Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Specialization Trap

Few ideas are quite as unpopular nowadays as the suggestion that the fate of past civilizations has something to teach us about the likely destiny of our own. This lack of enthusiasm for the lessons of history pervades contemporary culture; what makes this interesting is that it is also among the most fruitful sources of disaster in the modern world. The ongoing implosion of real estate prices around the industrial world is simply one example out of many.

Long before the phrase “condo flipper” entered common usage, one thing should have been obvious: anybody who claims that an asset class can keep on increasing in value forever is shoveling smoke. From the 17th century Dutch tulip mania to the internet bubble of the late 1990s, financial history is littered with the blackened ruins of speculative booms that crashed and burned while in hot pursuit of the fantasy of endless appreciation. None of this kept investors in the last few years from betting the future on the belief that this time was different, and real estate prices would keep rising forever – or from lambasting those few spoilsports who suggested that what went up would inevitably, in due time, come down.

Those of us who insist on reading today’s headlines about peak oil in the light of history risk a similar reaction. Still, it’s a risk worth taking. The logic that insists that while all other civilizations have risen and fallen, ours will just keep rising forever, differs not a whit from the logic underlying the late real estate bubble; the only difference is one of scale. It’s for this reason among others that I try to keep up with scholarship on the decline and fall of past civilizations, and that was what brought me to Bryan Ward-Perkins’ valuable book The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization (Oxford UP, 2005).

Those of my readers who don’t keep track of current fashions in historiography may not know that for several decades now, such phrases as “the Dark Ages” and “the fall of Rome” have been nomina non grata in scholarly circles. The transition that turned western Europe from the crowded, cosmopolitan Roman world into the depopulated, impoverished patchwork of barbarian chiefdoms that succeeded it has been recast by several influential writers as a process of positive cultural evolution that just happened to feature such awkward incidents as, say, the sack of Rome by the Visigoths.

Now it’s only fair to say that, like most revisionist histories, this one made a necessary point. An older generation of historians had gone so far in the other direction – demonizing the barbarians, ignoring the real cultural achievements of the centuries following Rome’s fall, and paying too little attention to the survival of the eastern Roman Empire during the years when its western twin imploded – that a reaction was overdue. Like most revisionist histories, however, the reaction pushed itself to the point of absurdity, and Ward-Perkins’ book is a useful corrective.

One of the tools he uses to document the real scale and impact of the western empire’s collapse is the humble but eloquent voice of pottery. The Roman pottery industry was huge, capable, and highly centralized, churning out fine tableware, storage vessels, roof tiles, and many other goods in such vast quantities that archeologists across Roman Europe struggle to cope with the fragments today. The pottery works at La Graufesenque in what is now southern France and was then the province of Gallia Narbonense, for instance, shipped exquisite products throughout the western empire, and beyond it – goods bearing the La Graufesenque stamp have been found in Denmark and eastern Germany. Good pottery was so cheap and widely available that even rural farm families could afford elegant tableware, sturdy cooking pots, and watertight roof tiles.

Rome’s fall changed all this. When archeologists uncovered the grave of a sixth-century Saxon king at Sutton Hoo in eastern Britain, for example, the pottery found among the grave goods told an astonishing tale of technical collapse. Had it been made in fourth century Britain, the Sutton Hoo pottery would have been unusually crude for a peasant farmhouse; two centuries later, it sat on the table of a king. What’s more, much of it had to be imported, because so simple a tool as a potter’s wheel dropped entirely out of use in post-Roman Britain, as part of a cascading collapse that took Britain down to levels of economic and social complexity not seen there since the subsistence crises of the middle Bronze Age more than a thousand years before.

Ward-Perkins’ book contains many other illustrations of the human cost of the Roman collapse – the demographic traces of massive depopulation, the way that trends in graffiti track the end of widespread literacy, the decline in the size of post-Roman cattle as a marker of agricultural contraction, and much more – but I want to focus on the pottery here, because it tells a tale with more than a little relevance to our own time. Cooking vessels, food containers, and roofing that keeps the rain out, after all, are basic to any form of settled life. An agricultural society that cannot produce them is impoverished by any definition; an agricultural society that had the ability to produce them, and loses it, has clearly undergone an appalling decline.

What happened to put such obviously useful items out of the reach of the survivors of Rome’s collapse? As Ward-Perkins shows, the post-Roman economic collapse had its roots in the very sophistication and specialization that made the Roman economy so efficient. Pottery, again, makes an excellent example of the wider process. Huge pottery factories like the one at La Graufesenque, which used specialist labor to turn out quality goods in immense volume, could make a profit only by marketing their wares on a nearly continental scale, using sophisticated networks of transport and exchange to reach consumers all over the western empire who wanted pottery and had denarii to spend on it. The Roman world was rich, complex, and stable enough to support such networks – but the post-Roman world was not.

The implosion of the western empire thus turned what had been a massive economic advantage into a fatal vulnerability. As the networks of transport and exchange came apart, the Roman economy went down with it, and that economy had relied on centralized production and specialized labor for so long that there was nothing in place to take up the slack. During the Roman Empire’s heyday, people in the towns and villas near Sutton Hoo could buy their pottery from local merchants, who shipped them in from southern Britain, Gaul, and points further off. They didn’t need local pottery factories, and so didn’t have them, and that meant their descendants very nearly ended up with no pottery at all.

Even where Roman pottery factories existed, they were geared toward mass production of specialized types, not to small-scale manufacture of the whole range of pottery products needed by local communities. Worse, as population levels declined and the economy contracted, the pottery on hand would have been more than adequate for immediate needs, removing any market for new production. A single generation of social chaos and demographic contraction thus could easily have been enough to break the transmission of the complex craft traditions of Roman pottery-making, leaving the survivors with only the dimmest idea of how to make good pottery.

Trace any other economic specialty through the trajectory of the post-Roman world and the same pattern appears. Economic specialization and centralized production, the core strategies of Roman economic success, left Rome’s successor states with few choices and fewer resources in a world where local needs had to be met by local production. Caught in the trap of their own specialization, most parts of the western empire came out the other end of the process of decline far more impoverished and fragmented than they had been before the centralized Roman economy evolved in the first place.

Map this same process onto the most likely future of industrial society, in turn, and the parallels have daunting implications. In modern industrial nations, the production and distribution of goods are far more centralized than anything Rome ever achieved. Nearly all workers at every level of the economy perform highly specialized niche jobs, most of which only function within the structure of a highly centralized, mechanized, and energy-intensive global economy, and many of which have no meaning or value at all outside that structure. If the structure falters, access to even the most basic goods and services could become a challenge very quickly.

Food is the obvious example – a very small number of people in any industrial nation have the skills necessary to grow their own food, and even fewer could count on access to the land, tools, and seed stock to give it a try – but the same principle holds for every other necessity of life, not to mention countless other things that would be good to have in the deindustrial dark age that looms up ahead of us in most of our possible futures. Consider the suite of skills needed, for example, to locate and process suitable fibers, spin and weave them into cloth, and make the cloth into clothing. Not many people these days have any of those skills, much less all of them; the tools needed to do most of them are not exactly household items in most homes these days, and the ability to build and repair those tools are even more specialized.

Our situation is thus far more precarious than Rome’s was. On the other hand, we have an advantage that the Roman world apparently lacked – if we choose to use it. The possibility of a future dark age apparently never entered the cultural dialogue in Roman times, but it has been raised repeatedly in ours. Preventive action – the deliberate revival of nonindustrial ways of providing necessary goods and services – is well within the reach of individuals and local communities, and indeed some of this work has already been done by hobbyists and people involved in historical reenactment societies of various kinds.

A great deal more of the same thing will be needed, though, to keep the decline of industrial society from leaving the same sort of economic vacuum in its wake that Rome’s fall left behind. I am coming to think that one of the most useful things anyone concerned about the future can do is to adopt some practical craft that produces goods or services useful in a deindustrializing world, and get skilled at it. If we are to get much of anything out from between the jaws of the specialization trap, projects such as this are a crucial step.


Danby said...

A very sobering example. As you know, I've spent a great deal of my life trying to learn many of these skills (and doing not most of them very well). One benefit of having the persistent sense that my civilization was on the verge of collapse is that I know that my wife and I can feed, clothe and house our family if my insanely abstract and specialized job goes away.

Bill said...

I wouldn't be so certain that nobody in ancient Roman society saw the collapse coming. I imagine many saw it coming and watched it roll on by feeling just as helpless as we all do today. It undoubtedly takes a critical mass of acceptance within a society to effectively counter a perceived future problem and I doubt if an empire in full bloom could muster anywhere near that critical mass in time to do any good.

FARfetched said...

An archeologist friend of mine once cast the Fall of Rome as a transition, in which the western empire collapsed and the church stepped into the power vacuum. She also told me that the Romanovs were descendants of the Caesars (note "Roman"ov, and that "czar" is a Russified form of "caesar"). Interesting way of looking at things — but like you said, you pretty much have to ignore things like the collapse of centralized industry and the enormous human costs to see it as anything but a disaster.

In "doomer" circles, there's a tendency to consider interdependencies as a weakness… and naturally idealizing the "rugged individualist." Many of them point to centralized industries and fuel-dependent transportation networks as supporting evidence, forgetting that centralization is a mostly recent development. Prominent Y2K doomers such as Gary North and Kurt Saxon continually harped on the "division of labor" as the Achilles' Heel that would Doom Us All.

As energy becomes more constricted over time, there's nothing to prevent industry from decentralizing — except for human stubbornness, which I admit can be very powerful — and continuing to thrive, as long as there's a local market for the goods. I agree that overspecialization is a problem, but at the same time you can't have a working civilization without *some* division of labor (i.e. specialization). The trick will be to prevent the re-emergence of a parasitic ruling class that simply sits back & tells everyone else what to do.

WNC Observer said...

This is one reason why it is important to not just buy locally when it comes to foodstuffs, but also to patronize local craftpersons whenever possible. For example, pottery made by local craftspersons is certainly going to be more expensive than what you can get at Sprawl-Mart. It is money well spent, though, for it will help strengthen the diversity of your local network of suppliers, and assure that locally made pottery IS available when you need it.

One cannot possibly become skilled enough to do everything well, or even just good enough. Nor does one have enough time, or enough money to buy all the different equipment, nor do many of us even have enough space (pottery studios and kilns do require some space), to make it feasible to try to take on everything. Thus, it is not that the idea of specialization is necessarilly bad; on the contrary, it is and will still be necessary. It is only taking it to such extreme levels, and especially the centralization that accompanies it, that is the real problem.

Being willing to pay a premium for local crafts implies a general re-prioritization of one's entire household expenditure pattern. Instead of accumulating a large household full of junk made by global corporations and sold in chain stores at cheap prices, what need to transition to smaller houses, sparsely furnished with a few cherished items that have been made by and acquired by local craftspersons (probably known personally to the owner), or made by the owner him/herself. It seems that Thoreau, the Shakers, and other proponents of what might be called "simple living" had some things to say in favor of this.

Lupa said...

As I was reading this, I couldn't help but think of Heinlein's "Specialization is for insects" ramble. While I can't do a good number of the things he lists--or, for that matter, in the Foxfire books--it's amazing what one can learn to do when one must. Though I'm a writer and editor by trade, I've just put my first garden in this year, and we're talking with our downstairs neighbors about trying to convince the leasing agency to let us have a trio of Bantam hens in the back yard.

It's going to be interesting seeing where the next few decades take us; I'll be thirty this November, so with luck I'll have four to five more decades 'round the mortal coil. Part of me looks forward with trepidation, because there's no way the lifestyle I grew up with can be maintained. However, there's also hope, persistent hope, that enough people will wake up before it's too late. Considering the Romans didn't have nukes, and (as far as we know) hadn't managed to kill off large portions of ocean flora, I think in some ways their situation wasn't as dire (though certainly still shocking to them). The stakes are a lot higher now, and I hate to think of what could happen in the case of a figurative--or literal--meltdown. Still, it's no reason NOT to try to improve things while we still can.

Ruben said...

JMG, I love your writing and appreciate how you can articulate ideas that are just niggling thoughts for me.

The thing that often trips me up is that it seems increasingly likely, due to climate change, we have no future. If we pass a tipping point and head to a Permian-like extinction, all of our craft skills will be useless.

Now I see the value of relocalization and reskilling for both scenarios, but I am curious why you don't talk about climate change more.

John Michael Greer said...

Dan, taking care of one's own family is the bottom line -- I wish more people saw things that way.

Bill, I think a lot of people in the ancient Roman world saw trouble coming, but I don't know of any source from the ancient world that suggests anybody thought that Roman civilization as a whole might go away.

Farfetched, of course some level of economic specialization will be needed. The question is whether you can have all the economic specialties needed for everyday life within a day's walk of where you live. We don't now, and in the not too distant future, we may need to.

Observer, an excellent point -- and we'll be talking about the Shakers down the road a bit, too.

Lupa, good for you -- a garden and a henhouse is an excellent start.

Ruben, I've discussed climate change here several times, but it's been a while. Doomsday scenarios of global warming miss two crucial points. First, the worst case scenarios assume we've got unlimited oil and coal to burn, and we don't -- peak oil and depletion of coal reserves will cut short our production of CO2 long before we get to the levels they're assuming.

Second, the earth has been here before, many times. Around 9500 BCE, global temperature spiked between 13 and 15 degrees F. in less than a decade -- a change far more drastic than anything global warming scientists predict. Some species died out, a lot of coastal real estate got flooded as ice sheets melted, and some of our ancestors had a rough time of it, but it wasn't the end of the world.

Extreme climate change is a very common feature in the earth's long history; it's basically business as usual for the biosphere. We're in for a good strong bout of it, and I don't advise living too close to sea level, but there will still be plenty of call for survival skills in its aftermath.

Ruben said...

Thanks for your reply, John. Do you have some sources for the 9500 BCE temperature rise? I have never heard of it, and I would like to do some research.



Panidaho said...

JMG, Funny you should mention pottery, specifically, as it's been on my mind a lot lately. I like the way you used it as a metaphor for cultural decline. Pottery making is definitely one of the nearly universal methods for making tools, and making and using tools is one of the main attributes of human civilization. If we lose that ability, we lose an awful lot. Coming right after what one has managed to store in their head, tools and the skills to use them are where it's at, survival-wise.

I'm planning to take some courses on pottery here this summer and fall. I've dabbled in wheel thrown pottery before, but I need to brush up and extend my skills. I want to learn to make the usual plates, bowls, cups, etc - but also things like small to medium size Harsch-style pickling crocks for fermenting cabbage and cucumbers and what not. Besides the fact that I have been salivating over a really good sauerkraut crock for a while (they are horrendously expensive, even for small ones) I think knowing how to use a kick wheel to throw that sort of thing later might be a very valuable skill to have in a contracted and somewhat isolated local economy. Believe it or not, while I have seen a handful of local potters selling their wares, I have never seen anyone here locally producing things like pickling crocks. I guess there hasn't been too much market for it up to this point.

Danby, I hear you - my job is also insanely specialized (web application programming.) Needless to say, that likely won't last past the very early stages of electrical grid collapse. But I have lots of other knowledge, tools and skills for making a living that I've been accumulating throughout my life. I'm definitely not planning to go empty-handed or empty-headed into whatever lies ahead of us.

Lupa: "As I was reading this, I couldn't help but think of Heinlein's "Specialization is for insects" ramble."

Me, too! And as a funny note on synchronicity, we were discussing exactly that quote yesterday afternoon in one of my classes. But I agree, he was right on that. Just like animals are more prone to extinction when highly specialized, I think so are people.

One thing we have going for us that the post Roman world for the most part *didn't* have - we have billions of books to help us remember how to do the things we've forgotten how to do. A book is not as good as solid hands-on experience, but it's sure a lot better than nothing!

Tully Reill said...

This makes me think of Dana's post over at the AODA board recently, about the loss of the local "Handyman" and Appliance Repair shops. Everything is far too specialized. Everything has to go back to the factory for repairs. What happens when it's just as abhorrently cost prohibitive to send it back to the factory for repair as it is to purchase an item? What happens to the factory laborer trained to do nothing but install selector button #12, when no one can afford to buy or repair the item that uses selector button #12 anymore? Here's to the hopeful rebirth of the Appliance Repair shops and the resurgence of the local Handyman.

Anton Tykhyy said...

Maybe you don't count Ukraine and Russia among industrial countries, but here in Ukraine knowledge of how to grow one's food (and the practice of doing so) is very widespread, even if it tends to concentrate in the older generations. Moreover, a large percentage even of the inhabitants of Kyiv (capital, ~4m people) plant their own plot each spring, and can or eat the harvest each autumn. In season, packed suburban trains make this very obvious indeed.

Rhisiart Gwilym said...

Siwmae (Hiya) John Michael a bawb (and all),

I'm actually engaged in finding my way into some of the skills that we'll need in the coming decades. Besides building terra-preta soil and growing food -- and low-tech, self-foraging small livestock -- in permaculture/Fukuoka-do-nothing-farming patterns, to pick a few other examples at random, I'm making scythes, forestry bills and similar tools, and learning their use. Also I'm planning this year to expand my lo-tech food-preserving work (sun/air-drying, pickling) for a complete range of vegetables, fruits and meat. And I still hope to get started this year on a miniplot of self-fertile, no-till grain growing, following Marc Bonfils work, if time and energy can be found!

The animating drive behind all this is the sense that our current hyper-complex society is on the very edge of its death-cliff, and if I live long enough, I shall see it commence what those of us awake to what's happening will have no doubt is its slo-mo plunge towards disintegration. In fact, the toppling over the edge is happening right now, I surmise.

Not much point in talking about this, though, to people who are still -- consciously, at least -- outside the small coterie of the awake. The Kassandra-verbot still operates. After a few attempts to explain to friends and family what I'm doing and why, and watching them glaze-over into cognitive dissonance, I realised that I should just keep shtum, and wait. Actually, in the alterconscious levels of mind, just about everyone I know already knows that something epoch-shifting is happening. But they're still in that dwell-of-the-tide interlude before conscious admission has to be faced up to. Makes me feel out on a weird limb. If it weren't for the internet and the camaradie of clear-seers that I find here, I would be inclined to believe that my friends are right: that I'm just going into my dotage, and should be humoured, but not taken seriously.

I should say that, having been a member of Lawrence Hill's excellent 'Henry Doubleday Research Association' years back, which defined itself as a charity that developed and gave away useful food-growing knowledge, that's exactly what I see myself doing now.

JM, the paragraph that ends with the Visigoths in Rome was a LOL, a crechwenu, in fact: a crack out guffawing laugh. Thanks!

Cofion gorau (Best remembrances) Rhisiart G

Brian said...

"One thing we have going for us that the post Roman world for the most part *didn't* have - we have billions of books to help us remember how to do the things we've forgotten how to do. A book is not as good as solid hands-on experience, but it's sure a lot better than nothing!"

Couldn't have said it better myself. I spend a large portion of my expendable income on books. I own books on just about every conceivable topic I will need in case of -the likely- economic collapse.

I plan on taking a few wilderness survival courses and the master gardener within the next year or so. I've even thought about working with a friend who builds houses just so I can get a basic idea on construction processes.

JMG, I read your essay "The Coming of Deindustrial Society: A Practical Response." Do you still think getting involved with fraternal orders, like an Elks Lodge or the Masons is a good idea? How important of a role do you think they will play in keeping knowledge of various specializations continuing?

Bill Pulliam said...

There is one major difference between the developed world today and the late-stage Roman world. You must keep in mind the single greatest revolutionary invention of the Second Millennium: the printing press. Forget all the information stored on the Internet; that will fade away with distressing speed over the decades if electricity and communication infrastructure become localized and unreliable. But we have books. Enormous numbers of them. All over the world, not just in Irish Monasteries like last time. All this knowledge is preserved in written, printed form. And even though the books are not immortal either, enough of them should survive the centuries to help preserve and re-invent empire-free production and sustenance. This certainly won't prevent the scenario JMG describes, but it should help ease the changeover.

As for doomsday climate change scenarios, they all require some type of positive feedback loop in the global climate system that will cause some effect or another to be self-amplifying until we look like either Venus or Mars. If Earth's global climate system was prone to positive feedbacks, though, it would have broken down and run to one of these extremes millions or billions of years ago, and there'd be no climatologists here now to ponder it. So I trust that in the long-term and the large-scale, the Earth's natural climate regulatory processes are dominated by strong negative feedbacks that keep it within a broad biologically-friendly range. Hence, whatever the anthropogenic effects from the fossil fuel boom are, in the long-term (centuries-millennia) they will be dampened and swallowed within the natural stabilizing processes. The world may look very different, but it won't be dead.

shadowfoot said...

Consider the suite of skills needed, for example, to locate and process suitable fibers, spin and weave them into cloth, and make the cloth into clothing. Not many people these days have any of those skills, much less all of them

*waves hand* That's me! Although I'm quite thankful I don't have to raise sheep -- we have plenty of other folks in the area doing that -- we are going to try growing flax this year. And I haven't gotten from spinning to finished garment with one fiber yet, but can do each of the steps -- I do finally have enough of some of my own handspun that I could start warping the floor loom to weave with it, and hope to in the fall... right now, cleaning up from winter and starting gardening take precedence.

Will be re-learning to work with leather soon, and hope to build a smoker and also solar dryers this year -- we'll be canning again of course, but I've found that dehydrated veggies aren't the worst thing in the world, and are easier to put up and to store.

Our state (Massachusetts) is in the Top Ten for rates of foreclosures in the U.S., although naturally the density of these varies from county to county. We didn't have problems with selling ours, but then we spruced it up nicely and didn't ask for the moon. Unfortunately they're still asking for it in the hilltowns, but we'll see if that's still true in Sept/Oct...

Very much enjoyed this week's article, and recommended it to my friends, plus finally got around to putting a link to your blog in my journal's sidebar. Ward-Perkin's book sounds like an excellent read; perhaps we'll pick up a copy, although I doubt either L or I have the time to read it right now, on top of everything else.

Have fun with the pottery classes! I haven't played in a while, but it was great fun. Do you know if there are any clay deposits in your area? I haven't really looked around my area, but just the other day L pointed out a riverbank on the farm that he used to get clay from for experiments, so I might take a look at it this summer.

Meantime, I like supporting the local potters too :)

Heather G

awlknottedup said...

For the anatomy of an economic collapse, read Manias, Panics, and Crashes: A History of Financial Crises by Charles P. Kindleberger & Robert Aliber. He shows several examples of the four stages of asset inflation leading to crashes. Most asset inflation bubbles are caused by easy credit. Asset appreciation is greater than the cost of credit so investment in the asset is easy.

First stage is mania where everyone is talking about the asset appreciation in glowing terms. You have to get into bubble.com, I made 25% last week!!! My house made me $100,000 last year!!!!! You can buy on margin, you can lie to the bank about your financial position.

Then along comes a shock of some sort. Interest rates go up, it is realized that bubble.com is an empty shell sitting on expensive chairs, the economy pauses. Suddenly those assets no longer appreciate as quickly or at all. The return is less than the return on the asset.

This leads to step two, the panic. Loans are called due, prices are dropping below purchase price so holders want to dump. Time to get out as fast as possible, there is a panic to get to the exits.

Then step three is the crash. The assets are no longer sellable at any cost and it all comes tumbling down.

What could be the fourth stem or even the first step to the next bubble, banks try to solve the problem so they dump money and lower interest rates. Investors find something else, wheat, rice, oil, whatever and away we go again.

awlknottedup said...

Skills are a fascinating subject to me. I like acquiring new skills the way a sports card collector looks for the lost card of who ever. But they are more than an academic interest, they also help feed me. I retired early as an embedded software engineer, I burned out and no longer wanted to put up with the stupidity of modern business practices and most people in business so I quit. Now I wander about the country in a travel trailer with a pickup full of tools using those tools and skills for places to park and some money. Currently my trailer is on an organic vegetable farm in Hollister, CA where I have repaired tractors, wired cooling sheds, built book cases, driven tractors, and a few other things.

In the past I have had a large garden and kept bees and chickens.

I grew up on a farm so started acquiring skills early. I learned to be a mechanic and weld on the farm and in my uncles Diesel repair shop. I learned to be a carpenter building houses and barns and working a sawmill with another uncle. I learned how to operate farm machinery and with another uncle learned how to operate heavy earthmoving machinery. Another uncle operated a TV repair shop and did house wiring. All skills I have used in recent years.

Along the way I learned electronics repair and later design. One of the things the last several years is install WiFi systems and help people with computers.

I also do blacksmithing, stained glass, cabinetry, gardening, etc. In a storage unit I have a complete woodworking shop, a complete smithy, gas, arc, and wire welders, automotive and auto body tools, glass working tools, etc. I am now looking for a place to settle down where I can have a shop again.

I am looking for a place where I can have room for a shop, a large garden, bee hives, chickens, and where UPS can make Amazon deliveries.

awlknottedup said...

Books are one of the things I keep bringing up in the Peak Oil / Climate Change discussions. There are those who are preparing for a complete collapse, small farmers scattered about or even small tribes using stone tools. An important part they are missing is institutional memory.

We will not forget that clean water is important for community health for example. Even at worst case there will be people who remember how to hook up a car alternator and lights to use wind or hydro.

This is one thing I have against Kunstler's book "A world Made By Hand." He forgets much about institutional memory or at best doesn't put it to use very well.

John Michael Greer said...

Ruben, any recent book on the end of the last ice age will cover the temperature rise at the beginning of the Boreal Phase, but Richard Alley's The Two Mile Time Machine (Princeton UP, 2000) is my specific source for the 15 degree F. figure.

Teresa, excellent -- we'll be in the market for pickling crocks in the not too distant future, so you'll have at least one customer. As for the book thing, see below.

Tully, I'm convinced that small appliance repair will be one of the big growth industries of the next fifty years; you might consider getting in on the ground floor.

Anton, the countries of the former Soviet bloc are a special case -- the pressures of war, economic dysfunction, and the recent Soviet collapse made the need to maintain the skills I'm discussing much more obvious. My guess is that a lot of people in the Slavic countries will come through the approaching mess in much better shape than those of us in the US and western Europe.

Sut mae Rhisiart! If I had a penny for every time I've gotten that blank stare of cognitive dissonance from somebody over these issues, I'd be able to buy a round for everybody who's commented on this post so far. The mythology of perpetual progress is very deeply rooted in people nowadays, and of course no mythology is affirmed so fiercely as one that's already been disproven by events. Still, all we can do is keep on trying.

Brian, I still think the old lodges have a huge amount to contribute. The specialization they offer is one that's already been lost in most corners of American society -- the skills of running an effective democratic organization, and networking across social, cultural, and religious boundaries.

Bill, of course books are a major asset. Still, here's the bad news -- nearly everything published in the last 150 years has been printed on high acid wood-pulp paper that turns back into sawdust over time. Libraries with major collections of 19th century books are already struggling to keep them from disintegrating, and paper was less acid then -- the books I published in the 1990s are already turning brown and brittle.

This is one of the big challenges of the Long Descent: getting the collected knowledge base of recent centuries into forms that will survive more than a hundred years. Nor will the printing press necessarily survive, unless a noticeable number of people learn how to print books the old way before the high-tech methods used today go out of use. Collecting books, by itself, won't do the trick.

Heather, you're one of the exceptions that prove the rule. Keep at it!

Awl, Kindleberger's book is great, but I have to put in a word for the most hilarious work of serious economic history ever written, John Kenneth Galbraith's The Great Crash 1929. It focuses on a single example of the species, but it's still one of the best anatomies of speculative idiocy ever written.

As for finding a place to settle down, well, southern Oregon has modest real estate prices, a good climate, regular UPS service, and the best beer in North America, as well as an archdruid or two...

Dirk said...

Chinese medicine, that which I begin studying in May, will use local herbs as well as any that would find their way from afar. Needles of the type needed will be stocked by me, as well as the re-usable ones out of favor in our modern world due to disease transmission. Barter for medical services should be a boon to any community.

awlknottedup said...

The problem with appliance repair is parts. Not many years ago things like washing machines used the same parts for many years and many models. Whirlpool made Kenmore and some other names. We had a Kenmore washer that I kept alive for many years. The Wig Wag from parts places, the motor from a used parts place, the transmission from the dump. My wife finally just went out and bought a new before I could get to the most recent problem.

Now days the machines come from distant plants with little standardization. Parts from a given machine can only be replaced by parts from the same manufacture for that model. To do good in used appliance repair requires a stack of dead machines out back.

As for books, all Gailbraith's are a good read in economics.

As for a place to land, I am currently considering the Ozarks of Missouri. I have some good friends there that keep trying to get me (and my tools) there. I will be there this summer helping a friend repair a house and build a shop. I grew up in Missouri so I am familiar with it. Land is really cheap ($2K) an acre for remote wooded acreage, no building codes, and a speaking relation with the UPS driver.

awlknottedup said...

I forgot to mention beer and you could append this post on the other.

As for beer, I hate to leave the San Diego area for just that reason. We have Stone Brew, Green Flash, Shark Bite and a few others. In Missouri we have access to New Belgium 1554, Blue Paddle, and others. There is also Boulevard out of Kansas City. My son makes some really decent home brew and I would like to start that myself.

My other son lives in Asheville NC where there are very many fine brews, French Broad, Highland, Green Man Ale from Jack-O-the-Woods, and several others. And they have WNCW radio.

J Rob said...

The modern analogy for Roman pottery might be the microprocessor. Very useful little gadget, and I love what it does for me.

But virtually all of them come from just a handful of places, and if the market for them is no longer in the millions, their price will rise due to the fixed cost of running the huge plant. They will become too expensive for ordinary people to buy.

With efficiency of scale suddenly turned -against- its manufacture, the extremely specialized skills to make it will be lost. As a triage candidate, this might be a worthy technology but could also be impossible to salvage.

Panidaho said...

JMG said:
Still, here's the bad news -- nearly everything published in the last 150 years has been printed on high acid wood-pulp paper that turns back into sawdust over time. Libraries with major collections of 19th century books are already struggling to keep them from disintegrating, and paper was less acid then -- the books I published in the 1990s are already turning brown and brittle.

Most of the "how to" books in my library are okay for now - one or two are showing signs of early deterioration. I agree with your assessment of the life expectancy of the average book - but I didn't expect the books we have now to last for very long, honestly. What I AM hoping they will do is bridge the knowledge gap for a few decades during the worst of the transition times. If we're smart, that will be long enough to relearn a bit of what was lost. At least enough of it, hopefully, to enable some practical knowledge to be passed down to the next generations.

Shadowfoot said:

Have fun with the pottery classes! I haven't played in a while, but it was great fun. Do you know if there are any clay deposits in your area?

Hey, Shadowfoot! Yeah, I had a lot of fun when I last got to spend some time getting my hands dirty in clay, so I'm looking forward to it.

Actually, it's funny you mentioned the clay. We're sitting right on top of a nice, superfine light grey rhyolite clay deposit in this part of the valley where I live. We have really had a time turning it into workable, friable clay loam over the past four years. But there's plenty of unamended clay left to play with from the pond we dug last year, sitting piled in the back part of the yard. I don't know how it will work for pottery on its own. Many commercial clays are mixes and I expect formulating a good clay mixture for throwing and firing without experiencing cracking or other serious flaws is a science not quickly mastered. So, I don't know how well I'll do, but yes - I do plan to at least give it a try. :-)

shadowfoot said...

On being a handyman, if one can do enough different types of things, one will always have odd jobs to do, for sure. All the farmers around here can at least do the basic sorts of things for around the farm, but I've noticed that everyone has different 'specialties' - house-related, machinery, one is a large-animal vet as well as a farmer, etc.

Lyle has more of a knack for hand tools, and will be teaching some folks down the road how to use the scythe they bought last year.

Meanwhile, gas prices have just jumped 25-30 cents in the past 5 days here. We still need the larger vehicle for transporting people and goods, but we're considering getting a Vespa or something for traveling in-state, for longer local distances (safer than bicycles on the highways). We've already cut down on travel as much as we can, combine trips, and walk or bike when possible.

For our local medieval group (yeah, I'm a SCAdian), we're working on creating more activities to do closer to home. Massachusetts never got completely out of the last recession, so most folks have been on a budget for a while. Now, we're having to get even more creative.

The good thing is that despite the money crunch, more and more people are interested in buying locally, so the CSA's and farmers markets are doing better -- and with prices going up, some people are figuring they might as well buy local, healthier foods. Food pantries are getting hit harder, but the farmers that can are selling to them at reasonable prices -- helps the pantries and the farmers. I think the transition to local foods will be a little smoother here than in some places, although I still expect rough spots.

Panidaho, on the clay, I'm no expert but do check out some of the books available, even in places like B&N -- I'd give you the name of one of my favorites, but it's still in one of the boxes in the barn. It's on tile-making actually, but it talks about the different types of clay, their properties, what types of forms they're best used for, etc. Clays that are too pliable generally aren't good for tiles for instance, because they won't stay flat through the firing. If you're interested in making tiles, save your fired 'failures' too, because they can be broken up and mixed in with fresh clay. Hm, maybe I need to make friends with some of the potters up here, and see about getting in some play time, next winter or something.

I'll never be a pro, but I believe in spreading and preserving knowledge. Although who knows? I could end up pitching in here and there, when one of the local potters needs an extra pair of hands, just like I do for sugaring season.

Having varied skill sets means never having to sit around doing nothing! That's one of the killers in a shrinking/changing economy, be it a recession or a depression. Lots of folks end up feeling useless and don't know how to adapt.

marielar said...

Hello all,

Nobody wants the worst to happen, yet, its hard to dismiss completely the dire scenarios of anoxic ocean events when climate change is discussed. And, beside climate change, we have messed our environment in so many ways that its likely there is quite a few more surprises in store. Carbon and nutrient cycles have been altered at an unprecedented pace in the last century and I dont think anybody can be certain about the consequences. Carbon in oil reserve has been trapped during the Paleozoic. Even with all that C sequestered from the atmosphere, extinctions linked to anoxic ocean occurred, the last major one dates from the Cretaceous. Its not just about raising temperature and raising water level. Its about a switch in biochemical conditions which will favorise certain lifeforms over others. More evolved lifeforms thrive along the line of photosynthesis- Krebbs cycle. If there is a significant switch in ocean chemocline, anaerobic bacteria may start releasing H2S and methane in large quantity closer to the surface, and that wont be good. The creeping dead zones around coastlines due, in part, nutrient loaded water from agricultural watersheds are not reassuring signs of what is in store. That being said, its certainly not the time to give up. Nobody knows where the chips will fall and hope and caution are "de rigueur".

One of main difference between real estate and any other kind of goods is that land is limited and more so as population increases. Buildings fall apart over time, but land, albeight degraded, remains and is necessary for all terrestrial life. Price for lands tend to increase and will do so for a while as competition for its access is related to population growth.

Awlknotted up wrote about Missouri with a great combo of available farms, innovative farmers and great towns like Springfield. When we searched for a farm a few years ago, this was one of the place we considered seriously. Arkansas had lots of potential as well. We travelled lots of North America, from Newfoundland to California and even spent a month in Costa Rica, finally settling for Eastern Canada. Despite my husband being from California, we basically wrote off all the West Coast because the price of land was just outrageous. Its beautiful and culturally enticing, but for one cash limited, the West Coast is not where one gets the biggest bang for his buck.

Maintaining specialisation along the line of farmers-craftmen would be a good thing. I think farms are more productive and more in balance with the ecosystems when mix farming is the norm, which means combining a diversity of animals to a diversity of plants. This does not leave much time and brain space to do anything else. Which leaves transformation of raw fibers, food, leather to specialists. Maybe the future is a linkage between small scale shops and farms. We already see the emergence of this because the price of raw material is so low that farmers often add transformation to their activities. I saw also the reverse, for example, cheesemakers looking for local farmers to produce high quality milk.

IMO, some specialists who do not accomplish any "real" productive work, such as lawyers, priests, politicians, stock brokers are more of a nuisance than anything else. Its only with centralisation and concentration of power that we justified feeding people full time to do those jobs. We have created a class of people disconnected from the biological world and from physical labor to rule over the people who produce the real "goods". On the other side, spirituality, economy, politics and laws are everybody concerns and all should assumed their share of it, as part of the priviledge and responsability of living in a community. For better and worst, we are social animals and our biggest common ground is how we interact with each other and with our environment as a species. I believe, in life, there are the small questions and the big ones. A small question is the domain of the specialist, it could be something such as how much bonemeal to grow brocoli, what's the best wool for felting.... The big questions pertain to what constitutes our common ground, to ethic, philosophy, meaning of life: what do we live for, what is the common good, what is justice...The last kind of questions are just too fundamental to be left answered by small, powerful groups of interests.

FARfetched said...

Shadowfoot, for some of us, idle time is creative time. People will always want storytellers, singers, or other types of performance art.

JMG, despite my support for *some* specialization, I've ended up learning a little bit of a lot of things. That leads to problems, because everyone can use a little knowledgeable help at any given moment… meaning there's not much idle time to write stories and the like.

Dwig said...

awlknottedup said: This is one thing I have against Kunstler's book "A world Made By Hand." He forgets much about institutional memory or at best doesn't put it to use very well.

A project that I've had in mind for a while is to create an online inventory of the skills like those discussed above, and where they're located. Among other things, this would identify geographic areas where there are strong centers of multiple skills and "impoverished" areas where the skills will be needed. Also, it could give a profile of coverage of the various skills, indicating which ones are widely available and which are scarce. If anyone's interested in seeing something like this come about, contributing to it, critiquing it, etc., leave a comment here or write to me at fe001@dondwiggins.net (disposable email address that will be changing soon). I'd be willing to host a first cut at it on my Wiki that I mentioned a while back. (A later task, if this gets going, will be to capture the knowledge in a form that's likely to last more than a few decades. Might be a constructive use of some non-biodegradable plastics.)

JMG: My guess is that a lot of people in the Slavic countries will come through the approaching mess in much better shape than those of us in the US and western Europe. Dmitry Orlov recently made the same point, based on his vantage point of familiarity with the Soviet collapse and unfolding events in the West. (He was also the author of Post-Soviet Lessons for a Post-American Century" and a new book called "Reinventing Collapse".)

shadowfoot said...

Farfetched, of course we'll always need story-telling and singing! And games too, be they board games or foot races or scavenger hunts, etc.

It's nice to have some idle time for doing nothing in particular, too. Sometimes, even in the midst of a really busy day -- or even sometimes because it's so busy -- I'll take a half hour to do something else - meditate, walk, read a book, take a nap. Then the rest of the day usually goes better.

It's true that being a jack/jill-of-many-trades often means being very busy, with little downtime. But I still manage to find a bit of downtime here and there. And really, if I want to be of use to others, I have to make sure I get rest, eat right, etc. If that means taking a break from helping other people learn things or whatever, do it. Unless it's a life-threatening emergency, most things can wait a few hours or a few days. Heck, right now even my strawberries have to wait, because I can't dig for as long as I'd like.

Of course, one of the upsides of having lots of bits of knowledge is that some of the people you help will remember how to do what you did, and then they can help spread that help/knowledge.

I'm more of a materials artist than a storyteller, but I am getting a little time in on my artwork. I like being able to combine them though -- like a hooded sleeveless jacket I've been working on, for hiking in the woods. I had a lot of fun choosing colors and cutting and matching them, doing funky things like parti-colored pockets (but still in functional shapes of course). Just need to get some toggle buttons and I'll have a cool piece of clothing that's unique and will last for years.

One of the things that keeps me busy is teaching others, or working on plans for workshops for the future. My feeling is that the more practical skills people have, the more capable they will be of handling whatever life hands them. Also, even if they don't need some of the skills often, they feel more confident and secure, and that is the sort of person who is more likely to respond well in a crisis, be it short-term or long-term.

Speaking of schedules, I've taken this morning pretty slow, getting in some reading and such, but now it's time to scram! We have a bunch of folks coming over tomorrow to hang out, talk, maybe do some archery and craft stuff, and the sugarhouse and the outhouses need a little more spiffing up! Which included finishing assembling a double rack for cases of fonts for our hobbyist print shop, and I'm sure Lyle would appreciate some help moving those :)

Stephen said...

As collapse will likely involve a dramatic populution reduction, one of the factors preventing people from learning traditional handcrafts would be the plentiful salvage. Why would somone bother making potery when there will so much just there for the taking in the abandoned suberbs.

The fact that past climatic change in the ice core records is much more rapid and dramatic than the IPCC predictions sugests that the IPCC predictions are extremely concervative. This means that nature and humanity will survive future climate change, but civilisation wont. I expect to see a glacier free world within a couple of decades that would lead to sea levels up to a hundred meters higher. And in such an unstable climate the only form of food production that would remain viable is nomadic pastorialism.

theotherryan said...

So true. It is a catch .22 situation.

John Michael Greer said...

Dirk, you're ahead of the curve. Healing modalities that don't require the huge inputs of energy and industrial products required by modern medicine are going to be in high demand -- where they're not banned, for that matter, they're in high demand already. I plan on discussing this in a later post.

Awl, you need to come out to Oregon sometime. The city of Portland has more microbreweries in it than any other US state. One book surveying the microbrew revolution simply called Portland "Beervana." We don't have quite as many down in the southern end of the state where I live, but we've got some excellent local and northern California brews, and a very large number of competent homebrewers.

J Rob, my best guess is that the microprocessor will be a thing of the past well within this century for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the most important, though, is that the balance of price between human and machine energy is shifting back toward its preindustrial level -- in the future, it will be much cheaper to hire and train a person to process data than to buy and power a machine to do it. More on this in a later post.

Teresa, the problem with thinking of books as a short term resource is that we have no way to know what techniques and knowledge will be of most use to our grandchildren's grandchildren. That's the value of books as an extrasomatic memory -- and that makes the preservation of knowledge crucial. More on this in another post!

Shadowfoot, no part of the country actually got out of the last recession; for that matter, broad measures of prosperity such as median income corrected for real inflation have been contracting for many years. The last few bubbles papered over the cracks for a while -- but now the bill appears to be coming due.

Marielar, anoxic conditions in the oceans are a real possibility -- and another good reason to stay away from the coasts! -- but that's one of the ways the earth removes excess carbon from circulation, after all.

Farfetched, that combination -- sensible specialization, together with a good grasp of general skills -- is probably the best ticket to survival there is.

Dwig, sounds like a good plan.

Stephen, the ready availability of salvage seems to have been one of the major factors in the collapse of so many industries in the wake of Rome's fall, so you may be right -- unless deliberate steps are taken to preserve knowledge now.

As for climate change, though, I think you're running far ahead of the facts -- while temperatures can change very fast, glacial melt takes a lot longer due to the sheer thermal inertia of that much ice. Even with the 15 degree F. spike in global temperature at the end of the last ice age, it took several thousand years for the continental glaciers to melt; there were sudden floods that jolted sea level up many feet in a hurry, but that still doesn't justify your claims.

As for subsistence issues, remember that agriculture came into being during the climate chaos at the end of the last ice age; one of farming's advantages, when it's practiced intensively on a local scale, is that it's more forgiving of climate variations than most other modes of human subsistence.

yooper said...

Yes John, I can't agree more. Perhaps everyone who can, should become somewhat of a "jack of all trades" (master at none....) In the "economically depressed" area that I reside in, I've found myself wearing many different hats to support my family over the years.

I'd like to suggest one more skill that might be useful come these troubling times.."Marksmanship"...

Btw John, out of curiosity, did the Roman decline experience similiar dynamics as the catabolic collapse you're suggesting?

Bill Pulliam said...

One thing that I expect will keep book printing and publishing alive through thick and thin is Christian evangelizing and their need for Bibles. For better or worse, this activity has persisted for century after century, and was one of the main forces that created the publishing revolution in the first place. Hard times seem to encourage it rather than suppress it; generation after generation manages to see their own particular troubles as the fulfillment of prophecy and the harbinger of the kingdom of their god, spurring bible production. I doubt peak oil as the latest "End Times" scenario will be any different, and that community will give up food before they will give up the drive to get a Bible in the hands of every person on earth to speed their Messiah's return. As long as this keeps the publishing and distribution structure intact at some level, there will remain the ability to publish and distribute other books as well, especially practical guides for living in the new and unexpected realities when you aren't praying for supernatural intervention.

The North Coast said...

So, the Society For Creative Anachronism may have some applicability after all. I never took part in this, but I was impressed by the efforts of many of the members to achieve total authenticity in clothing and trappings, which meant going to the length of weaving the cloth yourself on your own loom from fibers that were actually in use during the time period in questions.

Many people out here feel the urge to acquire basic skills but live in the present, and must deal with the contemporary situation, meaning that we have to spend enough time and energy just to remain competitive in ours professions or vocations, that it seems wasteful to allocate any portion of that time to acquiring a body of knowledge and skills that have no applicability in your life as you live it right now, unless it is your chosen hobby. As it is, the pace of change throws enough curve balls at most people, requiring most of us to retool at an advanced age because our previous vocation or skill set has become obsolete.

Moreover, it's difficult to sort out just which will be relevant and which won't in a resource-short future, because it is difficult to project just how the decline is going to play out over your lifetime. You might find, for example, that you acquired, at no small cost and effort, the skill set to weave cloth and making clothing, or to make pottery and related products, just to be in a situation where there are many people, as well as materials, available, to supply your community, while some more esotoric, and technological, skill that is badly needed, is totally lacking anywhere.

At this time, I am collecting books and other instructional material on manufacturing basic things that will be needed to be manufactured locally when it becomes economically unfeasible to import them any more. These are things that used to be manufactured in most of our major city areas. This is a large undertaking, but I would like to assemble a library that could be a resource for people trying to build a functional community from scratch, and I hardly know where to start.

marielar said...

Hello all,

Bill wrote:
"that community will give up food before they will give up the drive to get a Bible in the hands of every person on earth to speed their Messiah's return."

Maybe I am an optimistic. But its possible that even if it falls apart, the internet will leave a trace of a more global consciousness, less prone to endoctrination by gurus and other spiritual leaders. The net is the medium for postmodernism, in a Marshall McLuhan sense. It seems to me that while still strugling for meaning, following the deconstruction of old ideologies, we are more open and more willing to forge our own spiritual path. In general, religion has become less of an institutional thing and more a personal quest. The net has really stir up something by linking people who otherwise would never had the opportunity to exchange and brought to light how our versions of the truth are fragmentary and vernacular. We still are tribal, but, in some small ways, willing to admit that other tribes have something valid to add to the gumbo. Spiritual "specialization" is a form of adaptation, an ecology of the mind, so to speak. But there is also universals, like the necessity of compassion and a quest for meaning. Some spiritual specializations, not only are obsolete, but destructive and will go extinct. Yet, the need for a spiritual life is still there, and IMO, we are looking for new forms which will embody the universals. The approaching collapse will spell the failure of our leaders and our institutions and I dont see people turning back to them for guidance. In a strange twist, after centuries looking at the celestial bodies for answers, we are turning our eyes to our own little planet, shifting from astrology to Gaia. If we go back to our Bibles, it will be with whole new interpretations.

Danby said...

"that community will give up food before they will give up the drive to get a Bible in the hands of every person on earth to speed their Messiah's return."

Actually very few Christians believe that Jesus will return as soon as everybody has been preached at. The orthodox (Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran, Calvinist, Baptist) understanding is that Christ will return when the time comes, which time is known only to God the Father, not even to Jesus himself.

The Great Commission, on the other hand is a very real and necessary doctrine of all Christian Churches, and will, as you point out, preserve printing technology in some form so long as any technology at all can be preserved.

You must hang out on a very different internet than the one I've been at. My internet is the verbal equivalent of a cross between an 89-sided civil war and a mutual witch hunt. Denunciation and anathema are more plentiful on my internet than at an Oecumenical council. Religious conversation on the internet I've been on consists largely of:
"Gosh we're great. Those other guys over there are just terrible."
"Hey! We're not terrible! we're just like you except {insert trivial disagreement over doctrine or practice}."
Arrghhh! can you believe he said that?!?!? The man's own words condemn him!!! ANATHEMA SIT!"
"Um...I'm a woman"
etc etc etc

I suppose for minority spiritual thought, such as druids, it's helpful for making and keeping contact with others of like mind. But by and large, from my experience, I would call the internet useless or worse as a forum for religious/spiritual discussion.

John Michael Greer said...

Yooper, the Roman experience was one of the classic examples of catabolic collapse -- in fact it was a close reading of Roman history, with its stairstep decline, that first really got me thinking about the mechanisms that might drive such a process, and led to the catabolic collapse theory.

Bill, religion in general is a major inspiration for publishing projects -- printing was invented in China largely to produce copies of the Buddhist and Taoist scriptures, after all. Mind you, religion tends to become more popular during the collapse of civilizations; I suppose you could say that salvation is one of the few resources not subject to depletion curves.

North Coast, start with some of the general books on low-tech and appropriate tech survival skills written during the last round of energy crises in the 1970s -- you can get those for a few bucks in the used book market nowadays, and many of them cover the basics quite well. Remember the basics -- food, water, shelter, clothing, health -- and go from there.

Marielar, I don't know that the internet has much to do with it, except to facilitate contact among some of the smaller and odder religions (such as mine), but there's certainly a spiritual ferment under way -- another common event in the decline and fall of civilizations. If it's like others of the same kind, it'll produce some monstrosities and some genuine insights, and send the history of the future spinning off in unexpected directions.

Dan, the internet has been a real benefit for the Druid order I head, but the reason is that we moderate our online forums. We have a clear civility policy, and people who violate it are moderated or expelled from the list. The Druid email lists that don't do this are the same kind of screaming mess you've described. In many ways, you know, the internet provides a solid disproof of the basic theory of anarchism: when people can do as they please without suffering any penalty for antisocial behavior, a great many of them behave very badly indeed.

shadowfoot said...

the north coast said: So, the Society For Creative Anachronism may have some applicability after all.

Well, at least many of the members do :D Like any group, there are more and less serious participants.

On choosing specialized skills to pursue, I think that's a combination of things -- learn about who's in your community, where the gaps in knowledge and skills may be, and consider whether or not you are both willing and able to pick up some of the more lacking skills.

I moved onto a farm with my husband last fall(his parents' farm). He's re-honing some of his rustier farming skills while telecommuting to his specialized job in computers, and I'm learning a bit of the assistant-type roles, while working on growing not only more fruits and veggies but also cooking, medicinal, and dye plants.

The real herbalist is a friend of mine who's talking about going for master herbalist certification, but I can handle the basics, and read herbal books intelligently. We'll be learning how to use her tincture press sometime this year.

There are other weavers in this area, but seriously, if/when machine manufacturing of fabric goes away, more than one weaver will be needed. And if it takes 50 years for it to go away, redundancy in instructors now will better ensure there are weavers 50 years from now. Same goes for a lot of other skills -- redundancy is a good thing, because we are fighting the odds for the survival of these skills during the transition, and because one person can only provide so much material for other people, be it food, fabric, pottery, medicine, or other useful things.

I'm personally hoping I never have to get into raising animals myself, but I'm happy to support my local dairy farmers. We may get into raising chickens at some point though, because the majority of farmers in this area still buy the chicks and then raise them (usually for meat or eggs). There are at least six farms with sheep within a 15 mile radius of here, probably more, which means I don't have to raise sheep to get wool for my weaving or knitting -- all of them breed their stock, and we have a variety of different types of sheep, so that's a fairly stable part of our area.

I think it's great that you're gathering a resource library together. Some books I'd recommend if you don't have them already, are _The Self-Sufficient Life and How to Live It_ by John Seymour, _Gaia's Garden_ (Permaculture) by Toby Hemenway, _The Herbal Medicine-Maker's Handbook_ by James Green, _Brew Ware: How to Fine, Adapt & Build Homebrewing Equipment_ by Karl F. Lutzen & Mark Stevens, _The Forager's Harvest_ by Samuel Thayer. Sharon Astyk has some decent lists of useful books at her site, definitely worth checking out.

Anyway, while covering the basics in your library (maybe some books from Lindsay Publications too?), check out the strengths and weaknesses in your community. See what hobbyist groups are around, how active 4-H is, what the physical resources for your area are.

For instance, if water is a problem, think about putting a rainwater catchment system together, at least for yourself, or at the house of someone you know who has the land for doing this. For cities, maybe check out what they're doing in places like Portland or Seattle in Oregon? Research for preparedness requires some creative thought, but can be quite rewarding, as you build a more complete picture of how things go together.

That's one of the things I use the internet for -- searches for textile/fiber arts guilds/groups, sheep farms, localharvest.org for local foodstuffs, your state gov't's web site should have stuff on their Cooperative Extension and other aggie stuff like farmers markets, etc.

Heather G

Craig said...

Very interesting post. An article in the most recent New Yorker on the decline of folk music brings to mind another negative of extreme specialization: Music. It wasn't so long ago that a large percentage of the populace could play a musical instrument, but now most of us are dependent on the music industry, not to mention very high-tech gadgetry, for that sort of entertainment. Entertaining ourselves seems to me a skill that we'll need to relearn in the coming era.

ilamasque said...

One interesting argument that I have is that I see a very grass roots movement in the DE-Cetralization of everything.

CURRENTLY electricity is produce centrally at the power plant - I SEE a movement to decentralize it with solar and wind at home.

CURRENTLY manufactury is centralized in factories - I SEE a movement to decentralize it with "3d printers" which are a technology to allow a homeowner to produce ANYTHING at home (in fact if you can recycle metals and grow corn you can produce EVERYthing you will ever need including plastics and fuel) (look up rep-rap)

Really the only thing i see as being central are Mines to produce original RAW metals, other than that everything else is being de-centralized. Of course I could be wrong but this de-centralization is important in removing the Global scale of these bubbles.

Alice Y. said...

Since I read this post, it might sound a bit random but the product of my reflections has been to consider pushing my sewing skills a bit further. I realized my skills in garment production are already quite advanced, and I am considering spending ~100 GBP on patterns, textbooks and a course in bra construction, which could be the next step. Bras, especially nursing and maternity bras make a huge amount of difference to the comfort of many women. I am hoping a few of the dressmakers in my town would like to learn bra making together. When we have the basic construction skills down, perhaps we will be able to look into localizing the fibre supply; knitting machines can make stretch fabrics from local fibres if we can get them fine enough. Not one of life's basic necessities but certainly something that falls into the secondary or tertiary skill categories that I would like to preserve for women of future generations, if possible. I already used the Days for Girls patterns for washable menstrual supplies as a prompt to organize my scrap fabric collection.