convinced that there is such a thing as a free lunch. Don't tell us there isn't, dammit, because there is. So we asked him to do the impossible, that is, to use monetary policy to alleviate problems that have their origin in the real economy. No matter what, no monetary policy regardless of configuration will create cheap and abundant oil. Electronic entries on bank ledgers will not mitigate the effects of offshoring. But don't tell us that. We are "inside-the-box" black belts and we're not having it.

The question remains, how much of the 2008 crisis was a result of Fed and other central bank monetary and regulatory mismanagement? And how much was the effect of 150 dollar oil?

Anyway, to his great credit, at least in my books, he did write me back. I mean, it's not as if he was looking for things to do.

Toby said...

@Young men:

I expect JMG is right when he predicts that a lot of us* are going to get ourselves killed in the next round of wars, but that's a very tidy way of describing something that tends to be rather messier in practice.

The Western world has been following what seems to be the normal Imperial system of limiting the fallout of its wars, which is to export them to 'uncivilised' countries somewhere else. (The U.S. also seems to have added a new twist by pretending that it's possible to fight a war where only the enemy dies, although it doesn't seem to be working very well.) The former works quite well as long as the Empire is running as intended, and the latter is somewhat plausible as long as you can 'force multiply' by burning more energy than your opponent. Unfortunately, neither of those conditions is likely to hold for too much longer.

Add that to the psychological effects @Adam Funderburk mentioned earlier, and the scenario starts getting scary. It's only a short step from feeling lost and helpless to feeling betrayed, after all, and righteous anger is a powerful drug. It looks to me like we have all the ingredients necessary for a good thaumaturgist to whip up a firestorm - he/she just needs to choose an appropriate scape-goat to launch the Jihad at.

So I'd say that the important question isn't what will happen to any excess young men; it's what - or who - will burn to light our funeral pyres?

*Or possibly 'them'. I'm more-or-less smack in the middle of that demographic right now; if it takes long enough for the wheels to come off, I may have the dubious pleasure of watching the next generation march off to die instead.

Bill Pulliam said...

FYI the Roger who made the Julian Simon comment has a different blogger profile than the other Roger who has posted multiple comments this week.

Sure, read some Julian Simon, then look at what has actually happened in the world in the 15 years since he died. He actually did get to die before it all came down.

A few years after he left the world, commodity prices shot up and the global economy went into a period of stagnation that it has been unable to shake off. We've had riots because of unaffordable food. The substitution game does not seem to be working anymore -- no cheaper substitutes for petroleum have come on line. In fact we have instead been compelled to use more expensive forms of petroleum. When commodity and energy prices come down it is because of global recession, not because of technological innovation.

Cornucopianism works just fine so long as you are still digging into the front of the horn. But farther back, that horn-a-plenty starts to look more like a narrow, shrinking, quickly emptying dead end with just a couple of moldy smooshed cantaloupes in it. Which people will murder each other to get their hands on.

Tyler August said...

I think the folks comparing Nick Griffin (of the BNP) to Hitler are a bit off--though if you squint a little, he'd make a pretty good stand in for Mussolini. There's just not that core of rage and hate in him or his party, at least not that they're willing to vent in public. Intolerance, sure, but not hatred.It says something good about our society that we can confuse intolerance with hatred, I think.

If Griffin does get in as a Mussolini, well, I can guess where Hitler's going to come from. What nation has furthest to fall, and a culture that has been trained the past few generations to abhor personal responsibility? The end of the American Empire will be ripe for the worst sort of scape-goating and Dolchstoßlegende stories, I suspect. Kunstler's corn-pone Hitler seems much more likely to me than the BNP leader growing the proverbial toothbrush moustache. (To continue the analogy, I imagine my brave nation will be saddled with a Father Tiso--or perhaps jump ahead one step to lick Chinese boots instead. Canada just doesn't seem to have it in its national spirit to be anything but a vassal state.)

latefall said...

@ William Curch

Let's see if I can come up with something:

- If it is either food for the masses or fuel for transportation - the West went for transportation.

Not sure if there is a likely phenomenon that would let the wealth of the masses beat the few people with tanks to fill. If I recall correctly that was one of the sparks that set off Egypt.

- Research programs on efficiency increases (e.g. open fan turbine) get canceled when they are not imminently necessary for survival of technology/benign customers.

Here it might also be interesting to look at the role of regulatory institutions in society and technology.
E.g. issues of electrically powered bikes in Europe.
Crash compatibility between various vehicle types.
Issues with wind energy and radar in France.
The role of rail and bus transport in Germany, especially the effects and intents of the "eisenbahngesetz".

- Strategic oil reserves are repeatedly well below nominal level and typically get tapped into without absolute necessity. This would suggest they are largely ineffective in a creeping emergency.

- To what degree marketing can and does suppress rational solutions:
People lose sizeable fractions of their life in traffic congestions consisting of mostly empty cars.
When they leave the parking lot they try to be efficient again by specialization and offshoring work, but they will not have a bus driver drop them off at work. They are okay with paying for marketing that does this to them.

-Large fractions of security services actually endanger society by: reacting with an anaphylactic shock towards something they cannot fix but must endure, scratching that itch with dirty fingers and insisting that subsequent fever are unrelated, making society vulnerable by depleting resources and safety margins in society and for themselves.
Relying on a brittle, thirsty airforce for energy access will be bad, once other developed (nuclear club) nations compete.

-You can accept 50% of your most expensive/valuabe workforce sitting on their hands, rather than challenging the prevalent narrative (e.g. Spain, Greece).

I am not sure if the argument "too big to fail" can be used again. It may have to be rephrased.

Kyoto Motors said...

Dagnarus makes a crucial point:
“As John has already pointed out numerous times in this blog the US with 5% of the world's population currently uses about 25% of the world's energy, …”

I suspect that third world countries are bearing the brunt of whatever shortfalls there are. There may be a shrinking middle class as well here in N.A., but so long as empire maintains its place of privilege perhaps the contraction will be relatively painless for just a little longer as we absorb shortfalls by making do and going without the most ridiculous extravagances first…
Meanwhile, the stability of nations like Saudi Arabia represents a huge wild card… Given the right amount of turmoil in friendly exporter nations, a huge slice of imports could be lost overnight at some point. So the ability to predict is as impaired as always, but the variables are foreboding.

So, William Church,
I would say that you are right:

But, of course if the fracking scene truly is just a pyramid scheme of sorts, then there’s no telling how much more of a drop is around the bend, after the bubble pops.
AND, the wild card cited above suggests that there’s no guarantee that world supplies will continue to be shared in the inequitable ways that they are at present.

What did M.C. say when he wrote you?

rakesprogress said...

Just now it's hard for me to be too down on the shale bubble—it kind of rescued a nasty situation up here in Vermont. The Vermont Yankee nuclear plant just announced its closure, citing low energy prices due to fracking, which those in charge surely know are very temporary.

The plant has been in an extended battle with the state, in which the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's pre-emption of all radiological safety concerns was upheld but also in which it was decided the state did not have to pay the plant's owner's legal expenses.

The plant's closing occasioned an interesting thread over on Metafilter, in which I've tried to bring some of JMG's ideas forward. The thread puts on display some of the salient features of the ritual theater of progress.

Iuval Clejan said...

Dear Kyoto Motors,

I sent a pretty similar response to my friend. As far as his first objection, not only transportation and infrastructure building depends most heavily on petroleum, but most agriculture does too. And I wonder when peak coal and natural gas are going to happen, especially once they are substituting for petroleum.

Another problem I had with that article is that it doesn't take into account peak materials, which will happen even if by some miracle the infrastructure for renewable energy sources is built.

The irony is that there is something much better that small groups of people can do, than whole societies investing in renewables. That is to start learing how to produce the things that are necessary and helpful for a good life, for each other, rather than relying on slaves, machines and unsustainable energy sources...

DeAnander said...

We need a new phrase, I think... "Too big to succeed." Or perhaps "Too big to endure." Gigantism doesn't seem to be a ticket to longevity (not among terrestrial critters anyway); big dogs die younger than small dogs, large organisations are more inefficient and self-defeating than small ones, and how many of the N Hemi megafauna are still with us (outwitted by those destructive, fast-breeding little hairless chimps)?

But what I meant to say was that I've been thinking a lot lately about multiple economies... seems like there's a "real" economy that produces stuff that people really need (like food, clothing, housing, and the transportation of stuff needed to ensure the above)... and there's a "surface" or "veneer" economy floating on top of the real economy that consists of activities that no one actually *needs*, like entertainment and advertising, toys and games, casino capitalism, grandiose luxuries for the one-percenters, etc. I'm thinking that as I look around me I see that the veneer economy has grown monstrously, abnormally thick, dwarfing the real economy. More people have jobs in "service" (often serving such relatively useless enterprises as fast food or big-box consumerism) than in subsistence activity, and the most money is being made by (forgive my directness) some of the most useless people, those whose activities produce nothing tangible (in other words, a high-priest caste).

When I think about an expensive-energy world, with expensive transport and a crying need for useful trades and specialities in every bioregion, it seems like an impossible transition. We have so few people left among us who can do anything really useful. Only 2 percent, so I'm told, still work on farms in N Am; and we are instructed to celebrate this as Progress :-) whereas for many years now it has been striking me as immense fragility. Anyway, I'm preaching to the choir as usual, but has anyone spent much time analysing the two -- or more -- economies, the baseline or subsistence economy of real resources and real beneficial goods, vs the luxury or discretionary surface economy of illusion, entertainment, symbolic manipulation and various forms of games-playing? I wonder what percentage of the economy of, say, Edwardian Gt Britain was devoted to the upkeep of upper-class gentry (a luxury or discretionary economy, less vulgarised than ours)?

One young fellow I know is a very useful individual -- he's a tree faller, a good fisherman and home canner of fish and veg, a sailor, an outdoorsperson of considerable experience and skill, knows a lot about edible wild plants and hunting: an asset to any community he might care to join. In addition to these virtues he has lovely manners, a cheerful and hard-working disposition, and a kind heart. He's one of very few people I know between the ages of 25 and 45 who seem like folks you would *recruit* for your post-peak village if you could. I contrast him with a young woman I also know who is now unemployed after several years of being one of the legion of assistant animators working on digital animation sequences for Disney films. She has no other practical skills, as far as I know, other than a couple of seasons as a tree planter. She's young enough to learn, and healthy and strong enough to work, but to me she seems like a prisoner of the false promise of the surface economy: that the world of useless luxury would continue and grow and grow forever, a bubble leeching off the real economy somehow immune to the hard physical limits on resources that the real economy requires.

When I count the number of people I know who are captives of the surface economy -- graphic designers, video game engineers, entertainment industry technicians, financial advisors, blah blah -- I feel deep dismay. What will happen to all the people with no useful skills, as the useless jobs dry up?

Bill Pulliam said...

rakesprogress -- so we trade the possibility of environmental damage from the nuclear plant for the certainty of ongoing environmental, cultural, and economic devastation from fraking, but not in Vermont? Sounds like a devil's bargain to me. And you don't want to get involved on either side of those.

deadasdisco said...

I wonder if culture doesn't play into this. Coming from a pretty heavily-Scandinavian region of the US, I still see a lot of the old Norse view of nature as a series of monsters that had to be hit with a hammer until they day. Add Ragnarok-turned-into-Rapture as an attitude and no amount of front-brain reason is going to pierce the back-brain conviction there's no tomorrow to plan for. Or, its also possible I've got the totally wrong end of this stick...

rakesprogress said...

Bill, I was being facetious—of course I'm vigorously opposed to fracking too. The sad pantomime of that online discussion was people whose arguments take our current consumption levels as a given, despite having it pointed out that that assumption is precisely the trap we need to avoid falling into. I may be labeled a "doomer" over there, but I'm no heretic around here! :-)

Bob said...

JMG said:

"... but there’s more than enough to finish the job of destabilizing the Earth’s climate and pitching us face first into a very difficult future."

That sounds almost McPhersonian.


Bob in Houston

Sackerson said...

JMG: thank you for permission to republish, I have combined with a summary of last week's - I hope you will think it fair:

Best wishes